Belfast Telegraph

Stormont crisis: Blundering minister Coveney must take step back and look at bigger picture

The surprise support for a stand-alone Irish Language Act by Dublin’s new Foreign Affairs Minister was dangerously divisive and suggests there may be more Sinn Fein sanitising to come, writes Irish political commentator Eoghan Harris.

I believe that if Charlie Flanagan rather than Simon Coveney had been Minister for Foreign Affairs, Sinn Fein would have been forced to restore devolved government in Northern Ireland by last Thursday's deadline.

That's because by supporting Sinn Fein's demand for a stand-alone Irish Language Act, Coveney raised Sinn Fein expectations to an excessive level that could not be met.

Supporting a key Sinn Fein demand was the culmination of a number of clangers by Coveney since he took over from Charlie Flanagan, starting with his floating the special status notion which he was forced to withdraw.

But it also marked the third day of the most tribal week I can recall for almost 30 years, as British politicians and media, supported by RTE, begrudged Arlene Foster's brilliant deal on behalf of all the people of Northern Ireland.

Let me set the scene for what smacked of a sectarian reaction. Last Saturday, Gerry Adams made nice to unionists at a Belfast meeting. Tommie Gorman compared his language to that of John Hume and Wolfe Tone. But to me the subtext of Adams' speech smacked less of Wolfe Tone and more of The Wolfe Tones. As Professor Arthur Aughey of Ulster University once observed, nobody does "sinister patronising" better than Adams.

As an advocate of close reading, let me point to just one example.

Adams called on unionists to be positive "instead of concentrating on the negative aspects of our four centuries of shared history".

The "four centuries" remark was to remind Northern Protestants they are blow-ins, not natives.

Next day, Sunday, confirmed my conviction that Sinn Fein is thrilled to be dealing with a Peter Barry-style pan-nationalist like Simon Coveney rather than a pluralist like Charlie Flanagan, who has always been sceptical of Sinn Fein.

Ivan Yates, on his Sunday show, asked Mary Lou McDonald, the next leader of Sinn Fein in the Republic, if she detected any difference between Simon and Charlie Flanagan. She did. She preferred Simon to Charlie. "I take from Simon Coveney a real appetite to get things done. I can certainly say he is engaged, perhaps more engaged than his predecessor."

On the following day, Monday, Arlene Foster did a historic deal with Theresa May that benefited every man, woman and child in Northern Ireland.

Just before she stepped out the door of No 10 Downing Street, bracing herself to meet the media, Foster was thrilled to see a vase of sunflowers, her father's favourite.

Foster was eight years of age when she heard gunshots as her father, John Kelly, crawled into the kitchen with blood pouring from his head.

The sunflowers were a reminder of who she was before she became a deal-maker in Downing Street - a farmer's daughter from the townland of Dernawilt. Foster is a Fermanagh woman, down to earth, racy of the soil, the sort of rural politician who would be at home among the country deputies of Fine Gael or Fianna Fail.

She is more Irish than the tribal trendies in RTE who called in leftie British politicians like Peter Hain to denigrate her deal.

And what a deal. Roughly £540.07 per head for every woman, man and child in Northern Ireland.

Sinn Fein had been outclassed and outflanked - and knew it. But even Adams knew he had to welcome the deal. "We may be able to say well done Arlene, when we have the Executive in place."

But RTE News is not as soft as Sinn Fein. RTE's Six One News was a tribal threnody of begrudgery and negativity about a deal done by a party of Irishmen and women on behalf of Irishmen and women. The Irish Times next day was only marginally better with the headline proclaiming 'Opposition condemns May's €1bn agreement with DUP'.

Although Adams had the wit to welcome the deal, Sinn Fein, with no political cover or clout, had the desperate aura of cornered rats.

But on Wednesday, Coveney threw Sinn Fein a lifeline that will prove to be a noose around the neck of the Irish Government.

Breaking with Flanagan's position, Coveney said he supported Sinn Fein's demand for a stand-alone act, rather than a joint act covering Ulster Scots.

Coveney's refusal to agree a joint act covering Irish and Ulster-Scots was beyond bizarre.

The two traditions, in proof of George Mitchell's desire for parity of esteem, had always been treated as two sides of one coin, both in the Good Friday Agreement, and subsequent communiques by both governments.

But this did not prevent the compliant SDLP and Alliance parties from supporting Coveney and Sinn Fein, saying it was less about an Irish Language Act than a "respect" act. But Coveney's position means respect for only one side. Isolating the Irish language would reduce it to the totemic badge of one tribe, whereas a Culture Act which included both Irish and Ulster-Scots' cultural traditions would not be divisive but truly inclusive.

Supporting Sinn Fein on the Irish Language Act is Coveney's second major blunder, the first being his call for a "special status" for the North, which he was forced to withdraw.

As I predicted last week, Coveney is in the Peter Barry pan-nationalist mould. Last week this led him to follow the craven Department of Foreign Affairs policy of offering Sinn Fein a lot more carrots than sticks.

Bertie Ahern did not make that mistake, as George Mitchell records in a revealing anecdote in his memoir The Negotiator.

On the last leg of the Good Friday negotiations, Ahern and Tony Blair asked Mitchell to pretend to the UUP that a very "green" draft Strand II paper, which the two PMs agreed in Downing Street in April 1998, was actually written by Mitchell.

The paper was pure DFA pan-nationalist posturing, with elaborate cross-border bodies. In short, another Peter Barry-style 'Council of Ireland' piece of posturing to appease Sinn Fein.

But David Trimble was having none of it. He got ready to walk out of Castle Buildings unless the pan-nationalist ploy was withdrawn. The DFA and Martin Mansergh told Ahern to stand firm. But after his mother's funeral, Ahern went for a walk by himself around Drumcondra.

He decided to overrule the DFA and flew to Belfast the next morning to agree a new set of north-south bodies with Trimble. Had Ahern not overruled the DFA, there would have been no Good Friday Agreement.

As Coveney shares the mindset of the DFA, he is not likely to challenge its carrot policy. But there may be more to his blunders than meets the eye.

Add up his attendance at Martin McGuinness's funeral, his White Paper on Irish unity, telling Sean O'Rourke he wants to "move on" from Sinn Fein's Provo past, the benign view Mary Lou McDonald holds of him, and now his support for Sinn Fein on the Irish Language Act.

What does it all amount to? Something close to the sanitising of Sinn Fein in some Fine Gael circles. To what end? No good end, we can be sure.

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