Stephen Collins: Varadkar and Coveney wasting time on talk of Irish unity
Davis wrong on Sinn Féin influence but Fine Gael must focus on pragmatic Brexit results
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (right) and Tánaiste Simon Coveney “have fuelled suspicion and paranoia in the North and the rest of the UK by raising . . . the question of a united Ireland”. Photograph: Daragh McSweeney/Provision
The suggestion by British Brexit secretary David Davis that Sinn Féin is dictating the approach of the Fine Gael-led Government in Dublin to Brexit is clearly absurd but it tells us something about the damaging impact Brexit has had on relations between the two governments.
What is really dangerous is the spillover impact the Brexit process has had on relations between the Government and parties in Northern Ireland and the implications that has for the future of the Belfast Agreement.
There is no doubt that the tough stance adopted by the Irish side in getting the future of the Border installed as a priority for European Union negotiators has come as a shock to the British.
Since the Irish Border was accepted as one of the top three priorities in the preliminary agreement between the EU and the UK last December a variety of political sources and media in London, including foreign secretary Boris Johnson, have been trotting out the line that Leo Varadkar and his colleagues have given in to pressure from Sinn Féin to take an anti-British stance.
The British seem to have based their initial calculations on the presumption that as Ireland has such a strong interest in the best possible trade deal between the EU and the UK that the Government would have automatically been a British ally in the talks.
This assumption missed the point that as Ireland is a committed EU state, which has benefited enormously from membership, the Government never had any doubt about where the long-term interests of the country stood. We need the EU to survive as a strong and vibrant organisation after the British leave.
Obviously we have a vested interest in the best possible trading relationship after Brexit but the British decision to leave the customs union and the single market has soured the prospects of that.
That reckless decision also demonstrated such a lack of interest in the implications for Ireland that the Government here had no choice but to take the strongest possible line on the Border to try and protect our interests as far as is possible.
This appears to have come as a complete shock to the British and is one of the reasons they have come up with the theory that Fine Gael has been swayed by Sinn Féin into taking such a strong line.
Former taoiseach Bertie Ahern was so bemused by the Davis comments that he said: “If the implication, which it seemed to be, that the Taoiseach was a card-carrying member of Sinn Féin . . . I don’t get that.”
Nationalist leaders have been talking about a united Ireland for more than a century at this stage and look how far that has got them
That said, Varadkar and his Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney need to acknowledge that they have fuelled suspicion and paranoia in the North and the rest of the UK by raising, at precisely the wrong moment, the question of a united Ireland.
With Sinn Féin misinterpreting the majority vote in the North to remain in the EU as a vote for a united Ireland the last thing the Taoiseach or his Ministers should have become involved in was appearing to support that party’s campaign for constitutional change.
What needs to be knocked on the head is the notion that some special deal for the North, designed to ensure the continuation of a soft border, will automatically translate into a step on the road to a united Ireland.
The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, who has been outstanding in the role, has this week tried to calm fears that some form of special status for Northern Ireland had any implications for its constitutional position, insisting that the border issue was about “technical, pragmatic solutions, not ideology”.
He pointed out that there were already customs checks in Belfast for goods that are imported from the rest of the UK into Northern Ireland, for example, animal products.
This is the kind of calm, reasoned language that Irish Ministers should be using to try to mitigate the impact of Brexit rather than stoking fears by talking about a united Ireland.
What they need to do is to give the time and attention required to getting the institutions established under the Belfast Agreement up and running again rather than indulging in meaningless rhetoric. Remember nationalist leaders have been talking about a united Ireland for more than a century at this stage and look how far that has got them.
Ahern made the point this week that the differences separating the sides in the North at this stage are tiny when compared with the huge issues such as the release of paramilitary prisoners, decommissioning and the reform of the police which were part of the Belfast Agreement as well as the powersharing political institutions that underpinned it.
The core principle of the agreement was a recognition of the different but also overlapping sense of identity of the people of Northern Ireland as “Irish or British or both”. It was this acceptance of difference that made the agreement remarkable and why it is so important that it is not swept away a new age of futile anti-partition rhetoric.