Tower block in London, on fire, flames here and there. First off, the story looked merely serious, nothing like what it would become. There’d been fires like that before. They looked spectacular, but they didn’t spread. But this one did. Sometime in the night in Australia, middle of the day there, the building burst into flame, became the inferno anticipated in innumerable disaster movies. The metal cladding made it glow, sent streaks of sheer yellow through the flames, as people gathered at the windows, screamed, waved frantically to rescuers, dropped babies out of windows, jumped themselves. In real time, the story of Grenfell Tower played out across the wires: a building in a public housing estate whose neighbourhood action group had warned would go up sooner or later, who had mused that it would have no action taken over it until there was a catastrophe. A building that had been refitted internally to crowd more people in without a sprinkler system being installed. A building part of old ’70s housing stock, a report on the fire safety conditions of which had been deferred by the Tory government twice. A building designed by its architects as a concrete shell that would limit any fire not merely to one floor, but to one corner of one floor, clad in a metal skin of the type that had already caught fire in other places round the world. A cladding added to the building, it has been said, to improve the appearance of it for the well-heeled residents of Kensington, the borough with the highest-priced houses in the country.
There will be all sorts of prevarications about the details, but the obvious point is that no building that houses many hundreds of people should be able to go up like a roman candle, an inverted hell. “You thought so many times about being in a car crash, now here it is,” the late J.G. Ballard remarked in Crash. He lived only a few blocks from the tower, near the sheer concrete curve of the Westway overpass, loving this bit of brutal London, his writing making visible this one truth: urban environments made out of power, force and the will to dominate contain their own catastrophe in their very fabric. Hence the uncanniness of the awful photos of the burning spike, negative Liberty’s torch. Like 9/11, it seems, in an instant, as if it already had happened, could never have not happened.
Six dead in the first reports, nine when you refreshed, then 12. The numbers will climb on the horizon, the stories will pile high. They will be of unbearable deaths, to add to the unbearable deaths of Borough Market. Those were made by men who had sought out the maximum amount of terror, horror, the grotesque, the awfulness of dying like this, in a world jaded, and a little accepting, of the sudden suicide bomb. The Grenfell Tower atrocity will yield plenty of those, but they will lack the element of intent. They are deaths of indifference, of austerity, of the self-satisfied retreat from a responsible state, of a right that has become what Thomas Frank has called the “wrecking crew”, people determined to govern badly in order to destroy faith in government altogether.
Borough Market brought people together, directed what anger there was at the grim subculture of Islamic State, punk-style: swaggering murder seeking out death. Even then, the low number of attacks on random Muslims was a credit to London’s residual common sense, its centredness. This crime will not have the same aftermath, if people have any spirit left in them. The anger will be as white-hot as the metal coming off the now-destroyed building. I’m not there anymore, but I am pretty confident that this will be it. The positive energy and triumph that attended the Corbyn Labour breakthrough will roll into something else. There was already a mass rally planned for the weekend, and the weekend after, to press Theresa May to go. Now there are revelations that a report on inadequate fire safety in public housing high rises was sat on for four years. The minister responsible was Gavin Barwell, who lost his seat last Thursday. He got a new job. Theresa May’s chief of staff? Gavin Barwell.
This hideous event has already had a political effect, further delaying the making of a deal between the Conservatives and the DUP, and thus delaying the already delayed Queen’s speech yet further. That means that the country taken to an election for strength and stability is without anything other than a vestigial government. For the DUP, it’s a political nightmare. They’re a working-class party that grew out of the Shankhill Road area of Belfast and gradually took over and annihilated the middle-class Ulster Unionist Party. Large numbers of their constituents live in towers like the Grenfell and areas like North Kensington. What sort of look will it be to be close in with a party that might well have allowed for dozens of hideous deaths and maimings through sheer indifference to the lives of the poor? There will be huge disquiet in DUP circles tonight.
But the agreement was starting to shake from the other side too. John Major, Tory PM from 1992 to 1997, is the sort of greyish suburban pooternik who might be supposed to have some sympathy for May and her predicament. But Major was also the PM who laid a lot of the groundwork for what would become the Good Friday peace agreement under the Blair government. Since peace in Northern Ireland remains one of his (and Blair’s) most solid achievements, an unalloyed good, he is keen to hold onto it. Thus he has come out against a formal agreement with the DUP, arguing that: “I think the peace process is fragile — people shouldn’t regard it is given … The danger is, however much any other government tries, they will not be seen to be impartial if they are locked into a deal in Westminster with one of the Northern Irish parties. You never know what way events will turn out. We cannot know if that impartiality is going to be crucial at some stage in the future.”
He’s right, of course. The DUP is, like Sinn Fein, the surviving political wing of an organisation that was once paramilitary in nature (the relations are not exact but close enough). The difference is that while the IRA had clear military goals, with a margin — a fairly wide margin — of sectarianism, murder and sheer nihilism, the Ulster paramilitary groups were sectarian and futile right from the start. Necessarily, because their politics is mythical, they contain every cult superstition, from evangelical creationism to climate change denialism. That makes them nightmare political partners. The more they are accommodated, the more the Proddy tail will wag the Tory dog.
That is of particular concern because the Good Friday agreement is particularly clear about the UK government being impartial, as regards relations between Unionist and Republican parties. This is part of the agreement’s hidden radicalism; it effectively undermines UK sovereignty over Northern Ireland. It is a prelude to the reunification of Ireland, and everyone knows it. Now, the DUP have a chance to do what they have sought for two decades: to undermine the undermining, a last chance to delay unification indefinitely.
This is all of the utmost urgency — hence, I think Major’s major intervention — because Stormont, the NI parliament, is currently suspended, power-sharing having collapsed over a huge rort by the Unionist parties involving the abuse of renewable energy initiatives. If Stormont remains suspended for three months and power-sharing between the two major parties — DUP and Sinn Fein — cannot be negotiated, direct rule from London returns. Politically, that is to Sinn Fein’s advantage, because it reminds any Catholics dallying with notions of independent candidates or post-Troubles political agendas where power over the statelet really lies.
But that move came before May announced her snap election, lost her goddamn majority, and lost her authority inside the Tory party, all on one warm summer Thursday night. She could govern in minority, but that makes here a hostage to her own Remain faction. The DUP is sought as an ally not against the opposition without, but within, a buffer against sell-out.
That, for Major, and for any serious-minded person, is beyond the pale. The famous Tory instinct for unity and survival is one thing. This edges on political nihilism, a unionist party that doesn’t care how much stress it will put on the web of conventions and understandings upon which unionism depends. The plain fact is that Ulster-groups armed action has never ceased; the Belfast-to-Dublin rail line is regularly symbolically vandalised (they could almost put it in the timetable), and violence and intimidation of Catholics continues in a way that does not happen from the other side, because Sinn Fein has consciously organised against it. Yet SF’s control of the republican movement is contingent on there being steady forward motion. Dissident group the “Real IRA” has never dissolved; it simply declared a “ceasefire” after the murderous Omagh bomb killed 30 people in 1998.
Major’s barely concealed point is that May is a suburban Tory, coming to power by a most unlikely process, and well out of her depth with veterans of deadly politics like the DUP’s leader Arlene Foster. The situation in Northern Ireland is quite possibly well beyond her real understanding. If she manages to blunderingly restart civil violence on UK soil, then the mixture of pity and contempt in which she is now held will turn to something else entirely. The London Sunday papers, still repositories of long-form investigative journalism, will be groaning with new information. My guess is there’s a significant chance May will go next week, even as grey ash and smoke, graves in the air, hangs still over the housing estates and 10 million pound terraces, the Commons and the Lords, the Palace and the Tower, the Kingdom.