What’s Mined is Theirs — Ireland’s Oil and Gas

Earlier this month, Providence Resources announced that an oil field at Barryroe, off the coast of Cork, is expected to yield 280 million barrels. The company’s CEO, Tony O’Reilly Jr, the son of the media mogul, told the Today programme that this was ‘very good news for Providence shareholders and the Irish economy’. The first part of his statement is undoubtedly true: Providence’s share price rose sharply on the back of the Barryroe news. That Ireland’s economy will benefit is much less likely.

According to the World Bank, Ireland offers ‘very favourable’ fiscal terms for oil and gas companies. At 25 per cent, Ireland’s government take is among the lowest in the world. Norway’s, by comparison, is 78 per cent; Yemen’s is 95 per cent. Ireland also boasts some of the most generous tax-write offs in the industry: companies can offset all costs before they declare profits, including any ‘incurred in the 25-year-period prior to commencement of field production’, from such activities as drilling unsuccessful wells in Irish waters.

When a company finds oil or gas in Irish territory, ownership and control of the resource is transferred in full to the company; no royalties are paid to the state; the company can choose to export the oil or gas; they do not have to land the resources in Ireland or use Irish services or personnel.

In the late 1950s, the minister of industry and commerce (and future taoiseach) Seán Lemass sold the first exclusive exploration drilling rights in Ireland for £500 to Madonna Oil, a shell company owned by three American representatives of the Messman-Rinehart Oil  Company of Wichita and the Ambassador Oil Corporation of Forth Worth. In 1961, a two-thirds share in the rights was sold to Continental Oil and Ohio Oil International for $450,000.

In 1971, Marathon Oil (as Ohio Oil International had become) discovered gas off Kinsale, Co. Cork. The terms of the government deal under which the gas was extracted were so favourable to the company that it became an issue in the 1973 general election. Influenced by Norway’s creation of a state oil company, the new minister for industry and commerce, Labour’s Justin Keating, set about recalibrating Ireland’s relationship with oil and gas companies: the state would have a stake in any commercial find; corporation tax on oil and gas revenue was set at 50 per cent; production royalties would be levied.

Keating’s amendments did not last long. In 1987, the energy minister Ray Burke – who in 2005 was jailed in relation to corrupt payments received in office – abolished royalty payments and state participation in oil and gas development. In 1992, the finance minister (and another taoiseach in waiting) Bertie Ahern cut corporation tax for the industry from 50 per cent to 25 per cent, where it broadly remains, despite some alterations to the new licensing terms made by the Green party minister Eamon Ryan in 2007.

Ireland’s oil and gas regime reflects the dominant logic of Irish economic policy: low taxes will make Ireland attractive to foreign companies, even if they are simply harvesting the country’s natural resources and creating little in the way of jobs or tax revenue. That speculative Irish licence holders get rich in the process is no cause for concern.

A year ago, the minister for communications, energy and natural resources, Pat Rabbitte, announced that 13 new offshore exploration licences had been awarded. ‘Ireland must continue to communicate the message to international exploration companies that Ireland is open for business,’ he said.

In 1973, the Union of Students of Ireland published a pamphlet entitledWhat’s Mined is Ours! The Case for the Retention and Development of Irish Minerals under Public Ownership. According to the foreword, ‘those with a vested interest in the development of Irish mineral resources appear to have access to unlimited finance for public relations purposes.’ One of the text’s three signatories was the USI president, Pat Rabbitte.

This piece originally appeared on the London Review of Books blog.

Sceptics say oil find will not mean boom for Irish economy

IRELAND’S devastated economy received a boost yesterday with the announcement that an offshore field at Barryroe, 30 miles off the coast of County Cork, could yield up to 280 million barrels of oil.

Providence Resources, an Irish and UK company that has been drilling at six locations off the coast of Ireland, said Barryroe will yield more oil than expected, which could trigger an oil rush off the Republic’s coastline.

“It’s very good news for Providence shareholders and the Irish economy,” Providence chief executive Tony O’Reilly said. “We hope this will not be a single project. From an Irish perspective, here we have no oil industry. This really heralds the beginning of that industry.”

Mr O’Reilly said the oil recovery rate during exploration had exceeded expectations and, with oil at about $100 per barrel it was a “big moment” for Irish oil exploration and the Irish economy.

Ireland has extensive, untapped oil and gas reserves. The area off the west coast alone contains potential reserves of 10 billion barrels of oil equivalent (oil or gas), according to a 2006 study for the Irish government. This estimate does not include areas off Ireland’s south coast, where Providence’s offshore field is located.

However, serious doubts have been raised about the benefit of the Providence oil find for the Irish economy. Under a deal signed by former premier Charles Haughey in the 1980s, when a company finds oil or gas in Irish territory ownership and control of the resource is transferred in full to the company.

The only guaranteed benefit to Ireland from extraction of resources is a 25 per cent corporation tax on the profits declared from the sale of the oil or gas. Before declaring profits, the company can write off 100 per cent of costs from the previous 25 years against tax, including the cost of previous, unsuccessful wells drilled anywhere in Irish waters and costs incurred in other countries.

Ireland’s minister for communications, energy and natural resources, Pat Rabbitte, has admitted that the tax take from oil in Ireland will be much lower than in the UK, but has argued that the low rate will make Ireland attractive for foreign oil companies.

Whether the oil from Barryroe will be landed in Cork or elsewhere in Europe remains unclear, but many expect refinement and related processes to take place outside Ireland.
Even extensive oil extraction is unlikely to create more than “a few hundred jobs” in Ireland, said Conor McCabe, author of Sins of the Father: Tracing the Decisions that Shaped the Irish Economy.

This piece originally appeared in the Scotsman. 

From Dream Home to Living Hell: Life on Ireland’s Ghost Estates

Noelle McHale bought her “dream home” in a new estate in Ireland’s midlands in 2006 for €175,000 (£142,000 today). But her dream has turned to nightmare with her semi-detached worth only a fraction of that price, and the unfinished estate it sits in considered dangerously unsafe because of toxic gases.

“If you light a match it can cause an explosion. I’ve stopped lighting fires, I have to keep the windows open, and the water in the toilet full,” Ms McHale said.

Already this year, a build up of methane and carbon monoxide is believed to have caused two blasts at Gleann Riada, on the edge of Longford. In one house, now boarded up, windows and doors were blown out. “It is the luck of god that someone wasn’t killed,” said John McNamara, a chartered engineer and advocate for the estate’s residents.

Gleann Riada is one of around 2,800 unfinished housing developments, scars of the Celtic Tiger boom, which pockmark Ireland. Some are almost completed, but others have serious problems.

Built on an area prone to flooding, Gleann Riada is worse than most. Subsidence has left concrete walls tottering and footpaths buckled. Inadequately treated sewage is thought to be the primary cause of the build up of poisonous gases. The estate “is unsafe” until “necessary and immediate remedial work” is carried out, Dr Kevin Kelleher, author of a report into the explosions on the site, told the a local paper earlier this month.

The developer has gone bust, but the local council maintains that, as a private estate, residents must bear the costs of repairs. Mr McNamara estimates the cost at €5 million. “Who’s got that kind of money?’ asks Ms McHale.

With many unable to afford alternative accommodation, most Gleann Riada residents, who hail from Poland, India and Russia as well as Ireland, have been forced to remain on the estate, in fear of their lives.

Ireland is now paying a heavy price for the lax planning and building regime of the boom years. In February, two-year-old Liam Keogh died after drowning in a pool of water on an unfinished estate in Athlone, Westmeath, around 30 miles from Longford. In Dublin, more than 240 residents of the Priory Hall apartment complex have been moved out of their homes for more than a year after a court ordered work to make the building safe. It was built by former IRA hunger striker Tom McFeely, declared bankrupt in July.

“There is a question as to are these estates the tip of the iceberg?” says Professor Rob Kitchin, director of the national institute for regional and spatial analysis at Maynooth university and the lead author of A Haunted Landscape: Housing and Ghost Estates in post-Celtic Tiger Ireland. Earlier this week, campaigners called on the government to provide support for the up to 40,000 homeowners whose foundations were built using pyrite. When exposed to air or water, pyrite (iron sulphide, or fool’s gold), becomes unstable and cause walls and floors to crack.

The government has so far pledged just €5m for the repair of unfinished estates. “They are being left to hang in the wind. The government strategy is ‘we will try to deal with health and safety issues as best way we can and hope for market correction’,” says Prof Kitchin.

This piece originally appeared in the Scotsman, October 19, 2012.

Book Review: Political Corruption in Ireland 1922-2010, by Elaine Byrne

As is the case with unhappy families, every corrupt state is corrupt in its own way: in Ireland, an entrenched, localized “parish pump” political system; weak regulation;
devout deference to authority; and a predisposition to denigrate whistleblowers as “informers” all contributed to widespread malpractice in public office. Consequently, Irish corruption, as Elaine A. Byrne writes, “operated within a system rather than a mere aggregation of isolated illegal acts. It had become a market, which, as in the case of every functioning market, has developed internal rules governed by the laws of supply and demand”.

It was not always thus. The generation of political leaders that fought for – and won – Irish independence, possessed a “puritan revolutionary ethic”: Michael Collins, who
was both Minister for Finance and IRA Intelligence director from 1919 until his death in
1922, excoriated ministerial colleagues’ failure to submit half-year estimates for their departments during his tenure in office.

Paradoxically, this radical zeal contained within it the roots of future corruption. Adopting a narrow definition of corruption as the exchange of public goods for private gain, the Free State’s early leaders saw no need to legislate against conflicts of interest. In 1946, in the wake of a tax scandal, one Irish TD told a sympathetic Dáil that the Ten Commandments and “the ordinary principles of decency and good conduct” were sufficient to ensure probity in Irish public life.

The first substantial piece of legislation on political corruption was not introduced until
1995. By then the damage had long been done. The McCracken Tribunal, established in 1997, estimated that the former Taoiseach Charles J. Haughey received at least £9,106,369 in political donations between 1979 and 1996. Haughey was not alone; from the 1950s on vested interests exerted ever increasing degrees of undue influence over
Irish policy-making and regulation, to the point where, in the recent boom, tens of thousands of houses were built without access to amenities or, as in the Larry Goodman scandal, the Irish taxpayer was underwriting fraudulent beef exports to Iraq.

A political scientist at Trinity College Dublin, and a prominent commentator in the Irish media, Byrne has produced a perspicacious, highly readable account of the way Irish corruption morphed as the state’s political, economic and social structures changed. In the wake of Ireland’s loss of economic sovereignty, the book’s central message – that only a vibrant, transparent political culture offers effective protection against the corrosive power of corruption – seems particularly vital.

This review originally appeared in the Times Literary Supplement.

Kosovo’s Footballing Allegiances

A recent match between Switzerland and Albania included players whose home nation is not yet recognised by FIFA

With less than a quarter of an hour to go in Switzerland’s recent World Cup qualifier against Albania in Lucerne, Granit Xhaka was presented with a glorious chance to put the home side 3-0 up. With the goal at his mercy, the usually clinical Borussia Monchengladbach midfielder shot tamely at the keeper. ‘Shqipëria! Shqipëria!’ (Albania! Albania!) sang thousands of flag-waving Albanian fans behind the goal.

After the match, which finished 2-0, Xhaka, who was born in eastern Kosovo, was asked live on Albanian television if his miss was intentional. Xhaka demurred, offering only ‘no comment’, but the player was less circumspect on the demands of playing against a nation most ethnic Albanian Kosovans identify so strongly with. ‘It is not easy,’ the 20-year-old who left Kosovo for Switzerland as a youngster said, ‘we have the same blood. My father and mother are Albanian and all the other Albanians that know us here know what we are.’

A former province of Serbia, Kosovo does not have a fully-fledged national team of its own. Despite the 2008 declaration of independence being recognised by over 90 countries, Kosovo is not been allowed to apply for membership of FIFA or UEFA. For Kosovan players and fans alike, the makeshift Kosovo national side that has played a handful of low-key matches against the likes of Monaco and Saudi Arabia is no substitute for competitive international football.

The Switzerland clash was probably the most eagerly anticipated game in Kosovo’s history. In the run-up to the match, Kosovan state television incessantly ran adverts for ‘Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia against Switzerland’, a reflection of the number, and diversity, of ethnic Albanians in both line-ups.

No fewer than nine players of Kosovan extraction played in Lucerne, including Albanian captain Lorik Cana – once of Sunderland and now with Lazio – and, for Switzerland, Bayern Munich hitman Xherdan Shaqiri and ex-West Ham midfielder Valon Behrami. The Swiss also boasted two Albanians born in Macedonia, Admir Mehmedi and Blerim Xhemajli.

Switzerland’s Kosovan players have made no secret of their allegiance to both their homeland and Albania. Shaqiri plays with three flags sewn onto his boots: Switzerland, Albania, and Kosovo. Behrami has said previously that he would like to play for an independent Kosovo national team. In the build-up to the game the head of the Albanian FA Armand Duka described ethnic Albanians playing for Switzerland as ‘traitors’ for not opting to play for Albania. Gianni De Biasi, Albania’s Italian coach, concurred

If Duka’s comments were intended to provoke the Albanian fans, which made up around two-thirds of the 15,000-strong crowd in Lausanne, they had the desired effect. Missiles, including coins, rained down from the stands, with Shaqiri, Xhaka and Behrami singled out for special abuse.

After the game Shaqiri, who pointedly did not celebrate after opening the scoring, said fans that called him a traitor ‘do not know the reality’. The statement was widely interpreted as a reference to long-standing allegations that Duka demanded bribes from the families of expatriate Kosovan players that wanted to be considered for the Albanian national team.

Albanian football is already benefitting from Kosovan footballing prowess. As well as Cana, Vorskla Poltava’s Armend Dallku and onetime Burnley signing Besart Berisha are among a number of Kosovans that regularly turn out for the Albanian national side. Attendances at Albania games have been buoyed by coach loads of Kosovan fans coming down the newly-minted $1billion ‘patriotic highway’ connecting Pristina and Tirana. Upwards of 5,000 Kosovans regularly make the four-hour journey for internationals, often outnumbering local Albanians inside the moth-eaten Qemal Stafa stadium.

The qualifier in Lucerne took place on the same day as a high-level conference in Pristina to mark the end of the international community’s supervision of Kosovan independence. Under the banner of ‘Chapter Closed in the Balkans’, a host of politicians and diplomats discussed Kosovo’s future. Football is, belatedly, being recongised as an important part of integrating Kosovo internationally. Without United Nations recognition, Kosovo cannot apply for FIFA or EUFA membership. In May, Sepp Blatter announced that Kosovo would be allowed to play non-competitive games against FIFIA members (much to the chagrin of Serbia, the antagonist in the 1999 war).

As Pristina’s relations with Belgrade slowly improve so too do the prospects of a Kosovan national side. Ahead of a FIFA executive committee meeting in Zurich in September, all nine Kosovans that appeared in Lausanne signed an open letter to Blatter in support of Kosovo playing full internationals. Kosovo certainly has the talent, as the young Kosovans making names for themselves across Europe attests. Whether Europe’s newest state gets the opportunity remains to be seen.

This piece originally appeared in When Saturday Comes magazine www.wsc.co.uk

Kosovo Goes it Alone

Mother Teresa Boulevard is a street pregnant with symbolism. At one end of the wide, pedestrianized thoroughfare that runs through the centre of Pristina, an imposing statue of Albanian hero Skanderbeg stands in the shadow of Kosovo’s parliament building. A couple of hundred metres south sits the Communist-era Grand Hotel. When war broke out in 1999, notorious Serb paramilitary leader Arkan reputedly made his base here, in what was the Kosovan capital’s most opulent hotel.

Mother Tersea Boulevard was the obvious location for a ‘peace concert’ held last month to celebrate the end of the four-year long supervision of Kosovo’s independence. On a warm September evening, after politicians and diplomats had declared ‘chapter closed in the Balkans’ and executive powers were formally transferred to the Kosovan Assembly, local musicians played for free on a specially constructed stage halfway down the Boulevard. By 10.30pm, only a couple of dozen had turned out to watch.

It’s not that Pristina was quiet, far from it. All along Mother Teresa, cafes and bars were thronged with young Kosovans waving red and black Albanian flags and shouting — in support not of independence, but of the Albanian national team, who were taking on Switzerland in a World Cup qualifier. The Swiss side had three players of Kosovan descent in their line-up, Albania half a dozen. For Kosovans, with no national team of their own, this was the biggest game in a generation.

The boycott of the peace concert was not, however, simply a reflection of poor scheduling and Kosovo’s passion for football. Many, particularly the young, have grown steadily disillusioned with life in Europe’s youngest state. Unemployment is high; wages are low; so, increasingly is turnout at elections. Stability has not solved the problem of corruption – Kosovo placed just 112th in the 2011 Transparency International Corruption Index. The country remains internally divided, with a restive, Serb-dominated north rejecting Pristina’s writ.

‘There is dissatisfaction among the young,’ Dren Pozhegu, a youthful policy analyst, told me over a coffee on George Bush Street in downtown Pristina. ‘I feel this apathy among people, they have lost the belief in change.’

Kosovo’s declaration of independence, in February 2008, was greeted with scenes of joy on the streets of Pristina. As British journalist Tim Judah recounts, a huge cake in the shape of Kosovo appeared on Mother Teresa Boulevard; a nearby lingerie shop even dressed its scantily clad mannequin in Albania’s colours.

Such patriotic displays were absent last month, when the decision by to end the international supervision of Kosovo’s independence was formally ratified. However, politically Kosovo is inching closer to full independence.Previously, the International Civilian Representative had the right to override legislation passed by the elected Kosovan assembly. The ICR’s mandate is now finished and the International Civilian Office (ICO) will close by the end of the year.

For the first time in its history the Kosovan assembly has unfettered legislative power. ‘Now Kosovans can do stupid things and the only way we can stop them is through persuasion,’ said Robert Wilton, the ICO’s former head of policy. ‘Before if they did something stupid an international could change it’.

‘Kosovo is fully independent,’ former International Civilian Representative Pieter Feith told the Sunday Business Post at a conference to commemorate the end of supervised independence in Pristina last month. ‘(Kosovo) has its own legal and constitutional frameworks, but more importantly it is a country with a European perspective,’ the Dutch diplomat said, after a testy press conference with Serbian media in which he was probed about war crimes allegedly committed by the Kosovo Liberation Army during the 1999 war and chided about the failures of EULEX, the EU the rule of law mission in Kosovo.

The small Balkan nation of around two million people, roughly 90 per cent of which are ethnic Albanian, is now recognised by almost a hundred states around the world, including 22 of 27 European Union countries. But the United Nations does not recognise Kosovo’s six-starred flag. Relations with Serbia remain frosty. Serbia, which Kosovo was a formerly province of, refuses to countenance Kosovan independence. Wary of its own restive regions, Russia has remained unwavering in its support for the Serbs on the issue of Kosovo.

It’s a popular position among early morning espresso drinkers in La Dolce Vita, a café-cum-bar that overlooks the main bridge over the river Ibar, on the northern bank of the town of Mitrovica. ‘No-one here recognises the government in Pristina,’ says a middle-aged man. ‘Everyone wants Belgrade to be their centre.’

The Ibar provides a natural barrier between Serb-dominated north Mitrovica and the largely Albanian south. Our friendly waiter wears a t-shirt with Cyrillic lettering emblazoned across the front. Nearby a red, blue and white flag hangs limply from a lamppost. A little further up the street, a rusting Yugo drives past a billboard proclaiming a smiling Russian president Vladimir Putin ‘Our Honorary Citizen’.

The economic powerhouse of Kosovo during the Yugoslav regime, Mitrovica, around 40km north of Pristina, was effectively split in the immediate aftermath of the 1999 war. After 78 days of NATO bombings succeeded in driving Slobodan Milosevic’s Serb troops out of Kosovo, Mitrovica became a battleground. Troops from the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR) and the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) were unable to prevent population expulsions on both sides. Now around 17,000 Serbs live on the northern lip, divided from the 50,000 Albanians in south by the Ibar river.

The north is ‘the biggest challenge’ facing the young Kosovan state, says Robert Wilton, former head of policy at the ICO. KFOR, which Ireland remains a small part of, has designated the security situation in Kosovo ‘calm and stable’, with one exception — the ‘tense and fragile’ tract of territory, roughly 500 square miles, north of the Ibar. Home to over a third of Kosovo’s 100,000 Serbs, ‘North Kosovo’ takes in urban north Mitrovica as well as three less densely populated municipalities that lie between the town and the border with Serbia proper.

On a bright, fresh morning, I am the only civilian the bridge. Walking from south of the river, as close as an Albanian taxi driver will take me, I pass graffiti in praise of UCK (the Kosovo Liberation Army) and the disinterested eyes of uniformed Italian Carabinieri stationed on the bridge. High up on a hill a beautiful Serbian Orthodox Church glistens in the sunlight. Below it, a commanding socialist monument to the nearby Trepca mine marks the main Bosniak and Albanian neighbourhoods that remain in north Mitrovica. On the Serb side of the bridge, middle-aged men sit smoking, huddled around a makeshift tent ringed with Serb flags. These are the ‘bridge watchers’, whose unofficial job it is to monitor who enters, and leaves, the north.

The bridge watchers’ task has been much easier since July of last year, when Serbs blockaded the bridge, in protest at the decision to send KFOR troops to implement customs policies at the northern border with Serbia. Interpreting this as attempt to enforce Pristina’s control in North Kosovo, Serbs revolted, erecting roadblocks, attacking customs posts and even firing live ammunition at personnel from KFOR and the EU rule of law mission, EULEX. One officer was killed.

Almost all of the barriers have been removed, but a ten-foot high mound of rocks and stones still blocks the Ibar bridge to vehicular traffic. This barricade will only be ‘removed by the people themselves as a result of a politically agreed solution’, one KFOR officer told this correspondent.

Such a solution looks unlikely, in the short term at least. ‘It is much more important that Pristina feel that they cannot break us by using force,’ said Oliver Ivanovic, a prominent Serb politician in north Mitrovica and erstwhile state secretary in the ministry of Kosovo in the Serbian government in Belgrade. ‘(If they did) the reaction would be furious.’

The scene of a fabled battle against the invading Ottomans in 1389, Kosovo holds a special place in the symbolic imaginary of Serb nationalists. For many Kosovo is, and always will be, part of Serbia. Nowhere is this feeling more pronounced than in North Kosovo.

In February, an unofficial referendum asked residents in the municipalities north of the Ibar,“Do you accept the institutions of the so-called Republic of Kosovo?” Almost 100 per cent of voters said ‘no’, according to a Balkan Insight report. Just nine people in the whole of north Mitrovica turned out to vote during last year’s Kosovan elections.

Practically every government service in North Kosovo is administered from Belgrade, from schools and hospitals to road sweeping. ‘Mitrovica doesn’t have a parallel municipality, it just has the Serb municipality’, says former head of the International Civilian Office in Mitrovica, Miranda Hochberg.

The ICO was largely failed to extend its authority into North Kosovo. Civil servants are paid by Serbia; the local currency is the Serb dinar (although the Euro, official tender in the rest of Kosovo can be used, too); cars carry old Serb licences plates or, more commonly, none at all, after Pristina issued an edict banning Serb plates.

‘(Pristina) cannot organise anything in the North,’ Oliver Ivanovic says with a smile. It is a busy morning in his smoke-filled north Mitrovica constituency office. On his desk, an Orthodox Serbian cross sits beside a computer with his Facebook page open. A miniature Serb flag on a piece of cork doubles up as a paperweight. ‘Ask any Serb here, they will tell you — Kosovo institutions are Albanian.’

Boris Drobac, a community worker in the neighbouring municipality of Zvecan, agrees: ‘Before the Serbian people (who Kosovo fled during the war) come back we cannot talk about independence or cooperating with Kosovan institutions’. Drobac describes Kosovo’s independence as ‘totally illegal, adducing UN resolution 1244, which was passed in 1999 and created the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo.

Built in the shadows of the Trepca mines industrial complex, Zvecan was a prosperous town under Tito. With around 23,000 workers at its height, the mine was one of the biggest employers in the former Yugoslavia. In 1989, Albanian mine workers went on a mass strike against the loss of Kosovo’s autonomy within the Yugoslav federation. Now the mines are now largely empty, two giant cooling towers and an elongated black slag the only remnants of its former glory.

Displays of Serb nationalism abound in contemporary Zvecan. The entire gable wall of a house is given over to a massive mural of Radko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb general currently on trial in the Hague for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Half-removed concrete barricades litter the road on the short drive from north Mitrovica to Zvecan. Billboards proclaim ‘This is Serbia’, in Serbian and English (presumably for the benefit of international forces and foreign journalists).

The six majority Serb municipalities in south and central Kosovo all accepted extensive self-government powers in the wake of independence. These measures were introduced under the 2008 blueprint for a ‘multi-ethnic’ Kosovo, the Ahtisaari plan, named after its architect, former Finnish president and Nobel peace prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari. Laws protecting minorities were written into the Kosovan constitution; 20 of the 120 seats in the assembly are reserved for minority parties, including ten for Serb representatives.

Partly as a result of these stipulations, a Serbian party, the Independent Liberal Party (SLS), found itself holding the balance of power after the 2010 Kosovo elections. Formed during the long Serb boycott of Kosovan institutions in the years before independence, SLS is now the minority partner in a coalition government with onetime KLA fighters, the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK).

Politics in North Kosovo, however, is of a very different hue. Serbs here elect members to separate municipal structures run from Belgrade. Serb parties that cooperate with Pristina struggle in the north. In July 2010, SLS general secretary, Petar Miletić, was shot in both legs in north Mitrovica, according to a recent report from the International Crisis Group. Serbs participating in the Kosovan system ‘are not representing the Serb community’, says north Mitrovica politician Oliver Ivanovic.

Wary of further antagonising Serbs in the wake of last year’s fractious attempts to secure customs posts, the international community have adopted a more subtle approach to North Kosovo. The ICO-backed Mitrovica North Administrative Office hopes to encourage Serbs to apply for Kosovan papers and other administrative documents.

Whether this strategy has been successful or not depends whom you speak to: officials in Pristina argue that gradually engaging northern Serbs with the Kosovan government will eventually pay dividends. My Serb fixer will not even take me to the Mitrovica North Administrative Office for fear of repercussions from watchful locals. ‘At least once a week someone gets punished for co-operating with the Kosovan institutions,’ he tells me.

Over lunch, I meet a group of Serb men in a dingy bar in downtown north Mitrovica. Over a beer, Dejan Antic confesses that he holds Kosovan papers, A nervous quiet descends on the table. A compatriot finally breaks the silence, in a deadpan James Bond-villain voice: ‘When we finish the conversation we will kill him.’ None of his drinking companions admit to taking Kosovo papers. ‘They want to force us to take the Kosovo documents but we won’t,’ says Boris Drobac.

Like many on both sides of the Ibar, Antic, a soft-spoken man in his late thirties, answers the question, ‘how long have you been in Mitrovica?’ with a date. In his case, March 18 2004. That was the day he was forced to leave Svinjare, a Serb village in north Kosovo that was razed to the ground by ethnic Albanians in the worst outbreak of violence since the war. The disorder followed the drowning of an Albanian child in the Ibar. By the time it was finished eight Albanians and 11 Serbs were dead, hundreds were injured and the sclerotic ethnic geography of the region had ossified further.

‘KFOR did nothing to stop it,’ says Antic, who was expelled from his home in eastern Kosovo as a child. During the 1999, he was forced to leave the town of Obilic, near Pristina.Serbs often point to desecrations of Orthodox Churches across Kosovo as evidence of a systematic campaign against them by ethnic Albanians.

As in many conflicts, the figures for casualties in the Kosovo war are often disputed. A total of 13,421 people were killed from 1 January 1998 up until December 2000, according to a 2008 joint study by Humanitarian Law Center, The International Commission on Missing Person, and the Missing Person Commission of Serbia. Of that sum, 10,533 were Albanians, 2,238 were Serbs, 126 Roma, 100 Bosniaks and others. Serbs argue that these figures neglect these kin killed in retaliatory attacks after the war.

Less disputed is the fact that North Kosovo has become an outlaw frontier in the centre of Europe. An area over 70,000 people and no effective customs and excise regime, North Mitrovica has become the centre of myriad smuggling rackets. Cigarettes are duty-free; petrol often sells at 40cents a litre less than south of the Ibar (or in Serbia).

‘The north is basically a tax free corruption zone’, says Miranda Hochberg, former head of the ICO in Mitrovica. North Kosovo, with its labyrinthine administrative structures, is ripe for graft. ‘There’s a lot of money flowing into Kosovo from Belgrade but it doesn’t go anywhere.’

Despite having its mandate extended for a further two years last month, EULEX, the EU’s rule of law mission, failed to address the problems in the north, says former ICO head of policy Robert Wilton. ‘EULEX basically sees the north as Mordor: “The north is a terrible place, we’re all going to die”. This creates an image, anyone sitting on the north side of the bridge see EULEX in short sleeves flirting with local girls, then they only comes into the north in armed people carriers.’

Over the bridge in south Mitrovica the atmosphere is noticeably less tense. It’s late afternoon and the cafes are busy with young people, drinking coffee and chatting freely in Albanian. Near the former Lux department store, a relic of Yugoslavia’s more free market variant of socialism, children queue to have their faces painted.

Bajram Rexhepi, an aging Albanian cigarette seller, lived in north Mitrovica for his entire life until February 2, 2000 when he and his wife were expelled. ‘People just took my property,’ he says. Previously Rexhepi worked as an economist at the Trepca mines, before losing his job in a mass expulsion of Albanians. He never crosses the bridge but misses his old neighbourhood, and his old Serb friends. ‘I’m nostalgic for that part of the city now, I miss it.’

Across the road from the onetime UN headquarters, just south of the bridge, sits Community Building Mitrovica. Created in 2001 by the Dutch charity Interchurch Peace Council, CBM ‘aims is to serve as a bridge between the two communities’ — but it faces daily challenges. For one project worker, a young Serb from north Mitrovica, the job interview at CBM was the first time crossing the bridge in 12 years.

‘In Mitrovica everything is political. To try and find common issues between the two communities is hard,’ says Aferdita Syla, CBM’s executive director. Community Building Mitrovica works primarily with young people, women, internally displaced people on both sides of the bridge. ‘But in the north, we’re seen as an Albanian organisation, in the south seen as an organisation that works with Serbs’.

Syla is highly critical of the tendency – both within and without Kosovo – to view Mitrovica’s problems as primarily a product of ethnic difference. ‘Politicians often tell us that Mitrovica is an ethnic problem, but it is not so much an ethnic problem as other problems; unemployment, social problems, water, electricity. Nobody mentions those – this is something that politicians should concentrate on.’

Until now, politicians have been preoccupied with Kosovo’s constitutional future. In 2011, current Serbian Prime Minister Ivia Dacic proposed the partition of Kosovo north of the Ibar river as a ‘realistic’ solution the dispute in the North. The notion of partition, potentially explosive in the ethnic patchwork on the Balkans, has been widely renounced by the international community. In Pristina recently, outgoing International Civilian Representative Pieter Feith rejected the idea outright, saying that Kosovans ‘rightly believe that the North is part of Kosovo. This is not only their view, it is shared in Brussels, in the (European) Commission’.

Calls for special autonomy for the North have fallen on deaf ears in Pristina, where politicians point to the extensive self-government powers that already exist but which northern Serbs have not taken advantage of. However, on the streets of Mitrovica the mood is very different. ‘The real problem is central Kosovo – you have 20 Serbs in Pristina, zero Serbs in Pec. That is the problem, not Mitrovica. Mitrovica is the solution’, says Dejan Antic, who works on a project to develop small businesses in north Mitrovica.

‘If the democratic will of the people is respected the North will never be part of this Kosovo but if the international community forces allows the Albanian government to extend Kosovo institutions in the North, we will have a situation like 1999’.

The prospect, however distant, of EU membership could yet encourage Kosovo and Serbia to reach a settlement. Speaking at the United Nations last week, Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci said that the two prospective EU candidates must normalise relations, although he added that partition ‘would never happen’. The EU, crucially, with the imprimatur of the US ambassador to Kosovo, is hoping to organise talks this month with a view to settling the question of the North.

Despite tensions on the ground, and between the two national governments in Belgrade and Pristina, the prospect of return to open hostility in Kosovo is remote. ‘With the exception of the north, which is largely EULEx’s fault, there is no security issue in Kosovo’, says Robert Wilton.

Even in North Kosovo, violence on the scale witnessed in March 2004 is considered unlikely. ‘I doubt there will be a big clash,’ says Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic. ‘There are so many weapons on both sides, it would be stupid to put the fire too close to the gasoline.’

There are measures the Pristina government could take to assuage an anxious Serb community. Widening public sector opportunities for Serbs would help: less than one per cent of the 12,000-plus workers in publicly owned enterprises are Serbs, according to the International Crisis Group. Many of Serbs expelled from Pristina, Prizren, and other Kosovan regions during and after the war have struggled to get their property back. Serbian is rarely used or understood beyond the handful of Serb municipalities, although it is an official language of the Kosovan state,

But the main stumbling block remains the economy. Kosovo has the youngest population in Europe and almost certainly the highest rate of unemployment — unofficial estimates suggest that as many of 40 per cent of the population are out of work. Among those aged 15 to 25 the figure is even higher. Kosovo needs to create around 25,000 new jobs every year just to maintain employment at its current level, says Lumir Abdixhiku, executive director of Reinvest institute, a Pristina-based think tank.

Last year, Kosovo exported just €300m, leaving it with a trade deficit of €2.2bn, according to Abdixhiku. Without remittances from Switzerland, the UK and, in particular, Germany, the economy would be in even worse shape. Typical annual interest rates on loans to Kosovan businesses run at 40 per cent. Crippling visa restrictions make foreign travel onerous, hindering young Kosovans in particular.

Petrit Selimi, the articulate, youthful deputy minister at the department of foreign affairs is confident that the end of supervised independence will mark a new chapter in Kosovan history. ‘Considering the enormity of the challenge I think we have coped very well,’ he says, citing Kosovo’s average annual GDP growth of around 4 per cent.

‘Kosovo is not a failed state. Kosovo is not a dark zone, We have been told so much by Serbian propagandists that sometimes we start believing it, but it’s not the case.’

Back in Zvecan, living in a de facto state is bad for legitimate business, regardless of ethnicity. ‘If I want to send anything in Serbia I need an export permit, it I want to sell anything in Kosovo I need an import permit’, say Milija Radenkovic, 60, who runs gas station and small farm in North Kosovo.

Radenkovic has been forced to lay off staff in recent months. His three sons have all moved to Serbia. He doubts they will ever return. ‘Our young people they finish their studies here but we don’t have opportunities for employment here so they are leaving for Serbia or the West’, he says.

‘For people who are thinking about themselves and their family, they don’t care about the politics, they only care about the economic situation’.

This piece originally appeared in the Sunday Business Post October 7, 2012. 

Ulster Covenant’s Scottish Resonances

THE prospect of independence in Scotland is a world apart from the quashed Irish bid for home rule in 1912, writes Peter Geoghegan.

“THE DARK eleventh hour draws on and sees us sold to every evil power we fought against of old.” So begins Rudyard Kipling’s poem Ulster 1912. Now fondly remembered as the hirsute creator of The Jungle Book, Kipling was a passionate agitator on behalf of the Protestant cause in the north of Ireland. After refutations of Rome rule and English duplicitousness, Ulster 1912 ends with a rather fateful proclamation: “We shall not fall alone.”

Kipling’s poem, penned almost a century ago, was a passionate paean to a pivotal event in Irish history that celebrates its centenary today – the Ulster Covenant. Almost half a million Ulster men and women put their names to the covenant, in protest at the then-Liberal government’s intention to introduce home rule in Ireland. Sir Edward Carson, erstwhile MP for Trinity College, Dublin and, later first prime minister of Northern Ireland, was the first signature, at Belfast City Hall. Similar signing ceremonies were held across the north, with crowds gathering to pledge their fealty, if not quite to the United Kingdom than at least to Ulster.

Kipling’s bombast seems even-tempered compared to the text of the covenant itself. “[R]elying on the God whom our fathers in days of stress and trial confidently trusted”, covenant signatories pledged “to stand by one another in defending, for ourselves and our children, our cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom, and in using all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy”. This was not empty rhetoric.

In 1912, the unionist militia that was to become the Ulster Volunteer Force was formed. Two years later, almost twenty-five thousand rifles and three million rounds of ammunition were smuggled into Ulster in what became known as the Larne gun-running. Any doubts about the Protestant people of Ulster’s capacity to suppress, first, the home rule ambitions of the Irish Parliamentary party and Liberal prime minister HH Asquith, and, later, Irish republicans were dispelled. Ireland would eventually gain independence, but the north would, of course, remain part of the United Kingdom.

The impact of the covenant was keenly felt in many parts of Scotland. It was drafted by Belfast merchant Thomas Sinclair, a Gladstonian who broke with the Grand Old Man after the Liberal leader adopted the policy of Irish home rule. Sinclair, who had a very developed sense of his Scottish identity, consciously echoes the Scottish Covenanters lexicon in his text. Indeed, the Ulster Covenant was often referred to as “the Solemn League and Covenant” in homage to the agreement of the same name signed between Scottish Covenanters and the leaders of the English Parliamentarians in 1643.

“It was this Presbyterian tradition that supplied the rebellious spirit of 1912,” says Graham Walker, professor of political history at Queen’s University, Belfast.

The campaign against home rule for Ireland had popular support in Scotland, particularly on the west coast, with thousands turning out to see Edward Carson in Glasgow. Many Scots were among the two million signatures to the British Covenant, a protest, mirrored on the Ulster version, which circulated in 1914. However, says Prof Walker, Scottish enthusiasm for the Unionist cause in Ulster was less pronounced than many Irish Protestants hoped. “Unionists [in Ulster] were disappointed by the less than full-blooded support of their co-religionists in Scotland”.

That Ulster Protestants would look to Scotland for validation is hardly surprisingly. As the periodic debates about sectarianism here attest, the legacy of Scots-Irish relations remains vexed. Less controversial is that many lowland Scots participated in the plantation of Ulster, which started around 1600. The remnants of this migration are still felt today in the names, religion and dialect of many in what is now Northern Ireland, particularly in the areas closest to Scotland.

Between 1840 and 1920, the flow of migrants was reversed. As the famine ravaged Ireland, increasing numbers escaped across the Irish Sea to Scotland. According to census results, in 1841, 126,321 people in Scotland (4.8 per cent of the population) were Irish-born. Within a decade this figure had risen to 207,367 (7.2 per cent). These new migrants settled across Scotland, but those coming from Ulster, both Catholic and Protestant, tended to congregate in Glasgow and smaller towns in the west of Scotland.

As Alasdair McKillop notes in a recent Scottish Review essay, Protestants accounted for between a quarter and a third of all Irish immigrants who arrived in Scotland in the 19th century.

The vast majority were from the north of Ireland; and many went on to join the Orange Order, which, although initially established here by Scots army regiments returning from Ulster was, until the 1920s, largely a society for emigre Ulster Protestants in Scotland.

The Orange Order remains an obvious connection for Protestants east and west of Ailsa Craig. During the 1920s, tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Scots joined the order, including the secretary of state for Scotland, John Gilmour. While its support remained strongest in areas of historic Irish-Protestant migration, many Scots with no connection with Ulster, or Ireland, enrolled in the organisation.

The order is not the force it once was in Scottish politics – indeed some, such as Professor Eric Kaufmann, would argue that the power of the putative “Orange Vote” has often been overstated but there are still more than 180 lodges in the Glasgow area alone, and around 8,000 people attended July’s annual Orange Walk in the city. A century on from the signing of the Ulster Covenant, the union faces its gravest existential threat yet – Scottish independence. Orange leaders, thankfully, have largely recognised that the SNP are not, and never will be, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and the political situation in Scotland today is very different from that which existed in Ireland in 1912.

“There is no religious tension in Scotland, no armed uprising, no open rebellion. It’s not a case of taking up arms to defend the Union,” Ian Wilson, a former Grand Master of the Orange Lodge in Scotland, said in an address to the annual Orange parade in Broughshane, County Antrim, on 12 July. The case for the Union, Wilson said, must be made “by persuasion, by campaigning, and through the ballot box”.

Northern Irish unionists have yet to made a compelling case for their inclusion at the top table at the independence salon. Earlier this week, Dr David Hume, director of services at the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, claimed Ulster Scots in Northern Ireland are “stakeholders” who should to be given a vote in the 2014 referendum. Dr Hume was speaking at a Glasgow event in to commemorate the centenary of the signing of the Ulster covenant.

Notwithstanding the practical problems pertaining to Dr Hume’s proposition — how do you define Ulster Scots? Would people of Scottish descent elsewhere in the world be allowed to vote? The reality is that Ulster Scots can participate in the debate, not by voting but by well-made, reasoned interjections, presumably, in support of the Union.

Many Northern Irish unionist spokespeople have failed to appreciate the subtleties of the debate on this side of the Irish Sea – as former Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble’s fatuous suggestion that the SNP are “doing violence” to people’s identities illustrated.

What happens in Scotland still matters in Northern Ireland, as any football fan knows, but Scotland 2014 is not Ulster 1912. Until Northern Irish unionists grasp that difference their voice in the independence is bound to remain muted.

This article originally appeared in the Scotsman, 28 September. 

Albania watches as bunkers become bunk-beds

Concrete totems to Communist rule made into hostels and cafes or blown up – but should they be kept as reminder of past?

For some, they are an ugly, podlike reminder of Albania‘s paranoid past that should be allowed to disappear unmourned. For others, the communist-era concrete bunkers that litter the small Adriatic state are a piece of cultural heritage that should not be lost.

Decades on from the heyday of the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha, the domed bunkers are vanishing fast. Once upon a time there were as many as half a million of them, built to protect the isolated communist state from “imperialism and revisionism”. Now most have gone.

But some are determined to save the architectural oddities, with a range of creative solutions for reusing them. In Lezhë, 30 miles north of Tirana, a joint German-Albanian tourism venture is in the process of transforming a bunker into a no-frills hostel. At Tirana Ekspres, a vibrant arts centre near the capital’s dilapidated train station, a stage has been fashioned from three reconditioned bunker heads. Keq Marku Djetroshan, a tattoo artist, has gone one better, transforming one of the myriad bunkers built along the border with Montenegro into a tattoo parlour.

A new book featuring step-by-step guides for converting derelict bunkers into everything from hostels and toilets to cafes and gift shops was feted at the Venice Biennale, where it was recently launched. Elian Stefa, one of the authors of Concrete Mushrooms, estimates the cost of repurposing a triple bunker for campers at just €150 (£120). “The potential is huge, especially for tourism,” he said.

The dilemma – to destroy or refashion – splits Albanians. “There used to be bunkers in every town, every neighbourhood, but most have gone now,” said the veteran Albanian journalist Llazar Semini. “They [the Albanian government] have just closed an eye and an ear and let people destroy them slowly. Most people are happy for them to just disappear.”

Reputedly inspired by France’s interwar Maginot line and Vietcong defences against the US army, and erected with assistance from Chinese and North Korean engineers, Albania’s “bunkerisation” strategy accelerated in the mid-1970s. An increasingly paranoid Hoxha – who severed ties with Moscow in the wake of Nikita Khrushchev’s reforms – feared attack from the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, as well as “the imperialist west”.

Though the bunkers were officially the purview of Albania’s ministry of defence, after the fall of Communist party rule in 1991 many farmers simply dug them up. More recently, impoverished Albanians have taken to blowing them up for their steel, typically worth around £100-150 for a large bunker for about 10 people.

“The technology for destroying the bunkers is spreading rapidly,” said Dorian Matlija, a lawyer who has defended a number of Albanians accused of blowing up bunkers. Explosives, typically ammonium nitrate, are often prepared in family homes. Bunker-busting is a dangerous business, but with average monthly incomes in Albania about £200, the lucrative explosions are unlikely to abate soon.

While many, particularly older Albanians, are unconcerned about the gradual obliteration of the concrete reminders of a brutal, highly militarised regime, others believe the igloo-shaped pillboxes and spacious underground shelters should remain.

“They are a testament to Albania’s past. They should be protected as cultural monuments. You cannot destroy them,” said Fatos Lubonja, a writer who spent 17 years in prison under the communists.

This piece originally appeared in the Guardian, 26 September. 

Sting of economic reality fails to mute Kosovo’s independence joy

THE conference that took place recently in the Kosovan capital Pristina to mark the end of the country’s supervised independence was billed as “chapter closed in the Balkans”.

But away from the panel discussions and the diplomatic soirees, the atmosphere on Pristina’s streets was more subdued than celebratory.

The end of the supervision of Kosovo’s independence is not purely symbolic: the office of International Civilian Representative has been abolished. For the past four years, the representative, in the shape of Dutch diplomat Pieter Feith, has had the power to strike down legislation passed by the elected assembly.

But, unlike the declaration of independence in 2008, the conferring of executive powers on Kosovo was not met with flag-waving crowds or blaring car horns. “We’ve been having historic moments like this for so long, it’s ridiculous,” Dren Pozhegu, a young policy analyst, said. “Independence is nice but if it doesn’t come with economic progress, it won’t change anything.”

Dren is one of the lucky ones – he has a job. Kosovo has the youngest population in Europe and almost certainly the highest rate of unemployment – unofficial estimates suggest that as many of 40 per cent of the population are out of work. Kosovo needs to create around 25,000 new jobs every year just to maintain employment at its current level.

Despite annual average GDP growth of over 4 per cent, Kosovo’s economy is struggling to make the transition from Yugoslav communism to independent free-market. Last year, Kosovan exports totalled just €300 million. Without remittances the situation would be even worse. “There are two long-term threats to this country – the economy and corruption,’ said a British official in the International Civilian Office, which is also being disbanded as part of the ending of supervision.

Privatisation is one of the government’s main economic strategies. The World Bank and the European Union are strongly in favour of privatising Kosovan state companies but internal opposition to the sales are mounting.

The end of supervised independence came in the wake of a July announcement by International Steering Group, which includes the UK and the US among its 25 members, that Kosovo has largely implemented the Comprehensive Proposal for the Kosovo Status Settlement, better known as the Ahtissari Plan. Nevertheless, the issue of Kosovan sovereignty remains a live one. The new state is still not recognised by the UN, or its neighbour and antagonist in the 1999 war, Serbia.

These political tensions are all too evident in the northern city of Mitrovica. The bridge dividing Serb-dominated north Mitrovica from the Albanian south has been blockaded for over a year. On the northern bank, rows of Serbian flags hang limply from lampposts outside Communist-era flat blocks.

Pristina’s control does not extend into north Mitrovica and the other Serb municipalities in the north. As elsewhere in Kosovo, the problems in the north will require economic as well as well as political solutions, says Brikenda Rexhepi, a journalist at Kosovan newspaper Koha Ditore.

Despite the infant state’s teething problems, she is confident about the future. “However the situation is now, we are never going back to Serbia. People would rather starve than go back to Serbia.”

This piece originally appeared in the Scotsman, 24 September. 

Scotland Rallies for Independence

How George Robertson must regret saying in 1995 that ‘Devolution will kill Nationalism stone dead.’ Robertson, then the shadow secretary of state for Scotland, was trying to appease sceptical unionists. Last weekend, 13 years after a devolved parliament was established at Holyrood, somewhere between 4000 and 10,000 people attended a ‘March and Rally for Scottish Independence’ in Edinburgh. Organisers said that it will be an annual event until the independence referendum in 2014.

Squabbling over numbers – whether of crowds, revenue or voters – has been a feature of a campaign that has so far managed to be both shrill and low-key. ‘Seriously, is this #indyrally a secret gathering? I have seen better turnouts at bowls tournaments,’ the Labour press officer James Mills tweeted. Writing in the Scotsman, the former Conservative MSP Brian Monteith said nationalists had scored ‘the mother of all own-goals’. Whether either of them attended the event is unclear.

The SNP and the Yes Scotland campaign have gone in for some raucous hyperbole, too, but Saturday was hardly a disaster. Indeed, in the mix of people and perspectives on show, the rally marked a refreshing departure from dreary tribalism. Among the sea of Saltires assembled on a bright, warm morning on the Meadows there were Welsh flags, Senyeras and a huge banner carrying the face of the Edinburgh-born Irish Republican hero James Connolly.

‘Scottish independence would be the best thing for Scotland, the best thing for women, the best thing for everyone,’ said Sarah Currier fromVillage Aunties, a socialist feminist collective (‘We are vigilantes. We are village aunties’). Venetian nationalists in full military regalia marched on the spot. In the background a mix of Orange Juice and Tartan rock (Yes Scotland’s theme song is Big Country’s ‘One Great Thing’) blared out of a campaign bus.

As the march got underway, activists filed behind their standards. There were SNP groups from Leith, Clydebank and elsewhere; Socialist Party members handed out leaflets and asked for signatures for a petition to have Tony Blair charged with war crimes; a small group of Scottish Labour supporters marched behind a ‘Labour for Independence’ banner. Alan Grogan, a bookmaker from Angus, started the group ‘because I was told every time I mentioned it that a vote for independence was a vote for the SNP.’

‘People have realised that Scottish Labour is essentially a puppet of Westminster,’ the writer Alan Bissett told me as we walked past Greyfriars Kirkyard and along George IV Bridge. In January, Bissett released a caustic monologue called ‘Vote Britain’: ‘Vote for being told you’re the only country in the world that could not possibly survive and that without us you’d fall to pieces like children abandoned in the wild, caked in faeces.’

Our destination was the Ross Bandstand in Princes Street Gardens. With Edinburgh Castle in the background, Alex Salmond led the crowd in a call-and-response (‘What do we want?’ ‘Independence!’ ‘How we gonnae vote?’ ‘Yes!’); the Scottish Socialist leader Colin Fox talked hopefully of ‘the beginning of a Scottish spring’; the independent MSP Margo MacDonald called for a popular front in favour of independence, echoing the Scotland United campaign that followed the 1992 Conservative general election victory, but warned that ‘after the independence vote has been won, then party politics come back into play.’

Whether independence can be achieved without a more fully articulated policy platform remains to be seen. Many in Scotland – I’m one of them – would like to see the tabula rasa of an independent Scotland shaded in, however lightly, before committing ourselves. The SNP has been sending out mixed signals; talking about keeping the queen and the pound on the one hand, while on the other saying that it will be up to ‘the people of Scotland’ to decide policy after independence. As the ‘No to Nato’ and ‘Believe in a Nuclear Free Scotland’ placards at Saturday’s march attested, for many people independence isn’t only about self-determination, but about what we do with it.

The Unionist cause meanwhile is far less coherent than its defenders claim. Better Together, the No campaign, is an unhappy marriage of Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem supporters and unionist-minded civil society that is unlikely to rub along entirely harmoniously (especially while rogue elements such as the Orange Order in Northern Ireland put forward uninvited proposals on how the referendum should be conducted).

Although polls suggest the appetite for independence is flagging – only 32 per cent of Scots are in favour, according to the recent British Social Attitudes Survey – the ballot is still more than two years away. As the late Stephen Maxwell notes in Arguing for Independence, more than £40 billion is due to be stripped from the Scottish budget by 2025. Swingeing cuts, an unpopular Tory-led coalition and a faltering recovery north of the border could yet provide the impetus for the break-up of Britain. ‘This was always going to be a bad year for us, with the Olympics and the Jubilee,’ a veteran independence supporter said. ‘But Cameron will see that it gets a whole lot better from now on.’

This piece originally appeared on the London Review of Books blog