Bertie Ahern: Talk of moving beyond Stormont is infantile

Bertie Ahern has criticised commentators who suggest that politics has moved beyond Stormont, warning that there cannot be an “a la carte Good Friday Agreement”.

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 23rd May 2019, 4:12 pm
Bertie Ahern chided commentators who talk about people moving beyond Stormont
Bertie Ahern chided commentators who talk about people moving beyond Stormont

In a speech in Belfast, the former taoiseach directed hard-hitting comments at unionism and nationalism, challenging both sides to look beyond their own sectional interests and to instead embrace compromises necessary to restore devolution.

Delivering the Harri Holkeri Lecture, which commemorates the late Finnish prime minister’s contribution to the peace process, Mr Ahern challenged some of the recent rhetoric which has suggested that nationalism in particular is moving beyond Stormont.

He said: “When I see commentators and others casually suggesting Stormont is done, over, I wonder by whose authority do they make that claim?

“Or are they making the case for a kind of a la carte Good Friday Agreement – we’ll stick with the bits we like and ignore and walk away from the bits we don’t? That’s not how serious, grown-up politics works.”

The former Fianna Fail leader warned that in the absence of devolution, public services were being degraded.

“The growing backlog of decisions left unmade across a whole range of public policy areas in Northern Ireland from education to health to infrastructure to the economy to the environment is slowly but surely decaying the fabric of public life here. Even more worryingly perhaps, the vacuum is leading to a clear and marked erosion of confidence and trust in politics itself.

“On my regular visits to Northern Ireland over the past few years I have noticed the settling in of a kind of fatalism about it all – that nobody was that surprised about the impasse between the parties and nobody seemed to have any great expectation that Stormont would return any time soon. Or even more worryingly, that it would make any difference if it did.”

He said that nationalism had to recognise that “writing off unionism as unworkable-with is every bit as cancelling and destructive as any act of discrimination your forebears ever had to put up with at the hands of theirs.

“That there is no such thing as ‘moving beyond Stormont’ if we want a healthy, vibrant next Ireland for our children and children’s children.

“That there is no skipping a step in the sequence. The journey to a new Ireland cannot jump over the need for working on reconciliation and partnership in Northern Ireland, no matter how challenging and difficult that may be.”

Mr Ahern spoke extensively about the implications of Brexit for both peace within Northern Ireland and the practical impact on the island as a whole.

He said that “in many ways it was the fears of unionists that got the least sympathy” and that “in the immediate aftermath of Brexit some of the language from Dublin in speaking to unionists lacked the empathy we extended to nationalists”.

He said that “while nationalist concerns were sympathetically covered by the European and American media as well as the pro-Remain British media, the same was not true of unionists whose real fears about being cut off from full communion with the UK were ignored, dismissed and poorly reported”.

He went on: “Some of the blame, but not all of the blame, for unionism’s poor press, was of the DUP’s own doing and arose from what seemed like an abrasive indifference to the concerns of northern nationalists as well as those of the Irish Republic, once they had made an alliance with the Tories.

“It was as if the DUP had stopped listening not just to nationalists but to many middle unionists. Sinn Fein’s calls for border polls as well as the instant implementation of a liberal agenda ... made agreement on handling Brexit on this island all the more difficult.”

Mr Ahern endorsed the backstop but said that “there is no point in pretending that because we see no problem with the backstop this means that unionists have no problem with it”, and urged using the coming months to “look at every angle of approach to explaining our views to unionist fears around the backstop”.

The former taoiseach said that if Sinn Fein was to drop its “threat of border polls in the near future” and the DUP could drop its opposition to an Irish language act then there would be “momentum”.