Category Archives: Opinion

Hunger for Knowledge

Sally Hayden asks whether recent revelations about the 1981 hunger strikes warrant a new investigation into what really happened.

Six years ago I was unlucky enough to get caught in the Dublin riots, a backlash to the scheduled Love Ulster march. At the time I also volunteered in Oxfam. Every Friday at four o’clock a friendly young man would come in and donate part of his paycheque to the charity. The 25th February 2006 saw this same man in the midst of the fighting, throwing bricks and smashing windows. I realised then how deeply anger can lie, and how utterly it can engulf one.

2011 may have brought us the Queen, donned in emerald and proving genuinely adorable all around, but its closing days also brought new revelations about the historical relationship between Ireland and our nearest neighbours.

On the 1st March 1981 using a scrap of toilet paper as his manuscript, Bobby Sands wrote; “I am standing on the threshold of another trembling world. May God have mercy on my soul.” Sixty-six days later he died, causing a surge in IRA activity and an escalation of extremist attitudes and violence on both sides. He was only the first of the hunger strikers to succumb to starvation. Ten political prisoners ultimately lost their lives.

The strikes were a reaction to the loss of political status for paramilitary prisoners in Northern Ireland, abolished during the policy of “criminalisation” by the British Government in 1976. This meant that the republicans were treated like normal convicts, having to wear uniforms and do prison work, among other differences. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher later stood by this decision, stating that to grant them special status would be “tantamount to saying that they had a licence to kill for political reasons”.

Secret British files just released by the National Archives in Kew dealing with the 1981 hunger strikes reveal that secret discussions between Downing Street and the Provisional IRA leadership occurred during the weekend before the death of Joe McDonnell, the fifth protestor to die. The documents contain details of eight phone calls between an MI6 officer and a Mr Brendan Duddy, and suggest that the Thatcher government were willing to make concessions provided the strike was called off first.

This is notable because of Thatcher’s insistence that she would not negotiate with the republicans, tied to the denial to recognise them as political actors. The projected hard-line British position was for a myriad of reasons, including worries about angering Unionists, controlling international opinion, and fuelling more press. “Better to let them fade into obscurity”, said one Conservative MP, John Farr, but due to the staggered nature of the strikes and deaths this was becoming increasingly impossible.

International attention, both sympathetic and critical, was turning on Northern Ireland and the Thatcher government’s way of dealing with the situation. The Hong Kong Standard said it was “sad that successive British governments have failed to end the last of Europe’s religious wars”. In Oslo demonstrators threw a balloon filled with tomato sauce at the visiting Queen Elizabeth. Iran sent an ambassador to Sand’s funeral.

Among the refused proposals coming from the IRA prisoners was that senior republican Martin McGuinness be allowed in to visit them. However the documents show that the more extreme yet “unpalatable” idea of complete withdrawal from Northern Ireland was considered by the British government.

That the Prime Minister was directly involved in talks is now certain. One statement sent to the IRA was altered in her own hand. The alleged concessions are not unlike those that were ultimately accepted months later when consultations with the strikers’ families led to the hunger strike being called off on October 3rd, seven months after it had begun.

The aftermath of the peace process led to bitter debates on where blame lay at specific times during the Troubles. Accusations that the strike was deliberately prolonged by the IRA leadership and that the prisoners were not in complete control of their fates have been made, and possibly substantiated to an extent. Others say that the British were attempting to stop the strikes by controlling who the hunger strikers were permitted to see, the suggestion of which was also evidenced by a released letter from Humphrey Atkins, the Secretary of State for the North.

Could things have been done differently? Probably. Are we mature enough to deal with what may emerge from an investigation? I don’t know. With conflicts like the Troubles idealistic intentions precede evil actions on both sides, and few emerge innocent. Though anger remains dormant in many, the Queen’s visit was noticeable for the tolerance displayed, and a willingness on both sides to begin the long process of moving on. If blame cannot be determined, we must not dwell on the idea of finding it. Let us not forget to learn from the past. But let us also remember that the past can’t be changed like the future can.

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Ding, Dong, Kim-Jong is Dead

Millions watch Kim Jong-un in fearful anticipation, not least because he will be the last man with the power to reunite families that remember each other.

Along with both his father and Bertie Ahern, Kim Jong-il has that lucky knack of knowing when the right time to exit is. On the 17th December, exactly two weeks before his declared deadline of making the DPRK a “strong and prosperous nation”, the Dear Leader finally succumbed to his suffix and died. Whilst blue flashes blinded, ice exploded, storks sympathised and a holy mountain glowed, the world woke up to the fact that the hermit state was in unknown hands, and they didn’t like it.

Kim Jong-il was a known enemy. He was wildly eccentric in the way only a totalitarian dictating megalomaniac can be. A film fanatic, in 1978 he ordered the kidnapping of South Korean film director Shin Sang-ok, who, during his eight years in captivity, was charged with the creation of a North Korean Godzilla. Despite propagandist assertions of a diet of potatoes and rice-balls, his former chef claims Kim had a penchant for roasted donkey, caviar and fresh Thai papayas. The world’s greatest golfer, he shot 38 under par in his maiden round including five holes-in-one, or so attested seventeen of his bodyguards.

His hubristic behaviour could be confined to the realms of real-life comedy if one was to ignore the ground level suffering that also off-shot from it.

Google satellite pictures of the DPRK at night, and the result will be a bewildering darkness. That’s not censorship, it’s the result of no electricity. North Korea faded to black during the early 1990s. Power stations rusted. People stole electrical wire to exchange for food. And Kim Jong-il became the leader of the first industrialised country to lose the capacity to feed itself.

An estimated 500,000 to 2 million people died in the famine, a direct result of Kim’s obstinate promotion of the Juche Idea, which advocated complete self-sufficiency. His noted fearlessness in the face of international sanctions was an indication of either complete delusion or an utter absence of human compassion, as his subjects perished.

The Communist state failed with the food crisis. Many DPRK defectors noted that it was the good and loyal citizens that were the first to succumb to starvation, whilst illegal markets and small businesses sprung up out of necessity for everyone else. Even in 2011, long after the famine’s formal end, the average official monthly income was less than €2. A further €10 came in on the side, as capitalist practices are employed to keep families alive.

The increasing inequality is dashing Southern hopes of successful future reunification. The South’s economic power is at least thirty times stronger than the North’s. This is equivalent to four times the disparity that existed between East and West Berlin when the wall fell. The average North Korean is three inches smaller than their Southern counterparts due to malnourishment.

Apart from the welfare of its citizens internally, the huge international concern is in regard to the nuclear weapons held by the state. In his eulogy the songun, or “military first” policy adopted by North Korea was the most praised achievement of the elder Kim, whilst the issue of the economy was avoided in almost a “don’t mention the war” manner. Parliament chief Kim Yong-nam instead gushed that his legacy was the foundation of a “proud nuclear state”.

Pride is certainly a distinguishing factor in a personality-cult fuelled nationalistic regime. The North has conducted two nuclear tests, and could have a working nuclear missile in as little as one or two years. This poses both a threat to regional security, and supplies the DPRK with a powerful bargaining tool to use when seeking aid for its economy.

As the action rises, enter central stage a pudgy, Swiss-educated 28-year old with very little political experience, and instead of a double rainbow, a huge question-mark hanging over his head. Kim’s older sons were rejected for the leadership role, one after embarrassing his father by being arrested in a Japanese airport using fake passports to gain access to Disneyland, the other for being “too feminine”. Kim Jong-un brings new hope.

One move that should be wished for is the decriminalisation of the currently underground private economy. Another is that the younger Kim will be more willing to make concessions in international negotiations.

Both his international education and his experience as a basketball team player may make him more open to change than his father, according to the former deputy governor of the North’s Korea Reunification Development Bank. But with his uncle Jang Song Thaek supervising the transition period and the new Supreme Leader being encouraged by the rest of the military elite, this is far from a certainty.

Meanwhile millions pray to the new leader for another kind of mercy. It is likely that he will be the last man with the power to reunite estranged families that still hold memories of each other. Countless relatives were torn apart during the Korean War, and with no postal, email or telephone service between the two factions, do not know if their long-lost are still even alive.

Family reunions were agreed to at the landmark summit in 2000 and so far 20,000 Koreans have been allowed once-off face-to-face or video contact with their parents, children and siblings on the other side. Fathers have faced elderly offspring that have a lifetime of their own completed. Brothers and sisters have strained to recognise each other after sixty years apart.

Of the 130,000 South Koreans that signed up for reunions, a third have since died without satisfaction. With the war fading from memory, connections are extinguishing and the severance of Korea has reached the final stage of completion. Whether his compassion will extend beyond propagandist reportings is questionable. And so Koreans wait, like they have for sixty years.

United We Stand

Published on 15th November 2011 by the University Observer

On October 31, amidst widespread applause, a denial of the wishes of the United States and a threatened cut off of funds, Palestine became the 195th full member of UNESCO. The vote came in overwhelmingly at 107 to 14, with 52 abstentions.

This step will cost the United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organisation a quarter of its yearly budget: 22 percent (about $70 million) contributed by the US, along with at least another 3 percent from Israel and Canada.

The seemingly petulant American behaviour grounds itself in 1990 legislation prohibiting funding to; “the United Nations or any specialised agency thereof which accords the Palestine Liberation Organisation the same standing as a member state”, and 1994 law banning payments to “any affiliated organisation of the United Nations which grants full membership as a state to any organisation or group that does not have the internationally recognised attributes of statehood.”

Presumably then the same response will also be applied to additional situations. Admission to UNESCO presages Palestine’s possible acceptance into other agencies and sections of the UN that could include the World Health Organisation, the World Intellectual Property Organisation and the International Atomic Energy Agency. The Security Council is already due to vote on their application next week, with the US desperately trying to find allies so as to avoid using their own veto.

Furthermore there have been suggestions that UNESCO membership could set a precedent for acceptance into the International Criminal Court. This would have interesting consequences considering the US and Israel’s refusal to partake in it. If Palestine was recognised it is possible that thereon all crimes committed by Israelis on Palestinian soil would come under the jurisdiction of the ICC.

Israel certainly is assessing the possible implications of its change in position, with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu immediately moving to build 2,000 new homes in settlements around Jerusalem, withholding tax monies Israel collects for the Palestinian Authority and cancelling “VIP passes”, which enable senior Palestinian officials to travel freely. These actions have been met with anger by opposition leader Tzipi Livni, who says that Binyamin is not focused on peace or prepared to make the concessions that it would entail.

UNESCO states its purpose as being to contribute to peace and security by promoting international collaboration through education, science and culture in order to further universal respect for justice, the rule of law, human rights and fundamental freedoms. The organisation enjoys official relations with 322 NGOs, encourages the “free flow of images and words” through support for the freedom of press, and designates World Heritage Sites. However worthy this may seem, considering its diverse membership it is to be expected that controversy and conflicts will arise in the course of its decisions.

This is not the first time the US has threatened funding cuts to get their way within the organisation. In 1974 UNESCO voted to exclude Israel because of alleged damage done during archaeological excavations in Jerusalem, which were labelled a “cultural crime against humanity”. Israel was readmitted in 1977 after the US threatened to withdraw contributions worth $40 million.

Enhancing a fraught relationship, in 1984 the US itself completely withdrew because of alleged communist and Soviet Russia sympathies displayed by the organisation, only rejoining in 2003 under George Bush. UNESCO and Israel also came into conflict again when, in 2009, the former named Jerusalem the Arab Capital of Culture.

Good work by the body is not disputed. In a visit to their Paris headquarters this year, Hillary Clinton announced: “I am proud to be the first secretary of state from the United States ever to come to UNESCO, and I come because I believe strongly in your mission.”

However, like the long defunct League of Nations before it, the UN is constantly fighting questions as to its relevance and whether it commands any real power. Its highlighted reliance on the temperament of its funding members threatens to belittle any strong statements it may make, whether through words or actions such as state recognition.

The November 2nd statement by UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova merely serves to highlight this incapacity, as she speaks of the global losses that will immediately result from the US funding withdrawal, and asks Congress and the American people to look for a way forward.

The extent to which the US is ignoring popular global opinion must also be assessed. The resounding support for Palestine included countries in which the US has an interest, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait and Libya, and many perceive the recent development as just another blow to America’s image abroad. Considering the $6 billion reputedly given annually to Israel by the US, $70 million is insubstantial. It remains to be seen whether the US will reconsider its position, and until then how exactly UNESCO will manage its budget.