Which is the world’s most segregated city?

The city where segregation increased the most among the 13 studied was Madrid, not due to an influx of property speculators, but because rather a lack of affordable housing.
Segregation has shot up in Madrid – due less to property speculation than a lack of affordable housing. Photograph: Alamy

“Reclaim your community,” declared the posters. “Hipsters beware.” Pinned around London’s East End last month, they announced Fuck Parade, an anti-gentrification demonstration that culminated in an attack on a café selling bowls of cereal. Long the first port of call for cash-strapped new arrivals in the city – Irish, Jews, Bangladeshis and many others – the East End was changing, said Fuck Parade’s organisers. They explained that they were protesting against increasing economic segregation: the construction of “luxury flats that no one can afford” instead of “genuinely affordable housing”.

London certainly is a very inequitable city. The richest 10% of its residents own 60% of the city’s assets. The top 10th of London earners take home around 4.5 times as much as the bottom 10th.

However, according to new research, and unlike many European cities, between 2001 and 2011, London did not actually become more economically segregated … largely because the city was so divided to start with.

“In the central parts of London, housing is extremely expensive and segregation is already high,” says Maarten van Ham, professor of urban renewal at Delft University of Technology and the University of St Andrews. Van Ham co-authored the study, which measured a range of variables associated with segregation: income, occupational status, education and more.

Peabody housing estate just off Poplar high street in East London. Canary Wharf is in the background.
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Peabody housing estate just off Poplar high street in East London. Canary Wharf is in the background. Photograph: Photofusion/Rex Shutterstock

The research found that, in the decade from 2001, segregation increased in 11 of 13 major European cities (the other exception, along with London, was Amsterdam.)

In Scandinavia, for example, the traditional Nordic model seems to be fraying at the edges. In Stockholm, social housing is being sold into the private sector; even in famously equal Oslo, rich and poor are increasingly living parallel lives in different parts of the city.

Across the Baltic Sea, Vilnius and Tallinn have gone from Soviet cities with limited private ownership of housing to hyper-capitalist ones in just 25 years.

Throughout Europe, inequality is on the rise. Our cities are looking and feeling very different, as middle-class professionals flock to central neighbourhoods while immigrants increasingly congregate together, often in suburban enclaves. “Without inequality, there wouldn’t be any segregation by income,” says Van Ham. “If inequality increases in a city, you expect segregation to rise, too.”

For example, the city where segregation increased the most among the 13 studied was Madrid – not due to an influx of property speculators, but rather a lack of affordable housing, which, for example, forced young people to stay living with their parents. In Vienna, the number of professionals has doubled in the past decade, squeezing out poorer residents.

In 2005, riots broke out across the Parisian banlieues. The insurrection was, in part, a protest against inequality, and yet segregation has increased in the years since.

Over the past three decades, it has increased in most US cities, too. The most extreme economic examples are concentrated in college towns – in part because the vertiginous cost of American university education attracts only the wealthiest. But it affects larger cities, too: New York, Philadelphia and Chicago are segregated along economic lines and are getting worse.

North of the border, in Winnipeg, a “great divide” has opened up between the 80,000-strong indigenous population and the rest of the city’s residents. Most of Winnipeg’s First Nations community live in the inner city and the North End, two of the poorest postcodes in Canada. On a whole host of indices, from access to housing to exposure to violent crime, aboriginals fare worse.

Research shows that Detroit is the most racially unequal metropolis in the US.
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Research shows that Detroit is the most racially unequal metropolis in the US. Photograph: Rebecca Cook/Reuters/Corbis

But for the starkest examples of segregation, we have to look beyond Europe and North America. In Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, hundreds of thousands of erstwhile nomads live in felt-covered “ger” tents on scrubland on the outskirts of the city, while downtown, the nouveau riche shop in expensive designer stores. And in Johannesburg, walls – often topped with broken glass and surveillance cameras – separate the wealthy from the hoi polloi. The South African city, once strictly segregated along racial lines, is now divided by income.

Cities, of course, are not just divided by money. Belfast, too, has walls – in this case iron “peace walls”, some almost 20ft high, built to separate nationalists and unionists. In the Indian state of Gujarat, scene of vicious anti-Muslim riots in 2002, many Hindus and Muslims live in separate, sprawling ghettos. Parts of the Saudi Arabian capital, Riyadh, are split along gender lines, with women-only shopping centres and restaurants, and even a dedicated women’s day at the local zoo.

Indices of dissimilarity – which measure the evenness of two groups (such as ethnic or occupational) in any given area – can be used to chart segregation. According to one study, Detroit is the most racially unequal metropolis in the US, with a dissimilarity score of almost 80: a largely black inner city, with whites living predominantly in the surrounding suburbs.

Belfast’s “peace walls” are almost 20ft high, built to separate nationalists and unionists.
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Belfast’s “peace walls” are almost 20ft high, built to separate nationalists and unionists. Photograph: Antonio Olmos for the Observer

And yet, racial segregation may not be inevitable in large multi-ethnic cities. In Los Angeles, for example, segregation has actually decreased, according to new research. In 2000, 40% of LA’s population lived in strongly segregated neighbourhoods; by 2010, it was one-third. The biggest fall has been in the number of heterogeneous white areas. “Diversity and heterogeneity is the new structure of urban society,” the authors conclude.

In Europe, however, cities are likely to become more divided as the impact of the 2008 financial crisis really starts to bite. “The crisis has probably caused inequality to rise in Europe,” says Van Ham. “But there is a serious time lag – five to 10 years – between rising inequality and when it affects cities.”

Compared with other cities around the world, however, Europe’s capitals are still relatively mixed. The oil-rich Angolan capital of Luanda has been, in some measures, the world’s most expensive city for each of the last three years. The super-rich live in gated, high-rise apartments; hotel rooms cost upwards of £250 a night for the most rudimentary. Poorer residents, meanwhile, struggle to survive in makeshift housing, unable to afford the eye-watering prices for basic staples such as milk and tomatoes.

This piece originally appeared in the Guardian.

Will Northern Ireland’s Peacewalls Ever Come Down?

In 1971, a secret report by the Northern Irish government criticised the speed with which walls, gates and fences were being constructed in Belfast to separate Catholics and Protestants. The so-called “peace lines”, it said, were creating an “atmosphere of abnormality” in the city. But the Stormont report writers did “not expect any insurmountable difficulty” in bringing down the barricades once the violence had subsumed.

Now, more than 40 years after the British Army constructed the first of those barriers, Belfast is still scarred by them: corrugated iron fences, some as high as 18ft, topped with barbed wire. Defensive architecture, it turns out, is far easier to erect than tear down. The city’s gates and walls have become “part of the built environment”, according to Jonny Byrne, a lecturer in politics at the University of Ulster. “The Berlin Wall had to come down for Berlin to be normalised. We have normalised Belfast without taking down the walls.”1938

Indeed, Belfast’s defensive walls are arguably the most famous of those many “divided cities” riven by ethnic conflict. When I was in Mitrovica, Kosovo, another divided city, ethnic Serbs informed me what a putative peace-building trip to Northern Ireland had actually taught them. “We need bigger walls,” one said.

In fact, the number of barricades in Belfast has actually increased since the Good Friday Agreement brought the Northern Irish conflict to an end in 1998. A 2012 study found almost 100 walls, fences, gates and roads forming “interfaces” between communities across the city.

It can seem baffling to outsiders. Why does Belfast still cleave to its walls? In 2008, then New York mayor Michael Bloomberg said that bringing down the barriers would open “floodgates of private investment”. Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government has vowed to remove all the peace walls by 2023.

Yet the scale – if not the impossibility – of that bold promise is all too apparent in North Belfast, a four-mile-squared patchwork of sectarian enclaves and divided loyalties that is home to almost half of the city’s peace walls. North Belfast witnessed some of the worst violence: a fifth of the more than 3,000 people killed during the Troubles died among these streets, where kerbstones alternate between nationalist green and unionist red, white and blue. Most people live on streets that are 90% Catholic or Protestant. The neighbourhood is also among the most economically deprived areas in Northern Ireland. Unlike the bustling city centre, there are no upmarket bars or expensive cafes serving flat whites.

“People say that when the walls come down, the investment will flow in. But they can’t even put in light bulbs here,” says Rab McCallum, a republican ex-prisoner who works for the North Belfast Interface Network (NBIN).

NBIN has been working for the better part of a decade out of a low-ceilinged office in a red-brick terrace near Cliftonville FC’s ground, Solitude. The group has studied peace walls, created an interactive map of them, and worked tirelessly to improve communication and prevent conflict across the “interface”, the city jargon for where Catholic and Protestant communities abut. McCallum and the small team are in touch by telephone with community workers on the loyalist side of the peace line, working constantly to defuse tensions, especially during the contentious summer marching season.

There have been some successes. In 2011, a “peace gate” was installed in the 3.5-meter-high corrugated iron fence that cuts through the tidy Victorian grounds of Alexandra Park. The foundations of that fence had been laid on 1 September 1994 – the day after the Provisional IRA announced a “complete cessation of military operations”.

Since opening, that “peace gate” has operated largely without incident. On a quiet weekday afternoon, dog walkers stroll from the Tiger’s Bay end, where Northern Irish flags fly from lampposts, to the republican Antrim Road, and vice versa. Nearby, a car turns down Newington Street. Until a few years ago, this was impossible: a steel gate, erected in the late 1980s following a spate of sectarian murders, barred the entrance to the nondescript row of terrace houses. Now the gate is open for most of the daytime: the hours have recently been extended.

Numerous other attempts to break down North Belfast’s defensive architecture, however, have run into the sand. Despite residents on both sides agreeing to a peace gate in the metal barrier that divides Flax Street, road authorities have refused to introduce expensive traffic-calming measures.

Even though segregation is estimated to cost Stormont £1.5bn a year, most of the funding for such “community relations” work comes from international donors, who are in the process of pulling out of Northern Ireland. “There is no momentum, there is no resources and the government haven’t provided a vision of a united community. They haven’t sold the benefits and opportunities” of taking down the peace walls, says McCallum. “We are in a situation where deadlines are constantly being put back, quite often because of an inability to secure the resources required.”

The peace walls were constructed, sometimes overnight, under anti-terrorism legislation. No formal mechanism exists for dismantling them. Lack of clear ownership – and legislative control – is compounded by the absence of clear guidelines for community agreement. A single resident’s opposition can be enough to maintain the status quo. “One voice can veto change for the many,” says NBIN’s Brendan Clarke.
Stormont is dominated by once-sworn enemies Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). There is little agreement about how to deal with the past, including peace walls. “There is no political need to build consensus,” says Norman Hamilton, a Presbyterian minister and member of the Community Relations Council.

Tensions between the parties threatened to bring down Stormont this summer, including the involvement of IRA members in the August murder of onetime republican gunman Kevin McGuigan. There have been ongoing anxieties over parades, with occasional incidents of violence. As I was sitting in the NBIN office, an email pinged into Clarke’s inbox. “There’s been a pipe bomb on the Oldpark Road.”

About a mile away, in West Belfast, on the opposite side of the peace line, shoppers on the Shankill Road pass storefronts selling mugs emblazoned with the Queen’s face. A mural depicts Belfast in its industrial heyday: Samson and Goliath, the iconic yellow cranes at Harland and Wolff. A little further down the street is another mural, this time in darker colours: two men bow their heads in honour of slain loyalist paramilitaries.

For four decades, an imposing, 800-metre-long, multilevel barrier has divided the loyalist Shankill and republican Falls Road. “The British Army started putting barbed wire to separate communities, then it was corrugated iron to separate communities, then brick walls that were added to and added to, even after the Good Friday Agreement,” says Ian McLaughlin of the Lower Shankill Community Association.

Men bow their heads in honour of slain loyalist paramilitaries on a mural lining the peace wall on Shankill Road in West Belfast. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian
At the same time as barriers were going up between Catholics and Protestants, the decrepit terrace houses of the Shankill were being torn down. In 1961, more than 70,000 people lived in the area; now it’s fewer than 25,000. Most left for loyalist estates that ring the outskirts of the city. Similar movements took place across working-class Belfast. The result is that demand for housing is, in general, far higher in Catholic areas than Protestant.

“Catholics see peace walls as a problem to their community developing. For Protestants, peace walls protect their way of life, their bonfires, their flags,” says Byrne. “The question is, how do we create the conditions in which Protestants don’t see the removal of the wall as a threat to their existence as a community?”

McLaughlin, too, would like to see all the peace walls removed. “But reaching that point is a huge journey,” he says, particularly for Protestants who fear that their areas could go from orange to green almost overnight if the barriers were gone. Meanwhile, many unionist politicians fear that building new homes in Catholic neighbourhoods could dilute their electoral base.

“The difficulty in any peace wall conversation is that a lot of the initial conversations revolve around a sense of loss. What will I lose?’ asks McLaughlin, who has worked with republicans on the Falls area to improve access across the peace line.

The answer to Belfast’s peace wall conundrum lies in regeneration, says McLaughlin. A new housing development in the Shankill area is going up, after an agreement was reached with the local community. “Our core business at one time was peace-building, but now we have a dual approach – regenerating our community and building relations with our neighbours.”

But macro-political tensions can impinge on attempts to build relationships at street level. At Skegoneill Avenue in North Belfast, loyalist paramilitary flags fly from lamp-posts, even though the streets are mostly mixed and even include Belfast’s synagogue. In the shadow of an Ulster Volunteer Force, lettuce and spinach sprout in Peas Park, a community garden created by local residents. Chickens cluck happily beside a shipping container that has been turned into a shop.

“People just independently started doing stuff,” says Callie Persic, an ebullient American who came to Belfast 20 years ago for her PhD in anthropology and stayed. The garden is particularly popular with young people. In September, there is a harvest day with food, music and face painting.

Peas Park, however, has not escaped Belfast territoriality. Earlier this summer, a fence was erected around the garden. “People have been saying to us, ‘You must feel safer now there is a fence,’” says Persic. “But I felt like, why are we putting up a gate at an interface?”

This piece originally appeared in the Guardian.

Dundee: from black sheep of Scottish cities to ‘living cultural experiment’

Chris Van Der Kuyl set up his first video game company in Dundee in the mid-1990s. “It was an industrial landscape,” he says of the city, which had been bled of heavy industry from the 1970s onwards. “Everything was closing, everyone was leaving.”

Van Der Kuyl’s 4J Studios would go on to help develop the global gaming sensation Minecraft; next year he will open a new digital headquarters on the city’s docks. “It’s not the V&A but it will cost a few million,” he laughs.

In its imperial heyday, Dundee was known as the city of “jute, jam and journalism”. Now, with the mills gone and the printing presses quieter, Scotland’s fourth city has a rather different claim to global fame: not just Minecraft but Grand Theft Auto and other classic video game titles were born or raised on the banks of the River Tay. What’s more, as Van Der Kuyl referred to, the only branch of the V&A museum outside London will open soon on the once-thriving docks.

Indeed, despite pockets of severe deprivation, Dundee’s story is that of a city increasingly defined by its culture and creativity. With a population of just 150,000, it was long seen as the black sheep of Scotland’s cities, languishing behind the architectural drama of Edinburgh and the wealth of Aberdeen, its post-industrial problems often overshadowed by those of much larger Glasgow. But this image is changing.

Some 3,000 people now work in Dundee’s creative economy, generating turnover of almost £200m. Last year, Dundee received the UK’s first Unesco City of Design award, fitting recognition for a city that gave the world everything from Aspirin and orange marmalade to ZX Spectrum. Publisher DC Thomsons are major employers here; an 8ft bronze statue of Dandy comic book hero Desperate Dan stands tall on the high street, his faithful mutt Dawg in tow.

The V&A at Dundee may be over budget – £80m and counting – and behind schedule, but it is expected to open in 2018. And actor Brian Cox is now backing a £120m project to bring a film studio to Dundee.

“What was a post-industrial city now has multiple indicators of inward investment,” says professor Paul Harris, dean of Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design. “There has been a massive transformation for the citizens of Dundee and their ambition.”

The Birmingham-born Harris “hated” Dundee when he arrived in 1991, to work in the local television industry. “The notion in ’91 of three cycle cafes and the V&A? You wouldn’t have believed it,” he says over coffee in an upmarket hotel by the docks. Nearby stand a phalanx of apartments with views over the Tay.

A couple of hundred metres away, along the river, a placard attached to plywood hoarding proclaims: “Your Waterfront Your Future”. Articulated lorries ferry earth from what will be the site of the V&A, located just next to where the RSS Discovery, the Dundee-built research ship used by Captain Scott and Ernest Shackleton’s expedition to Antarctica in 1901, is moored on the Tay. There are plans for a hotel, retail units and apartments, all part of an ambitious regeneration project to connect Dundee city centre to the water.

The decision to open the V&A at Dundee stemmed in large part from long established links between Duncan Jordanstone of College of Art and Design and the pater familias in Kensington. Similar links have been forged between Dundee’s universities and creative industries is many areas, notably gaming. In 1997, Abertay University created the world’s first degree in computer games technology. Today, Dundee is the heart of Scotland’s thriving gaming industry: Rockstar North, creators of Grand Theft Auto, may have since moved to Edinburgh, but there some 40 gaming firms based in Dundee.

Not all have multimillion-pound offices or household name titles. In an alcove in the roof of the Victorian-era City Chambers, a team of designers from a start-up called Spacebudgie is building an educational platform game. “We decided to form our own company rather than just getting jobs with other companies,” says designer Ronan Quigley, whose team are all recent Abertay graduates.

Spacebudgie share their enviable workspace – stained-glass windows, bare rafters, stickers that say “Fundee” dotted on walls – with a handful a small companies. They are part of the Fleet Collective, a community of artists, designers and creative entrepreneurs who work separately or collaborate on different projects. Desks are just £100 a month.

“In Dundee you have to make your own fun. You’re forced to do it yourself,” says Ed Broughton, a 37-year-old Londoner who runs the film outfit Bonnie Brae Productions at Fleet Collective. “It never really crossed my mind to set up a company before I came to Dundee.”

Dundee has made a virtue of its size. The local council convenes a quarterly Cultural Agencies Network, which meets to discuss strategy and concerns. A short walk from Fleet Collective is the impressive curved glass and steel building of Dundee Contemporary Arts. When the DCA was opened in 1999, on the site of an old garage that was being used as an impromptu skate park, the city had no real national cultural presence. Now the DCA boasts a print studio, cinema, gallery space, and one of the best cafes in town.

DCA director Clive Gillman says he looks ahead to the coming of the V&A but, like many in Dundee, mixes optimism with concerns about what he calls “irritable Bilbao syndrome”.

“We have to make the V&A work for the city. And we have to make the V&A work for us in the city,” says Gillman, who will soon take over as director of creative industries at Creative Scotland. “How do you make a massive institution like the V&A work within the context of the local strategy? That’s the really exciting thing. But that’s not easy either.”

The DCA has been widely praised for helping to transform the city’s cultural life. “Dundee Saved My Life” says a T-shirt on sale in the gift shop. “Across Europe there are hundreds, thousands, of small, post-industrial cities trying to understand what their future is. What Dundee has done is shape its future – partly by accident, partly by design, building on what was already here. This is a living experiment of what culture-led regeneration could look like,” says Gillman.

Every year, DCA buses in thousands of kids to attend screenings at the two-week Children’s Film festival. Local communities have long been at the heart of Dundee’s cultural strategy, but Gillman admits that reaching out remains “a fundamental challenge”.

The V&A will have to work hard to connect with the people of Dundee, too, not just the well-heeled visitors who will inevitably flock to it. Despite millions in outside investments, Dundee remains one of the most deprived places in Scotland. One in four children live in poverty. For many children growing up in places such as Lochee or Kirkton, lucrative careers as game designers or visual artists remain a distant dream.

There are significant economic barriers preventing poorer citizens from accessing Dundee’s cultural offerings, says Philip Howard, chief executive of Dundee Rep, the only repertory theatre left in the UK. Howard has worked hard to make Dundee Rep a more national, and indeed international, company. “But you have to offset that with wider, deeper and – crucially – more targeted work in the city.”

That includes taking plays out into Dundee’s small, closely knit communities. Each year, the Rep tours small venues across the city. The material started off relatively light with a collection of Alan Bennett monologues, but has progressed to plays about teenage pregnancy and social problems.

Anna Day, director of Literary Dundee, is all too aware of the “danger of polarisation” that can happen if a wealthy creative sector becomes disconnected from the city it inhabits. “It is about reaching these children at a young age and showing them how design and culture can change their lives,” says Day.

One attempt to do this is Comic School, a joint initiative between DC Thomson and the city’s universities. Due to open this year, it will host resident comic book artists who, in return for reduced rent in the building, will mentor young people. “We need to show people how (culture) can change their lives,” says Day.

Day grew up in Dundee, then left for London and a job on Fleet Street. She swore she would never return, but “then I came and saw how much was happening.” That was nine years ago. A shiny new museum, or a fleet of hipster office spaces, will not solve many of Dundee’s post-industrial problems, but Day believes something profound has changed. “The city is optimistic. How people feel about themselves has changed.”

This piece originally appeared in the Guardian.

Bob Gillespie, the SNP and Labour’s primal scream

It’s a bank holiday Monday afternoon in a Glasgow boozer. Busy tables are littered with discarded yellow raffle tickets and half-empty pints. On the small stage, a heavily pregnant woman belts out Purple Rain.

Bob Gillespie stands by the entrance, shoulders filling out a tweed jacket, silently mouthing Prince’s words. The 77-year-old passed his love of a singalong on to his son, the raucous Primal Scream frontman who bears his name. In a gap between numbers, a middle-aged woman with tightly pursed lips stops for a chat. “Don’t worry, I can help,” Gillespie says in a low, gravelly voice, flicking a hand through his white hair. She smiles, reassured.

In his native city, Bob Gillespie’s reputation goes before him. He is the union firebrand who took on Robert Maxwell. He is also probably the most famous Labour MP that Glasgow never had, the man whose defeat in a supposedly unlosable 1988 byelection in Govan was a watershed moment for Scotland, and Scottish nationalism.

Bob Gillespie
Outside the bar, the street is bathed in sunshine, illuminating a series of bright blue posters tacked up in the windows of a council flat. All say just one word: “Yes.” Glasgow voted for independence last year. Now Labour seems set to lose dozens of Westminster seats in its onetime heartlands to the Scottish National party. If anyone knows what that feels like, it’s Bob Gillespie.

In 1988 it was no summer of love in the shadows of the shipyards on the southern lip of Glasgow’s Clyde. Rangers had finished a lowly third in the league, behind bitter rivals Celtic. Margaret Thatcher was in the process of denationalising British Shipbuilders. Govan’s Fairfield yard would soon be sold off. That July, Labour leader Neil Kinnock nominated Govan MP Bruce Millan as a European Commissioner. The ensuing byelection would be a formality. In the previous year’s general election, Labour won a record victory in Scotland, returning 50 MPs. Millan took more than five times the vote of his nearest challenger in Govan. Scottish nationalists finished a distant fourth.

Labour chose Gillespie as its candidate. Gillespie, a vivacious product of Glasgow’s docks, seemed a neat fit with working-class Govan. After returning from the navy with “Hong Kong” tattooed on his knuckles – a memento of a drunken escapade in the entrepot – Gillespie had built a formidable union career. By 1988, he was negotiating with print bosses across the UK.

But it soon became apparent that Govan would not be as straightforward as the Labour hierarchy assumed. Labour was slumping in the polls. The self-styled “fighting fifty” Scottish Labour MPs elected in 1987 were powerless in Tory-controlled Westminster. Split on the issue of a devolved Scottish parliament, the party was equally divided about how to respond to the poll tax. The newly minted levy was to be implemented in Scotland first before being rolled out across the UK. Labour rejected proposals for mass non-payment. The Scottish National party saw its chance.

“Our strategy in Govan was absolutely clear, to pin the Labour party on two points: they didn’t know what to do about the poll tax and they weren’t the party they were,” recalls Jim Sillars, the SNP’s candidate and himself a former Labour MP.

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Jim Sillars, SNP candidate in the 1988 Glasgow Govan byelection. Photograph: Guardian

The SNP had form in Govan. In 1973, a glamorous 30-year-old publican named Margo MacDonald – nicknamed “the blonde bombshell” by an enraptured press corps – overturned a massive Labour majority to win a historic nationalist victory. By 1988, Sillars and MacDonald were husband and wife.

But the political landscape in Govan had shifted in the decade and a half since MacDonald had shocked the Labour establishment. The defiant radicalism of Jimmy Reid and the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders was a fading memory. The SNP was openly loathed, blamed for ushering Thatcher into power after its support for a no-confidence motion precipitated the collapse of the James Callaghan administration in 1979.

“We were despised,” says Sillars, leaning back on a tan easy chair in his ground-floor flat on Edinburgh’s southside. Near his slippered feet lie copies of Marx’s Capital, biographies of Hitler and Stalin, and Alex Salmond’s recent referendum campaign diary.

Initially, the SNP’s aims in Govan were timorous. Reduce the Labour majority to a few thousand. Give the party a scare. But as the short byelection campaign began, the mood changed. Nationalists descended upon Govan. More than 500 turned out to canvass in one day alone. Sillars’s call to refuse to pay the poll tax chimed with an angry electorate. A Labour press officer drafted from London for the campaign later recalled the Proclaimers “driving round Govan on the back of a flatbed truck urging everyone to kick Labour where it hurt”.

Bob Gillespie was struggling. Local Labour party membership numbered just 170. Many were of retirement age. Mirror Group owner Robert Maxwell used his titles – notably the influential and traditionally Labour-leaning Daily Record – to launch withering attacks on his union nemesis.

“Maxwell always put gagging orders on people. He would never have been able to do that if you only spoke as an MP in the Palace of Westminster. So he went after me,” says Gillespie, with a rueful shake of his head. He offered to stand down. Kinnock would not hear of it: “He said: ‘You just have to do the best you can and I’ll have a go at Maxwell.’” The Labour leader would regret not heeding the warning.

Days before the byelection, Gillespie floundered in a live debate on Scottish Television when asked a question about subsidiarity in the European Union. “Bob didn’t want to show his ignorance,” recalls Sillars. “He got so distracted trying to answer that he knocked over the microphone. That television debate was a disaster for Bob. So it was good for us.”

On 10 November 1988, two days after George HW Bush was elected US president, Govan went to the polls. Jim Sillars appeared on the ballot paper as “SNP Anti-Poll Tax Candidate”. He won a majority of 3,554 on a massive 33% swing.

A BBC exit poll showed that 32% of Govan voters thought “representing Scotland’s interests” was the most important issue, followed by 21% citing the poll tax. More than half rated the performance of Scotland’s Labour MPs as “poor” or “very poor”. In London, Tony Benn took to his diary. The Govan defeat, he wrote, was “a reflection of our failure to discuss constitutional questions, which are at the core of the devolution argument”.

I think I did more good for the children in Chernobyl. I thought: ‘God works in mysterious ways.’

Bob Gillespie is a talkative man but he grows quiet, even sullen, when asked about what happened in 1988. “I don’t feel anything about it at all,” he says, cradling a can of sugar-free Irn Bru. “That was only six weeks, seven weeks of my life. I went back to work.” Gillespie never stood for public office again. After Govan, he raised over £1m for victims of Chernobyl. Dozens of Belarusian children were brought to a convalescing home in Ayr. “I think I did more good for the children in Chernobyl. I thought: ‘God works in mysterious ways.’”

Labour subsequently tried to blame Gillespie for his loss. Selection rules were tightened. But some close to the Govan campaign complained they were hamstrung by “the shambolic organisational abilities of those sent up from London”.

Govan 1988 changed Scottish politics, and Scotland. Although Sillars lost the seat at the next general election, he believes his victory put the nationalists back on the political map. “It ended the period of vicious animosity among people towards the SNP. We were back with some credibility.” In the wake of its Govan defeat, Labour finally decided to join the constitutional convention, paving the way for devolution in 1997.

Ten years later, the SNP won its first elections to the Edinburgh parliament. Now the nationalists stand on the verge of unprecedented general election success. The SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has energised the nation. As a teenager, the future first minister had a poster of Jim Sillars on her wall. Govan 1988 was her very first political campaign.

The problems that plagued Labour in Glasgow more than two and a half decades ago are even worse now. The traditional party of industrial Scotland lacks members, drive and momentum. Gillespie, however, is still unflinching in his support. He campaigned against independence last year. Gillespie’s photograph appears on local Labour party election leaflets. He is smiling, his beloved bichon frise Pepe in his arms.

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Bob Gillespie (left) with Michael Foot, Helen Liddell and Denis Healey at Central America fundraiser event in the 1980s. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/Guardian

These days, however, Bob Gillespie spends more time surrounded by music than politics. “I’ve always loved music,” he says. In the 1960s, he ran a Glasgow folk club. Billy Connolly was a floor singer. (“He was never a singer, never.”) His son, Bobby Jr, used to lie awake at night listening as the Rolling Stones, Dylan and Muddy Waters spun on the turntable at the parties his parents threw in their council house.

The Primal Scream singer has credited his father with introducing him to rock’n’roll and socialism. “My dad was an activist, he was a trade unionist and he was a Marxist and he was always involved in that struggle and it took up his life,” he said in 2013.

Today, Jim Sillars is on the fringes of the SNP. His wife, Margo, died just months before the referendum. In his spare time he tutors novice SNP general election candidates, including Mhairi Black, the 20-year-old student whose audacious bid to unseat Labour shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander in Paisley has unmistakable echoes of Sillars’ win in Govan.

In 1988, there were only a handful of SNP-Labour marginals. Last month, the Electoral Reform Society classified all seats in Scotland not held by the SNP as marginal. Now there are Govans right across the country.

This piece originally appeared in the Guardian.

Glasgow smiles: how the city halved its murders by ‘caring people into change’

In a squat redbrick community hall in the shadow of a pair of vertiginous north Glasgow tower blocks, half a dozen men sit on plastic chairs around a sturdy wooden table. The carpet is threadbare, the overhead lights harsh. Through shatterproof glass windows, dusk has turned to night.

“I can’t get a job anywhere, not with my history,” a lean man in late middle age says, his eyes turned downward. A little further along the table, a lad in his early 20s with a tattoo on his neck emphatically nods: “I need to get my shit together.”

There are echoes of the 12-step programme in the raw honesty, the white knuckles and supportive arms on shoulders. But this monthly meeting is being organised by a Scottish police taskforce, the Violence Reduction Unit (VRU). The man with his head bowed has a conviction for murder. Opposite him is a onetime major drug dealer. Another has done time for assault. Everyone around the table is on the same, long road: trying, with help from the VRU, to wrest new lives from the ashes of old, chaotic, violent ones.

The Violence Reduction Unit is a product of Glasgow’s own turbulent recent past. The unit, initially part of Strathclyde police, was set up in 2005 to tackle the city’s endemic knife fighting and gang crime. At the time, Glasgow was western Europe’s murder capital. A decade later, Glasgow’s murder rate has more than halved, from 39 in 2004-05 to 18 last year. Similar drops have been recorded for attempted murder, serious assault and possession of an offensive weapon.

The precipitous decline began when police acknowledged that the only way to stem the tide of violence was to tackle the culture that spawned it, says John Carnochan, a former Glasgow murder detective involved in setting up the VRU. While young men grew up in unstable, violent homes, joined gangs, carried knives, drank and fought, death and mayhem was almost inevitable.

The VRU attempted to break this cycle. Their strategy – borrowed from anti-gang violence initiatives spearheaded in Boston in the 1990s – combined creative thinking with old-fashioned enforcement.

Doctors, nurses, dentists, even vets were all enlisted to look out for the signs of violence and domestic abuse, and to counsel the young men who arrived at every hour of the day with fresh knife wounds.

There were legislative changes, too. The VRU lobbied successfully for increases in maximum sentences for carrying knives. Where previously those caught with a blade were allowed back on their street while their case slowly progressed through the justice system, now once caught they were fingerprinted, DNA-swabbed and held in custody until court.

Paul joined the VRU’s small team last year. The 37-year-old father of three has a calm, quiet self-possession that belies the chaotic story of his life. Born to an alcoholic mother and abusive father, he grew up in a North Glasgow house “where no one ever showed any emotion”. When his grandfather dropped dead in front of him, nobody asked how he felt.

Within a few years he was running away from home. By his early teenager years, he was in a gang, talking drugs and getting into fights.

One night, a street fight went badly wrong. Paul (not his real name) was quarrelling with a childhood friend at a bus stop. His erstwhile pal fell under the wheels of a bus. He was crushed to death. Paul pled guilty to culpable homicide and was sent to prison.

A police officer in Crosshill, Glasgow.

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A police officer in Crosshill, Glasgow. Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA

Released back into the same environment he had left, filled with drink, drugs and violence, Paul decided he had to change. “I’d been in prison and I’d been in care and I didn’t want my kids going through what I went through,” he recalls.

Then he met the VRU. In 2008, the unit – extended the previous year to cover all of Scotland – had set up the Community Initiative to Reduce Violence (CIRV) in Glasgow’s East End, where sprawling housing schemes had hosted the worst of the gang violence. More than 600 gang members were “called in” to listen to hard truths from police, paramedics, the mother of a young man killed by a gang with machetes, and former offenders, including Paul.

“I felt excluded all my life,” he says. “Now here was the police, who used to exclude me all the time, and they were trying to include me.”

Funded primarily by the Scottish government, CIRV combined the carrot and the stick. Gang members were given a choice: renounce violence and get help into education, training and employment, or face zero tolerance on the street.

The results were remarkable. Among the 200 gang members who became directly involved with CIRV, violent offending fell by almost half, according to a 2011 study. Weapon possession was down 85%. Even among gang members who had not attended a call-in, violence had fallen by almost a quarter.

Karyn McCluskey of the Violence Reduction Unit (VRU)

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Karyn McCluskey of the Violence Reduction Unit (VRU). Photograph: Murdo MacLeod for the Guardian

The walls of Karyn McCluskey’s cluttered office, located in a 1970s office block in downtown Glasgow, are decorated with photographs. There is a picture from a stint at the Met in London in 2010 – her long, sandy-coloured hair and knee-length boots stand out among a sea of men in uniforms – alongside stark, black-and-white photos of blood-soaked young Glaswegians in doctors’ surgeries.

“People ask me, ‘Why do you spend your time getting these bad boys jobs?’ I always say, ‘I’m not doing it for them, I’m doing it for their kids,’” McCluskey says.

In 2004, McCluskey was a young intelligence officer on Strathclyde Police. Then commissioner Sir William Rae asked the recent recruit from West Mercia to pen a report on how to reduce the city’s headline grabbing rates of violence. McCluskey’s paper lead directly to the creation of the VRU. A decade later, she is the unit’s director.

A long-time single parent, McCluskey has no shortage of empathy for the young men – they are overwhelmingly men – whose names and faces come across her desk. She goes to the christenings of ex-offenders’ children; more than once, our long conversation is broken by a phone call from a charge seeking advice. But she is hard-headed, too, which perhaps explains why home secretary Theresa May is one of her many fans.

McCluskey believes inequality breeds violence. She wants “a revolution” in how we tackle violence – by focusing on the traumatic environments in which so many offenders are reared. Reversing the effects of 20 years of deprivation and neglect is not easy, but it has to be done.

“If jail on its own worked, America would have no crime,” she points out. “You need a different approach.”

Part of this fresh tack is enlisting former offenders and gang members to work continually with current ones trying to escape the chaos. One of those former members is Paul, who, having participated in the CIRV project, was recruited by the VRU as a “navigator”. The best part of his job, he says, is when his charges realise that they, too, can change. “You can see the light going on. They have an opportunity to break a cycle that has gone on for years.”

One of the young men Paul works with is 19. His earliest memory is his father holding a gun to his mother’s head: she was using her son as a shield. “Once you understand where he is coming from, it is not hard to want to help him,” Paul says.

Although Glasgow’s crime rates have continued to fall, some question the
VRU approach. “Violence dropped and weapon-carrying
offences dropped, but that was on the back of substantial work by
police and other agencies,” says William Graham, a lecturer in criminology at Abertay University. “So it is hard to say that CIRV was the sole cause of the reductions, though it did show a degree of success.” Some say the publicity-savvy VRU were given credit for a general decline in violence across Scottish society.

But former murder detective and VRU founder John Carnochan warns that people “might forget how bad it was” in Glasgow. “All we have done to that community is to show what life is like without gang violence. We have changed the normal. Same as we changed the normal for smoking. But the challenge is keeping the normal.”

Now retired, Carnochan spends much of his time travelling the world talking about the VRU. “All we did was start to think about things differently,” he says. “It was really difficult but it was wonderful, too.”

Detective Chief Superintendent John Carnochan of The Scottish Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) at their HQ in Glasgow.

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John Carnochan, now retired, of the Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) at their HQ in Glasgow. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod for the Guardian

CIRV was discontinued in 2011. Although the programme seemed to produce significant falls in violent crime, a source close to the project says the political will wasn’t there to carry on funding it once government funding ran out.

Across Scotland, the policing climate has changed dramatically in recent years. Previously separate forces such as Strathclyde are now amalgamated. The new national force, Police Scotland, has often been accused of adopting a command-and-control approach, focused more on cracking down on crime than addressing its causes. Stop and search has been used excessively, with young men in deprived communities disproportionately targeted.

The VRU approach of “caring people into change”, as one officer puts it, doesn’t necessarily fit well with such heavy-handed tactics. Now the VRU is looking for new ways to ensure ex-offenders stay out of the cycle of drink, violence and, often, early death. They established a small charity to create employment opportunities for former gang members who might otherwise struggle to find jobs, modelled on Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles. Early projects included work placements at the Edinburgh Tattoo and last year’s Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. So far, 79% of those involved are still in employment. The eventual goal is to set up a social enterprise restaurant in the city centre.

Back in north Glasgow, the evening’s meet-up is drawing to a close. The last person to speak is the quietest. Michael, not his real name, spent time in prison for assault. Tonight he is exhausted, but not from the all-day benders he used to go on. He was up at 5am for work in a burger van near a building site. His first child was born before Christmas.

“I want to show my wean something I never had.” His voice is low, but the note of pride is unmistakable. When he finishes everyone around the table is smiling.

This piece originally appeared in the print Guardian April 6, 2015.

Kosovo PM urges Serbs to vote in make-or-break elections

Kosovo‘s prime minister has issued a last-ditch appeal to Kosovan Serbs to vote in critical elections this weekend that are widely seen as a make-or-break moment for the republic.

In an interview with the Guardian, Hashim Thaçi said that the abandonment of polling after attacks in northern Kosovo earlier this month was a result of “pressure, threats and other methods”, and added that he would hold Serbia responsible if there was a repeat performance in the re-run vote in North Mitrovica on Sunday.

Thaçi said that a successful vote was vital to a peace deal between Kosovo and Serbia and encouraged ethnic Serbs in the republic to vote. He said the only ones who would lose by participation in the elections were extremists and radical groups in north Kosovo.

Voting was suspended in North Mitrovica on 3 November after masked men burst into three polling stations in the town, which is predominantly ethnically Serbian, firing teargas and destroying ballot boxes. “We know what happened, who did it and why they did it,” Thaçi said.

The local elections followed a peace deal brokered in April by the European Union between Serbia and its former province. Under the terms of the agreement, Belgrade will dismantle the parallel systems that deliver a range of services from healthcare to education in north Kosovo in return for greater autonomy for ethnic Serbs across Kosovo.

Many in the north refuse to recognise the Kosovan state, which declared independence in 2008. The highest turnout in the other three Serb municipalities in north Kosovo was just 22%, but Kosovo’s electoral commission decided to accept these results and to limit the re-run to the divided town of North Mitrovica.

“If the people were allowed to vote the participation would have been over 25%,” Thaçi said. “What we need now is political stability in north [Kosovo] to create legitimate local institutions and investments, and then things will change.

“Kosovo is not endangered by Serb integration. Kosovo is endangered if they do not integrate,” he said of Kosovo’s 120,000 Serbs.

The Brussels agreement has proved controversial in both Serbia and Kosovo, but Thaçi rejected criticism of it. “How should we handle the situation with Serbia? Should we start the war again? Kill each other? This is the best possible deal for both countries,” he said.

Successful implementation is widely seen as essential to Serbia’s and Kosovo’s EU ambitions. “It is the best solution for Kosovo and Serbia to become EU members, and also the best solution for the region,” Thaçi said. “We didn’t fight against Serbs: we fought to remove Serbia and its oppression mechanisms in 1999.”

The future of the Brussels deal hinges on who comes out to vote on Sunday, said Ilir Deda of the Pristina-based thinktank Kipred. “It all depends on what the northern Serbs want to do. Do they want to kill it by boycotting or do they want to legitimise it by electing a Serb mayor?”

Thaçi’s counterpart in Belgrade, Ivica Dačić, warned ethnic Serbs in North Mitrovica to vote “unless they want the city to be led by an Albanian”.

Dačić told Serbian TV that the system of largely autonomous Serb municipalities, agreed with Pristina in Brussels, would break down if Serbs did not participate in the re-run. “If the mayor is Albanian, it will mean that we are not be able to set up the administration, and we will not be in the position to create the community of Serb municipalities, which could lead to conflicts and perhaps even to armed conflicts,” he said.

Scars remain from the last war. On Friday, an EU prosecutor indicted 15 former Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) fighters on charges of torturing and killing civilians during the 1998-99 conflict with Serbia. Among the accused are Kosovo’s ambassador to Albania, Sulejman Selimi, and leading members of Thaçi’s governing PDK party, including Sami Lushtaku. Despite being in prison, Lushtaku won the mayoral contest in Skenderaj earlier this month with more than 88% of the vote. “He won because people trust him,” Thaçi said.

But Thaçi said that any former KLA members convicted of criminal charges would be expelled from the party. “We had previous examples where people were in judicial proceedings and they were elected as members of parliament. But from the moment when someone is found guilty by a court they will not remain in politics after that.”

This piece originally appeared in the Guardian, 15 November, 2013. 

Albania watches as bunkers become bunk-beds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This piece originally appeared in the Guardian, 26 September. 

Zambia's young people want to work

My article on joblessness among young Zambians, which was commissioned for the Guardian development journalism competition 2011.

Dickson Kakoma has been sober for 10 months – ever since the night he almost lost his family, and his life. “I went drinking with a friend. He was driving us home when we started arguing. I grabbed the wheel and we crashed,” the 26-year-old says, shaking his head ruefully. “When I finally got back home, I wanted to burn my house down. Next morning my wife left me.”

That day Kakoma vowed to give up Tujilijili, a highly potent, locally brewed spirit sold for as little as 600 Kwacha (about 8p) for 60ml. In time, his wife and two children returned to their thatched home in rural Muka Lashi, about 30km from Kabwe in central Zambia. But the main reason this articulate man drank six days a week remains unchanged: like so many young Zambians, Kakoma does not have regular, salaried employment.

Forced to leave school prematurely when his parents divorced, Kakoma cultivates okra, kale and watermelon on a narrow, arid strip of land near his home. Farming earns the household barely £260 a year – and occupies just four or five hours of his day. “We used to have a local football league and that helped because it gave us something to do,” he says. But in February the league disbanded due to lack of funds.

Zambia is often held up as a southern African success story. After three decades of stagnation, the economy has grown by an annual average of 6% for the past five years, thanks largely to rising global prices for the country’s main export, copper. Per capita GDP has risen steadily since 2000. But the headline figures mask another reality. According to official statistics, 88% of 18-to 35-year-olds have no reliable source of income. In rural areas, four out of five depend on subsistence agriculture.

Kabwe, a once-prosperous town of 300,000 people about 130km north of the capital, Lusaka, is Zambia in microcosm. The country’s first mine opened here in 1906. Railways, milling, textiles, and impressive mansions on spacious, tree-lined avenues soon followed. But when Zambia’s industries, nationalised after independence from Britain in 1964, collapsed, as copper prices halved in the mid-1970s, Kabwe did too. Mass privatisations, conducted at the behest of the World Bank and the IMF, led to huge job losses. As unemployment rocketed, HIV/Aids spread and alcohol abuse increased.

“Kabwe’s a ghost town now. All those activities that kept the place alive are gone – but there’s probably double the number of people that there was 30 years ago,” says Hendricks Kapila, head of Kabwe Community Youth Mobilisation.

The scene in the town’s central business district on a weekday morning confirms his dismal appraisal. Groups of young men gather on corners hustling for work. Plastic Tujilijili sachets, sucked dry, lie strewn on the dusty streets. Nearby, sentries guard the padlocked gates of the vast Mulungushi-China textiles factory, which once employed 12,000 people but now stands empty.

Samuel Tembo, economic empowerment co-ordinator for children’s charity Plan International, in Zambia, believes affordable startup capital is key to tackling the country’s labour market problems. While the vast majority of the population is not in formal employment, almost everyone over the age of 18 works. From farmers, who supply the bustling markets and roadside stalls, to youths selling phone cards, commerce is ubiquitous. “Young people are energetic, they are establishing small businesses. What they need is initial capital to make their business grow and prosper,” says Tembo.

Village savings and loan schemes have proved successful in other developing-world contexts and, last year, the NGO Plan International, in partnership with Barclays, launched Banking on Change, a community-based microfinance programme in Zambia. The theory is simple: 10 to 12 people save and lend relatively small amounts together at low interest rates, with all decisions taken by the group as a whole. A small annual subscription fee covers administration costs and a “social fund” for unexpected outlays, such as funerals.

Eighteen-year-old Joyce Mushala is one of the scheme’s beneficiaries. Perched on a cow-skin chair under a jacaranda tree in a village in Chibombo, a rural province abutting urban Kabwe, the softly spoken single mother explains how a 100,000 Kwacha (about £13) loan kickstarted a profitable confectionery trade.

“I bought lollipops and hard-boiled sweets and sold them in schools,” says Mushala, cradling one-year-old Catherine in her arms. “My business has changed my life. Before, I used to just grow maize and brew beer and had no income.”

Neighbour Doreen Chali, 34, spent half her 100,000 Kwacha loan on household items, and invested the remainder in fish, which she sells in the village. The profit covers school fees for her 16-year-old daughter, Grenda. “She’s very happy about that,” the mother of five says with a smile.

Barclays estimates that the 675 savings and loans groups initiated so far have involved more than 7,000 people and accrued assets worth more than £680,000. Lucy Mataka, community affairs manager at Barclays’ Lusaka office, says disputes within groups are rare, and are almost always settled amicably.

Nevertheless, in a country of 13 million people, more structured guidance and funding for new businesses is also needed, especially for enterprises incurring large startup costs or that have potential to employ substantial numbers of young people. Such support requires governmental as well as financial muscle.

There are signs that this political will is starting to emerge. Employment was a pivotal issue in September’s elections, with opposition leader Michael Sata winning the presidency on a platform of job creation and social justice. Young Zambians, who formed the bulwark of Sata’s support, are expectant of change.

Back in Kabwe, Jonas Silupumbwe, a youth worker with Restless Development, wants to see the government’s good words on employment translated into deeds. He cites the previous administration’s National Youth Empowerment Plan, which, in 2007, allocated 10bn Kwacha (approximately £1.25m) for new businesses in each of Zambia’s nine provinces. Four years later, “only one project in the whole of Kabwe” has received funding, he says.

“Government have said a lot, they have written a lot, but they have actually done very little. That’s the major problem,” Silupumbwe says.

“Young people have been told there’s money available but they’ve not seen any of it. Some don’t even know it’s there. The youth want to work, but they need to be given the opportunity.”

Sellafield will remain a threat to Ireland

This comment piece on the closing of the MOX plant at Sellafield appeared on Guardian.co.uk in August.

Sellafield Mox nuclear fuel plant to close. It’s a headline that generations of Irish environmental activists, and government ministers in Leinster House, never thought they would see. After just 10 years of operation – and at the cost of a vertiginous £1.4bn to the British taxpayer – the mixed-oxide fuel plant nestled on the edge of bucolic west Cumbria is to be decommissioned.

Sellafield has long been an emotive issue in Ireland. At just 128 miles from Dublin, the plant is within spitting distance of Ireland’s densely populated eastern seaboard. The Irish Sea is now the most radioactively contaminated in the world, while in the wake of 9/11 concerns about a terrorist attack on the plant briefly gripped the Irish popular imagination.

Unsurprisingly then, yesterday’s announcement that the Mox plant is to cease operation has been welcomed by Irish activists, many of whom have been involved in decades-long campaigns opposing the facility. However, the closure is anything but the end of Sellafield’s nuclear story.

Last October, the environment secretary, Chris Huhne – in a volte-face from previous Lib Dem energy policy – announced that eight new nuclear power plants are to be constructed across Britain. Only last month it was confirmed that Sellafield is to be the site of one such new reactor, to be built by 2025. It is widely expected that additional employment at the new facility will at the very least replace the 600 job losses announced yesterday.

The earthquake in Japan – and the crisis at Fukushima – have radically altered nuclear priorities across Europe: Germany is to phase out all its plants by 2022, opposition to nuclear power is increasing in France and Italy. But here the only demonstrable effect is the closing of a reprocessing facility that was, from the off, run on a faulty economic model.

The Mox plant was built to handle plutonium dioxide that was shipped around the world, through the Irish Sea to Cumbria, where it was to be recycled from spent fuel at the Thorp plant at Sellafield. The environmental implications, particularly in the event of a disaster, of shipping highly radioactive cargo around the world are all the obvious; the financial rationale is equally flawed.

Sellafield was designed to process 120 tonnes of Mox a year: in reality it produced barely a fraction of that. In the five years since opening in 2006 just five tonnes were made, and as of yesterday the total output over its lifetime stood at a paltry 13 tonnes . The loss of Japanese contracts in the aftermath of Fukushima sounded the plant’s death knell.

As Irish campaigner Brian Greene, who blogs at Shut Sellafield , noted: “From a business perspective the Mox plant has been a total failure so it’s no great surprise that they are shutting it down. But the legacy is huge. It’ll cost millions to decommission, the land will never be used again.”

Mox or no Mox, Sellafield will still pose an environmental threat. When the famous Calder Hall cooling towers were demolished in 2007 it took 12 weeks to remove all the asbestos from the debris. The site’s radioactive legacy will last significantly longer.

Meanwhile, in May, British authorities backtracked on a commitment given to Irish environment minister Phil Hogan that Sellafield would be included in European-wide stress tests of nuclear installations following Fukushima. That the plant does not generate nuclear power was adduced, rather dubiously, to explain why an examination of Sellafield’s resilience against earthquakes, tsunamis, air crashes and terrorism was unnecessary.

In 1981, the plant’s name was changed from Windscale to Sellafield in an attempt to shift attention away from the plant’s less than impressive safety record. Thirty years on it seems that, with the closing of the Mox plant, another attempted rebranding of Sellafield is underway.

But unless British government policy changes quickly, future generations on both sides of the Irish Sea still face the disquieting prospect a life lived under a nuclear shadow.

So Ireland's back to exporting its best known natural resource – emigrants

Here’s my Comment is Free piece on being an Irish emigrant, which appeared on Guardian.co.uk last week. The same piece also appeared in that week’s Irish Post

Mourning can be a protracted business. In the past week, after years spent oscillating between low-level anger and outright denial, I finally graduated to acceptance: having left Ireland in 2003, I am an Irish emigrant.

And after recent events, it seems like going home is no longer an option.

Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief have provided an unexpected leitmotif for Ireland’s economic collapse. But while public fury about the financial situation contrasted sharply with the government’s increasingly brazen disavowals, there has been a quiet, almost stoical, recognition that the country is once again stepping up production of its most celebrated natural resource: emigrants.

Forty thousand Irish people left last year; with joblessness running at over 13% another 100,000 are expected to join them before the end of the next.

Migration is an ingrained part of our national psyche. Almost every family carries traces of the instinct which, for two decades, lay in abeyance as the Celtic Tiger’s putative masters told their pups that they would never be forced to cross the Irish Sea or the Atlantic to make new lives for themselves beyond Ireland’s shores.

These hubristic promises have been revealed to be as empty, illusionary and downright dangerous as the ill-conceived bank guarantee, made in September 2008, which sounded a slow death knell for Ireland’s political and economic sovereignty ever since. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout has scarcely begun, but already Ireland’s citizens are abandoning ship.

What is there to stay put for? With its boarded-up main street, uninhabited ghost estates and derelict shopping centre, my hometown, in the midlands of Ireland, is hardly atypical. Here greed gave way to naked stupidity when developers started building houses in the boggy flood plain five years ago. Recently a gallows humour has replaced the air of despondency that marked the early days of the collapse.

The IMF and its apparatchiks hold little fear for residents of such places – what does austerity look like when your home is practically worthless, your job is gone and your children are likely to follow suit?

By even the most optimistic predictions, the Irish economy will take generations to recover. The government is once again turning to the safety valve of emigration: despite its protestations little or nothing is being done to encourage young, well-educated men and women to stay in Ireland.

Meanwhile the legions of Irish-born citizens already living in Sydney and Chicago, Edinburgh and Edmonton, have seen their daydreams of returning home dashed, probably forever.

I was glad to leave Ireland at the age of 22. The Celtic Tiger created a culture in which property prices replaced the weather as the preferred topic of the nation’s small talk, and the pursuit of money without ethics or obligation was not just acceptable but actively valorised from the very top of the social and political tree. Getting out was a relief.

Back then the word “emigrate” had been expunged from our vocabulary. Emigration was supposedly a thing of the past. I thought of myself not as an emigrant, but as an Irishman who just happened to be living somewhere else. How could I be one of John B Keane’s Many Young Men of Twenty when my leave-taking was not motivated by unemployment or lack of opportunities?

But late last Tuesday, as news bulletins on every channel reported live from Dublin and Brussels, I found my thoughts turning not to my country but to myself. The life I have made away from Ireland – first in New York, then Britain – is a comfortable one but it is also an emigrant’s. If I raise a family they will speak with a different accent to mine. The country whose passport I carry will not be my home.

The true cost of Ireland’s folly should be counted not in billions of euros but in the millions of Irish men and women who will forced to emigrate, to accept the reality that they too will never be able to go home.

Far from being finished, a new chapter has just been started in the age-old story of Irish emigration.