Nagging feeling we are ignoring Europe at our peril
The main Executive parties' ambivalence over Europe is laid bare by a horse meat crisis that only the EU can tackle, says Robin Wilson
Why is it that events at Stormont by and large pass most Northern Ireland citizens by? Part of the answer becomes apparent when something like the horse meat scandal comes along.
It is now evident that the horse meat which appeared in what were supposedly beef products in Britain and Ireland arrived via a complicated international supply chain, starting with abattoirs in Romania, continuing through Limassol in Cyprus and on via two companies in France to these islands.
The Limassol connection is particularly interesting, because the city has been notorious as an entrepot for organised crime. And the Limassol company has been linked indirectly to a notorious Russian arms smuggler, who was last year jailed for 25 years following proceedings in New York.
None of us is untouched by a scandal such as this and doubtless many Northern Ireland consumers have been thinking twice about buying burgers in the supermarket.
Yet it is just one symptom of the process of globalisation of recent decades, spurred by international moves towards the deregulation of capital, which bear down upon the Northern Ireland Executive like all other governmental institutions.
The UK environment secretary, Owen Paterson, formerly secretary of state for Northern Ireland, now finds that the reality of the horse meat imbroglio has devastating implications for his ideological, deregulatory zeal, as the respected economist Will Hutton has pointed out.
For it has demonstrated once more that 'free' markets are thereby liberated precisely for the product adulterer and the professional criminal to exploit at public expense.
All that the Executive has done in this arena, however, is to rehearse the same neo-liberal mantra – that Northern Ireland is 'open for business'.
Indeed, more, while all around the world there is growing outcry at how globalised capital has evaded its responsibilities to pay for the public goods on which it depends through corporate taxation, all the main Northern Ireland parties are committed to encouraging a race to the bottom through lowered corporation tax – in spite of the drastic impact that would have on Stormont's capacity to fund public services in health and education.
As for food specifically, successive Sinn Fein agriculture ministers have simply aligned themselves with the farming lobby and food-processors, rather than fostering a wider approach to rural development based on good environmental stewardship and a commitment to public health.
This economic and social blindness is hardly surprising, since the Stormont party system, entrenched by the Belfast Agreement of 1998 and the St Andrews Agreement of 2006, essentially only recognises ethnic parties that define themselves as parties of political Protestants or political Catholics – not those, like Alliance or the Greens, which are defined by their position on the European, left-right political spectrum.
The European Union is the only organisation large enough to address a challenge on such a continental scale as the horse meat scandal, including through its law-enforcement arm, Europol, based in the Hague – the value of which, through gritted teeth, the Eurosceptic Mr Paterson is now having to recognise.
The EU has been very kind to Northern Ireland in recent times. The European taxpayer has lavished the region (and the border counties of the Republic) with special peace funding, amounting to close on £1.5bn since the IRA ceasefire of 1994.
And the European Commission established a special task force to help Northern Ireland engage with the European institutions more effectively – under no less a figure than the commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso, who visited Belfast in May 2007, when devolution was renewed.
One might have thought the main Northern Ireland parties would have been rather more grateful. Yet the DUP remains, by reflex, Eurosceptic, taking its cue from the likes of Mr Paterson, because of its archaic, pro-British nationalism, while Sinn Fein has never been able to reconcile its narrow Irish nationalism with a wider European perspective.
Indeed, the latter party is only a recent convert, as of 2007, even to the idea of the rule of law.
The DUP member of the European Parliament, Diane Dodds, sits in splendid isolation from the dominant political families of Social and Christian democrats there, while the Sinn Fein MEP, Martina Anderson, is a member of a fringe political group in the parliament, including representatives of the relics of authoritarian communist parties, East and West.
The co-ordination committee of the Regleg network of regions in the EU with legislative power embraces economic and social powerhouses like Catalonia and Bavaria. Scotland and Wales are members, too, but Northern Ireland does not have a voice at that important table, either.
As the forthcoming Mid Ulster by-election – with its pan-Protestant candidate challenging the Sinn Fein successor to Martin McGuinness – will once more highlight, the leading political forces in Northern Ireland, driven by their competing nationalisms to sustain a provincial sectarian conflict, have no interest in the bigger picture of European and global economic and social trends.
Yet those trends, as the horse meat scandal reminds us, bring Europe and the world to the kitchen table. Come 2014 and the next European Parliament election, someone among the Northern Ireland candidates has to find the non-nationalistic language to say so.