Enda Kenny is surely right to be cautious about setting up an “all-Ireland forum” Better to have a “conversation” at least to start with in November. Even so its ability to speak for all Ireland would be seriously weakened by the absence of unionists, just as it would be counter- productive for the unionists not to take part eventually . As things stand, Northern Ireland’s regional government is therefore neither formally or informally to be represented. A fully fledged forum would risk being represented as a pan-nationalist front and therefore a focus for division rather than unity. Whatever the DUP might think, it seems that the north-south ministerial council is not regarded as an adequate forum, presumably because parties outside government north and south are not members. Their Inclusion is essential, particularly given the fragile nature of the government on the Republic.
But this raises the old problem of a unionist veto. Should it be overridden or got round somehow? . Civil society in the north might be reluctant to take part in the forum if the DUP actively opposed it. Gerry Adams seems to be saying, go ahead without them; the problems of Brexit for the whole island are too important to wait for the unionist minority to catch up. This sounds very statesmanlike but behind it lies familiar point scoring which takes priority over northern solidarity.
But of course there is DUP positioning to contend with. They will at least want to follow the Westminster route first and wait to be asked for their input into the UK government’s negotiating position. They are fearful of any shadowy new Irish body that might somehow take on the outline of an embryo united Ireland fathered by as yet unknown Brexit consequentials.
As ever Sinn Fein will want the best of both worlds. The Irish government is somewhere in the middle, with their own Brexit issues apart from the north’s to contend with. They won’t want to be distracted by northern feuding. But the more Dublin champions the north’s interests, the more difficult it will be for the unionists to stay outside Irish machinery for consultation.
On the basic proposition for a forum there are issues common to north and south that would clearly benefit from common consideration. The continuation of EU funding after 2020 is just one of them – if the Republic is able to champion it under a cross border label. It seems a tall order. Another is Enda Kenny’s concerns for “many people in the North entitled to an Irish passport “who might find themselves in a country that has withdrawn from the EU, having voted in 1998 for their freedom of movement up and down this island at will”.
Do British citizens in the north who want the same thing deserve any less? It seems inconceivable that they should be discriminated against by a state desperate to keep the border open and so committed to reconciliation.
Beyond the right of different representation abroad, British and Irish citizenship is interchangeable in the north. It should be made explicitly so throughout the island, whatever happens on free movement for British citizens in the rest of the EU. Guarantees for citizens as yet unborn may be needed, even though Irish citizens were explicitly recognised as not foreign in the UK as long ago as 1949 after Ireland became republic outside the Commonwealth. A separate agreement on citizenship on the island of Ireland is looking necessary.
Before any of this is broached, consultations between the Westminster government and Holyrood, Cardiff Bay and Stormont may have to come first. But citizenship is just one of many reasons why the unionist parties should eventually be steered by the British government in the direction of all-Ireland talking. It seems obvious that it could strengthen the hand of everyone in the north, if both governments are arguing their case, one inside the EU and the other departing.
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