Communication is key in affairs with the North
Published 05/07/2016 | 02:30
'Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe," said Abraham Lincoln. But Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, didn't need hours to sharpen her axe before chopping the legs off Taoiseach Enda Kenny yesterday. Ms Foster roundly dismissed a proposal for an All-Ireland Forum on Brexit, saying it was the first she had heard of it.
Mr Kenny understandably wanted to set up the forum to consult on the handling of the exit negotiations between the EU and the UK. But Ms Foster pointedly stated she had not been approached on the matter, and in any event there were a number of mechanisms already in place.
Given the delicacies involved, Mr Kenny might have spared himself the humiliation of such a public slap-down with a little bit of advance notice to Ms Foster. North-South relationships have gone from the glacial to good-natured; yesterday, they went from tepid to testy; and given the need for a common approach in the face of the unique problems the North faces, this is unfortunate to say the least. Managing the Border is crucial and the focus has to be on common interest. True, the SDLP and Sinn Féin both back the forum proposal but the Democratic Unionists will not tolerate the Government speaking for the region in any forthcoming negotiations. The party's Jeffrey Donaldson made it plain that the North's future can be decided only by the UK government and Stormont Executive.
It is difficult to see how Mr Kenny could have seen it otherwise. Big changes can often come about suddenly and unannounced. Yet it is vital there is full cooperation North and South. But to be on the same page, both sides must at least have been given an equal chance to read the script before the cameras roll.
Abortion bill is a real test of Government stability
Taoiseach Enda Kenny's plan for a Citizens' Assembly was intended to buy time to deal with the seemingly intractable problems on legislation that would allow for abortions in cases of fatal foetal abnormality. If he had his way, any amendment to the Constitution on the issue could happen only after the assembly met.
But the Independent Alliance has forced him to back down. Mr Kenny now says he cannot impose a whip on Alliance members in a vote on a bill that would allow for abortions in cases of fatal foetal abnormality. Transport Minister Shane Ross had insisted he and two of his ministerial colleagues, who are also members of Government, would back the bill proposed by Mick Wallace.
Mr Kenny's volte face suggests disarray in the Cabinet. Earlier yesterday, Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar was adamant a free vote on a bill allowing for abortions in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities could set a "difficult precedent". According to the Attorney General (AG), Mr Wallace's legislation is unconstitutional, so for three ministers to ignore this advice puts the AG in an extremely difficult position. It has implications for the authority and integrity of the office. The opinion of the AG must stand for something and cannot be blithely set aside without consequence. Mr Ross said: "We believe this is a vote of conscience." It may be, but ministers cannot be allowed to leave their consciences outside the door when they join a government. When it comes to the issue of collective Cabinet responsibility, you can't be inside and outside the tent simultaneously.