There was a glut of greatness at Queen’s and Hillsborough yesterday, so much so that even the local media could manage only a few snapshots, the BBC excepted . Nearly every big figure who brushed against Northern Ireland in decades spoke and dined. A very heavy UK presence of seven former prime ministers and the current incumbent, plus the leader of the opposition, along with the EU in force reminding us their controversially active role in our affairs, Ursula van der Leyn the president of the Commission, the Protocol chief negotiator Maros Sefcovic, the Council President Charles Michel ( who?). And of course the old team of Blair, Clinton and Ahern who made at least two speeches each over the past few days and gave innumerable interviews.
Conservative minded folk of whom there are many in NI, believe that too much loving spoils the child. The slightest check brings them out in a violent rage. Over the last three days at Queen’s the DUP were given the soppy stern treatment; flattered a bit but firmly sent to the naughty step. The inconsistency hasn’t gone down well.
Chris Heaton Harris and Rishi Sunak played hard cop, soft cop with the DUP, leaving CHH accused of talking like a “clueless American congressman for praising Sinn Fein’s “courage.” Still: by the evening at Hillsborough it was all smiles between them. Following Paisley senior’s example down the decades, some things just have to be put on the record.
Sunak the comparative beginner opted again for effusiveness .Only a few hours before he and Starmer had been taking lumps out of each other at PMQs. But here was Sunak adopting Starmer’s most successful predecessor as his model for dealing with NI. In an otherwise pointedly pro Union speech (a functioning Assembly good for the Union, good for NI,) “Tony Blair showed us what was possible with Bertie Ahern. I will continue with my friend Leo Varadkar.” This was his response to Varadkar proclaiming that the peace process works when “the two governments work together with an agreed strategy.” Sunak made the one favourable reference of the week to the “bravery of the security forces and the police who guaranteed the peace.”
On politics he was against reform without the DUP returning to the Assembly; on the economy: “I will use the full force and power of the UK government to make this one of the best places in the world to attract new investment. “ So no more devolve and forget.
As a political strategy other than to restore the institutions, it is hard to work out what this amounts to. Is a pro Union approach compatible with “rigorous mpartiality” in governance? With care and sensitivity to nationalist feelings, probably.What does a joint strategy with “my friend Leo” look like?
As his ambition, Sunak outlined all the goals of a shared future which have made such modest progress. So what now is the “unselfish” British interest in Northern Ireland? A legacy amnesty and austerity budget cuts? Does Starmer have a different approach to the constitutional future and public spending? We haven’t a clue . If we can achieve progress on any of this the Agreement 25 celebrations will have given the lie to the usual bleak scepticism and pessimism.
In a solo interview with Peston, Gerry Adams, perhaps feeling more than a bit marginalised in the hoop-la, was scathing about the “narrow little British window of appreciation” of Irish affairs. He plausibly accused the British of rolling back on human rights. “Our aim remains the end of “English” (sic) rule. Evidently they don’t want referendums in Ireland and probably Scotland too, unless the people force them into them.”. Adams is probably right there. But that is looking too far ahead – beyond the next couple of years, by which time a great deal may have changed.
Back on stage, Ursula van der Leyn declared that the Windsor Framework was “a new beginning for old friends.” Speaking as a parent of twenty somethings; “Northern Ireland is a cool place to be.”And she predicted 50 % higher GDP in the next 25 years. But no hints about tweaking the terms of the green channel.
If Joe Biden had treated us to traditional Irish American ramblings Bill Clinton’sstream of consciousness drew on his unique insights as a former President of the United States “Breakdown was a perfectly predictable event… The chances of maintaining peace are 35% higher if enough women are involved… (How did he work that one out?) The biggest roadblock that Brexit posed for Northern Ireland’s political and economic future has been dramatically mitigated.. The framework is as good as you can get and maybe could be tweaked a bit… to get the show on the road” And bringing his audience to their feet. “Some things are worth more than winning elections.”
With the audience eating out of his hand, Clinton told them “I love this. I’ve been here for so long. But if I don’t leave within 48 hours I’ll be paying taxes” But with Hillary leave he did. He will be back. His contribution after Biden and the attendance of a posse of eminent Americans this week served as a powerful reminder of their influence. IF the latest Kennedy on the scene is a harbinger for significant US investment so much the better. As another US presidential candidate once said. “Where’s the beef?”
The Newsletter’s verdict on Clinton’s speech? “Atrocious”. Some of us have some way to go.
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