At the Sheffield Festival for Debate DiEM25 workshop last week, Belfast DiEMer Philip Kelly kicks off a discussion about how to unite through and beyond Brexit for a new internationalism.
Thank you for inviting me to this wonderful DiEM25 event in Sheffield. Firstly let me explain my background and some of my own inconsistencies & contradictions: this will help you avoid an ultimately disappointing wait for some profound revelatory meaning from what I say.
I was born in Belfast. My parents came from the red white & blue side of the divide. But long before I was born they rejected their communal identities and embraced Marxism and became proud Irish Republicans. My teenage rebellion was merely to be more Marxist, more republican than my parents.
So after a lifetime of activity on the fringe, ineffectual left, when I decided to join a political party, which would a Marxist, Irish Republican chose? Well, I joined the UK Labour Party. I joined to vote for Jeremy Corbyn, as I believe a movement built around the politics of Corbyn can be transformative not just for you here in the UK, but for the people of Ireland & all of Europe.
So to DiEM. I became active in DiEM 25 very early, why? Because it is the correct response to a crisis that requires a transnational response, a realistic but radical alternative to the failing logic of a neo-liberalism which is consuming itself. For decades the so called “centrists” the liberal elite have been sleepwalking toward the abyss. Today the Far Right are positively goose-stepping us over the edge. Let me again reference Ireland. The popular TV show, Game of Thrones is filmed in Northern Ireland – a story of walls & threats from the “other” beyond the wall(I say this having never watched an episode). Game of Thrones used the ominous title WINTER IS COMING on many a billboard to promote the show. When we look at the political map of Europe, or the election of Trump or the coup in Brazil, then we can see that everywhere neoliberalism’s marriage of convenience to democracy is ending in divorce. Winter is coming.
Yesterday in Belfast, I visited a place called Writers Square, to reflect on another group of people who sensed Winter was coming to Europe, for in that square in Belfast there is a small monument dedicated to the memory of the volunteers who left Ireland to fight for democracy in Spain during the civil war. So on arrival in Sheffield today, the first thing I did was to take a sunny walk from the train station to Sheffield town hall and the Peace Garden and there I gazed at a stone plaque remembering those who left their home city here to take their stand, to take their place on the barricade against the rise of fascism.
Syriza was as Yanis has stated, the canary in the mine, elected to oppose austerity. Then a referendum to reaffirm the desire of Greek citizens to say enough is enough was ultimately crushed by brutal forces. So today, to combat this brutal inhuman force of globalisation we must rebuild a new sense of internationalism. To understand, like those volunteers who left many different cities that we are all part of one struggle. Today from the streets of Athens, to the Paris suburbs, to refugee squats in Rome, from Sheffield to Belfast, we all need to stand in unity against the coming winter.
I supported DiEM25 & campaigned for REMAIN, more specifically I debated against the LEXIT argument, I argued that the referendum was merely a choice between two visions of neoliberalism, that LEAVE was like trying to escape the darkness by closing your eyes. However, in or out, as progressives, our task remains monumental & the same, we must save Europe from disintegration. The EU is a battlefield: it is our Winter Palace.
So today, as an Irishman standing here in Sheffield it gives me no pleasure to say that you are all Northern Ireland (NI) now. The post BREXIT landscape sees two rival blocs with totally different, seemingly irreconcilable national aspirations. Welcome to my world.
The effect of BREXIT in NI is stark. NI remains a polarised and divided society. The city I left is still itself partitioned in many areas by the peace walls, walls actually built to keep two communities separate. They will soon have stood for nearly 50 years: the Berlin Wall lasted less than 30.
NI voted REMAIN, 56% REMAIN, every ‘border constituency’ voted REMAIN. BREXIT has helped bring the border back to the top of the political agenda and as a result, political discourse is polarising.
This is not helped by the fact that a Tory government, whose callousness is only matched by its ineptitude is kept in power by a grubby tax payer funded £1.2 billion deal with 10 Irish MPs (they won’t like me saying that) of the DUP.
This arrangement is helping undermine power sharing and the Good Friday Agreement in NI. So why does the Good Friday Agreement matter? The UK Withdrawal Bill has hit an impasse. An issue that was utterly absent from the mainstream referendum debate. Many BREXITEERS espoused TAKE BACK CONTROL OF OUR BORDERS. Now the government BREXIT process is derailed by trying to avoid or fudge a border that the English had long forgotten the UK had.
So David Davis & other great minds have the impossible task of untangling their own knotted mess of mutually incompatible demands, to leave the Customs Union & single market while having no hard border in Ireland & simultaneously refusing any “special arrangements” for NI. Who better than David Davis for such a task we may ask?
Senior Tories are now calling the Good Friday Agreement irrelevant & openly attacking it. Some say the Irish Government are stooges of Sinn Fein in trying to use the instability to advance the cause of Irish unity. Others accuse the EU of playing up the border as a means to derail BREXIT. None of these ill conceived notions grasp the reality of the situation & they make any possible mitigation seem even more remote.
The Good Friday Agreement is far from perfect but it represents the start of a long necessary process. Far from perfect, yes but in conflict to wait for a perfect peace can only mean unending conflict. BREXIT represents an existential threat to the entire concept of a shared NI. As such we must see our inter dependence.
So let me return to the comrade in the audience, whose question was – is DiEM Utopian? Yes. Because for too long the lobotomised politics of the “moderates” or “centrists” has had no vision, they have been the midwives of crisis. Yes we protest the current failure, but we are building, together a credible & radical alternative. Let me quote Che Guevara, “be realistic demand the impossible” for we should know that our enemies cannot lay claim to what is possible & they cannot own reality or the future. James Connolly, born in Scotland, who fought the cause of workers in the USA & who ultimately died, shot by a British firing squad after the Easter Rising, said “for our demands most moderate are, we only want the earth”.
Let us, democratically engaged citizens decide what is realistic & possible. The residents of Grenfell Tower formed a residents group & highlighted their safety concerns & many, having been ignored, died in an inferno. Were their demands unrealistic? Is it unrealistic that housing should be a human right, or education free & open to all? Is it unrealistic to have access to health care that is not undermined by relentless privatisation? Is it unrealistic to say that Foodbanks are not the sign of a caring society but an indictment of a failed system that sees only growth in obscene inequality?
Let me finish by saying this, urgency yes, but it is never too late. As Yanis has said “there is no final victory or final defeat.” I’m proud to share this barricade against the coming winter with people like you. Ken Loach, DiEM’s own, a crusading film maker and activist, directed the film ‘Land and Freedom’. It was a story about a volunteer who fights in the Spanish Civil War. The film ends with his letter home to his girlfriend and he says “had we succeeded here and we could have done we would have changed the world”. So let our realistic, moderate mission be that, together let’s fight to change the world.
Phil is former Chair of the Labour Party in NI, regular political contributor on BBC Ulster & cofounder of DiEM 25 Belfast DSC.
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