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Northern Ireland back on agenda as Brexit and Foster raise hackles in the Republic

By David McKittrick

Recent years, it has often been said, saw the ushering in of a golden age in Anglo-Irish relations, with many old issues laid to rest and general agreement on both sides of the Irish Sea on how to deal with Northern Ireland.

Violence has almost entirely ended, Stormont was trundling along, if not smoothly then at least without fear of catastrophic collapse. Irish republicanism had, amazingly, through Martin McGuinness, built a relationship with British royalty.

Until recently, Northern Ireland had almost slipped off the political agendas of Dublin and London, both coming to regard Belfast these days as only mildly troublesome.

But suddenly all has changed, changed utterly. The Republic is seriously at odds with Britain over Brexit and the inevitable new border and is increasingly at odds with northern nationalism, which now seems firmly in the grip of Sinn Fein.

Meanwhile, a whole new front of conflict has now opened up during this election campaign between Dublin and unionism.

Arlene Foster never had many enthusiastic fans south of the border, but her truculence has had a marked effect within the southern intelligentsia.

In addition to conversations in southern pubs and coffee-houses, the Irish Times provides obvious evidence for this.

A recent editorial, contrasting with the paper's familiar criticisms of Sinn Fein, denounced Mrs Foster for a "most fundamental failure", accusing her of "allowing old animosities to fester and showing an unwillingness to abandon deep-rooted antipathies".

Two of the paper's most important columnists were scarcely less critical. Fintan O'Toole was particularly scathing, declaring of the DUP: "The stereotype was that Catholics were dodgy and sleazy, while Protestants were straight and upright."

But Cash for Ash and other episodes, he went on, "has ensured that nobody can ever again trot out the notion that Catholics bend rules, while Protestants respect them, without being blown over by gusts of laughter".

Columnist and leading barrister Noel Whelan wrote of Mrs Foster's reference to crocodiles: "To those of us in the Republic this exposed publicly the arrogance and antagonism that Sinn Fein and others had long told us they have had to endure in private."

It had, he said, dispelled notions that a more modern and open unionism might be emerging.

Such southern disillusion with unionism will not, of course, mean any warmer attitude towards Sinn Fein among the southern authorities and major parties.

Republicans have never shaken off their pariah status in the Dail, where Gerry Adams provides a daily living reminder of the Troubles and Northern Ireland in general. There is also the fact that Sinn Fein continues to build support in the Republic, slowly but surely: the latest opinion poll this week puts the party at 21%, with the personal rating of Adams even higher, at 29%.

The south played a major part in the peace process, through figures such as Albert Reynolds and Bertie Ahern, who helped shepherd the republicans into mainstream politics.

But at the time of the Good Friday Agreement, few in Dublin ever envisaged that Sinn Fein would build such an apparently durable powerbase south of the border.

Enda Kenny, in six years as Taoiseach, has devoted little time to matters northern, but now Dublin expects to be involved in the negotiations which will go on for weeks - and most probably months - in the wake of this election.

Mr Kenny is expected to step down in the next few months, leaving in charge one of half-a-dozen contenders for the job.

None of these has any direct experience of Northern Ireland.

Whoever is next in will, thanks to Mrs Foster, not start with the belief that every northern difficulty stems from Sinn Fein and that none of the problems are due to unionist attitudes.

But the most disruptive element of all is expected to be Brexit, which has already injected such unwelcome new tensions into British-Irish relations.

The prolonged European negotiations will bring many more difficulties into play, complicating an already complex situation.

That golden age of Anglo-Irish relations looks on the way to becoming tarnished.

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