Consultative Forum on International Security
Peace and neutrality activists don’t let the government away with it….
In their concluding remarks on the fourth and final day of the Consultative Forum on International Security, Micheál Martin, as Minister for Foreign Affairs, and Louise Richardson, Forum chair, were in congratulatory mode (to the country and themselves) for the liveliness of debate and even the involvement of people in the process through protest. To an uninformed observer these might seem urbane remarks however since the protests were due to the discriminatory way in which the whole enterprise was set up, this was rather hollow and putting a gloss on something which was less than satisfactory and of their own making. The previous establishment and government line was that protesters were trying to shut down debate; given the organisers’ own role in trying to control the agenda for debate, the opposite was the case.
Louise Richardson also said she knew of no other country where such a forum had taken place, implying how wonderful Irish democracy was. This was true about the uniqueness of the event. What she did not say however was that it was taking place because of political expediency on the part of the Minister. He wanted to remove – presumably still aims to remove – the triple lock (government, Dáil, UN) on the deployment of Irish troops overseas this autumn. The war in Ukraine gave an excuse to try to move things in the direction he wanted but he needed some ‘democratic’ credentials or ‘weaponised’ basis to do so – and thus set up what purported to be a ‘Forum’ (‘a public event for open discussion of ideas’) but was actually a long conference with speakers hand picked by the Minister and his staff to give the answers or direction he wanted. The whole process was not instigated out of the goodness of the Minister’s heart, and his desire for democracy, but for very particular political ends.
The Irish government has been trying to use the war in Ukraine, and Russian invasion, as a reason to change the ‘triple lock’. There is only one case where the triple lock may have prevented a peacekeeping deployment and that did not involve Russia. Of course the government and pro-government speakers did not mention the warmongering of the USA and the West, nor the breach of neutrality by giving Shannon for US military use, no questions asked. The background also included the lie that the Forum was not about neutrality as opposed to ‘security’ as if the two were unconnected, another part of the ‘get rid of neutrality by stealth’ strategy.
Micheál Martin has previously stated how much he learned and benefited from conciliation programme run by Quaker House Belfast (for info on the latter see https://www.flickr.com/photos/innateireland/50654202881/in/album-72157717185737611/ ). This was in getting to meet, and know Northern unionists – and he does have a reputation among unionists as being someone who understands them. However it is really sad that he has not been able to extrapolate from this experience of dealing with conflict on the island of Ireland, demonstrating the importance of long term conciliation and mediation efforts, to thinking internationally. Instead he is going with militarisation and so-called military ‘solutions’. He was going to take what he could get from this ‘forum process’ and the hope must be that this will be severely constrained by the challenges both to the process and the content which took place.
Louise Richardson also didn’t say it was deliberately not a citizens’ assembly – a format which now has established form in Ireland in dealing with difficult and contentious issues – because it would have given the ‘wrong’ answers so far as the Minister was concerned.
Peace and neutrality groups were working hard to point out the illegitimacy of the exercise, and hold alternative forums where the speakers and issues they wanted included were not excluded. But an intervention by Michael D Higgins, pushing at the boundaries of what it is acceptable for an Irish president to say, questioned the drift towards NATO and also raised questions about the credentials of the chair (he later withdrew some of these remarks). That greatly helped make the issue a hot potato. However he would never have felt constrained to make those remarks had the enterprise not been an underhand one to begin with. His comments thus served the interests of democracy.
One illustrative ironic twist took place during a Forum session on cyber threats and disinformation. A couple of contributors from the floor both pointed to the Forum itself as an exercise in disinformation due to the built in bias in the programme and speakers. Perhaps this fits the old adage of ‘the medium is the message’. You can easily find the list of speakers on the Department website and some analysis of speakers’ backgrounds is in The Phoenix issue for 30h June.
That is not to say that some participants in the Forum did not make a useful and even positive contribution on the issues involved. Some panels were less imbalanced than others and some had reasonably comprehensive discussion of the issues. But the topics dealt with, and the speakers chosen, as well as the chair who will write the report, were all hand picked by the Minister and staff acting on his direction. At no point was it stated by the Minister or the Department that inclusion in the speakers list was by Department of Foreign Affairs invitation only (which was the case). An INNATE offer to contribute unique content, on nonviolent civilian defence and on extending neutrality as part of security, was brushed aside. (See https://www.flickr.com/photos/innateireland/53003786126/in/dateposted/ with INNATE being prevented from putting these leaflets out for those attending at Dublin Castle). So a ‘Forum’ it was not.
Proponents of peace and neutrality faced a dilemma, to protest (possibly through a boycott) and/or be involved. In general people protested and were involved; a boycott, especially given the bias in the media, was likely to lead to invisibility. But making a point, or raising a question – which might not be answered or answered poorly – from the floor is not in any sense being properly included, it is being tolerated and patronised – especially when Micheál Martin congratulated everyone, including protesters, for their commitment on the issue. He might genuinely feel that way but certainly this was not the feeling for those on the other side of the NATO fence (Ireland is still a fellow traveller with NATO through its euphemistically named ‘Partnership for Peace’). And being involved in any way, even protesting inside the Forum, could be seen as legitimising it in that the organisers could then say “Look how tolerant we are, we even allow protest” (no they didn’t, anything they allowed was under sufferance, and numerous people were ejected from the chamber).
So the question of the legitimacy of the whole enterprise entered some of the media (e.g. The Irish Independent of 23/6/23 but not The Irish Times whose paper edition the same day, after the first session in Cork, held not one photo of protests and only a brief mention of protests themselves). And as usual the mass media did not cover the fact there were different protests and people or groups involved (see e.g. the text of https://www.flickr.com/photos/innateireland/52993125392/in/dateposted/ and compare that with mass media reports ).
While we must await the final report, written by Louise Richardson, there is no indication to date that she might not be the ‘safe pair of hands’ she would seem to be, the reason she was appointed by the Minister. The report should never, in any case, have been the responsibility of one person. While the question of the legitimacy of the whole enterprise has been raised successfully, it is still possible that the Minister will try to use the report as a means to get what he wants and the triple lock removed. This should be a real test of the integrity of deputies in the Dáil.
The Irish state should be looking at how neutrality could be extended as a real and vibrant force for peace in the world. That is the approach taken in INNATE’s written submission to the Forum, see https://tinyurl.com/3rurehhv The world already has far too many countries armed to the teeth and acting in a belligerent and self-interested manner. Ireland has the opportunity to be different but the establishment choice is to join even closer the big boys with their guns. The metaphorical guns in the above affair were held by the Minister; the peace and neutrality sector, through mobilising and its nonviolent action, succeeded in at least disarming some of those weapons of mass distraction.
The struggle is not over.
–See also the news section for links to further information, the article by Dominic Carroll in this issue, and INNATE’s photo album at https://www.flickr.com/photos/innateireland/albums/72177720309217408
Back to a different inefficiency
It is clear that Geoffrey Donaldson, leader of the DUP, wants to get back into Stormont and is drawing up his shopping lists. Here there is the danger that the British government, in giving the DUP and unionists the assurances they want about the place of Northern Ireland in the UK will actually breach the Good Friday Agreement. Meanwhile other prominent members of the party, such as Ian Paisley, are very much more reluctant, and that dynamic has to work itself out within the DUP itself.
In a cynical political move the British Secretary of State in the North, Chris Heaton-Harris, continues to make people suffer through swingeing cuts and the resultant instability in education, health, social service and community sectors as he weaponises the cuts to put pressure on the DUP to return to Stormont – of course that would be with a package which removes some of those cuts. People’s lives are thus a political football.
Assuming that Stormont does return in the autumn – and if it doesn’t there could be a lengthy period of direct rule by Britain – there are a myriad of issues on the table to be dealt with by Michelle (O’Neill), Geoffrey (Donaldson), the Executive and the whole Assembly. While we might hope for a good ‘run’ at and on the pressing issues of concern, if past history is anything to go by then ‘things’ will gradually run into the ground and another crisis emerge to stymie progress.
It is difficult to enumerate all the issues of concern in one editorial. There are systemic issues of governance and decision making. There are issues which are difficult to resolve (e.g. education) because of the nature of the sectarian division which then overlaps with divisions on a left/right, progressive/conservative axis. There is the sectarian division itself which creates difficulties in the provision of facilities and sometimes requires ‘double provision’ (one facility for mainly Protestants, and one for mainly Catholics). And there are big problems simply with the amount of money available from the British Exchequer, given that the home rule Assembly system is not responsible for taxation (but see below).
While it has been generally recognised that the system of decision making needs reformed, simply removing the necessity for the two largest parties on either side to be involved in the Executive will not eradicate the problems. If the largest party on one side can ‘pass’ (i.e. decline to be involved in the Executive) but others on the same side pick up the ball (and be in the Executive), that would largely eradicate the start-stop nature of the Assembly. But it would not deal with the difficulty which the parties have in arriving at good decision making.
This is where the decision making methodologies proposed and propounded by the de Borda Institute www.deborda.org should come into play. In effect these have built in consideration for minority viewpoints and are the fairest way of trying to arrive at a workable consensus or decision that all can live with. They do require political parties to act in a different manner, however, and this is only likely to come about through pressure from the public. It might at least give an impetus to effective decision making in areas where there was been sustained failure in the past.
While Stormont, if the Assembly is up and running, cannot replicate taxation raised by the UK government, there is nothing to stop it raising taxes that are different, such as a land use tax (e.g. a tax on land and property which is not being used productively aside from that which is clearly set aside for ecological purposes). And due to the lack of economies of scale in an area of 1.9 million people, and issues of poverty and ill health, some stemming from the Troubles, the ‘Barnett formula’ of funding for UK regions needs further tweaked to give Northern Ireland a fairer share of the UK cake – Wales has already succeeded in doing that.
Whatever the constitutional future for Northern Ireland, there are urgent issues which need sorted now. The reform of Stormont could be a vital tool in turning around an area where the majority of young people want to leave, a fact illustrative of the many problems which beset individuals and society and of the existing malaise. The Northern Ireland Protocol and Windsor Agreement give Northern Ireland some economic advantages which it is next to impossible to harness without a home rule government in place.