The former Irish prime minister and joint architect of the Northern Ireland peace process Bertie Ahern has said it is imperative that any Brexit solution be acceptable to the Democratic Unionist party.
His intervention is a rare warning by a prominent politician in the Republic of Ireland that imposing a deal not supported by the DUP, such as one with a Northern-Ireland-only backstop, would imperil a lasting solution.
Ahern said the principle of “parity of esteem”, one of the core stated values of the 1998 Good Friday agreement, was not just for nationalists and anything that was not backed by both communities in Northern Ireland would be doomed to failure.
“Any solution has to include the unionist people because parity of esteem in the Good Friday agreement is both sides; to do a deal through Europe with Britain that creates a problem for the unionist community and will be rejected by the English nationalists in the Commons – that’s not really an option,” he said.
Ahern’s comments came as the DUP leader, Arlene Foster, demanded a meeting with Boris Johnson amid fears he is prepared to back a Northern-Ireland-only backstop, which her party rejected in 2017.
Ahern, along with Tony Blair, played a critical role in getting warring factions in Northern Ireland to lay down their arms and opposing political parties to sign a lasting peace deal.
Ahern’s intervention comes at a critical time in the Brexit talks, with speculation that Johnson is prepared to return to the plan for a Northern-Ireland-only backstop, which emerged during the first phase of talks in 2017 but was abandoned after the DUP objected.
The former taoiseach said he believed there could be merit in a Northern-Ireland-only backstop if the Stormont assembly had a role, because the DUP might support that.
Referring to the DUP’s leader in the Commons, he said: “I think Nigel Dodds has given an indication that if the executive had a role and future laws and regulations were coming out of the European Union and they had a say, not a veto, he didn’t say a veto, then perhaps that is something that is workable.”
Mirroring Ahern’s remarks about the unionist community, Foster told an audience on Monday evening that it was important they engage with those of a nationalist background.
Ahern said he was implacably opposed to any checks at or near the Irish border, saying there would be civil disobedience among border communities and the checks would be unsustainable.
“The idea of checking a guy leaving Dundalk with four dozen heads of cabbage and going to Newry and counting them up on the border is not on. It would be stupid to try that. I don’t want to say it would lead to violence but it wouldn’t be sustainable, it wouldn’t be workable,” he said.
Under EU law, all animals and fresh produce including raw meat must undergo mandatory checks and last week the taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, said there would be checks near the border.
Ahern said they would need to be done near the border but “back in offices, point of manufacture or point of distribution”.
He said the scenes in parliament over the last week showed “the level of raw bitterness” in British politics, but Ireland must not get dragged into domestic battles.
“We have to leave all these clouds to fade into the sky and keep our focus on the Barnier commission and continue to negotiate, if there is anything to negotiate.
“We have to at least have an open mind on what might come forward, so we are seen by the 27 member states that we’re not heads in the sands, that we have a negotiating hand that is different,” he said.