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Trashing Peace in Northern Ireland

By lining up behind hardline loyalists and advocating impunity for state-sanctioned killings, the Tories have undermined decades of peace building in Northern Ireland in just a few short years.

There has been more talk about Northern Ireland in the British media since 2016 than at any time since the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) was negotiated. Two factors obviously lie behind this: the importance of the region for the Brexit negotiations, and the reliance of the Tory Party on Unionist votes at Westminster after 2017. 

But quantity has not translated into quality. Far too often, the calibre of political analysis applied to Northern Irish affairs is woefully sub-standard. As a result, one of the most important political developments of recent times has gone largely unremarked upon. The Conservative Party has comprehensively trashed the foundations of the peace process and the GFA. And as long as the Tories remain in office, the downwards spiral seems certain to continue. 

Contrary to some alarmist reports, Northern Ireland is not teetering on the brink of renewed conflict, but we have the good sense of its people to thank for that, not wise statesmanship at the highest levels of British politics. If Conservative politicians carry on playing with matches, eventually they will manage to start a fire. The only sure way to guard against that is to turf them out of government. 

Gove’s Moral Stain

Some of the leading figures in the current government opposed the GFA from the start. Michael Gove denounced the agreement as a “humiliation” and a “moral stain”, comparing it to Munich and bracketing Tony Blair with Neville Chamberlain. Gove was especially anxious that the GFA might serve “as a laboratory for policy developments which New Labour wants to introduce across the UK”, such as reform of the police to increase ethnic-minority representation. 

He also railed against the “human-rights culture” which, to Gove’s evident horror, had “already ensured that the fire service cannot discriminate against women”. A Tory MP has yet to blame the Grenfell disaster on the presence of female fire-fighters, although it’s surely only a matter of time before they do.

We can trace a straight line from this right-wing critique of the GFA to the repressive, Islamophobic policies of Prevent and the “war on terror”. One of Gove’s main allies in his crusade against the GFA was Dean Godson, a senior journalist at the Telegraph and the Spectator (where he served as associate editor under Boris Johnson). Godson went on to become the director of Policy Exchange, a think tank that has exercised a strong influence over the Conservative Party. Policy Exchange published a report on alleged extremism in British mosques, but had to beat an ignominious retreat when Newsnight found the document to be riddled with holes. The report quietly disappeared from Policy Exchange’s website, but Gove brought the thinking behind it into government after 2010. 

With the post-conflict settlement in Northern Ireland now under severe strain, the wheel has come full circle. In a search for cheap attack-lines to deploy against Labour, Tory leaders like Boris Johnson have resurrected the idea that Sinn Féin, Northern Ireland’s second-largest party and the main representative of its nationalist community, is beyond the political pale. Engagement with Sinn Féin was vital to the peace process, but Johnson was happy to trample all over that for the sake of a fatuous “gotcha”.

Taking Sides

This is the mentality that the Tories have brought to bear on Northern Irish politics in the last few years. The political logjam in the region wasn’t just a result of Brexit. Tensions had been building up between Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) for years, as the DUP refused to facilitate reforms that should have been very easy for the party to swallow (a bill to promote the Irish language, for example). The Brexit crisis wasn’t a bolt from the heavens that brought down the power-sharing government: it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

British media coverage has largely failed to explain why Brexit itself posed so many problems for Northern Ireland. It wasn’t simply a question of what regulatory framework would govern cross-border trade after Britain’s departure from the EU. The resurgence of crude, chest-thumping British nationalism at the heart of the UK political system was bound to have grave implications for its disputed periphery. 

For Irish nationalists, the agenda promoted by Conservative Brexiteers like Johnson and Gove scuttled the idea of the British government as a neutral arbiter between the two communities that was baked into the GFA. To some extent that was always a polite fiction, but there is still a very marked contrast between the approach of Blair’s government in the 2000s and the crude partisanship of Tory ministers today.

The dependence of Theresa May’s government on DUP votes made that partisan bias impossible to ignore. However, it would be wrong to blame Westminster arithmetic for the misdeeds of the Conservative Party. If the Tories had a comfortable majority, they would be acting in much the same way. 


Their plan to gut human-rights legislation is clear proof of that. The Conservatives claim that they want to stop “unfair trials” of British soldiers accused of committing crimes in Northern Ireland. That’s just another way of saying they want to stop trials full stop. 

There is a widespread and inaccurate perception in Britain that the peace process gave an amnesty to those convicted of paramilitary offences. In fact, there was no such amnesty: republican and loyalist prisoners were granted conditional release in return for supporting the GFA, with the threat of being rearrested to serve the rest of their sentences if they got involved in violence again. The Northern Irish police force has continued to investigate unsolved cases from the 1970s and 80s: in the past few weeks, one IRA veteran, Ivor Bell, stood trial for his alleged role in the 1972 murder of Jean McConville (Bell was found not guilty). 

The idea that British soldiers are being singled out while IRA members get off scot-free has no basis in reality. Those pushing it simply want to extend the impunity those soldiers enjoyed during the conflict, even for atrocities like the Bloody Sunday massacre. By including this proposal — which received a cold response from Unionist politicians — in their campaigning platform, the Tories have shown once again that they cannot be trusted to show the merest scrap of responsibility in their dealings with Northern Ireland. The longer they stay in office, the greater the risk that one of their clumsy provocations will result in disaster.