Comment: New government must build a shared island

Brexit and the Covid-19 crisis have highlighted the need for close working relationships between northern and southern ministers

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Arlene Foster, the North‘s First Minister: their two administrations have had to work closely together in the fight against Covid-19

The framework document drawn up by the negotiating teams of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil provides a lengthy section on a shared island.

The recent suspension of the Executive in Northern Ireland and the challenges created by Brexit mean that a fresh focus needs to be brought to the future of this island. The ambition to create a unit within the Department of An Taoiseach to work towards a consensus on a united island is a serious one.

There is no simplistic response and the repeated call for a potentially rushed border poll misses the truth of what it means to live on a shared island. Understandably, the Good Friday Agreement is central to the vision laid out in the framework document, with a heavy emphasis on consent, but the agreement also provides many of the instrumental tools that will be so important not just to progressing this issue, but also to maintaining Anglo-Irish relations in the context of Brexit.

The agreement highlights the need to expand the roles of the British-Irish Council and the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIGC) in order to strengthen north-south and east-west links.

In the era of Brexit, the BIIGC may be a useful body of co-operation and it perhaps has the most potential to replace the close working relationships between Irish and British ministers previously enabled through regular attendance at European Council meetings.

Rather than meeting just twice a year, there could be significant benefit in the conference meeting every month, perhaps on a rotating, sectoral basis. The March meeting, for example, could perhaps always look at agriculture or justice affairs. Shadowing the various European Council meetings would also be an option.

The political situation on this island remains complex, a fact illustrated by Brexit and the lack of clarity on Britain’s trading relationship with the EU. Ongoing negotiations, due to conclude this year, point to the aspiration of a tariff and quota free trade deal that will allow minimal disruption in trade between this island and Britain.

If that fails, the provisions in the Withdrawal Agreement ensure that there will be no differentials on this island, aligning Northern Ireland with the regulatory and customs frameworks of the EU. Questions remain as to how this would be enforced, and the British government has still to properly lay out its plans or to provide the infrastructure for this.

The ongoing Covid-19 emergency has highlighted the need for close working relationships between northern and southern ministers. The fact that Health Minister Simon Harris and Robin Swann, his counterpart in Northern Ireland, talk regularly, as do the respective chief medical officers, is vital to any coordination efforts. The political reality means that coordination will not be perfect when it comes to Covid-19, nothing will be perfect, but such engagement is vital.

Looking at a shared island, the British Irish Council and the North South Ministerial Council will play a vital, formal role in ensuring that such engagement is continued, allowing for shared policy developments. Many of these shared policy developments are also referred to in the framework document, such as the A5, the Narrow Water Bridge, cross-border greenways, the Ulster Canal, as well as examining high-speed cross-border rail services.

Within the restoration of the Executive in Northern Ireland, the ability to enhance, develop and deepen all aspects of north-south cooperation, thus strengthening the all-island economy, will be able to take place in more formal settings. That said, the informal attentions of all public representatives and other bodies must be steadily increased.

These attentions must be tolerated, and individuals must allow themselves to be challenged, perhaps to go outside their comfort zone in truly engaging with the politicians and people of Northern Ireland. There should be no us or them, but there will need to be genuine attempts at engagement.

Creating a programme for government based on this framework document is the first immediate challenge.

Neale Richmond is a Fine Gael TD for Dublin-Rathdown