Jarlath Kearney: Rebuilding British/Irish relationships crucial to tackling challenges ahead

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Taoiseach Micheál Martin at Hillsborough Castle, August, 2020. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Taoiseach Micheál Martin at Hillsborough Castle, August, 2020. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Taoiseach Micheál Martin at Hillsborough Castle, August, 2020. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire.

Steady heads and wise voices are increasingly needed to carefully manage two of the most sensitive, parallel parts of the Good Friday Agreement – the evolving border poll debate and the unfinished prize of uniting people.

If calmly influenced and patiently nurtured, both parallel processes have potential to democratically enrich citizens across the island of Ireland. But if a border poll is now prioritised as a sprint while reconciliation is relegated as a marathon, then both will fail. (The difficult context of Brexit adds to the need for sensible, stabilising approaches.)

It’s often forgotten – perhaps conveniently - that the agreement’s negotiators voluntarily ceded the decision over a border poll exclusively to the NI secretary of state. Demands for further clarity about criteria or conditions haven’t even featured in any subsequent negotiations for 23 years, even after Brexit.

An important factor in achieving the 1998 agreement was the diligent and delicate work of Ireland and UK diplomacy to frame the terms of debate over previous decades of conflict, including the Downing Street Declaration in 1993.

Despite being only 12 paragraphs in length, the declaration set an agenda of high purpose underpinned by John Hume’s genius architecture on the ‘totality of relationships’. The declaration framed the negotiations for the next five years until 1998, and indeed for the period since then.

Prime Minister John Major reaffirmed that the British government “will uphold the democratic wish of a greater number of the people of Northern Ireland on the issue of whether they prefer to support the Union or a sovereign united Ireland”. An Taoiseach Albert Reynolds asserted aspirations for Irish unity while strongly acknowledging to unionists that “the future of the island depends on the nature of the relationship between the two main traditions… (and recognising) the need to engage in dialogue which would address with honesty and integrity the fears of all traditions”.

If you take the temperature in London and Dublin, that’s the kind of space we’re now in once again. This is a decade when sophisticated political framing and strategic agenda-setting needs responsible stewardship from both governments as long-standing treaty partners. Ironically, the political circumstances today (particularly in terms of London’s institutional knowledge and Brexit’s messy fallout) might be even trickier to navigate, even though the context in 1993 was brutal conflict. But it can be done.

The Ireland and UK governments need the commitment – and also, importantly, the political encouragement - to build an enhanced bilateral framework that will create stability and structure for the next decade. In considering such a framework, it is vital that objective realities are recognised.

First, public debate needs to be framed within the parameters of realpolitik that two states will continue to coexist on the island of Ireland for the foreseeable future. Second, the importance of rebuilding Ireland-UK bilateral relationships must be a top diplomatic priority: this process can help to bolster a meaningful culture of reconciliation between people and communities in Northern Ireland, and between north and south.

Third, the challenges in coming years are jointly shared by the two sovereign governments – often overlapping with devolution. These include major geopolitical, social, economic, environmental, technological, national security and public health disruptors now destabilising Ireland and the UK, and their international partners (USA, EU, and NATO).

These realities point to the logic of adopting a ‘two states, one system’ approach for the island of Ireland.

Friday’s summit at Chequers between Michéal Martin and Boris Johnson was strategically important in helping to rebuild the Ireland-UK relationship. Significantly, it saw Irish and British ministers and officials actually meeting and mingling face-to-face once again. (Sometimes we forget how the building blocks of diplomacy have been impacted by Covid.)

Next month’s British Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIGC) should be reignited as an engine room for diplomacy across the three strands of the Good Friday Agreement, fixing a timetable of momentum for future meetings. It could seek to regularly involve representative ministers from each party in the NI executive and even inviting in civic voices. Being led by both sovereign governments, the BIIGC should be buttressed as a safe space for unionists and nationalists.

Ambitious ideas for greater bilateral relations could build upon the Chequer’s summit and the BIIGC’s work, including further bilateral agreements, agendas and actions. This could include the structured secondment of officials between both governments, as recently proposed by Sir David Lidington. The potential for considering a full-scale Ireland-UK joint cabinet level meeting, say annually, could also take on special significance.

‘Two states, one system’ frames the political parameters on the island of Ireland for the 2020s. Major challenges and opportunities lie ahead for communities. Building strong and stabilising bilateral relationships is critical.