Noel Whelan: Britain distracted as Irish relationship faces strain
We are about to see first public divergence by governments on North since Belfast Agreement
Our neighbour is getting increasingly troublesome. We are set for a very turbulent period in Anglo-Irish relations. The cordial engagements which Ireland has enjoyed with Great Britain in recent decades are set to be disrupted. The risks crystallised on several fronts this week.
The divisions between us about Brexit, which have been apparent since the referendum, are set to intensify. Our common membership of the European Union has been more than just an important backdrop to closer co-operation; it has been the shared experience which has helped to transform our relationship.
Within the European Union and its earlier iterations our two countries bonded in common cause. Many of our laws were harmonised within the requirements of European law. Working together in European chambers and corridors of power socialised our politicians and civil servants.
Now all that is to be sundered – perhaps in a very brutal and abrupt way. Ireland’s economy is set to be collaterally and significantly damaged by Britain’s self-destructive decision to leave the EU. The Brexit negotiations are not going well, and they could collapse entirely. Politically, things between the two countries will never be the same again.
We are also about to see the first real public divergence between Britain and Ireland on Northern Ireland policy since the Belfast (or Good Friday) Agreement.
The two governments have been patiently and diligently working with the Northern Ireland parties for the last 10 months trying to re-establish powersharing at Stormont.
For all that time the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin have separately expressed themselves committed to the resumption of an Executive at Stormont but can’t seem to put it back together again. The governments and the two main parties are not prepared to admit total defeat yet, but the rescue effort has failed.
Later this month Westminster will pass a budget for the North, thereby returning to de facto direct rule. So now the underlying tensions between the two governments about what form direct rule can take have resurfaced.
The language is polite and diplomatic for the moment. In a tweet posted from Silicon Valley in the US early yesterday morning, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he had spoken to the British prime minister Theresa May, and they both agreed it was still possible to form an Executive, before adding importantly: “Provisions of the Good Friday agreement must be honoured.”
In doing so, Varadkar echoed the phrase used by Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney to Áine Lawlor in a News at One interview on Wednesday lunchtime.
In the days and weeks to come we can expect more strident talk by the Irish Government about how there can be no return to the direct rule of the past. The Government will insist on a say in how Westminster governs Northern Ireland if no Executive is re-established at Stormont. The Belfast Agreement entitles it to such a say.
However, the political realities at Westminster militate against May’s government agreeing to any such role for Dublin. The DUP, on whom she depends for her slim parliamentary majority, will not stand for Southern politicians being involved in the affairs of Northern Ireland.
Varadkar’s phone call with May on Wednesday night came after she had endured yet another very difficult day as prime minister. In the previous hours she had to concede to the passage of a Labour Party motion in Westminster which requires her to publish details of a hitherto confidential British government assessment of the likely impact of Brexit in 58 different sectors of the British economy.
This has the potential to blow apart much of the Conservatives’ case for leaving the EU, and could crucially undermine the suggestion that the British government can be relaxed about and prepared for the prospect of leaving in March 2019 without any deal.
Within minutes of having to accept the passage of that Labour motion, May had to accept the resignation of her defence secretary Michael Fallon. He was forced to resign amidst allegations about sexual harassment and in other instances even sexual offences committed by dozens of Westminster politicians.
This is the other factor which is going to make Anglo-Irish relations particularly difficult in the months to come. British politics is in the midst of a perfect storm of constitutional crisis, cabinet chaos and now a parliament-wide controversy about sexual harassment.
There is much goodwill among British and Irish politicians and officials. They have worked closely together on the peace process and other achievements over the last three decades.
In order to get through this difficult phase in Anglo-Irish relations it would normally require a massive effort and the focused application by all involved on both sides. Unfortunately for the foreseeable future British politicians will have much else to distract them.