|These are regular editorials
produced alongside the corresponding issues on Nonviolent
There are many aphorisms about politics and decision making. Some of the more radical ones include "If voting changed anything they would make it illegal" and "Whoever you vote for, the government gets in" (with a few exceptions such as Belgium!). While voting can make a difference, it may not, and the idea that putting some marks on a ballot paper every number of years is 'democracy' is sadly deficient; in particular, 'I' may feel the government does not represent 'me'. Even in western democracies, so called, once in power governments can ignore the wishes of the majority of people as a whole, not just of their opponents or even their supporters. The classic example of this in recent years was Tony Blair taking the UK into the Iraq war against the clear and expressed wishes of most people.
But a functioning democracy is about much, much more than voting. It needs a vibrant civil and community life with full human rights and liberties. This civil society will be, needs to be, very varied. Some of it will be providing services which the state will not or cannot provide. Some of it will be educating the public about particular issues and concerns. Some will be seeking to influence the government on its concerns, perhaps to change policies or to increase or (in the current funding environment more likely) hold spending on particular issues. Some of it will be building the alternative reality that we would like to see.
Sensitive and sensible governments will be at least receptive to the issues raised by civil society and seek to do what they can to meet their needs. If civil society has a reasonably receptive government then it need be neither strident nor vituperative in its demands. If government is not receptive then civil society can become more organised to campaign on a particular issue or issues through to more energetic forms of nonviolent action and even civil disobedience. The issues concerned may be big, societal ones or local issues, or sometimes a combination of both (e.g. Corrib Gas which has both local and national implications, in different ways). Opposition political parties also play a role in policy formulation insofar as governments do not like to be left too far behind; unfortunately in Northern Ireland in the past the 'further out' unionist and nationalist parties (respectively the DUP and Sinn FÈin) acted as a sectarian brake on the more reconciling elements in the more centre or 'moderate' parties - hopefully this has changed somewhat under the new dispensation there.
Over recent years Republic has taken a collective approach to wage bargaining and general working conditions, in what has been known as social partnership involving government, business and trade unions. However, following recession and the differently-organised Croke Park Agreement for the public sector, where this will go is hard to see. While it is generally accepted that social partnership brought smaller taxes in return for moderated wage demands, whether it served the goal of justice for all members of society is another question, and trade union participation has declined significantly in the social partnership period. Social partnership should not be used as an excuse, either, for those who were in government for failing to deal with the property bubble.
How should society organise its decision making? The question of justice and fairness need to be to the forefront. This should be the primary criterion. Of course what might be considered justice and fairness by myself may be different to what you might feel. In this regard, however, it may be possible to look at the direction in which government points society; increased or decreased equality of income and opportunity, support for vulnerable and disabled people, the rate of moving towards real ecological sustainability, the way it treats people who have come from outside into our country, and the extent to which it supports global issues of justice and sustainability.
At whatever level, from small groups through to society at large, we should always aim to do things in a way which will take people with us, and promote consensus. But consensus in political and social life is difficult and should be a methodology more than an aim, and subservient to questions of justice. A 'consensus' which delivers injustice is a mockery. The challenge for those of a particular political belief is to take people with us in our desire for change, and to build up momentum as the change becomes inevitable and essential.
The UK, including Northern Ireland, undertakes various elections (though not for the Westminster parliament) on 5th May. The fact that there will be elections for the Stormont Assembly - the last Assembly was the first Northern Ireland parliament to complete its term since 1969 (the old Parliament was abolished in 1972) - marks a maturation of a kind in politics in the North. As such it will be fascinating to see voting strengths for the parties as the system beds down. However, as we have indicated before, at some stage the system will need to move beyond the confines of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. That does not necessarily mean the end of various guarantees of fair treatment but it may mean a change which would reflect increased tolerance if not trust.
There is also a referendum in the UK on 5th May on using the Alternative Vote (AV) for Westminster elections; by this methodology a candidate has to achieve 50% to get elected (the votes of lowest placed candidates being transferred until someone gets 50% - though why exactly half is open to debate - why not 40% or 60% or 66%?). It is inferior to proportional representation (single transferable vote) used in others elections north and south of the border in Ireland, and to a list system which tops up party seats according to the overall percentage of votes received. It is a total 'miserable little compromise' (Nick Clegg's label which came back to haunt him). But the Conservatives, and some in Labour, prefer a 'winner takes all' approach which is facilitated by the 'first past the post' electoral system.
However to be just and fair an electoral system should broadly deliver the same proportion of seats to a party as it gets votes. This the AV system will not do although it is a very slight advance on what exists currently; indications are that the proposal will be voted down by the electorate, aided by prejudices fostered by the Tories. Whether proportional representation by the single transferable vote (PR-STV) for D·il elections supports clientelism (TDs doing strokes for constituents in return for getting their vote, as opposed to an approach to state services 'as of right') is a good question. Clientelism could exist under many different electoral systems but if this was felt to be a deficiency in the Republic then it could easily move to a list system which would bring in people unbeholden to a local, as opposed to a national, electorate. Constitutional change is on the Fine Gael agenda but whether the result will lead to any advances for accountability and more progressive politics is certainly open to doubt or at best remains to be seen.
The killing of Osama bin Laden by USA armed forces in Pakistan is a military 'victory' for the US though how it will affect world events in the long run remains to be seen - things do not always work out as we might imagine. As some commentators have been pointing out, al Qaeda has to some extent already been sidelined by the popular revolts in the MENA world (Middle East and North Africa) as struggles there have moved in a more populist, and often nonviolent, direction (at least nonviolent on the part of those protesting).
The killing of bin Laden, and some of those with him, is another example of killing people to prove that killing people is wrong - something which the USA seems to excel at both in its international policy and through the death penalty at home. Even his body was disposed of at sea by the US so there would be no grave, no funeral, no rallying point for a martyr. The fact that he was unarmed but 'resisted' is used by the US as a reason for killing him; there is no proof of what actually happened, US stories of what happened have already been significantly changed, and even if he did 'resist' just how dangerous is someone 'resisting' without a weapon when bullets are flying all around the place? It is clear the US wanted him dead, extrajudicial killing or not, and the killing is also likely to be inconsistent with the so-called 'rules of war' if he was unarmed and given no real chance to surrender. If it is indeed true that, following the 9/11 attacks in the USA, the Taliban in Afghanistan offered to hand over bin Laden to either the International Court in the Hague or to another third party to determine his guilt or not, perhaps immense tragedies in Afghanistan and Iraq (which had no connection with 9/11) could have been avoided. Bin Laden had blood on his hands but the backlash from the USA has caused far more innocent blood to be spilled.
As long as there is injustice in the world there will be a reaction to that injustice. US policies have been key in upholding dictatorships, thwarting democracy, and permitting economic and human rights injustices worldwide. Violence begets violence and the whole bloody circle turns and turns. There are signs that the economic basis of the US as the world superpower is declining but, as the example of Britain shows, 'world powers' can retain vested interests and inflated military positions long after the economic base for that power has declined.
Empires come and go, most fondly remembered only by the beneficial elite at their core and indirectly through the grandiose monuments they left behind. There is a different approach to world affairs possible, one which will make friends and few enemies, one which will help sustainable economic and human development worldwide. Justice and fairness may not be in the short-term, vested interests of a particular country but in the long term such a policy will reap rewards, both economic and political, for the country concerned and for a stable and equitable globe. The USA should try it sometime, and sooner rather than later. There is, unfortunately, not too much indication that the current incumbent of the US presidency is approaching world affairs from a significantly different angle to his predecessor - we would be delighted to be proven wrong on this.
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Larry Speight brings us his monthly column
Many people in an office discussion or when having a chat over a cup of tea bemoan the worldwide destruction of the environment; the loss of rainforests, water pollution, soil erosion, the extinction of species and the over-heating of our planet. We wonder what adverse affect our mismanagement of the environment will have on our daily lives ten years from now. We are particularly concerned about what the future holds for young children and unborn generations who have no choice but to make do with the environmental legacy we leave them.
When we discuss environmental degradation we almost by default think of faraway places, the Amazon rainforest, the Antarctica, the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Yet environmental destruction is happening on our doorstep. One person who not only recognises this but has displayed enormous tenacity in addressing a case of environmental degradation is Sheelagh Dolan who lives a short distance from Enniskillen.
Over a number of years Sheelagh has with dismay witnessed peat land near her home been trashed. Tons of hardcore have been brought onto the land by heavy trucks and pressed into the earth. When I visited the site there was a sizable hill of imported gravel, a considerable stack of heavy boulders, and a gate and barbed wire fencing barred entrance. Sheelagh and I gained access by crawling with care under the barbed wire.
Beyond the hardcore surface is a small pond with a healthy variety of flora and peat land stretches to distant farmed fields. There are two other ponds created by flooding caused by the hardcore. Sheelagh has observed hen harriers nesting in the area. Hen harriers are listed as endangered on both the UK and Irish Red Data Book. The bird is protected by the Wildlife (NI) Order 1983. There is little doubt that if an eco-survey were carried out it would reveal the existence of many species of critical importance. The land is almost certainly a wildlife corridor.
Peat land is often called Ireland's rainforest because of the vital eco-services they provide and the abundance of species they are home to. Bord Na Mona says of peat lands in Ireland that: "Their uniqueness can be compared to the semi-tropical and tropical rainforests in a number of remote regions of the world." Peat lands have also important archaeological value in that they can preserve objects buried for thousands of years. They have educational and quality of life value, and can be utilised for eco-tourism with tangible benefits for the local economy.
Sheelagh's research reveals that the land is not registered with the Land Registry and they have no way of establishing who the owner is. This leads her to believe that the person or company that has taken possession of the land has done so to take advantage of a little known piece of legislation that gives ownership of unregistered land to anyone who can demonstrate that they have used the land continuously for twelve years. The legal devise is called "adverse possession". This legislation does not, however, give someone who makes use of unregistered land a licence to commit environmental vandalism or to change its prior utility.
Sheelagh's passion for the land and her unsung five-year effort to protect it has yet to yield results. Her correspondence with the Planning Office in Enniskillen has to date proved futile. She would like them to exercise their discretionary powers to prevent any further degradation of the land. If the land is deemed to belong to the public, to be commons, then she would like a conservation order to be placed on it and the land restored as far as possible to its original condition.
What the Planning Office should not do is ignore the issue. Regardless of the eventual outcome of Sheelagh's efforts she sets an example for all of us. As we keep an eye out for the vulnerable, take an interest in the wellbeing of our family and friends, we must do likewise for our environment. The generation that follows us will judge us as much by our omissions as by our commissions.