Mike Tomlinson is a professor emeritus at Queen's University Belfast and a veteran community activist. He penned the first major report into unemployment in West Belfast, the Obair Report, in the 1980s.
He has been monitoring governmental responses to the coronavirus throughout 2020.
The Sunday Telegraph is always a useful place from which to trigger a culture war and to test reaction to the next policy tilt towards the right wing of English politics. On 14 November it carried a piece on the Johnson government’s plan to produce an ‘official’ history of ‘the Troubles’. This is necessary, the report claimed, because “IRA supporters are rewriting history”.
In the shadow of COP26, Frost and ‘Clown’ Johnson are preparing the next steps in their mission to roll back the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol.
AS the third season of Succession kicks off, it’s worth revisiting one of the most memorable quotes from season two. The quote springs to mind as COP26 approaches. But first some context for anyone not familiar with the series.
Milan, September 2021. Youth4Climate delegates from all over the world meet in an attempt to goad environment ministers into radicalising their commitments for COP26 to be held in Glasgow in November. Towering over the speakers’ podium is a huge screen showing Alok Sharma MP, Minister of State at the Cabinet Office and the man appointed by Boris Johnson as President for COP26. Unlike the fictional “Big Brother is watching you” figure in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (written in 1949), Sharma looks miserable and distinctly uncomfortable as two keynote speakers take to the podium. First up is Vanessa Nakate from Kampala, Uganda, the founder of the Rise Up Movement. Uganda has “one of the fastest changing climates in the world”.
In a matter of days, 134,000 Universal Credit (UC) claimants in the North will have their payments cut by £20 per week across the board. This is a cut of £86.67 on the monthly payment. In twelve months, this cut will remove over £139m from people’s purses, all of which would be spent on food, clothing and other essentials in the local economy. But hey, why worry — helicopter money is on the way. The Department for the Economy has launched the High Street Scheme which is designed to “boost businesses across the retail, hospitality and services sectors following the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic”. Assuming every adult applies for the £100 'spend local' credit card, and every pound is spent, this will put £140m into the economy, with another £5m going to the company making the cards and on administration, including a research report by the Retail Economics consultancy which advised on how such a scheme operated in Jersey this time last year. Less than half of the Jersey spending went on food and clothing. The trouble for UC claimants is that the £100 credit card makes up for just five weeks of the cut in UC payments. So Her Majesty’s Treasury has removed £139 million per year from the most hard-pressed individuals in the North while the Department for the Economy is distributing £140 million across all adults rich and poor. There has been heavy lobbying of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to prevent the UC cut. He has ignored representations from the devolved administrations, from the churches and anti-poverty lobby groups, from trade unions and even from a few Tory MPs including six former work and pensions secretaries — note the high turnover rate. According to a Whitehall leak, “the internal modelling of ending the UC uplift is catastrophic. Homelessness and poverty are likely to rise, and foodbank usage will soar”. Maybe there will be some sort of tweak to the scheme in the forthcoming budget.
YET another storm is brewing in Downing Street. Following storms Cummings, Hancock and Rabb (a.k.a. storm Taliban), the promises of Building Back Better and Levelling Up post-pandemic are about to be drowned in a deluge of economic pressures and political squabbling. Those on the lowest incomes are unlikely to come out of this well. The immediate issue is another of Johnson’s oven-ready deals. Two years ago he declared: “I am announcing now – on the steps of Downing Street – that we will fix the crisis in social care once and for all with a clear plan we have prepared to give every older person the dignity and security they deserve.” Repeat, “a clear plan we have prepared”, so clear and so prepared that six months later the Conservative and Unionist Party’s election manifesto held back on the plan by promising to seek a cross-party consensus on the issue. Five months after that, the fragility of the social care sector was fully exposed by the failure to protect care home residents and their carers from the ravages of Covid. The ‘protective shield’ around care homes was a myth. The “clear plan” for funding social care can be postponed no longer, so it seems. After all, the 1997-2010 Labour governments and the Coalition and subsequent governments have been grappling with the funding of social care since the Royal Commission of 1999. This recommended the introduction of free personal care on the grounds that cancer care was free under the NHS so why not provide free care for those with Alzheimer’s disease under the social care system? Scotland implemented a free social care policy in 2002. The closest to a British party political consensus on social care funding came with the Dilnot Report recommendations of 2011. Professor Dilnot proposed that care charges be capped over a person’s lifetime and the introduction of a less harsh means test. This was broadly accepted at the time and the Care Act of 2014 was passed, ready for implementation in 2016. But this was deemed unaffordable under George Osborne’s austerity drive so it was initially postponed until 2020 and then put back into the policy melting pot once again from 2017. Four years later, and 22 years after the Royal Commission report, Johnson is still wrestling with the issue. What is his problem? First there are the December 2019 manifesto commitments not to raise income tax, VAT or national insurance contributions (NICs). Secondly, the manifesto carried forward the triple lock on the state pension which guarantees that the pension goes up in line with inflation, average wages or 2.5 per cent, whichever benefits pensioners the most. Thirdly, splashing the cash during the pandemic does not mean that the low tax, small state faction within the governing party at Westminster – including the Britannia Unchained mob within the cabinet itself – has gone away. State spending is fine when channelled into party supporters and donors, and in exceptional, war-like circumstances. But it is not fine in general when you are driven by an ideological commitment to the “free market”, “sovereignty” and “global Britain”, and see the state as a last resort. Breaching manifesto commitments is not a problem for Johnson. He’s already done it by cutting the foreign aid budget, violating what is written in law in the process. He lies to the House of Commons and to the public at large, so ditching bits of the manifesto is not an issue. No, the problem is the disaster capitalists in his own party who see the pandemic as an opportunity to increase the reach of the private sector into the work of the NHS and elsewhere. They would rather see no tax increases of any kind and let the NHS be starved of funds, further stimulating the drift towards private services. Minor incremental changes to social care funding are enough as they see it. Some of the prominent Brexiters, such as cabinet member Rees-Mogg, are openly opposed to tax increases.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that climate change is “widespread, rapid and intensifying” in its latest report released on Monday 9 August. With some variations, every part of the globe is affected by rising sea levels, changes in ocean currents and ecosystems, by more extreme rainfall patterns and flooding, intense droughts and rising land surface temperatures. Climate change is melting the ice caps, glaciers and permafrost. The climate crisis is “unequivocally” caused by human activity – the burning of fossil fuels. It is “code red for humanity” says the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. What we see now will only get worse and nobody is safe. Even under the best case scenario – “strong, rapid, and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions” (mainly CO2, methane and nitrous oxide) – it will take decades for the climate to stabilise. An 18 centimetre rise in sea levels is “virtually certain” by 2050 on the best scenario and that will grow to 38 cm by the end of the century. So when the UK’s lead on COP26, Alok Sharma, says that the key message is, “the future is not yet written”, he is quite simply wrong. The evidence of the report is that the future is written. The only question is, how bad will that future be? Sea levels could be one metre higher by the end of the century if the remaining carbon budget of 300 gigatonnes (for the best case scenario) is used up, according to the IPCC report.
In less than 100 days, thousands of COP26 delegates will arrive in Glasgow for the latest United Nations convention on the climate emergency, hosted by Boris Johnson’s government. Judging by the recent G7 meeting, expectations that Johnson will bring the necessary leadership qualities to the event are very low. It is easy to see why. A few weeks ago, the UK Climate Change Committee produced a report that basically said the Westminster government was good at setting distant future targets but hopeless at following through with actual policies and spending plans: good at the bullshit but unconcerned with delivery.
From ice cores, it is estimated that the earth’s atmosphere consisted of 276 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide (CO2) when the Battle of the Boyne was fought. The beacons that were lit to guide King William’s forces into Belfast lough in June 1690 made a negligible difference to the prevailing level of greenhouse gases. Can that be said of today’s bonfires?
It is no surprise to find a close relationship between creationism and climate change denial. If as a denier you are wrong and planet earth becomes uninhabitable then, as a creationist, you know that God can make another one in seven days.
As the chilled meat cliff edge approaches (30 June), it looks increasingly likely that the British government has no intention of getting on with implementing the protocol. The level of engagement with the practicalities is summed up by Lord Frost’s attendance at the G7 summit wearing Union Jack socks. Thankfully, no-one seems to have got close enough to reveal if such insecure flag waving extends to his underwear. Last December it was agreed that anyone importing meat to the North from Britain needed six months to adjust to the protocol which bars chilled meat products entering the EU single market from a third country (which GB now is). As of 1 July, such goods must be frozen. The issue is far wider than chilled meat and could easily be sorted by agreeing, like Switzerland, to stick to EU standards. That would get rid of the vast majority of border checks at Larne and Belfast ports.
Sometimes it’s hard to resist the theatre of politics at Westminster, especially when a once mighty SPAD and reputed bully tries to bring down a Prime Minister and a Health Secretary. Three hours might have covered it but Dominic Cummings needed seven. He just couldn’t resist going on about his pet theories of government by dictatorship, how he heroically tried to bring order out of chaos and telling us that 'The Thick of It' wasn’t the half of it. At one point in the early weeks of the Covid crisis, says Dominic Cummings, the deputy cabinet secretary Helen McNamara walks into Boris Johnson’s office to deliver her professional assessment of the situation: “I’ve come through here to tell you I think we are absolutely fucked.” That was on 12 March 2020, a date that is memorable for another reason as it is the date testing stopped. McNamara, who left her cabinet post for the private sector in February of this year, had just discovered that there was no plan: “I’ve been told for years there’s a whole plan for this but there is no plan”. Boris Johnson knew this, of course, as within days of his arrival in Downing Street in the summer of 2019, he scrapped the special pandemic cabinet committee, otherwise known as THRCC – the threats, hazards, resilience and contingency committee. This was on the advice of the cabinet secretary, Sir Mark Sedwell, who wanted to free everyone up for getting Brexit done.
Even the most obsessive of local political observers must be reaching their limits. Can the navel-gazing over unionist party leadership changes and their consequences go on for much longer? Will the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder that has developed over one funeral and its policing ever be cured?
Tempting, but no, as Anna Scott replies to Rufus when he asks for her phone number in Notting Hill. Tempting to get stuck into the internal politics of the DUP, but no. Tempting to look at the significance of homophobia and creationism for the future of unionism, but no. Tempting to speculate on why unionists and loyalists, who are not really Unionists and Loyalists, retain their ‘bread and butter’ faith in the union. But no. It is, however, hard to avoid reflecting on the centenary of the creation of Northern Ireland – this week especially. But how should 100 years of this entity be marked, if at all? Very few seem to see it as an occasion for celebration. Perhaps the DUP will quickly resolve its present difficulties and step forward with a convincing list of reasons to be cheerful. This will obviously include – sarcasm alert – 50 years of the Special Powers Act, 30 years of Direct Rule, or recent policy high points such as RHI and Brexit. It is improbable that the DUP will get too drawn into listing positives. For a start, it was born to say ‘no’ and, especially, ‘never’. Remember, this is not just the anniversary of partition and Northern Ireland’s painful and bloody birth. It is the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the DUP itself (in September). How will the party be celebrating? More to the point, what is there to celebrate?
If there is just one word that sums up the goings on within unionism and loyalism at the moment, it has to be ‘incoherence’. The existential crisis of unionism spews mixed messages about policing, real and lesser lawbreakers, the meaning of the United Kingdom, and even democracy itself. The current crisis is on a par with the 1974 Ulster Workers’ Council strike and the days of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, according to DUP party chair of 20 years standing, Lord Morrow. Peter Robinson agrees. It is so serious that all the leaders of unionism have joined with Baroness Hoey and former Brexit Party MEP, Ben Habib, in a legal action against Prime Minister Johnson.