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Billy King


Nonviolence News



These are regular editorials produced alongside the corresponding issues on Nonviolent News.

Number 283: October 2020

[Return to related issue of Nonviolence News]

What a tangled web gets weaved

To say that the political situation in Northern Ireland is fragile is to state what should be obvious to anyone. Apart from any substantial issues involved, Northern Ireland has a remarkable record of stop-start politics, not just since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 but for a long period before that – the old Ulster Unionist Party dominated Stormont Parliament was prorogued in 1972 and even the subsequent talking shops about new systems were stop-start. There are many reasons for this fragility, and though everyone will have their favourite scapegoats, no one party or inclination is solely to blame, though in a particular case it may be one such party or persuasion.

The British government has, perhaps laughably, projected itself as a neutral figure in Northern Ireland politics. Despite its agreement in the Good Friday Agreement to be bound by a referendum that would vote for ‘Irish unity’ (whatever that might mean), the British government is not an impartial referee, it is a fervent player on the pitch who tries at times to act or just pretend it is a referee. This was most blatantly illustrated when Theresa May’s Conservative government did a deal with the DUP to prop it up.

Brexit has destabilised Northern Irish politics and risks further instability in the months and years ahead. If unionists and particularly the DUP wanted to maintain the status quo of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland then it definitely chose the wrong horse in backing Brexit, and had a fundamental misunderstanding of what the UK could achieve in relation to a trade deal with the EU. It was also discovered that Boris Johnson’s promises to avoid a border in the Irish sea was just another of his convenient-at-the-time fairy stories, or in other words a downright lie in relation to what he did subsequently (and may do again).

Perhaps we can introduce a bit of negotiation theory here. The ‘pull the tablecloth off and hope everything falls into place and nothing gets broken’ theory of negotiation – as practised by Johnson and Cummings in planning to negate part of the legal Withdrawal Agreement with the EU – is a capricious and dangerous strategy. Successful and principled negotiation depends on trust, and if trust disappears then it is much more difficult to get any agreement, and certainly more difficult to get one which is to the liking of the side which has pulled off the tablecloth. ‘Shaking it up’ may have been Johnson and Cummings’ aim but it did damage to negotiations which are at such a late stage with so little agreed.

The UK has been poor in the whole process in stating what it wanted, initially at all, and latterly in a realistic way (we are not saying the EU has always been very flexible either). In any negotiation, a party is wise to have an idea of what is an acceptable alternative to a negotiated settlement but in this case the question had to be asked whether they were huffing and bluffing because they actually wanted no deal. However a no deal Brexit would be so costly and disruptive, especially in the current Covid-19 environment, that, despite all the counter-indications, it has to be assumed that the British government does actually want a deal, What they will settle for, and whether they will stick to their side of any bargain, well, that is a question EU officials must be asking.

An intention to break an internationally binding agreement regarding Northern Ireland, state aid, and its trading relationship to the rest of the UK was not just a stupid thing to do in relation to continuing negotiations with the EU, it was a stupid thing to do in relation to Northern Ireland. Of course many unionists welcomed the proposal if it reduced any differences to the rest of the UK but Northern Ireland is not Finchley.

In relation to what some local bodies said on the matter, “Civil society organisations in Northern Ireland that have played a crucial part in upholding the peace process have expressed concerns about how this would affect the application of the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol, which is considered vital to upholding the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. Kevin Hanratty, Director of the Human Rights Consortium in Northern Ireland, said that the Protocol sits “at the heart of protecting the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and the principle of non-diminution of rights as the UK exits the EU”, and called for international law and the legal commitments already in place to be “respected and upheld.” Meanwhile, Brian Gormally, Director of the Committee on the Administration of Justice, called the Secretary of State’s statement “shocking”, and highlighted how a binding international treaty now seemed to be “at the whim of government ministers” and could be “ripped up as part of a negotiating tactic”. Paddy Kelly, Director of the Children’s Law Centre in Northern Ireland expressed her “deep concerns” about the UK government’s latest move and said, “their actions threaten the peace process of all children and young people in Northern Ireland”. [Source]

There are two possibilities which commentators have analysed in relation to Boris Johnson’s signing of the Withdrawal Agreement with the EU. The idea that he did not understand the ramifications of it at the time is nonsense. Reports indicated that the British government was looking at how it could break the Northern Ireland protocol from as early as February this year. So it looks like it signed the agreement ‘in bad faith’. Undertaking a legally binding agreement that you plan to break is both poor negotiation and also kicking the can so far down the road it disappears out of sight, and isn’t there when you want it.

The remarkable thing is that a joint British-EU committee exists to deal with issues arising from the Northern Ireland protocol. And the EU is clearly well disposed to Northern Ireland even though it is part of a state which has left the EU. So if the British government took its concerns to this committee it is liikely to have received a reasonable hearing. But Johnson and Cummings decided to throw their toys out of the pram and conceivably use Northern Ireland itself as their plaything.

Whether the British government was cynically using Northern Ireland as a negotiating tactic is a matter of judgement. If it was a matter of principle, why did they sign originally? And if they were more recently using it as a negotiating tactic, and a display of supposed patriotism at home, then it was a despicable act. Northern Ireland has suffered enough, and been through the wringer so often, that to put it through again for whatever political purpose the British government was pursuing, was both selfish and self-centred.

It is going to be an interesting few months. The UK is very unprepared for 1st January 2021, even if there was a deal because no one knows what that deal will be so no one can properly prepare. Northern Ireland is likely to suffer whatever the outcome but a British government which breaks its internationally recognised treaties is not helping anyone.

How the security situation in Northern Ireland will pan out in the various eventualities remains to be seen. However England’s difficulty will be seen as military-minded republicans opportunity. And a more impoverished and isolated Britain will not have the pennies or the policies that Northern Ireland needs to make progress both economically or politically. Whether Northern Ireland can benefit from ‘the best of both worlds’ (being in the UK but in the single market of the EU) remains to be seen and British government assistance to explore possibilities for this has been paltry – that is perhaps where British efforts regarding Northern Ireland should have been going if Brexit was taking place.

If we were trying to get somewhere, anywhere, Northern Ireland certainly wouldn’t start from here, where it is at. Let us hope that there is a rabbit in someone’s hat. Meanwhile those of us working for peace, justice, inclusion and sustainability in Northern Ireland have a few more mountains to climb that we could have done without.

Human rights and collective solidarity

There are enormous human rights implications of societal restrictions and regulations, whether fully enforced by law or not, in relation to Covid-19. It is a difficult balancing act; to restrict the spreading of a dangerous and highly transmittable disease while not infringing on individual rights more than necessary.

These restrictions have to be placed in the context of ‘the right to life’ – and ‘the right to life’ in particular of elderly people and those who are vulnerable due to pre-existing medical conditions. Even if people have had their ‘three score years and ten’, or more, they still have a right to life and that not to be endangered. However it is also clear that the virus concerned can be life-changing for those who are young and healthy as well, and can lead to probably medium-term debility and chronic fatigue.

Regulations and restrictions do need to be closely monitored from a human rights point of view, and a body such as ICCL/Irish Council for Civil Liberties has been doing just this. But well known figures such as Jim Corr or Van Morrison railing against restrictions does not serve the public well; difficult as it is, and it is particulary difficult for young people, we do need to adhere as closely as we can to what is asked of us while also reaching out as best we can, using permissable methods, to those whom we love or might otherwise be isolated.

Individual examples matter, as we know from Phil Hogan, Michelle O’Neill, Dominic Cummings and others. Just because we are not in the public spotlight does not absolve us from that responsibility at all. There are also bound to be some seemingly contradictory policies about what can or cannot take place within the regulations; this is natural given the complex nature of modern society and the uncertain but infectious nature of the virus concerned, the need to protect people, and a need for society and the economy to continue to operate in some shape or form. Collective solidarity can be painful but ‘not harming others’ is the minimum goal that we should set ourselves.

- - - - -

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

The Good Anthropocene?

Prompted by James Lovelock’s book Novacene (2019) I am moved to consider the question if the Anthropocene, meaning the “recent age of humanity”, (*1) can be considered good.

Geologists have divided the geological history of the Earth into different epochs. The Anthropocene is the name unofficially given to the epoch we are presently living in. This is said to have begun at the outset of the industrial revolution, which most historians say began with the invention of the steam engine by Thomas Newcomen in 1712 and improved upon by James Watt in 1869. The term denotes the geological impact humankind has had on the Earth from the radiation left by nuclear bombs and power stations to the plastics found in rainforest, mountain top and seabed, the warming of the planet and the catastrophic loss of biodiversity. The Anthropocene followed the Holocene, which began at the end of the last ice age 11,500 years ago and whose benign climate allowed for the flourishing of civilizations.

The idea that the Anthropocene is good, even when all its negative consequences are taken into account, is supported by the prominent environmentalists Mark Lynas who Lovelock says “believes that the Anthropocene could turn out to be a wonderful era for humanity.” (*2) This view is held by governments, corporations, financial institutions and probably most of the human population. The belief helps account for why global society has held true to the dominant economic paradigm in spite of recent reports such as the Global Biodiversity Outlook 5, and the Living Planet Report 2020 by the WWF and the Zoological Society of London.

The Outlook 5 report found that the world has failed to meet a single target to stem the loss of biodiversity and maintain healthy ecosystems these past two decades. The view of the good Anthropocene has held firm in spite of the forest fires attributed to climate breakdown presently consuming much of the West coast of the United States, large swaths of Siberia and earlier this year vast areas of Australia in which an estimated three billion animals were killed. (*3)

The idea of the good Anthropocene has a lot of merit. Without the advent of the industrial revolution it is highly unlikely there would be vaccines, antibiotics, keyhole surgery, body scans, and organ transplants to mention just a few of the benefits of modern medicine. Without the industrial revolution there would be no digital technology and the abundance and variety of food available to those with money to pay for it. The life experience of hundreds of millions of people have been enriched by aviation, train and motor car, physical toil has been eased and the average life-span considerably prolonged. Our homes, places of work and recreation would not be as comfortable, safe and stimulating.

Such are the benefits technological innovations have brought humanity that Lovelock and others think that the scales tip in favour of the good Anthropocene. (*4) Those who believe this tend to hold the view that technology can make life even better, could in fact be the means to resolving all our major problems.

A significant flaw in the idea that the Anthropocene is good is that its time perspective is exceedingly short. In fifty years’ time the sense of balance between what is good as against the death and destruction paid for it will, on the basis of ecological projections, be comprehensively weighted on the side of the negative. A worrying projection of the Institute for Economics and Peace is that 1.2 billion people living in 31 countries will be displaced by climate breakdown by 2050. (*5) This will mean migration within and across national borders on such a scale that even well-meaning, rich and politically stable countries will be unable to cope which will almost inevitably lead to civil unrest, national and international wars. The war in Syria is thought to be the first international war caused by climate breakdown when a prolonged draught forced 1.5 million people from the countryside into urban areas that were unable to cope, and the government with its narcissistic outlook, was wholly unresponsive. (*6)

Without doubt the Anthropocene has been good for a section of humanity but not the billions whose daily life is a struggle to exist and who live in highly polluted environments. It was not good for the thousands of ethnic groups who were enslaved and exterminated during the age of colonialism and those who are persecuted today. The Anthropocene has been an unmitigated disaster for the flora, fauna and microorganisms for whom the Earth is also home.

The challenge we face today is to harvest the Earth’s resources in an ecologically sustainable way, mimic nonhuman nature through creating a circular economy, eliminate gross economic inequalities and develop a culture of active care and compassion. This would go a long way in demilitarising countries and spending the trillions of hard currency saved on projects that benefit the neediest. It is not unrealistic to think that we can enjoy the benefits of technology, fairly distributed, whilst maintaining the integrity of ecosystems.

When we include the harm done to all of the inhabitants of the Earth since the advent of the industrial revolution, and the dreadful environmental legacy we leave for future generations, it is difficult to think of the Anthropocene as good.

(*1) Paul J. Crutzen, (2000)
(*2) Lovelock, Novacene, (2019), p. 67.
(*3) Graham Readfearn, Adam Morton, Guardian, 28 July 2020.
(*4) Lovelock, Novacene, (2019), p. 73.
(*5) Jon Henley, Guardian, 9 September 2020.
(*6) Scientific America, Summer 2020, p. 60

Copyright INNATE 2021