A poisoned chalice

9 Sep 2022 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 9 Sep 2022

A poisoned chalice, pic: Unsplash

Heavy hitters Penny Mordant, Iain Duncan Smith and Sajid Javid were all offered the post Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. All turned it down, which is why we now have Chris Heaton-Harris at the helm.

This is not to decry Heaton-Harris, who may prove to be exceptional, it simply demonstrates the extent to which the office has fallen from high prestige, one to be held by your very best operator (people like Willie Whitelaw, Peter Brooke, Douglas Hurd and Peter Mandelson) to one to be avoided at all cost.

One consolation for Heaton-Harris will be to note that the bar set by recent post-holders is reassuringly low. We’ve had the likes of Karen Bradley, who admitted that before her appointment she did not realise that nationalists did not vote for unionist parties and vice versa. She demonstrated that even the most rudimentary knowledge is not a requirement for the post. Her basic ignorance was compounded by her absence – she was reported as saying she hoped to be able to be in Northern Ireland for one day a week.

Our latest in the post Shailesh Vara lasted one month and 30 days. He will be remembered not for what he did here but for his (alleged) question to a junior minister when he asked if he’d need a passport to visit Derry.

Heaton-Harris will also occupy a role which on one hand doesn’t make sense in a democracy and on the other gives him considerable responsibility for matters over which he has next to no control. And if he is successful it is unlikely to be a great boost to his standing in Daventry, the Northamptonshire town he represents at Westminster. 

The Northern Ireland Office which the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland heads says it “ensures Northern Ireland interests are fully and effectively represented at Westminster and the heart of Government, and the Government’s responsibilities are fully and effectively represented in Northern Ireland.”

It adds: “Our key purpose is to make politics work by working alongside the Northern Ireland Executive to help improve the effectiveness and delivery of the devolved institutions; to ensure a more secure Northern Ireland; deliver a growing economy including rebalancing the economy; and ensure a stronger society by supporting initiatives designed to build better community relations and a genuinely shared future.”

When the House of Lords carried out an inquiry into devolution way back in 2002 Bill Jeffrey, then political director of the Northern Ireland Office, described the role of the Secretary of State thus: 

“It is a false dichotomy to say that the Secretary of State is either Northern Ireland's man in government or the government's man in Northern Ireland. He tries to be both"

The question Heaton-Harris should be asking himself today is whether there is a legitimate role for either function.

Today the Conservative Party run Westminster but don’t have any representation here. When they do stand in the polls they get routinely trounced.

Some of his views as evidenced by his voting record are convergent with some of the parties but he follows a Tory political agenda and not one generated, or winning votes here. 

So how will he determine “the views of Northern Ireland”, especially when they are so divergent and so often split on sectarian lines? What evidence will or even can he have to back any decisions he may make on the basis of perceptions he has formed?

Is there any real value in that anyway?

Our politicians may have many characteristics, positive and negative, but they are all more than capable of speaking for themselves.

The Minister also has responsibility for the Northern Ireland budget but the way that works is that he retains the funds for running his own office and gives the vast bulk to the Executive and has no control over how that money is spent. So he has no accountability to Parliament for what the devolved Assembly does or how it spends its money.

That leaves the big, live question of the overall management of the peace process and specifically our malfunctioning Executive and Assembly. The Executive is not functioning because of the DUP which has made its stance clear – it will not be part of government whilst the protocol is still in place.

Unilaterally breaching the Protocol is likely to provoke a trade war with the EU and it is hard to imagine that that is really what the British want at a time of war and a massive energy crisis, notwithstanding both Heaton-Harris and Steve Baker, ERG stalwarts are now in the Northern Ireland Office.

By the end of next month Heaton-Harris may have a huge crisis to manage. If there is no functioning government formed by then we should have an election, which on current polling would be unlikely to resolve the deadlock, and with government functions stalled at a time of deep crisis a further dilemma presents itself: what to do next.

Direct rule was an option in the past. But we’re now in different times. The recent convention was for the British government of whatever party to avoid overt party-political alignment in Northern Ireland. That was shattered by the Conservatives’ Confidence and Supply agreement with the DUP and has been entrenched further by growing divisions over Brexit itself.

In that context it is most unlikely that nationalist parties would consent to direct rule. Imposing it would be very divisive and extremely high risk, especially given the fact that the position that is evolving over Northern Ireland sits uneasily with the Downing Street Declaration which spoke of Britain having no “selfish strategic or economic interest” in Northern Ireland.

It will also be at that point that Heaton-Harris will realise that he undermining of the government’s standing as even handed when coupled with the obvious lack of understanding of Northern Ireland and of local sensitivities puts the UK government at a big disadvantage – not just when dealing with the parties in Northern Ireland, but also with the Republic, where senior officials and politicians are much more politically attuned to the history of the island of Ireland.

No wonder so many of his senior colleagues see his new Cabinet post as a poisoned chalice.

We are running out of time for the Executive and Assembly. This is a deep crisis of governance and if there are any solutions they are not at all obvious. The best Heaton-Harris can do is to say as little as possible, to do nothing, and to hope above hope that he is no longer sitting in the chair when the music stops.




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