How far apart are your eyes? How do you pronounce the letter ‘H’? What do you call a Christian place of worship?
Your replies are as good as meaningless in every corner of the world, except for my home. Growing up in Northern Ireland, I have used the answers to these questions to unconsciously designate every person I meet as either Nationalist or Unionist, Catholic or Protestant, one of Us or one of Them. This prejudiced defence mechanism has been bred into me without my permission, and though I no longer care about the answers, I’ve learnt that ancestral habits are especially difficult to shake off. But I count myself lucky. My generation have to check our internal biases, rather than check under our cars for bombs. We have had the privilege of peace. And in no plainer terms, the Government’s latest Bill threatens to extinguish that peace before it has even reached its 25th birthday.
Last Monday, the Internal Market Bill passed through the Commons, propelling Johnson’s government one step further on its plan to override key components of the Withdrawal Agreement. Behind the political doublespeak which surrounds this Bill is one key proposal: allowing the Conservative Party to break international law. NI Secretary Brandon Lewis said as much himself, shamelessly stating that the Tories intend to ignore international legal obligations in a “very specific and limited way”.
If this Bill is passed into law, it will give the Conservative party free reign to unpick the painstakingly-crafted Northern Ireland Protocol, an essential piece of legislation designed to protect peace in Northern Ireland. The Protocol ended months of deadlock in negotiations by guaranteeing an open border on the island, effectively keeping Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods. But in Boris’ world, these commitments were nothing more than a way to “get Brexit done”. Rule of law; reputation; respect for peace – all now meaningless as the Conservatives pursue an impossible vision of nationhood. In their desperate haste to cast off the chains of EU serfdom, the terrible troika of Johnson, Cummings and Gove have buried the philosophy of their own patron saint, Margaret Thatcher. She stated in 1975: “Britain does not renounce treaties. Our country’s greatness is the part it has played in spreading throughout the world…the rule of law.” The naked lawlessness of this Bill would have been utter anathema to Thatcher and her contemporaries, but for the Tories of today, charlatanism rhymes with statesmanship.
Should this Bill pass into law, and should the UK fail to reach a deal with the EU, then the return to customs checks on the Irish border is not just likely – it’s as good as promised. In a staggering display of solipsism, Johnson and Hancock have declared that the Protocol’s system of customs checks at ports unnecessarily disrupts trade and endangers the peace process. Such a claim adds insult to injury. The basis of peace on the island of Ireland is unfettered trade and passage across the 499 kilometre line separating North from South. As every person on that island knows, the only actual threat to peace is the resurrection of a hard border, of the kind which is enabled by this Bill. The imposition of customs checks along the land border following a no-deal Brexit would symbolise the regression of political healing in the North, and provide fair game for dissident paramilitary groups. If that sounds dramatic, that is because it is dramatic. John Major and Tony Blair, two major architects of the peace under which I have been so fortunate to live, put it better than any other: “this bill negates the predictability, political stability and legal clarity that are integral to the delicate balance at the core of the peace process.” Will it take another Brighton bomb for the British political elite to wake up to the fragility of the peace with which they so recklessly toy?
This Bill has been cooked up to protect neither peace nor trade. It’s about pursuing a Brexiteer wonderland where pure, unimpeded sovereignty exists. It’s about blemishing the image of your nation with the highest number of COVID deaths in Europe, and then scrambling to deflect attention. It’s about imperial nostalgia in the face of an increasingly disunited kingdom. And if left unchecked, the toxic nationalism of this Government is set to trample into the dust one of the most extraordinary peace accords ever agreed. If this sounds like hyperbole to you, then you are not as educated as you believe.
22 years ago, a unique meeting of minds across the islands of Britain and Ireland achieved the impossible. They gifted a generation of young people in Northern Ireland with the privilege of peace, and the chance to forge an integrated society. As a member of that generation, this Bill has confirmed our worst fear: the time when British politicians cared about peace in Ireland is now passed. I would bet my life that any member of the current government could wax lyrical about Henry VIII’s six wives, or analyse the illogical nature of the US electoral college, or recount the dictatorships of Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and more. I would also bet that they would fail to tell me which counties make up the tiny piece of land they apparently want to protect. They would fail to know when Northern Ireland was created, which parties are ‘green’, which are ‘orange’, and which are neither. They’d tell me they love Derry Girls – jolly good fun! – but they’d not recall the name of the 29-year-old who died by gunshot wound on the streets of that city a mere 18 months ago. Her name was Lyra McKee. She was the latest victim of the conflict which has paralysed and abused my beautiful home for almost a century. If this Bill goes through, if the Conservative party hurtles headlong into a no-deal Brexit, Lyra McKee will lose her status as the last victim of the Troubles. That is not a bet. That is a fact.
Image by David Dixon