NO PLANET B: AN UPDATE 1910 CXLI

NO PLANET B: AN UPDATE

There has been a sea change recently in how the effects of global warming on the Earth’s climate are perceived, with the world’s media and public opinion now seized of the seriousness of the issue, which has moved centre stage in recent weeks. This has less to do with the solemn pontifications of world politicians at the latest UN Climate Summit, nor indeed to the youth demonstrations and protests spearheaded by Greta Thunberg, though these last have certainly helped dramatize and publicise matters.

More important has been the growing evidence of the accelerating pace with which glaciers and icecaps are melting and, above all, the awesome spectacle of the Amazon rainforest on fire, a human engineered catastrophe, both brought daily to a world audience through television and the Internet . The critical importance to the Earth’s ecosystem of the Amazon basin is obvious to even the most ardent deniers of climate change – are there any still left apart from Trump and some industry hirelings? Arguably even Trump has done his bit to help sensitise world opinion with his ham fisted attempt to buy Greenland, focussing attention on a country where the icecap is visibly melting away daily.

This shift in public awareness is shot through with the growing realisation that the tipping point for effective action may already have passed. The “Economist” magazine has just devoted a special issue to facing up to the reality that the crisis is here and now. Novelist Jonathan Franzen, in a recent seminal piece in the New Yorker headed “What if We Stopped Pretending,” argued that the climate apocalypse was under way, could not be prevented and that we should accept this and try to take measures (“ half measures are better than no measures”) which could ameliorate or delay the inevitable; measures that would prevent even one devastating hurricane would be worth taking. There’s also the point, which he does not labour, that “engaging” the issue sensibly could have a dialectic effect on the process. His article should be required reading as indeed should Wallace-Wells “The Uninhabitable Earh” which posits a rise in temperature of up to 4 degrees Celsius.

Warnings by scientists for decades have been ignored or, where politicians acknowledged their pleadings, little was done and then only in a select few first world countries. The heavy hitters, pollution wise, have ploughed on regardless, the top six accounting for sixty percent of all Greenhouse Gas Emissions; China and the USA accounting for almost 40% followed by India Russia Japan and Brazil. The EU 28, with 7% of the world’s population, produces 9% ofglobal emissions.
Last month’s UN Climate Summit gave little grounds for optimism. The usual rhetoric was served up in speech after self –satisfied speech by the world’s leaders but little new or concrete beyond incremental improvement was proposed and certainly nothing of the radical nature now necessary to reach even the minimum Paris 2015 target of limiting the rise in global temperatures to 2 degrees or less. 77 countries are now committed to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Over 60 have undertaken to come up next year with tougher revisions to the national targets set in 2015; however these 60 contribute only 7% of global emissions.

Ireland’s contribution, outlined by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, at least got away from some of the rhetoric about Ireland becoming “a world leader” in combatting climate change. We’re not; we’ve catching up to do to meet even the unrealistic targets signed up to in the EU for 2020 and 2030, have a particular problem with the percentage of our annual emissions attributable to agriculture, our predominant indigenous industry – one third – and in any event account for only a tiny fraction of EU, let alone global, emissions. The Taoiseach outlined some of the targets in Ireland’s Climate Action Plan and added one incremental sweetener for the Summit with a commitment to end offshore exploration for oil ( though not yet for gas). Again, incremental only; there is little evidence that Ireland, with zero oil production, will ever become another Norway, and for most the limit of our expectations was that we might become self-sufficient in oil production, thus ensuring energy security.

The Taoiseach’s announcement also incidentally addressed demands from the Irish left that this be done; though given that the Action Plan contains 183 specific proposals, some long term, some short term, the whole programme provides a virtually inexhaustible supply of materials for those claiming some notional moral high ground with which to beat this and future governments. Even more depressing is the bland assumption that, should we, and the EU, achieve or exceed the targets set, that this will rectify matters. Even if the EU becomes fully carbon neutral by anytime soon, this will merely reduce emissions by 10%. Unless the heavy hitters do more, with several brazenly pursuing policies that will exacerbate not improve the situation, any EU “achievement” will count for nothing. It may give us all in Ireland, in Europe, a sense of moral rectitude and superiority, amid pious hopes that the rest of the world will follow, but as Stalin queried rhetorically in a different context “ How many divisions has the Pope?”

There in a nutshell is the conundrum of how to proceed, aspects of which I have touched on in previous columns. The post-1945 prosperity in the “First World” was one based on energy generated by burning fossil fuels. These were relatively cheap and available. Indeed the middle aged will recall the several scares in the 70s and 80s that fossil fuel supplies would become exhausted, causing economic collapse, concerns that led to a flurry of new exploration and exploitation to meet an expanding world demand. Any attempts to diversify and explore other energy sources such as wind and solar, were until recently, limited in scope and ambition, sidelined by the blitzkrieg of cheap carbon produced energy.

Since 1950 the world’s population has trebled, overwhelmingly outside Europe and North America. And one of the major achievements of the last thirty years has been the lifting of hundreds of millions out of poverty and into the middle classes, particularly in China, India and (less so) Brazil. This has happened overwhelmingly through the same economic development model, i.e. growth based on burning fossil fuels. The downside of this is that half of all greenhouse gas emissions in history have occurred during those thirty years.

Moreover there are the increasingly less silent ghosts at the feast, those other billions who aspire to similar higher standards There’s nothing virtuous in being or staying poor, whatever some patronising fools in the comfortable sheltered First World cocoon may assert or believe. These people want what those better off have. There is even the argument of ”climate justice”, that those in the countries first to industrialise bear some moral responsibility (for what? developing first and utilising fossil fuels to drag themselves out of poverty?) and should do more. Where does Ireland (an agricultural backwater until fifty years ago) fit into this? There is the added irony that even if the EU all its greenhouse gases were to disappear down a black hole today the problem of global warming would remain.
27/9/19

JUST THE FACTS MA’AM 1909 CXL

JUST THE FACTS MA’AM

What follows excludes details of Brexit’s probable effects on Ireland and the Backstop issue.

The penultimate acts in the Brexit saga are being played out. Boris Johnson is currently touting for a “new” deal around EU capitals The British Parliament reconvenes on September 3. Will Johnson, Cummings and the Brexiteers get their way and a deal, or crash out without one and go for an early election? Will the Opposition gel together sufficiently to force (and win) a vote of No Confidence and either trigger an early election or cobble together some form of national government to forestall Brexit and seek an extension to Article 50? What will be the result of any election? The bookies are giving 5 to 2 on an election before Christmas, 6 to 4 against any party securing a majority and 15 to 8 on Britain to exit the EU this year.

Stirring times and interesting odds. One way or another Britain seems on her way out of the EU, possibly as early as Halloween, barring an extraordinary political upheaval in a country apparently split down the middle on the issue. There are doom and gloom economic forecasts from the civil service and financial advisers in both Britain and Northern Ireland, most recently on August 18 the “Yellowhammer Report”, a leak from the British Cabinet Office. This detailed the likely immediate short term effects of a No Deal exit. The picture was bleak: threats to fresh food supplies and time-sensitive medicines as well as the knock on effects of disruption and logjam at the ports, with an anticipated further lurch downward in the value of sterling on top of its 15% fall since 2016. The knee-jerk reaction of the Brexiteers to this and all such forecasts has been to rubbish them and declare loudly that “it will be alright on the night.”

With the future so uncertain, predictions are virtually worthless, beyond the fact that even the most sanguine suggest that the collateral damage from any Brexit is likely to be at its worst in both parts of Ireland. Ireland’s difficulties with Britain as a major trading partner, particularly in terms of food exports, are well known. Northern Ireland’s top civil servant, ironically called Sterling, has consistently pointed out the threats to the North’s economy, and the possible potential for renewed political violence in the event of a hard border, to little or no avail. This seems not to faze Johnson and his acolytes. Indeed, recent British media reports suggest that Ireland’s difficulties are fully grasped in Whitehall and may actually be regarded by Johnson as a trump (apologies) card in pressurising the EU into a new deal.

Whatever about the Brexiteers’ assertions that the process will prove less harmful and disruptive for the UK after any initial hiccup, certain salient facts about Brexit bear repeating. Britain, the fifth largest economy in the world, is taking the counter-intuitive step of turning its back on forty five years of steady integration into the largest and most successful free trade, economic and social multinational organisation on the planet. Leaving involves parting company with its major trading partners, with the cornerstones of the EU, the Single Market and the Customs Union, as well as the other Treaty provisions. Britain will also cede its membership, and therefore influence, in the Union’s decision making processes. A massive change. From the date Britain leaves it will be on the outside looking in.

This on the basis of a narrow majority (under 4%) in the 2016 referendum which showed marked regional and class differences, with Scotland and Northern Ireland voting decisively to remain and virtually the whole of Northern England voting to leave. The Leave campaign concentrated on “taking back control” of Britain’s borders -code for keeping immigrants out – eliminating Britain’s net €9 billion contribution to the EU budget, and dangled the prospect of potentially lucrative trade deals with the rest of the world for a Britain supposedly unshackled by EU trade policy, with attendant new jobs and prosperity. Three years on the complexities of disentangling Britain from the EU have been starkly revealed, without apparently altering public attitudes in the UK, which on both sides seem more entrenched than ever.

The trade fantasy, parroted daily by British Ministers, merits scrutiny. In 2018 Britain exported $484 billion of goods and services, of which 46.6% went to other EU countries, with $140 billion going to four, Germany, Netherlands, France and Ireland, as against the $64.4 billion (13.3%) to the USA. Britain imported a colossal $673 billion, over half (52.5%) of which came from the EU, which accounted for seven of Britain’s top ten suppliers, with the same four accounting for almost $120 billion, compared to the $35 billion imported from the USA. Well might Trump hail the prospect of a trade deal with post–Brexit Britain; on those figures the USA can hardly but improve its trading position.

Granting Mark Twain’s reservation about statistics, there’s surely a lesson here for the ardent Brexiteers. Quite apart from supply chains, contracts, the introduction of a customs regime and shifts in exchange rates, such is the level of Britain’s current trade with the EU in both directions, that any and every variation or trade hiccup consequent on giving up the current preferential situation, carries implications for Britain’s economy. A No Deal exit would be very serious, with WTO rules applying; even any “deal” which interfered with the current free access would be detrimental.

Interestingly also, while the volumes of trade have greatly increased since 1988, historically the destination percentages have remained relatively stable. Thus in 1988 Britain exported 50.4% to the (much smaller) EU and 12.9% to the USA, importing 52.5% from the EU and 10.1% from the USA. And in 1960 Britain was exporting 9.3% to the USA and importing 12.5%, while trade with the infant EC/EU was running at roughly 23% both ways. Essentially trade with the countries of the EU expanded massively after Britain joined, with the EU replacing the Commonwealth as the key plank in Britain’s trade structure. This had been a major factor behind Britain joining in the first place. Britain’s only major new trading partner to emerge in the last 30 years is China, which unsurprisingly enjoys a huge trade surplus with the UK.

A massive additional trade bonanza with third countries seems unlikely. Britain currently exports worldwide partly on the basis of the EU’s economic “clout.” Could it do better alone, adding to what it already sells (only added value counts!)? To date it has agreed replacement trading arrangements with some countries covered by existing EU trade agreements, of which Switzerland and Norway alone are significant ; they already account for the bulk of Britain’s other European trade, so nothing new there. Generally trade negotiations are lengthy and difficult; they are also two-way and the other parties, like the USA, are likely to fight their corner. No easy solution there either.

Last year Martin Donnelly, Britain’s exasperated outgoing chief trade official, described hoping for a better deal with third countries as wishing for “a fairy godmother,” adding that Brexit was akin to swapping a three-course dinner for the future promise of a packet of potato chips.
Potato chips anyone?
25/8/19

THE CANDY BOMBER 1908 (2) CXXXIX

THE CANDY BOMBER

Sometimes a reality check is useful, pointing up on who and what we are and what we stand for. The Western, liberal democratic model is far from perfect, both within and without. Within: there are inequalities of income of treatment and still pockets of remaining discrimination. Without: there are clearly issues with how the countries of the First World Ark interact with the rest of the world , including how our societies responds to hunger, acute poverty and disease, population and migratory pressures and the whole skewed existing global economic relationships. There is much to do and the pressing need for a unified and uniform global approach to the looming existential crisis for all posed by global warming and climate change, leaves very little time to address these problems adequately.

Two Events and one Happening recently brought matters somewhat into focus for me. The first event was the extraordinary and sneering attack on the values of our society mounted by President Putin who condemned Western society and liberal values as “obsolete” and degenerate. It smacked of Cold War rhetoric, which, given Putin’s history as a faithful servant of the criminal conspiracy which ruled and terrorised Russia and her neighbours for seven decades, is hardly surprising. There were the usual knee jerk responses from (most of) the West’s politicians and media, but perhaps the best response is to hold a mirror up to Russia today and query to what values Putin subscribes after almost two decades as ruler.

The second event was the latest G20 Summit which followed closely on Putin’s remarks. Here,gathered in all their glory, were a number of his ideological soulmates who would be likewise dismissive of the West – Xi of China, Bolsonaro of Brazil, Erdogan of Turkey and Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. Heavy hitters economically and numerically. There were representatives of democratic nations also, including President Trump, who sadly chose to hobnob with Putin and find mirth in the suggestion that Russia had interfered in US elections, and who continues to show preferences for autocrats of the right while slighting the US’ erstwhile allies. It was not his finest moment, yet in a sense the two events did portray a certain grim global reality – that populism, nationalism and anti-democratic sentiments are alive and well and threatening to become ascendant in a way we have not seen for over half a century.

The Happening was altogether different and was one I attended and which took place at the Clay Kaserne Airfield in Wiesbaden Germany on June 10 and 11. It was one of several celebrations to mark the 70th anniversary of the successful Airlift which broke the Soviet blockade of Berlin between June 1948 and May 1949, ( supplies by air continued for several months lest the Soviet lifting of the blockade prove a ruse). Among those present was the last surviving US pilot of the Airlift, ninety eight year old Colonel Gail Halvorsen . The Soviet ground Blockade and the Allied Airlift in response are regarded as the first major confrontation of the Cold War, the Allied success an indication that Western Europe would not be abandoned to Stalin and the Red Army.

The background to the Blockade was how to treat a defeated Germany,partitioned, together with Berlin, into four after 1945. This proved very much a short term and unsatisfactory solution with ideological differences between the victors intensifying and the military boundaries of 1945 gradually hardening as Stalin strengthened his control over those countries occupied by the Red Army. Western Europe was still devastated and it rapidly became clear that any recovery would involve pumping funds into Germany as well as her erstwhile enemies; this in view of Germany’s size, and economic importance within Europe, whatever the crimes of the Nazis. Matters came to a head in the 1947-48 winter, with the commencement of Marshall Aid and plans to merge the three Western zones in Germany and introduce currency reform, even as Communist control was further consolidated by a coup in Czechoslovakia. The extension of the new currency to the Western zones in Berlin (deep within the Soviet sector) prompted Stalin to act, blockading West Berlin by rail, road and canals, but not by air.

The expectation was that West Berlin, with less than six weeks food and coal for its two million people, would succumb quickly. It did not, supplied in a stupendous airlift which consisted of over quarter of a million sorties and which carried at its height almost 13,000 tons of supplies daily, over twice the amount originally envisaged. By its end in 1949, the USAF had delivered 1,783,573 tons and the RAF 541,937 tons, in total 2,326,406 tons, nearly two-thirds coal, on 278,228 flights to Berlin. The C-47s and C-54s involved together flew over 92 million miles in the process. At the height of the Airlift, one plane reached West Berlin every thirty seconds. Wiesbaden airfield has a monument to the 101 fatalities during the Airlift.

Gail Halvorsen occupies a special place in the Airlift’s pantheon. Chatting with Berlin children after a flight, he realised they had no candy or chocolates and told them he would arrange to supply and drop sweets to them during subsequent flights. Which he did, attaching chocolate bars to a makeshift parachute made from a handkerchief. Asked by a little girl how they would recognise his plane he told her he would “wiggle his wings”; again, he did. Halvorsen’s gesture was expanded into an operation known as “Little Vittles” which grew exponentially with both US children and candy manufacturers contributing to an operation that ultimately saw 23 tons of candy dropped for Berlin’s children and Halvorsen earning renown as the “Candy Bomber.”

Gail Halvorsen was back in Wiesbaden last June, well enough to take control of a DC3 which dropped candy for some of today’s German children who were among the 30,000, mainly German, attendance. Later he met up with some of the children (most of whom had lost family in the War) to whom he had dropped candy including one, Mercedes Wild, then a young girl aged seven, who had written to him with directions. It was a special moment as he took the plaudits from those attending.

Consider for a moment what that action and indeed the whole Airlift signified. It was scarcely three years since a devastating war and was to assist a vanquished enemy at a time when emotions and memories were still fresh and raw. There was opposition to helping Berlin. There was, after all, the threat of war. Yet it was done, as part of a process to heal and build reconciliation.That process worked with a peaceful and democratic Germany a cornerstone of the European Union today as testimony to it.

It is easy to be sentimental; so much has happened since. It is easy also to be dismissive, to see the Airlift as just a power play. Yet when we consider what our society stands for, assisting former enemies in need is a positive. And the world knows. Which is why the less fortunate flock and queue for admission to our liberal democratic societies rather than those run by the autocrats and dictators.
31/7/19

HARD POUNDING GENTLEMEN 1908 CXXXVIII

HARD POUNDING GENTLEMEN

“When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” The Brexit Endgame is approaching, with prospects all round ranging from unpalatable to disastrous so Dr Johnson’s remark seems appropriate, certainly in Ireland’s case.

Boris Johnson (no relation) was sworn in as Britain’s new Prime Minister on July 24. He has hit the ground running – after a fashion – reaffirming, as he entered Downing Street, his intention, expressed during the Tory leadership contest, that he will take Britain out of the European Union by 31 October, with no deal, if that is what it takes. Any delusions that Johnson had merely been electioneering, and that, when the “reality” of office dawned he would backtrack rapidly on this and his other recent rhetorical utterances were soon dispelled. Over the succeeding two days he handpicked a Cabinet stuffed with like-minded Brexiteers and/or pledged Johnson loyalists, and brought in as chief adviser the mastermind of the 2016“ Leave” campaign, Dominic Cummings. Michael Gove, in tandem with Cummings, will be the Brexit enforcer.

In his first speeches Johnson has reiterated and played up an intransigent image, painting himself as a man in a hurry – as indeed he must be if he is to achieve his end in the ninety odd days remaining. He has already signalled where the blame will lie if he fails – with Europe, for failing to negotiate, and with Ireland for intransigence over the Backstop – something now declared by Johnson to be dead in the water , even if time limited. Also the Remainers – the domestic fifth column. His remarks have been addressed almost entirely to his base, and, though he did include a litany of “one Britain” targets across the socio economic spectrum when entering Downing Street, there were no details given as to how any of these promises would be paid for, beyond the predictable assertion that, in the event of no deal, the pay-out of €37 billion agreed with the EU for Britain’s departure would be withheld and thus available.

There are some disturbing echoes here of Trump’s utterances and performance. Indeed arguably Johnson’s remarks outside Number Ten were a sugar coated version of Trump’s Inauguration speech with language similar to Making America Great Again (look at the penultimate paragraph) and the pledge to reverse the years of self- doubt since the referendum. Several commentators have observed that, in effect Johnson’s ploy is to act as if 2016 was yesterday and the revelations since of what Brexit entails has simply not occurred. Whatever about Johnson being no Trump – some analogies are being drawn – he is certainly no Churchill, whose spirit he invokes, though in one sense there IS a similarity of circumstance. Churchill came to power at a time of great peril for Britain. Johnson has taken over as Britain faces its worst crisis since World War Two. The difference is that the current crisis situation has been self-inflicted.

Whither now? From the point of view of the Zealots now running Britain (who beforehand would have thought Johnson a Zealot?) the benign scenario is that in the last analysis the EU, whether Johnny Foreigner in Brussels, Berlin, Paris or Rome, and the Irish closer to home, will come around and give Britain a better deal, allowing it to achieve some form of Manifest Destiny, and/or restore some of its lost position in the world. This belief is underpinned by the notion that “They” need us more than “We” need them, and also that “We” are the victims! Classic stuff!

Should the united front of the EU Twenty Seven hold firm, the gung –ho Brexiteers would be happy to see Britain make a clean break and leave on the basis of “No Deal” and to hell with the consequences for country or party. The negative effects on the British economy – and people- of doing this are downplayed or rubbished. Consequences, after all, are for common people! Also to hell with the substantial “Remain” majorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland. It is increasing clear that Brexit is predominantly an English nationalist phenomenon (with some DUP hangers-on).

Not a very promising vista, yet there is one consideration, which should not be overlooked. Johnson is a politician, who has achieved his great ambition. He has now nailed his colours very firmly to the mast. But he must be well aware of the unhappiness in Parliament and the Commons majority against a No Deal; he simply does not have the numbers to force any controversial measure through. Given that he has so far staked all on one throw in the coming three months, should he fail to deliver on an improved deal (the scapegoats are already fingered), rather than compromise (which would doom him), he might have no option but to play the nationalist card and engineer an election, hoping that a mix of “ My Country Right or Wrong,” claims of betrayal and intransigence from the EU and an abhorrence and fear of seeing Jeremy Corbyn coming into power, might see him win out.

There is still, clearly, some sand left to run. The EU position, reiterated in reaction to Johnson’s opening salvo, is that there IS a deal on the table, the product of two years negotiations involving and agreed to by the May government and acceptable to the EU Twenty Seven, but thrice rejected by the British Parliament and that this agreement must figure in any discussions. This deal includes provisions specifically to protect the Good Friday Agreement, which cemented peace on the island of Ireland after decades of violence, by providing for the avoidance of a physical border in Ireland, through if necessary the Backstop guarantee. Any negotiations that might occur will have to incorporate and address the Good Friday Agreement. We seem set for some type of Johnson-style shuffling pavane around this; though how soon? The European Institutions take a break during August, and while this is not set in stone, it would take some considerable evolution in the UK’s position to convince the EU that it was worthwhile to crank up the machinery before September. Nevertheless, to be watched.

Meanwhile (Dr Johnson again) the Government here has woken up to the potential nightmare of No Deal. In the Brexit Contingency Plan, a lengthy paper published early last month an attempt was made to guesstimate the dire consequences for Ireland of Britain crashing out of the EU on October 31 without a deal. It painted a sombre picture; Ireland and her economy would be affected and widely felt across all sectors.

The three headline points: In the first year economic growth in one of Europe’s most successful economies would be hammered, with the growth rate estimated to be 3% less than otherwise. There would be a headline deficit of up to 1.5% in GDP in the year producing deterioration in the General Government Balance of up to €6.5 billion. Unemployment in the most exposed sectors is estimated to increase by 50-55,000, a whopping 38% increase on the current figure of 131,000. The paper observes that “a no deal Brexit will have profound implications for Ireland on all levels.” A masterpiece of understatement.

26/7/19

SORROWS IN BATTALIONS 1907 CXXXVII

SORROWS IN BATTALIONS

It’s been an eventful few weeks.

Teresa May has now gone as Tory Party leader and Boris Johnson is the clear favourite to succeed her (7 to 1 on with the bookies). He and one other candidate will battle it out, with up to 160,000 Conservative Party  members deciding the winner.

Ireland is now in somewhat of a phoney war situation regarding Brexit. The pantomime antics in the House of Commons over recent months saw agreement possible on nothing beyond the emergence of a clear majority against a No Deal Departure. This has now to be factored in with the looming likelihood that Johnson, who has declared in favour of exiting the EU by Halloween, deal or no deal, will shortly become Britain’s Prime Minister. There are rumours that, to circumvent Parliamentary opposition to a no deal exit, the Commons might be prorogued, which could precipitate a constitutional crisis. Would Johnson do it? He’s been carefully non –committal on just about everything, bragging that he will renegotiate the deal May agreed with Brussels, despite the flat negatives from there. What happens next is anybody’s guess. Irish politicians can only watch and wait – and make what contingency plans they can. Two alternative budgets are being prepared. We live in interesting times.

In early June Ireland survived a visit by Trump, who appeared in good mood following his state visit to Britain. He overnighted twice at his Doonbeg Golf Resort in Clare, with a visit to Normandy for the seventy fifth anniversary of D Day sandwiched in between. The only “official” aspect of what was a private visit was a brief meeting with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at Shannon Airport. The exchanges seem to have been good natured, though Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin attended, which may have been significant -the US Treasury recently added Ireland to its “watch list” of countries running large trade surpluses with the USA. It probably did Ireland no harm to have the pro-Irish Irish American Presidential chief of staff Mike Mulraney also in attendance. At the moment Trump appears not to take us too seriously and to be well disposed – but that could change. Something few have remarked on is that this brief visit has got the Taoiseach off the hook – lightly – of his open invitation to Trump to visit. There will be no visit in 2020, an election year, and in 2021 hopefully no Trump!

The visit did not go unprotested. An anti-Trump demonstration took place outside Shannon Airport on his arrival and a much larger one was held in Dublin the following day.  These were hardly unexpected. There has been some opposition and demonstrations for a number of years at Shannon  over its use as a stopover for US troops, while Trump in Ireland was always likely to act as a lightning rod for anti-Trump protesters as well as usual anti-US protesters, over Palestine, Latin America and now the US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement. The Trump family received a warm welcome from the local villagers – hardly surprising given that the Golf Resort is by far the area’s major employer, directly and indirectly. The visit, the demos, the reception, the media reaction all point up again the sometimes ambivalent nature of Ireland’s relationship with the USA.

In May Ireland voted separately three times.  Irish Citizens only could vote on a proposed Constitutional amendment, Irish and EU citizens could vote in the European Parliament elections and all Irish residents could vote in the local elections.  The turnout in all three polls was around 50%, with the European poll the lowest at 49.2%. In Northern Ireland, where two of the three seats went to pro-EU candidates, probably reflecting the 56% “Remain” vote in the 2016 Brexit referendum, turnout was down over 6% to 45.14%.

Electoral practice in Ireland requires that voting be on paper ballots by pencil with counting of votes done by hand. An attempt some years ago to introduce electronic voting machines was eventually abandoned after political controversy amid doubts about the security of the process. Counting  is therefore a lengthy and painstaking process with the type of voting system actually used – proportional representation using the single transferable vote – sometimes resulting in marathon counting sessions stretching over several days.  The system works well apart from the time element, though controversy, challenges and recounts can be regular features. Importantly also the system scores high on public  acceptability; there are never allegations of vote rigging or fraud, with, on occasion, some fascinating election “contests”  and unexpected results from the quirks in the PR system. This occasion proved to be no different, with one of the European constituencies – Ireland South – taking almost a week to produce a final result.

There was no such marathon determining the outcome of the Constitutional Referendum, which was a simple Yes or No issue. The Referendum, which proposed making divorce easier by removing the four year advance separation requirements and recognising foreign divorces, was carried by an overwhelming (82%) vote to remove, another outcome in line with the changing nature of Irish society as demonstrated by other recent poll results. It was a far cry from that in the landmark 1995 referendum which removed the ban on divorce by a meagre 9,114 votes, just half of 1%. On that occasion with”Hello Divorce Goodbye Daddy” the slogan of the “No” lobby ,  809,728 voted No, with the results showing also a clear urban/rural split. This time, even with a much greater (30%) electorate the number voting No was down by two thirds to 302,319.

It will be interesting to see just what effect removing the required waiting period will have on Ireland’s very low divorce rate (0.7 per 1000 population – the lowest in Europe). With four years to wait many couples just abandoned the idea and opted to live apart or to become judicially separated, or – if finances dictated – to share the same house, but not-cohabit (the Urban Dictionary’s “Irish Divorce”).  Societal changes in recent decades have led also to many thousands of couples opting to dispense with marriage altogether and just live together. The annual rate of marriages (21,083 in 2018), at 4.3 per thousand is as low as it has been anytime in the last half century.

The results in the two elections will be pored over for pointers for the next General Election, due before 10 April 2021. Whether any accurate conclusions can be drawn is another matter, particularly given the uncertainty over Brexit.  The big story, among the main parties, was the sharp decline in support for Sinn Fein. Apart from that it was nip and tuck in the local elections between Fine Gael (25.26%) and Fianna Fail (26.92%), an outcome almost a repeat of that five years earlier. (All percentages quoted are for first preference votes). The results in the European Parliament elections, if they signify anything, show that the most high profile candidates do best, with party affiliation not as important.

There seems little incentive from these results to encourage Leo Varadkar to call an election. The magic number some pundits thought might persuade him to cut and run would have been 30% plus together with a substantial lead over Fianna Fail. He got neither where it mattered, in the local elections. Indeed the most recent opinion poll suggests Fianna Fail’s slight lead has solidified.

Fine Gael almost made their target in the European Parliament elections, winning four out of the eleven “real” seats (and 29.6% of the vote  to Fianna Fail’s 16.6%), but this was due as much to the superiority of their strong candidates over Fianna Fail’s nominees, as to any party political preferences. Moreover the European Parliament is not strictly a Parliament in the sense of a legislative body, something the electorate knows well, so voting is more candidate than policy focussed. Strong independents tend to do well and this time was no exception, with two of the most high profile Dail Deputies winning election. Three of Ireland’s eleven MEPs are now independents.

For Sinn Fein the results were a disaster, echoing its performance in last year’s Presidential election. In the European elections its vote slumped to 11.7% from 19.5% in 2014, with the party losing two of its three seats. In the local elections it took another drubbing with its vote dropping below 10% and its seats halved to 81. Only in the North did its support hold up relatively well. The party is clearly at a crossroads. Its relative success in the Noughties came from vacuuming up much traditional Republican support, augmented by a pitch for votes from the left.  It supplanted Labour as the third force in Irish politics and for a while there seemed even the possibility that it might challenge and overtake Fianna Fail (as it had done to the SDLP in the North).

However the economic recovery and the surprising durability of the FG-FF Confidence and Supply arrangement underpinning the Government put paid to that notion.  While there is little focus nowadays on its past IRA links, the party still appears to have a credibility issue. It is all very well to be constantly negative, but this automatically constricts options and the possibility of alliances.  Moreover whatever about disenchantment with the two main parties, support for the Left in Ireland remains limited. A merger between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael would undoubtedly help Sinn Fein by opening the possibility of a fundamental realignment of Irish politics along Right/Left lines. This might well happen – who knows what will emerge from the cauldron of Brexit and/or another recession – but right now Sinn Fein needs to decide whether it will remain a party of the left or begin to move towards the centre and seek to broaden its support base.

The election issue which dominated media coverage did not concern the three main parties, but the relative success of the Greens, on the coattails of the current flavour-of -the -year topic (and indeed of the decade) – Global Warming and Climate Change,  a trend evident also in most of the older (prior to 2004) EU countries. The Greens had been virtually wiped out in the 2011 General Election, punished for their role in government when the Crash happened. Now they’re back, though not to the extent portrayed by the media. In the European elections they secured 11.4% of votes cast winning two seats (out of thirteen) and coming fourth, while in the local elections they got 5.5%, quadrupling their seats to 49 and coming fifth, this time just behind Labour, which continues to flounder.

The Greens polled particularly well in Dublin, winning a seat and coming second in the European elections with 17.54% and third in all three Council elections, gaining over 10% in each. They polled well also in Ireland South (10.56%), winning a seat, and in Midlands NW (8.58%), where their candidate, a woman from Achill, became something of a media favourite after taking on Peter Casey, second in the Presidential election last year,  over the immigration issue. (Casey failed to win a seat, but did win almost 10% of the vote). Interestingly, in the North the Greens secured only 2.2%, as against a Green vote throughout the UK of 11.4%. Tactical voting was clearly at play here, as the eventual outcome saw a second pro-EU MEP elected with a seat going to the Alliance Party.

Whither the Greens next?   They have been thrown a lifeline by the current concern over the Environment, something which is not going away anytime soon. They are a niche party, overwhelmingly middle class, which has had mixed political success in recent decades. Right now they are on the up but the danger is that their policies could be hijacked by the major parties – particularly on this issue (it wouldn’t be the first time).  They clearly reflect a growing concern for the future of the Environment, particularly among the young. There is no doubt that Climate Change is now centre stage and will feature as an issue in all future party manifestoes. The Taoiseach’s first comments were to acknowledge public concern and that the clear message from voters was that “they want us to act faster.”

And indeed there has been a start at least.  On 17 June the Government launched its comprehensive Climate Action Plan 2019, providing an aspirational roadmap and timetable to move to a carbon neutral society by 2050. The lengthy document is strong on rhetoric, proposing 183 measures covering all aspects of the economy. Inter alia targets and dates have been set for banning petrol and diesel cars, domestic oil and gas boilers, and for increasing renewable energy sources, overhauling waste management and controls, introducing new building regulations and proposing ambitious retro-fitting for older homes.

There is, however, a distinct shortage of detail and no reference to the cost and who would pay, beyond setting down a marker that the taxpayer could not pay it all and that it was “essential that the burdens borne were seen to be fair and that every group is seen to be making an appropriate level of effort.” The plan has been well received – as a start, but the first hurdle it will face will be an increase in the Carbon Tax in the October budget .This will be a difficult one, particularly against the uncertain background and future regarding Brexit, but not to act would invite charges of hypocrisy.

Whatever about the achievability of these goals, no one doubts their desirability. But, to a certain extent the proposals, and the national debate, are taking place in a universe parallel to what is happening elsewhere in the world. “Reducing the carbon footprint” has now become a mantra. The EU targets for 2020and 2030 are being treated like tablets of stone, with the accompanying comfortable assumption that if only Ireland achieves the 2030 (we’ll miss 2020) target and the more ambitious one of carbon neutrality by 2050 everything will be all right. It won’t. The EU Twenty Eight (including Britain) contributes only 10% of the world’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions. The issue is global not national or even regional. I refer anyone who doubts this to Wallace-Wells’ book “The Uninhabitable Earth.”

Finally, one virtual certainty about 2050.By then the world’s population will be roughly 9.3 billion, 1.5 billion more than it is today – and none of the increase will be in Europe.

In 2050 Boris Johnson will be eighty five.

END

19/6

 

 

 

NO PLANET B: THE “CLIMATE EMERGENCY” 1906 CXXXVI

THERE IS NO PLANET B: THE “CLIMATE EMERGENCY”

STOP PRESS! As I write Teresa May has just announced her resignation.  Her successor is likely to   be a much more hard line “Brexiteer,” which does not bode well for Ireland. A hard Brexit threatens. More next time. More also on the European and local election results where early poll indications are that Green candidates are polling well.

This last is hardly surprising. Climate change has gripped the headlines in recent months. And our politicians have not been slow to seize the day – after a fashion. “Ireland becomes Second Country in the World to declare Climate Emergency” proclaimed one headline on May 10. “Government declares Climate Emergency” read another.” “Ireland is Second Country to declare Climate Emergency” was the “take” on RTE, the national broadcaster.

The facts were more prosaic. On May 6 another UN report on the environment caught the headlines – this one on biodiversity suggesting that upwards of one million animal and plant species were threatened with extinction, with the causes laid firmly at humanity’s door.  The report identified five main accelerative causes of species loss: habitat loss through urban expansion, overfishing, burning of fossil fuels, polluting land and water through dumping waste and the proliferation of invasive species. There followed the usual sorrow and anger pronouncements from the climate lobby, which happened to dovetail on this occasion with a May 9 Dail debate on the report of the Parliamentary Climate Change Committee, which included forty recommendations for action .

Cue a Fianna Fail amendment to the consensus report, endorsing the Committee’s report and additionally declaring “a climate and biodiversity emergency. “  Unsurprisingly this was agreed to by all parties without a vote.  The Minister (Richard Bruton) and opposition spokesmen welcomed the amendment, which, however, did not specify what the phrase meant and did not bind the government to taking any action. Indeed only six TDs were present when the amendment was adopted, none from Fianna Fail (the Greens were obliged to move it).

The seriousness and significance of the motion can perhaps best be assessed by the fact that on May 1 Britain became the FIRST country to declare an” environment and climate emergency.”  This when the House of Commons, which remains deadlocked over the most serious issue facing the country since World War Two –Brexit – adopted, without a vote, a motion tabled by no less a luminary than Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn ,who declared its adoption a “huge step forward.” His initiative followed a week of protests mounted by an environmental activist group, Extinction Rebellion, which had seriously disrupted traffic and movement in central London.

There are essentially two ways of considering the latest development here. The sanguine approach is to regard this as another step in sensitising public opinion to the reality of climate change and the urgent need to take whatever action Ireland can to do our bit to save the planet. There have been various pronouncements by successive governments since the Nineties on the need for action and warm endorsement of the EU’s ambitious goals for reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions by 2020 and again by 2030 and beyond. The Citizens’ Assembly – derided initially but which is acknowledged to have played a significant role in clearing the air and clarifying the Abortion issue – has deliberated and made recommendations on Climate Change. And now there is the consensus report and recommendations from the all-party Climate Change Committee. In recent years there has been the successful tax on plastic shopping bags- the “witches’ knickers” of urban legend – and the equally successful smoking ban in pubs and workplaces – proof positive that the Irish public can, when convinced, act for the greater good.

The other approach is to see the resolution as hollow and hypocritical and as epitomising all that is wrong with Irish politics, and, because it is rooted in cynicism, might well damage the prospects for achieving the necessary popular support for the tough measures needed if Ireland is ever to achieve its GHG reduction goals. Stephen Collins, former chief political editor of the Irish Times, in an excellent piece on May 16, described the declaration as “pure guff” and went on to contrast the reality to the fine words being spoken. The article is well worth a read. Google it. In it he raised the additional concern that it would add “to the corrosive cynicism about politics which is fuelling anti-democratic forces across Europe.” Amen to that.

Brexit apart, there is no doubt that the “Climate Challenge” has now become the sexy political topic here and is likely to remain high profile for quite some time. For the Greens it is a lifeline. For the political opposition generally it is heaven sent – a golden political stick with which to beat the government now and for a long time to come. It is simply not going to be possible to meet the ambitious targets proposed without considerable pain where it will hit most, i.e. in the pocket. Already the Minister has flagged that Ireland’s failure to meet its 2020 targets for cuts (20% designated, 1% the expected outcome)  may well  require the government to spend up to €150 million to purchase “ carbon credits” to offset the national failure to meet the 20% target.

And more to come should the country fail to meet the even more ambitious targets for 2030. This is taxpayers’ money that could have been used elsewhere in cash strapped areas of which we have more than enough. Expect the opposition, particularly the left, to make hay on this one. The climate issue was widely aired on the doorsteps in the recent local and European elections, and featured prominently in the televised debates between candidates where it became evident that battle lines were being drawn on the first practical step – the Carbon Tax issue. This, affecting most fossil fuels is generally recognised as the measure most likely to get results in terms of cutting consumption (for results look at the hiking of cigarette prices and the pending minimum unit pricing for alcohol). But, and it’s a big but, Carbon Tax will bear most heavily on those on lower incomes and rural dwellers. Sinn Fein and the left are opposed to any increase, calling for significant and substantial exemptions. But then who would pay? Memories of the water charge debacle are still fresh.

The Government and the mainstream parties have had the wit to see the looming danger, with Leo Varadkar suggesting that the way to proceed is to develop a consensus approach among the politicians, thus “bringing the public along”. With one eye on the protests in France, and mindful of the mini rural revolt here before the last budget, he has also floated the idea that any increase in carbon tax should be funnelled back to the pocket in some way, rather than be subsumed into general taxation. Just how this would work is unclear. Certainly refunding money helped draw a line under the Irish Water mess, but this would be a different animal. Higher fuel costs should curb consumption, but the benefits could be negated if a bookkeeping exercise was all that was needed to get the money back. Let’s watch this one. Big Boys’ Games, Leo.

25/5/19

“NORMAL POLITICS” 1905(2) CXXXV

“NORMAL POLITICS”

WITH Brexit parked for the moment, Normal Politics is back – after a fashion. Not before time. There are other matters requiring attention, though clearly none with the potential toxic fall out from  a no-deal Brexit ( that with a deal will be bad enough).

We are now well into Year Four of the current Government, with an election due at the latest in February 2021. The original three-Budget Confidence and Supply arrangement between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael was extended into a fourth year to help assist that nothing would  side-track the Government from  the overwhelming  national priority of how to handle Brexit. That task is ongoing, and thus far few would dispute the deftness with which the issue has been handled, nor the 100% support Ireland has received from our EU partners.

Nevertheless the  countdown to the next election has begun and the European and local elections due on May 24 should give some indication at least of  popular support for the main parties. Recent opinion polls have given inconsistent, indeed at times contradictory, readings for three heavy hitters. While, as in the USA, mid- term elections are normally used to give the incumbents a kicking, this may not happen on this occasion, despite  the chronic unresolved issues of Homelessness, Health and Housing – the “dreary steeples” of Irish politics. Again, Brexit may have played its part in this, by concentrating the public’s mind on what is really important and helping to raise awareness that there is no magic bullet to solve any of the main issues.

May 24 might answer several questions. Should Fine Gael reach 30%, on the basis of judicious stewardship, party strategists may advocate an early election, before any nasty outcome to Brexit begins to bite (remembering also that last time around delaying until the end partly to help Labour rebounded badly and didn’t help Labour!). Should Fianna Fail come close to parity this will have justified the statesmanlike decision of Micheal Martin to continue to support the government “in the national interest.”  Sinn Fein will be watching closely its performance following a disappointing result in the recent Presidential election and to see how on this occasion its results in the local elections equate with its standing in the opinion polls.

The European elections, even though nothing national is at stake, will be watched with particular attention. Will Sinn Fein be able to repeat its 2014 performance (19.5%) and hold its three seats? Will Fianna Fail, the largest vote getter last time, improve on its single seat? How will the Independents fare? On this last attention will focus on how Peter Casey, runner up in last year’s Presidential election, does in the Midlands/North West constituency. His relative success last year was generally attributed to his anti-Traveller remarks, and he has most recently taken aim at some of the imperfections in Ireland’s immigration policy, including the direct provision system.

It’s worth remembering that, from a standing start, Casey received votes from ten per cent of all those eligible to vote – a percentage not too far off the levels of support for right wing parties elsewhere in  Europe. Ireland has thus far not produced a populist right wing movement similar to that in most other European countries and the USA. How Casey does may provide a partial clue to whether Ireland is immune or not to the current populist surges elsewhere. Conventional wisdom (heavily PC) has it that the Irish electorate is moderate by nature, eschews anything extreme and welcomes immigration because of our history of colonial rule and forced emigration. More cynical voices point to our relative isolation as an island behind an island, the fact that so far the numbers of immigrants from outside the EU have been quite small and that until recently the economic situation was hardly conducive to mass immigration.

What is undeniable is that, since the 2004 EU Enlargement, Ireland has experienced proportionately far more immigrants from the new member states than Britain, without apparently the resentment and antipathy which played a factor in the British vote to leave;  this despite at least equally harsh years of austerity.  One obvious reason is that, unlike the British, the Irish as a whole have “bought into” the European Project and accepted that Enlargement entitled the new EU citizens to come to Ireland. The relatively more generous safety net provisions of the Irish welfare system may also have helped here and there is no doubt that the systematic degrading of the British welfare state in recent decades was another factor, with the new arrivals perceived by some as further straining a creaking system  and as  undermining existing senses of entitlement .  That does not appear to be happening here, but with a rising population, inadequate state funding and chronic frailties in the three “Hs,” there are definite pressures on the system here. Public opinion can be volatile. As the Irish Water fiasco showed an issue can ignite and gain widespread support rapidly in this era of social networks.

Brexit related issues notwithstanding, including the recent violence in Derry, which will hopefully concentrate Northern political minds about the need to solve the current political impasse, the most immediate threat to the Government is the Housing situation in its totality There is no quick fix and the Government line has been consistent,  arguing that the underlying major cause is one of shortage of supply after years of stagnation  and that the problem will ease over time  as more houses and apartments are completed. True, certainly; but “in the long run we are all dead” and several factors are currently melding together in a manner that could create the perfect storm.

Media attention has focussed on the homeless issue, unsurprising given its immediacy and in particular the families involved. But the Housing issue transcends this embracing also factors including market prices,  a rising population, increased and pent up demand, a still inadequate level of construction,  deficiencies in the types of accommodation actually being built (not enough “social housing”), planning delays and NIMBYism and the imposition of rigid Central Bank credit controls on borrowing  to purchase property. This last an attempt to control house prices, dampen demand and avoid a repetition of the black hole of property price boom and bust in the Noughties.

The net result has been a dire and ultimately unsustainable situation. House prices have recovered, though not yet to the dizzy heights of 2008. In a situation where the national average house price country wide is €261,000 and over €380,000 in Dublin ( nine times the average salary), the capital required for a purchase down payment, 20% in most cases, i.e. €50 -80,000 cash, is becoming ever more difficult   to raise. Those unable to buy are obliged to rent, forcing already high rents higher. Additionally, with rental returns so profitable ,new players are entering the rental market – so called Cuckoo Funds, cash rich syndicates   purchasing whole new and existing property developments, exclusively for renting, thus reducing the numbers of properties available for the public who want to buy. Almost a vicious circle. Surely one requiring Government action. But what action? And when? Before the next election?  Time is running out. Banana skins anybody?

5/5/19