Ireland - Foreign policy



In the area of foreign policy, one issue looms above all others: continuing the peace process begun by his predecessors with Great Britain, Northern Ireland, and Sinn Fein over the future of the North and its relationship with Britain and Ireland. Soon after Ahern's triumph in the Dail, the IRA announced that it would begin a new ceasefire, eschewing the use of violence to achieve the aim of reunifying all Ireland. In response to this, Ahern made a conciliatory move, approving the early release of several IRA prisoners. He also met with British Prime Minister Tony Blair to discuss the peace process and outline their next steps. The result of that meeting was a peace agreement (Good Friday Agreement) with the United Kingdom (UK) in which Ireland pledged to amend Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution, which lay claim to the territory in the North. In return, the United Kingdom promised to amend the Government of Ireland Act. The constitutional amendments were accepted by 94.4% of the Irish electorate in a referendum on 22 May 1998. The agreement provided for a 108-member Northern Ireland elected assembly to be overseen by a 12-minister executive committee in which Unionists and Nationalists will share responsibility for governing. The agreement called for cross-border cooperation with the Republic of Ireland in guaranteeing the rights of all.

Since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, however, the peace process has stalled. Lack of confidence led to a cautious implementation of some provisions of the agreements. In 1998, Ahern established the All-Party Committee on the Constitution to consider ways in which the citizens of Northern Ireland would play a more active role in national politics. The committee's report was presented in 2002. Ahern has stated a commitment to implementing the suggestions of the committee, which include the establishment of a North/South Joint Parliamentary Forum to bring together members of Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly and an effort to seek ways to include Northern Ireland representatives to speak in discussions concerning European Union (EU) matters.

A major stumbling block in the peace process has been the fashion in which the IRA would disarm itself. The agreement required that the IRA and outlawed Protestant groups destroy their weaponry stockpiles by mid-2000. Hard-line voices in the Ulster Unionists, always suspicious of the IRA, refused to enter into any power-sharing arrangements with Sinn Fein until the military branch has surrendered all its weapons. Blair and Ahern kept the peace process alive, and the IRA announced in May 2000 that it would allow foreign observers to inspect the contents of arms dumps to ensure that no weapons had been removed. In turn, the Ulster Unionists, under considerable outside pressures, agreed to go back into government with the IRA and revived the joint government with the Catholic minority on 29 May 2000. By 2003, however, the IRA had not completed its disarmament. Splinter groups opposed to the peace process continued to commit terrorist attacks in Northern Ireland and in mainland Britain.

On 4 October 2002, Sinn Fein's offices at the Northern Ireland Assembly or Stormont were raided as part of a major police investigation into intelligence gathering by republicans. Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble stated it would be impossible to remain in a power-sharing government with Republicans following the allegations of the spy ring. On 14 October, Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary, John Reid, announced the suspension of devolution and the return of direct rule by London. In March 2003, Ahern and Tony Blair hosted talks with all parties involved in the Good Friday Agreement, and Blair announced elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly would be rescheduled for 29 May. However, on 1 May, Blair announced elections would be postponed once again, blaming the IRA for failing to clearly state it would end its war against British rule. "Ultimately, I believe that yet another postponement causes more problems for the process than it solves," said Ahern.

In addition to the problems with Northern Ireland, Ahern has devoted a great deal of attention to strengthening Ireland's ties to the rest of Europe and to shed Ireland's traditional isolationism from Europe on defense matters. Ahern led Ireland in joining North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)'s Partnership of Peace initiative in 1999. The government also expressed support for the NATO campaign against Serbia although Ireland remained officially neutral.

Ahern and Ireland have played an increasingly active role as a member state in the EU, including adoption of the euro as official national currency in 2002. Ireland will hold presidency in the EU in 2004.

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