If you mention Northern Irish politics to people in Britain, their reactions range from trepidation to exasperation. I understand (just try living here). We have a mandatory coalition in Stormont, which is currently collapsed (again), some of our MPs don’t take their seats in Westminster but are still MPs, and the different political identities at play are best represented in a 4D graph.
To be perfectly honest, when it comes to people outside Northern Ireland understanding what happens here, my expectations are through the floor. I’m wrapping up my PhD on Ulster identities and I find it a bit much at times, so I assume nothing of people who aren’t working in the field.
These are not allowances that should be extended to the home secretary. The clue is in the name – Suella Braverman should have a healthy working knowledge of all four nations in the UK. Her comments this week demonstrate that not only does she not understand the nuances of the Northern Irish political landscape – she can’t even tell which side is which.
Even without any specialist knowledge, Braverman’s comments are inflammatory. In an op-ed for The Times on Wednesday, she suggested that pro-Palestine marches were “disturbingly reminiscent of Ulster”, and to clarify her point said that “[T]hey are an assertion of primacy by certain groups — particularly Islamists — of the kind we are more used to seeing in Northern Ireland.”
Before we even get into the weeds of what Braverman said, let’s be perfectly clear: Northern Ireland and Ulster are not the same thing. Three counties in Ulster are literally in a different country to the rest. For someone whose job pertains to the nation’s borders, this demonstrates a shocking lack of awareness as to where the UK border actually is – but that’s another issue for another day.
Ms Braverman appears to be making an overly simplistic and rather blunt point in criticising Northern Irish marches. However, the minute you interrogate her comments, the depths of her ignorance and the fact that she made the comment at all is mind-blowing.
In the simplest terms, Northern Ireland can be split three ways politically, based on an individual’s national identity (ie whether they identify as British, Irish, or both). Nationalists are, broadly speaking, Catholic and hold Irish as their singular or primary nationality. The unionist community are predominantly Protestant, and – this is very important – British. Those in the middle tend to be neutral on the constitutional issue.
As David Blevins on Sky News pointed out, 95 per cent of marches that take place in Northern Ireland are organised by members of the unionist community. Generally speaking, if you mention “marches” in a Northern Irish context, most people will think of the annual Orange Order parades on 12 July to commemorate the Battle of the Boyne.
Are these the “assertion of primacy” marches that Braverman was referring to? That couldn’t be right, because the marches on the 12th are affirmations of the unionist community’s British heritage and cultural identity. So maybe Braverman was confused, and instead was referring to nationalist marches. Except, there are very few nationalist marches (you know, with drums and the marching bit).
Maybe she was referring to commemorative marches for hunger strikers, which are republican events. There have been a number of memorial marches over the past few years for paramilitaries from republican and loyalist backgrounds – but like I say, that’s on both sides. People have been guessing since the op-ed was published, and here’s the problem: nobody knew what she was talking about.
A source close to Braverman later clarified that she was, in fact, referring to the “activities of dissident republicans” – so, presumably the IRA breakaway factions that are still active. First of all, that is not clear from her statement, and secondly, she somehow managed to get the entirety of Northern Ireland, regardless of background, to come together and say in one voice: “What is she going on about?”
Jamie Bryson, a loyalist activist and director of Unionist Voice Policy Studies, posted on X (formerly Twitter) that Braverman was obviously talking about the IRA, but acknowledged that her statement needed clarity as it could easily be interpreted as being about the marching band tradition in unionist communities. Stephen Farry, MP for the Alliance Party, which has a neutral stance on the constitution question, called Braverman’s comparisons to Northern Ireland “pathetic”. Colum Eastwood, leader of the SDLP and MP for Foyle, hit the nail on the head when he said that Braverman “managed to offend just about everyone”.
Look, I know that there are more urgent issues at hand. This whole debacle came about over the pro-Palestinian march that is planned for the weekend. But how did we get here? How did we end up with a home secretary that is so negligent with her language, and won’t even correct it herself?
There is precedent for this. Karen Bradley (remember her?) also needed clarification on the differences between nationalist and unionists, and she was secretary of state for Northern Ireland. Dominic Raab famously didn’t even read the Good Friday Agreement in its entirety. The bar is in hell.
But Braverman was so anxious to make a point about the threat of this march that she almost threw the entire unionist tradition of Northern Ireland under the bus to do it – a community whose leadership are still coming out in her defence.
I don’t know if this will be the bridge too far for Braverman – she’s had a bit of a week – but we should expect more from the home secretary. Yes, Northern Ireland is complex, but you should at least know who is on your team (so to speak). Maybe in the future, we can give prospective candidates a list of the nine counties in Ulster and ask them to pick the ones that are in Northern Ireland, just to see.