British Prime Minister Boris Johnson paid a galling visit to the north of Ireland on Friday as part of a Tory onslaught to preserve the union. Rubbing elbows with occupying British soldiers at a helicopter base, Johnson’s visit appeared designed to deliberately infuriate nationalists.
No meeting took place with Sinn Féin, who described the visit as a “PR stunt” and a “day out for unionism”.
The failure of Brexiteers to reinforce the union has triggered the current pan-unionist campaign involving the Tory government.
On January 31, Britain left the EU, taking the north of Ireland with it against its will. Under the Irish protocol of the Brexit deal, the North remained within the EU customs union and single market for goods, preventing an inevitable remilitarisation of the border through Ireland.
A sense of ‘buyer’s remorse’ among unionists in London and Belfast has become stronger as the real implications of Brexit became clearer in recent weeks. A series of belligerent and provocative statements were issued by the Tories, all geared in the effort to ‘strengthen the union’ with both the north of Ireland and Scotland.
Last week saw Johnson widely mocked over his insistence on planning for the construction of a bridge or tunnel, dubbed a ‘unionist umbilical cord’, to physically connect the northeast of Ireland to Britain.
The latest Tory absurdity came from Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House of Commons, who has suggested the Westminster parliament could move temporarily to Belfast for two weeks.
He also declared his government’s ‘selfish interest’ in the north of Ireland, betraying three decades of delicate peace choreography in a single swoop. His outburst effectively negates the 1990 statement of the former British Direct Ruler in Ireland, Peter Brooke, that Britain had “no selfish strategic interest” in remaining in Ireland.
Johnson baffled peace process veterans today when he said “there has got to be east-west consent” to the Irish protocol, despite his government agreeing to it in December, after almost three years of fraught negotiations. The east-west strand (strand 3) of the Good Friday Agreement refers to relationships between Dublin and London.
The bumbling Tory leader was speaking to journalists at a Covid-19 vaccination centre, where he was holding another photo opportunity alongside DUP leader Arlene Foster, and called for “balance and symmetry” for both communities in the North.
“We want to ensure that the protocol upholds the wishes of both communities and has the consent of both,” he said. “There has got to be east-west consent to what is going on, as well as north-south. We want to make sure that is built into that.”
Mrs Foster said she had urged Mr Johnson to “stand up for Northern Ireland” and scrap the “intolerable” and “unworkable” protocol which has increased paperwork at ports in the north of Ireland.
The DUP has previously supported the protocol, but now claims the measures have “created societal division and economic harm”. Mrs Foster called for a “permanent solution” so that “the integrity of the United Kingdom internal market can be restored”.
Meanwhile, the North’s deputy first minister, Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill, declined to welcome the British Prime Minister to Belfast after a request for a political meeting with her and Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald was again rejected by Johnson.
Ms O’Neill said: “Mary Lou McDonald and myself have a long-standing request to meet with the British prime minister to discuss a number of commitments which he and his government have reneged on in the New Decade New Approach over this past year, and also his reckless and partisan approach to the Irish Protocol.
“He did not facilitate the meeting. I have no plans to meet with him today.”
Sinn Féin MP John Finucane said the party was refusing to engage with what he described as a “day out for unionism” after Downing Street rejected a request for a “professional, grown-up engagement”.
“We’re not in the business of engaging in a fairly superficial PR stunt, which is what the British prime minister invited us to do today,” the North Belfast MP said.
“We have made the request to meet with him. I think it’s insulting to the 770,000 people on this island who vote for us that he feels it appropriate to ignore and refuse that meeting.”
NEW BRITISH HQ FOR BELFAST
There was a further significant provocation this week when the British government announced plans to open a new Direct Rule office in the north of Ireland.
London’s Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) is to open an office in an undisclosed location in Belfast, it was announced. Even though housing is a matter which was devolved to the Stormont Executive, the Ministry is already identifying civil servants to send to Ireland to take charge.
A larger transfer of civil servants is also taking place from London to Glasgow in Scotland in an equally provocative move there.
Nichola Mallon of the SDLP said the act “dismantles devolution”. It should be for Stormont ministers to decide on housing priorities, she said, rather than officials being “parachuted in”.
Sinn Féin’s Chris Hazzard warned of a “power grab” and a further effort to “undermine the Good Friday Agreement and its institutions”.
“The British Tory party has no mandate in Ireland,” he said. “This latest action is yet another example of the contempt this Tory government has for our peace agreement in Ireland and for the people who elected administrations in the north, in Scotland and in Wales.”