Chris Heaton-Harris appeared to hit back gently at Leo Varadkar yesterday.
The secretary of state for Northern Ireland described as unhelpful talk of a Plan B for Stormont. Mr Heaton-Harris did not refer directly to the Taoiseach and instead mentioned “occasionally unhelpful comments down in Dublin” and how they “resonate up here amongst” unionists.
It might be that the NI secretary was also referring to Mr Varadkar’s comments about a united Ireland, but whatever the exact meaning it was a welcome response to the Fine Gael leader – and a badly belated one.
When the history of Northern Ireland during the time of this UK government is written, it will be seen as a time of increasing nationalist assertiveness in the face of passivity from British ministers. A generous interpretation of this trend is that London has been distracted by Brexit and Covid, and lacked the bandwidth to respond to a surge of Irish nationalism in the wake of the UK’s departure from the EU. A less generous one is that the Northern Ireland Office has a culture of neutrality and weakness into which uninformed ministers, who know nothing about here and sometimes boast about that fact, become beholden.
Such weakness is that it does not work. Ignoring Irish criticisms and then gushing about good relations with “our friends” in Dublin does not cause the criticism to stop. It does not stop the greening of Irish government rhetoric to match Sinn Fein. And it has not even deterred the IRA-facilitating Irish Republic from threatening legal action over legacy plans to bring in a form of conditional amnesty when Ireland operates a de facto but flagrant amnesty for IRA terrorists, even boastful ones.
Calling such partisan Irish interventions unhelpful is not even close to an adequate response to what is happening, but it is a start.