Bertie Ahern, Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of the Republic of Ireland from 1997 to 2008, leader of Fianna Fáil (1994-2008) and TD (MP) for Dublin-Finglas and then Dublin Central (1977-2011), delivered the 11th Dr John Kennedy Lecture held by the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Irish Studies on Thursday 22 November.

His talk, titled, ‘Negotiating the Good Friday Agreement since 1998’, drew from his experience in the Northern Ireland peace process and reflected on events since the Good Friday Agreement, which forms the basis of the region’s current devolved government, was signed.

Dr Lauren Arrington, the Institute’s Head of Department, hosted the talk, after which the former Taoiseach took questions from the audience. Following the event, Bertie Ahern joined me for an interview, allowing the opportunity to follow up a question I had asked earlier regarding housing.

Housing

During the event, I put it to Bertie Ahern that during the recession young people couldn’t find work, and now the Irish economy is in recovery and people can find jobs, young people can’t afford to rent, particularly in places like Dublin. I asked him whether he recognised this as a legacy of his government’s policies encouraging speculative development and the erosion of social and affordable housing, and what he would have done differently to prevent such a housing crisis. In response, Bertie Ahern said his one regret “is that there was an international recession” but admitted the construction of houses was inconsistent, at times producing too many and at others providing too little, following a pattern of boom and bust. In 1985 the Irish State built over 6,000 social houses, while in 2015 they built only 75.

The Republic has returned to a point of almost full employment (currently around 5% unemployment), Ahern said, and investments by companies like Intel and Google are driving up property prices, making renting particularly difficult for young people.

“You should never build enough local authority houses”

In terms of what could have been done differently during Bertie Ahern’s tenure, he mentioned tax incentives aimed at increasing house building in areas other than the Greater Dublin Area, which has a population of almost 2 million out of the state’s less than 5 million total. He said, “we probably shouldn’t have given those tax incentives for as long as we did.”  Encouraging companies like Google, Amazon and Intel to locate in areas other than Dublin, (which is where they want to be) is a battle, Ahern said. He added that continuing to spread  these and housing around the country would make land cheaper.

Referring to building the correct number of houses for the market every year, Bertie Ahern had said during the event that. while it’s ideal, “It’s not possible, because you don’t know what is going to happen.” When in government, Ahern was told by the financial sector that, as Taoiseach, he shouldn’t be interfering and that he should let the market do its thing, before being asked by the same people when the market crashed why he hadn’t interfered. Now, “the present government are struggling.”

Bertie Ahern takes questions from Danny Rigg in the Eleanor Rathbone Building (Credit: Viola Segeroth/Institute of Irish Studies)

I followed him up on this after the event, asking the former Taoiseach if he felt there is too much emphasis put on market forces and too much reliance on the private sector for the provision of housing. He said there should be more local authority houses, but he would rather see a cheap mortgage given to allow people to own the house. Ahern mentioned how a large portion of his own constituency had been people who had gone into houses as newlyweds in their 20s and were still paying rents in their 80s, never having owned anything in their lives.

“You should never build enough local authority houses”, but in the last number of years so few have been built that “we need more local authority houses.”

Direct Provision (asylum seekers)

Direct provision was established by Ahern’s government in 1999 as an emergency measure to house asylum seekers in the Republic of Ireland whilst their applications were being processed. While asylum seekers were intended to be housed for a period of six months, by December 2017 over 5,000 men, women and children were in 34 centres across the country, spending 23 months on average in direct provision. Emily Hogan of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission has described direct provision as a “severe violation of human rights”.

When I asked why this system has continued for almost two decades, Bertie Ahern claimed few have been in the centres for a long time, that there are constantly new people coming in, and that those who have been there for extended periods are there because of disagreements over whether the criteria for asylum has been met. 436 people had been in this system for five or more years by the end of 2017.

The problem, according to Ahern, is people making numerous appeals of decisions, something that annoyed him even when he was a TD, although he acknowledged he was dealing with smaller numbers back then. A limit should be put on the number of times an appeal can be made before the decision is final, he said. He added, there was a kid on recently, there was a big furore about the kid, but they were in on a forged passport. You know, you can’t have that.”

However, Ahern made clear help should be given to those located far from where they must travel to have their applications reviewed, describing it as “unreasonable” to expect someone “to come to Dublin for an appeal if they’re in the backends.” Individuals in direct provision receive a €21.60 allowance per week, less than the cost of such a return journey from, for example, Tralee to Cork.

Social change in Ireland

I asked Bertie Ahern how he thinks, from a conflict resolution perspective, the divisions and inequalities present in Irish society, and shown by the marriage referendum, abortion referendum and various protests around housing and water charges in recent years, can be reconciled.

“You’re always going to get new issues“, Ahern said, noting that the Citizens’ Assembly, which was established in 2016 and discussed the Eighth Amendment (repealed in a referendum in May), also dealt with a number of other issues likely to come up. “There’s already people lobbying, there’s about five different lobbies now” seeking to have something put into or taken out of the Constitution. “Something you and I can’t even think of now, in 10 years time will be the big issue.”

The good thing about referenda, Ahern said, is the finality of them. “I always found, once I’d finished legislation, there was always someone looking for an amendment already,” but with a referendum, “you argue your case, I argue my case, and there’s a great thing in Ireland when the vote is taken, it’s over.” Except, of course, those on the Nice Treaty in 2001 and 2002, and on the Lisbon Treaty in 2008 and 2009.

The next Irish Studies event is a panel discussion on the 50th Anniversary of Civil Rights featuring former Northern Ireland Executive Minister and founding member of the SDLP Bríd Rogers, former Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MLA (2003-2017) Nelson McCausland, SDLP councillor and Secretary of the Civil Rights Commemoration Committee, and Dr Chris Reynolds, which is on 6 December.

 

Featured image: Bertie Ahern delivers the 11th Dr John Kennedy Lecture (Danny Rigg)