No. 10's Potemkin summit on internet porn solved nothing

Did it really take a choreographed Downing Street tea party to get an extra £1m for the Internet Watch Foundation?

The "Downing Street summit" is a trusty device to bump some minor item a couple of points up the news agenda. The Prime Minister doesn'’t even need to be present, as indeed he wasn'’t when Maria Miller gathered corporate internet Titans in No. 10 to declare collective horror at child pornography. 
 
It turns out the simple fact of the conversation taking place within those hallowed walls is sufficient to spur action. But what action? The assembled bigwigs - including representatives from internet service providers (ISPs), phone companies, search engines and social networking sites - pledged to boost the funds and powers available to the Internet Watch Foundation, the industry's self-regulatory body, to track down and block child porn. Agreeing to do a tiny bit more is unmistakably better than agreeing to do less. So well done Big Internet for disapproving of vile criminality! 
 
Did it really take a choreographed Downing Street tea party to get an extra £1m for the IWF (spread over four years)? And will that sum, multiples of which are routinely misplaced in the margins of Google'’s UK tax returns, do anything much at all to protect children from predatory paedophiles? The answer, each time, is surely “no”. But it has helped boost Maria Miller’'s profile at a time when the Prime Minister is known to be mulling a ministerial reshuffle. There is no doubt Miller is feeling embattled. Comments she made ahead of the summit, noting her own status as the only mother in the cabinet, have been interpreted –not exactly favourably as an attempt to secure her position. She has even had to defend  the very existence of her department from the whispered suggestion it might usefully be scrapped altogether. (When Steve Hilton was still firing off wild strategy ideas in No10 he notoriously wondered aloud if the DCMS might be downsized to a roomful of people and a website.) Miller’'s friends suspect a concerted briefing campaign to get rid of her, with a steady flow of unhelpful items turning up in newspapers and political columns. 
 
It doesn’'t take a tremendous leap of the imagination to suppose that a beleaguered minister might see some presentational advantage in striding purposefully along Downing St. as the scourge of child pornography.  Yet there is something a little dismal about the whole spectacle. Much reporting of the summit conflated two separate issues: access to illegal images of children –and children’s' access to entirely legal sexual images. It is pretty easy to get outraged about the former and to demand a crackdown; the latter appears not to have been addressed at all. What many campaigners really want  – and what ISPs resist– is a tougher regime of default filtering that means, in theory, children can’'t accidentally find themselves looking at the bad bits of the web. (Whether or not this is a good idea in theory or can even be done in practice is more complicated than it sounds– I wrote about it at some length earlier this year.) 
 
The volume and nature of readily available and entirely legal sexual images online –-  increasingly user-generated  -  is a source of massive anxiety to many parents. It is also complex issue in terms of carving out jurisdiction and apportioning responsibility for policing. It merges with the wider debate, no less tricky, about the social consequences of a more generally sexualised culture. Education is likely to play as important a part in the answer as filtering and blocking. Separately, every rational person can agree that illegal paedophile material needs to be expunged. The two problems are more distinct than is often implied in reporting. Meanwhile, neither came remotely close to being solved by yesterday'’s Potemkin summit. 
 
Culture Secretary Maria Miller leaves No. 10 Downing Street. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Getty
Show Hide image

Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution