A former high-ranking British diplomat has alleged that a large degree of indifference – and at times, recklessness – has been exhibited towards the Irish peace process on the part of British ministers and officials. For many, the revelations will come as no surprise. The British government has shown itself to be disingenuous and duplicitous when it comes to Northern Ireland – isn't it time we dropped the diplomatic charade and admitted that the greatest threat to the Belfast Agreement is the current British government and their English nationalist agenda?
Alexandra Hall Hall quit her role as lead Brexit envoy to the US in late 2019, stating that she was unwilling to "peddle half-truths on behalf of a government [she does] not trust," and later steeling her convictions by condemning Boris Johnson along with the British government for being "wilfully disingenuous".
In a lengthy article published in a US academic journal, Hall Hall offered a window into the struggles of civil servants working under a government that has consistently displayed a callous disregard for international norms or diplomacy. According to Hall Hall, one colleague working on Northern Ireland was “nearly in tears” when he could not “get his minister to register the enormous damage that would be done to the fabric of Norther Ireland, politically and economically, if the UK left the European Union without a deal”. She added that: “A low point for me was when I heard a senior British minister openly and offensively, in front of a US audience, dismiss the impact of a no-deal Brexit on Irish businesses as just affecting “a few farmers with turnips in the back of their trucks”.
The UK government's plans to end all Troubles-related prosecutions were described by Unison's Patricia McKeown as 'the biggest attack yet in 23 years on our peace agreement'
The British government’s reckless disregard for Ireland and the peace process has long been this region’s burden to bear. Aside from serving as the proverbial pawn in Johnson’s forever war with the EU, we have witnessed innumerable attempts at undermining the human rights protections and hard-won peace which have nonetheless sustained for over two decades.
Newly appointed justice minister Dominic Raab has triumphantly declared that he will be scrapping the Human Rights Act, despite it being the legislative underpinning of the European Convention on Human Rights in Northern Ireland and an essential component of the Belfast Agreement. Raab is of course infamous for shamelessly admitting that he had not bothered to read the aforementioned 32-page document in full, deflecting cynically that: “It’s not like a novel where you sit down and you say ‘do you know what, over the holidays, this is a cracking read’.”
At the time, he was serving as the UK’s Brexit secretary, tasked with negotiating a deal that could achieve Brexit while safeguarding an internationally binding peace agreement of immeasurable importance – which he couldn’t be bothered to read.
Last week, while in Armagh during a one-day visit to Northern Ireland, Johnson laid bare the motivations and intent behind the recent amnesty proposals designed to halt all Troubles-related investigations and block all avenues to justice for countless victims or their families. He described the passing of former British soldier Dennis Hutchings – who at the time of his death was standing trial for the 1974 shooting of John Pat Cunningham – as “tragic” and “very, very sad” for the Hutchings family. He added that “[Hutchings’s] particular case started before this government came in, so no matter what we did we wouldn’t have been able to stop that one”. Johnson made no mention of the Cunningham family who had fought for almost half a century for truth and justice, and who will now receive neither.
The UK government's plans to end all Troubles-related prosecutions were described by Unison's Patricia McKeown as "the biggest attack yet in 23 years on our peace agreement" during a motion at the Irish Congress of Trade Unions' (Ictu) conference this week. The proposals have been widely condemned internationally and have achieved the nigh-impossible – uniting Northern Ireland's fractious political parties in collective opposition to them. Regardless, the British government has signalled that it will proceed undeterred in a unilateral move to scrap the legacy structures decided upon in 2014's Stormont House Agreement.
The days of rigorous impartiality are over and the goalposts are being moved
In 1990, then secretary of state Peter Brooke stated that the British government had “no selfish strategic interest” in Northern Ireland. This position of neutrality in pertinence to the outcome of a future Border poll was seen as a crucial intervention in a tumultuous period of history, ultimately ensuring its inclusion in the foundation of the Belfast Agreement eight years later. Earlier this year, however, leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg imposed his own thoughts on the subject, reminiscing that: “Somebody once said that the UK had no selfish or strategic interest in Northern Ireland – I dispute that. I think we have an interest in keeping the whole country together as a united kingdom.”
Northern Ireland now has an “unashamedly pro-union” secretary of state who recently appointed a former Northern Ireland Conservative chair as the first-ever special envoy to the US on Northern Ireland. The appointment was made without consulting the executive or a transparent recruitment process.
Conservative Scottish secretary Alister Jack outlandishly posited last month that, in order for a Border poll to be called, at least “60 per cent of people must want a referendum, and that position must be sustained for 12 months”. If such prerequisites were applied to the Brexit referendum for example, there would never have been a vote.
Selfish strategic interest has also been made evident in the government’s overt opposition to the Northern Ireland protocol, exemplified by David Frost’s recent laments over the significant growth in cross-Border trade, complaining that the protocol was providing “incentives” for increased trade on the island of Ireland – a benefit he feels requires urgent correction.
The days of rigorous impartiality are over and the goalposts are being moved. The British government’s pursuit is not peace, it’s an unattainable version of Brexit whereby Ireland and the peace process goes between being a piece to play or a cross on their back.
Emma de Souza is a commentator and citizens’ rights activist