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“The island of saints and scholars and gombeens and fucking arse-lickers.” 
Christy Moore on Ronald Reagan’s visit to Ireland

 
Ireland has always had something of an affinity with the United States. Decades of mass emigration to the States created a powerful Irish-American community, so influential that presidential candidates are always keen to highlight whatever tenuous link they have with this tiny island.

The visit to Belfast by Barack Obama before the G8 Summit was, like all other presidential visits, a circus of sycophancy and flattery, revealing much about our media and political class. Politicians, dignitaries and journalists appeared infatuated as the charismatic, photogenic war criminal took to the stage at the Waterfront Hall to instruct us how to build a peaceful society. The crowd giggled and cheered when he used a common local phrase, handing an easy “news” angle to an obedient local media.

The pomp was absurd and the conduct of our politicians, who are supposed to constitute a government, was embarrassing. United Left Alliance TD Clare Daly put it well when she attacked Enda Kenny for “prostituting” the country to the Obamas “in return for a pat on the head”, for which the Taoiseach attempted to rebuke her in his characteristically dull and mumbling way.

As ever, the local media in the north was devoid of any real analysis. Irritating clichés such as “feel good factor” and “putting Belfast on the map” were brandished about by hacks who had clearly run out of things to say after violence predictably failed to materialise at the ICTU’s anti-G8 demonstration last Saturday. Obama’s apparent support for the northern peace process was hailed by many. No mention was made of the ongoing occupation of Afghanistan or the thousands of civilians murdered by CIA drones. Nor was the incarceration of Bradley Manning, who has spent over three years in solitary confinement, deemed worth discussing.  

The Obama visit exposed the insular, provincial mindset which is dominant in the north of Ireland. Despite the mutilated corpses of nearly 200 children murdered by US drones in recent years, the president was treated like a demigod, whose infinite wisdom on peace and harmony was to be bestowed upon us mere ignorant Paddies. This was in keeping with our political leaders’ peculiar fixation on seeking approval from the most violent and aggressive government on earth for the Irish peace process. SDLP MLA Conall McDevitt described Obama’s speech in the Waterfront as “inspirational”. No acknowledgement was made of the countless crimes committed by Obama’s administration. The SDLP appear to oppose political violence only when it happens on a small scale here in Ireland.

This is part of an alarming tendency which has taken hold in the west. George W Bush was rightly despised by most people around the world, unlike Barack Obama. He still enjoys a considerable degree of popularity. Yet, in many respects, Obama is worse than Bush. Not only has he continued Bush’s wars, he has escalated them with enthusiasm. At the minute, he is seeking to arm gangs of Islamic fundamentalists in Syria, a prospect which promises to make the bloodbath there infinitely worse. His administration has persecuted more whistleblowers than all other previous administrations combined, most recently, Edward Snowden. And, in a disturbingly Orwellian fashion, Obama sits down every Tuesday with a team of national security advisors to draw up a list of people, no matter where they are in the world, to be summarily executed by US forces. Did he take time out of the G8 Summit last Tuesday to draw up a similar list? Did he ponder about who would be on his list this week after speaking with school children in Belfast? Questions such as these are deemed unmentionable by our obedient media.  

Obama’s charm has deceived many. It’s no accident that he was awarded ‘marketer of the year’ in 2008 by Advertising Age. As well as being a war criminal, Obama is also a brand. His supporters don’t want to accept that he has continued Bush’s wars, filled his administration with Wall Street lobbyists and spies on American and foreign citizens. All of this is brushed aside by his liberal apologists who suggest he is unable to do anything different. The fact that he is less blatant about his imperial crimes than Bush was appears to have absolved him in the eyes of trendy middle class liberals. Where is the popular indignation against Obama that we saw when his predecessor invaded sovereign nations?  Where is the outcry about the plight of hunger strikers in the Guantanamo Bay internment camp? Why do we not hear calls for his arrest for war crimes, as we did with Bush?

It’s of little shock that the gombeens and arse-lickers who packed out the Waterfront Hall – similar to the ones referred to by Christy Moore – fail to see beyond Obama’s sinister propaganda.

This article was published in the Morning Star

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Next month, the leaders of the world’s eight richest countries will convene in County Fermanagh to hammer out how meddlesome foreign policies and a destructive economic doctrine known as austerity will be implemented over the next twelve months.  The G8 summit has been accompanied by an imposing mixture of merriment, glee and propaganda, revealing much about the state of Northern Ireland’s obedient local media.

The propaganda takes both a positive and a negative form.  On one hand, “business leaders” hail the summit as an enormous boost for the local economy, the silver bullet needed to rejuvenate a rural county long forgotten by policy makers. Absurd claims of a tourism boost go largely uncontested in a buttering-up process intended to encourage the population to notice only the pleasant side of deficit hawks, war criminals and a mafia gangster.

On the other hand, a malicious smear campaign has been orchestrated, lumping entirely peaceful protesters together with dissident republicans and fictional “anarchists”, who are said to exist in their thousands. The purpose of this is obvious. People are being intimidated with the threat of arrest and imprisonment if they take part in any counter demonstrations. The ‘liberal’ local Justice Minister, David Ford, has set aside an entire wing of the maximum security Maghaberry prison for “rioters” while the PSNI have employed the use of surveillance drones, remarkable by the fact that no main party in Stormont has so far voiced any concerns.

Press releases issued by the PSNI and local government have, predictably, been regurgitated by a local press eager for an easy news story. In a bizarre front page article earlier this month, the Irish News reported that “thousands of anarchists” were intending to take over buildings in Belfast during the summit. The scaremongering is blatant. Yet, any analysis explaining why many people feel the need to protest against the G8 is glaringly absent in the vast majority of news reports. Of course, little of this is surprising.

Since the end of the conflict in the north fifteen years ago, a new “common sense” has taken hold. The public sector is said to be “bloated” and the only remedy for our weak economy is to lure foreign investment by radically slashing taxes for the rich. The politics of green and orange is overlapped by an economic consensus which contends that “the markets” know best, taxes should be minimal and the role of the state is merely to facilitate the successful operation of private business.  Dublin academic Conor McCabe, author of Sins of the Father, describes this as the “double transition” – a transition towards both peace and neo-liberalism. “Eastern Europe, South Africa and Northern Ireland,” he wrote, “are all unique in terms of the dynamics of their history and geography. What they have in common is that they found themselves as societies in transition at a time when economic thought had solidified around neo-liberal principles.” To oppose an administration which has overseen a doubling of unemployment in six years is to oppose the ‘peace process’. “Sure it’s better than the Troubles,” is the popular reaction.  

The adherence to neo-liberalism is clear to be seen in the approach of politicians and mainstream commentators. “I think this will be a brilliant advertisement for Northern Ireland,” gloated David Cameron when the announcement about the summit was first made. “I want the world to see just what a fantastic place Northern Ireland is – a great place for business, a great place for investment, a place with an incredibly educated and trained workforce ready to work for international business”. Northern Ireland is no longer a country (not that I ever accepted that it was); it’s a business and should be run as such. The economy should be, above all else, “competitive” – a euphemism for low wages and high profits. So goes the conventional narrative.

Despite this apparent negativity, the G8 summit is an opportunity to challenge this tedious narrative. On Saturday, June 15, thousands will pack the streets of Belfast to demonstrate their opposition to the policies of those attending the summit. On the following Monday, another rally will make its way from Enniskillen towards the Lough Erne Hotel where the summit is being held. The smears and intimidation shouldn’t discourage anyone from attending either protest.

As well as these demonstrations a four-day festival of political discussion, comedy and music will take place in Belfast. Organised by activists from ICTU Youth and the Belfast Trades Council, the ‘Another World is Possible Festival’ is an opportunity for discussion, debate and activism. Highlight speakers include George Galloway and Tariq Ali, as well as trade union leaders from Nipsa, UNISON and Unite. I feel honoured to have taken part in the organising of this festival, particularly since we have received solidarity greetings from John Pilger, Noam Chomsky, Richard Wolf and others. The potential is there to inspire people to become involved in trade unionism and socialist politics who wouldn’t otherwise do so. The festival can begin to challenge the trite politics of Stormont, confront the dogma of “the markets” and build a movement for change. Ignore what is claimed in the media. This is not about damaging property or throwing bricks at the police. This is about the age old working-class principles of action; education, agitation and organisation.

We deserve a better kind of politics – and a better media, for that matter. If you’re angry at unemployment, cuts, bank bailouts, austerity, emigration, the divide-and-rule tactics of conservatives, racism, war, imperialism, inequality, the destruction of the environment, lousy wages, over work, immoral corporations, poverty, hunger or unrepresentative politicians, this festival is for you. No one’s political activity should be confined to sitting on an armchair screaming at the evening news. Everyone has the ability to change society. We don’t need to wait on odious sycophants such as Bono and Bob Geldof to raise the issues which affect the bulk of humanity. We have the ability to empower ourselves.

Another world is possible.

For a full listing of events, visit www.anotherworldispossiblebelfast.org or follow the festival on Twitter @AntiG8Protest

This article was published in the Morning Star

Loyalist protesters demonstrate against restrictions on flying Britain's union flag from Belfast City Hall in central Belfast

After three months of intimidation, sectarian hatred and disruption, the protests surrounding the removal of the union flag from Belfast City Hall appear to be slowly ebbing. Before the council vote in December to fly the flag on designated days only – in line with England, Scotland and Wales – few would have thought the discontent would have lasted as long, particularly when there are more pressing issues at hand. Those taking part in the protests have been treated with a mixture of fear and ridicule. In the distinctly insular society of Northern Ireland, many believe the situations we face represent a departure from the real world.

In the run up to the flag vote, the DUP and UUP distributed thousands of leaflets around east Belfast attacking the Alliance Party for supporting the Sinn Féin/SDLP measure. It was a sinister ploy by the main unionist parties to oust Alliance MP Naomi Long from the East Belfast Westminster seat, which she took from Peter Robinson at the 2010 general election. Historically, when crises arose, bourgeois unionism whipped up sectarian tensions in order to deflect criticism from the failures of their misrule and incompetence. This was cynically played out again in December. Previously, the DUP and UUP raised no concerns about the union flag being flown on only designated days in Lisburn, Craigavon and, indeed, Stormont itself. It proved useful in diverting attention from the DUP’s dismantling of the Housing Executive.

The mainstream unionist parties quickly lost control of the “movement” which sprang up around the flag issue to more radical and, at times, fascistic elements. Residents in Short Strand have borne the brunt of loyalist intimidation and violence, with illegal parades being facilitated by the PSNI on a weekly basis. Yet, there is nothing overly uniquely “Northern Irish” about these protests. A quick glance at news and election results from around Europe show an alarming increase in support for the far-right, with disadvantaged and alienated people seeking simple solutions to complicated problems. The rise of the Greek Golden Dawn party is perhaps the most disturbing. Notable, too, is the popularity of Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party in the Netherlands, the True Finns and the National Front in France.

The Belfast flag protests are symptomatic of the shift to the right of small, yet not insignificant, sections of the working class across Europe. The far right are able to provide easy answers to people looking for them and can dangerously redirect their anger towards the wrong targets, whether they are immigrants, native Muslims or, in the Irish case, the “other side”. It highlights the dangers which lurk in the background if the political conversation continues to be dominated by the right. Failure by the left and trade unions to provide a radical alternative to austerity and corporate domination of public affairs leave open the possibility of people’s anger being harnessed by more reactionary forces.

The response to naked sectarianism on Belfast’s streets by the four main parties has been, at the very best best, unimaginative. Backin’ Belfast, a £600,000 publicly funded advertising campaign, was set up to reverse the losses made by businesses in the city as a result of the protests. Little has been done to challenge the anti-democratic, fascistic nature of the protests. Even less has been done to challenge the sectarian nature which lays the basis of the northern state. Instead, people have been encouraged to do their drinking, dining and shopping in Belfast. The alternative to sectarian hatred, apparently, is mass consumerism.

The public faces of Backin’ Belfast have been pub owners and retailers, such as Michael Deane and Colin Neill,who have lamented the loss of trade suffered by city centre bars and shops. They want an end to the protests, not because of the sectarianism on display at the demonstrations, but because they want to get back to ‘business as usual’. The fact that the pub and retail trades in Belfast are notorious for their gross exploitation of young workers goes largely unnoticed. Perhaps people would be able to afford to eat in Deane’s restaurant and shop in River Island at the weekend if bosses in these sectors paid their staff a living wage. Student blogger Aisling Gallager articulated this point excellently when she wrote:

“I am not #BackinBelfast- I can’t afford to. Neither can most students. Whilst students were not the main focus of this article, I’ll stick to what I know best- students are struggling to get by as it is, and with £9k fees for GB students in Queen’s University, halls that are more expensive than the basic loan, and a severe lack of part-time jobs (and those employed taken advantage of horrendously by their employers), students shouldn’t be shamed into spending more money than they can afford.”

The peace process should be about more than facilitating the needs of business owners; it should be about creating a better society, free from both bigotry and exploitation. It won’t be easy, and I don’t claim to have all the answers. But what’s absolutely certain is that tacky PR gimmicks such as Backin’ Belfast will not overcome the sectarianism which exists in the north.

This article was published in the Morning Star