Given that the Russo-Ukrainian war has led the Government to spike once again any plans to trigger Article 16, ministers ought to be striving to avoid any step which needlessly needles unionist sensitivities in the run-up to the Stormont elections in May.
Unfortunately, there have been several such stories in recent weeks. And whilst some are not really the Government’s fault – such as the Palace deciding to cut the number of days the Union Jack should be flown on official buildings in Northern Ireland – the Treasury is shaping up as the worst offender.
First there was that amendment that tried to replace ‘United Kingdom’ with ‘Great Britain’ in customs legislation. Liz Truss spiked it, and has apparently ordered an investigation into how it got so far through the process without adequate political attention. But others in Whitehall suggest it is very unlikely that it didn’t get some sort of sign-off, not least within the Treasury itself.
Now we have unionist anger at Northern Ireland’s exclusion from Rishi Sunak’s new cut on VAT for households installing energy-efficiency measures. Under the terms of the Protocol, Ulster is bound to follow the European Union’s VAT rules. Whilst the Assembly will receive £47 million in extra cash, this hasn’t stopped the main pro-UK parties uniting to attack this latest evidence of the Withdrawal Agreement hiving Ulster off from the rest of the country.
Nor is this the last such story coming down the track. Officials are reportedly questioning whether or not the Government has the necessary powers to fund the Castlereagh Foundation, a research organisation promised to unionists as part of the ‘New Decade, New Approach’ deal negotiated by Julian Smith. It was quite a small sop to a very angry group, so failure to deliver it would send a terrible signal.
(Of course, the Government very much does have the necessary legal authority: Section 50 of the UK Internal Market Act authorises additional central spending in the devolved territories for a very broad range of reasons, including education. But apparently the Department for Levelling Up, Housing, and Communities is trying to set itself up as the gatekeeper of when other departments make use of UKIMA and dislikes them so doing.)
Terror threat level in Northern Ireland falls
But it isn’t all bad news. For the first time in twelve years, the terror threat level in Northern Ireland has been cut. According to an independent assessment by MI5, it has been reduced from ‘Severe’ to ‘Substantial’.
This doesn’t mean the threat has gone away completely. ‘Substantial’ still means that an attack is “likely” and could happen without further warning.
But it is a welcome bit of good news for a Province which too often only crosses the radar of people on the mainland in the context of danger and dysfunction.
It is first and foremost a testament to the efficacy of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, for example by finding and prosecuting those responsible for the 2019 murder by republicans of the journalist Lyra McKee.
Then there has been the great success of Operation Arbacia, a major investigation into the ‘New IRA’: ten members arrested in an Ireland-wide police operation in 2020; four arrested in connection with dissident republican activity last March; the recapture of an on-the-run NIRA leader.
There have also been some successes against loyalist groups, although in recent years these have tended to focus more on gangsterism than organised political violence.