Joe Biden: American Dreamer, by Evan Osnos

Summary: a hopeful portrait of the man striving to rescue American democracy

Joe Biden: American Dreamer is a brief but engaging biography of the US President-Elect, by an author who has covered Biden’s career for over a decade.

Much of the book has previously appeared in New Yorker articles over the years. But it is well researched and elegantly edited together into a highly readable and intriguing portrait of a man who has found a third act to his career just when most other people would be putting their feet up in retirement.

Even before reaching the presidency, Biden’s life has been marked by spectacular achievement and almost unbearable loss. Elected to the Senate just before his 30th birthday appalling personal tragedies followed soon after with the death of his wife and young daughter in a car accident. Tragedy struck again when Vice President and his son died of cancer. The grief he has had to bear has eroded much of the arrogance typical of senior politicians and enhanced his legendary gift for empathy.

Still, after decades in the Senate and eight years as Vice President, one might think that a Biden presidency will offer few surprises. But, Osnos describes Biden as a man with a remarkable capacity for learning and acknowledging error and hence an almost Lincolnesque capacity for personal growth and political evolution.

A cautious politician, Biden nevertheless has a keen eye for the historic opportunity. So, appreciating the shifts in the current political environment, most notably the growing hunger amongst young people for social democracy, Biden has incorporated into his campaign leading advisers from the Left of the Democratic Party to help craft key plans for government including on health and the environment.

Biden has suggested a number of times that he wants to have not just a transitional presidency to a new generation, but also a transformational one, comparable to FDR.

In defeating the openly fascist Donald Trump for the presidency Biden has already earned a place in history by helping rescue American democracy itself. And, as Osnos’ book indicates, it would be a fool who would suggest that this is the last service he will do for his country before he finally puts his feet up for that well earned rest.

The Clare in the Community Collection, by Harry Venning

Summary: the iconic hero we need right now

This book is an exquisite collection of Clare’s adventures from her earliest days, through her legendary years in the Guardian, battling government cuts, office politics, and global patriarchy.

Helpfully the book contains facsimiles of the Guardian front pages that accompanied many of the strips, reminding the reader of the events that would have been irking Clare that week.

Self-righteous, occasionally mean, but always with her heart in the right place, Clare is the wonderful creation of Harry Venning. Together, she and he represent the finest social justice traditions of British society, with better jokes than Orwell.

It’s a sardonic love letter to the do-gooders at the sharp end of a broken country, the ones who will ultimately rebuild a decent society after the old Etonian parasites have finally shuffled off the stage.

Just lovely.

What about Donald Trump?

Summary: As Donald Trump endeavours to steal another election, a failure to vote to eject him from office is to be a traitor to all humanity

“Whataboutery” – the practice of responding to an accusation or difficult question by making a counter-accusation of your own – is something of an art form in Ireland. Skilled practitioners can “What about…” all the way back to Richard “Strongbow” de Clare’s invasion of Ireland in 1169 to justify 20th Century IRA atrocities. It’s not a wholly nationalist pastime though. Loyalist practitioners of the dubious art can sometimes go back as far as the massacres of Protestants by partisans of the Irish Catholic Confederacy in 1641 to justify every prejudice and brutality of their tradition.

However Irish primacy in such politically sterile debate has finally been usurped. Unsurprisingly, in this era of political chancers, the preeminent practitioner now is the charlatan-in-chief, Donald J Trump.

Trump has taken “whataboutery” to the next level. He doesn’t just justify his nefarious acts by accusing his opponents of similar heinous deeds. He simply accuses them of the very things he is planning.

So when Donald Trump accused Mexicans of being rapists, it’s because he is a serial sex abuser. When he accused Hilary Clinton of being a crook its because he pilfers from all and sundry, from his contractors, to his own businesses, to the supposed charities that he set up, to the chumps who pay for whatever is the latest brand of snake oil he’s selling. When he accused Clinton of lying it’s because he is fundamentally incapable of telling the truth. When he accuses Joe Biden of using performance enhancing drugs it’s a vain attempt to distract from his incessant snorting of Adderall.

The practitioners of “whataboutery” have always been glib about human life, and Trump is no exception. Like his acolytes in the UK, the desolation and loss of life from the Covid-19 pandemic that he has so ineptly overseen has not disturbed the peace of his conscience. He seems to wholly lack one.

I first began to suspect that Trump had stolen the 2016 election recollecting that he had accused Clinton of trying to steal it herself. His current accusations that if he loses it will be because the election is rigged, is because he is desperately trying to rig it.

Trump starts from an advantage in any election in that the electoral college system that determines who the president is, is, in itself, a gerrymander. This means that in the sparsely populated western states an individual’s presidential vote has much greater value than that of a voter in the more populous states. For example the vote of someone in Wyoming is of 193% greater value than that of a voter in California.

In 2016 Trump leveraged this advantage with the help of Cambridge Analytica’s voter suppression expertise. One can be pretty sure that a bit of Russian hacking in Wisconsin and Michigan helped him over the line in the electoral college.

Trump’s sense of entitlement means that he would not hesitate to steal another election if he can marshal the necessary resources to do it again. This time, of course, the stakes are higher for him with the prospect of prison and creditors awaiting him should he lose. So already he has moved to pack the Supreme Court in case the election ends up there as it did in 2000 with Bush v Gore.

Commanding as Biden’s lead currently is, the next few weeks are going to be nail biting. Because the stakes in this election are not just about the survival of vulnerable US citizens from a plague or the future of US democracy. The planet itself is at stake as the time for meaningful action on climate change runs out.

Given this, anyone entitled to vote in this election who doesn’t vote to eject Trump from the presidency will be a traitor to not only their own country but to all of humanity. And no amount of “whataboutery” will change that fact.

Guest blog: Still collateral? Trafficking survivors lack basic human rights protections, by Klara Skrivankova

Summary: In spite of the self congratulations by politicians regarding their stance on slavery, muddled government policies on trafficking, migration and labour rights render those vulnerable to slavery at continuing risk of abuse and exploitation.

October is usually a month filled with noise on “modern” slavery. It has been thus for over a decade now. Since 2007, 18th October has been designated the EU Anti-Trafficking Day and in 2010 the made it its UK Anti-Slavery Day. Organisations that work on the issue throughout the year tend to use the day to highlight campaigns, while politicians usually search for a photo op.  In 2020 photo ops are not really possible as events are largely held online.

Klara Skrivankova

As, in Europe at least, we are not busy flying from conference to a conference this October 2020 should be a reminder that the international community has been trying to deal with the issue for a long time. This year marks the 90th anniversary of the introduction of the ILO Forced Labour Convention; 20 years since the UN “Palermo Protocol”, 15 years since the Council of Europe Trafficking Convention, and six years since the ILO’s Forced Labour Protocol. Importantly, it has also been 70 years since the European Convention on Human Rights was first introduced, prohibiting forced labour and slavery.

When I first started working on trafficking 20 years ago, convincing governments that trafficking exists was a challenge. Later the task was to persuade them that trafficking for forced labour was an issue. Today, the level of awareness and the number of people that work on the issue are unprecedented, at least since the heights of the anti-slavery struggle in the 19th Century. Dedicated funds exist, as do masters courses. Trafficking and modern slavery are for all intents and purposes talked about as serious problems of our times. Some could see this as the ultimate success of campaigns and advocacy of 1990’s and 00’s.

Yet, we are far from being able to declare success.

Human trafficking and people smuggling are still confused and used as interchangeable terms by media and politicians, reflecting muddled and often contradictory policy on these matters. This is despite that the above mentioned two “Palermo Protocols” distinguishes between trafficking – the rendering someone into a situation of exploitation and a crime against a person, and smuggling – the facilitation of clandestine crossing of international borders and a crime against the state.

With the exception of a few specialist journalists, such as Kieran Guilbert and dedicated projects like the ones by the Guardian and Thompson Reuters Foundation, much of the reporting on human trafficking remains flat and simplistic.

For the most part, policies designed to deal with modern slavery fail to engage with the difficult questions about underlying causes that are deeply embedded in our political economies. Civil society is increasingly rendered into the role of a service provider, gagged through government contract and prevented from acting as critical friend holding government to account.  There is a dearth intersectional analysis examining how policies and actions by governments and sometimes also NGOs perpetuate the very circumstances that lead to exploitation.

Collateral Damage  was the title of a report published in 2007 by the Global Alliance against Traffic in Women. The publication reflected on the previous decade of anti-trafficking efforts and how these impacted on the rights of trafficked women. The title was chosen as it summed up well what we found – that peoples’ rights were often the casualty of anti-trafficking efforts.

Collateral damage is felt by trafficked people. For many, getting out of a situation of exploitation does not lead to “freedom”, but to a different kind of unfreedom. A trajectory from being enslaved to being processed by authorities, detained, disbelieved, deported, faced with destitution, debt and an uphill struggle to show that they are deserving victims.

Since 2007, laws have changed and arguably there have been some improvements in the way countries and civil society organisations respond. Trafficking for forced labour is now a strong focus and businesses are a key stakeholder in anti-slavery efforts. Yet I am struck that the overall argument of that report still stands and systemic failures described in it remain.

Let’s look at the UK for example. In 2007 I wrote in a chapter examining the UK’s response: “…. the authorities seemed to have failed to assess the implications that migration and labour market polices have for trafficking and on the vulnerability of certain groups to being trafficked.”

This statement rings true in 2020. In fact, I would argue that the implications of those policies are likely to be more significant today that they were in 2007.

Hostile environment has been a flagship UK policy for almost a decade now. The policy was designed to make the UK unwelcoming to migrants who do not have regular status in the country. Consequently, anyone who cannot immediately show their right to be here should be viewed with suspicion. Anti-migrant rhetoric and government campaigns such as the infamous go-home vans and vilification of lawyers have led to irregular migrants being labelled as criminals.  At the same time, most victims of modern slavery in the UK are migrants. The Home Office is the department in charge of both policies – one that is designed to remove as many foreigners as swiftly as possible, and the modern slavery strategy that is meant to provide victims with a recovery and reflection period, including a temporary permission to stay in the UK. The conflict between these two policies is glaring. Nevertheless, one would search in vain to find a recognition by the government that this contradiction exists. A new report by ECPAT UK shows what this policy dissonance means – life of insecurity and possible removals experienced by thousands of child victims of trafficking.

Labour exploitation too is, to a large extent, enabled by government policy. Deregulation, promoting ultra-flexible labour market and cuts in budgets of inspection bodies have led to increasing precarity in the UK labour market. Vast swathes of workers on zero-hour contracts, subcontracted through chains of labour brokers face uncertainty, poverty wages, poor conditions and in some cases forced labour. Flexibility and complexity in the labour market, where the rights of workers are secondary to the constant growth agenda, bring about situations where forced labour is found in value chains of well know companies.

Then there is the intersection between the labour market policies and immigration policies such as the criminal offence of illegal working. The impact of the new post-Brexit UK immigration tier system, to be introduced in 2021, is yet to seen. COVID19 has not only shone the light on underlying issues of inequality, but is expected to lead to more insecurity and precarity.

Back in 2007 the Collateral Damage report caused a bit of a stir. Rereading it today, I think it is time for volume two as the rights of migrants and rights of workers are under renewed assault, to serve as a reminder what governments and broader international community ought to do to seriously take on the issue of “modern” slavery.

Covid-19: lessons from war and humanitarian response

Summary: With COVID-19 Boris Johnson has been faced with a once in a lifetime crisis. He has failed the test.

Boris Johnson does love his military metaphors. They are intrinsic to his whole cod-Churchillian shtick. So, this past nine-months, at least after he finally bothered to show up to the COBRA crisis meetings, he’s been “wrestling” Covid-19, “whacking” it, “fighting” and “doing battle” with it.

Covid-19 doesn’t seem that bothered. Because it’s a virus. In these circumstances Johnson cosplaying a war leader is rather like, to borrow from Milan Kundera, attacking a panzer division with a mime troupe.

In truth, unlike other “natural disasters”, such as an earthquake or a tsunami, the effects of Covid-19 do bear some resemblance to a war induced emergency. Like the Troubles in the North of Ireland, or the civil war in Angola, wars ebb and flow like this pandemic. At different times they are more lethal in some places rather than others. Like this pandemic, wars also tend to be protracted crises in which we have to learn how to survive until a solution is in place.

Some research scientists working on treatments and vaccines, and the health professionals working in critical care, are fighting the virus. But the rest of us are effectively bystanders, just trying to survive it until, hopefully, the efforts of these professionals bear fruit. Unfortunately, in my experience, as we await a solution some people will always court risky behaviour as they become bored with the restrictions on life that health or human security concerns impose.

So the role then of a sane prime minister in these circumstances must be more akin to a humanitarian manager, trying to keep as many people alive until a resolution comes, rather than a general confronting an enemy. In such circumstances the language of battles and campaigning becomes redundant. Instead the priorities of humanitarian response are the relevant ones: Avoidance of risk and protection from harm, first for critical workers, then for the rest of us.

Jacinda Arden seems to have understood that. Boris Johnson has not. Arden has led by example. Johnson, with the not inconsiderable assistance of his father and Dominic Cummings, has shown that he expects different rules to apply to his coterie than to the rest of us.

Hence Johnson’s leadership in this crisis has been typified by muddle and confusion. Whenever there has been a hard choice to be made, he has routinely fluffed it. It is ironic that the government that so fetishized control of its borders in their fevered flight from the European Union, did not, unlike just about every other country in the EU, close its borders to prevent reimporting of the virus. Like the last lock down Johnson will show up to the next one three weeks late and, it appears, millions of dollars short.

The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown into sharp focus the fact that Boris Johnson is in possession of the single most dangerous trait in any leader: He wants to be popular. Hence he will tell any lie, fudge any choice if it just buys him another fleeting moment of the illusion of popularity. Every time a lie or an inadequacy is exposed he simply tells another, bigger lie to distract from his last failure. Hence his escalating promises of “world-beating” testing, track and trace. Lying having worked to deliver Brexit, it’s a trait that now seems to pervade the government with lethal consequences for the vulnerable.

When Johnson was just a philandering journalist this sort of behaviour only hurt those unfortunate enough to have loved or trusted him. As prime minister this has directly resulted in the UK having the highest death toll in Europe and the worst economic performance during this crisis.

As we are now poised on the brink of a second surge in Covid-19 infections it is critical that the UK government fundamentally rethink their approach to this crisis, learning from New Zealand, and the countries of South East Asia how they have managed to keep their populations safe from this disease.

Certainly, one critical issue, as Jacinda Arden has shown, is leadership. When human lives are at stake, any credible humanitarian response demands serious leaders for whom this will be the overriding priority. Johnson has failed in that test already. He should resign.

Lyndon Johnson, volume 2: Means of Ascent, by Robert A Caro

Summary: A detailed guide on how to appear a war hero and steal a Texas election

Robert Caro describes there being two threads running through Lyndon Johnson’s life: a bright one of commitment to public service that he displayed as a young teacher of poor Hispanic Texan students, or as a young congressman driving rural electrification for poor Texas communities; and a dark, selfish one, concerned with his self-promotion and personal enrichment without the least care as to who he hurt to achieve this.

In this volume of his biography of Johnson, covering the years from his war service to his election to the US Senate, Caro notes that only the dark thread is visible.

Even Johnson’s military service is problematic. Despite his commission as a Lieutenant Commander in the US Navy Reserves Johnson gave little impression that he was really interested in active duty as he had promised in various speeches. Eventually though concerns about future electoral credibility compelled him to participate in a mission to the South Pacific as an observer. In this role he participated, again as an observer, in a single, terrifying combat mission, for which he was awarded the Silver Star. While he did display a certain coolness under fire, it was notable, Caro observes, that the actual aircrew he was flying with, who risked their lives in dozens more missions, were not considered for bravery awards. As is still the case, who you know matters more than anything else. So, as a congressman on the naval affairs committee, Johnson knew General McArthur who recommended him for the award, no doubt thinking that Johnson might be a useful ally on Capitol Hill.

A considerable portion of the book focusses on Johnson’s senatorial election. This was a revolutionary campaign. It was the first in which a candidate used a helicopter. This Johnson used to ferry him from town to remote Texan town, brandishing his Silver Star while he told the crowds gathering to see this strange new flying machine exaggerated stories of his war. The quantity of Johnson’s usage of radio as a campaigning medium was also unprecedented.

Johnson had already shown himself to be a superb organiser of elections from his management of the national Democratic congressional effort in 1940. However when all the electoral innovations that he brought to bear on this election still came up short, Caro argues convincingly that Johnson resorted to the old-fashioned expedient of stealing the election from the former governor Coke Stevenson, an ultra-conservative Democrat.

Caro clearly has a soft spot for Stevenson, undoubtedly an extraordinary individual, which has perhaps led to him skating somewhat over his reactionary views. Not that Johnson was a progressive champion. His liberality was always only skin deep, something worth appearing when Roosevelt was president, but shed quickly when campaign financiers demanded he dance to a different tune. Perhaps Johnson felt justified in stealing this election having had his previous effort to become a US Senator stolen from him by another former Texas governor, Pappy O’Daniel.

With Volume 2 of his biography of Johnson, Caro again provides a compelling portrait of Johnson, his times, and his place, with fascinating insights into Texas politics and history. I’m already looking forward to reading volume 3.

No more evil geniuses any more

Summary: A Very British Coup

I suppose it comes from watching too much Dangermouse and James Bond as a kid: I came to expect the evil to be geniuses.

Watching Boris Johnson and his even less impressive minions like Nigel Farage, Priti Patel, Mark Francois, Andrew Bridgen, Sally Ann Hart and their ilk on television these days and I’m reminded of Hannah Arendt’s observations on the banality of evil. 

These are people who have not gotten into power because they are positive human exemplars of looks, brains or personality. They simply hate, and they share hatreds with enough others to have an electoral base in what passes for democracy in the gerrymandered U.K.

More than any other European democracy, the UK is an elective dictatorship. Those checks and balances on the excesses of the executive as exist post-Brexit, such as the national courts and remaining international law, the British government is now openly talking about dismantling. So the only constraint on their power grab will be the speed of bureaucratic processes.

Basically, the health of English democracy will be determined by how much and how quickly the government can undermine it in the next four years. So, the only saving grace of Boris Johnson, like Donald Trump, is that he is inordinately lazy. So he might, on his own, not get around to many things. With the energetically deluded Dominic Cummings pulling the strings, however, this may change.

Even in the most notorious of dictatorships, authoritarianism can creep slowly. Mugabe’s power grab in Zimbabwe was a protracted but relentless affair, done in concert with the scapegoating of portions of the population, starting with the Ndebele, and, later, with the settler farmers.

Boris Johnson has based his political career on scapegoating too: first the European Union, now impoverished migrants trying to cross the English Channel. “Look”, he says, probably astonished that so much of the English population remains gullible enough to swallow his charlatanism whole, “these are the ones who are the causes of your problems, not me! Not the policies me and my pals have advocated and implemented for decades, not the incompetence I have shown in the face of a public health crisis.”

It is in moments like this that journalism’s role in defending democracy becomes most critical. But by fetishizing a notion of “balance” it is possible for even well-meaning media professionals to become cogs in a process aimed at obscuring the true causes of contemporary poverty and conflict. If, like the newspaper editor in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the press chooses in the name of “balance” to print the politicians’ legends while knowing they are untrue, then they become mere henchmen to government, not journalists.

Without sufficient critical appraisal of the Johnson circus’ shenanigans, people can become distracted by the performances. Then they may more easily overlook the growing stench of corruption and cronyism coming from the Prime Minister’s circle as lucrative contracts are awarded to school pals, and foreign intelligence agencies are tolerated in their murder and injury of British citizens because they donate to the Conservative party.

In 1944, the then US vice president Henry Wallace argued that in America fascism could come to power under the auspices of “Americanism.” In England authoritarianism is likely to come to power under the auspices of a form of “patriotism” in which intolerance is practiced in the name of toleration, and the wholesale destruction of human and civil rights accomplished in the name of “British values.”

Those who bring their country to this nadir will, of course, be too stupid to appreciate the irony.

John Hume: reflections on a life well lived

History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.- Seamus Heaney, The Cure at Troy

One of my earliest memories is watching a neighbour being shot. Another was of almost being caught, while on my way to primary school, in a culvert bomb attack launched by the IRA on the British army. The brother of a classmate was murdered by the SAS. A few years ago, I discovered that a bunch of loyalist paramilitaries had planned to massacre the children and staff of my Belleeks primary school. Fortunately for all of us, this was called off. Some war crimes were even too much for the war criminals of the North of Ireland.

I repeat these brushes with violence not to suggest that I am special in any way, but because these were typical life experiences for people living in the North of Ireland during the 70s and 80s. Indeed I was very lucky. Aside from a nasty kicking I once got from Shinners for having the temerity to canvas for the SDLP in West Belfast, my family was notably unscathed by the squalid little war that engulfed the North until John Hume finally managed to organise its ending.

I met John Hume a couple of times, but I doubt he ever remembered my name. I was a minor student activist in the SDLP, gone after a couple of years and never to return. So, it doesn’t matter much in the grand scheme of things that, from the first moment I heard of them, I was in favour of the Hume-Adams talks. It was, it seemed to me, an honourable effort towards peace and the logical extension of the philosophy of dialogue and persuasion that Hume had always advocated and that I had bought into early.

It is true that I did not think that the peace it ultimately brought would lead to Sinn Fein’s regrettable electoral ascendancy, as other more astute observers, such as Seamus Mallon, feared. But even in retrospect I think it a price worth paying. As has been said before: there are people alive today because of what Hume did to obtain peace. As Hume argued at the time, that is more important than the electoral success of any party.

Since his death some commentators have not even been able to wait until Hume was at rest in his grave before resurrecting the attacks that they began on him when he first sat down to talk with the Provos and that bore so heavily on him throughout those ghastly days. The thrust of their attack remains: because the peace process is imperfect, it is reprehensible. 

It is easy to be glib about war when it is not something that is likely to cut short your life or that of someone you love. That is something that the relatives of those butchered at Greysteel understood when one of their daughters told Hume they had prayed over her father’s coffin that he would be successful in his efforts with the Provos so that other families would not have to suffer as they had. 

Today it’s easy to indulge in the sort of maudlin glorifications beloved by Sinn Fein and the British Establishment of those who have taken up arms on their behalf. But I remember war too well to buy that nonsense. Ballymurphy, Bloody Sunday, Bloody Friday, the Miami Showband massacre, Kingsmill, the Shankill Butchers, La Mon, Enniskillen, may be selectively remembered still. But they were just larger examples of the “exchange of murders”, as Malachi O’Doherty once accurately described them, that typified the conflict.

In truth I’ve never found war anything other than a squalid matter, whether practiced in the North of Ireland, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Afghanistan or Angola. The scales of conflict in each place were different. But across the globe and through history each have in common that they enmesh ordinary people in systems of increasingly brutal inhumanity towards other people. This is true for just and unjust wars alike.

Of course as Bono noted in his bleak, beautiful lament for those massacred at Omagh, “hope and history don’t rhyme”. But they do have an assonance: a half rhyme.

Even a failed poet like me knows that the line “sometimes hope and history are in assonance” doesn’t have the quality of Heaney’s phrase or that of Bono. But that is where we are, and it is better than where we were. Musicians no longer have to worry about being targeted for playing to the “wrong” crowds. Dog fanciers no longer have to worry about being burned to death while having an evening out. Protesters for civil rights do not have to worry about being shot down in the streets by a foreign army. 

John Hume understood that imperfect peace is preferable to any war. His monumental life’s achievement in wresting that from the most nihilistic of conflicts is but another stepping-stone to a better society, to a better agreed society. 

It is for the rest of us to continue that journey now, remembering, as John Hume showed us, that no matter how bleak the moment, or imperfect the circumstances, if we put the sweat in, we also can overcome.

On the one road? Thoughts on achieving Irish reunification

Summary: Irish reunification will require difficult compromises for nationalists if there is to be any hope of accommodating unionism

The Good Friday Agreement was built on the foundations of the common memberships of Ireland and the UK in the European Union. Given Brexit the foundations of that agreement have been dealt a grievous blow. Hence it is necessary to contemplate whether new constitutional arrangements can be forged to secure peace in an agreed Ireland. This must include contemplation of the possibility of Irish unity.

In the North of Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party have already delivered two of the greatest contributions towards a United Ireland of any political organisation since the Good Friday Agreement. First their sweaty, fevered dreams of Brexit backfired spectacularly when, in significant part as result of their ham-fisted triumphalism, Boris Johnson, as should have been expected, betrayed every promise he ever made to them. So instead of the renewed Protestant Supremacy of their dreams the DUP have got a customs border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and Britain.

Second, and more fundamentally, the DUP’s botched Brexit shenanigans have demonstrated to their electoral base the depth of English contempt for them, their culture and the sacrifices that they have made for the Crown over the past decades and centuries. 

Paradoxically, this may not have been a total surprise. Culturally, both the unionist and nationalist communities in the North of Ireland have more in common with Scotland than with the English or Welsh. So, after Scotland’s departure from the UK, Northern Ireland will be in even greater cultural isolation than it currently is, perpetually subject to the disdain of a patronising Little Englander elite.

The greatest barrier to Irish reunification remains the factions of extreme Irish nationalism. These ultras have, since the 20th Century, hijacked the Irish flag as a partisan symbol all the while undermining its national meaning with their fratricidal campaigns. 

The Irish tricolour asserts that the nation is composed of two traditions: the Irish nationalist green, and the British loyalist orange, and that the nation is only complete when these traditions are united together by the white of peace. 

Nevertheless, some of the most vehement flag wavers of the past decades have not been prepared to follow the logic of what Irish nationhood must mean given the different cultures and heritages of the peoples of the island. Rather they want all vestiges of the unionist tradition expunged from the island of Ireland and all to accept their uncompromising visions of their utopian ideals. 

Of course, it is the very nature of utopian ideals that no one can ever live up to them. But this does not stop a few self-appointed guardians of the flame from deciding that that any shortfalls in their ideals of perfection should be dealt with by abuse, and sometimes violence. 

But there can be no single Irish cultural identity. By the first half of the 21st Century there are not just the Orange and Green traditions in Irish society. There are also important mainland European ones, most notably perhaps the Polish-Irish, and there have long been important African-Irish and Asian-Irish communities, enriching every county of the country with their presence. 

But perhaps the most urgent priority in Irish reunification must be in better accommodating the unionist tradition. And there are some obvious and immediate steps that Ireland could take towards this end. 

For a start Ireland could re-join the Commonwealth. This is a proposal that will certainly bring forth frothing fury from many of the flag wavers as a betrayal of the most fundamental ideals of their particular and personal notions of Irish nationhood. Indeed, when the unimpeachably Republican Fianna Fail TD Eamon O’Cuiv suggested this in 1994 that is exactly the sort of response he received. 

However, building a nation requires more than fundamentalist worship of an imagined past. We have seen the Brexity chaos and destruction that such idiocy brings.

Instead the Irish nation as a whole needs to recognise that if we are ever to be truly united then the unionist tradition must feel respected and at home within the New Ireland. That is not something that will ever be achieved by singing “Up the ‘Ra”, and by implication celebrating the wounds inflicted on that community by IRA violence. But it might be brought a small step closer by measures that demonstrate the respect for the symbols and traditions of the unionist community. It is also notable that states as varied as India, Tanzania and South Africa see no compromise in their national ideals by membership of the Commonwealth. Neither will an independent Scotland. Surely Ireland can show similar self-confidence.

Second Ireland could establish a mechanism for proper representation of the North in the Seanad. Over the past decades Taoisigh have on occasion appointed individual Northerners to the Senate. But it has hardly been a consistent practice. It must surely be within the bounds of possibility to do better than this. For example, it should be a straightforward matter to empower individual councils or all the collective councillors in the North of Ireland to elect a panel of representatives to the Seanad. Put simply, a united Ireland means some sort of elected representation of the North in the Oireachtas. Steps can be taken to move in that direction immediately.

Of course, before there is a united Ireland there will need to be much more talking and agreement on constitutional structures with which people can live. Consequently, the SDLP’s idea of a forum for discussion of this is a positive initiative. One must hope that the Irish government will also lead on this, perhaps through the establishment of a citizens’ assembly on the subject composed of people from all 32 counties. 

Perhaps a new Ireland will need a new flag to represent all traditions of the nation, old and new. Perhaps not. But one thing is certain. It is tough decisions and compromise which will bring about a United Ireland if it happens, not flag waving. 

Shadow State, by Luke Harding

Summary: Treason doth never prosper. What’s the reason? When it prosper none dare call it treason.

Since 2010, Russia under Vladimir Putin has launched a stunningly successful and sustained assault on liberal democracy. Timothy Synder’s book The Road to Unfreedom chartered the roots of this offensive including its initial forays into Ukraine, up to 2016. In Shadow State Luke Harding continues the story into 2020, detailing the depth of Russia’s penetration into the ruling cliques of both the UK and the US, identifying those involved and explaining how Russian espionage helped deliver both Trump’s election and Brexit.

Harding recounts that on returning home, Alexander Yakovenko, Russia’s ambassador to the UK from 2011 to 2019 was made a member of the Order of Alexander Nevsky and president of the Diplomatic Academy by Putin as a reward for “smashing the Brits to the ground. ‘It will be a long time before they rise again.’” 

The depth of contempt that Russia now holds for the UK was shown in 2018 when Putin launched a lethal chemical weapons attack in Salisbury in an attempt to kill the former Russian military officer Sergei Skripal. In doing this Putin aimed not only to deter other Russian intelligence officers from defecting, but he wanted to say to the UK, ”Fuck you”, as Harding notes. With his boy Trump in Washington and with the UK, at Moscow’s behest, isolating itself from its European allies with Brexit, Putin knew that there was little that the UK could do to hurt him in retaliation. Indeed, he could have killed half a dozen more British citizens in Salisbury and Boris Johnson would still think nothing of going hobnobbing with Russian intelligence officers and assets.

Johnson and Trump can afford to be sanguine about Russian assaults on their national democracies: they have been the beneficiaries of it. And even if they are in knowing collusion with the Russians, as opposed to mere useful idiots, their respective parties appear much too pusillanimous to do anything about it. Both know that they can count on future Russia support for any electoral contests and, particularly in the case of the US, considerable hacking and corruption of the electoral system. It is indeed a golden time to be a Quisling.

Shadow State is a fine, elegantly written work of investigative journalism. While it may be in the traditions of All the President’s Men, there is, at least at the moment, no justice in sight.