WELL, THERE HE goes, Eamon Gilmore has waved goodbye to the corridors of Iveagh House, departing as the Foreign Affairs Minister after just over a little over three years in the job. Gilmore has received a great deal of criticism for not standing up to his coalition partners and not doing enough to halt cuts in public expenditure. Yet, for me, his seemingly light touch approach to Northern Ireland will almost certainly go down as one of his biggest misjudgements as a minister.
Granted, he wasn’t the only person who wrongly declared mission accomplished on the peace process. However, the continuing instability and paralysis within the Northern Executive merely highlights the fact that whoever succeeds Gilmore will have to take a very different approach when it comes this issue.
So, in the spirit of improving the day-to-day approach of the Irish Government, here is my ‘how to’ guide for the new Minister for Foreign Affairs when it comes dealing with Northern Ireland.
Rule number one: keep yourself and the Government relevant to fast moving events
Here is something that Gilmore never really understood. When you think back to key issues during his tenure – whether it was the flags protests, or the failure of the Haass talks – can you recall from memory any noteworthy statement or intervention he made on any of these events?
The next person in charge of the Northern brief needs to recognise how important it is to make the Irish Government, alongside their British counterparts, relevant again in the peace process. This counter-productive cycle of waiting for events to happen and then rushing to criticise the failure afterwards is patently not working and needs to be abandoned as a matter of urgency.
Rule number two: prepare to play the long game
Can you achieve progress overnight in Northern Ireland? No, and you shouldn’t even try to attempt a quick fix. It took the better part of 17 years from the Downing Street Declaration in 1992 to the restoration of devolution in 2007 to achieve the formation of a stable power sharing government. If you are prepared to take the long view about where the peace process should go over the next two decades, and if you can content yourself that in all likelihood you will not be the person pictured at some famous signing ceremony, then your place in history will be remembered kindly.
Rule number three: be imaginative about how to deliver the next steps forward within the peace process
Greeting a new minister is an Executive with a 9% job approval rating and a disenchanted electorate, half of whom don’t even think it is worthwhile going to vote. These dismal set of figures should be enough to make the new minister sit up and take notice that not everything is going well with the peace process. It took bold moves and thinking outside of the box to deliver the Good Friday Agreement, and today that same style of leadership is required.
None of this is easy of course and not all of it can be achieved by the Minister for Foreign Affairs alone. The truth is that it will take a genuine effort from all interested parties to get Northern Ireland back on track. Both the British and Irish governments need to use all the fiscal and political tools at their disposal to assist those political leaders in Northern Ireland who want to achieve progress on issues such as flags, dealing with the past and parades.
Yet, it is up to them to ultimately involve themselves in the process and a key task for the new minister will be to dramatically up the Irish Government’s game in this area. How many more deals have to fail and relationships become damaged before officials in Dublin and London realise that leaving the peace process on auto pilot is not achieving anything substantive. I sincerely hope that whoever succeeds Eamon Gilmore is successful in their tenure as a minister and for Northern Ireland, it will be necessary for whoever sits in Iveagh House, to follow these three simple rules and adopt a different approach from their predecessor.