Former Irish premier and architect of the Good Friday Agreement Bertie Ahern has said there is “no reason” why the Stormont Assembly should not be meeting next week.
He said that everything that was necessary to happen to restore the Northern Ireland powersharing institutions had happened and expressed concern about “dragging” out the process over the summer.
Former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said he understands that DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson wants to keep his supporters and base onside, but said that he will have to “face them down”.
Mr Adams also said he believed the DUP leader when he said the prospect of Sinn Fein deputy leader Michelle O’Neill becoming First Minister was not the obstacle hindering the institutions’ revival.
The two leaders were speaking as part of a panel discussion in the members’ restaurant of Leinster House in Dublin on Tuesday evening, hosted by the Ceann Comhairle, or speaker of the Dail, Sean O Fearghail.
Mr Adams praised the organisation of the event and remarked it was “the only event that the Irish establishment has had about the Good Friday Agreement”.
“All those other events up at Queen’s (University) and so on and so forth, the Irish government didn’t do that. This government is to touch from the process.”
Today the Cathaoirleach of Seanad Éireann, Senator Jerry Buttimer, welcomed former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who signed the Visitors Book before addressing the Seanad to mark the 25th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. #SeeForYourself
— Houses of the Oireachtas – Tithe an Oireachtais (@OireachtasNews) May 23, 2023
Among those on the panel were former SDLP leader Brid Rodgers, former UUP director of communications David Kerr and co-founder of Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition Monica McWilliams.
In the audience were Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald, TDs from Fine Gael, Fianna Fail, Sinn Fein, the Social Democrats and the Rural Independent Group, the former speaker of the Assembly Alex Maskey, and the leader of the Seanad Jerry Buttimer.
Artist Shane Gillan, who created the hand-drawn portraits of politicians and key players in the peace deal negotiations as part of the event, was also present.
Mr Ahern said he had been concerned a few months ago that the British Government might endeavour to change the Good Friday Agreement in some way and say “that this is a change that we have to do to get the unionists onside”.
He also said there was “huge merit” in the DUP moving ahead with a deal to restore Stormont before the summer.
“I just think that everything that’s necessary has already happened. It looks as if the DUP need a bit of a commitment around trade legislation. Once it’s around trade legislation I wouldn’t lose 30 seconds’ sleep about it, if it’s anything else, I’d be very worried about that,” he said.
“There’s no reason that they shouldn’t all be meeting next week, in my opinion,” he said, adding he had a fear about that “dragging” it out over the summer.
“The British and the DUP – they’re tic-tacing with each other clearly, and it’s around this trade legislation.
“If I was in the DUP, I think there’s huge merit in them in getting their bit of trade legislation and doing it now, before the summer break, before the marching season, before the holiday season, and then just getting on with it.”
Mr Adams said: “Jeffrey Donaldson knows that he has to go back into the Assembly.”
He said it was “fair enough” to want to keep your own supporters and your own base onside, but added: “You also have to tell those that you know are not going to come with you, to move to one side, you have to face them down.”
He added: “Jeffrey has a choice. I believe it when he says he doesn’t have a problem – he probably doesn’t like the fact – that Michelle O’Neill is First Minister designate, but that is not the reason why (he won’t take his party back to Stormont).”
Reflecting on the campaign ahead of the referendum, Monica McWilliams said that most people “do not realise how difficult it was during those six weeks to get people who had suffered and sacrificed the most to vote yes”.
“The thing I remember for me that turned it was the doctors and nurses came out, which is something they rarely do, and stuck their heads above the parapet and the doctors said ‘Never again do I want to spend my life doing surgery on people who are missing limbs, who have had the most shocking injuries’, and the doctor was crying as he was saying it, and that was a moment in which the people of the country listened.
“And the nurses that came out and said the same, that their entire 30 years of their health profession, their medical profession had been taken up by nothing else except intensive care and fixing bodies.”
Of the famous appearance of David Trimble and John Hume on stage with U2 ahead of the referendum vote, David Kerr said he was “incredulous” when he had heard the proposals, and that both were very nervous on the night.
“It’s the defining image. I don’t care what anybody says, that’s the image that’s in the history books,” he said.