Unspontaneous protest

Press freedom in Sri Lanka, mace-wielding John McDonnell, the return of Wegg-Prosser - and much more

A Heath Row

I travel everywhere by organic dow, but don't necessarily expect others to live up to my absurdly high ethical standards, least not the masses of under-sunned Brits for whom the proposed new runway at Heathrow Airport will provide yet more exciting opportunities to flay themselves on Mediterranean beaches.

Not everyone is delighted by this prospect though, and among the political classes a surprisingly broad consensus has emerged against the plan. Green Queen Caroline Lucas compared plans for peaceful protests against the development to those of the suffragettes (er, didn't they throw an axe at the prime minister?), explaining that a new runway: "..would lead to spiralling carbon dioxide emissions, unacceptable noise pollution for millions living in London and the South East and worsening air quality." Other groups joining the 'Climate Rush' include the pleasant Christians at Ekklesia, whose co-director Simon Barrow recently wrote for newstatesman.com's Faith Column about the need to use our wealth for the common good – which presumably doesn't include holidays in Malta.

Rumbold on Pickled Politics felt that supporters of the runway had failed to articulate a plausible case, positing that more efficient airport management could solve many of Heathrow's current troubles. He argued that improved rail networks could help cut the number of flights in and out – obviating the need for the new runway and cutting carbon emissions.

Speculating over the fallout from the pending decision, Iain Dale predicted trouble ahead for Hilary "not a Bennite" Benn. He wrote:

"It's difficult to see how Climate Change Minister Ed Miliband could defend it, but he won't go. The one Minister I can see resigning is Hilary Benn, who has already made his position very clear.

As if that wasn't exciting enough, top celebs like Emma Thompson and TV's Alistair McGowan joined megabucks Tory candidate Zac Goldsmith (the only PPC I've ever seen with an art nouveau font on his website) in buying up tracts of earmarked land to thwart the developers. Will it work? Probably not, but worth a shot.

Thursday saw the project given government approval, provoking the ire of, amongst others, left-winger John McDonnell MP, who reached for the mace in what Iain Dale described as an “unspontaneous protest”…

What have we learned this week?

Terrific news: one of this blog's favourites, Ben Wegg-Prosser has been given a new platform! Labour List, the new enterprise of Derek Draper (unkindly monikered "Dolly" by bloggers of the right) promises posts from Benjamin, though the Moscow-based former Number 10 weblord has yet to contribute. The inevitable tussle between Labour List and the longer-established Labour Home to become the primary online base for activists is "absolutely on" sources behind the project whisper – so it may be worth keeping an eye on.

Around the World

Concerns over the state of press freedom in Sri Lanka peaked this week, with the murder of Lasantha Wickramatunga, a highly respected journalist who had consistently campaigned to expose corruption and human rights abuses. Chit Chat ran images from the scene, while London-based Rine mourned both his death and the state of government on the island, angrily asking:

"Who do we have at this moment who will fight against the injustice that is a corrupt government terrorising its own people under the veil
of a war?"

Lakimba was less gracious. Acknowledging that: "It is indeed sad news when a human being has been killed prior to their time," he added the caveat, "...even when a person with a twisted mind and a strong anti-Sri Lankan agenda like Mr. Lasantha Wickramatunga".

Videos of the Week

Following President Bush's melancholy and almost ruminative final press conference, numerous YouTubers decided to stitch together retrospectives. This is a rather beautiful look back on his eight baffling years in office.

Back in Britain, the Tories have launched a series of new ads highlighting the scale of the national debt, including this one, in which an adorable infant is born into a life of burdened misery thanks to the prime minister.

Quote of the Week

"Has some charmer organised a denial of service attack on LabourList just as it was being featured live on Channel 4 News? Bit of a coincidence that it should "go down" at the precise moment if there was no mischief afoot. Very strange."

A somewhat paranoid Chris Paul fears online sabotage.

Paul Evans is a freelance journalist, and formerly worked for an MP. He lives in London, but maintains his Somerset roots by drinking cider.
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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.