Here’s a simple question. What was Dublin’s northern policy before Micheál doubled its budget from €500,000,000 to €1 billion <strike>pa</strike> over the next five years? I asked a unionist friend that question earlier today, after I’d sent on a copy of his speech launching the Shared Island Unit. His reply, “nothing”.
Harsh, but hardly unfair. The original sum was not nothing, but, what was it for? How had policy changed after Fianna Fáil left in 2011? It’s hard to see any shift in Dublin’s policy beyond accomodating itself to successive emanating waves of controversy (including the collapse of the GFA) from NI.
This budgetary commitment alone is a clear indication that is a big shift from business as usual. Martin seems to want to leave a permanent enough stamp on this government’s tenure that it will endure his standing down at the end of 2022. Contrary to the cynics’ expectation, the Shared Island Unit has teeth.
In Dublin Castle the SIU will operate through the Office of the Taoiseach, giving it a role in the heart of government, demanding that departments at least consider new policy developments in the light of this shared island agenda, along with a very public space for facilitating consultation and dialogue.
Martin also made it clear that this means that the Unit’s core budgets can be augmented by core budgets from health, education, transport, higher education etc.. He also estimates with a new round of Peace funding from the EU and the UK, that almost the same again may become available.
Under Martin, the Irish Government is waking up to a solemn responsibility that has been neglected or ignored.
In essence, within the Republic, the Belfast Agreement is to be restored as a foundational document for the regulation of relations within, and between, these islands, its three strands of that Agreement, says Martin, are key to the effective moderation of the shocks that will almost certainly come ahead.
If ongoing relations with the UK are (post-Brexit) are to become deeply embedded in the three-stranded institutions of 1998 then any future willful collapse of the Stormont institutions for narrow party political gain, it will be a matter of national controversy in the south as well as Northern Ireland.
Making north-south policy meaningful means the creation of real connections around real and identifiable needs of people in the north and the south. He seems determined to engage with those 1.3 million who have been born on the island since the Belfast Agreement who will shape the next 30 years.
But he hasn’t taken his eye off the populist threat to our collective futures…
The persistence of identity politics, where a position on constitutional identity is judged to be of primary importance, hindering productive discussion about policy priorities or good governance, is a challenge that we must also recognise.
The tough truth is that before we even start this series, your view on the value of this work will also be different depending on whether you are in Newry or Newtownards, Coleraine or Coalisland.
As I noted in yesterday’s Clinton Centre webinar yesterday on populism and European parallels with Trump here (1.13 in) in being left to their own devices all the two dominant populist parties in Northern Ireland can cynically boast is that they stopped each other from actually getting anything done.
Some nationalist discourses seem pietistic and unworldly to the extent of wondering why anyone would ask the burghers of Coleraine or Newtownards what they think about anything as banal as a shared future. The toughest legacies of the troubles are that groupthink [T]rumps meaningful participation.
It’s part of what Ed Straw in our next Cargo of Bricks podcast next week terms an ‘end-stage fallacy’ in that you assume that by pulling one or two levers on the policy slot machine (a border poll, or even more risibly, a government white paper) you can get the outcome you want.
Actually, just talking about a united Ireland prolongs its eventual arrival because it bars to the way to collective action on the shared interest we already have in the near term, so that over time the fallacy gradually becomes fantasy, and in the real world, such fantasies that fail to move reality may die.
In systems thinking, which is really the focus of that podcast next week, instead of trying to fix one problem at a time bureaucratically (and creating one almighty mess behind the wall) you take a broader view of “the single great problem” to take in the contextual landscape and fix stuff by changing that.
It starts with deliberation and even asking whether or not we have a problem at all. Martin’s plan is to start with a series of conversations amongst ordinary people to figure out what’s actually needed in the medium to long term. That as Tim Bale says (1.09) requires giving up the illusion of almighty power.
There are some ready to roll projects already on the books. The feasibility study for a high-speed rail link between Dublin and Derry (which interestingly will run in parallel with Johnson’s study of a bridge across the North Channel), the islandwide university hub, and a cross border campus in the NW.
But the filling in of the wider context is critical. I’ve always been of the view that the reason the narrow water bridge failed on the first attempt (despite a lot of cash promised from the EU was that the case for its necessity (and the benefits on either side) was never properly filled out. And so it was let go cheaply.
Conversation first is well fitted to the chaotic times we’re in. As Karl Weick notes in Managing the Unexpected, it is best to “start with the assumption that organizing emerges among agents who are loosely connected” rather than using “consultation” to “justify decisions or positions already taken”.
Martin’s ambition is huge, but its success is dependent on his ability to appeal across divides and to set up an era in which Irish British co-operation works through both north-south and east-west axes. He needs Unionists to engage constitutionally ie, through the institutions of the Belfast Agreement.
In doing so, he has a tricky legacy to deal with from the previous Fine Gael led administration, whose consideration of unionist interests through Brexit was at best cursory and worst malign. Take this report from 28th March 2019…
As Brexit comes to a conclusion Martin is attempting to effect a profound shift in relationships on the island. Such change won’t be done by words alone (or white papers) but by actions that make it clear there is a common interest in the shared homeplace of the island, short of constitutional change.
As the Taoiseach notes, this is a huge job particularly in the south where the populist rhetoric of the last few years is now deeply embedded, and where the GFA seems only like a term they only use for stuff that happens up there in ‘the north’. That can change not by rhetoric but through meaningful action.
“We are going nowhere without each other ”
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty