Wednesday 19 June 2019

Our political leaders must not abandon the troubled North

A loyalist supporter challenges PSNI officers after an Orange Order parade
A loyalist supporter challenges PSNI officers after an Orange Order parade

Eamon Delaney

IT is one of the ironies of the peace process that it seems to have reinforced partition. With the end of The Troubles, the two parts of the island have sadly drifted apart, political and culturally.

The mentality in the Republic seems to be that "the situation is all sorted, so we can ignore it". This is the very opposite of what was supposed to happen with the settlement, certainly from the point of Sinn Fein, or even the Irish Government - when the latter actually had a view on the situation.

In fact, the North hasn't bedded down. Far from it, and the effective withdrawal of the Irish and British governments from the equation is partly to blame for that. Almost every week now, there are new rows about political identity, flags and parades as well as attacks on Orange halls and GAA clubs. Sectarianism is deep rooted and both sides play to their tribal base.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams has claimed that the peace process is facing its greatest threat since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

It is a dramatic claim, but one with very valid points.

Apart from the impasses over commemoration of the past, contentious parades and the North's fudged welfare bill (thanks to Sinn Fein) there is a serious lack of any empathy or dynamism needed to enable the whole partnership to actually work or grow. It is completely minimalist. And much of the fault for this lies with the unionist side, and its often mean-spirited leadership.

Compounding the problem is the withdrawn attitude of the two governments. We have, on the one hand, the indifferent and even slightly hostile attitude of the British government and, on the other, the passive and seriously withdrawn attitude of Dublin.

The Irish Government, and our whole political system, has been understandably absorbed with our own political issues and economic problems. There seems to be no time for the North and with keeping the pressure on from the broader Irish nationalist side. Where are the North-South bodies? Or the support for a second Haass negotiating process, which former Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore promised before he left office?

I worked for two years in the Anglo Irish Division of the Department of Foreign Affairs and the whole level of engagement and initiative seems to be now run down, even in terms of personnel and resources. And I can't see new Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan being a Dick Spring about it and taking on the current unionist stubbornness. Indeed, it is significant how few of the Cabinet have dealt directly with the North. Do they even believe in an 'Irish dimension' or in the constitutional nationalist position which is long held by our State and which is distinct from that of Sinn Fein? Or do they think that any such national approach is now outdated and will only in fact aid Sinn Fein, which they see as an electoral enemy? In contrast, Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin has repeatedly warned about the impasse in the North and on the need for the Government to re-engage.

But then, unlike the current Cabinet, he has actually dealt with the peace process there and knows that the fragile situation needs constant energy and minding. Some Fine Gael voices accused him of being green and tribal by attacking the Government's detachment from the North. But this totally missed the point, and is most ironic coming from the party of Sunningdale and the Anglo Irish Agreement.

Garret FitzGerald would have understood what Martin meant.

The forced marriage of Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) will not work unless there is constant pressure by the two governments acting as guarantors of the unusual Northern arrangement, which is effectively what they are. This is especially necessary when the relationship has gone cold and the two partners are barely talking to each other.

In many ways, the marriage counsellors, or the 'in-laws', left the scene too early and the two governments should have stayed more involved, instead of thinking 'that's all sorted, leave them at it.'

It's time for the marriage counsellors to re-engage and force progress in an otherwise dangerous situation.

Irish Independent

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