Northern Irish Executive Could Collapse Without Action To Address "Serious Crisis," Former Minister Warns
Northern Ireland's power-sharing government could fall apart again in the coming months unless the government steps up efforts to stabilise the province after recent unrest, an ex-Cabinet minister has warned.
David Lidington, the former chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, said on Monday "the crisis in Northern Ireland is serious" after a few weeks which have seen violent riots on the streets of the province and the attempted murder of a police officer in county Derry.
The unrest, which has led to dozens of police officers being injured, is fuelled by several factors.
There is frustration in loyalist communities over the contentious decision of authorities not to prosecute Sinn Fein politicians who attended the funeral of former IRA chief Bobby Storey last year, and with Brexit's impact on the province's relationship with the rest of the UK.
There has also been a backlash against the Police Service Northern Ireland (PSNI) crackdown on loyalist paramilitary gangs.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been under pressure to take the province more seriously amid claims that Northern Ireland is suffering from a Westminster leadership vacuum.
Four former secretaries of state for Northern Ireland this week signed a letter warning the province's political institutions could "fall over" and urging the government "at the highest level" to show more interest in loyalist communities.
The letter said the government's failure to be honest about the consequences of the Northern Ireland Protocol, agreed by UK and EU negotiators last year to avoid a contentious hard border with the Republic of Ireland, had contributed to loyalist resentment.
The Protocol has created barriers to trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, with the disruption leading some businesses in Great Britain to stop sending goods across the Irish Sea.
One of the signatories, ex-Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain, recently told PoliticsHome that successive governments had shown "casual indifference" towards the province and "taken their eye off the ball".
The Prime Minister and Brandon Lewis, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, have resisted calls to convene an emergency summit with the Irish government to discuss the situation in the province.
Lidington warned the unrest could lead to the collapse of Northern Ireland's power-sharing government.
"It's not like what The Troubles were like in the seventies and eighties, but there’s a very serious risk of the devolved institutions collapsing in the next 12 months," he said yesterday.
He warned that the divisiveness of the Northern Ireland Protocol could lead to opinion splitting "very much along secterian lines" at next year's assembly elections.
"That’d be deeply, deeply dangerous and depressing for the future of Northern Ireland”.Lidington, who played a key role in the UK's Brexit preparations as a member of Theresa May's government, urged both the government and the EU to "compromise" on the Northern Ireland Protocol to make it less disruptive to everyday life and help abate tensions in the province.
“The UK government needs to accept publicly that the Protocol, which it signed up to and campaigned for, is there to stay and that implementation will require some difference in the trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland," the former Cabinet minister said.
Brussels must agree to reduce the number of checks being carried out on trade across the Irish Sea, Lidington argued, as the threat to its Single Market is "insignificant given the cross-border trade represented a tiny fraction of UK-EU trade, let alone the Single Market as a whole".
UK and EU officials are currently engaged in talks about how the post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland can be simplified for businesses. Smaller traders in particular have struggled with the deluge of new customs and health paperwork required for goods heading across the Irish Sea.
David Frost, the Cabinet Office minister who led trade talks with the EU, two weeks ago met with European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic to discuss potential changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Both sides said the meeting was constructive but there were still issues to be resolved.