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Bloody Sunday, election, Irish, Ireland, British, Ulster, Unionist, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ahern, Blair, Irish America

DUP want good relations with FF to continue after Ahern

(by Liam Clarke, Sunday Times)

Ian Paisley was almost as pleased as Bertie Ahern with last May's general election in the republic. Not only did the two get on well, their strategic interests also converged.

In addition to Fianna Fail securing power for another five years Sinn Féin lost a seat even though it had been expected to make gains. With Sinn Féin further away from getting its hands on the levers of power in Dublin than anyone had predicted, it was good news for both Ahern and Paisley.

"I just want to tell the Taoiseach that this is a great day for Ireland, a great day for Ulster" Paisley roared down the line, according to a recent biography by Ed Moloney.

Paisley's joy was shared by his colleagues in the Democratic Unionist Party. They knew they could do business with Ahern, but there was more to it than that. It was very much in the DUP's interests that Fianna Fail, and not Sinn Féin, should get any electoral bounce that was going from the Northern Ireland peace process. The fact that the election was a personal setback for Gerry Adams, who had personally spear-headed the Sinn Féin campaign south of the border, was an added bonus.

Adams, more even than McGuinness, was respected by the DUP for his skill in steering the rise of Sinn Féin. The unionist nightmare scenario was that, just as they entered the power sharing executive with Sinn Féin in Stormont, Adams would win the party a place in a coalition government south of the border.

That would have left Sinn Féin in a position of tremendous influence, running the powerful new cross border institutions from both sides of the border and negotiating government–to-government with the British. But the DUP's nightmare scenario didn't pan out that way.

Instead Sinn Féin was left in the weaker position as junior partner in the Stormont executive. "Sharing power with Sinn Féin was testing enough without having to deal with Sinn Féin ministers tic-tacking with each other across the border" a senior DUP source said.

In the run up to the election, Paisley had done all he could to boost Ahern's chances and the Taoiseach had gone out of his way to cultivate the DUP leader.

Irish diplomats like to tell the story of how, at the St Andrews negotiations in October 2006, Tony Blair had mentioned to Ahern that it was Paisley's wedding anniversary and asked if he had got him a present. "Yes, a wooden bowl" replied Ahern. Blair confided that he had bought a handsome silver photograph album.

As the conversation went on it emerged that Ahern's bowl was hand carved from a walnut tree that had been felled by lightning where it stood on the site of King William of Orange's victory over the Jacobites at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Paisley treasured the gift. He took it with him out of the press conference following the St Andrew's negotiations and it is now displayed in a place of honour in his home. In contrast, Blair's gift had to be retrieved later from beneath the chair where Paisley had left it lying as he rushed to catch the helicopter home.

Ahern's famous people skills, his eye for what would please someone personally and politically, had shown through.

As the election approached in April last year, Paisley met Ahern in Farmleigh House in Dublin and shook him warmly by the hand. "I'd better shake the hands of this man. I'll give him a firm handshake" he announced, beaming for the cameras. It was a golden sound bite and a memorable photo opportunity. Paisley still refuses to shake the hand of Martin McGuinness even though the two men share an office at Stormont.

The next pre-election photo opportunity was at the site of the Battle of the Boyne at Oldbridge near Drogheda where the Irish government have constructed a major tourism and heritage attraction. That came on 10 May, exactly a fortnight before the Dáil election was due.

In a moment rich with symbolism Paisley used the occasion to present Ahern with a musket which had been captured from the defeated Jacobites by a Williamite soldier. The two men were also filmed planting a new walnut tree to replace the one from which Paisley's gift had been made.

Paisley's calculated displays of respect and friendship for Ahern can't have hurt Fianna Fail's election prospects. There were other factors but it can be no coincidence that between April and May the party rallied, moving from a position where they were trailing in opinion polls to a convincing victory in the election.

"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 after Ahern announced his retirement last week.

"He and I operated as equals, not as one trying to assimilate the other." It was a remarkable tribute from a man who had made his name by throwing snowballs at Sean Lemass and pouring scorn on every Taoiseach he had encountered since then.

Paisley and Ahern will retire within days of each other next month. Both had remarkably warm personalities. Their likely successors, Brian Cowen and Peter Robinson, are less effusive characters. Will the same dynamic continue between them?

In fact things may go better with Paisley gone. The DUP leader has, in the past, shown his nasty side to Cowen with studied personal insults and vulgar abuse. "Someone told me the other day that the reason his lips were so thick was that when his mother was bringing him up he was a very disobedient young boy, so she used to put glue on his lips to keep him there and that has been recorded in his physical make-up," Paisley said in 2003.

Cowen laughed it off saying that politics was not a beauty contest, but he may feel it easier to deal with Robinson who carries no such personal baggage.

DUP sources believe the friendly relationship will continue thanks, in part, to the groundwork laid by Ahern. He succeeded in transforming the Irish constitutional claim to jurisdiction over Northern Ireland into an aspiration in the referendum which ratified the Good Friday Agreement.

The sources say that, as the largest parties on either side of the border, the DUP share a common interest in maintaining good relations. With money tight, Irish investment in cross border infrastructure and co-operation on trade and tourism missions are more important than ever before.

The relationship may enter a new phase as Fianna Fail eyes the north as a possible area of expansion and an opportunity to take Sinn Féin on in its heartland. Already it is recruiting members and the SDLP, at its last conference, set up a working party to consider a merger with Fianna Fail amongst other options.

SDLP say that the drive to organise in the north comes mainly from Dermot Ahern, the Foreign Minister, and Brian Cowen.

Bertie Ahern made cautiously positive references to the possibility of contesting elections in the north in a BBC interview.

"I'm glad that we are recruiting people and giving people an option. Of course we have always had a good relationship with the SDLP and all of that has to be considered but that is work that now will have to be brought forward by my colleagues. We have done a lot of work on this, a lot of research and there are some major decisions to be made but there is no rush on it" said.

In June of next year the European election will be fought on both sides of the border. The SDLP lost their Euro seat to Sinn Féin's Bairbre de Brun last time out, but if one of its leading members stood under the Fianna Fail colours there would be a good chance of winning it back.

If successful it would open up intriguing possibilities for the next Stormont administration. We might even see Fianna Fail, rather than Sinn Féin, holding power on both sides of the border.

April 7, 2008

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on April 6, 2008.