Ben Lowry: This is a rare time when the UK is prepared to clash with Ireland

This week I was in London, for leisure, not work, but I did visit Westminster.

By Ben Lowry
Saturday, 2nd July 2022, 11:59 pm
Updated Tuesday, 5th July 2022, 4:21 pm
There was no big MP rebellion over plans to overhaul the Irish Sea border and legacy. The instinct towards consensus with Dublin has been shattered over those two issues
There was no big MP rebellion over plans to overhaul the Irish Sea border and legacy. The instinct towards consensus with Dublin has been shattered over those two issues

There were two votes, on the Northern Ireland Protocol and the legacy of the Troubles.

In both cases the government has acted unilaterally, sparking resentment in — among other places — Dublin.

In both cases the government has moved closer to a position with which unionists are comfortable (most unionist politicians express strong opposition to the legacy plan but are quietly far more comfortable with a process that winds down legacy investigations than they are with a bloated process that turns against state forces — which, as I keep writing, any elaborate process on legacy is very likely to do).

One thing has become clear as a result of the progress of these bills.

Boris Johnson’s government will be able to get its plans on the two issues through the House of Commons. Both proposals, to overhaul the Irish Sea border and how legacy matters are handled, might be delayed in the House of Lords, but if Mr Johnson stays in office and holds his nerve, or if a successor adopts the same policies, they will become law.

There will be no backbench Tory rebellion large enough to stop them, despite the gleeful predictions of opponents of both.

Whether or not the enacting of the two bills actually happens in is another matter. Boris Johnson’s survival, for example, is partly in doubt because he has lost significant amounts of support on the right of the Conservative party, as well as the left (which always resented his embrace of Brexit, a stance which was influential in the UK voting to quit the EU in 2016).

But if we set aside the question of whether or not the NI Protocol Bill or the Legacy Bill are passed, it is telling that they have got so far.

The institutional resistance to both is immense. Government bureaucracies can be very powerful, which was apparent when supposedly neutral civil servants seemed to have such sway in Theresa May’s Brexit policy, steering the government towards a milder form of EU departure than her party was ultimately prepared to accept.

There is also a deeply ingrained instinct in the ruling class in London towards finding consensus with the Dublin establishment.

While there have been times when UK governments have acted in ways that Irish officials resented (notably over some of the details of the 1998 Belfast Agreement and in the later 2002 suspension of Stormont, over issues such as IRA spying at the assembly and the tardy decommissioning of weapons) there has been an overwhelming tendency towards finding agreement.

This has been shattered by how London has acted alone on the protocol and legacy.

For five years I and others have been writing about how Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney presided over the greenest Irish government since Charlie Haughey. About how they have acted in a flagrantly partisan manner on behalf of nationalist demands, such as accusing the UK authorities of being heavy handed with hardline republicans (as Mr Coveney did during the clamour to release the dissident Tony Taylor) or when both Mr Varadkar and Mr Coveney made clear that we must pay the Sinn Fein ransom of an Irish language act to get Stormont back.

Many people who dismiss such a critique of the Irish approach in recent years insist that Brexit torpedoed the status quo on Northern Ireland in ways that made such an assertive stance essential, in defence of Irish national interests.

But, again, to set aside the rights and wrongs of such a debate for this column, the remarkable feature of recent months has been a UK preparedness to ignore discontent in Dublin. Given the way that the Conservatives have allowed Tory politicians such as Simon Hoare and Julian Smith, who reliably parrot nationalist concerns, to have such influence on NI matters, I thought the protocol and legacy bills might face large rebellions. But both easily passed their second readings.

To again state the obvious – anything could now happen.

Enemies of the aforementioned legislation could yet pick it apart.

A man as fickle as Mr Johnson could abandon his bold approach, particularly the protocol bill.

But I do think unionists can be reassured that recent events, including growing Labour acceptance of problems with the protocol, show that politicians on both sides of the House of Commons will not, as we sometimes fear, necessarily roll over every time that nationalist Ireland insists that something is a crisis.

Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter editor.

• Ben Lowry June 25: London has tipped into an amnesty