In 1990 Peter Brooke declared that Britain had "no selfish strategic interest" in Northern Ireland. Mere words, one might think – designed to lure Sinn Féin into the political process, despite its shocking effect on unionist thinking.
But Brooke was actually reflecting something more basic. Because Britain does indeed have no strategic investment in Northern Ireland whatsoever.
British national interest, as reflected in the location of the key institutions of the British state, does not include Northern Ireland. The British state has placed none of its institutions in Northern Ireland. The six counties could be detached from the UK without any discomfort.
The devolved institutions are, of course, in Northern Ireland – but they have responsibility only for affairs in Northern Ireland. Of the bodies, institutions and agencies that have a UK-wide remit none are located in Northern Ireland.
The monarchy; the parliament; the cabinet office’s agencies, units and offices; the headquarters of the BBC; the British army, navy and air force, the agencies, offices and organisations of the military establishment; the Met Office; the UK Hydrographic Office; GCHQ; the Medicines Control Agency; the Home Office bodies with a UK-wide remit, including the Passport Agency; the UK Atomic Energy Agency; the Patent Office; the National Weights and Measures Laboratory; the British National Space Centre; the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency; the Civil Aviation Authority; the Royal Mint; the Bank of England; the British Standards Institution; the HMSO; the British Film Institute; the National Lottery Charities Board; the Film Council; the Crafts Council; the Millennium Commission; the list goes on and on. But one thing is constant – they are not headquartered in Northern Ireland.
The UK has not placed anything that is essential to its existence or its functioning in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is marginal to British existence. Administration of Northern Ireland is increasingly being transferred to Belfast – but nothing ‘British’ is moving to Belfast, apart from a secondary ‘fall back’ office of MI5. Clearly in the eyes of the British establishment, Northern Ireland is not really a fully integrated part of their country. It is detachable, it is optional, it is inessential.
So Peter Brooke in 1990 was merely stating the obvious. Britain has no strategic interest in Northern Ireland. It is merely a passenger in British affairs, never the driver. The vehicle – the British state – can and will carry on without interruption when Northern Ireland no longer forms part of that state. In fact, for most people and decision makers in Britain, the detachment of Northern Ireland will barely be noticed, because it was always a place apart, never really part of ‘their’ country. Even since 1990, that has not changed. Since then Northern Ireland, if anything, has been groomed for separation rather than integration.