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Principle or pragmatism: Ambiguity surrounds the Shared Island Unit, months after launch

Patience is running out among some supporters of Irish unity, namely Sinn Féin.

Image: PA

ATTACKS ON SINN FÉIN are hardly a rare event in the Dáil. But a blistering response by Taoiseach Micheál Martin to the party’s questioning of the new Shared Island Unit – the civil service division charged with reinvigorating cross-border relations – revealed something of the complex role it could play as Fianna Fáil tries to balance principle and pragmatism.

Sinn Féin TD Rose Conway-Walsh had told Martin in the Dáil that she had real concerns that the Shared Island Unit, with its deliberatively inoffensive name, was potentially dodging the question of a united Ireland.

“That is why many supporters of the Taoiseach’s party are leaving and joining Sinn Féin. I can only speak from my experience in Mayo on that,” she said.

Martin’s response revealed an emerging faultline that may come to define the electoral battle between Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin, as the country heads towards a potentially complicated period of commemoration.

“I have worked hard behind the scenes, and as a Minister, to develop collegiate arrangements with people of all political persuasions in the North,” Martin began.

“I do not need lectures from you or from anybody on the Sinn Féin side of the House. Fianna Fáil was essential, working with others, to the Good Friday Agreement. Fianna Fáil enabled your party to give up the gun,” he said.

You endorsed violence as the way to unify Ireland and what you did was you did more damage than anybody else in relation to a United Ireland. And you continue to endorse that narrative, not understanding that every time you endorse the narrative of violence you make it more difficult than ever to get a united Ireland or to get consent.

It was a new line of attack from Martin – and one apparently welcomed internally. Within hours, the Dáil speech appeared on Fianna Fáil’s Facebook page to quickly become one of the most popular posts of that week. That same evening, it was also shared approvingly by Ógra Fianna Fáil on Twitter.

Despite the government passing the 100-day mark this month little is known about the Shared Island Unit, which was described by the Programme for Government as “examining the political, social, economic and cultural considerations underpinning a future in which all traditions are mutually respected”.

Established four years after the Brexit vote pushed discussion of a united Ireland into the mainstream and three years since an Oireachtas committee published a landmark report called “Uniting Ireland & Its People in Peace & Prosperity”, hopes are high for the unit.

But observers have wondered whether the Shared Island Unit is secretive – or simply has nothing to hide. To Sinn Féin, the loudest voice in Irish politics calling for a border poll, the unit has promise, even if so far it has proved a disappointment.

For some supporters of Irish unity, patience towards the Shared Island Unit is running out. A civil service department is useful, they say, but only if it’s actively planning for unity. 

But while no one would deny that the new division’s philosophy will be shaped by the measured approach of Martin, not everyone in Fianna Fáil believes that’s a bad thing. 

TheJournal.ie spoke to several people – inside and outside politics – to get a sense of what kind of work this new division might be doing. 

Questions

Conway Walsh, speaking to TheJournal.ie, said she was “taken aback” by Martin’s rebuttal.

She stressed that her party backed the Shared Island Unit and believed it was a “real opportunity for it to structure the dialogue” around Irish unity.

“It’s an opportunity if it’s set up right and it’s resourced right,” she said. “My question was where it’s at and what resources have been allocated. It was tasked with a wide range of opportunities, which I thought was a good thing again.”

Those wide-ranging questions were drafted as the Covid-19 pandemic surged across the country, although long before more recent worries emerged about how the North is handling the virus.

They include further developing an all-island economy, while also working on cross-border greenways and roads. Crucially, the document promises to work with the UK government and Northern Ireland Executive on the long-sought-after development of Ulster University’s Magee campus along the border in Derry.

The unit is currently headed by Aingeal O’Donoghue, a senior and experienced civil servant originally from the Department of Foreign Affairs. But while the overarching scope of the unit is clear – to craft better cross-border relations – the long-term strategy is more opaque.

boris-johnson-visits-belfast Boris Johnson and Micheál Martin meeting at Hillsborough Castle. Source: Brian Lawless/PA Wire/PA Images

In an interview with the Irish Times, Martin seemed to deny it was a “stalking horse” towards ending partition. But if it is even the first, tentative step towards broaching that question, is the unit set to be a permanent fixture of the taoiseach’s department? Or, more radically, is it there to lay the groundwork for a more explicitly political body?

No one yet knows.

Sinn Féin’s expectations for the unit go well beyond Martin’s apparent ambitions. The party wants it to shape conversations in a way that would ultimately lead to a citizens’ assembly, a cross-party Oireachtas committee and, ultimately, a referendum.

“It wouldn’t just be civil servant-led,” Conway-Walsh said. Still, she said that she wasn’t writing off the unit just yet.

But aspects of Sinn Féin’s vision might be closer to Fianna Fáil’s original plans than first thought. TheJournal.ie understands that a political appointee was initially intended to head up the unit.

It’s understood that the sensitivities of Brexit, as the UK and the EU struggle to reach a deal, led to the decision to step back from a political appointee and contributed to the more gradual development of the unit.

And while a government spokesperson denied this was the case, it would have most likely seen a former politician or external figure with political experience lead the work of the unit. 

“The Taoiseach provides overall political direction for the unit, which is part of the Taoiseach’s Department and staffed by the civil service,” the spokesperson said. 

Nonetheless, civil servants have proved key players of Northern Irish policy since the early days of the State. The Good Friday Agreement furthered that ability to develop cross-border relationships. 

Ireland’s last Cork Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, was heavily influenced by the behind-the-scenes work of pioneering civil servant TK Whitaker as the country responded to growing violence in Northern Ireland at the end of the 1960s.

Indeed, leading civil servants – primarily from the Department of Foreign Affairs – have always been crucial in strengthening cross-border ties.

Trinity College Dublin’s Dr Etain Tannam, an expert on British-Irish relations, believes that placing the unit in the Department of the Taoiseach “signifies more intensive prime ministerial leadership”.

It’s a significant step forward, she believes, even if it remains in line with previous policy approaches by the Department of Foreign Affairs. 

Even from the description of the unit’s aims in the programme for government, she said: “There hasn’t been that kind of leadership in a policy document for years.”

Part of this is pragmatic, influenced by the whirlwind four years since Brexit. Yet it’s also about a more principled desire to return to the stability of the Good Friday Agreement and to create a more proactive engagement with the North and the agreement’s institutions.

As Martin told the Irish Times last month: “We just have to get on with the agreement.”

Tannam thinks the involvement of Micheál Martin could prove crucial. “I think he is genuine about his commitment to Northern Ireland,” she said. Some prime ministerial leadership, she added, has been lacking in the years following the St Andrews Agreement in 2006, which restored Stormont and reformed some of the contentious issues that had divided Sinn Féin and the DUP.

“I don’t think it’s superficial or window dressing,” Tannam said. “Because it’s envisaging coordination and research and examination of policy across all sectors, the Department of the Taoiseach would make sense.”

Tannam believes that the Shared Island Unit could be with us for a long time. “We’ve had a transformative shock to the system with Brexit,” she said. The Covid-19 pandemic – which raises difficult questions about an all-island response – only adds to that.

“It could be seen as managing unification, if that happens,” she said.

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Others play down somewhat the significance of the unit. Former diplomat Bobby McDonagh told TheJournal.ie, following the launch of the unit, that it was “in line with the policy that successive governments have had”.

For him, it was “building on something that was there already”, while also being “something new”.

Fianna Fáil

Yet the Shared Island Unit appears to mean different things within Fianna Fáil, where there is some pressure to see progress on an issue that is woven into the party’s identity and nominal purpose.

To some, the Shared Island Unit should be a key part of what the party stands for. Fianna Fáil’s muscular republicanism historically set it apart from Fine Gael, especially during the Troubles. Now, much of that ground has been ceded to Sinn Féin.

For others, the unit is at once more prosaic but also more radical for being so focused on the granular detail of what a shared island would look like.

“My sense is that what we are going to be looking at is creating a new country,” Fianna Fáil senator Malcolm Byrne said. That requires deep thought on issues like health, security and policing. Like others TheJournal.ie spoke to, Byrne said he had no real knowledge of what the unit was working on.

He said that the idea it would be a more inward-looking body was appropriate for this stage of discussions on Irish unity “This is about serious policymaking, about planning for a variety of options. It’s not about quick slogans. It’s about looking at the nuts and bolts of issues,” according to Byrne.

He said that wider engagement with civil society and the public would come later.

The government insists that work is underway at the Shared Island Unit. And while there is no indication of what progress has been made so far, there is an indication that it may be more outward-focused than some imagine.

A government spokesperson told TheJournal.ie that the work is being led by an Assistant Secretary, with two staff appointed and “further assignments in train”.

The spokesperson also said that it intends to work with “research, sectoral, business and community organisations” as well as “engaging with political, government and civil society representatives on an inclusive basis North and South”.

They also said that the UK government’s Northern Ireland Office and the Northern Ireland Executive had been formally told that the work of the unit was beginning. 

Unionists

The response from unionists in Northern Ireland so far has not been entirely dismissive. While First Minister Arlene Foster took aim at some of Martin’s comments regarding the future of the UK’s attachment to the North, there has been no large-scale, organised opposition to the unit.

Ian Marshall, a former unionist member of the Seanad, said he saw the unit as about “creating a safe space in which a conversation could be had about the future across the island”.

The largely muted reaction from unionists so far, he said, is probably down to the ambiguity about what the Shared Island Unit stands. 

Indeed, Marshall suggests that this ambiguity may prove to be a work of genius in terms of facilitating discussion.

“It is what you want it to be,” he said. “It only works if you have all the voices around the table.”

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