The House of the Oireachtas, the National Parliament of the Irish Republic, is no longer the political House of Horrors to Unionism – thanks to the impressive range of cross-border institutions spawned by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
This was due in part to the Dail Eireann, the House of Representatives, or the main Dublin Parliament, failing to adopt a ‘gloves off’ policy towards republican terrorists from the Provisional IRA and INLA using the Republic as a springboard for attacks on the Northern Unionist community and security forces.
But thanks to closer cross-border co-operation between the Dail and Westminster, with Stormont (when it is working!) in the middle, Northern and Southern security forces are implementing a realistic policy which is adopting zero tolerance towards dissident republican terrorists bitterly opposed to the Irish peace process.
Cross-border co-operation is at its strongest, not just since the signing of the Belfast Agreement in 1998, the St Andrews Agreement in 2006, or even the Hillsborough Castle Deal in 2010.
Indeed, among Northern Unionists, the 30th Dail – or lower house – which was constituted following the May 2007 General Election, was perhaps one of the most constructive and popular since the Dail moved to its present home in Dublin’s Leinster House in 1922.
1999 was a key year in cementing Dail/Stormont relations. That was when Articles Two and Three of the Irish Constitution were amended to take account of the consent of the Northern Ireland people if they wanted to join the Republic.
Previously, these contentious articles had laid claim that the six counties which comprised Northern Ireland – and a part of the United Kingdom – were part of a whole island which formed one national territory.
Central to cementing the Irish peace process was the former Southern Prime Minister, or Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, the veteran centre-Right Fianna Fail leader. In May 2008, Cowen succeeded Bertie Ahern as Irish PM and FF leader, one of the key architects in developing a stable, devolved Stormont administration.
Sadly, this is no longer the case as the current power-sharing Executive has been in a state of collapse since January 2017. There have been plenty of ‘hands across the border’ stunts and photo-calls, but no progress at restoring devolution.
Gone are the great days of early March 2010 when the Stormont Assembly gained the necessary cross-community votes to secure the transfer of policing and justice powers back to a Northern administration; the first time since the early 1970s.
The seeds of this process were sown by Cowen during his years as Irish Foreign Minister and deputy Irish PM.
The Dail also provided some parliamentary lessons for the Stormont Assembly. The Dail has 166 members representing 26 Irish counties, compared to the North’s then 108 Assembly members representing six counties. For the 2017 snap Assembly poll, the number of MLAs per constituency was reduced from six to five.
The Dail has mastered the art of coalition government. For example, in the Cowen era, Fianna Fail had 77 TDs, or Deputies. He headed the largest party, but not enough to form a government.
This was achieved with a coalition with one of the minority parties, the Greens.
Even Sinn Fein has recognised the potential for coalition government and has changed its party rules to allow it to enter a coalition Dail government - a place it once adopted a very strict abstentionist policy.
But what has strengthened the Dail’s relations with Stormont has been the range of successful cross-border institutions.
These include: the North South Ministerial Council; the six North South Implementation Bodies, and the British Irish Inter-Governmental Conference set up in 1999.
Ironically, the present global economic crisis, with Brexit at its peak, will see the need for the Dail and Stormont to work even closer. That’s if a Stormont Assembly exists by the time Brexit happens in March 2019.
The Dail prided itself on developing a strong economy within the European Union. It became known as the Celtic Tiger.
The world-wide banking fiasco has seen the roaring Celtic Tiger deteriorate into the strangled yelps of a dying pussy cat.
The Republic benefited considerably from its EU membership, but the South is set to become mainly a post Brexit giver of European funding rather than a receiver.
The euro skeptic tradition in the republic is vibrant; it took the Fianna Fail coalition government two attempts to secure a Yes vote for the Lisbon Treaty.
Any success in kick-starting the Northern peace process and growth of cross-border institutions may not be enough to convince Southern voters that Leo Varadkar’s Fine Gael-led government should continue to run the Republic.
A Southern General Election should be on the cards next year – the same year the next crucial Northern Ireland local government poll is expected. The Irish Presidential election later this year should provide a potential indicator on the outcome of that General Election - especially in terms of the Sinn Fein vote.
A rainbow coalition is being considered by parties opposed to the current Fine Gael coalition government. Could we see a Fianna Fail/Sinn Fein coalition government in Leinster House by 2020?
The next Dail could even be a rare political concoction of the Right-wing Fine Gael, the socialist Irish Labour Party, and the centre-Left Greens plus a gentle smattering of Independent TDs. Basically, deal with anyone except Sinn Fein!
Sinn Fein may be the junior power-sharing Executive partner in the North, but in the Republic, the party is still viewed with suspicion as a hardline Marxist movement pretending to be a nationalist movement for Irish unity.
As the Southern Protestant population begins to grow again after decades of decline, the new political partnership which the Dail has cemented with Stormont has taken a new twist with some sections of the Unionist community.
Just as the Dail was the key player in convincing Unionists to embrace a power-sharing Executive, so too, some Unionists want the Dail to embrace a new relationship with the Commonwealth, and especially the increasingly influential Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.
The CPA represents more than 50 national and regional parliaments, and not all of them were part of the former British Empire. The phrase “united strength of the colonial network” is becoming a new political buzz term being whispered discreetly in Leinster House.
Political jungle drums are sounding a steady upbeat thump as a result of a visit to the Republic by the Queen herself. Many Unionists see this as a potential springboard to get the Republic to have a closer bond with the CPA, of which the Northern Assembly is already a member.
Why should Unionism be content with just a say in the running of six of Ireland’s counties - why not create a situation where it has a say in the running of all 32? Such talk may be dismissed as Liberal Unionist wishful thinking, but in reality such a move to de-stabilise the South post Brexit and bring it into a closer relationship with the UK is actually a Radical Right-wing Unionist ideology.
Nonsense! I hear the liberal-left cry; it will never happen! But how many in the liberal-left and republicanism can accurately forecast what will happen in the geographical island of Ireland after March 2019?
Yes, there could be a united island, but a united Ireland run by the British. All it will take for this to be a reality is for Unionists to squeeze the economic lifeblood out of the republic.
Now that would be some sight - the so-called Butcher’s Apron gently fluttering over Leinster House.