Paisley hails 'good working relationship' with Ahern

Ian Paisley today attributed his good working relationship with Bertie Ahern to the Taoiseach's acknowledgement that unionists did not want to be part of a united Ireland.

In a warm tribute to the Taoiseach, the 81-year-old Stormont First Minister, who will retire from frontline politics himself within days of Mr Ahern's departure on May 6, claimed they treated each other as equals.

"In sharp contrast with other Irish prime ministers, I enjoyed a good working relationship with Mr Ahern because he was willing to recognise the position of the unionist population that they had no interest in being part of a united Ireland," the Democratic Unionist leader said.

"What they wanted to see was mutual co-operation when it worked to the benefit of both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.

"He and I operated as equals, not as one trying to assimilate the other."

Mr Paisley was commenting after Mr Ahern announced that he would step down on May 6 against the background of continuing controversy over his private financial affairs.

A month ago, Mr Paisley announced that he intended to quit after an investment conference in Belfast aimed at US businessmen on May 8-10 which Mr Ahern was due to attend along with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

The Stormont First Minister was for decades a harsh critic of successive Irish governments, accusing them of interfering in the North's affairs - even throwing snowballs at the car of Sean Lemass during a visit to Stormont in 1965.

However, after the DUP's success in the 2003 Northern Assembly election, he forged a good working relationship with Mr Ahern and was stunned when the Taoiseach presented him and his wife, Eileen, at the St Andrews talks three years later with a wedding anniversary gift of a bowl hewn from a walnut tree at the site of the Battle of the Boyne.

Shortly after he struck a deal last March with Sinn Féin to revive powersharing in the North, Mr Paisley travelled to Dublin and in a highly symbolic gesture had his first public handshake with a Taoiseach.

Not long after he became First Minister, the North Antrim MP visited the Battle of the Boyne site and presented Mr Ahern with a gift of a 17th Century musket.

In February, Mr Ahern visited the DUP leader in his constituency, attending the opening of a spa resort in the unionist heartland of Ballymena.

Mr Paisley said today that Mr Ahern was also the first Taoiseach to specifically recognise the sacrifice made by soldiers from the Republic who fought during the First and Second World Wars.

"In so doing he showed a maturity and responsibility which had been lacking from his predecessors in office," the DUP leader said.

"The DUP firmly believes in sensible co-operation with our nearest neighbour and Mr Ahern recognised our position and moved on to it.

"He came to realise that politically motivated North-Southery with a nationalist trajectory was never going to be acceptable to our community and he conducted himself accordingly.

"His strong popularity with people in the Republic of Ireland is evidenced by his string of election victories and as he steps down from frontline politics in the Republic. We wish him well."

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