January 2016 (supplement)
|These are regular editorials
produced alongside the corresponding issues on Nonviolent
The Westminster election has brought polling again to the North, confirming yet again – as if any confirmation was necessary – the essential bi-polar nature of society there (just look at the sectarian head count in Fermanagh-South Tyrone where the Sinn Féin and Unionist candidates were separated by a handful of votes). The DUP and Sinn Féin were neck and neck in the polls in terms of percentage points with the DUP just a short point ahead but, in the event, Sinn Féin outpolled the DUP by half a percentage point (25.5% to 25% - the DUP was down 8.7%). The Ulster Unionist Party, probably rather unwisely from its own electoral point of view, (re)formed an alliance with the Conservative Party in Britain which did nothing for its support and lost it its one sitting MP, Sylvia Hermon, who was unwilling to toe a Tory line.
The shock gain by Alliance candidate Naomi Long in East Belfast, taking the seat from Peter Robinson, may have partly been a tribute to that hard-working party and a well known and popular candidate, but it would not have happened without the recent history of the swish family Robinson, and the rejection by voters of what was seen as an opulent and corrupt lifestyle. This, and some other examples of tactical cross-party and cross-community voting, gave some hope that voting in the North need not remain a sectarian headcount.
When the Liberal Democrats in Britain do a deal it is possible that the absurd ‘first past the post’ electoral system for the British Parliament will change to proportional representation, perhaps the single transferable vote. Though it should be pointed out that more advanced and fairer voting systems are readily available and for that they need look no further than the de Borda Institute for advice, and other European countries use a list system which ‘tops up’ party support on a non-geographical basis to fairly reflect the percentage of votes. And we need say no more than that the right-wing Thatcher revolution would have been impossible if the UK had had a fairer electoral system.
Meanwhile the oversight of policing and justice has been devolved to Stormont in the shape of David Ford, leader of the middle of the road Alliance Party, the odds on favourite for the post for a long time. He had put his foot in it late last year (a fact which emerged this March) by commenting on the Saville enquiry into Bloody Sunday as ‘pointless’ – an unfair comment given that it would never have been needed if the original Widgery enquiry had not been a whitewash of British Army responsibility for the massacre, though his comment about the amount of money going into lawyers’ pockets was a fair one. However he quickly ate humble pie by going to meet the families of some of the victims. Justice and policing are a key element of devolution, and complete the current plan for devolved government in Northern Ireland.
But there are problems ahead. Some military-minded republicans are intent on returning to the bomb and the bullet because they feel they have no stake in what has come to pass. How they can come to feel their point of view – both cultural and political - is respected despite the ongoing nature of partition is a thorny question which will not go away. Some people are trying to address that question, in a variety of ways, but there is the danger of ‘success’ for these republicans in military operations against ‘Crown’ targets and servants leading to deaths, quite possibly of bystanders, and the risk of the re-emergence of tit-for-tat killings. This is a very real danger, that the spiral of violence can once more head downwards.
So policing and justice are key elements here. Any over reaction to republican military exploits will produce a further backlash, while perceived inaction by the police could lead to loyalist vigilantes and paramilitaries staking their claim to defend ‘Ulster’ once again. There is a fine balance here and David Ford is key to maintaining it.
The absence over the last decade or two of bombs and bullets echoing through the lanes and streets of Northern Ireland is, as we often say, a very poor reflection of the health of the society. The reality of Northern Ireland is largely division – in where people live, work, study, socialise, and shop. So when the Department of Education, under Sinn Féin minister Caitriona Ruane, recently cut its community relations provision for youth work by 70%, it looks like the Northern Ireland government, despite its complex composition, was making an active decision not to challenge the divisions which exist and not to support young people who would like to move beyond those divisions. It is hard times, and harder times are coming in the North as British cuts bite – whatever the flavour of the new UK government – but to cut work on crossing the divides with young people shows a destructive urge which beggars belief. If you want to ensure that young people do not learn the lessons of the Troubles and do not move beyond the established divisions then the answer is easy – do nothing. And there is the risk that at a time when the peace should be consolidated, the effective arms of the Northern Ireland Executive rest on their laurels. We don’t often use the adjective but this is incredibly stupid.
Northern Ireland has a long road to travel. Building the peace, a subject we have often spoken about, requires many different responses – including ones from citizens who have to be prepared to move beyond the old shibboleths and divisions which have characterised society for so long. But citizens and organisations who support change have the need – and we would also argue the right - to be supported to the fullest possible extent by the political parties and their manifestation in the Northern Ireland government or Executive. At the moment there is not a huge amount of evidence that the necessary support is forthcoming across the board in a system which has failed to deliver a ‘Shared Future’ vision. While it might seem churlish to suggest that some parties profit from division, this is actually still true to a considerable extent and has been true throughout the Troubles in electoral support. There is a real failure by a number of the political parties in Northern Ireland to realise that peace is not a target which has been achieved but an ongoing process and goal and one which they ignore at the peril of all the people in the North.
Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –
Ecocide: A right to Life
Research shows that fairness is likely to be a biological imperative (New Scientist, 1 May 2010). This correlates with the fact that our survival is reliant on cooperation. Cooperation is facilitated by rules and regulations, many of which are unwritten. This means that no matter how much we dislike government there can never, in the purist sense, be an anarchist society.
Ideally we want a government that has been fairly elected, which is just, considers the long term, and that furthers and protects the interests of the vulnerable. Post World War Two has seen great progress in socially responsible government in the areas of health, education, the environment and the protection of human rights. Albeit, even in the most egalitarian and progressive societies much progress still has to be made.
Although people in countries with corrupt governments and lightly regulated capitalism don’t have the services and rights afforded in the European Union they know that their government should be using the national wealth to provide them with the basic necessities. This awareness underlies the present social unrest in Thailand which is spearheaded by the rural and urban poor.
Human wellbeing is not, however, predicated on social and economic justice alone. Perhaps the most important cultural challenge we face today, the one that underpins the over-heating of our planet, is recognising and responding to the fact that we are not the self-autonomous individuals we, particularly in western countries, have been socialised to believe we are. We are part of a family, community, nation and community of nations. Further, we are a part of a community of beings upon whom we depend for our existence and emotional wellbeing. This community spans microbes in the soil to bio-rich rainforests and coral-reefs. It includes species that some in Ireland consider pests, such as foxes, badgers and magpies. In other parts of the world lions, elephants and eagles are considered by some as pests.
The time-line of our social history shows that we have come to recognise that all human beings have intrinsic value and therefore people should not be treated as slaves and that everyone should receive a living wage. In the course of the 20th century we have come to recognise that men and women are equal. More recently we have acknowledged that children are entitled to the respect that adults accord each other, and as they are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation need special protection.
Climate change, the rapid loss of biodiversity, shortages of fresh water, and serious environmental pollution are awakening many to the fact that nonhuman nature needs legal protection if only for self-serving anthropocentric reasons. Others hold than nonhuman animals need protection simply because they are sentient beings. Research provides evidence that many nonhuman animals have high levels of intelligence, some have a sense of the past, present and the future, and in-depth studies of elephants and chimpanzees suggests that they mourn their dead. In other words it is only speciesism, as in racism and sexisms, that prevents us from recognising that other species have intrinsic value and deserve legal protection.
Efforts are being made to try and achieve this. UK barrister Polly Higgins has recently proposed that the United Nations accept ecocide as a “crime against peace” which could be tried at the International Criminal Court. Such a law would mean rigorous environmental protection for ecosystems of a kind that would likely have prevented the eco-disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in which an estimated 240,000 gallons of oil is pouring into the sea every day. The law would have restrained developers from turning much of the Irish countryside into a patchwork of urban deserts in which nobody wants to live.
Our survival as a species is not dependent on the global economic system, which is inequitable and environmentally unsustainable, but on a consciousness that treats all beings with compassion, and with a few exceptions, as having a right to life.