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Newton Emerson: Tetchy Tánaiste stirs the Stormont pot

Joint authority between two governments barely speaking is an absurdity

Some of the most petulant reaction to the latest protocol row has come from Fine Gael, which may explain unwise comments on direct rule and a Border poll from Leo Varadkar.

Speaking at a Co-operation North event in Dublin on Tuesday night, the Tánaiste said direct rule was not a viable long-term alternative to devolution. If Stormont is not restored quickly other options must be considered, with the best forum to do so being the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIGC) of the Belfast Agreement.

This was an unnecessary musing when almost everyone expects the DUP to slink back to Stormont by the end of the year. The party's behaviour has created a new consensus that power-sharing must be reformed so no one party can ever collapse it again. The optimist's view is that devolution is on the cusp of unprecedented stability and it is hard to see what the Irish Government gains by chipping in a pessimist's contradiction.

The reference to the BIIGC was potentially provocative, as Varadkar ought to know.

The main east-west body of the Belfast Agreement, London and Dublin last put it to serious use for summit-level talks on restoring Stormont during its lengthiest collapse to date, between 2002 and 2007 – finally resolved through the St Andrews Agreement.

Both governments bounced the DUP into accepting that agreement by warning the late Ian Paisley that if he did not restore Stormont they would operate the rest of the Belfast Agreement – its east-west and north-south strands – over unionism's head.

It suited Paisley to accept and even exaggerate this warning, as it gave him cover to achieve his life's ambition of becoming 'prime minister' of Northern Ireland.

London and Dublin persevered with the BIIGC between 2002 and 2007 to rebuild devolution under the agreement, not to find an alternative to it

A decade later, when Sinn Féin collapsed Stormont, it claimed the St Andrews warning had been of “a form of joint authority” available via the BIIGC. This answered critics who said republicans had merely brought in direct rule. A joint authority enthusiasm swept northern nationalism, including the SDLP, lent credence in November 2017 when Varadkar said “if nothing is devolved then everything is devolved to the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference”.

It took several weeks to clear up the then taoiseach’s confusion. Under the Belfast Agreement, the BIIGC cannot discuss any devolved matters and this does not change if devolution collapses. Even when the BIIGC discusses non-devolved matters “related to Northern Ireland” it is meant to invite Stormont ministers to attend.

London and Dublin persevered with the BIIGC between 2002 and 2007 to rebuild devolution under the agreement, not to find an alternative to it.

Yet that is the implication some in northern nationalism will take once again from Varadkar reviving the claim. It makes it harder for Sinn Féin to recommit to Stormont if its supporters think joint authority is an alternative. In reality, although Dublin has a consultative role in Northern Ireland, joint authority is a fantasy at the best of times and a complete absurdity to imply between two governments barely on speaking terms.

It certainly could not be attempted through the Belfast Agreement, which would have to be renegotiated from scratch – with Boris Johnson. If the British prime minister cannot be trusted on the protocol, how is he to be trusted with devising an unprecedented international condominium?

Varadkar’s comments on a Border poll were even more gratuitous. He said the Belfast Agreement condition for a poll – likelihood of nationalist victory – was not met and this had been confirmed by the Assembly election. Rather than leave it at that, he added the decision could not be left to the northern secretary and there should be a clearer mechanism with a role for the Assembly.

Taking a yes or no stance on a Border poll is the last policy Alliance will have, as it is painfully aware

This argument was rejected on all grounds by Belfast’s high court and court of appeal in 2018 and 2020. Judges ruled the Belfast Agreement deliberately left calling a Border poll up to the northern secretary because it is a “political judgment in the context of differing and unpredictable events”, requiring “the constitutional value of flexibility”.

The wisdom of this is demonstrated by the rise of Alliance. For years, it was assumed a nationalist Assembly majority would compel the northern secretary to call a poll. Now there may never be any Assembly majority, for unionists, nationalists or ‘others’.

While the Assembly has always been free to hold a vote calling for a Border poll, giving it a formal role would in effect pass the decision from the northern secretary to Alliance, crushing the unaligned centre between binary imperatives. Taking a yes or no stance on a Border poll is the last policy Alliance will have, as it is painfully aware. Why would anyone drop such a poisoned pill on Stormont when the growth of the unaligned bloc has been almost universally welcomed as the best hope of developing normal politics?

There are enough games being played with international agreements in Northern Ireland without a former and future taoiseach stirring the pot.