Brian Feeney: Failing Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris has the easiest job in Westminster

Brian Feeney

Brian Feeney

Historian and political commentator Brian Feeney has been a columnist with The Irish News for three decades. He is a former SDLP councillor in Belfast and co-author of the award-winning book Lost Lives

Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris
Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris

It must be great to be the proconsul here. It’s the easiest job in Westminster. It’s not just that no one in government cares what you do or what kind of mess you make here, or that you report to an indulgent, three-quarters-empty Commons. It’s also the shockingly uncritical deference of the unionist media here, slavishly intoning the latest words of wisdom from the NIO he’s memorised.

Last week was a perfect example of the genre. After his ill-considered remarks about Varadkar, head of government in another state, those remarks were dutifully reported by the electronic media here without a word of criticism. Until Varadkar rebuked him for his impertinence, coolly and calmly pointing out the equality of status between unionism and nationalism, it had been accepted that the proconsul was somehow entitled to forbid mention of Irish reunification.

His lack of political self-awareness is comical. Here’s a guy with no mandate here, not a vote, not even a councillor elected here, yet he doesn’t know his place, lacks all sense of propriety.

Still, it’s revealing that, although he’s on the bottom rung, well below the salt on the Cabinet table, he thinks he’s the equal of the Taoiseach. Tells you a lot about British political thinking, doesn’t it? If he made similar remarks about President Macron he might be forced to resign, but then again, no prime minister would let him near a position where he’d be comparing himself to the head of state in France. He’s such a political nonentity he’s sent here where it doesn’t matter how much damage he causes.

Let’s not overlook how he got here and his record of failure since his arrival, for failure he has been.

After various dogsbody parliamentary jobs he became chief whip for the discredited charlatan Johnson in February 2022 and despite dozens of resignations stuck with him to the bitter end. Worse, he even thought it feasible for Johnson to return. There’s political judgement for ya.

It’s now a year and a week since he was appointed proconsul here by the worst prime minister in British history. He was appointed as a Brexit hardliner with his sidekick Baker to deal with the outworkings of Truss’s plan to overrule the protocol. Yet within six weeks the new proconsul was supporting Sunak’s government to make a deal with the EU. He and self-styled ‘hard man of Brexit’ Baker had done a 180-degree turn. No matter: staying in government is the main thing, eh?

Apparently incidental to staying in Hillsborough and Stormont House has been the small item of getting an executive up and running. On this matter our proconsul has been a complete failure.

If there was a plan before the Windsor Framework it was cunningly concealed. There obviously hasn’t been one since, except to keep claiming progress or ‘substantial progress’, which no one, least of all the Irish government, believes. Why not? Because there can’t be, because what the proconsul has promised the DUP is undeliverable as you’ve read here often; and the DUP will not, cannot, move without splitting unless there’s something on the statute book.

It's a mystery therefore why the two visiting amigos last week decided to burnish their unionist credentials by attacking the Irish government. Their attempts are tragi-comic, especially with Baker sporting crossed flags when there is no Norn Irn flag. What he crossed with the union jack was concocted as the ‘Ulster banner’ and it’s what outlawed loyalist gangs display.

If you’re a unionist here’s a word of advice. ‘Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes’, as they say in the Felons club. If British politicians are sucking up to you, extolling their unionism, they’re going to kick you in the teeth.