By John Kelly
It is history now. As Seamus Pattison, the chairman of the Dail, said before Tony Blair, the British prime minister, made his speech last week, there was probably not one representative in either the Dail or Senate who would have envisioned that the leader of the United Kingdom would ever address the joint houses of the Irish government. It was indeed a historic and welcome day.
Alas, though it did not seem to lay down deeper foundations for history still to come — for, clearly, the peace process is now running into brick walls — a closer analysis reveals that there is reason for hope.
Officially, David Trimble, the first minister and the Unionist Party leader, are ascribing the slowdown to the refusal of the IRA to begin decommissioning. But there are other factors lurking beneath the unstable surface.
Seamus Mallon put it in context when he accused the unionists, after Blair’s speech, of dragging their feet on the critical issue of the establishment of North-South bodies. This has always been a core issue for the party. Unionists fear that effective cross-border structures, especially in agriculture and tourism, could lay the most solid foundations for a united Ireland. They suspect that in the long term, it is cash and not Semtex that may finally convince a great number of supporters that their best future lies in an united island.
The SDLP is also aware that the final solution may well lie in the drawer of a cash register. Although Blair’s speech was downbeat, he did transmit certain vital signals to the unionists. After outlining his own personal attachment to Ireland, especially County Donegal, where his mother was born, the county in which he learned to swim and had his first drink of Guinness with his father, he stressed the importance of the new closeness between the Irish and British governments.
Follow us on social media
Keep up to date with the latest news with The Irish Echo
And he pointed out, most significantly of all, that Northern Ireland can no longer determine the totality of the relationship between them, a relationship that he insists will prove to be more prosperous for both islands.
He also directed an understated message to the leadership of the Provisional IRA when he said that his government was not seeking surrender but rather a declaration from both sections of the Northern divide in favor of peace.
In short, agrees with Bertie Ahern, the Irish taoiseach, that no matter what happens, the peace process must be firmly cemented irrespective of any foot-dragging on either side of the Northern political divide.
While agreement is essential within the North, the absence of it will not prevent the developing closeness between the Irish and British governments within the context of the European Union and through the establishment of interparliamentary structures with the new assemblies that will emerge in Scotland, Wales and, of course, England itself.
Despite the universal reaction that his speech did not really disclose anything new and did not signal any great new departures, this was an important statement to emerge from the lips of a British premier.
When it is put together with the hope expressed by Prince Phillip that "artificial divisions" between the people of Ireland should end, the direction that Blair’s government is following is clear.
To put it in brief, the British government is determined to forge closer links with its nearest neighbor. It regards such a new relationship as being especially important within the European context. Compared to the UK, Ireland is an effective force within the Common Market. As a net gainer, it has used its generous funding to such a successful extent as to make it hardly necessary in future.
By forging one of the strongest economies in Europe, it has proved that a positive attitude toward the union is mutually beneficial. Blair is clearly of the opinion that the Irish attitude to the EU should teach lessons to some of his own backbenchers and especially to the Tory opposition, who are much more lukewarm to the developing European Union.
He called for a new "partnership" between the people of the UK and Ireland on the basis that both could put their histories behind them. And he stressed in his low-key fashion that there must also be changes in the relationships within Northern Ireland.
No longer could "notions of Unionist supremacy" or "militant nationalism" prevent the momentum of the "dramatic" changes in the relationship between both neighboring islands.
This was important stuff indeed. He continued to hammer home the point when he declared that his government would join with the Irish in "full-hearted" European cooperation when it was clear that it would provide added value to both countries.
Where does that leave continued unionist intransigence to the establishment of cross-border bodies concerned with tourism, agriculture and business — especially business within Europe?
In so many carefully chosen words, designed not to ignite reluctant unionists, who harbor grave fears and opposition to key sections of the Good Friday agreement, he made it clear that, opposition or not, his government will cooperate with its Irish counterpart to put provisions into effect so long as they are perceived to be economically beneficial to both.
In Dublin, the British prime minister chose the occasion to voice his strongest ever expression of support for the European Union. And he made it clear that changes within Northern Ireland will be placed within that wider context when both governments, through the interparliamentary tier and the developing structures of the Council of the Isles, consider that it is mutually beneficial .
Admitting that there is an impasse within the North over the establishment of cross-border bodies and over the question of decommissioning, he pleaded that nobody should underestimate how far they had come since the start of the peace process and emphasized that there could be no going back.
The initial reaction to Blair’s speech was that it contained little that was new or different. However, a more careful analysis will show that it has pointed the way for all who hold dear the best interests of all of the people of this island.