Sometimes I despair of the poor understanding of the people of this Republic about what makes the Northern quarter of this island tick. It is not helped by poor reporting of what happens there.
We had another example of this earlier this month. Former Northern Ireland First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson came to the Glenties Summer School in Donegal to make an important speech. However his message was almost completely lost because all the headlines were about a question he answered from a member of the audience to the effect that unionists should prepare for the possibility of Irish unity (even though he didn’t think it would happen) and should accept the result of a Border Poll if that was its outcome.
This is what both the Southern media and his unionist critics – obsessed in their very different ways with unity – seized upon.But this is not what he came to say, as the one journalist who realised the import of his speech, RTE Northern editor Tommie Gorman (who chaired the session he addressed) has pointed out in a thoughtful online article¹.
Robinson came to Glenties to say two very important things: firstly, that if at the end of the Brexit negotiations there is a worsening of UK-Ireland relations and unionist relations with Dublin, “the spill-over consequences on relationships within Northern Ireland are clear and alarming”; and secondly, to issue a call to the Northern parties – and this must mean the DUP and Sinn Fein above all – to get back into government as soon as possible; to accept that “no one’s position is weakened if parties were to return to Stormont while outstanding issues are resolved in parallel, under a strictly timetabled schedule.”
In a carefully considered and even-handed speech, the former DUP leader examined the various relationships that had been built since the Good Friday Agreement. He praised the inter-governmental relationship between London and Dublin within the EU as “a common room where allies discussed common interests and almost always pursued common causes.” He stressed that the frequency of EU contacts between the two governments had created “a sense of friendship and conviviality” and a “comradeship of being part of the same team.”
However he forecast a post-Brexit scenario of resentment between the two nations as the Republic “takes up cudgels alongside the other EU states which are hostile to the United Kingdom’s interests.” He warned: “No matter how it is approached, at best the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland governments will struggle to maintain anything close to the warmth of their pre-Brexit affinity. At worst that relationship may become stony and staid and, in extreme circumstances, even perfunctory and fruitless.” Robinson said he already detected a view in London that “what they judge to be the rigid, if not antagonistic, negotiating posture adopted by Irish government ministers, has planted the seeds of regression in that association.”
Robinson warned sternly that “the harmonious and cordial co-existence between the two traditions on this island, upon which, I would suggest, peace and stability depends,cannot in the future be reliant or dependent on the safety net of the one-in-a-million possibility of a genial Brexit outcome that maintains British-Irish relations at pre-Brexit levels.”
He then moved on to North-South relationships. “Those who manipulate the UK’s exiting process to shift the balance – either by working towards a back-up option that separates Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK or by pressing for a hard border that cuts off North-South interaction – clearly do not understand the importance of maintaining the balance which led – pre-Brexit – to Northern Ireland having its best ever rapport with the South and internally. More than that they are playing a dangerous stratagem, one that could destabilise Northern Ireland for years to come.”
“The network of arrangements, North-South, east-west and within Northern Ireland, have developed over a number of years and involved much give and take and hard work in getting the balance right. These arrangements have allowed unionists and nationalists to participate fully within a framework of relationships – and to do so in a manner with mutually beneficial outcomes. It worked and moreover no one felt threatened by it. But it is a carefully and finely tuned instrument, and events which disturb the balance will require measures to be taken to maintain the equilibrium. Correspondingly, efforts to tip the balance one way or the other must be resisted.”
He warned that from a unionist perspective there had been “a rapid deterioration in their estimation of the Irish government. Unionists believe Dublin has been completely self-serving and unnecessarily bellicose during this process…It would be a unionist view that the Republic’s government showed little interest and took no account of how they felt about any of the proposed Brexit solutions and still less about the impact of those proposals on future relationships.”
Finally he turned to inter-community relationships in the North. He recognised that nationalists and unionists had radically different views of the consequences of Brexit: the former fearing a new hard border and greater separation from the South; the latter “any deal that results in them being prised away from Great Britain and by treaty or regulation stapled to the Irish Republic.” Both of these are “notionally possible outcomes.”
Much of the polarisation between the parties which had resulted from “Brexit hysteria” was avoidable, he believed, “but an absence of the political cohesion that a functioning Executive has provided in the past has intensified the division.” He warned that “each tradition will almost certainly echo the position of the government with which they most closely identify, and without the task of governing and the responsibilities that accompany being in government, a blame game and justification philosophy will prevail.”
He then turned to his key message: “Central to protecting the helpful and cordial set of relationships that have been built up over many years is the rebirth and smooth operation of the Northern Ireland Assembly and its Executive, along with the North-South and east-west institutions. Without each and all of those parts being in place, and working, relationships will suffer – perhaps drastically. The absence of the complete network of connections leaves us all vulnerable to a downward spiral which may lead to toxicity.”
“It remains my strong and settled opinion that the deadlock in Northern Ireland must be broken…It is intolerable that there are politicians who appear to have turned their backs on the will and needs of the community they are elected to serve.”
Robinson demanded – a call surely aimed at the two governments – “an injection of urgency to get the process moving.” “Over the past generation we have, bit by bit, created a unique construct bringing together diverse traditions and distinctive cultures…I contend that the revival of the Assembly and Executive is an imperative in a post-Brexit era. It represents our best hope of peace, stability and reconciliation.” Nobody had “come forward with a better plan for Northern Ireland than the one we operated successfully for over a decade – one that was capable of attracting the support of both sections of our community. It was worth the risks and hardships to put those arrangements in place, and it’s still worth fighting to see them return.”
I agree with Peter Robinson that the past 20 years has showed us one thing above all: when the British and Irish governments work closely together, peaceful progress and an element of togetherness are possible in the deeply divided place that is Northern Ireland. A good relationship between the Irish government and the DUP has also been part of that benevolent cocktail, a relationship that Bertie Ahern, in particular, worked tirelessly to build and foster.
In the wake of Brexit, both governments have taken their eye off that crucial ball. Dublin-London-Belfast relations are now worse than at any time since the Northern peace process started in the 1990s. As an Irish person, I hold my own government – and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney – particularly to blame. Last December I was a lone voice cautioning against the deterioration of relations between Dublin and London, and between Dublin and the DUP, after the diplomatic sleight of hand that led to what is now known as the ‘backstop’, aimed at avoiding a post-Brexit hard border.² There was far too much facile green jersey wearing and anti-British schadenfreude in Dublin as Theresa May’s hapless government floundered from crisis to crisis. And the total breakdown in relations with the largest unionist party was unforgivable from a government that is supposed to be one of the guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement.
Dublin’s unyielding insistence on the backstop and nothing short of the backstop has continued ever since, while relations with London and Belfast have worsened by the month. Is it in Ireland’s interest that the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal? Is it in Ireland’s interest that relations with the British Government and the DUP turn from frosty to toxic? Is it in Ireland’s interest that efforts to revive the power-sharing Executive seem to be seen in Dublin as something that will happen only after the Brexit problem is resolved?
Peter Robinson, that wise old unionist owl, has challenged the two governments, the DUP and Sinn Fein, to wake out of their torpor, and once again work night and day to give the miraculous accord that was the Good Friday Agreement and its institutions one more chance. It may be our last chance before crude demographic arithmetic and sectarian polarisation move us back once again to the ancient and malignant stalemate that is non-politics in the North.
ENDNOTE 1: Two pictures in the Irish Times of 6th August symbolised for me two contrasting visions of a future Ireland. On the front page were our women’s hockey team, surprise World Cup silver medallists, a harmonious collective punching brilliantly above their weight, with their joyous faces and exuberant rendition of Ireland’s Call. Using my well-honed sectarian antennae (I have spent too many years in the North!), I can identify their religious/social backgrounds as follows: one Northern Catholic (their camogie playing captain Katie Mullan); eight Southern Catholics; five Northern Protestants and four Southern Protestants. What about that for a successful united Ireland combination that’s both equal and diverse?
On page of 7 of the paper is a picture of a very different Ireland: the 37th annual National Hunger Strike Commemoration march in Castlewellan, County Down, complete with paramilitary-style marching men and women, grimly determined all, tricolours and starry ploughs aloft, and pictures of the dead IRA and INLA Maze Prison hunger strikers everywhere (with an address by Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald). Do we really want to go back to that dark place? Or do we want to go forward instead to the happy, peaceful, pluralist country personified by our wonderful women’s hockey team?
ENDNOTE 2: On Sunday 23 September I will be taking part in the second Glencree Peace Walk (10k) through the Dublin and Wicklow Mountains to raise money for the work of the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation. Glencree played a key role in the Northern peace process, bringing the warring sides together for key confidential face-to-face meetings. Now we work with people suffering from the legacy of that conflict, women in conflict areas, refugees and young Muslims. I am particularly appealing to friends in the Republic (having asked my Northern friends to support another charity walk earlier this summer) to help me with a donation, however small. Please donate via the following crowd-funding site: https://glencree-peace-walk.everydayhero.com/ie/glencree-peace-walk-2018
² December 2017 blog: Northern institutions crumbling as Leo rides high in Europe [https://2irelands2gether.com/2017/12/]