So another British Secretary of State has returned to the United Kingdom for the final time after a short reign of bureaucratic pen-pushing and ceremonial ribbon-cutting as the country’s de facto colonial governor in the north of Ireland. The tenure of the Conservative Party MP James Brokenshire may have been shorter than most but it was just as pointless. Aside from the patrician if farsighted incumbency of Peter Brooke or the determined anti-establishment work of Mo Mowlam, most British government ministers in the Six Counties have embodied the futility of Britain’s continued territorial claim over the north-eastern corner of this island nation. They came, they saw, they failed to conquer. One is always reminded of the obligatory “victory is just around the corner” speech issued by every SOS from the 1970s to the early 1990s, until “the imminent defeat of the terrorists” by the UK became “a necessary compromise” in the interests of peace.
It’s remarkable fact that in three decades of conflict, of the so-called Troubles, no British minister was ever excoriated by the domestic press and general public for failing to deliver on the promised defeat of the Irish Republican Army. Year after year, administration after administration, secretaries of state for “Northern Ireland” from the Conservative and Labour parties pledged imminent glory at the start of their terms in office, only to leave some time later, with their policies and fresh ideas in tatters. However this rarely effected the longevity of their political careers (indeed, in some cases their standing was elevated for having survived, in the words of the British Home Secretary, Reginald Maudling, in 1970, “…a bloody awful country”).
The latest Tory fish for the northern frying pan is Karen Bradley, a fairly anonymous Conservative Party MP from the Brexit-loving north of England. Her career is as bland as her former ministerial role, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and she is no doubt destined to become another British footnote in Irish history. Unless, of course, her more xenophobic government colleagues go full Brexiteer, in which case she will be spending the next three or four years defending the actions of military engineers from the United Kingdom as they block cross-border roads and bridges around the UK-administered Six Counties.
Talking of futile exercises, December’s trip by Mike Pence, the Vice-President of the United States of America, to Afghanistan was a replay of every visit by every British minister to the north of Ireland during thirty years of the Long War. As Tom Engelhardt notes:
He left Air Force Two behind and, unannounced, “shrouded in secrecy,” flew on an unmarked C-17 transport plane into Bagram Air Base, the largest American garrison in Afghanistan. All news of his visit was embargoed until an hour before he was to depart the country.
More than 16 years after an American invasion “liberated” Afghanistan, he was there to offer some good news to a U.S. troop contingent once again on the rise. Before a 40-foot American flag, addressing 500 American troops, Vice President Mike Pence praised them as “the world’s greatest force for good,” boasted that American air strikes had recently been “dramatically increased,” swore that their country was “here to stay,” and insisted that “victory is closer than ever before.” As an observer noted, however, the response of his audience was “subdued.” (“Several troops stood with their arms crossed or their hands folded behind their backs and listened, but did not applaud.”)
As with the conflict in Ireland, soldiers know when the game is up even if the politicians continue to play with words.