Over the weekend the Sun published an op-ed by Leo McKinstry which tidily set out the renewed security challenge facing the Government in Northern Ireland.
Two groups of so-called republican ‘dissidents’, the Continuity IRA (CIRA) and the New IRA (NIRA), are orchestrating an escalating string of attacks across the Province. The most recent was a bomb attack just last Monday.
Both groups have a long pedigree: the CIRA broke away in the mid-80s, and whilst the NIRA are, well, new they emerged by incorporating the infamous Real IRA (RIRA), the group behind the 1998 Omagh bombing which killed almost 30 people. But worsening conditions in Northern Ireland are apparently giving both organisations greater scope for action.
With both the backstop and the Government’s confidence and supply arrangement with the Democratic Unionists putting a spotlight on Ulster, Boris Johnson will need to think very carefully about how he responds to this. However, he ought to rule one option out: making political concessions under duress from the threat of republican violence.
Stated baldly like that, this feels like it should be too obvious to need saying at all. But it is the unfortunate implication of the argument, too often heard, that this or that form of Brexit ‘threatens the peace process’. This form of words treats terrorist action as if it were a natural phenomenon, and thus shifts responsibility for it away from the perpetrators and towards the Government.
This sort of deceptive language is similar to that used to adduce the moral authority of the Belfast Agreement in support of various measures – not least an invisible border – not actually set out in it, which I wrote about last year.
A proper response to NIRA/CIRA activity then must include not only a robust security dimension, but a strong political effort to combat any attempt to use their atrocities and threats to force a change in policy. The Government must be equally committed to safeguarding both the people of Northern Ireland and the democratic processes of the United Kingdom from republican terrorists.
Unfortunately, Johnson has inherited a Province which has been neglected for years under Theresa May, who used the Northern Irish Office as a spare sinecure to keep uninspiring loyalists such as Karen Bradley in the Cabinet. Her administration made no progress towards restoring Stormont or towards putting in place a practical, credible plan for instituting direct rule. Her ministers even talked up the prospect of a border poll, yet doubtless the Prime Minister will find no plans laid on how to fight one.
All of which means that the new ‘Minister of the Union‘ must ensure that his Government gives Northern Ireland serious, strategic consideration. It needs to not only get on top of the security situation but onto the front foot in the Brexit ‘air war’, challenging the numerous nationalist narratives surrounding the Province and Brexit, as well as tackling both the immediate problem of governing the region and the longer-term challenge of re-establishing the Assembly and strengthening the Union.
With Johnson himself focusing on Brexit, all this means he needs a Northern Irish Secretary with deep experience of Ulster, a high profile in the relevant media, and real credibility and weight. Instead he has handed the role to Julian Smith, and dismissed long-term adviser Lord Caine to boot.
Does the Prime Minister have a plan? Or, like May before him, does he just not take the NIO seriously? If he truly cares about the Union, that has to change.