When next the Prime Minister takes to the despatch box, he may if he has a few moments cast his eyes around the edge of the House of Commons. If he does, he may note that some of the decorative shields around walls have been painted in.
These are tributes to Members of Parliament who have been killed whilst serving in that role. With pre-emptive apologies for butchering the proper heraldic terminology, three of them in particular should weigh on his conscience.
Of these, one sports a black cross and five golden fleurs-de-lys on a white field, topped with a crown. This represents Airey Neave, Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary and Conservative MP for Abingdon. Murdered by the IRA in 1979.
The next has a field of red and gold stripes, on which is displayed a white triangle containing three black birds. This represents Sir Anthony Berry, Conservative MP for Enfield Southgate. Murdered by the IRA in 1984.
Finally, the third features a simple blue field, on which is displayed a golden monogram of the letters IREG, in a laurel wreath. This represents Ian Gow, PPS to the Prime Minister and Conservative MP for Eastbourne. Murdered by the IRA in 1990.
(Depending on how you assess the relationship between the parties at the time of his assassination, we might also count the shield of Robert Bradford, Unionist MP for South Belfast. Murdered by the IRA in 1981.)
These memorials invite us to reflect. On the individuals the commemorate. On the causes they served. On why their careers ended with a painted shield in the House of Commons, rather than retirement. Especially today, when a Conservative Government has elevated to the peerage a woman who believes that the people who killed Neave, Berry, and Gow were right.
Claire Fox is no stranger to this controversy, which Sunder Katwala has thoughtfully outlined on Twitter. It already received plenty of coverage when she stood to become a Brexit Party MEP for Warrington, despite her defence of the 1993 IRA bombing in the town which killed two people – one of them the 12-year-old son of a fellow Brexit Party activist.
The arguments are the same. Fox does not support republican terrorism post-1998. But she believes it was justified before 1998. That these MPs, and the IRA’s many other victims, were legitimate targets.
She believes this belongs in the past. And to an extent, that’s right. It is a nasty but inescapable reality of any peace process that it involves a certain amount of letting go. Fox is an engaging speaker, energetic activist, and a popular figure on the libertarian right. She runs a successful think-tank, was returned to the European Parliament, and enjoys a high media profile.
But there ought, surely, to be some limits, if not to Fox’s ambitions for public life then at least to a Conservative Prime Minister’s willingness to facilitate it. The limits of justifiable rapprochement do not extend to a seat in the House of Lords.
There is a strange symmetry to the fact that the only other ‘Non-affiliated’ political peerage has gone to Charles Moore, Thatcher’s great biographer and one of the most anti-IRA journalists in Britain. How he feels about this pairing is anyone’s guess, but it symbolises – in a more visceral way than Boris Johnson’s u-turn over the Irish Backstop – just how much of a gulf there really is between today’s Party, or at least its leadership, and that which fought the IRA to the table between 1979 and 1997.
Airey Neave. Anthony Berry. Ian Gow. Three elected Conservatives who paid the ultimate price for our Party’s commitment to defending the United Kingdom, and Northern Ireland’s place in it, from republican terrorism. If there is any good to come from this appointment, let it be that it prompts us to remember their sacrifice and their cause.
If the Prime Minister looks a smaller man today than before, it is because he stands in the shadows of giants.