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Laurie Penny on how protest is being outlawed

The message from the Alfie Meadows case is clear: if you protest, the police can do what they like to you.

New York

Alfie Meadows still hasn't grown his hair back. When they rushed him into theatre for emergency brain surgery after his injury in a demonstration against the tripling of university fees, doctors shaved the 20-year-old's shoulder-length locks, the style that announces to the world "I am a philosophy student". Now the thatch is gone, exposing a hand-length scar across his skull, he looks much younger. Thin and shy with eyes that dart downwards, Meadows speaks rarely, and never about his legal case against the Metropolitan police officers who his lawyers claim nearly killed him. This week he goes on trial for violent disorder for his actions that day, a charge that could land him in jail.

The message being sent may as well have been printed on official police stationary and distributed outside the court: in protest situations, police are never in the wrong. Meadows is among the most high profile of dozens of protesters who have been tried for serious public order offences over the past eighteen months. As emergency measures against public assembly and popular protest are passed in time for the Olympics, any political direct action more energetic than standing silently with a few signs in designated areas is becoming functionally illegal in Britain.

The narrative of public dissent is being rewritten with astonishing speed. As police continue to crack heads with impunity, peaceful protesters are handed down harsh deterrent charges. Ten defendants in the Fortnum and Mason trial were recently given six-month suspended sentences for aggravated trespass, essentially for standing around in a grocery shop with some leaflets. I was there at the time, and the worst I saw was some slogans against corporate tax avoidance being carefully wrapped on printed ticker-tape around large stacks of Earl Grey tea. For those swept up in last year's riots, meanwhile, there hasn't been a crumb of mercy. As I write, teenagers are still in prison for creating Facebook events.

Whatever we think about how these young people behaved, we should have the decency to call them what they are: political prisoners. That this government has run out of ideas for enforcing austerity beyond frightening people into compliance may be of little comfort to those whose young lives and job prospects will be blighted by deterrent jail sentences.

As with music and angular haircuts, so with public order policing -- the Americans are at least a year behind us in keeping up with the latest trends. This week, during another brutal crackdown on Occupy Wall Street, skulls were stomped on, heads were cracked into windows and journalists were dragged or shoved away from the scene as anti-capitalist protesters attempted to peacefully reoccupy Zucotti Park, site of the original encampment that drew international attention last September.

From behind hastily-erected police barricades, I watched as a curly-haired girl in green appeared to begin having a seizure during her arrest, flopping about on the pavement with her hands cuffed and passing out more than once before police eventually allowed an ambulance behind the lines. As she was stretchered away, protesters standing near me speculated that the NYPD would have to put the girl -- later identified as 23-year-old Cecily McMillan -- on a felony charge to "get out of this one".

Sure enough, McMillan was released into custody the next day and charged with assaulting a police officer, a crime that could see her serving over a year in prison. I thought of Alfie Meadows, whose trial in London will send the same message to anyone thinking of joining the cultural backlash against austerity and kamikaze capitalism. If you protest, the police can do what they like to you. Any sort of public dissent can and will be met with force. You chose to protest, so you asked for it. Next time, make it easy on yourself -- sit down, shut up and stay at home.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Mission impossible

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Brexit is the beginning of the end for Northern Ireland

The age-old bid for a unified Ireland is now wearing utilitarian clothes. 

Brexit has presented British politics with something akin to a "reverse West Lothian Question". Instead of worrying why Scots should get a vote on English laws, we now have English voters telling Scotland and Northern Ireland they must leave the European Union, despite the people in both small countries opting to stay. 

Sinn Fein could hardly believe its luck that 56 per cent of Northern Ireland’s voters chose to remain in the EU, but are nevertheless being forced out by the weight of English votes for Brexit. Their immediate call for a "border poll" on Irish unity is opportunistic and will, for now, go unheeded. 

What is different, though, is their age-old bid for Irish re-unification now comes wearing neutral, utilitarian colours, responding to a genuine, contemporary issue. Moreover, the threat of Brexit to Northern Ireland has seen the Irish establishment, in the shape of Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny, and his opposite number, the Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin, echo calls for an (eventual) poll on Irish unity.

Brexit is, indisputably, a game-changer. We are now plausibly witnessing the beginning of the end of Northern Ireland. Not least because the economics of leaving the EU are so utterly disastrous for it. 

Back in March, Northern Ireland’s Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment calculated that the risks of Brexit would be much more serious for Northern Ireland than the rest of Britain. Whereas Britain’s economic losses will be measured in the region of 0.1-4 per cent of GDP, for Northern Ireland that increases to up to 5.6 per cent.

In short, if Britain catches a cold by leaving the EU, Northern Ireland will get flu. Even if Theresa May eventually manages to negotiate ongoing single market access, the loss of agricultural subsidies and regeneration cash will be an unmanageable burden for the fragile cross-community executive to deal with.  

Last year, the devolved assembly's enterprise committee commissioned a report that showed the province received £2.4bn from the EU between 2007-13, and that continued funding deals up to 2020 are "central to Northern Ireland[s] economic and innovation strategies".

The report's author, Dr Leslie Budd from the Open University, argued that as well as damaging Northern Ireland's attractiveness as an entry route into the single market, transaction costs for trading into the EU would "rise significantly" and inhibit economic co-operation with the neighbouring Irish Republic. 

This is important because the Northern Ireland Executive plans to harmonise corporation tax rates with it in 2018. It is hoped the move will make the North a leaner competitor to the South in the foreign investment stakes, however it will still fall short if the Republic remains in the single market and Northern Ireland does not. 

Worries about any deterioration in North-South relations and being cut-off from the EU are very real. The Northern Ireland Chambers of Commerce have recently signed a ‘formal affiliation’ with Chambers Ireland to bolster all-Ireland business co-operation "in the current period of uncertainty." 

Meanwhile, there has been a rush to apply for Irish passports, so much so, in fact, that it’s said Belfast’s post offices have run out of application forms. Indeed, no less a figure than Democratic Unionist MP, Ian Paisley Junior, suggested his constituents should think of applying for one. A genuine "through the looking glass moment" to hear that from a Paisley.

The obvious effect of Brexit-inspired instability in Northern Ireland is that it will become an even larger burden on the British Exchequer. Already, one in three works in the engorged public sector and its fiscal deficit is so large the Treasury has to pump in £9 billion a year. Will hard-pressed English taxpayers prove willing to continue to bail out a place of which they know and care little?

But this is only half the story. If these are the obvious pressures as a result of Northern Ireland leaving the EU, what, then, are the benefits of joining with the Irish Republic? 

A major US academic study by the University of British Columbia last year modelled various scenarios and concluded that Irish unity could drive out €36bn euros of value during the first eight years, with the benefits disproportionately felt in Northern Ireland. 

So a clear, existential economic problem has emerged and with it a convincing, evidence-based economic solution. The only snag with Northern Ireland, though, is the politics.

The principle of consent, that there can be no change in its constitutional status unless a majority wishes it, is hardwired into the Good Friday Agreement and there is, so far, precious little interest among unionists in joining the Irish Republic.

But as the old saying goes, unionists are not so much loyal to the Crown as the half-crown. Maybe they will look more positively on the idea after suffering the very real economic effects of Brexit for a few years. A decision Eurosceptical unionists voted for in large numbers.

And in a decade’s time, perhaps we will look back and see these past few weeks were the beginning of the end for Northern Ireland.
 

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.