Tuesday, 17 November 2015

After Paris

Like everybody else, I watched the news unfold with horror, anger, deep sadness, helplessness: all the emotions that we go through as we empathise with those suffering at the hands of such indiscriminate, apparently mindless, violence.  Like everybody else, I couldn't escape the logic that "something" had to be done against such wanton hatred.  It was, as so many have said, an attack on all of us.

But "do something"; well, what? 

The so-called "War on Terror" has been going on for 14 years, longer than the First World War, Second World War and Boer Wars put together.  In that time the number of terrorist atrocities worldwide has increased at a significant rate, as have the number of annual deaths at the hands of terrorists.  If we add the other deaths from this wide-ranging, many-fronted war, we see that what has really been happening for a decade and a half is a war of terror and, despite regime changes in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, terrorism has increased.

We need to "do something", but what most people identify as the "something" in question is what is already being done.  The US, with several coalition partners including from the region, has been launching airstrikes against Daesh in Syria since September 2014.  They have claimed some success, including killing high-profile and leading members.  Although France's largest airstrikes in the war have been since Friday's shocking atrocity, they too have already been doing "something", with airstrikes against Daesh, and the aircraft carrier they have sent to the region is returning there, having been deployed there previously.  The current increase in terrorist atrocities in different parts of the world has not occurred in the context of a world doing nothing, but has happened despite many months of "doing something".

Of course it is essential that Daesh is defeated, not because it would prevent another Paris - I'm afraid the evidence of the War on Terror is that it would not - but because of their barbarism and lack of humanity towards the people living in the territory they have occupied.  So when we talk about "doing something" we are talking about two separate things: one, to defeat Daesh in Syria and Iraq, and the other to defeat the terrible threat of international terrorism more generally.  But perhaps we need to reconsider both the "somethings" that we're doing.  I underline that I do not claim to have the answers or that any of this is easy.  This has been the hardest article I've tried to write in quite a long time.

But Daesh is still managing to sell oil, have money and buy (or receive) weapons. It has received upwards of $40 million in donations from wealthy individuals in the last two years.  These donors are in states who theoretically support the coalition against Daesh, but it is hard to believe that these states could not intervene to choke off this supply, nor that the donors are unidentifiable.  The same goes for when weapons are smuggled out of states, or exactly how the illegal oil trade is being organised.  Daesh is the wealthiest terror organisation in history.  Choking off their finances would not prevent another Paris, as the funds to launch domestic terrorism need not come from Syria or Iraq, but it would massively weaken Daesh in their territory.

We need to speak to our allies, not least our NATO ally, Turkey.  After evidence was found detailing extensive links between Turkey and Daesh, including a porous border for the smuggling of oil, weapons and fighters, Turkey has, ostensibly at least, joined the coalition and indeed has been the victim of terror attacks itself.  But far from concentrating its fire on Daesh, Turkey has primarily been bombing Kurdish rebels: Daesh's most effective enemy.  Surely Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar need to cut all ties with Daesh and other terrorist organisations and fully disclose everything they are able to about their funding and their trading.  Surely this is a more important aspect of their joining an international consensus than airstrikes.  Furthermore, surely the west needs to stop arming regimes whose fundamental ideology is almost identical to that of Daesh.

It is something of a cliche to say that all wars end in a political settlement, and it is hard to imagine what sort of acceptable political settlement could ever be reached with Daesh, a terrifyingly violent crime syndicate, soaked in extremist propaganda.  But at the same time people must ask themselves, before entering into further violence and killing, "what outcome am I seeking, and will this bring it about?  Is there anything else we could do?"

As for the associated crisis of terror attacks in European and American cities, we need to try and properly understand what is happening.  Because these things happened before Daesh, and I fear they will happen after them, and - indeed - they sometimes happen in the name of other quite different politics, or not justified by politics or religion at all.  Young, marginalised, disaffected, seriously messed-up young people very occasionally do absolutely horrific things.  Sometimes they do it alone or with a very small group of like-minded people - like mass shootings in the US, or far-right atrocities like Breivik or McVeigh. Such people may well have been radicalised by others, but not necessarily with the express aim of them reaching the end they reached.  Others might be more directly manipulated by people who have a clearer agenda.  While people like the 7/7 bombers and the Paris attackers may well have received support and training in Afghanistan or Syria respectively, there will always be another war-zone or "failed state" where such things can occur.  There will always be people to make the Youtube videos that fire people up.  Sometimes it won't even be deliberate.  I saw a video doing the rounds of young Asian students this week.  It was actually the footage that many of us will have seen of the child victims of a chemical weapon attack in the Syrian Civil War from 2013.  While some of those sharing and commenting on the video understood what it was and commented appropriately, by the bottom of the comment thread a growing number of people believed this to be the result of Western bombing and that it was terrible double standards that only Paris was reported and not this terrible attack.  People were radicalising themselves.  The images they were seeing were deeply shocking - their anger and bewilderment just as justified as everybody's over the Paris attacks.  Their lack of understanding of what they were seeing is the important point.  We need to be open, thoughtful, critical, understanding; inclusive, interventionist, sensitive.  Simplistic exhortations to "British values" and crudely-applied Home Office strategies are not enough.  This is fundamentally the responsibility of my sector - education - rather than entirely a matter of security and defence.

After 14 years of thinking we can bomb the bombers to end terrorism, while continuing to remain on good terms with the oil-rich dictatorships where the terrorists find their inspiration and their patrons; 14 years that have seen great victories celebrated in the West despite an ever-increasing list of victims of terror; however difficult it is, surely we now have to say: "yes, we must do something, but we can't just do the same thing".

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

The Irish Question and the British Left

In 1916, James Connolly was executed by British forces, as a ringleader of the Easter Uprising.  Along with the other leaders he was shot at Kilmainham Gaol.  He was so injured from the fighting he had to be propped up against a chair as he faced the firing squad.
It should not be surprising that a trade union leader being executed in such a way should lead to strong feelings among the British labour movement as well as the Irish, especially in the context that most on the left supported Irish Home Rule on the same grounds that they supported Indian Home Rule and national self-determination around the Empire more generally.  This should not be mistaken for support for armed insurrection, although of course there were those who supported it in Ireland, Russia and elsewhere.  Even confirmed pacifists like George Lansbury’s sympathies were uncompromisingly on the side of the Irish republicans. This was in no way hypocritical. At a time when British gunboats were in the Liffey firing into central Dublin, and rebels were being lined up and shot, only the truly na├»ve could have considered that choosing sides in such a conflict was about choosing between violence and peace.
And of course those that thought the only route to peace was Irish independence considered themselves vindicated by the dreadful violence of the following decade.  One did not have to be supportive of the IRA’s guerrilla tactics to be horrified by and uncompromisingly opposed to the Black and Tans firing into sports crowds and burning down whole neighbourhoods.  A British left that did not condemn such things would not be worthy of the name. People who wanted a British government to pursue a path of peace and social justice concluded that such a path necessarily meant getting out of Ireland.

Years later, following partition, the focus of the Irish Question switched to the north.  In the sectarian politics of Northern Ireland, the catholic minority found themselves marginalised in a way that was unthinkable in the rest of the UK by the 1960s.  Voting in local government elections was restricted to ratepayers which disenfranchised many Catholics and gave some protestants multiple votes.  Council house allocation was biased against Catholics, and resources were allocated in a sectarian way too.  British governments had attempted to circumvent this inequality, ensuring that the new Welfare State and other reforms could bypass the sectarian Northern Irish government, but there was no denying the grossly sectarian and unequal reality of Northern Ireland in the 1960s. Again many on the British left reacted as one would expect they would to UK citizens being denied basic civil rights and therefore were broadly supportive of the civil rights protests of the 1960s.  As such they supported the rights of the protesters against their suppression by Ulster police.  By the time of the Battle of the Bogside in 1969, violence was back in Northern Irish politics, in the form of paramilitary organisations in both communities as well as the heavy-handed RUC policing.  While Labour governments tried to bring in reforms to protect the Catholic minority, loyalist violence increased with Catholic homes burned down in the rioting and violence.  When the British army were originally deployed it was in no small part to protect the Catholic minority from loyalist gangs. 

So the support for Irish self-determination common on the British left was not out of some odd anti-patriotic, anti-British sentiment, nor perverse support for violence and terrorism.  It was born of a socialist analysis of this difficult and violent context.  It is in this context that people should understand the Labour Committee on Ireland.  Yes, people like Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott were deeply involved.  So was Peter Hain, who was appointed by Tony Blair to be Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in 2005.  I do not recall similar hysteria from the conservative media at the time of that appointment.  Politics in Northern Ireland has moved on and the focus should have shifted from issues of sovereignty and sect to issues of public services, liberty and ending poverty, regardless of religion or community.  We should not sweep this history under the carpet, but we must avoid simplification and cartoon when discussing such a delicate part of our shared recent history.