Tory contempt for the Irish peace process is sowing dragon's teeth

John Wight
John Wight has written for a variety of newspapers and websites, including the Independent, Morning Star, Huffington Post, Counterpunch, London Progressive Journal, and Foreign Policy Journal.
Tory contempt for the Irish peace process is sowing dragon's teeth
With Brexit continuing to engulf and dominate politics in the UK, complacency surrounding the fragile peace in Ireland is sowing dragon’s teeth.

Those old enough to recall the 1970s, ‘80s and early ‘90s in Britain, when the bombings, killings, and violence of the euphemistically named Troubles were a regular feature on the nightly news, may have entertained the thought in recent days of having been transported back to this bleak period in a time machine. And with multiple explosive packages being sent from Ireland to locations across the UK by a group calling itself the IRA, who could blame them?

READ MORE: IRA claims responsibility for UK parcel bombs – police

On reflection, such a regressive turn of events bespeaks more than mere complacency. More accurately, it reflects the contempt of a Tory establishment in London, and a unionist establishment in the North of Ireland, towards the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), which brought the decades-long conflict in Ireland to an end with a political settlement in 1998.

Hark the words of Patrick Cockburn of the UK’s Independent news site: “Prominent [Tory] Brexiteers have never liked the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), while others consider it a Labour project that they would be happy to see wither on the bough. Michael Gove compared the GFA to the appeasement of the Nazis. The former Northern Ireland secretary Owen Paterson happily retweeted an article saying that the GFA had run its course and he supports a hard border with the Irish Republic.”

Cockburn highlights a congenital refusal on the part of unreconstructed Tory ideologues and their unionist counterparts to reconcile themselves to the right of the Irish nationalist community and its representatives to political parity. Of this, the recent House of Commons statement by Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley, provides further ignoble proof.

Replying to a question from one of her parliamentary colleagues, Bradley had the temerity to claim that killings “at the hands of the military and police [during the Troubles] were not crimes; they were people acting under orders and instructions, fulfilling their duties in a dignified and appropriate way.

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Insensitive and offensive hardly come close to locating such an outrageous remark at the best of times. That it was made at a time when prosecutors are deliberating over whether former members of the British Parachute Regiment should face trial for the killing of unarmed civil rights protestors in Derry in 1972, known to history as Bloody Sunday, only compounds the offence.

It was, by the way, later announced on March 14 that just one of the seventeen individuals who were under consideration for prosecution over the Bloody Sunday massacre will face trial for murder and attempted murder. 

The outpouring of anger at Karen Bradley’s declaration brought forth an apology; though not, significantly, her resignation or sacking by Theresa May. No surprise there, of course, considering this Tory administration has made a virtue of being impervious to all norms of probity and decency in public office.

Another source of justifiable grievance on the part of Irish nationalist communities – in which the overwhelming majority, it bears emphasising, do not support the resumption of armed struggle or conflict – is over the prolonged suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont. Beginning in January 2017, said suspension is due to an unresolved dispute between the majority Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), and its Irish nationalist counterpart Sinn Fein, over matters pertaining to language rights and ongoing legacy issues to do with the Troubles, previously touched on.

The grievance nursed by Sinn Fein over the DUP’s intransigence at Stormont, resulting in political deadlock and a return to direct rule of the province from London, was exacerbated by Theresa May’s decision to grant the DUP a deciding role in her legislative agenda after the 2017 general election, in which she lost her parliamentary majority.

In an unedifying act of unprincipled politicking, the prime minister gave the unionists a billion pounds in extra spending for Northern Ireland in return for their support in the Commons – support required in order to get her legislation passed. The neutrality of London in the affairs of Northern Ireland, built into the GFA, was and has been shamefully and perhaps irrevocably undermined in the process.

The original conflict in Ireland lasted the best part of four decades, making it one of the longest armed insurgencies ever waged in the 20th century. The resulting toll of close to 3,600 killed and thousands more wounded and maimed, most of them civilians, was the result of violence unleashed by republican and loyalist paramilitary groups, and by the British army and security forces.

Drill deeper into the history of the conflict in Ireland and you are brought face to face with the inconvenient truth that the IRA was a child of British colonial and sectarian oppression, rather than British colonial and sectarian oppression being a child of the IRA. Jack Kennedy’s famous proclamation, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable,” applies to events in Belfast and Derry in the North of Ireland in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The GFA was the towering achievement of then Prime Minister Tony Blair. In fact it was such a towering achievement that it’s hard to dispute that if his premiership had ended thereabouts or soon thereafter, most people would today consider him one of the greatest occupants of Downing Street since WWII. Instead he is justifiably reviled for his role in the destruction of Iraq in 2003, along with the destabilisation of the Middle East that ensued in consequence.

But that’s another story.

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The new IRA is an amalgam of various dissident republican paramilitary groups, made up of a minority within the Irish republican movement for whom the GFA was tantamount (ironic given Michael Gove’s own dim view of the agreement) to surrender to the British state. The recent uptick in its activity has to be a source of concern on the part of all but the most incorrigible of hard Brexiteers and ideologues.

Going forward, a vital factor in determining the group’s ability to cultivate the social base of support it lacks at present, and achieve something approximating to a fully fledged return to conflict in Ireland, will be the actions of the current Tory administration and its commitment to both the letter and spirit of the GFA.

What should not be forgotten is that an absence of conflict and peace are two entirely different entities. While the GFA achieved the former, the latter has consistently remained out of reach. For the reasons outlined, ensuring that the absence of conflict in Ireland continues to obtain is more than desirable it is absolutely necessary. 

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