Belfast Telegraph

Deadlock could do with Blair and Ahern's type of diplomacy

By John Downing

It seems like a lifetime has gone by since - but it was barely 10 years ago. DUP founder and leader, Ian Paisley, came to Dublin and met cordially with Taoiseach Bertie Ahern at Farmleigh in the Phoenix Park.

"I better shake the hands of this man. I'll give him a firm handshake," said the inveterate "Dr No" as he nerved himself to say "Yes" to sharing power in Belfast with a retired band of IRA gunmen.

That was April 2007 and at a time when Ireland was beginning to tire of historic imagery and that dramatic hand of history.

But still, one more time and with feeling, we were impressed at the unfolding of something truly positive after years of darkness and horror.

A succession of images in the spring and early summer of that year came to represent 2007.

The most impressive was that of Ian Paisley whooping with laughter with Bertie Ahern and a former chief of staff of the IRA, one Martin McGuinness.

In March 2007, Ian Paisley had sat down almost, but not quite, beside Gerry Adams, who was already well established as president of Sinn Fein.

Messrs Paisley and Adams agreed to form a power-sharing executive, with Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister, and Ian Paisley as First Minister.

Soon they were the much-remarked-upon comedy duo, the Chuckle Brothers.

In May 2007, Ian Paisley strode the banks of the Boyne and everyone did their best to hold the 1690 jokes.

The cause of these truly historic events was one Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair who each had slogged over a decade to lug things over the line. There was a lot of heavy-lifting also done by US President Bill Clinton.

A large cast of others also played a role, notably John Hume, Seamus Mallon and others of the SDLP; Mo Mowlam, Liz O'Donnell and many more.

We must also acknowledge people who toiled earlier to lay the groundwork, including Charlie Haughey, Dick Spring, John Bruton and Albert Reynolds.

But on the overlapping watches of Bertie Ahern, at Government Buildings in Dublin, and Tony Blair in Downing Street in London, came the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, and 2006 St Andrew's Agreement.

It was the St Andrew's Agreement which committed the DUP to power-sharing.

It also committed Sinn Fein to recognising the Northern Ireland police, potentially completing their extraordinary journey which included recognising Stormont and dumping arms.

How did Ahern and Blair do all that? And what lessons can be taken for solving today's impasse?

The real answer is that it was a marathon slog without any shortcuts.

The two leaders worked for more than a solid decade tirelessly, often on the basis of one step forward and two steps back.

Along the way the pair were also to forge a marvellous personal working relationship which laid the foundations for the best ever British-Irish relationship since the foundation of the Irish state.

Both leaders finished glittering careers under something of a cloud - Blair due to the Iraq war; Ahern due to his personal finances. But their achievements on the Northern Ireland problems will stand as a monument to both and can never be taken from them.

Now, a decade later, things look rather grim.

The impasse over the border in the wake of Brexit has soured the DUP's relations with Dublin and London.

The DUP-Sinn Fein deadlock over restoring power-sharing in Belfast has added to all this.

By the end of 2007, a full decade ago, things appeared so hopeful.

One would have hoped that Northern Ireland's politicians would have matured enough to shift for themselves politically. But that has not happened. It is clear that both parties, and the DUP especially, need more close contact from both Dublin and London.

The great irony here is that the DUP are locked into a £1bn deal with Theresa May to prop up her shaky government.

One would have thought that would have sharpened links in a very practical way.

The shape of the draft border deal which emerged last Monday, only to be blocked by the DUP, had been signalled several times in recent weeks by Mrs May.

Communications between the two groups need Blair and Ahern type of hard work.

Belfast Telegraph

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