Churches welcome saints and sinners alike. Even so, it was a jolt to see Boris Johnson kneeling before an altar in Armagh – a man whose word is written on water, who negotiates in bad faith, decides international agreements can be signed one day and broken the next, denies the reality of the dirty war in Northern Ireland, and believes playing fast and loose with our peace is shrewd political manoeuvring.
eing deceitful, crafty and manipulative didn’t disqualify him as a guest of honour at the churches’ partition commemoration which nobody was meant to call a partition commemoration because it absolutely wasn’t a partition commemoration (according to the churches organising it). It was a Service of Reflection and Hope.
In fairness, the event wasn’t celebratory – in fact, several of the churchmen used the verb ‘lament’. And if it was somewhat dull, if it wandered into cliché at times, well, better than generating any further controversy.
But back to Britain’s Little Englander premier. It was surreal to see him praying and hymn-singing in Northern Ireland, a region whose feet he is holding to the flames as a bargaining chip in EU negotiations. It’s like someone who’s been threatening to torch your house landing into your birthday party with a doorknocker as a present.
The event was nicely choreographed: Danny Boy sung by the congregation, prayers in both Irish and English, schoolchildren carrying a lantern of hope, and talking about how we all breathe the same air and walk beneath the same trees. But prominent by their absence were the Irish and British heads of state. I believe that’s called voting with your feet. Earl Somebody was there, apparently in place of Queen Elizabeth, in addition to the Little Englander (see above) representing her government.
Michael D Higgins is too dignified to gloat, but he’s only human, and must surely have smothered a laugh at the way Buckingham Palace took its lead from him. While the queen is entitled to occasional duvet days at the age of 95, it’s exceedingly odd that no other royal deputised for her considering the Mountbatten-Windsors are a family of Brady Bunch dimensions.
Elizabeth II, incidentally, has worked wonders for east-west relations between these islands, but Boris Johnson’s Tory party is unravelling her diplomatic work. Is it possible the sight of her prime minister, elbow-bumping his way along St Patrick’s Cathedral nave, was as unpalatable to her as to others who care about Britain’s international reputation?
He cleared out of the North soon after the service, leaving behind an endangered Northern Ireland Protocol – which Dominic Cummings claims the Johnson administration always intended to “ditch”. This, despite the protocol being supported by most people in the region, especially the business community.
In a string of recent tweets, Mr Cummings – a key adviser to the prime minister until forced out by an internal power struggle – said “of course” the government should be allowed to “sometimes break deals… like every other state does”. The Brexit deal signed by Mr Johnson was a way to gain electoral advantage and had the advantage of “whacking Corbyn”. No sense of what might be in Northern Ireland’s best interests, then. Anyone remotely surprised?
Naomi Long, deputy leader of Alliance, says Mr Johnson’s government is using Northern Ireland as leverage in negotiations with the EU. On the day before the Armagh service, which she attended, she told a House of Lords committee that Northern Ireland was “not so much an afterthought as a political football”.
So, Mr Johnson’s message to the North is a scribbled postscript: I’ll use you, abuse you, and be done with you the instant it suits me. Despite that, brazen as you like, he turned up to commemorate Northern Ireland’s foundation. If the leaders of unionism, sitting a few rows behind, don’t grasp that Britain is not just utterly indifferent to Northern Ireland but willing to make it undergo misery, they are seriously hard of thinking.
As for the speeches and prayers spoken at the event, there was nothing wrong with them but they could have been generated by robots. Instruction: Insert the following words or phrases at regular intervals – peace, reconciliation, healing, common humanity, wounded, sectarian division. Doubtless, they were meant sincerely, but they amounted to Platitude Grand Central.
At least it wasn’t overtly political. Apart from Mr Johnson wearing a face mask with a Union Jack on it. Not a neutral statement politically, as President Higgins might say. Simon Coveney didn’t arrive in a face mask printed with the tricolour, and none of the reverends and very-reverends wore ones with Christian insignia. Mr Johnson’s tone-deaf behaviour acted as a prompt that perhaps no politician should have been present – inviting political leaders made the event inherently political.
Some green shoots were apparent (to be clear, I’m not talking about nationalism here). A certain symbolism was apparent in Sierra Leone-born Dr Sahr Yambasu, the first African president of Ireland’s Methodist Church, delivering the sermon. During it, he highlighted “win-lose political attitudes”. But if church leaders in Northern Ireland were serious about building bridges they’d co-operate to make all schools non-denominational. Integrated education is essential, and resisting it is unforgivable.
Incidentally, another setback for centenary organisers is an “administrative error” that prevents Belfast City Hall from joining civic buildings across the UK being lit blue and green tomorrow to mark Northern Ireland’s foundation. Instead, Belfast City Hall is being illuminated in rainbow colours to mark 40 years since a landmark court ruling decriminalised homosexuality in the region.
The leaders of the five main Christian churches all addressed the congregation in Armagh, speaking with one voice: we had polarised people, “woundedness” and speculation that the next generation won’t care about the Border but will have other priorities.
It was an attempt to show leadership and solidarity, to reach out and advance the cause of reconciliation. The latter has happened in only limited ways since the Good Friday Agreement – it’s not so much unfinished as apathetically started business.
The problem is that reconciliation can’t simply happen of its own accord. While it is important to create space for difficult conversations, they are unlikely to flourish in the context of a partition-linked event, at a time when Northern Ireland is being used cynically by a British premier to give Britain an edge in its Kafkaesque renegotiations with the EU.
Those who created partition may be long dead, but their spiritual heirs are alive and plotting in Downing Street. They can kneel and pray at any number of church services, but let’s not fall in with their pretence to care anything about the lived experience of the people negotiating Northern Ireland’s contested reality.