But what does it mean for Ireland?

by Maria on May 15, 2015

In 1898, the Skibbereen Eagle, the weekly paper of the landed and merchant classes of West Cork, published a thundering editorial against Nicholas II, Tsar of Russia. The Eagle had taken note of the Tsar’s tendency to trample the self-determinative rights of various Central Asian nations and took it upon itself to say to the world; ‘down with that sort of thing’. And so it was that the last of the Romanovs’ hand surely trembled as he clutched his own copy of the Eagle and timidly read its promise to “keep its eye on the Emperor of Russia and all such despotic enemies – whether at home or abroad – of human progression and man’s natural rights which undoubtedly include a nation’s right to self-government. ‘Truth’, ‘Liberty’, ‘Justice’ and the ‘Land for the People’ are the solid foundations on which the Eagle’s policy is based.”

And so it is, that a week after the Conservatives took power in Westminster and announced their insistence on ramming through their first round coalition negotiation document manifesto, the question of what it means for Ireland must be asked, and fulminating admonitions bellowed from across the Irish Sea. Or, in my case, south London.

First of all, a narrow Conservative victory is bad news for the peace process. Faced with opposition to the gutting of the Human Rights Act by its own grown-up members – the Kenneth Clarkes, Dominic Grieves and David Davies’ – the Tories will need cross-party votes to ram through its own ‘British Bill of Rights’. (Yes, rights are now things that Britons have by virtue of their passport, not things that humans have, by virtue of being born.)

Now, who in Westminster can be expected to sympathise with the Tory leadership’s view that human rights cases are largely non-serious* and the preserve of trouble-makers, misfits and unshaven terrorists? Welcome, DUP, with your reassuringly unreconstructed social conservatism, conviction that human rights are merely a conceit for mouthy nationalists and eight seats in Parliament. Do take a seat at the table.

Why is tacit support for the Tories on some issues worse than having the DUP in a coalition? Two reasons. First, if the Tories had needed to negotiate with the DUP to form a five-year coalition, they would have had to offer them something significant like a massive cheque to cover Northern Ireland’s budget shortfall. This may have a) saved the current power-sharing agreement from imminent collapse, and b) highlighted for a few more people the fact that austerity is something that happens in England but not in NI; i.e. that it is a political choice and not a law of physics.

Outcome a) is the important one for Ireland, insofar as the Republic cares about and is deeply involved in NI and wants it to succeed. Although it is reported not at all in Great Britain’s mainstream media, the power-sharing agreement has been teetering for months, and turn-out in the election in NI was shockingly low – especially on the nationalist side – simply because politics there is utterly static and pointless. Things are very, very bad. The election has not improved the situation and in some ways made it worse.

Re-appointing Theresa Villiers as Northern Ireland Secretary is a clear snub to the main political parties there. It shows contempt for the need to push the power-sharing agreement through its current stasis on budget, parades and treatment of the past. Aside from the near-universal agreement that pregnant women do not have bodily autonomy, the one thing the DUP, UUP, Sinn Fein, SDLP and even the lovely, polite Alliance Party all share is their contempt for Theresa Villiers.

Living in GB, it is striking how NI more or less doesn’t exist as a news story or a political priority, now that they’ve more or less stopped shooting each other and blowing up ‘mainland’ shopping centres. The great election television debate about the television debate was remarkable for barely noticing the exclusion of the DUP. They may be unlovely and be presumed to deal only with regional issues, but the DUP had and have eight times as many MPs as UKIP. And with the Conservatives likely to be depending on them frequently over the next five years, wouldn’t it have been useful or even essential for the rest of the country to understand who the DUP are?

Well, that ship has sailed.

Then there’s the EU, and what Britain’s dysfunctional relationship with Brussels and its own declining place in the world order means for Ireland. For a start, don’t expect to hear much about what the effect on Ireland would be of Brexit. Ireland stayed out of Schengen in order to preserve an open border with the UK (not that it feels like that when you fly there through Heathrow). If the UK – still our major trading partner – leaves the EU, will we find we have to leave, too?

Don’t panic, says the UK government out of one side of its mouth. We’ll just extract a few concessions from Brussels and the other member-states, run a quick referendum and we’ll all be ship shape by the end of next year. Except:

– The Tory right-wing will not be appeased by a few concessions; they want out and that is non-negotiable.

– George Osborne, the chief negotiator for the UK’s deal is persona non grata in much of Brussels. Wolfgang Schauble, Germany’s finance minister, reminded us all publicly just a couple of days ago that many believe Osborne tried to collapse the Euro.

– The Tories have no understanding of Brussels. None. They belong to the fringe European Parliament right-wing grouping and have almost no deep knowledge of how things are done, and few relationships with the people that get things done. When it comes to the EU, the Tories are party-crashers, bumbling around offending people and flouncing off at 5am when they don’t get to DJ.

So today’s Conservative reassurances that they won’t require treaty changes by the EU and it can all be wrapped up quickly and neatly are not very reassuring. They simply don’t understand the EU well enough to know which bits will require fundamental changes – free movement of people, anyone? – and they don’t have enough nous or social capital in technocratic circles to get enough help with work-arounds. (Though in fairness, there is nothing like working together at close quarters to develop knowledge and relationships, and it is partially in other member states’ interests to keep the UK in.)

But saying you want to change fundamental aspects of the EU but it won’t change the treaties is a bit like saying you want to repeal the Human Rights Act but it won’t change anyone’s human rights or require you to leave the ECHR. Uh huh. The fact that you’re saying it shows you don’t really know what it means.

And what all this means for Ireland beyond an end to the cattle-rustling subsidy antics that go along our open border is unclear. Westminster should remember that changes to the EU treaties will require referendums in Ireland and other countries. And those referendums will be both financially costly and largely unwanted (at least by the political elites). It is asking rather a lot of your friend and neighbour.

But I expect the UK will give these questions just as much thought and care as Scotland gave to the consequences of its potential independence for Northern Ireland. ‘Aye ready’ indeed.

  • Re. the distinction Tories make between serious and unserious human rights cases, I am sure plenty thought Rosa Park’s issue with where she sat on the bus was trivial and vexatious.

{ 29 comments }

1

Phil 05.15.15 at 1:30 pm

But saying you want to change fundamental aspects of the EU but it won’t change the treaties is a bit like saying you want to repeal the Human Rights Act but it won’t change anyone’s human rights or require you to leave the ECHR. Uh huh. The fact that you’re saying it shows you don’t really know what it means.

This.

When I’m asked why we don’t just restrict HR to ‘serious’ cases, I take the Babbage defence – “I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question”. Establishing whether they are trivial or not is an essential part of the process.

2

Mark 05.15.15 at 1:36 pm

ECHR is in the GFA so good luck with walking away from that.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Good_Friday_Agreement#Equality_and_human_rights

3

PlutoniumKun 05.15.15 at 2:49 pm

“The Tories have no understanding of Brussels. None. They belong to the fringe European Parliament right-wing grouping and have almost no deep knowledge of how things are done, and few relationships with the people that get things done. When it comes to the EU, the Tories are party-crashers, bumbling around offending people and flouncing off at 5am when they don’t get to DJ.”

This too.

I’ve always found it amazing at just how inept the Conservatives are with the EU. That one of the most successful and mainstream centre right parties has managed to alienate themselves from every other major centre right party in Europe takes some doing. It will simply be impossible for them to negotiate any sort of meaningful concession in time for a referendum without the active support of Merkel, etc., and that is highly unlikely. The only allies they have are some of the nuttier fringe right wing eastern European groupings.

Maria is of course quite right that awareness of NI politics is almost non-existent in Britain. And that this ignorance extends to the government is clear from their apparent unawareness of the implications for policies on the EU and the Human Rights Act on NI. While relatively ‘normal’ politics in NI is a triumph of the peace process, the possibility of it all unravelling is very real – and it does seem that Cameron either does not know this, or does not care. The possibility of the peace process unravelling while Cameron has to simultaneously keep an unofficial parliamentary deal going to the DUP has major banana skin written all over it.

As for the Republic, its hard not to see the election as having been a potential disaster. Even Charlie Flanagan – a very right wing minister for justice who would be very much at home with the right of the Tory party – seems genuinely angry and upset at the implications of Camerons speech. Its not so much the contents, its the bull in a china shop approach which has the potential to cause political and economic chaos, especially if Cameron opts for a quick EU vote (which I suspect he will), and if the vote is to leave (which I think is quite possible given the disarray of the potential ‘yes’ campaigners.

4

Ed 05.15.15 at 4:39 pm

One point to add is that the SNP near-sweep, and the Tories’ successful (in the short term) election strategy of making the SNP the bogeymen increases the chances of Scotland leaving the UK, which I still put as greater than that of England leaving the EU. But a “United Kingdom of England and Northern Ireland” is different than a “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”. The historical and geographical ties of Ulster to England are the weakest out of the four nations of the British Isles.

5

Phil 05.15.15 at 4:41 pm

Someone who does know about NI and human rights is… Michael Gove, who in 2000 published a pamphlet called The Price of Peace: An analysis of British policy in Northern Ireland. In which we read:

The NIHRC [NI Human Rights Commission] is the vanguard of a new human rights culture, charged with broadening the scope and reach of the legal revolution heralded by the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into British law.

The incorporation of the ECHR, although not triggered until this autumn, has already marked a decisive change in the balance of power in Britain. It empowers judges to rule that legislation passed in the previously sovereign UK Parliament should be changed if it is not in conformity with judicial interpretations of Human Rights. As such it marks a profound shift in power away from elected representatives, directly accountable to the people, and into the hands of judges.

And:

[The NIHRC] has tended to champion those seeking to subvert the legitimate authority of the State rather than those who have been the victims of the greatest abusers of human rights in Northern Ireland – the paramilitary terrorist organisations. The NIHRC’s creation, existence and growth is not a triumph for those who fought terrorism, it is a clear strategic gain for those who dislike the British way of doing things and wish to fundamentally reconstruct the social order and erode traditional liberties.

A gain which Gove presumably now intends to roll back, with a little help from the DUP. Peace process? What peace process? (Link to Gove’s pamphlet found in this compendious post.)

6

Ronan(rf) 05.15.15 at 10:07 pm

Not to be contrary, but I think I disagree with a lot of the above. If you think, as I do, that the break up of the UK is somewhat inevitable, and if you think that nationalism, like alcoholism and sobriety, is the capacity to be able to make and learn from mistakes, then there is little point (or chance) of plugging the dam at this stage. British nationalism is failing, and what form the break-up takes (to develop inclusive and progressive identities, or exclusive and reactionary ones) is contingent upon how the British political system responds now.
I don’t think NI will devolve back into violence. The political circumstances are too differen’t, the traditions too outdated and society too changed. Even dissidents like the RIRA are considering calling a halt at this stage. What NI needs is a complete shake up of its sectarian power structure and a removal of the opportunities for pushing blame on to others for what (now, at least) are internal issues that should be resolved through a rational reordering of domestic political interest groups.
Start pushing (rather than leave it descend into) greater regional autonomy and you could develop a genuine United Kingdom, with power less centralised but relationships closer and more intimate.
I’ve met very few people in England who have any sort of deep attachment to the EU, even in the sense that it exists in Ireland which is mainly contingent and driven by self interest. Break away from the EU seems to me to be what the (non Scottish?) British want, so they should vote on it and live with whatever comes. The debate needs to be had (as it has been in Ireland) and people need to accept its terms. People need to be able to develop allegiances to Europe (whether economic or identity based) through other means than coercion, or else this cycle will keep repeating.
I don’t think English nationalism should be seen as always pathological, or else that is what it will become. Even among extremists, I’ve always found, the borders are always thin. Civic nationalism should be embraced and nurtured, rather than fought and demonised, otherwise exclusive ethnic nationalism will develop.
I understand the practical issues raised by Maria, but think what is happening is the logical and semi-inevitable outcome of the break down of the British national identity, and so everyone should start the process of building different coalitions.

7

Ronan(rf) 05.15.15 at 10:12 pm

….also, I’m not really worried that the Irish diplomatic class can’t deal with the breakdown and negotiate good terms for Ireland.

8

Phil 05.15.15 at 11:33 pm

It’s not really about agreeing terms for Ireland, though. I think the point is more that the Irish government has to agree in order for HRA repeal to happen in Northern Ireland – and why would they do that?

I don’t know about Maria, but I don’t think there’s a danger to the peace process in the sense of a danger of going back to the Troubles – that ship has sailed, fortunately. But I do think the idea of the “peace process” – a continuing process of peaceful reconciliation – is important for the political health of the province. The arrival of a government which – if Gove is anything to go by – thinks more in terms of a Defeat Of The Terrorists Process isn’t good news.

Your other comments take me back 25 years; there were similar hopeful prognoses for the breakup and reassembly of Yugoslavia. Hopefully this doesn’t tell us anything.

9

Ronan(rf) 05.16.15 at 12:01 am

The talk in the Republic is about trade and migration. Both are negotiatible after any hypothetical EU vote. So are pretty much all the technical details on the North, perhaps under the exception of the spanner of a Sinn Fein govt. (Irish nationalists circa 2015 are not Irish nationalists circa 1969, or even 1980)
I don’t think there is a continuing ‘process of peaceful reconciliation’ in NI to speak off. There is only stagnation. I think the process of reconciliation hasn’t materialised and so the specifics of the HRA are irrelevant in any practical manner.
The UK is not Yugolslavia. I know, easy to say, but true. (ie there’s no potential huge economic breakdown for international institutions to mismanage) The constitutinal order of the UK does not even fit the patterns of the breakdowns of the 19th or 20th century. The breakdowns occurs when political rights can’t be accommodated and political elites are excluded. I don’t see the comparison today.
My impression is only that those on the left need a response that is realistic and manageable, and holding back the breakdown of the Union in the long term does not strike me as such.

10

Ronan(rf) 05.16.15 at 12:06 am

….but also take this as more of a conversation opener than me holding to any position dogmatically (I’m genuinely open for argument rather than declaring anything to be true)

11

Anderson 05.16.15 at 12:09 am

“insofar as the Republic cares about and is deeply involved in NI and wants it to succeed.”

Explain, please?

12

Ronan(rf) 05.16.15 at 12:56 am

A conscious uncoupling is the term I was looking for. If Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow can then why can’t the rest of us ?

13

david 05.16.15 at 3:08 am

the Tory right-wing also would not be appeased on gay marriage, and yet here we are. Cameron can count on Labour and SNP votes over his backbenchers in watering down the EU referendum

14

Phil 05.16.15 at 9:27 am

I don’t think there is a continuing ‘process of peaceful reconciliation’ in NI to speak off. There is only stagnation.

I agree – but that’s exactly why, as a minimum, keeping faith with the idea of the Peace Process is important. I fear the new government’s approach is going to be more along the lines of striding in and saying “peace process? forget it – you lost!”, and that isn’t going to have good results.

15

Maria 05.16.15 at 12:16 pm

Anderson – what is your question? If you don’t understand the sentence / context etc. then let me know what it is you want explained. I need a bit more to go on than that!

david – the gay marriage lobby was smaller, far less certain of itself, of shorter duration, hadn’t extracted pre-election promises, had far less support in cabinet etc. etc. They’re comparable, sure, but across a range of factors one is far stronger than the other.

Now what will be interesting to see is how/if Cameron et al manage to hive off some of the working level policy issues – immigration, benefits – from the theological ones – we don’t want no foreign meddling in our laws, thus splitting the broader party faithful from the more rarified and theoretical opponents of Europe in any form. He pretty much has to, to carry a referendum.

Ronan, thank you very much for raising these much longer term and broader questions. I have to admit I’ve been so stuck in the news cycle, not only have I not thought about the issues you raise but I’m genuinely surprised there’s such an apparently feeling that the union is essentially doomed. (And as an Irish person I feel a bit weird about really, really not being happy with that prospect – requires reflection, methinks!) I’ll have to give it some thought, though I don’t claim any more authority on that than any one else.

Also, I tend to cut way down on screen time at the weekend so it won’t be an immediate response, but I just wanted to thank you and Phil (and the other commenters on this thread) for such thoughtful and thought-provoking responses.

16

Maria 05.16.15 at 12:17 pm

Sorry, ‘apparently plausible feeling’, p.4 of my comment.

17

Ronan(rf) 05.16.15 at 3:00 pm

” but I’m genuinely surprised there’s such an apparently [plausible]feeling that the union is essentially doomed.”

I might be a little prone to melodrama , Maria ; ) (I do think it’s likely, and would be a long term good, but I can’t say my opinion is backed up by any sort of a sophisticated analysis)

18

Sasha Clarkson 05.16.15 at 3:46 pm

Things are changing: the politics of seeking the vote in “Middle England” are alienating more than the Scots!

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2015/05/14/petition-demands-northern-counties-break-away-from-london-centric-south-and-join-with-scotland_n_7286464.html

The Ulster orangemen had better start looking south, because they really are not popular on mainland Britain, and will be even less so if they are seen to be arbiters at Westminster.

19

Sasha Clarkson 05.16.15 at 3:52 pm

The needs and challenges of the north cannot be understood by the endless parade of old Etonions (sic :D ) lining the frontbenches of the House of Commons.”

https://www.change.org/p/the-uk-government-allow-the-north-of-england-to-secede-from-the-uk-and-join-scotland

OK, 36000 signatures is not overly many at this stage, but it could take off – and Wales would almost certainly want to join.

20

Stephen 05.16.15 at 9:03 pm

I’m afraid that, on a deep level, I disagree with Maria (and, I would not be surprised to find, with many others) when she complains that “rights are now things that Britons have by virtue of their passport, not things that humans have, by virtue of being born”.

If you look at past history across the globe, or the present state of affairs in most of Asia and Africa (don’t know about less northern parts of the Americas), you will find that it has been, and is, most unusual to find that people have rights by virtue of being born. At least, not rights in the sense that present citizens of more fortunate places (including Britain) have them. I think that when Maria considers “human rights” she means rights that she thinks everybody ought to have, even if they don’t have and never have had. Which is a pity.

Looking in a longer perspective, people at this time are descended from pre-sapiens hominids who are descended from some sort of apes who were descended from some sort of fish who were descended from some sort of worm … when, where and why did these acquire some sort of rights?

On a minor factual point:Maria also complains that “turn-out in the election in NI was shockingly low – especially on the nationalist side”. Actually, turnout in NI in 2015 was 58.1%; in 2010, 57.6%. It is true that the proportion voting for nationalist parties did fall, but there are several possible explanations for that, not all necessarily acceptable to Maria.

21

Stephen 05.16.15 at 9:06 pm

Sasha: it is not certain that the 5M or so Scots would really want to have 10M or so northern English come to join them, especially since they would be from regions poorer than Scotland and therefore demanding a subsidy from the Scots. Ditto, in spades, for being joined by the Welsh.

22

Phil 05.16.15 at 10:10 pm

Stephen: when a group of nations (E) asserts a bundle of defined universal human rights (U) at a certain time (T), they’re not saying that U1…Un have previously obtained either in or outside E, or for that matter that they will obtain henceforth outside E. What they are saying is that the recognised authorities of E commit to undertake to make U obtain within E, at time T and forever afterwards.

But I suspect you’re well aware of all this (it’s not exactly obscure) and are affecting to misunderstand for rhetorical purposes.

23

ZM 05.17.15 at 4:35 am

“If you look at past history across the globe, or the present state of affairs in most of Asia and Africa (don’t know about less northern parts of the Americas), you will find that it has been, and is, most unusual to find that people have rights by virtue of being born. …. I think that when Maria considers “human rights” she means rights that she thinks everybody ought to have, even if they don’t have and never have had. Which is a pity.

Looking in a longer perspective, people at this time are descended from pre-sapiens hominids who are descended from some sort of apes who were descended from some sort of fish who were descended from some sort of worm … when, where and why did these acquire some sort of rights?”

I would think Maria is probably following the usage of human rights which developed from the larger unfair natural rights discourse, human rights became prominent in the mid-20th C as a result of war and genocides and so on thanks to people like Eleanor Roosevelt.

In terms of all the other creatures, I went to a Catholic university for my undergraduate degree so we were taught to see “human rights” discourse as part of a larger search for social justice. From catholic theology I think humans have dignity rather than rights, and the other creatures have dignity but less in the great chain of being concept.

24

Stephen 05.17.15 at 3:05 pm

Phil: you and I almost agree about what “human rights” are. They are rights that apply to specific humans who were born in or moved into particular states where the laws now say those rights will be maintained. The critical point being, I think, that they are a local, legal construct, and as such can change one way or the other as the law changes.

My objection to Maria’s statement that they are “things that humans have, by virtue of being born” is that she is indulging in sleight of tongue to suggest their universality. (Also, she seems to imply that there will be no rights for non-British citizens, which does seem difficult to believe.)

25

Manta 05.17.15 at 8:42 pm

“George Osborne, the chief negotiator for the UK’s deal is persona non grata in much of Brussels. Wolfgang Schauble, Germany’s finance minister, reminded us all publicly just a couple of days ago that many believe Osborne tried to collapse the Euro.”

If Osborne managed to do that, all would be forgiven.

Moreover, if someone cares about human rights in UK, he/she should cheer for UK to leave the EU, given the utterly undemocratic ways policies are decided at the European level.

26

Sasha Clarkson 05.17.15 at 9:38 pm

Manta @25

The Human Rights Act has NOTHING to do with the EU, nor does the European Court on Human Rights.

The European Convention on Human Rights, was drafted for the newly formed Council of Europe in 1950. largely by David Maxwell-Fyffe, the British Tory politician who had been a prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials. The court was established by the Council at the same time. The Human Rights Act was incorporated into UK law, partly to reduce the workload of the court.

27

Manta 05.18.15 at 12:57 pm

Thanks for the clarification, Sasha.

But, as you can see, your point doesn’t contradict what I said: getting serious about human rights in UK requires it leaving the EU (unless one maintains that deeply undemocratic institutions at the highest level of power are compatible with such rights).

28

thumbz 05.18.15 at 9:03 pm

Manta @25

It’s not undemocratic. The European Council, the EU’s highest body, is composed of the elected heads of state or government of all 28 member states. The EU’s executive is led by 28 commissioners, appointed each by the democratically elected governments of the member states. It has a legislature, elected directly by voters across the continent. If the EU does unpopular things, it’s because those elected governments want it to.

It’s not perfect – turn-out in European Parliament elections is low and MEPs’ accountability to their voters is more limited than many would like. Appointment to the most senior jobs at the Commission and the Council is indirect, mediated through national governments. Certainly it could be improved. But it’s definitely not undemocratic.

29

Manta 05.19.15 at 8:47 am

thumbz, the most important institution (the ECB) is undemocratic BY DESIGN (“independent central bank” means exactly that: independent from the will of the people, however loosely you want to define the will of the people).
It is true that independent central banks exist also in many other states, but the ECB model is particularly extreme.
About democracy in the appointment of the Commission, I would call it “homeopathic”: diluted (or, if you prefer, “mediated”) so many times that it’s no longer there.

The EU parliament is a democratic institution (notwithstanding the low voter turnout), but it’s also quite powerless (hence the low turnout).

Anyhow, the discussion seems to be going a bit off-topic: I apologize for that, and will stop derailing it (but feel free to answer).

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