Ben Lowry: It is time for a pro-Union culture at the Northern Ireland Office

The Northern Ireland Office ought to be a unionist counterpart to the republican culture of Ireland's Department of Foreign Affairs
The Northern Ireland Office ought to be a unionist counterpart to the republican culture of Ireland's Department of Foreign Affairs

There are many issues related to the Stormont talks worth writing about this week.

The profound challenge facing unionism is one. Can it afford to be spread across several parties at such a critical time?

Another pressing matter worth examination is the suggestion that London is so desperate to revive Stormont that it might placate Sinn Fein on the legacy of the Troubles, despite the alarming sense of an anti-state imbalance on legacy.

But instead I am writing about the Northern Ireland Office (NIO).

For decades it had a culture of pushing the peace process and accommodation. This was worthy, or at least not surprising, because the UK was trying to end the Troubles.

But that context has changed radically. Events have become too serious for that approach to be appropriate any more.

We have a peace settlement that has survived 20 years, albeit buffeted by crises related to the IRA.

From a pro-Union stance, we are now in perhaps the most serious impasse of all.

What can be done about a party, Sinn Fein, that sees the endgame of Irish unity ahead? It will exploit Brexit ruthlessly, as it is entitled to do, but also exploit the fact that it cannot be excluded from devolution, a tactic that ought not to be open to it.

As it has behaved this way, the Irish government has been a partisan player who has helped Sinn Fein, even if that was not Dublin’s intention.

There was an example of British weakness in the face of such partisanship on January 18, when the secretary of state, Karen Bradley, and the Irish deputy prime minister, Simon Coveney held a joint conference.

Ms Bradley, as is expected of British ministers, said nothing that could be seen as one-sided. Mr Coveney, however, slipped in a reference to “implementing outstanding issues from previous agreements”.

Such talk gives cover to the Sinn Fein line that past deals have been ignored, such as the Irish language act it says was agreed at St Andrews (legislation Mr Coveney once told us that Northern Ireland must accept).

His comment in January also gave cover to the call for a Bill of Rights in Northern Ireland, something Eamon Gilmore, when Irish deputy prime minister, travelled north to demand in 2012. This was after even a UK Labour government resisted an aggressive, leftist bill which could have paved the way to judicial-led politics.

The only unfulfilled “past commitment” that did not feature in the recent near deal between the DUP and Sinn Fein was a public inquiry into one of the thousands of Troubles murders, that of Pat Finucane, something several Irish ministers have called on Britain to hold (including Enda Kenny as Taoiseach).

Even politicians who are seen as non tribal pester the UK over Northern Ireland.

The Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, for example, fanned a Sinn Fein-style grievance by implying that nationalists are at risk of being “left behind” as if Northern Ireland in 2018 is as oppressive for Catholics as Mississippi was for black people circa 1930.

Even Charlie Flanagan has got caught up in such rhetoric, complaining in 2015 at the lack of an NI Bill of Rights, calling for an international judge to assess UK intelligence on the Dublin-Monaghan bomb and in 2016 at the Council of Europe publicly attacking Britain on legacy matters and calling (of course) for a Finucane inquiry. Later he implied that an amnesty for British soldiers was inappropriate.

The UK response ought to be: we will do as we see fit to protect our veterans if a situation arises in which some of them face murder trials when IRA leaders do not.

But there is no chance of such a response. UK ministers say nothing in response to Irish lectures on NI.

Unionist negotiators have for decades complained about a republican culture at Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).

The DFA has a view of the world, based on what it thinks is best for the Irish nation. Fine — that is what foreign offices are supposed to do (the late Tory politician Alan Clark said the British foreign office was an exception to that rule, and seemed to work against its national interests).

I am grateful to have been a guest of the DFA on numerous occasions on both sides of the border and find its officials civilised, hospitable and likable. They have the best of Irish charm, and are the sort of diplomats any country would want on its behalf.

But the wider department they serve has aspirations for this island that are the opposite of unionists’.

The Northern Ireland Office should be a counterpart to that: having as its core aim an unequivocal commitment to the existence of NI as an undiluted constituent part of the United Kingdom.

Diplomacy will be a key part of such a role. But it must be backed up by steel, now that London faces nationalists who want to break the UK apart.

The UK, unlike other countries including Spain, does not (as it with justification could) insist that the integrity of its territory is a constitutional matter for the whole nation.

It has made clear that Scotland and Northern Ireland can leave the Union on basis of a 50% + 1 vote, without the rest of the nation having any say.

It is a stance that should disprove many of the key grievances of nationalists in both countries. They have an exit route if they can persuade enough of us to agree with them (as they never tire of telling us they will).

The more hardline nationalists intend to push their agitating to the bounds of political acceptability and beyond. London should not be neutral in such circumstances.

The NIO is chiefly staffed by civil servants, who are impartial. But the big political parties ought to run it using ministers who have shown a commitment to preserving the UK. Ideally charismatic and friendly, but unbending on sovereignty. They would be helped by advisors of the same ilk, and set the direction for civil servants.

There have been NIO advisors who have done unsung work in resisting constitutional damage. That, though, needs to be the norm.

It might be too late for such a culture change. Jeremy Corbyn might become prime minister and push things in a republican direction.

But maybe he won’t.

Many people in the Labour Party are committed to the thriving, vibrant, economic and cultural powerhouse that is UK. I was impressed by the instinctive unionism of most Labour ministers who passed through Stormont between 1997 and 2010.

Doom-mongers like me who fear for the very future of the UK could be confounded. Britain might prove so resilient that it will one day be the norm in all main Westminster parties to offer full political and moral support to the countries on the edge of the kingdom.

We must begin to foster that culture, and there is no better time than when Dublin is telling us we can’t have London-only direct rule.

Oh yes, if need be, we can.

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