Ruth Dudley Edwards: Johnson and Smith have to now transform the culture of appeasement pervading NIO
The Government's job is to stand up for law and order and innocent victims, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards
Those of us Leavers who had despaired of seeing any backbone in the British Government’s dealings with the EU now have a bit of a spring in our step. So have many Remainers for, as one of them said to me yesterday, at least it’s reassuring to have a Government led by a cheerful, energetic, clever optimist.
Now I know that in the great scheme of things the Prime Minister is necessarily thinking about Northern Ireland almost exclusively in the context of getting rid of the backstop, but what is badly needed for all the decent people of Northern Ireland is that his can-do attitude and pride in his country should be applied to transforming the culture of appeasement that has pervaded the Northern Ireland Office for decades.
Reading recently released accounts of conversations between civil servants and the IRA in 1995, during its short lived “cessation” of violence, representatives of John Major’s Government appeared to be treating with kid gloves the people who had tried to murder him and his Cabinet in 1991.
When Martin McGuinness complained to officials that it was “scandalous” that Sinn Fein were not allowed to meet ministers, an appropriate response might have been to point out that considering the Sinn Fein delegation included at least two members of the IRA army council, including McGuinness himself, it was extremely tolerant of officials to meet them at all.
Instead, political director Quentin Thomas responded weakly that “many people would say that the IRA should never have started its violence in the first place” — which the minutes suggest caused McGuinness to get cross, causing, no doubt, increasing reluctance among officials to challenge the bullying, lies and shameless hypocrisy which are such an important part of the arsenal of violent republicans and their spokespeople.
It was around that time that the Government attempts to get arms off the streets led them to adopt the position that decommissioned weapons would not be forensically tested: this was enshrined in law in 1997.
As retired RUC detective chief superintendent Norman Baxter put it last month, the released papers “reveal how morally bankrupt Government was.”
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What the Northern Ireland Office badly needs is a complete reset.
It is time to tell civil servants that the Government’s primary duty is to stand up for the law-abiding against the lawless, innocent victims against perpetrators and security forces against terrorists, and that it will move swiftly to ensure the law recognises that there is no parity between victims and perpetrators of violence.
This would be greatly helped by hiring an energetic pack of able, energetic, special advisers (Spads) to help Secretary of State Julian Smith remedy swiftly some of the worst injustices.
Yes, he’s an improvement on his predecessor and deserves praise for giving the victims of historical abuse some hope and putting Her Majesty back on the walls of the NIO, but he has already made a serious error in reappointing a Victims Commissioner who has let down most of the victims.
It would be a start to provide whatever money is necessary to test for DNA the 3,000 or so Troubles-era weapons the PSNI has been hiding until recently.
It would cost nothing and make an enormous difference to free speech and investigative journalism to extend the Defamation Reform Act 2013 to Northern Ireland and hinder the intimidatory lawfare that is bringing newspapers and individuals to their knees.
Nor would it cost anything to announce that while the Government stands by its equality commitments, the British Government is on the side of those loyal to the United Kingdom, just as the Irish Government is on the side of Irish nationalists. And to demonstrate this by ending the kowtowing to Simon Coveney when he comes north to throw his weight around.
Perhaps the most vitally important job is to address the legacy scandal by harnessing lawyers like Neil Faris and Trevor Ringland to come up with new proposals for dealing with the past.
This approach would certainly put a spring in the step of the many good people in Northern Ireland who have felt abandoned and ignored.