London and Dublin must be very careful on the North

Row over Simon Coveney statement shows the fine line both governments tread

Minister for Foreign Affairs  Simon Coveney with  Northern  Secretary James Brokenshire at Iveagh House in Dublin. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney with Northern Secretary James Brokenshire at Iveagh House in Dublin. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

The British government appears to have replied to something Simon Coveney, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, did not say.

“We will never countenance any arrangement, such as joint authority, inconsistent with the principle of consent in the [Belfast] Agreement,” thundered a Tuesday evening statement from London.

Well of course not. Joint authority is a fantasy. Even if such a thing could be arranged, which has never happened over any populated area in the modern world, its first encounter with a difficult decision would immediately become a sovereignty dispute - the very thing it is supposed to solve.

What Coveney actually said, after speaking to the Stormont parties in Belfast on Tuesday afternoon, was that “there can be no British-only direct rule” if devolution is not restored.

Well of course not. The Irish Government has a formal consultative role in Northern Ireland under the Belfast Agreement, as it had under the preceding Anglo-Irish Agreement.

So why the British overreaction? The key is London’s reference to “joint authority” - a notion it has already had to slap down twice this year.

In January, a British government minister made a statement in Westminster ruling out “any form of joint authority”.

In May, the Conservatives repeated this in their general election manifesto.

This was necessary because, from the moment Stormont collapsed in January, Sinn Féin claimed the alternative to devolution was not direct rule but “a form of joint authority”.

The republican party made this claim on the basis of a 2006 statement from then taoiseach Bertie Ahern and prime minister Tony Blair, as they were cajoling the DUP into signing the St Andrews Agreement, which created the first DUP-Sinn Féin executive.

The statement said that if an executive was not formed, London and Dublin would use their “joint stewardship of the [peace] process” to develop “British-Irish partnership arrangements”, via the North-South and east-west “structures and functions” of the Belfast Agreement.

In effect, the DUP was being threatened with every part of the agreement except Stormont, the one part it was blocking.

When Sinn Féin unearthed this statement at the start of this year, Gerry Adams claimed it was still “live” and meant de-facto joint authority was the fall-back position from any failure of St Andrews - that is, of Stormont.

For Sinn Féin, this answered the criticism that crashing Stormont would simply put London back in charge; a prospect exerting little pressure on the DUP, as direct rule hardly bothers the unionist electorate.

Sinn Féin would be strongly disincentivised to reach a deal if the alternative appears to be some form of joint authority

“Joint authority” proved so seductive to the nationalist electorate that one-third of Sinn Féin voters told pollsters it was their preferred constitutional outcome, even though it was not defined, not on offer and not possible.

It took a great deal of debunking to close the subject down, hence the British government’s touchy horror at Coveney potentially reopening it with the eyebrow-raising neologism of “British-only direct rule”.

Delicate wording

The delicate wording of Blair and Ahern’s 2006 statement shows how careful London and Dublin must be when applying pressure for a Stormont deal - a position they now find themselves in again.

If joint authority had really been the Plan B at St Andrews, Sinn Féin would have had little incentive to return to Stormont, as joint authority beats devolution from a republican perspective.

That remains the case today. Sinn Féin would be strongly disincentivised to reach a deal if the alternative appears - or at least could be presented as appearing - to be some form of joint authority.

A similar problem arises with the unionists. They cannot be left to assume the price of failure is painless direct rule - that is, more unionism.

In short, both governments must closely co-ordinate their pressure on each side, or they will end up accidentally releasing all pressure on one or both sides.

Coveney did not do that, and London has overcompensated in correcting him. The Minister’s comment might barely have been noticed if London had not pointed a huge, angry arrow at it.

The British government is in a state of disarray, plus dependent on the DUP, which may explain its unwise haste and tone. However, that does not detract from the validity of its concerns - its previous statements against joint authority predate the Tory-DUP deal.

Questions are being asked about Coveney’s motivation. Dublin could be siding with Brussels to use Northern Ireland as a Brexit bargaining chip - the disproportionate reaction from London suggests the British government might think so.

The Minister might be positioning himself for a Fine Gael-Sinn Féin coalition, as some unionists suspect, yet he might also be parking a Fine Gael tank on Sinn Féin’s nationalist lawn, as some republicans suspect.

Perhaps the strongest clue comes from Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister, admittedly not an impartial witness, who said Coveney had been “lording it over” everyone at Stormont on Tuesday.

Among all the clever explanations for the Minister’s behaviour, we should not rule out a vainglorious blunder.

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