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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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