WikiLeaks: Bertie Ahern ‘threatened to go back on Northern Ireland territory claim’
Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern threatened to reassert the Republic’s constitutional claim on Northern Ireland in a move which could have thrown the peace process into turmoil.
Ahern considered overturning a cornerstone of the Good Friday Agreement in an apparent hardball tactic aimed at pushing through a power-sharing deal.
His extraordinary proposal — labelled “stunning” by US officials — is disclosed in a confidential dispatch to Washington in early 2006.
The document — released by the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks — is published on day two of the Northern Ireland Cables’ serialisation in the Belfast Telegraph.
It focuses on a meeting involving Mr Ahern, US Special Envoy Mitchell Reiss and Michael Collins from the Taoiseach’s office.
During the discussion, Mr Ahern revealed how he was ready to raise the stakes after losing patience with the DUP’s refusal to enter government with Sinn Fein.
According to the cable, he threatened to overturn the 1998 referendum that amended Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution if the DUP failed “to engage in the process”.
It provides an unprecedented insight into the fragile and highly-charged nature of the behind-the-scenes talks as the London and Dublin governments pushed for a deal.
The meeting took place on January 30, days after DUP leader Ian Paisley had declared there was “no prospect” of sharing power with Sinn Fein in the near future.
During the discussion, Mr Ahern insisted the Irish government would keep talking with the DUP, but warned they would “only play along so long”.
“Never in their life have the DUP made a positive decision,” Mr Ahern told officials.
According to minutes of the conversation, the Taoiseach was ready to take a radical step which could have thrown the whole process into crisis.
“The Taoiseach said that if the DUP did not engage in the process, he would consider giving a speech in which he reminded people that the Republic of Ireland had changed its constitution to relinquish its claim to Northern Ireland only on the basis of the promise of the Good Friday Agreement,” the cable reports.
“If that promise is not met, he said, he would indicate that Ireland could consider changing its constitution again.”
Mr Ahern indicated that he had discussed the dramatic proposal with British counterpart Tony Blair.
The Taoiseach’s comments sparked alarm with Jonathan Benton, deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy, and the author of the cable.
Reporting back to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, he noted that the Republic relinquishing its constitutional claim on Northern Ireland was “a major change and a cornerstone of the Good Friday Agreement”.
He added: “The Taoiseach’s comment that he would consider suggesting Ireland could go back on that is stunning.”
While Mr Benton considered it “unlikely” the Republic would revisit the constitutional issue, he warned any speech even hinting at the prospect would have “major repercussions”.
Mr Ahern’s comments came at a highly sensitive time. Had his proposal leaked out, it would undoubtedly have sparked unionist uproar and set the peace process back months, possibly years.
The two governments later issued a stern ultimatum to the DUP and Sinn Fein that the Assembly would be disbanded unless both parties elected a power-sharing administration by the following November.
However, it was not until March 26, 2007 that a historic deal was finally struck.