Festina Lente: why we need to hurry slowly to learn the lessons of the election

A machine-gun nest in the town square, Newtownards, the day after the election

In the first of a double bill of posts reflecting on the general election, Maurice argues that we need to take time to think carefully about the implications of the results, but, paradoxically, that we have to do so quickly.

As I set out to the shops in Newtownards yestrday morning, I came across a machine gun nest in the town square – “Already?” I thought, before realising it was a recruitment exercise by the Royal Irish Regiment.

But make no mistake, the guns will be out, metaphorically speaking at least, and potentially even literally, here in Northern Ireland, for reasons we’ll come to.

The general election result – let’s face it, a major victory for Boris Johnson’s Conservatives, even if won by probably the most deceitful campaign of my living memory – will inevitably call forth much soul searching and recrimination on the left. The former would be much better than the latter, but the metaphorical machine guns are already blazing, with some commentators interpreting the result as a rejection not just of Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, but of Corbynism, which they take to mean his whole suite of policy positions.

It’s inevitable, but it’s still a mistake. To be sure, the bold policies set out in the Labour manifesto were not universally popular, but many of them – nationalising the railways, investing in the health service – enjoyed widespread public support. So rather than use the election result as an opportunity to eject the whole lot, Labour should take some time to think carefully about what sort of policies are essential for the wellbeing of the people of the UK, and make the case for them. I’d bet quite a few of them are already pretty well worked out in the Labour manifestos of 2017 and 2019.

Constitutionally, we are in for some change. There is little to hinder a newly invigorated Boris Johnson from reversing the moves towards greater effective Parliamentary sovereignty; it won’t be long before the Scottish start to prepare for another IndyRef; and of course, there is the little matter of Brexit.

At the end of January, the UK will leave the EU on the terms set out in Boris Johnson’s deal. From a progressive perspective, this does not look good: the protections for workers and the environment we have long called for are moved out of the binding part of the agreement and into an annex; so there is every likelihood PM Johnson will be tempted to ditch them in the course of negotiating trade deals with the likes of Donald Trump.

That gives us our first post-election progressive aim: to fight to uphold those protections, to build momentum towards making it unthinkable that such protections would be ditched in favour of chlorinated chicken and higher drug prices.

But before getting into that, back to those guns, and the implications of the results for Northern Ireland. Loyalists must find themselves in a bit of a conflicted state this morning. Johnson’s victory assures them that Brexit, something they adamantly demanded, will go through. But given the deal effectively puts a border down the Irish sea, so that Northern Ireland will be in some ways more closely aligned with the Republic of Ireland than Great Britain, it is far from the form of Brexit they wanted. Indeed, on a wall near where I write this, the phrase “Smash the Bretrayal Act” is emblazoned. Incidentally, at first I thought the extra ‘r’ in ‘bretrayal’ was a mistake, but it might just be a smart double portmanteau of ‘betrayal’ and ‘Brexit’. Or perhaps not. In any case, the ‘Bretrayal Act’ in question was, of course, Johnson’s Brexit plan.

If the more militant Loyalists are angry this morning, then their political stablemates in the DUP are likely to be pretty gloomy. Perhaps it’s too much to ask that the gloom will be lightened by a little glimmer of self-awareness, as some of them realise what a monumental own-goal their stance on Europe (and indeed many other matters) has been. *

Nevertheless, in electoral terms, they have not only lost two MPs, Emma Little Pengelly in Belfast South, and Nigel Dodds in Belfast North, but they also failed to take the seat vacated by Lady Sylvia Hermon in North Down. The latter went to the Alliance Party, who had a great night, with their vote rising across the board. Indeed they pulled in over 134,000 votes in total – the lion’s share of a whopping 144,000 votes gained by avowedly non-nationalist and non-unionist parties representing what I have elsewhere called the ‘community of others’ (COO).

In contrast, both the DUP and Sinn Féin’s vote went down. Unionism as a whole is now sitting at about 43 percent of the vote, and Irish nationalism at about 39 percent, with the COO coming in at about 18 percent. We are well past the dominance of a reductive, binary-denomination model – as I have already argued here and here. Now that we roughly fall into three minorities, it could be argued that if the two traditional denominational political movements are to achieve their goals, they are going to need to win the support of the community of others. That gives the latter – not a community of identity, or denominational community, but a rainbow coalition of different people – power greater than its size might indicate. Perhaps even the DUP will realise that trying to make Northern Ireland into a place that’s good for DUP supporters is a less productive strategy than trying to make it a place that’s great for everybody. Something progressive voices have been calling for forever.

So there is room for some cautious, carefully tempered optimism in the progressive movement in Northern Ireland. Cautious and tempered, of course, because the odds are still stacked heavily against us, not least because of that thumping Conservative majority in the House of Commons.

Still, here we are. And to work out how we get from here to there, we need to sit down and think carefully about how to map out this new territory.

If it were up to me, I would therefore call everyone even vaguely progressive (and remember, this is a relative term) together into a town-hall style meeting and try to thrash out a way we could temporarily set aside some of our differences, committing to work together towards a set of agreed goals, and rising to the major challenges of our time – deepening inequality, ongoing austerity, underfunded public services and of course, the climate emergency. This is something we have argued for before – here and here.

To an extent this has already started. The Greens (and to declare an interest, I’m a member), stood aside in North Down and Belfast South with a view to maximising the chances of returning pro-EU candidates. It worked, of course (not least in North Down, where the re-directed support of almost 3,000 habitual Green voters made up the bulk of Stephen Farry’s eventual majority over the DUP). But the Brexit ship has now sailed, and we, like it or not, are among the passengers.

All the more reason for us to get together and start hammering out a plan for our destination. Where do we want to land? What sort of Northern Ireland, UK, Europe, world do we need to start working towards? What does our Utopia look like, and how do we take it out of the realm of unachievable fantasy, and begin to build, here and now, a place where inequality is reducing, not growing, where people are being lifted out of poverty, not cast onto the mercies of the food bank, where successful corporations can’t dodge their taxes to enrich a few wealthy shareholders, where racism is dying out rather than being fanned by the powerful, and where our ten-year plan to bring about a global green revolution in the economy gets kick-started.

All of that needs to be discussed in a level-headed way, without falling into momentum-killing recrimination and finger-pointing. In other words, let’s not jump to judge each other: we need to take our time to talk this over in a democratic way; but at the same time, we need to get our skates on. Some matters, not least the climate emergency, will not wait for us to win each and every one of our little ideological partisan battles.

So let’s take our time and talk, but let’s do it quickly.

Festina Lente, everyone (…and a happy New Year!

*Update, 17 December: not long after I posted this I noticed a Tweet featuring Sammy Wilson of the DUP, who was calling on Boris Johnson to invest in a bridge from Northern Ireland to Scotland in order to ‘win back the trust’ of unionists. Not much of a glimmer there, then. Wilson does not seem to have noticed that the Tories no longer need the ‘trust’ of unionists. He would be much better advised to remind his fellow unionists that they need, at the very least, 51 percent support of people in in Northern Ireland if they are to achieve their goal of securing the union; and that won’t happen by riling up the base, all 43 percent of them. The DUP will have to shift from demanding that Northern Ireland is built in a way that best suits the unionist base to working with others to make Northern Ireland the sort of place most people want to live. In other words, the bridges they will have to build aren’t to Scotland, but are those to the rest of the people right here – bridges they have spent the last few decades burning.

Maurice Macartney

15 December 2019

Emergency treatment needed for our health care system itself

Showing support for our NHS staff in Ards

I stopped to chat with some of the strikers outside Ards hospital yesterday evening (Friday 6 December). After talking to Barry and Gillian (pictured left and right above) I am firmly convinced that they are absolutely right to raise urgent concerns over the state of our health service.

The media tend to focus on the issue of equal pay – and to be sure that is important; but it is only the start of a whole sequence of problems that tend to feed back and amplify each other.

So let’s start with pay. A qualified nurse in Northern Ireland starts on £22,795, whereas in Scotland they start on £24,670. Could that be one reason we are struggling to fill nursing vacancies?

And if you struggle to fill vacancies, then you end up turning more and more to agencies to supply temporary contractors. Now, the bill for contractors in the NHS in Northern Ireland was £76m in 2014-15. That rose to £134m by 2016-17, then £156m in 2017-18, then £200m. And this year the total is expected to reach £230m.

Does anyone notice a pattern?

Putting all that public money into agency staff is a bad investment. Only some of it goes to the nurses and other staff themselves – the rest goes to the agency, to cover costs and to generate profit. So as the bill rises, more and more of our public funds are going straight into subsidising somebody’s private business. That’s money that is no longer available for investing in recruiting and retaining full time, permanent NHS staff – another self-reinforcing, negative feedback loop: the more you put into external agencies the less you have for recruiting and retaining permanent staff; the fewer staff you recruit, the more vacancies you need to use agencies to fill.

To put figures on it, one nurse reckons we need an extra 3,000 nurses. How much would that cost? At the Scottish starting salary, something like £74m. In other words, the £230m we are going to spend this year would fill those posts three times over. But not a penny of it will go to nurses (or any of the other categories of staff) directly employed by the NHS.

And of course, it is not just about nurses. You need a whole team, from porters to maintenance staff, to cooks, the whole gamut of people into whose hands we entrust the health – the lives – of our children, our parents, and we ourselves.

As someone who went in for an operation (minor, thankfully) only a fortnight ago I cannot emphasise enough how courteous, professional and caring all of the staff were. What’s more, they would have given anyone the same first class treatment, from the poorest to the wealthiest, from the youngest to the oldest, regardless of gender, ethnic background, religion, sexual orientation and so on, for all of us, for all our diversity, free at the point of treatment.

That is a national treasure not to be squandered. And it is imperative that we invest urgently, to halt the wasteful spiral of outsourced spending we are currently witnessing. The longer we put this off the worse the situation will get – exponentially so.

So I urge you: remember this on Thursday, 12 December, in the privacy of the polling booth. Vote for a party that recognises the urgent situation our health services are in, and will invest in emergency treatment, before it is too late.

Maurice Macartney

7 December 2019

Vote to change the system

A brief word from Maurice on the forthcoming election.

The decision to set up a dripping block of ice to stand in for the current Prime Minister of the UK on a national leaders debate was a great coup de theatre.

Not only did it draw attention to the main issue at hand – the climate emergency – but with its drip-drip-drip it also neatly symbolised the watery response of some of our biggest mainstream politicians to both the climate crisis and to the other huge issue of our lives, deepening inequality.

Conservatives of the big and small ‘c’ variety, and on both sides of the Atlantic, have either done their best to make things worse, or have offered woefully inadeqate tinkering instead of a real solution.

If we are to rise to the major, interconnected challenges of our time it will require more than making a few adjustments around the edges. But if the problems are interconnected, the solutions are too, so there’s everything to fight for! We have had decades, arguably centuries, of a political and economic model that says ‘extract as much as you can from workers and living planet alike, and crank it upwards, towards the wealthy, who know how to run things’. It was an often violent process, both towards people and towards the living world itself.

Well, that model has run out of road. We’re starting to pay the costs of having extracted resources faster than the earth can replenish them, and those costs will only mount higher – unless we stop turning the crank, and re-organise the forces in our political economy so that wealth and power flows not vertically but horizontally, out to ordinary citizens, circulating in and around our own neighbourhoods, and being invested back into the living planet.

The fight for social justice and equality is intimately linked with the fight for a better, more equitable and sustainable economic system. So make your voice heard on Thursday, 12 December; vote for a party that will offer solutions big enough for the situation, and send a signal on 12 December that you are part of the movement!

Maurice Macartney

30 November 2019

There is no end in sight. We’re only getting started

Stephen Baker considers the current state of unrest in the UK and beyond.

Nothing to see here? A revealing Tweet from the media…

This election will resolve nothing. Nothing will be brought to a head. The job will not be ‘got done’.

Whichever party or coalition wins, the UK will still have to figure out its future relationship with its European neighbours.

The divisions opened up by the Brexit debate will mark British politics for at least a generation.

Scottish independence will not somehow magically drop off the political agenda, nor will the question of the border in Ireland.

The climate emergency will still need facing up to and growing inequality will still need tackling.

It will still be imperative that we find an alternative economic model to our present one, lest we trash the planet and subject people to further impoverishment and demoralisation.

At the other side of this election will lie one almighty struggle to safeguard workers’ rights and the environment, as well as a redoubling of our efforts in the fight against racism. That’s if Boris Johnson wins.

Alternatively, we will witness the privileged and the powerful throw everything they’ve got, through all the offices available to them, at a Corbyn led government.

At the other side of this election, politics will go on, red in tooth and claw.

This will be to the apparent consternation of the politicians, pundits and journalists who have maintained a narrative about how voters are tired of it all and just want politicians to “get on with the job,” whatever that may be.

This is predicated on the notion that people are essentially politically uninterested: the “ordinary Joe”; “the man on the Clapham omnibus”; “the dogs in the street”; the typical voter: those souls vox-popped on some commerce-forsaken provincial High Street and given a few seconds in which to condense their political opinions.

They are seldom invited to elaborate. Given just enough time to express disappointment or exasperation or acquiescence. A shake of the fist; a nod of the head; a thumbs up; a ‘like’. Politics reduced to an emoji.

But political apathy isn’t natural; it takes training. It takes the cultivation of disenchantment and the placing of impossible demands upon people’s time.

You must be too busy to think for yourself. You must be bamboozled by technocratic political language. You must not dare to dream on this side of the grave.

When ‘ordinary people’ appear on our screens it is not for the purposes of information or a comment, but an instruction about your own truncated contribution to the affairs of the day.

Remember “Brenda from Bristol”? Apparently she spoke for the entire nation with her withering reaction to the Theresa May’s announcement of a general election in 2017. “You’re joking!” She exclaimed. “Not another one! … There’s too much politics going on at the moment.”

You must come to see even voting as an imposition.

It’s as if in 2016 the voters turned out in huge numbers, took part in a momentous referendum that has utterly transformed the UK’s politics, and then slunk off, back to their shite estates, dowdy towns and backwaters, to live out the rest of their lives in quiet anonymity and indifference. 

Except they didn’t. Many have continued to argue, march and campaign on the issue of Brexit. The Climate Strikes have brought hundreds of thousands onto the UK’s streets in protest: millions across the globe – and that’s before we consider the unrest in Hong Kong, Chile, Bolivia, Colombia, France, Iran, Lebanon, and so on.

Meanwhile, in the UK, Universities, Royal Mail and the NHS staff are about to take industrial action, and even the nurses in Northern Ireland have voted to strike.

The nation that Brenda is assumed to speak on behalf of is a newsroom fiction.

It exists to provide crumbs of ideological comfort to Westminster’s beleaguered and baffled professionals. It fits a view of the recent past in which the great lazy unwashed turned up in history, trashed the place, before returning to the shadows to sulk at the failure of the ‘elite’ to implement their poorly articulated will.

It follows then than in Westminster ‘getting the job done,’ or simply stopping Brexit and ending the madness, is in reality about putting the genie of an awakened public back in the bottle before it does further damage to the grand order or things. Business as usual must prevail.

But politicians, pundits, journalists and everyone else should be under no illusions. There is no end in sight. We’re only getting started.

Stephen Baker

23 November 2019

School Strike. Week 57.

Greta Thunberg’s Tweet on Friday 20 September 2019.

It was certainly the biggest coordinated climate action ever – possibly the biggest globally coordinated demonstration of any kind in human history. And Greta Thunberg Tweets this.

School Strike. Week 57. New York City.

It is possible that years from now, people will ask each other: “Where were you on Week 57?” It is possible, just possible, that Friday’s action will become a generation defining moment, on a par with the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9-11.

Reaction in the press was mixed in the UK and US, with left of centre papers giving the story reasonable prominence. The conservative papers in the UK were, not unexpectedly, indifferent, if not actively hostile.

The Daily Telegraph website had almost nothing, then, far down the running order, a comment piece entitled: “The climate strikers’ hard-Left agenda would only make things worse”.

Yeah, and the corporate dominated, deregulated, growth at all costs, global crank economy has been doing a bang up job of getting a lid on the thing.

The website of the Daily Mail, for its part, ran story after story about what dresses were worn to some society wedding, a bit on the Epstein scandal and Prince Edward, and other such news. You had to scroll way down and down to find anything about the strikes, and then it concentrated on scolding Jeremy Corbyn for encouraging children to skip school.

It is a pity the billionaire owners and millionaire editors of the papers did not go along to the events with an open mind. They might have come away with an education.

Where were you on Week 57 – the question can be asked metaphorically, not just literally; that is, what was your position, where did you stand? Some, inevitably, poured scorn. The best response to this, in my view, came in a Tweet from Northern Ireland’s Claire Hanna, MLA:

“Nothing says ‘I’m an absolute wab’ quite like sneering at young people campaigning on climate change”.

I’m not even going to translate this for a non-Northern Irish audience, but you’ll get the idea.

Wabs aside, others, from virtually across the conventional political spectrum, and indeed from outside it, followed the lead of the young people. In Northern Ireland, mainstream unionism was absent, though John Kyle of the PUP characteristically joined the demonstration. But whatever their political stripe, thousands of ordinary citizens, young and old, marched through the streets to the City Hall in Belfast, just as they did cities in an estimated 163 countries around the world.

The view from the stage at City Hall, courtesy of Councillor Brian Smyth, Green Party in Northern Ireland

Am I exaggerating the importance of the day? Well, it remains to be seen. But one thing is sure. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of young people gave themselves a political education, organised and campaigned, spoke out against the inertia of the authorities, demanded an overhaul of the whole political economy, and went out and marched this year. On Monday, they will be watching when the world’s politicians gather in New York to talk climate. They will still be watching in the months to come, to see if the politicians’ promises are kept.

And next year, they will be old enough to vote.

Maurice Macartney

21 September 2019

Community of Others: What next?

With the results of the EU election now in, Maurice updates his post on the rise of the community of Others, and reflects on where we go next.

We now know that not only did the rise of the Community of Others continue after the local elections, but when all transfers were finally taken into account, they arguably (with caveats: see below) came out in greater numbers than either of the two traditional denominational communities (unionist and nationalist) in the EU elections.

After the transfers, Naomi Long of the Alliance Party ended up with 170,370 votes, to Diane Dodds’ (DUP ) 155,422 and Martina Anderson’s (SF) 152,436.

Of course, there are problems with this method of totting up support for the various camps. But even taking the more conservative approach, the first preference votes for the various positions are extraordinary.

All told, Unionists of various stripes took almost 246,000 first preferences; nationalists over 205,000, and ‘others’ just over 121,000. That’s some 21 percent to the Others.

Looking at the successful candidates alone, the DUP took around 125,000, SF 127,000, and Alliance an astonishing 106,000.

No Martian, looking at Northern Ireland’s election results for the first time, would come up with the phrase ‘the two communities’, or say ‘both communities’, and think that accurately described the NI socio-political map. Not even close.

The locally dominant paradigm – that Northern Ireland is divided into two (and only two) opposed denominational communities – must surely now be laid to rest. People may still try to work the binary reduction machine that pushes us back towards that model (by, for example, claiming that Alliance are ‘really’ soft unionists, or ‘really’ nationalists, both of which claims are currently circulating) but the mechanisms of the model are clearly breaking down.

Yet this is not enough. Everything depends on how we replace it. Alliance has done well – congratulations to them. But it is not clear that they will vigorously tackle the other dominant paradigm of our times, the globally dominant neoliberal economic model.

This is where the more progressive, left-leaning, and radical parties such as the Greens and People Before Profit (and perhaps more importantly the non-Party movements of ‘others’) come in. They – we – must now seize the moment and momentum and create a dynamic that pushes towards the democratic, grassroots redistribution of power.

While the binary reduction machine of NI politics was functioning smoothly, it was all the more difficult to address the arguably more important struggle against the crank economy.

The result of the local dominant paradigm was denominational conflict, including violence – unionist versus nationalist, Protestant versus Catholic. Now we must overcome the structural violence of inequality, austerity and poverty, the violence of misogyny, homophobia, racism, and, not least, the rapidly unfolding crisis of overconsumption in the living world – pollution, climate breakdown, extinctions, soil depletion and more.

If these global issues seem somewhat abstract (and they shouldn’t), there’s plenty of related issues for a local progressive and radical movement to get their teeth into. Not worried about the ‘global’ part of global warming? Then how about the amount of pollution fuming from the cars on our roads, the increasing number of kids packing inhalers with their school books, and, thanks to austerity cuts, closed clinics in which they cannot be treated…

In short, the rise of the ‘Others’ in recent elections opens new possibilities; but those Others should not – must not – settle into being some sort of vaguely liberal middle-ground. The stakes are far too high for that.

Maurice Macartney

30 May 2019

The Community of Others is Rising

It was already clear on the night of the local election count that something had shifted in the Northern Irish political biosphere this election season. The DUP had gained votes, but lost seats. Sinn Féin had kept the same number of seats but had lost votes. Those designating as neither unionist nor nationalist – the ‘Others’ – had gained both votes and seats.

Thanks to Alan in Belfast and the Salmon of Data, we can examine the results of the local elections in more detail, and a clear trend, it seems, is emerging.

Unionism, with only 43 percent of first preference votes, has shrunk definitively to minority status. The gains, however, did not go mainly to their denominational opposites, the Irish Nationalist parties, but largely to Others.

Comparing the results to the last local election, Unionism has shrunk by some 26,389 votes between 2014 and 2019.  Nationalism has gained 10,368. But the community of Others gained fully 65,899 first preference votes, rising to a total of 132,695, or around 19.5 percent of the vote.

All talk of ‘the two communities’ in Northern Ireland should now be consigned unambiguously to the dustbin. There are (at least) three communities, all of them minorities.

Unionism’s attempt to consolidate itself around a strong, hard-line party, the DUP has succeeded in strengthening that party’s vote (though not share of seats); but unionism as a whole has shrunk down to a minority. The DUP’s gain in votes will have given them something to cheer about, but this should be set beside severe losses among other hard-line unionist parties, such as TUV and UKIP, and the ongoing decline of the UUP.

The nationalist vote has gone up, but not by a great deal, and in any case, they did not make great gains in terms of seat numbers.

Compare the first preferences from these local election results to the most recent Assembly election:

Assembly Election 2017:

  • Unionists: 360k
  • Nationaliists: 320k
  • Others: 110k

Local Elections 2019:

  • Unionists: 289k
  • Nationalists: 255k
  • Others: 132k

Others were already growing remarkably in 2017, passing the 100 thousand first preference vote mark for the first time. But even then, in what was a tremendously successful election, they were less than a third the size of the unionist block.  Now they are approaching a half. An analysis of the voting record since, say, 2011, would show that this is a community on the rise. It is a diverse community – whose members, ranging from the conservative to the radical, have nothing to unite them other than the refusal to be governed by the dominant two-community paradigm – but it has more power than its simple numbers might indicate.

If the unionist community is now a minority community, representing little over two fifths, and the community of others now represents nearly a fifth of the voting population, the lesson seems clear: unionism needs to start reaching out to others, making Northern Ireland the sort of place non-unionists want to live, if they are to preserve the union. Unionism now needs the votes of others to make up a majority.

By the same token, nationalists are also a minority – not even two in five. They, too, will need to persuade the others if they are to move towards their long-term goal of a united Ireland.

This, in theory, gives the others more power than you might think, just looking at the raw numbers.

The rise of the community of others represents a change in the political dynamics of Northern Ireland, and may lead to the injection of further new dynamics, not least because a good number of those others (the Greens, People Before Profit) come from a progressive and left leaning movement.

It’s going to be very hard for the unionists to turn this round, because they have spent so long shoring up their own base by demonising everyone who is not a hard-line unionist. But they need to see, now, the diminishing returns of this strategy, especially after the imminent end of the confidence and supply arrangement that only a very unusual set of Westminster circumstances dropped into their surprised hands.

In practice this means making NI more like the sort of place others want to live by, for example, bringing the place up to speed on equal marriage, by showing some semblance of concern for the wishes of the majority in the region who wanted to remain in the EU, and by giving the people of NI the same reproductive healthcare rights they have elsewhere in the UK, or better. After all, they can now get all these things in the Republic of Ireland. Keep hectoring and alienating the others, and you can guarantee eventually they will lose patience, and begin to explore the potential benefits of reunification.

In other words, the biggest current threat to the union is hard-line unionism.

For years, for decades, the Community of Others (COO) has resisted being drawn in and ground down by the binary reduction machine of NI politics, whereby one is obliged to ‘belong’ to one and only one of two and only two diametrically opposed denominations. The COO is not a community of identity – you don’t belong to it by virtue of birth, or because of some supposedly immutable shared identity. You belong, if at all, because you know that we need to build democracy, not domination; that society is nothing but differences; and that instead of trying to reduce this, it is possible to embrace and enjoy those differences as something exciting, that for all the challenges, has at least the potential to enrich us all.

Given the recent election results (and it will be interesting to see how the imminent EU results bear this out), the community of others appears to be reaching a critical mass, just at a time when the tectonic plates of Irish, British and European politics are shifting.

This would be a great time to join the COO.


A brief word on Lyra McKee from Maurice.

I wanted to write about Extinction Rebellion, the school children’s strikes, the David Attenborough programme on climate change this weekend, but I can’t.

I did not know Lyra McKee – did not, until now, I confess, read much of her writing – but for some reason I find myself unable to stop thinking about her life and shocking death. Nothing I can say would have half the impact of her own words, or indeed of some of those who knew her, so please just read these, and all those I’ve left out.

From Susan McKay, a rebuff to Lyra’s self-justifying murderers: “Lyra didn’t die in the cause of Irish ‘freedom’. She was Irish Freedom”.

From Ellen Murray, this tribute, almost too raw to read.

And from Lyra herself, these beautiful, wise words: “kid, it’s going to be ok”.

Reading these, it may be possible to discern some hope, that this is one of those inflection points, where people are brought up short, and rethink their whole approach to politics and to each other. Let us work to make sure Lyra’s legacy is lasting change.

Maurice Macartney

21 April 2019

A little local difficulty

Maurice reflects on the row over leaflets distributed by a DUP Councillor

It appears to have been too much even for the DUP: Councillor Graham Craig has been told by his party to stop distributing election flyers with a message that has widely been seen as racist.

As is always the way in these cases, there have been those (for instance on the Nolan Show the day the story broke) who argue that calling for “local houses for local people”, as the leaflet does, is not necessarily racist.

That’s an argument that becomes harder to sustain when the very next point in the leaflet reads: “Taking back control of immigration”. Immigration – does this need to be pointed out? – is not a Council matter; and it seems to me there is only one reason a message like that is put into a local Council leaflet.

We could point to other uses of phrases like ‘locals only’ to show that they are usually accompanied by or embodied in acts of vandalism, sometimes with a more explicitly racist context. But that would be to take the protestations too seriously. No one can be in any doubt – not even Councillor Craig – that he intended to signal, by these phrases, he would work to keep ‘others’ (‘them’ versus ‘us’) out of the houses in the area. It is virtually a dictionary definition example of xenophobia.

Look at the other phrases on the leaflet though: “As your local Unionist Councillor”, he begins – and the underlining is in the original. As though the DUP header, with its red-white-and-blue lion weren’t enough, he is at pains to emphasise that he is a Unionist, or rather Unionist.

He then lists the issues he will continue to focus his efforts on, including the issue of local homes for local people, and controlling immigration. Here is the rest of the list of his priorities:

  • Delivering more alley gates
  • More funding for Loyalist areas in need
  • Defending Unionism at City Hall

And here is the issue that concerns me: by the time he has finished this list, and says “As your local Councillor I will continue to work on your behalf” I already know he is not talking to me. The ‘your’ of “your behalf” refers to Unionists, Loyalists. A ‘local’ Councillor for a local, loyal people, a people Councillor Craig will continue to defend.

The dynamics Councillor Craig is appealing to here are the same that led to the rise of Donald Trump in the US and to Brexit in the UK. People voted Leave in order to ‘take back control’ – to create the ultimate ‘alley gate’, so to speak.

Many people who voted Leave had been led to believe ‘foreigners’ were coming in and jumping the queue – getting access to scarce resources ahead of ‘local’ people in need. And it is true that many ‘local people’, whatever that means, were in need, were struggling with money worries, saw their children struggle with over-filled classrooms, or older children struggle to get on the housing ladder.

But those who sold Brexit as the solution, I would argue, misdiagnosed the underlying condition. They made it binary, and they made it existential. They said ‘foreigners are to blame’ – whether those famous, faceless bureaucrats in Brussels, or those who had moved to the UK to live and work. And it is a zero-sum game: if they win, we lose.

No; the real forces and dynamics which underlay the discontent that led to Brexit, and the rise of Donald Trump, and other right-wing populists, go back much further than our membership of the European Union, as I will try to show in the next film in our video series.

The problem is, there is no alley gate (or Wall, Mr Trump) big enough to keep out the forces that are making your community feel insecure and suddenly relatively powerless in the first place, because the problem is not ‘foreigners’, not ‘others’, not ‘them’. It is ‘us’, and how you define ‘us’.

It is the act of dividing the world into ‘them’ and ‘us’ along national, or ethnic, or racial, or sectarian lines. It is the act of attempting to purify the identity of your ‘locale’ (as though the idea of ‘locals only’ did not call up an endless inquiry into what ‘local’ means).

The problems of Northern Ireland (to take only the most ‘local’ example) are not being caused by one or other side of a binary divide, but by the smooth functioning of the binary reduction machinery that keeps getting routinely wheeled out, as though if we only go at it hard enough ‘we’ will eventually beat ‘them’.

The appeal to one side, the attempt to shore up the support of a narrowly defined community of identity is doomed to failure, because that sort of self-contained identity depends on opposition to the other – that is, depends on the other. No ‘us’ without ‘them’, however hard we crank.

There is another possible approach to building a community. It is to take on, as the key, essential political task, the work of building a community of others, a community in which we – you and I – recognise that we do not share an identity, but commit nonetheless to learning how to live together as nonviolently as possible, for all our differences, on this our one planet, and in this our own wee corner of it.

And the sooner we get to that task, the sooner we will be able to get down to solving the real roots of the problem of scarce resources in our neighbourhoods.

Maurice Macartney

8 March 2019

For a more extensive and academic treatment of these themes, see my article ‘Denominations and Combinations’ in the current edition of Irish Political Studies.


Monuments of a civilisation lost to the desert

With the news being dominated by political turmoil over Brexit, you could be forgiven for having missed some significant developments on a still more important matter: the future of life on earth.

Take the new report in the prestigious medical journal the Lancet, which begins with this warning:
“Food systems have the potential to nurture human health and support environmental sustainability; however, they are currently threatening both”.

Actually, this is not news as such, merely the most recent in a series of authoritative warnings about the manner and rate at which our economic, industrial and agricultural system is consuming the very foundations on which the living world – including our own species – depends.

Here, for instance, is a report from the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, according to whom we lose some 24 billion tonnes of fertile soil each year.

In 2017, a five-year, $60 million study revealed that we are facing a “nitrogen pollution crisis”, as artificial fertiliser use, fossil fuels, livestock waste, and sewage contribute to a doubling of nitrogen flows in the last few decades, resulting in ecological “dead zones” across the planet.

Here is a report from the US National Academy of Sciences, which, on the basis of a study of over 27,000 living species, speaks of of the “biological annihilation” we are causing; and here is another from the WWF which says there has been a “60% decline in the size of populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians in just over 40 years”.

If that’s not enough, here is a long article from the Guardian, setting out how glaciers – sources of fresh water that sustain human and other animal populations – are disappearing at an unprecedented rate. Here is another, similarly bleak story on how insect numbers are “falling drastically”.

[UPDATE 3: On 4 February, a truly alarming report on the same issue was released by a team of over 300 leading researchers, experts and policymakers, brought together by the Hindu Kush Himalayan Monitoring and Assessment Programme (HIMAP). For a newspaper summary, follow this link. To download the full report, see here.]

Or take this report from the World Health Organisation, which rates air pollution as the greatest environmental risk to health in 2019, and reminds us that the primary cause of air pollution (burning fossil fuels) is also a major contributor to climate change, about which the IPCC so recently released a stark warning. In case this seems like a problem for others in far off places, by the way, in the UK a record number of people are dying of asthma, and experts have linked this to air pollution.

Earth, water, air, and consuming fire. Our fossil-fuel driven system is forcing the living world towards an elemental crisis. We are entering what Hannah Holleman calls a new ‘global Dust Bowl’ era, as a sytematic result of “increasingly extreme expropriation—in both scale and technique—of the land, of the planet’s hydrocarbon deposits, and of freshwater systems”.

None of this has an easy fix. None of the damage can be quickly reversed, nor the system quickly turned round. Which is why we can no longer waste time waiting for those who benefit from the system – many of our major corporations, those who grow wealthy by investing in them, the politicians who defend their interests – to see the light and start making changes on the scale and at the speed required.

In fifty years’ time, we will look back and see, clearly, that all the warnings were there, all the reports, all the science, all the evidence. And the record of those who refused to accept the obvious, in order to protect their own wealth, will also be clear for all to see.

This is why the Extinction Rebellion of which Tanya wrote in the last article, is so important. It is about more than climate change – important as this issue is. It is about acting on the clear evidence of unfolding systemic collapse, and the equally clear evidence that there are political and economic actors who are determined to stop the rest of us undertaking the radical action that alone will meet the elemental scale of the situation.

Lest this very scale appear debilitating – what’s the point, as one comedian said, of washing out Marmite jars when they’re blowing the tops off mountains? – it’s worth saying that if the problems are already known, so are some of the solutions. Indeed, with renewable energy becoming ever more affordable, and with the revival of interest in the US in a ‘Green New Deal’, campaigners need not simply campaign against the exploitative, extractive, ‘crank’ economy; they can also point the way towards a system that meets the needs of all within the means of the living planet, to adapt a phrase from Kate Raworth’s brilliant book, Doughnut Economics (which we discussed in an earlier post).

So if the problem is elemental, the elements of a solution are already visible; now we just need to combine them.

Maurice Macartney

20 January 2019

UPDATE: 22 January 2019 – this just in from the New York Times: ‘Greenland’s Melting Ice Nears a ‘Tipping Point,’ Scientists Say’

UPDATE 2: 24 January 2019; Another record broken – this time for the number of private jets flying in to Davos for the World Economic Forum.