Foreign Office urged Tony Blair towards a closer relationship with ‘pragmatic’ new Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in 1997: Declassified Files

Within three months of Labour coming to power, Tony Blair was told by his foreign secretary that new taoiseach Bertie Ahern was “a pragmatist” with whom he could do business.

Wednesday, 30th December 2020, 4:53 pm
Bertie Ahern (right) won the Irish general election just weeks after Tony Blair’s landslide victory

Mr Ahern had won the 1997 Irish general election just weeks after Mr Blair’s landslide victory, putting two new leaders in place in both London and Dublin at a time when Northern Ireland was a key priority for both governments.

A July 16, 1997 memo from Robin Cook to the prime minister, which has been declassified at the Public Record Office in Belfast under the 20-year rule, said: “Your meeting with the Taoiseach on 3 July was inevitably dominated by discussion of Northern Ireland. But there was agreement in principle to developing the wider relationship.

“A Fianna Fail-led government may be less instinctively committed to improving the relationship across the board.

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“But Ahern is a pragmatist. He has spoken privately to our Ambassador and in public of the possibility of developing a new era in UK/Irish relations.

“Better so-called ‘East/West’ relations have intrinsic value and will improve the climate for our exchanges with the Irish over Northern Ireland.”

He said that prior to the election the Irish government had signalled interest in greater links with London in several areas such as food safety.

Mr Cook said: “For our part, we stand to gain from enhanced cooperation on a range of issues, including military links, social security and education.

“There would be advantage in developing a sustained dialogue with the Irish justice department. We also need to address our handling of environmental policy: nuclear issues are particularly sensitive and have been given added prominence by recent revelations about Beaufort’s Dyke.”

The foreign secretary suggested a British-Irish youth programme, drawing on the experience of the Franco-German Youth Office which he said claimed to have an 80% success rate in getting young people into jobs after training and time spent in the partner country.”

A reply from Mr Blair’s private secretary, John Holmes, said that the prime minister “very much agrees that this is worth doing, and hopes that Cabinet colleagues will do all they can to encourage contacts in the various fields”.

The minutes of a May 20 meeting of the Cabinet’s Official Committee on Anglo-Irish Relations, which was made up of senior civil servants, noted that “the Northern Ireland Office pointed out that Irish attitudes were a key factor in progress towards peace in Northern Ireland.

“The Irish Government considered the strengthening of bilateral contacts as important in contributing to peace in Northern Ireland. It was in the United Kingdom’s interest to treat their approach accordingly.”


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