Former Taoiseach says Belfast and Finchley ‘not the same’

Colin Gannon

It is “constitutionally incorrect” to say that parts of Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom currently have no divergence, former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern claimed today.

Belfast and Finchley “cannot be seen” as identical places constitutionally, the Exiting the European Union Committee heard today from Mr Ahern, a co-architect of the Good Friday Agreement.

“The argument that [parts of] Northern Ireland are precisely the same as Finchley is incorrect, it’s constitutionally incorrect as per the Good Friday Agreement and I think people need to understand that,” he said.

He wondered, he said, if sometimes if he had turned into ‘Rip Van Winkle’ – who falls asleep and wakes back up 20 years later – when he hears “members of Parliament talking about how there can be no divergence between the North and the rest of UK”.

Good Friday Agreement twenty years anniversary
Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair are pictured in Dublin Castle in 2008 (Photo: Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland.)

Mr Ahern said that the Good Friday Agreement, which he oversaw negotiations for as Taoiseach, was “never about trade” and that, for British officials, it was always “about the hearts and minds [of citizens] and a shared vision stop the killing”.

Mr Ahern, whose fall from grace as Taoiseach culminated in his resignation, has entered the public discussion surrounding Brexit recently.

Following accusations of bribery, the Mahon Tribunal found that he did not “truthfully account for” payments of £165,000 made to accounts connected to him.

He also said that Brexit it has brought a border poll strongly back into focus, but warned that the Northern Assembly – which has been collapsed for close to two years – would need to be functioning for a “long period of time before that would happen”.

He added that “it would be the wrong thing to do” in the middle of a still-uncertain Brexit, adding that Brexit has prevented the institutions reopening.

Referring to a question about cross-party criticism of the backstop, Mr Ahern said that technological solutions currently “do not exist” and that, in his view, the backstop may not be required.

“It seems to me in the transition period it must be possible to work out an arrangement that means the backstop isn’t necessary…but right now all the brain power says that’s what we should do,” he said.

Asked whether the Irish public is anticipating a border, Mr Ahern replied: “The Irish government don’t want it, the British government don’t want it, Europe don’t want it… I think most Irish people take from that: ‘Then we’ll definitely have it’.”

Sammy Wilson, the DUP’s Brexit spokesperson, referred to the “rhetoric of the current Taoiseach”, and alleged “threats” made by Leo Varadkar when he mentioned, “turning off lights, stopping planes, sending troops, and building Berlin wall around the border”.

“Well, you know how much I love all the parties in Northern Ireland, and how much I love all the parties in the south of Ireland,” the former Fianna Fail Taoiseach said in response.

“What I’ve spent my life doing, is trying to make sure we have a love-in of all of us, so rhetoric from anybody at anytime isn’t helpful.”

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