It has not been a good couple of weeks for British politics. The Chilcot report into the War in Iraq and the Brexit referendum result, which will see the British state exit from the EU over the next few years, coupled with the internal divisions in both of the main political parties, has created a significant political crisis.
All of this, but especially Brexit, will have a considerable impact on the island of Ireland, and especially the north. The loss of funding from the various EU sources, including the Peace Programmes and the Interreg Cross border programmes, as well as for farming families and the community sector, is expected to be considerable.
Last week I met delegates from the East Border Region programme which covers six local councils – three on each side of the border. Our focus was on how funding from the EU can be protected following the Brexit vote. The delegates are worried that Brexit puts at risk 19 projects it is currently developing worth 132 million euro. They are not alone in this concern.
Theresa May is now the British Prime Minister. She has the responsibility for managing the British disengagement from the EU but she also has responsibility for implementing the Good Friday Agreement. In April she publicly announced her commitment to ending the British government’s involvement with the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Tories have also stated their desire to scrap the Human Rights Act which according to the Human Rights group Liberty ‘would amount to a serious breach of the GFA’.
These are the essential rights framework within the Good Friday Agreement that are needed to ensure no repeat of the past policies of discrimination and repression that were a part of the northern state from partition.
As co-equal guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement the Irish government has an onerous responsibility to defend this international treaty and the human rights elements of it. The Taoiseach must make very clear to Ms May that the Irish government will not countenance any action by the British government that will undermine the integrity of the 1998 Agreement and subsequent agreements.
A week later however the fallout from the Chilcot report continues to reverberate. Chilcot accused Tony Blair of invading Iraq before all ‘peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted. Military action at that time was not a last resort.’ Much attention has also focussed on the former British Prime Minister’s words to George W Bush eight months before the invasion in which he said: “I will be with you, whatever.”
What emerges from Chilcot’s two and a half million words is a British government that had not prepared its military for the invasion. It had neither the right military equipment nor the necessary strategies essential to an invasion. Nor did it adequately plan for any political vacuum arising from the defeat of Saddam Hussein. Like David Cameron who had no plan for a successful ‘leave’ Brexit vote, Tony Blair had no post-invasion strategy.
In the course of Sinn Féin’s negotiations in 2002 with Tony Blair both Martin McGuinness and I raised the prospect of an Iraq invasion with him. We told Mr Blair and his colleagues very strongly that an invasion would be wrong. We also warned him that, in our view, the outcome of any war would be a disaster for the people of Iraq and for the British people. We put this to him in a very forthright way and on a number of occasions.
It was very clear to us from those conversations, many months before a public decision to invade was announced, that Mr Blair was committed to this course of action.
Finally, at the same time as the Chilcot report was being published commemorations were being held in France, Britain and here in Ireland in remembrance of the victims of an earlier conflict. The Battle of the Somme began on July 1st 1916 and ended in November of that year.
The report of the Chilcot inquiry into the invasion of Iraq is a reminder of how little the British state has learned in the intervening 100 years. The similarities are striking. Disastrous political decisions and the ill preparedness of the British military in attacking the German lines at the Somme in July 1916 are reflected in the invasion of Iraq in January 2003.
On July 1st 1916 after five days in which over a million shells were fired by the British artillery, British soldiers, including many Irish, went ‘over the top’. They did so believing that the barbed wire lines had been destroyed. However, because of poor quality control, a huge percentage of the artillery shells were duds. Most of those that did explode were shrapnel shells which were largely ineffective against the German soldiers in their deep dugouts and against the barbed wire entanglements.
At the end of that first day the British Army had lost 60,000 men, a third of them dead and many others who would never fight again. When the battle finally ended in November the British Army had 420,000 men killed or injured; the French about 200,000 and the Germans around half a million. No side had won.
Like Iraq 87 years later, and many other post-colonial conflicts after 1945, British military planning was inept, military equipment was often ineffective and the decisions of its political leadership doomed many soldiers and civilians to death.
These wars, like those in this part of Ireland, and in Kenya, Yemen, Palestine and Afghanistan and many more were the result of bad political decisions and the willingness of political leaders to hand over responsibility for political disputes to the generals. A recipe for disaster.