10th April 2016

‘Judge not, lest ye be judged.’  It’s one of those Gospel sayings that seems, rather unhelpfully, to be advocating an impossibly high moral standard in order to achieve some intangible spiritual benefit.  But what if, as I’m beginning to see about more and more of Jesus’ teachings, if it’s actually a matter of practical politics?

The Panama Papers leak could have been a hugely enlightening glimpse into the murky mysteries of offshore finance, a sort of Tax Havens 101 for the mainstream.  If you actually want to know how the system works, you’re much better off reading Nicholas Shaxson’s Treasure Islands, or even visiting the Christian Aid website, but we work with what we have.  Or, alternatively, we don’t.

Within days, the story has been narrowed and personalised into a campaign for the resignation of David Cameron. What a waste. Cameron leads an odious, short-sighted and vindictive government, but he does not single-handedly either prop up or benefit from the massive injustice and secrecy of the offshore system. He is wealthy, but not super-rich, and will have ensured that he is excellently advised.  His resignation, should it happen, would be a triumph for no one but his Conservative party rivals, and in particular for the Brexit campaign.

If we want to look for who or what benefits from the system hinted at by the Panama Papers, pointing the finger at individuals will get us nowhere.  The City of London, and the web of related secrecy jurisdictions, are not embodied in a single person, however significant a figurehead.  And it is the City of London which has most to fear from the proposed introduction of a Tobin or Robin Hood tax by the European Union.

It’s the same, on whatever scale you look, with our domestic politics here in Northern Ireland.  As long as we are judging individuals, we are blind to the  wider systems that so urgently need change.  Read any local newspaper and you’ll find the same; condemnation and counter-condemnation, in a spiral that moves further and further from the issues we need to address.  And impending elections only intensify the blame, and the waste of time, energy and goodwill.

Suppose we, in an experiment with quite a different fundamentalism, tried taking Jesus seriously?  What if we actually didn’t rush to condemn those leaders or rivals with whom we don’t agree, and looked instead at the flawed environment which has sent them so far off kilter?  I can’t say that I get it right all the time myself; I’ve passed judgment enough, if mainly inside my head.  But I know that it never leads to anything but niggling unease, and a bitter taste in the soul.

In the Green Party we’re in a unique position.  Tied to neither of the binary ‘traditions’, we don’t need to rush to the defence of one against the other.  With a clear vision of the work to be done, we can stand side by side and look forward to the tasks of tomorrow.  And as part of a global movement, we can learn from the experiences, the successes and, yes, sometimes the mistakes, of our sister parties across the world.

As I say, I can’t guarantee always to get it right.  But I do promise, as a serious candidate for the votes of the people of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, to look at my political rivals as human beings, to seek common ground for the common good, and to speak out clearly about the real forces that are holding us back.  Anything else would be a waste of this great opportunity.  And you already know that we’re not about waste.

26th November 2015

1126Here we go again.  Twelve years after the Dodgy Dossier used by Tony Blair to justify invading Iraq, David Cameron has produced his own Meretricious Memorandum, claiming to explain why bombing Syria is now a good idea. I can’t trust myself to maintain ladylike standards of composition while writing about this, so am going to nudge you gently in the direction of Stop the War’s excellent analysis.  Oh, and don’t bother with the Guardian – you know what they’re like at these critical moments….

7th September

With two shocking news stories today, and another depressingly predictable, it’s difficult to know where to start.

David Cameron and the refugees.

He’s had a long weekend to decide what to do.  He’s seen refugee solidarity groups pop up like compassionate mushrooms right across the country.  He’s seen the people and representatives of Germany leading the way, welcoming refugees and being applauded across the world for it.  He knows that the one thing most human beings in the United Kingdom want him to do is to welcome our sisters and brothers fleeing the terrible conditions in Syria.  So what does he promise?  “Up to” (familiar advertising weasel words) “twenty thousand refugees over the rest of this Parliament”.  In case anyone has forgotten, that’s nearly five years.  As Caroline Lucas quickly calculated, it’s twelve people per day, and as Gerald Kaufman pointed out, in one such day,  Germany has admitted ten thousand.  And Cameron calls this “extraordinary compassion”.

David Cameron and the young man from Cardiff

For the first time (that we know of), the UK armed forces have used remote drones to kill a British national in a country with which we are not at war.  Reyaad Khan was twenty-one and from Cardiff.  We don’t know much more about him.  We are told that he was, on behalf of Islamic State, planning terrorist activities in Britain.  The truth of this might have been tested at trial, had he been arrested and prosecuted.  As it is, we are unlikely to know anything more, except that this is now an acceptable way for our government to act.  As for Khan’s two companions, one also British, killed along with him, as collateral damage, we are told that they too were Islamic State members, and therefore worthy of no regret.

I have no sympathy at all with Islamic State as an organisation.  Violence; murder, torture and rape, are not a legitimate way to advance any cause, whether nationalist or religious.  That is why, in seeking to defeat IS, we must be careful not to fall into the same tragic mistakes.  To call the extra-judicial killing of a fellow-citizen ‘self-defence’ is to set a serious and dangerous precedent.  We have seen this week, even in the Daily Mail, how frack-free protesters like Caroline Lucas herself, can be targeted, intentionally or otherwise, by the government’s ‘anti-terror’ policies  An Islamic State activist in Syria one day, a Friends of the Earth campaigner in France the next: it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility.

The DUP and meetingless government

It must have been tricky to know quite how to follow the Ulster Unionists’ resignation from the Northern Ireland Executive.  To do the same might have looked like agreement (Heaven forbid, except for an election pact); to do nothing to appear weak.  So they’ve come up with the ideal solution – stay in power, but refuse to talk to your fellow ministers (or to the rest of the island).  Most of us realised by the age of seven that ‘non-speaks’ was the least good way to resolve quarrels, but then most of us aren’t Executive Ministers.  They do have a special talking shed, anyway, Stormont House (again) where they’re going to chat all they like about the future of power-sharing, the ontological essence of the IRA and, quite possibly, who gets the last sandwich.  Just not about doing the day-to-day work that they’re paid for.  Meanwhile Sinn Fein, of course, has some very serious questions to face.  It’s a pity that this isn’t going to come up with any answers.

 

 

3rd September

Sculpture of woman huddled in a jacket
The Refugee, photo by Tony Hisgett

The refugee crisis, in all its manifestations, is the main topic of our news this week.  But, much more than that, it is one of the key issues on which our generation will be judged.  Its root causes are the others: the arms trade, climate change and the exploitation of resources, human beings and their fears and loyalties for the further enrichment of the already rich.  What we do or don’t do, say or don’t say now will haunt our countries for generations to come.  As Caroline Moorehead writes in Human Cargo:

“No one, in the end, wants to be a refugee. Exile is an unhappy state. Refugees seldom want to leave home, and when forced to do so they dream of the day they can return. The best ‘durable solution’ for any refugee is to go home, but to a home and a country that are safe; if that is impossible, the next best option is resettlement. It has to be accepted that not all asylum-seekers will ever contribute anything to the West’s economy; some will be too frail, too damaged, too inflexible to achieve a productive life.  But to rail at that is to misunderstand the nature of asylum, because asylum in the end is not only about responsibility and interdependence but about morality; in an age of globalisation, it is simply not possible to ignore the world’s dispossessed.  How a state deals with its refugees should be a measure of its social and political health.”  (p.289)

The situation of refugees, fleeing from destruction, imprisonment, torture, rape and murder, is almost impossible for us to imagine.  For most of us in the UK, our lives, however difficult, painful, touched by tragedy or crushed by austerity, retain some basic structure, some pattern of home and family, of country and culture, a sense of identity and of place.  For many of us these things are so longstanding and deep-rooted that we never think of them, and literally cannot conceive of a life in which they might be gone.  Add to that our thirty-five years of neoliberal propaganda, of the relentless message that financial wellbeing is the only sort that matters, that the market will solve all problems, that our moral imperatives are to aspire, to succeed, to consume and to accumulate.  Add, again, the complexity of the global conflicts and the reluctance, often refusal, of the media to explain the issues at stake.

In such a context, with powerful forces pushing us into ignorance and denial, a powerful counterbalance is needed to shock us into opening our eyes.  For some, the photographs of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, the little Syrian boy found drowned on a Turkish beach, will have been that shock.  But it’s a huge weight for those little limbs to bear.  Pity and compassion, righteous anger and a sense of injustice and waste are deep and real emotions.  But for them to achieve change they have to be channeled into positive, informed and sustained demands for transformed policies and practice.

I am gravely proud this morning to be a member of the global Greens, of the European Green Party which has campaigned consistently against Fortress Europe, and of the Green Party in Northern Ireland.  Our leader, Steven Agnew, issued a statement today saying:

“You cannot fail to be moved by the heart wrenching image of a little boy lying lifeless on the sand. There has to be a humanitarian approach to the refugee crisis that is unfolding before us. We need to understand many of these refugees are risking their lives to escape extreme poverty, oppressive regimes and conflict. The UK, and indeed the island of Ireland are safe and secure for those fleeing war. I call on the Prime Minster David Cameron to ensure the UK steps up and offers refuge to those seeking sanctuary. We need to look at the causes of such crises including the role UK foreign policy has played. We need to look at how we can offer hospitality to refugees in the short term, while a long term solution is enacted.”

This kind of leadership is desperately needed across Europe today.  It is not the fault of ordinary people that they cannot envisage the horrors which have driven refugees from their homes.  It is not their fault that, judging by everything they have been told, they believe the UK to be ‘full’, with no room or resources for those in need.  It is not their fault that they do not know about our solemn responsibilities and the terrible events which inspired us to shoulder them.  But it is the fault of politicians who, at best, limit their vision to what they learn from their focus groups, who fail to acknowledge the potential generosity of their own people, who follow when they should be leading.  Of the worst, of deliberate and cynical scapegoating, I shall not speak here.

And it is the fault of the media.  Again, discounting those with their own agenda, for whom the catalysing of xenophobia has its own advantages, even those who try to be objective are failing.  Some things cannot be said in a bright snappy interview in a foreign language.  Those who are willing to talk to a camera will not be the most broken or the most typical.  Refugees are people, and, like all of us, they feel pride and they feel shame.  Like us, they prefer to look to the future rather than to replay the past.  ‘I’m seeking a better life for my family’ – which father would not proudly say the same?  Who, especially from a culture prizing modesty and dignity, would speak with the same confidence of having been raped and tortured?  And they should not have to.  The television news is not a place for graphic horrors, certainly not for the titillating exploitation of human misery.  But the reporters who are representing us bear the responsibility of telling the truth, not only the portion of it that is easy and fits snugly into their audience’s perceived comfort zone.

As I write this, there is speculation that David Cameron may change his attitude, that yesterday’s appalling display of smug callousness may be replaced by something less brutal.  That would be welcome, if it is accompanied by a real change of policy.  But, whatever happens, we must not forget this week, and we must learn its lessons quickly.  Our grandchildren will judge whether or not we do.

15th January

0115Well, this has been a good day, if not quite the one I expected.  My plan was to spend the morning on book things, and the afternoon writing the rest of my TTIP/CETA post.  However, Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky  – so sorry – Dave, Nige, Ed and Nick had other ideas.

For those of you who, by geography or inclination, manage to avoid the UK political news, I’ll explain very briefly.

In recent elections, the UK broadcasters have been following the American example by hosting televised debates.  Before the last general election in 2010, the main BBC debate was between what were seen as the ‘three main parties’: Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.  The consensus was that the LibDem leader, Nick Clegg, had acquitted himself particularly well.  A phenomenon known as ‘Cleggmania’ ensued, leading to the LibDems, with their principled pledge to abolish student tuition fees, obtaining enough MPs to, er, go into coaltion with the Conservatives and triple tuition fees.

Five years later, the BBC decided that they would do things a bit differently this time.  Rather than restrict the debate to the same three parties, they would include an alternative, a new party that offered something different and challenged the stale orthodoxies of the old guard. And that party was – UKIP.  Yes, the UK Independence Party, that caricature of right-wing Conservatism, with its ex-City, privately educated leader, populist anti-immigration stance, pro-corporate, anti-environment agenda and tendency towards spectacular own goals, as one after another of its candidates lets slip a racist or homophobic epithet that, even in its chosen habitat of 1950s Croydon, would be not quite the thing, old chap.

So, there was to be a debate with Call Me Dave Cameron, Nick the Now Contrite (‘It wasn’t my fault, sir, the big boys made me do it’), the Labour leader Not-so-Red-Ed Milliband and the nonentity that is UKIP’s Nigel Farage, a man so lacking in basic being-a-proper-personhood that the British public, congratulating itself on its sense of humour, has decided that he’s this year’s joke ornament.  A bit like those irritating singing fish we used to see everywhere, which have now disappeared off the face of the nation’s lounges, Nigel is to be stuck on the telly to give us all a good laugh.  The trouble is, if they decide to buy one, there’s not a a charity shop in the land that’ll take  a slightly soiled UKIP MP when the fun wears off.

Where was I?  Oh yes, the BBC debate.  It then occurred to a few million people that if the BBC wanted to invite a fourth person along, there was a leader of a real alternative party, one with a proper MP, not to mention lots of councillors and members of the European Parliament, a party that had been ahead of the LibDems in several recent polls and that actually had some interesting policies to put forward, rather than relying on xenophobic bluster.  So quite a lot of these millions of people asked the BBC to change its mind, at least to add Natalie Bennett of the Green Party and make it a five-way debate.  And the British Broadcasting Corporation, being a public institution with a duty to foster democracy and fairness, said,

‘No.’

Upon which Dave, who wasn’t very keen on these debate-things anyway, having sustained a nasty puncture in the self-importance last time, hit on a wheeze.  (Or one of his advisors did.)  He announced, with grave dignity, that he wouldn’t take part in the debate unless the BBC invited the Greens as well.  Now, no one imagines that he said this out of a sense of Etonian fair play or a sudden respect for Green Party policies.  No, it was quite obvious that having Natalie Bennett there would be a huge and scary challenge to Labour and the LibDems, calling them out on their feeble nods towards red-and-greenery.  It would also distract attention from Cameron’s own possibly dismal performance.

We all knew it, so it didn’t mean anything.  All the other party leaders needed to do was to make vaguely regretful noises, ‘wish Natalie could have taken part, would have welcomed her perspective,  but sadly BBC has to make own decisions, can’t interfere, blah-blah’.  They could have done it in their sleep, having had, between them, a hundred and twenty-odd years of experience in not letting girls join in with their games (‘too dangerous, physical strength, male and female brains…’).  Instead, they decided to get together, Ed, Nick and Nigel, like lazy schoolboys cribbing their homework, and each write an identical letter to the BBC asking for a debate without either Dave or Natalie, but with an empty naughty seat in the middle.

It would be a stupid enough thing to do if they were political allies.  As so-called enemies, it was absolutely bonkers.   I don’t know what they imagined would happen, but I can’t think that the consequences were exactly intended.  The row was all over the news, with the word ‘Green’ being used more often within a single bulletin than over weeks of normal coverage.  The sheer silly pettiness of the boys was right out in the open, and the person who came out of it with honour and dignity was Natalie.

So what happened then was that the Green Surge, the increase in membership that had been building throughout 2014, burst into what our friend Maurice has called a Green Geyser.  Thousands of people flocked to the Green Party’s websites and signed up as members.  By this morning the UK Green membership had overtaken that of UKIP and by the evening it had passed the Liberal Democrats as well.  And, small though we are here, with Northern Ireland’s tiny population and weird political landscape, we caught quite a welcome soaking from the geyser as well.  So, as GPNI membership secretary, I’ve spent most of the day slaving over a hot spreadsheet. Never has formatting cells been so satisfying.

1st January

At the borehole site in August

What I’d really like to see in 2015:

1. Climate change being taken seriously.

We don’t have any more time to mess around.  We have to make real and substantial changes now, if our children and grandchildren, and the most vulnerable and blameless of the world’s people, are not to pay a terrible price for our stupidity and greed. The best piece of news recently is the anticipation of Pope Francis’s forthcoming encyclical. If he speaks out as trenchantly as we hope, it’s possible that millions of Catholics, the other Christians and people of other or no faith who respect his judgment, and global leaders both political and religious, will take notice and act. That is my first prayer and hope for our new year.

 

2. The departure of this cruel and duplicitous coalition government in the UK.

David Cameron and his cronies, facilitated by the spineless LibDems, have succeeded in overseeing a massive shift of resources from the poor to the rich, an increase in fear, suspicion and selfishness, the destruction of hopes for a sustainable future and the worsening of every measure of the common good.  Their friends in the media, fellow beneficiaries of the Tory Robin-Hood-in-reverse, have gone along with every step, setting up only the straw Farage as a pseudo-opposition.  My second hope, therefore, is that the people of the UK will come to their senses before May and choose a genuine alternative.

 

3. The Green surge continuing throughout the British Isles.

This isn’t mere party loyalty.  The growth in membership and support of the Green Party has been the only effective counterbalance to the media-fuelled rise of UKIP and will serve not only to bring more much-needed Green MPs into Parliament but also to remind parties such as Labour that there are people out there who respect principle, know that ‘aspiration’ means more than a fatter wallet and that our children’s futures are not to be gambled for a cheap soundbite.  Without the Greens, I fear we’d only have shades of blue.

 

4. Northern Irish politicians acknowledging their mistakes and seeking a wider vision.

Between Sinn Fein, whose wafer-thin progressive credentials were accidentally exposed by Gerry Adams this year, and the DUP, who increasingly glory in having none, politics in Northern Ireland is increasingly petty, bad-tempered and out of touch with external standards of behaviour.  The results aren’t just embarrassing; they’re positively retrograde and damaging to our hopes of a positive and prosperous future for this beautiful and gifted region.  It is no coincidence that Steven Agnew has won numerous independent awards for his integrity, professionalism and hard work as a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly.  If other MLAs followed his example, our shared future would be a real prospect instead of a ragged hope.

 

5. An end to the threat of fracking in Fermanagh and beyond.

2014 has brought great successes to the frack-free movement both locally and worldwide, with Tamboran forced to postpone their plans for Belcoo, increasing evidence of the futility and destructive nature of the technique, and bans in the most unexpected places, including New York and the ‘fracking capital’ of Denton, Texas. It would be foolish, though, to think that we have won.  The UK government is more keen than ever to subsidise its friends in the fossil fuel industry, Tamboran are bringing judicial review proceedings to try to recover their licence, and more areas of Northern Ireland are under threat from the experimental process.  Nearly all of our politicians here in Northern Ireland, and especially those standing for election in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, claim to be ‘anti-fracking’ but few, apart from the Green Party, have taken any action to stop it (1).  And with political funding still secret here (2), we have no way of knowing what might be in their interests during the months and years to come.

 

There are a few more things on my long wish list, including new brakes for my bike and the loss of the few pounds I’ve put on in mince pies, but these will do for a start.  Very best wishes to you all for a peaceful, happy and hopeful New Year.

 

 Notes:

(1)  At the recent vote on the government’s Infrastructure Bill, which will change the law of trespass to allow fracking under people’s homes against their will, only ten MPs voted No, including Caroline Lucas of the Green Party.  Sinn Fein MPs do not attend the House of Commons and so did not take part in the debate or the vote.

(2) The Green Party does not accept corporate donations, and publishes details of all donations over £500.

 

20th December

1220
At Glastonbury this year with Natalie Bennett and my sons Aidan and Rory.

This is the first Saturday since the summer when I haven’t been away, at a meeting or out doing some Green or frack-free campaigning.  Not that the post office and Christmas food shopping this morning were exactly restful – I think I’d prefer to be in a flashmob than a checkout queue.  And there’s plenty of computer-based anti-fracking work to be done, as there has been for the past three Christmases, so I’m not quite in holiday mode yet.

Talking of fracking, I was delighted to read that Tina Louise Rothery has been selected as the Green Party candidate for the Tatton constituency, challenging George Osborne on his home turf.  I first met Tina in Belfast when she and a group of fellow frack-free activists from Lancashire came across to support us on a march, and then we met again at Glastonbury this year when Natalie Bennett was speaking there (see picture above).  Like many others, Tina was galvanised by the fracking issue into joining the Green Party two years ago, and will be an inspiring and committed candidate.  As she says;

“The problems with our current situation appear less to do with the economy and far more to do with the way that economy is managed and whom it does – and doesn’t – benefit.

“Corporate interests have an unhealthy influence on decisions made in Westminster.  Look at the planned spending on huge projects like HS2 (due to end Wilmslow’s direct London service) instead of improvements to existing rail – including the Mid-Cheshire line – that would bring greater benefit to the local population; or the way they insist on pursuing short-term, risky energy solutions that will bring no benefits on prices or security for UK residents.

“Time and again the UK electorate watches the predictable cycle of political activity in the run up to an election; promises being made that we know will be broken. Each election leaves us disappointed and for too long, the choice on the ballot paper has been limited to a very similar line-up.The priorities, concerns and challenges in our everyday lives are not reflected in the policies of the current government and haven’t been for as long as I can remember. Looking at the grey suits and behaviour in the House of Commons is like looking back in time to a fossilised place that just isn’t part of the ‘real world’ anymore.”

Unlike other parties, [the Green Party] is not funded by big business and is not influenced, swayed, encouraged or bullied by corporate interests and because we are focused on the issues that matter; the preservation of our NHS, the integrity of our education, clean affordable energy, getting the railways back into public ownership, fair taxation, action to tackle air pollution and refusing the advance of dangerous industries.”

“Unlike the vast majority of those in politics who claim to represent the residents of the UK, I do not come from a background that has groomed me for the government we know today – and I believe this to be a distinct advantage.”

It will be interesting to see how many other new Green Party candidates come from a frack-free campaigning background and how the issue has given us the impetus and confidence to take our political involvement to this level.  It will be even more interesting to see how many voters choose the Greens in May, especially in areas threatened by the shale gas industry.  David Cameron’s remarks this week about wind energy and fracking nail his fossil-fuel colours firmly to the mast (remember the ‘greenest government ever’?) and throw down a blatant challenge to the clearly stated priorities of the public.  People across the UK are not so daft as Mr Cameron hopes: they recognise the vital necessity of sustainable energy and reject the dangerous and unnecessary speculation that is fracking.  If I were George Osborne, facing Tina in the polls, I’d be asking my old chum to pipe down.