Opinion Comment

Monday 14 October 2019

The Irish stand on the North encourages Sinn Fein to say No

Simon Coveney is resisting calls for a border poll, but it's all a problem of his own making, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Tanaiste Simon Coveney. Photo: PA
Tanaiste Simon Coveney. Photo: PA

Eilis O'Hanlon

The referendum's over, and there won't be another one for, oh, months. Politically, that means everything's back to normal for the time being. No bad thing.

When it comes to Northern Ireland, however, normality is seriously over-rated. Normality just means more stand-offs between Sinn Fein and the DUP requiring round-the- clock attention by the two governments. The counting was barely over in the abortion referendum before the Minister for Foreign Affairs was facing renewed demands for a border poll to decide Northern Ireland's constitutional future.

Simon Coveney insisted that the time is not right for such a vote and that it would simply fuel further polarisation at a time when the Government is trying to find "sensible" solutions to the Brexit puzzle. "Calls from some quarters for a border poll now or in the near future," he told a seminar of senior civil servants in Dublin, "are not wise and not welcome."

By "some" he meant Sinn Fein, because they were the only ones doing the calling. New leader Mary Lou McDonald is clearly despatching the troops to reassure Northerners that she hasn't been too distracted by Irish women's rights to pay sufficient attention to what grumpy auld lads in South Armagh want too.

To be fair, SF can hardly be blamed for wanting a border poll. SF's entire existence is predicated on demanding a border poll. They're not even put off by polls showing that only 21pc of people in the North would actually vote for a united Ireland right now.

What's more noteworthy here is Coveney's sniffiness in response to that call. He's in no position to urge caution, when he's been encouraging this carry on ever since he became Minister for Foreign Affairs. Suddenly he wants everyone to calm down and take a breather before plunging into divisive territory?

If that's his desire, he should have followed the lead of his predecessor in the job, Charlie Flanagan, who rarely courted controversy for its own sake. His interventions in Northern affairs were largely dull, and that's a compliment, because it's fair to say that most voters in the Republic would rather hear nothing at all from Belfast unless they really must. The nitty gritty of Northern politics bores them.

As a result of encouraging SF into thinking it's behind them all the way, Varadkar's government has ensured instead that Northern Ireland remains in the headlines. It's certainly worth noting that the North has taken something of a back seat these past months as campaigning on the Eighth was in full swing.

Is it a coincidence that there were no crises demanding the attention of Dublin during this period, or could it be that SF knew there was no point stamping its foot and demanding attention while minds were focussed elsewhere? If only the Irish government had followed that path all along there might have been a resumption of power-sharing before now.

In resisting the re-imposition of direct rule and holding out instead for Dublin's involvement in running Northern Ireland, the Minister for Foreign Affairs has given SF even more reasons to keep saying No, and SF's contentedness with this situation is demonstrated by the fact that Mary Lou's party currently insists it has no problem with Fine Gael's approach to the North. If so, it's only because Leo and Simon are delivering exactly what SF wants, which is a rolling crisis that increases, in their eyes, the groundswell for a united Ireland (even if polls beg to differ).

Much of this impatience derives, of course, from the giddiness which entered the body politic in the North following the Brexit vote. That's not Dublin's fault. It was the UK as a whole which voted to leave the European Union. That's what prompted in Irish Republicans, together with Scottish Nationalists, a conviction that their day had finally come. Tiocfaidh ar la, indeed. The North, like Scotland, voted to Remain. Surely it was only a matter of time before the majority who did not wish to leave the EU chose to stay part of Europe by backing an independent Scotland and united Ireland?

That feeling quickly cooled in Scotland, but it lingers in the North, not least because the Irish government encouraged it under the leadership of the new Taoiseach. Now he and Coveney seem to want to dampen it down, hence the Minister for Foreign Affairs' warning that times are "sensitive" and should not be aggravated by a border poll.

Perhaps he's realising that he heightened expectations among nationalists with no immediately obvious way of satisfying them any time soon.

As things stand, he's unlikely to get his way. At that conference last week, Coveney made no apology for the Government's tough negotiating stance on Brexit, and nor, arguably, should he. It's popular at home. It might even work in persuading the British that they must stay so closely allied to the EU as to make their exit from it purely symbolic to all intents and purposes. It does, at the same time, undoubtedly raise tensions, which feed into politics in the North, requiring his ever greater attention.

New problems keep arising all the time. Last week it was a reported proposal by the UK's Brexit Secretary, David Davis, which would have involved Northern Ireland falling under overlapping EU/UK jurisdiction.

Unionists didn't like it, because it would involve the North being treated differently to the rest of the UK; they called it "half-cooked" and Downing Street quickly ruled it out. The proposal was certainly unexpected, following years when Britain has ruled out any form of joint sovereignty with Dublin. How is effective joint sovereignty with Brussels any preferable?

But it's also far from clear why SF was so scornful of the plan. The party's Brexit spokesman, Waterford TD David Cullinane, even said that it "would be ridiculous if it was not so serious". Admittedly, the suggestion for a 10-mile buffer zone along the Border is a bit strange, and looks unworkable, but overall the joint stewardship element of the proposal didn't sound that different from SF's long-standing demand that Northern Ireland be given special status within the EU.

Are they just saying No to everything now, in the hope that Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney will rustle up something better down the line?

Sunday Independent

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