Ben Lowry: Why there must be no enhanced role for Dublin if direct rule returns

Secretary of State James Brokenshire with Simon Coveney, the Irish foreign minister, who opposes British-only direct rule. Photo by Simon Graham Photography
Secretary of State James Brokenshire with Simon Coveney, the Irish foreign minister, who opposes British-only direct rule. Photo by Simon Graham Photography

On Wednesday I was part of a Radio Ulster Talkback discussion about possible joint authority for Northern Ireland.

During the broadcast (see link below) I mentioned a point that I have made before in this column, that the 1985 Anglo Irish Agreement (AIA) was a blow from which unionism has never fully recovered.

It has partially recovered from it, most notably in the Belfast Agreement of 1998. That later agreement seemed to reduce what unionists call ‘Dublin interference’.

In 2004 I talked to an Irish diplomat who had once worked at the Irish secretariat at Maryfield, near Holywood. The job he had done then was, he said, barely done at all now by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) officials.

The Belfast Agreement had set up all island bodies, but had also agreed that Strand One matters – in essence the Assembly and the Executive – were an internal devolved UK arrangement.

Nationalist concerns about unionist domination were dealt with by the checks and balances requiring cross-community input on some issues, as well as by mandatory power sharing.

Stand Two established North-South bodies for spheres where cross-border co-operation was desirable.

The Assembly had been suspended from 2002 to 2007, causing howls of protest from nationalists. But there was little legal doubt that the UK had the right to take back control.

Stormont had collapsed then due to lack of IRA decommissioning, the break-in at Castlereagh and the spy ring at Stormont.

In this crisis, however, Dublin is explicit that “British-only” direct rule is unacceptable. The position of the Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, seems to be the same as that of Alliance: there must be an “Irish dimension” to direct rule short of joint authority.

When I made my point on Talkback something striking happened: the commentator Colm Dore phoned in to say he agreed the AIA had been an “epochal” event when London conceded the role of Dublin “now and forever”.

I had not heard a republican concede this before. After all, the AIA was supposedly agreed by Britain to try to isolate the IRA. In a way it did, but foolish British officials did not see that if it hastened an end to their violence it might also advance their ultimate goal, as it has done.

Or perhaps some of them did see and wanted that. Margaret Thatcher, however, is said to have died regretting the AIA.

The movement towards an increasing Irish sense of a right to ‘joint stewardship’ of Northern Ireland is unmistakable, and a huge challenge for unionism.

I even fear it is part of a trend of nationalism now moving beyond the Belfast Agreement and acceptance of some of the matters it supposedly settled.

In April 2006 Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern raised the prospect of increased North-South joint stewardship if there was no devolution. While this was not joint authority, it was an attempt to put pressure on unionists.

The next year the DUP shared power with Sinn Fein.

At no point since 1998 have London or Dublin ever implied that republicans would face some similar long-term consequences if they refused to play ball.

Despite the aforementioned spying, break-in and tardy decommissioning, London only contemplated either pressing ahead as normal (ie no punishment for Sinn Fein) or punishment for everyone.

Specific punishment for Sinn Fein was, and always will be, off the agenda.

This pattern of no-punishment-for-republicans continued after outrages such as the Northern Bank robbery in late 2004 and the murder of Robert McCartney weeks later.

On the next St Patrick’s Day, all the parties lost their invites to the White House, not just Sinn Fein.

For the best of a decade it has been harder to spot this weakness towards Sinn Fein (rooted in London being afraid of a return to violence) because we had a stable period of devolution. Martin McGuinness seemed to want to work the system.

In more recent years, however, Irish ministers have become increasingly vocal in their lobbying on behalf of nationalist demands.

In 2012 the then Irish foreign minister Eamon Gilmore demanded an NI Bill of Rights, which even Tony Blair had resisted because his government could see how republicans intended to use it.

In 2015, the Irish foreign minister Charlie Flanagan said he would tell Britain it should not repeal the Human Rights Act. He also announced his government would reopen the ‘Hooded Men’ case.

Mr Flanagan demanded Britain open files on the Dublin-Monaghan bombs. Mr Flanagan later implied that Britain must not give soldiers an amnesty.

When he was Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, like his colleagues, repeatedly called for a public inquiry into the murder of one Troubles victim, Pat Finucane.

Dublin demands a standalone Irish language act.

It was only after Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar both implied (before retreating) there should be a border in the Irish Sea that there was major unionist protest.

I have listed only a fraction of the constant interference from Dublin on behalf of nationalist wish lists. Always they say that they are only calling for the implementation of existing agreements.

When do you ever hear London ministers vocally expressing unionist positions? James Brokenshire wrote about the imbalance against the security forces in legacy investigations, but that was because there was anger among backbench Tory MPs.

While Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have bitter disagreements with Sinn Fein, they constantly push on Northern Ireland matters in a way that will ultimately benefit republicans. Presumably this is partly due to the advice that they get from officials.

On the British side, there are voices in the UK government who try to resist this interference but alarmingly few.

Some observers in Northern Ireland who are sympathetic to unionism seem not to realise what is going on. One recently wondered if ‘the two governments’ might adopt an approach that isolated Sinn Fein.

They won’t. Even if an Irish minister was so inclined, the DFA would forbid it.

If Mr Coveney was to get his way, and direct rule was introduced with greater Dublin input, it would be a major victory for Sinn Fein.

The party would know it can refuse to work Stormont, and either get concessions from unionists or else direct rule with an extra green dimension. Over the decades these gradual increases in Dublin input will bring us near to joint authority.

The only way for this to change long-term is if it is made clear to Sinn Fein that if it opts out there will be negative consequences rather than reward.

That is why it was so welcome this week that even Steven Agnew of the Greens began to countenance voluntary coalition without Sinn Fein. Alliance also came close to agreeing that SF was pursuing a chaos strategy.

What is also needed is a unionist resolve that keeping seats at Stormont is secondary to long-term goals such as an uncompromising approach to sovereignty.

After all, it is up against a party that thinks long-term and makes its MLAs sacrifice short-term gain for those ultimate goals.

Unionists will also have to seek every possible ally they can find for such an approach at Westminster. There are still people in the Liberal Democrat and Labour parties who cherish the entire UK.

They will also have to try to convince young people that while we want and cherish warm cross-border relations and close co-operation on the many matters of mutual interest, that need not mean any dilution of sovereignty.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

BBC Radio Ulster Talkback discussion on joint authority, Wed Sep 6