Euan McColm: Karen Bradley’s shame cuts to the heart of Brexit shambles

Crass ignorance of Northern Ireland’s history – as shown by Karen Bradley – is key to the current crisis, writes Euan McColm.

Karen Bradley is bowed but unbeaten by her recent gaffe, though there have been calls for her resignation. Picture: Tolga Akmen/Getty
Karen Bradley is bowed but unbeaten by her recent gaffe, though there have been calls for her resignation. Picture: Tolga Akmen/Getty

In normal circumstances, it would have been a resignation matter at best. Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley – an MP entirely unsuitable for the position she holds – caused real anger and considerable hurt last week when she told the House of Commons that no deaths caused by security forces during the Troubles in Northern Ireland were crimes.

The Secretary of State’s remarkable inability to grasp the particular sensitivities of the communities she represents at the cabinet table is quite something.

Her disregard for an ongoing inquest into the deaths of 10 people, killed during an Army operation in Ballymurphy, takes one’s incredulity to the next level.

Perhaps you’re new to the singular work of Karen Bradley or maybe you know her for her breakthrough number, last year, when she admitted that she hadn’t realised that people in Northern Ireland voted along unionist and nationalist lines.

If Bradley’s remarks about the Troubles render her unfit to be Secretary of State, her ignorance about the basic politics of Northern Ireland raise questions about whether she should be an MP. At best, her failure to understand how voters act in Northern Ireland betrays a remarkable lack of curiosity about UK politics.

Two days after her unwise comments about the security forces, Bradley met relatives of people killed by them during the Troubles and apologised. She described the meeting as “humbling”, while one of those she met said the apology wasn’t good enough and called, on behalf of the families represented at the meeting, on Bradley to resign.

The normal circumstances under which this would be the logical – and, indeed, necessary – next step in Bradley’s career do not currently exist. Prime Minister Theresa May is so consumed by the pressing issue of Brexit that she hardly has time, surely, to pay much attention to the chaos caused by the likes of Bradley.

This only fuels the suspicion that this Conservative government doesn’t understand Northern Ireland and its very particular problems.

The failure by both Leavers and Remainers to consider border issues between North and South during the 2016 referendum was quite disgraceful. The inevitable wrangling over the matter since the referendum has shown May at her weakest and the Tory right at its most intransigent.

For Tories of a certain vintage, Bradley’s behaviour must be excruciating to watch. Peace in Northern Ireland is often seen as an achievement solely of Tony Blair’s Labour Party but it was John Major’s Tories who started the process. The Good Friday Agreement should be considered a political success for the Tories as much as it is for Labour. Bradley’s continuing presence in the cabinet is a betrayal of that great legacy.

But the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is not the only senior government figure unsuitabile for their position.

Commons leader Andrea Leadsom – whose candidacy for leader in 2016 had a fair wind behind it before she gave an interview in which she appeared to suggest the fact she was a mother while May was not made her the more suitable candidate to become prime minister – was asked by Labour MP Naz Shah whether she would allow a Commons debate on a recently published definition of Islamophobia.

Leadsom replied that the Conservative response to Islamophobia was “extremely robust and urgent” then added that, when it came to discussing her definition of the word, Shah should “discuss with Foreign Office ministers whether that would be a useful way forward”. Not unreasonably, Shah suggested Leadsom’s response “played into the idea that Muslims born in our country are foreigners”.

In normal circumstances, Leadsom would be an obscure backbencher. Instead, to keep the right-wing cranks who supported her candidacy to succeed David Cameron as PM, she is on the front-line, hopelessly out of her depth. Leadsom’s office later “explained” that the Leader of the House had thought Shah was referring to a global definition of Islamophobia.

And just when it seemed we’d had quite enough Conservative idiocy for one week, thank you very much, the deputy chairman of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group, Mark Francois, popped up on a live TV show in the company of the writer Will Self.

During a sparky exchange, Self claimed every racist and anti-Semite in the country “probably voted for Brexit”.

Francois decided that Self was accusing all Brexit supporters of being racists and anti-Semites and grew increasingly furious. In the end, the two men glared at each other, like a llama and a bulldog sketched by Gerald Scarfe.

A few weeks ago, Francois reacted to a letter from the head of Airbus, Tom Enders, warning of the negative impact of a no-deal Brexit, thus: “My father, Reginald Francois, was a D-Day veteran. He never submitted to bullying by any German. Neither will his son.”

Having delivered this ludicrous line to television cameras, Francois flamboyantly tore up a copy of the Enders letter. The man is a buffoon, but in our current idiocracy, he’s also an influential MP, with the power to rally sufficient Tory rebels to derail whatever Brexit plan the Prime Minister might next bring to the House of Commons.

Francois might, unwittingly, provide some comic relief during these fraught times but there is nothing remotely amusing about Bradley remaining in post.

We are hurtling towards Brexit without any clear idea of how legitimate concerns about the border between the Republic and the North are to be addressed and little more than “it’ll be okay” by way of reassurance from ministers.

The bare minimum requirements for a Secretary of State for Northern Ireland must be a knowledge of and sensitivity to the history of the place. Bradley appears to possess neither of these things.

Good people on both sides of the nationalist-unionist divide in Northern Ireland have entirely legitimate concerns about the impact of Brexit. They deserve a better Secretary of State than the current incumbent of that office.