Monday briefing: Who wants what in Northern Ireland?

·12 min read
<span>Photograph: Frank Augstein/AP</span>
Photograph: Frank Augstein/AP

Good morning. Boris Johnson travels to Northern Ireland today to confront a political paradox: the Democratic Unionist party lost support at the recent Stormont elections, and is using the moment to exert its power.

On Friday, the DUP blocked the election of a speaker at the Northern Ireland assembly, leaving the power-sharing assembly unable to function in an attempt to secure changes to the post-Brexit protocol which governs trade across the Irish Sea.

After a weekend of not-that-diplomatic media appearances by Conservatives which seemed to reinforce the prospect of the UK unilaterally overriding parts of the deal without EU agreement, Johnson is expected to strike a more conciliatory tone in Belfast. He will say he’s seeking reform that has “the broadest possible cross-community support”.

But with ministers expected to meet as soon as tomorrow to sign off plans that would allow the UK to unilaterally rewrite parts of the same agreement Johnson hailed as a “very good deal” when he signed it, not everybody believes him. In a potentially crucial week for Northern Ireland’s future, today’s newsletter will try to set the scene by explaining who wants what. First, here are the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. Police | Priti Patel has been accused of a “power grab” which would allow her to intervene in local law enforcement matters and silence police chiefs. One chief constable called the plans “profoundly dangerous”.

  2. US gun violence | Joe Biden said racially motivated hate crime was “abhorrent to the very fabric of this nation” after an 18-year-old white supremacist killed 10 people in Buffalo, New York. The attacker shot 11 Black and two white victims.

  3. Ukraine | Russia may have lost a third of the invasion force it sent into Ukraine, British military intelligence said. The estimate came as Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said Russia’s offensive in Donbas had stalled and Ukraine could win the war.

  4. Wagatha Christie | Wayne Rooney will this week give evidence in his wife’s libel trial with Rebekah Vardy. The multimillion-pound case is entering its final days at the high court in London.

  5. Protest | A new statue of Margaret Thatcher was egged within two hours of it being installed in her home town of Grantham on Sunday. There had been warnings that protests were ““absolutely inevitable”.

In depth: What will the Belfast visit achieve?

Ah, Brexit! Did you miss it? If you have trouble keeping the complexities of the Northern Ireland protocol straight in your head, you’re not alone. (The sharp spike in searches over the last week tells its own story, and they can’t *all* be journalists writing on deadline.)

You can remind yourself of what’s at stake with Lisa O’Carroll’s very clear explainer from last week, or Friday’s First Edition from Nimo Omer - but here’s a very quick refresher: by putting checks on goods coming across the Irish Sea from Great Britain, the protocol was supposed to be a pragmatic guarantee of Northern Ireland’s smooth future trading relationship with the Republic of Ireland after Brexit. But the DUP and their allies say that, no matter that the British government signed them off, the checks are inhibiting trade with the rest of the UK.

Whether by accident or design, one of the most striking parts of the recent resumption in diplomatic hostilities over the protocol has been the difficulty of figuring out what the British government really wants – and that has only intensified alarm on the other side. So here’s a guide to what we know about where the key players stand.

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Boris Johnson

The details released in advance of the prime minister’s visit to Belfast today emphasise his desire for power-sharing to resume – and to seek “the broadest cross-community support” for reforms to the protocol. That might be read as an attempt to cool tensions with the EU by urging the DUP to get back to Stormont. Jessica Elgot and Lisa O’Carroll’s story quotes a Whitehall source saying: “The priority tomorrow is to calm things down.”

If so, reports that ministers will work to sign off on the wording of a law that would allow changes to the protocol without the EU’s consent this week might be read as a negotiating tactic. “We want a weapon on the table,” an unnamed senior ally of the prime minister is quoted as saying in the Sunday Times. “We don’t want to use it.” Less obviously peaceful is the wording in Johnson’s very long article for the Belfast Telegraph today: “I hope the EU’s position changes. If it does not, there will be a necessity to act”.

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Liz Truss

Liz Truss.
Liz Truss. Photograph: Getty Images

Boris Johnson is not the only government player – and much of the briefing in recent days has centred on claims that the foreign secretary has a far more combative approach. Her conversation with her EU counterpart Maroš Šefčovič on Thursday, in which she said that unless the EU showed more flexibility the UK would have “no choice but to act”, was said to have “flabbergasted” Brussels.

With claims (categorically denied) that her allies are undermining more cautious cabinet colleagues and trying to throw red meat to the Tory membership in case of any vacancy at No 10, one Downing Street source called her approach “leadership feather-fluttering”. (Sidenote: has anyone used a phrase like “leadership feather-fluttering” who doesn’t work in politics?)

She is not alone: Downing Street deputy chief of staff David Canzini has been said to take the same line, while former Brexit negotiator Lord Frost last week said Johnson must take the same approach in Northern Ireland that he has in Ukraine and rip up the protocol. If that seems like a transparently provocative bit of rhetoric, it’s also a very deliberate one.

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Tory MPs

We might be used to the avid Brexiteers of the European Research Group setting the backbench agenda – but more moderate Conservative voices appear to be more of a problem for the government on this. Last week, some of those backbenchers suggested that an intervention from Theresa May was only the beginning of strong opposition to any attempt to override the protocol.

On Sunday, the Conservative chair of the Northern Ireland select committee Simon Hoare said it would be “naive nonsense for the government to ask anyone to believe that they didn’t understand what they signed up to”.

A quick study of Boris Johnson’s previous praise of the protocol would suggest he has a point. Still, if other MPs are convinced that those moves really are a negotiating tactic, many of them may stay quiet for now.

***

The DUP

If voters in Northern Ireland were rejecting the DUP’s intransigence at the recent Stormont election, that message does not appear to have been heard: instead of presenting a more moderate face to win voters from the surging centrist Alliance party and the Ulster Unionist party, the DUP has doubled down.

That is partly a matter of principle – and partly, Rory Carroll wrote on Friday, an attempt to reassure those who defected to the party’s more radical new rival, the Traditional Unionist Voice. (The UUP also opposes the protocol but opposes disruption to the running of Stormont.)

Ahead of Johnson’s visit, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson – who has previously claimed that his party did “extremely well” in an election where their vote fell by almost a quarter – said that he did not expect to be swayed. “We await to hear what the prime minister has to say, but we will not make judgments based on words,” he said. “It is decisive action that must be taken.”

***

Sinn Féin

Sinn Fein Vice President Michelle O&#x002019;Neill.
Sinn Fein Vice President Michelle O’Neill. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

Unsurprisingly, Sinn Féin’s deputy leader and would-be first minister Michelle O’Neill takes a very different view: she has said she will tell Johnson “that he needs to stop pandering to the DUP” and said that overriding the protocol would be “reckless” and “deepen political instability”.

She presents that as a moderate view as well as an ideological one: crucial to her approach has been presenting herself as ready to “take on the leadership of the Northern Ireland executive as a first minister for all” – the first time she has ever used the phrase “Northern Ireland”. That is an extension of what Rory Carroll described last week as a “tightly disciplined campaign that targeted centrist voters and focused on the cost of living and healthcare as opposed to a united Ireland”.

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Ireland and the EU

Perhaps the sharpest signs of the difficulties that could lie ahead came in Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney’s interview with Sky News’ Sophy Ridge yesterday. He said he was “deeply concerned for the wellbeing of the partnership between our countries.” And he added that while he would prefer to be “good neighbours, good friends” – Ramsay Street diplomacy, you might call it – hostile briefings from the UK government had “raised a real red flag in Dublin and in Brussels” and “forced Ireland into taking a much more strident position”.

For all that, Coveney did hold out hope for a compromise, acknowledging that unionists have “legitimate concerns” over the protocol. He said that it was reasonable to look for a way to limit checks on goods which are going to stay in Northern Ireland, and that the EU did not want a trade war – but that if a “landing zone” could not be found, there would be consequences.

Boris Johnson’s visit to Belfast is unlikely to provide a conclusive answer as to whether the British government is really up for that kind of clash – but that uncertainty can’t last much longer.

What else we’ve been reading

  • It’s been almost nine months since Afghanistan fell to the Taliban. In this brilliant, detailed piece Ruchi Kumar and Hikmat Noori examine how the new laws are forcing women out of the workforce and what it means for the future of the country. Nimo

  • I can’t remember reading an essay like this one by Sam Anderson in the New York Times on weight, and losing it. It’s full of lines prompting those flashes of recognition you get with the very best personal writing – if you relate in any way, which basically means ‘if you have a body’, read it immediately. Archie

  • I loved this interview by Ammar Kalia, who spoke to music titan John Legend. They go through everything from his come-up, to his mother’s addiction, to the political causes he cares about. Nimo

  • There’s absolutely nothing wrong with punctuating your sentences with ‘like’. Sam Wolfson’s Observer piece is a juicy explanation of why, featuring fascinating linguists (Is there any other kind?) on one side, and Michael Gove on the other. Archie

  • If you missed it on Saturday, Simon Hattenstone’s interview with Jacob Dunne, who killed a stranger with a single punch and then turned his life around, is complicated, surprising, and totally riveting. Archie

Sport

Football | Chelsea won the Women’s FA Cup with a 3-2 extra time victory over Manchester City. Two goals from Sam Kerr and a screamer from Erin Cuthbert secured the victory in front of a record FA Cup final crowd of more than 49,000.

Football | Manchester City were held to a 2-2 draw by West Ham to leave open the possibility of Liverpool taking the Premier League title on the last day of the season. City came back from 2-0 down but missed a late penalty to win the game.

Cricket | The death of all-rounder Andrew Symonds in a car crash at the age of 46 was greeted with dismay in Australia. Angus Fontaine wrote that he was “a real-life action hero... enigmatic, untameable and unaffected.”

The front pages

Monday’s Guardian print edition leads with “Police chiefs accuse home secretary of ‘power grab’” while the Times has “You are not the thought police, top officers told”. The Mirror’s lead is “Victims of hate” – it says the suspect in the Buffalo shooting in the US had a “UK obsession”. “Radiant, happy and simply … glorious” – the Daily Mail celebrates the Queen’s appearance at the first of her platinum jubilee celebrations. The Sun calls her “Happy Maj” and rates it a “Top One”, referencing the involvement of Tom Cruise. The Queen is also on the front page of the Express while its top story is “Boris warns EU: we’ll act if you don’t change”. “PM’s gamble risks trade war with EU” – that’s the i while the Telegraph has “PM attacks Brussels over cost of living crisis”. The Metro splashes on “Ukraine’s defiant promise, Kyiv will host Eurovision”. The front-page lead in the Financial Times is “Sweden and Finland to herald ‘new era’ with Nato applications”.

Today in Focus

Marcos’ myths: the dictator’s son rewriting history in the Philippines

Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos is on course for a landslide victory in the Philippines presidential election. For those who grew up under the martial law of his father, the result brings up the horrors of the past.

Cartoon of the day | Nicola Jennings

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

Sam Ryder, arrives at Heathrow Airport in London after finishing second in the final of the Eurovision Song Contest in Italy.
Sam Ryder, arrives at Heathrow Airport in London after finishing second in the final of the Eurovision Song Contest in Italy. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA

After many years of dismal failure, the UK finally had a decent night at Eurovision - only giving up first place to a winner everybody could get behind, Ukraine. Of the UK entry from Sam Ryder (picturing arriving at Heathrow above), TV critic and Eurovision pundit Scott Bryan said: “The song was fantastic but just as importantly the performance was fantastic … it was a real thrill to watch.” Meanwhile, Kalush Orchestra’s victory for Ukraine with their anthemic folk/hip-hop song Stefania led to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy promising that the contest would “one day” be held in Mariupol.

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