Emily Thornberry reached a new low today. At Prime Minister’s Questions, she turned the Commons’ heartfelt offering of condolences to the family and friends of Lyra McKee into a tirade against a Hard Brexit. In reply to David Lidington — who was standing in for Theresa May, who is attending McKee’s funeral — Thornberry said the murder of McKee by the New IRA is a ‘sickening’ reminder of the violence of the past and evidence why a solution to the Irish border question is necessary. She appeared to land on the argument that in order to avoid a hard border in Ireland – and to avoid the kind of terrorist violence we witnessed on the night McKee was murdered – we ultimately need to keep the UK in a Customs Union.
I’ve seen some cynical things in my time but this takes the biscuit. Thornberry was effectively using the murder of McKee to bolster the case for Labour’s approach to Brexit — which, of course, is to have the softest Brexit imaginable by keeping the UK in a Customs Union and aligned with the Single Market. Even the Guardian’s live coverage had to say that Thornberry’s ‘segue from Lyra McKee’s death to Brexit and the backstop was a tiny bit contrived’. It was more than contrived. It was ghoulish. If the Soft Brexit/ Remain By Another Name lobby is now even willing to marshall a horrific murder to its cause, then it truly has lost the moral plot.
Thornberry isn’t alone of course. Almost immediately after the news broke that McKee, just 29, was gunned down by New IRA toerags, Brexit-bashers were out in force arguing that it is only by watering down Brexit, or better still stopping it entirely, that we can prevent other such murders in the future. Just hours after the murder, a writer for the Independent said ‘it is not a cheap point to link the upsurge in violence — partly — on Brexit’. Such a defensive formulation suggests these people know deep down that it is cheap to make anti-Brexit mileage from McKee’s murder.
A Scotsman headline said McKee’s murder ‘shows [the] danger of no-deal Brexit’. Tory MP George Freeman caused a stink when he said McKee’s murder is a reminder of why ‘we cannot allow a Brexit which undermines the peace in N Ireland’. Soon, Michel Barnier was getting involved. McKee’s death is a ‘reminder of how fragile peace still is in Northern Ireland’, he said, and ‘we must all work to preserve...the Good Friday Agreement’. We know what he means: no ‘Hard Brexit’, no full Brexit, no leaving the Customs Union, because if we do these things there will be more violence in Ireland.
There are two things wrong with this cynical, morbid stoking of the spectre of Irish violence as an argument for softening Brexit. The first is that it is plain wrong. If there is a vacuum in Northern Ireland — and it’s pretty clear there is — it has nothing to do with Brexit and everything to do with the spectacular failures of the Northern Ireland Assembly. This is one of the most hollow and fragile political institutions in Western Europe. It has been suspended numerous times since its founding in 1998 because the parties have continually failed to agree how to govern. It was suspended for a full five years once, between 2002 and 2007. In 2019, Northern Ireland broke the world record for the longest period without a government — 589 days — again because the parties failed to agree on how the power-sharing system should work. In this vacuum, some extremist groups have flourished, often feeding off the frustrations of certain sections of the community. This precedes Brexit. It is not related to Brexit.
The second, far worse problem with the continual use of the spectre of Irish terrorism against Brexit is that it hands a veto to terror groups. What some Remain campaigners are essentially saying is that we cannot have a clean Brexit because that would antagonise terror groups who dislike the prospect of any hardening of the border in Ireland. This is outrageous. It empowers terror groups. It says we should never do anything that would make them unhappy. It implicitly sends them the message that their violent threat is working. It tells them that their threat of menace is making politicians rethink a ‘Hard Brexit’, which to many of us really means Brexit itself. It gives them power, violent power, over the enactment of the Brexit vote. This is like saying, ‘We cannot have any more pop concerts in Manchester because they offend Islamist terrorists’. It is a craven capitulation to the threat of violence by politicians and commentators who really should know better.
This is the new low that the Remain-leaning elite has reached: so horrified are they by the idea of a clean Brexit that they seem willing to stoke up terrorism as a means of preventing a clean Brexit. It isn’t Brexiteers who threaten to destabilise Northern Ireland — it’s the political class itself, whose virtual handing of a veto to the likes of the New IRA is their maddest and most desperate attack on Brexit yet.