(Peter John McLoughlin, Lecturer in Politics, Queen’s University Belfast)
Belfast (UK), November 11 (The Conversation) The purpose of Suella Braverman’s controversial Times article commenting on the ongoing protests in Gaza appears to be clear. Like many of her recent and provocative statements, the perception is that she is trying to undermine and eventually replace Rishi Sunak as Tory leader by appealing to the party’s right.
However, the methods used – and particularly the comparisons made between the march in Northern Ireland and the demonstrations in London – are more confusing.
This confusion is understandable, as Braverman herself seems confused by what she has written. He linked the march on the Gaza conflict to “all that we are used to seeing in Northern Ireland”.
He took the comparison further by suggesting that some of those organizing the protests in London “have links to terrorist groups, including Hamas”.
From the article alone, it was not at all clear which Northern Ireland march Braverman was referring to. In some ways it seems as if she was trying to make a connection between Irish republicanism and support for Hamas. But the march in Northern Ireland is more associated with the unionist community.
Even the head of the Orange Order – which was responsible for most of the marches in the area – was concerned enough to suggest that Braverman should clarify which groups he was actually referring to.
Braverman later insisted that she was actually referring to dissident republicanism. And Republicans also participate in marches, but historically the most significant have been civil demonstrations to highlight discrimination against the Catholic community.
These marches were largely banned by the then Unionist government – something Braverman wanted in the case of the London protests, although she has denied this. The Unionists justified their restrictions by quoting what Braverman said in his Times article – that such marches could be a front for violent subversives.
However, the violence sparked by civil rights marches in Northern Ireland was largely perpetrated by the state – most famously and tragically on Bloody Sunday in January 1972, when British forces shot at protesters, resulting in the deaths of 14 people.
The Bloody Sunday march was a protest against the use of detention without trial in Northern Ireland. Like the freedoms of expression and assembly – both of which were exercised in the Gaza protests – freedom from unlawful imprisonment is a fundamental democratic right. In fact this is a fundamentally British right, enshrined in Magna Carta. What is worrying is that Braverman, the Home Secretary, and thus one of the upholders of British law, appears to be struggling with such notions.
Drawing analogies with Northern Ireland in an effort to protect its position was a poor decision.
It showed the superficiality of his understanding of the region’s past conflict – a tendency common to many Tory leaders who have been forced to accept the consequences of Brexit. Recall former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who said that the Irish border was little different from those dividing London boroughs, his deputy Dominic Raab, who admitted that he had not read the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, or Braverman’s predecessor Priti Patel had suggested that the threat of food shortages in Ireland as a result of a no-deal Brexit should be used to put pressure on Dublin in the negotiations. There seemed to be little awareness of the British government’s role in the devastating Irish famine of the 1800s.
However, it is difficult to separate ignorance from intention. Braverman’s apparent linking of Gaza protesters to republican violence, and the alleged threat to the Cenotaph commemoration this weekend, may be an attempt to stir memories of the IRA bombing of a Remembrance Day event in Enniskillen in 1987.
Longtime readers of his Times article with a military background may make this connection. But if Braverman meant to draw a similar mindset between the Enniskillen bombers and the protesters demanding a ceasefire in Gaza, that is too crude.
Braverman’s Times article has given rise to many interpretations, and much confusion, because it follows a common tactic of “culture warriors.”
The lack of clarity is purposeful. It is enough to highlight the malicious intent of Gaza protesters or other such targets, and let social media do the rest. Even Metropolitan Police Commissioner Mark Rowley noted a lack of caution in response to Braverman’s description of the Gaza protests as a ”hate march”. He told the News Agents Podcast: “He has taken two words from the English language and used them together.”
And lack of understanding of these sensitive topics is no hindrance to their use and abuse by culture warriors. As long as an intervention raises their political profile, its purpose has been served.
A proper consideration of the Northern Ireland case produces more challenging lessons for people like Braverman. First, the successful reform of policing in the area eliminated its pro-Union bias. And even recent challenges to policing in Northern Ireland have reminded us of the need to protect law enforcement from political interference. Braverman would do well to note this.
More broadly, and if we are to compare Northern Ireland to the Middle East, it needs to be acknowledged that its engagement with violent republicanism in its peace process is successfully leading it towards democracy and political settlement.
In Israel-Palestine, similarly, measures should be taken to encourage violent actors toward purely peaceful means. Like militant republicanism, efforts to simply crush Hamas will likely prove counterproductive. Bloody Sunday was often said to be the largest recruitment drive for the IRA, and Israel’s current actions in Gaza will likely create a new generation of Hamas fighters.
The long and difficult process of building a peaceful and just Northern Ireland began with the ceasefire. This is what most of the protesters in Gaza are demanding. True democrats should be given all support in their peaceful efforts.
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