Aoife Moore: Merrion Street must clarify stance on Northern Ireland to quell bad-faith assumptions

Aoife Moore: Merrion Street must clarify stance on Northern Ireland to quell bad-faith assumptions
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (right) and Taoiseach Micheal Martin walking in the gardens of Hillsborough Castle during the Prime Minister's visit to Belfast. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

There were few cool customers in Co. Down today as the sun beat down on the gardens of Hillsborough Castle.

The meeting between Boris Johnson and Micheál Martin had been "warm and engaging", (the former couldn't be helped in 23 degrees), and the men, who have met before, exchanged pleasantries of little note until Sinn Féin's leader in the north Michelle O'Neill asked the Prime Minister about his baby Wilfred, who is now "beginning to verbalize and make noises".

Adept at verbalizing himself, Boris assured Micheál that Britain is dedicated to finding a Brexit trade deal between Brussels and London, in direct contradiction to the reports from EU diplomats, who say Britain is moving "further and further away" from what was agreed.

If the Taoiseach was looking for some relief when the subject looked set to change, he didn't find it, as the other discussion centred around the centenary of Northern Ireland, with both DUP leader Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill present; Like being present when Tom and Jerry have to decide on whether they should celebrate the anniversary of mousetraps.

Michelle O'Neill told Boris Johnson there is "nothing to celebrate" about the 100 years since the formation of Northern Ireland, that "partition had failed the people and the economy", and had been based and grounded in "sectarianism".

Mr Johnson assured her, we're told, that he is aware of differing opinions on partition, and any celebrations would keep this in mind.

(left to right) Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and First Minister Arlene Foster at Hillsborough Castle during the Prime Minister's visit to Belfast.
(left to right) Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and First Minister Arlene Foster at Hillsborough Castle during the Prime Minister's visit to Belfast.

One landmine deftly skipped over, and after a leisurely stroll with the new Taoiseach, Boris was gone.

Despite his date for the day being larger than life, there were no quirky soundbites about the meeting from Micheál Martin, or from Boris Johnson himself, who chose to not front the media and sent the Taoiseach out alone.

Fresh from his meeting with the blonde bombshell, Martin appeared from the perfectly manicured flowerbeds, and into the media minefield.

Between Brexit and the oncoming centenary of Northern Ireland, there were no easy answers, and Micheál Martin was in the mood to chat.

Asking a history teacher whether "partition had failed", as O'Neill had put it, was never going to have a short answer, and Martin did not disappoint.

"Well I mean I've never been an advocate for a partition in my life and my party hasn't either, but we've moved along way from 1921," he began.

"That's what for the Good Friday Agreement is all about , transforming the narrative around the north-south relationship and it has done.

"It's important to recognise that we actually have moved a long way... in terms of focus on... shared institutions and bodies....far greater interaction north and south in sporting or tourism...

"Both trying to understand our past and bring people to a shared understanding of the past...
"As a teacher, I sought students to question why things happened, to trigger that type of response to try and get them to question why."

Unlike his predecessor, Micheál Martin rarely does short and snappy.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson hold a Bilateral Meeting in Hillsborough Castle,Hillsborough Northern Ireland.Picture: JULIEN BEHAL PHOTOGRAPHY
Taoiseach Micheál Martin and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson hold a Bilateral Meeting in Hillsborough Castle,Hillsborough Northern Ireland.Picture: JULIEN BEHAL PHOTOGRAPHY

The Taoiseach balked when it was put to him that his own 'Shared Island' Unit, weighed up the risk that the UK could get turned off and lose interest in Northern Ireland.

"No, I didn't raise that," Martin snapped. "No, that's not the interpretation of the Shared Island Unit, for today's meeting was the necessity of both governments to continue to nurture the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement.

"And I explained to him how best can we share this island in a pragmatic way, and develop common projects."

Now, it's safe to say, that Northern Ireland, and all it's facets, is a political minefield for Dublin politicians, but as we head into it's centenary, the leader of the Irish government needs to have better answers for these questions, because they will keep coming. Speaking at length without saying very much gets old quickly for the Irish public, north and south, and Micheál Martin, as pragmatic as he is, can't waffle his way through the issue.

If the Shared Island unit isn't weighing up the risks of Northern Ireland's future, what is it doing? If Dublin will take a role in the north's centenary celebrations, what will that look like? There is a real opportunity to lead from the front on the issue; An island-wide look at our history, with Dublin and Belfast at the helm, would surely be an easy win for the so-called 'Shared Island' Unit, but we're not even sure what this unit does, let alone who it's for.

Trying not to make waves in his once in a lifetime shot at the top job is not befitting of someone as smart as Micheál Martin, and he doesn't want a Charlie Flanagan-esque Black and Tans shambles on his hands

If a decision isn't made soon on where Merrion Street stands on the past and future of the north, bad faith assumptions on both sides will continue to fill the void.

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