13 May 2021
A World of Conflict
By Paul Branch
The past week or so has seen vicious internal conflicts and some nasty upsets across this sad old planet of ours: from Jerusalem to Kabul, and on to Belfast and even Jersey. Religion and politics lie at the heart of it, two bedfellows which never cease to cause sparks of resentment and shivers of concern whenever and wherever they appear.
East Jerusalem has seen its fair share of bedlam in the past, between Israel and its occupied neighbour Palestine. The fear of evictions, to make way for further settlements within the previously internationally organised city, and the celebrations to mark the reclaiming of Jerusalem in 1967 have coincided with Ramadan. Palestinian demonstrators launching stones, supported by reported missile firings from Gaza, have been met by Israeli stun grenades, rubber bullets, water cannon and much bigger missiles of their own. People have died and been injured on both sides, and the usually fragmented alliance of the US, Russia and the EU have supported the UN in expressing concern and asking for calm. But the protagonists do not seem to be talking, or if they are they do not appear to be using a common language. Sad that such events should take place in Jerusalem, home to many religions which are all supplicants to the same God but where each reacts according to seemingly different messages from Himself.
In Afghanistan as the last of the US troops prepare to pull out, a Shia secondary school in Kabul was attacked by terrorists with a car bomb supplemented by other explosives. Scores of children, mostly girls, died with no one as yet claiming the credit for such an act. The Taliban and the Afghan government were in peace talks, currently at a standstill, intended to agree on the future governance of the country, but Islamic State have not been invited to the discussions and they are obviously looking to regain their lost territory. IS views Shia Muslims as heretics and they have a nasty record of atrocities to match this one. And again, the international community wrings its hands and condemns yet another barbarous attack. Net result: zilch.
Thankfully it’s been relatively quiet on the domestic strife front in Hong Kong, Myanmar and other global hot spots. Nearer to home in Northern Ireland however we are not immune to violence and terrorism. Upset over the Brexit agreement and the impact of its NI protocol on the Good Friday Agreement have led to demonstrations in Belfast with exchanges of missiles across the religious divide and with the police. The political fallout has resulted in the departure of the First Minister Arlene Foster amid turmoil in the DUP as unionists start to quake at the thought of Brexit giving the nationalists the upper hand. With the Catholic population of Ulster on the rise, a referendum on NI’s continuing future as part of the UK or returning to the family of Ireland is an increasing possibility at some stage, but the Irish have enough to worry about trying to recover from the pandemic without taking on more economic burden just yet. The UK and Irish governments, the EU and the US once again join in condemning the recent violence, and mercifully all seems to have gone quiet again, if only for now. But still the dead from the Troubles of the 1970s remind us yet again that violence leads to more violence, that nothing is resolved until the will is there for discussion, understanding and forgiveness on all sides.
An interesting suggestion appeared in the English press that any future referendum, on Northern Ireland or on Scottish independence, should be preceded by the actual wording of an eventual separation agreement. By doing so it might force both sides of the argument out into the open so the voters would know exactly what they wish upon themselves, as opposed to the suck-it-and-see approach adopted previously for IndyRef1 and indeed also for Brexit. It might also pave the way for future amity rather than enmity whichever way the result goes.
Perhaps the really good news to emerge after last week’s elections has been the invitation by Boris to all the UK’s devolved governments to get round the table and actually talk about how to avoid future strife in these troubled Isles of ours, rather than carrying on with acrimonious headline grabbing pronouncements. Such a breath of fresh air, and an approach which might have been adopted as an alternative of finding ourselves facing off against a supposed old friend. It’s been a while since we were at war with France. Since 1066 there have been three major long-lasting conflicts and several shorter episodes but all over a period of years. This nonsense finally came to an end in 1815 at Waterloo, but oh so nearly kicked off again just off the French coast, albeit for a matter of hours rather than years.
Jersey caught the full brunt of the fallout from another chink in the Brexit armour, causing widespread dismay with the fishing rights element of the agreement with the EU. A flotilla of small French fishing boats arrived at St Helier for a peaceful demonstration (admittedly preceded by threats to turn out all the lights in the Channel Islands), to be met by HMS Severn and HMS Tabar, two warships bristling with armaments … actually two small cannons and a machine gun, but still… The French government responded with a couple of puny police patrol boats, clearly no match for our brave lads in the firepower stakes, but they seem to have won the resulting debating contest: “Bonjour Matelots, comment ca va?” from the Brits, and the rejoinder: “Ahoy Jolie Jack Tar Rosbifs, peche off!”.
As tension mounted in the Channel, in London there was in full flow a meeting of G7 foreign ministers, including our own Dominic Raab and his French counterpart M Jean-Yves Le Drian. Now wouldn’t that have been an ideal opportunity to sit down over a pack of Gauloises or Gitanes and a nice cup of Earl Grey tea and just talk this through, instead of sending gunboats? But life is full of such lost opportunities.
Later that afternoon, thousands of miles away in Washington DC, at a Pentagon briefing on the security of the world in general, a startled Department of Defense spokesman was asked about the standoff in the Channel. Knowing nothing of the substance or indeed little of the background, the lad answered that he had full confidence in such longstanding and loyal NATO allies resolving their minor differences amicably and quickly, which in the circumstances was a good response and a perfectly reasonable expectation on his part. He was seemingly unaware that France had left NATO in 1966 and didn’t rejoin until 2009, but that shouldn’t really matter.
Between the horrible and the risible, these events provide ample evidence that we’re all too keen to resort to violence and blinkered argument in order to resolve differences, when history tells us this is never the solution. There are other ways, other solutions — all it takes is the desire to listen for the answer my friends when, in Bob Dylan’s words, it comes blowin’ in the wind.