If he can’t get the DUP back into Stormont, will Heaton-Harris survive?

If he can’t get the DUP back into Stormont, will Heaton-Harris survive?

IT is clearly preferable that we have political leaders capable of shaping events, but it certainly matters that they are equal to the task of responding to them.

I was struck by this as I watched the current Secretary of State for the North, Chris Heaton-Harris, address the Conservative Party conference in Manchester recently.

He is a nervy, almost shifty performer and neither much good in the media or at public speaking.

Funny, as you would imagine these are prerequisites for his job.

But then he is a creature of the government whips’ office, where other talents are called upon.

Anyway, he was doing his best, buttering-up the unionists that he has managed to alienate since the publication of the Windsor Framework back in February.

In a one-sided display to the party faithful, Heaton-Harris claimed (implausibly) to have ‘the best job in Government,’ boasting that it was his task to ‘bang the drum for that small, bustling, proud part of our country.’

Northern Ireland was, he claimed, an ‘integral part of the United Kingdom’ and he would ‘relentlessly advocate for the Union.’

Addressing his ‘friends in the unionist community’ he said he was working to ‘answer your remaining concerns [about the Framework].’

There was nothing for nationalists to take away from his partisan remarks.

But I suspect he was not convincing many unionists either.

In a few weeks’ time at the DUP conference there will be a deal that restores Stormont or there will not.

Much will depend on a series of small concessions that Heaton-Harris can cobble together and sell.

I suspect I am not alone in preferring that there was someone helming this effort with more gravitas and imagination.

There used to be a wall in the Northern Ireland Office with photographs of each secretary of state. There have been 24 in total.

Apart from the well-regarded Julian Smith, who managed to broker the deal that ended the previous impasse at Stormont (that saw it mothballed for three years between 2017 and 2020), most have been forgettable characters.

Many failed to make a mark. Others made terrible mistakes. Occasionally, there was someone with a degree of common sense sent across.

New Labour posted a succession off talented politicians to embed the Good Friday Agreement.

The Conservatives have despatched dud after dud for the past 13 years – with Heaton-Harris among them.

Anyway, the mistake that he – and his boss, the prime minister – made earlier in the year was in not strong-arming the unionists into accepting the Windsor deal that ended the Brexit saga but left Northern Ireland subject to EU rules when it comes to importing goods from Britain.

They should have told the DUP bluntly that the agreement was in the best interests of the British people and they would not be forgiven for causing problems.

This is where Heaton-Harris’s background as a chief whip, used to twisting arms, might have come in useful.

But the moment was missed and the hardliners were allowed to pore over the agreement, finding what they see as its flaws, thus dragging the DUP leadership to the loyalist fringe.

Anyway, Heaton-Harris will either deliver the DUP back into the assembly ahead of the major US-led investment conference at the end of the month that President Biden announced when he came over in May, or he will not.

If not, it is likely that the coming cabinet reshuffle will see the appointment of the 25th secretary of state.