Saturday, April 17, 2021

Status Quo, rock band not political ideology


In his article in today’s Newsletter Ben Lowry states “Unionism is now the only significant movement in Northern Ireland that ever seems to defend the status quo.” I suspect from Ben’s perspective this is a good thing. A few weeks ago I wrote an article in which I stated

“Those who clamber onto the backs of lorries are fond of using a phrase “what we have we hold” it has been a feature of Unionist politics my entire life. It was unchallengeable, but now perhaps is the time to challenge it, for the sake of the union and for Unionism. What if what we have, what if what we hold, is not enough.”

To be clear being robust defenders of the status quo is not a winning political strategy.

Over the past few weeks I heard a number of interviews with young people caught up in the violence arising from protests against the Protocol, for some they believed that the Protocol was making them second-class citizens in their own country. What saddens me is that those same young people did not understand that they are second-class citizens already, like their parents and grandparents before them. The Protocol is an unconscionable act of social, economic and constitutional vandalism by people in power who neither know nor care about its impact but it is not the cause of the generational poverty which undermines the lives of the young people in the streets throwing bricks. Neither are their conditions determined by whether they are unionist and nationalist or whether they are Protestant or Catholic. Institutionalised poverty and deprivation exist and for that reason what we have can never be the status quo that some Unionist politicians and commentators aspire to.

Areas of multiple deprivation have been a feature of government policy and questionable investment for generations. Across a broad range of civic society, community and voluntary sector, churches, schools and sections of government funds have flowed to organisations to address the impact of poverty in education, health, community development, employment, arts and many other sectors. One cannot underestimate the massive impact that those individuals delivering such programs have had on improving the quality of life of people in those areas. But such work comes with many frustrations, there is little long-term funding, projects are funded on a piecemeal basis, pilot projects, even the most successful, disappear because there is no route to sustainability and time after time organisations are expected to reinvent the wheel when all is needed is a retread.

The reality is much of that work is focused on papering over the cracks and we have some of the best decorators available. But the cracks will re-appear and they do so because the foundations are either too weak or non-existent within too many communities, that is the status quo that we cannot sustain. Imagine if we had the courage to take all of that knowledge and experience within people working in those areas and applied it to building a new foundation, if we invested in changing society from the ground up rather than simply saying we must defend the status quo.

In Ben’s article he goes on to say “If there was not a Unionist education Minister, for example, academic selection would be gone.” It’s almost as if Unionism is dependent on academic selection, on the school you go to or the badge you wear. It’s not. For those who live in areas of multiple deprivation they are told that academic selection is the route to be a better future, it is the educational equivalent of the Hunger Games. Many schools, individual teachers and community organisations do all in their power to give those children who wish to attempt selection process every opportunity to succeed but overcoming the impact of disadvantage is a massive undertaking. Levelling up every child’s life opportunity means not accepting the status quo but charting a new path.

I don’t believe that for all its efforts nationalism will bring about a United Ireland but I do think that by default unionism will push society in that direction. We cannot defend a unionism which cannot deliver for working class unionists never mind anyone else. The world around us is changing and in evolutionary terms the saying is “adapt or die” it’s a valid metaphor for political movements as well. For political unionism the challenges remain that for many such evolution is an anathema,  controlling the flow of funds to areas of deprivation gives a level of power and control over the populace and importantly too few have the vision, ambition or commitment to truly change the society we live in.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

When Mr Ben came to the rescue


Today’s Newsletter carries an article by Mr Ben Habib a recent champion of Unionism who has arrived on scene to rescue the union from the worst excesses of a seriously deficient Boris Johnston and the Conservative Party unable to protect Northern Ireland from those pesky Europeans.

When he writes

“The Northern Ireland Protocol has been imposed on Northern Ireland without even a shred of consent from its people, let alone the cross-community consent which is at the heart of the Belfast Agreement.”

he does so without any sense of irony given that he, himself, did indeed vote to impose the Withdrawal Agreement containing the NI Protocol on the people of Northern Ireland when a Brexit MEP.

This is the same Ben Habib who is mentioned in a recent Irish News article,

Mr Habib believes "Northern Ireland has been left behind" and that the Irish Sea regulatory border has disrupted trade between Britain and the region.

"What it said on the referendum paper and what the prime minister promised in his manifesto of 2019 was that the UK would leave the EU – there was no deal that we'd leave Northern Ireland behind," he said.

"It's actually repugnant that we should leave part of the UK behind. It makes me feel sick to the core, which is why I've taken the action I've taken." Irish News 25th February 2021

Yet this is the same Ben Habib who wrote on the 18th February 2020 in the Daily Telegraph

“Undoubtedly the Protocol and associated border down the Irish Sea was an unnecessary and hefty concession made by the British government to get Brexit over the line. Undoubtedly it belies any claim that the UK is leaving the EU whole, in control of its laws and borders. But instead of resisting the inevitable, NI should embrace it and make it work for its own great benefit and that of the United Kingdom.”

Earlier comments in the same article detail why Mr Habib felt that trying to mitigate the  Protocol would be wrong

“Many unionists now wish for the future arrangements between the EU and the UK to be as close as possible. They hope that, by diluting the effects of Brexit and staying closely aligned with the EU, they will neuter the adverse implications of the Protocol for the union of NI and GB.

They must resist the temptation to push for close alignment between the EU and UK.”

Any idea that the pure Brexit Mr Habib sought would be lessoned to protect the union was not in Mr Habib’s plan and so the economic benefits of the Protocol as seen by him were writ large for all to see:

“NI has been afforded one major advantage by the Protocol. It will be able to export goods tariff-free to both the EU and GB. This is a unique position, the advantages of which grow the greater the divergence of the UK from the EU.

NI should be the perfect home for businesses seeking to export to both the EU and GB. The British government should assist by ensuring that businesses wishing to locate in NI are able to access cost effective funding and that the tax environment for businesses in NI is made at least as accommodating as it is in Ireland. The rest would happen automatically. Indeed, with the right support NI could and should become a tiger economy within the UK.

If the NI economy does as well as it should, irrespective of the obvious drawbacks of the Protocol, there is every chance of Ireland itself aligning more closely with Great Britain, rather than NI aligning itself more closely with the EU. The border down the Irish Sea should diminish greatly as a threat to the UK’s union.”

So what has motivated Mr Habib to saddle up a white charger and come to the rescue of unionism. Perhaps a clue is to be found in an online interview with Proactive Investors, available on You Tube, on the 10th June 2016, a few days before the referendum, Habib touches on the BREXIT debate, noting he would be “very gung-ho” should the UK vote to leave the EU.

“If we get a vote for BREXIT and if the commentators are right that sterling will weaken and the markets will go into a degree of volatility, we’ll be looking at that as a really great opportunity to buy assets in the UK,” he says.

Of course Mr Habib is first and foremost a businessman indeed while an MEP he apparently earned more from his main employment than any other MEP. His business model was highlighted by BBC Newsnight on Jul 16, 2019 when Emily Maitlis pointed out: “You line your own pockets with everyone else going bust”

Mr Habib depends on volatility and disruption to create the markets conditions in which he thrives. Resolving issues with the Protocol doesn’t deliver for Ben, in fact the Trade and Co-operation Agreement doesn’t deliver for Ben despite the disruption so far. What delivers for Ben is winding things up to create the circumstances where the UK and EU revert to a no deal Brexit over NI. By the way even Ben admits that in those circumstances the Withdrawal Agreement remains.

Should Mr Habib arrive at the offices of the Dept of the Economy with plans for a factory to build gull-wing door cars which can travel in time in a factory on the Shankill there will be unionists who hail him as a hero. I will not be one, like many before he is not here for us, he is here for himself and the profit he can make. When he is done he will be gone and we will have to pick up the pieces of whatever he leaves behind.  

Sunday, February 14, 2021

An open letter to Unionism


In a few weeks time I will turn 60, in the circumstances it won’t be celebrated by a trip to the States as was my initial intention. But it does represent an opportunity, given the current political challenges, to reflect on my journey through Northern Ireland’s history of the last 40 or 50 years. When I was old enough I joined the security forces serving Queen and country. When given the opportunity I sought elected office and over several terms served my local community.

Through the years I listened to our political leaders and followed the guidance they gave. When they called on us to gather at the front of the City Hall I joined with hundreds of thousands of others, when we were urged to march on the gates of Maryfield I marched, when we were called upon to block roads I blocked roads and every time the result was the same, we changed nothing.

Today I hear discordant Unionist voices from the past rattling their chains and once again expressing a wish to climb upon the back of a lorry and urge Unionists to action, were it not for the pandemic the backs of lorries would be filled with old men and young turks. They would be urging us to stand our ground, to push forward, to fight. And as in the past they would do no standing, no pushing and definitely no fighting. What they propose has nothing to do with political intelligence or a carefully thought out strategy, their proposals represent a lack of political knowledge and an absence of strategy. Had they any such ability we would not be in the position we are in.

There are different quotations based on the same theme but Churchill’s is perhaps the most pertinent “those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it”. Are we or our politicians experiencing anything different than Carson who reflected

“What a fool I was. I was only a puppet, and so was Ulster, and so was Ireland, in the political game that was to get the Conservative Party into power. And of all the men in my experience that I think are the most loathsome it is those who will sell their friends for the purpose of conciliating their enemies, and, perhaps, still worse, the men who climb up a ladder into power of which even I may have been part of a humble rung, and then, when they have got into power, kick the ladder away without any concern for the pain, or injury, or mischief, or damage that they do to those who have helped them to gain power.”

When the North Antrim MP raised this week in Parliament with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster the fact that he knew The Sash as a way of intimating ‘you are really one of us’ the putdown was brutal. Mr Gove pointed out that he also knows The Fields of Athenry, Flower of Scotland and Swing Low Sweet Chariot. Mr Gove is not one of us, Mr Gove will sing any song, will wear any coat and will put on any face that gives him political advantage, it is sad that leaders of Unionism placed much faith in such a man. And such a man was placed in charge of negotiating our position in respect of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Of course he is not alone, there are many whose belief in English nationalism is as big a threat to the union as Scottish nationalism or Irish nationalism. Yet uniquely it is to English nationalism that some in political Unionism have lent their support. They’re represented in government by the group of MPs formally known as the European Research Group (ERG) now better known as the Covid Recovery Group (CRG). Fran├žois, Baker, Harper, Rees Mogg and the rest, though in the minority in the Conservative party came to dominate the post Brexit landscape, nothing would do but that the Brexit we achieved should be the hardest of them all. In the choice between financial opportunity in trading with America or ease of trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of United Kingdom, money won.

So why do some unionists sup from the same cup, it’s easy, in their pomposity the most right-wing English politicians wrap themselves in the union flag. It is not a sign of loyalty, it is not a signal of allegiance, it is merely that with slightly more self-awareness than the Emperor they realise they wear no clothes. They are the Militant Tendency of the Conservative movement and sadly the Conservatives lack a Neil Kinnock with the spine to deal with them.

With no sense of direction, with no clear understanding of the external environment the United Kingdom set forth on a journey to the sunny uplands. Here in Northern Ireland we learned some valuable lessons, we are not the most important people in the world, we are not the most important people in Europe and we are not the most important people in the United Kingdom. The needs and wants of others take precedence. The whole of the United Kingdom has learned that trading arrangements between nations are complex and bring difficulties and we have learned that when national governments take shortcuts regions face the most challenges. Let me say from the start I am no less British today than I was in December 2020 or pre-and post Brexit in 2016. There have always been goods and services available in Great Britain that were not available in Northern Ireland, from entering competitions to getting cheap car insurance or getting electrical products that had nefarious alternative uses, we didn’t wreck the place when the meerkat said no.

This week I watched representatives of the logistics sector present to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee each and every one of them had solutions, where they had identified problems they were also identifying ways to address those problems the one thing they were missing was a clear and tangible route to putting those solutions in front of decision-makers. Not one of them suggested pulling articulated lorries across the road and torching them or blockading ports as a solution. Yet, but for the pandemic, I suspect that is precisely what some Unionist leaders would be advocating.

There are some hard lessons to learn, I suspect some politicians have yet to learn them and even when they do they will defer from telling you the truth. The Northern Ireland protocol is part of an international trade agreement there is no such thing as simply dismissing it, to replace it means reopening negotiations and to get something different the Conservatives must give something more and that is something they will not do. In the words of Kipling “we are the sacrifice”. Much is made of using Article 16, it doesn’t replace the protocol it allows only for breathing space and addresses issues that were unforeseen. Much of the difficulty in using Article 16 derives from the fact that Mr Gove and Lord Frost knew exactly the consequences of the agreements they were signing, none of our current challenges were unforeseen. Even in 2024 a vote in the assembly to remove Articles 5-10 of the protocol means only renegotiation between Europe and the UK and new Articles, any such eventuality will not lead to any outcome which limits UK trade internationally.

So where do we go from here, some in Unionist politics suggest bringing down Stormont and ending devolution, I can think of no more irrational thought than this. In a world where our influence is already small some would remove it altogether and place every aspect of our lives and our futures in the hands of those who have already shown they are quite prepared to use and abuse our loyalty for their own financial and political advancement. A neoliberal conservatism determined to remove the £10 billion cost of belonging to Europe will, left unhindered, turned their attention to the other £10 billion cost to the Exchequer.

Those who clamber onto the backs of lorries are fond of using a phrase “what we have we hold” it has been a feature of Unionist politics my entire life. It was unchallengeable, but now perhaps is the time to challenge it, for the sake of the union and for Unionism. What if what we have, what if what we hold is not enough. Last summer I became a grandfather for the first time. The country, the nation, the future I want for future generations must be better than what we have now and no amount of barricades and marches and rallies will deliver change for Northern Ireland. To do so requires a vision that builds a common purpose. Instead Unionism, if we truly believe in the union we must be prepared to sell a vision of something better not just here but across the Kingdom, for Scotland, England and Wales as well as ourselves. When we talk of promoting the union we put the health service front and centre yet the model we have hasn’t delivered in years. Following the pandemic it will require massive change and investment, as unionists supporting the transformation of services across the UK will we support the radical reforms necessary to deliver that change. Our economic model is fixated on the concept of Gross Domestic Product as a measure of success yet other societies are moving to recognise the well-being of their citizens as being the fairest measure of economic and social advancement. Our education system is designed to deliver workers into the economy, yet just as the agrarian revolution and industrial revolution transformed society the technological revolution provides the opportunity to change education to deliver citizens into society not just workers into a job. As a nation we struggle with poverty in all its forms have we the courage to raise it to the top of our agenda, across the nation and consider any measure that gives hope of a better life and better opportunities. Future generations will face massive challenges due to climate change and the scale of those challenges will be decided by decisions we take now and yet Unionism for the most part is bereft of strategies, proposals and motivation to change. We are responsible now for building the foundations upon which future generations will build their society. Will those foundations be built on hopelessness and fear, running from challenges, or will they be built on resilience, science and flexible rational thought. To secure our place in the union decisions will depend not on friends and allies in high places, as we have experienced, when the time comes and they are needed we have very few. Our place will be secured on the value we bring to the growth and development of the UK as a whole not just our place within it, for what we put in, not what we take out.

To abandon politics at any level at this stage is to abandon the future of Northern Ireland and leave us entirely at the mercy of those whose loyalty is to profit and for whom Northern Ireland is a burden. On those rare occasions we have real influence and the ability to make change in the UK we must use it to make real meaningful changes for all, we shouldn't sell such influence for short tern financial and political gain. Be truly part of the Union and its people. Political leadership means winning by force of argument and having better solutions than anyone else at the table, political cowardice means refusing to engage and walking away from the table. It is time for Northern Ireland Unionism to build a vision of the union which resonates in Scotland Wales and England, Governments are only transient, the hearts and minds of people endure..

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Thoughts of Climate Change Bill consultation


Currently the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs is consulting on a Northern Ireland climate change bill,  

not a deep and meaningful consultation on the details of such a bill but merely on a broad-brush outline.

The discussion document suggests that Northern Ireland’s GHG emissions are relatively small at 4.3% of UK emissions, this assertion however ignores the fact that Northern Ireland population is 3% of the UK total. In fact per head of population Northern Ireland’s emissions are nearly 50% higher than our UK counterparts. Taking responsibility to address the causes of anthropogenic climate change will not be served by trying to make a case that we should be excused due to population size. The challenge is not that we should do less than others but that we should do more than others.

The discussion document presents two options regarding the introduction of Northern Ireland specific climate change legislation.

Option 1: Northern Ireland Climate Change Bill setting interim emission reduction targets and a long-term target of Net Zero emissions in Northern Ireland by 2050 (long term target does not consider expert climate change advice); and 

Option 2: Northern Ireland Climate Change Bill setting interim emission reduction targets and a long-term target for Northern Ireland by 2050, the long-term target is an equitable contribution to achieving UK-wide Net Zero by 2050 (long term target considers expert climate change advice)

It seems strange that the development of a climate change bill is delayed in order to publicly consult on these two options.

Obviously the quickly changing environment where knowledge about the impact of climate change is becoming clear it seems only rational that going forward consideration of the best available scientific evidence on mitigation, greenhouse gas reduction and potential impacts leads to the conclusion that option two is the easy choice. That is until one reads in detail the differences between the two options where the Department makes it clear as a priority that the independent expert advice and evidence will include consideration of the likely capability of Northern Ireland to meet that particular target due to its unique local characteristics/profile and it is clear that Northern Ireland’s focus will be on avoiding taking any difficult decisions as part of our responsibilities to address climate change.

We have had some insight into the approach that will be taken by some politicians, in the recent debate on ammonia levels in Northern Ireland it was made clear that addressing serious environmental concerns would not be allowed to interfere with the financial well-being and growth of the major agri-food sector.

We live in a very well-developed society with all the benefits of a welfare state, a robust education system and potentially a flexible economy. We are not in the front line in dealing with the consequences of climate change immediately but we are in the frontline of causing consequences elsewhere. We can change our impact on the environment by changing our activity, it will not be easy, it may not be cheap, but we are better placed than many others.

Consider a family subsistence farming in Bangladesh, they face and currently suffer from rising sea levels, tides, which progressively cover their land which leave the ground salted and dead. The freshwater rivers are progressively suffering from salination, their wells are becoming undrinkable and like millions of others displacement becomes their only hope for survival. They did not cause the problem but they are among the 1st to suffer the consequences of anthropogenic climate change. Our responsibilities stretch far beyond our shores and in the discussion on climate change and our responsibilities we must understand what the impact is of our actions globally not just locally. We must be better citizens of the world and less selfish about not sharing the burdens that will face us all.

The consultation paper also talks about the action the government departments can take to address climate change and example they give is flood defences. Given that we face a future where the melting of the Greenland ice sheet would on its own raise sea levels by 7 m the fact that our government considers that building flood defences is the strategic way forward raises grave concerns that they have not yet understood the scale of the issues that face the planet let alone Northern Ireland. A forward thinking, strategic planning administration would consider all elements of our infrastructure and ensure that progressively we move as much as possible out of danger. It doesn’t require massive new investment but a better understanding of how we can use future investment to reduce risk.

There are many simple actions that can be taken to help society change, actions which help people change behaviour, ensuring every new domestic property has an accessible EV charging point will add nothing to the bill cost but will make it easier for people to make the change to using electric vehicles. We could provide grants to support the replacement of oil-fired boilers with air source heat pumps and ending grant support for those heat systems which contribute to the problem rather than the solution. There are many others and all it requires is a will to change, quickly in recognition that the earlier the action the greater the impact.

The consultation paper discusses the need for public bodies to report on their actions to mitigate climate change. The paper outlines the departments thinking “the departments view would be that it would be disproportionately onerous to place a reporting duty on all of them”. This is one of those issues which has infected Northern Ireland society for many years, nobody is accountable, again down to the argument “the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland”. It’s disproportionately onerous if due to the actions of those living in an advanced society halfway across the world your farmland is flooded with seawater, your well is too salty to drink, your home is underwater and you and your family must pack up your meagre possessions and trek many miles possibly to a refugee camp. It is not disproportionately onerous to fill out a form.

If this consultation is anything more than what appears to be, a simple exercise to delay taking any action, then the views that underpin the meagre thoughts within it have no place in developing a robust and sustainable response to the challenges of anthropogenic climate change. It rests, possibly unfortunately, with all of our politicians to grasp the challenge that faces us and develop, promptly, the actions which will make a difference not just to those in other parts of the world now but those future generations in Northern Ireland who need us to act with conviction and commitment.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

A border poll is a sign we failed


This week saw former First Minister Peter Robinson writing for the Newsletter. He chose as his topic the need for unionists to prepare for a border poll and in doing so set out a strategy I believe will fail. Like many unionists his focus on such a poll misses the fundamental context under which such a poll would be called. The Belfast Agreement states

2. Subject to paragraph 3, the Secretary of State shall exercise the power under paragraph 1 if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland.

If we arrive at the situation where a border poll is called it will be because society is not broad enough or flexible enough to meet the needs of those who live here. That for Unionism will represent a political failure and quite likely a moral failure too. Talking with ourselves and delivering those things that we like and enjoy to the exclusion of others will ultimately lead to our own exclusion.

Those who favour a united Ireland do not need to convince one Unionist to change their allegiance, they need only to focus on the centre ground, those whose priorities are not based on national identity but on the type of society they live in and raise their children in. 

For Unionism one challenge will be that any campaign will be undermined by the fact the Union we seek to uphold is defined by those who hold power in London.

Those in power did not think of Northern Ireland during Brexit, the implications for us could not be summed up in a three-word slogan. The Withdrawal Agreement was quick fix, deeply flawed and again ignoring the consequences for Northern Ireland in the protocol. The Internal Markets Bill, another quick fix, deeply flawed, to try and limit the damage arising from the Withdrawal Agreement. Before anyone thinks the Internal Markets Bill had anything to do with Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom think again. The much vaunted free-trade agreement with the US would result in US agri-food produce entering the UK, under the withdrawal agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol this would be prevented from entering Northern Ireland. Would this matter to the UK government or the United States, probably not but imagine the reaction in Scotland if under the Internal Markets Bill they were required to take whatever produce London decided while Northern Ireland didn't. Losing Northern Ireland will not concern London in the slightest losing Scotland on the other hand is a failure too far.

Of course there are those unionists and Peter may be one who believe that a border poll will be based on a simple question placed simultaneously to the electorate north and south much in the same way as the Brexit question was put. I doubt very much whether a major constitutional issue will ever be put in such a format again, no government, and certainly not an Irish government, will seek to ask the question and on the basis of the answer start negotiations with a future British Government. Instead I envisage a situation where if Unionism is incapable of creating a society which meets the needs of the majority of our citizens both governments will start a process of drafting a clear understanding of what happens should such a poll deliver a United Ireland. All the questions people may have will be answered, pensions and healthcare, citizenship and rights, a financial settlement figure over many years and a clear explicit message that London has no selfish, strategic or economic interest in maintaining this union. London will call a border poll should it serve their purpose, when they are certain of the outcome and will do everything in their power, openly or surreptitiously, to deliver a United Ireland.

So what can Unionism do to maintain the union, first we must set aside the idea that we build a Northern Ireland for ourselves, we must build a Northern Ireland for the majority of citizens and that means moderating our views, we must recognise the issues that concern people today issues like climate change and the green economy and we must give answers that address those concerns. Holding onto the past cannot be the basis upon which we lose our country, we must be open and responsive to new ways of delivering for a greater number of people. We must recognise that allegiance to the United Kingdom means being a critical friend, we cannot accept that just because a party is in power they have the moral authority to ignore issues like poverty and deprivation. Our future will be found in a United Kingdom based on the centre ground and to preserve that union our voices must be heard in the corridors of power arguing for a union for all based on a society for all. Peter’s think tank cannot change the outcome of a border poll, but with an inclusive vision of the future it can change the need for one and to do that it must change unionism.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Changing care

Fifty years ago care for older people, for those with mental health issues and those with significant physical disabilities was centred in institutions. Regimented care, delivered efficiently but without much reference to individuality, was the norm. Societal change and a greater understanding of individual rights led to the introduction of “community care”, the idea that long term care should as closely as possible reflect the de-institutionalised nature of society in general. Smaller facilities within local communities with higher levels of personal privacy and an improved quality of life. Such changes coincided with another change, this time in economics the idea that given the right circumstances the market could meet every need. This neo-liberal ideology found favour with global leaders, Reagan and Thatcher led the way and societal change became wrapped in an economic strait jacket. Out-sourcing became the key objective of service delivery, if you can put a value on something it can be traded. Due to Northern Ireland’s political and security issues we lagged behind, our councils delivered less services to be privatised and central government never had the clear understanding of the neo-liberal mantra needed, quite apart from the lack of confidence in anyone investing in NI. But that has changed over the past 20 years and more and more the drive to change service delivery from the public sector to the private sector has driven the change in what services look like. There will have to be significant changes in how we care for all those in society who need additional support at different times in their lives, this must be led by a desire to improve the quality of life of the individual, the desire to make a profit can never be a factor because that profit comes at the expense of the individual. We monetised our most vulnerable and transformed them from people into assets to be traded. When such a system fails to protect the weakest in society it is defined as market failure. Care must change, from the very basic level of designing facilities which allow for communal living yet capable of transforming into socially isolated havens, to stabilising the workforce by improving training and terms and conditions. Society must change, if we are to deliver more of what people need then we must have less of what we want. There are bigger challenges ahead, we can overcome them with a common purpose, or we will succumb to them due to the selfish agenda of the few.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Change the choice

Abortion remains one of the most contentious and divisive social issues in Northern Ireland. Those on either side of the argument seek an absolute answer in line with their thinking. Even those seeking the middle ground find themselves attacked from either side. Decisions taken in Parliament and the High Court mean that change is coming. Absolutes on either side will not define the future.

Thirty years ago I worked for the ambulance service. One evening while on duty we received a call to a house where someone was reported to have attempted suicide. When we arrived at the scene I went to the door, we had been given few details. The door was answered by a young woman in her late 20s early 30s dressed in a business suit and holding a glass of white wine. She was upset that we had come to the house and she asked us to leave. It was clear from the empty packets of prescription medicine on the coffee table that she had taken an overdose. She had telephoned a friend in England to tell her what she had done, her friend had phoned for the ambulance. She refused to go to the hospital. At that time we carried blue cards which if a patient refused treatment they would sign and we would leave. I declined to give her a card to sign, I was concerned that the overdose she had taken would be fatal. She stated again that she would not go to hospital if asked, I accepted her point and advised her that at a point she would be unconscious, she would be incapable of refusing treatment and I would take her to hospital. I told her that she would not die that evening and the only thing we were discussing was how ill she was going to be by the time I got her to a doctor. Her mood changed and while she still refused to go to hospital she started to answer questions about what had happened. She had started with a glass of wine and became upset because she had recently had an abortion, the more upset she got the more wine she drank until she convinced herself to take an overdose. The decision to have an abortion wasn’t an easy one but she had no one to talk to, it was not something that anyone in Northern Ireland talked about. She had a professional career and the choice was simple her career or a family, there was for her at that time no alternative. As the overdose took effect she realised that one way or another she was going to hospital and after I assured her that she would get the help she needed she agreed to go to hospital.

The young woman’s experience has been repeated many thousands of times since then. Her story is as relevant to today’s discussions as many thousands of other experiences.

Thirty years ago woman from Northern Ireland travelled to England to have abortions, they still travel. While those who support a pro-life message argue that abortion does not happen in Northern Ireland the reality is that for those who have the resources having an abortion is a choice they are prepared to make. The decision at Westminster to remove the limits on abortion in Northern Ireland was taken because of a failure of the Stormont administration to consider any legislation. So polarised is our society on this issue that any discussion which involves either side moving from their absolute beliefs is deemed erroneous. In truth the final position will not satisfy either side of the argument but there must be some attempt at addressing the concerns of both sides, there must be some attempt to find common ground on which both sides can agree.

The young woman I took to hospital had been faced with a choice her career or having a family. It is not uncommon for a young woman to still face this decision. Recently it was reported that a young woman was awarded £28,000 as she was discriminated against for being pregnant. A simple Internet search for stories about woman being discriminated against in the workplace because they become pregnant provides a litany of examples. These are only the ones where woman take legal action, in how many other cases do woman feel pressurised to have an abortion. This is compounded by research findings which show one in eight companies are reluctant to hire women who may become pregnant. (1) Recently, when discussing promotions within a public sector organisation a senior executive advised me that while I thought a member of staff was very good at her job she was actually unreliable. Having never witnessed anything which called into question that staff member’s reliability I asked what was the problem. The answer was that while she was good she was always off having babies. The fact that society continues to force women to choose between a career and family means that abortions will continue to happen irrespective of the law in Northern Ireland. Surely there is a point of common cause between pro-life and pro-choice advocates which recognises that addressing this issue amongst others will reduce the number of abortions by removing the societal pressure for woman to choose between having a career and having a family. Any genuine attempt to improve quality of life for woman must include far stricter penalties for any business limiting the career opportunities for woman who choose to have a family.

Of course career opportunities are only one of the challenges that women face, in many cases poverty rather than career is the challenge that woman face. Struggling to bring up children on the edge of poverty and becoming pregnant again presents women with another choice. It is a choice forced upon them by society, the welfare system that exists today is becoming less and less focused on providing the resources for families to live without work. The drive to present work as the best option delivers for men either with or without a family it does not meet the needs of women either in or out of a relationship. A recent report from the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) (2) details the challenges that families and especially lone parents face in relation to keeping above the poverty threshold. As CPAG state “A lone parent working full-time on the ‘national living wage’ will be 20% (£74 per week) short of what they need to achieve a minimum standard of living.” (3) Any discussion on reducing the number of abortions must include a real commitment to improving the financial well-being of families.

As part of that discussion there is a real need to improve the provision of childcare in Northern Ireland. A recent report by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions details the challenges faced by families and women in particular in accessing childcare and the impact on their careers including the reliance on part time employment. (4) A cross party commitment in Northern Ireland to providing the 30 hours of free childcare available across the rest of the United Kingdom means making difficult budgetary choices elsewhere but in the context of improving the quality of life for women it is a key element.

The experience of mothers in terms of the support they receive in the first few years of motherhood can define their future desire to have more children. As society changes and the knowledge and experience within families varies greatly the provision of services such as SureStart are vital in providing a supportive environment. In all of this while the rights of women and the unborn form the basis of the debate the responsibilities of fathers are too often ignored. Women cannot be left to bear the sole responsibility for raising children, yet too often they are, a greater emphasis on the responsibility men have must form part of the narrative about how society develops a better framework for raising children and ensuring true equality for women.

If we are serious about reducing the number of abortions then we must also be serious about the teaching of sex education, relationship education call it whatever, to teenagers. Those who argue that abstinence is the only answer ignore the reality that such teaching is not on its own effective. (5) By all means teach abstinence but as part of a comprehensive sex education programme which supports the physical and mental well-being of all citizens irrespective of gender or sexual orientation.

The message for Northern Ireland is clear abortion happens and is accessed by women from Northern Ireland. Nothing you currently do will change that and legislatively things will change and there will be safe, legal and local access to services. Along with those changes there must be a focus on improving the quality of life of women and children to change the nature of the decision that women take. There must also be recognition on the other side of the debate, this is not about being pro-choice, the reason many women take the decision to have an abortion is because they honestly feel that in our society they have no choice. We all have a responsibility to change that.

Status Quo, rock band not political ideology

  In his article in today’s Newsletter Ben Lowry states “Unionism is now the only significant movement in Northern Ireland that ever seems t...