Bosnia returnees still burying their dead

Twenty years after the war, mass graves containing the bodies of Bosniaks continue to be found [AP]
Carakovo, Bosnia – Sudbin Music has a problem: He needs to bury 50 bodies.

“Where can we put them?” Music, 40, wondered aloud as he stood on the edge of a graveyard in the northwestern Bosnian village of Carakovo. In front of him, 400 slender white headstones cluttered the plot of land. “We don’t have room for any more.”

The bodies that Music referred to come from Tomasica, a nearby mass war grave discovered last year. Tomasica contained the remains of around 1,000 Bosniaks, also known as Bosnian Muslims, killed by Serb forces in 1992. Fifty of the bodies come from Carakavo, and will be interred at a special ceremony on July 20.

Everything was destroyed like Hiroshima. [There was] nothing.

– Sudbin Music, war survivor

Before the Bosnian war, Carakovo – a largely Bosniak village perched on the hills above the belching smokestacks of the nearby industrial city of Prijedor – appeared calm and peaceful. Two decades later, it seems little has changed. Dogs bark and lambs bleat on a quiet afternoon. A muezzin calls out for prayer from a white-washed minaret. Across verdant fields stand large, sturdy-looking houses with high gates and satellite dishes.

Carakovo looks prosperous. But looks can be deceiving.

Remnants of war

Only 300 people remain, down from 2,500 before the war, said Music, who is the secretary of Prijedor, a group representing Bosniak and Croat concentration camp victims.

The town feels abandoned. Music pointed to recently built houses: “They are in Slovenia, they are in Austria. They are in the Netherlands, their neighbours are in Sweden.” We passed a ramshackle construction, its concrete peeling: “That house is occupied – the only one on the street.” In Bosnia, monthly incomes average $575. For most people, the opportunities abroad are too good to turn down.

Under the Dayton Peace Accords that ended the Bosnian war, the area became part of Republika Srpska, the “Serb Republic”, but all refugees had a right to return. Music came from the US in 2000, one of the first Bosniaks to move back to Carakovo. “Everything was destroyed like Hiroshima. [There was] nothing,” he recalled. Over the next couple of years others came back, too. But the flow of returnees became a trickle, then it stopped completely.

“I spent all my beautiful years here, 14 years. I feel like the last Mohican here,” said Music. “I ask myself, ‘What are you doing? Are you waiting for the next disaster?'”

Bosniaks have returned to a land where Serbia’s red, blue and white flag flies from every government building. The state, dominated by ethnic Serb politicians, has done little to help them. In Prijedor, the office for returnees is housed in the same building as the headquarters of the local Serb Democratic Party, the political vehicle created by Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader on trial at the Hague for war crimes.

Few survivors return 

A few kilometres down the road stands the predominantly Bosniak town of Kozarac. Two decades ago, Kozarac was largely reduced to rubble. Since then, most of the houses have been rebuilt, but few former residents have returned. Among those that have is Fikret Alic, the man whose emaciated frame behind barbed wire at a Serb-run camp became the iconic image of the Bosnian war.

Alic, like many others, was taken to a concentration camp at Trnopolje, where visiting journalists happened to take his photograph. The image went global, probably saving his life.

“That picture was taken accidentally. Now I have made it my own mission to talk about it. I’m doing it for the innocent people who were killed,” said Alic when we met at a community centre in Kozarac. He has filled out in the intervening 22 years, but he still bears the physical and mental scars of the abuse he suffered.

He also had to spend years defending himself against allegations that the photograph was concocted. “The fact is that the camps happened, the massacres happened. It’s time we admitted it and moved on,” he said, sitting in a room lined with hundreds of pictures of Kozarac citizens killed in the war.

Another returnee is Asima Memic. “I was the fourth one back,” she said proudly. During the war, three of her sons were taken away to the camp. Only two came back. The remains of the third son were discovered two years ago. “I was constantly hoping. Until they found the bones I still had hope,” she said, visibly holding back tears.

Memic’s return has been a bittersweet experience. Returning Bosniaks swell the population – and the coffers of local businesses – in the summer months, but the rest of the year is often lonely. “As soon as the summer is gone it becomes really depressing,” she said. “A lot of the young people leave the country. People can’t see a brighter future.”

Discrimination looms

Tens of thousands of Bosniaks left the region during and after the war. Most of them are unlikely to come back, said Srecko Latal, a Balkans analyst based in Sarajevo. “The return of refugees has pretty much finished.”

You can put any flag you want out there so long as you give me a job that pays properly.

– Adis Muhagic, returnee to Kozarac

The government of Republika Srpska “did little to help people returning”, Latal claimed.

Today, many Bosniaks feel like second-class citizens in the Serb Republic, expressing concerns that a decree passed by the government in Banja Luka – Bosnia’s second-largest city – on checking people’s residence could target Bosniaks.

In the eastern village of Konjevic Polje, Bosniak children have not attended school since last year as part of a protest against the Serb school curriculum.

“I came back home but the problem is permanent discrimination. Citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina need to be liberated,” Music said. “I don’t belong anywhere. We are a no man’s people.” The answer, Music believes, is “not destroying Republika Srpska or changing the constitution”, it is “re-integration to a normal society, whatever that means. People are going crazy.”

“Bosnia is ethnically divided and paralysed by bad government, but its biggest problems are economic, not political,” said Adis Mujagic, a father of two who returned to Kozarac from the US. “You can put any flag you want out there so long as you give me a job that pays properly.”

“With so many leaving, and so few opportunities at home, the future for Bosnia looks bleak,” said Music. “You will have in five years an ethnically clean Republika Srpska and an ethnically clean Federation [of Bosnia and Herzegovina] under the control of the Muslims and the Croats. And all the youth will have gone abroad.”

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

Is Northern Ireland’s peace on the rocks?

Belfast – On Sunday morning, prominent Irish politician Gerry Adams woke alone in a cell in Antrim police station. By the following evening, the Sinn Fein president was stepping onto a podium at an election rally at the Devenish Centre, West Belfast as an 800-strong crowd chanted his name.

Adams, who smiled widely, did not look like a man who had spent four nights in police custody. He told cheering supporters that his arrest in connection with the 1972 killing of West Belfast mother of ten Jean McConville was “a sham”, but that Sinn Fein would not be diverted from “the job of building the peace”.

The Good Friday Agreement, signed in 1998, ended the 30-year “Troubles” that cost over 3,000 lives. Since 2007, Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), has shared power with the Democratic Unionist Party in a devolved parliament in Belfast.

Concerns, however, are being raised about the fragility of the peace in Northern Ireland. The murals and flags that line many streets across this country of just 1.8 million attest to on-going tensions between unionists, who favour a political union between Northern Ireland and the Great Britain, and republicans, who want a united Ireland.

Recent months have been particularly difficult. Attacks by republicans opposed to the peace process have been frequent. Early in the New Year, talks in Belfast brokered by US diplomat Richard Haass to resolve issues of the past, parading, and symbols collapsed without a deal.

In February, the devolved power-sharing government stood on the brink of collapse after the revelation that almost 200 republican paramilitaries wanted for crimes committed during the conflict had mistakenly been issued with letters informing them that they were not being sought by UK authorities.

‘The volcano will erupt’

Just last week, Northern Ireland Secretary of State Theresa Villiers ruled out independent reviews into the killing of eleven civilians by British troops at Ballmurphy in 1971 and a 1978 IRA bombing that left twelve people dead

“The problem now is that events are coming along quicker than [the 1998 peace deal at] Stormont can deal with. In the past there were periods of calmness, now there is no time for recovery,” says Jonny Byrne, a lecturer in criminology at the University of Ulster. “It’s like the early signs of Vesuvius, we know the volcano is going to erupt.”

In the past there were periods of calmness, now there is no time for recovery… It’s like the early signs of Vesuvius, we know the volcano is going to erupt.

Jonny Byrne, University of Ulster

International onlookers have wondered aloud whether Northern Ireland might be on the verge of a return to violence. Gary White, a former Police Service of Northern Ireland chief superintendent, says it already has. “Over this last number of years we have had police officers killed, we have had soldiers killed, we have had prison officers killed, we have had many people injured, members of the public, members of the police and other security forces,” White says. “So it is a fact that violence is present in our society.”

An indication of the on-going friction in Northern Ireland came in December 2012. After a vote at Belfast city council to fly the Union flag on designated days rather than all year round, riots broke out in pro-union areas. As streets across the city were blockaded, Belfast effectively came to a standstill.

One of the reasons loyalists, who support the maintenance of the union with Great Britain, are so angry is that they feel they have lost out to republicans in the peace process, says Mark Vinton, a member of the Progressive Unionist Party, which is linked to the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force.

Vinton feels that the peace agreement has allowed republicans to further their political goal of Irish unification. Since 1998, Sinn Fein has become the largest nationalist party in Northern Ireland and is growing in popularity south of the border.

“Sinn Fein and republicanism have used the Agreement as a stepping-stone to further their own aims. So basically anybody that you speak to within a working class Unionist or loyalist community will feel massively let down, that it wasn’t an agreement at all, that there were shafted,” says Vinton.

Paying a peace divident?

Loyalists such as Mark Vinton say their communities have never received the much-vaunted “peace dividend” promised by politicians after the 1998 agreement that ushered in the historic power sharing arrangement between Catholics and Protestants.

“If you come into Belfast city centre you will see [it] flourishing,” he says. “But if you take a 10 minute sidestep to either side of North, South, East, West Belfast, you go into working class areas, you will then see the dividend that was meant to pay off peace-wise, has not paid off in those communities, they still live in mass deprivation.”

Ardoyne, a republican area in North Belfast, regularly ranks as one of the most deprived communities in Northern Ireland. Political tensions here have risen in recent months. Just across the “interface” that separates Catholics from Protestants, a loyalist protest has been ongoing since July, when a parade by the Protestant Orange Order was prevented from passing through a nearby nationalist area.

“Negative elements” are trying to manipulate and exploit tensions over flags and other symbols of identity, says Joe Marlay, a community worker in Ardoyne.

But life has changed for the better since the ceasefires, says Marlay, whose father was shot dead by loyalists. “The life I had sort of growing up, is not the life of my sons and daughters have now in our house. We had bullet-proof [glass] on the doors, and some of the windows, we had security gates on the stairs, we had our own security procedures [for] how we lived…. If we were driven to school in the mornings we had to check under the car for devices.”

Ghosts of the past

Nevertheless, fears are growing that demographic and social changes could put further pressure on the gains of peace. The 2012 census found that, for the first time, Protestants do not constitute a majority in Northern Ireland. Formal education is sorely lacking in working-class Protestant areas, and the local economy is still struggling to recover from the global financial crisis.

Mistrust between unionists and republicans continues despite a peace deal signed in 1998 [EPA]

Relations between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party, who share power in the devolved assembly at Stormont, are icy and getting colder with each passing week.

“The principles, the goodwill and ethos of the Good Friday Agreement are gone,” says Dr Jonny Byrne.

The Conservative-led coalition government in London has shown little appetite for involving itself in Northern Irish affairs. Prime Minister David Cameron is from a generation of Tories that have little psychological or emotional attachment to a peace process that was the product of Tony Blair and New Labour.

The failure of the British government – and its Irish counterpart – to engage with the situation in Northern Ireland is creating a power vacuum, says Steven McCaffery, editor of Belfast-based investigative website the Detail.

“The whole premise of the Good Friday agreement was that it was not an internal solution. There were three legs to the stool: there was London, Dublin and Belfast. The London leg and the Dublin leg have effectively fallen away, so the stool is wobbling.”

With a divided leadership in power at Stormont and growing tensions on the ground, any agreement on the past is likely to remain elusive. This makes the task of creating a shared future after conflict even more difficult.

“We don’t have an agreed narrative of the past from which to try to build an agreed vision of the future,” says Norman Hamilton, former moderator of the Presbyterian Church, which campaigned for decades for an end to the sectarian conflict.

“In order to create the political stability, to create enforced power-sharing, the narrative of the past was set aside in the hope that as an executive assembly delivered real progress on the ground the pain of the past would recede. That hasn’t happened.”

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

Protestants go for Gaelic in Northern Ireland

The majority of the 5,000 children in Irish-language education hail from nationalist areas [Reuters]
Belfast, Northern Ireland  Seomra ranga – “classroom”, in Ireland’s indigenous language – reads a cardboard sign tacked onto a door. A little further down the hall, a leabharlann is filled with books. It is a very Irish scene, but in a very unlikely place: East Belfast Mission on Newtownards Road.

Across the street, a mural commemorates the Protestant paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force. Union Jack flags fly from lampposts in the shadow of the shipyards that built the Titanic.

In Northern Ireland, the Irish Gaelic language has traditionally been a largely Catholic pursuit. The overwhelming majority of the 5,000 children in Irish-language education hail from nationalist areas.

But this might be about to change. The Turas Centre in the East Belfast Mission – turas means “journey” in Irish Gaelic  hosts 10 Irish-language classes a week. About 90 percent of those filing in and out of theseomra ranga and reading textbooks in the leabherlann are Protestant.

“The Irish language is part of our culture. It belongs to everyone,” said Linda Ervine, an Irish language development officer at the East Belfast Mission.

I would just call it a bullying session. There were three men and myself. They accused me of diluting ulster Protestantism. I said, ‘Well it depends what your definition of Ulster Protestantism is.’

– Linda Ervine, Irish language development officer

 

Ervine is the closest East Belfast comes to royalty: loyalist leader David Ervine was her brother-in-law; her husband, Brian, is like his late brother David, a former leader of the Progressive Unionist Party.

From the ancient Gaelic-speaking kingdom

Linda Ervine’s soft voice and gentle manner bely a formidable passion for the Irish language – and for why Northern Ireland’s Protestant community should take it up.

“There is every reason why Protestants should be learning Irish,” she said. “Ninety-five percent of our place names come from Gaelic… We are using words in our language every day that come from the Gaelic language. We are steeped in it.”

On a nearby wall hangs a map of Britain and Ireland turned on its side, showing the ancient Gaelic-speaking kingdom of Dalriada, which spread across the north coast of Ireland and the western isles of Scotland in the late sixth and early seventh centuries.

Most Gaelic speakers in Scotland are Protestant, and when they came to Ireland during the Plantations, they brought their language with them, Ervine explained.

Ervine’s own turas to Irish began three years ago, when the women’s group she was part of at the East Belfast Mission took a starter course in the language. She was bitten by the bug and soon enrolled in an intensive course at an Irish centre in a nearby nationalist area.

Since then, Ervine has been travelling across Northern Ireland giving presentations and talks about the history of Protestantism and the Irish language. “We discovered that in the 1901 and 1911 census, people listed themselves as having Irish here in East Belfast,” she said.

Ervine is not the first figure from a loyalist background to shine a light on the Irish aspect of Ulster Protestant identity.

In the early 1990s, not far from where the Turas Centre sits today, the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force – responsible for hundreds of killings during the 30-year-long “Troubles – painted a mural on Newtownards Road celebrating the Irish mythological hero Cuchulainn as a defender of Ulster. The Red Hand Commando, a splinter group of the Ulster Volunteer Force, had “Lamh Dearg Abu” (Victory to the Red Hand) as its motto.

Belfast blast victims’ families want answers

Mind your language 

But many unionists have not been sympathetic to Ervine’s efforts to encourage Protestants to embrace Irish.

At a meeting of Down District Council in March, three Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) councillors walked out just minutes before she was due to give a presentation. UUP councillor Walter Lyons said the party “had to make a stand” because the Irish language was being “forced upon” unionists and “used against us”.

Earlier this year, George Chittick, Belfast County Grand Master of the Orange Order, an influential Protestant organisation, issued a “word of warning to Protestants who go learn Irish”. He later said his remarks were aimed at Protestants seeking funding for Irish-language projects – a thinly veiled attack on the Turas Centre.

The Orange Order’s criticism was “very sad”, said Ervine.

“I was invited to speak to the Orange Order shortly after that, and I would just call it a bullying session. There were three men and myself. They accused me of diluting Ulster Protestantism. I said, ‘Well, it depends what your definition of Ulster Protestantism is’.”

Irish has official recognition in Northern Ireland under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The peace deal also recognised Ulster Scots, a distinctive dialect spoken by some Protestants. But the Democratic Unionist Party, who share power in a devolved government at Stormont, in Belfast, have blocked subsequent attempts to enact an Irish-language act.

In January, the Council of Europe criticised what it called Stormont’s “hostile” attitude towards Irish. Earlier this month, Irish language speakers marched in Belfast in protest over what they described as Stormont’s “failure” to protect the language.

“The ongoing failure to protect and promote the language in the courts, in public signage and in the education sector continues to unravel the promises made in the Good Friday Agreement,” said Conradh na Gaeilge (The Gaelic League) in a statement.

In spite of government policy, people all over Ireland are choosing Irish medium education. In Belfast, we are seeing a critical mass of kids coming out with Irish.

– Eimear Ní Mhathúna, director of the Cultúrlann centre

 

Critical mass

Despite government gridlock, Irish is thriving on the ground, said Eimear Ni Mhathuna, director of the Culturlann centre on the Falls Road in West Belfast.

“As we speak, a group from the Shankill [a nearby majority Protestant area] are doing an Irish-language course upstairs,” she told Al Jazeera.

Irish took off in West Belfast in the late 1960s, when a group of Irish-speaking families set up an urban Gaeltacht, the name given to an Irish-speaking area. In 1971, a school called Bunscoil Phobal Feirste began with nine children. Nowthere are 12 Irish-language primary schools in Belfast.

Colaiste Feirste, a nearby secondary school, has nearly 600 pupils, and St Mary’s College provides teacher training in Irish. Two of Belfast’s last three Lord Mayors – including the incumbent Mairtin O Muilleoir – have been associated with the West Belfast Gaeltacht.

“In spite of government policy, people all over Ireland are choosing Irish medium education,” said Ni Mhathuna. “In Belfast, we are seeing a critical mass of kids coming out with Irish.”

Back in East Belfast, Ervine argued that Northern Ireland’s rich linguistic diversity should be cherished as an opportunity to bring people together, not push them apart.

“As people in Northern Ireland, when we open our mouths we speak beautiful constructions of English, Scots, Scots Gaelic and Irish Gaelic. We are using all those words, all that syntax, because we as a people bring all that together,” Ervine said.

“I am trying to show people that you can’t divide people into these boxes. You can’t say just because someone is Catholic they should speak Gaelic, or because they are a Protestant they should speak Ulster Scots. It just doesn’t work like that.”

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

Is Northern Ireland’s peace on the rocks?

Belfast – On Sunday morning, prominent Irish politician Gerry Adams woke alone in a cell in Antrim police station. By the following evening, the Sinn Fein president was stepping onto a podium at an election rally at the Devenish Centre, West Belfast as an 800-strong crowd chanted his name.

Adams, who smiled widely, did not look like a man who had spent four nights in police custody. He told cheering supporters that his arrest in connection with the 1972 killing of West Belfast mother of ten Jean McConville was “a sham”, but that Sinn Fein would not be diverted from “the job of building the peace”.

The Good Friday Agreement, signed in 1998, ended the 30-year “Troubles” that cost over 3,000 lives. Since 2007, Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), has shared power with the Democratic Unionist Party in a devolved parliament in Belfast.

Concerns, however, are being raised about the fragility of the peace in Northern Ireland. The murals and flags that line many streets across this country of just 1.8 million attest to on-going tensions between unionists, who favour a political union between Northern Ireland and the Great Britain, and republicans, who want a united Ireland.

Recent months have been particularly difficult. Attacks by republicans opposed to the peace process have been frequent. Early in the New Year, talks in Belfast brokered by US diplomat Richard Haass to resolve issues of the past, parading, and symbols collapsed without a deal.

In February, the devolved power-sharing government stood on the brink of collapse after the revelation that almost 200 republican paramilitaries wanted for crimes committed during the conflict had mistakenly been issued with letters informing them that they were not being sought by UK authorities.

‘The volcano will erupt’

Just last week, Northern Ireland Secretary of State Theresa Villiers ruled out independent reviews into the killing of eleven civilians by British troops at Ballmurphy in 1971 and a 1978 IRA bombing that left twelve people dead

“The problem now is that events are coming along quicker than [the 1998 peace deal at] Stormont can deal with. In the past there were periods of calmness, now there is no time for recovery,” says Jonny Byrne, a lecturer in criminology at the University of Ulster. “It’s like the early signs of Vesuvius, we know the volcano is going to erupt.”

In the past there were periods of calmness, now there is no time for recovery… It’s like the early signs of Vesuvius, we know the volcano is going to erupt.

Jonny Byrne, University of Ulster

International onlookers have wondered aloud whether Northern Ireland might be on the verge of a return to violence. Gary White, a former Police Service of Northern Ireland chief superintendent, says it already has. “Over this last number of years we have had police officers killed, we have had soldiers killed, we have had prison officers killed, we have had many people injured, members of the public, members of the police and other security forces,” White says. “So it is a fact that violence is present in our society.”

An indication of the on-going friction in Northern Ireland came in December 2012. After a vote at Belfast city council to fly the Union flag on designated days rather than all year round, riots broke out in pro-union areas. As streets across the city were blockaded, Belfast effectively came to a standstill.

One of the reasons loyalists, who support the maintenance of the union with Great Britain, are so angry is that they feel they have lost out to republicans in the peace process, says Mark Vinton, a member of the Progressive Unionist Party, which is linked to the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force.

Vinton feels that the peace agreement has allowed republicans to further their political goal of Irish unification. Since 1998, Sinn Fein has become the largest nationalist party in Northern Ireland and is growing in popularity south of the border.

“Sinn Fein and republicanism have used the Agreement as a stepping-stone to further their own aims. So basically anybody that you speak to within a working class Unionist or loyalist community will feel massively let down, that it wasn’t an agreement at all, that there were shafted,” says Vinton.

Paying a peace divident?

Loyalists such as Mark Vinton say their communities have never received the much-vaunted “peace dividend” promised by politicians after the 1998 agreement that ushered in the historic power sharing arrangement between Catholics and Protestants.

“If you come into Belfast city centre you will see [it] flourishing,” he says. “But if you take a 10 minute sidestep to either side of North, South, East, West Belfast, you go into working class areas, you will then see the dividend that was meant to pay off peace-wise, has not paid off in those communities, they still live in mass deprivation.”

Ardoyne, a republican area in North Belfast, regularly ranks as one of the most deprived communities in Northern Ireland. Political tensions here have risen in recent months. Just across the “interface” that separates Catholics from Protestants, a loyalist protest has been ongoing since July, when a parade by the Protestant Orange Order was prevented from passing through a nearby nationalist area.

“Negative elements” are trying to manipulate and exploit tensions over flags and other symbols of identity, says Joe Marlay, a community worker in Ardoyne.

But life has changed for the better since the ceasefires, says Marlay, whose father was shot dead by loyalists. “The life I had sort of growing up, is not the life of my sons and daughters have now in our house. We had bullet-proof [glass] on the doors, and some of the windows, we had security gates on the stairs, we had our own security procedures [for] how we lived…. If we were driven to school in the mornings we had to check under the car for devices.”

Ghosts of the past

Nevertheless, fears are growing that demographic and social changes could put further pressure on the gains of peace. The 2012 census found that, for the first time, Protestants do not constitute a majority in Northern Ireland. Formal education is sorely lacking in working-class Protestant areas, and the local economy is still struggling to recover from the global financial crisis.

Mistrust between unionists and republicans continues despite a peace deal signed in 1998 [EPA]

Relations between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party, who share power in the devolved assembly at Stormont, are icy and getting colder with each passing week.

“The principles, the goodwill and ethos of the Good Friday Agreement are gone,” says Dr Jonny Byrne.

The Conservative-led coalition government in London has shown little appetite for involving itself in Northern Irish affairs. Prime Minister David Cameron is from a generation of Tories that have little psychological or emotional attachment to a peace process that was the product of Tony Blair and New Labour.

The failure of the British government – and its Irish counterpart – to engage with the situation in Northern Ireland is creating a power vacuum, says Steven McCaffery, editor of Belfast-based investigative websitethe Detail.

“The whole premise of the Good Friday agreement was that it was not an internal solution. There were three legs to the stool: there was London, Dublin and Belfast. The London leg and the Dublin leg have effectively fallen away, so the stool is wobbling.”

With a divided leadership in power at Stormont and growing tensions on the ground, any agreement on the past is likely to remain elusive. This makes the task of creating a shared future after conflict even more difficult.

“We don’t have an agreed narrative of the past from which to try to build an agreed vision of the future,” says Norman Hamilton, former moderator of the Presbyterian Church, which campaigned for decades for an end to the sectarian conflict.

“In order to create the political stability, to create enforced power-sharing, the narrative of the past was set aside in the hope that as an executive assembly delivered real progress on the ground the pain of the past would recede. That hasn’t happened.”

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera English.

Protestants go for Gaelic in Northern Ireland

Belfast, Northern Ireland  Seomra ranga – “classroom”, in Ireland’s indigenous language – reads a cardboard sign tacked onto a door. A little further down the hall, a leabharlann is filled with books. It is a very Irish scene, but in a very unlikely place: East Belfast Mission on Newtownards Road.

Across the street, a mural commemorates the Protestant paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force. Union Jack flags fly from lampposts in the shadow of the shipyards that built the Titanic.

In Northern Ireland, the Irish Gaelic language has traditionally been a largely Catholic pursuit. The overwhelming majority of the 5,000 children in Irish-language education hail from nationalist areas.

But this might be about to change. The Turas Centre in the East Belfast Mission – turas means “journey” in Irish Gaelic  hosts 10 Irish-language classes a week. About 90 percent of those filing in and out of the seomra ranga and reading textbooks in the leabherlann are Protestant.FILE PHOTO OF SCHOOL BOYS PASSING IN FRONT OF A MURAL IN BELFAST.

“The Irish language is part of our culture. It belongs to everyone,” said Linda Ervine, an Irish language development officer at the East Belfast Mission.

I would just call it a bullying session. There were three men and myself. They accused me of diluting ulster Protestantism. I said, ‘Well it depends what your definition of Ulster Protestantism is.’

– Linda Ervine, Irish language development officer

Ervine is the closest East Belfast comes to royalty: loyalist leader David Ervine was her brother-in-law; her husband, Brian, is like his late brother David, a former leader of the Progressive Unionist Party.

From the ancient Gaelic-speaking kingdom

Linda Ervine’s soft voice and gentle manner bely a formidable passion for the Irish language – and for why Northern Ireland’s Protestant community should take it up.

“There is every reason why Protestants should be learning Irish,” she said. “Ninety-five percent of our place names come from Gaelic… We are using words in our language every day that come from the Gaelic language. We are steeped in it.”

On a nearby wall hangs a map of Britain and Ireland turned on its side, showing the ancient Gaelic-speaking kingdom of Dalriada, which spread across the north coast of Ireland and the western isles of Scotland in the late sixth and early seventh centuries.

Most Gaelic speakers in Scotland are Protestant, and when they came to Ireland during the Plantations, they brought their language with them, Ervine explained.

Ervine’s own turas to Irish began three years ago, when the women’s group she was part of at the East Belfast Mission took a starter course in the language. She was bitten by the bug and soon enrolled in an intensive course at an Irish centre in a nearby nationalist area.

Since then, Ervine has been travelling across Northern Ireland giving presentations and talks about the history of Protestantism and the Irish language. “We discovered that in the 1901 and 1911 census, people listed themselves as having Irish here in East Belfast,” she said.

Ervine is not the first figure from a loyalist background to shine a light on the Irish aspect of Ulster Protestant identity.

In the early 1990s, not far from where the Turas Centre sits today, the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force – responsible for hundreds of killings during the 30-year-long “Troubles – painted a mural on Newtownards Road celebrating the Irish mythological hero Cuchulainn as a defender of Ulster. The Red Hand Commando, a splinter group of the Ulster Volunteer Force, had “Lamh Dearg Abu” (Victory to the Red Hand) as its motto.

Mind your language 

But many unionists have not been sympathetic to Ervine’s efforts to encourage Protestants to embrace Irish.

At a meeting of Down District Council in March, three Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) councillors walked out just minutes before she was due to give a presentation. UUP councillor Walter Lyons said the party “had to make a stand” because the Irish language was being “forced upon” unionists and “used against us”.

Earlier this year, George Chittick, Belfast County Grand Master of the Orange Order, an influential Protestant organisation, issued a “word of warning to Protestants who go learn Irish”. He later said his remarks were aimed at Protestants seeking funding for Irish-language projects – a thinly veiled attack on the Turas Centre.

The Orange Order’s criticism was “very sad”, said Ervine.

“I was invited to speak to the Orange Order shortly after that, and I would just call it a bullying session. There were three men and myself. They accused me of diluting Ulster Protestantism. I said, ‘Well, it depends what your definition of Ulster Protestantism is’.”

Irish has official recognition in Northern Ireland under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The peace deal also recognised Ulster Scots, a distinctive dialect spoken by some Protestants. But the Democratic Unionist Party, who share power in a devolved government at Stormont, in Belfast, have blocked subsequent attempts to enact an Irish-language act.

In January, the Council of Europe criticised what it called Stormont’s “hostile” attitude towards Irish. Earlier this month, Irish language speakers marched in Belfast in protest over what they described as Stormont’s “failure” to protect the language.

“The ongoing failure to protect and promote the language in the courts, in public signage and in the education sector continues to unravel the promises made in the Good Friday Agreement,” said Conradh na Gaeilge (The Gaelic League) in a statement.

In spite of government policy, people all over Ireland are choosing Irish medium education. In Belfast, we are seeing a critical mass of kids coming out with Irish.

– Eimear Ní Mhathúna, director of the Cultúrlann centre

Critical mass

Despite government gridlock, Irish is thriving on the ground, said Eimear Ni Mhathuna, director of the Culturlann centre on the Falls Road in West Belfast.

“As we speak, a group from the Shankill [a nearby majority Protestant area] are doing an Irish-language course upstairs,” she told Al Jazeera.

Irish took off in West Belfast in the late 1960s, when a group of Irish-speaking families set up an urban Gaeltacht, the name given to an Irish-speaking area. In 1971, a school called Bunscoil Phobal Feirste began with nine children. Now there are 12 Irish-language primary schools in Belfast.

Colaiste Feirste, a nearby secondary school, has nearly 600 pupils, and St Mary’s College provides teacher training in Irish. Two of Belfast’s last three Lord Mayors – including the incumbent Mairtin O Muilleoir – have been associated with the West Belfast Gaeltacht.

“In spite of government policy, people all over Ireland are choosing Irish medium education,” said Ni Mhathuna. “In Belfast, we are seeing a critical mass of kids coming out with Irish.”

Back in East Belfast, Ervine argued that Northern Ireland’s rich linguistic diversity should be cherished as an opportunity to bring people together, not push them apart.

“As people in Northern Ireland, when we open our mouths we speak beautiful constructions of English, Scots, Scots Gaelic and Irish Gaelic. We are using all those words, all that syntax, because we as a people bring all that together,” Ervine said.

“I am trying to show people that you can’t divide people into these boxes. You can’t say just because someone is Catholic they should speak Gaelic, or because they are a Protestant they should speak Ulster Scots. It just doesn’t work like that.”

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera English.

Tensions ratcheting up in Northern Ireland

Belfast, Northern Ireland – The Good Friday Agreement in 1998 brought Northern Ireland’s bloody conflict to a close, but signs of division remain 15 years later.

In the capital Belfast, Catholic and Protestant communities are separated by euphemistic “peace walls”, most children attend segregated schools, and major questions around the past and future remain unresolved.

A bomb exploded in Belfast’s city centre last Friday night, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of Christmas revellers. The blast, for which republican dissident group Oglaigh na hEireann claimed responsibility, follows a bomb scare in the capital earlier in the week, and two separate attacks recently on Police Service of Northern Ireland officers.

There has been disquiet among some loyalists, too. A protest camp has been in place since July on north Belfast’s Twaddell Avenue, after an Orange Order parade was prevented from passing through a nearby Catholic area. “Respect Our Culture,” reads a large poster overlooking the encampment.

Questions of culture and identity impinge on business in Belfast City Hall, too. Unionists on the city council recently refused to take official Christmas cards. The reason: A picture of Belfast City Hall used in the festive greetings did not feature a British flag.

Discussions of the past have come to represent the failure of healing in society. The past is functioning as a symbol of how little progress has been made in society despite the progress made in politics.

– John Brewer, Queen’s University Belfast

 

The flag has been a live issue in Northern Ireland since last December, when the Belfast city council voted to change its policy on flying the Union flag from all-year round to a select number of designated days. Loyalists responded to the flag’s removal with a wave of protests that almost brought Belfast to a standstill at one stage.

New talks

In an effort to resolve the disputes about flags, parading, and the past, talks have been reconvened in Northern Ireland. Senior US diplomat Richard Haass, previously a special envoy for Northern Ireland under the presidency of George W Bush, and Harvard professor Meghan O’Sullivan are leading the talks.

Haass, who has already held three rounds of negotiations this year with the five main parties in the Northern Ireland Executive, said he hopes to reach a “meaningful agreement” before Christmas.

Haass is expected to deliver a series of recommendations to the devolved government at Stormont, which is dominated by the Irish nationalists Sinn Fein and the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party. These could include a framework for dealing with the thorny issue of what happened during theTroubles and its victims on both sides of the decades-old ethno-religious conflict.

Recent months have seen a glut of revelations about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, which left more than 3,000 dead and many times that number wounded. Earlier this month, the Smithwick Tribunal across the border in Dublin found evidence that Irish police colluded with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in the murder of two senior Northern Ireland police officers in 1989.

Anne Cadwallader’s recent book Lethal Allies detailed extensive contact between British security forces and loyalists who killed more than 120 people in Tyrone and Armagh in the 1970s. Meanwhile, the role of Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams in the disappearance of Belfast housewife Jean McConville in the 1970s has been the subject of renewed attention. McConville’s body was found on a beach in county Louth in 2003.

Shared vision?

Women walk past a Loyalist paramilitary mural [Reuters]

 

The Good Friday Agreement was a historic compromise between nationalists and unionists, but it left unresolved issues such as how to build a pluralist Northern Irish society and how to deal with the past. Fifteen years on, the violence has ended but a shared vision of the future, and the past, remains elusive.

“Discussions of the past have come to represent the failure of healing in society. The past is functioning as a symbol of how little progress has been made in society despite the progress made in politics,” says John Brewer, professor of post-conflict studies at Queen’s University in Belfast.

But there are signs that Northern Irish leaders are starting to think more seriously about how to address the past. Last month, Northern Ireland’s attorney general, John Larkin, suggested ending any prosecutions over Troubles-related killings that took place before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. Currently such cases are dealt with by the Historical Enquiries Team, which has delivered only a handful of successful convictions and is expected to cost £190m ($310m) over the next five years.

The parties at the Haass talks are considering a number of possible models for setting aside Troubles-era offences. These include: a stay on prosecutions, as suggested by Larkin; a truth commission with an amnesty broadly based on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission; compelling witnesses to give evidence in exchange for immunity; and leaving witnesses open to the threat of prosecution.

Sinn Fein favours a truth commission. The Democratic Unionist Party has said it will oppose any amnesty but has softened its position on conditional immunity, which was used in attempts to obtain information on the recovery of the bodies of IRA victims buried in unmarked graves in the 1970s.

“We need to look at what [Haass is] saying by way of immunity – is that immunity for all time over those actions, or is it a limited immunity, such as we have for instance with the decommissioning legislation?” first minister Peter Robinson said recently. “I think we’ll look at what the proposition is and judge it when we see the detail.”

Tell the truth

Northern Irish politicians need to be more honest with Troubles’ victims, says MLA John McCallister, deputy leader of the newly formed party NI21.

“We can’t provide victims with justice. We are unlikely to be able to provide them with the truth,” says McCallister. “What we can do is offer victims support. Instead of spending £190m ($310m) policing the past, why don’t we use that for victims’ services?”

Duncan Morrow, a former chairman of the Community Relations Council in Belfast, says those who committed crimes need to be included in any reconciliation process. “The fundamental issue in the past is how you resolve the dilemma of wanting to include the perpetrators in the resolution and doing justice to the victims,” he says.

Morrow says he believes that while all the parties claim to want justice for victims, the wider question of political responsibility for violence during the Troubles is not being addressed. “Neither nationalism nor unionism want to have the real conversation about the political legitimacy for the killings,” Morrow says. “A politically permissive environment for killing was created in this place, and that’s what they don’t want to touch.”

There is a bit more optimism than there was … But the proof will be in the substance, whether there is something generated that would provide a basis to go forward from here.

– Duncan Morrow, Community Relations Council in Belfast

 

Troublesome parades

The past is not the only issue on the table this week. Loyalist parades remain an annual source of tension, particularly during the July marching season. Many in Northern Ireland are hopeful that an agreement can be reached on parading, with the abolition of the current Parades Commission and the creation of a new parades body being the most likely outcome.

Loyalists, however, have vowed to reject any compromise, especially on the sensitive issue of flags.

“Unionism has given up enough. We don’t have any more to give,” Jamie Bryson, one of the leaders of the flags protests, told Al Jazeera in Belfast. “Any deal would only fan the flames of loyalist resistance.”

“Would Richard Haass go to America and tell the Americans to take down the stars and stripes because it offends al-Qaeda?” Bryson asked.

Despite the obstacles in the way of a deal, there is a growing expectation that some form of agreement can be reached by Haass’ self-imposed deadline of the end of this week.

“There is a bit more optimism than there was that they will do something that would allow Haass to claim some success,” says Morrow. “But the proof will be in the substance, whether there is something generated that would provide a basis to go forward from here.”

This piece originally appeared on Al-Jazeera

Kosovo city plans new polls after marred vote

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

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

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

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

Failed elections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serbia ties

Over the past 14 years, north Kosovo has developed in isolation from the rest of Kosovo. Parallel structures funded by Belgrade provide education, health, and court systems, and many in North Mitrovica are wary of any change to the status quo. “A huge majority of the people are against any sort of tight connection with Pristina,” said Ivanovic, referring to Kosovo’s capital. “Pristina is there, we cannot underestimate that fact. We are part of Kosovo as long as Kosovo is part of Serbia.”

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

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

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

Masked men raid Kosovo polling station

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

The division of Mitrovica has inflicted social and economic costs on the Serbs living on the north side of the city. “Before the war, the town was organised in a proper way. All the facilities were shared around the town. But by dividing the town, now we just have the general hospital and all the other facilities, two stadiums, sports hall, health centre, railway station. Everything is in the south,” said Sinisa, an ethnic Serb primary school teacher who declined to give his last name.

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

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

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

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

Worry of ‘half-legitimate leaderships’

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

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

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

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

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

This piece originally appeared on Al-Jazeera.

Getting away ‘Scot-free’ from alcoholism

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘It causes so much damage’

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

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

– Jonathan Chick, consultant psychiatrist at Queen Margaret University Hospital

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

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

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

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

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

‘The wrong approach’

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

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

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

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

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

Minimum prices

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

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

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

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

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

This piece originally appeared on Al-Jazeera

 

Scots rally for independence from UK

Edinburgh, Scotland – In 1992, on the same evening the Conservatives won a fourth successive UK general election, a small group of campaigners started a vigil for a Scottish Parliament at Calton Hill in Edinburgh.

Their constant watch lasted five and half years, until Scots had a chance to vote “yes” to devolution in 1997.

Thousands returned to Calton Hill last Saturday. This time, however, they came not to demand more powers for Scotland, but to call for full independence from the rest of the United Kingdom.

What unites these people is that all their lives they’ve watched Westminster fail to deliver on the things they care about, whether it’s social justice or the environment or proper democracy.

-James Mackenzie, Scottish Green Party

 

“I’m here because I want Scotland to have the same rights, responsibilities and privileges as any other country in Europe or the world,” one demonstrator, Alan Farquhar, told Al Jazeera, as a colourful crowd of independence supporters, estimated by organisers at 20,000, made its way through Edinburgh’s historic Old Town towards Calton Hill.

Farquhar has been a member of the Scottish National Party for “22, 23 years”. “When I joined the SNP, we were at 9, 10, 11 percent in the polls. There has been a great progression since then: winning a minority election [in the Scottish Parliament in 2007], then a majority election [in 2011]. As far as I see it, independence is a natural progression,” Farquhar said.

Whether or not Scotland does decide to go it alone depends on the outcome of next September’s independence referendum. “A yes vote is for self-government, not remote government – good government with independence, not bad government from Westminster,” Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond – leader of the Scottish National Party and very much the architect of next year’s historic vote – told supporters on Calton Hill.

“A yes vote next September will not be a victory for the SNP, or the ‘Yes’ campaign, or even the huge coalition of interests and enthusiasm gathered here today,” he said during the three-hour rally.

“It will be the people’s victory. ‘Yes’ will be an act of self-confidence and self-assertion, which will mean that decisions about what happens in Scotland are always taken by the people who live and work here.”

Colourful rally

Saturday’s rally, which was not organised by the official “Yes” campaign, was a decidedly ecumenical affair.

Alongside SNP banners and standards were men in kilts and William Wallace T-shirts, and there were placards for everyone, from “Farmers for Yes” to “Aussies for Independence”. Supporters of both the Greens and the Scottish Socialist Party, both backers of independence, were out in force, too.

“What unites these people is that all their lives they’ve watched Westminster fail to deliver on the things they care about, whether it’s social justice or the environment or proper democracy,” said James Mackenzie, a member of the Scottish Green Party, who recently started a small business in Edinburgh.

Independence referendum will be held in September 2014 [Peter Geoghegan/Al Jazeera]

“Independent Scotland would be run closer to the people, even simply on a geographical basis. The idea that Westminster is ever going to deliver social justice, sustainability, proper democracy, I just don’t believe it. I’m not saying it’s guaranteed in an independent Scotland, but at least we’d have a chance.”

As the marchers gathered at midday in Edinburgh, a busker played a cover version of Dougie McLean’s Scottish folk ballad “Caledonia”. A little further up the cobbled High Street, a woman with a microphone led a group behind a “Radical Independence Campaign” banner in a call-and-response: “What do we want?” “Independence.” “When do we want it?” “Now”.

“People don’t want more of the same, they want radical change,” Cath Boyd from the left-wing Radical Independence Campaign told Al Jazeera. “We need an economic change and a social change. Internationally, what Britain has come to represent is abhorrent. There is a place for a progressive Scotland with no nuclear weapons, which doesn’t participate in illegal wars,” she said.

Opinion polls suggest many Scots remain to be convinced about the virtues of independence. One poll at the beginning of September gave the “No” side a 30-percent lead, prompting claims from unionists that the battle was all but over. But then the SNP hailed a survey that showed support for a “Yes” vote had taken the lead for the first time since 2011.

Large-scale rallies could help galvanise independence supporters ahead of a crucial 12 months of campaigning, said Peter Lynch, a lecturer in Stirling University and author of SNP: A History of the Scottish National Party.

“Showing to each other how many ‘yes’ supporters there are is good for morale,” he said.

“If you are a ‘yes’ supporter seeing endless polls saying ‘you’re only 30 percent’, oh, ‘you’re only 35 percent’, ‘now you’re down to 25 percent’, you feel like a beleaguered minority that is never going to win. These are the kind of events that make [‘yes’ supporters] see that there are actually a lot of ‘yes’ supporters, and if they can mobilise and grow then they are in with a chance of winning in September next year.”

Reaching out

Not everyone agrees. Tom Gallagher, emeritus professor at Bradford University, said nationalists are not doing enough to reach out to the undecided voters who are likely to decide next year’s referendum.

For the Nationalists, the misery of the people isn’t a wrong to be corrected – it is a chance to be exploited. For them, grievance is not to be addressed – it is to be nurtured.

-Johann Lamont , Scottish Labour Party

 

“The big challenge for ‘Yes’ campaigners is they need to stop dialoguing with themselves. They need to engage with the fears and anxieties that a lot of people have, instead of just brushing them away and saying ‘it’ll be alright on the night,'” the author of Scotland Divided: Ethnic Friction and Christian Crisis said.

Among the Scottish saltires on Saturday were flags from Catalonia, Corsica, Flanders, Sicily, Wales and other nationalist movements across Europe.

Franco Rocchetta, twice a member of the Italian Parliament, was among a group of about 50 supporters of Venetian independence that made the journey from northern Italy to the Scottish capital.

“For us coming here is like swimming in the fountain of youth,” he said. “We are also fighting to get a referendum for independence.”

While Scotland’s independence campaign has garnered foreign admirers, so far it has struggled to attract supporters of the Labour party, once the dominant force in Scottish politics and still the second-largest constituency in the devolved parliament.

Scottish Labour, strongly opposed to independence, is part of Better Together, a cross-party unionist campaign calling for a “No” vote in 2014.

At the weekend, Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont told attendees at the Labour Party’s annual conference in Brighton that next year’s referendum was a chance to defeat the “virus” of nationalism.

“For the Nationalists, the misery of the people isn’t a wrong to be corrected – it is a chance to be exploited. For them, grievance is not to be addressed – it is to be nurtured,” Lamont told the group.

“And that cynicism, that calculation which leaves families suffering now is a price worth paying if it translates into votes next September. It’s a cynicism which corrodes our politics. It should create in us a revulsion.”

Unsurprisingly, Lamont’s assessment of Scottish nationalism did not resonate with the marchers in Edinburgh. “I feel it’s all inclusive,” said Tarlika Elisabeth Schmitz, who moved to Scotland from Germany 17 years ago.

Schmitz travelled from Lochaber in the Highlands to the capital for the rally. “It’s great to be here,” she said as she walked towards Calton Hill, accompanied by her Scottish terrier, Nechtain, in a blue “Yes” shawl.

“I think we will do it. I am pretty confident we will win.”

This piece originally appeared on Al-Jazeera. 

Polls to test turbulent Albanian democracy

Tirana, Albania – Under the secretive Communist regime of Enver Hoxha, Blloku was the most restricted district in Albania. Only high-ranking apparatchiks in the ruling Party of Labour were allowed to reside in the tight grid of tree-lined streets located in the centre of the capital, Tirana. In the middle of “the Block” stood Hoxha’s own private residence, an opulent Italianate villa with a swimming pool in the garden, completely at odds with the poverty that most Albanians lived in.

More than two decades after the fall of the hardline Communists, Blloku has been transformed into the busiest location in this picturesque Adriatic state. Formerly austere government buildings are now shopping emporia and luxury flats. Hoxha’s old house is still there – but now it’s a popular open-air bar.

Currently, Blloku features something else unimaginable in Comrade Enver’s authoritarian time – election paraphernalia. And lots of it.

Coalition politics

It’s hard to walk more than a few metres in Blloku without coming across a poster for the ruling Democratic Party, a billboard for a the small LSI party, or even a stencil in support of the main opposition, the Socialists, spray-painted on a wall.

On Sunday, June 23, Albanians go to the polls in parliamentary elections for the first time since a contentious vote in 2009. The choice is essentially the same as four years ago: incumbent Prime Minister Sali Berisha and his Democratic Party – in power since 2005 – or the Socialist party led by the former mayor of Tirana, Edi Rama.

Electoral coalitions are the norm in Albanian politics. Rama is leading the “Alliance for a European Albania”, which includes the Socialists, LSI, a Greek minority party and four small Communist groups. Berisha’s “Alliance for Employment, Welfare and Integration” – led by the Democratic Party – includes the Republican Party and a party for the Chams, a group of Albanians originally from near the Greek border. Most polls put the Socialist alliance ahead – but the result is far from certain.

‘Everything we need’

“This government needs to change,” said architect Lindito Ziu, as she waited for a friend less than a hundred metres from Hoxha’s former home. “In eight years, they haven’t invested anything in this country.”

Edi Rama is the leader of the Albanian opposition and Socialist Party candidate for the Prime Minister post [EPA]

Earlier this month, Berisha cut the ribbon on a new highway linking Tirana and the industrial city of Elbasan to the south. An hour and a half journey on dangerous mountain roads has been cut down to just 40 minutes. But Ziu is not impressed. “They say they have done the roads but they will only last a year or two. They were not built properly,” she said.

Not everybody is dissatisfied with Berisha. A little further down the street, shopkeeper Fatos Kume said he will be voting for the craggy-faced northerner and former cardiologist who has dominated Albanian political life for more than two decades. “Everyone can see the difference he has made,” he said.

Originally from the southern city of Vlore, Kume contrasts the bustling shop he has run for the past seven years with life under the Communist regime. “Under Communism, a man had just one suit – and even that he would have to borrow. When I got married I borrowed my brother’s suit,” he recalls. “When I first went to Tirana with my wife, I bumped into my sister-in-law and she recognised me by her husband’s suit.”

“Now it is different. Now we have everything we need.”

Competing platforms

Many Albanians are not so fortunate. Average monthly salaries are around $330 dollars. Unofficially, unemployment is around 30 percent. The economy has avoided recession but is struggling to grow, while public debt has risen sharply. In February, the World Bank criticised the Berisha government for breaking a self-imposed public debt ceiling of 60 percent. Corruption is a fact of daily life.

Rama has attacked Berisha for his failure to tackle Albania’s economic problems and the endemic corruption. “We are in a deep economic crisis, with high unemployment, bad services, (and) a very poor social situation, especially in suburbs and rural areas. Corruption and crime are big problems,” the Socialist party leader told Al Jazeera.

“The core problem of Albania has to do with the fact that our economic model has exhausted itself. It has been based for many years on wild exploitation of resources, on constructions and on the remittances of emigrants, no job creation and no productivity. It is time to turn the page and build a new economic model,” Rama said.

Both the Democrats and the Socialists have committed to creating upwards of a quarter of a million new jobs. Berisha’s party plans to attract more foreign direct investment by establishing a 10 percent flat rate on all personal income and corporate taxes. Rama has promised to lower taxes for low-and middle-income employees at the expense of higher income earners.

“In terms of substance, it’s a fiscally irresponsible campaign,” said Lutfi Dervishi, executive director of Transparency International Albania. “They promise pie in the sky – raising salaries, raising pensions, reducing taxes – but where is the money coming from?”

“The economic issue is the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about.”

There has been little thought given to how “Albania is going to face these turbulent economic times”, said Dervishi.

A muddled election process

As is often the case in Albanian elections – and those elsewhere – the campaign has been dominated more by personalities than policies. Berisha and Rama have a long and acrimonious history. After the 2009 vote, the Socialists boycotted parliament, accusing Berisha and the Democratic Party of stealing the election. Two years later, four people were killed in Tirana when police opened fire on protesters at an opposition demonstration.

The beleaguered country also has a chequered election history. Previous votes have been marred by allegations of vote rigging, violence and intimidation. This time around there have numerous reports of vote buying, particularly in the key marginal districts that will decide the outcome of Sunday’s vote.

“We have reports coming from poor citizens of being offered money in exchange for their vote, or young voters who are thrown parties and [offered] excursions by candidates to win their favour,” said Aranita Brahaj, project coordinator for ZaLart, a website which collects reports about alleged electoral fraud from across Albania.

The economic issue is the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about.

Lutfi Dervishi, Transparency International Albania

Brahaj said that, in the Kamza district of Tirana, voters were being offered anything from $30 to $100 for their ballot. Elsewhere in the country there have been reports of voters being offered food, money, and even cows in exchange for their votes.

“I think it is not a democracy, as some citizens cannot have a vote because they are poor,” said Brahaj.

There are question marks, too, over whether the result can be verified after Sunday’s vote. Following a split in Berisha’s ruling coalition in April, the Central Elections Committee (CEC) has only four sitting members – one fewer than the five required to declare the result of the election.

“There is no clean way for the results to get out, which doesn’t look good,” said Skye Christensen, an international election consultant. “You could find a way to get around it but you would have to break the law. The question is who breaks the law and where.”

All the main parties support membership of the European Union. But the accession process has stalled badly in recent years and the EU has warned that it will be watching Sunday’s vote closely. The election must be “in line with international and European standards”, Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, said in April.

Given Albania’s turbulent electoral history and the machinations around the Central Elections Committee, few are expecting a quick result.

“Albanian elections are interesting not prior to the election but the day after,” said Dervishi. “It’s a question of political will whether both parties want to proceed at speed [with the count and declaration] or put the brakes on the election process. It could take a while.”

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.