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Last Updated: Tuesday, 8 May 2007, 08:51 GMT 09:51 UK
Bertie visits a sign of changed times
By Shane Harrison
BBC Northern Ireland Dublin correspondent

Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern on Stormont steps in 1999
Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern have enjoyed a good working relationship
The Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, is no stranger to Stormont and its rolling grounds in east Belfast.

In 1997 shortly after burying his mother, he left Dublin by helicopter for Castle Buildings in Stormont to continue negotiating the Good Friday Agreement.

And while the DUP has insisted on some changes to the Agreement in the intervening years, it remains the basis for devolution in Northern Ireland.

Perhaps it's because people know that he invested so much in the peace process at a difficult time for him personally that Bertie Ahern always gets a good reception on his visits to Northern Ireland.

The same can't be said about some of his predecessors as Irish Republic prime minister.

In 1965, DUP leader Ian Paisley protested as Sean Lemass made his way by car up the long avenue in Stormont for a meeting with the Northern Ireland prime minister, Captain Terence O'Neill.

Former Taoiseach Eamon de Valera
Ireland is far removed from what Eamon de Valera envisaged
And in 1990 Charles Haughey, while addressing the Institute of Directors on economic matters, had to listen to noisy heckles outside the Europa Hotel from unionists protesting against the Anglo-Irish Agreement and Dublin having a say in Northern Ireland's internal affairs.

How times have changed!

Bertie Ahern, who is in the middle of an election campaign, knows that his presence in Stormont, his meeting with Ian Paisley on the banks of the Boyne on 11 May and his address to both houses of parliament at Westminster four days later, will do him no harm with the voters.

The three occasions will remind his electorate that he played a key role in bringing peace, devolution and normality to Northern Ireland.

But Bertie Ahern's Fianna Fail party didn't always have such a cosy relationship with unionists.

In the past, many in Northern Ireland believed the Republic wanted to gobble them up into a united Ireland, but few now hold such views
When Eamon de Valera, another of Bertie Ahern's predecessors, founded Fianna Fail in 1926 he had two aims: Irish unity and restoring the Irish language.

Neither goal has been achieved, although the party continues to pay lip-service to the desirability of both.

The violence of the Troubles forced Fianna Fail to confront its rhetorical nationalism and to accept the principle that Northern Ireland would remain part of the United Kingdom as long as a majority there consented to such an arrangement.

Bertie Ahern and Albert Reynolds, as former Fianna Fail prime ministers, were both keen to reassure unionists that their party accepted the consent principle.

This helped the party transform its relationship with the majority community in Northern Ireland and develop relationships on the island.

Ian Paisley and Bertie Ahern shake hands
Even Ian Paisley, the scourge of many an Irish leader, speaks highly of him
In the past, many in Northern Ireland believed the Republic wanted to gobble them up into a united Ireland, but few now hold such views.

Indeed, the south is seen less as a threatening animal and more as a golden cow to be milked.

The Irish government, with its booming Celtic Tiger economy, is helping the British government to fund the Northern Ireland infrastructure deficit.

Bertie Ahern, who is famed for his negotiating skills, has played a key role in all these changes - something that even his political opponents acknowledge.

Even Ian Paisley, the scourge of many an Irish leader, speaks highly of him.

So, Bertie Ahern will not to have to duck snowballs or any other missiles as he makes his way to Stormont.

And not just because the weather is too warm for snow: it's also because many people in Northern Ireland politics have grown to respect the pint-drinking, sports-mad, man of the people.

The election result in the Republic's 24 May poll will show whether voters in the south still think as fondly of him as many north of the border do.

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