To the casual observer of world news and press photography, the contrast between Justin Trudeau and Vladimir Putin couldn't be starker.
Justin Trudeau is the darling of the liberal world. Tall, good looking and not afraid to "have fun". His media appearances are often at cultural events which offer fantastic opportunities for pictures. This works well for him and his Liberal Party. It also adds to Canada’s ever increasing soft diplomatic power as the antithesis to Trump’s America.
On immigration, he has taken a strong stance of making Canada a warm and open place for refugees. On other topics, he is often less vocal. He can rely on the goodwill from the Canadian public and the support of news outlets like the Huffington Post to go easy on him. Why wouldn’t they when he gives them so many opportunities to pen such insightful articles like this.
Compare this with the image of Vladimir Putin. The many photos of him hunting, fishing (mostly shirtless) or even competing in his beloved judo are often the object of derision and ridicule across the West. “How can the Russian people take him seriously?” and “he looks ridiculous” abound across comment boards and social mediums.
Putin believes that this strong image resonates well with the Russian public and with his allies around the world. He certainly is popular with the Russian people. While data may not be reliable, he has consistently polled high, even while sanctions have damaged the domestic economy. Furthermore, many of Russian’s allies around the world are also lead by “strong men”. Just this week Putin promised to give Viktor Orban, the Hungarian Prime Minister, a judo lesson.
Both politicians are very successful at choreographing and managing their public perception to the tastes of their target audiences. The fact that many liberals simply laugh at Putin, and the seemingly ridiculous array of meme-worthy material available, is an indictment of their political acumen above most else. Simply dismissing his approach and neglecting to provide a counter argument or narrative is a very naïve approach.
Equally, if we simply fawn over Trudeau (and closer to home Leo Varadkar as I've mentioned before) without also pushing for progress in legislation and policy, we are being equally distracted from the realpolitik.
Of course, Justin Trudeau has been a positive influence in many ways. Canada is a beacon hope for many around the world today. Just remember that these images and actions aren’t always entirely altruistic and both men advance their aims and influence through shrewd use of the media resources available to them.
Ireland is increasingly being viewed as one of the most open, tolerant societies in the world, or at least we like telling ourselves so. There is no doubt that the Marriage Equality referendum in May 2015 was a watershed moment for our society. A chance to shake off some of the shackles of our Catholic past. A past which was often cold, brutal and closed off. This feeling that we have joined the upper echelon of socially liberal nations has been further magnified in the minds of many by two factors, one internal and one external.
Leo Varadkar’s ascent to become the Taoiseach of Ireland is undoubtedly an historic occasion in Ireland’s history. The fact that an openly gay man, who is the son of an Indian doctor can become the leader of the country is unquestionably a sign of progress. Irishness is no longer as monolithic as it once was. This trend has been taking place for a long time now and while Leo Varadkar is the current personification of this, there are plenty of other positive, grassroots examples of this throughout the country. A topic I would like to explore at a future date is that while the glass ceiling has been smashed for many with this appointment. We ,as a country, are still not doing enough to lessen inequality between the haves and have nots -if he was the son of an Indian factory worker or construction worker and not a doctor with a less polished South Dublin accent would this still have been possible?.
The decisions of our American and British neighbours to elect Donald Trump as President and vote for Brexit do seem to stand in stark contrast to our Yes result in the Marriage Equality Act. Both have been deemed by many in the mainstream media as backwards steps. Decisions underpinned by angry, old white men who yearn for the glory days of the past. Accusations of racism against supporters of both have been frequently levelled. Many social and political commentators have linked these two decisions as results of similar trends. Rapid changes in society, as well as the collapse of many industries and institutions that were formerly seen as the bedrock of the respective societies and national identities.
I think there is a certain truth to this. I also believe that these results were in part the responsibility of many of those who espouse views on the left of the political spectrum. Those who simply labelled trump supporters or pro- Brexiteers as ignorant, backwards, stupid or a combination of all three. There was so much dismissal of differing views and arrogance on the left. So little attempt at empathising with those whose views were different. I genuinely believe many people who were on the fence in both decisions could have been convinced with more conversation and less condescension.
This brings me to the upcoming abortion referendum in Ireland. The Repeal the 8th movement is already quite strong in Ireland and an all likelihood the referendum will be passed. However, there are many who believe in the right to life from the moment of conception. There is every chance that there plenty more who are uncertain and still on the fence. Many on the left and in the media see the result as a foregone conclusion. The recent government Public Assembly voted 79-12 in favour of abortion. Many on the pro life side believe this is not an accurate reflection of current public opinion.
There is a certain amount of hubris in Ireland at the moment. The economy is undoubtedly in the best place it has been in the last seven years. I have heard a lot of talk that we are “different to the British and Americans”. We would never make decisions as stupid as they have. While the referendum on abortion is a moral issue and not purely political like the other two shocks, many of the voting dynamics also exist in Ireland. Don’t be surprised if the day after the referendum in Ireland we wake to read that maybe we’re not so different after all. Maybe Ireland isn't quite the bastion of liberalism we’ve come to believe...
Demographics and Brexit. These are the two arguments I encounter most often when reading about how a United Ireland is likely to come into existence. On the face of it, they actually compliment each other quite well, demographics are the long term structural change that seem to move at glacial pace while Brexit is the shocking spark, the catalyst to re-invigorate nationalism. The modern-day equivalent of what Easter 1916 did to the Irish national psyche.. Combined, many believe (or hope) that these distinct factors have now put us on course for a United Ireland that cannot be stopped or diverted.
I believe this to be a very dangerous and arrogant assumption. It’s the multiple of the assumed maximum upside of both factors, transpiring as nationalists would hope. Furthermore, no time table accompanies this assumption and it could be twenty years before demographic change translates into a majority of people who want a United Ireland.
According to Section 1 of the GFA above the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will suggest a referendum if it appears likely a majority want a United Ireland. This vague language may prove to be a point of contention in the future. Would one election result in Northern Ireland where the Nationalist vote exceeded the unionist vote be enough? Or would the Nationalist vote have to exceed 50%+1 of the overall vote including Alliance, the Green Party etc? The closest the Nationalist vote has come to the Unionist vote was in March where there were only 1,200 votes between them. By June this had jumped back to 20,000 as the Unionist vote rallied.
There is no doubt that the Catholic population in Northern Ireland is growing faster than the Protestant one. There are many excellent sites that focus exclusively on NI demographics and I have used the voting graph from http://endgameinulster.blogspot.com.mt/. I don’t like to use this metric for much analysis as it is a horribly crude, sectarian headcount. One major challenge with the demographic argument is that over the next twenty years the newly eligible to vote Catholics will be part of the least religious generation in modern Ireland’s history. This generation are a lot less likely to associate their birth at religion with their national loyalties.
The 2021 British Census results will shed a lot more light on the demographics argument timeframe. It is unlikely, but there may not be another election in Northern Ireland until 2022. In that case, it would be four years for nationalists on both sides of the border to work on ideas and make further arguments without the distraction of elections.
The Brexit impact is that many of those who are currently comfortable living in Northern Ireland would become more favourable towards a United Ireland as Brexit divides the island again and wrecks the British economy. Nationalists shouldn’t simply assume this will happen. At the moment, it does look like Brexit is a shambles, however the UK has just reached its highest ever level of employment. Were the British government able to successfully implement a Brexit with minimal interference to their economy and a mostly technological solution to the border then a United Ireland might be further away than ever.
Perhaps less likely is the chance that Brexit would be so disastrous to Northern Ireland that the assumed annual British subvention to Northern Ireland of around 9 billion pounds would shoot up. In this case, there is every chance that the seemingly impregnable majority in the Republic who would vote for a United Ireland currently (based on polls) starts to dissipate.
As someone who would like to see a United Ireland as soon as possible without a return to violence, this article is not meant as a rebuke of nationalism today. It is a voice that wants to see a greater diversification of thought and dialogue. The arguments for a United Ireland must also have emotional appeal to a wide range of voters. It needs to be about building bridges and changing the discussion purely from a numbers game to a holistic approach that draws from economic, cultural and social arguments. There have been attempts at this and I hope to see more of these in the future. Demographics and Brexit have not changed the fact that currently more people in Northern Ireland would prefer to remain in the UK than to leave it. Let’s start changing that today with dialogue and imagination rather than waiting on events beyond our control…
The violent scenes in Charlottesville this weekend served as an ugly reminder to us all that there is still a lot of racial tension simmering under the surface in the US. To many in Europe, myself included, it was horrifying to see so many men march under Nazi banners, armed with machine guns and other high calibre assault rifles. Even saying out loud is surreal, there were Nazi supporting, white supremacists with machine guns on parade this weekend.
There has been a lot written on the far right in the US recently. The regularly used line is that the Trump election has emboldened far right groups to be more confident and outspoken in their views. The First and Second amendment of the US Constitution currently mean it is legal in many parts of America to openly espouse racist ideology while visibly carrying a gun. These rights have led to the formation of many armed groups who seek to ‘defend” the civil rights of free speech etc. The challenge is that there is effectively nothing in the US that is deemed hate speech, as this is often seen as a transgression of the First Amendment.
This could potentially be all well and good in a peaceful, united society. Unfortunately, the United States is not currently in that state of existence. There have been many riots over the last three years in the US, many of which came before the election of Donald Trump. It would be naïve to simply point the finger at his election as the sole contributor for the re-emergence of the far right. Many of these groups had already started to re-brand online (google “Kekistan” and “Pepe the Frog”) and publicly in the last number of years under the overall banner of the “alt-right”.
So far, these groups have used small, mostly localized events as rally calls for protests and shows of strength. The initial protest this week was against the removal of a status of a Confederate General from the US Civil War. The fear would be that any removal of President Trump could be the catalyst for outright civil war or, at the very least, serious civil unrest. While I do not see, this happening under current circumstances, if there are further flashpoints of violence and larger crowds attending it could potentially become a reality. Especially if the investigation of collusion with Russian continues and is perceived as partisan or biased against President Trump.
Monday morning dictates that this can only be a short thought piece and I do not want it to be sensationalist. The unfortunate reality however is that events across the globe are moving faster than ever and mutating in ways that seem impossible. Fortunately, the great shocks in the Western World in recent times have been electoral results. We need to be prepared for the next one not being so democratic…
The July 2015 Nuclear agreement between the Iran, the US and five other nations (JCPOA) was meant to herald a new period of diplomacy and openness for US/Iranian relations. Many saw it as President Obama’s finest foreign policy achievement. Unfortunately for him it wasn’t long before Donald Trump claimed he would tear it up on his first day in office on his election campaign trail. Furthermore, towards the end of Obama’s presidency there was almost a complete breakdown in relations between him and Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel, who views Iran as Israel’s existential enemy.
So, when Donald Trump became President in January 2017 the signs were ominous. However, he did not immediately tear up the agreement, despite earlier threats. What he has done is intermittently threaten Iran and recently added additional sanctions in July, claiming Iran has broken the “spirit” of the deal by building ballistic missiles and funding terrorists. There is little doubt in my mind that Trump wants to focus on the Iranian deal at some point and may still try to reverse it.
The Iranian administration realise this but also, they cannot completely submit to the US or they will alienate the more hawkish elements of the Iranian political spectrum. The Qatari diplomatic crisis is a good example of how they have used soft power to defy the US and add to their regional prestige without giving Trump a rallying call to tear up the accord. Fortunately for Iran, Trump does not seem to be as heavily invested in an eventual overthrow of the Syrian regime as the previous administration and continued Iranian involvement will probably not be enough to force further action from the Americans.
Even if Trump really wanted to force the Iranian hand through further sanctions and the threat of armed action, there is nothing so far in his seven months of presidency to suggest that he has the focus or mental fortitude to do so. He seems to be bouncing from one arena to the next and so far, all his moves seem reactionary. The current standoff with North Korea (which I still see ending peacefully) has come from nowhere as Trump had given very little previous indication that North Korea was at the top of his agenda. His rhetoric of responding with “fire and fury” is language not normally associated with a US president.
Iran can benefit from this lack of strategic vision and unclear foreign policy. They can continue to discreetly push their agenda in the Middle East without creating a crisis that leads to direct confrontation like Kim Jong Un has just done. Their biggest concern would be Israeli sabre rattling like in 2013 when a pre-emptive strike seemed potentially imminent.
However, the US and Israel would no longer have the support of the major European powers; Germany, France and the United Kingdom, who signed the JCPOA. Germany and France have recently agreed to a large number of trade deals. They both view the Iranian domestic market (80 million strong) as a potentially lucrative source of new trade. Just last week Renault signed a joint venture agreement with the IDRO (an Iranian semi-state body) to produce 150,000 vehicles a year in Iran. Total, the French oil company, also recently signed a $4.8B agreement with the National Iranian Oil Company.
When you combine these expanding trade ties with Trump’s lack of focus and easily distracted foreign policy approach you can see why every month the potential for Iran to return to being an economic and political pariah state diminishes. While I can see Trump or Israel leading one final push for this, they will fail to achieve this aim without the support of the major European nations.
I remember the first time I heard the expression “PIIGS”. I was in a finance lecture in Boston and the professor rather smugly asked who in the class was from one of these nations. It was a very diverse class with a lot of Europeans. The acronym was relatively new at the time so only a few hands rose gingerly. In my mind's eye the professor then took great pleasure in explaining the term, naming the five members and finally asking the class again. This time there were quite a few Spanish, Italian and one or two Irish hands raised. I spent most of my formative years growing up in the Celtic Tiger economy. I remember hearing how we had replicated the successful Asian economies and were one of the fastest growing in the Western world. It was almost a fait accompli. Ireland had made it. Then came the crash and that afternoon in Boston where I was condescendingly reminded that Ireland was now a basket case along with the other failures of Europe; Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain.
I am sure there were very similar feelings of disillusionment and devastation amongst the citizens all five nations. While many argue that there was never really a clear commonality between the economic situations of all five there was undoubtedly a shared impact on the national psyche. The causes and details of the crash are well known so this post will focus on their current situation, the outlook for the countries and if the PIIGS acronym has any relevance today.
Across Europe there is a lot more optimism today than at any time over the last five years. There have been some shocks in recent times, like Brexit and Marine Le Pen reaching the French Presidential run off, but overall the news has been a lot more positive and today every country in the European Union is expected to see economic growth in 2017 (see chart below). The PIIGS acronym has mostly stopped being used and Ireland has actually led many of the economic performance indicators since 2014.
The devastation the bailout packages had on the citizens of Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain is slowly passing into memory. Italy did not suffer the ignominy of a sovereign bailout being forced upon them so they didn’t quite reach the same depths of despair. The images of Greek riots will live long with many. I can’t imagine many Greeks will be able to ever forget the many editorials across Europe that had provocate headlines along the lines of “Time to Let Greece Sink” or “EU needs to eject Greece”. They say that in times of true crisis you discover your true friends, Greece won’t forget how they were treated by their counterparts when they were at their lowest point.
The debt levels of Italy, Portugal and Greece remain alarmingly high. Italy is also projected to grow by less than 1% this year which will keep the markets on edge. However all five of the nations are growing and benefiting from increased tourism numbers as well as a rise in employment levels. Politically the left parties flourished in the crisis years and came to power in some capacity in Portugal, Spain and Greece. The Greek party Syriza continues to be the most prominent and currently leads the government of Greece, albeit it with a toned down version of its earlier manifesto.
I think the North/South divide is less relevant in Europe than before. The North/South divide was frequently used to contrast the hardworking/thrifty northern states and the lazy/spendthrift Mediterranean states (Ireland was somehow plugged into the latter group - Costa del Kerry if you will). This is less obvious today as Europe grows overall, benefitting from a buoyant global economy. I believe the 2004, 2007 and 2013 expansions of the European Union will become more evident in the next five years. There is a much clearer contrast between the economic performance of the East v West than any linear North/South divide. New groups or idea blocs will emerge that reshape the internal dynamics and policies of the EU. The reaction to the refugee crisis over the last three years is an early indicator of this. I will explore this thesis in the future through a number of political and social lenses.
So are there still the PIIGS today? I never believed in the validity of this acronym and today it makes less sense than ever. It was a convenient catch all for the countries who lost the most in the last financial crash. It was the classic example of the wealthiest in society differentiating their economic position from the poorest due to their supposed character traits and hard work. Hopefully this is a lesson that will be learned and Europe can move forward in a more unified fashion when facing the great challenges of tomorrow. This certainly remains to be seen...