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Stormont: Crisis paralysis or is it paralysis crisis
If there was anyone predicting the 'end of history' in Northern Ireland with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, they have been proved rather wrong. 'History', in terms of political history, has continued to take at least as many twists and turns as in the days of the Troubles and possibly more. And if 'the Troubles' have gone away then they haven't gone too far.
The killing of Jock Davidson and Kevin McGuigan in retaliation raised questions about the Provisional IRA and the extent to which it has, or hasn't, gone away. We are told it still exists but is not exercising any military might, and its weapons have generally been put beyond use. The question remains as to what involvement it, or members of it, had in the killing of McGuigan. Other questions remain about the management of a clandestine property empire owned by the IRA which is estimated to be worth hundreds of millions of pounds.
More generally there are questions about loyalist paramilitaries, and the fact that they still recruit and train, extort protection money, and only partially disarmed. But, as unionists might say, they are not in government and Sinn Féin is. No one should be the target of punishment attacks, shootings, death threats or in this case, an actual death sentence. But if you want take a moral stand and exclude people on the basis of the damage done by their military wing, then it would be the British government that is excluded first. The British Army has killed far more people in the last decade or so, including civilians, in Afghanistan and Iraq, and now through bombing raids in Iraq and Syria, than the IRA or loyalist paramilitaries ever has. This does not excuse any killing in Northern Ireland by members or former members of the IRA, or anyone else.
Of course there is an attempt by the unionist parties to 'get' Sinn Féin. And also now a jockeying for position between them as to who can come across as the sensible ones - the Unionist party in taking a principled stand, as it would project, in coming out of the Executive, while the Democratic Unionist Party says they are the sensible ones, standing up for unionists, in staying in but wanting a suspension for talks.
The problem with Stormont as it stands is that decision-making is currently impossible on disputed issues. One side or other uses its veto (e.g. in a 'petition of concern') and it is true that there are some real, ideological differences on policies and not just a sectarian division. But decisions on education, welfare, community relations and economic issues slide and slide forever because no agreement is possible currently, and there is no incentive, particularly for the DUP and Sinn Féin, to come to any agreement or compromise.
It is not a panacea but there is the possibility of using consensus voting mechanisms, such as those advocated by the de Borda Institute www.deborda.org as a means of decision making. Since these have a 'built in' bias, unlike the bias in current electoral and decision making mechanisms, in favour of those who 'reach out' to others, it is unlikely other modifying mechanisms would be needed to protect against sectarian decisions. Getting the Modified Borda Count, for example, past the political parties would be a major achievement but there is no reason that we cannot start with using it for 'some' decision making and take it from there. It was used for naming the new Rosie Hackett bridge in Dublin – and surely the North needs lots more bridges built than the Republic! If it can be used for relatively low level decision making initially, then people can learn to trust it to deliver on more major issues.
Such voting mechanisms are not a guarantee that a decision is possible but as well as coming up with the best possible consensus they can also alter behaviour among involved parties, promoting compromise and consensus. Unfortunately the two largest parties in Northern Ireland, as things stand, are very happy with the carve up of power that exists. However decision making and society is going nowhere and there is currently the very real risk of a return to direct rule by ministers from Westminster.
The mechanisms put in place by the Good Friday and other subsequent agreements are not delivering. They are not delivering policies and they do not facilitate the promotion of the positive vision or visions which are needed to inspire people to take things forward, and to want to continue living in the North – a shocking number of young people would leave Northern Ireland if they get the chance. Maybe there will be a period of forced reflection if the Assembly in Stormont fails and falls. Whether there is or not, creative and lateral thinking is needed about how to move forward.
Of course decision making at the centre is only one aspect of what is needed in Northern Ireland. But without a forward-looking centre to the political system it is very difficult for people on the ground to make headway. In the current situation, without a vision at the centre, the people who struggle at the grassroots have to struggle twice as hard for half the result. It is not impossible the current system could 'work' but it is not likely to do so effectively. The Good Friday Agreement was good in that it provided a relatively peaceful environment, and a focus and hope at the time but that has dissipated. It is time to move on.
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Ireland set to invest more in arms trade
The fact has been known for some time that Ireland is involved in the arms trade. The largest and most significant arms enterprise is the missile maker Thales, based in Castlereagh, Belfast and Co Down. But the Republic has had significant involvement, particularly through dual use products (those that can be used for civilian or military production) but with other weapon-related production as well, and these facts have been highlighted by Afri and others.
But Irish arms trade involvement may reach a new departure point if a plan by Minister for Defence Simon Coveney comes to fruition. Before now, the state permitted the arms trade involvement of different firms but was not actively involved in promoting it (such firms involved could avail of industrial development grants and the like in the same way as any other firm). There has also been limited Irish Army involvement with product development. However Simon Coveney wants Ireland to actively pursue the arms trade and use the Irish Army to assist them in testing and development, building on Irish government approval for such a direction dating from 2011. Coveney's plans will appear in a Defence White Paper to appear over the coming months. This is a new and unwelcome departure in a chronicle of increasing Irish military involvement generally, with the EU, with NATO (including US use of Shannon), and also with the arms trade.
It is difficult to know where to start in a criticism of the arms trade since there are so many negatives. For the purchasing country, the money is 'dead' money, finance which is not used for human need or development. Thus even if the weapon or product is never used there is a cost. And it unlikely that that arms products will only go to countries which can afford them without affecting their possibilities for human development. Many military products are used not just for 'defence' but for internal security thus propping up many dodgy dictatorships or corrupt regimes. Thales missiles go to nearly sixty countries which will include many corrupt and repressive regimes. It should also be clearly stated that even 'defensive' military products have 'offensive' uses; attackers need 'defence' capability against counter-attack, and even a humble armoured personnel carrier can be used as a vehicle of repression against popular protest and uprising. Vetting who can purchase military products does not work.
Simon Coveney was quoted in the Sunday Independent (12/07/15) as saying the plans would not involve the testing of weapons like guns or rocket launchers – "There's a kind of principled view....that we don't develop weapons here. We're not really part of the arms industry in this country." He then went on to advocate Irish IT involvement in exactly that arms industry! Either Coveney is totally naive or totally disingenuous. The arms trade is not just about guns or rockets. Guns and rockets do not fire themselves. They need all sorts of systems to support them, including the IT and drone technology which he would like to see Ireland utilising in the service of the arms trade. And drones are increasingly used as a means of achieving military attacks on targets with little or no risk to the attacker, thus further securing a benefit to the arms- and powerholder, with civilian death and suffering at the receiving end.
Coveney wants to have it all ways. In the Irish Times (26/7/15) he was quoted as saying that "Instead of seeing the Defence Forces – Army, Air Corps and Naval Service – as purely a cost for the State and a user of funds, I actually think we should turn that around," he said. "Yes, it's something we need to invest in but it's also an infrastructure that can deliver back for the State in terms of job creation, in terms of providing an infrastructure for testing new technologies, new innovations." This, he stated, includes drones. He then went on to say, in the same interview, he would like to invest more in international conflict management and peacekeeping training. "One of the advantages of neutrality is that you can provide a platform for international training in an area where you have built a lot of credibility." So you try and profit from your good name while at the same time going the opposite direction.
If Ireland has a good name internationally then some of that is because the Republic is a small and previously neutral state, involved in military peacekeeping with the UN and having played an honest role in developing nuclear non-proliferation and the banning of landmines and cluster munitions. If Ireland goes down this route we will increasingly be known as agents of death, people who will sell their souls for a few jobs and a bit of profit.
The challenge is not to develop technology for death and repressive control but for life and making life worth living for all. Let Ireland use its IT capacity for enhancing life, for human development, not being part of controlling it or even taking it away. When Gandhi was asked what he thought of western civilisation, he is reputed to have said "It would be a good idea". We know what he meant. Such developments in military applications are the opposite of anything which could be called civilisation.
What a sad, sad day for Ireland and for our little bit of humanity.
Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –
The Ethics of Flight-Based Tourism
Enormous changes in transport have taken place over the last fifty years. When I was a child few households in Ireland had a car. When my Dad parked his shiny new Austin Mini Van on Grace Hill Street in the Old Park area of Belfast in 1969 its novelty was such that it attracted the attention of nearly every boy in the street. Some spat on it in scorn while others wanted to experience what it was like to sit inside it. Today most households in Ireland have a car, many have more than one even in towns and cities with excellent public transport. When I was growing-up pupils walked to school, the pupil who walks to and from school today is the exception and liable to be given a certificate in acknowledgment. I took my first air flight when I was 18, which was from Dublin to Paris. As a signifier of the status attached to flying men would wear a dress jacket and tie. My 14-year old daughter took her first flight when she was in her mother's womb and today people wear crumpled casual clothes when flying.
Flying is an integral part of contemporary life, as common for most people as travelling by car. A growing number of Irish people commute daily from Dublin and Belfast to their job in London. Given the high cost of accommodation in London and the low cost of air-flights this makes economic sense. Airport Watch informs us that 2.5 billion people in 2009 took an air flight and that air flight represents 3% of the total amount of human sourced climate changing gasses. According to Airport Watch if aviation were a country it would rank as the 7th largest emitter of CO2 in the world. Worryingly it informs us that 16 billion people are expected to fly by 2050.
Most air journeys are taken as part of a holiday, they are in other words a luxury rather than a necessity. Given that it is the poor who suffer the most from climate change, caused overwhelming by the affluent, can a flight-based holiday ever be ethically justified? Even people for whom ethics and human well-being is a professional concern fly without a second thought - people such as solicitors, human rights campaigners, environmentalists and the clergy. Pope Francis whose environmental encyclical was published in June 2015 to widespread acclaim regularly flies to capitals around the world. He will visit three cities in the United States this September and I expect he won't travel from city to city on a Greyhound Bus.
A standard refrain many tourists offer to justify their climate changing, noise creating flights is that it benefits the poor in the countries they visit. This is rarely the case. Tourists spend most of their money on services provided by large corporations including insurance, airlines, hotels, car hire, restaurants and brand merchandise. Another justification is that travel enhances one's sense of well-being, challenges prejudices and stereotypes and through interaction with 'the other' be it cultures, landscapes, flora and fauna leads them to becoming better people, which in ripple-like fashion leads to a better world. This I would think is the experience of the few. What mostly happens is that overseas tourists remain in their own cultural bubble with conversations limited to waiters and shop assistants who are unlikely to challenge the values and views of their paying customers. If the aim is personal transformation of some kind then good literature or a well-made documentary can be more effective that a flight-based holiday and most certainly less environmentally destructive.
In some cases positive transformation is best realized through multi-sensory experiences, by leaving the familiar behind, and receiving the baptism of the new. One, however, does not need to emit a significant amount of greenhouse gasses to do this. One can find the new in one's own locale, be it a bus or train journey away. In Ireland for example one can walk on ancient pilgrim paths across the country, travel by bicycle avoiding major towns, experience Vision Quest type meditation in Neolithic sites, monastic ruins, on deserted beaches or a rarely visited river bank. Alternatively, one can spend time on an organic farm or take a literature or craft-based residential holiday. The reality of climate change means we have to rethink how we live every aspect of our lives including attempting to obtain a sense of personal renewal, which is often the aim of our annual two-week holiday.
For accompanying photo by Larry Speight of Blacksleen Waterfall, Co Fermanagh, taken on 1st September 2015 [Wonderful photo – Ed] 'Holiday at home'.