More local papers today. The Tyrone Constitution covered both West Tyrone and Fermanagh and South Tyrone, so Ciaran and I could smile at one another from adjacent pages. Here we are:
And the Fermanagh Herald noted that four out of five of the FST candidates are women, and asked us about it. The article ended with my little bit.
Here, by the way, are the full questions we were asked, and my responses:
It’s obviously a very positive thing to have four of our five candidates running in Fermanagh South Tyrone are women, and all but one of our MLSs are women. Do you think there is something in particular about FST that encourages women to engage with politics?
I’m not sure, but my experience as a woman candidate in FST has certainly been very positive, and the overwhelming response I’ve had from people has been both respectful and warm. I don’t know how much that is because I’m a woman and how much it’s because I represent the Green Party, but whichever it is, it makes this marathon series of elections a bit easier to cope with. I hope that the example of my experience as a candidate will help more of the many young women joining the Green Party to feel confident in standing themselves in future elections, in FST and elsewhere.
What challenges, in your experience, do women face in politics, compared to their male colleagues?
I think that the greatest barrier to women’s participation in politics is the false perception that there aren’t any barriers left. In this respect, having female party leaders can actually be a disadvantage to other women. Having one woman at the top of the pyramid doesn’t alter the status quo in the way that equal representation at every level would, and there’s also the danger of a Mrs-Thatcher-style drawbridge effect.
In the Green Party a few years ago we took the time to look in detail at the issue of women’s participation, listening to our members’ experiences and building a strategy to support and encourage women. It was that process which gave me the confidence finally to say yes to being a candidate. The strategy has been an enormous success, so much so that in the past two Assembly elections we have had equal gender balance, and in this Westminster election we are the only party to have more women candidates than we do men. That shows, I think, that the individual challenges, whether they are to do with practical matters, psychological barriers or limited perceptions, can be overcome with determination, respect and communication.
Finally, what advice would you have for young women and girls who would have political aspirations?
Firstly I’d say to anyone, whatever their gender, please don’t think of politics just as a career. That’s the attitude which lies behind so many of the problems we’ve seen coming out of both Stormont and Westminster. But if you care deeply about the wellbeing of your neighbours, if you want to put people first, if you want to protect the earth’s landscapes and inhabitants and make life better for the generations to come, then don’t worry about who you are, just do something about it. That something might be in party politics, if you find a party that shares your values and priorities, or it might be in campaign or action groups, large or small. Whoever you join up with, make sure that they show a genuine respect for all and a willingness to listen and to change. If a party or group doesn’t trust or understand its own women members, it’s unlikely to be able to work effectively for a better life for others. Don’t be afraid to walk away if you have to. And finally, value yourself, look after yourself, don’t be too hard on yourself, and you’ll be able to value, look after and forgive your friends and colleagues too.
A letter to the people of Fermanagh and South Tyrone
Dear friends and neighbours
We’ve been through a lot in the past year, locally, regionally and globally. Twelve months ago today we’d only just got the results from the last-but-one Assembly election, when we were plunged into the last weeks of campaigning on the EU referendum. I was travelling across Fermanagh, South Tyrone and Belfast speaking at events and on the radio about why staying in Europe was the best way of preserving our rights, our economy, our freedom and our futures. A large majority of you agreed with me.
Then we had the RHI fiasco, and the collapse of the DUP/Sinn Fein executive in bitter recrimination, leading to another Assembly election in March of this year, only ten months after the last one. We all know what that led to – absolutely nothing. After weeks of talks behind closed doors, the mainstream parties were no further towards agreement. Putting their political games before your interests was fine by them – and left our already starved public services, our education, our healthcare and our environment, in an even worse state.
We were dreading the announcement of yet another election. And sure enough, just as we (well, some of us) got back to work after Easter, our fears were realised. But it wasn’t another Assembly election, but a Westminster one, called by Theresa May in a breathtakingly cynical breach of her previous promise. She knows that the kind of Brexit she is determined upon will lead to desperately hard times, and she wants to get another five years in the bag before that happens.
So here we are again. You won’t be surprised to hear that I was tempted not to stand again, to stick my head under the duvet and leave my posters stacked in the loft. After all, it will be their fourth expedition up the lampposts – there must be a limit to even our recycling. Why not leave this election to the big parties, with their secret donors and their deep war chests?
But it isn’t their futures that this election is about – it’s yours, and our children’s. It’s time to put you first, and that’s why I’m willing to stand again.
You know me by now. You know that we’ve lived in Enniskillen for eleven years, have made Fermanagh our family’s home and have become deeply embedded in the community. You know that when I stood in the 2015 Westminster election as the first ever Green candidate, other smaller parties didn’t think this constituency was worth bothering about. I was delighted and honoured by the support I received then, and the other candidates and commentators were quite taken aback. But it isn’t really surprising. Green principles – non-violence, a clean and healthy environment, fairness for all and real democracy – they’re the only way we can protect what is precious and at the same time build a better future.
As your Green Party MP, I’d put those principles into practice, putting you first and speaking up at Westminster on the issues that matter to you. They’re the issues that matter to me, too.
Your say on Brexit and our future in Europe. I’ve been consistently campaigning for us to stay in Europe, with all the benefits, rights and positive relationships that EU membership has brought. Unlike some other parties and politicians, we haven’t jumped from one side of the fence to the other. I believe that Theresa May’s Brexit will be a great mistake for the UK, and will do great damage also to the Irish Republic. The border is a huge and urgent issue, but it isn’t the only post-Brexit problem which we face. That’s why we need a representative who will be at Westminster, ready and willing to work with other MPs in keeping our options open and calling for a people’s referendum on the terms of any final deal. And as European Greens, with sister parties in Ireland, England and Wales, Scotland and across Europe, we are uniquely placed to work at all levels to protect you from a hard harsh Brexit.
Your services, your schools and your healthcare. The important things are the things we do together. That’s what those who would divide us always forget. A thriving, positive community is one which cares for our children, for older people, for those who need special help and for the fragile environment which we share. More than ever, across the world, those basic decencies are under threat from greed, fear and ignorance. Here in Northern Ireland, as the main parties repeat their old squabbles, we’re in danger of losing sight of the big picture. Let’s take care of what matters, while we still have the chance.
Your equal rights, whatever your identity. We’ve come a long way, even in my lifetime, in understanding the ways that people are different and in learning to accept and listen to one another. Young people especially are inspiring us with their wisdom and generosity. But we’ve also seen, in the rise of Trump and the global far right, the bigoted resentment of those who would rather build walls than bridges. Rights that we thought were established are under attack, while those that a clear majority want to share, like equal marriage, are denied by those who claim to represent you. Equality isn’t a slogan, or a weapon; it’s the simple and fair basis for everything else that we do, for building a prosperous and peaceful society in a clean environment. When we stop fighting, we have time to do the important things.
We’ve had too many elections in the past two years, and I share your feelings about this one. But there’s one thing worse than having too many elections, and that’s not having any. The world is at a crossroads now; and the loudest voices are shouting for us to follow them towards more division, more greed, more hatred and more repression. The other way, the way of co-operation, of fairness, of thoughtfulness and respect, is the road we Greens have always taken. It’s not so noisy, not talked about by the media or the mainstream politicians, but more and more people are taking that road too, across the world, throughout Europe and notably in this week’s local elections in Scotland, England and Wales.
If that’s a vision that you share, then you’ll understand why I’m here again. It’s time to put you first.
On Monday I received an email which, more than anything so far in this election campaign, gave me hope for our future. It read:
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: -Abortion -Marriage equality -Integrated education -Brexit and its implications on NI -Managing the inquiry into the RHI scheme -The current refugee crisis’ in Syria, Yemen and Sudan -Fracking
Thank you, Niamh Mcandrew
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.
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.
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:
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.
Whoever 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.