There was a full house to hear Mr Ahern. More photos on page 24.

Bertie still hopeful on Northern Ireland

“In the early part of the year, Seamus asked me if I would come and talk about the Good Friday Agreement, and that was at the start of the 25th anniversary commemorations – I was hoping by the time I got here, we might have an executive and institutions in the North, but nothing really changes…”

That comment by former taoiseach Bertie Ahern to a gathering organised by the Westmeath Archaeological and Historical Society in the Greville Arms Hotel last Wednesday evening contains a truth about politics in Northern Ireland.

It shows how slowly things move there, but, as Mr Ahern pointed out to a packed function room: “It’s good that people have an interest in it (the agreement); it is one of the successful peace agreements, that has lasted, and not because of me or because of Tony Blair – because so many agreements over the last 100 years or more tended to have short lifespans; unfortunately a lot were gone within five or seven years.” He said he could keep everyone there for the night going through just a selection of such agreements, but he didn’t identify them.

After his introductory remarks, Mr Ahern when back to the 1960s and outlined in brief the history of the Troubles. He said that the civil rights movement had nothing to do with constitutional nationalism, as John Hume explained to him – it was more to do with what was happening in France and the Czech republic and parts of the United States concerning civil rights. “That movement looked at gerrymandering of constituencies, education, housing – but instead of the British governments acknowledging those points, they used strong-arm tactics on the civil rights march, particularly in Derry. That period was a lost opportunity, and I always look at it as one where things could have gone another way.”

Things did eventually go another way, as is well documented, and Mr Ahern’s 45-minute address covered the main points along that way, from ceasefires and breaking ceasefires, and covert communications among the parties concerned to eventual success in 1998.

Concluding his address, he said: “It is a difficult place, there’s no good us all believing that Northern Ireland will all fall in love with each other overnight. That won’t happen. But I think what we can hope for is that in the new Ireland we will continue to try to build friendships, however that plays out, but there’s no point having a new Ireland where we coerce the unionist population as they coerced the nationalist and republican populations back in the 1920-1960 period.

“It has to be on the basis of reconciliation and harmony where we work together and there’s a lot of people working hard on that.” At that point Mr Ahern mentioned the many state level bodies that have an all-Ireland remit (tourism, fisheries, business groups), “but there is still a lot of undercurrent, and we have to try all the time to hold out the hand of friendship and try to develop it”.

“Of course, I’m a united Irelander, but I’m also realistic enough to say it can only happen on the basis of justice, peace and harmony. We can’t do it any other way; it would only lead to conflict again, and nobody in their right might would even want to dream about that, never mind see it happening.

“There are great opportunities. Hopefully the institutions will be running before Christmas – I’m still hopeful.”