British trend to unilateralism is a deeply unwelcome development

Amnesty for Troubles crimes just the latest example of an unhelpful bloody-mindedness

UK prime minister Boris Johnson. Photograph: David Rose/Pool/AFP via Getty

UK prime minister Boris Johnson. Photograph: David Rose/Pool/AFP via Getty

Your Web Browser may be out of date. If you are using Internet Explorer 9, 10 or 11 our Audio player will not work properly.
For a better experience use Google Chrome, Firefox or Microsoft Edge.

 

The UK government has now published draft legislation to end all prosecutions for historic offences in Northern Ireland and to prevent other prosecutions being brought forward. This effective amnesty, both for former British soldiers and for the perpetrators of terrorist offences, raises complex issues. The pros and cons can be debated, even if prime minister Boris Johnson’s reference to “vexatious prosecutions” is a strange comment on the UK’s own legal system. His expression of “sadness” that former soldiers still face prosecution must surely be judged, morally, against their innocence or guilt – a matter normally decided by courts of law.

However, what is beyond doubt is that the bringing forward of this legislation reflects a wider and worrying post-Brexit unilateralism in London. The UK has spoken of working with the Irish Government on how to implement the change of approach it has proclaimed on prosecutions. However, the underlying message is clear. The UK does not consider itself bound by an agreement reached with the Irish Government, and indeed all political parties in Northern Ireland, namely the Stormont House Agreement.

There has been a decades-long, rock-solid understanding between London and Dublin, involving successive Conservative and Labour governments equally, that progress in Northern Ireland requires Ireland and the UK to work together and in agreement. It is entirely legitimate, indeed normal, to disagree on the substance of issues but the principle of working in tandem, and in particular of respecting agreements reached, should remain sacrosanct. Simon Coveney is right to insist that the matter is not closed, not only because the families of the victims should be prioritised, but because the commitment of the UK and Ireland to work together on Northern Ireland, as a matter of fundamental principle rather than discretionary strategy, has long been at the very heart of the peace process.

Entitled to act

The new unilateralism has also been evident for some time in relation to the Northern Ireland protocol. The UK’s Brexit negotiator, David Frost, recently struck a more conciliatory and welcome note about the protocol when addressing a committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly. He would, he said, prefer a consensual approach. However, Frost added that all options were still on the table. In other words, the ongoing threat remains that the UK considers itself entitled to act unilaterally.

Acting unilaterally in relation to a hard-won, legally binding agreement, or even threatening to do so, runs counter to the spirit of co-operation and undermines trust. Frost’s recent mixed messaging is akin to a husband saying to his wife: “My preference is to remain faithful to you, but I retain the right to act unilaterally.”

Britain and Ireland will have to grapple for many years with the challenges posed by Brexit, challenges significantly exacerbated by the unnecessarily distant UK-EU relationship chosen by the Johnson government. The recent tendency in London to act unilaterally has become an additional challenge for those working in good faith, on both sides of the Irish Sea, to steer the British-Irish relationship through the choppy waters ahead.

Themselves alone

Three points may be worth noting about the new penchant for unilateralism.

First, the notion that the UK can act alone reflects a wider Brexit mindset about taking back control. British sovereignty and influence are weakened rather than enhanced by such an attitude.

Second, on several issues the UK is thankfully working in good faith with both Ireland and the EU. However, trust cannot be turned on and off. The damaging effect of unilateralism arises from any assumed entitlement to act alone, even in a limited number of cases.

Third, the principal purpose of successive US presidents in seeking to influence UK policy towards Northern Ireland has been precisely to recall the necessarily wider context for progress and to emphasise the folly of seeking to address issues unilaterally. US president Joe Biden’s unprecedentedly forthright intervention on the Northern Ireland protocol in advance of the G7 meeting was a timely reminder of that wider context and that joint responsibility and trust between Britain and Ireland remains the necessary bedrock of the peace process.

There are welcome signs of progress. The UK rightly made a request for an extension of the grace period for the import of chilled meats under the protocol, and the EU rightly acceded to it. That is how things should be done.

Many on our two islands continue to work in good faith on our deeply shared responsibilities, profound mutual interests and uniquely valuable friendship. Their success will depend in large measure on Frost, who has promised to “work energetically” to find solutions, deploying some of his considerable energies towards urging his own authorities to contribute to compromises that respect the protocol. It depends on him avoiding any threat that, if he doesn’t get his way, he will pick up his marbles and go home.

Bobby McDonagh is a former ambassador to London, Brussels and Rome

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.