Saturday, January 12, 2019

A challenging year ahead

2019 is already promising to be one of those year’s historians and pundits love to label ‘seminal’ or ‘watershed’. There are big issues and big challenges coming down the tracks which will potentially shape life on our island for years to come.
The most immediate and obvious is Brexit. England and Wales voted to leave the European Union in 2016. The North and Scotland voted to remain. Those democratic votes have been set aside as the Brexiteers rush lemming-like toward the cliff. British politics are in chaos. A deeply divided Conservative party is being propped up by the DUP. Theresa May says that she is trying to chart a course that will avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland and a calamitous economic melt-down of the British economy.
According to a poll of Conservative Party members published this week there is a large majority – 64% - in favour of a no-deal Brexit. Only 29% would support the withdrawal agreement Theresa May struck with the EU. According to the Economic and Social Research Council poll the “Tory rank and file, it seems, are convinced that no deal is better than May’s deal.” Many are also vehemently opposed to the backstop agreement.
No one on this island will be surprised by this or by Tory opposition to the backstop. In recent months English jingoism toward Ireland has been strident. Last month a British government report suggested that the South could face food shortages if there was a no-deal Brexit. Former British Conservative Minister, Priti Patel jumped on this claim and said that the British government should exploit potential food shortages in Ireland in its negotiations with the EU. There was widespread outrage with many people reminding her of the despicable role of Britain in the Great Hunger.
Comedian Patrick Kielty scathingly responded with;
Quick one for Priti Patel before she reruns the Irish Famine -
Ireland is a major importer of food from the UK.
The UK is a major importer of food from the EU.
Ireland is a member of, guess what? The EU.
If shit was wit she’d be constipated”.
Another senior Tory and former Minister commenting on Brexit told the BBC that “we simply cannot allow the Irish to treat us like this … This simply cannot stand. The Irish really should know their place”.
And this week Jacob Rees Mogg tried to shift responsibility for Brexit, and any damaging effects, away from the Conservatives and onto the Irish government. He tweeted last Thursday: “If we leave without a deal the main culprit will be the obdurate Irish government’s threats about the phantom border issue.”
Next week the British Parliament will vote on Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement. With up to 40 Conservative MPs and the DUP saying NO – and the British Labour Party seeking an election and opposing the withdrawal agreement – it seems very likely May will lose. She has thus far dismissed suggestions that she should extend Article 50 or withdraw it entirely and then apply again to buy more time.
Whatever decision the British government and Parliament take the shambles that is Brexit will stagger on into the months and probably years ahead. The multiple dangers it presents for citizens on this island - especially those living in the north – to the Good Friday Agreement, to human rights protections and to the two economies on the island, are enormous.
In this Brexit context – with the report into the RHI scandal to be published – and the DUP stubbornly refusing to properly address the key issues of rights which collapsed the institutions, the task of finding a resolution to the current impasse remains hugely problematic.
In addition, there are a range of other challenges in 2019. In May there will be a referendum in the South on the right of Irish citizens in the North and in the diaspora to vote in Presidential elections. This is an important opportunity that must be grasped. On the same day May 24th there will also be local government elections north and south. In the north we don’t know yet if the SDLP will stand candidates under its own party name or if Fianna Fáil will  have gobbled it up in the much speculated merger. The SDLP has been in decline for some years now. The loss of all its Westminster seats in 2017 was a huge blow. It has scrambled to make itself relevant. The way its leadership has handle all this merger issue must be deeply upsetting to SDLP members.
In the past the SDLP was always close to Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Irish Labour Party. These parties regularly campaigned in the North in support of SDLP candidates. However, the decisive shift by northern voters away from the SDLP and Westminster has clearly forced a rethink within the SDLP and a realisation that the future of politics for Irish political parties is on the island of Ireland. Hence the conversations with Fianna Fáil. That party, and most especially its leader Micheál Martin, is obsessed with Sinn Féin and its growth in the South. He has prevaricated for years now on organising Fianna Fáil in the North. The issue of successful SDLP/Fianna Fáil Westminster candidates swearing an oath to an English Monarch is one which we will all watch with interest given Fianna Fail’s claim to be The Republican Party.
There is also a question about whether Fianna Fáil, if it had a mandate in the North, would power share with Sinn Féin. Micheál Martin has ruled out going into government with Sinn Féin in the South because he claims the party is not fit for government. So what about the North?
Other substantial issues, including legacy, housing and homelessness, the state of the health services, will also top the political agendas north and south in 2019.
Internationally, climate change is the single biggest challenge facing humanity this century. I will write more on this soon. The crisis in the Middle East, and especially the appalling treatment of the Palestinian people, will sadly persist in casting a shadow over an international community that has shamefully failed to uphold international law and confront Israel’s apartheid policies. These matters and others will ensure that this will be a testing and busy political year.2019 here we come! Bliain Úr faoi mhaise daoibhse go leir.

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