TALKS aimed at restoring the Northern Ireland Assembly opened on Monday with meetings between the main political parties and the British and Irish government representatives; the Northern Ireland Secretary, James Brokenshire; and the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney.
Pivotal to any successful result are the two main parties: the Democratic Unionists (DUP), led by Arlene Foster; and Sinn Féin, led by its president, Gerry Adams, and its leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill.
Ms Foster met the new Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, in Dublin last Friday, and expressed satisfaction with the talks, which centred on the Border post-Brexit, and the urgent need to re-establish the Assembly. Sinn Féin said that it was pleased with Mr Varadkar’s priorities, but the tensions between the two Northern parties remain.
After her meeting with the Taoiseach, Ms Foster said that the DUP wanted a “sensible” Brexit that would work for both jurisdictions on the island of Ireland. Previously, her party was committed to a “hard” version of the deal, which would mean leaving the Customs Union, and thus would entail customs border-controls.
Ian Paisley Jnr, whose father, the late Revd Ian Paisley, founded the DUP, was blunter in his assessment of what the DUP position should be: leave the Customs Union. The matter of the border is a separate issue to the rest, he believes. “You can’t be half-pregnant,” he said, while insisting that issues surrounding the border could be worked out if there was a will to do so.
Sinn Féin takes the opposite view. Mr Adams has told the Prime Minister in their talks that there should be specially designated status for Northern Ireland, which would ensure that there was no return to a “hard economic border” in Ireland.
Re-establishment of the institutions of devolved government in Northern Ireland will require more than simply tact and diplomacy. Nationalists have issues that still rankle, including a perceived blocking of equal rights on the Irish language.
On talks to restore the Assembly, Ms Foster declared, after her Dublin meeting, that her party was “ready to dance, but it takes two to tango”, which drew an angry response from Sinn Féin’s South Antrim MLA, Declan Kearney. “It is not a game, and it certainly is not a dance,” he said at a public annual commemoration in Kildare on Sunday.
Referring to the ongoing debate on how the UK Government, which, along with the Irish government, is a guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, could be an “honest broker” in talks while the DUP was supporting the Conservatives, he said: “If the DUP imagines it can wind back the clock, with a Tory side-deal or not, and re-establish the institutions without adherence to equality and rights, then the DUP is indeed living in a fool’s paradise.”
On Monday, the Taoiseach reportedly told Theresa May that Brexit cannot be allowed to have an adverse affect on the rights and freedoms of Irish citizens. With Brexit and Northern Ireland at the top of his agenda, the current “open” border brought about by the Good Friday Agreement must remain, as well as the Common Travel Area — both of which are vital to the peace process.
Before leaving Dublin to travel to Downing Street, Mr Varadkar said that he and Mrs May would “discuss Northern Ireland and the need to re-establish devolved government, and Brexit, focusing on how we can avoid any adverse impact on the rights and freedoms of our citizens, on trade and the economy”.
After the meeting, on Monday, the Irish leader said that he was “very reassured” that any deal between the Conservatives and the DUP would not have an adverse impact on the Good Friday Agreement.
Mr Varadkar also expressed support for the British people in the wake of the terror attacks, and especially for Londoners in recent weeks. Virtually everyone in Ireland had a family link or close friends in the city, he said, and Irish people felt that an attack on London was “almost an attack on us as well”.