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Editorial A boo-boo with purpose

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

You’ve got to lose a little to win a little. The political gambler in Bertie Ahern will always agree with the accountant he once was. Politics is about shedding blood, figuratively of course. And there are times when you have to drop some of your own in order to get what you want.

Ahern wants the IRA and its weapons to vanish into history. And he would dearly love to be the taoiseach to bid the Provos adieu. So if he has to suffer sticky Dáil questions or the opprobrium of critical journalists, so be it.

On Tuesday, during Dáil questions, he managed to deny that he ever told the Sunday Times that Sinn Féin should be "barred" from the Northern Ireland Executive. At the same time he sowed the seeds that, he hopes, will lead to a breakthrough in the impasse over decommissioning and Sinn Féin’s inclusion in the Executive.

Ahern spoke of "political reality," of the need for an "understanding" as to how the decommissioning aspect of the Good Friday accord will be moved forward.

By "understanding" he means that he requires more from the IRA and Sinn Féin than he has received to date. Even if no weapons are found lying in a field at midnight on March 9, Ahern might, just might, settle for a firm date for the start of decommissioning, preferably this year.

If one was offered, the Executive could bide its time a while, but Sinn Féin would be assured of immediate inclusion once it opened for business.

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Alternatively, Ahern might be seeking an "understanding" that at the same midnight hour, some guns and explosives might magically appear in a field even as Sinn Féin prepared to lay a hand on its share of Northern Ireland’s new government.

As an "informed source" told one Dublin Sunday newspaper, the Sunday Tribune, the idea would be to have the two events happen so closely that the media — and presumably politicians — would not be able to tell which happened first. It would be an exercise, quite simply, in mutual face saving.

Ahern might have given the interview to the Sunday Times because stepping back from his statements would be easier because it’s a British publication. If so, he achieved his desired effect. He got the message across to Sinn Féin and the IRA that he wanted something. At the same time he was later able to publicly fudge over what exactly it was that he wanted. But there’s no prizes for guessing.

In recent weeks the British government, Ulster Unionists and various editorial pages, not least those of the Irish Times and the Washington Post, have been pulling the cord tighter around Sinn Féin’s neck. Ahern pulled it a little tighter last weekend despite his post-interview assurances to Sinn Féin. Interestingly, the White House now seems to be sole holdout, sticking as it is to the letter of the Good Friday accord.

Given the complexities of the current situation, it is unlikely that the politicians involved are looking too far ahead. This is very much day to day stuff. Ahern’s boo-boo has put Sinn Féin and the IRA on notice. Their present position, even though it adheres to the letter of the Good Friday accord, is no longer sustainable. More is required. In his calculations, Ahern has left room for Sinn Féin and the IRA to decide just how much more might be enough. Had Ahern specified what exactly he wanted that would have been a true boo-boo. But he didn’t. The accountant always knows when to stop spending one’s capital.

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