Tuesday, 20 December 2016

If you blame Russia for nearly everything you're a xenophobic bigot.

There’s an entire sub-genre of political commentary devoted to pointing out the intolerances and hypocrisies of self-described ‘liberals’.  So it’s not a new observation that some of the people who take most pride in being ‘broad-minded’ actually harbour the deepest, most implacable prejudices.  In fact it’s been a vintage year for liberal illiberalism, fuelled by anger at the outcome of the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s victory in the US election.

Some commentators attribute those election results to a rise in xenophobic or racist attitudes.  In other words, they allege that voters are currently more inclined to feel negatively toward entire groups of people, based on nationality or perceived background.  A worrying development, most would agree.  Except that some groups of people, indeed some nationalities, are subjected to sweeping generalisations by the same commentators, sometimes in the same articles.

These types of inconsistencies have probably always existed, but it seems they are getting worse.  They were once commonly directed at Israelis and even, to an extent, Northern Irish protestants but, just at the moment, the people it’s most ok for liberals to smear are Russians.  It’s a witch-hunt led by the Democratic Party in the US, but it extends to the UK and parts of western Europe too.

The Democrats and their supporters want the world to believe that Hillary Clinton was beaten by Donald Trump only because Russians interfered in the election.  Russians hacked her campaign team’s emails and Russians spread ‘fake news’ that tilted US public opinion in Trump’s favour.  Right-thinking, liberal people are ‘hawkish’ and tough on Russia, while those who want better relationships with Russians are Vladimir Putin’s ‘puppets’ and ‘apologists’.

In the UK, a Labour MP, Ben Bradshaw, claimed that it is “highly probable” that Russia interfered in the EU referendum.  He offered no evidence, but the supposed perfidy of Russians certainly did feature in the campaign.  The ‘remain’ side alleged that Britain would be ill-equipped to deal with a “newly belligerent Russia”, outside the EU, and Boris Johnson was dubbed an ‘apologist’ after suggesting that Brussels’ foreign policy may have contributed to the conflict in the Ukraine.  

Attention can be diverted from any political result one doesn’t like, or any insinuation of wrongdoing, by howling about Russian ‘cyber warfare’ and ‘fake news’.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s Brexit, Trump, an Italian referendum or British Olympians penchant for taking ‘anti-asthmatic’ steroids just before they compete.      

While hacking does take place and some of it originates in Russia, the evidence linking it to the Russian state is flimsy.  As for ‘fake news’, its definition has expanded to encompass, not only flagrantly invented stories, but also any editorial line or news outlet one doesn’t like.  The Washington Post recently published a story alleging that ‘fake news’ had affected the US election, based on ‘research’ supplied by a group, PropOrNot, that equates ‘non-mainstream’ views with Russian propaganda.  The paper later appended an editor’s note to the article, explaining that it didn’t “vouch for the validity” of PropOrNot’s findings and acknowledging that its methods were flawed.  

The New Yorker did a very effective job of examining “the propaganda about Russian propaganda”.  The definition of “fake news”, it found, was broad enough to include “not only Russian state-controlled media organisations, such as Russia Today, but nearly every news outlet in the world”.  

The allegation could be levelled at many of the more outlandish stories about Russia in western media, for instance Russian football hooligans waging “hybrid warfare” on their state’s behalf or The Times’ description of Russian language programmes at British universities as a “secret propaganda assault” by the Kremlin.

The idea that Russia has been unfairly demonised is not the preserve of hard-core Putinists either.  Mikhail Gorbachev, a former statesman who is profoundly respected in the west, has spoken about western “provocation” and believes that negative western press coverage has enhanced the President’s popularity at home.  In particular, he believes that analysis of Russian foreign policy objectives has been unfair.

The conflict in the Ukraine, where a violent putsch took place, unsupported by the majority in the state’s eastern and central provinces, has been portrayed as unalloyed aggression by Russia.  There has been an obstinate insistence on viewing the war simplistically, ignoring Moscow’s perspective and the perspective of a large proportion of the Ukraine's population.   Meanwhile, the Kremlin’s support for President Assad in Syria has prompted the west to take the part of rebels, many of whom are Islamists, linked to Al Qaeda among other terrorist groups.    

Russia’s conduct in neither of these countries is blameless, but it is rational, conforms to a coherent view of world affairs and advances its own interests.  None of this nuance is reported or debated in western newspapers, other than the odd isolated column, and Russians’ fiercest critics are nearly always self-styled ‘liberals’.  The indecent urge to confront or even to fight Russia is aired constantly.

There are words for demonising an entire nation of people on the basis of cliches and generalisations.  They are prejudice and xenophobia.  The Russian state’s actions, like any other state, are sometimes unscrupulous and questionable.  It’s foreign policy is sometimes at odds with the UK and it’s system of government is not the same as ours.  To blame it for everything though, which is the current trend, is irrational and bigoted.

Monday, 12 December 2016

SF want unionists to forget that Northern Ireland issue is about sovereignty, not identity.

For some years now, Sinn Fein’s representatives have been spouting platitudes about accommodating unionists in an “agreed Ireland”.  The party’s latest bout of navel-gazing is prompted (it claims) by the aftermath of of the EU referendum. Brexit, Sinn Fein says, “changes everything”, including the assumption that unionists will necessarily oppose “Irish unity”.

In its new document, Towards a United Ireland, the party proposes a series of ideas to recognise the “unique identity of Northern unionists and the British cultural identity”.  

Alex Kane does a good job of debunking the view that unionism, or Northern Ireland as an entity, can survive Irish unity.  I agree with him.  Unfortunately, though, the notion that the political divide in Northern Ireland centres on identity rather than sovereignty is deeply ingrained, and not just among nationalists.

Over the past few decades, Sinn Fein has changed the way it talks about unionists, either because its ideologues genuinely think differently or just because its propaganda has become slicker.  

The brutal slogan ‘Brits out’ was first given a polish so that, in theory, it omitted Ulster unionists, who were merely under the misapprehension that they were British, whereas they were actually Irish.  Then the Shinners recognised, in theory at least, that there is something that sets unionists apart from the rest of the “Irish nation”.  Gerry Adams, for instance, made the sanctimonious admission that “we (republicans) need to look at what they (unionists) mean by their sense of Britishness”.  

This document seems to suggest that Sinn Fein thinks “they” mean, holding a British passport, having a “relationship” with the royal family, feeling an affinity for “loyal institutions” and, it is even implied, learning in separate schools.  All of this amounts to the “recognition of a unique identity”, that could find constitutional form in Sinn Fein’s fantasy ‘United Ireland’ through the survival of a Stormont Assembly, whose powers would be devolved from Dublin rather than Westminster.

It hasn’t occurred to republicans, or they dare not contemplate, that Northern Irish unionists’ Britishness comes from a rational, defensible and deeply felt political allegiance to the United Kingdom.  This allegiance cannot be accommodated in a united Ireland, because its substance is Northern Ireland’s inclusion in the UK and the sovereignty of the parliament at Westminster.  Take that away and you are left with the baubles of a national identity outside a nation state.  

It’s understandable that Sinn Fein and other nationalists think this way, or, at least, present their arguments this way  The Belfast Agreement defined a political struggle over sovereignty in terms of identity.  

Sinn Fein sold the deal to republicans on the basis that it transferred power from London to the island of Ireland and secured recognition for Irish nationality.   Only now are the hard edges of sovereignty in Northern Ireland reemerging, as Brexit shows that Westminster’s authority was not diluted at all by the Good Friday Agreement.      

Unfortunately, unionists have often defined their politics in terms of identity as well.  Certain politicians popularised the idea that the Belfast Agreement represented a defeat for unionism, on that basis.  Unionist parties were often happy to stay at the margins of UK politics, using national debates to air parochial concerns and extract more money from Westminster.  The goal of putting Northern Ireland at the centre of UK politics and UK society was marginal, at best.

In fact, ideas not unlike Sinn Fein’s proposals have even been discussed at the fringes of loyalism, and perhaps beyond.  The notion that Northern Ireland as a political entity could or should endure outside the UK is not uncommon.              

After almost 100 years of its existence, a distinct Northern Irish identity does exist, and it has political expression through the devolved Assembly at Stormont.  That doesn’t mean that it can survive autonomously.  Politically Northern Ireland is defined by its place in the United Kingdom.

The idea of becoming a devolved region of a 32 county Irish state, with the same old parties retaining their stranglehold on power, is horrifying.  No amount of Orange parades, Prod schools or symbols of royalty could make it any more palatable.  We would be better taking our chances in a unitary Republic, where something like a mature political culture has developed.  

And if Northern Ireland did leave the United Kingdom, be under no illusion, Ulster unionism would be no more.  There might remain Ulster protestants, people with a British cultural identity and even British citizens, but they would not be unionists.  Without the United Kingdom, or at least the prospect of reviving the United Kingdom, unionism does not exist.

It’s simple and axiomatic, but it clearly bears repeating, Northern Irish unionism is the political belief that Northern Ireland should be part of the United Kingdom.  While it is affected by issues of identity, culture and symbolism, it is not defined by them.  Let’s by all means have a discussion about the border, but don’t pretend that unionism can be accommodated in a United Ireland, or that the essence of the issue is anything other than where sovereignty lies in Northern Ireland.