How Valentines should go nuclear

Valentines and nuclear waste - a novel gift idea for your loved one...

Ah, Valentine’s Day. Love is compulsorily in the air and we’re all being urged to buy, buy, buy to prove it. But marking the day with more than a simple (recycled) card is full of ethical pitfalls. If you’re a Green, what are the options?

A short-haul mini break to hold hands in a European city is obviously out of the question. Similarly, diamonds have been tainted with every ethical dirty stick there is, including genocide, so I can’t see myself lusting after any of those. And any flowers available at this time of year, even if they haven’t been soaked with chemicals throughout their lives, are likely to have been either forced up in overheated greenhouses or flown in from warmer parts of the world.

Supporting a local restauranteur with a candle-lit dinner seems like the best idea for Wednesday, although I have probably left it too late to book anything now. Greenpeace’s case against the Energy Review has hit the High Court at the same time as the Green Party is focusing on Trident, so I have been busy with nuclear-related businesses most of this week.

The Greens are supporting Greenpeace’s case and put in a witness statement detailing how the consultation leading up to last year’s Energy Review was too short. It also asked questions that were hard to answer sensibly, and which betrayed the Government’s foregone conclusion to endorse a new round of nuclear power stations, and all of this went into the statement as well. I went to the Old Bailey on the first day of the case last Wednesday along with reps from the other groups supporting the case, including UNISON, the PCS union, Nuclear Free Local Authorities and the Welsh Anti-Nuclear Alliance.

At lunchtime, I joined a Green Party delegation to 10 Downing Street to deliver a letter outlining our objections to another huge waste of money that it’s hard to believe Labour are planning – the renewal of our Trident weapons of mass destruction.

Later on I went to meet Under-Secretary of Defence, Derek Twigg, with Green MEP Caroline Lucas. The MoD agreed to this meeting in lieu of us being able to take part in the rubber stamping debate that will be held in Parliament, and we grilled him quite thoroughly on the various moral, practical, financial and diplomatic madnesses associated with replacing the UK’s ‘nuclear deterrent’.

Predictably, we didn’t hear much new. Mr Twigg has memorised all the dodgy assumptions from the Defence White Paper issued in December, and he didn’t deviate an inch from these lines when we tackled him. Still, we left them some written questions to answer, and at least I got to see some first-class ministerial doublethink in the flesh.

Also this week, proposals for what to do with the nuclear waste from our current nuclear power stations were endorsed by the Geological Society of London. Tons of highly radioactive material has been sitting around at places like Sellafield for years while the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM) tried to come up with a safe way of storing it in the long term. ‘Geological disposal’ is now the preferred plan – i.e. burying it under ground for a really, really long time and hoping for the best – and now the RGS has agreed this is the least risky way of coping with it.

The conjunction of all this nuclear action with wondering what to do about Valentine’s Day gave me a curious thought. If diamonds are actually forever, nuclear waste very nearly lasts that long, so could the Government perhaps save a bit on the cost of burying all that waste by enlisting the help of the man who can sell anything, Richard Branson? To complement Virgin Atlantic’s flights, Virgin Galactic’s near-space travel and Virgin Health Bank’s stem cell storage plan, he could launch ‘Virgin Isotopic – the nuclear option for lovers’.

It’s a simple idea. Romantic souls looking for the ultimate gesture would pay – say - £200 to have their declaration of love etched (with lasers!) onto one of the copper cylinders in which spent nuclear fuel will be contained. The personalised canisters would be taken to a depository far under ground and then kept completely safe and secure under every conceivable political or geological circumstance for hundreds of thousands of years.

A ‘business class’ option could be added to the scheme, where the different nuclear isotopes in the waste would be separated and customers given a choice of radioactive elements to reflect the level of their commitment. More cynical or realistic lovers could opt for a cylinder of caesium-137 – with a half-life of 34 years, this material could be safely handled again after less than a thousand years. Idealists could opt instead for a batch of plutonium-239 – its half-life of 24,000 years means the canister would remain lethal effectively forever.

Thinking about it, this is a definite winner. After all, unlike a diamond ring, it’s incredibly unlikely any of this stuff will be lost or stolen. Well, let’s hope not anyway.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution