Ben Lowry: The NIO above all is determined never, ever to upset Irish nationalism

British ministers never contradict Leo Varadkar or Simon Coveney, who often criticise the UK
British ministers never contradict Leo Varadkar or Simon Coveney, who often criticise the UK
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On the opposite page, as one of the tweets of the day, Kate Hoey MP writes:

“Time for a clearout at the very top of the NIO.”

The Northern Irish MP for Vauxhall was responding to a tweet from the DUP leader Arlene Foster, who wondered how the NIO allowed the royal portrait row to happen.

But there is no sign of change in the ‘joint stewardship with Dublin’ mentality of the NIO.

In fact, arguably it has worsened because almost the only voice against it, the Tory advisor Jonathan Caine, has not been reappointed.

In almost no circumstances will an NIO minister ever contradict an Irish minister, no matter how flagrantly partisan the latter.

They will not do it when Ireland tries to embarrass the UK over the Troubles, when Britain patiently suppressed decades of Irish terror with little help from the Republic, not even after the disastrous concession of the 1985 Anglo Irish Agreement (the ultimate outworkings of which get ever more evident)

There was not a whisper from the NIO when Simon Coveney criticised current UK security policy (he effectively told the UK that Tony Taylor, the dissident republican in Londonderry who abused his release on licence, should be freed).

This is the Mr Coveney who told us we must pay republican ransom of an Irish language act (can you imagine a British minister daring to say any unionist demand be met?)

For years there has been little pushback against this, although Lord Caine was known to work behind the scenes to balance things.

And nor will there be a change until the NIO becomes a counterpart to Ireland’s pro nationalist Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).

There is still no explanation as to why Dublin Castle was allowed to accredit media places for a Taoiseach visit to British property from where (of course) Leo Varadkar criticised UK leaders on Brexit.

The NIO replaced the royal portraits this week (albeit ensuring there were figures such as the Irish president in some of them) which gave it cover for yesterday reappointing Judith Thompson as victim commissioner. who has lost the confidence of much of the biggest category of victims, those of terror.

That the DUP recently joined the opposition to Ms Thompson staying in post did not sway the NIO. That party said it had been giving her time to “do the right thing” over pensions (which will be paid to terrorists injured by their own hand, as per her advice, despite government pretences to the opposite).

I understand that Lord Caine tried to block a re-appointment and advocated be a fresh competition for the victims’ post. Again the question arises: who now is advising Julian Smith? It doesn’t matter how smart an advisor is if neither minister nor advisor has experience of the nationalist long game.

The DFA would not let inexperienced Irish ministers be outwitted.

Victims and proportionality are not at the heart of the legacy process, which seeks to keep the IRA on board and never challenges the implication that UK state, loyalist and republican are all culpable.

For years I have written on this page about the moral collapse over terrorism. But outside of this paper’s legacy scandal series, and a handful of columnists for other publications such as Ruth Dudley Edwards, one travesty after another passes with little comment.

Look at how another isolated voice, Trevor Ringland, who has spent a lifetime in reconciliation, has become increasingly blunt about the appeasement of terror.

There has been much focus on the latter failings of Ms Thompspon’s tenure. Among the earlier things that happened under her watch was the time Martin McGuinness addressed a victims’ event and demanded full accountability of the UK state on the past.

A man who orchestrated decades of bloodshed, and who was wholly secretive about it (indeed was allowed to cite a code of Omerta to the Bloody Sunday Inquiry) had the nerve to tell an audience, that included people he helped make victims, that others must be frank.

When we reported that grotesquerie, Professor John Brewer accused us of ‘conflict journalism’.

Imagine a Parachute Regiment leader lecturing an audience including victims of state violence about how others must disclose.

It is no surprise to me that the NIO did not conclude that a victims’ commissioner should be accepted by the largest category of victims.

Had they done so, it would have upset nationalists. And the NIO will never, ever do that.

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

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