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The British general election in June provided a major upset to the status quo and some indication that in Britain 'the politics of hope' might triumph over 'the politics of despairing attack'. With such a massive Tory lead at the start of the campaign, virtually no one thought that Labour could achieve anything like being just 2% behind the Tories; the positivity of the Labour campaign changed that, and many people's perceptions of what is possible. However the fact that it is the DUP/Democratic Unionist party propping up Theresa May's government has raised many eyebrows – and it has serious implications for Northern Ireland. After consideration of this, we will go on to briefly look at the ongoing impasse in having a power-'sharing' Stormont up and running again.
Ïã½¶ÊÓÆµappÍøÖ·ÏÂÔØThe DUP may be well to the right of centre on many issues but it is also a pragmatic, populist party, the nearest equivalent elsewhere in Ireland being perhaps Fianna Fail of old. While a few bob extra for Northern Ireland in the current deal might be welcome, there are wider issues. The DUP were unlikely to demand, or get, movement on many of its morally-based issues both because of their pragmatism and the Tory realisation that to be beholden on moral issues to a party with a significant number of creationists is not the way to show they mean business on the wider issues of Brexit and more generally.
But the implications of the Conservative Party in government in the UK being in the DUP's pocket has been much commented on in relation to its impact on Northern Ireland. Even if 'justice is done' in fair handling of Northern Ireland issues between unionists and nationalists, and that is debateable, justice is unlikely to be seen to be done.
Ïã½¶ÊÓÆµappÍøÖ·ÏÂÔØHowever the DUP and unionists are not yet playing the longer game that they need to play. A Catholic majority population in Northern Ireland is but a couple of decades away and that certainly does not mean a united Ireland but it does mean a transformation of politics, if not the nature of politics. And it is the nature of politics that unionists should be concerned with. The old "50% + 1" definition of democracy is part of the problem, and as long as anyone – DUP or Sinn Féin – continue seeing things that way, there will be problems. The DUP should be trying to transform politics in Northern Ireland by treating others as they would like to be treated when they are no longer in a majority. And unfortunately the recent British general election (with its pathetic 'first past the post' electoral system, the least democratic voting system possible) with one possible exception (Sylvia Hermon in North Down) provided a straight and sectarian DUP/Sinn Féin split. With Sinn Féin abstentionism at Westminster, for the first time there is no Irish nationalist voice in the British House of Commons.
If we do not transform Northern Ireland politics, and the "50% + 1" perception of democracy continues, then we have problems when "50% + 1" vote for a 'united Ireland'. That could be a long time away but as things stand unionist and loyalist reactions would not be conducive to a peaceful transition to new realities. We need to do politics differently. The DUP deal with the Tories is simply perpetuating the old way of doing things.
Furthermore, the declaration by British Prime Minister Theresa May, immediately before the British election in June, that she would 'rip up the rule book' in relation to human rights following military Islamist attacks on British cities was crude and, if it had been put into effect, would have been counterproductive. Have people really learnt nothing from the little thirty year war in Northern Ireland? See, for example, the CAJ (Committee on the Administration of Justice) book on the The more the state gets repressive, the more grievances build up, and the more grievances build up the greater the likelihood of a violent reaction. Thus a cycle is perpetuated, or even goes into a downward spiral. However, with the Tories in a minority government, even if with the support of the DUP, the ripping up of rule books is likely to be ripped up itself, and we may hope that a more consensual politics will emerge of necessity, though little or nothing of that will seep across the Irish Sea to the North.
There are also questions about the nature of stroke or 'pork barrel politics', votes for money, irrespective of the fact that the British party most closely equivalent to the DUP, with the exception of UKIP, would be the Conservatives. Many Conservatives also feel queasy about the deal. The DUP's stand did benefit pensioners throughout the UK but the £1 billion was for Northern Ireland alone. Northern Ireland does need major expenditure of infrastructure and other things – including dealing with the past which was not included – but whether this was the way to get it is another matter.
One disappointing aspect of the deal is the proposed introduction of the British 'Armed Forces Covenant' to Northern Ireland. This is not only blatantly sectarian in the Northern Ireland context, and in some cases giving preference or additional support in public services to members and former members of the British armed forces, it is also stridently militarist and propagandist (including in schools). Of course members and former members of the armed forces anywhere may have major problems and issues but to prioritise them over other members of society is definitely a move backwards in building any kind of peace. It is putting militarism right at the heart of civil society. But because it exists in Britain (and came about because of militarist nationalist sentiment there) the Tories may have found it difficult to deny the request from the DUP to introduce it in Northern Ireland.
The continuation of the impasse on having Stormont up and running is a barrier to even the limited decision making which was taking place in Northern Ireland, and the stalemate has disrupted many things at community, social, and service levels. However it does indicate the tenuous nature of the settlement in Northern Ireland. It is not that we are about to go back to a little war again but the stop-start nature of politics indicates how near the edge things are in terms of having anything like 'normal' politics, and Stormont's functioning was not 'normal'. Where there is no vision the people sit out in the perishing cold, figuratively if not literally.
It is difficult to be definitive in apportioning praise or blame to the DUP and Sinn Féin in relation to the current failure to strike a deal. It takes two to tango. However it is probably fair enough to say that the occasion of the crisis was in the failure of Arlene Foster to stand aside at the start of the year in relation to the Renewable Heat Initiative where her predecessor Peter Robinson absented himself for a period in similar circumstances, though there were other issues. There should be movement on the Irish language in official policy, given previous commitments, but whether Sinn Féin are holding out for too much it is difficult to judge.
Ïã½¶ÊÓÆµappÍøÖ·ÏÂÔØIt certainly looks like Sinn Féin are saying 'Let's get all these issues sorted before we get back in' rather than 'We can sort these issues out when we are back in'. This may be based on past experience of responses from the DUP who presumably feel stronger in the current situation given their pivotal role in propping up the May government in Westminster. However we are not a fly on the wall and the Northern Ireland Secretary of State, the (in this case) aptly named James Brokenshire, seems willing to sit things out for another bit longer on the basis that eventually a deal will be struck.
Ïã½¶ÊÓÆµappÍøÖ·ÏÂÔØAll these factors are indicators of how far Northern Ireland has to go. Some of the journeying has not even started yet. But a functioning Stormont assembly and system is necessary to start things moving even if, in its nature, it is not a final or definitive answer, and many of the questions which need answering are at least partly being asked - and possibly even will be answered - elsewhere.
Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –
"The entire country is starting to seem like the character from "The Matrix," who preferred his life in the constructed reality to life in the real world. We, too, it seems would rather close our eyes, wrap ourselves in our cozy information bubbles and live in bad faith. It just feels better to take our perception as reality … .
But here's the thing. The world outside our personal matrices has a way of getting our attention."
Ïã½¶ÊÓÆµappÍøÖ·ÏÂÔØP. Lynch, The Opinion Pages, The New York Times, 5th June 2017
Ïã½¶ÊÓÆµappÍøÖ·ÏÂÔØBy all accounts the fire that consumed Grenfell Tower, west London, during the early hours of the 15th June was avoidable. The fire took 80 lives - possibly more, seriously injured many, upended the emotional world of its residents and caused great concern and upset for the family and friends of those directly affected. It also undermined the trust people have in the competence of government ministers and agencies to fulfil their primary duty of safeguarding our wellbeing.
Sam Webb, an architect and campaigner, writing about the Grenfell Tower fire in The Guardian, 20th June 2017, quotes from a select committee following a serious fire in flats in Irvine, Glasgow in 1999:
"We do not believe that it should take a serious fire in which many people are killed before all reasonable steps are taken towards minimising the risks."
T. Helm, J. Doward and M. Savage in The Guardian, 17th June 2017, inform us that Ronnie King, a former chief fire officer and secretary of the all-party parliamentary group on fire safety said that urgent requests for meetings with ministers and actions to tighten fire safety rules were stonewalled. King is quoted as saying:
"They seem to need a disaster to change regulations, rather than evidence and experience. It was the same with the King's Cross fire and the Bradford City football fire. They always seem to need a significant loss of life before things are changed."
The residents of Grenfell Tower issued numerable warnings about the danger of a catastrophic fire, which if heeded by the authorities would likely have meant that the fire was contained in its early stages. The fire highlights lessons that can be applied to our environmental problems including the catastrophe of climate change, the ever accelerating loss of biodiversity and air pollution. The latter causes the death of 40,000 people in the UK every year. (Geographical, July 2007) A critical lesson is that governments, public agencies and civil society should not ignore science-based warnings about the consequences of undermining the integrity of the biosphere.
Scientific studies and observations going back 200-plus years have warned about the harmful consequences of how we interact with nonhuman nature. (The Shock of the Anthropocene, Christophe Bonneuil & Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, 2017) Most of these have not been treated with the urgency they deserve with tragic consequences. One consequence are extreme weather conditions such as heat-waves, floods and storms which regularly lead to a significant number of pre-mature deaths. Michael Le Page informs us in New Scientist, 24th June 2017 that:
"The 2003 European heatwave killed 70,000 people many of them elderly or young children – groups who are less able to regulate their core temperature. A 2004 study showed that global warming has at least doubled the risk of such a weather event occurring."
Ïã½¶ÊÓÆµappÍøÖ·ÏÂÔØOliver Milman in The Guardian, 20th June 2017, brings our attention to a study in Nature Climate Change which found that:
"Nearly a third of the world's population are now exposed to climate conditions that produce deadly heatwaves … with nearly half of the world's population set to suffer periods of extreme heat by the end of the century even if greenhouse gases are radically cut."
While tens of thousands of people are liable to die every year in affluent countries due to climate change linked weather, tens of millions die in poor countries. Wrapped "in our cozy information bubbles" we are largely unaware of their suffering and deaths. By way of illustration the chairperson of Trócaire, Bishop William Crean informs us in The Irish Times, 20th June 2017 that 24 million people face starvation and death in east Africa because of drought and drought related conflict. He writes:
"Across Somalia, an estimated three-quarters of all livestock have died, leaving families without one of their main food sources. Drought has also led to lack of clean water. More than 4.5 million people are estimated to be in need of water.
Ïã½¶ÊÓÆµappÍøÖ·ÏÂÔØThis situation has contributed to an outbreak of cholera, with 51,000 cases and 882 deaths so far. Tragically, this is not the first time Somalia has been in this situation. During the 2011 famine, the United Nations estimates that 260,000 people died in Somalia."
When Homo Sapiens lived in small groups and used simple technologies our predisposition to "close our eyes" to dangers and consequences of a non-immediate kind was unlikely to cause mass human suffering or ecological catastrophe. In our manufactured, highly complex, exceedingly mobile world with a human population of 7.6 billion this disposition results in environmental destruction of an enormous order.
Michael P. Lynch writes "the world outside our personal matrices has a way of getting our attention." While we are predisposed to close our eyes we are paradoxically creatures with foresight and imagination and if we pay attention, make connections and venture outside our information bubble we can avoid environmental equivalences of the Grenfell Tower fire.