Category Archives: International

#JeSuisCharlie won’t #BringBackOurGirls

French President François Hollande called Sunday’s match in Paris a clear demonstration of our “opposition to terrorism”. It was no such thing. It was in fact a demonstration of our opposition to terrorism as it affects Western interests. 

It is for that reason that the march took place in Paris and not Abuja; that the Western media’s focus was on terrorism in France which left 17 dead not on terrorism in Nigeria which left a hundred times as many dead; and that we are now all talking about #JeSuisCharlie rather than #BringBackOurGirls – remember that?

#BringBackOurGirls is now nine months old. It was a staggering successful social media campaign concerning the kidnap of 230 girls from a school in Nigeria. However, the girls were never actually brought back. In Nigeria this week alone, perhaps 2000 people were massacred. We don’t care.

But is that not the crux of the issue? Of course the West is more liberal, more civilised and more socially advanced than the societies from which the Islamic terrorist threat ultimately originates. It is no less hypocritical, however. Terrorism in France may affect our social and economic interests, so we report it widely and demand a response – ironically, the type of response which restricts the very freedoms #JeSuisCharlie wants protected! Terrorism in Nigeria, well, here’s a lovely picture but, you know, beyond hitting ‘RT’ you can’t seriously expect us to do anything?


As it happens, 57,000 is a reasonable estimate of the number killed during the Boko Harem insurgency in northern Nigeria – Africa’s largest country by far – over the past twelve months.

We don’t care. Ultimately, when it’s not in our interests, we’re a bunch of illiberal hypocrites. It would help if we at least stopped the pretence.

Apple and Private Sector Inefficiency

I am the first to argue that we need to rebalance the economy; that the private sector is generally a force for the good; and that those in the private sector should be more adequately rewarded and recompensed for the risks they take. However, those making those arguments often add another – that the private sector is (automatically) more efficient than the public sector. This can be so, of course, but not necessarily.

It was Apple, of all companies, who provided me last month with the most staggering piece of inefficiency I have ever come across. It is a telling story – of a company which has become too big; of quirkiness becoming sheer stupidity; and of tax avoidance literally costing the customer.

The story is relatively straightforward. My wife ordered an iPad case on Apple’s Online Store; the recipient wished to change the colour; so we went to the Apple Store in Belfast to swap it. Easy.

Or apparently not so easy… there our trials began. The Apple Store is apparently “completely separate” from the Apple Online Store, and thus the item could not simply be exchanged there. No, apparently it had to be exchanged online. Not quite so easy, but still straightforward.

Or apparently not so straightforward… despite having the receipt in front of me, there was no means of returning or exchanging the item online because it had not been bought under an Apple ID. No, apparently it was necessary to phone a call centre to arrange a courier to come and exchange the item from the delivery address. This call was made from right outside the Apple Store where I simply wished to exchange the like-for-like item. This is now plainly unnecessarily complicated…

And it gets worse. At this stage we are informed that this will not take one courier (with the waiting in all afternoon involved with that) but one to collect the item, and then one to deliver the replacement after the original is checked. We are now in insane territory! All we wish to do is replace one colour with another, something we were quite content to do at the Apple Store itself over a week ago yet we are still two courier deliveries (during the working week) away from our objective. We are now in the realms of inefficiency to the point of insanity…

This is not, unfortunately, pure inefficiency. However, it is worth noting that not only does this crazy method of dealing with refunds and exchanges inconvenience the customer, it also obviously inconveniences Apple itself; bizarrely, it has employed call centre staff and a delivery company (twice) instead of merely allowing a case of one colour to be lifted off a shelf and replaced by a case of another colour. Genuinely, no government department or agency would be allowed to get away with such a farce (in the supposedly “inefficient” public sector).

Another issue here is that the “free market” does not always reward the best products, but the best brands. We all know Apple doesn’t make the most advanced smartphones any more, in the same way we know BMW doesn’t make the most reliable cars – yet in each case not only to we reward the company with sales volume but we even pay a premium to do so. This is largely because of the brand (allied with excellent and innovative research) – which in Apple’s case is founded on quirkiness (more specifically perhaps: doing things differently almost purely for the sake of it, which can lead to great creativity). However, when quirkiness becomes sheer stupidity, the game may be up.

There is a still more alarming aspect of this. I can’t help but think the reason Apple is so precious about the divide between the “Online Store” and its High Street Store is given away on the receipt, which notes the former is in effect a subsidiary based in County Cork of a company headquartered (in the small print in the right-hand column) in Luxembourg. In just the last few months we have seen the debate around the “Double Irish” and the “Luxembourg Channels”, all means of minimising the profit declared within the actual country of operation. This may be theoretically legal, but it comes at the cost of inefficiency to the point of insanity – indeed, it can make large companies considerably less efficient than government.

As a Virginia-based friend face-timed me the other day, I explained that I was in the middle of a “battle with iTunes” as I sought with great difficulty to install the latest version on an older operating system. “Well that’s a battle you’re just not going to win” came the immediate response.

Even brilliant businesses can get too big and divert too much tax to the extent they become innovative only in finding new ways to be staggeringly inefficient – now there’s a battle we probably need to win. (Sent from my iPad. Thankfully I’m not fussy about case colour…)

Binary politics a scourge everywhere

Another one from Slugger O’Toole…

Of all people, it was perhaps Jeremy Paxman on his retirement from BBC Newsnight who put his finger on the problem causing such disillusion with politics – it is the nonsense that all politics is binary. He said in an interview that it was utterly ludicrous to suggest the Conservatives have all the answers to the country’s woes and Labour has none of them; and equally ludicrous to suggest Labour has all the answers and the Conservatives none – and everyone knows it!

Thus, electoral politics has become a complete facade. The UK will have a Conservative or a Labour Prime Minister, but both are presenting an outright lie – that they have all the answers and the other hasn’t; that their party has a near unblemished record in government and the other is at fault for all the country’s woes. It’s nonsense. And we all know it’s nonsense.

There is another problem with this that we know in our hearts to be true even if we don’t like to admit it: the politicians we elect cannot possibly have all the answers to our problems. We have zero say, at the ballot box at least, about the likely defence policy of the next President of the United States, or the next financial move of the Chinese Communist Party, or the next decision on Quantitative Easing by the European Central Bank; yet in a globalised world these things may all matter more than any decision made by people we ourselves elect.

Of course, the decisions which affect us may not be made by politicians at all. Big oil companies, vehicle manufacturers or even gadget firms (like Apple or Samsung) make decisions which have far-reaching consequences for all of us – made by Board members or Executives we don’t know in places like Fukuoka or Ingolstadt or Cupertino that we’ve never heard of.

There is a degree to which we are comforted by the notion that David Cameron or Ed Miliband will have it all in hand; by the idea that some geniuses somewhere are running the show and they know what they are doing. This is why conspiracy theories still predominate about the assassination of Kennedy, for example – a world in which some random mad man can just shoot dead the “Leader of the Western World” is too crazy to contemplate, so we go to extremes to deny it is possible. Yet in our hearts we know that it is, in fact, a crazy world – and that the next move of Islamic State will likely have as big an effect on us as who wins the next UK General Election.

Move this to devolved level, of course, and the political farce becomes even more obvious. The notion that the Unionist world view and historical narrative is 100% correct and the Nationalist 100% flawed, or vice-versa, is very comforting but we know at heart that it’s nonsense. From the very outset, therefore, again there is a lie at the heart of the binary system – yet anyone caught exposing that lie is deemed a traitor to their own side.

We see this even on single issues. Never mind a detailed analysis of how best to tackle poverty in a post-industrial setting struggling with the legacy of conflict – are you for or against welfare reform? Never mind a detailed assessment of how best to tackle low wages in a peripheral public-sector dominated region after the Great Recession – are you for or against the Living Wage? Never mind a detailed view of how best to promote business in the context of the rise of China and the East – are you for against reducing Corporation Tax? We like to comfort ourselves that stopping reform, or introducing the Living Wage, or reducing Corporation Tax will prove the magic bullet to all our economic and social woes. Anyone suggesting it’s a little more complex than this straightforward binary option is deemed a “typical politician, ignoring the question”; yet anyone who does stand out and suggest it may be a bit more complex than that is right – and at heart we know they are, even though we probably won’t vote for them…

We are not alone. In Germany a two-and-a-half party system is rapidly becoming a five-party system (with the half replaced entirely by a populist bloc challenging everything Germans professed to believe about Europe). In Denmark and Canada the centre right has been completely restructured (and the latter is now working on restructuring the left too). In Ireland civil war politics is being replaced by outright populism. In the United States party membership is declining and people are becoming increasingly disenchanted by the gridlock delivered by an entrenched, binary system.

What is the solution to all of this? I have no idea! To move towards a solution, I know only two things for sure: politicians are elected by the electorate and they bring with them to their office all the foibles and hypocrisy of that electorate; and that it is therefore for that electorate, for us humble citizens in other words, to participate and deliver a democratic alternative which recognises the world is complex and that binary options will no longer suffice.

Baltic states will pay for failure to forgive and include

I would imagine it was a bit like visiting Northern Ireland in 1964. On the face of it, it was a reasonably prosperous place. There was this thing about Catholics suffering poorer housing, higher unemployment and something close to a lock out from some senior offices, but they seemed to have accepted their lot (and an attempt at a terror campaign had ended in total failure). It was a little odd that symbols were so obviously British and even Royal when so many of the population didn’t really support those things, but life seemed to go on. Yet there would just have been a nagging doubt that this exclusion may come back, some day, to bite.

This was in fact Estonia in 2004, and the minority was not Catholic but Russian-speaking – specifically, people from elsewhere in the Soviet Union whose families had been moved to Estonia post-War. They accounted for a third of the population (similar to Northern Ireland’s in 1964, actually), yet held just seven of the 101 seats in Parliament – a much worse proportion, in fact, than Nationalists in the old Stormont. Locked out of power, they were subject to citizenship laws which they were not involved in passing which required them to learn Estonian; to symbols which were entirely from the Estonian Nation’s past; and to a West-leaning (pro-EU, pro-NATO) foreign policy which they had no role in shaping. In many ways it was a super, innovative country… and yet there was this nagging doubt…

Now the problem is very, very real. And it is much more relevant to global security than Northern Ireland ever was post-War; or indeed that relative side shows like Scottish referendums. In Estonia now nearly a quarter of the population have a vote in Russian elections, which they almost universally cast for Vladimir Putin; they watch Russian television (which is just mass propaganda which makes Fox News look genuinely fair and balanced); they do not yet consider themselves Russians in a citizenship sense (note foreign correspondents re-assuringly), but you know what, they probably soon will…

With Russian cyber-attacks on Estonian computing (essential, as all government data and business is carried out on screen) and even now incursions into Estonian territory to kidnap soldiers, that nagging doubt has been realised multi-fold.

Compromise. Why do they never compromise? Why do they always think minorities can just be wished away? I’d like to think it’s not too late now…

No longer Left/Right but Open/Closed

If Tony Blair got one thing right it was a remark he made in late 2007 shortly after handing over the Premiership, to the effect that politics is no longer “Left versus Right” but “Open versus Closed”. This is still somewhat simplistic of course, but the more I think about it the more accurate I find that to be. It also explains the imminent collapse of the UK’s political system.

I tweeted somewhat churlishly after UKIP’s big gains last month that far from Northern Ireland’s politics becoming more like England’s, in fact England’s was becoming more like Northern Ireland’s. UKIP’s fundamental appeal is to “Closed” voters – people who are disillusioned by and distrusting of everything (not just the EU).

Liberals tend to appeal to “Open” voters – the type who are typically well travelled, professional, educated (the type I have referred to as Northern Ireland’s third pillar, alongside Unionist and Nationalist). However, they don’t understand “Closed” voters at all. Closed voters don’t respond to people providing rational arguments and even less well to people piling on lots of facts and statistics – because they simply don’t believe them. Nick Clegg found that out to his cost when debating Nigel Farage.

One comment I saw recently referred to anti-water charge demonstrations in the Republic of Ireland as “left-wing”. By any definition, however, they’re not – the “left” traditionally argues for higher public spending and admits that high taxes are a prerequisite for achieving that. But here was the so-called “left” arguing against tax increases, even when it is obvious they are necessary. The demos were not, in fact “left wing”. They were populist. And they were “closed” – a rejection of the global reality that a Europe that creates only 25% of the world’s GDP can no longer afford 50% of its social spending without tax rises, and that particularly applies to Ireland where the tax take is nearer the United States average than the European Union’s (but enough with the statistics…)

Unfortunately and unusually we have been lumbered with a government in Northern Ireland dominated by two parties which are utterly anti-intellectual and “closed”. They are most comfortable with identity politics, and with localised campaigning to the extent that their constituents’ immediate short-term interests always trump longer-term considerations. They are, in other words, an awful lot like UKIP – and, as with UKIP, other parties in Northern Ireland haven’t yet come up with a way of dealing with them!

Perhaps, however, if the rest of us put away our “left versus right” prejudices – which are themselves these days identities more than meaningful political standpoints – and built an “Open” coalition we would begin to get somewhere? Is it time to stand together against the closed, unreal, anti-intellectual forces of the DUP/SF in Northern Ireland (and indeed in the latter case in the Republic) and the UKIP across the UK, as well as countless other similar examples across Europe?

What on earth is going on in Catalonia?

I am fortunate enough to have several contacts in Catalonia, the region around Barcelona – fortunate because they are a fascinating people and I had occasion to visit the region on average every other year from 1992 to 2008. However, since 2008 things have changed unbelievably.

The old line was that “Everyone knows the Catalans want independence, they just don’t like to talk about it”. To be fair, even that wasn’t strictly true. One host family told me (at least I think they did, they insisted on speaking Catalan a language I partially understand but don’t actually speak!) that what they really wanted was a properly diverse Spain, where for example they could use their own language (Catalan) in the Cortes in Madrid (the Spanish Parliament). The fact is, however, that patience is wearing thin.

To cut a long story outrageously short, contemporary Iberia could be said to consist of three linguistic nations (although even that is ludicrously simplistic), who reconquered the peninsula from the Muslim Moors in the centuries up to 1492. To the west, there were the Leonese/Galicians; in the middle the Castilians; and to the east the Aragonese/Catalans. Those who moved south on the western (Atlantic) side formed the Kingdom of Portugal; in the middle formed the Kingdom of Castile; and on the eastern (Mediterranean) side to Kingdom of Aragon incorporating the Duchy of Catalonia. Ultimately those who did not move south on the western side came together with those in the middle in a powerful kingdom with its capital eventually in Madrid, which through the usual combination of royal marriage and militaristic opportunism eventually also came to incorporate Aragon-Catalonia from the early 18th century (and that means incorporate fully – unlike Scotland, Aragon-Catalonia did not retain its laws or legal system). Thus the whole of Iberia except the area occupied by the Galician speakers who did move south early in the second millennium became “Spain”; those Galician speakers who did move came to form “Portugal”.

Even this brief outline is a gross injustice to Spain’s complexities. For example, where foreigners see Real Madrid versus Barcelona as the clash between “Castile” and “Catalonia”, it is also a clash between “Right” and “Left”; and between “Centralist” and “Regionalist”; and between “Unity” and “Multi-cultural”; and all sorts of other things. This becomes even more complex when you note the Balearic Islands and Valencian Region are also partly (historically majority) “Catalan”-speaking (as opposed to Spanish), yet many in those regions consider themselves absolutely Spanish (but not Castilian); still others consider themselves specifically Balearic (even, say, Majorcan) or specifically Valencian with no real credence given to shared linguistic and cultural heritage with the Barcelona area.

Why raise all this? Firstly, I am wary of the seemingly obvious parallel to Scotland. From 1707, Scotland remained a country, clearly distinct from England not least because it maintained its own laws and legal system; furthermore, there is little serious dispute about where the boundaries of that country are, and that it is also culturally distinct. This is quite different, in fact, from Catalonia even though it suits Nationalists in both to promote the similarities. Catalonia did not retain its own laws and legal system (that is not to say it did not retain its own customs); yet unlike Scotland its own language is flourishing, albeit spoken by a minority as a first language even now. Also, very notably, it is unclear where the boundaries of Catalonia are: if they are to include only the current Spanish region that seems a remarkable cession to Spain and to decisions made by the rest of Spain; on the other hand, the maximalist approach which would include Valencia, the Balearics, perhaps part of Aragon and also probably part of southern France (the French city of Perpignan/Perpinya and the surrounding area is traditionally culturally Catalan to a large extent) would be obviously ludicrous.

Secondly, there are significantly greater centralising forces on the Spanish Right (these forces are now, thankfully, merely political). The current Prime Minister who is resolutely determined that a separation referendum would be illegal is himself from Galicia. When he speaks, he does represent a significant section of the population in the entire country, including in Catalonia itself – not least a significant minority of the population who are (or whose family is) recent immigrants from elsewhere in Spain. Unlike, say, English people who move to Scotland accepting entirely that it is a different country, Spaniards moving to Catalonia have had no such sense – such a status is still contested. That is to leave aside those proud Catalans – by linguistic and cultural heritage – who would really prefer a properly federal Spain respecting their cultural and linguistic rights to outright separation (but who are currently swinging towards outright separation in frustration that those cultural and linguistic rights are not respected in much of the rest of Spain).

Thirdly, and most markedly, is that Catalan separatists have done much less planning for “independence”, and are perhaps as a consequence much more divided, than in Scotland. In some ways they are more like Irish Nationalists, using cultural and linguistic distinctiveness to make the case for separation while never really getting around to the practical legal and economic details. To be clear, an independent Catalonia could without question form an economically viable European state if it put its mind to it; but the details of how this should come to pass have never really been considered. What about a diplomatic corps? What about immigration control? What about FC Barcelona having to leave “La Liga”?

It is perhaps small wonder, then, that the recent conversation went something like this: Catalan government “We want a referendum on independence”; Spanish government “You can’t have one”; Catalan government “Er, okay then”. Politics is always a facade – but like Gaudi’s cathedral, in Catalonia it is particularly incomplete.

I am a huge admirer of the linguistic development of Catalan and of Catalan culture and architecture – it’s hard not to be. It is also, of course, the greatest single footballing region on the planet – what could be better than that?! However I can’t help, albeit from afar, still take the view that everyone knows Catalans want independence, but they don’t like to talk about it…

US cannot sort out Syria on its own in multi-power world

20 years on from the terrorist ceasefires, Northern Ireland is definitely a safer place. 13 years on from 9/11, however, the world most certainly isn’t. As ever, the problem for the West is politics. Politics requires the perception that we are safe; yet perception is vastly different from reality.

Just over a year ago the UK Parliament stopped proposed military action in Syria. This was a very good thing – intelligence from research I myself was doing for a client in London indicated that the premise used to promote the proposed intervention (that Assad had used chemical weapons) was incorrect, just as in 2003 with the “weapons of mass destruction”. In fact, all the intelligence said that the Syrian opposition had used chemical weapons, not Assad. Is it not now interesting that we have come to view that opposition, not Assad, as the problem?

Last week I reluctantly supported military action. When genocide is ongoing within a democratic state which requests your assistance to stop it and you have the capacity to assist, you assist. However, no one supporting that assistance is suggesting a few RAF bombs will solve the problem; they are but a tiny part of a long-term and complex solution.

We still like to think we live in a binary world of “goodies” and “baddies”, but it’s a lot more complex than that – and actually there are a lot of “baddies” out there. To base intervention on particular atrocities would see intervention on different sides of the same conflict, so that’s useless (which was why I opposed intervention in either Iraq or Syria). To base intervention on which side suits the West only creates further outrage and fundamentalist opposition to the West in the long run. And the “sides” change all the time anyway!

The other issue, which I raised last month, is that the United States is no longer politically (or arguably even financially) in a position to sort these things out alone. Indeed, it never was – it has only been the sole superpower for two decades (while the Cold War looked and felt dangerous at the time, actually two superpowers provide enough coverage and a surprisingly secure sort of equilibrium which we haven’t had since 1991). Those two decades have seen the United States directly attacked, and then become embroiled in conflicts which served no purpose, cost lives, and reduced Allies – many countries involved in the first Gulf War had dropped out of the Western Alliance by the second.

Barack Obama was a horribly inexperienced President right from the outset, but even the greatest Foreign Affairs genius of all time in the White House could not solve the basic problem that is unclear what the United States should do; and it is clear that there are significant practical limitations on what it can do. Europeans now spent woefully little on their military to be of any real use as allies; and the IS surge in Iraq/Syria is in any case tied in all kinds of ways (primarily religious and trade) with conflicts ongoing all the way from the Sahara to the Black Sea.

What we are seeing in the world in 2014 is a shift to multi-powers, with the rise of China and perhaps other BRIC countries (with insecurity enhanced by their own and their neighbours’ jostling for power as others, including religious zealots, fill various new voids left by American inability or unwillingness to act decisively). It does look alarmingly like 1914, when a similar shift from Pax Britannica to the Cold War began and the lamps went out for a generation. It is extraordinarily difficult to see what we should do about it, however – the only thing which is clear is that if we are waiting for the United States to do it all, it will be a forlorn wait.

UK will have to stay in EU, and push for more integration

“What are we going to do to save the European project?” asked one correspondent recently. Having pondered this, I think the first step is to set out why we should seek to save it, and indeed advance it. On the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of the last World War, I have come to the conclusion that the answer to why is one word – security.


Crudely, we are now at the point where global conflict has already started. We can kid ourselves all we like that the vicious religious wars of Iraq/Syria, Israel’s and Hamas’ brutality in the Holy Land, the takeover of Libya by Islamists and other purges are confined to the Middle East; and that the Crimean/Ukrainian conflict is down to one man’s posturing in Moscow; and that sectarian violence across the Sahara from South Sudan to Nigeria is just down to localised power struggles. In fact, they are a series of inter-connected religious and economic wars. When we add to them the near certainty of conflict in the Far East as China flexes its muscles and Japan weakens in economic (and thus political) influence, the ever-present risk of turmoil in the Americas, and even on-going civil and economic strife within the Eurozone and the United States, we need to be brutally realistic – the upturn in strife, conflict and war is an inevitability made so by a shift in economic balance and the (not coincidental) unwillingness and inability of the United States to play the role of sole global superpower and thus sole global policeman.

The UK also needs to be brutally realistic. It has endured a period of harsh economic decline and, again not coincidentally, has cut back its defence spending. Until recently the second largest spender on defence in the world, the UK will soon slip out of the top ten. This means its role as supporter to the world’s sole superpower is no longer viable, even if the United States were willing to play that role – which it isn’t. The UK’s influence now will depend more than ever on diplomatic weight – a weight it can carry uniquely as the bridge between North America and Europe.

Here is the point, however – it can only play that role by retaining its strong intelligence links with the United States while at the same time remaining firmly within the EU. What the UK is grappling with is a harsh realisation that its influence depends on remaining within an ever-integrating EU – and indeed on being a core part of that EU. In the ideal world it would not be faced with this conundrum – but then, in the ideal world Russia would not have a President playing war games, moderate Israelis would negotiate a two-state solution with a dominant Fatah, the United States would be able to afford to remain in Iraq to build democracy as it did in Germany and Korea, the EU would be able to retain some degree of law and order along the Sahara, and the West’s economy would be in much better shape. We should probably have worked out by now that this is no “ideal world”!

Let us deal again with brutal reality in this new, non-ideal, turbulent world. There are two outcomes – one is World War Three; the other is a new multi-power world where the United States begins to share its role as global policeman with other powers (just as it once did with the Soviet Union), delivering security through a series of compromises and deals around global security and trade. One of those other powers will surely be China (with Japan increasingly irrelevant); another will probably be India (although Pakistan and others will need some role); another may be Latin America (headed by Brazil); and, here is the thing, another will be Europe. That latter will in fact be the United States’ most trusted ally among the new Great Powers; as this happens, Henry Kissinger’s old question will apply – what is Europe’s phone number? The UK has a straight choice – it can either join the likes of Japan on the sidelines (costing it influence on security but also on trade, with real social and economic consequences) and leave Germany unquestionably the main player in that Europe; or it can seek to position itself as a main player in Europe and thus retain relevance as the focal point of a Transatlantic Alliance which it can use for its own security (as well as trade).

The biggest problem we have with the European debate in the UK at the moment is that it is appallingly parochial, and proceeds as if the world has stopped waiting for the UK to make its decision. On the contrary, the world is becoming a more polarised and more dangerous place in which the last thing we should want to do is retreat into insularity and irrelevance. Most of all, we all – each and every one of us – need to grasp and grasp quickly that this isn’t the ideal world, any more than it was this day 75 or 100 years ago!

A “United Ireland” won’t happen. Ever.

I am pleased to see, over on Slugger, at least the hint of a real debate about a “United Ireland”. Most of the basic sentiments – that we need some economic reality and that Northern Ireland has to work for all its citizens – are spot on and conveniently are necessary to any constitutional preference. This is why my own politics were always based on those sentiments.

I have put forward various thoughts on how a United Ireland could operate – most obviously, like Australia (a federation with the current Monarch as Head of State). However, I have done so primarily to demonstrate that “Nationalists” are either so biased that they find this unacceptable, or so disinterested that they find this irrelevant. It is no surprise to me that the only threat to the UK comes from Scotland, not Northern Ireland.

The truth is this: a Unitied Ireland is not going to happen.

Why not? Let us go back to the Covenant. One of the main aspects of that document in September 1912 was the economic argument that splitting Belfast – its shipbuilders, rope makers, linen weavers and so on – from the rest of the UK would see tariffs imposed and thus create costs to exporting to the UK which would render them unable to compete with the West of Scotland and the North West of England in those key industrial areas. The point here is that in an era where there were tariffs imposed on trade between any two countries, it made sense to belong to a large country. There were two prime reasons for this: first, it gave you the biggest possible free trading zone; and second, it gave you the clout of a powerful government to negotiate trade deals with other large countries on your behalf. That is why the map of Europe at the outbreak of World War One consisted of a unitary British Isles, a larger single Germany, a huge Austro-Hungarian realm, a newly united Italy and large Russian and Ottoman Empires – alongside France. Spain and not much else (even Sweden and Norway had broken apart only in the previous decade).

A century later and we live in a vastly different Europe, where tariffs and many other trade restrictions between countries have been abolished. This makes it no longer necessary or even beneficial to belong to a large country. With the benefit of free trade, countries such as France and Germany are the exception in Europe – which contains a raft of countries at around 7-11 million (Belgium, Portugal, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic. Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, Sweden etc), another set at around 4-5 million (Ireland, Denmark, Norway, Finland. Slovakia, Croatia etc) and another lot at around 2 million (Slovenia, Latvia and Estonia). This is vastly different from what went before, but it is enabled by free and peaceful trade, and thus the pressure is for more break-up – perhaps in Catalonia, Venice or Scotland to give some obvious examples. After all, if Brussels is already handling everything from foreign trade to social regulations; and you are already handling domestic policies and laws, what role precisely do Madrid, Rome or London play?

Therefore it is no coincidence that, aside from Germany, there really is no precedent for uniting a country in modern Europe – the movement is all the other way.

Germany itself is not a useful precedent either. It consisted, legally and practically, of the dissolution of the German Democratic Republic (what the English-speaking world but not the German-speaking world referred to as “East Germany”) and the expansion of the Federal Republic of Germany (“West Germany”) to incorporate its territory. The equivalent would be the dissolution of Northern Ireland and the expansion of the current Republic of Ireland to include 32 counties not 26. Overnight, the Northern (NHS-style) Health system would be abolished, its laws would be replaced (e.g. the Rules of the Road would change) or repealed (e.g. laws on equality or animal cruelty, which are often markedly lacking in the Republic), and rafts of people would be out of work (most civil servants would be unnecessary; all lawyers now unqualified; and so on). This would be much more dramatic in fact than it was in Germany, where some “Eastern” systems were maintained by the new States (in their own policies and laws; unlike Ireland, Germany is a federation) and “Easterners” gladly underwent training in new “Western” systems accepting from the outset that they were inherently better. This is why no one seriously advocates such a method of unification for Ireland.

So there is no precedent. In fact, most Nationalists who think about it come to suggest that Northern Ireland would continue to exist, with its own separate laws, education system, accounting methods and so on. But that takes us back to the above question – if Belfast continues to manage the domestic policies and laws, and Brussels does the foreign stuff, what exactly would Dublin be doing? The answer to that, hypothetically, is it would be working out what to do with its new security headache and how it was to manage a mammoth subvention to Northern Ireland – a subvention to a place with half the population but the same number of public servants, for some reason. Hypothetically… it wouldn’t be daft enough to do it in reality, of course.

Even without that headache, the simple fact is the “United Ireland” thus created would consist of a legally separate unit, with its own laws, institutions, heritage and identities. That has been tried, of course – in 1707, when the Kingdom of Scotland was united with the Kingdom of England. How’s that one working out in the modern context explained above?!

So no, a United Ireland is not “closer than it’s ever been”. There was one chance of it ever happening outside the UK, and it was wasted at Easter 1916. Towards 2016, all the trends across Europe tell us there was more chance of a sovereign Northern Ireland than a sovereign United Ireland some time this century. What was that about making Northern Ireland economically viable and a fair home to all, Irish, British and neither…?!

Why the lack of outrage re thousands dead in Syria, Iraq, Sudan, etc?

I should probably have a specific tag for posts which pose questions to which I am not sure of the answer and want readers’ help. This is one such.

As the death toll passes 1500, I continue to be disturbed at the lack of basic humanity shown by those who think Israel’s current actions are anything other than grossly disproportionate and counter-productive. Even the United States is beginning to accept that reality now, even though it has not yet acted upon it.

However, 1500 is the number killed daily by Assad, or by ISIS in Iraq and parts of Syria. That is also the number killed in South Sudan after a government (sectarian) crisis broke out there a year ago, where there is now a humanitarian crisis of the scale of the Irish famine. This is to say nothing of the 1500 killed (one fifth on a civil airliner) during Russia’s war games in Eastern Ukraine, nor indeed of the appalling Ebola outbreak in West Africa. So why all the concern about Gaza, and not about these and other horrors ongoing elsewhere?

Let us leave aside for the moment the fact that the West in complicit in the partition of Sudan which entirely predictably was going to lead to sectarian violence. Several reasons have been suggested: Israel/Palestine is longer standing; it is a clear case of two sides (goodies versus baddies); where we stand on Israel/Palestine is also a self-definition (say, of Unionist/Nationalist or Right/Left); there is a direct religious interest in the Holy Land; there is a moral imperative after the Holocaust; there is a highly economically relevant Jewish diaspora in the United States; and others. All of these strike me as likely parts of the story. In this particular case, that the average age in Gaza is 17 surely also has something to do with it.

I cannot help but think, however, that another reason is that Israel is a Western country. By falling over themselves to try to argue that we in the West cared more about people killed on MH17 than people killed in Gaza, some commentators rather embarrassed themselves by missing the obvious point – that they themselves don’t seem to care about people killed or displaced in Syria, Iraq or South Sudan. Actually it rather seems to me that we do not omit to mention non-Westerners who were killed, but rather people who weren’t killed by Westerners (and Israelis count as Westerners).

I wonder also if there is even a collective guilt in the West. We all – every one of us – accept basically a global system policed predominantly by the United States (in preference, say, to Russia or China). Because of economic, geo-political and even internal concerns, the United States finds Israel a useful ally. Thus when Israel – seen almost as a proxy for the country we are happy to police the world at least to an extend – carries out a set of appalling and counter-productive atrocities, we look on powerless knowing that we endorse the system which brings such things about. After all, it’s easy to boycott Israel, but try boycotting the United States…

In Syria, Iraq and South Sudan, we in the West don’t believe we are participating so long as people are killing each other – even if, for example, Syria’s Assad kills more Palestinians than the IDF (which is the case, of course); or if more Christians are displaced than Muslims (“Wait, there are Christians in the Middle East?!”)

In other words, I don’t know the answer. But I do know there is a hell of a lot of hypocrisy about on the subject. Almost no one really believes every human life is equal – as is illustrated by our selective reaction to all these horrors.



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