Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 December 2014

Finally we can discard the rose-tinted glasses

The Belfast Telegraph's WikiLeaks revelations this week are a welcome antidote to the media-management of the key moments in the peace process, says Henry McDonald

He may have been reluctant to say boo to the bankers, but it seems Bertie Ahern was willing to play hardball when it came to the unionists north of the border.

The latest Irish revelations from WikiLeaks' US diplomatic cables - published in the Belfast Telegraph - make clear that Bertie threatened to bring back Articles 2 and 3 of the Republic's 1936 constitution unless the DUP finally agreed to share power with Sinn Fein.

A confidential American dispatch from Dublin to Washington DC in 2006 disclosed that the then Taoiseach was thinking of reversing a major plank in the Good Friday Agreement as part of a strategy to goad the DUP into power-sharing. Understandably, the author of the secret communique described Ahern's threat as "stunning".

It is worth remembering how important Articles 2 and 3 were once upon a time - particularly to unionists.

The articles laid down an imperative in Eamon de Valera's constitution that reclaiming 'The Fourth Green Field', aka Northern Ireland, was central to the state's reason for being.

Throughout the Troubles, not only unionists, but also southern liberals argued that Articles 2 and 3 provided 'constitutional cover' for the IRA's armed campaign.

In effect, opponents of the articles contended that the IRA could point to the Irish constitution and claim that they were merely willing to take that imperative to its logical conclusion.

To the unionist parties and loyalist paramilitaries, Articles 2 and 3 fuelled fears that the entire Irish nationalist family was hell-bent on the destruction of the Union and the conquering of the northern territory.

During the referendum campaign to endorse the Good Friday Agreement, it was puzzling to note how unionists in the 'No' camp suddenly forgot about Articles 2 and 3.

It is worth recalling that Bertie Ahern's government agreed to sign up to an agreement which, if backed by both electorates on the island, would have abolished the articles.

David Trimble and the pro-agreement unionists were right to claim some glory for helping to put Articles 2 and 3 on the agenda and negotiating them out of existence in Holy Week 1998.

For loyalist paramilitaries, the fact that the Republic was willing to get rid of the constitutional imperatives contained in the articles was a clear sign that there was no such thing as a pan-nationalist front.

Ahern's great strength throughout the subsequent years was to strike a balance between promoting the interests of nationalist parties in the north while building up a rapport with the unionists.

For example, he got on famously with Ian Paisley. Paisley regarded Ahern as a critical player in persuading Sinn Fein to sign up to support the PSNI. This decision was one of the foundation stones of the 2006 St Andrews Agreement that led to power-sharing.

But, had it turned out that what Ahern was contemplating on Articles 2 and 3 had leaked out, it could have spelt disaster for the political, and perhaps even the peace process.

The DUP would have undoubtedly been spooked by Ahern's threat and would have bolstered the argument of sceptics like Jim Allister and possibly even those Paisley-loyalists who were lukewarm on a deal, such as the East Derry MP Gregory Campbell.

In addition, Ahern's warning to bring back the articles would have created a crisis for the UVF and UDA leaderships, which, at the time, were not only happy with the prospect of power-sharing, but were considering handing over weapons and marching into the sunset.

There has been some discomfort caused by the Belfast Telegraph's WikiLeaks revelations and the US State Department's take on Northern Ireland. The description, for instance, by US officials of Margaret Ritchie's voice must be cringing for the SDLP faithful to read.

Throughout the peace process, both governments and the NIO were involved in a continued game of media management. IRA shootings and beatings during the ceasefire were dismissed as 'internal housekeeping'. Coverage of the negotiations from 1994 onwards always had to be 'helpful', while governments had to judge the status of the ceasefires 'in the round'.

Reporters who asked awkward questions on the status of the paramilitary cessations, or who pointed up contradictions in the political process, were deemed the "awkward squad", or, worse still, Japs - journalists against the peace process.

By and large, and to the shame of some in the media, this management-campaign worked, with the state's mandarins arguing that it may have led in the end to a benign outcome.

From the viewpoint of the media-manipulators and spin-doctors in Downing Street and Iveagh House in Dublin, it is just as well that Julian Assange came relatively late to the Northern Ireland story. In truth, those spinning the yarns and massaging the bad news on behalf of the process got lucky.

Meanwhile, WikiLeaks' disclosure that Bertie Ahern was prepared to gamble on Articles 2 and 3 to pressure the DUP will not rescue his reputation in the Republic. Back in December, another Wikileaks' cable revealed that American officials in Dublin were deeply sceptical that the Fianna Fail-led government's multi billion-euro rescue of Irish banks back in the autumn of 2008 would work. The US cables said Bertie's successors' belief that their cash-injection into the greed-laden banks was 'a bit optimistic'.

That scepticism proved to be absolutely accurate, given the further three bailouts needed to keep those banks afloat. It is that toxic legacy for which Bertie Ahern will be most remembered.

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