By this time next year we will know the shape of a new Northern Ireland assembly and whether or not power-sharing has any real future. We may also be getting our first flavours of the Northern Ireland 2021 census which we can expect to signal big changes in the population structure.
Those outcomes may or may not presage major future changes. The Democratic Unionist Party may well lose its grasp of government leadership in Belfast with Sinn Féin emerging as the largest party in the North. We may see the emergence of a majority nationalist community there – though it does not necessarily follow that we will see a majority in favour of a united Ireland. In that regard Mary Lou McDonald and her comrades should be careful of what they wish for in the Border poll stakes – but that debate is for another day.
The more immediate point is that things do look rather gloomy in the short term with a sinking feeling that we could be going backwards politically with all the gloom that implies.
Viewed from Dublin right now the prospect of advancing North-South relations, or forging a new post-Brexit relationship with London, both look rather grim. But against that the Dublin Government holds more aces than you would think.
Here, in summary, are five advantages Dublin has.
1 Never easy – but they’ve done it before:
The Republic of Ireland got absolutely nothing easy in fighting for a hearing on these two issues. When it comes to EU issues surrounding Brexit, Dublin has the support of Brussels and other member states and there is a legal and political process to fall back on.
When it comes to Northern Ireland issues it took a long slog for Dublin to win recognition for a so-called ‘Irish dimension’ to something long walled off as a UK internal matter. Breakthroughs came slowly, in the 1972 Sunningdale Agreement, the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Each was accompanied by reverses but progress was made and it’s time for Dublin to get back to first principles.
2 Poots is the one with the problem:
He has come to power in the Democratic Unionist Party on the back of rhetoric about demolishing the Northern Ireland Brexit Protocol. That simply cannot be done – and London, despite all the rhetoric, is now engaged in trying to modify the protocol’s administration. That is much nearer to what Northern Ireland business really wants.
Edwin Poots is contemplating strange structures like not becoming Northern Ireland’s First Minister. If he sticks with his “party unity above all else” mantra, and fails to take a more pragmatic view of the protocol, it is hard to see him going anywhere politically.
3 London needs a good relationship too:
The tenth anniversary of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Ireland has put more emphasis on what will replace Dublin- London relationships now that the series of contacts via the EU have gone. There are few easy answers and the EU contact point was a huge loss which is one of the less commented upon elements of the Brexit 2016 ‘Leave’ vote.
But Eamon Gilmore, foreign affairs minister 2011-2014, when relations were at a high point, argues that London needs a good relationship too. He points out that a prosperous Ireland is a huge importer of UK goods and a very significant trading partner when measured in global terms.
Both countries are close neighbours with a need to do business. Neither can afford to ignore the other and both need cordial relations with ways to manage inevitable neighbours’ disagreements.
4 Ireland has many ‘UK friends’:
It is hard to overstate the business, cultural and personal contacts between the two islands which cut both ways. Well over 100,000 UK citizens are registered as living in the Republic of Ireland.
In Britain some six million people are either Irish-born, or have an Irish parent or grandparent. One estimate is that one in four could qualify for an Irish passport via an Irish-born grandparent – and many have availed of that in the wake of Brexit.
There are sporting, cultural and business links on so many levels. All of these are arguments for investing effort and resources in creating good structures which can meet regularly and head off issues which could become contentious.
The agreed maintenance of a common travel area post-Brexit, allowing people to mutually work, study, obtain health and social care, on both islands was a powerful symbol of this reality
5 Modern Ireland also has global friends:
After almost 50 years of EU membership and decades of UN activism Ireland has built contacts and made allies. The US relationship has been very good – bar the Trump years – and is set to improve again under the most Irish-American President since JFK in Joe Biden.
Mr Biden has already made it clear he expects London to honour its EU-Brexit commitments on Northern Ireland as have other political supporters in Washington. The EU has stood by Ireland through five years of Brexit travails and is preparing to continue €1bn in North peace funding in the next seven years.
The key will be harnessing these advantages and getting a suitable structure set up to do day-to-day work on relationships. Some already exist under the Good Friday Agreement such as the British-Irish Inter Governmental Council. The other is the working of the North-South ministerial council, now in serious doubt.