Villiers should learn from her ancestor in approaching Northern Ireland job

by Kevin Meagher

While the British political class pores over the cabinet reshuffle, Belfast underwent yet another night of rioting, the third in a row. Sixty police officers have been injured so far this week. Here politics is visceral. The ups and downs of Westminster village life are quite superfluous.

Territory remains at the heart of every problem in Northern Ireland. While the meta-issue of sovereignty remains an irreconcilable difference, it’s that recurrent micro-issue of parading which is fuelling this latest crisis.

The “right” of protestant loyal orders to march through predominantly Catholic communities is a long-running sore, partly relieved by the creation of the Parades Commission (one of our more idiosyncratic quangos) to adjudicate on whether the most contentions marches can go ahead.

The commission is now reviled by unionists. So much so, that a banned parade in north Belfast still went ahead last weekend, causing much of the subsequent trouble we have seen. Loyalists (less respectable unionists), without the leadership to exert influence in mainstream politics, assert their territorial claim the old fashioned way, by taking to the streets. This in turn creates a fertile climate for dissident republicans to burrow into Sinn Fein’s urban powerbase, as an emboldened Catholic population refuses to have sand kicked in its face any longer.

A little local difficulty? Hardly. There is a real risk that the rioting in north Belfast, will escalate into a wider conflict. Later this month loyalists will be back in force to the same spot, expecting to march past Catholics in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Ulster Covenant (where half a million Ulstermen signalled their opposition to Home Rule). Dissident republicans will be looking to stop them, undermining Sinn Fein for good measure.

Enter Theresa Villiers as the new secretary of state for Northern Ireland. Hers is a unique in-tray. There’s not really any policy in the Northern Ireland Office, it’s all raw politics; navigating a pathway through brittle egos, vested interests and implacable enmities. It’s a role where you are always going to upset someone. Northern Ireland is, after all, a small place with too many politicians.

Unlike Tony Blair, David Cameron lets his secretary of state do the talking. All parties complain that they no longer get face time with the British prime minister, which makes Villiers’ appointment all the more important. The buck really does stop with her.

Certainly her predecessor, Owen Paterson, managed the rare feat of uniting both Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists in antipathy against him. His patrician manner grated with both side equally. As did his indifference to grasping the finer details of what was actually going on.

This came to a head in July when he found himself on the end of a tongue-lashing from both first minister Peter Robinson and deputy first minister Martin McGuinness over his complaint that the executive they lead had failed to produce a community cohesion strategy. Robinson called him “ill-advised” while McGuinness said he was “detached from politics here”. There were no gushing tributes at his departure yesterday.

People make up their minds quickly in Northern Ireland. If Villiers wants to be more than another also-ran secretary of state she has to sort the brewing row in North Belfast before it spreads. Her ability to reach-out to dissident republicans is non-existent, fair enough; but a British secretary of state telling loyalists to “cool it” still has currency.

We now have the counter-intuitive situation where deputy first Minister Martin McGuinness – a former revolutionary guerrilla leader – can call, as he did last night, for so-called loyalists to show “respect to residents, the Parades Commission, non-unionist political parties and the rule of law”. Villiers should simply hold up a mirror to loyalists and show them what fools they are making of themselves when McGuinness can occupy the high ground like that.

She should do it quickly though. Although justice and policing powers are now a matter for the Northern Ireland executive, the secretary of state retains a role in security and counter-intelligence. If things get worse, she may face pressure to implement a security clampdown. Yet there is never a reaction in these scenarios, only an over-reaction.

The police have already deployed water cannons (although they have never been used in Britain) and fired baton rounds (the more socially acceptable term for plastic bullets) which the University of Ulster calculates killed 14 people under the age of 22 during the height of the troubles between 1969 and 1991. There is a need for caution. Any loss of life, especially by state forces, would be massively destabilising.

The new secretary of state’s ancestor, George Villiers, Earl of Clarendon, was Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland during the late 1840s. Historically speaking, few British statesmen come out of that period of Irish history with their reputations intact; however in his messages back to Whitehall Clarendon was at least insistent about the scale of the problems facing Ireland in that dreadful decade of starvation and mass emigration.

His descendant needs to similarly recognise that the situation may get a lot worse very quickly if she fails to act.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut

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