John Bruton

Opinions & Ideas

SEAMUS MALLON RIP

Seamus said the necessary thing, rather than the convenient thing

I wish to add mine to the many, deeply deserved, tributes to the life of service to peaceful constitutional politics of Seamus Mallon.

A man with a deep and well understood sense of his own Irish nationalist identity, he made more effort than any other nationalist, living or dead, to understand the unionist identity of his neighbours, and to address their worries.

 He never stayed within his political comfort zone.

 He said the necessary thing, rather than the convenient thing.

 As his autobiography, “A Shared Home Place” shows, every day of his public life, he made the effort to reach out across the sectarian divide.

 For example, as a public representative, he attended the funeral of every unionist victim of (so called “republican”) violence in Armagh. 

He did so because he believed this was his duty as a representative of all the people in his electorate, notwithstanding the personal toll this must have imposed on him.

Seamus Mallon was a truly great man. 

Hopefully though, he will NOT prove to be unique.

 Ireland, and Northern Ireland, never  in recent history, has greater need of more Seamus Mallons.   

WHAT STICKING POINTS IN UK/EU TRADE DEAL?

The UK government will shortly begin the negotiation of a free trade agreement with the European Union. The deal Leo Varadkar made with Boris Johnson, on the location of border controls, will be vital in keeping the UK close to the EU.

 Before the negotiations start, the EU will have worked out a detailed negotiating mandate, drawing on its experience of previous international trade agreement into which it has entered, of which there are many. 

Once finalised, the EU mandate will become public, making any departure from its terms difficult. 

This is especially important if, as is likely, the final agreement has to be approved by the national parliaments of each of the 27 member states. If the eventual agreement goes beyond a bare bones trade agreement covering goods, and includes services as well, ratification by all national parliament will be likely to be required.  

On the UK side, it is assumed that similar work is now under way. But the task for the UK is bigger than that of the EU.

 The UK also needs to negotiate replacement agreements with all the other countries, with which it now has agreements as an EU member, but which will lapse once the UK leaves the EU.

 In addition, the UK will also be hoping to negotiate an agreement with the US. 

The demands of the other countries, with which the UK will be negotiating trade agreements later, will not necessarily be compatible with what the EU will want in its agreement with the UK.  Chlorinated chicken from the US is a case in point. 

The UK will probably have to conclude it deal with the EU first, because of the very tight timelines that the UK has chosen to impose on itself in the Withdrawal Agreement. The UK may find itself having to make concessions to the EU at the expense of other potential future trade partners. Alternatively, the UK may gamble on getting a better deal from the US or someone else, and thus sacrifice markets in the EU, in favour of a yet to be agreed deal with the US, or someone else. In this, agriculture will be a key battleground, with vital Irish interests at stake.

 It will be high stakes poker played against a tight deadline. Until the negotiations are under way, it will not be clear exactly where all the difficult choices, may be.

The Agreement that the EU has with Canada is a model that may be followed. This Agreement provides for free trade in most goods, but not services. It has detailed chapters, accompanied by principles and dispute settlement mechanisms, on issues as diverse as technical barriers to trade, dumping, subsidies, public contracts, state enterprises, competition policy, intellectual property, environmental standards, telecoms, water quality, fisheries and agriculture.

As an EU member, the UK has settled understandings on all these matters with its 27 EU partners. Tt the end of this month, that will change.

Outside the EU, the UK will have the freedom, unilaterally, to depart from its present EU based standards, and make its own rules. Boris Johnson has said this is the “whole point” of Brexit.   

 The EU has no way of knowing what changes this, or a future, UK government might make in social, environmental, or product rules. Political assurances from the present UK government will be of little value. The EU side will demand legally binding assurances that will tie the UK down, no matter who is in power in Westminster. All sorts of hypothetical situations will have to be anticipated. Appropriate penalties will have to be agreed in principle.

Both sides will need to make new rules from time to time, as new challenges emerge.

 As an EU member, the UK has had a democratic say in new EU rules. Outside the EU, the UK will have  to rely on diplomacy, rather than democracy, to protect its interests. 

 If the EU/ Canada Agreement is a guide, a multiplicity permanent committees of EU and UK officials will have to be set up, on a permanent basis, the iron out disputes if standards diverge.  Arbitrators and judges will be needed. 

“Taking back control”   will not turn out to be as clean, or as simple, as Brexiteers expected.

 A huge challenge will be that of ensuring there is a “level playing field” between UK and EU firms, doing business in one another’s markets. If either side changes its labour, social or environmental standards in future,  in a way that reduces costs for its firms , there are liable to be complaints that the playing field is no longer level. The playing field will not be level if the value of sterling is kept artificially low, or if the UK allows the importation of cheap inputs, that the EU had banned.

 Level Playing field issues, like these, arise in every trade negotiation, especially between close neighbours. For instance, the US has recently insisted on changes the Mexican labour rules to protect US car makers from Mexican competition. It has complained about Chinese currency policy.

 Permanent adjudication mechanisms will be needed established to decide if the playing field has, in fact, been skewed unfairly. Issues that are now ironed out informally in the EU Council of Ministers, or inside the Commission, may, in future, become the subject of high profile disputes. This will mean more uncertainty for business and may inhibit investment. Many of these disputes may involve Ireland.

The best hope of reducing disputes is if UK policy stays close to EU policy. The more UK rules diverge from EU rules, the more severe will have to be the controls that the UK will have to impose , within the UK itself but across the Irish Sea, on goods entering Northern Ireland, which might   eventually enter the EU Single Market through Ireland. The UK will want to avoid this. The UK government will have a strong political incentive to minimize the scale of these barriers within the UK .  

So thanks to Leo Varadkar’s deal with Boris Johnson in the Wirral, the UK will have a strong incentive to adopt standards close to, the same as, those of  the EU. That will be the ONLY way to avoid trade barriers within the UK. If so, Leo Varadkar will have earned an important place in European history.

SHARED RESPONSIBILITY

SHARED RESPONSIBILITY, AS WELL AS SHARED POWER, MUST BE RESTORED IN NORTHERN IRELAND

The scandal of Northern Ireland’s Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) is one of bureaucratic failure, sloppy political oversight, and culpable procrastination, all leading to a colossal waste of public money. It is exposed in a book entitled “Burned” by Sam McBride, a well known Belfast based journalist.

 This book will be avidly read in the UK Treasury, from which a large overall net subsidy comes to maintain Northern Ireland’s excellent public services.

 The author draws heavily on evidence given to the Public Inquiry into RHI, which will publish its findings in the New Year.  

His book shows that simply restoring the Northern Ireland Assembly will not guarantee good governance. There must be a complete change in mindset among the civil service as well as among the politicians. Structural irresponsibility must be tackled head on.

 Sam McBride shows that, even when the power sharing Administration was working, there was no collective responsibility or proper communication among Ministers. Each government party ( DUP and Sinn Fein) treated the Ministries it held as independent fiefdoms. Checks and balances did not work. The opposition parties ( SDLP, Ulster Unionist, Alliance and others) did not call the government to account, until it was too late.

The RHI started with a good idea, that of incentivising businesses in Northern Ireland (NI) to use renewable fuels (like wood), rather than ones that would eventually run out (like oil, coal, and gas) to heat their premises.  It followed the model of a scheme already launched in Britain. That scheme was deliberately generous in the initial period, in order to promote a step change in business mentality about heating.

But the Northern Ireland version of RHI went further and contained some fatal flaws.

 The rate of subsidy was so generous that it exceeded the cost of the fuel! 

So the more heating used, the more profit was made.

 And the overall budget for the scheme was not capped. These were elementary errors. When firms discovered big upfront profits could be made from abusing the scheme, there was a huge rush of applications, and no limit on the UK taxpayer’s liability. 

The fact that such a flawed scheme could ever have been put forward by civil servants for approval by their Minister (Arlene Foster at the time) is a damning indictment of the culture of public administration in Northern Ireland. This book shows that that culture is characterised by an unwillingness to ask hard questions, evasion of responsibility, and poor record keeping. Restoring the Assembly alone will not solve that.

The motivation for the poor design of RHI in NI is even more troubling. The working assumption was that the full cost would be met by funds coming from London, and not from Northern Ireland’s own budget. So nobody bothered to look out for loopholes that could be abused. As money coming in from outside, so controls were not important.

 If the money had had to be raised from NI taxpayers themselves, much more care would have been taken, both by civil servants and by Ministers.

 In this sense, the careless attitude to money calls the current model of devolution into question. Devolving spending power, without equivalent tax raising responsibility, inevitably leads to poor decision making.

 This was also shown when the decisions on welfare reform had to be handed back by Belfast to Westminster, because the NI parties in the Executive could not agree or take responsibility.

Arlene Foster of the DUP was the responsible Minister when the flawed scheme was launched. When the scandal was uncovered, her party sought to delay the closing down of the scheme, because so many NI businesses were by then exploiting it.  When they found out, Sinn Fein Ministers were also slow in taking action. 

This book contains a mass of information. Its conclusions are deeply troubling, but it is not light  reading.

 It contains salutary lessons for all who would like to see responsible government restored in Stormont.

THE RETREAT OF WESTERN LIBERALISM

“The Retreat of Western Liberalism” by Edward Luce of the Financial Times is well worth reading.

It analyses the causes of the loss of trust in the modern world.

 Elites are under fire. Experts are not trusted. Business is not trusted. The media are not trusted.  The young do not trust the old, and vice versa.

 Increasingly, our societies seem to be torn, between the will of the people and the rule of the experts.

 The world has 25 fewer democracies that it had in 2000. Voters have become consumers of politics rather than active citizens. Political parties have become hollow shells.

International tension is rising, notably and dangerously, between the United States and China. Popular feelings are driving diplomacy.

 Luce claims that the secret of any nation’s diplomatic character is embedded in its popular imagination, as illustrated by British popular attitudes to the EU, and Chinese attitudes to Taiwan. 

Popular opinion in China and the US holds very different notions of fairness in international relations and trade. National pride can induce people to make foolish decisions.

 In the US and the UK, income inequality has risen dramatically, although this trend is less marked in other free market economies.

 There is no one to speak for those left behind because, according to Luce, the

 “Western Left has abandoned the politics of solidarity to embrace that of personal liberation”. 

 Individual rights trump solidarity with neighbours.

The author identifies what he call “welfare chauvinism” in Western Europe as being behind hostility to immigration.

 Europe has only 7% of the world’s population, but over 40% of the world welfare spending, and its voters are reluctant to share the welfare benefits with newcomers. 

 He says the 

“link between benefits and citizenship should be restored”.

GROWTH IN QUESTION

The strongest glue in society is economic growth. Choices can be made without anyone losing, when the economy is growing. For example it is very hard to introduce pension reforms when the economy is stagnant as President Macron is discovering..

Since the crisis of 2008, the notion that it is natural and inevitable for the economy to grow, once set free, is under deep challenge. Even negative interest rates are not enough to get firms to invest as much as they used to. Productivity per worker is suffering.

 Luce writes of the “toil index”, the number of hours an American worker must work to pay the rent, and says it has risen from 45 hours per month in 1950, to 101 hours today. I suspect the toil index has risen in most countries, as more and more people move to cities.

 Growth, purchased at the cost of a loss of security and community, is unacceptable to many, especially to those who lose their jobs.

 Luce feels that the elites in Western countries do not empathise with these popular anxieties, and this is creating a divide in society. He is right.

Growth purchased at the cost of climate damage has become unacceptable to many others.

 Indeed it is hard to see how there can be ANY overall growth in global income per head, if the rapidly growing populations of Africa and Asia are to be accommodated at an acceptable living standard, in a carbon neutral world. 

Windmills and solar power will not be enough. The intense rhetoric about climate change is not matched by realistic plans, that people might actually vote for.

That has huge implications for domestic politics in western countries.  Once the rate at which the cake is growing gets slower, the more bitter become the disagreements about how to divide it up. 

Luce says the technological advances that sustained rapid economic growth from 1870 to 1970 have run their course. They were an abnormality. The world economy hardly grew at all in the 1500 years prior to 1800.

The lack of economic growth lies behind the bitter partisanship in politics in some countries (notably the US and the UK). Luce’s critique has its greatest relevance to the United States, where he works, and to the UK, from which he originates. It is slightly less relevant to continental European countries where there is greater social security. But the underlying forces he describes work there too.

 He prescribes no readymade solutions. That is for the politicians!

A POSITIVE DEFENCE POLICY FOR IRELAND

In his recent confirmation hearing in the European Parliament, the new EU foreign policy chief and Spanish socialist politician, Josep Borrell spoke of the security threats to the EU.

He said that the rules based international order was being threatened by a logic of power politics. He added that recent unilateral moves by the US that “go against decades of cooperation” with Europe.

He said that, collectively, EU states spend more on defence than China does, but do not get value for money from it because of fragmentation and duplication. 

There is no sign that the international tensions to which he was referring will ease in the near future. China has become more assertive, the Iran nuclear deal has been undermined and the United States is putting in doubt the security umbrella under which Europe has prospered for the past seventy years.

So inevitably, out of financial and political necessity, the next five years will be marked by increased activity and debate in the European Union about defence and security. This is unavoidable. 

Defence is already provided for in the EU Treaties, which say that common security and defence policy shall be an integral part of the common foreign policy of the EU. 

The Treaty says that EU members shall have an obligation of “aid and assistance by all means in their power” to any other member state which is attacked.

 But there is an exception to this obligation for Ireland, because the Treaty adds that this commitment is not to prejudice “the specific character of the defence policy of certain member states” ie. military neutrality in the case of Ireland.

But what is the “specific character” of Irish defence policy?

Irish defence policy was defined, in a recent publication by Patrick Keatinge for the IIEA, as 

“non membership of a military alliance and non participation in mutual defence.”

In a sense, it is defined by what it is NOT, rather than by what it is.

 That seems to be something with which Irish public opinion is content.

 But it may not be enough, if the world becomes more unstable because of great power rivalry, or following the breakdown of the rules based international order. This needs to be thought through.

 Ireland’s  present policy is to await a resolution of the UN Security Council (UNSC) to validate any overseas mission involving Irish forces. This gives disproportionate influence to the “veto powers” on the UNSC. Beijing or Moscow could veto any Irish overseas military mission if they decline to support the relevant UNSC resolution. This impinges on Irish sovereignty.

Ireland’s unwillingness to take part in any alliance, or mutual defence commitment, means that the Irish state takes on full responsibility for, and must bear alone the full cost of, all aspects of the defence of our territory and of the seas around it. 

In the past, the fact that Ireland is an island meant that we were difficult to attack. This was important in the Second World War.

 But our island status would no defence against cyber attacks, and actually makes Ireland MORE vulnerable to the disruption of electricity, gas and telecommunications services from overseas, services without which modern Irish life would become unliveable.

Good relations with the UK are of vital importance. It is the only country with whom we have a land boundary.

 Were relations to deteriorate either between Ireland and the UK, or between the EU and the UK in the military sphere, Ireland would be vulnerable. This is unlikely, but not impossible. The Brexit process could become highly fractious and leave lasting wounds.

Military neutrality has been invested, in the minds of many Irish people, with an emotional content. 

Rather than being seen as a tactical and practical matter, and thus subject to adjustment in certain contingencies, it has been made part of our national identity, and put outside the realm of pragmatic discussion.

 As long North Western Europe remains politically stable, this approach is not an issue of much practical consequence. We can afford it. And it is convenient.

 But, if as a result of the forces unleashed by Brexit, the security situation in this part of the world were to change, and that could happen quickly, Irish defence policy would have to be re examined. 

Future warfare will focus on the disruption of supply chains, rather than directly on human casualties.

 Over the past 70 years, Ireland has built its economy on the basis in intimate involvement in global supply chains, supply chains of goods, of power, and of data. This is what “Global Ireland” means.

 If we decline any mutual commitment with other nations, we take on the full responsibility to protect these supply chains, in and out of Ireland, ourselves. 

But we can use our membership of the EU to exercise that responsibility in an effective way.

We can and must learn from the work of others and, on a case by case basis, take part in  joint initiatives in areas like 

  •  cybersecurity,
  •  secure software design,
  •  threat intelligence,
  •  maritime surveillance, 

the protection of telecoms, electricity and gas pipelines and

drone surveillance.

Ireland must take a positive and proactive approach. We have considerable expertise in this country in the technologies that would be relevant to these defensive tasks. But we cannot do all the necessary R and D on our own. So we must work with our EU partners to protect ourselves against all contingencies (even the apparently unlikely ones!). 

THE OTHER IRISH CIVIL WAR OF A CENTURY AGO

A book I greatly enjoyed this year was Fergal Keane’s “Wounds, A Memoir of War and Love”(William Collins).

It is a story of the Troubles of 100 years ago in North Kerry, and is built around the killing of RIC inspector, Tobias O Sullivan, on Church Street in Listowel of 30th January 1921.

 O Sulllivan was from Connemara and his wife was from near Westport and she had worked in Gibbons’ grocery in the town before she married Tobias in 1915. 

His family were farmers on the shores of Lough Corrib and family had it that an ancestor had fought on the Jacobite side at the Battle of Aughrim.

 Tobias joined the RIC in 1899, shortly after the GAA had banned RIC from GAA membership in 1897.

 He was talented and came second in Ireland in the sergeant’s exam. He was an effective and brave policeman.

He was a Catholic, as were the men who killed him, when, unarmed, he walked home for his lunch. 

The killing of members of the RIC was one of the methods used by the IRA to undermine the authority of UK institutions in Ireland.

 It is only now that the story of RIC victims of this war is being heard, thanks to books like this one.

 Tobias O Sullivan’s wife died of tuberculosis shortly after Tobias was killed. Some of his orphaned children stayed in Ireland, and one of his grandsons was in the FCA guard of honour outside the GPO on Easter Sunday in 1966. 

Fergal Keane’s family are from Listowel, and some of them were involved in the IRA in the locality, and their side of the story is told with sympathy too.

 One of those involved in the killing of O Sullivan said he prayed for him every day he lived, but felt he had done what had to be done.

This well written book shows that the War of Independence of 1919-1921 was almost as much an Irish Civil War, as was the subsequent fighting between pro and anti Treaty forces in the 1922-23 period.  

CAN A CHAOTIC “CRASH OUT” BREXIT, IN DECEMBER 2020, BE AVOIDED?

“Let’s get Brexit done” is Boris Johnson’s election slogan. His implication is that, once he gets a working parliamentary majority to ratify his revised Withdrawal Treaty, Brexit will be quickly done and dusted. 

This is over optimistic, to put it mildly.

There are three realistic outcomes to the Election, 

  • a Tory majority ( the most likely scenario at this stage),  
  • a Labour led government with the support of other parties, or   
  • a  hung Parliament in which no one can command a majority and form a government.

Even if Boris Johnson wins a majority, to get Brexit done he will still have to conclude a very complex trade negotiation with the EU, within an almost impossibly tight self imposed time line, by December 2020 (the end of the post Withdrawal Transition period).

He has tied himself be a commitment to Nigel Farage that there will be no extension of the December 2020 deadline. This is how he got the Brexit Party withdrew its candidates in all Tory held constituencies.

Reneging on that promise, because the negotiation need more time, would be costly for Boris Johnson, especially as it would  also extend the period in which the UK would have to continue contributing to EU funds.

If he were to change his mind and look for an extension of the post Withdrawal transition period beyond 2020, he will have to give notice of this by July of next year. The Withdrawal Treaty (Article 132) only allows for one extension of either one or two years. This is different from Article 50 extensions on which there is no legal limit.

If the deal is not done before the end of the (very short) transition period, then the UK crashes out of the EU with no deal at all. Remember this Trade deal will have to be ratified in the parliaments of all the EU member states, unlike the Withdrawal deal which only needed ratification by the European Parliament. So a crash out/no deal scenario is a major risk.

The implications of this for Ireland, and for the UK itself would be grave. 

This is only one scenario, the Tory majority scenario

The other  scenario concerns  what happens if Boris Johnson fails to get a majority.

Obviously if he fails , the next steps will  have to be decided by a replacement government. 

But who will head such a government, and what will be their Brexit policy? Neither question can be answered at this stage.

It is unlikely that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party can have a majority on its own.  But Labour might be able to form a majority with support from the Scottish National Party, in return for a pledge to hold a referendum on Scottish independence.

Another possibility is that Labour could make an arrangement with the Liberal Democrats, but they would want a Prime Minister other than Jeremy Corbyn.

That could happen. If a majority of MPs said, in writing, that they wanted as Prime Minister, an alternative named Labour Party MP, not the leader , the Queen would call on that MP to form a government.

Either of these Labour led alternative governments would hold another referendum on Brexit . It might also seek amendments to the existing Withdrawal Treaty before holding that referendum.

This process would take a year or more to complete, so a lengthy extension of Article 50 would have to be sought. Meanwhile to UK would continue to contribute to EU funds.

All this would be quite messy, but it would be  preferable to a crash out, no deal, Brexit a year from now, which might occur if a majority Tory government were to make unrealistic trade demands of the EU.

A third possibility is that no potential Prime Minister could be assured of a majority in Parliament. Given that the UK now has a 5 party system, rather than the 2 party one it had for the past century, this is a real possibility. The Fixed Term Parliament Act requires the calling of another Election, 14 days after a no confidence vote, if no  government can secure the confidence of Parliament within those 14 days.

But let’s acknowledge that, at the moment, the most likely outcome is a Tory majority government. What happens when it proceeds to implement the revised Withdrawal Agreement and negotiate a Free Trade Agreement(FTA) with the EU? 

Given that the new Tory Parliamentary Party will be more radically pro Brexit than the old one, the UK negotiating position on the FTA   could be very demanding and very difficult for the EU to accept. Some of the new Tory MPs might even prefer a “no deal” on ideological grounds.

 Before negotiations with the UK begin, the EU side will have to secure a negotiating mandate from the 27 member states. 

 This will not be easy. Many states will have sensitive issues vis a vis the UK, for example

  • fisheries for Spain, 
  • agriculture for France, 
  • rules of origin for all members, and crucially,  
  • the maintenance of a level playing field for competition between firms inside the EU and those in the UK. 

Boris Johnson has said that, for him, the UK being able to have different environmental, social and product standards is the “whole point “of Brexit.  

There are real fears that UK would try to undercut the EU in these fields. 

So the EU will demand firm justiciable guarantees in the FTA that this will not happen. They will not take anything on trust. They will want a court to decide.

 Likewise, the EU will want justiciable guarantees that the UK will not give subsidies to its industries, of a kind that would not be permitted in the EU. 

The EU demand of binding arbitration will raise an allergic issue for Brexiteers.  The idea, that a “foreign court” might tell them what to do, is anathema to them.

If that is not agreed, it is hard to see how the EU could give up the possibility of introducing tariffs on UK exports to the EU, to level up the playing field.

Similar problems arise for agriculture and fisheries. The UK needs to decide what sort of farm policies it will have and if these will depart radically from EU norms.

If the UK tries to stop access for EU trawlers to its fishing grounds, it cannot expect tariff free access to EU markets for UK fish exports. Physical confrontations at sea are a real possibility.

There will also have to be a negotiation about cooperation between UK and Europol, and about money laundering. 

The position of Norway, will have to be considered. It contributes to EU funds in return for access to the Single Market. The UK cannot expect more, for a lesser contribution, than Norway makes. 

The position of countries like Japan and Canada, who have trade agreements with the EU , will have to be considered. They will look for any concessions the UK is given, other things being equal.

The earliest that the two sides would even be ready to start negotiating these difficult questions would be March 2020. On that basis, it is hard to see how it could all be wrapped up by December of next year. 

Remember the Canada Agreement with the EU took eight YEARS to negotiate, and the political atmosphere between Canada was much better, and the stakes much less, than is now the case between the UK and the EU.

Brexit is far from done. It is entering its dramatic second Act.

THE HISTORIC ROOTS OF CONFLICT IN THE GREATER MIDDLE EAST

News headline are occupied almost every day by a story of conflict in what was once the Ottoman Empire, an Empire that existed for over 400 years and once ruled all of the Middle East, North Africa and much of SE Europe.

We hear of

  • ethnic cleansing in the Balkans,
  • conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, 
  • sectarian conflict in Iraq and Syria,
  • tension and rivalry between Turkey and Egypt,
  •  civil wars in Libya and Lebanon, and 
  • the appalling fate of Yemen.

 All these conflicts, in what was once the Ottoman Empire, have deep historical roots that go back to the time of the Empire.

 As long as the Ottoman Empire existed, these tensions were imperfectly contained by the stratified and devolved structures of the empire. That calm did not survive the end of the empire in 1922.

Western attempts, at the end of World War  1, to restructure the territories of the defeated Ottomans on the basis of western style nation states, have not brought peace. The unresolved tensions, dating back to Ottoman times, have fed Islamic terror and fuelled migration flows into Europe.

The origins of all of this can only be understood if one takes a deep dive into how the Ottoman Empire was brought down by the outcome of the First World War, a war for which the Ottomans bore much less responsibility than did most of the other protagonists.

This is brilliantly described in “The Fall of the Ottomans”, the Great War in the Middle East 1914-1920” by Eugene Rogan. Rogan is also the author of a book on the Arabs and a lecturer on history in Oxford University.

This book is much more than a narrative military history. The political origins and consequences of the war are explained.

 In 1914, the Ottoman Empire had had a long term conflict of interest with Russia. Russia had supported its enemies in the Balkans, coveted its territories in the Caucasus, and had earlier expelled Ottoman subjects from the Crimea. 

Russia also wished to control the Dardanelles straits, so as to have access to the Mediterranean. Russia, then as now, saw itself as the defender of the Orthodox Christian faith which had been supplanted in Constantinople by the Ottoman conquest of that city in 1483.

In the nineteenth century, Ottoman interests had been defended against Russia by Britain and France. But, in the early twentieth century, France allied itself with Russia, in order to counterbalance the rising power of Imperial Germany. That left the Ottomans isolated. 

Then, on 1 August 1914, at the very moment of the outbreak of the War, Britain refused to deliver warships, built in Britain for the Ottoman Navy, and already been fully paid for by public subscriptions of Ottoman citizens. The Ottomans had to find new allies so, the day after the British refusal to hand over the battleships, they secretly allied themselves with Germany.

 They then formally entered the War on the side of Germany in November 1914.

Rogan’s book is full of insights into a world that was very different from today.

 The First Arab Congress, which sought to resist the “Turkification” and centralisation of the Ottoman Empire, took place in Paris in 1913.

 23 Arab delegates attended- 11 Muslims, 11 Christians and one Jew. 

The presence of a Jewish Arab at an Arab Congress seems remarkable nowadays, but the Arab identity at the time seems to have been based on a shared language, and not on ethnicity or religion.

The Armenian genocide by the Ottomans during the First World War is described.  It was the result of suspicion and fear. Armenians were to be found in both the Ottoman and Russian Empires. Many lived in the Ottoman capital, Istanbul.

With modest justification, the Ottomans suspected the loyalty of the Armenians and sought to move them by force to Syria, as far as possible from the Russian frontier. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians died. 

Assyrian Christians also suffered from similar suspicions, and a third of their pre war population perished during World War I.

The British attempt to knock the Ottomans out of the war by an attack on the Dardanelles in 1915 was an attempt to help the Russians, whose forces were thought to be in danger of being encircled by Ottoman forces in the Caucasus. In fact, this information proved to be false but the attack went ahead anyway, with disastrous results. 

The tenacity and loyalty of the Ottoman forces was underestimated here and on other fronts in this terrible war. The attack on the Dardanelles in fact strengthened the Ottoman/ German alliance and prolonged the war.

Rogan also describes the warfare between the Ottomans and the British in modern day Iraq(where the British suffered severe defeats) and in Palestine. There were in fact three battles in Gaza before the British eventually broke through there to capture Jerusalem and Damascus in late 1918.

In order to win Arab support in August 1915, Sir Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner in Egypt,  had pledged British support for 

“the independence of Arabia and its inhabitants together with our approval of the Arab khalifate when it should be proclaimed”

Obviously Arab aspirations had moved some distance from the non sectarian demand of the Arab Congress of 1913. The notion of a khalifate was, as we know, taken up by ISIS in recent times.

As we know, these promises were not kept, and British and French protectorates were established in the conquered Arab lands (Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Lebanon) after War under the Sykes/Picot Agreement.

But it did not stop there.

 At the Peace Conference, the terms imposed on the Ottoman Empire by the Allies also required it to surrender territories in modern Turkey to Greece, to Italy, and to new Kurdish and Armenian entities. 

The acceptance of these terms by the last Ottoman sultan was too much for the Turkish Army led by Kemal Attaturk. He drove the Greek and Italian forces out of Turkey,  deposed the Sultan and proclaimed a Turkish Republic. 

Eugene Rogan’s book is well written and helps us understand some of the fears and resentments that are causing deaths up to this day.

650 DIFFERENT ELECTIONS WILL DECIDE BREXIT

The UK General Election on 12 December will decide whether Brexit

  • goes ahead on the basis of Boris Johnson’s deal, 
  • is subject to a referendum or
  • is simply revoked.

But the result of the election will be affected by things that have little to do with Brexit.     The implications for taxpayers of Labour’s policies will be scrutinised. So will the personalities of the party leaders. The Conservative record will be a factor, as will their recent conversion to high spending.

In effect, the issue will be decided in 650 separate elections. Each constituency is different.

 A strong showing by a party, that has no chance of winning the seat itself, may siphon more votes away from one of the leading parties than it does from another, and this differential could tip the balance in favour of a party that would otherwise have lost the seat.

The UK electoral system forces voters to make tactical choices.

 If a voter wants to influence things, he/she may have to vote for a candidate, who has a good chance of winning and with whom they agree on some important issue, rather than for a candidate who may be closer to their views, but has no chance. 

Tactical voting is a very difficult exercise. Getting reliable information will be hard for voters to do. Disinformation and fake news will be factors.

The Conservatives are targeting Labour seats in constituencies that voted Leave in 2016, many in the Midlands and the North of England. But the Brexit Party will also target these same seats and the Brexit party does not have to defend a record in government, and is less associated with “austerity”.

The latest polls are very inconsistent.

 In the last ten days, 

A You Gov poll gave the Conservatives 37%, Labour 22%, Liberal Democrats 19% and the Brexit Party 12%

But an Opinium Poll gave the Conservatives 40%, Labour 24%, Lib Dems 15% and the Brexit Party 10 %.

These polls, taken before the election was called, suggest a Conservative majority government.

 But as the campaign goes on the Brexit issue will fade, and other issues may come to the fore, not least the slow performance of the UK economy in recent years.

My own experience is that polls, taken before an election is actually called, are not good predictors of the final result.

But a poll taken a week after the campaign has started is a much better indicator.

Other opinion polls suggest a deeply divided electorate. A poll done by Edinburgh and Cardiff Universities suggests a deeply polarised electorate.

Brexit appears to be a Conservative Party obsession, that is not shared by the supporters of other parties.

For Example, 82% of those who intend to vote Conservative say the unravelling of the peace process in Ireland would be a price worth paying to get Brexit done, whereas only 12% of Labour and 4% of Liberal Democrats are of that opinion. 

There is a similar difference between the parties on the risk that Brexit could lead to a referendum on Scottish independence. 

The gap between younger and older voters is also stark. 21% of those under 24 felt Brexit was worth risking the Irish peace process for, whereas 68% of those over 65 were prepared to take that risk. 

Older voters are more reckless, which goes against the conventional stereotype.

There is also a difference between the parties on how they perceive the likelihood of certain things actually happening.

Only 28% of Conservative voters believe Brexit is likely to lead to an unravelling of the Irish peace process, whereas 77% of Labour voters believe it is likely to do so. This suggests that people believe what they want to believe.

On the possibility of Brexit leading to a referendum on Scottish independence, 66% of English voters believe it will happen. There is only a modest difference between the parties in this. Very few actually want Scotland to leave the UK, but many are prepared to take that risk.

The great tragedy is that the British people, in a referendum during the Conservative/ Liberal Democrat coalition, rejected the Alternative vote electoral system. This would have given it a more evenly representative parliament. It would have made coalition the norm. If so, there would have been no Brexit referendum.

A Fixed Term Parliament combined with a winner take all electoral system was bound to lead to a crisis.  A fixed term Parliament would have been workable if there was a more proportional system of election, but it is not workable in a political culture, like that of the UK, which rejects coalitions.

Irish people will have to sit and watch an important aspect of our future being decided under a flawed electoral system which favours polarisation and over simplification. 

Tom McIntyre, RIP

Cavan County Council and Cavan Arts Office pay Tribute to Tom McIntyre

I wish to pay tribute to the life and work of the poet and playwright Tom McIntyre.

Tom was a noted athlete in his youth, playing for Cavan as a goal keeper.

I first encountered him when he taught me English and History in Clongowes.

He opened my mind to a new view of the world. He was unconventional, irreverent and also a very kind person, whose personality inspired many of his students to explore the world of poetry.

I attended some years ago when he was honoured by Cavan County Council.

He was very proud of Cavan and returned to live there.

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