Stormont instability a lingering regret from Good Friday deal, says Bertie Ahern

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Former taoiseach Bertie Ahern regards lingering instability of Northern Ireland’s political institutions as one of his biggest regrets from the Good Friday Agreement talks.

The negotiations were difficult and also brought personal hardship for Mr Ahern with the death of his mother.

As the political leader of the Republic of Ireland at the time, he was instrumental in the multi-party process aimed at ending decades of violence in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles.

One of the measures agreed was the establishment of a devolved government for Northern Ireland based on a system of powersharing between nationalists and unionists.

Speaking to PA as part of a series of interviews to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, Mr Ahern said the ability to collapse the institutions is an undemocratic issue that should not be possible and “shouldn’t have happened”.

“It’s in the interests of everyone that there shouldn’t be a mechanism where you pull down a whole parliament,” he said.

He said there was a need for sustainability and called for a review into the “temperamental” institutions by next year.

Mr Ahern added that the divided society in Northern Ireland is “going to need tender love and care for a long time”.

Reflecting on other regrets, Mr Ahern said the agreement’s failure to deliver swifter decommissioning of paramilitary weapons was an issue that stood out to him.

Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern signing the Good Friday peace agreement in 1998
Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern signing the Good Friday peace agreement in 1998 (PA)

He said it caused a lot of friction and was likely the cause of a key negotiator in the talks, then Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble, losing his seat as an MP in 2005.

He also said “more should have been done” on legacy issues of the Troubles, which he said have “lingered on”.

“Not enough attention I think was given to it,” he said, recalling a recent meeting with the Wave victims’ group.

Asked about what he was most proud of, Mr Ahern said the agreed changes to the Irish constitution “worked well”.

The Irish public voted to amend its constitution to remove an explicit territorial claim over Northern Ireland, but maintained an aim to unite the two jurisdictions under democratic consent.

He also pointed to the demilitarisation and reduction of British armed forces personnel in Northern Ireland as providing people with “a sense of freedom again”.

Bertie Ahern recalling his role in the Good Friday Agreement talks (Niall Carson/PA)

Reflecting on his role in the negotiations, Mr Ahern said he began planning with Sir Tony Blair while they were both leaders of the opposition in 1995, allowing them to move “very quickly” in 1997 when they were elected leaders of the Irish and British governments.

He said their priority was to stop the violence and “bring an end to this mayhem of thousands being killed” by fostering trust, confidence and a sense of humanity among the multi-party participants of the talks who at times would not speak to each other.

However, Mr Ahern acknowledged that bringing republican paramilitary-linked Sinn Fein into the process drove others out, in what “could have been a killer moment”.

He described the DUP’s decision to leave the talks after Sinn Fein joined as a “big disappointment” but thanked Mr Trimble for remaining in the negotiations as a unionist representative.

Irish state papers release
Then prime minister Tony Blair with Mr Ahern at Downing Street (PA)

He said beyond ending violence, there was an “endless list of big items” to be negotiated.

Progress was frustrating slow, with flashes of violence leading to the temporary removal of Sinn Fein and the loyalist paramilitary-linked Ulster Democratic Party from the process.

“It became March before we could really get down to how we are going to crack all these nuts,” he said.

But suddenly, US Senator George Mitchell, who had chaired the multi-party talks, sought an April resolution leaving just weeks to conclude negotiations.

“It was a bit of a shock to everybody but in hindsight it was probably a good thing,” said Mr Ahern.

The final week of negotiations brought many challenges, including the death of Mr Ahern’s mother Julia following a heart attack.

He recalled going back and forth between meetings with many leaders and intensive care.

“I remember going to mass on Gardiner Street church and had to go straight back into the Dail to get on with the meetings, and with Clinton, and then back to the morgue and the removal,” he said.

He said there was no alternative: “I couldn’t opt out, that never arose.”

IRISH Funeral/Ahern
Bertie Ahern (back centre) helps carry the coffin of his mother from the Church of St Vincent de Paul (PA)

He said it “nearly brought down the whole thing”.

He said Mr Mitchell and his officials told him that unionists would walk out of the talks if he “didn’t get up and deal with them”.

“So I had to go up on Wednesday morning, early, and meet Tony Blair first and then meet David Trimble to give assurances, and then meet Sinn Fein and the SDLP so they knew where we were at,” he said.

He then had to return for his mother’s funeral at 4pm, before heading back to negotiations afterwards.

“It was a tough time but I was central to the talks, so there wasn’t an alternative,” he said.

Former taoiseach Bertie Ahern passing between portraits of former deputy first minister Martin McGuiness (left) and former first minister Ian Paisley (right) at Stormont,
Former taoiseach Bertie Ahern passing between portraits of former deputy first minister Martin McGuiness (left) and former first minister Ian Paisley (right) at Stormont (PA)

Mr Ahern said the campaign south of the border drew “extraordinary” support.

More than 70% of voters in Northern Ireland and 90% of voters in the Republic of Ireland backed the agreement and changes to the constitution.

“It was a fabulous result,” he said.

Overall, the former Irish premier said he believed the agreement was brought to a “good conclusion”.

“It means the Good Friday Agreement is the will of the people and can’t be changed,” he said.

“Those who say they’re opposed to it, well, they need to put forward their own proposals and get it voted for.

“Until then, the Good Friday Agreement is the gospel.”

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