It may be that the British lion may be learning how to wag its Irish tail instead of the reverse. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has negotiated a settlement of the Northern Ireland Protocol which has bedevilled UK-EU and UK-US relations and Britain’s standing in the world since the 2016 Brexit Referendum.
The chief stumbling block has been Northern Ireland’s ultra-nationalist, ultra-conservative, ultra-protestant Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). For them Brexit was an opportunity to reverse the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which they never liked even though it ended the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
The DUP’s hopes were seemingly dashed by Boris Johnson’s “Get Brexit it Done” settlement which moved the UK-EU border to the Irish Sea and left Northern Ireland in Europe’s Single Market and Customs Union. Then faith was restored by Johnson’s threat to withdraw from the agreement he made, damaging relations with the EU; undermining belief in British adherence to international law and, because the US is a guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, making an eagerly-sought US-UK trade deal a distant prospect.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has replaced ideologically-driven threats with pragmatic compromise and negotiations and come up with what is called the “Windsor Framework.” It is not perfect. It leaves the EU with a great deal of say in Northern Irish affairs, but is possibly the best deal that could be secured with a weak British hand.
For a start, the Windsor Framework establishes “red and green lanes” for goods entering Northern Ireland from mainland Britain. The green lanes are for goods staying in the province and are customs free. The red lanes for goods transiting on to Eire and are subject to EU tariffs.
Of perhaps greater importance is the sovereignty issue. Disputes will now be discussed by a joint EU-UK consultative body with final arbitration by an independent arbitrator working within the framework of international law. The Stormont Assembly will have a say through a mechanism called “The Stormont Brake”, but this cannot be used for “trivial reasons” and Westminster can veto Stormont.
The “Stormont Brake” can be used if the Assembly is in session. At the moment it is not because the DUP refuses to attend as a protest against the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The DUP has neither accepted nor rejected the “Windsor Framework.” It has said it wants time – lots of it – to consider its options. Sunak has said fair enough. Take all the time you want. But the framework will be approved with or without your support. This is no empty threat. The prime minister has support from the Opposition Labour Party and Liberal Democrats and can easily outvote the DUP and any rebel right-wing Tories.
Donald Trump’s number one conspiracy theory may be right. That is according to FBI Director Christopher Wray. Covid-19 may have originated in a Wuhan laboratory specialising in coronavirus research. America’s Department of Energy agrees with Christopher Wray and even the World Health Organisation is making noises about reversing its previous position and saying that the claims are worth a fresh investigation.
However, the CIA and other US intelligence agencies continue to report that the most likely scenario is that the virus jumped from animals to humans via the Wuhan food market. The vast majority of the world’s scientists agree with the spooks at Langley, Virginia and the White House says there is no firm proof either way.
Unsurprisingly, the Chinese steadfastly maintain that the virus started in animals, not their lab. In fact, some officials have come up with a counter conspiracy claim that the virus was manufactured in a US research facility in Ft. Derick, Maryland and released in Wuhan by American agents.
Beijing is determined to avoid any blame. Not only does it undermine their claims to scientific competency, it also lays them open to lawsuits. Notoriously litiginous Trump has demanded that the Chinese pay $10 trillion and thousands of Floridians have signed up for a class action suit with Miami-based law firm the Bernard Law Group. Of course, the chances of collecting any money is nil.
Whether the virus started in a lab or a bat is important to know. The knowledge will help public health officials to prevent future pandemics. For that reason alone the lack of Chinese transparency is disturbing.
Kentucky and Scotland
Differing British and American attitudes to religion were underscored this week by events in Scotland and Kentucky this week. In Kentucky an estimated 300 students at the Christian college Asbury University turned up for a daily service on 8 February. It turned into a pray-in as the students refused to leave.
Within days Christian students were pouring in from neighbouring states and the congregation swelled ten-fold to 3,000. By 15 February the prayer meeting had gone viral with 2.5 million views daily on Tik Tok.
On the other side of the Atlantic, in Scotland, 32-year-old Christian evangelical SNP politician Kate Forbes was all set to easily succeed retiring Nicola Sturgeon as leader Scotland’s independence-minded party. Then she revealed that if she had been in the Scottish Parliament when it approved gay marriages she would have voted against the measure. Furthermore, she came out against children being born out of wedlock. Ms Forbes has been forced to apologise and her political star appears to be waning.
Ms. Forbes is not the only politician in recent British history to have suffered because their socially conservative religious views clashed with liberal political values. Tim Farron, another evangelical Christian and former leader of the Liberal Democrats, was attacked for refusing to say homosexuality was not a sin. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair consistently played down his strong beliefs and did not join the Roman Catholic Church until after he left 10 Downing Street.
American politics, on other hand, is inextricably tied to religion. It is almost impossible to be elected to high office without invoking the name of the Almighty. Even thrice-married New York billionaire playboys brandish the Bible and attend prayer meetings.
The difference lies mainly in the two countries interlocking and yet diverging political roots. America’s founding is linked to religious dissidents who sought refuge from a politically corrupt English state religion by risking all in the New World. Their beliefs were instrumental in the battle for independence and the creation of a national identity separate from the homeland. The British, on the other hand, were stuck with a church tied to the political structures of the state so that the politicians gradually distanced themselves from religion to emphasise their separate political identity.
The reasons for the staggering death toll (50,000-plus so far) in the Turkish earthquake are starting to come to light. And surprise, surprise, fingers are pointing at the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Turkey sits right in the middle of the one of the world’s most dangerous earthquake zones. It has suffered earth-moving disasters throughout its history. The last one before this year’s was in 1999 when 17,000 people died.
As a result of the 1999 quake a young politician named Erdogan was able to make political capital by attacking government incompetence and corruption. He promised a massive rebuilding programme and strict building codes to protect the new structures from earthquake damage. And you know what? He delivered.
Turkey enjoyed a construction boom which fuelled an economic revival. The government also enacted a raft of strict building regulations. Then the problems started. To begin with, so many apartment blocks and offices were built so quickly that the government was unable to adequately inspect them. So they allowed the developers to hire private inspectors, who, surprisingly, delivered verdicts that pleased the builders who paid them. In some cases, developers created their own inspection companies to inspect their own constructions. All this was perfectly legal.
Then there were the building amnesties. As the number of cases of dangerously shoddy construction work grew, they were reported by neighbours, tenants and sometimes government inspectors. But instead of ordering the buildings to be reinforced, rebuilt or torn down, the government ordered that the developers to pay a fine in return for a “building amnesty.” Last year, alone, the fines from building amnesties raised $12 billion for government coffers. Elections are due in the next few months when Erdogan may discover the meaning of karma.
A question mark hangs over this week’s Nigerian presidential elections. This is bad for Nigeria, Africa, and the rest of the world. Officially the elections were won by the government-supported candidate Bola Tinbu with 37 percent of the vote. But the results are being challenged by Opposition PDP candidate Atiku Abubakar (29 percent of the vote) and Labour Party candidate Peter Obi (25 percent). They are claiming, vote rigging, government collusion with the electoral commission and/or hacking of the computer voting system. Election Observers from the EU and US reported that the poll was “not as transparent as it could have been.”
At the heart of the problem is a state-of-the-art computerised voting system. This was supposed to allow votes cast at 170,000 polling stations to be counted almost immediately. When it took three days for the results to start coming in questions were raised. The electoral commission claim that the delay was caused by unforeseen technical glitches and difficulties with untrained staff unloading the computer files. The losing candidates maintain that a more likely reason is that the government was unhappy with the initial results.
It is important that Nigeria is politically stable. The West African country has the largest population on the continent with 211 million and is expected to overtake the US by 2050. Its oil resources also make Nigeria the wealthiest African country with a GDP of over $500 billion. But per capita income is only $5,000. The poverty has fuelled support for the Jihadist organisation Boko Haram which has so far killed an estimated 300,000 and displaced six million.
* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopedia of the War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain". He has a weekly podcast, Transatlantic Riff.