THE DUP is looking for a commitment from the British government that, “no preparations for Irish reunification should be made until a referendum on the issue had been held”. This was reported on 22 May by Jude Webber, Ireland correspondent for the Financial Times, and her source was a former DUP special adviser. Three days later, Mark Carruthers (BBC The View) asked the DUP’s Emma Little-Pengelly, “are conditions about a border poll part of the DUP’s negotiation with the government?” The question, and variants of the question, went unanswered.
Barbados is a small place, but one which captures the decline of British influence, the rejection of monarchy and the need for a reckoning with the past. It is also a place connected to Ireland and not in a good way. Before and after Cromwell’s barbaric siege of Drogheda (1649), the Irish started to arrive in Barbados, some as adventurers, others as indentured (contracted) servants and still others as convicts and prisoners of war.
IT wasn’t just that the GFA25 three-day conference at Queen’s was a “bubble” (Jeffrey Donaldson), it was worse: “prep for a united Ireland campaign” (Ian Paisley Jnr). Donaldson wasn’t present because it was more important to be in London where the “mood” was different: “There is a realism in London that frankly there isn’t at the event in Queen’s”.
GOOD Friday: time for meditation. Good Friday Agreement: time for reflection. As a social science researcher, teacher and learner, the parts of the Agreement that interested me most at the time were those covering rights, safeguards and opportunities. They still do, as the Agreement remains a vital international treaty on these matters. And as someone who believes that the best way forward lies in Irish unity, I was also interested in the parts covering “consultation, co-operation and action within the island of Ireland” (Strand 2). Far from parking the issue of Irish unity with a referendum to take place at some unspecified time in the future, the Agreement set up the North/South Ministerial Council with the commitment, “to use best endeavours to reach agreement on the adoption of common policies, in areas where there is a mutual cross-border and all-island benefit… making determined efforts to overcome any disagreements”. The ink was barely dry on the Agreement when Prof Paddy Hillyard led a team of researchers (myself included) in undertaking the first ever population-wide representative sample survey of poverty and social exclusion (PSE) in the North, funded by OFMDFM and other government departments. This was modelled on the British Millennium PSE Survey of 1999. The Hillyard project differed from the British work in that the survey included questions on people’s experience of the conflict, such as the death of close friends and relatives, injuries, riots, bombings, shootings, imprisonment, house raids, and intimidation at work. We were also determined to collect and analyse the data in a way that would allow proper comparisons, not just on the conventional East/West basis, but also North/South. There was significant resistance to including such questions in the survey. For some, ‘poverty’ was a politically safe, non-sectarian issue so why bring the conflict into it? There were more mundane objections: cost and respondent fatigue over too many questions to answer. Then there were concerns that asking people about what they had experienced and witnessed would trigger adverse psychological responses, so people would need back up advice on where to go for help. Lastly, there was the objection that people might get angry and attack members of the survey team. But we managed to convince the steering group to go ahead with a pilot survey which included the conflict questions. Far from reporting hostility on doorsteps, the pilot survey team told us that the conflict questions had gone down well: “why has no-one asked us about this before?” was the feed-back quote I remember from the time. Ten years later we repeated the PSE survey and included a similar batch of questions on experience of the conflict. There were no objections on this occasion. It was as if it had become acceptable to research the conflict because it was ‘history’: we were now in the 2010s. All this springs to mind because of the recent publication of poverty statistics across Ireland and Britain. In February, the Republic reported on poverty (low income) and deprivation (enforced lack of clothing, heating, food etc) for 2022. It uses calendar years. In contrast, Britain uses April to March so the latest statistics (published at the end of March) are for 2021/22. It uses a different set of deprivation items and a different method of computing deprivation. And there are other differences. The consequence of this is that not many of the published numbers are directly comparable North and South – after all these years and notwithstanding the onus on the chief executive of the North’s statistics agency to develop comparative data. But some are, or are roughly so, as long as we ignore the different time frames and some other factors. For example, income inequality North and South is about the same, but considerably higher in Britain. In the North, 18 per cent of children live in income poverty compared to 15 per cent in the South, but when housing costs are taken into account, the figure jumps to 28 per cent in the South and 21 per cent for the North, reflecting the housing crisis in the South. No comparisons are possible from the published deprivation statistics but, in the South, the proportion of individuals lacking two or more items from a list of eleven basic necessities rose from 14 per cent in 2021 to 18 per cent in 2022.
ONE minute the British Prime Minister is being praised for agreeing to the Windsor framework; the next he is promoting a bill that means his government will be in breach of international law, including the Refugee Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
THE latest corruptions of democracy swirling around Westminster should not distract us from the intensifying crises in public services, especially health, none of which look like going away soon. The state of the NHS is so bad that radical alternatives to the free-at-the-point-of-use model are openly debated. The voices of private provision get louder and “solutions” such as rationing through fees are getting serious air time. Former chancellor (for six months), Sajid Javid, has even suggested that Britain should be more like Ireland (26 counties) and introduce charges for seeing a GP and for attending A&E without a GP referral. The trouble with the NHS, he wrote in The Times, was that “the only rationing mechanism is to make people wait”. Apply the market mechanism of charges and – bingo! – the queues at emergency departments and for GP appointments magically disappear. Shows how much he knows about Ireland.
MOST new year resolutions are related to mental and physical health: see more of family and friends, get less stressed at work, drink less or even not at all in January, eat less sugar and junk food, and above all exercise more. We know what’s good for us even if we don’t always have the resources – financial and social – to make adjustments to our lifestyles.
THREE days before the deadline for restoring the Executive, Deirdre Hargey’s Department for Communities published a report by an independent advisory panel reviewing welfare mitigation schemes. This report is not part of an anti-poverty strategy as such, but it does discuss measures designed to mitigate some of the worst effects of the British Government’s ‘welfare reforms’ of the past decade. The immediate crisis of energy costs and inflation is another matter.
THE most important message from the Tory Party conference last week came from Ami McCarthy and Rebecca Newsom who work for Greenpeace. During prime minister Liz Truss’ speech, they held up a banner asking, “Who voted for this?”. Anticipating that the angry men surrounding them would snatch the banner – as indeed they did – Ami and Rebecca had come with a couple of back-up banners. “Let’s get them removed” was the prime minister’s response – and she wasn’t referring to the banners. It didn’t take the Daily Mail long to carry out background checks. It discovered from Facebook posts that Ami “is no stranger to controversy”, as a couple of years ago, “she mounted an attack on British foreign policy”, arguing that the British Army had “ruin[ed] most of the world”. Some suggested that Truss “handled it well” but unfortunately for her, even Tory die-hards like Nadine Dorries were repeating the Greenpeace message: there was no mandate for the Truss agenda, so an election must be called. It is a measure of the division, chaos and incompetence within Downing Street that Truss even vetoed a small plan from Rees-Mogg’s department to encourage everyone to save energy this winter. But back to Dorries, the post-truth former Culture Secretary who backed Truss for Tory leader. It was Dorries who decided that Channel Four should be privatised because she thought, wrongly, it was “in receipt of public money”. C4 is funded commercially but publicly owned. Its crime is that it hosts the only news programme worth watching on British TV, one that is routinely boycotted by government ministers. No wonder Dorries lasted only twelve months in post (though Truss wanted her to stay on).
WELL. Close your eyes for a bit and the world is even more bonkers when you open them up again. It’s budget time, on both sides of the Irish Sea, only the right-wing English nationalists don’t call their latest shake of the magic money tree (£45 billion) a ‘budget’. That would involve a legally-defined process in which the Office of Budgetary Responsibility looks over your figures and predicts how they will shape economic growth, public services and employment. That’s far too rational for the Britannia Unchained crew. The new occupants of Nos. 10 and 11 Downing Street have no need for the OBR. They have no need for the most experienced civil servant at the Treasury (permanent secretary Tom Scholar), summarily dismissed as one of the first decisions of the new regime. They have no need for a sugar tax, an obesity strategy or a ban on junk food adverts. They even have no need for the Tory manifesto of 2019 which pledged to halt fracking until it could be proven safe. They have no mandate for what they are doing. While it’s early days yet, all the signs are that the latest British government has no need for evidence either. It looks like ‘evidence-based policy’ is so last century. They even seem to be leaving behind ‘policy-based evidence’ (which involves selecting the evidence that supports the policy you want to follow). Move on everyone! Welcome to the era of ‘evidence-free policy’, which means, primarily, following your beliefs. Key advisors and Truss’s chief of staff are drawn from the Tufton Street gang of right wing lobbyists, including the Tax Payers’ Alliance, the Institute of Economic Affairs, and the Adam Smith Institute (plus the Global Warming Policy Foundation and Migration Watch), all funded by who knows who, a.k.a. ‘dark money’.
Thanks to The S*n’s political correspondent, Natasha Clark, we now know what the key issues are in the election for the next occupant of 10 Downing Street. Issues, that is, for the micro-electorate of Tory MPs (stage one) and Tory party members (stage two) who will decide who gets to inherit that very expensive wallpaper (£840-a-roll) which keeps peeling off.
IT feels like we are at a tipping point, or at least a crunch point – again. It is often said that the Johnson government has no real policies but just an agenda based on culture wars and issues that are simply designed to polarise opinion, so-called “wedge issues”: selling Channel 4, promoting imperial units and the union flag, denying racism, protecting statues, routine attacks on the BBC, “lefty lawyers” and judges – note the defamation proceedings issued in the wake of Brandon Lewis’ latest attack – and generally purging institutions of the ideologically “unsound”.
Last week saw the publication of yet another research report looking at north/south comparisons. Funded by the Department of the Taoiseach’s Shared Island Unit, the Economic and Social Research Institute examined education and training in what is – astonishingly – “the first study to systematically compare the systems from primary to tertiary levels”. Among other things, the ESRI finds that early school leaving is two to three times higher in the North compared to the South and this gap has widened over time. It also finds “marked differences in educational attainment between Ireland and Northern Ireland, with a lower proportion of the population in Ireland having the lowest levels of educational attainment”. As for North/South interaction and cooperation, the links are “ad hoc in nature and based on individual relationships or specific projects and initiatives, thus making sustained co-operation more challenging”. Such research is one example of the growing body of resources looking at north/south comparisons and the issues raised by discussions of Irish unity. Ireland’s Future, for example, has published seven reports, the latest of which is on ‘Rights, Citizenship and Identity in a United Ireland’.
WAR crimes. Genocide. Crimes against humanity. The crime of aggression. These concepts of the international legal order, established in the era of the prosecution of Nazi leaders at Nuremburg, are once again part of everyday conversation. Ukrainian President Zelenskiy is having a good deal of success in mobilising powerful countries and not-so-powerful countries in activating these human rights concepts to address the actions of Putin’s forces.
As if Brexit, Covid and the climate emergency were not enough, along comes Putin’s war against Ukraine. The human tragedy of destroyed lives, homes and whole cities ripples out into the displacement of millions within Ukraine and refugees crossing European borders in search of sanctuary – for how long, no-one knows. We are back to the gruesome business of war crimes and fights over the destruction of evidence and witnesses to what is occurring. The ripples go far beyond the war zone, of course. There is a price to pay for the imposition of economic sanctions against individuals closely associated with the Putin regime and against the Russian economy itself. Most immediately these measures impact on the world markets for gas and oil, causing a surge in inflation and an anticipated interruption of supplies of many commodities including food if this year’s crops cannot be sown or harvested due to the war.