Madrid plays its king to thwart Catalans’ bid for freedom

The reign in Spain: King Felipe addresses the nation, attacking the Catalan government

The Iberian peninsula has always done politics differently. It is just over 40 years since the generals relinquished control of Spain on the death of Francisco Franco.

But even then the transition to a constitutional monarchy was not entirely smooth. In 1981 Antonio Tejero, a lieutenant colonel in the Guardia Civil, led a coup against the fledgling democracy – stopped only by the intervention of King Juan Carlos.

It was the mid-seventies too before the Portuguese saw a transition to democracy from a military junta.

Both countries are now key players in the European Union. And more than a generation on, one might have expected their democracies to have reached a degree of maturity. For the moment Portugal seems fine, though it is struggling to cope with the aftermath of the financial crisis.

Spain on the other hand appears to be a country on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, leader of the Christian Democratic People’s Party, is grappling with a crisis in Catalonia that threatens the very future of the state.

From the Spanish government’s perspective the issues are clear. Catalonia is an integral part of the nation, and the regional government has overstepped its authority by calling a vote on the future of the region. Sunday’s poll was illegal and had to be thwarted.

But things are rarely that simple.

There is something deeply disturbing about a government using strong-arm tactics to stop people expressing their views – however unpalatable they may be to the state – at the ballot box.

Rajoy has addressed Catalan leaders in patronising terms, dismissing their mandate to speak on behalf of their electorate. He has sent the Guardia Civil into regional government offices, arrested officials, seized documents and taken control of computers and the means of communications. The authorities have confiscated millions of ballot papers.

There is disturbing evidence too of Spanish disregard for freedom of expression and freedom of the Press. The government has closed down more than 140 websites supporting the independence movement. And, as my colleague Mariola Terrega at the University of Stirling reported in The Conversation last week, there has been a concerted campaign of intimidation against news organisations and journalists in Catalonia.

She wrote: “The Network of Local Television (La Xarxa de Comunicació Local) told its journalists not to ask politicians questions about the referendum until the day after it had taken place. Acting on similar fears, Spanish public mail company Correos stopped distributing the news magazine Omnium Cultural to its subscribers because it contained pro-referendum advertising.”

Unsurprisingly the force of the Spanish authorities has been met with the immovable force of protestors defending their right to free speech and the right to protest – a basic and fundamental human right Spain is sworn to uphold.

The scenes witnessed on Sunday – the deployment of riot police, the firing of rubber bullets, the injuries to protestors – are disturbingly redolent of Northern Ireland at the outset of the troubles.

Whether or not there is a majority in Catalonia for independence – and there is doubt over the level of support for the secessionists – history demonstrates the risks involved in suppressing freedom of speech.

In the way the British government in Northern Ireland became a recruiting sergeant for Irish republicanism; the Spanish government seems hell bent on creating conditions that will rupture the state, feed anti-Madrid sentiment, and open up the appalling vista that, thwarted politically, some in Catalonia may resort to violence to achieve their ends.

Europe cannot, and must not, turn away from its responsibilities to protect the freedoms of all the people of Spain to hold and express their political opinions, to partake in peaceful protest, and to exercise their right as citizens to hold their government to account.

For the King of Spain, Felipe VI, this is an existential crisis. In 1981 his father stood up for the constitution and became a unifying force for the nation. Felipe has little room for manoeuver. As a constitutional monarch he can act only on the advice of the government – albeit Rajoy’s is a minority one.

He was crowned King of Spain, with an imperative to preserve its integrity. But that integrity is threatened by his government as much as by the Catalans. Sadly he did not address the international concern over the heavy handed policing on Sunday when he addressed the nation.

When he spoke to the nation, he spoke for Rajoy not for all Spaniards.

His constitutional duty is to preserve Spain, but the government’s current course of action will have the opposite effect. If he does not use his moral authority to persuade his prime minister to take a different course, the Catalan crisis will only ignite a fuse that will be difficult if not impossible to put out.

In his classic book Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell writes of his involvement in the Spanish Civil War and the battle against fascism. “There are occasions when it pays better to fight and be beaten than not to fight at all,” he says. Rajoy and his puppet king would do well to ponder that observation.

  • This is an updated version of an article which appeared in The Irish News on October 2 2017

Dangerous president must be stopped in his tracks

 

Donald Trump: threat to world peace

Can I bring myself to write once more about Donald Trump? Can you bear to read any more about this malign man?

In chemistry a catalyst increases the rate of a chemical reaction without itself being altered. Last November the American electorate introduced a catalyst into the delicate chemical mix that is international politics.

And sadly the effects are all too clear to see.

As this chemical reaction intensifies, it is clear that we are living now in a world at greater risk of explosion than any time since the Cuban crisis marred the beginning of JF Kennedy’s presidency.

Trump promised America would no longer be the policeman of the world. It would turn in on itself: no more foreign policy initiatives, no more intervention in wars in far off places. He offered instead an isolationist United States, focused on making itself ‘great again’ through a domestic political agenda that put American first.

Yet in the miserable months since his inauguration – with its bitter and twisted address when he talked about “American carnage” – he has been unable to resist undermining the delicate balance that has sustained what peace we have had since the end of the world’s second global conflict.

At home he has been slowly undermining his predecessor’s health care reform – depriving millions of a basic human right to health and well-being. Abroad he has been dismantling foreign policy initiatives designed to make the world a safer place.

Obama neutralised Cuba with a rapprochement with the Castros; he was not able to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but his accord with Iran, ending its pursuit of nuclear weapons, made the middle east a much safer place. Kim Jong-Un in North Korea remained a threat, but was being increasingly isolated.

One by one, Trump has undone those achievements.

Just months after it opened, the United States’ embassy in Havana is under threat of closure.

His wilful denunciation of the Islamic Republic of Iran at the United Nations was met this past weekend with the launch of a Iranian missile which demonstrates they can, if they wish, attack their bitter enemies in both Israel and Saudi Arabia. By demonising Iran in front of an astonished UN General Assembly, Trump undermined moderates who had been winning the battle against the mullahs.

North Korea was belittled. “Rocket Man” was abused before the world, gratuitously insulted in a manner designed to provoke a reaction. And a reaction is what he got. North Korea’s foreign minister told the UN it was now evitable that North Korean rockets would “visit” the US mainland.

Let us not forget that the only country to use atomic weapons in anger thus far was the United States.

There has been much commentary on the irrationality of Jong–Un; he has been painted as a comical figure by the west. To be fair, Jong-Un does what he can to prove those prejudices correct.

But put yourself in his shoes for a moment. His embattled country has been vilified, and his opponents have done all they can to bring it to its knees. He has been humiliated repeatedly and taunted on Twitter, on television and now on the floor of the United Nations – an organisation that is built on the principle of mutual respect.

Given the belligerence of the United States, the Russian arsenal, French and British independent deterrents, and the emergence of nuclear nations such as India, Pakistan and Israel – why shouldn’t North Korea, or for that matter, Iran wish to arm themselves with nuclear weapons too.

I am not for one moment advocating the proliferation of nuclear arms; merely highlighting the imperialism of the nuclear haves who are holding the world to ransom.

The death last week of Stanislav Petrov, a nuclear worker who quite possibly saved the world from conflagration, is a timely reminder that we are all at risk while these weapons exist. Petrov was on duty when Russian’s early warning system indicated an incoming American strike. He decided it was a false alarm and did not report the warning to his superiors.

Back to our catalyst now. The attention-seeking president of the United States is a real and present danger to the world. He is being treated with kid gloves because of the client status of many western powers. The United States is ‘too big to fail’.

But the price of their silence may well be the destruction of the very political, social and economic systems they are struggling to maintain.

Jong-Un is a dangerous man. But Donald Trump is the greater threat to world peace and it is time those governments who give him tacit support recognised that.

  • This article appeared in The Irish News on 26 September 2017

 

 

 

Ireland deploys poetry in diplomatic offensive

Writer, Seamus Heaney, Poet, Author, Creative

Seamus Heaney: an inspiration

The Twitter-sphere is a pretty ugly place at times. It seems to bring out the worst in people.

Online some seem to think there is a freedom to say things they wouldn’t voice in person; and even those of us who are used to bar-room language can find it offensive.

I have been known to use the occasional expletive – generally when someone behaves ungraciously on the roads. But I don’t particularly want to be subjected to an unwanted stream of four letter words when I am trying to check out the latest on Brexit, the news from North Korea or the latest update from my daughter’s school.

But I can be pretty sure that a few scrolls of my Twitter feed in, someone will display the lack of imagination needed to use anything other than the f-word.

I can choose not to watch Mrs Brown’s Boys. But other than leaving Twitter, I cannot switch these idiots off. They are invariably retweets and from people I do not follow.

But there is one oasis of calm amid the invective, and it comes from an unsuspecting source. The Irish ambassador to the United States, known online as @DanMulhall, sends a daily snatch of verse into the microblogosphere.

He did it religiously during his time as ambassador to the Court of St James, and new Twitter followers in the United States are now getting used to the tide of verse coming from the Irish Embassy in Washington.

As I type this column I am looking at four lines from Theo Dorgan tweeted by him:

Each word steps firmly out

And stands in time’s mirror.

I set these things down in silence,

Fire for the ice of our old age.

Yesterday we were treated to six lines from Thomas Moore’s The Last Rose of Summer. The ambassador is clearly going through a slightly melancholic phase, as well he might.

Once seen as the plumb job in Irish diplomacy, being sent to Trump’s America might well be the equivalent of being dispatched to Outer Siberia (no offence meant to the Siberians who are, by all accounts, a hardy and well-meaning crowd).

Might it be that the Irish Government is hoping Mr Mulhall’s approach to Twitter might rub off on President Trump – though only God knows what verse the president might resort to. America has many great poets, though I doubt Trump is acquainted with any of them – well perhaps the anonymous author of the bawdy ballad Eskimo Nell.

Trump, who offended his British allies last week with an ill-judged Tweet on the London tube bombing, could do with civilising. And Dan Mulhall is the man to do it.

I met him only once when he was a dashing press aide to Irish Foreign Minister Dick Spring. A man with no airs and graces, he makes friends easily, and everyone he has met leaves his presence feeling better for having been in it – even if only for a short journey in a cramped taxi talking about the peace process.

London lamented his passing, as did Scotland where he was Consul General. America is a more difficult place to make an impression on, but the relationship is critical for Ireland – more so now ironically.

Britain’s retreat from Europe leaves a vacancy for a mediator between America and the European Union. Once again Britain’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity. And in the way jobs are leaching away from the City of London to Dublin, Britain’s place in the world is diminishing too. Europe needs a country that can talk to the USA, and Ireland is now clearly it.

The Irish have long known the importance of soft power. And poetry is a potent weapon.

Can poetry change the world? I asked myself when I sat down to write this piece. After the Peterloo Massacre, Shelley spoke for the British working class: “Shake your chains to earth like dew/ Which in sleep had fallen on you/ Ye are many – they are few.”

Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in 1956 spoke for the disaffected Beat generation; Pablo Neruda was a poet diplomat who stood against Pinochet and may well have been murdered on his orders; another poet diplomat Czeslaw Milsoz was admired by Seamus Heaney – a man whose own verse spoke eloquently for his country and community.

Ireland, as Mulhall knows only so well, is the creation of poets, and the better for it. If more diplomats and politicians spent time with their poetry books rather than their apparatchiks, the world would be a better and a safer place.

Keep Tweeting Mr Mulhall.

The article appeared in The Irish News on September 19 2017

Peace prize tarnished by silence over persecution

Peacemaker or not: Suu Kyi’s reputation on the line

There is the rhythm of poetry in her name, and for a generation Aung San Suu Kyi was the champion of democratic values in southeast Asia. Bravely she stood against a military regime that had controlled Burma since 1962.

Burma is a country in conflict, and even its name is subject of ideological dispute – many refusing to use the military’s preferred name: Myanmar.

Like many countries, Myanmar has a colonial past. The British held sway until the Second World War when the Japanese swept in. The Union of Burma emerged from the ruins of war as an independent country.

The negotiations with Britain were led by Aung San, regarded as the father of Burmese independence, although assassination ensured he did not live to see it. His daughter Aung San Suu Kyi, was only two when he died. Suu Kyi was educated at Oxford and worked with the Burmese-born Secretary General of the United Nations, U Thant, for three years.

The military-led one party state presided over the collapse of the Burmese economy. By 1988 outrage overwhelmed fear and the people took to the streets.

Suu Kyi was in the frontline. In the election of 1990 her party – the National League for Democracy – won overwhelmingly. The junta did what juntas do and declared the vote invalid. She was placed under house arrest, and her dignified defiance over the next two decades won admirers around the world.

Her advocacy for human rights has been lionised by many pivotal figures in global politics – Tutu, Mandela, Obama. Universities have showered her with honours, in 2012 she was invited to address both houses of Parliament at Westminster, she has been given the freedom of Dublin, and Bono has anointed her as one of his heroes.

“The struggle for democracy and human rights in Burma is a struggle for life and dignity,” she has said. “It is a struggle that encompasses our political, social and economic aspirations.”

For her championship of democracy, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize just a year after the election that propelled her into the international limelight.

Accepting the prize on her behalf, her son Alexander said: “This prize belongs not to her but to all those men, women and children who, even as I speak, continue to sacrifice their wellbeing, their freedom and their lives in pursuit of a democratic Burma. Theirs is the prize and theirs will be the eventual victory in Burma’s long struggle for peace, freedom and democracy.”

Stirring words, and words fulfilled by the 2015 election when her party took the reigns of power. Constitutionally blocked from the presidency by her foreign marriage, she is now Burma/Myanmar’s State Counsellor – president in all but name – and leader of her nation.

That election was the end of a dream for all those who supported her through her trials. But that dream has become a nightmare for proponents of human rights around the world. A tide of human misery – hundreds of thousands of persecuted Rohingya Muslims – has flooded neighbouring Banglashesh.

Suu Kyi’s silence in the face of such human misery was bad enough. Last week she resorted to the weasel words of discredited politicians when she said the world did not know what was happening because of “fake news”. A chilling phrase which is fast becoming the last refuge of the damned.

Condemning the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, Desmond Tutu (also a Nobel laureate) said: “It is incongruous for a symbol of righteousness to lead such a country.

“If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.”

The Buddhist majority in Burma does not recognise the Rohingya as citizens of their country, they have been systematically persecuted, and the emergence of Rohingya militants has been used by the military, and Buddhist activists, as an excuse to crack down on the beleaguered minority.

Suu Kyi is trapped by the military on one side who remain a potent force in the country, and her own supporters on the other who support the suppression of the Rohingya people.

As John F Kennedy once said, when caught on the horns of a dilemma, one must do what is right.

Suu Kyi must use her position as a voice for peace; she must demonstrate to her people and the world that human rights does not discriminate between peoples. Every day she fails to act she further tarnishes her reputation, and brings the Prize that saw her through years of persecution into disrepute.

  • This article first appeared in The Irish News on September 12 2017

China must put stop to Kim Jong-un’s nuclear ambition

World faces frightening future if Jong-un is not stopped

I am old enough to remember Emperor Hirohito, the god who fell to earth amid the ruins of the Second World War. Hirohito, known now to the Japanese by his posthumous name Emperor Shõwa, was the 124th emperor of Japan reigning for much of the 20th century and dying in 1989.

Hirohito translates as ‘abundant benevolence’, and Shõwa means ‘enlightened peace’, but the regime he presided over was anything but benevolent. The first part of his reign was distinguished by a rise in militarism; and the country used its economic and military power malignly in Asia.

It ignominiously entered the Second World War with an unprovoked attack on the United States, when it tried to wipe out America’s naval might at Pearl Harbour. Japan’s execution of that war, and its treatment of allied prisoners of war, rankles still today. Some have not yet forgiven them, although Hirohito made peace with London at a state visit in 1971 when the rode with the Queen down the Mall, and then America in 1975 when he was entertained by President Gerald Ford.

When Hirohito visited London, Private Eye’s front page carried the strapline “Nasty Nip in the Air, Hirohito Flies in” above a headline “The Eye says Piss Off Bandy Knees”.

When he ascended the throne, the Emperor was regarded as divine. And, although forced to set aside his divinity as the price for retaining the throne, many in Japan still think of the Emperor with the type of reverence reserved for gods. His son, Akihito has attempted to cement the role of Emperor as a constitutional monarch – much against the wishes of the Imperial Household which remains one of the most conservative forces in Japan today. He is expected to take the almost unprecedented action of abdicating the throne.

Japan has been much on my mind in recent days as I have been reading John Hersey’s book Hiroshima in preparation for a module I am teaching this coming semester. Hersey deals with the aftermath of one of the most momentous episodes in modern history – the bombing of the city at the end of the Second World War.

This was no ordinary bombing. It was the first time a nuclear device had been used to destroy a city. The number who died in Hiroshima that day remains unknown today, but it is believed that more than 100,000 lost their lives in the explosion itself, and from the effects of radiation in the months after the bombing.

Hersey’s book is remarkable for a number of reasons – not least the way he brought together the skills of a journalist and a novelist (shortly before he had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his first novel). But perhaps the most astonishing thing about Hiroshima (published in the New Yorker in 1946) was the way he rejected the racial stereotyping of the Japanese – the enemy as they would still have been regarded – and brought to public attention the impact the bombing had on six individuals, five ordinary Japanese men and women and a German Jesuit priest.

It is one of the most remarkable humanitarian acts to come out of the Second World War – and it says a lot about the American people of that time that the responded so positively to what must have been a tough message. Hersey, in his dispassionate prose, brought home the fact that in war, the people who suffer are ordinary men and women like you and me.

Whatever the debate about the rights and wrongs of using this weapon, and whether or not it brought an earlier end to the war than might otherwise have been the case, Hiroshima makes explicit the human cost of mankind’s failure to fight its quarrels by peaceful means.

It is worth remembering that as we look at how to respond to North Korea’s unacceptable infringement of Japan’s right to peaceful existence with this morning’s missile test.

Tension is being ramped up on all sides, and we have in the White House a President who cannot be trusted to behave in a rational way. But Kim Yong-un cannot be allowed to continue in his reckless pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Yong-un is paranoid about the threat to North Korea from the West. That is the primary reason for the course he has chosen to take. Yet the more he pushes his nuclear ambitions, the more likely he is to get the type of response that feeds further his paranoia.

Rather than sabre rattling, the West must look to China to bear down on North Korea. It is the only world power with the capacity to make a meaningful intervention with the Yong-un, and it should do so.

Its people are in the front line should this conflict descend into war, so it has a strong self-interest. But more importantly China is on a mission to transform its economy and drive up the quality of life of its people. Instability is the last thing it needs. If it can deal with North Korea, the entire world will be in its debt.

Japan carries still the scars of what Hersey called “a noiseless flash”. There must be no more Hiroshimas.

 

Threat to world peace: Kim Jong-un