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diary of Tanya Jones, Green Party candidate for Fermanagh & South Tyrone

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15th August 2016

0815xbOn Friday I travelled to Belfast to take part in the NICVA Big Ideas Festival of Economics. Clare Bailey (one of our Green Party MLAs) had been asked to be on one of the major panels but was unable to be there, so I was making a rather nervous effort to stand in her (always elegant) shoes.  It was a tough gig, without the prepared opening statement which usually gets me in the zone for answering subsequent questions.  This time it was straight into the questions, with no more guidance than the debate’s theme “Is left right politics the big idea we need?”

As you can hear from the audio stream from Slugger O’Toole’s coverage of the event (the second audio stream, and my bits came at around 14, 38, 53 and 1hr 11 minutes in) I didn’t approach the slickness of my fellow panellists (all men, including the ubiquitous Alex Kane) but I managed to say some of what I thought most important.  If I had put it into an opening statement, it would have been something like this:

The Green Party in Northern Ireland is generally perceived as being on the Left.  That’s a description that I’m very comfortable with, but it isn’t an identity that I’m wedded to.  Green Party politics is about having a vision of just and sustainable future, and promoting the policies that will get us there.  That’s a matter of evidence, not of ideology or identity.  What matters is what works, not the label which attaches to it.  The policies that we need are more often those associated with the Left, but they aren’t copyright, and we don’t have red flags tattooed on our hearts. (Or not all of us, anyway.)

In Northern Ireland we’ve traditionally seen a politics based on competing nationalisms, and that is pernicious both for the political process, which hugely wastes time, energy and resources on matters of mere symbolism, but also for the wider, divided society which it is supposed to serve.  But a mere mapping of existing identifications onto a left/right axis (in its crudest form, the idea that nationalism equals ‘left wing’ and unionism ‘right’) is even more dangerous.

This festival is about big ideas, but perhaps more important are the big realities of climate change and inequality.  We know the damage that they are doing, and will continue to do in the future, and we know what we need to do to combat them.  The sheer size of the challenges mean that they have to be combated by the mainstream, by governments and assemblies across the world.  We don’t have the luxury of precious ideological purity.  The role of the Green Party, as a minority, is to welcome the actions of other parties when they do the right thing and to call them to account when they don’t.  Successive Prime Ministers, both Conservative and Labour, have used their first-day-in-office speech to dedicate themselves to the common good.  If they really did what they promised, we would be a long way further towards a fairer and brighter future.

The European referendum result reminds us that people don’t always vote according to their ‘tradition’, in their economic self-interest or according to their judgement of administrative efficiency.  When we vote, we are expressing our identification with a moral foundation.  And the more bizarre others’ moral foundation seems to us, the more we have to try to understand it.  As Pope Francis suggested, this is a time for building bridges, not walls.  Binary choices, whether we call them nationalist/unionist, left/right, in/out or Trump/Clinton don’t bring out the best in either the electorate or the elected.  Both right- and left-wing  traditions, in so far as they are predicated on infinite economic growth on a finite planet, and on concepts of fairness that leave out intergenerational justice, fall short of what we need.

The Green Party does the vision-thing, with a clear picture of the just and sustainable society we want to see.  We know that we will get there by practical, well-thought, evidence-based policy, by working with others and by holding them to account.  We can ask the difficult questions, but we can answer them too.

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10th August 2016

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I’ve had quite a media-ish week, mostly, but not entirely, arising from Theresa May’s bright idea that George Osborne’s ‘shale wealth fund‘ might act as more of an incentive if it were paid to individual householders instead of to local councils.  Obviously, the existence of the proposed fund at all is far from certain, depending as it does on fracking making a profit in the UK, those profits actually being taxed, and there being enough tax revenue thereby for ten per cent of it to mean something.  10% of zero is, of course, zero.  But public support for fracking continues to plummet, and the dangling possibility of a few quid (especially if the equally affected neighbours down the road won’t get it) seems to be what Ms May thinks One Nationhood is all about.

And of course it gave an opportunity to DUP MP (and former NI Environment Minister) Sammy Wilson to wheel out his well-worn anti-Green artillery.  It’s been a couple of weeks since he was last in the headlines, accusing women MPs of ‘voyeurism’ for seeking to breastfeed their babies while at work in the Commons chamber.  That didn’t end too well, with even his party distancing itself, so he was probably relieved to return to the old Green-baiting.  There’s something comforting about a long-established hobby.

Anyway, I was given the job of responding to him, in the original Belfast Telegraph article (see link above), on the Green Party website and on Radio Ulster’s Talkback (begins 45mins in) and Q Radio.  There was also an article about the whole business in today’s Fermanagh Herald (more headline idiosyncrasies – I assume the inverted commas were supposed to be around both the first words, otherwise it appears that Tom and I are definitely warriors but dubiously eco) …

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… and one about the success of the library campaign, too.

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4th August 2016

library Good news today.  We (members of the local Green Party group) have been involved over the past couple of months in the Hands Off Enniskillen Library campaign, trying to reverse the decision to cut its opening hours once again.  I was part of the initial group which met in June to set up the campaign, along with representatives from other parties (Labour and the Socialists – none of the ‘mainstream’ politicians were there) union reps and library users, and did my bit getting signatures for our petition (above).  I was in Glastonbury for the big rally, but our chair Geoff Bartholomew spoke for us, and for all the people, young and old, who depend upon the library’s services.

Then today the Department of Communities announced that it had, after all, found the money (£225,000) to keep the existing opening hours for all the libraries potentially affected.  I have no doubt that it was our campaign and others that led to this change of heart.  It’s a comparatively small success, but a wonderful illustration of what can be done if we work together with hope and goodwill, and a reminder that no decision is set in stone.  If our communities, and those most in need, are going to suffer as a result of government decisions, it is not only our right but our duty to speak out.  Thank you to everyone who did just that.

10th July 2016

0710Yesterday I was delighted to take part in a panel discussion at a workshop entitled “Green values and progressive politics: religion, humanism and the ethical basis for political activism”.  It was hosted by the Green European Foundation and Green Foundation Ireland, chaired by my Green Party colleague Professor (and Councillor) John Barry, and held at Queen’s University.  A major focus for the workshop was the book Green Values, Religion and Secularism, comprising interviews with Green activists across Europe which is available as a free download here.

This is my opening statement in response to the book:

‘I was enormously encouraged and inspired by this book, by the individual interviews and by the very concept of doing it at all. There are plenty of political parties which are rooted in one faith tradition or another. There are a few which deliberately turn their backs on any religious belief. But to hold faith and faiths, belief and unbelief together with the attentive care that this does, addressing real and intricate problems without platitude or prejudice, says something really important about the Green movement, about its resilience, its universality, and, in their deepest senses, the radical and fundamental nature of its insights and imperatives.

I describe myself as a Green Christian, and that ought, I can’t help but think, to be a tautology. As Francois Mandil says in his interview:

“There is no need to be a Christian to be an environmentalist; however it makes sense to me that, if you are a Christian, you simply have to be an ecological activist.”

There is a famous verse, a three-part injunction by the prophet Hosea, as to what the Jewish and Christian God asks of us. The first two requirements are “to act justly and to love mercy”. Justice and compassion, to our neighbours, across peoples, to the earth and its other inhabitants, and across the generations, are at the heart of the God that Jesus reveals, and at the heart of everything we do as Green activists. My faith and my politics aren’t two separate experiences, or only as far apart as the tiny pause between breathing in and breathing out.

At the same time I am bitterly aware that the legacy of corporate Christianity, and many of its continued manifestations, are for the most part neither just nor compassionate. That is a knowledge we have to bear, and a chronology of wrongs that we can never fully atone for. And ironically, as the mainstream churches are becoming a bit better at acknowledging our past failures in social and ecological justice, the adjective ‘Christian’ in a political sense is more and more coming to refer to an aggressive, insular and judgmental conservatism which bears no relation at all to anything that Jesus said or did.

That’s our problem, of course, and I don’t expect members of other faiths or none to shed too many tears – they’ve all borne far worse slanders. It does, though, widen a breach that may end up as a dangerous gulf for us all. Two things that I’ve noticed in the UK media this week perhaps illustrate that.

The first is the phrase that Tony Blair repeatedly used in his press conference on Wednesday, that he’s used for the past decade and more, to justify his decision to kill and maim people in Iraq. It is: ‘in good faith’. He means, I suppose, that the lies he was depending on had become so internalised that he no longer consciously deceived others, because he had so comprehensively deceived himself. But whatever good faith is, that is not it.

The second is the attack on the Tory leadership candidate Andrea Leadsom by the Daily Mirror, apparently for confessing to Channel 4 News that she prayed, and implying that that prayer might encompass listening as well as speaking. Now I don’t have much time for Ms Leadsom, whose idea of Christian values is pretty diametrically opposed to mine, but I do find that, as a ground of attack, a bit odd. Mary White speaks eloquently in her interview in this book about, during a very difficult time for the Irish Greens, walking for miles along the beach and in that silence coming to realise how she should vote and act. It would be a shame for us to end up with nothing but frenetic Twitter-watching political representatives who couldn’t listen to their inner voice, whether they call it God or not, and whether the listening is described as mindfulness, meditation or prayer. The fact that Tony Blair’s idea of the Deity was as a complicit third party in those cosy chats with George W. tells us a lot about Blair, but not very much about God.

Because the third part of that instruction from Hosea is of course, “to walk humbly with your God.” And whatever we understand by God, whatever is the ground of our being, to walk humbly with Her means to walk humbly with one another. And that, I think, is our way forward. All faith traditions include exemplars of justice, of compassion and non-violence. And all contain examples of the reverse. So does every form of non-belief. We all have a choice: a choice of what to believe, but more importantly a choice of how to believe, how to act and how to share our epiphanies with one another, testing, again and again, every new and old revelation against the shape of simple humanity. This, I believe, is good faith.’

28th June 2016

I am writing this on the Holyhead to Dublin ferry, coming home from Glastonbury, and one of the most emotional weekends of my life.  When I woke up on Friday morning to the referendum result, chalked on a blackboard outside the campsite information tent, I wasn’t surprised; I’d never been sanguine about the return to the status quo consensus; but I was shocked and dismayed.  The fact that Northern Ireland and Scotland both had Remain majorities, though personally consoling, didn’t make the news any better.  As the shockwaves passed through the site, strangers and friends sharing stunned sadness, all I could think of was my neighbours back at home.  Northern Ireland, I reflected, faces all the anguish and turmoil of England or Wales, intensified by our post-conflict vulnerability and dependence on ‘inward investment’, together with the potential opening of older and deeper wounds.  The Scottish festival-goers could be proud and defiant, looking forward to a second, likely decisive independence referendum, but for us there are no easy answers.

I’m not ashamed to say that I spent much of Friday in tears, and what moments I could on Saturday and Sunday sitting in a sea of mud, scanning the pages of the Guardian for coverage of Northern Ireland’s situation.  There was a little, but nothing that told me anything I didn’t already know.  Amidst the excitement of new (I can’t say ‘fresh’) leadership battles in the two biggest parties, the only real interest in the other side of the Irish Sea is as a source of a potential EU passport.

Now, after the initial shock has passed, I’m more angry than tearful.  I’m not angry with the people who voted Leave, not even those who within hours were regretting their protest.  Except for a few in marginal constituencies, people aren’t used to seeing their vote count, and they were cruelly and cynically misled.  I am angry, though, with those elected representatives who knew what they were doing, and went ahead regardless, for motives only they fully know. When we challenged them, during the campaign, to explain how they would achieve access to the single market without freedom of movement or compliance with European law, or how they would protect our environment, our rights and our economy outside it, they simply accused us of scaremongering.  Within minutes of the result being announced, they began to resile on their promises, and the world to show the firm foundation of our fears.

I am especially angry with those who hold responsible posts in Northern Ireland: the Secretary of State, the First Minister, and MPs including my own, who blithely waved aside the concerns of the thoughtful majority.  That majority was not convinced, but who knows how much damage they did by giving such cover to the Brexiteers.  There are many good and compassionate people across the UK who would have thought again if appealed to do so by a broad consensus of politicians representing Northern Ireland.

But, as the Dublin shoreline appears through the grey sky, I will not be mastered by this anger.  Now is not a time for bitterness or rage.  There is work to be done; serious, difficult and hard work, salvaging what we can from the chaos around us, using the tools still at our disposal, and building a peaceful and stable future on the ruins of the past.  Things will not be as we hoped and planned,  but with goodwill, intelligence and compassion we can save ourselves, our neighbours and our children from the very worst.   The Green Party has never shied away from acknowledging and preparing for the greatest challenges we face, from climate change to growing inequality.  It is what has made us such an exasperating challenge to the establishment in times of complacency.  But now, when all the old certainties seem to be crumbling, we at least have the context, the principles and the evidence-based policies to help find a way forward.  Join us now to be a part of that journey.