Daniel Hannan: How Sinn Féin’s electoral success makes a United Ireland harder to achieve

11 May

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

The shocking thing is that no one was shocked. Sinn Fein, a movement linked to armed gangsters, has now won (at least in the sense of getting more votes than anyone else) on both sides of the Irish border.

The fact that its victory was predicted does not make it any the less disturbing – quite the reverse, if you think about it. Yet there is no international condemnation.

It’s curious. Victories by, say, Donald Trump or Viktor Orbán drive commentators into finger-wagging rages. When Hamas won the Palestinian election, the US cut off its money. The EU is fining Poland a million euros a day because it dislikes the ruling Law and Justice Party.

Yet the idea of a party with a private army winning office is seen, not least in Brussels, a sign of progress.

It won’t quite do to say that the violence is all in the past. The leaders of the two traditional Dublin parties understand well enough what they are dealing with, which is why they buried a century of differences with one another to keep Sinn Féin out of office when it topped the poll in 2020.

“Sinn Féin is not a normal party”, explained Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar, pointing to its links with the IRA’s Army Council. Micheál Martin, his Fianna Fáil counterpart, agreed, refusing to treat with SF on grounds that “shadowy figures dictate what happens.”

Mention any of this and you get a revealing reaction from online Shinners. A few rage at the suggestion that theirs is anything other than a fully democratic party. But most undermine their comrades’ indignation by wishing that Margaret Thatcher had been blown up and posting images of IRA gunmen.

Occasionally, the prejudices that are meant to be confined to social media burst out, as when SF canvassers toured County Cavan at the last Irish election blasting “Ooh, ah, up the ’RA!” from their van.

True, the overall election result was not as dramatic as the headlines suggested. Sinn Féin ended up with 27 Assembly seats, the same as it went in with.

What we saw was not a Republican surge but a Unionist fragmentation. The overall Orange/Green balance barely budged. Parties that want to stay in the UK have 37 seats (down three); parties that favour integration with the Irish Republic have 35 (down four).

It is not even the first time that an anti-Union party has won. In 2010, SF attracted fractionally more votes than the DUP, though a quirk of the system gave it fewer seats. Indeed, at the first ever Stormont elections in 1998, the SDLP got more votes than the UUP – though, again, fewer MLAs.

Does SF’s victory bring forward the prospect of the 32-county socialist republic which that party favours? In the short term, at least, it will almost certainly have the opposite effect.

You might think it paradoxical that a win for the Shinners, whose whole shtick is Irish unity, might retard that cause.

But plenty of people in both traditions have qualms about being absorbed into a state run by a party with links to organised crime, a party that can’t quite overcome its dislike of the police, a party with Corbynite economic policies, a party that won’t apologise for murders committed by its supporters (including of Irish Catholic civilians), and a party that still struggles to accept the legitimacy of state institutions in either jurisdiction.

Michelle O’Neill, the SF leader at Stormont, can’t even bring herself to name the territory of which she aspires to be first minister. Nomenclature is sensitive in Northern Ireland. Nationalists don’t like to hear the place described as ‘Ulster’ or ‘the Province’, while Unionists bridle at ‘the north of Ireland’ and ‘the six counties’.’

‘Northern Ireland’, the official name, is broadly seen as neutral. But SF regards even the acknowledgment of legal reality as unacceptable.

Perhaps the party’s biggest problem, though, is its unwillingness to come to terms with the presence of a million Brits in Northern Ireland. Although some of its politicians now refer to “our Unionist brothers and sisters”, they still see them, fundamentally, as misguided Irish Protestants, and won’t countenance the idea of accommodating their Britishness.

This is nothing new. Listen to how Éamon de Valera described his vision of unification as late as 1962:

“If in the north there are people who spiritually want to be English rather than Irish, they can go, and we will see that they get the adequate compensation for their property”.

Republicanism of the SF variety (or the Dev variety) defines unionism as a kind of false consciousness, a bogus identity created in and manipulated from London.

The fact that successive British governments kept trying to push Ulstermen into an accommodation with Dublin – perhaps in the hope that they would serve as a ballast, keeping Ireland within Britain’s orbit, but in an all-Ireland polity none the less – did nothing to shake this belief.

Every time Irish Republicans had to choose between attracting Unionists and emphasising their distance from Britain, they opted for the latter: removing Ireland’s remaining symbolic links with the UK, declaring a republic, leaving the Commonwealth, staying neutral in the war against Hitler, rejecting the Atlantic alliance, and making the Irish language compulsory for certain state functions.

These were legitimate choices for an independent country. But they were hardly likely to appeal to the large minority on the island who saw – and see – themselves as British subjects. Whenever Republicans demanded “Brits out of Ireland”, Unionists felt they were being asked to leave.

Constitutional nationalism by and large accepts that, in a place where there is always going to be a large minority, there must be compromises.

Constitutional unionism recognises the same. Its leaders understand that the Union must rest on the consent of both communities, and that such consent requires a willingness to recognise Irish identity in practical ways, such as offering people Irish citizenship and passports.

But SF does not do compromise. Whereas Unionism recognises that you can be both British and Irish – indeed, unionism might be said to have originated as the idea that to be Irish was also to be British – there is no version of republicanism that is not based, at least on some level, on a rejection of Britishness.

Awareness of this asymmetry makes the idea of an annexation following a vote of 50 per cent plus one disquieting to people in both traditions. It may partly explain why overall support for the Union has remained buoyant despite the shift from a two-to-one ratio of Protestants to Catholics a century ago to roughly even numbers today.

Put bluntly, people who are culturally Irish might back the Union for all sorts of practical reasons – concerns about pension rights, say – but only for as long as they feel their identity is respected.

Now try to imagine a united Ireland that genuinely respected British identity. What might it look like? Perhaps a bit like the Ireland that Parnell and Redmond campaigned for – a self-governing island under the Crown, with close institutional links to Great Britain.

Had the Home Rulers got their way – had any of Gladstone or Asquith’s devolution schemes come to fruition – we might have been spared three monstrous wars: the war of independence, the Irish civil war, and the Troubles.

A united Ireland might have evolved peacefully towards greater sovereignty in the way that, say New Zealand did – albeit probably keeping closer links to Britain in economic and foreign affairs, reflecting its geography.

Now ask yourself this. Do you see any likelihood of Ireland moving in that direction? Can you imagine Sinn Fein taking such a road? That, in a nutshell, is why Northern Ireland isn’t going anywhere in a hurry

The elections and the Protocol. A United Ireland is no nearer, but Northern Ireland is more unstable.

10 May

Every so often, something happens in Northern Ireland which compels mainland commentators who normally pay the Province no attention to venture a take on its politics. This is unfortunate.

Sinn Fein emerging from last week’s Stormont elections as the largest party in the Assembly is just such an occasion, and has given rise to some truly woeful contributions to the discourse. For example, here’s Piers Morgan:

The main thing this tweet tells us is that prominent amongst the people who do not “fully understand the consequences of Sinn Fein’s success” stands Morgan himself.

But his is merely a lamentably high-profile instance of a common mistake, and it’s a mistake which is not only fundamentally wrong but if anything makes the actual situation in Northern Ireland worse than it needs to be.

With Ulster looking set to remain in the headlines for some time – at least until the hot-take flying column gets bored and moves on – let’s take a look at what actually happened and what the possible implications are.

The results

There is no doubt that Sinn Fein emerging as the largest party in Stormont is a significant moment that will provide a real stress-test of the institutions which have intermittently governed (or at least, presided over) Northern Ireland for the past quarter-century.

But in terms of the actual election, the picture is not what one might expect from excitable headlines. The republicans went into the election with 27 seats and came out with… 27 seats.

Meanwhile the SDLP, the smaller party for voters who like their nationalism unconnected to terrorism, lost four seats and returned only eight MLAs.

That’s an overall loss of four for officially nationalist parties and an overall count 35 MLAs.

(People Before Profit, who designate as ‘Other’ but favour merging with the Republic, held their one.)

On the Unionist side, the Democratic Unionists lost three seats, slipping from 28 to 25. The Ulster Unionists lost one to return nine MLAs, the Traditional Unionist Voice kept their one, two Independent Unionists were returned, and one ex-DUP MLA was returned as a third Independent Unionist.

That’s an overall loss of three seats, and a caucus of 38 MLAs. Which, whilst not great, is still bigger.

So why does Sinn Fein get to nominate the First Minister?

Under the original terms of the Belfast Agreement (which is hallowed except when it’s not), they wouldn’t: that privilege went to the largest designation, Unionist or Nationalist.

However, in 2007 the DUP and Sinn Fein conspired to stitch up the Province’s electoral system, and Peter Hain, then the Northern Irish Secretary, allowed them to do it. They did this by changing the rules in the St Andrews Agreement so that the privilege fell to the largest party.

This meant that instead of voters being able to safely choose between different Unionist and Nationalist options without undermining their own team, as it were, it was suddenly imperative to pile in behind the biggest parties to keep the other lot away from the (purely symbolic) post of First Minister. The UUP and SDLP have predictably suffered since.

Will there be a new Executive?

Under the power-sharing provisions laid down in the Belfast Agreement, both sides need to agree to serve for the devolved government to function. This is why Stormont falls over so often.

At present, the DUP have indicated that they are open to nominating a Deputy (in reality, co-) First Minister… but only if the Government delivers real movement on the Protocol. Which the Government has not yet shown much sign of doing.

The Protocol strikes at the heart of the promises underpinning the Belfast Agreement because, in the eyes of most unionists (even those more inclined to ‘make it work’), it has changed Northern Ireland’s constitutional status vis-à-vis the rest of the United Kingdom, not least by overruling the Act of Union, without a referendum.

It’s proper operation would also have the effect of forcibly re-orienting the Province’s economy away from Britain towards Ireland and the European Union, a fact Michael Gove all but conceded in the Commons. It is worth remembering that the current backlash and instability would be much worse had the Government not subsequently acted to unilaterally extend ‘grace periods’ which protect east/west trade.

This has the potential to be a much more dangerous crisis for Stormont than previous ones because this time, the recalcitrants aren’t holding out for something a unwise Secretary of State looking for good photos and cheap headlines (the witless Hain, et al) can simply hand them in return for a quiet life – at least not without controversial legislation.

Without that change, either the DUP backs down or the Executive stays shut.

What happens then?

Nothing much, at first. Westminster does not take its duty to provide order and good government (as opposed to merely peace) to its citizens in Northern Ireland especially seriously, and in recent times has striven very hard to avoid having to govern the place if it can possibly help it, even if no other government is available.

Under changes negotiated during Julian Smith’s stint at the Northern Ireland Office, the previous Executive will simply stagger on for some weeks (although unless the DUP agree to go back into it, it can’t actually do all that much). When that clock eventually runs out, there will be another election.

If that doesn’t change anything, then at some point the Government will have to implement direct rule, whereby the Province is basically administered by the Secretary of State and the NIO. This would require legislation at Westminster to implement.

So does any of this mean a ‘united Ireland’ is imminent?

No.

In fact, suggesting it does both betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the Belfast Agreement and, if amplified by foghorns as loud as Morgan, actually undermines the proper function of the devolved settlement in Ulster.

First, one of the consequences of the Agreement is that the constitutional status of Northern Ireland no longer hangs on election results. The Secretary of State will only authorise a referendum if they believe there is clear and consistent evidence the nationalists would win. (There is no such evidence as yet, not even close.)

The parties I dub ‘capital-U Unionist’ have not adapted to this reality, with the DUP in particular having lapsed into a stagnant offer aimed at mobilising their base.

Lacking a compelling alternative in the UUP, more and more broadly pro-UK voters have either stayed at home or, more recently, switched in droves to the Alliance Party, which is formally neutral on the constitution but whose electoral strength in the east of Northern Ireland betrays its liberal unionist roots.

As recently as the 2016 election, the Unionist bloc stood at 55 seats (DUP 38, UUP 16, TUV one) versus a Nationalist bloc of 40 (SF 28, SDLP 12). The makeup of the electorate hasn’t changed fundamentally since then, nor is there been a big swing towards support for ending the Union.

What has happened is that Sinn Fein have done a good job of consolidating their hold on the Nationalist vote, whilst the DUP have alienated a lot of Unionist voters. Where have they gone? In 2016 the Alliance returned eight MLAs; last week it was 17.

This is a healthy development. The keep-them-out politics fostered by St Andrews is toxic, and voters need to feel more comfortable switching parties if Northern Ireland is ever to have a better politics. Politicians on both sides also need to be able to work with the other on day-to-day governance issues without worrying that they’re somehow betraying the cause.

Which is why when clueless commentators declare that this result represents a big step towards breaking up the United Kingdom, they are not just wrong but directly abetting the most regressive elements of Northern Irish politics.

So stop it, please.

Live Blog: With most councils declared, Welsh Conservative losses exceed those in Scotland

6 May

19.00

  • With 18 out of 22 councils declared, the Welsh Conservatives have now lost 67 seats whilst Labour have picked up 63. It’s a brutal result: they actually lost more councillors than their counterparts in Scotland, which is not what one might have expected reading the pre-election predictions.
  • Meanwhile the recriminations have already started north of the border, with Paul Hutcheon of the Daily Record suggesting that these results might finish off Douglas Ross’s leadership of the Scottish Conservatives.
  • His defenders (see Ruth Davidson) below can point to the national picture, but his critics can rightly argue that he needs to own his decision to u-turn on demanding Boris Johnson resign over Partygate. As I noted in January, his ability to send a letter of no confidence to Sir Graham Brady was a good advertisement for a united, national party. Why the change of course?
  • Behind that, the grim reality that the scandal-ridden SNP has just posted its best-ever local government performance.
  • Meanwhile results from Northern Ireland are continuing to trickle in (SF 16, UUP 3, DUP 2, APNI 2, SDLP 1, Oth 1), but we’re going to call it a day on this live blog. Thank you for following along!

18.00

  • Not only have the Conservatives lost control of Monmouthshire, their only Welsh council, but Labour are now the largest party for the first time since 1995. The Conservatives lost 12 seats, falling to 18.
  • Counting in Scotland is complete: the Tories lost 62 councillors in total, and were overtaken by Labour. Both Labour and the Nationalists gained one council each.
  • In Northern Ireland, Doug Beattie, the Ulster Unionist Party leader, has told reporters that he will continue in post “until his colleagues say otherwise”. Currently the results reflect Sinn Fein’s position as the strongest single party even more strongly than before: they have elected 15 MLAs, and no other party has yet more than two.

17.30

  • Douglas Ross isn’t actually having the worst day of the Scottish leaders: not a single candidate for Alba, the separatist group launched by Alex Salmond after his split from the SNP, has been elected.
  • It looks as if the Nationalists will be able to cling on to Glasgow Council, after edging out Labour by a single seat.
  • However, the bad news for the Tories keeps coming: they’ve apparently lost half their seats on Edinburgh Council, and been overtaken by the Greens in the process.
  • Meanwhile in Wales, Plaid Cymru have picked up Anglesey. The corresponding Westminster constituency, Ynys Môn, is currently held by the Conservatives.

17.00

  • In Wales, the Conservatives are now down 28 seats on last time, and Labour up 30. Plaid’s early surge has evened out a little, and they’re only up five seats – although both they and Labour have picked up a council.
  • Scotland has the Tories down 60 seats. Labour are up 17, the Lib Dems 21, the SNP 24, and the Greens 15. This has been a very tough day for Douglas Ross, just one year after he defied expectations to hold every Conservative seat at Holyrood and deny Sturgeon a majority. Ruth Davidson, like my sources in Wales, pins the blame on the national picture.
  • Northern Ireland currently has the following MLA totals: Sinn Fein ten, DUP two, Alliance two, UUP one, Others one. We can only hope that ratio is an artefact of the declarations!

16.30

  • Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP leader, has been elected to the Assembly. However, he apparently won’t commit to resigning his seat at Westminster in order to sit there. Apparently he will meet with DUP officers to decide the ‘best way forward’.
  • Meanwhile the Welsh Conservatives I’m speaking two are giving mixed signals on whether or not they expected things to be this bad (outwith Monmouthshire, which all agree is a surprise). Sources say that events at Westminster have “dominated” the campaign.
  • The latest scores from the BBC have the Conservatives down 22 seats in Wales and 53 in Scotland, with Labour up 28 and 16 respectively.
  • Depressingly, the SNP are up 22 councillors on last time. Whatever one’s stance on the constitutional question, it is extraordinary to see a government performing so badly secure such a result.

15.30

  • The Democratic Unionists have said that “the door is open” to Alex Easton, the Independent Unionist MLA who has topped the poll in North Down. He previously quit the party over a lack of “respect, discipline or decency” in its conduct. This will be significant if the DUP runs Sinn Fein close on the seat count; if Easton would make the different on a Unionist First Minister, the pressure would be immense.
  • Meanwhile early reports of pressure on the smaller parties seem to be holding up, according to the News Letter it looks as if Roy Beggs, a UUP veteran who has served in the Assembly since 1998, may not retain his seat. Mike Nesbitt, their former leader, is also apparently fighting to stay in Stormont in the face of a “TUV surge”.

15.00

  • In yesterday’s column, I reported predictions that Plaid Cymru might have a disappointing day today. It isn’t the case so far – the nationalists are up on seats and have taken overall control of a council.
  • Meanwhile the BBC reports that Vale of Glamorgan, which the Conservatives controlled from 2017 to 2019, is “too close to call”. If they take it, it will make the poor outcome in usually-solid Monmouthshire all the stranger. However, the Tories are apparently facing an uphill battle in the north-east, where they won big in 2019 and have been running several councils in coalition.
  • In Northern Ireland, the Alliance surge continues as the party tops the poll in Strangford, a solidly unionist seat in the east of the Province. They have thus returned the first MLA of 2022.

14.00

  • So far the Scottish results seem good for everyone except the Conservatives (and Independents), with the Nationalists, Labour, Liberal Democrats, and Greens all up on the last election whilst the Tories have lost 21 seats.
  • In Wales, Plaid Cymru have picked up a seat to take overall control of Gwynedd, whilst the Conservatives are now apparently braced for a “convincing defeat” in Monmouthshire.
  • Meanwhile in Northern Ireland, it looks as if Alex Easton, an Independent Unionist and former DUP MLA, is set to top the poll, continuing that constituency’s decades-long habit of returning independent or minor-party representatives.

13.30

  • Yesterday, I mentioned in my column that the forecasts didn’t seem too bad for the Conservatives in Wales. That may have been too optimistic: the BBC reports that David RT Davies fears that Monmouthshire Council – the only one under overall Tory control – is too close to call.
  • More bad news for the Party in Scotland too, where it has so far returned only one of the councillors it returned in Glasgow last time, whilst three have lost their seats.
  • But Wales hasn’t been too kind to Labour either: the leader of Caerphilly Council was unseated in what the BBC has called a “massive defeat”.
  • Scotland continues to be kinder: the party has managed to scoop West Dunbartonshire council from No Overall Control. This is the stomping ground of Jackie Baillie, their combative deputy leader, who’s holding her marginal seat at last year’s Holyrood elections stymied Nicola Sturgeon’s push for an overall majority.

13.00

  • We’re starting to get results in from Scotland, and so far they do seem to bear out the predictions that Labour will come second across the country (every local authority is getting elected today). There has also been good news for the (pro-independence) Scottish Greens, who have posted a couple of “absolutely astonishing” results.
  • Also, a reminder that the implications of the Northern Irish result may be more complex than at first glance: it’s perfectly possible that Sinn Fein could edge out the DUP whilst the overall pro-UK vote holds up better than the nationalist one. Under the original rules of the Belfast Agreement, this would have meant a Unionist would be nominated as First Minister.

12.30

  • So far, the main chatter out of Northern Ireland is about the surge in support for the Alliance Party. This is the party which doesn’t formally designate as either nationalist or unionist and, despite its origins as a ‘liberal unionist’ option, has no official stance on the question of the Province’s sovereignty.
  • This seems to have come not just at the expense of the DUP, who risk getting pipped to second place, but also the smaller Ulster Unionist Party and SDLP; the latter’s deputy leader is reportedly in trouble, and some analysts are suggesting one or both may not even qualify for a post in the next executive.
  • By contrast, the harder-line Traditional Unionist Voice seem to be optimistic about expanding their presence in the Assembly. At present only Jim Allister, their leader and a former DUP MEP, holds a seat.

12.00

Henry Hill reporting.

Good afternoon! The local elections in England are well underway, but there are also local contests in Scotland and Wales and a pivotal election for the Northern Ireland Assembly being counted today. We’ll be bringing you the results as they come in!

  • I did a run-down of what is expected to happen in each nation in yesterday’s Red, White, and Blue column. In sum, it looks as if Labour are going to do well in Scotland and Wales, and the Tories badly in Scotland but OK in Wales. (Recriminations in Scotland are underway, see tweet.)
  • Should the polls be right, Sinn Fein are heading for a historic first-placed win in Northern Ireland, which – thanks to rules changes the DUP agitated for – will give them the right to nominate the strictly titular but symbolically important post of First Minister. I wrote a bit about what this means for Unionism this morning.
  • As for the timings, we’re apparently expecting the first Welsh councils to declare around 2pm (Wales Online has a full list of the timings) and the first Scottish ones at about 12.30 (ditto the Daily Record). Northern Irish results will also start coming in this afternoon.

Henry Hill: As voters go to the polls in Northern Ireland, the DUP is fighting for second

5 May

As voters go to the polls in Northern Ireland today, the last round of projections makes grim reading for the capital-U unionist parties.

The News Letter reports that Sinn Fein is on 26.6 per cent, according to a University of Liverpool survey, with the Democratic Unionists languishing neck-and-neck with the Alliance Party on 18 per cent.

If borne out, this would not only see the republicans comfortably the largest party at Stormont – and thus entitled to nominate the symbolically-important post of First Minister – but could see the border-neutral Alliance as the second-largest party.

This latter point has prompted some to speculate that Naomi Long could be nominated as ‘deputy’ (in reality co-) First Minister. But this is not the case: the right to nominate falls to the largest party in the second largest designation, and there are not many ‘Other’ MLAs outwith the APNI itself.

Indeed, it could yet be that the Unionists remain the largest designation overall, as their vote is divided between three significant parties (the DUP, Ulster Unionists, and Traditional Unionist Voice) versus just two (Sinn Fein and the SDLP) on the nationalist side.

Should this happen, it will see all of unionism paying the price for the DUP/Sinn Fein stitch up of Stormont which New Labour signed off on in 2007. This saw the right to nominate the FM/DFM transferred from the largest and second-largest designation (thus allowing voters to move between parties) to the largest party in each designation, encouraging voters to pile in behind the biggest to keep the other lot out.

This comes amidst the revelation that Sinn Fein has been reaching out to groups linked with dissident republicans in its efforts to secure a border poll. The party apparently wrote to Saoradh, which is allegedly connected to the New IRA – the group linked to the murder in 2019 of the journalist Lyra McKee.

Both the UUP and the TUV meanwhile will be hoping to benefit from a major DUP setback, with the latter’s leader, Jim Allister, apparently hopeful that he won’t be his party’s only MLA in the next assembly.

These polls will also be causing as much discomfort in Whitehall as in DUP headquarters; whilst the working relationship between the Conservatives and the DUP is not what it once was, the Northern Irish Office know that the outcome most likely to lead to the straightforward creation of a new executive is the latter holding on to the top spot and their claim to the First Minister’s fiction.

If not, it could be a long few months for Brandon Lewis as Northern Ireland lurches through the extensive procedures it has for when its government isn’t functioning. These include weeks of delay whilst the previous executive holds on, then another election, and in the last resort direct rule – although this would require emergency legislation at Westminster.

A good night for Labour?

On the mainland, the situation in the local elections seems positive for Labour in both Scotland and Wales. According to Wales Online, the party is on track to pick up four councils in Wales today.

It doesn’t seem to be bad news for the Conservatives though, who are reportedly on track to hold on to the only council they have under overall control (Monmouthshire) and potentially retake control in Vale of Glamorgan too. (We covered in a previous column how the Party is running a record number of candidates.)

Plaid Cymru is predicted to have a bad night, losing 42 seats and control of Carmarthenshire council, where it governs with the help of independents.

In Scotland meanwhile, Labour look set to retake second place as the popularity of senior Conservatives “plummets” in the take of Partygate, the Scotsman reports. Their poll puts the Tories on 18 per cent, with Labour comfortably ahead on 25 per cent.

One expert interviewed by the Times suggests that this will not necessarily lead to many councils changing hands, but will allow Labour to take their claim to being once against Scotland’s second political force.

Meanwhile Douglas Ross seems to have run into difficulty over whether or not the British Government should release its legal advice on the question of another referendum on independence. This comes after the Scottish Government recently lost a transparency case over its own advice, as mentioned in last week’s column.

He has also stuck to his new, conciliatory line on Boris Johnson, insisting the Prime Minister is “fit for office”.

Unfortunately, despite the litany of failures we looked at last week, Scottish politics remains polarised around the constitutional question and the SNP look set to take about 45 per cent of the vote – their losing share in 2014.

The SNP bad news section

A lot to cover with the elections this week so we’ll do a whistle-stop tour: SNP MP apologises after breaking booze ban on ScotRail train; Nichola Sturgeon blames the war in Ukraine for the census fiasco (but insists it won’t delay independence because priorities); she refuses to apologise over the ferry scandal…

*breathe in*

…the Financial Reporting Council announced an investigation into an accountancy firm linked to a steelworks which got a potentially unlawful cash guarantee from the Scottish Government; and an ex-SNP MP accused of defrauding a separatist group of £25,000 has told a court she didn’t keep her receipts (which seems to be a common bad habit amongst the Nationalists).

Why the Government might pass a special law to override the Northern Irish Protocl

22 Apr

What are we to make of this morning’s report in the FT that the Government is preparing to table legislation that will allow it to unilaterally overrule the provisions of the Northern Irish Protocol?

From the source, we are probably safe venturing the conclusion that this isn’t something either Boris Johnson or Liz Truss wanted in the public domain; Peter Foster surely graces neither’s list of favoured journalists.

That alone is reason to give it more credit than we might otherwise. The Government has, after all, developed an unhappy habit of intermittently talking tough on Ulster but never following it up with the long-trailed triggering of Article 16.

A (spectre of a) special Bill to reassert Westminster’s jurisdiction over Northern Ireland is precisely the sort of red meat the Prime Minister has a track record of throwing out in times of trouble.

Whether or not one would actually materialise, or it would end up in the same file as the bridge from Scotland, is another question.

Regardless, if it does proceed this proposal would mark an escalation on London’s part.

Contrary to the spluttered objections of its critics, triggering Article 16 would not actually be ‘tearing up’ the Protocol. On the contrary, Article 16 is part of the Protocol. “Honour what you signed cuts both ways”; the EU cannot credibly claim it negotiated a set of safeguards but they must under no circumstances be actually used.

Passing fresh legislation, on the other hand, fits the charge. This doesn’t mean that ministers would necessarily use their powers to scrap the whole thing; enabling legislation would just as easily empower Truss, Brandon Lewis, or whomever else to make the sort of carefully-targeted interventions on grace periods that have comprised the Government’s strategy to date.

But even so, it would certainly elicit retaliatory action from Brussels, putting further pressure on the ports and threatening to exacerbate food supply issues just as the cost-of-living crisis is starting to bite in earnest.

So why pursue such a course without even triggering Article 16? Whitehall sources make two points. First, Article 16 does not provide for setting aside every problematic aspect of the Protocol; second, activating it ultimately puts the Government’s response at the mercy of a third-party mediation process.

Fresh statute, by contrast, would put any interventions on a much stronger legal (which is not the same as political) footing. Parliament is sovereign; it can legislate to override or resile from treaties if it so wishes.

As one Foreign Office source put it: the Government’s highest duties must be protecting the United Kingdom’s territorial integrity and upholding the Belfast Agreement, which is coming under mounting strain right now. The issue has, as feared, come to dominate the Assembly elections; loyalist disaffection with the peace process has yet to turn deadly, but might yet.

Ministers have, furthermore, been clear that the threshold for unilateral action was reached months ago.

They also point out that there are no parties in Northern Ireland prepared to defend the Protocol in toto; even the Alliance Party have been forced into am embarrassing retreat from their previous insistence on “rigorous implementation”.

However, neither they nor the nationalist parties have been pressed for much detail on what precisely they want to happen. If they accept that the Protocol needs to change, and the EU refuses to change it, the corollary is that, at some point, London takes action.

Which brings us brings us back to the question of whether or not this Bill will come to pass. As noted above, anybody who has followed this issue over the past couple of years will be forgiven for being cynical.

But small boats was another issue on which the Government has long talked loudly and carried a small stick; today we have the Rwanda policy. Perhaps this ministry has not quite so thoroughly exhausted its capacity for action as it usually appears.

Henry Hill: The Conservatives are targeting one seat in this year’s Stormont elections

31 Mar

The Conservatives have not been returned to represent Northern Ireland since the Ulster Unionists gradually withdrew from the Party in the 1970s and 1980s. But they once came close.

In 1992, Dr Laurence Kennedy won more than 14,000 votes in the constituency of North Down, placing second behind James Kilfedder, the long-term independent and later Popular Unionist incumbent.

Alas, the rest of the decade treated the Tories no more kindly in Ulster than elsewhere. By the time of the 1995 by-election the moment had definitely passed; even though the seat returned an integrationist (Robert McCartney of the UK Unionist Party), the Tory vote slumped to just 583 votes.

Since then, the Party’s general election vote has seldom strayed above triple digits. But North Down remains the place where a breakthrough for the NI Conservatives seems most likely. It compasses a prosperous part of the Province and, with a negligible nationalist vote, is perhaps the seat where conditions are most like those on the mainland.

Moreover, it has a long history of going its own way, returning a string of either independents or MPs from one-MP parties, from Kilfedder and McCartney to Lady Sylvia Hermon and, most recently, Stephen Farry of the Alliance. It also returned a few Tory councillors once upon a time.

This seems to be why the Party has decided to focus all its efforts on North Down in this year’s Stormont elections.

From what ConservativeHome has been told, there will not this year be the usual slate of paper candidates. Instead the only Tory candidate in May will be Matt Robinson.

Robinson fought the Westminster constituency in 2019, where he picked up almost 2,000 votes – the Conservatives’ best showing as an independent force since Kennedy’s in 1992. It almost certainly won’t be enough to pick up an MLA slot – the last-placed winner in 2017 received over 5,000 first preference votes. But name recognition ought to allow him to exceed the 641 picked up by the Tory in that contest.

Not everyone thinks contesting this year’s Assembly elections is a good use of resources; some would prefer that local activists started laying the groundwork now for next year’s council elections. But the broad plan seems to be the same: focus on one seat and work it over the long term.

It will be interesting to see if the NI Conservatives have the discipline to stick to such a strategy: it is very easy for small organisations to get dragged off course by demands for ego-salving candidacies and literature runs.

But having squandered the chance to short-cut their way into the Assembly via defections during the NI21 debacle, it is the right approach. Such seat-by-seat discipline is, for example, a big part of why reason why the Conservatives managed to rebuild their local government position in Salford whilst remaining on zero councillors in neighbouring Manchester.

Either way, we wish Matthew the very best of luck.

Henry Hill: Without progress on the Protocol, ministers must be more sensitive to unionist concerns

24 Mar

Given that the Russo-Ukrainian war has led the Government to spike once again any plans to trigger Article 16, ministers ought to be striving to avoid any step which needlessly needles unionist sensitivities in the run-up to the Stormont elections in May.

Unfortunately, there have been several such stories in recent weeks. And whilst some are not really the Government’s fault – such as the Palace deciding to cut the number of days the Union Jack should be flown on official buildings in Northern Ireland – the Treasury is shaping up as the worst offender.

First there was that amendment that tried to replace ‘United Kingdom’ with ‘Great Britain’ in customs legislation. Liz Truss spiked it, and has apparently ordered an investigation into how it got so far through the process without adequate political attention. But others in Whitehall suggest it is very unlikely that it didn’t get some sort of sign-off, not least within the Treasury itself.

Now we have unionist anger at Northern Ireland’s exclusion from Rishi Sunak’s new cut on VAT for households installing energy-efficiency measures. Under the terms of the Protocol, Ulster is bound to follow the European Union’s VAT rules. Whilst the Assembly will receive £47 million in extra cash, this hasn’t stopped the main pro-UK parties uniting to attack this latest evidence of the Withdrawal Agreement hiving Ulster off from the rest of the country.

Nor is this the last such story coming down the track. Officials are reportedly questioning whether or not the Government has the necessary powers to fund the Castlereagh Foundation, a research organisation promised to unionists as part of the ‘New Decade, New Approach’ deal negotiated by Julian Smith. It was quite a small sop to a very angry group, so failure to deliver it would send a terrible signal.

(Of course, the Government very much does have the necessary legal authority: Section 50 of the UK Internal Market Act authorises additional central spending in the devolved territories for a very broad range of reasons, including education. But apparently the Department for Levelling Up, Housing, and Communities is trying to set itself up as the gatekeeper of when other departments make use of UKIMA and dislikes them so doing.)

Terror threat level in Northern Ireland falls

But it isn’t all bad news. For the first time in twelve years, the terror threat level in Northern Ireland has been cut. According to an independent assessment by MI5, it has been reduced from ‘Severe’ to ‘Substantial’.

This doesn’t mean the threat has gone away completely. ‘Substantial’ still means that an attack is “likely” and could happen without further warning.

But it is a welcome bit of good news for a Province which too often only crosses the radar of people on the mainland in the context of danger and dysfunction.

It is first and foremost a testament to the efficacy of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, for example by finding and prosecuting those responsible for the 2019 murder by republicans of the journalist Lyra McKee.

Then there has been the great success of Operation Arbacia, a major investigation into the ‘New IRA’: ten members arrested in an Ireland-wide police operation in 2020; four arrested in connection with dissident republican activity last March; the recapture of an on-the-run NIRA leader.

There have also been some successes against loyalist groups, although in recent years these have tended to focus more on gangsterism than organised political violence.

Henry Hill: Frost’s proposal to unlock the Protocol negotiations. Has London given Brussels reason to bite?

17 Mar

In a recent Churchill Lecture to the Europainstitut at Zürich University, David Frost suggested that the UK take it off the table in exchange for the EU committing to renegotiate the Protocol.

He also warned that if this didn’t happen then London might actually end up triggering it, and outlined what this would entail – cue the predictable pearl-clutching in the usual quarters, how dare a British politician take a view on Northern Ireland, etc.

However, his speech comes as the Government backs away yet again from taking any action. The timing is awkward; Frost proposes taking Article 16 off the table just as the Government lets another internal deadline go by without triggering it.

Admittedly the immediate grounds for backing off are much stronger this time, with the Russo-Ukrainian war putting a high premium on a Euro-British détente.

Yet the broader context is that ministers have now more than once talked up some sort of deadline for the negotiations, only to let it sail past, whilst the fundamentals – that London’s red lines and Brussels’ don’t overlap – haven’t changed.

Little wonder either that Unionists in Ulster are losing faith that action will be taken, especially with the Treasury unhelpfully trying (another bit of bad timing) to carve the Province out of old customs legislation.

Regardless, the decision to hold fire once again means the Protocol is likely to dominate the upcoming Stormont elections, which both London and Dublin had been keen to avoid, and is unlikely to help with Stormont’s stability over the next few months. Which brings us back to Frost’s speech, wherein he says:

“On the EU side, it means getting real about a Northern Ireland Protocol that is now unworkable because of the events of last year. If the Protocol isn’t redone then the poison between us will remain. Northern Irish politics is in a downward spiral that is shaking the foundations of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement and the peace process. It’s in everyone’s interests to deal with that, and the EU will not escape its share of the responsibility if things go wrong.”

On the UK side, he suggests several moves the Government could make to try and induce the Europeans to act. First, as mentioned above, would be to take Article 16 off the table “for now”. Second, taking a more generous approach to “mobility issues” facing tourists, musicians, and young people post-Brexit. Third, engage in finding a new way to cooperate on security issues. He then warns:

“If we can’t put something like this together, I can’t see how we will avoid Article 16 to stabilise the situation in Northern Ireland, and things will remain fractious. But more importantly we will then come to a difficult moment in 2024 when three things happen – the consent vote on the Protocol, the decision whether to invoke the Article 411 rebalancing clause, and, probably, the UK General Election.”

An optimistic assessment of what’s going on here is that Frost is simply continuing the strategy he pursued when he was in charge of the negotiations: making the British position look as reasonable as possible, in order to maximise the chances of London winning the inevitable arbitration over Article 16. A pessimistic assessment would simply note that the date of reckoning seems to have been pushed all the way back to 2024.

Which brings us back to what seems to be the persistent problem with the Government’s approach to the negotiations: taking Article 16 off the table is only a useful bargaining chip if the other side believe you’ll use it. And London has given Brussels little reason, thus far, to believe it will.

Henry Hill: Johnson talks tough on the Protocol, but does he mean it?

10 Feb

Johnson talks tough on the Northern Irish Protocol

Earlier this week, I explained that the now-or-never moment for triggering Article 16 is coming, whether the Government likes it or not. The Democratic Unionists’ decision to walk out of Stormont has increased the pressure on Liz Truss and Maroš Šefčovič to find a solution, but there still doesn’t seem to be a realistic landing zone for a deal.

If terms can’t be reached, with the devolved institutions on their knees and the Ulster elections looming, even a strategy based on being seen to bend over backwards to try and find a solution will run out of road. Either the Government will avail itself of the dispute mechanism in the treaty, or it will be clear to all it never will.

As ever, the crucial factor here is Boris Johnson’s position. One question hanging over Lord Frost’s departure is the extent to which it was driven by the Prime Minister not giving him sufficient support to make triggering Article 16, and facing down the backlash from the European Union.

Yesterday, in a response to a question in the Commons from Ian Paisley Jr, Johnson reiterated his willingness to do to so, saying: “I believe we can fix it but if our friends don’t show the requisite common sense then of course we will trigger Article 16.”

He also said that the Province’s peace settlement is “being upset” by the Protocol. This point is surely increasingly difficult to dispute; in addition to the DUP walking out of the Executive, this week also saw the news that street rallies and direct protests against the Sea Border are set to resume. This will only further amp up the pressure on unionist politicians in the run-up to May’s elections.

But actually triggering Article 16, and winning the subsequent dispute, means the UK needs a comprehensive contingency plan in place for weathering Brussels’ retaliation. It is difficult to believe that sort of detailed work, requiring the Prime Minister’s imprimatur, has been ticking along over the past few weeks whilst he has been fighting for his political life.

As England plans to scrap restrictions, Drakeford catches Covid

This morning’s Daily Mail reports that Johnson has urged Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon to join him in setting aside coronavirus restrictions early. Yet in Scotland the First Minister has announced her plans to keep the measures on the books for months yet, whilst in Wales the master of the absurd regulation has contracted the virus himself, which seems unlikely to push him towards a more relaxed approach.

Such enthusiasm on the part of the devolved administrations is, alas, par for the course. In fact, true to the adage that there is nothing so permanent as a temporary solution at the start of the month the SNP came in for fierce criticism over ‘power grab’ proposals which would seen the Scottish Government hold on to its emergency powers indefinitely.

Legacy Bill could create pathway to prosecuting terrorists who refuse to cooperate

According to the Daily Telegraph, Brandon Lewis is considering modifications to the upcoming Legacy Bill to create more scope for prosecuting terrorists for crimes committed during the Troubles if they don’t cooperate with the authorities.

The Bill has been stalled following fierce objections from military veterans and victims’ organisations; unionist commentators believe that the legacy arrangements are being systematically stacked against British forces, with the actions of terrorist groups receiving much less scrutiny.

Under the proposals, a new South Africa-style independent body would be established to investigate deaths without an actual police inquiry. But as originally drafted, ex-servicemen would be compelled to testify whilst paramilitaries could simply not turn up.

So the Secretary of State is “is considering strengthening powers in the Bill to force terror suspects to participate in hearings into hundreds of unsolved murders during the Troubles”, the paper reports.

In related news, several retired officers of the Royal Ulster Constabulary are hinting at legal action against the Police Ombudsman over its claims that elements of the force actively collaborated in several loyalist attacks.

Sturgeon admits Scotland would pay its own pensions

In a sign that the SNP are still nowhere close to delivering a realistic and attractive prospectus for breaking up the UK, Ian Blackford this week tried to sell Scottish pensioners on the idea that the rest of the UK would continue to pay their state pensions in the event of independence.

Sturgeon tried to muddy the waters by saying that it would be up for negotiation along with other “historic assets and liabilities”. Except there is no National Insurance fund to serve as an asset over which a new Scottish state could stake a claim; it’s a fiction.

However, whilst throwing out that chaff the First Minister did admit that responsibility for paying out on Scottish pensions would fall to the Scottish state, in what the Spectator dubbed “a tacit rebuke” of the man who leads her MPs at Westminster. A poor showing for a once-formidable operation.