Ben Lowry: Fresh signs of NIO weakness towards Dublin after departure of key advisor

Leo Varadkar talks to Niall Gibbons of Tourism Ireland on his arrival at Hillsborough Castle on Wednesday August 7, while the local MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP, centre, and others look on.'Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Leo Varadkar talks to Niall Gibbons of Tourism Ireland on his arrival at Hillsborough Castle on Wednesday August 7, while the local MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP, centre, and others look on.'Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Share this article

Within days of the departure of Jonathan Caine as a Northern Ireland Office advisor, as reported in this column last week (see link below), his absence is already apparent.

This week the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar visited Hillsborough Castle, en route to the West Belfast Festival, days after he had walked in gay Pride in Belfast.

Mr Varadkar got a warm reception wherever he want, which is a welcome reflection of the relaxed cross-border mood that exist now.

I understand, however, that not long ago there was a planned visit by the Irish prime minister to Hillsborough, and that Lord Caine’s advice was against such a visit unless hosted by the secretary of state.

How interesting then that exactly such a visit, unhosted by an NIO minister, happened days after Lord Caine left his post.

I can hear already the cry in response to this article: don’t be so petty ... times have changed ... Hillsborough Castle is now under the control of the Historic Royal Palaces ... it is wonderful to see a head of government of a once unfriendly state publicise the Queen’s residence from Northern Ireland.

The local DUP MP, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, made a related point on Twitter, when challenged by an Ulster Unionist advisor on the propriety of the visit, and his presence at it. It was part of a Twitter exchange that began when a journalist covering the visit pointed out that the Irish government had handled media accreditation for it.

The UUP official asked Sir Jeffrey about this and he said he was unaware of the accreditation process, given that he is not part of the media. He was there as MP, he said, and after his “meet and greet”of Mr Varadkar he departed to do constituency work, adding that if we are to attract southern tourists to royal sites such as Hillsborough Castle “we should welcome the fact that the Taoiseach publicised his visit”.

But there are two problems.

First the precedent.

The Taoiseach is a far closer figure than most other heads of government, but if conventions about his visits to state property are being torn up with NIO backing there are future implications. This is particularly relevant amid concerns that Dublin is implying joint stewardship of NI now that Sinn Fein has been allowed to collapse Stormont.

Note, as the letter from the UUP peer Lord Rogan shows opposite, we still do not know about other worrying NIO decisions such as the royal portraits removal sequence or how it will be resolved.

Mr Varadkar cleverly implied he has no problem with royal pictures, which made him sound generous. His authoritative presence there, discussing events, seemed natural.

It disguised the second problem with a visit by Mr Varadkar while unaccompanied by an NIO host.

Like Simon Coveney days earlier, in Stormont’s great hall, he criticised the UK government on Brexit.

The perennial question, of why British ministers stay silent when criticised by Irish ones, has all the more force when that criticism has happened in NI property that belongs to the UK nation.

Sammy Wilson MP criticised Mr Coveney’s use of Stormont’s great hall to attack the UK government.

So what is the DUP position on these breaches? Did Mr Wilson ever get clarity on the Coveney incident? Was Hillsborough different?

Mr Varadkar cited the history of Hillsborough Castle, including the 1985 Anglo Irish Agreement, as if that was an admirable accord.

He is entitled to this view as unionists are theirs that it was betrayal. Some of us wince whenever we see the photograph of Margaret Thatcher signing that document at a time when Ireland refused to extradite fanatical IRA killers, as a result of which many people died.

It is heartening that Lord Powell, a Thatcher advisor, says she died regretting the deal (no-one who knew Ireland well would have shared her surprise that the increased Irish help she expected against IRA terror did not materialise).

Yet here was Mr Varadkar in Hillsborough praising the AIA and criticising Brexit policy without anyone to put forward a counter view.

The new secretary of state Julian Smith is reported to have a young advisor Lilah Howson-Smith. Where will he get the experience Lord Caine had on such matters?

We report today a Lord Caine speech this week in which he said the NIO should defend the Union.

Last year I wrote a column urging a unionist political culture at NIO to challenge Ireland’s republican Department of Foreign Affairs (see link below).

I see no sign of such NIO change, and fear things are worsening.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

• Ben Lowry: John McDonnell had good reason to sound confident in Belfast

• Ben Lowry last week: At just the wrong time, the NIO loses a key advisor

• Ben Lowry July 27: Julian Smith needs to reverse NIO weakness

• Ben Lowry Feb 2018: It is time for a pro-Union culture at NIO