A kind of tribute to Lyra McKee: the need for a new conversation

What more can one say about the marvellous young journalist and human being who was Lyra McKee, and about her killing on Good Friday eve by the murderous losers of the so-called ‘New IRA’? As a former journalist from Northern Ireland I feel I should venture a few thoughts as a kind of tribute.

Lyra was an activist for LGBT rights whose compassionate understanding of human nature was very unusual for one so young. Selected by Forbes magazine as one of their ’30 under 30 in media in Europe’ three years ago, she was destined for great things. In a recent TED talk, she told the story of visiting a mosque in Orlando in Florida which, despite Islam’s opposition to homosexuality, had condemned the 2016 mass shooting in the Pulse gay nightclub in that city when some Christian churches were refusing to bury the victims because of their sexuality.  She said at the age of 16 she had rejected religion,and decided she no longer wanted to talk to religious people, because religion had shaped how gay people are treated in the world, and told them that their sexuality was evil, often to the point of driving them to take their own lives. She recounted how as a teenager in north Belfast she had bargained with God, asking him not to send her to hell because she was gay.

After her experience in Orlando she had realised that she needed once more to converse with people of faith: not to berate them, but to take on the Sisyphean task of trying to persuade them that traditional church thinking on homosexuality was wrong. She needed to have ‘difficult conversations’ with such people, ‘to fight for the hearts and minds of those who oppose us.’ She said that anybody she had met of formerly extreme views – anti-gay, neo-Nazi – who had changed those views had done so as a result of a conversation with an erstwhile opponent.

Conversation between opponents is what needs to happen now again in Northern Ireland. In 2015 Sinn Fein published a booklet entitled Uncomfortable Conversations, which featured a number of prominent Protestants, and the occasional unionist. It is now time for Sinn Fein to take the initiative again, to reach out to the DUP, to a more urgent uncomfortable conversation that would lead to the resumption of power-sharing government in the North. Because for all its many faults, nationalists and unionists working together for the common good of Northern Ireland – with the extremely difficult unity question postponed for the present – remains the only way to peace, prosperity and the beginning of reconciliation there.

As Seamus Mallon writes in his forthcoming memoir, A Shared Home Place (to be published by Lilliput Press on 17th May): ‘This is the great conundrum of this small patch of earth, a place which two different groups of people love and treasure as their common home, but neither of which have yet found a way to define and describe so that it includes the other as a co-equal partner and thus becomes a truly shared home place.’

Before we even begin to talk about Irish unity, we need a Northern Ireland which is starting to come to peace with itself. Lyra McKee’s tragic killing could open an unexpected door. Arlene Foster and Mary Lou McDonald standing together in solidarity with the people of Creggan on Good Friday was a good start. Now it is time for the two governments to step in. Given the lack of competence of the present Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, there is a particular responsibility on a skilled senior politician like the Tánaiste, Simon Coveney, to give a lead; to use the window of opportunity opened up by the six month delay in Britain leaving the EU to press hard for a resumption of inter-party talks to get Stormont restored.

If the main issues between the DUP and Sinn Fein are those which led to the breakdown 14 months ago – an Irish language act and marriage equality – they are surely not insurmountable (and by all accounts, Sinn Fein was at its most open and flexible in the weeks before that breakdown). Coveney needs to be on the phone to Karen Bradley as soon as the Easter break ends, with a proposal for new talks to begin once the local and European elections are over on 23 May.

Over the past two decades, the Department of Foreign Affairs has shown that it can be a good listener when it comes to the views and fears of grass roots unionists, whether in the form of small grants from its Reconciliation Funds or regular invitations to conferences and round-table meetings in the South. In this it has been ably abetted by the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation and the Kennedy Institute for Conflict Intervention at Maynooth University.

Now we need to fill the perilous vacuum that Northern nationalists’ fears of a new post-Brexit border and the absence of any agreed regional government have inevitably opened up –  and which the violent madmen of dissident republicanism are always keen to move into. The Irish government and its highly regarded diplomats – among the best in the world, former EU commission head José Manuel Barroso told the British Irish Association last year – need to step up to the plate and persuade the British once again to work with them on a renewed peacebuilding mission.

We desperately need the politicians to begin talking again. If necessary they must lead their reluctant grass-roots where they don’t want to go; that is what courageous leadership is about (they should take their cue from Gerry Adams, David Trimble or even the late Ian Paisley). Remember the Good Friday Agreement required 22 months of talking. With a bit of luck it won’t take that long this time. I have absolutely no illusions about the difficulties involved given the lack of trust between the two communities and their leaders. But wouldn’t the greatest tribute to the brave and brilliant young woman who was Lyra McKee be a resumed power-sharing government in Belfast by October? I may be a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.



Posted in General, Northern Ireland | 1 Comment

Letter from Virginia: a time is coming when Ulster Protestants will have to be brave and smart

I have just returned from a stay in the US state of Virginia, mostly in the town of Lexington in the county of Rockbridge. Rockbridge is one of the two American counties which claim the highest proportion of inhabitants descended from the 250,000 Ulster Presbyterians who settled in the USA in the 18th century.

To borrow W.B.Yeats’ phrase about another kind of Irish Protestant, these were “no petty people”. They have provided America with no fewer than 17 presidents, from Andrew Jackson to George W.Bush; military greats like John Paul Jones, Ulysses S. Grant and ‘Stonewall’ Jackson; business titans like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller; frontiersmen like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett; and writers like Edgar Allen Poe and Washington Irving.

The so-called ‘Scotch-Irish’ (named because they were Scottish ‘planters’ in Ulster from 1610 onwards who left for America after 1717 because of economic depression, rack-renting and religious persecution) were notable, in particular, for their role in spearheading migration into the uncharted territories south and west of Pennsylvania, Virginia and the Carolinas. In his book The Winning of the West, future president Theodore Roosevelt wrote:

‘That these Irish Presbyterians were a bold and hardy race is proved by their at once pushing past the settled regions, and plunging into the wilderness as the leaders of the white advance. They were the first and last set of immigrants to do this; all others have merely followed in the wake of their predecessors. But, indeed, they were fitted to be Americans from the very start; they were kinsfolk of the Covenanters; they deemed it a religious duty to interpret their own Bible, and held for a divine right the election of their own clergy. For generations their whole ecclesiastic and scholastic systems had been fundamentally democratic.’

These adventurous and combative people were no friends of the native Americans. They were determined to seize the rich lands of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and beyond. Many of them became famous (now more likely to be infamous) as Indian fighters. James G. Leyburn, author of the authoritative modern work on the Scotch-Irish, called them ‘quick-tempered, impetuous, inclined to work by fits and starts, reckless, too much given to drinking. No contemporary observer praised them as model farmers.’¹

However, when it came to providing warriors for the American Revolution and War of Independence, they were ‘the very backbone of Washington’s army’. Another historian described them as ‘rebellious against anything that in their eyes bore the resemblance of injustice, we find these men readiest among the ready on the battlefields of the Revolution. If they had their faults, a lack of patriotism or of courage was not among the number. Amongst them were to be found men of education, intelligence and virtue.’ They showed themselves to be able soldiers: ‘rough, ingenious, adaptable, ready to endure hardship.’

Because of their Calvinist religion, these were conservative revolutionaries. They may have embodied the American values of individualism, adventure and risk-taking, but once they settled in a place like the Valley of Virginia their old-fashioned, Bible-believing Scottish Presbyterianism (and its ministers) led, in Leyburn’s words, to ‘stability, viable institutions, community control of morality, amenities of social intercourse, decency and order, the worth of tradition.”

There is now no more settled place in the US than Lexington, Virginia: a prosperous town of 7,000 people. It has two universities (the Presbyterians, with their emphasis on literacy so as to read the Bible, were also in the lead when it came to setting up schools and universities): the Virginia Military Institute, among whose graduates is George C. Marshall, chief of staff of US forces in World War Two and creator of Marshall Aid to reconstruct Europe in the aftermath of that war; and Washington and Lee, once presided over by Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate forces in the American Civil War. It has numerous well-attended churches, lots of handsome old houses and a large population of retired people. Both Robert E. Lee and fellow Confederate general Stonewall Jackson are buried here.

Despite its Confederate past, Lexington is proud of its commitment to racial equality and local democracy. Another graduate of Virginia Military Institute is Jonathan Daniels, seminarian, civil rights activist and Anglican martyr, who was shot dead in Alabama in 1965 by a white extremist vigilante while trying to shield a 17 year old black girl. On my first afternoon in the town I was in the audience at a public discussion at Washington and Lee between its black professor of history, who had started in the university as a 19 year old janitor, and a young white Methodist minister who was a descendant of Robert E. Lee, about racism and his ancestor’s white supremacist beliefs, which he called “American’s original sin.”

That evening I attended a meeting of the town’s planning commission in a local school, listening to arguments for and against its residents being allowed to keep chickens in their backyards. The commission, made up of local citizens (including my friend John Driscoll, founding director of the formerly Armagh-based and cross-border International Centre for Local and Regional Development), heard from a dozen people for and against – including a 12 year old girl – before making a recommendation to the town council. It was a civilised, tolerant, occasionally sharp-tongued exchange that was an admirable example of local democracy in action.

It all made me think of my Presbyterian home place, Northern Ireland, where  democracy (with exceptions at a very local level) is currently suspended, and where inter-community relations (our version of race relations) are once again turning toxic. It made me wonder what the courageous Ulster pioneers who were so crucial to the birth and expansion of the American nation would have made of the present situation in the North, 21 years after the Good Friday Agreement held out a brief, fragile hope of peace, prosperity and reconciliation.

My thoughts led me to three conclusions. Firstly, Brexit has shown once again how the political leadership of Ulster Unionism has an uncanny ability to get it wrong. Rather than identify with the British mainstream, which favours as soft an exit as possible from the European Union, the DUP opted to line up alongside the small group of hopeless reactionaries in favour of crashing out without a deal. Now that a soft Brexit is the most probable outcome following the six month extension of Britain’s EU membership, the largest unionist party needs to get back urgently to the business of restoring devolved power-sharing government at Stormont. Perhaps under a new leader like Jeffrey Donaldson it will be able to find enough generosity within its fearful soul to give way on the relatively marginal issues – the Irish language and marriage equality – that blocked agreement 14 months ago.

Secondly, if it can’t be generous, the DUP should at least realise that unionism’s self-preservation depends on it working day and night to persuade the North’s Catholics that for the foreseeable future their best interests continue to lie as part of the UK. This will not be an easy task, given the disillusion with the Brexit disaster and with the DUP’s record in the post-2007 partnership arrangements among many in that community. Unionism has already lost its majority in Stormont. In the foreseeable future it will almost certainly lose its demographic majority. It only has a few short years to show the wisdom and generosity required to make Northern Ireland a ‘shared home place’ (the title of a forthcoming memoir by Seamus Mallon) before the stark facts of population change take that opportunity out of its hands.

Thirdly, an extremely difficult and historic turning point may be approaching which will require it to think hard about some kind of accommodation with the Republic. That state, led by the ultra-pragmatic and diplomatically skilled Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney, is open for such an accommodation. Varadkar has made clear on a number of occasions his opposition to forcing Northern Protestants into a united Ireland through a narrow majority in a Border Poll. Equally, he has ruled out any coalition with Sinn Fein in a future government in Dublin. His government’s tough stance on the backstop to prevent a hard border was necessary to defend peace and prosperity on the island of Ireland (I fully accept that now, given the chaos and incompetence in London, having earlier been critical of its unwavering line).

Once that issue is settled – as I believe it will be as part of agreement based on or around a new UK-EU customs union – he will be free to turn his attention to the North. That will be the time for a courageous unionist leader to open a back channel to the Taoiseach and his government, perhaps around a proposal for an eventual confederal Ireland incorporating a new form of half-British province in the North. But I won’t be holding my breath.

Would those pragmatic Presbyterians of 18th century Virginia have approved of such an approach? I don’t know. They were smart deal-makers as well as brave frontier people. And it will take immense reserves of smartness, as well as bravery, to ensure that the next phase of Irish history is not another collapse into renewed violence.

¹  The Scotch-Irish: a Social History (University of North Carolina, 1962)

Posted in General, Northern Ireland, Protestantism, unionism and loyalism, Views from abroad | 1 Comment

Mutual contempt and ignorance are no way to build relations between peoples (especially in Ireland)

As the crisis deepens in Britain, the old negative stereotypes are back. The right-wing British press is full of fury at the treacherous role of the Irish in the ‘backstop’ to keep the UK hobbled and handcuffed indefinitely to the EU, thus depriving it of huge opportunities to strike its own trade deals around the world. Here in Dublin the consensus is that Britain is not just arrogant and untrustworthy but now also utterly incompetent, and the only way to keep the old imperial enemy in check, and thus to avoid a hard border, is to tie her down in the backstop’s legal knots. Mutual suspicion and contempt seem, once again, to be the flavours of the season.

For somebody who watched (and occasionally played a tiny part in) the blessed work of the past two decades of ensuring that relations on this island and between these islands were as warm and mutually beneficial as possible to maximise peace and reconciliation in the North, this is heartbreaking. The change for the worse is, of course, almost entirely down to the 2016 referendum. I was struck by a recent article by a Leave campaign staffer, Oliver Norgrove (I wonder if he is related to the Protestant republican Norgrove family who participated in the 1916 Rising) in which he admitted that ‘the big Brexit dream was brought to its knees thanks to one of the UK’s most persisting political ailments: its tendency to ignore the interests of Northern Ireland.’ He admitted to being ‘immensely disappointed and rather ashamed’ of the Leave campaign’s ‘huge failing…simply not to think about the impact of the Border on the merits of leaving the EU.’¹

Since I am writing this five days before the original 29th March ‘no deal’ deadline – now extended to 12th April – and will tomorrow escape to the heart of Trump’s America for a fortnight, that’s all I plan to say about Brexit for the moment. Except to repeat that this toxic issue has poisoned both British-Irish and North-South relations to an extent I have not seen for over 30  years.

For the 18 years up to 2016 we were in a good place, as the Dublin and London governments worked together, within the overlapping frameworks of the Good Friday Agreement and the EU, to manage the running sore that is Northern Ireland, while the new Northern institutions just about managed power-sharing, however flawed, between the ancient foes. Sir Ivan Rogers, the UK’s permanent representative to the EU until he resigned in 2017,  said in Dublin last week: “Anglo-Irish relations before this [Brexit] process got under way had been the best they have been in my professional lifetime, maybe the best they have been in several generations, if not centuries…I think the mutual animosity over the backstop question and how it’s been handled by the respective capitals has soured the mood…It has become a really neuralgic issue.”²

If British-Irish relations have soured, relations between Dublin and the unionists have frozen. Last August former First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson described a pre-2016 atmosphere of friendship, conviviality and comradeship between Dublin and London, and unionists and nationalists working “within a framework of relationships…with mutually beneficial outcomes.” A combination of the DUP, led by its most paranoid, ‘little Britisher’ elements, holding the hapless Theresa May to ransom, and Dublin’s unwavering insistence on the backstop and nothing but the backstop, has put paid to that.

There are other unionists in Northern Ireland who were among the 56% of people there who voted against Brexit. However we in the Republic rarely if ever hear from them. The Southern press and media simply do not feature sensible, moderate and intelligent unionists – pro-European and open to much closer relations with the South – discussing this existential topic (or any other topic).

Here are some prominent Northern people with unionist views and those attractive characteristics whom I know personally but I never see nor hear in Dublin: the pro-Remain independent unionist MP Lady Sylvia Hermon; Mike Nesbitt, former Ulster Unionist party leader, and his MLA colleagues Steve Aiken and Doug Beattie; John McCallister, former UUP deputy leader and senior farmers’ union official;  academics Paul Bew, Peter Shirlow and Arthur Aughey; hotelier Howard Hastings and small business spokeswoman Tina McKenzie;  women’s rights campaigner Dawn Purvis; Belfast News Letter journalist Sam McBride, the world expert on the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal; artist and cartoonist Brian John Spencer. And what about party leaders? When was the last time we heard Alliance leader Naomi Long on the Southern media? For my money this working class woman from east Belfast is one of the smartest, most articulate and most courageous political leaders on this island (her courage particularly evident during the 2012-13 Belfast flags protest).

I know that some (although not all) of these people are not particularly interested in having their views heard south of the Border. And that, in the words of one former US ambassador to Ireland, “unionism’s PR is crap.” But is it not part of the remit of a public broadcaster like RTE and a so-called newspaper of record like the Irish Times to reflect the views of all the people on this island, however uncomfortable this may be for the cosy nationalist consensus down here?

This almost total lack of interest in unionist Northern Ireland is evident also in Southern politics. The Oireachtas Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement Committee would have been an ideal forum for moderate unionists like Mike Nesbitt and Steve Aiken to air and debate their views. However for too long it was chaired by the maverick ultra-nationalist Fianna Fail senator Mark Daly, who turned it into a vehicle for discussing how to move speedily towards Irish unity, which meant, of course, that no unionist would go anywhere near it. Daly, like too many in Sinn Fein, is one of those who hold the absurd and archaic view that once we achieve a united Ireland, unionism, as a philosophy passionately espoused by 900,000 people, will simply disappear.

That most reconciling and pro-Irish of unionists, the former rugby international and anti-sectarianism activist Trevor Ringland, has now declared that with the recent upsurge of divisive nationalist rhetoric in the North, ‘there’s no space in their Ireland’ for moderate unionists like him. ‘Nationalists have become emboldened because of the Brexit uncertainties and the renewed hype around calls for a Border Poll. People are believing their own rhetoric without facing up to the reality that our future is intertwined, and the only way we can succeed socially and economically is by making Northern Ireland work and by great relations across this island and between these islands.’³

Let me leave the last word to one of the wisest analysts of North-South relations, Bob Collins, who as former director-general of RTE and chief commissioner of the Northern Ireland Equality Authority, is a rare public figure who knows both jurisdictions intimately. In a conversation in 2015, Collins said: ‘One of the crucial things that needs to happen if there is ever going to be a united Ireland is that the South has to develop an interest in and understanding of (I won’t say an affection for), but at the very least an accommodation with unionism. I don’t see the remotest evidence that this is likely to engage the interest of other than a very few. And that’s the one essential sine qua non of any consideration of a united Ireland.’

¹ ‘Why Brexiteers forgot about the Border’, Irish Times, 20 March

² ‘Future state of Anglo-Irish relations a ‘major worry’, Irish Times, 21 March

³  Trevor Ringland: No space in new Ireland for me’, News Letter, 23 March

Posted in British-Irish relations, General, Northern Ireland, Protestantism, unionism and loyalism, Republic of Ireland | 3 Comments

Great green ideas to fire a new Irish industrial revolution

One of my New Year’s resolutions for 2019 is to write more about climate change and the environment. The reasons are: firstly, this is quite simply the existential issue of our age, and one that our politicians in both Irish jurisdictions largely ignore; secondly, there is only so much one can write about people retreating to their tribal trenches in Brexit-bewitched Northern Ireland; and thirdly, maybe, just maybe, the huge threat of climate change is one that could get both politicians and people on this island working together.

I will be expanding my coverage of our imperilled island – and imperilled world  –   through interviews with a range of leaders of opinion in this vital area. I am starting with the Green Party leader in the Republic, Eamon Ryan. It is wonderfully refreshing to meet a political leader who is so idealistic, hopeful in the face of apparently insurmountable obstacles, and fizzing with new ideas.

Ryan believes the one thing the Irish government – a disgraceful laggard in European terms when it comes to climate change action – can do immediately is to agree to People Before Profit TD Brid Smyth’s bill to stop the government issuing any more oil and gas exploration licences off the Irish coast. This is currently in committee stage in the Oireachtas despite the government’s determined opposition.  ‘We know that four-fifths of already discovered fossil fuel reserves will have to stay in the ground if we are to avoid runaway climate change’, says Ryan. ‘There have been 140 attempts to drill for oil and gas in Irish waters, up to 200 miles out into the Atlantic, at a cost of around €100 million a go, and only three small pockets of gas have been discovered. We should be spending those sums on investing instead in renewable energy – wind and wave –  bringing it ashore on the west coast, and using it to build new industries there.’

He concedes that stopping this unsuccessful and expensive policy won’t help Ireland meet its immediate carbon reduction targets. ‘But it will send a signal, internationally and to the Irish public, that we know that in the next decade and a half we have to stop the use of of fossil fuels and replace them with a more earth-protecting alternative.’ He wants the money saved on stopping oil and gas exploration to go towards three major projects, and he is nothing if not ambitious.

Firstly, there is offshore wind, which he says is now competitive in price. Here he proposes a major offshore wind farm in the Irish Sea (similar to the General Electric-owned farm off Arklow but bigger), that would also connect, through the Isle of Man, with the British grid. Secondly, he wants the government to support investment in the kind of very large floating wind turbines in the Atlantic that have been pioneered off the coasts of Norway and the north of Scotland (and in the US, China and Japan). ‘Our sea area is 10 times as large as our land area, and we now know, with reasonable certainty, that over the next 10-15 years we could deploy and become good at this kind of large-scale technology.’

Thirdly he wants the electrification of the heating systems in the million Irish homes with oil-fired central heating through the installation of heat pumps. Heat pumps use a small amount of energy to pull heat out of the air and ground to heat a well-insulated house or other building, and can also be reversed to cool such a building. Ryan stresses that this is not a small or cheap project, with a cost of €40,000 per house for such ‘retrofitting’. But over time it would greatly reduce the €6 billion per year we currently spend on importing oil and gas from faraway places like Russia and Saudi Arabia. He estimates the cost of retrofitting every social house and public building (notably schools and hospitals) in the country at €50 billion. Ireland would be one of the first countries in the world to tackle energy efficiency in buildings on this enormous scale. And we are starting from an extremely low base: only around a hundred houses every year are retrofitted at present, with even the not very ambitious National Development Plan saying this must rise to 45,000 houses per annum by 2021.

He also has radical ideas about transport. ‘We need a total change from the car-based, urban sprawl model. Electric cars are not a complete answer because even their manufacture consumes a large amount of resources. We need to radically improve and increase the cycling infrastructure, with a first priority being the ability of every child to cycle safely to school. We have to aim to emulate cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen; in the latter 30% of all trips are by bike, with the aim being to reach 50%. The figure in Dublin is 4-5%, so we need a tenfold increase in the amount of cycling.’ This will lead, among other things, to a major reduction in congestion in our car-clogged capital (a recent survey showed that Dublin drivers travel at the slowest city centre speeds in the world) and major health benefits for its inhabitants.

Ryan dreams of an Irish version of the Green New Deal, the policy programme American Democrats are currently debating which aims to wean the US off fossil fuels, curb greenhouse gas emissions and at the same time provide well-paid jobs in clean energy industries. He points out that his proposed retrofitting programme would require thousands of builders, engineers, electricians, plumbers and carpenters over the next  20 years to convert hundreds of thousands of houses. This will lead to a huge demand for skilled labour at a time when so much work is unskilled, precarious and threatened by automation and robotics. Because much of this new building work will be outside Dublin, it will not worsen the already overheated labour market in the capital’s construction sector.

He foresees young people from Kerry and Limerick and Galway  and Donegal being attracted back from England and Australia to work on retrofitting projects in their home places and being able to afford to move back to those areas to live. He would like to see such a retrofitting programme start with social and rural housing, to convince people of modest means and living in isolated communities of its value for them.

The Green Party leader admits that to have any chance of beginning to see his dreams turn into reality, it needs to double its 2-3% electoral support so as to hold the balance of power and thus force the larger parties to take on at least some of its visionary programme. This is what the German Greens have done successfully, so that they are now winning 18-20% of the vote in states like Bavaria and Hesse, and forming part of governing coalitions in nine of Germany’s 16 state legislatures.

Ryan believes this is partly because they are listening to rural voters’ concerns, and making sure, for example, that farmer-owned local energy collectives get high prices for the wind and solar energy they produce. [‘That’s a very small example’, says a friend who knows Germany well. ‘The German Green vote is mainly an urban one and attracts those who are cosmopolitan and internationalist, but not neo-liberal, and who believe important questions like climate change, refugees and organised crime can best be dealt with by international organisations, above all the EU’].

Green parties vary markedly from country to country, but agree on one thing: ‘they have to make the new green economy a positive ‘we’ story that is both about quality of life and strength of community,’ says Ryan. However he recognises that the ‘Yellow Jackets’ – the people left behind by economic progress who can’t think beyond next week, let alone 12 years into a future of climate crisis – represent a real challenge for the Greens, as for all established political parties. ‘We have to listen to them, rather than look down on them, unlike a classic liberal elitist like Macron.’

He accepts that winning over the farming community will be a particular hurdle in Ireland. But he maintains that the current system based largely on meat and dairy is not good for its producers, with beef farmers, for example, earning an annual average wage of just €13,000. He has faith that a future Common Agricultural Policy, focused on protecting biodiversity and water quality and storing carbon, will serve the interests of the farmers rather than – at present – those of the big supermarket chains. As a non-expert, I remain a sceptic in this area.

The greatest challenge is for young people. The youth climate strike, in which Irish schoolchildren are playing their part, is the inspiration of the moment. The British environmental writer George Monbiot says the youth strikers need a short, simple story which goes something like this: ‘The world has been thrown into climate chaos, caused by fossil fuel companies, the billionaires who profit from them and the politicians they have bought. But we, the young heroes, will confront these oligarchs, using our moral authority to create a movement so big and politically dangerous that our governments are forced to shut down the fossil economy and restore the benign conditions in which humans and other species can thrive.’ It’s a big ask for schoolchildren and teenagers, a drastic reversal of the roles of caring adults and cared-for children. Ryan adds that young people will be concerned about more than the environment. They want to know about a safe and benign future, asking not only ‘What will I be doing in 12 years when I am living in an age of floods, drought, extreme heat and poverty?’ but also ‘What will I work at? How will I get a home? How will I have a family?’

For him too it is about the economy as well as the environment: ‘The old ways which saw Europe buying in resources from the rest of the world are at risk now: from China in manufacturing and the US in software development. Europe is in danger of doing nothing but consuming. We have to create new industries, particularly in the green economy, which are hyper-efficient and low carbon. Europe has a real opportunity to take a lead here.’

The Greens, as an all-Ireland party, also have a strong North-South dimension, and it is a constructive and practical one. Ryan reminded me that during his time as Minister for Energy and Natural Resources between 2007 and 2011 he worked with Nigel Dodds and then Arlene Foster to develop an all-island electricity market, an all-island grid and a single all-island supply company, all with minimum controversy.

One can see how he worked well with DUP ministers. ‘My vision of an electricity system balanced between variable renewable energy supply and variable demand won’t work if we try to do it on this island alone – it has to be on a larger scale, involving inter-connectors with Britain and France. In the Brexit talks, we are stuck on the border issue, the sovereignty issue. Nobody is stuck on energy. Nobody disagrees that we must continue energy cooperation. Britain, whose energy prices are 50% higher than the EU average, knows that the only way it will keep its electricity prices down is through an inter-connector with the continent. We are equally pragmatic, and also know that most of our gas comes from the UK.’

Posted in General, The island environment | 1 Comment

Is it time for the Irish government to compromise on the backstop?

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have been a lonely voice over the past 15 months expressing concern over the Irish government’s steely ‘ not an inch’ strategy over the so-called ‘backstop’, the insurance policy to ensure there will be no hard border caused by the British withdrawal from the EU.

My motivation was a relatively narrowly-focused one, based on concern that the relationships that are so vital to maintaining peace and ensuring progress in the North – between the Irish and British governments, and between the former and the DUP – are not damaged in the fall-out from Brexit.  However I was also impressed by the arguments of economist and Irish Independent columnist Dan O’ Brien, who argued that the negative effects of a no-deal Brexit were likely to be greater for Ireland than for Britain, for two main reasons: firstly, Ireland is more than three times more dependent on trade with the rest of the world than the UK is; and secondly, Irish exports to the UK relative to the size of our economy are greater than UK exports to the whole of the EU relative to the size of their economy.

I have to say that two and a half years after the Brexit referendum vote, relations between Dublin, London and Belfast seem to me worse than they have been for most of the past 30 years. The Irish government’s unwavering insistence on the backstop has contributed to this. In Britain the backstop has emerged as the most hated element in Theresa May’s draft Withdrawal Agreement, overwhelmingly rejected by the House of Commons. The danger has now become that if the backstop precipitates a no-deal Brexit, we will end up with the very border the backstop is designed to avoid.

I am no expert on the witches’ brew that is Brexit. But I hope I am not mistaken in seeing a small chink of light in the chaos and darkness that surrounds this issue five weeks from a possible no-deal ‘crash out’ on 29 March. The light comes from reading recent articles by two leading Irish journalists and a Northern Irish commentator.

This is complex stuff, so please bear with me. One has to start with the superbly well-informed RTE Brussels correspondent, Tony Connelly. In a blog earlier this month¹ Connelly sketched the outline of a possible deal between London and Brussels. He says the British side accept that weaving a way through the tangle of fiendishly complicated issues will not be easy, especially given that Ireland and the EU are adamant that the Withdrawal Agreement cannot be re-opened nor the backstop changed.

Therefore the new emphasis is on “re-balancing” so as to remove the “trap” which the British fear, because it is part of the legally binding Withdrawal Agreement, will keep them in the backstop, and therefore the Customs Union, indefinitely. The Political Declaration,which will point the way towards the future UK-EU trade relationship and thus provide a pathway for the UK out of the backstop, is non-binding.  There need to be further assurances “to re-balance this asymmetry between the political commitments and the legal text”, one British source told Connelly. The lawyers, with their versatile use of language, will play a key role here, notably UK Attorney General Geoffrey Cox.

The British want a time limit or an exit clause from the backstop to act as real incentive for both sides to push hard and soon towards a “frictionless” future trade deal, which would remove the risk of a hard Irish border, and therefore the need for the backstop. There is a fundamental dilemma for the UK here: it needs a high level of customs and regulatory alignment in order to keep the Irish border as invisible as possible, while wanting the freedom to negotiate its own trade deals around the world. The British, not for the first time, are pushing for two regulatory spheres, side by side, similar but not identical, but with an ambiguous degree of compliance and enforcement (ambiguous because they don’t want the European Court of Justice as the sole arbitrator of whether or not the Irish border remains invisible and whether customs rules can be waived at their borders). So far the EU have resisted this idea.

Connelly says the British side admits that such “parallel tracks” are complex, but “amid the fog of where we go next, this seems to be the plan.” A key element will be finding “a way through this that Dublin feels comfortable with”, one Brussels source told him. “We have to try and disentangle the longer-term commitment to no hard border and this particular set of arrangements.”

The Irish government has rejected any time limit or exit clause as rendering the backstop insurance policy meaningless. Perhaps they will  have to climb down a little. The sometimes erratic Irish Times Northern commentator, Newton Emerson, has argued – correctly in this instance  – that the backstop would not come into effect until the end of the transition period on 31 December 2020, a deadline which EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier has said could be extended for up to two years.² This could take a five year backstop (which Emerson suggests would be acceptable to the DUP) to the end of 2027, nearly nine years away. “Is the Irish government seriously suggesting that finding a way around a hard border would take nine years to negotiate with a Withdrawal Agreement in place?” he asks.

The former Irish Times political correspondent, Stephen Collins, always a knowledgeable and sensible voice, says “it is clearly in the interests of the UK, Ireland and the EU that the backstop should not prevent them from getting the kind of Brexit that would suit them all.”³ He says “a legal instrument clarifying the meaning of that [Withdrawal] Agreement as it relates to the backstop is being touted as the way around the problem.”

He believes “some redefining of the backstop would boost the chances of a reasonable deal being accepted” by the House of Commons. To get it through the Commons, any legal clarification would be sold as a significant success by the British government. He goes on: “While it would obviously be difficult for the Irish government and the EU to bite their tongues in that scenario, it would be in both their interests not to be too blunt. If the British want to foster a perception that the backstop has been changed, even if any clarification only amounts to a restatement of the obvious, so be it. While there may be some political difficulties for the Irish government in appearing to accept a compromise, it would be much more dangerous in the longer term to become wedded to a hardline stance for fear of losing face. In the coming weeks Taoiseach Leo Varadkar will have to be careful not to say or do anything to block off possible avenues of retreat for the British.” He concludes: “Knowing when it is time to pull back, or at least give the appearance of doing so, will be the real test of whether he has what it takes to be a statesman.”

If we don’t find some way to make the politics of compromise work in the next five weeks, we are facing not only a probable economic cataclysm in both our islands, but possibly seeing our neighbouring state in the hands of leaders with the deepest hue of reactionary politics: serial liars and charlatans like Boris Johnson and snooty far-right eccentrics like Jacob Rees Mogg. It is a terrifying and deeply depressing thought.

¹ ‘Hell, high water and the return of Chequers’, 9 February

² ‘There is a backstop deal to be done’, 24 January

³ ‘De Valera’s empty formula could solve UK’s Brexit impasse’, 21 February







Posted in General | 1 Comment

Invisibility and inertia: the disappointing story of North-South cooperation

Whatever has happened to North-South cooperation in recent years? As somebody who was intimately involved in it for 14 years, it seems to me to have become almost invisible. The North South Ministerial Council, set up by the Good Friday Agreement to oversee it, is suspended. I hear occasional radio adverts from InterTradeIreland offering small grants to help businesses get ready for Brexit. Tourism Ireland is the only one of the seven North-South bodies that is clearly a success story. When I read about 156 North-South cooperation programmes listed in a recent British government report, I count the 40 or so I have come across and wonder how significant the others are. One thing is certain: in the words of Seamus Mallon, one of their great champions in the late 1990s, they are “grossly underdeveloped.”

Where, for example, is the evidence of progress in those areas where it just plain common sense to have greater practical cooperation on this small island: in agriculture, health, energy, tourism, and education? The potential both for major economies of scale and greater mutual understanding here are immense. What I can see in these areas is mainly missed opportunities.Let us take them one by one.

Agriculture, with its huge importance to the economies of both North and South, is an obvious area for greater cooperation. There was a high level of cooperation between the two Departments of Agriculture during the 2001 foot and mouth disease crisis. Back then there was a lot of discussion between Belfast and Dublin about an all-island animal health policy which would help Irish farmers, north and south, to trade internationally from a disease-free island; bring localised outbreaks of animal disease quickly under control; and react jointly to common animal health problems in the farming industry. So what has happened to that eminently sensible proposal?

Joint marketing is another area that makes great sense. Northern farmers and food processors could benefit enormously if their produce was sold as Irish-made in expanding markets in Europe and Asia. Nobody in most of those countries has the slightest idea about the existence of the border; what they know about is the clean, ‘green’ image of Irish food, which has contributed to a spectacular growth in its export performance in recent decades. And a lot of Irish food is produced on a cross-border basis.

Take the example of poultry, an important sector in the border region. Here eggs might be laid in the North, hatched in the Republic, and then the birds sent back across the border for ‘rearing’. Yet the Department of Agriculture in Dublin and Bord Bia, the state’s food marketing body, do not recognise any duck, turkey or chicken with any part of its processing based in Northern Ireland as Irish for export purposes. Would it not make sense for the two Departments of Agriculture to work together to maximise the export potential of farmers in the whole island by selling such produce as Irish in the big food fairs around the world? The same goes for beef, lamb, milk and all their highly valuable processed by-products.

It is no coincidence that the past 20 years has seen most of the big food processing companies in the South expanding their operations into Northern Ireland, so that most supply chains in the industry in both jurisdictions are now cross-border. They recognise that this is now effectively an all-island industry. The government departments in Dublin and Belfast should have followed suit long ago, although such a joint approach will become extremely difficult after Brexit.

Health is a key issue in a society, north and south, which by European standards is both rural and ill-served by public transport (making hospital access often very difficult). The most successful North-South network here is Cooperation and Working Together (CAWT), the partnership of health boards and trusts set up in 1992 to serve the whole border region between Derry and Dundalk. It has used EU funding to undertake and provide a range of cross-border projects and services in acute care, primary care, family and child care, learning disabilities, health promotion, public health and mental health in that peripheral region. More than 50,000 people have benefited from the cross-border services it has pioneered in areas like radiotherapy, cardiology, ENT and paediatric heart surgery. It has been singled out by the European Commission as a model for cross-border health cooperation in Europe.

However CAWT’s successful example has not been followed elsewhere. This is a major missed opportunity for North-South health cooperation. As one senior Northern Ireland official of my acquaintance put it recently: “Neither health system is in good shape, but some rationalisation could have been done together. The cross-border justification could have been used: ‘this has to happen on a cross-border basis – otherwise it won’t happen’. 60% of people on the island live in the Dublin-Belfast corridor, yet there is no sense of any coordinated services or activities there.”

Another key sector is energy, which ironically was not designated as an area for cooperation under the Good Friday Agreement, but where the electricity companies have acted as a major commercial driver. This saw the extension of the South’s natural gas pipeline network to the North in 2005; the establishment of an all-island (wholesale) electricity market in 2007 and an all-island electricity grid in 2008; and finally, the Republic’s state-owned electricity company, the Electricity Supply Board, buying the North’s largest supplier, Northern Ireland Electricity, in 2010. These highly complex linked operations were accomplished successfully with little publicity and little opposition from unionist politicians impressed by the strong economic arguments for them.

As we move from oil and coal-fired electricity to renewable energy from a wide variety of natural sources, there must be huge potential for further cooperation – and exporting to international markets – in this island of high winds and big waves and strong tides. At a time when the need to combat catastrophic climate change by switching to sustainable energy is becoming more and more urgent, this is an example where cooperation on the island could help in a small way to protect the planet!

Tourism Ireland, which markets tourism on the whole island overseas, is an outstanding example of how a successful all-Ireland service industry can be sold abroad. The World Economic Forum has put Ireland third in the world when it comes to overseas tourism marketing. Northern Ireland has benefited spectacularly from its work. Over a million people visited the Giant’s Causeway in 2018 compared to just over 100,000 in the mid-1980s. Belfast’s Titanic Centre had 850,000 visitors. In 2017 there were 2.2 million tourists to Northern Ireland, up 70% over the previous eight years.

In this sector the border simply does not make sense. Few if any overseas tourists care or even know about it. Yet the hugely successful Wild Atlantic Way initiative to promote the beautiful south and west coasts has to stop in Donegal: the overwhelming logic is that it should continue along the Causeway Coast in County Antrim. Similarly, the Ireland’s Ancient East campaign, to promote 5,000 years of history and archaeology, has to exclude the rich ancient sites of Armagh and Down. The new Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands programme, in the Shannon basin, cannot include Fermanagh. What possible reason can there be for not replicating our impressive overseas marketing of Ireland abroad, by putting in place the efficiencies and economies of scale that would result from the establishment of one tourist board for the whole island at home? As the head of Tourism Ireland, Niall Gibbons says: “Peace brings tourism and tourism brings peace; they go hand in hand.”

Education can play a vital role in ensuring that the barriers of mutual ignorance and misunderstanding – between North and South, unionists and nationalists – which my generation and previous generations suffered from, do not endure. In the 25 years from the late 1980s onwards, North-South cooperation in education and training saw thousands of mainly short-term individual projects funded by the EU and other foreign donors, but which suffered seriously from a lack of the kind of coordinating structure which should have been provided by the Departments of Education in Dublin and the North.

However some of these projects were significant. In 2010, wearing my hat as director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies, I did a report for the two departments which estimated the large numbers of students and young people involved in them: 70,000 in the European Studies programme, involving nearly 200 Irish secondary schools; 30,000 in the Dissolving Boundaries project, which brought primary, secondary and special schools together through IT and face-to-face contact; 17,000 in the Wider Horizons youth training and employability project; 14,000 in the Education for Reconciliation secondary schools project run by City of Dublin Vocational Education Committee; and so on. I estimated the amount of EU and other overseas funding (along with some from the two governments on the island) that went into these and other educational projects in the first decade of the century at more than €133 million; this is now reduced to a trickle. 

I concluded that report as follows: “This must be the largest cross-border movement of young people for the purposes of education and mutual understanding anywhere in the world in recent memory. This movement affects not only the students themselves, but their teachers, their families and their communities. There is a great opportunity here for consolidating the present peace and future reconciliation of Ireland by continuing to work with the more open minds of children and young people. This must not be lost by lack of foresight on the part of the leaders and planners of the island’s educational systems. If the gains of the extraordinary explosion in North- South educational cooperation of the past 10-15 years are allowed to peter out, what will the people of Ireland say in 10 or 20 or 50 years?” Nine years on, I can only say with great sadness that this is precisely what has happened.

The level of North-South cooperation nearly 21 years after the Good Friday Agreement is frankly disappointing (and this is before Brexit). When there was significant EU Peace and INTERREG money for such cooperation up to around 2014, there was some important work going on. That continues in parts of the private sector such as agri-food and energy. But two unimaginative and largely inert governments and their public services in Belfast and Dublin have failed utterly to build on the high hopes of the years after 1998. I only hope that Brexit is not the final, knock-out blow to this vital element in both the peace process and the longer-term prospect of reconciliation through practical cooperation on the island.

Posted in Cross-border cooperation, General | 3 Comments

Do we need a bit of Chinese ingenuity to solve our Irish puzzle (or could Chris Patten be the man to unite Ireland)?

Christmas 2018 sees an anxious Ireland starting seriously to prepare for Britain crashing out of the EU without a deal. It finds the United Kingdom in a state of constitutional agitation and division not seen since the Suez crisis in 1956; the unpredictability of British politics is unprecedented in modern times. It occurs to me that it may even lead to a situation where after the next general election a Border Poll in Ireland could get onto the agenda of an incoming government in London. For example, if Scotland, with its strong majority for staying in the EU, obtains a second independence referendum and votes to go it alone, the pressure for a unity referendum (led by Sinn Fein) on a left-wing Labour government may prove irresistible.

The Irish government and political establishment are, of course, not thinking that far ahead: the extremely smart people at the top of the Departments of the Taoiseach and Foreign Affairs are entirely taken up with the witches’ brew that is Brexit.  That generation of brilliant diplomats and senior civil servants who won their spurs  in the negotiations that led to the internationally admired 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement and 1998 Good Friday Agreement are long gone. The level of knowledge and debate about the North in Leinster House is woeful.

I believe that if we don’t want to leave the running to the ideologues and fantasists of Sinn Fein, the establishment parties in Dublin – notably Fine Gael and Fianna Fail – will soon have to start doing some serious thinking about the medium-term future of this island. Regular readers of this column know I am the last person to urge any rapid movement towards unity because my knowledge of the unionist community makes me fear the dire consequences of such a strategy. The best thing the governments in London and Dublin could do in the short term is to heap the pressure on the DUP and Sinn Fein to get back to power-sharing at Stormont as soon as possible and put the unity issue back on the long finger.

But the stars are shifting. The relationship between Britain and Ireland, and between north and south, has changed for the worse over the past two and a half years. If a miracle happens and Theresa May gets her withdrawal package through Westminster, it may leave Northern Ireland politically part of the UK, but economically under the growing influence of the EU and therefore with closer links to the Republic. Demographic changes within a few years will almost certainly see a Catholic (although not for the immediate future a nationalist) majority in the North. I believe the DUP will find that their temporary Tory friends in Westminster are deeply unreliable. We in Dublin may need to find a mechanism – perhaps a new kind of forum – to start discussing the major economic, political and constitutional issues coming across the sea from London and down the road from Belfast in the medium term.

Here’s one exotic idea. Perhaps we might to look to the Far East for a possible example to follow. Could Northern Ireland’s new special relationship with the EU and the Republic lead over the longer term to an Irish version of China’s ‘one country, two systems’ 1997 takeover of that last jewel in the British colonial crown, Hong Kong? Some of us believe that a loose form of confederation, with the North remaining a culturally half-British autonomous province, but with Dublin taking over powers such as foreign and security policy from London, might be an eventual way forward.

There are scores of good reasons why Northern Ireland and Hong Kong’s utter dissimilarity would make this comparison not worth considering. But given that I am always open to ideas that are more innovative and intelligent than the blunt and potentially calamitous instrument of a 50% + 1 vote for unity, let’s give it an airing.

The bulk of the land on which Hong Kong is built was held on a 19th century lease from China to imperial Britain which was due to expire in 1997. When negotiations over its future status began in 1982 London made it clear to Beijing that it wanted capitalism and political freedom to continue after the handover. Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping responded  with an extraordinarily flexible and imaginative offer: in return for an unambiguous transfer of sovereignty to China, he said, there would be one country but two systems, China’s and Hong Kong’s.

Just two years later, to the world’s great surprise, the two governments signed a Joint Declaration. Hong Kong’s free enterprise way of life would survive for 50 years after the Chinese takeover. China promised to retain not only Hong Kong’s capitalist system and its autonomy to run its own affairs, but also its Western-style rule of law, and the freedoms associated with it – of speech, assembly, religious practice and belief. There would even be elections to a legislature, although their democratic nature would be very limited, even more limited than under the colonial rule of the British.

Then in 1989 came the massacre of students in Tiananmen Square by the People’s Liberation Army. The future of Hong Kong was still deeply uncertain, with dire predictions of everything from mass emigration and economic collapse to blood on the streets. Before the last British governor, former Conservative cabinet minister Chris Patten, flew out in 1992, he was told by one newspaper editor that the odds were evenly balanced as to whether he would leave the colony for the last time on the royal yacht or by Air Force helicopter from the roof of Government House.¹

According to Patten, one of the reasons for the eventually successful transition was that Britain gave “a sort of tacit blessing” to China’s post-1997 arrangements, even when they had a distinctly questionable relationship with the promises given in the 1984 Joint Declaration.To his credit, Patten managed to introduce an element of genuine democracy into Legislative Council elections for the first time in 1995, and a third of those democratically elected members carried on into the Chinese era.

In terms of realpolitik the handover seems to have worked rather well.  Which other region of a unitary state – let alone a totalitarian unitary state – has its own constitution, central bank, tax system and civil service structure? In China you cannot move about legally without a permit, let alone travel abroad; in Hong Kong you can go to the airport and fly wherever you like. In China, the currency is not convertible; in Hong Kong the currency’s link to the US dollar means that monetary policy is made by the Federal Reserve in Washington. In China corruption is a way of life to boost low official salaries; Hong Kong civil servants are among the highest paid on earth. In China freedom of expression and the press is severely limited; in Hong Kong you can say and write what you want.  In China official music choices are ‘The East is Red’ and the ‘Internationale’; in Hong Kong you are as likely to hear ‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’.²

Divided and undynamic little Northern Ireland, of course, is not Hong Kong. The latter is the great international entrepôt centre for the huge Chinese market. Its businesses are among the top wealth creators in Asia, with interests stretching across the globe. Its money and property traders are legendary. There is unbelievable wealth, but also income disparity that is among the greatest on earth.

So the comparisons with Northern Ireland may be limited. But is there not something to be learned from what 40 years ago looked like the impossible prospect of a peaceful Chinese communist takeover of the colony? In the event it all happened unbelievably smoothly and harmoniously before the eyes of an awe-struck world. So what can we glean from it?

25 years ago I ran an independent ‘citizens inquiry’ into ways forward for Northern Ireland which was headed by an international commission under the chairmanship of an eminent Norwegian human rights lawyer, Torkel Opsahl. We asked 3,000 people all over the North for new ideas to get it out of its horrible, violent deadlock. It was rubbished by local politicians, but wiser heads said it made a small but significant contribution to the dawning of the Northern Irish peace process. A few years later Chris Patten came to Belfast fresh from his triumph in Hong Kong to head another ‘mission impossible’, a commission to make recommendations for the replacement of the RUC by a radically reformed police service in Northern Ireland, which turned out to be probably the single biggest and longest-lasting success of the peace process. Why don’t the British and Irish governments (once they’ve got over the small headache of Brexit) invite him to head a new commission or forum to explore future options for running the North (including possible paths to unity), given that the parties there seem utterly incapable of doing it and, as a consequence, the Good Friday Agreement appears to be on dangerously weak legs?

¹ Chris Patten, East and West: the last governor of Hong Kong on power, freedom and the future (1998)

² Material about Hong Kong from Jonathan Fenby, Dealing with the Dragon: a year in the new Hong Kong (2000)

Posted in General, Ireland, Europe and the world, Views from abroad | 2 Comments