By Brian Feeney (for Irish News)
You may not have noticed, because the Irish and British governments have been denying it, but something has gone seriously wrong with the British-Irish joint approach to the north.
It’s true that Eamon Gilmore has been a failure as minister responsible for British-Irish oversight here and that in his time the Irish government has abdicated its responsibility.
There may be many reasons for that failure. As minister of foreign affairs he must have found it more congenial to go swanning around to meetings of OSCE discussing Azerbaijan or Ukraine or making speeches to almost empty meetings of the UN General Assembly.
He was away often enough to cause concern in his own party and demands that he take on a ministry more associated with the socio-economic problems of Ireland than somewhere in Eastern Europe.
Whatever the reason, he simply didn’t engage with the deteriorating circumstances in The North either on the streets or in the Stormont Executive. Now he’s gone, but in a curious departure.
Of course he’s still minister of foreign affairs - he’s only resigned as leader of the Labour party but there will be a reshuffle and a new face in Iveagh House.
However, Gilmore’s shortcomings as the man dealing with the north were only half the problem.
There’s the rub. In some ways more important has been the sea change in the attitude of the British government since the Conservatives came in 2010.
Broadly speaking instead of following the joint approach that was repeatedly successful since 1985, the Conservatives have taken the side of Unionists. Instead of exposing this change the Irish government has remained silent.
Gilmore was satisfied when he could point to meetings with our proconsul in Dublin or Belfast even though nothing came from any of them. The Irish government continued to claim everything was rosy even when they were excluded from the so-called economic package Robinson and McGuinness signed up to in Downing street last year.
The same with the investment conference in autumn 2012. No Irish presence. Not a cheep from Dublin. Not a cheep through the flag protests and the incredible interpretation of the law by the PSNI leadership.
Why did the British and Irish governments acquiesce in the appointment of Haass last year but hang him out to dry in January?
Why do the British give succour to unionist stonewalling on the contentious items which have caused mayhem on the streets and cost millions of pounds? Why won’t they meet Sinn Fein? So far this year Sinn Fein have formally asked three times for a meeting with Cameron and have been turned down on each occasion.
What we do know is that something has gone badly wrong which is damaging the political process here. Perhaps that is why there has belatedly been a change in personnel at the NIO with the appointment of a new permanent secretary, sir Jonathan Stephens, on June 2. He has 15 years experience at the NIO during two previous stints. There have been other NIO reinforcements too. Is it too much to hope that the Cabinet Office has at last realised that the camarilla around proconsuls since 2010 has made a mess of things?
What finally allowed light to dawn? Was it the dangerous fiasco of Adams’s arrest on the basis of tapes that could never lead to a conviction? Was it the nonsense and hypocrisy around the OTRs? Or was it a combination of events which indicated that instead of any coherent policy being followed in the north there was disengagement and favouritism towards Unionism which could only lead to intransigence? Alarm bells should have rung a long time ago but perhaps the final evidence was Eamon Gilmore’s solo run in having talks reconvened which everyone knows will go absolutely nowhere.
Note the silence about them from the proconsul. They’re intended to fail as Unionists have already indicated. Let’s hope that gives the new regime North and South time to bed in over the summer so there can be a new beginning.