Michael Gove And Brexit’s True Origins, From Anti-Peace To Anti-European?

In the year 2000, responding to the all-party intergovernmental Belfast Agreement of 1998, the peace deal which effectively ended three decades of conflict in the north-east of Ireland, the Conservative Party’s Michael Gove wrote a furious condemnation of the treaty. The then Tory researcher argued that the peace process of the 1990s represented a political and military defeat for the United Kingdom and a strategic victory for Sinn Féin and the Irish Republican Army. It was, in his view, a validation of the colonial interpretation of Britain’s presence in Ireland, which he and fellow British unionists (UK nationalists) staunchly rejected. In particular, the right-wing politician saw the settlement, and the equality agenda it ushered in, as part of a broader front in a liberal war against conservative values in Britain, one tied to the imposition of a Continental human rights culture on the country. His ire, then as later, was especially focused on the importance of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), the Council of Europe and the European Union (EU) to the peace treaty signed in Belfast. For Michael Gove both the Irish and “the Europeans” were to blame for the United Kingdom’s humiliation at the negotiations’ table.

Of course the Tory has subsequently gained fame, or infamy, as the leading voice of the successful Brexit campaign in Britain, taking the island out of the European Union (and potentially the ECHR too). Having treacherously seen off his chief rival on the “Leave” side, Boris Johnson, and initially gained the tacit support of the right-wing press, he is now competing for the leadership of the Conservative Party. While Gove’s ruthlessness has severely damaged his popularity among his parliamentary colleagues there remains an outside possibility that he might take the office of prime minister. Given his animosity to Ireland, and the knowledge that he would be one of those seeking to reverse two decades of “soft reunification”, it is worth examining his never disavowed opinions in detail.

From Michael Gove’s “The Price of Peace: An analysis of British policy in Northern Ireland“, published in 2000 by the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS), a right-nationalist think tank in London, there is this diatribe against voting reform, pluralism and the belief that all citizens hold certain inalienable rights:

“…the 1998 Belfast Agreement is a Trojan Horse for a variety of tactics and measures which New Labour plans to implement across the rest of the United Kingdom. Not only does the Agreement introduce a form of proportional representation which inhibits democratic accountability, it also carries in its train much else that New Labour radicals wish to see entrenched across the UK.

For example, it enshrines a vision of human rights which privileges contending minorities at the expense of the democratic majority. It supplants the notion of independent citizens with one of competing client groups. It offers social and economic rights: “positive rights” which legitimise a growing role for bureaucratic agencies in the re-distribution of resources, the running of companies, the regulation of civic life and the exercise of personal choice. It turns the police force into a political plaything whose legitimacy depends on familiarity with fashionable social theories and precise ethnic composition and not effectiveness in maintaining order.”

On the 1998 Good Friday peace deal and its place in history:

“The first flawed assumption of the “peace process” is the belief that the 1922 partition of Ireland was an historic injustice, that Northern Ireland is inherently unviable as an integral part of the United Kingdom and that history demands the “greening” of Northern Ireland – that is to say the privileging of Irish nationalist demands, as expressed by the most militant voices in that tradition.

Allied to that flawed assumption is the belief that armed terrorists can be converted to democracy by re-shaping democracy to suit the terrorist. In Northern Ireland, the main aim of British policy in the 1990s has been the securing, and maintenance of an IRA cease-fire at a very high price indeed. Principles once proclaimed as inviolable and democratic safeguards once considered non-negotiable, have been progressively cast aside in order to keep the IRA on side. Terrorists have felt no need to prosecute a full-scale war because they have seen that the simple threat of an escalation of violence has delivered their goals. Terrorists have not gone legitimate. Terror has been legitimised.

One of the subtler, but more significant gains made by the IRA has been the acceptance of their analysis of the “causes of conflict” in Northern Ireland.

The British Government has thus been seen to legitimise the IRA’s analysis and the justification for its violence. By equating peace with the dilution of Ulster’s Britishness, it has validated the Sinn Fein critique of the “Six County State”.

If the British State had always affirmed Ulster’s inviolable position within the UK, then the IRA would have, as it did in the past, grown disheartened. As it was, by making Ulster’s status negotiable, the British State provided a continuing practical justification in republican minds for continuing the armed struggle. The increasingly green tilt of successive British initiatives convinced the IRA that their violence was securing results.

The IRA had become convinced by 1994 that the British State was ready to negotiate with republicans on terms congenial to them. The republican leadership believed the British were ready to enter a process of conflict resolution. The public pronouncement of Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Brooke in November 1990 that Britain had no “selfish, strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland” had alerted republicans to the increasing willingness of the British State to enter into a dialogue on nationalist terms.

Private talks between IRA leaders and British intelligence figures reinforced the republican belief that Britain was ready to move towards conflict resolution.”

On the myth of “the surrender“, that the UK’s military and paramilitary forces were betrayed by their political masters in the 1990s leading to a victory by the Irish insurgents:

“…the British State deliberately held its security forces back from inflicting military reverses on the IRA because it preferred to negotiate. To consider what might have happened if those restraints had not been placed is to engage in a counterfactual. We cannot know if the IRA could have been defeated. We only know that road was not taken for political reasons, and the decision not to take it came as Margaret Thatcher fell from power.

Having chosen not to attempt to defeat the IRA, the British Government was set on a course of appeasement.

The deal was based, as the entire peace process has been, on the threat of IRA violence. As the Dublin Sunday Business Post of 14 May [2000] and the Sunday Telegraph of the same date confirm, republicans informed the British Government in April that they were ready to return to armed conflict if their wishes did not prevail. In the words of the Sunday Business Post, there was a threat of “bombs in London” during the general election campaign. Faced with this threat, the pattern of appeasement reached its culmination.

The British Government accepted “peace” on the IRA’s terms.

In the analysis of John Lloyd, a journalist close to David Trimble, in the New Statesman of 15 June 2000, we must now accept that Northern Ireland is being prepared for absorption into the Irish Republic.”

Even the British state’s apparent willingness to give official recognition to Ireland’s indigenous language and culture is subject to criticism for imperilling Britain’s colonial hegemony over the north-east of the island (a strand of anti-native racism that the English have bequeathed to some self-hating Irish):

“…the British Government agreed to privilege the Irish language and expedited the removal of those symbols which affirmed Northern Ireland’s continuing British identity.

The Section of the Agreement which deals with cultural issues  …goes on to make a series of
provisions “in particular in relation to the Irish language”.

The British Government pledges in Clause 4 of this Section to: …take resolute action to promote the language… to place a statutory duty on the Department of Education to encourage and facilitate Irish medium education… to explore urgently… the scope for achieving more widespread availability of Telifis na Gaielige in Northern Ireland… [and to seek more effective ways to encourage and provide financial support for Irish language film and television production in Northern Ireland.

In other words the British State will use public money to privilege one language, and one expression of cultural identity, above others. The cultural goal of Irish republicanism, the diminishment of the British identity of Northern Ireland and the coercive promotion of Irishness, is embraced and financially underwritten by the British Government in the Agreement.”

As noted above, Gove’s finds the importance of several European institutions to the peace process particularly obnoxious to the sensibilities of his Greater England nationalism. Here he attacks human rights campaigners, ethnic minorities, the disabled, women, transsexuals and anyone else who deviates from his definition of mainstream. Indeed his greatest fear seems to be disabled, female firefighters!

“The equality agenda in Northern Ireland cannot be disentangled from the new Human Rights culture to be developed in the Province. On one level, the development of Human Rights legislation in Northern Ireland is part of the broader project of enmeshing Ulster into the Irish republic.

The Agreement created a specific new Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) which will work on an all-Ireland basis.

Thus the NIHRC acts as another body to harmonise arrangements across the island of Ireland, helping create new structures and institutions, committees and charters, to incarnate the spirit of Irish unity.

The NIHRC is the vanguard of a new human rights culture, charged with broadening the scope and reach of the legal revolution heralded by the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into British law.

It empowers judges to rule that legislation passed in the previously sovereign UK Parliament should be changed if it is not in conformity with judicial interpretations of Human Rights. As such it marks a profound shift in power away from elected representatives, directly accountable to the people, and into the hands of judges.

The Human Rights culture is already spreading in our society, uprooting conventions on which our stability has rested, allowing female soldiers to sue for unfair dismissal when pregnant and prisoners to sue for injuries sustained in escape attempts.

…the NIHRC set out an ambitious programme of new rights. It plans new children’s rights and wishes to act “as an independent watchdog for children’s rights” having special regard for “the additional difficulties which may arise due to the sex, race, disability or sexual orientation of a child or its carers”.

The NIHRC also takes up the cause of transsexuals and argues that no-one should “be discriminated against on the basis of… gender reassignment”. It backs up this sentiment by pledging to spend public money preventing others forming independent judgements about the suitability of transsexuals for specific posts…

Creating new rights to eradicate “disablism” would mean that institutions such as the police, fire service or army would no longer be able to discriminate in favour of the able-bodied. Campaigners against sex discrimination have already ensured that the fire service cannot discriminate against women. The price, however, of this equality, has been that those in danger are forced to depend on firefighters who lack the physical strength to discharge their duties.”

Fortunately others are wakening up to the danger posed by Gove to the hard-won Irish-British peace of the last twenty years. From the Irish Times:

“Michael Gove is a “fanatic” who would be “dangerous” for the Northern Irish peace process and North-South relations if he won the Conservative Party leadership election, senior figures involved in the design and implementation of the Belfast Agreement have warned.

Mr Gove’s views are “a fanatical unionist protest against the agreement”, said Brendan O’Leary, professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and an adviser to the UK Labour Party and the Irish government in the years running up to the signing of the agreement in 1998.

“He in particular is dangerous for the future of North-South relations and for future British-Irish relations.” he added.

Duncan Morrow, a former head of the Community Relations Council in Belfast, says Mr Gove could “cause mayhem” in Northern Ireland as prime minister. “Gove’s position on Northern Ireland suggests he is one of the most hardline,” says Mr Morrow. “He needs to be asked does he accept the Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement?”

Mr Gove has been criticised since launching his leadership bid last week. SDLP MLA Alex Atwood said people in Northern Ireland cannot rely on his judgment. “Michael Gove has attacked each and every intervention to resolve conflict in Ireland. From Sunningdale to the Good Friday Agreement, from new law on equality and human rights to the creation of a new beginning to policing, that is the political character of Mr Gove,” Mr Atwood said.”

The journalist Fintan O’Toole, writing in the Irish Times, has correctly identified part of the Brexit agenda for Michael Gove and his nationalist colleagues, including leadership rival Theresa May:

“Michael Gove, who is what passes for the intellectual driving force behind Brexit, utterly despises the 1998 peace deal.

However what’s most important to understand is that Gove …epitomises a much deeper set of attitudes to Northern Ireland among what is now the controlling faction of the British ruling class. His arguments against the peace deal showed wilful ignorance of Irish history and of the Troubles – because his real concern was with the effect of the Belfast Agreement on British politics.

Underlying this attack is a sense that it would be better to destroy the peace deal, at whatever cost to the people of Northern Ireland, than to allow this monstrosity to undermine a conservative vision of Britishness.

And, if we cut away the hysteria, Gove is right. The Belfast Agreement, with its support for multiple identities, contingent sovereignty and externally guaranteed human rights, makes Northern Ireland a very different kind of political space to the rest of the UK. It is indeed incompatible with the kind of English conservative vision that is now in the ascendant.

This perception, crucially, extends beyond Gove, who is not going to be the British prime minister who negotiates Brexit. That will probably be Theresa May. So what does May think of the Belfast Agreement? Her antipathy is quieter and less explicit, but she is essentially Govian. We know this because her signature political issue has been the scrapping of the UK’s Human Rights Act, ending the jurisdiction in the UK of the European Court of Human Rights.

And this is a straightforward intention to impugn the Belfast Agreement.”

Any UK administration containing Gove and May in positions of power and influence will be deeply inimical to the interests of the peoples of this island nation. It is quite possible, unless common sense and reason prevails, unless leadership emerges from the hapless political elites in Dublin, that we are being channelled into a period of renewed conflict. One which will inevitably yield even more concessions to Irish republicanism. As they say, one definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result each time. Unfortunately mad dogs and Englishmen have yet to learn that lesson.

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5 comments

  1. Wowzers….he is a piece of work. Here is me thinking this sort of knuckle dragging was over in Britain.

      1. Not just the Brits…there are lot of folks headed back to the seventies as that generation passes through the halls of political power. Fighting terrorism with “love” was a recent such example…

  2. Some of the most bitter British Nationalists are to be found in Scotland, although in Gove’s case nowhere in Scotland would vote for him. No sympathy for fellow Gaels.

    Irish unity comes ever closer. The British will soon have enough difficulty keeping their own island united.

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