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Are There Changes on the Horizon?

Submitted by on 16 Apr 2014 – 11:57

By Dr. John Coulter, Columnist with the Irish Daily Star and Tribune Magazine

john coulter

Dump Scotland and save Ireland! Sounds a harsh concept, but events on the Emerald Isle in the past few weeks have fuelled the perception the British Government would rather see all of Ireland back in a new Union, especially if the Scots vote ‘Yes’ to independence.

 The undeniable fact is that Scottish nationalists have managed to seize control of their parliament through entirely democratic means, unlike Sinn Fein in Ireland which has a lengthy track record of being associated with terrorism since the movement was formed in 1905.

At the end of February, the Irish peace process was thrown into turmoil when the Stormont First Minister Peter Robinson of the Democratic Unionists threatened to resign if he did not receive assurances from British Prime Minister David Cameron about letters reportedly sent to over 180 republican suspects known as ‘On The Runs’(OTRs).

Unionists interpreted these letters as an amnesty for people suspected of being wanted for questioning in relation to alleged terrorist incidents. Robinson had demanded a judicial review into the letters, otherwise he would quit as First Minister of the power-sharing Executive in Belfast – a move that would have tossed the entire peace process and Assembly into chaos.

Within 24 hours of the Robinson ultimatum, Cameron granted the DUP leader his wish of a probe into the so-called IRA ‘get out of jail free’ letters, and devolution in Northern Ireland was saved.

However, in May, the DUP has still to go before the electorate for the European poll as well as elections for the proposed new ‘super councils’ in Northern Ireland, which will see local government reduced from the current 26 to 11 authorities.

Although the DUP has been the majority unionist movement in Northern Ireland for more than a decade, its power-sharing experiences with Sinn Fein since 2007 do not sit easy with an increasingly volatile Protestant working class who feel that nationalists have benefited more from the peace process than unionism.

While Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland finds itself as a major player in the Stormont partnership government, in the Republic of Ireland under the guidance of party president and former West Belfast Westminster MP Gerry Adams Sinn Fein is perfectly poised to become a significant minority party in a future Dail parliament based in Dublin’s Leinster House.

In the past, the Dail has conceived coalition governments of Fianna Fail and the Green Party; even the current coalition is an amalgamation of the Right-wing Fine Gael party and Irish Labour. So it is not entirely inconceivable that a future Dail government could comprise Fine Gael and Sinn Fein. Irish politics is the art of the impossible.

In Northern Ireland, too, Sinn Fein has been able to hold on firmly to its position as the leading nationalist party and has maintained its dominance over the moderate Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party. Robinson’s party is not as electorally fortunate; it faces poll threats from a range of existing and new parties in the pro-Union community.

The fact that Downing Street moved so fast to placate Robinson is proof of how seriously the British Government views the stability of the peace process and the development of the best Anglo-Irish relations for a century.

It is hard to imagine Cameron moving so swiftly had Scottish First Minister and leader of the majority Scottish National Party Alex Salmond threatened to quit his post in the Holyrood Parliament.

The British administration now has a situation in Ireland which is seeing the island going through its most stable political era since partition in the 1920s – the mainstream republican and loyalist terror groups are largely silent; dissident republican activity has been reduced to a minimum; the so-called dissident loyalist movement has failed to materialise; Queen Elizabeth has been to Dublin on an official visit, and Irish President Michael D Higgins is preparing for an official trip to Buckingham Palace.

The Republic of Ireland’s once thriving economy – dubbed the Celtic Tiger – went bust, but is now showing signs of a meaningful recovery. This has prompted a growing movement in the South of Ireland to encourage the 26 Counties to have a more formal political arrangement with the United Kingdom through the Commonwealth.

Like all Irish politics over the centuries, what is impossible in one decade becomes reality in another. In 1985, DUP founder and firebrand fundamentalist preacher Ian Paisley senior – now Lord Bannside – launched his party’s local election campaign under the banner ‘Smash Sinn Fein’. But in 2007, he led his party into a power-sharing Executive with Sinn Fein.

In 1982, Sinn Fein won a handful of seats in the then Assembly poll on an abstentionist ticket. Now it operates Executive ministries in a partitionist parliament at Stormont. Bearing all these supposed u-turns in mind, could the British Government seriously be considering the option of allowing Scotland to effectively leave the Union, but getting Southern Ireland to renegotiate its republic status and became part of the increasingly influential Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA)?

In mainland Britain, particularly in England, the Conservative/Liberal Democrat alliance is preparing itself to take a massive ‘hit’ in the European poll with the staunchly eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party the hot tip to become the largest British party in the European Parliament.

This is not the case in Ireland. UKIP will obviously not be contesting any of the Southern Irish seats, and is a rank outsider to return one of Northern Ireland’s three MEPs. The most UKIP can hope to achieve is to influence which of the two big unionist parties – the DUP, or the election-battered Ulster Unionists – finishes runner up to Sinn Fein.

Given its standing in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein is odds on to not only hold its MEP, but again top the poll. Long gone are the days when the DUP’s Ian Paisley senior romped back to Europe on count one! Protestant voter apathy could even place unionism’s second MEP seat in jeopardy depending on transfers from Sinn Fein.

Under Adams’ leadership, Sinn Fein in the Republic is in a commanding position to regain its MEP. While Sinn Fein still operates its abstentionist policy for House of Commons seats where it has five MPs, the party has completely abandoned its historical position of not taking seats in the Dail and Stormont.

Indeed, since the first Provisional IRA ceasefire in 1994, the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, and the 2006 St Andrews Agreement, Sinn Fein has developed into a new millennium version of the now defunct 1960s Irish Nationalist Party in Stormont.

It was the Officer Commanding of the PIRA inmates in the Maze Prison, Bobby Sands MP, who as a hunger striker before he died propelled Sinn Fein into the modern day democratic process by winning the Fermanagh and South Tyrone Westminster seat in 1981.

In the early 1980s, the republican movement adopted the maxim, the ‘Armalite rifle in one hand and the ballot paper in the other.’ The PIRA terror campaign ran hand in glove with the Sinn Fein election strategy, with the perception that most Sinn Fein candidates had to serve ‘a political apprenticeship’ in the IRA.

But as senior republicans who built the Sinn Fein peace process, such as Adams and the current Stormont Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, reach pensioner age, a new generation of young republicans is emerging under the maxim – ‘the ballot paper in one hand and an honours degree in the other.’

The number of former IRA prisoners standing as Sinn Fein candidates is decreasing accompanied by a rise in the number of university-educated graduates with no connections to the IRA. Likewise, while unionism in Northern Ireland has witnessed more political fragmentations and new parties in the past decade, dissident republicans have so far been unable to mount a credible or serious challenge to Sinn Fein’s dominance in the nationalist community.

While Alex Salmond has guided the SNP into becoming a majority government in a devolved Scottish Parliament with a much sought after referendum on independence in September, all this has been gained through purely democratic means. Sinn Fein, on the other hand, has consistently dangled the threat of renewed IRA violence as a political Sword of Damocles to wring more concessions for republicanism from both the British and Irish governments.

Practically, what can Salmond use as his Sword of Damocles to ensure a Yes to independence victory in September? Could an independent Scotland turn off the North Sea oil tap to what is left of the UK? Would an independent Scotland act as a boost to both Irish and Welsh nationalism? Which is the lesser of the two evils – an independent Scotland, or Home Rule for Ireland?

It should not be forgotten that when the CPA was launched in 1911 as the Empire Parliamentary Association, Ireland was one of its founder members. When founder Arthur Griffith launched his Sinn Fein movement, it was a separatist organisation, not a full blown republican party. Commemorations this year to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 have largely now overshadowed events to mark the 100th anniversary of attempts to either resist or implement Home Rule for Ireland.

However, when the implications of the so-called ‘Devo Max’ – or Maximum Devolution – solution for Scotland should the Yes campaign lose, are considered, Devo Max is really Home Rule under another political packaging.

Scottish nationalists are effectively in a ‘win, win’ situation. A Yes victory guarantees independence; a No victory – especially by a very narrow margin – will inevitably trigger Devo Max to keep Scottish nationalism from turning violent as has happened in Ireland over the centuries, particularly with the centenary of the failed Dublin Easter Rising looming in 2016.

The 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1966 came only four years after the IRA’s failed Border terror campaign of 1956-62 and sparked fears in the unionist community of renewed IRA violence. Both the British and Irish governments will want to ensure that any modern day plans for Irish Home Rule are well and truly implemented in case the 2016 Rising commemorations give a fresh impetus to any new generation of young, violent republicans.

The outcomes of the European poll and Scottish referendum will decide if the concept of the United Kingdom becoming a federation of devolved parliaments is a runner in the short term. For example, a significant UKIP victory in May will force Cameron into a commitment for a referendum on the UK’s future in the EU.

Whatever the outcome of the Scottish September vote, Devo Max or Home Rule is a runner; all that needs to be decided is the speed with which it is implemented. What could then emerge is a united Ireland back in the Commonwealth run jointly by Stormont and Leinster House; with fully devolved parliaments implementing Home Rule in Scotland, Wales and England, leaving a numerically reduced House of Commons and reformed House of Lords at Westminster to legislate on national security and foreign policy.

Provided there was no violent backlash from either republican or loyalist dissidents, the new Home Rule scenario for Ireland could even include provincial parliaments in each of the island’s four provinces, with the guarantee that Ireland would return to a 1911 situation where the whole island came under the Commonwealth with the British monarch as the head of state.

The role of Irish President would be dissolved in return for the island being politically united. Sterling would become the national currency of Ireland replacing the euro in the South. The strengthening of the CPA as a viable alternative to the EU would give the enlarged UK the financial and political clout it required to either quit the EU altogether, or renegotiate its role similar to that of the pre-1975 EEC.

The question is then posed, would the new global powers, such as the United States, Brazil, Japan, China and India join with the UK and CPA in a new global bloc to rival the re-emerging Russian New Empire under Putin, or a world federation of Islamic states headed by Iran, Syria and Egypt?

Whatever the outcome, UKIP boss Nigel Farage and the caber-tossing Highland Scottish nationalists will have a major say in 2014 about the pace at which this inevitable scenario develops. Militant Scottish nationalist battle victories at Bannockburn in 1314 and Stirling in 1297 may yet come back to haunt Cameron and his deputy Nick Clegg.