Why Poots has departed and what it means

19 Jun

It has been driven off the front pages by last night’s shock result in Chesham, but across the water the Democratic Unionist Party is in the process of thoroughly beclowning itself.

Edwin Poots, who only three weeks ago orchestrated a coup against Arlene Foster, has resigned – but not before putting forward his protege, Paul Givan, to be First Minister.

As a result, the post is now held by a man who’s CV largely consists of different ways to say ‘worked for Poots’, and the only way to get rid of him is for him to resign. But Poots is gone, and the DUP are now in the process of electing yet another new leader.

Where does this leave those who felt that “splitting the role of party leader risked “demeaning the office” of first minister”? Who knows.

As I explained a couple of weeks ago, all this has consequences beyond what’s left of the DUP’s dignity. The whole fiasco seems to have put Northern Ireland’s devolved system on life support. Again.

Why? Well, Sinn Fein had been threatening to collapse the institutions (again) over Givan’s nomination as First Minister, due to his opposition to an Irish Language Act. Or rather, opposition to having to pass one. Poots was entirely quite content to constitute an executive if Westminster passed the offending legislation instead.

So Brandon Lewis stepped up and said the Government would do just that. At which point elements of the DUP pointed out, not wrongly, that this was effectively a total capitulation on the substance by Poots, in exchange for a mere face-saving measure. So they teamed up with allies of Sir Jeffrey Donaldson to bring him down.

Perhaps Sir Jeffrey will get to be leader now. Perhaps not.

How long must this cycle continue before we start to have a serious conversation about the fact that Northern Irish devolution manifestly doesn’t work? How many more times will the Secretary of State let one party or the other knock Stormont over and insist on getting bribed back into it before deciding enough is enough?

The aftermath of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal has exposed serious and systemic failures in now Ulster has been governed. If Lewis or his successor were prepared to grasp the nettle, even for a couple of years, they could do a lot of good: introduce delayed legislation, drive through reforms, integrate the Northern Irish Civil Service into the Home Civil Service, and much more besides. A chance to demonstrate to local voters the value of being part of the UK.

In many ways, Northern Ireland is coming to embody the problems with the ‘devo-max’ model that Luke Graham, the former head of the Union Unit, recently warned against. If a woeful devolution model is so deeply entrenched that Westminster can’t correct it, the utility of the British connection is hugely reduced. Then parties which don’t want the Province to work are free to disrupt it, holding out a ‘united Ireland’ as the only alternative.

Maybe the DUP and Sinn Fein will talk their way through this crisis. It is hard to care. We’ll surely be back here again soon enough. The cycle will continue for as long as Westminster is prepared to enable it.

Iain Dale: Very little shocks me. But Cummings’ text message reveal was truly disgusting and morally bankrupt.

18 Jun

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

Negotiating a deal with the DUP and Sinn Féin can’t be anyone’s idea of a dream job, but Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary has enabled it to happen in record time. I’ve no idea how he did it, given the personalities involved, but however it happened, it surely has to be welcomed by everyone across the political spectrum, both in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Let’s hope it lasts.

However, with the resignation of Edwin Poots as leader of the DUP after only three weeks last night, it’s entirely possible that the new First Minister, Paul Givan – an ally of Poots – might feel duty bound to fall on his sword too. My instinct is that Sir Jeffrey Donaldson is likely to be the next DUP leader and he’s on record saying that he thinks the same person should hold both posts.

The elections to Stormont next year are certainly going to be interesting. Between now and then the whole sorry situation with the Northern Ireland Protocol has to be sorted. Surely a piece of cake for a man who negotiated a power sharing agreement! Sorry, Brandon.

– – – – – – – – –

Anyone who has worked in politics will have some fairly fruity exchanges in historic texts on their mobile phone. I certainly have built up a whole library over the years, although it has to be said mine tend to be in emails rather than texts. My former colleagues at Biteback would regularly suggest we published a volume of my “special emails”. I well remember one to Michael Winner, where I basically told him never to speak to any of my staff again, after he called our young female PR assistant a “c***” on the phone.

One suspects he would have got on well with Dominic Cummings. Very little shocks me, but to reveal text exchanges with the Prime Minister like he has is truly disgusting. Morally it’s bankrupt, ethically it stinks. You can argue a public interest point all you like, but it is still wrong. If ministers can’t communicate confidentially with their advisers, how can they possibly do their jobs properly?

In the end, if Cummings thought the Prime Minister was so useless, why did he stay in his job? I’m sure there are many valid things Cummings has to say, but actions like this undermines any remaining credibility he enjoys. Mind you, he undermined himself earlier this week when he informed us we would have to pay to his Substack account (or should that be Shelfstack?) if we wanted the full unvarnished details of his thoughts on this, that and everything. Again, morally bankrupt.

– – – – – – – – –

From a PR and organisational viewpoint the G7 was an unalloyed success. The pictures that emerged from it were simply outstanding. Whoever had the idea to hold the summit in Cornwall, and whoever did the “advance” work deserves a medal at the very least. The backdrops to virtually every event were breathtaking, and will have done the Cornish tourism industry a huge amount of good in the medium term.

Substantively, I’m not sure the summit achieved a huge amount behind the things which had been agreed in advance. The media were desperate to ramp up a row over the Northern Ireland Protocol, and Macron did his best to help them, but it never really materialised. Joe Biden showed he was the adult in the room by not playing ball, and avoided playing up to his voters of Irish descent in the US.

The Irish lobby in Congress is something to behold and you have to filter anything the American government says on Ireland through that prism. The Irish embassy in Washington DC is one of the most powerful influences on US administrations of both colours. Rhetoric on Ireland on Capitol Hill doesn’t always match the reality of the US government’s position.

– – – – – – – – –

The issue of vaccines in care homes is one that has gradually risen in prominence up the news agenda, and rightly so. I cannot for the life of me understand how a care professional would not take a vaccine which by definition reduces the risk for the people they care for of getting Covid or dying from it.

Vaccines can never be 100 per cent effective, so no one can ever be completely protected. In a phone-in on Wednesday I spoke to a care home owner in Bournemouth who said that 60 per cent of her staff hadn’t had the vaccine and she wasn’t remotely bothered. Astonishing. She said proper PPE was far more important and it wasn’t up to her to persuade her staff to take a vaccine, it was up to the Government.

I’m afraid she got the rough edge of my tongue. For me it comes down to something very simple. If I had a close relative in a care home, I would not want them being cared for by someone who hadn’t been vaccinated. I don’t think that’s unreasonable. And for that reason I support mandatory vaccinations for care home workers.

Henry Hill: Could the fallout from the Protocol yet split the DUP?

10 Jun

Whilst Joe Biden’s ham-fisted intervention in the debate over the Protocol has stolen the headlines, the ramifications of the sea border for Northern Irish politics – and particularly Unionist politics – are still working themselves out.

The Democratic Unionists are in an invidious position. They need to simultaneously try and keep the Province’s ever-fragile institutions on the road, whilst also staunching a loss of support to the hard-line Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) over the Protocol.

Edwin Poots, their new leader, seems to have adopted a double-headed strategy by declining to become First Minister. Instead he is taking a tough line, calling on the Government to ‘unilaterally protect Northern Ireland’ in the event that Brussels won’t make the necessary concessions.

This could free up Paul Givan, the party’s candidate for the First Minister’s office, to strike a tone closer to that of Paul Frew, the new Economy Minister, whom the Belfast Telegraph reports talking up the DUP’s willingness to overlook Sinn Fein’s IRA links and lockdown breaches for the sake of governing.

Whether or not this will work remains to be seen. Sinn Fein have already threatened to block Givan’s appointment unless Poots offers a “cast iron” guarantee of an Irish Language Act. This immediately highlights how the new First Minister’s fate will not rest in his own hands. This impression is only bolstered by his CV: Givan started out as a part-time assistant in Poots’ constituency office, and later served him as a special adviser.

For his part, Brandon Lewis has criticised the new double-headed arrangement. Speaking to the News Letter, the Secretary of State pointed out that all the official structures for consulting between London and Belfast focused on devolved office-holders, not behind-the-scenes party leaders.

Nor is it obvious that Poots’ grip on the DUP is as secure as it might be. He has moved to secure his position with a dramatic purge of Arlene Foster’s top team. Whilst this has presumably produced a new one more loyal to himself, senior figures left outside the tent have attacked his failure to reach out. Taken alongside Jeffrey Donaldson’s claim that the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) threatened his leadership campaign, and it doesn’t seem entirely beyond the realm of possibility that the DUP might split.

If the Conservative Party is as serious as it sometimes says it is about making Ulster’s position in the Union work, it ought to be giving serious consideration to whether a potential split could give it another opportunity to try and offer a better alternative to the Province’s pro-UK voters. There will be understandable reluctance following the failure of the party’s alliance with the Ulster Unionists in 2010, but it ought to be a central feature of Tory unionism that British citizens in Northern Ireland deserve equal citizenship and a chance to vote for the parties of government.

Notwithstanding that, there is also a serious danger that if the party can’t secure its position as unionism’s dominant party, the split vote at the next Stormont election might leave Sinn Fein the largest party. Doubtless there is a wing of the DUP that would be prepared to install Michelle O’Neill as First Minister for the sake of getting to be ministers, but such a move would risk another backlash from unionist voters already angry over the Protocol.

If there are enough of them, the unionist parties might refuse to form an Executive – and unlike previous collapses, which were largely about getting Westminster to make hard decisions or stump up more money, this time it might not come back. Is Lewis prepared to do what his predecessors would not, and actually govern Northern Ireland?

Henry Hill: ‘Great British Railways’ must be far more than an English franchise reorganisation

20 May

One hallmark of the Government’s approach to the constitutional struggle to hold the United Kingdom together has been a recognition that pro-Union policy is not simply a matter for a single department: it needs to run throughout the business of the State.

This includes transport, with the first ‘Union Connectivity Review’ being published earlier this year. It highlighted different ways in which Westminster could invest in Britain’s strategic transport network to better-integrate the nation.

And it that light it is intriguing that Ministers have decided to take a step back towards a national rail network with the launch of ‘Great British Railways’ (GBR).

On the face of it, this is primarily a reorganisation of the franchise system in England – control over passenger franchises in Scotland and Wales is, alas, devolved. Most of the coverage has focused on this.

But the move still opens up some possibilities which Michael Gove and the rest of the Government’s Union strategy team should consider.

For example, GBR will apparently inherit from Network Rail the duty to “run and plan the network, as well as providing online tickets, information and compensation for passengers nationwide.” This opens up the possibility of a national ticketing app, with the Great British Railways branding.

Then there’s the question of livery. At present, train operators get to decorate their rolling stock in their own colours. But there’s no particular reason this should be. It’s not as if they need the advertising, nor do their brands carry the historic and emotional heft that the famous schemes of the genuinely private railways did. And again, there may be scope to take back control of this. The FT reports:

“The reforms will still allow private companies to run services but they will instead work under a more prescriptive management contract, similar to the system in place on the London Overground.”

The Overground operates under its own livery. Why could GBR franchises not do the same? There is surely a case at least for putting the cross-border inter-city services in national colours (perhaps an updated take on Network SouthEast), to match the saltires splashed all over Scotrail trains. And if Northern are still running trains to Glasgow, a new paint job would be a great moment for the Government to stump up for good rolling stock.

Whatever its failings – and they were multitude – branding was one thing British Rail took seriously and was remarkably good at. We need more national institutions to give a British shape to life, and GBR should be one of them.

Beattie acknowledges how Ulster’s separate unionist parties weaken the Union

Last week Doug Beattie, the newly-installed leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, hit out at Boris Johnson. He branded the Prime Minister an ‘English nationalist’, who was prepared to ignore Northern Ireland as the Conservatives have no electoral stake in the Province.

Now the charge of ‘English nationalism’ is a tedious, largely Remainer trope that I have dealt with elsewhere. Suffice to say, an actual English nationalist would not be passing controversial legislation to enable Westminster to spend even more money on Northern Ireland, as this Government is.

But Beattie’s second charge is more interesting. Here are his exact words: “He’s concerned with the English vote. There’s no vote in Northern Ireland for him or his Conservative party so he doesn’t care, he’s hands off.”

It isn’t hard to believe that there may be some truth to the suggestion that Johnson would be less cavalier in his treatment of Ulster if it returned even a handful of Government MPs. (Something that ought to give die-hard advocates of splitting off the Scottish Conservatives pause for thought.) But it invites an obvious question: what is to be done about it?

Unfortunately, there is little sign that Beattie actually intends to do anything differently, in this regard at least, to the Democratic Unionists he hopes to supplant. Standing on the sidelines of national politics and shouting is just what capital-U Unionism does now. The wholly superior vision of the Campaign for Equal Citizenship is long abandoned.

Given the furious backlash over the Protocol, as well as the ill-managed disappointment that was the two parties’ 2010 link-up (under the awful acronym ‘UCUNF’), one can understand why Northern Irish politicians shy away from the Tories. But that’s the insidious appeal of nationalism: it will always be easier, in the short term, to spurn complicating national attachments in favour of tacking to local winds and making off with as much cash as you can lay your hands on. But such an approach offers a bleak long-term outlook for the UK.

Poots and Faulkner

15 May

In 1970, James Chichester-Clark resigned as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, and as Northern Ireland’s Prime Minister.  He was being pulled in opposite political directions by two different political forces.

The first was Harold Wilson’s Government, which was set on wrestlng control of security policy away from Stormont.  The second was Iain Paisley’s new Protestant Unionist Party, which had recently won two Westminster by-elections.

Chichester-Clark was succeeded by Brian Faulkner, whose earlier resignation from Northern Ireland’s government had been a factor in forcing the resignation of Chichester-Clark’s predecessor, Terence O’Neill.

Faulkner had earlier stood against Chichester-Clark for the Ulster Unionist leadership, losing by a single vote – that cast by O’Neill for Chicester-Clark…his cousin.

Faulkner had served as Northern Ireland’s Minister of Home Affairs during the late 1950s and early 1960s, where he built his reputation as an energetic politician on the right of his party – one that his resignation from O’Neill’s government had done nothing to weaken.

Once Prime Minister, he duly found himself caught between the same pressures as his predecessor.  Forced to choose between a revolting Unionist base and Edward Heath’s Government, he plumped for the latter.

The consequence was his acceptance of the Sunningdale Agreement, a forerunner of the Belfast Agreement, which brought him down – or, rather, was itself brought down by the loyalist Ulster Workers’ Council Strike.

Faulkner then lost the leadership of his party, formed the new Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, which flopped, and left active politics in 1976, becoming Baron Faulkner of Downpatrick a year later.

There are many differences between Faulkner and Edwin Poots, yesterday elected as the new leader of the Democratic Unionist Party.  For a start, Poots will not lead Northern Ireland’s government, as Faulkner did when he became Ulster Unionist leader.

The Alliance Party, which sits nearer the centre of Northern Ireland’s politics, is better developed than it was in 1970, and is well positioned to pick up more middle-class Unionist votes.

And unlike Chichester-Clark, Arlene Foster hasn’t resigned: she continues as First Minister.  Rather, she was ousted by her own party from its leadership.

For all that, and despite Northern Ireland’s changes over 50 years, it shouldn’t be assumed that politics in Northern Ireland must follow a pre-determined script.

Because Poots is a member of the Free Presbytarian Church of Ulster, a young earth creationist, and opposes blood donations from gay people, it is widely assumed that he will tread a very narrow path.

Certainly, he defeated Sir Jeffrey Donaldson by 19 votes to 17 partly, even largely, because the unionist base is again in revolt – over the Northern Ireland Protocol, the treatment of Bobby Storey’s funeral, and a general sense that its position is under threat.

The turbulence is not as spectacular as that of 1970, but those DUP politicians will hope that Poots’ election will help to reassure Unionist voters, and bolster their own position – as their Ulster Unionist predecessors did of Faulkner’s.

And the new DUP has begun his leadership with that task in mind. “I will be a leader in unionism who will be reaching out to other leaders in unionism. I want to see unionism working together,” he said yesterday.

More broadly, the lack of political leadership in Northern Ireland’s government, the non-sitting of the Assembly for three years, the stalling of the 2015 “Fresh Start for Northern Ireland” programme, and the problems caused by the Protocol are driving a wider destabilisation.

Elections are only a year away, and Sinn Fein could emerge as the largest party – a prospect that does nothing to calm unionists.  So for all Boris Johnson’s lack of interest in Northern Ireland, don’t rule out a big political push from the Government later this year.

It would seek to bolster the Executive, take decisions that have been ducked on legacy, emblems, and the Irish language, and aim to hold Northern Ireland’s politicians to the commitments they signed up to in 2015.

These included the “fresh obligations on Northern Ireland’s elected representatives to work together on their shared objective of ridding society of all forms of paramilitary activity and groups” which the Executive then agreed to.

Poots will probably carry on where he is leaving off and, unlike Faulkner, refuse any compromises that London dangles before him.  But perhaps not.  With Northern Ireland, you never know.

Henry Hill: Fury as Scottish Tories suggest SNP majority is a ‘guarantee’ of another referendum

6 May

Last month, I wrote about the anger amongst senior Conservatives at the way their Scottish colleagues were running their Holyrood campaign.

In an effort to hold on to pro-Union voters and stay ahead of Labour, they had put the SNP’s central message – that a Nationalist majority meant another independence referendum – at the very centre of their campaign.

The problem? That Boris Johnson has repeatedly insisted that he will not grant the Section 30 order needed to hold one legally. So implicit in the Scottish Tories messaging (which did not specify that they meant a ‘wildcat’ poll) was the suggestion that he was lying about that.

It got even worse this week, when the party’s official Twitter account claimed that “an SNP majority is a guarantee of another independence referendum”.

A clarification was scrambled out, but the damage was done. One irate Tory MSP, who had previously defending the campaign strategy after my last column on it, was scathing: “This is what happens when you put 12 year olds in charge of the Party’s media operation”.

Meanwhile the Government is toughening up its messaging about resisting any referendum push. Earlier this week the Daily Telegraph reported that ministers were prepared to take the Scottish Government to the Supreme Court to prevent it unilaterally holding a ‘binding’ referendum on independence. This leaves open the question of what they might do about Holyrood trying to stage a so-called ‘consultative’ referendum. New guidelines or legislation to forbid Scottish civil servants – who are part of the Home Civil Service – from working on projects which are ultra vires might be a place to start.

The Prime Minister is also preparing to invest billions of public money in shoring up the Union and demonstrating the utility of the British state to ordinary voters. These plans are reportedly based on those left behind by Oliver Lewis, the former head of the now-dissolved Union Unit. But there is concern amongst his allies that this is being done haphazardly, without the long-term strategic and structural measures that were supposed to cement the reforms.

In the meantime, the SNP itself continues to back away from its central policy. Nicola Sturgeon is downplaying the prospect of an immediate vote. It has minimised references to a referendum on most of its literature and declined to put one on the ballot paper. And now new evidence finds that not only do most Scottish voters disagree with the First Minister’s proposed timetable, but even a substantial chunk of SNP voters are bitterly opposed to one!

There is plenty of material here for the Government to assert that even a Nationalist majority at Holyrood is no clear demand from the Scottish people for another referendum, in light of both polling on the actual question and the SNP’s apparent allergy to their central policy during the campaign.

All they need to do is overcome two things: the sort of defeatist official who keep trying to breathe life back into ‘devo max’ – and the Scottish Conservative campaign.

Donaldson challenges Poots for the DUP leadership

As I wrote last week, the putsch against Arlene Foster most likely means a much harder line against the Northern Irish Protocol from the Democratic Unionist Party. But as the DUP gears up for the first competitive leadership contest in its history, the exact shape of its future remains uncertain.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the MP for Lagan Valley, has stepped in to challenge Edwin Poots, the long-serving MLA for… Lagan Valley.

Poots has attracted attention for his creationist and social-conservative views, and his election would be unlikely to do anything to enhance the party’s connections to politics on the mainland. Donaldson on the other hand is an ex-Ulster Unionist (he defected at the same time as Arlene Foster), and being an MP has much stronger links to the Conservatives. He was reportedly an enthusiast for a deeper and more formal relationship between the two parties when Theresa May reched out to the DUP after the 2017 election.

Should Donaldson lose, and Poots shift his party to try and staunch support from training away to Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice, there is a chance that Donaldson and other more moderate voices might need a new political home. Might he make a return journey to the moribund UUP? Or might, as local activists hope, he be open to a serious offer from the Conservatives?

Iain Dale: The Electorial Commission’s inquiry could put Johnson in a big pickle. But he’s escaped from other pickles…

30 Apr

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the ‘For the Many’ podcast with Jacqui Smith.

“The net is closing in around Boris,” was the Whatsapp message from a Liberal Democrat friend of mine, following the announcement of the Electoral Commission (EC) inquiry into the Prime Minister’s flat refurbishment travails.

My first reaction was to think, “wishful thinking, mate”, but as Steven Swinford, The Times political editor, has pointed out, the remit of the EC is very broad indeed and it can issue an investigation notice requiring “any person” to provide information including emails, Whatsapp messages, text messages and documents. Eek.

Tom Newton Dunn reckons that given the EC investigation will centre on possible undeclared donations in the Tory party, this could put Amanda Milling and Ben Elliot, the co-chairmen, “in their crosshairs.” He says if wrongdoing is found their positions are “untenable.”

I would beg to differ. I have been critical of Milling’s performance as party chairman in the past, but in this case I think her hands are clean. I am given to understand that she has very little to do with donors. That’s all down to Elliot. And the situation is very clear. If the Conservative Party paid the bill of £58,000 initially, and that sum wasn’t declared, then not only is Elliot in deep doo-doo, so is the Prime Minister.

But it’s not just the EC inquiry which could prove problematic, at the very least, for the Prime Minister; it’s also Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary, and Lord Geidt, the new independent advisor on the Ministerial Code, who will also determine Johnson’s fate. If the EC finds against the Conservative Party and the PM and find that rules of declaration have been broken, and if it is found the Ministerial Code has also been broken, he will be in a very big pickle indeed.

Any other minister would be expected to resign. But the Prime Minister has escaped from other pickles in his adult life, and who would bet that he won’t come through this too. The question Conservative MPs are going to have to ask themselves is this. Should he?

– – – – – – – – – –

I am a client, in a very small way, of the company formerly known as Standard Life Aberdeen. This week it announced that henceforth it would be known as Abrdn. You couldn’t make it up. What is it supposed to mean? Aberdeen? In which case, spell it out in full. It could also be pronounced as ‘A burden’.

How on earth did this get through all the different management levels to be approved by the company’s board. If it had come to me I’d have laughed it out of court. It makes we wonder if they can be so crass and incompetent in renaming their company, how incompetent are they in investing my money.

I’m not yet on the verge of withdrawing my custom from Abrdn, but I am this week withdrawing my custom from the bank I’ve been with for more than 40 years. Every communication I have now with Lloyds Bank is a trial. I almost feel physically sick before I ring them because I know I’m going to be passed from pillar to about seven different posts, and that’s before I fail their impossible security questions.

I’ve had enough. So I have opened an account with a smaller bank where I can actually talk to a real person who does their best to help. Yes, you still have to fill in a lot of forms to get the different accounts up and running, but I’m convinced it will be worth it in the end.

I did it with my energy supplier and it’s been a dream dealing with Octopus Energy rather than EDF. And that was a lot simpler than I feared it might be. We should constantly remind ourselves that we the customer are always the kings. Or queens. We don’t have to put up with shoddy service. The power lies in our hands.

– – – – – – – – – –

Quite what the DUP thinks it is going to achieve in toppling Arlene Foster is anyone’s guess. If she is forced out, and it looks like she will be, she will inevitably be replaced by a much more hardline politician. It might be that whoever this is takes a much more hardline stance with Sinn Fein, and it might be that Sinn Fein says it can’t work with the new leader. Then the whole house of cards comes tumbling down again.

I’m not predicting this will happen, but it must be a fear. Michelle O’Neill and Foster may not be bosom buddies, or be able to replicate the matiness of the so-called Chuckle Brothers, Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley, but they have formed a business like and effective partnership over the past year. What a shame it would be to throw all that away.

Henry Hill: Why Foster’s exit most likely signals an even harder like against the Protocol from the DUP

29 Apr

Arlene Foster’s sudden resignation as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party and First Minister of Northern Ireland is the latest sign of how long a shadow the Protocol is casting over Ulster politics.

Whilst it isn’t the only thing that seems to have motivated the party to oust her – critics are also citing a decision to abstain on a vote on gay conversion therapy – it almost certainly played the decisive role.

Having been DUP leader throughout the Brexit process, Foster seemed initially disposed to try and own the outcome and make the new checks in the Irish Sea work, an outlook she would have shared with Michael Gove.

But the scale of the unionist and loyalist backlash against the ‘Sea Border’ has put paid to that, and the DUP are now scrambling to avoid haemorrhaging voters to more hardline parties at the next Stormont elections. Jim Allister and his hard-line Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) are well positioned to attack the DUP on this flank, and public anger is such that their usual defensive position (that splitting the unionist vote might let Sinn Fein claim the First Minister’s office) may not fly.

Given that the DUP, like Sinn Fein and the SNP, has traditionally had the culture of phalanx-like internal discipline that seems a hallmark of nationalist parties, those behind the putsch must have feared a truly dire electoral reckoning if action wasn’t taken.

Moreover, many senior DUP figures will be uncomfortably aware of the historical precedent, for such is pretty much exactly the same fate they inflicted on David Trimble and the Ulster Unionists after the latter did the heavy lifting to secure the Belfast Agreement. The rise of the DUP by contrast was followed by the St Andrews Agreement, which is widely regarded as having turned out to be a step backwards. Will history repeat itself with the TUV?

According to the Daily Telegraph, ministers are unenthusiastic about the prospect of a new DUP leader, who they expect will take a much harder line on the Protocol. But in theory at least the Government has already accepted the need for fundamental reform – that was the logic of David Frost’s appointment as explained to me last month.

The even more serious question is what happens to Northern Irish politics. Whilst a new and more hard-line leader could staunch the flow of voters to the TUV, it might also alienate more moderate voters who have rowed in behind the DUP as it cemented its position as the dominant Unionist party. In recent history this would almost certainly have profited the Alliance Party, but given that liberal unionists share many of the same concerns over the Protocol and a one-sided reading of the Belfast Agreement. So it could create an opening for the Ulster Unionists or even – with enough work, money, and time – the Conservatives.

But the devolved institutions could be on the line. One of the DUP’s most effective tactics for corralling pro-UK voters into their camp has been the fear that a divided unionist vote will see Sinn Fein win the First Minister’s office. Whilst this logic has helped to keep Ulster’s politics stuck in the sectarian cul-de-sac, there is truth to it. Would the DUP, under a more hard-line leader, consent to serve as Deputy First Minister. The alternative could be unionists doing what Sinn Fein did a few years before and bringing down Stormont, and this time it might not come back.

Of course, we should not rule out another possibility. Until just a few years ago the combined unionist parties had a fairly secure majority in the Assembly. Those voters haven’t all died or turned suddenly into nationalists, and circumstances may give the DUP a chance to lure them back.

During the negotiations that saw Stormont given an opportunity to reject (most of) the Protocol, the Irish/EU side insisted that it not be done on a cross-community basis. So long as unionists are in the minority, this will prevent them blocking the Protocol on the basis of their community vote alone. But in the event that they were to regain the majority they held only a few years ago, it means they could set it aside in the teeth of Sinn Fein’s opposition.

‘Unionist unity’ is a self-defeating long-term strategy. But it can deliver results in the short-term. A united anti-Protocol front might be the DUP’s best chance of retaining the leadership of unionism – regardless of the headaches it causes in Dublin, Brussels, or London.

Henry Hill: If Johnson wants to save the Belfast Agreement, he must act to restore unionist confidence in it

8 Apr

Last month, I wrote about what the appointment of Lord Frost signalled with regards to the Government’s intentions over the Northern Ireland Protocol. This week’s loyalist violence shows the importance of Boris Johnson getting this policy right.

The division inside the Government is not between people who like or dislike the Protocol. Nobody likes it.

Rather the divide is between those such as Michael Gove, who believe that the Protocol can be made to work (and has striven to sand off its roughest edges), and the likes of Frost, who don’t. The latter camp maintain that because the Protocol is a ‘living document’ rooted in EU law, it is almost certainly going to metastasise rather than stabilise, and lay a heavier and heavier burden on Ulster’s connections with the mainland.

Of course there is no avoiding the fact that the Prime Minister signed up to it, but the defence offered for that is that after the passage of the Benn Act the Government didn’t have the leverage to get rid of it before leaving the EU. Nor was the mistake his alone.

For all that some commentators like to talk up Theresa May’s alternative approach, in truth the critical mistakes on Northern Ireland – especially allowing Britain’s rhetoric about no return to “the borders of the past” to mutate into a commitment to an invisible Irish border which is not in the Belfast Agreement – were made when she was in office. Ireland and the EU deliberately pushed a maximalist line on Ulster and credulous British ministers swallowed it whole.

The Protocol isn’t the only factor contributing to the violence. The visible refusal of the PSNI to act on blatant lawbreaking by senior Sinn Fein politicians is another. But they are part and parcel of the same trend of unionists and loyalists feeling that the structures and processes of the post-1998 settlement are being stacked against them.

There is no plausible reading of the Belfast Agreement that could offer the nationalist community a right to an invisible border with a neighbouring state but not protect unionists from a visible border inside their country. Yet that is how it has been defined, if not in court then by the political debate around the Protocol. The Agreement is supposed to guarantee Northern Ireland’s British status, yet the Government will not fly the flag there. Some people even thought the Democratic Unionists propping up the May Government – i.e. participating in their national government – a breach of the deal.

As a result, the loyalist paramilitary groups have already withdrawn their support for the deal and there is an increasingly real prospect of political unionism following suit. If the major parties get spooked into collapsing Stormont, it may not come back.

This is a test for both sides. The EU has been keen to talk up the importance of the ‘Good Friday’ Agreement and ‘the peace’ when doing so meant maximally enforcing the EU’s interests. Will it continue to prioritise them if it means going against its perceived interests? It would be a surprise.

But it is even more a test for the Government, because Northern Ireland is British and thus ultimately our responsibility. That means that yes, Johnson needs to back Frost to the hilt if he has a long-term strategy for delivering fundamental changes to the Protocol. But he should not stop there.

As I wrote in the News Letter last week, he should overturn the decision to exclude the Province from the new policy of putting the Union Flag on UK Government buildings and authorise Brandon Lewis to undertake root-and-branch reform at the NIO to get rid of the entrenched neutralist attitudes that rule there. He should also task whoever is in charge of formulating constitutional policy to sit down and develop a proper British vision of the Belfast Agreement and its obligations, to help prevent future generations of lazy and/or uninterested ministers getting memed into terrible decisions by those selling the myths that seem to comprise the ‘Good Friday Agreement’.

For too long, the Government has relied on the old trick of staging interminable rounds of talks and then basically bribing the local parties back into Stormont for a bit. If the Prime Minister wants to save the Belfast Agreement, he must demonstrate to unionists that its guarantees of their British status – including the ability to participate fully in British political and economic life – are real.

Henry Hill: Frost’s appointment shows the Government is not resigned to the Northern Ireland Protocol

4 Mar

Throughout the Brexit negotiations, the European Union always insisted that its approach to Northern Ireland was governed by the pre-eminent importance it placed on the Belfast (‘Good Friday’) Agreement. Events may be about to test this thesis.

Today the Loyalist Communities Council, “an umbrella group that represents the views of the UVF, UDA and Red Hand Commando” in the Guardian’s words, wrote to Boris Johnson to announce that the major paramilitary groups were withdrawing their support for the Agreement.

Whilst they insist for now that unionist opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol remain ‘peaceful and democratic’, the move has been made against a background of mounting concern about a resurgence of loyalist violence, most likely targeting the infrastructure and personnel enforcing the new Irish Sea border between Ulster and the mainland.

All this is important context to the announcement that Lord Frost, the new Brexit Minister, is going to unilaterally extend the grace periods exempting supermarkets from checks on goods being shipped from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, as well as a moratorium on customs declarations for parcels being sent to the Province. The move has sparked outrage from Brussels, which has accused the Government of engaging in a second UKIM-style breach of international law.

But according to sources familiar with the thinking behind the move, this is quite another sort of manoeuvre. The threat of “specific and limited” breaches to international law deployed during the debate on the UK Internal Market Bill were a short-term negotiating tactic – and one which worked, in as much as it helped Michael Gove to secure concessions from the EU on the Protocol.

However, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was at best negotiating with one hand tied behind his back. Whilst the Prime Minister and his team had apparently come to office fully aware of the danger posed by the Backstop – see this letter from Johnson to Tusk from August 2019 – the passage of the ‘Benn Act’ severely restricted their ability to push back against Brussels’ demands before the Withdrawal Agreement had to be concluded.

Thinking within government has since divided into two camps. The first, represented by Gove, is essentially facilitative. They don’t like the Protocol, but they recognise the extreme difficulty of resiling from it. This would certainly be in keeping with his more conciliatory approach to the parallel row over devolution.

Frost apparently takes a different view. His camp believes that with the best will in the world, the Protocol is simply not sustainable. Even if its first few weeks had not already witnessed several emergency summits, the triggering of Article 16, and the above loyalist declaration, there are deeper structural problems that mean it cannot be a stable foundation for a lasting settlement.  Specifically, the fact that the whole thing is rooted in EU law means that it is a ‘living document’, whose implications and scope will continually expand in line with EU regulation and rulings from the European Court of Justice. Its operation will therefore drag Northern Ireland farther and farther away from the economic orbit of Great Britain by default.

If you take this view, then it follows that the Protocol needs to be replaced, and sooner rather than later – just as the UKIM Act partially redressed Theresa May’s capitulation to the devocrats over post-Brexit powers. This is where Frost’s unilateral extension of the grace periods comes in.

Those privy to the thinking behind the move believe that it is much more defensible internationally than the UKIM gambit was. Especially in light of the dangerous situation with the loyalists and the role of empty shelves as a focus for unionist anger, the Government can defend a temporary measure intended to buy more time to find lasting solutions.

But as we saw when we looked at Gove’s negotiations, such solutions may not exist in the current framework. He notably refused to reassure Democratic Unionist MPs that the original grace periods were intended to buy time to make GB-NI supply lines work, rather than give Northern Irish businesses time to find new, EU suppliers. Which on the face of it makes another round of temporary fixes just another tactical get-out-of-jail (for now) card.

Unless, that is, the ambition is to have secured material changes to the Protocol by the time those extra six months are up.

This won’t be easy. Contra the somewhat complacent assumptions of some ERG members, it would be very difficult for the UK to simply resile from the Protocol. A short, sharp, UKIM-style threat is one thing. Standing indefinitely in the bad graces of the international law community quite another.

So there are two possible paths forwards. The first, assuming that Brussels absolutely refuses to play ball, is that Britain manages to argue that the EU is operating in bad faith and uses that to justify walking away from the agreement. The second is more attritional, and involves persuading the EU that reworking the Protocol is in the interests of both sides.

This might seem optimistic. But in the event of an actual return to violence, not to mention an endless succession of crisis talks, Brussels will be forced to choose between its hard-nosed defence of the Single Market and its homilies about the peace. British strategists apparently think that the EU places such a high value on its being seen as a moral (indeed, the most moral) actor that it is unlikely to stick to its current purist position in such conditions.

In the event of fresh negotiations, London would be aiming for a new arrangement which overturned two axions which May unwisely signed up to: that there be no change whatsoever to the border between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland (which is often dressed up as a Belfast Agreement obligation, but isn’t); and that the EU should not have to adapt its legislative arrangements. Greater cooperation in other areas – maybe defence? – could be offered in exchange.

This is a bold strategy. To have any chance of working it will take months of sustained diplomatic and governmental effort. If the Prime Minister really has elevated Frost with such a mandate, it is vital that he be left in post long enough and be sufficiently empowered to pursue it. To let one half of your Union strategy collapse into chaos might be regarded as carelessness; to let both looks like negligence.