Northern Ireland on the brink, again: the responsibility of London

As political tensions rise and riots erupt, or are provoked, on the streets of Belfast, the suggestion is now widely heard that the Northern Ireland institutions may again collapse before long. But London appears at present to have a limited grip of the Northern Ireland situation, suggests Alan Whysall, and if it does not change its approach markedly, it – and others – may face great grief soon.

Lessons of history

London governments were hands off in Northern Ireland until the late 1960s. Meanwhile conditions developed there that provoked protest, which was then hijacked by terrorism. Over several decades they painfully learned again about Ireland, the need to give its affairs at times a degree of priority, and the importance of working with Dublin. That approach led to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, and an intensive cooperative effort between the governments to implement it and keep it on the road.

Since 2016, matters have changed. In settling the UK’s approach to Brexit, it has generally been regarded as a side issue, to be resolved once the grand lines of the withdrawal plan were settled. The May government, under much pressure from Brussels, Belfast and Dublin, eventually recognised that the architecture of Brexit must accommodate Northern Ireland concerns. In 2019, however, policy shifted from the May backstop to the Johnson Protocol, and there is a strong perception that Northern Ireland has chiefly been valued as a battleground for the government’s trench warfare with the EU.

The build-up to the recent violence

Brexit is of course not the sole cause of what is now going wrong. In various ways, the underpinnings of the Agreement have been weakening for eight or nine years; and a number of factors led to the Executive collapsing in early 2017. But the tensions that Brexit has provoked, and the necessity to create a border somewhere – across the island, around the two islands, or between Great Britain and Ireland (the inevitable choice, because the other two are unfeasible) have seriously envenomed matters.

Nevertheless, Julian Smith, the last Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, developed a strong rapport with all the main Northern Ireland parties, and the Irish government, and was able to reach the New Decade, New Approach agreement to bring the institutions back early last year. But he was promptly sacked, apparently for having offended Number 10, a step widely seen in Northern Ireland as indicating the government’s general lack of concern for its affairs. He was replaced by Brandon Lewis.

The Executive has stuck together to handle COVID-19, sometimes well, sometimes badly. But relations between its main members have often been poor. They have worsened since the coming into effect in January of the Northern Ireland Protocol, which keeps Northern Ireland for certain purposes in the EU Single Market and involves increased controls (though there have been a number of such controls for many years) in the Irish Sea. These have been portrayed by some as undermining Northern Ireland’s constitutional status within the UK. Mounting arguments about the Protocol saw First Minister Arlene Foster, under attack from extremes inside and outside her own party, veer sharply towards them.

In such a brittle political atmosphere, matters easily escalate. A few weeks ago nationalist representatives were doubting whether the police deserved confidence when police handling of a commemoration of a paramilitary multiple murder of the Troubles era, which was questionably compliant with COVID regulations, led to arrests. Last week the Director of Public Prosecutions, Stephen Herron, concluded he could not secure convictions, and hence could not mount prosecutions, for attendance at the funeral last summer of a senior IRA member, which involved a mass gathering, despite COVID restrictions. Those attending included the deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill. The DPP’s decision led to Foster demanding the resignation of the Chief Constable, Simon Byrne, and declaring her lack of confidence in the whole senior police command, and also suggesting the DPP should resign.

Community tensions inevitably rise. Throughout this past week, there have been outbreaks of rioting in loyalist areas of Belfast, some of it strongly suspected to have been instigated by loyalist paramilitaries – whose collective manifestation has withdrawn its support from the Good Friday Agreement. Latterly youths on the nationalist side of police lines have also rioted.

There is a great deal to fault here in recent political leadership in Northern Ireland. But the Assembly, at the prompting of the Alliance party, met and condemned the violence. Politics is still working to a degree.

London’s response was limited: the Secretary of State was little in evidence. The Prime Minister finally delivered himself of a tweet expressing concern at the violence on Wednesday evening. Brandon Lewis has now had a round of talks with political leaders.

The institutions are at risk of collapse

The portents are ominous. We are approaching the ‘marching season’. This was once a time of great street disorder, but we have seen little of it in the last few years.

There is now a live risk that the Good Friday Agreement institutions will again fall over in Northern Ireland: if not now, then after the Assembly elections in May next year. Putting them back up again, and handling government in the meantime, would be enormously difficult.

There are three main reasons for this. Firstly because of the poisoned political atmosphere. Secondly, because political progress, or the prevention of political collapse, have always been the business of the British and Irish governments acting together, and relations with Dublin are probably at their poorest since the 1980s. Third, because the British government would not be able to stand back from involvement in political decision-making in Northern Ireland in the meantime – as it did from 2017 to 2020 when, extraordinarily, there was no political authority in Northern Ireland and the civil service kept matters ticking over. Many decisions now need to be made in the COVID and Brexit contexts, which only London could in those circumstances take, but it lacks legitimacy in the eyes of a great many people.

Northern Ireland’s treatment in the context of Brexit has left London universally mistrusted there. Lewis has a much different profile from his predecessor; in a poll in February as many as 4% of respondents thought he was doing a ‘good’ or ‘great’ job, significantly lower than any Northern Ireland politician.

There is much talk among Unionists of betrayal over the Protocol.

But the way Brexit has been brought about has re-stoked old antipathies among Irish people across the island and beyond. Much of the good of the Good Friday Agreement years, peaking with the Queen’s state visit to Ireland in 2011, has evaporated. London’s attitude has much facilitated Sinn Féin’s increasing celebration of IRA personnel, indeed at times of their actions; not to say their campaign for early Irish unity.

London governments now appear to have forgotten most of what they painfully learned about handling Ireland over four decades – and, more strikingly, no longer appear to the world to care very much.

It is not clear that anyone in Number 10 at present seriously follows Northern Ireland issues: activity aimed at ‘strengthening the union’ has seen so far to be largely focused on Scotland. Simple rallying cries and flag-waving are likely to be highly counter-productive in Northern Ireland. But the appointment announced yesterday of Sue Gray, currently the head of the Department of Finance in Northern Ireland, to a permanent secretary post in the Cabinet Office leading on the Union and the Constitution, is welcome.

The potential consequences of London’s continuing disengagement

If London’s disengagement continues, it is likely before very long to regret it. Beside the human and material consequences, Northern Ireland could start to become a serious burden on government, taking up significant bandwidth at the centre. While Northern Ireland issues have not generally played into English voters’ decisions, events there could impact on perceptions of the government’s general competence. And there are potential international repercussions to the government appearing carelessly to lose the Good Friday Agreement. This is notably true among the newly re-energised Irish-American interests, including of course, President Biden – but the Agreement is widely regarded in the US as being in part an American achievement.

There may be some in London, who, taking their lead from a string of English political commentators not previously known for their expertise in Irish matters and increasing expressions from England of lack of affinity with Northern Ireland, think that there is an easy and painless way out through Irish unity. This would be a grave mistake. Irish unity would be extremely difficult to achieve successfully in the present state of opinion in Northern Ireland. If the two governments were not working closely to oversee the process, it would be likely to run into instability and disorder at a very early stage. It would not remotely be possible for London to run away from the consequences.

London needs to change course

What should the government now be doing differently? The priority now is maintaining, and strengthening, political relationships sufficiently to keep the institutions functioning. And for the slightly longer term, to try to reinject positive politics: to start to build progress again towards the wider objectives of the Good Friday Agreement in developing reconciliation and political relationships, within Northern Ireland and beyond.

The New Decade, New Approach agreement was in that spirit. But seeing it through requires real and conspicuous understanding and empathy in London, and a certain political priority which British governments gave it as second nature for four decades, but now little seen. It needs an even-handed approach between the different communities, identities and outlooks in Northern Ireland – which is not to say that London should stop favouring the Union in principle, but it needs to shake off the impression of partisanship in day-to-day affairs, which lingers as a legacy of the 2017 Conservative–DUP pact. It requires an energetic presence on the ground in Northern Ireland, though certainly not with the objective of outshining the Executive. And it requires a close working relationship with Dublin. All this probably means new people.

The way ahead would also need to include making the Protocol work for Northern Ireland. The roughest edges might be taken off it by UK agreement with the EU on plant and animal health issues. A concerted approach to Brussels by the Northern Ireland governing parties, backed by the British and Irish governments, might have a significant impact on the way the Protocol operates – and enable Northern Ireland to take advantage of the unique benefits of being able to operate in both the European and GB markets that the Protocol confers.

What the government should not in the immediate context do is to appear to offer anything in response to the recent rioting: that would simply be rewarding violence where peaceful arguments have been ignored, giving credibility and encouragement to extremists on both sides. And if it made concessions involved that further repudiation of the Protocol, it would open the way to still greater political fractures.

But, to conclude – London needs to change course. It needs a strategic approach, in a quite different spirit from the one that has actuated it in the last year. It needs an empowered, capable and trusted Secretary of State, and a Prime Minister bought into the need to engage. It needs someone focused on Northern Ireland with political clout at the centre of government, who can exert influence if needed – even, indeed, over Brexit policy.

The views expressed in this post are personal views and do not necessarily reflect those of the Working Group of Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland as a whole.

About the author

Alan Whysall is a former civil servant in the Northern Ireland Office and now an Honorary Senior Research Associate at the Unit, specialising in politics in Northern Ireland. He is a member of the Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland. The views expressed in this post are personal views and do not necessarily reflect those of the Working Group of Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland as a whole.

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