FLIGHTS OF FANCY 1706 CII

FLIGHTS OF FANCY

June looks interesting.

Ireland will have a new Taoiseach on June 2 as Enda Kenny steps down. As I write, Leo Varadkar is the clear leader in the Parliamentary Party but, with party members also having a say, the contest still has a way to run. Whoever wins, the torch will pass to a new generation; Varadkar is 38, Coveney 44. There will be no honeymoon period for the victor. Already the clock is running on the Brexit negotiations and there are worries – generated by a shortfall in 2017 tax revenues to date – that the economy is slowing down, which could compound very quickly the expected negative impact from Brexit. Add to that the need to grapple with the unfinished or postponed business that enabled Kenny to hang on and his successor will have to hit the ground running.

Britain will have a new government also, but probably with the same leader. Britain goes to the polls on June 9 after Teresa May startled the nation – and the rest of Europe – by opting to call a snap general election. In fact, and subject to the caveat that you can never forecast quite how the electorate will vote (just ask Hilary), it makes a lot of sense. May became Prime Minister when Cameron fell on his sword last June after the Brexit vote and one year into a five year term. Article 50 – the trigger to exit the EU – was invoked at the end of March and both sides are now squaring up for tough negotiations with a two year time limit. Britain’s exit, which virtually all pundits agree will be painful all round, is therefore scheduled for March 2019.

That pain, therefore, will start to kick in just a year before an election would normally be due. Better, May’s thinking goes, to get the election over with now – particularly given the Tories current substantial lead in the polls – to allow several years for post Brexit Britain to bed down. May seems set to win, possibly by a landslide, thus establishing a clear mandate for a dog fight with Europe, which seems more and more likely given recent posturing on both sides.

Labour acquiesced – necessary for the Parliamentary support to approve the early holding of the election – and again, from the Labour leadership point of view, this makes sense. Jeremy Corbyn and his acolytes, written off by every commentator, hardly expect victory but resolutely hope to do rather better than seems likely at this point, and at least as well as Labour under Milliband did last time around. Thereafter, safe in the knowledge that all the post- Brexit pain and blame can be heaped at the Tories door, the Corbynistas believe that public anger and the swing factor endemic to British politics will work in their favour come 2022. Their unashamedly populist manifesto reflects this.

The Northern Ireland results will be watched carefully. Several factors have added spice this time around. Firstly, Northern Ireland, like Scotland, voted against Brexit last year, and by a healthy margin, 56% to 44%. Secondly the local political scene is currently frozen after the Power Sharing Executive collapsed in January. Thirdly the results of the subsequent Assembly elections showed Sinn Fein with virtually identical support to the DUP, prompting some speculation that the political fault lines in the North might at last be blurring. Indeed, on the Nationalist side there have been calls for a referendum on Irish unity, amid suggestions that, given the Referendum result, the North might be disposed to throw in its lot with the South, within the EU, rather that follow Britain out.

There is, frankly, very little chance of that happening. Let’s start with the Referendum. Northern Ireland, like Scotland, voted to remain. But an analysis makes for familiar reading. Nationalists, not surprisingly, were overwhelmingly in favour of the status quo, with estimates of 85% voting to remain. The Unionist vote was 60%– 40% to leave – and very much along the class and social lines evident in Britain, with the middle classes and more affluent favouring remain ( the DUP had advocated leave). The constituency map says it all with the Unionist heartlands in the East voting for Brexit. Not much change there, and, in respect of those 40% pro-EU Unionists , there was no rider about Irish unity attached.

Nor should that recent Assembly election result be misinterpreted. The election was precipitated after Sinn Fein withdrew over the so-called “Cash for Ash” scandal when the DUP First Minister, Arlene Foster, refused to stand aside during any inquiry into the scheme (to encourage the use of renewable energy by paying an over-generous subsidy without effective cost controls) which had been introduced during her watch as Enterprise Minister. For Sinn Fein it was a tactical move (which will cost them nothing, given the rules governing power sharing) to wrong-foot the DUP, with which there were ongoing frictions over parity of esteem issues such as funding for the Irish language. Sinn Fein’s action did nothing, however, for community relations.

The number of Assembly seats was reduced this time from 108 to 90, with obvious knock-on effects on the main parties. Sinn Fein saw its share of the vote, in an increased turnout, rise by 3.9%, but actually lost a seat. The DUP was the big loser, dropping ten seats, though its vote only fell by 1.1%. The combined Nationalist vote was 39.8%, up by that 3.9% over the 2016 result, but less than the 40% plus recorded in each of the previous three elections. The combined Unionist vote was 43.6%, without the Alliance (9.1%) and has never been previously below this figure. No sign of a sea-change there either.

There’s also the little matter of the annual subvention paid by Westminster to keep Northern Ireland afloat. This is currently running at around £9 billion annually – roughly 60% of Britain’s net contribution to the EU budget (one of the major factors likely to sour the forthcoming Brexit negotiations). There is simply no prospect that Ireland could pick up the subvention tab – even were Unionists to show willing to join the Republic. This basic economic truth is recognised by most people on both sides of the Border. Analogies with German reunification, where the affluent West picked up the tab for the basket-case East, are false.

However, there is no doubt that Brexit will concentrate minds. Both parts of Ireland face serious economic prospects after Brexit with disturbances and distortions to trade patterns and relationships built up over decades. In addition there is the practical challenge posed by the likely reintroduction of customs and immigration controls, in effect reconstituting the Border between North and South. This has political and social ramifications that could threaten the twenty year peace, not immediately, perhaps not fatally but potentially damaging to efforts to effect the long term reconciliation between the communities on the island. May and her Ministers seem seized of this and certainly politicians in the South are. But there is a circle to be squared –how to preserve the Common Travel Area after Brexit, particularly if Britain crashes out without a deal. Some tough negotiations beckon. Just one more headache for Enda’s successor.

19.5.17

POLISH ANIA IS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN ASHBOURNE 1705 CI

POLISH ANIA IS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN ASHBOURNE.

April 24 2016 was the centenary, to the day, of the Easter Rising. It was also Census Day, the detailed results of which are beginning to emerge (a snapshot already one year old). Whatever Pearse and his colleagues may have imagined a century on, it can scarcely have been that Polish would be vying with Irish as the second most common language spoken on the island or that sizeable numbers would be speaking French,  Lithuanian, Romanian and Russian, at home.

Readers might recall my column of September2015, which mentioned “Ashbourne Annie,” a fictional housewife and mother, dreamed up by Labour Party strategists in a desperate – and unavailing – last throw to head-off electoral disaster. The hope was that by pointing up some of the modest pre-election goodies handed out by the Coalition in its death throes, and which on paper benefitted the likes of Annie, Labour’s, and the Coalition’s, flagging electoral prospects might get a boost. It didn’t happen. The Coalition was decimated in the subsequent election, and Labour all but wiped out.

Several days after publication of the first detailed report on the Census I visited Ashbourne, a pleasant dormitory town close to Dublin, and am happy to report that signs of economic recovery are now plentiful – too late for Labour.  Shopping in one of the town’s main supermarkets brought home one of the report’s revelations. It was school holidays and shoppers included a number of families. Most of the children were speaking Polish or Lithuanian. Not a generalised or representative example, true – Ashbourne is within the Dublin commuter belt, and has consequently a relatively high non-Irish population –  but indicative of the changing face of Ireland.

The Census is interesting in a number of respects. The population of the Twenty Six Counties is now 4,761,865, up 173,613 or 3.8% since 2011 (but still far behind the pre-Famine figure of 6.5 million), though the rate of increase is slowing. The natural increase (births over deaths) was actually 196,100, indicating that emigration continues to be a factor. The “greying” trend continues with the over 65s up 20% to 647,567, 13.6% of the total. Deaths actually increased by 7,200 while births fell sharply by 22,800. The average age of the population is up by 1.3 years to 37.4 years. Interestingly, the average age of the non-Irish has increased by 2.5 years to 35.4 years, almost double that of the population as a whole, and, indeed the average age of Poles has increased by 3.5 years, from 27.9 to 31.4 years. For which read that many of the wave of young immigrants who arrived after 2004 to work during the Celtic Tiger years have put down roots and are now that much older.

The actual number of non-Nationals is virtually unchanged at 535,475, though this of course masks the many actual changes that have taken place. People have gone home, people have arrived, often from different countries and many have acquired dual nationality (up almost 50% to 104,784). The document estimates that 94,000 have acquired Irish citizenship since 2011, many in highly publicised public ceremonies. Apart from the British, the Poles and Lithuanians remain the largest national minorities, virtually unchanged at 122,515 and 36,552 respectively. The biggest increases have been among Romanians, up 69% to 29,186, Brazilians, up by over half to 13,640, and Spanish, up 78% to 12,112. The numbers of Pakistanis have also increased by over 50% to 12,891, while the most dramatic increase has been from the EU’s newest member, Croatia, which has seen Croatian numbers increase fivefold to 5,202. 69% of non-Nationals come from ten countries with the next ten accounting for a further 14%.

Inward migration has recommenced, edging towards Celtic Tiger levels, with 82,346 arriving in the year to April 2016. Of these 28,143 were Irish nationals, with the largest contingents of non-Nationals arriving from Britain (7,506) Brazil (4,848) and Poland (3,689).  With the economy continuing to expand there is little doubt that strong inward migration will continue. What is not clear is what effect Brexit, however it turns out, will have. Will there be a flood of new arrivals, seeking to enter Britain clandestinely across the Border, or will there be a flow of non-British nationals forced out?  It’s widely believed that a surge in asylum applicants from Pakistan and Bangladesh in 2015 followed denials to reside by the UK authorities. Whatever happens there are likely to be profound implications for future inward migration.

There are already significant developments in the languages spoken in the home. Here no fewer than 135,895 people speak Polish at home, 27,197 of whom were born here. Next up is French, spoken in the home by 54,948 (again, 36,810 born here) with Romanian (36,683) Lithuanian (35,362) and Spanish ( 32, 405) next in line. 20, 833 speak Portuguese, reflecting chiefly the Brazilian newcomers. Arabic is spoken by 16,072, of whom 4071 were born here. All told 612,018 people speak languages other than Irish or English at home.

The language statistics have sent shockwaves through Irish language supporters. While 1,761,420 answered “Yes” to the question “Do you speak Irish?” 30% of those aged 10-19 answered “No” and only 73,803 said they spoke it daily outside the education system. One pie chart shows 69.7% of those three and over who “can’t speak or won’t speak Irish.” The manifest failure of successive governments to revive the first national language has been cruelly exposed by the figures for languages spoken in the home. The Irish language, part of Irish culture,  remains an object of affection and endearment to a high proportion of Irish people, but few seem exercised enough to do anything about it. The blunt truth is that English, in which the Irish excel, is such a superb vehicle for communication and enjoys widespread use and acclaim throughout the first world that few among the Irish direct more than a token genuflection towards the native tongue.

The census findings on religion, with the Report itself highlighting a 29% increase in the Muslim population here and that almost 10% of the population have “no religion” also prompted attention. Census Question 12 asked simply “What is your religion”, giving seven choices, including “No Religion.”  The number declaring themselves as Muslim is now 63,400, less than 1.5% of the population. The number (and percentage) of Orthodox Christians is approximately the same, having risen at a faster rate, 37.5%, over the period. The number of Catholics, at 3,729,100, represents 78.3% of the total population, down by 3.4% since 2011.

Elsewhere the secular lobby have been crowing, citing the 10% “no religion” figure as further evidence of the decline in the Catholic Church’s influence. Certainly the number declaring “no religion” is up, by 73.6% from 269,800 to 468,400, and a further 125,300 left the boxes blank. And there has been a dramatic fall in Church attendance in the last decades. Whether any definitive conclusions can be drawn is less clear. It could be argued, indeed, that, given the scandals and revelations which have rocked the Church since the highpoint of the 1979 Papal visit, what is surprising is that almost 80% still declare themselves Catholic. Irish Catholicism may be in decline, but it’s a slow process.

21/4

WHEN THE FLAG DROPS….. 1704 (2) C(2)

WHEN THE FLAG DROPS….

Formula One drivers have a saying : “When the Flag Drops, the B.S. stops.”  It’s simple. Whatever is said or promised in advance may prove difficult to deliver in actuality. President Trump has begun to discover this after the recent American Health Care Act fiasco.

Ireland, Britain and Europe face a similar High Noon – albeit a long drawn out one – after Britain triggered on 29 March the Article 50 Process for leaving the European Union. Quite how this one will pan out will not be clear for some time. But make no mistake: whatever the eventual outcome, the effects on Ireland will be considerable, and in the range fairly negative to very negative. For Ireland it’s essentially Lose-Lose across the spectrum and the aim of the government will be damage limitation. There is no good news.

In part because of our troubled historical relationship with Britain, and desire, therefore, to emphasise our separate identity, Ireland embraced Europe enthusiastically since we joined in 1973,  strove to be seen as the “good European,” ditched our currency to adopt the Euro, despite major trade and investment links outside the Eurozone, and parroted the language of “Ever Closer Union.”  Europe has been good to Ireland, with billions transferred over the years under the Common Agricultural Policy and through Regional and Structural funding.

This commitment to Europe took a dent during the Recession when we became Europe’s poster boy for swallowing austerity at the behest of Europe’s bankers. It has also suffered as the flow of funds has dried up, with Ireland’s growing prosperity and the accession of poorer new Member States. Brexit poses another challenge, one of a different dimension.

For Britain remains our largest trading partner by far; is a major source of inward investment; is our largest source of “foreign” tourists; is home to a massive Irish population both Irish born and second generation and is a country with which we share a common language, and many elements of a common culture. This is quite apart from the Northern Ireland dimension, where Peace has now been bedded down, albeit squabbles persisting at the political level. Arguably relations with Britain on all levels have never been closer, much of this generated since 1973, in which our common membership of the EC/EU has played a major part. All this is now threatened.

European Heads of Government are to meet in late April to agree a mandate for the exit negotiations, to be conducted by the Commission under designated Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier, a former French Foreign Minister, and very much a Brussels insider. The Brexit process theoretically has two years to run but has never been tested and is further complicated by Britain being Europe’s second biggest economy. Think California quitting the U.S.A. with two years to sort everything and you get some idea of what’s involved.

The months since Britain voted to leave have featured chiefly political rhetoric and shadow boxing, including whether or not 24 months is enough. Given what’s involved two years seems too tight, certainly to tidy everything away. Perhaps the device used by Europe over the years, when deadlines loomed , of simply stopping the clock as midnight approached might be utilised again. There is too much at stake on all sides, particularly the heavy hitters, to allow a bean counting point to matter.

For Ireland the interests at stake are vital. No other Member State has anything like the comprehensive totality of our relations with Britain.  Brexit, quite apart from its implications for Irish-British trade, the obvious high profile Common Travel Area between the two countries, which predates EC Accession, and the imposition of some form of border controls on the only land frontier between Britain and the EU, will involve much unravelling of and/or amending  existing links and relationships. These span the many shared business, trade, investment, political and personal strands, which have been built up between the two countries before and since 1973, a period which represents virtually half of our existence as an independent state. Little or no aspect of our bilateral relations will emerge unscathed.

Current indications from Brussels are that the Commission will proceed as it does in negotiations with third countries, negotiating on behalf of all Twenty Seven on the basis of a mandate from the Council, reporting back on progress – or lack of it – regularly as necessary or as directed, normally to the Foreign Affairs Council. Whether this will be sufficient to meet Ireland’s concerns is another matter.

There is no doubt that the Commission will negotiate as best it can impartially on behalf of all, but for none of the other Twenty Six is there so much at stake.  Poland may have a special interest in the welfare of its nationals in Britain but in terms of the 2004 Accession states that’s about it, and that’s just in one area among many. Their trade and investment concerns are negligible compared to Ireland’s. The situation is not much different for the rest of the pre-2004 Fifteen. Certainly Germany , France and the Netherlands have greater  trading links with Britain than Ireland  ( though not by much) and have significant investments and numbers of nationals living in Britain, but again that’s it – in each case those countries’ interests are proportionately  considerably less significant than Ireland.

There’s a wood and tree consideration here also. The Commission will be tasked to negotiate those areas in which it has competence under the Treaties. It’s not clear when or how the vital matter of trade will be handled. Yet while the EU dimension is important, it is frankly not central to the nature of our current and historic relationship with Britain. There is none of the visceral dimension, in the broadest sense, of the relationship between Ireland and Britain. There is an obvious risk that this aspect will not be accorded due weight in the negotiations. What if  the negotiations ended by securing a “deal” for the Twenty Seven in which every  country  made concessions, but in which Ireland ended up  in considerably worse shape overall than, say, Bulgaria or Hungary. There’s also the Realpolitik aspect -that very heavy hitters like Germany and France would want to cut a deal with Britain and would be willing to make sacrifices to do so. Would Ireland, could Ireland, go along with an outcome that caused us problems but was acceptable to the other Twenty Six?

These are early days. There are no easy answers. Free trade is vital. Is it achievable? Preserving the Common Travel Area and maintaining an open Border – two of Ireland’s declared priorities  – have  to be squared with Britain’s wish to control immigration and the freedom of movement for  EU nationals within the EU, of which we remain a member. That’s just for starters. Currently Irish politicians are preoccupied with domestic concerns including a serious crisis of public confidence in the Gardai. But that will pass. Brexit is now on us. The end April EU Summit is not far away. There are voices calling for a more proactive approach, including perhaps a separate place at the negotiating table. That or a higher profile. The issue needs to be debated at least.

 

29/3/17

ON THE BEACH 1704 C

NEVIL SHUTE, “ON THE BEACH”, AND A 1916 DIMENSION

 

How to view the recent missile launches by North Korea, and the very public assassination in Malaysia? The benign theory has it that Kim Jung-un is not so much acting bellicose but more striving to ensure his regime’s survival by developing defence mechanisms to deter any pre-emptive strike against him. This in the knowledge that his forces could not withstand a full scale conventional assault from outside any more than had those of Saddam Hussein or Gaddafi.

 

The theory seems reasonable but with the growing spread of nuclear weapons, as evidenced by Pakistan and North Korea, the threat of miscalculation, or misunderstanding, leading to a nuclear exchange is very much a real one. Does anyone seriously doubt that Iran will not acquire nukes before much longer, with Saudi Arabia and one two others hard on its heels? The stopper on the bottle containing the nuclear genie is coming loose.

 

I was prompted to these rather gloomy thoughts when cataloguing my library recently and revisiting a novel of the Fifties. Nevil Shute wrote “On the Beach” in 1957; it was turned into a film, directed by Stanley Kramer, in 1959. Shute, who died in 1960 in Australia, wrote several dozen novels and an autobiography, but will be most remembered for this, his bleak visionary tale of the last days of mankind. Shute was born in England in 1899, became an aeronautical engineer and moved to Australia after World War Two. As a writer he was very much a man of his time, English, middle class, public school educated. His books are well plotted, understated and devoid of graphic sex or violence. This very understatement is perhaps what makes “On the Beach” so effective.

 

The novel is set in Australia in 1964, two years after a nuclear war has devastated the Northern Hemisphere. By then a number of European countries, not just the heavy hitters, have acquired nukes, increasing exponentially the chances that they would/could be used. The cause is never stated but a mistake, a political blunder, is hinted at. Cue North Korea again. And remember also that, when the world came closest to Armageddon over Cuba in 1962, one of JFK’s obsessions was to avoid any miscalculation or misunderstanding by either superpower in a situation where the gung-ho Cuban leadership wanted war.  Shute, as an engineer, was very conscious of the awesome destructive power of nuclear weapons and, from his aviation experiences, of the constant possibility of something going wrong.

 

There have been many books written about a nuclear – or other – Armageddon, normally featuring societal breakdown, involving hunger, anarchy, violence, cannibalism and rape and usually a deus ex machina salvation for a small band of heroes to survive and rebuild. Shute’s book is different. In it Mankind North of the Equator has ceased to exist and the deadly radiation clouds have begun to reach the Southern Hemisphere. It is only a matter of time until they reach Melbourne and beyond, exterminating Mankind in the process. There is no escape, nowhere to flee.

 

Shute poses the question: What does a civilised community do faced with this reality? It is a stark question, written when the Cold War was still maturing and when those countries with the capability were striving mightily to acquire nuclear weapons (France did so in 1960, China in 1964 and Israel probably in 1967).

 

It could be objected that this is an over simplistic portrayal of the aftermath of a nuclear war in which there would a) be survivors and b) the effects of radiation would be varied, prolonged and not necessarily 100% fatal. It could equally be pointed out that in such a situation, where there was a major thermonuclear exchange, a nuclear winter would probably follow hard on the complete breakdown of orderly government, so that, in a short time, in the graphic words of one commentator “The survivors would come to envy the dead.” Few would relish in any event being around to test whether or not nuclear war was survivable!

 

Shute portrays a society in which the utter helplessness of their predicament takes time to sink in, and in which an unconscious consensus emerges to continue on normally for as long as possible. Farmers plant crops which will never be harvested, householders plant gardens which they will never see in bloom, the chief preoccupation of the Melbourne Gentleman’s club is to calculate whether their best wines and spirits will last to the end.

 

As the radiation rolls across Northern Australia, racing car enthusiasts organise the last ever Australian Grand Prix, with cars driven with such abandon that there are many fatalities. Suicide pills are made available for those who want to use them. Others await the end quietly, embracing death by a variety of means. The last US nuclear submarine is scuttled with her crew on board. The world ends not with a bang but a whimper.

 

“On the Beach” was well received when it appeared. Half a century later the Economist called it “still incredibly moving.”  It is all of that – the last chapters are emotionally draining – and the novel perhaps merits a timely revival in an era where the issues it raises are very much relevant.

 

There is a fascinating connection between Nevil Shute Norway, to give him his full name, and the Easter Rising. He was born in 1899, one of two sons of Arthur and Mary Louisa Hamilton Norway, a British civil servant who in 1912 was appointed head of the Irish Postal Service and Manager of the GPO in Dublin. The family spent six years in Dublin, living first in Mount Merrion, then in the Hibernian Hotel. Nevil’s elder brother Frederick, aged 19 was killed on the Western Front in July 1915.

 

Over several years Arthur Hamilton Norway organised a major renovation and refurbishment of the shabby GPO building. It reopened to the public, ironically, less than a month before the Rising.  Norway was summoned to Dublin Castle early on Easter Monday to help plan the arrest of Nationalist leaders on Easter Tuesday (!), just before the GPO was occupied. Mary Louisa, together with Nevil, on Easter holidays from school, arrived soon after Pearse had read out the Proclamation. She demanded to see whoever was in charge and was introduced to Pearse, who assured her that the safe and contents in her husband’s office would not be harmed. It was later discovered unopened, in the ruins of the GPO.

 

Nevil subsequently volunteered as a Red Cross stretcher bearer for the wounded of both sides and was later honoured by St John’s Ambulance. His mother wrote a fascinating eye-witness account of Easter Week, based on letters written to her sister. It describes in vivid and dispassionate detail many of the incidents of the week. One passage in particular has entered the histories of the Rising. Describing the savage fighting and destruction on Thursday, she wrote:

 

“It seemed as if the whole city was on fire, the glow extending right across the heavens, and the red glare hundreds of feet high, while above the roar of the fires the whole air seemed vibrating with the noise of the great guns and machine-guns. It was an inferno!”

END

20/3/17

 

THE GREAT HUNGER: FAMINE or GENOCIDE 1703 XCIX

THE GREAT HUNGER: FAMINE OR GENOCIDE?

“God sent the Potato Blight but the English created the Famine” – John Mitchell 1848.

It was the defining and watershed event in Ireland’s Nineteenth Century History, radically altering Irish society and the economy, enshrining emigration as the default option, dealing a fatal blow to the Irish Language as the vernacular tongue and leaving a bitter legacy among the Irish in Ireland and the Diaspora in America it did so much to create.  It gave an enduring fillip to the separatist movement which came to fruition in 1916 and the War of Independence.

The basic facts are well known. Ireland’s population more than doubled to over 8 million between 1800 and 1841, the vast majority peasants or tenant farmers heavily dependent on potatoes for their staple diet. In 1845 a potato fungus destroyed up to half the crop. The situation worsened in 1846 with over two thirds of the crop destroyed. In 1847 (“Black 47”) the catastrophe became complete with few potatoes even planted. Few died in 1845 but after the toll rose dramatically. Deaths in workhouses alone in 1847 exceeded 50,000. The effects were island wide, though much less in the Pale and the eastern counties where there was access to (and money to buy) imported food.  Connacht and the South West suffered most, with population falls of up to 30%.

There was food available in 1845 with Peel’s government buying in corn. Thereafter as the crisis worsened, London proved unable to cope. People began to die in growing numbers in 1846, overwhelming relief attempts. The official mind set was to give nothing for nothing underpinned by an inflexible dogmatic doctrine of laisser faire liberalism. A scheme of public works was instituted, with the undernourished expected to perform manual labour (digging roads) for money to buy food. In January 1847, the nadir, soup kitchens were introduced and were soon feeding up to three million. Inexplicably, in August the scheme was abandoned lest it encourage dependency, and the onus to provide relief was shifted back to Irish taxpayers, predominantly landlords, with predictable results. Throughout, the country exported food, not enough to bridge the gap but enough to have ameliorated conditions somewhat.

There have been much larger famines. The famine which struck Ireland in 1740-41 -the “Year of Slaughter” killed perhaps a quarter of the population, proportionately more than a century later. But that was in archaic times, when the authorities had neither the resources nor the technology to alleviate distress. Note also that with the exception of the Bengal Famine of the early 1940’s (where Britain was also the governing power), the other major famines since 1800 all took place under totalitarian mendacious regimes where knowledge of, publicity about, and the extent of, what happened, were suppressed or falsified.

The Irish Famine took place in what was then the most advanced country in the world, edging towards democracy (after the 1832 Reform Act), with a reasonably free press, a vocal parliamentary opposition, a developing social conscience (working age and conditions were being regulated), and an infrastructure advanced enough – thanks to industrialisation and the railways – to enable and facilitate action by government. More could and should have been done. The British Government’s response to the catastrophe has been castigated as inadequate, inept, tardy, indifferent, bloody-minded, cruel, callous, and tinged with racism, with the dead bearing silent witness.  The clincher being continued exports of food while millions starved. It was all of that.

With contemporary accounts and artists’ sketches of the starving poor abounding it’s not surprising that then and since the spectacle of the Famine grips us and stirs deep emotions. Upwards of a million died, over and above the “normal” death rates; not necessarily of hunger but of associated diseases aggravated by malnutrition, such as cholera, dysentery and fever.  There are no exact figures, beyond what the population was in 1841 (8,175,124)), 1851 (6,575,000) and actuarial calculations as to what the figure WOULD have been without the Famine (roughly 9 million).

Emigration (which had of course preceded 1845) increased massively, though impossible to measure accurately. In the decade after 1845 probably two million emigrated.  Almost 600,000 arrived in the USA in the five years 1846 – 1850, three times that in the previous five years; a further 700,000 arrived up to 1855. This was quite apart from the huge numbers settling in England and the lesser numbers who travelled to Canada and Australia. At Grosse Ile in Quebec, where the arriving Irish, many sick, were quarantined, the queue of ships waiting to dock at the end of May 1847 stretched for two miles.

The Great Hunger was a catastrophe, with Britain firmly in the dock for omission, neglect, and wrongheaded policies and indifference. Ireland was remote, the Irish peasant poor more so. But did British policy constitute Genocide? Raphael Lemkin’s definition, (a Polish Jewish jurist who had studied the Armenian massacres of 1915) as enshrined in the UN Genocide Convention of 1948, specified that for actions to be deemed genocidal there must be prior INTENT to destroy in whole or in part a national or ethnic group.

The Holocaust during World War Two was clearly genocidal, in that a determined premeditated attempt was made to murder Jews in every country in Europe occupied by the Nazis. In an elaborate and comprehensive campaign Jews were separated out and transported to death camps where they were either immediately murdered or kept as slave labour in conditions which proved fatal for many. When mass shootings proved inadequate industrial scale mass murder by gassing was introduced. All this sanctioned by the Nazi authorities and carried out by the SS.

Fifty years later in Rwanda, in 100 days in 1994, from April 6 to July 16, at least 800,000 of the minority Tutsi tribe were slaughtered by the majority Hutus. The massacres were in the context of an ongoing civil war but were carefully planned and orchestrated by the ruling government elite. Most of the rural murders (by machetes, many stockpiled earlier) were by villagers under orders from district leaders and village headmen. Rape was employed as a weapon against many surviving Tutsi women. An under resourced UN peacekeeping force was powerless to stop the slaughter.

In 1915 roughly 1,500,000 Armenians died at the hands of the Turks, with intellectuals murdered and whole communities driven out by the authorities and force marched into the Syrian desert with little or no sustenance. Men were shot, women and girls raped before being murdered .Observed atrocities included crucifixions, impalements, massacres, mass burnings alive and drownings, conducted by early equivalents of the Nazi Einsatzgruppen. (Though Turkey denies what occurred was genocide, Hitler asked rhetorically in 1939 “Who… speaks today about the annihilation of the Armenians?”)

The key elements in all the three above were advance planning and intent. By these standards, deplorable and blameworthy as the British Government’s attitude and performance was, it hardly constituted genocide. There was no plan to kill, no wanton or systematic acts of cruelty and indeed considerable attempts, however inadequate, were made to address the suffering. The sheer scale overwhelmed the authorities and the situation was exacerbated by the prevailing economic and political orthodoxy of the time .This was, after all, the 1840s.

 

24/2/17

(SOME OF) THE TIES THAT BIND 1702 XCVIII

(SOME OF) THE TIES THAT BIND

 

“The family ties and bonds of affection that unite our two countries mean that there will always be a special relationship between us.” Not exactly love-bombing, but this was British Prime Minster, Teresa May, speaking. The context was the need to preserve the Common Travel Area (CTA) between Ireland and Britain following British exit from the EU, the occasion the announcement of Britain’s roadmap for Brexit. And maintaining the Common Travel Area was number four in May’s twelve negotiating objectives, highlighting its importance to Britain.

 

As I write, Donald Trump has just been sworn in as the USA’s 45th President. His “America First” inauguration address came with vows to repatriate US business based overseas and to rewrite the terms of much of current US trade relations. Trump’s plans for US business could affect future and even existing US investment in Ireland, which has relied heavily on FDI from US companies. And a major alteration in the US’ current trade agreements could potentially seriously derail international trade patterns with consequences for every country. We shall see.

 

However, a much more clear and present danger for Ireland is the impending Brexit and that roadmap set out by May, which heralds a tough set of parameters for the negotiations. There are few “coulds” but some very definite “woulds” regarding the likely consequences of Britain leaving the EU. The phoney war since June is now ending and quite a grim picture for Ireland is beginning to emerge. Put simply Ireland, North and South, stands to be affected disproportionately greater than the other 26 EU members by Britain’s departure. May has signalled the so-called “Hard Brexit”, involving the introduction of controls on Immigration from other EU countries as well as pulling out of the Single Market and the Customs Union. All three are critical for Britain; all three will have profound effects on Ireland.

 

Tied in with this, though not mentioned by May, is the North, so self-evidently an issue of critical concern to the people of Ireland, North and South. It is less than a generation since the guns fell silent and not yet a decade since the fledgling institution of the Power Sharing Executive appeared to be taking hold. Right now there is a hiatus, with elections pending in March and  old tribal loyalties reasserting themselves. Peace is not under threat – far from it; the North has come too far to fall back. But the last thing needed, at a time when North South relations have never been closer, is the prospect of new or renewed barriers across the island. To a large extent the Good Friday Agreement was predicated on close relations between Ireland and Britain with physical and economic contact enhanced by a common membership of the larger entity of Europe.

 

A critical ameliorating element here has been the Common Travel Area, dating back to Irish independence, far predating, as May noted, membership of the EU. This was not affected by subsequent EU enlargements – until now. While May speaks of working “to deliver a practical solution” to maintaining the CTA while “protecting” the UK’s immigration system, there’s clearly a circle to be squared here. Any solution involving a two tier approach, admitting the Irish but restricting other EU nationals is unlikely to go down well with other EU member states, for example Poland, whose nationals in Britain now actually exceed the numbers of Irish. Other nationalities are much less significant in this context but will doubtless also have views. However, while new controls on immigration might be a nuisance for others, their impact on Ireland and the Irish would be of a different magnitude. Unilateral action by Britain, admitting the Irish alone, would pose the further problem of how and where to police the common land frontier lest Ireland become a back door for entry into the U.K.

 

The analogy of Norway and Sweden, is hardly relevant – population flows of other EU nationals between them are negligible compared to the flows between Ireland and the U.K.  (Ireland remember has also admitted large numbers of Poles and others from the 2004 Enlargement – far more proportionately than the UK). A special accommodation for Ireland, negotiated by the Commission and agreed to by the other 26, is the preferable solution, but whether it is achievable and in what form is another matter.

 

Brexit is serious for Ireland across the whole spectrum. The two countries have had a long and not very happy relationship stretching back for at least a millennium (it didn’t all start in 1169). In many ways the two islands form a common cultural area. We’ve adopted their legal system and their language and over the centuries millions of Irish have migrated to Britain and settled there. There are at least half a million Irish born people currently living in Britain, (equivalent to 10% of the population in Ireland) with estimates suggesting that one in six Britons has an Irish grandparent. (The Catholic Church, five million strong, is overwhelmingly an Irish immigrant church).  The Irish people have been and are well represented in all walks of life in Britain, including the media, sport and the arts. No other EU country even approximates to this.

 

Quite apart from the North, the historical, cultural and traditional links with the British and the huge Irish community in Britain, our vital national economic interests are under threat by Brexit in a manner that those of other EU members are not. Some are scarcely affected at all. Bulgaria? Croatia? Latvia? Romania? Luxembourg? And the others? All have trading links, some have investments, all have citizens in Britain but none compare with the bald facts of our relationship with Britain. Britain is our major trading partner, however one measures it, one of our major FDI sources and the largest origin of our tourists. Already we have suffered job losses as sterling has fallen in value since last June rendering Irish exports less competitive.

 

Next time I will expand further on the above, but with the invoking of Article 50, beginning the exit process, expected before March 31, it is imperative that our politicians address urgently the issue of the  appropriate means for protecting our vital national interests in advance of the negotiations. It is currently envisaged that the European Council will set out high level objectives for the EU and then consider and approve a draft negotiating mandate from the Commission, which will then conduct the negotiations. This approach enshrines the Treaty-based proposition that all Member States have a stake in the outcome- including preservation and maintenance of what are perceived as the EU’s core values.

 

All well and good, but while all certainly have a stake Ireland has more and the issue is whether we can simply be just one voice among many, relying on the Commission negotiators – who will be seized of the “ big picture” which will not necessarily prioritise our concerns – to look out for us. Factor in the likely EU interinstitutional rivalry and the aggregation of other national interest of partners big( particularly) and small and there is every danger that our priorities, proportionately more vital, will be side-lined. Should we put not our trust in princes?

END

21/1/17

CASTRO 1701 XCVII

CASTRO

It’s impossible to let his death pass without comment. Lest I be derided for Skibereen Eagle–type comment, back in the day, at the end of the Sixties, a decade when Castro was an important bit player, my Master’s Degree was on the Cold War, my dissertation on the Cuba Crisis.

Fidel Castro was a survivor. The revolution he led in 1959 has lasted against all the odds, including half-a-century of US hostility and a crippling trade embargo. Today, a decade after Castro relinquished power to his brother Raol, despite modest reforms and a beginning of détente with the USA, Cuba remains a single party Communist dictatorship with severe restrictions on personal liberty, which over fifty years has imprisoned and killed thousands of people.

For several decades Castro was the darling of the Left throughout the West, his fiery anti-Americanism and dogged adherence to undiluted Socialism matching the mood of that Sixties generation which demonstrated against US involvement in Vietnam and its support for reactionary or dictatorial rulers throughout Latin America and the Middle East. That generation was meanwhile quietly dismayed and progressively disillusioned at the mendacious and repressive Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, particularly after the crushing of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Cuba was seen as somehow different – pure, inspired by ideals other Communist regimes had abandoned. That purity was personified in the enduring images of the revolution, of a bearded cigar chomping Castro, and of the Lost Leader, Che Guevara, summarily executed in Bolivia in 1967 while attempting to foment revolution there. Indeed for most people then, and today, 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 – another hardened Marxist revolutionary and murderer – and for the Cuban revolution where he cut his teeth. As the years passed it was possible to ignore the spectacle of the fading and aging Castro while cherishing that preserved sanitised image of Che.

The Left might be uneasy at the political murders, the denial of democracy, the repression and the frugal living standards imposed on the Cuban population by Castro’s regime but could point to what was happening elsewhere in the hemisphere, where there was, and continues to be, an ongoing battle between the haves and the have-nots.  In a continent rich in natural resources, the gap between the minority wealthy ruling elite, who control the security forces, and the poorer majority,  is huge. Corruption, poverty and disease are endemic, politics and society polarised in what is seen as a zero-sum game. Reforming governments have been routinely resisted and overthrown, often with overt or covert US support. The conflict often generated armed resistance movements, such as Castro’s, provoking military coups and savage repression in response.

As Latin American dictators and murderers go, apart from longevity, Castro was scarcely the heaviest hitter. The regional roll call of murder and misery is depressing. Since Castro seized power, there have been periods of military or authoritarian rule or violent political unrest in every Central and South American country except Costa Rica. Generally the body count elsewhere has greatly exceeded Castro’s tally.

Take the main examples. In Argentina, seventeen years of military dictatorship and murder; the thousands of “Disappeared”. In Chile the brutal fifteen year Pinochet dictatorship (I witnessed the murder of the ousted Chilean Foreign Minister Letelier outside the Irish Embassy in Washington D.C. in September 1975). In Columbia the only very recently concluded treaty between the government and the FARC, after an estimated 200,000 deaths. In Nicaragua the Somoza dictatorship until 1979, followed by the Sandinistas and the Contras. In El Salvador the Death Squads and a twelve year civil war. Bolivia, Brazil,Venezuela,Uruguay,Peru, the Dominican Republic and Panama (where U.S. military invasions toppled the incumbent regimes); the list goes on. And in many countries, additionally, the murderous ghouls of the drug cartels, compounding the misery of the general population. None of which excuses Castro’s human rights record but goes some way to explaining and contextualising it.

Castro was unique. Casting a cold eye, ideology apart, he succeeded in toppling the incumbent ruling elite, replacing it with a different elite –his own and that of his henchmen – and then hanging on, unlike other regional leftist regimes. Crucial to his survival was that Cuba is an island, and therefore easier to control its population, easier to defend, and harder to attack, that its fragile economy was kept on life support by the Soviet Union for over a generation and, later by support from Chavez’ Venezuela, and that the USA stayed its hand at military invasion after the 1962 Cuba Crisis. Cocooned by this island security Castro was free to experiment.

And experiment he did. Apologists point to the impressive advances in health and education, and contrast these with the situation for the general population elsewhere in Latin America. Valid achievements certainly, as are the efficiencies of the Cuban intelligence services and its armed forces, hired out with an impressive record, particularly in Angola in the seventies. The attendant police state, economic hardships, food rationing, severe restrictions on travel and communications and on political dissent and free speech have all been justified as necessary for the regime’s survival, with the US a convenient, albeit real, bete noire and scapegoat.

Western supporters even assured us that the Cuban people are/were behind Castro. Perhaps they are, but in the face of an able and media-savvy repressive regime it is impossible to know. Whether the regime has any more legitimacy than the grudging acceptance given to the East European police states by their intimidated populations before 1989 is unclear. Those with loaded guns tend to stifle dissent. There is also the reality of national pride to be factored in (particularly facing the USA), something which totalitarian regimes of whatever hue are adept at milking. At times outside support for the Castro regime has bordered on the unreal. I have heard apologists defend the lengthy queues for basics and occasional luxuries, explained away as social occasions and that “Cubans like queuing.” Still, Castro’s Cuba is hardly the “North Korea with Rum” as characterised by some critics.

Some of the glister began to rub off in 2014 with allegations/revelations that Castro had amassed a personal fortune. If he did he would not be unique. It’s what dictators do. Now that he’s gone – in reality for a decade – will the regime survive?  Raol Castro should beware the axiom that overthrows tend to happen not when repression is at its worst but when authoritarian rule has been relaxed and reforms introduced. Check back in a decade.

A footnote on the Cuba Crisis. Information which came to light after the USSR collapsed reveals how close the world’s brush with Armageddon was. The Soviet military build-up was larger, more rapid and lethal than the USA knew and included the deployment of 100 battlefield nukes to resist any ground invasion. And only a cool head on a Soviet submarine prevented the launch of a nuclear missile. Meanwhile Castro was urging Kruschev to launch a nuclear attack while afterwards Guevara deplored the Soviet back down. With allies like these……….

18/12/2016