Leading article

Boris Johnson must listen to concerns

Criticism of the British prime minister is an everyday part of the cut and thrust of politics and government. However, when a group of former political and religious leaders asks Boris Johnson to “step up” and “listen” to their concerns about potential violence here, their words extend beyond criticism to a plea for urgent action.

The appeal was contained in a letter signed by a cross-party group of senior figures, including Lord Patten, the architect of policing reform here, four former secretaries of state, former PSNI chief constable Hugh Orde and Lord Eames, former Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh.

They are all highly experienced in understanding the north's complex process of politics and government and their analysis is based on professional judgment rather than political viewpoints. Their conclusions must therefore be treated with respect.

Their concern is that if the prime minister does not significantly engage with politics here in the context of recent loyalist street violence, “we are heading to a very bad place”.

They are critical of both Boris Johnson and Brandon Lewis in not adopting a more hands-on approach to managing the politics and perceptions which have fuelled a sense of unionist grievance and the potential political instability which that can create.

While some responsibility for unionist discontent lies with the weak and erratic leadership of the DUP, Mr Johnson is ultimately accountable for the Northern Ireland Protocol and its political and economic consequences.

His style of decision-making suggests that he sees the north as another of Brexit's minor irritants, which he addresses by making policy as he goes along, rather than formulating a rational long-term strategy in co-operation with the EU.

By refusing to address the situation here, Mr Johnson has effectively detached himself from Irish affairs. His failure to develop a close working relationship with Dublin would appear to confirm this.

That sense of detachment is reflected in the intermittent involvement in events here by Brandon Lewis, who if not quite detached as secretary of state, certainly carries an air of being semi-detached.

He can best overcome that image by replying to the letter of concern in a manner which acknowledges the British government's responsibilities here and which outlines how Boris Johnson intends to urgently address his duties and liabilities. As the letter says, anything less endangers our peace.

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