Ben Lowry: Julian Smith needs to reverse culture of ministerial weakness at the Northern Ireland Office

The LGBT rainbow flag flying outside Stormont House in Belfast in 2017 to mark gay Pride week. Inside Stormont House is where royal pictures are believed to have been removed after a complaint. Julian Smith could reinstate them
The LGBT rainbow flag flying outside Stormont House in Belfast in 2017 to mark gay Pride week. Inside Stormont House is where royal pictures are believed to have been removed after a complaint. Julian Smith could reinstate them
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Many pundits wrongly assumed Boris Johnson would be cautious in his reshuffle of ministers.

The Conservatives only have a House of Commons majority of one, even with DUP support.

Almost two dozen pro European Union MPs on the Tory benches are determined to stop ‘no deal’.

If only a handful of them defect, as three did this year to the Change UK Party, Mr Johnson will lose a no confidence vote, which will probably trigger a general election.

Such a contest takes at least four weeks, and so will be hard to squeeze in before October 31, by when Mr Johnson is committed to leave the EU. Is he really planning to be so radical, or is he already thinking of a Brexit compromise?

In Northern Ireland earlier this month for the Tory hustings, he met Arlene Foster and tweeted: “If I become PM, under no circumstances will there be a hard border on the island of Ireland, nor will I accept a deal that sees NI taken out of the UK’s customs territory.”

This was familiar language.

Last September the News Letter asked Downing Street why Theresa May had moved from saying there would be no Irish Sea border to saying that there would be no such customs border. This left open the possibility of a regulatory border (for standards of goods, as governed by the EU single market).

Number 10 told us Mrs May would not accept”seeing NI carved away from the UK customs territory” but failed to answer our question, and confirmed rather than allayed such fears. Sure enough, the November Withdrawal Agreement had a regulatory border.

Was Mr Johnson, who for all his shambolic reputation is a skilled wordsmith, revealing that he too will align NI to EU regulations? If so, his radical government is in fact an English nationalist one, that will take England and Wales completely out of all EU structures, regardless of the consequences for rest of UK.

Or perhaps not. The journalist Charles Moore, Mr Johnson’s editor at the Daily Telegraph, thinks the latter’s unionism is genuine.

If that is so, Julian Smith has urgent work to do as secretary of state.

Eighteen months ago I wrote about the need for a pro Union culture at the Northern Ireland Office to counter Ireland’s partisan Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and its Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tanaiste Simon Coveney (see link below).

Both James Brokenshire and Karen Bradley were hopelessly incapable of standing up to the DFA.

When Dublin delighted republicans by taking the hooded men case to humiliating defeat at the European Court of Human Rights, to get UK treatment of the men designated torture, despite advance signals from the court that Ireland would lose, NIO ministers didn’t even welcome the verdict.

When Dublin embarrassed Britain by laying legacy cases before the Council of Europe, including the Pat Finucane murder, which has had millions spent on it and is a key example of the legacy imbalance, NIO ministers were mute.

When Simon Coveney said the detention of the dissident Tony Taylor was fuelling community tensions in Londonderry, Karen Bradley said nothing — not even that while she could not discuss any individual case, she would always as one of her highest priorities try to ensure the protection of life and property from terrorism.

When Mr Varadkar and Mr Coveney have given a running commentary on British failures over Brexit, UK ministers have said nothing.

When Mr Coveney at his joint press conference with Karen Bradley said “we” decided not to have an outside facilitator, she said nothing.

When it was reported that a civil servant got £10,000 damages because portraits of the Queen were displayed at Stormont House, NIO ministers said nothing.

When Mrs Bradley said that no British soldiers committed crimes during the Troubles instead of almost none of them did, Mr Coveney joined the chorus of criticism. Try to think of a British minister criticising an Irish one in this fashion.

Mr Smith could end the sense of joint London-Dublin stewardship by insisting on strict adherence to the three strands principle in talks, even if unionists do not.

He could reinstate the portraits and make clear that any new complaints will be fought to the Supreme Court and, if that fails, then the law will be changed.

He could show that the UK alone will decide on a facilitator and alone implement/oversee direct rule if Sinn Fein’s Stormont veto persists.

The UK has sovereignty over Northern Ireland and solely funds it — and lavishly so.

We need NIO ministers who reflect that, and who ignore any civil service advice to the contrary.

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

• Ben Lowry: Patent rubbish from fantasist was believed by police, MPs, journalists

• Ben Lowry in 2018: Time for a pro Union culture at the NIO