Belfast Telegraph

Eamon Delaney: Republic's political leaders are still tone-deaf on Northern Ireland

It's depressing that, as we enter 2019, Dublin still seems incapable of actually taking unionists' concerns seriously, writes Eamon Delaney

Simon Coveney
Simon Coveney
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar

Last year, a major book was published on the Sunningdale Agreement of 1974. It was a great read, written by veteran Irish diplomat Noel Dorr. But one read it with profound sadness at what might have been.

Sunningdale was a ground-breaking peace proposal, crafted by the British and Irish governments along with the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP and the Alliance Party. But it was attacked by the two extremes of the DUP and Sinn Fein and the then-active IRA.

Hence, the brilliant expression that the Good Friday Agreement was "Sunningdale for slow learners". It was, apparently, coined by Seamus Mallon about Sinn Fein, but also about the Paisleyites.

However, it could also be used about other elements in the process, like the southern Irish politicians.

The whole point of Sunningdale and the far-seeing leadership shown by successive Irish premiers Jack Lynch, of Fianna Fail, and Liam Cosgrave, of Fine Gael, was to pull back from tribalism, so that an internal settlement could develop, albeit with an outside involvement.

To do this required great sensitivity by both men, given the nationalism that southern politicians had to contend with, much greater in 1974 than it is today, especially for Fianna Fail.

However, the current Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, has no such forces to contend with. The south has completely changed.

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So, why does he make a provocative statement that the nationalist people of Northern Ireland will "never be left behind again by an Irish government".

This is an extraordinary, pot-stirring claim, not least because it damns the more sensitive approach of previous Irish governments, including those of his own party, Fine Gael.

Does he think that Fine Gael achievements, like the Sunningdale and Good Friday agreements, "left nationalists behind"? Has he had a rush of republican blood to the head? Is he playing the green card for electoral reasons?

To compound this, Varadkar and his ministers talk up issues of gay rights and abortion in the north, knowing full-well that these are sensitive issues to many northern voters, especially DUP ones. Is this Dublin diplomacy at work? Would Jack Lynch have done this?

As for Brexit, Varadkar and his government have insisted on no border at all between the two parts of Ireland, even though there is a border there and has been since 1922.

He is acting as if the Good Friday Agreement magicked away partition and gave us a united Ireland by default. But it didn't.

This border has, and still, divides two European states. And acting as if it doesn't is unhelpful and against the spirit of trying to maintain peace in Northern Ireland and build better relations.

It's all well and fine for the EU and Michel Barnier to use the Irish border as a stick to beat the departing Brits with, but Dublin should know better, from bitter experience.

Fianna Fail has been equally tribal. Its leader, Micheal Martin, has generally been constructive on the north (like his fellow Corkman Jack Lynch) and has certainly been robust in calling out Sinn Fein posturing.

However, Martin has also been strangely tribal, especially with his latest provocative proposal that Fianna Fail should organise politically within the north. The plan is to link up with the clearly ailing SDLP - and this is also strange.

As its very name suggests, the Social Democratic and Labour party (SDLP) was created as a Labour alternative to the north's tribal politics. But, then, the SDLP is a shadow of what it was under John Hume and Seamus Mallon and seems to have moved in a more nationalist direction.

So, does Fianna Fail want to merge with them? Is it just to take over their shell and become an all-Ireland party to take on the "other republicans", Sinn Fein? If so, then this is a troubling and serious departure from exiting policy.

Fianna Fail and southern commentators constantly claim that the DUP and Right-wing Tories are endangering the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement with Brexit and, in many respects, they are.

But, surely, so also is Fianna Fail, with this tribal intervention?

The whole point of the 1998 agreement and the hard-won peace was the postponement of maximum nationalist and unionist positions, so that everyone could work on a settlement within Northern Ireland, between the actual parties there. This effort was to be supported by the two governments - from the outside.

The plan didn't envisage parties from Great Britain, or the Republic, with clear nationalist or unionist aims, organising within the north. Such a complication would defeat the whole purpose.

Under the 1998 arrangement, Stormont was to be an internal parliament again, with outside actors overseeing the structures, but standing back. It is hard to see how this new Fianna Fail proposal does not complicate that.

Fianna Fail clearly calls itself "the Republican party" and is, historically and actively, committed to a united Ireland. It is, or has been, a southern nationalist political party.

Fianna Fail will no doubt say that the Tories are propped up by the DUP in a deal at Westminster. But this is a (very) temporary parliamentary arrangement. The Conservatives have not "merged" with the DUP within Northern Ireland, to campaign for more unionism.

But, even if the Conservatives had been a bit reckless, or partisan - and, of course, some backbench Tories are very unionist and opposed to any Dublin role in Northern Ireland - this should not be a rationale for southern politicians doing the same. Two wrongs don't make a right.

All of this shows how much the ground-breaking "understanding" of the Good Friday Agreement has dangerously unravelled.

The only credible reason given for Fianna Fail's move into the north is the lack of constructive political voices, especially given the absence of Sinn Fein from both Westminster and Stormont.

But it's hard to know exactly how this would be addressed, or if Fianna Fail would take the royal oath, which stops Sinn Fein going to Westminster. Do they really think unionists will vote for the new Fianna Fail/SDLP and keep voting for them?

If Fianna Fail wished to support all of the people in Northern Ireland, post-Brexit, they should support the Irish government's offers in this regard in terms of business and citizens' rights. Otherwise, this proposal just muddies the usually consistent Irish policy on the north. It also looks opportunistic, taking advantage of the political vacuum in Northern Ireland and challenging Sinn Fein. Either way, unionists will be wary.

But what it really confirms, sadly, is that, despite the great strides we have made, southern Irish politicians continue to be just as capable at times of being nationalist and tribal as politicians do in Britain, or Ulster.

Dublin still seems incapable of actually taking Ulster unionism seriously. As we go into 2019, it still seems to be "Sunningdale for slow learners" - for everybody.

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