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Suella Braverman’s comments comparing Gaza protests with Northern Ireland are a grave misunderstanding of the facts

For The Conversation

Belfast (UK): The aim of Suella Braverman’s controversial Times article commenting on the ongoing protests over Gaza seems obvious. As with many of her recent and provocative statements, the assumption is that she is trying to undermine and ultimately replace Rishi Sunak as Tory leader by appealing to the party’s right.

However, the methods used – and particularly the comparisons she made between marches in Northern Ireland and demonstrations in London – are more confusing.

This confusion is understandable, as Braverman herself seems confused in what she wrote. She linked marches over the Gaza conflict to “the kind we are more used to seeing in Northern Ireland”.

She drew further comparisons when suggesting that some of those organising the London protests “have links to terrorist groups, including Hamas”.

From the article alone, it was not at all clear which Northern Ireland marches Braverman was referring to. In some ways it read as though she was trying to make a connection between Irish republicanism and support for Hamas. But marching in Northern Ireland is more associated with the unionist community.

Even the head of the Orange Order – responsible for the overwhelming majority of marches in the region – was concerned enough to suggest that Braverman should clarify exactly which groups she was referring to.

Braverman later insisted she was indeed referring to dissident republicanism. And republicans do also participate in marches, but historically the most significant of these have been civil rights demonstrations to highlight the discrimination faced by the Catholic community.

These marches were largely banned by the then Unionist government – something which Braverman appears to want in the case of the London protests, though she has denied this. Unionists justified their bans by making the same insinuations that Braverman makes in her Times article – that such marches can be a front for violent subversives.

However, the violence triggered by civil rights marches in Northern Ireland was mainly enacted by the state – most famously and tragically of all on Bloody Sunday in January 1972, when the British army shot dead protesters, resulting in 14 deaths.

The march on Bloody Sunday was a protest against the use of internment without trial in Northern Ireland. Like the freedoms of expression and assembly – both of which are exercised in the Gaza protests – freedom from unlawful imprisonment is a fundamental democratic right. Indeed it is a fundamentally British right, given its place in the Magna Carta. Worryingly, Braverman, the home secretary, and thus a key figure in upholding British law, would seem to be struggling with such concepts.

Drawing an analogy with Northern Ireland in her efforts to defend her position was a poor decision.

It showed the superficiality of her understanding of the region’s past conflict – a tendency common to many of the Tory leaders that Brexit has thrust upon us. Recall former prime minister Boris Johnson asserting that the Irish border was little different to those dividing London boroughs, his deputy Dominic Raab admitting he had not read the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, or Braverman’s predecessor Priti Patel suggesting that the threat of food shortages in Ireland as a result of a no-deal Brexit should be used to pressure Dublin in the ongoing negotiations.

Awareness of the British government’s role in the catastrophic Great Irish Famine of the 1800s seemed non-existent.

Purposeful confusion?

It is hard to discern ignorance from intent, however. Braverman’s apparent linking of Gaza protesters with republican violence, and the perceived threat to Cenotaph commemorations this weekend, might have been an effort to conjure memories of the IRA bombing of a remembrance day event in Enniskillen in 1987.

Older readers of her Times article with a military background might make this connection. But it is horribly crude if Braverman meant to imply a common mentality between the Enniskillen bombers and protesters demanding a ceasefire in Gaza.

The reason that Braverman’s Times article is open to multiple interpretations, and creates much confusion, is that it deploys a common tactic of “culture warriors”.

The lack of clarity is purposeful. It is enough to insinuate the malign intent of Gaza protesters or other such targets, and let social media do the rest. Even Metropolitan Police commissioner Mark Rowley noted this lack of care in responding to Braverman’s description of the Gaza protests as “hate marches”. He told the News Agents podcast: “She’s picked two words out the English language and strung them together”.

And a lack of understanding of these sensitive subjects is also no barrier to their use and abuse by culture warriors. As long as a given intervention raises their political profile, it has served its purpose.

A proper consideration of the Northern Ireland case creates more challenging lessons for figures like Braverman. Firstly, the successful reform of policing in the region ended its pro-unionist bias. And even recent challenges to policing in Northern Ireland have reminded us of the need to protect law enforcement from political interference. Braverman would do well to note this.

More broadly, and if we are to compare Northern Ireland with the Middle East, there is need to acknowledge that its peace process involved engagement with violent republicanism, successfully steering it towards democracy and political compromise.

In Israel-Palestine, similarly, ways must be found to encourage violent actors towards purely peaceful methods. As with the militant republicanism, efforts to simply crush Hamas will likely prove counterproductive. Bloody Sunday was often said to be the single biggest recruiting sergeant for the IRA, and Israel’s current actions in Gaza will likely create a new generation of Hamas fighters.

The long and difficult process of building a peaceful and just Northern Ireland began with ceasefires. That is what most protesters over Gaza are demanding. True democrats owe them every support in their peaceful endeavours.

(Peter John McLoughlin for Queen’s University Belfast)

(Published 11 November 2023, 10:17 IST)

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