Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is understandably cock-a-hoop in the run-up to Christmas. There is widespread recognition that it was his and Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney’s steely steering of Irish diplomatic efforts that resulted in the masterful sleight of hand which was the EU-UK agreement earlier this month allowing the Brexit talks to move to the second stage. Sleight of hand because the essential problem of the post-Brexit Irish border has still to be tackled. The conundrum remains: Will EU-UK “full regulatory alignment” mean a soft border on the island of Ireland (in which case the economic border will be the Irish Sea and the DUP will be up in arms) or between the whole of the UK and Europe (in which case the hard-line Tory Brexiteers will cry treason)? The 8 December deal has bought Theresa May and those in favour of a soft Brexit some time to resolve this and that is an achievement in itself.
So morale in Dublin is high. The opposition parties and the media lined up behind the government in one of those ‘wrap the green flag round me/aren’t we Irish great’ moments which are all too rare in politics. Like most Irish people, I felt a surge of pride to see our government punching so far above its weight for the good of the country and the good of Europe.
However maybe somebody should puncture the self-congratulatory mood a little by pointing out that there is a downside to this diplomatic coup. Relations between the Irish government and the DUP, which took long and agonising years to build in the early 2000s, have broken down. Despite their previously friendly relationship – helped by Varadkar’s regular trips to Enniskillen and Belfast to attend First World War remembrance events – Arlene Foster is not taking his phone calls. Simon Coveney – the clever, sensible Cork man who was the first Southern politician ever to address a DUP conference meeting – is now anathema to that party’s leaders.
Last week I heard a former senior DUP politician expressing his disappointment and frustration at the breakdown in relations between his party and the Irish government. He said he feared the institutions set up so painstakingly by the Good Friday and St Andrews Agreements were now “crumbling”.
He was pessimistic about the chances of getting devolution restored in the North. “The parties would have to want it,” he said, noting that it was now all too easy for the DUP to focus on propping up the Conservative government in Westminster and Sinn Fein to concentrate on increasing its support in the Republic with an election likely in the near future. He regretted that the North South Ministerial Council, as the best place for Northern and Southern Ministers to meet and talk, was not functioning. He worried that part of the problem was that in the past couple of years new, younger leaders – with no experience of the long, excruciatingly difficult years of negotiating peace in Northern Ireland – had taken over in Belfast, Dublin and London. I met a Fine Gael politician recently who I was told was the Taoiseach’s advisor on the North – I was not impressed.
Varadkar’s relationship with Theresa May is now frosty. The last time they met face to face to discuss Brexit, in Gothenburg in Sweden in mid-November, the Financial Times quoted one senior official saying the mood was “the opposite of personal chemistry”. Yet for nearly a quarter of a century a relationship of mutual trust and understanding between successive leaders of Britain and Ireland has been the crucial pre-requisite for progress in the Northern peace process. That appears to have gone for the moment.
For his part Simon Coveney dropped one particularly awful clanger. How did such a normally skilled and highly intelligent politician make the huge unforced error of telling an Oireachtas committee last month that he would “like to see a united Ireland in my lifetime. If possible, within my political lifetime”? If there was one thing guaranteed to terrify every unionist, it was for the Irish deputy prime minister to be announcing in the middle of highly sensitive negotiations about the border that he wanted to see Irish unity within 20-25 years. Coveney is 45, so that’s exactly the kind of period he was talking about.
You would never have seen such a blunder in Bertie Ahern or Brian Cowen’s time. Contrast Coveney’s blunt expectation about the onward march of nationalism with Cowen’s carefully nuanced words in 2010: “The genius of these agreements [Good Friday and St Andrews] is that we are all on a common journey together where we have not decided on the destination. The problem with our ideologies in the past was that we had this idea about where we were going, but we had no idea how anyone was going to come with us on the journey. We have now all decided: let’s go on a journey and forget about the destination – the destination isn’t really important in that respect. We can all work for what it is we would like ideally to see, but this is not something that can be forced or imposed upon people on either side of the island. This is about people of different traditions who live on this island who have common interests.”
Here’s Cowen again in the same interview: “The ultimate destination of any political project is a matter of time working itself out. Therefore the destination – where we end up eventually – is not the thing to be talking about. That will be for other people to decide in another time maybe. We have to make the here and now a better place, and we have to do it on the basis that we have devised a political culture that is less suspicious and less fearful than ever before, that is more open to recognise the common interests that we have whilst respecting that we are in separate jurisdictions. We should be concerned about what it is we can do together.”¹
Maybe the cautious, even-handed way forward espoused by every Taoiseach since Jack Lynch is the wrong way. Maybe the underlying assumption of the Good Friday and St Andrews Agreements – that the Northern parties, with the support of the two governments, could jointly run Northern Ireland in the short-term and leave longer-term solutions to the next generation – has broken down. Maybe unionism is so paralysed by the fear and loathing that has characterised its anti-Irish politics for 130 years that some new and high risk policy in Dublin is needed to break the deadlock. Maybe because demographic factors (Catholics soon to become a majority in the North) and external factors (Brexit) are moving us towards British withdrawal and Irish unity anyway, people in government in Dublin need to start thinking deeply about what that unity will look like in order to make it as acceptable as possible to the difficult, unchanging, fearful people who make up the unionist community. Maybe a Fine Gael-led government needs to start sending the clear message that its version of unity, with all sorts of federalist or confederalist safeguards built into it, will look very different to the triumphant, utterly unrepentant, ‘tooth and claw’ Sinn Fein version. Without some really deep thinking in Dublin about the shape of Ireland in a generation or so, I fear we are going to be facing into a bloody maelstrom somewhere down the road. So far I haven’t seen the slightest evidence of that deep new thinking.
¹ ‘Making the here and now a better place’, The Journal of Cross Border Studies in Ireland, spring 2010