This is a PDF of ‘The Future of the Eurozone’ economic discussion document I authored, commissioned by Matt Carthy MEP and launched in Dublin today.
Below is an account of the visit by an international parliamentary delegation of 33 elected representatives and a number of their advisors to Catalonia, hosted by DiploCat, during the Catalan referendum. While the delegation programme lasted for several days, this account covers only Sunday October 1, polling day. This is not a political analysis of the Catalan referendum but my personal account of what we witnessed.
I left my hotel at 7am on Sunday morning to meet up with the international parliamentary group and our DiploCat hosts. It was still completely dark and pouring rain but I knew thousands of people would have been gathered outside polling stations since 5am to defend them from police attempts to shut them down, which had been rumoured the day before to be scheduled to begin at 5am or 6am.
The international visitors were scheduled to leave in 10 small groups from a central meeting point at 7.30am. I was in a group with Sinn Féin Senator Trevor O’Clochartaigh, Swedish Green MEP Bodil Valero, Welsh member of the Westminster Parliament for Plaid Cymru, Hywel Williams, and Magni Arge, a member of the Faroe Islands and Danish Parliaments for the left pro-independence Republic party. We spent the day with our helpful DiploCat host, a young woman called Irina.
The official plan was to visit three or four polling stations in Barcelona and the surrounding towns; meet the mayor of Solsona for lunch at 1pm; then return to Barcelona by 4pm.
Our first stop was a polling station at a school (Col·legi Orlandai) in the Barcelona suburb of Sarrià-Sant Gervasi, close to Gràcia, where two of the international groups, or around 10 observers altogether, arrived at 8am. It was bright by then and the rain stopped temporarily. Hundreds of people were gathered outside the school, whose entrance gates were closed. They cheered when we arrived, seeing our ‘international observer’ lanyards.
Two uniformed members of the Mossos d’Esquadra, the Catalan autonomous police, stood at the edge of the crowd and observed.
We started to speak to some of the voters gathered, sometimes in English and sometimes having the conversation translated by Irina or by Bodil from Sweden, who has fluent Catalan. They said the Mossos had earlier informed them they had been instructed to prevent voting, but that they did not intend to, in the interests of protecting public order and public safety.
Trevor suggested we speak to the officers. I hesitated for a second, not being a big fan of police, having both experienced and witnessed police violence at peaceful public gatherings and rallies on several occasions. But we went over to introduce ourselves. Both were polite and friendly, and chatted comfortably with us in English. One of them, finding out Trevor and I were Irish, told us he had lived in Dublin for close to a year. I asked if it was okay if I took a photo of them speaking to Trevor and they replied, “Of course it is”.
Some of the assembled voters told us the majority of the crowd had been there since 5am, and that the school was one of those that had been occupied since Friday afternoon. The parents of the kids who attended the school had slept inside the school building on the Friday and Saturday nights. There were three or four young women half-asleep on thin mattresses just outside the building, under the shelter of an overhanging roof. People carefully stepped over them, as did we.
Just then, at around 8.15am or so, the parents began to exit the school building into the waiting crowd, carrying their mattresses and sleeping bags, to cheers and applause.
Internet shut down
Some of the organisers then invited us to come inside the school, and we squeezed through the voters to walk through the gate. The front rooms were set up with desks for ballot papers and ballot boxes, and around a dozen volunteers were working intently on computers and laptops. Voting was due to begin at 9am but their electronic electoral system was down and the entire internet seemed to be down too.
I tried to get online on my phone when inside the school and couldn’t – sometimes my phone would say ‘No service’ but even when it didn’t, I was still unable to use the internet. I couldn’t get online for hours that morning. It was the same for the other visitors, though some of them seemed to be able to get online for two or three minutes at a time. Outside, one of the organisers called on the voters to all switch their phones onto airplane mode in the vain hope that it was a capacity overload problem, a request everyone quickly and willingly cooperated with.
Someone told us the polling station staff were attempting to get online by using a Belgian proxy; it didn’t work though. We heard through text messages that not only the electronic voting system was down, as was expected, but the entire internet was down at a number of other voting stations too. “Do you think it’s the Spanish government that’s responsible?” I asked one of the frazzled volunteers. She looked at me as though I were a moron and said, “Of course it is.” We both had to laugh.
The voters outside were patient and cooperative, occasionally breaking into chants of “Votarem! Votarem!” (“We will vote!). We could see each other through the gates; organisers outside communicated constantly with those inside, and passed phones, coffees and mini-pastries through to the volunteers. Bodil did an interview with a Swedish journalist holding a recorder through one of the gaps in the gate.
When it rained, the voters shared large umbrellas through the crowd. At one stage an organiser was lifted on top of someone’s shoulders to call on the voters to clear a path for the elderly, people with special needs and people who had to go to work that day to be able to come up to the front and vote first. Two older women were brought into the school building so they could sit down; an elderly, frail man refused the offer of coming inside and continued to stand outside at the front of the queue using his umbrella to help support himself.
It was at that point that texts began to come through saying there had been attacks by riot police on other polling stations in Barcelona, including some that were close-by.
Shortly before 9am, the two Mossos officers entered the school building, with voters clearing a path for them. They asked the volunteers to assemble so they could speak to them all together. The international visitors hung back but within hearing distance, and Irina and Bodil translated for us.
The Mossos informed the workers that the National Police was attempting to close several polling stations in Barcelona. They repeated what they had told us and the voters earlier; that they had been instructed to prevent the vote from proceeding, but that they were not going to, as their intention was to act in the interests of preserving peace, public safety and public order. They added that if the Spanish police arrived, they would not be able to intervene, but that they would try to act as mediators between the Spanish police and organisers.
One of the Mossos then approached the seated older women, crouching down to ask if they were feeling okay, and offered them water. Then they left through the gates, to applause.
The first votes
The volunteers resumed working to resolve the internet problem. I remarked to one of them that the voters assembled outside were incredibly patient, waiting for hours in the rain; no-one was acting annoyed or frustrated at the fact that the polling station was still closed at 10.30, an hour and a half after it was scheduled to open. “They have been waiting their whole lives to vote,” she said. “They don’t mind waiting a little longer.” But anxiety about the possibility of a police attack was growing.
The polling station workers thought that if they had computers with older technology they may be able to connect to a wifi system – so people outside ran home to bring in two or three old laptops and an old PC, which they passed through the gates. At around 10.40am a cheer went up inside the building and we all started clapping – it had worked! They were connected.
One man inside excitedly ran to inform the others, through the gate, that they were connected to the internet and voting was about to begin. “I’m going to be the first to vote!” he yelled excitedly, to laughter. The two elderly women and a handful of others inside took up their ballot papers and voted.
Then the gates opened and the first round of people walked through. Everyone was cheering and applauding jubilantly – the voters outside, the workers inside, us international visitors.
The faces of those who came through were still calm and resolute but some became tearful after they voted. It was a really moving moment, and it’s hard to accurately put it in words. The best way I can describe it to say there was an overwhelming sense of dignity about both the moment and the people.
As the voting got underway, our DiploCat hosts organised the two groups to start moving to our next location; we had been scheduled to leave shortly after 9am but had decided to stay until the station opened. The voters lined up outside the school cheered us and said “Thank you!” in English as we left.
We started driving to Manresa, an industrial province of around 75,000 people in the centre of Catalonia, about 45 minutes outside of Barcelona. We had already seen a small number of videos on Twitter of police seizing ballot boxes and beating voters with batons in the brief moments where anyone could connect to the internet in the polling station at Sarrià-Sant Gervasi.
Now we spent the journey uploading our own photos, footage and observations from the morning onto social media, and passing around phones between the seats so we could all view the latest footage of the police attacks – gasping, murmuring “Oh my god,” and exclaiming “Jesus Christ!” as the snippets of film from the other polling stations showed increasingly brutal violence and rubber bullets being fired into defenceless and panicking crowds. It was not just the National Police we saw in the footage anymore but also the Guardia Civil. Hywel was uploading live videos in Welsh to Twitter, describing our visit.
When we arrived in Manresa centre around 11.30am we stopped for a coffee for a few minutes and stood at the bar with our eyes glued to the TV which was, of course, broadcasting the footage from the polling stations. The building in the square were adorned with colourful flags saying “Sí!” and “Democràcia!”, like in Barcelona, and it had stopped raining entirely. Then we walked to a polling station, a school, where the people queuing outside again cheered as we approached. There were still large crowds waiting to vote as we entered at around noon, and spoke to the polling station workers. The National Police had not arrived at the station; the queues were orderly and the mood bright. Two Mossos stood outside.
One of the polling station volunteers offered to walk us around to the second voting station open in Manresa centre, which was nearby, and we agreed. During the walk the volunteer said worriedly to our DiploCat guide, Irina, that the route we were taking to the second site wouldn’t show us the best side of Manresa; Irina translated her concerns while laughing kindly. Relaxing, the local volunteer then joked that we were walking down “Las Ramblas” of Manresa.
This station, too, was busy, but calm and orderly, having received no visit from the National Police or Guardia Civil. Each polling station had a ‘president’ – a coordinator or presiding officer. Many of the volunteers were wearing stickers that identified them as both activists of the ANC (National Assembly of Catalonia) and also of ERC (Republican Left of Catalonia). I spoke to the president at this site in English for some time about how the day had unfolded, and he outlined the same difficulties with their voting system and internet access that we had experienced early in the morning.
I asked him if he was a member of any political party as I was curious as to whether the volunteers were all affiliated to political parties or whether there were also unaffiliated community members and activists. Almost apologetically, he said he wasn’t a political activist, but worked in IT – and that his mother, an ANC activist, had called him the night before to say they needed people with technological expertise as they anticipated hacking attacks. “So here I am,” he smiled.
As we left, the crowd queuing outside applauded and started chanting “Thank you! Thank you!”. By this stage we had asked Irina to teach us how to say “Good luck” in Catalan, so we replied “Bona sort!” as we left. I grinned to hear a man in the queue describe us as “briagdistas internacionales” as we walked past; he and his friends laughed and waved goodbye.
Waiting in dread at Sant Joan de Vilatorrada
Irina told us there were fears of a nearby polling station being attacked so we drove to another school at Sant Joan de Vilatorrada, just a few minutes from Manresa centre. The atmosphere was different here, subdued. People queued outside, but quietly. There was no cheering.
Inside, the volunteers told us that the polling station had been attacked violently by the Spanish police that morning, before it had even opened. Witnesses told us that the National Police had used a battering ram to enter, and smashed a man’s finger in the door four times, crushing the bone and severing the tendons. They took the ballot papers, boxes and began attacking the voters outside.
A teenage girl explained to us that her and some other voters had run up to the two Mossos present and asked them to do something; they said they couldn’t intervene but called their superior officer who arrived and had a heated argument with his counterpart in the National Police, after which the Spanish police withdrew. The injured man had left hours earlier to get medical attention so we couldn’t speak to him.
The organisers and locals were anxiously expecting the National Police to return – they had received encrypted WhatsApp messages from organisers and activists at nearby stations and on nearby roads who reported they had seen around 60 Spanish police officers in the area. The locals knew they didn’t have the numbers to resist another entry attempt by police. We walked up to a perimeter fence that voters and activists had gathered by, all of us peering through warily. An enormous cheer went up as a number of uniformed firefighters walked up the hill together to the school.
We spoke to the firefighters and others for around an hour, waiting for the police to arrive, but they never did. One firefighter in particular spoke to us at length, describing his view of the general situation. “I’m not very political,” he said. “But we just want to vote. It’s simple.”
Then we heard through WhatsApp messages that the Guardia Civil had attacked another polling station just a five-minute walk away. The firefighters sprinted off down the road as a handful of teenage boys sprinted off another way, obviously knowing a short-cut. Irina said we should think carefully about whether we wanted to try to catch up with the police, but we all quickly agreed we did.
‘I had my hands up’
Our driver zipped us around to the school that was under attack and we arrived to scenes of lines of around 20 Guardia Civil officers jostling voters who had their arms raised. Several Mossos and firefighters formed a line of their own in between the voters and the Guardia Civil.
The people were peaceful but angrily chanting, “No passaran!”, “Catalunya! Catalunya!”. After a tense and angry standoff of around 15 minutes, the police backed off and left.
We were on the street, and couldn’t see the school building through the crowd, so I misunderstood the situation we had walked into. I thought the Guardia Civil had arrived, realised they were heavily outnumbered, and decided to leave. But that’s not what happened – we had got there too late.
They had already smashed down the glass doors of the polling station, seized the ballot boxes and beat a 70-year-old man over the head with a baton – just because he was in the process of voting. As the Guardia Civil left, he was sitting outside being cared for by other voters.
(Below is footage from @QuicoSalles on Twitter of what happened in the moments before we arrived.)
We had all been separated, but the same teenage girl who had spoken to us at the previous school had come running up to find one of the international observers – my Sinn Féin colleague Trevor – who went and spoke to and filmed the injured man. He had had his head split by the baton. “I had my hands up,” he said. “I was voting, I had my hands up.”
We jumped back in the car based on more WhatsApp messages and tried to get to the next site we believed was going to being targeted before the police did, around five minutes away. People were gathered outside anxiously and some were clearly in shock, having arrived from the same polling station we had just come from.
I spoke in English to a teenage boy wearing a Nirvana T-shirt and told him we had just come from the school. White-faced and shaking, he said he had been inside the polling station with his grandfather when the Guardia Civil had burst in and started hitting people with batons. Every few words he would almost choke, finding it hard to speak. “I need to go home,” he said after telling us what he saw.
The firefighter who we had earlier befriended at the first school we had visited in Sant Joan de Vilatorrada came up to us and told us that the organisers had just shut the polling station voluntarily in order to try to prevent an attack. They wanted to protect people from violence and also protect the ballots they had from being seized. It was around 3.30pm. He told us of their standoff with the Guardia Civil and said that like us, the firefighters had arrived too late to do anything to prevent the attack.
“But the fact that you guys and the Mossos got there stopped them from beating the voters on the street after they had taken the ballots,” Magni, the Faroese visitor, said.
The firefighter wasn’t going to be consoled. “Now they are laughing at us,” he said, meaning it both literally – the Guardia Civil had taunted and laughed at them during the stand-off – and figuratively, as in, they had left with people’s votes. He said the words with such a sense of powerlessness and humiliation that, for me, it was the lowest point of all that we observed that day.
As people began to disperse after the closure of the polling station we got back in the car; one of the volunteers had suggested we could drive to the local Spanish police station to see it, perhaps to try to speak with some of the officers. A number of roads were closed, though, so we couldn’t get there.
We saw one of the empty roads closed off by Guardia Civil vehicles and Hywel wanted to go and speak to them and take photos. I told the others that our phones might be confiscated if we tried to take photos because of the (2015) Spanish gag law that, among many other restrictions, banned taking photos of police officers. We all left our phones in the car and walked down to around eight officers who were blocking the road with large vehicles. Bodil translated our questions for them and their responses. She asked why the road was blocked; they replied that it was because someone had been taking photos of the police, which was illegal.
“Because of the gag law,” Bodil replied, provoking protest at the phrase. They said they were “just doing their job”, but then moved one of their vehicles to clear the blockade of the road. We weren’t going that way anyway, so, to the confusion of the Guardia Civil, drove off in the opposite direction.
We had been due to have lunch with the mayor of the town of Solsona at 1pm and were now at least three hours late. Irina insisted that we had to eat something, so we set off further inland to Solsona, another 45 minutes or so away, though I think it’s safe to say all of us had lost our appetites. Back in the car we took turns charging our phones, and passed around the phones in use to see the latest images and footage of attacks at the polling stations. Hywel delightedly informed us that his press officer told him he was trending on Twitter in Wales due to the updates and images he had been sharing all day, which lifted our spirits a little.
We arrived at the main polling station in Solsona, a town of around 9,000 people in the province of Lleida, at close to 5pm. The mayor, David Rodríguez, and others came out to welcome us. As well as being the mayor of Solsona, David is also a member of the Catalan Parliament for the ERC, the Republican Left of Catalonia. The polling station was striking for how well organised it was.
Two massive tractors formed the main part of a barricade at the entrance of the centre, and another tractor blocked off a smaller way in on the footpath. You could still enter, but only on foot. There were very large crowds of people gathered on a grassy area outside of the building in a sort of festival atmosphere with some music and tents, and several firefighters, who got an enthusiastic round of applause every time they waked from one place to another.
The polling station itself was a large gymnasium-style building. The volunteers inside were on edge and were expecting police to arrive shortly. They were preparing to shut down the station and hide the ballot boxes at the first sign of a raid.
I spoke to one of the volunteers, a young man, at length about their high level of organisation. “We don’t think they will be able to get in,” he said. “We think the doors and walls are strong enough to keep them out, none are made from glass. The only way they could get in is if they use vehicles to smash through the walls.” He paused, realising the absurdity of it, and shook his head, saying, “It’s so strange to talk like this, of vehicles smashing through walls. It’s like a war.”
He explained to me that they believed there were enough hiding places in the building that they could temporarily hide the ballot boxes if the police managed to enter. They had taken the step of stuffing two ballot boxes with empty envelopes and “hiding” them in an easy-to-find spot.
I laughed at the ingenuity. Everywhere we had visited, people were dealing with the problems they faced collectively, with great creativity and even with humour.
David asked us to come and have lunch at a Japanese restaurant, a couple of minutes’ walk away. We were reluctant to leave as people were expecting the arrival of the Guardia Civil, but he assured us we would all return immediately if we heard any reports of their arrival.
He introduced us to the owner of the restaurant, who greeted us warmly and told us he had moved from Japan to Solsona 27 years ago. Then for 30 rather surreal minutes we ate sushi and talked across the table, finishing with more coffee. The owner’s son, around seven years old and playing outside in an FC Barcelona jersey, kept running up to the window to wave excitedly at us. We grinned and waved back.
David led us back in to the polling station and on the way back I spoke to a young woman who was shortly due to sit examinations to become a judge. She thought there was a good chance that her role in assisting the local referendum process would destroy her chances of becoming a judge, and said that one of her fellow students was too scared to even vote for the same reason. “But it’s worth it,” she said. Having done countless all-nighters for law exams myself I was left in awe.
David told us the organisers were still on stand-by to shut down the polling station. One of our group remarked to him that it must be a difficult decision – to close the polling station early before everyone had had the chance to vote.
“No,” he replied firmly. “There is no question. Our responsibility is to protect these people from violence. If we have to close the voting station early, even if the votes are stolen, the people here will be safe.”
We were scheduled to meet with the rest of the international delegation at 8.30pm to prepare a joint statement about the conditions in which the referendum was held, and both Magni and Bodil needed to get back to Barcelona to do media interviews before that time, so we began the drive back. Irina asked the rest of us if we wanted to take a break or visit another voting site, and Trevor suggested we go to the Josep-Maria Jujol school in central Barcelona – which both of us had visited during the occupation the day earlier. Trevor had also visited it at around 6am that morning and wanted to see how they had survived the day.
Back in Barcelona
There was a huge number of people gathered outside the school, possibly a couple of thousand, and they cheered loudly when we entered. “Gracias, bona sort!” we called back. It was around 7.30pm and they had been undisturbed all day – in my view, because they had the numbers required to deter any police intervention. Excitement was rising that they would manage to make it to 8pm, the end of voting time, without a police attack. Two Mossos walked around the entrance and they too were cheered.
A political scientist who taught at one of the Barcelona universities was the president of the polling station and showed us how they had been dealing with the technological problems in order to ensure the highest electoral standards were maintained.
“We had people changing our IP addresses every 30 minutes to try to stay ahead of the hackers,” he explained. “If the system was down at any particular moment, we would mark people off on the paper electoral roll but put an asterix next to their name. Then when it was up and running again we would enter their names into the electronic system. So there may have been periods of up to 20 minutes at most where the system was down, but it would be virtually impossible for a person to vote twice at different polling stations in that time due to the queues.”
Inside the polling station I ran into a number of Basque friends who were visiting Barcelona in a show of solidarity. I joked darkly to them that they must have felt the same way right then as Irish republicans did when the DUP formed a coalition with the British Conservatives earlier this year – for a brief moment the world’s media attention shone a light on problems and outrageous behaviour that we struggle constantly to draw attention to. Of course this was on an even bigger scale. They laughed in grim agreement.
The author Liz Castro was also at the school, and interviewed Trevol, Hywel and I about what we had observed as we waited for 8pm. She tried to broadcast it live on Twitter’s Periscope feature, but the internet was too patchy, so she filmed it to upload later instead. At about 7.59pm a rumour spread through the building that the police were coming to seize the ballot boxes, causing a brief moment of panic. A minute later we were assured by the tense polling station president that the rumour was false.
Celebrating keeping the polling station open
At 8pm, a huge cry of celebration went up in the crowd outside and they began to sing the Catalan national anthem. They had made it to 8pm without an attack. The school gates were closed as they sang the final bars. (You can watch my video of this here.)
Inside, photographers and media camera crews filmed the two young electoral officers who began the official count of the ballots.
I asked the volunteers if they had heard of any plans for mobilisations in Barcelona that evening, saying we had heard that there would be demonstrations in several cities in the Spanish state against police brutality.
“I’m not a political activist,” the polling station president replied, “so I can’t tell you about the mobilisations outside. My role, and one I take very seriously, is to facilitate the vote of the people here today and to defend those votes. But I can say that as a political scientist, the mobilisation of Catalan society is something that is fascinating to see and something that will not disappear overnight. Of course we can’t keep up this level of mobilisation constantly,” he said as other exhausted volunteers gathered around him nodded in agreement, “but this movement is not going anywhere.”
As we left to get to our meeting with the rest of the international delegation, we walked out behind the electoral workers. The people who had defended the polling station all day – and all weekend in fact, for many – again applauded us. You guys are the ones who deserve the applause, we kept saying as we shook their hands. I don’t think I’ve ever made such an understatement in my life.
Below is an abridged version of a speech I gave on behalf of Sinn Féin at a GUE/NGL conference on the ‘Future of the EU’ in Donostia/San Sebastian on 5 June 2017.
Last week the Commission released a ‘reflection paper’ on deepening the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU).
There is one positive element of this reflection paper – the Commission finally admits that the status quo, and the divergence it has led to, is unsustainable and has to change.
But the proposals to deepen the EMU entirely fail to address the problems caused by the structural flaws of the euro, which are becoming clearer and clearer and are now acknowledged by mainstream economists.
The reflection paper is not so much a new proposal from the Commission as it is the product of a political compromise between German chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron arising from their recent discussions.
Reading between the lines, we can see that the longstanding French demand for some limited financial transfers is proposed, in exchange for not taking any action against the massive and destructive German current account surplus, and for handing over yet further economic powers to the Commission.
The German surplus is the cause of existing debt crises in the Eurozone and will be the cause of future crises. If one country is constantly exporting more than it imports, other countries – in this case, the EU peripheral countries – will have to import more than they export.
This doesn’t just hurt the so-called periphery, or the South – German workers are also suffering the consequences of this strategy as their wages are kept permanently low, often at poverty level.
But while the EU’s “rules” set a limit for current account balances of plus-six per cent of GDP, no sanctions have been imposed against Berlin despite the fact Germany has exceeded this limit for 21 consecutive quarters and for 31 out of 40 quarters since the start of 2007.
The idea that every Eurozone country should adopt an export-led growth model should not only be rejected because it’s based on exploitation, but also because it’s just not economically possible.
Ireland, poster child for austerity
The Irish state is the poster child for the memorandum countries in terms of its recent economic recovery. The narrative goes that the Irish state followed all of the EU rules, swallowed the structural reforms and experienced export-led growth.
Leaving aside last year’s ludicrous 26% growth rate in GDP, based on Ireland’s facilitation of massive levels of corporate tax avoidance, there has been a certain of level of growth in employment over the past two years.
It’s important to note that these growth areas for jobs have not come from FDI or the Irish government’s tax-haven strategy.
Growth took place in the agriculture and food sectors, and in accommodation and tourism.
This growth was based on two related factors. The first was the devaluation of the euro as a result of the crisis, and the second was the relatively higher economic growth in Britain and the US, the Irish state’s two largest trading partners.
Devaluation of the euro was critical to the recovery experienced in the Irish indigenous sector. The relative growth in the US and Britain was also influenced by the fact that these two states are not constrained by the Fiscal Compact rules – borrowing in the US and Britain did not fall below 3% since 2008.
But the specific circumstances of the Irish state also mean that this recovery cannot be transposed or replicated in other member states of the EU.
It also poses significant risks, especially the risk of a significant devaluation of sterling as a result of Brexit. The devaluation of sterling post-Brexit would likely have a devastating impact on this fragile recovery.
The Irish recovery happened in spite of, not because of the EU austerity recipe.
What Ireland is actually a poster child for is the role currency devaluation can play in recovery, when you’re trading predominantly with other currencies.
Transfers in exchange for rights?
Despite acknowledging that the status quo of the EMU is unsustainable, the Commission declares its firm support for the continuation of the European Semester and the Fiscal Compact.
Probably the three most significant aspects of the reflection paper from our point of view – all of which have been floated before – are its proposal of the creation of a European Unemployment Insurance Scheme, the proposal for an EU finance minister, and for an ‘investment protection programme’ to ensure public investment is maintained during an economic downturn.
In typical Commission fashion, the idea of a European Unemployment Insurance Scheme is dangled to gain public support – while the trade-off is the ‘harmonisation’ of labour relations and anti-worker reforms.
As for the proposed ‘investment scheme’, it is contradictory nonsense to create a scheme to protect investment during economic downturns while at the same time insisting on keeping the macroeconomic straitjacket of the Fiscal Compact firmly in place.
Limited transfers would require permanent structural reforms for Member States under the supervision of an EU finance minister.
We don’t oppose redistributive transfers to the so-called peripheral states to correct the imbalances that damage our economies, and of course we’re in favour of protecting investment levels in the crisis-hit countries.
But the point is that these measures are both utterly insufficient to address the underlying structural problems in the EMU, and they all demand trade-offs in rights, democracy and popular sovereignty.
So there will be a deepening of two major discussions in the EU in the near future – one on the EU budgetary capacity and one on improving social rights, linked to the Social Pillar but also linked to these proposals in the reflection paper, such as the unemployment insurance scheme.
We don’t oppose transfers to correct imbalances caused by the euro – but we will definitely oppose them if they are linked to conditionality. Social rights cannot be dependent on economic performance or a state’s following of the fiscal rules. Rights are rights.
The left in Europe shouldn’t fall for the trap of surrendering more ground to the Commission in exchange for these crumbs from the table.
New drive towards deregulation
At the same time as you have these plans for deepening and completion of the EMU based on permanent austerity, and the dubious economic model of export-led growth, we also have a drive to dismantle the limited financial regulation that was enacted after the crisis.
We have a new drive too for the public to bail out the banks – we can see it both in the Commission green-lighting the Italian bailout last week using a loophole in the Banking Union legislation that you could drive a truck through, and through the EBA and ECB recently pushing the idea that public funds should be used to solve the ‘non-performing loan’ problem.
So taking all of this into account, the challenges for the left in the coming period will continue to be on the one hand defensive in order to try to halt the march of permanent austerity. We need to prevent the deepening and expansion of the EMU.
In the short term we need to campaign for effective sanctions against current account surpluses; for investment to be excluded from the fiscal rules; to try to reject the attempt to incorporate the Fiscal Compact into the Treaties at the end of this year; and for a real public investment plan to stimulate growth. We’re open to examining options for fundamental reform of the euro towards flexibility mechanisms or other possibilities. Some of the ideas outlined in Joseph Stiglitz’s book on the future of the euro are definitely worthy of consideration by the left.
But the option of an exit from the eurozone should also be viable and supported for member states that choose to do this as a result of their economic circumstances, just as states who want to remain within the eurozone should not be blackmailed or kicked out of the common currency against their will.
I’ll finish with a few comments on some recent and current election campaigns. We’ve all seen the elites across the EU celebrating the election results in the Netherlands and France, fostering a sense of triumphalism and complacency when what we should all be experiencing is alarm at the growth of the far right. But it is not inevitable that popular anger at the status quo is channelled into the far right.
We face the urgent challenge of developing, communicating and organizing around a programme that can win popular support, and the effective, bold and principled Labour campaign in Britain under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn is something we can learn a lot from across Europe. Corbyn successfully managed to shift the debate from a narrow discussion on the terms of the British exit at the start of the campaign to one about what kind of country do people want to live in, what kind of world?
Published in the West Belfast News in June 2010
The publication of the Saville Report, the inquiry into the British army massacre of 14 civil rights protestors in Derry in 1972, confirmed what the victims’ families had always known — that those shot had been unarmed and posed no threat to the British Parachute Regiment.
The victims’ families welcomed the report of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, handed down on June 15. The inquiry was chaired by British law lord Mark Saville and launched in 1998. They were joined by thousands of supporters in a march to Derry’s Guildhall — symbolically completing the march route begun by thousands of civil rights activists on January 30, 1972.
The official British line for the past 38 years, repeated by the media and “confirmed” by the inquiry chaired by John Widgery in 1972, was that those shot down — half of them teenagers — had been armed with guns and nail-bombs, and had opened fire on the paratroopers.
The Widgery cover-up said that the paratroopers’ behaviour had “bordered on the reckless”.
In contrast, Saville said there was no justification for opening fire and that all the soldiers who testified, bar one, had lied to the inquiry.
Saville referred to one person who was shot while “crawling away from the soldiers”; another shot “when he was lying mortally wounded on the ground”.
Bloody Sunday was a defining moment in the recent history of Ireland. The civil rights movement that had emerged in 1968 in the sectarian northern Irish statelet and demanded equal rights for the Irish nationalist and Catholic minority communities was literally shot off the streets.
The British military had been deployed in 1969 to support the discredited Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) after the explosion of the civil rights movement and the sectarian pogroms against Catholics that followed.
The British government claimed that its forces were being deployed to “keep the peace” between two warring communities — the mainly Catholic nationalists, supporters of Irish unity, and the mainly Protestant unionists, supporters of British colonial rule. But in reality, troops were sent in to prop up the crumbling statelet and maintain its union with Britain, something that quickly became clear to the nationalist community.
Civil rights activists in Derry on January 30, 1972 were protesting against the army’s introduction of internment without trial in August 1971. By the time of the Bloody Sunday march, more than 2000 people, almost all of them nationalists or republicans, were interned without trial in prison camps. Following the massacre, the British government introduced direct rule from London.
Bloody Sunday is largely regarded as the decisive factor that convinced a generation of young people that the only means to resist the oppressive Unionist state was to fight an armed struggle against the British army and RUC.
The tenacity and determination of the Bloody Sunday victims’ families was applauded as “inspirational” by speakers in Derry as the report, that was supposed to be published in 2006, was finally released. Thousands of supporters from across Ireland and around the world have joined the families each year to march in Derry on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, demanding justice for those killed.
Palestinian flags flew among the crowd outside the Guildhall in Derry. Tony Doherty, who was nine years old when his father was shot dead, said the victory of the Bloody Sunday families should be shared by those who had died struggling for justice everywhere: “Sharpeville. Grozny. Tiananmen Square. Darfur. Fallujah. Gaza. Let our truth stand as their truth too.”
Unionist politicians and British military spokespeople have reacted angrily to calls for the prosecution of the individual soldiers responsible for the Bloody Sunday killings.
But prosecuting the soldiers would not deal with the fundamental issue — that the killings were part of official state policy.
In response to fresh calls by British military officials for the prosecution of Irish Republican Army members and leaders for historic actions, Junior Minister in the Stormont Executive and former IRA prisoner Gerry Kelly pointed out that the British state has until now acted with total impunity.
“The difference is that 15,000 IRA prisoners served more than 100,000 years in jail,” he said.
Speaking from Westminster following the report’s publication, British Tory prime minister David Cameron said the shootings were “indefensible”. His apology on behalf of the British government was welcomed in Derry.
However, he then went on to say: “Bloody Sunday is not the defining story of the service the British Army gave in Northern Ireland from 1969-2007.”
West Belfast MP and president of Irish republican party Sinn Fein Gerry Adams rejected this claim, saying: “The British Army’s actions at that time were part of a deliberate tactical decision designed to intimidate the wider nationalist community by killing citizens.”
One British soldier present on Bloody Sunday, identified as Soldier 027, who has been in a witness protection program for the past decade, testified to the Saville inquiry that his unit was encouraged to “get some kills”.
The significance of the Saville Report is that it challenges the official view of the role of the British military in Ireland and elsewhere. It exposes its real role as a colonial force willing to use brutal force to enforce its will. It adds weight to the campaigns for justice by other victims of British state killings, and to calls for a withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan and Iraq.
In the 36 hours after the introduction of internment in August 1971, 11 people — 10 men, including a mother of eight children and a local priest — were shot dead in Ballymurphy, west Belfast, by the same British Parachute Regiment later to be unleashed in Derry.
British military forces in Ireland and the RUC killed at least 363 people since 1969, most of them civilians. Loyalist death squads killed more than 1000 people — mostly Catholic civilians — often acting with the sanction or aid of British military intelligence and RUC’s Special Branch.
From the open military repression and martial law tactics of the early 1970s to the running of loyalist murder gangs throughout the following decades, the British government’s actions had the same aim throughout the conflict: to terrorise and demoralise the nationalist population and crush their aspirations for democratic rights and a united, independent Ireland.
Speaking at a press conference in west Belfast on June 17 with the Ballymurphy massacre families, Adams said: “All of these families deserve the full support and encouragement of the community, and of the Irish government, in their efforts to secure an independent, international investigation into these deaths.”
Published in An Phoblacht on 8 March 2010
Professor As’ad Abdul Rahman, an independent member of the PLO’s Executive Committee and a founding member of the PFLP, was a keynote international speaker at the recent Sinn Féin Ard Fheis. He spoke to An Phoblacht’s Emma Clancy about the need for the international community to act urgently to stop the colonisation of further swathes of Palestinian land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem if a two-state solution is to have any prospect of being achieved.
The criminal siege of Gaza is continuing to cause the deaths of Palestinians each day, and the world must take action immediately to lift the blockade, Abdul Rahman told An Phoblacht.
“Not only has there been no rebuilding of Gaza permitted since the bombardment reduced much of the territory to rubble, but more than a year later, Palestinians are still waiting desperately on an uncertain trickle of basic vital food and medical supplies to be allowed in,” he said.
“Resolving the humanitarian catastrophe in the Gaza Strip by lifting the blockade is the most urgent priority. At the same time we need to bring to the world’s attention what is going on in the West Bank, because each day the colonial actions of the Israeli government are moving the prospect of Palestinian statehood further and further away.”
Abdul Rahman spoke about the refusal by Israel to abide by existing agreements and of the role of the U.S. in tolerating Israeli aggression.
“Palestinians have had a very bitter experience of agreements entered into which have not been implemented,” he said.
“We thought 20 years ago that the discussions and process we began would deliver peace with justice in the Middle East. But this so-called peace process began an era of a new apartheid in Palestine, as Israel chose to go down the path of a rogue state.
“The consistent failure of world leaders to respond effectively to Israel’s violations have given the state the confidence to proceed on this course. The situation is worsening as the behaviour of Israel, now led by an extreme right-wing government, has become increasingly brutal and, frankly, crazy.
“This reckless brutality has manifested itself in many ways – the slaughter in Lebanon in 2006 and in Gaza in 2008/09, the ongoing siege of the territory, and the Israeli response to the United Nations’ Goldstone Report into the Gaza attack.
“The official response to the Goldstone report which asserted that Israel had committed war crimes in Gaza was to call Justice Richard Goldstone a ‘self-hating Jew’ who was irrationally ‘biased against Israel’.”
Abdul Rahman pointed out that although the Goldstone report was adopted by the UN General Assembly, there will be no ‘independent inquiry’ set up by Israel to investigate violations of the laws of war, as the report recommended.
Goldstone’s report says that if Israel failed to do this, justice for the Gaza victims should be pursued through other mechanisms, in particular the International Criminal Court and the use of universal jurisdiction by other countries against states that breach the Geneva Conventions.
Abdul Rahman continued: “Of course, the most recent demonstration that Israel operates as a rogue state can be seen in the transnational killing of a Hamas leader (Mahmoud al Mamdouh) in a hotel room in Dubai by a large team of Israeli intelligence operatives who moved around using forged passports from several countries, including Ireland.
“Everybody, even Israel’s staunchest allies, recognises that Mossad was behind this transnational murder, just as Mossad was behind the assassination of (Hezbollah member) Imad Mughniyeh in Syria in 2008.
“How long can the U.S., and the rest of the world, stand back silently and watch as Israel violates not only the rights of the Palestinian people, but the basic laws and standards of interacting with other countries, including its western allies?” Abdul Rahman asked.
“Israel’s confidence in its impunity has been reinforced by the failure of the U.S. and the international community to take action as it violates agreements and continues its relentless colonial expansion,” the PLO representative said.
“When Barack Obama was elected U.S. president, he initially made strong statements and moves in favour of creating conditions conducive to negotiations resuming between us and the Israelis. But he has since then backed down and is now trying to insist that the Palestinians resume ‘negotiations without preconditions’.
“What this means is that Israel is allowed by the U.S. to continue its colonial settlement expansion and annexation across the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, in a flagrant breach of its commitments under the 2003 Road Map. In recent years Israel has dramatically intensified its colonisation of Jerusalem, evicting Palestinian families from their homes.
“Under the Road Map agreement Israel is obliged to cease all expansion of its colonies, including that of so-called natural growth. But this extreme-right Israeli government insists that Jerusalem is exempt from the settlement freeze and continues to seize Palestinian land, destroying the potential for East Jerusalem to be a viable capital of a future Palestinian state.
“It is impossible for any Palestinian leadership to negotiate directly with Israel under such conditions.”
Abdul Rahman said that U.S. envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, was working towards facilitating ‘proximity talks’ where direct negotiations would not take place but whereby he would travel between Israelis and Palestinians.
“Successive U.S. governments have also tried to sideline the UN from the Palestinian question – the Middle East Quartet (the U.S., UN, EU and Russia) has the UN only as one partner when by international law it should be the key body dealing with the issue,” he said.
“While the U.S. has repeatedly publicly stated that it views the ongoing colonial expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as being against international law, it has failed to exert the necessary pressure on Israel to cease this expansionism.
“Palestinian representatives, the Palestinian people, the Arab masses, and supporters of the Palestinian cause worldwide are fed up with nice talk and no deeds.”
Since carrying out this interview a major diplomatic rift between the U.S. and Israel has developed, with the Israeli announcement during a visit to the state by U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden last week that the government was to build 1,600 new homes in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighbourhood in East Jerusalem.
Palestinian negotiators said there would be no talks, direct or indirect, unless Israel shelved the plans; Biden reportedly said the plans “would set the Middle East on fire”. Obama has demanded that Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu act to halt the planned construction and commit to re-entering negotiations on core issues with Palestinians.
Netanyahu apologised for the “unfortunate timing” of the announcement and, under intense pressure, said that the construction would not begin for at least a year, but he has stated that Israel’s ongoing colonisation of East Jerusalem is “not negotiable”.
It remains to be seen if the Obama administration will back up its unprecedented harsh words to Israel with actions.
Demand for unity
Abdul Rahman also discussed the division between the different factions of the Palestinian national movement, saying the longer the siege of Gaza and the restriction of movement between the two territories continued, the harder it will be to break down the barriers between Fatah and Hamas.
“There is a lot of work going on to pressure the different forces into working for unity, for a quick rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas, despite the ideological and political schisms that have riven the national movement,” he told An Phoblacht.
“The strongest pressure, of course, comes from Israeli brutality and oppression, which fosters the demand for unity from the ordinary Palestinian people.
“If they fail to resolve these differences and work together in the interest of the Palestinian people, they are both becoming increasingly aware that they are moving toward their own destruction as political forces, because the Palestinian people view the factional fight as basically committing suicide – suicide of the nation. It is my deep hope that the two sides will come together soon to try to resolve their differences.”
Published in An Phoblacht on 10 February 2010
THE PSNI is under mounting pressure to suspend its use of stop and search powers granted under Section 44 of the British government’s Terrorism Act 2000. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled on 12 January that the power to stop and search people arbitrarily – without any grounds for suspicion – was a violation of the human right “to respect for private life”.
The British government has refused to repeal or suspend the legislation and has said it plans to appeal against the ruling.
Sinn Féin MLA and member of the Policing Board Daithí McKay said the most recent figures available from the PSNI on the powers backed up the ECHR’s ruling’s finding that the so-called anti-terror legislation was being abused by police, and used in an arbitrary and discriminatory way.
While in Britain the powers have been used disproportionately against black and Asian people – who are four times more likely to be stopped under S44 – McKay said the nationalist population in the Six Counties was overwhelmingly bearing the brunt of this violation of civil rights.
“Sinn Féin has campaigned against this abuse of power by the police since the introduction of this draconian legislation by the British government. We believe that, in light of the European Court of Human Rights ruling that the Section 44 powers are illegal, the PSNI must now suspend its use of these powers,” McKay said.
The latest quarterly figures publicly available, from July to September last year, on the PSNI’s use of S44 stop and search powers show three key findings:
•There was a dramatic jump in their usage, with figures more than doubling from the previous quarter. From July to September last year, 10,265 people were stopped and searched under S44 in the Six Counties.
•Stop and search powers continue to be invoked a vastly disproportionate number of times in nationalist areas. The constituency with the highest number of people stopped and searched during the July-September quarter was Foyle, with 2,203. While S44 stop and search powers were used 1,305 times in Strabane during the quarter, they were used only once in Larne, a town of around equal population.
•The use of stop and search continues to be demonstrably ineffective by the PSNI’s own criteria. Of the more than 10,000 people stopped and searched during the quarter, only 39 were subsequently arrested.
Abuse of power
Section 44 of the Terrorism Act allows areas to be “designated” for the use of stop and search without suspicion by a police constable. The designation is made by an assistant chief constable and subsequently endorsed by the Secretary of State – and it can be made without going through any judicial or parliamentary process.
Under the legislation, the designation lasts 28 days, but can be renewed on a rolling basis. Civil rights groups in England responded with outrage last year when it emerged that the whole of Greater London had secretly been an authorised stop and search area since 2001.
The powers allow police to stop an individual or a vehicle within a designated area and search the person, anything they are carrying, and their vehicle. The legislation means that police officers no longer have to have “reasonable grounds of suspicion” to do so.
In 2008/09 police forces in the North, and in England and Wales, stopped and searched around 250,000 people under S44. In 2008, the London Metropolitan police stopped and searched more than 2,000 children under 15 years old – including 58 under the age of nine.
In July last year the London Metropolitan Police force announced it was refining and limiting its use of S44 powers following a review. The police force in Hampshire, England, said it was suspending its use of the powers the same month, citing the fact that no arrests were made despite more than 3,000 searches being carried out.
The European Court of Human Rights case was brought against the British government by two people who were stopped, interrogated and searched under the legislation in London in 2003 as they made their way to an anti-war demonstration against an arms fair. English civil rights group Liberty strongly supported the case.
The landmark ruling by the Strasbourg court on 12 January (Gillan and Quinton V the United Kingdom) found that:
•The power to search a person’s clothing and belongings in public could cause humiliation and embarrassment and was a violation of Article 8 of the Convention on Human Rights which guarantees the right to respect for private life.
•The fact that the decision to stop and search somebody was “based exclusively on the ‘hunch’ or ‘professional intuition’ of the police officer” meant there was a “clear risk of arbitrariness in granting such broad discretion” to a police officer.
•The judges were concerned by the way the powers are authorised. There is no requirement that the powers be considered “necessary” – only “expedient”.
•The absence of any obligation on police officer to show a reasonable suspicion “made it almost impossible to prove that the power had been improperly exercised”.
The court found that the use of stop and search, and the way the powers are authorised, are “not sufficiently circumscribed nor subject to adequate legal safeguards against abuse”.
“They are not, therefore, in accordance with the law.”
McKay said that the problems in the use of such police powers were compounded in the Six Counties, with a long history of such powers being abused for political repression against republicans and nationalists.
“Many of those who have been stopped and harassed by the PSNI were stopped because of their political opinion or background. This abuse of power amounts to political policing and damages the credibility of police forces that use them as well as community relations,” he said.
“People in the North want a police service that will deal robustly with serious issues affecting their daily lives such as drugs and criminality in our communities. They want to see effective, civic and accountable policing, and the use of Section 44 powers by the PSNI seriously undermines this.”
McKay said that Sinn Féin was calling on the PSNI to suspend its use of S44 powers and was challenging the PSNI on the issue on the Policing Board and in the District Policing Partnerships.
Sinn Féin spokesperson on Policing and Justice and Policing Board member Alex Maskey has written to the British government and the PSNI chief constable asking for their response to the ECHR ruling.
Fellow Policing Board member and Sinn Féin MLA Martina Anderson will be part of the Policing Board’s Human Rights and Professional Standards Committee’s review of stop and search powers which was announced following the ruling.
“The PSNI should now suspend its use of Section 44 in light of these facts and the ruling from the European Court of Human Rights that it is incompatible with Convention rights. The continued use of this legislation is a flagrant abuse of human rights,” McKay said.