A STEP TOO FAR? 1802 (2) CXII

A STEP TOO FAR?

Ireland is set to vote on repealing the Eighth Amendment.  It’s a measure of how far opinion has shifted on the issue that the relevant Parliamentary Committee has included among its fourteen recommendations a proposal that would permit abortion on demand below twelve weeks.  The Cabinet is currently considering, and the Dail debating,  the Committee’s report and recommendations.  It has been a tortuous journey thus far , reflecting the highly emotive nature of the issues involved for what is still an overwhelmingly Christian country (78 % Catholic  plus 5% other Christian). The Committee’s consideration of the issue followed from the deliberations and report last June of a Citizens Assembly which had examined the issue exhaustively.

There is still a distance to travel. First the referendum itself, with the options a simple yes or no on repeal, the more fraught path of replacing the existing article with a wording capable of satisfying enough voters and pressure groups to win, or a wording that would simply mandate the Oireachtas (in practice the Dail) to legislate as it saw fit . Assuming a vote for change, further heated debate can be expected in the Dail on any enabling legislation.

While the polls have shown a marked shift in public attitudes to abortion, the Taoiseach recently sounded a note of caution that the twelve weeks suggestion may prove “a step too far” for the majority of the public, adding that it was further than he himself would have anticipated a year or so ago. Fianna Fail as a party remain in favour of retaining the Eighth, though as I write leader Michael Martin has declared in favour of the twelve weeks proposal and emphasised that his party’s TDs will have a free vote on the issue. Whether the referendum will take place as early as May/June as initially signalled will depend on  how the political debate goes, with the prospects in the autumn of a possible Presidential election campaign (failing an agreed candidate) and of a visit by the Pope further factors to reckon with.

The gloves are already coming off. Abortion is an issue which stirs strong emotions at either end of the spectrum, even though at this point in time there appears considerable public support for change, faced with the reality of a constant stream of Irish women ( several thousand annually) travelling to Britain to secure an abortion.  It is an issue on which Varadkar must tread warily, given the minority position of his government and the precariousness of the confidence and supply agreement with Fianna Fail which keeps him in power. With recent opinion polls demonstrating a positive “bounce” for the Taoiseach and Fine Gael for the handling of the first stage of Brexit, there have been mutterings from Fianna Fail about pulling the plug if the current Fine Gael lead persists or increases. A setback in a referendum on such an emotive issue as abortion could prove seriously damaging to the Taoiseach’s prospects for re-election.

Another issue which may prove “a step too far” is the proposed referendum on voting rights for Non-Residents in Presidential elections which has been pencilled in for 2019. Currently Article 12.2.1 of the Constitution states “The President shall be elected by direct vote of the people.” 12.2.2 states “Every citizen who has the right to vote at an election for members of Dail Eireann shall have the right to vote at an election for President.”

The referendum proposal is the latest development in the official reaching out by the authorities here to the Irish Diaspora which has been a feature of policy in this century. A Task Force on Policy towards Emigrants reported in 2002, following which an Irish Abroad Unit was established in the Department of Foreign Affairs with me as its first Director.

The Unit now administers an Emigrant Support Programme which, since 2004 has assisted 530 organisations in 34 countries, spending over €158 million in the process. The Programme provides financial support to front line advisory services and community care organisations catering for Irish emigrants, focussing on the more vulnerable, marginalised and elderly. In addition the Programme has invested in a range of cultural, community and heritage projects among Irish communities overseas.

Official outreach has broadened and deepened in recent years with the nomination of a Minister for the Diaspora, the holding of two Global Irish Civic Forums and the acknowledgement of the Diaspora’s importance through the nomination of Chicago restaurateur Billy Lawless to Ireland’s Senate.

Relations with the Diaspora were given an additional impetus by the surge in emigration after the economic collapse of 2008 which has seen upwards of 250,000 Irish people forced to emigrate. This latest group, better educated and better qualified than earlier Irish emigrants, has maintained close contact with and interest in developments in Ireland through modern communications, the Internet and the social media.  Many of these regard their emigration as temporary and have been agitating  to have their interests taken into account by and within the Irish political process.  A potent argument advanced is that many policies enacted in Ireland have a direct impact on temporary emigrants and their ability to return home in terms e.g. of social welfare entitlements and educational  opportunities (and costs).

Lobby groups have pressed for the right of those abroad (there are estimates of one in six Irish born citizens residing outside the state) to vote in Irish elections, citing the practice in most European countries and other liberal democracies. There has been little public debate on the issue so far and that not necessarily very profound, with one (opposing) refrain citing the reverse of the 18th Century American Colonists’ slogan of “No Taxation without Representation” – i.e. if you want to vote, pay Irish taxes. The more considered reservation would be the concern that circumstances might occur in which an outside group not bound by any consequences could influence political decisions and policies within Ireland.

The Government has proceeded cautiously thus far. The Constitutional Convention in 2013 voted well over 70% in favour of permitting non-residents to vote in Presidential elections.  An examination at official level of the issues and practicalities involved followed. These included whether all Irish citizens should be eligible or whether the franchise should be restricted to those born in Ireland or recently emigrated, as well as the logistics of where, when, and how non-residents would vote.  An options paper in March 2017 is well worth studying. On 14 November Diaspora Minister Cannon told the Seanad that a referendum was envisaged for mid-2019, describing the initiative as a “very tangible expression of our commitment to ongoing engagement with the global Irish”.

A lively debate promises, though hardly on the scale of that on abortion. The Lobby wants more. Those in favour see it as a right of citizenship and one similar to that enjoyed by most expat citizens of liberal democratic states. Those against see it as the thin end of a wedge that could eventually end in non-residents voting in all Irish elections. There’s no talk of this at present but debates can often become side-tracked and issues distorted. And who can tell what result a referendum will produce.

 

 

 

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TWENTY FIVE YEARS ON (1) 1802 CXI

TWENTY FIVE YEARS ON (1)

2017 was not all bad news.  In November Ratko Mladic – the “Butcher of Bosnia” – was convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal (ICTY) in The Hague on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. While some would consider appropriate in Mladic’s case the words of Bishop Moriarty of Kerry in 1867, condemning the Manchester Martyrs, that Hell was not hot enough nor Eternity long enough a punishment, nevertheless the life sentence imposed on the 74 year old Mladic should suffice to ensure he will never set foot outside jail again. He joins his chief partner-in-crime, Radovan Karadzic, who is serving 40 years for similar crimes. Karadzic has lodged an appeal. The third major Serbian warmonger, former President Slobodan Milosevic, died in 2006, during his trial.

The Tribunal was wound up at the end of 2017, having successfully convicted and sentenced 90 of the 111 persons brought to trial. The court has been criticised on a number of grounds, including partiality and selectivity, but at the very least it succeeded in bringing the major surviving players to justice and permitting a certain measure of closure to the relatives of the victims. There are gaps of course – many minor killers were not pursued, Mladic was nailed over crimes in Bosnia alone rather than in Croatia, and what measure of closure can realistically be provided to the relatives of the 8000 plus men and boys massacred in Srebenica or to those killed in smaller massacres across Bosnia and Croatia?

Clearly also emotions still run high in the countries and among the communities and individuals concerned. Mladic rejected the Tribunal’s verdict and claimed throughout his actions were ultimately on behalf of the Bosnian Serbs. Since he was able to evade capture without disguise for over fifteen years a lot of people in Serbia and Bosnia clearly agreed. Ditto with Karadzic, though he DID use disguises and aliases. And, in a curious development shortly after Mladic’ conviction, a Bosnian Croat, Slobodan Praljak, committed suicide by poisoning before the Tribunal’s judges when his appeal was rejected, proclaiming as he did so that he was not a war criminal. However heinous his crimes (chiefly around Mostar) they were minor compared to those of the other two. His death evoked considerable public sympathy in certain quarters among Croats and even Serbs, further proof, if any were needed, that significant numbers of Serbs and Croats continue convinced (still) of the justice of their cause.

While a line – of sorts – has been drawn under the four conflicts that raged across what had been Jugoslavia in the 1990s, the process of reconciliation, particularly in Bosnia, clearly still has a long distance to travel. The major players are either dead (Milosevic, Tudjman, Izetbegovic, and Rugova ) or in jail (Karadic  and Mladic), two of the former republics, Slovenia and Croatia – significantly the two wealthiest – are in the EU, while Serbia ( the third richest) is negotiating for membership. The three less prosperous republics, Bosnia, Macedonia and Montenegro, as well as Kosovo, which broke free from Serbia a decade ago, have aspirations only. The dead totalled at least 130,000, with estimates of 100,000 in Bosnia, 20,000 in Croatia and 13,000 in Kosovo. The numbers displaced internally or of refugees ran into millions, many of whom will never return. The wars popularised the term “ethnic cleansing,” reintroduced genocide as a parallel process, and in a grisly development, used rape, almost exclusively of Bosnian Muslim women, as a weapon of war.

There have been bloodier and more savage conflicts in the last quarter century, yet the Balkan wars continue to fascinate, especially for anyone who was there. And for Europe, where there has been ongoing soul-searching over the behaviour of the Dutch troops at Srebenica, and over the broader issue of the European Union’s role in the early stages of the conflicts.  In 1991, as the centrifugal forces that tore Jugoslavia apart were gathering strength and becoming apparent, Europe’s politicians, flushed with hubris following the collapse of Communism, blundered into involvement, best summed up in Luxembourg Foreign Minister Poos’ unfortunate statement that “the hour of Europe has dawned.”

At Brioni in early July, faced with how to respond to the imminent declarations of independence by Slovenia and Croatia, the EU, together with the principals, cobbled together an agreement for negotiations, hopefully to preserve Jugoslav unity, including establishing what became the European Community Monitoring Mission (ECMM) to supervise de-escalation and disengagement. It proved a forlorn hope, with Europe’s leaders either unaware or at best only dimly aware, of the hatreds that festered.  Anyone with knowledge of recent Balkan history or even anyone familiar with the passions generated in the conflict in Northern Ireland, would have been sceptical. The immediate effect of the Brioni Agreement was to bind Europe to the escalating conflict.

It’s not as if Europe was kept in ignorance. All the major European countries had embassies in Belgrade, which presumably reported back regularly. In addition on 16 January 1991 Milosevic spoke at the traditional European Ambassadors’ lunch, where he painted in red his position, and that of Serbia. (What follows, and which smacks of authenticity, is reported in Honig and Both’s “Srebenica”). Were Jugoslavia to break up, Slovenia could go (there were no Serbs there) but the Serb inhabited areas in Croatia and Bosnia would remain part of a new federal “greater” Serbia. The existing internal borders were not sacrosanct but merely administrative.  This was Serbia’s ultimate compromise. If it was not obtainable peacefully, Serbia would be forced “to use the tools of power which we possess, and they do not.” It was the blueprint, ceteris paribus, for the bloodshed of the next five years.

Six months later European leaders recognised Croatian and Slovenian independence. By then the Slovenes had successfully repelled a half-hearted assault by the JNA. By then also the Serb areas of Croatia had been occupied (the Krajina), the Croatian town of Vukovar razed to the ground and other cities and towns (Dubrovnik, Osijek, Karlovac) heavily bombarded. There had been massacres, up to 20,000, overwhelmingly Croatians, killed and another half a million Croats ethnically cleansed.  Europe wanted out, its politicians without stomach for the bloodshed, with its unarmed white clad Monitors derided by both sides as “Ice Cream Men” (“I was that soldier”), and reduced to patching up partial local ceasefires and evacuating  JNA armour and artillery from Croatia into Bosnia to facilitate the conditions under which UN Peacekeepers could be introduced. The Serbs gave assurances the evacuated tanks and artillery would not be used against Croatia.

Those EU recognitions received considerable criticism as premature both then and later, but, on paper at least, Milosevic had got what he wanted. So had Croatia, and its EU champion Germany. I recall discussing the recognition at the time with a German diplomat in Croatia’s capital, Zagreb. He posed the rhetorical question: what was Europe to do, faced with the aggression and crimes of the Serbs? Croatia was on its knees, with 20,000 dead, its land occupied, its economy ruined, and hamstrung by a UN Arms Embargo which rendered it militarily at the mercy of the Serbs. The die, in any event, was cast. No going back or thought, then, of Bosnia.

6/1/18

A WATERSHED? 1801 CX

A WATERSHED?

December 2017 may well prove a “watershed moment”, for Ireland, for Britain and for Europe. The hyperbole may in this case be justified. We shall see. The issue was Britain quitting the European Union –Brexit; the event was the December European Council meeting; the result was agreement to proceed with substantive negotiations on future EU-British trade and other relations. For Ireland, the country with most to lose from Brexit (apart from Britain!), the outcome was positive and reassuring, but there remains much to play for.

Up to now Brexit has appeared slightly surreal. Yes it was to happen, in 2019, the outcome of a narrowly won plebiscite on a flawed and inadequate question and after a campaign of disinformation and misinformation on the one hand and ineptness on the other.  The losing Prime Minister walked away and his successor has shown weakness and crass political misjudgement, arguably digging an even deeper hole for her country than that produced by the referendum result. All this compounded by the antics of her Cabinet colleagues who have thus far minimised or distorted the very difficult nature of the process of disentanglement and extraction  from forty years of regulatory integration, while also misrepresenting  post-Brexit Britain’s future  prospects.

Now there can be no doubt. Britain is on the way out. Much remains to be negotiated but a significant milestone on the path to no return has been rounded. As I write it appears that every party has got some of what they wanted. In Ireland’s case, critically, Britain has been faced down over the Border post-Brexit. For Britain, the decision by the European Council that the Brexit negotiations can proceed to future trade arrangements, something seen as the Brexit Holy Grail and  fundamental by gung-ho Brexiteers, and, in the real world, something welcomed by  the increasingly nervous British captains of commerce and industry. For the EU relief that there is now the potential for an orderly exit and future relationship by and with Europe’s second largest economy and avoidance of a British crash-out.

For Taoiseach Leo Varadkar events came thick and fast. One of those small hurdles which can bring a government down suddenly cropped up during November when the Maurice McCabe Garda Whistle-blower affair surfaced again. The McCabe affair has already claimed several notable scalps, including a former Minister for Justice, Garda Commissioners and top civil servants. This time it added another – that of Tanaiste and Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald, who took one for the team, resigning with protestations of innocence to head off the Government’s collapse. Her Secretary General also left abruptly. An overhaul of the Justice Department is pending, while the problems besetting the Gardai continue.

For a while an early election seemed on the cards as relations between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail deteriorated sharply. The sour aftertaste left has led most observers to expect an early general election. This at a time when the negotiations over the Border post-Brexit demanded maximum Government attention.

Relations between Ireland and Britain took a nose dive in the run up to the December European Council.  The British goal was simple – to achieve EU agreement that negotiations could proceed to future trade relationships between the two entities. Three conditions were necessary: agreement on the size of the “Divorce Settlement” to be paid by Britain upon departure, satisfactory arrangements to protect the rights of EU citizens living in Britain and agreement on the Border arrangements in Ireland. The first two were a shoe-in, despite some initial bluster from the Brexiteers. Britain agreed to pay roughly €50 billion over a period and also gave guarantees regarding EU residents. Which left the tricky issue of the Irish Border.

The Border and all it represented has long been the running sore in relations between the communities in Ireland and between Ireland and Britain. With the advent of peace the situation changed. The security apparatus was dismantled and, with the introduction of the European Single Market and the Customs Union, border posts and barriers disappeared. This “soft border” between the two parts of Ireland has been one of the elements central to the success of the Good Friday Agreement and the Peace Process. Its importance has been acknowledged by all parties, not least by the EU which has strongly supported peace in Ireland.

However, with Britain due to leave the EU after March 2019, the Border will become effectively the external frontier of the EU and of Britain, with all that that implies. Ireland, with the support of the EU, has stressed from the outset the importance of maintaining the Common Travel Area between the two jurisdictions and the open border with free movement between North and South. In the negotiations to date over Brexit a satisfactory outcome over this was one of the EU’s three preconditions for Britain to satisfy. And from early on Britain has stressed it wants a “soft Border” to remain.

In practice however this involves squaring a particularly difficult circle. The soft Border is predicated on membership of the Single Market and the Customs Union, both of which Britain is to leave. This exit is not set in stone – it was a commitment by Teresa May at a Party Conference – but so much rhetoric has been expended in support of leaving that a change here seems currently off the radar.

In the run up to the Brussels’ Council the British side huffed and puffed and stated repeatedly they wanted a soft border, without, however, going into specifics. The Taoiseach made clear that it was a national interest for Ireland and that we would hold our position and that moreover the problem was not of Ireland’s making. As Britain gave way on money and citizens’ rights the pressure on Ireland increased. The British tabloids joined in, excoriating Leo Varadkar as only they could. British politicians and commentators on TV expressed outrage that Ireland would/could/might hold up Brexit’s Manifest Destiny. Yet our EU partners held firm in support for the Irish position.

Something had to give, and it did. On December 4 May blinked and a form of words acceptable to Ireland was signalled. Then an immediate hitch. The DUP, who are keeping May in power, demurred at any arrangement that would mean some form of regime applying in the North different to the rest of the UK. May backed off.

The stalemate lasted for several days. Ireland and Brussels remained firm. May eventually agreed to further changes. Then another hitch. David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, described the agreement as not legally binding but merely a declaration of intent. In the uproar that followed Davis hurriedly backed down and the assurances ultimately given enabled the European Council to declare sufficient progress had been made to proceed.

Which is where we are at. But without a definitive answer as to how the circle will eventually be squared. Negotiations will commence shortly on the length of the transition period after Brexit, with two years being currently envisaged. Will Britain move on remaining in the Customs Union or the Single Market? Will the current British government survive? How quickly will there be progress on trade? Will Brexit eventually come to naught with another referendum? What else can/ will happen?

18/12/17

WHERE ARE WE AT? 1712 CIX

WHERE ARE WE AT?

Albert Reynolds reflected ruefully after his downfall that it was the small hurdles rather than the major ones which tripped you up. Leo Varadkar would do well to keep those words in mind as well as Harold Macmillan’s dictum that the best laid plans could be negated by “events, dear boy, events.” Several occurrences over the last month demonstrate that unknown unknowns can suddenly materialise with potential to wreak unexpected damage. One in particular, still very much current, could have profound ramifications.

First up was the latest Irish postage stamp featuring a famous person. Not normally something to generate controversy, but in this case the image was of Che Guevara, a gentleman with, to say the least, a chequered reputation, and who still generates strong feelings for and against fifty years after his death ( the excuse for the timing of the stamp’s launch). The initial print run of the stamp – 122,000 – sold out rapidly. Apart from the usual stamp collectors, who buy every new issue, one can assume that purchasers included some admirers of Che, together with others hoping that the stamp might one day acquire scarcity value because of its potential notoriety. There were the expected squeaks from the Irish right, some protests and complaints from circles in the USA – especially among Cubans in Florida – and matching sounds of pleasure from the Irish left.

It wasn’t of course just an image of Guevara. It was THE image – the iconic portrait by Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick which has adorned millions of T-shirts and wall posters worldwide over the decades since Fitzpatrick put it into the public domain in the late Sixties. When Castro died I wrote in my column that, for most people “the image of the Cuban revolution that comes first to mind is Jim Fitzpatrick’s iconic rendering of the 1960 Korda photo of Che.” It conferred a type of romantic immortality on Guevara and the Cuban revolution, making it possible to ignore the fading and aging Castro (not to mention the dubious and mixed record of the revolution) while cherishing that preserved sanitised image of Che.

The choice of Guevara was justified as meeting the criteria of showcasing some aspect of Irish life, culture or history, having a subject and design with international appeal and of contributing an outreach to the Irish diaspora of Latin America. Amen to the design; indeed Jim Fitzpatrick could well merit a set of Irish stamps for his Celtic artwork alone. The diaspora argument is less convincing – Guevara’s Irish connection goes back to an emigrant of the mid 1700s, posing the question of how many other people of the 80 million Irish diaspora are likely to feature on future Irish stamps. The question might also be asked as to the relevance to Ireland of a stamp issued a week after the Guevara one commemorating the centenary of the supposed Apparition at Fatima. All proposed new stamps are routinely run past the Government for approval; expect future lists to be scrutinised more closely.

More seriously came the revelation last week that three Irish T.D.s propose to visit North Korea early in the New Year to seek to engage in talks with Kim Jong Il. And not just T.D.s but the three Government Ministers from the loose –knit Independent Alliance grouping who, together with Fianna Fail, are essentially keeping the Fine Gael Government in power after the painstaking Coalition –cobbling by Enda Kenny last year. The announcement has been greeted with derision in some quarters, dismay in others and plenty of uncomplimentary comment in the social media. The Taoiseach, with limited room for manoeuvre, while not banning the visit, has voiced disapproval, as has the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Whether the visit will go ahead remains to be seen. The trio are to be briefed this week by Foreign Affairs and have apparently been invited to discuss the visit by the North Korean Embassy in London.

The potential for any such visit to go wrong is clear. This is, to put it mildly, a fraught period in relations between North Korea and the international community, spearheaded by the USA, with Trump and Kim not far away from an eyeball to eyeball confrontation. Indeed some of the more pessimistic observers rate the possibility of war as upwards of 50%, with each bellicose exchange between the two presidents ratcheting the tension up further and increasing the chances for a miscalculation. Observers are unanimously agreed that a military conflict would be disastrous, with even a conventional war generating tens of thousands of casualties and a nuclear exchange very many more. Much hope is being pinned on the Koreans acting rationally – which is fine as long as Trump does likewise.

A visit by Irish Government Ministers, even by members of the Independent Alliance, and even if described as private and not official, is open to immediate misinterpretation, coming as it would at a time when the major players – who do NOT include Ireland – are seeking to exert pressure on North Korea and the international community is being exhorted to isolate the regime. At the very least any visit would hand Pyongyang a propaganda boost which Kim and Co might seek to exploit as proof both to their unfortunate citizenry and to the rest of the world that their policy has international support. Worse would be were Pyongyang actually to BELIEVE their own propaganda. Right now the stakes are very high and the role for Irish politicians is surely to avoid fanning the embers.

Finally on November 2 Apple refused to confirm that it would go ahead with a planned data centre in Athenry Co Galway, after a two year planning process. What was particularly galling was that the refusal to confirm was made by Tim Cook, Apple’s Chief Executive, in a face to face meeting with the Taoiseach in California. The Taoiseach’s response, to announce that henceforth data centres would be designated as strategic infrastructure on a par with motorways and railways indicates just how worried the Government is.

The Athenry project was stalled, inter alia over public objections and appeals. There were audible sighs of relief (and local rejoicing) when the appeals were rejected several weeks ago and again when the Irish High Court refused leave for further appeals. Yet the worry for the Government is that Apple, in tandem with announcing the Athenry project, announced a similar one in Denmark. Two years on, while Athenry has been mired in the planning process, the data centre in Denmark has been built and is about to go into operation. A decision is to be announced shortly regarding a further data facility. It would be a supreme optimist who would put money on the new project going to Ireland.

Whatever ultimately happens over Athenry (and Apple could still say yes) the worry right now is that Apple could decide that the planning process here is not worth the candle and opt for elsewhere (there will be no shortage of candidates), and that this would sway other companies planning future or further investment. Nobody disputes the need for planning, but a way must be found to streamline and speed up the process. Big Boys Rules, Leo.

END
10/11

PIECE OF CAKE 1711 CVIII

PIECE OF CAKE – NOW FOR THE HARD BIT

Leo Varadkar’s first Hundred Days as Taoiseach (actually 120, from his election on 14 June to his first Budget on 11 October) have gone smoothly. He even emerged unscathed from Ireland’s recent brush with Hurricane Ophelia – one of those “events” which can unhorse the most assured rider. Echoing Basil Fawlty, now comes the hard bit!

Dr Varadkar has already chalked up one signal achievement as Taoiseach, lancing the boil of that disaster that just kept on giving – Irish Water – with his decision to repay in full all those who actually paid their water bills. At a stroke this ended the hand wringing and indecision which plagued the political scene here since paying for water emerged as toxic several years ago. A line has been drawn under the issue. End of! Which is just as well, with several major matters simmering and the need for the government to stay focussed and not distracted. Brexit, and the timing of the next election are looming, while there is likely to be considerable distraction in any event over the referendum on the Eighth Amendment, signalled for mid-2018.

The brouhaha over Irish Water, which saw the Left cleverly construct a populist platform garnering significant support across the broader community was in a way Ireland’s echo of the Brexit vote, the Trump election and the continued electoral support across Europe for populist parties. Here, frustration over years of austerity, higher taxes and diminished disposable income crystallised into opposition over one extra imposition. In the context of this discontent we are perhaps fortunate that there was no referendum here similar to that in Britain. If and when a deal IS agreed between the EU and Britain, that possibility may yet have to be faced.

Quite what will happen over Brexit remains unclear, with only seventeen months remaining before Article 50 kicks in and serious negotiations not yet begun. British policy blows hot and cold, reflecting, as well as disarray among the Tory government, the lack of any clear advantageous course for the UK to follow – something obvious to all but the most diehard Brexiteers. The EU stance currently is best summed up as a determination that Britain will not have its cake and eat it, as Boris Johnson whimsically remarked a year ago. For their part some of the British hardliners remain steadfast that ultimately Europe will cave in as its trading links with Britain are too important to be let fail.

For Ireland, the country with the strongest trading and other links with Britain, and facing potentially the most serious consequences, the outlook is not good and the issue will clearly concentrate Leo Varadkar’s mind in the months to come. How to proceed, essentially in the dark, is not easy. The government thus far has eschewed making preparations for a hard Brexit, involving as it would recognition of some form of renewed border between the two parts of Ireland. The Taoiseach has stated firmly that Ireland will not help Britain devise a border that “we don’t want.” All sides are agreed, and have stated, that some solution must be found to prevent a renewed Border happening, but pious words and aspirations are one thing, the grim prospect of Britain falling out of the EU, without agreement, if talks collapse, quite another . The deadline for a neat exit seems increasingly unrealistic. Perhaps some stopping the clock process – at which the EU is very good – could be applied. Seen now, the near disaster for Ireland that a collapse of the negotiations would mean still seems unlikely, yet the clock is ticking. The next couple of months could prove decisive one way or another.

The clock is ticking also towards the next election. The current arrangement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail was for three budgets, with Fianna Fail, which can collapse the arrangement at any time, holding the whip hand. The Taoiseach’s one ace is that he can, should he so wish, call an election. We have so far had two budgets , the recent one a steady-as-you-go “neutral” budget which might well prove to be the election budget Crucial is how Fianna Fail judge the government’s (and, therefore, the Taoiseach’s) performance and prospects in deciding if and when to pull the plug. A continued improvement in the economy, with no banana skins, could see support for the Government rise, something Fianna Fail will wish to avoid. Currently the opinion polls are showing no discernible trend, beyond some gradual drift back in support to the two major parties. Fine Gael and Fianna Fail are still close in the polls and, while the vagaries of the vote in individual constituencies could swing a number of seats, the professionals in both parties will be loath to gamble, given the fickleness of the electorate.

At this point any banana skins seem unlikely to be strictly economic ones. The economy is doing well, full employment is close, the forecast is for a break-even budgetary outcome and modest but actual tax reductions will kick in in the New Year. However, there remains the construction industry, important for the economy and with accompanying social and political ramifications. With the industry slow to recover and the spectre of the 2007 crash still haunting, very few homes are being built, and virtually no social housing at all. The result has been a steady rise in the declared numbers of homeless families, an issue which has now become a political and media hot potato, with attention focussing in particular on the several thousand children now housed temporarily in hotel accommodation.

There is no quick fix. Houses and apartments take time to build, from planning to signing off. Meanwhile, with demand exceeding supply for existing properties, prices are surging for those who can afford to buy and a head of steam is building up to loosen the purse strings on borrowing. At present the Government is holding firm, determined to avoid another property bubble. Handling this and the homeless issue will test the Taoiseach’s mettle. Something needs to be done – but what? And how to avoid the hot potato becoming a political football, with the opposition upping the stakes. Varadkar needs to get his own mandate and, with historically low interest rates and anxious backbenchers, he may well have his hand forced.

Another factor comes into play. The Taoiseach has already promised a referendum on the Eighth Amendment (Abortion) in May or June next. However it pans out, the campaign and debate promises to be emotive, fractious and contentious, with the outcome unlikely to be as decisive as that on Same Sex Marriage in 2015, when, effectively no side was the loser. There is no telling what collateral damage could accrue to politics and politicians here as a consequence. Additionally, several other, minor, referendums have been signalled for late 2018, on blasphemy, directly –elected mayors and the role of women in the home, none issues likely to stir passions. One suggestion is that they could be held on the same day as the next Presidential Election, also due in late 2018. All these cost money and effort and risk turning off the electorate. Poll fatigue may well push the General Election into 2019.

21/10

FORTY FIVE 1710 CVII

FORTY FIVE

This time last year I wrote a piece for an Irish union magazine assessing the prospects and what we might expect in the pending US Presidential Election. Like most observers I was fairly confident that Hilary would win, though I did hedge my bets by pointing out that at the time (September 25) the opinion polls were too close to call and that in a number of crucial states Trump was either ahead or closing fast. Nevertheless waking up on November 9 to discover that Trump had won was dumbfounding.

Looking back it is clear that if Trump could successfully shrug off as “locker room talk” the outrageous sexually offensive “grabbing” remarks made to Billy Bush, his core support was unshakeable. And so it proved. Most voters for both main parties in US elections do not normally change and if they do there are particular underlying reasons. In 2016 a long festering mood of alienation and frustration among a certain sector of the electorate found expression in support for a different candidate, one outside the mainstream who could tap into their atavism. Enough of them voted in key states to deliver the election.

Now here we are, a year on and almost ten months into the Trump Presidency. What are we to make of him, particularly from this side of the Atlantic? There follow a few thoughts, preliminary and tentative, since these are still early days, with the very real prospect that his Presidency has another seven years to run. As I write there hasn’t yet been a defining moment. Defeats and setbacks yes, but he hasn’t been seriously tested. North Korea might do it but right now all he’s done with the Koreans and everyone else has been to strut and shadow box, insulting allies and foes alike while also blowing hot and cold on substantive international issues. What will he ultimately do about the Paris Agreement, NAFTA, relations with China and Russia, and the Middle East? His inauguration speech evinced a dismal weltanschauung . If anything his recent UNGA address, bellicose, nationalistic and devoid of idealism has fortified this.

If there is a characteristic Trumpian style it is his use of Twitter, his habit of delivering usually half-baked, half thought -through instant reactions to events and developments. Like most, I expected that in office he would desist or curb this habit. He hasn’t. Whatever else may be said about him, he is not slow to get his message across and to hell with the consequences. No one can fail to grasp how he feels on an issue, however uneasy that sits with the observer. This after all is not some know-all troll, with an itchy texting finger, but the US President, with access to and power over the nuclear trigger. There is a real, if not present, danger to this.

We now pore over the occasions where there is no tweet but just a silence. Is he being reined in, or reining himself in on issues where he had best tread warily? The vacillation on the Paris Agreement, the equivocation on handling the Dreamers, the cutting loose of the likes of Bannon, suggests that Trump is indeed on a learning curve, but with so much required to learn on so many issues, there must be doubt whether he will ever adequately do so. Who can forget his wide eyed comment that the Health Care issue was complicated? So are most issues in the POTUS in-tray, Mr. President.

A year in, one thing that strikes is how totally Trump dominates the US political scene – something that does not bode well for either major party. I cannot remember this domination by a previous US President since the Sixties, when the nation was wracked by Vietnam. Even then there were loud, powerful and articulate voices opposed to LBJ, who was eventually forced out of the 1968 race. Today there seems no one to oppose Trump, with the only constraints the Constitutional safeguards, which so far have held, and his own propensity for inflicting self-damage. The Republican Party is in shreds, weakened by the Tea Party over a decade and savaged by the Trump seizure of the nomination. The Democrats are leaderless, holed below the waterline by Hillary’s defeat and still licking wounds. Meanwhile Trump proceeds with giving effect to his election undertakings, distractions such as the Russia factor and staff changes notwithstanding. Unless a smoking gun appears the Russia dimension, though an irritant, is unlikely to be his undoing, while previous Presidents have also had staff upheavals.

Given the radical platform on which he campaigned, interest here has focused on how successful he has been in putting those policies into effect. And while there has been considerable gloating over the failures to repeal Obamacare, the setbacks over his plans for immigration controls and deportations and the stalled Wall, none of these have affected or seem likely to affect his core support. Even the equivocation over the racist right has not done it, with the media focus having shifted to the hurricanes, where he handled the PR astutely, and the sudden apparent cosying up to the Democrats over the budget ceiling and the Dreamers. On this last, remember that Populism is a broad church and that, faced with a sluggish or non-performing Republican dominated Congress, Trump will try out other options.

While Trump has withdrawn from the Trans Pacific Partnership (whither goes it now?) , the other big ticket items such as Tax Reform, NAFTA, and what to do about the Paris Agreement have yet to be reached. He is meanwhile ticking off his list of campaign promises, circumventing for the moment the need to introduce new or amending legislation in Congress by using the available weapons of unilateral Executive Orders (45 to date), Presidential Memoranda (32) and Determinations (6). Numbers of these have together rolled back or reversed significantly progressive measures and legislation in a number of areas, while business has been favoured by cutting a swathe through regulations. The outcome has been a depressing roll call of measures affecting adversely a number of areas of American life from the Environment to personal freedoms. The mantra has been “America First,” with an emphasis on freeing up business to create jobs. We shall see how that one pans out.

Very few Presidents succeed in giving effect to their programmes in entirety. Trump will be no different. But when the process is at an end, rather than decry his failures, Trump will defend his record, point to his successes, attack the media and his opponents and declare that the Swamp was far worse than he had imagined and that he will need a second term to drain it thoroughly. His core support will buy it.

A second term? Right now Trump seems poised to run again in 2020. What Republican, after all, would dare oppose him, to face the bluster, the demagoguery, against those background, quasi- fascist, chants of “Trump Trump Trump” at rallies. Trump routed his rivals last year. As the incumbent he is fireproof. To defeat him will require a military fiasco, a mega scandal or a Democratic champion on a white horse. Don’t hold your breath.

20/9

NO EASY ANSWERS 1709 CVI

NO EASY ANSWERS

There is no magic bullet to end the threat from fundamentalist Islamic terrorism. There seems no shortage of impressionable individuals sufficiently duped into being willing to murder other human beings, killing themselves or being killed in the process, on the promise of some form of paradise in the next life. There have always been those with no moral compass, who have seen nothing wrong with murder, but usually society – every society – has coped with the threat they represented. On occasion this has taken time, particularly where a madman has succeeded in gaining political or military power, requiring considerable effort and bloodshed to bring him down. But grafting religion onto regular fanaticism produces a formidable combination indeed, ruthlessness allied with zealotry and bolstered by self -righteousness.

Lest we forget, killing people of a different religion was once common in Europe. The century and a half following the Reformation (the Quincentenary of which falls this year) was replete with wars of religion as Protestants and Catholics fought for superiority and hegemony, conflicts exacerbated by the simultaneous separate evolution of the nation state.

Eventually the religious factor waned in lethality, though not necessarily in importance. With a few exceptions Europeans ceased to murder or make war on their neighbours just because their religion was different. You might not like them, you might find clever ways of discriminating against them but you didn’t kill them. There were plenty of wars but not over religion, though religion remained a convenient label for identifying or defining enemies.

The second half of the Twentieth Century has seen a further evolution in Western society. Post -1945, with the ignoble exception of the Jugoslav Wars and several small internal conflicts, Europe has been at peace. And, over this period, European and Western Society generally – loosely defined as the countries of the First World – has become, for want of a better word, secular. This is not to deny that there are many millions of Western Europeans who hold firm and sincere religious views. But in the main our societies are defined, not by adherence to any particular religion, but by being democratic, tolerant of other opinions, espousing freedom of speech and expression and having regard for the prevailing system of laws. We live in effect in a post-religious society.

While this last assertion might be disputed, the point I wish to register is that there is a near consensus in our societies, embracing alike Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Atheists, Agnostics and whatever. That consensus puts religion – and for that matter political ideology or other belief – firmly in a place circumscribed by obligation to and tolerance for other viewpoints. There are, of course (always) mavericks who do not subscribe to this – Neo Nazi groups on the right, extremist groups on the left – but they are normally inconsequential or easily dealt with ( witness for example the Baader-Meinhof group in Germany in the seventies).

ISIS and its acolytes are the latest mavericks but with distinctive features which render combatting them difficult. Let me state the obvious. ISIS is not mainstream Islam. The overwhelming majority of Muslims, in every country, are totally opposed to the acts of murder and terror carried out by fanatics, whether it be the recent mass murders in Barcelona, Manchester, and London or the mass murder of Coptic Christians (28 shot and murdered) in Egypt three days after Manchester. They are equally totally opposed to the terror attacks perpetrated on other Muslims which happen almost daily in the Middle East. Indeed though we tend to focus on attacks in the West, the scale of murders of Muslims by other Muslims in sectarian terror attacks dwarfs by far what has occurred in Europe.

ISIS and its associated jihadi groups, like Boko Haram in Nigeria -which has killed 20,000 (!) people in its eight year campaign to turn Nigeria into an Islamic state – have their roots in the Salafi or Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam. These groups comprise a small minority of Salafis (most Salafis shun politics) and follow an extremist interpretation of Islam, which promotes religious violence and regards other Muslims as apostates or infidels and just as fair game for attack as non-Muslims. Hence the atrocities against other Muslims. The Jihadis are a lethal offshoot from the Sunni side of the great divide in Islam between Sunni and Shia. Currently this divide is to be seen in the struggle for domination in the region between the Sunnis (championed by Saudi Arabia) and the Shias (represented by Iran) with political, religious, social and civil conflict, and proxy wars in several countries. Shades of the Christian Wars of Religion of 400 years ago.

Inevitably, given their ideology, ISIS and the other fundamentalists have focussed sharply on the West, re-igniting the ancient embers of conflict between Christians and Muslims. Hence Nine Eleven. Hence the terror campaign in Europe. If not a popular cause it’s one that appeals to some. It is after all not hard to find reasons why the West should be resented in the Middle East. The Western powers picked over the remnants of the Ottoman Empire and, since the Crusades, the West has intervened militarily when its interests were at stake. Then it was religion. Now it is oil and economic imperialism. The West’s dramatic economic growth and prosperity since 1945 is seen as underpinned in part by the exploitation of the one major natural resource the region has – Oil.

Most of the oil wealth has accrued to feudal and despotic ruling elites, shored up by the West, with very little trickling down to the impoverished majority populations. The invasion of Iraq, the intervention in Libya are seen as the most recent examples of the West’s continuing interference. All this has been compounded by Western support for Israel while the plight of the Palestinians is ignored. Some of the resulting brew of humiliation, resentment, and frustration has been imported directly into Europe by large scale immigration from North Africa over the last half century. Here it festered among some, providing fertile ground for jihadist recruiters. The mix of ample funding, religious zealotry, articulate radical preachers, modern communications and a simple clear message and cause on top of patriotic and social frustration and alienation has produced results – and recruits.

ISIS operatives have proved flexible and innovative, switching tactics, using a combination of “Lone Wolfs” and organised terrorist cells. Whatever weapons are to hand have been employed, guns and explosives when available, anything else otherwise, including knives and, ominously, ordinary everyday trucks and cars, driven at speed indiscriminately in crowded areas with horrendous results. There appears no adequate defence against attacks of this sort by people prepared to die in the attempt.

There’s no easy answer. The first priorities have to be containment and prevention, all great in theory but difficult to achieve total success. The check list of preventive measures is easy to compile and more and better of the same can be calculated to make life and operations more difficult for the extremists. But it won’t win over any hearts and minds. That will take time. And, rest assured, ISIS will continue to improvise and hone their methods. We are in for a long haul.

16/8