Yes, Officer, Both Those Passports are Mine
World leaders came to Northern Ireland to discuss tax, transparency and trade. Instead they had an argument about Syria and even the usual anti-globalization protesters couldn't be bothered paying any attention to them.
The G8 was, in truth, a whole lot of nothing. I know. I was there. Or rather, I was nearby, having been denied security clearance by Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office, presumably on the basis that I'm about as important as, well, Ireland… No matter. The prospect of being ejected from an official event is even more enticing than that of going in the first place, so armed with my press card and a car with a dodgy clutch I hit the road.
The drive from Dublin up to Enniskillen, the small town playing host to the world's most boring circus, was rich in metaphor. Ireland has had a bad year for farmers, with frost and heavy rain causing a hay shortage. There is no shortage, however, of animal feces. Driving through the Irish countryside, the whole place smelt of manure, but so much more would soon be excreted, not only by politicians but also activists and over-excited journalists.
Watching magpies plunder the corpse of a roadkill fox I wondered if this too was an omen? The leaders of the Western world feasting on the flesh of the poor? Bzzzt. Wrong. The only scavengers here were the protestors and massed ranks of journalists. Both groups were desperate, one for something to say and the other for something to report.
Driving around Enniskillen it was obvious some money had been spent tarting-up the place. The roads, for one thing, were not their usual pot-holed selves, something you really notice when you drive an ancient banger of a sports car with a ropey suspension. A reporter on a local paper later told me that $17 million had been allocated to fix the roads and give the stores in the main street a quick paint job.
In the end getting even getting ejected proved elusive. One police officer politely turned me around a few miles from the summit, directing me to an official press center located on the other side of the town. Later, a second was a bit shirty, but being gruffly asked for your driving license and press card really doesn't constitute police harassment.
A theme was beginning to emerge though: almost getting in, almost getting kicked-out and politicians almost managing to convince the world that this summit was important.
It was only as Officer Sourface was being impolite that I realized I'd left my coat in the trunk. Big whoop, right? Yeah, except it added a certain frisson to events. Yes, officer, both of those passports are mine. No, officer the three mobile phones are just old ones I forgot to throw out. Well, officer, those East German identity papers were given to me as a joke and I forgot they were there.
Still, it was early days. Perhaps Obama's visit to Belfast on Monday would generate some excitement or friction or… anything. Local color absorbed, I got back into the car and pointed it in the direction of the city. With a tedious inevitability my car's clutch failed. Again I choose to interpret this as a metaphor for the summit: the G8 can't change gear to come to terms with the world as it is. Or something. After arriving in a tow-truck, I managed to obtain a rental car – an underpowered, oversized, overpriced Ford C-Max diesel affair – and resumed reporting duty.
The Right To Die
While I'd been enjoying the bucolic delights of the west of Ireland something approaching news had actually happened. British prime minister David Cameron and Russian president Vladimir Putin held the world's funniest press conference.
Clearly not in lockstep, as each man took turns to speak the other looked as though he was swallowing a mouthful of bleach. The problem was Syria. Not officially on the G8 agenda, Cameron was keen to pour oil on the fire of Middle East conflicts by arming the rebels. Putin was having none of it. In the end Cameron blurted-out a few words about how both the British and Russians sought a solution to the Syrian crisis. Putin chose to talk instead about not wanting to throw his lot in with cannibals.
Of all the signs I'd seen this one, on the evening news, was the first one that wasn't an illusion: unlike the happy-clappy formal agenda of tax, trade and transparency (whatever that is), the Syrian conflict was an actual political dispute.
The wars of the Bush years were very much an aberration in conflict mongering, led as they were by a conservative political party. In fact, insofar as the neo-conservative tendency in the Republican party is a describable thing, it is liberal in outlook. Belligerent flag-waving patriotism and sucking-up to the religious right is merely the price that must be paid by the Republicans if they want to get into power. The real military action these days comes from the left, not the right. Cameron, leader of Britain's Conservative party, himself represents the liberal, modernizing wing of his party, very much in the mold of former Labour party prime minister Tony Blair. Blair, as we all now know, loved nothing more than a good war.
Starting with Rwanda, but intensifying in Yugoslavia, foreign intervention, from gunboat diplomacy to full-blown wars, is now a matter of human rights – and the key human right is, of course, to have a bomb dropped on your head by well-intentioned Westerners. The hilarious sight of British liberals protesting the Iraq war and then disappearing from the streets when the government ignored them is made all the more ironic by the fact that these self-same people demanded that "something must be done" about Yugoslavia. With Iraq the ability to pretend the conflict was an American resource grab rather than moral posturing allowed the liberal-left to claim the moral high ground: wars led by the Republicans bad; wars led by the Democrats good. So, when the love bombs fell on Belgrade the preening was pro-war; when they fell on Baghdad it was anti-war.
The humanitarian bombing raid impulse was present also in Nato's airstrikes in Libya against former best pal of Tony Blair, Muammar Gaddafi and was also the fig-leaf offered for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. If we haven't heard much of it over Syria then this is simply because Obama is reticent to get directly involved in another war.
Nonetheless, with the Democrats back in office, war is now good again and the only reason Cameron hasn't jumped feet first into Syria is because the actual Tories in his party are isolationists and won't let him. Russia, still acting like a VHS copy of the Soviet Union, has no time for public relations wars, instead preferring to promote its own naked national interest as well as keep the potential for the spread of jihadism in Russia at bay. It may not be a moral strategy, but it has the virtue of honesty. Perhaps the summit wouldn't be a total snore-fest.
Walking through a deserted Belfast city center at 7 a.m. – deserted except for an uncountable number of police, some armed with automatic weapons – it was already obvious that police estimates of tens of thousands of black-clad radicals descending on the city were little more than insane fantasies. Despite the best efforts of the far-left, no-one here really cares about Obama's drone strikes or Guantanamo Bay. It probably doesn't help that the people who object loudest are a bunch of cracked Trotskyists, anarchists and other internet communists.
Equally absent, though, was the excitement bordering on hysteria that greeted the US president on his 2011 visit to Ireland, where crowds thronged the streets and every Irish politician basked in the reflected glory of the most powerful man in the world. This time the whole event was a washout. 300 people turned-up to gawk at Obama's motorcade and in two days I saw a total of no more than and handful of protestors. The gray skies and light drizzle were the perfect backdrop to this most underwhelming of appearances.
Not everyone saw things this way, of course. One reporter imagined the heavy hand of the state crushing the massed ranks of protestors, seemingly not knowing that Northern Ireland endured three decades of militarized policing unimaginable in the US or UK and still people fought back. Indeed, Belfast is still home to rounds of annualized rioting every summer, and this past Christmas saw even more. Only a journalist who roves the the inside of their head in search of a story could miss these facts, or somehow imagine that there was any potential for major protesting in the first place.
It's true that protests here must be sanctioned by officialdom in the form of the Parades Commission, but this is not because perfidious Albion has its boot on Irish necks, it's the work of Irish republicans and liberals who object to marches by Protestant fraternal organizations like the Orange Order. True, the Orangemen are pretty objectionable, being a bunch of bizarre Protestant supremacists, but they should still be entitled to freely assemble.
The need to get permission to protest is absurd, but in this case there was no appetite for major protest anyway. A perfunctory labor union march of 1,500 people, held days before any dignitaries arrived, was about all that Belfast could muster. Two other protests had a grand turnout of seven and eight each.
More gibberish was to come, though.
In his speech to an invited audience of schoolchildren and local worthies Obama made much of how improved Northern Ireland was from the dark days of the past. It is, but then again, it should be: the conflict ended a decade and a half ago. And yet, it is still not a normal society. The president said young people lead politics by protesting. The irony here is that in Northern Ireland protest must be sanctioned by the state, otherwise it falls foul of the Parades Commission. That is not the mark of a normal society.
Local journalists were, with a few exceptions, even worse. Obama comes to town and they certainly went to town on him, imagining that what he had to say was profound.
More irony: the president spoke of youth growing-up in a world with fewer walls, and yet Northern Ireland has more "peace walls" separating the two communities, Irish republican and pro-British unionist, than it did during the conflict.
This is not a popular view. Critics of the settlement are still denounced as wreckers and the few critical voices in the press have been derided as "JAPPS" – "journalists against the peace process." This is, of course, nonsense. One need not be in favor of conflict in order to criticize the vagaries of the peace. It's a journalist's job to report the story, regardless of how it makes politicians and bureaucrats feel.
And what bureaucrats there are. Northern Ireland's $45 billion economy is top-heavy with state activity, with the formal public sector accounting for 30 percent of the workforce. On top of that there are innumerable government-funded charities and community groups (many staffed by ex-combatants), and even the private sector is massively engaged in rent-seeking.
Most of all, though, Obama's speech was empty. Pure "peace processery" boilerplate, it was long on aspiration but short on anything concrete – or anything people here don't hear day and daily. A standard issue "American-President-Visits-Northern-Ireland" speech, save for some references to growing-up black in America, it could have been made by any president since Clinton. Why bother? Because he had to: as the G8 was being held here, political etiquette demanded Obama genuflect before a peace process that was settled, to the extent it ever was, over a decade before he took office. It's embarrassing for everyone involved.
Commentators on local TV and radio immediately indulged in Obamaology, attempting to divine significance from a speech that had little, all the while congratulating Northern Ireland on managing to lure the president here. In this they have form. In recent weeks regional newspapers have been packed with tedious propaganda, in once case with a glossy G8 supplement dedicated to demonstrating how "GR8" (really) Northern Ireland is. For a political summit? This is crazy.
To honest ears Obama's speech sounded like cornball blarney, and yet giving the Irish a pat on the back for not shooting each other anymore is effectively mandatory for any visiting American politician.
Not that that has ever stopped the Irish from pretending otherwise. The public didn't bother turning-up because they weren't invited. Had Obama made an outdoor public address he could easily have had an audience of tens of thousands for his empty words about Ireland. After all, the only thing the Irish like more than an American president is themselves. ]
This was particularly evident across the border in the Republic of Ireland where Michelle Obama's visit to a few tourist sites was greeted with breathless fascination and claims that the First Lady loves Irish women – whatever that means. Her meeting with U2 singer Bono was particularly curious. A real demotion for Bono who previously attended an actual G8 summit in 2005, this lunch with the First Lady was nonetheless hyped beyond belief in the Irish press.
"The G8's agenda is all about tax and they can't really have the country's best-known tax avoider turn-up," says Harry Browne, author of The Frontman, a new book excoriating the singer's politics.
On the day I write this, for instance, the Irish Times newspaper is fat with a supplement on JFK's "homecoming" to Ireland, a publicity stunt long-forgotten in America but obsessed over by Official Ireland. It set the template for laying claim to each and every American president since, from those with legitimate claims such as Reagan, to the rather more threadbare Irish ancestry of Clinton and Obama.
Down With Stuff
Come Monday night the protests heated-up to at least lukewarm. With the leaders all safely ensconced at the Lough Erne Resort a total of 1,500 objectors finally came together.
One Scottish man marched naked, environmentalists jetted-in from Britain and would-be wearers of Guy Fawkes masks complained of oppression when they were instructed to remove their face gear. Local Stalinists were also out in force, at least relative to their size, as were representatives of Ireland's two Trotskyist tendencies represented in parliament.
Conspicuous by their absence were the anarchists, alter-mondialistes, Chavistas and other staunch opponents of burger chains who, back in the day, would liven-up any tedious G8 summit with their glass smashing antics. The assembled crowd was, for the most part, a rag tag people's army of single-issue weirdos. About one third of the group was composed locals objecting to fracking, an arguable but legitimate issue. The rest included a few who really have a problem with people having decent teeth and were campaigning to keep fluoride out of the water and NGO-types complaining nebulously about world hunger and tax. The locals were sincere but the rest were, frankly, a confederacy of dunces.
Then there was the conspiracy theorists. The previous day in Belfast I myself spotted a black-clad man with a video camera and took the chance that he might be worth speaking to. In the end it turned-out he was an Alex Jones fan who works for a Scottish internet radio outfit. Barely able to disguise my embarrassment, he ended-up interviewing me about the G8, rapidly changing the subject to the Bilderberg Group. The following morning during Obama's trip a woman with an Amnesty International placard also complained about Bilderberg.
Outnumbered massively by police, 4,000 of whom were imported from Britain for the event, a futile attempt to breach the security fence had the feel of a set-piece confrontation – not so much ring of steel as ring of bored Scouse cops.
This theatrical police operation, complete with empty mobile prison cells and deserted night courts, continued throughout the summit but by the time Tuesday rolled around it was obvious even to the dullest of observers what the problem was: the G8 barely matters anymore.
The result of the political knees-up was a proclamation on a tax deal and some blather about transparency and co-operation. Were it not for the fact that Russia was at loggerheads with everyone else over arming the Syrian rebels there would actually have been no genuine news to report – at all.
China, always keen to issue a firm slap to its former masters, knew this in advance. State-run broadcaster China Radio International said the G8 was "suffering the embarrassment of declining influence."
As China is not a member of the G8, the organization is simply no-longer where the action is. With its growth of as a major economic power, the fact is the organization of which it is a member, the G20, is now the preeminent international forum for trade and diplomacy.
The Chinese media isn't alone in this view. The small but influential center-left British political weekly, The New Statesman, wrote of a "global leadership vacuum" in a "world becoming ever more volatile."
The magazine organized a debate on the G8's future in advance of the summit, featuring David Miliband, former lawmaker and brother of British Labour party leader Ed, Financial Times journalists Martin Wolf and Gideon Rachman and its own correspondent Ian Bremmer.
If only the protestors realized this too, but their absence wasn't a response to the G8's declining relevance so much as the decline of the samba band anti-Nike tendency at the hands of 4chanized internet activism piggybacking on other people's miseries in distant lands like Turkey.
Oh well, at least it keeps them off the streets.