A policeman keeps an eye on a boat full of protestors against tax dodging. Photograph: Getty Images
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Laurie Penny on The G8: welcome to the “New Northern Ireland”, a place where no dissent will be tolerated

"Could they not have just had the meeting on Skype?"

In Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, the streets are full of fake shop-fronts, designed to give the impression that empty stores are still selling things. Some of them are so realistic that locals have attempted to walk through doors that turn out to be painted on. The small Northern Irish town has 4.8 per cent unemployment, with an 82 per cent rise in redundancies last year, and a population of 14,000, plus about 3,000 police from all over Britain, plus a protest camp. It’s here that the 2013 G8 conference is taking place.

The G8 allows the world's richest nations to come together without representatives of the global south blocking the corridors and raising inconvenient points in meetings, but that's not its only function. It is also about pomp and show. It’s a pageant of neoliberal capitalism functioning whether local residents like it or not. That sort of pageantry requires the suppression of dissent, especially in a political climate where the elite's only answer to a drop in living standards and a collapse of faith in democracy is to line up an epic number of police with water cannons and tear gas.

“They’ve spent fifty million on policing,” Gerry Carroll, an activist in Belfast, tells me. “For god’s sake, could they not have just had the meeting on Skype?”

Since the 2001 summit in Genoa was targeted by 200,000 protesters, all subsequent G8 meetings have been held in remote locations designed to be inaccessible to the general rabble; last year the gathering was due to come to Chicago, but the location was changed to Camp David after the Occupy movement promised to converge on the city. This year, the chosen pitch is tiny Enniskillen, a good two hours' drive from Belfast even without roadblocks and hold-ups.

There has been an enormous uptick in police presence and capabilities both on the streets of Belfast and in rural County Fermanagh. Central Belfast was virtually shut down on Saturday during the peaceful march called by local left groups, where 3,000 demonstrators were met by an almost equal number of police, even though the G8 leaders weren’t even in the country yet. Local prison facilities have been expanded, horrifying residents. "One of the top stories on the news here in the North was that they'd spent millions building this facility – they're so prepared for mass violence that they could lock up 300 people at will," Sean Mitchell, an activist with the Irish anti-austerity group People Before Profit, tells me.

The choice to hold the G8 in Northern Ireland is an interesting one, designed in part to showcase the state's newfound stability, but also to demonstrate the lengths to which local law enforcement is prepared to go to defend that stability. In his speech at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast this morning, Obama praised the people of Northern Ireland for their commitment to ending sectarian violence, saying that the peace process gave "the entire world hope." He quoted Yeats and Heaney, made jokes about the craic, and spoke of sunny days free from the anticipation of violence. Outside it rained hard on 3,000 police, the sort of airless city rain that seems to come from all directions at once.

You might have been forgiven for thinking the whole of Belfast loved Obama, were it not for the massive slogan marked out in white bedsheets on a nearby hill, visible across the city, and certainly from the presidential helicopter. The slogan reads “G8/NWO: WAR CRIMINALS.”

The governments in Westminster and Stormont are keen to show off a Northern Ireland free from the merest whimper of trouble, whatever it takes. In the process, they have collapsed the notion of hard-won peace into a logic whereby all protest is put down and suppressed in the name of "stability". This confuses, effectively, the idea of a state in which citizens work together to live better lives after years of fighting – some might call this a democracy functioning well – with a state in which no dissent is tolerated, which is the sort of crisis of representative democracy that most G8 leaders, from Putin to President Obama, are facing at home right now.

This morning the streets of Enniskilllen, lined with abandoned shops disguised behind false fronts, were practically deserted. Protesters making their way to Fermanagh from across Northern Ireland expect to be arrested and thrown into one of the specially-developed dentention facilities standing ready for them. I spoke to young Fermanagh residents who had been hassled at home by the police merely for discussing the possibility of peaceful protest on the internet; all of them were too frightened of retribution to talk on the record. To mistake this bicep-flexing neoliberal muscle-show for a stable state full of happy people would be a mistake.

"The argument is that we're in a new situation, a 'New Northern Ireland', but the security response to the G8 has broken that down," says Sean Mitchell. "It's the same mass-scale, repressive response to political protest - but this time used against anti-capitalist protesters."

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

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.