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Sunday 10 April 2005

Ahern and Blair on road to nowhere

'WE MUST be inclusive", "The Agreement is the only show in town", "We cannot allow republicans the luxury of claiming victimhood", etc, etc. Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair repeat these mantras over and over again, and the message they convey is clear: "We're too scared of these people to stand up to them." 

Last week was no exception. As politicians from almost every party North and South lined up to pour scorn on the double-speak of Gerry Adams's appeal to himself to consider standing down his criminal gang, the two hailed this latest piece of casuistry as "significant". Blair pathetically hoped it was the way forward "to peaceful and democratic means"; Bertie, facing the wrath of the Dail, was forced to be a bit tougher, but his words of caution were mealy-mouthed. 

Why can these two experienced leaders not realise that the game is up, the Agreement is dead, the IRA has been given so much slack it's morphed into a mega-rich Rafia, its leaders are irremediably untrustworthy and dangerous, continuing to negotiate merely confers legitimacy on them and every new so-called significant statement is yet another con-trick. 

How can Ahern - "the most devious, the most cunning of them all" - continue to let terrorists and criminals outsmart him? 

And how can Blair - the macho invader of Iraq with a contempt domestically for civil liberties - insist on treating Adams and Martin McGuinness as the friends he would like them to be rather than the enemies they are? 

The two prime ministers have been riding a peace process tandem for almost eight years and, although long ago they careered off the main road into a rut, they are in a state of joint denial. 

Why? 

Well, perhaps partly because Ahern became Taoiseach in June 1997, just a month after Blair became prime minister. They were 47 and 44 respectively and were young, energetic and largely free of ideological baggage. Like Blair, Ahern had to pay occasional lip service to the past, but the green in his veins was as diluted as the red in Blair's. 

Ahern, the fixer, and Blair, the persuader, were a pair of pragmatists who believed they had the skills to achieve a viable deal in Northern Ireland that would enable them to claim a great victory and then forget about the bloody place. 

Another common bond was their naiveté. While their predecessors, John Bruton and John Major, had separate bikes and carefully watched where they were going, Ahern and Blair cycled along together joyfully, pointing out to each other the pretty flowers while ignoring the black clouds and the treacherous terrain. They wanted to believe that paramilitaries could be seduced, so they ignored all evidence to the contrary. 

Even more important was that although both men are gifted politicians who have dominated their parties for more than a decade and know how to win elections, they are people of little substance. 

Ahern lives for the wheeling and dealing; Blair lives for the chance to be centre-stage. Both are short-termists: neither of them invites critics to challenge his policies rigorously, thinks ideas through or takes account of the law of unintended consequences. 

AIDED by Bill Clinton, another hollow man, Ahern and Blair became obsessed with cobbling together an agreement on Northern Ireland by an artificial deadline - Easter 1998 - rather than with getting it right. 

The new obsession was then to keep what they saw as their Agreement going at any price, even though that meant ignoring the indefensible and giving in to the intransigent. 

As Seamus Mallon put it recently, the prime ministers "catered for the latest begging bowl. If you look at all the side deals, the lesson Sinn Fein got from Blair and Bertie Ahern was: the more often you ask, the more often you get". 

What all this has led to is the destruction of the centre in Northern Ireland because the process favoured the extremes, a ratcheting up of sectarianism and the evolution of the IRA into a serious threat to Irish democracy. 

Yet Ahern and Blair and their cohorts beg hoods to join the police board, continue to carry out their commitments under the Agreement despite the paramilitaries' flagrant and murderous breaches, and despite the complete collapse of unionist trust in republican goodwill, they burble about how a deal can be done after the British General Election. Yet as events have shown over the years - most recently with the McCartney women - paramilitaries respond only to pressure. 

There is only one sane Plan B, and that is for the Irish and British Governments to tell all the paramilitaries they must now go, disarm, disband, shut up shop, verifiably and forever, or face extremely unpleasant consequences. It's time Ahern and Blair hauled their tandem out of the rut and got back on the main democratic road. 

Ruth Dudley Edwards

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