Claire Fox: From IRA comments controversy to a peerage

Mark Devenport
Political editor, Northern Ireland
@markdevenporton Twitter

image captionBoris Johnson included Claire Fox on a list of 36 new peers at the end of last month

The Conservative Party's longest serving adviser on Northern Ireland, Lord Jonathan Caine, tells me he has "serious misgivings" over the decision to give the former Brexit MEP Claire Fox a peerage.

In recent years, Ms Fox has enjoyed a high profile, both as a pro-Brexit campaigner and as a broadcaster on BBC Radio 4's "The Moral Maze".

However, in her youth she was a member of the tiny Revolutionary Communist Party, which refused to condemn atrocities like the Birmingham, Brighton and Warrington bombings.

The RCP position - spelled out after the 1984 attack on Margaret Thatcher's Conservative party conference in Brighton - was that "we support unconditionally the right of the Irish people to carry out their struggle for national liberation in whatever way they choose".

'Considerable controversy'

During last year's European election, Ms Fox's track record on the IRA stirred considerable controversy.

At one point she phoned Colin Parry, whose 12-year-old son, Tim, was killed in the Warrington bombing, to explain her views.

In the aftermath of the bombing, Mr Parry became a formidable peace campaigner and he admired Ms Fox's gumption in speaking to him personally.

However, he concluded that her repeated refusal to disavow the RCP's comments on the bombing, which claimed both his son's life and that of a three-year-old boy, Johnathan Ball, proved to him she had not changed her original views.

image copyrightPA
image captionJohnathan Ball, three, and Tim Parry, 12, were killed in the bomb blasts in Warrington in 1993

After Boris Johnson included Claire Fox on a list of 36 new peers at the end of last month, Labour called for the move to be rescinded due to her attitude to the IRA.

Mr Parry said the nomination "offends me and many others deeply".

NI objections

Since then, some other victims here in Northern Ireland have been making their views known.

In a letter to the Belfast Newsletter, the South East Fermanagh Foundation - which represents many IRA victims - made its objections clear.

Downing Street says Ms Fox has addressed her comments about the Troubles.

Aileen Quinton, whose mother was killed in the IRA Enniskillen bombing and who herself stood as a Brexit Party candidate last year, described the peerage as a sign that the government's "contempt for innocent victims is getting more brazen".

By contrast, Ruth Dudley Edwards - normally a scourge of anyone associated with defending the IRA - sprang to the defence of Ms Fox.

In the Spectator magazine, Ms Dudley Edwards declared herself as a friend and admirer of the former MEP and argued that Ms Fox's critics should accept her statement that "I do not support or defend the IRA's killing of two young boys in Warrington in 1993".

"The war is over and the good guys lost"

Ms Fox declined to speak to me at length for this piece - instead pointing me to comments she made during last year's European election.

In this podcast with Toby Young (24 minutes in) Ms Fox accepts the result of the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement and condemns the violent activities of dissident republican groups since then.

However, she refuses to apologise for or renounce her previous opinions when she was a Revolutionary Communist activist.

Instead, she stands by what she describes as her "anti- imperialist" view and quotes approvingly a comment from Bernadette McAliskey made to BBC Radio Ulster's Talkback programme in 1994 that "the war is over and the good guys lost".

She has also talked about her attitude to the IRA in this podcast with Professor Anand Menon (17 minutes in).

One thing Ms Fox did tell me is that she disputes an account published by the veteran socialist Eamon McCann in "Hot Press" magazine.

However, Ms Fox says she doesn't know who Mr McCann is talking about as she didn't meet him until later in the decade.

Whatever the details, Ms Fox's journey from a member of a party which cheered on the Brighton bombing to someone nominated for a peerage (albeit not a Conservative one) by a Tory prime minister is pretty extraordinary.

Lord Caine, who advised a series of Conservative Northern Ireland Secretaries, told me the recent publicity about Ms Fox's peerage has done "little to reduce the very serious misgivings that a number of people share about her elevation to their Lordships' House".

'IRA baggage'

However, he added that "at least her new platform will hopefully provide an early opportunity for her to make clear her abhorrence of IRA, and all other, terrorism, which was never justified in Northern Ireland, along with her support for the principles of democracy and consent which are at the heart of the 1998 Agreement".

It's safe to say that previous Conservative prime ministers would probably have run a potentially controversial nomination like that of Ms Fox past the Northern Ireland Office, given its IRA baggage.

However, as the Sunday Times has pointed out, the former Brexit MEP has some very influential friends in the current Downing Street staff who may have assured Boris Johnson of the wisdom of the move .

Which makes one wonder whether - within the current Conservative administration - being "sound on Brexit" outweighs having a long memory regarding the IRA?

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