Rishi Sunak’s national service plan does north another disservice - Cormac Moore

The Tories truly deserve an extinction level event on July 4

Cormac Moore

Cormac Moore

Historian Cormac Moore is a columnist with The Irish News and editor of On This Day.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, pictured on a visit to defence vehicle manufacturer Supacat in Exeter, wants to introduce a new form of national service
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak wants to introduce a new form of national service if the Conservatives win the general election (Aaron Chown/PA)

In a desperate bid to stall the haemorrhaging of seats the Conservative Party is likely to face next week, British prime minister Rishi Sunak announced a compulsory national service plan for 18-year-olds to partake in placements in the armed forces or to volunteer in their communities. Immediately, questions arose about how the plan would be enforced.

On the BBC Question Time Leaders’ Debate last week, scrambling to answer what would happen to those who refused to participate, Sunak suggested that they might face restrictions in accessing finance or driving licences. It appears the plan, like almost everything else about the abysmal Tory campaign, is not clearly thought through. Criticising the plan, Northern Ireland minister Steve Baker, said it was “sprung on candidates”, and if his advice had been sought, he would have had a say “on behalf of NI”.

The shambolic nature of the campaign has become an apt metaphor for the party’s governance of the UK over the last 14 years, particularly after it started to eat itself apart following the Brexit referendum. It is hard to think of a worse British government in living memory.

This current iteration of the Conservative Party has done more damage to Britain’s reputation than any that came before it. Its attitude towards the north has been deeply disrespectful, introducing many measures that have shown no consideration to the unique nature of Northern Ireland. The proposal over compulsory national service is just another of a litany of examples showing that the Tories do not care one jot about Northern Ireland.

The national service proposal will, of course, not come to pass, and if, through a miraculous turnaround in their fortunes, the Tories were to form the next government and introduce it, it would not be possible to enforce it in Northern Ireland, as other British governments have discovered in the past.

The anti-conscription campaign of 1918 that united nationalist and Labour forces in Ireland to oppose its introduction during the First World War was arguably the most decisive moment in breaking British rule on the island. Winston Churchill conceded that “Irish conscription was handled in such a fashion... that we had the worst of both worlds, all the resentment against conscription, and in the end no law and no men”.

As world war loomed again 20 years later, while James Craig’s Northern Ireland government favoured compulsory national service to be introduced in Northern Ireland, it accepted some difficulties, including the fear that a large number would cross the border to escape conscription.

Colonel Wilfrid Spender, head of the Northern Ireland civil service, suggested that the government should “enforce severe penalties against those who evaded their responsibilities” such as “loss of citizenship and of unemployment assistance rights”.

While previous British governments have sometimes accepted the unique circumstances in Northern Ireland to all other regions of the UK, the current Tory government either is not aware or does not care

In the spring of 1939, Craig asked Chamberlain for Northern Ireland to be included in the Compulsory Military Training Bill measures, as “Northern Ireland would deplore any differentiation between different parts of the United Kingdom and... would deeply resent any suggestion that she should not be included”.

The backlash to Craig’s call for conscription in Northern Ireland was severe. An Taoiseach Éamon de Valera cancelled his trip to New York and announced, in the words of Robert Fisk, “since Eire claimed the whole of Ireland as her national territory, the conscription of Irishmen in the province would be an act of aggression”. As with 1918, the Catholic hierarchy strongly condemned the prospect of conscription. Belfast trade union leaders were also opposed.

James Craig was the first prime minister of Northern Ireland. Pictured walking by troops
James Craig, prime minister of Northern Ireland when the Second World War broke out, wanted the north to be included in Britain's military conscription. Successive British prime ministers disagreed. Picture: Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images (Central Press/Getty Images)

Responding in the Reichstag to US President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s open letter asking for Nazi Germany not to attack 31 specified countries, including Ireland, Adolf Hitler used the developing conscription crisis in Northern Ireland to attack the British Empire, saying: “Now, I have just read a speech by de Valera, the Irish Taoiseach, in which, strangely enough, and contrary to Mr Roosevelt’s opinion, he does not charge Germany with oppressing Ireland but he reproaches England with subjecting Ireland to continuous aggression...”

Recognising the “special difficulties” in applying conscription to Northern Ireland, Chamberlain announced that the north would be excluded from the Compulsory Military Training Bill measures in early May. It was humiliating for Craig who had to face embarrassing questions in Belfast, including one from Independent Unionist MP, John W. Nixon, allegedly leader of the Cromwell Club ‘Murder Gang’ from the early 1920s, who asked was the advice of de Valera taken by Chamberlain “and the advice of the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland rejected”?

Northern Ireland governments led by Craig and his successors – Andrews followed by Basil Brooke – asked again for conscription to be introduced in Northern Ireland in 1940, 1941, 1943, and as the war in Europe was finishing, in May 1945. All requests were rejected by Chamberlain’s replacement as British prime minister, Churchill, who claimed on one occasion, that it would be “more trouble than it is worth to enforce such a policy” in Northern Ireland.

Following the war, Clement Attlee’s Labour government introduced the National Services Act, which led to the conscription of over two million young British men from ages 17 to 21, enforced from the late 1940s until the early 1960s. Attlee claimed, “after weighing all the considerations”, that it would only apply to Britain and not Northern Ireland, much to the disgust of the Belfast government yet again.

While previous British governments have sometimes accepted the unique circumstances in Northern Ireland to all other regions of the UK, the current Tory government either is not aware or does not care.

It did not listen to the challenges Brexit would impose on the island of Ireland in 2016. Boris Johnson lied to and then abandoned his ‘friends’ in the DUP over the Irish Sea border as quickly as you can say ‘Get Brexit Done’. It ignored victims over its reviled legacy act. Its threat to leave the European Court of Human Rights shows how much thought and care it reserves for the Good Friday Agreement. This national service scheme, which would be unworkable and unenforceable in Northern Ireland, is just the latest offering from the Tories without a moment’s thought about the particular circumstances that exist in the north.

July 4 cannot come quick enough, where the British electorate could deliver something the Tories truly deserve: an extinction level event.