Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: Foreign ministers are supposed to smooth over tensions, not to inflame them... clearly, Simon Coveney missed the email

Sometimes, the anti-British rhetoric from Fine Gael is so extreme you feel it could have come from Sinn Fein, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

When the dentist says not to worry, this will only hurt a bit, that's the time to start worrying, because it will probably hurt quite a lot.

Likewise, when Simon Coveney, Dublin's minister for foreign affairs, tells unionists not to worry and that his government has no sinister designs on Northern Ireland, it's not unreasonable to wonder what he's up to.

Most politicians don't have to issue these soothing messages when attending meetings with their counterparts in other jurisdictions. It's simply taken for granted that they come in peace, with no designs on their neighbours.

That the Irish Tanaiste felt the need to go out of his way to put unionists' minds at rest before this week's British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference in London is as sure a sign as any that a black shadow has been cast on the relationship between Belfast and Dublin.

That being so, wouldn't the minister's time be better spent wondering what his own government might have done to incite such suspicion? He needn't look far for an answer.

Since Enda Kenny stepped down as Taoiseach in June last year, the Irish government, under the direction of Fine Gael's new leader, Leo Varadkar, has ratcheted up the anti-British, anti-Brexit rhetoric to such an extent that it's necessary sometimes to double-check that it hasn't been secretly taken over by a delegation from Sinn Fein.

It's prompted plenty of fanciful speculation that Fine Gael's sudden veer towards knee-jerk nationalism is a way of buttering up Sinn Fein before the next general election.

Numbers in the Dail are finely balanced.

Right now, there's a so-called "confidence and supply" agreement between the government and the largest opposition Fianna Fail party, but no government likes being beholden to its main rivals.

Alternatives are always welcome.

It seems unlikely, though, that the canny Leo Varadkar is credulous enough to believe that such a cunning plan could work, not least since there remains stringent hostility within his party to the notion of entering coalition with Sinn Fein at all.

Whatever the real reason, Simon Coveney has played a central role in the shift towards confrontation.

He's repeatedly sided with Sinn Fein over the issues which still separate that party from the Democratic Unionists, while telling the folks back home that he would "like to see a united Ireland in my lifetime - if possible, in my political lifetime".

All Irish leaders since partition have longed for a united Ireland and so does Fianna Fail's Michael Martin, but to put a timeframe on it and to do so at a moment when political institutions remained deadlocked in Northern Ireland, was perilous, to say the very least.

A foreign minister's job is usually to smooth over tensions rather than provoke them.

Coveney has not only brushed aside those sensitivities, he actually doubled down on them at the end of last year with his call for the convening of the Intergovernmental Conference, insisting there can no longer be "British-only direct rule", while appearing to suggest that Dublin was seeking some kind of joint authority over Northern Ireland.

That's why the Corkman had to murmur those conciliatory words the other day about unionists having "nothing to fear", acknowledging that the conference was "consultative, not executive, in form".

This was a muddle of his own making, since it was he who specifically raised the spectre of the British-Irish body being beefed up as an alternative to direct rule should devolution at Stormont fail to be restored.

The change in tone from Dublin over the past year certainly came as a shock in London, where it was assumed that mutual interest would prevail during Brexit talks and that the Irish would be allies at the negotiating table, rather than enemies - but it shouldn't have been a surprise.

Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney did not suddenly cool on Anglo-Irish relations as a result of listening to too many rebel songs, but because they were faced with a serious threat to the country that they lead.

Brexiteers have dismissed the latest round of predictions about the consequences of a "no deal" scenario as just another instalment in "Project Fear", and some of the scare stories being put about of late have undoubtedly veered off into the realms of whimsy.

The BBC even ran a story on Thursday headlined: "The Brexit threat to sandwiches." The mind boggles.

But that doesn't mean there aren't genuine risks to jobs and prosperity.

The Irish agri-food sector, in particular, relies heavily on exports to Britain. It cannot afford any disruption to trade, however temporary.

The Irish could hardly be expected to take the prospect of their economy being damaged by the UK's exit from the EU lying down. Dublin had every right to hang tough.

What was reckless was doing that at the same time as talking up the prospects of a united Ireland.

Sinn Fein might have lost its head after the Brexit vote, allowing itself to dream that a majority vote for Remain in Northern Ireland would translate automatically into support for a united Ireland inside the EU; but there was no excuse for the Irish government to get carried along on that giddy wave, too.

It's Simon and Leo's original decision to wrap themselves in the green flag which now hangs over Dublin's relations north and east.

Obediently backing the European negotiators' insistence that Northern Ireland must remain in the "territory" of the EU after Brexit, effectively dividing the United Kingdom internally, only made matters worse. Dublin's bullishness has proved popular in opinion polls in the Republic and is cheered on by northern nationalists, who fear the impact of Brexit on cross-border movement and business.

But it's still an extraordinary stance for the foreign minister of a supposedly friendly nation to take towards its nearest neighbour.

Given the tangled history on the island, he can't be unaware of the implications.

Simon Coveney appears to have belatedly realised the dangers of the Irish government's stance.

He's started talking in much softer terms about "helping" Britain get a good deal with the EU, while simultaneously, and absurdly, trying to pin the blame on Sinn Fein for not taking its seats at Westminster to stop Brexit from happening at all.

Whether he's left it too late to repair relations with unionists is what remains to be seen.

Suffice to say that if, after a year in the job, you still need to urge those with whom you're dealing not to be afraid of you, then it suggests things aren't going tickety boo.

Has the Minister for Foreign Affairs never heard of the old adage: "When you're explaining, you're losing"?

Belfast Telegraph

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