Former Irish Prime Minister Recalls Good Friday Accords

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Bertie Ahern spent most of his political life in peace within the Republic of Ireland but still lived amid the shadow of the violent conflict that raged for 30 years in Northern Ireland.

Yet it was Ahern, the former taoiseach – or prime minister – of Ireland, who played an important role in helping to end the strife, which by the late 1990s had claimed thousands of lives and yielded disastrous results for the economy.

“We spent many years with the British government endeavoring to find a solution and a way forward,” Ahern said Friday at a luncheon and discussion sponsored by the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Youngstown State University Department of History.  

The event was held at the Youngstown Historical Center for Industry and Labor.

The result was the Good Friday Agreement, signed April 10, 1998, a landmark pact that brought an end to the sectarian strife between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, and the disarmament of paramilitary forces such as the Irish Republican Army and the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force.

“It’s now turned around to be a very peaceful society,” Ahern said. “We still have problems, mainly political ones trying to get people to work together, but we’ve reversed a very bad situation.”

Ahern arrived in Youngstown on Wednesday to accept the AOH Sean MacBride Humanitarian Award, which is granted to those who have dedicated themselves to human rights issues.

The conflict in Northern Ireland has deep roots, explained David Simonelli, professor of history at YSU. Before introducing Ahern, Simonelli sketched out a history of the conflict, beginning with the first English occupation of Ireland in 1171. It wasn’t until the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921 when the Irish Free State was established, but it allowed Great Britain possession of six counties in the north.

Northern Ireland became bogged down in conflict, as a Protestant majority loyal to Great Britain instated discriminatory policies against Catholics, whom they suspected of advocating for a united Ireland.

“Ulster Protestants pretty much set up an apartheid state in the north,” Ahern said. Catholics during the late 1960s then began agitating for civil rights, leading to clashes with local police.  

Then in 1968, English troops were dispatched to quell disorder, provoking the rise of paramilitary groups such as the IRA, leading to decades of violence.  

Simonelli, who is teaching a History of Ireland course this semester, then sat with Ahern and engaged in a detailed question and answer session that dove deep into the modern conflict – commonly referred to as “The Troubles.”

Ahern recalls a tense moment during negotiations toward peace in Northern Ireland in April 1998 when everything hung in the balance.

Ahern said that after months of intense work, a draft agreement between factions in Northern Ireland that included representatives of the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic in the south had finally been drafted.

At the last minute, though, Northern Ireland’s First Minister, David Trimble – a Loyalist official who backed union with Great Britain – balked at the draft proposal, refusing to sign it.

“When the draft document came out, David Trimble went mad,” Ahern said. “He said he wouldn’t sign the deal.”

At risk was the complete collapse of negotiations that had progressed slowly for years in the first real chance to end a conflict that by this time had cost thousands of lives and many more thousands maimed and wounded.

Ahern was concerned that if the deal didn’t happen, “it was back to the street” and more bloodshed with no end in sight.

Ahern and then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair were both attending an international conference but returned as talks threatened to unravel. Over the week, multiple parties – including United States envoy George Mitchell – engaged in productive dialogue that in the end yielded the peace agreements.

However, Ahern said today there’s some interest within the British government to walk back on some of those important advances. However, he argues that Great Britain no longer has the leverage it had 25 years ago.

“There’s been a bit of an effort by the British government in the recent past to say they can make amendments to the agreements,” Ahern said. “As if Britain were still in the same position during the Good Friday agreements.”

It isn’t, Ahern declares. “The reality now is that any changes that take place will be on the basis of consent within Northern Ireland.”

Danny O’Connell, national president of the AOH and director of support services at YSU, said the organization works with various organizations all across Ireland.  

“Last spring, I was in Belfast and we distributed $162,000 in grants to organizations we work with in Northern Ireland,” he said. He noted it was an honor to have Ahern as the AOH recipient of the Sean MacBride award.

Ahern, 72, has been engaged in Irish politics since the late 1970s, serving as lord mayor of Dublin, finance minister, minister of state, minister for labor and various other political positions before being elected taoiseach in 1997. He served in that office until 2008.

Today, Ahern is still engaged in numerous causes, mainly focused on international conflict resolution because of his work toward the Good Friday Agreements and in Northern Ireland.

“You spend a life in politics – it’s hard to get away from things,” he said. “Life is busy.”

Ahern will accept his award this evening during a dinner at the YSU DeBartolo Stadium Club at Stambaugh Stadium.

Pictured at top: Bertie Ahern, former prime minister of Ireland.

Copyright 2023 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.