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‘The peace process is a work in progress’

Andrew Richards: Can you tell us what you will be discussing in your David Ervine Memorial Lecture?

Bertie Ahern: It will be a commemoration of David and his involvement in the peace process over the years. But I will also be giving some pointers to the cultural progress of the process, reflecting on the importance of the Irish government’s support of, and dialogue with, the loyalist community, and how important it is for this to continue.

AR: What were your memories of David? Was he someone you got to know well during the peace process?

BA: We worked very closely together. I always found him engaging and a forthright thinker. He was always seeking to find solutions to difficult problems. I appreciated his contribution greatly and always enjoyed his company.

AR: Has the peace process worked out as you might have hoped during the early stages of the 1990s?

BA: I think it is still a work in progress. It is important to continue developing the institutions and the co-operation of all communities. Obviously, the process was slow in the early years, with two steps forward, one step back, but the progress that has been made is impressive. There is still more that can be done, though.

AR: What are the highlights of your time as Taoiseach?

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BA: Obviously the Good Friday Agreement but, also the negotiations and then implementation in 2004 of the Comprehensive Agreement. I’m also very proud of my time as EU president in 2004, when we were able to negotiate the European Constitution, and the admittance of 10 new member states. The modernisation of the Republic is also something of which I’m very proud, improving the road structure, and generally providing the country with a modern infrastructure.

AR: And the low points?

BA: The Omagh bombings in 1998. We had had a good summer, and it was a real setback to our striving for a lasting peace. We knew we had to re-double our efforts from then on. We were used to the problems the Real IRA caused, but this was a setback.

AR: Are you concerned that your legacy as Taoiseach will be tarnished by the various scandals with which you were linked, directly or indirectly?

BA: No, I don’t think so. There were obviously issues that were highlighted at the time, with developers mentioning your name here, and there, people having a go at you from time to time, but I believe my legacy is still a good one. It is certainly annoying to be linked to these things, but there is nothing you can do. That’s just the way it is being a politician.

AR: Given the subsequent recession and financial meltdown, do you feel that Ireland made the most of its potential during the Celtic Tiger years?

BA: I think we did some vital things. Before I came in, the debt-to-GDP ratio for the Republic was 120%. We managed to bring this down to 10% during my time in office. This write-down of the debt has allowed the country to deal with the harshness of the current economic crisis in a way they would not have been able to had we not.

AR: Was working with Tony Blair a positive experience, or did you find there were tensions between you?

BA: We got on very well. There were, of course, tensions during our talks, particularly over European issues, because we came from very different viewpoints. We did spar occasionally, but we also dealt with any problems we had quickly and professionally.

AR: What did you and Ian Paisley talk about in private moments?

BA: I was a younger man, I didn’t care for him very much, naturally. But my experience of Ian Paisley was a good one. During the St Andrews Agreement talks we discussed a lot, on all issues affecting the island of Ireland. I found him a good man, a kind man, and very engaging. I always believed that he would become First Minister, once the Agreement was reached, because he had put his heart and soul into the whole process.

AR: Given the recent revelations about clerical child abuse, do you have any regrets that such incidents were still happening during your time in government?

BA: I think we handled the initial revelations well. The tribunals which began in 1999 were all set up by me. And these were not popular at the time. The work we did through the tribunals helped to highlight the problems of abuse in the Church and brought them to the fore.

AR: Who are you tipping to win the General Election?

BA: I actually believe Cameron will win with a slender overall majority, maybe 20 or so seats. The key is the 100-odd marginals where the Tories have been concentrating money and effort. These will tip the election Cameron’s way.

The Third Annual David Ervine Memorial Talk is part of the 11th Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival. Oh Yeah Centre, Gordon Street, Belfast, tonight (8pm). Tickets £10


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