Scotland’s new SNP leader takes the reins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– James Maxwell, Scottish commentator

Countering ‘Thatcherism’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rise to power

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

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

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

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

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

‘Authentic language’

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

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

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

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

Position of strength

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

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

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

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

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

Calls Grow for Investigation into Argyll and Bute council

Calls are growing for a formal investigation into Argyll and Bute council in the wake of the collapse of one of the biggest community buy outs in Scotland.

Last week, it was confirmed that Castle Toward on the Cowal peninsula will be sold on the open market after Argyll and Bute rejected a community bid of £850,000 for the dilapidated Victorian property.

A number of campaigners involved in the proposed community buy out – which had the support of the Scottish Government and Highlands and Islands Enterprise – have made formal complaints to Audit Scotland about the council’s decision to turn down the bid.

Yesterday local MSP Mike Russell called for a full investigation into Argyll and Bute council.castle toward

“The whole standard of governance is very poor. I think there should
be extreme scrutiny of Argyll and Bute council’s actions and decisions. Audit Scotland needs to become more active in the matter.”

Russell accused Argyll and Bute council of stymieing the attempted buy out which it was estimated would have created 80 jobs and annual revenue of £1million. Russell called

“No local authority should be behaving in this way. It brings the whole idea of local authority into disrepute,” Russell told The National.

“There are clear steps by which a failing council can be called to
account, this is a failing council and needs to be called to account,” he added.

Argyll and Bute council has faced criticism from Audit Scotland in the past about its financial arrangements. Concerns have previously been raised about the council’s failure to sell public assets.

At the centre of the dismissal of the community buy out was a discrepancy over the value of the site. The local authority had valued Castle Toward at £1.7 million, whereas a valuation by estate agent Savill’s commissioned by campaigners put the price at £750,000.

Alan Stewart from the South Cowal Community Development Company, the group behind the community buy out, said that a decision had not been made about whether to make a formal complaint to Audit Scotland about Argyll and Bute council’s behaviour but he said that the council had done everything in their power to block the proposed sale.

“We were dumped on from a huge height by our council,” says Stewart.

“I have no idea why a council would turn down basically 80 jobs. They have thrown away £1m a year for 10 years and this is a council that is desperate for money.

Last week a motion to accept the Castle Toward community’s bid was rejected at a council meeting after it was found to be “incompetent” after it failed to mention a relevant regulation.
A motion was also passed calling for a review of “the behaviour of elected members” on the council that had actively supported the Castle Toward buy out.
“The whole thing is politically vindictive,” says Michael Breslin, one of the most vocal supporters of the buy out on the council.
“They just don’t want scrutiny.”

Kirsty Husband, a community councillor near Dunoon, accused Argyll and Bute council of “working against” the community buy-out.

“Instead of working to find a solution they have used their officers to work against it. Their attitude has been essentially to try and kill it off,” Husband said.
Husband said Argyll and Bute council’s size and sparse population make it particularly difficult to administer.
“It is such a difficult council to deal with. Everything is so remote. It’s an hour and half drive to the council offices.
“As a council it is unmanageable. This just highlights all of that.”
On Sunday evening, around 50 local residents from the newly formed Castle Toward Supporters group met.
The Castle Toward community buy-out received widespread local
support. Turnout in a ballot on making the purchase was over 50%, with
a record 95% voting in favour.
At present, Castle Toward is so run down that it is costing local council taxpayers more than £20,000 a month in security and maintenance charges.
Mike Russell says that he intends to bring forward amendments to the Community Empowerment Bill to make it more difficult for councils to stand in the way of community buy outs.
“There needs to be an appeal process for when a council is determined to frustrate a community. There needs to be a mechanism to overrule that.”
Argyll and Bute council leader Dick Walsh rejected claims that the council had stood in the way of the Castle Toward buy out.
“It is simply not true to suggest that we stymied the buyout. We spent a lot of time looking for a solution to help make the buyout happen.

“The proposed buyout was considered at several council meetings. We made every effort we could to secure the best possible outcome, not only for people in Cowal but for Argyll and Bute as a whole.”

How would an indyref Yes affect Northern Ireland?

Would Northern Ireland “end up like West Pakistan” if Scotland says “yes” in September? Could Scottish independence presage a return to the Troubles? These are just some of the concerns being voiced by Unionist leaders in Northern Ireland ahead of the upcoming referendum.

Protestants in Ulster have long celebrated their links with Scotland, so the prospect of Scotland leaving the Union has provoked a bout of soul-searching for some across the Irish Sea.

Earlier this month, Ian Paisley junior, Democratic Unionist MP for North Antrim, said that Scottish independence would embolden dissident Irish republicans, leading to violence on the streets of Northern Ireland.

Previously, former Ulster Unionist Party leader, Reg Empey, had said that if Scotland voted for independence, Northern Ireland would “end up like West Pakistan”, with “a foreign country on one side of us and a foreign country on the other side of us”.

In 2012, Tom Elliot, Lord Empey’s successor as party leader, described the SNP as “a greater threat to the Union than the violence of the IRA”.

Although the Good Friday Agreement guarantees that Northern Ireland’s constitutional status can only be changed by a majority vote in the province, some Unionists are deeply concerned that the success of Scottish nationalism could see a clamour for a “border poll” on Irish unification.

The union flag flying at Belfast City HallMike Nesbitt, current leader of the Ulster Unionist party, told The Sunday Herald: “For unionism having seen off Irish republicanism after half a century there is a fear of being undone by Scottish nationalism in the 21st century.”

Nesbitt rejects the suggestion that Scottish independence could lead to a return to violence in Northern Ireland, but says that September’s referendum, regardless of the result, will “politically recalibrate the United Kingdom”. He added: “Even if Scotland says no to independence there is bound to be this push towards devo max and that will obviously have implications for Northern Ireland. Even Unionists whose political inclination is parity recognise that there economic arguments for breaking parity in areas such as corporation tax and air passenger duty.”

But many Unionists are wary of any change to the status quo. The Democratic Unionist Party is the largest party in the devolved Stormont administration, but a significant minority of Protestants remains deeply opposed to power-sharing with Sinn Fein republicans.

Protestants are no longer an absolute majority in Northern Ireland, according to census figures released at the end of 2012. The flag protests that broke out over the removal of the Union flag from City Hall around the same time, and ongoing disturbances around Orange Order parades, have contributed to a siege mentality in loyalist communities and an existential crisis within Unionism itself.

“Unionists don’t know who the hell they are and it’s part of their ongoing dilemma,” says Alex Kane, a columnist for the Belfast Telegraph and a leading unionist commentator in the city.

Former Northern Irish first minister and the architect of the Good Friday deal, Lord David Trimble, believes that Scottish independence could re-open the constitutional question in Northern Ireland. “If there was a Yes vote a lot of people would have to sit up and think and that opens up something,” Trimble told the Sunday Herald.

“(Irish) republicans would get excited and say, ‘It can be done’. Then there is a question, does their getting excited cause a problem? ‘Probably’ is the answer to that.”

Trimble says, however, that the vast majority of Unionists in Northern Ireland are confident that there will be a ‘no’ vote in Scotland.

“Alex Salmond’s main hope for success has always been to rile the English; to get the English riled and to use that to say to the Scots, ‘Look, they hate you, they want rid of you’. It’s a deeply cynical ploy but it has been obvious,” the former Ulster Unionist Party leader said.

Wary of negative headlines in Scotland and the religious dynamic, Irish republicans have been reticent on the question of September’s referendum. But former Sinn Fein director of publicity, Danny Morrison, says independence would have “a psychological effect” on Ulster Unionists.

“The majority Protestant community in the north is Presbyterian, not Anglican, and they identify their roots with dissenters from Scotland,” he says. “Their forebears would be leaving the Union that they hold so dear in the north of Ireland.”

But Morrison does not believe Scottish independence would be a game-changer in Northern Ireland. “Obviously, as an Irish republican I do express a little bit of schadenfreude at them all being upset at the old Union being broken up but does it bring Irish unity closer? No it doesn’t.”

Kane agrees, but for very different reasons, saying: “Sinn Fein have tried to play this bogeyman. ‘When the Scots go, you’re next’, but they don’t understand that a lot of nationalists – with a soft ‘n’ – are going to say, we don’t want (unification), that’s only going to cause far more problems than it’s worth.”

Although ahead in the polls, the No camp in Scotland has been accused of failing to articulate a positive vision of Unionism. Nesbitt says that the independence referendum should be seen as opportunity to “redefine in a more modern way what the union means”.

“We have to redefine ourselves. Look at the 2012 Olympics, where you have a guy born in Somalia, whose religion is Muslim, whose forename is Mohamed, who very joyfully wraps himself in the Union flag,” says Nesbitt. “That’s a very different thing from what we called Britishness in 1914.”

But James Mitchell, professor of politics at Edinburgh university, warns that attempts to create a pan-UK Unionist identity are fraught with danger. “Unionisms [across the UK] are very different,” he says. “There are clearly common parts to these Unionisms but there are also differences. Any attempt to forge a common Unionism across the UK will fail, it can’t happen.”

He rejects the idea that independence would lead to a significant change in the relationship between Scotland and Northern Ireland, with which it has had strong cultural links for hundreds of years. “The key relationships are personal, social, family – and I don’t think these need be disrupted at all,” Mitchell says. There is a referendum on the horizon that Northern Irish leaders should be worried about, he says, but it is not the one in Scotland.

“The European aspect is far more important than the Scottish referendum. If Scotland voted for independence and stayed in the EU and the rest of the UK was then to vote to withdraw from Europe that would put Northern Ireland in a very difficult position,” he says.

“You’d have the south [of Ireland] within the EU and Scotland within the EU. That is the most frightening thing from Northern Ireland’s point of view.”

This piece originally appeared in the Sunday Herald, February 2, 2014.


Rev Ian Paisley, statesman?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Model for Belfast Regeneration?

The amount of vacant land in Belfast city centre is equivalent to the size of 265 football pitches, according to the Forum for Alternative Belfast. If this space was used efficiently, at least 50,000 more people could live within 20 minutes walk of central Belfast without the need for high-rise buildings or the destruction of green spaces.

undera12northqueenstNext week, Forum for Alternative Belfast (Fab), a not-for-profit organisation run by a group of architects and planners, will launch the first ever architect’s scale model of Belfast in an effort to change how people – and politicians – think about regeneration in the North’s capital.

‘Belfast needs an integrated approach to housing and to stitching the city back together,’ Mark Hackett, an award-winning architect and the Forum’s co-director, told the Sunday Business Post.

‘The city centre is the part of the city that anyone would want to live in but (in Belfast) it is actually the most dysfunctional part of the city.’

‘Belfast: A Method’ is a 1:1500 scale model of the city centre, highlighting all the buildings, streets, and also the vacant space. Constructed out of plywood in the University of Ulster’s digital fabrication facility, the model will be open to the public from May 2, in Belfast’s Golden Thread Gallery.

The idea for a Belfast model arose from the Forum’s involvement at the British pavilion at last year’s Venice Biennale. Similar city models were successfully used in Berlin in the early 1990s, in Dublin’s Temple Bar and, more recently, in Boston.

‘These kind of models are very important. People can look at drawings all day long but they cannot get the same assessment of scale, mass, topography that you get in three dimensions,’ said Martin Barrett, an architect and proprietor of Oscar and Oscar, a design and reclamation business based in Belfast.

Four years ago the Forum for Alternative Belfast produced Missing City, a map that identified and plotted all the unused land in the city centre. Now, as Belfast city council prepares for the return of formerly centralised planning powers, the hope is that the scale model will stimulate debate about the need for regeneration in the city.

‘A lot of the reports and plans we’ve had over the last fifteen years don’t get to the heart of the problem,’ Mark Hackett said. ‘There are parts of the city that don’t work.’

Over the last 35 years the population of Belfast has decreased by 35 per cent. This decline in population is particularly evident in inner and central city areas that have been decimated by the impacts of roadinfrastructure, low-density housing redevelopment and the proliferation of car parks. Many parts of the city, particularly the East, West and North, feel disconnected from the city centre.

‘Most good cities have a sense of themselves, a sense of the civic,’ said Mark Hackett. ‘Belfast kind of lacks that, it has developed into sectors that are not really connected, not just because of the Troubles but also because of the development of its infrastructure.’

Earlier this month, planning permission was granted for the redevelopment of the former Maze prison site, near Lisburn, on the outskirts of Belfast. Most of the H blocks architecture, which formerly housed paramilitary prisoners during the Troubles, was demolished following the prison’s closure in October 2003.

The new Maze development will include an £18m peace centre designed by architect Daniel Libeskind, and funded by a European Union grant, and an agricultural centre. The project is expected to create several thousand jobs but there are fears that it could exacerbate Belfast’s on-going suburbanization.

As well as vast tracts of vacant space, Belfast city centre is scarred by a large number of low-quality developments. Permissive planning has, said Fab’s Mark Hackett, led to a focus on development for its own sake.

‘Politicians aren’t brave enough to say, “Ok we want development but we don’t want development at any cost”.

This piece appeared in the Sunday Business Post 28 April, 2013.

Belfast Unrest – the View from the Interfaces

Belfast is often described as a patchwork quilt of conflicting loyalties. Most residents live on streets that are overwhelmingly nationalist or unionist. Imposing ‘peace walls’ physically divide communities one each another. This has long been the case on the Suffolk estate in West Belfast, where a small Protestant community of less than a thousand people are separated from the much larger Catholic population in Lenadoon.

During the Troubles, tensions between Suffolk and Lenadoon often ran high, particularly when the latter grew quickly in the early 1970s with the influx of many Catholic families displaced from other parts of Belfast. Since the ceasefires, relations between the two communities have calmed significantly; last year, as part of a government-backed scheme, loyalist paramilitary murals in Suffolk were removed, flags were taken down and a new art work created on the interface.

But tensions across the Suffolk-Lenadoon interface have ratcheted up since loyalist protests against the Belfast City Council’s decision to fly the union flag from City Hall on fifteen designated days a year rather than continuously began in early December.

Protests have taken place ‘every night’ in loyalist Suffolk, said Paddy O’Donnell, a director of the Stewartstown Road Regeneration Project, a cross-community social enterprise business that abuts interface. ‘What has also appeared are massive union jacks as high as they can be raised,’ he said.

Michael Doherty, a member of the management committee of the Suffolk Lenadoon Interface Group (SLIG), agreed. ‘Since the flag protests a load of union jacks have gone up on the interface, the road has been blocked (by loyalist protesters) and some cars have been attacked.’

While violence in East Belfast – most of it centred around the interface between the nationalist Short Strand and the unionist Newtownards Road – has dominated news headlines and many police officers injured, the unrest seems to be having a destabilising effect on other interfaces across Belfast. So-called recreational rioting, much of it organised by youths on social media, has increased across the Suffolk-Lenadoon interface in recent weeks.

‘Relationships have been damaged,’ said Paddy O’Donnell. ‘All our work is based on relationships. When those relationships are damaged it takes people to come out and put their head above the parapet to try and start rebuilding them. It’s difficult but it can be done,’ he said.

Issues of identity and territory are seldom far away in north Belfast, a four square mile patchwork of sectarian enclaves where kerbstones turn from red, white and blue to green in a matter of footsteps. The troubles had a disproportionate impact on north Belfast: just 5 per cent of Northern Ireland’s population live in the area, yet it accounted for a fifth of all those who lost their lives in the conflict.

The on-going loyalists protests have not spilled over into violence in north Belfast but the disturbances have ‘destabilised things’, said Rab McCallum, co-ordinator of the North Belfast Interface Group, which has its headquarters on the nationalist Cliftonville Road.

‘It is not happening on our doorsteps but it is a reminder of what happened in the past,’ he said. ‘It does have a negative impact on community relations in North Belfast. This (violence) does not create confidence it brings back fear. It brings the physical fear back into play again.’

In nearby Tigers Bay, John Howcroft, a community worker and former loyalist political prisoner, has found cross-community engagements have been ‘more unpopular and difficult’ since the protests began. Political leaders, on both sides of the peace walls, must shoulder the blame for the violence, said Howcroft.

‘Politics has laid the foundation for this path that people are on. Politicians has to take responsibility for this – they should have been focusing on education, investment and employment, things that would have made a real difference in people’s lives,’ he said.

Unemployment in Tigers Bay runs at over 50 per cent. In many nationalist interface areas, jobless rates are just as high. Across the city, life expectancy is ten years lower near the interface; rates of mental illness, depression and family breakdown are all higher in the shadow of the peace walls. Increased use of alcohol, drugs and prescription medication is closely correlated with proximity to peace lines.

‘We have the same issues in both communities,’ said John Howcroft. The same is true across the Suffolk-Lenadoon interface, said Paddy O’Donnell from the Stewartstown Road Regeneration Project.

‘Both areas suffer from acute unemployment. There is acute criminality. There is prescription drug abuse, drug abuse, alcohol abuse. There’s more off licences, take away shops and chemists than you can shake a stick at,’ he said.

Michael Doherty would like to see nationalists and unionists from both sides of protesting together, not about flags or symbols but about the swingeing budget cut that the Executive at Stormont has implemented in recent years. ‘We should be out there together protesting about social and economic cutbacks from Stormont.’

While the unrest has raised tensions across Belfast, the violence has been largely confined to East Belfast, said Neil Jarman, director of the Institute for Conflict Research and an expert on interfaces. ‘A lot of the disorder is largely confined to East Belfast, which seems to resonate with the summer of 2011 (when there was serious unrest in the East of the city) and the particular dynamics of the UVF in that area’. Last week Police Service of Northern Ireland chief Matt Baggott confirmed the involvement of senior Ulster Volunteer Force figures in the violence in East Belfast.

Those on the interface are watching closely to see where the protests go from here. ‘They can carry on being a nuisance and a problem but will it grow? As long as they can maintain the numbers at City Hall (where protests have been taking place every Saturday since the flag was removed) they could continue but it is difficult to see how it would grow unless something stupid happens,’ said Neil Jarman.

As long as the protests continue, criticism of the PSNI seems certain to grow. Willie Frazer, one of the self-styled leaders of the Ulster People’s Forum, which has emerged from the flag protests, has blamed the unrest in East Belfast on ‘wrong policing’. Many nationalists say that the police have treated loyalist protesters too leniently, pointing to the example of the twenty-six people arrested for participating in a sit-down protest at a disputed Orange Order parade in Ardoyne on 12 July 2010.

‘Are we going back to political policing? There seems to be one law for the loyalists and another for us,’ said Michael Doherty. ‘People in this community are saying ‘we thought policing had changed’, but in reality we are looking at the police facilitating (loyalist) protestors. That has caused considerable anger.’

Community leaders on both sides are worried that the recent unrest will culminate in a fatality, with potentially massive repercussions for the North. ‘Our experience tells us that these things only go one way. They lead to violence, they lead it death. People need to step back now before there is a death,’ said John Howcroft, from loyalist Tigers Bay.

‘It’s politics that created this mess, and only politics will solve it. Are the politicians ready for that?’

Bringing Down the Barricades?

More than two-thirds of people living near peace walls in Northern Ireland believe the barriers are still necessary, a study conducted by the University of Ulster last year found.

While almost 60 per cent of residents in interface areas said they would like to see the walls removed, only 38 per cent of residents believed this would actually happen.

‘Removing the wall is the easy bit. It’s getting to the stage where they can be taken down that’s the challenge,’ said Dr Jonny Byrne, one of the authors of the study.

Almost one hundred peace walls separate nationalist and unionist communities in Belfast. There have been some minor successes in recent years – such as the opening of a ‘peace gate’ in the corrugated iron fence that has divided Alexandra Park in North Belfast since 1994 – but the vast majority of barriers remain.

The unrest around the flag at Belfast City Hall could make the task of removing some of the peace walls even more difficult. ‘The majority of people want the peace walls to come down when the time is right, but this (violence) makes that harder,’ said Rab McCallum, co-ordinator of the North Belfast Interface Network.

The University of Ulster study found a much higher level of pessimism about removing the barriers among Protestants than Catholics. McCallum has seen this first hand in North Belfast, where most peace lines are located.

‘This is a stronger concern among people in the Protestant community that the wall will come down and they could lose their identity.’ Their fears are not groundless: around 80 per cent of those on housing list in North Belfast are Catholic. ‘People feel that they are being squeezed. It’s not a balanced situation, Protestants feel much more threatened than Catholics.’

This article originally appeared in the Sunday Business Post, 201/01/2013.


Book Review: The Oil Road

The Oil Road: Journeys from the Caspian Sea to the City of London by James Marriott and Mika Minio-Paluello.

These are straitened times for BP. The oil giant faces a slew of civil and criminal suits arising from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill. In October, Azerbaijan’s autocratic president Ilham Aliyev chastised the company for its failure to meet production targets in the Caspian Sea. BP’s ‘grave mistakes’ have cost the oil-dependent Caucasus state $8.1bn in lost revenue over the past three years, the Azeri president claimed.

Azerbaijan is in the midst of an oil boom, as anyone who watched the coverage of year’s Eurovision song contest from the Azeri capital Baku will attest. The once-rusting Soviet city is now dominated by shimmering skyscrapers, funded by profits from Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli, a huge field 120km off the coast of Azerbaijan controlled mainly by BP. Oil from ACG constitutes around 1 per cent of total global production.

Part-travelogue, part-reportage, the Oil Road is a powerful – if slightly repetitive – account of how a valuable natural resource can turn a tiny elite into plutocrats, destabilise nations and ruin the lives of ordinary people. Told through a series of vignettes and diary pieces, the book traces the journey of Azeri oil, from its extraction in the Caspian Sea all the way to the City of London, where BP’s financial power is consolidated.

Channelling the spirit of Wilfred Thesiger and Paddy Fermor, the authors follow the route of the 1,100-mile Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, known as BTC, which connects the fecund Caspian fields with container ships on the edge of Europe. ‘What is shipped from the BTC terminal is a raw commodity in bulk, extracted from weaker nations and transported to the most powerful.’ It’s a journey that takes them overland from Azerbaijan to Turkey before finally arriving in Bavaria, where ACG’s black gold powers the industrial furnaces of Central Europe.

Marriott and Minio-Paluello show time and again how the oil industry has captured putatively sovereign states. Legislation is passed at the behest of BP executives, at times with the direct assistance of Western politicos.

In Turkey, one of the authors is detained near the pipeline. A secretary for energy and environment at the British embassy in Ankara calls, not to assist but to warn the writers against visiting villages affected by the pipeline without permission. No such prohibition exists in Turkish law. ‘[A]s in Azerbaijan and Georgia, the arbitrary power of the state is being utilised to prevent BP’s pipeline being scrutinised.’

For the next four decades villagers living near the BTC are forbidden from building anything within 40 metres of the pipeline. Although two Turkish children die while playing on a construction site adjacent to the pipeline, ‘(q)uestions about compensation are met with a snort of derision.’ In Georgia, locals whose homes were built near the route complain that BP, ‘send the police force instead of coming to meet us themselves.’

Western interest in the Caucasus has long been mediated by oil. From the 1870s to the 1900s, Azeri crude was the bedrock of a flourishing kerosene industry. By the turn of the 20th century, the Oil Road’s exports fuelled factories across Europe and Asia. So dependent were the British that after World War I they sent troops to support the short-lived anti-Soviet Centro-Caspian Dictatorship. ‘We are not here to put down Bolshevism, but to guard British capital sunk in the old fields,’ a Corporal in the expedition wrote to his mother in July 1919.

The Oil Road was a busy nexus at the crossroads of much 20th century history. We meet Stalin, or Koba as he was originally known in Georgia; the Futurists in the fascist city-state of Fiume; the Nazis; and the Red Army Faction.

This is no dry historiography, however. References to Lermontov and Marco Polo, Kemal and Ruskin pepper a highly readable text (Although some slipshod editing has left a lot of unnecessary and distracting repetition).

Unlike the Silk Road, which the title consciously echoes, the contemporary Oil Road is haunted by the spectre of climate change. Despite BP’s rebranding as ‘Beyond Petroleum’, less than one per cent of its turnover comes from renewable energy. Indeed, the company supports groups in the US that actively deny global warming.

Earlier this month, Ireland-based oil and gas company Providence Resources announced that a field at Barryroe, off the coast of Cork, is expected to yield 280million barrels of oil. Irish politicians, and citizens, would do well to heed the OilRoad’s cautionary lesson: without proper social and environmental oversight, oil can be a boon for a powerful few and a disaster for everyone else.

This review originally appeared in the Sunday Business Post.

Kosovo Goes it Alone

Mother Teresa Boulevard is a street pregnant with symbolism. At one end of the wide, pedestrianized thoroughfare that runs through the centre of Pristina, an imposing statue of Albanian hero Skanderbeg stands in the shadow of Kosovo’s parliament building. A couple of hundred metres south sits the Communist-era Grand Hotel. When war broke out in 1999, notorious Serb paramilitary leader Arkan reputedly made his base here, in what was the Kosovan capital’s most opulent hotel.

Mother Tersea Boulevard was the obvious location for a ‘peace concert’ held last month to celebrate the end of the four-year long supervision of Kosovo’s independence. On a warm September evening, after politicians and diplomats had declared ‘chapter closed in the Balkans’ and executive powers were formally transferred to the Kosovan Assembly, local musicians played for free on a specially constructed stage halfway down the Boulevard. By 10.30pm, only a couple of dozen had turned out to watch.

It’s not that Pristina was quiet, far from it. All along Mother Teresa, cafes and bars were thronged with young Kosovans waving red and black Albanian flags and shouting — in support not of independence, but of the Albanian national team, who were taking on Switzerland in a World Cup qualifier. The Swiss side had three players of Kosovan descent in their line-up, Albania half a dozen. For Kosovans, with no national team of their own, this was the biggest game in a generation.

The boycott of the peace concert was not, however, simply a reflection of poor scheduling and Kosovo’s passion for football. Many, particularly the young, have grown steadily disillusioned with life in Europe’s youngest state. Unemployment is high; wages are low; so, increasingly is turnout at elections. Stability has not solved the problem of corruption – Kosovo placed just 112th in the 2011 Transparency International Corruption Index. The country remains internally divided, with a restive, Serb-dominated north rejecting Pristina’s writ.

‘There is dissatisfaction among the young,’ Dren Pozhegu, a youthful policy analyst, told me over a coffee on George Bush Street in downtown Pristina. ‘I feel this apathy among people, they have lost the belief in change.’

Kosovo’s declaration of independence, in February 2008, was greeted with scenes of joy on the streets of Pristina. As British journalist Tim Judah recounts, a huge cake in the shape of Kosovo appeared on Mother Teresa Boulevard; a nearby lingerie shop even dressed its scantily clad mannequin in Albania’s colours.

Such patriotic displays were absent last month, when the decision by to end the international supervision of Kosovo’s independence was formally ratified. However, politically Kosovo is inching closer to full independence.Previously, the International Civilian Representative had the right to override legislation passed by the elected Kosovan assembly. The ICR’s mandate is now finished and the International Civilian Office (ICO) will close by the end of the year.

For the first time in its history the Kosovan assembly has unfettered legislative power. ‘Now Kosovans can do stupid things and the only way we can stop them is through persuasion,’ said Robert Wilton, the ICO’s former head of policy. ‘Before if they did something stupid an international could change it’.

‘Kosovo is fully independent,’ former International Civilian Representative Pieter Feith told the Sunday Business Post at a conference to commemorate the end of supervised independence in Pristina last month. ‘(Kosovo) has its own legal and constitutional frameworks, but more importantly it is a country with a European perspective,’ the Dutch diplomat said, after a testy press conference with Serbian media in which he was probed about war crimes allegedly committed by the Kosovo Liberation Army during the 1999 war and chided about the failures of EULEX, the EU the rule of law mission in Kosovo.

The small Balkan nation of around two million people, roughly 90 per cent of which are ethnic Albanian, is now recognised by almost a hundred states around the world, including 22 of 27 European Union countries. But the United Nations does not recognise Kosovo’s six-starred flag. Relations with Serbia remain frosty. Serbia, which Kosovo was a formerly province of, refuses to countenance Kosovan independence. Wary of its own restive regions, Russia has remained unwavering in its support for the Serbs on the issue of Kosovo.

It’s a popular position among early morning espresso drinkers in La Dolce Vita, a café-cum-bar that overlooks the main bridge over the river Ibar, on the northern bank of the town of Mitrovica. ‘No-one here recognises the government in Pristina,’ says a middle-aged man. ‘Everyone wants Belgrade to be their centre.’

The Ibar provides a natural barrier between Serb-dominated north Mitrovica and the largely Albanian south. Our friendly waiter wears a t-shirt with Cyrillic lettering emblazoned across the front. Nearby a red, blue and white flag hangs limply from a lamppost. A little further up the street, a rusting Yugo drives past a billboard proclaiming a smiling Russian president Vladimir Putin ‘Our Honorary Citizen’.

The economic powerhouse of Kosovo during the Yugoslav regime, Mitrovica, around 40km north of Pristina, was effectively split in the immediate aftermath of the 1999 war. After 78 days of NATO bombings succeeded in driving Slobodan Milosevic’s Serb troops out of Kosovo, Mitrovica became a battleground. Troops from the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR) and the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) were unable to prevent population expulsions on both sides. Now around 17,000 Serbs live on the northern lip, divided from the 50,000 Albanians in south by the Ibar river.

The north is ‘the biggest challenge’ facing the young Kosovan state, says Robert Wilton, former head of policy at the ICO. KFOR, which Ireland remains a small part of, has designated the security situation in Kosovo ‘calm and stable’, with one exception — the ‘tense and fragile’ tract of territory, roughly 500 square miles, north of the Ibar. Home to over a third of Kosovo’s 100,000 Serbs, ‘North Kosovo’ takes in urban north Mitrovica as well as three less densely populated municipalities that lie between the town and the border with Serbia proper.

On a bright, fresh morning, I am the only civilian the bridge. Walking from south of the river, as close as an Albanian taxi driver will take me, I pass graffiti in praise of UCK (the Kosovo Liberation Army) and the disinterested eyes of uniformed Italian Carabinieri stationed on the bridge. High up on a hill a beautiful Serbian Orthodox Church glistens in the sunlight. Below it, a commanding socialist monument to the nearby Trepca mine marks the main Bosniak and Albanian neighbourhoods that remain in north Mitrovica. On the Serb side of the bridge, middle-aged men sit smoking, huddled around a makeshift tent ringed with Serb flags. These are the ‘bridge watchers’, whose unofficial job it is to monitor who enters, and leaves, the north.

The bridge watchers’ task has been much easier since July of last year, when Serbs blockaded the bridge, in protest at the decision to send KFOR troops to implement customs policies at the northern border with Serbia. Interpreting this as attempt to enforce Pristina’s control in North Kosovo, Serbs revolted, erecting roadblocks, attacking customs posts and even firing live ammunition at personnel from KFOR and the EU rule of law mission, EULEX. One officer was killed.

Almost all of the barriers have been removed, but a ten-foot high mound of rocks and stones still blocks the Ibar bridge to vehicular traffic. This barricade will only be ‘removed by the people themselves as a result of a politically agreed solution’, one KFOR officer told this correspondent.

Such a solution looks unlikely, in the short term at least. ‘It is much more important that Pristina feel that they cannot break us by using force,’ said Oliver Ivanovic, a prominent Serb politician in north Mitrovica and erstwhile state secretary in the ministry of Kosovo in the Serbian government in Belgrade. ‘(If they did) the reaction would be furious.’

The scene of a fabled battle against the invading Ottomans in 1389, Kosovo holds a special place in the symbolic imaginary of Serb nationalists. For many Kosovo is, and always will be, part of Serbia. Nowhere is this feeling more pronounced than in North Kosovo.

In February, an unofficial referendum asked residents in the municipalities north of the Ibar,“Do you accept the institutions of the so-called Republic of Kosovo?” Almost 100 per cent of voters said ‘no’, according to a Balkan Insight report. Just nine people in the whole of north Mitrovica turned out to vote during last year’s Kosovan elections.

Practically every government service in North Kosovo is administered from Belgrade, from schools and hospitals to road sweeping. ‘Mitrovica doesn’t have a parallel municipality, it just has the Serb municipality’, says former head of the International Civilian Office in Mitrovica, Miranda Hochberg.

The ICO was largely failed to extend its authority into North Kosovo. Civil servants are paid by Serbia; the local currency is the Serb dinar (although the Euro, official tender in the rest of Kosovo can be used, too); cars carry old Serb licences plates or, more commonly, none at all, after Pristina issued an edict banning Serb plates.

‘(Pristina) cannot organise anything in the North,’ Oliver Ivanovic says with a smile. It is a busy morning in his smoke-filled north Mitrovica constituency office. On his desk, an Orthodox Serbian cross sits beside a computer with his Facebook page open. A miniature Serb flag on a piece of cork doubles up as a paperweight. ‘Ask any Serb here, they will tell you — Kosovo institutions are Albanian.’

Boris Drobac, a community worker in the neighbouring municipality of Zvecan, agrees: ‘Before the Serbian people (who Kosovo fled during the war) come back we cannot talk about independence or cooperating with Kosovan institutions’. Drobac describes Kosovo’s independence as ‘totally illegal, adducing UN resolution 1244, which was passed in 1999 and created the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo.

Built in the shadows of the Trepca mines industrial complex, Zvecan was a prosperous town under Tito. With around 23,000 workers at its height, the mine was one of the biggest employers in the former Yugoslavia. In 1989, Albanian mine workers went on a mass strike against the loss of Kosovo’s autonomy within the Yugoslav federation. Now the mines are now largely empty, two giant cooling towers and an elongated black slag the only remnants of its former glory.

Displays of Serb nationalism abound in contemporary Zvecan. The entire gable wall of a house is given over to a massive mural of Radko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb general currently on trial in the Hague for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Half-removed concrete barricades litter the road on the short drive from north Mitrovica to Zvecan. Billboards proclaim ‘This is Serbia’, in Serbian and English (presumably for the benefit of international forces and foreign journalists).

The six majority Serb municipalities in south and central Kosovo all accepted extensive self-government powers in the wake of independence. These measures were introduced under the 2008 blueprint for a ‘multi-ethnic’ Kosovo, the Ahtisaari plan, named after its architect, former Finnish president and Nobel peace prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari. Laws protecting minorities were written into the Kosovan constitution; 20 of the 120 seats in the assembly are reserved for minority parties, including ten for Serb representatives.

Partly as a result of these stipulations, a Serbian party, the Independent Liberal Party (SLS), found itself holding the balance of power after the 2010 Kosovo elections. Formed during the long Serb boycott of Kosovan institutions in the years before independence, SLS is now the minority partner in a coalition government with onetime KLA fighters, the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK).

Politics in North Kosovo, however, is of a very different hue. Serbs here elect members to separate municipal structures run from Belgrade. Serb parties that cooperate with Pristina struggle in the north. In July 2010, SLS general secretary, Petar Miletić, was shot in both legs in north Mitrovica, according to a recent report from the International Crisis Group. Serbs participating in the Kosovan system ‘are not representing the Serb community’, says north Mitrovica politician Oliver Ivanovic.

Wary of further antagonising Serbs in the wake of last year’s fractious attempts to secure customs posts, the international community have adopted a more subtle approach to North Kosovo. The ICO-backed Mitrovica North Administrative Office hopes to encourage Serbs to apply for Kosovan papers and other administrative documents.

Whether this strategy has been successful or not depends whom you speak to: officials in Pristina argue that gradually engaging northern Serbs with the Kosovan government will eventually pay dividends. My Serb fixer will not even take me to the Mitrovica North Administrative Office for fear of repercussions from watchful locals. ‘At least once a week someone gets punished for co-operating with the Kosovan institutions,’ he tells me.

Over lunch, I meet a group of Serb men in a dingy bar in downtown north Mitrovica. Over a beer, Dejan Antic confesses that he holds Kosovan papers, A nervous quiet descends on the table. A compatriot finally breaks the silence, in a deadpan James Bond-villain voice: ‘When we finish the conversation we will kill him.’ None of his drinking companions admit to taking Kosovo papers. ‘They want to force us to take the Kosovo documents but we won’t,’ says Boris Drobac.

Like many on both sides of the Ibar, Antic, a soft-spoken man in his late thirties, answers the question, ‘how long have you been in Mitrovica?’ with a date. In his case, March 18 2004. That was the day he was forced to leave Svinjare, a Serb village in north Kosovo that was razed to the ground by ethnic Albanians in the worst outbreak of violence since the war. The disorder followed the drowning of an Albanian child in the Ibar. By the time it was finished eight Albanians and 11 Serbs were dead, hundreds were injured and the sclerotic ethnic geography of the region had ossified further.

‘KFOR did nothing to stop it,’ says Antic, who was expelled from his home in eastern Kosovo as a child. During the 1999, he was forced to leave the town of Obilic, near Pristina.Serbs often point to desecrations of Orthodox Churches across Kosovo as evidence of a systematic campaign against them by ethnic Albanians.

As in many conflicts, the figures for casualties in the Kosovo war are often disputed. A total of 13,421 people were killed from 1 January 1998 up until December 2000, according to a 2008 joint study by Humanitarian Law Center, The International Commission on Missing Person, and the Missing Person Commission of Serbia. Of that sum, 10,533 were Albanians, 2,238 were Serbs, 126 Roma, 100 Bosniaks and others. Serbs argue that these figures neglect these kin killed in retaliatory attacks after the war.

Less disputed is the fact that North Kosovo has become an outlaw frontier in the centre of Europe. An area over 70,000 people and no effective customs and excise regime, North Mitrovica has become the centre of myriad smuggling rackets. Cigarettes are duty-free; petrol often sells at 40cents a litre less than south of the Ibar (or in Serbia).

‘The north is basically a tax free corruption zone’, says Miranda Hochberg, former head of the ICO in Mitrovica. North Kosovo, with its labyrinthine administrative structures, is ripe for graft. ‘There’s a lot of money flowing into Kosovo from Belgrade but it doesn’t go anywhere.’

Despite having its mandate extended for a further two years last month, EULEX, the EU’s rule of law mission, failed to address the problems in the north, says former ICO head of policy Robert Wilton. ‘EULEX basically sees the north as Mordor: “The north is a terrible place, we’re all going to die”. This creates an image, anyone sitting on the north side of the bridge see EULEX in short sleeves flirting with local girls, then they only comes into the north in armed people carriers.’

Over the bridge in south Mitrovica the atmosphere is noticeably less tense. It’s late afternoon and the cafes are busy with young people, drinking coffee and chatting freely in Albanian. Near the former Lux department store, a relic of Yugoslavia’s more free market variant of socialism, children queue to have their faces painted.

Bajram Rexhepi, an aging Albanian cigarette seller, lived in north Mitrovica for his entire life until February 2, 2000 when he and his wife were expelled. ‘People just took my property,’ he says. Previously Rexhepi worked as an economist at the Trepca mines, before losing his job in a mass expulsion of Albanians. He never crosses the bridge but misses his old neighbourhood, and his old Serb friends. ‘I’m nostalgic for that part of the city now, I miss it.’

Across the road from the onetime UN headquarters, just south of the bridge, sits Community Building Mitrovica. Created in 2001 by the Dutch charity Interchurch Peace Council, CBM ‘aims is to serve as a bridge between the two communities’ — but it faces daily challenges. For one project worker, a young Serb from north Mitrovica, the job interview at CBM was the first time crossing the bridge in 12 years.

‘In Mitrovica everything is political. To try and find common issues between the two communities is hard,’ says Aferdita Syla, CBM’s executive director. Community Building Mitrovica works primarily with young people, women, internally displaced people on both sides of the bridge. ‘But in the north, we’re seen as an Albanian organisation, in the south seen as an organisation that works with Serbs’.

Syla is highly critical of the tendency – both within and without Kosovo – to view Mitrovica’s problems as primarily a product of ethnic difference. ‘Politicians often tell us that Mitrovica is an ethnic problem, but it is not so much an ethnic problem as other problems; unemployment, social problems, water, electricity. Nobody mentions those – this is something that politicians should concentrate on.’

Until now, politicians have been preoccupied with Kosovo’s constitutional future. In 2011, current Serbian Prime Minister Ivia Dacic proposed the partition of Kosovo north of the Ibar river as a ‘realistic’ solution the dispute in the North. The notion of partition, potentially explosive in the ethnic patchwork on the Balkans, has been widely renounced by the international community. In Pristina recently, outgoing International Civilian Representative Pieter Feith rejected the idea outright, saying that Kosovans ‘rightly believe that the North is part of Kosovo. This is not only their view, it is shared in Brussels, in the (European) Commission’.

Calls for special autonomy for the North have fallen on deaf ears in Pristina, where politicians point to the extensive self-government powers that already exist but which northern Serbs have not taken advantage of. However, on the streets of Mitrovica the mood is very different. ‘The real problem is central Kosovo – you have 20 Serbs in Pristina, zero Serbs in Pec. That is the problem, not Mitrovica. Mitrovica is the solution’, says Dejan Antic, who works on a project to develop small businesses in north Mitrovica.

‘If the democratic will of the people is respected the North will never be part of this Kosovo but if the international community forces allows the Albanian government to extend Kosovo institutions in the North, we will have a situation like 1999’.

The prospect, however distant, of EU membership could yet encourage Kosovo and Serbia to reach a settlement. Speaking at the United Nations last week, Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci said that the two prospective EU candidates must normalise relations, although he added that partition ‘would never happen’. The EU, crucially, with the imprimatur of the US ambassador to Kosovo, is hoping to organise talks this month with a view to settling the question of the North.

Despite tensions on the ground, and between the two national governments in Belgrade and Pristina, the prospect of return to open hostility in Kosovo is remote. ‘With the exception of the north, which is largely EULEx’s fault, there is no security issue in Kosovo’, says Robert Wilton.

Even in North Kosovo, violence on the scale witnessed in March 2004 is considered unlikely. ‘I doubt there will be a big clash,’ says Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic. ‘There are so many weapons on both sides, it would be stupid to put the fire too close to the gasoline.’

There are measures the Pristina government could take to assuage an anxious Serb community. Widening public sector opportunities for Serbs would help: less than one per cent of the 12,000-plus workers in publicly owned enterprises are Serbs, according to the International Crisis Group. Many of Serbs expelled from Pristina, Prizren, and other Kosovan regions during and after the war have struggled to get their property back. Serbian is rarely used or understood beyond the handful of Serb municipalities, although it is an official language of the Kosovan state,

But the main stumbling block remains the economy. Kosovo has the youngest population in Europe and almost certainly the highest rate of unemployment — unofficial estimates suggest that as many of 40 per cent of the population are out of work. Among those aged 15 to 25 the figure is even higher. Kosovo needs to create around 25,000 new jobs every year just to maintain employment at its current level, says Lumir Abdixhiku, executive director of Reinvest institute, a Pristina-based think tank.

Last year, Kosovo exported just €300m, leaving it with a trade deficit of €2.2bn, according to Abdixhiku. Without remittances from Switzerland, the UK and, in particular, Germany, the economy would be in even worse shape. Typical annual interest rates on loans to Kosovan businesses run at 40 per cent. Crippling visa restrictions make foreign travel onerous, hindering young Kosovans in particular.

Petrit Selimi, the articulate, youthful deputy minister at the department of foreign affairs is confident that the end of supervised independence will mark a new chapter in Kosovan history. ‘Considering the enormity of the challenge I think we have coped very well,’ he says, citing Kosovo’s average annual GDP growth of around 4 per cent.

‘Kosovo is not a failed state. Kosovo is not a dark zone, We have been told so much by Serbian propagandists that sometimes we start believing it, but it’s not the case.’

Back in Zvecan, living in a de facto state is bad for legitimate business, regardless of ethnicity. ‘If I want to send anything in Serbia I need an export permit, it I want to sell anything in Kosovo I need an import permit’, say Milija Radenkovic, 60, who runs gas station and small farm in North Kosovo.

Radenkovic has been forced to lay off staff in recent months. His three sons have all moved to Serbia. He doubts they will ever return. ‘Our young people they finish their studies here but we don’t have opportunities for employment here so they are leaving for Serbia or the West’, he says.

‘For people who are thinking about themselves and their family, they don’t care about the politics, they only care about the economic situation’.

This piece originally appeared in the Sunday Business Post October 7, 2012. 

Ulster Covenant’s Scottish Resonances

THE prospect of independence in Scotland is a world apart from the quashed Irish bid for home rule in 1912, writes Peter Geoghegan.

“THE DARK eleventh hour draws on and sees us sold to every evil power we fought against of old.” So begins Rudyard Kipling’s poem Ulster 1912. Now fondly remembered as the hirsute creator of The Jungle Book, Kipling was a passionate agitator on behalf of the Protestant cause in the north of Ireland. After refutations of Rome rule and English duplicitousness, Ulster 1912 ends with a rather fateful proclamation: “We shall not fall alone.”

Kipling’s poem, penned almost a century ago, was a passionate paean to a pivotal event in Irish history that celebrates its centenary today – the Ulster Covenant. Almost half a million Ulster men and women put their names to the covenant, in protest at the then-Liberal government’s intention to introduce home rule in Ireland. Sir Edward Carson, erstwhile MP for Trinity College, Dublin and, later first prime minister of Northern Ireland, was the first signature, at Belfast City Hall. Similar signing ceremonies were held across the north, with crowds gathering to pledge their fealty, if not quite to the United Kingdom than at least to Ulster.

Kipling’s bombast seems even-tempered compared to the text of the covenant itself. “[R]elying on the God whom our fathers in days of stress and trial confidently trusted”, covenant signatories pledged “to stand by one another in defending, for ourselves and our children, our cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom, and in using all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy”. This was not empty rhetoric.

In 1912, the unionist militia that was to become the Ulster Volunteer Force was formed. Two years later, almost twenty-five thousand rifles and three million rounds of ammunition were smuggled into Ulster in what became known as the Larne gun-running. Any doubts about the Protestant people of Ulster’s capacity to suppress, first, the home rule ambitions of the Irish Parliamentary party and Liberal prime minister HH Asquith, and, later, Irish republicans were dispelled. Ireland would eventually gain independence, but the north would, of course, remain part of the United Kingdom.

The impact of the covenant was keenly felt in many parts of Scotland. It was drafted by Belfast merchant Thomas Sinclair, a Gladstonian who broke with the Grand Old Man after the Liberal leader adopted the policy of Irish home rule. Sinclair, who had a very developed sense of his Scottish identity, consciously echoes the Scottish Covenanters lexicon in his text. Indeed, the Ulster Covenant was often referred to as “the Solemn League and Covenant” in homage to the agreement of the same name signed between Scottish Covenanters and the leaders of the English Parliamentarians in 1643.

“It was this Presbyterian tradition that supplied the rebellious spirit of 1912,” says Graham Walker, professor of political history at Queen’s University, Belfast.

The campaign against home rule for Ireland had popular support in Scotland, particularly on the west coast, with thousands turning out to see Edward Carson in Glasgow. Many Scots were among the two million signatures to the British Covenant, a protest, mirrored on the Ulster version, which circulated in 1914. However, says Prof Walker, Scottish enthusiasm for the Unionist cause in Ulster was less pronounced than many Irish Protestants hoped. “Unionists [in Ulster] were disappointed by the less than full-blooded support of their co-religionists in Scotland”.

That Ulster Protestants would look to Scotland for validation is hardly surprisingly. As the periodic debates about sectarianism here attest, the legacy of Scots-Irish relations remains vexed. Less controversial is that many lowland Scots participated in the plantation of Ulster, which started around 1600. The remnants of this migration are still felt today in the names, religion and dialect of many in what is now Northern Ireland, particularly in the areas closest to Scotland.

Between 1840 and 1920, the flow of migrants was reversed. As the famine ravaged Ireland, increasing numbers escaped across the Irish Sea to Scotland. According to census results, in 1841, 126,321 people in Scotland (4.8 per cent of the population) were Irish-born. Within a decade this figure had risen to 207,367 (7.2 per cent). These new migrants settled across Scotland, but those coming from Ulster, both Catholic and Protestant, tended to congregate in Glasgow and smaller towns in the west of Scotland.

As Alasdair McKillop notes in a recent Scottish Review essay, Protestants accounted for between a quarter and a third of all Irish immigrants who arrived in Scotland in the 19th century.

The vast majority were from the north of Ireland; and many went on to join the Orange Order, which, although initially established here by Scots army regiments returning from Ulster was, until the 1920s, largely a society for emigre Ulster Protestants in Scotland.

The Orange Order remains an obvious connection for Protestants east and west of Ailsa Craig. During the 1920s, tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Scots joined the order, including the secretary of state for Scotland, John Gilmour. While its support remained strongest in areas of historic Irish-Protestant migration, many Scots with no connection with Ulster, or Ireland, enrolled in the organisation.

The order is not the force it once was in Scottish politics – indeed some, such as Professor Eric Kaufmann, would argue that the power of the putative “Orange Vote” has often been overstated but there are still more than 180 lodges in the Glasgow area alone, and around 8,000 people attended July’s annual Orange Walk in the city. A century on from the signing of the Ulster Covenant, the union faces its gravest existential threat yet – Scottish independence. Orange leaders, thankfully, have largely recognised that the SNP are not, and never will be, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and the political situation in Scotland today is very different from that which existed in Ireland in 1912.

“There is no religious tension in Scotland, no armed uprising, no open rebellion. It’s not a case of taking up arms to defend the Union,” Ian Wilson, a former Grand Master of the Orange Lodge in Scotland, said in an address to the annual Orange parade in Broughshane, County Antrim, on 12 July. The case for the Union, Wilson said, must be made “by persuasion, by campaigning, and through the ballot box”.

Northern Irish unionists have yet to made a compelling case for their inclusion at the top table at the independence salon. Earlier this week, Dr David Hume, director of services at the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, claimed Ulster Scots in Northern Ireland are “stakeholders” who should to be given a vote in the 2014 referendum. Dr Hume was speaking at a Glasgow event in to commemorate the centenary of the signing of the Ulster covenant.

Notwithstanding the practical problems pertaining to Dr Hume’s proposition — how do you define Ulster Scots? Would people of Scottish descent elsewhere in the world be allowed to vote? The reality is that Ulster Scots can participate in the debate, not by voting but by well-made, reasoned interjections, presumably, in support of the Union.

Many Northern Irish unionist spokespeople have failed to appreciate the subtleties of the debate on this side of the Irish Sea – as former Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble’s fatuous suggestion that the SNP are “doing violence” to people’s identities illustrated.

What happens in Scotland still matters in Northern Ireland, as any football fan knows, but Scotland 2014 is not Ulster 1912. Until Northern Irish unionists grasp that difference their voice in the independence is bound to remain muted.

This article originally appeared in the Scotsman, 28 September.