Restoring powersharing in Northern Ireland is crucial to preventing a drastic worsening of Anglo-Irish relations post-Brexit, former Stormont first minister Peter Robinson has warned.
In a stark message to the current generation of politicians in the region, Mr Robinson stressed the need to put their differences aside, claiming it was “intolerable” some of them appeared to have “turned their backs” on the electorate.
In a speech in Co Donegal, the ex-Democratic Unionist leader said there was the potential for a marked deterioration in the relationship between the UK and Irish governments once the kinship fostered by their respective membership of the European Union was gone.
Mr Robinson said already fraying relations between politicians north and south of the border in Ireland would also worsen once Brexit occurs and cautioned that communities within Northern Ireland had become more “polarised” due to the “hysteria” whipped up over the UK’s exit from the EU.
“Central to protecting the helpful and cordial set of relationships, that have been built up over many years, is the rebirth and smooth operation of the Northern Ireland Assembly, its Executive, along with the North-South and East-West institutions,” he said.
“Without each and all of those parts being in place, and working, relationships will suffer – perhaps drastically.
“The absence of the complete network of connections leaves us all vulnerable to a downward spiral which may lead to toxicity.”
On the risks to Anglo-Irish relations, Mr Robinson said the EU had provided a “common room” where the UK and Irish Republic had kept in regular contact, fostering a sense of “friendship and conviviality”.
The former East Belfast MP said there was comradeship of being part of the same team, adding: “Distance and detachment will inevitably cool the kinship.
“There is no question that the two governments will continue to claim everlasting friendship and affection complete with copious commitments to maintaining their unique bond, but any lucid thinker will realise that the more remote the new relationship becomes the more it will involve a greater level of competition which will cause the gap to grow.”
He said a shared outlook on certain issues would give way to more competition and greater protection of separate national interests and warned that such rivalry would undoubtedly lead to “clashes and struggles” in the future.
“It is easy to imagine circumstances, in the future, where the Republic takes up cudgels alongside the other EU states which are hostile to the United Kingdom’s interests,” he said.
“It is just as easy to envisage the impact that the resultant resentment will have on the ties between the two nations, particularly if a pattern of opposition develops.”
Mr Robinson said the network of arrangements and structures linked to the devolution settlement – such as the North South Ministerial Council and the British Irish Council – were finely balanced.
“The arrangements have allowed unionists and nationalists to participate fully within a framework of relationships – and do so in a relaxed manner with mutually beneficial outcomes,” he said.
“It worked, and moreover, no-one felt threatened by it.”
Mr Robinson said unionist relations with the Dublin government had undoubted worsened throughout the “disruptive, distracting and wearisome” Brexit process.
“Unionists believe Dublin has been completely self-serving and unnecessarily bellicose during this process,” he said.
“I believe the absence of a working North-South institution has exacerbated the situation.
“If, at the end of the negotiations, there is the potential of UK and RoI relationships cooling and a worsening in unionist relationships with Dublin the spill-over consequences on relationships within Northern Ireland are clear and alarming.”
He added: “Unquestionably the parties and traditions in Northern Ireland have become more polarised as a result of the Brexit hysteria – much of it was avoidable but an absence of the political cohesion that a functioning Executive has provided in the past has intensified the division.”
Mr Robinson did not single out any of the present day leaders in Northern Ireland as he expressed frustration at the failure to find a way forward.
“It is intolerable that there are politicians who appear to have turned their backs on the will and needs of the community they are elected to serve,” he said.
“It does not matter which section of the community I talk to, the views are identical.
“The message is clear: the public believe that the consequences of not having a functioning Assembly – the impact on our health service and education system, the infrastructure projects that need to be started, the needs of those who have suffered institutional abuse and await action, those who need ministers to be searching for jobs and investment to get the country buzzing again and the countless other priorities – are far more urgent and of greater importance than any of the given reasons for refusing to operate the Assembly.”
Mr Robinson suggested that if the differences dividing the DUP and Sinn Fein could not be overcome prior to restoring Stormont, they should be resolved in a parallel process, with devolution returning in the interim.
“There is no more important task for Assembly Members to perform than working to restore the institutions,” he said.
“I contend that the revival of the Assembly and Executive is an imperative in a post-Brexit era. It represents our best hope of peace, stability and reconciliation.”