Friday, 17 September 2021

Behind the 'it's up to the Cypriots what happens next' narrative

Britain has come in for a lot of stick recently in Cyprus over its perceived shielding of Turkey as the occupying power looks to colonise Varosha and find acceptance for its plan for a confederation of two independent states on the island.

To dispel displeasure at Britain’s behaviour, the country’s High Commissioner to Cyprus Stephen Lillie gave an interview to local newspaper Kathimerini on the state of UN negotiations. Unfortunately, his comments amounted to a tirade of disingenuousness, which concluded with this crass, if not shameless, statement: ‘Ultimately it’s up to the Cypriots to decide what happens next.’

Whenever a ‘the ball is in the Cypriots’ court'-type statement is made, you know the person making it is being dishonest and hypocritical and you have every reason to doubt their sincerity and good intentions.

The truth is – and this is the crux of the so-called Cyprus problem – Cypriots have never been in a position or given the opportunity to ‘decide what happens next’ to their country.

For a start, from the day it took over Cyprus in 1878, after 300 years of degrading Ottoman neglect, Britain did everything in its power to prevent Cypriots from deciding their own future. For the first 70 years of colonial rule, Cypriots (like nearly all colonial subjects) were deemed too backward and unsophisticated to have a decisive say in the running of their country.

Then, after the Second World War, when such palpably racist arguments were no longer acceptable, Britain denied Cypriots self-determination on the grounds that the island was strategically too important to Britain to allow it to slip from its grasp.

In 1954, colonial secretary Henry Hopkinson declared in the House of Commons regarding the future of Cyprus and increasingly vociferous Cypriot demands for self-determination that: ‘There are certain territories in the Commonwealth which, owing to their particular circumstances, can never expect to be fully independent.’

In pursuit of this policy of denying the right of Cypriots to decide for themselves, Britain embarked on a campaign of repression and introduced the idea of partitioning the island between Greece, Turkey and Britain. Too squeamish to put into practice its own idea, which would have involved, and did involve in 1974, ethnic cleansing and gross violations of human rights, Britain whipped up Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots to do its dirty work.

When British colonial rule was no longer viable, Britain – along with Turkey and Greece – imposed on Cypriots an unworkable constitution, which was supposed to effect independence but its main impetus was to satisfy external interests and prevent Cypriots from taking control of their affairs and deciding their future.

Since 1974, Britain has persistently sought to deny that the root cause of the so-called Cyprus issue is Turkey’s invasion and occupation of the island and claimed instead that it’s an intercommunal problem between Greek and Turkish Cypriots, which, in the subtext of this narrative, began when Britain’s civilising influence on these two feuding ethnic groups could no longer be maintained.

Thus, the idea that it’s for ‘Cypriots to decide what happens next’ is not only a grotesque fiction, it’s also a conspicuous attempt to absolve Britain of its responsibility for dividing and collapsing Cypriot society and Turkey of its responsibility for the invasion/occupation and for the current retrograde state of negotiations.

Lillie actually admits that Turkey is the real problem in Cyprus – that there is, in fact, as Claire Palley says, no Cyprus problem but a Turkey problem – when he states in the Kathimerini interview that the 2017 Crans Montana negotiations failed over ‘security and guarantee’ issues, i.e. issues that refer to Turkey’s demands that it retain – even expand – its presence and influence on the island.

Lillie insists that Britain’s role in Cyprus is benign, an honest broker, and, indeed, he suggests it can be helpful to the UN negotiations by sharing experience of the Northern Ireland peace process. But he will know that this process only got off the ground when the British government declared in 1990 that Britain had no ‘selfish strategic or economic interest’ in the province.

If the UK were genuine about wanting to contribute to Cyprus peace and reunification, it could, rather than indulging Turkey’s expansionist ambitions, start by acknowledging that Turkey needs to make a statement about Cyprus similar to the one the UK government made about Northern Ireland.