|These are regular editorials
produced alongside the corresponding issues on Nonviolent
Also in this editorial:
Pigs can fly. Miracles do happen. Ian Paisley and Martin
McGuinness as FM and DFM respectively (First Minister and
Deputy First Minister in the Office of OFMDFM) in Northern
Ireland; mirabile dictu. This time it looks like it's for
real, for good, for a lasting settlement. Out has gone the
rhetoric of the Good Friday Agreement being traitorous, or
of Stormont being a partitionist parliament; in has come a
desire to share power together.
Ian Paisley's transformation to being
a man who says 'yea' rather than 'nay' is one of the wonders
of the Northern Ireland peace process, perhaps of any peace
process anywhere. Much of it is to do with being top political
dog in elections; there is no longer anyone to rail against.
It is unlikely that Paisley would have played second fiddle
to anyone. When Jeffrey Donaldson, a consummate politician
who had jumped ship from the Ulster Unionists to the DUP at
the right time to avoid going down with the Trimble ship,
was asked whether the fact Paisley was top dog politically
was the factor in the move to power sharing, Donaldson put
a different slant on it - the majority of unionist voters
had been persuaded that the DUP policies were the right ones.
Indeed they did and it is amazing where forty years of saying
'no' can get you.
It remains to be seen how well the new
system will respond to the needs for change in Northern Ireland.
We have said before, often enough, that in the longer term
the Good Friday Agreement system of government is inadequate
- hopefully it will be outgrown if the North develops in the
right way. But if it is simply a matter of a power carve up
between the political parties then there is the risk that
it will be inadequate even in the short term. The various
ministers are, however, keen 'to deliver' in their respective
areas so that, by itself, is an incentive to get things done.
But thorny issues of various kinds are sitting firmly in ministers'
in-trays, including the divisive issue of the iniquitous 11+
exam which buck stops on the desk of the (Sinn Féin)
Minister for Education, Caitriona Ruane. While not ideal,
the mooted suggestion of postponing the division of children
until 14 (the 'Craigavon solution' as practised there) is
at least one vaguely bright idea.
If the restoration of the Stormont parliament
is a lasting solution for the foreseeable future, it did not
happen overnight. It happened over twenty-five years from
the time of the Hunger Strikes as some brave politicians sought
to lead rather than be prisoners of their followers and the
history of Ireland. It would not have happened without those
who kept Northern Ireland together in the meantime - community
and voluntary groups and activists, sometimes church people,
women's groups, people in interface areas and people in homogenous
areas, and many others, who refused to accept that Northern
Ireland was forever doomed to internecine warfare, and were
willing to put their heads up over the parapet where many
others, understandably, took shelter and put the time into
talking, talking, talking, mediating and helping negotiate.
Without all these people and a huge amount of work behind
the scenes, the politicians would not today be sitting in
Stormont and we might instead be discussing the latest killings
in the Troubles rather than departmental policies. Disillusionment
may slip in over time, and disagreement over fundamental issues,
but for the moment Stormont has the goodwill of the vast majority
in Northern Ireland. And after 38 years of the Troubles and
its aftermath, that really is a miracle.
Beyond the thrill of any election, if you're into politics,
the election in the Republic was a thoroughly depressing affair.
There are some who describe Fianna Fail as a centre or even
left of centre party but this description is misplaced. If
you look at the company Fianna Fail keeps in the European
Parliament, if you look at its economic policies, if you look
at its policy on Shannon and the Iraq war, or who its preferred
coalition partner has been (the Thatcherite Progressive Democrats)
it is quite clear that Fianna Fail is a centre right or conservative
party - a populist conservative party quite unlike the British
one, for example, but a conservative party none the less.
This election saw Fianna Fail holding its own in terms of
percentage votes, and the other major conservative party,
Fine Gael, gaining ground (by almost 5%). So the two major
conservative parties have continued to hold centre stage at
a time when the Green Party, Sinn Féin, and Labour
were all hoping to make gains but at best gained marginally
in percentage votes (in the case of Labour being down marginally)
and Labour and Sinn Féin lost a seat apiece.
But it was also a depressing electoral
process in terms of policies. The consensus seemed to be to
cut income tax by a couple of percent. Cutting stamp duty
on house sales at a time when house prices have soared (though
currently static in the Republic) is probably fair enough
however the idea that services can be improved at this stage
without increasing tax is a complete myth and chimera - but
one which the Irish public seem to want to believe. If you
want good public services you have to pay for them and the
taxpayers in the Republic do not pay enough, despite wealth
beyond the dreams of twenty years ago, to achieve them. What
is lacking is political will, and the courage of the public
and political parties to opt for slightly higher taxes to
give much better services. Political maturity in the new wealthy
Ireland will only come when this is a real option.
Bertie Ahern's 'ordinary man' persona
stood him in good stead in the face of allegations of financial
misbehaviour regarding his house purchase years ago. That
image of being an ordinary Joe Soap and the culmination of
the Northern peace process (restoration at Stormont) and speaking
at the British House of Commons all gave him the fillip he
may have needed, the latter polishing his statesman persona.
Perhaps the only thing that can be said in his favour regarding
his house purchase is that the sums being talked about are
in the tens of thousands of pounds - and not in the millions
which fell into Charles J Haughey's greedy hands.
In terms of the change needed, maybe the
best that could happen at this stage would be a Fianna Fail-Green
Party coalition, but it remains to be seen if Fianna Fail
would pay the minimum price that the Greens would want, and
there are major foreign policy differences on the likes of
Shannon but that is unlikely to prevent a Green Party intent
on arriving in government. Meanwhile Sinn Féin's dream,
nay expectation, of being a major political player in both
parts of the island received a major set back - it remains
a fairly marginal party in the Republic. All live on to try
to come back another day (the Progressive Democrats, indeed,
from the edge of extinction in the Dáil with just two
seats) but the re-emergence of a dominant two-party system,
both conservative, is a thoroughly depressing one for those
who believe in peace, equality and justice.
Perhaps Joe and Joan Soap were persuaded
most by the economy and the continued boom in the Republic
over the last decade; they felt they were doing quite well
and did not want to rock the economic boat. But the fact of
the matter is that growth in the Irish economy is unsustainable
- primarily unsustainable ecologically, but unsustainable
for other reasons too. Change has to come to build an economy
which can survive in the post-oil era which requires massive
changes in infrastructure as well as mindset. So far Fianna
Fail has adopted a minimalist approach to responding to climate
change and whether they can be persuaded to be more meaningful
in this crucial area remains to be seen.
Larry Speight brings
us his monthly column.
"The measure of domestic progress published by
the New Economics Foundation is just one piece of work showing
that the link between economic growth and wellbeing is tenuous
once a modest level of prosperity is reached. It operates
on the basis that there is no such thing as enough."
(Larry Elliott, The Guardian, 21 May 2007)
If humankind is to effectively address
climate change, the rapid loss of biodiversity that is occurring
almost everywhere, as well as the rapid depletion of minerals
that are the mainstay of our technological society (see New
Scientist, 26 May 2007) then we are going to have to understand
and act on what drives our species to consume as if we lived
in a world where there are no limitations. We behave, whether
we are aware of it or not, as if the bounty of the Earth,
its very metabolism, were there for our generation alone,
and most especially for the minority of affluent people among
the 6,580,000,000 of us alive in April of this year. The affluent
most definitely includes people in the European Union who
live with services and safeguards unimaginable in the poor
countries of the world.
What apparently drives Homo sapiens is
the all encompassing wish to be happy. This inherently basic
quest becomes an environmental problem when a society's fundamental
needs have been met and people are not obliged to use the
greater part of their time and energy in keeping warm, clothed,
fed and physically secure. The myth - propagated by the advertising
and celebrity industry - that gets the affluent out of bed
each morning is that wealth buys happiness. Thus people work
beyond what is necessary in pursuit of the illusion that the
more they have the happier they will be. Shops not only sell
things essential to our wellbeing - toothpaste and soap, fruit
and vegetables, books and pencils, but also goods which many
hope will bring them happiness through enhanced social status,
novelty, convenience and entertainment. Shops with their displays,
smells, lighting, colours, music and the selling skills of
sales assistants, are nothing less than magicians' dens selling
potions and charms that we believe will transform our lives
in a positive way. Clothes, cosmetics, computers and cars,
to name a few things, are sold on this basis and bought without
much thought to the ecological and social cost.
Research on the relationship between economic
prosperity, as measured by average annual income, reveals
that above the level needed to meet one's basic material and
recreational needs there is no relationship between the amount
of wealth one has and level of happiness. This is counter
to the myth at the bedrock of consumer society, that having
rather than being makes us happy. Although experience has
taught us that happiness cannot be realized in a substantive
and sustainable way through buying things, we keep on buying
in the hope that we will find on some shop shelf that very
special thing which will bring us the happiness - self-realization
we yearn for.
If we want the Earth to sustain
life for a few more million years it is imperative that the
scientifically verifiable case that happiness is not derived
through income in excess to our needs be woven into common
consciousness to the end that people cease to be consumers
and instead live lives of simplicity. Finding meaning and
a sense of fulfilment through simplicity is the only way to
dispel the belief that "there is no such thing as enough".
We have to do start doing this today otherwise we will bring
about the end of the world as our species has know it since
the end of the last ice age.