SAINT PATRICK’S DAY 2020: LETHAL GAME CHANGER 2004 CXLVIII

SAINT PATRICK’S DAY 2020: LETHAL GAME CHANGER

How strange and surreal it is to be writing this. Two weeks ago it would have been inconceivable. A week ago, hopefully, unlikely. That was then and this is now. The Corona Virus has struck with all the immediacy of an asteroid impacting. It’s not in China, like SARS, nor in Central Africa, like Ebola. It’s here in Ireland, in Europe, in North America, in the prosperous First World.

Again, pursuing the asteroid metaphor, the dust and debris have not yet settled so we have no idea, other than a pessimistic inkling of the damage wrought. It promises to be fearsome. Western Europe, now deemed to be the Epicentre, has five hundred million people, North America three hundred and sixty. If left unchecked up to seventy percent could be infected; repeat 70% or 600 million. For most, perhaps up to ninety per cent, it will be mild, for ten percent more serious, requiring hospitalisation, and for the unfortunate minority – fatal. Based on the evidence from China, the death rate could be 2% or higher; and 2 % of 600 million comes to 12 million deaths. For the island of Ireland, with 6.9 million, this works out at around 100,000 dead. For Britain, with ten times the population, the estimate is around one million. Even an infection rate of 10% would yield figures of  fifteen and one hundred and fifty thousand dead. Do the math for North American deaths.

These are wartime figures. For make no mistake. Our societies are at war. The casualties have begun to mount, the infection rate appears to be doubling perhaps every three or four days and if we do nothing will continue at that pace. The collateral damage will be colossal; already the Western economies are taking severe hits with a downturn and recession now a virtual certainly. But the societal damage is even worse, again akin to that in war. Italy, the country outside China worst hit so far has seen its health system buckle under the strain and has even begun to triage patients in need of the limited supply of respirators. That on the basis of casualties, as I write, of 31,000 infected, half of one percent of Italy’s population. And as the system buckles, as the earlier experience in Wuhan demonstrated, the mortality rate rises; in Italy with 2,500 deaths, it is already well over 5%, culling brutally and disproportionately the elderly and the already sick.

The first case was diagnosed in Italy on 21 February, less than four weeks ago, and it is the sheer speed with which the virus has spread which has thrown Western politicians and populations off balance. They – we – had watched with  fascination as the virus picked up tempo from its still murky origin in Wuhan, China last December. We watched as the Chinese government, authoritarian and therefore able to mobilise, control and direct its population had gradually fought against the virus, effectively locking down hundreds of millions of people for lengthy periods. We marvelled, but were complacent enough to think it could never strike in Europe, and, moreover, that it would be unthinkable to contemplate, yet alone introduce, similar curbs on personal freedoms into western democracies.  A comforting sub – text to this thinking was that by the time it DID strike, a vaccine would have been developed, and/or like SARS or some of the other flu like viruses that originate in China it would be self-limiting or would weaken and attenuate.

The vital lessons which the Asians had learned from combatting SARS and were relearning and applying to control the current virus, were noted but not applied in time, particularly the essential devices of adequate testing and then contacting and isolating the wider pool of those third parties potentially infected. Even as the horrific developments in Italy were played out on the European media, politicians and governments seemed content to concentrate what testing there was on people who had visited Northern Italy, completely underestimating the virulent contagion rate of the virus.

Now it’s a massive “Operation Stable Door” throughout Europe to emulate the Asian success in slowing down the rate of infection (“flattening the curve”) and it is clear that the reputations of the current crop of governing politicians will be determined by how they handle this crisis.  Sport has been cancelled, even not-so- large gatherings banned. Pubs and restaurants are being closed in more and more countries. People, the elderly especially, encouraged to stay home. Italy is in lockdown, as are Spain and France – Macron yesterday declaring that France was at war. Borders have been closed, States of Emergency have been declared throughout Europe as the figures for infections have rocketed – and will continue to increase dramatically as more people are tested.

The other grim lesson from Italy is that where a society is mainly healthy and prosperous, a country’s health system is likely to be tailored and resourced to reflect this, with an embedded assumption that it will never have to face a massive and immediate existential threat. Italy is running short of essential equipment to cater for the ever increasing numbers of seriously ill. It is doubtful whether any other European country is much better equipped. With catastrophe threatening and doctors facing the prospect of who to save or not, the avowed aim of the measures taken thus far is to try to slow down and flatten the rising curve of infection. Even some flattening would relieve pressure on Europe’s national health systems.

Ireland had its first confirmed case on 29 February. The current figure for the island is 354 (69 new today), including 62 in the North and is increasing sharply. According to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, a doctor, the daily figure is expected to increase by 30% and the total infected could reach 10-15,000 by the end of March, two weeks today. The vast majority will not require hospital treatment, but at 2%, 2-300 could die. The Chief Medical Officer, Dr Tony Holohan, has stressed that the next seven days will be vital in flattening the curve and partially heading off disaster. The economy is shattered and further emergency measures seem likely. No one can even speculate what the final outcome will be.

Thus far our nearest neighbour, Britain, has marched to a different drum, initially downplaying the threat (though not on the scale of Trump), while eschewing the more drastic measures taken by other major European countries. Perhaps there was an illusion that, as an island, Britain would be spared the worst (which may well turn out to be partially the case, and for Ireland also). Perhaps also through adherence to the notion of “herd immunity,” which might eventually prove valid, but which constitutes a hell of a risky policy bet. As the figures mount British policy is now changing, perhaps too late.

For us all this is a war. And even if we succeed in “flattening the curve” this will not constitute victory. It will not constitute a Stalingrad, a Midway, a Kursk, a D-Day. At best, to quote Churchill, a Johnson favourite, it will constitute an “end of the beginning.” And even that will require “Blood, Sweat, Toil and Tears.”

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!

END

17/3/2020

THAT ELECTION RESULT 2003 (2) CXLVII

THAT ELECTION RESULT

Ireland is still coming to terms with the General Election outcome. Is it a sign that populism is alive and well and thriving in Ireland?  After all results across Europe have shown a rise in support for populist parties, so why not in Ireland? Has populism here, honed on the Water Charge issue several years back,  now found wider expression. Or is it a sign that Sinn Fein has definitely “arrived” as a political force, signalling, as well as the party coming in from the cold, a giant stride towards a left/right alignment in Irish politics?  More prosaically is it just the latest example of a mood swing in Irish politics with yet another rejection of the government of the day for failing to deliver at a time when the need for some form of radical action to tackle the housing and homeless situation and do something to improve the quality of delivery in the health area has rarely been greater. The answer probably is a mixture of all three with only one clearly evident conclusion  so far –  rejection of the outgoing government which ran on its record, and that record was found wanting.

Put simply it was the third post-Crash election and the third “Throw the Bums Out” election. In 2011 Fianna Fail were emphatically rejected. In 2016 a dissatisfied electorate took out its anger by savaging Labour, which was destroyed as a political force, and also less severely Fine Gael, which managed to cling on in power through an unprecedented arrangement which saw it propped up by Fianna Fail. This time around both the main parties were rejected and Labour’s vote declined still further. Between them the three parties mustered less than 50% of the votes cast, a far cry from the 79% secured in 2007. With the main Bums rejected, left were Sinn Fein, demanding to be given its chance, and promising goodies for which someone else would pay , the Greens  who wittered on about Climate Change but had obviously only restricted appeal, the hard left,  with even less , and a collection of favourite sons and daughters with strictly local appeal.

Sinn Fein launched “ Giving Workers and Families a Break”, an unashamedly populist (and dubiously costed) manifesto somewhat reminiscent of Fianna Fail’s in 1977, advocating tax cuts, including abolition of property tax (deja vue anyone?) with miscellaneous other proposals on housing and health, to be financed by taxation hikes on the wealthy and companies. The party ran a brilliant campaign, targeting successfully sections of the public dissatisfied with the Housing and Health situations in particular. (Find one person who ISN’T dissatisfied with both though most not directly affected recognise there is no quick fix for either.) Check out pages three to six of their manifesto and compare it with the results of an exit poll asking voters why they voted as they did. That poll, incidentally should be writ in stone for the other parties’ negotiating teams; the poll results should certainly concentrate minds.

Two issues dominated, with almost 60% citing health (32%) and housing (26%). Next (8%) was the pension age issue, followed at 6% by jobs ( there is virtually full employment) and climate change, about which only the Greens seem concerned. 4% cited taxation, 3% crime and childcare, and one per cent (1% !) Brexit and Immigration. So much for the various lobby and pressure groups and for the outgoing government’s “achievement” on Brexit. So much also for Sinn Fein’s “core political objective” of achieving Irish unity through a referendum. It may be buried among the “something else” cited by 6% but it certainly did not feature as a major issue for the voters. The Sinn Fein surge was down to domestic internal Irish issues.

The inept campaigns of the Big Two, both forced to defend the record of the outgoing government and  promising only gradual improvement  offered nothing new. There was obvious appeal  in the notion that, after years of frustration and austerity, the party dangling  change, action and improvement should be given a chance ( again, deja vue?). This, rarely stated explicitly, is Sinn Fein’s strongest card for being part of the next government. The downside, as I pointed out last time, based on previous electoral history, is that parties who promise much and fail to deliver, get unceremoniously dumped next time around; not even the whinge that the party in coalition was not free to implement fully its policies on account of its partners cuts much mustard.

The result, an effective stalemate, means that, barring some sudden unexpected development, it will take some time – and negotiation – for the next Irish government to emerge.  Even any two of the Big Three together will not hack it, hence the courting by all of the Greens (who should and could extract a heavy and cast-iron policy guarantee – last time up they were merely voting fodder for Fianna Fail and suffered accordingly).  The alternatives are some patched up arrangement involving very minor parties and/or some Independents ( of which there are 21), a Grand Coalition involving all the Big Three ( which nobody is talking about), some form of minority government propped up by a variant of the last “confidence and supply arrangement” or another general election which nobody wants.

Crucial to what is eventually hammered out as a programme for government are the priorities. Compromise will be necessary all round and, therefore, there are no “red lines,” however party spokesmen may huff and puff.  While the result conveyed a demand for change from a section of the electorate, it was far from a majority, whatever Sinn Fein, and some loud voices on the left may assert. 70% of the votes cast (and over 70% of the seats) did not go to Sinn Fein and the hard left. Sinn Fein apologists have pointed to the fact that, with more candidates their surpluses could have racked up perhaps a dozen more seats. It can equally be argued that it was only the vagaries of the later counts of the PR system that hindered some of the 16 runner-up Fianna Fail candidates from being elected. The result is as it is –stalemate- and now the voters expect the politicians to sort something out.

Despite the clear evidence to the contrary there has been much speculation and comment that the Sinn Fein vote in some way brought Irish unity nearer, and indeed their manifesto calls for a referendum “North and South for a united Ireland”. Good luck with that. Scrutiny of the many elections held in the North over the past decade show little evidence of shifts in tribal loyalties and even the prospect of a Catholic majority carries no guarantee that  all would vote for unity. A recent very comprehensive poll in the North gave 52% opposed to unity and 29% in favour; equally tellingly 73% of those who declared themselves neither nationalist or unionist, would oppose unity.

There is just one imponderable: what happens to and in post-Brexit Britain. Already there are hints that the trade and future relationship negotiations between Brussels and English-Nationalist London will turn very nasty very quickly. And then: who knows?

Author’s Note

I circulated on 12 February my initial reaction to and report on the recent General Election. There follows some further analysis on the WHY  and the HOW it happened.

It is likely to be some time before a government emerges. What is beyond dispute is that in any agreed Programme for Government the first priority will have to be the Housing Crisis and its Siamese twin  – the Homeless problem. Whichever parties make up the next government, its success, and therefore their reelectibility, will depend on the government’s record on housing. It will not be easy, and, indeed, media comment since the election has been good at  itemising what’s wrong but being fairly light and non – specific on the small print of solutions. Some form of holistic and integrated approach to address the multiple interrelated issues is called for.

Perhaps a start might be to declare a “Housing Emergency” and establish a Cabinet sub-committee to meet weekly, to be chaired by the Taoiseach and including inter alia  a senior politician of a different party as Minister for Housing plus the Attorney General and the Minister for Finance; the sub- committee to draw up a plan of action and report on its implementation on a monthly basis. Toes will be trodden on clearly, but the fate of previous governments which have failed to deliver on promises should be kept firmly in mind.

I touch on the united Ireland and the Border poll issue. Suffice to say that whatever impelled the surge in the vote for Sinn Fein, support for the party’s stance on a united Ireland, was not a major factor. In view of media speculation and the comments of some politicians, it is worth taking note of the results of the many elections in the North over the past decade. Last December’s General Election saw the DUP gain 30.6% and the UUP 11.7% i.e. a solid pro-Union vote of 42.3. Sinn Fein got 22.8 and the SDLP 14.9, a Nationalist vote of 37.1. In 2017 the blocs secured 46.3 (unionist) and 41.1 (nationalist). In 2015 the figures were 41.7 to 38.4 and in 2010 44 to 41. The Assembly elections over the same period demonstrated the same overall picture The waters are muddied somewhat by the intrusion of independents, usually Unionist, and the  yoyo performance of Alliance, currently on the up – 16.8% in 2019 – a party  generally reckoned to be moderately  Unionist and to include numbers of middle class Catholics. The vote on Brexit muddies matters further, but it’s reasonable to assume that those Unionists who voted Remain did not do so on the basis that it was also a plebiscite on Irish unity. The most recent, fairly reliable poll, showed 52% to 29% opposed to Irish unity were a border poll to take place, with over 70% of those not affiliated opposed to unification ( the details of the poll are well worth studying). The demographics are shifting certainly, albeit slowly, and who knows what horrors may be forced on both parts of the island by the gung ho English nationalists running Britain in the impending negotiations with Brussels, but Irish politicians should keep in mind Tip O’Neill’s dictum that “All Politics is Local.” The new Dail faces enough challenges in the present jurisdiction.

4/3/2020

THE 2020 IRISH ELECTION 2003 (1) CXLVI

THE 2020 ELECTION

Sinn Fein 24.5%; Fianna Fail 22.2%; Fine Gael 20.9%

Sinn Fein 37; Fianna Fail 38; Fine Gael 35; Greens 12.

The Headlines say it all. A storm blew through the Irish political scene on February just as  Atlantic storm Ciara was battering Ireland. In the General Election Sinn Fein polled more votes (535,595) than any other Irish political party. The final seat tally late Monday shows them one seat only behind Fianna Fail. This as a result of the vagaries of Ireland’s PR system, plus the tactical decision of Sinn Fein to run only one candidate in most constituencies.  All but five of their forty two candidates were elected, with a number of them racking up surpluses large enough to have delivered a second seat, surpluses that in some instances helped elect left wing candidates, giving the next Dail a distinctive left-of-centre hue, with for the first time the combined seats and votes for the traditional big two centre parties falling below 50%.

The country, the politicians and the pundits are drawing breath and wondering what happens next. Some excited commentators are describing the results as seismic and as heralding the definitive end of the old two-party system based on civil war politics which has dominated Irish politics since the early days of the state.  Maybe.That system’s decline, which had been gradual, was given impetus by the 2008 Crash and has now been given a hefty shove. The People have spoken, hardly definitively, with no party garnering even a quarter of the popular vote, but with a certain emphasis – change. The policies and politics of austerity, the steady-as-she-goes cautious approach, the handwringing official tolerance of the intolerable in terms of Housing, Homelessness and the creaking Health System have taken a battering. The task now is for the elected politicians to cobble together a government and an action programme for that government; not easy tasks.

In the end the opinion polls got it close to right. Sinn Fein actually managed to better its high standing – just – while the dismal showings for Fine Gael and Fianna Fail were replicated in the one poll that mattered – the actual vote on Election Day. This less than nine months after Sinn Fein had been routed in Ireland’s local elections, losing half its seats and seeing its vote share drop by a third to less than 10% and being badly mauled simultaneously in the European Parliamentary Elections. On 8 February several candidates who had polled a few hundred votes last May stormed home as poll toppers. Sinn Fein as a whole saw its share of the vote increase by 10.7%, while Fine Gael saw it’s vote drop by 4.7% and Fianna Fail by 2.1%.

It’s clear that something dramatic happened to boost Sinn Fein. Its election manifesto was ambitious and populist, advocating inter alia cuts in personal and property taxes, a massive housebuilding programme and increased taxes on companies and the better off in a programme which was way above the potential available spending envelope adhered to by its rivals. This, combined with the fact that it was untainted by any of the blame for the 2008 Crash and the subsequent years of austerity presided over by Fine Gael (and Labour for five years) and shored up by Fianna Fail in the Confidence and Supply arrangement, was sufficient to convince enough  voters to cause the swing. Promises from the other parties of jam tomorrow, amid cautionary tones about Brexit and economic uncertainty, signally failed to excite the electorate which saw only the worsening housing crisis, with a young generation unable to aspire to own their own property, the homeless sleeping in the streets of the major cities and towns and the scandalous condition of the Irish health service.

Sinn Fein promised change and it worked.  It ran a superb campaign focussed on leader Mary Lou McDonald, who at fifty is short –odds to become Ireland’s first female Taoiseach. It survived a potential hiccup in the campaign’s final days over reminders of its chequered past and links with the IRA, but here too an interesting development to note. The Good Friday Agreement was over twenty years ago and a whole generation has grown up with no memory of the violent decades that preceded it. For this generation there were the boom years of the Celtic Tiger, then the Crash, followed by the decade of austerity, with clear political scapegoats in the form of the main political parties, who now appear to threaten a future with little improvement and apparent inability to tackle the serious problems  the country faces. Is this generation going to ponder overmuch on Sinn Fein’s past, or indeed examine the small print in their election manifesto?

A word of caution lest Mary Lou’s success be regarded as akin to the Second Coming. . There have been somewhat similar surges before in support for one or other political party. And the pendulum has always swung back – with a vengeance. Fianna Fail bought the election in 1977 with a blatant populist programme, which, after implementation, undermined the country’s finances for decades; this to counter an austerity government as the country adjusted to EC membership. Fianna Fail gained 19 seats and actually won 50.6% of the vote; it subsequently never achieved an overall majority. In 1992, Labour saw its vote increase by 9.8% and gain 18 seats after a particularly injudicious performance by the Fianna Fail Taoiseach. Five years later, having abandoned Fianna Fail and installed a Fine Gael Taoiseach, Labour saw its vote decline by 8.9% and lose almost all those seats gained. In 2011, as Fianna Fail saw its vote drop by 24% and lose 51 seats, dropping to 20, Fine Gael saw its vote increase by 8.8% and gain25 seats, while Labour achieved an increase of 9.3% and an extra 17 seats. Five years later those chickens came home to roost; in 2016 Fine Gael lost 16 seats and saw its vote drop by 10.6%, while for Labour the election was a catastrophe. Labour dropped from 19.4% to 6.6% of the vote and lost 26 of its 33 seats.

The message should be clear. The Irish electorate does not respond well to promises made and not delivered. Sinn Fein now has its chance; but it had better perform.  But first a government has got to be formed and a programme agreed.  No party can do it alone. The magic number is 80. Short of an unlikely left leaning coalition involving Sinn Fen (37), the Greens (12), Labour (6), the Social Democrats (6), SPBP(5) and 15 of the 21 Independents, the only other choices for government involve some coalition between Sinn Fein and either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael plus a minor party (the Greens?) or some form of Grand Coalition between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, thus excluding Sinn Fein. There are other permutations involving a minority government shored up by some form of Confidence and Supply arrangement.

In 2016 it took 63 days of negotiations for a new government to emerge. Given some of the public utterances to date, it could be much the same this time. “Hard pounding Gentlemen.”

11/2/2020

 

GENERAL ELECTION DAY : A SCREENSHOT 2002 CXLV

GENERAL ELECTION DAY SATURDAY 8 FEBRUARY 2020: A SCREENSHOT

As I write we are well into the second week of the General Election campaign; the vote to take place on Saturday 8 February.  Though the early opinion polls show the two main parties neck and neck, as they have been virtually since 2016, it has not been a good start for Leo Varadkar and Fine Gael. They have lost that vital early momentum which governments generally have and will have to strive to recover it, particularly as there is a tendency for incumbents running on their record to underestimate their unpopularity and to forget that eaten bread is soon forgotten.

No party appears likely to win an absolute majority so the end results for the minor parties and the Independents are likely to determine the makeup of the next (coalition) government. How the Greens will fare, given the hot topic of the moment – Climate Change – and whether Labour can recover from the meltdown of 2016 will therefore be watched with interest. So also whether Sinn Fein, currently riding high in the polls at around 20%, can hold on to this or whether, as has happened recently, their support will fall away.  A big question also is whether either of the major parties will be willing to strike a deal with Sinn Fein, and under what conditions, current positions notwithstanding.

In the end, after all the talking around dates, the Taoiseach’s hand was forced when it became clear that his government could no longer command enough support in the Dail to win a threatened No Confidence vote  on Health Minister Simon Harris. Though many in his party were pushing for an early date, he would probably have preferred to delay for several months – February is not the best time to be canvassing and a severe winter or a surge in winter sickness levels could both adversely affect his party’s chances, and who knew what other banana skins might be lying around.

One huge banana skin has already been trodden on, with an ill- conceived scheduling for late January of an event to commemorate those Irishmen who served in the RIC and the DMP before independence. We are currently in a decade of what have been hailed as commemorations of anniversaries and centenaries, with the Treaty, the Foundation of the Free State and the Civil War to come. The script was written – peace, reconciliation, inclusiveness and parity of esteem.  It was after all the construct on which the Good Friday Agreement was based and to which the great and the good had signed up.

However, not everybody was in favour of honouring former policemen, most of whom had been conscientious and dutiful, but some of whom had been active on the British side in the War of Independence. (They were clearly seen as different to those Irishmen who had served – and died in great numbers – in the World War, and who have recently been given recognition after decades of being airbrushed out of history.) There was uproar from the public, academics and in the media, with allegations of RIC brutality and atrocities and even the involvement of some Irishmen in the ranks of the infamous Black and Tans recalled. Justice Minister Flanagan quickly postponed the planned event (will it ever take place?) but both he and the Taoiseach ex pressed regret at the public reaction with the Taoiseach stating “we should respect all traditions on our island and be mature enough as a State to acknowledge all aspects of our past.”

Whether any lasting electoral damage was done to Fine Gael is unclear; an immediate early opinion poll hinted that it had, but a subsequent poll showed the party had recovered. However, Fine Gael was definitely wrong-footed by this and by two further events which dominated the week’s news, just as the election was called, siphoning off any positive headlines the Government might have expected.

First the grisly murder and dismemberment of a seventeen year old youth, a minor foot-soldier in one of the feuding drug gangs in Drogheda; then a tragic accident in which one of Dublin’s homeless, sleeping in a tent by the Grand Canal, in preference apparently to accepting hostel accommodation (too dangerous) was critically injured by heavy machinery employed to remove his tent to “clean up” the canal bank, not too far from Patrick Kavanagh’s bench.  Manna for the headline writers and opposition politicians, hitting at two of the areas where the government is at its weakest – Crime and Homelessness.  The apparent impunity with which a criminal gang could operate has shocked public opinion while the unfortunate accident at the canal has thrown into sharp focus the harsh reality of life for the homeless.

The Taoiseach and other Ministers were noticeably uncomfortable at having to comment on specifics instead of the usual waffle on generalities and the promises in party manifestos. They will be hoping for a better fortnight to come and no more nasty surprises. Their election strategy seems to be the combination of a safe pair of hands on the Economy and a “much done, more to do” low key approach generally.  This may well work.  And in fact Fianna Fail  are adopting a somewhat similar approach, both parties working on the assumption that after the ups and downs since 2008, the public are  sceptical about instant solutions or panaceas.  It could make for a fairly dull election campaign; even if promises are made most will be tinkering rather than game changing. The grim spires of Housing and the Health Service on top of the Homeless are not susceptible to quick fixes. Fine Gael can declare that on all fronts progress has been made; Fianna Fail may argue that more needs to be done. And that will be that.

It will nevertheless be an important election, not just a decision on which person will have the dubious honour of shaking Trump’s hand in the White House come St. Patrick’s Day. Apart from other domestic issues the electorate will also be voting for a government to deal with the still unclear aftermath of Brexit (it hasn’t gone away, you know!). We now face into the transition period in which the future relationship between the EU and the fifth largest economy in the world is worked out. One certainty continues to be that there will be collateral damage to Ireland, though how much is unclear.

There will be a new balance of power within the Union, something rarely commented on (Imagine how the balance in the USA might shift were California, or New York, or both, to leave). There will also be the issue of how the EU reacts to Britain’s departure – a major contributor to the EU budget. We  face into a full financial seven year period in which Ireland will be a growing net contributor to the EU budget, and where the significant requirements of combatting climate change will have to be financed nationally , with an end to shadow boxing and rhetoric.

In Irish politics personalities count, and ultimately too many  Fine Gael stalwarts  are set to retire.So, it’s early days, but if I had to give a punt it will be that Micheal Martin will be the next Taoiseach.

21/1/2020

 

THE VINTAGE KITCHEN 2001 CXLIV

“THE VINTAGE KITCHEN” AND SOME END OF DECADE RANDOM THOUGHTS

It was quite a decade. So many things happened. Even to list those of more than marginal significance would occupy several columns. Consider them read. Several points stand out.

But first a recommendation.  At the prompting of your intrepid Editor and Publisher Cliff Carlson, I offer a suggestion for a must visit restaurant for anyone planning a trip to Dublin. Recommendations are always subjective but one restaurant I DO recommend unequivocally is the” Vintage Kitchen,” where Cliff and I had a very pleasant meal during his recent visit. The restaurant is centrally located  a short walk from O’Connell Bridge and has the added advantage of being right beside one of Dublin’s most famous bars – and a special favourite of mine – Mulligans of Poolbeg Street. A DART station and Luas stop are nearby.

The Vintage Kitchen (VK) is small (max 30 at a squeeze), unpretentious and crowded – always. Decor is basic, with walls lined with an eclectic collection of art and photos. Reservations are a must, particularly in the evening where several weeks advance booking is normally required. The chances of getting a table on a walk-in basis are slim, though some can be available for the 2.15 second lunch sitting. It’s not cheap, dinner runs to €35 and lunch to somewhat less, but that’s not overly expensive in a city with many pricier easting houses. The VK, moreover does have the signal advantage of allowing patrons to bring their own wine for a modest corkage fee.

If they haven’t already, Michelin inspectors should pay a visit. What the restaurant offers is good food, fresh and sourced overwhelmingly in Ireland, well cooked and served by a friendly cosmopolitan staff under the supervision of amiable chef/proprietor Sean Drugan and regular maitre d Andy. A varied menu includes vegetarian options, daily specials and some delicious desserts. Check out the menu on the VK website; and the reviews, virtually all overwhelmingly positive.

The trademark starter is a delicious and award winning Cajun Chowder for which Mr Carlson can vouch. But be warned. The quantity is huge, the dish a meal in itself and anyone taking it (and you should) may struggle to finish the main course. Other starters include a Wicklow duck liver pate and a much praised risotto featuring roasted red pepper and prawns.

Main courses offer a range of meat and fish options with an excellent fillet steak on the evening menu. My favourite is the Slaney river slow roasted lamb shank which melts off the bone while the hake is also always good. The desserts are to die for but will do little for your diet, particularly the half- baked chocolate cake. All in all the VK experience is one not to be missed, assuming you can get a reservation. If not you can always drown your sorrows next door in Mulligans.

Now the decade just ended.

The overarching events of the decade may well prove to be not politics, wars, the refugee crisis, or any other conventional topic, but rather the rise of the Social Media in tandem with the explosion in Smart Phone use, both underpinned by the Internet. It is less than a generation since the “Information Superhighway” of the Internet became a reality. Whatever about information it is now the malleable base of a genuine communications revolution which is having profound implications for societies around the world. There are currently an estimated 3.3 billion smart phones operational, covering a good proportion of the world population of 7.7 billion, with almost saturation coverage ( and usage) in many countries.

Billions use the various Social Media daily. Twitter has revolutionised social contact and the almost instantaneous harnessing of opinion with all that that implies in terms of bringing pressure and influence to bear on any topic or occurrence. From the tweets of Trump, through the “Me Too” hashtag, to the platforms provided to pressure groups and like-minded followers of every hue , the advantages – and limitations – of the new social communication order are everywhere apparent. A learned article on Global Warming from a Nobel Prize Winner counts for no more on Facebook than the rant of some ignoramus. (That without even entering the areas of fake news, fake websites and misleading and manipulative on line discourses.)

Barack Obama commented at the end of his term that he was fortunate to have been elected prior to the emergence of this new social media reality, implying that it was a reality all his successors would have to take cognizance of and be shaped by. And indeed it has been a game changer, bringing instant attention and focus locally, nationally, and internationally on events as they develop. Trump’s tweets and the resulting “dialogues” are a prime example. A mundane Irish example is the way in which populist opposition to paying water charges was coordinated and consolidated into a (successful) mass pressure group. Internationally the plight of refugees has been highlighted in dramatic photo footage published on the Web, while a downside to this has been the populist manipulation in Britain and elsewhere of images of the streams of refugees crossing the Balkans in 2015. Arguably also the images posted and circulated worldwide by the protesters in Hong Kong have been a factor moderating the reaction of the Chinese authorities.

The growing international awareness of the climate crisis we face has been facilitated and enhanced through the social media, though without any demonstrated willingness by politicians to take the radical remedial measures needed.  This may come as images of extreme climate occurrences circulate but right now halfway measures seem about the best to be hoped for. Climate change will probably  be the dominant theme of the next  decade as we move closer to the limits of sustainability. The world population has grown over the decade by 11% to an estimated 7.7 billion, the extra 800 million, even with minimum carbon footprints per head, negating virtually all attempts to reduce man’s global carbon footprint. It should be obvious to all that unchecked population growth is just aggravating the situation. Ireland’s population has kept pace with the global trend, rising by around 400,000 (slightly under 10%) over the decade to an estimated 4,906,000 and continues to grow, though the rise has been more from significant inward migration than any natural increase.

The decade was not one of enhanced international cooperation and has actually been marked by an uncomfortable realignment among the major powers, reflecting shifts in the economic and political balance between them. Everywhere liberal values are in retreat with the emergence of populist movements on virtually every continent, the whole starkly demonstrated by the election of Donald Trump, who has set about tearing up seventy years of US policies. Authoritarian leaders are pushing through; China and Russia are now firmly established as major players in an uneasy and potentially unstable geopolitical situation where nationalism is now undermining such international cooperation as exists. The Climate stalemate says it all. No country or grouping, with the possible exception of the EU, seems willing to shout “Stop”.

2020 promises to be interesting, Can anyone beat Trump? Who will win Ireland’s General Election? And how will the Brexit own goal pan out?

4/1/2020

GUESTS OF THE NATION 1912 CXLIII

GUESTS OF THE NATION

Direct provision, central to Ireland’s treatment of refugees seeking international protection and asylum here, has become a significant political issue. Opposition has emerged in several rural communities over plans to set up new asylum centres, with pickets on designated premises. Two mothballed hotels in Moville and Roosky earmarked for asylum centres were subjected to arson attacks. More serious was the burning, outside his house, of Sinn Fein TD Martin Kenny’s car , after he publicly supported a proposed centre in Ballinamore, Co Leitrim. The attack was widely condemned and could serve as a wake -up call. A round-the-clock picket of the proposed centre was removed in mid- November after a High Court injunction. How enduring local opposition will be remains to be seen.

The demonstrations and pickets have been directed, not at the notion of asylum seekers per se, but at a perceived lack of consultation and information from Government agencies, seen as less than transparent. There are objections also, not without substance, that there are inadequate infrastructures locally to meet refugee needs; Ballinamore, for example, with a population of 914, and an infrastructure to match, is set to receive 130 asylum seekers. The protests and placards have also called for the scrapping of the Direct Provision system, condemning it as inhumane and demanding that asylum seekers receive better treatment. These last have been dismissed as disingenuous by counter demonstrators in support of refugees who have made accusations of racism – strenuously denied – and of manipulation by right wing outsiders.

Direct Provision was established as an “emergency measure” in 1999, and arguably in recent years there have been improvements to many (though certainly not all) of its more objectionable features. Many local communities have welcomed asylum seekers over the years. So do recent events show Ireland becoming more racist or anti – immigrant, after actually receiving proportionately more EU migrants after the 2004 Enlargement than any other country, including Britain, where the post -2004 influx is believed to have been a major factor in the 2016 “Leave” vote? Was Casey’s showing in last year’s Presidential election, where 10% of the whole electorate voted for him after he made anti-Traveller remarks, a portent for the future? Is Ireland, which takes much inspiration from the Nordic model, about to experience an anti- immigrant backlash similar to that which has fuelled the emergence of right wing political parties throughout Scandinavia? Will the issue of Immigration, as some assert, become an issue in the next General Election?

Answers to the questions posed need to be teased out in some detail, though in short the answers are negative. The Irish people have welcomed, settled and integrated relatively large numbers of immigrants in the last two decades without much friction or prejudice in a period which spanned the 2008 economic crash, despite being a society frankly unused to immigration. There is little interest in or support for any anti-immigration political party and the firm consensus among politicians against one is clear. A recent attempt by an independent rural TD to attack Nigerian immigrants in particular for sending money home was firmly dismissed by the Taoiseach and the President, both of whom referred to the vital assistance provided by remittances home from Irish emigrants in the quite recent past.

Direct Provision, which nobody likes and few defend, is” live” now for a particular reason.. It was introduced to cope with what was for Ireland in 1999 an unprecedented influx of asylum seekers annually – 7224 in 1999, up from 4626 in 1998 and 424 in 1995. The number peaked in 2002 at 11,634, gradually declining to under 1000 in 2013 but since then has risen steadily to 3673 in 2018 and is expected to reach well over 4000 by year’s end, pushing an already creaking system to breaking point.

There are currently roughly 6,000 people in Direct Provision, including 1,672 minors, plus 778 persons who have received refugee status but cannot afford outside accommodation. They are housed in several dozen Direct Provision Centres scattered around Ireland (significantly only two in Dublin), all of which are full, while a further 1531 persons, including 290 children, are housed in temporary emergency accommodation centres opened over the last year. Some 8,700 applicants are currently awaiting asylum decisions (the balance applicants not requiring Direct Provision).

Under the system, after processing, newly arrived asylum seekers are accommodated in a regional centre, theoretically suited to their circumstances, while their cases are considered. There are currently thirty eight centres (the number fluctuates), with plans to set up more to cope with recent increases in applications. Most are contracted out and privately run, and provide full board to residents, about a third of whom have access to their own cooking facilities ( a major issue). The centres range in size and type; the largest, the former holiday camp at Mosney in Meath, holds 900, while many are small hotels or purpose built hostels. A much liked centre in Dublin’s Hatch Street was closed last year amid plans to become a five star hotel.

Asylum seekers are paid a weekly allowance of €38.80 (€29.80 for children), are entitled to free medical screening on arrival and qualify for a medical card, giving free access to medical care. School education is free. Since July 2018 asylum seekers can apply for work (a major improvement, long sought and lobbied for) after nine months in Ireland, though those appealing an initial rejection of their case are excluded. As of November, 3350 applications to work out of 5000 had been approved.

There are obviously problems lumping people of different cultures, language and beliefs together, with little privacy and few individual needs and requirements catered for. However, the system, which on paper looks fine, and after all provides safety and security for refugees who have fled persecution, probably would have and could have worked well if only the asylum process from start to finish could have been compressed and streamlined into a few months. This has manifestly not proven to be the case. Most asylum seekers, once turned down, appealed the decision, with, over time, an elaborate appeals procedure evolving, which in many cases has dragged on for years, institutionalising and isolating individuals and whole families in asylum centres, with all the attendant pressures and strains this brings.

The current surge in demand for Direct Provision accommodation could not have come at a worse time, with Ireland still very much in its post- crash hangover where the building industry is concerned. Not enough houses and apartments are being built to meet the current housing shortage let alone cater for both a rising population and existing pent up demand. Local authorities have had to grapple with an unprecedented situation that has left 10,000, including many families, homeless and in emergency accommodation. With new asylum seekers arriving at close to 100 a week, and no available accommodation, there has been no option but to source new premises and locations. Hence the current problem and hence the stoking of local fears.

There is general agreement that Direct Provision, after twenty years, is a flawed system which needs a radical overhaul. But how to proceed? Is there a magic bullet, and if so what is it?
18/11/19

EXTINCTION REBELLION 1911 CXLII

“EXTINCTION REBELLION” THE TRUTH SHALL SET YOU FREE?

First there was Greta Thunberg and the Children’s Crusade. Now there is “Extinction Rebellion”, a growing middle class movement, originating in the UK, overwhelmingly first world, dedicated to “non-violent civil disobedience in an attempt to halt mass extinction” which threatens, according to them, as a consequence of global warming. It has grown rapidly in the year since its foundation and now boasts offshoots in a number of countries, including Ireland, as well as several branches outside the first world including India. Extinction Rebellion (ER) has become the current middle class cause celebre and, like the global warming issue itself, seems likely to run for quite some time, shortly visiting cities and countries it hasn’t touched before.

It has garnered considerable publicity, particularly on account of disruption to London city centre traffic, and has recently attracted support from a number of celebrities, academics and some of the great and the good, spearheaded by actors Benedict Cumberbatch, Jude Law, Ruby Wax and Ray Winston, musicians Bob Geldof and Adam Clayton, authors Ian McEwan and Nick Hornsby together with a selection of senior British Labour MPs. At least the celebrities in their open letter have acknowledged that, with their high carbon lives tied into a fossil-fuel economy, they are hypocrites but have gone on to point out that the seriousness of the current situation merits using their “profiles and platforms” to draw attention to what they term as “living in the midst of the 6th mass extinction.”

The movement is clearly about sensitising public opinion about global warming and in this sense can claim success, though arguably it is pushing against an already open door, to which it would respond that the door is not opening fast enough. ER has two main “demands”: for the Government (initially the British, but now others, including the Irish) to “tell the truth” regarding the seriousness of the climate situation and the urgent need for action and secondly for the Government to act immediately to halt “biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2030 (Ireland- for the UK the demand is 2025!) while reversing all policies not in alignment with that position.”

There’s also a third more problematic “demand” – to “ensure a just transition”, “where the most vulnerable are not expected to sacrifice the most”; this, moreover, “to be made within a global context” to “ensure that profits are not placed before our planet.” This last demand is accompanied in utterances in the UK for a rejection of normal political structures and the establishment of a Citizens’ Assembly to lead and decide on matters pertaining to climate and ecological “justice.” So much for democracy and elected governments.

Thus far the ER’s chief achievement in Britain has been to generate considerable short term disruption to traffic flows and commuting in Central London, holding up traffic for hours at a time, with additional antics including protesters supergluing themselves to pavements, the doors of some Tube trains and even the gates of Buckingham Palace, with the promise of more to come. Additional activities in October included disrupting a flight out of London City Airport and some minor disruption to the London Underground, where protesters sat on the roof of a morning Tube train before being dragged off by angry commuters. This last has caused some fissure in the ER ranks, with the majority apparently eschewing interfering with the Tube, but undoubtedly the incident has given cause to ponder about what the next round of actions will bring. (After all, if there is indeed an emergency threatening the future of the human race, surely minor local actions such as interfering with the Tube to highlight the emergency can be justified??)

Relations with the London police were initially cordial, in view of the expressed nonviolent nature of the movement, and in Ireland to date, where the actions have been more low- key, relations with the Gardai have been good. However the October days of action in London have strained relations between ER and the Met, which has been hard put to cope as the levels of disruption have increased from minor to major. Protesters blocking roads have had to be lifted away by police, with consequent major demands on manpower and diversion of scarce resources away from combatting serious crime including the growing one of people trafficking, where a recent appalling incident involving the deaths of thirty nine migrants has brought the issue into sharp focus.

The London police are treading warily, with no desire to turn the protesters into martyrs. However 1800 arrests alone were made during ER’s autumn campaign. Charges are being processed and so far 384 protesters have ended up with criminal records, though in the case of many seasoned protesters these merely constitute badges of honour. Sweeping restrictions on protest gatherings by ER across London have now been introduced and are currently under challenge in the Courts on civil liberty grounds.

Whither the next step? Future protests are planned. It is all very well to declare, as spokespersons for the movement assert, that its members are willing to face arrest. It’s not rocket science to grasp that the court system and prisons in Britain, Ireland and elsewhere would be unable to cope with mass arrests and imprisonment of normally law abiding middle class citizens, so for most it is likely to be a quick in-and-out process with at worst a fine (though for some, the unforeseen future consequences of having a criminal record could come back to bite).

There is also the calculation that politicians of whatever hue would be unwilling to court unpopularity by cracking down too hard on protests about a topic on which there is considerable public worry and concern. This could change. Were future protests to intensify – as the movement hints – adding to commuter frustration and generating collateral damage including causing death or serious injury to the public, the current neutral public tolerance of ER could dissipate. Former President Mary Robinson has already cautioned the Extinction Rebellion protesters lest their tactics alienate public opinion.

The immediate “demands” of Extinction Rebellion cannot be realised easily. The Truth is already out there and well publicised. The Earth faces a major ecological crisis over the next generation or so. Shifting from a fossil fuel economy is happening – albeit slowly. Could it be speeded up? Of course. Though to achieve carbon neutrality by 2025 or 2030 would involve immediate dramatic changes in lifestyle, including severe restrictions on road, rail and air transportation as well as on the current energy consumption patterns of the general population including work, heating, lighting, cooking and cleaning, not to mention shopping and leisure. All can be addressed, and, in so far as the government CAN address them – are. But not overnight, or in a few years, even were unlimited financial resources and manpower available.

There’s a further point. The Emergency is global, not regional. Its causes are rooted in massive recent population growth, the ready availability of cheap fossil-fuel based energy, and the perfectly legitimate drive to raise living standards in regions outside the OECD Golden Circle. 50% of all greenhouse gas emissions have occurred since 1988!. We may aspire to lead by example. But who will follow?
25/10/19

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