Tipped as the most likely replacement for Theresa May, Michael Gove MP’s outlook on the Good Friday Agreement should cause alarm for those already worried about the threat to the Agreement by Brexit.
With the recognisable threat to the Good Friday Agreement posed by a hard Brexit, Theresa May has, at least verbally, reiterated the British Government’s commitment to its principles. However, as the Prime Minister’s stock dwindles, the Agreement faces a fresh challenge in the shape of May’s likely successor, who once described the Agreement as a “humiliation of our army, police and parliament”.
Michael Gove, the former Environment Secretary, writing in 2000 described the Good Friday Agreement as a “denial of our national integrity”. The ‘Price of Peace’, an analysis of British policy in Northern Ireland is a lengthy criticism of the agreement’s framework, British policy in securing the Agreement and of Ireland’s role in Northern Ireland of Northern Ireland’s peace process written for the Centre for Policy Studies.
According to Gove, the Good Friday Agreement “enshrines a vision of human rights which privileges contending minorities at the expense of the democratic majority”. The same opinion likely shapes Gove’s opposition to the backstop, a recognisable protection for Irish citizens living in Northern Ireland.
Gove’s opposition to the Agreement is outlined in various levels but his over-arching theme is that the Agreement “is designed to lever Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom”.
In essence, unlike Theresa May, who has stated her commitment to the Good Friday Agreement, Michael Gove as Prime Minister is unlikely to show the same commitment to an Agreement that he described as turning “the police force into a political plaything whose legitimacy depends on familiarity with fashionable social theories and precise ethnic composition and not effectiveness in maintaining order”, and adding that it “uproots justice from its traditions and makes it politically contentious. It demeans traditional expressions of British national identity”.
Unionist advocates of devolution who have been nostalgic for Stormont have placed the restoration of an imperfect expression of the union above the reality of strengthened links between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
Michael Gove MP
Gove’s assessment that the detail of the Good Friday Agreement provides a form of administration which makes coalitions involuntary, and which is “designed to stifle opposition, which codifies sectarian division and which entrenches arbitrary executive power with a licence to subvert liberal principles in the name of equality”, is a damning take on an Agreement which his party colleague and Secretary of State, Karen Bradley MP, recently declared a “bedrock” of progress in Northern Ireland.
“Nobody should be in any doubt,” said Bradley on the prospect of restoring Stormont. “This Conservative Government will stand firm behind an Agreement which, along with its successors, has been the bedrock of all that has been achieved over the past 20 years.
“Everything we do will have as its core the protection and implementation of the agreement, including, of course, as we leave the European Union.”
Bradley’s outlook, that devolution of power-sharing remains the best outcome for the future of Northern Ireland, is in contrast to Gove’s opinion in 2000 when he states: “Unionist advocates of devolution who have been nostalgic for Stormont have placed the restoration of an imperfect expression of the union above the reality of strengthened links between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.”
Gove’s criticism goes further than the parliamentary make-up of Stormont and extends to the formal role of the Irish Government. In a time when relationships between the UK and Ireland are strained in the context of Brexit, that Gove thinks so little of Ireland’s input into the Agreement should serve as a warning.
On the removal by Ireland from its constitution of a territorial claim to Ulster, seen by many unionists as a significant gain in the Good Friday Agreement negotiations, Gove asks: “How could a neighbouring democracy, and fellow member of the EU, whose citizens have maintained an irredentist claim on British territory for so long and have been allowed to get away it?” Adding: “Is it really a unionist gain when Irish nationalists give up one illegal expression of a continuing aspiration?”
Claiming that the creation of an Assembly in Belfast had been “framed to facilitate a cross-border dynamic”, Gove says that the Assembly’s operation has “given Irish republicans room and incentive to advance their goals without allowing unionists the means to entrench, let alone enhance, Ulster’s Britishness”.
Gove’s criticism of the Agreement stretches extensively to the reform of policing, the acceptance of Sinn Féin into the democratic process, the extent of decommissioning and Irish language provision. Many of his criticisms have not aged well, particularly in the area of human rights. Gove suggests that the “development of human rights legislation in Northern Ireland is part of the broader project of enmeshing Ulster into the Irish Republic”.
Describing the then newly created Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) as the “vanguard of a new human rights culture, charged with broadening the scope and reach of the legal revolution heralded by the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into British law”, Gove supplements his argument by asking whether the creation of new rights by the NIHRC would see similar outcomes to rights secured by woman against discrimination by the fire service. “The price, however, of this equality, has been that those in danger are forced to depend on firefighters who lack the physical strength to discharge their duties,” states Gove.
He goes on to say: “Creating new rights for transsexuals again allows common sense to be supplanted by legal intrusion. Will new rights to marry, adopt and enter any job of their choosing be extended? And if so, at what cost to the dignity, stability and durability of our tested notions of married life?”
Clearly Gove did not have the foresight to envisage a Northern Ireland lagging behind the rest of the UK in human rights provisions when he stated: “Minority rights should be protected by the same legal apparatus which exists across the UK.”
Whether Gove will become Prime Minister remains to be seen but as things stand currently he is the most likely to occupy number 10 next. In that case, a lot of questions will need to be asked of a man who assessed that the Good Friday Agreement: “Poses a threat not just to the Britishness of Northern Ireland but the British way of doing things in law, equality of opportunity, policing and human rights. In every area it creates unhappy precedents, likely to divide our society, burden the taxpayer and bloat the State.”