Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Category: Democracy

Democracy Moves in Peculiar Ways

Colman's Column3This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday September 1 2015.

 

natlist2

Jobs for the Losers

For several days last week, Ceylon Today was carrying a banner headline stating that SB Dissanayake was a “serious contender” for the post of Leader of the Opposition. “Hang on, I said”, to myself (I often talk to myself as it’s the best way to guarantee an intelligent conversation) “was SB not one of those recidivist old lags the voters rejected in the cleansing of the Augean stables that occurred on August 17?” “Yes, indeed he was”, I answered myself, “but he is back in parliament as one of those names on the UPFA National List”.

National List

I try manfully to explain the nature of Sri Lankan democracy to my foreign readers (both of them) but it is not easy. What is the National List? A National List MP is an unelected Member of Parliament who is appointed by a political party or an independent group to the Parliament of Sri Lanka. The number of national list MPs allocated to a contending party or an independent group depends on the proportion to their share of the national vote. 29 national list MPs are appointed.

University Constituencies

One looks in vain to other countries for exact parallels but one might compare the concept to the old University seats in the UK. University constituencies originated in Scotland, where the representatives of the ancient universities of Scotland sat in the unicameral Estates of Parliament. When James VI of Scotland inherited the English throne in 1603, and became James I of England, the system was adopted by the Parliament of England. The system was continued in the Parliament of Great Britain (from 1707 to 1800) and the United Kingdom Parliament, until 1950. The University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford were therefore given two seats each from 1603. The voters were the graduates of the university, whether they were resident or not, who had the vote for their University in addition to any other vote that they might have. Note that the members representing Oxford and Cambridge Universities were not appointed like National List members – they were voted into the Commons. Although the members for the university Constituencies were usually Conservatives, in the later years, Independent candidates began to win many of the seats. In 1948, the Labour government abolished the university constituencies, with effect from the dissolution of Parliament in 1950.

Intellectuals Making a Contribution to the Legislature

The Members for the university constituencies included many famous names: Pitt the Younger and Palmerston both served as MPs for Cambridge University, and Peel and Gladstone served as MPs for Oxford University. In his last years Ramsay MacDonald was MP for Combined Scottish Universities after losing his seat in the 1935 general election.

The idea of University seats was similar to the idea behind the Sri Lanka National List – to have intellectuals, who were not necessarily up for what Alan Watkins called the “rough old trade” of politics, to contribute their wisdom to the national legislature.

One scans in vain the list of University MPs to find many names that have resonance today. One that I recall is AP Herbert. Sir Alan Herbert was educated at Winchester College and New College, Oxford, gaining a First-Class Honours Degree in Jurisprudence. He was called to the bar by the Inner Temple in 1919, but never practised. Herbert served in the Royal Naval Division during the First World War and was mentioned in dispatches after Gallipoli. During the Second World War he combined his parliamentary duties with service in the Royal Navy on patrol boats in the Thames as Petty Officer Herbert. When he was knighted in 1945, The Times noted “his individual niche in the parliamentary temple as the doughty vindicator of the private member’s rights, including not least the right to legislate.”

Throughout his career Herbert lobbied for reform of several laws that he felt to be out-dated, including those on divorce and obscenity. He began contributing humorous articles to Punch in 1910 and used satire to get across his reform agenda. He wrote a series of stories about a persistent litigant, Albert Haddock, called Misleading Cases. The BBC adapted them for television in the late 60s and early 70s. These fictions were Herbert’s vehicles for his law-reform work and carried cogent legal points and are sometimes quoted in real-life judicial decisions  and academic research. Herbert also wrote eight novels and 15 plays, – the comedy Bless the Bride (1947) ran for two-and-a-quarter years in London.  PG Wodehouse wrote: “I want to see an A. P. Herbert on every street corner”.

Intellectuals in the Irish Upper House

Today there are no university constituencies in the Republic of Ireland’s lower house of parliament, Dáil Éireann, but there are two university constituencies represented in Seanad Éireann, the Irish upper house. Unlike Dáil Éireann, the Seanad is not directly elected but consists of a mixture of members chosen by various methods. Its powers are much weaker than those of the Dáil and it cannot veto bills, only delay and seek to improve them. The two university electorates consist of the graduates of University of Dublin (Trinity College) and the National University of Ireland who are Irish citizens, regardless of where they are resident. Each is a three-seat constituency elected under the Single Transferable Vote and the election is conducted by postal ballot. Some politicians have called for university representation to be abolished, on the ground that it is unacceptable that possession of a degree should confer special electoral rights.

One can find many distinguished writers and intellectuals on a list of former senators, including many who have had an influence in global politics: Mary Robinson, Conor Cruise O’Brien, Mary MacAleese, Garrett Fitzgerald, Lord Longford, Oliver St John Gogarty, George Moore, Brian Friel, and WB Yeats.

One would have to look very hard into the history of National Lists to find anyone of the moral standing of Mary Robinson or the intellectual clout of Yeats or Friel. The original intention of the National List was to allow a voice in the legislature for professionals, academics who did not have the networks and resources of professional politicians. Rajiva Wijesinha was a good example of what the National List should have been about. Whether one agrees with his views or not, he tirelessly analysed the micro aspects as well as the macro of what was needed for good governance in this country. Few would complain about Lakshman Kadirgamar being given a seat. Harsha de Silva brought his economic expertise to the benefit of the legislature without having to go to the hustings (although he has now successfully done so). On the other hand, CBK, who is being deferred to on many issues by the current prime minister, appointed Mervyn Silva to the National List after he finished last in Colombo with 2,236 votes. What did he contribute to the quality of debate in the legislature by squeezing a monk’s testicles?

Nevertheless, data on parliamentary activity collected between May 2012 and August 2013 showed that on average, national list MPs contributed 25 per cent more in terms of net productive time in parliament than elected MPs. There were four national list MPs amongst the top 22 contributors (top 10%) in parliament. These were (in order): Anura Kumara Dissanayake (JVP), A.H.M Azwer (UPFA), Harsha de Silva (UNP) and Eran Wickramaratne (UNP). There were also four National List MPs amongst the bottom 10 per cent. The average contribution of an Opposition National List MP was double that of a government National List MP.

Whatever about their performance, is it morally right that 29 members get a seat  in Parliament without being democratically elected? Many of those now coming into parliament and getting ministerial jobs were decisively rejected by the voters.

 

 

 

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Democracy UK

This article was published in The Nation on January 15 2012

 

The phrase ‘the mother of parliaments’ is often mistakenly used to describe the legislature that sits at Westminster. The phrase was originally coined by John Bright in 1865 and he used it to describe the nation of England.

 

 

People who live in those islands at the north of Europe get a bit confused about nomenclature. The United Kingdom consists of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Britain consists of England, Wales and Scotland. Historian Norman Davies wrote a monumental book called The Isles – the term British Isles also includes the nation known as the Republic of Ireland. Davies’s latest book is called Vanishing Kingdoms. In it he predicts the break-up of the UK. The English “in particular are blissfully unaware that the disintegration of the United Kingdom began in 1922, and will probably continue”.
Notice that Bright did not say that the UK was the mother of parliaments, even though the legislature that now sits at Westminster is a UK parliament. The English Parliament developed its power and influence by limiting the power of the monarchy, even going to the extent of chopping off the head of Charles I (the executioner was appropriately named Colonel Hacker). The monarchy was allowed back in 1660 but Parliament was supreme. All future sovereigns had little executive authority. This continues today as a group of aging people of German origin sit in an expensive gilded cage representing Britishness to visiting tourists.
English Parliament
The 1707 Act of Union merged the English Parliament with the Parliament of Scotland to form the Parliament of Britain. When the Parliament of Ireland was abolished in 1801, its former members were merged into the Parliament of the United Kingdom.

 

 

The current Westminster Parliament is a peculiar institution in that it includes members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland even though those components of the UK now have their own devolved assemblies. Indeed, it often seems that the UK is ruled by Scotsmen as there have been so many of them in British cabinets.

 

 

The West Lothian Question has been much discussed. Before 1998, all political issues, even when only concerning parts of the UK, were decided by the UK Parliament at Westminster. Issues concerning only those other parts of the UK were often decided by the respective devolved assemblies; purely English issues were decided by the entire UK parliament, with MPs from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland fully participating in debating and voting. Members of Parliament are elected simultaneously in general elections all over the UK. There are 529 English constituencies, which because of their large number form an inbuilt majority in the Commons. However, there have been occasions where MPs elected in England have been outvoted by MPs from the rest of the UK on legislation relating only to England.

 

 

The idea of representative democracy is further complicated by the UK’s membership of the EU. Previous articles in this series have looked at how the PIGS EU countries (Portugal, Ireland, Greece, Spain) have had their democracies usurped by EU and IMF technocrats and bankers.

 

 

Eurozone

 

 

The UK seemed to be bucking this trend. It was not part of the Eurozone. David Cameron has used his power of veto to block an EU-wide deal proposed by Germany and France for treaty changes that would lead to greater fiscal union. Instead, France and Germany will lead the 17 Eurozone countries and at least six other EU nations in a new treaty. Many hailed Cameron’s decision to use his veto as a triumph for British independence. One French diplomat said Cameron was acting “like a man who wants to go to a wife-swapping party without taking his own wife”. This was not about democracy and power for the UK voter; it was a “principled” stand on behalf of the City of London. London is no longer the capital of England or the UK. It is the capital of international capital. The government’s main aim is to protect the financiers rather than ordinary voters.
Democracy as practised in the UK does not seem to help ordinary voters. They wanted to punish New Labour but did not give a ringing vote of confidence to the Conservatives. Cameron had to rely on the support of the Lib Dems, but that support has effectively destroyed the Lib Dems’ electoral future.

 

 

Threat to democracy

 

 

Ordinary voters did not vote for the vicious austerity measures now being implemented. It is more likely that they would have wanted the banksters who got the country in such a mess to be punished. The mild regulatory measures proposed by John Vickers will not be implemented until 2019. As Robert Jenkins, who sits on the Bank of England’s financial policy committee, points out, the date is distant enough “to allow lobbyists to chip away until the proposal becomes both unrecognisable and ineffective.”

 

 

While the government has introduced no meaningful sanctions to discourage a repetition of the crash, it has also failed to repeal the oppressive laws preventing voters from challenging those who caused it. When he became deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg promised that the government would “remove limits on the rights to peaceful protest” but there is no such measure in the Protection of Freedoms bill, which was supposed to have been the vehicle for this reform.
As well as the banksters, another threat to democracy has been the power of the Murdoch empire. Nobody voted for Murdoch, but this ruthless advocate of the market system, opponent of regulation and the welfare state, was able to enter Downing Street by the back door for secret meetings at will for over thirty years, whichever party was theoretically “governing”.

 

 

The less regulated the better

 

 

Anthony Barnett writes: “In the UK this informal, elitist constitution of ours while lauded as strong because flexible is, in fact, a weakness. Murdoch joined with Thatcher in exploiting its informality to expand their power and in the process further hollowed out its self-belief. They began to dismantle the old regime without any desire to replace it by anything other than themselves, the less regulated the better. The process continued under Tony Blair.”

 

 

Peter Oborne, no left wing radical, argues that a new “ethic’’ appeared under Thatcher and developed further under New Labour. The incorrupt disinterested administrative class of the 19th century was replaced by a political class who are mostly Oxbridge-educated men recruited young into the circuits of political influence. This class seeks personal gain from public office and makes its fortune from “a fusion between the media and political domains”. People like Gordon Brown, David Cameron and both Milibands have little experience of real life as experienced by the Man on the Clapham Omnibus. They go straight from university to think tank to internship to governing.
The English feel proud that their brand of parliamentary democracy has been exported around the world but do not seem to have noticed that democracy is dead in their own country.
Another phrase coined by John Bright was “flogging a dead horse”.

 

A Health unto HRH (and Confusion to his Enemies)

I have made my own  tradition of sending Prince Charles greetings on his birthday. November 14 is here again, and I haven’t yet got Chas a present. This year he is  64 and still hasn’t got a proper job.

Usually I churn out an article  along the lines of  “Happy birthday, Sir,  and long may you prosper at our expense!” This year there is a new development. An old pal, nay “mentor” indeed! of HRH  is attracting a lot of posthumous interest. One Jimmy Savile is a hot topic of conversation with the British public and establishment.

Savile, a former Yorkshire miner, ballroom manager, wrestler and disc jockey is rocking the British establishment with tremors being felt in the BBC, National Health Service (NHS), the press, police, Crown Prosecution Service,  academia, charities, toffs clubs and even the monarchy. From his humble origins, Savile rose to become a knight of the realm, Knight ­Commander of St Gregory the Great , a member of the exclusive Athenaeum club, an advisor to Israeli governments, a confidant of popes, princes and prime ministers.

Charlie’s pal Jim used this power-base to rape and molest children, some of them sick or disabled, one with brain damage. It appears he used the premises of the BBC and the NHS to carry out his nefarious deeds.

The Drivelling Dauphin counted Jimmy Savile as a friend.

Prince Charles led tributes to Savile on the national treasure’s  death  a year ago. Savile  was a frequent visitor to Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace and Highgrove (Prince Charles’ estate). Charles sent a Christmas card saying: “Jimmy, with affectionate greetings from Charles. Give my love to your ladies in Scotland”. Princess Diana described Savile as a “sort of mentor to Charles”. He is said to have offered marriage guidance to the trouble-and-strife-beset Charles and Diana.

Prince Charles himself was entertained by Savile at his Glencoe cottage retreat, Allt na Reigh,  in the Scottish highlands where Savile is alleged to have abused more than 20 victims.

Dickie Arbiter, who handled media relations for the Prince and Princess of Wales while spokesman for the Queen between 1988 and 2000, said that when Savile visited St James’s Palace he  used to rub his lips up the arms of Prince Charles’s young female assistants as a greeting. Arbiter said he thought the women might have thought Savile’s greeting was “rather funny”, but he said it was a cause for concern and he struggled to understand why Savile was granted such access to the royal family. “I looked on  him as a court jester and told him so,” said Arbiter. “I remember calling him an old reprobate and he said ‘not so much of the old’.”

I wonder if Chas’s thoughts will stray to his machang Jim on his birthday. Anyways,  Chas won’t be short of a bob or two to take his mind off things.

The London Daily Mirror is a UK paper that is read by  Chavs and Pikeys, white trash,  the great unwashed working class – sorry, I meant to say loyal subjects. For its special 60th birthday issue the UK Daily Mirror revealed some fascinating facts about Prince Charles.

Chuck  wears handmade shoes that cost £650 a pair. Turnbull & Asser make his shirts and also, from 2006, his made-to-measure suits, which cost up to £2,500. Previously, Savile (no relation to Jimmy) Row tailors Anderson & Sheppard handmade his suits, at £4,000 a pop. This should set an example of frugality to all of us in this age of austerity – time for us all to cut our clothing expenses. As Thoreau so wisely wrote: “beware of any enterprise that requires the purchase of new clothes”.

No fancy silk monogrammed Jimmy Palmers for our Chas – he always sleeps in the nude. Calm down, Ladies!

He has a boiled egg every afternoon. Chefs boil seven eggs at once to make sure one is perfect.

Whatever about his seeming extravagance at the taxpayers’ expense, Charles has  a reputation for caring about the planet. He runs his 32-year-old Aston Martin on bio-fuel made from English wine. Better than drinking the foul brew! His Jaguars, Audi and Range Rovers have all been converted to run on 100 per cent biodiesel made from used cooking oil. This is one great eco-friendly  prince, don’t you know!

For his 60th he  was photographed in his birthday suit, the ceremonial uniform of the Welsh Guards. Being a prince gives the chance to dress up and play-act (this runs in the family – his son Harry got a lot of unfavourable publicity dressing up as a Nazi). Charles is often snapped festooned with medals! He must be a very brave man. Being a royal is like being in a big play-pen.

The palace is keen to portray itself as an institution which is sharing the pain in these austere times. In July 2012 the palace claimed that expenditure had fallen by 26% in real terms from a level of £36.5m three years ago. Last year did see  a fall in the Civil List, most of which pays wages, but royal travel and upkeep of residences rose. The published accounts do not show the cost of security for the Royal Family. When the Queen’s granddaughter Zara Phillips got married, the wedding cost  Scottish police £400,000.

BBC royal correspondent Peter Hunt said: “The price of royal travel is what tends to excite attention year in, year out.” The royal travel bill for 2011 was £6.1m. A Prince Andrew charter flight to Saudi Arabia cost £81,000; a Prince Charles royal train journey was £38,016.

Charles came to Sri Lanka in 2005 to help out after the tsunami. He  visited Batticaloa but floundered helplessly. “I feel awful. All I have done is interrupt their very hard work. You’ve got a lot more to do when I’m gone,” he told the volunteers. That trip by Prince Charles to Sri Lanka cost British taxpayers £300,000. We took  food and supplies to Hambantota in our car and it didn’t cost nearly as much as that. How much parippu can you buy for £300,000?

Sharing the pain should not mean stealing from the poor. The Independent newspaper revealed documents that showed the Queen had tried to claim for  Buckingham Palace gas and electricity bills from funds set aside for energy-saving grants aimed at families on low incomes.

The Queen’s loyal armed forces seem to have been particularly badly treated by governments during the misguided adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. All the royal family have a fetish for dressing up in military uniforms and pretending to be soldiers or sailors. This is supposed to convey a solidarity with the armed forces. Does it make any more sense than Bush dressing up as a pilot off the coast at San Diego to prematurely proclaim “Mission accomplished” for the invasion of Iraq? I wonder if the royal family expressed their solidarity with the British armed forces by trying to persuade Her Majesty’s Government to give them a better deal in terms of equipment, homes and pensions and to treat them with the respect that they deserve.

There have been calls for the UK Government to strip Jimmy Savile of the British knighthood he was awarded in 1990. I wonder what the birthday boy thinks.

Terrorism, Business, Politics and Ordinary Decent Criminals

I posted this article on Open Salon on March 26 2011. I will be rewriting the article to bring it up to date in the light of recent developments in Sri Lanka and Ireland.

Terrorism, Business, Politics and Ordinary Decent Criminals

There are fuzzy boundaries between war, terrorism, crime, politics and business. Politicians use terms like “war on terrorism”, “war on crime”. “war on drugs”. Some might believe that this is part of a plan to militarise civil society. “Freedom fighters” easily morph into criminals as they resort to bank robberies and drug dealing to raise funds for the cause. Many once considered as terrorists later take their place in government.

Northern Ireland

On the right of the picture, a young Martin McGuinness at an IRA funeral

 
While they were purportedly striving to reunite the six counties of Northern Ireland with the 26 counties of the Republic of Ireland, the Provisional IRA were also building up a criminal empire. While this might have begun as a means of financing the republican struggle,  crime seemed to become an end in itself. The profits of crime might have been a reason for prolonging the conflict.

 

 

IRA leadership 1972 – Martin McGuinness on the left of the picture.

 
Raids on illegal distilleries in Ireland uncovered bottling and capping machinery and high- quality copies of brand labels. Many of the products were designed for use in pub optics. The IRA took  the production of counterfeit spirits so seriously that it even had a quality control unit.

 

Ordinary Decent Irish Criminals

Martin Cahill with a truly criminal wrap-over hair style
The Irish gangster Martin Cahill was the subject of two feature films. In The General he was played by Brendan Gleeson. In Ordinary Decent Criminals he was played by Kevin Spacey. Cahill was involved in petty crime from an early age and turned to armed robbery after stealing arms from a police station. O’Connor’s jewelers was forced to close, with the loss of more than one hundred jobs after Cahill stole €2.55 million worth of gold and diamonds from the store at Harold’s Cross.

In 1994, a gunman, who was armed with a .357 Magnum , shot Cahill in the face and torso, jumped on a motorbike and disappeared from the scene. The IRA said that it was Cahill’s “involvement with and assistance to pro-British death squads which forced us to act”. One theory is that John Gilligan, who was convicted of the murder of journalist Veronica Guerin (also shot by a motorcyclist in a hit similar to the murder of Sri Lankan editor Lasantha Wickrematunge), had Cahill killed because he was trying to get a slice of Gilligan’s drug profits.

John Gilligan
Gilligan effectively had the complicit support of the Dublin IRA and had members of the INLA (Irish National Liberation Army) in his pay. He was importing enough cannabis to make everybody rich. He was even importing small arms which he passed on to republicans as sweeteners.

The rate of murders in the Irish Republic that can be attributed to organized criminals, all involved in drugs, has trebled since the period before the murder of Veronica Guerin.

 

Veronica Guerin
The Murphia on the Costa del Crime

The IRA established links with organized crime in the same areas of the Costa del Sol where many of Dublin’s top “ordinary” criminals, the “Murphia”,  lived. The Murphia became the wholesale middlemen and women who supplied parts of the UK drugs markets after developing  links with their British counterparts.

The dissident republican group, the Real IRA, has been responsible for murders, attempted murders and pipe bomb attacks in the Republic. The group is believed to be extorting millions of Euros from targeting drug dealers — as well as business people — in Dublin and Cork. The Real IRA have taken over many of the security and protection rackets once run by the Provos. The dissidents are also believed to be selling some of these bombs to gangs including criminal elements within the Travelling community. In 2009, the Army Ordnance Corps dealt with 61 live bombs and 140 hoax bombs. In 2010, they dealt with 40 live bombs, mostly in Dublin.

Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein

Not Laurel and Hardy – McGuinness and Paisley
The Provisional IRA funded its activities with bank robberies and protection rackets. Martin McGuinness was the IRA Commandant for Derry. He and Gerry Adams were prominent in the labyrinthine negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement and the IRA laying down its arms. McGuinness  was  a minister in the government of the statelet of Northern Ireland until he resigned to run of the presidency of the Irish Republic. He visited  Sri Lanka to advise us on peace and reconciliation. In the Republic’s last general election, Gerry Adams for Sinn Fein topped the poll in Louth, in the north-east, with more than 15,000 votes. Sinn Fein, which used to be seen by voters in the Republic as the proxy of the Provisional IRA, has scored its best-ever election result in the Republic with 14 seats and will be a major Opposition force in the new Dáil. Fiachra Gibbons, in the New Statesman, described Sinn Fein as “a kind of cross between Fianna Fáil and the Catholic Church, but with extra guns, paedophiles and front businesses.”

 

The Tamil Tiger Mafia

Prabhakaran
In Sri Lanka, the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) was mainly dependent for funding in the early days on robberies and extortion.  Trading in gold, laundering money and dealing in narcotics brought the LTTE substantial revenue to buy sophisticated weaponry. They also played a role in providing passports, other papers, and also engaged in human trafficking.

KP – the Tamil Tigers’   leading arms procurer, now working with the government he sought to topple.

Crime Pays and so Does War

There were those on “the other side” who profited from the conflict continuing for so long. As in Ireland, Sri Lankan politicians and businessmen are accused of taking commissions to do favors. War is a profitable business.

Former Army Commander, Sarath Fonseka, fought the presidential election in January 2010 on a platform of rooting out corruption and nepotism. An Asian Tribune article, published on November 22, 2009,  was entitled “Every bullet fired at innocent Tamil civilians fetched kickbacks to Gen Fonseka family”.  One of the charges against Fonseka  was that he was involved in corrupt arms deals with his son-in-law, Danuna Thilakaratne. Thilakeratne’s company Hicorp, was involved in the purchase of MIGs from Ukraine, uniform and telecommunication equipment from China, food rations from Malaysia and tank transporters from Russia. Hicorp also supplied ration packs, which were past their shelf life and bought cheaply from a Malaysia. Thilakaratne started many new businesses in Sri Lanka, such as a beauty salon at the Galle Face Hotel,  as well as   a salon in Las Vegas, and a communication company in London. He invested millions of dollars in the American and Sri Lankan stock markets. Where did he get this money? After police investigated his bank accounts, Thilakaratne fled the country. Fonseka is in Welikada prison.


The Asian Tribune has also accused Fonseka of selling off army land rovers for his own profit. When Fonseka was Army  Commander, he forced the Army Board to condemn many serviceable army vehicles which found their way to Dhanuna’s friend , who bought them cheap. The Asian Tribune published this man’s name and address. I will not repeat it here as he knows where I live and, indeed, has been an uninvited guest in my home.

Police and Crime, Criminal Police

One incident (among many) in 2009  highlighted the danger of people’s frustration at police impunity turning into mob outrage and vigilante “justice”. Two young men were killed by police at Angulana. Local people described the Angulana police post as more like a brothel-cum-tavern than a police station. Nine police officers from Angulana police station were arrested and a court heard that they had been drunk on the night of the murders. Eyewitnesses testified that armed police officers blindfolded the young men and took them away in a jeep on the night of 12 August. The two victims, handcuffed and with blue polythene bags over their heads, were bundled into the jeep by the police, one of whom was armed with a T-56. One of the accused policemen admitted to his uncle (another policeman) that he had shot and killed the two victims.

Clint Eastwood was LTTE leader Prabakharan’s hero and seems to have many fans in the Sri Lanka police, at least in his Dirty Harry persona.

Impunity International

The Sri Lankan government’s “war” on the underworld led to key underworld figures  being “taken out’”. Summary executions by shadowy death squads during the JVP uprising in 1989, evoked memories of the British government’s “shoot-to-kill policy” in Northern Ireland. The phrase “culture of impunity” is frequently heard in Sri Lanka. No one wants to live in a country where the police can kill anyone they want, including private-grudge enemies, and get away with it. There is a danger of police impunity being mirrored by vigilante justice by sections of the public.

The Angulana incident garnered a lot of publicity, and some have taken comfort from the fact that police were arrested and brought before a court. They were found guilty and sentenced to death (the death penalty is still on the books but never used). Yet hundreds of other incidents around the country may go unreported. The lawyer and human rights campaigner Basil Fernando had high hopes in 2003 of the 17th Amendment of the Constitution, which included the setting up of a National Police Commission (NPC). He described the NPC as “one of the most extraordinary mechanisms created in Sri Lanka to check human rights violations.” Unfortunately the NPC has been allowed to wither and die, with its powers delegated to officials of various ministries, including defense.

Banalisation of Violence

Eric Meyer wrote in his book Sri Lanka: Biography of an Island about a “society confronted by the  banalisation of violence. Meyer does not attribute this only to the deadening effect of thirty years of terrorism, brutal conflict and emergency legislation. He traces a deeper malaise. He sees the frustration felt by a large part of Sri Lankan society: “arrogance and indifference of the capital’s bourgeois microcosm, the corruption found in the administration, the Macchiavellism of the country’s leaders, and the frustrations of  the younger generation faced with a competitive society that only parsimoniously concedes them a place”.

These tensions are exacerbated by the contradictions imposed by Buddhism being the dominant philosophy. Buddhism’s emphasis on harmony and non-violence “does not permit the verbalisation and exteriorsation of impulses that brutally and suddenly erupt into frenzy, condoned by the silence of the authorities”.

Meyer also sees in Hinduism and Catholicism ambivalent strains that contribute to a proclivity to violence: “The diverse religious traditions provide the people with the means to confront and combat violence, yet they tend to diabolise the adversary, stripping him of his human qualities”.

Nevertheless, whatever ambivalence may have been generated by Buddhism, Hinduism and Catholicism, they have been in Sri Lanka for a long time and violence does seem to have got measurably worse in recent times. According to John Richardson, communal violence ranked low among categories of violence in the immediate post-independence years. Two events reported in 1948 and 1952, were Sinhalese-Muslim and Tamil-Muslim clashes. From 1953, incidents of communal violence began to be associated with rising Sinhalese Buddhist political movements. Initially, clashes between Sinhalese and Tamils were similar to   Northern Ireland turf wars over tribal marching.

The real descent into political instability came in three phases: the first from 1955 to 1961 over affirmative action measures for the majority Sinhalese; there was a second phase of confrontation, often leading to violence, in the 1970s, culminating in the riots of 1977; the most violent period of ethnic conflict began in 1983, when the killing of soldiers by Tamil terrorists led to horrific anti-Tamil riots involving the hacking to death and mass rape of innocent bystanders.

Broadcaster and journalist Vincent Browne wrote of the Irish situation: “Just think of the thousands of lawyers, accountants, bankers, stockbrokers and others who must have colluded in criminality over the last decade or so, in fraudulent accounting, in fraudulent trading, in fraudulent preference, in insider dealing. And such is our public culture that not one of them has been charged with a crime and, very probably, not one of them will go to jail.”
Irish people have expressed their despair at the ballot box at the crime wave and the corrupt complicity of politicians, bankers and business men.

Have thirty years of conflict desensitised Sri Lankans  to violence and criminality?

Democracy

This article was published in the Sri Lankan newspaper The Nation on December 19 2011.

One reads a lot about the democratic deficit in Sri Lanka.  Sri Lankan, as well as western commentators,  bemoan the weakness of the Sri Lankan opposition and the gathering of power to the executive through the 18th amendment and the use of urgent bills and gazette notices. We read about the inspiring hunger for democracy in nations like Libya, Egypt and Syria, where people are prepared to die (and kill) for democracy.

I thought it might be instructive to see how that democracy thing is working out in some of those countries that have had it for a long time.

First let us attempt an analysis of the concept itself. According to Raymond Williams in Keywords, democracy is an old word, but its meanings  have always been complex. The word first entered the English language in the 16th century, as a translation from the Greek demos – people, and kratos – rule. Of course, it all depends on what you mean by “people” and what you mean by “rule”.

Aristotle wrote that “a democracy is a state where the freemen and the poor, being in the majority, are invested with the power of the state”. What does “power of the state” actually mean? Socrates, according to Plato, said, ”democracy comes into being after the poor have conquered their opponents , slaughtering some and banishing some, while to the remainder they give an equal share of freedom and power”.

Aristotle’s disciple, St Thomas Aquinas, did not see democracy as a good thing. He defined democracy as popular power, where the ordinary people, by force of numbers oppressed the rich. Democracy was a form of tyranny. In my schoolboy study of American history, I noted the fear in the early days of independence of the canaille (pack of dogs),  the mob.

According to Raymond Williams, the most striking historical fact about the word democracy is that it was, until the 19th century, generally a highly derogatory term and it has only been since the early 20th century that most western political parties have felt the need to pay lip service to it.

The first constitution to use the word democracy was that of Rhode Island in 1641. What democracy meant in that document was that the people,  in “orderly assembly” made the laws and ministers “faithfully executed” them. Alexander Hamilton, in 1777, saw this as recipe for anarchy. He favoured representative democracy “where the right of election is well secured and regulated, and the exercise of the legislative executive and judicial authorities is vested in select persons”.

Today, Hamilton’s concept is all we are left with. Anyone who argues for the original idea of direct democracy might be seen as a dangerous radical. So the voter opts for a particular candidate and in doing so leaves  that candidate to make his or her own decisions. A majority of voters might be in favour of capital punishment but that counts as nothing against the opinion of the elected representative. A majority might be against the invasion of Iraq, but in a representative democracy their views have no standing. In a further twist, the views of the elected representatives do not count when balanced against the views of the Cabinet. The views of the Cabinet do not count against the views of the prime minister. In guarding against the tyranny of the mob, representative democracy gives tyrannical powers to one man who gets his way by lying.

Representative democracy, in effect, gives little power to the voter. The voter makes a choice on the basis of the party manifesto, the personality and record of a particular candidate. The only control over the candidate’s performance is to vote for someone else at the next election , which may be five years away. The candidate/representative may break every promise in the manifesto and may even change party but still stay in parliament without consulting the voters.

Rauf Hakeem said, way back in 2007, (I don’t recall which party he was supporting at the time): “The subject of political morality is a relative thing. The current electoral system does not give any government the confidence to try and deliver on the commitments made during the polls.” Hakeem is echoing the American philosopher Richard Rorty, who wrote: “Language is just human beings using marks and noises to get what they want.”

John Stuart Mill ran for the British parliament in 1865. His campaign was very unlike a modern one. He refused to spend any money. When he was asked by a raucous working class crowd if he had written that the working class were habitually liars, he had no hesitation in saying “yes”. The audience  cheered and one of their number stood up to announce that the workers needed friends not flatterers

One definition of democracy is “government of the people by the people”. What do we mean by “people”? Throughout history suffrage has been limited to certain groups – freemen, whites, property-owners, the educated, the mature in years. It may not be generally realised that Switzerland, often thought of as an ancient democracy (more of that in a later article) did not grant the vote to women in all elections until 1991.Women got the vote in Ceylon  in 1931.

“Democracy” is often seen as synonymous with liberal democracy, which is expected to  include elements such as political pluralism and equality before the law. Majority rule is often listed as a characteristic of democracy, but it is possible for a party or candidate to rule with a numerical minority of votes. See Bush v Gore.

Economists have found fault with democracy in general on the grounds that voters are uninformed about many issues, especially relating to economics. Democracy is criticised for not offering enough political stability or continuity. Pareto argued that democracy masked the reality that elite oligarchy is the unbendable law of human society, and that democratic institutions would do no more than shift the exercise of power from oppression to manipulation.

Pareto’s view is borne out by what we see in the world today. JS Mill would get nowhere. In the USA, no candidate can get elected without huge funding. This  allows corporate interests to call the shots. The Supreme Court has ruled that corporations have the human rights of “persons” when it comes to campaign contributions.

Classical liberal theory sees capitalism and democracy as independent systems with disparate goals. Democracy restricts economic processes only to protect basic rights and does not limit wealth. Capitalism creates a large, wage-dependent class lacking the political power of the wealthy. Unrestricted global capitalism has created multi-national, non-democratic bodies with the impunity to override the environmental or labour laws passed by sovereign legislatures.

The EU has accrued many powers which allow it to override the wishes of voters in previously sovereign  nations. The crisis of global capitalism has not brought punishment on the perpetrators, who have been bailed out and given new power. Austerity measures and failed neo-liberal policies of privatisation, reduction in public services  and deregulation are being forced on individual governments by the troika of the EU, the ECB and the IMF. Look at Greece, often thought of as the birthplace of democracy. George Papandreou sought the views of his demos with a referendum and brought on his head the fury of Merkel and Sarkozy who had exacerbated the crisis. Papandreou was replaced by Lucas Papademos, a former vice-president of the European Central Bank, who promptly installed in the government a far-right group banned since the military government lost power in 1974. In Italy, the ludicrous (but elected) Berlusconi was replaced by ex-Goldman Sachs executive Mario Monti. The decision was made by the Italian president without consulting the voters. The next election is in 2013. In Ireland,  the voters did get the chance to throw out the corrupt scoundrels who got the nation in a mess, but now the Irish economy is being supervised by 15 unelected officials from Brussels, and even the (elected) cabinet is kept in the dark.

Is this version of democracy any better than the Sri Lankan one?

Commentators assert that the Sri Lankan parliament is populated by drug barons, rapists and murderers. It seems that European democracies are now ruled by the very banksters who toppled the economies.

The Irish Presidential Election

This article appeared in the Sri Lankan newspaper The Nation on 30 October 2011  but has now disappeared from their website.

 

It has just been announced that Michael D Higgins, a beaming little leprechaun, endorsed by  Martin Sheen is the new President of the Republic of Ireland. Higgins is a poet who has been minister of culture.

The Áras an Uachtaráin is not an executive presidency. Although it is mainly a ceremonial office strong personalities have been able to use it cannily. Eamon de Valera used his freedom fighter status (and his newspaper empire) to maintain the  totalitarian rule of the Catholic church. Mary Robinson used her international reputation, mighty intellect and even mightier charm to nudge Ireland into the modern world.

Contenders have come and gone and come back again. At one time there was speculation that Bob Geldof would put himself forward. In one of his more printable comments the ex-Boomtown Rat spoke of boom and bust. “The overwhelming feeling I have is one of sadness for the country – and of anger for the incompetence beyond measure, the sheer stupidity and the clear venality which has Ireland where it is now”. Saint Bob early decided it was not worth running.

There was pressure on Martin Sheen to use his experience of pretending to be a president on The West Wing to have a go at running a real country. He has Irish citizenship as well as a Master’s in philosophy from the University of Galway.

Fianna Fáil,  the party that has dominate Irish politics for decades. did not run an official candidate. but Sean Gallagher, although rejecting accusations that he  embraced his Fianna Fail past but denied the  Fianna Fail present, said on his own website: “Seán has been a sporadic member of Fianna Fáil over many years”.  Gallagher was front-runner at the end of the campaign. Businessman Hugh Morgan, alleged Mr Gallagher personally collected a €5,000 cheque from him on behalf of Fianna Fáil.

Rosemary Scallon (born Rosemary Brown in 1951 in Derry) achieved international fame as Dana, when she won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1970 with the song All Kinds of Everything. Squabbles over money from her US earnings peddling religious music have escalated into nastier accusations. Dana’s brother, John Brown, was a member of her election team. Dana’s sister, Susan, has accused Brown of sexually molesting her, Susan’s, daughter and is repeating the allegations now. She concealed the fact that she was a US citizen and therefore constitutionally barred from contesting for the presidency of Ireland.

The contest is open to natives of Northern Ireland even though they are UK citizens. Like Dana, Martin McGuinness is a native of Derry. (I once had dinner with Chris Patten and he told me he had got into hot water with the Reverend Ian Paisley for saying “Derry” instead of “Londonderry”). McGuinness, who has given up his job  in the Stormont government in Belfast to run in the Republic’s presidential election. He is having to field a lot of criticism about his terrorist past as Commandant of the Derry brigade of the Provisional IRA. He claims that he left the IRA in 1974 but others dispute this. Government Chief Whip Paul Kehoe snarked at McGuinness’s  commitment to draw the average industrial wage if elected. “Why would you need your salary when you have the proceeds of the Northern Bank at your disposal,” Mr Kehoe said. The IRA stole £26.5 million from the Northern Bank in 2004.

My friend, the Reverend Harold Good is not naive about the horrors of terrorism, but counts McGuinness as a friend following their partnership in the Northern Ireland peace process. Harold told me: “If elected he would be a circumspect, respectful and statesmanlike President… he would leave a gap in our Stormont administration where he is doing a very good job. The media and his opponents are indeed focussing on his past rather than his present. However, as I understand it … he and Sinn Fein see this as an opportunity to ask the Irish electorate to give a strong endorsement to the road they have taken … as distinct from the ‘dissidents’ . They feel a strong vote , whatever the outcome, will send this message.”

 

McGuinness made a less than helpful intervention in Sri Lankan affairs when he came here in 2006 and talked with LTTE leaders. He may have meant well  but was over-optimistic in seeing parallels with the Irish situation. In Ireland,  most parties were exhausted enough to give up conflict and to talk. “The reality is that, just as in Ireland, there can be no military victory and that the only alternative to endless conflict is dialogue, negotiations and accommodation”.

 

He was clearly mistaken.

 

McGuiness criticized the European Union for banning the Tamil Tigers as a Terrorist Organization. He said that “it was a huge mistake for EU leaders to demonize the LTTE and the political leaders of the Tamil people.”

 

We knew well enough that some were demons.

 

Although it is possible to learn lessons from history, the road to hell is paved with false analogies.

 

 

 

 

 

A Health unto HRH (and Confusion to his Enemies)

Seeing the Queen and Prince Philip meeting President Rajapaksa at the CHOGS (Commonwealth Heads of Government) junket reminded me. Damn – I’ve missed it again. Prince Charles has another birthday coming up and I haven’t even got him a card let alone a present.  (He will be 63 on November 14 –  put it in your diary so you don’t miss the next one.)  Happy birthday, Sir,  and long may you prosper at our expense!

Charles visited Batticaloa in Sri Lanka’s  Eastern province in 2005 after the tsunami. “I feel awful. All I have done is interrupt their very hard work. You’ve got a lot more to do when I’m gone.” The prince, on his first visit to Sri Lanka  since 1998, diplomatically declined to go to areas held by the LTTE (Liberation tigers of Tamil Eelam).

That trip to Sri Lanka cost British taxpayers £300,000. My wife and I  took  food and supplies to Hambantota in our car and it didn’t cost nearly as much as that. How much parippu can you buy for £300,000?

For its special 60th birthday issue the UK Daily Mirror revealed some fascinating facts about Prince Charles. Chuck  wears handmade shoes that cost £650 a pair. Turnbull & Asser make his shirts and also, from 2006, his suits, which cost up to £2,500. Previously, Savile Row tailors Anderson & Sheppard handmade his suits, at £4,000 a pop. This should set an example of frugality to all of us in this age of austerity – time for us all to cut our clothing expenses. As Thoreau so wisely wrote: “beware of any enterprise that requires the purchase of new clothes”. The Mirror tells us that Charles  always sleeps in the nude.

According to the Mirror, he has a boiled egg every afternoon. Royal Chefs boil seven eggs at once to make sure one is perfect.

He runs his 32-year-old Aston Martin on bio-fuel made from English wine. Better than drinking the foul brew! His Jaguars, Audi and Range Rovers have all been converted to run on 100%  biodiesel made from used cooking oil.

Jenny Diski reviewed Charles’s book Harmony: A New Way of Looking at Our World and commented: “I do wonder if HRH the Prince of Wales is really the best (though he’s obviously the wealthiest) advocate for the new sanity that might save the planet…For those of us who don’t have our toothpaste squeezed onto our toothbrush each night, there’s the business of regular life, of time and consequence, and of how actually to live in and deal with our own particular sector of the oneness. The quotidian. “

The prince’s lawyers fought attempts to access files concerning a controversial oyster farm in a special area of conservation by claiming it was a private estate. A judge ruled that the £700m estate should be considered a public authority and not a private estate.

As well as being called a “grovelling little bastard” by Spike Milligan, Charles  has been called Prince of Wales since 1958 but in Scotland his title is Duke of Rothesay. He is also called Duke of Cornwall. When his mother departs this earthly realm he will become Supreme Governor of the Church of England, Duke of Normandy, Lord of Mann (Dominus Manniae), Lord of the Isles and Paramount Chief of Fiji. As a royal, Charles has no surname, but when he feels the need to use one it is Mountbatten-Windsor (Mountbatten is the name chosen during the First World War by the Battenbergs and Saxe-Coburg-Gothas to conceal their German origins).

For his 60th he  was photographed in his birthday suit, the ceremonial uniform of the Welsh Guards. Being a prince wonderful opportunities  to dress up (this runs in the family – his son Harry got a lot of unfavourable publicity dressing up as a Nazi).

Charles is often snapped festooned with medals.  He must be a very brave man. (He did marry Camilla – a dirty job but someone’s got to do it.) The blue sash is the Most Noble Order of the Garter; the gold aiguillette signifies his position as the Queen’s aide-de-camp. Charles is a General in the British Army, an Admiral in the Royal Navy and an Air Chief Marshall in the Royal Air Force. He is Colonel-in-Chief, Colonel, Honorary Air Commodore, Air-Commodore-in-Chief, Deputy Colonel-in-Chief, Royal Honorary Colonel, Royal Colonel, and Honorary Commodore of at least 36 military formations throughout the Commonwealth.

Being a royal is like being in a big play-pen.

All those names are useful. Prince Charles has, in certain instances, the power to alter legislation passed by the democratically elected parliament and even to veto it. Dating back to 1337, when Edward III established the Duchy of Cornwall as the permanent property of whoever happens to be the heir to the throne, any proposed new law or change to the law, if it affects the prince’s private interests or the royal prerogative, must receive his consent. This power also applies to his multiple identities as Earl of Chester and Prince of Wales. The power has applied to 34 pieces of legislation since 2001, covering matters from shipwrecks to coroners’ courts and the Olympics. The departments of justice, education and food and rural affairs have all invoked exemptions from the Freedom of Information Act to avoid having to disclose correspondence between the government and the Prince of Wales.

MPs may be far from perfect but, unlike the king-to-be (or not to be), they can be thrown out by the voters. Even the right-wing Telegraph says: “Charles, even before this latest news, has been seen as a sort of ticking constitutional time-bomb”.

In 2004, the Royal Family cost £36.7m, equivalent to 61p per taxpayer. Palace gardeners cost £400,000 a year. A chartered flight taken by the Duke of York to the Far East to promote UK interests cost £125,000. A royal train journey made by the Prince of Wales from Aberdeen to Plymouth, Devon cost £45,000. The royal train costs £20,000 pounds every day. The most expensive trip was the queen’s six-day state visit to the United States, which cost a total of £414,042. It cost £316,061 pounds for Prince Charles to take an eight-day trip to Uganda and Turkey for the  Foreign Office.

The Independent newspaper revealed documents that showed the Queen had tried to siphon off funds set aside for energy-saving grants aimed at poor families to pay Buckingham Palace gas and electricity bills. Robin Hood in reverse. Robbin’ bastards!

I wrote about the royal family for an American audience a few years ago and was surprised by the reaction. One Yank who likes to think of himself as a curmudgeonly contrarian said:  “I think he is a terrific guy. I think the royal family gives back ten times what they get.” He went dewey-eyed about the Queen and “her beautiful sister”. I once met Princess Margaret. She was about three-foot tall with skin kippered by decades of chain-smoking. There is a wonderful picture of her as a snobbish, bigoted, bullying kleptomaniac in Edward St Aubyn’s 1994 novel Some Hope. St Aubyn  described the Queen’s sister as having a voice that could be “mistaken by a Chinaman for a cockney accent” and as a rampant reactionary with the social skills of a despot.

Human delusion is a serious problem in many contexts. Seeing broken Britain as a Ruritanian fairyland is not helpful. People who say that the monarchy contributes to the unique and positive character of British democracy, rarely give concrete practical examples of how the Royals make a difference in real life. Are there examples of the Queen exerting a positive symbolic function in the way Juan Carlos did with the Spanish fascists?

Tony Blair decided to join in with the invasion of Iraq mainly, it seems, to please his new (dubiously-elected) friend Dubya in Washington. A substantial number of the Queen’s loyal subjects were strongly opposed. Democracy had little to do with it. I wonder what the Queen said to Blair. Did she try to stop the project?

The Queen’s loyal armed forces seem to have been particularly badly treated by governments during the misguided adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. All the royal family have a fetish for dressing up in military uniforms and pretending to be soldiers or sailors. This is supposed to convey a solidarity with the armed forces. Did  the royal family express  their solidarity with the British armed forces by trying to persuade HM  Government to give them a better deal in terms of equipment, treatment for PTSD, homes and pensions.

The UK already has a presidential system. Neither the Queen nor the voters has control over what President Blair or Brown or Cameron and their crony banksters might want to do. That does not stop Charles from interfering.

The only check on erosion of civil liberties seems to be the unelected house of Lords.

By the way,  I wonder what the Queen said to President Rajapaksa in Perth. Any advice about running a dynasty?

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