Former Northern Ireland Secretary Accuses Government Of "Casual Indifference" After A Week Of Violence
Two former Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland have called on the government to step up its engagement with the province amid criticism that ministers have been slow to react to sectarian violence.
Peter Hain, who was Northern Ireland Secretary between 2005 and 2007, told PoliticsHome that successive Conservative governments had "taken their eye off the ball" and treated the province with "casual indifference".
Peter Mandelson, who also served as Northern Ireland Secretary under former Prime Minister Tony Blair, said Boris Johnson must approach the issues facing the province with "more candour and engagement".
The current officeholder, Brandon Lewis, flew to Belfast on Thursday for meetings with political leaders in Stormont and stayed until Saturday after a week of unrest in Northern Ireland.
Rioters have thrown petrol bombs and bricks at police, injuring at least 74, and on Wednesday were filmed setting alight to a gate separating loyalist and nationalist communities in west Belfast.
The unrest, which politicians from all sides in Northern Ireland have condemned, is being fuelled by a number of factors: loyalist anger at the contentious decision of authorities last month not to prosecute Sinn Fein politicians who attended the funeral of former IRA chief Bobby Storey, the PSNI's crackdown on paramilitary gangs, and frustration among unionists over Brexit's impact on Northern Ireland's relationship with the rest of the UK.
Prime Minister Johnson condemnded the violence in a joint-statement with the Republic of Ireland's Taoiseach Micheál Martin on Thursday. However, he has faced calls from Labour to visit the province himself, with Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Louise Haigh urging him to "show responsibility".
Hain, who in 2007 negotiated the DUP's agreement with Sinn Fein to form a power-sharing government, said Johnson "should have been over there days ago" and that the situation in Northern Ireland "must be gripped by the highest level" of the UK government.
"The government has allowed this to degenerate to the most serious crisis for a quarter of a century," he told PoliticsHome.
Hain said that bar Conservative MP Julian Smith, who was a "respected" Northern Ireland Secretary, government ministers have not taken Northern Ireland seriously enough over the last decade or so.
“There was a general assumption that after the 2007 settlement Northern Ireland was done and dusted. Cameron, May and above all Johnson have adopted that complacent stance".
He continued: "Compared with the attention Tony Blair, John Major and Gordon Brown gave to Northern Ireland, it has been treated with casual indifference, Frankly, I find it really upsetting.
"I would want my successors, regardless of their political party, to be constantly on the case and engaging – and that hasn’t happened, either at prime ministerial of secretary of state level.
"Brandon Lewis has only belatedly, so I welcome it, flown to Belfast. He should have been there on the first plane".
Hain was particularly damning of the Prime Minister, who he said "does not take Northern Ireland seriously and ever has" and "made a hard Brexit choice knowing what it would mean for Northern Ireland".Northern Ireland's Justice Minister Naomi Long this week said there was "undoubtedly anger in the community" over how the UK's Brexit deal with the European Union had affected the province's relationship with Great Britain.
The Northern Ireland Protocol, agreed by the UK and EU negotiators last year, has created new barriers to trade between the province and the rest of the UK, with the disruption leading some businesses in Great Britain to stop sending goods across the Irish Sea altogether.
Johnson had previously claimed that trade across the Irish Sea would remain "unfettered" after Brexit and in recent weeks has tried to play down issues facing businesses as "teething problems".
Mandelson said loyalists communities in Northern Ireland felt "disrespected throughout the [Brexit] process" by the government's "duplicity" over what the Protocol would mean in practice.
"The UK government throughout the whole negotiation with the EU has been wholly dishonest about what they agreed with the EU and what it means for Northern Ireland," he said.
"This discourages honest discussion about the issues we face and that discussion has got to take place".
"That in no sense justifies the violence at all," he continued. "But the unionist and loyalist side of the Northern Irish community has got to be listened to and their identity needs to be respected, along with that of the nationalist side".
He said "that's got to be understood in Brussels, too," and urged the government and Brussels to find ways of make it simpler for businesses to adhere to the Northern Ireland Protocol.
“We cannot have a stand off between the EU and UK government," Mandelson warned.
"That will simply exacerbate the situation, generate further tension and spark further ill will.
"The British government has got to make clear in public and in private that it is reaffirming its commitment to the Northern Ireland Protocol and they have got to take the discussion inside the room and look at technically how it is operating and whether some flexibility can be introduced".
"The basic EU-UK relationship won’t be changed and people have got to come to terms with that".
Following the death of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh on Friday, the UK has entered an eight day period of national mourning, meaning all ministerial visits, routine announcements and government statements will be paused for until after his funeral, taking place next Saturday.