Why is the Pope not coming North? Are the disappointed faithful too frightened to ask and did the bishops fail to press their case?

The ways of the Vatican are as inscrutable as those of the Chinese Communist party. Indeed they vie with the on-off – on character of the Trump- Kim Jong -un meeting in Singapore. Only a couple of days ago senior Irish Catholics were still holding out hopes that the Pope might pop up to Armagh. Then after his itinerary was announced, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin said that final confirmation had come from the Vatican that the pontiff will not … Read more

Would the DUP be any happier with a backstop, staying in the single market?

So it’s October then. The UK will fail to present its withdrawal plan to the EU summit at the end of the month and its backstop, handed in only after a cabinet crisis was averted on Thursday, would still lead to a hard border in Ireland. Lurking in the background may still be the option of some differentiation in NI’s status from GB. Such is the peculiar course of these negotiations, that the EU is mildly encouraged by the state … Read more

Arlene Foster challenges Sinn Fein to debate abortion reform in the Assembly, claiming SF support for DUP stance

Arlene Foster says some Sinn Fein supporters have told her they will vote DUP because of her party’s position on abortion. In her first interview since Ireland’s referendum on the issue, she told Sky News a lot of people were feeling “disenfranchised” by the result. “I have had emails from Nationalists and Republicans in Northern Ireland not quite believing what is going on and saying they will be voting for the DUP because they believe we are the only party … Read more

The wheeze lasted less than 24 hours…

Trouble is, if you start a hare running you may have to shoot it.  David Davis had proposed Northern Ireland have a joint regime of UK and EU customs regulations, allowing it to trade freely with both, and a 10-mile wide “special economic zone” on the border with Ireland, thus avoiding checks there. The Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) declined to comment directly on the report, but also did not reject it, saying work was underway to “refine” possible customs … Read more

Do Labour MP Stella Creasy and friends have the knowledge and stamina to progress abortion reform against the odds?

You thought it had gone quiet? Not if Stella Creasy can help it.  Repealing the nineteenth century Act which ultimately banned abortion and is still on the statute book, would be a route to broadening the scope of abortion regulations in Northern Ireland. So claims Ms Creasy the Labour MP who is championing the cause at Westminster. She has set out her stall not only in the Times but the Guardian. The repeal of the 1861 Offences against the Person … Read more

The direct Westminster route to abortion reform is not the one to follow. It’s time for civil society to step up to the plate

Northern Ireland as a place apart over abortion rights has exposed many English MPs to the complexities of devolution for the first time over something they care about deeply, so much so that they seemed at first to dismiss them altogether. There is a precedent of a kind.  On Brexit Westminster is ignoring the SNP government’s refusal to assent to the terms of EU withdrawal on the grounds that this is a reserved matter for Westminster. Although  abortion rights are … Read more

After the huge majority in the Republic, all is changed utterly in the North. The Union is more at stake than ever

The scale of the verdict in the Article 8 referendum will create a new surge and a new context in Northern Ireland politics.  While it would be an exaggeration to say that it might even sweep away the entire unionist position if it does not radically change, even that is not inconceivable, if added to the impact of a hard Brexit. NI abortion reform and the risk to the UK government While all bets are off, it would be unwise … Read more

Is an initiative imminent to restore Stormont? Are DUP and Sinn Fein ready?

Jeremy Corbyn will have disappointed any unionist hoping for a distraction from the  continuing political vacuum.  Deftly skirting the traps set for him by the DUP to meet (presumably mainly unionist) victims of the Troubles and uniquely denounce the IRA, he slipped in and out of Northern Ireland unscathed.  Instead he played a straight bat, Declining to become a persuader for unity, he would  back a border poll only  “within  the terms of the Agreement”  and he deserved unionist gratitude however grudging, by rejecting  special status for Northern Ireland within the EU.    He might have uttered hints of retribution against the DUP for keeping the Conservatives in power, but if he was tempted, he forbore. The verdict of the New Statesman bears repetition.

The longer the government’s inaction continues, the less crazy the idea of welcoming a Labour government seems. The party’s 2017 manifesto, one senior figure in the Northern Irish business community told me, was “not that mad” but “almost Blairesque” on the issues that mattered. Its propositions of extra investment infrastructure and training were attractive. There is also the fact that Labour’s vision for Brexit – if it can be described as such – offers more answers for business than Theresa May’s. Contrast this if not explicitly friendly than unquestionably receptive attitude to Corbyn with the frosty reception Karen Bradley received from businesses enraged by the NIO’s sluggish, laissez-faire approach to restoring devolution then it is clear that Labour are faced with an open goal.

The less Corbyn is seen to stir memories of Northern Ireland’s troubled past and the more he is seen to offer practical solutions to the anxieties of the future on Brexit and devolution, the more credible his Labour will become as a UK-wide government in waiting. There remains the question, however, of how credible Corbyn himself can ever be. He did not offer the unequivocal and specific condemnation of IRA violence many have asked for. On Wednesday, his spokesman said he still believed in a united Ireland as a point of principle. Labour cannot normalise its relationship with unionism under Corbyn if these running sores are not cauterised. There appears to be no plan to do so.

Perhaps- but somehow healing the running sores no longer seems so

Read moreIs an initiative imminent to restore Stormont? Are DUP and Sinn Fein ready?

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

Will Northern Ireland now look to the Republic for abortion rights – or Trump’s America?

On the face of it, you’d think it’s a non- question. It just couldn’t  happen in Northern Ireland where the direction of travel is surely  the other way. But in the States, Roe v Wade, the essential abortion law of the whole country, is under unprecedented attack from the conservative evangelical right, coalescing round the Trump coalition. Given the ideological split on the current Supreme Court, with five conservative justices to four liberal ones, President Donald Trump is one Supreme Court … Read more

With May’s border plan rebuffed already, is the UK edging towards the single market as well as a customs union?

The gloves are off  with weeks to go before  the terms of  the UK’s withdrawal are supposed  to be presented  to EU leaders. In the most scathing briefing of its kind that  I can recall, a “senior EU official” has dismissed  Theresa May’s plan for  a British backstop  for remaining aligned  to the customs union as “fantasy” even before it’s  tabled. In turn the British complain of being insulted. To cap it all the  two sides are locked in a … Read more

Border poll recedes as polls show nationalist support for unity hinges on Brexit outcome

If two polls out today  are to be believed, pressure for  an early border poll will recede and unionists  fearing the worst, will heave sighs of relief For nationalists, while much hinges on the economic consequences of Brexit,  majority  opinion among them in favour of  unity hasn’t solidified, despite the UK government’s confused approach to Brexit and the border. The Newsletter gleefully reports Two separate polls have found no evidence that Brexit has yet caused a radical shift in public … Read more

“Senior Unionists prepared to talk to Dublin about possible unification”

Gary Gibbon of Channel  4 News is one of few  Westminster- based  political editors to keep up a sustained interest in Northern Ireland affairs.. Who are  these  “ liberal unionists”? Do tell Gary. The source could  be  the Dublin government speaking from Sofia  Better still, unionists declare your hand! “Brexit: ‘The DUP’s hardline policies could be the quickest road to a united Ireland’” by “Brexit: ‘The DUP’s hardline policies could be the quickest road to a united Ireland’” is licensed … Read more

But a new customs backstop won’t be enough….

If the temporary extension  of the customs relationship was greeted with euphoria, it was shortlived, as the FT reports. It exposes the next big issue. The single market looms. Mrs May was accused by some Conservative MPs of “bouncing” the cabinet into adopting the scheme, and others said they had been kept in the dark. Senior EU officials also expressed doubts about the UK approach, warning that it diverges significantly from Brussels’ preferred outcome. “If this is it, we will … Read more

Breaking… The UK will meet the June deadline with a breakthrough plan for Brexit and the border, to a cautious welcome from Varadkar

Has  the fog started to clear?  Can any sense be made of the claim and denial about extending the transition beyond 2020 to buy time to solve the customs relationship and the border? The Guardian, RTE and the BBC all thinks so, reporting top level briefings from both governments  at the EU summit  in Sofia. Without overdoing  it sounds like a modest breakthrough on the hitherto incompatible versions of the stopgap . The longer term relationship involving a longer transition … Read more

New backstop plan ties the whole UK to the customs union to buy time for solving the border problem

The rumour has now become fact (almost) Britain will tell Brussels it is prepared to stay tied to the customs union beyond 2021 as ministers remain deadlocked over a future deal with the EU, the Telegraph has learned. The Prime Minister’s Brexit war Cabinet earlier this week agreed on a new “backstop” as a last resort to avoid a hard Irish border, having rejected earlier proposals from the European Union. Ministers signed off the plans on Tuesday despite objections from Boris Johnson, the … Read more

May tells Rees Mogg: with a hard border I’d not be confident of winning a border poll

Times report Theresa May confronted Jacob Rees-Mogg at a meeting with Tory MPs designed to break the deadlock over Britain’s future customs arrangements with the EU, The Times has learnt. The pair clashed yesterday over the impact of rival plans on the Irish border, in what witnesses described as the prime minister “sending a tough signal” to hardline Brexiteers that she was not prepared to jeopardise the Union. It came after Mrs May went over the heads of her squabbling cabinet with a personal … Read more

On Brexit we’re about to enter the eye of the storm before the relative calm

It’s the solemn duty of all professional  commentators always to be interesting, even at the expense of consistency with writers in their own paper or even with  themselves.  And this is a terrific time for fascinating chaos and confusion.  Where  official  “lines to take” are  not banal they are tangled up  and  inconsistent,  reflecting  the fact that over Brexit, a chronically divided cabinet are singing like birds. Tension is ramped up before yet another deadline to be missed whether it’s … Read more

Guardian exclusive. A home grown plan for checks at NI ports, rejected by the DUP but still in play

A backup plan to impose border checks on trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK at ports and airports to avoid a hard border with the Republic of Ireland after Brexit has been drafted by senior civil servants. Despite the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) angrily rejecting any suggestion of a border “in the Irish Sea”, a leaked paper reveals that officials have been working on a blueprint “to be deployed as necessary in the negotiation process” While acknowledging these … Read more

Fears of joint authority surface as the Lords approve no border checks without Dublin consent

Sometimes –only sometimes – debates in Parliament tell us a lot more  than a dozen columnists or a week of Nolan. And with much greater courtesy than the latter, needless to say. One such took place yesterday when the House of Lords supported moves to prevent a hard border after Brexit under which no new checks or controls could be imposed without the agreement of the Irish Government.  If you think this would be innocuous enough you’d be wrong. Approval for Patten’s amendment  … Read more

If you were the EU’s chief negotiator, what would you say to Arlene Foster to make her happier?

Not exactly an unbiased report in the Daily Telegraph Michel Barnier has denied trying to split up the United Kingdom after strongly backing plans that would create a new border between Britain and Northern Ireland after Brexit. In an inflammatory address in Dundalk, Ireland on Monday, Mr Barnier denied there was a secret EU plan to pressure Britain into reversing Brexit by insisting on a backstop clause that would keep Northern Ireland in the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union. Arlene … Read more