Theresa May wants a Stormont deal before she quits; but will Penny Mordaunt queer the pitch over Army prosecutions?

Theresa May  is back again looking for DUP support  to get the withdrawal Bill through the Commons either before 23 May the day of the Euro parliament  elections or  in mid- June, if her party haven’t turfed her out by then.  Her bid for support presumably  features a customs arrangement with  regulatory alignment added in order to dispose of the bogey of a border down the Irish Sea. The pitch  hasn’t worked so far with the DUP or in those negotiations with Labour. At least the DUP don’t have   Nigel Farage’s Brexit party breathing down their necks and UKIP is barely a threat.

May’s wooing of the DUP again after deep strains appeared in their relationship over repeated Brexit votes comes at a awkward time.   Stand by for cries of lack of impartiality from other parties in the Stormont talks. May seems blissfully unaware of how the wooing looks to nationalists or else she doesn’t care, though how that squares with wanting a deal in a few weeks defies speculation.  Hopefully nationalists won’t raise ritual objections, having serious business  to transact.

The Guardian lays out the possible sequence. You get the impression that she’s looking for any reason for clinging to office for as long as there’s the faintest chance of the withdrawal agreement Bill passing and allowing her to leave office with some sort of success.

However, if the withdrawal bill were to be voted down, the prime minister would have to prorogue parliament and put forward a new Queen’s Speech, but there is no certainty that she even has support for a new programme of legislation. If a Queen’s Speech fell then it could bring down the government.

Backing from the DUP would be crucial to getting through a Queen’s Speech but they could need a new agreement involving more money for Northern Ireland to achieve that.

In a sign May is gearing up for parliamentary battles ahead, she hosted lunch for Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, Nigel Dodds, the DUP Westminster leader, and Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the chief whip, at her Chequers country residence on Thursday.

The talks involved the drive to get the prime minister’s withdrawal agreement bill through parliament, as well as the confidence and supply deal that is due to expire at the end of this parliamentary session.

Sources close to the government said May made it clear she wants to restore the Northern Ireland assembly before leaving office and is open to a renewed confidence and supply agreement with the DUP.

May has refused to step down until Brexit is achieved, but a further array of Conservative candidates were jostling for position on Thursday in the expectation that she could soon be out of office.

That jostling could spell problems for the Stormont talks if the Troubles’ legacy features  prominently in the latest multi-party negotiations. The Northern Ireland Office and the Ministry of Defence under Gavin Williamson were at loggerheads over prosecuting soldiers who served in Northern Ireland, according to the Daily Telegraph.  His successor Penny Mordaunt a former armed forces minister and  a naval reservist sounds every bit as determined.

Penny Mordaunt has said that addressing legacy killings in Northern Ireland is a “personal priority” for her, amid a growing row within the Conservative Party over the treatment of veterans.

The new Defence Secretary has promised to resolve the controversy surrounding the prosecution of former service personnel, warning the issue has “dragged on for far too long”.

Her pledge to deal with the issue came hours after Johnny Mercer, a prominent Tory MP, announced he was effectively going on strike until Theresa May ended the “abhorrent process” of pursuing veterans over allegations that in some cases date back several decades.

In her first major intervention since taking over at the Ministry of Defence, Ms Mordaunt, who is the daughter of a former paratrooper, confirmed the issue was at the top of her agenda.

“This has dragged on for far too long and it is time for action. We owe it to those who take the greatest risk in the service of their nation. We will always hold our armed forces and the chain of command to account but I want to ensure our service personnel are not going to be victims of unfounded allegations, as we saw in the case of IHAT (Iraq Historical Allegations Team) or pursued unfairly for events that took place decades ago. This is a personal priority for me.”

Gavin Williamson, Ms Mordaunt’s predecessor, had previously pushed hard to find solutions to the issue, which has proved a source of prolonged tension within the Cabinet and among backbench MPs.

He is understood to have been in close discussions with Arlene Foster, the leader of the Democratic Unionists, but encountered resistance from Karen Bradley, the Northern Ireland Secretary, according to Whitehall insiders.

The latest controversy follows reports that six former soldiers are now facing prosecution over Troubles-era killings. The Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland said that of 26 so-called legacy cases it has taken decisions on since 2011, 13 related to republicans, eight to loyalists, and five are connected to the Army.

Asked about Mr Mercer’s letter yesterday, Theresa May’s official spokesman said: “We owe a debt of gratitude to the heroism and bravery of our armed forces.

“The issue of prosecutions of veterans is one we take extremely seriously and the Prime Minister is fully aware of the strength of feeling on this, both in Parliament and among the public. In relation to Northern Ireland prosecutions, we have been clear the system to investigate the past needs to change to provide better outcomes for victims and survivors of the Troubles and to ensure members of our armed forces are not disproportionately affected. This is why we have consulted widely on the system. There are a very large number of responses to that consultation and we will be responding to those in due course.”

The Telegraph  is  running a campaign against Army prosecutions and  may be muddying the waters here. There is no suggestion of an amnesty for soldiers as suggested by the Defence Select Committee, only resistance to what the military establishment regard as vexatious and repeated investigations of the same people and the same events. How the government would begin to frame a Bill  to restrict inquiries by the PSNI or the propose Historical Investigations Unit remains very much to be seen. Given the present state of flux at Westminster we may wait for some time before a new version of the legacy Bill emerges, or even an analysis of the public consultation on which it is based. It may be all parties to the talks will defer consideration   to a later stage, as it hasn’t been raised as a specific sticking point.

In her statement before the talks began, Arlene Foster said:

I want to address the glorification of terror and the impact it has on those today vulnerable to being trapped in terrorism. We must deliver for innocent victims.

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