Saturday, 25 June 2016

Northern Ireland After 'Brexit': An Open Letter to Giles Fraser

Giles Fraser is a Church of England priest, social critic, journalist, and broadcaster. He strongly supported the United Kingdom leaving the European Union in the current referendum. This is my response...

Dear Giles,

On Friday morning, we all woke up to the news that the UK- or at least a majority of voters within the UK- had voted to leave the European Union.

I think you’ll agree with me when I say that there’s really no way to overstate the importance and monumental nature of this news. Our age of hyperbole calls every event 'historic', but Friday really was; there's a very definite, concrete 'before' and 'after'. And many of the consequences are even now beyond comprehension or understanding.

For reasons that’ll become clear by reading on, I was backing ‘remain’. I did my best to engage with the ‘leave’ campaign as best I could, but I remained unconvinced;

And not just unconvinced, but resistant.  

I’ve been following your work and writing since the days surrounding your support of the Occupy movement outside St. Paul’s Cathedral in London on 2011. I enjoy your columns in the Guardian.
I’m aware of your academic credentials, and they are extensive. On many issues, we agree; on some, we disagree. 

That’s quite normal and understandable.

Respectfully, on ‘Brexit’, we disagree. I’d like to tell you why.

In your Guardian column of 11 February, you invoke the English radical egalitarian movements of the 17th century, the Diggers and the Levellers, the leaders of the English Reformation, and even those who stood against the Norman Conquests in the 11th century, declaring them all ‘the original Eurosceptics’. By doing so, you seem to be attempting to make the case for your own Euroscepticism by showing that it has a long and historic pedigree in Britain.

It’s an interesting argument, but I think it becomes problematic when picked at a little deeper.

In that column, you bring up the English Reformation:

In the 16th century, Henry VIII had broken with Rome and established home rule for the church. As article 37 of the 39 articles puts it: ‘The bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this realm of England.’ The Bible was to be written in English and not in a foreign language that ordinary people could not understand… In the popular imagination, the English Reformation was a Brexit.

This is simply bad history. Henry VIII wasn’t interested in a Bible that people could understand; if he had been, he wouldn’t have outlawed William TyndaIe’s English translation in 1530. The truth is Henry wanted a Bible that he commissioned, controlled, and had approved. What he came up with was the ‘Great Bible’, which he eventually banned all but the upper classes from reading. In 1546, every English translation in England other than the ‘Great Bible’ was burned.

Furthermore, when you refer to a ‘foreign’ language, you’re obviously referring to Latin, which was the language of all academic, scientific, and theological work, and which no one in England at the time would have characterized as a ‘foreign’ language.

At bottom, what this shows is the difficulty of trying to assign modern ideas and understandings to people from earlier historical periods. For one thing, people of the Feudal and Tudor periods would not have thought of themselves as ‘British’- as that political and cultural identity had not yet developed- but as ‘English’.  Not only that, but their understandings of concepts like ‘Europe’, ‘foreigner’, ‘foreign rule’, not to mention ‘democracy’, would differ considerably from a modern understanding. There’d be similarities, of course, but any reputable historian will warn against trying to prove historical precedent for a 21st century idea based on arguments from the 17th- much less the 11th...

But where I feel you cross over into recklessness is in your Guardian column of 5 May, when you draw direct parallels between support for a ‘Brexit’ and the Protestant ethos on one side and the EU and Catholicism on the other:

In Protestant countries, the EU still feels a little like some semi-secular echo of the Holy Roman empire, a bureaucratic monster that, through the imposition of canon law, swallows up difference and seeks after doctrinal uniformity. This was precisely the sort of centralisation that Luther challenged, and resistance to it is deep in the Protestant consciousness. 

I am an Irish citizen. Belfast was my home for 13 years. As a post-conflict expert, I was involved with several post-conflict projects, working to bring reconciliation and social transformation in the wake of 30 years of conflict that saw thousands killed and tens of thousands wounded and bereaved. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 eventually introduced a political settlement that formally brought the conflict to a close, but Northern Ireland remains deeply divided- socially, culturally, and politically.

Because of the history between Ireland and England, all those aspects of division are also shot through with a religious dimension.

From your writing, it seems that, for you as a member of the Church of England's clergy, the issues surrounding the Reformation have been long settled;

In Ireland and Northern Ireland, the issues are not that simple or settled.

Sectarian division- and sectarian violence- even after the peace agreements, are ever-present realities. 

Cultural displays such as flags, memorials, and marches can all lead to serious social unrest. 

Most paramilitary groups have disbanded, or at least (mostly) disarmed. But smaller dissident factions, particularly those from the Irish Republican political standpoint, are extremely determined to carry on the armed struggle.

Even though their level of military capability is extremely limited, they have killed security personnel as recently as within the last few months.

Because of its history and this current reality, the issues surrounding a ‘Brexit’ will affect Northern Ireland more directly and acutely than any other part of the UK.

Northern Ireland will now be the one part of the UK with a land border with the EU. That border will now be significantly hardened; the checkpoints and surveillance that was all dismantled in 1998 will presumably all go back up again.

Borders are an extremely touchy subject here.

The Irish Nationalist political parties that signed the Agreement on the specific provision that the border be softened and closer ties with the Republic be fostered are already demanding a referendum on scrapping the Agreement and pursuing reunification, which the Unionist political parties reject out of hand.

Plus, another key piece of the Agreement allows people in Northern Ireland to carry both Irish passports (which are EU passports) and UK passports (which will now no longer be EU passports). As so many of the issues of the conflict had to do with nationality and identity, the potential new arrangements are not merely confusing but potentially explosive.

And who knows? The dissident paramilitary factions, who earn most of their money now from smuggling fuel, cigarettes, and alcohol across the border, might now be able to diversify into people trafficking as well…

None of this was brought up during the debate (if one can even dignify the rhetoric surrounding the referendum by calling it ‘debate’); the whole issue of leaving the EU was largely approached from the perspective of England, and really just appeared to many of us to be a petty civil war between factions of English people within the Conservative Party.

The Scots voted to remain;

The Northern Irish voted to remain;

Even most of the large English cities voted to remain.

The issues surrounding Northern Ireland were utterly ignored.

They were certainly ignored by you.  

I bear you no ill will. I do not begrudge you your political views. But seeing as you are not only a columnist but also a priest in the Church of England, for you to even hint at analogies about determined, democratic Protestants defying continental Catholic tyranny, when the issues on which you are commenting directly impinge upon the peace and stability of Ireland and that part of the UK that is Northern Ireland, was incredibly thoughtless and potentially destructive.

The day after the voting, your column was keen to stress the need for healing and communication between ‘remain’ and ‘leave’ voters:

We have become strangers to each other and it’s high time we got to know each other again. And perhaps to find some way to like each other a little bit more. For this has been one of the nastiest campaigns I can remember, exposing bitterness and deep anger one for the other. Now is the time to stop blaming each other for our differences, and to listen a little bit more sympathetically. With Brexit, we have our democracy back.

Speaking as an Irish person, a theologian, a post-conflict specialist, and a Catholic, I find this an unacceptable postscript to your- and our- ‘Brexit’ journey.

For you, it appears to be all over but for the healing;

For the people of Ireland and Northern Ireland, wounds that were healing are now open, and the damage might just be beginning…

1 comment:

  1. Well said Jon, I follow Giles, but have been dismayed at recent stance and comments.