UK can alleviate sense of weakness today by avoiding devolved topics
The British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIGC) meets today.
No matter how much unionists say they have been given assurances by the UK government that it will not stray into devolved issues, the meeting of the body is a grim milestone.
It is, above all, a reflection of London’s steadfast refusal to introduce direct rule, which it knows will infuriate the Irish.
The intolerable has been tolerated to avoid taking this step, ranging from paying MLAs while Stormont is in abeyance to leaving civil servants to make decisions that have political implications and are properly the domain of ministers.
This cowardice means that Sinn Fein blackmail — that there be no return of devolution without an Irish language act (that will be used in a sectarian manner across Northern Ireland, as it currently is in areas where Protestants are in a minority) — continues to go without sanction.
This in turn means that such republican blackmail will return in some shape or form if Stormont is ever re-established.
Meanwhile, the Irish government has ensured that commitments over the so-called backstop on the land border are a pre-requisite to a Brexit deal.
In Belfast last week, Theresa May said: “We remain absolutely committed to including a legally operative backstop in the Withdrawal Agreement. But it must be one that delivers on all the commitments made in the December Joint Report.”
While it is welcome that the prime minister is, in that statement, recognising the commitment that there can be no border in the Irish Sea (paragraph 50 in December), it is puzzling that the White Paper says that the government will need to agree a protocol that will not need to come into effect due to the regulatory proposals.
This sort of nonsense talk reinforces a sense of British weakness in response to an uncompromising Dublin. But the government can go some way today towards minimising that sense by clearly avoiding discussion of devolved topics.