Book Review: David Torrance – The Battle for Britain

In 1995, George Robertson, Labour shadow secretary for Scotland, predicted that ‘Devolution will kill Nationalism stone dead.’ In modern British political history few words have rung so hollow. This year, a decade and a half after a devolved Scottish parliament was established in Edinburgh, Scotland will vote on whether or not to leave Great Britain.

Viewed from this side of the Irish Sea, the drive for Scottish self-determination can seem quixotic, but September’s referendum is as much a product of realpolitik as romantic nationalism. The vote ‘has not come about because of a groundswell in support for independence’, as writer and journalist David Torrance notes in this excellent guide to the current debate. Instead the SNP’s sweeping – and unexpected, even to themselves – victory in devolved elections in 2011 left the party with no choice other than to offer a referendum on their flagship policy.

torranceTwo years is an eternity for a political campaign and, with nine months to go, Scotland’s has managed to be ‘both arid and acrimonious’. (In 2012, Martin McGuinness jokingly offered the Edinburgh and London governments the use of Stormont for ‘peace talks’). It is a huge credit to Torrance, a biographer of Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond, that he is able to animate dry policy detail and myriad questions about post-independence Scotland with so much energy.

Historian Tony Judt wrote that the Scots ‘sense of self’ rests upon ‘a curious admix of superiority and resentment’. But identity has largely been conspicuous by its absence from the Scottish referendum debate. If anything is it the unionist campaign – built on a ‘we are all in this together’ sense of Britishness – that has relied most heavily on overt appeals to patriotic sentiment. Scottish nationalists might, however, be advised to start playing the tartan card soon – most independence votes are won on emotion.

But the SNP’s success so far has largely been down to technocratic competence. In government they managed to distance themselves from an unpopular government in Westminster and to plot a reasonably distinct course north of the border in areas such as healthcare (free prescription, no privatisation of the NHS) and education (free tuition fees).

Nationalists could be victims of their own achievements, their prowess in government persuading Scots of the value not of independence but of further devolution. Opinion polls suggest just a third of Scots want to leave the union. Even the SNP propose to keep the Queen as head of state and to continue to use Sterling after independence.

It is on economics that Torrance is most critical of the nationalist vision of independence. The SNP has ‘yet to make up its mind about whether it believes in the neo-liberal or the social democratic model’. Salmond is still trying to live down the infamous 2006 ‘arc of prosperity’ speech in which he compared Scotland to boom-time Iceland and Ireland.

The result in September is not a foregone conclusion. The unremittingly negative unionist campaign could yet push voters into the nationalists’ arms, especially if they suspect that promises of further devolution will be reneged upon. A strong UKIP performance in European elections this summer, coupled with the prospect of a Conservative government in Westminster might also be the spark for a surge in support for going it alone.

Even a ‘no’ in September is unlikely to settle Scotland’s constitutional question for long. As Norman Davies has noted, ‘the political architecture’ of the UK is ‘inherently unbalanced’. Demands for greater autonomy will continue to come from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and, increasingly, England. (Torrance does not dwell on the issue, but the impact of a ‘yes’ vote on Northern Ireland, and particularly embattled unionists, could be seismic.)

Scotland’s independence referendum is likely to be one of the major international news stories of 2014. Which is just as well, because this lively, perspicacious account of the historic vote deserves a wide audience. Brimming with historical antecedents and insightful analysis, and written with an easy style and no little wit, The Battle for Britain is likely to be required reading long after the ballots have been counted in September.

This review appeared in the Sunday Business Post, January 20, 2104. 

Rev Ian Paisley, statesman?

In likely his final TV interviews, political firebrand the Rev Ian Paisley makes obvious how he wishes to be remembered. Is he kidding himself, wonders Peter Geoghegan

IAN Paisley has come a long way since 1949. That year the novice preacher began a mission in Belfast’s docklands and joined the anti-Catholic Union of Protestants. Nowadays, “the Big Man” sees himself as statesman rather than sectarian rabble-rouser, as the first of two hour-long conversations with the former Northern Ireland first minister, broadcast by BBC Northern Ireland this week, and widely expected to be his last formal interview, attested.

Paisley, especially to outsiders, is often seen as living proof of the transformative power of the Northern Ireland peace process. A firebrand, hardline Protestant whose Damascene conversion to power-sharing with Catholics culminated in assuming power at Stormont in 2007, where he formed such a firm rapport with his deputy and one-time sworn enemy, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, that wags dubbed the pair the “Chuckle Brothers”.

Now 87, and having suffered a series of health scares, Paisley seems to have one eye on what Tony Blair called “the hand of history”. Mindful of his legacy, Paisley took the opportunity of a turn on national television to paint himself as, amongst other things, a misunderstood advocate of civil rights.

“The whole system was wrong, it was not one man, one vote – that’s no way to run any country. It should be absolute freedom and absolute liberty,” the founder of the Democratic Unionist Party said of the tinderbox situation in late 1960s Northern Ireland. He opposed the civil rights movement, Paisley told his interviewer, journalist Eamonn Mallie, because he felt those behind it wanted a united Ireland, something “no decent law-abiding Protestant could associate themselves with”.

The problem for Paisley is that the historical record – much of it captured on the record – casts serious doubts on such irenic imaginings. He did not just oppose the civil rights movement, he actively organised raucous demonstrations against those demanding a freer, fairer Northern Ireland. In 1969, as sectarian strife began to flare on the streets, he was jailed for organising an illegal protest against a Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association march in Armagh.

Paisley showed a lukewarm commitment to civil rights, too, when, in 1968, campaigner Bernadette Devlin suggested to him that the Unionist state had been unjust and unfair. There had been wrongs, Paisley conceded, but he maintained: “I would rather be British than fair”.

No wonder veteran civil rights activist Ivan Cooper last week described Paisley’s version of his past as “all over the place”.

Cooper, a Protestant founder of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, said: “Never did Ian Paisley issue one word of compassion or one word of understanding for the civil rights movement. And similarly with Bloody Sunday, it was exactly the same.”

While Paisley attempted to present a more emollient self for the television audience, the egotistical, divisive side of his character occasionally bubbled to the surface. Such as the callous comment that the 33 victims of the 1974 Dublin/Monaghan bombings – the highest toll in a single incident in the Northern Irish conflict until the Omagh bomb – had brought the attacks on “themselves” through their support for Dublin’s government.

“At that time the attitude to Northern Ireland of the southern government was ridiculous. I said I had nothing to do with [the bombing] and I denounced the people who did it. What more could I do? I took my stand, I denounced what was wrong, but I could not say to the people just sit down and let them put a rope round your neck.”

Paisley stood by a previous remark that the IRA were the armed wing of the Catholic Church: “Well that’s true, it stands true in history. They have been, the people of the church of Rome, used to further their interests,” he said. This is the same Paisley who, in his younger days, had organised a mock Mass on the platform of the Ulster Hall.

Paisley is “a complex and protean personality who imagines cyclones of blessings, compares himself to the diminutive Mahatma Gandhi,” Northern Irish poet Tom Paulin wrote in the London Review of Books in 1982. Not much has changed 30 years on. The man who founded first his own church and then his own political party, before finally ascending to the highest office in the land, remains a chimera.

“One of the strongest features of Puritanism,” Tom Paulin noted, “is its autobiographical tendency, its passionate self-regard.” Few people embody this inclination to the same degree as Ian Paisley. Over the years, Paisley – who was born in 1926 to an Evangelical father and a mother who was, in his own words, from “a Scots Covenanting home” – has produced dozens of books combining fire and brimstone theology, sermonising and autobiography.

His decision to participate in the BBC interviews also reflects how much his self-regard is still smarting at his being bounced into relinquishing control of the DUP, and the Stormont assembly, to Peter Robinson in 2008. The former head honcho has been a persistent back seat driver ever since. Paisley has not been able not resist the temptation to take a sideswipe at his former number two; in next week’s interview he denies any responsibility for Peter Robinson’s farcical incursion across the Irish border in 1986 as part of protests against the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

Robinson has reacted angrily, describing Paisley’s account as “a failure of recollection”. Sources within the DUP said Mr Paisley was among the organisers of the ill-fated invasion, during which a couple of hundred loyalists paraded in the square before being forced back over the border by Irish police.

Paisley has frequently denied any involvement in violence but, as Paulin observed, “a dynamic millenarian rhetoric can inspire men to place actual dynamite under the status quo”. How many loyalist paramilitaries did Paisley’s fiery rhetoric rouse into action? We will never know. But in his BBC interviews Paisley shows no compunction about his involvement with the Ulster Defence Association during the 1974 Ulster Workers’ Strike, the campaign that he led which eventually toppled the Sunningdale Agreement.

It is easy to caricature Paisley as an arch-unionist, but he is probably better described as an Ulster nationalist. His relationship with Britain – and Britishness – has been marked by ambivalence over the years.

“I am shrewdly suspicious of the British government, I don’t put my faith in the British government,” Paisley told Irish Times journalist Frank Millar in 2008, during an on-going impasse over policing in Northern Ireland. “I think the British government would like someone else where I sit, and would make a deal. Well I intend to sit tight… Do you think I have come to 80 years of age to sell my soul?”

Ian Paisley might not have sold his soul, but reaction from Northern Ireland this week suggests that history might not be as kind to the erstwhile DUP leader as he would hope. Writing in the Belfast Newsletter, unionist commentator Alex Kane reckoned that the Big Man had not changed as much as he would like us to believe: “The Ian Paisley of 1964 is still there: yet, 50 years on, his party and country have left him behind. Will history be kind to him? I wouldn’t put a bet on it.”

The “No” politics that Ian Paisley personified for so many years is still alive in Northern Ireland – as the recent aborted Haass peace talks illustrated. Paisley is not the demagogue he once was, but, as these interviews demonstrate, neither is he the uncompromised “peacemaker” he yearns to be.

This piece originally appeared in the Scotsman, 17 January 2014.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ulster is still problematic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Northern Ireland talks seek calm in festive season

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

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

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

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

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

Calm Christmas sought

Candles at Christmas in IrelandNegotiators are aiming for a calm Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

Flag dispute reflects rift

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking down the divide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This piece originally appeared on Deutsche Welle.

Sectarianism still forms divide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

State of the Union: Artists and Scottish independence

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

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

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

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

Going it alone

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

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

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

Why independence?

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

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

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

Politicising the artistic movement is ‘stupid’

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

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

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

‘Politically neutral’

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

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

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

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

‘Settlers and Colonists’

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

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

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

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

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

‘The Glasgow miracle’

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

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

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

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

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

This piece originally appeared on Deutsche Welle.

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

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

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.