By Brian Feeney (for Irish News)
The only surprise about the British government’s unilateral plans to legislate for its own version of the procedures for operating the Irish Protocol in the Withdrawal Agreement is that anyone is surprised.
This behaviour is the modus operandi of Conservative governments since 2010. Indeed, the ‘Internal Market bill’ is itself a graphic illustration of their approach of the last decade which can be summed up as wrecking everything Tony Blair’s three Labour governments did as they tried to unravel the mess eighteen years of Conservative government caused.
Nicola Sturgeon has protested repeatedly at what she calls “a power grab” as Johnson’s government takes back powers from the Scottish government which might enable Sturgeon to develop trade with the EU to the advantage of Scotland. The Plaid Cymru leader in the Commons, Liz Saville Roberts, described the Internal Market bill as a plan, “to undo the work of multiple devolution referendums”, and, the repudiation of ongoing negotiations in the Joint Committee on the Irish Protocol as, “rogue state behaviour”.
Dismantling Blair’s work should surprise no one in the north. Since 2010 successive Conservative governments have been egregiously partisan in the unionist cause, most notably, but far from unusually, when Theresa May was in hock to the DUP from July 2017 after she blew the first Conservative majority since 1992. Peter Hain, a former British proconsul here, now in the Lords, has regularly accused the Conservatives, justifiably, of partisan behaviour and of being unable to act as the Good Friday Agreement requires them to be, in his words, a neutral facilitator between the parties.
Instead, Cameron and Theresa May appointed a series of overtly unionist proconsuls who acted high-handedly as colonial governors pandering to every sectarian whim of unionist MPs, oblivious of the damage they were inflicting on the political process which had emerged from the peace process after 2007. You’ll note that once this place was relieved of their presence all proconsuls vanished from frontline politics, with one regarded as a hologram when here, surviving, demoted to minister of state.
During the last decade, after the Hillsborough Agreement of February 2010, not one of the many ‘agreements’ cobbled together at Stormont has been implemented, almost always because unionists walked out or ran to the British government and disowned what they’d agreed. Of course sometimes the British government had second thoughts and refused to implement what they’d signed up to, their major default being successive failures to deal with legacy matters, exacerbated by falsehoods and misrepresentation at the highest level about prosecutions of former British soldiers.
However, the British aren’t entirely to blame despite their hostility to all things Irish and their rejection of the recognition of equality and parity of esteem between both communities here. There are two sides to this tale of the withering of the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement and the stalled political development.
With the 2011 election of Enda Kenny’s Fine Gael coalition the Irish government effectively disengaged from the north and became spectators. Oh yes, various ministers for foreign affairs travelled to Stormont and jointly chaired some meetings, but they never followed through on any obligations as co-guarantors of the GFA. They allowed the institutions of the GFA to shrivel and decline, didn’t operate the British-Irish InterGovernmental Conference as they should have done, and it was intended to do when the assembly was down, never protested at the failure of proconsuls to act with ‘rigorous impartiality’ as required in the GFA. Yes, you can say they faced hostility during May’s dreadful torturous cack-handed talks with the EU and because the DUP did what they could to dismantle parts of the GFA or render it redundant.
You could say that, but the ground had been prepared before that with six years of neglect by Kenny and Varadkar until relations grew fraught in 2017. Dublin has repeated the exercise this year with Micheál Martin. Fine words butter no parsnips.