Congratulations on your election last Saturday. We have known each other for 23 years, since you were the rookie Fianna Fail education spokesman (soon to become Minister for Education) and I was the rookie Irish Times education correspondent. I know you as somebody with pragmatic social democratic values, who believes in social justice, fairness and as much equality as a free market capitalist society will allow, with a strong sense of politics as public service.
I know you as a courageous man, who as Fianna Fail leader went against the conservatism of many – perhaps most – in your party to support same sex marriage and the Repeal the Eighth campaign for abortion reform. I know you as an extremely hard-working government minister who brought in important reforms in education (in early childhood education, skills shortages and the use of IT); overcame powerful vested interests to introduce the smoking ban as health minister; and correctly prioritised research and innovation as enterprise minister. When you were Minister for Foreign Affairs you were a strong advocate of practical North-South cooperation for mutual benefit as a crucial tool in helping to bring about reconciliation on this island, which was the core philosophy of my work at the Centre for Cross Border Studies.
I know you share my deep suspicion of Sinn Fein’s attempts to rewrite history to try to make people believe that the Provisional IRA’s murderous campaign was the inevitable extension of the 1960s movement for civil and human rights in Northern Ireland. In the Dail you have strongly criticised that party for its absolute lack of contrition for the nearly 1,800 deaths – many of them of innocent people – at the hands of its paramilitary ‘sister’ organisation. You have resisted efforts, led by people like Eamon Ó Cuív and Senator Mark Daly, to line the party up alongside Sinn Fein in a new, pan-nationalist coalition to drive towards a deeply destabilising form of Irish ‘unity’ through a narrow victory in an early Border Poll.
So I am glad to see you elected as Taoiseach of this country. You probably face a more difficult task than any leader since William T. Cosgrave led the fledgeling Irish Free State out of civil war. You face the reality of 900,000 people left unemployed in the aftermath of the corona virus crisis; a probable €30 billion budget deficit this year; many companies, big and small, facing collapse; the safety valve of emigration cut off by even deeper crises in the UK and the US; and a Sinn Fein-led opposition baying for blood at the slightest sign of cutting back on generous pandemic unemployment payments and wage subsidies, which they will inevitably and opportunistically condemn as ‘austerity’ (without putting forward any realistic alternative).
One key thing that worries me greatly is the weakness of the housing section in the Programme for Government, and the choice of the inexperienced Darragh O’Brien (totally overshadowed in opposition by Sinn Fein’s impressive Eoin Ó Broin) as housing minister. If there was a single issue which did for Fine Gael in the February election, it was its timid, unfeeling and ineffective housing policy. When out canvassing for the Green Party, this was the issue that came up endlessly on the doorsteps: the inability of young people and people of modest means to access social and affordable housing, and the inability (or unwillingness – because of its ideological reliance on the private sector) of the last government to do anything significant to deal with this.
In a recent opinion piece UCD housing expert, Professor Orla Hegarty, was extremely critical of the outgoing government’s policy of buying “half a million euro” social homes on the market, at a time when a two-bedroomed apartment could be developed by local authorities for less than €250,000. And she said there was no sign in the Programme for Government of the kind of “visionary housing programme” that “could give citizens a realistic aspiration of owning their own homes in sustainable communities.”¹
I am not surprised that one of your first actions this week is to visit Northern Ireland. You are one of the Republic’s very few senior politicians with a serious interest in and knowledge of the North. I have heard you on several occasions condemn the Fine Gael-led governments of the past nine years for their neglect of North-South cooperation, in particular. I welcome some of the innovations in the Programme for Government in this area: notably the setting up of a unit in the Department of the Taoiseach “to work towards consensus on a shared island” and to “examine the political, social, economic and cultural considerations underpinning a future in which all traditions are mutually respected.”
This is very far from a Sinn Fein-led headlong rush towards an early Border Poll. It needs to be handled with the utmost care and sensitivity, and focus in the first instance on those areas of clear mutual benefit that are least threatening to unionists (and which are in the Programme for Government): the all-island economy; North-South cooperation on infrastructure, the environment, energy and climate change; combatting crime together; working with young people; joint research projects between the universities; promoting cross-border initiatives in civil society and the arts; and so on. These are all areas which promised great things in the early years after the Good Friday Agreement, but which, since Fine Gael came into power in 2011, have often dropped way down policy agendas, and since the UK Brexit referendum in 2016 have fallen away to almost nothing.
This practical North-South agenda needs to to be completely re-energised, in the first place by an early high-level meeting between the Government and the Northern Ireland Executive through the convening of the North South Ministerial Council, which has not met for three and a half years. No better man than you to lead this initiative.
However there is something else the new ‘shared island’ unit needs to begin working on. Now that the two major constitutional parties in the Republic have come together in government, they must start seriously thinking about an alternative to Sinn Fein’s policy of driving on to Irish unity in the near future regardless of the consequences for peace and social harmony on the island. For far too long Fianna Fail and Fine Gael’s policies in this area have been watered down versions of Sinn Fein’s: a kind of vague, unworked out aspiration to see a united Ireland one day. But has anyone come up with any new ideas about how the 800-900,000 unionists who remain bitterly opposed to this outcome are to be accommodated in it? Not a bit of it – and that includes Sinn Fein.
As former Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt (a man at the most liberal end of the unionist spectrum) has put it: “What I haven’t really heard from nationalists is: ‘We want you in this new dispensation and here’s why’. Most unionists are Brits. So somebody has to explain to me why we’ve gone from ‘Brits out’ to ‘Brits in.”
Trevor Ringland, the former rugby international and another very liberal unionist who has won prizes for his work in reconcilation through sport, says that to him Sinn Fein’s message to unionists appears to be “assimilate or leave. While they talk of inclusion for those of a British-Irish identity, there is little evidence of them or the greener wing of political nationalism being able to create an Ireland that genuinely includes us. So I say ‘there is no space in Sinn Fein’s Ireland for me’. ‘Me’ is the British-Irish tradition as well as me personally. A significant group of people who murdered people such as me and still feel such actions were right, justified and necessary is a problem going forward, but one we will just have to work through. I will work with them on the basis that ‘we can disagree on the past as long as you are prepared to work together for the benefit of all the people of this island in the future’ – which is what I said to Martin McGuinness when I first met him.”
Ringland believes “there are plenty of others on the island whom I can build a constructive relationship with, and they are prepared to focus on building relationships first and foremost and leave the constitutional question to future generations.”
I suggest the new Taoiseach should start to put out feelers to open-minded unionists like Nesbitt and Ringland – and when you start looking, their numbers are not insignificant – about what they might look for in return for closer constitutional relationships on this island (and what continuing links with Britain they would demand). As the Belfast unionist columnist Alex Kane has pointed out, the English nationalist ‘exceptionalism’ which has driven the UK to leave the European Union, and which may still lead to a hugely damaging ‘crash out’ with no trade agreement at the end of this transition year, is convincing at least some unionists to re-consider their relations with their closest EU neighbour on the island.
One idea might be some kind of Irish confederation with continuing strong British aspects in the North. One of Ireland’s most eminent political scientists, Professor Brendan O’Leary of the University of Pennsylvania – while no lover of unionism – has outlined some possible confederal futures in his magisterial 2019 book, A Treatise on Northern Ireland (Volume 3): Consociation and Confederation. These pages (notably 207-214 and 290-316) should be required reading for officials in the Taoiseach’s new unit. I will return to some of O’Leary’s ideas in my next blog.
¹ ‘Programme for government wrong to put faith in private builders’, Irish Times, 24th June