“I’ll never be neutral on the Union.” Prove it!

GUEST POST: Timothy McLean is a Parliamentary Researcher. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn 

“I’ll never be neutral on the Union” – the familiar battle cry we hear every time a new Northern Ireland Secretary takes up residence in Stormont House.  It’s time they showed some teeth…  

Boris Johnson is the first British Prime Minister since the Act of Union in 1801 to erect internal trade barriers within the United Kingdom. Which is kind of ironic, considering he is also the first Prime Minister to hold the title of Minister for the Union. In addition, the current office holder, Brandon Lewis – despite mounting evidence to the contrary – denies the existence of any border in the Irish Sea. If the Conservative party wants to be taken seriously on the Union, they must first acknowledge their mistakes and take action to correct them. 

The recent shenanigans that led to the disbandment of the Union unit within No.10 does not inspire confidence. While the political and media focus around the state of the Union tends to focus on Scotland, for obvious reasons, it is the situation which has been imposed on Northern Ireland that presents the biggest challenge to those who have been trusted with the care of our Union. 

Establishing committees to strategise and then implement policies across the Kingdom will not repair the damage to relationships which have been long standing between unionists in Northern Ireland and respective Conservative governments. The Northern Ireland Protocol is just the latest strain in that relationship. Yet the protocol is perhaps the most serious threat to the Union in my lifetime because it undermines the integrity of the internal market and gives succour to the separatists who would much rather align with Brussels than with London.  

Speaking at the DUP Party Conference in late 2018, Boris Johnson said this: 

“If you read the Withdrawal Agreement you can see that we are witnessing the birth of a new country called Ukni. This is how Brussels sees it. Ukni is no longer exclusively ruled by London or Stormont. Ukni is in large part to be ruled by Brussels.” 

Such a firm statement gave us Unionists hope that Northern Ireland’s equal position within the United Kingdom would be assured and protected. For the first time in many decades, Unionists held the balance of power at Westminster and felt like the new Prime Minister understood their concerns. Yet, after one meeting with the Irish Taoiseach, some argue Boris folded and choose political expediency over the well-being of the Union.  

So, how do we fix it? Rebuilding trust is an arduous process, but it is essential if we are to overcome both the external and internal threats to the Union which are gathering momentum. Unionists need to feel their Government in London is on their side and don’t just view them as a drain on resources or a concession that can be handed to Brussels for the benefit of England. 

The creation of a Council for the Union, made up of unionist politicians, civic and community leaders across the Kingdom would be a positive first step. Such a forum, meeting regularly in every nation and region of the UK, would allow Unionists to identify shared concerns and specific problems in each of the four nations. The Minister for the Union could chair the forum. The establishment of an Office for the Union would give it the necessary support structures to operate effectively. 

If the Conservative party is serious about the Union they will act now to remove the barriers which they have erected between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and begin a programme of outreach to rebuild relationships before it’s too late. The clock is ticking. 

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This piece was written for our website.

2021: A review

Adam Honeysett-Watts, Principal Director at Conservatives in Communications, spoke to Matt Honeycombe-Foster at POLITICO about the future of the industry. The image below includes the comments that were used for his article, otherwise you’ll find the full transcript as a blog post.

Do you predict public affairs/comms industry will carry on with bits of the ‘new normal’ even as Covid comes under control?

Much of what’s taken place over the past nine months has been in the works for a while e.g., living healthier, working remotely, shopping online, leveraging technology and thinking digital.  

What’s happened is the pandemic has accelerated the rate at which governments, organisations and individuals alike were already adapting to new expectations.

You could argue that there’s been – apologies in advance to all PRs and journalists – a turning point, sea change or paradigm shift.  

Even now that we have vaccines, I doubt we’ll return to our old ways of working and living; a lot has happened. We’ve become accustomed to new habits and norms and become more resilient.

That aside, we’re a people industry – our successes are built on networking and relationships; we absolutely need that face-to-face time. That’s certainly true for new start-ups like do Different.

I cannot wait to be able to host in-person events for the PRCA Corporate Group and Conservatives in Communications again soon. Zoom fatigue has certainly crept in.

What were the big lessons of 2020 that are likely to stick?  

1) Trust in your people and partners and ignore all talk of presenteeism.

The key to making remote working work is for managers to trust their colleagues. In turn, all colleagues must deliver – at home and in the office. It’s really that simple. Get it right and the benefits can be a-plenty.

And, I believe people have got it right. They have risen to the challenges posed by the country’s response to the pandemic.  

2) Corporate reputation remains king.

While some functions in communications rise and fall in terms of where they are in the pecking order, corporate reputation management consistently remains among, if not at, the top of the league when it comes to what businesses should prioritise in terms of PR.

Yes, digital and internal communications played a critical role throughout the year – and will continue to do so into 2021 – however, it is reputation – the overall perception of an organisation that is held by is external and internal stakeholders (based on its past and current actions as well as its future behaviour) – where the bulk of investment should be targeted.

What are the main political and policy battles you’re watching out for in 2021?

If you thought 2020 was going to be a wild ride wait until 2021.  

The fight against coronavirus will continue, the impact of Brexit – either with or without a deal – will follow closely behind, the new US administration will push a whole different agenda, the Scottish, local and mayoral elections could be quite challenging for many, the Nationalists will continue to push for another independence referendum and all this while unemployment and debt soars.

Senior leaders need public affairs partners to help promote and defend their business interests, but also PR support to build their brands, earn trust, protect reputation and generate new leads. Advocacy and communications have never been more important. Thankfully, practitioners have demonstrated their value.

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