Tánaiste would like Fine Gael to stand in North elections in future

Government’s current focus lies in restoring Stormont and dealing with Brexit – Coveney

Tanáiste Simon Coveney has said he would like to see Fine Gael involvement in Northern Ireland politics in the future. File photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

Tanáiste Simon Coveney has said he would like to see Fine Gael involvement in Northern Ireland politics in the future. File photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

 

Tánaiste Simon Coveney has said he would like to see Fine Gael involvement in Northern Ireland politics in the future.

He said the Irish Government’s current focus is on helping existing parties get Stormont up and running and to help navigate a way through Brexit.

Mr Coveney was speaking to reporters ahead of an arts event at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast marking the 20th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement.

Micheál Martin said recently that standing in Northern elections is a target for Fianna Fáil.

When asked whether Fine Gael had similar plans, Mr Coveney said: “I think there is a huge interest in Fine Gael in what happens in Northern Ireland.

“Certainly I would like to see Fine Gael involvement in Northern Ireland in the future, in Northern Ireland politics, but I think we have a unique role at the moment in Government in Ireland in the context of helping the existing political parties to find a way to re-establish an Executive and a functioning Assembly.

Potential dangers

“And of course we have to help navigate a way through Brexit and all of the potential dangers that are linked to it that can potentially polarise communities and political parties in Northern Ireland.”

Mr Coveney described former SDLP leader Mark Durkan as a “master of detail” but said he was not sure he was right in his assessment at the party’s weekend conference that the reason the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIC) had not met was because the DUP had a “polite veto” over it.

“The two governments are talking about how we can create conditions and the context for political parties to start working together again in Northern Ireland,” he said.

He spoke of the two divisive elections in the North last year and the talks process that “nearly provided a basis for setting up an Executive and functioning Assembly again that didn’t work”.

“I think there was a need for some breathing space after that because it was a difficult end, and now the two governments are very much focused on putting structures in place that can get those discussions back up and running again – and that may well mean a British Irish Intergovernmental Conference.”

He will be meeting with Northern Secretary Karen Bradley on Tuesday and “we will be talking about that again, I’m sure”.

Mr Coveney said convening the BIIC would be “helpful”, but it was only a part of a process that needs to bring parties together.

‘Absolutely committed’

“We certainly haven’t given up on that and we remain absolutely committed to devolved government as the only way for politics to function in Northern Ireland, as if, you like, the heartbeat of the Good Friday Agreement,” he said.

On whether he believed there could be a deal at Stormont before Brexit, Mr Coveney said: “I should certainly hope so. We are certainly not of a frame of mind that we should wait until all the difficult decisions around Brexit be made before an Executive can function again in Northern Ireland – not by a long shot.

“And I think the impatience for progress would be shared by both governments.”

On the suggestion the British government is not an independent protector of the Belfast Agreement as it relies on the DUP to stay in power, he said he knows it takes its responsibility in the agreement to be impartial to all communities seriously, “but obviously the relationship between the DUP and the British government is one that creates a complexity in these negotiations that we have to be big enough to get round”.