Maryfield Might Save the Day

John Coulter with a piece written for Tribune Magazine.

Dublin Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan may have to re-launch the 1985 Maryfield Secretariat if the latest round of Irish peace talks are to stand any chance of success. Flanagan has to settle the thorny Northern Ireland issues of flags, parading and the past.

Tory Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers used the recent Conservative Party conference to unveil plans for the last-ditch talks, which even before they have begun may be unable to save the collapsing Stormont Assembly.

The crisis has arisen because the power-sharing executive in Belfast cannot agree to implement contentious welfare reform cuts, similar to the massive austerity cuts which the Irish Republic had to endure in the wake of a multi-million euro bailout from the European Union.

A Stormont collapse would see the return of direct rule from Westminster; a move which might suit the Democratic Unionists as they take their House of Commons seats, while the DUP’s power-sharing partner in the executive, Sinn Fein, still operates its traditional abstentionist policy.

Much to the annoyance of many Unionists, the governments in Britain and the Irish Republic are participating in this latest round of peace talks, making Flanagan a key player.

The conclusion of these talks in 2015 will coincide with the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Anglo-Irish agreement at Hillsborough in Count Down in November 1985 between then Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

For Irish nationalism, and the Republic in particular, the Agreement’s greatest achievement was the setting up of the Maryfield Secretariat, located near Belfast and staffed by Irish Republic civil servants. It gave the south of Ireland its first major say in the running of northern affairs since partition in the early 1920s.

While the John Hume-Gerry Adams talks and the Adams-Martin McGuinness peace strategy are often lauded as bringing Sinn Fein in from the cold, securing an IRA ceasefire and laying the foundations for the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the behind the scenes work of Maryfield should not be dismissed.

The peace process from 1998 established successful bodies, such as the North South Ministerial Council which involves ministers from Dublin and Belfast, and the North South Implementation Bodies.

But their significant influence could wane if Stormont is suspended, even if the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference is triggered with that suspension.

Optimists say the peace talks could get an agreement to put before the electorate in time for next May’s Westminster general election, with two polls on the same day. Pessimists maintain that if there is no agreement, Northern Ireland will have to endure cuts imposed by London for up to five years.

The Irish Republic should not dismiss the Stormont crisis as a Northern Ireland-only meltdown. If the British Government is forced to implement hard-hitting welfare reform cuts, austerity could see hundreds – if not thousands – of Northern Irish families move across the border to the Republic, which is slowly but steadily recovering from its own drastic austerity cuts.

This is why Flanagan is advised to relaunch the Maryfield Secretariat as soon as possible to reduce the effects of Northern Irish austerity on the Republic, and also to ensure the current Dublin government has a major input into any final agreement in the negotiations.

The major danger for the Republic is the volatile working-class loyalist movement, especially the Ulster Volunteer Force which has even been blamed for orchestrating the recent spate of racist attacks on migrant families living in predominantly Protestant areas of Northern Ireland

The loyalist working class feels abandoned by mainstream Unionist parties so a new Maryfield could act as a bridge between them. Flanagan must ensure the Dail has a permanent voice in Northern Irish affairs and especially in these talks.

A new Maryfield may well be that forum. But he must play his ace as soon as possible otherwise the Westminster establishment is likely to implement its own solution with Dublin simply forced to like it or lump it.

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