The Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, Dublin in November 2016 hosted the first All-Ireland Civic Dialogue. To my knowledge no Unionist political representatives were present. Some made a point of not being there; foolish in the light of subsequent events.
It is hard to make a case without dialogue.
The Taoiseach, Enda Kenny TD outlined the difficulties faced by ‘the most significant challenge in 50 years for the Irish economy’ and noted that a majority in Northern Ireland voted to ‘remain’ but that ‘the vote was UK-wide; the result had to be respected.’
He prioritised his aims:
- no return to the border of the past;
- preserve the CTA;
- support the Good Friday and subsequent agreements;
- seek to maintain the closest trading ties between Ireland/ Europe/ UK; and
- close co-operation with London to protect the Good Friday Agreement
It all sounded hopeful and constructive with an emphasis on trade, economy, peace and travel although in outlining a diplomatic initiative across Europe to ensure that Ireland’s interests were high on all agendas, the thought did occur that there could be significant challenges ahead once potentially difficult negotiations started.
It would have been helpful to have had representative Unionist voices present; to at least table that there are two political jurisdictions on the shared island; both meriting respect and parity of esteem.
Current Taoiseach, Micheál Martin TD as leader of the FF opposition followed and his words were briefly re-assuring. He spoke of there being:
…no value in taking narrow political agendas; of a need to work together; to find radical ways of avoiding a chaotic Brexit and flexibility on the single market.
With Ireland now on the same side of the table as the EU, the possibilities which Micheál Martin TD outlined were already presenting as difficult to achieve. Indeed, Ireland and the issues which others were about to raise left the country, the largely disappeared border and the Good Friday Agreement as vulnerable to being leveraged with Article 50 soon to be triggered.
Suggestions coming from NI political representatives reinforced the view. Sinn Fein seeing Brexit as ‘game changer’ tabled the first of many calls for a referendum on Irish Unity and for the whole of the island to stay in the EU. The SDLP urged protection for the majority in the North, in this case ‘remainers’ and a ‘bespoke deal.’
Others called for ‘special status’ for Northern Ireland but cautioned that:
…any solution that would treat the Irish Sea as a border would have implications for the Good Friday Agreement.
Viewed through the prism of being pro-Union and the consent principle of the Good Friday Agreement, the latter was something of an understatement as group identity nationalism subsequently energised to shape a preferred outcome.
At an afternoon Plenary, opportunity presented to caution against turning a discussion about trade and economy into a constitutional issue. A DFA official offered reassurance that this would be avoided.
The Ireland and NI Protocol and the resulting gridlock evidence a target missed as the EU, in seeking to ensure ultimate control in regard to the single market operates in denial of the political and impractical ramifications of the model it seems determined to apply. Political agility is constrained by ideology and selective history in regard to the permanence of ill-conceived treaties which produced as many problems as they were designed to solve. They are not difficult to reference.
Recently the loyalist political party the PUP decided to withdraw its commitment to the Good Friday Agreement and cited the effects of the Ireland/NI Ireland Protocol on the principle of consent and legislative changes which, in its view, weaken the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, the Internal Market Act and allow for divergence from or exclusion from future trade deals which the UK Government may conclude with other countries.
The wisdom of withdrawing support for the Good Friday Agreement is questionable in that for better or worse the political process within which politics are embedded are predicated on this and subsequent agreements but the unease which is voiced, is not exclusive to the PUP.
The point is made that the Ireland/NI Protocol commits to the strands of and consent principle of the Good Friday Agreement but action speaks louder than words and Unionism senses a shift in the political terrain taking place arising from the imposition of a border in the Irish Sea; politically and economically.
It renders the contention of the then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar TD at the last of the All-Island Dialogues in 2019 when he intimated that “a deal could deliver Free Trade … with the UK; East/West and North/South with no tariffs and no borders” as somewhat hollow.
The words of Simon Coveney TD on the same occasion: ‘the EU/ROI wants to be helpful but will not allow Irish interests to be sacrificed’ have proven to be more grounded in realpolitik.
Hardly framed to suggest any inclination to a conciliatory strategy, they shed light on periodic overtures to the White House and the Irish-American lobby as Ireland acts both independently and in concert with the EU.
Such is politics but the effect is that the Ireland/NI Protocol and the Good Friday Agreement have been captured by interest groups in Europe, Dublin and Washington with the people who are most affected, marginalised. The promise of the first All-Ireland Dialogue for negotiated and amicable consensus on ‘free and unfettered trade ‘has given way to economic and technocratic protectionism on the one hand and constitutional damage limitation on the other.
Mature politics bent on consensus as opposed to conflict should be able to deliver better than the tribal patchwork agreement that is the Ireland/NI Protocol. Word is that the UK will draw talks around the Protocol by late December. This leaves a window of opportunity to consider all options.
In 2016 the idea of using the structures within the Good Friday Agreement, with All-Ireland Bodies and over 150 All-Island NGOs and other groups already collaborating on various projects, was first mooted as offering a process that would facilitate unfettered trade North/South and East/West; a means of avoiding a border which no one wants on the island, in the Irish Sea or the Celtic Sea with regulatory oversight akin to the CTA.
It would require creative thinking and political agility as opposed to fragility but by 2017, advocates of the approach were being told it was too late for this thinking as different strategies were adopted. Recently on BBC’s ‘The View’, Lord Empey, former leader of the UUP, raised the proposal again.
In the light of the current impasse is it not worth re-consideration? Would it not signal a return to the respectful spirit of the first All-Ireland Dialogue in 2016 as voiced by the leaders of parties which now share the leadership of the coalition government in Dublin.
A recent survey showed that the NI Protocol is placed as number four on a list of priorities for pro-Union and Unionist voters. There is a note of caution in that, with ‘grace periods’ still in situ, the long-term implications of the Protocol as it sits, are an unknown and priorities can change.
What is does show however is that people recognise the potential for an agreed and pragmatic Protocol firmly grounded within a consensual process to facilitate peace and collaboration on the island across three inter-linking strands; to allow each jurisdiction to grow a strong post-Covid economy.
Brexit has undoubtedly presented a challenge to the stability of the Agreement but the Ireland-NI Protocol is not a viable solution. Political voices are positioning to protect the Good Friday Agreement yet the reluctance to explore its possibilities constructively, is delivering the opposite.
A return to the ‘radical ways’ to which Micheál Martin TD referred in 2016, merits consideration.
The hour’s now come;
The very minute bids thee ope thine ear;
Obey and be attentive.
– Prospero, The Tempest, Act 1, Scene 2
Terry Wright is a former member of the UUP who, in addition to inter- and intra-community activities works independently to promote Civic Unionism.