Released without charge: Gerry Adams with Northern Ireland's deputy FM Martin McGuinness on 4 May. Photo: Getty
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Arresting Gerry Adams, the problem with Venezuela, and beating poverty… with maths

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts column.

What was the point of the Northern Ireland police arresting and holding Gerry Adams for four days over a murder that happened 42 years ago? A conviction would be impossible to obtain. Using a Diplock court (sitting without a jury) would be unthinkable for such a high-profile case. Few potential witnesses would be willing to give evidence and few jurors willing to convict, either because they regard Adams as a liberation hero or because they still fear the IRA. Mainland press commentators who insist “justice” must be done forget that justice is always elusive in a divided society where paramilitary gangs are never far below the surface.

Tony Blair’s peace with the Provisional IRA was a fudge and perhaps a necessary one. Hardline republicans will stick with democratic politics as long as they think it works for them. If it ever ceases to do so, the IRA – or a “rebel” offshoot, which is what the Provisional IRA was in the first place – will reappear. “We haven’t gone away, you know,” a Belfast rally was told after Adams’s arrest. That understanding has underpinned the province’s affairs for 16 years.

There was never a formal amnesty, only a series of nods and winks. Paramilitaries on both sides could do as they pleased in sectarian working-class ghettos. But Northern Ireland’s middle classes could get on with their shopping while business could make profits without inconvenience from bombs. So that’s all right – for the time being. 

Shapps goes Caracas

Grant Shapps, the Tory party chairman, accuses Ed Miliband of favouring “Venezuelan-style rent controls”. I don’t deny there are arguments against controls. But why doesn’t Shapps – who, I suspect, knows even less than I do about housing in Caracas – make those arguments instead of namechecking Venezuela as though that settled the matter? That country is now scarcely mentioned, even in the centre-left press, without words such as “dictatorship” and “tyranny” lurking nearby. Tory papers and politicians bracket it with the likes of North Korea, Iran and Syria. Although it is far from perfect, Venezuela regularly hovers around mid-table in most indices of democracy and human rights. It is singled out because its government is among the few that is recognisably socialist.

What Shapps probably had in mind was a new law that forces some private landlords to sell to their tenants at a “fair price” determined by the government. Which reminds me of the Right to Buy policy that the Tories forced on local council landlords. 

Everybody hates Tony

Et tu, Philip? The Financial Times commentator Philip Stephens, one of Tony Blair’s more respectful biographers, wrote a startling column the other day about the former PM’s “single-minded, almost manic, quest for personal riches”. Stephens has always argued that Blair’s intentions in Iraq were honourable and still thinks he was “a better prime minister than history will probably allow”. But he now says no other political leader has been so “diligent . . . in the sullying of his own reputation”. He accuses Blair – who recently called for the west to ally with Russia and China against Islamists – of “ahistorical and simplistic analysis”.

It is a measure of Blair’s fall that even the judicious Stephens holds him in such contempt. Some Labour people still call themselves Blairites but it will soon rival Stalinist or Maoist as a label to be avoided.

A problem halved

Rejoice. Global poverty – defined as the proportion of people living on less than $1.25 a day – has nearly halved, from 19.7 per cent to 11.2 per cent. Moreover, this fall happened overnight, just the other day. How? Not, alas, because some hedge-fund manager hired helicopters to drop dollar bills across Africa and Asia but because the World Bank has recalculated. Instead of using currency exchange rates, it has switched to purchasing power parity – which tells you what $1.25 will buy in different countries. Goods are usually cheaper in poor countries so a little goes a long way and, as the Financial Times economics editor, Chris Giles, puts it, “Many of the world’s poor are not as destitute as we had imagined.” That is a convenient conclusion for the World Bank, a body that imposes “structural adjustment” on developing countries, meaning less welfare and fewer public services.

Jurassic snark

My old friend Simon Heffer, trailing his new book, Simply English, writes in the Daily Mail: “To describe someone with outdated attitudes or opinions as a dinosaur is now a cliché.” It presumably wasn’t a year ago, when Heffer, commenting on an NS interview with the Unite union leader, Len McCluskey, wrote: “The roar of the dinosaur . . . echoes again.”

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage