Johnson talks tough on the Northern Irish Protocol

Earlier this week, I explained that the now-or-never moment for triggering Article 16 is coming, whether the Government likes it or not. The Democratic Unionists’ decision to walk out of Stormont has increased the pressure on Liz Truss and Maroš Šefčovič to find a solution, but there still doesn’t seem to be a realistic landing zone for a deal.

If terms can’t be reached, with the devolved institutions on their knees and the Ulster elections looming, even a strategy based on being seen to bend over backwards to try and find a solution will run out of road. Either the Government will avail itself of the dispute mechanism in the treaty, or it will be clear to all it never will.

As ever, the crucial factor here is Boris Johnson’s position. One question hanging over Lord Frost’s departure is the extent to which it was driven by the Prime Minister not giving him sufficient support to make triggering Article 16, and facing down the backlash from the European Union.

Yesterday, in a response to a question in the Commons from Ian Paisley Jr, Johnson reiterated his willingness to do to so, saying: “I believe we can fix it but if our friends don’t show the requisite common sense then of course we will trigger Article 16.”

He also said that the Province’s peace settlement is “being upset” by the Protocol. This point is surely increasingly difficult to dispute; in addition to the DUP walking out of the Executive, this week also saw the news that street rallies and direct protests against the Sea Border are set to resume. This will only further amp up the pressure on unionist politicians in the run-up to May’s elections.

But actually triggering Article 16, and winning the subsequent dispute, means the UK needs a comprehensive contingency plan in place for weathering Brussels’ retaliation. It is difficult to believe that sort of detailed work, requiring the Prime Minister’s imprimatur, has been ticking along over the past few weeks whilst he has been fighting for his political life.

As England plans to scrap restrictions, Drakeford catches Covid

This morning’s Daily Mail reports that Johnson has urged Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon to join him in setting aside coronavirus restrictions early. Yet in Scotland the First Minister has announced her plans to keep the measures on the books for months yet, whilst in Wales the master of the absurd regulation has contracted the virus himself, which seems unlikely to push him towards a more relaxed approach.

Such enthusiasm on the part of the devolved administrations is, alas, par for the course. In fact, true to the adage that there is nothing so permanent as a temporary solution at the start of the month the SNP came in for fierce criticism over ‘power grab’ proposals which would seen the Scottish Government hold on to its emergency powers indefinitely.

Legacy Bill could create pathway to prosecuting terrorists who refuse to cooperate

According to the Daily Telegraph, Brandon Lewis is considering modifications to the upcoming Legacy Bill to create more scope for prosecuting terrorists for crimes committed during the Troubles if they don’t cooperate with the authorities.

The Bill has been stalled following fierce objections from military veterans and victims’ organisations; unionist commentators believe that the legacy arrangements are being systematically stacked against British forces, with the actions of terrorist groups receiving much less scrutiny.

Under the proposals, a new South Africa-style independent body would be established to investigate deaths without an actual police inquiry. But as originally drafted, ex-servicemen would be compelled to testify whilst paramilitaries could simply not turn up.

So the Secretary of State is “is considering strengthening powers in the Bill to force terror suspects to participate in hearings into hundreds of unsolved murders during the Troubles”, the paper reports.

In related news, several retired officers of the Royal Ulster Constabulary are hinting at legal action against the Police Ombudsman over its claims that elements of the force actively collaborated in several loyalist attacks.

Sturgeon admits Scotland would pay its own pensions

In a sign that the SNP are still nowhere close to delivering a realistic and attractive prospectus for breaking up the UK, Ian Blackford this week tried to sell Scottish pensioners on the idea that the rest of the UK would continue to pay their state pensions in the event of independence.

Sturgeon tried to muddy the waters by saying that it would be up for negotiation along with other “historic assets and liabilities”. Except there is no National Insurance fund to serve as an asset over which a new Scottish state could stake a claim; it’s a fiction.

However, whilst throwing out that chaff the First Minister did admit that responsibility for paying out on Scottish pensions would fall to the Scottish state, in what the Spectator dubbed “a tacit rebuke” of the man who leads her MPs at Westminster. A poor showing for a once-formidable operation.