When the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport issued an edict last month that the Union Flag should henceforth fly from Government buildings all year round – as opposed to roughly a score of ‘designated days’ – there was a problem: the move apparently excluded Northern Ireland.
The official release included a note to editors, picked up by the press, to the effect that “there is specific legislation setting out the arrangements for the flying of flags from government buildings” in the Province. This was taken by some papers, such as the Guardian, to mean that “the new regulations will not apply to Northern Ireland”.
Critics were swift to point out that once again, the Prime Minister’s efforts seemed only to have confirmed Ulster’s semi-detached status.
This obviously wasn’t good enough. As I noted in this column a couple of weeks ago, and for the Belfast News Letter, such policies would only help to undermine unionist and loyalist support for the Belfast Agreement, especially when delivered on top of the ongoing problems caused by the Protocol. As I put it for the paper:
“Coming hot on the heels of the collapse of the Downing Street ‘Union Unit’, it highlights how difficult it will be to drive forward a strongly pro-Union policy agenda against the entrenched attitudes of Whitehall mandarins. Excluding Ulster once again from a visible expression of its British status smacks strongly of the Northern Irish Office and its institutional culture of exaggerated neutrality.”
Fortunately, for once it seems my pessimism was misplaced. Sources in the Northern Ireland Office report that, having reviewed the legalities, Brandon Lewis has ordered that Stormont House, the Department’s headquarters in the Province, will fly the national flag all year round, bringing it into line with the DCMS guidance. The Secretary of State apparently takes the view that, as a UK-wide institution, UK Government buildings in Ulster should not be treated differently to those in other parts of the country.
This will doubtless set spluttering those commentators who view anything that irritates nationalists as a violation of the ‘spirit’ of the Belfast Agreement. But it is an important, if small, step towards demonstrating that the Government is taking its commitment to Northern Ireland, and its place in the United Kingdom, seriously. Lewis should follow it up by teaming up with the law officers to develop a long-overdue understanding of what the UK’s obligations under the Agreement actually are – rather than getting sold on fictitious obligations by Dublin, as Theresa May was.
Scottish Tories double down on SNP rhetoric… as Nationalists back off referendum
Last week, I wrote about how the Scottish Conservatives have angered their Westminster colleagues by putting the Nationalists’ central election message – that an SNP majority means another independence referendum – at the heart of their own campaign.
Perhaps that’s one reason why Douglas Ross confirmed this week that the Prime Minister will not be heading north of the border to campaign before election day.
But the dissent is not confined to London. Over the past week Scottish figures have also got in touch to vent their frustration at a strategy seen as putting the scramble for second place ahead of the best interests of the country. Worse, if you genuinely believe that Boris Johnson can and will refuse a referendum – and you should – then its actually misleading the electorate.
And it continues to undermine efforts to scrutinise the SNP’s woeful record in government, with the Daily Record pointing out that the Tories’ own manifesto mentions independence more times than the NHS.
Most bizarrely of all, they are persisting with this even whilst the Nationalists themselves start backing away from a referendum. They have opted not to refer to it on their ballot paper description, and Nicola Sturgeon has suggested that the pandemic might need to push any poll back to 2024 – a move which leaves her vulnerable to Alex Salmond and his Alba Party, who have been quick to seize the opportunity.
(This might have something to do with the fact that it turns out that several major polls for the Scotsman newspaper failed to properly weight for likelihood to vote and thus overstated support for both the SNP and independence, as the Spectator’s Mr Steerpike sets reveals.)
The oddest part is that wouldn’t even be difficult to fix the messaging. Just replace ‘only’ with ‘best’ in the tweet below and it not only retains its crystal clarity, but it becomes true, allowing the Scottish Conservatives to mobilise their voters without undermining the Prime Minister’s prerogative to maintain the UK.
The ONLY way to stop an SNP majority and another divisive referendum is to use your peach ballot paper for the @ScotTories.
Using it for any other party will split the pro-UK vote and let the SNP in. Don’t risk it. pic.twitter.com/iWjjzwcYPi
— Scottish Conservatives (@ScotTories) April 21, 2021