Fintan O’Toole: Tories must grasp the profound stupidity of their approach to the North

Brexit deal depends on Britain restoring disinterest towards Northern Ireland

 Britain’s prime minister Boris Johnson waves as he speaks in the House of Commons in London on Monday. Photograph: UK parliament’s Parliamentary Recording Unit/AFP via Getty Images

Britain’s prime minister Boris Johnson waves as he speaks in the House of Commons in London on Monday. Photograph: UK parliament’s Parliamentary Recording Unit/AFP via Getty Images

I try not to be a pedant but I do get annoyed when people use “disinterested” when they mean “uninterested”. To be disinterested is to be impartial, to deal honestly with other people without seeking to advance one’s own interests. To be uninterested is not to care about what happens to those people. One of the reasons Brexit has been such a mess is that the British government has seriously confused these two attitudes to Northern Ireland. It has managed, under both Theresa May and Boris Johnson, simultaneously to abandon its duty to be disinterested and to be fundamentally uninterested. If a Brexit deal is finally to emerge, it will be because the British have been forced to grasp the profound stupidity of this combination.

The Belfast Agreement is very clear on the idea of disinterested government. It requires that “whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland, the power of the sovereign government with jurisdiction there shall be exercised with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions”.This requirement has been openly flouted since May’s ill-starred election of 2017 in which the Tories lost their majority in parliament. Impartiality has been abandoned in favour of a formal alliance with one party, the DUP, whose support lies almost entirely within one politico-religious tradition. 

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