Irish Government must be Enforcers, not Co-guarantors

The Irish government are fond of reminding us that that they and the British government are co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement.

I’ve always understood a guarantor in financial terms as the person responsible for ponying up if the debt isn’t paid. Well, the north is going further and further into the red financially as well as dearg le fearg (red with anger) at lack of any meaningful progress and the guarantors don’t seem to be fulfilling their responsibilities.

Secretary of State James Brokenshire announced last night that there will be an extension in the negotiations and that there is no appetite for another snap election. Today we will perhaps learn a little more of the detail he has in mind in terms of time frame and format when he address the House of Commons.

Sinn Féin would have been happy enough to go into another election. They’re riding a high tide of increased votes which they see as an endorsement of their strategy of collapsing the executive and being hard-nosed in the negotiations. There’s no reason why they couldn’t repeat the feat in their eyes.

The DUP might want another election in the hope it would galvanize unionism into uniting behind them, but it’s a risky strategy when the embarrassment factor of RHI is still there and some leading lights lost their seats and are still smarting over that.

None of the other parties want an election in case they lose back ground gained in the most recent one, or in the case of the Ulster Unionists, get obliterated completely.

So it’s back to negotiations in a form as yet to be set out. And once again the co-guarantors aren’t left holding the chit and Dublin and London breathe a sigh of relief.

The problem in this strategy is that the British government consistently, and Brokenshire most recently, fails to acknowledge they are also party to the talks, not simply an external broker. As well as that, any legislative change in the north, for example, can come only from Westminster and not from Dáil Éireann. That inequality of arms means the Irish government has an even bigger role to play, not just as co-guarnators but as enforcers.

The Irish government seems to have forgotten that the Good Friday Agreement was endorsed overwhelmingly by the majority of people throughout Ireland. No one in Britain voted for it, so why should they care if it happens or not? Minister Charlie Flanagan just needs to get stuck in to James Brokenshire and insist that between them come up with an implementation plan for the previous agreements.

Flanagan’s first reaction on RTÉ news when it was announced that talks had broken down was the single-transferable appeal to the parties to keep talking to each other. He didn’t even reference the need for him and Brokenshire to sit down with one another and come up with a plan.

In the coming months it is likely that Fine Gael will have a new leader and consequently a new Taoiseach. It’s fair to say that at this point in time Enda Kenny has a few issues on his plate. Ensuring his party leadership contest is conducted with decorum, handling the thorny issue of the Garda Commissioner and of course, after tomorrow, the impact of Brexit when Article 50 is triggered.

In light of all of this, what should a new leader do? Keep going with the current policy of doing nothing other than restating platitudes? Or rethink the Government’s strategy on the north and how it fits in with Brexit; and get busy fast!

Trade tariffs, borders, curtailment of free movement are all issues that the Irish government will be forced to deal with by Europe. They need the politicians and public opinion in the north on their side when they’re making these deals. Let’s face it, not even the most hardened of Unionists wants to have to show their British passport when they’re going down to the rugby in Landsdowne Road.

The Irish government needs to say to their friends in London: “listen lads, if you think the dreary steeples will be grand if we just do nothing, they won’t. And if you listen to us, when we say Sinn Féin have to get some things, AND if you engage with Unionists, AND if you engage with serious people involved who are on your side (in the way Blair and Ahern did before the Good Friday Agreement, and after) then we might get somewhere. But if you think you can obsess about Brexit and put the north on the back-burner, you’ll regret it, sooner or later.”

Sometimes it just takes the Taoiseach and Prime Minister to chopper in for the afternoon in order to focus minds. Neither seems remotely interested and unless they engage quickly, they will have to deal with the fallout.

Enda Kenny and Charlie Flanagan have probably a couple of weeks, depending on Brokenshire’s timetable, to ensure enforcement of what has already been agreed. That’s what their own electorate voted for. It would be irresponsible for them to leave the vexing issue of the north as a crisis for the incoming Taoiseach to deal with when it the opportunity exists for it to be noted in the first day brief as something to just keep an eye on.