Lord Caine: The NIO too often gives the impression of being the junior partner to the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin... radical surgery is required
This time four years ago, along with a number of others, I was immersed in the political talks that led in November 2015 to the Fresh Start Agreement.
In his farewell speech as DUP leader a few days later, Peter Robinson heralded that agreement and its predecessor, the 2014 Stormont House Agreement, as the best deal for unionism in “generations”.
Within unionism, the confident talk was that Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom had never been more secure.
Fast-forward to today and, at the risk of understatement, the position does not look quite so certain.
Do not misunderstand me. I do not see any immediate risk that, if there were a border poll tomorrow, or next month, there would be anything but a majority for the Union.
Yet, clearly, the Union is under renewed pressure. And it is not difficult to see why.
A key reason why I, an instinctive Eurosceptic, voted Remain in June 2016 was my concern over the impact that a decision to leave might have on what I call the delicate, but precious, equilibrium established by the 1998 Belfast Agreement. I have seen little in the subsequent three years that casts doubt on that decision.
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Unionism has spent the period since the referendum grappling with the consequences of a result that I suspect many who voted for it never expected.
Nationalism has been revitalised with renewed discussion around a united Ireland, including from some who before the referendum barely gave it a passing thought.
My own view is that while Brexit might not have been the stated reason for collapsing Stormont in 2017, it has been a major factor in preventing its restoration.
Why would republicans go back into an Executive to help the UK Government deliver Brexit, when it stands to gain more on the outside, exploiting uncertainty and proclaiming that the answer is a border poll?
For all this, I believe that the referendum result must be delivered and the UK leave the EU — but in an orderly and managed way.
Whether that is through the deal negotiated by the Prime Minister, or whether we see another extension and an election, who knows.
Drafting this on a Tuesday morning, it is impossible to predict this afternoon, let alone the rest of the week.
Whatever the outcome, from a unionist perspective two things need to happen.
I am an unashamed and unapologetic unionist, who believes that the best future for Northern Ireland is within a strong United Kingdom.
What we need now is a grown-up conversation about how we fashion a modern, compelling case for the Union that is capable of reaching out and appealing to all parts of the community and across generations.
It is a unionism that embraces Northern Ireland as it is today, which recognises that the future success of Northern Ireland will rely on convincing ever more people of the advantages of the Union and which has the confidence to challenge the narrative — among nationalists and, sadly, in parts of Whitehall — that a united Ireland is either inevitable, or desirable.
Being blunt, once we move beyond Brexit, unionism needs to becomes smarter.
The conversation I envisage needs to embrace broader political and civil unionism, including business, and think strategically about what needs to happen to build a stronger Northern Ireland, where everyone can feel at home.
The Government has its part to play, too. In particular, the Northern Ireland Office needs to undergo significant cultural shift in approach.
For whatever reasons, it has never seen any part of its role to explain, or promote, the benefits to people in Northern Ireland of UK membership.
Indeed, during my time there was often a marked reluctance to spell out the positive advantages of any UK Government policies.
This has to change. Under David Cameron, we moved the UK Government’s position from one of constitutional neutrality during the Labour years to a clearly stated preference for Northern Ireland to remain within the Union, consistent with the consent principle. It is now time to go further.
There are many good people in the Northern Ireland Office, who do an outstanding job. For too long, however, the default position of the NIO, under the guise of the rigorous impartiality requirements of the 1998 agreement, has been one of neutrality on nearly every known subject.
This has sometimes included when it comes to defending the role of the security forces during the Troubles, or condemning the glorification of terrorism.
It often seems set apart from the Whitehall mainstream and, as one former NIO minister put it to me recently, has developed an immune system that repels all antibodies.
Worse than that, it frequently gives the impression of being the junior partner to the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin when it comes to a part of the UK.
Radical surgery is needed. The NIO should be scrapped and rebranded as the Office of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, similar to what happened in Scotland and Wales a few years ago.
This would reinforce its UK role — representing Northern Ireland in the Cabinet and the UK Government in Northern Ireland.
It then needs to become — while maintaining its commitments under the 1998 agreement to governing impartially and fully respecting everyone — a sober, sensible and measured persuader for the undoubted benefit of the Union.
There should be a new UK-Government hub in Belfast, just as there are in Edinburgh and Cardiff.
In addition, outside of the EU and all of its state aid rules, we should look again at cutting Corporation Tax to help turbocharge the economy.
I have no doubt that much of this would be met with strong internal opposition. It would require very strong political direction to see it through.
Yet, it needs to happen, now, more than ever.
Conservative peer Lord Caine was a special adviser to six Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland.