30 June 2020

Why Ireland’s new PM could be good news for the Union

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The Irish republic finally has a new prime minister, after Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and the Green Party agreed last week to form a coalition government. following months of negotiations to thrash out a shared policy platform, Fianna Fail’s leader, Micháel Martin, was appointed taoiseach on Saturday.

The Republic’s general election took place way back on February 8th, before Covid-19 shook up the lives of everyone on these islands. Mr Martin’s party took most seats at that poll, but Sinn Fein narrowly won the popular vote, so its representatives argue that they have been unfairly deprived of a role in forming the new administration. From its inception, they will provide a shrill opposition to the coalition – recalcitrant, populist and virulently nationalist.

Under the unusual ‘rotating taoiseach’ deal that his party has reached with its traditional rival, Fine Gael, Micháel Martin’s predecessor, Leo Varadkar, will succeed him again in two and a half years’ time. During Mr Varadkar’s spell as prime minister, he adopted a confrontational approach to Brexit and meddled in Northern Ireland’s affairs, almost as if he believed his government enjoyed joint authority over the province.

Mr Martin’s party is considered more republican than Fine Gael, but he’s already shown signs that he wants to become a less hostile partner to the UK and Ulster unionists. As the incoming Taoiseach, he was entitled to nominate eleven senators to the Irish parliament’s upper house, the Seanad, and the Fianna Fail leader decided not to choose any representatives from Northern Ireland. The decision to avoid provocative and tokenistic appointments, rather than use the nomination process to burnish his all-Ireland credentials, will be welcomed by most unionists.

In contrast, backed by Sinn Fein, Varadkar nominated a fiercely pro-EU farmer from Northern Ireland, Ian Marshall, to the senate, back in 2018. Marshall described himself as a representative of the ‘unionist community’, but he was exactly the kind of disgruntled ‘remainer’ who encouraged nationalists to believe that Brexit would hasten Northern Ireland’s absorption by the Republic.

He lost his seat earlier this year, after he was required to fight a multi-party election with an electorate made up of 1,169 voters who represent agriculture and fisheries. Despite gaining just 11 votes in that contest, Mr Marshall clearly thought that he should be reinstated to the senate as quickly as possible, as one of the new taoiseach’s appointments. He reacted furiously to his perceived omission, accusing the coalition government of rendering “any talk of a shared island … a farce” and claiming “the entire unionist community feels let down and left behind.”

The idea that unionists in Northern Ireland either want or need a voice in the Republic’s senate, much less direct involvement in its government, is transparently ludicrous. Nonetheless, his comments were reported widely without a serious challenge or counterview.

Actually, most unionists will be positively cheered by indications that the new prime minister in Dublin will respect the constitutional boundaries of his jurisdiction more strictly than his predecessor. Leo Varadkar and his officials dropped into Northern Ireland without formality and acted like their remit extended to this part of the island.

Before the Stormont Assembly was rebooted earlier this year, the then taoiseach and his deputy PM, Simon Coveney, railed against the possibility that Westminster might restore direct-rule over the province, demanding that decision-making for matters devolved to the province should instead be handled by British-Irish intergovernmental bodies. That stipulation was in direct contravention of the Belfast Agreement, which explicitly rules out the Republic’s involvement in Northern Ireland’s internal affairs.

Varadkar publicly supported a campaign fronted by Emma DeSouza, another northerner who was touted as a possible senator, to change citizenship law in Northern Ireland so that automatic British citizenship would no longer apply in this part of the UK. It wasn’t his administration’s only attempt to intervene in the British justice system. Coveney challenged the detention of a dissident republican terrorist, Tony Taylor, and commented frequently on historical cases from the Troubles.

The idea has somehow flourished that economic barriers between Great Britain and Northern Ireland are an inevitable result of Brexit. In fact, the Northern Ireland protocol and its direct ancestor, the so-called ‘backstop’, resulted from a hostile campaign by Varadkar and Coveney to make sure that nationalists’ anxieties about extra infrastructure at the Irish land border were prioritised over unionists’ worries that Ulster would be cut off from its biggest market in Great Britain.

Ironically, the Republic of Ireland is also far more dependent on east-west trade with mainland GB than exporting goods to Northern Ireland. Its politicians expended so much energy mollifying nationalists by focussing on the land border, that they neglected the much greater threat of disruption to business across the Irish Sea. As a consequence, their economy is still uniquely vulnerable if the EU fails to agree a trade deal with the UK.

Under Micháel Martin, the new government will not drop its all-Ireland agenda completely. The coalition deal involves establishing a new unit in the prime minister’s office aimed at working toward a “consensus on a shared island”. However, its title is notably more ambiguous than the explicitly ‘United Ireland’ group that was floated earlier in negotiations.

Some commentators believed that Leo Varadkar played to Irish voters’ nationalist and anti-English sentiments precisely because Fine Gael is considered less republican than its rivals. By this way of thinking, Martin has less to prove, as Fianna Fail’s credentials are not in question, and he can afford to be more sympathetic to Britain and the sensibilities of unionists.

The Belfast Agreement amended Articles 2 & 3 of the Republic of Ireland’s constitution, which laid claim to Northern Ireland as part of Irish ‘national territory’, in order to check Dublin’s irredentism. It also set out the limits of ‘north-south’ powers, which were prescribed to a few specific policy areas where the two jurisdictions shared clear common interests.

The new taoiseach can best respect unionism in Northern Ireland and become a friendly partner to the UK by recognising these restraints rather than constantly pushing against them. He should reject Leo Varadkar’s approach, which involved delivering persistent slights to British sovereignty in Northern Ireland, attacking Britain viciously over Brexit and appointing representatives who put all-Ireland words into unionists’ mouths.

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Owen Polley is a writer, commentator, consultant, and the co-author ‘An Agenda for Northern Ireland After Brexit‘.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.