Brexit: The European Union’s perspective

Brexit: The European Union’s perspective

Confused about what Brexit actually means and how it will impact you? This month, STAND’s Brexit Series will help you understand how we got in this situation, what the proposed deal contains, where the negotiations are at now, and how a no-deal will impact Ireland, the UK and more widely the EU. If you missed the first piece, no worries, it’s here.


This second article will give you an insight of the European Union’s perspective on Brexit.


A quick update: Where are we now? 

At the beginning of the month, Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrote a letter to Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, suggesting a new Protocol on Northern Ireland and Ireland. In fact, Johnson did everything he could to keep its proposal secret. Unfortunately for him, but not for democracy, the EU wanting transparent negotiations, secrecy was off the table. Some might read this as PM Jonson’s admission of weakness.

After insisting on the “very little time left to negotiate”, he developed what he called a “fair and reasonable compromise”: the “two borders, four years” proposal. The idea is that Northern Ireland would leave the European customs union (the tariff-free trading area), but would keep following the Union’s single market rules (safety standards for all goods, including food) which are the most complex to check. It is nicknamed a “two borders” deal because there would be a border on the Irish island for customs, and another in the Irish sea to monitor single market rules. This proposal to create two borders where there is none so far is a way of multiplying the problems. The reason of existence of that proposal is clearly due to the DUP (even though the party doesn’t hold the majority in Northern Ireland).

If this proposal should be accepted by the Union, it would start to apply at the end of the transition period. But first of all, Northern Ireland’s assembly would have to give its consent, initially in 2021, then every four years. If the assembly, which has not met since early 2017, contests the deal, it would know that this would bring hard border back. Two lectures of the deal exist. On one hand, as Northern Ireland’s Assembly does not meet anymore, it won’t be able to use its veto and the proposal will be granted anyway. On the other hand, you can read into it that this proposal could be the only reason for them to meet again.

Brussels and Dublin see this offer as relying on vague promises. Indeed, PM Johnson gives no clear answer on where the checkpoints would be and how the control would be organised, putting close cooperation between British and Irish authorities forward. European countries agreed that this deal “does not provide a basis for concluding an agreement”. 

Yet, Thursday’s meeting between Taoiseach Varadkar and PM Johnson shows that negotiation may not be dead (or not as dead as we thought). This common statement stays really ambiguous, and the situation was never that uncertain. But a deal seems now possible to reach as “promising signals” have been sent according to Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council. Yesterday, Michel Barnier and Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay held a two-hour meeting, said to have been “constructive”. We’ll see if there is a deal on the table for the EU heads of government summit, taking place on the 17th and 18th October. If so, many European countries would be looking for the Irish approval before giving their own. If Ireland goes along with the deal, then it would most likely be voted. We could even reach unanimity. 


A bit of economy: How will Brexit impact the EU’s economy?

The outcome of Brexit is not yet known. Various scenarios are still plausible. So far, it’s down to a deal or a no-deal Brexit. The first scenario would imply a soft Brexit (in case of an agreement leading to a close relationship between the UK and the EU), a hard Brexit (in case of a deal leading to a distant relationship), or an in-between. In the second scenario, Brexit will definitely be hard but might be orderly. The EU-UK trade relationship would fall back on the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) regime, without any major disruptions on the markets. All member states of this global body for international trade give the organisation a list stating the trade tariffs and quotas they seek to impose on any other member state. Therefore, in a WTO scenario, the UK would have to follow the restriction list submitted by the EU. 

According to Johnson’s letter to Juncker, the UK is asking for a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the EU, very much alike the CETA, the comprehensive trade agreement between the EU and Canada. If this should happen, we would face a deal Brexit, but it’d still be a hard Brexit since the UK would be out of both the customs union and the single market. But, surely, any agreement would reduce the barriers inherent to the WTO regime and be more profitable for both parties.

The EU’s trade partners will suffer some loss on account of Brexit, but nothing in comparison to the UK itself. Actually, the EU’s main source of economic loss due to Brexit should be trade (and not the loss of the British contribution to the European budget), in the short as well as in the long term, in both deal and no-deal scenarios. On the contrary, the UK’s economy will endure some tough deprivations losing international investments (including from the Foreign Direct Investment, FDI), as banks and companies which want to operate at a European level will relocate their activity to the continent. UK will also miss high-profile workers coming from the Union. 

Post-Brexit, the Union’s GDP could be between 0,3 and 1,5% inferior than without Brexit. It doesn’t convey that the Union will face this concrete loss, but the EU’s GDP won’t be as high as if there was no Brexit. Most national European GDP should be less impacted than the EU’s. The main economic victims of Brexit are expected to be Ireland, Cyprus and Malta (due to the importance of trade from these former British colonies with the UK), the Benelux States (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg), and Denmark. Unfortunately, Ireland’s economic losses from Brexit are presumed to be worse than the UK’s, whatever Brexit option is followed, even with an FTA.

In the eventuality of a no-deal, the value of the GBP compared to the euro or US Dollar prices would drop in the short term. Yet, it is difficult to predict whether it would be bad news for the UK or EU’s economy. All we know so far is that the 8,5% depreciation suffered by the GBP in June 2016 helped the competitiveness of UK export companies but was hardly counterbalanced by the rise of import costs, affecting both import companies and consumers. 

Brexit consequences on wages and unemployment would depend on each member state’s policies. If struggling because of the Brexit, companies shouldn’t impact their misfortune directly on the wages. They’d presumably abandon raises or reduce the number of working hours of their employees. Even if employment losses are expected, no unemployment boom is likely to happen. The employment market is under the influence of many other various events, such as Trump’s protectionism policy for example. 


A bit of geopolitics: What will be the consequences on borders within the EU?

From a European perspective, the border issue caused by Brexit is firstly a safety issue. When talking about the Irish border, the EU is well aware of the island’s history and aspire to avoid a renewal of tensions. The Union holds the same concerns regarding the (former) dispute about Gibraltar’s sovereignty. 

Border is also synonym of trade control, meaning the great come back of checkpoints, queues, etc. Moreover, it brings restrictions on the number of products that can travel, including what you carry with you in your car. 

Even if the Eire-Ulster’s trade is not such a big deal in comparison with the UK-EU’s trade (5 billions GBP against 600 billions GBP), this should impact Northern Ireland’s economy (more than the Irish economy). As suggested by PM Johnson earlier this month, a “double border” could be implemented. This would make Northern Ireland an ideal place for (frauds in) trade. The UK would most certainly mainly trade with the EU through the North. 

The situation in Gibraltar, a British territory located in the South of Spain who voted massively to remain in the EU in 2016 (about 92%), also needs to be settled. The 1,2km Spanish-British border issue was sorted in the third Protocol of the draft agreement, but not without raising the anger of Spain first. The accord reached in 2018 should remain applicable in case of Brexit with a deal. The UK and Spain will have to reach a specific agreement on Gibraltar’s status by the end of the transition period. 

The come-back of the immaterial border of Britain will also have some repercussions. Long queues are to be expected on motorways around harbour cities, such as Dover in the UK or Rotterdam, Zeebrugge, Oostende, Calais on the continent. 


A bit of solidarity: why is the EU behind Ireland?

The EU immediately took Ireland’s side as one man. There was kind of a “club reflex”. The UK chose to leave and create difficulties, not Ireland. The Union protects one of its own, victim of a situation it didn’t choose. That is for sure the main thing. However, the EU is also afraid that Ireland would fly solo and reach a bilateral agreement with the UK, putting the EU in difficulty. 

So basically, the Union’s support is based on two reasons: first, Ireland is one of the EU members and therefore is entitled to solidarity; second, if Ireland should be a UK’s privileged partner it would be damaging for the EU. 



Based on interviews with Patrick Bisciari, economist at the National Bank of Belgium, and Marianne Dony, professeur ordinaire at the Université Libre de Bruxelles.



Photo by Dunk on Flickr.



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Brexit: the basics

Brexit: the basics

Confused about what Brexit actually means and how it will impact you? This month, STAND’s Brexit Series will help you understand how we got in this situation, what the proposed deal contains, where the negotiations are at now, and how a no-deal will impact Ireland, the UK and more widely the EU.


Let’s start with the basics…


 A bit of history: How did the UK get to vote for Leave? 

When World War II was over, many countries around the world, especially in Europe, decided it was time to cooperate to insure peace and stability for all. But in the mid 20th century, as the European Economic Community (ECC) started to take shape, the UK showed no real interest to be part of any kind of Union, even though they were at negotiation tables. Eventually, when the UK realised that the EEC was actually working well, it tried to jump on the bandwagon. 

Once within the EU, the UK objected to every reform of the fundamental Treaties the Union wanted to make. It also negotiated every possible opt-out, signifying that it has always asked for a special status when the Union legislates on a particular subject, and obtained it. Sometimes, it has brought Ireland along to the opt-out side, as in the negotiations of the Treaty of Amsterdam (1997). Indeed, the UK didn’t want to join the European Customs Union as intended in the Schengen agreement, which was to be part of the Amsterdam’s Treaty. Ireland and the UK already having a customs union of their own, Ireland opted-out too. 

When it comes to understanding the relationship between the Union and the UK, the British electoral system is also of great importance. Every national campaign has been based on addressing what the outgoing Government failed to achieve. So, whenever a national issue emerged, politicians blamed the decisions made by the country’s leaders at the time. In an attempt to be re-elected, most of them would accuse the Union to be the mother of all devils. In response, the opposition would promise that this would never have happened under their governance, because they would never let the Union dictate them what decision to make. One could think this has instilled a sense of mistrust towards the EU in many British citizens.

In running for re-election in 2015, David Cameron, Prime Minister at the time, made the Brexit referendum a campaign promise. Once re-elected, he organized the election on the 23rd of June 2016. What came next was not on his agenda. The “leave” poll won by 51,9%. Forced to admit the defeat of the “remain” campaign, Cameron stepped down the very next day. A few weeks later, Theresa May swore in. The British Parliament gave the green light to trigger article 50 of the Treaty of Rome in February, and so did PM May on the 29th March of 2017. 



A bit of legal procedure: What says article 50?

The Treaty on the functioning of the European Union, also called Treaty of Rome, equipped itself with article 50 in 2007 thanks to the Treaty of Lisbon. This article gives a unilateral right to any member state which would want to leave the Union to do so, as long as it notifies the European Council and respects its national constitutional rules. Once triggered, the leaving state has two years to negotiate a “divorce” settlement. Obviously, this lapse can be extended, if the departing state asks for it and if the European Council agrees to it by unanimity. 

However, nothing is said in the treaty about revoking this notification to leave. Therefore, the Court of Justice of the European Union had to rule on this eventuality, and decided that such a revoking right exists, that it is a unilateral right such as the right to leave (understand: the EU could not go against a withdrawal). 



A closer look at the negotiations results: What is in the draft agreement negociated by the EU and PM May?

Heads up: we don’t pretend to give a complete lecture of the 585 page draft agreement here! We are just trying to give an overall view of what’s written in this draft. 

The draft agreement is divided into six parts and three protocols. 

The first part enumerates the common provisions. It lays some general rules, including the obligation for the UK to keep following the European Court of Justice (ECJ) decisions whenever European law keeps applying. Interesting when you remember the leave campaign stated that the UK would be outside the reach of the ECJ… The draft also reveals that the agreement shall have a direct effect, allowing the judges to find breaches of the agreement itself. Therefore, no need to invoke another bill that would transpose the content of the agreement into national law.

In part II, the negotiators focused on the European citizens. Every British individual that lives in another Union state, and every foreign European citizen that lives in the UK, will be granted the same rights he/she enjoys now in various matters such as rights of residence, social security rights, workers’ rights, until the end of the transition period.

Talking about the transition period, it is organized in Part IV of the draft. At the time, the parties agreed on the 31stDecember 2020 as the date of the end of the transition. An adjournment might be granted but only once and it can’t exceed two years. Being in transition would mean that the UK is officially out of the Union, so it can’t vote nor take part of the decision anymore, but has to keep following many European rules in the meantime, while the future of the British-European relationships is discussed. The purpose of the transition is to give some more time to negotiate a Treaty on future relations, once the divorce has been consummated. 

The fifth part settles the financial agreement. Both sides agreed on the maths instead of an amount. The formula is based on three principles. One, no European state should pay more to, nor receive less from the Union because of Brexit. Two, the UK has to pay for the commitments it made while being in the Union. Three, the UK should not pay more to the Union than if it had stayed within the Union. 

The first Protocol talks about Ireland and Northern Ireland. It seems clear that the negotiators did all they could to prevent the implementation of a hard border on the Irish isle, mainly to preserve the peace process in Ulster. So they came up with the “backstop”. Concretely, there would be a deeply intense cooperation between the two parties. So deep that the UK would follow most of the European customs rules, preventing the need of border controls. This solution is meant to be applicable during the transition period only, again to give the parties more time to reach a settlement on the matter post-divorce. 

At the origin, the backstop was supposed to be applicable in Ulster only and not in Great Britain. That was without thinking about the DUP, a unionist party in Northern Ireland that allowed PM May to have a majority coalition in the Parliament. The DUP refused to consider an offer that would put Northern Ireland under different rules than the rest of the UK, and additionally quite similar than those followed by Ireland. Therefore, PM May had no choice but to extend the backstop to the whole UK. 

This solution doesn’t please many Brits, and is the main reason why the draft is still a draft. On one hand, the backstop goes against the hard Brexit encouraged by some, and on the other hand, this means following some rules that you don’t get to edict anymore.



A quick update: What’s happening now? 

Since late July 2019, Boris Johnson is the head of the British state. His dearest wish is to deliver a “Halloween” Brexit no matter what, with or without a deal. But that was leaving aside the Parliament’s will. On the 4th of September 2019, the Lords voted a bill against a no-deal Brexit. If by the 19th of October PM Johnson has not reached an agreement with the Union, he will have to ask for an adjournment. 

So far, the Union was opposed to both reopening the negotiations and granting an adjournment, in regards of the PM’s declarations about Brexit and the EU. Anyway, things might be getting slightly different now. Johnson recently submitted an updated version of the draft agreement to the Union. The latter might be more open to consider an adjournment if the British PM made interesting propositions, and if elections were to be held in the country. Slight problem, the Parliament voted twice against the holding of new legislative elections… However, the Lords might change their minds if the Union gives the UK more time.

We should know a bit more about how the situation will evolve on the 4th October, as Stephen Barclay, the British Brexit Secretary, and Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, will meet. 




Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash



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Addiction in Ireland

Addiction in Ireland

In my hometown of Roscrea recently a man emerged from the grounds of the imposing town castle clutching a joint. After a couple of pulls he sidled up to me and said “Want a toke cuz?”. 

He looked the picture of ill health. Raggedy unwashed clothes and bony narrow face beneath greasy unkempt hair. My only concern was my own personal safety. This man was clearly a drug addict. I resented his encroachment into my personal space. I lamented the fact that he was comfortable enough to roll and light up in the middle of the day as the half-deserted town went about its daily business. 

Across the road the once famous Pathe Hotel remained closed while every second shopfront sported To Let or For Sale signs. The town has been decimated by urbanisation and globalisation and has been ranked high on the deprivation index.

In 2014, Roscrea made national headlines. A spate of drug related suicides and anti-social behaviour plagued the town while austerity saw the police station effectively closed. The locals had enough.700 of them held public meetings and raised their concern at the breakdown of decency and morality in their town.

Drug use and addiction are inextricably linked with youth unemployment and lack of opportunity. In the years since the economic crash the country appears to mirror Roscrea’s experience of socio-economic disadvantage and rising drug abuse.

Between 2004 and 2016 there have been 8207 drug related deaths recorded in Ireland. That’s an average of 683 per year or almost two a day. These figures include the full spectrum of substance abuse from alcohol, cocaine, cannabis, prescription drugs and heroin.

Research into the psychology of addiction proposes strong evidence that drug addiction risk is exacerbated by a confluence of genetic, epigenetic and environmental factors. Individuals with poor inhibitory control are more vulnerable. Inhibition of negative thoughts, actions and behaviours are essential to living a decent life. Self-control is a skill that can be developed in children and young adults however many drug addicts turn to drugs due to early traumatic experiences and lack of economic opportunity, Repeated use of addictive substances disrupts the brains optimal functioning by dulling and weakening the brains executive functioning in the prefrontal cortex. This is the organ of civilisation, the area of the brain that allows us to control, direct and supervise our goal directed behaviour. Bypassing these mechanisms drug addicts behaviour is governed by increased arousal and disruption of the limbic system which is the centre of the brain responsible for reward and motivation to pursue rewards. The limbic system is disrupted by stimulant ingestion leading to automaticised addictive behaviours where the victim can feel helplessly enslaved to his or her need for drug ingestion.

To put it simply the need outweighs the rational self- control elements of the brain. Control systems become highly compromised leading to drug addicts living their lives moment to moment in a constant state of self-destructive nihilism.

Have you ever found yourself reaching for a bar of chocolate, buying a bottle of wine or dialling a fast food restaurant despite being conscious of not wanting to do so yet feeling like you deserve a reward? Multiply that feeling by a hundred and maybe you are close to what it feels like to be ensconced in the belly of the beast and full-blown drug addiction.

Just as it is simplistic and ignorant to tell a person with depression to “snap out of it” it is equally foolish to sternly advise a drug addict to “just give it up”.

Addicts are often helpless amid their maladaptive and self-destructive behavioural patterns which are often exacerbated by society’s disgust and disdain for their predicament. In Ireland the ‘junkie’ is demonised, hated and feared; he (for it is often a he) is considered a threat to personal and public safety and must be treated with contempt.

Plenty of evidence exists in the literature to support links with adverse early child and adolescent experiences, mental health difficulties and the descent into hard drug use. A strong argument can be put forward therefore for the case of diminished responsibility which then leads us to the need for more compassionate and holistic approaches to drug addiction which can mitigate the personal and public safety concerns overall.

Aodhan O Riordan of the Labour Party, the Minister for Drugs in 2015, proposed the idea of injection centres that have been used to great success in Portugal, Holland and Germany. He was quoted at the time in media outlets as saying that Ireland needs to undergo a “cultural shift” in our attitudes to drug addiction. O Riordan advocated a shift from criminalisation to harm reduction. Instead of locking up drug addicts the state should adopt a hands-on compassionate approach which will in turn alleviate the anti-social problems associated with indiscriminate drug use. Safe spaces where users can even bring their own heroin into fully serviced legal injection centres offered a novel and effective approach to our drugs problem, he suggested.

O Riordan subsequently lost his Dail seat, an electoral failure that may be in part explained by his stance as well as the Labour Party’s overall meltdown that year. The current Minister of State for the National Drugs Strategy, Catherine Byrne, has supported O Riordan’s policy proposals. In 2017 she indicated that legislation to decriminalize heroin, cocaine and cannabis for personal use could be in place by 2019. The legislation for injection centres has been passed yet a pilot programme for the first injection centre was held up by Dublin City Council citing planning permission issues following representations by concerned community and business groups who clearly do not want to see such injection centres in their locality.

Activation of the legislation and a roll out of nationwide injection centres remains in limbo amidst cries of Nimbyism.All available evidence supports the move towards injection centres. It seems however that most Irish people support a health-based approach to drug addiction… if those centres are not on their own doorstep.

In the classic HBO television series, The Wire, an inner-city Baltimore police chief effectively decriminalises drug use by moving drug abuse to specific derelict areas of the city under the passive supervision of police officers. The result is a decrease in drug related crimes and associated anti-social problems freeing up police officers to focus on traditional police work. The War on Drugs has failed utterly because it is in effect a War on the poor, the vulnerable, the marginalised and the oppressed and only by recognising the issue as a public health problem and not a criminal problem can the effects of drug addiction be tackled. The show’s fictional narrative-written and produced a former police officer and journalist- appears to be mirrored in real life cases. Portugal for example had an estimated 100,000 people addicted to hard drugs in 1999 with high numbers of deaths and overdoses related to addiction. A decade on the number of addicts had been halved while the number of drug overdoses had dropped to double figures after the country’s government opted to embrace the harm reduction approach and decriminalise personal drug use.

In Ireland, 72% of drug possession cases (12,201 arrests) were for personal drug use. There are approximately almost 19,000 opiate users in our country while people seeking help for cocaine use has increased by 32 per cent between 2016 and 2017 with 1500 cases recorded.

The shift from criminalisation to de-stigmatisation appears to be in effect amongst policy makers and the Irish public however progress moves at a snail’s pace. The issue is sensitive politically as O Riordan might attest. In our current binary, discordant and moronic political and ideological climate the wait for a full roll out of harm reduction policy and injection centres seems unlikely to come to fruition anytime soon especially with a general election looming as TD’s frantically attempt to shore up their base.

Fine Gael’s self-crafted PR image as the party of law and order is hardly commensurate with a truly modern mature and intelligent nationwide implantation of harm reduction drug policy. It is likely however that following the general election a stronger impetus for activation of holistic drug treatment will occur leading to reduced public safety concerns and a political success story.

The issue requires long term vision and implantation which is not conducive to the atmosphere of competition during the canvassing period.

Photo courtesy of Josh Calabrese via Unsplash

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Cambodian Genocide

Cambodian Genocide

Genocide was officially recognised as a crime under international law in 1946. The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was subsequently adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948. This Convention has been ratified by 149 States (as of January 2018), though the principles enshrined in it’s doctrine are also part of general international law, which binds all countries. The word ‘genocide’ is associated, in the minds of most, with the atrocities committed by the Nazi Regime during World War II, as part of their “Final Solution.” Few are aware of the equally heinous and more recent genocide campaign led by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia.

The rise of the Khmer Rouge began during the early 1970’s when the secret bombing campaign by US troops during the Vietnam War led to widespread devastation and civil war in neighbouring Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge officially won the ensuing Civil War in 1975 and immediately began their communist re-education campaign. The aim of the Khmer Rouge was to socially engineer a classless communist society. In order to achieve this aim, the leaders of the regime believed that those of the ‘new age’ must be executed, leaving only working-class Cambodians behind to fulfil the communist manifesto.

In order to achieve this, people were rounded up and sent to concentration camps where they were sorted into groups. Cities were emptied, and anyone who represented modern ideals were sent to labour fields, in what later became known as the killing fields. Here, individuals were forced to work for no money, suffering physical abuse and starvation. Those targeted included, amongst others: Academics and intellectuals; those with a good education; those who spoke a foreign language; professionals such as doctors, nurses, teachers, etc.; ‘modern’ Cambodians, i.e. those who resided in cities; ethnic Vietnamese, Chinese and Thai; wealthy Cambodians; and religious leaders and their followers.

The Genocide has become known by historians as one of the most barbaric and murderous in recent history. A total of 2 million people died, ¼ of the overall population of Cambodia. People died of malnutrition, exhaustion, disease and hundreds of thousands were executed. The most famous of these execution sites was Tuol Sleng Centre, one of 96 such ‘prisons.’ The Khmer Rouge lacked the technological advancement available to the Nazi regime and their concentration camps. For this reason, most executions were carried out using blunt everyday instruments, including hammers and pickaxes. This resulted in excruciatingly slow deaths. Perhaps the most horrific of all is the reported practice of executing small children by bludgeoning their bodies against that of a tree. The killing was widespread and indiscriminate. Little regard was given to the deceased, as the common use of mass graves clearly shows.

It is frightening to think that such a horrific genocide could occur only 35 years ago and only 30 years after that of the Nazi Regime. Tuol Sleng Centre now operates as a historical site- frequented by tourists and locals alike. This killing field allows the visitor to take a harrowing step into the not-so-distant past. Audio testimony of the handful of people who escaped tell stories of loud propaganda music on constant loop to drown out the screams of those who were being executed. They speak of families ripped apart at the seams and people targeted for reasons as trivial as possessing a pair of glasses. They speak of the death of humanity and the corruption of power, all the while sending a powerful message of warning to leaders of the future. In the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge’s reign, some of its remaining leaders were put on trial in a UN-backed Cambodian Court, resulting in the conviction of three officials. While this is a decisive win for the legal system, there is no doubt that genocide is a crime which no amount of justice can negate.


Photo courtesy of Unsplash

Stand Back: The Great Green Wall

Stand Back: The Great Green Wall

Ellen Butler looks at how communities near the Sahara desert are fighting desertification, with the Great Green Wall.

In 2007, an initiative called The Great Green Wall of the Sahel and the Sahara was launched by the African Union and the UN. The mammoth project proposed building a wall of trees across Africa – from Senegal to 7000km east in Djibouti. It was intended to block the advancing Sahara Desert from spreading into the Sahel, the area south of the desert, and causing land degradation.

However, over ten years only 15 percent of the wall has been built. The project has faced numerous obstacles and complications, though there have been some successes.

Dr. Chris Reij is a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute and a specialist in sustainable land management. He told STAND News more about the project and what life is like for African farmers.

The Great Green Wall (GGW) has been described as a ridiculous idea that was destined to fail. Why is that?
Experience in the Sahel shows that planting trees is difficult. Survival rates of planted trees are often low, which means well below 50 percent and in some cases, just 10 or 20 per cent. Planting trees in areas with 400 mm rainfall or less is exceedingly difficult and certainly planting trees at the scale originally envisioned is technically impossible.

Also, the assumption that a belt of trees would stop the Sahara is flawed. Land degradation is caused by misuse of the land. If farmers in areas with more than 400 mm rainfall expand agriculture over lands which are not suitable for agriculture and destroy the vegetation by doing so, then land degradation/desertification will occur south of the planted belt.

Some argue that the initiative did, in fact, succeed. It has evolved into a metaphorical wall of a variety of practical land-use methods, adapted by local farmers themselves?
It is true that the GGW has moved into a better direction, but it is too early to declare success. It’s almost impossible to find any hard data anywhere about what has been achieved so far.

Unfortunately, we are still losing the fight against land degradation in the Sahel. Rates of deforestation continue to greatly exceed rates of reforestation. Niger is possibly an exception because smallholder farmers in the densely populated southern parts of Niger have increased on-farm tree densities on 5 million hectares (12.5 million acres), which makes it the largest positive environmental transformation in Africa and it happened in the second poorest country in the world.

What are conditions like for farmers in sub-Saharan Africa? Is the reforestation and regeneration of land having a positive impact on local communities and economies?
Life in the Sahel is harsh for most people. The dry season lasts about seven to eight months. Temperatures and rainfall have already become more extreme. This year, rains in Niger, for instance, are abundant and it leads to floods in Northern Niger, which is usually the driest area. Farmers have difficulties planning their activities because rainfall has become even more unpredictable. Many farm households face food shortages and a large percentage of children under five years are malnourished.

This macro-level gloom does hide very positive development at the local level. The positive impact generated by investments in restoring degraded land can be best illustrated by one case: The village of Ranawa in Burkina Faso was in a very difficult situation around 1985.  All wells dried up at the end of the rainy season and drought led to crop failure. Between 1975 and 1985, 25 percent of the villagers left to settle elsewhere. In 1984/85, a project began to invest in simple soil, and water conservation techniques, which quickly led to a recharge in groundwater and soon all wells in the village had water during the entire year. The soil and water conservation techniques also helped restore the productive capacity of the land. Since 1985, not a single family has left the village.

What does the future look like for countries in the Sahel?
The future of most Sahel countries looks quite bleak. The population will double in the next 20 years. Countries like Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger experience acts of terrorism. Young people lack economic perspectives, and many want to leave for Europe.

However, there are also positive developments. 40 years ago, there were barely any academically trained people in Sahel countries, but nowadays one can find specialists in every discipline.  Communication was difficult, but now almost every family has access to a mobile phone. Infant mortality has dropped, and access to education has improved. 40 years ago, we did not know what to do with land degradation, but now we know what to do and how to do it.

It is vital to improve food security and livelihoods in the Sahel and create economic perspectives for the young people.  Anyone visiting a big city in the Sahel will be impressed by all the shops.


Above image courtesy of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification.

Housekeeping of a nation

Housekeeping of a nation

Image: Cumann na mBan protest outside Mountjoy Prison 1921. Courtesy National Library of Ireland.


When we hear about Cumann na mBan in this age of commemoration, we hear a token mention about a women’s group relegated to the sidelines. If we hear about them at all.

But these female revolutionaries were so much more than that. They were the most well-known politically active group for Irish women in the early 20th Century, a group that fought for women’s education and recognised important social issues.

Who were Cumann na mBan?
They were a republican women’s organisation set up in April 1914, to support the male Irish volunteers, during the Irish Revolutionary Period (1916 – 1923). Cumann na mBan’s purpose was primarily to provide support to the male military wing – e.g. fund raising, providing medical supplies, producing newspapers, providing communications and intelligence. Most women in the organisation did everything except take up arms.

By 1923 the Irish Civil War ended and brought an end to the revolutionary period, along with its military action. The purpose for which Cumann na mBan had been set up, was completely changed – in order to continue they would need to overhaul the organisation.

The history of Cumann na mBan has focused on their ‘military phase’ or the time from 1914-23. They are remembered for being simply the female wing of the IRA after 1916. But they were so much more than that. Cumann na mBan remained very active during the 1920s and 1930s, as a group that sought to provide a social, political and recreational outlet for women.

Facing a crisis of purpose in 1924, Cumann na mBan reorganised with an internal education programme for their members in the early 1930s. In 1934 class plans were sent to all branches, and each branch was expected to teach themselves, with some help from a lecture series published in the republican newspaper An Phoblacht.

Their plan was to educate women, and they wanted to do this through the subjects of history and economics. These two areas often overlapped, with economic history important, as well as the history of Irish nationalism.

The history reading list featured James Connolly’s writings in particular, and Labour in Irish History by James Connolly was “the best book from which to obtain a knowledge of the economic and social state of the country”.

However, through teaching economics, Cumann na mBan began to seriously advocate for women. Before giving any details for classes on economics, Cumann na mBan argued the reasons for women to study economics in the first place. This is something they did not feel was necessary for history.

This argument is particularly strong and really shows what Cumann na mBan were about in the 1930s. They suggest that it makes sense for women to be involved in running the economics of the country – simply because they run the home. “Political Economics merely means the housekeeping of a Nation.”

They were using the perceived ideals of women as an argument for political involvement. Although playing into the idea that women were supposed to run the household, Cumann na mBan saw this as a strength that could be used to further women’s political involvement.

But it was also apparent that Cumann na mBan were intending to educate the next generation and build a structure so that the organisation would continue. In this particular section, we see them argue for greater female involvement in government – perhaps without even realising – not just for ‘now’ but for the future.

Education for economics would be through lectures mainly – to be given by officers in branches, and published lectures in republican newspaper An Phoblacht. A key part of their political and economic vision was socialism.

“Members will be expected to have a knowledge of (a) the causes of the present poverty and insecurity of the people; (b) the means necessary to be taken to end the present position.”

By the 1930s Cumann na mBan were developing a greater attention for socialism and politics. They began to view poverty as something that was systemic, an issue that needed to be addressed through greater education of all the issues.

This is a far cry from the image of them as simply there to support their male counterparts or that they faded away through the 1920s. They had become an organisation that really advocated for women’s education, but also for greater social change. Ireland in the 1930s is often remembered as very conservative, but Cumann na mBan proves there were strong pockets of social activists that still looked for change.


This is part of a STAND series on historical activist women. To read more about them, click here.

Roisin Guyett-Nicholson is Editor of STAND News and a History MA student at UCD.