UK discovers Brexit isn’t leaving club….it’s replacing the operating system

President Donald Trump talks with British Prime Minister Theresa May during a bilateral meeting in the Oval Office, Friday, January 27, 2017. Prime Minister May was the first Head of State to officially visit the White House. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

For 48 hours, Theresa May looked as if she was in control of her government. Last Friday, Britain’s embattled leader called all her ministers to the bucolic prime ministerial bolt hole at Chequers.

The UK cabinet, almost two years to the day of the Brexit referendum, would finally agree a collective position on leaving the European Union. Any ministers that did not sign up faced the prospect of a long walk home – ministerial cars would be immediately withdrawn. That evening, to the surprise of many, May emerged with an agreement.

The so-called ‘Chequers deal’ was heralded as a major breakthrough. On Friday evening, the BBC reported that May had emerged with her position greatly strengthened after every cabinet minister endorsed her proposals.

Afterwards Conservative leader sounded an unusually bullish tone, telling one British newspaper that it was up to the European Union to step up to the mark. “It’s now for Europe to be prepared to sit down and move the pace of negotiations on and talk about it seriously and address what we’ve put forward,” she said.

But by Sunday evening, such confidence had evaporated. Hardline Brexiters had already begun to voice their disquiet with the Chequers plan. Maintaining a “common rule book” for goods with the EU, collecting tariffs on behalf of the EU, free movement for skilled workers and students from the EU, and giving “due regard” the European Courts of Justice was too far for many Eurosceptic Conservative MPs – and for the Brexit minister David Davis.

As Sunday night moved into Monday morning, Davis announced that he was resigning from the Department for Exiting the European Union. Davis was nominally in charge of Brexit but in practice had been usurped by Theresa May’s most trusted aide Olly Robbins. In the previous six months Davis – who is not known for his grasp of detail – had spent less than hours in talks with European Commission chief negotiator Michel Barnier.

In his resignation letter, Davis told May that he was “unpersuaded” that the government’s negotiating approach “will not just lead to further demands for concessions” from Brussels. “The general direction of policy will leave us in at best a weak negotiating position, and possibly an inescapable one,” he added.

Theresa May had hoped to wake Monday to her first week in control of her cabinet since last June’s disastrous general election when the Conservatives lost their overall majority in the Commons, forcing them to rely on the support of Democratic Unionist MPs. Instead, the prime minister had lost her Brexit secretary and rumours were swirling of who would go next.

The most obvious candidate was Boris Johnson. Having pulled out of the race to succeed David Cameron in 2016 after the EU referendum – stabbed in the back by his running mate and Vote Leave colleague Michael Gove – Johnson was brought into the cabinet by May in a literal adoption of the old adage “keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”

Nominally Johnson was foreign secretary – one of Britain’s ‘great offices of state’ – but, in reality, he ran a freelance operation geared around manoeuvring himself into Number 10 Downing Street. The concept of collective cabinet responsibility was an alien one as Johnson penned 4,000 pieces in right-wing broadsheets attacking May’s Brexit plan. But the prime minister was unable to sack the most prominent Brexiter in her cabinet; to do would risk mutiny from her Eurosceptic backbenchers.

When Johnson did finally go – early on Monday afternoon – it was simultaneously surprising and inevitable. Johnson seemed set to stay until Davis’s resignation forced his hand. With the Brexit minister gone, Johnson would struggle to explain why he was still supporting a Chequers deal that he had told the press privately was a ‘turd’.

But there was little strategic logic to Johnson’s decision to leave. Pro-Brexit Tories for whom any continued relationship with the European Union is anathema lack the numbers to force May out. This point was tacitly acknowledged by another resigning cabinet minister – junior Brexit secretary Steve Baker – who noted that “arithmetic” might “constrain the Government’s freedom of action”.

Baker will return to where he has always been: the anti-EU Tory backbenches. Indeed, within meetings of his resignation he had already been once again made an administrator of the WhatsApp group controlled by the European Research Group, the rather incongruously titled cadre of hardline Brexiters led by the priggish Jacob Rees Mogg.

The ERG supports leaving both the Customs Union and the Single Market – a pledge made by May herself in her Lancaster House speech last January – but which is opposed by most businesses and is incompatible with the commitment to no border in Ireland.

Boris Johnson’s resignation letter would have received a warm reception on the ERG’s message board. The departing foreign secretary railed against May’s plans, saying the UK was headed “for the status of a colony”. (The letter was only finished after Downing Street had pre-emptively announced the resignation, although Johnson did wait around for a photographer to capture the image of him signing it at his lacquered ministerial desk.)

With three ministers gone, febrile talk grew of a leadership challenge. But shifting May is not easy: under the rather arcane Conservative party rules, a vote of no confidence is triggered by at least 15 per cent of Tory MPs requesting one by writing to the chairman of the party’s backbench 1922 committee.

Graham Brady, the 1922’s chairman, keeps names of those writing the letters confidential – and does not provide a running tally – but we do know that the 48 MPs needed currently to trigger a vote of confidence has yet to put pen to paper. If they do, there is every chance that May could survive a vote amongst her own MPs, many of whom are wary of another general election with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party narrowly ahead in the polls.

Even if May were to be defenestrated, a Conservative leadership contest could take months – and might not radically change the content of the UK’s Brexit plans. “It is easy for the Brexiters to criticse the plan and the prime minister but they don’t have a clear rallying point to circle around,” says Simon Usherwood, senior lecturer in politics at the University of Surrey.

“You might end up with someone, from a Brexiter perspective, who isn’t any better than May. You might just end up with a different face on the same plan. Disliking something isn’t the same as having an alternative plan.”

This lack of an alternative Brexit plan has been a constant feature of British politics since the vote to leave. Last week’s Chequers tête-à-tête was the first time the UK cabinet had sat down to discuss want Britain should look like outside the European Union.

A referendum won on soundbites – ‘take back control!’ – and slogans daubed on the side of brightly coloured buses, bequeathed a paralysed political system. Britain had voted to leave the European Union, yes, but how should it leave? Nobody can quite agree.

For ardent Brexiters, the path is straightforward. Out of the customs union and the single market. Jacob Rees Mogg dismisses dire economic warnings from the dreaded ‘experts’ as just another example of Project Fear, pre-referendum prognostications of doom never materialised. (In fact, the UK’s growth has slowed noticeably and is expected to fall further.)

But true Brexit believers are still a minority. For most Conservative MPs party unity – and their own parliamentary seats – are more important than Brexit red lines. There is even a small Tory cabal, led by former attorney general Dominic Grieve, that is actively pushing for the UK to stay in the single market by following Norway’s model by joining the European Economic Area.

The opposition benches are no less ideologically cluttered. Throughout four decades in politics, Jeremy Corbyn has never been a Europhile. Officially his Labour party is in favour of staying in customs union and leaving the single market. But as many as a hundred pro-EU Labour MPs oppose the party’s line on Brexit, with many wanting to see a second referendum on any deal.

May’s Chequers plan – fleshed out in a White Paper released Thursday – represents the first time the UK government has set out what It wants from the Brexit process. But in attempting to define what was previously a constructive ambiguity, May has exposed huge fissures, both within her own party and across British politics.

On the hoary problem of the Irish border, the Chequers plan recognised the backstop for Northern Ireland agreed last December with the EU. Leo Varadkar welcomed the proposals, saying the EU “could be flexible too”, but the Democratic Unionists upon whom May depends for her parliamentary majority were far more muted. The DUP MP group includes some of the most fervent Brexiters in Westminster.

The public reception to the Chequers plan has been equally lukewarm. A midweek poll found only 14 per cent of respondents thought it was good for Britain. (More than half did not know.) The prime minister herself has made little attempt to sell the merits of the deal, leaving much of the media to her newly appointed Brexit secretary – and trenchant Eurosceptic – Dominic Raab.

Indeed, the Chequers proposals are not an easy sell. Brexiter wails that it represents ‘the worst of all worlds’ are not without merit. The putative new customs partnership with the EU is fiendishly complicated and would place onerous bureaucratic demands on business – flying in the face of the long-running Tory lines about EU ‘red tape’.

Brexiters’ fear that by keeping so close to the EU’s orbit, the UK will not be able to realise the vision of ‘Global Britain’ constructed during the referendum to avoid the (valid) accusations that fear of immigration was driving the leave vote. There is palpable enthusiasm among sections of the British media and political establishment for free trade deals with the US and elsewhere as an alternative to the EU. That such deals would come at a price – most likely felt by British farmers and manufacturers – and amid a global turn towards protectionism has received less attention.

At the same time, the Chequers proposals would likely leave the UK economy in a much worse position that staying in the EU. Services – four-fifths of the UK economy – would be outside the Single Market, with the threat of barriers to trade. The City of London could be badly hit. Major business interests are warning of a serious disruption to both production and sales.

Whether the UK’s White Paper will survive until October’s crunch talks with the EU27 is unclear. It provides a potential basis for a negotiation with the EU but it will not be acceptable to Brussels in its current form – the whiff of freshly picked cherries is far too strong. But any further softening of Theresa May’s malleable red lines could see more ministerial departures, and more no confidence letters to the 1922 committee.

The prospect of Britain leaving the EU without a deal still remains. Brexiters have signalled that they could stymie the progress of any deal through Parliament. That could prove a successful tactic: if Westminster does not agree on a deal before 11pm on 29 March next year, the UK will crash out of the EU.

The warnings of a ‘no deal Brexit’ are dire – including, this week, the possibility of stockpiles of tinned fruit and a flotilla of electric generators to power Northern Ireland. Whether this is all remains ‘Mad Max fantasy’ will depend on May’s ability to deliver an alternative deal that can command cross-party support – a difficult challenge in partisan British politics even in fair weather.

Leaving the European Union is often described as ‘leaving a club’. But the UK is discovering that it more like a computer operating system: having run on the customs union and, latterly, the single market, for 45 years, almost everything Britain does is connected to the EU in some way. Building a new operating system cannot be done overnight – and comes with huge risks about its efficacy and efficiency.

This week left some in British politics asking what the point of Brexit is now. Writing in the Financial Times, David Allen Green sketched out “the prospect now before the UK: a Brexit not worth the time or effort, and not accommodating the demands of Brexit supporters in the media and politics. The alternatives are no Brexit, a delayed Brexit or no deal (for which the UK has made no real preparation). Brexiters are like the dog that caught the car. Now the dog must work out what to do next.”

This piece appeared in the Irish Independent, July 14.

A Catalan UDI? Reasons to be Fearful

The day I left Barcelona an open letter appeared hundreds of miles away, in a central European republic, calling on the local government to condemn the Spanish authorities’ violence in Catalonia. The letter – which also demanded the European Union recognise the outcome of Sunday’s vote – appeared in a nation all too familiar with the challenge of starting a new state: Slovenia>

The first signature on the Slovene letter was a telling one: Milan Kučan. In January 1990, Kučan effectively ended Yugoslavia’s federal system when he led his Slovene communists out of the Party Congress. Multi-party elections swiftly followed. On 25 June, 1991 Kučan announced Slovenia’s independence unilaterally – despite not having the backing of a major international power.

Slovenia’s story is often repeated in the bars and cafes of small states seeking independence. The day after Kučan’s declaration, the Yugoslav army began troop movements on the Slovene border. All out war was avoided. Almost three decades later, Slovenia is a peaceful, reasonably prosperous EU state.

That Slovenia managed to escape from the collapsing Yugoslavia relatively unscathed has been adduced by some who say that Catalonia should just declare independence. Surely after the brutal violence meted out by the Spanish police the Catalan government has no option but to breakaway from Madrid, unilaterally if necessary?

That view is gaining traction, in Barcelona and beyond. On Thursday, Spain’s constitutional court suspended a Catalan parliament session planned for Monday for fear that Catalan president Carles Puigdemont might issue a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI).

Madrid, of course, has refused to allow a legal Catalan referendum. Last weekend, I met elderly people effectively locked inside polling stations waiting to vote who visibly trembled with fear as images of the Spanish police brutality circulated on mobile phones.

Since then Spain has doubled down. Catalan calls for mediation have been rejected out of hand. On Sunday, Spanish premier Mariano Rajoy, having delivered on his promise to disrupt a referendum vote deemed unconstitutional by the courts, praised the police and talked high-mindedly about defending democracy.

The narrative that Spanish authorities were simply defending the integrity of their laws and constitution is popular with many Spaniards outside Catalonia. During the week King Felipe in a rare televised address. told Spaniards that the Catalan leaders had showed their “disrespect to the powers of the state”.

But states, as Benedict Anderson pointed out, are “imagined communities” that exist more by legitimacy than through their laws. It is not the legislation in the books at Westminster that wills the United Kingdom into being afresh each day, it is a popular belief that is the legitimate government (a claim, of course, that is contested in Scotland and elsewhere). In using brute force to disrupt a visibly non-violent vote – even one banned by the courts – Madrid lost its legitimacy to speak on Catalonia’s behalf.

What can Catalans do now? Under legislation introduced before Sunday’s vote, the Barcelona parliament can recognise the massive ‘yes’ result as binding. Many, including many Scottish independence supports, feel that a Catalan UDI is now morally justified. But there are reasons for Catalonia – and anyone else – to be very wary of unilateral declarations of independence.

Let’s go back to Slovenia.

In late June 1991, a conflict did begin between Ljubljana and Belgrade. Troops were killed on both sides. The stage seemed set for a full blown war between a breakaway nation and the Yugoslav federation, one of the world’s largest militaries at the time.

Major war was avoided. The then European Community brokered a ceasefire but it was never enacted: within barely a week Yugoslav army forces had effectively withdrawn. Slovenia was free.

But it wasn’t the international community that permitted Slovenia to secede – it was the far darker forces brewing in Belgrade. In 1991, Slobodan Milosevic was concerned with one thing – creating a Greater Serbia. Slovenia had almost no Serbs and huge internal support for independence. Better to let Slovenia go and assert control in Croatia and Bosnia, Milosevic wagered. Slovenia got its independence and within months the Balkans was plunged into an orgy of violence unseen in Europe since the Second World War.

Unlike in Slovenia there seems little prospect of central authorities in Madrid allowing Catalan to just go its own way. Catalonia occupies a far more important place in the Spanish state than the Slovenes did in Milosevic’s dark vision of Yugoslavia’s future. Not only is Catalonia a significant net contributor to Spain’s budget but keeping Catalonia Spanish is an integral part of Madrid’s image of itself.

Unionism is a fundamental tenet of the ruling Popular Party. The president’s hardline position – aided by a partisan media – chimes with a hardening of attitudes towards Catalonia among many in other parts of Spain. The images from Sunday have doubtless damaged Rajoy’s international reputation but might actually improve his standing at home. The Spanish flags that appeared in the windows of homes across Madrid this week were not planted by the Guardia Civil.

In issuing a UDI the Catalan government would instantly lose the legitimacy for its cause won last Sunday. Support for Catalan independence is far from universal. A few weeks ago, polls conducted by the Catalan government itself gave the union a narrow lead. That may have evaporated after Sunday but there is unlikely to be the kind of overwhelming support for secession that there was in the new states born in the Balkans and the Baltic. Against this backdrop, independence will need some form of democratic process beyond Sunday’s chaotic poll.

But democracy alone is not sufficient for independence. New states only survive by international recognition.  After a UDI Catalonia would likely find itself outside the European Union, with a hostile neighbour on its border. Kosovo had the same situation in 2008 – and still does – but unlike the Kosovans, Barcelona would not have the United States, or anyone else, as a sponsor.

Post-UDI everyday life – and business – could become very difficult, very quickly.

Catalan nationalism stretches back centuries but has often struggled for a hearing in Europe’s corridors of power. A relatively wealthy region with a measure of devolution hoping to secede from a poorer nation is not the most endearing tale.

Madrid’s violent response last weekend changed this dynamic, but Barcelona should be very wary of taking that as a basis for a declaration of independence. The road from Catalonia to Slovenia is a long, and winding one.

Brexit’s Irish Problem – A Semi-Personal Reflection

It is inconceivable that a vote for Brexit would not have a negative impact on the (Irish) Border, bringing cost and disruption to trade and to people’s lives.

Theresa May, June 2016

Nobody wants to return to the borders of the past.

Theresa May, July 2016

Around three hundred roads bisect the circuitous three-hundred-and-ten-mile border that separates the six counties of Northern Ireland from the twenty-six of the Irish Republic. Some are barely paved country lanes that snake over and back from one jurisdiction to another multiple times in a matter of miles. Others – like the motorway that connects Dublin and Belfast – are major arteries, as seamlessly asphalted as any German autobahn. The only way you can tell which side of the border you are on – as British television reporters have become so fond of telling viewers back home on ‘the mainland’ – is whether the speed signs are in miles or kilometres.

I grew up about thirty miles into the southern side of the border line, in a drab market town called Longford. For an over-eager child in a monochrome 1980s Irish home, Northern Ireland was strikingly exotic, simultaneously always present and continually absent. Each night it seems the news was filled with macabre tales from Belfast, less than a hundred miles away. But we seldom ventured north. When I was about seven years old my mother took us shopping in Enniskillen, the closest large town across the border, in County Fermanagh. We must have passed barbed wire and concrete look outs manned by acne-scarred teenagers from Derby or Newcastle touting automatic weapons, but I have no recollection of any of these. My only memories are remarking to my mother about how smooth the northern roads were – I was a serious boy – and how colourful was the window display in Enniskillen’s Woolworths. Northern Ireland seemed so much more modern. There were no Woolworths in Longford.

By the time I went to university in Dublin, in 1998, the border that had been erected in the early 1920s had started to disappear. The customs posts had already been dismantled. Most of the green wooden border huts were gone. Those that remained rotted slowly in the countryside. The signing of the Good Friday Agreement effectively brought an end to the thirty-year-long Troubles. The IRA’s war was over. So was the British state’s. The imposing watchtowers that hugged the hillsides of the southern reaches of Down and Armagh were dismantled. The squaddies went home, or eventually ended up in Afghanistan or Iraq. Roads that had been closed during the violent years – or simply bombed into uselessness – were opened. In the early 2000s, by which time I was living in Belfast, I often travelled on a rickety country bus back to Longford to visit my mother. I would occasionally pass the time by trying to figure out if we had crossed the invisible line based on when my cellphone switched providers. I was seldom certain.

Politically, the border started to fade, too. As southern politicians no longer had an immediate need to worry about the insoluble ‘national question’ attention turned towards getting filthy rich. The Celtic Tiger roared. Property prices doubled, then tripled. Semi-detached houses in Longford sold for €400,000. Now it was Dublin that was modern, all wine bars and hundred grand sports cars. I often headed south from Belfast at the weekends, escaping a half empty ghost city where people were still fearful of venturing after dark. By the time the boom turned to bust – form 2008 – most Irish voters had forgotten about the ‘black north’. Even Sinn Fein, the party of the IRA, campaigned on working-class demands for higher wages and social security not the need for “Brits Out.”

I was the only person I knew from my school who spent any time living in Northern Ireland. Over Christmas pints in the local pub nobody asked about life in Belfast. In the south, Northern Ireland had become an an embarrassment. A place famous around the world for bombs and bitterness. Thirty miles away, but another world. A Lacanian ‘Other’ that can never be assimilated, nor totally disavowed. Better to ignore and move on least the atavism proves contagious. So the Republic spent the best part of the last decade struggling to emerge from a self-inflicted mountain of bank debt while the north continued the slow struggle to emerge from its brutal past.

Thirty thousand people cross the Irish border every day for work. The border has not withered away but it is far less noticeable. There are still the fireworks stores on the northern side, and the incongruous petrol stations, often said to be illegally passing off industrial fuel for commercial use. Every so often, the Irish and British police team-up for a raid on republicans opposed to the peace process. But, for most, the border has ceased to matter a great deal. People in Donegal give birth in hospitals over the border in Derry. When my brother needed to get his driving licence at short notice he took the test in Enniskillen, where waiting times are far shorter.

In March 2016, I was in Dublin for the centenary commemorations of the Easter Rising, a rebellion which led to the war of independence and then to partition. The fiftieth anniversary of the Rising – a story of blood sacrifice still told in gruesome detail when I was a school child – had been celebrated with high nationalist pomp. The rebels of Easter 1916 were the heroes. The villains were the British. Everybody else – the vast majority of the population who had little interest in insurrection – were ignored. The IRA even got in on the act, blowing up Nelson’s Column on Dublin’s main thoroughfare, O’Connell Street, in March 1966. Out of practice, the republicans misjudged the amount of explosives needed, leaving behind a stone stump that the Irish Army was left to dispose of. The tone in Dublin a half-century later could scarcely have been more different, or more ecumenical. There were solemn silences and visiting dignitaries from well beyond the republican family. There had even been talk of an invitation being extended to the Queen. Almost a century after independence, ‘Official Ireland’ showed itself off in the Dublin sun, a mature state, reconciled with its former colonial power beneath the European Union’s starry flag. There was little talk of Irish unification, or the border.

———————–

A few weeks before the European Union referendum I went on a reporting trip to Belfast. Elections to the devolved assembly in Stormont had taken place a fortnight earlier. Round-faced middle-aged men still smiled down from placards on lampposts. The Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein once more topped the polls. Barely half the electorate had voted. There seemed even less enthusiasm for the EU referendum.

“We’re not allowed to vote in that. It’s only England,” Sean Morgan told me inside his souvenir shop on the Falls Road in republican West Belfast. I thought better of correcting him. His shop was called Fenians after the 19th century Irish republicans committed to a United Ireland. Replica guns and copies of the proclamation of Ireland adorned the walls. There were rolls of red, white and blue union flag toilet paper at £2.50 a pop. “You’ll never never believe how many of those we sell,” Morgan laughed.

Sinn Fein – long the dominant political force in West Belfast – reversed its historic opposition to the EU to back a remain vote but there was little sign of pro-EU sentiment on the Falls Road. No starry European Union flags flew alongside the Tricolours. None of Northern Ireland’s parties spent more than £10,000 on their pro-EU campaigns. I counted a single Leave poster, on the Shankill Road, on the opposite side of the 15-foot-hight corrugated iron “peace wall” that has cut off Catholics from Protestants in west Belfast for more than four decades.

In the interests of balance – or so I told myself – I called into Ulster Souvenirs, halfway up the Shankill Road. Across the street, faded images of hooded loyalist gunmen looked down from a gable end mural. Inside the narrow shop, a portrait of a serious-looking Edward Carson, Northern Ireland’s Dublin-born founding father, hung over the till. David Reid, the shop’s owner, looked about thirty years old. I asked how would be voting in the referendum. “Oh aye, out!” He smiled. “People are fed up with the way the country is run, with being in the European Union.”

As if on cue, a trio of customers arrived. All wanted to buy Northern Ireland football jerseys for the upcoming European championships. How will you vote, I asked, a little too aware of which side of the border my accent placed me on. “Leave,” Greg Benson bellowed. The “Now That’s What I Call Loyalist Music” CDs and the Apprentice Boys flags behind the counter almost shook with the reverberations of his voice.  “You can’t say too much or you’re a racist, but immigration is the big thing. It’s having a massive affect on our health system,” Benson told me.

Northern Ireland remains one of the most ethnically homogenous places in the UK. Non-white faces are still something of a rarity in Belfast. But the squat capital has changed since I left for Scotland in 2009. The city centre is no longer a dead zone after dark. The rebirth of Belfast as a “cool” destination has been celebrated by journalists from around the world. Where once even a cup of coffee on a Sunday afternoon was hard to find now there is a plethora of cafes in the modish fashion, all exposed brick and customers with fixed gear bicycles.

Yet Belfast still carries the scars of the Troubles, particularly in the near-inner city districts such as the Shankill and Falls Roads. Here unemployment is high. Long term out of work even higher. There are still gap sites, and much of the new private housing is beyond the reach of local residents. And there are still the “peace walls”. These barricades, ad hoc at first, emerged with the start of the Troubles in the late 1960s. In 1971, a secret Northern Ireland government report expressed concern that the barriers, gates and fences springing up in West Belfast in particular were creating an “atmosphere of abnormality”. However, the report writers added that they did “not expect any insurmountable difficulty” in bringing down the walls. The following year, Stormont was suspended as the violence worsened to descend into civil war. The peace walls continued to appear. Only a handful have ever been dismantled.

When Britain first voted on Europe, in 1975, Northern Ireland was the most Eurosceptic of the “home nations”. Where two-thirds of English backed the then European Economic Community, just 52 per cent of Northern Irish voters supported membership. In 2016, positions were basically reversed. Where English opposition to the European Union swung the Brexit vote, fifty-six per cent of Northern Irish citizens voted to remain part of the EU in June 2016. In the border counties, the remain vote rose to 65 per cent.

 

My mother rang the day after the Brexit vote. It must have been the afternoon because she asked about Scottish independence. (In the morning, Nicola Stugreon had said that a second referendum was “highly likely”.) But she was mainly interested in the border. “What will it mean for Northern Ireland?” she asked. “Will I need to bring a passport to go to Belfast?” I said that I did not know but was sure it would not come to border controls. I was only half honest. I wasn’t sure it wouldn’t come to that. Already that morning Boris Johnson, one of the leaders of the Leave campaign, was distancing himself from the referendum result.

 

That nobody on the BBC’s rolling referendum coverage was talking about what Brexit might mean for the Irish border was hardly surprising. Northern Ireland rarely features in news headlines anymore, in Britain or in Ireland. There was little said about Northern Ireland – or the border – during the campaign. The Democratic Unionists supported a Leave vote, without providing any discernible rationale, while almost every other local political party opposed Brexit, mainly on the basis that anything that might unsettle the notoriously fragile political and economic ecosystem could hardly be a good thing. Such caution seemed particularly justified when, a few weeks before the referendum, then home secretary Theresa May warned that a leave vote could create border chaos, “bringing cost and disruption to trade and to people’s lives”. In 2015, Northern Irish farmers received 87 per cent of their income direct from European Union grants. Polls suggest many famers subsequently voted Leave.

May’s pre-referendum fears about the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland were quickly forgotten, however. In July, the new prime minister, declared that there be would be “no return to the borders of the past”. That sound-bite would quickly assume the role of a mantra, trotted out as often, it seemed, as “Brexit means Brexit”. Concerns about the cross-border trade and travel were blithely dismissed by references to the Ireland-wide Common Travel Area. (The CTA, Irish political leaders pointed out, has existed since the early days of the Free State but never before has one jurisdiction been inside supranational body with free movement of people and the other outside.)

In her first cabinet reshuffle, May defenestrated Theresa Villiers, David Cameron’s Brexit-supporting Northern Ireland secretary. Ms Villiers, generally perceived as detached from local affairs, caused consternation in Belfast by openly campaigning with the DUP ahead of the EU referendum. Villiers’s replacement, James Brokenshire, has smacked of nominative determinism: since the Brexit vote Northern Irish politics has, after a decade of relative calm, collapsed. Divided on the most significant issue facing Northern Ireland since the peace process, relations between DUP first minister Arlene Foster and her then deputy, the late Martin McGuinness, quickly deteriorated. When a botched green energy scheme was revealed to have massively overspent – apparently largely on grants to DUP-supporting farmers – Sinn Fein pulled the plug on Stormont.

Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland is governed by a “consociational” system. This approach – in which ethnic blocs are given vetoes and balances – was initially devised in the Netherlands, to deal with regionalist demands. Since the 1990s it has become the solution of choice for post-conflict societies: Bosnia, Lebanon, Iraq. Under the Northern Irish iteration, the largest unionist and nationalist parties must share power. But in government the DUP and Sinn, always uncomfortable bedfellows, have drifted further apart, not closer together. The DUP has consistently blocked Sinn Fein legislation, including a law to permit gay marriage. While Foster was first minister, grants under a community halls scheme were bestowed on groups linked to the Orange Order, and largely denied to Gaelic Athletic Association clubs. The DUP’s culture minister refused a small grant to a Belfast community group which planned to take some children to an Irish-speaking area. The DUP leader’s fondness for majority rule echoes that of Theresa May. Brexit means Brexit. That most Northern Irish voters rejected the prospect of leaving the EU is incidental. The United Kingdom has spoken. But such majoritarianism has run into a major obstacle – not the Armalite, but the ballot box.

In March, Northern Ireland held another round of devolved elections. This time there was a notable sense of expectation. In the weeks leading up to the vote, Adam Ramsey and I published a series of articles on how the DUP had received £425,000 for its Brexit campaign and was refusing to name its donors. The story caught the Northern Irish public imagination. I found myself on nightly news programmes, where anchors explained that the murky story of the DUP’s funding fed into a sense that the party were untrustworthy. In Ballymena, the buckle in Northern Ireland’s bible-belt and the powerbase of DUP founder Ian Paisley, I met traditional Protestant voters who accused the party of having “lost touch with its religious base”. In Belfast, younger voters were angry at the prospect of losing their ready access to the other 27 European Union states, including the country on the other side of the invisible border. The election proved dramatic. Turnout was up almost ten per cent on 2016. For the first time since partition, unionism failed to secure a majority in a Northern Irish parliament. Sinn Féin won 27 seats to the DUP’s 28. The Democratic Unionists lost seats across the border counties, including in Foster’s home, Fermanagh, where Sinn Fein took three of the five seats on offer. At the time of writing, no arrangement has been reached on a new governing coalition. Sinn Fein insist Foster must step aside. She has refused. The prospects of a swift re-instatement of power-sharing look slim.

Brexit has put the border back into Irish politics, in ways that would have seemed impossible only a couple of years ago. In Belfast, senior people from Alliance – an avowedly ‘cross-community’ party borne of a split in the Ulster Unionists in the Troubles’ early days – talk of the need to make plans for Irish unification. The Fine Gael government in Dublin held up as a major victory the Brussels’s confirmation that a post-unification Northern Ireland would seamlessly rejoin the EU. Having emerged from the pro-Treaty side after the civil war, Fine Gael has long been the most fiercely anti-republican force in Irish politics.

Along the border, life goes on, in its own quiet way. After Ulster Gaelic football championship games, queues of traffic still snake out from Clones, in County Monaghan, over the border into Northern Ireland. The questions of who did what to whom during the three-decades-long dirty war remain, waiting for answers. Peace, however, has not given way to prosperity. The border remains one of the poorest parts of the country. The large houses dotted across the drumlins belie a general shift from the rural to the urban, from the towns to Dublin and Belfast, that has characterized Irish life in recent decades. Where there has been sustained – and sustainable – investment in the border counties it has often come with a large sign bearing the European Union’s starry standard.

My first proper job, at the University of Ulster, was funded by the European Union. It was 2008, just before the financial crash. We were not so starry-eyed as to imagine that our attempts to reconcile Catholics and Protestants on either side of a peace wall in Derry would bring the barriers down overnight, but there were minor moments of success. A film night on Derry’s walls. A talk on social enterprise well-attended by both sides. Small steps. Nobody expects that London – or Dublin – will replace the £500m that Northern Ireland receives from the EU each year, especially for the slow, difficult work of rebuilding communities after conflict.

This spring I was back home for a wedding. The reception was in a stunning colonial castle nestled by a lake in rural county Leitrim, barely fifteen miles from Northern Ireland. The road signs were peppered with destinations on both sides of the border. The following day, I visited my mother. She was planning to get her teeth fixed, in Enniskillen. She had the name of a dentist there who charged only a fraction of the price on the southern side of the border. “The NHS is great,” she told me. “We should have it here, too.”

——–

Perugia Journalism Festival ’17 – Community journalism or big tech?

This year, finally, I made it to Perugia journalism festival. Now in its 11th year, the festival has long been spoken of in hushed tones as the place to go to learn out about the latest developments in the media, to discover the coolest new newsroom products and approaches.

This weekend did not disappoint. I heard fascinating talks about how the handle data leaks – both practically and ethically – and panel discussions on the future of journalism in 2030. (The good news: journalism will probably still exist, but what journalists do is likely to change quite dramatically.)

There were passionate, informed debates about censorship and press freedom in Turkey and hands on advice about how the systemically use Freedom of Information legislation to help the public access information.

As the co-director of a co-operative investigative website –
–  I was particularly pleased to see a place on the festival programme dedicated to discussions of media co-operatives.

In one session, members of media co-operatives from Egypt, Belgium, the USA and Scotland (yes, the Ferret) examined the opportunities, and challenges, for building reader-owned media. The diversity of approaches to building successful co-op was striking: where the Ferret, for example, has both journalists and reader directors, other media co-ops take a different approach. Some have only journalists on their board, some no journalists at all.

There was, rightly, much talk of community building, too.

A Canadian media outlet called Discourse Media, is explicitly focused on serving under-reported communities, and in helping to provide solutions to problems. With this in mind, Discourse sends its journalists across Canada, asking people what they want to hear reported on. These ‘engagement roadtrips’ offer one strategy for bringing new voices into our media, something many are still struggling with even amid the new focus on ‘beyond the Beltway’ stories in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidential victory.

De Correspondent – a wildly successful Dutch start-up in which readers pay for journalists directly – takes a different approach. Before beginning a new investigation De Correspondent asks its thousands of subscribers what they know about the topic, an approach that has provided dozens of leads and, crucially, helps build the relationship between the organisation and the community it serves.

So will ‘community’ save journalism? Maybe. Maybe not. What does seem clear after four days in the Italian sun is that journalism – both small and large – is increasingly dependent on multi-billion-dollar tech companies.

In Perugia, I met journalists from some of the most important legacy news organisations in – the Guardian, the BBC, Channel 4, Fortune – but the major sponsors were Facebook and Google. The agenda reflected this: many of the panels were dedicated to ‘fake news’ and online verification.

In one sense, this is all well and good. Facebook and Google are the biggest publishers in the world, even though both might disavow the term ‘publisher’. The veracity of the information on these platforms really matters.

Both Google and Facebook have invested in media initiatives of late. (Full disclosure: Google has funded the Ferret’s new fact check service, FFS.) Google, in particular, has given more than €150m to media organisations who are not working on its platform.

But are there dangers for the media’s increasing reliant on monopoly tech largesse for its future? Editorial independence is an obvious concern, but one that can be overstated. By and large, the firewalls between editorial and advertising have held up in the world’s most respected newsrooms. There is no sign yet that tech companies want to influence editorial decisions.

Media outlets are increasingly reliant on these same tech platforms to deliver their content. How, for example, Facebook writes its algorithms has a huge bearing on how many people see a story in their news feed, with knock on effects for the advertising revenue that media outlets still rely on.

Companies that barely existed a decade ago are now wealthier than many sovereign states. Is plurality possible when media outlets are so dependent on tech giants, for content delivery, for ad revenue and, for some, for grant funding?

There is no shortage of creative new ideas in journalism right now. Indeed, at times Perugia felt like an episode of Dragon’s Den set on a panoramic Umbrian hillside, with sharp suited start-ups pitching their ideas with the kind of confidence – and perseverance – normally associated with Silicon Valley.

But will these new ideas create alternative media outlets and platforms, or will they eventually be bought out by the dominant market players? Will legacy media organisations have the power to stand up to the Googles and Facebooks of this world or will they be increasingly subsumed? Where will community-owned media fit into this world?

So, I leave Perugia with even more questions than I arrived with. Hopefully I make it back next year to answer some of them.

We Need to Talk About Towns

A week or before the US presidential election, I visited Youngstown in eastern Ohio. On a deserted street corner, across from a bail bondsman and a boarded up shop, an elderly white man explained why he was voting for Donald Trump. “This town used to be something. Now it’s nothing,” he told me. “You guys had Brexit, now it’s our turn.”

Trump’s was a victory for the town against the city. The sprawling metropolises on both coasts were, as ever, solidly blue on November 8. It was places like Youngstown – a city that has seen its population more than half amid four decades of relentless deindustrialization – that swung the race for the White House.

Much has been made about the similarities between Trump and Brexit: white working class alienation; the anger at globalization; the distrust of experts. There’s undoubtedly something in all of this. But the most glaring connection is where these two unlikely victories were forged: in towns and small cities of our former industrial heartlands.

Burnley, Bolton, Hull, Grimsby. The names are familiar from June 23. In many British towns, the pride and purpose of industry – the very thing that called these towns into being in the first place – has been replaced by call centres and low rent chain stores.

Youngstown’s municipal government has started to demolish entire city blocks. In Hartlepool, over 27 per cent of shops were vacant last year. Some 70 per cent of the town’s residents voted for Brexit.

Empty retail units and urban blight did not cause voters to flock to Farage or Trump, but they are a symptom of the problem.

Glasgow, where I live, has barely half as many inhabitants now as they had at their peaks in the middle of the 20th century. The ‘Second City of Empire’ has, to an extent, developed a service-sector economy to compensate. The expensive apartment complexes that look out onto what was once the busiest ship-building docks in the world have spawned restaurants, bars and shopping centres.

But the myriad smaller industrial towns peppered across central Scotland have continued their decline. The most dependable source of employment – the public sector – has been decimated by almost a decade of austerity.

The problem for our towns is not just economic, it is cultural too. Town living is not cool.

City burghers have all the cultural capital, the flat whites and art house cinemas. The country, the rural, has its place as the opposite of the insatiable urban. But what of the town? Who wants to live in what the Americans condescendingly call ‘flyover country’? Certainly not many of the media who, like me, grew up in towns and have little desire to ever return to them.

The turn to Brexit, and to Trump, is not just a primal scream against the metropolitan elite. Globalisation has not been the win-win game that some of its supporters had claimed it would be. It may have lifted millions out of poverty and triggered the emergence of a middle class in developing countries, but it has wrecked a huge price on the working class here.

The shift of manufacturing jobs to cheaper parts of the world decimated once self sufficient industrial communities. The jobs that came to replace them were often low paid, precarious and seen as emasculating by a generation of men raised on tales of life in the pits and the steel mills.

Ten of the twelve most struggling cities in Britain are in northern England, according to research released by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation earlier this year. Rochdale fared worst in the survey. The response from local politicians? Shoot the messenger.

The JRF data was “outdated” and “does not show what is happening in Rochdale right now” said council chief executive Steve Rumbelow.

In reality, the picture is all too familiar. Most workers in the UK and the US have seen their real wages stagnate and even fall for decades. Employment opportunities have dried up in many areas, and job and social insecurity have spiked. And it’s likely to get worse.

In November, the Institute for Fiscal Studies said that by 2021, real wages in the UK – pay adjusted for inflation – will still not have recovered to their 2008 level before the global financial crisis hit. That’s 14 years of zero wage growth in the UK.

So what’s the answer for our towns? The message from the Brexiters and Trump is simple: jobs. Strip out cheap foreign labour. Erect trade barriers. Do whatever it takes, even restarting the coal mines of West Virginia or bribing Nissan to stay in Sunderland.

But here’s the bad news: jobs won’t save our towns. If anything, they are about to witness even more unemployment in the years to come.

Having seen the industrial working class hollowed out by de-industrialisation, the skilled middle-classes are set to follow. Automation is a word on few politicians’ lips, but it should be. We are at the start of a massive information technology-fuelled disruption that will change the fundamental basis on which our world is ordered.

Mechanical improvements meant thousands of layoffs our factories over the past forty years. Soon it will be the same in our offices. Who needs accountants when, as happened in the US in 2014, 48 million people used online tax preparation software rather than professional help? What is the future of teaching when more people sign up for Harvard’s online courses in a single year than attended the actual university in its almost four centuries in existence?

The future will require skilled workers – in tech, in finance, even in the media – but few, if any, of these jobs will be located in towns that are often sited by historical accident, not on the confluence of rivers or roads but near deposits of long-exhausted raw materials.

We are not the only country faced with the problem of places that no longer have a clear function. Russia has nearly 20,000 ghost towns, mostly in the freezing north. In many instances. Moscow wrote off large chunks of the local population’s mortgage debt to encourage them to move. Would any British politician ever propose a similar scheme?

Our leaders will need to start thinking along such radical lines. With no prospect of paid work for all some form of guaranteed state supplement will need to be introduced. Such a “basic” or “citizen’s income” would need to be enough not just to survive on but to live the fulfilling lives on which social stability rests.

But even this is no panacea. As automation increases, the tax take will decrease as the numbers in work fall. Public money would need to be found. The only feasible option is an effective, global effort on tax avoidance.

This problem is not new. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown realised that, for many workers, wages were so low that they could not afford to live. But their solution – tax credits – did nothing to address the inequalities unleashed by globalization, where low wage workers could end up paying more tax than the massive corporations that employed them on insecure contracts.

No wonder places like Oldham, with its 365 mills all now empty, backed Brexit so enthusiastically. No wonder a once solid union city like Youngstown swung behind Trump. Neither have the answers to our towns’ problems, but unless we start to grapple with them soon that won’t even matter. It will already be too late.

This piece originally appeared in the New European, December 2016.

 

—————

Aberdeen’s oil curse

ABERDEEN, Scotland — The Aberdeen Food Bank Partnership is housed in a former fish-filleting warehouse a stone’s throw from the docks, its shelves lined with boxes of tea and porridge oats, packets of pasta and fresh fruit. In a city once known as “Europe’s oil capital,” former oil workers are now queuing for food parcels.

“One man came in with a Porsche recently. He had lost his job, his house,” says Dave Simmers, chief executive of Community Food Initiatives North East, the food bank’s parent body.

“Oil companies used to be our biggest social enterprise customers and the profit from that supported our charity work. That’s completely changed,” Simmers adds.

Aberdeen, a city of around 200,000 in north-east Scotland, has long been dividedbetween the haves and have nots. Extravagant mansions are often within walking distance of high-rise housing projects. But a sharp downturn in the multi-billion-euro North Sea oil industry has sent the local economy into a tailspin.

“I think there is a lot more pain to come” — Jake Molloy, a regional union organizer and former offshore worker

Plunging oil prices — the cost of a barrel is barely a third of its June 2014 high of $114 — have changed the face of the “Granite City.” Streets in the city center, hewn from hard, gray rock, are pockmarked with empty retail units and “To Let” signs. Amid widespread job losses, many are struggling to make ends meet.

AT SEA - FEBRUARY 24: A general view of the BP ETAP (Eastern Trough Area Project) oil platform in the North Sea on February 24, 2014, around 100 miles east of Aberdeen, Scotland. The British cabinet will meet in Scotland for only the third time in history to announce plans for the country's oil industry, which it warns will decline if Scots vote for independence. The fate of North Sea oil revenues will be a key issue ahead of the September 18 referendum to decide whether Scotland will end its 300-year-old union with England, and is expected to be the focus of Prime Minister David Cameron's cabinet meeting.  (Photo by Andy Buchanan - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
AT SEA – FEBRUARY 24: A general view of the BP ETAP (Eastern Trough Area Project) oil platform in the North Sea on February 24, 2014, around 100 miles east of Aberdeen, Scotland. The British cabinet will meet in Scotland for only the third time in history to announce plans for the country’s oil industry, which it warns will decline if Scots vote for independence. The fate of North Sea oil revenues will be a key issue ahead of the September 18 referendum to decide whether Scotland will end its 300-year-old union with England, and is expected to be the focus of Prime Minister David Cameron’s cabinet meeting. (Photo by Andy Buchanan – WPA Pool/Getty Images)

“If it wasn’t for this I wouldn’t be able to survive,” says Hazel Burgess as she carefully lays a loaf of white bread on top of her wheelie bag on her weekly visit to the food bank. The mother-of-two has been receiving food parcels for three months, since money became tight when her son, who suffers from autism, had his benefits reduced.

Simmers estimates the food bank will have given out 500 tons of food by December, up from 280 tons last year.

* * *

Since late 2014, nearly 100,000 people have lost their jobs in the oil industry and its supply chain. Another 360,000 have taken pay cuts of, on average, 15 to 20 percent. Workers are giving away cars they can no longer afford to run. Changes to shift patterns mean workers often spend less time on land, which exerts a heavy toll on their families.

Jake Molloy, a regional organizer for the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union, and a former offshore worker, blames the government for “failing” an industry that has contributed some £300 billion to the British exchequer since oil was discovered in the area in the 1970s.

When it comes to oil, successive U.K. administrations have followed a simple policy: Tax heavily in the good times, loosen purse strings in the bad. Now with exploration at lows not seen since the 1960s, Westminster “doesn’t seem to have a strategy” for reinvigorating the industry, says Molloy.

“I think there is a lot more pain to come.”

* * *

For years, particularly as oil hovered around $100 a barrel after the 2008 financial crisis, prices in Aberdeen only went in one direction: up. Now gravity has re-exerted itself. House prices, which rose by 17 percent in 2013, have fallen sharply in the last year, according to a report from the Aberdeen Solicitors’ Property Centre.

Aberdeen’s population has declined by about 15 percent since the oil market crash, and a majority of students and young professionals are considering leaving the city in the next few years, according to a recent PwC report. The market crash has largely been attributed to a price war waged by Saudi Arabia against the U.S. shale industry.

Hotel rooms were once so hard to come by that offshore workers were put up in Edinburgh, more than 100 miles away. Now, vacancies are the new normal.

“What we are experiencing now is here to stay,” says Stewart Spence, owner of the five-star Marcliffe Hotel. “When we had $100 oil, we had 100 percent occupancy. Now we have $40-$50 dollar [oil], we have 40-50 percent occupancy. That’s what we have to live with for the future.”

The Scottish share of tax receipts from the North Sea shrank from £9.6 billion in 2011-2012 to £1.8 billion in 2014-2015.

Most North Sea staff are employed not by Big Oil, but by smaller, local contractors. The downturn has taken a heavy toll on these local businesses across the board. Even the city’s few success stories are illustrative of a deeper malaise.

Michelle Clark spent a decade working in recruitment and training for an Aberdeen-based firm before being made redundant in 2014. Fifteen months later she lost her job again. After unsuccessfully interviewing for 60 posts she decided to try something different — and opened her own business.

“I always wanted to do this,” Clark says from behind the counter of Melt, a small take-out restaurant in Aberdeen’s leafy west end. The premises, formerly a check cashing outlet, has a self-consciously 1970s feel: laminated floors, retro floral wallpaper, vintage tea sets. A chalk board advertises special Nutella and cheese toasties.

Since opening in March, business has been brisk. “It’s an affordable luxury at a time when everyone is struggling,” explains Clark. Her husband recently lost his job at a specialist musical instrument store.

“I probably speak about oil and gas more in here than I did when I worked in oil and gas,” she says. “It seems to affect everyone who comes in and they want to speak about it.”

Across town, native New Yorker Stephen Dillon closed his steakhouse, Prime Cuts, after a decade in business. Midweek sales had fallen by almost 70 percent. “The corporate business just disappeared.”

Dillon and his French wife, Pascaline, opened a new BBQ restaurant but have little hope for the future.

“Even if the oil industry does come back to a reasonable level, for us it won’t be enough,” he says. The stress has taken its toll on the salt-and-pepper haired American: He has recently suffered from depression. “You try to be optimistic but it’s tough.”

* * *

Beyond its boom effect on the local economy, oil has also been inextricably linked to Scottish independence in the national imagination. In the 1970s, the Scottish National Party (SNP) ran on the acerbic slogan: “It’s Scotland’s Oil.” In those days, Texans in Stetsons sauntered down Aberdeen streets and the nationalists were a minor concern.

Now, the SNP is the dominant power in Scottish politics, and oil remains a key part of their platform. The 2014 prospectus for leaving the three-centuries-old union with England proposed setting up an oil fund in the Norwegian mold.

Mark McDonald, an SNP member of the Scottish parliament for Aberdeen, says an independent Scotland would be best placed to guide the North Sea through turbulent waters: “We have left other people to deal with our economic situation for quite some time and there are plenty of people who haven’t got a good deal out of that.”

The oil industry’s recent travails, however, have not helped the independence cause. The Scottish share of tax receipts from the North Sea shrank from £9.6 billion in 2011-2012 to £1.8 billion in 2014-2015, and is likely to fall to zero in the coming months — undermining the argument that the Scottish economy can stand on its own.

“The EU referendum added to the uncertainty that we already had with the oil industry” — Lynn Bennie, reader in politics at Aberdeen University

In spite of the downturn, Aberdeen’s skyline is littered with cranes. Construction for new shopping centers and hotels planned in the boom years is still going ahead. A recently signed “City Deal” is expected to fund a new harbor development. At Marischal Square, workmen lower girders into place on a £50 million development built under a controversial, complex private finance deal that could leave the local council with a significant black hole in its budget. The development was dogged by protesters, many of whom argued that the city could not afford — and did not need — another glass-and-steel retail complex.

Across the street, in Aberdeen’s council offices, local representative Barney Crockett says the city has been forced to be “creative” to support new projects. “We are the lowest funded local authority and the lowest funded health board in Scotland,” the Labour councilor says.

Crockett, who is “old enough to remember Aberdeen before oil,” says the city will bounce back. But he admits to being “worried” about the recent Brexit vote.

Aberdeen has often relied heavily on links with Europe, and particularly nearby Norway.

“We often feel we don’t get a fair look from Scottish or British governments so Europe has been really important,” Crockett says, pointing to the city’s hydrogen-powered bus fleet, partly funded by the EU.

A section of the BP ETAP (Eastern Trough Area Project) oil platform in the North Sea, around 100 miles east of Aberdeen, Scotland | AFP photo / Pool / Andy Buchanan

Brexit could heap more woes on the already-stressed oil and gas industry. The North Sea’s mainly mature fields have far higher production costs than places such as Saudi Arabia or Equatorial Guinea. Last month, analysts at S&P Global Plattswarned that for the North Sea, fears over Britain’s EU exit “could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”

Most Aberdonians, however, seem more concerned with fluctuations in oil prices than the political machinations in Brussels or Edinburgh.

Influential Aberdeen oil magnate Ian Wood has been a vocal critic of calls for a second independence referendum — a vote Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has called “highly likely” in the wake of Brexit.

Aberdeen also voted ‘No’ to independence in 2014 and there is little sign of a shift in mood, even though the SNP holds all the Westminster seats in the region. Recent opinion polling suggests that despite voting overwhelmingly to remain in the European Union, most Scots still favor being part of the U.K.

“The EU referendum added to the uncertainty that we already had with the oil industry,” says Lynn Bennie, reader in politics at Aberdeen University. “Most people just want that uncertainty to end.”

***

Back at the Aberdeen Food Bank Partnership, volunteer Ingrid Pringle is concerned about the city’s future. The retired social worker recalls moving to Aberdeen from south-east England in 1981.

Four decades ago, oil transformed Aberdeen from a rough fishing town into a key player on the global market. But the city has little to show today for the billions that passed through it, says Pringle.

“Back then it was a city on the up. It doesn’t feel like that now,” she says as she fills plastic bags with fruit and vegetables during her weekly six-hour shift.

“I assumed that the oil industries would invest in Aberdeen, but aside from sponsoring the odd roundabout they haven’t really done anything.”

This piece originally appeared in Politico Europe.

Brexit and Northern Ireland

BELFAST — Each year, at midnight on July 11, the Belfast skyline lights up with dozens of bonfires. Scattered across the Northern Irish capital, they are a reminder of a deep-rooted conflict that has in recent years lain largely dormant but which some fear could reignite in the wake of the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union.

This year, the pyres, erected to commemorate the arrival of the protestant King William of Orange in 1690, had a novel touch. Alongside the green, white and gold of the Irish tricolor and effigies of the Pope were signs saying “Brexit.” On one blaze, a European flag was burning brightly.

There may be no other place in the U.K. where the decision to leave the EU has more dangerous implications than in Northern Ireland. The vote has deepened divisions and raised the specter that the militarized border that once cut through the island could one day be erected again.

Most Irish nationalists and liberal pro-U.K. unionists supported continuing EU membership. But there is little love for Europe among more hardline protestants.

“Brexit all of a sudden puts you in a box,” said Jonny Byrne, lecturer in politics at the University of Ulster. “It identifies you very much as one or the other. That is damaging, especially in a society in 2016 that is trying to embrace diversity and difference. It is like taking a step back to the 1940s.”

Marching season

On July 12, the high point of the protestant marching season, thousands ofOrangemen in mandarin-colored sashes, bowler hats and umbrellas gathered to parade through Belfast.

In past years, the “Glorious Twelfth” has often been accompanied by violence, especially near Belfast’s corrugated iron “peacewalls” that separate nationalists and unionists. In 2013, several days of rioting took place after the Northern Irish Parades Commission ruled that local Orange lodges could not march past a row of shops in the Catholic Ardoyne neighborhood in north Belfast.

Since then a small protest camp has held a permanent vigil in nearby Twaddell Avenue, which is predominantly protestant. Twaddell has frequently been a flash point for unrest, particularly around the marching season. “This area lives in a siege mentality,” said Alfie McCrory, vice-chair of the Twaddell residents’ association.

As the marchers prepared to set out, dozens of protesters lined the route of the Orange parade. Some republicans opposed to the peace process gesticulated at the rows of heavily armed police. Others demonstrated silently as the Orange band passed by, playing a single drum beat as stipulated by the police.

Among the demonstrators was Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly. The former Irish Republican Army prisoner was confident a solution could eventually be reached to end the Twaddell impasse — but less hopeful for the prospects of a compromise on Brexit.

Kelly’s party has called for a “border poll” on Irish unification in the wake of Brexit. “The vote has been taken, but the democratic decision was taken in the north to remain,” he said.

Signs of hope

The Democratic Unionist party, once Sinn Féin’s sworn enemy, is now its coalition partner in the devolved Assembly, and it is strongly in favor of Brexit. First Minister Arlene Foster has said Northern Ireland must follow the rest of the U.K. in leaving the EU.

But Foster’s is an unpopular position among many inside and outside the Assembly. Some two-thirds of its members advocated a remain vote, and concerns are growing rapidly about political — and economic — ramifications of leaving the EU.

More than a fifth of Northern Ireland’s exports go south, to the Irish Republic, but this could drop quickly if there are changes to the current porous border arrangements. Such is Northern Ireland’s dependence on EU trade that economists predict its GDP will fall by 3 percent as a result of withdrawal.

Any decline in living standards is likely to be keenest felt in places like north Belfast, one of the country’s most deprived areas. Unemployment remains stubbornly above the national average. Even the landscape is still scarred by the Troubles. In this patchwork of terraced streets, the painted curbstones often change from loyalist blue to republican green in a matter of meters.

There are signs of hope, however. A £20 million community hub recently opened on the site of a former army barracks — with funding from the EU. “It is one of the rare spaces in north Belfast where people of all denominations can come together,” said Nicola Mallon, an Assembly representative for the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party.

As we spoke, the Orange parade silently disappeared into the distance, on its way to join thousands of marchers and bandsmen in Belfast city center.

“For British and Irish citizens here, the fact that you are part of a wider European society helps to shape a wider sense of citizenship,” said Winston Irvine, a member of the Progressive Unionist Party, which is linked to the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force. Even though he is a loyalist, he voted to remain. “Now that you have removed the EU, it starts to bring domestic differences into sharper focus, which can’t be good for a society coming out of conflict.”

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement explicitly includes a role, albeit minor, for the European Union. The EU also provided human rights legislation and a supranational underpinning that has allowed Northern Ireland slowly to begin to move beyond the Manichean division between Catholic/nationalist and Protestant/unionist. Now that is under threat.

Brexit worries

Northern Ireland’s fate lies in the hands of politicians hundreds of miles away with limited knowledge of, or interest in, the region’s affairs. The region is low on the list of priorities for Theresa May. During the Brexit campaign the recently anointed prime minister said it was “inconceivable” that the Irish border could remain untouched. Her new secretary of state for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire, has dampened expectations of a bespoke deal for the region.

Across Northern Ireland, this year’s marching season has been the most peaceful in living memory.

“The reality of Brexit is people in London making decisions about us who have no real understanding of the issues in Northern Ireland and the uniqueness of the border and the issues around sovereignty,” said Jonny Byrne, the Ulster academic. “That is the antithesis of devolution.”

In Belfast city center, the Twelfth of July parade passed without incident. That evening, more republican protesters gathered outside the Ardoyne shops. A larger police presence separated them from a group of loyalists near the entrance to Twaddell Avenue. But for the first time in years, there was no violence as the marchers attempted to return. Instead, a single Orangeman handed a letter of complaint to the police.

Talks to resolve the Twaddell standoff are expected to restart soon, and hopes for a breakthrough are high. Across Northern Ireland, this year’s marching season has been the most peaceful in living memory. And yet, behind the newfound calm, there are growing fears that events far beyond Belfast’s streets could have serious repercussions for Northern Ireland’s still fragile peace.

This piece originally appeared on Politico Europe. 

Scotland bangs the drum for Europe

GLASGOW — As hundreds of people gathered outside the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh last week, there were flags of every European Union state, in a sea of Scottish Saltires. “Scotland loves Europe,” declared one placard. “Don’t EU want me baby,” read another.

“We want to find a way to respect the democratic mandate for the people of Scotland to stay in the EU,” said Sarah Beattie-Smith, a Scottish Greens activist. “We want to explore every possible option for how to stay in the European Union. Of course, that includes independence.”

And as a piper played at the “Keep Scotland in Europe” rally, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was hundreds of miles away in Brussels, trying to make the case for Scotland to remain in the European Union.

There was sympathy for the Scottish National party (SNP) leader in Europe’s political capital after Scots voted by a large margin to stay in the EU — but little concrete support for her desire to see Scotland retain EU membership even as the U.K. heads for the exit door.

Both French and Spanish prime ministers made clear their opposition to Scotland retaining EU membership.

Ahead of their meeting Wednesday, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said that while Sturgeon had “won the right to be heard in Brussels,” he did not intend “to interfere in an inner British process.”

European Parliament President Martin Schulz said he had “listened carefully and learned a lot” from his conference with the Scottish first minister. But European Council President Donald Tusk turned down Sturgeon’s request for a meeting.

The reception from EU heads of state was equally mixed. Irish premier Enda Kenny made an unexpected intervention at the European Council “on behalf” of the Scottish first minister.

Both French and Spanish prime ministers made clear their opposition to Scotland retaining EU membership.

The options available to the Scottish nationalist government are uncertain. The parliament in Edinburgh, contrary to reports, cannot veto Brexit.

“If the United Kingdom leaves … Scotland leaves,” said Spanish acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who has separatist forces of his own to contend with in Catalonia.

In an interview published Saturday, German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel toldGerman newspaper Neue Osnabruecker Zeitung that the EU would certainly accept Scotland as a member in its own right if it were to leave the U.K. and move to join the Union.

Despite the flurry of diplomatic activity — and the standing ovation SNP’s Alyn Smith won in the European Parliament when he begged his fellow MEPs to not “let Scotland down” — the course Sturgeon is pursuing is far from clear, and largely without precedent.

Sturgeon has formed a council of prominent experts to advise the Scottish government “on how best to achieve our EU objectives.” The group is far from a nationalist sock puppet. Members include former judge at the European Court of Justice Sir David Edward, economist John Kay, and Labour MEP David Martin.

But what options are actually available to the Scottish nationalist government are uncertain. The parliament in Edinburgh, contrary to reports, cannot veto Brexit. Westminster remains sovereign and can sign the exit triggering Article 50 on behalf of the U.K.

The main possibility discussed in Scottish circles would be for the U.K. to stay in the EU, but stipulate that European legislation apply only in Scotland (and possibly Northern Ireland, which also voted to remain). The option was floated as a “reverse Greenland,” a nod to the large Arctic territory that chose to sit outside the European Union but still remains part of Denmark, an EU member.

But such a settlement could prove practically and politically impossible. Scotland represents barely an eighth of the U.K.’s population. It is hard to imagine Westminster politicians, fresh out of a divisive Brexit campaign, choosing to remain in the EU to placate Scottish nationalist demands.

Experts warn that a bespoke Scottish settlement is unlikely. “I don’t see how Scotland could get a significantly different deal from the rest of the U.K.,” said James Mitchell, professor of politics at Edinburgh University. “The big question for all of us will be around free movement. While Scotland wants free movement, elsewhere in the U.K. this is clearly not wanted.”

* * *

If Scotland is not able to secure a deal to remain in the EU, the issue of independence is destined to return. The terrain has changed since Scots voted by 10 points to stay in the United Kingdom in 2014.

The SNP campaigned to remain in the EU — and few doubt Sturgeon wants Scotland in Europe — but Brexit has damaged her opposition. The alliance between Scottish Labour and the Conservatives that emerged victorious last time out has frayed, probably beyond repair.

During an at times bad-tempered emergency debate in the Edinburgh parliament last week, Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson accused the SNP of using the Brexit vote to push for independence. But her opposite number, Scottish Labour’s Kezia Dugdale, agreed with a nationalist motion to explore “all options” to keep Scotland in the EU and condemned the Conservatives for holding the referendum “to resolve an ego contest in the Tory party.”

Davidson was rightly lauded for reviving the seemingly moribund Scottish Toriesand leading the party to second place in the May elections. But she has appeared ill at ease since last week’s vote, unsure of whether or not to argue for a separate deal for Scotland that could help to secure its place in the United Kingdom.

Labour, long the dominant force in Scottish politics, is in turmoil. The party is cash-strapped and weary. Sources privately admit the party would take a much softer line on leaving the U.K. in any future vote. On Sunday, former Labour first minister Henry McLeish said Scottish independence was “something I could now vote for.”

Scottish nationalists, however, would not be guaranteed to win a second referendum, at least not at present.

Support for ending the three-centuries-old union with England has risen in opinion polls taken since the Brexit vote. But the energy unleashed by the referendum could trail off, especially if the U.K. negotiates a deal that looks more like Norway’s agreement than a full-blooded clamp down on free movement.

Economic issues that dogged the Yes campaign in 2014 have not been resolved (although JP Morgan has given its imprimatur to a new post-independence Scottish currency.) Much of the Scottish electorate is fatigued after four national votes in less than two years.

Despite her forceful role since the Brexit vote, Nicola Sturgeon is by nature a cautious politician. The nationalist leader will only go to the polls when she feels confident of victory.

“If the SNP go for a second independence referendum then they have to win it,” said Alistair Clark, senior lecturer in politics at Newcastle University.

While Brexit is being negotiated, Sturgeon will have to maneuver her way through a political storm that is beyond her control.

The European Union would weigh on voters in a different way in a new referendum on Scottish reference. In 2014, Scots were warned that if they left the U.K. their place in the EU could be under threat. That looks far less likely now.

“The EU historically always has been remarkably flexible,” said James Mitchell. During the last independence referendum, EU member countries were fearful of interfering in British internal politics.

“Now the thinking in places like Berlin, Brussels and Paris is the U.K. is no longer a member so what is the problem if Scotland wants to become independent,” says Mitchell.

Talk of another referendum could yet prove premature. What Brexit will look like in practice remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Sturgeon will have to maneuver her way through a political storm that is beyond her control.

“She is going to have to be very fleet of foot and nimble, and at the end of the day circumstances might work against her,” said Mitchell. “[But] what’s she is doing is building relationships that could be useful in the future.”

This piece originally appeared on Politico Europe.

Srebrenica Survivors come to Scotland for Homeless World Cup

At just 17, Nedžad Avdić was convinced his life was over. After days walking bare-footed, starving, thirsty and exhausted through the verdant Bosnian countryside near Srebrenica he was captured by Bosnian Serb forces and loaded onto a lorry alongside thousands of other Muslims.

 The convoy stopped in a remote field. Nedžad was told to get in line. He knew that the killing was about to start.

“We were tortured and dying for a drop of water,’ recalls Nedžad, now 38 with a young family of his own.

 “We were forced to take off our clothes. One of soldiers tied our hands in the back. At that moment I, a 17-year-old boy, realised it was the end.

“I thought that I would die fast without suffering. Thinking that my mum would never know where I finished they began to shoot us in our backs. I did not know whether I lost consciousness, but I lay on my stomach bleeding and trembling.”

 Miraculously, it was not the end for Nedžad. Despite being shot in the arm and the stomach, he managed to survive by lying amongst the rows of dead bodies one of only 11 men to do so

 “I was left for dead, but the soldiers did not know it. They were shooting the other wounded. I wanted to die but did not dare to call them to kill me. I was bleeding and waiting to die,” says Nedžad.

“When the Serb soldiers left the field for short time, I was trying to turn my head and in one moment I could see somebody was moving among the dead in front of me. Two of us survived and managed to untie each other and to run away crawling and hide in bushes before the next lorry arrived.”

SrbrenicaAfter days of wandering through the woods, hiding in the streams, sleeping in the grave-yards, Nedžad managed to reach the territory under Bosnian government control.

Few were so lucky.

On Monday, 21 years will have passed since the single greatest atrocity on European soil since the Second World War: the genocide of 8,372 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica during the Bosnian war.

The anniversary will be especially poignant in Glasgow this year, as a team from Bosnia and Herzegovina will be taking on Scotland at the homeless world cup. Four members of the Bosnian side survived the genocide at Srebrenica.  

Back in July 1995, Nedžad’s father, uncle and any other relatives sought shelter at the Dutch military base in Potočari, just outside Srebrenica. None survived.

 Since then, Nedžad has devoted his life to making sure his sisters were able to get an education and develop their careers. He now has three daughters and is living in Srebrenica. He says: “Despite everything, I hope that I can teach my daughters to grow up without hatred. This will be my success.”

 

Nowadays Nedžad works in import and export for a small car company back in Srebrenica. But life in the town has changed dramatically since the war ended in 1995.

In the days of the former Yugoslavia, Srebrenica was a mixed town with a significant Muslim population. Now Srebrenica is part of Republika Srpska, the autonomous Bosnian Serb statelet created in the Dayton Peace Accords. The red, white and blue of the Serbian flag flies from local cafes and government buildings.

In March, the Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadžić was found ‘criminally responsible’ for the Srebrenica genocide at the UN tribunal in The Hague.

But, says Nedžad, “Karadzic’s and (general Ratko) Mladic’s work remains in place here in Srebrenica forever. We as a community are totally devastated.

“They often make our lives impossible here. I have so many negative examples that I feel on my own skin, but I do not want to emphasize them. I always try to find something positive, although it is very hard.”

A memorial service organised by Remembering Srebrenica Scotland will be held at Cathcart Old Parish Church in Glasgow on July 15 to remember the victims of the genocide.

Resad Trbonja

Resad Trbonja will never be able to forget April 1992. Back then the tall, strong-featured Bosnian was a rebellious 19-year-old, spending his days strolling around his native Sarajevo in Converse trainers and his treasured Levi’s t-shirt, listening to the Ramones and the Clash.

“A week later my life was totally different,” Resad says.

Overnight he went from being an ordinary European teenager to a soldier, having to defend Sarajevo against the longest siege in modern history.

He would donate blood to get some food to eat and had to collect old tyres to burn for heat. One winter, during a lull in the shelling, he witnessed a group of children

who were desperate to go sledging, when they did so, a shell exploded

killing all six of them, just leaving their sledges intact.

Today Bosnia is at peace, but the wartime divisions remain, especially in politics.

‘“Bosnia is always the same. You have three different interests that are clashing all the time,” says Resad who works tirelessly to help others learn from the Srebrenica genocide.  

The recently released Bosnian census shows that the population has fallen by a fifth since before the war. Last year alone 80,000 young people left.

“Without a new political force in the country I don’t think see anything changing. We need a new blood,’ says Resad.

Nevertheless he is hopeful for the future.

“Only by listening to the life stories, and remembering what happened, can we reach out to people and, hopefully, contribute to a better, safer future.”

Book Review: A Will to Power

Next year marks the centenary of arguably the most important event in modern Irish history, the Easter Rising. Before 1916 the ‘settled will’ of the Irish people was a home rule parliament; the rebellion birthed ‘a terrible beauty’, that would lead, eventually, to Irish independence, in the process dividing the nation, literally and metaphorically.

Among the 1916 leaders none was more ambivalent – or more divisive – than Eamon De Valera. It was Dev’s rejection of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921 that set a course for a civil war that still scars the Irish body politic. A Will to Power, the Nietzschean title of Ronan Fanning’s deft new autobiography, is well chosen. Marshalling primary and secondary sources, Fanning carefully paints a picture of a politician driven throughout a long life by a remarkable, almost fanatical drive for power – De Valera died in 1975, aged 92, having left the Irish presidency just a year earlier

9780571312054Born Edward De Valera, in Manhattan, to a Basque father and Irish mother, the young De Valera was raised in Ireland after his father died. Against opposition from his family, he attended the Christian Brothers School, often walking the seven miles to school. He won a scholarship to the prestigious Blackrock College. Unlike many, De Valera had found a way out of the dirt poverty of rural Ireland.

Remarkably for a man whose 6ft 1in figure dominated Irish public life for more than half a century, there is little evidence of any stable political convictions in the first two decades of De Valera’s early life. At Blackrock, his intellectual formation was decidedly Victorian, and Victorian England at that: the young De Valera had little interest in the Irish language revival or Gaelic sports. In the debating society he supported a motion that “constitutional monarchy as a form of government is preferable to republicanism”.

But there are echoes of De Valera the headstrong statesman in his formative years. Teammates attribute an expected rugby cup final defeat to his authoritarian captaincy – he took all the penalties and conversions. Years later, while campaigning for Sinn Fein in America, a travelling companion would remark that the Chief “tends to force his own opinions without hearing from the other fellows and thus thinks he has co-operation when he only gets silent acquiescence”.

De Valera was a man of convictions. Although he only started learning Irish to further his teaching career, he became a passionate advocate for the language, and the cultural accoutrements around it. He married his teacher, Sinead Ni Fhlannagain, changed his name to what became Eamon, joined the Irish Volunteers, and within three years was leading a battalion in the Easter Rising.

That De Valera survived the Rising when most of the other leaders were executed owed more to luck than his American passport. His battalion was late to surrender, and by time he was imprisoned London was already concerned about the public relations disaster unfolding inside the prison walls at Kilmainham. But the Rising was the making of De Valera. The headmaster was perfectly placed to step into the power vacuum “by virtue of his age, education and understanding of the requirements of leadership”, writes Fanning. By the end of 1917, De Valera was MP for East Clare, undisputed leader of Sinn Fein and president of the Volunteers.

As Ireland descended into guerilla war, De Valera left for America, making the case for Irish self-determination at packed rallies across the US for over 18 months. (Despite his avowed passion for an Ireland of ‘cosy homesteads’ De Valera had scant interest in his own domestic arrangements, leaving Sinead to raise their seven children almost single-handedly.)

In December 1920, De Valera returned to a country partitioned, charged with making peace with the British. He is often presented as a diehard republican but his vision of independence was not something even most SNP members would recognize: he envisioned Ireland as an external Commonwealth member still linked to the UK. But he was unable to explain this complex idea to his own colleagues, never mind Downing Street ministers. Instead in December 1921, he made a fateful decision that still divides Ireland today – the undisputed Irish leader decided that he would not lead the peace talks delegation, leaving Michael Collins to sign the Treaty establishing the Irish Free State.

De Valera railed against the Treaty – Ulster would remain outside the new Ireland, and all representatives would swear an oath of allegiance to the King. But, as Fanning argues, “he opposed the Treaty not because it was a compromise but because it was not his compromise”. As Ireland descended into civil war, De Valera embarked on a tour of Ireland, delivering speeches filled with talk of “Irish blood”.

But the Treaty had popular support, and the might of the new Irish government behind it. So, in the 1920s, De Valera began the slow path back to power. He formed Fianna Fail. The party would change the face of Irish politics, and deliver De Valera his crowning achievement, the 1937 constitution making Ireland an independent republic in all but name. De Valera fiercely guarded Irish sovereignty, even during “the Emergency” of World War II when he publicly cleaved to neutrality while privately assisting the Allies at every turn.

An innate conservative, he was an unlikely rebel. He never smoked, almost never drank, and presided over a country where government bills were often rewritten under the watchful eyes of the Catholic hierarchy. Power was his sole motivation. By the time De Valera left the Taoiseach’s office for the ceremonial role of president, in 1959, he was practically blind.

By then hundreds of thousands were emigrating every year. De Valera is often caricatured as a Catholic zealot whose blinkered vision of postwar Irish autarky stood between Ireland and modernity. But, as Ronan Fanning’s insightful biography shows, “the Long Fellow” was a complex, and conflicted, character driven by an unswerving lust for power whose towering frame still casts a shadow across Ireland today.

Eamon De Valera – A Will to Power, by Ronan Fanning (Faber & Faber, £20)

This piece originally appeared in The Herald.