Over the past few years, one of the biggest complaints that Northern Irish unionists have had about the British Government is the sense that the Northern Ireland Office is not on their side. They contrast the NIO’s painstaking neutralism with Dublin’s energetic championing if the nationalist interest in the Province.
This has become an especially sore point in the aftermath of the EU referendum, as London ended up getting comprehensively outmanoeuvred over Ulster. Theresa May ended up accepting the need for a ‘backstop’ or Protocol after basically getting memed into an absurdly maximalist interpretation of “our obligations under the Good Friday Agreement”.
It ought to have been the NIO’s responsibility to have the UK Government’s own understanding of its commitments properly articulated and ready to go. They did not, and the result was an abject episode of British diplomacy, the dire consequences of which Lord Frost has been tasked with unpicking.
Fortunately, the Government seems to have realised that the problems created by the Protocol are not simply a matter for its trade negotiators. A border in the Irish Sea strikes directly at Northern Ireland’s position as an equal part of the United Kingdom. Reassurance needs to be offered on multiple fronts.
It is therefore very welcome that Brandon Lewis, the Secretary of State, announced yesterday that the town of Hillsborough is going to become the first in the Province to be awarded ‘Royal status’, in light of its “close ties to the Royal Family”.
Obviously this is only a small thing in itself. But the fine details of life – see also inviting Rangers and Celtic to join the Premier League, or running Great British Railways in national livery – add up. If the Belfast Agreement is to endure as a settlement that respects (and is thus respected by) both communities – and that isn’t certain – the Government must be unafraid to reinforce Northern Ireland’s British status in deed, as well as in word.
There will be those who splutter about “more flags”, just as they did when ministers announced an expanded footprint for UK Government departments or Lewis confirmed they would fly the Union Jack. This is the same sort of thinking that saw litigants try to take Theresa May’s ministry to court over its confidence and supply arrangement with the Democratic Unionist Party, as if the very participation of Northern Irish MPs in a British Government breached an Agreement that explicitly affirms their Britishness.
For too long, the institutional attitude of the NIO seemed to reflect the mindset that has afflicted London’s approach to Ulster since the foundation of Stormont: that it is to be quietly sidelined from the UK’s national life until it inevitably joins the Republic. There has apparently been a belated but determined effort to shift this since the election, with one official allegedly complaining that the Department is now ‘too right-wing and too unionist’ – which is only fitting for a right-wing, unionist Government.
The question is whether this can be sustained. Changing deep-seated attitudes takes a long time, and mainland politicians thrust into Northern Irish posts seem especially prone to capture by groupthink. Even today, when food supplies to the Province have only been maintained by unilateral British action, Simon Hoare – the Chair of the Northern Ireland Select Committee – claims businesses in North Dorset would “bite your hand off” for Ulster’s semi-detached commercial status. It would be a crying shame if all this good would were squandered by a careless reshuffle.