7th July 2016

And in today’s Impartial Reporter:

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6th July 2016

My letter in today’s Fermanagh Herald.

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28th June 2016

I am writing this on the Holyhead to Dublin ferry, coming home from Glastonbury, and one of the most emotional weekends of my life.  When I woke up on Friday morning to the referendum result, chalked on a blackboard outside the campsite information tent, I wasn’t surprised; I’d never been sanguine about the return to the status quo consensus; but I was shocked and dismayed.  The fact that Northern Ireland and Scotland both had Remain majorities, though personally consoling, didn’t make the news any better.  As the shockwaves passed through the site, strangers and friends sharing stunned sadness, all I could think of was my neighbours back at home.  Northern Ireland, I reflected, faces all the anguish and turmoil of England or Wales, intensified by our post-conflict vulnerability and dependence on ‘inward investment’, together with the potential opening of older and deeper wounds.  The Scottish festival-goers could be proud and defiant, looking forward to a second, likely decisive independence referendum, but for us there are no easy answers.

I’m not ashamed to say that I spent much of Friday in tears, and what moments I could on Saturday and Sunday sitting in a sea of mud, scanning the pages of the Guardian for coverage of Northern Ireland’s situation.  There was a little, but nothing that told me anything I didn’t already know.  Amidst the excitement of new (I can’t say ‘fresh’) leadership battles in the two biggest parties, the only real interest in the other side of the Irish Sea is as a source of a potential EU passport.

Now, after the initial shock has passed, I’m more angry than tearful.  I’m not angry with the people who voted Leave, not even those who within hours were regretting their protest.  Except for a few in marginal constituencies, people aren’t used to seeing their vote count, and they were cruelly and cynically misled.  I am angry, though, with those elected representatives who knew what they were doing, and went ahead regardless, for motives only they fully know. When we challenged them, during the campaign, to explain how they would achieve access to the single market without freedom of movement or compliance with European law, or how they would protect our environment, our rights and our economy outside it, they simply accused us of scaremongering.  Within minutes of the result being announced, they began to resile on their promises, and the world to show the firm foundation of our fears.

I am especially angry with those who hold responsible posts in Northern Ireland: the Secretary of State, the First Minister, and MPs including my own, who blithely waved aside the concerns of the thoughtful majority.  That majority was not convinced, but who knows how much damage they did by giving such cover to the Brexiteers.  There are many good and compassionate people across the UK who would have thought again if appealed to do so by a broad consensus of politicians representing Northern Ireland.

But, as the Dublin shoreline appears through the grey sky, I will not be mastered by this anger.  Now is not a time for bitterness or rage.  There is work to be done; serious, difficult and hard work, salvaging what we can from the chaos around us, using the tools still at our disposal, and building a peaceful and stable future on the ruins of the past.  Things will not be as we hoped and planned,  but with goodwill, intelligence and compassion we can save ourselves, our neighbours and our children from the very worst.   The Green Party has never shied away from acknowledging and preparing for the greatest challenges we face, from climate change to growing inequality.  It is what has made us such an exasperating challenge to the establishment in times of complacency.  But now, when all the old certainties seem to be crumbling, we at least have the context, the principles and the evidence-based policies to help find a way forward.  Join us now to be a part of that journey.

3rd June 2016

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Here’s a pro-Remain piece by me published in yesterday’s Impartial Reporter and paired with a pro-Leave one by Socialist MEP Joe Higgins.  For the sake of your eyesight, here is my text:

Not another article about Brexit! The trouble with the so-called debate so far is that, on both sides, it’s so distant from our real lives. Disputed calculations about how much ‘the UK’ pays into the EU, and how much it gets back, bad-tempered squabbles about so-called ‘sovereignty’ and pathetic contests about who is ‘stronger’. No wonder we are fed up.

That’s a shame, because whether or not we stay in Europe will make crucial differences to our lives, in ways that hardly anyone is talking about.

Our health. The environment isn’t just something distant, to do with polar bears and rainforests, it’s the place where we live: the air that we breathe, the water that we drink, wash with and bathe in, and the soil where our food is grown and nurtured. If those are not kept clean and safe, then we and our families will suffer. Almost all of the laws that protect our air, our water and our land have come to us through our European membership. If we left Europe, this Conservative government could immediately repeal those laws, allowing its friends in dangerous industries like fracking to grab our resources freely, ruining both our countryside and our health.

Our local economy. It’s not just our landscape and our health that would be left in tatters by unregulated exploitation, it would be our local businesses as well. Fermanagh’s key economic sectors, tourism and agriculture, depend on a clean and safe environment, on European financial support and on the rights of people to travel and trade across our border. We have worked hard to build those businesses, those relationships, those quality goods and services. Let’s not let them be taken away from us.

Our rights. The laws that protect our health and our environment are underpinned by basic principles: that those who pollute should pay the costs, that development should be sustainable for our children’s future and that it is up to those who benefit from experiments like fracking to show that they are safe. Those principles, along with our rights to freedom of information, our rights as consumers, as workers, as women or as LGBT people, are all under threat if we throw away our European protections. And our children‘s choices to study or work in Paris, Berlin or Rome, with all the wide horizons they offer, could be lost for good.

Of course, things are not perfect. We are working with our Green Party colleagues across Europe to make the EU work better for us, to put our rights and needs as people above those of financial speculators and multinational corporations. That is why the European Greens are campaigning so strongly against the proposed TTIP treaty between the EU and the USA. But if we were to leave, David Cameron would swiftly lock us into the very worst version of this.

So far, especially in Northern Ireland, we haven’t really experienced many of the ways in which Europe can help and protect us. Enforcement of environmental laws here has been a scandalous farce, for which successive Executives must take the blame. But we have the rights, and we have the tools to enforce those rights. Rather than giving them away, I think it’s time to use them.

That’s why I hope that this referendum, instead of just a dreary debate, will be a wake-up call to us. I hope it can remind us of how we, as citizens, families and communities, can use the tools of Europe to defend our health, our businesses, our wildlife and our landscape. And I hope that it will inspire us to play our part in making Europe what we want it to be: a peaceful, fair, diverse and thriving place, a safe and clean home for our children, our grandchildren, and those whom they will love for many years to come.

 

 

25th May 2016

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Stanley Johnson, James Orr (FoE) and me

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.

 

18th January 2016

My friend William Anderson has begun a new blog, wittily entitled The Political Will.  I’m anticipating that I will agree with most of it, and possibly quite vehemently disagree with other bits.  We shall see.  I certainly approve of his first post, a reflection on John Donne’s famous lines.  To avoid too much duplication, I’ll give them in a slightly antiquated version.

No man is an Iland, intire of itselfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine;
if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were,
as well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine owne were;

any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde;
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

The reference to ‘Europe’ gives it an oddly contemporary flavour.  Could this be a new slogan for the pro-EC campaign; “Don’t be a clod – stay unwashed in Europe!”  Maybe not.

Oh, and I’ve discovered from the blog that William and his family have a donkey. I’m very fond of donkeys. A journey to Sixmilecross may prove necessary.

20th April

0416Here are the questions which Matthew and Cian, editors of Arís Magazine at St. Michael’s College, Enniskillen sent to me, together with my replies.

1. The economy – generally

1. Where would you position yourself on the left-right political spectrum?

I am definitely on the left side of the spectrum, especially in relation to the mainstream parties which have shifted significantly to the right during my adult life. My politics are informed by my understanding of the Gospels, with their values of non-violence, compassion and justice. These lead me to seek economic solutions which support the poor and marginalised, locally and globally, rather than facilitating the rich to grow even richer.

 2. Do you think the UK economy is recovering?

There are some headline figures which indicate that the UK economy is to some extent ‘recovering’, as would have been inevitable in any case. George Osborne’s policies have made this recovery slower and weaker than it would otherwise have been. I would also suggest that we look at who is benefiting from this ‘recovery’; unfortunately it is again the City and the very rich, while real wages are going down for ordinary people.

3. How do you propose the deficit should be reduced?

The deficit is only a problem because successive governments have chosen for it to be, by giving money creation powers to banks rather than retaining them for the public good. The quantitative easing episode, where £375 billion was pumped into banks, with only 8% of it ending up in the real economy, shows both what government can do, and how disastrously it has misused its opportunities. I recommend the videos on the positivemoney.org site for more information about this.

4. Would you support scrapping the jobs tax for under 21s?

0405This is the abolition of employers’ National Insurance contributions for under 21s from this month. Unfortunately this is another of George Osborne’s electioneering gimmicks which benefits no one. According to Accountancy Live, scarcely a hotbed of radicalism, it will cost the exchequer £465 million this year and £530 million next year, along with £2 million in implementation costs. Meanwhile HMRC estimates that it will cost employers £7.5 million in administration costs – hardly an incentive to employ more young people. The young employees themselves, of course, will continue to pay both income tax and National Insurance contributions.

5. Do you support a UK-wide reduction in corporation tax, along with the devolution of fiscal powers to Stormont?

Corporation tax is of course charged on a company’s profits, after wage costs, expenses, and research and development and other allowances. It is nonsense, therefore, to suggest, as the Executive parties do, that its reduction would benefit ordinary employees or the wider community. The only people who would benefit would be owners and significant shareholders, including ‘top’ executives. To reduce corporation tax across the UK would be a further massive shift of wealth from ordinary people to the very rich. To do so in Northern Ireland alone would, because of the Treasury’s claw-back powers, plunge us into financial disaster. I have no problem in principle with the devolution of fiscal powers to Stormont, as and when the Executive grows up and learns to use them for the common good.

6. What improvements, if any, would you like to see for infrastructure in the UK?

We urgently need improvements in energy, transport and water infrastructures across the UK, and especially in Northern Ireland. These are needed both to meet present requirements and to create robust systems able to cope with future challenges including shortage of resources, particularly water, imported food and fossil fuels, and changes in weather patterns, especially increased storms and flooding. It is vital to make these investments soon, rather than to expect your generation to do so in crisis situations.

2. Europe

1. Do you support a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union?

1. Yes, the Green Party supports a referendum on European Community membership, in order that current generations can make an informed and democratic choice.
2. What is your overall position on the European Union and its relationship with the UK? Do you uphold the principle of free movement of labour?

I would campaign for a ‘Yes’ vote in a referendum, believing that, although the EC requires reform in many aspects, it is an essential safeguard of peace, human rights and environmental protection. Yes, I uphold the principle of free movement of labour, not least in the great benefits that it has brought to the young people of Northern Ireland who are able to work, live and experience life across the exciting diversity of many European cities.

3. The NHS – What is your vision for a world-class NHS?

0324My vision of a world-class NHS would be as one which fulfils the vision of its founders, of a cradle to grave service, free at the point of use, meeting the needs of everyone in the community. All of us have family and friends who would not be alive without the NHS, which is admired and emulated throughout the world. Creeping privatisation threatens the continued existence of this universal service, damaging us all. This is why I have been campaigning against the proposed TTIP and CETA agreements, which would break open the NHS to allow multinational corporations to plunder and destroy it.

4. Education

1. Would you support Labour’s plans to lower tuition fees in England and Wales?

Our aim would be to abolish tuition fees altogether – merely lowering them will not remove the barriers which they place before students from low-income backgrounds and will not significantly reduce the burden of debt on graduates.

2. Do you think our school qualification system needs to be reformed?

I am not sure that the qualification system needs to be reformed, but there should be more emphasis on education for life, rather than simply to get through exams.

3. What is your vision for a world-class education system?

My vision for a world-class education system would be one where every individual child and young person is respected and empowered, where students are not segregated by gender, parents’ religion or by some arbitrary test of ability, where education helps students to think independently, to explore and to challenge and where lifelong learning is encouraged and facilitated, so that no one’s life is irrevocably limited by what happens in their first eighteen years.

5. In the wake of the Scottish independence referendum, do you think change is needed
in the constitutional set-up of the United Kingdom?

The significance of the Scottish referendum campaign was that it gave people a new civic voice, a glimpse of future possibilities and a sense that politics could engage with their real needs and hopes, that it could, as we say, work for the common good. Whether this new energy will lead to new constitutional structures or not, I do not yet know. What matters is that this hope and energy are sustained and spread across the UK, leading to a new grassroots practical and visionary politics. We have seen this in the ‘Green Surge’, the great growth in Green Party membership right across the UK, and it is an exciting and invigorating movement of which to be a small part.

6. As an MP, what will you demand from the UK Government specifically for Northern
Ireland and Fermanagh-South Tyrone?

0407dAt the moment Northern Ireland punches significantly below its weight in Westminster. The combination of many MPs who will not take their seats, and others whose priorities are narrow and socially regressive, leaves us liable to be ignored and forgotten. Sectarian squabbles give the perfect excuse to successive governments to discount the views of Northern Ireland’s people and to disregard our real and urgent needs. Our society is still suffering from the legacy of the Troubles, and from misguided and short-sighted policy decisions. As a Green Party MP, whose stance cannot be written off as belonging to one ‘side’ or the other, I would demand the investment and support that we need and deserve, in creating a sustainable and productive economy, in building a twenty-first century infrastructure and in healing the deep wounds of the past.

7. How should St. Michael’s College first-time voters vote in May? Along sectarian lines? Tactically? To keep a particular candidate out? For what they believe in?

Sadly, successive elections here have been presented as a binary choice between nationalism and unionism. This is especially ironic, given that the constitutional question is dealt with under the Good Friday Agreement. It is the people of Northern Ireland who will decide this, not MPs in Westminster. Meanwhile every opportunity is taken by the big parties to build up an arsenal of resentment and mistrust, which will serve them excellently in next year’s Assembly elections.

Whichever of the two ‘horses’ wins this year’s Westminster election, one thing is certain: that the same charade will be played out in five years’ time, and in five years after that… The only way to stop the endless hamster wheel will be when enough people send a strong enough message that they want something different. Then the big parties will have to start reconsidering, and your generation will have its chance of grown-up politics at last. So vote big, vote brave, and vote for what you believe in.

8. Briefly – why should an 18-year-old St. Michael’s College student entrust the next 5 of the most important years of their life in you and your party, so that by the end of the next parliament we will be well qualified, well salaried, and above all, happy?

0411Your generation has been let down. By every economic measure: jobs, housing, pensions, university fees, you will be worse off, if things continue as they are, than your parents and your grandparents. You are inheriting a region still bitterly divided, a country that has sold off its assets and let its infrastructure crumble, and a world where vital resources of water, food and fuel are perilously low. And that’s even before we consider the certainty of climate change and the catastrophes and conflicts which it is already beginning to cause.

But it isn’t too late. Not quite. The Green Party’s policies will help redress the inter-generational injustices, will invest in vital public services, encourage the creation of sustainable jobs and businesses and tackle the causes and effects of climate change.

It’s great to be well-qualified, but not so good to carry a crushing burden of debt. It’s comfortable to be well-salaried, if you’re lucky enough to find a job, but not so great if there’s nowhere near your work that you can afford to live. And even if you’re one of the elite, right at the top of the pile, you still need to breathe the air, drink the water, eat food that’s been grown in the soil. No man is an island, even in a gated community.

The Green Party believes in politics for the common good. That means all of us, rich and poor, whatever our level of education, background, gender, race or sexuality. That means using the earth’s resources generously and responsibly, ensuring that both present and future generations can live good lives. That, I believe, is the way of life commended to us in the Gospels, and the way that we can not only be happy ourselves, but know that others have the best chance of happiness as well.

Specific questions for Tanya

1. What can a Green Party voice in the House of Commons do regarding the issue of fracking, that will have a direct impact on the situation in Fermanagh?

TJ at BelcooAlthough energy is a devolved matter, the Northern Ireland Executive would be very unlikely to proceed with fracking if it were to be banned in England and Wales. Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP, has led the frack-free campaign in Westminster to widespread acclaim. More Green Party MPs, together with like-minded members of other parties and independents, would be able to increase the pressure for a ban, in line with growing public opinion.

2. Your party has a very attractive plan to introduce a cap on rent. However, wouldn’t this lead to a fall in investment in the market and reduced incentives for landlords to compete on quality, cost and service?

Unfortunately the realities of the private rented sector are that very few landlords ‘compete on quality, cost and service’. The transformation of the housing market into a speculative bubble has made it more and more difficult for first-time buyers to purchase a house of their own. Meanwhile a woeful under-investment in social housing puts pressure from the other side, leaving the private rented sector stretched, overpriced and badly maintained. We need a comprehensive housing policy that prioritises affordable, comfortable, well-insulated and attractive homes for all, whether they are owner-occupiers, private or social tenants. Other European countries are able to achieve this, and so can we.

3. Can you convince us that your policy to scrap tuition fees altogether is not too good to be true?

Generations of students went to university without being charged tuition fees, and many also received grants. The present system does not benefit students, universities, the exchequer or the general public, only financial institutions whose profits are guaranteed even if, as will usually be the case, the loans are never fully repaid. As in the case of quantitative easing, the further bank bail-outs and the billions to be spent on the renewal of the useless Trident nuclear weapon system, governments have considerable potential resources to be spent as they choose. I believe that the education of a skilled, intelligent, creative, inventive and resilient people is among the best investments that any government can make. When we look at the challenges of the future, the question is not ‘can we afford to educate our children?’ but ‘can we afford not to?’

4. The media (photographers in particular) seems to love politicians who cycle to work – including David Cameron and of course Boris Johnston. By doing the same, is this a cheap political tactic of yours – to cash in on the ‘two-wheel-effect’? I mean, it’s not like you’re a member of the Green Party or anything…

0130Aha! You’ve discovered my secret – I’ve been cycling through the Fermanagh rain for the past nine years, carrying groceries, post and documents, being jeered at by boy racers, drenched by puddle-splashing lorries and run off the road by 4x4s, all for the vain hope of a photo-opportunity. If only someone had told me that Dave and Boris always had a car following with the files and a change of dry clothes ….