The most important thing that Arlene Foster has just done is to talk to Leo Varadkar for the first time in ages. This was a meeting that was apparently kept under wraps until it had happened. Only a short time before, the Dublin government were saying they were hoping for a meeting “soon.”
This brief encounter opens up the possibility of genuine north-south cooperation to help hammer out an agreement on the border – and perhaps the Assembly – that would suit everyone.
The second most important thing is that in her speech to the Dublin Chamber, she harked back to the last constructive statement ever made by the DUP and Sinn Fein – the analysis in a joint letter to Theresa May of August 2016 above her name and Martin McGuinness’s as FM and dFM that said in terms , that Northern Ireland needed to get the best of both worlds out of Brexit.
The rest of her speech and interview amounts to a softening of position while still insisting that there’s no weakening on the backstop itself.
A role for the Assembly, still unspecified, is being dangled before our eyes by the UK government. Foster appears to accept that the so-called Stormont lock is more of a door handle than a lock. The EU are in principle adamant that a regional assembly such as Stormont cannot have a veto on an agreement struck with a national government. Only yesterday Michel Barnier said it was the duty of the UK government to deliver on Northern Ireland.
So if not a veto, what then? While Foster how shows a willingness to engage, her latest approach is still problematical
“We’re not looking for any control over the European Union, what we are looking for is control over what happens in Northern Ireland and I think that’s a very fair thing to search for… I’ve heard from Europe today … about the majority in Northern Ireland wanting to have the backstop… But if you look at the Belfast [Good Friday] Agreement, it’s about parallel consent, it’s about the consent of nationalism and the consent of unionism.
Parallel consent suggests shifting the forum for decision from Westminster to Stormont and the other institutions of the GFA If so, it’s devoutly to be welcomed. . On the face of it, that weakens the DUP position because 10 votes in Westminster will still count for a lot when it comes to the next set of votes.
How ironic that Foster in now talking about parallel consent which applies only to GFA procedures on the island of Ireland.
But is the DUP admitting they’ve lost their hope of regaining their Westminster veto and are pivoting to the Stormont deadlock?
Or is there a more optimistic reading, that the DUP through a restored Stormont or not, will support special EU status in return for keeping the complexities of customs and regulations to an agreed minimum – something like the old maximum facilitation for Northern Ireland only? They should haul in Queen’s Katy Hayward to guide them through the minefield.
Then they have the little problem of Stormont. Does adding working on Brexit solutions to the mix help restoration? It should do so if the parties expect to be taken seriously. Foster has moved more than an inch towards engagement. What now is the response? Can Varadkar make Sinn Fein feel the pressure?
So then, perhaps the DUP and the Irish government can do business together. Not before time. But who’s complaining if it bears fruit?
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