31 January, 2010

Cyprus to split?

The Guardian reports that Turkish Cypriot officials have warned that Cyrpus is in danger of splitting into two separate countries. This astonishing development could happen as a result of a failure in current talks between the leaders of the two jurisdictions on the island – the internationally recognised Republic of Cyprus, and the unrecognised Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Leaders of both jurisdictions are under pressure from hard-liners, and it may be impossible to reach a deal.

Given that the island is already divided into two jurisdictions, it is not entirely clear what difference it would make if the talks failed. Maybe the international community might give up trying to put Cyprus back together again and move to recognition of Northern Cyprus as a de facto and de jure state. It is unlikely, however, that Northern Cyprus will find itself a full member of the international community any time soon. The Republic of Cyprus is a member of the EU and could probably block its engagement with the other Cyprus, while various prominent countries who hate secessionists would probably block wider recognition for it. So, if the talks fail then it's business as usual, though it would probably mean Cyprus would continue obstructing Turkish accession to the EU.

24 January, 2010

Croatia: “If you want a fight, we’ll give you one”

Croatia’s president Stipe Mesic has informed Bosnia’s Serbs that if they attempt to secede from Bosnia then he will despatch Croatian troops to crush them. At the moment, Bosnia is federated into two regions, one for ethnic Serbs and one for ethnic Croats and Bosniaks*, but the country remains grossly dysfunctional and still under international supervision. President Mesic of neighbouring Croatia seems to believe that the sulky Serbs of Bosnia plan to organise a referendum on secession, after which they will seek to unify with their pals in Serbia proper. Should they try such a thing, his plan is not to launch an all out war against them, but to send forces to cut the narrow corridor that links the two sub-units of the Bosnian Serb region.

Milorad Dodik, the prime minister of Bosnia’s Serb region, has reacted angrily to Mesic’s threat.

I do not know how likely the Bosnian Serbs are to declare independence, nor if Mesic is serious about intervening militarily against them. Mesic is coming to the end of his term of office, with his successor already elected, and he may be engaging in a bit of sabre rattling to give posterity something to remember him by. At the same time, Mesic has hitherto demonstrated an interest in maintaining the integrity of Bosnia, forcibly rebuffing the pretensions of Bosnian Croats who wished for a closer union with his country.

Even if the former Yugoslavia is not quite ready to descend into another bout of war, the incident also demonstrates the problematic nature of the Bosnian state. Its constitution seems based on a series of externally imposed compromises that ended the war of the early 1990s but did not create anything approximating to viable institutions of governance. How to get the country into some kind of shape that allows it to govern itself will be one of the great conundrums of the years ahead.


*you know, Bosnian Muslims

Beards and Ballots

Right now I am reading The Lost Revolution: the Story of the Official IRA and the Workers' Party. This tales the tale of one side of the Provisional-Official split of the Republican movement in the early 1970s. The Officials took a leftward course that ultimately saw the Official IRA declare a ceasefire and disappear into the shadows while Official Sinn Féin became first Sinn Féin - The Workers' Party and then just the Workers' Party. It is a big book and it covers a lot of stuff. As a busy man, it will take me an age to read it, so rather than wait to write a long review of it, I will instead just throw out a few titbits as I go along.

At the moment, the book is covering the early 1970s and the immediate aftermath of the Provisional-Official split. I am struck by how badly the Provisionals come out of this. In some respects, this is not too surprising – the Provisionals tend to come off badly in anything not written by their apologists, and the book is based heavily on interviews with their Sticky* rivals. But even with that, the Provisional do come across as a bunch of reactionaries who split off because they wanted no truck with the leftward path of the Officials; after the split, the Provisionals seemed to have been blessed with a maniacal tendency that had a fondness for exploding no-warning car-bombs in central Belfast.

Several decades later, the Provisionals followed the Officials down the leftward path and declared their own IRA ceasefire. They also started taking seats in Irish elected assemblies, now sitting in government in a devolved Northern Irish government. One theme of Hanley and Millar's book is the way the Officials blazed a trail only belatedly followed by others, with this being a particularly striking example.

In fairness to my friends from the Provisional side of the split, the Officials (and their descendants in the Workers Party, Democratic Left, Labour and so on) do not come across as saints here either. It is worth remembering that many respected figures in Irish public life today cut their political teeth in an organisation that killed its political enemies and was funded by extortion. Still, there is sometimes something to be said for just forgetting the past.

image source (includes lefty review of the book)

*The Officials became known as the Stickies (or Sticks), because their badges were fastened by adhesive; the Provisionals used pin fasteners, but the name Pinheads never stuck

18 January, 2010

Who bombed Lockerbie?

I have previously mentioned the release from a Scottish jail of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi. Mr al-Megrahi was convicted for causing the Lockerbie bombing. In my previous post I mentioned how the relatives of the British victims are much more open to the idea that Mr al-Megrahi was framed, while relatives of the American victims seem to be uniformly outraged at his release. I suggested this might be because of a series of high-profile miscarriages of justice, in which convictions for terrorist and other crimes were quashed, often after those falsely convicted had served many years in jail.

The solicitor Gareth Peirce played a major role in overturning those Britiish miscarriages of justice. Now she has written on the al-Megrahi case in the London Review of Books. She asserts that his conviction is a stitch-up and a travesty of due process. Forensic and eye-witness evidence were used to convict al-Megrahi. Peirce suggests these are both deeply flawed. The forensic evidence was largely prepared by the same dodgy scientists who produced the flawed evidence used in earlier miscarriages of justice. The eye-witness, meanwhile, initially failed to pick out al-Megrahi in an identity parade, but subsequently was miraculously able to do so and now is living in suddenly acquired affluence.

Peirce also points out that in the early stages of the Lockerbie investigation, the finger of suspicion was pointing at Iran. The Iranian regime had a motive – a US warship had just shot down an Iranian airliner, and then, grotesquely, the crew of that ship had been honoured by President Reagan. As the US regime started to engage with the Iranians to buy out its hostages in Lebanon, it became inconvenient to blame Iran for Lockerbie. Someone had to pick up the tab, with Peirce arguing that that someone ended up being Libya and Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi.

It is unfortunate that al-Megrahi was required to drop his appeal when he was released on compassionate grounds, as it would surely be better for everyone if these allegations could be addressed in an open court.

See also: 'Flaws' in key Lockerbie evidence (BBC)

11 January, 2010

Electoral Reform in Ireland – Part 1

Ireland uses an unusual electoral system – the Single Transferable Vote in multimember constituencies (STV). Only two other countries use STV for national elections, and of those one is very small and the other only uses it for the less important of its two parliamentary chambers.

Every so often someone proposes a move from STV to some other electoral system*. Whenever this proposal is mooted, it is argued that STV is a major cause of the political woes afflicting Ireland, so getting rid of it is necessary to improve the political climate. The argument basically works like this. As is, Irish TDs** spend most of their time on local issues – either directly servicing the needs of constituents or bringing home pork for their locality. This is seen as being because STV allows for competition for seats between politicians of the same party. To differentiate themselves from each other, they compete on their ability to service their constituency. Thus, the electoral system leads to the Dáil being full of locally oriented politicians who neglect national issues. Moving to some other electoral system would lead to a situation where parliamentarians are more engaged with national issues; the hope is then that the likes of the current economic crisis would never arise again.

A lot of this thinking is a bit woolly. The idea that it is intra-party competition that drives politicians’ localist orientation is somewhat problematic. It ignores the historical record, with it apparently being the case that politicians engaged in considerable amounts of constituency work before the foundation of the state, when a completely different electoral system was used. It also misses that TDs from parties that only field one candidate in their constituency still engage in plenty of constituency work. It does appear that there is something embedded in Irish political culture that drives politicians towards pork-barrelling and to work as direct service providers for their constituents.

International comparisons are also instructive. People here think of localist politicians as an exclusively Irish phenomenon, but looking further afield suggests differently. MPs in the UK, Canada, and France devote considerable energy to constituency work; none of these countries have electoral systems that not encourage intra-party competition. There are even examples of countries that use closed national lists to elect MPs seeing parliamentarians doing constituency work – despite not having to compete against party colleagues for votes and not even having constituents.

People also tend to forget that there are other electoral systems where candidates compete against members of their own party for the electorate’s favour. I am thinking here of the commonly used open list PR elections, where voters pick one candidate from a party’s list and the party’s seats are then allocated on the basis of which candidates have the most individual votes. In some of these cases, you see politicians engaging in a lot of constituency work, and in some you do not. My suspicion, therefore, is that constituency work is not solely driven by electoral systems, and so moving to another electoral system would not banish localism from Irish politics.

For all that, I think there is a case to be made for electoral reform in Ireland. Join me in part two for a discussion of what direction that reform should take.

*two examples, in articles that are also about other things: How inertia became the iron law of Irish politics & Opposition parties must tell electorate hard truths

**members of the Dáil, the lower and more important House of the Oireachtas

09 January, 2010

Iceland's President Acts

Iceland’s president, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, has vetoed a controversial bill designed to compensate the UK and Netherlands for people who lost money when the Icelandic bank Landsbanki collapsed last year. A quarter of the country’s population had signed a petition opposing the Bill. President Grimsson is going to put the bill to a referendum.

This is fascinating on any number of levels. The compensation deal was negotiated by the Icelandic government with their British and Dutch counterparts, and it seems to be a pre-condition for the country receiving IMF loans. Backsliding on it would also kill Iceland’s hopes for rapid accession to the EU.

The veto is particularly interesting to the select band of people who take an interest in semi-presidential politics. Iceland’s president is directly elected, but fulfils a primarily ceremonial role. The power to refer proposed laws to a referendum was inherited from the reserve powers of the Danish crown when Iceland became independent in the 1940s, and has never hitherto been used. There is an idea in constitutional theory that an office’s unused powers atrophy and effectively become unusual, but in this case President Grimsson has shown that, in times of crisis, moribund powers can suddenly spring back into life.


Iceland leader vetoes bank repayments bill (BBC)

Iceland president vetoes collapsed Icesave Bank's bill to UK (Guardian)