Alex Massie

How dare David Davis blame Sinn Fein for the Irish border mess

How dare David Davis blame Sinn Fein for the Irish border mess
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Sweet baby Jesus, is there nobody in the Department for Exiting the European Union who can give David Davis a briefing on Irish politics? Not a full, in-depth, Donegal-to-Kerry briefing; just the basics will do. And if there isn’t anyone at DEXEU who could do this, perhaps some kind soul at the Northern Ireland office could pop over to give Davis a quick tutorial?

The Times reports this morning that this kind of briefing is urgently needed. Of course the paper doesn’t quite put it like that but this is the inescapable conclusion to be drawn from Davis’s own remarks at a conference in London yesterday. According to our gallant bulldog, the question of Brexit and the Irish border is being complicated by the Irish government. You see:

“We had a change of government, south of the border, and with quite a strong influence from Sinn Féin, and that had an impact in terms of the approach”

This, an audience member pointed out helpfully, was not actually true. There has been no change of government, merely a change of Taoiseach. Undeterred by mere facts, Davis blustered on:

“Well you had a change of leader or a change in taoiseach. They’ve [Sinn Féin] been playing a strong political role which they haven’t done historically, that I hadn’t foreseen”

This is not the first time a government minister has suggested everything would be tickety-boo but for the baleful influence of the Shinners. Indeed, this has been a recurring theme for months and a line easily peddled to, and repeated by, compliantly pro-Brexit parts of the press. But repetition does not make an untruth any less untrue.

The idea that, secretly, Sinn Fein is either driving the Irish government’s approach to the border issue itself or that, more subtly, fear of Sinn Fein gains at the next Irish election is forcing the Fine Gael minority government to tack towards Sinn Fein’s position rests upon such a thorough ignorance of Irish political history and, just as importantly, current Irish political reality you begin to think this misrepresentation must be deliberate. Because the alternative – that UK government ministers are just as clueless as their public statements suggest – is too far-fetched to be plausible. Right?

For the benefit of slow-learners, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein all have Irish names but that does not mean they are all the same. Indeed – and this may surprise some people in London – Fine Gael and Sinn Fein have a less than cordial dislike for, and suspicion of, each other. Irish memories are long things (sometimes, perhaps, too long) but Fine Gael, the successor to Cumann na nGaedheal, likes to think of itself as the Irish state’s foundational party. Sinn Fein, by contrast, spent decades rejecting the legitimacy of the Irish government in Dublin.

From 1938 onwards, diehard republicans considered the IRA army council the legitimate government of Ireland and when, in 1969, the movement split into Official and Provisional factions, it was the Provos – soon to include names such as Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness that even David Davis may have some acquaintance with – who declared themselves the true custodians of that ancient republican lineage. It is revealing that, by and large, just as Sinn Fein grandees are reluctant to speak of “Northern Ireland” so they have been historically wary of referring to the “Republic of Ireland”. Doing so, after all, accepts the reality of partition, albeit only in rhetorical terms. But the Shinners have always parsed their language carefully. So, the Provos were anti-Dublin as well as anti-London and Fine Gael still carries the memory of this in its bones.

It is true that Leo Varadkar’s government is not in a strong position, domestically. It is a minority administration, after all. But the suggestion the Sinn Fein tail wags the Fine Gael dog requires one to believe that Fine Gael is being malignly influenced by the Irish political party with which it has least in common and for which it retains a deep and well-merited suspicion.

Ah, some people will doubtless say, it is more subtle than that! Sinn Fein, they concede, may not influence Fine Gael but pressure from Sinn Fein will keep Fianna Fail on the straight and narrow. And since Fine Gael depends on support, on a confidence and supply basis, from Fianna Fail it is therefore obvious that Sinn Fein are the real power in the land. This, I am afraid, is too clever by half.

By which I mean it is significantly less plausible than the tiresome, even banal, truth that there is little difference between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail when it comes to the border question in particular and Brexit more generally. The Irish fear, with good reason, that Brexit is going to cause them difficulties. The border issue is only one part of those problems. Dublin fears it is going to be screwed by events elsewhere no matter what kind of Brexit deal is eventually agreed by London and the 27.

But, with some justification, the Irish position is that they did not cause this mess and the onus on solving the border problem therefore lies with the people who did. Which, in this instance, is the British government. Or, if you prefer to put it in these terms, us. And since the UK has consistently said it does not want a hard border, Dublin’s position is that the UK should deliver what it promised. I know: what a wretched thing to demand.

All of which is to say that there is a significant degree of unanimity across the Irish political spectrum when it comes to these matters. Fine Gael’s analysis is not very different from Fianna Fail’s analysis which, in turn, is not very different from the analysis of what remains of the Irish Labour party. It is a question of what is in the national interest. And that analysis would remain the same even if Sinn Fein did not exist.

apologise for putting this in childish terms but it’s clear some ministers and commentators could benefit from a simple illustration of the point: Fine Gael are buying a round. They’re having a Guinness. Fianna Fail want a Guinness too. So do Labour. Then Sinn Fein, last to be asked what they want, demand a Guinness as well. Has Fine Gael’s decision to have a Guinness been influenced by Sinn Fein’s thirst for a pint of plain? Or, heavens, might they be expressing their own preference?

Elections, as Theresa May might agree, are best avoided until such point as they no longer can be. Fine Gael, one of whose governments fell over the issue of putting VAT on children’s shoes (so as to prevent tiny-footed women from taking advantage of that exemption), remembers this too. Hence their preference, especially at this moment, for soldiering on as a minority administration. But the idea Fine Gael have much to fear from Sinn Fein – there is scarcely a single demographic in which they compete for votes – is one for the birds if also, it seems, for more cabinet ministers in London than it is wholly comforting to realise.