Saturday 17 March 2018

We don't need SF and DUP to love each other - we just need them to stand up for their voters

Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney met Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire in Dublin. Picture: PA
Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney met Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire in Dublin. Picture: PA
John Downing

John Downing

In Edinburgh the leaders of the Scottish and Welsh home-rule governments were putting their heads together to hash out a strategy to avoid "Brexit by diktat" from London.

In Dublin the Northern Ireland minister, one James Brokenshire, came calling from London. But in Belfast the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin were busy doing what they do best.

They were sloganising at one another in that tiresome tailback of the North's blame game. The great John Hume, one of the architects of the North's fragile peace structures, always contemptuously called this "what-about-ery," that blame-apportioning raking over of old grievances.

Long-range blame-game guff will never sort the bread and butter all-island Brexit Irish issues that must be resolved before March 29, 2019, when our most important trading partner, and nearest neighbour, exits the world's biggest trading bloc. The current political vacuum in Belfast will seriously damage the North's population on both sides of the community and it will also pose huge problems for the rest of us south of the Border.

Now, the next key Brexit date we have to keep in mind is October 19 and 20 next. That is when EU leaders gather for a crucial summit in Brussels.

This is slated as the gathering that will agree compromise on the terms of the EU-UK divorce bill and the treatment of EU citizens in a post-European Union Britain. These issues are important for Ireland not least because of an impending hole in the EU's annual budget.

But these pale into insignificance when compared with the third issue for that EU summit: how the Irish Border will be dealt with post 2019. The bigger risk is that, after October's summit, there is a danger that Ireland's hard-won leverage in these Brexit talks may be greatly diminished.

The big loss there is this could happen just as the next crucial issue of huge Irish interest - the UK's post-Brexit relationship with the EU - comes into the frame. So, this is no time for the Belfast power-sharing government to be absent.

Read More: Ireland won't be used as a pawn in Brexit talks, says Brokenshire

This time both the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Féin have an all-Ireland obligation. Nobody, from Rathlin Island all the way down to Cape Clear, wants these two behemoths to love one another. But we are all entitled to expect them to take a break from "baba politics" for once and do some serious business to help everyone across the entire island to make a living in the immediate-term future.

If the talks yesterday between Mr Brokenshire and Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney broke any new Brexit ground, it was kept under wraps. There is no sign we can avoid the return of a "hard Border", and must not confound the sugar-coating of smart-technology as any real change to that grim and looming reality.

But there appeared more common ground between the two ministers when it came to the need to goad the two big Northern parties to face their political responsibilities and restore power-sharing.

They happily avoided fixing any new power-sharing deadlines, since deadlines are never taken remotely seriously in any Northern Ireland discussions.

Yet there is a weariness around the reality that no meaningful politics has been done in Northern Ireland over the past 12 months. Power-sharing has been up on blocks since last January.

Clearly, both sides are happy to play a holding game. The DUP continues to glory in the £1.5bn (€1.6bn) it has extracted as the price of propping up Prime Minister Theresa May's parlous government in London. Sinn Féin is under no pressure to cease its fence-squatting.

Irish Independent

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