Ben Lowry: If London does care at all about Northern Ireland, it needs to act to help unionism — and fast

The economist Esmond Birnie wrote here on Thursday about the UK government trying to limit any future frictions that the devolved assemblies could put on internal UK trade.

Saturday, 1st August 2020, 8:36 am
Updated Saturday, 1st August 2020, 11:36 am
The sacking of Julian Smith, right, should have been a rare moment of joy for unionists, yet both the DUP and UUP lamented his departure. He presided over the tearing up of the three three strands, he let Simon Coveney, left, and the Irish government jointly write the agreement, and he included a pledge on the disastrous legacy proposals to appease Sinn Fein, having said legacy was not part of the talks. How did London ever install such a person as secretary of state?
The sacking of Julian Smith, right, should have been a rare moment of joy for unionists, yet both the DUP and UUP lamented his departure. He presided over the tearing up of the three three strands, he let Simon Coveney, left, and the Irish government jointly write the agreement, and he included a pledge on the disastrous legacy proposals to appease Sinn Fein, having said legacy was not part of the talks. How did London ever install such a person as secretary of state?

(See below for link to Dr Birnie’s article)

This might be a sign that London now realises that trying to placate separatists in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland only fuels them.

It might also reflect Downing Street guilt over the Irish Sea border and a desire to help unionists, as Tory MPs are said to want happen.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

But apart from this latest paper to support the UK ‘internal market’ (the trade bloc within any nation in which movement and sale of goods is unfettered by barriers or tariffs) there are few signs of London help for unionism in Northern Ireland, which is almost in disarray.

Even the flashes of UK support, such as protecting the internal market or the new approach to the legacy of the Troubles, are only retreats from disaster.

The government plans a ‘Unit for the Union’ to bolster the UK but I fear that is not enough. It should create a panel to consider, and try to pre-empt, how separatists might use devolution against the UK.

The DUP MLA rebellion this week against the bill to weaken constraints on ministers came too late. Every member of the assembly party should have been aware of our coverage of this legislation before the vote. The perils were clear (see links below to some of the coverage).

We are lucky that the best DUP advisor since devolution in 1998, Richard Bullick, spoke out (rather than do the polite thing that people often do when they leave an important post, of staying quiet in the face of a blunder by their successors, for fear of seeming disgruntled).

Yet on Monday, when MLAs had had a whole weekend to consider the obvious need to pause on such a major bill, DUP MLAs backed it.

Their Tuesday rebellion was only symbolic. They are wholly responsible for this reform, which Sinn Fein will never allow to be reversed.

It was bad enough that in January, after three years of Sinn Fein blackmail from 2017, they restored devolution by paying the republican ransom of an Irish language act (in all but name) and, worse, without ensuring a mechanism to penalise any repeat SF vandalism.

It was appalling that the DUP signed a deal that Dublin boasted it had drawn up with London. The three strands were ignored in talks.

It was all the more appalling that the DUP went ahead after Julian Smith appeased Sinn Fein by including in the deal a pledge on legacy (after he had said legacy was not in the talks).The Ulster Unionist Party, which has been so outspoken on the pro terrorist direction of legacy, should have gone into opposition on that point alone, at once.

(If any unionist still doesn’t get legacy, then reflect on this: a party once so close to IRA wants the Stormont House deal enacted because it believes it will ruin security forces).

Both DUP and UUP lamented the later sacking of Mr Smith, which should have been a rare moment of joy. London deserves disdain for ever installing an NI secretary who still gushes on Twitter about all island co-operation (as if that should be a UK priority after Ireland has become so ‘green’ post 2016).

If a Conservative and Unionist government is serious about its name it must stop filling that role with politicians who are at best uninformed on NI, at worst pro Dublin (and it should overhaul the pro Ireland Northern Ireland Office).

The argument that the ministerial bill was urgent due to a court ruling in the ‘Buick’ incinerator planning case does not stand up. That complex ruling (appeal court judges agreed on outcome but not on reasoning) had not even been challenged to the highest UK court.

Even if it had been a Supreme Court ruling, Boris Johnson’s government says it does not want judges making law. Yet apart from Jim Allister QC, I have not heard a unionist MLA mention this problem, despite court power being very evident in Northern Ireland.

It took Trevor Ringland, the reconciliation activist, to say that if the courts are going to shape legacy, such as in the Gerry Adams ruling, then the UK must rebalance things by instigating inquiries into IRA (see link below).

Unionist MLAs seem insufficiently aware that elected legislatures set policy, not courts. They let a Buick ruling that had not been appealed empower single ministers.

I suggest London sets up a panel to protect the Union from threats, present and future, obvious and oblique, staffed by people such as the Tory thinker Henry Hill. What can be done to ensure that what happened this week never happens again? That mandatory coalition does not facilitate blackmail? etc

Every single legal change that has possible constitutional implications should only be made slowly, after exhaustive consideration.

The government seems prepared to resist Scots nationalists.

We need to find out, long before its term ends in 2024, whether it will take seriously multi-faceted risks to the Northern Ireland part of the Union, even if unionists here fail to spot some of them.

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

——— ———

A message from the Editor:

Thank you for reading this story on our website. While I have your attention, I also have an important request to make of you.

With the coronavirus lockdown having a major impact on many of our advertisers — and consequently the revenue we receive — we are more reliant than ever on you taking out a digital subscription.

Subscribe to newsletter.co.uk and enjoy unlimited access to the best Northern Ireland and UK news and information online and on our app. With a digital subscription, you can read more than 5 articles, see fewer ads, enjoy faster load times, and get access to exclusive newsletters and content. Visit https://www.newsletter.co.uk/subscriptions now to sign up.

Our journalism costs money and we rely on advertising, print and digital revenues to help to support them. By supporting us, we are able to support you in providing trusted, fact-checked content for this website.

Alistair Bushe

Editor