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Billy King


Nonviolence News



These are regular editorials produced alongside the corresponding issues on Nonviolent News.

Number 190: June 2011

[Return to related issue of Nonviolence News]

Small change in the North

The recent Assembly and local elections in Northern Ireland confirmed the position of the top two parties on either ‘side’, the DUP and Sinn Féin, each party more or less retaining its share of the vote although on a lower percentage poll of 54.5% (the number of people voting has traditionally been very high because of the sectarian conflict – this percentage was almost 8% below the last election). The DUP were on 30% and Sinn Féin on 26.9%. The last Assembly was the first Northern Ireland Assembly to complete a full term under the new, Good Friday, dispensation, and therefore the new one is the first parliament to follow after one in what should be the ‘normal’ pattern since 1969 (the old Stormont Parliament was prorogued in 1972 and subsequently abolished). And if this is the picture as the political situation ‘beds down’ it is probably unlikely to change fast or dramatically in future without cause.

There are two ways of looking at the result. On the one hand we can be thankful that the two parties are willing to cooperate and share power in this way, and a remarkable advance on previous decades. On the other hand is the question of how much the two parties will be keen to do to challenge the sectarian nature of much of life in Northern Ireland, particularly given their woeful attempt at a ‘shared future’ policy in their Cohesion, Sharing and integration policy last year (see NN 184) which, presumably, has now disappeared without trace so damning was civil society commentary on it. These, after all, are the parties which came to prominence ‘on the back of’ the Troubles. Work together these parties will do; working effectively to eradicate the divisions in society in Northern Ireland is highly unlikely. And, election over, the ‘real’ cuts are likely to bite more in Northern Ireland now.
The small and cross-community Alliance Party had a relatively good election with a couple of percentage points up in the vote (to 7.7%) and two members in the Executive (including David Ford as the agreed Justice Minister). However Alliance support is very poor in much of the North so making a ‘great leap forward’ will be difficult for it. The Ulster Unionist Party continued to decline (to 13.2%), and the SDLP also lost 1% (coming in with 14.2%). Smaller parties and independents did not fare particularly well and Dawn Purvis (ex-PUP), for example, lost her Assembly seat. The Traditional Unionist Voice, which opposes power-sharing with Sinn Féin, got just 2.5% of the vote and one seat, the party leader Jim Allister was elected. One Green candidate was elected again though with a change of person in North Down. The local council elections generally mirrored the pattern of voting for the Assembly.
So the biggest news is that the ‘big two’ parties consolidated their position. This means that change may continue to happen in Northern Ireland but it will be slow or snail paced, and civil society groups who are engaged in community relations, identity and cross-community work and the like will have to continue to do so without enthusiastic support from the centre of government. As ‘Peace’ monies fade away over the next few years this may mean attempting to do the next to impossible with very little in the way of resources.
Since so much money is spent on ‘divided facilities’ – either duplicating ones available for the ‘other side’ or proving inaccessible to them meaning they might as well be located on the moon – it is in everyone’s interests to build towards an integrated community. Opinion polls show that most people either support or say they support integration of various kinds but actually getting them to seriously move in the direction of integration is another day’s work. This task would be very much easier if the two largest parties, and the office of OFMDFM which they occupy, took the issue seriously and made serious plans, backed up with some money, to put them into effect. That would be best. But we may, as stated above, have to put up with very slow change though that is better than none at all. As we have spoken about before, there are dangers in not working to move things on. Let us hope that a snail’s pace is sufficient to keep ahead of violent sectarianism but there is no guarantee that it will be.

Monitoring the situation

Congratulations to Amnesty International and Front Line for cooperating on a human rights monitoring project in relation to the Corrib Gas/Shell to Sea situation in Co Mayo. Monitoring by impartial parties can play an important role in raising everyone’s game; it was important in increasing police accountability in Northern Ireland in the mid-1990s (e.g. monitoring by the CAJ/Committee on the Administration of Justice) and there is no reason why it should not help to do the same for An Garda Síochána in the Republic. It takes a certain amount of grasping the nettle for these two organisations to set up a project in the country where they are based and they have had to go through organisational protocols to do so.

There are a number of different varieties of monitoring with this model fitting very much the model of human rights monitoring or observing (the two terms can have different meanings but are usually interchangeable). The role of policing and of the security firm engaged by Shell (IRMS) in the situation are not just of significance in Co Mayo, they also have wider implications. In the mid-1990s Ian Paisley said that Drumcree in Portadown was a battle for Ulster; he was right but in the wrong way – how Drumcree turned out had significance on a wider level for policing, for loyalist protest, for nationalist protests about loyalist parades, and, indeed, for how citizens saw the future of Northern Ireland.

If the Irish government had set about protecting, and listening to, its citizens rather than supporting multinationals in a very inflexible model of economic development, Corrib Gas would now be flowing ashore. The whole situation is a textbook illustration of how not to do community and economic development and how a centralised government, unwilling to engage with and listen to its citizens, can shoot everyone in the foot. No one has suffered more than the local community where fear and distrust, as well as much division, have come to the fore (as the film ‘The Pipe’ graphically demonstrates).

But we are where we are. With rigorous training to ensure impartiality and accurate recording, Amnesty International and Front Line will be in an excellent position to make decisions on the adequacy of policing and Shell security in the context of the protests and what is happening in general in relation to the situation. The primary aim is see the truth of what happens – there have been many contradictory claims and counter-claims – but an important side effect of monitoring can be to persuade everyone to be on their best behaviour because they know that impartial people are watching who will tell the situation without fear or favour. So well done again to Amnesty and Front Line is taking this initiative, acting ‘at home’ in this creative way.

As fossil fuels go, and they go very rapidly, gas is relatively clean but still a fossil fuel and adding hugely to the current account of carbon dioxide. This or any other gas or oil find off the Irish coast should not in any way provide a diversion from the urgent need to be developing clean, green energy for the immediate and long term future. Nuclear power is costly and inherently dangerous and is now being written out of the energy plans of many developed nations, after the Japanese disaster at Fukushima showed nuclear disasters can strike even such advanced economies (as if we needed to be told after all that has happened at Windscale/Sellafield over the years). Massive insulation, and ‘going straight to green’, are the way forward.

- - - - -

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

Climate Change Challenge
Today few people question the view that the earth is warming and that its likely cause is our dependence on fossil fuels. There is also broad agreement on the dire consequences for non-human nature and us if we do not address the problem in a radical and timely manner. An indication of the seriousness of the situation is the 17 May announcement by the Secretary for Energy and Climate Change Chris Huhne to halve carbon dioxide emissions by 2027. This has been described as the most ambitious target on greenhouse gas reduction of any wealthy country. How this will be achieved will be set out by parliament in October this year.

The research shows that to prevent climate chaos CO2 atmospheric concentrations must not rise above 450 parts per million (ppm). At the close of 2010 the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere was 390 ppm. It would probably be correct to say that few people, including politicians, grasp the true magnitude of the challenge of keeping the emission of greenhouse gasses in check.

Vaclav Smil writing in American Scientist, May-June, informs us that in 2009 humankind derived 88 percent of its energy from fossil fuels and annual combustion presently stands at 10 billion tons of oil equivalent. In spite of the recession this figure is projected to rise as energy demand in Asia, S. America and the Middle East surges. People in the poor world want the energy extravagant life-style we have in Ireland, and with the consistent failure to achieve internationally binding agreements on greenhouse gas emissions (Kyoto, Bali, Copenhagen and Cancun) curtailing reliance on fossil fuels is not a critical part of most countries development plans.

One of the realities we must face is that renewable energy from biomass, solar, wind and wave will not be on stream in the quantity demanded, and in sufficient time, to prevent the temperature of the Earth rising above 450 ppm. Even if it were possible to produce the renewable energy required by global civilization the infrastructure is not in place to deliver it from place of production to point of consumption. For example, from the Sahara desert to Europe; and in the United States from the windy Great Plains to the heavily populated and industrialised East Coast.

Nuclear power, which generates 13 percent of global electricity, is not, given its astronomical cost, dangers and the problem of the secure disposable of radioactive waste a viable fossil fuel replacement option. Smil likens techno-fixes, such as Moon-based solar panels with electricity beamed to the Earth, akin to the efforts at the grand academy in Gulliver’s Travels in which one inventor has spent eight years “upon a project for extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers.” Smil places sequestering CO2 in this category as the infrastructure to sequent just 20 percent of today’s CO2 emissions would be larger and more complex than that of the global crude oil industry which has taken generations to put in place.

That said renewable forms of energy and supporting infrastructure which do not desecrate the Earth are urgently needed.

At the State dinner in Dublin Castle in honour of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, President Mary McAleese said: “while we cannot change the past, we have chosen to change the future.” The Queen said “we have much to do together to build a future for our grandchildren.” We can all choose to change the future of the Earth for our benefit and that of future generations by radically reducing our level of energy consumption. Radical means reducing travel, the frivolous purchase of clothes and consumption of dairy and meat produce. With regards the latter research by the World Cancer Research Fund shows that a reduction of red and processed meat would benefit our health. This suggests that a life-style that benefits the Earth directly benefits us.

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