Sunday 16 June 2019

Colette Browne: 'British politicians and media don't give a damn about what happens in one part of their precious union'

Screengrab from CCTV footage issued by the PSNI showing a car bomb exploding outside the court house on Bishop Street, Derry. Photo: PSNI/PA Wire
Screengrab from CCTV footage issued by the PSNI showing a car bomb exploding outside the court house on Bishop Street, Derry. Photo: PSNI/PA Wire
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

To truly understand the level of disinterest in England when it comes to Northern Ireland, one only had to glance at the front pages of leading British newspapers on Monday.

Notably, not a single British newspaper carried a front-page picture of the aftermath of the Derry bomb attack - a team of forensic officers examining the grotesque wreckage of the disintegrated van.

In contrast, that picture was carried on the front page of multiple Irish newspapers - the Irish Independent, the 'Irish Times' and the 'Times' Irish edition.

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Even the international edition of the 'China Daily' deemed the bomb attack in Derry worthy of front-page coverage. As did the 'Financial Times', whose content is geared towards an international audience of thrusting capitalists.

So, what did the 'Daily Telegraph', the 'Times' and the 'Guardian' opt to put on their front pages instead? The two former opted for a picture of the queen attending a church service in Norfolk, while the latter featured a picture of the Spice Girls.

Apparently, the queen travelling in a car while failing to wear a seatbelt was more newsworthy than a terrorist attack in Northern Ireland that came perilously close to claiming scores of lives.

The front page of the 'Daily Telegraph', which carried a lead article in which it was alleged British Prime Minister Theresa May was planning to rewrite the Good Friday Agreement - and failed to make even a cursory mention of the weekend's assault on the fragile peace process which that agreement enshrines - was perhaps the most glaring example of the bewildering detachment that pervades British media, and the upper echelons of British politics, when it comes to Northern Ireland.

Not only do establishment media and politicians in England not care about Northern Ireland, they fail to perceive anything problematic about their pathetically poor comprehension of politics and culture in the region.

It's an ignorance that takes a degree of effort to maintain - a learned ignorance acquired through decades of indifference and disdain.

You don't have to delve back far in history to find examples of this conscious and deliberate decision to consign tumultuous events in the North to the status of an irritant or an irrelevance.

The fact that the region now holds the dubious distinction of a world record for the longest period without a government, in a period when seismic decisions about its future are being made, barely warrants a mention.

When rioting broke out in Belfast for more than eight weeks in 2012 and 2013, over the decision of Belfast City Council to limit the number of days in which the Union Jack was flown, the coverage rarely led news programmes.

This is despite the fact that petrol bombs were hurled at a church, buildings were set alight, the homes of politicians were attacked and police fired plastic bullets and deployed water cannons to disperse large crowds of rioters.

Writing at the time, 'Guardian' columnist Michael White noted the "robust efforts of the British media to play down the riots" and said reports of the violence were "rarely on page one or at the top of the news bulletins, even during a slow news Christmas period".

Mr White's column was notable as being an exception to the code of omertà from the British media and politicians which is usually attached to events in Northern Ireland.

Belfast may have been burning, but that was happening "over there" in the region of the UK which the current Northern Ireland Secretary, Karen Bradley, recently admitted she was "slightly scared" of.

It is perhaps Ms Bradley who most exemplifies the entrenched policy of gratuitous ignorance concerning Northern Ireland that is embedded in the British establishment so deeply that it adheres to their DNA.

Ms Bradley was promoted to the role of chief minister for Northern Ireland despite the fact she publicly admitted she had no understanding of even rudimentary facts about the sectarian nature of politics in the region.

"I didn't understand things like when elections are fought, for example, in Northern Ireland people who are nationalists don't vote for unionist parties and vice versa. So, the parties fight for election within their own community," she told 'House' magazine, as if it were some kind of revelatory discovery.

Ms Bradley is not the only senior Tory who appears to revel in her idiocy. Last year, former foreign secretary Boris Johnson likened travel over the Border on this island to Londoners moving between boroughs. His colleague Andrew Bridgen thought he had the right "as an English person to go to Ireland and ask for a passport". Ms Bradley may be "slightly scared" of Northern Ireland, but what is really scary is that these people consider themselves qualified to make monumental decisions about the future of a country they know nothing about.

In a 1933 essay entitled 'The Triumph of Stupidity' - concerning the dangerous rise of Nazism - Bertrand Russell wrote "the fundamental cause of trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt" - a fitting epitaph for those politicians cheerleading Brexit.

The existential problem Irish and EU negotiators have to grapple with is that wilful stupidity, concerning Northern Ireland, is the norm in British politics and public life. For many, it's a badge of honour.

Northern Ireland didn't feature in the Brexit debate prior to the referendum, because politicians didn't give it a second thought and the media didn't highlight its significance.

Now, when the Border and the backstop are proving to be intractable obstacles to a deal being reached, the people of Northern Ireland are being offered only glib assurances that things will be alright on the night from a chorus of buffoonish Brexiteers.

Tell that to the people of Derry who saw CCTV footage of a group of young people walking past a huge car bomb in the minutes before it exploded on Saturday. Tell that to those people who lost family members and friends during the long and bloody years of the Troubles.

With a little more than two months to go before the Brexit deadline, the problem is that the depth of ignorance about Northern Ireland, from those framing its uncertain future, is too cavernous to be filled.

Worse, the reality is that, even if there were sufficient time, those people have no interest in learning. They prefer the comfort of their ignorance.

Irish Independent

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