Bertie Ahern, Ireland’s Taoiseach (Gaelic for Prime Minister, pronounced “tea-shock”), addressed an overflowing Forum at the Kennedy School of Government on Wednesday night. Launching the School’s new Irish Fellows’ Program, Ahern touched upon a wide range of topics, including the events of September 11, the Northern Ireland peace process, and the state of the Irish economy.
Ahern spoke of the sense of shock and disbelief that is still prevalent in Ireland in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Citing the strong historical links between the two countries, he told the audience “your loss is our loss.” Ahead of meeting with President Bush on Thursday, the Taoiseach avowed to work with the US to do whatever is necessary to fight global terrorism.
On the controversial subject of Irish neutrality (Ireland is not part of any military alliance, and a debate has ensued in Ireland on whether such a stance is tenable post-September 11), Ahern avowed that “no country can be neutral on terrorism.” He went on to outline Ireland’s concern over the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan, arguing that it would only be properly resolved in the context of a sustainable political settlement.
In April 1998, Ahern and British Prime Minister Tony Blair signed the historic Good Friday peace agreement, which had been agreed upon by Northern Irish political leaders from all sides. The agreement changed the political landscape in Northern Ireland. Ireland removed its constitutional claim to the Northern Irish counties, and the U.K. government established an elected Northern Ireland Assembly with some governmental power. The agreement was approved resoundingly by both Irish and Northern Irish voters on the same day in May 1998.
In his speech, Ahern addressed what he saw as the major outstanding issues of the agreement: decommissioning and policing. He was pleased to announce significant progress on decommissioning of weapons stockpiled by Irish Republican paramilitaries. Since the signing of the Good Friday agreement, this issue had been the biggest stumbling block to ensuring stability of the fledgling devolved assembly.
On October 23, the IRA announced that it had begun to put its arms completely beyond use, to the satisfaction of the independent International Commission on Decommissioning. This paved the way last Tuesday for the Unionist (protestant, pro-British rule) leader, David Trimble, to retake his seat and be reelected as head of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Ahern praised all the parties involved for their hard work in getting to an agreement. On policing, Ahern pointed out the progress that had been made in the crucially sensitive issue of forming an accountable, non-sectarian police force for Northern Ireland.
Ahern has presided over unprecedented economic growth (Ireland was the fastest growing OECD economy during 1995-99). The U.S. is Ireland’s largest trading partner, and Ahern acknowledged that the September 11 attacks would have a short-term adverse effect on the Irish economy. However, he cited the critical importance of U.S.-EU trade relationships in facing the global economic uncertainties that lie ahead. Ireland has a vital role to play in facilitating this relationship, being (at least for the moment) the only English-speaking country in the Eurozone.
Ahern praised the European economic institutions for creating a climate of low interest rates and relative stability, and foresaw the day that the U.K. would join the common European currency. “I’d be happy to help Tony Blair with his referendum on this issue,” said the Taoiseach, tongue-in-cheek.