John Bruton

Opinions & Ideas

Author: John Bruton (Page 1 of 50)

TALKING ABOUT PEACE IN COVENTRY

I was in Coventry Cathedral recently to speak at “Rising”, the annual Global Peace Forum. The gathering brought together politicians, academics, lawyers and local people who are interested in how lessons, learned in a peace process in one part of the world, might assist in another one elsewhere.

Coventry Cathedral is an inspiring setting for talking about war, and its dire consequences. The original cathedral was heavily bombed in 1940 during World War Two, but, instead of restoring it, the ruins of the old cathedral have been preserved in their post bombing state, as a mute but eloquent testimony to the horror of war. A new cathedral was built beside the ruins of the old one.

Coventry was also the venue for an IRA bomb attack in early 1939.

Among the peace processes discussed at the conference were those in Liberia, Rwanda, Colombia, Bougainville, Northern Ireland, Iraq, and Libya.

Some peace processes have been more successful than others!

I spoke about the Irish case.  The core problem from the beginning was the definition of “self-determination”.

Was it to be self-determination by Ireland as a single unit, or as two or more units?

I said that the uncompromising character of the declaration of a 32 county Irish Republic in the 1916 Proclamation, and in Dail Eireann in 1919, made subsequent compromise by self-declared Republicans very difficult indeed.

As a result, anything less than a full 32 county Irish Republic, was claimed by some of them to be a betrayal of the declarations of 1916 and 1919. That gave them an excuse to go on fighting and rearming.

The solution, worked out in the 1990’s, was a new act of Irish self-determination, in the form of simultaneous, but separate, referenda on the terms of a new Agreement in both parts of Ireland.  This new Agreement, the Good Friday or Belfast Agreement, was approved in the referenda in both parts of Ireland. It has been accepted by most Republicans as a new act of self-determination, replacing those of 1916 and 1919.

The Good Friday Agreement sets up an elaborate system for protecting the minority in Northern Ireland, whether that is a nationalist minority in a Northern Ireland that is still in the UK, or a unionist minority in a Northern Ireland that might, at some time in the future, be in a United Ireland.

Either way, minorities would continue to be protected by the Agreement, and Northern Ireland, as a distinct entity with special rules, would continue to exist.

Given the trouble that was taken to craft this complex settlement, it is irresponsible of the two main parties in Northern Ireland to decline to operate the Executive and assembly which are integral to the Good Friday Agreement. The scale of subsidization of public services in Northern Ireland by the rest of UK is liable to be questioned, if this refusal to operate the Agreement continues, and there is fiscal crisis in the UK.

 

LIFE IS THE PRIMARY HUMAN RIGHT

Speech by John Bruton, former Taoiseach, at the Pro Life Education dinner in the Clayton Hotel, on Saturday 8th September at 8pm

LIFE IS THE PRIMARY HUMAN RIGHT

I know everyone here feels a deep sense of disappointment at the decision the people took to remove the protection of the lives of unborn Irish boys and girls from the constitution.

The arguments advanced by those of us who favoured retaining the 8th Amendment were valid, and remain so.

They were philosophically coherent, and expressed a thought out value system, that protects the weak and the voiceless.

It is a value system that is based on respect for humanity and human life, and on the dignity and equality of each human person and not just on sentimentality or good feelings. It is never compassionate to end the life of an unborn baby.

There was no engagement, by the proponents of Repeal, with the question of when life begins, with when a human life should be recognised as a person, and hence when it ought to acquire human rights. That question was too difficult, too profound, so it was effectively ignored in the preparation of the abortion Referendum, in the Citizens Assembly, the Oireachtas Committee and the Dail and Seanad debates.

This is notwithstanding the fact that modern ultrasounds enable us to see the humanity of an unborn baby in ways that previous generations could not.

The pro life case recognises that there are responsibilities as well as rights, and  is, as I have said, based on a coherent value system.

Rights and responsibilities sometimes conflict with one another, and choices have to be made.

A value system is what then helps us make these, often very difficult, decisions, as individuals, and as a society. It provides the basis for a hierarchy of rights and responsibilities

In real life situations, some rights have to get priority over others.

The pro life case is that the right to life is the primary right, because, without life, one simply cannot exercise other rights. It flows from that that the primary responsibility, of the state, and of each of us as citizens, is to protect life.

Proponents of abortion either put other rights ahead of the right to life, or do not recognise a life before birth as human with human rights, at all.

A clear hierarchy of human rights is replaced by pure pragmatism. Everything is contingent, nothing is fundamental.

I do not think that is what the Irish people intended, but it is where we have arrived.

WHAT TO DO NOW….CREATING A SUPPORTIVE ENVIRONMENT FOR LIFE

Now that the law is being changed, and the criminal law will no longer be a factor deterring abortion, we have to consider other ways of avoiding the abortion of Irish babies.

There is a positive agenda to be promoted here.

We must continue to work vigilantly at legislative level, within the new constitutional dispensation. And there is much that can be achieved in the immediate future, as I hope to show in this speech.

But, even more, if we are  reduce abortions in future, we must work to building a climate of opinion, within families and in the wider public, that  will support women in making the courageous decision to allow their child to be born.

We must create a supportive environment for life.

That can be encouraged by public debate, and by conversation with friends. People who believe unborn babies are human, and should enjoy some basic human rights, should not be afraid to take part in these conversations. Whatever their view of whether abortion should be a criminal offence, many people will agree that babies before birth are human, and that they should be allowed to be born.

Creating a supportive environment will also involve solving the housing crisis, because the non availability of affordable housing is a deterrent to bringing a new life into the world. Those who object to new housing developments in their area should ask themselves if their objections are consistent with their pro life convictions.

Creating a supportive environment for new life will also involve giving greater recognition to the cost of rearing children in both our welfare and our tax codes. Children are recognised in the welfare system, but not in the tax code. The child tax allowance was abolished many years ago, while the tax allowance or tax credit for adults living in the same household has been steadily increased.  That was perverse.

In light of the ageing of our society, and the costs that will entail for families and the tax paying public, we should regard financial supports for families with children  both as socially progressive, and as an investment in our own future.

Creating a supportive environment for life will also involve making sure that adoption is made as accessible as possible to those who feel they cannot keep their baby.

The pro Life movement here should also look beyond Ireland in its efforts to protect life.  It must be inclusive.

Scandalously high levels of infant mortality in Africa are a pro life issue too.

The Irish Pro Life movement should continue to involve itself in the debates about what constitutes a human right, in the Council of Europe and in the in UN Agencies.

At the moment, these bodies take a very narrow view, regarding life before birth as not really human, and as undeserving of protection. That can, and should, be changed by good philosophical, legal, and medical arguments.

Indeed, one way to influence Irish legislators and courts to take a more inclusive and generous interpretation of the right to life here may well be to get the UN and the Council of Europe to take a more generous and inclusive view.

PROTECTING THE RIGHT OF CONSCIENCE AND RELIGIOUS FREEDOM

Religious freedom will need to be defended in the Termination of Pregnancy legislation, prepared by Minister Simon Harris, and soon to be debated in the Oireachtas.

No person, medically qualified or otherwise, should be forced by the threat to his/her employment, or of criminal sanctions, to be involved in the ending of a human life, against his or her religious convictions.

Article 44.2.1 of the Irish Constitution guarantees, subject to public order and morality,  the “free…..practice of religion”.

I would argue that “free practice of religion” is not confined to what one does inside the walls of a church, mosque or synagogue, but extends to daily life.

So a law that forces someone to take part in, or to facilitate, an action that that person believes is contrary to a deeply held religious conviction could be in conflict with Article 44.2.1.

Head 15 of the proposed Termination of Pregnancy Bill recognises this, in so far as it says no doctor, nurse of midwife shall be compelled to “participate” in carrying out an abortion.

Other hospital staff are not granted any such protection for their consciences, even though their participation may be also crucial to the ending of the life of the baby.

They too could be considered to be aiding and abetting an abortion, but they are to enjoy no protection for their consciences. That aspect of the Bill should be changed.

The concept of “aiding and abetting”  is well understood in Irish law .

Head 15 of the Bill requires a doctor, who has a conscientious objection to doing an abortion herself, to “make arrangements to transfer the care” of the woman to a doctor who will do it. This is aiding and abetting the abortion, and there is no conscience clause here either.

Given the amount of information on the internet, or likely to be available there in future, I believe this transfer requirement is unnecessary. Those seeking an abortion can find a doctor who will do it, without forcing a doctor, who objects to abortion, to aid and abet them.

I fear that doctors who are known to oppose abortion will be targeted under this clause by people wishing to catch them out and put them under threat of criminal prosecution because of their religious or human rights beliefs. There have been examples of this sort of targeting in other fields, where there are strong but conflicting views in the population.

Rather than place this burden on doctors who believe abortion is wrong, it would be more sensible to publish an affirmative list of those who have no conscientious objection to doing abortions.

Head 20 of the Bill provides for a body corporate to be prosecuted, and for directors, managers and secretaries to be prosecuted and punished.

So a hospital that declines to carry out abortions in accordance with the Bill could see its directors, and managers gaoled for up to 14 years for declining to do something that may be against their religious consciences, and which was itself illegal for the last 150 years or more. Again this is of questionable constitutionality.

ABORTION……… WITHOUT LIMIT AS TO AGE OF UNBORN BABY

There are other areas where amendments to the Bill should be promoted. Here the focus should be on Head 4 of the Bill, and on the definition of when an unborn baby is “viable” and should have a right not to be killed under Head 4.

“Viability” is defined as the point in a pregnancy when the “foetus” is capable of survival outside the womb without what are called “extraordinary life saving measures”. This is a very loose definition.

“Extraordinary life saving measures” are taken successfully in hospitals every day to save the lives of babies and adults.

Under the proposed legislation,  the possibility of taking such life saving measures- even though they would be regarded as routine in the case of premature babies- must be ignored in deciding whether  an unborn child could be capable of life outside the womb. To use such a definition, as a basis for ending life, is to do violence to the ethics of the medical profession.

Under Head 4 it will be permissible to end the life of what is deemed a non “viable” baby , at any stage in the pregnancy, if allowing the baby to be born would pose a” risk” of serious harm to the mental  health of the child’s mother.

Again this is a very loose ground for ending a life.

It involves the doctors in making a prediction about the FUTURE mental health of the mother after the baby might have been born.

Whatever about adjudicating about present mental health, deciding about future mental health is completely speculative. And on the basis of that speculation, a baby’s life is to be ended.

Indeed it is arguable that having an abortion is more likely, at some stage in the future, to trigger mental problems.

Furthermore there is nothing in the Bill to say that a qualified psychiatrist would have to be involved in making this life ending decision on the basis of an alleged threat to mental health.

These examples show that there is much constructive work to be done in preparing amendments to this Bill. The government does not have the votes to use the guillotine to close off debate on this, so there is plenty of scope for people here to explain what is at stake to their TD’s and Senators in a respectful and constructive dialogue.

LOOKING BACK AT THE REFERENDUM DEBATE….LESSONS FOR IRISH SOCIETY

I would now like to look back at the recent referendum debate and see what can be learned from it.

The reaction of those who won the Referendum was not always magnanimous, or respectful of the pluralist nature of Irish society and Irish values.

For example the Minister for Health, speaking in the Dail after the Referendum, on 31 May, did not seem to me to display the balance, and attentiveness to other points of view, that one would like to see in someone who will be deciding on the detailed content of the Termination of Pregnancy Bill.

He spoke of the Referendum result inaugurating what he called “a brighter Ireland”. It will not be a bright Ireland for the little babies who will have their lives ended before being allowed to see the light of a single Irish day.

He talked of the Referendum result “consigning a misogynistic legacy to the history books”. He did not seem to reflect on the fact that half the babies whose lives will be ended before birth will be girls. Those little girls will face the most extreme form of misogyny.

He claimed the “Yes” campaign was built on a “coalition of compassion”.  He thus seemed to imply that those who voted “No” are not compassionate. Maybe that is not what he meant, but nothing could be further from the truth.

He spoke of the Referendum meaning that we are “maturing into a tolerant, non judgemental, inclusive Republic”.  The Minister’s own speech was rather judgemental, and not particularly tolerant of those who sincerely disagree with him on the issue of abortion.

I hope that this was just elation, in the immediate aftermath of winning a political battle,  and that he will now show tolerance and inclusiveness, when considering amendments to the legislation he has proposed.

In a mature Republic, one would listen to, and deal respectfully with, the arguments and values of the other side, on any important issue. That did not happen during the years of preparation of the Referendum, and the mantra of “Compassion” was deemed sufficient to end all argument about the basic question of when life begins, when a life becomes a human, and hence when it ought to acquire human rights.

WHAT ARE THE NEW SHARED VALUES OF IRISH SOCIETY?

It is unclear what the new shared values of Irish society are to be. The Referendum did not end the debate.

If life is not the primary value, what is?

To fill that vacant space, and drawing on the most modern medical knowledge, the pro life arguments will need to be made, over and over again, to the young people of Ireland and to the generations that will succeed them.

These arguments, if repeated often and courageously, will remain in people’s minds, and will influence the private decisions that Irish women, their partners, and their loved ones will make in future, as to whether to accept a new person into their family circle, with all the responsibilities, joys and sacrifices that that entails.

UNACKNOWLEDGED CONTRADICTIONS

There are contradictions that still need to be resolved.

The recent Referendum decision sits very uneasily beside the deep and genuine concern, expressed in all quarters, for the welfare of boys and girls AFTER they have been born, and the strong laws we have passed to protect them.

It also sits uneasily beside the expressions of concern about where and how babies, who died fifty years ago in Mother and Baby homes, were buried.

Where, and how, will the supposedly non “viable” babies, who will be aborted in Irish hospital be buried? What care will church and state take to ensure that they are buried with dignity? Or will they be treated as mere hospital waste?

Human Rights organisations justly pride themselves in speaking up for the rights of those who cannot speak for themselves, or for those whose voices are not heard, because they are politically powerless, or simply unpopular.

But, in Ireland in the recent referendum, that did not really happen.

Irish human rights organisations ignored unborn children as if they were “unpersons”.

When the unborn child has its life deliberately ended, it is not presented as a victim.

Apparently it is only victims who survive who count.

But every abortion involves a death, a victim.  A victim that never gets the chance to become a survivor!

For me, every person counts, whether the person be born or unborn, visible or invisible, mute or eloquent, here or abroad.

THE FACTORS THAT SHAPE PUBLIC OPINION, AND THE RISKS THEY ENTAIL

If we are to use Referenda to make big decisions, we need to make sure that voters are fully equipped to do their job as citizen legislators.

What influences shape Referendum decisions, whether on Brexit , abortion, or children’s rights?

One needs to know to what degree emotion trumps rational argument.

One needs to know if people will examine each issue on its merits, or if the main driver is a desire to conform to some notion of what is modern and progressive.

There can be a conformist consensus in the media.

Professional Journalists are forced to report, under tight deadlines, on many things of which they cannot be expected to have a deep knowledge. So they write their reports to fit into the existing consensus among their journalistic colleagues.

The result is  often superficiality, one sidedness, conformity and dogmatism.

That sort of conformism contributed to development of the Celtic bubble.

It also drowned out prolife arguments in recent times.

On  social media, people tend to congregate in online communities where they only come across opinions with which they already agree. Thus social media can aggravate the tendency in the print media towards superficiality, one sidedness, conformity and dogmatism.

In these circumstances it is hard for those with unfashionable views to get a look in. This is not good for the quality of our democracy.

WE NEED TO THINK ABOUT THE MEANING OF HUMAN RIGHTS

To say a child has full human rights after birth, and none before it, is unscientific and inherently contradictory.

How then did the Irish public come to decide to end the constitutional right to life of an unborn child in Ireland?

It came down to the question of visibility.

The mother of the unborn baby, and the dilemmas she faces, were and are visible .

The unborn baby is invisible.

But, if one puts visible suffering above invisible suffering, one is no longer applying a universal moral standard.

I believe the whole notion of universal human rights rests on the assumption that there is such a thing as a universal moral standard. That is why I found the attitude of Irish human rights organisations, in the Referendum, troubling.

I say it again. There IS a hierarchy of rights and responsibilities. The right to life should be at the top of any hierarchy of rights.

 

CONCLUSION

I conclude saying there is much work to be done.

There will have to be a new approach, in a new context.

Yes, in the short term, one must continue to focus on what the laws says. The law is still open to amendment and that must be pursued with vigour.

But even more important must be the influencing of public opinion, over the longer term.

In recent years the number of abortions by Irish women has been falling.

Notwithstanding the change in the law, the number of abortions can continue to be reduced, if people are convinced that there is a better and more just way.

Lighting that way forward is the real route to a brighter Ireland.

 

A “GROSS BETRAYAL OF DEMOCRACY” ?

The UK Prime Minister, Mrs May, writes today that to have a second Referendum in the UK on Brexit would be “a gross betrayal of democracy”.

If she believes that, she does not understand democracy very well.

She seems to suggest that democrats, having made a decision, should not ever change their minds. In fact, democracy is all about creating mechanisms whereby voters CAN change their minds.

Democracy allows voters to change their minds, usually through parliamentary elections.

Totalitarian or dictatorial regimes, who do not hold regular elections, do not a have an inbuilt mechanism for changing their minds. This makes them brittle. Democracy, in contrast, is flexible.

There may be practical arguments against holding a second Referendum on Brexit, at this stage.

One could ask questions like

“What alternative to Brexit would be offered to voters, and by whom would it be offered….by the UK alone or by the UK and the EU?”

“ Might it be wiser to allow UK voters to actually experience Brexit in practice before asking them if they like it or not and want to change their minds?”

But for Theresa May to argue that reconsidering a referendum decision, by means of a second referendum,  is “ a betrayal of democracy” is just nonsensical.

CAN BREXIT TAKE PLACE WITHOUT EITHER MAJOR TRADE DISRUPTION, OR SERIOUS DILUTION OF THE EU LEGAL ORDER?

Brexit is a British decision.

It means that Britain is seeking to withdraw from a contract it made with the other EU members, on the basis of which those countries opened their markets to British business, in a way it was not opened to other countries. That was the deal.

In business, if one unilaterally withdraws from a contract, one does not normally expect to continue to enjoy all the benefits of the contract, afterwards.  One expects to have to make good some of the losses incurred by the other party.

But that is not how British public opinion sees Brexit. It IS how it is seen by the 27 partners of the UK in the EU.

This difference in perspective is at the root of the difficulties in the present negotiation.

The EU has developed, and maintained, an integrated Single Market for business because it has a single unified system for making, interpreting and enforcing a single set of rules.

The Single Market is deepening all the time and new fields of business are being made the subject of common rules, thereby opening new markets. This will not stop when the UK leaves.

Common rules are what keeps the EU together.

They derive from the EU Treaties, which is like a written constitution. It is difficult to amend. The UK, in contrast, has no written constitution, and there is no similar constraint on the UK Parliament.

So UK often looks at problems purely politically, while the EU has first to look at them legally. This causes misunderstandings. UK Ministers sometimes think that a political understanding with France and Germany will be enough to overcome its problems with the Commission, but that is not the way the EU works. France and Germany, and the Commission, are all subject to a common set of rules. This rule based system protects smaller countries and has been the secret of the EU’s success.

The recent Chequers decision by the UK Cabinet says the UK will keep to the  common EU rules for goods, but goes on to say that the

“UK Parliament would still have a lock on incorporating these rules in the UK legal order by not passing the relevant legislation”.

This is giving with one hand, and taking away with the other.

So, even if the UK and EU standards were the same at the outset, they could diverge substantially, depending on the vagaries of British politics. Ultimately the UK Parliament can do what it likes.

The UK will not be part of the EU legal order. This builds uncertainty into the proposed arrangement, and is bad for business.

This let out clause means that border controls might not be there at the outset, but might have to be reintroduced.

This is a critical issue for Ireland, where the reintroduction of border controls on the 300 mile boundary would be both provocative and impractical.

That is why the EU wants the Northern Ireland issue agreed before the UK leaves the EU.

The UK wants to take back control, but EU needs to have control too.  This point is not always understood in London.

The EU is 27 countries, and all their Parliaments will have accepted any eventual trade deal with the UK. This makes the sort of” flexibility”, the UK says it would like, difficult to obtain. Getting unanimous agreement of all EU Parliaments to a future EU trade deal with the UK will not be easy.

That was illustrated by the difficulties in ratifying recent Agreements with Ukraine and Canada, when extraneous domestic issues were used in Belgium and the Netherlands to delay ratification.

If the Commission wants a deal with the UK that will pass in all 27 Parliaments, it will have to exercise great care.

Patience will be required. Sound bites will not always be a help.

But before we even get down to detail on trade, there will have to be a Withdrawal Agreement.

80% of the text of the Withdrawal Agreement is already agreed, but 20% remains to be settled. Among the issues that are not settled is the

“backstop” to prevent a hard border in Ireland.

Here the EU has put forward the proposal that

“Northern Ireland remains in a common regulatory area for goods and customs with the rest of the EU”.

It has said it is ready to improve the text of this proposal, if the UK has suggestions to make. But such suggestions need to be within the parameters of what the EU has proposed.

This is difficult for the UK for various technical and political reasons, not least because England and Wales, but not Northern Ireland, voted in the Referendum to leave the EU’s common regulatory area.

Opinion on this in the UK is changing, but only very slowly.

The implications of a hard Brexit are only now being contemplated by most of the people who voted Leave in 2016.

In 2016, these people saw Brexit as an emotional assertion of national identity, rather than as a concrete proposal that would change their lives and livelihoods irrevocably.

I believe UK public opinion needs more time to consider if Brexit is really the best way to express their national identity, and more time to fix some of the inequities in British society that prompted people to vote Leave in 2016.

That why I have argued, in an earlier column in this paper, that the period of negotiation under Article 50 should be extended.

This could happen if the UK asked for it, but asking for it would require both immense courage on the part of the UK government, and a constructive response from the UK opposition.

It is hard to see evidence of either yet, but they could emerge if there is a crisis.

 

 

 

NIGERIA….a troubled history but a hopeful future

I greatly enjoyed reading “The Nigerian Civil War” by John de St Jorre, first published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1972, shortly after the war itself ended.

The origins of the war of the war are complex.

The Igbo, a tribe in SE Nigeria, thanks to good education and entrepreneurial spirit, tended to be disproportionately influential in post independence Nigeria. This led to resentment.

An army Coup d’ Etat in January 1966, in which members of the Igbo tribe took a prominent part, led to retaliatory killings of Igbos in other parts of Nigeria. This, in turn, led to an exodus of Igbos back to their ancestral lands in South Eastern Nigeria, in what was to become Biafra, and is now part of the Rivers State. These killings, mainly in Northern Nigeria, fed fears of a wider genocide against Igbos.

Even before Biafra formally seceded from Nigeria, the Nigerian Army was decentralised. Its commander in what was to become Biafra, Emeka Ojukwu, was thus free to make preparations for independence, while still technically in the Federal Nigerian army. This scope for autonomy of military commanders was also a factor in the Spanish and Irish Civil Wars.

At 2 am on the morning of 30 May 1967, Ojukwu declared Biafra to be independent of Nigeria.  Thanks to the fear of genocide, and to considerable international assistance (notably from France, Portugal and South Africa), Biafra survived militarily, until it suddenly collapsed in January 1970.

Thanks to the statesmanship of the Nigerian leader, General Yakubu Gowon, there was no genocide at the end of the war.

In contrast, leniency was shown and former supporters of Biafran secession were encouraged to take part in Nigerian political life. This is in marked contrast to the way in which the Spanish Civil War ended. Indeed the gradual realistion that, as the Federal army advanced into formerly Biafran territory, there was in fact no retaliation against former supporters of  Biafran secession, contributed to the collapse of secession.

In a sense, this Nigerian Civil War discouraged later attempts to re draw colonial boundaries on more “logical” tribal lines, elsewhere in Africa. An exception is the independence of Southern Sudan, which has not proven to be a great success.

It is difficult for an outsider to judge the legacy of the Civil War within Nigeria itself.  But this book tells a tragic story well.

TWENTY FIRST CENTURY CHALLENGES FOR NIGERIA

Family, religion and ethnicity are still important loyalties rivalling loyalty to the state of Nigeria itself.

There are 350 different local languages.

The birth rate is higher in the Muslim north of the country and this could gradually change the balance of power within the country. Warfare with Boko Haram in the North displaced 2 million people in 2017.

In another book I read, “Nigeria, what everyone needs to know” by John Campbell and Matthew Page it is claimed

‘“politics is more important in Nigeria than in the US or Europe because there are few other alternatives for elite competition or enrichment”.

Members of the National Assembly are very well paid.

Democracy has become stronger in recent years. The 2015 national elections were seen as credible and fair.

Patronage is still a key to re election. But UNICEF estimates that as many as 40% of Nigerian children aged between 6 and 11 do not attend school any many educated Nigerians(including priests and doctors) tend to emigrate.

Finding a workable development model, that will keep talent at home and give opportunities to those currently excluded, is still a huge challenge for this large and powerful African country.

 

WHAT DOES THE GOOD FRIDAY AGREEMENT REALLY MEAN?

HOW MIGHT THE CONSTITUTIONAL STATUS OF NORTHERN IRELAND BE CHANGED?

HAVE THOSE WHO CALL FOR IRISH UNITY REALLY THOUGHT ABOUT WHAT THEY MEAN?

 

I have just finished reading “Beyond the Border….the Good Friday Agreement and Irish Unity after Brexit” by Richard Humphreys. Richard Humphreys is an Irish High Court Judge and was a legal advisor to the FG/Labour/DL government.

The book explores the meaning if the Good Friday Agreement. It explains that its terms will still apply after Brexit, and would still apply, even if Northern Ireland ceased to be part of the UK and joined a united Ireland.

The Agreement’s requirements mean that the Stormont institutions, its protections for minority interests, and its requirement of respect for both identities would continue after unity.

The author favours Irish unity, but acknowledges that there will be a continuing UK interest in Ireland even if this happens.

He presumes there would be support for unity in the Republic. In this, he relies on Article 3.1 of the Irish constitution which states this to be the “firm will” of the Irish people, if consent has also been obtained in Northern Ireland.

He argues that a 50% +1 vote majority, in a poll in Northern Ireland, is sufficient to bring this about. Legally, this may be so, but that is hardly enough.

It is really surprising that the Brexit experience, of setting out on a major constitutional change, on the strength of a narrow majority in a referendum, has not prompted some rethinking on the author’s part.

He does not explore the extra taxation that might have to be paid by the southern taxpayer to replace the current UK subsidy to Northern Ireland, in the event that sovereignty moved from Westminster to Dublin.

Nor does he even mention the potential extra security provisions that would be made by the Irish taxpayer, to enforce Irish unity of any kind in places like Ballymena, East Belfast and Portadown (unless, of course, the locals wanted it). After all, effective democratic government requires more than just the will of the majority, it also needs, at least the passive, assent of the minority.

Faced with these realities, the “firm will” for unity in the Republic might not be so firm after all.

These omissions expose the limitations of a purely legalistic approach

Judge Humphreys deals with the things an Irish government would have to do to recognise the “British identity” of Unionists within Ireland.

He argues that these things should be done, in any event, and long in advance of any border poll, and not used as a bargaining counter in negotiations with unionists.

He suggests, for example, reactivating Irish membership of the Commonwealth.

He points out that, under the Good Friday Agreement in the event of unity, Unionists should be able to retain UK citizenship while also being able to avail of all the rights of Irish citizenship.

My own sense is that active East/ West cooperation on joint projects with Britain would be a big help to mitigate a Unionist sense of isolation, whether or not Irish unity is being contemplated.

In that sense the reactivation of the British/ Irish Intergovernmental Conference this week is an important step, especially as Brexit is otherwise going to wider the gulf between us substantially, hard border or not. Ireland and Britain need to think creatively about things we can do together, post Brexit.

One also has to ask whether the fact that the Irish constitution designates the Irish language, as the first official language, and the priority language for constitutional interpretation, is a provision that accord parity of esteem to the Unionist identity.

Irish nationalists have been successful in insisting that the upholding of the Good Friday Agreement be a central part of the EU negotiating position in the Brexit negotiations.

Are nationalist politicians in Northern Ireland are showing a similar commitment to operating their own part of the Agreement?

It is worth remembering what all parties are committed to. The Agreement says

“ We pledge that we will, in good faith, work to ensure the success of each and every one of the arrangements to be established under this agreement”

Given the difficulties there were in agreeing a budget for Northern Ireland, and given the collapsing of the Executive because of disagreements about the Irish language and Ulster Scots, one has to question the commitment of both Sinn Fein and the DUP to the Agreement and their respect for their pledge.

This is a serious book, and will prompt readers to examine their preconceptions about a topic that will be with us for years to come.

 

IMMIGRATION FROM AFRICA IS INEVITABLE….

EUROPE’S CHOICE IS WHETHER THIS IS TO BE PLANNED AND LEGAL, OR ILLEGAL AND DISORDERLY.

It is not immigration, but the political exploitation of immigration, that threatens border free movement within the EU.

Closing down legal migration routes has led to the opening up of illegal routes.

In 2010, 130,000 first time visas were issued to citizens of African countries by EU countries. By 2016, only a mere 30,000 visas were issued.

So denial of a legal immigration route is one contributor to illegal immigration.

African agriculture suffers disproportionately from climate change, but the human contribution to climate change comes disproportionately from the Northern Hemisphere, including from Europe.

Public opinion in some European countries is getting into a panic about immigration from outside Europe, yet these very countries are often the ones that have the least immigration.

A survey of public opinion, in 2016, found that the most negative opinions about immigration were to be found in Hungary, Slovakia, Latvia, Estonia and Romania (all countries with little enough non EU immigration).

The most welcoming attitude to immigration, at that time, was to be found in Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands (who all already have substantial numbers of non EU immigrants).

European countries have a legal obligation to provide a refuge for people who are fleeing in fear of their lives from wars. Europe has provided some shelter for refugees, but Turkey has 3 million refugees in its borders, Lebanon 1 million, and Uganda 1 million. No EU country is shouldering that sort of burden.

Europeans need to look at immigration in a different way.

Because we have decided, over the past  40 or more years, to have fewer children, Europeans will need immigration in future to maintain a proper balance between numbers at work, and numbers in retirement, unless those in retirement are to live a desolate old age thirty years from now.

In a few years time, people of working age will be in short supply.

Globally, the ratio of working age to retired, will fall from 8 to 1 today, to 4 to 1 by 2050. By 2050, the global population aged 65 or over will increase from 600 million to 2.1 billion.

This will create a huge funding crisis for governments, who will not be collecting enough tax from the diminished number of people of working and taxpaying age, to meet the promises it has made, of pensions and health care, to the increasing number who have already retired and no longer earners and taxpayers.

Opposition is principle to the arrival of young immigrants from Africa is short sighted.

This is because the working age population of most EU countries is set to decline, while its post retirement population is set to increase rapidly. Without immigration of people of working age, Europe’s diminished working age population, will imply relatively poorer health care and pensions for its ever growing retired population.

Africa has an abundant supply of what will soon be one of the world’s scarcest resources, young people.

Europe has a birth rate of 1.63 children per family. Iran and China have similarly low birth rates and the US rate is only slightly higher.

In contrast, the birth rate in Nigeria is 5.42, in Mali 5.92 and Niger 7.15.

Nigeria’s population has risen from 45 million, when it became independent in 1960, to 187 million today. By 2050 Nigeria’s population could reach 410 million. The present Nigerian economy is just not capable of finding employment for all these people.

The EU needs to work on a policy that encourages orderly and well prepared immigration from Africa, accompanied by well considered plans to integrate the immigrants into European society.

As much as possible of the preparation for European living should be done before would be emigrants leave their home countries. If Europe opens up legal routes for immigration, illegal routes will become less attractive.

Europe must develop an investment partnership with Africa.

As the European Council said last week;

“  We need to take the extent and the equality of our cooperation with Africa to a new level. This will not only require increased development funding but also steps towards creating a new framework enabling a substantial increase of private investment from both Africans and Europeans. Particular focus should be laid on education, health, infrastructure, innovation, good governance and women’s empowerment.”

 

TRUMP’S TARIFFS

In the increasingly likely event that President Trump follows up on his steel tariffs by imposing similar tariffs on  European car imports, on so called “security grounds”, we can expect a full scale trade war to erupt, with no end in sight.

This will have disproportionate consequences for Ireland. A recent paper by the Brussels based think tank, Bruegel, estimated that 7.8% of the aggregate value added of the Irish economy comes from final products sold into the US market. This is far more than for any other EU country, and is twice the comparable figure for dependence on US sales for Germany, Netherlands and Spain, and three times that for France and Italy.

A disruption of trade links with the US, combined with the effects of a hard Brexit, could do deep damage to this country, socially and politically, as well as economically. Indeed Trumps actions change the entire context of Brexit.

The language used by President Trump about Prime Minister Trudeau after the G7 meeting was shocking. He treated the Canadian Prime Minister as if he was a domestic political opponent, not the Prime Minister of a friendly country, whose citizens have given their lives in common cause with the United States in two world wars. It contrasted starkly with the emollient language he used about the North Korean leader.

Berating allies, and flattering enemies is a low risk approach, in the short term. It is dramatic, and gets attention in ways that diplomacy never can.

The drama seems to be working well in the US Primaries, where President Trump’s allies are doing well. But trust in the United States is being undermined, and the prosperity of the developed world is being put at risk. The damage may long outlast the Trump Presidency.

The US has had trade disputes with allies before, but they have never before been supplemented by personalised attacks on foreign leaders.

The imposition by President Trump of steel tariffs, on security grounds, on the EU, Canada, and Mexico, suggests that the President believes he could not rely on these countries to continue supplying steel to the US in war time.  There is no basis in reality for such a contention, especially as regards Mexico and Canada which are beside the US.

The EU will retaliate by imposing selective tariffs on US goods, though only on half the scale of the US steel tariffs. It will also take a case against the US before a WTO (World Trade Organisation) panel. Canada and Mexico will do likewise. Given the way President Trump reacted to a difference of opinion about a mere communiqué from a G7 meeting, one can expect his language to escalate when the EU, Canadian, and Mexican tariffs begin to bite.

It could be argued that the EU, Canada and Mexico should not bother retaliating, because the US steel tariffs will do the most damage to US manufacturing industry and make it less competitive, but that is a difficult concept to communicate. So also is the argument that the US trade deficit is not due to unfair trade by others, but to the fact that Americans borrow and spend too much abroad, and are encouraged to do so by the lax fiscal and debt accumulation policies of successive US Administrations.

President Trump is now contemplating imposing tariffs on cars coming from the EU, Canada and Mexico on the same “security grounds”. He has initiated a legal process leading to that. On the narrow issue of cars, there is a difference between the rate of EU and US tariffs. The US tariff is 2%, whereas the EU tariff is 10%. That, of course, means that US consumers have cheaper cars and wider choice.

The EU could reduce its tariff on US manufactured cars to 2%, but, under the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) principle by which the World Trade Organisation  (WTO) works, that would mean that the EU would also then have to reduce its tariff on cars to 2% for all WTO members, including Japan and China.

The tragedy is that President Trump’s initiative is driven by electoral politics, not by economic reality.

He is breaking up the rules based international trading system, which the US itself established in the aftermath of the Second World War, which is operated by the WTO.

The US has a poor record in implementing WTO decisions on disputes, partly because this requires action by Congress, and the Administration can claim not to control Congress. In contrast, China has a good record so far in implementing WTO decisions.

Even under President Obama, the US was failing to appoint US judges to sit on the WTO disputes resolution panels, thereby undermining the WTO disputes resolution system. This is despite the fact that the US has won 87% of the cases it has taken to WTO panels. The disputes settlement mechanism was one of the great achievement of the late Peter Sutherland as head of the WTO.

The US sometimes feels it can get along fine without the rest of the world. Given its vast area and resources, it is understandable how it might come to think like that. For much of the nineteenth century, it acted on that basis. That illusion finally ended at Pearl Harbour in 1941.

Isolationism is no longer an option for the US. China is rising in global importance. Its economy is already as big as that of the US. It is attempting to build a global infrastructural and technological system centred on China, not the US. That is the rationale of the “one Belt One Road” initiative and of China’s plan to be the industry leader in the technologies of the future like solar power, electric cars and gene editing.

A wise US leader would be seeking to compete with China, by building closer economic ties with its allies, rather than using them as punch bags, in a political show designed to win votes in the Mid Term Congressional Elections.

The G7 spectacle should prompt deep reflection on this side of the Atlantic. A looming trade war makes Brexit less attractive for both the UK, AND the EU. Both need to take time out to think. It is a pity that the time limits in the Brexit process do not allow both sides to take the time to develop a wider strategic view of their mutual interests before Brexit takes place. This needs to be  reconsidered in light of the prospect of a bitter trade war with the US and the rest of the developed world.

Such a strategic review cannot be completed by next October. An extension of the Article 50 time limit for the Brexit negotiation makes far more sense this week, even than it did a month ago. Time limits create tension, whereas it is reflection we need now.

ITALY

 

Despite the 11th hour agreement to form a new government in Rome, Italy still has the potential to send Europe into depression, if the costly promises made in the election campaign are kept, and long overdue and difficult reforms further postponed.

The Italian government debt is 130% of GDP. If the financial markets lost confidence in an Italian government’s ability or willingness to service and roll over this debt, there could be a rapid series of events leading to Italy’s exit from the euro, and widespread loss of confidence in the bonds of indebted countries.

What could trigger this?

The parties in the new Italian coalition government, 5 Star and the Lega, promised during the election

  • to reverse a recent VAT increase ( cost €12.5billion),
  • to introduce a flat tax (€50 billion),
  • to introduce a basic income(€17 billion) and
  • to scrap a recent pension reform( €8 billion).

These measures could bring the budget deficit from its present 1.9% of GDP to a staggering 7% of GDP. That would certainly create a financial crisis. It would break EU rules too.

It would also impoverish Italian voters, especially older Italians with savings . Despite years of low growth, the average Italian household still has more net wealth than the average German household. But a lot of that wealth is tied up with the Italian banks and their bonds.

Overall, two thirds of Italian government bonds are owned by Italian residents, including Italian banks, so many Italian households would be suddenly impoverished if these bonds were devalued. A sudden rise in interest rates in Italy would devalue bonds that had been issued at a lower rate of interest. Of course leaving the euro would devalue them even more.

48% of the bonds of the Italian government are held by Italian banks themselves. A loss of confidence in Italian bonds could destroy the capital base of some Italian banks. That could lead to a run on the banks, like the Northern Rock situation.

The European Central Bank (ECB) could step in to stop such a crisis. It has power to buy Italian government bonds, under its OMT programme. But the OMT programme can only be brought into operation if the Italian government has first applied for help, and has signed up to a tight austerity programme. The present Italian government would have difficulty agreeing as this would go against its election promises.

But the ECB would have to insist on the austerity measures. Otherwise, it would be simply sending good money after bad, something that would not appeal to European taxpayers who are the ultimate owners of the ECB.

For the last 10 years, Italian politicians, including the parties who lost the recent Italian General Election as well as those who won, have been blaming the constraints of euro membership, and the disciplines supposedly imposed by Brussels and Germany, for the sluggish performance of the Italian economy, and for the fact that Italian wages are still far below what they were in 2007.

But, as a recent IMF study of the Italian economy shows, the reasons for stagnant incomes in Italy are to be found in Italy itself, not in Brussels.

Since 2000, the total factor productivity of the Italian economy has fallen by 6 %, whereas productivity in Spain has risen by 2% and in France by 4%.

Since 2000, investment has risen by 10% in Spain and by 20% in France, while it has fallen by 15% in Italy.

France and Spain are in the euro too, so euro membership does not explain Italy’s under performance.

Italy’s problems derive from a number of factors.

One is the big increase in its spending and debt levels that took place in the 1980’s.

Another is the fact that its administrative and legal systems have inhibited the reallocation of Italian talent, money, and effort from less productive to more productive activities.

The arteries of the Italian economy are blocked by a sluggish parliamentary and courts system, by out of date insolvency laws, and by an over large public sector. Wages are set centrally with little regard to the profitability of individual firms. A lot of capital is tied up in zombie businesses, many state owned.

Reforms have been made by previous governments to liberalize the labour market and the professions, but these will take time to yield results, and are insufficient on their own.

Italy is a rapidly ageing society, so the proposed reversal of the recent pension reforms by the new government would worsen the situation.

On the other hand, the new government’s flat tax and basic income proposals could, if combined with radical measures to combat tax evasion, remove tax shelters and  improve work incentives, improve the overall efficiency of Italy.

Euro membership has prevented Italy from using the devaluation to restore competitiveness at the price of higher inflation. Older Italians have benefitted from this. Italian savers (mainly older people) have been protected from the devaluation of their savings, through inflation. that took place before the euro.

But the failure to free up the arteries of the Italian economy through structural reform has meant that job seekers (mainly younger people) have suffered. Many talented young Italians have emigrated, some to Ireland.

The new Italian government could tilt the balance in favour of young Italy, and attract those young people home, if it combined its popular tax and welfare plans with, much less popular but equally urgent, reforms to administration, the courts, wage setting,  insolvency and pensions.

The first big test will come in October when a budget has to be presented. That is when the new government’s real  priorities will be revealed.

Brexit and the island of Ireland: the all-Ireland economy and the border question

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