At Stormont last week with Owen Reidy of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, and Steven Agnew. We had an excellent conversation about public service cuts, including the desperate position of health services in Fermanagh, about the dangers of a looming Brexit, and about the situation of so many, especially young people, struggling in the dual traps of low pay and zero hours contracts.
We talked about the need for proper investment in skills, and in supporting real jobs and sustainable businesses across the region. That necessity seems to me particularly acute this morning, with the news about the US decision to impose an import tariff on the Bombardier C-series jet.
Regardless of the legal detail in this particular case, an economic policy based on giving huge chunks of our limited block grant to large multinational corporations is never going to work for Northern Ireland in the long term. We have a great tradition of high quality engineering, enthusiastic and hard-working people and unparalleled natural resources. We can do better than this, and I hope that this news will be an alarm call to Sinn Fein and the DUP to wake up and switch on the vision. We in the Green Party can give them plenty of ideas.
The sun came out to welcome Steven to Enniskillen yesterday, as did lots of local people who are working in positive and co-operative ways to protect our environment, nurture our children, support our health and build a better, cleaner and fairer future. I don’t know whether I was prouder of the Green Party or of Fermanagh. Certainly when the two come together, joyful things happen!
We began at the Castle Museum, talking to representatives of Ulster Wildlife and to local farmers about Brexit, sustainable agriculture, the future of Fermanagh’s food industry, the county’s incredible biodiversity and the Magnificent Meadows project.
From there we went up to the Erne Integrated College, where we saw a small but magnificent meadow in situ, complete with yellow rattle (about which I’m becoming something of an enthusiast). Fortunately our friend Dara (who writes the brilliant Young Fermanagh Naturalist blog) was there to explain it all to us.
We also met some Year 11 students from the college and talked about votes at 16, fracking, the living wage, trade unions, integrated education, the NHS, the impasse at Stormont …. They were great conversations, with very thoughtful and articulate young people.
Our next stop was the Aisling Centre, where we heard about the vital work which they have done over the past twenty-six years in supporting the mental health needs of thousands of people in Fermanagh. We are extraordinarily fortunate to have such a skilled and sensitive service, and grateful to the sisters who had the vision to plant the first seeds.
Finally we ended the afternoon at the wonderful Happiness Trap café where Geoff, the Chair of the FST Greens was waiting for us. We restored our energies with delicious veggie food and smoothies, and enjoyed lots more conversation with local people.
It was a wonderful day, and I’m really grateful to Steven and Sinead for taking the time out of his own busy campaign to visit us, to Janie for chauffeuring us and taking the photos, to Jennifer and Eva from Ulster Wildlife, to Jimmy Jackson Ware the EIC principal, to Bridie at the Aisling Centre, Alan and Laura at the Happiness Trap and to everyone who came along to talk to us, ask questions and tell us more about some of the fantastic things happening in Fermanagh and the challenges which they face. Thank you all.
Steven Agnew MLA, the leader of the Green Party in Northern Ireland will be visiting Enniskillen on Tuesday May 30th. From 4.15pm until 6pm he and I will be in the Happiness Trap café to meet you, listen to your concerns, answer your questions and show how the Green Party is putting you first in this election. Please call in to say hello, and share this with your family, friends, neighbours and colleagues.
The launch of party manifestos across the UK reminds us that this election is being held against the backdrop of the suspended Stormont talks. If the mainstream parties continue to play political games, instead of putting people first and forming a functioning Executive, sooner or later direct rule will be imposed upon us. That means being subject to whatever whims the Westminster government chooses. The Conservative manifesto makes it clear that the rollout of fracking across the country is a priority for them, riding roughshod over local opinion and democratic decision-making. Their muddle over social care shows that they have no real concern about the needs of ordinary people. And their continued, reckless pursuit of a hard Brexit sacrifices all of our futures.
Our own Green Party in Northern Ireland manifesto will be launched today, providing a positive alternative to both Westminster indifference and Stormont stagnation. We are putting you first, with practical proposals to give you a voice on Brexit and our future in Europe, to meet your healthcare needs, to give your children the great education they deserve and to protect our precious landscape and wildlife. I am delighted to be one of our candidates, along with our leader Steven Agnew, who will be visiting Enniskillen next week.
Now, more than ever, we need to look beyond the old divisions. The Green Party, with its sister parties across the UK and Europe, is ideally placed to speak for the people of Fermanagh and Tyrone. My role model as an MP would be the Green’s Caroline Lucas, who has tirelessly called the government to account, bravely stood up against fracking, against public service cuts and for the interests of real people and the environment in which they live.
A great day yesterday, delivering flapjack and peanut butter to my children in Belfast, canvassing in Bangor with Steven Agnew and Greens from across Ireland, meeting up with The Combination team and running for the bus at the Europa (just made it!). Today I’ll be catching up on all the new Green Party memberships and listening to the Vanbrugh String Quartet at Enniskillen’s Ardhowen Theatre.
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:
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.
Every aspect of life has, over the past few days, saddled itself on a medium-sized wildebeest and thundered towards me. Fortunately I have transformed myself into one of those white flapping birds which hover over the herd of wildebeest and thus remain unscathed.
That’s an, admittedly overblown, explanation for why I didn’t post anything on my blog yesterday, and why today I’m going to pinch someone else’s material. This is Steven’s piece in today’s Belfast Telegraph. Needlness to say, I am extraordinarily delighted to be one of the Green Eighteen.
“It is obvious that, despite some progress in gender equality, women are still under-represented in our public and political structures.
While the debate continues as to whether quotas or targets are of value in creating better balance, the Green Party believes that improving equality and gender balance will only occur when proactive steps are taken.
We only need to look to the Republic of Ireland to see the positive effect of gender quotas, which were introduced in 2012. A record number of women were returned to the Dail in the recent election, which is to be welcomed.
The Green Party has worked from the membership upwards to create conditions in which everyone has the confidence to engage in politics. This has been borne out in the breadth of candidates standing for the Green Party.
I am delighted that, of the 18 candidates, there is a 50/50 gender balance. We also have LGBTQ representatives, including Northern Ireland’s first transgender candidate, and a range of ages.
Make no mistake, these candidates have been selected due to the contribution they will make, but the fact that many under-represented groups are represented by the Green Party makes me proud.
It is no surprise that marginalised communities flock to the Green Party as the Executive has wasted every opportunity to improve their lives.
Green Party deputy leader Clare Bailey has been instrumental in bringing about these fundamental changes. As the co-founder of Alternative Ms Ulster, Clare has created an opportunity for women from all walks of life to describe exactly what needs to happen for Northern Ireland to become a better place to live.
Stormont itself was the venue to highlight the gender imbalance that women face in their daily lives, as 20 women spoke out about chronic illness, domestic violence, breastfeeding, the need to trust women, transgender issues and more.
I have listened and will do everything I can to bring about equality in our society.
It’s time my political colleagues listened.”