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

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

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

Is Europe ready for the Great British Cake-Off?

may

Theresa May: the Marie Antoinette of Brexit

Pity Marie Antoinette. She was born to greatness, but she has gone down in history as a spoilt woman indifferent to the struggles of her people.

Utter the phrase “let them eat cake”, and Marie Antoinette springs immediately to mind. The original is: “Qui’ls mengent de la brioche.”

Brioche is what they eat in Mayfair instead of a white sliced loaf.

It is one of the inconveniences of history that stories like this often don’t stand up to scrutiny. It is unlikely the French queen uttered the phrase.

Long before her silken shoes touched French soil, the philosopher Rousseau had already attributed the saying to another princess.

Who said the post-truth society is a modern invention?

There is another story that suggests she was merely reminding people of an existing law. If there was no bread for the poor, bakers had to provide brioche at the same price. Try that out in Marks and Spencer if they run out of Nutty Crust, and see how far you get.

As you can see, European politics and cake go back a long way.

The British, being more pragmatic than French consorts, had a different perspective on cake. For much of the past 500 years the advice has been: “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.”

Somehow or other, in recent months the phrase has been turned on its head. In a manner emblematic of the debate over Britain’s place in Europe, the negative has conveniently been dropped.

It is now government policy that you can have your cake and eat it. All round Whitehall, ministers are stuffing their faces with Mr Kipling’s Bakewells, fondant fancies and Battenbergs.

I grew up in a world where there were consequences. We don’t seem to live in that world anymore.

We were promised there would be no negative consequences of a vote to leave European: we were promised millions for the NHS; we were promised an end to low-pay jobs; we were promised we would be safer and more secure.

And now we have been promised all the cake we can eat.

This level of hubris has not gone unnoticed in Europe. They have made it clear you cannot enjoy the benefits of the club while paying reduced fees.

Every mention of having cake and eating it, stiffens the resolve of Europe to drive a hard bargain when Britain finally triggers Article 50.

I always thought Rule One of any negotiation is don’t antagonize your opponent. Rule 2 urges you to go for win-win.

But Britain does not think the rules apply to it. Vaingloriously clinging to its imperial past, Britain believes it is ‘too big to fail’. We’ve all heard the clap-trap: ‘Europe needs us more than we need it”; “We can enjoy the benefits of a free market without free movement of peoples”; “The world will beat a path to our door.”

Rule Britannia, Britannia waives the rules.

As Theresa May learned to her cost in India, the world has moved on. India was unimpressed by the prospect of closer economic ties to Britain. The economic sun is setting on the west.

The future belongs to India, to China and, if it gets its act together, to Africa. Protectionist America under Trump will only hasten the decline.

Mrs May presents herself as reason personified. But the truth is that she has yielded to the lunatic right, championing the Royal Prerogative over the primacy of parliamentary democracy.

With the breathtaking arrogance we have come to expect from this unelected government, this week Mrs May held two fingers up again to her European allies during a carpet-bagging trip around despotic regimes in the Middle East.

Speaking in Bahrain – a state which makes Cuba under Castro look like a model of democratic rectitude – Mrs May dismissed talk of hard and soft Brexit. “What we should be looking for is a red, white and blue Brexit.”

As a citizen of this disunited kingdom, I know I have a vested interest in there being a successful negotiation that minimizes the damage to the economy.

Yet there is something in me which hopes that Europe makes Britain pay for its arrogance, its hubris and its act of political selfishness.

The UK has holed itself below the waterline. Am I prepared to go down with the ship? I might be, just to see the smug smile wiped off the face of the captain and her crew as they sink below the waves.

Now pass me the fruit cake – no, not Boris you fool.

  • A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on 9 December 2016