An Atlantic referendum – the view from Ireland

What is the view from Ireland as its closest neighbour – the UK – faces the biggest political decision in a generation: whether to remain in or leave the European Union?

Slea Head, County Kerry, Ireland

Slea Head, County Kerry, Ireland

This is the edge of Europe.

Geographically, the continent goes no further. This is the wild Atlantic coast of County Kerry, in south-west Ireland.

I travelled to Slea Head, where the ocean waves roll in and looked out from the cliffs. The next nearest landmass to the west is North America – where millions of Irish people have sought refuge and a better life in the past.

Ireland is now firmly a European state. It joined the euro when the single currency came into effect in 1999 and looks enthusiastically towards Europe for infrastructure support and agricultural subsidies – and financial bail-outs.

It is way out on the western boundaries of the continent but it is no margin state. Its closest neighbour is the United Kingdom where there is a major political dilemma going on right now.

In a few days’ time, the United Kingdom will hold a referendum on whether to remain in or leave the European Union.

Out on the headland, it was a useful place to try to contemplate the mental picture for the UK at the moment.

The Remain campaign in the referendum battle would say it is isolationist to put yourself on the fringes of Europe. They would see it as a parochial and backwards move.

The Leave camp would counter that such a step would broaden your horizons and expand your outlook over the thousands of miles of open ocean stretching away from the coast, rather than focusing on the argumentative backyard in Europe.

What is unknown for Ireland is how – if, at all – trade, the peace process, the special relationship with the UK and the possibility that the country could have a border with a non-EU state would be addressed.

Whichever side of the debate you are on, Ireland and the UK have a shared history  the question is will they have a shared future?

Ireland has shown that its position as a boundary country is in geography alone. What the British people now have to choose is whether to remain in the EU or move to these Atlantic margins.

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‘¡Vivir con honor o morir con gloria!’

Chile’s half-Irish independence hero is commemorated in the London suburb of Richmond

Mothers chat idly, pushing buggies in one hand and cradling coffee in the other. Upmarket shops bustle; the rugby clubs of Old Deer Park hum with ale and cheer. This is Richmond-upon-Thames, a smart town on the south-west fringes of London.

Half-Irish Chilean independence leader, Bernardo O'Higgins

Half-Irish Chilean independence leader, Bernardo O’Higgins

Off to one side of the grand stone bridge, overlooking the rowers pulling along the river and the children running along the bank is a bust. It is a simple head and shoulders sculpture, set back a little way from sandy-cream stone steps leading gently down to the Thames.

It is of Bernardo O’Higgins. A memorable name, and he certainly is a memorable man. Born in Chile to an Irish father and a Chilean mother; a Latin Celt revolutionary who led his country to independence from Spain. He is commemorated all over Chile.

But what is this bust of him doing in this leafy part of London? He was born in Chillán, in the centre of the country. As a teenager, he was sent overseas to study. First in Peru, then Spain, and finally, aged 17, to Richmond, where he encountered several political activists, including Francisco de Miranda, a Venezuelan soldier who strove for independence for Spain’s colonies in the New World.

The bust overlooks the River Thames at Richmond

The bust overlooks the River Thames at Richmond

On returning to Chile, O’Higgins inherited his father’s properties and entered local politics, moving through activist circles to the nationalist movements. One of the crucial moments for Chilean independence came when Spain’s back was turned, during Napoleon’s peninsular invasion in 1808.

That left a gulf in the imperial administration that the Chilean separatists filled, creating a national congress. Spain’s royalist forces in the Viceroy of Peru wanted to quash this separatist rising and mounted loyalist attacks on the Chilean militia. O’Higgins was the military leader-in-chief who stood against them.

The Irish-Chilean independentist general began the military struggle for Chile on the back foot and lost at the Battle of Rancagua in 1814, which forced him over the border into Argentina with other Chilean nationalists to try to regroup and plan a comeback.

O'Higgins' military call to arms: "Vivir con honor o morir con gloria"

O’Higgins’ military call to arms: “Vivir con honor o morir con gloria”

At the battle of Chacabuco in February 1817 a combined ‘Army of the Andes’ of O’Higgins’ men and Argentinian forces under José de San Martín swept aside the troops in Chile loyal to the Spanish crown, and they took the capital, Santiago.

One of O’Higgins’ famous martial cries has passed into Chilean folklore: “¡Vivir con honor o morir con gloria!” (‘Live with honour or die with glory!’ – inscription visible in the photo above).

The decisive victory resulted in Bernardo O’Higgins being elected to the position which would cement his place in the history of his country. He became the ‘Director Supremo de Chile’, the country’s first independent leader.

He served for six years as de facto president, establishing the basic workings of a governmental administration and building a national navy. However, public consensus around him gradually disintegrated, as many of his reforms were opposed by the Church and elite.
He stepped down from the top job in 1823, under pressure from growing revolts across the country. Bernardo O’Higgins retired to Peru, where he lived in exile. Like his father he never married, but unlike him, he did know and live with his son.
His father, Ambrose O’Higgins, (who would become Ambrosio O’Higgins), was born in County Sligo, in western Ireland, and emigrated via Spain to what is now Peru and then became a colonial administrator in Chile. Bernardo was born in the late 1770s. It was an illegitimate birth as Ambrosio and his partner, the much younger Isabel Riquelme, were not married. O’Higgins senior eventually recognised Bernardo as his own not long before he died.
Bernardo O’Higgins lived in a large estate in Peru until his death in 1842, at the age of 64. His remains were repatriated and he is buried in Santiago and commemorated across Chile, and elsewhere in the world, including in a quiet spot overlooking the River Thames in London.

Friday prayers can wait

Is the European Union stalling over policy towards the Islamic world?

Recent events in Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt have not gone totally unnoticed in Europe but there was a significant delay in releasing official reaction to the unrest which began in December. These events were occurring just across the sea, indeed the Italian island of Pantelleria lies only 45 miles or so from the Tunisian coast. And the EU is the largest trading partner for the Maghreb. Why was there no coherent policy announcement?

European ministers are dedicated at the moment to sorting out the financial crisis and trying to ensure that neither Spain nor Portugal goes the way of Greece and Ireland. Reacting to the downfall of the government in Tunisia raised confusion over how the bloc feels and eventually no clear response was issued. Whether or not to give Turkey a membership card has been relegated from the to-do list.

David Cameron has let it be known that the UK Government will be batting for the Turks but as Conservative Baroness Warsi, the UK’s first female Muslim Cabinet member, will say in a speech on Thursday 20 January, Britain has to get its national attitude towards Muslims right first before it can think about lecturing others on equality.

And this is part of the wider problem – there has never truly been a coherent, union-wide policy on this issue. Take burqas for example: should members be banning them or not? And as this blog noted last month, (‘Snow boots for Islamic fundamentalists’, 31 December 2010′), Islamic terror plots have been on the rise in Scandinavia and earlier this week a Somali man went on trial for the attempted murder of Kurt Westergaard, a cartoonist who published drawings of the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb for a turban. Should members be allowing the publication of such pictures?

Switzerland, surrounded by EU member-states, drew gasps of breath in 2009 when its parliament approved a ban on the building of minarets. There is also rising antipathy in Germany towards Muslims and Turkish inclusion in the EU. The majority of the country’s four million Muslims have Turkish ancestry and president Christian Wulff faced a particularly tough time on a state visit to Turkey last year. The EU talks at length about a common agricultural policy, a common defence policy and a common economic policy and 2011 should be the year when major steps are taken to discussing a common policy to all the issues surrounding the place of Islam in Europe.

Is the Nobel Peace Prize becoming a dangerously political award?

The BBC has reported that China is unhappy at the prospect of the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to the imprisoned activist, Liu Xiaobo. Mr Liu has called on China to account for its actions and has been a fierce human rights activist and is now in jail, serving a sentence for ‘incitement to subvert the state’. So will the plan by the Norwegian Nobel Committee (NNC) to award Mr Liu the Peace Prize upset China? Does this mean that the Nobel Peace Prize is becoming increasingly political?

In December 2009, US President Barack Obama became the 117th recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples”. Global reaction to the announcement was mainly negative, arguing that as Mr Obama had not even been in power for a year and had only been nominated a fortnight after moving into the Oval Office, there were insufficient reasons to honour him. Mr Obama was widely criticised for accepting the award. At the time it seemed as though his political background influenced the decision and that Scandinavia had taken a dislike to George W. Bush’s foreign policy and assertive conservatism. In short, Obama’s election had signalled a change at the top of the US government, and this change was welcomed in Scandinavia. The NNC seemed to base its decision on Obama’s policies and plans for the future. Immense pressure has been placed on the president to live up to his billing as a laureate and demonstrate his worthiness of the award. So far his progress has been uneven. He missed his own deadline on closing Guantanamo Bay prison but succeeded in ending combat operations in Iraq. He convened Mahmoud Abbas and Binyamin Netanyahu but no deal was reached on the Israel/Palestine Peace Process.

Now the Norwegians are making noises regarding honouring the human rights efforts of Liu Xiaobo. China is unhappy. Beijing jailed Mr Liu for subversion a few weeks after Obama picked up the prize and the US and the EU have both condemned the judgment. Both have called on China to relax its militant approach to political dissidents. So what does this news mean for the Committee itself? It certainly came under criticism for last year’s choice, so it would like to steer clear of an overtly-political ceremony this year. Awarding Liu the prize would do the opposite and result in diplomatic disagreement and argument between China and the West. There is no doubt that Liu is a brave and committed supporter of human rights but the Committee is treading on unsteady ground in the run-up to the announcement of the recipient on 8 October. Its decisions carry huge significance and it must think carefully. If the NNC goes with Liu, China will accuse it of pandering to the liberal democratic policies of Europe and North America whilst Beijing critics will champion Liu as a defender of the sanctity of human rights and highlight China’s repressive regime. If the prize goes elsewhere, China will surely claim a moral victory for political persuasion; the West will complain and be left bewildered by the unforeseen choice of a committee that it sees as a vehicle for its international political ambitions.

There are other ways in which politics is linked to the award. In 1976 Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams received the prize for the work in establishing the Community of Peace People to try to work towards a peaceful resolution of the Northern Ireland Troubles. Earlier this year Corrigan joined the flotilla which tried to breach the Israeli aid blockade and reach Gaza and which ended in a violent confrontation between activists and Israeli commandoes. She has become a staunch critic of the Israeli political position and spoken up for the Palestinians.

Of course the NNC could not foresee the way in which Corrigan’s activism would manifest itself 34 year after giving her the award but her actions do show that the Peace Prize has become inextricably linked with politics. For better or for worse, its nominations reflect the political attitude of Scandinavia. Such is the prestige and gravity of the award, the honouring of the laureates can represent a stumbling block on the diplomatic tables of the world powers. The global reaction to the decision next week will be intriguing.