Tag Archives: Karen Bradley

Karen Bradley and the justification of state killing

7 Mar

There was some surprise at Northern Ireland Secretary of State Karen Bradley’s comments justifying killings by the British State. The surprise is surprising. Bradley is a British unionist and is merely upholding British unionist policy that the British state is legitimate. The logic of British unionism, like all forms of nationalism, is violence. Some British unionists are civic and seek forms of pluralism and toleration. But this is a minority interest. The logic of nationalism is the exclusion of others – by the use of force in some cases. In this case, the logic is that the British state must hold the monopoly of violence in Northern Ireland and therefore is correct to defend the use of force against subaltern and dissenting voices.

There was a moment when people may have thought that the British State was somehow neutral in relation to Northern Ireland (and indeed, Secretary of State Peter Brooke famously sent the IRA a secret message saying as much). But this moment was very much procedural. It was part of the peace process and designed to encourage Irish republicans to call a ceasefire, engage in negotiations, and disarm. That moment has long passed. Those strategic goals on behalf of the British State have been achieved. There is no pretence from the Theresa May government that it is anything other than unionist. Mrs May has been very clear about that in her public pronouncements. Part of this is the expediency of keeping the Democratic Unionists on board to prop up her minority government. But in a deep cultural sense, British Conservatives are statist, militaristic and unionist. That is part of their DNA – hence there should be no surprise at Karen Bradley’s comments. It is why I simply do not believe her apology.

There is another aspect to this as well: the fact that Karen Bradley was brazen enough to tell the truth about her support for state killings. Some commentators have put this down to Bradley’s by now well-known incompetence and professional laziness. I am not so sure (although I cannot dispute her incompetence and laziness – sue me Karen, we’ll happily go over your ministerial record in court). I think there is a wider issue here of the coarsening of political debates. We see this in many contexts: just check out Fox News and much of US politics for its rebarbative ‘stuff you if you don’t like what I’m saying’ tenor. In the UK, Brexit has been responsible for wiping away the pretence that pills should be sugared and that government should appear to be listening. Bradley’s comments should be placed in the context of a rougher form of political discourse, in which there is little pretence at achieving consensus, and no shame in offending citizens. It is worth reminding ourselves that Bradley’s offence is egregious. While she does not have the rhetoric flourishes of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro or his counterpart from the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte, she is effectively saying the same thing: the state has the right to kill some citizens without any pretence to due process.

Bradley’s apology is very revealing. It apologises for ‘offence caused’ rather than the actions of the state itself. A meaningful apology would mean going against her political base. It would separate her from the Daily Mail reading Conservative heartland and from the British Army – a surrogate for all things that are upright in broken Britain. That is why there was no meaningful apology. Bradley – like Duterte and Bolsonaro – was being honest when she justified state killing.

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Letter to Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley MP

26 Jul

Dear Karen,

I hope you do not mind me intruding on the parliamentary recess and offering the unasked-for advice that follows. But, you see, I think you do need some advice related to your day job as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Remember that? The day job?

As you know, the devolved Assembly that was established under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement has not been sitting for over 18 months. It is your job to getting it back to work – and thus to get one of the major world achievements of the 1990s – a comprehensive peace accord in Northern Ireland – back on track. It is a difficult task and let’s face it, the principal political parties that you have to work with – the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Féin – have very different aims and absolutely loathe one another. And then there is your own political party: it’s is at war with itself over Brexit. So you could be forgiven for pulling the bedcovers over your eyes on a Monday morning and thinking ‘I don’t want to go into the office today’. Believe me, sometimes I have the same feelings about Manchester.

Anyway, I hope you don’t mind if I observe that since taking over as Northern Ireland Secretary of State you don’t seem to have had much impact. Admittedly, you have a tough task but the impression of many observers is that you could try a bit harder with the day job. I read something the other day that compared your dedication to the job unfavourably with that of your predecessor, James Brokenshire. That must have hurt. To call his tenure as undistinguished would be unkind to the undistinguished.

Here’s my unasked for advice … it comes in two parts. The first part is a bit blunt but sometimes things need to be said in a straightforward manner. The second bit is somewhat more nuanced. So here comes the blunt bit: In order to do your job it might actually help if you spent a little bit of time in Northern Ireland. We all know it isn’t your dream job, but you said yes to it and are happy to accept the frills (and cash) that go with it. Your attendance in Northern Ireland is something akin to David Davis’ attendance in Brussels when he was in charge of the Brexit negotiations. If we were talking about school attendance then, at this point, social workers would be involved. Is it really up to another adult to tell you that in order to do your job you have to be prepared to travel to Northern Ireland and show a bit of effort?

The second bit of advice on getting the devolved Assembly up and running is to think about harnessing people power. If you talked to people in Northern Ireland – that is real people outside of your protected bubble – you would know that they are utterly fed up with what they see as a political class who are not terribly interested in getting the Assembly up and running. Democratic Unionist and Sinn Féin antipathy for one another outweighs any perceived advantages they see in cutting a deal. This is facilitated – in part – by direct rule that means most public services function more or less as normal. This is where your opportunity is. There are a few pinch points: budgets and decisions delayed because of the stasis at Stormont. People care about frontline public services. Dinner table conversations revolve around hospital appointments, school places and the he pothole on the road just by the Centra. There is space for a campaigning Secretary of State to build on public resentment and turn it into something positive. There is a golden opportunity to hold a series of public meetings all across Northern Ireland that would highlight the delays and how the inability to put the powersharing deal back together again is having a real impact on everyday life. You are the one with the data to know where the pinch points are and where they will be. You are the one with other data – polling and intelligence – that could make this work. You could turn this into a mass movement that would not necessarily have to rely on a Northern Ireland civil society that is – well – a bit tired. It would require energy, charisma and commitment. It is not unkind to say that those qualities have not been evident in your first months in the job, but you could surprise us.

What I am suggesting is a summer road show. It would get you out of the security bubble (honestly, no one is going to hurt you – especially if you tell people that you want to make life better). It would give you an opportunity to get people on your side. Fundamentally, it would scare the main political parties if they could see that they were being outflanked from the ground up. You could work on a rhetoric that elected politicians should do their job, that public services are at risk, that public services will decline if politicians don’t get their act together. The nature of power-sharing means that parties from opposing groups do not have to like one another – but they do have to work together. These are simple messages that could be repeated night after night in a series of town hall meetings. It would be truly non-partisan as it would be shaming the Democratic Unionist and Sinn Féin. They will try to bang the ethno-nationalist drum about culture war, but if you stick to the theme of public services there is a real chance of having an effect.

And, the people that probably matter to you most – the chatterati in London and political/media elite – would take note. Look at Gavin Williamson and Michael Gove – not particularly likeable people but they have gained a reputation for being passionate about their brief (Williamson) and having mastered the detail and being full of initiative (Gove).

Or you could stay in London, visit Northern Ireland very occasionally, and give the impression that you couldn’t care less.

Yours truly,