Tuesday 15 October 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'The last thing the North needs now is more anger'

It should be obvious by now that anything which encourages the mentality behind letter bombs is a bad thing, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

OFFENSIVE AND HURTFUL REMARKS: Controversial UK Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley
OFFENSIVE AND HURTFUL REMARKS: Controversial UK Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley

Eilis O'Hanlon

Naturally, the first suspicion after packages containing incendiary devices were sent to Heathrow and London City airports last week was that it must be the work of climate change activists.

Then someone looked at the postmarks and realised that they'd actually been sent from Dublin, meaning it was most likely our old republican dissident friends who, tired of being up to their necks in crime, had decided to send the old enemy a message as the date for Brexit approaches.

Headlines warning of a "new IRA threat" soon began to appear in the press, desperate for a fresh angle on Brexit to break the existential tedium of talks in Brussels.

Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.

Log In

In due course, the situation got more complicated, including rumours that the crude letter bombs might be the work of some less-easy-to-categorise mischief maker. There were even suggestions of shadowy State involvement to concentrate minds ahead of next week's latest "meaningful vote" at Westminster.

What's really interesting is how nobody was the slightest bit surprised at the possibility that republican dissidents might have decided to letter-bomb Britain. A return to violence in reaction to the UK's decision to leave the EU has been salaciously prepped for months, and there was certainly no end of people keen to use the letter bombs to prove they'd been right all along.

In so doing, they committed the most basic error of all when it comes to politics in Northern Ireland, that of trying to have one's cake and eat it too.

Politicians condemning violence, while simultaneously seeking to profit politically from it, are a common sight north of the border. What's new in the past couple of years is that it's also become a staple of the Irish Government's approach. In using the threat of dissident violence as an argument against Brexit, it might even be said to have encouraged such violence in the first place. After all, if it makes the Brits think twice about Brexit, it can't be all bad, right?

Alarmist stories now pop up daily, warning about what might happen if a border, hard or soft, returns. In the North, such rhetoric can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy; and, while the Tanaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs says that people who send bombs through the post should be "isolated and criticised", it's not at all hard to imagine a scenario in which the same people might be inspired into renewed action by the increasingly febrile tone of the conversation in Ireland about Brexit, which has tended to s tart from the certainty that it will cause the end of the world and then get progressively more alarming from there.

At the end of his life, WB Yeats published a poem, Man And The Echo, in which he admitted: "I lie awake night after night/And never get the answers right./Did that play of mine send out/Certain men the English shot?" Ministers should pin it to their walls.

Extremists thrive on melodramatic forecasts of doom. The staggering stupidity of UK Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley's comment that killings committed by the security services during the Troubles were "not crimes" only added to the rising air of crisis.

The office which Bradley holds has been the dumping ground in recent years for a succession of political pygmies. That she manages to be the worst of the lot is no small achievement. It shows how little the North counts at Westminster these days that she should have got within an ass's roar of the job.

That wouldn't matter if everything was working out as it was meant to, with a functioning assembly and a devolved executive. In that scenario, the Northern Ireland Office could happily be left to the political equivalent of the manager of a regional supermarket.

With Stormont still standing idle, it needs someone with greater diplomatic skill. Karen Bradley has been there more than a year now, long enough to have boned up on her background reading, and certainly long enough to appreciate how offensive and hurtful her remarks would have been to relatives of those killed in shadowy circumstances by British armed forces, who have long felt - understandably so - relegated to a lesser position in the hierarchy of victims. Bradley's biggest blunder was saying what she did at all. The lesser error, but one which may turn out to be just as important in the long run, was handing an easy propaganda victory to those with a vested interest in stirring tension in the North as the March 29 Brexit date with destiny nears.

They've been eagerly anticipating this moment since the 2016 result brought a referendum on Irish unity within grasp, and they haven't let up for a day since. The collapse of devolved government at Stormont six months later was not unrelated to that giddiness, and the failure to get it back up and running definitely isn't.

The mistake of the Irish Government was to stoke those fires. In many ways, it echoed the mistake which those opposed to Brexit believe was made by British Prime Minister David Cameron when he decided to call a referendum on leaving the EU. That came after the 2014 European elections, in which Nigel Farage's UKIP topped the poll. Spooked by the rise of the Eurosceptics, Cameron squeaked a win at the general election the following year by promising a referendum on EU membership, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Either way, it's not really possible to argue that Cameron did the wrong thing by pandering to Eurosceptics, while insisting that Leo Varadkar and his Tanaiste did the right thing by offering solace to the mood after 2016 which suddenly decided that a united Ireland, rather than being a long-term objective whose details could be safely left to the small print of the Good Friday Agreement, was something that needed to be urgently addressed.

The result was an alarming rise in poisonous Anglophobia, both in Government and the Irish media, and that surely could have been predicted, making it all the more reprehensible that it was encouraged anyway. However foolishly, Cameron thought that having a referendum would take the sting out of a long-running constitutional issue. The Taoiseach could not really have believed that pandering to united Ireland chatter would make it go away, rather than grow?

He no doubt feels some justification in a new poll which finds that a clear majority of people in the North want to stay within the customs union and single market, as provided by the backstop; but knowing that there is a potential hornet's nest of discontent in the North is not a good reason for picking up a stick and poking it.

Even if last week's letter bombs turn out not to be the work of one of the more organised dissident republican groups, it's never a wise idea to do anything which might in any way endorse or encourage their twisted world view. If Karen Bradley in Belfast and the more die-hard opponents of Brexit in Dublin take anything away from last week, dear God, let it be that.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss