Taoiseach’s address - Speech heralds tide of change

TAOISEACH Bertie Ahern’s historic address to both houses of the British parliament was a fitting climax to a remarkable period of progress and achievement in Anglo-Irish relations, which have never been stronger.

They say a week is a long time in politics and in that sense the occasion marked the culmination of an extraordinary chain of events that many on these islands thought they would never see in their lifetime.

Barely a week ago, Bertie Ahern stood beside British Prime Minister Tony Blair to mark the return of real democracy to Northern Ireland.

As loyalists and republicans rekindled the torch lit by the Good Friday agreement, lasting peace was copper-fastened, bringing normalcy to the North’s troubled politics.

A few days ago, the Taoiseach and Ian Paisley were sharing jokes at the site of the Battle of the Boyne where the course of Irish and European history was irrevocably changed when the armies of William of Orange and Catholic King James II clashed in 1690.

The palace of Westminster, scene of yesterday’s history-making event, is a far cry from the rough and tumble of a general election campaign at home where the Taoiseach has been under pressure over his financial dealings in the 1990s.

While the dogs may have been called off, he has questions to answer when the Mahon Tribunal resumes later this month.

Few would predict that an Irish politician would receive a resounding standing ovation like that accorded to Mr Ahern.

As the first Taoiseach to address the combined membership of both the houses of Commons and Lords in London, he delivered a powerfully written speech.

Indeed, only a handful of world leaders have attained such an honour, including Charles de Gaulle, Nelson Mandela and US president Bill Clinton.

Only the mean-spirited would deny the importance of yesterday’s milestone occasion in the long and turbulent relationship between Britain and Ireland.

In the early 1990s, the IRA attempted to bomb Downing Street and the removal of violence from Irish politics is a sign of how far we have come.

When historians analyse the tortuous progress of the search for peace, they will find the threads of a genuine friendship between Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair woven into the fabric of what has been achieved.

Arguably, had they not developed such a close relationship, based on trust, mutual liking and respect for one another, the process of reconciliation would still be going on.

As Mr Blair reminded parliament yesterday, both men come from radically different traditions. His grandfather was a Donegal Orangeman while Mr Ahern’s lineage was steeped in Republicanism. In turn, the Taoiseach described Tony Blair as “a true friend of Ireland” with an honoured place in our history.

Aptly, on a day that marked the 160th anniversary of Daniel O’Connell’s death, his illustrious name, and that of Charles Stuart Parnell, were recalled by Mr Ahern as part of the long and noble tradition entwining the two countries.

In building a better future, the Taoiseach stressed the importance of remembering the 3,700 people who have died in the North and the appalling scars and losses of the past four decades.

But he underlined too that members of the Westminster parliament had also suffered loss in a conflict that has left unanswered question in its wake.

Referring to the historic rugby match between Ireland and England in Croke Park, he reminded his listeners that the field of dreams had once been a field of death in the days of the Black and Tans.

However, looking forward to what he called a partnership of the people of Ireland and Britain, he stressed that it must be based on economic and cultural links as well as on peace.

Proof of the tide for positive change, he said, was seen in the strong practical and financial support Dublin and London were extending to the North.

While he referred to the 1916 Rising, he also underscored the shared sacrifice of Catholics and Protestants who fought side by side in the First World War.

And though the Good Friday agreement had delivered peace by accommodating the rights and aspirations of all, it was not an end of history but a new beginning.

In a notable tribute to the Taoiseach, the British Prime Minister observed that he had met many big political figures in his time but none were as great as Bertie Ahern.

Significantly, the guests at yesterday’s event included Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny who properly refrained from political point scoring, emphasising that the North was above and beyond party politics.

What British politicians in the past liked to refer to as “the Irish question” has been transformed beyond belief.

In that regard, yesterday was a fitting salute to the work, patience, and understanding invested by Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair in restoring democracy to the North.

Thanks to their unstinting efforts, relationships between Dublin, London and Belfast have been changed utterly.

An era of new political realities has dawned.

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