Bosnia still digging up its tortured past

Senior forensic anthropologist Dragana Vucetic of the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) works to identify the remains of a victim of the Srebrenica massacre [Dado Ruvic/Reuters]

Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina – The violent breakup of Yugoslavia at the end of the Cold War left a painful legacy. It is estimated the conflict claimed over 100,000 lives, with thousands more missing, amid the chaos of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

Many are still struggling to deal with the pain and to find closure.

One small office, in a nondescript business park on the outskirts of the Bosnian industrial city of Tuzla, belongs to the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP).

Founded at the behest of then US president Bill Clinton at the G-7 summit in 1996, the ICMP was tasked with the almost impossible – to trace and identify the 40,000 people missing at end of the Yugoslav wars.

RELATED: Srebrenica genocide museum

A skull missing a mandible sits upright on a stainless steel mortuary slab. Scattered around it are fragments of bone shaped into the form of a skeleton. A few ribs, a fibula, two tibias, a handful of fingers. A poster poster on the wall pleads in Bosnian and English, “Help Identify Your Loved Ones. Give Your Blood Sample”.

Among the unaccounted were the more than 8,000 killed in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica in July 1995.

The massacre that took place at Srebrenica was the largest atrocity committed on European soil since the Second World War. Men and boys, overwhelmingly Bosnian Muslims, were shot in warehouses and bludgeoned to death on fields and football pitches.

A US soldier serving with the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Bosnia patrols while Bosnian forensic experts inspect bodily remains found in a mass grave in the eastern village of Kamenica, near the town of Zvornik [Danilo Krstanovic/Reuters]

Bosnian Serb forces used bulldozers to push the bodies of their vicitms into unmarked mass graves. The bodies were subsequently exhumed, sometimes multiple times, to hinder identification.

The international community is still struggling to define the extent of the killings, 20 years later, and Russia vetoed the UN genocide resolution on Srebrenica on July 9.

Another method

Now these scattered human remains lie on the mortuary table of Dragana Vucetic, a tenacious Serbian forensic anthropologist at the ICMP Tuzla lab.

“When they removed those skeletal remains, often with big trucks, they destroyed the integrity of individuals. So very often we don’t find complete bodies,” Vucetic said.

Many bodies were so badly decomposed that the ICMP identified just 140 Srebrenica victims in its first five years, mainly through clothing and body parts.

“We had to find another method for investigation. So we made a DNA lab.”

Blood was collected from over 70,000 Bosnians, both in the Balkans and across Europe where they had fled as refugees.

Within months of the DNA lab opening in 2001, the ICMP had its first positive match. By the close of the following year, it had found more than 500 additional matches.

So far ICMP has identified nearly 7,000 people who died in Srebrenica.

Hasan Hasanovic was just 19 when Bosnian Serb forces led by the notorious general Ratko Mladic overran the Srebrenica enclave in July 1995, without the Dutch peacekeeping forces firing a shot.

Along with around 15,000 Bosnian Muslim men, Hasanovic fled to the hills, walking more than 100 kilometres to safety. Just 3,500 survived “the death march.” Hasanovic’s father and his twin brother did not make it.

His father’s body was identified in 2003, and interred among the rows and rows of brilliant white marble headstones at the graveyard for Srebrenica victims, located across the road from the former Dutch base at Potocari.

In 2005, Hasan Hasanovic buried his twin brother, too. “That was the hardest thing in my life,” he told Al Jazeera.

The process of identifying the Srebrenica victims is arduous. Bone samples from victims are taken for DNA testing and matched with profiles on the ICMP database. Courts require that DNA matches are of 99.95 percent probability or higher.

Once a body has been formally identified, the person is officially pronounced dead.

The ICMP facility is open to the public but relatives are discouraged from visiting to see the remains. “It is very emotional for them to see skeletons. Usually they expect that they will see something else. After 20 years, it is still stressful when they come here and see bones,” said Vucetic.

In 2010, the ICMP contacted Hatidza Mehmedovic. The remains of her husband and two sons – both killed at Srebrenica in July 1995 – had been identified.

“They told me my younger son was a complete body but I wasn’t brave enough to go and see him,” she told Al Jazeera.

Now Mehmedovic has just one wish – closure for all those who lost loved ones when Bosnian Serb forces took Srebrenica.

“All we want is justice so the criminals get punished and we find those that are still missing so mothers can at all least get the satisfaction of finding their sons. Many mothers have died – and will die – without being able to bury a single bone.”

Many women in Srebrenica are still awaiting to hear about the whereabouts of their loved ones who disappeared during the war [Damir Sagolj/Reuters]

Almost 1,000 victims of the Srebrenica massacres are still missing and experts believe that at least one mass grave remains hidden in the verdant countryside in eastern Bosnia.

At the ICMP’s Tuzla facility, the remains of around 300 individuals await identification.

After identification, most will be interred during the annual July 11 commemorations at the Srebrenica victims’ graveyard. This year more than 100 people will be buried here.

Slow justice

In addition to identifying victims, the ICMP has played a key role in criminal prosecutions.

So far, 46 individuals have been put on trial at Bosnian state courts for their role in the Srebrenica massacre, including 38 people who have been charged with genocide.

The ICMP’s forensic evidence has been crucial in the 21 trials related to Srebrenica at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at The Hague, among them, the trial of Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic  and Ratko Mladic.

Despite these successes, justice has been “very slow” said Muhamed Durakovic, a Srebrenica survivor who now works for the ICMP in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo.

“There are hundreds of people roaming the streets of Srebrenica who are war criminals… Someone who took away your child is now working as a police officer or a public official in Srebrenica. To the victims that is totally unacceptable,” Durakovic said.

Meanwhile, a Srebrenica denial movement has sprung up. “Srebrenica hoax” is a popular search term on Google. Videos on YouTube promise the “real” story of what happened in July 1995, often using language and arguments familiar to Holocaust deniers.

Many of these denials emanate from Republika Srpska, an autonomous, majority-Serb region within Bosnia and Herzegovina. After the 1995 Dayton peace accords, which brought the conflict in Bosnia to an end, Srebrenica became part of Republika Srpska.

Recently Milorad Dodik, Republika Srpska’s president, called the Srebrenica massacre “the greatest deception of the 20th century”.

Workers dig graves at a memorial centre for Srebrenica Massacre victims in Potocari. Nearly 136 identified victims will be buried at a memorial cemetery during the ceremony, their bodies found in some 60 mass graves around the town [Dado Ruvic/Reuters]

Arguments over Srebrenica are symptomatic of the divided nature of contemporary Bosnia. “The political, economic and social situation has gotten worse since the war,” said Srecko Latal, a Sarajevo-based analyst with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.

Bosnian politics is characterised by gridlock and stasis. Corruption is high, according to Transparency International. The official unemployment rate is over 40 percent.

The country’s patchwork of ethnicities are drifting further apart.

“You don’t have any ethnic mixing anymore in big towns. In schools a majority are mono-ethnic. Kids learn about other ethnic groups from the media and history books and they are all tainted,” said Latal.

The prospect of European Union membership, once held up as the goal that could unite post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina, looks increasingly remote. In recent years, much of the international community has pulled out of the country.

Meanwhile, the ICMP is one of the few genuine success stories to emerge from the impoverished, fissiparous post-war Western Balkans.

Their innovative DNA approach has been exported around the world, helping to identify victims of natural disasters and political violence everywhere from the United States and the Philippines to Chile and Iraq.

Next year, however, the ICMP is set to move its main operations to The Hague.

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s cash-strapped government is unlikely to step into the breach to fund expensive DNA laboratories.

In a grim irony, the future of the forensics lab at Tuzla could depend on discovering another Srebrenica mass grave, and soon.

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

Austerity fight threatens Northern Ireland stability

Belfast’s Shankill Road is among the most deprived in the whole of the United Kingdom [Peter Geoghegen/Al Jazeera]

Belfast, Northern Ireland – Political allegiances are hard to miss on the Shankill Road, a short drive from Belfast’s city centre. Red, white, and blue bunting and union flags line the street.

Shoppers pass a peeling mural depicting a pair of men holding rifles. Their blackened, hooded heads are bowed in honour of slain members of the Ulster Volunteer Force, a notorious Protestant armed group.

Northern Ireland’s 30-year-long “Troubles” ended with a peace agreement in 1998, but on the Shankill Road the scars of violence remain. Corrugated iron “peace walls”, up to eight-metres high, separate residents from nearby Catholics. The area is among the most deprived in the whole of the United Kingdom.

Now Shankill Road, and the rest of this country of more than 1.5 million people, is bracing itself for further economic woes amid a deepening impasse over proposed welfare reforms, which some fear could bring down the devolved power-sharing Stormont assembly in Belfast.

Northern Ireland’s rival nationalist and unionist blocs are divided over hundreds of millions of pounds worth of budget cuts, mandated by the UK government in Westminster.

On Tuesday, cross-party talks in Belfast aimed at preventing the collapse of the power-sharing executive failed to resolve a standoff over welfare cuts. Unless a deal is found soon, Northern Ireland faces the prospect of bankruptcy.

“Welfare reform is a huge issue right across Northern Ireland, it cuts across social boundaries,” says Winston Irvine, a community worker on the Shankill Road and a spokesman for the loyalist Progressive Unionist Party (PUP).

“We are talking about a £600 million [$922m] black-hole in the Northern Ireland budget that has huge ramifications for people who are already struggling with huge inequalities,” Irvine says.

“Unemployment here is above average. Educational attainment is obscene in some Protestant working-class communities. We have high rates of suicide.”

Age of austerity

The nationalist SDLP and Sinn Fein, the political voice of the Irish Republican Army during the conflict, oppose spending reductions, which they say would hurt the most vulnerable in society. Both major unionist parties, the Democratic Unionists and the Ulster Unionists, have warned that cuts are inevitable.

“The current crisis has come about solely through the actions of the British government, it could only be resolved by the actions of the British government,” Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said recently.

Democratic Unionist leader and Northern Irish First Minister Peter Robinson has insisted if no deal is struck he will ask the UK secretary of state to repatriate control of welfare policy back to Westminster. Such a move could destabilise the power-sharing government in Belfast.

“The crisis around welfare and the economy has tested even the most stable of states. Here it is tearing us apart,” says Duncan Morrow, professor of politics at the University of Ulster.

Welfare reform is particularly sensitive for Sinn Fein, which is wary of damaging its standing in the Irish republic, where the party is riding high in polls on a platform opposed to spending cuts.

A British soldier foot-patrols Shankill Road, west Belfast, in 2001 [Reuters]

“Sinn Fein want to be the peace party and the anti-austerity party, but those things are moving apart in the north,” says Morrow.

The current crisis is a reflection of the continuing dominance of constitutional politics in Northern Ireland more than a decade-and-a-half on from the end of the Troubles, says John McCallister, an independent unionist member of the Stormont assembly.

“We live in this bubble, a policy-vacuum bubble with no ideas. Our only policy is ‘the Brits ought to send more money’,” says McCallister.

Little to gain

Ahead of the recent UK general election, both Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists called for significant increases in government spending in the region.

Northern Ireland’s power-sharing arrangements require both nationalists and unionists hold power in government. With no formal opposition and little threat of losing support to parties on the opposite side of the sectarian divide, politicians often have little to gain by reaching effective compromises on big issues.

“The Northern Ireland government is great at opening things, great at going to New York [on trade visits], but when it comes to governing, making decisions that are tough and unpopular, they haven’t been up to it,” says McCallister. “We haven’t matured into a functioning democracy.”

Certainly traces of the dark days of the Troubles remain. Paramilitary groups are still active in many parts of Northern Ireland. In working-class urban communities so-called “punishment beatings” are all too frequent. Intimidation and forced evictions are common, particularly in loyalist areas of Belfast.

Neil Jarman, Institute for Conflict Research [Peter Geoghegen]

“The question nobody is asking is 20 years after the ceasefires, why are the UVF [Ulster Volunteer Force] and the UDA [Ulster Defence Association] still there? What is their role?” says Neil Jarman, director of the Institute for Conflict Research, in Belfast.

Rather than addressing the presence of former combatants in communities, paramilitaries are increasingly being treated as legitimate, says Jarman. “We talk of them as civil society organisations, rather than uncivil society organisations.”

Wanting to move on

Political life in Northern Ireland remains framed by the Troubles. Almost every senior figure at Stormont was involved in party politics during the conflict. There have been few new faces on government benches, particularly on the nationalist side.

Signs are emerging that the electorate is tiring of this staid status quo. At just 58 percent, turnout in Northern Ireland was the lowest of the four UK nations in last month’s general election.

There were few major surprises, but Sinn Fein did see its vote fall slightly, losing a seat in Fermanagh/South Tyrone. In the republicans’ West Belfast stronghold, a left-wing candidate took almost one-fifth of the vote. Despite losing its sole seat, the avowedly cross-community Alliance Party polled a record high in east Belfast.

Northern Ireland is increasingly Janus-faced. The paramilitary insignia and national flags are unlikely to be taken down on Shankill Road and its republican equivalent across the peace line any time soon. But a kilometre or so away in Belfast city centre, young people mix freely without any talk of religion or politics.

“What gets in the news is the Northern Ireland that is stuck in the past,” says Jarman. “What doesn’t get in the news is the younger generation wanting to move on from it.”

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

UK elections and the shift from ‘tribal’ politics

feafea349263405dad36c9ac9efa79df_18The historic multi-party debates in the UK have rekindled political diversity [Reuters]

Glasgow, UK – Some seven million viewers across Britain tuned into the first, and only, televised multi-party debate ahead of May’s general election. What they saw on April 2 was a stark illustration of how much UK politics has changed in recent years.

Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron fielded questions from the live studio audience, and parried blows from opposition Labour leader Ed Miliband.

But the real winners were the five smaller parties also on the stage.

Polls declared Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Nicola Sturgeon the victor of the night, followed by the eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party’s (UKIP) Nigel Farage.

British politics has long been a two-horse race. But the field for May’s general election is increasingly open, potentially spelling a permanent end to centuries of single-party majority rule at Westminster.

In 1951, 97 percent of the UK electorate voted Labour or Conservative. At the last general election, in 2010, that figure was just two in three, leading to a historic coalition between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats.

This time around, the prospects of one party winning overall control look even slimmer.

We have about a quarter of the electorate saying they are going to vote for someone other than Conservative, Labour or Lib Dem. That is just off the end of the historical pattern.

John Curtice, Strathclyde University professor

Labour and Conservatives are tied at 34 percent each, according to aBBC poll of polls.

The Labour party would need a lead of around five points to win a majority, said John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University.

Due to the vagaries of Britain’s first-past-the-post system, the Tories, who draw most of their support in the richer south, would require a seven-point margin of victory to emerge with the 326 seats needed to command a majority in the House of Commons.

The reality, said Curtice, is there is unlikely to be a clear winner on May 7. “We have never seen an election like this.”

“We have about a quarter of the electorate saying they are going to vote for someone other than Conservative, Labour or Lib Dem. That is just off the end of the historical pattern. You can go all the way back to 1832 and you won’t beat it,” Curtice said.

Horse-trading and deal-brokering

A hung parliament would necessitate something on which British politics has traditionally not been strong: horse-trading and deal-brokering.

The coalition government has long been the norm on the continent, but in the UK it is still a relative novelty. A predicted collapse in the Liberal Democrat vote – and theFixed Term Parliaments Act introduced in 2011 to make dissolving Westminster almost impossible – could make the business of forming a new government even more tricky.

This all means that the party that emerges in the strongest position may have to reach an arrangement – either a formal coalition or a looser deal – with one or more of the UK’s insurgent parties.

The most likely kingmaker is the SNP, which is campaigning on an anti-austerity message. Despite defeat in last September’s independence referendum, the nationalists have seen their support surge.

Membership has quadrupled to more than 100,000. Polls suggest that the SNP may win dozens of seats from Labour, making it far more difficult for Miliband to secure a majority.

Last year’s independence referendum fundamentally changed Scottish politics, said political commentator Gerry Hassan.

“Something has profoundly changed about how the Scottish public see and do politics and their role in the union. Passivity, acceptance and belief in traditional elites – Labour included – now seem a thing of the past.”

UK parties have struggled to understand the SNP surge.

Last weekend a leaked memo purportedly revealing that nationalist leader Sturgeon had told a French diplomat that she would prefer another Tory administration, appeared in the right-wing Daily Telegraph.

But the smear appears to have backfired, with both sides flatly denying the claims. Questions have been raised about how the civil service document was released. An inquiry will now be held.


While the SNP will take votes from Labour in Scotland, the Conservatives in particular face a threat from the UKIP. The party, which campaigns on a hard-right platform based on clamping down on immigration and leaving the European Union, is particularly popular with socially conservative, white working class voters.

Cameron has promised a referendum on EU membership in a bid to stem the UKIP tide. UKIP’s best chances of success rest with its colourful leader Farage in South Thanet.

On the opposite end of the political spectrum, the Greens believe this could be their breakthrough year. Having polled barely one percent in the 2010 general elections, the left-wing environmentalists are hoping to add to their solitary seat in Brighton Pavilion. 

However, the winner takes all nature of the British electoral system means both UKIP and the Greens are struggling to win more than a handful of seats.

All the same

Darren Hughes of the Electoral Reform Society, says that the “lottery” nature of the May’s election shows that the time has come to replace first-past-the-post with a more proportional voting system.

Regardless of the prospects of electoral reform, the duopoly in British politics could be coming to an end as voters leave Labour and Conservatives for small, identity-based parties.

Across the UK, traditional class structures, and the political affiliations that went with them, are breaking down, says Professor Curtice.

“Fewer people now feel a strong sense of identification with a political party. There are fewer people who say ‘I am Labour, I am Tory or whatever.’ We are less tribal about our politics.”

At the same time, voters see little to choose between Miliband and Cameron, or between their respective parties.

“The Conservatives and Labour in recent elections have tended to look more similar to each other in the eyes of the electorate,” says Curtice.

Whoever wins in May, the likelihood is that when the UK general election next swings around in 2020 television producers will need to invest in larger studios. The panel of party leaders could be even bigger.

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

Britain’s Green Party surge

Once a marginal political player, the UK Green Party has growing popularity amid dissatisfaction with the majors.

The Green Party is expecting to make gains at the United Kingdom general election in May [Getty Images]

As 2005 turned into 2006 in London, journalist Natalie Bennett did what many of us do at New Year’s. She cast a critical eye on her life – and the world around her. She didn’t like what she saw.

“I looked at the state of the world and said, ‘this doesn’t look very good, I should do something'”.

Bennett’s response was far from typical, however. With more time on her hands after finishing working nights, the 39-year-old Australian made a New Year’s resolution to join the Green Party of England and Wales.

Less than a decade later, Natalie Bennett is the leader of the Greens in Britain. Her party is party riding high in opinion polls. Membership has more than doubled in the past year.    

“I never would have predicted it would end up with this,” says Bennett with a laugh as she recalls her 2006 New Year’s pledge.

The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has been the big insurgent political story of British politics this year. UKIP’s stridently anti-European Union message and its charismatic leader Nigel Farage have attracted countless column inches and record levels of support.

But, quietly, the Greens have been making inroads at the opposite end of the British political spectrum.

Growing green

Having polled barely 1 percent in the 2010 general election, the Greens have consistently been registering 5-6 percent ever since this summer’s European elections. One recent poll put the party on course to win 8 percent when Britain goes to the polls next May. Party membership stands at more than 30,000 and growing by the week. 

Leader of the Green Party of England and Wales Natalie Bennett on the right [Getty Images]

Bennett says the party is fast becoming an accepted part of the British political landscape. 

“About a month or so I got a phone call [from a British morning television show] at 11:30 in the evening asking if I could do a pre-record in the next hour for their morning programme. I thought ‘this is a step forward in recognition for the Green party.'”

While UKIP is doing particularly well among older working-class Britons, the Greens draw support from younger, university-educated middle-class voters attracted by the party’s commitment to social justice and the environment.

“Our message is there is a need for real change. Our current neo-liberal, neo-Thatcherite approach, greed is good, don’t worry about inequality and assume that the planet’s resources are infinite. That’s now clearly dead, and failed. We need a new kind of approach,” says Bennett, who took over as party leader from the Greens’ sole MP, Caroline Lucas, in 2012.

The Greens are profiting from the further decline in the Liberal Democrat vote since the party went into coalition in Westminster with the Conservatives in 2010, and are also attracting some Labour voters, says John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde university and a researcher on UK political polling.

“The Greens are the only game in town for disenchanted voters on the left. They are profiting from those who are looking for something a bit more radical and don’t believe the Labour party can deliver it,” says Curtice.

The Green party in the UK was founded in the 1970s but has long been a marginal concern. In 1990 the party split into the Green Party of England and Wales, the Scottish Green Party, and the Green Party of Northern Ireland. 

Northern support

So far the Greens have enjoyed their greatest success in Scotland. In 2003, the Greens won six seats in the Scottish parliament at Holyrood, and while that number has dwindled, the party has been transformed following its support for a “yes” vote in this year’s referendum on Scottish independence.

In the early hours of September 19, as it became apparent that Scots had voted to stay in the UK, the Scottish Greens’ computer systems collapsed under the weight of new members trying to register. The party’s membership more than quadrupled in a matter of weeks. Meetings that were once held in back rooms of bars now take place in conference halls.

“We have the green surge [in England], they got the green tsunami up there [in Scotland],” says Bennett.

Last week, the Green leader met with her Scottish and Welsh nationalist counterparts to discuss the possibility of joining forces in a future coalition government after the 2015 general election. The Greens, the Scottish National Party (SNP), and Plaid Cymru have all said they will oppose the austerity policies of the three largest UK parties.

“The SNP says – and all their actions indicate – that they are an anti-austerity party, they are roughly opposed to Trident [Britain’s nuclear deterrent], and they want to get rid of the Tories. We roughly agree on all of those things,” says Bennett of Scotland’s largest party.

But while the SNP is on course to make significant gains next May, the Greens face a major challenge if they are to build on their solitary member of parliament. Britain’s first-past-the-post system overwhelmingly favours the two largest parties, Labour and Conservative. 

Major party decline

That duopoly is crumbling, however. In 1951 Labour and the Conservatives combined won nearly 97 percent of the overall UK vote and all but nine MPs. In 2015, less than two-thirds of British voters are expected to vote either Labour or Conservative.

This shift away from the major parties and a wider sense of disillusionment with mainstream politics could help the Greens, says Bennett.

“In 2010, the basic feeling was ‘oh, we’ve had a financial crash but capitalism has financial crashes, things will go back to how they were at the start of 2007 and things will continue on much as they were before’. Whereas now, practically nobody thinks that where we are is economically, socially or environmentally sustainable.”

The Greens have identified 12 potentially winnable seats from York and Cornwall to Sheffield and Liverpool, says Bennett. The party’s best chances are in Brighton Pavilion, which they hold, Bristol West and Norwich South.

Professor Curtice, however, says while the Greens are on course to win a record share of the vote, they are unlikely to take enough seats to become kingmakers in a potential coalition government.

But Bennett says September’s Scottish referendum could provide a template for a new, more engaged form of politics that could radically change the electoral map of Britain.

“If we had a general election in May where we had a turnout of 85 percent of eligible voters turning up to vote – we had a whole environment of strangers at bus stops talking politics to each other as they were in Scotland -then there is a real potential to blow politics utterly wide open.

“We might wake up the next morning in an entirely different political world.” 

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

UK communists and the fall of the Berlin Wall

Once a hotbed of left-wing agitation, socialists in Cowdenbeath still mourn the beginning of the end of communism.

A November 1989 image shows people celebrating the opening of the border between East and West Germany [EPA]

Cowdenbeath, Scotland Twenty-five years ago the heavy thud of the Berlin Wall falling resonated around the world. The Cold War was over. There were parties and celebrations, laughter and tears of joy.

But among communist supporters in Western Europe, images of armed guards standing idly by as elated East Germans danced on the barricades were a source of consternation, not jubilation.

More than a thousand kilometres from the Brandenburg Gate, in the Scottish mining town of Cowdenbeath, Mary Doherty sat sobbing in front of the evening news on November 9, 1989. For decades she ran the weekly Socialist Sunday School.

“Her world was shattered,” recalls veteran local communist Jackie Allan. “Everything was the Soviet Union, then it was gone.”

A few kilometres away in Ballingry, a small hamlet of post-war suburban pebbledash terrace houses at the foot of green hills, councillor Willie Clarke remembers being “stunned” when the Berlin Wall fell.

“It was something you didn’t see happening, and it happened so quickly. It took a long time to recover,” says Clarke.

[Communism] caught your imagination, they were radical, wanted change, they were not prepared to accept things as they were.

– Willie Clarke, councillor

Standing in Cowdenbeath today, its quiet streets dotted with “to let” signs and bargain stores, it is hard to imagine that this was once a hotbed of communist agitation. In the 1920s, the red sandstone town hall – still the most impressive building on High Street – flew the Red Flag on the anniversary of the Russian revolution. At the time, the government in London feared that any left-wing insurrection in Britain would start in Cowdenbeath.

As late as 1973, communists won 12 council seats in Lochgelly and Cowdenbeath. Clarke was among the councillors elected that day. Remarkably, Clarke, now in his late 70s and having lost his left ear to cancer, is still a local councillor for Ballingry.

Clarke is technically an independent, but he campaigns on an avowedly communistic platform. “All the literature that goes out is communist,” says the craggy-faced septuagenarian. “Nobody can say I’m trying to gild the lily. I’m still a communist.”

In the last local elections in 2012, Clarke was returned on the first round of voting.

Communist curiosity

Communists were not always a curiosity in UK politics. In the 1945 general election, the Communist Party of Great Britain took 14.6 percent of the vote and two seats, including Willie Gallacher, whose constituency included what is now Ballingry. In local elections the following year, the number of communist councillors increased from 81 to 215.

This was proven to be an electoral high-water mark for the party. Members left in droves after the Soviet invasion first of Hungary in 1956, and then of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Nevertheless, the communists remained a presence in outposts of industrial Britain, in South Wales, East London, and in the coalfields of Scotland.

In Cowdenbeath, communism was inextricably linked with the local coal mining industry. In the early years of the 19th century, rich deposits of coal were inadvertently discovered when iron ore shafts were sunk. Almost overnight Cowdenbeath, a tranquil cluster of farmers’ cottages, was transformed into a noisy, dirty, ramshackle settlement. By the turn of the 20th century, the town’s population had swelled to 14,000. Three-quarters of the menfolk were employed by the Fife Coal Company, Britain’s largest mining enterprise.

Willie Clarke was born in Glencraig, a “very militant” village with a reputation for communism. Active communists included Laurence Daly, a prominent miners’ leader who would leave the Communist Party in 1956 in protest at Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Aged 14, he began working in the mine, and not long afterwards he joined the Communist Party.

“[Communism] caught your imagination, they were radical, wanted change, they were not prepared to accept things as they were,” says Clarke.

‘Opium of the people’

Communists were renowned for their iron discipline. Local MP Willie Gallacher, the last communist in the House of Commons, was a lifelong teetotaller.

Willie Sharp, the first communist provost in Britain when he was elected in Cowdenbeath in 1973, did not smoke or drink. Communists decried religion “as the opium of the people”, but party and church often operated along similar lines. Both organised community events and Sunday schools – one teaching the bible, the other political economy and the works of Karl Marx.

The legacy of Cowdenbeath’s communist past can still be seen today. In the adjacent suburb of Lumphinnans, people live on streets named “Gallacher Place” and “Gagarin Way”. Locals call this “Little Moscow”.

Former communist activist Jack Allan recalls asking his father why the family always voted communist. “His answer was simple: ‘They’re the people who help ye the most.’ I still believe that.”

The demise of communism in Cowdenbeath and the surrounding pit villages was a product of rapid economic and political change. The discovery of huge deposits of oil and gas in the North Sea hastened the demise of smaller, less productive mines across Britain. By the 1970s, most of the mining jobs in Cowdenbeath were gone. Nowadays, the region has one of the highest rates of unemployment in Scotland.

Demise of communism

The fall of the Berlin Wall sounded the death knell for British communism. By the time the party voted to disband itself in 1991, there had already been numerous splits and its vote had collapsed.

People like Willie, he’s a great guy and he gets things done.

– Michael Payne, Cowdenbeath resident

For communists in Cowdenbeath, the fall of the wall was “like telling a Christian there was no God”, as former communist councillor Alex Maxwell put it.

With the barrier between East and West gone, the brutal reality of life in the Soviet Union could no longer be dismissed as anti-communist propaganda.

“What you believed was happening in the Soviet Union wasn’t happening at all. It was something different,” says Clarke.

Four decades on, the material conditions that sustained Fife’s pit villages – and its communists – are gone. The mines are closed and Clarke is able to win votes not because of his belief in a new socialist order, but because he works tirelessly to get council houses renovated and community centres opened.

“People like Willie, he’s a great guy and he gets things done,” says Michael Payne, who works at the local community centre in Ballingry.

Clarke was instrumental in securing funding for this state-of-the-art facility that opened in 2012 to replace a series of diffuse, dilapidated facilities dotted across the adjacent pit villages.

Clarke has one last political wish: Scottish independence. He was very active in the “yes” campaign in the recent referendum. Although the vote was lost, he says Scotland will become independent someday.

“If it doesn’t happen now it’ll be happen in the future. Maybe I’ll not see it, but it’ll happen,” Clarke says.

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

Spain’s Catalans set to vote on independence

Catalans expected to turn out in droves on Sunday for what is now a ‘symbolic’ independence referendum.

Support for independence has risen dramatically in what is seen as an attempt to curb Catalan power [Reuters]

Barcelona, Spain Sleep has been hard to come by in Barcelona this week – but not on account of the city’s fabled nightlife.

Instead, the narrow streets and old squares of Barcelona have reverberated to a crepuscular cacophony of banging pots and pans. These noisy protests – called cacerolazo, literally “casserole” – started recently after Spain’s constitutional court suspended a proposed non-binding poll on Catalan independence.

A vote, however, will go ahead as planned on Sunday, Catalan President Artur Mas has said. In Barcelona, cacerolazo protesters have vowed to keep beating their kitchenware until it does.

“All peoples have the right to decide their future,” Mas told reporters on Wednesday. The vote was initially intended as a legally binding referendum on independence from Spain, but was downgraded to a symbolic “consultation” after an intervention from the country’s constitutional court.

Now, it has been watered down further. Sunday’s poll will be “a participatory process” with no formal standing, run entirely by volunteers instead of the Catalan government.

Future of Catalonia

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has called any attempt to hold a vote on leaving Spain “anti-democratic”, saying Spain’s constitution prevents any region from unilaterally taking decisions that affect all Spaniards.

Madrid and Barcelona have been at loggerheads since July 2010, when a new statute on Catalan autonomy was struck down by Spain’s constitutional court.

Support for independence has risen dramatically in the wake of what was widely seen as an attempt to curb the power of Catalan’s regional parliament. Just under half of Catalans are in favour of leaving Spain, according to opinion polls last month. More than one-fifth of respondents said they were recent converts to the nationalist cause.

Rocio Martinez-Sampere Rodrigo, a socialist parliamentarian at the Catalan assembly, is opposed to independence but says a referendum is needed to settle the future of Catalonia, a region of 7.5 million people that stretches for 400km from the French border to neighbouring Valencia.

The Spanish constitution is quite clear on this point, the unity of Spain cannot be questioned.

– Rafael Lopez, Catalan Popular Party MP

Martinez-Sampere Rodrigo, who favours a federal arrangement for Catalonia, blames the Spanish prime minister for unwittingly building Catalan support for leaving Spain.

“Rajoy has never approached this in a political way, he is just saying ‘no, no, no’ to everything,” she told Al Jazeera. “If you say ‘no’ to everything, people will say the only solution is independence.”

But Rafael Lopez, a Catalan member of parliament from Rajoy’s conservative Popular Party, said any referendum on independence would be illegal.

“The Spanish constitution is quite clear on this point, the unity of Spain cannot be questioned,” Lopez said.

Sunday’s poll will have “no legal validity nor democratic guarantee”, Lopez added.

Nevertheless, Catalan nationalists have been busy preparing for the vote. Television adverts and mailshots have carried election information. Pro-independence memes have ignited on social media.

Widespread frustration

An estimated 40,000 people have volunteered to staff polling centres across Catalonia. Expatriates in around 40 cities worldwide – including London, Paris, Mexico City, and Montreal – will be able to vote at offices of international Catalan delegations.

The ballot will have the same two-part question that was planned for the suspended referendum. The first is whether voters want Catalonia to be a state. The second is whether they want it to be an independent state. As in the recent independence referendum in Scotland, 16 and 17-year olds will be able to participate, too.

The clamour for Catalan independence has grown amid Spain’s financial crisis and widespread frustration with the central government’s reluctance to grant more powers to the Catalan parliament, which was re-established in 1980. Recent attempts by Madrid to interfere with Catalan education have further stoked passions.

Catalonia is the country’s most prosperous and most economically productive region and accounts for about a quarter of Spain’s taxes – far more than its share of Spain’s population.

Catalonia’s fiscal deficit – the difference between what it pays to Madrid and, after taking some funds to pay state costs, the money it gets back – runs at between 7 and 10 percent of the region’s GDP. Such disparities have deepened resentment.

‘V’ for vote

On September 11 this year, Catalonia’s national holiday, hundreds of thousands of independence supporters converged on Barcelona, forming a huge “V” – for vote – in Catalan red and yellow. Now nationalists are hoping a large demonstration of strength on Sunday will show both Madrid and the world that their demands are not going away.

“The goal is to keep the pressure on Madrid and to demonstrate to the world that the process is alive and it’s not just an invention of Artur Mas,” said Marc Vidal, foreign editor of pro-independence Catalan newspaper ARA.

I think the fact that the Spanish government is making it so difficult to voice your opinion is making people angry, and making people determined to vote.

– Liz Castro, supporter of Catalan independence

The vast majority are expected to vote “yes”, but turnout will be crucial. Two million votes, about 30 percent of the electorate, would be a “big result” for the nationalists, said Vidal.

Liz Castro, a supporter of Catalan independence in Barcelona, said the attitude of the Spanish government will only strengthen nationalists’ resolve to turnout on Sunday.

“I think the fact that the Spanish government is making it so difficult to voice your opinion is making people angry, and making people determined to vote,” Castro said.

Supporters of the union with Spain argued independence would be disastrous for Catalonia – and for Europe.

“If regions like Catalonia, the Flemish region, Lombardy, Veneto, some German states or Corsica decide to secede, Europe would be cut into pieces, and that would go against its philosophy,” said Josep Ramon Bosch, president of pro-union association Societat Civil Catalana.

While there is little doubt about the outcome of Sunday’s consultation, a long-term solution to the Catalan question is much less clear cut. Spain’s national politics has been turned on its head following a poll this week that put Podemos, a youthful leftist-only party formed in January, ahead of both Rajoy’s Popular Party and the main opposition Socialist Party nationally.

Some Catalan commentators expect Artur Mas to call early elections to the Catalan parliament, in an effort to secure a resounding majority in favour of independence and increase pressure on Madrid. But Mas himself has been weakened by a tax-evasion scandal involving the founder of his ruling Convergence and Union party. A recent poll showed the more fervently pro-independence Republican Left of Catalonia well ahead among Catalan voters.

For Catalan nationalists, however, the big question is how Madrid will react to the latest salvo in the campaign for a referendum on independence.

“There is a general feeling that the Spanish government doesn’t know what is going on here,” said independence activist Castro. “I don’t think they really realise what people are ready to do here.”

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

Rape allegations and IRA paramilitary justice

Group’s culture of summary justice is back in Northern Ireland’s spotlight after new sexual assault accusations.

Mairia Cahill claims republicans tried to cover up her rape allegations against an IRA figure [Getty Images]

Maintaining law and order in Belfast during the violent days of the Troubles – the 30-year-long conflict in Northern Ireland – was no easy task.

Anti-police graffiti was a common sight on walls across the city. Many hardline Irish republican neighbourhoods were no-go areas, where police officers would seldom tread, and even more rarely be called in by locals to investigate crimes.

In the absence of an effective police force, paramilitaries on both sides became the law in parts of Northern Ireland. Their justice was often rough and ready. Suspects were tried in secret without legal protection. Sentences could range from a curfew to a bullet in the head.

The Troubles in Northern Ireland are over. Former rivals Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, and the staunchly pro-British Democratic Unionist Party now share power in Belfast.

But more than a decade and a half since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the issue of paramilitary justice is back on the Northern Irish political agenda.

Earlier this month, Mairia Cahill, a 33-year-old former junior Sinn Fein official and relative of former IRA chief of staff Joe Cahill, went public with claims that a prominent republican in west Belfast had raped and sexually abused her when she was 16. Shortly afterwards the IRA, Cahill said, conducted its own inquiry into her accusations, acquitting her alleged attacker, and warning her not to go to the police.

The police were seen as the enemy. The more republicans attacked the police, the less the police could do normal cops-on-the-beat stuff and the more the pressure came on the IRA to take action against hoods.

– Anthony McIntyre, former IRA prisoner

Knee-capping suspects

Such IRA-led extra-judicial investigations were part of life in Belfast during the Troubles, says Anthony McIntyre, a former IRA prisoner in the 1980s.

“The police were seen as the enemy. The more republicans attacked the police, the less the police could do normal cops-on-the-beat stuff and the more the pressure came on the IRA to take action against hoods,” says McIntyre, author of Good Friday: The Death of Irish Republicanism.

“Hoods” in Belfast parlance means anybody engaging in anti-social behaviour, from minor thieves and joyriders to drug dealers and, in some cases, perpetrators of sexual crimes. In republican areas, the IRA’s “Civil Administration Team” was charged with dealing with suspected offenders, and handing out sentences that had been approved in advance by the organisation’s Army Council. Punishment included expulsion from the area, to having kneecaps shot, and also summary execution.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams joined the IRA Army Council in 1977. Last year, Adam’s younger brother, Liam, was jailed for 16 years for raping his own daughter.

McIntyre says sexual abusers were often moved out of republican areas to safeguard the reputation of the movement. “The IRA could have publicly tarred and feathered sexual abusers, but they didn’t. They spirited them away not because they liked them, but because they wanted to protect the organisation.”

“Community policing” was not a role the IRA welcomed because it diverted time and resources, says McIntyre, but the organisation felt “that if they didn’t respond [to criminal behaviour], they would risk losing support”.

The Cahill case is not the first time that attention has focused on the IRA’s role as community enforcers since the peace process began in 1994. In the mid-1990s, an IRA front organisation, Direct Action Against Drugs, was responsible for a spate of killings of major players in the Irish drug scene.

In 2005, the murder of Robert McCartney following an argument in a Belfast bar provoked outrage. The killing of west Belfast mother-of-10 Jean McConville in 1972, and subsequent IRA cover-up, remains a live issue. Community leaders frequently decry the so-called “punishment beatings” that are still prevalent in some republican areas.

In the absence of an effective police force, paramilitaries on both sides became the law in parts of Northern Ireland [EPA]

‘Republican royalty’

But the detailed allegations made by Mairia Cahill are of a different order to previous criticism, says Paddy Hoey, a lecturer in media at Edge Hill University in London.

“This is republican royalty going against one of the top men in republicanism. It is an expression of the thought policing that goes on in west Belfast. Someone who could have gone to the police but didn’t because she was worried about the damage it would have done,” says Hoey.

By the late 1990s, when Cahill’s alleged abuse occurred, west Belfast had effectively been a “state-within-a-state” controlled by Sinn Fein and the IRA for almost two decades. The area even had its own radio stations and newspapers that were used to maintain discipline and were turned against anyone who spoke out.

“The full force of the republican movement as a pseudo-state in west Belfast or Derry would come down against you,” says Hoey. “Part of the reason that victims of these kind of crimes didn’t come forward was because of the power that was centralised in an elite [in the republican movement].”

Everyone is talking about it, but one day they won’t. The question is what damage is done in the meantime.

– Mick Fealty, journalist

McIntyre says he remembers when his home in west Belfast was picketed in 2000. “My wife was six months pregnant and we had the IRA outside the door. It was all because I had said that the IRA had killed Joseph O’Connor [an anti-peace process republican shot dead in 2000].”

This kind of “direct policing” is less widespread in Northern Ireland now. The IRA has disappeared off the streets of Belfast. Since 2007, Sinn Fein has officially supported the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

Sinn Fein is fabled for its loyalty and discipline. But these characteristics, so essential in a war setting, have proved damaging in peacetime.

“The main threat to republicanism in the age of the peace process hasn’t come from the government. It’s come from within the republican movement, from control and abuse and cover-up,” says Hoey.

Culture of summary justice

The vicious beatings and intimidation that characterised “community policing” have returned to some areas where anti-peace process republicans have a significant presence. About half of paramilitary-style punishment shootings in Northern Ireland in 2013-14 were carried out in west Belfast, according to police statistics.

In Derry, dissident group Republican Action Against Drugs (RAAD) has carried out dozens of punishment attacks in recent years. The group claimed responsibility for the murder of Derry man Andrew Allen across the border in Donegal, in the Irish Republic, in 2012. RAAD has even carried out non-lethal punishment shootings by appointment, with parents instructed to drop children off and wait while they are shot.

Mairia Cahill’s testimony has shone a spotlight on the culture of summary justice in republican areas. Sinn Fein chief Gerry Adams has acknowledged that the IRA passed judgement on sexual offences, but has denied Cahill’s allegations.

It remains to be seen whether memories of the brutal Troubles-era violence stirred by the latest charges will have lasting repercussions for Sinn Fein, says journalist and commentator Mick Fealty.

“[The story] is going to go away at some point. People I speak to close to Sinn Fein are saying that it’s like the McCartney sisters. Everyone is talking about it, but one day they won’t. The question is what damage is done in the meantime.”

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

Scotland’s new SNP leader takes the reins

Since she was 16-years-old, Scottish Nationalist Party’s Sturgeon has strove for independence from the UK.

Nicola Sturgeon poses with supporters of the ‘yes’ campaign in Perth, Scotland in September [EPA]

Glasgow, Scotland – When the Scottish National Party meets for its annual conference next month, members will have plenty to celebrate. Defeat in September’s referendum on independence from the UK was narrower than many commentators had expected, and 60,000 have joined the nationalists since then.

But the highlight of the conference weekend will be the coronation of the party’s new leader, Nicola Sturgeon.

Political leadership contests are normally grueling affairs. Backstabbing and double-crossing are common as candidates vie for power. Not so in Scotland last week.

Sturgeon, a slight-framed 44-year-old Glasgow lawyer with a penchant for Scandinavian television dramas, was confirmed last Wednesday as Alex Salmond‘s successor without a contest. She will formally take over the reins of the Scottish National Party (SNP) next month, in the process becoming the first female leader of Scotland’s devolved parliament in Edinburgh.

For Sturgeon, the mantle of first minister is the culmination of a life dedicated to Scottish nationalist politics. Born in 1970 outside Irvine, a new town on the coast south of Glasgow, Sturgeon became a member of the SNP at the age of just 16.

She decided when she was 16 that Labour didn’t offer a strong enough challenge to Thatcher, and it was only with independence that Scotland could be rescued from Thatcherism.

– James Maxwell, Scottish commentator

Countering ‘Thatcherism’

It was another mould-breaking female politician that inspired Sturgeon to join the Scottish nationalists. Margaret Thatcher – the then UK Conservative prime minister – was a hated figure in industrial Scotland, held responsible for massive job losses.

“Lots of people around me were looking at a life or an immediate future of unemployment, and I think that certainly gave me a strong sense of social justice and, at that stage, a strong feeling that it was wrong for Scotland to be governed by a Tory government that we hadn’t elected,” Sturgeon later said of her formative years in Irvine.

Scottish commentator James Maxwell said at a young age Sturgeon felt compelled into politics in order to counter Thatcher.

“She decided when she was 16 that Labour didn’t offer a strong enough challenge to Thatcher, and it was only with independence that Scotland could be rescued from Thatcherism,” said Maxwell.

Sturgeon didn’t wait long to cut her political teeth. In the 1992, UK general election she stood as as the SNP’s candidate in the solidly Labour Glasgow Shettleston constituency. Although she failed to win the seat – and was defeated again in 1997 – the Glasgow University law graduate was elected to the Holyrood parliament in Edinburgh in 1999. She was just 29. 

In parliament, Sturgeon won plaudits as the SNP’s spokeswoman on justice, and later on education and health. In 2004, aged 34, Sturgeon announced she would stand as a candidate for the party leadership following the resignation of John Swinney. She later withdrew from the contest, however, standing instead on as deputy leader on a joint ticket with the pugnacious Alex Salmond.

Both were subsequently elected, transforming the shape of Scottish nationalist politics.

Rise to power

In 2007, with Salmond at the helm and Sturgeon by his side, the SNP won its highest ever share of the vote in devolved elections, and enough seats to form a government for the first time. In 2011, the party went one better, scoring an unexpected landslide that gave the nationalists both full control of the Scottish parliament, and the long-cherished dream of a referendum on independence. 

Although the nationalists lost last month’s referendum on independence, a “yes” vote of almost 45 percent was a significant improvement on previous levels of support for leaving the United Kingdom. Sturgeon was widely seen as having enjoyed a successful campaign and when, the day after the defeat, Salmond announced his surprise resignation, all eyes turned to his capable deputy.

Sturgeon – who has called for maximum devolution to the Scottish parliament in the wake of last month’s defeat – is the “poster girl for civic nationalism”, said her unofficial biographer, journalist David Torrance. She believes in independence because it will make Scotland a fairer, more equitable place, he said.

The thing that brought her to [the SNP] was predominantly policy, not tartan and saltires,” said Torrance.

Sturgeon certainly takes her politics seriously. “I prepare very carefully for everything I do in politics: maybe it’s a bit of that working-class ethos, you’ve got to work hard,” she said in an interview earlier this year.

‘Authentic language’

Increasingly, the SNP has usurped Labour as the party of working class Scotland. Many expect this trend to continue under Sturgeon’s leadership. “She speaks an authentic language of social justice and old Labour, while accepting all the modern techniques of a centrist, post-ideological party,” said Torrance.

But there are signs of a leftward shift in SNP policy. Last week, the party’s finance secretary, John Swinney, announced a radical overhaul of property taxes that will predominantly hit the most well off in Scottish society. The party has also reiterated its support for the recognition of Palestine.

One of Sturgeon’s early decisions will be how to engage the 60,000 new members that have joined the SNP since last month’s referendum. Scotland’s first minister elect has already announced plans to embark on a series of rallies across the country next month.

“I am looking forward to meeting as many of our new recruits as possible and sharing with them my vision for the future,” Sturgeon said.
“The SNP cannot advance the argument that a vote for them is a vote for independence, that would be a significant step backwards,” he said. “It would be electoral suicide to go back to the old position that if the SNP got a majority of seats in Westminster, or at Holyrood, it could declare independence.”But the new followers could cause a headache for the nationalists, with many demanding another referendum on independence sooner rather than later. Sturgeon has refused to rule out another referendum, but must be wary of pandering to a vociferous minority, said Maxwell.

Position of strength

Sturgeon inherits the party leadership in a position of real strength. SNP is widely predicted to win a historic third consecutive Holyrood election in 2016, and the party is on course to do well in next year’s Westminster vote. Sturgeon herself is the most trusted politician in Scotland.

Away from the spotlight, the new SNP leader seems wedded to politics. Her mother, Joan, is a serving SNP councillor in North Ayrshire. Her partner for the past decade is the party’s chief executive, Peter Murrell.

Now having reached the summit of Scottish politics, Sturgeon is unlikely to climb down anytime soon.

“This is someone with massive ambition. She won’t want to only serve one full term as first minister,” said Maxwell. “She will want to ensure that she is in power for a long time. She will be thinking long term.”

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

Scotland’s ‘Borderers’ steadfast for ‘No’

Coldstream, Scotland – Jock Law is in no doubt about which way he is going to vote in Scotland’s independence referendum on September 18.

“I’m against, definitely against,” the septuagenarian former soldier says, taking off his thick-rimmed glasses and shaking his head.

Few are as passionate in their support for the union with England as Law. A red, white, and blue Union flag with “Better Together” printed across it takes pride of place in the window of his onetime picture framing business on High Street, in the Scottish border town of Coldstream.

Just below, the faces of Scottish nationalist leaders Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have been superimposed onto a pair of cartoon sheep: “Don’t let this pair pull the wool over your eyes,” reads a handwritten sign.

But increasingly, nationalists are gaining ground across Scotland. The latest polls put the two sides neck-and-neck – a dramatic turnaround from just a month ago when the “Yes” side trailed by 22 points. A new poll released on September 10 placed the “No” camp only at 53 percent while the “Yes” side surged to 47 percent.

Financial impact

The referendum will almost certainly come down to economics – many Scots are wary of the financial impact of leaving the 300-year-old union – but in Coldstream these concerns are particularly hard felt. England is just a matter of metres away, across the babbling River Tweed that separates the two countries.

“I just don’t think independence is possible, we can’t afford it,” says Law.

Law worries if Scotland votes yes, the stolid stone bridge at the end of the town would become an international border crossing. He has other fears, too.

“There are a lot of people here on the border who work in England and vice versa. How will they pay their taxes? How will that work?”

Coldstream – like many of the picturesque towns and villages dotted along the 154km-long border between Scotland and England that was legally established in 1237 – has long celebrated its location on the edge of two countries. The first road sign on entering the town declares: “Welcome to Coldstream – The First True Border Toon.”

Locals often describe themselves as neither English nor Scottish, but “Borderers”. Many have family or business interests on both sides of the invisible boundary. The referendum, however, is forcing them to choose whether to stay in the United Kingdom, or join an independent Scotland.

New divisions

As the “No Thanks” stickers and “Yes” posters dotting the neat High Street attest, Coldstream is as divided as the rest of Scotland.

“From my standpoint, I don’t see what the benefit would be,” says Trevor Brunning, a father of four from North London who runs an army supply store on High Street. “I’d be worried about my business if we vote for independence.”

The border region has long been stony ground for Scottish nationalists. The area voted heavily against devolution in the ill-fated 1979 referendum. As many as 70 percent of those living near the border are opposed to Scottish independence, according to a poll conducted this summer.

In Dumfries, some 130km west along the border, Englishman Mark Frankland is an active campaigner for the “Yes” vote. “Independence would be good for Scotland – and for England,” said Frankland.

Having moved north with his wife and two children in 1996, Frankland now runs First Base Agency, a charity based in a former bakery beside the River Nith in the centre of Dumfries.

The centre offers drug, alcohol, and family counselling services. “Food donations urgently required,” reads a sign in the window. Last month, they gave out 450 food parcels. Eighteen-months ago, that figure was about 100.

This huge increase in demand was caused by the welfare reforms introduced by the coalition in Westminster, says Frankland. “There is virtually no policy in Edinburgh [the devolved Scottish parliament] that affects people’s ability to buy food.”

The independence debate has energised political neophytes such as Frankland as never before – particularly on the yes side, which has a huge manpower advantage over the pro-UK “Better Together” campaign.

‘Don’t change things’

On a busy Saturday in the prosperous market town of Peebles, the heart of the only constituency in Scotland represented by a Conservative MP, activists hand out “Yes” stickers and campaign literature from a large stall. Many locals walk by, but some stop to chat. Topics range from health and education to inequality and taxes.

“We have been packing out the halls all around,” says “Yes” supporter David Kenyon from nearby Walkerburn. “The Scottish people realise this is the biggest decision we will make.”

As if on cue, a teenage female bagpipe player breaks into a rendition of “Highland Cathedral”, a popular melody composed by a pair of German musicians that has been mooted as a possible national anthem for an independent Scotland.

“This is the toughest part of Scotland for ‘Yes’,” says independence activist Calum Kerr, 42. “The Borders has a strong tradition of ‘Aye Been’ – it’s always been you don’t change things.”

But Kerr, who combines a job in telecommunications with almost constant campaigning work, is upbeat about the prospects of pulling off a shock on polling day.

“From the very start I’ve been telling people, ‘we’re going to win this’. But now I really believe it.”

‘Functional not emotional’

A local “No” campaigner, who asked to be identified only as David, disagrees.

“For most Scots the union with England is functional, not emotional,” he says. “It is like a business transaction for me. I look at the sums, they don’t add up so you don’t do it.”

Alex Salmond has, he says, made too many unrealistic assumptions about everything from membership in the European Union, to sharing a currency with the UK.

“‘Yes’ Scotland are asking you to take a betting slip into the ballot box. ‘See that horse, I’m going to put everything on it.’ What will be the deciding factor on this will be economics. ‘Yes’ haven’t made the economic arguments,” he says.

Renowned for their reserve, many along the border with England are phlegmatic about the referendum. Where the independence debate in urban centres such as Glasgow and Edinburgh has often been heated, among the rolling hills and long valleys of “the debatable lands” between urban Scotland and England, the mood is markedly more temperate.

Traditionally, the region votes Liberal or Conservative, but the independence referendum is proving that in Scotland, old ideological ties are not as tight as they once were.

“I’m starting to get the feeling that it’s going to be really close,” says Jim Terras, chair of the Selkirk Conservative Club. “There are people in this club, even though it is a Conservative club, that are going to vote ‘Yes’.”

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera America.

Scots rally ahead of independence referendum

Scotland’s Alex Salmond (L) and Alistair Darling (R) engage in a TV debate over independence [Getty Images]
Coatbridge, Scotland – “Independence is forever. You can’t take it back if you don’t like it,” the lean, wiry-framed Jim Murphy proclaims on Main Street.

About 60 people are congregated in a semi-circle in front of the Labour MP, who stands perched on a pair of upturned crates of Irn Bru, Scotland’s favourite fizzy drink. A man wearing a bright blue “No Thanks” badge claps loudly; towards the back of the crowd, a couple of teenagers shout “Vote Yes”.

A once prosperous industrial town on the outskirts of Glasgow, Coatbridge is destination 51 of Murphy’s whistle-stop, 100-date tour of Scotland ahead of the referendum on independence next month.

“My message is that Scotland can be stronger, more prosperous, more influential if we stay part of the United Kingdom. We can have the best of both worlds,” says Murphy, MP for nearby East Renfrewshire and former secretary of state for Scotland.

So far, Scots appear to be heeding “No” campaigners’ warnings. Amid uncertainties about what currency an independent Scotland would use and whether the new state would automatically become a member of the European Union, most polls have registered a significant lead for those wishing to keep the 300-year-old union between Scotland and England.

There are no guarantees that we are going to end up with a fairer Scotland with independence, but there is a better chance of it.

– Feargal Dalton, Scottish National Party councillor


But the Yes campaign’s message that Scotland would be better off in control of its own affairs has caught the imagination of many, particularly in places such as Coatbridge, where incomes are low and job opportunities scarce in the low-rise 1960s-era Main Street. Polls suggest Scots in working class communities are far more likely to support independence than their more affluent compatriots.

“I was a no originally but the more I’ve heard, it’s yes,” says Brian Boyle, a 22-year-old who had come to listen to Jim Murphy’s entreaty. “I’ve not been persuaded at all by the no campaign, they’ve just been too negative.”

Ready to vote

With less than a month to go, the battle for the future for Scotland is increasingly being played out on the street. Not with bricks or guns, but with clipboards and pens. Both campaigns have thousands of volunteers and paid staff knocking on doors and holding rallies across the country, hoping to convince voters of the power of their arguments before polling day on September 18.

Both sides of the independence debate are fluttering in the breeze on Alderman Road, northwest Glasgow. A red, white and blue union flag flies in the garden of a semi-detached house. Across the street, the words “Saor Alba Gu Brath”  (Free Scotland Forever) are emblazoned across a huge Scottish saltire. Solid grey tower blocks dominate the skyline.

“Something needs to change in this society and independence offers the opportunity for that,” says Margaret Malcolm, convener of the local branch of the Scottish National Party (SNP), which has a majority in Scotland’s devolved parliament, during an evening canvas of undecided voters. It is cold and windy, and only two of the six houses called on have anyone at home. And neither is backing independence.

Malcolm, a petite, retired psychiatrist who joined the SNP five years, is undeterred. “If we vote no it won’t be because I haven’t done my level best to make it happen.” A little further along the street, a pebble-dashed house has Vote No posters in Labour red in the front window. “They weren’t there last week,” says Malcolm.

Nearby, postman Darren Brander, 32, says he is voting yes for his two young children. “The way things are now, there’s no chance of them getting a house, no chance of getting a job.”

‘No guarantees’

A sign urges voters to give a Yes vote for a separate nation for Scotland [Getty Images]

For local SNP councillor Feargal Dalton independence is about giving Scotland the power to tackle social exclusion and injustice.

“There are no guarantees that we are going to end up with a fairer Scotland with independence, but there is a better chance of it,” says Dalton. “A small democracy and a more democratic system is more responsive to the needs of citizens, particularly those who are more vulnerable.”

One of the main arguments advanced by nationalists is that Scotland consistently votes for centre-left parties but often – as currently – is ruled by the Conservatives in Westminster, who draw much of their support from southern England.

On Sauchiehall Street, in the centre of Glasgow, shoppers are not so sure about the prospects of independence. “I’m for a no, a definite no. There’s enough trouble in the world without creating more division,” says James Lawn, a Glaswegian pensioner.

Everyone on either side now accepts that Scotland is a viable country and could survive on its own. That certainly wasn’t the case 20 years ago.

– David Torrance, political commentator


Outside a department store, a large group of anti-independence campaigners have gathered for a photo-call. Most carry blue No Thanks balloons and miniature saltire flags. Two big blue letters “N” and “O” are silhouetted against a banner for the Glasgow Commonwealth Games that ended last month.

Among the flag-wavers is 18-year-old Paddy O’Duffin. “I don’t think we face a certain future if there is a yes vote. I don’t want my mum called a foreigner if there is a yes vote,” says O’Duffin, who is due to begin studying international relations in Edinburgh next month. At the recent European elections in May he voted for the independence party UKIP. “I believe that power should be returned to us from Brussels.”

Polls suggest no campaigners are likely to be the ones celebrating on September 19, but with four weeks to go there is still room for an upset. “We are in the key period now. In the next few weeks is when people actually make up their minds,” says journalist and political commentator David Torrance.

Viable country

On Monday, SNP leader Alex Salmond will face off against former UK chancellor Alistair Darling in the second, and final, televised debate.

Even if it is a no vote, nationalists have won the argument about whether Scotland could be an independent state. “Everyone on either side now accepts that Scotland is a viable country and could survive on its own. That certainly wasn’t the case 20 years ago,” says Torrance.

Independence has divided Scotland. But whether Scots say “aye” or “naw”, the constitutional battle will be won by words and arguments alone. In a world where states are often borne out of violence and chauvinism, such civility should be heralded as a victory for everyone.

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.