How would you reform the United Nations?

The UN logo

The United Nations isn’t perfect. So in a perfect world, how would you change it? This was the question I asked myself recently, after someone at our local Amnesty International group meeting suggested a particular reform.

Before you answer that question, it is best to understand the complexities of getting any reform agreed. The United Nations is governed by the UN Security Council.

  • It is made up of member states, each of which has one vote. However, there are five “permanent” member states that have a veto. This means that if any one of those five members doesn’t like something, they can vote against it and the motion fails. As those five are the USA, UK, China, France, and Russia, it means the various political and geographical divisions that exist between those states, often leads to stalemate.
  • The five permanent members are broadly speaking the major powers at the end of World War Two, and were all fighting against Germany and Japan. So as victors they enjoyed special status. And of course the UN is far from being a purely humanitarian body. Member states often look after their own interests first, with ambassadors appointed by their government.

The idea raised at our meeting was to replace the current five permanent members with five other members that were elected by the other members. An admirable idea maybe, but the proposal was short on detail. The questions in my mind were many:

  • Assuming each permanent member state would be for a set period, how long would that be?
  • Could a permanent member state seek re-election? If so, how many times?
  • With your permanent member state term having come to an end, would there be a period of time before you could seek re-election again? If so, how long?
  • Would the permanent member states, still have a veto?
  • What checks and balances would be implemented to prevent the current voting bottlenecks?

Perhaps the biggest question of all, is how the heck you expect such a reform from getting through the Security Council with the current setup? It is a classic case of idealism, with little realism. It just won’t happen.

Activism is healthy, as is having a questioning mind. It adds some checks and balances to what can often be overlooked. But having a solution, doesn’t make it a good idea. There is little point in betting your life’s savings on a donkey to win the Grand National. The chances of winning such a bet are so extreme, that it doesn’t make strategic sense. It is much better to have realistic aims.

To some this may seem like defeatism. To me it is achieving reform that may not otherwise happen. In a situation where you’re up against an immovable force, you may have to continually chip away at the bottom to bring the mighty oak tree tumbling down.

There is little doubt that the United Nations isn’t perfect, but then neither is any democratic body. That’s not to say I’m in favour of dictatorships. It’s just that we have to accept that not everyone thinks the same as us. If we accept this, we must expect shit to happen sometimes.

With the UN, there is little doubt in my mind that the current system sucks, but we’ve little or no chance of getting it changed. Plus the UN for all its faults has succeeded in many areas. It’s peacekeeping operations may not always have been successful, think of the Rwandan genocide or allegations of human rights abuses by UN troops, but they often have limited or stops armed insurrection. The UN has provided aid when there’s been a humanitarian catastrophe, and continues to work for impoverished sectors of society.

Would I reform the UN? Yes, but I’d ensure the aim was tempered with a strategic and realistic vision of what could be achieved.

So just what am I?

One of the side issues of the UK’s Brexit deal, is that EU citizens living in the UK will no longer be entitled to stay unless they are granted “settled status”. This is a new category of status that’s different to indefinite leave to remain. It is open to all EU residents who’ve lived in the UK for five years or more.

Applying is an easy process except it’s currently only available to users of Android devices. Oh and it costs £65 per adult. The Home Office insists that the starting position for applications, is that the applicant has the right to remain. But past Home Office and Government IT projects weren’t exactly without controversy.

However for me there’s a get out clause. Settled status won’t apply to Irish citizens because of a 1920s agreement that predates the EU.

I was born in Ireland, and despite having lived in the UK for over 50 years, I still hold an Irish passport. Yet here I am able to vote in UK elections. What’s more, that won’t change even if Brexit happens. My Austrian wife on the other hand, won’t have those rights after Brexit. She’ll have to apply for settled status or Irish citizenship.

This raised the question of identity. Just what am I? Cut me, and my blood is Irish. My maternal grandfather would probably disown me if I said otherwise. Yet I’ve a mix of Irish and English culture in me. I don’t speak more than a few words of Gaelic. I was educated in London. As a result I’ve learnt about Irish history from an English perspective. I’ve read unbiased work to fill in the gaps to see things from the other side, but I still don’t feel I know as much about Irish history as I should do.

I ask myself if I’m really English. I don’t think I am. So does that make me Irish? Well yes, but with an English slant. Personally I identify more as a Londoner than English. Actually I see myself as a south west Londoner. Well No. I’m a south west Londoner who enjoys his work, watching football, drinking the odd beer or two, and spending time with my family.

Does that make me Irish? Well, yes and no. I’ll never be anything other than Irish. I’ll maintain that passport as long as I’m able to. But who I really am is so much more than a legal piece of paper. I’m a citizen of the world.

The Orthodox Church in Ukraine

Monty Python famously satirised the early Christian / Roman era in their film The Life of Brian. In it a small disparate group of well meaning, but frankly hopeless, individuals plotted the downfall of the Roman Empire. Calling themselves The Judean Popular People’s Front, the group despised a rival group called The Popular People’s Front of Judaea, even though their ideological beliefs were broadly the same.

The last 2000 years has seen several splits in the Orthodox religious tradition. Largely focused on local customs and identity, there’s Greeks, Russians, Syrians, Albanians, Armenians, Coptics, and more. Even the Roman Catholic Church is just a “communion” of disparate Christian groups governed from Rome. What all these churches have is a common sense of belief and faith, but an equally strong sense for identity.

So it’s hardly surprising to read in recent days on the BBC and elsewhere, about another split in the Orthodox Church. The Church’s Patriarch has allowed the Ukrainians to split from the Russian Orthodox tradition to form a Ukrainian Orthodox Church. This even though most Orthodox churches in Ukraine are conservative by nature, and still align themselves with their Russian counterparts. However some don’t.

This split of course has more to do with the geopolitical tensions in the region. Ukraine has long been split between those who see themselves as European, and those looking towards the east and considering themselves Russian. Throw in Russia’s annexation of the Crimea in 2014 and the continuing conflict along the Russia / Ukraine border, and this split is no surprise.

The dawn of the new church hasn’t exactly started smoothly. Some congregations have barred their priests from entering their church, because of their affiliation with one side or another. At face value this is strange, when you consider that the theology of the new Orthodox Church is exactly the same as their Russian counterpart. There maybe slight changes going forward, but these are likely to be cultural rather than theological. After all any theological change must be within the overarching beliefs of the Orthodox faith.

However in the wider political context, this is a huge change that divides opinion along Russian and Ukrainian lines. If you identify as Russian, the Ukrainian church is committing a mutiny. If you identify as Ukrainian, the Russian church is suppressing the identity of its flock.

This is another example of the complexities of everyday life in Ukraine. Russia sees it as an extension of their border. It still has a largely Russian population in the east, and the nearby Crimea peninsula has a naval base where the bulk of the Russian navy is based. Russia was never going to give that up easily. There’s also the largely forgotten conflict along the Russia / Ukraine border. The stalemate there isn’t widely reported, as the media has lost interest.

Whatever happens going forward, I hope that all sides remember that a religion mixed with politics is a toxic affair. It serves no useful purpose apart from helping the power brokers involved, and makes the lives of others in a much less safe place.

With democracy comes responsibility.

Westminster in London is the center of the UK’s parliament. It’s where the Houses of Parliament are located and where our parliamentarians work. It is also where the worlds media have a semi-permanent presence, particularly at times of big news stories.

At the moment, the UK is struggling with the biggest issue in awhile; Brexit. There’s a lot opposing views, and a lot of people willing to voice their right to speak out. This applies equally to politicians speaking to the media, and members of the public talking to their politicians. This is a sign of a healthy functioning democracy.

Trouble is, some seem to have forgotten that free speech doesn’t mean hate speech. It’s a fine line admittedly. But when that line is crossed, it ceases to become speaking out, and becomes a threat to the very act of free speech.

Yesterday one of our politicians was being interviewed by the BBC who has strong views on Brexit. I may not agree politically with everything she says,  but I’ll listen to what she has to say. However a growing and vocal number of protesters are attempting to sabotage such interviews by standing close by and shouting. Most of the vocalisation is just words, but there have been occasions where it has become very personal.

Some may argue that being called a liar is par for the course for a politician. After all they often find themselves having to avoid answering a direct question, even if they personally want to give a direct answer. A politician should be able to rise about that abuse. Being called a Nazi on the other hand is something else.

Over the last few years the rise in such rhetoric has been noticeable. We saw it in the Scottish Independence referendum in 2014. We’re definitely seeing it now both during and after the Brexit referendum.

As responsible individuals, we must remember that our right to free speech brings with it a responsibility that we treat lightly at our peril. Speak out, yes, but do it with respect for the other side. The irony for those calling our politicians Nazis may be lost on them, as this is exactly how the Nazis came to power. If that happens, there won’t be a lot of opportunity for protesting.

The saddest day in Irish history

This day in 1922, The Dáil (the Irish parliament) voted in favour of the treaty Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith signed in London 32 days earlier. That treaty gave 26 counties of Ireland independence, but crucially left six still part of the United Kingdom.

With parallels to the UK’s Brexit vote, the result was not clear cut. 64 Dáil members voted in favour, and 57 against. The result was to signal the start of a Civil War, with Irishmen who’d fought with each other against the British in the Irish War of Independence, now take sides against their former comrades.

As if to emphasise the emotion and gravitas of the debate, the official Dáil record has the following quotes from the major figures:

Eamon de Valera when he realised he had lost the vote:

“I would like my last word here to be this. We have had a glorious record for four years. It has been four years of magnificent discipline in our nation. The world is looking at us now…”

He broke down with emotion before he’d managed to complete what he wanted to say.

Following a vitriolic debate where each side accused the other of bad faith, Michael Collins wrote:

“I have signed my death warrant.”

He knew he was a significant target for both personal and physical attacks from the anti-treaty side, and would be killed in an ambush just eight months later.

Anti-treatyite, Cathal Brugha commented:

“While the war was in progress, I could not praise too highly the work done by the Head Quarters’ Staff. The Chief of Staff and each of the leaders of the subsections were the best men we could get for the positions. Each of them carried out efficiently, so far as I know, the work that was entrusted to him they worked conscientiously and patriotically for Ireland without seeking any notoriety, with one exception. Whether he is responsible or not for the notoriety I am not going to say (cries of “Shame” and “Get on with the Treaty”). There is little more for me to say. One member was specially selected by the Press and the people to put him into a position which he never held; he was made a romantic figure, a mystical character such as this person certainly is not; the gentleman I refer to is Mr. Michael Collins.”

Strong stuff. A civil war is the worst type of conflict. It’s ugly and often leaves scars for generations.

Those scars may be nearly 100 years old, but they still exist. To most in Ireland the Irish Civil War is just part of it’s history. It’s part of it’s struggle for self-determination. To a minority, it’s a reminder that self-determination was never fully achieved.

The legacy of the civil war though is still felt throughout the 32 counties of Ireland. If the treaty had been voted down, would the troubles of the 60s, 70, and 80s have happened in Northern Ireland? Would the IRA and UDA have become the organisation that killed and maimed thousands both in Ireland and UK? The biggest question of all, would Britain have stood back and let Ireland reject the treaty?

Hypothetical questions, yes. But that’s what makes history interesting.

When is a majority not a majority?

Yesterday, my local council ward held a by-election. As with most elections in the UK that follow the “first past the post” system, the winner was the candidate with the most votes. The system makes it clear who’s the winner, is less prone to confusion, and takes less time to announce the result.

So the system works, right?

I’m a political animal, but I’m not particularly close to any particular political party. It’s just that I recognize that politics touches every aspect of our lives. Whether you like it or not, everything from our wage packet, the transportation we use, to the way our children are taught is affected by local, national, and international politics.

This is why I always vote, and go out of my way to convince non-voters to do likewise. I find it hard to accept that 100 years ago women fought for the right to vote in the UK, yet most women don’t exercise their right to say who they’d like to look after their interests. I don’t buy the “They’re all the same” or “The party I vote for never wins around here” arguments. Voting isn’t just about wanting someone to win. It’s also about speaking up for what you believe in.

How did the by-election go then?

See for yourself below. A turnout of a little over 36%, means that two thirds of voters couldn’t be bothered to place a cross on a piece of paper. That’s sad.

Of the 36% that voted, less than 50% voted for the winner. In fact the winner’s total votes represented less than 17% of the electorate. That’s not so much sad, as tragic!


So what’s the answer?

There’s no silver bullet. No voting system is perfect, but it does seem strange that someone with less than a fifth of the available votes can be elected. Personally I’d like to see a combination of the following:

  • Compulsory voting: Countries like Australia make it compulsory to vote, with those not doing so fined.
  • A “None of the Above” ballot option: This allows disenfranchised voters to say they’re unhappy with the choice available, and it would force the Returning Officer to announce this option’s vote total as if it was a candidate. It would be striking if “None of the Above” won a sizable number of constituencies.
  • Make politics more inclusive: It’s fair to say those elected to the UK’s electoral bodies aren’t totally representative of the population. It’s improving, but much more needs to be done.

What isn’t the answer?

A more problematic solution is changing the rules, to make an election null and void if the winner doesn’t have more than 50% of the votes. This would clear up the issue of whether someone has a majority, but would cause a logistical and financial nightmare, particularly with national elections. The fallout could go on for months, with all the political uncertainly that goes with it.

You may not think that scenario would affect you, but you’d be wrong. The financial markets don’t like uncertainty. The chances are the pound would fall dramatically against other currencies. As a result:

  • The cost of government lending would increase, meaning there’d likely be less money to provide for those in need. To prevent this, the government could borrow more or tax us more.
  • The value of your pension pot would decrease meaning you’d have to save more to provide for your retirement. In turn you’d have less disposable income.
  • There’d be inflationary fears meaning everything from the price of your daily pint of milk, to the energy you use to heat your home would increase.

Do you still think politics doesn’t affect you?

No? Then for heaven’s sake please vote next time and make a difference.

Boris, Burqas, and Ambition

I’m not a fan of our former Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson. In some people’s eyes he fits the “lovable rouge” category, but in my eyes he’s a conniving individual who’ll do pretty much anything to achieve what he wants.

So what does he want? It’s pretty clear to anyone with a brain cell, that he wants the ultimate job in UK politics. He won’t admit it of course, but if you’re in doubt, listen to this interview with the BBC’s Eddie Mair from a few years ago. He was the London Mayor back then, but was jostling for position to be elected as a candidate in the next General Election.

Boris Johnson’s recent remarks about Muslim women wearing burqas or jiqabs, are a perfect example of how he undermines those who he’s supposed to be supporting. His “light blue touch paper and retire” communication style, is designed to raise his profile with those that matter.

Writing in his Daily Telegraph column, he says Burqa and Niqab wearers look like bank robbers or letter boxes. Such words are provocative, and directed solely at Muslim women. But to then disappear on holiday whilst all the media talk about his remarks, is classic Boris.

This past week the media have reported how various members of the Conservative party want Boris to apologise. This won’t happen of course, mainly because he’s gone into radio silence mode, and he has a line of fellow Conservative party members to support what he wrote.

With all the talk about Boris, you’d be forgiven for forgetting what the real issue was. Should we allow a person’s face to be covered in public?

There are over half a dozen European and African countries that have banned the burqa and niqab. Many more have partial bans. Most countries, like France, Switzerland, Austria, Chad, and Cameroon, specifically mention the various forms of head dress worn by Muslim women. Denmark’s ban is different, banning all clothing that covers a person’s face. The law is designed to be non-discriminatory by not targeting religions or gender. For example, balaclavas as well as burqas are illegal. Presumably so would the vendetta masks favoured at many a demonstration.

There are other examples of countries imposing a dress code on its citizens. Many Middle East countries require women to dress modestly. Barcelona in Spain has laws banning swimwear away from the beach. Thailand suggests men not wear shorts, or women short skirts, except in beach locations. Many Christian countries ask men and women to cover legs and shoulders when visiting churches.

So if these laws and traditions exist, is it right to discuss whether a person is allowed to cover their face? In short, yes! If you think I’m wrong, think of organisations like the Klu Klux Klan. However the discussion should be about whether we want this country to be open and inclusive, not whether Boris Johnson would make a good Prime Minister.

Brexit and The Irish Border

If there is one political story that is rarely off the front pages, it’s Brexit. It’s everywhere. It’s the first question on every political show, and rightly so. After all it’s outcome will affect us all for decades to come. “OK”, I hear you say. “How do you know this when we don’t know the detail of what is on offer?” True enough, we don’t know what the deal will be, or even if there’ll be a deal. Here’s the thing though. Regardless of whether we have a deal with the European Union or not, the political landscape will be significantly different for better or worse.

A year ago, the topic of conversation over Brexit coffee tables was the three main problem areas of the UK’s vote to leave the European Union. Namely:

  • The rights of citizens of European Union countries who already live in the UK to remain here.
  • Trade negotiations.
  • The Irish border.

The first was fairly easily resolved. There was never any real desire from anyone to throw people out of the country that were legally here. It is undeniable that immigration played a part in the Brexit vote, but that was about reducing the number coming here, not exporting those already here.

Trade negotiations is a little more difficult. Will we still be part of the customs union and have a tariff free agreement? Or will we follow the Norway model of being part of the European single market. This would allow us to have broadly the same tariffs as the custom union, but also allow us to negotiate our own trade agreements with non-EU countries. Lastly there’s the no deal option, where we’d have to negotiate all trade agreements under World Trade Organisation rules.

If there’s no deal on trade, it could well be because of the final issue. There’s been a border in Ireland since the formation of the Irish Free State in 1920. What was later to become what is now known as Ireland, consists of 26 counties. It’s a separate independent country. The other six counties make up Northern Ireland, which form part of the United Kingdom.

So trade between Ireland and Northern Ireland is a big issue if there are different rules between the two constituent parts. The problem would be made worse by the total lack of any border controls. When “The Troubles” were at their height, there were border points, mainly manned by the military, on major transport routes. This was mainly aimed at ensuring would be terrorists couldn’t get in to the north from the south, and to prevent them from escaping to the south once they’d committed an atrocity.

There were also customs checks back in the day. Cross border smuggling was big business with petrol, booze, and cigarettes being top of the list of items smuggled. The problem was the border goes across some of the remotest parts of Ireland. There are hundreds of crossings, some little more than thin dirt tracks, making it virtually impossible to control. Logistically things haven’t changed. The military border points may have gone, but the myriad of border crossing remain. Should there be different trade rules between the two constituent parts of Ireland, it will equally difficult to police and enforce.

You can understand why all the talk is about trade, but there’s one aspect of the Irish border issue that gets very little coverage. Whisper this quietly; it’s the possibility of a united Ireland. This gets little media coverage because it’s a bigger problem than post Brexit border trade. The two topics are inextricably linked. If we want to remain part of the customs union, the European Union say we must be part of their club. Therefore if we want to leave, different trade rules apply. Neither Ireland or the UK want that.

No matter how unlikely that may seem, a united Ireland of 32 counties would solve the trade issue at one fell swoop. It would create a plethora of other seemingly intractable issues though. Logistical issues like what flag the country would use, or what national anthem they’d sing. The Irish government has stated that should a united Ireland ever come into existence, that nothing would be ruled out. Perhaps that’s more of a politician’s  answer, as they know that such small scale decisions are fraught with historical and jingoistic significance.

Agreeing to a united Ireland may be the easy part. Deciding on changing the wording of the Irish national anthem, agreeing on the colours and design of a flag, now there’s a discussion bound to bring out all the old arguments.

Fake News

Is “fake news” the answer to disenfranchised voters?

Donald Trump loves being in the spotlight. That’s why I won’t follow him on social media. It’s bad enough that virtually every day we have to hear of his latest tweets on the evening news. It’s nothing personal. It’s just that I don’t agree with what he’s doing. It’s an effective communication strategy, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right communication strategy.

Let me address head on the allegation that I just don’t get what he’s about. I do.

I see exactly what he’s doing. He’s sidestepping the mainstream media, because he knows it can censor or spin his words. Plus his demographic don’t read the New York Times or listen to NBC. They feel left out by mainstream politics, and by association the mainstream media. To be fair, they have a case.

It’s just a shame that to gain office, Mr Trump has had to embrace this abrasive, aggressive, and confrontational communication style. It divides opinion rather than unite people. That is what I find most objectionable. It’s politics for the greater good, so long as you’re in his core demographic support. If not, screw you!

If you needed convincing, the new US Ambassador to the Netherlands got in on the act recently. He was caught denying a quote, when he clearly said it, denouncing the allegation as “fake news”. He then denied saying he’d said it was fake news.

US Ambassador to Holland

Such brass necked  cheek doesn’t wash with me or the Dutch reporters who witnessed it. We know what they are trying to do, and the US administration doesn’t seem to care that we know.

But this is a diplomat, and a senior one at that. I’d always thought that an Ambassador had to tread a delicate balance between the interests of their home country, and the cultural sensitivities of their hosts.

This example of “Trumpism” demonstrates a seismic shift in this balance.

We’ve seen such behavior before at White House press conferences. Back on home ground you can say it is OK, well sort of, but to do the same on a supposed ally’s turf? That demonstrates a total disrespect.

It is often said that the sign of a strong democracy is having media free to practice without undue outside interference.

By refusing to answer questions, or denying outright allegations despite overwhelming proof to the contrary, undermines the media’s authority. It is effective at controlling the press, without actually having the mandate to do so.

One more thing. As a political person, I understand the importance that politics has on our lives. The trouble is, politics has a bad name in some quarters. Why? Some folk think politicians don’t live in the real world, are just in it for themselves, and that they lie.

I can’t think who they could possibly be referring to! Can you?

Here’s the irony though.

This demographic is often the least socially mobile mobile. Their less well educated, in manual or blue collar jobs. They feel cut off by society. Left behind if you will. In fact they are the very demographic that got Donald elected.

Such examples of obstinacy do nothing to attract those disenfranchised by politics. I don’t suppose his fan base care. They’re just happy to have a billionaire champion. The fact he takes lots of holiday at the huge cost to the US tax payer, and hates being challenged by anyone, seems to be lost on them. After all, he stands for everything they crave, doesn’t he?