Newton Emerson: Why is Coveney stirring Stormont pot?

Minister blundering in with doom-laden pronouncements on Brexit was unhelpful

Simon Coveney  is entitled to express frustration with the UK’s appalling ill-preparedness for Brexit. Once again the real problem with his remarks was their futile, ill-timed stirring of the pot

Simon Coveney is entitled to express frustration with the UK’s appalling ill-preparedness for Brexit. Once again the real problem with his remarks was their futile, ill-timed stirring of the pot

 

Three weeks ago, as Stormont talks approached their latest deadline, the Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney publicly backed the nationalist demand for a standalone Irish language Act.

He was fully entitled to do this – there is no requirement under the Good Friday agreement for Dublin to be impartial in such matters. London has sided with unionists on Troubles legacy issues, so nobody else could complain about Coveney sticking his oar in (although the DUP complained anyway).

The real problem with the Minister’s statement was that it just stirred the pot.

Nothing about his comments, and especially their timing, could be seen as making an Irish language Act more likely – he just got the other side’s back up. Likewise, London’s stance on legacy issues.

Two wrongs do not make a right. But at least the British government has its own concerns about legacy Troubles cases – the prosecution of former soldiers has become a pressing issue in Westminster and with voters in Britain.

Is a Stormont Irish language Act of comparable interest in the Republic?

Finally, the question of whether language legislation should be standalone or combined with unionist cultural concerns has become the totemic sticking point at Stormont. As wise observers have noted, this arcane dispute is a convenient proxy for the far harder questions that will have to be fudged in an overall deal. So turning up the heat on it at the very last minute was the worst thing Coveney could have done.

Technical solutions

Yet now he has done much the same again, this time over Brexit and the Border.

Speaking to RTÉ from negotiations in Brussels, he said: “What we do not want to pretend is that we can solve the problems of the Border on the island of Ireland through technical solutions like cameras and pre-registration and so on. That is not going to work.”

This comment verged on setting up a straw man argument.

Nobody is pretending the post-Brexit Border can be purely electronic – only that such technology can make it, in the words of the Northern Ireland Office, “as frictionless as possible”.

The UK will not have to install customs posts on its side of the frontier and has said it will not do so, but everyone accepts the Republic will have to perform some checks on behalf of the EU as a whole.

The Irish Government has made detailed work on this public. Last August the Revenue Commissioners revealed plans for a soft Brexit electronic system on the assumption of a UK-EU free trade arrangement. This would allow most lorries to cross the Border non-stop, but there would still be physical clearance facilities for occasional customs checks, preferably at existing tax offices rather than at the frontier itself.

This February, Minister for Finance Michael Noonan confirmed contingency planning for a hard Brexit electronic system, involving fixed customs posts on main routes – again well away from the Border – with portable inspection facilities elsewhere. In April, the Revenue Commissioners advised the Dáil that this would mean checking the paperwork of between 6 per cent and 8 per cent of freight movements, with a “small number” of physical inspections.

Peace process

Having ignored all this work by his own Government, Coveney then toppled his straw man onto Stormont.

“Any barrier or border on the island of Ireland in my view risks undermining a very hard-won peace process,” he said, apparently unaware of the Border there already.

“All of the parties in Northern Ireland, whether they are unionist or nationalist, recognise we want to keep the free movement of people and goods and services and livelihoods.”

If Coveney realises all parties in Northern Ireland share roughly the same Brexit objectives, where does he think the threat to peace or even the political process comes from?

By what plausible mechanism might disappointment at a small number of lorry inspections in Drogheda turn into violence on the streets of Belfast?

Dissident republicans may see customs facilities as a target but they are already committed to violence on any pretext – and attacking Drogheda would only unite the whole of Ireland against them.

All this refers solely to the movement of goods. Services tend to move invisibly, if at all, while the movement of Irish people – including for their livelihoods – is still expected to be completely unaffected.

Frustration

Coveney is entitled to express frustration with the UK’s appalling ill-preparedness for Brexit. Once again the real problem with his remarks was their futile, ill-timed stirring of the pot.

Stormont talks have lapsed into summer limbo but Sinn Féin and the DUP continue to make positive noises, assisted by a peaceful July.

Blundering in with doom-laden pronouncements on Brexit – something Stormont cannot begin to deal with until the talks are resolved – was needlessly unhelpful.

The threat to the political process in Northern Ireland, and hence perhaps ultimately to peace, is the interruption of devolution.

If Fine Gael feels it has to cover its nationalist flank, it could do so with a bit more care.

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