The news that an NIO official is to be sent to America to try to influence US leaders on the Province is belated and inadequate, but a welcome first step.
It is badly belated because the Irish government has been briefing against the UK for five years, since the Brexit vote. It would say it is just defending its interests and ensuring that Britain lives up to its commitments. But it has relentlessly built up allies and aggressively criticised London. Ministers such as Simon Coveney have appeared regularly on UK broadcasts and lobbied hard among Irish Americans, many of whom are close to Sinn Fein.
The British response to this has been lamentable. No criticism is ever rebuffed. London instead placated Dublin with a disastrous NI Protocol, which it seemingly now regrets.
The NIO appointment also sounds inadequate. An ‘official’ will be sent. While, obviously, a minister cannot spend all their time in the US, ministers including Brandon Lewis should be lobbying America as often as Irish officials do.
In particular, the UK needs to be building coalitions with pro British US politicians who know that London is a key ally. Amid all the Irish references to ‘threats to peace’, they need to remind US politicians of the long years of terror, when the Republic of Ireland was an easy base from which to launch murderous IRA attacks across the border, and of the mass extradition refusals, even after the Anglo Irish Agreement.
The UK needs to emphasise the consent principle of the Belfast Agreement, rarely cited in Irish America.
It is essential that this NIO official does not end up rhapsodising about the protocol and emphasising its enforcement.
There had been rumblings that this government might shake up the NIO, but there is little sign of that. The Union with NI faces multiple assaults yet the NIO still seems almost to defer to Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs.
The UK extension of grace periods, opening of a UK Dept of Communities office in Belfast, and sending an official to the US are all welcome but it must only be a beginning.
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