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The Exercise of Power

Ireland’s role in establishing the British Parliament’s supremacy over the executive.

It was the English civil war, a brutal affair that lasted, on and off, for six years and pitched brother against brother and father against son, that established the supremacy of parliament. And it began with the trial of a man who had the temerity to threaten to raise a mostly Catholic army of Irish men to assist King Charles in his campaign against Scottish protestants. And Ireland was to suffer some of the worst horrors perpetrated during the course of the war.

Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford in an Armour, 1639, portrait by Sir Anthony van Dyck.

Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford in an Armour, 1639, portrait by Sir Anthony van Dyck.

Thomas Wentworth had been appointed as the king’s representative in Ireland. As such he succeeded in maintaining an uneasy peace on the island, between Catholic ‘Old English’, Protestant ‘New English’ and Scottish Presbyterians who had been granted land in the north and west taken from Irish clansmen. Meanwhile, on the mainland, many in parliament and outside were becoming uneasy about the king’s continuing support for a reforming arch-bishop who, in their eyes, wanted to take the Church of England back to something resembling the Roman Catholicism they had grown to detest.

So when the king asked Parliament for the funds to mount a war against a protestant led invasion from Scotland they refused. The king dissolved parliament and went ahead anyway. However, the army he raised was inadequate to the task. The Scottish force took control of Newcastle and Durham. The king re-called parliament. The Scottish leaders demanded that the arch-bishop and Wentworth be brought to trial for what they deemed to be acts of treason.

Parliament went ahead, against the wishes of the king. The trial lasted 7 weeks. The prosecution was unable to come up with sufficient conclusive evidence against Wentworth. Parliament therefore changed tack and instituted something called an ‘act of attainment’. This required only a body of suspicious evidence in order to secure a conviction. The problem was that the act required the king’s signature. At first he refused to sign.


In an act of extraordinary courage, Wentworth, fearing that his aquital would lead to riots and unnecessary bloodshed, wrote to the king begging him to sign, concluding with this sentence: “To set Your Majesties (sic) Conscience at liberty, I do most humbly beseech Your Majesty for prevention of evils, which may happen by Your refusal, to pass this Bill.”

A 19th century representation of the Massacre at Drogheda, 1649

A 19th century representation of the Massacre at Drogheda, 1649

In as much as the king signed, Wentworth’s plea was successful. It failed, however, to prevent the coming holocaust. Wentworth was hung, the arch-bishop was imprisoned in the Tower of London. In the country people began to wonder if parliament had taken too much power upon itself. And, in Ireland, the Catholics and the native clansmen began to fear the prospect of domination by the Protestant New English and Scots Presbyterians. They staged a rebellion, making the spurious claim they were supporting the king. Exaggerated tales of massacres of Protestants by Catholics in Ireland, not all of them erronious, reached England. This did the king no favours and the stage was set for a revolution in England.

Both king and parliament began recruiting armies. On 23rd October 1642 the two armies met at Edge Hill in Warwickshire and fought the first of many bloody battles. By the end of that day about 3,000 lay dead and there were countless injured. By the end of the war, a quarter of a million had died in England, Scotland and Wales and a similar number* in the much smaller island of Ireland. There were sieges and accompanying massacres at Drogheda and Wexford.

This week’s court case in which it is being claimed that the executive cannot move to take Britain out of the EU without parliament’s approval surely won’t lead to civil war, although some of the opprobrium that accompanied June’s referendum – and still continues –  was of a kind that few Britons had seen in their lifetimes. But the outcome will be interesting, especially as one of the key arguments in the referendum was about the supremacy of parliament in our British democracy.

*The number of deaths in Ireland during Oliver Cromwell’s campaign in 1649 has been estimated at as many as 600,000. This was the figure originally estimated by Sir William Petty, Charles II’s surveyor-general in Ireland, and is now widely regarded as a gross over estimate.


For my Fellow Remainers: How to Take Back Control of Life After Brexit

A thoughtful and extremely helpful post from Adele Theron. Adele is a trauma counselor and change management consultant.

It’s been 3 days since the CTRL-ALT-DEL button was pushed on life as we know it. The United Kingdom decided to take the red pill and tumbled down a mahoosive rabbit hole. Now we are standing in what looks like the construct room of the Matrix: no plan, no mission, a white room full of nothing. There are many Leave voters who stare at the white room and see oceans of possibility and are excited, they are impatient that the rest of us aren’t seeing what they see. But for 48% of the population, this nothingness is frightening and for many they are experiencing the signs of being fairly traumatized: I know I was. As I work in the field of trauma and change, I wanted to offer a practical guide to the steps I went through to come to terms with this white room of nothingness and to offer healing and hope to those of you who are afraid and wondering what to do.

Read her blog post in full here

Brexit Delusions

John Clare. Image from

I’m reading about John Clare, the nineteenth century English poet. He spent the last years of his life in a mental institution, suffering from delusions. One of these being that his unattainable, and by then long dead, first love would come to him. Earlier he had been courted by some of the better educated members of the aristocracy who were quick to drop him as soon as his mental health problems became apparent.

I see parallels in the way the delusions of ordinary English folk are being fostered by the better educated members of the’ leave’ camp in this referendum about Britain’s membership of the EU.

One such delusion is that we will have greater freedom to act in our own interests from outside of the EU. The fact is that we are now, and always have been, free to pursue our own best interests.

Thirteen years ago the then British government pursued its own grand delusion, against the advice of European allies, and popular opinion at home. The disastrous invasion of Iraq, a decision based on the false delusion that the Iraqi government possessed weapons of mass destruction, has ramifications that continue today, not least in the exodus of people desperate to escape the horrors of religious wars in the Middle East.

Refugees crossing the border between Greece and Macedonia. Image from

There can be no greater irony than the fact that the arrival of these refugees in Europe is cited as a reason for Britain to leave the EU.

Another delusion is the one that says we were alright before the EU and will, therefore, be alright again after we leave. Stop and think for a moment. We have been members of the EU for 46 years. That means no-one under 60 has a first hand memory of what life was like back then.

Of course the EU has evolved over that time and is not the same as it was when we joined. But we have played our part in shaping that evolution with our contributions to the contents of the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties, for example, which contain ‘opt-outs’ so that we are not tied-in to elements of those treaties that are not in our best interests.

And then there’s the idea that the EU is undemocratic, that the other 27 member states dictate to us. In 46 years it’s perhaps not surprising that no-one seems to remember that we in Britain did not always elect our members of the European parliament. They were appointed by the government of the day. One thing the other members (then only 8 in number) did dictate, is that we should elect our MEPs, and do so by proportional representation. The first such election took place 37 years ago this month.

It has been said often enough by now, but some people are apparently so deluded they do not believe it – no law or regulation comes from the EU that has not been agreed by the parliament and by the council of ministers representing every member state. Every one of the 28 member states can make that same claim, that it is being dictated to by the other 27, including Britain. The truth is that every member state fights its corner in the tortuous negotiations that precede the adoption of any new regulation.

To pretend that Britain does not do well in such talks is insulting to those of our fellow citizens who conduct them. Nor should it be forgotten that, after we leave, those same people will be charged with negotiating new deals individually with each of the 27, as well as the rest of the world. The idea that they could achieve better results, faster, is surely the grandest delusion of all.

A typical English hedgerow. Image from

John Clare’s poetry and pamphlets celebrated the English countryside and what he saw as its destruction by the enclosure movement. I suspect he would have welcomed those European regulations that aim to preserve the English countryside and wildlife by limiting pollution and encouraging the retention of hedgerows and other habitats.

Getting Our Country Back?

(An open letter to any of my friends who still thinks leaving is a good idea)

You say you want your country back. I wonder what you mean by that. You are probably not old enough to remember the 1950s or ’60s – there aren’t many of us left. So I’m guessing that maybe you have in mind an image of the 1970s.

Inflation was over 20% through most of the 1970s. Image from

A time of strikes and hyper-inflation, of wage freezes and credit squeezes, of unstable government with Labour surviving only because of a pact with the Liberals. Troops on the streets of Belfast and Derry, IRA bombs in English cities. That’s what you want back?

You don’t remember it? I see. It’s the 1980s, when you were in your 20s, that’s the Britain you remember and want to return to. More strikes, mass unemployment, engineered by the Tories to get inflation under control. The poll tax,

Poll tax riots, image from The Guardian.

more trouble in Northern Ireland and bombs in England. Cuts to public services. The privatisation of BT, British Gas and Water. Police corruption and cover-ups.

Never mind any of that, you say, at least it was democracy; we chose who governed us. Did we, though? Perhaps you don’t remember how the SDP and Liberals took votes from Labour so the Tories kept winning elections with 42% of the popular vote.

No? That’s not what you had in mind? But that is how it was.

Perhaps you were thinking of the 1990s. Only a couple of decades ago (yes, really, it’s that long since Tony Blair re-invented Labour and swept to power). Let’s see; more privatisation (Labour didn’t win an election until the second half of the decade). More cuts. The nations of Eastern Europe freed from Soviet domination and joining the EU. Coming here as cheap labour, filling our supermarket shelves with their strange foods. Oh, wait a minute, isn’t that what you don’t like? The things you hate about the way Britain is now?

But you can’t turn back the clock. Not even Michael Gove is proposing to send back those EU migrants already here.

Maybe you are thinking of a time when we could trade with the rest of the world? That’s an interesting concept. Maybe you would like the Japanese to set up car manufacturing here? Or to have cheap clothing available in our shops, not minding the conditions of the workers in Vietnam and Bangladesh who make them? Perhaps you’d like an Indian billionaire to take over our ailing steel industry, or the Chinese to start manufacturing Rover cars?

What’s that you say? All that’s happened already? Whilst we were members of the EU? But I thought … Oh, I see. The Japanese set up here because of access to a market of 500 million people in Europe. And they had financial assistance from Europe, too. And the EU didn’t stop us buying cheap textiles from South East Asia, or cars from South Korea and our electronic goods from China? But I thought …


You mentioned democracy earlier, and I pointed out how undemocratic our British way of electing a government is. But there’s another aspect to democracy. The influence of lobbyists. They don’t only operate in Brussels, you know. Westminster has them too. And those ‘elites’ people talk about. You think the EU is run by and for ‘elites’? Some think Westminster is too. And people like Michael Gove and Boris Johnson are a part of it. So are the people who own our newspapers. And some of the other media, too.

So, really, this country you want back, it never existed outside Nigel Farage’s imagination.

Do you seriously think that all the things you detest about modern Britain are the fault of the EU and will simply go away if we leave? If you do, then I feel sorry for you and for the country we are likely to become. Believe me, it will look nothing like the one you imagine.

We’ll still have to worry about climate change and international terrorism. Drug and people trafficking will still go on. But it will be so much harder for us to secure the co-operation of our neighbours in combating these problems, none of which respects international borders.

We’ll still have an underfunded NHS and a housing crisis. We’ll still have a Tory government – and if Boris and Michael have won and Cameron resigns, do you think it likely they will increase public spending and raise taxes on the rich?

I want my country to stay the way it is, and always has been: outward looking, cosmopolitan, co-operating with its neighbours. I don’t recognise the fantasy land you think you will get back if we leave. If it ever existed I would certainly not wish to live there.

#Brexit: What’s the Plan?

I have heard plenty of talk about what Britain could do if she left the EU:

  • Control our borders
  • increase the volume of trade with the rest of the world
  • get rid of regulations that make it hard for small businesses.

And I’ve heard plenty of denials of the things the ‘remain’ campaign say might happen. I want to know what will happen. And I think it’s important that the voters understand that some of the things they think will change for, as they see it, the better, probably won’t.

I heard a man interviewed on TV the other evening saying “Tesco has a whole aisle full of Polish food.” As though that was a bad thing that he wanted to see changed.

Polish food on a supermarket shelf (from

Aside from the fact that Polish and many other ethnic foods have been on sale for decades in the more cosmopolitan parts of Britain, and that their appearance in our smaller cities and market towns is to be welcomed, I have not heard anyone suggest that, if Britain leaves the EU, the Eastern Europeans already here will voluntarily go home. Nor has anyone, to my knowledge, suggested they will be deported. So there will still be the same market for Polish food as now.

The same goes for jobs and public services. Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians and Hungarians will still be doing the same jobs, still having children who will need school places and health care.

Some of the advocates of leaving have suggested that, if, in future, we reduce the numbers of immigrants arriving from Europe, we can increase the number coming from the rest of the world, especially the Commonwealth. That seems oddly at variance with the complaints, often heard in the past, about ‘alien cultures’ and the alleged unwillingness of people, for example, from the Indian sub-continent, to integrate with the rest of the population.

Key points

Let’s examine the three key points listed above and ask some pertinent questions which surely need satisfactory answers in order to gain an understanding of what this new independent Britain will look like.

Control of Borders: What practical measures will be required to do this effectively? If not a considerable increase in security at ports of entry, with thorough checks of passports and visas, then how will this ‘control’ be enforced? What will be the effect of that on tourism? What of people arriving in the many small ports and marinas around our coasts? And what about our land border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland? If people arrive as tourists, what is to stop them staying on? Another increase in the internal forces required to seek out illegal migrants seems inevitable. All these extra forces either mean an increase in public spending, or the diversion of budgets from other services, most of which are already underfunded.

Increase trade with the rest of the world: There is, currently in the final stages of negotiation, a treaty, known as TTIP, which is intended to set the terms of trade between the EU and the USA. You may have heard of it. A lot of people don’t like it. They especially don’t like proposed measures under which large corporations would be able to sue national governments for imposing restrictions, such as health warnings on tobacco packaging.

So, maybe, leaving the EU and, thereby, excluding herself from TTIP, will offer Britain a chance to negotiate something better. I suspect that most of the people who oppose TTIP are unlikely to trust a British government not to agree to similar, or even worse, terms. Especially if there is seen to be a need to conclude negotiations quickly. Better, surely, to continue with the existing negotiations as part of the EU, pressing the case for national sovereignty to take precedence over corporate profits.

Get rid of regulations: Setting aside the ‘regulations’ that never really existed, like straight cucumbers and the number of bananas in a bunch,

Bananas in bunches,

what regulations will a future British government repeal? A minister from the ‘leave’ campaign insisted on TV on 23rd May that none of the protections of worker rights are threatened by our leaving.

What about consumer protection? Which, if any, such regulation is certain to be revoked? We need to know before we decide.

What about gender equality, including LBGT people? Many of the ‘leave’ camp espouse socially right-wing views. If you are someone who believes such ‘rights’ are a step too far, you no doubt hope that leaving will provide an opportunity to have them reversed. I, on the other hand, hope the majority of the British electorate are sufficiently liberal in their views to oppose any such move. Which is one of the reasons I am saying ‘don’t be so sure that everything you expect to gain from leaving will actually come to pass.’

Dire predictions

I hope that supporters of the ‘leave’ campaign will chip in with some serious answers to these questions. It is not enough to refute the dire predictions of the ‘remain’ camp. Nor to make loud claims of what a future Britain would be enabled to do if not restrained by her EU membership. If significant change is to follow from a decision to leave, what is the nature of such change? What are the practical implications?

And, if there is not a clear intention to back-track on what many see as the benefits of our membership, why bother?

Nightmare: #atozchallenge

Warning: this is a rant. Some readers may be offended.

I’m talking living nightmares here, not bad dreams. I watch, nightly, scenes of ravaged cities that, a few years ago were bustling, modern metropolises teeming with people going about their business and tourists photographing historic buildings. I watch, too, over-loaded boats ferrying people, men, women and frightened children, across the Mediterranean or Aegean seas. And my television also shows me lines of similar people trekking across country or, more often these days, camping in unbelievably squalid conditions beside hastily erected fences. Many of these dispossessed people are the former citizens of those wrecked and ruined cities.

I cannot begin to imagine what it must have been like to see one’s home become a war zone. By ‘home’ I do not just mean the house one occupies with one’s family, I mean the familiar neighbourhood where you conduct your business at the corner shop, attend religious ceremonies at the church, mosque or temple around that same corner, where every morning you take your children to the nearby school.

I do not know what is worst: to be confined indoors because of street fighting, snipers on rooftops hiding behind the parapets, or to be afraid to remain indoors for fear of being shelled or bombed. Maybe you’d hope the nightmare would end soon. That the fighting would stop. That basic services would be restored. That the empty shelves in the corner shop would be replenished. At what point would you come to realise that the nightmare was not going to end? That the only escape was to leave what remains of the place you used to call home and to seek something closer to normality elsewhere.

To get to that new place involves another nightmare, almost, but perhaps not quite, as bad as the one you are leaving. Trekking for days across a hot desert, finding someone to carry you across an ocean, albeit, if you are lucky, a small ocean. Selling your most treasured possessions in order to pay for that part of the journey. Seeing friends, neighbours, close relatives, drown, having already lost many to the bullets and bombs of the war. And then to discover that all that is on offer is a makeshift tent in a filthy encampment.


That, surely, is the worst nightmare anyone can imagine. And yet it is the daily experience of tens of millions. We, the fortunate ones, have become so inured to seeing these human tragedies unfold on our screens. We worry about what is to become of these victims of the insanity of war only to the extent that our own comfortable lives might be disrupted. That these migrants will place pressure on public services. Our own access to quality health, education and housing will be impaired if we allow ‘this flood’ to reach our own shores. We are even prepared to risk all that has been good about Europe since our own cities were destroyed by bombs as we lived through our own nightmare more than 70 years ago. We learned the lessons – or I thought we had.

We learned that it is better to try to rub along together, to accept, even celebrate, differences in culture and religion. To share our good fortune with those less fortunate than ourselves, within the boundaries of Europe and further afield.

The fact that others are still slaves to intolerance and prejudice to the extent they are prepared to kill each other, and to attempt to terrorise us, out of whatever twisted motives, is hard to understand. And I wonder when our politicians will learn that our attempts to interfere in these disputes are making things worse. I am grateful for having been born at a time and in a place that made me a member of the most fortunate generation this planet has known. And I’m ashamed that our grandchildren will be unable to share much of that good fortune because of the greed and ignorance of many of my contemporaries.

In Search of a Shared Vision

Graphic from The

Looking at the result of the recent general election in Ireland it’s impossible not to conclude there is no shared vision among the electorate of the sort of country they want.

No single party managed to secure the support of as many as 1 in 3 of the votes cast. There is a plethora of small parties, loose alliances and independents. It is a state of affairs that bears comparison to the situation exactly 100 years ago.

The rebels who proclaimed a new republic from the steps of the GPO at Easter 1916 did not have the support of the majority of the ordinary citizens they claimed to represent. That only came after the citizenry saw, and were horrified by, the way the rebel leaders and their supporters were treated by the authorities.

Looking back, such treatment seems inevitable. If your country is at war, if hundreds of thousands of your country’s young men, including tens of thousands of young Irish men, are risking their lives fighting an avowed enemy, if that enemy is a passionate opponent of the ideals you espouse, you would be a fool to seek the help of that enemy. And yet, that is precisely what this group of intelligent, highly educated, professional men, did.

Dublin, April 1916. Image from

The street fighting that followed, and the shelling of Dublin, were a natural response that any government would take in such circumstances. So, too, was the branding of the leaders as traitors and the infliction of the only punishment appropriate for traitors in time of war.

Those of the followers who surrendered were imprisoned in Wales, treated as prisoners of war. It was there they were able to regroup and devise the strategy for armed struggle that occupied them from their release until the eventual signing of the Treaty in 1922. Even then, there was no shared vision. Those who accepted the Treaty as the best option available were bitterly opposed by those who still sought independence for the whole of Ireland rather than the 26 counties of the Republic. The civil war that ensued pitted brother against brother and father against son. It is that history that makes it unlikely the two largest parties will ever co-operate in a grand coalition for they were formed from those disparate traditions

Looking further afield, it seems, from the outside, that the electorate in the United States is similarly unable to agree on a vision for the future of their country. The ‘primary’ roadshows are highlighting, not just the difference between the Democrats and Republicans, but significant divisions within each of those parties. In Britain, too, similar differences of vision are being exposed by the debate over whether the UK should remain a part of the European Union.

Anne Applebaum, in a Washington Post article on 4th March, says “we are two or three bad elections away from the end of NATO, the end of the European Union and maybe the end of the liberal world order as we know it.” (Is this the end of the West as we know it? Washington Post Mar 4th 2016).

She cites the rise of Marine Le Pen in France, and Hungarian prime minister, Orban’s talk of “leaving the West in favor of a strategic alliance with Istanbul or Moscow.” (op.cit), alongside Trump’s rhetoric and the strength of support in the UK for Brexit, as examples of the breakdown of the old order that has served us well since the end of World War Two.

The rise of large corporations

To me they are all symptoms of the erosion of the sense of a shared vision that prevailed in my youth. In part this has been driven by the rise of the big corporations whose vision of globalisation often seems contrary to the aspirations of ordinary citizens. The banking crisis of 2008/9 highlighted the vast gulf between rich and poor and left the latter picking up the bill for bailing out the wealthy victims of their own greedy risk taking.

Politics today is characterised by divisive rhetoric from both left and right as the ordinary citizen is left wondering which scapegoat to blame for his or her lack of economic progress. Immigrants? Islamists? Bankers? Tax averse corporations? Take your pick.

Erecting a barbed wire barrier on the Hungarian/Slovenian border. From

Proponents of Brexit suggest the EU’s policy of free movement of labour prevents the UK from controlling who enters the country. Trump says much the same about Mexicans crossing the USA’s southern border. Barriers have already been erected along the southern border of the EU to restrict the flow of refugees from conflicts in the Middle East. The left blames bankers, everyone fears Islamic terrorism.

Much of the rhetoric on all sides is reminiscent of Germany in the 1930s. Hitler wanted to round up and deport Jews (and later adopted an even more drastic ‘final solution’). Trump promises to round up and deport Muslims. The potential outcome of such policies is too frightening to contemplate.

Back, finally, to the outcome of the Irish election. The possibility of the two largest parties talking to each other still seems some way off today (Mar 5th). Those of us old enough to remember all of the second half of the 20th century must hope they are able to find sufficient common cause to present a vision of the future that most can share. Is it too much to hope that similar unifying forces win the arguments elsewhere?