Brexit renewed for another season!

(Credit: Telegraph)
(Credit: Telegraph)


About that last minute reprieve I alluded to in my post the other day …

BRUSSELS — With less than 48 hours before Britain’s scheduled departure, the European Union extended the exit deadline early Thursday until the end of October, avoiding a devastating cliff-edge divorce but settling none of the issues that have plunged British politics into chaos, dysfunction and recrimination.

Fittingly, the new deadline for Britain to get out of the EU is October 31, Halloween. As the BBC put it this morning, that’s both a trick and a treat.

The treat is that the UK gets to postpone the disastrous no-deal crash out that tomorrow would have brought. The trick is that the delay solves nothing, and has the counterproductive effect of taking the immediate pressure off the British parliament to find a way out of the European Union that they can actually agree to.

The dynamic is reminiscent of the caution that negotiation and conflict resolution scholar I. William Zartman makes about the downside of ceasefires in a stalemated civil war. The upside of a ceasefire, Zartman acknowledges, is that the killing stops, at least temporarily. The downside, though, is that a ceasefire allows both sides to become comfortable with the stalemate and gives them no incentive to negotiate an actual end to the war.

Sometimes, Zartman suggests, it’s better to let the parties race up to and even across the precipice of disaster so that the resulting pain forces a resolution once and for all. A no-deal Brexit would be painful indeed, but perhaps necessary for the UK to snap to its senses.

Because frankly, given their inability to figure this out over the last almost three years of deliberation and negotiation, there’s little to suggest that more time will produce much beyond more dithering and dysfunction.

Meanwhile, Al Jazeera has been reporting on the very same thorny issues of Brexit, identity, and conflict in Northern Ireland that my colleague and I are exploring in our research. Give a watch.

Punks against the Troubles

Image: Ricky Adams/
Image: Ricky Adam/


On one of my first research trips to Belfast, back in 2010, I was in a conversation with a fellow about my own age (at the time mid-40s) and the topic turned, as it often does in these circumstances, to what it was like growing up in a place being torn apart by brutal civil violence.

As a working class teenager in the early 1980s living in North Belfast, he was of an age and from a place in which it would have been all too easy to get drawn into the turmoil of the times, winding up with a gun in his hand, probably landing in jail, maybe ending up dead. So I asked him how he managed to stay out of things.

“Simple,” he said, “I was a punk.”

N7J0179 - Duckies Awards Web Badges-2The punks stood apart.

I was reminded of this conversation today when I came across a set of photos taken in one of Belfast’s storied punk venues, a community center called, fittingly, the “Warzone Centre.”  The photos are from a recently published book by photographer Ricky Adams, Belfast Punk, which captures the era as it was drawing to a close.

The Guardian last month posted images from the book, with the photographer giving some commentary and context on each of the shots. In his review of Belfast Punk, writer Mark McConville emphasizes punk culture as a unifying force in a divided city and society:

PUNK is most often associated with anarchy but rare pictures have revealed unifying power of punk culture to bring together those from both sides of the conflict during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Rather than attempted to destroy society as the 1980s anarchists are usually portrayed, stunning images show Catholic and Protestant punks overcoming the problems of their community by mixing amicably and enjoying themselves at a Belfast youth and community centre, appropriately called “the Warzone Centre”.

In a long essay published by the Irish Times last December, Timothy Heron described Northern Ireland’s punk music culture as a nonsectarian common ground that allowed Protestant and Catholic youth to reject the violence and repression that surrounded them:

It is that ‘‘other nation” of ordinary individuals struggling to cope with the pressures of life which is the focus of this paper, or, more accurately, the ordinary youths, many of them school-age teenagers, who took part in an extraordinary musical subculture which helped them construct their everyday lives in the midst of the Troubles in ways which would conflict with and sometimes subvert the codes of the society they lived in: punk.

It is worth remembering that even under the worst conditions, people can often find ways to push back against the circumstances that might otherwise crush their spirits if not their lives.

The video below, for the Stiff Little Fingers (a legendary Belfast punk band formed in 1977 at the height of the Troubles) song “Alternative Ulster,” gives you an idea of what they and the other punks were rebelling against.

A border, seen or unseen


PVCP_near_NewryThe first time I crossed the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic it was the summer of 1992, and it looked exactly like these pictures, taken at roughly the same time and in the same place, along the M1 motorway that connects Belfast and Dublin.

My wife and I were there on holiday, and we had decided to take a swing through the border counties of Northern Ireland en route from Connemara and the Aran Islands to Dublin.

Crossing into the north in our little rented Nissan Micra was a simple proposition. The border station near Belcoo, between Sligo and Enniskillen, was deserted. The booths were empty, the gates raised. Not a soldier nor customs agent was in sight.

Given that earlier experience, the British Army checkpoint on the M1 came as a shock of sandbags, soldiers, and machine guns.

The last time I crossed that border, this time by bus, was a year ago and the only indication that I had passed out of one country and into another was the change in carrier on my cellphone.

I will be back there again at the end of this week, this time traveling with my son, who will turn 18 on the overnight flight across the Atlantic. He’ll be the same age as many of those British soldiers who trained their guns on us as we crossed the border back in 1992, and likely the same age as some of the IRA volunteers who blew that checkpoint up with a 2,200 lb. bomb in May of the same year.

When we cross the border on our way to Belfast, it could very well be one of the last times that the border will still exist in essentially name only. With Britain voting to leave the European Union, of which the Republic of Ireland will remain a member, the reimposing of a hardened border may well be one of the most visible signs of the new Brexit reality.

If the United Kingdom really wants to reestablish strict border control, which was the emotional heart of the case for pulling out of the EU, then the UK will have no other choice than to restrict the Northern Irish border lest the unrestricted migration within the EU spill into the UK through this obvious back door.

Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel has declined to back a special arrangement suggested by the Irish government that would allow the soft border with Northern Ireland to stay as is should Britain follow through with Brexit.

It won’t happen over night, but assuming Britain invokes Article 50 of the EU treaty and begins the formal process of withdrawal, the border as it stands today will be fundamentally changed, and gone with it will be many of the other unseen structures and dynamics that have contributed to the almost 20 years of peace bought by the Good Friday Agreement.

Should this happen the unseen border will once again be seen, with all that connotes. Perhaps it won’t feature as many soldiers, sandbags, or machine guns, but it certainly won’t be the invisible reality of today, marked only by a notification on your cellphone.

Moral force and “Bloody Sunday”

A still from Paul Greengrass’ 2002 film “Bloody Sunday”.


Note — This post is by Nicole Diroff, a student in the Honors College at Oakland University double majoring in philosophy and cinema studies. Over the next few months, students in my course, International Relations on Film, will be contributing posts to the blog reflecting on the movies we are watching in class. Nicole’s piece is the first, presented here with only minor editing.

“What is force?”

That was the question asked by Maj. Gen. Robert Ford when he was asked whether or not the shootings that took place on January 30, 1972, in Northern Ireland were justified, as depicted in Paul Greengrass’ film Bloody Sunday. The use of force, and what force actually is, is not only a large theme in the movie, but this question is also essential to answering some of our own problems in 2016 America.

First, even though “What is force?” is a valid question that should be answered, using it in response to a question about the shooting of a peaceful protest is completely unfair. (You can watch the  entire scene from the film in the clip below.)

Asking “What is force?” in this situation completely absolves the British army from any responsibility for killing these protesters, and further can justify any action they do. Because, if they do not know what force is, there is nothing stopping them from going overboard.

However, force can be defined. And it should be divided into physical force and moral force.

Physical force is a clear concept, and it can easily be seen in the movie. It is clear that the troops attacked the protesters with violence when that level of violence was unnecessary. The paratroopers shot randomly into the crowd, and even after a ceasefire order was issued, they did not stop. A crowd of protesters ran from the shootings, but soldiers shot them from behind and even shot at them while they were down.

In this case, the question is not about what physical force actually is, but rather whether or not the force used was excessive. In short, yes, because the protesters did not pose a real threat to the troops, and also because they willfully shot at civilians.

Things change a bit when moral force is brought into the conversation, and this is also where America should reflect upon its own situation that has been happening for the past year and a half.

Moral force and physical force can be on two ends of a spectrum of force, but moral force can also be  a requirement for physical force. Police officers and the military are often seen as the embodiment of a moral force, thus, when they use physical force, it must be for a good reason. However, even if they can be considered a moral force, that does not mean that society cannot be a moral arbiter itself.

The police and the military should not be the source of morality, but rather enforcers of a morality that society has already set for itself. As the topic of police brutality becomes increasingly more relevant in America, more and more people continue to state that they support the police, not criminals.

Unfortunately, this is an oversimplification of the problem. It’s easy to claim a moral person does not support criminals, but a support of criminals is not the same as not supporting the ways in which those criminals are brought to justice. Maj. Gen. Ford says in the film that everything that was done by the British Army that day was to re-establish law and order, but if the massacre of civilians is what is considered law and order, perhaps society should reevaluate what they consider to be moral.

The film did have one other example of moral force, and that was force shown through the peaceful marchers. There were certainly some in the march who became less than peaceful, but the clear objective of the march was to protest for civil rights in the name of peace.

However, as stated above, moral force seems to be some sort of prerequisite for physical force, and Bloody Sunday explores this concept in a different form, as the way the military or police would. The protesters tried to be peaceful, but the nonviolent Northern Ireland civil rights movement was killed that day along with the 13 civilians shot down on the streets by British paratroopers.

At the end of the film, Ivan Cooper, the Protestant member of parliament who was one of the organizers of the march, says at a press conference that as a result of the killings, hundreds of able-bodied men were now motivated to join the Irish Republican Army. The use of physical force has led to a circular aggression, in which each group brings violence against the other, all for the sake of trying to achieve peace.