Monday 14 October 2019

I gasped at the bad timing of Kenny's ill-judged musings about a border poll

Taoiseach Enda Kenny: Why poison the well of goodwill needed with unionists and the British government by bringing up a border poll? Picture: Clodagh Kilcoyne
Taoiseach Enda Kenny: Why poison the well of goodwill needed with unionists and the British government by bringing up a border poll? Picture: Clodagh Kilcoyne

Liz O'Donnell

Finally a degree of normality has descended on the UK. While the Labour party remains in chaos, there is at least a functioning government in place. With Theresa May as prime minister, there is relief that a grown-up is in charge after the bedlam of the last few weeks in UK politics.

Her first meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel was upbeat, sensible and devoid of hyperbole. These are two pragmatic operational politicians, clear-thinking and competent. People have had their fill of egocentric celebrity politicians at this stage and Europe needs resolute leadership.

Right across Europe, disillusioned voters are flocking to anti-establishment far-right politics. There are now over 100 Eurosceptic far-right MEPs. Freedom and self-determination is their mantra. These groups celebrated the Brexit outcome as a victory for the far-right. Emboldened by the Leave vote, they view Nigel Farage as an inspiration. Despite resigning as Ukip leader, there are suggestions that Farage will work with other movements campaigning for Leave referendums in their own country.

Meanwhile in the United States, the same nationalistic and illiberal impulses which emerged in the Brexit campaign are fuelling the Trump campaign. It is a credo that appeals to voters anxious to take their nation back and look after Americans rather than embrace global problems. It's about going it alone, making their country great again; a rejection of traditional political elites and the embrace of a new anti-intellectual arrogance.

As if to prove the commonality between the two campaigns, Farage fetched up at the Republican convention in Cleveland. His message to delegates was to engage ordinary people ignored by the political establishment and allow them to speak to their true feelings and fears about immigration and sovereignty. His rhetoric, like Trump's, is politically incorrect and emotive, appealing to the disaffected and those nostalgic for a less complicated past.

While former rival Ted Cruz was booed off the Convention stage and the demonisation of Hillary Clinton continued unabated, vox pops with delegates exposed fervent adulation for Trump. They believe that a Trump presidency will be their salvation, "making America great again and keeping Americans safe".

The American press corps are not shy; it was instructive to see Boris Johnson being chided for his "thesaurus of insults" by journalists repeating verbatim what he had said about Hillary Clinton and others in his colourful journalistic career. Although tidied up for the joint press conference with Secretary of State John Kerry, he blundered comically through the event like a student debater batting off hecklers. His is a questionable appointment, one which the prime minister may regret.

There are so many serious challenges on the international stage in which the UK has a stake, such as the ongoing war in Syria, instability in Turkey and the worsening security situation in Europe, that the prime minister has to galvanise her best talent to attend to the various fronts of immediate concern. That she succeeds in brokering a pragmatic deal for the UK's departure from the EU is in Ireland's interests. Any economic disadvantage to the UK economy will be ours too.

Which makes me gasp at the timing of the Taoiseach's musings about a border poll on Irish unity as part of the Irish Brexit discussions. Thinking out loud about a poll on Irish reunification at this juncture is not helpful to Anglo-Irish relations. True, a united Ireland remains a legitimate aspiration in our Constitution on the basis of consent. Article 2 Annex A of the Good Friday Agreement states that the Northern Secretary can trigger a poll on the matter "if at any time it appears likely to him/her that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the UK and form part of a united Ireland".

The Taoiseach accepts the conditions for the holding of such a border poll are not in place or even proximate. So why poison the well of goodwill needed with unionists and the British government by bringing this up? We should not take political stability and peace for granted. It is not so long ago that removing the Union flag from Belfast City Hall prompted loyalist riots and sustained street protests. Overreaching by nationalists on issues which touch on sovereignty or allegiance is ill judged. The Government should focus on practical trade and travel issues and a soft border which are essential factors in Anglo-Irish relations post-Brexit and leave constitutional issues alone for now.

It is wrong and provocative to conflate a Remain vote in Northern Ireland with a contingent support for Irish unity. The two issues are totally separate.

Constitutional issues need diplomacy and long lead-in times. Central to the peace process has been a respectful partnership between the two governments as custodians. The new prime minister has stressed her desire to preserve the Union and will not be impressed with a poll on Irish unity being so casually and prematurely thrown into the mix. Touting it was bound to aggravate unionists, particularly after their earlier rejection of an all-island forum on Brexit issues. We know from long experience that unionists are deeply suspicious of creeping cross-border initiatives, however benign.

The northern executive, led by Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness, needs to work together with the two governments for pragmatic solutions to Brexit challenges and not be distracted by hypothetical and needlessly divisive propositions. Let sleeping dogs lie.

Irish Independent

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