The Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has hinted at a complex future for the war against Isis. Photo: Getty
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Foreign Secretary: the US legal basis for action in Syria “looks robust”

Today, parliament will vote on the UK using airstrikes against Islamic State in Iraq. 

The House of Commons is to vote today on whether or not to use airstrikes against Islamic State (also known as Isis) in Iraq.

David Cameron has recalled parliament today to ask MPs’ approval to join the US in targeting the militant group.

The BBC’s Nick Robinson reports that it is very likely the vote will pass, because the three party leaders alongside their whips have ensured against a defeat in “minute detail”. This diligence comes a year after the Prime Minister’s damaging defeat in a vote on military action in Syria.

However, in spite of the likelihood of a win for the government, one difficulty remains. The government has only made the motion about intervention in Iraq, to help the Iraqi government, and will not be voting today to go into Syria. This is because there is a clear legal basis for the former, whereas the latter – under Bashar al-Assad’s regime – is more complicated.

It seems a precedent is emerging for the opposition to hold an effective veto when a British Prime Minister attempts to join in foreign wars, and it is thought that Labour will only vote in favour of  action unequivocally sanctioned by international law.

As the Labour MP Diane Abbott, who is one of a handful of MPs planning to vote against the motion, told the BBC’s Today programme this morning, “call me pernickety, but [military intervention] has to be legal”.

However, the Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, speaking on the same programme this morning, suggested that he does see a legal basis for attacking IS in Syria.

The US, which began its airstrikes against the extremists this week, has struck targets in Syria. It argues a legal justification of “collective self-defence”, which is a case that currently has uncertain status in international law.

Hammond, when asked whether he sees this action in Syria as legally sound, replied, “it looks robust to me.”

He said:

The US is already carrying out military operations in Syria. The first challenge is to push Isil out of Iraq. . .

Well, in the future is another question. . . We’d look at the circumstances at the time, if we felt we had some capability to contribute, and it [airstrikes in Syria] was needed. . . then we would certainly make the case for doing that if circumstances were right. . . It is clear that the US intervening in Syria is also able to do so on a legal basis on collective self-defence . . . it looks robust to me.

He added, “we’re absolutely not ruling anything out”, but insisted, “everyone understands very well that if there was any suggestion of going further than that [striking IS in Iraq], we [would go back to the Commons for another vote].”

For the few MPs – mainly Labour, but also some Tories ­– opposing military action or unsure about how to vote, the Foreign Secretary’s words will not be much comfort. A key argument deployed against intervening in foreign conflicts is that it quickly becomes difficult to extract oneself once it’s begun. And Hammond’s words hint at a war that will only get bigger and take longer. Indeed, he said that, if necessary, Britain could send more Tornadoes to the area than the six it will send initially if the vote passes in the Commons today.

This, coupled with the Defence Secretary Michael Fallon’s suggestion in the House magazine that the campaign could be a “long haul” of “two to three years”, may make many politicians think twice before voting for military action this afternoon.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.