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

Posted in Al Jazeera, Northern Ireland, Politics | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

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

Posted in Balkans, Christian Science Monitor, Kosovo | Tagged , | Leave a comment

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. 

Posted in Balkans, Guardian, Kosovo | Leave a comment

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

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.’

Posted in Balkans, Kosovo | Tagged , | Leave a comment

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. 


Posted in Balkans, Deutsche Welle | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Kosovo city plans new polls after marred vote

North Mitrovica, Kosovo - In this city politics is literally written on the walls. On the main street of this predominantly Serb town in north Kosovo, a brightly painted mural declares, “This is Serbia”. Nearby graffiti calls for the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo to “go home”.

Once a prosperous, ethnically mixed city, Mitrovica has been divided since the war in Kosovo ended in 1999. A huge mound of earth and stone blocks the bridge connecting Serb-dominated North Mitrovica from the larger Albanian settlement south of the Ibar River.

In recent weeks, new messages have begun appearing on North Mitrovica’s walls: “Kosovo is Serbia”, “1389″ (referring to the year the Battle of Kosovo was fought) and, most prominently, “boycott”.

On November 3, local elections were held across Kosovo, in accordance with a peace deal signed by Serbia and its former province in April. Serbia pledged to recognise the authority of Kosovo’s government over the north in return for far greater autonomy for Kosovo’s ethnic Serbs. Underpinning the deal was both sides’ ambitions to join the European Union.

Failed elections

In the rest of Kosovo, the elections passed relatively peacefully but in North Mitrovica, amid a highly visible boycott campaign supported by the right-wing Democratic Party of Serbia and smaller ultranationalist groups, problems quickly arose. By midday, the turnout rate at polling stations in the town was in the low single digits. Outside, groups of nationalist youths held an intimidating vigil.

At around 5pm, masked men simultaneously stormed three polling stations, firing tear gas canisters and smashing ballot boxes.

Oliver Ivanovic is running for mayor of North Mitrovica [Bojan Slavkovic/Al Jazeera]

Officials from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) were evacuated from North Mitrovica and the voting was suspended. Last week, Kosovo’s electoral commission declared that the election in North Mitrovica will be re-run on Sunday, November 17.

The international community was widely criticised for the electoral failure. “There was strong resistance to the election here in North Mitrovica, and everybody knew this. It shows poor planning and understanding of the situation by international organisations, which allowed those elements opposing the elections to organise,” Mitrovica-based analyst Branislav Krstic told Kosovan media.

Serbia has refused to recognise Kosovo since it declared independence in 2008. But the Serbian government called on the 40,000 Serbs in the north to participate in the recent elections. For many Serbs living in north Kosovo, this was tantamount to a betrayal.

Even the candidates running in the election were ambivalent about the vote. “From the beginning it was not well prepared. It was not transparent. This process did not include the Serbs in the north, which is a good basis to fail,” said Oliver Ivanovic, who was running for mayor of North Mitrovica. “It was a hidden process, hidden from both sides without any involvement of those who are supposed to be involved. What they agree is going to affect our lives. We have to be asked what we think.”

Serbia ties

Over the past 14 years, north Kosovo has developed in isolation from the rest of Kosovo. Parallel structures funded by Belgrade provide education, health, and court systems, and many 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,” said Ivanovic, referring to Kosovo’s capital. “Pristina is there, we cannot underestimate that fact. We are part of Kosovo as long as Kosovo is part of Serbia.”

Almost a decade and a half of isolation has taken its toll on North Mitroivca. Cars, many without license plates, block footpaths, and drab Communist-era apartment blocks look down on streets that have changed little since the dying days of Yugoslavia. While many shop shelves are half-empty, lucrative illegal trades in everything from fuel to firearms have flourished.

Around 35 percent of North Kosovo’s population of around 70,000 is unemployed, said Niall Ardill, a former business lecturer at the town’s university. Most of those who do work are employed by the Serbian state.

“Conflict potential is still the biggest barrier to trading,” explained Ardill, who was recently involved in a study on private-sector business capacity in north Kosovo. Only about 30 percent of the companies surveyed engage in trade south of the Ibar River – partly because of the prohibitively high cost of insurance levied by the Kosovan government on Serbian-registered vehicles that are the norm in north Kosovo.

Masked men raid Kosovo polling station

“Economic integration is a good way to get people to talk to each other – you’re able to push economic growth but also integration and conflict resolution,” said Ardill.

The division of Mitrovica has inflicted social and economic costs on the Serbs living on the north side of the city. “Before the war, the town was organised 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,” said Sinisa, an ethnic Serb primary school teacher who declined to give his last name.

Before 1999, life in Mitrovica “was not perfect but it was good”, he said. Now Sinisa seldom travels to the south of the town anymore, “because of the danger”.

“We are just waiting for what will happen tomorrow. You have the feeling that everything is normal, but we are always waiting for what politics will bring.”

Continually manned by international police, the barricaded bridge over the Ibar River is open only to foot traffic. On the ethnic Albanian side, Aferdita Syla, executive director of Community Building Mitrovica, said both the Kosovan and Serbian governments failed to engage with people on the ground ahead of the recent elections.

“People were not involved in the process at all. Nobody told people what was involved,” she said. “It is all between Pristina and Belgrade. You see things going on in the sky and you just hope nothing will fall on us. There are people who don’t want to lose their power and they are making a lot of trouble so they don’t lose the benefits they have from the situation.”

Worry of ‘half-legitimate leaderships’

In the other three Serb-dominated municipalities in the north, Leposavic and Zubin Potok recorded a voter turnout of 22 percent, while 11.2 percent of voters in Zvecan cast ballots. Despite reports of intimidation in some of these areas, Kosovo’s electoral commission said there would not be a re-run in these municipalities.

Ilir Deda, the head of Pristina-based think tank Kipred, warned that accepting results based on such low turnout could see “half-legitimate leaderships” emerge in the northern municipalities. “This will lead to further instability in the north in the years to come and create a permanent crisis of legitimacy, governance and ultimately lead to non-functional municipalities,” he said.

If North Mitrovica’s Serbs can be convinced to vote in Sunday’s re-run, they will elect a local mayor as well as representatives for the Union of Serb Councils, created to represent most of the 120,000 Serbs across Kosovo under the April agreement. Some in Pristina have expressed concerns that the association’s close ties to Belgrade could undermine the state of Kosovo.

In North Mitrovica, Ivanovic supports the new association but is critical of the Belgrade government’s calls for Serbs in Kosovo to vote only for members of an approved “Serbia” list.

“For the democratic process, it is important to have a full spectrum [of parties] – not to have this one-party list, like in Communist times,” he said. “Now we need a proper campaign, competing on ideas and personalities.”

This piece originally appeared on Al-Jazeera.

Posted in Al Jazeera, Balkans, Kosovo | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Getting away ‘Scot-free’ from alcoholism

Edinburgh, Scotland - Scotland has become the first place in Europe to prescribe a new drug that reduces cravings for alcohol.

Earlier this month, the Scottish Medicines Consortium, a body that approves drugs for use in the National Health Service, gave the go-ahead for doctors in Scotland to prescribe nalmefene, a drug made by Danish firm Lundbeck and designed to diminish the “buzz” drinkers get from alcohol.

Nalmefene will be targeted at people who are heavy drinkers, but not the most severely dependent alcoholics. The drug works by blocking reward centres in the brain that encourage drinkers to over-indulge.al jaz drinking

In trials, men who normally drank eight units of alcohol a day and women who drank six a day halved their consumption over a six-month period when they took the drug.

The decision to prescribe nalmefene free of charge by the National Health Service reflects a growing concern about Scottish drinking habits and their effects on social and economic well-being.

Scotland has one of the highest levels of alcohol consumption in the world. Among Scottish men, the alcohol-related death rate is twice that of the rest of the UK. Drinking costs the economy an estimated £3.6bn ($5.75bn) in everything from lost productivity to increased spending on health care and criminal justice.

‘It causes so much damage’

“We have a massive problem with drinking,” says Gillian Bell, spokesperson for Alcohol Focus Scotland. “We accept excessive drinking as the norm, but we shouldn’t because it causes so much damage. Alcohol does not just affect the person who is drinking, it affects society as a whole.”

[Nalmefene] represents a new option for treating some people with alcohol dependence by helping them to cut down their drinking.

- Jonathan Chick, consultant psychiatrist at Queen Margaret University Hospital

The devolved Scottish government, which has responsibility for the country’s health policy, hopes that nalmefene will help to tackle alcohol abuse. The decision to prescribe nalmefene, which is taken as a tablet before drinking, has been widely welcomed by Scotland’s medical community.

“I am pleased that Scottish patients will have access to nalmefene, which represents a new option for treating some people with alcohol dependence by helping them to cut down their drinking when they may not be ready, or have no medical need, to give up alcohol altogether,” said Jonathan Chick, a consultant psychiatrist at Queen Margaret University Hospital in Edinburgh.

Peter Rice, the chairman of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP) and a former chairman of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Scotland, told Al Jazeera he believes the drug will be “a useful addition to the options we have to offer patients”.

Scotland was the first place to introduce routine screenings for alcohol abuse. Now all patients must complete a form about their drinking habits. The programme has allowed doctors to identify a quarter of a million problem drinkers over the last four years, in a region with just over five million people.

Rice said the success of nalmefene will depend on whether doctors use it alongside psychological and personal care. “The evidence base and effectiveness of the brief intervention is better-established than it is for the medication. The medication needs to be seen as working in conjunction with the intervention, the simple advice from the doctor. I would expect that it won’t be just doctors reaching for their prescription pad,” Rice said.

‘The wrong approach’

Drinkers in Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city, were less optimistic about the drug’s potential. ”It’s the wrong approach. If someone is an alcoholic, surely the thing to do is to is to make them stop, not encourage them to drink less,” said Josephine, one of a handful of afternoon drinkers in the Vale, a bar near Glasgow’s Queen Street train station.

A chef in a city centre restaurant, Josephine said drinking is a way of life for many, particularly in the hospitality sector. “Everything revolves around alcohol. Staff night’s out, you are brought to the pub. At Christmas you don’t get a cash bonus, you get £20 ($32) in drinks tokens.”

Her friend Maria noted that Scotland’s drinking culture is “very different” from that in her native Canada. “People back home will maybe plan once a month to go out drinking. Here it is every weekend.”

William Smith, who has run the Vale for almost 20 years, said medication to prevent people from drinking too much is “pointless”. “This isn’t the answer. If people want to drink, they’ll drink. They’ll get up in the morning and say ‘I’ll drink’ or ‘I’ll not drink’.”

Instead, Smith believes the Scottish government should be focusing on the problem of young drinkers. “That is where I would be starting … Nobody is going to give [nalmefene] to a 12-year-old in a [housing] scheme in Glasgow. It seems to be me that this thing is aimed at the wrong people.”

Minimum prices

While alcohol consumed in pubs and clubs has fallen by 34 percent in Scotland since 1994, the amount of alcohol bought to drink at home rose by 45 percent over the same period. In an effort to stem the flow of cheap booze, the Scottish government last year passed legislation introducing a minimum price of 50 pence per 10 millilitres of alcohol.

But the measure has yet to be implemented, following a court challenge launched by the Scotch Whisky Association and two other trade bodies, spiritsEUROPE and the Comité Européen des Entreprises Vins, which represent European spirits and wine producers.

Minimum prices are “the most important thing” to reduce drinking in Scotland, argued Rice. ”If we don’t have price controls and we got back to the alcohol price wars of three or four years ago, that would undo a lot of the good work done in interventions and other areas.”

The effects of alcohol abuse are all too evident in Scotland, from the street drinkers to the over-zealous revellers in city centres on weekends. Alcohol branding is ubiquitous, too, appearing on everything from the shirts of popular football teams to the names of summer music festivals.

“Drinking is accepted as part of everyday life,” said Bell, the Alcohol Focus Scotland spokesperson. “But the alcohol industry are very good at making it feel like part of everyday life.”

This piece originally appeared on Al-Jazeera


Posted in Al Jazeera, Scotland | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Kosovo Cries Out for Change

Kosovo is crying out for change, writes Peter Geoghegan, and, increasingly disillusioned with the political system, voters have turned to electing a comedian to office.

Are comedians the political voices for the apathetic generation? If the reaction to Russell Brand’s recent decrees is anything to go by, they could well be.

But while Brand was scribbling in the New Statesman and chatting to Paxman on Newsnight last month, in Kosovo a comic was in the process of actually getting elected to the council in the capital, Pristina.

The Strong Party campaigned on an, eh, unorthodox manifesto – legalise corruption; privatise everything; construct a Formula One racing track around Pristina and universities in every village and neighbourhood.

The party, which took around 2 per cent of the vote and a seat in Pristina, was decried as a “joke” but their message was a serious one – the ludicrous campaign promises were all either exaggerated versions of other parties’ pledges, or cleverly realised digs at Kosovo’s dysfunctional political system.

“We are a group of young people who are angry. But if you just criticise you are not doing anything new. By not opposing (other political parties), by becoming one of them we are showing how ridiculous they are,” the Strong Party’s “Legendary Chairman”, 26-year-old Visar Arifaj, told me when we met over coffee in one of Pristina’s myriad cafes, last week. The average age of the party’s 1,500 vice-chairmen is just 24.

Kosovo is the youngest state in Europe – in more ways than one. It is just five years ago since independence from Serbia was declared; half the population is under 25. For this generation, the war a dim and distant memory, the failures of the present are paramount.

“There is dissatisfaction among the young,” says Dren Pozhegu, a youthful policy analyst. Among 15-24 year olds unemployment stands at an eye-watering 53 per cent, according to statistics from the office of the Kosovan prime minister. No wonder so many have, as Pozhegu says, “lost the belief in change”.

Part of the problem is the kind of change that Kosovo has experienced since the war with Serbia was brought to an end 14 years ago.

Privatisation is a case in point. At one end of pedestrianised Mother Theresa Boulevard, Pristina’s main thoroughfare, is the hulking frame of the 13-storey Grand Hotel. Built in 1978, the 350-room Grand was once the epicentre of Kosovan high society. During the war, it housed the Serbian army and the press corps. The hotel was privatised in 2006 and now stands dilapidated and half-empty, open to guests but in no fit state to receive them.

After the war, many former US officials returned to Kosovo for the privatisation boom — in telecom, mining, or other lucrative government contracts — including US former secretary of state Madeleine Albright and James W Pardew, formerly a special envoy to the Balkans under president Clinton, who was at helm during the Nato bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999.

Kosovo’s privatisations have been “a very dubious process”, says Muhamet Hamiti, erstwhile Kosovo ambassador to London and adviser to former president and independence leader Ibrahim Rugova.

Connected to the privatisation process has been arguably the biggest problem facing the young Kosovoan state – corruption. Backhanders and payoffs have been widely seen as an almost routine aspect of awarding government contracts. The head of Kosovo’s anti-corruption task force was recently arrested – on corruption charges.

“Corruption is endemic. It is a fog that everyone can see but you can’t reach out and touch it, you can’t grasp it,” a very senior international source in Kosovo told me.

In 2010, the first governor of independent Kosovo’s Central Bank, Hashim Rexhepi, was arrested on corruption charges. But an investigation by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network found serious errors in the charges against Mr Rexhepi, amid suggestions that he had actually attempted to stand up to political interference and corruption.

Corruption, of course, is not confined to Kosovo – across the former Yugoslavia, states struggle to control graft. But in Kosovo, there is a European mission, EULEX, dedicated solely to upholding the rule of law.

EULEX has not been inactive – just last week a prosecutor indicted 15 former Kosovo Liberation Army fighters on war crimes charges – but they are widely seen as failing to get a grip on corruption and organised crime. The international community has put a premium on regional stability, making it difficult – if not impossible – to pursue charges against suspects closely connected with the government of prime minister Hashim Thaci in Pristina.

“The rule of law sits uncomfortably with the grand desire for stability at all costs,” a source told me.

An April peace deal brokered by Baroness Ashton in Brussels between Kosovo and Serbia was intended to cooper-fasten this “stability”. Under the terms of the agreement, Serbia would recognise the authority of Kosovo’s government over the police and the courts in the restive, ethnic Serb-dominated north in return for greater autonomy for Serbs across Kosovo. Successful implementation of the accord is widely seen as crucial to both Kosovo and Serbia’s European Union ambitions.

“The EU want short-term peace and stability but they don’t care how it is achieved,” opposition leader Albin Kurti said when we met in the offices of his party, Vetevendosje (Self-Determination), in Pristina.

Kurti, a former student leader, political prisoner in Serbia and adviser to the political representative of the KLA during the war, has been a vocal critic of the international presence in Kosovo and the political system they have done much to support. “Before the war we had equality without freedom. That was prison.

“Now we have freedom without equality. That is the jungle. I don’t like prison or the jungle.”

Kosovo has had successes – local elections held earlier this month were widely hailed as the freest and fairest yet (aside from in the north, where violence and intimidation marred voting, necessitating a repeat election in North Mitrovica on Sunday).

There is economic growth – just not enough of it – and Kosovans display an entrepreneurial spirit that would be the envy of any nation.

Pristina is a city teeming with creative young people – and, as the Strong Party attests, it is not just Russell Brand who is fed up with the political status quo.

Posted in Balkans, Kosovo, Scotsman | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Building for a Better Future

More houses, not more schemes that will push up house prices, are what is needed, writes Peter Geoghegan.

Speaking to the Conservative Party faithful in Manchester last week, George Osborne declared: “We are the party of home ownership and we’re going to let the country know it.” The conference may have been festooned with messages about “hard-working people” – and dire warnings for the feckless millions unable to find work in a recession – but at the heart of the Chancellor’s speech he was appealing to a British obsession: houses.

The Conservatives, said Mr Osborne, were a “party of aspiration and home ownership”, ready, willing and able to come to the aid of those “still being denied their dream of owning their own home”.

That the “dream” of homeownership has turned into a nightmare for so many after the sub-prime mortgage crash just six years ago doesn’t seem to concern the Chancellor unduly. Indeed, in his March Budget, Osborne unveiled a scheme that has seen the government actively involved in inflating house prices.

Under Help to Buy, prospective buyers south of the Border can avail themselves of interest-free loans worth up to 20 per cent of the purchase price. The second stage of the scheme – which began yesterday, ahead of the original schedule – will provide mortgage guarantees for buyers of properties valued at £600,000 or less with just a 5 per cent deposit. In all, the government is expected to be guarantor on around £130 billion worth of mortgages. The Scottish Government runs its own Help to Buy scheme, with a limit of £400,000 purchase price. Both schemes apply only to new-build homes.

Leaving aside for a moment the political contortions involved in a party committed to privatising everything from the NHS to the postal service putting the state on the hook in the property market, there are very real fears that Help to Buy will only serve to further inflate the UK housing market.

Business Secretary Vince Cable has warned: “We don’t want a new bubble.” But it may already be too late for that. In London, house prices are up 10 per cent year-on-year. It’s not just the south-east that is starting to look frothy: prices are up 10 per cent in Manchester, and 8 per cent in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The Bank of England announced a five-year high for mortgage approvals for August of 62,226.

What we need is more houses, not higher prices – but it has taken a man of God to say publicly what many politicians will only admit privately. “Help to Buy is like tackling a food shortage by issuing food vouchers rather than getting more crops planted,” said David Walker, Bishop-designate of Manchester, recently.

Osborne himself tacitly admitted that Help to Buy is a flawed policy when he announced recently that he has asked the central bank’s Financial Policy Committee to review the programme every year – initially this was to be every three years. But the first review is not due until next September, and by then the housing market is likely to be a whole lot boomier.

Howard Archer, UK and European economist at HIS Global Insight, has warned of a “mounting danger that house prices could really take off over the coming months, especially as a shortage of new properties for sale could be a significant factor in some areas, notably London and the south-east.” Archer cited Help to Buy as a significant factor in the escalating house prices expected over the next 12 months.

Help-to-Buy – and the wider government rhetoric on home ownership – betrays a simple, but increasingly politically uncomfortable, fact: our houses are already overpriced. And not just in the south of England.

This column originally appeared in the Scotsman, October 8, 2013. 

British house prices are 31 per cent too high compared with rents and 21 per cent over-valued against incomes, according to a study by the OECD. In the decade from 1997 to 2007, UK house prices trebled. At the same time, the length of mortgages increased dramatically: between 1993 and 2000, less than 2 per cent of mortgages were for more than 25 years. Now a fifth are for 30 years or more.

As home ownership becomes the preserve of those willing to take out mortgages far in excess of income or those fortunate enough to be born to home-owning parents, maintaining rising house prices becomes a political imperative. If UK house prices were to fall (as they should, according to OECD statistics) millions would lose out in the “investment” they call home. The political imperative for policies that appeal directly to those either on the housing ladder, or those scrambling for a toehold, is clear.

Adam Posen, a former member of the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee, has written of the economic folly of giving an incentive to “middle-class households to leverage the bulk of their savings into a highly volatile, difficult to price asset, which is subject to disaster risk both idiosyncratic (fire, tree falling on the roof) and general (flood, local industry closure), and which – based on the economic fundamentals – should return at best the average rate of local wage and population growth”.

Houses are not productive assets. In encouraging yet more investment in the property market, Osborne et al are diverting away capital that could be used to create jobs and growth in the real economy.

At the root of this lies a facile assumption that renting is “throwing money away” and a person’s house is their “castle”. This belief in the economic and existential value of home ownership is not a singularly British phenomenon, but among developed nations it is more pronounced in the Anglo-Saxon world. Home ownership in the UK and US stands at around 65 to 70 per cent, against around 50 per cent in France, Germany and Japan.

The OECD’s Better Life Index shows that no relationship exists between home-ownership levels and average housing satisfaction and quality. Germany and the Scandinavian states, in particular, enjoy a more diverse housing market, with the state playing an important role in the rental sector, and a concomitant fear of the rising house prices so lauded by British politicians and, too often, the press.

There are more creative ways, too, for government to increase revenue from property beyond the stamp duty that accrues from a booming housing market. There is much to commend a Land Value Tax (LVT) levied not on the value of a property but on the value of the land on which it sits. After all, it is not houses that are expensive but the land on which they are built: house prices reflect more the value of social goods (transport links, schools, infrastructure, location) than they do the cost of bricks and mortar. A house is scarcely more costly to build in London than Linlithgow.

The Scottish Government is working on a land and buildings transaction tax that could see aspects of an LVT subsumed within it. The idea of an LVT is not new – indeed, it found favour with one of George Osborne’s predecessors: Winston Churchill. He once said that rising land values “are derived from processes which are not merely not beneficial, but positively detrimental to the general public”.


Creative solutions to the problems in Britain’s housing market are possible. But to work they need a government willing to move away from a regressive vision of home ownership based on rising house prices. As this past week demonstrated, that is one essential building block not yet in place.

Posted in Scotland, Scotsman | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Calling Time on Arthur’s Day

There’s a growing backlash over an event dreamed up by the ad men to celebrate Guinness that could see its focus move from drink to the arts, writes Peter Geoghegan.

A couple of years ago I went to Galway for a wedding. I arrived on a wet Thursday night with the wind whipping off the Atlantic Ocean, but it seemed the entire city was out on the town, swaying in the streets or bulging out of the myriad pubs. Even by the less than abstemious standards of “the City of the Tribes”, this was a big night.

I’d no idea what the party was for. “Have Galway won the All-Ireland?” I asked, somewhat tongue in cheek, at the reception in my hotel. “No, it’s Arthur’s Day.” I was handed a leaflet featuring a picture of a pint of Guinness, a slogan about celebrating “great people who make things happen” and the logo of Diageo, the international drinks giant that now owns Guinness.

Arthur’s Day, basically a marketing gimmick to mark 250 years since the first pint of Guinness was brewed in Dublin, is now in its fifth year. Yesterday at 17:59 – the year of the company’s establishment – people raised pints of Guinness in pubs in over 40 countries around the world, including Jamaica, Malaysia and, of course, Ireland. As part of the event, Diageo paid for secret free gigs at around 500 venues across Ireland by a host of international and national groups, including Biffy Clyro and the Manic Street Preachers.

Arthur’s Day has provided something of a fillip for hard-pushed Irish publicans – despite the national stereotypes, pubs in Ireland are closing in record numbers in the face of the massive downturn in the country’s economic fortunes – but the backlash has been building, especially this year. And Ireland’s writers, singers and artists have been in the vanguard of the anti-Arthur’s Day brigade.

“Has there ever been a scam like Arthur’s Day,” columnist Eamon McCann wrote in the Belfast Telegraph recently, “as contemptuous of the people it targets, as disrespectful of the culture and especially of the music it misuses to make its play, as depressing in the extent to which the people made fools of simper with pleasure and cry out for more?”

Actor Gabriel Byrne was, if anything, even less sympathetic to the marketing men’s cause. “The idea that people go out and get absolutely pissed on a day that’s made up by marketing guys – that’s a cynical exercise in exploitation in a country that has a huge problem with binge drinking,” said the Usual Suspects star.

This year, Arthur’s Day seems to have hit a nerve with a country jaded with ad men and increasingly aware of its own alcohol excesses.

Government statistics show that Irish households last year spent 7.7 per cent of their money, or €6.3 billion, on booze. That’s double what is spent on clothing and more than €2,100 per adult.

Ireland tops the European league table in terms of binge drinking, according to a 2010 Eurobarometer survey. The study found 44 per cent of Irish people said they had consumed five or more drinks in a single sitting over the previous 12 months. The EU average is 29 per cent.

Arthur’s Day has quickly become the apotheosis of Irish binge drinking. An even-boozier version of St Patrick’s Day – if such a thing can be imagined. Statistics suggest alcohol-related ambulance call-outs increase 30 per cent on Arthur’s Day. No wonder, then, that a boycott was called for by Irish medical professionals. “Alcohol is more affordable than ever. Alcohol is more acceptable than ever. Alcohol is more available than ever. We need measures to address this epidemic. Where does Arthur’s Day fit into all of this?” said Dr Stephen Stewart, director of the Centre for Liver Disease at the Mater Hospital in Dublin. Cirrhosis of the liver is reaching epidemic proportions across Ireland, particularly among younger people.

Alex White, Ireland’s deputy health minister, recently described Arthur’s Day as a “pseudo-national event”. The Irish public would seem to agree. A poll on a leading Irish radio show found 74 per cent of listeners opposed to the day. “They shouldn’t call it Arthur’s Day. They should call it Vomit Day,” Aisling Fitzsimons told reporters.

Fitzsimons, a 50-year-old manager of a convenience store, said she regularly had to hose down the footpath outside her business after alcohol-fuelled weekend excess. Hungover workers cost Ireland €3.7bn annually.

Among the loudest voices against Arthur’s Day has been singer-songwriter Christy Moore. In a scathing song – released yesterday – he dubbed it an “alcoholiday”.

“Diageo Diageo have mounted a Crusade/ Creating Arthur’s Day they’ve suckered us into their charade/ Start ‘em off on alco-pops tastes just like lemonade/ Get ‘em into the hit while they’re young and none the wiser,” he sings on Arthur’s Day.

Diageo, however, has maintained that Arthur’s Day is all about promoting the arts. “Ultimately, it’s about bringing pints of Guinness, music and the pub together,” said Peter O’Brien, corporate relations director at Diageo, western Europe.

“I think that’s a very unique festival. Christy Moore is entitled to write a song, and that’s fine. I completely disagree with him and I’m fairly certain that the thousand of musicians who are playing and enjoying themselves, and getting good employment on Thursday, would likewise disagree with him.”

In the face of continued cutbacks to the arts budget, Diageo, through its Guinness brand, has begun to play an ever-increasing role in funding the Irish creative scene. As well as the singers and musicians paid for during Arthur’s Day, a scheme called the Arthur Guinness Projects provides money for artists. But in stepping into the funding hole left by the Irish state, Diageo has also created a wonderful marketing opportunity for themselves – and sparked question marks over the commitment of the government in Dublin to tackle Ireland’s drinking problem.

The Irish Cabinet is still considering whether to follow Scotland in imposing minimum pricing on alcohol. Restrictions on advertising and event sponsorship have all been mooted, but for now the iconic Guinness logo still adorns everything from sports jerseys to advertising hoardings.

Diageo responded to some of the criticism it received this year by saying that it would pay for an additional police presence on the streets for last night’s Arthur’s Day celebrations. But the long-term future of Ireland’s new “pseudo-national event” is unclear. The company says that it is keeping an open mind on changing Arthur’s Day next year to focus less on pubs and pints, and more on the arts, but also insists that nobody is being forced to drink when watching musical performances.

But this year’s backlash against Arthur’s Day suggests a growing disquiet among many about the relationship between Ireland, its national drink and its drinking culture.

The Guinness Storehouse in Dublin is the country’s most popular tourist attraction. The iconic image of Barack Obama’s visit to Ireland was the president supping “the black stuff”. Even the Queen and Prince Philip watched a pint settle (though neither drank it).

A Diageo spokesperson might have unwittingly stumbled on the cause of his company’s Arthur’s Day woes when he said that Irish society had “started to question our relationship with everything: the [Catholic] church, big business, politicians. And we’re questioning our relationship with alcohol”. About time, too.

This column originally appeared in the Scotsman September 26, 2013. 

Posted in Ireland, Scotsman | Tagged , , | Leave a comment