Ulster Unionism’s on defensive over Scotland – but threats won’t win argument

On September 18, Scotland will hold a referendum on independence. A ‘Yes’ vote would bring to an end the 1707 Union, leaving behind a rump United Kingdom, comprising England, Wales and a Northern Ireland constitutionally marooned from its nearest – both geographically and emotionally – UK neighbour.

Clearly, Northern Ireland has a lot at stake in September’s plebiscite. Nationalists and unionists alike wonder if Scottish independence could have a domino effect, propelling the “break-up of Britain” foreshadowed by Scottish nationalist writer Tom Nairn more than three decades ago leading, eventually, to a United Ireland.

But the response from both sides of the Northern Irish divide to this prospect has been markedly different.

Nationalists have had surprisingly little – at least in public – to say on the subject of Scottish independence. Of course, most would welcome any loosening of the ties that bind the United Kingdom, but they are aware, too, of the politically toxic nature of sectarianism in Scotland.

saltireAn overt intervention from Sinn Fein would be political poison for Alex Salmond and the Scottish National Party. So they stand on the sidelines, issue the odd murmur and cross their fingers for a ‘Yes’ on September 18.

Unionists, on the other hand, seem to be growing restive. Wary of their kin across the Irish Sea flying the constitutional nest, unionists have become increasingly vocal – which is a problem, because their voice is often shrill, their message shallow.

Take Ian Paisley Jnr‘s comments this week. A ‘Yes’ vote in Scotland would, the North Antrim MP said, be a spur for dissident republican violence, destabilising Northern Ireland and unravelling the gains of the Good Friday Agreement.

It is unclear how a democratic referendum in another part of the United Kingdom could give succour to gunmen who have minimal support even within their own communities.

If anything, the SNP’s success proves beyond a reasonable doubt the supremacy of constitutional means. Regardless of the result in September, Alex Salmond and his party have shown that it is the ballot box – not the Armalite – that works.

Paisley said his comments were designed to awaken supporters of the Union from a complacent stupor arising from the ‘No’ side’s commanding poll lead in Scotland. But his reductio ad absurdum is likely to have the opposite effect, marginalising unionists still further from the heart of the Scottish debate.

In fairness, Paisley is not the only unionist who has tried – and failed – to engage with the question of Scottish independence. In 2012, the Orange Order’s Dr David Hume said people of Ulster Scots descent in Northern Ireland should have a vote in September’s referendum.

Speaking to a Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland event in Glasgow, Dr Hume said: “We are stakeholders, as well. Surely a decision such as this should not ignore our input?”

But nobody is denying unionists’ “input” into the Scottish debate. Extending the franchise to people of Scottish descent in Northern Ireland is completely unworkable – by the same token, what about those in Canada? Australia? England? – but unionists are free to make their case for the Union, to appeal to their Scottish brethren’s hearts and heads.

Instead, unionists have pleaded for a vote, or issued thinly-veiled warnings about a return to the Troubles if Scotland decides to go it alone.

Such aggressive tactics are unlikely to prove popular with the Scottish electorate, but, more importantly, they reveal the depth of the existential crisis at the heart of unionism, both in Northern Ireland and across the United Kingdom.

What is the positive case for the Union? This is not a flippant question. Just this week, former Labour Scottish first minister Henry McLeish, writing in The Scotsman, asked why “there is still no sense of urgency about making a positive and modern case for the Union, no sense of grasping the seriousness of the ‘Yes’ campaign and the impact it is making and no sense of the public disillusionment with Westminster politics?”

That is not to say there is no positive case that unionists can make. Historically, the United Kingdom proved so successful precisely because it is so flexible and capable of reinvention, as Linda Colley reminds us in her new book, Acts of Union and Disunion.

But contemporary unionists seem to be lacking invention. Since the Second World War, unionism has struggled to forge a creative sense of shared identity across these islands.

Meanwhile, the constitutional settlement has come under renewed pressure. Regardless of the result in September, power will continue to seep from Westminster to Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast and even, perhaps, a separate English parliament.

The year 2014 is the centenary of another, oft-forgotten constitutional upheaval: the Government of Ireland Act. Even if the First World War had not intervened, unionist resistance might have put paid to Home Rule.

But, 100 years on, unionists now need to develop a compelling, non-coercive case for maintaining the Union. If their attempts to join the Scottish independence debate are anything to go by, they have a long way to go.

This column originally appeared in the Belfast Telegraph, 10 January 2014.

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Ulster is still problematic

After the collapse of the Haass talks, power sharing in Northern Ireland is bound to get even more dysfunctional, writes Peter Geoghegan

Have you heard the one about the government minister who, at Christmas, took his cabinet colleague to court in a row over public spending? This might sound like the set-up to a festive gag for political anoraks, but it is exactly what transpired at the High Court in Belfast last week.

Northern Ireland finance minister Simon Hamilton, a Democratic Unionist, initiated the legal action against Sinn Fein agriculture minister Michelle O’Neill. Mr Hamilton won.

From now on, Ms O’Neill will have to seek approval from the rest of the Stormont cabinet over how she distributes European funding.

This, increasingly, is how politics works in Northern Ireland. So it probably should not come as too great a surprise that cross-party peace talks – even those with the imprimatur of the United States – failed to reach a compromise on New Year’s Eve.

But the inability of the five Stormont executive parties to do a deal under the watchful eyes of former US peace envoy Richard Haass was still a shock. In the days – even the hours – leading up to Tuesday’s deadline, Northern Irish political leaders had made positive noises to the media. Dr Haass himself had said he was confident of reaching “meaningful agreement” when he returned to Belfast before Christmas.Haass

Northern Ireland, of course, had been here before, too. From Good Friday, in 1998, through to St Andrews in 2006 and Hillsborough four years ago, every significant agreement in the peace process had been forged in the smithy of late-night brinkmanship. Every time collapse had seemed imminent but, at each juncture, common ground was, eventually, found.

Like most observers, I assumed that another dose of “constructive ambiguity” – a fudge – would reconcile unionists and nationalists on the three big issues of the day: flags, parades and the past. But not this time.

Instead, Dr Haass left Belfast’s Stormont Hotel a failure. Sinn Féin had said they were prepared to recommend the proposals to their executive, but unionists would not sign up to Haass’ seventh and final draft late on Monday night.

Despite Haass’ protestations that he has created a platform upon which compromise can be built, the reality is that little progress his been made.

“Nothing is resolved. There is ambiguity about the process. There is ambiguity about the outcome. We are no closer to understanding the needs of victims, no closer to addressing the past, no closer to an agreement on flags,” a source inside the Haass talks told The Scotsman.

So where does the fault in this failure to reach an agreement lie? In the zero-sum game of Northern Irish politics, the temptation is often to accord blame equally: “a plague on both your houses.” Certainly, recriminations have come quickly on both sides of the sectarian divide: on Tuesday night, just hours after the talks broke up, Ulster Unionist Party negotiator Jeff Dudgeon blamed the cross-community Alliance for the process failing, a far-fetched accusation that gained little traction.

When searching for culprits to finger, Mr Dudgeon would do better to look closer to home. As the final version of the Haass proposals, published on the devolved Stormont government’s website, makes clear, it was unionists who stood firmly in the way of a deal. On a raft of issues, most notably on parading and the past, nationalists, and particularly Sinn Fein, made a number of concessions.

But unionist leaders, more worried about being outflanked from the right – by flag protesters such as Jamie Bryson and Willie Frazier and the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice’s Jim Allister – than doing a deal with Irish nationalism, remained intransigent. After Haass left, Democratic Unionist party first minister Peter Robinson said: “I detect from each of the parties a willingness to work on to complete the task.” A wonder, then, why Mr Robinson did not decide to stick around for the crucial final plenary session of the talks on Monday night.

Ulster unionism has previous when it comes to snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

You would never know it to listen to Peter Robinson or Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt, but Northern Ireland’s place in the union has never been more secure. The constitutional question is essentially settled in Northern Ireland – far more settled, at least, than it is here in Scotland.

The Good Friday Agreement enshrined the principle that only the democratic will of the people of Northern Ireland can change its constitutional status. Opinion polls put support for a united Ireland at just one-fifth.

But instead of celebrating their triumph, unionist leaders are embroiled in a myopic culture war that is driving a further wedge between communities in Northern Ireland, in the process making compromise almost impossible.

When Belfast City councilors voted last winter to fly the Union flag from Belfast city hall on designated days, rather than all year round, unionists had an opportunity to claim a history victory. Irish republicans – who just a decade-and-a-half earlier had fought an armed campaign against the British state – were now voting to fly the red, white and blue on the Queen’s birthday!

How did unionism respond? By decrying a democratic decision as an assault on Protestant culture, effectively sanctioning flag-waving loyalist protesters that almost brought Belfast to a standstill.

Meanwhile, a protest camp has been in place since July on north Belfast’s Twaddell Avenue, after an Orange Order parade was prevented from passing through a nearby Catholic area.

Unionists should not take all the blame for the Haass disaster.

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers was, as one senior figure put it to me, a “bystander” throughout the talks. Her comments to BBC Radio 4 in the aftermath showed just how out of her depth the Conservative member for Chipping Barnet is in Belfast. “The reality is if you look at issues of identity, some people would argue that it’s been a problem for the last 800 years. In many ways, it’s not surprising that it can’t be fixed in three months.”

Ms Villiers’ party leader, David Cameron, has shown neither aptitude nor inclination for Northern Ireland since he assumed office.

Westminster should have been at the Haass table. These were issues it had a real say in: parading is not devolved, flags are about sovereignty, and the British state was hardly a silent partner in the murky world of “the past”. But instead the British government watched Haass from the sidelines.

Reports of the Good Friday Agreement’s demise are greatly exaggerated. But the default setting at Stormont is conflict, not compromise. “We are in a power-sharing government but we are not sharing power. We are firmly embedded in our own fiefdoms without any sense of responsible, just government,” says John McCallister, deputy leader of the new liberal unionist party NI21 and a former member of the Ulster Unionist Party.

With European and local elections this summer, a Westminster vote next year and devolved elections due in 2016, the political temperature in Northern Ireland is only getting to get hotter. Which is good news for Belfast High Court lawyers, but not for the many people in Northern Ireland who are fed up with “extraordinary” politics.

This column originally appeared in the Scotsman, on January 6, 2013. 

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Northern Ireland talks seek calm in festive season

As party talks reconvened in Northern Ireland this week to resolve old disputes over religious and national differences, a small business in Belfast is using mutual respect to bridge the gaps in this split society.

Loyalist protesters demonstrate against restrictions on flying Britain's union flag from Belfast City Hall in central Belfast January 5, 2013 (Photo: REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton)Restrictions on flying the union flag in Belfast has become a bone of contention

Last Christmas, protests over the removal of the Union flag from Belfast City Hall almost brought the city to a standstill. Hoping to reach a “meaningful agreement” before Christmas, senior United States diplomat Richard Haass is leading discussions with the five parties in the Northern Ireland Executive, in Belfast.

The talks are taking place against an increasingly restive backdrop: On Monday (16.12.2013), a firebomb ignited inside a Belfast city store.

Republican dissident group Óglaigh na hÉireann earlier claimed responsibility for a bomb that partially exploded in the city on Friday night. The blast followed a bomb scare in Belfast last week, and two separate attacks on Northern Ireland police officers in the city earlier this month.

Calm Christmas sought

Candles at Christmas in IrelandNegotiators are aiming for a calm Christmas

Haass, a former US special envoy for Northern Ireland, is expected to produce a series of recommendations for the Northern Ireland parliament to consider. These could include a framework for helping victims of the 30-year-long conflict, which has cost more than 3,000 lives.

Differences between Irish Catholics and Protestants with roots in Britain living inn Northern Ireland continue to simmer after decades of outright violence starting in the late 1960s, known as “The Troubles.”

Last month, Northern Ireland’s attorney general, John Larkin, suggested ending prosecutions over Troubles-related killings that took place before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The Historical Enquiries Team has until now dealt with such cases, delivering only a handful of successful convictions.

But the past is not the only issue on the table this week – parades remain an annual source of tension. A protest camp of loyalists, or those wanting to strengthen ties to Britain, has been in place at Twaddell Avenue in North Belfast since July, after a decision to restrict an Orange Order parade. It’s estimated that policing the camp costs 50,000 British pounds (60,000 euros) a day.

Many in Northern Ireland are hopeful that an agreement can be reached on parading, with abolition of the current Parades Commission and creation of a new parades body being the most likely outcome. However, the issue of flags could prove far more difficult to solve.

Flag dispute reflects rift

Women draped in Union flags walk past a burning car after loyalist protesters attacked the police with bricks and bottles as they waited for a republican parade to make its way through Belfast City Centre August 9, 2013 (Photo: REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton)Violence during parades, like the aftermath of a riot pictured here, is an issue at talks

Last December, Belfast City Council voted to change its policy on flying the union flag, which represents support for the bond with Britain. Since then the standard has been flown at City Hall on designated days, rather than year-round as was previously the case. The move brought Belfast in line with most councils in Northern Ireland, including a number of unionist-dominated administrations.

Loyalists responded to the flag’s removal with a wave of protests. Although the demonstrations have abated – an anniversary protest last month attracted just 1,500 people – the flag remains a live issue. Recently, unionist councillors on Belfast City Council sent back official Christmas cards after they featured the image of a flagless City Hall.

So far, prospects for a deal appear shaky. Democratic Unionist Party leader and Northern Ireland first minister Peter Robinson said that there would be “steam coming out of my ears” in response to the idea that the draft document produced by Haass could represent the final agreement.

However, he added that he believed agreement was still possible. “Nobody is throwing the towel in at this stage,” Robinson said.

Politicians in the UK parliament warned that issues in Northern Ireland’s past would never be resolved if politicians fail to reach agreement.

“If we get it wrong we may never get another opportunity to address these issues,” Naomi Long – a member of the UK parliament for the centrist Alliance Party – told BBC. Long is also participating in negotiations at the Haass talks.

Breaking down the divide

The peace wall separating Catholic and Protestant communities on Cupar Way in Belfast (Photo: Peter Geoghegan)A “peace wall” separates Catholic and Protestant communities on Cupar Way in Belfast

Northern Ireland remains a deeply divided society, despite the cessation of large-scale armed violence. In many working-class parts of Belfast, Catholic and Protestant communities remain separated by walls, fences and gates, known euphemistically as “peace walls.”

At Cupar Way in West Belfast, a peace wall has separated Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods since 1969. Both areas have among the highest rates of unemployment in Northern Ireland. But there are attempts to create new opportunities across the peace wall.

In 2011, women from both sides of the sectarian divide at Cupar Way came together to form the Belfast Cleaning Company. The business already has six staff members and 10 cleaning contracts. The key to its success is respect, founding member Alice McLarnon told DW.

“We respect each other’s culture,” McLarnon said. While she sees herself as Irish, her co-worker would see herself as British, but this doesn’t matter to either. “She sees me as a co-worker,” McLarnon said.

Alice McLarnon of the Belfast Cleaning Company (Photo: Peter Geoghegan)Alice McLarnon of the Belfast Cleaning Company (Photo: Peter Geoghegan)

The cleaning company is run as a cooperative: Every member has an equal say and an equal share. Although co-ops are not commonplace in Northern Ireland, their popularity is growing. Earlier this month, a cooperative taxi firm started in West Belfast with around 50 drivers.

For the Belfast Cleaning Company, the aim is simple – to grow the business, and build relationships across the peace wall.

“The goal is to create better employment along the interface, to have a better living way for the women,” McLarnon said. “When you create employment across the divide, you actually break down the divide,” says Alice McLarnon.

This piece originally appeared on Deutsche Welle.

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Sectarianism still forms divide

Sectarianism goes beyond football matches and a proper understanding is vital if we are to release the hold it retains on some, writes Peter Geoghegan.

In Scotland, “sectarianism” is one of those words that are guaranteed to spark debate. For some, bigotry is a poison that infects every pore of society, from the workplace to the terrace. For others, it’s a relic of a dim and distant past, overstated, overindulged and often met with a rolling of the eyes.

Responses to last week’s report on sectarianism commissioned by the Scottish government typify Janus-faced attitudes to what James McMillan (in)famously dubbed “Scotland’s shame”.

“Scotland growing tired of sectarianism”; “Sectarianism still a force in Scotland”; “Old Firm still to meet bigotry study group” and “Sectarianism not caused by denominational schools” were among the eclectic headlines that greeted the findings of the advisory group on tackling sectarianism in Scotland.

Sectarianism, as Duncan Morrow, the chair of the advisory group established last August, noted at the report’s launch in Glasgow on Friday, “is an issue that is either dealt with by silence or sensationalism”. Having spent his career toiling at the coalface of community relations in Northern Ireland, Dr Morrow knows a lot about sectarianism and there is much to commend in his report – not least that now, almost a decade and a half after being established, the Scottish parliament has a firm basis on which to ground its well-funded anti-sectarianism strategies.

While the report’s sections on football and education have understandably grabbed most attention, arguably its most useful service is in providing a clear definition of what sectarianism actually is.

Sectarianism is often understood in purely religious terms – Catholic or Protestant – but the way these identities are formed owes far more to ideas about politics and ethnicity. Just as in Northern Ireland, bigotry here has little, if anything, to do with doctrinal differences between Catholics and Protestants: calling someone a “Hun” or a “Fenian” is not a cipher for a theological debate about consubstantiation versus transubstantiation.

Instead, as the advisory group recognises, sectarianism has everything to do with how “them” and “us” are created, and then maintained through symbols, from football clubs to flags to parades.

The report also brings a much-needed dose of reality to the often febrile conversation about sectarianism in Scotland. Bigotry exists – there have been more than 7,000 sectarian incidents reported since 2003, with only 30 per cent of those occurring at football matches – but it is not the over-arching structural inequality it once was.

Large-scale migration to Scotland from Ireland began almost 200 years but it was only in the 1950s and early 1960s, with the advent of new foreign-owned industry and the nationalisation of older manufactures, that discrimination against Catholics started to end.

Fifty years ago someone like me – a first generation Irish Catholic who has lived in Scotland for almost ten years – could have expected to face discrimination in most avenues. Certain firms categorised job applications by religious affiliation, and Catholics were rarely given skilled posts.

But in my time on this side of the Irish Sea, I’ve only been on the receiving end of sectarian discrimination once, and that was from a foul-tongued teenager in a bus station in Glasgow at one in the morning.

That is not to say that sectarianism does not exist in Scotland. At last Friday’s press launch for the advisory group report, in Glasgow, Dr Morrow was grilled about the focus placed on institutions, and specifically local authorities, in failing to adequately address sectarianism.

It has become a truism to say that sectarianism is a thing of the past in Scottish workplaces – since 2003, it has been illegal for employers to discriminate on grounds of religion and belief (and no belief) – but there are plenty of recent examples of sectarian behaviour in the public sector, from the two Stirling council staff investigated in 2011 for posting anti-Catholic messages on social media to the bin man in Airdrie who, because he supported Rangers, was attacked with a shovel by a colleague.

“All local authorities should embrace the issue of tackling sectarianism with the conviction and confidence with which they have approached other equality issues,” last Friday’s report avers, quite reasonably.

But the problem remains one of leadership. Despite the best efforts of Jack McConnell, sectarianism was largely absent from public discourse in Scotland until 2011, when a combination of parcel bombs and fisticuffs aimed at Celtic manager Neil Lennon catapulted the issue on to the media agenda, nationally and internationally.

The clumsy Offensive Behaviour at Football Bill (which has, if anything, inflamed the situation) quickly followed. Justice minister Kenny MacAskill caught the shrill mood of the time when he declared at the 2011 SNP conference” “It’s not about the Boyne in 1690 or Dublin in Easter 1916, it’s about dragging a small minority of folk in our country into the 21st century.”

The Scottish government has, to a large extent, put its money where its mouth is. Around £9 million in funding is being invested in anti-sectarian work; while a lot of this cash is going to the police, a sizeable chunk has been handed to voluntary and community groups. But there still seems to be resistance in some quarters: as many headline writers noted last week, neither Celtic nor Rangers managed to find the time to meet with the advisory group during the last 16 months, despite both clubs profiting handsomely from public funding for anti-sectarian initiatives (to the tune of around £1m each over the last decade).

The danger now is that having done sensationalism for the last couple of years, Scotland could revert to the status quo when it comes to sectarianism, silence. The advisory group report makes a series of useful recommendations – including the suggestion that parades balance the right to march with the rights of communities and that there is no need for further legislation to tackle sectarianism – but institutional change will require active political will at every level. A genuine discussion about shared campuses in our schools is long overdue.

As David Scott, head of anti-sectarian strategy Nil by Mouth, says: “Sectarianism is not the biggest problem Scotland faces but we should not underestimate the hold it has on people who inhabit that world.”

Nil By Mouth has itself contacted 120 quangos in Scotland offering free anti-sectarian training. One would hope that each organisation takes up the offer.

A couple of days before the advisory group report was launched, I found myself standing beside a 40-foot high corrugated metal fence at Cupar Way in West Belfast. The euphemistically titled “peace wall”, the longest such barrier in Europe, separates Catholics on the Falls Road from Protestants on the Shankill. Every night at seven o’clock a gate linking the two sides is bolted shut. Nobody I met in West Belfast thought the wall would come down any time soon.

Thankfully walls topped with barbed wire do not divide Catholics and Protestants in Scotland, but many still live largely separate existences. Sectarianism here is not the all-encompassing behemoth, but there are still too many barriers in too many people’s minds. Dr Morrow’s advisory group has provided the Scottish government with a road map; they now need to follow it.

This column originally appeared in the Scotsman, 19 December, 2013.

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State of the Union: Artists and Scottish independence

In 2014, Scotland will hold a referendum on whether or not to end the union with England. Artists have always played a role in national movements, so will they vote yes or no?

Mark Hogarth (left), Stuart Braithwaite, and Ken McCluskey at a debate over Scottish independence.<br />
(Photo: Andrew Grindlay, for DW)

The Centre of Contemporary Arts is among Glasgow’s most popular venues. Earlier this week, a fashionable crowd of artists and “creatives” gathered at the center not to watch a band or to see the latest exhibition. They came instead to listen to a debate about what is fast becoming this season’s hottest topic among Scottish artists: independence.

In September 2014, Scotland will go to the polls in a referendum on whether or not to leave the United Kingdom. The Scottish National Party, which control the devolved parliament in Edinburgh, have spearheaded the drive for an independence vote and the country’s artists have been a vocal presence at the heart of the national conversation about whether Scotland should go it alone.

Going it alone

Polls suggest that around a third of Scots are in favor of independence currently, but support seems higher among Scotland’s creative community. Famous writers, poets and visual artists such as Liz Lochead, James Kelman and James Robertson have all come out in support of a ‘yes’ vote.

“I think there are a lot of people in the arts who are pro-independence,” Stuart Braithwaite, founder of Scottish post-rock group Mogwai told the audience at the CCA debate, which was organized and facilitated by Scottish social media platform Kiltr.

A picture of the panel at the debate<br />
(Photo: Andrew Grindlay, for DW)Artists often play a role in national movements but will independence lead to less money?

Why independence?

Mr Braithwaite has been a prominent voice in favor of independence, particularly on Twitter where he goes by the handle @plasmatron. During the hour-long discussion he explained why so many artists are backing the independence cause.

“I’ve a theory about why that is. When you make art you are willing to go into the unknown. Independence is going to be a leap of faith,” the musician said.

“The unknown frightens people. Scottish people are quite cautious but not in the arts. You are willing to take a leap of faith, to imagine a better Scotland and a better future, take a blank canvas and imagine something wonderful on it.”

Politicising the artistic movement is ‘stupid’

At the debate though, speaking in favour of a “no” vote next year, Mark Hogarth, creative director at the clothing brand Harris Tweed Hebrides, said it would be “stupid” for anyone to try to politicise the artistic movement in Scotland.

“I work in branding. There’s nothing that strikes a greater chord than something that is new and nostalgic,” he said. “Independence is both of those things. Of course it’s going to strike a chord. It’s easier to get behind than the status quo.”

Mr Hogarth criticised the assumption that Scotland’s creative community is united behind independence. “There are artists and other individuals out there who have maybe not come to a conclusion yet. Perhaps the fact they have not been quite as voluminous as the independence campaign is no representation of how the artistic community actually lies,” he said.

‘Politically neutral’

The role of the arts in the independence debate has already caused controversy in Scotland. During the summer, Sir Jonathan Mills, director of the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF), said material related to independence would not appear at next year’s festival

“We would not wish our festival to be anything other than it has always been, which is a politically neutral space for artists. It is important that it remains that,” Mills said in an interview with a Scottish newspaper at the time.

The reaction to the director’s comments about next year’s program was quick, with many in Scotland’s artistic community questioning the idea that the arts can ever be “politically neutral.”

“I don’t think the EIF is going to be able to keep this issue out. We’ve got a year to make use of this opportunity to start a proper discussion,” novelist Denise Mina said at the time.

‘Settlers and Colonists’

“The arts are one of the places where we can discuss the more abstract notions. It’s a real missed opportunity by Jonathan Mills. It’s fearful and it’s shameful.”

Audience at debate in Glasgow on the issue of Scottish independence(Photo: Andrew Grindlay, for DW)Judging by the crowd’s response, there were more cheers for the ‘Yes’ camp

The four-person panel at the CCA debate in Glasgow featured another person whose views on Scotland’s constitutional destiny have grabbed headlines: writer and illustrator Alasdair Gray. In an essay entitled “Settlers and Colonists” published late last year, Mr Gray suggested that since the 1970s, English men and women have been over-represented in the upper echelons of Scottish life, in “electricity, water supply, property development, universities, local civil services” and in the arts.

The avuncular, white-haired Gray was a firm favorite with the audience in Glasgow, even if not everyone agreed with his suggestion that culturally Scotland punches below its weight compared with similar sized countries such as Ireland.

Expressing some doubts about the push for independence, designer Emlyn Firth told DW “I don’t think everyone has completely thought through the ramifications of what might happen to the eco-system of contemporary art or design if we do go independent.”

‘The Glasgow miracle’

That eco-system is well represented in Glasgow. The city’s recent cultural regeneration has been so successful that renowned art curator Hans Ulrich Obrist has dubbed it “The Glasgow Miracle.” Some in the “No” camp have warned that a vote for independence could jeopardize Scotland’s artistic achievements thus far; perhaps fearing that there would not be as much money around to achieve these kinds of “miracles” in an independent Scotland.

Alasdair Gray and Pauline McNeil<br />
(Photo: Andrew Grindlay, for DW) Agreeing to disagree, Pauline McNeil feels independence will bring nothing to the arts

“Independence will bring nothing to the arts,” says Pauline McNeil former shadow minister for culture in the devolved Scottish parliament and an advocate of retaining the status quo at the CCA debate.

“Scotland and the arts community would flourish better by sticking with what we have now.”

All in all, judging by the reaction at the close of the debate – the two ‘yes’ voices received the biggest cheers of the night – many in Scotland’s artistic community are still backing independence. But there is a long way to go between now and polling day on 18 September 2014.

This piece originally appeared on Deutsche Welle.

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Tensions ratcheting up in Northern Ireland

Belfast, Northern Ireland - The Good Friday Agreement in 1998 brought Northern Ireland’s bloody conflict to a close, but signs of division remain 15 years later.

In the capital Belfast, Catholic and Protestant communities are separated by euphemistic “peace walls”, most children attend segregated schools, and major questions around the past and future remain unresolved.

A bomb exploded in Belfast’s city centre last Friday night, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of Christmas revellers. The blast, for which republican dissident group Oglaigh na hEireann claimed responsibility, follows a bomb scare in the capital earlier in the week, and two separate attacks recently on Police Service of Northern Ireland officers.

There has been disquiet among some loyalists, too. A protest camp has been in place since July on north Belfast’s Twaddell Avenue, after an Orange Order parade was prevented from passing through a nearby Catholic area. “Respect Our Culture,” reads a large poster overlooking the encampment.

Questions of culture and identity impinge on business in Belfast City Hall, too. Unionists on the city council recently refused to take official Christmas cards. The reason: A picture of Belfast City Hall used in the festive greetings did not feature a British flag.

Discussions of the past have come to represent the failure of healing in society. The past is functioning as a symbol of how little progress has been made in society despite the progress made in politics.

- John Brewer, Queen’s University Belfast

 

The flag has been a live issue in Northern Ireland since last December, when the Belfast city council voted to change its policy on flying the Union flag from all-year round to a select number of designated days. Loyalists responded to the flag’s removal with a wave of protests that almost brought Belfast to a standstill at one stage.

New talks

In an effort to resolve the disputes about flags, parading, and the past, talks have been reconvened in Northern Ireland. Senior US diplomat Richard Haass, previously a special envoy for Northern Ireland under the presidency of George W Bush, and Harvard professor Meghan O’Sullivan are leading the talks.

Haass, who has already held three rounds of negotiations this year with the five main parties in the Northern Ireland Executive, said he hopes to reach a “meaningful agreement” before Christmas.

Haass is expected to deliver a series of recommendations to the devolved government at Stormont, which is dominated by the Irish nationalists Sinn Fein and the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party. These could include a framework for dealing with the thorny issue of what happened during theTroubles and its victims on both sides of the decades-old ethno-religious conflict.

Recent months have seen a glut of revelations about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, which left more than 3,000 dead and many times that number wounded. Earlier this month, the Smithwick Tribunal across the border in Dublin found evidence that Irish police colluded with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in the murder of two senior Northern Ireland police officers in 1989.

Anne Cadwallader’s recent book Lethal Allies detailed extensive contact between British security forces and loyalists who killed more than 120 people in Tyrone and Armagh in the 1970s. Meanwhile, the role of Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams in the disappearance of Belfast housewife Jean McConville in the 1970s has been the subject of renewed attention. McConville’s body was found on a beach in county Louth in 2003.

Shared vision?

Women walk past a Loyalist paramilitary mural [Reuters]

 

The Good Friday Agreement was a historic compromise between nationalists and unionists, but it left unresolved issues such as how to build a pluralist Northern Irish society and how to deal with the past. Fifteen years on, the violence has ended but a shared vision of the future, and the past, remains elusive.

“Discussions of the past have come to represent the failure of healing in society. The past is functioning as a symbol of how little progress has been made in society despite the progress made in politics,” says John Brewer, professor of post-conflict studies at Queen’s University in Belfast.

But there are signs that Northern Irish leaders are starting to think more seriously about how to address the past. Last month, Northern Ireland’s attorney general, John Larkin, suggested ending any prosecutions over Troubles-related killings that took place before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. Currently such cases are dealt with by the Historical Enquiries Team, which has delivered only a handful of successful convictions and is expected to cost £190m ($310m) over the next five years.

The parties at the Haass talks are considering a number of possible models for setting aside Troubles-era offences. These include: a stay on prosecutions, as suggested by Larkin; a truth commission with an amnesty broadly based on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission; compelling witnesses to give evidence in exchange for immunity; and leaving witnesses open to the threat of prosecution.

Sinn Fein favours a truth commission. The Democratic Unionist Party has said it will oppose any amnesty but has softened its position on conditional immunity, which was used in attempts to obtain information on the recovery of the bodies of IRA victims buried in unmarked graves in the 1970s.

“We need to look at what [Haass is] saying by way of immunity – is that immunity for all time over those actions, or is it a limited immunity, such as we have for instance with the decommissioning legislation?” first minister Peter Robinson said recently. “I think we’ll look at what the proposition is and judge it when we see the detail.”

Tell the truth

Northern Irish politicians need to be more honest with Troubles’ victims, says MLA John McCallister, deputy leader of the newly formed party NI21.

“We can’t provide victims with justice. We are unlikely to be able to provide them with the truth,” says McCallister. “What we can do is offer victims support. Instead of spending £190m ($310m) policing the past, why don’t we use that for victims’ services?”

Duncan Morrow, a former chairman of the Community Relations Council in Belfast, says those who committed crimes need to be included in any reconciliation process. “The fundamental issue in the past is how you resolve the dilemma of wanting to include the perpetrators in the resolution and doing justice to the victims,” he says.

Morrow says he believes that while all the parties claim to want justice for victims, the wider question of political responsibility for violence during the Troubles is not being addressed. “Neither nationalism nor unionism want to have the real conversation about the political legitimacy for the killings,” Morrow says. “A politically permissive environment for killing was created in this place, and that’s what they don’t want to touch.”

There is a bit more optimism than there was … But the proof will be in the substance, whether there is something generated that would provide a basis to go forward from here.

- Duncan Morrow, Community Relations Council in Belfast

 

Troublesome parades

The past is not the only issue on the table this week. Loyalist parades remain an annual source of tension, particularly during the July marching season. Many in Northern Ireland are hopeful that an agreement can be reached on parading, with the abolition of the current Parades Commission and the creation of a new parades body being the most likely outcome.

Loyalists, however, have vowed to reject any compromise, especially on the sensitive issue of flags.

“Unionism has given up enough. We don’t have any more to give,” Jamie Bryson, one of the leaders of the flags protests, told Al Jazeera in Belfast. “Any deal would only fan the flames of loyalist resistance.”

“Would Richard Haass go to America and tell the Americans to take down the stars and stripes because it offends al-Qaeda?” Bryson asked.

Despite the obstacles in the way of a deal, there is a growing expectation that some form of agreement can be reached by Haass’ self-imposed deadline of the end of this week.

“There is a bit more optimism than there was that they will do something that would allow Haass to claim some success,” says Morrow. “But the proof will be in the substance, whether there is something generated that would provide a basis to go forward from here.”

This piece originally appeared on Al-Jazeera

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Kosovo’s ‘Strong Party’ backs most everything – but dull politics

A bold new political platform is arriving in tiny Kosovo: Corruption should be legalized and serious diseases outlawed. A Formula One racing track should be built around Kosovo’s capital, Pristina. Urinals should be installed in the foyer of every public building in the city.

These are just some of the policies proposed by a new, tongue-in-cheek politics that has started bringing laughs to the often stagnant politics of Albanian-majority Kosovo.

Partia e Forte, i.e. The Strong Party, is of course a spoof, an example of Balkan satire and sense of the absurd. The party got founded after a conversation among friends in a Pristina cafe two years ago. But after Sunday’s local elections, it is on course to win at least one seat in the city council.strong party

“There was a need for a party like this in the political scene to bring something new, and not just continue with the same boring politics,” the Strong Party’s so-called “Legendary Chairman,” Visar Arifaj, explained the day after the local elections, which continued into a 5 a.m. post-election party.

The Strong Party taps into a perpetual roiling discontent in Kosovo, especially among the young – and comic relief in what is an often heavy dialogue around the tense Serb-majority enclave of North Mitrovica.

Over half of Kosovo’s population are under 25, and they make up many of the 40 percent unemployed figure. Corruption scandals have been present for years and have fed a disillusionment with mainstream politics, mostly dominated by parties that emerged from the independence struggle in the 1990s.

Like the Best Party in Iceland, Mr. Arifaj believes that farce can be a highly effective form of protest. “If you just criticize you are not doing anything new. By not opposing them, by becoming one of them, we are showing how ridiculous they are.”

Arifaj and the rest of the Strong Party have certainly succeeded in holding Kosovo’s political class to ridicule. Playing off a slew of universities that have sprouted all over Europe’s youngest state in recent years, Arifaj made a campaign “pledge” to build a college in every single neighborhood.

“The prime minister appears to want universities in every village; well, we’re going further,” he said during the campaign.

The Strong Party has a novel approach to solving Kosovo’s unemployment crisis, too. “We don’t think it is a problem that 40 percent are unemployed. We think that the 60 percent who do work are the main problem.”

“What we will try to do is make everyone not have to work. Everything should be done by computers, so people can get their salaries just by sitting at home,” he says.

Strolling around Pristina in Arifaj’s company it is clear the party hit a nerve in a city that does have plenty of creative youth. It is hard to move more than ten feet without someone stopping to shake Arifaj’s hand or pat him on the back. “We were a bit surprised by how people accepted and how they do love [the party],” he says.

“In the beginning we didn’t know how people would react to it. If they would throw stones at us or kiss us. We are glad it went the good way!”

The Strong Party brought “humor to the dull pre-electoral campaign” says Ilir Deta, executive director of the Kosovo think tank Kipred. “It is a success that they will be represented by a counselor or two at the municipal assembly.”

The party intends to contest the 2014 general election. Behind their comic appearance lies a serious message. “Kosovo has one of the youngest populations in Europe. A lot of young people are not represented politically,” says Yll Rugova, a graphic designer and one of the Strong Party’s 1,500 “vice-presidents.”

“There are people like us in countries like Serbia and Macedonia and maybe, maybe we can develop something together that break the borders. That sounds a bit cheesy but it is really something that could happen.”

This piece originally appeared in the Christian Science Monitor

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Kosovo PM urges Serbs to vote in make-or-break elections

Kosovo‘s prime minister has issued a last-ditch appeal to Kosovan Serbs to vote in critical elections this weekend that are widely seen as a make-or-break moment for the republic.

In an interview with the Guardian, Hashim Thaçi said that the abandonment of polling after attacks in northern Kosovo earlier this month was a result of “pressure, threats and other methods”, and added that he would hold Serbia responsible if there was a repeat performance in the re-run vote in North Mitrovica on Sunday.

Thaçi said that a successful vote was vital to a peace deal between Kosovo and Serbia and encouraged ethnic Serbs in the republic to vote. He said the only ones who would lose by participation in the elections were extremists and radical groups in north Kosovo.

Voting was suspended in North Mitrovica on 3 November after masked men burst into three polling stations in the town, which is predominantly ethnically Serbian, firing teargas and destroying ballot boxes. “We know what happened, who did it and why they did it,” Thaçi said.

The local elections followed a peace deal brokered in April by the European Union between Serbia and its former province. Under the terms of the agreement, Belgrade will dismantle the parallel systems that deliver a range of services from healthcare to education in north Kosovo in return for greater autonomy for ethnic Serbs across Kosovo.

Many in the north refuse to recognise the Kosovan state, which declared independence in 2008. The highest turnout in the other three Serb municipalities in north Kosovo was just 22%, but Kosovo’s electoral commission decided to accept these results and to limit the re-run to the divided town of North Mitrovica.

“If the people were allowed to vote the participation would have been over 25%,” Thaçi said. “What we need now is political stability in north [Kosovo] to create legitimate local institutions and investments, and then things will change.

“Kosovo is not endangered by Serb integration. Kosovo is endangered if they do not integrate,” he said of Kosovo’s 120,000 Serbs.

The Brussels agreement has proved controversial in both Serbia and Kosovo, but Thaçi rejected criticism of it. “How should we handle the situation with Serbia? Should we start the war again? Kill each other? This is the best possible deal for both countries,” he said.

Successful implementation is widely seen as essential to Serbia’s and Kosovo’s EU ambitions. “It is the best solution for Kosovo and Serbia to become EU members, and also the best solution for the region,” Thaçi said. “We didn’t fight against Serbs: we fought to remove Serbia and its oppression mechanisms in 1999.”

The future of the Brussels deal hinges on who comes out to vote on Sunday, said Ilir Deda of the Pristina-based thinktank Kipred. “It all depends on what the northern Serbs want to do. Do they want to kill it by boycotting or do they want to legitimise it by electing a Serb mayor?”

Thaçi’s counterpart in Belgrade, Ivica Dačić, warned ethnic Serbs in North Mitrovica to vote “unless they want the city to be led by an Albanian”.

Dačić told Serbian TV that the system of largely autonomous Serb municipalities, agreed with Pristina in Brussels, would break down if Serbs did not participate in the re-run. “If the mayor is Albanian, it will mean that we are not be able to set up the administration, and we will not be in the position to create the community of Serb municipalities, which could lead to conflicts and perhaps even to armed conflicts,” he said.

Scars remain from the last war. On Friday, an EU prosecutor indicted 15 former Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) fighters on charges of torturing and killing civilians during the 1998-99 conflict with Serbia. Among the accused are Kosovo’s ambassador to Albania, Sulejman Selimi, and leading members of Thaçi’s governing PDK party, including Sami Lushtaku. Despite being in prison, Lushtaku won the mayoral contest in Skenderaj earlier this month with more than 88% of the vote. “He won because people trust him,” Thaçi said.

But Thaçi said that any former KLA members convicted of criminal charges would be expelled from the party. “We had previous examples where people were in judicial proceedings and they were elected as members of parliament. But from the moment when someone is found guilty by a court they will not remain in politics after that.”

This piece originally appeared in the Guardian, 15 November, 2013. 

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In north Kosovo

On Sunday November 3, Kosovo held local elections. Across the country
turnout was moderate-to-high — except in four majority ethnic Serb
municipalities north of the Ibar River, the de facto border between
north and south Kosovo. In Zvecan, just 11.2 per cent cast a ballot.
Leposavic and Zubin Potok were a little better – 22 percent of the
electorate turned out in in each – but in North Mitrovica, the main
urban centre in north Kosovo, the poll was a disaster. Serbs refused
to vote. Around 5pm, a group of masked men forced their way into two
polling stations in the town, throwing tear gas and smashing ballot
boxes.

north kosovoThe November 3 violence in North Mitrovica was hardly a surprise. The
Belgrade-backed candidate for mayor, Krstimir Pantic, had been
attacked two days before polls opened, leaving him with a deep gash on
his chin. ‘We expect trouble this evening,’ my Serb fixer said matter-of-factly
the morning before the vote as we drove to my hotel, which overlooked
the OSCE’s gated compound. ‘On the one hand you are quite secure here,
but on the other if there is trouble it might end up here.’ In
September, a Lithuanian officer in the European Union’s Rule of Law
Mission in Kosovo (EULEX) was shot dead outside the town. No one
claimed responsibility, but the killing – which bore the hallmarks of
a professional hit – was widely blamed on organised criminal networks,
which have a lot to lose from any thaw in North Kosovo’s fourteen-year
old frozen conflict.

The north is home to around a third of Kosovo’s 120,000 or so ethnic
Serbs. Unlike elsewhere in Kosovo, Serbs here share a large land
border with Serbia and have, since the war ended 1999, lived in what
is effectively a parallel state, with Belgrade administering (and
paying) for everything from social welfare to health and education. In
North Mitrovica, Yugoslav-era cars, many without number plates,
clutter footpaths, and Serbian flags fly from lampposts outside drab
Communist-era apartment blocks.

I arrived in North Mitrovica on foot – the main bridge spanning the
Ibar has been blocked to vehicle traffic by a huge mound of earth and
stones, since July 2011. A black stretch limousine cruised up and down
the main street. This, I was later told, was a ‘mafia’ wedding. The
bride was the daughter of a well-known local gangster who graduated
from ‘bridge watching’ for interlopers coming across the Ibar to petty
crime and then large-scale drug dealing. Now he lives in Belgrade -
where his wife is a close confidante of Serbian pop singer, and
Arkan’s former wife, Svetlana Ražnatović (better known by her stage
name, Ceca) – but he retains a lucrative foothold in North Kosovo.

The November 3 elections followed a deal between Serbia and Kosovo
negotiated in Brussels, in April, by EU high representative Catherine
Ashton that gave Pristina a greater role in the north in exchange for
more autonomy for ethnic Serbs across Kosovo. Belgrade had called on
Serbs in North Kosovo to vote – warning that they could lose their
state jobs if they didn’t – but in North Mitrovica shop windows
displayed stickers in support of a campaign to boycott the vote. ‘This
process did not include the Serbs in the North, which is a good basis
to fail,’ a rather reluctant opposition mayoral candidate, Oliver
Ivanovic, told me on the eve of the poll. That night, youths stood
drinking outside the local office of the right-wing Democratic Party
of Serbia (DSS). The DSS, headed by former nationalist Serbian PM
Vojislav Koštunica, bitterly opposed the Brussels Agreement.

Next morning I visited a polling station at Sveti Sava school. It was
a Spartan affair: a few Orthodox icons on the walls, a handful of
election observers and even fewer voters with little sign of security.
Outside a dozen or so kept a silent, intimidating vigil. I recognised
a couple from the DSS party the previous evening. I approached one – a
man in his 20s with a Serbian flag patch on his leather jacket – but
all he would say was: ‘Kosovo is Serbia’.

As the day darkened, so did the mood. Reports of the attack on the
polling stations filtered through. ‘Be careful, there’s no police here
to protect you,’ a Serbian photographer warned as we stood on North
Mitrovica’s main street, waiting for the crowd to clear. It did, but
only after the OSCE had pulled out its contingent and closed the
polls, two hours early. Rumours circulated that the Serbian government
had organised the attacks to prevent the ethnic Albanian candidate
winning the mayoral vote in North Mitrovica. ‘Belgrade failed. They
promised something that they couldn’t deliver, so they did this to
stop the voting,’ a man, who had not voted, told me in a local bar.
Subsequent reports suggested that boycott protesters themselves were
behind the attacks.

After almost a week, Kosovo’s central elections commission declared
the vote in three polling stations in North Mitrovica invalid. (The
results in the other three Serb majority municipalities north of the
Ibar would, the Commission said, stand despite accusations of
intimidation and very low turnouts.) Repeat elections in North
Mitrovica were hastily arranged for November 17. Two days before the
vote, Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic paid a visit, telling a crowd
of around 5,000 that “you need to help us in order to help yourselves,
so that we can continue helping you.” Public sector workers were sent
a communiqué telling them what time they would be expected to go and
vote and which government official would lead them to do so. Other
encouragements reportedly included sugar, cooking oil and cash.
Amid a massive security operation, 22.38 per cent voted.

Kosovo went to the polls in run-off elections on Sunday (December 1).
The Belgrade-backed ‘Srpksa’ (“Serbia”) list won the vast majority of
Serb municipalities, including in North Mitrovica. Some in Pristina
fear the power Belgrade could exert on its former province through the
Union of Serb Councils established under the Brussels agreement.

South of the Ibar River Sunday’s vote was a disaster for the
establishment Albanian parties. The ruling Democratic Party of Kosovo
(PDK), led by former KLA fighter Hashim Thaci, lost power in five
municipalities; Ramush Haradinaj, who has twice been acquitted of war
crimes in the Hague, lost his power base in the west of country; and
even the opposition, Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), which won a
number of municipalities, is in turmoil, having seen Vetevendosje
(Self-Determination) wrestle control of the capital, Pristina.

Many of Vetevendosje’s voters are young urbanities that do not
necessarily support their brand of left-wing politics and pan-Albanian
nationalism but they are fed with up the corruption and lack of
opportunities in Kosovo. ‘It’s an electoral earthquake,’ a friend in
Pristina told me on Twitter. ‘I’m hopeful this spirit will continue,
though it’s too early to tell.’

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Serbs still find it hard living in Kosov

Mitrovica is a Kosovan city divided in two: Serbs live in the north, Albanians in the south. It’s the flashpoint for Serb reluctance to be living in a Kosovan state.

Serbian municipal building in North Mitrovica.

Back in the days of socialist Yugoslavia, Mitrovica was a rather prosperous city. On the outskirts of town, the vast Trepeca mines were one of the largest industrial complexes in the country, while Mitrovica itself was home to Albanians, Serbs, Bosnians, Turks and other minorities.

Today, the name Mitrovica is synonymous with division. The Ibar River has become a de facto border since the war in Kosovo ended in 1999, separating a mainly Albanian population in the south from majority Serb North Mitrovica.

On Sunday (17.11.2013), voters in North Mitrovica went to the polls in a repeat election, called after violence and intimidation marred voting in the town earlier this month. The election was seen as crucial for the Brussels agreement - which was signed between Serbia and Kosovo in April – but many of the around 20,000 ethnic Serbs in north Mitrovica are wary of any change to the status quo.

“A huge majority of the people are against any sort of tight connection with Pristina,” says Oliver Ivanovic, who was standing for mayor of North Mitrovica and won enough votes to contest a run-off on December 1. “Pristina is there, we cannot underestimate that fact. We are part of Kosovo as long as Kosovo is part of Serbia.”

Serb resistance

Like Serbia itself, the vast majority of the 40,000 ethnic Serbs spread across the four municipalities of north Kosovo refuse to recognize Kosovo’s independence, which was declared in 2008.

“No Serbs recognize Kosovo independence,” says Ivanovic. “We have to live with this fact, which is not pleasant. [But] because there is no alternative, the Serbs will not leave here.”

Over the past 14 years, North Kosovo has developed in isolation from the rest of the country. Here Serbian flags fly and signs in Cyrillic and English proclaim, “This is Serbia.” A system of parallel structures, funded by Belgrade, provides everything from schools and health to the courts system.

Oliver Ivanovic, mayoral candidate for North Mitrovica.Oliver Ivanovic says it all starts with controling the car parking

But almost a decade and a half of isolation has taken a toll, too. Cars, many without license plates, clutter up footpaths. With a weak rule of law, lucrative illegal trades have flourished in everything from fuel to firearms.

“Putting law and order on the street means fixing the streets and parking space,” says Ivanovic. “Our fight for improvement in law and order starts with parking. You have to make it clear to people that things are changing. That Mitrovica is changing.”

‘Different people with a different culture’

The division of the town has come at a big social price says Sinisa, an ethnic Serb primary school teacher who didn’t want his surname used: “Before the war the town was organized in a proper way. All the facilities were shared around the town but by dividing the town, now we just have the general hospital and all the other facilities, two stadiums, sports hall, health centre, railway station, everything is in the south.”

memorial in North Mitrovica to ethnic Serbs killed in the Kosovan war. Memories are long, but it’s not that long ago that Serbs died in the Kosovo war

But Sinisa has no desire to return to how things were before the conflict: “I don’t want to be integrated. I am satisfied with life here. Yes, my neighbors can come, we can co-operate and work together but at night they go and sleep in their part of town. They are different people, with a different culture.”

Commerce offers the best opportunity to bring Albanians and Serbs together, says Niall Ardill, a former business lecturer in North Mitrovica’s university who recently completed a study on the private sector in north Kosovo.

“The business community is more advanced than the political community,” he says as he stands beside the main bridge connecting north and south Mitrovica. A huge mound of earth and stone has blocked the bridge since 2011, when Kosovo police attempted to take control of border crossings.

No money

Around 30 per cent of companies in the north trade with the rest of Kosovo. But twice as many would like to. “We have found that companies that trade with the south really benefit,” says Ardill.

The main barrier is not politics, it’s capacity: “A lot of the processes and procedures they use might be outdated so that’s something that needs to be looked at from an investor point of view and from an international donor point of view.”

In the mixed north Mitrovica neighborhood of Bosniak Mahala, local shopkeeper Artan Maxhuni, an ethnic Turk, complains that the biggest problem for his clothing business lies with the wider economy.

“The economic situation in Kosovo is bad, really bad,” he says. “Everywhere in Kosovo is bad, not just in Mitrovica, but Mitrovica is especially bad.

“I have Serb customers, no problem, but people have no money.”

Just past the armed Italian police that keep a constant vigil on the bridge over the Ibar, in largely Albanian south Mitrovica, Aferdita Syla, executive director of Community Building Mitrovica, is trying to nurture cross-community links in the divided city.

“In July we brought 40 kids on an activity – 20 from the north, 20 from the south,” Syla remembers. “Their first reaction when they met each other was, ‘Wow, they are normal.’ Because for a long time they had no contact with each other, they thought the other was not human.”

But in a divided city, making connections is easier than keeping them. “They don’t have this daily contact. That is where we are lacking. We have to cross this bridge more.”

This piece originally appeared on Deutsche Welle. 

 

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