DUP, Sinn Féin and all others urged to break North’s political deadlock

‘We don’t have a generation’s worth of time to waste,’ says Coveney of Stormont limbo

Tánaiste Simon Coveney:  “very optimistic” Stormont will be restored before the end of the year and “optimistic” a no-deal Brexit will  be avoided.  Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters.

Tánaiste Simon Coveney: “very optimistic” Stormont will be restored before the end of the year and “optimistic” a no-deal Brexit will be avoided. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters.

 

Having a debate about Irish unity in the face of Brexit would be “like pouring petrol into a furnace that is already pretty hot”, Tánaiste Simon Coveney said on Wednesday when marking two years since the collapse of powersharing.

Speaking at Queen’s University in Belfast, Mr Coveney urged the DUP, Sinn Féin and other parties to “come together now and start talking” and warned of the danger of wasting another generation to political deadlock.

“We don’t have a generation’s worth of time to waste, only to come back to this and try to put together some kind of a Good Friday Agreement for slow learners,” he said.

Mr Coveney said with powersharing and North-South co-operation in “limbo”, politicians “can’t keep waiting for a better moment” to restore the Northern Executive and Assembly.

He said he was “very optimistic” Stormont would be restored before the end of the year and “optimistic” that a no-deal Brexit would be avoided.

The Tánaiste, in a reference to a Seamus Heaney quote about the 1998 Belfast Agreement, made clear that the Brexit debate need not interfere with attempts to reinstate Stormont.

“Life moves on. It doesn’t wait for Brexit. It doesn’t wait for the perfect political moment to finally open up. To be honest, it doesn’t wait for ‘hope and history to rhyme’.”

‘Kind of trap’

In relation to the backstop, Mr Coveney said the Government’s “overriding priority” was to avoid a hard border. “We don’t want the backstop for it to be some kind of trap in which to ensnare and hold the UK or Northern Ireland.

“Nor do we want the backstop as some kind of stepping stone to changing the constitutional status of Northern Ireland . . . In fact, we don’t want the backstop to be invoked at all.”

On the Irish unity debate, he said one community would view it as a threat and it would “feed into a view that this is a conspiracy” and that whatever future people wanted for Northern Ireland, it must be about “persuasion not coercion”.

“It has to be about uniting people, not territory; it has to be about bringing people together,” he said.

Mr Coveney said restoring Stormont “should be by far the dominant political issue of the day” but he said it was “overshadowed and complicated by another question”, a reference to Brexit.

‘Peaceful future’

The Tánaiste insisted that Dublin fully respected the Brexit referendum result and was not seeking to “undermine it” or “use it to our advantage – because, frankly, there are no advantages to be had from it”.

“We want to make sure that UK withdrawal from the European Union doesn’t jeopardise the foundation of the shared, peaceful future for everyone on this island provided by the Good Friday Agreement. That is our agenda.”

Mr Coveney said that ratifying the withdrawal agreement remained the best and most realistic way of “avoiding the chaos” of a no-deal scenario.

On the prospect of a general election, Mr Coveney said if Fine Gael “got Brexit management wrong” then “Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin would move very quickly to make life difficult for us”.

He also said he would “like to see Fine Gael having a presence in Northern Ireland” at some stage.