Newton Emerson: What kind of joint authority is Dublin smoking?
Government could kill Stormont by twisting Belfast Agreement to suit its Brexit needs
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tánaiste Simon Coveney. “Dublin’s summit plan is a unilateral demand, in breach of protocol and precedent.” Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters
The Government cannot lack a basic understanding of the Belfast Agreement. So what explains the comments on Sunday from Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney?
Appearing on RTÉ, he said if Sinn Féin and the DUP could not restore Stormont then the 1998 agreement must be “looked back at” because “that is where the rules are set”. Those rules raise “a whole series of other choices”, the Tánaiste continued, of which he cited two: an Assembly election and “the triggering of intergovernmental conferences to make decisions on Northern Ireland”.
Coveney is correct about an election. Another is required by statute and we are arguably well beyond the “reasonable time” set out in case law to call one.
On intergovernmental conferences, however, he is simply mistaken. The agreement’s mechanism for such meetings is the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIGC). Far from being triggered by a collapse of Stormont, it is only meant to operate in parallel with Stormont – both represent two of the three interlocking strands of the agreement, with the third being the North-South Ministerial Council (NSMC).
Four suspensions Stormont has been formally suspended four times in its modern history. The legislative power to do this suspended BIIGC and NSMC as well. During the fourth and
lengthiest suspension, between 2002 and 2007, London and Dublin did reconvene BIIGC – but only to discuss putting Stormont back together again, leading ultimately to the St Andrews Agreement and repeal of the suspension legislation. BIIGC has not met since, despite retaining its secretariat in Belfast.
It might be plausible that Coveney has only a repeat of this in mind, were it not for comments last month by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.
Speaking in the Dáil, Varadkar said he would demand a BIIGC summit if there was no DUP-Sinn Féin deal by the new year – but he seemed to portray this as an alternative to Stormont rather than a way to fix it, claiming that in the absence of devolution “everything is devolved to the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference.”
Again, this is simply mistaken. The agreement says that in the absence of devolution, the conference cannot operate at all. When devolution is operating, BIIGC’s remit is restricted to bilateral relations and powers that are not devolved, and only then to discussing those powers, not exercising them. The UK retains full sovereignty.
During the 2002-2007 suspension, policing and justice had still not been handed over to Stormont and this was a major obstacle to a Sinn Féin and DUP deal, so BIIGC had something to do. Fixing that problem is why it has not met since – it worked itself out of a job.
BIIGC officially subsumes the structures of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. Dublin could legitimately say a collapse of the Good Friday institutions resets the British-Irish relationship back to 1985. However, it is not saying that – it claims to be protecting the Good Friday institutions.
If Dublin’s message seems confused, it has been interpreted in only one way north of the Border. Unionists and nationalists both described Coveney’s remarks as a plan for “joint authority” – something Sinn Féin has demanded as an alternative to devolution since bringing Stormont down.
Responding to the RTÉ interview, the SDLP said it still wanted Stormont back but welcomed “joint authority” as the only acceptable plan B.
The DUP asked why Coveney had proposed “joint authority” while saying he wanted to repair relations with unionists.
The predictable consequence of the Taoiseach and Tánaiste’s pronouncements is that there will not be a Stormont deal until a summit has taken place. Why would republicans hurry back to devolution when the apparent price of failure is a giant leap towards a united Ireland in the shape of joint authority?
For that same reason, the longer-term prospects for Stormont have been significantly damaged. Unionist suspicion of the Republic has been cranked up to pre-Troubles levels, along with wider tensions in general, and to what end?
There is a tendency in Northern Ireland to think the world revolves around us, with even Dáil politics viewed in terms of Sinn Féin.
If there is no Northern Executive in place to manage regulatory alignment, Dublin has an obvious and urgent interest in stepping into that role. Most trade and Border issues are not devolved, and hence are within BIIGC’s remit.
It is a pity this approach seems to have been decided without any recourse to London – Dublin’s summit plan is a unilateral demand, in breach of protocol and precedent. Varadkar informed the Dáil he had issued it to UK prime minister Theresa May in person during a particularly fraught stage of the Brexit Border negotiations.
More dangerous is the casual disregard for how this plays within Northern Ireland.
By hammering a bizarre interpretation of the Belfast Agreement into its needs of the moment, the Government risks dealing Stormont a fatal blow.