Oh dear. Andrew McQuillan is on brutal form in the Spectator over Chris Heaton-Harris’ latest, extraordinary blunder.
Speaking at the quarter-centenary celebrations of the Belfast Agreement at Queen’s University this week, the Northern Ireland Secretary said that David Trimble and David Ervine “‘led not only their own parties but Unionism and Loyalism in saying yes to peace’”.
As McQuillan points out, this is true enough of Ervine; he was leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, the Ulster Volunteer Force’s political wing. But:
“The inclusion of Trimble in the same breath as Ervine and the phraseology which implies unionists needed persuading about the merits of peace is again, odd. It suggests that Trimble had a challenge on his hands convincing ordinary, workaday unionists of the merits of abandoning violence, as though they were engaged in a campaign similar to the terrorists.”
It is especially unfortunate as Heaton-Harris had previously praised Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness “for the courage and leadership showed in persuading the Republican movement of peace”.
The claim is historically dubious on its own, but the juxtaposition implies equivalence between the IRA and its political wing and constitutional unionism, as if they were merely two sides. This flatters republican terrorism enormously, not least because it occludes the strong constitutional nationalist tradition which, throughout the Troubles, denounced violence.
Unfortunately, this sort of foot-in-mouth moment is par for the course at the Northern Ireland Office; one cannot imagine that Jonathan Caine, the veteran Ulster hand serving as a PSS in the department, had much input into the speech.
But it is particularly maladroit for Heaton-Harris to strike this note with the unionists when we already have Steve Baker telling the Democratic Unionist Party to “choke down” its positions. I previously described him as a bad cop in a double-act without a good cop – now it looks more like two bad cops.
Surely not the sort of pitch-rolling Rishi Sunak wanted for his renewed calls for unionist politicians to get back to work – although the Prime Minister must shoulder a share of the blame too.
Instead of offering a sober assessment of the Windsor Framework as a genuine step forward, Downing Street wildly oversold it – and then failed to convincingly answer challenges such as those on this site by Mark Francois and Christopher Howarth.
Now Sunak is reduced to trying to bludgeon the DUP into submission with the spectre of a border poll – hardly constructive. (Lee Reynolds, a former special adviser to Arlene Foster, has previously set out why the party has developed a tough hide for such threats.)
It also doesn’t obviously make it easier for the latter to climb down. The Democratic Unionists are acutely aware that they secured their current position by hammering Trimble and the Ulster Unionists for selling out, and know that Jim Allister and the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) are waiting on the wings to do the same to them.
The moment when they might have claimed the Windsor Framework as a win, if it ever existed, has passed. To be seen to cave to threats from a crassly insensitive Westminster government would create a dangerous opening for the TUV.
Moreover, whilst recent polling shows a small strengthening of the UUP vote, it remains a long way behind the DUP, meaning there is currently no sign that fresh elections would change the situation.
(And as I noted in previously, in Northern Ireland’s polarised system what matters to the DUP is not the overall share of the electorate who want Stormont back, but the share of unionist voters.)
Finally, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and his colleagues could be forgiven if they don’t take threats from the Government especially seriously; recall that last autumn Heaton-Harris signalled his firm intention to call fresh elections the moment his first deadline expired, on October 28. It’s now mid-April.
Ultimately, the NIO is utterly averse to actually taking responsibility for governing Northern Ireland, and nobody in Westminster wants to open the pit of vipers that any attempt to renegotiate the structures of the settlement would turn into.
So the most likely outcome remains, for now, more of the same.
As I said last week, this column could quite easily be a blow-by-blow account of the SNP for the foreseeable future. But I covered the latest – including the arrest of the party’s Treasurer – in yesterday’s ToryDiary.
But a real highlight must be Humza Yousaf, who is winning over journalists with his heroic efforts to keep pouring fuel on the story, telling the press that he “doesn’t believe” the SNP is a criminal operation. Just wonderful.