Coveney blunders in on the British-Irish Conference

Tánaiste overstated role it gives Dublin in affairs of the North, with predictable consequences

Tánaiste Simon Coveney: Everything in his Dáil statement during leader’s questions was a perfectly reasonable and scrupulously correct, apart from the reference to a budget, which was an extraordinary mistake. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Tánaiste Simon Coveney: Everything in his Dáil statement during leader’s questions was a perfectly reasonable and scrupulously correct, apart from the reference to a budget, which was an extraordinary mistake. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

For the love of God, will somebody draw Fine Gael a diagram?

The British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, an institution of the Belfast Agreement, can deal only with non-devolved matters.

Last November, when Taoiseach Leo Varadkar first proposed reconvening the conference to address the Stormont crisis, he got this crucial detail wrong, telling the Dáil: “If nothing is devolved, then everything is devolved to the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference.”

The following month he corrected himself but by then the damage had been done, with Northern nationalists and unionists both believing a new form of joint authority had been demanded, and over-reacting in predictably opposite directions.

Since then everyone has climbed down off the ceiling, on this particular issue at least, to the point where last week Varadkar offered unionists an olive branch.

Speaking in Washington ahead of St Patrick’s Day, the Taoiseach proposed “a new engagement with the British government . . . to secure an agreement between the major parties and also all the parties in Northern Ireland. ”

Perhaps the best way to do this would be “joint proposals” or a “joint paper” from both governments, the Taoiseach said, before adding: “whether it is done through the auspices of the British-Irish governmental conference or not is not the most important thing.”

Olive branch

This was the olive branch and, from across the Atlantic, DUP leader Arlene Foster thwacked it back in his face.

“In keeping with the principle of consent and the three-stranded approach it is not appropriate for the Irish prime minister to outline future political steps relating to Northern Ireland and a resumption of talks,” Foster said.

“Whilst we will work with the Irish Government on appropriate issues, the political process is an internal matter and should be taken forward by Her Majesty’s Government.”

Foster was taking a minimalist interpretation of Irish Government’s role. Dublin has no specific oversight of Stormont – strand one of the Belfast Agreement – even via the conference. Its role lies in strand three, the east-west relationship.

However, the conference is empowered to “contribute as appropriate to any review of the overall political agreement”, with the proviso that it cannot override Stormont.

That means Dublin can make proposals on restoring devolution, as happened during the last collapse of Stormont between 2002 and 2007, as long as it respects the distinction between helping the peace process overall and getting involved in Stormont specifics.

Keeping Dublin detached from strand one was unionism’s main goal and achievement in negotiating the Belfast Agreement. It is sacrosanct to the DUP, hence Foster’s indignation despite praising the rest of Varadkar’s Washington speech. The DUP leader would rather not be at loggerheads with the Irish Government.

The Taoiseach may have thought he was telling unionists not to worry about last year’s “joint authority” scare, but what unionists heard was another casual breaching of the bulwarks. The Taoiseach should have said: “How we assist talks through the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference is important.”

The lesson from Foster’s reaction has clearly not been learned. Filling in for the Taoiseach this Tuesday at leader’s questions, Tánaiste Simon Coveney told the Dáil he has asked Northern Secretary Karen Bradley to “consider an Intergovernmental Conference”.

“I felt it would be appropriate at this stage to have that structure enacted so both governments could formally discuss the various options they need to consider around a budget for Northern Ireland, how we take our next steps getting a devolved government back up and running in Northern Ireland and other practical issues that can and should be raised on an east-west basis,” Coveney said.

“I have not yet had a response to this proposal. Ms Bradley has said she wants to think about it, which is perfectly reasonable.”

Everything in Coveney’s statement was also perfectly reasonable and scrupulously correct, apart from the reference to a budget, which was an extraordinary blunder.

Northern Ireland’s budget is unquestionably a self-contained strand one issue and none of Dublin’s business under any structure, let alone the Intergovernmental Conference.

What was the Tánaiste thinking? Was he just padding out his sentence, or does he really believe he can summon a Belfast Agreement institution by tearing the agreement up?

Worse was to come. As newspapers speculated on a row behind Bradley’s failure to respond, Irish Government sources briefed that a conference has been “blocked” by London under pressure from the DUP.

If the DUP has objected to a conference on Coveney’s terms, it is quite right to do so. An equally likely explanation is that Bradley is maintaining a diplomatic silence in the face of an ill-judged request.

Proper structure

The conference remains the best and proper structure for both governments to work together. If it had been convened after Stormont collapsed a year ago, it would have mitigated nationalist concerns and put unionism on notice of the need for British-Irish co-operation, before the complication of the DUP-Tory deal. Even now, the conference must be convened to restore discipline to a process that has become hopelessly improvisational.

But how can that happen while Dublin’s carelessness makes the conference itself increasingly controversial?

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