Dublin has been socially distancing from The North long before coronavirus

Posted By: May 11, 2020

Chris Donnelly. Irish News. Belfast. Monday, May 11, 2020
The failure of the Irish government to inform the Stormont Executive of the details of its lockdown exit plan before announcing them to the public should not come as any surprise.

By their words and deeds, it has been painfully apparent for a long time that there is no desire amongst the established political elite in Dublin to move beyond rhetoric when it comes to working for a new, agreed or shared (but rarely now united) Ireland that amounts to anything more than ministers exchanging pleasantries at infrequent cross-border gatherings. They’ve been socially distancing from the north for a long time before Covid-19 became a thing.

The Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael draft framework for government announced last month included the fig leaf of a new unit in the Taoiseach’s Office to “examine political, social, economic and cultural considerations.” In reality, that will mean Micheal Martin and Leo Varadkar (or his successor in the rotating taoiseach role) sending a few acolytes north every now and then for box-ticking chats. In case you think that’s being cynical, let’s look at Micheal’s form.

In 2014 he told us that Fianna Fáil would contest elections in Northern Ireland in 2019. “We’re impatient with the lack of progress North/South. The first phase of our engagement with the North is very much on a policy basis.” Alas, not only has there been no Fianna Fáil candidates on the ballot papers up here, but that impatience with North/South progress has yet to result in any meaningful strategy never mind policies emerging from the party to confront major issues on an island-wide basis.

It is hard to view such pronouncements as anything other than a cynical attempt to find something to counter Sinn Féin’s all-island credentials, not least when nothing of substance has emerged as a result.

Even when it is so obviously in the self-interest of the citizens of the Republic, the default instinct of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour politicians is to avert eyes from The North and think and plan without it. Hence why any references to Irish unity are strictly cited in a long-term context and only on condition of Unionists ceasing to be Unionists and supporting unity in advance.

More than twenty years on from the Good Friday Agreement, it is evident that not only have the north-south institutions failed to deliver, but politicians from every party avowedly interested in promoting Irish reunification have abjectly failed to use their access to positions of power to advance that agenda.

The Memorandum of Understanding announced a month ago has, to date, amounted to little more than words. There has been no effort to harmonize the use of data to inform strategic decision-making; no attempt to co-ordinate health provision across the island; no unity of purpose with regard to planning the nature of the lockdown never mind a phased withdrawal from it.

The threat posed by Sinn Féin’s ascent in Dublin has the potential to change this in a substantive and meaningful manner only if that party thinks and acts, in policy terms, on an island-wide basis. That does not mean shouting for an ‘all-Ireland’ approach to every issue that comes across a minister’s table, but it does mean actively and imaginatively approaching issues in a manner demonstrating the utility of a cross-border solution. This pandemic has proven just why that is not only desirable but absolutely necessary.

In this regard, the Ireland’s Future discussion last Thursday on the theme of ‘Covid-19 and an all-island health service’ highlighted the importance of expert opinion informing not simply discussions but policy formulation and implementation in a manner which has rarely happened when it comes to cross-border planning. During the discussion, Professor Jim Dornan stated that it was a ‘medical imperative’ for the NHS and HSE to begin working more closely together, pointing to the success of the all-Ireland model of clinical care for treating congenital heart disease.

Plans to re-imagine a better future post-pandemic will move beyond health and involve transport, environment, the economy, education and much more. Political voices need to be raised with credible thoughts and proposals on how aspects of these major policy areas can be more positively advanced through shared approaches and thinking across the island.