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View of Northern Ireland as a ‘bloody awful country’ persists in Westminster

For many ministers at the Northern Ireland Office it has been simply a task of maintaining order and keeping noise to a minimum

It has not been much celebrated, but this year marks the 50th anniversary of the suspension of the Parliament of Northern Ireland.

On March 30th 1972, as the violence of the Troubles spiralled out of control, the British prime minister, Edward Heath, decided to end the decades of devolved government and impose direct rule from Westminster.

Last week the House of Commons debated the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill. Like direct rule, in a way, it is another gambit by London politicians to bring harmony to Northern Ireland; also like direct rule, it will cause great anger in some quarters and has been criticised as high-handed and autocratic. It is a common theme in Irish history that some things never change.

The stakes are high. Foreign minister, Simon Coveney, is “deeply disappointed” at the British government’s actions on the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP), and relations between London and Dublin are said to be at a generational low.

Although unionist parties in Northern Ireland welcome the NIP’s repudiation, the largest party in the Assembly, Sinn Féin, waits impatiently to nominate a speaker so that an executive can begin to be formed.

It is popular to blame the erratic policymaking of Boris Johnson for the antagonism. Certainly the prime minister is no stickler for constitutional detail nor is he kept awake at night by the spectre of violated international norms.

But it speaks of a deeper malaise, a systemic and long-standing inability of successive Westminster governments to get under the skin of either community in Northern Ireland, or to grasp the quicksilver nature of UK-Irish relations.

It was the brilliant but bibulous Reginald Maudling, then home secretary, who summed up London’s view of Northern Ireland which persists to this day. Visiting the province in 1970, he said to an aide as he departed: “For God’s sake, bring me a large Scotch. What a bloody awful country”. Politicians in Westminster have learned not to say this out loud, but suspicions persist that it remains unspoken.

The real problem is that Northern Ireland has for the past 50 years largely been consigned by most of Whitehall to a box marked “Too difficult”.

Brave or unlucky politicians have from time to time donned the protective clothing and tackled the issue: Whitelaw, Prior, Mayhew, Mowlam, Mandelson. True, John Major and Tony Blair genuinely put their shoulders to the wheel and forged the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, but for many ministers at the Northern Ireland Office it has been simply a task of maintaining order and keeping noise to a minimum.

One overlooked consequence of direct rule in 1972 was the Official Unionist Party ceased to take the Conservative whip at Westminster.

Previously, the 12 MPs representing Northern Ireland had largely been unionist, and had operated as part of the Conservative parliamentary group. Occasionally they had taken Government positions: Robin Chichester-Clark had been a senior whip, while Knox Cunningham served as Harold Macmillan’s parliamentary private secretary. When they became a separate party, they were more easily dismissed as “other”.

Nor have Ulstermen or women tended to make their way in mainstream British politics. Kate Hoey, Antrim-born, was a long-serving Labour MP, while Brian Mawhinney, from Belfast, served in John Major’s Cabinet. By and large, though, Northern Ireland has been left to its own people, below the level of senior government.

The English, Welsh and Scots politicians who have been installed at Hillsborough Castle over the years have not always been shining stars, either.

Jim Prior was made Northern Ireland secretary as a dismal denouement of a once-promising career; Theresa Villiers similarly found the exit signposted by Northern Ireland; while Karen Bradley admitted she hadn’t realised that people voted on sectarian lines.

It ought hardly to be a surprise, then, that successive British governments come to office with a thin veneer of understanding of Ireland. They have no significant party grassroots in Northern Ireland, few will have visited either North or South, and only a handful will have any grasp of the deep religious divides of Northern Ireland society. Stuttering devolution has almost made things worse; the issue seems forever on the verge of solving itself.

If the UK and the US are countries divided by a common language, the situation is even starker across the Irish Sea. We are so close, and share so much: but a little learning would go a long way, at least in London

Eliot Wilson is co-founder of Pivot Point Group and former House of Commons clerk