At a time when all parties in Northern Ireland are feeling isolated and sorry for themselves for some reasons beyond their control and others self inflicted, it’s worth noting the two recent visits to Derry by senior ministers of both states. While these differed in style, purpose and content, both emphasise the basic British and Irish engagement that continues despite present tensions and breakdown.
Earlier this month the Tánaiste Simon Conveney visited the unionist Fountain estate as well as the Bogside. The Fountain is a much reduced enclave behind a peace wall outside Bishop’s Gate right up against the Walls. It needs its own special entrances and exits. As has been reported even on the UK national media, attacks on the Fountain by dissident republicans have escalated to the level of petrol bombing for the first time in years.
Coveney was gracious as he deplored the dissident attacks on their homes and in turn was well received, following a tradition begun by Mary Robinson as president and followed by her two successors. Without exaggerating its significance Dublin politicians are upping their respect for diversity a notch as we’ve seen in Leo Varadar’s s visit to the Orange Order’s HQ last month. But the most impressive gesture I can recall was on another tack, when the then foreign minister, now Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin faced young dissidents in Lurgan’s Kilwilkie estate in 2010. That’s an approach that bears repetition today.
Back in Derry, in the first visit for five years from “a senior British cabinet minister, (NI Secretaries of State don’t rate as senior with the Derry Journal), the Chancellor Philip Hammond urged local worthies to apply for City Deal finance. Let’s hope his suggestion hints at success. As far as I know, Hammond betrayed little or no personal knowledge of the place itself and made no contacts beyond the obligatory visit to a factory. But his brief presence emphasised his importance as the person who finally holds the purse strings for Derry and the North generally.
I don’t think either minister has an ulterior political motive. They both have a sense of responsibility, particularly perhaps because of the Stormont stand-off.
It’s only natural that Dublin politicians know the content and nuance of political discourse so much better than their London equivalents. When I was starting out hardly any of them from either capital knew much about the place. Leading Fianna Fail figures like Sean MacEntee and Frank Aitken hardly spoke of their northern roots. In the early 70s, feeling guilty about ignoring northern nationalists for decades, the Dublin government would dispatch the likes of Brian Lenihan senior up the Dunadry Inn to spread well- watered charm and bonhomie to a select few. This was just after the era of Jack Lynch’s “we shall not stand idly by TV speech” during the battle of the Bogside in 1969, the arms smuggling to the resurgent IRA and finally the howls of protest over Bloody Sunday in early 1972. Via the difficult route of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 there was a lot of ground to make up before they became generally well received.
The English kept their distance in a different way. As a schoolboy I stood beside Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell arriving late in Derry in 1961 after the Governor’s car he’d been lent broke down on the Glenshane Pass. The grandest Tories had a few social links with the now vanished grandees of the Unionist establishment. Ted Heath was friendly with Robin Chichester Clark MP for Londonderry and even gave him a junior government job for as few brief months in 1973-4. But in the main the Conservatives kept their distance. Labour under Harold Wilson loathed the Unionists for their then automatic support for the Tories with whom they were affiliated.
The Troubles especially after Direct Rule and the development of modern political communications changed everything. Senior politicians operated from behind security screens and the constraints of office. Brexit has done damage to British-Irish relations but probably not as much as Peter Robinson suggests. The incentives to repair them are too strong for a long sulk. British commitment could do with a greater personal touch from a largely absentee secretary of state to match the gold standard set by the joint appearance of John Major and Tony Blair during the referendum campaign. (At least it worked here!).
Some distance from Northern politicians is inevitable for as long as the party system in Northern Ireland is separate from the systems in either London and Dublin. Sinn Fein alone cannot close the gap. Brexit has shown we matter to them but in ways that relate more to metropolitan than local concerns. The Northern songs of loyalty are not always in tune with the main themes. It was ever thus. We remain a people and a place apart but not altogether forgotten and ignored. Whatever happens in the stately minuets of diplomacy, these visits and their impact and outcomes go to the heart of the British-Irish relationship. They are also evidence that the relationship is not narrowly defined by the northern parties alone.
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