1652773531 Irish Foreign Secretary There is a large majority who want

Irish Foreign Secretary: ‘There is a large majority who want reunification in the future but we must not rush things’

The Republic of Ireland’s Foreign and Defense Secretary, Conservative Simon Coveney (Cork, aged 49) has been in politics for almost a quarter of a century, since taking his father’s seat following the 1998 election and helping out Ireland’s Vice-Presidency from 2017 to 2020 in forging the new decade, the new approach that then ended three years of collapse of Northern Ireland’s self-government. Now, Sinn Féin’s victory has created yet another impasse in this British region, as DUP unionists refused to form the Belfast Home Rule Government (the 1998 peace accords require the participation of the two largest parties). They insist the Brexit protocol agreed with Brussels be scrapped to avoid a peace-threatening hard border on the island. Coveney defends the need to find a solution between London and Brussels by easing customs border controls in the Irish Sea. Passing through Madrid and ahead of a meeting last Friday with his Spanish counterpart José Manuel Albares, he also stated that a majority in his country wants reunification in the future, but without haste: “The question for this generation is how to that opens up debate without frightening and without creating divisions that fuel extremism”.

Questions. How do you rate the election results in Northern Ireland?

Answer. For the first time in its 100-year history, a nationalist party, Sinn Féin, has won.

P Your rival party in the Republic of Ireland.

R Rather the main opposition party. But in Northern Ireland Political divisions are largely determined by whether a party is unionist or nationalist, so the growth of the Alliance, a group that eludes these categories, is a major turning point. This game [progresista y alejado de la división sectaria] it has risen from 8 to 17 seats and this shows that many young people do not want to limit themselves to history but have other priorities. The two largest parties are still Sinn Féin with 27 seats and the DUP with 25, a classification not so different from then. In Northern Ireland there is no majority on any issue, there are large minorities: nationalism, unionism and now people who don’t want to define themselves by them.

The leader of the Northern Ireland party Sinn Fein, Michelle O’Neill, leaves Parliament House. Photo: PAUL FAITH (AFP)

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P DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson has announced that he will not agree to forming a government. It is not the first time that this region [británica] is politically blocked. In 2020, the New Decade, New Approach plan managed to resolve three years of collapse. Will this situation repeat itself?

R All parties want to form a government except for the DUP, which says it will not agree until the protocol issue is resolved, although that depends on the UK executive and European Commission, not Northern Ireland. New Decade, New Approach was about dealing with questions of language and culture and the interaction between parties and other political issues. Protocol was not the priority for most Northern Irish voters now, nor was it the main issue even among unionists. It’s an important issue and we shouldn’t underestimate it, but it’s far from the only one. The elections show that there is a solid majority of party seats in favor of protocol working. There are 53 out of 90 parliamentarians, almost 60%.

P Do we have to call elections again?

R. If no agreement is reached within six months, the law provides. The difficulty of forming a government comes as no surprise. Northern Ireland has gone through a very divisive period since Brexit. The majority of Northern Ireland voted against leaving the EU and they support the protocol because it is the mechanism that seeks to protect the 1998 peace agreement, prevent a physical border from being re-established and the durability of the peace agreement Protocol to preserve the Republic of Ireland in the European single market. The problem is that there are people in Northern Ireland and certainly in the UK Government who don’t like it because of the goods controls being transported from the UK to Northern Ireland.

P Has this solution failed in the face of this controversy?

R Brexit is controversial, that’s the problem. When a country leaves the EU, it leaves the common market. In Northern Ireland there is a majority that supports the principle of the Protocol but would like to see it implemented in a more flexible and pragmatic way. You have to work on that.

P Isn’t that a long way off when the Boris Johnson government and British prosecutors are threatening unilateral action?

R. We want the protocol to work reasonably and address the serious concerns it raises. Instead, the UK government says either the EU will give them what they want, or they will legislate internally to park the protocol and do as they please. This will cause far more problems than it solves.

P London argues there is rioting in Northern Ireland.

R There is a certain tension. We must put a stop to it, but we must not act unilaterally, because that creates even more tension. The European Commission wants to reach an agreement and has presented proposals.

P What parts of the protocol are not working?

R We skipped London for a moment; What the trade unionists I spoke to want is to distinguish between goods that remain in Northern Ireland and goods that are transported to the rest of the EU. It is possible to drastically reduce controls on products transported from the UK to Northern Ireland and consumed there by better labelling, sharing information about production and registering products online. The labels would help distinguish between staying and traveling products, because otherwise the companies from France, Spain or Germany would wonder if there is an unobserved back door to the common market.

P Is confrontation with the EU part of Boris Johnson’s domestic strategy?

R We’ve seen that again and again. At certain times, for whatever reason, the UK government chooses to stoke tension and its narrative around Brexit-related issues by portraying the EU as inflexible, irrational and unwilling to negotiate, and it doesn’t hold up. We have to find the political way to solve this together, otherwise the EU will be forced to react to the violation of rights. It cannot be that the collateral damage of Brexit is Ireland’s position in the single European market. So this issue goes beyond Northern Ireland.

P Does Sinn Féin victory bring reunification referendum closer?

R The balance between unionism and nationalism has not changed significantly in the elections. The party with the most votes wants this referendum, but the nationalists lost four seats and the unionists three. Arithmetic hasn’t changed, at least not yet.

P Does the generational change that has propelled the alliance in Northern Ireland also affect its southern neighbors, who may no longer seek reunification or be unwilling to foot the bill?

Simon Conveney, Foreign Minister of Ireland, at the Embassy in Madrid.Simon Conveney, Foreign Minister of Ireland, at the Embassy in Madrid Jaime Villanueva Sánchez

R There is a large majority of the people of the Republic of Ireland who would like reunification in the future. The question is how to do it in a way that looks to the future and not the past. It would have to be a generous and diverse process, respecting British and Irish traditions. The question for this generation is how to open this debate without creating fear and without creating the divisions and fears that drive extremism. This is a journey we must undertake, but we must not rush it.

P Ireland is out of NATO. Does Sweden and Finland’s approach to the alliance change things?

R We probably won’t join, but we will increase defense cooperation with other European countries. Like the rest of the EU, we are rethinking security and defense because of the war in Ukraine.

P Is neutrality no longer possible?

R From an Irish perspective, neutrality lies outside of defense pacts. But it is not a politically neutral country. We are very critical of Russia and we support Kyiv militarily in its defense, although we are not sending deadly weapons. Let’s say Ireland has a very proactive neutrality.

P The UK has announced that refugees from Ukraine crossing Ireland will be returned to Rwanda.

R We are witnessing the worst humanitarian catastrophe in Europe since World War II. 30,000 refugees have arrived in our country. Ireland and the UK have an agreement allowing free movement of people and we had a coordinated migration policy. We have now decided not to require visas for Ukrainians and the UK has a different system to accommodate them. This has caused some problems as there is no physical border with Northern Ireland and there is no way to stop Ukrainians from crossing.

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