Let's work together

Much of what eco-villages began doing decades ago is being adopted by the mainstream

Something wonderful is happening within the world of ‘alternative’ communities at present. This movement, whose very raison d’être is grounded in a comprehensive rejection of mainstream society – seeing it as being so misguided in its orientation that it makes little sense to try to reform it from within – is today seeing a growing number of alliances with that very society from which it has been so alienated!

Ecovillages around the world are building partnerships with local government, universities, enterprise promotion agencies and other community-based organisations. This trend is very much in evidence here at Findhorn. A new United Nations sustainability training centre opened last year, with the Moray Council, our local administration, as full partners.

We teach two accredited semesters per year to students from US universities and host visits from many UK colleges and school. A group of consultants based within the community is engaged in several mainstream sustainability initiatives, including advising the Cairngorn National park on how to reduce its carbon footprint, designing a model carbon-free island off the west coast of Scotland and working on the design of a new, a low-impact settlement of 60,000 people in the south-east of England.

A partnership initiative closer to home brings our community-supported agriculture (CSA) scheme, EarthShare, into partnership with the Highlands and Islands Local Food Network.


CSAs are an ingenious idea whose aim is to increase people’s connection to local food and to support local – and generally organic – farmers. CSA subscribers commit themselves financially to the scheme for a year in return for which they get a weekly box of vegetables. EarthShare – Britain’s oldest and largest organic CSA – is somewhat exceptional in that it delivers vegetable boxes every week of the year.

This reduces food miles (in the case of EarthShare, the furthest farm is only five miles from the community) and dispenses with the need for wasteful packaging. Moreover, with around 50 types of organic vegetables and soft fruit, EarthShare is doing its bit to promote biodiversity. The harvest is shared between the subscribers – in a bumper year, the boxes are full to bursting; in a lean year, they are merely generous. This gives us cheaper food than at the local supermarket (just think about how many middle-men are cut out) and guarantees a good income for the farmer.

EarthShare has been used by years for demonstration and training purposes by the Soil Association, Britain’s leading promoter of organic food. Now, it is playing a similar function for the Highlands and Islands Local Food Network. Currently, eight trainees from across the region are coming to Findhorn on a regular basis to learn to become organic farmers, with some specifically interested in creating a CSA.

I sometimes sense a feeling of unease within some quarters of the ecovillage movement at the development of all these partnerships. If mainstream society considers us to be appropriate partners, such thinking goes, we must have lost our radical, cutting edge.

However, I believe it is society at large that is changing fast. So much of what made ecovillages look strange and alien places as recently as a decade ago – organic food, micro-generation of energy, complementary medicine and a spiritual sensitivity – are becoming increasingly mainstream. Having stepped outside mainstream society for several decades, ecovillages are coming back into the fold, carrying with them many precious jewels gathered on their journeys.

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
Getty
Show Hide image

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.