Sunday 26 May 2019

May's election play has dealt grievous blow to Ireland's strategy for Brexit

British Prime Minister Theresa May and Taoiseach Enda Kenny Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
British Prime Minister Theresa May and Taoiseach Enda Kenny Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

Scotland thinks it has problems, but it's clear now that Northern Ireland is the poor relation of the United Kingdom.

During their phonecall on Tuesday afternoon, Enda Kenny and Theresa May "committed to the ongoing talks process in Stormont".

But she was clearly being disingenuous. If Mrs May really cared about the North, she would have put far more effort into making sure a power-sharing deal was in place before calling a snap election.

Irish officials involved in the talks have to remain stoically diplomatic throughout the process but sources say they feel the current negotiations in Belfast are a mere "box ticking exercise". Sinn Féin is not willing to compromise to the extent necessary and the DUP is too bitter, after what was effectively an election defeat, to offer the hand of friendship.

"There was some opportunism that the goodwill seen after Martin McGuinness's funeral could be turned into something but that has faded away now," said one source in the North.

Mrs May called the election in the full knowledge that it was likely to result in further stalemate in Northern Ireland as the parties turned their attention to the campaign trail.

In theory, the easy solution is simply call another Assembly election to coincide with the Westminster vote and hope everybody refocuses in June. However, such a move severely undermines Ireland's Brexit strategy.

For the past year, the Taoiseach and Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan have been travelling around Europe telling other leaders about the importance of the Good Friday Agreement and preserving a devolved government in the North.

Mr Kenny has repeatedly warned that unless the EU recognises the need to maintain stability in the North it could result in a return to "criminality and even armed conflict". The problem for that argument now is that the UK clearly doesn't give much thought to this much-hyped stability.

The prospect of a return to direct rule, which would inevitably lead to an upsurge in sectarian rhetoric, makes a joke of the Irish government's pleas to Europe. Why should the EU place so much value on Stormont if the politicians in the North and now the UK government don't?

Mr Kenny and Mr Flanagan are on the side of right but the game-playing by all other sides is seriously hampering their ability to put forward a coherent 'special case' argument.

For one, without an active Assembly, the North-South Ministerial Council can't meet. Against the current backdrop it should be holding regular conventions in order to tease out things like "innovative" solutions to the Border question. It can also articulate a strong, united position on issues such as agriculture.

In his most recent meeting with Mr Flanagan, the EU's chief negotiator Michael Barnier said Ireland has identified the problems but he wants solutions.

"That's where we will need to find common ground with the UK. The Common Travel Area, the peace process, the insuring of an open Border," Mr Flanagan told the Irish Independent last week.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has accused Theresa May of throwing "a grenade into the middle" of the peace process, while Sinn Féin's Michelle O'Neill said the prime minister had shown a "blatant disregard" to the people of Northern Ireland.

On the other hand, the DUP's Arlene Foster said the election offers voters a chance to commit to the Union. She wilfully ignores the fact the majority of Northern Ireland residents voted to commit to the European Union.

Another election could clear the air in the North but the paralysis won't end unless the UK shows more interest.

Irish Independent

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