Martin won, Leo lost but he can reclaim some face with Brexit talks before the inevitable Spring election...
What a week. Irish politics is often drab, parochial and all too predictable. We aren’t often blessed with great politicians who can command the attention of the world or political events that have a global reach. For every Parnell, there is a Pat Rabbitte and most of our political crises end with a shrug of shoulders, a nudge and a wink or in extreme cases, a never-ending tribunal that produces non-criminal results years after people have stopped caring…
The last week has been different. We had high drama that captured the attention not only of the Irish public but of the global media. It was a perfect storm of brinkmanship between Ireland’s two most powerful politicians that brought the government to the edge of collapse. It also contained a human element in the abhorrent treatment of a good man, Maurice McCabe.
Too often, the issues that can divide politicians and governments are over theoretical or abstract points that seem to be part of a different, political universe. However, the allegation that a respected Minister, Frances Fitzgerald, allowed a whistle-blower to be wrongfully labelled a paedophile brought out anger and disgust in the Irish electorate.
To briefly summarise, the allegations of wrongdoing have floated around for quite a while over Frances Fitzgerald. It came to a head last Thursday when Sinn Fein tabled a motion of no confidence in the Dail after a barrage of criticism by Mary Lou McDonald. Michael Martin quickly realised that that there was anger within his own party over the behaviour of Mrs Fitzgerald and that he could not allow Sinn Fein to be the main opposition in this crisis. So, on Friday morning last Fianna Fail lodged their own motion of no confidence to be tabled this Tuesday. The Soldiers of Destiny had crossed the Rubicon and the nation held its breath.
The onus was initially put straight back on Leo Varadkar. Many believed he would cast Frances Fitzgerald aside as the motion passing would lead to a General Election right before Christmas. He didn’t, in fact he backed her to the hilt. It was a string and decisive counter attack that many labelled as Leo calling Martin’s bluff. Many Fine Gael TDs came out with vehement defences of Mrs Fitzgerald and claimed that Fianna Fail were playing political games at a crucial period of Brexit negotiations and that the Charleton Tribunal should be allowed to do its job, starting in January.
There were behind the scenes meetings over the weekend between the leaders and documents were exchanged. On Monday morning both sides held the same line and it looked like Michael Martin was going to force an election that he wouldn’t win. His future as leader was genuinely on the line with murmurs of discontent.
Then on final flop two more damaging emails emerged Monday evening. Fianna Fail finally had a winning hand. Frances Fitzgerald was finished and now Leo had to act to avert a backlash from the public. He took his time and looked indecisive but eventually on Tuesday morning Frances Fitzgerald resigned and the motion was withdrawn.
Varadkar has lost a lot of political capital. Many political pundits are incredulous as to why he continued to publicly back her after he became aware of the further emails on Saturday morning. It strikes of political naivety and a lack of experience.
I’m not his biggest fan but I think he can easily recover. He is fortunate enough that almost immediately after this debacle, the focus is right back on Brexit talks. He, along with Simon Coveney (the Minister for Foreign Affairs) have been firm but fair in holding the Irish position on vetoing progress to the next stage without concrete proposal on the Irish border question.
He benefits from the fact that the public and all the major parties agree on this. There is no potential for an attack at home as long as he holds strong. If he continues to do so and is able to gain favourable concessions from the British government (they have already acquiesced to the financial demands of the EU this week) Frances Fitzgerald and Maurice McCabe will be yesterday’s problem.
Michael Martin clearly won a great battle this week. However, it didn’t significantly enhance Fianna Fail’s political strength. They continue to prop up Fine Gael while having to defend against attack from Sinn Fein and their new leader, Mary Lou McDonald. The Supply and Confidence agreement looks damaged beyond repair. The onus is now on either Michael or Leo to call a Spring election but Fianna Fail are yet to move ahead of Fine Gael in poling (the next poll will be very, very interesting) and as Fianna Fail have ruled out a coalition with Sinn Fein, their political mobility is limited.
In summary, this was a bad week for Leo and Fine Gael but they have a lot more flexibility and potential upside in the next few weeks. Hannibal crushed the Roman Army at the Battle of Cannae and looked to be about to conquer Rome. However, he didn’t press his advantage and this eventually allowed the Romans to consolidate their position and strike back. Fianna Fail are a little reminiscent of that post victory Carthage army wandering around Italy without a clear plan. Unless Fine Gael completely collapse on the border or Mick Wallace/The Charleton Tribunal deliver further bombshells in the coming weeks this crisis may prove to be a footnote when the almost inevitable Spring election rolls around…
It may have seemed impossible for nearly all of Israel’s existence thus far but I think it’s likely in the next five years that these two nations will open official diplomatic channels. It is an act that may cause serious backlash and anger across the Middle East. Alternatively, after years of disillusionment with the leadership of Saudi Arabia, it may simply be met with a shrug of the shoulder and further sense of dejection with the state of the region.
Since the inception of the state of Israel in May 1948, Saudi Arabia has refused to acknowledge its existence. It has supported the rights of Palestinians and called for a withdrawal from territory occupied by Israel after the war in 1967 through being a charter member of the Arab League.
Crucially, it didn’t participate in the wars in 1948, 1967 or 1973. Saudi Arabia’s long term strategic alliance with the United States may have had something to do with this. This was exacerbated by the mutual distrust between General Nasser led Egypt, the champion of pan- Arabism with secular, Soviet Union sympathies and the absolute monarchy of Saudi Arabia which used Wahhabism as a crucial pillar of its legitimacy.
However, since 1979 and the Islamic revolution in Iran, the strategic aims of Saudi Arabia and Israel have converged. They both have a desire to curb the influence of Iran across the Middle East. The ruling Saud family initially saw the emergence of the Islamic Republic as an existential threat to their existence.
In recent times, the threat to their existence has subsided somewhat. It has evolved into a struggle for hegemony in the Middle East. As the relative power and influence of Egypt waned in the years after the assassination of Anwar Sadat (who actually lost his life for signing a peace Treaty with Israel which made it the first Arab state to officially recognize Israel) the vacuum that opened up was the prize that fuelled the rivalry.
In the 1980’s Saudi Arabia, which still did not have the military capability, bankrolled Saddam Hussein in the First Gulf War against Iran. It is important to note that other Middle Eastern nations also supported Iraq but Saudi Arabia spent approximately thirty billion dollars in this conflict.
In more recent times Iran has increased its influence in Lebanon, as well as in post-Saddam Iraq and now in Syria. In Syria, it has acted as a bulwark for the regime of Bashir Al-Assad. The actions of Saudi Arabia in Yemen, Syria and Bahrain amongst others has failed so far to really damage the Iranian influence in the region.
The emergence of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia has led to a raft of major changes in a relatively brief period of time. Just last week, he consolidated his position as the heir apparent as well as the de facto ruler by purging a large number of the Royal Court’s retinue.
He has continued the war in Yemen, a key proxy battleground between Iran and Saudi Arabia while allegedly forcing the Lebanese Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, to resign over the continued power and influence of Hezbollah (albeit with a democratic mandate).
It’s his views on the future relationship with Israel though that I believe could mark one of the most seismic changes in Middle Eastern diplomatic relations over the last fifty years. He has spoken about how Saudi Arabia adopted a more rigid Islamic outlook in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution
“What happened in the last 30 years is not Saudi Arabia. What happened in the region in the last 30 years is not the Middle East. After the Iranian revolution in 1979, people wanted to copy this model in different countries, one of them is Saudi Arabia. We didn’t know how to deal with it. And the problem spread all over the world. Now is the time to get rid of it.”
The major issue with the above statement is that it could be construed to mean “get rid of the Islamic Republic of Iran”. In order to do this, he may engage further with Israel, as the one other Middle Eastern nation that possibly reaches the same level of fear and suspicion of the Iranian state.
It is very interesting, and probably not a coincidence, that the Crown Prince used the phrase “moderate”. Just this week, the Israeli military chief, Gadi Eisenkot, gave an interview to the Saudi newspaper Elaph where he described Iran as the “biggest threat to the region” and that Israel would share intelligence with “moderate” Arab states like Saudi Arabia.
Strategically, the US is pivoting away from the Middle East to Asia in the long term. With the current presidency of Donald Trump though, this may be the perfect window of opportunity to gain maximum leverage from agreeing to diplomatic relations and potentially forming a military alliance that goes beyond the tacit one that exists today.
This would be a potent combination of the vast reserves of cash held by the Saudis combined with the military might of the Israeli army. It may still seem a stretch to many political observers currently, but we may soon see the emergence of the Saudi-Israel axis as the key power in the Middle East.
Donald Trump's first trip to Asia was an eventful, colourful affair that encompassed visits to Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines. There were a few excellent pictures, including Trump massacring Japanese Carp (see picture directly above) and Abe Shinzo taking a tumble on a golf course.
The trip was met with mixed reviews both domestically and across Asia. My personal view is that Trump managed to not cause any major diplomatic embarrassment to the United States but achieved very little from a strategic perspective. The inflective moment when China openly overtakes the US is accelerating towards us, as I discussed recently. This trip reinforced the view held by many that America, while a crucial partner for many future projects and plans in Asia, will not be the driver and leader of this region.
This is best captured in recent events concerning the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The overarching aim of American foreign policy over the past decade has been a strategic pivot away from the Middle East towards Asia, with a key objective being the creation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
This would have been a free trade agreement between the United States and eleven different Pacific Rim states. The talks began in 2010. Trump withdrew the US from the discussion earlier this year, stating that individual trade agreements with each state would be of greater benefit to the US. The remaining eleven states agreed to the framework this weekend. While Trump will not see this as a failure, China may see it as a success. It is not currently a part of the agreement but may in time seek to join on its own terms and eventually dominate it.
The 19TH Chinese Communist Party Congress that took place in the weeks preceding Trump’s visit was a powerful demonstration of the political unity of the Chinese leadership under the President, Xi Jinping. There was no apparent heir to the throne announced and I think this shows that Xi Jinping is now the most powerful man in the world. The checks and balances of the US political system are increasingly limiting Trump’s preferred course of action on many of his campaign pledges.
However Trump’s hardline rhetoric on North Korea would have been welcomed by both South Korea and Japan.
"NoKo has interpreted America's past restraint as weakness. This would be a fatal miscalculation. Do not underestimate us. AND DO NOT TRY US."
To be honest, at this stage all this appears as is bluster by both sides. Petty squabbling between two insecure leaders who see potential enemies everywhere. The pettiness was surmised by Trump himself in this tweet;
"Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me 'old,' when I would NEVER call him 'short and fat?'"
Since the escalations in the summer I have always been of the view that it will not come to violence and that China is pulling the strings and using the situation to gain maximum leverage in future Sino-US talks…
One thing that has become obvious is that Trump is quite easy to manipulate. Sycophanyc and public displays of affection and loyalty will earn his trust, irrespective of the true underlying intentions. . A notable example of this was Trump’s behaviour in the Philippines. Despite some aggressive back and forth comments between Presidents Duterte and Trump in the past, Duterte put on a bit of a show and Trump loved it, summing up the relationship between them as ;
"We've had a great relationship. This has been very successful."
In summary, Asian leaders learned a lot about Donald Trump over the last twelve or so days. Despite his often-bullish rhetoric and strongman image at home, I think they have finally realized what Putin figured before the US presidential election had even finished. He is a man that has a very limited attention span, cannot focus on an issue over a period of months and years so is always acting reactively and not strategically and that through some grand gestures and displays can be easily manipulated…
It is hard to remember a Taoiseach who puts more effort into his public image than Leo Varadkar. He is part of a breed of new politician who put their image above everything else. Wearing a symbol as divisive as the poppy is a move that was certain to temporarily shift the political discourse away from the key issues, like the current deficiencies in our health services and the homelessness crisis.
This is not lost on Fine Gael. Unfortunately, there has been little tangible progress in the two areas mentioned above. Wearing the Poppy has allowed Varadkar to take the heat off these two issues for a few days.
Furthermore, it was a move that was always going to play well with his political base. This is not to suggest that every Fine Gael supporter is a Poppy wearing anglophile, that’s a very tired and lazy cliché. However, many of the first people to comment on the topic were indignant Sinn Fein supporters. The anger at seeing the Taoiseach in a poppy led to a flurry of calls and emails. Annoying Sinn Fein supporters and Party members will, at least secretly, please plenty of Fine Gael followers.
What I do not want to write about is the appropriateness of the wearing of the poppy by our Taoiseach. There have been numerous articles over the last decade about the poppy, about how many Irishmen fought in the belief that Home Rule would come as a reward for fighting and alternatively about how Brutal and unjust the British Army have been in the past.
There will be further publicity stunts as long as our incumbent Taoiseach sits in office. They will frequently be used to distract the electorate from the issues that matter to the majority on a daily basis. What we must do is see through these smokescreens and continue to demand more from our elected government.
Getting into an online debate about the Poppy, no matter how strong your views on the topic are will not move this country forward. Forget Varadkar’s Poppy, let’s focus on the issues that matter until we have a Republic that we are proud of…
The UK government currently seems to be slipping from one scandal to another. It is hard to remember a more visibly powerless Prime Minister (older readers feel free to give some examples below). Since the June election when the Conservative party lost its majority in the June General Election, the government has simply stumbled along.
The Brexit negotiations have been moving at a glacial pace with minimal results or noteworthy achievements. I recently labeled them almost as a "phoney war". However, this may be one factor in Theresa May's continued survival. The role of Prime Minister is currently quite undesirable for a number of members of the Conservative party. Who wants to be the Prime Minister dragging the United Kingdom out of the European Union, with no deal agreed and the British economy facing a sustained period of economic stagnation.
There are elements of the party on the pro-Brexit (or historically on the anti-Europe faction) who would relish the afore-mentioned prospect, though they would surely describe it quite differently. Boris Johnson was a late joiner to this cause when he famously declared for Brexit days ahead of the 2016 referendum. He has come as close to any since the June election to openly challenging May with his September article in the Telegraph which lay out his vision for a post-Brexit Britain that was quite different to that of May in her January speech. However the key members rallied around May and the answer to a previous article "Can Boris Oust Theresa" seems for now to be a resounding No.
The sexual harassment scandal currently enveloping Westminster has cost the Minister for Defense, Michael Fallon, his job. There are numerous MPs implicated for inappropriate behaviour. We may see a few resign in the coming weeks as further details emerge. Fortunately for May, it doesn't seem to be enough at present to topple the government or force May to stand down.
It has been a very long time since the "Irish Problem" forced a British Prime Minister to resign. The current lack of progress in forming a new government in the Northern Ireland Assembly does not seem to be a pressing issue for the British public, based on media coverage in Britain. Theresa May knows that she relies on the ten DUP Westminster seats for her working majority. The DUP can pull down this government at a time of their choosing. It just doesn't seem likely in any potential scenario short of the post Brexit border being the Irish Sea, something the Tories have emphatically ruled out. They simply can not take the risk of a Jeremy Corbyn led Labour ascending to power given his previous dialogues with republican leaders.
I haven't even mentioned the current scandal with Priti Patel and her unofficial but definitely politically motivated trip to Israel. The fact that she hasn't been dismissed by now again shows just how impotent May currently is.
This lack of power may actually be what saves her until Brexit is concluded. The analogy that comes to mind is that of the naive, deluded Islamic Caliph or Ottoman Sultan surrounded by courtiers and advisors who all have their own agendas and seek to influence the leader for their own political gain (cough... Gavin Williamson). It's a fate worse then political death for most but maybe deep down May still believes she can turn things around. It's unlikely but sure surely something has to go right after so many recent wrongs....
The image above is a summary for a campaign I ran on Facebook recently. I had just set up a Facebook page for the website and when I posted for the first few times I received a notification basically asking me if I would like to “boost” my post.
In this sense, boosting applies to paying for my post to appear on people’s walls on Facebook, so as they scroll down it will appear. As an introductory offer, they “give” you 30 Euros worth of free advertising to get started. I did avail of this offer and for 5 euros I was able to appear on 1,050 Walls and 200 people read the article (or at least clicked on the link).
I was able to narrow this down to 18-65 year-old males in UK, US, Hong Kong or Singapore who have explicitly labelled “Politics” as one of their interests on their profile. There were further options to specify available which even allow further focus.
Fake news is a topic that is consistently discussed in political forums. It has gained traction since the election of Donald Trump as US President. It has been used to describe everything from news reports by CNN to alleged attempts by foreign governments to influence elections and public opinion in other countries. There are some excellent articles on this from the Guardian.
In recent times, Facebook have made announcement that they will crack down on media outlets who appear to promote fake news. However, there is still a lot of scope to spread opinions or articles that are very borderline and misleading.
When you consider the resources available to think tanks and potential agencies social media is still a hugely unregulated medium of information dissemination and good old-fashioned propaganda. For example, I just went through the motions of creating a campaign in California for people interested in “Politics”. For 10,000 Euros, you could reach 1,700,000 to 2,000,000 over the space of a week.
This is not a topic that will go away. While I am sure in time there will be ways to enhance greater regulation, for now governments and corporations more opportunity to influence elections and referendums than ever before in a legal manner….
So far, we have discovered very little about what the United Kingdom’s future relationship will look like with the European Union post Brexit. The formal declaration that the UK would be leaving occurred on the 29 March 2017 with the United Kingdom serving the withdrawal notice under Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union.
The negotiations really started on the 19th June 2017 when the British Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union (catchy title!), David Davis, landed in Brussels to negotiate the exit terms with the European Union’s head negotiator, Michael Barnier.
The British Government’s position had been strongly weakened less than ten days before when Theresa May and her Conservative government lost their majority in the House of Commons. This was after they had voluntarily called the election to consolidate their majority. In hindsight, it was a poor decision though at the time most pundits believed It would deliver a larger majority. It didn’t and was possibly the worst prelude to negotiations May could have imagined.
Since then, there has been plenty of back and forth from London to Brussels. Talks are ongoing but seem to deliver very little in terms of concrete results, at least for the public. In fact, I think many people are already suffering from “Brexit fatigue”. Maybe it’s part of the Tory strategy, deliver so little and trickle news to the media so slowly that people eventually stop caring. Unfortunately for them, this won’t work as the media continues to focus on every announcement.
It doesn’t help that the Tories are currently undergoing an internecine leadership battle between those who want to either reverse Brexit or at the very least mitigate its impact and those who believe Brexit will be the greatest thing to happen to the UK since they found oil in the North Sea. This allows the British tabloids to continue their desire for the hardest possible Brexit through mouthpieces like Jacob Rees-Mogg or Nigel Farage.
We have seen some battle lines drawn on divorce payment, the role of the European Court of Justice in any (yet to be agreed) transition period. However, nothing is confirmed. Personally, I believe it will be very hard to the UK to make real, concrete progress until either Theresa May is deposed and a new leader who openly represents one of the afore mentioned factions emerges or, even more dramatically, a General Election is called and Labour emerge, championing a soft Brexit.
Somehow the European Union has claimed enough progress has been made to move to the second stage of the negotiations in December. The Phoney War lasted eight months between the UK’s declaration of war on Germany in September 1939 and Germany’s first offensive on the Low Countries on the 10 May 1940. December will mark approximately eight months of the Brexit talks.
As each day passes with little progress and updates I think it is more likely that the EU negotiators will start the genuine war and publicly deliver some hard truths to the British Government. This is no not really in anyone’s interests (I haven’t even touched upon Ireland in this article though I have speculated on how the internal Tory struggle is dangerous before here).
The problem for the British is that while they bicker and postulate that any bad deal will hurt the remaining 27 EU nations more, the European Union is going about its business in a discreet and diligent manner. They have started to send out signals that they are losing patience with David Davis and co. but I still think they are yet to use any of the weapons at their disposal. Davis publicly calling his European counterparts the “enemy” gives them further justification for harsher measures. The phoney war is going to soon end and I believe it will be the European side who fire the first bullet. This bullet may even be the coup de grâce for May’s shambolic reign as Prime Minister.
There is speculation from a few news sources that China will “compel” Saudi Arabia to pay for oil in Yuan. This would change the face of the global economy and could potentially be looked back on in years to come as one of the first examples of Beijing emerging as the lynchpin of the global economy.
Currently the global oil industry is run through dollars. If you want to buy oil from an OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) member you pay in dollars. This has been the case since the agreements of the early 1970s. It gives the US a lot of influence and leads to many oil-exporting nations currently pegging their currency to the dollar (Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are two examples).
This has been a strategic objective for China for many years now. As their percentage of global demand grows, and exceeds that of the US, they are increasingly dissatisfied with having to manage their outgoing in dollars. I think a number of factors have convinced them that now is the time to up the ante on this bid.
The US has hugely expanded its oil production over the last ten years. In 2006, according to the BP Oil Review 2016, the US was producing 6.8 million barrels of oil daily. By 2016 this figure was 12.4 million. China wants the clout that comes with being the world’s largest oil importer. The US production looks set to continue to rise as Trump is a big advocate in deregulation, which should lead to increased production from fracking.
Trump’s presidency is a factor in other ways as well. His scatter gun approach to diplomacy, and his lack of focus and clear strategic aims have not gone unnoticed in Beijing. A key doctrine of Obama’s foreign policy was a pivot away from the Middle East to Asia Pacific. This hasn’t been fully executed and I think China believes it is possible to increase its influence in the Middle East (commercially for now) while defending its own interests in the Pacific.
There have been other moves afoot recently which seem to indicate that a lot of talks and jockeying for position is happening in global diplomacy behind the scenes. King Salman of Saudi Arabia visited Moscow last week. Must of the global press fixated on the malfunction of his solid gold elevator as he descended from his plane. However, a Saudi King visiting Russia was almost unbelievable until recently.
Russia and Saudi Arabia have been on opposing sides of almost every conflict over the last thirty years, the most recent example of which is the Syrian War. Saudi Arabia now looks to be carving a new niche in the world, under the indirect leadership of the Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. It evidently sees good relations with China as the future cornerstone of this policy.
China has prudently decided to test this non- dollar trading with a key ally initially, Russia. Last Monday, China established its first payment versus payment system for Chinese Yuan and Russian Rouble transactions. This is an early test for further PVP systems with key trading partners on its Belt and Road Initiative.
Moving the global oil economy to Yuan will not be a simple task. The US will not take this lightly and may see it as an act of economic war. There is already a lot of tension simmering between the US and China over claims of “unfair trade practice” by the Chinese. I genuinely believe China has allowed the US/North Korea spat to simmer to distract Trump from this issue.
Attempts to trade oil in Euros by other nations in the past have met with thinly veiled threats (Iran) and perhaps may even have been one of the causes of violent action (Libya).
Ultimately though, China is a completely different beast. The US will not be able to intimidate or threaten them into backing down if China believes now is the time to openly challenge US hegemony in such a direct way. The “if” here is crucial. China may continue to discreetly conduct trade agreements, projects and further PVP systems until their power is further consolidated.
Currently, with the US being pulled in a hundred directions by an aimless President, China’s power relative to its great rival grows every day without having to do anything. China’s ascent has been built on a singular vision fuelled by trade agreements and discreet investment. They will not reveal their hand until they are certain their position and economic power is unassailable. They only thing certain is that China’s hegemony of the global economy is getting closer every day…
Sometimes I really have to force myself to acknowledge an astute or shrewd move from a politician or a political entity that I dislike. Unfortunately, like many Millennials on the left, I can become a little over indignant at people or groups who espouse opinions contrary to my own views. This is an occasional affair and there are probably a lot more occasions where I can’t see the intelligence behind a certain action because its motive or impact is simply abhorrent or odious to me. This is purely a reflection on my own blinkered views. I have a lot to learn and I realize this more and more every day.
The Spanish Government’s reaction to the Catalan Independence vote was a clear example of me failing to be objective in my analysis. I simply failed to spot the reasons behind Rajoy’s decision to come down hard on the separatists. I lamented the violent reaction over Twitter and smugly ascertained that Rajoy and the Spanish Government are so stupid, that they’ve lost Catalonia forever.
Now that the dust has settled a little, it’s time to take stock. Catalonia is still a part of Spain today. The violent reaction of Spanish security forces was condemned across Europe by many separatist and socialist parties, however the silence from Europe’s governments was deafening. The EU itself was happy to call this an “situation in Spain”. There were no calls for a boycott of Spain, no real tangible downside for Rajoy and his government.
On the contrary, Rajoy will probably experience a boost in popularity from some regions. His approval rating was already exceptionally low. He was never going to get many more votes in Catalonia so why allow them to question the authority of the Spanish Government. A soft approach would have made him appear even weaker to the rest of Spain and potentially exposed a soft underbelly to be attacked by opposition or the other parties who prop up his tenure.
“Upon this a question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? One should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved.”
He was never going to be loved by the people of Catalonia so he could try and create some fear and show them the government meant business. Similarly, Rajoy is not loved by the people of Spain but coming down hard on the separatists was never going to really hinder his support from his mainly conservative base. He also correctly guessed that the EU and other major powers around the world would be too busy with their own issues to wade too deeply into the crisis.
I don’t agree or like what Rajoy did. To me it was an attack on democracy and freedom to vote. It was government legalized violence. However, I am not a Spanish constituent, my opinion doesn’t matter to him. Unfortunately, there is every chance that Catalonia won’t be able to move further with their Independence bid despite the Yes result (most Catalonians still poll for remaining in Spain - they simply stayed at home) and that Rajoy will increase his parties vote in the next election.
I am not praising Rajoy or lauding his government's actions but understanding the motives of those we disagree with is crucial to challenging their narratives of events and creating compelling counter arguments. I never want to accept that violence can win but at the moment, in Catalonia’s case, it’s looking pretty bleak. Franco died peacefully in his bed at the ripe, old age of 82, I doubt he disapproves of Spain’s actions last week…
Leo Varadkar needs to stand up to the Franco-German axis for Ireland and the small nations of the European Union
*First appeared here on Slugger O' Toole
Since it became clear that Angela Merkel would be re-elected as German Chancellor, there has been a re-focused approach to tax harmonisation within the European Union, driven mostly by Emmanuel Macron's France, along with Germany. This has been covered by numerous media outlets and there is little I can add to the conversation. The argument is that France and Germany who are now both stable and revitalised after momentous national elections, will look to readjust the balance of Europe. It was a major talking point a few years ago and then seemed to die down with numerous crises occurring, like the EU sovereign debt crisis, followed by Brexit.
In fact, it looked like Brexit would deter these efforts for a number of years at the very least. However, the certainty of the EU position in the face of a disorganized and often contradictory UK position has probably alleviated some of the fear in Brussels that the EU will suffer more than the UK from Brexit. The buoyant economic situation across Europe has also added to this new-found sense of confidence. This is a welcome change from the near fatalism that pervaded much of the mainstream media concerning the European Project over the last number of years. Unfortunately for Ireland, this has exacerbated the return to the tackling the major thorn at the side of the two most powerful EU economies; the variance in corporation tax that has attracted a disproportionate amount of foreign direct investment to certain peripheral EU states.
Ireland is undoubtedly the most high-profile example of a country benefitting from a lower than average corporate tax rate in the EU. It isn’t the only nation though, with some of the so called peripheral nations also attracting companies in this way. These include Cyprus and Malta amongst others. Many of these have suffered in the past from poverty, emigration and elevated levels of unemployment, A story all too familiar to many of our own older generations. The access to the European Union has offered these countries the chance to invigorate their economies, some experiencing growth unheard of in the recent past.
Unfortunately for the small nations, now that Germany and France (with the support of some of the other large nations) have realised that the rules are not in their favour they have decided that they want to play a different game. The latest utterings coming from Paris and Berlin are that the Eurozone needs a finance minister, along with a uniform corporate tax rate.
The Irish government needs to be firm and stand up for itself here, along with the other smaller nations. Allegedly, we have a lot of goodwill over the unique challenges we face with Brexit. Surely, we can argue, this is not the time for such drastic changes to the daily functions of the EU. Furthermore, these actions would boost the dissenters against the European Union’s creeping power. Many of these protestors have fuelled far right movements in European countries in recent years.
Ireland needs to say this isn’t the time and tell Europe that they will use any veto powers available to them to block this. Ireland can then work with the other nations who are more discreetly opposed to a single tax rate to organise a bloc of countries. Ireland is one of the most pro-European nations. Varadkar will need to effectively vocalise that there is difference between being Eurosceptic and believing that these potential steps are a bridge too far.
A lot of Varadkar’s appeal to his supports revolves around his frank and outspoken method of communicating. He is seen as someone who isn’t afraid to mince his words. This is often seen in sharp contrast to his predecessor, Enda Kenny. It’s hard to forget the image of Nicolas Sarkozy rubbing his head, this was not the action of someone speaking to their equal.
Varadkar has been a lot more forthright with his criticism of the British government for their approach thus far to Brexit. It would be a lot more of a challenge to be as outspoken against tax harmonisation. However, this does not mean it would be prudent to stay silent. Ireland needs to stay strong on this issue. We cannot back down and allow ourselves to be walked over and dismissed. Let’s hope we have a leader who will fight for Ireland and maybe we can be an inspiration for other nations struggling to find their voice in Brussels.
The Iraqi and Syrian Kurds have the chance to finally break the Sykes-Picot lines once and for call over the coming years. These lines are loosely the borders of the Middle East that have been in place since the carve-up of the former Ottoman Empire following World War One.
It was a great, long line in the sand that basically gave modern-day Iraq, Jordan and Kuwait to the British, with the French receiving Syria, Lebanon, Southern Turkey and Northern Iraq.
Since ISIS first captured Mosul in June 2014 and subsequently went on to unite parts of Northern Iraq and Syria in their so called Caliphate, the future of the current borders of Iraq and Syria have been in doubt.
At times, the media have played up the power and sustainability of the Islamic State, stories of an emerging evil superpower are a great click generator. However to most observers it was obvious that their state would eventually collapse under the weight of sustained bombing and campaigns from their enemies (basically every other player in the in wider Syrian/Iraqi struggle).
Isis did manage to briefly break the Sykes-Picot lines but a terrorist state which commits atrocities on a daily basis was never going to become a permanent state.
The Kurds however, have the chance to finally gain their long dreamed for homeland. The referendum taking place in Kurdish Iraq today can potentially be the first step in creating a new homeland. The question the people of the Autonomus Kurdish region of Iraq will be asked is
"Do you want the Kurdistan region and Kurdish areas outside the region to become an independent state?".
It should result in a “Yes” vote. It will then be very interesting to see what tactics the Kurdish government undertake moving forward. They have said they will seek talks with the central Iraqi government who (much like their Spanish counterparts concerning the Catalan referendum) are strongly opposed to the vote.
Furthermore, will they then seek to expand any future Kurdish state to the Kurdish regions of Syria, Turkey and Iran. These countries have been on opposing sides of the Syrian Civil War, particularly Iran/Syria Govts v Turkey) however all would be opposed to a great Kurdistan.
The Syrian Government may have no choice but to acquiesce to the demands of their Kurdish population who have already set up an autonomous region in the North of the country. They believe they have earned their right to statehood in blood through fighting ISIS for a number of years. They have had the support of the Americans in this battle. The Kurdish Syrians also held elections last weekend in the first step to creating an official, internationally - recognized autonomous region.
Only time will tell whether either group of Kurds can succeed in founding a new fully autonomous state. If either succeeds, will they then have the stomach to take on their new neighbours in trying to create a greater Kurdistan carved out of multiple, current country borders?
This is not a question that will be resolved in the next year or two. The Kurds felt aggrieved at being denied a nation following the Treaty of Versailles and the founding of the League of Nations. They are well accustomed to playing the long game. Violent independence pursuits have been met by horrific bombings and massacres by the Turkish and Iraqi governments of days gone by. Their best approach now is slow and steady, continue to build international recognition and create a democratic mandate across all of their historical lands. The Kurds have been victims of greater games between superpowers before, however it now appears they have abandoned the fatalism that is somehow endemic to the region and have decided to be the masters of their own destiny…
*thanks to Alan Madden for reminding me how crucial the Kurdish referendum vote is...
Trump piles Pressure on N Korea and Iran at Inaugural UN Address but fails to deliver a coherent Message
Trump’s first speech to the UN was like a typical campaign speech we saw at his rallies across the US in the run-up to his election. It was full of rhetoric about the greatness of America, while sending threats to “rogue states” around the world.
After some self praise for the buoyant state of the American economy, Trump honed in on North Korea. If possible, the language was even more aggressive than we have previously heard.
“forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”
One interesting addition to the North Korea part of the speech was his expressed gratitude for China and Russia for backing the sanctions.
“the United Nations Security Council recently held two unanimous 15-0 votes adopting hard-hitting resolutions against North Korea, and I want to thank China and Russia for joining the vote to impose sanctions”
I think Trump has finally woken up to the fact that any agreement or deal with Kim Jong Un will need to have at least some input from the Chinese, if not their outright approval. This is a point I have made since the spat erupted, back in July.
It is also interesting to note that this was the only direct reference to Russia in the speech. There was a veiled threat to Russia when he spoke of the
“threats to sovereignty from the Ukraine to the South China Sea.”
However in general it seemed evident to me that the US-Russian relationship isn’t a topic Trump wants to broach right now.
Trump transitioned from North to Iran without any differentiation between the regimes. It was a bit of a throwback to George W Bush and his “axis of evil”. His criticism of the Iranian regime was quite predictable and nothing that hasn’t really been said before
“It has turned a wealthy country, with a rich history and culture, into an economically depleted rogue state whose chief exports are violence, bloodshed, and chaos.”
His quotes on the Iranian deal would be quite worrying to all those who have invested time and effort into it;
“The Iran deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.”
Fortunately, Trump has already had opportunities to cancel the "deal" as the agreement must be renewed every quarter, most recently on July 18th. The bombastic language was probably at least partly influenced by his meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, the day before. I still think Iran may benefit from Trump’s inability to focus and tackle an issue on a consistent basis, as I laid out here previously.
The last part that was noteworthy was Trump’s discourse on refugees and where they should be located. He explicitly thanked Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey though he made it clear he believes refugees should stay in their ‘home region’ until they can return to their country
“For the cost of resettling one refugee in the United States, we can assist more than 10 in their home region.”
Ultimately, we learnt little from Trump’s speech. The jingoistic sentiment would have appealed to his base back in the US while his “enemies” would certainly have gotten the message that he at least talks a tough game.
For the rest of us, we learnt more from what He didn’t say. No reference to the Paris agreement , the Palestinian question or his plans for the trade imbalance with China. Trump failed to lay out his grand vision for his administration’s foreign policy. It was little more than nationalist, sabre rattling that leaves me with little confidence that Trump’s views on America’s role in world affairs has evolved since his first campaign speeches back in the AUtumn of 2015.
To many observers of British politics, Boris Johnson launched his bid for leadership of the British Conservative party yesterday. It came in the format of an article in the Telegraph that laid out his vision for Britain’s Brexit.
Many of the positions were at odds with what Theresa May is expected to say in her speech to the European Union in Florence next Friday. The consensus is he has become frustrated with the backtracking by May on a number of issues since her bullish Lancaster Speech on January 17th.
Boris did try and run for leadership already, in the wake of David Cameron’s resignation, post Brexit referendum. He looked to be in pole position until he was brutally betrayed by Michael Gove. Gove basically supported his bid all along. Then, with 2 hours to go until Johnson’s campaign launch, he called Johnson’s campaign manager to let him know he was running himself.
It completely devastated Boris, who immediately called off his bid. Gove didn’t figure in the final running (not many voters of any political ilk want a self serving, Judas-type character as their leader).
I am not so sure if this is a full on bid for power, yet. It is probably a reminder to the more hard line Brexit MPs that he is still with them and could be their man. David Davis still remains the forerunner in betting odds to be the next Tory leader(4/1) and is also viewed as a proponent of a “hard” Brexit.
If Boris is to succeed, a lot of his success will be based on his “charisma”. He is certainly more interesting to listen to than May, Davis or Hammond, though he has offended many over the years with some very questionable phrases and actions (Politico have compiled a list of 11 of his most memorable here).
May’s stock has suffered terribly since the last British General election in June. The early part of the campaign focused on the mantra of her “strong and stable leadership”. This ran concurrently with the ongoing Brexit discussions which were unpredictable with positions changed on an almost daily basis. This was not lost on her opponents or the wider general public.
My ultimate view on this is that Boris no longer has the necessary clout across the spectrum of the Tory MPs to win a leadership contest. He can probably get the 15% of MPs required to force a contest but I think another candidate would then emerge at that stage.
Theresa May is living on borrowed time, that is evident to everyone. Boris is probably not the man to replace her, but he may yet be remembered for starting the open rebellion against Theresa May’s leadership.
*First appeared here on Slugger O' Toole
A lot of eyes in Ireland and Britain will be focused on Catalonia in the upcoming weeks. The vote taking place on October 1st will be an acid test for the integrity of Spain and the aspirations of independence for a number of regions across the European Union.
The referendum was first called for in June 2017 and was formally approved by the Catalan Parliament on the 6th of September. Almost immediately, the Spanish Constitutional Court claimed the referendum was non-binding, stating the Spanish Constitution does not allow Spanish Regions to hold Independence votes.
This should then be a straightforward matter. If the vote is null and void, it doesn’t make sense for it to take place. In 2014, in Catalonia’s last bid for Independence, the Catalan government basically accepted a similar ruling by the Court and then used the ensuing vote for publicity and consensus building.
The Catalans seem a lot more bullish this time around. There is a determination to hold a legitimate referendum, which they will not accept as illegal, and then act on the results after. The interesting aspect for North Ireland will be the aftermath of a successful vote.
It is not entirely clear what will happen in this case. It seems almost impossible for Catalonia to gain independence without the explicit approval of Spain. They would certainly not be able to join the European Union, as every European Union member has a veto, through the Council of the EU.
If the vote allows the Catalans to gain additional leverage in future negotiations or indirectly lead to future approval for a future referendum by the Spanish Government, it may be soon as a very useful tool by Nationalists in Northern Ireland in future years.
This type of positioning and posturing is excellent PR for a cause and nothing gets the masses engaged like an Independence vote, as we saw in Scotland in the run up to their Independence bid.
There is almost certainly not a majority in Northern Ireland who would vote for unification with the Republic in a legal referendum which meets the requirements of the Good Friday Agreement today. There are probably though a few local councils where a Yes vote would be successful today, especially when the result of voting Yes is more symbolic than anything else. Even a Northern Ireland wide vote would be a lot closer in this scenario. There is nothing like telling people they can’t vote on something, that will make them want to.
I think the key point is that a successful Independence bid for Catalonia is very unlikely to come about from the upcoming referendum. However, if an illegal referendum is viewed in the future as the first step in Catalonia’s successful bid for independence, will this then be a precedent for Nationalists in Northern Ireland and further afield?
If there is clear evidence in the future that a majority want Northern Ireland to unify with the Republican of Ireland, will the leaders of the Nationalist parties really wait for the tacit approval of the British Government or will we be hearing a lot more about the “Catalan way”.
The war in Syria has been drawing to a slow, violent end for almost two years now. Since Russia started to increase its military support for the Assad regime in September 2015, there has almost been an inevitability that the government forces would hold out and eventually reclaim most of the country. This was accentuated by the deafening silence from most Western nations as rebel held Eastern Aleppo was levelled by the Russian air force. To the ‘moderate’ rebels groups, that had previously been backed by the US, it was a clear signal that they would have to win this war on their own.
That was never going to happen. Syrian forces have continued to retake large swathes of the country. There have been setbacks along the way, the Islamic State retook Palmyra in December 2016 nine months after it had been re-taken by the Syrian army. These setbacks did not fundamentally impact the direction of the war however, fading resistance in the face of a massive Russian/Iranian backed onslaught. The breaking of Islamic State’s siege of Deir Ez-Zor last week is the latest victory in the Syrian War endgame.
Syria was one battleground of a wider struggle for supremacy in the Middle East between Saudi Arabia and Iran. While this was not the immediate cause of the war, it evolved into this as more parties became involved. What became clearer as the war ensued was that Iran, and its allies Hezbollah and the Iraqi government, were willing to commit more military support than the rebel’s backers in Turkey and the Gulf.
If we assume that this trend won’t be reversed, where does Syria and the Assad regime go from here? Large parts of the country are in ruins. According to Human Rights Watch, by February 2016 470,000 people had been killed, 6.1 million displaced internally and 4.8 million Syrian refugees abroad. This is devastation on an almost unprecedented scale in modern times.
Atrocities have been committed by all sides. This is not a defence of Bashir al-Assad and the Syrian government. According to the United Nations, the government have committed multiple war crimes. The question I want to raise is what options are open to the government now. Can Syria come back into the fold and reclaim legitimacy in the West or is destined to be a devastated, war-torn pariah state for the next decade?
Syria doesn't have the benefit of major oil reserves. It will struggle to attract the financial support necessary to rebuild most of the infrastructure that has been destroyed. The fact that there hasn’t been a regime change, immediately makes this a different case to the other devastated nation we’e seen in the last two decades like Afghanistan, Iraq and to a lesser extent, Libya.
The Western world is still some time away from re-recognizing the legitimacy of the Assad government. Syria’s key allies are not in a position to offer the financial support required, particularly as they are involved in their own domestic and international struggles. Russia is a longtime ally of Syria and their use of the Mediterranean port of Tartous was a major incentive for their increased military involvement mentioned above. However the sanctions imposed on Russia have taken their toll.
There is the potential for China to lead the rebuilding of the country. Throughout the war China has been quite muted in its criticism of the Syrian regime. It has almost vetoed as many UN resolutions against Syria as Russia has. In recent times China has made many new allies across the developing world, particularly in Africa, by funding huge infrastructure projects without making political demands from the reciprocants.
The Syrian government could also try and endear itself to the more right wing political parties in Europe by offering to take back Syrian refugees in exchange for funding. While the feasibility of this may be negligible it could be a smart PR move. In fact, there has been a noticeable decline in criticism in Europe of the regime as the number of Islamic State inspired attacks have increased across the continent. Each atrocity has helped the regime drive the narrative that ‘we are fighting the same terrorists together’.
Ultimately it has been a terrible seven years for the Syrian people. There can be no excuse for the atrocities committed by the Syrian government. If we assume that their victory in the Syrian War is now a fait accompli , the future direction of Syria could be an interesting measure of how far the US has retreated in its supremacy of the Middle East as it tries to continue its Pacific pivot. If this is the case the question is who will fill this vacuum? Will Syria be able to leverage this strategic battle or continue to be an unfortunate pawn in this modern version of the Great Game?
***first featured on Slugger O Toole @ sluggerotoole.com/2017/09/08/where-do-syria-and-assad-go-from-here/
Emmanuel Macron has captured the imaginations of many outside of France over the last few months. His second round Presidential run-off with Marine le Pen in May was seen by many as an existential crisis for the European Union. There was a collective sigh of relief across Europe when it was announced that he had won quite comfortably (the final vote was 66% v 34%). During the campaign, his policies and manifesto were given a bit of a free pass as many people simply wanted Le Pen as far away from the presidency as possible. He then won a comfortable majority in the Parliament a month later to consolidate his power.
His campaign slogan “En Marche!” (Onwards!) sounded very upbeat and dynamic but gave little indication of his views on the current state of France and his aims to change it. That’s why in the weeks after his election in mid-May I wrote a piece here where I was quite critical of Macron. The criticism was more to do with the lack of substance in his campaign, I compared it to Leo Varadkar’s in Ireland.
He did publish a manifesto, which I was able to find an English version of, which to me seemed quite similar to many of the policies of Nicolas Sarkozy’s Republican party in 2012. Sarkozy, who lost out to Francois Hollande that year, did run again for the Republican party nomination for 2017 but was defeated in the first round.
The goals mentioned in the manifesto included cutting public service headcount by 120,000 and reducing the headline corporate tax rate from 33% to 25%. This would take it lower than Germany, whose total rate varies from 30-33%. He also intended to overhaul social welfare and provide employment insurance for all which includes provisions like necessity to prove a genuine attempt to find a job and mandatory loss of benefits if two suitable positions are rejected.
After just over 100 days, Macron has now announced his plan for transforming French labour laws, which are captured in the Code du Travail, a broad piece of legislation which encompasses nearly all aspects of French working life. This comes on the back of suffering the largest drop in popularity for a French President in a single month in July (from 64% to 54%) since Jacques Chirac in 1995. It does seem as if the French public have gotten a little bit sick of hearing “Onwards!” without seeing any actual progress.
Macron issued five decrees on Thursday which will dramatically overhaul elements of the Code du Travail. They have reported across media outlets and I won’t go into detail on them here.
This is going to be his first major test. Former presidents have crashed against the great cliffs of French labour and have been broken. Even Francois Hollande, Macron’s predecessor and a member of the Socialist party, experienced major civil unrest last summer when he tried to initiate reforms. Macron has the benefit of a fresh start and a clear, if shrinking, mandate. He has shrewdly issued these as presidential decrees , which should expedite the process. So far most of the Unions’ reactions have been measured. Only the CGT has called for a day of action. In hindsight, Macron’s plan of a ‘100 meetings’ looks to have taken some of the wind out of the sails of the more combative Union elements.
I think the ramifications of whether Macron can succeed will reverberate across the European Union. If he is able to successfully implement an overhaul of the domestic labour system without sending tens of thousands to the streets , he will emerge with a renewed vigour and confidence.
If he can further consolidate his position at home, he will be able to focus more on internationally. If the polls are accurate (for once) and Angela Merkel also has a comfortable victory in the German Federal elections, Europe will see an emboldened and aggressive Franco-German axis leading the conversations and policy direction of the European Union. Macron has been involved in both Brexit negotiations and talks for a more integrated European financial system (for the Irish out there this means one corporate tax rate). While Brexit negotiations have been well covered by the press, the talks over the latter have been progressing discreetly behind the scenes. While the world watches the escalation of the North Korean crisis (I still believe an agreement will ultimately be brokered by China), real impact in European’s daily lives could be a lot more impacted by whether the French finally accept some changes to the long lasting Code du Travail.
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...
North Korea has featured a lot recently in global media outlets. Their testing of an inter-continental ballistic missile on Friday prompted strong condemnation across the globe. I recently remarked how after every major terrorist attack there is a similar pattern of condemnation followed ultimately by a shrug of the shoulders.
In the past, that has often been the case with US approach to North Korea. Strongly worded messages delivered through the United Nations or even by the President themselves. Economic sanctions often followed. China typically have a more measured response and seek to mitigate the economic fallout. There was a comfortable familiarity to this process. A mini cold war where all sides knew when they could poke and prod and when to back down. However, this changed in 2011 when Kim Jong-un came to power after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il.
News and reports from North Korea will always be hazy and unreliable but if even twenty percent of the reports are true then Kim Jong-un has little of the political nous of his father, a wily survivor who ruled for seventeen years. He does seem to have excelled in violence against potential rivals. The 2013 arrest and execution of his uncle-in-law by flamethrower was a grisly announcement to the world of his modus operandi. There have been reports of moves against him in recent times but as of today the latest view of most intelligence agencies is that Kim Jong-un is still the boss. His announcement after the missile test on Friday that North Korea can strike the US “at any place and any time” seems brash at best and suicidal at worst.
President Trump's tweet yesterday that China is doing nothing to curb North Korea will invariably draw focus on the Chinese-North Korean relationship and probably leading to a stinging rebuke from China.
Where do China stand here? This is arguably the most challenging aspect of this escalating crisis to speculate on. China is North Korea’s largest trade partner and accounts for approximately 90% of its exports. China has more leverage with North Korea than any other country. Across the globe, particularly in Africa, China has major trade links with a host of countries that have questionable foreign policies etc. China says little about their policies, builds their infrastructure and extracts their resources. However this is different, this is their neighbour openly telling the world's military superpower that they can hit them with a nuclear weapon at any time.
There are a few points to speculate on here. Firstly does China really have the influence to curtail the North Korea regime or is Kim Jong-un so unhinged and disconnected from reality that he doesn’t see the potential results of his words and actions. Secondly does China want this to stop immediately?
On the first point it is hard to believe that China does not have the necessary clout with numerous senior members of the regime. There is a Chinese economic zone just inside North Korea where China uses cheap North Korean labour to import coal and other basic goods. This a valuable source of foreign currency for North Korea. Furthermore many members of both regimes clandestinely benefit from this arrangement financially.
In many ways it is in China’s interest to keep maintain the status quo. I believe they may even have secretly given the North Koreans covert approval to test the foreign policy resolve of Donald Trump. The timing couldn’t be more opportune. Trump is struggling to generate any momentum with his domestic policies and is currently under investigation for illicit ties with Russia. China may want to gain some further leverage with the US and seek some guarantees on the South Pacific and/or trade before reining in the North Koreans. If this is the case they are playing a very dangerous game. Kim Jong-un is a very unpredictable and dangerous character. The more slack he is given now, the more challenging it will eventually be to rein in.
So if this failed to work and things escalate any further we could be facing a very serious situation. The last thing China wants or could tolerate is US airstrikes in North Korea. However before anyone suggest I am predicting WW3, I see another scenario playing out.
With these trade links there must be numerous channels of communication between the Chinese and senior North Korean officials without the knowledge of Kim Jong-un. If things get much more serious I can envisage a Chinese-led coup displacing the Korean leader with a military council who are willing to tone down the missile tests while continuing to publicly condemn the US.
The US will not want this situation to escalate and Trump has so many matters on his mind I believe he will pay a lot for a deal, despite his numerous boasts about his negotiating power. While I believe claims of the US decline are overblown, at this moment the US is a state of limited turmoil and Trump strikes me as a very exacerbated character who can’t comprehend how he is suffering so many setbacks domestically.
Finally I want to mention that if this is the case this is a very, very dangerous game to play. Recent history is littered with examples of major powers initially using regimes for their own aims only to ultimately suffer in the fallout. The US arming the taliban springs to mind. The Chinese obviously believe that they can both rein in North Korean nuclear tests when they want and that that the US will get involved militarily. However if they have miscalculated either factor we could be in a for a very tense and potentially dangerous few years...
The comments today from the UK Minister for Immigration , Brandon Lewis, were blunt and to the point “Free movement of labour ends when we leave the European Union in the spring of 2019. I’ll be very clear about that,”.
He added no caveats and made no mention of Ireland. While we Irish sometimes overestimate our own importance (small country syndrome if you will) it would be a massive blow if Irish citizens no longer had the right to work in the UK. It is a strange quirk that Irish residency in the UK is so taken for granted that I have been told more times that London is the sixth largest French city by population rather than it is the second largest Irish city on the same basis. The chart below illustrates just how crucuial this continued right to work will be.
“There has been a Common Travel Area between the UK and the Republic of Ireland for many years. Indeed, it was formed before either of our two countries were members of the European Union. And the family ties and bonds of affection that unite our two countries mean that there will always be a special relationship between us.
“So we will work to deliver a practical solution that allows the maintenance of the Common Travel Area with the Republic, while protecting the integrity of the United Kingdom’s immigration system.
“Nobody wants to return to the borders of the past, so we will make it a priority to deliver a practical solution as soon as we can.”
Above are the words of Theresa May when questioned on the topic in January. However a lot has changed since then domestically in the UK. Her leadership is no longer "strong and stable".
I do not believe Theresa May will be the British Prime Minister in March 2019 when the UK leaves the European. Ireland may be a victim of the hawkish, pro-Brexit faction of the Conservative party if they gain power in the meantime. If negotiations break down fully between the European Union and the UK then it is very possible that all the talk of ‘special recognition for Ireland’ will fall by the wayside.
It is too early to speculate based on one interview. However it would be prudent for the Irish government to keenly follow every development and statement from the key players in the British government from now until the final Brexit settlement is agreed. Finally as I have mentioned before it would be naive in the extreme to believe the Irish aspect of Brexit is anywhere near being settled...
The Qatar diplomatic crisis continues to generate headlines. I want to very briefly revisit the topic and add a few thoughts.
Firstly it has played out very closely to how I initially envisaged it would here. I had mentioned that Al Jazeera was one of the contentious issues that has greatly irked the Saudi Arabian leadership. I wasn’t surprised when one of the demands from the Gulf countries was that Qatar shut down Al Jazeera. This was a ridiculous demand to make public (in this case Qatar was given a written list of demands so it was always going to reach the public). It would be impossible for the US (often Saudi Arabia’s key ally) to endorse this demand. Qatar has correctly rejected this.
I also believed that Iran would publicly back Qatar and that this blockade would actually push Iran and Qatar closer together. I maintain this has happened. However I underestimated Turkey’s appetite for diplomatic involvement in the Gulf. I think Saudi Arabia did as well. Erdogan’s tour of the Gulf this week may force the Saudi Arabia, UAE and the other states to tone down their demands or even discreetly end the blockade (UAE’s decision to allow Al Jazeera back on the domestic television today could be the first step). Furthermore Kuwait has made public calls for dialogue in a less aggressive manner.
The one prediction I will add is that the increased dialogue between Qatar-Iran and Qatar-Turkey may eventually lead to Qatar becoming the broker in any regional Syrian agreement. There may be enough key players at a negotiating table that involved Russia, Iran, Turkey and Qatar. A Syrian peace accord that excluded the Saudis would be a huge blow to their regional prestige. However this is purely speculative at this time.
Finally I see the crisis ending within the next two weeks. This is not to say that all the restrictions will be lifted within this timeframe. This would be too much of a volte-face for the Saudis. I think there will be a number of steps and discreet announcements until the media interest finally subsides. It really was a poorly thought out decision to try and bully the Qataris into line in such a public and humiliating fashion. As I have mentioned previously diplomacy is the art of subtlety and nuance, not public puffing out your chest and making unrealistic demands. There's quite a similarity to how Madame May et al have started the Brexit talks. The UK was heavily criticized recently for selling arms to Saudi Arabia. It now appears evident they also traded notes on how to alienate yourself and lose friends with foolish demands with little understanding of your current plight or power...