Brussels’ plan for bad loans is a second bailout for the banks

By Emma Clancy.

Barely a word has been said in the Irish media to date about an extremely important new proposal from the European Union (EU) Commission – to develop a so-called ‘secondary market’ for non-performing loans. If implemented, this package of policies will directly cause an increase in evictions and homelessness, enable the harassment of mortgage-holders by debt collectors, and generate massive new risks to financial stability.

This proposed EU Directive on credit servicers, credit purchasers and the recovery of collateral will jettison even the (extremely) limited progress the Irish state has made on regulating vulture funds.

“Credit purchasers” refers to vulture funds and securitisation institutions, “credit servicers” means debt collection agencies, and the proposal for the “recovery of collateral” is for accelerated out-of-court enforcement of loans secured by collateral – meaning banks will be able to seize their customers’ property without going through the courts.

In short, it will let the EU’s banks carry out a mass sell-off of bad loans to US vulture funds; shift almost a trillion euros of bad debt off the banks’ balance sheets into the opaque and unregulated shadow banking sector through the same instruments that caused the 2008 crisis; implement rules that mean the vultures cannot be regulated in any way within the EU and can operate across borders without any restrictions; and add nothing whatsoever to the existing level of consumer protection to borrowers and homeowners in the EU.

A toxic debt mountain

Non-performing loans (NPLs) are bank loans that are subject to late repayment or are unlikely to be repaid by the borrower. EU standards now generally require banks to classify loans as non-performing if they are more than 90 days in arrears. The ability of borrowers to pay back their loans deteriorated significantly during the financial crisis and the subsequent double-dip recession. As a result, many banks saw a build-up of NPLs on their books, particularly in the countries worst affected by the crisis.

Euro-area banks held just over €1 trillion in NPLs in 2016, the equivalent of around nine per cent of the Eurozone’s GDP, and amounting to around 6.4 per cent of total loans in the Eurozone. The level of NPLs differs dramatically across the euro area, with almost half bank loans in Greece and Cyprus classified as NPLs, and Italy, Ireland, Portugal and Slovenia all holding NPLs at rates of 10-20 per cent. While the average ratio of NPLs in the EU has decreased by more than one-third since 2014, the total volume of NPLs remains high, at around €820 billion as of December 2018.

The proposed EU Directive is touted by the Commission as having one main aim: to free up banks to lend to consumers and small businesses again by reducing the high levels of bad loans on their balance sheets.

But even a cursory glance at the lending statistics across the Eurozone and the EU demonstrate clearly that the lower level of lending by banks is not caused by a lack of willingness by banks to provide credit, but rather by a lack of demand for credit from SMEs, companies and households.

In reality the proposal has three key aims:

  • To encourage EU banks to reduce their stocks of sour loans by any means necessary so they can return to pre-crisis profitability levels and compete once more with US banks;
  • To take away the right of EU member states to place regulations and restrictions on vulture funds and debt collectors that may impede their ability to enter the EU and operate freely across borders; and
  • To give the banks and vulture funds new powers to seize their customers property if they fall behind in repayments of debt – without having to bother with the irritating process of actually claiming this collateral through a court in which the judge is legally obliged to consider the rights of the consumer.

Replicating the Irish model across the EU

The European Commission has looked at the post-crisis process in the Irish state where banks have reduced their stocks of non-performing loans significantly, decided it is a glorious success story, and resolved to replicate this process across the entire EU.

The key components of this ‘success’ story in Ireland were the creation of the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA), which used public funds to take bad loans off the balance sheets of the bailed-out Irish banks; the grovelling invitation to US vulture funds to enter the Irish market by former Finance Minister Michael Noonan; and the eagerness of the Irish banks to engage in the mass sell-off of their customers’ mortgages and loans to these debt vultures at a fraction of their value.

Following this logic of trying to replicate the Irish model across the EU, the Commission made a legislative proposal in March 2018 based on four key aspects:

  • Provisioning by banks – a Regulation to require banks to put aside their own capital to cover the loss of a bad loan;
  • A Directive on developing a secondary market for NPLs – promoting the sale of bad loans to vulture funds, and promoting securitisation;
  • The same Directive to cover debt recovery – giving banks more power to enforce the collection of collateral through out of court recovery; and
  • Non-binding guidance for Member States on how to establish a national Asset Management Company – a NAMA-style bad bank, including possibly using public funds.

In fact, the Commission has proposed that all credit agreements – i.e., even performing loan agreements in which the customer has fulfilled every obligation required of them – should be within the scope of this Directive and therefore able to be sold on to a third party.

ECB Guidance on reducing non-performing loans (2017)

The Commission proposal of March 2018 was preceded by rules issued by the ECB, which published its Guidance to banks on NPLs in March 2017, setting out the manner in which it expected banks to reduce their existing stocks of NPLs. This Guidance is non-binding but subject to a comply-or-explain type system in which supervised banks must explain deviations upon supervisory request, and in which non-compliance may trigger supervisory measures.

The Guidance only applies to the largest banks in the EU, which are supervised by the ECB’s Single Supervisory Mechanism. It states that each bank with elevated levels of NPLs is expected to develop portfolio-level reduction targets with a view to reducing the level of non-performing exposures on its balance sheet in a timely manner. The Addendum to the Guidelines calls for these banks to enact a reduction plan if their level of NPLs passes a threshold of five per cent of their overall balance sheet.

This Guidance has been used by banks in several member states – and particularly by Irish banks – to prompt and justify their mass sell-offs of mortgages to vulture funds. Irish banks constantly point the finger at the ECB when selling mortgages to vulture funds, claiming the ECB forced them to. But this is simply not true.

The ECB “has not expressed a preference for certain NPL reduction tools over others” in its non-binding Guidance, and has clearly stated that the combination of tools or strategy reduction drivers for a given bank is the responsibility of, and chosen at the discretion of, its management, which could include debt restructuring, debt forgiveness and many other measures that don’t involve vulture sales.

No doubt the ECB has applied pressure to banks to reduce their bad debt levels, but it has no legal mechanism to force banks to sell loans to vultures and it explicitly denies doing so.

Having said this, the role of the ECB has been one of consistently undermining the rights of homeowners and borrowers, to the benefit of the banks and vulture funds. Every attempt to regulate the debt vultures that we have seen in the Irish state in recent years – every draft piece of domestic legislation – has been referred to the ECB for its ‘opinion’. The ECB’s opinion always seems to be that the banks should be allowed to get rid of their bad loans by any means necessary.

The Commission’s proposed Regulation on banks covering NPL losses is similar to the ECB Guidance except it applies only to future NPLs and not the existing stock; it provides a slightly more lenient time frame for banks to set aside their own funds to cover future NPL losses; it is legally binding; and it applies to all banks and not only the largest ones that are under the direct supervision of the ECB.

In theory, the proposal for a Regulation to require banks to put aside their own capital to cover the loss of future NPLs is sensible from a financial stability point of view in that it will encourage banks to engage in more responsible lending behaviour, and reduce the likelihood of the need for public bailouts of banks in future.

The Commission’s proposal could have encouraged banks to work through future non-performing loans with their customers on a case-by-base basis; and provide concessions to their customers including extensions of repayment periods, lower interest rates, debt forgiveness or many other options.

But taken in combination with the Directive on developing a ‘secondary market’ for bad debt, in reality it instead encourages the banks to take no responsibility for their predatory lending practices and dump their toxic debt into the shadow banking sector, or worse, taxpayer-funded ‘bad banks’.

We cannot apply a one-size-fits-all reduction target that will incentivise banks to offload their loans onto the secondary market. Banks should be required to keep their NPLs on their book and to work through them with their customers by writing down, restructuring or forgiving the debt, particularly in cases of residential loans.

Promoting securitisation

As well as giving free rein to debt vultures, this Directive also aims to promote the use of securitisation vehicles to ‘refinance’ bad loans, or to move this bad debt off the banks’ balance sheets and into opaque and unregulated hedge funds.

Mortgage-backed securitisation vehicles are created when individual mortgages are sliced up and bundled together into packages that can be traded on – gambled on – by investors. The idea is that betting on the return of the bundled, securitised vehicle is supposedly less risky than betting on a single mortgage.

The main investment vehicles that held mortgage-backed securities in the 2000s were collateralised debt obligations (CDOs). CDOs were instruments that included slices of different bank loans, each with a different level of risk and a different interest rate. The rationale behind CDOs was that by pooling together risky loans with less risky assets, the overall risk profile would be lowered – the CDO would be able to gain a higher credit rating – and they would be more profitable for investors. But if one slice defaulted, it increased the risk of a default by the next slice in the bundle. The bad loans infected the rest of the sector until major investment banks could no longer put a price on certain securitisation vehicles.

The moment that marked the onset of the global financial crisis was not actually the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, but rather the moment in July 2007 when Bear Stearns found that it couldn’t put a value on a number of hedge funds that were contaminated with CDOs that included subprime mortgages in them. One of these hedge funds lost 90 per cent of its value overnight; another lost its entire value.

It is almost beyond comprehension that, just a decade on from the global financial crisis, mortgage-backed securities – and non-performing ones at that – are being posed by the Commission as a solution to a toxic debt crisis that is the legacy of the 2007-08 crisis, which these instruments literally caused.

Moving almost a trillion euros out of the regulated and relatively transparent banking sector into the opaque and almost totally unregulated shadow banking sector (by the existing ECB Guidance alone) is incredibly misguided and will pose massive new risks to financial stability in the EU and internationally. Expanding this process under the Directive for all future bad debt is incomphrehensible. How exactly does moving billions of euros of bad debt into the wild west of finance improve financial stability?

‘Buy when there’s blood in the streets’: enter the vultures

The Commission wants to move the toxic debt off the balance sheets of the EU’s banks so they appear healthy and well-functioning, and can compete internationally, particularly with US banks.

An 18th century banker is credited with coining the phrase that best defines the “contrarian” investor’s guide to make a killing in a financial crisis: “The time to buy is when there’s blood in the streets.” This principle underpins the strategy of the private equity funds referred to as vulture funds. You buy when the price is at rock-bottom and make a profit in the shortest possible time frame by any means necessary.

In the Ireland of today this means buying non-performing loans from banks at a fraction of their worth, and securing the underlying asset (usually people’s homes) as quickly as possible through making some sort of dodgy deal with the person who owes the debt, or simply throwing them out on the street.

The red-carpet treatment the Fine Gael-led government has provided to the vulture funds over the past five years – through open-door lobbying access, a virtually tax-free environment for most of the past five years, and consistent government opposition to attempts to rein them in through regulation – has made Dublin a favoured spot for US vulture funds to set up shop in.

Under the proposed EU Directive virtually all restrictions on “credit purchasers” (vulture funds) registered within the EU to operate across borders will be removed, and the fund will be bound only by the regulations of the EU member state in which it is registered. So the light-touch regulation of the Central Bank of Ireland may soon be the only line of defence against vulture funds preying on millions of indebted and impoverished borrowers across the EU.

Third-country credit purchasers – say a US vulture fund that has not set up a subsidiary in an EU member state at all – will simply have to designate a “credit servicer” (a debt collector) to enforce the credit agreement and not even bother with registering in the EU. Only the credit servicer and not the vulture fund itself will be regulated in any way under EU law.

This is precisely the political debate that has played out in the Irish state over the past three or four years. The owners of the credit agreement – the vulture funds – are the ones who make the key decisions regarding the distressed loan, including the setting of interest rates, whether to restructure a loan, and the enforcement of the loan. So it is crucial that the credit purchaser – and not only the credit servicer that acts as an intermediary – is authorised and regulated in the EU, and subject to supervision, investigation and sanctions by the national competent authorities in the member state in which it operates,.

Jettisoning the minor progress made in Ireland

In an Irish context, we have made only limited progress to date in terms of regulating vulture funds and protecting consumers and mortgage-holders. Yet even this modest progress made in the Dáil – usually in spite of Fine Gael opposition – will now be under threat by this EU Directive.

For years Irish campaigners for the rights of mortgage-holders have demanded that the vulture funds themselves, and not only the middlemen must be directly regulated by the Central Bank. Ireland’s Consumer Protection (Regulation of Credit Servicing Firms) Act 2018, which came into effect in January, is a positive step forward in that it allows the Central Bank for the first time to regulate, investigate and sanction the owners of the credit agreements and not just their designated debt collectors.
 
This modest but significant step forward in our framework for regulating vulture funds is now under threat by the EU Directive, as described above. The Irish government must defend our right to maintain this important piece of legislation in the European Council when negotiating this Directive, and all Irish MEPs in the European Parliament must also defend this position.
 
The second substantial potential piece of Irish legislation that must be defended from the EU is TD Pearse Doherty’s ‘no consent, no sale’ bill requiring banks to gain the written consent of their customers before selling their mortgage to a vulture fund; if this bill becomes law based on the will of our elected representatives in Dáil, it will be simply overruled by the EU through this Directive.

Campaigning for the Directive to be withdrawn

Leftists in the European Parliament have tabled amendments to the Parliament’s report on the Directive demanding the direct regulation of the vulture funds and not only their intermediaries; the need for banks to obtain the written consent of their customer before selling their loans on to a third party; a debt buy-back scheme for customers to have the right to purchase their own debt at the same reduced price that their bank would sell the loan to a vulture for; and for a range of additional consumer protection improvements to the Directive.
 
But these amendments are not enough. This Directive is a second bailout for the banks that gives free rein to the vultures and allows the banks to throw their customers under the bus. Minor improvements here and there won’t cut it. It needs to be scrapped in its entirety – and consumer rights groups, housing campaigners, human rights organisations and a range of political forces from across the EU will be organising a campaign in the coming weeks and months demanding this Directive be withdrawn .

Emma Clancy is editor of Irish Broad Left. Follow her on Twitter @emmaclancy123.

Period poverty, women’s health and the environment

By Meadhbh Bolger.

For much of their lives, half of the world’s population need menstrual products to live a decent life, yet many cannot afford them. In the Irish state, they cost an average of €100 per woman per year – and their use, particularly of disposable products made mostly of plastic and a concoction of chemicals, comes with concerning impacts on the environment and on women’s health.

In Northern Ireland and Britain, sanitary products are still subject to a VAT tax rate of five per cent until 2022. Costly, dangerous and with periods often still mired in shame and stigma, the question of access to safer alternatives is a vital environmental and social justice issue to tackle.

Thankfully, as a society – in Ireland, Europe and globally – we are slowly becoming more open to having conversations and initiating actions to address period poverty and access to safe and environmentally friendly menstrual products.

There are inspiring initiatives like Homeless Period Ireland, The Red Box project and Plastic Free Periods; conversations and action at the political level on reducing the environmental impacts of menstrual products; increasing access to products for the most vulnerable; and pushing for regulation on concerning chemicals that make up menstrual products and end up in women’s bodies. The introduction of a period emoji this month is another step forward in normalising conversations around periods.

We need to work together on multiple levels:

  • Access to basic essentials for all – period poverty is real.
  • Ensuring safe products – women need to be in control of what we are put in our bodies.
  • Looking after the planet – making reusable menstrual products more widely available and accessible.
  • Smashing the shame, stigma and taboos around periods.

‘Period poverty’ is real

A survey in June 2018 showed that half of Irish teenagers struggle with the average cost of €10 a month to buy tampons and sanitary towels. The most financially deprived women in the country – including those on direct provision, those in shelters or those who are homeless – are forced to choose between basic essentials.

Initiatives like Homeless Period Ireland are doing fantastic work to tackle this period poverty, and supply menstrual products to these women and girls, and similar initiatives are in action around Europe. Furthermore, on 4 March a cross-party group of female politicians joined forces to propose legislation in the Dáil, urging free menstrual products for women and girls in direct provision, homeless hubs and schools.

What is going into our bodies and who profits from it?

Disposable menstrual pads are made of up to 90 per cent plastic and can contain chemicals like BPA, phthalates and petrochemical additives. These are known endocrine-disrupting substances, linked to heart diseases, infertility and cancer.

Phthalates, which are also a common ingredient in tampon applicators, are known to disrupt hormone function and may lead to multiple organ diseases. A recently-published French investigation confirmed the substances, including these toxic chemicals, released from menstrual products are absorbed by the body.

Women deserve to know what goes into our bodies, but the multi-billion-dollar industry that manufactures feminine and other hygienic products and profits from them, succeeds in making us believe that disposables are not only the most convenient and affordable option, but that they also have no health or environmental risks.

Manufacturing companies are not legally required to disclose all of the ingredients in their products. These gaps in regulation need to be closed and products tested and regulated for safety concerns. Organisations and politicians are pushing to make this happen, for example, through EU legislation to remove hazardous chemicals from all menstrual products and ensure chemicals used are fully disclosed.

Disposable pads and tampons harm the planet

Disposable menstrual products are essentially single-use plastics. In fact, they have recently been defined as such under EU law. During her lifetime, a woman will have her period for up to 3,000 days, the equivalent of 8.2 years and typically will use up to 16,000 disposable feminine hygiene products – enough to fill two minibuses.

Pads and tampons are the fifth-most common type of waste found on Europe’s beaches, having been flushed down toilets. It can take over 100 years for them to break down, whether in landfills, on illegal dumping grounds, or in seas and oceans. They also block sewage systems. All in all, they have a short lifetime yet a significant negative impact on the marine and other environments, including releasing hazardous chemicals and adding to microplastic pollution.

Better alternatives?

What alternatives do exist? There are actually all kinds of safe plastic-free and toxic-free options available in various shapes and sizes to suit women’s needs and match their comfort level: ultra-absorbent “period underwear” that can be washed and reworn, menstrual cups that can hold three to four times more blood than a tampon, washable organic cotton pads, and EU Ecolabel-certified disposable menstrual products (if reusables are not an option).

But these items aren’t always available, and awareness of them remains low. In addition, reusable period underwear takes a long time to dry, and menstrual cups need to be washed out with warm water every four to eight hours — something that may be difficult for women during the workday.

A major barrier to choice is the upfront cost of these products. However, although they do cost more initially (potentially being a barrier to women already experiencing period poverty), over a woman’s lifetime they are much cheaper than disposables. A single menstrual cup costs around €34, and each pair of period underwear can cost around €30, with multiple pairs needed for one period cycle. Overall, using reusables costs just six per cent of the of the price of disposable menstrual products.

Women who are in the financial position to be able to make a choice need to be better informed: we need more transparency about what is in these products, and more openness when talking about them and periods more generally. Periods are not something that should be kept hidden, and menstrual products are not things that should be quickly used and disposed of without thinking of the harm they cause to women’s health and the environment.

That said, obviously women who use tampons and pads cannot be labelled as plastic polluters when realistically, alternative safe and environmentally friendly options are simply not widely accessible, affordable and usable for all, particularly for women and girls who experience period poverty or are on low incomes. This makes the battle against period poverty – and poverty in general – all the more important for women’s health and the environment.

Meadhbh Bolger is a resource justice campaigner with the environmental and social justice organisation Friends of the Earth Europe. Follow her on Twitter @MeadhbhBolger.

Rights denied: The implications of Brexit for Irish citizens

By Niall Muprhy.

On 23 June 2016, 56 per cent of people in the North voted to remain in the European Union (EU). They did so because it is in our best interests politically and economically. The reckless and irresponsible rhetoric that has conditioned the British government’s approach to effecting the party-political intention of the British Conservative Party has thrust the entire viability of the United Kingdom into terminal constitutional decline.

It has heralded the inevitability of a second independence referendum in Scotland and also paralysed our own society with a constitutional convulsion, which in the early part of 2016 was not on the immediate horizon of anyone – Protestant, Catholic or dissenter.

The vast majority of people in Ireland do not want Brexit. No-one in Ireland sought a Brexit referendum. The overwhelming decision of the referendum in this jurisdiction was that we want to remain in the European Union. Brexit is being forced upon us against our will.

Notwithstanding this clear democratic mandate, we as a society and a people are being dragged out of the EU against our will. We are expected to silently comply as the British government plays Russian roulette with our economic and constitutional futures and our rights as citizens. Our EU rights are being ripped from us.

Brexit is one part of a sustained attack on the concept and the practice of human rights, and one further contribution to the attempted erosion of the core constitutional values of our peace/political process.

It was therefore in the spirit of a legal, policy and political challenge and a constitutional confrontation that a group of pro-EU Irish nationalist people from disparate sectors of society – education, health, business, law, the arts, academia, the community and voluntary sector, and sports – came together to articulate our serious concerns.

We collectively invested our future hopes and aspirations in the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) and it being implemented and thereby opening up a new chapter in the history of Ireland.

The conviction of wider nationalist, democratic and progressive opinion in 1998 was that the GFA would ensure a break with the past and guarantee us and future generations peace, guaranteed rights, equality and respect in an Ireland which continued to democratically transform itself.

Nearly 21 years on, the GFA has still not been fully implemented. Some sections of political unionism still oppose its very existence. Many of the political fault lines within our politics and society remain unresolved. Our hard-won peace process and its political architecture have too often been taken for granted. We may have peace, but we have not seen enough progress, and Brexit does not occur in a vacuum.

When more than 200 Irish citizens from the North signed an open letter to An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in December 2017 it came at the end of a tumultuous and politically defining year.

That January the GFA political institutions collapsed amidst the political and financial scandal of the Renewable Heat Incentive. It served to confirm the growing view of northern nationalists that political unionism was not committed to proper power-sharing through the denial and refusal of equality, rights and respect towards the section of the community to which we belong, rights such as the following:

Access to justice

All victims of the conflict had the right to avail of mechanisms in accordance with European defined laws, to have access to justice.
Compliance with Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) is not an issue for Stormont. Stormont is not a sovereign entity, but Westminster is, and it is Westminster that signed the ECHR.

That Westminster sought to then derogate from its ECHR duties by alleging that its compliance with the ECHR is somehow a matter for political consensus at Stormont is a deft sleight of hand of Machiavellian proportions.

Marriage equality

Leo Varadkar and indeed the Irish government rightly speak with pride in respect of the referendum vote in 2016 which brought same-sex marriage equality to the south.

Marriage equality was promoted by the Irish government as a fundamental rights issue in the referendum, yet it is relegated to a matter of political consensus here.  Rights are not negotiable or a matter of consensus.

Many Americans voted for slavery but thankfully it was considered to be an abomination and was ended. Why is it that citizens of England, Scotland, Wales and the south all benefit from marriage equality but it is a right denied to citizens of our micro-jurisdiction?

Language rights

A clear example of the DUP’s rejection of the concept of parity of esteem is the party’s sneering contempt for Acht na Gaeilge. Our language is an intrinsic part of all of our identity as citizens, yet we endure contemptuous taunts, such as “Curry My Yoghurt” and “Crocodiles” and the cancellation of microscopic bursaries for the Donegal Gaeltacht.

The fact is that this jurisdiction is the only region in Britain or Ireland that makes no statutory provision for the protection of a minority language in accordance with the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.

Irish is an official language in the Republic of Ireland, with Welsh given statutory protection under the Welsh Language Act 1993, with Scots Gaelic protected under the Achd na Gàidhlig (Alba) 2005.

Again – why is it that citizens of Scotland, Wales and the south all benefit from statutory protection for an indigenous language but it is a right denied to citizens of our micro-jurisdiction?

It would seem that there can be no regulatory alignment on this island, and Bangor must be as British as Finchley, unless you are gay and want to be married, or seek to live a life through the medium of Irish with statutory protection.

Rights are not British or Irish. Rights are for everyone. Everyone benefits with a strong framework for the protection of rights, and everyone loses when rights are denied.

This contempt mobilised the nationalist and republican electorate: in turn the unionist political majority in the Assembly was ended in the elections of March 2017. Increased unionist belligerence continued, and then the nationalist constituency sent a stark message during the subsequent Westminster election held in June that year, that it was turning its back on Westminster.

It has been confirmed in a parliamentary response by EU Commission President Juncker to a question posed by MEP Martina Anderson that the North would no longer be considered to be in an EU member state, and that whilst Irish citizens would remain EU citizens, benefits from UK participation in EU programmes would end with Brexit.

This position would leave Irish citizens here with access to almost none of the following EU rights, rendering us, in effect, second-class citizens, in our own country:

  • The political right to stand as and vote for MEPs. The right to vote for an MEP is normally tied into the member state of residency.
  • Continued use of the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). Access to an EHIC normally involves billing the health authorities in the EU member state of residence – for example, the NHS.
  • Studying elsewhere and being able to avail of EU student fee rates. Access to EU student fees rates normally requires residency in an EU member state for three of the previous five years.

So without special arrangements, access in practice to these EU rights would be lost to Irish citizens resident here – unless of course they left and went to live somewhere else in the EU.

Practical Scenarios

In reality this means:

We will be disenfranchised. The democratic rights of us Irish and EU citizens in the north, including the right to direct representation in the European Parliament, need to be protected. We must continue to lobby the Irish government to ensure that right is protected by creating a mechanism for people in the North to continue to elect an MEP, i.e. by means of a single constituency.

If you are on holiday in France and fall, you will not be able to access their health service without paying or having medical insurance. An elderly person requiring medical assistance such as dialysis will in effect be grounded, as they will not be able to obtain insurance.

If you have a child wanting to study in Trinity or UCD, you will have to pay. For example QUB undergraduate annual tuition fees for NI domiciled students are £3,925; the same figure is applied for EU students – whereas the figure for international students is between £13k (classroom-based courses) and up to £34k for clinical medical courses. If you have a child aged under 16 today, who hopes to study in the south, as things stand they will be treated as a non-EU national and will be charged accordingly as you must be resident in an EU state for three of the preceding five years. So if Brexit happens in March 2019, a child now aged 16 will not have the requisite three of five years to attend Trinity or UCD.

Other rights denied include the fact that the ability to take up work is dependent on mutual qualification recognition, which will end with Brexit. The right to be joined by family members (who are not EU/EEA nationals) are an inherent part of EU treaty rights to work and study, which also end with Brexit.

On 2 November 2018, more than 1,000 citizens endorsed a direct appeal to An Taoiseach and his government to act in defence of the GFA and citizens’ rights. Individuals with varied political affiliations and none made a direct public appeal to the Taoiseach to stand by his government’s stated commitment that no Irish citizen living in the north would ever be left behind by an Irish government.

The letter was signed by 323 business people, the employers of tens of thousands of people; 115 senior educationalists including more than 30 school principals, along with prominent figures from third-level institutions and teachers from all parts of the North; 82 lawyers; 75 healthcare professionals, including more than 20 doctors and consultants; 30 senior All Ireland medallists; doyens of our arts sector and the leaders of our communities. It was signed by dozens of senior journalists and trade unionists, seven university professors, three Olympic medallists, three Oscar winners, two men who lifted the Sam Maguire, and one man who climbed Everest.

In total, the letter was signed by over a thousand leaders from the nationalist community. This is testament to an evolving earthquake in terms of an awakening of nationalist confidence. The 1012 names are symbolic – the letter was not a petition, but a representative sample of the views of hundreds of thousands of people across the North, and indeed across the entire island.

Beyond Brexit conference

That correspondence was then followed up with a truly unique conference on Saturday 26 January 2019 [pictured above], when more than 1,500 people filled the Waterfront Hall in Belfast to attend what the Irish News described as the most significant constitutional event in a century, as the leaders of the SDLP and Sinn Féin and senior figures from the Irish government and Fianna Fáil attended to give their respective views on Brexit.

Constitutional law experts, legacy and language activists, environmentalists, economic experts and political commentators all spoke to the topic of the viability of a new constitutional arrangement.

Conversations about the future, and future constitutional change, are happening in unexpected places. In recent weeks the trade union movement and senior figures from the GAA have spoken publicly about new constitutional arrangements. Ireland has changed dramatically over the course of the past 20 years.

Catalyst for unity

The roadmap for the journey from Brexit Britain to Little England is being led by the blind, the ignorant and the reckless. Mark Twain once said that you should never argue with stupid people, as they would drag you down to their level and beat you with their experience.

Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees Mogg and their ERG colleagues are indeed experienced; however we cannot stand idly by. We must avoid a hard border at all costs and as reported in the Irish Times recently, preparations are being made as we speak.

Motorists from the south who plan to drive across the Border from the end of next month will have to start applying for a so-called Green Card or risk penalties for driving without insurance. The Motor Insurers’ Bureau of Ireland has issued about one million Green Card forms, as well as electronic application templates, to insurance companies and insurance brokers in case there is a no-deal Brexit. As the realities of Brexit press home in the coming weeks, the tolerance for it will radically diminish.

On a visit to Ireland in December 2017, EU Council President Donald Tusk ruled out a hard border, saying: “Ní neart go cur le chéile” – there is no strength without unity. Our initiatives – at the Waterfront, our correspondence to the Taoiseach, and our ongoing lobbying in Europe and the US – has demonstrated a unity of confidence and purpose, and may become a catalyst for a unity not envisaged by the proponents and architects of Brexit.

Niall Murphy is a Belfast solicitor with human rights law firm KRW Law and an organiser of the ‘Beyond Brexit: The Future of Ireland’ conference.

Kidnapped, murdered and disappeared: journalism can be deadly

Guest post by Nazarena Lomagno.

The NGO Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF, Reporters Without Borders) has recently published a report, ‘Worldwide Round-up of journalists killed, detained, held hostage, or missing in 2018’, and its findings are shocking.

Over the past year, 80 media professionals were murdered, 348 were arrested, and 60 were kidnapped and held hostage and three were disappeared. The report, which looks at the global situation of communicators who have been suffered these attacks in the direct practice of their profession, runs from January 1 to December 1, 2018.

The work of journalists is not easy. Even just their professional accreditation puts their lives at risk and turns the exercise of communicating into a deadly activity: according to the document, 61 per cent of the journalists who were killed were murdered or deliberately targeted due to the simple fact that their investigations focused on political, religious or criminal networks; while 39 per cent of those killed while reporting in the field, without being targeted as journalists. Of the 80 journalists murdered, 77 were men and three were women.

Since 2016 the numbers of murdered journalists had shown a downward trend, with a total of 63 professionals killed that year and 55 killed in 2017. In 2018 the trend was reversed and rose significantly.

According to the report, the geographical area where the profession is practised impacts significantly on the number of deaths. The most convincing evidence is in Afghanistan, involved in a permanent war conflict, which has registered the highest number of attacks on journalists: in this country 15 communication professionals were killed.

In the Asian area, Syria comes second with eleven murders, followed by Yemen with eight and India, with six. The United Nations (UN) has labelled Yemen as being amidst “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world”. However, Reporters Without Borders reported one fact that offers hope: no journalist was killed in Iraq in 2018 for the first time since 2003.

The list of the six countries categorised as “most deadly” by the NGO is completed by the United States with six deaths and Mexico with nine, with the latter being the conflict-free territory where the highest number of deaths was registered for the investigation of local corruption politicians or drug trafficking.

Four of the 80 murders gained global attention, in particular the murder of the journalist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on 2 October 2018. The murder of Palestinian video-journalist and photographer Yasser Murtaja [pictured] was shot dead by Israeli soldiers while covering the Great Macrh of Return protests in the Gaza Strip on 6 April 2018, was also widely reported internationally.

In Europe, Slovakian anti-corruption journalist Ján Kuciak was murdered along with his partner, Martina Kušnírová, on 21 February 2018 after investigating corruption in local business and politics, including links between the Italian mafia and Slovak politicians. Bulgarian TV presenter Viktoria Marinova was raped, beaten and strangled to death after reporting the embezzlement of EU funds in which businessmen and politicians were involved.

As for the 348 journalists who were arrested in 2018 – a figure that increased by seven per cent year-on-year – more than half are in prison in five countries: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey. Arbitrary detentions, the hardening of rules for publishing criteria, preventive imprisonment and life sentences are some examples of punishment for carrying out their profession.

The kidnapping of journalists is still a constant feature in Middle Eastern conflicts. Out of the 60 kidnapped professionals, 59 were registered in three countries in the region: Syria, Iraq and Yemen. For the armed groups operating in the conflict areas, this activity is a source of finance through ransoms, as well as a means to rule by terror. The list of journalists targeted for doing their job is completed by those who disappeared: two in Latin America and one in Russia.

Reporters Without Borders was created in France in 1985 in response to a global situation where journalists were restricted from doing their job, or targeted for their work. The NGO aimed to carry out several measures to protect and guarantee the safety of communication workers all over the world.

Among its most important achievements, the NGO persuaded the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, to created 14 journalist security coordination centres in UN agencies and institutions, which has been promoted by the #ProtectJournalists campaign launched in 2015. Reporters Without Borders has also proposed the International Declaration on Information and Democracy, based on guaranteeing the right to reliable information, recognising the importance of global communication and bringing together an international group of worldwide information and democracy experts.

Nazarena Lomagno is an Argentine journalist and researcher at the political economy department of the Cultural Centre for Cooperation in Buenos Aires.

What ‘cherishing all the children of the nation equally’ means 100 years after the first Dáil

By Adam Murray.

I had the pleasure recently of attending the People’s Dáil conference held on 26 January in Liberty Hall, Dublin, organised by the Peadar O’Donnell Socialist Republican Forum. The event, bringing together socialists, republicans, and contributors from a broad range of parties and backgrounds, was a commemoration of the first Dáil Éireann, declared 100 years ago. There were theatrical readings, lectures about the first Dáil and its founding documents, as well as poetry and song.

The event concluded with the proposal of six motions for all in attendance to sign up to. I was invited to second motion number six, entitled ‘Cherishing all the children of the nation equally’, which read as follows: “A democratic Ireland should be one in which everyone can enjoy the fruits of their labour, in which to grow and develop to their fullest potential, free from discrimination because of their gender, sexuality, ethnicity, race, or religion. Priority would be given to enhancing the social and cultural development of every citizen equally, with economic and social development spread evenly throughout our country, to enhance the capacity of people to live sustainable lives, wherever they choose to live.”

I was very proud to second the motion: as a community worker from Belfast who serves the LGBT community I know too well the effects discrimination can have on people. We still see the impact of discrimination across this island in people living in fear of others, and people living in fear of themselves. Afraid to ask for help, and finding that when they do ask for help they are reliant on underfunded, understaffed, and under-resourced services that are doing the best with what little they can get.

We see the effects of discrimination in high levels of poor mental health, and the countless people turning to drink and drugs to numb their suffering and cope with their struggles. We see it in the number of people leaving our island, the ones who stay and self-harm, and those who choose to end it all. Discrimination, bigotry, ignorance and prejudice are diseases eating at our society. Equality, compassion, knowledge, and justice are the cure.

Discrimination comes in many guises. Our island is still plagued by sectarianism, misogyny, racism, anti-LGBT bigotry and ableism. Classism, discrimination against trade unionists, and persecution of left-wing political thought and activity are all still rife. Although social movements for equality have made great strides in recent years, with the success of the Repeal and marriage equality campaigns, there are still massive inequalities across the island caused by capitalism and its inherent economic inequality.

In the North, key civil rights are still frontline battlegrounds; marriage equality has still not been achieved despite a majority of the people desiring it. A woman’s right to choose is still outrageously denied to northern women. The Irish language is still not being promoted as a minority language the way other minority languages are across Europe, and the simple reason for this is the persistence of a pernicious sectarian mindset that still exists within political unionism and which continues to undermine cross-community development.

All in all the North is in a very sorry shape, but as long as like-minded progressive people, seeking equality and justice, band together and march onwards, we will bring about a new and better Ireland.

Ireland is nothing if it is not the people of the island of Ireland. All the people of Ireland. Whatever their gender, whatever their ethnicity, whatever their sexual orientation. Whether they are the latest in a line of Irish people going back generations, or a refugee who has found safety here and made Ireland their home, we are all equals; we are all humans who deserve dignity and respect.

If we lose our sight of compassion and humanity we will be lost. Racism and xenophobia are on the rise, and the alarm bells must be rung loudly across Ireland and Europe. Let us as socialists raise the banner ‘Céad Míle Fáilte’ over this island of ours to those who seek shelter from the violence of imperialism and disaster. The Irish are no strangers to seeking shelter in a distant land, let’s not forget.

The Democratic Programme of the first Dáil aspired to these principles of equality. It reads: “We declare that we desire our country to be ruled in accordance with the principles of Liberty, Equality, and Justice for all”. It goes on: “We affirm the duty of every man and woman to give allegiance and service to the Commonwealth, and declare it is the duty of the Nation to assure that every citizen shall have opportunity to spend his or her strength and faculties in the service of the people.” In return it pledges “the right of every citizen to an adequate share of the produce of the Nation’s labour”.

The Democratic Programme stated, “It shall be the first duty of the Government of the Republic to make provision for the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of the children, to secure that no child shall suffer hunger or cold from lack of food, clothing, or shelter, but that all shall be provided with the means and facilities requisite for their proper education and training as Citizens of a Free and Gaelic Ireland”.

The Central Statistics Office has found that in one in five children live below the poverty line in the southern state. In the North, a Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health report states that 23 per cent of children live in poverty. This simply isn’t good enough in 2019.

As I prepared my contribution for the first Dáil conference I was reminded of James Connolly, who lay down this challenge to the people of Ireland: “You shout for liberty, and you surrender your children to the mercies of capitalism which will seize them as soon as they leave school, and will devote their little bones, muscles and undeveloped brains to the task of grinding out profits for a boss.

“Are you doing your duty? Love Ireland! Yes, if by ‘Ireland’ you mean not only the earth and the waters, but the men and the women, the boys and the girls – the people of Ireland, in fact.

“Ireland without her people is nothing to me, and the man who is bubbling over with love and enthusiasm for ‘Ireland’, and can yet pass unmoved through our streets and witness all the wrong and the suffering, the shame and the degradation wrought upon the people of Ireland, aye, wrought by Irishmen upon Irishmen and women, without burning to end it, is, in my opinion, a fraud and a liar in his heart, no matter how he loves that combination of chemical elements which he is pleased to call ‘Ireland’.”

As we go forward let us take up the mantle of Connolly, and the mantle of the first Dáil, let us fight for a Republic which puts its people first – not its landlords, not its ‘job creators’, not its foreign investors. It is people, you and I, us all together.

Adam Murray is the Northern Area Secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland.

Antifa as a force for radical left unity in Ireland

By Jonathan Arlow.

The Antifa can be understood as the popular term for all those radical left anti-fascists that are willing to use violence as a tactic to oppose the extreme right. As a movement it is generally viewed as a left-wing reaction to the threat posed by extreme right organising.

Ireland has no significant extreme right but it still has an anti-fascist movement that plays an influential role within radical left circles. So, why does Antifa activism occur even in the absence of a significant extreme right? One answer may be that the Antifa acts as an unusual site of left unity which enables radical left activists to collaborate across political divides on an issue of shared concern.

While movements that encompass most strands of the radical left and Irish republicanism are not unheard of – the Right2Water campaign against the introduction of water charges is an example of this – they are still uncommon. Ireland has a fragmented left tradition, with ideological and personality differences often hampering effective collaboration.

For example, under the banner of the United Left Alliance (ULA) the two Trotskyist parties in the Dáil, the Socialist Party (SP) and Socialist Workers Party (SWP) attempted to form a political alliance with left-wing independents, but right from the start cooperation was hampered by infighting between the three parties involved.

In republican circles, there has obviously been a history of animosity and sometimes violent feuding between the various political parties and their paramilitary groups. These are just two illustrative examples but, in general, the radical left and republican scene can descend into complicated patterns of conflict over long periods of time, which passes on tensions that can obstruct present-day collaboration.

On top of this are the usual ideological difficulties between those aligned with the Marxist and anarchist traditions. Even the successful Right2Water movement was marred by significant disagreements between the various political parties and trade unions on its organising committee. This means that areas of sustained shared campaigning in Ireland, as opposed to one-off single-issue movements, are uncommon within the left.

Activists within AFA Ireland (the main Antifa movement in the country) have emphasised the need for collaborative political activism, which avoids the shallow disagreements that often impede long-term campaigning on the left.

Activists have claimed: “This is something that stuck with me at the start when I got involved [with AFA Ireland]; the smaller political things didn’t really matter. It was just this one thing that you could really stick with, with everyone. This was a thing that no matter what your political beliefs are, if it is to stop fascism on a militant basis, this is something every one of us agrees on… If you believe in the crushing of fascism, how you think the housing crisis should be fixed within the left is neither here nor there.”

“It’s that thing of anti-fascism being this unifying force for the left where everyone can come together; your opinion on what the Soviet Union was is not really very important, as long as you know that your real common enemy is fascism.”

The political backgrounds of the activists aligned with AFA Ireland reads like an exhaustive list of the radical left and republican parties in Ireland. Activists within AFA Ireland have included members of Sinn Féin, Republican Sinn Féin, the Workers’ Party, Éirígí, the Communist Party of Ireland, the 1916 Societies, the Irish Republican Socialist Party, the 32 County Sovereignty Movement and the Workers Solidarity Movement (anarchist). Another major bloc of AFA activists comes from the trade unions and many more – perhaps the largest grouping – are just unaligned left-wing activists.

The single unifying theme among this disparate group of activists is a willingness to support militant action against the extreme right. For instance, one AFA Ireland activist claims: “If people are willing to stand together in a fight, a physical fight, they tend to trust each other politically. It’s true though, it doesn’t matter what some Russian said in 1930, as long as you’re fighting fascism now.”

While all the Irish republican groups listed are – to a greater or lesser extent – on the left politically, it is fair to assume that any members involved with anti-fascist activism would be on the left of their respective parties. Within the radical left, the only elements that are not regularly involved in AFA Ireland are the members of the SP and SWP; for reasons of divergent political cultures and differing campaign tactics, but some individual members from these groups still occasionally become involved in militant anti-fascism.

This willingness for anti-racist individuals to converge under the theme of militant anti-fascism is highlighted by one activist: “An example of [cooperation] from our side, I recall during the late nineties when we would have been involved in big leaflet campaigns in the south inner city, we had a member of the Green Party with us and even some south city Fianna Fáilers.”

That the ideologically motivated activists of AFA Ireland campaigned with liberal or centrist party activists within the Green Party and Fianna Fáil is surprising, given their political differences. However, it does show how in a fragmented left-wing political arena, cooperation across diverse political boundaries can be encouraged by the needs of Antifa activism.

That activists from such diverse political backgrounds, many of whom have a history of conflict with each other, can come together is a significant indicator as to the cohesive power of anti-fascist militancy. Undoubtedly, Antifa narratives built on resistance to fascism helps to romanticise its appeal among radical left activists, but it still provides a clear example of a willingness for intra-group convergence on one unifying theme, over a sustained period of time.

Jonathan Arlow is a PhD candidate in the School of Law and Government, DCU. This post is based on a paper in Irish Political Studies, titled ‘Antifa without fascism: the reasons behind the anti-fascist movement in Ireland’.

National liberation, class and the fetishisation of armed struggle

By Alex Homits.

It strikes me that Ireland has many movements which commemorate, glorify and fetishise armed struggle without truly grasping the conditions or consequences that accompany it. It is significant to note that there exists in the western world a large amount of leftists who parade their interest for armed struggle virulently and openly. They talk of violence, protracted people’s war, insurrection and violence.

Ireland is no exception; those who build their political activism on commemorating fallen soldiers of the various strands of republicanism and continue to glorify armed struggle. The paradox is that most of those who actively engage in commemorating, glorifying and creating a fetish around armed struggle are either too young to have partaken in it or have never themselves experienced the devastating consequences armed struggle demands of the people and our class.

All revolutionary leaders who sought the overthrow of capitalism and the redefinition of societal structures argued for the use of armed struggle and defined it extensively, drawing on the historical examples of their time such as the Paris Commune or the Moscow uprising in 1905. They evaluated the conditions that led to the struggle, how it proceeded on a technical level, how the struggles ended and what consequences these uprisings and struggles had.

A tactic, not a fetish

There are efforts to dissuade comrades from being overly keen on the glorification of armed struggle or overly involved in commemoration. Initiatives such as the Peader O’Donnell Socialist Republican Forum have been criticised by various republican elements for refusing to acknowledge armed struggle as a legitimate vehicle, and similar criticisms have been made of the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI).

There is an important point of reference here: the open letter that the Communist Party of Ireland wrote to the Provisional IRA in 1988 made several of the points I will make, but you can find the full text of the arguments the CPI makes on the archive website Cedar Lounge Revolution. The context in which the CPI wrote that argument was different to today, and my assessment reflects the material conditions of today.

Militants who have taken up arms, either under the guidance of a Marxist-Leninist party or under the auspices of national liberation struggles have encountered similar issues, utilised similar tactics and faced similar consequences as a result of their political workings. That is the first lesson that must be drawn when evaluating armed struggle: the material conditions, the development of imperialism and by extension colonialism, as well as the national question all play significantly different roles on the psyche of the working class and the makeup of society itself.

In Nazi-occupied territories, guerrilla warfare was almost a given response from significant portions of the population. Not only was the struggle against Nazi forces one of liberation and love for the mother nation, but it was also a necessity given that Nazi rule made life significantly more difficult. The material needs of working people were denied, and their living conditions destroyed.

In Eastern Europe the Nazi occupation was also colonial in nature, with the ultimate intention being mass displacement and the extermination of Slavic people. A dialectical relationship between armed struggle and the oppression of the Nazi regime therefore emerged and armed struggle for survival began.

There was a similar dynamic in Vietnam, where the country was a colony of France, then a colony of Japan throughout the Second World War period, and then, once more, a colony of France. The struggle for national liberation became paramount and the Communist Party correctly assessed and struggled for the fusion of the national question and the social question as the synthesis for revolutionary change in Vietnam.

National liberation and armed struggle in Ireland

Ireland has been through several hundreds of years of revolutionary upheaval. National liberation and the struggle for the independence, nay, for the soul of the nation manifested itself in different shapes and sizes – but all yearned for liberty. From time to time and particularly in the late 18th century, liberation began to take on a social facet: the men of no property, stripped, dispossessed and thrown into the ditches of the country had no longer anything to lose and the nation to gain.

The revolutionary character of the rural community continued to be a dominant feature all the way until the War of Independence, yet we saw another development occur in the urban centres, notably Dublin. When we speak of ‘armed struggle’ in the Irish context, we immediately think of the Provisional IRA, Official IRA or the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), which operated predominantly in the North, yet we do not always give consideration to the forces which led for instance, to the 1916 Rising. This is in part a result of the anti-republican history curriculum in Irish schools but also a result of the absence of a Marxist evaluation of armed struggle within the discussions that are taking place.

Certain political forces simply refuse to discuss it, yet Lenin, Engels, Marx and many other great leaders of the socialist movement pored over it endlessly, assessing, scrutinising and analysing it. It has become clear to me that armed struggle for a Communist is merely another mechanism to advance the class struggle, instigated in the conditions that most demand it.

Again, we need only look to the historical revolutionary movements for guidance and inspiration to concoct a concrete argument. Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines, Ireland, Russia, China, Yugoslavia, Greece, Cuba Eastern Europe, France, Algeria and on the streets of Oakland, California. What we see is one very clear and definitive piece of evidence in our broad assessment – when the contradictions within capitalism or imperialism heighten, the Party, in any given set of circumstances, must make a decision on the material conditions before them.

Specific conditions required

The Party asks itself and its members, is there a popular will or potential desire for mass struggle? Are there the resources for mass struggle and how can they be attained? No Marxist argues that an armed struggle can be won without setting upon itself the objective of winning the support of the masses.

Armed struggle plays the exact same role in attacking capital as any aspect of Party work, with one important distinction: armed struggle is initiated to conclude the political struggle a Party has been waging as a decisive blow against capitalism, colonialism, imperialism or all three. What does this mean and how should we understand this? It means that the material conditions within any state or society can objectively be used to assess whether armed struggle will yield success or failure.

In the Ireland of 2019 there is no appetite for armed struggle, and groups purporting to be socialist, republican or both must yield this point. Armed struggle as it manifests itself and did manifest itself in Ireland in the past comes under very well-defined objective circumstances and conditions. In fact, the relationship of oppression and resistance is dialectical – the greater the oppressor, the greater the resistance.

Today, oppression of the working class is obfuscated and much of our class holds reactionary or underdeveloped political views. To attempt to lead or manufacture armed struggle at this juncture is to commit to the destruction of your movement and set back the cause of the revolution a decade.

There is also no appetite to accept that armed struggle will not look like it did during the northern struggles or even the War of Independence. Agrarian, non-industrialised Ireland run by small farmers and the Catholic Church parish community is a relic of the past. The majority of the working class live in the major urban centres, or to be precise Dublin. The majority of the working class are born and raised, and live and die, in the streets of large cities and in the workhouses of today. A strategy reflecting no-go territories in the sparsely populated countryside would be crushed by the conventional development of rapid response units that all Western states now possess.

William J. Pomeroy’s anthology Guerrilla Warfare and Marxism made me consider something I had not considered before. We had a brief insight in the shape of the Paris Commune, or the 1905 Moscow Uprising in Russia of what armed struggle would look like in highly urbanised and densely populated Western states. Then, something else sprung to mind for me, the operational and structural nature of the Black Panther Party and groups similar to it. They had organised on the basis of their material conditions, which were urban ghetto communities facing a white supremacist system geared towards exploiting, murdering or imprisoning black people.

We live in a highly exploitative and unjust world; in some parts of it, political struggles utilise armed struggle to achieve political ends. Communists in various countries have determined that the material conditions in their countries have been ripe for armed struggle and engaged in it, though some of them have assessed the conditions and therefore their strategy incorrectly. Their parties have been destroyed, their members imprisoned and their movements discredited. So what was the purpose of their armed struggle? In hindsight it was an error of assessing the material conditions, which means that we must be extremely careful in how we make statements or claims today.

Confronting capital in Ireland today

What does this mean in concrete terms? It means that first and foremost, no real Communist disregards armed struggle as a means to challenge the capitalist system, but more importantly, a Communist or Party possesses the capacity to gauge and judge correctly when the correct or most opportune time for armed struggle presents itself.

Secondly, the option for armed struggle, as we have witnessed historically, has been utilised when deemed correct, rather than as a method of making conditions correct. If we briefly examine Cuba and the oft-misplaced quote uttered by Che, conditions were ripe and any historical materialist analysis would be able to determine that, independently of the contribution Che made. Cuba was in significant turmoil with huge revolutionary urban movements and a peasantry that was more than willing to collaborate with a guerrilla force. History vindicated the course of action taken by the 26 July Movement.

Thirdly, the republican movement(s) that glorifies and upholds a fetish of armed struggle as the only solution to socio-economic issues in Ireland has to be challenged, critiqued and ultimately, corrected.

Fourthly, the revolutionary movement must be patient in its leadership of the working class. Instead of attaching ourselves as if we are sick or destitute of ideas to the back of spontaneous movements, we need to begin to show leadership in class struggle and give direction to movements so that they confront capital and make tangible gains for our class.

That is the primary objective right now in the existing material conditions we are in: the rebuilding of a militant trade union movement that can shut cities down; the raising of consciousness of young people who are apathetic towards their class interest; and the continued politicisation of the working masses.

Finally, armed struggle as a political tool to the development of socialism succeeds in very certain conditions and it takes a very wise and highly disciplined political movement to carry it out. Ireland has neither the conditions nor the party to carry it out today.
 
“But whosoever carries the outworks of the citadel of oppression, the working class alone can raze it to the ground.” – James Connolly

Alex Homits is the General Secretary of the Connolly Youth Movement. Follow CYM on Twitter @ConnollyYM and on Facebook here.

Emma De Souza: British government refuses to recognise Irish citizenship

By Emma de Souza.

The Good Friday Agreement was overwhelming supported in referenda both North and South – yet a core principle and the very integrity of the treaty itself is currently being questioned and undermined. I am an Irish citizen born in Northern Ireland, whose Good Friday Agreement right to identify as such has been persistently denied by the British Home Office. 

In 2015 when I married my American husband Jake, I discovered that my lifelong Irish identity is evidently considered secondary to an unclaimed British identity. I have always believed throughout my life that I was Irish; it’s not a choice, it’s not a decision – it is simply who I am. 

I haven’t held a British passport or claimed British citizenship – yet there I was, in an unprecedented situation where this additional and entirely imposed citizenship was stripping me of my EU right to family life. Our application for an EEA [European Economic Area] Residence Card was met with a letter of refusal, accompanied by a deportation order. 

The British Home Office rejected Jake’s application for an EEA residence card in the north of Ireland, for complex reasons. Although I was born in Derry, and have a right under the Good Friday Agreement to identify as either Irish or British or both, Britian has classified me as being British.

In its refusal letter, the Home Office wrote: “…your spouse is entitled to renounce her status as a British citizen and rely on her Irish citizenship, but until that status is renounced she is as a matter of fact a British citizen”.

The British government effectively argued that I am a British citizen until I revoke it in favour of my Irish citizenship. As they therefore class me as a British citizen, but I am an Irish passport-holder, the British government had classified me as having dual-citizenship, and cannot go through the British immigration system as an EU national. On this basis, my husband’s application for a residence card was refused.

This presupposition goes against my understanding of not just the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, but my identity as a whole.

We appealed against the Home Office’s decision on the grounds that the Good Friday Agreement explicitly allows the people of the north of Ireland to chose their nationality – be that Irish or British or both – and were successful at the first hurdle.

Judge S Gillespie ruled: “The constitutional changes effected by the Good Friday Agreement with its annexed British-Irish Agreement, the latter amounting to an international treaty between sovereign governments, supersede the British Nationality Act 1981 insofar as the people of Northern Ireland are concerned. He or she is permitted to choose their nationality as a birth right. Nationality cannot therefore be imposed on them at birth.”

Two years later, and the British Home Office are still seeking to have this ruling set aside. Worryingly, the Secretary of State has lodged grounds of appeal, stating “A treaty HMG is a party to, does not alter the laws of the United Kingdom”. 

Devastatingly for us, the British government has pursued us tirelessly through the courts – for the duration of our marriage – because I hold Irish citizenship and will not accept a government-imposed British citizenship. The Home Office’s appeal is based on arguing that the judge’s interpretation of the law was flawed, and that the Good Friday Agreement has less authority than British immigration law.

This legal wrangle is now entering its fourth year. For the first two years, we lost our freedom of movement. The British Home Office retained Jake’s passport with no legislative authority or policy to do so. With these restrictions, Jake was unable to leave the country and had to turn down opportunities for work. 

The highest price, however, was losing the last two years of his grandmother’s life. Every request to see Jake’s grandmother in her progressively deteriorating condition was denied. When she passed away at home in Los Angeles, Jake’s request to attend the funeral was denied.

It was only after increased media pressure that the Home Office eventually relented – couriering Jake’s passport back to us and allowing him a belated farewell to his late grandmother; a bittersweet farewell mired in remorse for not having been afforded an opportunity to say goodbye. By this point, the personal cost and loss resulting from the Home Office and their decisions was becoming overwhelming. 

A price on Irish identity

Most troubling though is that our experience is not unique, but rather a window into a much deeper and wider issue occurring across our society. The reality being felt by myself and many in our community is that there is a price on Irish identity – a personal price that leaves many questioning what our identity is truly worth. 

A process referred to as Renunciation of British Citizenship is offered by the British Home Office as a solution, but what does it really entail? 

Firstly, the form is a legal document that begins with a declaration: “I am a British citizen”.

It also requires substantial evidence to prove you have British citizenship. Birth in the north of Ireland constitutes automatic British citizenship for those seeking to realize their EU rights. For those renouncing, it is considered insufficient evidence of British citizenship. Considering that many individuals choosing this route do not consider themselves British in the first place, it can be an emotionally arduous process. 

In addition, the process also costs £372. No small fee for renouncing a citizenship which under the Good Friday Agreement should be entirely optional.  There should be no levy on an Irish person to be recognised as Irish to live on our island!  Anyone taking this route will also lose freedom of movement for up to six months while the Home Office processes their application.

Then there is the uncertainty: nobody knows what the ramifications of renouncing are. In a recent case, the Home Office went so far as to question the residency rights of a citizen who had renounced their British citizenship. There is a very real possibility that going forward, anyone else choosing to renounce may be exposed to further impediments on their right to remain in their home. There is also concern about the rights of the wider family as a whole, and the effect renouncing may have on them. 

This, in my opinion, is not a reasonable solution.

The basis of the Good Friday Agreement is founded on equality of treatment and respect for the two communities of the north of Ireland.  This is a commitment the British government agreed to, and in the Brexit negotiations, has promised to uphold.

However, Immigration Minister Caroline Nokes has raised grave concerns as to the British Government’s intentions stating:“Our view is that an international agreement such as the Belfast Agreement cannot supersede domestic legislation… as a matter of law, people in Northern Ireland are British by birth”.

My assertion calls into question the British government’s interpretation and dedication to the Good Friday Agreement. The effect of this interpretation are far-reaching, and are causing immense personal strain and hardship on families across the north of Ireland.

For many, identity is something which cannot be taken away, or even questioned. It has long been accepted by many as the most fundamental of rights. It is of paramount importance to the integrity of the Good Friday Agreement.  If the British government can arbitrarily disregard rights guaranteed to the people of the north of Ireland under an internationally binding peace treaty, what safeguards are in place to prevent further diminution of rights?

The uncertainty and lack of legal protections seems certain to get worse with the onset of Brexit. For us, 2019 will mark another court hearing on the right to have my identity recognised, respected and accepted as Irish. 

Emma De Souza is an immigration and citizens’ rights campaigner. Follow her on Twitter @EmmandJDeSouza. The open letter above was sent to political representatives including MEPs this week, and has been reprinted here with the author’s permission. (Photo supplied.)

Youth rise up for climate, demanding revolutionary change

By Damien Thomson.

Today is the day where hundreds of thousands of young people are expected to strike from school and take to the streets to demands immediate and radical climate action. Thousands have taken part in 37 different actions across Ireland, including an estimated 10,000 protesting outside the Dáil in Dublin.

It seems like we are all cheering them on, but who really has their backs? Who actually supports their demands?

The demands of the youth movement on climate can only be described as revolutionary. The young strikers do not tread lightly on making their point. They want the emergency button to be pressed immediately on climate change and the panic response to kick off.

They do not want to hear excuses. They want swift and unprecedented action on climate, in order to have any chance of saving their futures. The fact that children and young people are leading on this is noteworthy – they see no future with the current rate of progress.

And they are absolutely spot on. Even considering all the climate commitments made under the UN Paris Agreement to stop global warming, supported by the majority of the establishment internationally, global warming is still projected to reach an increase of 3.2° Celsius by the end of the century.

Given that the latest special report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) from October 2018 warns of the disastrous ecological and human cost of a 2°C rise, one can only imagine what future we face on the current path of 3°+ degrees. We are talking about hitting the tipping point – the point of no return – when the effects of global warming will multiply and we will have no ability to rein it in.

Children born today have a life expectancy beyond the year 2100. Young people are not taking to the streets because it is the latest craze; rather, it is because it is the last chance. We have 12 years to make the “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes to our economy” demanded by science: these striking young people do not expect anything less than that. They are not on the streets calling for moderate liberal demands such as a carbon tax, or carbon market reform – they want a climate revolution.

More than 150,000 young people have already gathered in Australia, and throughout the day, young people in cities and towns across the world – in more than 100 countries – are getting their homemade placards out and meeting in their local areas to come together as part of a massive global movement to make their message heard loud and clear.

Politicians who accept the science and the need for an emergency response, you would think, would agree with these demands. However, in Ireland, what we have to date are three main political responses to this global movement: 1) genuine support from left political parties, including agreement with their demands; 2) odd interpretations of the movement from liberal greens who are fixated on using the movement to railroad through carbon tax increases as the ‘radical solution’; and 3) patronising head-nodding from conservative groups, including the government.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar stated that he endorses the students strike today on March 15, while at the same time he leads a government that has greenwashed climate inaction and is failing to make inroads on all climate targets.

Saoi O’Connor, 16-year-old Cork-based climate striker, put it frankly: “If you are not supporting immediate radical climate action, then you can’t be supporting the students walking out”. Saoi makes an excellent point – it’s not enough to support the young people striking today, you need to be supporting their demands, and willing to put them into action.

Yesterday, the European Parliament adopted an important resolution on climate change, the last one it will approve before EU parliamentary elections in May. An amendment tabled by the left group recognising the youth movement and calling for their demands to be heard was passed. It was, of course, resisted by the right-wing of the Parliament, but also accepted by some conservatives and liberals, getting it over the line. Many of the liberals and conservatives who helped approve this amendment, however, went on to vote down crucial amendments that were actionable on climate change.

In their typical contradictory style on climate matters, Fine Gael’s four MEPs voted against the most progressive demands while claiming to support the climate strikers. Most notably, amendments from the left to boost the EU’s 2030 climate ambition on emissions reduction targets from 40 per cent to 55 per cent succeeded – but with no thanks from Deirdre Clune, Sean Kelly, Brian Hayes and Mairead McGuinness, who voted against.

The four conservative MEPs also voted against the EU divesting from fossil fuels – a bizarre move given that Ireland is the first state to do so globally. It doesn’t stop there: they voted against a proposal for a 100 per cent renewable-based 2050 energy strategy and against making climate justice a fundamental value of the EU.

So can Fine Gael, or conservatives in general, honestly say they support the youth strikers, or are they really just offering a patronising pat on the head? It seems like the neoliberal force of trivialising social movements is at play.

Earlier this week, 60 young climate activists were invited to the European Parliament to view the debate on climate change in the chamber from the gallery, among them Ireland’s Saoi O’Connor. The action to invite this big group of young climate activists was an initiative from the left wing of the Parliament, given that the centre and right wing blocked a proposal to invite Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg to address the plenary session.

In a very symbolic way, the 60 activists could only look down on the politicians as they debated, literally excluded from participating thanks to liberals and conservatives. What was revealed from the debate, and the vote record on the climate resolution, is the answer to who is really in support of the climate strikers.

It comes down to political ideology. Liberal and conservative ideologies simply cannot meet the demands of the youth movement on climate. Their interests are skewed, their priorities backwards. For liberals and conservatives, ensuring a commercialised energy market is more important than phasing out fossil fuels;  protecting the status quo of private profiteering is more important than protecting the environment; the appearance of climate action is more important than taking the necessary bold steps.

So climate strikers, the left is fully behind you. Your demands are our demands and today we will strike with you for the genuine, radical and revolutionary climate action we need.

Damien Thomson is a contributing editor of Irish Broad Left. Follow him on Twitter @dmacthomais.

Murder of Brazilian leftist leader Marielle Franco resonates one year on

By Damien Thomson.

“How many more need to die for this war to end?” – Marielle Franco

The day I first heard about Marielle Franco was the day she was murdered. One year later, the case is still unsolved and the plot thickens, as state involvement in her killing becomes more likely. The assassination of Marielle is not just a Brazilian affair, it is a global political crime. In Ireland, we have lessons to draw from Marielle’s life and the movement of struggle inspired by her death.

Precisely this day last year, 14 March 2018, Marielle and her driver, Anderson Gomes, were killed in a calculated, organised shooting ambush in the centre of Rio de Janeiro. These bullets marked the end of the life of an incredibly bright sociologist with a talent for public speaking and passion for social justice.

The 38-year-old was elected to the city council of Rio de Janeiro in 2016, representing the people of the Mare, Rio’s biggest complex of favelas, often referred to as the Gaza Strip. Her political party, PSOL (Party of Socialism and Liberty), is Brazil’s anti-capitalist radical left.  

Marielle was a black, bisexual, socialist, ‘favelada’, radical-feminist, anti-militarist mother. Who she was, what she stood for, and her determination to refuse to be silent made her a threat to the political establishment and corrupt elite – as well as a target.

Her ability to merge sharp intellectual critique with grassroots movements shook the foundations of power. Her voice was projected around the world upon the news of her death; her political views were megaphoned through an act that aimed to silence her, much like for Rosa Luxemburg.

Brazil, and especially Rio, mourned the shortened life of a talented woman who was destined for political leadership. Rio lost an activist for the LGBT+ community and a vocal critic of police violence. Marielle vigorously opposed the military police force entering the favelas, which was a decision taken by liberal president Michel Temer just one month before Marielle’s murder.  

Marielle Franco, left, with her fiancé Mônica Benício.

The unsolved case, including dubious examination procedures with high public suspicion of state involvement, has Brazilians angry. In August, the Minister of Public Security acknowledged that state agents were likely implicated in the murder of Marielle, including some with family links to President Jair Bolsonaro himself.

In November, a Rio State judge issued a ban that censors public interest reporting for TV Globo in relation to Marielle’s case. This is Brazil’s biggest TV channel, and it wields an enormous amount of influence over the political landscape and discourse. It was ostensibly in the interest of keeping witnesses safe and to allow the investigation to get underway without being influenced by public opinion.

But since then, the case has developed – just two days before her one-year anniversary, two ex-police officers were arrested under suspicion of her murder, retired military police officer Ronnie Lessa and former police officer Élcio Vieira de Queiroz.

Insisting on truth

The lessons to be learned, however, come from Marielle’s life and the movement born from her death insisting on truth. The resistance movement, under the slogan Marielle Presente (Marielle with us) has grown, and, as time goes on, more people are learning about Marielle rather than forgetting her. Bolsonaro’s reactionary regime feeds the fire of the anti-fasisct movement, with Marielle as the iconic image of the resistance.

In this year’s Carnival, Brazil’s biggest annual celebration, one of Rio’s traditional samba schools, Mangueira, won the competition in the Sambadrome. Those marching held massive flags of Marielle’s iconic face, in dashing purple and green, with a Brazilian flag of the same colour scheme, representing new hope for a new, feminist Brazil. This shows us that the personal and the political are inseparable.

Mônica Benício, Marielle’s partner, who led the parade, teaches us a lesson about repoliticising parades, of marching with purpose – of being loud in public space and on insisting on the truth. In an Irish context, there is a lot we have to repoliticise, given how the neoliberal establishment has encouraged the co-option, corporatisation and trivialisation of all celebrations.

Pride needs to dispel its corporate bandwagoning and reclaim its purpose of protest against discrimination and harassment towards the LGBT+ community. The St Patrick’s Day parade need not be just a giant piss-up, but a time when we reflect on the history of our nation and discuss a new republic. Reclaiming space for progressive conversations is key to maintaining momentum for progressive struggles.

The quest for truth in Marielle’s case is one that has similarities with many cases in Ireland of state-sponsored killings with dodgy cover-ups. It is particularly resonant with the ongoing battle for the implementation of legacy inquests and other struggles for truth in the North.

In Dublin, the families of the Stardust disaster are more mobilised than ever in insisting on the truth, with their appeal to the Attorney General for a fresh inquest into the death of 48 young people killed in the 1981 fire.

Struggles for truth do not fizzle out. People get angrier and more determined when the truth is deliberately taken from them. This is why there is a growing discourse in academic communities on recognising a human right to the truth.

The Irish media reported Marielle’s brutal death, now it should ensure that the resistance movement is aired, rather than just regurgitate the obscenity of Bolsonaro’s sensational tweets and soundbites. Marielle embodied hope for many people, and this hope is manifesting itself in a mass movement that needs to be heard. We, too, need to lend solidarity to the movement – to keep pursuing the truth and reclaim our political spaces.

Marielle Presente, hoje e sempre.

Damien Thomson is a contributing editor of Irish Broad Left. Follow him on Twitter @dmacthomais.