Now that we have hopefully achieved a deal with the UK on Brexit and the Border, where are relations between the Irish Government and the Ulster Unionists ? Not in a good place at all, I’d imagine.

Yes, we got a great result and we were absolutely right to do so, but at what cost? The manner in which the DUP were engaged with, or rather absolutely not engaged with, leaves a lot to be desired.

And be certain, it will come back to haunt us in the future when we are again imploring the DUP to hold hands with Sinn Fein and form a Stormont Government and generally be amenable to a settlement which also suits our interests and overall peace.

Yes, it is true that the DUP broke the spirit of co-operation themselves and violated the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) by calling for Brexit. They then compounded this by essentially looking for a hard Brexit, even going so far as to initially reject the terms worked out for a ‘constructive’ divergence.

But the DUP is the smaller party, and they are unloved and increasingly powerless in a society that is apparently ‘modernising’ fast (secularism, gay marraige, abortion etc). They have also been forced to share power with a Sinn Fein that neither of our main parties, Fianna Fail or Fine Gael, will touch down South. Just remember that.

Also, the DUP did not originally support the GFA, so we should be relived that they now do so : they could just as easily walk away.

And anyway, did the Irish Government not also break the spirit of co-operation and the GFA by essentially ignoring the Ulster Unionists and cutting them out of the key Brexit discussion, as if they didn’t really matter. To rub it in, Varadkar reminds them that they ‘are only part of the Northern electorate.’

Would Enda have been so undiplomatic?

Would he have airily declared to the ‘Northern nationalists’, as Varadkar did this week, that ‘we will never again leave you behind’ ?

What does this actually mean – that northern nationalists were abandoned in 1969, or in 1921, or even in 1998 ? If so, its a serious nationalist-tinged rewriting of recent history, more akin to Eamon de Valera than to the wider spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. Is there an electoral agenda at play here?

We just seemed to have assumed last week that the British Government had the DUP on board for the deal. But why didn’t we make sure of it ourselves?. But then the Government confirmed that there was, actually, no direct link between Dublin and the DUP on this. This is amazing, after all the years of negotiations and removing barriers, and developing a conflict resolution model that we were apparently going to export all over world.

It confirms what I’ve worried about for some time ago: the disengagement of the Irish Government, and the whole political culture (and the population generally) from Northern Ireland on a broader level – other than for our Foreign Minister to go up there and periodically urge the two tribal parties back into a Stormont executive.

Where is the deeper, creative involvement that we were promised after the Good Friday Agreement and which we should always be developing as part of a new post-conflict dispensation?

I mean the sort of intimate constructive process that might have that got this deal over the line, and kept the Ulster Unionists on board – at all stages ! Instead, we have megaphone diplomacy and the creation of needless bad blood for the tricky job of rebuilding peace and trust in the future.

Will we ever learn? Will we ever deal with the Unionists, face to face, without always going to the British to get the Paisleyites to play ball with us? We want to share the island with them peacefully – so why cant we create a proper, active and ongoing relationship with them ?

They are an obviously insecure ethnic group who also want a way forward out of the current uncertainty. They face an unreconstructed Sinn Fein on one side, demanding a divisive Border Poll and dedicated to the oblivion of Northern Ireland. And, on the other side, the DUP face Brexit (even if they supported it!), a disintegrating UK and a rudderless British Government with the Marxist Corbyn looming.

Right now, the Unionists need reassurance and engagement, from the other, much larger community on the island, which doesn’t seek to destroy their State. And they are a million strong, and not some small minority to be blithely dismissed.

Instead, Simon Coveney tells an Oireachtas Committee that he thinks he will see a United Ireland in his political lifetime ! This in the middle of asking the Unionists to cooperate on a frictionless border.

Having worked as an official on Northern Ireland, where language is key and every word and phrase is parsed carefully in Belfast, it is hard to credit this talk with trying to repair fences and work together.


But where also is the great machinery of our diplomats and officials which I once saw in the run up to the Good Friday Agreement? Or did we just it wind it down, and disengage, when we saw that Stormont was up and running, and we had other distractions with the Celtic Tiger and then the crash.

Even during the conflict, the Department of Foreign Affairs had an extensive ‘Traveller system’ where our officials cultivated often secretive contacts across Northern Ireland, although there was always a shortage of DUP contacts and clearly still is.

But more fundamentally, do we get Ulster Unionism at all and its Protestant, British, often evangelical aspects? Do we get its difference to us: the cricket, the parades, the two World Wars 2, the deep links to Britain, and the often very different way of thinking.

Or do we just think they are a population statistic which will eventually be overcome by a high Catholic birth rate. If this is the case, we are very wrong and very foolish. Whatever their faults (and they are many) the Unionists feel themselves to be a besieged community who suffered the brunt of 30 years of IRA terrorism, and would be themselves well capable of being a violent force if they were over ruled or coerced.

We Irish are supposed to be great ‘people people’, as in listeners, sociable, networking and dealmakers. So how amazing that we cannot work directly and intimately with those on the other side of the border in nailing down stuff like this, organically and without grandstanding.

The fear is that this new robust, or loose-tongued policy, on the North is one that has no painful memory of the conflict that left thousands dead and scarred so many.