This just could be significant. In the Sunday Times, the emergence of a pro Union liberal reform strategy acceptable across the community from the British government. It appears to remove the last vestige of the UK government dancing to the DUP’s tune. At the most sensitive moment imaginable, just before Edwin Poots nominates a still unknown First Minister, Brandon Lewis presents a frontal challenge to the DUP. This has been simmering for some time but I never thought it would come to the boil. Amazing!
Brandon Lewis said that he was no longer prepared to put up with foot dragging from the Northern Ireland executive, two years after Westminster voted to decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland. Mapping out the case for what he called a new “liberal, progressive unionism”, Lewis said that he had met “young women” who have had “harrowing experiences”, having to travel from Northern Ireland to England to get treatment. “These are dreadful experiences,” he said. “Northern Ireland is behind the rest of the United Kingdom. I don’t see how anyone can argue that women should not have access to the best quality healthcare. The fact they have to travel to mainland GB cannot be good.”
Pointedly, he praised Doug Beattie, the new leader of the official Ulster Unionists. “He is clearly trying to make the effort to go out and connect with people. That’s positive. He’s trying to look at that slightly more liberal approach to unionism, which he’s hearing from some of the working class unionist communities.”
Turning the screws on the DUP, which is resisting, Lewis said the UK government also wanted to see new rights for Gaelic, just as the Welsh and Cornish languages are protected. “I’m supportive of it. Across the United Kingdom, there is a tradition, a history and a pleasure in dialects and language. It shouldn’t be any different in Northern Ireland.”
Lewis says that one of the most neglected areas of the Good Friday Agreement, which is 25 years old next year, is the call for reconciliation and he believes much more must be done to integrate schools.
“One of the things that has never been delivered on is integrated education. It’s still only 7 per cent of the population. I meet far too many people who have only ever met a Protestant or Catholic from the opposite religion when they have gone to university or at work. I think most people across the UK will be slightly surprised that still happens.” He plans to allocate new deal funding from London “to support those schools that are looking to integrate”.
Lewis warned Poots that unless he took the job himself he could not expect regular access to him or Boris Johnson.
“When we have meetings with the devolved authorities and the prime minister it is with the first minister and deputy first minister, it’s not with party leaders. When I have weekly meetings it is with the FM and DFM. When there’s a royal visit, it’s FM and DFM. Having the leader of the largest party which has the first minister not be the first minister will make things more difficult.”
Lewis ultimately believes that peace will be maintained if there is more economic opportunity for Northern Ireland. Today he is announcing the appointment of a special envoy from Northern Ireland to the United States to drum up inward investment from America and ensure that the US approach to Ireland is not solely shaped by the Irish government, which has huge influence in Washington.
The envoy will be the former rugby international Trevor Ringland, a solicitor and community activist, who is a member of the Northern Ireland Conservatives and a former Ulster Unionist.
Lewis said: “The violence we saw had a multi-faceted set of reasons behind it. One of the things is that people in working class communities — both Protestant and unionist, Catholic and nationalist— feel like they’ve not benefited from economic improvement. When you have a prosperous buzzing economy, that helps the peace process.”
Whitehall is moving jobs to Northern Ireland from the business, communities and work and pensions departments while the Department for International Trade will set up an investor hub there.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London