Karen Bradley is speaking to the wrong audience on Northern Ireland

Bradley’s job is more or less unique among Cabinet roles in that the language used to communicate points of policy is just as important, if not more important, as the meat of the policy itself.

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Karen Bradley, the Northern Ireland Secretary, took questions from MPs in the Commons this morning. One particular exchange is generating the sort of exasperation that has become such a reliable soundtrack to her fourteen months in post, and merits reproduction in full. 

Emma Little Pengelly (DUP, South Belfast): Well over 90 per cent of the murders and injuries caused during the Troubles in Northern Ireland were caused by acts of terrorism. Very few prosecutions and investigations are underway, innocent victims are being left behind with thousands of unsolved cases. When is the Secretary of State going to address this issue and put in place a mechanism to investigate the over 90 per cent of acts of terrorism that caused those murder?

Karen Bradley (Conservative, Staffordshire Moorlands): Well, Mr Speaker, the honourable lady sets out the figures very, very powerfully. Over 90 per cent of the killings during the Troubles were at the hands of terrorists. Every single one of those was a crime. The fewer than 10 per cent that were at the hands of the military and police were not crimes. They were people acting under orders and under instruction and fulfilling their duties in a dignified and appropriate way. I look forward to working with her more to ensure that we can deliver the much-needed reforms and changes that we all want to see.

It isn’t hard to spot the specific remark that has led to calls for her resignation. Next week, Northern Ireland’s Public Prosecution Service will announce whether British veterans will be charged over the 1972 Bloody Sunday shootings, which claimed 14 lives. Bradley’s assertion that deaths caused by British service personnel could not be crimes because they were caused by British service personnel was at best an unfortunate moment of verbal indiscipline and at worst a sweeping act of historical revisionism. 

The Secretary of State says it was the former. She admits that her remarks “may have been open to misinterpretation”, and that she was merely seeking to convey the point that “the overwhelming majority of those who served carried out their duties with courage, professionalism, integrity and within the law. I was not referring to any specific cases.” She added that any evidence of wrongdoing should “of course” be investigated, “whoever is responsible”. It isn’t the grovelling mea culpa many believe is required, but it is at least a tacit admission that she did not speak as carefully as she ought to have. 

Yet the distinction doesn’t really matter. Bradley’s job is more or less unique among Cabinet roles in that the language used to communicate points of policy is just as important, if not more important, as the meat of the policy itself.

If you are – to take her previous ministerial role – the Culture Secretary, misspeaking when you answer a question about rural broadband ultimately means very little to your ability to roll it out. But at the Northern Ireland Office, the political damage inflicted by unthinking carelessness can easily equal that caused by deliberate crassness. In either case, the result tends to be the destruction of the liminal space where compromise on semantics and substance can happen. That space can only really exist if the British and Irish governments contrive to make it so – not only with the policies that they pursue, but also their style. 

So by any measure, Bradley’s words were unhelpful. They will ultimately make it harder for her to enact the policy she was talking about, and appeared to betray a misunderstanding of it even though that wasn't the case: the new set of institutions and legal structures to deal with the legacy of the Troubles the government announced last May, chief among them a new, independent Historical Investigations Unit that would probe killings committed by both British service personnel and terrorists during the Troubles and, if necessary, seek prosecutions. The government is still processing more than 17,000 responses to a five-month public consultation on the proposals that closed last October. 

Pointing out how contentious this process is, and how delicate the implementation of these measures will inevitably be, almost feels superfluous. Bradley said so herself in answer that directly preceded the offending moment. She told Labour’s Dan Jarvis: “I want to make sure that what we take forward, and what we legislate for – something that has been needed since the 1998 Belfast Agreement – Is one that does command widespread support, it has to command support in this House, and the other place, and support in Northern Ireland, and it absolutely has to work for our veterans.”

As far as her department is concerned, making the process work for veterans doesn’t mean a blanket assumption of innocence for the 300,000 who served in Northern Ireland. The point of the government’s legacy proposals has never been to exempt British service personnel from prosecution or to offer them an amnesty – that would mean offering one to the IRA, which is why you won’t hear the DUP asking for one – but to hold a malign minority to account (alongside paramilitaries). The nub of all this is that the process cannot and will not work unless British politicians and institutions are seen to entertain the fact that their armed forces were capable of moral fallibility, no matter how small the numbers in question. That truth also holds for the peace process more generally. 

The grim irony in all of this is that the government's legacy proposals would allow for the criminal prosecutions Bradley appeared to set herself against. It’s for that reason that they are so offensive to a number of very noisy irreconcilables on the Conservative backbenches, Gavin Williamson – who has made it his mission to scupper them – and the right-wing press. Nothing gets a cheer at meetings of grassroots Tories like a promise to end “the witch hunt” (as Theresa May discovered when she addressed the Conservative National Convention at the party’s conference in Birmingham last September). 

Though the reaction to Bradley's comments has been largely focussed on her personally, she is a much smaller part of the reason why they happened than that group. A government without a majority has to at least pretend to sound alive to this very angry constituency. But Conservative backbenchers are not the audience that ministers or their proposals on legacy must convince in the long term. A mixture of circumstance and incompetence means Bradley and Theresa May cannot respond to political questions about Northern Ireland - be they on Brexit, the legacy of the Troubles or the absence of devolution - in any other way. And though that makes the government's today easier, it will only make Northern Ireland's tomorrow more difficult. 

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.