Is it worth knowing the name of the new Foreign Secretary for Northern Ireland? The reason I ask is that Chris Heaton-Harris is the third incumbent in three months – this has become the most capricious post in the UK Cabinet, with short term appointments built in.
Survival rates appear to be dependent on a variety of external circumstances – as in the case of butterflies, which typically live for two weeks to several months, depending on the weather and predators. So the tenure of the North Minister is equal to the lifespan of an insect. Perhaps that’s why, no matter how ambitious the MP, every new incumbent needs to be pushed to accept the, er, honor.
Apparently Mr Heaton-Harris wasn’t the first choice and a number of others refused to drink from the poisoned cup – Penny Mordaunt, Sajid Javid and Iain Duncan Smith are all said to have bleached and begged. Apparently they believe the situation in Belfast is unsolvable.
The DUP is in no-current mode and considers the Northern Ireland Protocol bill, currently being led by Westminster, a victory. But only if it waters down the record significantly. If the Lords get their hands on the bill, the DUP will not be happy with their amendments.
Meanwhile, the US remains steadfast in protecting the Good Friday Agreement, a position US President Joe Biden reiterated in his first meeting with incoming Prime Minister Liz Truss earlier this week.
If Britain continues on its collision course with the EU, it won’t be able to negotiate an American trade deal because tearing up the EU divorce deal jeopardizes the border.
Therefore, Ms Truss, like others before her, must decide whether to approach trade unionists or go ahead with Brexit. It seems less a question of whether she will disappoint the DUP – more of how soon it will happen? Sammy Wilson can cast figures to his heart’s content about Mr. Biden taking part in the Irish-American vote as he does Tomorrow Ireland yesterday, but Britain needs this trade deal more than it needs to keep the DUP happy.
Voters are “tired of the Brexit wars,” says a former Northern secretary of state, Julian Smith – one of the few who has recently understood the dynamics of the region. He survived only six months – the lifespan of a winter bee.
Here’s a golden rule of politics: If a policy isn’t right, changing personnel won’t do anything—but correcting the policy and deadlocks will be removed.
Giving Mr Heaton-Harris the keys to Hillsborough Castle is as irrelevant as giving them to his short-lived predecessor, whose name I can never remember without a Google search. He was in office for just two months – that’s the lifespan of a housefly.
The revolving door in the Northern Secretary’s office suggests Torydom is no longer taking the post seriously. Historically, incumbents have been politicians of substance, from William Whitelaw in 1972 to Jim Prior, Tom King, Peter Brooke and Patrick Mayhew.
The latter was succeeded by Labour’s Mo Mowlam, who was there for the two and a half years during which the Good Friday Agreement was signed. However, an increasingly tense relationship with union parties saw Tony Blair eventually assume responsibility for the portfolio, prompting Ms Mowlam to tell then-US President Bill Clinton, “I’m the new tea lady here.”
Peter Mandelson replaced her and oversaw reform of the police service, but in his first speech he referred to himself as “Secretary of State for Ireland”. Even able-bodied British politicians get a little muddled when it comes to that pesky island across the Irish Sea.
The Northern Secretary represents the region at the UK Cabinet table, oversees the work of the decentralized administration and is responsible for its elections.
Northern politicians can expect further electoral bias on this issue shortly. The last election took place in May, when Sinn Féin became the strongest party. If normal politics applied, there would be no more elections before 2027, but election cycles in the North are also comparable to the lifespans of insects.
Power-sharing agreements give veto power to the largest nationalist and unionist blocs because their participation is required, thereby avoiding the dominance of one tradition. But the DUP refuses to appoint a spokesman or deputy first minister in protest at the protocol, which the party – rightly so – undermines the place of unions in the UK. The DUP electorate supports this position by suggesting that identity politics trumps bread-and-butter issues among some demographics. However, both the majority of people in Northern Ireland and the majority of MLAs believe that the Protocol benefits the region.
Ms Truss has more pressing issues to consider but has no choice but to reserve some bandwidth for Northern Ireland. Even if it’s just listening to Mr Heaton-Harris’ report to Cabinet, rolling your eyes and saying, ‘Go ahead.’
The rules state that the caretaker executive must be dissolved by October 28 and officials assume responsibility (caretaker ministers are currently in office). Another election must be called within 12 weeks, meaning January 19 is the deadline, although late November or early December are possible. But will another election yield a different result? Maybe not. Alternatively, direct rule could be reinstated – but nationalism would not accept this. In short, assembly orders are not practical.
Hearing Sammy Wilson on RTÉ radio yesterday was depressingly repetitive. The DUP will not return to power-sharing while the protocol’s “poison” is in effect, and Ms Truss “must stand up to this blackmail” from Mr. Biden with his “distorted view” of the Good Friday Agreement.
So much angry buzz, so little understanding of the real world where people are crushed by the rising cost of living.
Mr Heaton-Harris has been number six in the hot seat for as many years.
A self-proclaimed “fierce Eurosceptic”, former MEP and leader of the Conservative Party, he chaired the European Research Group from 2010 to 2016. In principle, he is on the same side as the DUP. But principles will not break the deadlock on Brexit – this is where pragmatism comes into play. But will it?
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/new-northern-secretary-chris-heaton-harris-may-be-singing-off-same-hymn-sheet-as-dup-but-he-will-need-to-get-brexit-done-41974324.html New Secretary of State for the North, Chris Heaton-Harris, may be singing from the same hymn sheet as the DUP, but he needs to get Brexit done