Brian Feeney: Brandon Lewis has an unenviable record

Brian Feeney

Brian Feeney

Historian and political commentator Brian Feeney has been a columnist with The Irish News for three decades. He is a former SDLP councillor in Belfast and co-author of the award-winning book Lost Lives

Northern Ireland Secretary of State Brandon Lewis. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire.
Northern Ireland Secretary of State Brandon Lewis. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire.

Why do you think our current proconsul allows himself to be exposed to ridicule for making daft statements that everyone knows to be untrue?

For example, the day protocol checks began in January last year, he said: “There is no Irish Sea border.” He repeated that in a BBC interview to the disbelief of Tara Mills, who replied: “But secretary of state, there is.”

Unionists said he had, “lost touch with reality”.

Perhaps our proconsul’s most ignominious contribution for which he is likely to be remembered longest is his infamous statement to parliament, “yes, this does break international law”, as he announced the British government’s intention to “disapply” a treaty they’d just signed.

However, in that case as Johnson’s fall guy, he was just ‘obeying orders’ as the failed traditional defence of underlings goes. So, on that basis perhaps he’s prepared to come out with anything he’s told to say or do? After all, he has no other discernible talent or qualification to be in the British cabinet except abject loyalty to Johnson. Then again, as that’s the only qualification necessary for this cabinet, he’s qualified.

As one English newspaper commented on his appointment to cabinet: ‘Not even his most generous friends would describe [him] as particularly bright. He is one of parliament’s natural plodders. A born follower. A man who has unexpectedly found himself in the cabinet both by virtue of his more talented colleagues having disqualified themselves for being awkward and having no principles of his own [about the north] he could possibly compromise.’

As long as Johnson backs him he can do or say what he likes. When he makes a promise and breaks it or denies reality, it doesn’t mean he’s lying. There’s a certain amount of academic study about this problem. If your boss is a pathological liar, when you find yourself having to defend his serial lying does that mean you’re a liar too? No, academic consensus is that the test of a lie is that its user intends it to be believed and must also intend it to deceive, whereas someone explaining or defending the lie is merely a bullsh***er.

According to Annette Dittert, London bureau chief of German public broadcaster ARD, “unthinking loyalty is the absolutely essential requirement” for Johnson’s cabinet but, being an accomplished bullsh***er like the proconsul is “an inestimable advantage” for someone defending Johnson’s serial lies and verbal acrobatics. So there you have the academic distinction, though many might say it’s a distinction without a difference.

Nonetheless, no matter how it’s glossed our proconsul has an unenviable record. Signed up to the New Decade Same Approach con job he was instructed by his boss not to honour the 100-day deadline for implementing the Stormont House deal on the past, but instead announced in April 2020 plans for an amnesty thereby protecting former British soldiers from prosecution. Months later nothing had happened, still hasn’t. That prompted a furious Johnny Mercer MP to complain last July that our proconsul had promised him seven times to bring in legislation before the summer. He concluded the proconsul “had a serious problem with integrity”.

Around the same time he had also promised Mary Lou McDonald that he would introduce legislation for an Irish language act; later he showed MLAs a draft of the act promising to bring it in before March 28. Last autumn the High Court found he hadn’t fulfilled his duty to make abortion operational. Last week he promised to do so, “after the assembly election”. Pro-choice campaigners believed him.

He also said last week he was fully committed to the Common Travel Area despite ending free movement in Ireland for non-Irish EU citizens. Unionists believed him. They voted in Westminster for pre-travel clearance checks. Britain doesn’t care who comes north so there’ll be no checks. The checks will be at ports and airports in Britain. All DUP MPs voted for that; they believed this proconsul.