|These are regular editorials
produced alongside the corresponding issues on Nonviolent
Also in this editorial:
It has been an interesting year for politics North and South, although very different in how each felt. But in both there is a need for community and political campaigning to step up gear in order to have an effect.
The re-election of Fianna Fail in May was, to say the least, disappointing if tempered by the inclusion of the Green Party in the mix (the continuation of the now tiny Progressive Democrats in government also indicates the pre-eminent conservative economic nature of the government). The alternative might not have been very different in policies but a change can be as good as a rest. The swing back to Fianna Fail, from an election which they looked like they were going to lose, may have been due to some electors not wanting to rock the economic boat; if this is the case they did indeed make a misjudgement as the international economic downturn which started shortly afterwards looks like it will lower all boats and lead to a relatively stringent budget. So given the lack of choice between platforms in the election, domestic policies have been shown to be insignificant compared to international economic factors.
The extent to which the Green Party can wean the Irish government and the economy away from growth and carbon economics (and the two at the moment are inseparable) remains to be seen. This is undoubtedly the big issue of our era; carving out a sustainable future in a world which looks extremely shaky due to global warming. The desire for survival will not overcome individual selfishness sufficiently to bring about the changes needed; the governments have to make change to a sustainable future essential, viable and urgent – without starting on the sustainable road soon, the essential targets cannot be reached.
But in the middle of this is the need to create a top class modern health system in the Republic, as opposed to an inefficient and two-tier system, replicating some of the divisions that exist in the USA. Health scandals included that of women being given mistaken diagnoses about breast testing for cancer (both false positives and false negatives). While there are issues of competence and procedures, there is a wider and difficult act to get right; to get centres of excellence for health services that require major resources and throughput (e.g. services on cancer) while still providing services that are accessible and in general fairly local. Private arrangements in public hospitals also got considerable airing during the year. The clientelist nature of politics in the Republic means that some services which should have been more centralised remained fragmented. The attempt to decentralise civil service jobs over the last few years also indicates some other difficulties in this regard. How to ‘think globally but act locally’ is not always as easy as it may sound, and this applies in the North as well as the Republic.
In the North the Good Friday Agreement at last came into its own with functional devolved government, though parties also realise the need to transcend this in due course (the coalition arrangement means that the small Alliance Party is the nearest thing to an opposition). Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness make an interesting double act. Local decision making is popular all round, except with some disenchanted republicans and loyalists who do not want any form of alliance or cooperation across the Protestant/Catholic fault line in Northern Ireland. A couple of attempts on the lives of policemen late on in the year by the Real IRA indicates that paramilitarism is still alive; on the other side, the UDA has made some attempts to transform but the results are still awaited, and it may be some time before a full judgement can be made.
One major problem which Northern Ireland has is the economy is heavily reliant on the state with a private sector which is relatively small. The difference in corporation tax between North and South is a major factor in making international investment more difficult in the North and the economic and social policies adopted by the government are not very different to what might have been determined by direct rule ministers (had they actually made decisions in later years as opposed to hang in there waiting on devolved government to kick in). The budgets of some government departments are going to effectively decline in the near future; Northern Ireland has no pot of gold. There are no serious radical remedies on the table from right or left.
The sectarian division in Northern Ireland remains a major obstacle to long term progress whatever the system of government or level of cooperation between North and South. An enormous amount of work is going on in some areas to deal with the real issues on the ground whereas in others things remain relatively untouched. Moving beyond divisions which have festered for four hundred years is not an easy task and has many different aspects which need tackled. Fortunately some of the most difficult sectarian situations are being addressed but it is a long road to overcome divided living, educational, leisure, ecclesiastical, and sometimes working environments. The good relations agenda cannot exist divorced from these wider questions and patterns of living.
In Northern Ireland community action and campaigning is alive and well but facing major funding problems in the next few years. In both North and South, community, health and single issue campaigning face the question of how they can effectively engage with, and influence, governments, without being dragged into the maelstrom of party politics. The issue of Shannon is a case in point; those who opposed the use of Shannon may have had a majority of popular opinion on their side but the Bertie Ahern government presumably decided on the basis of which side its bread was buttered (not wishing to do anything to upset US economic investment) apart from any misjudged assessment of what the USA and Britain were doing in Iraq.
There are many challenges which exist for those who believe in social and political change. For those believing in peace and nonviolence, transformation in the North is obviously crucial. The international role of the Republic and its army in international mechanisms is another major issue. Equitable and modern services for all, and not just the rich, is an issue which applies to the North but even more to the Republic. How the two sides of the border relate to new incomers to the country is an issue which will continue to require much attention. But everything needs to be posited within the context of change to a low carbon economy; this can be an opportunity to build equality, access to services, and a healthier and even happier society all around, or it can be the opportunity for the rich to pull up their drawbridges so the effect is actually increased economic and social polarisation. Without popular action it is likely that the poor and marginalised will get screwed. ‘Going green’ should not be the cause of more people going green with envy as the rich dodge the implications of global warming. We should grasp the opportunity for economic and social transformation which the changes that are essential give us. This is an enormous challenge but one which we must win.
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Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –
Science tells us that climate change is not something that only our distant descendants will have to contend with for it is happening right now. Commenting on this Paul Dickinson, chief executive of the Carbon Disclosure Project, recently wrote:
“It is a simple mistake to make, to imagine the world is quite safe and the changes greenhouse gases are making will not lead to catastrophe. There is a growing school of thought that suggests catastrophe is already here, now.”
Aside from science our personal experience tells us something is askew with the climate. In my case almost everyone I have met this past six weeks or so has commented upon how uncommonly warm the weather is for this time of year. Aside from the unseasonable warmth, we may note other changes such as some summer flowers still in bloom and dragonflies on the wing.
If we wish to secure our future, and that of the generations that follow us, we have no option but reduce our emission of global warming gasses and the demands we make on the planet. This will mean major changes in how we live our lives. Change, however, is an integral part of life and is not something to be feared, and being resource frugal and making preparation need not be painful or grim. All of us take precautions to avoid catastrophe. We wear seat belts when we drive, do our best to make our homes snug for the winter and save for a rainy day. We consider such as sensible rather than painful or inconvenient, and should apply the same approach to meeting the challenges of climate change.
We should be cheered by the fact that most of the changes involved in reducing our emission of global warming gasses reap immediate benefits. Here are some examples. Switching off unused electrical appliances in our homes saves us money. Driving less means spending less on fuel and car maintenance, while using a bicycle improves our physical and emotional health. Traveling by bus enables us to rest, read or talk to fellow passengers. I know a number of people who regard traveling by bus from Enniskillen to Belfast as a social adventure, an opportunity to meet other people and learn about their lives. Growing a portion of our own food not only saves us money but also increases our autonomy and sense of satisfaction through knowing that we are eating food free from harmful chemicals.
The organization ‘Love Food Hate Waste’ recently reminded us buying less does not mean that we go without. Its figures show that for every three bags of food the average UK household buys one bag ends up in the rubbish bin. On this matter of wastefulness Fred Pearce in The New Scientist, 17th November, writes: it is possible to cut individual emissions by around 75 per cent without seriously altering our lifestyles.” Another resource we waste a great deal of is water, valuing it as something precious involves nothing but mindfulness.
A final point worth making is that studies consistently show that income above what we need for a comfortable existence does not lead to an increase in happiness. This means that billionaires are probably no happier or satisfied with life than those of us on an average income. Thus it is emotionally healthier and more eco-friendly to forego working long hours in order to buy things we really don’t need giving us more time for family and friends, relaxation and creativity.