The outgoing government is showing the same lack of vision on the North as it has shown generally. In 2011, the Programme for Government had a total of 120 words on the North in its 64 pages. Significantly, 45 of these were on security: “The threat from dissident paramilitary groups cannot be underestimated. We will foster the continuing strong relationships between An Garda Síochána and the Police Service of Northern Ireland to deal with this threat and we will also ensure the necessary resources to deal with these groups”.
That reflected the belief that the Good Friday and St Andrew’s Agreements solved the political problems. The North is a security issue, to be contained. Any continuing violence is pathological in nature, rather than the result of from political failures. It neatly mirrors the knee-jerk reaction of much of the Fine Gael heartland, innately fearful of violent Republicanism.
It reflected shifts in the Labour Party. At the time the Programme was drawn up, Labour was dominated by former Workers Party members, who had come to the party via Democratic Left. The Workers Party had been largely financed from robberies and extortion carried out by Official IRA members in the North. There is, of course, no indication any of those who became Labour TDs had any knowledge of these activities. However, media reports made them increasingly embarrassing in the South.
When Democratic Left collapsed into the Labour Party, it abandoned its Northern organisation. It also further diminished interest in the North: while the SDLP is theoretically a sister party, the connection is increasingly distant. Certainly, both government parties have an innate hostility to Sinn Féin, which does not assist relationships with a Northern Executive where Sinn Féin is the second largest party.
Enda Kenny is certainly on the Nationalist wing of Fine Gael – which sees Sinn Féin as betraying the legacy of 1916. However, the Taoiseach has never indicated the North was among his political priorities.
Since the Programme for Government was drawn up, there have been three Progress Reports and one Statement of Government Priorities. In three, the North has barely featured – except as a security issue. The 2015 Report marked a departure, with no security concerns mentioned. It did not, however, reflect any greater engagement.
The Coalition has made little impact on the North, except involvement in drawing up the Belfast Agreement and its successor, the Stormont Agreement, which brought Southern-style austerity to the North. On an optimistic note, there has also been ongoing growth in Cross-Border sharing of services. This has improved the quality of life of many, particularly those, on either side, who close to the Border.
There are questions about some Cross-Border projects. The Coalition has promised up to £400million for the A5 project: the North’s largest-ever road project, a dual carriageway from Newbuildings, Co Derry, to the Monaghan Tyrone Border. The project has been controversial, with the North’s High Court quashing planning permission, and the planning process has restarted. No part of the existing A5 is among the 50 busiest stretches of road in the North, and a part of the proposed route was submerged during December’s floods. While the Coalition is generally perceived as hostile to Sinn Féin, Sinn Féin sees the A5 as a flagship project: the SDLP is doing its best to be as vocal in support.
Northern nationalists generally perceive the Coalition parties as indifferent or hostile to them. This is accompanied by amnesia regarding the great majority of the Northern IRA having supported the Treaty in 1922: and Fine Gael’s amnesia regarding the 1922 Provisional Government organising military attacks on the Northern state.
Northern nationalists, to the extent that they engage with Southern politics, tend to see Fianna Fail as their party. The SDLP is theoretically a sister party of Labour in the Socialist International: officially, it seeks support from the three big Dail parties: in practice, it was always closer to Fianna Fail, and many would now like to become Fianna Fail’s Northern organisation.
While Sinn Féin’s ministers in the North have a working relationship with the Coalition, the party feel it is hostile, and drags its feet on some Cross-Border initiatives so as not to give prominence to Martin McGuinness.
On balance, Unionist parties would prefer the return of the Coalition. A DUP source told Village it had no particular problems with the Coalition. “They were sufficiently wrapped up in their own problems”, the source said. “In talks, they have been sufficiently anti-Shinner that it is useful”. However, the source felt the two big Southern parties have only slight differences on the North, though was surprised at the anti-Sinn Féin vehemence of some Fianna Fáilers. Ulster Unionists lean very much towards Fine Gael, some hoping to develop relations.
However, no party feels a re-elected Kenny government would take any Northern initiative.