Ben Lowry: Michael Gove was once a strong unionist, now he has given succour to Dublin at this critical moment

Three of the most notable Tory Brexiteers have said things recently that cast light on the extreme challenges facing unionists just now.

Saturday, 16th March 2019, 10:49 am
Updated Sunday, 17th March 2019, 2:21 pm
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary Michael Gove leaving the Houses of parliament, London after MPs voted on a motion to allow the Prime Minister to request a one-off extension ending June 30 was passed by 412 votes to 202. Photo: Victoria Jones/PA Wire

First, Dan Hannan, as this column noted last week, expressed a fear that the DUP might be more interested in Northern Ireland’s financial situation than in defending its undiluted constitutional position within the Union.

Second, the Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, perhaps the most influential Brexiteer of all, told The Guardian he would vote for Mrs May’s Brexit deal if the DUP was satisfied with it.

He said: “I am a unionist but it is difficult for me to be more unionist than the DUP and if they are happy with the way of getting out of the backstop and that is good enough for Northern Ireland then I expect it would be good enough for some of us.”

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And third, Michael Gove MP, the environment secretary, said:“We, in the circumstances that the house voted for no deal, would have to start formal engagement with the Irish government about providing strengthened decision-making in the event of that outcome, and that would include the very real possibility of imposing a form of direct rule.”

All three of these men are youngish, highly intelligent and are respected by conservative thinkers.

But all three are genuine friends of Northern Ireland and unionism (unlike some people on the right of the Tory party, who are English nationalist in inclination and uninterested in this Province).

Mr Hannan’s comments, in which he pointed out that the Ulster Covenant referred to “material well being” in its very first sentence, made uncomfortable reading for unionists.

But Mr Ress Mogg’s comments were troubling too.

He was, it seemed, making a friendly point that is supportive of the DUP. But it also perhaps hinted at another strand of English Tory thinking. That unionists here might not be particularly inclined to pursue a robust line on matters of British national interest, and thus there is no point in English Tories battling hard on behalf of unionism, against the backstop, and potentially losing Brexit altogether.

Bear in mind that the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) already has a slightly different customs arrangement for Northern Ireland as it does for Great Britain, so it sets the scene for the latter one day breaking free of any customs union.

That would mean a full economic border in the Irish Sea, because it would mean a customs (tariff) border for internal UK trade, on top of a regulatory border (the latter because the WA already effectively keeps Northern Ireland in much of the single market).

It is often said that these internal borders only apply if the backstop comes into play, but once the WA is law Ireland will never accept a trade relationship that has any other outcome.

If, as some economists predict, Brexit is ultimately a success and the eurozone gets into difficulties, NI would forever be within the EU economic orbit, not the UK one.

But the most alarming remarks made by these three Tories were those of Mr Gove.

He is disliked by many people on the political left and by europhiles, but is admired by much of the rest of the political spectrum (as was apparent in a recent complimentary profile in the Economist magazine).

I have met Mr Gove only briefly but became aware of him in the late 1990s as I began my journalism, then a fledgling sub editor on The Times.

I had been reading his columns for a while and, once or twice, actually sub edited them. I was far too junior to have dared to change a word of his copy. Then barely out of his 20s, he was already tipped as a future editor of that venerated title.

But as it happened, no changes were needed to his essays, because his prose was almost perfect. Even people who disagreed with his politics, as so many people did, could not have disputed his writing skills.

Mr Gove, a Scot, was highly sympathetic to unionism and opposed the Belfast Agreement.

Given that he later became one of the most important advocates of Brexit, you would expect Mr Gove to be one of the cabinet ministers who is most critical of the way that Ireland is behaving at this time.

I am not referring merely to the fact that Dublin has made things difficult for the UK over Brexit — all Tories see that, even those who have no interest in Irish affairs.

I am talking about some of the less noticed stuff.

For example, this week, at Britain’s maximum moment of vulnerability before the EU, when the nation is almost on its knees, it has been pushing legacy of the Troubles in a way that inflicts maximum embarrassment on the UK.

It brought before the Council of Europe (a human rights body that includes all EU states) legacy cases including the murder of Pat Finucane, saying that Britain has not done enough to investigate them.

Announcing that Simon Coveney was presenting the cases to the council, Ireland scolded the UK over the disclosure row to the Police Ombudsman, and parrotted Sinn Fein on London’s failure to implement Stormont House legacy structures, including the Historical Investigations Unit (HIU).

These are legacy structures which, incredibly, do not have any specific avenue for examining how Ireland was easy territory from which IRA murderers to operate.

This is an HIU in which only one group will be examined to the lower civil (as opposed to criminal) standard, the RUC. In other words, it facilitates a hunt for collusion.

And did Britain even obliquely contradict Mr Coveney on the Irish announcement? Of course not.

Like it did not do so when he complained about the detention of the dissident Tony Taylor, who abused his early release on licence.

Note how Mr Coveney, in his own way, joined in the verbal kicking of Karen Bradley after she mangled the important point that the overall Troubles record of the British security forces is an excellent one.

If there was one person in the UK who you would have expected to spot what Ireland is up to, and challenge it, it is Michael Gove.

He is one of the few politicians who, like Theresa May, is aware of how terrorists take advantage of the European Convention on Human Rights, and is one of the few people who might once have tried to help to combat this week’s development at the Council of Europe.

He is an articulate unionist whose advocacy of Brexit was reassuring to some of us who feared it would destroy the Union.

But what did he do this week instead of countering Dublin? He warned unionists that if they do not back a WA that damages NI’s place in the UK, then London will consult with Dublin on direct rule.

Hardly a disincentive for Ireland to carry on with its disgraceful tactics.

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