A STEP TOO FAR? 1802 (2) CXII

A STEP TOO FAR?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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TWENTY FIVE YEARS ON (1) 1802 CXI

TWENTY FIVE YEARS ON (1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6/1/18

A WATERSHED? 1801 CX

A WATERSHED?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

18/12/17

THE CONSTANT SOLDIER by WILLIAM RYAN ; a review.

THE CONSTANT SOLDIER: WILLIAM RYAN

MANTLE 2016

The Second World War was not just another war. It was global, it was ferocious and it killed more than any other war in history. Yet what marks it out also is that during its course, and inextricably mixed with it, a determined attempt was made to wipe out the Jewish race. Roughly half the Jews in the world were murdered over a relatively short period. Some of the consequences remain with us today. This extermination attempt, refined and honed  to increase its effectiveness, went hand in hand with a with a military and political campaign of invasion, murder, ethnic cleansing and exploitation  directed at the peoples and countries of Central Europe on a virtually unprecedented scale.

The only possible rival in recorded history, in terms of scale and effectiveness, was probably the Mongol holocaust in Central Asia and the subsequent aborted but undefeated attack on Central Europe in the Thirteenth Century. Yet the Mongols were essentially a temporary phenomenon, a transient federation of nomadic tribes out of Central Asia, brutally welded together, brilliantly led by the mediaeval equivalent of Napoleon and supported by an officer corps chosen by meritocracy and as a fighting force far superior militarily to the moribund feudal armies which faced them. Twentieth Century Germany by contrast was one of the most advanced European societies with a long and enviable cultural history, embracing, inter alia, music, literature and philosophy, an advanced welfare state – for its time – and, Prussia apart, no particularly strong tradition of militarism. Then the country was hijacked by a madman and his supporters.

Nazi Germany continues to fascinate in all its manifestations. One subset of questions relates  less to the how and more to the why so many Germans  continued to lend support and legitimacy to the regime even though its nature and actions were demonstrably abhorrent and , certainly after Stalingrad,  though it was clear that the regime was driving the whole of Germany into disaster. Debate continues to rage about how much the “ordinary German” knew about the Death Camps, and the mass murders of the Jews and others. H.H. Kirst, author of the Gunner Asch novels and other satirical works about Nazi Germany and its aftermath, commented wryly on his Nazi party membership that he did not really know he “was in a club of murderers”.

An equally pertinent question is, even if they knew or suspected, what could they do about it? Nazi Germany was a brutal and efficient dictatorship, opponents had been liquidated in sequence (remember Niemoller’s poem “First They Came…..”) and the consequences of defiance were likely to prove drastic, not just for the individual but for relatives as well. Those who moralise or pontificate about following your conscience have very rarely had to come to grips with a modern totalitarian dictatorship. Those with loaded guns call the shots. Passive defiance was possible, but unlikely to derail the murder machine. (The same considerations apply, mutatis mutandis, to living in the Soviet Union under Stalin.) And even the 20 July Plot demonstrated how well dug in the regime was.

There was also the aspect of what Joachim Fest, in his memorable study of Hitler, referred to as “widening the circle of criminality.” The more people could be involved in the crimes, the more likely they were to acquiesce and eschew protest. Thus, in the aftermath of the invasion of Russia, as the special teams of murderers followed or accompanied the troops in, the Wermacht was pressurised and compromised to witness, sanction, support logistically and participate in the crimes of what Fest termed the “Third World War.”

These “Einsatzgruppen” were not necessarily just hardened Nazis and SS but included numbers of ordinary and retired police, drawn into the squads as police forces were reorganised and rationalised and as the scale of the mass murders demanded more staff at the killing end. In the stunning novel, “Ostland” (2013) David Thomas tells the true story of how Berlin’s top criminal detective – not a committed Nazi – Georg Heuzer, became the head of the Einsatzgrup operating in Minsk, where he personally supervised the murder of thirty thousand chiefly Austrian Jews, reverting to a police officer after the War and rising to become police chief in the Rhineland Palatinate before eventually being sentenced for war crimes in 1963. There were more like him, individuals led step-by-step into compromise and crime.

All this is by way of introduction to William Ryan’s new novel, “The Constant Soldier”. The novel was launched in Dublin on 1 September and has been garnering very favourable reviews in recent weeks, many containing “spoilers” about the plot, which, however, in no way diminishes enjoyment of the book. The author is already well established for his three crime novels with a difference. They are set in Stalinist Russia in the 1930s and feature Alexei Korolev, a Moscow CID Militia captain who is tasked to investigate some high profile murder cases with political connections. Against the background of the Great Terror, when one wrong move can result in a “holiday in Siberia” – Stalin’s jocular remark – or worse, Korolev must walk a moral and political tightrope to make progress. The Korolev books paint vividly and sympathetically the dilemma of the honourable man trying to cope in a totalitarian and mendacious society where values are reversed or non – existent. “The Constant Soldier” is a new departure in theme – a stand-alone novel set during the last year of the Second World War, yet the similarities with Korolev’s moral dilemmas are clear.

The novel’s first twenty pages are particularly memorable, recounting the gradual emergence of consciousness and awareness of a badly wounded soldier being transported by train back to his home. That home is a village in Silesia, in a mixed Polish –German rural community conquered and occupied by the Germans.  Here it is not just the matter of a murder. The whole setting is a crime scene. Most of the Poles have been driven out or murdered, their farms expropriated. Some are Partisans, watching, waiting in the woods as the Red Army advances.  A “work camp” and a mine are nearby – euphemisms for murder camps and a source of forced labour when required.  Could the camp be Auschwitz ? Or another? There were enough of them.  We are never told.  The camp remains in the wings throughout the novel, the horrors hinted at but never explicitly described.

Central to the story, rather, is the Hut, a rest and recreation lodge in the village for SS officers and personnel taking refuge or recuperation from their “toils” in the camp or stresses from the war. (Keeping up the morale of those tasked with mass murder was, apparently a priority for the Nazi leadership. I’ve come across several anecdotes of Himmler and others, and one of Ryan’s characters actually quotes Himmler, comforting those at the coal face of extermination and mass murder –  though at the right end of the gun-  acknowledging the “strain” but promising a better future once the task was complete! Thomas records that at Heuzer’s trial it was revealed that the Minsk murderers were partially anaesthetised with a bottle of vodka per head per day.) The Hut was staffed by SS foot soldiers until, as casualties at the front mounted, they were drafted into active service. Cleaning and cooking in the Hut was carried out by female slave prisoners.

The book’s central character, Paul Brandt, a Wermacht soldier, has returned home a hero, disfigured and mutilated from the Eastern Front. Not a Nazi, he had enlisted under threat. He returns wounded internally as well as externally, haunted by the murders he saw and was ordered to take part in. He knows the war is lost and longs for an opportunity to atone for his crimes. The opportunity comes when he is offered work as the supervisory steward at the SS Hut. Among the female prisoners working there is a girl from his past, Judith, who does not recognise his scarred and burned face and for whom he feels responsibility for her arrest and enslavement. He now has a mission – to protect and look out for Judith and her colleagues as well as doing what he can to protect his father and sister, neither of them Nazis and both well aware of what is happening in the camps.

To survive, let alone carry out his mission, involves living a lie in a fraught environment , where casual murder and brutality are commonplace and where, despite the slight leeway he is accorded as a decorated hero who has made visible sacrifices for “the Reich,” he must constantly be on guard. Ryan conveys very well the fin de siècle atmosphere which abounds, the doublethink and speak about ultimate victory when clearly nemesis is only a matter of time. The characters surrounding him include a committed Nazi, an amoral and foolish local mayor and several SS officers, as well as the Hut Commandant, Obersturmfuhrer Neumann, after Brandt the most interesting character in the story.

Intelligent and perceptive, Neumann from the start is clearly aware of some or most of Brandt’s feelings and demonstrates at several points that, though a Nazi and SS Officer, he has not bought in to the whole package. Indeed the subplot of the story is essentially the personal development and disintegration of Neumann, never quite total, and never fully revealed or even directly hinted at to Brandt. When another SS officer commits suicide Neumann confiscates his records of Mendelssohn, a Jewish, and therefore banned, composer, to play them himself. (And shockingly, Brandt discovers, among the dead man’s possessions, a box containing gold fillings ripped from Jewish victims at the camp.)

Neumann is not alone. There are other Nazis also less enamoured of what they have done, but for Neumann, his own crimes have put him beyond redemption and he remains haunted by images of his victims. A World War One veteran, he broods as to how these things could have happened.  A March Violet (the derisory name given by “old” Nazis to those who joined the Party after Hitler became Chancellor) he hadn’t planned on becoming a murderer. “It had just turned out that way.”  And of the Jews: ”mostly no one had ever imagined it would come to this. Until it had, of course.”

Brandt plots and schemes, finding allies among the Ukrainian SS guards, who know only too well what fate awaits them when the Soviets arrive. But ostensibly he must maintain the façade of normalcy, even as the Nazi world collapses. There are Christmas festivities, an incongruous New Year’s hunt, photographs to be taken, drunken SS to be humoured, while the news gets worse on an almost daily basis. Paris has fallen. Warsaw has fallen; and Krakow. The sound of Russian artillery can be heard. The exodus of German refugees begins. The final drama is about to be played out.

There is a counterpoint to all of this – Polya, a feisty young Russian, driver of a T34 tank for two years, a battle hardened veteran who has nevertheless retained her joie de vivre and femininity. She longs to get the job done and is enamoured of her tank commander Lapshin. At interludes in the main story her exploits intrude as her tank, and the Red Army, gets ever closer to Brandt’s village. There are some vivid and savage action scenes featuring Polya’s tank. There’s no doubt where the author’s sympathies lie. Polya, and the advance of the Red Army, crushing and obliterating their opponents, are very much a terrible swift sword, wreaking vengeance for what was done after 1941. The tension is built excellently as the reader wonders what will happen when Polya and her tanks encounter Brandt and a rag tag collection of boys, drafted as the last line of defence.

“The Constant Soldier” is a compelling read. I finished it in two days. Nor is it easily forgotten.  In an Afterword the author points to an album of photographs taken in 1944/5 by a senior SS officer at Auschwitz as providing inspiration for his book. The photos show members of the SS relaxing and chilling out in an R and R hut located several kilometres from the camp just weeks before the Red Army liberated it. If ever Arendt’s “banality of evil” categorisation of Eichmann seems appropriate it is here. Anyone interested in morality tales and looking also for a damn good story should read the novel, surely one of the year’s best. Highly recommended.

Reviewed for Writing.ie.

S.F.

8/9/16

 

VOTES CAST IN U.K. ELECTIONS SINCE 1945

VOTES CAST IN U.K. ELECTIONS SINCE 1945

 

See accompanying post for the table and apologies for the formatting  for 2010 and 2015.

Some fascinating material here. Something to pore over for hours, if not weeks with “what if?” musings. A more complete picture would  detail seats won and include also European election results.

Just a few points to whet the appetite:

  1. One central underlying fact to keep in mind is the growth in population, from fifty million in 1951 to sixty three million odd in 2011.

 

  1. This makes the second highest ever vote, 13,948, 605, secured by Labour in 1951, even more remarkable . It was an election in which, thanks to the quirks in the first-past-the-post system, they actually lost.

 

  1. The highest ever vote, 14,093,007, was for the Tories under John Major in 1992.

 

  1. No party since 1945 has polled more than 50%. The closest was in 1955, when the Tories, under Eden, actually received 49.7% of the votes cast. (Labour, in 1945, got 47.7%).

 

  1. The first-past-the-post system has severely inhibited the chances of a of a third party – any third party – from challenging the dominance of the Tories and Labour, even when the Liberals and later the LibDems, won twenty percent or more of the votes. The most dramatic example of the quirks were in last year’s election, where UKIP, with almost four million votes, won one seat, while the Scottish Nationalists (admittedly a special case) won 56 seats with less than one and a half million votes while the LibDems, with a million more votes got only 8 seats.

 

  1. Support for Thatcher was remarkably consistent across three elections, with 1983 actually the lowest, challenging the Falklands factor theory. Would she have won had Labour not been led by Michael Foot?

 

  1. Elections in the New Millennium have shown a marked drop in voter turnout, from above 70% to the mid-60s. Voter apathy, or disillusionment ? The BREXIT turnout was 72%.

S.F. 19/8/16

 

BRITISH GENERAL ELECTIONS SINCE 1945

BRITISH GENERAL ELECTIONS SINCE THE WAR

 

YEAR      LABOUR                               TORIES                   OTHERS                   POLL

1945       11,967,746                           8,716,211                  2,864,590                72.8%

1950       13,226,176                           12,494,404                 2,621,487              83.9%

1951       13,948,605                           13,717,538                      730,546              82.6%

1955       12,405,254                           13,310,891                       722,402             76.8%

1959       12,216,172                           13,750,875                     1,640,760            78.7%

1964       12,205,808                           12,002,642                   3,099,283            77.1%

1966       13,096,951                           11,418,433                      2,327,533             75.8%

1970       12,208,758                           13,145,123                      2,117,035             72.0%

1974       11,457,079                           11,872,180                      6,059,519             78.8%

1974       11,457,079                           10,462,565                      5,346,704             72.8%

1979       11,532,218                           13,697,923                       4,314,804             76.0%

1983       8,456,934                             13,012,316                       7,780,949             72.7%

1987       10,029,270                           13,760,935                      7,341,651             75.3%

1992       11,560,484                           14,093,007                       5,999,384             77.7%

1997       13,518,167                           9,600,943                           5,242,947             71.3%

2001       10,724,953                           8,367,615                           4,814,321             59.4%

2005       9,552,436                             8,784,915                           5,985,454             61.4%

2010       8,606,517                             10,703,654                        6,836,248             65.1%

919,471

2015       9,347,324                             11,334,576                           2,415,862             66.4%

3,881,129                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         1,454,436

A CENTENARY CELEBRATED 1605 LXXXVIII

A CENTENARY CELEBRATED

“Glorious Madness” The O’Rahilly called it. In military terms the Easter Rising was objectively doomed from the start. Even had the Volunteers risen throughout Ireland – which they didn’t – for how long could a semi-trained militia have held out against a determined professional army, superior in men and armaments?

A hundred years ago this month fifteen of the Rising’s leaders were executed soon after surrender ( The O’Rahilly died in the fighting). General Maxwell, the buffoon who organised the “field general” court martials, i.e. trials without defence, jury, qualified judges or public access, thought a short sharp shock was required.  183 civilians were put on trial, of whom ninety were sentenced to death. The executions were only stopped by the hasty intervention of  the British Prime Minister , Asquith,  after he arrived in Dublin on May 12. By then the damage had been done and the slow fuse of a sea-change in Irish public opinion, very much mixed beforehand, lit.

The Centenary of the Rising was celebrated (early) this Easter. The major commemorative events, including solemn ceremonies honouring the leaders and the others who fell, as well as the largest military parade ever staged in Dublin, were sober and dignified and with an evident sense of national pride. Events were well attended and blessed with good weather.

The Celebrations were more restrained  and  less gung-ho than in 1966, the last landmark anniversary. The country has moved on in so many ways in half a century  – and it shows. In 1966 Ireland was a different country, economically, socially, culturally and  in the national mind-set. Many survivors of 1916 were still around fifty years later. The last surviving 1916 Commander, De Valera, was Irish President, while  Taoiseach Sean Lemass had fought in the GPO aged 16. Memories of the  War of Independence and the subsequent Civil War were still fresh. The country was just emerging from a lengthy period of national stagnation in which the chief political obsessions were Partition and relations with Britain.

THAT Ireland also had been at peace since 1923, had avoided the Second World War – unthinkable without the national independence which had its gestation in the events of 1916 – and had no recent experience of what bloodshed and armed conflict entailed. Fifty years on Ireland has fresh and ghastly memories of a generation of violence in the North that claimed close to four thousand lives and injured many more, and has overwhelmingly embraced a peace that promises reconciliation. This has led to a more mature and realistic appraisal of 1916.

The Rising changed matters – utterly – setting in train a chain of events that led to an independent Irish state. It’s worth noting that the recent celebrations took place against a background of political wrangling here over how and by whom the next sovereign ( I emphasize sovereign) Irish government will be formed following February’s inconclusive general election.

Would that be the case had there been no Easter Rising? Would we be like Scotland today – or, indeed, Northern Ireland? And what else would/could  have happened in the interim? “ What –Ifs?”  are fascinating – for example, would Britain have faced down the Ulster Unionists had there been no Rising? – but ultimately just speculation. Whatever else one can say, as an end result of the process that began in 1916 we Irish are now masters of our own destiny and the issues with which we are seized, like health, housing, welfare and water, are First World Issues  which we brought about and on ourselves.

How different to that Easter a century ago and to the setting – a somewhat backwater city, impoverished,  riven by class and privilege and teeming with some of Europe’s worst slums. Politically the cauldron was simmering , with every week bringing a roll call of dead and injured from the charnel house of the Great War, where as many as one thousand Irishmen of every hue died in each month of the conflict. Gallipoli had been a few short months before. And indeed, in the week of the Rising, which saw a total of 485 fatalities,  532 Irishmen were slaughtered in three days in the Hulloch gas attacks  near Loos. There was crossover in death. Dublin Fusilier Private John Naylor died on April 29, the same day his  wife  Margaret was shot in Dublin crossing a bridge to buy bread for her children; she died two days later.

Until quite recently the Irish in the First World War were treated as invisible, official policy being to ignore or discount the huge numbers of Irish who had fought and died. The  recognition of the sacrifice of those many thousands has been one of the signal achievements of reconciliation of the last decades. The dead Irish of the War certainly informed the Centenary celebrations as never before, reflecting the  more thoughtful and inclusive approach of the present day.  There is greater appreciation of the circumstances of the Volunteer split in 1914, with the majority following Redmond to enlist in what nobody thought would be a lengthy carnage, in the expectation that Britain would deliver  Home Rule at war’s end, while the minority  set about organising a Rising.

Today’s more inclusive approach generated a focus on attendant aspects of the Rising heretofore somewhat overlooked.  Tom Clarke has now emerged from the shadows to vie with Pearse and Connolly as leaders. The 40 dead children of Easter Week – among the “collateral damage” of  the 260 civilian dead  ( 54% of the total casualties)  – received  much attention and were the subject of a best-selling book written by  popular Irish broadcaster Joe Duffy. So also the nature and scale of the civilian casualties and destruction of central Dublin during Easter Week.

The role of women has now been accorded appropriate recognition. Some  fought; others  nursed the wounded,  or cooked for and tended to the insurgents.  Some brave women acted as despatch couriers. After the surrender 77 women were among those imprisoned in Richmond Barracks. To the well acknowledged role of Countess Markievicz has been added, among others, Connolly’s political secretary Winifred Carney,  couriers Julia Grenan and Leslie Price, sniper Margaret Skinnider and Elizabeth O’Farrell, the nurse who accompanied Pearse when he surrendered, and who was for long airbrushed out of the famous surrender  photo. Some thought was even given to the “other side,” i.e. British soldiers and RIC casualties, who have been included ( not without controversy)in a Remembrance Wall listing all the victims of 1916 and unveiled in Glasnevin Cemetery.

The motives and aims of those who fought varied. There was a general sense of idealism and patriotism and an undoubted hope that the Rising in Dublin would inspire a general revolt. This happened eventually – and decisively. Out of defeat came ultimate victory. In his superb “Easter 1916” Yeats asked of the Rising  “Was it needless death after all? For England may keep faith.” That England already HAD was the judgement of the Irish people. Not by granting Home Rule but rather by executing the 1916 Leaders, thus keeping faith with its long and bloody involvement in Ireland. As a nation today “we are where we are.” But we ARE a nation – thanks to the men and women of 1916.

19/04/16