Irish backstop –
Micheál Martin and Boris Johnson seemed to get on well together at Hillsborough Castle in their first encounter as Taoiseach and British prime minister, although they both had met before when neither was so politically elevated.
There was a cordial greeting at the entrance of the castle and then a walk together along one of the avenues cutting through the estate’s gardens, the two leaders conversing closely as they strolled down the path, but then on their way back, and observing all the cameras, remembering to social distance.
Earlier, Johnson met First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill who, while prepared to work together, still haven’t patched up their differences over that big coronavirus row – the non-socially distanced large attendance at senior republican Bobby Storey’s funeral.
Still, when posing for the cameras with Johnson, Foster and northern secretary Brandon Lewis, the Deputy First Minister kept things light by inquiring about the prime minister’s new baby, Wilfred.
“He is beginning to verbalise, make noises,” Johnson told her in that distinctive punchy way he has of talking.
Ah, the matter to worry about as far as babies were concerned, offered Lewis, was sleep deprivation.
“Not an issue, out like a light,” Johnson responded cheerily, explaining Wilfred’s sleeping habits.
“Or so nanny tells me,” sotto-voced a cynical member of the press corps.
The prime minister also was bringing some comfort for unionists by announcing plans to mark the centenary of the formation of Northern Ireland next year, with the establishment of a Centenary Forum and a Centenary Historical Advisory Panel.
Such an issue might have caused a frisson between the two leaders.
Johnson acknowledged that, depending on background, people would have very different views of the historic event.
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“From my point of view, it is something obviously to celebrate, because I love and believe in the union that makes up the United Kingdom, the most successful political partnership anywhere in the world,” he said.
“Whether you call it a celebration or a commemoration – however you want to mark it – it’s very important that it should be marked.”
Foster hoped the centenary could be marked in an inclusive fashion, while O’Neill said it was important that republicans engaged in the debate around partition and looked to the future.
But, she asserted, partition, built on “sectarianism, gerrymandering and an inbuilt unionist majority”, had failed.
Martin was asked was she right, had partition failed?
That could have been a bit of a curve ball question for the Taoiseach but he handled it deftly by saying he had “never been an advocate for partition” nor had his party.
“But we have moved a long way from that,” he continued. “That is what the Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement was about; it was about transforming the narrative around the North-South relationship. We actually have moved a long way from where we were.”
Like a 1990s peace processor, he referred to “shared solutions” and “common agendas” and how there was now “far greater interaction North and South”.
It was eloquent and emollient with Martin also recalling his days as a history teacher and how “history for me is about enlightening generations to come [and] current generations”.
“It is not about trying to prove a point. There will be different perspectives,” he said, while adding: “The key point is that to tell history you teach it, you present it in as broad a way as possible, warts and all, and you invite people to make their observations, to take their own insights from an objectively presented narrative.”
It all suggested that, at least as far as Dublin and London were concerned, a model on how to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland could be managed, whatever about the local tribal views on the matter.
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