Whatever happened to the ‘designated parents’ role in the Belfast Agreement?

As ever, the breakdown of Stormont, and the inability of the two main parties to agree on anything substantive is being treated as a novelty. In fact, when you put two ideologically rigid parties in a rigid system breakdown is merely the status quo.

As Siobhan Fenton recalled with admirable clarity on Monday, the Belfast Agreement was the product of a liberal rather than the fanatical mindset that presently dominates thinking in both the DUP and Sinn Fein:

Brian Feeney in today’s Irish News notes that the non-fanatical guarantors of that international treaty have been asleep at the wheel for some time:

Micheál Martin had a point in the Dáil when he laid the blame for the present impasse at the door of the two governments but then ruined it because he couldn’t resist the obligatory dig at Sinn Féin and the DUP as ‘dysfunctional’.

Nevertheless, there’s validity in Martin’s criticism. True, he can’t have it both ways blaming London and Dublin but also taking a side swipe at the two main parties here.

The fact is that since 1985 until 2010 it’s been an axiom that together London and Dublin supervise and jointly manage what happens here. Since then, Martin said, the Irish government has taken their foot off the accelerator. That’s putting it mildly.

No fan of any British PM, Feeney pins the blame for this distancing from Northern Ireland on Cameron (“an arrogant, careless dilettante”) who made a virtue of never being available to the frequent appeals from Sinn Fein in particular.

The greater problem is the absence of any overarching relationship on Northern Ireland between the Republic and the UK (Strand Two Three)…

For their part the Irish government simply disengaged from the north. Eamon Gilmore, a former Stickie who had, shall we say, issues with Sinn Féin, hardly took the place under his notice.

Charlie Flanagan could only see northern nationalists through the magnifying glass of Sinn Féin in the Dáil. Sometimes you could hardly distinguish his contributions at talks in Stormont from the British line.


Varadkar’s government is now paying the price for Enda Kenny’s complete detachment from the north and years of letting the British and DUP do what they like. As far as Kenny and his government were concerned the more difficult things were for Sinn Féin the better.

All the while the Good Friday Agreement atrophied as Kenny’s government never asserted its right to be involved or consulted even in economic matters.

Monday last week was a perfect example of such absent-minded parenting. Called in at the very last minute by the semi-autonomous NIO, both the British Prime Minister and Taoiseach came running into what proved to be yet another political void.

The Belfast Agreement is an international treaty, not some Calvinistic promise from the almighty of eternal salvation. It needs work, investment and diplomacy mixed with a goodly sum of hard tack politics.

Both governments have been guilty of devolving most of their political intelligence/thinking to a very small cadre of what we (really, it’s not a joke) used to call the Imperial Civil Servants in the NIO.

Fianna Fail’s Twitter jibe that the three-fold expansion of the Irish Government’s Strategic Communications Unit now outnumbers those working on Brexit or Northern Ireland is very hard to rebuff in the case of the latter.

With the inevitable re-imposition of warm storage, the clock turns back, not to the much fabled ‘joint authority‘, but to an updated version of the Anglo Irish Agreement of 1985 (over which both the DUP and Sinn Fein created mayhem).

The irony is that this time the antics of the last eleven years have made direct rule by the British a far more popular cross-community option than it ever was in the 1980s.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty