30 October 2003 Edition
Ahern's leadership is a weakness in peace process
BY MÍCHEÁL MacDONNCHA
In the fallout from David Trimble's latest walkout from the political process, little attention has been paid to the role of the Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrats government. Bertie Ahern had welcomed the Sinn Féin/UUP talks but in the aftermath of the breakdown he was at pains to show that he had his doubts beforehand. It was a performance bordering on self-justification and the Taoiseach could almost be heard whispering "I told you so".
Ahern's Dáil speech on Wednesday, the day after the breakdown, is worthy of closer study than it has received in most of the media. He portrayed the problem as a "technical difficulty" when of course it is really a political difficulty - the political difficulty of the Unionist Party's refusal to fulfil its end of an agreement. His speech contained a glaring contradiction. He spoke of the "accommodation which appeared to have been reached" between the UUP and Sinn Féin. Later, he contradicted this when he said "an agreement was reached between the UUP and Sinn Fein".
Ahern told the Dáil: "As I made clear on several occasions prior to yesterday, I had some concerns and hesitation, particularly in the area which eventually transpired to be the sticking point, that is, in regard to the decommissioning of weapons. However, I believed, as did Prime Minister Blair, that we should go to Belfast in the hope and expectation the deal could be sealed."
This sounds like "I told you so" and it is Ahern putting himself at arm's length from the problem. Of course, if events had worked out otherwise we can be sure he would have been claiming a share of the credit for political progress, as would the SDLP, whose whinge grows shriller by the day.
Ahern said that while a "major breakthrough" was made, its "overall confidence building impact was eroded on account of a matter of detail or, more particularly, lack of detail". He went on to say the "level of detail" about decommissioning "did not reach what David Trimble felt was required". He then says people may reasonably ask why the IRA insisted on "so much confidentiality" but that the IRA would likely respond that the absence of confidentiality would damage rather than enhance the process of resolving the arms issue fully within the organisation. Then crucially Ahern stated: "I sincerely hope that, in respect of yesterday's act at least, the IRA will revisit its thinking on this issue."
Ahern did not ask David Trimble to "revisit his thinking". Neither he nor Tony Blair publicly asked Trimble to accept the assurances of the IICD and of the British and Irish governments. Ahern's claim that the difficulty was a technical detail lets Trimble off the hook. It allows the focus to shift to the IRA, who must give "just a little more".
Another example of Ahern's leadership deficit came back to haunt the political process last week. Jeffrey Donaldson brought out his favourite toy - Ahern's statement before the General Election that Fianna Fáil would not go into government with Sinn Féin. This rattler has been shaken in the face of all pro-Agreement parties by the no-men of unionism since Ahern foolishly presented it to them. "Why should unionists be expected to share power with Sinn Féin/IRA when the Dublin government won't do so?" goes the chorus.
The two governments have failed to impress upon Trimble his responsibility to lead. Once again, they molly-coddle the spoilt child of unionism, who is confirmed in his belief that his tantrums will always work. Whatever about Blair, who is a British Prime Minister after all, there is no excuse for Ahern.