If politicians could persuade the IRA to drop their arms in 1998, then how to end the Brexit dispute over Northern Ireland is not “rocket science”, one of the architects of the Good Friday agreement has told MPs.
Stressing that “compromise” and political leadership was needed, Bertie Ahern called on all sides including the UK, the EU and the Democratic Unionist party to ditch their red lines and make agreements that would deliver a lasting deal.
“We can solve this,” the former taoiseach told the House of Commons Northern Ireland affairs committee. “I really, really believe this is not rocket science.
“When you think of the things that we got resolved. We got the IRA to decommission arms, we released prisoners … people who would kill policemen. We reformed the old RUC [Royal Ulster Constabulary] to have now a very competent international PSNI [Police Service of Northern Ireland].
“That we can’t find a way of working out how to get sausages and rashers in the internal market working, it’s beyond comprehension. I think there has to be a solution that is unique to Northern Ireland.”
Ahern said technical solutions were not the answer and he had not yet heard any reason from leaders in the EU why a new bespoke deal for Northern Ireland was not warranted.
Ahern reminded MPs that Northern Ireland was “a divided society still” and the only way forward was a “good compromise”.
His comments came as Rishi Sunak held phone talks with the Irish taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, over the protocol and legacy legislation in the UK, proposing an amnesty for historic crimes during the Troubles.
Ahern, the first present or former Irish prime minister to give evidence to the Northern Ireland affairs committee, said no one was suggesting the solution to the row over the Northern Ireland protocol was to ignore the unionist community, but there had to be compromises on all sides.
The future was not next year or the year after but the next 25 years, and the post-peace generation deserved a solution to the Brexit row, he said.
“In the absence of compromise, we’re building a future that will be on quicksand and that’s my concern,” he told the committee.
He recalled the bravery of the leaders in both nationalist and unionist communities in Northern Ireland in the 1990s, led by the now deceased John Hume and David Trimble, and he reminded MPs on the committee that the compromises they made were successful because they led to the end of violence.
They decided back in 1998 that the deal “was not perfect but it was fair”, he said. “That was a brave move by them all.”
He suggested that kind of leap of faith was needed again as, 25 years on from peace, Northern Ireland was still different to the rest of the UK.
Ahern was speaking as the DUP and the European Research Group of Eurosceptic MPs have forged an alliance to fight any deal that does not end the application of EU law in Northern Ireland.
He made several references to the DUP’s seven tests for a protocol deal but called on unionists to compromise too. Their conditions for a deal should be addressed but some of their demands would be impossible to meet, he said.