November 9, 2023 - 1:30pm

I’ve been writing about Northern Ireland for 13 years. In that time, it has more than once transformed from a fringe issue into a subject of central importance to affairs at Westminster.

Yet despite having had years to get to grips with the issue, mainland politicians continue to show a woeful ignorance of the Province — a sad fact perfectly illustrated by Suella Braverman’s latest salvo in her battle with the Metropolitan Police. In an article today, she wrote that:

I do not believe that these marches are merely a cry for help for Gaza. They are an assertion of primacy by certain groups — particularly Islamists — of the kind we are more used to seeing in Northern Ireland.
- Suella Braverman

To whom is she referring? The language around “assertion of primacy” echoes that used by critics of marches by the Orange Order — but those are overwhelmingly peaceful and do not venerate terrorism.

And if that’s what she meant, such comments are even more ill-judged considering that the Government is still trying to coax the Democratic Unionist Party back into government, and reassure unionists about Rishi Sunak’s much-vaunted Windsor Framework.

Meanwhile there is, of course, an ugly strain of republican activism which idolises the IRA and other terrorist groups, often on display during disorder in Ulster. But such events are usually straightforward riots, seldom organised “marches”.

Perhaps she was referring to events such as IRA funerals, which once again seemed to receive differential treatment from the police during lockdown. 

That’s a fair argument, and controversy over political pressure from Sinn Fein has since seen the Chief of the PSNI resign. But if that’s what she meant, she ought to have been clearer.

Such comparisons pose awkward questions for a Government minister. It might strike you or I as perfectly natural to compare the IRA and Hamas, two terrorist organisations which deliberately targeted civilians to try and wrest control of territory from so-called “settlers”. Yet politicians in London played a big role, albeit unintentionally, in creating the climate in which this retrospective legitimisation of the IRA, INLA, et al. could take place. 

It was John Major and Tony Blair who brought Sinn Fein in from the cold, and successive governments which repeatedly changed the rules — most egregiously with the 2006 St Andrews Agreement — to stack the political deck in their favour.

Even today, Northern Ireland has much laxer rules on foreign donations just so Sinn Fein can raise funds in the United States, and Parliament continues to issue the party a special version of Short Money because it doesn’t undertake the parliamentary work needed for the usual funding.

If anything, therefore, the pro-Palestine demonstrators who so exercise the Home Secretary could be forgiven for taking her comparison as words of encouragement. Cause enough trouble, and special treatment shall be yours!

In fairness to Braverman, she is not the first home secretary to forget that Ulster is a special case. One thinks of Theresa May’s pious opposition to deploying water cannon on “British streets”, despite their regular (if not frequent) use in Belfast and Londonderry.

But Ulster is a special case, and while there are certainly parts of the current arrangement which are deeply unsatisfactory, there’s a reason for that. It isn’t the only part of the United Kingdom where the police are routinely armed for nothing.

If the Home Secretary’s argument is that the most recent demonstrations pose a challenge to how we have until now conducted public-order policing on the mainland, she might have a point. But if so, she does herself and the Government a grave disservice by not knowing how to make it.

Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.