By Brian Feeney (for Irish News)
It’s surprising that there’s any surprise about support for increased Irish government involvement in the north in the absence of a devolved administration here as evidenced in the latest LucidTalk poll.
Naomi Long’s warning to the DUP last month was simply a statement of fact: the less devolution the more Dublin input.
Unionists don’t like to admit it, but there’s been Irish government involvement here as of right since November 1985 when the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed. Within a couple of weeks Irish officials had moved into Maryfield near Holywood barracks where they were besieged by unionist extremists led by the likes of George Seawright, DUP councillor and UVF member, who camped outside in a caravan for a while.
The officials in Maryfield were the Irish half of the Joint Secretariat established by the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Their role was to present ‘views and proposals’ to the British on pretty well any aspect of governance in the north, and they did. Their counterparts were from the NIO. Perhaps the greatest success of the Irish secretariat was the 1989 Fair Employment Act, agreed by the NIO through gritted teeth, which established the Fair Employment Commission with real clout to penalise religious discrimination. The secretariat continued to operate in the face of unremitting unionist opposition and was replicated in the Good Friday Agreement under the auspices of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIGC). Again their role is copper-fastened in that international treaty.
The point Naomi Long was making to the DUP, as British governments have also stated in the past is that, quite simply, the more a devolved administration here works, the less need there is for an active secretariat. However, in the absence of devolution the role of Dublin inevitably increases. In 2006 Tony Blair’s government openly threatened the DUP with upgraded official Irish involvement if they didn’t reach an accommodation with Sinn Féin. Put another way, if the DUP refuse to allow the north to work equitably and cooperatively the Irish and British governments have the mechanism in the Good Friday Agreement to bypass unionist intransigence. We are now looking at another lengthy period of intransigence, with any luck perhaps the final one when DUP stupidity will bring the place down round their ears.
There will be a deal on the protocol between the UK and EU which the British government would hope to recommend in an assembly election next March. The DUP will strenuously oppose such a deal and refuse to enter a subsequent administration so the British government may not risk another election. In any case there’ll be no executive. For the foreseeable future devolution is dead. It’s the old, old unionist bloodymindedness. Their leaders can never see that fifty per cent of something is better than 100 per cent of nothing.
However, there is a difference between now and fifteen years or more ago. In the past the DUP could claim to speak for a majority having come out on top in elections. No more. Even the gutless UUP can see there’s merit in a streamlined protocol, terrified though they are of being ‘Lundified’. It’s in this respect that the British government has a role to play. They have patronised the DUP and pandered to their every whim for more than a decade but they don’t need them for a Commons majority since 2019.
It’s no longer in the interests of the Conservative party or Britain not to ditch the DUP and cut a deal with the EU. The DUP are too stupid to see the danger. The British can quite simply say they are respecting the wishes of a majority of voters in the north. To do anything else, to give credibility to a DUP boycott which is detrimental to Britain’s relations with the EU and prosperity here would be to support a minority veto and create an ominous precedent of obstructing political and constitutional progress on the island of Ireland.