15th February 2017

NiamhOn 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:

Abortion
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.

Marriage equality
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.

Integrated education
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.

Brexit
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.

RHI
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.

Refugees
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.

Fracking
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.

 

19th September

0919

Here I am this afternoon, dwarfed by cardboard boxes – just a few of the donations collected in Fermanagh to help refugees in the current crisis.  I only spent three hours sorting and packing, and I’m shattered now, so am amazed once again at the dedication and generosity of Roisin and the more regular volunteers.  If only our governments across Europe put in a fraction of the work done by ordinary people, and felt a fraction of their generosity and sense of justice.

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.

 

 

5th September

0906Across Europe, Green Party members and representatives are working hard to help refugees, both in terms of practical immediate action, and by explaining our immigration policies, based on justice, compassion and shared humanity.  It’s good that others are coming to realise that we have been right; terrible that it has taken such visible suffering to wake up our media and mainstream politicians.

Pictured above are Clare Bailey of the South Belfast Green Party, and Green Party Councillor John Barry of Holywood, taking part in refugee solidarity collections.

4th September

0904At half-past one yesterday afternoon, Roisin Campbell-McAnulty from Enniskillen formed a new Facebook group called Fermanagh-Calais Refugee Solidarity Action.  She hoped that a few people would join and a few vital supplies would be collected.  I was just finishing yesterday’s blog post on the subject at the time, so saw Roisin’s request and became the third member of the group.  After an afternoon at the launch of the Clogher Diocese Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation group and an early evening at Moto Tempo, (more about both of these in due course) I got back to my computer to find that the group had over a thousand members (it’s now nearly 1500), storage facilities and drop-off points, lots of volunteers and offers of help, publicity and contributions on all sides.  The contrast with our government’s grudging shift couldn’t be clearer.  Thank you to all the people of Fermanagh who have already joined us, and for those who haven’t yet, or don’t use Facebook, see left for the details.

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.

31st August

0831On my long journey home yesterday I was reading Caroline Moorehead’s book Human Cargo: A Journey Among Refugees. It’s a wonderful book, an illuminating and compassionate exploration of the lives and experiences of refugees across the world, and the history and politics which shape their, generally shameful, treatment.  The chapters about Australian policy (as cheerily recommended by British politicians), about refugees’ experiences in the UK and about the generations of Palestinians living in refugee camps in the Lebanon, were particularly enlightening and horrifying for me.

The book is a few years old (though nothing seems to have got better in the meantime), so to keep fully up to date I visited the Refugee Council website.  This has excellent resources, especially in its mythbusting The Truth About Asylum section. With refugee (often misnamed as ‘migrant’) issues so high on the current media and political agendas, it’s really vital to know what is really happening, and to have reliable information to inform our responses.  The following short leaflet, produced as part of the Refugee Council’s Tell It Like It Is campaign, contains the central facts and figures in an easily readable form.  As they say, please read it and pass it on.

Ref_C_TILII_June_2015