Irish politicians don’t just exist for Britain’s benefit

One’s eye is turned, tearfully, to a “report” on “alternative media” blog Skwawkbox.

“Breaking” announces the headline, vigorously. “Ireland will block Brexit deal if #MayDUP deal goes ahead”.

First, that “Breaking”. The Skwawkbox story, written on 22 June, refers to comments made by Ireland’s new minister for foreign affairs, Simon Coveney, on 19 June. You can watch the film of Coveney’s comments on the RTE website.

To suggest a three-day old report of a long-held position is somehow “Breaking” is a little cheeky, but well, welcome to the new independent media.

More irritating is what comes after that Breaking: the implication that Coveney has said the Irish government will block any Brexit deal if Theresa May enters into a confidence and supply arrangement with the Democratic Unionist Party.

Let’s be very clear: Coveney has said no such thing. He has said the Good Friday Agreement must be protected in Brexit, the consistent position of the Irish government since the issue of Brexit was first raised.

Skwawkbox’s writer makes an enormous leap, asserting that any arrangement between the DUP and the Conservatives will breach the GFA.

This is far from clear: but dear old Skwawkbox asserts that Coveney’s comments are a “huge – and possibly mortal – blow for Tory hopes of delaying the collapse of their ‘weak and wobbly’ minority government”, with “by far the most likely result” that Theresa May will “drive to Buckingham Palace with her own and her government’s resignation and trigger a new General Election.”

This is nonsense, involving several huge assumptions and leaps of faith.

And that’s annoying enough, along with the also very annoying “BBC isn’t reporting this” sidecar that now accompanies all “independent media” posts.

But there is an even more annoying element: The Skwawkbox writer gushes: “Thank you Ireland, thank you Mr Simon Coveney. You are very likely saving the peace process – and helping to bring down a toxic and incompetent Tory government that has been breaking all kinds of constitutional precedents in its desperate attempt to cling to power.”

Here we find a bizarre assumption among British people that Irish politics exists to provide some kind of Deus ex machina that will result in their preferred political outcomes. This isn’t unique to Skwawkbox, or to this story. As the DUP deal was developing, several papers put out the story that Sinn Féin’s newly elected MPs were going to Westminster in order to take up their office and Westminster inductions. More people than is healthy – and, I’ll be clear – not the kind of people who normally share stories from the Sun or the Daily Express, posted the stories, with an apparent hope that it mean Sinn Féin were about to take their seats in Westminster and skewer the numbers towards the, er, progressive side.

This was not only ignorant of the reasons behind Sinn Féin’s continued abstention from taking Westminster seats, it also implied that Sinn Féin would somehow step in to “stop the Tories”.

For 32-county, republican, Sinn Féin, and Ireland’s ruling party Fine Gael too, there is an entity they have to deal with. The British Government. Now they will have private and even public views on who they would prefer to be the main party in the British government (and the view of Fine Gael and Sinn Féin will be very, very different), but in the end, both are dealing with the government of a foreign power.

Because Britain is a foreign country.

Simon Coveney

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  1. England’s difficulty is Arlene’s opportunity, or why the DUP loves a crisis

    Brinksmanship is how politics works in Northern Ireland, and it’s a style the rest of the United Kingdom is going to have to learn about.

    Cast your minds back to 1995, if your memories stretch that far. Amidst a nascent peace process, the summer saw a stand off between the Orange Order and nationalist residents on Garvaghy Road. The Orangemen want to assert their right to march on the “Queen’s Highway”, while residents claim the march is triumphalist and aggressive.

    Ronnie Flanagan, then Deputy Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (the predecessor of the PSNI), brokered a deal: the Orangemen could march their traditional route year, but with flags furled and flutes silent: future marches would be subject to negotiation and consent on all sides.

    At least that’s what residents representative Breandan Mac Cionnaith thought. In 2007 he told the BBC’s Mervyn Jess:

    “The march went ahead with only a handful of police on the road. Without an agreement there would have been 2,000 cops on the road to get it down. Our people stood aside as the Orangemen marched by. Then as soon as the parade reached the bottom of the Garvaghy Road you had David Trimble stating that there had been no agreement and that the Orangemen had come down with their flags flying as they intended to do in the future. The District Master Harold Gracey also denied that there had been any agreement reached with the nationalist residents.”

    Trimble, the local MP and rising star of the mainstream Ulster Unionist party (he would become leader in September 1995), got to the end of the march hand in hand with Ian Paisley, the rabble-rousing DUP leader. Paisley gave a speech in the already highly charged atmosphere of Drumcree that year claiming that the aim of Catholics was to exterminate Ulster Protestants. Trimble watched from behind Paisley on the stage.

    Over the following years, Drumcree became the annual focus for confrontation across Northern Ireland.

    This is one side of the story: the side that Unionists would point out is that Sinn Féin had been heavily involved in the organisation of nationalist residents on the Garvaghy Road and in other flashpoints such as the Lower Ormeau Road in Belfast (Mac Cionnaith, for example, had done time for his role in an attack on a British Legion hall). The tactic strengthened Sinn Féin in communities, and also gave them the power of negotiation.

    The Drumcree processions could be seen as the points at which the current dominant parties in Northern Ireland both made steps into the mainstream as representatives of their communities. In spite of the Ulster Unionist party’s close links to the Orange Order at the time, Paisley made huge ground at Drumcree with an audience that may at one time have been a little more sceptical of his Bible-thumping fervour. The symbolic sight of Paisley and Trimble holding hands at the end of the march (Trimble claims he only grabbed Paisley to stop him taking all the limelight) cemented Paisley as part of mainstream Unionism.

    This process continued in 2004, when current DUP leader Arlene Foster defected from the UUP to the DUP along with Jeffrey Donaldson – a senior figure in the party who had opposed Trimble’s role in the peace process – and peaked when Paisley himself became first minister in 2007. The Ulster Unionist Party has never really recovered.

    The point of all this is to highlight the modus operandi of modern Northern Irish politics: trigger a crisis, and then work it to your advantage (Sinn Féin's manouevering over “Cash for Ash”, eventually leading to the Assembly election in March of this year, was an absolute masterclass in the form).

    So it should not be the least bit surprising that the DUP is stalling in giving an outright commitment to the Conservatives in a proposed “confidence and supply” deal.

    These deals in themselves are not very special. On the BBC’s Newsnight this week, the Portuguese foreign minister Augusto Santos Silva pointed out that his own party ran a minority government with support from other smaller parties. This is not necessarily the crisis the British imagine.

    But the DUP will make sure it looks like one. Operating at anything less than crisis pitch makes no sense for Arlene Foster and her MPs: as they see it, it’s the way you win concessions for your side. So there will be threats of withdrawal, there will be impossible demands (perhaps, for example, British state funding for a commemoration of the founding of Northern Ireland in 1921 – “after all, the South will probably have a commemoration, so why can’t the North?” will go the seemingly innocent logic), there will be midnight phone calls, walkouts, briefings and the rest.

    And eventually there’ll be a deal, in which Northern Ireland gets more cash for infrastructure projects and guarantees that its archaic laws on equal marriage and abortion rights will remain untouched.

    And then there will be another crisis.

    Welcome to politics, Northern-Ireland style. Get used to it.

    Arlene Foster
    Theresa May
  2. Martin McGuinness saw peace as a tactic: we may be lucky he succeeded

    In the early 2000s, a few years into the post Good-Friday Agreement Peace Process, a friend and I waited outside London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, waiting for Martin McGuinness to arrive. McGuinness was due to speak that day. It was a beautiful summer evening and we were keen not to take our seats in the windowless lecture theatre until we absolutely had to.

    McGuinness’s entourage arrived, in the de rigeur black 4x4 with tinted windows. As the Sinn Féin man and his people stepped from their vehicles, a small group of skinheads – probably National Front – emerged seemingly from nowhere, waving Union Flags, Sieg-Heiling, and chanting “IRA: murdering scum!”

    McGuinness glanced over quizzically. Police moved quickly to cordon the neo-Nazis. As they did so, McGuinness walked towards the chanting skinheads, cocked his head, and said, simply, audibly: “Go on home to your Ma’s”, before striding into the lecture theatre.

    The message was pretty clear: the petty thugs of the National Front were out of their depth confronting senior members of the IRA.

    This was a long way from Chuckle Brother deputy first minister Martin, telling the press about his love for English cricket, and generally laughing his way round Stormont with that other old bruiser Ian Paisley like two old men who’d forgot what all the fuss was about.

    In later years, McGuinness clearly enjoyed political office and its trappings, and was probably, to a certain point, relieved that the shooting was largely over. Does that mean he was a “man of peace” as some will rush to paint him?

    It depends how absolute you want your commitment to non-violence to be: the Provisional IRA’s embrace of Northern Ireland’s curious form of parliamentary democracy has always been tactical rather than principled. By the mid-90s, physical force republicanism was at a dead end. The occasional bomb or bomb scare was not making any difference to the political landscape: the UUP and SDLP, with the support of the Reynolds and Major governments in Dublin and London, were attempting to forge a peace process (which would eventually have to involve Sinn Féin and the DUP); perhaps most relevant, given the mess these islands find themselves in now, the customs border between north and south had been abolished, post-Maastricht.

    The IRA was thoroughly infiltrated by informants (with some diehard republicans even muttering darkly about McGuinness himself), to the point where it was barely operable. In these conditions, it made sense to move increasingly away from the Armalite and towards the ballot box.

    But that does not mean that McGuinness and Adams did not make some tough choices: their generation had cast themselves as the keepers of the flame of physical force republicanism, after the Official IRA was deemed to have been weak in the face of loyalist attacks on nationalist communities in the late 60s. (The leadership of the Officials had moved to an increasingly left wing position which was at odds with the Catholic nationalist tradition from which McGuinness started. They would dismiss McGuinness and other provisionals as the “rosary bead brigade”.)

    To declare that politics was the way forward was a risk, and if we’re to be honest, one that only someone with McGuinness and Adams’ standing with the IRA could have taken.

    And it’s a risk that has paid off: the recent Stormont election, called after McGuinness stepped down due to ill health amid the “cash for ash” fiasco, has left republicans in a stronger position in the north than ever before, with the effective end of the Unionist veto in Stormont signalling a new political reality for the six counties. Into this consideration we must factor the tactical stupidity of the DUP's Arlene Foster in her party's backing of Brexit, her arrogance over the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal, which saw millions of pounds of government money misspent, and the idiotic baiting of the nationalist population over Irish language issues (falling straight into a carefully-laid Sinn Féin trap). Arlene's diffficulty is Ireland's opportunity.

    In the south, too, Sinn Féin is in a stronger position than ever before. At some point (unlikely to be the coming election, but perhaps the next), a mainstream party will form a coalition with Sinn Féin. We will then face the prospect of the same party in government north and south of the border: Sinn Féin will say this in itself is a case for a united Ireland with a Sinn Féin government.

    In this last configuration, the death of McGuinness will be of advantage to Sinn Féin’s southern command. Much of the middle class in the republic remain suspicious, even fearful, of the hard men from Belfast, Derry and the borders who have led Sinn Féin thus far. A young, post-Troubles, southern-led Sinn Féin, with a broadly left-populist platform, will find favour with a new constituency once the old Northern command fade into the background.

    McGuinness’s commitment was always to the Sinn Féin/IRA cause. In this context, his career was a success. It is merely fortunate for the rest of us that in the end, the Derry hard man found his success through democratic politics.

    Martin McGuinness
    Northern Ireland