The comments made by Steve Baker at the Tory conference have caused considerable anxiety among unionists and loyalists in Northern Ireland, fueling the perception that this government is continuing the tradition of its predecessors of putting the interests of nationalists and the Irish government ahead of unionists. Put simply: unionists must give, nationalists must get.
In reality, the entire contribution is more nuanced than the soundbite has stole the headlines. There was a welcome commitment to resolve the protocol, but that has largely been lost in the furore. It may well be the case that Steve Baker’s motives were laudable, if a little misguided. However, the impact of the soundbite will paradoxically make it less rather than more likely that power sharing will be restored in Northern Ireland.
The DUP, even if they were prepared to take a first step towards restoring power-sharing (and for the avoidance of doubt they absolutely should not), would now find even proposing that approach impossible. The cheers currently greeting Sir Jeffrey Donaldson in the streets as a sign of satisfaction with his party’s strong stance would soon give way to jeers, with unionists pointing to the tone struck by both Steve Baker and Chris Heaton-Harris as evidence on why many trade unionists and loyalists believe the government cannot be trusted.
I think that Steve Baker really wants to make a deal that respects the constitutional integrity of the Union. The objective standard by which this is measured is the restoration of the Union Act. In the words of the late Lord Trimblearchitect behind the Belfast Agreement: “The Act of Union is the Union”.
But it is naïve to think that taking a conciliatory tone with the Irish government will do anything but embolden them further. In response to Chris Heaton-Harris’s glowing tribute to Simon Coveney, the Irish government’s EU representative responded by saying a deal could be struck, but only within the framework of the protocol.
Simply put, the Irish government’s premise is that the protocol remains. If that is the case, no deal can be reached which will restore power sharing in Northern Ireland. It is only abrogation of the protocolor at least removing all its key principles to render it impotent, that will suffice to restore the careful balance supposedly created by the Belfast Agreement.
This is the same Irish government that raised the prospect of violence in Northern Ireland for political influence during the Brexit negotiations. They have never apologized for this; rather, they have doubled it in recent times, again raising the prospect of a threat to peace should the government proceed with the protocol proposal to restore Britain’s constitutional integrity.
The apparent belief on the part of Steve Baker that the Irish Government can be reassured or reasoned with is well-intentioned but misplaced. The Irish government will only grow in pompous arrogance and sense weakness on the part of our government which they will try to exploit to the full. In that regard, it is welcome that Prime Minister Liz Truss quickly made it clear that the comments were personal, rather than being on behalf of the government. It may have lessened, but not undone, the damage.
It is trite to point out that the Irish Government can have no “legitimate interest” which outweighs the constitutional integrity of our own country. If respect for Irish interests means that Northern Ireland’s place in the Union must be subordinated, then those interests are not in the interest of preserving the good relations they are presented as, but rather the selfish and strategic constitutional interests of a covetous third country.
The Irish Government must accept the constitutional integrity of the UK and our Government must make it clear that this is non-negotiable.