By far the most important immediate question for Northern Ireland is how to prevent the constitutional question dominating politics even more than before, at the expense of delivering government for the people. Apart from threatening an Assembly election that would only increase instability, the British government has largely disqualified itself from influencing events in favour of a standoff over the Protocol, a problem they had exclusively had created. Beyond formal courtesies the vital essential relationship with the Republic went into the freezer. Now there are signs of rapid thaw.
The morning Liz Truss’s chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng grabbed at a survival strategy by dropping the plan to scrap the 45 p top rate of income tax. Earlier NI ministers performed a smaller but equally remarkable U turn. The two arch Brexiteers Liz Truss provocatively appointed to uphold the threat of unilateral action to scrap the Protocol have spoken warm words about cooperating with the Republic. On his appointment the new Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris said it was “good to refresh a great old friendship” with Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney, to help restore the Executive. Even more remarkably the key destroyer of the back stop and Theresa May, junior NI minister Steve Baker declared a mea culpa:
.. that he and others in the party had not shown respect to the “legitimate interests” of Ireland or the EU during the campaign to leave the bloc.
… it was time to rebuild the UK’s relations with Ireland and make sure the two countries went forward as “closest partners and friends”.
“I was one who perhaps acted with the most ferocious determination to get the UK out of the EU, I think we have to bring some humility to this situation..
“And it’s with humility that I want to accept and acknowledge that I and others did not always behave in a way which encouraged Ireland and the European Union to trust us to accept that they have legitimate interests, legitimate interests that we’re willing to respect, because they do and we are willing to respect them.
“And I am sorry about that because relations with Ireland are not where they should be and we will need to work extremely hard to improve them and I know that we are doing so”
How now will these recantations be translated into action? For a start, they must mean meaningful negotiations over mitigating some of the effects of the Protocol , not scrapping it. A trade war is the last thing this chaotic government can cope with. The example of Truss’s U turn this morning should impress the DUP. They need a face saver of a new deal with the EU to return to the Assembly, spurred on by a chorus of approval from every other party in these islands.
The fundamental fear of unity is what has caused the DUP to boycott the Assembly as a result not of an internal upheaval but the consequences of Brexit over which NI had no control. On the other side the effects of Brexit has added a powerful boost to the existing momentum towards unity. The census results and underlying trend has produced both hope and uncertainty about the future. Unity will not be achieved without a determined campaign. The Union will not be preserved unless fresh arguments are produced to support it.
To end the standoff in government, all NI parties and both governments must unlock the GFA institutions to steer politics back to cooperation over restoring the Executive and agree an approach to iron out the problems of the Protocol with the EU. The unwisdom of British neglect of the institutions in favour of aggressive Brexit has been exposed as disastrous. The signs of rowing back on unilateral British action are encouraging. The truth is obvious, that Northern Ireland cannot be successfully governed without cooperation all round. A conference of the governments and parties should be convened soon to clear the air and chart the way ahead, leaving aside the wrangling over the constitutional future which will, never fear, not go away.
Photo: NI minister and arch Brexiteer Steve Baker MP
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