15th January 2017

This is a post originally published nearly two years ago, on 28th January 2015.  What has changed?  The good news is that our Deputy Leader, Clare Bailey, is now Clare Bailey MLA, having made joyful history in South Belfast.

What else?  Yes, we have a woman Prime Minister in 10 Downing Street, following the breach of David Cameron’s promise to stay on whatever the referendum result.  And one of the dominant parties in Northern Ireland is, for the time being at least, led by a woman.  Sadly for the rest of us, in both of these cases,  their primary role model seems to be Margaret Thatcher, the archetypal drawbridge ‘feminist’.  Being a woman leader, for both Theresa May and Arlene Foster, apparently means trying to be more antagonistic, more arrogant and more intransigent than their male rivals.  That is desperately sad, for all of us.

Genuine feminist leadership looks different.  Genuine feminist leadership seeks respect, rather than fear, co-operation rather than naked power and empathy rather than prejudice.  Genuine feminist leadership looks to empower all, especially those who are ignored, denigrated and insulted by traditional authority; the poor, the homeless, the LGBTQ community, and women denied the simple right to be trusted about their own reproductive health.   It asks, and answers, the hard questions, and looks to the long term and the interests which we all share.

As we approach our own, seemingly now inevitable election, and the inauguration of America’s chillingly misogynist new president, I look to Clare, to Caroline Lucas, and to the strong Green women working across the world.  And, despite everything, I still have hope.

 

One of the striking points about the recent election debates debate was the gender of the party leaders. All four of the BBC’s original invitees were, as we know only too well, men: Dave, Ed, Nick ‘n’ Nigel. For the mess they got themselves in, see my 15th January post. The three parties who were, following strong public feeling, eventually included, the Green Party, Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party, are all led by women. Finally, the traditional Northern Ireland parties who are now grumbling, and in some cases threatening legal action, without any notable public support, all have leaders who are … yes, you guessed it, men again.

 

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GPNI Deputy Leader Clare Bailey with Tanya

It’s not conclusive, but it is interesting. From a quick trot around the records (so please correct me if I’m wrong), it appears that, apart from two Margarets*, none of the mainstream parties in either England or Northern Ireland has ever had a woman leader. Meanwhile, the UK has never had a woman Chancellor of the Exchequer or Foreign Secretary. The place for women in the Cabinet, it appears, is firmly in the Home.

*Thatcher, who could at best be called a drawbridge feminist, pulling the portcullis down sharply behind her, and Ritchie, who led the SDLP for twenty-one months before being shown a cliff and invited to jump.

In the Green Party, we’re trying to change this. We recognise that limiting women’s ambitions and roles is damaging for us all; for the women who could be great leaders, for the men who would benefit from working alongside them, for the electorate who need genuine representatives and for the next generation; our daughters and grand-daughters who will build upon our legacy. There are many barriers to women’s involvement in politics: expectations, assumptions, judgements and many practical difficulties. But, working together and with our male colleagues, we are beginning to overcome them. The Green Party in Northern Ireland in November launched our Changing the Conversation equality strategy, and elected Clare Bailey, Westminster candidate for South Belfast, as our Deputy Leader. We’re serious about supporting the talented and dedicated women in our Party; women like Jenny Muir, our Chair, and Georgia Grainger, Chair of the Young Greens in Northern Ireland. And I know from personal experience how much that kind of encouragement (and it is, literally, that, the imparting of courage) means.

So, if you’re looking to use your vote to bring about a genuinely progressive, equal and creative society, cherchez les femmes. Not the isolated, token females, awkwardly crammed into the middle of a sea of suits, trying to sound more macho than the men, or the over-groomed fragrant ladies, wives and daughters of the male power-brokers, but the real women, the ones who come in all shapes and sizes, all ethnicities and sexualities, the ones who know about life, the ones who laugh with their friends, and sometimes cry as well. The ones a bit like you.

 

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19th December 2016

0405Whoever gets the most votes can do whatever they like.

In 2016, you might be excused for believing that is a definition of mature democracy.  It could be the Tory cabinet (notably no longer led by the Prime Minister who said he wouldn’t resign whatever the referendum result) imagining that an After Eight thin 52:48 Leave majority gives them carte blanche, unfettered by Parliament, for whatever shade of Brexit they fancy.  It could be Donald Trump, whose even smaller electoral college victory (and he lost the popular vote altogether) apparently justifies the jettisoning of America’s climate change responsibilities and the human rights of its citizens.  Or it could be Arlene Foster and the DUP this morning, who treated the delicate balances created by the Good Friday Agreement as though they were mere trinkets, to be put on and taken off as easily as the crown brooch adorning her jacket.

But that isn’t how our democracies are supposed to work.  The complex systems of checks and balances are not there for sheer Byzantine obfuscation, as some sort of glorious steampunk machinery or to give constitutional law students something about which to write essays.  They have been worked out over decades and centuries, literally in sweat, tears, and much blood.  We concentrate upon the excitement of elections and referenda, but what matters most is what happens in between.  Not all dictators come to power through a military coup.  Many are elected, ‘democratically’, and it is from this base that they dismantle the protections which their people never knew were at at risk.  We don’t have dictators now, in the UK, the US or Northern Ireland.  But we would be wrong, looking back through history, to think that we are inevitably safe from tyranny.  The rule of law matters because our rights matter. If we don’t want them ourselves, our children might.

 

7th March 2016

The Great Hall at Stormont was full of courage and vitality on Saturday evening, as we celebrated Alternative Ms Ulster, but it’s back this morning to its usual role as a dreary backdrop to dreary politics.  And we’re reminded that simply being a woman doesn’t necessarily mean being either progressive or positive.

Debating with Arlene Foster last year (obviously when The Pact was operational).
Debating with Arlene Foster last year (obviously when The Pact was operational).

Arlene Foster, one of my fellow Fermanagh & South Tyrone candidates, seems to think, or at least wants us to think, that the forthcoming election is about nothing but whether she will continue as First Minister or will have to relinquish the title to Martin McGuinness.

She is wrong.  She is wrong for all the technical constitiutional and psephological* reasons that the pundits have explained.  But she is also wrong for a much bigger reason.

This election isn’t simply a matter of rearranging the ministerial chairs on the deck of the Assembly and subsidising the band to play on. It’s about getting up to the crow’s nest and down into the engine room, looking at the icebergs head on, and taking the trouble to steer our way around them.  That way we might actually reach the destination we want, instead of telling ourselves that it doesn’t matter if we sink, as long as the passengers on the other side of the deck sink first.

“A waste of space.”  Anyone who has canvassed in Northern Ireland must have heard the phrase on many doorsteps, said of the Assembly, the Executive and the vast majority of MLAs.  It’s often followed by the suggestion that the whole system be dismantled in favour of, what – rule from Westminster, rule from Dublin, rule from Washington?  Almost anything seems preferable.

It’s a sad phenomenon, and a terrible indictment of the miserable stagnation of our power-sharing system.  Can we imagine the Scots, whatever their political views, seriously advocating the abolition of their Parliament?  Having a Northern Ireland Assembly, with substantial devolved powers, ought to be a source of great pride and a stimulus to really creative and forward-thinking ideas.

But – “a waste of space”.  And so it is.  Time is wasted bickering over trivialities, imagined affronts, sectarian semantics.  Money is wasted by the bucketful in convoluted expense claims, jobs for the boys (and one or two girls) and the duplication of almost everything.  Resources are wasted as the natural and human riches of Northern Ireland are poisoned, polluted and crushed.  And opportunities are wasted: chances to catch up with our nearest neighbours on everything from equal marriage to climate change, reproductive healthcare to the right to walk in the countryside.  As for the hope of actually being in the forefront of anything….

It doesn’t have to be like this.  We have everything we need to build a wonderful future here: a temperate climate, abundant resources, intelligent and creative people and rich traditions of music, literature, science and technology.

The work has already begun, as our Green Party leader, Steven Agnew, has outlined today.  Thanks to his extraordinary efforts in the Assembly, and that of our growing band of councillors, including Ross Brown on Belfast City Council, life in Northern Ireland is changing for the better.

This year, for the first time, the Green Party is standing Assembly candidates in every one of our eighteen constituencies.  That means two things.

It means that everyone in Northern Ireland has the chance to vote Green, and to prove Arlene Foster wrong.  Every single Green vote will be like a gentle tap on her shoulder, a whisper in her ear; ‘It’s not all about you.’  Think of the sound of those thousands of whispers.

And it means that, when the Assembly re-assembles after the next election, Steven won’t be alone.  Three, four, eighteen Green MLAs – when Steven has done so much already, just think of the effect of more of us.  There’s enough time (just) to make the changes our children desperately need.  There’s enough money, spent wisely, to meet all our needs.  There are more than enough resources to keep us warm, fed and inspired, with good quality jobs and high quality exports.  And there’s certainly no shortage of opportunities to be taken.

Maybe you know this already; maybe you’re already planning to vote Green.  If so, perhaps you’d share this post with someone else.  There’s been a lot of publicity for Arlene’s speech, but she’s not the only Fermanagh woman with something to say.

 

*I’ve never used that word before, or considered its derivation (from the Greek for pebble). Quite interesting fact of the day.

 

11th January 2016

0415Congratulations to Arlene Foster on becoming First Minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly today.  As regular readers of this blog will realise, she and I don’t share many political views in common, but it’s great to see a woman in the role, and especially a woman from Fermanagh.  And, I have to confess, it’s a little bit exciting to know the First Minister personally, albeit not especially well.

 

10th January 2016

0108Over the past couple of years I’ve spent quite a lot of time, mainly at Fermanagh Churches Forum, events, thinking and talking about the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme, both of which have their centenaries this year.  Now we’re into 2016, and the fur is beginning to fly, depressingly near to the trajectories that had been predicted. I don’t imagine that anyone particularly wants to read my personal opinions on the Easter Rising (though I may not manage to resist the temptation to pontificate at some point) but perhaps there are a few starting principles that may be helpful.

1. To commemorate is not the same as to celebrate.  This does not appear to have occurred to Arlene Foster in her interview in the Impartial Reporter. We commemorate many historic, communal and religious events without necessarily feeling any allegiance towards their protagonists or sympathy towards their objectives.

2. None of us needs to pick a side.  There are people who view the Rising as an unmitigated Good or Bad Thing, but many more who take a more nuanced view; approving of some aspects, regretting others, acknowledging that we have the benefit of hindsight and recognising  the oddities of human nature and the randomness of chance.  That’s what thoughtful people do, and no one needs to feel awkward about it.

3. There is something especially ambiguous about events at this sort of distance.  More recent, and it’s mostly politics; further back and it’s just history (how many people still agonise over the morality of Henry V’s sieges?).  That’s not bad, but it makes everything more complex.

4. This is a hugely emotive event. I’m not any sort of nationalist, Irish or British, and as a mongrel of Welsh, Scottish and English, peasant and yeoman ancestry,  I have no particular emotional allegiance to any nation state.  And yet even I feel my heart beating faster as I read about the Easter Rising and its consequences.  If it has such an effect even on me, it is no surprise that strong feelings arise in those with far more sense of identification with one party or another.  An acknowledgement of these emotions, and a calm space in which to deal with them, would take us a long way.

5. As in all conflicts, there are forgotten casualties, usually the weakest.  It is sad to hear that, at the Dublin Castle ceremonies, only the names of the Volunteers were read out, and not those of the hundreds of civilians killed, including forty children under seventeen.  Whatever our views of the rights and wrongs of the Rising, these should surely be first in our memory.

11th September

6Well, of my three possible options yesterday, none of them precisely happened.  As the world and his dog now knows, Peter Robinson decided not to resign, but to ‘stand aside’, leaving Arlene Foster as both Finance Minister and Acting First Minister, or, as she herself described it on The View last night, ‘Gatekeeper’.  Quite where that leaves us, the world doesn’t know, and his dog isn’t telling.

Off to the corporation tax events today, I haven’t time to write in detail, but fortunately Steven Agnew has issued a wise and thoughtful statement:

“I am bitterly disappointed at the outcome of today’s events at Stormont. The continuing instability of the institutions can leave nobody in any doubt that changes are needed as to how our political institutions operate. People voted for local democracy and power sharing in 1998. Since then, a series of behind closed doors deals and inter-party agreements have undermined the democratic legitimacy of the governance structures in Northern Ireland. We need to learn from the failures of the secretive Haass talks and the Stormont House Agreement and engage citizens in a civic conversation to decide the future of democracy in Northern Ireland. I call on the Secretary of State to establish a process that brings in voices of both political parties and wider society with the ultimate aim of bringing forward proposals to review, reform and revitalise the Good Friday Agreement. Any proposals which arise must be put to the people of Northern Ireland via a referendum. We cannot continue to have the future of democracy in Northern Ireland held to ransom by parties watching their back due to a fear of loss of votes.”

 

 

15th April

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Today’s Fermanagh Herald included this picture, from our visit to the North Fermanagh Valley Group last week. Note the accidental Arlene-duplication in the caption.  At least Tom Elliott had his battlebus in the background, plastered with an enormous picture of his face, so he’s unlikely to be entirely forgotten.  Any more entertaining captions welcomed, so long as they’re courteous and tasteful.  I could probably manage a prize for the best.

26th March

Well, most of what I said did get into the papers this week.  Here it is:  (click on the cuttings to enlarge them)

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Fermanagh Herald, 25th March

 

 

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Fermanagh Herald, 25th March

 

 

Impartial Reporter, 26th March
Impartial Reporter, 26th March

17th February

Everyone is anti-fracking now, at least in Fermanagh, as the election approaches, and the bandwagon begins to creak as more rush to scramble aboard.   It’s worth remembering, though, the full story of what has happened over the past four years.  The highlights include:

April 2011. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) granted a licence [click to download] to Tamboran Resources to ‘search for bore and get petroleum’ (which includes gas) in the Lough Allen Basin, including the requirement to drill two exploration wells ‘including fracturing’ i.e. fracking. The licence was granted for an initial period of five years.  At the end of this period, provided that the licensee had complied with the terms of the licence (i.e. the work programme etc.) it could apply for the licence to be extended for up to another five years. At the end of that second term, again if the terms had been met, and petroleum was shown to be extractable in ‘commercial quantities’, the licensee could apply for the licence to be extended again, this time for a full production period of thirty years.

Autumn 2011. When news of the licence was discovered, the Fermanagh Fracking Awareness Network (FFAN) was set up including several Green Party members with key roles. I set up the FFAN website and edited it until 2014, as well as researching legal issues, writing leaflets and speaking at events.

December 2011. Led by Steven Agnew MLA, the leader of the Northern Ireland Green Party, the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont debated the issue of hydraulic fracturing and passed a cross-party motion calling for a moratorium on the technique.

Following the vote, the Enterprise Minister, Arlene Foster, stated that ‘no hydraulic fracking licence has been issued’, apparently unaware of the terms of her department’s April 1st licence. This insistence that no fracking licences exist was to be DETI’s continuing justification for ignoring the clear decision of the Assembly.

January 2012. Fermanagh District Council passed a motion ‘that this council opposes the use of hydraulic fracturing for gas exploration in the Lough Allen Basin and that in the light of the backing by the Northern Ireland Assembly for the motion put forward by Steven Agnew MLA on hydraulic fracturing, we call for the Minister for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Arlene Foster to place a moratorium on the licence granted to Tamboran Resources.” Again, this motion led to no change of policy by DETI.

At some point, as was discovered later by a Freedom of Information request, and confirmed in response to an Assembly question from Steven Agnew, Tamboran decided that it didn’t want to drill the shallow cored boreholes provided for in the licence but would prefer to drill one deep borehole instead. This was agreed to by DETI with no apparent consultation or publicity.

June 2013. The powerful documentary film Fracking in Fermanagh, made by local young people, had its premiere in Enniskillen to widespread acclaim. Shortly afterwards, the G8 summit was held in Fermanagh, met by a peaceful and dignified local protest, mainly concerned with the issue of fracking.

March 2014.  As the deadline for the completion of Part 1 of the licence approached, Tamboran made a last-minute request to DETI for a six month extension, which was granted. No public consultation, discussion with concerned bodies or debate in the Assembly took place.

April 2014. The Green Party MLA Steven Agnew launched a petition calling for DETI’s decision to be debated by the Executive. This would have forced the issue of fracking to be properly considered at the highest level. The petition required only thirty signatures out of 108 MLAs. Sinn Fein alone had twenty-nine MLAs, none of whom signed, not even Fermanagh’s own representatives. Neither did any MLAs from the SDLP, Alliance or the DUP. The only two signatories other than Steven himself were members of the Ulster Unionist Party, and neither represented Fermanagh. The petition, therefore, despite huge public goodwill and pressure, was unable to go ahead, and Tamboran’s licence continued in force.

tjJuly 2014. Tamboran arrived on site near Belcoo and prepared to drill its deep borehole.  Campaigners including many local people, FFAN and Green Party members, worked together to raise awareness of the need for a proper planning application and environmental impact assessment to be carried out.

August/September 2014. The Minister of the Environment agreed that the borehole could not be drilled without full planning permission, and, since Tamboran had not completed its work programme by the extended deadline, its licence expired.

October 2014.  Tamboran issued judicial review proceedings against the two departments, seeking a reversal of their decisions and a reinstatement of the licence.  Those proceedings are still ongoing, with Green Party members working hard to ensure that the community’s interests are not forgotten.

I am deeply proud of the immense hard work which has been carried out over these years by Steven and many other Green Party members, by my fellow FFAN activists and by other campaigning and community groups such as Belcoo Frack-Free.  With very little by way of resources, we have worked together, giving up time, money and health to keep our county safe and clean.  I have written, in a response to a request from Peru, about how and why I believe that we succeeded.

It is only natural now, when public opinion has become so clearly opposed to fracking here, and an election is close, that the Executive parties will want to shine up their anti-fracking credentials.  It is easy for them to use their large funds, unknown in origin, to attach themselves to the cause.  It’s not so easy, though, to persuade the people of Fermanagh to forget who has been there for them over the past four years.  As I wrote in almost the last post of my old decombustion blog:

“We’re used to having our policies pinched; we hang them out in full view, with all their supporting arguments, and positively invite our neighbours to run away with them.  But they ought to realise that they really need the whole ensemble to look the part.  Being anti-fracking makes sense, but not when it’s combined with support for TTIP, growth-at-all-costs, other polluting industries such as gold mining in the Sperrins, and the continued failure to enact a Climate Change Bill in Northern Ireland.

Fracking is a terrible business, but it doesn’t stand alone.  To banish the spectre for good, we need to make some fundamental changes to the way that we do politics, and the way that we live in our communities.  I’m proud to have played a role in what has been achieved, but even happier to be a part of what we can do together in the years to come.”

 

With other Green Party members, including Ciaran McClean, candidate for West Tyrone, at Tamboran’s site last August.

 

11th January

Farmer in Mozambique - photograph from War on Want
Farmer in Mozambique – photograph from War on Want

“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters;
and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labour for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live.”

I’d been making pots of tea and washing up for the Parish Welcoming Group before I went down to Mass today, and, what with the busy past few days, I was happy to sit still on my pew and listen to the first reading,  from the prophet Isaiah.  Later in the afternoon I was to think back to it again, and to the odd fact that, despite God’s clear disdain for money,  the party here that talks most about their Creator also seems keenest on the other thing, and on making sure that the rich get plenty more of it.

Arlene Foster spent her day of rest (or maybe it was pre-recorded) extolling the virtues of a lowered corporation tax in Northern Ireland, George Osborne’s promised prize for the farcical Stormont House Agreement.  For some reason, this bizarre statement went unchallenged in both the early evening news and on the BBC website:

“It [reducing the rate of corporation tax] will raise the productivity level by at least 6% and that means people will have an extra £3,000 in their pay packet per year,” she told BBC Radio Ulster’s Inside Business programme.”

Now I’m no economist, but I’ve filled in a few business tax returns, and this didn’t make any sense to me.  The point about corporation tax  is that it’s charged on profits, i.e. what’s left over after all the company’s expenses, including wages, research and development and capital allowances. What it reduces is the amount of dividends available to shareholders, not the amount of pay to workers. Surely what Mrs Foster had meant to say was:

“It will raise the post-tax profits by 10% or so, and that means that those (not many of whom are in Northern Ireland) who already receive large unearned incomes will be given plenty more.”

Or was I missing something?  I decided to give the DUP the benefit of the doubt, and to check.  It turned out that Mrs Foster hadn’t invented the idea that lower corporation tax would lead to higher productivity.  A certain Arthur Laffer had apparently sketched a curve suggesting just that on a napkin during a cosy chat with that illustrious double-act Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.  It is, however, utter nonsense, as John Christensen explains.  Even Greg Mankiw, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under George W. Bush, described supporters of the idea as “charlatans and cranks”.

There are many more reasons why lowering corporation tax would be a really bad idea for Northern Ireland, some of which will no doubt be illuminated over the next few days.  But for Mrs Foster to begin this important discussion with such a discredited theory is disappointing, and for the BBC to report it unquestioningly is downright irresponsible.  Incline your ear, indeed, but be careful in which direction.