Newton Emerson: London and Dublin handling of Northern crisis a fiasco
Former leaders Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair showed how co-operation should work
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar addresses the media with Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney after the collapse of the latest Northern talks. A pointed comparison must be made between their approach and that of Bertie Ahern. Photograph: Paul Faith/Getty Images
Former taoiseach Bertie Ahern has been in touch with the Minister for Foreign Affairs over the Stormont talks.
“I’ve been talking to Simon Coveney and I know where the negotiations were at. I think he’s doing a good job on it and I think it’s better to leave him to handle it. And I think criticism from the sidelines isn’t helpful,” Ahern told RTÉ this week.
So let me criticise on his behalf. During the last Stormont collapse, between 2002 and 2007, Ahern ran a model of British-Irish co-operation, restoring devolution while fully upholding the integrity of the Belfast Agreement.
London and Dublin’s handling of the latest crisis, by contrast, has been a fiasco.
Coveney cannot be held even half responsible for this, as there is only so much Ireland can do when Britain declines to turn up. Nevertheless, a pointed comparison must be made.
The agreement’s mechanism for co-operation between London and Dublin is the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, a standing body based in Belfast.
It is meant to meet regularly at ministerial level, with heads of government summits as required. Its remit covers non-devolved matters and review of the overall settlement. The UK remains sovereign but Ireland’s consultative role extends to making proposals. Stormont ministers may be involved when relevant, although again only on non-devolved matters.
The conference kept to a full schedule throughout the five-year suspension, averaging three ministerial meetings and one summit per year. It also kept strictly to its remit, never once straying into any devolved issue despite the absence of devolution.
As efforts to restore Stormont gathered pace, it was the vehicle Ahern and British prime minister Tony Blair used to put Stormont back together. Their frequent bilateral encounters were followed up on conference agendas. In 2005, they addressed all the deadlocked issues in a high-profile conference summit, followed by a joint Downing Street press conference.
In 2006 there were four conference meetings – two in Dublin, one in London and one in Hillsborough – all focused on preparing for and overseeing talks between the Northern Ireland parties. The Irish delegation was led at every meeting by Coveney’s Fianna Fáil predecessor Dermot Ahern.
The St Andrew’s talks of that year were chaired by Bertie Ahern and Blair, not just symbolically but very actively – including the issuing of joint memoranda to hurry the DUP and Sinn Féin along. No opportunity was presented for either party to play the two governments off against each other.
Implementation of the resulting St Andrews Agreement was topped off with a conference meeting in early 2007.
The success of this formal, disciplined approach may have sown the seeds of current difficulties, for the conference has not met since. There seems to have been a sense that its work was done – the main items in its in-tray were restoring Stormont and devolving policing and justice, both of which St Andrews fixed.
However, there was still plenty left for the conference to do, most obviously oversight of both the Belfast and St Andrews agreements. Devolution of policing and justice subsequently ran into trouble and took another three years to resolve, including six months in 2008 when Sinn Féin boycotted the executive. That chance to reconvene the conference was missed.
Brexit would have justified another meeting. Instead, former taoiseach Enda Kenny bypassed the agreement’s structures altogether and held an all-Ireland forum, giving London and the DUP an excuse to ignore him.
Raised it as a threat
So when Stormont collapsed last January, there was no active British-Irish structure to address it. The conference was not mentioned until last November, when Taoiseach Leo Varadkar unilaterally raised it as a threat rather than a vehicle, while also misunderstanding its non-devolved remit. He later corrected himself but Dublin’s hostile stance remains.
Irish alarm at Brexit and the DUP-Tory deal may make hostility understandable but that is a reason for more careful adherence to structure
Irish alarm at Brexit and the DUP-Tory deal may make hostility understandable but that is a reason for more careful adherence to structure. The DUP-Tory deal contains a Chinese wall between Westminster and Northern Ireland affairs; the remit of the conference would be ideal for policing breaches.
There is further destructive ambiguity over how Stormont talks are chaired. In practice, Coveney co-chaired the latest talks with Northern Secretary Karen Bradley, yet officially there is no chair. The Northern Ireland Office believes recognising Coveney’s role would antagonise the DUP, and Dublin has presumably acquiesced to this sophistry.
The failure of last week’s talks has escalated tensions over direct rule – demanded by the DUP and rejected by Dublin and Sinn Féin.
This is another needless argument. London has no intention of introducing direct rule, nor was direct rule contentious between 2002 and 2007, thanks to Dublin’s input via the conference.
Today, instead of working that agreed mechanism, both governments are issuing separate statements about their commitment to the agreement, in response to increasing pronouncements of its demise.
No wonder Ahern is concerned. Or perhaps he was just having a poke at Micheál Martin – ancient feuds are not restricted to Northern Ireland.