It’s time Sinn Fein took Westminster seats

Sean Donlon: former Irish diplomat

By any measure the Irish diplomat Sean Donlon is a man to be reckoned with.

One of the pivotal figures in Irish Foreign affairs over the past generation, he served successive Irish governments. He played a key role securing the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, a precursor to the peace process that emerged from John Hume’s engagement with Sinn Fein.

As Irish Ambassador to the United States, he helped cement American support for peace in Ireland, and his advice to the Irish government was crucial as it sought an end to the use of violence for political ends.

He knows his history, and has an intimate understanding of the complicated relationships within this island, and between these islands. He has tangled with the British often enough to have a good understanding of what makes them tick.

So when he speaks, it is worth listening.

This week he was one of the guests at the MacGill Summer School. Now in its 37th year, the summer school’s theme was almost apocalyptic – Global Turbulence and Uncertainty: Ireland and Europe must prepare for a new era.

The backdrop to the school’s deliberations is Britain’s exit from the European Union – a political catastrophe made greater by the inept and incoherent behaviour of a crippled British government. In committing this act of national self-harm, Britain threatens the very safety and security of Ireland, north and south.

For Ireland, never mind the UK, Brexit is an existential crisis. It is perhaps the single biggest challenge to Ireland’s future in the history of the state – and I include the demise of the Celtic Tiger in that.

In his address, Donlon turned his attention to the outcome of last month’s British general election resulting in a minority Conservative government – propped up by the DUP.

Sinn Fein’s electoral success was a gift for the Conservatives because its long-standing policy of abstention effectively gives the Tories a cushion of seven votes. Sinn Fein’s success also means that, for the first time in living memory, there is no Irish nationalist voice in the House of Commons.

On the face of it, that is not Sinn Fein’s problem. The party position on abstention is clear, and has been since it first contested Westminster seats in 1917. Immediately following the June election, Gerry Adams confirmed there would be no shift in policy. Given the growing discontent with politicians, the party’s commitment to principle is to be applauded.

But if a week is a long time in politics, I do not know how you would describe100 years. We now live in a very different age, with a different political dispensation to that which existed in the heady years between the Easter Rising and the War of Independence.

Republicans have committed themselves to change through peaceful means. Sinn Fein sits comfortably in the post-partition Dail, and in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

In calling on them to take their seats, Donlon said Sinn Fein’s mandate was strong enough for it to “brave and generous”. Generosity has little to do with it. Sinn Fein need not kow-tow at the bar of the house, or play the arcane games demanded of this antiquated parliament. By attending it would not be doing Britain a favour.

But it could use its power and influence in the best interest – short and long term – of its electorate, and voice the expressed wish of the Irish people to remain within the European Union.

Abstention was a tactical choice in 1917, it may have been right for its time. It is not right now.

Frank Maguire, who helped bring down the Callaghan government by abstaining in person, demonstrated it is possible to be a republican and a sitting MP without compromising integrity.

Quoting Gerry Adams’ recent call for a “new approach, one which unlocks unionist opposition to a new Ireland by reminding them of their historic place here and of the positive contribution they have made to society on this island”, Donlon said a decision to take their seats would help “translate those very fine words into action”.

The current Oath of Allegiance to the Queen is anathema to republicans and must be challenged and replaced. And it is difficult to see how Sinn Fein could take their seats on their current mandate.

But another election cannot be far off. The party should use this time to reconsider and revoke this policy. Each generation must make its own choices for its own time.

As Donlon said: ”This is their moment and I hope they use it.”

  • This article appeared in The Irish News on July 21

 

 

Arrogant Britain must repent over Brexit decision

Theresa May is wrong over Brexit… she needs to stop lecturing Europe and start listening

I admit it. I am a bad loser. Nothing in the past year has done anything to reconcile me to Britain’s exit from the European Union. It is a mistake of monstrous proportions, and must be reversed.

Brexiteers would call me a ‘remoaner’, as if it is a condition of democracy that, having lost a vote, you turn your back on what you believe. If democracy means anything, it is about people arguing for what they believe and trying to persuade those who oppose them of the rightness of their cause.

If the vote had gone the other way, Brexiteers would by now have regrouped, ready to fight on to leave the Union. Why shouldn’t those who believe last year’s vote was an act of self-harm on a grand scale, do the same?

Britain is supposed to be a parliamentary democracy, but it has ceased to operate like one. There is little point in picking over the entrails of David Cameron’s decision to hold the referendum. It was an abdication of responsibility of the highest order. But the vote was always ‘advisory’ only.

We elect members of parliament to make the right decisions, not necessarily popular ones. Edmund Burke, the Irish parliamentarian, understood well the dangers of an elective dictatorship. An MP, he asserted, was not a delegate slavishly following the electorate’s whim. Voters “wishes ought to have great weight with him”. But an MP did not surrender his “enlightened conscience”.

In a phrase that should be required reading for all elected to office he said: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

With every day that passes, the scale of the damage done to Britain, and the wider world, becomes clearer. We have already seen a reversal of economic fortunes, a worsening of household incomes, and a rise in hate crime. And in Ireland, we know Brexit will mean the reimposition of the border. Soft or hard, it matters little; it will be there. And no amount of fanciful thinking in Dublin or London will wish it away.

At the end of last week, EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier warned there could be no such thing as a ‘frictionless border’ post-Brexit.

Barnier’s words are worth examining. “I have heard some people in the UK argue that one can leave the single market and keep all of its benefits. That is not possible.

“I have heard some people in the UK argue that one can leave the single market and build a customs union to achieve frictionless trade. That is not possible.

“The decision to leave the EU has consequences and I have to explain to citizens, businesses and civil society on both sides of the Channel what those consequences mean for them.”

Britain’s arrogance in expecting EU benefits without EU membership is quite simply astonishing.

If the ‘border’ between Britain and the continent is not frictionless, you can be sure that the very real border between Northern Ireland and the Republic will not be either. While the DUP continues to prop up the May government, we must assume that it is content with that scenario too.

While it would be wrong to overplay the risk to the peace process of such a scenario – we must all hope and pray that the commitment to use peaceful means alone to effect constitutional change is absolute – the simple truth is that the return of a border will hamper economic development, and undermine prosperity for unionists and nationalists alike.

To paraphrase the Prime Minister, the Tories got us into this mess, and they need to get us out of it. Within the parliamentary party there remains a majority who understand that Brexit is a disaster, though sadly they lack the will to use what power they have to fight their corner.

The fact that this is a Tory mess does not excuse Labour. Jeremy Corbyn has reinvigorated the voice of the left in British politics. But it is clear that his agenda is a hard Brexit too – whatever the emollient words of Brexit shadow spokesman Sir Keir Starmer.

Labour needs to face up to the fact that exiting the European Union will damage the very people it claims to represent. Until it does, the party will continue to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

  • This article appeared in the Irish News on July 11 2017

In an increasingly uncertain world shoddy deals rule

Harold Wilson

I have always had more than a passing interest in politics in spite of my life’s experience that the pursuit of it never seems to amount to very much. Political heroes sooner or later reveal themselves to have feet of clay. Certainties are invariably proved false, and at the end of every rainbow alliance there is a crock of disappointment.

It is often said we get the politicians we deserve. Really? There is something to be said for automatically disqualifying from office those putting themselves forward for election. No right-thinking person would do such a thing.

Some of my best friends are politicians (I don’t have many friends) but it must be said, the transition from ordinary citizen to elected representative seems to bring out the worst in people.

Inside most of us there is a narcissist struggling to get out. The political class appears to have no difficulty restraining its inner narcissist. It is said that a civil servant, witnessing the descent to earth in a helicopter of NIO minister Dr Brian Mawhinney, remarked: “The ego has landed.” It was a good joke then, and fitted its intended victim. But it could just as easily have been said of any politician using that form of transport.

Until I was eight I lived in Birmingham where I was the child of immigrant parents. With impeccable news judgment, my mother decided 1968 was the right time to return to Lurgan. I was a fan then of Harold Wilson – an Oxford don who hid his sophistication behind a northern accent and a fog of tobacco smoke.

In the 1969 Northern Ireland Parliament election, I remember naively arguing in my Catholic primary school playground that people should vote for the party that had the best policies – a notion deemed nonsensical then. Curiously such an attitude is still regarded as avant garde here 50 years on.

Over the years I must have voted for every party going (even the DUP, given the PR system allowed me to identify their candidates as the ones I least wanted to see elected). I even voted tactically for David Trimble to see off a DUP challenge. I think I was the only tactical voter in North Armagh, and I failed miserably, as did he.

When I was 50 and living in Scotland I had the opportunity, for the first time in my adult life, to vote for a party capable of forming the Government. Again I backed the wrong horse. The Tories got in.

Writing now, a little before publication, I am reluctant to comment too much on the current political situation. Things are changing so fast. By the time you read this, the Queen may have sacked her hapless PM and taken the reins of power herself.

As things stand, Theresa May has proved herself incapable of commanding the respect even of her colleagues; the Tories have abdicated their position as the ‘natural party of government’; and a quirk of arithmetic has handed the fate of the country to a party that cannot be trusted to manage a minor green energy scheme. Brexit negotiations opened yesterday without the British side having a clue what it wanted – no agreed government position, no briefing papers, no mandate.

You have to respect the choice of voters, and Sinn Fein’s principled decision not to swear an oath of loyalty to the Queen. But if the SDLP had managed to hold onto it seats, how different things would be.

Now all I can do is rant and rave powerlessly on Twitter. Apart from the crippling RSI in my right arm I have discovered a few things about myself.

Firstly, the more frustrated I get, the more left wing I become. They say if you are not a socialist in your youth you do not have a heart, and if you are not a conservative in maturity you do not have a brain. By that analyse I should be complacently moderate at this stage in my life. But now I am somewhat to the left of John McDonnell who is somewhat to the left of Trotsky.

Secondly, the more I contemplate the rise in the DUP’s political fortunes, the more republican I become. Intellectually, you cannot dispute the DUP’s right to extract as much out of the British government (if government is the right term for this shambolic collective); but emotionally it seems so wrong that once again political opportunism is rewarded, and the future safety and security of this part of the world is put at risk because of a shoddy deal in Westminster.

 

Last rites for Britain as May triggers Article 50

The March madness of Theresa May

We are now just days away from one of those fateful moments in the course of history. On March 29 Theresa May will write a letter to the European Council and say it is the intention of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union.

The letter of intent will not come as a surprise when it lands on Donald Tusk’s desk. He has been waiting for it since June.

May cleared the final impediment to triggering Article 50 last week when she forced the House of Lords to recant and vote down its own amendments to the Brexit Bill.

Since then, Tusk, president of the Council, has been checking his letterbox on a daily basis.

It is clear that Britain doesn’t have a clue about the consequences of this momentous decision. It does not have a viable policy on international trade; it does not have a viable policy on its future engagement with Europe – the world’s single-biggest trading block; and it does not have a viable policy to deal with the inconvenient truth that there is still a border in Ireland.

As if that were not a difficult enough position to be in, May has picked a fight with her opposite number in Scotland over the future of the United Kingdom. May, who has risen to power without trace, is a canny political operator. But Nicola Sturgeon is cannier still.

Every time May opens her mouth more recruits sign up to the cause of Scottish independence.

The Scots are not hard to understand, they are proud and they are stubborn and they do not like being told what to do. A second independence referendum (IndyRef2 in the jargon of hashtags) will happen, and it will happen to Sturgeon’s own timetable.

Sturgeon faces an uphill struggle to win. She would have preferred to play a longer game, but win she can. She is less divisive than Alex Salmond, and will have learned valuable lessons from the first referendum. (Unlike, it must be said, Mrs May.)

Scotland has its fair share of inept politicians, but it can manage well enough without English Tories incapable of governing in the interests of everyone, and Labour apparatchiks like Jeremy Corbin who think opposition is about destroying their own party.

Now back to that letter. Once it arrives, the initiative passes to the European Union, an organisation much better prepared for the two-year negotiations than the British, and one capable of drawing talent (you can’t use the word experts anymore) from across its member states.

The Remainer in me hopes Europe will screw Britain into the ground as punishment for its fool-hardiness, its stupidity and its gross discourtesy and disrespect.

But revenge is better served cold. Europe’s day will come with the inevitable economic decline of a not-so-great Britain incapable of competing with its European neighbours.

What London has forgotten is that its role in the world post empire was secured only because it positioned itself as the bridge between the United States and Europe. The Brexiteers have burnt the bridge.

Decline and fall is inevitable.

Britain will be no use to the United States, no use to the European Union, and it is an irrelevance in most other parts of the world. Britannia might once have ruled the waves, her most famous naval vessel now is a yellow robot submarine called Boaty McBoatface.

Europe’s priorities must be:

  • to secure the future of Europeans who have made their lives in the United Kingdom, and Britons living and working in Europe. It is unacceptable that ordinary people should pay the price for the idiocy of Brexiteers
  • to secure the peace process by dealing with consequences of the border Britain is re-imposing on Ireland (whatever the rhetoric)
  • to ensure Britain does not walk away without meeting its debts and obligations to its partner states in Europe. The lies of the Brexit campaign must be exposed. There is a cost to quitting Europe, and the UK must pay.

Europe must also use this period to reinvigorate the Union and to re-engage with people across the continent. Even those of us who opposed Brexit argued for reform of its bloated structures.

The founding vision for Europe was to secure peace and stability for its peoples in a world that is inherently unstable. It was vision that recognised we are better together than apart.

With Trump on one side and Putin on the other – the achievement of that vision has never been more important.

  • This article first appeared in The Irish News

Founded on a lie: Trump’s debt to George Washington

The finger of history: Donald Trump

Every nation needs its foundation myths. They are a way of communicating core values to succeeding generations.

The story of George Washington and his father’s cherry tree is revered in the United States. As the story goes, the six-year-old future president was given a hatchet as a present by his father.

Young George promptly took the axe to his father’s favourite cherry tree. When asked what had happened, George said: “I cannot tell a lie, I did cut it with my hatchet.” Rather than beat the boy, his father hugged him and told him that telling the truth was worth more than a mighty forest.

As the world prepares itself to witness the inauguration of Donald Trump as 45th President, we would do well to ponder the importance we place on truth in the modern age.

Trump plays fast and loose with it.

Some believe the grandstanding showman will present a new face to the world when he swears the oath of office next week.

Leopards don’t change their spots. As president-elect, Trump has behaved no differently to the obnoxious foul-mouthed carpet-bagger he was on the campaign. He will be the same in the Oval Office.

This will be a government driven by whim. Yes most politicians are self-seeking. But few take it to the level of Mr Trump.

Sigmund Freud, the celebrated psychoanalyst, believed our minds were controlled by three forces. The ego, the super ego and the id.

The id is untamed and instinctive, it is the wild child that sees the world only through its own eyes; the super ego is driven by convention and rules, it is the voice of our parents telling us to go to the naughty step. The ego is the bit that tries to find a course between the two extremes.

Mr Trump’s personality transcends ego and super ego.

Anyone who has spent time with a three-year-old child will recognize the signs of arrested development evidenced by the president-elect’s stream of invective on twitter, his abuse of vulnerable individuals who cross him, and his knee-jerk responses to perceived slights.

In his totemic Gettysberg Address, Abraham Lincoln talked about “government of the people, by the people, for the people” and he promised that it “would not perish from the earth”.

This weekend we stand on a precipice. The people have handed the keys of the free world to a man clearly unfit to hold office.

Trump’s term will be one of government by the id, for the id. The rest of us will not get a look-in.

The people who elected him will come to regret their ill-judged vote. But in the meantime, the American political system will need to find a way of minimizing his impact, and the world will have to work round him until the voters come to their senses and elect a president fit for office.

As for George Washington and his hatchet … well, the story was made up by his biographer Mason Locke Weems who knew what his public, hungry for information about Washington, wanted to read.

If anything was an omen of what was to come, the cherry tree myth (for myth it is) prefigured the post-truth society by a couple of centuries.

***

Apparently I once told Martin McGuinness that he looked cute. He had phoned the Irish News to complain that a picture – used to illustrate a story about him – was deliberately chosen to make him look like an idiot.

It is a common complaint of politicians, and truth be told journalists sometimes take pleasure in using a particularly unflattering photograph.

Telling him he looked cute in the picture was a feeble excuse, and disrespectful. (Disrespect is another journalistic trait.) And I apologize now. Given this was the early nineties, and the job he had then, it was also somewhat fool-hardly on my part. The then editor thought I was both brave and stupid.

Whatever you think of Mr McGuinness’s politics and his past, there can be no question that he has served the people of this island – nationalist and unionist – well. He was a distinguished Minister for Education, and he has performed the role of deputy First Minister to the best of his ability in very difficult circumstances.

Nationalists are well used to slights. But in refusing to work with him, the DUP has done its own people and its country an enormous disservice. So much could have been achieved with good will. Ten years on, all the DUP has to show for its tenure is a pile of ash.

The article first appeared in The Irish News on January 13 2017