Johnson warned ‘action is needed now’ on Northern Ireland

Cross-party group of political and religious leaders say recent unrest in Northern Ireland will not burn out over time

Fires burn in Carrickfergus after a night of disturbances across Northern Ireland. File Photograph: Pacemaker

Fires burn in Carrickfergus after a night of disturbances across Northern Ireland. File Photograph: Pacemaker

 

Boris Johnson is being warned by four former Northern secretaries as well as the North’s ex-police chief to “take an interest” in the region before loyalist tensions spiral further over the outcome of Brexit.

Former Archbishop of Armagh Robin Eames and Chris Patten, who oversaw reform of policing in the North, have also put their names to a joint plea for London to rebuild “badly damaged” relations with Dublin.

In an open letter to the British prime minister they are demanding “urgent” intervention, adding that Downing Street “must be honest” with loyalists and unionists that there is likely no alternative to the Northern Ireland protocol.

“With our long collective experience we are extremely worried that violent unrest on the streets of loyalist areas and at interfaces is a consequence of politics, both in Stormont and in Whitehall, failing the people of Northern Ireland,” they write.

Former Northern secretaries Peter Hain, Peter Mandelson, Paul Murphy and Shaun Woodward, and former chief constable Huge Orde are among the signatories of the letter in response to the street violence that has erupted over recent weeks.

Tensions have been linked to bad feeling in unionist and loyalist communities over the Northern Ireland protocol – part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement which puts a trade border in the Irish Sea – and the decision not to prosecute anybody over alleged Covid-19 rule breaches at the funeral of republican Bobby Storey.

“There is a strong sense within loyalist and unionist communities that no one is listening to them, and that nobody in authority in Whitehall has been honest with them about the consequences of Brexit,” the letter states.

“The most immediate step is, therefore, for the government, at the highest level, to be seen to take an interest. As a matter of urgency, the government must address the outworking of the protocol with Brussels.”

Personal charge

The signatories stress the need for Johnson to take personal charge, as, they say, did former prime ministers Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and John Major.

“And if, as is likely, there is no alternative to maintaining the protocol which it has legally agreed, then the government must be honest and say so while securing whatever mitigations it can negotiate with Brussels,” the letter states.

“The people of Northern Ireland were promised the ‘best of both worlds’ by the secretary of state and First Minister Arlene Foster, who spoke about the opportunities and possibilities the post-Brexit arrangements would open up.

“Yet these have not transpired and, in respect of continuing trade with the rest of the United Kingdom, opportunities and possibilities have been reduced not increased.”

Warning that “action is needed now”, the cross-party group of political and religious leaders say the recent unrest “will not literally burn itself out over time”.

“While the violence is unacceptable, the fact is that there are grievances, real and perceived, within the broader unionist community and that cannot be ignored by the UK government,” they write.

“Politics must be made to work again, and crucially politics must be seen to work again.

“The prime minister and the secretary of state [Brandon Lewis] must urgently create the space for local politics to regain the initiative.

“They need to engage directly with local parties and the broader community, and they need to listen and be seen to be listening, not intermittently, as has been the case but continuously. ”

Rebuild trust

The signatories also caution about the “need to rebuild trust with Dublin, which has been badly damaged, and to breathe fresh life into the British Irish intergovernmental process that is a key part of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement.

“The lesson of the past 50 years or more in Northern Ireland is that if there is no forward movement things do not stand still: they fall over,” they state.

“It is the responsibility of the UK government to ensure that does not happen because there is nothing more dangerous than a political vacuum.”