Since the election I’ve been concentrating on my new novel, rather than writing non-fiction, but I have written one article for The Combination website, part of a series looking at what has been happening in politics and its implications for the future. My piece asks whether a ‘post-truth’ world is also a post-trust world, and what that means for tackling issues such as climate change and Brexit. You can read it here.
In today’s Fermanagh Herald:
At the end of this campaign, I’m sure that we in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone Green Party have done our very best in the short time and with the small resources available to us. We haven’t been able to visit many houses in this enormous constituency or to compete with other candidates in terms of advertising or publicity. But we’ve had a fantastic group of brilliant, dedicated, down-to-earth and endlessly supportive local volunteers, including several who are completely new to the Green Party. And we’ve been supported by a wonderful team in the Green Party of Northern Ireland, led by the inspiring Steven Agnew and Clare Bailey. We’ve been positive and principled, making the vital connections between what’s happening here and what’s going on across the world. We’ve spoken for transparency and accountability, for non-violence and reconciliation and against the insular and xenophobic tendencies of the new populism and a hard harsh Brexit. Whatever happens tomorrow, I am immensely proud of my Green Party colleagues, both here and across Europe and the world. And I am proud of all my fellow citizens in Northern Ireland, in all of our eighteen constituencies, who will tomorrow defy the fearmongering shouts, and the narrowminded whispers, and will vote Green Party Number One. Thank you all.
Dear MLA candidate,
I’m a first time voter currently studying A levels in Enniskillen.
Through the study of politics at A level I am extremely aware of the tendency of the northern Irish electorate to vote in a tribal manner – green or orange. I do not want to contribute to this trend, I want to be part of a generation that votes based on policy and capability. I find it frustrating that the same sectarian rhetoric captivates every election, leaving little room for insightful political debate.
Therefore I would like to request a little information about your views on the following issues in order to ensure that I am as well informed as possible about the type of representatives I vote for on March 2nd:
-Brexit and its implications on NI
-Managing the inquiry into the RHI scheme
-The current refugee crisis’ in Syria, Yemen and Sudan
I replied yesterday, thanking Niamh especially, because if others of her generation realise the power of their votes, and, as she says, vote on the basis of policy and capability, then Northern Ireland will indeed have a bright and positive future. I asked Niamh for permission to post her letter on this blog and she gladly agreed, believing that if more young people saw the “power in using their voices then our political system would not be dominated by the past.”
My responses to the issues she raised, by the way, were:
I believe that abortion should be considered as a health issue, not a matter for the police and the courts. It is a matter of conscience, but of the conscience of the pregnant woman, not of MLAs in Stormont. I therefore support the decriminalisation of abortion, in line with calls from the British Pregnancy Advice Service, so that it is a decision for each individual woman after consultation with medical professionals. I would also call for improvements in education, healthcare and support for families, in order that far fewer women are faced with this difficult and often heartbreaking decision.
I am a passionate supporter of marriage equality and proud to be a member of the Green Party which was the first to bring the issue to Stormont. Now most of the other parties have caught up with us, and with public opinion, but equality has still been shamefully blocked by misuse of the petition of concern. We will continue to campaign, as individuals and as a party, for marriage equality and against the many other forms of discrimination against LGBTQ people.
I am a strong advocate for integrated education, which was the sector chosen by my own children and within which I am a school governor. I believe that a fully integrated education system would enable all students to fulfil their potential and would be a significant step towards building a genuinely shared society. Unfortunately, costly and divisive segregation of children from the age of four has obvious benefits for political parties which seek to gain votes through fear and mistrust, and many opportunities for integration have been sadly wasted by their inaction and hostility.
I believe that Brexit, in the ‘hard’ form favoured by Theresa May, would be a disaster for Northern Ireland and especially for border counties like Fermanagh and Tyrone. I am therefore, with my Green Party colleagues, campaigning for Northern Ireland to have a proper voice in negotiations, for all existing European environmental, workers’ and human rights protections to be written into domestic law and for a referendum on any proposed Brexit deal.
Steven Agnew, the Green Party MLA raised issues with the design of the RHI scheme when it was first introduced in 2013, concerns that were sadly not addressed by those responsible. The technology and principle of the scheme were sound, but it was scandalously mismanaged. We support a judge-led independent enquiry into the RHI scandal, including into any relevant influence by secret party donors. The Green Party voluntarily publishes all donations of over £500, and I believe that other parties need to do so as well. We would also introduce a windfall tax on RHI payments, and have called for the Assembly Commissioner for Standards to be able to investigate alleged breaches of the Ministerial Code of Conduct, something which is not presently the case.
I believe that we have a strong moral obligation to help refugees,especially children, including, where it is in their best interests, welcoming them to new homes in the UK. In the case of those forced from their homes in the Middle East, our responsibility is especially grave, as our country, by military intervention and the sales of arms, has played a shameful part in exacerbating the wars and conflicts from which people are fleeing. Neither can we escape our responsibility, as citizens of rich nations, for the climate change which is devastating much of the world, and creating more and more refugees.
I was one of the founder members of the frack-free movement in Fermanagh and have continued to campaign against all kinds of so-called ‘unconventional’fossil fuel extraction at home and throughout the world and to support the growing divestment movement. I believe that we need a total ban on such techniques, which are destructive of environments, health, economies and communities, which contribute greatly to calamitous climate change and which are totally unnecessary now that clean and sustainable sources are able to meet our energy needs.
Many thanks to our friend, filmmaker Michael Brown who spent a clear Wednesday this week making videos with me across Fermanagh. They cover subjects from political accountability to fracking, and are all available to watch and share on a new YouTube channel; Tanya Jones, Green Party. Here is Michael at our last location, the Lough Navar Forest Viewpoint. It was so cold by then that I had difficulty in stopping my teeth from chattering as I spoke, but it was all worth it.
This is a desperately important piece of news which was largely ignored last week in favour of the fantasy wish lists of Theresa May and James Brokenshire. It was the evidence given by customs experts to the House of Commons Northern Ireland Select Committee about the reality of the post-Brexit border. The piece below was taken from Lisa O’Carroll’s report in the Guardian as part of its live politics coverage. The points made include:
- Every vehicle carrying goods worth over 300 euro would be stopped
- Its driver would need an export declaration document
- Dogs and horses would need documentation to be walked and ridden across the border
- The cost of moving dairy products across the border would be prohibitive
- It would be legally impossible for Northern Ireland to get a waiver from these rules
May’s plan for ‘frictionless’ border with Ireland after Brexit cannot be achieved, MPs told
Theresa May’s declaration that she wants a “seamless, frictionless border” post Brexit in Ireland amounted to meaningless “nice words”, the government has been told.
The Northern Ireland affairs select committee has been told by two customs lawyers with decades of experience of border controls that the continuing free movement of goods is legally impossible if the UK quits the Customs Union in a hard Brexit. Retired customs trade lawyer Michael Lux, who worked for the German ministry of finance, has said Theresa May can do what she likes once the UK leaves the European Union but that Ireland Taoiseach Enda Kenny will have to apply EU law with no choice but to have customs checks on the border. He said:
“If Northern Ireland is no longer part of the customs union, Ireland is obliged to apply all these rules. What is done on the UK side if it’s outside the EU they can do what they want.”
His two hours of evidence drew audible gasps from MPs as he told how every vehicle carrying goods worth more than €300 crossing from Ireland into Northern Ireland would have to be stopped, even if only “for a few minutes” and checked. Every driver would have to have an “export declaration” document before travel which would have to be cross-checked by a human being at a border check.
“It is important to understand, it isn’t just about customs, it is also about VAT and excise on alcohol and cigarettes,” he said.
Dux, who has 40 years experience in customs trade law, told how dogs taken for a walk from south of the border would need documentation as would horses being ridden for pleasure on the border region. This is currently the case on the German/Swiss border, he said.
His comments do not bode well for May and Kenny who have warned that a return to the checkpoints of the past could imperil the fragile peace in the region. Asked by Lady Hermon what he thought of Theresa May’s comments this week in Dublin when she said she wanted a “seamless, frictionless border”, Dux replied: “Well these are nice words but what does that mean?”
Even if the export declaration paperwork was electronic, a customs official would still be required to check the reference number for the freight and declare the “export movement closed” he said. Lux told how cross-border customs charges and possible tariffs could be the death-knell for cross-border dairy production. Medium-sized businesses might need two people to do the administration, or they could use an agent which would charge typically between €50 and €80 per consignment for an export declaration number, explained Lux. Even if shrewd businesses got the cost of the export declaration document down to €20, the cost of continually moving milk and milk products back and forth would be prohibitive, Lux said.
Asked if Northern Ireland could get a “waiver” from the EU because of the special conditions pertaining to the island, lawyer Eric Pickett, an expert in World Trade Organisation rules and international trade law, said this was legally impossible.
“It would be a strict violation of WTO law,” he said.
For more details about this, I do recommend that you watch the video footage of the Select Committee evidence, which is available here.
A great day yesterday, delivering flapjack and peanut butter to my children in Belfast, canvassing in Bangor with Steven Agnew and Greens from across Ireland, meeting up with The Combination team and running for the bus at the Europa (just made it!). Today I’ll be catching up on all the new Green Party memberships and listening to the Vanbrugh String Quartet at Enniskillen’s Ardhowen Theatre.
Here is a post which I wrote on 25th May last year, about the disaster that Brexit would be for our environment. Nothing that has happened since has made us any more optimistic. In fact, things are probably worse than we imagined. Theresa May has made no secret of her desire to get rid of ‘red tape’, by which she means the hard-won laws which protect our rights, our health and our environment. We cannot afford to let this happen. Northern Ireland’s border areas, such as Fermanagh, will suffer most of all from the imposition of a hard Brexit for which we did not vote. Those who campaigned for it, many for reasons of narrow political ambition, bear a huge responsibility, and one which I trust the voters will remember next month.
But that was the past. Now we need to look to the future and see what can be salvaged from the ruins. The Labour Party and others have abdicated responsibility, cowed by the tabloid press and populist slogans like “The Will of the People”. (It’s worth remembering that only 27% of the eligible UK population actually voted for Brexit.) But we in the Green Party are not going to give up so easily. In the House of Commons, Caroline Lucas was one of the few brave MPs to resist Theresa May’s early triggering of Article 50. Here in Northern Ireland, Steven Agnew was the first-named plaintiff in the court action seeking to give the Northern Ireland Assembly a voice in that process. He is now, taking valuable time from his own election campaign, the Northern Ireland representative in a fresh case in the Irish courts. He, with other UK Green Party leaders, is asking the courts whether the UK could, if things go as badly as we fear, withdraw our triggering of Article 50. This would give the people of the UK, including those of us in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, an extra option and the breathing space we so desperately need.
Read more about the case here and why the barrister who crowdfunded its costs from small donations believes that “there’s only one way out, and it’s this”.
In Belfast today with Friends of the Earth NI and Environmentalists for Europe, speaking along with Stanley Johnson (Boris’s dad) on the reasons why environmentalists might want to vote to Remain. Here’s my opening statement:
Tree-huggers, polar-bear pesterers, dolphin-worshippers. That’s us, isn’t it?
But the environment isn’t just the place where other species live; it’s where we ourselves live too. As environmentalists, we’re fundamentally concerned with making this place; this land, this air, this water safe for our fellow humans as well as for other living beings.
So, what does European membership mean for that task, and, first of all, where would we be without it?
The English common law, as operational across most of these islands, is individualistic, property-based and economically libertarian. “An Englishman’s home is his castle,” especially if it happens to be a castle. He (or she, and increasingly often it, with the growth of corporate power) is free to do anything that isn’t specifically prohibited.
Which sounds great. Only to do many of those things that people want to, the things that make money, you need physical power – your own or someone else’s – officially-sanctioned property rights and economic resources. And undoing those things is quite a different matter. You can pollute a river with no difficulty at all, but you can’t unpollute it.
When one landowner’s freedom to do exactly as he pleases interferes with another landowner’s freedom to do as exactly as he pleases, the common law will adjudicate, but it generally won’t help the poor peasant who suffers as a result of either. Or both.
The development of the law of negligence, which has filled in so many gaps in the old common law, isn’t much help in environmental cases either. It requires demonstrable fault, and foreseeability of the harm that’s caused. Any activist will know the stultifying power of those two deadly words ‘best practice’.
So, if the common law doesn’t stand up for us, for the health and well-being of ordinary people, what about statutes? The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw a paternalistic concern for public health which led to laws such as the Alkali Acts of the 1860s, to inspectorates and regulatory bodies. They were a lot better than nothing but they can’t help us today. Apart from the fact that, of course, most are now entirely anachronistic, they don’t change anything about the basic power relationships of predatory capitalism. All they do is hedge it around with a little decorative border. They say ‘You can continue to exploit people and resources, to inflict permanent damage on our health and our environment, just not in these specific ways’. And that very specific nature means that they’re instantly outdated, as corporations find different ways to achieve the same ends, they don’t set precedents, and they can’t be used to establish any wider rights. And they’re optional. It’s entirely up to the individual government of the day whether it chooses to grant Parliamentary time for new legislation. Do we really think, looking at the Westminster or Stormont benches….?
No. Which leaves us with what – the planning system? Once that had aims that were to do with positive social outcomes, with the common good. But its main purpose, in the twenty-first century, is increasingly the facilitation of the market. And remember, a Brexit planning system would be one without environmental impact assessments.
International law? We’re scraping the barrel now. ‘Aspirational’ is the polite word for most of it. World leaders gather to tell one another bedtime stories about Never-Never Land, while most of them would fight tooth and nail against its ever coming into existence. In so far as international law works at all, it works to protect the commercial interests of the rich against the environmental rights of the poor.
That, sadly, is the dark truth behind the jolly slogans of the Brexiteers. ‘Freedom’ means licence for corporations to enrich themselves, regardless of the externalities of pollution, climate change, sickness and death. And it means the removal from our hands of the few tools we have to build a better future.
What are those tools that European membership shares with us? There’s the substantive law, of course, half a century’s worth. Nine years ago it was calculated that 80% of member states’ environmental legislation stemmed from EU policy. That includes countries whose protections go beyond the European minimum (I know, unthinkable isn’t it?) so for the UK it’s probably higher. Without those laws and regulations, so cynically dismissed as red, or sometimes green, tape by those whose friends are inconvenienced by them, our health and wellbeing would dramatically plummet. If it’s tape, it’s the kind you keep in your first aid kit to stop yourself bleeding to death.
But even more important than the specific legislation are, I think, the ideas that inform and shape it. Rather than simply that hedging around of the licence to destroy, we’re seeing the emergence of environmental human rights, the rights, we might say, of the commons as well as the castle.
We see that in the nature of European directives and action programmes, which don’t, like the old UK statutes, limit their operation to particular sectors and industries but integrate them, looking at the total and cumulative effect.
We see it in the principles that the European Union has laid down: that the polluter pays, that development must be sustainable, that the precautionary principle should guide our response to incomplete or ambiguous evidence.
We see it in the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights. The European Convention on Human Rights has no specific mention of environmental rights, but we’ve seen a willingness to interpret Article 8 about respect for private and family life to include the right not to be subject to severe air and noise pollution. We’ve seen that Article 2, the right to life and Article 10, freedom of expression, can include environmental rights, and critically that Article 6, the right to a fair hearing and Article 13, the right to an effective remedy, are relevant to the conduct of regulators and planning authorities as well as that of the courts.
And we see it most clearly in the European implementation of the Aarhus Convention. Without the EU, Aarhus, for us, would be just another well-meaning story, a nice woolly UN convention following the feel-good Rio Declaration. Its assertion of the environment as a basic human right, linked to the right to life, would be a pious fiction and its three pillars: environmental justice, environmental information and the right to participation would be about as much use as a cotton-wool screwdriver.
Now I, along with many others here, would be the first to say that the implementation of Aarhus, especially here, is very far from being as it should be. And I have no illusions that our enactment and enforcement of European law generally is something to be proud of. If the UK as a whole is something of a malinger when it comes to the environment, then Northern Ireland hasn’t got out of its pajamas yet.
But we have the tools, and we have the rights. And we have real and effective ways of using them. The European doctrine of direct effect says that if our government doesn’t transpose European directives properly, we as individuals can still rely on them. And European fines for non-compliance hit the powers-that-be, especially at Stormont, where it hurts – in the wallet.
I’d like to see us treat this referendum as a wake-up call, not just a dreary rehearsal of the economic pros and cons of Brexit, but a reminder to ourselves and others of the more important, long-lasting and critical aspects of being in Europe. And perhaps that reminder will inspire in us a determination to use the rights and those remedies which are under threat, to use them for ourselves, for our neighbours, our children and the generations to come.
Today’s LucidTalk opinion poll result, as well as showing a predicted 45% rise in the Green vote at this election, reveals that health is the number one issue for Northern Ireland voters. This is no surprise. Every single one for us has experience, either directly or through family of friends, of our overstretched and underfunded NHS.
I have written recently about some of the reasons for this, including the deliberate demolition job by Westminster, abetted by Stormont, and the tendency by some politicians to set one area against another, or to blame people from other countries. (In fact, of course, Brexit will make the health service, like so much else, much, much worse.)
There are other reasons, too, why the NHS is suffering. Financial rules that encourage capital spending on new buildings, with massive profits to private companies, but do not cover the day-to-day expenses of employing enough staff. Underfunding of basic care services, so that people are pushed into hospital beds that they neither want nor need. A failure to ensure that new young GPs are trained and encouraged, so that, as older family doctors retire, their patients are forced into crowded A&E departments. And, often forgotten, failures in prevention.
Politicians sometimes talk as though the height of our ambition is to fall ill and be treated by the NHS. It isn’t. Our hope is not to fall ill in the first place. We need a high-quality, properly funded, fair and free service which not only cares for us when we are sick, but, so far as it possibly can, keeps us healthy in the first place. A National Health Service, in short, not just a National Sickness Service.
But the problem for the traditional parties is that our health is affected by everything around us. Air pollution from industry and vehicles, hidden sugar in our foods, cold and damp homes, contaminated water supplies, all these can be major causes of ill health, and, for the most vulnerable, premature death. To have a true health service, we need to tackle all these issues, and the corporate interests which often lie behind them. Health justice is our right, as the voters of Northern Ireland recognise. More and more are also coming to recognise that it is inseparable from social, economic and environmental justice. A clean, green, fair future would be a healthy future, not just for a few but for us all.