I was delighted to be in Belfast yesterday along with many Green Party friends and family for the Love Equality NI march. A wonderful occasion, but let’s hope this is the last year we need to do it. It’s very clear that a majority of people in Northern Ireland want us to have marriage equality, bringing us in line with our neighbours across Western Europe. When the Green Party first brought the issue to Stormont we were way ahead of the curve, but the only thing blocking it in the last session was the misuse of the petition of concern. Currently, of course, we have no Assembly to consider the issue, and have no way of knowing whether or not it is a feature in the secret negotiations between the DUP and Sinn Fein. It is indeed time for change.
I went to Glastonbury last week, via Belfast, Cairnryan, Ayr, Glasgow, Stafford and Stoke and back through Birmingham, Stafford (again), Crewe, Holyhead and Dublin. I decided to take a photograph for every waking hour from when I left the house until I got home; only one, so that if it was blurred, or too dark, or by necessity taken through a reflective train window or just hopelessly random, I’d be stuck with it. I let myself have a bit of fun with the editing, though.
Tuesday 20th June:
(I’ve just realised that this indicates what a Glastonbury wimp I am – all that nighttime revelry is a closed book to me, snuggled in my sleeping bag.)
And finally Tuesday 27th:
Political slogans are always dangerous weapons, hostages to fortune, inclined to go off in the hands of those who wield them. But few can ever have proved so self-defeating as Theresa May’s “strong and stable”. In the shadow of Grenfell Tower, both adjectives are equally ironic, hollowed of their reassuring meaning. It was the ‘strong’ who allowed this horror to happen, unwinding red tape until nothing was left but the naked profit motive and the £2 per square metre saving that may have made the difference, for dozens of people, between life and death. And it was the ‘stable’ establishment which refused to listen to those people’s well-grounded concerns, though they did everything that as responsible citizens they could possibly have done to make their voices heard.
We have no strength now except in our shared sorrow. We have no stability except in supporting one another. And that support requires real solidarity and real change. Sentimental symbols and short-term sticking plasters will not be enough. By the morning of June 9th, as the election results came in, it was already clear that our politics was changing. Despite the almost universal derision of the media, people were voting for the kind of fair, equal, hopeful and far-sighted policies towards which Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party were returning, and for which the Green Party in Northern Ireland has always stood. By the morning of June 14th we understood its urgency.
Now, we know from our many histories, is the critical time. Emotions are raw, hopes and fears seem equally on the brink of fulfilment, and careers, fortunes and ideologies ready to be made or broken. Where are we going, and who is going with us?
On Tuesday evening in Belfast we at the Combination are hosting Election Breakdown, an opportunity to explore our situation and the future of progressive politics. We have invited five speakers from a range of perspectives: Brian Campfield (NIPSA), Geraint Ellis (QUB), Ellen Murray (GenderJam NI and Green Party NI), Liz Nelson (Belfast Feminist Network and Belfast Trades Council) and Robin Wilson (independent researcher and journalist). Join us on Tuesday 20 June, 7.30pm at the Crescent Arts Centre, Workshop Room 4.
And follow us at: https://www.facebook.com/combinationNI/ and @CombinationNI
I said earlier this morning that I was lost for words. I’m not quite, though I can’t guarantee their civility.
Apart from North Down, held by the principled independent Sylvia Hermon, Northern Ireland’s parliamentary constituencies are now divided, in the crudest way possible, between those in the north east, held exclusively by a DUP whose shabby deal to prop up a minority Tory government will impact brutally upon us all, and those along the borders, together with West Belfast, ‘represented’ by Sinn Fein, whose much vaunted concern for ‘the most vulnerable in our society’ will not extend to taking their seats in support of a progressive coalition.
The hearts and dreams of thousands of young (and less young) people across the UK, who voted, often for the very first time, for hope and change have been broken by Northern Ireland’s myopic constitutional obsessions. No one will suffer for it more than our own children here.
And no constituency illustrates the impasse more starkly than my own.
As I wrote on Wednesday evening,
“Every vote is precious, because every one is a real endorsement of what we stand for, and the hope we will never abandon.
But I’d give up every single one of those votes for a progressive government in Westminster from Friday morning. We stand at a crossroads, and what happens in the UK tomorrow will send ripples across the world. Be brave, wherever you are, and vote for what you know is right.”
For a few brief hours last night, we thought that progressive government was on its way. But instead we have something potentially much worse than we had before. I would once again beg the newly elected Sinn Fein MPs to put present human need before historic ideology. And I’d suggest to those socially liberal, tolerant, scientifically aware and basically decent Tory MPs celebrating this morning (and there must be at least a handful) that they look very closely at their new bedfellows before snuggling under the duvet.
I was delighted a few days ago to hear the news that the bill to ban fracking in the Republic of Ireland has passed successfully through the Dail. The new law, which started out as a Private Member’s Bill, ended up as government legislation with cross-party support. It now only requires approval of the Seanad before it can be signed by President Michael D Higgins, and is expected to become law before the Oireachtas starts its summer recess.
This is a good moment to restate, once again, my personal commitment to working at every level to obtain a similar ban in Northern Ireland. Much has been achieved here, through the hard work of many campaigning groups and individuals, but a complete ban has always and will continue to be my unshakeable objective. I am proud that the Green Party in Northern Ireland has a longstanding manifesto commitment to ban fracking and that we have led the way consistently on this issue, ever since Steven Agnew brought it to the Northern Ireland Assembly, the first MLA to do so.
We cannot afford to be complacent. The environmental protections which limit the powers of fracking companies are almost all European directives which, post-Brexit, will be vulnerable to amendment and repeal. The prospect of direct rule from a fervently pro-fracking Tory government is a disturbing one. And the judicial reviews taken by Tamboran to try to recover their licence and overturn the planning presumption against fracking are still ongoing.
Across the Irish Sea, in Lancashire and elsewhere, fracking is being imposed on communities against the wishes of local people and the democratic decisions of their councils. I am proud to stand with fellow Green Party candidates such as Caroline Lucas and my friend Tina Rothery who have bravely risked their own liberty to protest at the injustice, destructiveness and sheer stupidity of the fracking experiment. Green Parties across the UK, in Northern Ireland, Scotland and England and Wales, all share an absolute manifesto commitment to ban fracking once and for all, and as a Green Party MP, I would make supporting, and if necessary introducing, an anti-fracking Bill in Westminster one of my highest priorities.
One of the particular problems we have faced on a UK scale has been the reliance of the Westminster government on the deeply flawed Public Health England report on fracking. By contrast, we and our sister Green Parties are committed to genuinely evidence-based policy. Reliable studies from across the world have demonstrated the grave dangers of fracking to human and environmental health. Our own county of Fermanagh was included in the Irish Environmental Protection Agency’s report, jointly commissioned by the Irish and Northern Ireland adminstrations, which identified serious potential impacts including pollution of groundwater aquifers, pollutant and gas migration, and gas emissions following well closure. These impacts were rightly recognised by the Irish government as being so dangerous as to require an immediate ban.
The urgency of obtaining a similar ban in Northern Ireland is clear, and Seán Kyne TD, Minister for Gaeltacht Affairs and Natural Resources, has stated in the Dail that it is his intention, as and when the Northern Ireland Executive is restored, to raise the matter of a Northern Ireland ban with his counterparts in the North/South Ministerial Council.
In this, as in so much else, the health, wellbeing and livelihoods of the people of Northern Ireland are being sacrificed to the political games that are keeping Stormont silent and stagnant. It is time to put people first, for the traditional parties to reach agreement, restore the Executive and Assembly, and carry forward a Northern Ireland fracking ban. If they will not do so, we may all pay the price.
This afternoon I gave a talk at a celebration of Laudato si’, which turned out to be tragically topical. It’s a bit long to go in a post, but if you’d like to read the full text you can do so here.
The sun came out to welcome Steven to Enniskillen yesterday, as did lots of local people who are working in positive and co-operative ways to protect our environment, nurture our children, support our health and build a better, cleaner and fairer future. I don’t know whether I was prouder of the Green Party or of Fermanagh. Certainly when the two come together, joyful things happen!
We began at the Castle Museum, talking to representatives of Ulster Wildlife and to local farmers about Brexit, sustainable agriculture, the future of Fermanagh’s food industry, the county’s incredible biodiversity and the Magnificent Meadows project.
From there we went up to the Erne Integrated College, where we saw a small but magnificent meadow in situ, complete with yellow rattle (about which I’m becoming something of an enthusiast). Fortunately our friend Dara (who writes the brilliant Young Fermanagh Naturalist blog) was there to explain it all to us.
We also met some Year 11 students from the college and talked about votes at 16, fracking, the living wage, trade unions, integrated education, the NHS, the impasse at Stormont …. They were great conversations, with very thoughtful and articulate young people.
Our next stop was the Aisling Centre, where we heard about the vital work which they have done over the past twenty-six years in supporting the mental health needs of thousands of people in Fermanagh. We are extraordinarily fortunate to have such a skilled and sensitive service, and grateful to the sisters who had the vision to plant the first seeds.
Finally we ended the afternoon at the wonderful Happiness Trap café where Geoff, the Chair of the FST Greens was waiting for us. We restored our energies with delicious veggie food and smoothies, and enjoyed lots more conversation with local people.
It was a wonderful day, and I’m really grateful to Steven and Sinead for taking the time out of his own busy campaign to visit us, to Janie for chauffeuring us and taking the photos, to Jennifer and Eva from Ulster Wildlife, to Jimmy Jackson Ware the EIC principal, to Bridie at the Aisling Centre, Alan and Laura at the Happiness Trap and to everyone who came along to talk to us, ask questions and tell us more about some of the fantastic things happening in Fermanagh and the challenges which they face. Thank you all.
Steven Agnew MLA, the leader of the Green Party in Northern Ireland will be visiting Enniskillen on Tuesday May 30th. From 4.15pm until 6pm he and I will be in the Happiness Trap café to meet you, listen to your concerns, answer your questions and show how the Green Party is putting you first in this election. Please call in to say hello, and share this with your family, friends, neighbours and colleagues.
The launch of party manifestos across the UK reminds us that this election is being held against the backdrop of the suspended Stormont talks. If the mainstream parties continue to play political games, instead of putting people first and forming a functioning Executive, sooner or later direct rule will be imposed upon us. That means being subject to whatever whims the Westminster government chooses. The Conservative manifesto makes it clear that the rollout of fracking across the country is a priority for them, riding roughshod over local opinion and democratic decision-making. Their muddle over social care shows that they have no real concern about the needs of ordinary people. And their continued, reckless pursuit of a hard Brexit sacrifices all of our futures.
Our own Green Party in Northern Ireland manifesto will be launched today, providing a positive alternative to both Westminster indifference and Stormont stagnation. We are putting you first, with practical proposals to give you a voice on Brexit and our future in Europe, to meet your healthcare needs, to give your children the great education they deserve and to protect our precious landscape and wildlife. I am delighted to be one of our candidates, along with our leader Steven Agnew, who will be visiting Enniskillen next week.
Now, more than ever, we need to look beyond the old divisions. The Green Party, with its sister parties across the UK and Europe, is ideally placed to speak for the people of Fermanagh and Tyrone. My role model as an MP would be the Green’s Caroline Lucas, who has tirelessly called the government to account, bravely stood up against fracking, against public service cuts and for the interests of real people and the environment in which they live.
Do you have a baby Noah in your family? The chances are quite high. From being almost unheard of twenty years ago, by 2015 it was the third most popular boys’ name in Northern Ireland. There’s a sad appropriateness about that, because Noah’s generation will know more of floods than any before it. Climate change is a huge shadow looming over our young people, but it isn’t the only
one. Who suffers most from the failure to form an Executive? Our children, with James Brokenshire telling us that education cuts reflect the priorities of the mainstream parties. Who inherits the poison of those unresolved legacy issues? The generation that cannot possibly be to blame. Who will lose the most freedom, opportunities and wellbeing after Brexit? Those who were too young even to vote against it.
When I was first a Green Party candidate, three elections ago, people told me, “It’ll take a long time to change politics here.” They thought that would put me off. But it did the opposite. If something is quick and easy, there’s no hurry about beginning it. But the harder the task, the longer the road, the more urgent it is to start. And the more important it is for others to join. When Noah comes to vote, will FST still be a byword for divisive binary politics? Or will we have broader horizons and brighter hopes? And will you have been a part of that change?
The Green Party is putting you and your families first. That includes protecting our young people from the looming walls of a hard Brexit. It includes giving our children the education and healthcare that they need. And it includes supporting them, whatever their identity, in their hard journey to rewarding work and a home, a family, a future of their own. There are huge challenges ahead that Noah’s generation will not be able to avoid. Let’s at least begin to help them.
Photo by תהלה הרץ used under Creative Commons licence