an Taioseach Micheál Martin
On the grand coalition’s approach to the Irish future, the Trinity academic Etain Tannam has noticed important changes in the final version of the Programme for Government
The final version in June differed quite significantly from the draft version in April.
The 2020 Programme for Government provides a detailed long-term plan and creates a new unit in the Department of the Taoiseach to ‘work towards a consensus on a shared island’. It seeks to energise the North-South Ministerial Council (strand 2 of the Good Friday Agreement), as well as the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIGC) and the British-Irish Council (BIC) (Strand 3 of the Good Friday Agreement). It also seeks to ‘expand and develop’ mechanisms for engagement between the Irish parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the UK parliament and the devolved assemblies in Scotland and Wales. It pledges to prioritise regular bilateral engagements between both governments across all sectors and to deepen relations with devolved governments in Wales and Scotland. In short, the new programme for government provides a detailed plan that guides policy in the context of UK’s departure from the EU for the next 4 years, if not longer.
The second reason the programme is noteworthy is its sensitivity to unionist concerns. Unionists have tended to perceive that Irish governments facilitate nationalist aims and that the BIIGC increases Irish interference in Northern Ireland. UK governments also have tended to downplay the BIIGC and have posited bilateral frameworks outside the Good Friday Agreement to deal with the post-Brexit period. Therefore, it is noteworthy that the Shared Island document and the new unit in the Department of the Taoiseach do not refer to a united Ireland. The document frequently refers to the aim of building consensus for a shared island. In addition, the document, although it mentions the BIIGC, does so towards the end and it does so alongside new bilateral frameworks outside the Good Friday Agreement. It also frequently refers to working with the Northern Ireland Executive and the UK government, presumably to reassure unionists that it will not go over the heads of the Executive. It is also striking that the above features were emphasised more strongly in the final draft than in the April draft.
The draft document stated that the new unit in the Department of the Taoiseach seeks to build a ‘united’ island. The final document states that it seeks to build a ‘shared’ island. Thus, the document deliberately separates reconciliation and pragmatic cooperation from a united Ireland. By so doing, contrary to some nationalist criticism of the 1st draft that it aimed to achieve unification by parallel consent of both communities, it does not undermine the Good Friday Agreement’s stipulation that unification must occur if a majority of the Northern Ireland electorate (51%) support it.
“Dáil Éireann – Election of An Taoiseach – 27 June 2020” by Houses of the Oireachtas is licensed under CC BY
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