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The politics of Northern Ireland throw up strange alliances and unexpected points of agreement. For example, republicans think that the British government has no place or interest in governing the place — and many British ministers, have, over the years, appeared to agree.
In 1970, Reginald Maudling, after his first visit as home secretary, boarded his plane home, sighed and said “For God’s sake, bring me a large Scotch. What a bloody awful country!” One of his predecessors, William Joynson-Hicks, assured Stormont’s prime minister that “I know my place” and “don’t propose to interfere”. Both men were Conservatives and nominally unionist politicians.
Nor is that indifference confined to the past, or to Tory ministers. Karen Bradley admitted in 2018 when she was Northern Ireland secretary that she had been unaware when she took the post that she “didn’t understand things like when elections are fought, for example, in Northern Ireland — people who are nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties and vice versa”. This would be the equivalent of Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, cheerfully admitting that when he took the job, he hadn’t realised that the army and the navy aren’t one and the same thing.
On the Labour side, because of the electoral and institutional importance of the Irish diaspora within the party and because it matters personally to Keir Starmer, whose pre-politics career brought him to Northern Ireland, politicians generally have to feign a level of interest in public. But in private, most of them are no more interested than their Conservative peers.
Westminster’s real level of engagement can be seen in the reaction to the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s data breach. The personal details of 10,000 serving officers and staff were accidentally leaked online. These included officials who work with the security services. Although it is generally believed that dissident groups are nowhere near as effective or significant a threat as the Provisional Irish Republican Army was during the Troubles, the data breach does pose a serious risk to PSNI officials and to policing in Northern Ireland, a part of the UK where the terror threat is still treated as “severe”.
The PSNI is far from alone among police forces in the British Isles in facing serious challenges. No one could claim that London’s scandal-ridden Metropolitan Police had acquitted themselves well in their response to the murder of Sarah Everard by a serving police officer, or in a series of high-profile blunders.
The new Met chief, Mark Rowley, recently exposed himself to ridicule by calling on mobile phone companies to do more to help tackle smartphone theft. Given that these companies have already developed facilities that allow the location of stolen devices to be pinpointed with incredible accuracy, it is unclear what else Rowley wants Apple and Samsung to do, except perhaps hire their own armed wing.
And no one would argue that the Greater Manchester Police’s behaviour over the wrongful conviction of Andrew Malkinson revealed a force that had mastered the arts of contrition or accountability.
But the problems of the Met or the GMP are second-order compared with both the costs and the risks created by the PSNI’s data breach. While the Met appears at times to lack the inclination to fulfil the basic functions of a police force, the PSNI data breach might well compromise the PSNI’s ability to do so. The financial costs alone are beyond what a devolved parliament, with seriously curtailed abilities to either raise revenue or borrow money, can cope with. Ian Paisley Jr, a Democratic Unionist party politician who sits in the House of Commons, is absolutely right to say that parliament ought to be recalled to discuss the crisis, and in any other part of the UK it would already have happened.
Westminster’s lack of interest in Northern Ireland is a reflection of the mainland British electorate as a whole, but the problem is deeper than that. Just as Northern Irish matters tend to have little impact on voters in mainland Britain, so few votes are won in the effective conduct of foreign affairs. Still, foreign secretary James Cleverly has strengthened his stock at Westminster. Chris Heaton-Harris’s standing at Whitehall owes more to the fact that he was respected by colleagues as an whip and because in the early days of Twitter he had a good line in cheesy jokes than his role as secretary of state for Northern Ireland.
For many, Westminster’s visible indifference is a sign that unionism is an unreciprocated love affair: politicians in Great Britain neither notice nor care when Northern Ireland enters a period of crisis, nor show much desire to help out or get involved. The indifference of British politicians in the era of Joynson-Hicks to the discrimination against and disenfranchisement of Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority helped drive the province into the Troubles. Indifference in the age of Maudling helped to exacerbate them.
Indifference in the time of Bradley is why the UK’s Brexiters pursued a form of Brexit and made promises that could only result in a weakening of Northern Ireland’s place in the UK. It is, once again, indifference that deepens Northern Ireland’s policing crisis and indifference that remains the one consistent part of Britain’s relationship with Northern Ireland.