Monday, 28 September 2009

Siege mentality underlying the peace in Northern Ireland

Sectarian attacks continue to rumble on in the north of Ireland, despite or maybe because of the peace process.
There have been 1500 attacks in each of the past two years, an average of four a day. Last year, some 560 of the incidents were in Belfast.
In May, a Catholic Kevin McDaid was killed by Loyalists. In July, there were attacks on five Catholic Churches in Balymena.
While there have been some attacks by Catholics, the vast majority have been by Loyalists on Catholics. Not something immediately apparent from reporting in British media which continues to portray the north as a place of feuding religious tribes with any resultant violence being committed on a tit for tat basis by one community against the other.
In June, there were also attacks by Loyalists on Roma in Belfast. These were so ferocious that they forced the Roma to leave the country.
At face value, it seems that the society is becoming ever more divided in the wake of the peace process.
A physical sign of this growing division is the fourfold increase over the past decade in the number of peace walls in the north.
A recent photographic exhibition mounted at the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith showed just how divisive the walls have become.
There were around 27 peace walls at the time that the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998. This number has now risen to over 80.
When the Troubles first began back in 1969, the Catholics started putting up barriers to stop the assaults of Loyalist mobs. The walls grew as dividers of the society, many in the early days were made up of barbed wire. Today the structures are far more permanent in construction. The recently completed wall at Somersdale Gardens, dividing Glencairn and Ardoyne, is a massive structure made of brick. Others are more like fences. Most are built high to stop those from the other communities throwing things over. “Some of the walls are up to a mile in length, some are up to 30 feet in height – the one unmistakable thing is that they mark the separation of communities,” said Louise Jefferson, the photojournalist who with writer Stephen Martin put together the exhibition at the Irish Cultural Centre.
Jim O’Hara, a Belfast born lecturer in Irish history, believes the walls reflect an insecurity among the people, a concern that they would be attacked by the other community. “People feel safe behind the walls. Most people want the walls down but don’t feel safe without them being there,” said Mr O’Hara.
The worry must be that the proliferation of sectarian attacks and growth in walls underline the insecurities in the community and just how potentially brittle the peace process is.
On the face of it there seems to be a growing dislocation between the political class running the country and what is going on at street level. While the political parties appear to be reconciling and learning to slowly work together, on the streets the divisions are growing more stark as people pull back into their own communities adopting a siege mentality.
The pressure points become obvious as walls go up and sectarian violence breaks out where tensions are highest.
It can be argued that these developments were inevitable. By its very nature the GFA tended to inbed the divisions between the communities in the north, rather than offer a blueprint for unity. There are ofcourse many other elements to the GFA like the cross border bodies but the divisions in the north remain institutionalised.
There is also the fact that many of those causing the trouble are on the extremes of both communities. The Loyalist groups don’t feel represented in the political discourse while the dissident republicans, represented by the likes of the Real and Continuity IRAs, have totally rejected the peace process and vowed to continue on with the war. These are the people who feel most alienated from the political process and so have least to lose.
It is in bridging the gaps and bringing the communities together that the next challenge for the peace process lies. The politicians need to be bold and not simply collude in the proliferation of peace walls and structures of division as a way to make quick political capital. There no doubt needs to be funding provided to pay for integration between the communities. Active steps need to be taken.
It would certainly be wrong to sit back and think that the violence and walls are a passing phase, a residual of the Troubles, something that will burn itself out with time. Adopting such an attitude would only invite disaster with the divisions in the community, if left alone, likely to grow deeper and wider. In the end it could well result in the Troubles re-igniting in more virulent form. Now is the time for active intervention to heal the breaches and build a real and lasting peace.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Hands up who has heard enough from Tony Blair on faith

There must be plenty of people out there who are getting tired of hearing the views of former Prime Minister Tony Blair on faith. Not least those in his newly adopted spirtual home the Catholic Church. Hardly a week seems to go by without the former premiers views being quoted on faith and particularly inter-faith issues.
Recent offerings have included a talk in London on the importance of faith communities working together to help make a difference in the world. This followed on a lecture in Rome on the central role of religion in society.
Irony is certainly not one of the former PM’s stronger suites. Only those suffering total historical amnesia could not be struck when told that Mr Blair had said that political leaders should listen more to the Pope and that dialogue between religions was important.
Let’s not forget, this is the man who led the country into an illegal war in Iraq, expressly against the advice of Pope John Paul II. And the same man who did so much to damage interfaith relations both internationally and at home.
The Blair Foundation devoted as it is to promoting interfaith dialogue is staffed by people who seem to suffer from the same historical amnesia as their leader. The former head of a leading humanitarian NGO has told how faith communities provide a vital avenue to advance development. He is right, interfaith co-operation could bring rich dividends in the area of development. However, coming from the Blair Foundation it lacks a certain credibility.
This is not a rant against Tony Blair. His governments did many good things to advance the cause of social justice in the UK. Peace in Northern Ireland, devolution, the minimum wage, trade union legislation, support for parents, the Human Rights Act, the Lawrence Inquiry, investment in health and education. However, these achievements are not alone enough to qualify the former PM for sainthood.
On the downside there were the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the destruction of civil rights at home, collusion with the US in rendition and practice of torture across the world and the worship of big business and the rich - laying the way for the present financial crash.
Mr Blair is a great communicator and a successful politician. Since stepping down he has no doubt been looking for a new role on the world stage. He has emulated former US President Bill Clinton by setting up his foundation. He remains as Middle East peace envoy. He clearly covets the job of president of the EU with no doubt many of his present globe trotting speeches forming a crucial part of his campaign to win that role.
The worry is that the response of the Catholic Church to Mr Blair could be seen as indicating something of its own love affair with power. There were criticisms of the Blair government over the Iraq war and other un-Catholic actions committed by his administration but it is as though as soon as he became a Catholic an historical amnesia descended upon the hierarchy and it was as though none of it mattered anymore. The former Prime Minister was now one of us so never mind what he may have done in the past. He is an influential man of the type that can be useful.
This attitude is not healthy and can allow politicians to make hay at the expense of the Church. Mr Blair can contribute to the work of the Church in many areas. He can promote peace, interfaith relations and social justice but prior to taking on such a role he needs to make an act of contrition regarding his past actions. He needs to admit that invading Iraq was wrong. He should apologise to people in those countries bombed and obliterated by western forces. He must admit his role in destroying civil rights and victimising so many Muslim people in this country. Then he maybe able to go on and be taken seriously as a man of peace and social justice.
But he has not made any such act of contrition because he probably does not think he has done anything wrong. In his world, the war on terror was probably about defeating evil, promoting peace and advancing interfaith dialogue. He now continues to pursue that aim via other means. The Church should not stand for this. The Church must be about making an option for the poor and speaking truth to power. Time surely for a little contrition from Mr Blair and a bit more opprobrium from the Catholic Church.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Alzheimers must be given same priority as cancer

The news that four genes have now been identified that could lead to a treatment being found for Alzheimers will offer hope to thousands of people.
It is hoped that early identification of these genes could lead to a diagnosis being found to address the condition.
Dementia is a growing problem in the UK with 700,000 diagnosed with some form, the most prominent of which is Alzheimers. This figure is predicted to rise to 940,000 by 2015 and 1.7 million by 2051.
There has been a growing debate over the subject of dementia with the increasing numbers of sufferers. In our celebrity led world ofcourse, this has meant the likes of TV presenter Fiona Phillips and Cliff Richard revealing how they have been effected.
Ms Phillips did make a moving documentary about the deterioration of her father and the problems this brought for the family. It also brought out some of the inconsistencies over treatment. One doctor notably pointed out how if someone comes in with cancer they are not told to go away and come back when it gets worse. This is the approach of many to Alzheimers.
My own Dad suffered with Alzheimer’s for the last few years of his life. This was painful for the whole family to endure, seeing a man who had always been full of zest for life gradually deteriorate.
In the early stages it could all be taken as a joke as we set off after one Christmas from London heading for the south coast – a journey he had done hundreds of times before, only to finish up in Maidstone. It should have been clear then something was seriously wrong. Later, the positive drives to achieve things in life could also become negatives resulting in an aggression that was difficult for my mother to cope with.
The question why certain people get Alzheimer’s can become an all encompassing one for the family of sufferers. In my own and brothers’ case the worry is that it may be hereditary. Dad’s mother had Alzheimer’s before him and his sister developed early Alzheimer’s just before she died three weeks after him last year.
The thought though does regularly occur as to whether you will get Alzheimer’s. Forgetting things takes on a more sinister meaning for those with the condition in the family. When that forgetfulness can be traced back to something similar that a relative with Alzheimer’s used to do then it takes on an even greater resonance. In my case for example forgetting whether I have locked the house up and turned all the appliances off. This was a regular lapse in the early days with Dad.
This all no doubt is reading far too much into what are probably in the main purely the signs of ageing and general tiredness.
As a potential dementia sufferer there are the preventative measures that can be adopted. These though seem to vary. Stay mentally active, stimulate the brain. Other suggestions are that it is those who live an overly stressed life who are most at risk, so relax. Don’t smoke, eat vegetables and get exercise – the standard recipe for long and healthy lives - are suggested as ways to avoid Alzheimer’s.
The area is something of a maze of confusion. The other approach is the fatalistic one, if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. A few moves to try and make sure it doesn’t though always seem like a good idea. A bit of an insurance policy.
Mentioning insurance brings the argument back to the latest genetic breakthrough. Some commentators have pointed out that being able to identify potential Alzheimer sufferers in advance could be used by insurance companies to refuse future cover. This is no doubt a potential downside of such developments. However, it must be hoped that this will not prove to be the case. The hope must be that the latest breakthrough will lead to further developments in how the condition can be treated. Better care options and drug treatments. The key though to such developments will be funding of further research into Alzheimer’s. This disease has moved up in the public consciousness due to media coverage and the growing number of people affected, however the pressure needs to be kept up. Only when dementia is given the same sort of priority in medical terms as cancer can the condition really be said to be being taken seriously. If this condition does gain that sort of priority then a solution can be found to so much suffering.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Al Megrahi case shows falseness of special relationship with America

The release of the Libyan Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, who was convicted of the Lockerbie bombing in 1988, brought a heap of criticism down on the Scottish National Party government. Most of the criticism emanated from America, which does not seem to be able to resist the urge to interfere in the affairs of other people’s countries.
Considerations like the fact that the punishment of Al-Megrahi did not include as part of its construct the need to satisfy the vengeance of the relatives of the 270 killed on Pan Am Flight 103 were laid aside. The release was on compassionate grounds, just as the release by Justice Secretary Jack Straw a week earlier of great train robber Ronald Biggs was agreed because he also only has a few months to live.Other factors like the probability of Al-Megrahi’s innocence of the crime in question were also conveniently forgotten on the other side of the Atlantic. Amongst Scottish relatives like Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora died on the flight, this question was a major cause of concern as it should be for all the relatives. Afterall, if the wrong man has been convicted a guilty individual is still at liberty walking free.What was most revealing about the whole episode was the light it threw on the one sided nature of the so-called special relationship between the UK and the US. This relationship has been useful to the US particularly over recent years, as the UK has backed it up in a variety of illegal operations, like the Iraq war. On the British side the advantages are less clear. From going to war to refusing the pay the congestion charge in London, the Americans seem to have very little respect for the junior partner in this “special relationship.” Take the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The UK has backed America in both foolhardy ventures with British troops paying the price on the battlefield. The UK has paid the price at home with such actions making it more of a target for terrorism. The UK would be a whole lot freer more peaceful place had the country not followed America into these two wars. Maybe when Americans threaten to boycott coming to Scotland, in response Britons should boycott going to Afghanistan.Then there has been the complicity of the UK in rendition and torture being pursued by the US in the name of fighting the war on terror. The case of Binyam Mohamed again underlines the one sided nature of the special relationship. It was revealed in court that America would withdraw co-operation on intelligence matters if a document were made public revealing its complicity in torture relating to Mr Mohamed. The Foreign Office has been fighting in the courts to keep these documents secret in order not to upset the Americans. It remains unclear just how many CIA personnel are deployed on active service in the UK.At a more petty level there is the refusal of the US embassy to pay the congestion charge in London. The bills have now orbited over £3 million. Whether the president is Obama or Bush this policy seems unlikely to change. Examination of what the special relationship really involves reveals a one sided deal with all the benefits with America. At some levels it looks as though the UK has almost become a colony of the US – the 51st state. There are US forces stationed across the UK from the base at Menwith Hill in Yorkshire to the airforce base at Mildenhall in Suffolk. How much this could be described, as an army of occupation is a matter for conjecture. It is a sobering thought to remember that the US bombing of Libya in 1986 was staged from a by the US airforce operating out of a number of UK bases. Never has there been a better example of violence begetting violence.The use of the term relationship is misleading. A relationship suggests some sort of deal, a bit of give and take on both sides, something for everyone. The value of the British relationship with America appears to be all on the one side. The relationship if any appears at times to be more akin to that of master and servant. The sooner that Britain comes out of its historical malaise and recognises the true nature of the “special relationship” the sooner it will be able to resolve its own international identity crisis. This should in the long term lead to Britain taking up a much fuller role within the context of Europe. If the Al Megrahi case helps speed this process on then so much the better.