Stephen Collins: It is no surprise unionists suspect a conspiracy
Taoiseach and Ministers have not taken enough account of how approach is perceived in North
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaking at a Belfast Agreement 20th-anniversary event held at the Library of Congress in Washington, on Wednesday. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Leo Varadkar’s admission that his Government’s approach to Brexit has spooked unionists is a welcome acknowledgement of reality. It might even represent a small step on the road to restoring the institutions established by the Belfast Agreement.
Those institutions have now been in abeyance for more than a year and the collapse of the latest attempt to restore them has cast a pall over the 20th anniversary of the agreement which is coming up in a few weeks.
As the blame game over who is responsible for the current impasse continues it was a positive step by the Taoiseach to acknowledge the beam in his own eye rather than focusing on the mote in the eye of others.
In a speech in Washington he recognised that recent statements and actions by Irish nationalists, including the Irish Government, about Brexit have been seen as unwelcome or intrusive by unionists.
“If that is the case, I want to make it clear that it certainly was not our intention. I want to repeat that we have no hidden agenda. My only agenda is the Good Friday agreement – the principle of consent, peaceful politics, the democratic institutions, reconciliation and co-operation,” he said.
The problem is that the Taoiseach and his Tánaiste, Simon Coveney, fuelled unionist fears that they have a hidden agenda by references some months ago at a delicate stage in the last phase of the talks to their aspirations for a united Ireland.
Taken in tandem with Sinn Féin’s renewed campaign for a united Ireland and repeated emphasis by nationalists of all hues to the fact that a majority in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU it is hardly a surprise that unionists jumped to the conclusion that there was a conspiracy against them.
The initial attraction of the Belfast Agreement for moderate unionists, and nationalists for that matter, was that it established institutions in which the two communities in the North could work together by putting the issue of the Border and partition to one side for a generation at least.
Successive Irish and British governments have to take a lot of responsibility for why this strategy did not work. They consciously undermined the forces of moderation on both sides by adopting a policy clearly designed to hand power to the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin, both of whom had reservations about the agreement from the start.
The strategy of the governments was based on the theory that once the extremes were involved the future would be assured. The problem was that from the beginning the extremes had a lukewarm commitment to the deal place and have spent most of their time trying to pick holes in it.
In the Brexit talks the unrelenting focus of the Government on the need to avoid a hard border has come to be regarded by unionists as part of the campaign for a united Ireland rather than being seen for what it is: a logical attempt to ensure that the impact of Brexit is minimised for both parts of the island.
In any case the question of whether or not we end up with a hard or a soft border will depend on the manner in which the British leave the EU. If the Tory right has its way and the UK crashes out of the customs union and single market there is nothing our Government will be able to do to prevent a hard border.
Such is the volatility of British politics it is still impossible to predict how it will ultimately play out but, if the hardliners have their way, the onus will be on the Irish and the EU side to decide what kind of Border we want.
The way the Taoiseach has gone about promoting the Irish case on the Border and standing up to the British has won him considerable support with his own electorate. The incompetence and incoherence of Theresa May and her ministers on the entire Brexit process reinforced support for his tough stance.
While he is absolutely right to stick by the EU position, the Taoiseach and his Ministers have not taken enough account of how their approach can be perceived in the North and the unintended consequences that may flow from it.
That is why the olive branch to unionism in Washington was a welcome development. It is not going to change attitudes overnight but it should help to calm things a little and generate a better reception for whatever the Irish and British governments come up with.
In his speech, the Taoiseach said progress would require very close co-operation and leadership from the two governments, but he didn’t repeat his call for the triggering of the Ministerial Council which is anathema to unionists as a vehicle for dealing with internal Northern Ireland issues.
It may only be a matter of semantics but Varadkar’s carefully chosen words on the way forward demonstrated a new awareness of just how carefully everybody needs to act if there is to be any chance of the Belfast Agreement finally reaching its potential.