Sadly, the Sunday Politics programmes have registered no closing of the gap between the DUP and Sinn Fein over “Brexit means Brexit.” Inevitably there is a real danger that narrow politics and positioning will confuse already very difficult issues. But at least they are not the ones aggravating the disagreement at the moment. They appear to be waiting on others for constructive responses.
In a measured editorial the Irish News has identified “ an overwhelming case for the introduction of a cross-border forum to carefully consider all these related matters”.
Why reject such a forum just because Enda Kenny fumbled it? But why not go further, when the Good Friday agreement has created a three stranded structure for tackling these issues, for example in the North-South Ministerial Council which provides for consideration of “institutional or cross-sectoral matters (including in relation to the EU) and to resolve disagreements”
The North-south body would be best placed to set up such a forum. By definition it includes the DUP.
But why not go further still? This is a clear case for close and accountable dialogue between the two governments as provided for in Strand Three. It would be perverse to leave out the British when the context has been created by the UK. Once the ducks have been lined up, the British government could give cover for the DUP to join any north-south forum, as one element of the Brexit process.
If the situation is allowed to drift, we can expect an infinitely tedious row along traditional pre-Fresh Start lines about leaving out the DUP over any dialogue on Brexit. Indeed it would hard to imagine a more unhelpful suggestion. This is why the North-South ministerial Council would be the appropriate body to start a dialogue which could be widened to include civil society.
The Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin revived the forum idea at the Glenties summer Schools at the weekend. In conversations with journalists he suggested leaving out the DUP but not in the main text of his speech. He also flew the kite for a referendum on unity:
It may very well be that the decision of Northern Ireland to oppose the English-driven anti-EU UK majority is a defining moment in Northern politics. The Remain vote may show people the need to rethink current arrangements. I hope it moves us towards majority support for unification, and if it does we should trigger a reunification referendum. However at this moment the only evidence we have is that the majority of people in Northern Ireland want to maintain open borders and a single market with this jurisdiction, and beyond that with the rest of Europe.
In itself, nothing too terrible here. But combined with leaving out the DUP from any all-Ireland forum there are the elements of a traditional nationalist-unionist row. This is the last thing we need. Mr Martin is in a strategic position to be constructive. He should recommend using the structures of the Good Friday Agreement he professes to champion.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London