RICHARD N. HAASS: Good afternoon. Let me welcome everybody to the Council on Foreign Relations. My name is Richard O'Haass -- (laughter) -- and today's event is on the record, and it's being webcast. And it features the Taoiseach -- for those of you who are not students of Ireland, the prime minister, Bertie Ahern. And today's meeting constitutes this year's Russell C. Leffingwell Lecture, named for one of my predecessors, and is made possible by the generosity of Tom Pulling and the entire Pulling family, which we thank you, sir.
Let me -- just one piece of housekeeping: if people would turn off their nonessential electronic devices. And that includes cell phones, BlackBerrys, and the rest. We'll exempt pacemakers. But if they would turn off their nonessential devices, it would be appreciated.
This event every year features a distinguished foreign official. In recent years we've been fortunate enough to host the prime ministers of Turkey, India, and Israel, the president of Georgia, the secretary-general of NATO, and Lee Kuan Yew. We are fortunate though to have Bertie Ahern with us today.
Bertie was born in that seminal and central and pivotal year of 1951, and is about to mark a decade this spring as the prime minister of Ireland. And I would suggest that is remarkable not simply for the fact that he has survived a year -- or 10 years rather -- in that position, but also for all that he's accomplished during that time. Ireland's economy is the envy of Europe. Over that decade it's averaged something like 6 percent growth. Unemployment is down by some two-thirds. The GDP is more than twice the size of what it is. It's an extraordinary -- extraordinary record by really any yardstick, or I guess meter stick they would say.
On Northern Ireland, we've reached the point where peace on a day-to-day basis is a reality, and where it is a matter of when and not if you stand up the local political institutions of the North. I've come to believe over the years that peace processes, there or elsewhere, require a balance and a mix. On one hand a firmness -- people have to understand that force cannot and will not succeed; but also there's got to be -- with that firmness there has to be a sense of fairness; that there's a political path that can work out where people can achieve legitimate and reasonable aspirations. In Northern Ireland I believe we are on the verge of succeeding, simply because we've done that, exactly that. And the gentleman sitting here next to me, along I think with Tony Blair, I think these two gentlemen deserve the lion's share of the credit.
Taoiseach is also a good friend of the United States, and he is willing to -- has been willing to stand with us, and is willing to stand with the United States, even when it's been anything but politically expedient to do so. Let me speak personally here for a moment. In my capacity as the U.S. envoy to the Northern Ireland peace process, I made more than a dozen trips to Dublin, as well as Belfast and London, during those years. And I'd also see the prime minister when he came to Washington -- and obviously he's going to be there this week. But no meeting is as memorable as our first, and that was on September 11th, 2001. And I was meeting with the prime minister -- indeed I saw the second plane fly into the Twin Towers on the television set in your office. And what we had was probably also then the strangest meeting I've had in my diplomatic life -- with this question of whether we continue doing the business at hand -- which, shall we say, was difficult to was concentrate -- talked about, obviously, what was going on in the world. And then we had to go out and meet the press. And obviously for once their questions were less about Northern Ireland and much more about the world situation. And it was one of those moments where we had a totally unrehearsed, unscripted press conference. And what to me was so reassuring and so impressive was how there wasn't an inch or a millimeter, whatever your measure is, of daylight between us, and we were able just naturally just to stand there and essentially say the same things. And it was just one of those moments that brought home to me how close these two countries were, the United States and Ireland, and also what a special individual is the individual sitting here on my right.
So, with that, let me just say it's a long way of saying that I am personally, but also as president of the council, thrilled to welcome you here. I believe it's the first time -- I could be wrong -- but I believe it's the first time we've ever been fortunate enough at the council to have the Taoiseach in our midst. So, on behalf of all of us, sir, thank you for what you've done, welcome. And, with that, it's my job to grill you. (Laughter.)
What I'd like to start out with, prime minister, is the question of Northern Ireland. Here we are now it is the middle of March. The calendar is before us. The 26th is obviously a day that everybody is focused on. I think what will probably be most interesting to the people gathered in this room, the people listening to this on webcast and beyond, is your sense of where things stand at this moment. How are we to understand exactly the state of play?
PRIME MINISTER BERTIE AHERN: Well, Richard, I'm delighted to be here, and honored to be here, and I want to thank you for your invitation. It's good to be with you again and to be sharing this occasion with you.
But I think Northern Ireland last week, with elections and the election progress is over -- and the elections were just about one item. It was about setting back up the political institutions in Northern Ireland: setting up the executive branch, setting up the assembly. And for once I think we were wise when we negotiated the Saint Andrew's agreement on the particular issues that we have to deal with, which was power sharing and dealing with police. The issue of policing has now been dealt with back in January. Everybody signed up to policing in Northern Ireland. There's no difficulties about that issue. Now it's just down to power sharing.
And when we were concluding the agreement, having learned I suppose a lot of lessons along the way, because there's been so much delay and so much protracted negotiations over a long number of years in Northern Ireland, we set up the legislation very clearly, and the legislation was passed -- and it's British legislation, but we very much support it because we were involved in the process. And that was on the 26th of March the institutions are set up and they form under the d'Hont system power-sharing arrangement, all the parties, based on the results of last week's elections -- would have participation in the new executive and it would mean that Dr. Paisley will take over as first minister for Northern Ireland, and Martin McGuinness will take over as deputy first minister. Then it's shared out on rotations. The DUP party, Democratic Unionist Party, has four seats, and Sinn Fein will have three seats, Unionists have two, SDLP have one.
But what we did in the legislation, we said it has to be done on the 26th, and if it doesn't happen on the 26th the whole lot collapses and the election is null and void and we start again.
So my assessment that people, that the talking is finished -- I think there are some minor that have to be arranged. But I think we will have set up the executive on the 26th. There's not provision for delay, postponement.
And, today, Tony Blair is meeting with Dr. Paisley and he is meeting with Gerry Adams -- separately, obviously, because they've never met each other yet, which is a bit difficult always when they're going to share power together. But anyway -- (laughter) --
HAASS: We'll get to that --
AHERN: We got over that eventually. But I think the 26th it will happen. The people in Northern Ireland -- for the first time ever in Northern Ireland the election was about domestic issues, and it was about water rates, it was about health, it was about education, it was about infrastructure. It wasn't on a constitutional question of Northern Ireland, which is settled. The people want -- and I think exit polls show that over 80 percent of people wanted a devolution of power from Westminster, from London, to Belfast. And I think the people just want to see progress. So we're at the final stage after 10 years of this. I think we're within 10 days of the final stage.
Now, as you know, Richard, to say, you know, nothing could ever happen is a dangerous thing to say about any process. But I do think we're at a stage where people are being positive, constructive. Dr. Paisley has said very positive things yesterday, and I think people are up for this, and I think we'll be able to move on.
HAASS: I'm curious, in your wildest dreams 10 years ago, did you think the day would ever come when we would be on the cusp of Ian Paisley sitting down and sharing power with Martin McGuinness in a freely elected democratic government in Northern Ireland?
AHERN: No. (Laughter.) I don't think anybody else did. I don't think anybody else did either. But, you know, neither did I ever think along the way that we would be able to deal with the issue of demilitarization by the British army in Northern Ireland, which (is dealt with ?) with a progress report out on Monday. And neither did I think we'd be able to see the provisional IRA decommissioned under an independent international body, which you're very familiar with, Richard, its arms; to see policing reformed in Northern Ireland from the old RUC to the new PSNI, and to see everybody signed up to policing. Or did I think we'd ever get to a day where, you know, nowhere in the world news do we hear anything other than positive things about Northern Ireland. I mean, Northern Ireland was on the world news for 25 years because there was another bomb, another bullet -- somebody shot someone -- innocent person shot at random. And that went on from 1968 and until 1997. And we had a cease-fire 1994. That broke down. And so it was a long period. And now in Northern Ireland there is no violence, no political violence, no paramilitary violence. Some dissident groups, small dissident groups, still having their own battles between each other, unfortunately, but very small. I think in the last year it's been probably three or four people killed as against the hundreds every year that we would have had.
HAASS: This obviously raises the question, to what do we attribute this? What explains the fact that Northern Ireland, or that used to be when the word was mentioned, as you suggest, was associated with bombing, violence, terror -- where actually it could be, when we look back on it all, could come to symbolize rather the potential for reconciliation. A divided society essentially could be made normal or heal. What is it that made the difference there? If you were going to write your instant history, what could we learn?
AHERN: Well, I think there's a lot of messages that have to be learned. The first one I think is patience. And if there was ever to be a quick fix for Northern Ireland, it wouldn't have worked. It's been long -- you know, governments in both Ireland and the U.K. for two generations have fought to try to end this problems. I think there's been a great amount of effort by a lot of political parties in the north, a lot of political leaders. But in reality for a long time the key people not only disliked each other; they had no respect for each other, they didn't care for each other; the communities were totally divided. The communities were the same color, lived in the same types of houses. But they were a different religion; sectarianism divides them. And any little issues -- you know, the marching season every year. And Northern Ireland is a small place, but they have 3,000 marches every summer and every one of those marches was potentially a spark that could put the whole province into uproar and mayhem.
What's changed I think is slowly trying to understand the root causes, trying to find out where there was ground that united people rather than divided people; trying to show respect to them all, trying to be even- and fair-handed; trying to convince people that the gun and the bomb was not the way to go, but doing that in a way that just didn't turn around and say, "We condemn you. We won't deal with you." You have to try and fight the case to make them understand why that wasn't a way to go. That's difficult to do, and that's where the patience come in.
And now I think we're within a very short period of time of getting people who were totally polarized, that were from the opposite sides of the divide and religion -- people who were involved in the conflicts, people who weren't involved in the conflicts -- all to sit down around the one table effectively in an executive and to deal with most of the issue of Northern Ireland. And we have to deal with the people's issues and respect each other.
I think for me to say that we all love each other and wouldn't have certain amount of distrust for each other for maybe another period ahead would be overgilding the lily, as we would say. But I think they're prepared to work with each other and understand each other. Nobody is involved in killing any more except on what would be more criminal activity, but not based on what was there. I think it's that -- it's building that respect, understanding, democratic mandate is what we've succeeded in doing. And that's been a long process that really has gone on now for 30 years.
HAASS: Is it naive to think the day will come when Northern Ireland's politics and parties will not be organized along religious lines?
AHERN: I think if we can resolve this now, as we're very close to resolving -- already we're seeing people across the sectarian divide dealing with each other, working with each other, communicating with each other. Dr. Paisley recently met the Catholic bishop of Armagh -- first time ever. The churches are beginning to talk to each other far more openly. They always had a sense of reason and dialogue, but far more understanding. And we're having former paramilitaries, former prisoners, former community activists, that never crossed the lines, beginning to sit down and talk about the issues that are similar to them: issues of unemployment, deprivation, social disadvantage. And these are the issues of poverty that come out of conflicts everywhere. They're the same everywhere, and of course they're the same problems. And even though these people were fighting each other, they now see that there's lots that unite them. So I believe that you will see far more communications, and you will slowly see people will cross the percentage vote and vote for others in the middle.
And, interestingly, the predictions last week that the Alliance Party -- and you remember the Alliance Party -- in seat terms maybe it's not huge, but they won seven seats -- seven or eight seats last week. And that was people were predicting they'd win two. So they obviously are winning support, winning mainstream support from different people, and that's a good thing.
HAASS: What does all this mean for relationships between North and South, between the Republic and Northern Ireland?
AHERN: Well, North and South -- and east and west. I think the relationships now between the Irish government and the British government are better than they've ever been. I mean, Tony Blair as prime minister of Britain has done more than any prime minister ever -- including Gladstone -- for Ireland. He has been a great, great friend of Ireland. He has worked hard as my partner in all of this for a decade, and he has made it possible for us to have a whole new relationship. And I think now part of the Good Friday agreement we have built in a mechanism of North-South relationships where on a range of issues -- not everything -- on a range of issues that we will cooperate together, issues that are issues that affect North and South. And in our recent national development plan, the next phase for the national development plan, from the South we've included infrastructure issues with the North, where we would be able to work together on infrastructure issues, and we'd be able to contribute our resources towards them. That didn't create any difficulty. So I think the relationship, the economic relationship, working on health issues, agricultural issues, trade issues, is something that we can do now which we never could do before. So North-South relations will be -- are already developing massively. Business people are engaged every day now in business arrangements. These are things we could never do before. And so the island of Ireland -- we talk now the island of Ireland -- we have our companies promoting trade for the island of Ireland, we have companies promoting tourism for the island of Ireland. And we can do that without damaging each other, or undermining each other, or creating conflict with each other, and this is something entirely new.
HAASS: I could go on, but I won't. What I want to do is open it up, and also make clear that people should feel to ask questions about other issues. We've got all sorts of issues about Ireland and it's economic success. We've got questions about the EU. We've got questions about transatlantic relations and bilateral relations. So all of that is on the table. What I wanted to do is give our members a shot, and others, at asking questions. What I'd ask you to do is raise your hand, wait for a microphone, identify yourself. And please keep it as succinct as possible. I don't have my glasses on but I can't see that far.
QUESTIONER: Richard, it's Wendy Luers --
HAASS: Hello, Wendy, I'm sorry.
QUESTIONER: -- from the Project on Justice in Times of Transition.
Mr. Prime Minister, the colleague of ours whom we worked with very closely around the world on bringing the experience of Northern Ireland was David Ervine, a wonderful former paramilitary member of Parliament who spread the word about how Northern Ireland has been able to bring in former combatants and former prisoners. And he did this with Tom Roberts, who is the head of a group called EPIC, which is to reintegrate former prisoners. How does your government, and how do you see the reintegration of former combatants and former prisoners in this new future? And the reason I said he "was" is that David dropped dead at 53 of a heart attack, and 10,000 people went to his funeral, and Gerry Adams hugged Jeanette Ervine, his widow, which is another symbol of what's happened in your country, or in Northern Ireland.
AHERN: Well, David was a wonderful person, and a person that we dealt with all of the time, and we were delighted last week that his colleague Dawn Purvis was elected. So I think that connection into the new assembly continues.
We have worked these last 10 years plus very hard with trying to reintegrate normality into the life of the community. And that has meant holding the hand of friendship and partnership out to people who did terrible things on all sides during the troubles. I remember on one day during the Good Friday agreement I was in a room between various parties, but we were trying to make progress backstage on the release of prisoners -- and I won't mention the individuals' names, as some of them would be known, others would not be known -- but there was about nine of us then. One of the loyalist paramilitaries, he said -- very chilling -- to me, "You're the odd one out in this room. Do you know why?" And I looked around the room, and I knew all the others had been involved in paramilitary activity. He said, "Well, as far as we know, you're the only one that hasn't murdered several people. The rest of us had." And you know, it fairly well focused my mind. (Laughter.) But it also focused my mind on if we were to change things, then you have to change the people who did all of these things, and that meant leaving out the prisoners, as we did -- which was certainly something that wasn't very popular, but we did that, and left them out on license. We had put in a lot of effort to bring prisoners together, to help them to retrain and get them back into employment, to try to help their communities. And we continue to this day.
But the good news, I think, in the nine years since we made those decisions on leaving out the prisoners, the amount of people who have recommitted or who have gone back into bad old ways has been very, very small. There has been some -- there has been some, but very, very small. Most of them have reestablished their life. Most of them have got on with things. Obviously some have drifted into criminality, but no worse than people drifting into criminality.
And I think what Dave Ervine and others who were involved in the conflict, they realized for their families and for their children that they didn't want this to continue for the next generation. And a lot of the people who had been involved in conflict -- and let's be honest about it, it was almost 4,000 people killed in the troubles in the North, or tens of thousands of people injured. If you were to put that into an American city it would be 50(,000) or 60,000 people. So they were big numbers proportionately.
But the prisoners, bringing the prisoners on site, bringing them back into it, understanding their problems and giving them an opportunity, has been a huge part of stopping the violence. And it wasn't the people who were never involved in violence were killing anybody. It's the people -- so you have to. And of course if you lecture them, and I say this about many -- process around the world -- you know, talking last week at lunch with our Spanish colleague, if you just close yourself off and deal with the people who cause the problems, you'll never stop the problems. You have to -- you have to try and deal with the people who are causing the difficulty, the people who are fighting, and try and debate them.
And the wonderful thing about David Ervine was he was an intellectually very smart person, and he had the ability to be able to deal with any audience, but also be able to deal with hardline people who believed that killing was the only thing they knew. And but he was one of many. And I think we have convinced those people that peace and cooperation and partnership is a better way, and they are all now in these communities, and they're now just talking about jobs and they're talking about political activity. They're all out canvassing for the last three or four weeks to win the democratic mandate. And that's been the success of that. But it all came around by convincing them that we did like them and we did want to work with them, and I think you have to prove it. It's no good saying it; you have to prove it.
HAASS: Do you think there's any -- there are going to be serious calls for some version of a truth and reconciliation type process? And, if so, would it be counterproductive or productive?
AHERN: Well -- and I must say the South African model was something that 10 years ago I was very supportive of. You might still need something to end it. The biggest difficulty in Northern Ireland, just so many tragedies, so many murders, and that when they happened there was so much trauma that nobody really ever investigated them, because there was a next one happening the following day. And now a lot of these people want to know what happened: Why was their loved one killed? Who killed them? Was it investigated? So you've got an enormous amount of people wanting to go back in. There is a historical inquiry commission looking back at some of these. But I'm sure some of you here are very familiar with the Geraldine Finucane case, you know, your husband had been a solicitor for Republicans, was murdered; or the recent case, the McCord case, a loyalist man who has been very brave trying to get justice into his son's death; or the Dublin Monaghan bombing or the Miami Showband.
The difficulty is you have to try and end them somewhere, Richard. If you just go on and on and on and try to get the truth about the past, it keeps up. And I've sat down with all of these groups, and sometimes they come in to me and they say, you know, our relatives were killed or some terrible tragedy 25 years ago. And then you realize an hour or two on that they think and feel that this happened yesterday. You relive it just as if it did happen yesterday. And I think we have to find some mechanism, whether it's truth and reconciliation, which is really based on people coming in and saying, "I did that." I don't think that will work, but if we could get somewhere where people would make statements that would try to close it up. Otherwise it'd never come to an end, and that just will not be helpful in moving things on. We never want people to forget; but trying to always investigate the past and keep the past will not help you to move on.
HAASS: Mr. Sorensen.
QUESTIONER: It's a great pleasure to greet you here, Taoiseach. I'm Ted Sorsensen with Paul Weiss, and I was involved with Ireland when you were 12. (Laughter.) And I so welcome your message, and hope you will bring it not only to the United States but to all parts of the world, especially the Middle East.
But I wanted to ask you about one obstacle to closer relations, and certainly to union when I was paying closer attention to Ireland a long time ago. And that is that in those days the Republic did not adhere to the traditional constitutional rule in this country until a few years ago of separation of church and state. And the church governed many of the laws and social practices in the Republic to an extent that northerners simply did not want to submit themselves to the rule of the church. Is that still a major factor?
AHERN: Well, thankfully, it's not a factor at all now, I think. The church has its role. But we are a republic. We're governed by a constitution, and that constitution respects the rights of all religions and of none. And it was an attack on us in the early years that we were Rome-ruled and that we were all totally papist and that we were totally governed by everything that the pope that day said. And of course Dr. Paisley is known not to have much time for the pope. (Laughter.)
But times move on. Times move on. I don't think it's an issue. In those days we had the arguments, as you recall about contraception, about mixed marriages, about individuals going to Trinity College, a Catholic going to Trinity College. And they were impediments. To be frank, they were impediments along the way. But they have moved on. And I think in fairness to all the churches, in the bad years of the Troubles the churches worked very hard to try to keep a sense of corpus on their own identity. And the churches, in a good ecumenical way, I think, worked very hard to try to move themselves on and to show the hand of friendships at the Protestant archbishop, at the cardinals -- over the years worked very closely to try to calm things down. So -- but it is no longer a difficulty. In fact, the only thing is, having grown up in all of that period, it is amazing on some of the issues now for society has moved on to a more liberal society, away from conservatism, it is probably Dr. Paisley and the church leaders, and the Catholic Church leaders would probably agree on those things. The rest of society perhaps wouldn't. (Laughter.)
HAASS: A new political alignment. I hear it.
QUESTIONER: Stephen Graubard. Mr. Prime Minister, I was delighted by your great accolade of Tony Blair for what he has done for Ireland. My question is: Why has he been so successful there, according to your view, and in such a -- shall we say -- great failure in respect to the European Union, and may I also say not as much the hero of this Republic today as he was on September 11th?
AHERN: Well, I -- from our perspective, Tony Blair -- you will not get me to say anything negative about Tony Blair. Perhaps there's a section of the British people that don't fully see all of his merits, but from where I sit I think he's a wonderful person. And he's done a great job in Northern Ireland. He's given us enormous time and huge commitment, and I cooperate with him on European matters as well, and increasingly my ally in fighting various issues -- though not always -- we've had a few issues that would divide us. We're arguing a bit at the moment about the U.S.-European Open Skies agreement and issues like that. But a lot on the European constitution I wouldn't necessarily share the views.
But I have to say the reason he perhaps is not as great on those issues, if I could put it that way, is that the British people don't realize how brilliant it is to be a European and that they should embrace the constitution. And they're skeptical about so many things European, and in my view they're totally wrong.
HAASS: Since you raise the question of Europe and the constitution, after the two constitutional defeats, what is your sense of whether things get back on track and if so how? How does one do that?
AHERN: Well, under the German presidency at the moment, we're coming to the end of this period of reflection -- and obviously the French election is also holding it up, because they're one of the two -- France and Netherlands -- that voted no. But, you know, there's 450 million people in the European Union; 18, 19 countries have voted for the constitution; there's another three or four like ourselves -- as soon as the position is clear are prepared to recommend acceptance. And that's a possibility in the by -- it's not a -- most of the mainstream parties in most of the other countries are in favor. There is a difficulty also in the U.K. I mean, they don't really agree with the constitution. So there's a difficulty around two or three countries, and in June we have to come to a decision: What are we going to do with the constitution? We are working, the European Union at the moment, that was formulated around maybe nine or 10 countries. There's 27 and there will be soon probably 30. So we have to a constitution or a set of rules or a set of values, whatever you call it -- get hung up in the constitution name, but we agreed originally it would be called a constitution -- to move it forward, to have rules that we can move Europe forward. And I think if it's not this constitution exactly as it is, which I support, or a variation of it -- and we need to have this, and we need to have it fairly quickly.
So, to answer your question, I think 2008 and the other side of the French election we'll come back to this again, probably a slimmed-down version of the constitution, but hopefully with not too much change in the substance of what we agreed to two years ago, three years ago.
QUESTIONER: I'm Cormac O'Malley, son of Ernie O'Malley, who was involved in the four courts some years ago. And I must say this is a day when one can say that the four courts were an incident in Irish history where the Irish free state government attacked those who were not accepting of the treaty at the time.
As an American now we look toward to what are the factors of the amazing understanding that you've come to with all of the parties involved in the Northern Irish issue. And one of the factors I see is a very unique relationship with yourself and Tony Blair, which has gone over 10 years. When we try to look at what the similar circumstances would be for any of the other conflicts which we deal with around the world, what are some of the issues that you would see that we might look to? Because clearly getting two people, leaders like yourselves with a buoyant economy and various other things, are almost unique. But we'd also like to see what the elements are that you've had to compete with in accomplishing the peace that you have settled.
HAASS: Want to hire yourselves out? (Laughter.)
AHERN: Well, I suppose I'll always preface in reply to that question -- and needless to say it's one I've answered many times -- by saying I don't think any two conflicts are the same. But there are lessons that you can learn, and I do think it requires engagement with all of the parties, including the resurgents, wherever they are or whatever location you're in. I think it also means you have to engage with those who are involved, and in some form of another, whether it's through intermediaries, whether it's through any kind of third parties, with those who are driving the conflicts. You can't solve a conflict, in my view, anywhere in the world, by ignoring the people who are caught in the conflict. And without mentioning any in our history, but we continually tried to do that, and it's just an impossibility in my view.
You have to get yourself into the lion's den, you have to get your hands burned. It is not possible to sit on the fence. And you have to engage. And then it's down to that, that what I said earlier on about patience. I mean, if you look at the Middle East today -- and I've had a lot of dealings over the years in one form or another and, you know, with Middle East issues and many conferences about the Middle East -- but look how many times we were almost there. Look at how many times the conflict was already moved. I mean, it's 27 years ago since a colleague of mine was the first European senior politician to say, you know, the two-state solution is the only way we'll resolve this. And here we are 27 years later looking for a new initiative to try and do the same thing. And it's the same in many other areas as well.
I mean, I was with the new secretary-general today in the U.N., and he was giving me the updated position on Darfur. And again it's trying to get engagement. But there are similarities. He is sending the president of Nigeria in to try to talk to the president. So I think a lot of it -- it's about engagement. It's trying to get third parties or trying to get intermediaries. You might not always succeed. But there's one thing -- you will never succeed at sitting back. We used to do it, quite frankly -- and I say this criticism against ourselves. We used to come over here for years on St. Patrick's Day, and we'd issue a stronger condemnation about the violence in Northern Ireland, and then waited until the next St. Patrick's Day to issue an even stronger condemnation of it. But that will never solve it. I'd be over here this year, if you follow that policy, making an even stronger condemnation. And all we did every year was spend most of the year contacting the professors of English to see how you could make a strong condemnation stronger. (Laughter.) But that won't stop the conflict.
And I really believe -- if you asked me what have I learned about this conflict and meeting others and talking with others, it is just the level of engagement. And sometimes politicians don't want to get burned. If you go in sometimes and it doesn't work out, it's a negative on you. But if you don't go in - my view if you don't go in, then what you are going to achieve in your life? And you have only one life, and as far as I'm concerned trying is far better than procrastination. If sometimes you get it in your face, well, you know, so be it.
HAASS: We've got time for -- yes, ma'am. All the way in the back I see a hand up. Yes.
QUESTIONER: Hello. Can you talk to us --
HAASS: Identify yourself, please.
QUESTIONER: Oh. My name is Mary Catherine (sp). I'm working on a documentary about the undocumented Irish immigrants in the United States. I was wondering if you could offer your thoughts on them and that movement here.
AHERN: Well, it's a very big issue for the Irish government. And I know the complexities, and obviously I'll be on the Hill all day tomorrow talking to a lot of people. And I have the opportunity of talking to the president on Friday about this issue.
If I can just say this and if I can just take it from an Irish perspective, I'm aware of the complexities. But we have a lot of people that came to the United States in the last, you know, 20 or 30 years, and for one reason or another they're here illegally. They are working as normally as they can. They're married and they're rearing their children. In lots of cases, their children are reared -- but they are illegal.
And with all of the security issues arising from 9/11, your security has got very tight on them. They can't get home now. They can't go back to funerals. They can't go back to weddings. They can't go back to family occasions. In many cases, they can't renew their driving license. They've difficulties with insurances.
I know they're illegal, but we have to try -- we're not looking for an immigration bill, from an Irish perspective, that is -- has belt and braces. If we could just deal with the issues of travel and work, if we could deal with those two issues for our people who have been here a long time, if they knew with certainty they could travel, and if they could deal with their work, it would make it hugely helpful for us.
We have a lot of young people that maybe that issue isn't as difficult or as complex. But my heart genuinely goes out to those who are here. This is their home. They never want to go back to Ireland, but they do want to travel back. And to get from that black economy situation into a white economy situation, to deal with, for whatever reason, they were here as illegals, and to make them clear, is a big issue for them.
The Irish question is probably small. We probably have somewhere in the order of 25(,000) to 30,000 people. We're not sure of the number, because obviously they're illegals. We don't know. But that's the issue we're trying to deal with.
I know -- I've listened, you know, to all the arguments on the work that Ted Kennedy is trying to do and then the McCain legislation is trying to do and the other legislation. And you know, I know the difficulties and complexities in the Senate and in the House about trying to do this issue. But we feel if it's not done by this October, that the opportunity will be gone again. And we really are doing our utmost to try and get this issue dealt with, even in a limited way, because I know if we get into the "why" complexities of the immigration issue, we'll probably never deal with it.
But it is -- if I can plead for my Irish colleagues here, men and women, it is closing in on them, and it is creating huge problems. I know some people may not be ever sympathetic to people who come in illegally, but you know, it is creating huge problems to people who are genuinely now living in America, who just want to live in America, whose children have been born here and raised here. But we really are fighting their case. And the Irish government is foursquare behind the campaign to try to assist.
HAASS: The prime minister has a meeting across town, so we've probably got time for one more question. Let me apologize if and when we don't get to anybody.
The gentleman all the way in the back.
QUESTIONER: Andrzej Dobrowolski -- Polish Daily News. Mr. Prime Minister, your country attracts a lot of immigrants from new members of the European Union, mostly Polish people. Do you have any problems with them? Are you happy with them or you would rather prefer not to have them -- so many of them? (Laughter.)
HAASS: The immigration question in the other direction.
AHERN: Well, as you know, for 150 years or thereabouts immigration was out of Ireland, and we very much appreciate it, especially the United States that were always supportive, the hands of friendship and opportunity to Irish people. So we're not hypocrites, and we very much appreciate in different economic circumstances why people would come to Ireland. And of course, for that reason we supported from day one, when the new member states in the accession the 1st of May 2004, that we would open up Ireland to those 10 new member states, and we did that.
We probably did not think on that day that three years later -- less than three years later we would have over 200,000 Poles in Ireland, but we do, and they are not creating any problems for us. Ten percent of our population are now "new Irish," as we call them. We -- the figure 10 years ago was 1.5 percent, so we've gone from 1.5 percent to 10 percent, and it's both a comparable figure. Immigration to the U.K. was a big issue for probably 50 years. Their population, the work population is 8 percent. So it's been a huge change in Ireland.
But the Polish workers are great, they're excellent. They create no problems whatsoever. In fact, in my own constituency there's a few of the Catholic churches are doing very well at the fact that -- (interrupted by laughter) -- because they're very good churchgoers, and they pay up on Sunday, so. (Laughter.) So I can't think of any negative thing, but I will give that positive.
HAASS: I promised the Taoiseach that he would be able to make his next appointment, so again, let me thank him for two things. One is for all the days, weeks, months and years he's put into the situation in Northern Ireland, and I really do believe we are on the cusp of an extraordinary historic accomplishment. And thank him as well, not equally, but as well, for spending time with us today. It's been a real pleasure.
Thank you, sir. (Applause.)
AHERN: Thank you.
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