No threat to the Good Friday Agreement in sight, but bolder joint action is needed after St Patrick’s Day

Traditionally the St Patrick’s Day pilgrimages to America have been occasions for everybody involved in our politics to be on their best behaviour and bask in waves of Irish-American blarney. Not so much this year, as  Arlene Foster and Mary Lou McDonald have been left off the White House invitees list for failing to clinch the deal to get Stormont going again. But Adams and Paisley jnr are lurking in the wings as  living reminders of past glories compared to today’s squalor.

Perhaps from this distance Arlene back home failed to pick up the nuances  when she had a go at Leo Varadkar for a speech on Capitol Hill designed  to stroke  the unionist psyche. The issues are worth laying out at some length.

“I know many are concerned, perhaps worried, perhaps even angry at some recent political developments and I want to recognise that recent statements and recent actions by Irish nationalists, including the Irish government, about Brexit have been seen by some as disrespectful and by others as intrusive or interfering.

And if that was the case, I want to make very clear that that was certainly not our intention, and I want to repeat that we have no hidden agenda. We do not desire a border in the Irish sea any more than we want to see a border between Newry and Dundalk, or between Holyhead and Dublin.”

Glad we cleared that up.  But the damage, if damage it was, had already been done by Leo in Arlene’s eyes.

What I intend to do after Easter once this intense phase of Brexit passes with the EU summit at the end of the month, is to propose a new engagement with the British government for us to try once again after Easter to secure an agreement between the major parties and also all the parties in Northern Ireland “Perhaps one of the best ways we can do this is through joint proposals, a joint paper from the two governments and (Northern Ireland Secretary) Karen Bradley is here in DC and I will have chance to mention that to her today.”

And that was what set Arlene off:

“In keeping with the principle of consent and the three-stranded approach (framework of the Good Friday Agreement) it is not appropriate for the Irish Prime Minister to outline future political steps relating to Northern Ireland and a resumption of talks,” she said.

“Whilst we will work with the Irish government on appropriate issues, the political process is an internal matter and should be taken forward by Her Majesty’s Government.”

With her reputation,  Arlene felt she had to soften the rebuke.

“I recognise and welcome the acknowledgement that many unionists have felt some actions and statements from the Irish government have not been helpful,” said Mrs Foster.

“I recognise too the concerns which exist, particularly within the Republic of Ireland, about Brexit. It is vital however that we work together to secure the best possible outcome for all our citizens.

“In the past I and other DUP ministers did build up good and productive relationships with our counterparts in the Republic which was to the benefit of both countries. I hope the Taoiseach’s comments can represent a return to that more positive working relationship

Leo suggesting a joint paper with Karen constitutes progress from his previous insistence that direct rule would be unacceptable.   But it leaves questions unanswered – why ” unacceptable”? No future is possible without carrying Dublin, everybody knows that.  But what is there in the Good Friday Agreement that makes it ” unacceptable?” Is this no more than nervous nitpicking caused by divisions over Brexit preventing the governments cooperating closely over the Northern breakdown or the beginnings of a more dangerous struggle over the North’s destiny?  The answers are trickier than you might expect after all these years. Like  the Bible itself, there is a broad reading and a narrow reading of the sacred text of the Agreement.  Even two columnists in the Irish Times can come up with contrasting answers.

Stephen Collins awards part of the blame to his own side.

As the blame game over who is responsible for the current impasse continues it was a positive step by the Taoiseach to acknowledge the beam in his own eye rather than focusing on the mote in the eye of others

The problem is that the Taoiseach and his Tánaiste, Simon Coveney, fuelled unionist fears that they have a hidden agenda by references some months ago at a delicate stage in the last phase of the talks to their aspirations for a united Ireland.

Taken in tandem with Sinn Féin’s renewed campaign for a united Ireland and repeated emphasis by nationalists of all hues to the fact that a majority in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU it is hardly a surprise that unionists jumped to the conclusion that there was a conspiracy against them

In the Brexit talks the unrelenting focus of the Government on the need to avoid a hard border has come to be regarded by unionists as part of the campaign for a united Ireland rather than being seen for what it is: a logical attempt to ensure that the impact of Brexit is minimised for both parts of the island.

.. the Taoiseach said progress would require very close co-operation and leadership from the two governments, but he didn’t repeat his call for the triggering of the Ministerial Council which is anathema to unionists as a vehicle for dealing with internal Northern Ireland issues.

 

It may only be a matter of semantics but Varadkar’s carefully chosen words on the way forward demonstrated a new awareness of just how carefully everybody needs to act if there is to be any chance of the Belfast Agreement finally reaching its potential.

Only a matter of semantics?  The Belfast agreement finally reaching its potential? Newton Emerson sees the Agreement “ fading not with a bang but a whimper”  due to Karen Bradley’s “clear unprecedented breach “ in setting a Northern Ireland  budget last week. 

 Half the clauses in the 1998 Act relate to the precise operation of the Stormont executive and assembly. Tweaking just a few of those clauses after devolution last collapsed required the 2006 St Andrews agreement and its associated Acts of parliament – a careful and inclusive process managed jointly by London and Dublin…

She then announced the British government would consider “different arrangements” to devolution until an executive is restored, and invited the Northern Ireland parties “and others” to make proposals on how “local decision-making and scrutiny on a cross-community basis might be achieved”.

This came close to quietly declaring the Belfast Agreement dead.

Bradley assured the Commons that in parking strand one “we will continue to work closely with the Irish Government in full accordance with the three-stranded approach”.

This claim does not add up. Irish Ministers form half of the other two strands, and Dublin has joint ownership, via the treaty, of the whole structure. London cannot unpick one strand on its own.

 Emerson is jumping to conclusions  on the basis of inadequate evidence. Here he is switching  from a narrow reading of the Agreement – over the role of the EU in it  for example –   to a broad reading today. It’s quite true that Bradley unilaterally announced  very limited action to fill   the Stormont vacuum – “ working with the Irish government as appropriate,” and this is a good deal cooler than the backslapping style of Blair and Ahern. It protects the British prerogatives in Strand One and proposes no constitutional change.  But here she is  bending  over backwards to get it right at some length, as she sees it. This is what she told the Commons on the point.

I have an obligation to take these and any other measures that are necessary to keep Northern Ireland functioning, but I will only take such measures where they are essential, limited in nature and part of a clear and consistent approach by the Government.

This approach is based on a number of principles. First, we remain steadfast in our commitment to the Belfast agreement; all that we do will be with the purpose of protecting and fulfilling the agreement. But, secondly, we will take those decisions that are necessary to provide good governance and political stability for Northern Ireland, consistent always with restoring the Executive and local decision making at the earliest possible opportunity. Thirdly, we will continue to implement our obligations under the agreement and its successors where possible, always working for the good of the community as a whole. Finally, we will continue to work with all the Northern Ireland parties—and with the Irish Government as appropriate—to remove the barriers to restoring the Executive and a fully functioning Assembly.

The principles at the core of the agreement, and the political institutions that it establishes, continue to have our full and unreserved support. We will uphold the principle of consent, consistent with this Government’s support for Northern Ireland’s place within the Union and while maintaining the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom. We believe in devolution and the imperative for local decision making by local politicians. We support power sharing on a cross-community basis, based on mutual respect and recognition. We will continue to support and facilitate north-south co-operation, including as we leave the EU, while always preserving the economic integrity of the United Kingdom. We will continue to work closely with the Irish Government in full accordance with the three-stranded approach. And we will continue to act fairly and govern in the interests of all parts of the community in Northern Ireland.

The necessary steps that I have taken and will continue to take are consistent with all these commitments.

As she is referring to Strand One it is doubtful that there is a technical breach of the Agreement .But it is true that the handling of the Stormont breakdown has been different from both the GFA and the St Andrew’s’ Agreement. St Andrew’s involved quite a bit more than “a few tweaks”. They were negotiated in grand set piece conferences involving the premiers on site in close liaison.  In contrast the long staggered process of the recent abortive negotiations, the talks were largely bilateral and  hands off by the governments.  The British were not in the room never mind the Irish. The excuse offered was that devolution had been finally established at St Andrew’s and it was up to the parties to get on with it, after two previous patch up efforts in 2014 and 2016. I didn’t hear the Irish object.

Bad tactics they  probably were but Emerson is telescoping events.  Is it argued that Dublin should have a say in raising the rates or reforming the health service? True, Varadakar would seem keener than the preoccupied May  to try to rescue the Stormont talks in the short term   But he is very  right when he says:

    “To me, Brexit is a threat to the Good Friday agreement simply because it threatens to drive a wedge between Britain and Ireland, between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and potentially between the two communities in Northern Ireland. And that’s why we must do all that we can to make sure that those wedges, that that risk, does not become reality.”

“I think for unionists – and I take no pleasure in this – it also creates risks for the union itself because it asks Scotland and Northern Ireland to leave the European Union even though the majority of people in both those countries voted not to do so.”

Everyone word of that is sympathetic. Varadkar’s assurances of good faith are credible. They are  distinct from his highly understandable fears for the consequences of Brexit  The two are complementary not contradictory.

These speeches separately show the GFA is far from dying. Although the present UK government is more sensitive about its sovereign  prerogatives than its new Labour predeccessors- more English nationalist but less confident maybe – there is nothing from the British side to suggest that an initiative from Varadkar is unwelcome. The snail’s pace of their approach to following up on the breakdown shows fundamental respect for Dublin’s position. Perhaps it marks a difference from the past, that the Irish premier felt it necessary to suggest a renewed joint effort in a public  speech in Washington. But the keystone of the Agreements, the British-Irish relationship, is as fundamental as ever. And the time for bolder joint action is overdue.

 

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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