Changing Shared Island to Shared Ireland will invite defence, not collaboration.

There was much packed into the recent Ireland’s Future event at the SSE arena but little debate. Apart from the mild rebuke of former UDA member and loyalist politician David Adams arising from comments by an unnamed member of the Irelands’ Future Board in a newspaper column, most of the panel members were of the same mind.

Presumably, happy contributors to what Professor Colin Harvey referred to as “the growing coalition for constitutional change”; sharing common if narrow purpose and building the narrative of the inevitable direction of political change on the island of Ireland.

It was a theme with which former – did he go or was he pushed – Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar TD, was happy to address in one of what were termed fireside chats.

The first was with First Minister, Michelle O’Neill MLA. It was not one of the most searching of interrogations she will ever experience. There was much reference to comfort zones on some panels. She was not required to vacate hers.

The second of the fireside chats involving the former Taoiseach was the more interesting thanks to the occasionally more loaded questions posed by guest interviewer Jim Fitzpatrick. Sensitivity to the preferences of the unionist and pro-union constituency is hardly one of Leo Varadkar’s greatest attributes.

It is no surprise then that comments, which captured the headlines later, related to his endorsement of Ireland’s Future and thoughts on a more specific and funded role for the Government, of which he was once a member, in promoting its core aims.

In addition, he advocated its having a greater say than envisaged within the Good Friday Agreement, in establishing criteria for a border poll and a more strategic role for the Shared Island project in working towards the demise of Northern Ireland as a separate jurisdiction.

He might wish to re-familiarise himself with the Agreement and set aside the political muscle memory and overreach of his periods as Taoiseach. No date was mentioned but Shared Ireland rather than Shared Island appears to be his preference; envisaged as an entrenching mechanism for ‘growing into unity.’

Gerry Adams seated in the front row must have heard echoes of a ‘trojan horse.’

Leo Varadker’s proposed hidden in plain sight strategy seems to sit comfortably with using the soft power of socio-economic resources for a more sharply defined political objective than that outlined by Micheál Martin TD whose emphasis for Shared Island, when launched, focused on collaboration and areas of mutual interest; keeping out of the ruts.

More than his erstwhile colleague, he seems to appreciate you cannot be both persuasive and abrasive. Changing Shared Island to Shared Ireland will invite defence, not collaboration. I can envisage some who have participated, saying ‘this is not what we signed up for.’

DUP politicians always reluctant to engage, at least openly, with All Island Bodies have in conversation expressed disquiet at what they see as a Shared Island Initiative dominated by Irish priorities and research organisations.

Their view, justified or otherwise, is that when meeting with Leo Varadkar as Taoiseach, he displayed little empathy with unionism. He was ‘hard work’ suggests one senior figure. The feeling is likely reciprocated.

He would not be the first to find that being in conversation with some DUP members is like being ‘alone.’ Too many politicians prefer to sit in the tension rather than finding connection points.

The former Taoiseach’s comments at the SSE were unsurprisingly well received; much more so than those calling for a more meaningful apology for IRA violence.

During his ‘chat’, Leo Varadkar was questioned if his suggestions would undermine the Good Friday Agreement. He was somewhat unclear but came down on the side of thinking ‘not.’ It was also unclear if he had discussed his proposal with policy makers in Dublin.

If he was just thinking aloud his comments must have seemed like a godsend to Ireland’s Future already calling for the Dublin Government to be more pro-active in planning for their preferred future.

It now enjoys the endorsement of a former Taoiseach, still on the back-benches and seemingly prepared to act as political conduit for the Ireland’s Future agenda. His period in office will not be reassuring for those who do not share his freshly stated ambition,

In referring to his post-Brexit actions he reminded the audience of his priority of protecting Ireland’s position within the European Union and ensuring that there would be no border on the island of Ireland – foot and mouth precautions and bus searches for illegal immigrants excepted, presumably.

What he failed to recollect was that his actions and policy positions in seeking with Europe to let the British stew in a mess of their own making also put the peace process under strain and appeared as designed to distance Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom, politically and economically.

His latest ‘proving his republican credentials’ comments lend weight to this interpretation. Or is he just seeking a new role?

If, as some suggest, his ambitions lie in Europe he would do well to encourage greater flexibility in Brussels when dealing with Northern Ireland and any new British Government wishing for closer ties with the EU across a number of areas.

No votes have been cast yet in the UK General Election but polls, beyond this, point to latent unease and distrust within the broad pro-Union constituency regarding the Windsor Framework and Safeguarding the Union. This is inevitably visited on relations at Stormont and in the wider community.

It is not conducive to reconciliation which the former Taoiseach identified as problematic.

Whatever the case, it seems he has learned little of the necessity for respecting all of the Good Friday Agreement, not least the principle of consent which he suggests Shared Island should be used to challenge and undermine.

He did at least recognise the wisdom in the oft-quoted but historically ignored words of W B Yeats in the Seanad with regard to the treatment of the Protestant and Unionist minority in the new Irish Free State which ‘was sectarian in character’ and linked these to the need for those who seek a United Ireland to co-design any new all island model with representatives of the pro-Union and ‘other’ constituencies’.

One of the other participants seemed to suggest – was it tongue in cheek – that a new Ireland could take its place in a changing Commonwealth, with a new anthem and flag.

Leo Varadkar avoided going there although he did suggest ways in which Northern Ireland needs to sort itself out by referring to the necessity for integrated education and building reconciliation.

Quite how his suggestions for policy change on Shared Island and relations with the United Kingdom, for such would be central to any Dublin government taking a more pro-active stance in shaping criteria for a referendum, will contribute to this, is anybody’s guess.

I am not sure the former Taoiseach knows.

Like certain Unionist politicians, Leo Varadkar’s views suggest he is too inclined to disjointed awareness and emotional inclinations to be taken seriously when considering how best to protect the consensual bedrock of the Good Friday Agreement across all its strands

Relations become fragile when politicians and political parties abandon the structural process for resolving contentious issues and determining positive policies; without passing through discussion and discovery on the way.

History has shown that is politics  can too often descend into a sectarian interface and theatre for inter-governmental stand-offs; within and beyond Stormont. Northern Ireland does not need this or the careless chatter of a former Taoiseach.

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