Karen Bradley, Northern Ireland and lessons for the church

The Northern Ireland Secretary – Karen Bradley – has managed to make comments in her highly diplomatically sensitive role that make the whole handling of Brexit by her party look like top draw political manoeuvring.

Astonishingly enough, Bradley was given the role of Northern Ireland secretary despite her admission last year that she was ‘slightly scared’ of Northern Ireland. Worse still, around the same time, she admitted she didn’t know the most basic of things regarding politics in the region. For example, she stated:

I didn’t understand things like when elections are fought, for example, in Northern Ireland – people who are nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties and vice versa. So, the parties fight for election within their own community.

“Actually, the unionist parties fight the elections against each other in unionist communities and nationalists in nationalist communities.”

The Guardian

I mean the level of staggering ignorance there is surprising enough for a member of parliament. But to be the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and not know such things is just beyond parody.

On Thursday, a former police ombudsman for the region publicly called for Bradley to resign over comments in which she announced that deaths caused by police and soldiers during the Troubles were not crimes. The Guardian report:

The controversy erupted after Bradley told the House of Commons on Wednesday that soldiers and police involved in killings were “people acting under orders and instructions, fulfilling their duties in a dignified and appropriate way”.

She said that “over 90% of the killings during the Troubles were at the hands of terrorists” and that “the under 10% that were at the hands of the military and police were not crimes”.

The Guardian

Now, let’s just be clear on the issue here. The problem is not the factual basis for the assertion per se. Both communities have their own views on such things. The problem is three-fold.

First, it disrespected the rule of law and process of justice. Regardless of Bradley’s (or her government’s) particular view on any given event surrounding the security services, there are ongoing investigations and inquiries into these things. To state categorically that these things ‘were not crimes’ when no ruling has been given to say as much rather undercuts the legal process currently taking place. So, aside from wherever one’s sympathies lie, there is a major issue of process here.

Second, there is always going to be the nagging suspicion among the Nationalist community that any minister from the Conservative and Unionist Party is going to have certain leanings. Now, as it happens, that isn’t necessarily true. But it doesn’t take a genius to see how one might reach that assumption. For Bradley to then make the statements that she has is going to entirely undercut any attempted sense of impartiality that the government may wish to hold onto. It is hardly surprising that members of the Nationalist community are now accusing her of trying to interfere with the decision that will be reached on the prosecution of soldiers involved in the killing of civilians on Bloody Sunday.

Third, there is the little problem of the facts of the matter. As Lady O’Loan, the former police ombudsmand stated, ‘She doesn’t understand the history of Northern Ireland … the extent to which police officers and members of the military were involved in crime and have been convicted of crime.’ One may have views about the involvement of security service personnel if one wants. One may believe the vast majority of security service personnel were carrying out their duties to protect the people in the region if you wish. But what you can’t do is ignore the fact that there have, indeed, been prosecutions and convictions of security personnel for their involvement in actions during the Troubles. To insist, point blank, that the deaths in which any solider or police officer was involved were not crimes, when at least some of them were definitely crimes, is something of a problem.

I know the Left have a tendency to unwavering, and unthinking, support for Nationalists in the region with a few fully paid up Republicans to boot. I have commented on this here and here. I am not among their ranks. Whilst I don’t share the politics of any of the main Unionist parties, I am a democrat. I am sympathetic to Unionism for no more reason than I believe in democracy and I believe in self-determination. The majority of people in Northern Ireland have a stated desire to remain British. The moment a two-thirds majority want to join Ireland, I am all for allowing them to do so. But right now that isn’t the case.

I am also aware that it is standard leftist fare to be suspicious, if not downright contemptuous, toward security services. I also note the tendency on the right to refuse to see any evil therein. It is an oft forgotten fact that the British military were initially sent to Northern Ireland to defend the Catholic community against Loyalist paramilitary groups who had formed in retaliation to ongoing IRA attacks. But the Catholic community largely saw this as yet another sign of unwanted occupation and did not view the security services as any sort of ally.

Attacks against the security services by Republicans and a more natural inclination toward the British within Loyalism and most certainly among the RUC (the Northern Irish police service as was), were almost certainly factors in security service collusion. The idea that no security service personnel could possibly be involved in such activities speaks against human nature, a basic understanding of the context into which they were sent and more recent successful prosecutions brought against police and military servicemen. That’s not to say all the accusations of murder and collusion are true but basic common sense tells you they rightly ought to be investigated and government ministers oughtn’t to be making pronouncements about such things until due process has taken place.

Two lessons stand out for those of us in church leadership:

First, and perhaps most obviously, we shouldn’t be putting those who are totally ignorant of scripture and the church into positions of leadership. Just as Karen Bradley’s ignorance has led to her walking into a diplomatic maelstrom, so ignorance about one’s church history and current context will cause similar problems. You may have the sharpest theology going but if you have no understanding about the people in your church, your church’s history or the community that it is in you are walking headlong into a similar diplomatic nightmare.

Second, this is a reminder to us about the need for robust structures in the church and the importance of allowing such processes to run their course. All too often, church leaders fail to get a grip on the necessary ecclesiology that will allow our church to function. Other times, even if we have the structures that we need for good and proper order, we fail to allow processes to take their course. Like Karen Bradley, we can’t help but make comments and allow tittle-tattle to inform our views when there are Biblical structures and processes that we ought to follow. We may have a process of church discipline mapped out in fine detail in our constitution or some such, but then fail to abide by it choosing to simply believe our mates or disregard others because they’ve been difficult. Those sorts of things are not allowing due process to take place and will (rightly) lead to the ire of the congregation being directed at you.