Ruth Dudley Edwards: The new Northern Ireland Office minister is a Gay Catholic Tory who will listen to unionist fears

Before I get on to two subjects with which I hope to cheer up at least some of my readers, just a few words about something else.

Tuesday, 21st September 2021, 12:24 pm
Updated Wednesday, 29th September 2021, 4:08 pm
Ruth Dudley Edwards, the author and commentator, who writes a column for the News Letter every Tuesday. She is author of 'The Faithful Tribe: An Intimate Portrait of the Loyal Institutions' and her most recent book is 'The Seven: the lives and legacies of the founding fathers of the Irish republic'

The media’s seemed to me to show extraordinary lack of compassion about the unexpected death of the prime minister’s mother.

She died on September 13, since when he has handled several tricky subjects in Parliament, has organised a reshuffle, held a press conference, and on Sunday went to America for talks with — among others — President Biden, Vice-President Harris, senior congressional leaders, the leaders of Brazil, South Korea, Turkey and Spain, the United Nations General Secretary and Jeff Bezos, chairman of Amazon.

One journalist referred to this as “a jaunt” and I’ve seen little acknowledgement in the press this is a very tough time for a man who adored his mother, and who, at best, has had no more than a very few hours with his siblings to mourn and organise her funeral.

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Conor Burns MP has become an NIO minister. He was a pupil at Our Lady of Lourdes Park Lodge primary school and moved to England aged eight. He later became a Thatcherite and a Conservative Member of Parliament

Now to politics.

The Northern Ireland Office has a new Minister of State, and at a time of deep unionist distress over the protocol and a widespread sense of betrayal by the British government, it may have further worried some to learn that Conor Burns is a gay Catholic from Belfast.

Furthermore, last week he visited his old primary school, Our Lady of Lourdes Park Lodge, and one of his uncles, Father Peter Burns, Rector of Clonard Monastery — an establishment whose reputation with unionists was sullied by IRA sympathisers like Fathers Alec Reid and Gerry Reynolds.

However jumping to conclusions is rarely wise.

When Conor was eight, the Burns family moved to Hertfordshire, and for his whole adult life he has been as devout a unionist as he is a Catholic.

An admirer and supporter of Thatcher, he is a long-time friend and colleague of Boris Johnson, and to his old school — and, no doubt, his uncle — his message was of the importance of “co-operation and dialogue north/south, east/west” in shaping a fine future for Northern Ireland.

Though some Christians will be concerned that Burns voted for single sex marriage, he insisted it was only on condition that there should be “guarantees that... churches would not ultimately be forced under human rights legislation to conduct such ceremonies”.

The only time I’ve met him was online when with Kate Hoey and Mervyn Gibson of the Orange Order we were on a panel organised by the Queen’s University Orange Society, and I can assure unionists that nobody could have been in doubt about his views on keeping the United Kingdom together.

Unionists now have someone in the Northern Ireland Office who is more likely than most to understand their fears.

The second subject is Michael D. Higgins, whom I’ve never liked because of his obvious deep admiration for himself.

In 2018, when he was running for a second term, I wrote that as president he had “been conscientious and mostly didn’t embarrass us with the neighbours, but there are serious drawbacks to re-electing him. His personality, which causes him sometimes to ignore the boundaries of his job, has had him accused of meddling in politics, and his knee-jerk hard-leftery has occasionally besmirched his office”.

His job, however, “had gone to his head”.

So there he was last week, on his state visit to Italy, posing at the grave of the Marxist ideologue Antonio Gramschi whom he seems to love even more than Castro, and creating an almighty row back home because he is so pig-headed.

He wrongly thought that he had been called President of the Irish Republic (which is what he is) rather than President of Ireland (which is what technically but misleadingly protocol requires him to be called) and being affronted, rejected an invitation to a religiously ecumenical “Service of Reflection and Hope, to mark the Centenary of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland” in Armagh — which had been patiently crafted and agreed by a cross-section of clergy including Roman Catholic Archbishop Eamon Martin, who spent months devising an event that would be graced by queen and president and mark a hundred years of Northern Ireland without offending or excluding anybody.

Higgins had to admit he had not been wrongly addressed, but said he couldn’t go anyway because it would validate partition.

As more than one furious commentator has asked, is he implying that when the Queen laid a wreath at the garden of remembrance in Dublin in 2011 which celebrates “those who gave their lives in the cause of Irish freedom”, she was “endorsing rather than respectfully marking events”?

As “saddened and troubled” ex Presbyterian moderator Norman Hamilton put it, it was “utterly baffling” that Higgins was unable to understand the difference between “marking something and commemorating it”.

Of all the criticisms I’ve read from north and south, the one I found most affecting was from the UUP’s Steve Aiken. “For many years I’ve seen part of my role to explain to my fellow unionists that, despite our differences, our neighbours are willing to show us mutual respect and understanding. Right now, regrettably, I no longer sure.”

Just like that, and because he is too obstinate to admit he made a bad decision, President Higgins has ceded the moral high ground to unionists.

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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.

Ben Lowry

Acting Editor