Dublin’s ‘shared island’ narrative signals an intent to save the institutions of the Belfast Agreement by actually using them

I really warmed to Brian Walker’s perceptive (if someone rhetorical) question in his headline (drawing directly on Etain Tannan’s work) last week, which read “From united Ireland to a united island to a shared island. What’s in a phrase?

It’s a good question, not because there is a difference in this government’s policy and the last (it’s not actually a policy, more a shift in the frame through which policy might later flow), but as Brian has noted, the change occurred in the drafting of the PfG…

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.

One of the most discomfiting things about the last government’s north-south policy wasn’t so much that it was wrong, but more that it didn/t actually seem to exist for much of the time. Sure there were speeches, and rhetoric, but very little action.

What emerges from this months’ long process of wrangling is something quite different to what was initially put on the table, which suggests to me quite a lot of thought may have been put into (at least by someone, if not all around the table itself).

These frames are quite distinct. One sets an open question which calls for divergent answers and participation from a maximal range of players. The other derives from a closed question that already contains its own predetermined and definitive answer.

The second model provides very few opportunities that new players can buy into. The first asks no constitutional entrance fee before you can play. This is an absolutely key distinction. It does not guarantee success but it tips government towards action.

It will help too that it sits in the place where the current Cabinet Office sits in Whitehall, ie at the confluence of all departmental activity, in the Department of the Taoiseach (which is what Cummings and Co are trying to effect in London just now).

The absence of a clear future-focused action-oriented narrative has given prominence to the closed narrative of a border poll. Not only is it impractical to call one, but it is an option on a commodity that those pushing for have stubbornly declined to detail.

It is like selling junk bonds in a market where the consumer (ie, the voter) has absolutely zero access to any product information. Just check Google in the last ten years to see how often it has been issued without anything remotely resembling a prospectus?

More importantly, regardless of where it came from, it now gives the new Taoiseach Micheál Martin the chance to call time on the repetition of such grindingly empty phrases. This morning the Irish Times reported

Mr Martin told The Irish Times he would take a “pragmatic” approach and seek to promote “practical” co-operation between North and South and would not be pushing the British government for a Border poll.

He said there were “two different philosophies and two approaches at work – one is just have a Border poll and get a majority, but mine is much more rooted in the Good Friday Agreement … a consensus approach”.

Now before people leap in, that’s not a simple ‘hit Sinn Féin’ conspiracy/agenda line. It goes much deeper than that, to the one cause that unites Micheál Martin’s own party’s historic mission with modern (ie, Provisional) Sinn Féin’s…

“The over-focus on the Border poll was too divisive and too partisan and ran counter to what Sinn Féin wanted to achieve. That is my view. I favour a different approach. For example, I favour a stronger North-South dimension now.

He said Ms McDonald wanted to adopt “a more territorial, majoritarian approach whereas I prefer to develop a more consensus approach”. [Emphasis added]

Martin is also absolutely in line with Articles 2 and 3 in the Bunreacht na hÉireann, in which unity of the people clearly comes before any attempt to unify territory on a faux majoritarian principle that’s at odds with the spirit if not the letter of the GFA.

In material terms, Martin’s premiership ought to mark a return to full and muscular use of all three strands of the Belfast Agreement, which is…

  • Stormont, with local politicians in control of most critical areas of domestic policy
  • North-South bodies and Ministerial council for practical cooperation over the extension of these policies
  • UK/NI/Republic framework for macro co-ordination over infrastructure and investment strategies within and between the islands

Much of the last twenty years has consisted of political ball watching and just being content to block each other. That may continue whatever changes Martin and Dublin tries to bring about, but it has at least singled it intention to get things moving.

And he personally doesn’t have an awful lot of time to do it in. But it is my own feeling that the electorate in Northern Ireland are little fed up with the lack of ambition and delivery from their own domestic politicians. It’s time we all asked for more.

Our potential is certainly a lot better than it has previously been taken to be…

“When we treat man as he is we make him worse than he is. When we treat him as if he already was what he potentially could be, we make him what he should be.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Good Friday Agreement” by trendingtopics is licensed under CC BY