Ronan Fanning: Why Gilmore is right to remind us the North hasn't gone away
The Tanaiste's speech reaffirms how peace and political stability are in all our interests
THE British-Irish Association (BIA) has now been in existence for 40 years, meeting every September alternately in Cambridge and Oxford. At the beginning, during the horrific decade of the Seventies, it offered neutral ground where antagonists – whether Irish and British or unionist and nationalist – could assemble and at least informally exchange views in a way that was then impossible in Belfast and difficult in Dublin or London. Until recently the advent of peace had persuaded many that the BIA had outlived its usefulness. Why, then, has Eamon Gilmore's speech last weekend to this year's meeting in Cambridge attracted such attention?
Firstly, because it served to remind us that, like it or not, to paraphrase what Gerry Adams once said in a different context, Northern Ireland hasn't gone away. Secondly, and much more importantly, it was a resounding reaffirmation of this State's vital interests in the future of Northern Ireland.
Ministerial speeches at BIA weekend conferences follow a well-worn path. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland speaks at dinner on one night; an Irish minister – traditionally but not invariably the Minister for Foreign Affairs – speaks at dinner on the second night. The speeches, unsurprisingly, are of variable quality; they range from the substantive and eloquent to the banal and platitudinous – the speech of Theresa Villiers, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, on Friday night fell irredeemably into the latter category. It has sometimes been the other way around for I well remember past speeches by Irish ministers so appallingly bad that, rather than applauding, one felt like hiding under the table at their conclusion.
What made Eamon Gilmore's speech remarkable was that it was bold and innovative, as well as elegant and well-crafted. More than that, it was a speech that scaled heights of passionate conviction of which I had not realised he was capable. Nowhere was this more evident than when he spoke of why he was so concerned: "Concerned at the way in which the past is exercising a corrosive effect on political life and on community relations ... concerned at the pervasive and undiminished influence of sectarianism on civil life – and not solely in the more deprived communities ... concerned that civil society does not yet have the support it needs to deal with these issues."
But Gilmore's speech also deserves special recognition because it was so courageous in the context of Irish, as opposed to Northern Irish, politics. For as he knows full well, the Irish electorate is so understandably self-obsessed with the depredations of austerity that it is in no mood to be reminded of the importance of Northern Ireland. In this regard he was unequivocal. "Let there be no doubt. The peace, prosperity and political stability of Northern Ireland are matters of the highest national interest to the Republic."
Why? Because the irony is that, however distant the united Ireland to which republicans aspire may remain, the outside world in general – and external investors in particular – think of Ireland in a unitary sense. Reality demands that we never forget that sectarian rioting and all other kinds of inter-communal violence in Belfast are as potentially destructive of our prospects of our economic recovery as they are of the economy of Northern Ireland.
Although, as Gilmore said, "Northern Ireland is an immeasurably better place than it was even five years ago", it is now also apparent that the residue of issues that found no place in the Good Friday Agreement must be addressed because, as he also said, "the events of recent months surrounding disputes over flags and parades and the tensions and disorder they have provoked, alongside the unresolved issues of how to deal with the past, are exerting a harmful and even regressive effect on politics and community relations." Which is why "there is now a need for both Governments to re-assert our roles as co-guarantors of the agreement" and why Eamon Gilmore is right to insist that the Haass talks represent a unique opportunity for inter-governmental re-engagement.
The only other speech by an Irish minister I can recall from decades of attending BIA conferences that bears comparison with what Eamon Gilmore said in Cambridge on Saturday night was a speech delivered in Oxford on September 17, 1983, by Michael Noonan, when he was Minister for Justice in Garret FitzGerald's government. "The challenge to both governments", Noonan then concluded, "is very simply to ask ourselves together – not what we want, but what workable arrangement can we devise together which will give to the people of Northern Ireland what they want and what they need. It seems to me that their fundamental requirement is for stability, for order. Moreover, I do not see how that can be achieved unless the fundamental requirements of both traditions in Northern Ireland are acknowledged and accommodated by both Governments. Unacceptable pressures and threats against either side must be removed."
Thirty years on, the Churchillian cliche on the re-emergence of the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone springs yet again to mind. For, peace or no peace, it is impossible to avoid the bleak reflection that when it comes to Northern Ireland, the more things change, the more things remain the same. Yet again, in the Tanaiste's words, the "good, dedicated people" in Northern Ireland "are under extreme pressure after a full year of almost continuous tensions".
But there may, I fear, be one decisive difference. Four days after Michael Noonan made that speech in Oxford, Robert Armstrong, the then Cabinet Secretary, cited his conclusion in a 'secret and personal' note on Northern Ireland for Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. That note was a first step in the British engagement with the Irish government in the process of close co-operation that culminated in the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985.
The prospect of the Cabinet Secretary bringing Eamon Gilmore's speech to the attention of David Cameron seems remote. The commonplace inanities of Theresa Villiers's speech suggest that she is singularly ill-served by officials who are instead content to plough the traditional Northern Ireland Office furrow of doing nothing and, worse, of continuing to resist and obstruct the efforts of Irish officials to engage their attention as they have done throughout this long, fraught summer. While what Gilmore said should be warmly welcomed, one suspects he will need to say it again and again and again.
Ronan Fanning is Professor Emeritus of Modern History at UCD and the author of 'Fatal Path: British Government and Irish Revolution 1910-1922' published earlier this year