The true voice of Irish nationalism is hard to find in megaphone diplomacy between Ireland and the UK
So, where lies the true voice of Irish nationalism? It must be difficult for Boris Johnson, Joe Biden and Ursula v on der Leyen to identify who speaks for the nationalist cause today. It was easy in the good old days when John Hume was alive. What Hume said was gospel. Nationalist Ireland genuflected. The outside world knew Dublin would fall into line.
No longer. Nationalist Ireland was in a muddle last week. It has far too many leaders. On Thursday evening, Micheál Martin was pontificating about the need for protocol pragmatism on CNN, while Mary Lou McDonald was playing far more militant mood music in a 20-minute interview with Beth Rigby on Sky News. God knows what lengthy words of wisdom Simon Coveney was whispering in the ear of Ireland’s latest British bete noire, UK’s Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, when they met in Turin.
All three outings followed an astonishing diversion from another nationalist, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, speaking to Co-operation North on Tuesday night. Leo suggested direct rule was not the answer if devolved government now failed. Instead, he was suddenly seeking the resurrection of the long-forgotten British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. Leo’s intervention was code for reviving joint authority.
In his Irish Times column headlined “Tetchy Tánaiste stirs the Stormont pot” on Thursday, Newton Emerson dubbed Leo’s speech “potentially provocative, as Varadkar ought to know”. Undoubtedly, Leo didn’t check his bright idea with Mary Lou. Indeed, it is doubtful if he checked it with his boss, Taoiseach Micheál. Or even with his Fine Gael colleague, Simon Coveney. It was not the Tánaiste’s only piece of mischief. In the same speech, he gratuitously suggested the issue of a border poll could no longer be left to the Northern Ireland Secretary of State. Both ideas look like Leo solo runs.
And what about Michelle? Michelle who? Michelle, the one who actually got elected in Northern Ireland two weeks ago, the only nationalist leader — apart from the SDLP’s Colum Eastwood — with a mandate to speak for Northern nationalists. Michelle is fine. She’s been trotting along behind Mary Lou, the nationalist who never got elected to anything in Northern Ireland but leads its largest party. Michelle secured a meeting last Monday, all alone with Micheál Martin, which went largely unnoticed. That should do her for now. Michelle, from Clonoe, Co Tyrone, can regularly be seen nodding away alongside her leader from Dublin’s Rathgar.
The Irish Government’s status in the present Northern Ireland impasse is of doubtful validity. The protocol is primarily a matter between the UK and Europe, but affects the people of Northern Ireland. The Northern Executive will be sorted out when the protocol row is settled. Our government’s claim to a role in the imbroglio is as joint guarantors — permanent partners with the UK — of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
Currently, the UK and Ireland could not be permanent partners in administering as much as a garden party in the Merrion Hotel. While the UK appears to have gone off the reservation, our own multiple nationalist voices are indulging in some pretty unproductive megaphone diplomacy. Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are on safe political turf when they are competing fiercely to take lumps out of Jeffrey Donaldson and Boris Johnson. While the relationship between Mary Lou and Micheál is woeful, Johnson and Truss are providing soft targets for them both as every move the British make is digging a deeper hole for the prospects of a solution.
Just as Truss and Johnson are pitching to their own constituencies inside the Tory party, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Sinn Féin are upping the temperature with their rival bids for the nationalist vote in the south. Their shortcut to that goal is to lambast opponents of nationalism such as the DUP and Johnson. There is no long-term thinking taking place in nationalist parties. The guarantor nations of the Good Friday Agreement are betraying the trust they placed in each other in 1998.
We need to reduce the temperature. Perhaps it is time we sent for the original, far more reflective guarantors themselves. The guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement are alive and kicking. On Friday, I heard possibly the calmest and best-informed explanation of the present impasse, given by former taoiseach Bertie Ahern when he was addressing the former members’ association of TDs and senators in Leinster House. It occurred to many who heard his speech that we have a priceless resource on our doorstep.
When Bertie was negotiating the Good Friday Agreement with British prime minister Tony Blair, he proved to have skills unmatched by others, a tolerance and patience that never gave up and an ability to develop a relationship of trust with those on the other side.
The tributes to his mediation qualities that have continued to come from Blair would make even Bertie blush. Last May, at an Irish Institute of European Affairs event, Blair said: “The Good Friday Agreement and process would never have happened without Bertie Ahern.” In an aside that Johnson, Martin and Mary Lou should note, he said: “I could not have had a better partner than Bertie Ahern.”
Partnership is what is needed. None of our current nationalists enjoys a good enough political or personal relationship with each other, let alone with the British government. Bertie’s strength is that he gets along with everybody, unionist or nationalist.
Bertie knows all the current players, including DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson. He is on good terms with Mary Lou. He has been supportive of Simon Coveney as Minister for Foreign Affairs. He is trusted far more than our current crop of nationalist voices. He has been involved with many think-tanks and virtually all the main players in Northern Ireland since his official retirement in 2008. His expertise is sought on a daily basis by RTÉ and other more global channels. Along with Tony Blair and David Trimble, he is one of the most respected living figures in the history of recent Irish peacemakers. As a voice of nationalism, he is out on his own.
Simon Coveney should swallow hard and decide to appoint a detached, experienced negotiator to protect the Good Friday Agreement. Micheál Martin should put behind him the Fianna Fáil problems of the past and remember that in 1998 it was Bertie who lost his mother in the middle of the talks, but who flew back to Belfast immediately after the funeral.
The Taoiseach should put away the megaphone and invite the UK to appoint someone similar on the British side. They could partner as they did in 1998, rebuilding the trust lost by today’s mixed cocktail of nationalists. They could report to the governments when they had reached a possible solution. There would be no daily bulletins allowing warring politicians to up the ante on a regular basis.
In 1998, Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair probably saved thousands of lives in Northern Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement, a magnificent creation, is their baby. Today, Bertie is a wasted national asset. It was Blair who so eloquently spoke of the “hand of history”, demanding that politicians — nationalists and unionists — respond, putting the ultimate prize of peace above their short-term interests.