For too long, Northern Ireland has been a faraway place of which we know little

  • May 18, 2021 14:44
  • Kevin Meagher

As we mark the centenary of Northern Ireland, Biteback author Kevin Meagher looks back at one hundred years of strife and division in his new book, What A Bloody Awful Country.


I suppose the title of the book deserves an explanation.

‘Bring me a large scotch,’ Reginald Maudling, Edward Heath’s new home secretary, said to an official after returning to Belfast Airport, following his first gruelling encounter with Northern Ireland in 1970.

‘What a bloody awful country,’ he added.

In those days, there was no Northern Ireland Office or secretary of state. Stormont - the shorthand for the parliament and government of Northern Ireland - ran the show.

Those stern men of the Ulster Unionist Party who had been in control, uninterrupted, since the partition of Ireland in 1921.

But the system was teetering.

British soldiers had been deployed in 1969 to ‘come to the aid of the civil power.’

The Unionist government had made a mess of things, trying to suppress demands for civil rights while loyalist gangs launched a pogrom against Catholics in the terraced streets of Belfast, driving thousands from their homes.

Two years after his first trip, Maudling returned to shut down Stormont, introducing direct rule from Whitehall, ending fifty years of Unionist control following the slaughter of Bloody Sunday in January 1972 - when British paratroopers shot 27 civil rights marchers in Derry, killing thirteen of them outright (a fourteenth died later).

But things did not suddenly turn bad.

There was no ‘golden age’ for this troublesome appendage to the British state. No point at which Northern Ireland was ever, in any sense, normal.

It was created in chaos; a backfoot compromise as Britain was forcibly ejected from the rest of Ireland during the Irish War of Independence between 1918 and 1922.

Under pressure from Unionists, the British cleaved-off six counties of the ancient province of Ulster, (discarding three with Catholic majorities), to ensure a Protestant-Unionist ratio of 2:1 in the new Northern Ireland.

It set the tone for the next five decades.

Unionists ran the place - their ‘wee country’ - as they saw fit, sloping the pitch in their favour. Discrimination against the Catholic minority was hardwired.

Electoral boundaries were gerrymandered, while the franchise for local councils was based on property ownership, freezing out hundreds of thousands of poorer Catholics and minimising their voting power.

Unionist-controlled councils then set their own housing allocation policies, again denying Catholics equal treatment.

Protestant employers were at liberty to discriminate against Catholics. If your surname did not give you away, where you came from certainly would.

‘All I boast,’ remarked James Craig, Northern Ireland’s first Unionist prime minister, ‘is that we are a Protestant Parliament and Protestant State.’

The civil rights movement of the late 1960s tried to reform the system. Modest demands went unmet and when campaigners protested, they were bludgeoned off the streets by the Protestant-dominated Royal Ulster Constabulary and its part-time wing, the so-called ‘B-Specials.’

Then came internment, with hundreds of Catholic men dragged from their homes and imprisoned in a former World War Two prisoner-of-war camp, or in an old prison ship docked in Belfast harbour.

In the days that followed, ten civilians in the Ballymurphy area of Belfast – including a mother of eight and a Catholic priest giving the Last Rites to another dying man -were shot dead by British soldiers. (Indeed, it was the same regiment, the paras, who were responsible for Bloody Sunday a few months later).

It was supposed to be a crackdown on the nascent IRA. Instead, it helped to turbo-charge a bloody campaign against British rule that would last another quarter of a century.

The history of Northern Ireland is a series of ‘what if?’ moments. Chances that were squandered and opportunities that were overlooked. A British Government both underreacting to events and overreacting to them.

Political fixes that did not hold. Bad choices that were made. So, we have the record with which we are grimly familiar: Decades of violence and suffering. Nearly 3,600 people killed, and countless others maimed.

I have attempted to highlight some of the significant events as I see them, particularly from a British perspective, exploring the missed signals, turning points, the principled decisions that should have been taken at various points (which, invariably, were not) as well as the raw realpolitik of how Northern Ireland was governed throughout its century of division.

There is unlikely to be another milestone anniversary as the prospect of a referendum on Irish unity looms into view, yet as we have seen from recent loyalist rioting about the Northern Ireland Protocol, tensions still run deep.

Yet the reasons for this remain poorly understood in Westminster, while, for the British public, Northern Ireland remains a faraway place of which we know and, frankly, care, little.

In this centenary year, I thought it was high time we did.  


Kevin Meagher

May 2021


What A Bloody Awful Country is out now; find out more about it here.



The Corruption of Capitalism: Why Rentiers thrive and Work does not pay

  • May 05, 2021 10:49
  • Guy Standing

Recent events around the purported European Super League; the shenanigans with David Cameron and illicit lobbying; the revolving doors between politics, the civil service and big finance are all integral aspects of rentier capitalism described in this book. While the identity of specific opportunistic rogues is not predictable, the phenomena their activities represent are entirely so.

The fear should be that once all the fuss dies down, a tweak or two to legislation and behavioural regulations will be made and the underlying malaise will be allowed to continue. This book is a stark warning that this would be a grave mistake.

It is a lie to say we have a free market economy. It is rigged in favour of rentiers, the owners of financial, physical and intellectual property. It is institutionalised rent-seeking corruption, in which morally flaky characters can make millions, if not billions, mostly by staying within the bounds of formal legality.

Nothing is more revealing about the outcome of all this than the fact that the growth of finance has reached the point where the so-called value of financial assets in the UK is over 1,000 per cent of GDP, which is much higher than any other OECD country. Moreover, wealth has risen from about 300 per cent of GDP to over 700 per cent, and wealth inequality is much greater than income inequality, exposing as nonsense the claim by some commentators that inequality has not grown by much.

The book explores the systemic measures by which these trends have occurred. While giving a special focus to what has been happening in the United Kingdom, it puts that in the context of what has been happening globally. Among other issues, it argues that the Covid-19 pandemic has been made much worse by the economic changes that preceded it, which created a uniquely fragile economic system without any robustness or resilience. But true to form, the rentiers have done extremely well out of the pandemic, while those who rely on labour and work for their incomes will see their situation further deteriorate in its wake.

The Corruption of Capitalism stemmed from the author’s earlier work on the growth of a new mass class in Britain and around the world, namely the precariat. Contrary to a very sanguine view expressed in The Economist in April this year, the precariat is steadily growing, partly for reasons outlined in this book. The debt mechanisms extended by financial institutions mean that millions of people are living on the edge of unsustainable debt. Something will have to change, soon.

The book concludes by setting out the nucleus of a remedial transformational strategy, including a revival of the commons. At that point, one might just think of all those football clubs, all set up initially as a social commons. Could we have them back, please?

Guy Standing's book The Corruption of Capitalism is out now: buy your copy here!


What will Donald Trump's legacy be?

  • April 08, 2021 16:30
  • Simon Dolan

As Donald Trump's presidency recedes into history, what will future generations make of this most unconventional businessman-come-politician? Biteback author Simon Dolan offers his view...

In just a short time as President, Joe Biden has failed to deliver a State of the Union address, dropped bombs on Syria, fallen up the steps of Air Force One, overseen a humanitarian crisis at the border and fluffed his lines when he tried to remember the name of one of his senior staff members.

There has been some criticism around these and other points in his 100-plus days in office, but the question remains as to whether his more direct predecessor – President Donald Trump – would have gotten away with the same track record?

Would Trump, as he is less than affectionately referred to by most, have been given as smooth a ride in the media as Joe Biden for the same incidents? How would the US and international media have reacted to the lack of State of the Union address alone? The headlines for forgetting a member of his own staff’s name would have been aggressive and derogatory.

It could perhaps be argued that Joe Biden is still in his honeymoon period, and therefore it can be accepted he would be ‘let off’ for anything going slightly awry. But the truth is that Donald Trump, the reality TV star and property magnate who became President, would without question have been pilloried for the very same incidents.

Trump had no honeymoon period to speak of. He was targeted even before day one, written off by the Democrats and his own Republican Party, and indeed by the international community, before he beat – no, swept aside – Hillary Clinton in 2015. It was the victory the world didn’t think possible, and it was a shock victory attacked from the outset.

During his presidency, Trump was subject to a years-long witch-hunt over allegations of conspiracy with Russia, for which, in the end, no evidence could be found. According to the conspiracy theory, this President was not just stupid and ridiculous – he was a traitor. However, unlike Obama, who waged military campaigns in Somalia, Yemen, Libya and Syria and failed to extract the US military from either Iraq or Afghanistan, Trump started no new wars during his tenure in the White House, withdrew troops from Syria, pacified North Korea, negotiated peace deals across the Middle East and was nominated for a Nobel Peace prize on four separate occasions. This is all overlooked – he receives no credit for these accomplishments.

It is this difference in how he was treated, in how he attracted so much criticism and negative press, that I believe is key to understand when considering his impact. Trump: The Hidden Halo sets out to do this, analysing what the businessman who took over arguably the biggest business in the world – the United States of America – actually achieved. It is a book which I hope helps in some way; but there needs to be a far more balanced look at the work of America’s 45th President if we are truly to understand his legacy.

And my challenge to anyone is to not consider what Biden has done in his first 100 days, but to look back on his time in office in four years, to see how it matches up with the achievements – and yes, there were many – of his predecessor, the man whom 74 million Americans voted for in the 2020 presential election.

My prediction is that those achievements will be far fewer – but they will be recorded in a far more positive way.

Trump: The Hidden Halo is out now: get your copy here.


Geoffrey Robertson discusses new book Bad People

  • March 30, 2021 11:00
  • Geoffrey Robertson

Top human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson sits down to talk about the publication of his new book Bad People, and why he wrote it...

When I began to write this book, early in lockdown, very few people had heard of Magnitsky laws or of targeted sanctions for human rights abusers. But in the approach to publication day, sanctions have been in the headlines; imposed on Chinese apparatchiks who run the Uighur concentration camps, imposed on Russian officials involved in the poisoning and jailing of Alex Navalny and imposed on Lukashenko and his ministers in Belarus. Western governments are finally taking some actions against bad people, but in a poorly coordinated way and without thinking through the implications. I wrote this book to explain how and to what extent these sanctions can work and whether they will help to stop the slide towards authoritarianism.

The problem with autocracies is that they put themselves above international law and do not accept its rules or the rulings of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which was set up to enforce them. These formed ‘Plan A’ as a means of punishing those who violate human rights. But this plan has not worked – the ICC, despite costing $1.5 billion – has only managed to convict a few central African warlords. It has of course produced a lot of jurisprudence about human rights principles, but it cannot enforce them because perpetrators are mostly protected by big powers with vetoes in the Security Council on any UN action – Russia, China and the United States. So, it is time to turn to the only laws that can realistically be enforced, namely national laws, which can stop people and tainted money from entering a specific country and confiscate ill-gotten gains.

I believe it is possible for sanctions under national law to go much further – not just to name, blame and shame perpetrators of human rights abuses, but to damage their businesses and to stop them sending their children to schools and their parents to hospitals in the West. Most importantly, such sanctions can catch their corporate accomplices – for example, those brands that buy cotton produced by the slave labour of Uighurs. Magnitsky laws are not just symbolic but put specifically ostracise those people who deserve to be beyond the pale of decent societies. This was the insight vouchsafed by the judgment at Nuremberg; that crimes against humanity are committed by individuals, not by states. These laws can strike at ‘enablers’ – the middle-class professionals I call the ‘train drivers to Auschwitz’, who include the lickspittle judges, overzealous prosecutors, accountants and lawyers who conduct unfair trials or hide and move the proceeds of crime.

But it is early days. We now have Magnitsky laws in thirty-one countries – US, Canada, UK and the EU member states – all countries in what I would not term as the ‘West’ but the ‘White West’. Japan is contemplating such a law and India, Brazil and Singapore should be encouraged to follow suit. They are all countries which could be described as having ‘parliamentary peoples’; they have a commitment to democracy and to the rule of international law. A level of coordination must be developed – we should not have anyone sanctioned in Britain being welcome in Europe, and vice versa. We must be careful about US leadership: the power of the dollar is vital in making its sanctions effective, but its behaviour under Trump in sanctioning the ICC prosecutor, just because she was investigating American war crimes, was irresponsible. And sanction laws must provide for due process – its targets should have an opportunity to refute allegations and have themselves removed from the list.

Bad People – And How to Be Rid of Them: A Plan B for Human Rights is the first book to be published about the sanctioning of human rights abusers and I am sure it will not be the last. I hope it will explain what is a new and potentially powerful weapon in the hands of those fighting for human rights.

Interest piqued? Bad People is out now: take a look here.



The making of Two Minutes to Midnight

  • March 16, 2021 11:22
  • Roger Hermiston

Two Minutes to Midnight: 1953 – The Year of Living Dangerously is an account of one of the most gripping, epoch-making twelve months in the Cold War. Author Roger Hermiston explains how he came to write about this year…

Ask someone for one important fact about 1953 and they might point to it being the year of the Coronation of our present Queen. If they are sports lovers, they could cite England regaining the Ashes in cricket, or the famous Stanley Matthews FA Cup final. Ask a scientist and they would probably tell you that it was the year of the discovery of DNA by Cambridge scientists Francis Crick and James Watson. Then of course, there was the first ascent of Everest by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.

My initial fascination with 1953 began with the political crisis at home over Winston Churchill’s stroke in the summer. The extraordinary cover-up of the Prime Minister’s illness – unthinkable in this era of press scrutiny and social media – has been written about before, and a half-decent television drama was made about it (starring Michael Gambon as Churchill). But I felt that a definitive account of how a small group of ministers, aides and civil servants kept the nation in the dark about the premier’s brush with death, and how they ran the country in his absence – along with that of his deputy, Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, who was also seriously ill at the time – could make for compelling reading.

And hopefully it does – the crisis is covered in Chapter 7 of Two Minutes, entitled ‘The Emergency Government’. But as I discovered when starting my research, there was much, much more to say about these twelve months that had previously been labelled as one of the more monochrome years in the Cold War, not to be compared with the likes of 1948 (the Berlin Blockade), 1956 (Suez Canal and the invasion of Hungary), 1962 (the Cuban Missile Crisis) or 1983 (the Able Archer war game that nearly went disastrously wrong).

At the start of 1953 there was still no end in sight in the Korean War, which pitted America against China and the Soviet Union (on land and increasingly in the air) in a highly dangerous proxy conflict. In March, Joseph Stalin died, leaving the Western powers in a state of confusion about how to deal with the new men in the Kremlin.

The ‘Red Menace’, threatening America both abroad and at home, still loomed large in the minds of its citizens in 1953, kept there by the highly influential communist witchfinder-in-chief Joe McCarthy. The US government, with new Republican President Dwight Eisenhower backed by his hawkish Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, saw no reason to drop their guard because of Stalin’s departure.

However, Churchill, the man who had coined the term ‘Iron Curtain’, was desperately keen to embark on a new policy of ‘easement’ (détente) with Stalin’s successors. Eisenhower and Dulles were having none of it, and this tussle between the White House and Downing Street is a key theme in the book.

In 1953, Churchill sent a warship to the Falklands, the intelligence services of America and Britain plotted a successful coup in Iran, the United States was gradually being drawn into France’s disastrous war in Indo-China (soon to be Vietnam) and Britain elected not to get involved with moves towards European economic and political unification. All of these events, hatched in 1953, would have profound consequences in years to come – and still do so today.

But above all, it was the shadow of the mushroom cloud that loomed over this year. The United States had successfully tested her own H-bomb on the eve of 1953 – and Russia responded with the detonation of her own thermonuclear device in August. Throughout the year, America conducted A-bomb tests in the Nevada desert – one of them was broadcast live on television. In Korea, Eisenhower’s administration debated whether to drop nuclear bombs on the enemy on seven separate occasions between February and May.

All this led the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to move the hands of its ‘Doomsday Clock’ to two minutes to midnight, the closest it had yet calculated that the world was to nuclear Armageddon. 1953 certainly was the year of living dangerously, and I hope my book reflects what a tense, fascinating twelve months it was.

Interest piqued? Find out more about Roger's gripping book Two Minutes to Midnight and order your copy here.