John Bruton

Opinions & Ideas

Page 2 of 43

TWO GREAT DEMOCRACIES….VERY DIFFERENT MOODS

I visited India in the past week on business.

India is the largest democracy in the world.

The United States is the second largest.

Politics is robust in both countries, but in India the mood is one of increasing openness towards the rest of the world, whereas that in the United States is in favour of building walls.

India is a good vantage point from which to contemplate the moral content of the anti globalisation rhetoric of Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and their followers.  

Given that the United States is one of the richest and best endowed countries in the world, “America First” seems to me to be a particularly selfish motto for a great country. Yet it is espoused by left wing anti trade Democrats, just as much as it is by the new President

Looking at this from the standpoint of India, one realises that it is thanks in part to globalisation, to  the opening of markets, and to the transfer of western technology to the country, that in India

  •   its economy is growing at  7.5% pa, faster than China
  •   85 million people  exited poverty in India in  the three years from 2010 to 2012
  •   life expectancy  has doubled from  31 years  in 1947 to  65 today
  •   trade represents a higher share of India’s GDP than it does of China.

India is urbanising rapidly. It is estimated that another 250 million people will arrive in India’s overcrowded cities in the next 20 years.

8 million young people enter the Indian workforce every year, many in rural areas where few job opportunities exist outside agriculture. In fact only 16% of India’s existing workforce is in waged employment.

The opportunities to invest in the development of India’s infrastructure are enormous. Sanitary services and road building are seriously deficient. Air pollution and unsanitary living conditions continue to damage the health of many Indians.

Europe needs to work with India to protect the open global economy, while enabling states to put in place robust taxation systems that can distribute the fruits of  globalisation fairly.

 

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1917 TO 1923… YEARS THAT MADE EUROPE WHAT IT IS TODAY

I strongly recommend “The Vanquished, Why the First World War failed to end 1917-1923” by Robert Gerwarth .

The book deals with the last year of the Great War, and with the many small wars it generated  that continued for another five years, including  one in Ireland.

Before the Great War, multi ethnic Empires operated relatively peacefully. While the Imperial  idea,  and  multi ethnicity, clashed with the ethnic nationalism that flourished in intellectual circles, the political arrangements worked and were adaptable.

Austro Hungary had a multi ethnic Parliament with representation from the minorities present. 23% of the Emperors subjects spoke German, 20% Hungarian, 16% Czech or Slovak, 10% Polish, 9% Serbo Croat,  8% Ukrainian, 6% Romanian and so on. All coexisted.

The Ottoman Empire, though Muslim, tolerated Christian and Jewish minorities.

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland may have been dominated by the English, but its Parliament had large Irish and Scottish representation.

The Russian Empire contained minorities too numerous to list.

The permissive consensus, that allowed these entities like these to resolve their internal differences by generally peaceful methods, was shattered by the sacrifices and brutality of the War.

It was a war that lasted far longer, and took far more lives, than anyone expected when it started.

It is a global tragedy that the gross over reaction of Austro Hungary to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in July 1914, started a conflict, with whose  consequences we still live today.

100 years later, the Brexit negotiations, the refugee crisis and the hangover of the financial crisis in Greece, Italy and some other countries will put immense stress on the bonds of tolerance that hold the European Union together.

They will from time to time bring to the surface buried tensions and resentments between European nations that date back to events of the 1917-1923 period which are so brilliantly described in this book.

Ministers and diplomats, attending fraught European meetings over the next few years, who want to understand where some of their colleagues from the other 26 countries are coming from, could profit from reading this book . It will help them understand where the, often unarticulated historical assumptions and fears come from, that may help explain behaviour that might otherwise seem unreasonable or disproportionate.

For example, the  present day fears in the Baltic States, of both Russia and Germany, date from events between 1917 to 1923.

So do the tensions between Poland and Ukraine, between Poland and Russia, between Greece and Turkey, between Turkey and the western powers, and between Bulgaria and both Romania and Greece.

So also can Russian fears of encirclement be traced back to the humiliating peace imposed on it by Germany in 1918, and to the subsequent western interventions in its Civil War in the early 1920’s.

The authoritarian and nationalistic trends in Hungarian politics can be explained by the fact that the post War settlement was much harder on Hungary, even than it was on Imperial Germany. Large Hungarian speaking populations remain in neighbouring Serbia, Slovakia and Romania to this day.

In 1919,the First World War had left much of Europe starving and desolated. Order had  broke down. States were too weak to exercise their proper monopoly on the use of force.

Resentments abounded about the supposed injustice of the imposed peace settlements. Demobilised soldiers know no other trade than war.  Minorities, particularly the Jews, were scapegoated all over central Europe, for misfortunes for which they had no responsibility at all.  Bolshevism was seen as an imminent threat.

States and populations turned to paramilitary organisations to restore order, in these frightening circumstances,  and out of that understandable desire for order grew Fascism and the Nazis.

This is a well written book which deserves a wide readership.

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POPULISM IS A CRISIS OF ENTITLEMENT, AND HIGHER INTEREST WILL SQUEEZE SOME COUNTRIES MORE THAN OTHERS

The Federal Reserve Bank of the United States raised interest rates last December. This was the first rate rise in almost ten years. At the time three more rate increases were forecast this year. The Federal Reserve’s policy on interest rates can have a global effect.

Ireland’s fiscal squeeze of the 1980 to 1987 period, of which I had direct experience, was caused  by the Federal Reserve’s decision to tackle  US inflation by raising interest rates and restricting the money supply.

A rise in interest rates this year would affect countries differently.

If a country has a big government debt, by comparison with its annual tax revenue, it will have to make more cuts or tax increases to accommodate to a higher interest rate.

If a country’s economy is growing slowly, and it  has low future growth potential, because it has an ageing society, the effect of an interest rate rise will be even more severe.

Goldman Sachs recently compared the situations of Germany, France , Italy and Spain.

If there was a 100 basis points increase in interest rates ,

+ Germany would have to trim its budget by 0.5% of GDP,

+ France and Spain by 0.75% of their GDP, but

+ Italy would have to trim its budget by 1%.

This is because the

+ Italian government debt is 140% of the Italian annual GDP,

+  the French and Spanish debts around 100% of their GDP while

+  Germany’s is only around 75%

These effects would come about slowly. If countries have debts with long maturities , it will take a while for a rise in interest rates to have their full effect. General inflation is not a problem today, but sectors of the global economy can become over heated.

Goldman Sachs did not do similar calculations for smaller countries like Greece, which has a debt/ GDP ratio of 180%, or for the UK, whose ratio is 90%.

But both countries are facing difficult futures, partly because of their own freely taken  democratic decisions, in Greece’s case quite long ago, but in the UK’s case very recently. Euro zone countries are able to keep interest rates low because the ECB is buying their bonds, but there are prudential limits to this. If a country’s banks buy an undue amount of  their  own government’s bonds, that can create an unhealthy linkage between to solvency of the banks and the solvency of the government.

The Goldman Sachs calculations do not take full account of human factors like the lack of dynamism which can arise when countries come to believe they are “entitled “ to a certain standard of income, without taking account of the value of what they can sell to the rest of the world.

Ageing societies, with large retired populations, are particularly prone to this sense of entitlement because they feel that the work that they did in the past, entitles them to a good standard of living today. Unfortunately the money their work earned is long spent, and pensions can only be paid out of what can be earned in the future.

If that money does not come in, people will look for someone to blame. Often the blame takers are immigrants, even though these immigrants are often the ones who are paying the taxes and earning the money ,that support the entitlements of many native residents. For example , EU immigrants in the UK pay much more in taxes than they take out in benefits, but that was ignored by UK voters.

This gap between expectations and what can be afforded , is the explanation for the so called “populism” we see among ageing populations in the UK, the US and elsewhere.

Populism is really a crisis of entitlement.  

Populism will become more severe if ,  and when, interest rates rise.

We need an informed electorate that votes knowledgeably, an electorate that accepts that  interest rates, free trade, immigration and demographics are all interlinked with one another.

We need  to  find better ways of explaining the links between

+   the prospect of  higher international interest rates, and the desirability of reducing government debt levels

+   the importance of preserving open markets and overseas earnings  if we are to afford decent pensions,

+    the link  between allowing immigration, and having enough young people to work and pay taxes in future

+    the fact that  decisions, twenty years ago,  to have fewer children, are liable to  affect what  welfare  states will be able to afford , twenty years from now

 

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TEARING UP 40 YEARS OF COMMON RULE MAKING…..THE MEANING OF THERESA MAY’S SPEECH

Once Theresa May said ,at her party Conference in Birmingham in October, that she was insisting on immigration controls, on rejecting the jurisdiction of the ECJ, and on making trade deals with non EU countries, a hard Brexit became inevitable.

MAY SAYS SHE WANTS A STRONG EU

She said in her recent speech that she wants the European Union to be strong and successful, without the UK.

It was important that she say that. It set a good tone and it differentiates her position from that of Donald Trump, who, like Vladimir Putin, wants the EU to break up.

Mrs May says she wants the EU to stay together, but for that to happen, there can be no question of a country, including her own, being offered better terms by the EU, for leaving the EU, than it would obtain if it stayed in the EU.

That is not “punishing” anybody, it is common sense.

Mrs May set out her goals, but not all the pitfalls on the way.

FINAL DEAL WILL HAVE TO BE RATIFIED BY THE PARLIAMENTS OF ALL EU STATES

The eventual Free Trade agreement she wants with EU will not be finalised in Brussels. It will have to be approved by the 27 or more Parliaments within the EU.  The difficulties Ukraine and Canada have had getting their Agreements approved show how unpredictable that may be. Convincing Michel Barnier to agree may be the least of the UK’s negotiating problems!

She said that, on leaving the EU, the UK will retain all the  then existing EU rules for goods and services, but will then change them, as necessary afterwards. This implies a gradual hardening of the border in Ireland, as UK standards begin to diverge from EU standards.

MORE BUREAUCRACY INEVITABLE

To the extent that the UK diverges from EU standards, the UK businesses will have to apply two sets of standards, one for the UK market, and another for the 45% of UK exports that go to the EU. More paperwork, not less!

Once the UK has left the EU, goods coming  into the EU (including into Ireland) from the UK will be subject to checking under “Rules of Origin” requirements, in other words to check that they do not contain an undue amount of content that is not from the UK at all, but from elsewhere.

For example, there will have to be checks that UK beef burgers do not contain Brazilian beef.  These “Rules of Origin” checks will involve a lot of delays, and yet more bureaucracy, which will be especially onerous for small firms.

One study estimated that the need to apply “Rules of Origin” checks could reduce trade volumes by 9%.

PROBLEMS FOR RETAILERS

The UK decision to leave the Customs Union will create big problems for the Irish retail trade. Many retail chains treat Ireland as an extension of the UK retail market and have built their distribution chains, the network of warehouses, and their logistics on that basis.

Now transiting goods destined for Ireland through the UK, or from Ireland via the UK to continental Europe, will become much more complex. Customs inspections, paperwork and even road use costs may arise. These problems could be mitigated by new customs agreements, but this will not be easy. These problems will be particularly acute for food products, which are perishable.

New ways of getting goods in and out of Ireland, avoiding the UK , may have to be devised. Ireland will need to redirect its transport infrastructure towards the continent and away from UK routes which will require investment in new infrastructure at ports like Rosslare and Cork.

HALF IN, AND HALF OUT, OF THE CUSTOMS UNION?

Theresa May was remarkably unclear about the sort of relationship she wants with the EU Customs Union. She wants bits of it, but not all of it.

In attempting this unusual feat, she will run into difficulties with the World Trade Organisation (WTO), a body of which the UK now wants to become a fully independent member.

The WTO works on the basis of non discrimination, or the so called “Most Favoured Nation” principle.

As I understand it, any concessions that the EU Customs Union grants to the UK, as a non EU member, would have to be extended to all the EU Customs Union’s trading partners, unless the concessions cover “substantially all” trade between the UK and the Customs Union.  If this is so, Theresa May’s formula will be unworkable. The UK will have to be either ” substantially in”, or “substantially out”, of the Customs Union.

Any concessions the UK might get to allow it to be partially in, or partially out, of the EU Customs Union for a given product or service, will have to be purchased at a price from the EU and from the other members of the WTO.  The whole process will be dragged out by other countries seeking an advantage in an apparently unrelated field.

It will drag on, and on.

HOW IRELAND SHOULD APPROACH THE BREXIT NEGOTIATIONS, WHEN THEY START

Theresa May’s commitment to the Common Travel Area (CTA) with Ireland is welcome, but the CTA is an understanding rather than an enforceable legal agreement. The extent to which it gives legally enforceable right to work in either jurisdiction will be tested in the negotiations. Spain will seek similar rights for Spanish workers working in Gibraltar.

How should Ireland approach the negotiation of UK exit from the EU?

Obviously, Ireland has more to lose in this than any other EU country.

But Ireland needs to be clear in its own mind that it is in the EU, and intends to stay there.

Ireland has  prospered in the EU, in a way it  did not prosper before it  joined and when it was dependent on the British market. Ireland has prospered thanks to foreign investment, which came to Ireland on the explicit assurance that Ireland would remain in the EU and that firms located in Ireland  would have full access to the EU single market.

Incidentally, the UK also did better economically in the 43 years since it joined the EU, than it did in the period before it did so.

There has been a lot of abstract commentary in the Irish media about the stance Ireland should take in the Brexit negotiations. Some have suggested that Ireland detach itself from the common EU negotiating stance. This would be a big mistake, because in trade negotiations size matters.

While the negotiations will be conducted by the European Commission, they will be intensely scrutinised at every meeting of the European Council, where Ireland will be represented by the Taoiseach. No move will be made without intense Irish involvement on the EU side.

Irish Embassies in every EU capital will be vigilant. Ireland will need to deepen its understanding of the fears and hopes of every one of its 26 EU partners, understand their history, and speak their languages. It is by framing Ireland’s goals in terms that the  other 26 can see is in their interests too, that Ireland will maximise its success in the Brexit negotiations.

As Brexit is a British initiative, it is proper that, as the first step, Britain should accompany its application to leave the EU, with a detailed prospectus setting out how its proposed relationship with the Customs Union might work, specifying how its proposals might be reconciled with WTO rules.

It is better that the UK identify any legal, practical , and logistical  difficulties, for itself and by itself.

In that way, it will own the problem, and own the solution.

It is not for the EU to tell the UK what to do, because that would just allow the UK to blame Brussels for the bad news, and blame others for problems that are INHERENT in what the UK itself is now looking for.

IN ANY NEGOTIATION, SIZE MATTERS

Of course, Ireland can continue to work with the UK on common problems. To the extent that bilateral discussions with the UK can smooth the overall path of the wider negotiations,  that would be welcomed by Ireland’s EU partners.

But Ireland would have to be entirely transparent with its EU partners in regard to any discussions it might have with the UK, on any subject that was part of the overall EU/ UK negotiations. That is vital.

On issues of importance to Ireland, the extra leverage Ireland will have, as a member of the EU team, will help Ireland get a much better deal than it could ever get, as a smaller country negotiating on its own, with a much bigger UK.

In any negotiation, size matters!

IRELAND MUST BECOME HYPER COMPETITIVE

Now that it is clear that we have to prepare for a hard Brexit, Ireland should adopt an aggressive strategy to improve its overall competitiveness.

That is how we will attract new business to Ireland, and withstand the destructive currency gyrations that unfortunately will be part of the Brexit process.

Ireland must become hyper competitive. The right action agenda for the government is to be found in the “Competitiveness Challenge”, presented to the government last month by the National Competitiveness Council.

In his foreword to the Report, the Taoiseach said “We need to continue our effort to control and reduce costs-whether for property, legal services, finance or energy”

As the Report points out, Ireland has the 5th highest productivity in the OECD, after Luxembourg, Norway, the US and Belgium. To overcome Brexit, we should aim now at first, not fifth, place on this table!

When the UK leaves the EU, we will still be competing with them, and they will be freed of the discipline of   EU state aid rules, and thus able, if they wish, to compete unfairly with us. Comparing Ireland with the UK, on the World Bank Rankings, the Competitiveness Council Report  says that,  for a business wanting to

+  get electricity, Ireland is in 33rd place, while the UK is in 17th place in the world

+  get a Construction permit, Ireland is in 38th place, while the UK is in 17th place

+  enforce a contract, Ireland is in 90th place in the world, while the UK is in 31st place (our case clearance rate in our courts is the worst in the EU)

+  trade across borders, Ireland is in 27th place, while the UK is in 13th place

+   get Credit, Ireland is in 32nd place , while the UK is in 20th place.

The remedy to each of these problems is different. It will usually involve action by several government Departments. So a “whole government” approach will be needed, with a narrow focus on dramatically improving Ireland’s competitiveness position in every area where our costs of doing business are too high.

The Taoiseach, and his office, are in an ideal position to drive this because he has unique authority to clear away road blocks caused by disputes between Departments.

PAY AND TAX POLICY MUST TAKE HARD BREXIT INTO ACCOUNT

 Making Ireland hyper competitive, so as to withstand a  hard Brexit, would provide a unifying agenda for the New Politics, going beyond the Programme for Partnership government, which after all agreed when Brexit  seemed unlikely.

If the national aim is to be hyper competitive, that must influence public sector pay claims. It strengthens the case for setting up a “Rainy Day Fund” to meet unexpected fiscal eventualities, and the case for a strong Independent Parliamentary Budget Office. We will not be able to afford to narrow our tax base. We should not spend today, what we are unsure we will actually earn tomorrow!

We will not be able to afford any work disincentives in our tax and income support systems, nor to have so many households where no one is working, an area where Ireland is worse than any other EU country.

The clarity we now have from Theresa May’s speech about the direction Brexit will take, is the signal we needed for a comprehensive plan to make the Irish economy hyper competitive, starting now, even before the UK writes its Article 50 letter.

 

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MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS ……A STORY THAT ILLUMINATES PRESENT DAY POLITICS

I bought Antonia Frasers biography of Mary Queen of Scots, in a second hand bookshop in Paris, a few years ago, and eventually got around to reading its 667 pages over the Christmas period.

It  is a riveting personal story of a woman who became Queen of Scotland  as an infant,  and  who spent her childhood and teenage years in France, where  she  married the King .

Then, after the King of France had died, and she was still only 19 years old, she returned to Scotland in 1561 to take up her responsibility as monarch of her native country.

Politics was different then.

In Scotland, much the real power rested with the nobility, who controlled the land and its revenues, and who could, and did, dictate to the monarch. Parliaments were often no more than a vehicle for the power of the landed nobility.

Religion added a new source of contention, especially if the monarch and her subjects had different religious beliefs. Mary was a convinced Catholic, while the majority of her subjects had recently become Protestant followers of Calvin and Knox…Presbyterians.

She did not attempt to force her Catholic religious views on her subjects, in stark contrast to the policy followed in England by the monarchs of that country, both Protestant and Catholic.

In Scotland the drive for religious conformity came from the bottom up.iin England, it came from the top down.

Mary also had a claim on the English throne, through her grandmother, Margaret Tudor, a sister of Henry XIII.

So when all  Henry VIII’s offspring had no children, Mary would have been the uncontested  heir to the English throne too, after the death of Queen Elizabeth I.

In fact, she could even claim precedence over Elizabeth, because , in Catholic eyes, Elizabeth was illegitimate, because her mother, Anne Boleyn’s marriage to Henry VIII took place, while his first wife, Catherine, was still alive. As we know, the Pope did not agree to annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine.

Interestingly Mary’s own grandmother, Margaret Tudor, a staunch Catholic, had had an annulment of her marriage to her second husband, the Earl of Angus.

Mary herself had numerous half brothers and sisters, because her father had had active relations with women, other than Mary’s mother.

So Mary’s person, and her choice of husband (she had three), became an instrument in the  politics of Europe, and in the struggle for predominance between France, Spain and England, and between Catholicism and Protestantism.

Although she was a charming intelligent and generally cautious ruler, the forces with which she had to contend eventually became far too great for her.

She was forced to abdicate in 1567, attempted to regain the throne by force, and was defeated. She had to quit Scotland, leaving her infant son,  James, who was eventually to become King of both England and Scotland, behind, never to see him again. She was only 25.

But, instead of fleeing to France where she would have been well received and had many powerful relatives, she fled to England. This was a fatal and foolish mistake.

In England, she became an acute embarrassment to her host, Queen Elizabeth, who feared , with reason, that, as a legitimate claimant to the English throne, Mary would provide a rallying point for English Catholics and their continental allies, who wanted to dethrone Elizabeth, and restore the Catholic faith.

Eventually, after twenty years imprisonment, Elizabeth had Mary executed in 1587, when she was still only 44 years of age.

This tragic story brings out the deep historical, political and religious differences between Scotland and England. It exposes the roots of the suspicion between England and the continent, a suspicion that is not prevalent in Scotland. States were much weaker then than they are today.

It reminds the reader how different were the priorities of political actors 500 years ago. Heredity and religion were much more important than trade and economics. Only the pursuit of power is a constant.

 

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DERMOT GALLAGHER   RIP

I wish to express a deep sense of loss on hearing of the death of former Ambassador, Dermot Gallagher, who I consider to have been a great friend and neighbour, as well as a brilliant servant of Ireland.

Dermot was Irish Ambassador in the United States during my time as Taoiseach.

On my first arrival in Washington as Taoiseach in March 1995, I was immediately struck by the depth of the links all over the United States, but particularly in policy making circles in Washington, that Dermot, and indeed his wife Maeve, had built up on behalf of Ireland.

These links extended right across both US political parties, and across all three branches of the US government.  This influence on behalf of Ireland was the result of immensely hard work and patience on Dermot’s part. He was instrumental in securing US support for the process of peace building in Ireland, and notably in securing the services of Senator George Mitchell.

He was a model Ambassador. He provided very valuable advice to me when it was my honour to fill a similar role subsequently.

Finola joins me in extending heartfelt sympathy to Maeve and his grieving family

Statement by John Bruton, former Taoiseach

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DIANA MOSLEY AND MARGOT ASQUITH

During 2016, I read and enjoyed two books by the British biographer, Anne De Courcy.

One was a life of Diana Mosley, the wife of the British Fascist leader Oswald Mosley. Diana was one of the well known Mitford sisters, one of whom, Nancy, became a noted author and another, Unity, became a noted devotee of Adolf Hitler. Oswald Mosley, who married their sister Diana, emerges from the book as an extremely egotistical man.

Diana left her first husband, Bryan Guinness, one of the brewing  family, to live with and marry Mosley. Diana met the already married Oswald Mosley in 1932, when he was already a well known politician, but also a notorious philanderer. He had all the glamour, daring, and vitality her husband lacked

Bryan Guinness had liked a quiet domestic life, whereas his wife preferred a busy, intellectually stimulating, social life. Mosley provided  that in abundance.

 Diana and Mosley remained together through  his tempestuous political career in the 1930’s when he tried to turn Britain to Fascism. She also stayed with him during their internment during the Second War,  his failed attempt to launch a new Fascist Party after the War, and  their eventual voluntary exile in France. In her eyes, he could do no wrong.

The books throws light on the appeal of Fascism to well educated and aristocratic people in Britain during the 1930’s, and, in this, it helps us understand the appeal of authoritarian nationalism in our own times.

The other book, entitled “Margot at War, Love and Betrayal in Downing Street , 1912-1916” is an account of the life of the wife of the then Prime Minister, HH Asquith. It gives a  very good account of life in 10 Downing Street during the early part of  First World War.

As a devoted wife, Margot had to cope with the fact that Asquith, at this time, had become totally infatuated with Venetia Stanley, a friend of one of his daughters by his first marriage.  His obsession with Venetia  became well known to his political colleagues, and was a source of mortification and humiliation for his wife. It also undermined his authority as Prime Minister.

As de Courcy puts it, Asquith’s colleagues saw him

“bland, well fed, calm, scribbling letter after letter to Venetia  in the Cabinet  Room ,as vital questions of war were being debated,  and men were dying in their thousands”

This self indulgence contributed to the undermining, and  to the eventual replacement, of  Asquith as Prime Minister,  by his  Liberal Party colleague, David Lloyd George. This coup created a split that led to the virtual disappearance of the once dominant Liberal Party in the next twenty years.

Both books give a well written account of the historical background of the times, during which these two personal stories evolved, and are interesting for that alone.

Political power in Britain, in both eras, was exercised within a small aristocratic or intellectual circle. The characters entertained one another, frequently and lavishly, even when there were shortages.

Both Diana Mosley and Margot Asquith used their social contacts to advance their husband’s careers.  Thankfully, Margot Asquith had the greater success.

 

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WILL THE 1998 BELFAST AGREEMENT SURVIVE THE  UK GENERAL ELECTION OF 2020?

The Daily Telegraph today says that the UK Prime Minister intends to include in the 2020 Conservative Party General Election Manifesto a promise to pull the UK, including presumably Northern Ireland, out of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

According to the story, she does not intend to implement this promise until after the UK has left the EU, which she hopes to have achieved before the 2020 Election.

The existing corpus of ECHR law would apparently be incorporated into UK law, but there would no longer be a right of appeal to the European Court on Human Rights, only to the UK Supreme Court.

If implemented, this promise would appear to me to breach the terms of the Belfast Agreement of 1998, which is an international Agreement. On the strength of this international Agreement, Ireland amended its constitution. The Agreement was the fruit of years of work by successive Taoisigh and Prime Ministers.

There is no mention of the inter relationship of the ECHR and the Belfast Agreement, or of any negotiation on it with the parties to the Belfast Agreement, anywhere in the Daily Telegraph article. Yet the  appears to be the result of a very detailed briefing. A purely unilateral UK action seems to be what is envisaged, without reference to the parties, including Ireland.

Adherence to the European Convention by the Northern Ireland Administration, and therefore by the UK unless Northern Ireland’s status changes,  is built explicitly into the terms of the Belfast Agreement.

Paragraphs 5(b) and 5(c) of Strand One of the Agreement require all legislation passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly to adhere to the terms of the ECHR.

There are other references to the ECHR in other parts of the Agreement.

The ECHR is fundamental to all the human rights elements of the Belfast Agreement.

If the UK is no longer a party to ECHR, and no longer subject to the rulings on the European Court on Human Rights, there will no longer be any common basis, between Ireland and the UK, for settling any differences of interpretation that might arise between Ireland and the UK concerning human rights issues in Northern Ireland.

It is important to the sustainability of any international agreement, in this case one between Ireland and the UK, that there be a neutral referee in the case of disputes.

This neutral element was particularly important to nationalist opinion at the time of the finalisation of Agreement, and the referenda which approved it. It remains so to this day.

As far as any disputes might arise about human rights in Northern Ireland, that neutral referee is the European Court of Human Rights. But the UK Prime Minister now apparently intends unilaterally to withdraw Northern Ireland from the ECHR and its court.

I believe this is a very serious issue, and bodes ill for the future.

As a former Home Secretary, the current UK Prime Minister should be aware of the constitutional importance of the Belfast Agreement, and indeed of the referendums approving it, in both parts of Ireland, which ended an historic dispute, dating back a very long time indeed.

We can only ensure that we do not “return to the border of the past” if there is an appreciation at the highest level that party driven initiatives do not undermine hard won negotiated achievements.

 

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THE STRUGGLE FOR THE CENTRE OF THE WORLD

As Russia and Turkey broker a Syrian ceasefire without the involvement of the United Nations or the United States, some are wondering if the axis of  influence  in the world is shifting from the Atlantic to the centre of Asia.

Like many others, I enjoyed reading the best seller,   “The Silk Roads, a New History of the World”, by Peter Frankopan.

The period  the book covers runs from the time of the Babylonian Empire right up to the present day.

The area it covers is everywhere between Ireland and Vladivostok, and between the Indian and Arctic Oceans.

The centre of that world is somewhere near the Caspian Sea. The constant theme, through the whole time, is a struggle within this huge area, for resources, and for  the  means of contact with the outside world.

The rivalry between the Roman and Persian Empires is described.

So is the  rise of Islam, and the  claim is made that Islam succeeded partly because it  provided Arabs with a unifying identity, in places of the rival religions and heresies that predated it.

The claim is made that Jews in Palestine initially welcomed Muslim rule. Indeed it is noteworthy that, 700 years later, Jews, fleeing Christian Spain found refuge in then, Muslim ruled, Greece.

The role of Genghis Khan is described and it is claimed that, after the initial disruption, Mongol dominance gave relative stability to Central Asia.  The Mongols did not come all the way to Western Europe because they found much richer lands to conquer in India and China.

Russia’s constant  fear of being encircled, or hemmed in, within the Eurasian landmass is also examined. After its defeat in the Crimean War in 1856, peace terms were imposed on Russia, by the victorious British, French and Turks, which closed the Black Sea to the Russian Navy. This was despite the fact that the Black Sea was the exit route for a third of Russia’s exports. This remained a huge grievance for the Russian leadership, and a similar feeling of being hemmed in lies behind Russian tactics today, in respect of Crimea and Syria.

Hitler, who remembered the starvation in Germany during the First World War, was determined, as one of his war aims, to seize the grain growing regions of Ukraine and Southern Russia. His plans in this respect were well signalled in his book Mein Kampf, which he wrote in the 1920’s and which Stalin had read.  But Stalin did not draw the logical conclusion and was caught off guard, when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in 1941.

The thesis of this book is that world politics rotates around the struggles for control of resources of food, energy, and minerals on the Eurasian land mass.

This is in contrast to a view that would see the Atlantic as the axis of political and economic power.

From the very beginning of this story, peoples in Eurasia were changing sides, finding new allies, and adopting different religions. Inconsistency was the one constant among the players of this great game.

For example, in view of the present   obsession in the United States and Israel with the possibility that Iran might have nuclear capacity, we are reminded that, in 1974, President Ford agreed to sell American nuclear reprocessing technology to Iran. That was in the time of the Shah, who was overthrown five years later, but the geostrategic risk of proliferation inherent in selling such a technology to Iran under any regime was the same then as it is now.

Interestingly President Ford’s Chief of Staff at the time was Richard Chaney!

As we move towards an more uncertain world, reading this book will help one to be a little less surprised by what happens, because one will learn that something rather like it will have happened before.

 

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NATIONALISM AND PERIPHERALITY…..TWO PROSPECTIVE LEGACIES OF BREXIT

bonnetThis long article by Andrew Duff, a former MEP, draws on the recent House of Lords reports on the subject, to illustrate how complicated the Brexit negotiations must inevitably become. 

After 40 years of interdependence and common rule making, the UK is now setting out to reconstruct the entire apparatus of a separate nation state, with separate rules, and separate rule making and  adjudication systems. This is how Theresa May has chosen to interpret the referendum result, by ruling out any jurisdiction of the ECJ.

A nation state apparatus, that would have sufficed in the 1960’s, will not suffice for the 2020’s, because the world is much more interdependent, more interconnected, and faster moving, now than it was then.

The exercise the UK is undertaking will involve establishing a new bureaucracy, to deal separately with all the regulatory questions that previously were delegated by it for collective decision within the EU. The EU superstructure will have to be replicated in London, at some cost.

The UK may want to develop separate standards for many goods and services, but, if it does so,  UK firms will have the extra cost of complying, not only with the new UK standards, but with EU standards as well for any goods and services they wish to export to the rest of Europe.

There will thus be duplication at firm level, as well as at government level.

The only way to minimise this would be to go for a “soft Brexit”, whereby the UK would adopt EU rules, but without having a vote on those rules.

Such an option may be sustainable business wise, but it will not be sustainable politically in the medium term.

It would represent a substantial diminution of UK “sovereignty” relative to the “sovereignty” the UK now has as a full EU member. This would soon become politically unacceptable to the British people.

One can easily imagine the anger of the “Daily Mail” about the UK having to enact, and enforce, EU standards, on which the UK had had no vote!  But that is what a soft Brexit would entail.

For these reasons, a “soft Brexit” will only be a temporary arrangement, and one should  not invest all ones hopes in it.

I am coming to the view, reluctantly, that the only viable long term options are either

  • a “hard Brexit” or
  • a decision by the voters of the UK to stay in the EU after all.

The latter seems very unlikely indeed at the moment, because UK voters will not want to admit they made a mistake. They have no sentimental attachment to Europe anyway and sentiment seems to trump economics in voter’s minds nowadays.

But that could change gradually.

British people are, many for the first time, now learning about what the EU really is.

At the best of times, British people were never very curious about the EU or how it worked. Now they are required to find out, as part of the exit negotiation. It will be something of a revelation!

For 40 years, UK voters have been passengers in the EU car. Now, having decided to get out of the car, they are taking a first look under the bonnet.

They will discover how interconnected the different parts of the engine are, and how difficult it would be to link into some, but not into all, parts of the engine.

The UK will have to build its own engine from scratch now, and decide in which direction it wants the new car to travel. There was no consensus at all on the latter point on the “Leave” side in the referendum. Some want a more globalised Britain, the majority wants the exact opposite.

Ireland will be a spectator in this process.

The physical isolation of Ireland from the rest of the EU, in the event of a hard Brexit, is a problem that will need much thought at EU level, in the interests of European solidarity.

Experts in logistics, transport and communications need to be brought together at EU level, to examine how the costs of this physical isolation of Ireland can be minimised.

Commisioner Verstager, who is responsible for EU competition policy, should look at what needs to be done to ensure that states that are physically isolated from the core of the EU, like Greece, Malta, Cyprus and Ireland,  can always participate on an equal basis in the internal market.

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