Opinions & Ideas

Author: John Bruton Page 1 of 65

A DANGEROUS WORLD…

illustrations by @liuzishan

There is more to worry about in the world today than in any time in my memory.

I remember the Cuban missile crisis, a very dangerous moment. It was defused by secret diplomacy between the Soviet Union and the US , and the willingness of the US to accept a Communist state in the Western Hemisphere , and of the Soviets to turn their ships back.

If a similar issue arose now , does a basis exist in which Russia and the US could even talk to one another to defuse it?

The US/China confrontation will be more long lasting.

China has dramatically increased its military spending. Confronting China is almost the only thing on which Democrats and Republicans in the US can agree.

The US is pledged to support Taiwan remaining politically separate from China, even though it is part of China, and the US is theoretically prepared to to go to war to defend that position.

 But the US position is ambiguous.  So is the Chinese position.

Ambiguity is often the enemy of peace. World War One arose from ambiguity in the pledges the powers had given to one another in the event of attack. If the pledges had been clearer, the risks might not have been taken.

Inflation , and an artificially induced recession  to cure it , are increasingly expected. Higher interest rates would be the tool used.

 The political effects of this could be very serious , because public opinion is unprepared for it, and the hardships will not be evenly spread.

Inflation hits everybody, though not equally.

High interest rates  are more selective.  

They hit over borrowed states , like Italy,  hardest. They also cause unemployment which hits people with marginal jobs, but leaves those in secure employment with  savings  or low borrowings  unaffected. That is what happened in the 1980s. This leads to political tensions.

The idea that we should tackle inflation by extra state spending ( which can only be paid for either  by taxation now, or by borrowing , which is taxation of our children) does not seem sensible to me. Yet everyone is advocating it.

 The current inflationary surge has come from outside. It has made energy and food importing countries poorer. Attempting to redistribute this poverty through state action raises expectations that cannot be fulfilled , and that will damage democracy. Increasing demand adds to inflation. Increased supply is the cure , but that is not in the gift of any western government.

It is important that voters understand the gravity of the problems we are facing. Populism confuses facts with emotion. Anger is not a policy. Blame is not a policy either.

We need to think things through carefully.

ALARM ABOUT NATURAL GAS SUPPLIES NEXT WINTER

IRELAND NEEDS A REALISTIC DEBATE ABOUT INFLATION

Natural gas supplies 30% of all Ireland’s energy needs.

Apart from the Corrib field, to which there was so much objection, an increasing share our natural gas has to be imported from, or through, Britain.

The Corrib field is running out and our dependence of Britain for supplies will rise from 53% today, to 90% by 2030, on present trends.

The electricity interconnector with France will not come on stream until 2027.

Depending on one supplier, Britain ( with whom our political relations are bad), places Ireland in an inherently vulnerable position.

We need a short term, as well as a long term solution. Most of the solutions being talked of (hydrogen, off shore wind, building an LNG Terminal etc) are long term, and will be no use to us next winter.

700,000 homes, mainly in built up areas, use natural gas directly for heating.

50% of all our electricity is generated using natural gas, and electricity is vital for most farming  service and industrial operations.

The reliability of our power supplies is the number one worry of the multi national firms located in Ireland, around whom we have built such a successful  and fast growing economy. Power failures scare investors.

We need to think hard about all of this because there  was an alarming report, in one of the Irish Sunday’s papers, about a risk that Ireland might be cut off from natural gas supplies coming from Britain, next winter.

The basis for the story was that, if a gas shortage occurred in the UK, due to the continuing war in Ukraine, under a contingency plan now in preparation, the British natural gas grid operator would be instructed to stop supplying gas to our fellow EU members, Netherlands and Belgium.

If it is legally possible for the UK to cut off these supplies to Ireland’s fellow EU members, one might assume that it would also be legally feasible for Britain to cut off supplies to Ireland too, citing the newly discovered “doctrine of necessity” it is using to back out of the Protocol.

The UK Ambassador to Ireland responded  that the UK would not do this, and would

 “ensure gas supply to Ireland in the event of any emergency”.

 He was confident the UK would have enough gas for next winter anyway.

This assurance is welcome but it  is given in the context of supply problems arising because of the war.

 It is an open question whether the assurance would still hold,  in the event of a Brexit related trade war breaking out between the EU and the UK.

 Such a trade war is likely if the UK goes ahead  with its threat of ceasing to operate the Northern Ireland Protocol it signed  in 2019.

 On the present parliamentary time table, that Brexit related crisis is something that could happen next winter, just as the electricity demand here is at its peak.

I do not believe that the departure of Boris Johnson from Downing Street removes this risk. His successor will have to court the large radical Brexit element among the Tory grassroots.

The EU and Ireland  may have a very strong legal case on the Protocol in international law, but law cases will not heat our homes, or power our farms  next winter.

This potential crisis of natural gas supply is simply accelerating a wider underlying electricity supply problem in Ireland.

Even without the war in Ukraine, we already were facing electricity shortages for the winters of 2022/3 to 2025/6, according to the Commission for the Regulation of Utilities.

In a report  completed last year,  and before the war, the Commission said we would need two new gas fired stations, and a prolongation of  the operation of older inefficient gas fired plants just to maintain electricity supply!

But what happens if we cannot even get the gas, at any price?

The Government is not unaware of the problem. It has promised to produce a strategy statement on the security of energy supplies, by mid 2022.

It has been working on this since mid 2021.

We urgently need a transition fuel that will see us through, until off shore wind and other renewables come on stream in sufficient quantity.

This may require substantial investment, this investment may have to be a strategic, rather than a purely commercial decision. The taxpayer may have to fund part of it.

We need a large dose of realism.

The debate in the media in Ireland today seems to be mainly about how to treat the symptoms of inflation.

This needs to change. We need to pull together as a people to solve to deep seated problems, like power supplies for this, and future, generations.

Every morning  on Morning Ireland, we have interviews about shortfalls in service , where the solution proposed by the interviewee is “more resources” coming  of course , from the government of the day.

 In consequence, the interviewee is able to blame the government for whatever is lacking, without much challenge.

The interviewer rarely asks the interviewee where the government is to get the required money. He or she does not ask the obvious question…… is the money to come from extra borrowing or  extra taxation?

 The government itself has no money, only what it can tax or borrow.

 Either course has downsides, which need to be explored alongside any demand for more resources.

I realise most interviewees could not give a full answer to such a questions, not being experts in public finance.

But even asking the question would remind Irish radio listeners that government is about choices, often difficult ones.

For example, there is a choice between increases in pensions for older people and back to school payments for young families.

If borrowing is the option chosen, one is choosing the interests of the present generation over a future generation. Is that “social justice”?

HOW BRITAIN HAS SEEN ITS PLACE IN THE WORLD FROM 1815 To 1955

I have just greatly enjoyed reading Douglas Hurd’s book

 “ Choose your weapons….the British Foreign Secretary , 200 years of Argument , Success and Failure”.

Hurd has had a distinguished career,  including as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. He is an excellent writer. He combines historical analysis with vivid sketches of political personalities.

Published in 2010, this book shows how the life experiences and assumptions of successive Foreign Secretaries influence the content and outcome of diplomatic policies.

There is a tension , throughout this long period , between two views of how Britain should conduct itself in its relations with its European neighbours.

One view was that the UK should seek to create , and take part in a structure of consultation which would help preserve peace in Europe.

The best exponent of this approach was an Irishman, originally an MP in the pre Union Irish Parliament, Lord Castlereagh.  He helped to ensure that a defeated France was not humiliated in 1815. Arguably his work  in the Congress of Vienna and afterwards helped preserve relative peace in Europe until 1914.

The other view was that the UK should be somewhat more isolationist, intervening to promote liberal causes,  but not becoming entangled in Europe. Lord Palmerston was the best exponent of this approach. There were others who were less flamboyant.

Some figures that are forgotten today get due notice in this book.

The role of Ernest Bevin in helping found NATO,  and thereby committing the US to the defence of Europe,  is recalled and is very relevant to events today , and to the peace of Europe for the last 70 years.

Another figure who get deserved recognition is Austen Chamberlain, the author of the Locarno Pact which reintegrated Germany into good relations with its neighbours and could have kept peace in Europe but for the economic crash and the rise of Hitler in the 1930’s.  

Unlike his half brother, Neville, Austen warned of the danger of Hitler before any other British leader, including Churchill.

The relative economic power of Britain peaked around 1870 and was in slow decline thereafter. But the fact that so many parts of the world were still coloured pink on the map as part of the British Empire led some statesmen to overestimate British power.

In the earlier periods the Foreign Secretary made policy under mild supervision from the Prime Minister. Nowadays the Prime Minister is more central, but a lot depends on personalities.

Anthony Eden was a good and methodical Foreign Secretary , who became a bad Prime Minister , because he had no strong Foreign Secretary to restrain him over Suez.

The UK today is isolating itself in a dangerous way. It is conversing with itself , rather than with its neighbours . None of the statesmen chronicled in this book would have allowed that to happen.

THE UK’s ATTEMPT TO BACK OUT OF THE PROTOCOL IT AGREED

uk flag on creased paper

The UK government is unilaterally signalling its intent to ditch  the provisions of the Northern Ireland Protocol that are designed to protect the integrity of the EU Single Market. The integrity of the Single Market rests on their being a single set of rules, uniformly enforced and consistently applied, across the 27 EU States.  

Under the Protocol, goods produced in NI would enjoy full access to the Single Market without any checks at the EU border in Ireland or anywhere else. The Protocol also affirms that NI retains full access to the UK market. This is a win/win situation for .NI business.

The new UK legislation announced this week would instead create a control free zone in Ireland, which would radically weaken Irelands   position as a member of the EU. By doing away with the controls at the ports in NI , envisaged in in the Protocol , it would create a situation whereby good and foods, not meeting EU standards , could be brought into the EU market via Ireland.

We should not forget that the Withdrawal Agreement, of which the Protocol was a central part, was a key element in the winning Conservative Party General Election Manifesto of 2019.

Now the joint author of the Protocol, Boris Johnson , wants eviscerate it by means of unilateral UK legislation.

A unilateral breach of a Treaty by domestic legislation  on an internationally sensitive matter Is clearly a breach of international law.  

International commerce, in which the UK was once a major champion, rests on scrupulous respect for treaties and contracts.

“My word  is my bond” was once a watchword in British international dealings. No more, it seems.

The UK are now  claiming that an international Treaty can be breached on the basis of


“ necessity”.

This is a hard claim to justify in this case . 52 of the 90 members of Northern Ireland Assembly have indicated support for the Protocol, so there is no democratic “necessity“ to scrap the Protocol.

It is true that the DUP has said it will not sit in the NI Executive unless it’s seven demands for changes are met. These demands are vaguely phrased and symbolic  and do not provide a solid basis for legal resolution. It is not clear when or if the DUP would take up their seats in the NI Executive. So one  minority political party , in  small part of the UK , cannot be allowed to determine what is a “necessity” for a large and diverse state like the UK .

The fact that the UK government, Parliament, and electorate , all endorsed the Protocol as recently as 2019, with their eyes wide open, makes it very hard to plead “necessity” as a ground for undoing their own work.

An objective court would decide that they could and should have anticipated what would happen in their own jurisdiction.

The situation we are in today is a sign that debate within the ruling Tory party is taking place within a bubble , within which the needs of others outside the bubble are not heard.

Following the debate on the Protocol in Tory supporting press in Britain is like watching the reaction of the Republican base to the hearings about the invasion of the Capitol.  They hear what they want to hear , and nothing else.

One Brexiteer recently described the NI Protocol as “ a punishment the EU inflicted on the UK for Brexit”. This is despite the fact that in 2019, Boris Johnson, who negotiated the Protocol himself, claimed that ,in the Protocol , he had swiftly negotiated  what he called a “great new deal”!

He, unlike his predecessor, had got Brexit done, he boasted.

The  same Brexiteer writer said the Protocol was “an attempted power grab “ by the EU over the NI economy “on behalf of its allies in Dublin”.  The writer ignores the fact , under rules written while the UK was still an EU member, the Single Market of the EU has to have border controls, and these controls have to be more or less the same at all EU Borders.

Any precedent the EU might cede to the UK will be demanded by other non EU states with land borders with the EU.

The UK demands to be trusted when they say that nothing that fails to meet EU standards will cross the border into the EU .

They seem to have forgotten the long tradition of smuggling on and around the NI border , some of which which helped finance paramilitary activity in the past,  activity which costs thousand of IRish (and British) lives , and  could do so again.

Trust has to be earned, it cannot be commanded. If the EU cannot trust the UK government to keep its word, it will be even harder for it trust the private sector    “trusted traders” , the same government appoints to protect the EU from the smuggling of sub standard goods and foods across the border into the Republic.

What will happen now?

The EU has made clear the terms of the Agreed Protocol will not be changed. It has also made clear that without the Protocol there could have been no Withdrawal Agreement, and without that ,  there could have been no Trade and Cooperation Agreement(TCA)

Without the TCA, the Common External Tariff of the EU would have to be applied to British goods coming into Ireland and every other EU state. This would be deeply destructive , but it is the logical outcome , when one tries to unravel complex inter related  international agreements unilaterally. The whole thing comes apart.

As an EU member, Ireland would then have to apply the Common External Tariff on its own land and sea borders, a task of daunting proportions politically and practically. The effect on stability in NI  , and the sense of isolation of Northern nationalists , would be intense. The disruption of the food industry in The whole of Ireland would be disastrous.

One hopes that it will not come to that. But pretending that this could never happen is not wise.

The best approach for the EU will be to gradually turn up the heat on the UK so as to give them time to learn that actions have consequences , and the price could be very high. The European Commission has much experience in trade disputes and know how and where to target it’s actions. Meanwhile the political climate in the UK could change. The UK opposition parties need to assert themselves for the sake of the reputation of their country.

THE FRENCH ASSEMBLY ELECTION RESULTS

I was in France during the campaign for the second round of the Assembly elections there.

Looking around, you would not think there was an election on at all. A few posters on official notice boards, but no sign of anyone campaigning anywhere.

As it transpired, the turnout was below 50% ,in what was an important election for the next 5 years for France and Europe. Perhaps too high a price is being paid for the avoidance of election litter on French streets!

President Macron’s Coalition of 3 parties obtained 38.4% of the vote and 245 seats, well short of the required overall majority of 289.

The traditional Centre right party of France, les Republicans, obtained 64 seats with 7.5% of the vote. They might be persuaded to help Macron get a majority on key issues, like raising the pension age, something they themselves tried and failed to do when in power.

But Macron’s coalition has siphoned away many voters and former key figures of les Republicans, so this would not be an easy negotiation.

Rassemblement National, the former Front National of Marine le Pen did well.

 It got 17.2% of the vote and 89 seats. It seems to have normalised itself.  In straight contests between it and the Left Coalition (NUPES), many middle ground voters voted for neither group, staying at home or voting blank papers, rather than voting against the Rassemblement National, as they would have done in the past.

This was partly because the Left was led on this occasion by a polarising figure Jean Luc Melanchon, a very different figure to Francois Hollande, the last President coming from the Left.

President Macron will have to work very hard to build coalitions in the National Assembly to get legislation through. This will leave him less time for EU and international affairs. All in all not a good election result for Ireland or  the EU.

CRUCIAL  GLOBAL TALKS ON OVER FISHING

20 years ago the World Trade Organisation launches a negotiation to agree global limits on state subsidisation of over fishing. The negotiation is reaching make or break point this week at a meeting in Geneva.

In 2019,

  • China gave €5.9 billion in subsidies towards over fishing,
  • Japan €2billion,
  • the EU countries €2billion,
  • South Korea €1..5billion and
  • the US €1 billion.

These subsidies make no environmental sense. They are ensuring that fish will not be available to future generations.

Much of the subsidisation of fossil fuels used in industrial fisheries, which is damaging to the climate , as well as to the fish.

A third of all fish stocks are now being over fished.

83% of fish stocks in the Mediterranean are being over fished.

All cod stocks off the EU’s  coasts are being over fished.

The sticking point in the negotiation is devising a system of exemptions from limits for less developed countries.

This is clearly an area where effective global rules are needed. As the world is breaking up into hostile blocs, these rules are hard to agree. If agreement is reached it will send a much needed optimistic signal to the world.

ELECTRIC CARS WIll COME AT A COST

Converting EU motorists from diesel/ petrol to electrically powered cars will be very costly.

It will also make the EU politically dependent on a new set of suppliers. Russia, and Saudi Arabia will be replaced by the Democratic Republic of the Congo, China, Australia, and South Africa for minerals needed to manufacture and operate electric cars. 

And, just as oil will eventually run out, these new minerals will also be in finite supply, although new reserves of them will be discovered to postpone that day.

Electric cars require Lithium. By 2050, the EU will have to import 35 times as much Lithium as it is importing today. At the moment Australia produces half of all global supplies of Lithium.

Electric cars require what are known as rare earths. 60% of known rare earths are now found in China and it is estimated that by 2050, the EU will have to increase its imports of them by up to 26 times. Given the deterioration of relations between China and the West, this could be a problem.

Cobalt is needed for electric cars and 70% old global Cobalt is found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country that has been invaded and wracked by civil wars for years.

Platinum is also needed and 70% of known reserves of Platinum is found in South Africa  at the moment. 

Supplying the global electric car industry will involve opening many new mines. Mining can damage local water supplies and damage the environment. It involves transfers of wealth which will be politically controversial.

Eventually, techniques for recycling minerals from used cars and batteries will become a local source of supply in the EU, and mines will prospected for and opened within the EU, although not without controversy and disruption.

The so called Green Transition to electric cars , and to renewables more generally, will involve a huge capital investment. This will mean a transfer of resources from other uses, including consumption . It will push up the cost of living still further. But it is unavoidable if we are to prevent a climate disaster. That said, it is important that the voting public are prepared for the changes involved and fully accept them.

famous seated statue of president in memorial

PRESIDENT  BUCHANAN

I recently enjoyed reading a biography of Abraham Lincoln’s immediate predecessor as US President, James Buchanan.

Of Northern Irish stock, he had a long political career in Washington, and abroad representing his country, before he became President at the then advanced age of 70.

The book by Garry Boulard is entitled   “ The Worst President”, a title that is not really warranted by its content.

Buchanan did not believe in the forceful abolition of slavery in the South, but he did not want to see it spread any further.

 He was  also uncertain whether the Federal government had the right to use force to prevent  state from seceding  from the Union, although he eventually came to the view that it had.

 There was genuine room for doubt on the legal position at the time.

 The issue was eventually settled only when, after Lincoln had taken over, South Carolina forces fired on a Federal Fort in Charleston.

The Civil War that followed polarised opinion, and Buchanan’s temporising earned him a bad reputation.

 But hindsight is at work here. Buchanan suffered the same sort of retrospective reputational fate as Neville Chamberlain.

Both bought time, and preserved peace as long as they could, thereby ensuring that when battle was finally joined, public opinion was better prepared for the sacrifices involved.

UK’s threat to break international treaty is ‘gravely serious’

link to interview

IS THE CAMERON/JOHNSON ERA COMING TO AN END?

Photographer: Arron Hoare

I hesitate to write about the internal politics of another country. But the inner struggles of the UK Conservative Party have had such a profoundly damaging impact on both parts of Ireland, that it is impossible to avoid the topic.

On the day that Boris Johnson faces a vote of confidence, I would like to reflect on a recently published book on the common background of David Cameron and Boris Johnson, and how it has shaped their approach to political leadership.

 Both of them attended Eton and Oxford, and were friends while there.

 Both were members of the aristocratically oriented Bullingdon club, a self styled elite within the university, who dined together in white tie and tail coats.

Cameron studied economics and politics and concentrated on getting his exams.

Johnson studied Classics and concentrated  on becoming President of the Oxford Union, a debating chamber which mimicked the superficial smart ass style of Prime Ministers questions (PMQs).

Clever one liners rather that searching questions are the order of the day at PMQs and in the Oxford Union. Entertainment rather than enlightened analysis is what works there.

Simon Kuper, a Financial Times journalist, has written

 “Chums,  How a tiny caste of Oxford Tories took over the UK”,

 which describes the group of 1980s Oxford undergraduates who have came to  dominate the top layer of UK politics in the 2014 to 2022 era.

Among this Oxford elite were David Cameron, Boris Johnson, George Osborne, Jeremy Hunt, Liz Truss, Teresa May,  William Hague, Rory Stewart, Dan  Hannan and Jacob Rees Mogg. As the author put it, the pre admission Oxford interview process

“tested your ability to speak while uninformed”.

Roy Jenkins, Chancellor of Oxford, said tht , as a result , Oxfors was often

“glib and flippant”

Keir Starmer also attended Oxford but as a post graduate student, which is not quite as formative (or deformative) an experience as that of an undergraduate. 

Allowing people, drawn from such a narrow elite, to dominate politics of any country is unhealthy in itself. Diversity at the top allows more options to be considered.

Oxford in the 1980’s also allowed a form of nostalgia for pre Industrial England to develop among the medieval spires of the university town, a nostalgia that underlay Brexit.

Living in the past enabled some of the Oxford undergraduates, who went on the become advocates of Brexit, to persuade themselves that it was still possible for Britain to make the global rules of trade policy , as it had been able to do from 1820 to 1880.

Boris Johnson successful career in the Eton debating society and the Oxford Union,  presaged his successful political career.  As Kuper puts it, he learned to

“defeat opponents whose arguments were better simply by ignoring their arguments “ .

Thus he could ignore the content of the Northern Ireland Protocol, which he probably never read, by confidently asserting that he was getting Brexit done. Treaties were just pieces of paper, details could be sorted out later.

 It also enabled him to  

“ to win debate not by boring the audience with detail, but with well times jokes, calculated lowerings of the voice and ad hominem jibes”.

This quality enabled him to get away with absurd claims during the 2016 Brexit Referendum.

Johnsons high verbal intelligence absolved him from ever developing his analytical intelligence.

Irish politics is far from perfect. But it does allow serious people to aspire to leadership. The UK might learn something useful from studying Dail Eireann!

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