After two years of Brexit-frenzied politics in the United Kingdom it’s almost shocking to hear a UK leader expressing a degree of nuance and insight when it comes to Irish and British relations. But that is the case with Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and a right-of-centre contender for the leadership of the Conservative Party in London. During a Sky News digital hustings broadcast that also appeared on the Tories’ social media channels the Sussex MP seemed to equate the actions of British soldiers, police officers and intelligence agents who participated in the so-called Troubles of 1966 to 2005 with those of their Irish opponents in a discussion over the possibility of immunity from prosecution or investigation for any acts of terrorism or murder the UK forces may have committed:
“I want to be honest about this, you know, the peace in Northern Ireland was hard won and under the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, there is a need to treat both sides in the same way, however angry we may have felt about what happened.”
His implied comparison between the motivations and actions of the British Army and the Irish Republican Army have infuriated the nationalist press and media in the UK, even though the minister prefaced his remark by arguing that historical prosecutions should be ended. However a number of his parliamentary colleagues are demanding a swift retraction and apology from the previously pro-Remain MP. Notable among these is the fanatical Brexiteer Mark Francois, a middle-aged overweight Londoner who has adopted a buffoonish image as a bargain bin Winston Churchill with a liking for World War Two rhetoric and dog-whistle xenophobia aimed at the European Union.
I suspect that Jeremy Hunt will clarify his comments over the next day or two, especially as his main rival Boris Johnson, who is struggling in his own leadership campaign, takes up the cause of the formerly shielded “veterans” of the UK’s dirty war in Ireland. But the minister’s remarks do at least indicate that there are some politicians in Britain with a modest understanding of how words and policies in their country are reverberating on this side of the Irish Sea and further destabilising an already precariously balanced peace in the Six Counties. Even if, in Hunt’s case, his full comment was in justification and support of those lobbying to hide UK personnel from justice.