Friday, January 4, 2013

A new beginning

Two big decisions for the New Year: I have decided to leave the Labour Party and join the Green Party. I'm also winding up East Belfast Diary.

I have been involved with the Labour Party on and off throughout my adult life, including four years as a local councillor. Since moving to Northern Ireland, thirteen years ago, I have spent around eight years in either the Irish or British Labour Parties helping to campaign for Labour to be allowed to stand for election here. But the flags protests last month have finally made me realise that there is absolutely no point in being in a party that doesn't have any political power.

It’s no secret that I've felt sympathetic towards Green policies for some time. And I have become increasingly frustrated at the slow pace of negotiations about Labour and elections. It seems pretty clear to me that senior Labour figures are having none of it and that the party in England remains tied to the SDLP. I gather the NEC will make a decision later this month, however I've got to the point where I no longer want to be a member of a party that is so reluctant to have me as a member and clearly considers me to be a nuisance rather than an asset.

Labour in London doesn't understand the need for new politics in Northern Ireland. They continue to support a divided political system based on sharing out power between two ‘communities’, which has been a necessary stage but the time is overdue for change. Much of what I’ve written on East Belfast Diary over the past few years has been about decoupling sectarian and political identities so that Northern Ireland politics can begin to be based on different views on economic and social policies rather than on tribal allegiance. It’s time for me to join a party that is a full part of this new approach. Stephen Agnew’s speech as part of the Assembly debate on the flags protests set out what politics in Northern Ireland could look like so much more convincingly than Ed Miliband has been able to do with his fixation on being an ‘honest broker’.

The move is also an opportunity to pull the plug on East Belfast Diary. Although I do write about other things, the blog has been closely connected to Labour politics so it doesn't feel right to continue. I may start a new blog at some point in the future, but for now, it’s time to sign off.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Blowin’ in the wind

At a time of rising unemployment, welfare ‘reform’, and an economic situation that’s continuing to deteriorate, what is the issue that has brought people out onto the streets and caused public disorder? Of course – a disagreement about flags. 

So we’re doing the time warp again in Belfast – or are we? It’s not that simple and as I've said before, it’s an issue that matters enormously to some. This piece in the Belfast Telegraph has had hundreds of comments.

It’s worth remembering, though, that the protesters were a small minority. I’d like to see a poll carried out to get some idea of the percentage who support the responsible decision made by our councillors. Significantly, the party able to broker the compromise agreement, the Alliance Party, isn't unionist or nationalist and so is not dependent on votes from one particular community (just as well, looking at the reaction in East Belfast which today has included a councillor having to leave home for her own safety). I was pleased to see that the nationalist parties backed the ‘designated days’ proposal rather than abstain or put forward an unwinnable alternative proposal. In contrast, unionists backed an option that would not only have been subject to legal challenge but would also have continued an unacceptable act of territorial and cultural marking in an increasingly diverse city.

Although my preference would be for a civic flag, I do think the ‘designated days' option is correct because it recognises the importance of the Union flag for some. However, to be returning to the debate by suggesting a flag over the cenotaph is equally counter-productive. It has taken a long time for nationalists to be able to acknowledge their relatives who fought in world wars and anything which prevents this community from participating in acts of remembrance should be avoided.

So what of the protesters, outside city hall and in Inner East Belfast? Last night’s violence, along with intimidation of Alliance councillors, reveals a deep anger at something important having been taken away. We have to ask why people who, I suspect, come in the main from less well off areas of the city feel so strongly about the issue. There is a deep sense of disenfranchisement and powerlessness behind the violence which needs to be addressed – which of course in no way excuses it.

The Protestant working class has suffered from the sectarianisation of politics in Northern Ireland because it has no coherent, strong political representation. This doesn't have to be a unionist or loyalist party and in my opinion shouldn't be. We saw the consequences of that lack of voice last night, I suspect not for the last time.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

March for Marie Stopes Belfast

The Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast has now been open for a few weeks and continues to need the support of everyone who believes in a woman’s right to choose. Marie Stopes has asked supporters not to stand outside the clinic (alongside the clinic’s opponents) and so a march of support has been organised this Saturday in Belfast City Centre: Assemble outside the Art College at 1.30pm and march from York Street to Belfast City Hall, where a rally will take place. The march is open to women and men. 

The clinic does, of course, offer a wide range of sexual health services as well as early stage medical abortions within the law. We should remember that the opening of an alternative option for contraceptive advice and provision is likely to reduce the necessity for abortion rather than add to it. Therefore everyone who believes in women’s choice should support the clinic, even if they personally would not opt for abortion.

It is particularly important for everyone in favour to come along because a number of the ‘usual suspects’ will be missing. All the main political parties are either anti-abortion or allow a conscience vote – which means it’s OK to have on your conscience that women travel to Britain for abortions, or order pills on the internet. So the stalwarts of many demonstrations, the SDLP and Sinn Féin, won’t be there. The Greens may be, as they allow a conscience vote.

But this is yet another reason why Northern Ireland needs the Labour Party. At our General Meeting on 21st September, we voted unanimously for the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland. Our position is set out in the statement below:

The Labour Party in Northern Ireland is proud to support the opening of the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast.

We stand firmly for the right of women to comprehensive sexual health and family services, including the provision of medical abortions up to nine weeks of pregnancy.

Abortion is technically illegal in Northern Ireland but exceptions are made where the woman is at risk of long term damage to her physical or mental health. This means that safe and legal terminations are difficult to obtain, even in the most extreme of circumstances.

We are still the only part of the UK where women don’t have the legal right to an abortion - the 1967 Abortion Act, which empowered women in England, Wales and Scotland was never extended to Northern Ireland.

Since 1967, roughly 70,000 women have travelled to Great Britain for private terminations. Last year alone, over 1000 women travelled to England for such procedures, at a cost of around £2000 each.

The establishment of the Marie Stopes clinic will reduce the number of unfortunates who are forced to travel to England. We welcome that, as we welcome the introduction of a range of sexual and reproductive health services which will be available in the clinic.

But the establishment of the Marie Stopes clinic on its own is not enough.

In September, Labour’s Northern Ireland members voted unanimously for the extension of the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland.

We are not alone. Most opinion in Northern Ireland is pro choice, yet abortion here is still governed by the Offences Against the Person Act 1861.

The LPNI recognise the reality that the majority of people here support liberalisation of the abortion laws, not further restrictions. It is easy to take the moral high ground and deny women in Northern Ireland the right to choice, but moralising can neither reduce crisis pregnancy nor help those forced to travel to Great Britain every year for an abortion.

Women in Birmingham and Bristol have abortion rights if they need them, why not women in Ballymena and Belfast?

It is time that our Health Minister - whether it is Edwin Poots or Jim Wells - recognises that you can’t have maternal health without reproductive health. And reproductive health includes contraception and family planning and access to legal, safe abortion.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Time for Opsahl 2?

Labour in Northern Ireland has responded to the consultation document on improving the operation of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which closed this week. The consultation document was an exercise in buck-passing on some admittedly difficult issues. I’d like to highlight a couple here (the full response is available on the LPNI web page).

First, I’d not considered the equalities implications of double jobbing (official term: ‘multiple mandates’) before. I've been against it because it blocks a career path from local council to Assembly/ Westminster/ Europe – i.e. from part-time to full-time politician, and thus prevents younger people from getting political experience. And I do think it’s important for full-time politicians to have had some experience at council level. However, when working on this response I realised it’s about more than that. If a political party has more seats at its disposal, including on appointed bodies if they also are not occupied by elected politicians, then our political representatives might start to look more like society as a whole. Or at least there would be less of an excuse if they didn't. As the paper says:

Removing ‘double jobbing’ from our political culture will open up elected positions to a wider range of people including those who are currently under-represented in political structures, such as women, disabled people, younger people, minority ethnic groups and the LGBT community.

Second, of course, is the difficult issue of an opposition. The paper states that the UK Government would like ‘at some stage to see a move to a more normal system that allows for inclusive government but also opposition...’ (para. 4.2). However no way of doing this is proposed and it is stated that any changes must be agreed by the parties currently in power, who of course have no interest in it. But the question of how an opposition should be structured is difficult, which is why Labour has proposed to the NIO that a review of decision-making structures should be carried out which, in essence, should ask how Northern Ireland should be governed in future. We said:

The creation of a power-sharing Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive as a result of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement was a tremendous achievement which has shown that the two main communities can govern together. It was a necessary and important step at the time and transformed Northern Ireland. Some would argue it is too soon to consider alternatives. But it is also the case that the current system not only creates disincentives for the formation of an opposition (the giving up of Ministerial positions; no additional funding to carry out the role) but also institutionalises the ‘two communities’ model of government through community designation, thus diminishing the power of any party choosing to designate as ‘Other’. Change to this system – whether now or in the future – is essential if we are to move away from tribal politics and make political decisions based on meeting the economic and social needs of the whole population. Labour, as a cross-community party, wants this change to happen and in theory supports the development of an opposition at the Assembly.

However, the heart of the problem is as follows. If a structure for government and opposition remains based on power-sharing between the two main communities, then the non-aligned parties continue to be relatively powerless and the incentive for them to grow is removed. Northern Ireland then remains stuck in territorial politics. On the other hand, if all restrictions on the formation of government and opposition are removed, and coalitions are formed entirely at the behest of the political parties, there is a possibility of single community government. This would seriously endanger community legitimation of the Executive and Assembly and hence their ability to govern. 

            We believe these issues need far more consideration, requiring the commissioning of research and expert advice in order to develop realistic options. The Northern Ireland Office cannot expect an issue of this magnitude to be solved through an open question on a consultation paper. We propose a fundamental review of decision-making structures following the model of the Opsahl Commission, which in 1993 produced influential and far-reaching proposals in response to a wide range of evidence. 

Any proposal for changes to the way we are governed requires public support. Surely an open and democratic process, conducted independently from the current self-interested political parties, is the way to achieve this. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

On message

'What's the name of that little place over there, where 
we don't want to get our hands dirty with electoral politics?'
There’s a pretty consistent message coming out of the Shadow Cabinet on standing for elections in Northern Ireland. I find that disturbing given that there’s still a process going on: a process that is moving more slowly than Northern Ireland members expected, possibly because all the other participants (NEC, led by Vernon Coaker; Irish Labour Party; and SDLP) have no real interest in concluding it. 

To use Ed Miliband’s words from last week, I am beginning to doubt that leading Party members and their advisers are the ‘honest brokers’ we had anticipated and that, as Party members, we have the right to expect.

In addition to Miliband’s comments last week, on 5th October Vernon Coaker, the Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, tweeted:

On contesting elections in NI: it's sensitive. Ed right to say he's wary. Labour's National Executive continuing discussions on issue

And then, this week, Ed Balls visited Northern Ireland to discuss economic policy with the CBI. The BBC reported:

           Mr Balls, who was accompanying Labour's Northern Ireland spokesman Vernon  
          Coaker on his visit to Stormont, said the party was still considering the matter through
          an internal process.

          However, Mr Balls pointed out that the party has no tradition of candidates standing in 
          Northern Ireland and said things had not worked out very well for David Cameron when 
          he had interfered in local party politics. 

This ignored the fact that the Tories had an electoral pact with the UUP (although they now stand as a separate party). And if Labour were planning an electoral pact with the SDLP (which we are not) then it would be equally disastrous, perpetuating the same old divisive approach to politics.

Ed Balls was also reported in the Newsletter today as having sidestepped the issue, rather unhelpfully describing himself as a unionist in the process – when Labour in Northern Ireland has to struggle to get it into people’s heads that we are a cross community party and not the Unionist alternative to the SDLP. Balls was quoted as saying:

            We are strongly committed to working closely with the region and with the [Stormont] 
            executive, and I think a Labour government is strongly committed to the Union but I 
            am not sure that necessarily translates into party political organisation here for us.... I 
            think you have to be quite careful about stepping into decades of political history and 
            suddenly deciding to do things a different way.

So the message is: we’re happy to come over here, tell people what we think is good for Northern Ireland and work with parties who have nothing to do with the Labour movement, but in order to be seen as even-handed we don’t want to allow our local members to get involved in politics and put our views to the electorate. 

Anyone who thinks it’s colonialist for Labour to stand for election in Northern Ireland needs to think very seriously about what it is they are doing now. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

One Nation?

Unlike some, I wasn't that taken with Ed Miliband’s One Nation speech yesterday. Northing I could put my finger on, just a vague suspicion that it wasn't very... um.... Labour-ish. A sense that, for democratic socialists, there should be some who are forever outside the tent. Such as corrupt bankers, unprincipled newspaper proprietors and editors, and unscrupulous employers.

But today we found out who is really excluded: the people of Northern Ireland.

In Miliband’s Question and Answer session this afternoon, a very brave member of the Labour Party in Northern Ireland, Rebecca Hall, asked whether he supported Labour standing candidates in Northern Ireland. The Guardian summarised the reply as:

Miliband says he applauds Labour members in Northern Ireland. But he is wary of standing candidates there. The British government needs to be an honest broker in Northern Ireland. It is hard to be an honest broker if you are fighting elections.

What does that even mean? Let’s take a look.

Miliband ‘applauds’ Labour members in Northern Ireland. Why? For taking legal action against the Party in order to be admitted to membership? For pestering NEC members with reasoned arguments for the Labour franchise to be extended to the Northern Ireland electorate? Or perhaps for paying a full subscription every year without having the full rights of members elsewhere in the UK?

But he is wary of standing candidates. So Labour members in Northern Ireland are welcome (following the court case) as long as they don’t want to do what politics is actually about.

The British government needs to be an honest broker in Northern Ireland’. Leaving aside the fact that Labour is not currently in government, this opinion is outdated and neocolonialist. Outdated because Miliband fails to recognise that Northern Ireland politics has moved on since 1998 and there is growing disenchantment with an enforced coalition based on sectarian division; and neocolonialist because he views Northern Ireland as a place which has to be controlled from the outside. Whereas Labour in Northern Ireland has stated recently:

While Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom, the Labour Party is an active and major participant in the politics and governance of Northern Ireland. That participation must be normalised and democratised by developing Labour Party organisation and representation on the ground.

You cannot be an ‘honest broker’ and fight elections. Again this shows a poor understanding of the situation, assuming that Labour would take either the unionist or nationalist side in Northern Ireland politics. However, the case made to the NEC and others over many years has emphasised consistently that Labour would be a cross-community party and, while designation continues in the Assembly, would designate as ‘Other’.

Labour in Northern Ireland issued a statement earlier today from CLP Secretary Boyd Black, indicating that a positive meeting had been held with the NEC and he is confident that 'progress is being made on all levels for us to move forward'. 
Last year I asked the question: have we been conned? I am coming closer to believing the answer is ‘yes’. It's hard to believe we'll be able to make further progress if the Party Leader truly believes what he said today. 
And I'm losing patience. Especially when some real politics might be the alternative.

Related posts: Rab and Kris

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

My Olympics

Katie Taylor winning Gold for Ireland.....
I am the world’s least sporty person and not very keen on jingoistic nationalism either, so you might think I’d have spent the last fortnight or so hiding under the duvet. But no. Despite vowing to watch no more than usual just because it was set in the city which was my home for 20 years, I did, of course. And like everyone else, I had my Olympic highs - and a few lows.

Before the start of the Games, there was a bizarre mix of unexpected elation and a degree of panic in the British press. The elation came from the fantastic reception of the Olympic flame as it travelled around the whole of the UK – including us over hereand to Dublin. I wasn’t sure whether this was a nice neighbourly gesture, or perhaps required by the sponsors to make it worth their while crossing the Irish Sea, but there was a great reception nonetheless. The panic came from security, border control and transport issues, which surely helped to highlight the problems with contracting out (security) and public sector cuts (border control and transport) when you really need something to work. But in the end there were no disasters, not even with the transport system which can be dreadful on a normal day.

..... and Jessica Ennis for GB/NI
And then we had the bonkers opening ceremony, the only one I’ve ever watched and only because it was Danny Boyle. I must say most of it did nothing for me although I did like the James Bond moment, the emphasis on diversity, and the lighting of the beautiful Olympic cauldron including the involvement of human rights activists. And, of course, the big cheer for the Irish team. It was far too long – as was the egregious closing ceremony – and I suspect little would have been understood outside the UK.

After that I became far more absorbed than expected. I watched the sports for people who don’t like sport: gymnastics, swimming, diving, a bit of athletics. Amazement at how the gymnasts and divers, in particular, do what they do. The BBC coverage was amazing, and like many others I lost hours of my life to the red button and catch up internet sessions. My only grumble came when I tried to find out how Katie Taylor had got on – all the focus was on the UK boxers and I had to turn to RTÉ to see her get her medal, in a chokingly emotional ceremony for all Irish passport holders, even though I think boxing is barbaric and shouldn’t even be in the Olympics. One of the contradictions of the Games. Another was the debate on sport and class which meandered on as more and more posh people won GB medals. Great to be discussing sports education, but not so great when the Tories tried to claim that liberal-leaning state school teachers discourage competitive sports. Is that really still true? Certainly not in Northern Ireland. And in a competitive society, how important is it anyway?

More local colour with the three GB medals won by Coleraine residents and two out of the five Irish medals won by Belfast boys. Involvement in both the British and Irish teams may confuse those who don’t live here, but it’s in the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement and I would like to have seen a joint reception at Stormont for all the NI athletes from both teams. Perhaps at the next Games Team GB might consider changing their name to Team UK also. Other feel-good factors were the high profile of women athletes and the stories from the volunteer Games Makers, who were obviously having the time of their lives.

Inevitably there were low points – the US accusing a winning Chinese swimmer of using illegal drugs and the South Korean, Chinese and Indonesian Badminton players disqualified for trying to lose. But these episodes contrasted with the sporting nature of most contestants. There was the walk through a shopping mall to get to the Olympic Park and complaints about the cost and availability of food and drink – but less than had been expected. And the disappointing closing ceremony, with the only good bits being the extinguishing of the cauldron and The Who – unlike Paul McCartney, Roger Daltrey can still belt it out (at 68! - go to section 18 on the video) and it was a fantastic end to the event.

And now there is the question of the legacy. First, a new and very positive spin on British (or rather English) identity was presented – diverse and tolerant, a bit odd but very creative with it, and very fond of the NHS. If it leads to more discussion on what it means to be British in the 21st century then that’ll be very positive. However, I suspect economic realities will intervene again and stop that. Secondly is this sense of collectivity and involvement, including the higher profile of volunteering. Again great if this keeps going, not so good if volunteering and the Big Society continue to be used by the present Government as a substitute for proper funding of public services. Third is the question of tourism and private sector investment. Although London (and other parts of the country) presented a very positive face to the world, it’s hard to know whether there’s really any added value in these events if they are held in cities which are already well known destinations for both. And finally, of course, there is the built environment legacy, particularly in East London. The Olympic Park, the sports facilities and the housing, about a quarter of which is for social renting. So we’ll have to wait and see which of these factors has an impact in the longer term.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Music across borders

I've been contacted by Emily Mervosh, a student at Boston College who is coming to Ireland next month to make a documentary about the Cross Border Orchestra of Ireland. She originally got in touch as part of her fundraising campaign, but she has now achieved her target and is ready to start filming.

I’m ashamed to say I’d never heard of this youth orchestra, founded in 1995, which includes young musicians from both North and South. Emily describes what she aims to achieve: 

Through interviews with current members and alumni as well as academics who specialize in The Troubles and its aftermath, this film will show how these two opposing groups aren't much different from each other and how the country is trying to mend itself. It will premiere in New York City in the fall of 2013 when the orchestra is scheduled to perform at Carnegie Hall, will be screened in Ireland/Northern Ireland, and will be submitted to film festivals.

I believe the film will show people unfamiliar with Irish culture and history that the country and its people are not defined by the violence that has plagued them for decades. These people are bravely trying to create positive social change within Ireland. Their story needs to be told.

Filming will be mainly at the Dundalk Institute of Technology, where the orchestra rehearses, and also in Belfast and Dublin.

Emily believes the story has wider application. She wants to explore how the young orchestra members have been changed by their experience, in 'their relationship with others, opinions about the conflict, and their daily lives'.  

So congratulations to Emily on this innovative project. I hope the film will help to draw attention to the potential of the arts for helping with community reconciliation.