Monday 18 December 2017

Ailish O'Hora: Winter is coming if Brexit focus not on common goals

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at Queen’s University Belfast on Friday Photo: Reuters
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at Queen’s University Belfast on Friday Photo: Reuters
Ailish O'Hora

Ailish O'Hora

The rainbow flag, more commonly known as the gay pride flag, was flying in Belfast on Friday on the day that Leo Varadkar visited the city as part of his first trip to Northern Ireland.

But the rainbow flag is also a symbol of peace and it was interesting to note the conciliatory tone in Varadkar's keynote speech at Queen's University given his earlier comments on Brexit.

In taking the trip, Varadkar also put behind him a week in which he denied accusations by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) that he was engaging in "megaphone" politics over Brexit as a diplomatic row between Dublin and Belfast intensified.

Relations between the DUP and the Taoiseach had already soured after Varadkar rebuked the British government stating that Brexit was a British policy and not an Irish one and that Ireland would not be designing any kind of border.

But it seems that the Taoiseach took the spirit of pride with him on the visit and his speech was peppered with the common goals shared by the Republic and the Democratic Unionist Party although he did highlight many of the enormous challenges around Brexit.

He cited the importance of the need to maintain the Common Travel Area, the benefits of a lasting peace in Ireland, North and South, the need to restore the Northern Ireland Executive, at the earliest possible opportunity, as well as the benefits of cross-border co-operation through travel, trade and healthcare.

While the DUP has said it is in favour of Northern Ireland leaving the EU, it added that Brexit does not mean actually leaving Europe.

It is also pro the Common Travel Area between the UK and the Republic and a free trade and customs agreement with the EU.

He even floated some new proposals including an EU-UK similar to arrangements with Europe and Turkey,

Having said that, the Brexit road is paved with many complications.

And the recent decision by the DUP to enter into Government with the Conservative party in the UK which, so far, seems to be taking a hard Brexit stance is just one example.

This, by implication, points to a hard border which seems to contrast with the DUPs stance that it will lobby the Conservatives for a soft one.

But we are in the dark as to what the DUP's plan is to ensure a softer Brexit or what an Irish border would look like or work.

We also don't know how they propose to influence their newly found and unusual Conservative bedfellows.

And it is also interesting that they didn't seem it appropriate to give Dublin the heads up that they were planning to enter into Government with the Conservatives.

I put these questions to the DUP this week.

When I asked about the diplomatic value that may have been gained by even making a quiet call to the Irish Government about the partnership with the Tories, I was met with an indignant: "Why would we consult the Irish government? We're separate to whatever happens down in Dublin."

Of course there was no obligation to consult Dublin ahead of a decision but a nod would have shown that the lines of communication were open.

Efforts to develop the border or Brexit policy issues further were unsuccessful. What is the DUP's agricultural policy, for example?

Given the potential economic damage to both the Republic and the North post-Brexit surely these are issues that need to be hammered out ahead of key dates in the Autumn.

However, while there was little information forthcoming on post-Brexit policy, the press officer did hit the nail on the head with the use of the word separate - in the sense that when Brexit is factored in this is surely a fallacy.

We are stuck together in this new Brexit world whether people like it or not and we live in a globalised world, that is the reality.

That's why communication and conciliation is necessary at such a crucial time and a focus on the commonalities is key and what needs to be addressed is how we can build on them.

It was a softly, softly diplomatic approach that led to Ireland developing a strong relationship with EU Brexit Negotiator Michel Barnier.

Unfortunately, so far though, we have yet to see a similar approach from our Northern neighbours on either side of the divide.

DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson was right about one thing this week when he said that going back to the politics of the 1970s and 1980s in Anglo Irish relations isn't going to help anyone.

But there needs to be a realisation that there's a much bigger picture at play here and we are running out of time.

Autumn is just around the corner and in October Varadkar will sit around the European Council table with the 26 other European leaders to decide whether enough progress has been made on the three key issues of citizens' rights, the financial settlement and Ireland relations.

In fact, both Sinn Finn and DUP seem to share a common stubbornness so far when it comes to opening up lines of communication around Brexit and also seem unable to see the value of diplomacy, engagement and simple conversation.

Let's hope Varadkar's meetings with DUP leader Arlene Foster and Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams set the right tone.

The clock is ticking and as fans of the award winning drama series Game of Thrones would appreciate, after Autumn comes the long, dark Winter.

"Winter is coming" is the motto of one of the great houses in the series, which is renowned for its political intrigue, and the meaning behind this phrase is one of warning.

Our friends in the DUP and Sinn Fein need to wake up and the focus now needs to shift to focusing on common goals and grounds as well as outcomes.

And as we've heard in the past few weeks, if the DUP feels like the North has lost its voice then it needs to find it fast and start talking to Dublin - the UK will not be part of the EU post Brexit.

In addition, unlike in the overall UK referendum result, the people of Northern Ireland did not vote in favour of Brexit.

It's time for that message to hit home with our DUP neighbours.

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