Ministers have lost interest in north-south links

By Brian Feeney (for the Irish News)

Garret FitzGerald recalls in his memoirs that the ink wasn’t dry on the Sunningdale Agreement before the Department of Finance in Dublin and its minister Richie Ryan were conspiring with what he describes as “minimalist” civil servants in Belfast to narrow the potential role of the Council of Ireland.

His account of difficulties and jealousies and partitionism within the Dublin bureaucracy obstructing progress on north-south cooperation is a useful reminder that whatever ‘joint stewardship’ after November 24 means, the Irish government is likely to be the weak link in the chain.

Difficult as it may be for northern nationalists to accept, there is no burning desire on the part of civil servants in Dublin to see their hard-won empires diminished in any way, let alone watch whole chunks of them handed over to all-Ireland bodies.

On top of that, as in 1974 and with the 1986 Anglo-Irish Agreement, funding is always a problem.

FitzGerald was on the scene in both cases, first as the minister responsible for north-south relations and secondly as taoiseach.

He was a particularly forthright and committed minister with clear ideas about the policies he was following, policies sometimes drafted by himself rather than by officials. He regularly used his ministerial authority to override civil service objections and office politics.

Unfortunately there’s no evidence of that these days.

Dermot Ahern has been less than inspiring at foreign affairs, content to intone the foreign affairs brief on EU matters and speechify about the Middle East, a region where his views carry about as much weight as a midge in a JCB’s shovel and are mercifully given space nowhere but on RTE and in the Irish Times.

Much more gratifying to masquerade as the ministerial equivalent of the Skibbereen Eagle than initiate anything on the north.

Anyone remember his last visit more than five miles over the border? Anyone remember the last thing he said about the north?

Oh yes. He said if there wasn’t agreement between the parties by November 24 the two governments would fully implement the other strands of the Good Friday Agreement - original eh?

Which brings us back to the point. Not only is there less than consuming ardour on the part of the Irish civil service to beef up all-Ireland structures, the difference this time as compared to 1974 or 1986 is that Irish politicians are lukewarm too.

Dermot Ahern’s lack-lustre performance since taking office is the best illustration - a complete absence of direction.

His namesake, Bertie Ahern, hasn’t exactly led the charge. On the contrary, he instantly caved in on speaking rights in the Dail for northern politicians as soon as Fine Gael and the dreaded McDowell objected.

The truth is that no party, except perhaps the Labour Party, which now organises in the north, has lifted a finger to enhance north-south links. It’s going to get worse in the next eight months as the election campaign in the south hots up.

The reason is that all the main parties in the Republic perceive north-south links as part of Sinn Féin’s all-Ireland agenda and in the run-up to a general election they aren’t going to concede that a major plank in one of their opponent’s platform is desirable and correct.

In short, the nature and extent of all-Ireland arrangements are likely to become political issues in the Republic instead of matters on which all Irish parties agree and take for granted as a national objective.

Worse - this squabble is going to develop legs in the new year as Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, Labour and the tiny, nasty, greedy PD lot sling mud at Sinn Féin. All this kerfuffle just at a time when the Irish and British governments have promised a ‘step-change’ in all-Ireland policy-making.

Yet this ‘step-change’ was supposed to scare the DUP and worry unionists. The unionist media here has even disgracefully talked up the prospect of UVF/UDA reaction if ‘joint stewardship’ is developed.

Would it be a supreme irony if UVF/UDA killers started shooting Catholics again to stop the Irish government doing something it had no intention of doing or would it just be like old times again except the British wouldn’t be sponsoring them?

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