Saturday, June 30, 2012

The illusion of progress

It takes a lot to make members of the Alliance Party storm out of meetings but a few weeks back that was exactly what happened when David Ford announced that he and his colleagues would be withdrawing from the CSI (Cohesion, Sharing and Integration) cross party working group.  A committee devised to help draw up a policy to usher in the 'shared future' that we have heard so much about has in the end proved to be nothing more than a waste of time.  Indeed, not just that, but according to Ford the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein have colluded in manufacturing the "illusion" of progress in Northern Ireland.  Strong words from one of the most mild-mannered politicians in a region not known for mild manners.

If you want a prime example of this illusion of progress working in full flow then you need look no further than the developments that have been taking place in relation to one of the most infamous murals in the whole of Belfast.  For many visitors to the city arriving by rail into Great Victoria Street station, the large UFF mural in the Sandy Row area may be one of the first things they set eyes on.  'Welcome to Belfast' it most certainly is not.  There is nothing particularly special about this mural that marks it out from the countless others that ruin the appearance of communities the length and breadth of Northern Ireland.  There is no dead 'martyr'.  There is no iconic slogan.  It is nothing more than an image of a balaclava-clad figure wielding an AK-47 with a warning scrawled alongside it informing us that we are entering Sandy Row, the "heartland of south Belfast Ulster-Freedom Fighters" (I never could quite understand the need for a hyphen in that sentence).

Back at the beginning of June it was announced that this hideous mural would, finally, be removed.  Great, I thought, one less eyesore plaguing our splendid city.  Sadly, it was not to be.  Yes, the masked man with assault rifle will disappear once and for all, but he will be replaced not with a clean blank gable wall but with a more familiar figure from our past: King William III.  So, this is the 'new' Northern Ireland: a place where the removal of a mural celebrating 20th century sectarian slaughter and replacing it with a mural glorifying 17th century sectarian slaughter represents progress.  Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?

Yet, for some inexplicable reason, the media coverage of this event seems to be overwhelmingly positive.  The BBC refers to it as "the most significant sign of change in (Sandy Row's) post-Troubles landscape."  UTV called it a "dramatic facelift."  The Belfast Telegraph stated that this was an "attempt to revitalise the area."  Forgive me if I sound like something of a party pooper, but just why is the painting over of some UFF graffiti in Sandy Row with a brand spanking new picture of King Billy being heralded as a major success?  There is no facelift here.  There is no revitalising of the area.  The is not one iota of significant change in the post-Troubles landscape.  There is simply the reinforcement of sectarian apartheid in Belfast and the marking out of the Sandy Row district as a Protestant-only area.

Even more stomach-churning is the usual unelected gaggle of ex-paramilitary thugs that have lined up to heap praise on loyalists for agreeing to take down the terrorist mural.  Jackie McDonald, the UDA leader who oddly defended Northern Ireland's place in the United Kingdom by serving a ten year sentence for extortion, blackmail and intimidation, said that this was a sign the people of Sandy Row were prepared to "move into a new era" and he saluted them for their bravery.  Of course, did the UFF ever actually ask if the people Sandy Row wanted this mural in the first place?  I don't believe so.  Also, if anyone in the area had publicly complained about the mural in the past what would the response from the UFF have been?  I think we all know the answer to that one.

Garnet Busby, another former loyalist prisoner turned 'community worker', made a statement which surpassed the idiocy of even a cretin like Jackie McDonald.  According to Mr Busby, the mural of the gunman was "held with fond memories for the community here and a lot of the community has mixed feelings about it going."  This is a complete and utter lie.  Most people I have met in my life find the murals here distasteful, others think that a few of them have a bit of artistic credibility but never once have I met an individual who has claimed to enjoy living beside or close to a painting of a masked paramilitary gunman.

Garnet and Jackie cannot prove to me, or anyone else for that matter, that the UFF mural ever had widespread support from the local community.  Just like the equivalent paintings in working-class nationalist of the Northern Ireland, these murals were painted without the consent of the local community and their existence prolonged because the people that lived alongside them felt afraid to speak out as they lived constantly under threat from a heavily armed sectarian mafia.  On the other hand, what I do know is that the people of Sandy Row and the wider unionist community in south Belfast never once supported the organisation that Jackie McDonald led.  How do I know this?  By a little thing called democracy.  Over the years the UDA and UFF have made various attempts to get involved in politics, most recently with the failed Ulster Democratic Party.  At no point did the UDP ever get anyone elected in this area.  Not in an election to Westminster.  Not in an election to Stormont.  Not in an election to Belfast City Council.  Once in the safety of a polling booth, Protestant people in south Belfast repeatedly rejected the political representatives of loyalist terrorism.  That the Jackies and Garnets of this country may not want to be reminded of such facts does not make those facts any less true.

Hopefully someday we will see the disappearance of all sectarian wall murals in Northern Ireland.  Just like tacky painted kerbstones or tattered weather-beaten tricolours and Union Jacks dangling from lampposts, these murals are a unique mixture of vandalism combined with the claiming of territory - they serve no useful purpose.  Indeed, as long as they exist the idea of working-class housing estates containing people from the both sides of the divide here will remain the dreams of people residing in Cloud Cuckoo Land.  However, those of us supporting a real radical facelift for areas like Sandy Row certainly have a struggle ahead of us.  The advocates and architects of the peacetime sectarian carve-up of Northern Irish society (or, as it is referred to in official circles, 'the spirit of the agreement') appear either disinterested in the issue or else enthusiastically would like to keep murals as a depressing tourist attraction.  But at what cost?  People come to Belfast for many reasons and I am quite certain that only a number so tiny as to be insignificant actually come here to see the murals.  Should we preserve these unsightly things and thereby segregate our community for at least another generation just so a few former paramilitaries, taxi drivers and tour bus operators can make a quick buck?  Of course not (I do, incidentally, have first-hand experience of these tours and can inform you that they are utterly pathetic; I wrote about it on this site a while back, describing the red bus tour of the city as "a sickening cocktail of bad history mixed with equally bad comedy").

There is nothing in the political establishment's failure to tackle division here that should surprise us.  As has so often been observed by leftists and anti-sectarian progressives, the agenda of the present coalition administration at Stormont is to manage sectarianism rather than eradicate it.  I don't blame them for that.  The Democratic Unionist Party, Sinn Fein, the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists are the political manifestations of the division in our society.  It would be ridiculous if we were to act startled that they were not tackling the causes of sectarianism.  On the contrary, sectarianism is their lifeblood.  Up until now the failure lies with those of us in the 'other' camp for not offering a coherent credible alternative to challenge the sectarian bloc.  Until that happens, the peacetime carve-up - that illusion of progress - will continue unchallenged.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

And that was May: reflections on the elections in Europe

The second day of June is probably as good a time as any to look back on what just took place over the course of the previous thirty-one days that made up the month of May.  There is a chance - just a chance, not a guarantee - that when future scholars look back on the history of the present economic crisis many may consider the fifth month of of 2012 to be the beginning of a turning point in how we Europeans thought about the way we handle our economic crisis.  A few months back I came across a map on the BBC website which made for quite a depressing sight.  It showed a Europe which, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Black Sea, was shaded almost entirely in a single colour.  Conspicuous above all other continental countries was Denmark, marked out on the map as a little red archipelago swamped in an ocean of blue.  The purpose of this map was to show the extent to which centre-right parties now dominated politics in the European Union.  Things have not changed radically since I stumbled upon that map sometime in the autumn of last year, however the elections that took place last month in Britain, France, Germany and Greece have signalled that there might just be the beginnings of a shift to the left in the EU.

None of us should get carried away.  Some sceptics have tended to downplay what occurred last month and suggest that, rather than representing a move away from centre-right thinking, the results signal little other than the angry voters of the countries concerned taking the chance to stick the electoral boot into governing parties.  That, to me at least, seems a tad too simplistic.  While certainly not a radical move leftwards, the increase in the vote for socialist and social democratic parties does appear to be a response to the failure of the austerity policies pursued by various right-wing administrations.  Policies that were a few years back sold to the public on the basis of being a 'commonsense' requirement to bring public finances under control have resulted in a Europe stranded as deeply as ever in the quagmire of recession.

The most important result of the past four weeks was undoubtedly the removal of Nicolas Sarkozy as President of France.  His replacement in the Élysée Palace, François Hollande, is only the second member of the Socialist Party to ever take the nation's top job and if the PS can repeat that performance in a couple of weeks when the French people go to the polls again in the legislative elections then it will leave one of the powerhouses of Europe firmly in the hands of the centre-left.  Hollande's victory also means the smashing of the so-called 'Merkozy' alliance, which can only be a good thing.  Having the Eurozone's big two in conservative hands has been a disaster for the whole of the union and the coming to power in France of a man whose vision of the future is one remarkably different from that of his predecessor does offer the opportunity of a change in direction.  

The day after François Hollande had won in the second round of the Presidential election, a member of the CDU in the Reichstag spoke on the BBC World Service about how the election of the PS candidate in France would make "no difference".  He clarified his remarks by saying that Hollande's election may make a difference in the area of French domestic politics but as far as EU policy would go things are not up for discussion.  He may soon be surprised.  One of the strange ironies of the result is that it leaves us in the unusual position of having a socialist President in Paris who at the present time is much closer politically to the man in the White House than he is to the Prime Minister in London or the Chancellor in Berlin.  Indeed, in a recent meeting at Camp David in the wake of the French election, President Obama is said to have pushed Angela Merkel on the need to soften her austerity policy and introduce new measures to increase growth.

Whether Merkel shifts position or not remains to be seen, however if she does not make some kind of a move then there remains the distinct possibility that the German people may choose to move her.  In this respect the state elections in Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia last month provided a good chance for us to judge the mood of ordinary Germans.  And their mood?  Well, complicated would be a good way of putting it.  Going on what occurred in both states it would seem that Germans are neither content with their present government, though nor are they drifting out to the extremes of the left and right in order to express their dissatisfaction Greek-style.  Take Schleswig-Holstein for instance; there the CDU vote dropped a mere 0.7% on the result they had secured three years earlier.  SPD support in the region jumped by five percentage points to help bring them level with the CDU in terms of seats, but the consolidation of support for the right will have buoyed up their supporters somewhat.  A few weeks earlier a state election in Saarland produced a strikingly similar result, with the CDU getting nineteen of their candidates elected and overall seeing their vote actually rise slightly.  There was much better news in North Rhine-Westphalia where the centre-right vote dropped by 8.3% as the Social Democrats and Greens made an impressive thirty-eight gains at the Landtag in Dusseldorf.

Three other major talking points came out of these elections.  Firstly, the Pirate Party appear to be rapidly establishing themselves as a force in German politics.  It's too soon to say whether the Pirates will become a long-term feature on the scene or merely the latest protest vote to be in vogue at the present moment, yet with representatives now elected to four of Germany's sixteen state parliaments they do seem to have worked up a considerable level of widespread support.

Secondly, the FDP vote did not collapse as some (myself included) had expected it to.  They did take something of a battering in Schleswig-Holstein where the winning of six seats and the maintaining of their vote above 5% will probably be viewed as something of a decent damage limitation exercise, however when the counting had finished in NRW the party were found to have actually recorded a trend-bucking 2% rise and took nine extra seats.  Credit for this surprise improvement is going to the FDP's 33 year old rising star and head of their operation in North Rhine-Westphalia, Christian Lindner.  Don't be surprised if you hear more from him in the coming months.  Lindner resigned as FDP general secretary last year in an internal dispute, claiming at the time that he had done so out of respect for "the liberal cause".  With his personality, youth and the fact he is leading the party in one of the few areas where it is not seeing its support levels drop, a future leadership bid is surely only a matter of time away.  What all of this means of course is that the future of Angela Merkel's coalition partner is as uncertain as ever.

The final talking point concerns the complete and utter collapse of support for Die Linke.  I have always felt that this project would end in tears but it could it really happen so quickly and at this time?  One would have thought that the current climate would have been a good time for Die Linke to make progress and expand on it's support, but the reality was far from it.  In both states The Left witnessed their vote drop to well under 5% as they lost all seventeen of their seats.  To be honest, this was the sort of spectacular implosion I had expected to see from the FDP.  Die Linke had previously suffered losses in Saarland and in the Berlin elections last autumn, however this was in a completely different league.  The end of the road?  Possibly, although never having been a fan of the experiment I can't say I'll be shedding a tear if they do go off to take their place in the footnotes of German history.

Moving on to more hotter parts of Europe, both in terms of the weather and the political climate, and we come to what was undoubtedly the most spectacular result of the month - Greece.  It was here that over the course of a weekend an entire political system underwent it's most radical change in almost forty years.  Greek politics, for so long a game of musical chairs between PASOK and New Democracy, was completely turned on it's head as the vote for both parties plummeted and support for leftist anti-austerity forces rose significantly.  The main winner in this section of the field was SYRIZA, a strangely broad coalition of left-wing factions which includes everything from disgruntled members of PASOK to environmentalists to members of the Maoist KOE.  SYRIZA, who only three years previously had taken less than 5% of the Greek vote, this time finished second to New Democracy and secured fifty-two seats in parliament.  It was a truly staggering result.  However, if PASOK felt humiliated and SYRIZA elated, the feeling on the communist side was no doubt one of anti-climax.  I recall a KKE member explaining to me many years ago, after I had asked about the party's stagnation in the polls, that they were waiting for the "moment of crisis", the point at which capitalist crisis would cause the Greek proletariat to see the error of their ways and then flock to the Communist Party.  There must surely then be a considerable degree of bitterness in the Stalinist camp that, after all those years of waiting and preparing, a young whippersnapper like Alexis Tsipras could come along and steal their clothes.  KKE did actually make some small gains, but on the whole they must surely be disappointed to have failed to take advantage of the "moment of crisis."

You would think that given Greece's vast array of socialist factions that the last thing the country would have had room for would have been a new left of centre party, but you would have been wrong.  The coming together of a number of unhappy PASOK and Synaspismós members had helped form the new Democratic Left organisation which in it's first outing took an impressive 7% of the vote.  I was, however, disappointed to see the Greens fail to make their parliamentary breakthrough.  The OP have people elected at both local government and European level yet despite a rise in support to almost 200,000 votes the party just missed out on winning a seat.

Sadly, the same level of disappointment was not experienced on the far right.  On this wing of Greek politics the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party surprised everyone by coming from nowhere to secure twenty-one seats.  Note that I say 'neo-Nazi' rather than merely 'far-right'.  I have always encouraged people on the left to be honest about the nature of the right-wing forces they have lined up against them and not to resort to declaring everything to the right of mainstream conservatism to be the inheritors of the Third Reich's flame.  Golden Dawn, however, can accurately be called neo-Nazi.  They've got the swastika-like symbol.  They've got the salutes.  They've got the supreme leader flanked by his thuggish minders.  According to one opinion poll they've also got - and this should really give us cause for concern - the support of around half of Greece's serving police officers.  On the bright side?  It is extremely difficult to find a positive out of all of this.  If there is one then it could be that the vote for Golden Dawn is just a shifting of the vote from one far-right organisation to another.  The Popular Orthodox Rally, another ultra-nationalist right-wing party, came into this election holding sixteen parliamentary seats; after last month's election they had no representation in the national legislature.  The Golden Dawn result could be looked upon as the hardening of attitudes on the extreme right rather than any major explosion in support for Greek fascism.

Nevertheless, the situation remains worrying: a collapsing economy, an electorate drifting towards the extreme left and right, rising anti-immigrant sentiment and police officers siding with fascists - it's not hard to see why the word word 'Weimar' tends to pop up so often in conversations about Greece these days.  The result of last month's election was ultimately, as we are all only too aware now, that we should have another election this month.  So, on June 17 the people of Greece will go out to vote again.  The latest opinion poll published by the centre-right Kathimerini newspaper this morning gave SYRIZA a clear lead over New Democracy.  If this poll is to be trusted then it appears Tsipras's party is drawing more and more votes away from PASOK and KKE.  Although unlikely to be able to win a majority, the establishment of the Coalition of the Radical Left as the largest party in the country would undoubtedly shake not just Greece but the whole of the European Union.

Much less explosive but no less important were the local government elections in Britain, the election to the Great London Assembly and the London Mayoral election.  Here too the picture was of a left on the rise (well, in most cases).  It's hard to believe that just a few months ago there were many predicting the end for the current Labour leader.  Now, following the party's resounding success in the local elections, we are seeing articles appear in the Spectator discussing the very real possibility of 'Prime Minister Ed Miliband'.  Of course, the prospect of Red Ed (do people still call him that?) entering Downing Street is a long way off.  The important thing for Labour to do now is to build on presenting themselves as a coherent credible opposition with a distinct centre-left programme.  To date, they have not done that.  There probably was a fair deal of truth in the widespread assertion that the large Labour vote symbolised an expression of anti-coalition sentiment rather than the British public rushing to embrace social democracy.

The most curious result though came in London.  Here, Labour had it's best ever result in a Greater London Assembly election, taking twelve of the twenty-five seats on offer.  The city did, however, produce one of the few good news stories for the Conservatives on the night with Boris Johnson narrowly defeating Ken Livingstone in the race to become Mayor.  It spoke volumes that on a day when voters the length and breadth of Britain were moving back to towards Labour, the people of London just could not stomach the thought of another four years with Ken.  Had the candidate been Oona King, the woman Livingstone defeated in the selection process, I have no doubt that Labour would have secured the position of top dog in London.  Prior to last month's election I wrote here that had I been a Londoner I would have voted Labour in the GLA election and cast my vote for Jenny Jones of the Greens in Mayoral election.  As things transpired, I was actually quite pleased with the result.  Another four years of Boris is much less damaging to Labour than another term for Ken Livingstone.  With a stake now driven through the heart of his career, there is now at least no prospect of Livingstone inflicting further damage on Labour by raising his ugly head with some harebrained shenanigans in the position of Mayor.

There were two other pieces of good news from the election.  Number one, the British National Party are now on the verge of electoral extinction.  Of the country's 21,871 local council seats, the far-right now holds a pathetic three.  They were also unable to win back the seat they won in the GLA election back in 2008.  With their paltry total of three councillors in the whole country, the only elected representation the BNP have left lies with their two MEPs.  Come 2014 it is likely they will be gone too.  Fascism, finally, is close to being wiped off the face of the British political map.

The second piece of good news comes with the continuing growth of the Green Party.  Hot on the heels of winning their first seat in the House of Commons to add to their two seats in the European Parliament, the Greens can also boast two members of the Greater London Assembly and 140 elected councillors (that's just for England and Wales too; the Scottish Greens have two MSPs and fourteen councillors while the Green Party here in Northern Ireland has one MLA and three local councillors).  I should also add that in the Mayoral election, Jenny Jones succeeded in overtaking the Liberal Democrat candidate and seizing third place in the contest - quite a stunning achievement given the British party system.

In short, this is a UK-wide level of success that smaller, better exposed parties like UKIP and the BNP have never been able to attract, yet when it comes to news coverage in the media the Greens are virtually invisible.  Nigel Farage is nowadays basically a celebrity in TV land.  Over the past decade it seemed that if journalists were stuck for a story they could always count on writing some garbage about the 'rise of the BNP' to help get them through a slow news day.  Perhaps the United Kingdom's overwhelmingly Conservative-dominated press does not want to admit that there is a substantial section of the British people out who think and vote Green and would much rather live under the illusion that the people of the nation are naturally right-wing thinking folk that hate benefit scroungers, immigrants and wind farms.  Then again, maybe it isn't all the fault of the media.  With most people here only caring about what takes place in parliament, it is easy to see how Caroline Lucas's articulate but lone voice can be lost amongst the hundreds of others.  Perhaps some day the issue of electoral reform for Westminster will come up again and next time we will be given a real choice as to whether we want FPP or a genuine decent system of Proportional Representation which will give us a parliament that will properly reflect the country we live in.  Until that time, unless they can make a few more breakthroughs at forthcoming general elections, I fear the Greens may continue to remain invisible.

So, after all of that, was May a good month for the European left?  To an extent.  François Hollande's election is clearly the most positive of all the results.  It is no coincidence that in the wake of him coming to power that we have leaders like Enda Kenny suddenly talking about the need for growth rather than just droning on about the necessity for cuts.  The outcome for Labour in Britain and the SPD in Germany may not yet guarantee a victory for the centre-left at the next general elections in those two countries but they at least point to progress and a move in the right direction (the rise in support for the Greens in both nations is also to be welcomed).

Greece is a different kettle of fish altogether.  Few will be crying bucketloads at the disastrous results for PASOK given their record since the start of this crisis, but what can SYRIZA do that will make a real difference?  That organisation, like the United Left Alliance in the south of Ireland, is not so much a political party as a welding together of various leftist factions that until now have been relatively insignificant.  If they do top the poll at the election in a fortnight's time Greek people will be expecting more from them than posturing and anti-capitalist rhetoric.  They may yet represent the dawn of a new left.  My head tells me, however, that they are more likely to end up being ripped apart by internal fights and splits as the more pragmatic elements in the coalition find themselves at loggerheads with the Trotskyist and Maoists in the camp.

And that, as the title at the top says, was May.  All eyes now turn to Athens for June 17.  My advice?  Enjoy Euro 2012.  Things might just be about to get a whole lot messier.