British government considered changing Belfast Agreement in April, says Bertie Ahern

Former taoiseach says he was concerned about move intended to appease the fears of unionists

Former taoiseach Bertie Ahern has suggested the British government was planning to change the Belfast Agreement as recently as a month ago to appease unionist sentiment.

Mr Ahern said on Tuesday night that, in April, he was concerned the “British government might endeavour to change the Good Friday agreement in some way”.

He said that the argument was being made on the British side that a change had to be made to get unionism “on side”.

The former Fianna Fáil leader was among leading figures in the peace process who spoke at an event in Leinster House last night to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement, also referred to as the Good Friday Agreement.


As it transpired, the British government made no move to alter the agreement. Mr Ahern said that it could not have done so, in any event. He said that the Act of Union was not the starting point for change. The agreement had come about from referendums north and south, following agreements voted on by both the Irish and British governments.

He said that the important thing at this stage was the balanced accommodations that had been struck with the agreement, which was the starting point in the present negotiations.

The special event in Leinster House was hosted by the Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl. Among the other leading figures were former Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, Bríd Rodgers of the SDLP, Monica McWilliams of the Women’s Coalition, and David Kerr of the Ulster Unionist Party. The event was compèred by broadcaster Seán O’Rourke.

Mr Adams rejected a claim that, in the immediate aftermath of the agreement, Sinn Féin initially pursued a strategy of voting Yes in the referendum in Northern Ireland and No in the referendum in the Republic to amend Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution (which claimed the whole of Ireland as the national territory).

The claim was made by former government adviser on Northern Ireland Martin Mansergh in an RTÉ documentary.

“It’s not true,” Mr Adams said. He said the party had never considered a No campaign in the South but had campaigned to vote Yes in both constituencies.

He said no preparations were made along the lines suggested by Dr Mansergh. “Certainly not to my knowledge, and I’m very, very clear on it. When I heard those remarks [in the documentary] I said ‘Jeepers, that’s news to me’.”

Mr Kerr said the concern in unionism after the agreement was around the uncertainty of decommissioning. “The biggest fear was that if we went into an executive, unionism would be trapped in the executive [without] decommissioning happening,” he said.

Ms McWilliams said that during the referendum campaign in 1998, the biggest issue on the doorsteps was the release of paramilitary prisoners. Several speakers alluded to the appearance of the Balcombe Street gang at a Sinn Féin rally as creating a huge issue for unionism.

Mr Kerr told the audience that one of the significant factors in getting the referendum over the line was the appearance of David Trimble and John Hume at a U2 concert in Belfast, something that presented a powerful image of unity, especially to younger people in the North. The appearance of both leaders was the brainchild of SDLP strategists Tim Atwood and Conall McDevitt.

During a discussion on the protracted negotiations over arms decommissioning, both Ms Rodgers and Mr Kerr identified 9/11 as the pivotal moment.

“What changed the dynamic was 9/11,” said Mr Kerr. “September 2001 everything changed. [When the attack on New York happened] Irish-America said to the IRA: ‘Terrorism is not a good look in the US any more ... We need to move it on and you need to decommission’.”

Ms Rodgers said it was ironically Ted Kennedy who told the IRA to move on with his use of the lyrics from a [Kenny Rogers] song about a poker player: “You got to know when to hold ’em, and know when to fold ’em.”

She said that Sinn Féin was beginning to lose the trust of Irish-America.

The former SDLP MP said the issues remained the same now as they did in 1998. “We have two communities who do not trust each other. They have to be brought together in partnership.” She said the template was the one created by Mr Hume that formed the basis for the agreement.

Harry McGee

Harry McGee

Harry McGee is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times