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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Are Brexiteers prepared to sacrifice peace in Northern Ireland?

The status of the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic has been a major headache for UK Ministers as they seek to inexpertly navigate the storm surrounding our exit from the EU.

The danger is that by putting back border controls and disrupting free trade between the two, Ministers will start to unpick twenty years of peace founded on the principles of direct rule and power-sharing as set out in the Good Friday agreement.

They need not fear, however, as the hard line Brexiteers have the solution. They want to ditch the Good Friday agreement altogether and apparently, damn the consequences. At least that is the only conclusion that can be drawn from yesterday's co-ordinated onslaught on the peace process.

It is an onslaught that follows the hard-line DUP's decision to take their toys home and rely on Theresa May's largesse to keep them in a position of influence in the North. But in my view it is also a cynical exercise in self-serving politics that underlines the real dangers inherent in Brexit.

It all started with a Daniel Hannan column in the Telegraph in which he states:

'The Belfast Agreement is often spoken about in quasi-religious terms – literally, for it is more widely known as the Good Friday Agreement. But its flaws have become clearer over time. The original deal represented a bribe to two sets of hardliners who, having opposed power-sharing, came to support it when they realised that they would be the direct beneficiaries. For 20 years, Sinn Féin and the DUP have propped each other up like two exhausted boxers in a clinch. A permanent grand coalition leaves them free to reward their supporters with subsidies and sinecures.'

Similar sentiments have been echoed by the former Northern Ireland Secretary, Owen Patterson, whilst Labour MP and Brexiteer, Kate Hooey has also waded into the fray. She is quoted as saying:

“I think there is a need for a cold rational look at the Belfast agreement.

“Even if a settlement had been agreed a few days ago there is nothing to stop Sinn Fein or the DUP finding something else to walk out about in a few months. Mandatory coalition is not sustainable in the long term.

“The Belfast agreement has been changed slightly over the years with the St Andrew’s agreement. We need to face reality - Sinn Fein don’t particularly want a successful Northern Ireland. They want a united Ireland.”

As Slugger O'Toole points out the whole basis of this criticism is wrong:

This agreement is not perfect, but no agreement ever is. Since 1969, we have been through many incarnations and attempts to resolves differences, but the Good Friday Agreement has been the only lasting document that has survived for nearly 20 years.

Indeed, contrary to the assertion above that this was merely something to reward the hardliners, it was actually more mainstream leaders like David Trimble and John Hume (and others) who came together to put this forward as a solution. It was the DUP, who actually sat outside the room during the entire process.

I know it’s now in vogue in British politics to boast about the popular will of the people. It’s worth remembering that the biggest expression of democratic will in our history was the resounding 71.1% (80% turnout) given by the people here saying Yes to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

Writing off democracy in Northern Ireland so easily is an act of breath-taking cynicism. It is not ideal and is need of reform, but for now it represents the best chance to maintain peace in the province. The view of former Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Hain is more prescient:

Hoey and fellow Eurosceptics would “sacrifice almost anything on the altar of a hard Brexit,” said Hain, who supports the pro-Single Market campaign Open Britain.

He said: “The reckless slurs of Brextremists like Daniel Hannan, Owen Paterson and Kate Hoey against the Good Friday Agreement show they are willing to sacrifice almost anything on the altar of a hard Brexit.

“Rather than engage with the inherent contradictions in their position of maintaining an open border in Ireland whilst also leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union, fanatics like Hannan, Paterson and Hoey instead say we should tear up the agreement underpinning peace in Northern Ireland, just so they can have their way on Brexit.

“During the referendum, the Leave campaign dismissed all claims that the Good Friday Agreement could be undermined by Brexit as ‘scaremongering’. Now some of them are publicly calling for it to be scrapped. No-one voted in the referendum to jeopardise the Northern Irish peace process. If that’s the consequence of Brexit, people are entitled to ask whether Brexit is the right path for the country.”

We should not allow the Brexiteers to unravel decades of peace in Northern Ireland. It is bad enough that they have condemned us to the inept negotiating tactics of UK Tory Ministers, which threaten to leave us isolated in the world and at the mercy of the likes of Donald Trump for future trade deals. Handing Ireland back to sectarian violence so as to solve a problem they have created does them no credit at all.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Why is Theresa May penalising European citizens?

The Prime Minister's well-known obsession with immigration figures could come back to haunt her during the Brexit negotiations as she seeks to shore up her unattainable targets by removing rights from citizens of EU countries.

Her demand that EU nationals coming to the UK during a Brexit transition deal should enjoy fewer rights than those already in the country has already upset the European Parliament's Brexit co-ordinator, Guy Verhofstadt who says that it amounts to “penalising citizens”.

The Guardian reports Verhofstadt, as saying: “It’s not acceptable for us that rules will continue without change for financial services, for goods, for whatever other business, and only for the citizens, their situation will change. That is penalising citizens.” He is clear that the UK is trying to have its cake and eat it.

The extent to which the UK Government is getting these negotiations wrong is illustrated by the Belgian MEP's bluntness when asked about UK hopes for a final deal that would mean different arrangements for different sections of the economy:

“That will not be the outcome of these negotiations. It cannot be the outcome,” Verhofstadt told BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show, saying he could not countenance a trade deal that would also see the UK seek advantage through lower taxes and regulations.

Ministers continue to mishandle these negotiations, apparently failing to understand the nature of the institution they are dealing with and the vested interests that European countries are seeking to protect. Their targeting of European citizens in this country threatens to split families and damage the economy.

What is worse they do not seem to understand how this approach undermines their own position on future trade. We cannot have tariff-free trade without freedom of movement for labour. Trying to split the two will see us emerge from this process empty-handed and isolated. Is that what those who voted for Brexit really want?

Sunday, February 18, 2018

'Disgraceful scenes' raise questions about Labour bullying

By all accounts the controversy at Labour's National Policy Forum yesterday, massively eclipsed that at the rather more predictable extraordinary general meeting of UKIP, which was happening at the same time.

Videos have appeared on-line that purport to show female Labour figures being bullied into submission over the election of a key policy position that was subsequently postponed. Some Labour MPs have gone on the record to express their disquiet at what happened.

As the Telegraph reports, witnesses have hit out at what they believe was the inappropriate behaviour of National Executive Committee (NEC) chairman Andy Kerr. They quote Labour MP Luciana Berger as saying that she was "ashamed" to witness the "disgraceful treatment" of acting NPF chairwoman Katrina Murray at the event. Whilst fellow Labour MP Lucy Powell said the move to delay the vote "smacks of old-school control freakery":

A source at the behind-closed-doors event in Leeds said: "This morning symbolised the old-school male union bullying that is determined to keep Jeremy Corbyn's people in control no matter how bad it looks to the outside world."

There was speculation that veteran activist Ann Black had been on course to defeat Andi Fox in the vote.

Footage apparently shot inside the event showed Ms Powell debating with NEC chairman Mr Kerr, who insisted that the vote should not go ahead.

A source said: "Women delegates were coming up to Lucy Powell to thank her for trying to stand up to Andy Kerr, but in the end the burly ex-union guy took the female chair of the policy forum into a room and kept her there until he got his way.

"This hideous spectacle has underlined that the new Momentum tendency may have the muscle to dominate but they risk destroying any hope we have of convincing the public we are a credible alternative to the Tories."

But another source said: "That's absurd. The NEC is responsible for the rules and was merely making sure they were followed."

The Corbyn-supporting Momentum group denied it had pushed for the delay or endorsed any candidate.

Whether the vote was constitutionally valid or not can be debated within the Labour Party itself of course. The issue is whether the behaviour exhibited could be classed as bullying and if this now represents the culture within Corbyn's Labour Party. It certainly did not look good on the videos I have seen.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Pressure on Labour to stop giving succour to the Tories on Brexit

Labour's failure as an opposition on the biggest issue to face the UK since World War 2 will come under scrutiny this weekend as the party gathers in Leeds for their National Policy Forum in which Jeremy Corbyn will address Shadow Cabinet ministers and union officials in a private meeting.

As the Independent reports, Labour has received more than 17,000 emails within five days calling on the party to consult its half a million strong membership on Brexit policy. They say that the email campaign, which has been coordinated by Labour MPs, the pro-EU group Open Britain and the Labour Campaign for the Single Market, demands Labour immediately establishes a dedicated policy commission on Brexit and “ensure its policy is representative of the views of members”:

After the general election, Labour set up eight policy commissions but have received complaints from MPs claiming that none of the commissions focus purely on Britain’s withdrawal from the bloc.

A Labour Party spokesperson said the NPF, however, considers Brexit through the existing policy commissions. “The Commission and wider NPF are looking at Brexit this year in meetings, evidence sessions and by considering all submissions received,” they added.

“There is a Brexit discussion at the meeting this weekend and each of the eight commissions has its own dedicated Brexit representative to ensure work is coordinated across the whole NPF.”

Labour MP Heidi Alexander, a supporter of Open Britain, said the party “cannot keep brushing this under the carpet”, adding: “The fact that more than 17,000 people have been in touch with the party to share their views on Brexit in the last five days alone speaks volume.”

She continued: “Without this campaign, it is genuinely not clear how Labour members, supporters and the public are meant to contribute to the party’s policy making on the biggest issue we face as a country.

The fact is that Labour have been working hand in glove with the Tories to take the UK out of the EU and the single market, against the wishes of the majority of their members and their voters. As a result they have failed to scrutinise the legislation properly and have endangered our economic future.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Is housing policy in the UK failing young people?

This morning's Guardian contains news of an Institute for Fiscal Studies report that underlines the extent by which young people have been let down by housing policies across the UK.

They conclude that the chances of a young adult on a middle income owning a home in the UK have more than halved in the past two decades, with Wales suffering one of the biggest declines in home ownership amongst the 25-34 age group, from 56% to 34%..

The Institute for Fiscal Studies research shows how an explosion in house prices above income growth has increasingly robbed the younger generation of the ability to buy their own home. They say that for 25- to 34-year-olds earning between £22,200 and £30,600 per year, home ownership fell to just 27% in 2016 from 65% two decades ago. And middle income young adults born in the late 1980s are now no more likely than those lower down the pay scale to own their own home.

Key findings include:
This is a phenomenon that has been recognised for some time amongst housing policy makers. It is why every Welsh Liberal Democrats manifesto for each of the last three Welsh Assembly elections has talked about introducing measures to help young people get on the housing ladder.

Indeed the agreement reached between Welsh Liberal Democrats Education Secretary, Kirsty Williams and the First Minister included a specific proposal to try and address the issue highlighted by the IFS.

We advocated a rent to own scheme whereby those young people who could afford to repay a mortgage but cannot raise the deposit to buy their own home will be able to rent a home at market rent, a percentage of which will be put aside towards a deposit to enable them to buy in five years time.

I have been working with the Welsh Government on this scheme and expect it to be launched soon. However, important as it is, we know that it will just be an ameliorative measure. The real issue is the way house prices have been allowed to soar above the level of wages, as well as the difficulties faced by many young people in getting a mortgage following the 2008 banking crisis.

Thanks to the Liberal Democrats, the Welsh Government can make a small contribution to tackling this problem but all the levers to make a big difference lie with the UK Government and how they manage the economy. In particular, the failure to address housing supply is pushing up prices, whilst the apparent inability to reflate the economy means that wage levels continue to stagnate.

It is time for the UK Government to step up to the plate and deal with this problem.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

The £1 billion cost of DUP intransigence

Talks to restore the power-sharing government in Northern Ireland collapsed yesterday, as the DUP said there was no prospect of a compromise with Sinn Féin and accused Theresa May of an unhelpful and distracting visit to Belfast earlier this week.

The DUP leader, Arlene Foster added to Theresa May's woes on Tuesday by ruling out any current prospect of a compromise between the DUP and Sinn Féin. The Guardian reports that the former first minister and her party say they have been shaken by the level of opposition within the DUP and in the wider unionist community over any deal that would include a standalone Irish language act as demanded by Sinn Féin.

In contrast, Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Féin’s leader in the deadlocked Northern Ireland assembly, has said that her party “worked in good faith, we stretched ourselves” and indicated it had believed a deal was close:

“We had reached an accommodation with the leadership of the DUP. The DUP failed to close the deal. They have now collapsed this process. These issues are not going away,” she said. “Sinn Féin are now in contact with both governments and we will set out our considered position tomorrow. The DUP should reflect on their position.”

It is impossible to know the truth of course as to what has been going on behind closed doors, but I doubt if the Prime Minister would have travelled to Ireland if she did not believe that a deal was imminent. Furthermore, the reasons given by the DUP for walking away from the deal do not strike me as anything more than convenient excuses.

The Good Friday agreement was secured because of exceptional leadership on both sides by politicians who were prepared to face down the doubts expressed by their respective communities. The DUP do not appear to want to repeat that feat, largely because they are now in a position where direct rule suits them.

They have secured a £1 billion Barnett-busting boost to the Northern Irish coffers, and are able to exercise extraordinary leverage in 10 Downing Street by virtue of their position as the deal-makers who are keeping Theresa May in power. Why should they do a deal with their Sinn Féin nemesis, when they can exercise power without them through the British state.

The Tory deal with the DUP has not just torpedoed devolved government but it has also created a dangerous situation in Ireland. The DUP are the tail wagging the dog over Brexit. The current determination to leave the single market will destroy the Good Friday agreement and re-establish barriers between North and South that will damage both countries.

If the only prospect for long-term peace across the Irish Sea is for the Prime Minister to walk away from her deal with the DUP, then she should have the courage to do so. At present that deal is poisoning Northern Irish politics and the rot is spreading to Westminster and beyond.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

UKIP crisis threatens to take them even further to right wing extremes

Faced with an acrimonious extraordinary meeting on Saturday, scheduled to determine the fate of its lotharion leader, Henry Bolton, the disintegration of UKIP is continuing apace.

The Mirror reports that the party's chairman, Paul Oakden has resigned from his role. In an email to party members, Oakden said his last act as Chairman will be to chair Saturday's extraordinary meeting. Bolton is the fifth leader on Paul Oakden's watch, which says more about the identity crisis faced by UKIP than the competence of its chairman.

Presumably, Mr. Oakden cannot face the prospect of a sixth leader, especially if the Telegraph is correct in predicting that the favourite to succeed Bolton is UKIP MEP, Gerard Batten, who described Islam as a “death cult”.

If Bolton loses the no confidence vote then the party's NEC will meet almost immediately to elect an interim leader. This person would then be tasked with steering the ship for 90 days before a permanent replacement is elected.

John Bickley, a member of the NEC and UKIP's treasurer, said that it was the intention of the "majority" of the NEC to "immediately vote in" Mr Batten as interim leader if Mr Bolton loses. Lord Pearson, one of the party's three peers, has suggested Mr Batten could ultimately become permanent leader.

A party which started out on the right will then have moved even further to the fringes as part of its long march back to irrelevance.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Oxfam scandal should not be used to undermine the importance of foreign aid

Allegations that Oxfam's aid workers used prostitutes in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti in 2011 are shocking, need to be investigated fully, and action must be taken to ensure that it does not happen again.

The exploitation of vulnerable persons in a crisis situation by people who are supposed to be there to help is unacceptable and those responsible should be removed from any position that allows them to repeat this behaviour.

But this episode and any like it must not be used to cut our foreign aid budget or to diminish the UK's commitment to helping impoverished communities. The foreign aid budget is too important to suffer because of the bad behaviour and inadequate standards of disclosure or investigation relating to one charity.

That message of course is not one that is welcomed by some in the tabloid press or the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, who, last week delivered a Daily Express petition to Downing Street calling on Theresa May to cut the foreign aid budget.

Thank goodness therefore for Tories like William Hague, who is quoted in the Independent as arguing the case for us to maintain our commitment to the third world:

Mr Hague said it was important to deal “decisively” with the “utterly unacceptable” behaviour of humanitarian workers.

But he said a reduction in Britain’s foreign aid spending – currently at 0.7 per cent of GDP – would be a “strategic blunder”, adding it would “ultimately damage our own national interest and ability to deal with on the biggest problems heading our way”.

He continued: “This is that over the next 30 years more than half the growth in the world’s population is expected to be on just one continent – Africa.”

Mr Hague, who also served as Foreign Secretary in David Cameron’s administration between 2010 and 2014, added there was an “overwhelming strategic, as well as moral, imperative to deliver aid to the world’s poorest people”, but added that the sector needs to show it is setting and meeting the highest standards.

“The case for the type of work done by Oxfam is too strong to allow it to be undermined by bad behaviour and inadequate standards of disclosure or investigation,” he wrote in an article for the Daily Telegraph.

“The case for an aid budget that tackles the world's biggest issues will get stronger, not weaker, in the years ahead. The response to this appalling scandal needs to be tough enough to convince the public that their generosity will not be abused.”

Foreign aid is not just about charity, it is about protecting the UK's strategic interests, establishing future trading partners and delivering humanitarian assistance to people in need. Those who argue that the money would be better spent at home are little Englander isolationists whose obsession with containing everything within our own borders is selfish and myopic.

If we were to follow their counsel our economy would be wrecked, and we would be without allies to help us to rebuild it. Without the mutual support of our international friends we would be defenceless against terrorists and rogue states, whilst our ability to influence world events to our own benefit would be nullified.

International aid is part of the glue that binds together our foreign and domestic policy and enables us to work with others to bring about a better world. We should not allow the misbehaviour of charity workers to undermine that mission.

Monday, February 12, 2018

A no deal Brexit in monetary terms

The Independent reports that further study of the Government's leaked analysis of the consequences of leaving the European Union has concluded that the British economy will suffer a £252bn hit if Theresa May carries out her threat to leave the European Union with no deal.

They say that the study concludes that a no-deal Brexit would see GDP plunge by more than a quarter of a trillion pounds over 15 years. Less damaging exit terms, under which Britain would secure a free trade agreement with the rest of the EU, would still result in national output being £131bn lower over the same period. But even a Government U-turn, leaving the UK in the EU single market and customs union, would swipe £52bn from economic growth:

The Best for Britain Group, which is campaigning to halt Brexit, said its research – based on the Government’s own leaked analysis – fully exposed the “Brexit black hole at heart of the economy”.

“Sadly, now we are seeing the economic analysis becoming project fact and it means that we are facing a massive Brexit blow,” said Lord Mark Malloch-Brown, the organisation’s chairman.

“Losing billions means we will have less cash for the NHS, our schools and our public services. This all shows the best option for communities up and down the country is to stay in and keep the deal we have.”

Sadly, none of this will be enough to convince those who voted to leave the EU to change their minds. It is almost as if they believe that the impending economic crisis will not affect them.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Banning plastic in the House of Commons

With the UK Government poised to launch new initiatives to tackle the scourge of single use plastics it is good to see that the House of Commons is to follow suit.

It is now likely that plastic knives and forks will be banned from the various eateries on the Parliamentary estate. Apparently, MPs and their staff used 398,000 pieces of disposable cutlery to eat their meals last year and one million plastic cups and lids.

Anybody who saw a recent BBC documentary will know how much plastic waste has ended up in the Arctic ice. Research shows that up to 234 particles have been found concentrated into just one litre of melted Arctic sea ice. That's much higher than in the open ocean.

Scientists are worried about the impact on Arctic wildlife if the particles are released as sea ice continues to shrink:

Geir Wing Gabrielsen, one of the paper's authors, told BBC News: "We are finding more and more plastic waste in Svalbard, where I work. "The northern fulmar breeds in Svalbard.

"At the end of the 1970s we found very few plastic in their stomachs. In 2013 when we last investigated, some had more than 200 pieces of plastic in their stomachs.

"Other creatures are getting entangled in nets washed up on beaches - like reindeer. Some die because they can't release their antlers - we find them every year."

He said in southern Norway pollution was dominated by plastics from the home - but in Svalbard 80% of it comes from fishing activities, local and distant.

It is right that MPs put their own house in order and follow the example of the Welsh Assembly where tea and coffee are served in reusable china mugs and proper metal cutlery is provided for diners. The question is can we get others to follow suit.

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