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The recent election in the Republic provided an upset to the established duopoly of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, with Sinn Féin gaining the highest popular vote in terms of first preferences – 25% - a remarkable turnaround by a party which was doing very poorly in the last European and local elections. It was certainly a significant victory though 43% voted for the two aforementioned conservative or centrist parties compared to the 25% for Sinn Féin; however given the vote for other parties ‘on the left’ it marks a sea change in voting patterns in the Republic. Many voters wanted decisive action on housing and health in particular.
One aspect of good news in the election was that far right and anti-immigration candidates all did pretty badly. It is hard to say here how much the Irish experience of emigration counts for in appreciating the contribution of immigrants in Ireland, but it is probably a factor. Obviously there is racism and anti-immigration feeling in the Republic, of a variety of kinds (not least the official Direct Provision system for asylum seekers which is at least indirectly racist), but politically it has not been able to get organised.
The problem arising for the system from the election was that with an almost three-way split in the largest parties, and another quarter voting for smaller parties of independents, forming a government is not an easy task, particularly when Fine Gael and, more reluctantly, Fianna Fáil expressed themselves unwilling to go into partnership with Sinn Féin. This is even more remarkable for Fianna Fáil who did its own ‘coming in from the cold’ in the late 1920s (to the Dáil after the Civil War where its members had taken the anti-Treaty side against the new Irish Free State); they were in government from 1932.
As many commentators have pointed out, particularly in the North, it is hypocritical to expect Sinn Féin to be in the government in Northern Ireland but refuse to allow them to be in government in the Republic. Despite any differences in situation, it is simply a dual standard. Of course a number of Sinn Féin policies might be unacceptable to Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael but this is a different matter to a supposedly ‘principled’ rejection of Sinn Féin’s democratic bona fides to engage in government on the southern and western side of the border.
How do you bring people along into democratic politics? By inclusion rather than exclusion. Of course there have been, and are, questions about Sinn Féin’s involvement with, or backing for, violence in the past. However you can also favourably compare Sinn Féin’s current record and policies with the craven pro-militarist policies of the major political parties in backing PESCO, a major step up in EU militarism and support for the arms trade, and for the USA’s foreign military adventures through use of Shannon Airport by the US military. Let those without sin regarding violence cast the first stone.
As to police assertions that Sinn Féin is overseen by the IRA Army Council, and Sinn Féin’s assertion that the IRA has been disbanded, both assertions can be essentially true. Part of the old command structure may still exist but the IRA is no more as a paramilitary army. If we start to look at shadowy connections then we can also take into account other political party connections to big developers, business interests and international militarism, and the political cleanliness sheet is not so clear cut.
There was no need for ‘armed struggle’ in the North. Non-violent action and campaigning could have achieved the same result, and sooner, without the deaths and bitterness which are still a major issue and feature of the situation north of the border. However many people on all sides were unaware of the possibilities of nonviolent struggle and they must be judged in the context of the times; that is not to excuse their actions but it cannot be denied that many people saw no alternative to violence. That does not mean there was no alternative – there was. Sinn Féin keeps up support for the previous armed struggle partly as a means of ensuring continuity and avoiding having to say “we were wrong” which would pull the rug from under several decades of their existence, and put a major question under their legitimacy. Neither does Fianna Fáil condemn those who fought on the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War.
Sinn Féin got the first preferences of a quarter of those who voted in the election, a couple of per cent more than Fianna Fáil who in turn were a few percentage points ahead of Fine Gael. Sinn Féin could have won more seats if they had stood more candidates but at the time of nominations had no expectation of doing so well. This was a ‘victory’ but does not necessarily mean they have an entitlement to be in government though ‘change’ was certainly in the air for the electorate.
The system of grappling about after an election like this to form a government is a messy one from which the electorate are excluded. It is particularly messy after what was by Irish standards an inconclusive election. There are better systems which can be used to establish an all-party coalition or a ‘coalition of the willing’, and these should be seriously looked at for the future to expedite matters considerably. One such system is the Quota Borda System matrix vote. See www.deborda.org and also here.
However the most likely outcome in the Republic is an eventual deal between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael (the latter seemed to be in a bit of a huff that their Brexit achievements were not recognised by the electorate). In this case the presence of Sinn Féin as the major opposition party will push them to taking more radical action on issues such as health and housing than they might otherwise do. These two parties would be very conscious that, given the recent electoral arithmetic and the trend it represents, Sinn Féin could end up in a position after another general election as significantly the largest party and only needing a party the size of the current Greens to form a viable coalition. So this may spur the two centrist/right parties to take more decisive action than they would be keen to do themselves, which is good news in dealing with some of the problems which beset people south and west of the border.
Despite being small and on the edge of a continent, there is no country more globalised than Ireland. So perhaps it was inevitable that the coronavirus which originated in China should make its way here. However more generally this raises a number of questions about the society we live in and the global economic system (we are not here directly considering the attempts to limit the spread of the virus).
Food supplies are generally made on a ‘just in time’ basis. What happens when the food supply chain breaks down? Food security has been an issue for some on the green side of the fence, and this also relates to food sovereignty (who controls food and food production). The questions which arise from the coronavirus spread could arise in an even more drastic way in relation to some other crisis – and the coronavirus crisis itself is a very serious situation. Perhaps one lesson from the current situation should be that planning on relative self sufficiency in essential products, including energy, for when it might be needed should be stepped up very considerably.
This is not to say that international trade is a bad thing, different countries or areas specialising in production of different commodities can be beneficial in many ways and even efficient in terms of energy consumption. But essential commodities what can viably be produced at home, or not too far away, should be a priority or with at least a credible fall back position when that is needed.
Ireland has been a laggard on taking action to deal with global heating. Green energy is usually produced ‘at home’ so in terms of both global sustainability and energy security it should be much higher up government action lists. More radical action on greening Ireland is a win-win approach.
The current coronavirus situation shows just some of the weak points of a globalised system and global travel. There are many more questions than those considered here. Planning and action are needed in a serious way, and the green movement has many of the answers. It does not seem that the powers that be have yet started asking even the right questions.
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Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –
The one event of February 2020 that dominated print and broadcast media world-wide is the spread of the virus Covid-19. As almost everyone knows, the source of the virus was a market in Wuhan, China that sold wild animals for human consumption. The virus jumped the species barrier sometime in December 2019. As of 10.00am, 1 March it has caused the death of 2,974 people, mostly in China, and affected 86,993. There are 107 confirmed deaths outside of China. Covid-19 has spread to 63 countries including the cruise ship Diamond Princess. https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/ The fear is that the virus could spread like the flu which causes between 290,000 and 650,000 deaths every year. (New Scientist, 8 February 2020) Gabriel Leung, at the University of Hong Kong, told the Guardian, 11 February, that the virus could kill around 50 million people. This figure is an educated guess but with a vaccine not expected to be developed for at least a year it could well prove to be accurate.
What Covid-19, Ebola, HIV and other infectious viruses and bacteria serve to remind us is that in spite of our highly sophisticated technologies, organising and creative abilities we are composed of fluids, flesh and bone and are not, as it is often easy to think, discrete members of the animal kingdom. Like all life-forms we are sensitive to temperature, feel hungry and thirsty, need to sleep, and as with all mammals like to keep ourselves clean. We know relatively little about what goes on in the minds of nonhuman beings but from personal experience and communication we know we live as much in our mind as in the world outside of it. In fact we super-impose much of our imaginings, calculations and feelings unto the material world giving it symbolic meaning therein enhancing and enriching our lives. We are immensely successful in doing this.
We have also made a near complete mess of things, which wars, inequalities, injustices of all kinds and our ruin of the biosphere verify. Climatologists in fact tell us that in order to avoid the average global temperature rising above 1.5 degree Celsius we have a mere ten years to reduce our global warming emissions by half. If we don’t the biosphere will increasingly be unable to need our needs. Our once-upon-a-time Eden will be a dystopia of toxic air, suffocating heat and polluted water. Frequent floods will be a scourge in certain regions, in others there will be all-consuming wildfires. There will be furious storms, scarcity of food, mass migration and an escalation of violence. Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac in their recently published book The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis describe over eleven pages what our overly-warm world will probably be like to live in.
In order to prevent the Earth’s average temperature rising above 1.5 degrees we have to do something extraordinary which is reconfigure our cultural universe within a very short period of time. This can only happen through accepting the fact, as Covid-19 makes absolutely clear, that we dwell not in nature but rather are nature, composed of the debris of the theoretical big bang, the elements in the sea and the soil.
If we come to regard ourselves as ecological creatures rather than economic ones then we really do have a chance of making the radical changes we need to in all spheres of life giving humankind and the rest of our bio-community a decent chance of living reasonably satisfying and productive lives for untold years to come. The favourable international response from the public to the protests of Extinction Rebellion and the advocacy of Greta Thunberg suggests that the public in countries across the globe are more willing than governments, financial institutions and large corporations to make the changes conducive to effectively addressing climate breakdown. (Mathew Taylor, Guardian, 18 September 2019)
The very powerful bodies that determine much about how we live our life need to be persuaded to put in place the legislation and policies that favour eco-sensitive behaviour. This can be done if only for the reason that the powerful also want to live in a bio-rich world with a stable moderate climate and know that iron gates and armed guards won’t protect them from the breakdown of the climate, or from Covid-19.