Lewis confirms a truth-and-reconciliation approach to legacy issues in Ulster

17 May

Earlier this month, we reported that the Government seemed to be leaning towards “an approach which prioritises ‘truth and understanding’ over increasingly hail-Mary shots at securing criminal justice” for legacy issues in Northern Ireland.

This seemed likely to involve a trade-off, whereby individuals received immunity from prosecution if they offered honest testimony to future investigations into historic offences from the Troubles.

And lo, this morning Politico reports that Brandon Lewis has adopted just such an approach:

“…ex-combatants from all factions will be shielded from civil or criminal action only if they give honest and fulsome accounts to a new body called the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery.”

This follow’s Boris Johnson’s essay in the Belfast Telegraph (which we looked at this morning) in which he wrote that:

“But the 1998 Agreement bestows other commitments on the British Government that go beyond its position as a co-guarantor. One of those is to take difficult decisions: to assume a burden of responsibility, and indeed unpopularity, when consensus cannot be reached.”

Taken together, this suggests that the Government is resolved to press ahead with this version of its legacy proposals even if, as seems very likely, local parties in Northern Ireland continue to object. This is fine; London is if anything normally far too reluctant to “assume the burden of responsibility” for good government in Ulster.

As we wrote in our initial report, there is a trade-off here. The offer of immunity means that people will lose any prospect of securing justice in a court of law, even if that prospect has become an increasingly spectral one as time marches on.

But in exchange, we might be able to set the historical record straight before an increasingly elderly cohort of ex-servicemen and former terrorists take the evidence to the grave.

(It remains an open question whether the terrorists, at least the republican ones, will actually cooperate with a structure set up by the British Government. But if the end result is the IRA opting out of immunity, I don’t suppose many people in Westminster will be too upset.)

The Northern Irish legacy legislation. There will be no amnesty. But will there be a statute of limitations?

4 May

Last year, we wrote about how and why Conservative MPs were putting pressure on the Northern Irish Office to expand protections for ex-servicemen to cover veterans of the conflict in Ulster.

This campaign has not gone away. In December, Mark Francois called on Brandon Lewis to resign over the Government’s failure to bring forward legislation to end prosecutions; just last month protesters ‘blockaded’ the NIO because several former soldiers are facing fresh prosecutions with no new evidence.

Yet the weight may finally be over: early in April the Secretary of State indicated that there would be developments “within weeks”, and the Times reported that “the British government is believed to be close to finalising legislative proposals on so-called legacy killings”. Meanwhile, Leo Docherty told the Daily Telegraph that:

“I’m pleased to say, we expect from the Northern Ireland Office a bill that will give closure to veterans of (Operation) Banner, of whom there are some 300,000. We expect this bill to give closure with honour and finality and I expect that to come forward very soon.”

What is not yet clear is what form it will take. A straightforward amnesty is deeply unpopular on all sides in Northern Ireland.

There is also anger amongst unionists that existing legacy structures are perceived to disproportionately target state security personnel whilst former terrorists enjoy de facto amnesties. We reported last month that Lewis is planning new legislation that will make it clear that New Labour’s controversial ‘comfort letters’ scheme has no basis in law.

He offered an indication as to his line of thought in this report from the Derry Journal:

“When you move through a process that isn’t driven by a prosecution but which is driven by an investigation to get to the truth on a balance of probabilities like the coronial courts then you are seeing people able to get to the truth and to get an understanding”.

Lewis in the same piece emphasises that a statute of limitations does not mean that historical investigations will cease:

“One of the things I think that gets slightly misread in terms of the Command Paper we published last summer is that, yes, it does outline a statute of limitations as a sort of foundation to develop a wider package….I need to be really clear about this – we will continue investigations.”

He specifically references the inquiry into the Ballymurphy massacre, and how difficult it was to get “some recognition of the truth and understanding of what happened” in that case. In the end, the judge-led inquiry took evidence from over 150 witnesses, including “more than 60 former soldiers”, according to the BBC.

Taken together, this suggests the Government may be planning an approach which prioritises ‘truth and understanding’ over increasingly hail-Mary shots at securing criminal justice.

After all, as the Secretary of State has pointed out, nature sets its own statute of limitations: time passes, mortals age, and many of those involved may not be with us for too much longer. Lifting the threat of prosecution may encourage people to engage with ongoing investigations and ensure that victims and their families get at least the truth, if not justice.

Whether or not this will make unionists or nationalists happy is another question.

But it perhaps ought not to be the decisive one. This may be yet another area where a toxic political dynamic suits many of the local players even as it fails to serve the long-term interests of Northern Ireland as a whole. As the author Brian Rowan said of amnesty proposals:

“If we don’t go there, then we aren’t going to have a legacy process and with the wars over, we’re going to spend the next 30 years fighting the peace”.

For so long as it remains part of the United Kingdom, the Government is ultimately responsible for ensuring that Ulster receives not only peace, but order and good government. It cannot content itself with being a sort of constitutional child-minder. If Lewis thinks his proposals (whatever their final shape) are in the best interests of the Province, he should enact them.

Nus Ghani: Prevent needs to have confidence in its own identity

29 Apr

Nus Ghani is the Conservative MP for Wealdon, and a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange.

When William Shawcross was appointed to lead an independent review of Prevent, I argued he needed to put the fight against non-violent extremism at the heart of the strategy.  As we approach the long-awaited submission of his report to the Home Secretary, interest is increasing.

This week David Cameron, the former Prime Minister, captured an essential element of the challenge facing the Government, in a foreword to a Policy Exchange report looking at Prevent’s critics. Cameron argued that delegitimising counter-terrorism risks enabling terrorism.

The debate around Prevent is not an idle academic exercise – getting it right matters. The murder of my colleague David Amess, the deadly terrorist attack on three gay men in Reading in 2020, and the botched Parsons Green bombing in 2017, all involved extremists who had been in contact with Prevent, but who carried on their path towards violence.

This is not the first review of Prevent, or the first attempt to update our approach to counter-terrorism. In my earlier analysis of Prevent, I likened the post-2011 version of the policy to a satellite that flew at 80,000 feet, without the “boots on the ground” that were also necessary.

As far back as 2015, David Cameron identified the ‘grievance culture’ poisoning the worldview of some young British Muslims. I wrote regretfully of the then-Prime Minister’s analysis: “His ideas failed properly to take hold in Government departments, let alone in communities.” Self-appointed ‘representative’ organisations were also indefatigable in besmirching Cameron’s analysis. They understood too well the threat it posed to their own survival.

Those problems persist and are exacerbated by the use of new technology. To address them, Prevent needs a stronger identity, and it needs to develop the self-confidence which flows from positive leadership. Talking to local Prevent staff, I am struck by their commitment and dedication.

However, those at the coalface sometimes see the Home Office as distant and isolationist. Statements in support of Prevent, whilst welcome, tend to come across as stock responses, when what is needed is sustained engagement from Ministers and senior officials.

Local authorities also have a role to play. Too often they fail to do any mapping exercises locally, struggle to get out and about into the community, and instead rely on ‘gatekeepers’ or a small number of activist organisations who have their own agenda. Yet for all the noise on social media, opinion poll data suggests the uniform opposition to Prevent from ‘representative’ organisations, is not shared by British Muslims.

As part of rebuilding Prevent’s identity, it needs to be restated what it is for. Prevent exists to stop people from becoming supporters of terrorism and stop people becoming terrorists. It must therefore challenge extremism in all its forms, and in a way that is understandable to the public.

One issue Shawcross will have to address is the declining number of Islamist related referrals, in a period where Islamist terrorism and extremism has continued unabated. Where there is considered to be a genuine risk of radicalisation, Prevent referrals may be followed by what is known as a Channel intervention.

The latest Home Office figures for Channel cases in 2020-21 record 46 percent concerned far-right extremism, just over twice the number for Islamist influenced individuals, which actually fell to 22 percent. Britain has a number of angry far-right activists, spewing out bile, and seeking to attract others to their cause in the process. Whilst we can’t ignore the referral data, are we sure fascists and neo-Nazis constitute twice the threat Islamists do?  Shawcross will need to answer questions like this, to ensure Prevent doesn’t lose its way.

To further recast Prevent’s identity, it needs greater transparency, with clear Ministerial control and accountability.  Without this, the opposition will fill the void. This is not to decry Prevent’s critics. It is through debate and critique with democratically elected politicians that policies are improved and fine-tuned.

But the undermining of a counter-terrorism policy is a different matter. For some of Prevent’s opponents, undermining is simply a prelude to abolition. Why would anyone want a permissive environment for extremism? As David Cameron has alluded, society needs to ask much harder questions of anti-Prevent activists.

The quest for constructive criticism has not been helped by the tendency for some of the debates around Prevent to become increasingly absurd. For many for us, for just challenging the critics of Prevent and tackling the issue of Islamist terrorism means we have to deal with abuse and death threats.

It gets worse. I came across comments that suggested that the treatment of British Muslims is on a path to how China treats Uyghur, who are genocide at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party. How utterly absurd and shameful – and I should know. I’m the only female MP sanctioned by China as national threat for leading the way in the UK and internationally in exposing Uyghur genocide, trying to save the lives of Uyghur men, women and children.

The Shawcross report is not the first attempt to recalibrate Prevent, but it is perhaps the most important. It must signpost a way for Prevent to refashion its identity. We know too well the risks of not getting it right.

Future legislation will make clear that controversial IRA ‘comfort letters’ have no basis in law

30 Mar

ConservativeHome has learned that, as part of legacy legislation being drawn up by the Northern Ireland Office, the Government is preparing to legislate against controversial ‘comfort’ letters issued to on-the-run suspects wanted in connection to IRA terror offenses in Northern Ireland.

Brandon Lewis is understood to have instructed his officials that any legacy legislation brought forward must explicitly make clear that ‘OTRs’ have no basis in law.

These lurched into the public consciousness in 2014, when the scheme helped to collapse the trial of John Downey, the Hyde Park bomber. They were letters issued to on-the-run IRA suspects assuring them that no UK police force was after them.

In Downey’s case, the letter was sent in error – the Metropolitan Police were after him. But a judge ruled that because he had received it, the trial could not proceed.

As Charles Moore explained in a column for the Daily Telegraph, the reason the operation of the OTR scheme was so murky was because it was basically a wheeze by Tony Blair to circumvent the will of Parliament:

“Sinn Fein had wanted them all let off. The Blair government had framed legislation effectively granting this wish. It was dropped in 2006 – “in the face,” as Mr Powell himself put it, “of strong opposition”.

“But, being “Tonyish”, the Blair government did not leave it at that. It got around the will of Parliament. Without fanfare, the official comfort letters were sent – and continued to be sent after Mr Blair left office. Powell says that they were not part of any deal over OTRs. Yet it is notable that the letters were sent solely to IRA suspects (ie people under the wing of Sinn Fein) and not to any other OTRs – Republican or Loyalist.”

Yet whilst the original sin was New Labour’s, ‘comfort letters’ continued to be issued right up until the days of the Coalition.

According to the Belfast Telegraph, just 36 of the 187 recipients of such letters are connected to no fewer than 136 incidents, and “police have since revealed that OTRs who received letters were linked to hundreds of murders.”

Even today, it isn’t obvious exactly what the legal status or purpose of the OTR scheme was. As Moore notes, New Labour figures defending the scheme seem to have a hard time getting their stories straight. Ivan Lewis, the Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary in 2014, said Labour owed the Hyde Park victims an apology for the “catastrophic error” which denied them justice; Jonathan Powell demurred.

Regardless, it would be fitting for Parliament to annul by legislation what Blair set up because he could not persuade Parliament to legislate as he wished. It might yet also give some of those who lost friends and loved ones to IRA terrorism a last, long shot at justice – although the exact shape of Lewis’ new legacy proposals is not yet clear.

Henry Hill: Without progress on the Protocol, ministers must be more sensitive to unionist concerns

24 Mar

Given that the Russo-Ukrainian war has led the Government to spike once again any plans to trigger Article 16, ministers ought to be striving to avoid any step which needlessly needles unionist sensitivities in the run-up to the Stormont elections in May.

Unfortunately, there have been several such stories in recent weeks. And whilst some are not really the Government’s fault – such as the Palace deciding to cut the number of days the Union Jack should be flown on official buildings in Northern Ireland – the Treasury is shaping up as the worst offender.

First there was that amendment that tried to replace ‘United Kingdom’ with ‘Great Britain’ in customs legislation. Liz Truss spiked it, and has apparently ordered an investigation into how it got so far through the process without adequate political attention. But others in Whitehall suggest it is very unlikely that it didn’t get some sort of sign-off, not least within the Treasury itself.

Now we have unionist anger at Northern Ireland’s exclusion from Rishi Sunak’s new cut on VAT for households installing energy-efficiency measures. Under the terms of the Protocol, Ulster is bound to follow the European Union’s VAT rules. Whilst the Assembly will receive £47 million in extra cash, this hasn’t stopped the main pro-UK parties uniting to attack this latest evidence of the Withdrawal Agreement hiving Ulster off from the rest of the country.

Nor is this the last such story coming down the track. Officials are reportedly questioning whether or not the Government has the necessary powers to fund the Castlereagh Foundation, a research organisation promised to unionists as part of the ‘New Decade, New Approach’ deal negotiated by Julian Smith. It was quite a small sop to a very angry group, so failure to deliver it would send a terrible signal.

(Of course, the Government very much does have the necessary legal authority: Section 50 of the UK Internal Market Act authorises additional central spending in the devolved territories for a very broad range of reasons, including education. But apparently the Department for Levelling Up, Housing, and Communities is trying to set itself up as the gatekeeper of when other departments make use of UKIMA and dislikes them so doing.)

Terror threat level in Northern Ireland falls

But it isn’t all bad news. For the first time in twelve years, the terror threat level in Northern Ireland has been cut. According to an independent assessment by MI5, it has been reduced from ‘Severe’ to ‘Substantial’.

This doesn’t mean the threat has gone away completely. ‘Substantial’ still means that an attack is “likely” and could happen without further warning.

But it is a welcome bit of good news for a Province which too often only crosses the radar of people on the mainland in the context of danger and dysfunction.

It is first and foremost a testament to the efficacy of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, for example by finding and prosecuting those responsible for the 2019 murder by republicans of the journalist Lyra McKee.

Then there has been the great success of Operation Arbacia, a major investigation into the ‘New IRA’: ten members arrested in an Ireland-wide police operation in 2020; four arrested in connection with dissident republican activity last March; the recapture of an on-the-run NIRA leader.

There have also been some successes against loyalist groups, although in recent years these have tended to focus more on gangsterism than organised political violence.

The Government should explain why it changed its mind on the Zaghari-Ratcliffe ransom

22 Mar

Two things ought to be simultaneously possible when it comes to Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. First, that a woman who spent six years in an Iranian jail is perfectly entitled to be bitter about that and does not owe the Government a performative display of gratitude. Second, that she is not best placed to impartially judge the UK’s hostage policy.

Alas, partisans on both sides (which invites the question ‘sides of what?’; I suppose the many-fronted culture wars) seem to be stumbling at this unimposing fence.

This won’t matter if Zaghari-Ratcliffe returns to private life. But should she decide to campaign for changes to British policy – and her comments about not being free until everybody is out of Iran suggests she might – we’re all going to have to get better at threading this particular needle. Victims deserve sympathy, not carte blanche to demand political change.

In fairness, in some ways the Government has all but invited such a campaign. The decision to pay the £400m price tag for Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release lends weight to her argument. If it was right to pay it, then surely there is a strong case that it should have been paid six years ago. What benefit, if any, was secured by the delay?

Whether or not it was right to pay, however, is another question. Whilst lawyers will zero in on the fact that this was technically a debt, not a ransom, there is no wriggling round the fact that a British citizen was held to ransom to secure the money. Across the world, the cost-benefit calculation on snatching a British national has just shifted hundreds of millions of pounds in the wrong direction.

(In any event, the debt was incurred to the Shah of Iran, who purchased tanks we rightly did not deliver after the monarchy was violently toppled by religious fundamentalists. The prospect of handing the cash straight to the ayatollahs is not a compelling one.)

Iran, as Robert Jenrick outlined last week, is a dangerous and belligerent regional power. It harbours an increasingly advanced nuclear programme and sponsors terrorist proxies across the region and overseas. We don’t know exactly what Tehran is going to spend a £400m windfall on, but it isn’t going to be good.

Now come the inevitable demands for an inquiry. There is an obvious danger that it simply becomes a stick with which to beat the Government, with ‘Why didn’t you do what Nazanin said?’ as its frame of reference.

This should not be allowed to happen, because an impartial inquiry into how this decision was made could be genuinely interesting. The UK has had a consistent line on this debt since 1979, right through the Thatcher years and New Labour. It held out for six years even after Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s kidnapping. Paying up could but British citizens overseas at risk. It would be good to know what changed the Government’s mind.

Robert Jenrick: Russia’s invasion is no excuse to give Iran’s nuclear programme a free pass

18 Mar

Robert Jenrick was Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, and is MP for Newark.

The news of the release of Anoosheh Ashoori and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe from Iran was a ray of light in the dark clouds we’re living under. The scenes of Nazanin being reunited with her family at Brize Norton moved the nation, who have taken the Zaghari-Ratcliffe family into their hearts and followed every step of her journey.

We can only marvel at the determination and resilience these families have displayed. Through these most complex of negotiations, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss have got them home.

Some have dwelt on whether there was anyway we could have responded to their detention differently. But we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that the responsibility for this ordeal lies solely with Tehran.

It was Iran that detained our nationals, Iran that subjected them to this inhumanity and Iran that used them as pawns in the settlement of an historic debt or payment of a ransom. Nazanin and Anoosheh’s torment is just one example of the despotism of a regime who cling to power by starving millions of Iranians of their most basic human rights.

And the brutality of the Iranian regime extends far beyond its borders. It has sowed chaos in Syria and Yemen, encircled Israel with proxy forces and in recent years turned its missile attacks on Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Tehran’s belligerence has created previously unimaginable coalitions in the region in a desperate attempt to balance against Iran’s hegemonic ambitions.

Whilst it may seem a distant power, Iran poses a clear threat to our security here in the UK. Its financial and military support for international terror groups gives it reach far beyond the Middle East.

It barely registered here in Britain, but it was only a last-minute intervention by the French intelligence services in 2018 that foiled a bomb plot by an Iranian diplomat at an opposition rally in France, attended by several parliamentary colleagues. The prospect of a nuclear Iran would be destabilising for the UK, and that is before the proliferation effects are even considered.

So, whilst the focus of the West rightly remains on Ukraine, the progress of talks in Vienna to return Iran to the JCPOA nuclear deal deserves our attention.

Last week it appeared that a deal to return Iran to the agreement was imminent, but Russia’s eleventh-hour demand that sanctions relating to its invasion of Ukraine could not affect its trade with Iran have led to a pause.

Russia has been playing a key role in this process, at times acting as broker between the US and Iran – to the increasing astonishment of many observers in the US – as Putin seeks to use the negotiations to gain political prestige and leverage.

This break in the process offers a precious final opportunity to evaluate the merits of such a deal. I was a sceptic of the original 2015, seeing it, like many (Conservatives and Republicans in particular) as too limited in scope to prevent Iran’s malign activities and too weak in enforcement to prevent a nuclear Iran, should Iran choose that path.

Restoring Iran to the old deal simply won’t have the benefits it once did. In the seven years since the deal was agreed much has changed. The terms of the JCPOA restricted Iran’s enrichment of uranium to 3.67 per cent fissile purity and a stockpile of only 300kg of uranium; however, as of last month the IAEA confirmed that Iran’s declared stockpile stood at nearly 3,400kg and it has been enriching up to 60 per cent purity – a short technical step from weapons-grade levels of 90 percent.

Whilst the excess uranium can be removed, Iran’s development and installation of advanced nuclear centrifuges cannot simply be unlearned. Their nuclear programme has clearly made substantial progress and yet, under the terms of the deal currently being negotiated in Vienna, restrictions on Iran’s nuclear programme are now severely diminished because the sunset clauses have not been extended.

All the while the same structural problems with the 2015 deal remain. The deal appears to do nothing to rectify the issue of Iran blocking international inspectors’ access to nuclear sites to ensure that Iran is complying with the deal, with the recent discovery of uranium particles at undeclared facilities casting yet more doubt on the trustworthiness of the Iranian regime to comply with their obligations.

More broadly, this will do nothing to stall Iran’s rapidly progressing ballistic missile programme, destabilising activity in the region, or funding of terrorist proxies.

In fact, it is being suggested that the Biden administration will lift sanctions on proscribed terrorist groups, most concerningly the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who have just claimed an attack on a US diplomatic compound in Erbil. The IRGC has been linked to the killing and detention of British and American citizens and spreads terror around the world, supporting organisations such as Hamas and Hezbollah.

These are the very groups which the Home Secretary has recently, rightly, proscribed in the UK. It would therefore be surprising, to say the least, if we or our allies were to consider lifting sanctions on the IRGC.

Negotiations in Vienna cannot be detached from the broader geopolitical landscape. As the West pressures Putin to engage in serious negotiations through a package of crippling economic sanctions, high oil and gas prices have proved a lifeline for his war efforts.

For some, this has created an added incentive to reach a deal with Iran, on the basis that this would release a much-needed supply of oil into the market.

However, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are the two states with the capacity to significantly lower global oil prices. It was, after all, the decision by Saudi Arabia to crash the oil price in 1986 that began the Soviet Union’s collapse. For an economy whose finances were so reliant on high oil prices, the effects on the Soviet Unions were crippling.

Today, an estimated 36 per cent of the Russian budget is made up by oil and gas revenues (a figure likely higher given the paralysing effect of sanctions on the rest of the economy) which would make a drop in the global oil price just as costly. If the Gulf states flooded the market with oil, this would tighten the screw on Putin.

But the prospect of a weak deal with Iran currently stands as a major sticking point. We risk facing the worst of all words, where Iran is emboldened at the expense of our partners in the region, and we also lose the ability to bring the Gulf states onside in the battle against Putin – the central short term objective of our foreign policy.

The West may have underestimated its strength in these negotiations. Since 2018 the Iranian economy has been crippled by America’s financial might. The latest estimate suggests a deal would free up $90 billion in foreign exchange reserves, and then $50-55 billion in extra revenue each year from higher petrochemical exports.

This is a transformative amount of money for the Iranian regime and should only be granted in return for credible protections against Iran’s nuclear programme and its malign regional activities that can reassure Iran’s neighbours.

But the concern that the West is giving away too much sanctions relief for what it is receiving in return has already led to three US negotiators to resign. There is a suspicion that the Biden administration, having suffered a serious foreign policy setback in Afghanistan, may be too eager to agree terms in this case, in order to display progress on another front.

Scepticism of the deal has united the Republicans and Democrats on an issue which has hitherto remained polarised along party lines, with 70 Democrats and 70 Republican lawmakers writing to Anthony Blinken last week to outline their concerns.

Without bipartisan support behind the deal – which ultimately means toughening its bite – there is a very real risk the deal will be canned by the next administration. If this deal fails there will be no third chance.

For the British negotiating team, this means using our influence to stiffen the resolve of our friends across the pond. If the new deal is to achieve anything, a tougher stance is required. We’ve learnt with Putin that placating can feel good, until it fails – and it usually does.

Henry Hill: Johnson talks tough on the Protocol, but does he mean it?

10 Feb

Johnson talks tough on the Northern Irish Protocol

Earlier this week, I explained that the now-or-never moment for triggering Article 16 is coming, whether the Government likes it or not. The Democratic Unionists’ decision to walk out of Stormont has increased the pressure on Liz Truss and Maroš Šefčovič to find a solution, but there still doesn’t seem to be a realistic landing zone for a deal.

If terms can’t be reached, with the devolved institutions on their knees and the Ulster elections looming, even a strategy based on being seen to bend over backwards to try and find a solution will run out of road. Either the Government will avail itself of the dispute mechanism in the treaty, or it will be clear to all it never will.

As ever, the crucial factor here is Boris Johnson’s position. One question hanging over Lord Frost’s departure is the extent to which it was driven by the Prime Minister not giving him sufficient support to make triggering Article 16, and facing down the backlash from the European Union.

Yesterday, in a response to a question in the Commons from Ian Paisley Jr, Johnson reiterated his willingness to do to so, saying: “I believe we can fix it but if our friends don’t show the requisite common sense then of course we will trigger Article 16.”

He also said that the Province’s peace settlement is “being upset” by the Protocol. This point is surely increasingly difficult to dispute; in addition to the DUP walking out of the Executive, this week also saw the news that street rallies and direct protests against the Sea Border are set to resume. This will only further amp up the pressure on unionist politicians in the run-up to May’s elections.

But actually triggering Article 16, and winning the subsequent dispute, means the UK needs a comprehensive contingency plan in place for weathering Brussels’ retaliation. It is difficult to believe that sort of detailed work, requiring the Prime Minister’s imprimatur, has been ticking along over the past few weeks whilst he has been fighting for his political life.

As England plans to scrap restrictions, Drakeford catches Covid

This morning’s Daily Mail reports that Johnson has urged Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon to join him in setting aside coronavirus restrictions early. Yet in Scotland the First Minister has announced her plans to keep the measures on the books for months yet, whilst in Wales the master of the absurd regulation has contracted the virus himself, which seems unlikely to push him towards a more relaxed approach.

Such enthusiasm on the part of the devolved administrations is, alas, par for the course. In fact, true to the adage that there is nothing so permanent as a temporary solution at the start of the month the SNP came in for fierce criticism over ‘power grab’ proposals which would seen the Scottish Government hold on to its emergency powers indefinitely.

Legacy Bill could create pathway to prosecuting terrorists who refuse to cooperate

According to the Daily Telegraph, Brandon Lewis is considering modifications to the upcoming Legacy Bill to create more scope for prosecuting terrorists for crimes committed during the Troubles if they don’t cooperate with the authorities.

The Bill has been stalled following fierce objections from military veterans and victims’ organisations; unionist commentators believe that the legacy arrangements are being systematically stacked against British forces, with the actions of terrorist groups receiving much less scrutiny.

Under the proposals, a new South Africa-style independent body would be established to investigate deaths without an actual police inquiry. But as originally drafted, ex-servicemen would be compelled to testify whilst paramilitaries could simply not turn up.

So the Secretary of State is “is considering strengthening powers in the Bill to force terror suspects to participate in hearings into hundreds of unsolved murders during the Troubles”, the paper reports.

In related news, several retired officers of the Royal Ulster Constabulary are hinting at legal action against the Police Ombudsman over its claims that elements of the force actively collaborated in several loyalist attacks.

Sturgeon admits Scotland would pay its own pensions

In a sign that the SNP are still nowhere close to delivering a realistic and attractive prospectus for breaking up the UK, Ian Blackford this week tried to sell Scottish pensioners on the idea that the rest of the UK would continue to pay their state pensions in the event of independence.

Sturgeon tried to muddy the waters by saying that it would be up for negotiation along with other “historic assets and liabilities”. Except there is no National Insurance fund to serve as an asset over which a new Scottish state could stake a claim; it’s a fiction.

However, whilst throwing out that chaff the First Minister did admit that responsibility for paying out on Scottish pensions would fall to the Scottish state, in what the Spectator dubbed “a tacit rebuke” of the man who leads her MPs at Westminster. A poor showing for a once-formidable operation.

Imran Mulla: Religious freedom – and why French assimilation fails while British multiculturalism works

10 Jan

Imran Mulla is a student of history at Jesus College, Cambridge. He lives in Leicester.

Éric Zemmour, the most controversial candidate for the French presidency, believes that France is veering towards civil war.

The reason? Its growing Muslim population, too distinctive from the white majority for comfort. “Our elites have made the mistake, for the last 30 or 40 years,” Zemmour proclaimed in a recent interview with UnHerd, “of adopting the British method, which consists of excessive respect for the culture of origin, trying to allow different cultures to coexist side by side”. He paused, before adding pointedly, ‘I am against that.’

Zemmour’s polemic bears little resemblance to reality; France has never had anything like British multiculturalism. The French government refuses to so much as collect data based on religion, whereas here the word ‘multiculturalism’ denotes our politicians speaking of ‘communities’, visiting minority community centres and places of worship, and ritually giving well-wishes on different religious festivals.

It represents a heterogeneity unimaginable in France, where religion is forced out of the public sphere – thus French schoolgirls are unable to wear the headscarf, the Interior Minister is aghast at the spectacle of halal meat in supermarkets, and Muslim women are banned from covering their faces for religious reasons (though not for fear of the Coronavirus). The French have quite obviously not imitated the British method.

Accuracy aside, though, Zemmour’s point was that France has thus far been too permissive in its attitude to Muslim immigrants and French Muslim citizens. He believes that the growing tradition of Islam must be privatised, de-politicised and modernised – just as other religions have been.

His position is rooted in the legacy of the French Revolution, which was animated by an anti-clerical fervour that saw the forceful subjugation of the Catholic clergy and a requirement for French Jews to renounce the mosaic law. A century later, the Law of 1905 established laïcité by decisively separating church from state.

But France’s colonial exploits in Africa encouraged the migration of colonised Muslims to the metropole – France is now home to a significant Muslim minority. Zemmour, himself a descendant of Algerian Jews, celebrates France’s colonial history, yet exploits fears over its legacy: ethnic and religious diversity in France.

French elites have concealed the ‘reality of our replacement’, he declares ominously in his campaign announcement address, echoing the conspiracy theory of the esoteric fascist, Renaud Camus.

So, what is to be done? Firstly, Zemmour believes, immigration must be halted – but he also wishes to “re-establish French-style assimilation”: immigrants must be forced to “appropriate French history, customs, habits and traditions” (although the French in North Africa made no effort even at integration, let alone assimilation).

We in Britain should respond to Zemmour’s attack on British multiculturalism by standing up for ourselves; we have handled diversity far better than our neighbour.

For one thing, Britain’s secularism lacks the aversion to visible religion that defines French laïcité. Anglicanism is our state religion, the Queen is head of the Church, and all state schools are required to hold an act of communal worship everyday. Britain’s Christian heritage is embedded into our political system; this is largely why we have responded with far less hysteria than France to the growth of new religious communities on our shores.

Many British conservatives, of course, see multiculturalism as having eroded a sense of national identity. But the picture is more complicated than that. Consider the elderly white man in Bradford or Leicester who bemoans the fact that he does not recognise his neighbours, that the music on the radio is American, that his grandchildren hold values entirely different from his own, and that the local church is being used as a mosque.

He is reacting to globalisation, social atomisation, the decline of Christianity, and a host of other symptoms of ‘liquid modernity’. These are not the fault of immigrants or their descendants. That this country is ethnically and religiously diverse is fitting considering our history: Britain first became multicultural when it formed an empire, and today most British non-whites trace their ancestry to the colonies. Our first significant Muslim communities were formed from the arrival in the 1950s and ‘60s of migrants from former British India, encouraged to migrate by the British government.

Nor has our multiculturalism been any sort of disaster; Muslims here identify even more strongly with Britain than the population at large, and there is a positive correlation between British identification and higher religiosity. Islamic faith schools top the national charts in performance, with Muslim girls usually achieving higher than boys. Religious segregation, meanwhile, has consistently been declining, and Muslims are more likely than Brits in general to live in ethnically mixed areas.

Myths abound about Muslims, but these are generally false: ‘no-go zones’ for non-Muslims are non-existent, despite being believed in by almost half of Conservative Party members. Contrary to popular belief, moreover, Muslim and Pakistani-heritage men have no disproportionate presence in grooming gangs, as a two-year Home Office study concluded.

Nor does Muslim terrorism reflect a general problem with Muslims any more than far-right terrorism reflects a problem with white people (London’s Muslims, for example, are even less likely than the population at large to condone violence against civilians).

Integration, overall, is proceeding smoothly; the culture found among, say, Birmingham’s Pakistani-origin Muslim youth has little in common with youth culture in Pakistan.

The most self-segregating people in British society are the wealthiest. They move in their own social circles and maintain elite private schools such as Eton – culturally, they are removed from much of the country. But we do not attempt to suppress their way of life in the name of egalitarianism (although some activists would have us try), because to do so would be authoritarian. Britishness, traditionally understood, has always been a broad umbrella.

This is not to say that there are no problems with multiculturalism – there are, and this should be considered in light of the fact that half of British Muslims live in poverty. There is also pervasive discrimination: Muslims face significant penalties in the labour market (as evidenced by all the available data) and are singled out for digital strip searches at the airport.

But, overall, British multiculturalism has been a relative success. This is the irony of Zemmour’s rhetoric: the French situation, by contrast, is disastrous. While Muslims here feel comfortably British in the understanding that Britishness allows for the expression of different religious values and the intermingling of cultural practices, French Muslims are trapped in a zero-sum game: they must conceal their religious convictions to be respectable citizens.

But Zemmour’s comparison of the two countries should encourage us Brits to look in the mirror. We face an attack on our traditional multiculturalism from our own government, which is currently promoting a ‘muscular liberalism’ compelling people to either accept ‘British’ (read: liberal) values or be labelled an extremist.

This un-British attempt to coerce fealty to an ideology represents a departure from Lockean liberalism and multiculturalism. Religious liberty is being eroded – we now face the possibility of the Prevent ‘counter-extremism’ programme, which has proved extraordinarily ineffective at combating violence while targeting expressions of Islamic practice and suppressing Muslim free speech, being extended into the private sphere.

Religious institutions may be compelled to report people suspected of ‘extremism’ (defined by the government as vocal or active opposition to British values) to the authorities. This would mean the wholesale securitisation of religion – something one would expect to see in France, but not Britain. Old-fashioned multiculturalism might be messy and flawed, but it is less authoritarian than the assimilationist model currently being ramped up.

The spectacle of French politics, where every significant presidential candidate has an assimilationist stance towards French Muslims, should encourage us to assert ourselves in support of the British multiculturalism which Zemmour disdains and which is currently being threatened. We are not like France, and it should stay that way. Will Britain really be enriched by replacing multiculturalism in all its vibrancy and complexity with a secular monoculture?

This is Zemmour’s aim for the French – and the closer you look, the more incoherent his vision appears. France is ‘the country of the Notre Dame,’ he declares bombastically in his campaign announcement video, not considering the irony that the Virgin Mary, whose image adorns the cathedral’s stained-glass windows, would today be unable to step foot inside a French school; headscarves are banned. Zemmour also adulates the French Revolution’s legacy of liberté, but there is an obvious contradiction here: ‘freeing’ French Muslims from their religion requires extreme coercion, from deploying immensely authoritarian surveillance methods to banning women from putting on too many clothes.

Zemmour is right about one thing: the situation in France is certainly tragic. We in Britain should be thankful for what we have, and wary of allowing it to be lost.

Sarah Ingham: People voted to take back control of Britain’s borders – the time is well overdue for some political will

26 Nov

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

This weekend brings the First Sunday in Advent, the start of the liturgical year in the Christian calendar.

For most of us, it signals that other annual rite – the Countdown to Christmas. Shopping! Santa! Sleighbells in the snow! And endless lists: cards to be sent, presents to be given, food to be shopped for. It’s little wonder that those responsible for producing lunch or dinner on the 25th collapse into a Quality Street-Netflix coma on the sofa on Boxing Day.

‘The more the merrier’ is the plucky response to the arrival of unexpected guests. It is Christmas, after all. Time to eat, drink and be merry. There’s plenty of room around the table (‘budge up’) and the garden chairs can be brought in from the shed. Extra roast spuds mean no-one will notice any shortage of turkey, but if it looks like guests might go short, FHB.

Family Holds Back brings us to the vexed issue of immigration, dominating the headlines again with the tragedy in the Channel on Wednesday.

Although immigration is an area of public policy that affects each and every citizen, governments throughout this Elizabethan age have allowed it to become so seemingly intractable that they have frequently appeared to give up on it – or to make maladroit interventions such as the Hostile Environment strategy.

Never mind the 2005 ‘Are You Thinking What We’re Thinking?’ series of election campaign posters, what on earth were the Coalition thinking in 2012 when it signed off the Hostile Environment as a good idea? In 2018, this was blamed for the Windrush Scandal, which continues to cause misery for those affected and blight the reputation of Conservatives.

Further entangling immigration with the always sensitive issue of race is not the most sensible way of resolving a problem which frequently troubles so much of the electorate. This concern peaked in 2014 and stood at around 45 per cent in the months leading up to the June 2016 Referendum, according to IPSOS-MORI’s regular Issues Index poll. After the vote for Brexit, voters were no longer so bothered. As an issue worrying them, it plummeted to 10 per cent in late 2019, the lowest level since March 2001.

This contraction of concern suggests that, while the association between race and immigration looms large in the minds of policymakers – often to toxic effect – most voters are able to decouple the two issues.

Indeed, the electorate could well suspect that invoking racism has long been a convenient if cynical means by which politicians close down any debate on the immigration, perhaps in the forlorn hope that the problem will go away. This was reflected by Gordon Brown during his mask-slipping encounter on the 2010 campaign trail with ‘that bigoted woman’.

In voting to end free movement of people in the Brexit Referendum, voters showed the country of origin of those people was pretty irrelevant. Belgium or Brazil or Benin, who cares? To paraphrase the PM, they issued their instruction: they wanted Britain to take back control of our borders.

Earlier this month, YouGov reported that immigration is once again back among on the public’s agenda, with 73 per cent saying the Government is handling the issue badly. Ministers must brave opponents’ inevitable if hackneyed accusations of ‘dog whistle politics’ (ironically, itself a dog whistle for accusations of racism) and exert some political will.

Voters are alarmed, not just by the tens of thousands of migrants landing on Britain’s beaches in the past year, but by the latest terrorist attack in Liverpool on Remembrance Sunday. The suicide bomber, a failed asylum seeker, was able to game the deportation system for seven years, not least by faking conversion to Christianity. Adding to disquiet is what appears to be an act of hybrid war against the West: the recent weaponization of migration by Belarus, who encouraged migrants illegally to enter the EU via its borders with Poland and Lithuania.

In squaring up to confront immigration, ministers could do worse than re-read the 2019 General Election manifesto. Even the most hardened Corbynista could not object to a system that aimed to be ‘firm, fair and compassionate’. The current apparent free-for-all is grossly unfair to almost everyone apart from people smugglers, but especially to the 27 migrants who drowned off the French coast on Wednesday.

With net migration to the UK standing at 313,000 in the 12 months to March 2020, policymakers should be asking themselves whose quality of life worsens thanks to the current unplanned mess. Hint: it’s not, for example, the residents of Surrey’s ritziest gated communities, who can access private schools, private hospitals, private dentists, private doctors, private carers for their old age and private security guards. Former Prime Ministers with extensive property portfolios also escape the adverse impact of too many people chasing too few resources.

To permit such massive influxes from overseas without providing commensurate public services is have spent the past two decades expecting the vast majority of the British public, whatever their ethnic background, constantly to budge up. Successive governments have not bothered to get in the extra spuds; Family Holds Back seems to have been the overarching policy response – if one indeed exists.

The Conservative party is the party of immigrants, many living the British dream who make a positive contribution to the country. Despite missteps like the Hostile Environment, we are the party of hope, not hate.

The time is long overdue for a government with a near 80-seat majority and a Cabinet which includes Sunak, Patel, Javid, Zahawi and Raab, not to mention ministers Sharma, Badenoch, Cleverly and Kwarteng to take control of immigration