Ben Lowry: We will find out soon if UK is for once going to criticise Ireland

We are approaching another crunch moment on the legacy of the Troubles.

Saturday, 10th July 2021, 6:01 pm
Updated Sunday, 11th July 2021, 5:42 pm
Closing tiny cross-border roads was the obligation of the Irish state, which it didn’t accept

The UK government will unveil its planned way forward in the coming weeks.

One thing that is truly extraordinary is how passive London is in the face of relentless criticism from Dublin on a range of issues.

Brexit is the most obvious topic, in which an unending stream of disapproval is met with silence. This relects the fundamental weakness of the UK position when it wants to avoid a complete rupture with an EU that has since 2016 stood more closely by the Irish Republic than most pundits thought it would do.

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But the reticence long pre-dates that and you have to go back to the last phase of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership to think of a time when Tory leaders dared to criticise the Irish Republic. UK ministers had by the early 1990s were unhappy that the refusal to extradite terrorist suspects was continuing long after the 1985 Anglo Irish diktat.

Foolishly, they had been talked into thinking that the Republic would get tough on the IRA, and such a misguided expectation had been a key reason for signing that disastrous deal (from which unionism will never entirely recover, and which set the template for so many of the constitutional problems the Union faces today).

My colleague Sam McBride writes on page 8 about the question he put to Brandon Lewis and Lord Frost when they appeared at web seminar this week. Many more of us tried to ask questions than were called during that event. I wanted to ask about the almost demeaning way in which the UK just sits there when Ireland scolds it.

Much was made recently of the reported US dressing down of the UK over its handling of the Northern Ireland Protocol. I understand from London sources that this incident was greatly exaggerated, in particular by some Irish officials.

But if so, why not go on the offensive in public and openly contradict the reported version of events?

The worst offender when it comes to scolding Britain, Simon Coveney, worse even than his colleague Leo Varadkar, was at it again last week. He often cloaks his criticism in the language of friendship or in terms that sound so reasonable, few people could disagree.

Explaining his opposition to an amnesty, Mr Coveney said: “The way forward here is to apply the law to everybody and recognise, of course, that, because many of these incidents happened many years ago that, in many cases, it won’t be possible to secure a conviction. But you shouldn’t get more protection because you were wearing a uniform.”

This reflects the remarkable way that the conversation around an amnesty has changed over the decades. Twenty years ago, when the idea was first floated in the Weston Park talks, the opposition overwhelmingly came from by far the largest category of victims and survivors, those of terrorists (who killed 90% of the Troubles dead).

Now the opposition comes furiously from those who do not want to see security forces escaping jail.

But even more remarkable than that is the way that such a comment from Mr Coveney can pass without the slightest contradiction from UK ministers. And yet there is such an obvious rebuke: if Ireland is so determined to keep open the prospect of convictions, when is it going to hand over wanted IRA fugitives who live freely south of the border, some of whom talk increasingly freely about their terrorist past?

In a recent column (see June 26 link below) I wrote about elementary first steps that could be taken to reverse the anti UK legacy juggernaut such as scrutiny of past Irish extradition. And we are about to find out whether there is any move at all towards putting a spotlight on an Ireland that has become increasingly shrill about the UK’s role in the Troubles.

Or will criticism be left to commentators such as Kevin Myers, who recently wrote: “Closing down [IRA heartlands around South Armagh], with its myriad of tiny cross-border roads, was the obligation of the Irish state, which it refused to accept. Indeed, it was part of an entire range of responsibilities that the Irish state steadfastly failed to undertake [to thwart IRA].”

Ben Lowry (@Benlowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

Other articles by Ben Lowry below, and beneath that information on how to subscribe to the News Letter:

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