Tag Archives: Northern Ireland

Michael Gove, Historical Revisionism And Wilful Ignorance

This morning, I’d noticed that Michael Gove had tweeted an article – presumably while intoxicated – from The S*n which reheats an old anti-Corbyn accusation. The article, which I won’t link to here, claims that Corbyn “aided campaign to free IRA assassin who served 20 years for trying to kill a cop”. There is no depth to which Gove will not plunge.

Let’s go back nearly 20 years when Gove wasn’t an MP (happy days), but was writing for the Rupert Murdoch-owned Times. The right-wing press in this country have continued with the notion that the war in Northern Ireland is ongoing and have used the conflict as a means to smear Corbyn for his efforts in finding a peaceful solution. I found this article written by Roy Greenslade in The Guardian in 2000, in which he says:

The rightwing papers’ coverage of the bloody loyalist feud in Northern Ireland has been slanted to fit the old myth that republicans are the root of all evil

Greenslade is referring here to the Loyalist feud that followed the Good Friday Agreement in 1999. Remember that the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has close links to the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF), which is an alternative name for the UVF, and the Red Hand Commando (RHC). The last two Tory governments, were supported by the DUP in a confidence and supply arrangement, which seemingly elided the party’s connections to Loyalist paramilitaries for the sake of expedience. In any case, it was a relationship doomed to failure from the outset, because the DUP does what the DUP wants when it wants.

Greenslade observes that British newspapers don’t give readers the full story, and Tories like Gove rely on voters’ ignorance of past events, which then begs the question: if people have no knowledge of British post-war history and the low intensity conflict in Northern Ireland, known euphemistically as ‘The Troubles’, then why take time and trouble to smear a man like Corbyn as an ‘IRA sympathiser’, especially when Thatcher government’s support for Loyalist death squads is well-documented? The only answer that I can come up with is hubris.

Giving readers a historical perspective takes up space and draws heavily on the time – and, of course, the expertise – of the journalist. It is therefore costly and, given the cult of youth that pervades so many papers nowadays, there are often too few people around editorial floors with a working knowledge of post-war modern history.

Greenslade continues:

Perhaps the most pernicious reason for our ahistorical press is its political agenda. When events call into question a policy line avidly pursued by a paper, throwing into doubt the trenchant “advice” offered to readers down the years, then it proves convenient to ignore history altogether.

Since coming to power in 2010, the Tories and their allies in the media and elsewhere have been trying to rewrite history to suit their false narratives.

A combination of these factors, with the last undoubtedly the most prevalent, occurred in the coverage of loyalist gang warfare in Northern Ireland last week. Right-wing papers suddenly found themselves in a tricky situation because the story did not fit neatly into the previous 30-year pattern of events.

In that paradigm, all the troubles in the “province” stemmed from malevolent republicans. In recent years, with the IRA ceasefire and Sinn Fein’s incorporation into elected office, these papers have opened a second front by pouring scorn on the concept and the practice of the peace process.

Yet the vast majority of republicans have remained stubbornly faithful to the ballot box, making it difficult for the hostile Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, Times and Sun to continue with their anti-peace process propaganda war.

Unlike those Loyalists, eh? Remember, the DUP didn’t accept the Good Friday Agreement and have pretended ever since that the low intensity war is still happening. Greenslade again:

Then along comes Johnny “Mad Dog” Adair and an opportunity of sorts is gratefully accepted. The usual suspects – Ruth Dudley-Edwards, Michael Gove, Bruce Anderson – were wheeled out along with their unnamed leader-writing sympathisers to hammer the government.

The outbreak of internecine strife on the Shankill was, according to Anderson in the Mail, due to politicians having created “a moral vacuum in which such madness can fester”.

And there, of course, is the return to the central agenda: it’s all the uppity republicans’ fault after all. The Daily Mail nodded in agreement, referring to “the government’s endless concessions to republicans”.

Not willing to accept that the fault for Loyalist internecine violence rested with the paramilitaries themselves, leader writers like Gove et al instead blamed Republicans. Greenslade again (my italics):

Gove in the Times blamed John Major and Tony Blair for appeasement. The Telegraph referred to the Northern Ireland secretary, Peter Mandelson, as living in an “Alice in Wonderland world” and claimed that Adair “ruled the roost because of the Belfast agreement”. So far, so bad. Even on this single point, no historical context was allowed to peep through. No mention, for instance, of the people of Ireland having voted overwhelmingly for the agreement, which stated categorically that prisoners would be released.

The Times, unlike the Telegraph, did at least praise Mandelson for Adair’s arrest. But its columnist Gove led the way in offering a scandalous justification for the Protestant paramilitaries’ gangsterism. Their hostility towards the peace process, he dared to claim, is fuelled by the fact that Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness is in government.

Gove, like many in his party, see nothing wrong with reviving the cycle of violence that so marred civil and political life in the Six Counties for nearly 40 years. For them, it’s a price worth paying, just so long as they get the Brexit they crave.

Gove’s efforts and those of his colleagues rely on the average Brit’s total ignorance, not just of their own history, but that of Ireland. This was brought into sharp relief a year ago when Priti Patel said that the government should use the threat of food shortages to force the Irish government to drop its demand for the so-called ‘backstop’ in the Brexit negotiations. Aside from the residual imperialism expressed in this statement, Patel and Gove’s cavalier approach to history and memory is dangerous.

But the Tories don’t care. For them, history only matters inasmuch as it’s just another narrative than can be endlessly rewritten to suit their political objectives. This 2016 article from the Belfast Telegraph revealed that the government provided UDA-linked groups with funds from what it calls ‘ the controversial Social Investment Fund’.

Among those with huge influence over how the £80 million SIF budget is allocated is notorious Bangor UDA criminal Dee Stitt, who last week posed for photos with DUP First Minister Arlene Foster.

Other key players include the UDA’s former leader in the Maze Prison and Lisburn commander Adrian Bird, and convicted UDA gunman turned failed DUP council candidate Sam ‘Chalky’ White. All three paramilitaries were appointed to SIF steering panels, which recommend how cash is handed out, with DUP and Sinn Fein approval.

During the past two years Stitt, Bird and White have successfully lobbied for more than £5 million of taxpayers’ cash being spent on UDA-linked projects that pay their wages in Belfast, Lisburn and Bangor.

The Tories, Michael Gove in particular, have some explaining to do.

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Well, You Could Call It ‘Incompetence’, But…

Yesterday’s revelation that some key documents have either been ‘mislaid’ or have ‘gone missing’ from the National Archives would appear, at first glance, to have some plausibility. But the files, which pertain to important events in British political history, such as the notorious Zinoviev Letter, the Falklands War and the plot to undermine the Wilson governments, seem to have vanished at a most opportune moment for the Conservative government.

Ian Cobain writing in The Guardian says:

The disappearances highlight the ease with which government departments can commandeer official papers long after they have been declassified and made available to historians and the public at the archives at Kew, south-west London.

A Freedom of Information Act request in 2014 showed that 9,308 files were returned to government departments in this way in 2011. The following year 7,122 files were loaned out, and 7,468 in 2013. The National Archives says Whitehall departments are strongly encouraged to promptly return them, but they are not under any obligation to do so.

Worrying. Further down, he writes:

Some historians have been particularly distrustful of the Foreign Office since 2013, when the Guardian disclosed that the department had been unlawfully hoarding 1.2m historical files at a high-security compound near Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire.

The hoard came to light during high court proceedings brought by a group of elderly Kenyans who were detained and abused during the Mau Mau insurgency in 1950s Kenya, when the Foreign Office admitted it had withheld thousands of colonial-era files.

A few years earlier, the Ministry of Defence refused to consider a number of files for release under the Freedom of Information Act on the grounds that they may have been exposed to asbestos.

The files concerned such matters as arms sales to Saudi Arabia, UK special forces operations against Indonesia and interrogation techniques. The MoD denied it was using the presence of asbestos in an old archive building as an excuse to suppress the documents.

When all else fails, blame it on asbestos… or foreigners, or gays or something.

Given the secrecy with which the British state operates, and the Conservative Party’s past record in undermining political parties and the democratic process, the Cat is inclined to suspect foul play. If government departments are allowed to take documents from the National Archives without being compelled to return them, then this leads one to conclude that items weren’t “misplaced”, they were taken for a reason and it’s fairly easy to work out what that reason was: to destroy them or keep them hidden from public view.

Remember that documents that are held in the National Archives are available to historians, academics and other members of the public on request. It is likely that the Tories, who have attempted to revise history for the seven years they’ve been in power, want to create a narrative that is, not only favourable to them, but one in which other legitimate political parties are cast in a negative light.

There must be a fully independent public inquiry into the disappearance of these documents. A failure to do so will only increase public suspicion of the Conservative Party and the state.

Ian Cobain’s book The History Thieves: Secrets, Lies and the Shaping of a Modern Nation is worth a read.

 

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The Tory-DUP Pact

DUP billboard

Oops! That’s another promise broken!

After last night’s election losses that saw Theresa May’s Tory Party denied an overall majority in the Commons, it was perhaps inevitable that they would turn to the Democratic Unionist Party to prop them up. A reminder: this is not a coalition; it is an arrangement between the party of government and another party.  There is no joint programme as there would be between two parties entering a coalition. It is a formal agreement between a smaller party and the larger party to support government policies on an issue by issue basis. The Lib Dems could have chosen this option but decided to opt for government instead. Perhaps fearing a future wipeout by the Ulster Unionist Party, who are the natural allies of the Tories, the DUP picked the least worse option.  By the way, there are no UUP MPs in the Commons, so the only Unionist Party that May could turn to was the DUP, who, along with Independent Unionist, Sylvia Hermon, have supported the Tories in the Commons since 2015.

So what do we know about the DUP?  

The DUP is a socially conservative political party in Northern Ireland. It was founded by Dr Ian Paisley and Desmond Boal in 1971 from the remains of the Protestant Unionist Party. It was, until recently, in a power-sharing government with their mortal enemies, Sinn Féin. During its time in government, the DUP has opposed equal marriage and abortion, and are climate change deniers. This will make a few socially liberal Tories feel rather uncomfortable. If you think the Tories are stuck in the 19th century, the DUP lives in the 17th century.

What else?

As I wrote in this article from 2015, the party has links to Loyalist paramilitaries like the Ulster Defence Association, the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Red Hand Commando. At times, the DUP has been referred to as “political wing of the UDA”.

Why does any of this matter?

Throughout the General Election campaign, the Tories and their allies in the media accused Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and, to a lesser extent, Diane Abbott of being “IRA/terrorist sympathizers”. Their reasons for doing this were tenuous: Corbyn spoke to representatives of Sinn Féin, and not the IRA, in order to facilitate a peaceful end to the so-called ‘Troubles’. The Tories thought that by linking Corbyn et al to the IRA, they could claim he was “soft on terrorism” and put an end to his momentum. Now the Tories are in a working relationship with the DUP, whose links to Loyalist paramilitaries – terrorists, if you will – are well known. The Tories find themselves in a deliciously hypocritical position after spending much of the campaign smearing Corbyn for his “appeasement of Britain’s enemies”. The Tories can now be cast as ‘terrorist sympathizers’.

So what happens now?

We wait and see. Nowhere Towers doesn’t think the government will last 12 months. As for May herself, The Cat has heard there are moves afoot to remove her. Tory think-tank, the Bow Group, has called for leadership elections.  Watch this space.

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Northern Irish Politics And Britain’s Wilful Ignorance

Northern Ireland is a bit of a mystery for Tories and many people on the so-called mainland. So it comes as no surprise to The Cat that the historic gains for Sinn Féin and the collapse of the Democratic Unionist Party’s share of the vote in last Thursday’s snap election went under-reported by the British media. More about that later.

For many British people, it’s as if the ‘Troubles’ (I hate that euphemism) never ended and the Good Friday Agreement never took place.  For the Tories, especially, time in Northern Ireland stands still in the year 1984. This is often revealed in the ‘Corbyn and McDonnell appease IRA terrorists’ slur, which is repeated by Tory, UKIP and Lib Dem politicians and the trolls that gather on the ‘below the line’ threads on newspaper websites and blogs like this one.  Centuries of history are simply swept aside along with evidence.

The mainstream media, too, selectively recalls the ‘Troubles’ as a symmetrical conflict between Catholics and Protestants, with the former group often depicted as wild-eyed Fenian bomb-throwers and the latter as oppressed victims of sectarian hatred.  Nationalism, too,  is often conflated with Republicanism. So it comes as a surprise to many that there were Protestant members of the IRA and the Irish National Liberation Army and Catholic Unionists; while Loyalism is a peculiarly Protestant phenomenon and predates Unionism as a political movement. Unsurprisingly, there is  little, if any, mention in the British media of the strong fraternal (sic) ties between the various Loyalist paramilitaries and extreme right parties like Britain First and the British National Party.  The mainstream media’s simplistic narratives deliberately ignore the complexity of Northern Ireland’s politics and gloss over the history of the centuries old occupation of Ireland by the British.

The gerrymandering of Northern Ireland by the Unionists from the inception of the semi-state in 1920 until the 1970s is also ignored by mainstream media commentators. This video from the 1970s describes how Unionists controlled Derry City Council by rigging the wards.

In the years following partition, Stormont was a mostly Unionist institution with nationalists represented by the Nationalist Party, a continuation of the Irish Parliamentary Party. The dominant Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), which monopolized the Protestant vote, has close ties to the Conservative and Unionist Party on the mainland.

In the first Northern Ireland House of Commons election of 1921, James Craig’s Unionists polled 60 seats with Sinn Féin and the Nationalists receiving 6 seats each. Both parties abstained from taking their seats. This remained the case until 1925, when the Northern Ireland Labour Party gained 3 seats and Independent Unionists took 4 seats from the UUP. This would be the last election to be held using proportional representation. There are no prizes for guessing why PR was abolished in favour of First Past The Post. Single seat constituencies were also created, thus making it doubly difficult for small parties and independents to gain seats. The UUP held onto its unfair advantage until 1973 when direct rule was imposed on Northern Ireland by Westminster. Even so, the UUP’s hegemony remained intact until the Northern Ireland Assembly elections of 2003, when it was overtaken by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin.

Success for the DUP at Stormont would translate into success at Westminster, where it eclipsed the UUP. Now part of a power-sharing executive with with its old foe, Sinn Féin, the DUP believed it could keep the Unionist political hegemony alive forever. How wrong they were.

In spite of their historical differences, the DUP’s Ian Paisley and Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness appeared to get along well as First Minister and Deputy First Minister. The press even dubbed them ‘The Chuckle Brothers’.  When Paisley retired due to ill health in 2008, his place as FM was taken by Peter Robinson, who immediately adopted a hardline approach to the Shinners. Robinson would eventually be brought down 8 years later by no less a figure than his wife, Iris, who was involved in an extramarital affair with a man who was nearly 20 years her junior. She also arranged £50,000 of loans for her lover to open a restaurant.

Under Robinson and his successor, the hapless Arlene Foster , the DUP  blocked socially progressive legislation and supported Brexit (they have always been anti-EU), while most voters in the Six Counties supported Remain. The Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) or ‘Cash for Ash’ scandal, began to drag Foster under.  RHI had been introduced while Foster was Minister for Enterprise and Trade and she was accused by a “senior member” in her own party of withholding evidence from the Assembly.  In response to Foster’s stubborn refusal to resign while investigations took place, Martin McGuinness, who was already extremely ill, resigned as Deputy FM, thus precipitating the election. The DUP has lost 10 seats, while the UUP continues its descent into obscurity having lost one of its six seats. Other smaller parties, like the Loyalist-orientated Traditional Unionist Voice, are static. Only  Sinn Féin and the SDLP made significant gains, while Profit Before People lost one seat.

Yet Foster still refuses to stand down. Even Mike Nesbitt, the leader of the UUP, resigned. The normally Unionist-friendly Belfast Telegraph has urged her to stand aside.

Unionists of all shades – mainstream, moderate and hardline – need to engage in a soul-searching inquest. The fact that Mike Nesbitt so swiftly relinquished his leadership of the Ulster Unionists should not mean that Foster can ignore a similar fate in the DUP.

Meanwhile Sinn Féin is refusing to work with the DUP if they insist on keeping Foster as FM.

There is nothing particularly modern or forward-looking about the Unionist parties and they have held the Six Counties back for far too long. Could this be the beginning of the end for Unionism? I hope so.

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Filed under 2017, Government & politics, Northern Ireland Assembly elections

The voting reform bill: a good opportunity for some partisan mud-slinging

Next time you may have to list preferences.

It is amusing the way some Telegraph bloggers are dealing with the proposed referendum of AV and the Labour Party’s response to it; it’s an other opportunity to engage in a little mud-slinging.

A couple of days ago, the Honourable Tobes complained that Labour and, in particular, Jack Straw, was being “opportunistic” in its opposition to the referendum. Honestly, some people have nothing better to do.  Here Young claims that

Straw’s excuse is that the bill paving the way for the referendum is also going to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600 and redraw some constituency boundaries to equalise the number of people in each constituency. That’s bad news for Labour since Tory seats are, on average, more populus than Labour ones, meaning Labour candidates require a smaller number of votes to get elected than Conservatives.

Ah, but Straw may actually have a point. I guess neither Tobes nor any of the other supporters of this bill have considered this.  Instead they scream that Labour is being ‘unreasonable’ and that their worries are unfounded but how true is this?

Will Straw (Jack’s lad) notes the Electoral Commission’s investigation into under-registration earlier this year,

“The highest concentrations of under-registration are most likely to be found in metropolitan areas, smaller towns and cities with large student populations, and coastal areas with significant population turnover and high levels of social deprivation.”

So voters are an issue or, rather, the lack of them. I am also concerned with the coalition’s inference that they are being ‘impartial’. John Costello says,

By failing to factor them into his arithmetical review of constituency boundaries, Mr Clegg will be distorting the electoral map of Britain for good, and diluting the representation of people from poorer social groups in the process.

Poor people and people from minority ethnic groups are under-represented, yet this doesn’t seem to concern the coalition who bat the subject away with characteristic nonchalance. Labour are told to ‘go out and register some voters’. Costello continues,

The government’s boundary review promises to deliver the very antithesis of that objective. Now it’s true that over the past 13 years boundary reviews have been conducted on the basis of the existing, incomplete electoral registers. But not on the scale being proposed here (i.e. being used as the basis for chopping 50 seats), and the process was always balanced by the opportunity for public consultation.

So let me get this straight, there will be no public consultations? What happened to devolving power to the people? This article from the Independent says,

Cutting 65-80 seats by crudely equalising registered voters will simply reduce the number of seats in inner cities and areas that have devolved government (apart from London). In short, areas that never elect Tory MPs. This will be Florida-style gerrymandering of the electoral system, disenfranchising many of the most vulnerable people in society.”

Again, the coalition seems uninterested in this. Why? Is it political convenience? David Blackburn of The Spectator calls for Cameron to detach the boundary changes from the bill and notes that there is a sizeable number of Tory rebels. He also observes that “Bernard Jenkin, leader of the Tory rebellion, has the numbers to derail the bill”.

But AV is not PR and despite its supporters saying that “every vote will count”, it is little different to what we have already.

But the knives are out for Jack Straw but as this comment observes, the Lib Dems are rather fond of a little gerrymandering themselves.

The Liberal Democrats are the party for “Unequal Constituencies”. In the Scottish highlands and islands.

Hmmm… I wonder why that might be? It is a real puzzler.

The Lib Dems have handed the bill’s opponents an open goal with their H&I gerrymandering.

Ooops! Of course, an example of institutionalized gerrymandering exists across the Irish Sea where the Unionists have drawn and redrawn boundaries to preserve their majority and thus retain their grip on power in Northern Ireland. This was happening as recently as last year where unionists conspired to freeze out the SDLP from a committee.

Lisburn City Council breached its own equality agenda by excluding the SDLP from an important committee, the Equality Commission has found.

The party was not given a seat on the committee which is overseeing the council’s transition to a super council.

The truth of the matter is that any kind of voting reform must overseen and implemented by an outside body: this is normally the Electoral Commission. The redrawing of constituency boundaries is done by the Boundaries Commission. The Tories don’t want any change to the system and have done all they can to ensure that any bill is unpalatable to those who want change. The Lib Dems have clearly shot themselves in the foot on this issue: if the bill fails, they lose. If the bill succeeds they still lose. The only winners are the Conservatives and Labour.

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Tebbit demands justice!

In the immediate aftermath of the Saville Report the Daily Telegraph’s bloggers were mysteriously quiet. Clearly, they hadn’t had time to formulate their twists on the findings. The Chingford Skinhead is already demanding a public inquiry to the Brighton Bombing in 1984. Tebbit says “The victims of Brighton are no less important than those of Londonderry. They should not be treated as second-class victims”. The “victims” in this case were members of the Conservative Party including Tebbit whose wife was left disabled by the blast. But his sense of apparent fair play is undermined by his mean-spiritedness. What Tebbit fails, or does not want, to understand is the fact that there are no secrets vis a vis the Grand Hotel bombing; the Provisional IRA claimed responsibility. Whereas the State, on the other hand, actively sought to hide the truth behind the Bloody Sunday killings.

Not one to respect or acknowledge difference, Tebbit excelled himself in 1990 with his infamous suggestion that one’s citizenship or, rather, dedication to a notion of national pride could be determined by which cricket team one supported (presumably he also meant the Scots by this, because they patently do not support English cricket). Perhaps it is also no surprise that Tebbit was (and possibly still is) a member of the notorious [Conservative] Monday Club who once firmly supported the idea of voluntary repatriation of ethnic minorities – something that they had in common with the National Front and the British National Party. By the way, the Monday Club is working flat out to return to the Tory fold after having their links with them severed in 2001 by The Quiet Man. If their website is to be believed, they appear to have softened their earlier ideas on ethnic minorities but this doesn’t represent a philosophical sea change; they are still as anti-immigration and reactionary as they’ve ever been. They also have a Facebook group with only 7 members. No sign of Tebbit though.

Tebbit finishes his article by whining, “Some victims, the peace process seems to imply, have superior rights to others”. That isn’t the feeling that I get; this is long-overdue justice.

Meanwhile Douglas Murray is as paranoid as ever, muttering gloomily about “handing propaganda victories to people who hate us“. I thought that was just the ‘Islamists’ who did that sort of thing, Dougie? Say, didn’t you go to a prestigious private Catholic School in Ealing? He singles out Martin McGuinness for special attention – as have the usual Unionist voices, focussing on allegations that he was toting a sub-machine gun on the day. McGuiness, of course, denies this but this single-minded interest in what McGuniness was or was not doing is, in my view, an attempt to besmirch findings of the Saville Report. The qualified acceptance of the Saville Report that we see here from Murray and others is not surprising because for all their talk of greater freedom and social ‘cohesion’, they still have a fundamental issue with the exact nature of human rights.

Ah, balance…don’t you just love it?

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