Yesterday Karen Bradley, the Northern Ireland Secretary since January 2018, said that the deaths caused by police and the army during the Troubles were not crimes. The police and soldiers were “people acting under orders and instructions, fulfilling their duties in a dignified and appropriate way.”
This is despite the findings of the Saville Inquiry that fourteen civilians were killed by the British army on Bloody Sunday 1972, for which David Cameron apologised, describing the paratroopers’ conduct as “unjustified and unjustifiable”. Next week we’ll find out if those soldiers will be prosecuted. This is also despite a well-documented history of collusion between Loyalist paramilitaries and the security forces, and shoot-to-kill policies. Bradley’s comments have also been criticised as an attempt to influence the ongoing Ballymurphy Inquest investigating the murder of ten civilians by British soldiers on the Ballymurphy estate in 1971.
In September, Bradley admitted she knew nothing about the politics of the province before taking the job. She didn’t know that nationalists vote for nationalist parties, and unionists vote for unionist parties. She also confessed that she “was slightly scared of Northern Ireland because of my impression and images from 20 years ago.”
But the Tories’ contempt runs much deeper than appointing an ignorant and incompetent Secretary of State. In December, an unidentified Tory MP told a BBC reporter that “The Irish really should know their place.” That “We simply cannot allow the Irish to treat us like this” in the Brexit negotiations.
This was five days after former Development Secretary Priti Patel’s comments that Britain should use the threat of food shortages in Ireland as leverage to stop the backstop deal. It was swiftly pointed out that it’s not the first time Britain has threatened food shortages in Ireland.
Boris Johnson has made a string of offensive and ignorant comments about Ireland, including in June saying that “it’s just beyond belief that we’re allowing the tail to wag the dog in this way.” And he has made repeated claims that the Irish border is not a real issue.
And the Tories’ contempt has been demonstrated, not only through gaffes and inappropriate comments, but through their policies. After the 2017 general election, Theresa May entered a “confidence and supply” agreement with Arlene Foster of the DUP – a woman and a party who are loathed and despised by large swathes of the Northern Irish population. It’s not only nationalists that hate Foster, many unionists resent her and her party’s religious fundamentalism and ultra-conservatism. And just about everyone in Northern Ireland is angry about the DUP’s “cash for ash” scandal, which has led to the suspension of the devolved government for over two years.
During the short run-up to the Brexit referendum in mainland Britain there was virtually no discussion of the Northern Irish border. It was widely discussed in Northern Ireland, but the issue didn’t seem to register in Britain. The British media was slow to realise that disrupting the Irish border could end the Good Friday Agreement and was, in fact, the most difficult stumbling block of all the Brexit negotiations. Did David Cameron gave Northern Ireland a moment’s thought when deciding whether to hold the referendum in the first place?
The injustice is that Northern Irish people do not vote for the mainstream British parties; they do not have the option to vote the government out. They are represented in Westminster by the DUP – a party that serves the interests of a minority of the population. The second biggest party, Sinn Féin, refuses to sit in Westminster. With no sitting parliament, a lack of representation in Westminster, and a spectacularly incompetent Secretary of State who almost certainly will be forced to resign, Northern Irish interests are not being adequately defended during Brexit; a time when the province faces its biggest existential threat since the Agreement.
The Brexiteers wanted to bring democracy back to Britain, but apparently the democratic deficit in Northern Ireland doesn’t bother them. What this period has revealed, through deeds and words, is not just ignorance and negligence, but the Tories’ utter contempt for the province and its people.