Saturday 16 February 2019

How he nailed it in the North — Charlie Flanagan’s Christmas coup

Bucking Foreign Affairs’ past tendency for arrogance, the Minister has delivered the goods, says John-Paul McCarthy

Charlie Flanagan said substantial progress must be made during the coming days in Northern Ireland talks
Charlie Flanagan said substantial progress must be made during the coming days in Northern Ireland talks

John-Paul McCarthy

The good news from Northern Ireland last week came just in time for Christmas. The financial wrangling between the local parties there constituted another fascinating set-piece or rather “sequence” as the peace process jargon has it.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan co-chaired last week’s proceedings with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and in so doing he showed how the various components are supposed to cohere together.

Flanagan seems to have been careful to avoid some of the more obvious mistakes his predecessors made in the past. For one thing, he made sure all the parties went on the record to formally endorse the financial provisions and the more abstract provisions that concern parading and the historical issues.

It is often forgotten that Adams and McGuinness never actually signed the Good Friday Agreement itself back in 1998, if only because its core constitutional clauses represented a fairly stunning rejection of their entire analysis of partition and what they decorously call “the causes of conflict”. Even though they never endorsed the agreement formally, they were allowed to piggy-back, so to speak, on it, and to claim a weird kind of ownership of the whole thing. That created enormous problems after 1998, but happily Flanagan nailed them down this time.

Flanagan ran a focused, undemonstrative show in Belfast last week, and this suggests that he is also keen to avoid another problem that has plagued the Irish Government’s Northern Ireland policy since the first IRA ceasefire, namely the Department of Foreign Affairs’ tendency towards arrogance.

Former US Senator George Mitchell gave a vivid example of the more vulgar aspects of Foreign Affairs’ thinking in his riveting memoir, Making Peace.

In the days before the parties reached agreement in 1998, Irish diplomats laid siege to Tony Blair in London, who then proceeded to give away the store to them on the Strand II issues; that is to say, the cross-border arrangements. Blair gave in to Dublin’s demands for an elaborate array of north-south  bodies. Mitchell himself was certain that this was a huge mistake on Foreign Affairs’ part and that, without massive revision, the Strand II material would capsize the entire process.

Bertie Ahern originally went along with his diplomats (He had only been Taoiseach for a few months and had no real experience in foreign policy before 1997). But Ahern quickly realised that things weren’t right. Having gone back to Dublin to bury his mother after parleying with Blair, Ahern knew something was wrong.

Mitchell writes: “After the service, Ahern went for a long walk. Trailed at a discreet distance by his security detail, alone with his thoughts, he strolled the streets of his native Dublin. Just two hours earlier, he had decided not to renegotiate and not to go to Stormont the next morning. Now, he reconsidered that decision... At ten o’clock at night, standing alone on a dark and silent Dublin street, the prime minister of the Republic of Ireland made the decision: the Irish Government would agree to renegotiate on Strand Two. It was a big decision by a big man. It made possible everything that followed.”

Ahern overruled his entire staff on that fateful night, and in so doing, he basically buried the cross-border problem for a generation. But Foreign Affairs almost wrecked the whole process. Flanagan seems to have that well under control.

We should remember, too, that Charlie Flanagan is the first Fine Gael foreign minister in a very long time, the first since Peter Barry left the job way back in 1987.

This creates its own problems too because Fine Gael’s most flamboyant diplomat, Garret FitzGerald, was also their most nationalist, especially as Taoiseach. FitzGerald never wavered in the belief that partition ruined Ireland as a “natural” economic unit or that unification was to be preferred. Failing that, he deployed all his tropes and gambits in the attempt to get the British to agree to the creation of an Irish Minister for Northern Ireland who would have some kind of physical presence in Belfast.

This fixation crowded out other concerns, and left little space for reform on the internal structure of Northern Ireland — far and away the most important strategic concern of the nationalist minority.

We need another FitzGerald these days now like a hole in the head. His brand of high-wire diplomacy basically ignored the locals in Northern Ireland in favour of an elaborate intergovernmental approach that was conceived in his mind as a form of revenge for what the loyalists did to the Sunningdale power-sharing executive in 1974.

FitzGerald had lovingly designed the Council of Ireland provisions in that deal, only to see them derange the whole process and destroy the mainstream unionist leader Brian Faulkner. Next time he swore he would build something tall and stout, something that could not be upended without also upending a British Prime Minister with it. This was the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, constitutional nationalism’s idea of payback.

This all seems unedifying today of course, if only because policy evolved in a vindictive mood rarely lasts. We need a foreign minister today who allows the Ulster factions to get on with things, and who only responds to developments that have evolved organically out of the Ulster context.

Happily, today it seems like we have one.

Online Editors

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