Lewis confirms a truth-and-reconciliation approach to legacy issues in Ulster

17 May

Earlier this month, we reported that the Government seemed to be leaning towards “an approach which prioritises ‘truth and understanding’ over increasingly hail-Mary shots at securing criminal justice” for legacy issues in Northern Ireland.

This seemed likely to involve a trade-off, whereby individuals received immunity from prosecution if they offered honest testimony to future investigations into historic offences from the Troubles.

And lo, this morning Politico reports that Brandon Lewis has adopted just such an approach:

“…ex-combatants from all factions will be shielded from civil or criminal action only if they give honest and fulsome accounts to a new body called the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery.”

This follow’s Boris Johnson’s essay in the Belfast Telegraph (which we looked at this morning) in which he wrote that:

“But the 1998 Agreement bestows other commitments on the British Government that go beyond its position as a co-guarantor. One of those is to take difficult decisions: to assume a burden of responsibility, and indeed unpopularity, when consensus cannot be reached.”

Taken together, this suggests that the Government is resolved to press ahead with this version of its legacy proposals even if, as seems very likely, local parties in Northern Ireland continue to object. This is fine; London is if anything normally far too reluctant to “assume the burden of responsibility” for good government in Ulster.

As we wrote in our initial report, there is a trade-off here. The offer of immunity means that people will lose any prospect of securing justice in a court of law, even if that prospect has become an increasingly spectral one as time marches on.

But in exchange, we might be able to set the historical record straight before an increasingly elderly cohort of ex-servicemen and former terrorists take the evidence to the grave.

(It remains an open question whether the terrorists, at least the republican ones, will actually cooperate with a structure set up by the British Government. But if the end result is the IRA opting out of immunity, I don’t suppose many people in Westminster will be too upset.)

Henry Hill: Truss may struggle to persuade Brussels that the threat of action on the Protocol is real this time

12 May

Anyone who has followed the row over the Northern Irish Protocol for the past several years surely cannot help but be deeply wary of any suggestion that the Government might be actually about to do something about it.

For than once, Whitehall sources have strongly suggested that if talks hadn’t progressed by this or that date, ministers would have no choice but to trigger Article 16, only for the deadlines to come and go with no change.

A week ago, it looked as if this latest round of sabre-rustling was following a similar course.

Following an (almost-certainly hostile) leak of Liz Truss’s plans for special legislation to override the Protocol, Brandon Lewis seemed to pour cold water on the idea when he ruled it out of the Queen’s Speech. And indeed, no such Bill appeared therein.

But days afterwards, the Government has marched itself much further up the hill than ever before. The Daily Telegraph reports that Truss has set a deadline not weeks or months away, but of just 72 hours.

And today Suella Braverman, the Attorney General, has apparently received legal advice to the effect that it would be legal for the Government to overrule parts of the Protocol.

This is probably less seismic than it might sound, not least because, in the British system, Parliament can already legislate to whatever effect it pleases, so long as the Bill is properly drafted. Although this can be more or less in line with our international commitments, those do not trump its sovereign law-making power.

But more seriously because the main barriers to this course of action aren’t legal, but practical and diplomatic. A Bill of the sort apparently being drawn up by the Foreign Office would provide a locus for opposition in the House of Commons and likely provoke retaliation from Brussels. And a trade war would do nothing to ease the cost-of-living crisis.

This is the case even if, as has been suggested to me, the form of the legislation would not be to directly set aside aspects of the Protocol but to empower the Secretary of State to do so, basically creating a sounder legal footing for future carefully-targeted interventions such as the Government’s unilateral extension of grace periods.

(It is worth remembering that all the current problems with the Protocol are those arising whilst the United Kingdom is quietly refusing to implement significant parts of it. It would otherwise be even worse.)

Does the Government have sufficient will for this fight? It certainly seems to have got its allies in the press on board: “let’s destroy the myth that the EU’s priority in Northern Ireland is peace”, says this morning’s Sun.

But it is still far from clear that sufficient preparatory work has been done, either to ready the economy for the impact of a ‘trade war’ with the EU.

Nor to make the case for London’s (legitimate) interpretation of the Belfast Agreement, which does not mandate an invisible border on the island of Ireland but does guarantee Northern Ireland’s constitutional status, which certainly changed when key provisions of the Act of Union guaranteeing unfettered commerce were overridden by the legislation enacting the Protocol.

Still, there are reasons why the Government might think this strategy might work. The EU has not proven entirely unwilling to alter its rules in relation to the Protocol, and did so to resolve the row over medicines.

And having operated the grace periods for so long, London can reasonably ask Brussels where the evidence is for the dangerous distortions of the Single Market which allegedly loomed if British sausages were allowed to flow freely into Northern Ireland. They have been so flowing for two years. Where is the damage?

It is telling that in all the acres of coverage about the consequences of Truss’s plan, nobody seems to be suggesting that Ireland would be forced out of the Single Market. Yet if the EU truly believed the Protocol was necessary to safeguard its economy, and that London was prepared to tear it up, that would surely be on the cards.

Regardless, we will apparently know in less than a week whether or not the Government is serious this time. A 72-hour deadline doesn’t leave you with many places to hide.

The Northern Irish legacy legislation. There will be no amnesty. But will there be a statute of limitations?

4 May

Last year, we wrote about how and why Conservative MPs were putting pressure on the Northern Irish Office to expand protections for ex-servicemen to cover veterans of the conflict in Ulster.

This campaign has not gone away. In December, Mark Francois called on Brandon Lewis to resign over the Government’s failure to bring forward legislation to end prosecutions; just last month protesters ‘blockaded’ the NIO because several former soldiers are facing fresh prosecutions with no new evidence.

Yet the weight may finally be over: early in April the Secretary of State indicated that there would be developments “within weeks”, and the Times reported that “the British government is believed to be close to finalising legislative proposals on so-called legacy killings”. Meanwhile, Leo Docherty told the Daily Telegraph that:

“I’m pleased to say, we expect from the Northern Ireland Office a bill that will give closure to veterans of (Operation) Banner, of whom there are some 300,000. We expect this bill to give closure with honour and finality and I expect that to come forward very soon.”

What is not yet clear is what form it will take. A straightforward amnesty is deeply unpopular on all sides in Northern Ireland.

There is also anger amongst unionists that existing legacy structures are perceived to disproportionately target state security personnel whilst former terrorists enjoy de facto amnesties. We reported last month that Lewis is planning new legislation that will make it clear that New Labour’s controversial ‘comfort letters’ scheme has no basis in law.

He offered an indication as to his line of thought in this report from the Derry Journal:

“When you move through a process that isn’t driven by a prosecution but which is driven by an investigation to get to the truth on a balance of probabilities like the coronial courts then you are seeing people able to get to the truth and to get an understanding”.

Lewis in the same piece emphasises that a statute of limitations does not mean that historical investigations will cease:

“One of the things I think that gets slightly misread in terms of the Command Paper we published last summer is that, yes, it does outline a statute of limitations as a sort of foundation to develop a wider package….I need to be really clear about this – we will continue investigations.”

He specifically references the inquiry into the Ballymurphy massacre, and how difficult it was to get “some recognition of the truth and understanding of what happened” in that case. In the end, the judge-led inquiry took evidence from over 150 witnesses, including “more than 60 former soldiers”, according to the BBC.

Taken together, this suggests the Government may be planning an approach which prioritises ‘truth and understanding’ over increasingly hail-Mary shots at securing criminal justice.

After all, as the Secretary of State has pointed out, nature sets its own statute of limitations: time passes, mortals age, and many of those involved may not be with us for too much longer. Lifting the threat of prosecution may encourage people to engage with ongoing investigations and ensure that victims and their families get at least the truth, if not justice.

Whether or not this will make unionists or nationalists happy is another question.

But it perhaps ought not to be the decisive one. This may be yet another area where a toxic political dynamic suits many of the local players even as it fails to serve the long-term interests of Northern Ireland as a whole. As the author Brian Rowan said of amnesty proposals:

“If we don’t go there, then we aren’t going to have a legacy process and with the wars over, we’re going to spend the next 30 years fighting the peace”.

For so long as it remains part of the United Kingdom, the Government is ultimately responsible for ensuring that Ulster receives not only peace, but order and good government. It cannot content itself with being a sort of constitutional child-minder. If Lewis thinks his proposals (whatever their final shape) are in the best interests of the Province, he should enact them.

Our Cabinet League Table. Wallace top again, Patel up, Johnson down – and Sunak in the red

25 Apr
  • This is Ben Wallace’s third table-topping month (with 85 points his rating has barely moved), and a pattern is beginning to form below him – as Liz Truss, Nadhim Zahawi and Anne-Marie Trevelyan come in variously at second, third and fourth (with scores in the mid to low sixties).  Both the first of those and now the second are being written up as potential leadership candidates.
  • Priti Patel was bottom of the table last month on -17 points, having languished at the lower end of it for some time – not least because of the small boats issue.  The Government now has a policy to deal with it, and her rating consequently jumps to 31 points, near the middle of the table.
  • Boris Johnson was in the same zone last month, having been in negative ratings for the previous three, and is now back down again – third from bottom.  Ukraine will have pushed him up last month; partygate will have pulled him down this. But the driver of his low scores is that the Government is too left-wing, at least in the view of many activists.
  • Rishi Sunak plunged last month to third from bottom in the wake of the Spring Statement (on plus eight points).  He drops to last place this month, coming in at minus five points, in the wake of the furore about his wife’s tax affairs and former non-dom status.  It is perhaps surprising that his fall isn’t larger; it may even be that the worst is behind him – in this table at least.

Our Cabinet League Table. Sunak plunges to third from bottom.

4 Apr
  • Last September, I reported that Dominic Raab had plummeted third from top in July to fourth from bottom in our Cabinet League Table.  Today, he is back to sixth from top, having worked his way out of the relegation zone.
  • I write this to offer comfort to enthusiasts for Rishi Sunak, who was eleventh last month, but now finds himself plunged to third from bottom, in the wake of a Spring Statement with which the majority of our panel is dissatisfied.
  • Having managed the table for a long time, I know that what goes down can come up again – and vice-versa.  Our respondents are very knowing, and many use the table as a form of running commentary rather than a means of permanent judgement.
  • At the top, the changes are very marginal, with Steve Barclay’s fall of nine points from 64 to 55, and drop from second to fifth, being the largest movement in the top ten – and it’s not a very large one in the great scheme of events.
  • At the bottom, Priti Patel falls into negative ratings after a month’s bad headlines over Ukrainian refugees.  The Home Office is so permanently troubled that it’s hard to see her moving up towards the comfort of mid-table in the near future.
  • Meanwhile, Boris Johnson is out of negative ratings, where he had been for three months running, and into the middle of the table.  This is at once an impressive recovery from where he was and a lacklustre rating given his position as Prime Minister.
  • Johnson will undoubtedly have gained from his handling of the Ukraine, which received an overwhelming thumbs up from our panel.  Ninety-three per cent took a positive view of it and 58 per cent a negative one of Sunak’s Spring Statement.

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.

Our Cabinet League Table: Johnson falls to his lowest ever negative rating.

28 Dec
  • Perhaps the only good news for Boris Johnson is that his score, woeful as it is, is nowhere near as dire as that of Theresa May in the spring of 2019 – when she broke the survey’s unpopularity record, coming in at a catastophic -75 points.
  • Nonetheless, this is the Prime Minister’s second consecutive month in negative ratings, his third altogether, and his lowest total of the lot.  The explanation? Parties, competence, Covid restrictions, Paterson, taxes and Net Zero, not necessarily in that order.
  • Nadine Dorries is down from fourth (plus 61) to mid-table sixteenth (plus 25), Michael Gove from twelfth to sixth from bottom (plus 43 to plus 16) , and Sajid Javid from eighth to twelfth (plus 54 to plus 29). All are associated with support for Covid restrictions.
  • Mark Spencer stays in the red and Priti Patel inches into it: in her case, the explanation is “small boats”. Liz Truss is top again, Ben Wallace is up from second to fifth, and Anne-Marie Trevelyan and Nadhim Zahawi are scoring well. Generally, there’s a drift down.