Taoiseach's plan to visit Orange Order is a positive gesture
The Queen’s visit to the Republic of Ireland where she laid a wreath at the Garden of Remembrance to those who died in the fight for Irish freedom was a powerful signal of healing of ancient enmities. So too was her decision to shake the hand of Martin McGuinness on a visit to Belfast.
Some people may say these are just feel-good optics but there is no doubt that relationships between the UK and the Republic became decidedly warmer as a result. These gestures set a new tone.
But much of that warmth faded at the end of last year when the Irish Government took a tough stance on Brexit negotiations. Unionist politicians accused Irish ministers of using Brexit to advance the cause of Irish unity and pointed out that they wanted Northern Ireland to be treated differently from the rest of the UK when withdrawal from the EU happens.
DUP spokespersons said that the new Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney did not show the same appreciation of unionist concerns as had the previous incumbents in the office.
In recent times Mr Varadkar has moved to mend fences. In New York in March he assured unionists there was no hidden agenda in his government’s Brexit negotiations and that he understood their concerns over some of the statements made by his government.
What this demonstrates is the fragility of relationships between the various parts of these islands, but particularly between the province and the Republic.
Unionism by its very nature is consumed by constitutional issues. Anything that remotely sounds like a threat to the union sets alarm bells ringing and trenchant retorts.
It is not always clear that nationalists in Northern Ireland, never mind in the Republic, understand the unionist mindset sufficiently. That is why it is encouraging to see that Mr Varadkar is to visit the headquarters of the Orange Order in Belfast tomorrow. This is believed to be the first time that any head of the Irish government has visited the Grand Lodge of Ireland headquarters.
This will be an opportunity for him to hear the views of an organisation which reflects much of the grass roots thinking among the unionist population. It is often a very plain-speaking organisation and that can be no bad thing in this context.
However, it must be stressed that Mr Varadkar has made gestures towards the unionist community in the past, most notably in laying a wreath at the Remembrance Day memorial in Enniskillen last year.
No matter how different the political ideologies of nationalists and unionists on both sides of the border, the undeniable fact is that they have to learn to co-exist.
This was put most clearly by Arlene Foster in her address to a high level economic conference in Killarney in January this year. She compared Northern Ireland and the Republic to semi-detached houses — looking the same on the outside but people doing things very differently inside. Nevertheless, they are tied together and what happens on each side of the dividing fence impacts on the other. Mrs Foster, who in turn has been accused of alienating nationalists, last year visited a Catholic school in Newry to meet Irish speakers as the row over an Irish language act continued. She even spoke a phrase in Irish, a small gesture but a necessary one.
We need more efforts to maximise what common ground exists between the communities. Finding out about each other — their aspirations and concerns — is a vital first step which many still need to take.