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Newsmaker: Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern

March 17, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Now a Newsmaker interview with Bertie Ahern, the prime minister of Ireland. He and other Irish and British leaders are in Washington this week for talks with President Clinton about how to rescue the Northern Ireland peace process. Here’s what the president had to say after his meeting with Ahern today.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: We are conscious that Ireland, along with the other parties to the Good Friday Accord, made fundamental and principled compromises in the effort to secure a lasting peace. That agreement remains the very best hope we have ever had for achieving peace, and I still believe it will succeed.

And the model of the Good Friday Accord represents not just hope for Northern Ireland but hope for so many stricken areas all across the earth now suffering from sectarian violence. As extraordinary as Ireland’s record is in exporting peace and peacekeepers for troubled areas of the earth, nothing will compare to the gift Ireland gives the world if you can make your own peace permanent.

JIM LEHRER: Now to our interview, and to Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: Prime Minister Bertie Ahern played a major role in producing the 1998 Good Friday Accord that was to bring peace to neighboring Northern Ireland. He helped persuade Catholic Republican leaders in the North to come to the table. And, to sweeten the deal for the Protestants, he persuaded the voters of his Republic of Ireland to give up their constitutional claim to Northern Ireland. But last month, the British government suspended Northern Ireland’s new power-sharing, home-rule government between the Protestant Unionists and Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army. The issue: the IRA’s continued refusal to disarm. I spoke with Prime Minister Ahern this morning before his meeting with the president.

MARGARET WARNER: Welcome, Mr. Prime Minister. Thanks for being with us.

BERTIE AHERN: Thank you very much.

MARGARET WARNER: Explain to us why Sinn Fein and the IRA weren’t able to step up to the plate on disarmament.

BERTIE AHERN: Well, I think we’ve had five years on the issue of disarmament, saying to the IRA that if there they were to be part of the system of government, disarmament had to be a central part of it. They interpreted that as surrender. Their view would be that no army that was undefeated surrenders. So… and they were not going to give in their arms. And our argument is, under the Good Friday Agreement, decommission was part of the process. We would argue that it is in nobody’s interest that a party, Sinn Fein, who would be in government, that those associated to them would be armed or would still have their arms — and even for the purpose of that they would drop into criminal hands or could be used by somebody else and accepting that the IRA has no intention of using them. There are the differences. If it’s put into terms of surrender, the IRA will not move. If it’s put into terms of what is right for a growing democracy, I think we have some prospect of success.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think that the Protestant Unionists’ fears and objections to having the IRA retain its arms are legitimate?

BERTIE AHERN: Well, you know, I think if the IRA don’t use their arms, I think that’s a huge plus, if there’s a cease-fire and an ongoing cease-fire. So that’s a huge confidence measure. But there is some legitimacy, I think, in the argument that, if an organization has an enormous amount of an arsenal, that then somewhere along the way they could use them. In Ireland it’s considered “guns under the table” philosophy. So I think that has to be addressed. Now, how it’s best addressed — everyone accept that the decommissioning of arms is a voluntary act by the various paramilitary groups, it’s not only the IRA, but the Sinn Fein would be the only group that would be in government that would be linked in any way to a group that have arms — so therefore, it is best if something could be negotiated where the IRA themselves agree to put their arms beyond use in a verifiable way in a period to be agreed. That would be the ideal situation.

MARGARET WARNER: David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, was on our show a couple of nights ago, and he said that he felt he had taken a big risk by going ahead and going into self-rule, the shared – power-shared government, without a promise from the IRA on decommissioning or disarmament. And he had taken on essentially the extremist elements in his party, or the hard-liners. And he didn’t feel that Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein leader, had done the same with the hard-liners in the IRA. Do you think that’s a valid criticism, or do you think that Adams has done everything he can to pursued the IRA to give up its arms?

BERTIE AHERN: Well, you know, I think you can take it both ways. I think both of them in the last few years have done an incredible amount to carry their people. Both Gerry Adams, with his own organization and equally persuading the IRA, and David Trimble certainly has done an enormous amount with his party – and — but that doesn’t end the picture. I think both of them, at different times perhaps, would have liked to go forward if it had not been… David Trimble really had to bring in a new deadline on the 31st of January, which was not part of the mutual review. That antagonized Gerry Adams, so Gerry Adams could not convince the IRA. At other times, Gerry Adams has done things that has not been good enough for David Trimble. So I think, you know, they must continue to work together and work out work with their own organizations. We need them singing from the same hymn sheet as best we can, because otherwise, that creates major difficulties for the process.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the reports in the Irish press and in the British press were that you were unhappy with the British government’s decision to suspend the Northern Ireland government. Did the British government have any choice, given the threat that David Trimble had made, to resign otherwise?

BERTIE AHERN: Well, we had two difficulties. I mean there’s been lots of recriminations and lots of arguments and lots of talk, which won’t really get us anywhere, so we want to stop that. And, you know… but the reason we were upset about it was, were two-fold: One, we had changed our constitution and suspending institutions and the way it happened…

MARGARET WARNER: The Republic of Ireland, your country?

BERTIE AHERN: The Republic of Ireland; that created a constitutional problem for us, and still does. That was the first thing. And secondly, it was in breach of the Good Friday agreement. So it wasn’t just a, you know, an argument in isolation. It was for those two very specific reasons that we were upset about it. Now, we know that the British government had difficulty because they had public commitments to David Trimble and they had to honor them. But the way it was done– remember, we spent years trying to put it all together, and then in five minutes it all came down, and of course that creates enormous ripples through the Republican movement, through the Nationalist movement, all over the island of Ireland. And that was the reason we were upset. But those two particular reasons were the stated reasons for our problems.

MARGARET WARNER: You have said in recent speeches there might be a way to resolve this by getting beyond the disarmament issue. Can you explain that?

BERTIE AHERN: We have to take into account… when I say beyond that, we’re talking about the other issues that are outstanding in the Good Friday Agreement, which are the criminal justice issue, the equality issues, the policing issue. And if we can put all of the outstanding issues together and come to an agreement on how we deal with all of the outstanding issues, I think we perhaps – also we can get an agreement on how we deal with the arms issue. So they must be taken, you know, collectively. If they take them separately, we will not find a solution.

MARGARET WARNER: But are you thinking that there’s a possibility of doing this without disarmament? I mean do you have any indication from the Protestant Unionists that they would accept that?

BERTIE AHERN: Well, I think they won’t accept that the arms issue is not clear, that they need absolute clarity of what’s going to happen. It has to start somewhere, it has to end somewhere. The idea of getting arms up front is an unlikely possibility. It is, in our judgment, not going to happen. But if it is a voluntary act and if it’s the essential part of the Good Friday Agreement and if the Good Friday Agreement is fully implemented, then it has to happen. So I think what could be negotiated is the time scale that it happens. And I think that would give confidence to the Unionist people that it is going to happen, but perhaps not in the short time scale that we envisaged.

MARGARET WARNER: Everyone from Gerry Adams to Joe Lockhart, the White House press secretary, have said this week they don’t see a prospect of a breakthrough here in Washington. Do you agree with that?

BERTIE AHERN: I agree with that. I think it’s… what we’re doing now is having very good engagement and, again, focusing together. Yesterday, the speaker’s lunch, which the president attended, and it was the first time we were all there together, all of the groups were together since January — so that was useful. There was bilateral discussion with all of the groups. The president was meeting the various leaders. So that I think all – you know — builds back up the political process, rather than what, frankly, we’ve probably all been guilty of the last five weeks. It’s five weeks today since the suspension of the executive — and that’s recriminations and everyone shouting at each other. At least, I think, it’s a big part. The president has succeeded in having everybody here, everybody talking to each other, and again, I think focusing on how we get out of this. So I don’t… we’re not going to get a resolution of it, I don’t underestimate the value of it. It’s very useful.

MARGARET WARNER: Ulster police this week seized 500 pounds of bomb-making explosives reportedly being transported to Belfast by some Republicans with ties to Irish Republican splinter groups. How long do you think this stalemate can continue without really courting the threat of renewed violence?

BERTIE AHERN: Well, you know, I think the answer to that is fairly simple, because we can base it on the experience over the last 30 years. Whenever we had stalemates, whenever there was no political progress, violence almost became inevitable from somebody somewhere. The new millennium, I think, means that that’s from splinter Republican groups or splinter loyalist groups, and unfortunately there’s a number of them. And they thrive in a vacuum, in a political vacuum.

We’d had an attempt at blowing up of an army station in Derry recently. We’ve had a number of punishment beatings again. We’ve had shooting incidents, removing of arms, all by paramilitary and loyalist groups. And so as soon as they see an opportunity that there is no political progress, then they move. And that’s why a few days like this in Washington is very important, because, again, the news is political activity, political action, concentration on the issues. And that’s why sometimes it’s talking and people say, “well, talking never gets you anywhere.” Well, it does focus people on it’s politics we’re involved and not an armed struggle again.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, thank you, Mr. Prime Minister very much. Good luck.

BERTIE AHERN: Thank you very much.