Chris Patten is one of the more erudite British politicians of recent years, so it was all the more disappointing that the EU’s commissioner for external relations reduced the Northern Ireland conundrum to a sadly familiar and all too simplified equation in a Washington Post op-ed article last week.
Patten’s reference to his trying to “persuade American congressmen to take a tougher line on the funding of Irish terrorism” might seem fair enough to some as part of an argument against violence, but it reeks of an embedded attitude in the higher levels of British governance, one that has long reduced the problems arising over Northern Ireland to one of “Irish terrorism” and little else.
The phrase “Irish terrorism” is an especially broad brush, one that has been trotted out repeatedly and to such an extent by British commentators that the first word in it has been virtually branded by, and fused with, the second.
Terrorism exists. It exists in Ireland and acts of terrorism have been carried out by Irish nationals. But just as successive British governments have long rejected, on the grounds that they are gross oversimplifications, such slogans as “British oppression” or Brits Out,” leading British politicians and opinion makers should be equally conscious and careful with regard to statements that almost casually identify Irish national identity with reprehensible and cruel deeds.
In his op-ed, Patten compounded his carelessness by writing that when he met with these U.S. congressmen, he would begin his “set piece” by saying that “the beginning of wisdom in Ireland was to recognize that there were two authentic cries of pain and rage.
As likely as not, those congressmen were all too aware that there was a third ingredient in the sad equation not being mentioned by Patten at all.
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