A mini-peace process is needed to get Stormont talks moving
Unless London and Dublin can work together, there’s little hope of DUP-Sinn Féin deal
The British and Irish governments are presenting Stormont talks and BIIGC meetings as competing rather than complementary approaches. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images
Leo Varadkar has finally acknowledged the limits of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIGC).
In November, he told the Dáil that “if nothing is devolved then everything is devolved” to the moribund Good Friday Agreement institution, portraying it as a replacement for Stormont if the DUP and Sinn Féin could not reach a deal by the New Year.
Last Thursday, however, the Taoiseach told journalists: “Essentially the Good Friday Agreement provides for matters that are not devolved to be dealt with by the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference and that’s what we will seek.”
Matters not devolved to Northern Ireland are known as reserved and excepted powers. They are listed in the legislation enacting the agreement, and this list does not change if Stormont is suspended. So it is not the case, as the Taoiseach has previously implied, that a collapse of Stormont causes devolved powers to transfer automatically to BIIGC.
With all strands of the agreement supposedly “interlocking and interdependent”, a collapse of Stormont should arguably see BIIGC mothballed as well.
In any case, Stormont has not been formally suspended, meaning Dublin’s apparent designs on its powers has looked doubly strange.
There is still plenty for the British and Irish governments to discuss at a BIIGC meeting. The list of reserved and excepted powers is long and covers serious subjects, including security, rights, equality and implementation of existing agreements – all topics with a direct bearing on current Stormont talks.
During the last Stormont suspension, from 2002 to 2007, both governments managed to stick religiously to BIIGC’s remit despite holding wide-ranging discussions on putting devolution back together again. No devolved matters were referred to in the communiques from any of the 16 meetings held throughout that period.
This is becoming a rather technical point amid the current tensions between London and Dublin. What is most notable from those 16 communiques is how both governments worked hand in glove from the outset, using BIIGC as a vehicle for co-operation under the agreement.
Today, the conference looks more like a threat Dublin has issued against London, which is obviously worse than any brief misunderstanding of what a meeting might discuss. The Irish Government is not claiming to have requested a meeting and been turned down – the Taoiseach informed the Dáil last month that he had demanded a BIIGC summit while speaking to UK prime minister Theresa May. The British government has said nothing in response beyond vague statements about upholding the Good Friday Agreement.
London is busy with its own dialogue of the deaf. On Christmas Eve, the BBC reported that the British government has sounded out two Stormont talks venues for the New Year, one in Northern Ireland and the other in England. Both are luxury golf resorts.
This fits the pattern of a classic peace-process negotiation, where both governments whisk the warring Stormont parties off to a country house somewhere to bang heads together. The 2006 St Andrews agreement, which brought the last suspension to an end, was the epitome of this particular kind of theatre. It even took place at a golf resort. The critical difference is that it was organised jointly by London and Dublin, and they spoke with one voice about it via the BIIGC.
The decision to begin the St Andrews process was credited to Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, following a meeting at Downing Street. Four BIIGC sessions were then convened that year, with communiques setting out the talks agenda and its deadlines.
Yet now we have London organising talks with no recourse to Dublin, and Dublin demanding meetings of BIIGC with no recourse to London.
It is inexcusable that either government is behaving in this manner. By accident or design, they are presenting Stormont talks and BIIGC meetings as competing rather than complementary approaches, virtually guaranteeing a fiasco.
All that would be necessary to avoid this is basic co-ordination of their announcements. The agreement does not require either government to be constitutionally neutral – in fact, it assumes the opposite. The Taoiseach and Tánaiste are perfectly free to advocate for a united Ireland and express solidarity with Northern nationalists, just as the Conservative Party can support the union and work with the DUP – as long as both governments are still on speaking terms when it comes to co-guaranteeing the institutions of the agreement. It is the evidence they are barely on speaking terms that has turned their differences into a crisis.
What is urgently needed in the New Year is a mini-peace process between London and Dublin, to agree a common line on moving Stormont talks forward. This need be as little as a rough timeframe and an outline of how Stormont talks and British-Irish conferences fit together – if only to dispel perceptions of rivalry and confusion. Until then, there is no point hoping for any deal between Sinn Féin and the DUP.