Saturday 24 September 2016

Taoiseach's plans for all-island forum on Brexit torpedoed by DUP First Minister

Published 05/07/2016 | 02:30

Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster at the North-South
Ministerial Council Meeting at Dublin Castle yesterday. Photo: Tony Gavin
Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster at the North-South Ministerial Council Meeting at Dublin Castle yesterday. Photo: Tony Gavin

Arlene Foster was publicly polite. It was probably what she did not say that told us most. On Saturday afternoon, Minister for EU Affairs Dara Murphy was on the radio talking about the prospect of an all-island forum, which would help Dublin and Belfast jointly handle the Brexit fallout.

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On Sunday it was the turn of Health Minister Simon Harris to trail the Taoiseach's big idea on television. Sinn Féin also came out talking up the idea - in fact they also had a rather similar idea, it appeared.

Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness at the meeting in the capital yesterday. Photo: PA
Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness at the meeting in the capital yesterday. Photo: PA

The SDLP were all up for it, too . . . but nobody told Arlene Foster and her Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) colleagues.

Enda Kenny did his best to try not to look too sheepish in Dublin Castle yesterday after the first meeting between his Government and the leaders of the Belfast administration. He kept talking about the 10 points of agreement that the two sides had signed off on in the wake of Brexit.

But what did the Northern Ireland First Minister, Democratic Unionist leader, and Leave campaigner make of the forum idea?

"That seemed to gather some currency over the weekend. But it was not discussed with me at any time over the weekend or indeed before. It was not discussed today," Ms Foster summed up.

So, did she put the kibosh on it? Well, it appears she did not even ignore it.

"There was no proposal at the North-South Ministerial Council in relation to the forum. Therefore, there was nothing to be rejected as it were," the North's First Minister said slowly and deliberately in reply to a question.

Enda Kenny was asked if he had "jumped the gun". Later he was asked in Irish whether he had "made a mistake".

The Taoiseach looked uncomfortable but held his ground. The forum idea was based around the kind of economic conversation that had been held around Budget time every year.

He was not thinking about a statutory organisation, which would become a permanent fixture. It was an opportunity for every interest group, on both sides of the border, to have their say about Brexit.

"It wasn't to be. Obviously, it couldn't function effectively unless you had buy-in from everybody," the Taoiseach confessed - making a virtue of necessity. 

Read more: Taoiseach forced to scrap plans for North-South 'All-Ireland forum' to deal with Brexit

We still did not get any insight into why it was not discussed privately with the DUP and its leaders before being so publicly trailed, to be in turn so publicly rejected out of hand.

Was the Taoiseach trying to get his speak in ahead of Sinn Féin? If so, why? These were questions for another day, at the very least. No answers came.

But, somewhat ironically, Mr Kenny did have an ally in Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin who insisted there should be "no veto" on the forum. It could bring together business groups and other organisations on both sides of the border.

Mr McGuinness, whose party ended the practice of blanket opposition over nine EU-related referendums in the Republic and campaigned for Remain, said that all interested groups should have the forum to air their views on post-Brexit terms and conditions.

He fully respected the decision of those who did not want to take part in the forum - but these abstainers would not be in any way undermined.

"I still think the forum suggestion is a good suggestion - I don't believe there should be a veto," he said.

Arlene Foster, however, went on to say she believed there were already enough cross-border links to deal with Brexit - and, in extremis, they could just phone one another.

"I believe that there are more than enough mechanisms by which we can discuss these issues on a North/South basis," she said.

"Frankly I don't believe there are any mechanisms needed because we can lift the phone to each other on a daily basis if that were so needed."

For Mr McGuinness, the democratic wishes of the 56pc in the North who voted Remain would have to be respected. For Ms Foster it was a UK-wide vote and the result was binding for all and could not be changed.

Ms Foster stressed that it was time to "move on". And then came the rub: it would be the UK negotiating in Europe on behalf of Northern Ireland.

Mr McGuinness also took the opportunity to launch an attack on David Cameron.

"London is in chaos, the ruling Conservative Party are in chaos, and isn't it incredible that a British prime minister has resigned against the backdrop of calling a referendum that was driven by Ukip fascists and by the loony right of the Conservative Party?" he said.

Mr Kenny said very serious challenges lay ahead for both sides of the Irish Border.

"We are heading into unknown territory," he summed up.

The Taoiseach has certainly had better days.

He was also asked about the obduracy of the three Independent ministers who insist they will vote against the Government on abortion this Thursday.

Mr Kenny said he will "resume a conversation" with the trio.

Irish Independent

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