Hunt squares off with Sturgeon over independence vote

It looks as if there may be a fresh confrontation between the British and Scottish governments over the prospect of a second referendum on Scottish independence.

Yesterday the Scotsman reported that Nicola Sturgeon has said she intends exercise an apparent mandate she has to hold so-called ‘indyref two’ in response to the chaos engulfing Westminster over Brexit.

But the constitution as a policy area is reserved to London, and earlier this week Jeremy Hunt made it very clear that the Prime Minister has not changed her mind about refusing permission to hold another vote. According to the Daily Express, he said: “The answer of course would be no for the very simple reason that we think the Scottish Government should be focusing on the concerns of Scottish voters.”

This prompted fresh disarray in the ranks of the SNP after the First Minister was forced to slap down her deputy, Keith Brown, for suggesting that the Scottish Government might organise an illegal plebiscite without Westminster’s authorisation. For the moment the Nationalists have confined themselves to tabling a pro-independence amendment to Tuesday’s vote.

Another SNP politician was forced to apologise this week after branding Scottish Conservative MPs “traitors” for not backing the Nationalists over Brexit.

In a further blow to Sturgeon’s ambitions, a poll this week suggests a hardening of attitudes on the unionist side: one in three Scots reportedly believe that there should now never be another referendum on independence.

Tory MPs attack prospect of Bloody Sunday prosecutions

MPs have criticised the Government as prosecutors prepare to reveal whether charges will be laid against a number of ex-servicemen over the events of Bloody Sunday almost 50 years ago.

They claim that allowing prosecutions to be brought against Army veterans would be “shameful”, according to the Times, raising concerns about the ability to try the men fairly half a century on from the events in question.

Conservative MPs named include Richard Benyon, himself a former officer, and Leo Docherty, who this morning penned a piece for the Times Red Box setting out his objections. He argued that: “if a prosecution goes ahead it will be motivated not by new evidence, new testimony or anything else that would lead to a more meaningful trial but by nationalist sentiment in the legal system in Northern Ireland that seeks political retribution above all else.”

He also, inevitably, highlighted the contrast between the treatment of ex-servicemen and the so-called “comfort letters” – de facto pardons – issued to known IRA terrorists, one of which collapsed the trial of the Hyde Park bomber.

All of this come as Gavin Williamson, the Defence Secretary, announced earlier this week that new protections being introduced to protect soldiers would come (“sadly”) too late to shield veterans who served in Northern Ireland. However, the Sun reports his making combative comments about the need to focus on the “future” of Ulster.

Elsewhere, John McDonnell conceded that his past support of the IRA’s terror campaign may have helped to fuel sectarian violence.

Scottish Labour avoids split by equivocating on Brexit re-run

After last week’s public row over the apparent censoring of ‘People’s Vote’ campaigners, this week Labour appear to have managed to avoid a full-on confrontation over their Brexit policy.

The party formally backed a second referendum at their conference this week but without giving much indication that they are amount to stage a serious push for one, according to the Financial Times.

In this Scottish Labour, which is apparently “largely autonomous” on policy even when it comes to reserved issues, seems to be taking its lead from Jeremy Corbyn, who is himself formally committed to pursuing another vote but doesn’t seem to be letting it trouble him overmuch.

Ulster Unionist leader launches stinging attack on DUP

Robin Swann, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, made any prospect of unionist unity seem rather distant this week as he opened up on the Democratic Unionists, according to the News Letter.

Speaking at the UUP’s annual general general meeting in Belfast, the MLA accused his party’s dominant rivals of neglecting their duties towards good governance in Northern Ireland and gerrymandering local government boundaries, adding:

“At the party conference in October past, I said that there was a battle to save the Union from the DUP. I cannot say my view has changed. With the DUP at the helm, pro-Union politics lies in the gutter.”

Meanwhile Sam McBride reported that Karen Bradley’s conduct in the House of Commons had stripped the last “fig leaf” away from the reality of un-scrutinised civil service rule in the Province.

He wrote that the Northern Irish Secretary is consistently using fast-track procedures to pass Northern Irish business through the House with minimal time for scrutiny. This is putatively to give the devolved institutions as much time as possible to get back on their feet and take the decisions themselves, but given the complete lack of activity on that front it looks increasingly like a ruse to allow Bradley to avoid scrutiny which she appears ill-equipped to withstand.

All of this come as the Irish Independent reports the Prime Minister ‘threatening’ direct rule for Northern Ireland in the event of a no-deal exit. Given that the DUP have been calling for it for over a year, it isn’t much of a threat.