It is hard to know what it is about Ireland that confounds the Conservative Party so much. But by now it is the best rehearsed routine in Westminster: an MP trips up over some basic details about Ireland and accidentally reminds the world about the depth of the party’s ignorance. Karen Bradley – then Northern Ireland secretary – admitting in 2018 that she did not understand the influence of sectarianism on the region feels like a salient example. The Northern Ireland secretary!
This week it was Suella Braverman’s moment in the sun. Writing in The Times, the Home Secretary suggested that the London pro-Palestine marches are “an assertion of primacy by certain groups – particularly Islamists – of the kind we are more used to seeing in Northern Ireland”. Reports that the march’s organisers had links to Hamas, she added, made the whole affair “disturbingly reminiscent of Ulster”. And with that she did the impossible: united the most divided community in the United Kingdom around the single cause of not liking Suella Braverman.
Her tone – dripping with callous disregard – tells us everything. Something as rough as a protest – a sectarian one, no less – is not suited to the urbane sensibilities of London but instead far more appropriate for the rugged backwaters of Ulster, she seemed to suggest. Oh, protests? Mired with religious tension? We don’t do that here. That’s Belfast behaviour… It is hardly a new revelation that the Tories see Northern Ireland as the problem child of the Union – something to be managed, appeased and hidden. But Braverman made it explicit.
She is right about one thing: we do see more sectarian marches in Northern Ireland. Though I am sure she knows those most inclined to marching are protestants, the unionists, her natural political allies who are pro-Union, pro-Brexit and pro-Israel. If the intent was to align pro-Palestinian protesters with the activities of “dissident republicans” – as a source close to her later clarified – then she has done a remarkably poor job. Only someone with such a feeble grasp of details could come up with an analogy that is not just insensitive and offensively blasé but also totally ineffective.
But politics is full of bad analogies. Sinn Féin for years now has sought equivalence between Northern Ireland and Palestine, both suffering at the hands of an unjust occupation, under the cosh of overweening imperial powers. At times it has even proffered the inane suggestion that the peace process in Ireland may be some kind of model for the Middle East. But this kind of thinking – comparisons that tend to frustrate rather than illuminate a problem – is no longer a Sinn Féin specific activity.
That Braverman thinks so little about Ireland that she did not pause to consider the sense or salience of her comparison is damning. But it would be OK for most people. It is no more an Englishman’s job to think deeply about the sectarianism of Northern Ireland than it is an Ulsterman’s job to think about the demography of London. But Braverman is the Home Secretary of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It is precisely within her remit to think about these things, no matter the Conservative tendency to wish the Northern Ireland problem out of the picture.
But why is Ireland so often at the centre of these gaffes? What is it about the place that invites the Conservatives to run roughshod over all of the delicate sensibilities required to maintain the fragile status quo? It seems to speak to something fundamental about Britain’s psyche. Ireland is far enough away to feel noticeably different: funny accents, different politics, street signs written in an unfamiliar language. But it is close enough that the Tories believe they naturally understand it: it’s a liberal democracy, predominantly white, rich, English-speaking. Ireland is at once boringly similar and frustratingly different. It is in this gulf that the Tories consistently find themselves confidently asserting things that betray their ignorance.
Plus ça change. The endemic indifference cannot be maddening any more because it is so predictable. And though the intellectual arrogance required to know so little yet say so much about the country seems a uniquely Conservative proclivity, for the most part it doesn’t really matter. Ireland can wallow in feeling misunderstood and continue to be a small wealthy country on the periphery of Europe, largely unaffected by the musings of Braverman and Bradley.
In fact, in the wake of Brexit it is clear that Ireland is a far greater imposition on the Tories than the other way round – a constant source of political frustration throughout Brexit, and a regular reminder that they are mired by ignorance about their oldest, closest neighbour. The only thing this damages is Conservative Party.
[See also: John Gray on the return of David Cameron]