In just a few short weeks, Liz Truss’s new government has gone from clear, focused and confident to weak, aimless and inconsistent.
On Sunday, the Prime Minister assured viewers on the BBC that her administration would stick to its plans to scrap the 45p rate of income tax. Just hours later, on Monday morning, the nation woke up to learn that she had performed an embarrassing u-turn.
In a lower key development, the Northern Ireland Minister, Steve Baker – once the leader of the self-declared ‘Spartans’ who scuppered Theresa May’s Brexit deal – issued an apology to the Republic of Ireland and the EU for his conduct during the withdrawal negotiations. ‘I and others,’ Mr Baker said, ‘did not always behave in a way which encouraged Ireland and the European Union to trust us to accept that they have legitimate interests. I am sorry about that.’
This was an extraordinary contribution and one that is unlikely to be reciprocated in Dublin or Brussels. Indeed, ahead of a new set of negotiations on the Northern Ireland Protocol, it will only strengthen their attempts to demonise Britain and portray Conservative ministers as cavalier about the interests of Ulster, the ‘peace process’ and British-Irish relations.
The irony is that it was EU negotiators who weaponised Northern Ireland and its troubled past most ruthlessly, in an attempt to undermine Brexit and punish the UK. They found reliable allies in Dublin, where the likes of Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney were prepared to exploit reservoirs of latent anglophobia in order to boost their own domestic political ambitions.
Infamously, former Taoiseach Varadkar used an old newspaper cutting about an IRA attack on a border post to argue that he could accept no new infrastructure at the Irish frontier. That was not at the time a routine or easily defensible position. A survey by Queen’s University had just shown that only 14% of voters in Northern Ireland would find new cameras at the border ‘impossible to accept’.
Varadkar is currently Michael Martin’s deputy under the Republic’s coalition arrangements, but he is due to take up the prime minister’s post again in December. Will he apologise for using the spectre of republican violence in an attempt to wrench Northern Ireland economically and politically away from the rest of the UK?
There is not the faintest possibility of that happening. Indeed, there is not the slightest chance that any significant Irish politician will acknowledge that they share responsibility for the degraded state of British-Irish relationships.
The Protocol debacle can be attributed, in large part, to Westminster politicians’ oversensitivity to the sensibilities of the Dublin government and Irish separatists in Ulster. Theresa May supported the ‘backstop’ eventually to keep Britain tied closely to Brussels, but she started down that route after ruling out any hardening of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, irrespective of the context or the EU’s demands. An influential Policy Exchange paper showed how her defensive approach to Irish hostility made the Protocol far more difficult to avoid for Boris Johnson’s government.
In his comments at the Conservative Party conference, Steve Baker claimed that he had shown the type of ‘humility’ that is needed for the UK and the EU to reach a negotiated solution on the Protocol. But he acknowledged too that the Irish Sea border is not justifiable in its current form.
‘It is not acceptable that Northern Ireland is so separate from Great Britain right now under the Protocol; the Protocol which at the moment is partially implemented.’
He went on:
‘That combination of humility and resolve and that willingness to build up relations and say actually, yes, we do want to be Ireland’s closest friends and partners, as we all respect all three strands of the Belfast / Good Friday Agreement – that is where we really need to be.’
In a follow-up interview with Irish radio, though, Mr Baker claimed that the government would go into negotiations with the EU with no ‘red lines’.
That is some distance from the clear position that Liz Truss articulated at her first Prime Minister’s Questions. She said then that her preference was a negotiated solution to the Protocol, but that it would ‘have to deliver all of the things we set out in the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill’.
During her leadership bid, she explained these principles. They were: 1) That goods destined for Northern Ireland could move freely from Great Britain 2) That Northern Irish companies could choose to adhere to British regulations 3) That the UK courts would be the ultimate arbiters of any legal disputes about the Protocol in NI and 4) That Northern Ireland’s companies could avail of any tax breaks that are introduced in the rest of the UK.
These are the bare minimum requirements for the Government to argue that it has restored the province’s place in the UK’s internal market. They cannot be bartered away, as the Northern Ireland Minister seemed to imply in his radio interview, in a ‘negotiating tunnel’, or the Protocol’s constitutional problems will persist. And if the Protocol remains an affront to British sovereignty in Northern Ireland, it is unlikely that the DUP will accept the restoration of the power-sharing executive, which means another Stormont election this year and more political instability.
Mr Baker built up his reputation as an uncompromising backbencher and a critic of backsliding ministers. Now that he is again part of the Government, and takes his advice from the Northern Ireland Office, he may believe that Dublin and Brussels will be more reasonable during the negotiations if he indulges them with a little soft-soaping.
His conciliatory tone will more likely be banked and exploited but it will never be reciprocated. If the Government wants to repair the Union and deal with the Northern Ireland Protocol, it will need a lot of resolve, but must be aware that humility, in the form of needless apologies, will be interpreted as toadying by unionists and weakness by the EU.
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