Getting ready to be governed by Sinn Fein in the Republic

Politics is a strange business. One word and one man’s name that were almost entirely unknown a few years ago now look as if they are going to change modern Irish politics and history: they are ‘Brexit’ and ‘Maurice McCabe’. The British exit from the EU is the new and deeply unsettling reality that will dominate the politics and economics of this island, north and south, for many years to come. And more immediately, the ramifications of the nauseating campaign by senior echelons of the Garda Siochana to destroy the life and career of an honest, whistle-blowing police sergeant (if this turns out to be true) will soon end the long career of the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, and bring us closer than ever before to a mould-breaking general election in the Republic.

The breaking of the mould, I believe, will be the entry for the first time of Sinn Fein into government in the Republic as a minority partner. Mary Lou McDonald, the favourite to succeed Gerry Adams as leader of the party in the South, has said it is now open to this option. And the electoral arithmetic points to a Fianna Fail-Sinn Fein coalition as the most likely outcome of an election in the near future. Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin has so far set his face against such an outcome, determined that an alliance with Sinn Fein would not see his constitutional republican party suffer the same fate as the SDLP in the North. But if Sinn Fein forecasts are right, and the next election sees Fianna Fail winning around 55 seats (compared to 44 now) and Sinn Fein around 30 (compared to 23 now), this shrewd and pragmatic politician – knowing that the numbers won’t add up to a coalition with Labour or the Independents, and that his membership won’t allow him to coalesce with Fine Gael – will almost certainly have to hold his nose and go into government with the former political wing of the Provisional IRA.

Sinn Fein now has the smartest electoral machine in the Republic. It has some of the smartest, youngest, brightest and most hardworking candidates. The disillusion with parliamentary politics that has seen the decline of left-of-centre parties throughout Europe has not affected Sinn Fein. Since the 2011 election its star has been in the ascendant, with 2014 in particular seeing it pick up three European Parliament seats and treble the number of its local councillors. It was slightly disappointed at last year’s election results, but still increased its number of Dail seats from 14 in 2011 and a mere four in 2007. There is no reason to believe that after a year of  faltering coalition between Fine Gael and Independents, and with health, housing and water supply (that toxic issue) still in crisis, Sinn Fein won’t continue to pick up votes. Ironically and unfairly the country’s strong and continuing economic recovery, which Fine Gael can take most credit for, will probably not be a determining factor, just as it wasn’t in last year’s election.

The main barrier to increasing Sinn Fein’s vote in the Republic is its leader, Gerry Adams. The old warlord is deeply distrusted by large sections of the Southern electorate, particularly in more middle-class areas. Party insiders say Mary Lou McDonald will take over sooner rather than later. And with Michelle O’Neill’s unexpected coronation in the North, it is easy to see where Sinn Fein is positioning itself: as a young, idealistic party headed by two women and largely rid of its paramilitary past, which is eager to be in government in both Irish jurisdictions. And it will certainly make it more attractive to a wider constituency: a retired senior Dublin banker told me recently that if Adams was gone he would consider voting  Sinn Fein for the first time.

In the North they will eventually have to go back into deeply uncomfortable coalition with what they hope will be a DUP weakened by the Renewable Heat Initiative scandal and other corruption allegations. The prize then for Sinn Fein is that their ministers on both sides of the border will be able to meet in the North South Ministerial Council and portray it as some form of united Irish administration in embryo, while pressuring Micheál Martin to take a more aggressive line with the British over a Border Poll and other supposed steps towards unity.

The DUP only have themselves to blame if they find that rather than dealing with Enda Kenny and Martin McGuinness – both strong believers in reaching out to unionists – they are in future facing the much tougher combination of a Fianna Fail-Sinn Fein coalition in Dublin (although Micheál Martin will wish to continue reaching out) and a harder line leadership of the untried Michelle O’Neill with Adams pulling the strings  in the North. Sinn Fein is thinking of a return to a  ‘pan-nationalist front’ along the lines of the Albert Reynolds/ John Hume/Gerry Adams tie-up in the early 1990s. And  if there is one thing the unionists are right about it is that Adams, along with the likes of Conor Murphy, Gerry Kelly and Declan Kearney, will continue to be the power behind the republican throne in Northern Ireland.

Readers of this column will know that I am no fan of Sinn Fein. But I am a believer in facing up to reality and trying to make the best of it, unlike too many unionists, who often seem like the Bourbon monarchs of old: learning nothing and forgetting nothing (or perhaps that should be forgiving nothing). As the late great historian of modern Europe Tony Judt used to say, probably misquoting John Maynard Keynes: ‘When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?’

Meanwhile hanging like a very dark and large cloud over all these political proceedings will be the likelihood of a hard Brexit. This is the real game changer for Ireland, north and south. And it is likely that it will be played out in an increasingly all-island arena. Already the main forum for discussing this existential issue is the Irish government-convened All-Island Civic Dialogue on Brexit, which has no equivalent in the North and which is attended by the Alliance Party and most significant northern business, farming and civil society bodies (this is surely the North-South Consultative Forum promised by the Good Friday and St Andrews Agreements, but never delivered, in another shape). It is striking how often these days our very un-republican Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, cites the need for the island to deal together with the common threat posed by Brexit and warns that any UK-EU treaty must include a clause allowing the North automatic entry to the EU in the eventuality of a united Ireland. “We will seek all-island solutions to our many challenges,” he said in his opening address to the second Civic Dialogue on Brexit conference in Dublin on 17th Febuary. At the same event the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Charlie Flanagan, stressed the “right of the people of Northern Ireland to be Irish and therefore to be EU citizens.” The chair of the NI Community Relations Council, Peter Osborne, warned that if “a pole with a camera on it” was erected as part of a new Irish customs border, it would inevitably become a target for dissident republicans.

This is what terrifies Sinn Fein and makes them increase the volume of their all-Ireland rhetoric. Senior republicans are genuinely worried that young northern nationalists, in particular, will accuse them of betraying a Good Friday Agreement which promised (and delivered) a very significant lowering of the border, but which is now being overruled by a Brexit vote by the people of the UK (but not the people of Northern Ireland). In these circumstances, the potential for dissidents to attract such young people is considerable, and some argue that it is already happening in places like Derry. The threat of Brexit to the peace process is not negligible.

I haven’t even mentioned the threat posed to the Union by another probable vote on Scottish independence. But whether unionists with their narrow vision like it or not, much of post-Brexit politics is likely to be played on an all-Ireland pitch.  I fear that the economic impact of a hard Brexit on a low-productivity economy like Northern Ireland’s, which will be losing  its nearest and most vital tariff-free export market across the border, will be very damaging. Meanwhile the forces arguing for Irish unity in the South, largely dormant in recent years as the institutions set up by the Good Friday Agreement focused successfully on low-key North-South cooperation for mutual benefit, will certainly see a comeback if Sinn Fein go into government. Southern Sinn Feiners are full of optimism, citing the “clear and present danger” of Brexit as a reason for Irish people to come together. It would be an extreme irony if a vote by the British people that completely ignored Ireland does more to push Northern Ireland in the direction of Irish unity than 30 years of killing and bombing by the IRA.



Posted in General, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Sinn Fein | 1 Comment

The DUP’s bigotry and incompetence bring the house down

In last month’s blog I wrote that Northern Ireland was now “a modern region with a power-sharing government in which nationalists enjoy a new equality and confidence.” I was wrong. A fortnight later the Stormont Executive collapsed when Martin McGuinness resigned after failing to persuade Arlene Foster to step aside temporarily as First Minister to allow a full inquiry into the Renewable Heat Initiative (RHI) fiasco.

I don’t always – or even often – believe Sinn Fein: they are usually playing a machiavellian long game aimed at weakening the North’s links with Britain. But on this issue I’m with them. It was clear from McGuinness’s resignation statement that this was not only – or even mainly – about RHI.  The Deputy First Minister accused Foster of “deep seated arrogance” and the DUP of rejecting his attempts to reach out to unionists, “shameful disrespect” to women, gay people and ethnic minorities and “crude and crass bigotry” to Irish language speakers. In a follow-up RTE interview he said there were many people in the DUP who “hate anything to do with Irish nationalism and Irish republicanism.”

As somebody who began studying the DUP over 30 years ago – in the course of researching a biography of Rev. Ian Paisley – I recognise the truth in all these charges. I had hoped that the ugly, antiquated prejudices they describe would have started to diminish as the realisation that they had to share their divided little society with their nationalist neighbours started to dawn on unionists in a new century.

Maybe I was being naive. But it is disappointing that the deep anti-Irish and anti-Catholic bigotry of so many DUP-supporting unionists appears still to play a significant role in Northern life and politics. Back in 1986 I wrote about the people who followed Paisley half-a-century ago as follows: “They believed they were inherently superior to their Roman Catholic neighbours because of their religion. They were ‘born again’ Christians, living in the ‘light’ of pure Protestantism, free men who communed with God without the interference of priests or man-made rituals. Catholics, on the other hand, were benighted and ignorant souls who were enslaved by the ‘darkness’ of Roman superstition, the idolatry of the Mass, and the rule of the papal antichrist. Such a view tallied perfectly with the superiority they felt anyway as the descendants of the people who had ‘civilised’ Ulster…Thus the underprivileged position of Northern Catholics was nothing to do with injustice: quite the opposite – it was living proof of God’s justice in rewarding those who followed the true religion.”¹ I wonder how many Northern unionists of the DUP persuasion still hold such appalling, near-racist views. Too many, I suspect – although friends tell me that thankfully such bigotry is far less prevalent among younger DUP members (and I have at least one young DUP councillor acquaintance who bears that out).

Then there is their anti-Irishness. This sometimes borders on the pathological. Some may recall Gregory Campbell’s nasty mocking of the Irish language (and Peter Robinson’s defence of his colleague) at the 2014 DUP annual conference and the amused response of the delegates. Andrew Crawford,  the former special adviser to Arlene Foster who was forced to resign after the top civil servant in the Department of the Economy ‘outed’ him for his dubious role in the Renewable Heat Initiative, used to go through reports from one North-South body removing the phrase ‘all-Ireland.’ Communities Minister Paul Givan’s scrapping two days before Christmas of a tiny grant scheme to allow Northern Irish language students to study in the Donegal Gaeltacht seems to have been the final insult for many ordinary nationalists.

I worked to promote practical, non-threatening North-South cooperation for 14 years. In a chapter on this topic in a new book on Irish politics published this month² I quoted a senior Northern Ireland civil servant observing: “The DUP’s default setting is that all North-South structures are a bad thing – it takes very little for the DUP to kick them into the long grass.” He said there had been no softening of DUP attitudes towards these institutions, with organising meetings of the largely powerless North South Ministerial Council sometimes “like pulling hen’s teeth.”

However there has also been evidence of some striking and welcome changes in unionist attitudes during this controversy. Anybody who heard Ian Paisley Junior generously offering “humble and honest thanks” to Martin McGuinness both on BBC and RTE would have  been astonished. “I think it is important that we actually do reflect on the fact that we would not be where we are in Northern Ireland in terms of having stability, peace and the opportunity to rebuild our country if it hadn’t been for the work that he put in,” he said.

Similarly it was notable that the province’s leading unionist-minded commentators did not mince their words when placing the responsibility for the RHI controversy and the collapse of the Executive firmly at Arlene Foster’s door. Alex Kane, the North’s most widely-read columnist, writing in the Belfast News Letter, called her behaviour “imperious, petulant, personal and petty – at a time when leadership and humility was required, she opted for hubris and provocation.” He said the public perception had grown that “she is incapable of owning up to the fact fact that the story involves monumental ineptitude, serial stupidity, administrative blindness and gold-plated recklessness when it comes to the public purse.” While stressing there was not a shred of evidence of corruption on her part, he called on her to resign permanently as First Minister.

In the Irish Times, Newton Emerson paid tribute to McGuinness and listed the putdowns he had suffered in his efforts to safeguard power-sharing and reach out to the DUP. He noted that after the May 2016 Stormont election the DUP-Sinn Fein coalition, freed of the encumbrance of the three smaller parties, seemed to promise a period of “unprecedented stability” for the North. That’s certainly how senior civil servants I spoke to at the time saw it. However what followed was “a relentless DUP pushback on just about every issue imaginable.”

Maybe the DUP, always at risk of arrogance and sectarian condescension, believed after they had maintained their number of seats in that election (while Sinn Fein had lost two) and then seen the UK follow the Brexit route which they as ‘little Britishers’ so passionately advocated, that they were untouchable. For despite their intense provincialism they were not immune from the feeling that events elsewhere were moving in their hard-right direction, with Brexit followed by the Trump victory in the US.

More perceptive commentators might point out that with the departure of Scotland and the break-up of the UK a real possibility in the wake of a ‘hard’ Brexit, other currents may be moving against them and in favour of those who argue for Irish unity. As Newton Emerson concluded: “Once again, unionists are about to be taught the lesson they never learn: deal with nationalism now, or get a worse deal later.”³

¹ Paisley, Ed Moloney and Andy Pollak, pp. 219-220

² Dynamics of Political Change in Ireland: Making and Breaking a Divided Island, Niall Ó Dochartaigh, Katy Hayward and Elizabeth Meehan (eds.)

³ News Letter, 9 January 2017; Irish Times, 10 January 2017

Posted in General, Northern Ireland, Protestantism, unionism and loyalism | 1 Comment

A Presbyterian republican Ulsterwoman and the ‘sister states’ of Ireland

For the second year running my politician of the year is a Protestant Ulsterwoman. This year it is Heather Humphreys, Irish Minister for Arts, Culture, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, a Monaghan Presbyterian whose grandfather signed the 1912 Ulster Covenant and who calls herself a republican. And the reason? In her low key way she was the person who oversaw the success of the centenary commemoration of the 1916 Rising. Enda Kenny paid an indirect tribute to her when he wrote in the Irish Times earlier this month   “any fears that the centenary would plunge us into regressive nationalism proved unfounded…as we commemorated the iconic event of our modern nationhood, we became more outward-looking, less insular and more compassionate.” And how did we do that?  “The transformative potential of arts, culture and heritage” and “broad cultural participation” are the reasons, says the Taoiseach¹. In other words, much of the success of the year was down to the central role played by writers, artists, musicians and historians, and by ordinary people engaging in cultural rather than p0litical activities.

However for the purposes of this column I am going to suggest a radical political way in which the Republic’s leaders might break down the barriers on the island even further. For nearly a century every single political party in the Republic has held as an article of faith the belief in Irish unity. And nearly a century after the island was divided we are no nearer that utopian goal. Indeed I would argue strongly that the IRA’s campaign of violence to undo Northern Ireland’s connection with Britain – and thus against the unionist population which is fiercely attached to that connection – has only served to push it further away than ever. Talk to any liberal unionist who loves Ireland and that is what they will tell you.

50 years ago Sean Lemass was already stressing that there would be no Irish unity without a significant element of unionist consent. That requirement was written into the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. However there is not a snowball’s chance in hell of unionist consent  happening any time soon, despite Sinn Fein’s posturing about pro-EU majorities and Border Polls. Short of hundreds of thousands of unionists deciding to pack up and leave the North, it will not happen in the foreseeable future  – certainly not in my lifetime (I am in my sixties).

So why don’t the South’s political leaders try something different for a change? At the moment Fine Gael and Fianna Fail’s policies on the ‘national question’ are a  watered down version of Sinn Fein’s: Irish reunification to be achieved with as much or as little unionist consent as is necessary to push it over the line. My personal opinion is that Sinn Fein – the only party that has any kind of strategy for driving towards unity – sees this happening by it taking over as the largest party north of the border and growing its Dail representation in the South to the point where it holds the balance of power there, and then pressuring the British into some kind of weakening of the union. One could argue that both these targets have flatlined in recent years.

But why should the two largest parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail,  continue to be paler versions of Sinn Fein on this fundamental issue? For those of us who are not unionists – but who believe that a wafer-thin majority for unity in a Border Poll is a recipe for a return to violent conflict – are there any alternatives? I would suggest that there is one. In October I read an article on commemorating 1916 by the young playwright and theatre director, Sian Ní Mhuiri, in which she wrote: “I’m not nationalistic, but Ireland is my home and I love the communities here. ‘Irishness’ has little meaning in itself; it has value when people who are sharing this island come together and build communities that tackle the problems we have and create a more inclusive, fair and equitable place for everyone in the Republic and our sister state of Northern Ireland (my italics).”²

That phrase caught my eye: “our sister state of Northern Ireland.” Why shouldn’t we in the Republic start treating our fellow Irish people in the North as citizens of a legitimate and equal ‘sister state’? After all this is not the bigoted, discriminatory Orange statelet of 50 years ago. It is a modern region with a power-sharing government in which nationalists enjoy a new equality and confidence at all levels of society and the economy. Its smartest political leaders are nationalists, as are some of its top civil society and business leaders. Its health and education systems are in many ways superior to ours in the Republic. It even has a dash of incompetence and corruption – as shown by the ‘cash for ash’ controversy – that should make people south of the border feel at home!

So here’s my suggestion for 2017. Fine Gael and/or Fianna Fail should start treating Northern Ireland as an equal rather than a failed and unreformable state. ‘Parity of esteem’, first proposed for the two communities in the North by the Opsahl Commission over 23 years ago, should be extended to the two states on the island. This should help to remove the sense of threat that most unionists suffer so grievously from. It would also make a change from the ‘parity of contempt’ that has been practiced by most politicians and people in the two jurisdictions for most of the past century: Northern unionists treating Southerners as benighted and ignorant bogmen, Southerners treating Northerners – and particularly Northern unionists – as bigoted and violent extremists. In many ways this has already started to happen since the Good Friday Agreement: I believe it’s time to take it a step further by one of the major Southern parties taking the courageous step of adopting it as an explicit policy.

It doesn’t mean giving up on Irish unity. Rather it moves the emphasis from unity coming about by the North being assimilated into the Irish state, to real unity of people coming closer together in a relationship of mutual aid and understanding and even – perhaps one distant day – affection. This may sound utterly utopian, but is it any more outlandish than believing that unionists will roll over and accept unity in the relatively near future, which is what many republicans appear to believe? And isn’t it more realistic to begin to talk about how we can work together as ‘sister states’ with important interests in common at the precise moment when external events are conspiring to raise a higher post-Brexit border between us that we will have to learn to overcome in imaginative new ways? More and more cooperation for mutual benefit between equal partners across that border until we find we have much more in common  – that should be the rallying cry.

Such a new policy turn may not lead to unity as we have traditionally understood it. But it could move us towards a more realistic ultimate goal: some form of confederation.  I incline to the view of the late Sir George Quigley, one of the North’s most insightful thinkers, who believed that before there can be any future constitutional coming together on the island of Ireland, there must be a recognition that there are “two mutually opposed ‘principles of legitimacy’ which are strongly held – one nationalist and one unionist – and some common ground would have to be found on which the divergent aspirations are transcended in a general consensus.” He saw the model most likely to secure such consent as a confederal one, which he called  the “most persuasively argued” of the three options in the 1984 New Ireland Forum report. “On this basis the final agreed Ireland would be a joint, equal venture between North and South, with each having its own governance structure, and with policies to be specifically delegated to confederal level determined jointly by representatives from North and South.”

Quigley quoted the 1984 Report’s comment that “based on the existing identities, North and South, [a confederal solution] would reflect the political and administrative realities of the past 60 [now 95] years and would entrench a measure of autonomy for both parts of Ireland within an all-island framework. While protecting and fostering the identities and ethos of the two traditions, it would enable them to work together in the common interest.”³

Is it time to revisit the New Ireland Forum Report? A joint equal venture between sister states – could this be the basis for beginning a discussion on a new formulation of the tired old ‘national question’?

 ¹The Irish Times, 12 December 2016, p. 12

² The Irish Times, The Centenary Conversations special report, 29 October 2016, p.8

³ The Journal of Cross Border Studies in Ireland, No.8, Spring 2013, pp.27-28

Posted in Cross-border cooperation, General, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland | Leave a comment

What the North can teach the South about welcoming refugees

The Irish government seems to be finally and belatedly moving to make its small contribution to tackling the worst humanitarian crisis faced by Europe since the Second World War: the influx of millions of refugees from war-torn countries in the Middle East and Africa. 14 months ago – following the international outcry caused by the photo of a three-year-old Syrian boy who had drowned while crossing the Aegean with his family – it offered to accept up to 4,000 refugees by the end of 2017, with an emphasis on families and unaccompanied children, as part of a coordinated EU response to the crisis. Exactly a year later, at the end of September, it had taken in 300 of that number, of whom just one was an unaccompanied child. Department of Justice spokespersons blamed EU and Greek bureaucracies and legal blockages for the delays. I was one of those people who felt this was a convenient smokescreen for our political and civil service leaders’ shameful lack of interest in what many of us believe is simply the most important ethical/political issue of our generation.

Those numbers are now beginning to rise. Earlier this month the Department of Justice released figures showing that 507 refugees have arrived from  Lebanon and Jordan (with another 13 to come by the end of the year) and 109 have arrived from Greece (with another 215 to come).

I was at an excellent all-island conference earlier this month organised by a recently-formed network, Places of Sanctuary Ireland, which works to create “a culture of welcome and safety” for refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants. Speakers there outlined the refugee reception situation in Portlaoise, Waterford and Belfast. I was particularly struck by the contrasts between the way things are done on either side of the border.

The people in Portlaoise appear to have done a superb job in welcoming and beginning to integrate 54 Syrian refugees who arrived in the town last year. The 12-month contract for their resettlement was put out to tender and was won by Doras Luimni, a voluntary organisation with 15 years experience of working with asylum seekers in direct provision and other migrants in Limerick.

The Portlaoise story is one of significant success, largely due to the enthusiastic engagement of local people and community groups, and some difficulties, caused mainly by the systems put in place (or not put in place) by the Department of Justice. The former consists of a wide range of integration activities: drop-in clinic, cafe befriending, language and homework support, intercultural women’s work, job skills training, family advocacy, cultural events, and the local people and the newcomers celebrating key Muslim festivals together. Laois County Council  and a committee of local statutory agencies were fully engaged, and once local people knew about the arrival of the Syrians, volunteers came forward in large numbers (“there are a lot of fantastic people in Portlaoise”, says one person involved with the project).  There is now a Laois Integration Network – at the moment run entirely by volunteers, since the 12 month resettlement contract ended in June – and a 2017 work programme in place, and EU funding is being sought for a worker. The Syrians have their own local organisation, Saturday language school and mosque.

On the other hand, those running the 2015-2016 resettlement project had to start from scratch with no template or model of good practice to work from. Other places like Monaghan and Carrick on Shannon may have taken earlier groups of refugees, but in true ad hoc Irish fashion, each had followed their own individual path (there is also good practice in Waterford, where a determined religious brother, originally from Pakistan, has brought together the statutory agencies, the churches and other groups into a particularly effective local committee). There is also no national integration strategy in place – it has been out for consultation for the past two years. Some places like Limerick have their own local strategy, while other towns likely to receive refugees have nothing.

The Department of Justice, notoriously reluctant to involve NGOs in its programmes, gave out no advance information to community groups or interested individuals in Portlaoise, even though the local council had been informed for over a year about the refugees’ impending arrival. There was no pre-arrival consultation by the Department with the local community.

The pre-settlement reception and induction period in Ireland sees the refugees from Syria and other conflict zones spending up to 12 weeks – and occasionally as long as eight months – in the entirely unsuitable surroundings of direct provision centres for asylum seekers in Balseskin (near Dublin airport) and Mosney in County Meath.

In Northern Ireland, things have been done very differently – and much better. The numbers are smaller, of course, but not a lot smaller. 284 Syrian refugees from camps in Lebanon and Iraq have been received there in the past 12 months, as part of the 20,000 the British government has promised to accept during the life of the current parliament. Another group of up to 90 will arrive before Christmas.

The system in the North is far faster and more streamlined. The new arrivals spend five days in a well-equipped reception centre in Belfast (in normal times it is a community-run conference centre), where they undergo health screening, get their social benefits applications fast-tracked and learn about everything from their legal entitlements and duties to the cultural norms of their host society. They then are taken in charge by two NGOs – the children’s charity Barnardos and Extern, an all-island charity that works with everyone from young people at risk to homeless families – who provide key workers to accompany the refugees to their new homes in private rental accommodation (which has been vetted by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive) and give them a ‘housing starter pack’ of furniture, bedding and other household goods so they can start their new lives. These key workers also help them find schools and GPs, with English language classes, contacts with the local community and so on. Three groups have so far been settled in Belfast, Derry and the Newry/Armagh/Craigavon/Banbridge area. “Gold standard” is the description of this process by an NGO person involved in it.

The key to the success of the Northern system is threefold, says one person in the Belfast Law Centre who is part of the consortium of NGOs which works to receive and help integrate the refugees. Firstly there was political buy-in at the top of government, with Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness  making clear at the beginning of October 2015 that the Northern Ireland Executive wanted to play its full part in the process, and then being supported by First Minister Arlene Foster. Secondly, there were committed senior civil servants at the Department of Communities, which is in charge of the refugee programme – notably Deputy Secretary Ian Snowden – who made it clear they wanted it to work. Thirdly, the  civil servants quickly brought on board a consortium of knowledgeable NGOs: Bryson Intercultural, part of the Bryson Group, Northern Ireland’s largest charity, which has been working with asylum seekers for many years; the Red Cross, Barnardos, Extern, Belfast Law Centre, Save the Children and the Refugee and Asylum Forum. There are still problems, of course: one is the extremely strict visa regulations which all but forbid refugees in Northern Ireland crossing the border into the South, even for a visit.

The Northern model seems clear enough: supportive government leaders, committed senior officials and the early involvement of expert NGOs. Do we have any of these factors in the South? Could I suggest a day trip to Belfast by relevant people in the Department of Justice’s Office for the Promotion of Migrant Integration to learn all about the not particularly difficult business – if the energies of ordinary citizens are harnessed – of providing a warm and effective welcome to small numbers of refugees. They could also do worse than come to a meeting of the City of Sanctuary Dublin group (, with which I am involved: the Red Cross and the Garda Racial Intercultural and Diversity Office have already recognised the value of this welcoming grass-roots organisation.

Posted in General, Ireland, Europe and the world, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland | Leave a comment

Three positive things to make us feel good about Northern Ireland (and Ireland)

“Be positive, Andy” said the former Sinn Fein Lord Mayor of Belfast, Tom Hartley, when I met him at ‘Amazing the Space’, a splendid Cooperation Ireland event on the old Maze prison site last month, which brought together 3,500 young people to talk, sing and dance about peace-building.

And he’s right. It’s so easy to be negative about Northern Ireland (especially for an old journalistic hack like me), even if it’s not the North’s fault sometimes these days: for example, being forced to accept Brexit when a clear majority there voted against it. So I’m going to pick out three positive, very different Northern Irish and North-South initiatives I have come across in recent weeks and highlight these for a change.

Firstly, there is the continuing quiet work going on behind the scenes in Belfast and elsewhere to sort out the toxic legacies of decades of conflict. At the end of September this led to the resolution of the three year old deadlock over Orangemen marching past Catholic Ardoyne every 12th July, thus effectively ending 21 years of often violent disputes associated with the Orange marching season. With the help of two facilitators, former Methodist president Harold Good and Derry businessman Jim Roddy, agreement was reached along the following lines: the Orangemen would be allowed to complete their evening march home to north Belfast on this occasion, but there would be a moratorium on future such marches unless the Ardoyne residents association agreed;  that association would not object to (or protest at) future 12th July morning marches to join the main Belfast parade (although of course, this being Belfast, there was a smaller, more extreme republican residents group which angrily dissented); and the Twaddell Avenue loyalist camp protesting the blocking of the march would be dismantled. At the same time an inter-community forum would be set up to open a dialogue which would be about more than just parading.

There are other things happening that would have been unheard of even a few years ago. Sinn Fein and the Orange Order shared a platform in Enniskillen recently to discuss the commemoration of 1916. Discussion panels at the West Belfast Festival and Queen’s University have seen PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton, Sinn Fein leaders Martin McGuinness and Eibhlin Glenholmes, and leading loyalist Winston Irvine exchanging honest arguments and friendly handshakes.

However the legacy of a violent past is still a major issue blocking moves towards greater mutual understanding and reconciliation. The complex interlocking institutions of the 2014 Stormont House Agreement, which were meant to begin to deal with that legacy – the Historical Investigations Unit,the Independent Commission on Information Retrieval, the Implementation and Reconciliation Group and the Oral History Archive – appear stillborn while the governments and parties try to untangle the Gordian knot between criminal investigation, protecting national security, and uncovering the truth of past violent acts by all sides. Journalist Brian Rowan, who has been involved in several civil society initiatives in this area and has written a book about legacy issues called Unfinished Peace, believes such top-down initiatives may not be what are required and that  “we need to be honest about what is really achievable in terms of the truth”. He thinks a non-political Oral History Archive would be an important initiative to progress on its own, a real opportunity for the families of people who have been killed or injured to tell their stories.

Art and theatre have an important role to play here, Rowan believes. He points to the phenomenal success of the Colin Davidson exhibition of portraits of ordinary people who lost loved ones during the ‘troubles’, which was visited by around 80,000 people in the Ulster Museum and has since transferred to Paris and New York. And to a new play, Green and Blue, by former IRA hunger striker Laurence McKeown, based on 40 stories of the conflict in the border region taken from serving RUC officers and gardai. “I was trusted with these stories and my goal was to remain faithful to them,” says the former IRA man-turned-playwright.

Secondly – in the economic area – there is a visionary initiative by the two business confederations, Ibec in the South and CBI in the North, which largely slipped under the radar when it was launched in July due to the post-Brexit furore. This is the All-Island Investment Project’s proposal¹ for a comprehensive motorway and dual carriageway network to serve a projected island population of 8.25 million by 2040. The island currently has a population of 6.6 million, 4.76 million of whom live in the Republic. This has grown by 30% in the last 20 years, and Ireland now has the youngest and fastest growing population (bar tiny Luxembourg) in the EU. So we are not far away from the more than eight million people who lived in Ireland before the Great Famine in the 1840s (amazingly, England had a population of less than 15 million in 1841, compared to 53 million today).

If you think about it, planning our roads together to move the rapidly increasing number of people and goods around the island is plain common sense. The Ibec-CBI proposal says the time to begin doing this is now, when the cost of borrowing large amounts of money for major infrastructure projects has never been cheaper. Their paper contains striking maps of the island’s railway network in 1920 when no town was more than 10 miles from a station. The rail network in 2016 is a poor, shrunken thing compared to a century ago, and since replacing even some of those lost lines is simply not viable – due to Irish Rail’s desperate financial situation –  we must plan seriously for a 21st century all-island road network instead.

The Ibec-CBI argument is that if we don’t want the island’s dramatically increased population over the next 25 years to be squeezed into the east coast ‘corridor’, with all the problems of overcrowding and bottlenecks this will lead to, we absolutely must develop the western seaboard from Derry to Cork. The two business confederations’ most radical proposal is for what they call a ‘C ring road’ around the entire coastline, particularly through the north-west, west and south –  from Belfast through Derry, Sligo, Galway, Limerick, Cork, Waterford and Wexford – which are not well-served by a radial road network centring on Dublin. They also argue that a new era of ‘low emissions’ road transport is emerging with the development of driverless cars, electric vehicles, car sharing and improved fuel technologies.

“Brexit won’t take away from the need to have this modern infrastructure in both jurisdictions in the future”, says project leader Michael D’Arcy. He believes the Irish government should argue strongly for a relaxation of the EU’s fiscal rules to allow spending on such a strategic project for a uniquely fast-growing population, and this should be part of its special case for Ireland and Northern Ireland in the Brexit negotiations.

The third initiative is much smaller and is already happening. Earlier this month I went to a marvellous conference at which Ireland’s leading historians looked back at how the centennial commemorations of the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme were carried out over the past year. 240 people turned up at Dublin’s Mansion House to hear the likes of Professors Roy Foster, Diarmaid Ferriter, Gearóid O Tuathaigh,  Fearghal McGarry, John Horne and Lucy McDiarmid talk about the “sober, sensitive and mature way” –  in Horne’s words  – in which those commemorations had been handled. They singled out for special mention the role of the committee of historians set up by the Irish Government to advise on the commemorations, which had allowed for a suitably nuanced retelling of the complicated and contested foundation myths of both states on this island, and about the extraordinary people involved in them.

The event was organised by Universities Ireland, the all-island body which brings together its university presidents and vice-chancellors, and which is administered by the Centre for Cross Border Studies. This was the fifth annual conference to examine the 1912-1923 period and there are plans for seven more up to 2023.

¹ Connected: A prosperous island of 10 million people. Ibec/CBI

Posted in Cross-border cooperation, General, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland | Leave a comment

Flailing around in the fact free zone that is Brexit

We are now in the phoney war period between the Brexit vote and the British government invoking Article 50 of the European Union Treaty to begin negotiating to leave the EU. And nobody – neither citizens nor governments – knows what’s going to happen next. It was best summed up by the Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt at the British Irish Association conference in Oxford earlier this month when he said: “We went on a fact-finding mission to Brussels recently. It was a failure. There are no facts.”

At the same conference an uncharacteristically angry Peter Sutherland, who as former head of the World Trade Organisation should know what he’s talking about, was adamant that if the post-Brexit UK was going to enter into trade agreements with countries outside Europe, a hard British-Irish customs frontier (including along the Irish border) was inevitable.

I don’t know much about international trade but I do know about cooperation across the Irish border. And it is clear that this is in serious jeopardy from Brexit.  EU support has been absolutely central to the implementation of the North-South ‘strand two’ of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. This is one of the quiet success stories of that Agreement: Peter Robinson used to say regularly that as a result of it relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have never been better.

By far the most important financial supporter of cross-border cooperation on the island of Ireland has been the European Union. Since 1990 the EU has supported the cross-border INTERREG programme to the tune of €810 million (with another €324 million coming in the required matching funding from the Irish, Northern Irish and, in recent years, Scottish governments). Uniquely in Europe Northern Ireland and the Irish border region also have their own cross-community and cross-border PEACE programme. Since 1995 this has received nearly €1.6 billion in EU funds, with an additional €702 million being provided by the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive. That’s nearly three and a half billion euro provided as a result of EU programmes to Northern Ireland and the Irish border region in 25 years. That is all at risk now from Brexit – for does anybody believe that the British Government is going to step in and replicate such huge sums?

Here is a small flavour of some of what this EU funding has led to: more than 1,300 businesses collaborating across the border as a result of networking projects; over 100 projects to promote cooperation and exchange of best practice between public bodies; 50,000 people taken off hospital waiting lists and benefiting in other ways from cross-border health cooperation; over 150,000 school students involved in cross-border educational exchanges; the building of the Peace Bridge in Derry and the modernisation of the Belfast to Dublin Enterprise train service. One could go on and on.

The then head of the EU Commission, Jacques Delors, explicitly aimed the EU’s funding to support the objectives of ‘strand two’ of the Good Friday Agreement, namely “to develop consultation, cooperation and action within the island of Ireland – including on an all-island and cross-border basis – on matters of mutual interest.”  I know as somebody who worked with the relevant policy makers for 14 years up to 2013  that all but a small part of North-South cooperation during that period (in economic development, local authority partnerships, education and health) would simply not have happened without EU funding.

So what about North-South cooperation in the future? All I can say at this point in time is that it is extremely uncertain. The EU’s regulations do allow for cooperation between EU and non-EU countries. Norway, for example, is involved in four INTERREG programmes with Sweden, Denmark and Finland (although there is a long history of cooperation between those countries that predates their membership of the EU). However participation by non-EU countries requires them to follow all the relevant EU policies and regulations, and, most importantly, contribute significant national funding. There are also a few examples of cross-border cooperation initiatives outside EU programmes – for example, along the French-Swiss border – but these are backed by special legal agreements and dedicated governmental funding.

Post-Brexit participation in EU programmes would not be at the discretion of the NI Executive but would need the consent of the UK government. In the post-Brexit environment of political confusion, anti-European sentiment and ever tighter budgets can anybody see Westminister/Whitehall negotiating on Northern Ireland’s behalf for EU cross-border programmes? Or, in the absence of EU funding, deciding whether the required cross-border funding would come from Stormont or Whitehall? Or sanctioning a complex, stand alone, legal agreement to allow cooperation between the peripheral and traditionally neglected counties along the Irish border?  As a recent Centre for Cross Border Studies/Cooperation Ireland paper put it: “The crucial question is whether the political will would exist, with accompanying financial resources, to sustain the current levels of cross-border cooperation.”¹ My personal opinion is that this is extremely unlikely. While the North South Ministerial Council, the seven North-South bodies and companies, and the limited areas of inter-ministerial cooperation under the Good Friday Agreement will continue to exist, elsewhere we are likely to be returning to the kind of small-scale, piecemeal cooperation, with little regional impact, that was the situation before the 1990s.

When it comes to trade and business, the Economic and Social Research Institute in Dublin has concluded that the Republic of Ireland is more important to Northern exporters than vice-versa: €1.8 billion exported from north to south, but only €1.2 million from south to north. Those small and medium enterprises in the North for whom the Republic is their premier export market are going to be hit hardest by the erection of tariffs along the border. These are also the labour-intensive firms which employ the largest proportion of the North’s workforce. And then, of course, there are the North’s farmers, who are 87% dependent on EU single farm payments for their income!

The post-Brexit situation is a real nightmare for the Irish Government, as it struggles to reconcile its new and utterly changed relationships with its closest political and trading partners, the EU and the UK. The government has made the calculation that the Northern Ireland peace process, including North-South relations, is the best weapon it has in its arguments in Brussels that a special case should be made for Northern Ireland in the unhappy post-Brexit future (perhaps including channelling EU funds for the North through Dublin?). Its current row with the European Commission over the €13 billion in unpaid tax it has been told to recoup from Apple isn’t helping that case.

The Taoiseach’s mishandling of the proposal for an all-island forum to discuss Brexit – immediately shot down by Arlene Foster  because she hadn’t been consulted  – indicates that it is not only in London where there is considerable confusion. I expect this eminently sensible suggestion will re-emerge in some form in the near future. Enda Kenny’s echoing of Sinn Fein’s call for a Border Poll because he wants a future united Ireland scenario to be facilitated inside the EU like German re-unification, is another confusing signal, upsetting the unionists unnecessarily for no obvious post-Brexit purpose. It will be interesting to see if provision for a future poll on Irish unity ends up in any eventual UK-EU agreement. This is something the Scottish SNP Government would dearly like to replicate to avoid a lengthy and difficult negotiation to join the EU if one day its people vote for independence.

¹Referendum Briefing Paper 3. The UK Referendum on Membership of the EU: Cross-Border Cooperation, Peace-Building and Regional Development. Centre for Cross Border Studies/Cooperation Ireland

Posted in British-Irish relations, Cross-border cooperation, General, Ireland, Europe and the world | 1 Comment

Can we have a bit of realism about the border, please?

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am one of those rare Irish people – outside Sinn Fein – who thinks quite a lot about the border. I don’t talk about it much: there’s nothing more likely to put a dampener on a pub or dinner party conversation in Dublin than somebody going on about the bloody old border. ‘Spare me the North’ in the words of one middle-class Dubliner in Declan Hughes’ play Digging for Fire. Similarly, I note that when I write about the border the readership of this column goes down markedly. However one day I would dearly love to see it gone – for the reasons I outline below – although for the life of me (and in my lifetime) I don’t see how it’s going to happen.

After Sinn Fein in their Pavlovian way demanded a Border Poll following the 56% Northern Ireland vote in favour of the UK remaining in the European Union, I phoned around my liberal unionist friends to ask them if they felt that this vote indicated any weakening of unionist determination to remain part of the United Kingdom. I could find not a single one who thought that it did.

Similarly I asked everyone I met on my Belfast to Dublin walk last month (see July blog) whom I identified as being of the unionist persuasion: ‘Do you and your unionist friends and neighbours have any element of fellow-feeling with people in the Republic that might one day provide the basis for a coming together of the people North and South into a closer political relationship on the island?’ Not a single one said ‘yes’.

The most liberal unionist public representative I know puts it like this: “Very few people here nowadays think when you’re going across the border that you’re going to a foreign place you know little about. That has transformed in recent years, and people want that transformation to continue. However Northern Ireland is always going to be a bit different: not as British as Basingstoke, very different from northern England, from Scotland, from West Cork. I’ve always felt that the best place for all of us here in Northern Ireland is to stay in the union, but at the same time I’ve always wanted really good relationships, indeed firm friendships, across the border.  I think we should be building unity between people in that way, rather than focusing on political unity. Once you introduce the idea of a united Ireland, the barriers go up on the unionist side.”

One reason that, in the distant future, I would like to see a coming together of the people on this island into some sort of all-Ireland state is because I fear for the Unionists in that future. I believe that the Northern Protestant and unionist community will begin to find itself increasingly isolated and friendless as the United Kingdom becomes more disunited: as more powers are devolved from London to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast; as Scotland moves inevitably to a second vote on independence; and as English nationalism becomes an important force in British politics following the exit of the UK from the European Union. I believe it is only a matter of time before politicians and people in England, in particular, begin to question the expensive link with a distant province for which they have little or no affection or fellow-feeling.

In these circumstances I hope that the people of the Republic of Ireland will reconsider a closer constitutional relationship with the people of the North, and vice versa. I stress that this is a personal hope: I see no evidence of it at the moment. One problem is that, whether it is in London or Dublin, nobody is interested in Northern Ireland these days; few people feel any warmth towards the Unionists in particular, and everybody wants to stay well clear of the North’s age-old and unchanging (or changing at a glacial pace) internecine quarrel. Stories about continuing unionist bigotry and stupidity only reinforce this determination. Two recent examples: the non-attendance by unionist political representatives in Derry at the funeral of the much-loved Catholic bishop, Dr Edward Daly; and an account from mid-Ulster of a unionist-minded farmer who explained that he had put an annual EU farm payment of £100,000 in jeopardy by voting Leave in the Brexit referendum because it would ‘consolidate the border.’

The second reason I believe it makes sense for Unionists to begin to reconsider a new and closer relationship with the Republic is because the South is now a modern, liberal, largely well-functioning society – a far cry from the backward, old-fashioned Catholic, near failing state of the 1940s and 1950s. It appears to have dragged itself back from the collapse of the Celtic Tiger to a position where it has one of the highest growth rates in Europe (discounting, of course, the crazy ‘leprechaun economics’ of a 26% rise in GDP); thriving and internationally competitive IT, pharmaceutical and agricultural sectors; more than two million people at work and nearly twice as many workers coming into the country as leaving it. Last year’s marriage equality vote seemed to show that it is now one of the most socially liberal countries in Europe. There are, of course, continuing problems of crippling international debt, deep social inequality, housing crises and an almost dysfunctional health service. But these are problems shared by many countries in Europe, not least the UK.

Making sense is one thing. Unionism’s deep feeling of insecurity as a former colonial minority on this island is another. I won’t be holding my breath for any rapid movement on the constitutional front. In any case I believe that the Good Friday Agreement’s marvellous architecture, allowing the Irish-Irish and the British-Irish to begin the painstaking and long drawn-out task of learning to live together, is the only way forward for the next 30 to 40 years at least. Increasing levels of North-South cooperation until we find we have much more in common is what we should be doing, not ill thought-out chatter about Border Polls and Irish unity.

I only ask for a sense of realism from the political leaders of my own state. It is clear that when Enda Kenny last month bizarrely added his voice to Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein in calling for a Border Poll in the wake of the Brexit referendum, he was not thinking about Irish unity at all. He was aiming his words at Brussels, where Irish diplomats have been surprised at the strength of feeling in the EU institutions that they have been a key player in the Northern Ireland peace process.

In the words of that shrewd Irish Times political analyst, Pat Leahy, the Irish Government “believes that stressing the importance of Ireland’s trading links with the UK carries much less weight with other EU countries than one that insists upon protecting the peace process.” The Taoiseach is “pursuing a strategy of putting the peace process and the North-South relationship at the forefront of the Government’s negotiating concerns as it faces a period of profound – and possibly lengthy – uncertainty between its two most important external partners, the EU and the UK.”

It is also worth pointing out that when the UK leaves the EU in a couple of years, the only government that will continue to speak up for Northern Ireland’s interests in Brussels (and maybe even in London) will be the Irish Government. Maybe that point is slowly getting through in some political, civil service, business and farming circles in the North. It will be interesting to see if there is any increase in Dublin-bound traffic by forward-thinking Northerners – including Unionists – in the coming months and years. Cross-border realism would dictate that it makes good sense for them to take this road.


Posted in British-Irish relations, Cross-border cooperation, General, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland | 2 Comments