Belfast Telegraph

It's simple, Simon Coveney - just leave the DIY to people in Northern Ireland

The Republic's foreign minister has blundered into a constitutional row he could - and should - have avoided, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

We've all done it. You move into a new house and, rather than taking time to settle in, you get straight down to work, making changes, pulling down this, putting up that.

After a few weeks, you wish you'd waited a while longer before blundering in with a hammer, because you've made a right pig's ear of the job and have to start again.

Simon Coveney, Ireland's new minister for foreign affairs, would have done well to heed this advice.

The Corkman had barely stepped through our door before he was embarking on a little DIY of his own.

Out went the cautious, low-key approach of old. In came a new, in-your-face bullishness, as if Coveney saw Northern Ireland as a 'doer-upper' that needed knocked into shape - and preferably knocked through into next door as well to make a larger property to fit his ambitions.

This might've been expected from Fianna Fail, though the self-styled 'Republican party' seems to understand these days that Irish unity, should it ever happen, will be about more than getting a '50% plus one' victory in a border poll and then hoping for the best.

Instead, the new minister belongs to Fine Gael, generally derided by those of a nationalist bent as 'West Brits', more intent on bending the knee to the British, rather than raising it to give them a sharp dig between the legs.

He's called Simon, for heaven's sake. No one expects trouble from a man called Simon.

Coveney appears determined to upset expectations in more ways than one, not only egging on Sinn Fein in its demands for an Irish Language Act, but echoing much of the party's broader disdain towards unionists, which Gerry Adams memorably summed up in a word that questioned their parentage.

With delicate diplomacy needed following the collapse of Stormont, Simon opted to wade in, intent on a scrap, culminating in the Minister for Foreign Affairs' announcement, as he returned to Belfast for yet another attempt to break the deadlock, that direct rule could - and would - not be reimposed without Dublin's consent.

"There can be no British-only direct rule," was how he put it, bluntly. "Oh yes there can," unionists duly responded, as if it was still pantomime season, threatening to unseat the Tory government if the Prime Minister gave ground.

There are plenty of constitutional experts who'd argue that joint sovereignty already exists in all but name and has done since the Belfast Agreement; but, if so, then both sides have always been careful, for good reason, not to make that too explicit.

Coveney rudely shouldered those diplomatic niceties aside, apparently forgetting that the joint authority which he craves would not just mean fixing a shiny plaque on the entrance to some fancy cross-border quango. It would also mean taking on ministerial responsibility for hospitals, schools, roads, welfare.

These are the practical problems with which Secretary of State James Brokenshire and civil servants are grappling as they discuss what to do if Stormont cannot be restored. It's not about grand constitutional issues, but day-to-day solutions to keep the place running.

Is Coveney offering to put his back to that wheel? Or does he just want the glory of boasting that the Republic has the final say? Come to think of it, is the Irish government willing to stump up the cost of running the place it claims to half-own? No, didn't think so.

The Republic's government has enough problems of its own - not least a housing crisis, which has left three homeless people dead in the past week - without launching a sudden land grab.

The least that can be expected from those intent on acting as if they run the place is that they don't do anything to make a bad situation worse.

Coveney failed that test. Not only is there continuing stalemate between the two main parties, there's now a stand-off between north and south and Simon Coveney has tested relations with London by yanking the rug out from under any effort by the Secretary of State to use the threat of direct rule to concentrate minds.

Not bad for a few seconds in front of a microphone, minister.

This new attitude in Dublin naturally alarms unionists, who were used to the more cautious approach of Coveney's predecessor, Charlie Flanagan, while pleasing Sinn Fein, whose representatives have been swallowing their usual distaste for Fine Gael to shower the new minister with praise.

They'll turn on him the moment he stops being useful, needless to say, but for now it's like watching a substitute run on to the pitch in the middle of a game and repeatedly trip over his own feet whilst he finds his pace.

It takes a certain arrogance to come off the bench and go flying in like that, studs bared, but the last few months provide one key to explaining Coveney's behaviour.

He stood in the contest to succeed Enda Kenny as Taoiseach, winning the backing of party members, but losing out, because of a weighted voting system, which gave more importance to the votes of fellow politicians.

The hungry Coveney is still a young man and may be positioning himself for a second bite at the cherry if and when the opportunity arises.

There's also a looming election to consider. The next one isn't officially due to take place until April 2021, but no one expects the shaky minority government in Dublin to last that long.

That's why parties in the Republic are in election mode right now, though none are admitting it openly. It suits Coveney to play this tough, no-nonsense act to bolster Fine Gael against traditional charges of being soft on the "national question".

Meanwhile, potential partners are making coy overtures to Sinn Fein in the expectation that Adams' party will hold the balance of power.

Messages from Dublin have to be interpreted in that light. In Northern Ireland, by contrast, unionists have already struck a post-election deal with the Tories and are digging in for the long term.

They're not in the mood to let Dublin play silly beggars in pursuit of a few floating votes and definitely not when the Provos are itching for a border poll. As for London, it's preoccupied with Brexit.

If the current political situation was a Venn diagram, it would show three circles marked Belfast, London and Dublin backed up into their own separate corners and not overlapping at all. Simon Coveney has made the distance between them look all the greater.

Time to give up the amateur DIY, minister, and leave repairs to people who actually have to live in the house you're tinkering with.

Belfast Telegraph

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