Signing off from The Staggers

After 18 months of blogging, I’m still convinced religion must be better understood.

After just under 18 months, this will be my last post on The Staggers, in a series that began as the "God Blog" but which then ranged beyond religion into world affairs – two subjects which in many countries are so intertwined that they cannot be regarded as separate areas of discussion – and the occasional foray into British domestic politics.

I think it would be fair to say that, as often as not, my thoughts irritated or even enraged many commenters, leading some to suggest that they should not have appeared on the website of a magazine with such a distinguished left-wing history. This stemmed at least in part from two views with which I would disagree.

First, that the New Statesman should always take a strongly atheist and avowedly secular stance. I pointed out the connection between religion and radicalism in my introductory column, "Age of Homo Religiosus", which I still believe rebuts this point. By way of example, I will merely reproduce the words Keir Hardie wrote in 1910:

I have said, both in writing and from the platform many times, that the impetus which drove me first into the Labour movement, and the inspiration which has carried me on in it, has been derived more from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth than from all other sources combined.

If that was good enough for him . . .

The other argument I have tried to make – although I have been made very aware of the limits of my powers of persuasion in this regard – is that religion is an overwhelming fact in the world. Whatever certain readers may think, my aim has never been to advance the case for any religion, let alone proselytise, but instead to suggest that we would all benefit from understanding it rather than reducing it to extreme and backward-looking versions which we naturally find repugnant. This only serves the interests of fundamentalists of any or no faith.

Certainty is what makes me suspicious, whether it be an unquestioning belief in the current conclusions of sciences that are – as they should be – constantly changing as new discoveries are made, or in dogmas that do not allow for different circumstances and times, remaining stuck in the fabrics of societies that vanished centuries ago. I would include in this also certainties about the desirability of imposing our form of liberal democracy in countries with other histories and sets of values.

Any universalism always starts from a particular standpoint, and when it comes to how we think societies should order themselves the western standpoint is not unique; it also strikes me as arrogant to suggest that it is uniquely right. Those who maintain that the only justifiable left-wing position is to do just that may not realise how much that smacks of neo-colonialism in the many countries that have had quite enough of being told what to do by European and American powers. To me, it seems more naturally left-wing not to subject them to lectures and threats, but to regard and treat them as equals free to determine their own futures.

Second, and less importantly, there has been some objection to my occasional columns in support of Liberal politics. I have always thought of British Liberalism as being on the left – just look up Lloyd eorge's speeches against the privileges of the aristocracy, for instance – and that radical Liberals had much reason to be furious about the actions of the last Labour government.

Who betrayed the left during those 13 years? Not Liberals (who opposed the Iraq war, etc). Tribalism may trump principle in practice, but not, I would hope, in the pages of the New Statesman, which I believe should feel like home for Liberals just as much as it does for Labour, Green and all sorts of open-minded thinkers.

All of which brings me to thank the NS for having me as an online columnist for the last 18 months. The magazine's tolerance for divergent opinions is a tribute to its range and intelligence – and to its readers, however much they may have disagreed with me.

And on the subject of readers, my thanks to, too, to the regular commenters. I will mention just two: Daniele, who frequently took me to task, but from a consistent and coherent standpoint (and one that I respect more than Daniele perhaps imagines), and most especially to Lou, who was often a very welcome voice of support – precisely because he was the only one!

I will still be writing essays and book reviews for the magazine. Perhaps we will meet again in the comments section when future articles appear. Until then, as the Roman poet wrote, "Ave atque vale."

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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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.