Former Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Bertie Ahern was the main speaker at Joseph F. Maher Leadership Forum at Molloy College in Rockville Centre, Long Island on Friday, February 27. Invited by the college’s new Irish Studies Institute, Ahern outlined how he had helped bring peace to Northern Ireland after decades of conflict. After a speech entitled “Peace Through Inclusive Dialogue: Ireland’s Journey,” Ahern joined a lively and at times humorous panel discussion that included representatives of two rival Northern Irish political parties, Rita O’Hare of Sinn Fein and Dawn Purvis of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP). Ahern, who was taoiseach between 1997 and 2008, underlined the importance of neutral international mediators in the peace process. “There’s no question of the contribution of the European Union and the United States,” he told the audience. “The Troubles had gone on for 30 years, and the conflict for 800. There was no easy solution and there never is. The only way to tackle this was with a comprehensive agreement which addressed a range of issues at the heart of the conflict.” Ahern noted that the Good Friday Agreement, which expressed the will of the people of the whole island of Ireland, was agreed to by all the parties, and it has within it clauses that say two things, “One, that from time to time there can be plebiscites in Northern Ireland for the people to decide if they want to go with the Republic or the U.K.” “The second thing the agreement says is that change has to come on the basis of consent, freely given by the people who are registered to vote. It can’t be done by coercion or force. So the challenge for anybody who wants a united Ireland — as I do — is that we have to show to ourselves that it is economically sustainable to do it (and that argument has not been even started, although I do believe it can be proved).” The main challenge for Republicans, Ahern said, lies in making sure that the Unionist people feel a part of the decision making process, that they feel that being part of a united Ireland is better than being part of the U.K. – otherwise it would not happen. “Like a lot of things in life it’s a numbers game and we have to be able to create the circumstances. People have to be convinced that an all island economy will be fair and sustainable and that’s the challenge for Republicans. There is no other challenge, no other way we can do it,” Ahern said. Congressman Peter King told the audience, “Considering the extraordinary progress made over the last 20 years I’m willing to bet that, whether it’s in our lifetime or not, that people will wake up one morning and look out and realize that in effect the island is united. They already have so much in common, I think its bound to happen ultimately.” Purvis took a less optimistic view, telling the audience, “The fault lines of our conflict are still there. You can’t have a united Ireland without uniting the people in Northern Ireland. We’ve had 100 years of sectarianism ingrained there, and 94% of our schools in Northern Ireland are segregated. And 96% of our social housing is segregated.” Purvis added, “How can you ever hope to unite a people around uniting Ireland if they can’t even live together? If we can’t even go to the same schools? “One of the biggest obstacles to addressing sectarianism in Northern Ireland is the political parties, believe it or not. They are slow to change. Our government needs to introduce programs that address sectarianism in our lives our political structures and all our governmental structures. That’s not happening at the minute.” The Brehon Law Society sponsored the Irish panel discussion which also featured Congressman Joe Crowley, who told the audience that he believed the U.S. contribution to the peace process is as “critical” now as it was in 1998. “As an advisor to the president on Irish affairs I believe wholeheartedly that President Obama will appoint a special envy to Northern Ireland,” he added. The Irish Studies Institute at Molloy College provides a range of academic courses, cultural events, workshops, and library resources relating to the Irish American experience.
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