Saturday 24 March 2018

Kenny and Cameron must 'rescue' the North

Sinn Fein and SDLP send out SOS for governments to re-engage fully

Daniel McConnell

Daniel McConnell

Renewed marching-season street violence is set to force Dublin and London to intervene in the affairs of the North, the Sunday Independent can reveal.

The Dublin and London governments are under increasing pressure from Sinn Fein and the SDLP to "re-engage fully" or risk allowing the "very bad" situation at present to deteriorate further, senior British government sources said this weekend.

Since taking office, the Tory-led coalition headed by Prime Minister David Cameron has taken a deliberately hands-off approach to the North in a bid to allow the fledging institutions take hold.

However, since the beginning of the flags crisis 18 months ago, the atmosphere has worsened significantly.

Both Dublin and London now recognise that if the situation is allowed to worsen further, the very stability of the Northern Executive would be threatened. The UK in particular has been "reluctant" to step in too quickly, despite the growing tensions since the flags dispute and the failure of talks chaired by US diplomat Richard Haass in December.

A senior UK government source told the Sunday Independent: "Were we to intervene too quickly, then every time things got rough we would have to step in - and normal politics would not bed in. We have been reluctant to move but we're getting to a point where we might not have a choice."

New Foreign Affairs Minister Charles Flanagan last night described the situation in the North as "very tense" and said his department are monitoring things very closely. Mr Flanagan said his department is in a state of high alert over the July parades. Immediately after taking office on Friday, Mr Flanagan spoke to Northern Secretary Theresa Villiers and party leaders in the North amid growing fears of fresh rioting and violence over the marching season.

It is expected Mr Flanagan and Ms Villiers will have a face-to-face meeting over the coming days. Department officials are monitoring the major parade flash-points over the weekend.

Mr Flanagan said: "Our Belfast staff are covering the flashpoints. We are keeping a close eye on what is a very tense situation."

Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Mr Cameron have spoken in recent days over the phone and have agreed it is primarily a matter for the Northern leaders to show leadership to ensure calm. But behind the scenes there is a growing realisation that direct involvement from London and Dublin may be needed to ensure the North's Executive holds.

Both Mr Kenny and Mr Cameron reiterated their support for the Northern Ireland institutions, underlined the importance of dialogue and agreed on the need for calm during the marching season.

US diplomat Richard Haass has urged politicians in Northern Ireland to "show leadership" in dealing with outstanding peace process issues. The Haass negotiations on long-standing problems over flags, parades and the legacy of the past broke up on New Year's Eve without an accord.

"Complacency is a luxury we cannot afford," he said. "Northern Ireland has not yet reached a point in which peace and tranquillity can be taken for granted. It is all too easy to imagine how a parade or protest could spark violence; it is all too easy to imagine how local violence could grow and spread."

However, Sinn Fein last night called on the two governments to intervene to take urgent control of the escalating crisis, which it described as "very bad". A spokesman for the party said as the joint guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement, they must step in to contain the situation.

The SDLP also joined in calls for the two governments to intervene amid fears of a renewal of fresh violence.

In its joint statement on Friday, the Government warned that political deadlock and civil disturbances threaten the hard-won peace and Northern Ireland's future economic and social development.

"We are deeply concerned at the tensions and street disturbances that have re-emerged in Northern Ireland in recent years, alongside ongoing dissident paramilitary activity," the statement said. On Friday, the Government said it remains fully committed to the full implementation of all aspects of the Good Friday Agreement.

It said in a statement: "We will work closely with the British government to support the efforts of the political parties in Northern Ireland to reach agreement on the issues of parades, flags and dealing with the issues of the past.

"An Garda Siochana will continue to work closely with the PSNI on security cooperation, including tackling the threat posed by the activities of dissident paramilitary organisations, and criminal activity throughout the island."

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Also in this section