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Complacent July 4, 2017

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.

I find Newton Emerson very difficult to read these days. One big problem he has is an air of complacency. For him there is never any possibility of crisis and those who think otherwise are either malign or foolish or some admixture of same.

For example this week he was decrying those who point to the potential for the peace process itself to come under threat from Brexit.

The problem is – and he should be well aware of this – that no one can with one hundred per cent certainty call the outcome of the processes now in train. The utter disaster that is British government approaches to Brexit is a warning of a broader malaise in UK governance. That should, at the least, trouble him. It surely does me.

And the implementation of a hard border with all the varying and accompanying installations that would necessitate would be something that would provide an immensely attractive target for some. And then there’s the issue of the DUP and Tories and what implications that has for the British polity. Given the very very broad range of those critiquing and criticising that it is curious in the extreme how indifferent he is to that.

There’s worse though. Take for example his latest contribution…

Some of this reporting was due to ignorance and the natural attraction of journalists to catastrophism. However, much of it has taken a steer from prominent figures at Westminster, on both sides of both houses. In the days leading up to the deal, former Conservative prime minister John Major and Tony Blair’s former chief of staff Jonathan Powell were among those warning of a return to violence. Within hours of the deal being signed, Labour shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry told the Commons that the agreement was “in jeopardy” and questioned “the future of peace in Northern Ireland”, causing DUP MP Ian Paisley to express his “utter despair” at the constant suggestions from Labour’s front bench “that people will in effect go back to war because we intend to spend £1.5 billion on services”.


Despair has verged on farce in the case of Peter Hain, a Labour former Northern Ireland secretary, who has sombrely spoken of threats to peace because the Tories are no longer “impartial”.

Where he really underlines the rather tenuous credibility of his argument is when he continues as follows

Hain oversaw years of DUP-Sinn Féin talks to restore Stormont, despite spending his entire political career up to that point calling for “British withdrawal”, including at one point welcoming “loyalist revolt” as advancing a united Ireland. He refused to recant these positions throughout his time in Belfast.
The heralds of doom in Westminster tend to be Labour tribalists or Tory Europhiles. These loyalties apparently override any connections with Northern Ireland. Major is credited with initiating the peace process, while Hain and Powell wrote books claiming a pivotal role in it, yet that has not stopped them making implausible predictions of disaster.

Is he seriously suggesting that Powell and Major had no part whatsoever in the peace process? Rather snide pronouncements do not invalidate their centrality to the processes of the 1990s (and after in Powell’s case) or their absolute right to articulate their views on it.

And it is far too easy of Emerson to loftily wave away such concerns as he does in the following terms:

Northern Ireland is now embroiled in Westminster’s games to get a Conservative leader out of power – and nobody seems to have the slightest compunction in using war as a rhetorical weapon.

There’s a remarkable parochialism in that view – and he seems oblivious to a further aspect, given his comments on the tendency of journalists to catastrophism, which is the question of his own expertise in these matters as against that of those he critiques so strongly. But then it is of a piece with other contributions of his in recent times. Take his missive last week on the Irish Government and Brexit. And the DUP. And the Good Friday Agrement. And he provides a fascinating insight into a very particular view of these matters.

First up there’s the by now ritual dismissive tut tutting about the Irish government…

Coveney’s performance [in London] impressed many observers. The Minister said Brexit must fully protect the Good Friday Agreement – a “legal document” – as well as the peace process and normalisation in general, and warned that Ireland will not vote for any deal that fails to do so. He made no reference to terrible Hugh Grant movies, yet there was a touch of the ham actor in all his tough talking. Leaving the EU cannot affect one word of the Agreement, as unanimously ruled by the UK Supreme Court five months ago, upholding a judicial review in Belfast last year.

Go on…

If you are going to specify the importance of the Agreement as a legal document, you should give some weight to the fact that no judge can find Brexit has any bearing on it.

Of course Emerson conveniently ignores the fact that these were courts in Britain. Perhaps one might if one were going to ‘specify the importance of the Agreement as a legal document… give some weight to the fact that no British judge can find Brexit has any bearing on it’. It would be most interesting to hear other legal opinion on this matter – particularly that from ICJ or similar (and one commentor BTL notes that too and also makes a point that Emerson is misreading the situation in relation to QMV on the final Brexit deal – Emerson argues that Ireland has no veto, which is correct but neglects to realises that decisions are made by consensus almost exclusively and that that increases Ireland’s influence hugely).

I fear this yet again points to a remarkably anglo-centric and parochial tinge to Emerson’s views.

But even if that’s the case that’s odd in and of itself because all he has to do is listen to what people are saying about the issue in England (though as we have seen above he’s essentially willing to write off any opinion from that or any quarter more or less immediately if it doesn’t align with his own views precisely).

That is that Brexit should not and must not impact on the GFA/BA – and those saying this are British politicians (and Irish politicians and EU reps too) – so one might reasonably infer that if this is being said there is at least some potential for it to do so. If it were indeed the absolutely certain situation that Emerson presents why on earth would people be making such great play of it?

But even in the course of this article – which by the way, in fairness, makes a parallel point to one made here on the CLR only this very day about the effective ineffectiveness of NI MPs in the current dispensation (those MPs being the DUP who are now utterly constrained by the GFA/BA itself and the broader political context from progressing the unionist part of their programme and are forced to move to economic terrain to demonstrate their impact) – he rather undermines his own thesis.

However, current Westminster arithmetic has clearly pushed us into a huge grey area that can no longer be delineated by the Agreement’s well-meaning waffle.


Just thinking about untangling this mess reveals the convoluted arguments ahead. Should a convention be established whereby Northern Ireland MPs do not participate in voting pacts with governments on Northern Ireland affairs? If so, what would be the point of being a Northern Ireland MP? They would be uniquely hamstrung in the Commons.
Should British governments never form pacts with Northern Ireland parties?

Ah, some evidence of uncertainty. Still, his somewhat contemptuous attitude to the GFA/BA is telling. And earlier he suggests that all is grand in relation to the peace process – yet again loftily waving the idea of any threat as being the product of ‘siren voices…and no good is served indulging them’.

And again the problem is that for all the earlier certainty he does not and cannot know the out workings of the processes in train. We’ve seen just this last week British negotiators arrive to talks with the EU without position papers. It is a small thing in one way but so telling in all others. And it suggests levels of basic competence are AWOL.

Perhaps he’s right, perhaps all will be well. But one would have to have a panglossian worldview to be certain of that.


1. EWI - July 4, 2017

That the Tories – currently in government – can no longer be considered honest brokers in operating the GFA is a situation which should concern everyone.

But, that would be in a world where the reality wasn’t that Emerson is (I strongly suspect) privately very pleased indeed with the new arrangement.


Michael Carley - July 4, 2017

There was always a blind eye turned in that nobody really believed that a British government is neutral on the question of Northern Ireland’s status as part of the UK, but as long as there was nothing too blatantly biased, it hardly mattered.

It’s got very blatant.


shea - July 5, 2017

+1 michael carley

legacy issues is one of the main unresolved. hard to pass the british state of as neutral.

Neutral in so far as (and its untested) the british state abiding by the principle of consent as currently mandated and abiding by it if the north mandates a change of the constitutional status.

in 2011 there was talks of a merger between the uup and the torries, rejected by the uup.


2. Joe - July 4, 2017

And the Irish government? Is it neutral on the question of Northern Ireland’s status as part of the UK? Or indeed in the nitty gritty negotiations and discussions that are currently underway? It’s not.
So who/what is neutral on this? The EU? The USA?


WorldbyStorm - July 4, 2017

No but the RoI govt has a vastly more limited input into governance and administration in NI than the UK govt so its not comparing like and like, moreover the UK govt has to take cognisance of the fact NI has two communities in relation to national identity and constitutional issues and it itself has stated publicly it has no selfish etc interest in the North amongst other things. And even if much of that is rhetorical better that than seeming to be otherwise.


EWI - July 4, 2017



3. The Broken Elbow - July 4, 2017

To deal with this issue requires returning to basics. What were the Troubles really about? Were they a rebellion on the part of Nationalists whose aim was to re-unify an independent Ireland? Or were they a civil rights struggle that ‘got out of control’, primarily because a section of Unionism led by Ian Paisley etc could not accept the idea of giving Catholics equality without endangering the Union? If it was the former then Hain, Major etc could be right, because the struggle is not yet over and a hard Brexit would push it further away from success and enrage hardline republicans and perhaps persuade them to reach for the gun again. If it is the latter, as I believe to be the case, then the GFA and all the other various reforms introduced prior and post 1998, not least a guaranteed place for Nationalists in government, then there is no chance of violence breaking out again because Nationalists have essentially satisfied the demands they first made with the civil rights movement. In this case Emerson is correct and Hain, Major etc are wrong. Whether they are being alarmist is, however, another matter.


WorldbyStorm - July 4, 2017

Completely agree, those are the key questions. I’ve never been able to quite decide myself. In a way it comes down to what people find tolerable. Some will accept one broad dispensation over anther that they want more but seems less attainable.


gendjinn - July 5, 2017

Wasn’t it both? By the 80s the PIRA were a small organisation that did not require wider logistical support. Were they not then a committed anti-colonial, nationalist movement?

Surely after the MacBride principles and the concessions of the 70s it was no longer fueled by the impetus of Civil Rights?

I am concerned that this invocation of the Civil Rights as explanation is a security blanket so we cannot believe the north can backslide. It certainly can.


WorldbyStorm - July 5, 2017

Yes and yes, 100% agree.


The Broken Elbow - July 5, 2017

‘a small organisation that did not require wider logistical support’ – there writes someone who was never there. you are describing the baader-meinhof gang, not the provisional IRA…..every war needs an engine, the engine that drove the northern troubles was inequality. it may not have been completely addressed but sufficiently to keep the engine shut off.


gendjinn - July 5, 2017

What was the ratio of active members of the Baader-Meinhof gang to the numbers of active members of the late 80s PIRA to the numbers of the WoI IRA or the 1980s British Army?

Surely someone as familiar as you with the 1960s, 70s and 80s would accept that the numbers of active members of the IRA(s), swollen as they were with recruits from Civil Rights anger and Bloody Sunday type shootings, had contracted significantly by the 1980s. The whole “Long War” mentality.

I’m not sure what you mean by “obviously not there” – there included the Dublin & Monaghan bombings and you should consider that many of its injured are alive today and commenting online.


The Broken Elbow - July 5, 2017

The Provos were like an iceberg; Baader-Meinhof were like an ice cube. okay?


Joe - July 5, 2017

Were they a rebellion on the part of Nationalists whose aim was to re-unify an independent Ireland? Or were they a civil rights struggle that ‘got out of control’?

A civil rights struggle that ‘got out of control’. What a creative way to airbrush a sectarian murder campaign.


The Broken Elbow - July 5, 2017

Glad you like my words – especially when you take them out of context!


Joe - July 6, 2017

Apologies BE. I was wrong to imply that your words were an attempt to airbrush anything. My post was poor.

I think a civil rights struggle that ‘got out of control’ is a good way to describe the conflict. What I was trying to do was give my view on what the ‘getting out of control’ involved. And in my view, a lot of it was a sectarian murder campaign by an armed organisation based among one ethnic group/community (and with a lot of support from that ethnic group/community) against the other ethnic group/community.
And yes, the other ethnic group/community had its own armed organisations (with support in that ethnic group/community and with support from the state and its security apparatus) who were just as murderous and sectarian.


4. roddy - July 4, 2017

The term “northern Ireland” is not even neutral.I know very few who use it for the contrived statelet.


5. roddy - July 5, 2017

Joe,if a campaign waged overwhelmingly against the British army,RUC and UDR combined with economic bombings was “a sectarian murder campaign” ,perhaps you could explain your own movements collaboration up to and including the swapping of weapons with the UVF whose victims were overwhelmingly catholic civilians?


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