UK commitment to Northern Ireland in doubt: media

Sacking of Northern Ireland secretary draws criticism as media questions if government still wants region as part of UK

Karim El-Bar   | 18.02.2020
UK commitment to Northern Ireland in doubt: media


Britain’s ruling Conservative and Unionist party, as it is officially called, would be glad to be relieved of the Northern Ireland region, senior journalist Dominic Lawson wrote Monday in The Times newspaper.

His comments came after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson fired Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith last week in a cabinet reshuffle. The decision was controversial. 

“In eight months as secretary of state, Julian, you helped restore power-sharing in Stormont, secured an agreement with us to avoid a hard border, plus marriage equality. You are one of Britain’s finest politicians of our time. Thank you,” said former Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who currently heads the Fine Gael party. 

Colum Eastwood, the leader of Northern Ireland’s Social Democratic and Labour Party, shared similar sentiments.

“It defies belief that after the successful restoration of power-sharing following a three-year collapse, Julian Smith’s reward is a cabinet office P45 (being fired). It tells you all you need to know about Boris Johnson’s attitude to the north that he would sack the most successful secretary of state in a decade. He is at best indifferent.”

Sinn Fein, a Northern Irish political movement that seeks unification on the island of Ireland, topped the polls in the Republic of Ireland’s recent election and is part of a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland, provoking discussions of possible Irish unification across the British Isles.

Lawson wrote: “His (Johnson’s)… sacking of the Northern Ireland secretary, Julian Smith, has evaded almost all attention.”

“But not in the province itself. The Democratic Unionist Party declared itself furious: ‘If effectiveness was the measurement, then he would still be in place. He had the measure of Dublin and all the Northern Irish parties.’

“It hardly helped the (never exactly sunny) mood of the dominant unionist party of the north that a few days earlier, Sinn Fein, the former political arm of the terrorist IRA, had taken the most first-choice votes in the Irish elections.

“This was an astounding result, and since (unlike the two parties that had ruled Ireland since independence) Sinn Fein actively campaigns for cross-border plebiscites for a united Ireland, it is unsurprising the unionists are even more than usually spooked.”

From 1968 to 1998, the U.K. suffered a 30-year, low-intensity conflict both in Northern Ireland and the wider U.K. called “the Troubles.” This conflict pitted Northern Irish republican nationalists, who want unification with the Republic of Ireland, against Northern Irish unionists, who want to remain in the U.K. Thousands died in the violence.

Lawson went on to say that Conservatives have long been concerned with the financial cost of keeping Northern Ireland part of the United Kingdom.

“On one occasion, a Tory (Conservative) secretary of state for the province blurted out the truth to a newspaper — though not in this country.

“In April 1993, Sir Patrick Mayhew gave a remarkable interview to Die Zeit, in which he told the German paper: ‘The province costs £3bn a year. £3bn for a million and a half people! For us, there is no strategic or economic interest at stake...The quest for a united Ireland is perfectly legitimate — but without the use of violence. 

“People think we don’t want to let Northern Ireland (leave) the United Kingdom. If I’m completely honest, (we’d do it) with pleasure.” 

Lawson then said the Republic of Ireland was no keener to spend that sort of money on Northern Ireland or deal with sectarian tensions in the region.

With Irish nationalists opposed to Brexit and winning elections on both sides of the Irish border and Northern Irish unionists demoralized by Johnson’s Brexit deal that they see as driving a wedge between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, as well as the ongoing debate over Scottish independence – the future of the United Kingdom is being discussed at greater lengths and with greater urgency in local media.

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