Ray Bassett: UK election leaves Irish Government with a weak hand in the North
Current Fine Gael administration has failed to cultivate either Sinn Fein or the DUP
Talks are due to resume on Monday in Stormont against the background of much political uncertainty at Westminster. There is a big onus on the Irish Government to get seriously engaged, from the new Taoiseach down and to start working with parties, both individually and in groups, to hammer out a way forward, in conjunction with any new Secretary of State. PAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images
In his campaign to be Fine Gael leader and presumptive Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar said it was time for his party to re-engage with the North. The results of the Westminster poll make this exhortation even more urgent.
As officials in Iveagh House crunched the voting details throughout the night and sent their briefing notes to the politicians (a job I did on many previous occasions!), they would have highlighted the implications for the North, including that the Government’s ally, the SDLP was drowning in yet another Sinn Féin surge. On the other side, the Unionist electorate gave the DUP the boost it badly needed after its Brexit defeat and its poor showing at the Assembly elections. The word, within the DUP, was that the loss of North Belfast would have ended Arlene Foster’s leadership but the party had a tremendous result, especially in Belfast where Unionism has been in heavy retreat. In the last Assembly election, - only 6 of the 20 Belfast seats were taken by Unionists.
However, when the dust settles, there is still the unfinished business of re-establishing the institutions. Sinn Féin’s leadership will feel that this latest triumph, with the acquisition of 3 extra seats, is a further vindication of their decision to pull the plug on the Assembly. In Iveagh House and Government buildings, there will be anxious officials weighing up the possibility that a strengthened Sinn Féin will be in a better position to compromise. They will also hope that the DUP’s pivotal role as King maker in Westminster will induce a more responsible approach to partnership Government at Stormont.
However, the Irish Government’s hand, at the moment, is weak. It has not cultivated the Northern leadership of Sinn Féin, or indeed the Unionist parties, in a manner that its predecessors did. During Albert Reynolds, Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen’s periods as Taoiseach, all three enjoyed good personal relations with Republican leaders and often travelled to the North for private chats with Sinn Féin as well as Unionist and Loyalist party figures. They worked hard at ensuring that there were always open channels of communication, as well as the official set piece meetings. These contacts were invaluable in building up trust and mutual respect.
According to figures within the Republican movement, these connections have all but vanished under the present administration in Dublin. Leo Varadkar is right: it is to time to restart this dialogue with both Sinn Féin and Unionist leaders, well away from the spotlight.
However, the immediate need is to reboot the institutions and here the prospects are not good. Sinn Féin is determined to have a number of its demands met, including a Bill of Rights, marriage equality, legacy issues, Irish language status, etc. They are also demanding that Arlene steps aside. While not all these issues will be resolved immediately, there will have to be enough in any package to satisfy their supporters that there will be no return to the DUP trying to run a highly partisan solo operation at Stormont.
The treatment of an ill Martin McGuinness still rankles and contributed to Sinn Féin’s victory in Foyle last week. However, having been in negotiations for many years with Sinn Féin, I believe that despite the rhetoric, Sinn Féin are fairly pragmatic, especially if they are shown respect and their concerns taken seriously. The position of Gerry Adams is crucial, as he alone has the prestige within Sinn Féin to deliver a deal. There is no mileage in the Irish or British Governments undermining his position.
The DUP will be the more anxious of the big two parties to get into Government. If Peter Robinson was still in charge, then the odds on a deal with Sinn Féin would be much better. However, if Sinn Féin was to soften its stance on Arlene Foster one could see the possible outlines of a deal.
Sinn Féin prides itself on being an all-Ireland institution. If it is to allow the DUP back into Government, it may need a helping hand from a supportive and actively engaged Irish Government. That’s where Varadkar’s realisation that the southern parties need to up their game on the North is so perceptive
Talks are due to resume on Monday in Stormont against the background of much political uncertainty at Westminster. There is a big onus on the Irish Government to get seriously engaged, from the new Taoiseach down and to start working with parties, both individually and in groups, to hammer out a way forward, in conjunction with any new Secretary of State.
Both the DUP and Sinn Féin will need their respective “mother” governments to take an active part. Traditionally, it is only when Dublin and London move in concert that progress occurs in Belfast. Otherwise, we are facing the prospect of a prolonged period of Direct Rule, something nobody wants.
The former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating was fond of saying, “In any race, if there is a horse called self-interest, place your money there. You know it is trying”. While the odds seem stacked against a deal at Stormont in the short term, don’t rule out completely the possibility of a prolonged period of negotiations, followed by a compromise. Self-interest will certainly be trying hard.
Ray Bassett is a former Irish ambassador and was joint secretary of the British-Irish secretariat in Belfast