Judgement of the judge.

How would you feel if you are a victim and survivor of a vile crime perpetrated by an individual who sought to degrade you?

How do you feel if, as such a victim, you summon up your courage and determination to report the crime to the police, and subject yourself to invasive medical procedures and examinations?

How do you feel if, as such a victim, you put your faith and trust (which must feel eroded) in the criminal justice system, seeking justice for the attack against your being, only to find that the trial humiliates you, and implies you are responsible for the crime?

I want to tell you all about a case, a judge, and several hideous statements. I can recall the case from a year ago, but it has developed since then and now I find myself writing about it. I suppose I just find it sickening that an institution, a system, which seeks to uphold the law and bring justice to victims of crime could let down a victim so badly.

This is the case of one Canadian federal court judge Mr Justice Robin Camp.

Mr Justice Camp was presiding over a sexual assault trial in 2014 when he displayed sexism, a lack of empathy, tactlessness, and a terrible subjective view of sexual assault.

A 19-year-old homeless woman alleged she had been raped over a bathroom sink at a house party. The case was duly brought to court. At various points during the initial trial, Judge Camp, then still a Calgary provincial court judge, asked the complainant: “Why didn’t you just sink your bottom down into the basin so he couldn’t penetrate you?” and, even more damningly, “Why couldn’t you just keep your knees together?”

Of course. The onus of prevention, and de facto onus of proving the attack occurred, fell upon the woman. The alleged victim must be responsible for the attack, since she clearly did not strive to do enough to prevent her own rape.

The Calgary Herald reported that because the complainant said she had asked her alleged attacker if he had a condom, Judge Camp told the court that it was “an inescapable conclusion (that) if you have one I’m happy to have sex with you”.

Of course. Since the woman, probably terrified of the situation and consequences of the assault (pregnancy, the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection), had asked about the use of contraception, she must have been resigning herself to the sexual assault. Surely, by enquiring if her attacker had a condom, she must have been consenting. It was ‘inescapable’. I mean, if I ask a stranger threatening me on the street if he is going to hurt me, I must be happy enough to be hit.

This also seemingly suggests that should someone enquire about contraception, it is a way of implying consent for any sexual act. If a judge interprets the law so, then good grief, those of us who argue that consent must be clear and can be withdrawn at any point are clearly in the wrong. The learned judge has spoken.

It is acceptable to reach an ‘inescapable conclusion’ that should one ask about an object- “Hey, do you have an iPhone charger? – there is the chance this will be followed up with a request for said object – “Can I borrow it please?”. But in a situation where you are being attacked, you are terrified, you are vulnerable, I doubt any questioning of the situation implies consent or acceptance.

He also said during the trial that the complainant had not explained “why she allowed the sex to happen if she didn’t want it?” Well, I don’t know. Maybe she was stunned, frozen in fear, and was physically unable to fend off the alleged attacker? Fellow women, take note: if we do not fight obviously enough, if we do not shout or scream loudly enough, if we do not say “no” enough, we must be permitting the attacker to proceed. It is merely one of those inescapable conclusions to be drawn, after all.

Justice Camp, when not informing the alleged victim that “sex and pain sometimes go together…that’s not necessarily a bad thing”, referred to her as “the accused” during the trial proceedings. I suppose such a mistake of title-brandishing made sense to him: after all, she did not close her knees together and she had asked about condoms, so she must have been the one on trial for assisting in her own alleged rape.

On the subject of sex in general he said, “Young wom[e]n want to have sex, particularly if they’re drunk.” I must applaud the learned judge for his astute comments and incredible insight into the minds of all young women. When young women are drunk, they must be responsible for their actions. Or rather inaction, in case they do not say “no” loudly and struggle in the event of being preyed upon. When young women are drunk, they are not vulnerable – they are simply seeking a sexual partner for the night.

I shall desist with the angry sarcasm. How could the judge think like this? How dare he make such comments, and suggest that the alleged victim did not do enough? How dare he insinuate that her attack was her fault? His comments are humiliating and hurtful to the victim, but dangerous when read by others. They are a twisted combination of victim blaming and rape culture, suggesting excuses for the alleged attacker and casting disbelief upon the victim.

When oh when will people understand that rape is never the fault of a victim. It does not matter what they were wearing. It does not matter what they were drinking. It does not matter how they were acting, what they were saying or whether they were dancing and flirting. No one asks for rape.

Can it really be so difficult to comprehend that sex must be consensual? That the lack of consent should be a sign to cease pursuing the activity? In this day and age, are we really still demanding proof that a victim struggled and fought and shouted before we determine rape was committed?

The judge acquitted Alexander Scott of sexual assault in September 2014. This decision however was later overturned by Alberta Court of Appeal. There will be a retrial this November.

Following understandable outrage and a barrage of complaints, Mr Justice Robin Camp was informed he was now subject to a disciplinary hearing, with his conduct being reviewed by the Canadian Judical Council. It is understood that during the review of his comments, the Federal Court is not assigning him any cases involving sexual conduct or similar issues.

Since then, he has offered his apologies, saying that:

“My sincere apology goes out, in the first place, to the young woman who was the complainant in the matter.

“I also apologise to the women who experience feelings of anger, frustration and despair at hearing of these events. I am deeply troubled that things that I said would hurt the innocent.”

Oh, and whilst defending his position as a judge, he volunteered to have gender sensitivity counselling. (So that’s all right then.)

During the hearing before the Canadian Judicial Council, the alleged victim said his comments “made me hate myself” and led her to consider suicide:

“He made me hate myself and he made me feel like I should have done something … that I was some kind of slut…

“I’m so disappointed and sad about the system. My biggest worry is the victims who will never come forward because of what they read in the newspaper about Justice Camp’s words.”

I refer you to the introduction of this post. How would a victim feel if, having summoned up the courage to appear in court, and face their attacker in the pursuit of justice, they are subjected to humiliation? The alleged victim in this case has answered my questions: disappointment in the system, and the fear that victims will not report their attacks.

Women’s rights campaigners have said this case is a prime example of why women fear to report cases of sexual abuse. I agree with them. It is a horribly perfect example of why victims do not come forward: feeling as though they are the ones on trial, as though they are the ones who must prove their innocence, as though they are the ones who are responsible for the attack.

The criminal justice system should be there to empower, protect and bring some measure of peace to victims. It should not subject them to stereotypes, biased thinking, or further hurt and pain. It is telling that the Council considering Mr Camp’s role said the judge “engaged in stereotypical or biased thinking in relation to a sexual assault complainant.”

Mr Justice Camp testified before a review committee last week. This review committee will make recommendations to the Council, who will then decide if he should remain in his role as a federal judge.

During his testimony, Mr Camp said at the time of the trial he was not familiar with Canadian criminal law, as had previously spent two decades practising law in South Africa. I would submit that perhaps he was not at ease with the Canadian Criminal Code, but the lack of understanding about the relevant law cannot excuse his lack of empathy for an alleged victim, or his ignorant and stereotypical questions.

I respectfully suggest that perhaps the learned judge could follow his own advice, and learn to keep his mouth closed together. Or I would question him, and ask why did he allow his questions to happen, if he did not want to cause “hurt to the innocent”?

Wednesday and the tale of woe(nrolment).

Another new academic term looms on the horizon: I start my Masters in just over one week. It is a weird and wonderful feeling, as this is something I have always longed to do, but equally so I cannot believe the day is drawing near. Goodness, I must be getting old (she sighs wearily).

I cannot wait to commence my studies in conflict transformation, transitional government and law, and social justice. I always thought I would study Human Rights at a Masters level, but then I came across the Masters in Conflict Transformation and Social Justice. I was hooked from the start. It promises to be an interesting and intriguing course, spanning across various academic disciplines. It reminds me of the liberal arts colleges in America: studying different disciplines enables you to gain knowledge and awareness of the same issue/topic but through different perceptions. It is fascinating, and I look forward to studying political, legal, historical and psychological modules.

However, no new term is complete without the infamous process of online registration and enrolment. Yes, a new term brings excitement and speculation (what module? Which lecturer?). It even brings a touch of nerves and a twinge of fear (what if I hate this module? What if I spend all this money and become disillusioned? What if I prematurely age from stress?). But come what may, it will always bring the joys of enrolment on a computer system which seemingly delights in taunting your nervous system. (Or maybe that is just me).

This year, I was due to enrol as a part-time postgraduate student on Wednesday 14th September. It was a bundle of laughs, let me assure you.

Thrice have I used QSIS. Thrice have I had tales to tell after using it. This year marked the fourth time of such larks.

Firstly, you should consider yourself fortunate if you are able to successfully log in to QSIS. Due to the sheer volume of students attempting to register and enrol, the servers have an alarming tendency to crash, with the result being students may fail to even log in. Should you be one of the lucky few to log in, you may fall at the second hurdle, that being actually clicking on the registration button – many who reach this step fail, as the server crashes and they are unceremoniously logged out. Once you commence the registration process, you may find that your screen freezes, you are logged out and so have to fight the good fight to log back in, or you constantly have to resubmit information. I generally end up resorting to threatening my laptop and/or the QSIS programme. It really is the Hunger Games of university registration, I kid you not.

Anyway, I eventually managed to confirm that my name, DOB, address etc have not magically changed after a year, and that all the other information on file was still accurate. I flexed my fingers, for the next step is that of ‘Academics’, otherwise known as ‘Supermarket Sweep: module edition’. (As a toddler I adored that zany programme, for reasons I have yet to fully comprehend. Should you not know of this veritable gem, please do Google it.)

Now, as someone works part-time, I am restricted as to what modules I can study per year. I knew roughly what modules were compulsory core modules, and I knew the number of optional modules I was eligible to study and the number required per School. Knowledge is wonderful, dear reader. Success depends however on the application of such knowledge, or rather, can the online system agree to my choices? I knew what I had to do; I just did not know whether QSIS did too.

My fears, sadly, were well-founded. No sooner had I entered the Supermarket Sweep of class selection, ready to seize upon my chosen modules for the new academic year, than I was presented with a message saying that I was not registered for the year. Glancing to the pile of enrolment leaflets posted to me by my university at my side, and the official letter of confirmation of my acceptance to the course, I looked to the Heavens, and sighed.

It was going to be one of those days.

Of course, just like the Labour party campaign theme of 1997 – ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ –  irony was at hand. Scrolling through the rest of the registration process, I discovered that I could not tell the system that I was set to graduate in 2018, and I apparently did not owe the university any money. No matter how many times I logged in and out, refreshed the page, or entered details, the message re my apparent non-registration stubbornly remained. Cue repeated telephone calls to RegHelp, being transferred, being transferred again, before having to leave a voicemail message and send off – a cry for help – an email. Phew.

Oh, and did I omit to mention that this fantastic tableau of me bearing leaflets and letters and the weight of QSIS-inspired frustration on my shoulders took place as I was sitting in the dentist’s, awaiting an emergency appointment for the Erupting Wisdom Tooth? Not only that, this was unfolding as I was preparing to head into work, with Assembly Committees awaiting me. Truly, I am the living embodiment of Murphy’s Law.

Mercifully, my proverbial silver lining took to the stage. Whilst in the office, I received several lovely emails from a clerical officer working in the relevant School, saying that she was working to resolve the issue and not to worry. By afternoon, I was informed the problem had been fixed and I was now able to select my modules and complete online enrolment. And dear reader, that is what I did.

I have now sorted out my timetable for the next two semesters. I have opted to study two core and two optional modules this year, and then can study the remaining two core and two optional modules plus my dissertation next year. Autumn term 2016 will see me study Global Concepts and Practice, and International Human Rights Law. Spring 2017 will see me study Conducting Research in Conflict and Theoretical Criminology. Essentially, despite having graduated from my undergraduate Law degree this summer, I am keeping with the Law theme with my optional modules. (You can take the girl from Law, but you cannot take Law from the girl…)

When I received the confirmation email of successful online enrolment and payment of course fees, I smiled. Sometimes the best feeling is that which comes after stress and frustration. A mellow, sweet wave of calm and tranquillity.

Of course, this could just be the calm before the (commencement of Masters) storm. With me, who knows. It’s going to be a ride over the next two years, but sure – who doesn’t love a challenge?

*Erupting Wisdom Tooth is set to be extracted on the 23rd September. I am due to attend my first seminar on the 27th. The living embodiment of Murphy’s Law am I indeed.

Facebook, Shame Pages, and a Belfast Court.

Social media can be a blessing, or it can be a curse. It depends how it is used.

Someone, I don’t know who, created a ‘Spotted at’ page on Facebook for my university. It has existed for a couple of years, with the intention of being utilised by those who take photographs of their fellow -often unsuspecting -students around campus. The page has hosted photographs, snapchats, videos etc of students sleeping, doing something silly, or those students who are considered attractive or those who are considered to be a mess.People comment, respond with whatever response they see fit and often tag their friends and share the status too. More often than not, it can be quite humorous, but I do sometimes wonder if perhaps there can be that uncomfortable side.

What if someone saw that an unflattering photograph with a sarcastic message had been posted without their knowledge? What if they saw negative comments posted underneath by people they do not know, judging them solely on their appearance? What if, horror of horrors, they are tagged in said photograph and their identity revealed?

When I studied abroad in the US for a year, there was an anonymously-ran Twitter account on campus. The sole aim of which was to offer people the chance to submit their thoughts and feelings on other students. It was mostly used to praise someone’s attractiveness, and to ponder their chances of successfully asking this person out. Sometimes though, it was used to harshly critique the appearance or the style of another student. I remember that I was once referenced on the Twitter account – someone apparently thought I was attractive (!) – and I just felt more embarrassed than not. Perhaps it was a cultural difference, or perhaps I just didn’t know how to accept a compliment posted anonymously on social media by someone who spotted me on campus. Nevertheless, I was fortunate – I was not a victim of a mocking post, or had a photograph shared around.

Facebook, Twitter, YikYak… Social media offers the unparalleled opportunity to connect and engage with a wide audience. But it also offers the opportunity to twist that into someone spiteful, hurtful and harmful. I have witnessed trolling, bullying and the unwanted sharing of information and/or photographs over the years.I have also witnessed the complaints of those who have fallen victim to these.

Which is why the story regarding Facebook and unwanting sharing of photographs from last year is so interesting.

In September 2016, Facebook lost a legal bid to prevent a 14-year-old girl from suing the company over a naked picture of her that was posted on a ‘shame page’ on the site as an act of revenge. A High Court judge in Belfast rejected Facebook’s attempt to have the claim by the girl struck out.

The girl – who cannot be named for legal reasons as she is underage – is also taking legal action against the man who allegedly posted the picture in what lawyers claim is the first case of its kind in the UK. She is seeking damages for misuse of private information, negligence and breach of the Data Protection Act.

The girl’s legal team argued that Facebook is liable for a photograph which was allegedly blackmailed from the girl, before being posted on Facebook without her permission. The legal team further submitted that Facebook had the power to block any re-publication by using a tracking process to identify the image. Her photograph was said to have been posted on a so-called shame page on Facebook several times between November 2014 and January 2016.

The court heard it should have been a “red line” issue for the company.

Facebook’s legal team argued the claim for damages should be dismissed, saying the company always took down the photograph when it was notified, and had done what it could. They relied on a European directive that they claimed provides protection from having to monitor a vast amount of online material for what is posted on one page. The EU law provides that social media sites are immune from liability for content as long as they react quickly to complaints, under a so-called “notice and takedown” mechanism.

The Belfast High Court judge however dismissed Facebook’s arguments.

The case against Facebook and the man who it is claimed originally posted the picture will now move to full trial in Belfast at a later date.

The case is thought to be the first of its kind in the world, and could potentially set a major precedent about whether social media sites are liable for what is posted on them. This has provoked alarm among tech companies, concerned about the responsibility that they might have to carry over submitted and hosted data, along with censorship, and protection.

It has been said that this legal challenge could open the floodgates for other civil claims, according to lawyers who work with victims of revenge pornography. By October 2016, the case has already resulted in victims of revenge pornography seeking advice about whether they too could have grounds for legal action, according to Paul Tweed, media lawyer and senior partner at the law firm Johnsons.

Facebook changed its community standards in 2012 to crack down on revenge pornography and “sextortion”, banning nude images when they are reported. It also works with charities to target paedophile networks and on “think before you share” campaigns, said a Facebook spokeswoman when discussing the legal case from Belfast.

Perhaps the issue is not so much the social media websites, but rather their users.

You see, even if Facebook and other social media sites started proactively filtering potentially distressing images, by far the greater problem lies in revenge pornography and non-specific pornography sites – established, ran and visited by users. Revenge porn websites provide a haven for users to download photographs, and send hate. Perhaps the focus of attention should be towards these sites, and to target those who establish them?

Regardless, it is evident that social media can be abused and twisted. We can always ensure to take care on our social media accounts, and be mindful of our friends and connections when we post photographs and comments.

Assembly Election Reflection.

Time is a strange thing. Sometimes we eagerly count down the days until a certain event occurs. We swear that it feels so very far away, but in what seems like a blink of an eye, the event in question has come and gone and we are left reminiscing in its wake. This surreal feeling of nostalgia and confusion at the rapid passage of time is how I feel now that the month of May, election season, has come and gone. As the summer recess ended, and Assembly business and discussion over the proposed Programme for Government gets underway, I find myself thinking about the election results which brought us to this moment.

We saw the best and worst of politics during this past election campaign. From bold pledges, fresh faces and strong debates to political sniping (especially on social media). From the highs and lows of campaigning and results, the electorate observed the candidates and voted accordingly, with surprises and shocks along the way. The political landscape in Northern Ireland may look to have simply replicated itself, but upon closer examination there is evidence of something different. Yes, the largest parties remain the same. Yes, there is still a problem with the declining Nationalist vote which Nationalist parties need to address. And yes, there is still the ongoing issue of electoral turnout. Still, I truly do feel that this election marked a change in Northern Irish politics: it has modernised, it has matured and it may just yet be on the step towards normalisation.

I had been eagerly awaiting the 5th May, as it marked my first time voting in the Assembly elections here in Northern Ireland. I could not wait until I exercised my right to vote, and cast my ballot for my chosen candidates in a day of democracy. The moment seemed to come upon me so very suddenly, and I remember driving with my parents to our local polling station knowing that unlike the past times when I had accompanied them, this time I would be taking part myself. It is hard as a young woman not to acknowledge how precious the right to vote is, and as I dropped my ballot into the generic black box, I felt a sense of satisfaction  knowing that irrespective of the outcome in my constituency and across the state, I had voted. I felt the same way last year during the General Election for Westminster, but this just felt a tad more important because it was an election for the Northern Ireland Assembly. This is an institution of devolution, a sign of normalisation and reconciliation post-Troubles and indeed a symbol of the end of Direct Rule.

Now, call me young and naive, but I feel that despite the problems which have bedevilled Stormont over the years, and for all the grumbles and complaints from the general public, it is our hub of democracy and transitional government. I truly believe that if the public became more engaged with the political system and availed of their elected representatives, and should said elected representatives be willing to listen and engage also, Stormont could achieve more than it ever has. I know a fair few who would submit that the Assembly is a mere talking-shop, and endless merry-go-round of crises and collapse, and we would simply be better off under Direct Rule once more. I could not disagree more. We are a proud people, and we are entitled to self-government. Dictation via barely-present scrutiny and accountability from Westminster should never be an aspiration. What better way to move towards reconciliation and ensure stability, peace and prosperity for all citizens than by a local power-sharing Assembly? Northern Ireland will not have a future as long as we stay too firmly rooted in our past, and one of the ways to work towards an inclusive and progressive future for all is through effective government and an engaged political system in Northern Ireland, not fragmented and sprawled across the Irish Sea.

Regular readers of my blog – and indeed, my Twitter – will be all too-aware of my interest in current affairs and politics. One of my friends quipped about what I would do without the Assembly election in my life during the weekend of the results. Whilst I do have rather the Assembly election-shaped hole in my heart, I am excited to see the outcome, and am intrigued to see how the new mandate progresses in light of new faces, an Opposition, and new parties present in Stormont. I have also been very fortunate in that during the election campaign and the subsequent aftermath, I have been able to give my opinion and thoughts not just here, but on local radio through my participation with the BBC Generation 2016 programme. I will write more on my BBC Generation 2016 activities and my thoughts on the Executive formation soon, but until then I thought it would be fitting to end this post with a touch of nostalgia by including some memories of the recent elections.

And I leave you with the a brilliant line from SDLP Leader Colum Eastwood regarding election results: “The people have spoken. We just need to figure out what they have said.”

Leah’s Highlights of the 2016 Assembly Election

  • Gerry Carroll (People Before Profit Alliance) polling an impressive 8,299 1st preference votes in Belfast West; a staggering 3,000 over the required quota and his nearest rival candidate.
  • My home constituency of South Antrim finally became competitive: Unionist candidates, generally the DUP, tend to be elected over quota and rather promptly from the first count. This year saw multiple counts – we went to seven – and no DUP candidate was elected on the first count. South Antrim also provided a nervous moment for Alliance supporters, as the Alliance party leader David Ford was forced to go the extra mile and wait until the sixth count to be re-elected. He had only polled 3,119 first preference votes. South Antrim could just be one to watch in 2021, when there will only be five and not six seats available per constituency.
  • Alex Attwood (SDLP) and Frank McCoubrey’s (DUP) deathmatch battle in Belfast West: a political nail-biter if there ever was one. Mr McCoubrey polled higher in first preferences (3,766 votes to Mr Attwood’s 2,647) and consistently led the incumbent Mr Attwood across eight stages of counting, increasing speculation the SDLP might just lose their sole Belfast West MLA. News broke after eleven o’clock in the evening that results night that Mr Attwood might just have edged out Mr McCoubrey with transfer votes. There was a call for a recount, but by half past eleven a weary and visibly relieved Mr Attwood was declared the victor. He won by just 89 votes. Interestingly enough, the SDLP candidate was helped over the finish line by 131 transfers… from Sinn Féin. (Gasp.) The lesson to be taken from Belfast West 2016? Every vote counts, hence the need to go out and cast your vote.
  • Eamonn McCann (People Before Profit Alliance) winning a Foyle seat after decades of political activism and contesting elections. He may have had to wait until the eighth and final stage of counting, but he made sure to make the most of his acceptance speech, bursting into a rendition of The Internationale, much to the bemusement of the other candidates.
  • The Foyle Fight: SDLP party leader Colum Eastwood v Sinn Féin heavyweight Martin McGuinness proved to be a juggernaut of a fight, with merely 37 first preferences votes difference between them after the first count. By the second count, there was only the one vote between them, with Mr McGuinness on 5,070 votes and Mr Eastwood on 5,069 votes. Both were elected on the seventh count. Both parties failed to gain three seats in the constituency: despite Foyle being a stronghold for the SDLP and despite Sinn Féin’s decision to move the deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness from Mid Ulster to his native Derry. It failed to work, with previously co-opted Sinn Féin candidate Maeve McLauglin losing her seat.
  • John McCallister (Independent, Unionist) conceding in South Down before it was revealed he had been eliminated on the first count. He had resigned from the UUP to join Basil McCrea in the ill-fated NI21 new party venture, before becoming an Independent Unionist. He leaves behind a legacy in the form of the Official Opposition Act for the Assembly, which has since been utilised by both the UUP and the SDLP.
  • Upper Bann illustrating the importance of votes and effectively utilising the STV system: where do I even begin with this one. Carla Lockhart (DUP) topped the poll with 7,993 first preference votes when the quota was 6,527 votes. She was soon joined by fellow party candidate Sydney Anderson, who gained 6,195 votes and was elected on the second count. However,the battle for the remaining four seats was both tight and lengthy, spanning two days: Friday leading into late Saturday. Jo-Anne Dobson (UUP) had to wait until stage 9 to be elected to fill the third seat, but it proved to be a tense battle for the final three seats between John ‘O Dowd and Catherine Seeley (both Sinn Féin), Dolores Kelly (SDLP), and Doug Beattie (UUP). The counting dragged on into Saturday afternoon, with the rumour mill generating furiously in relation to whether or not incumbent Mrs Kelly would lose her seat, or would fellow incumbent and past-Education Minister Mr O’Dowd lose his. Mr Beattie was declared the victor for the fourth seat; despite polling the fewest first preferences out of the four (2,969) he proved to be a transfer-friendly candidate and was elected on the 11th count. After difficult and complex mathematics, including considering transfers and surplus votes, it emerged that Mr O’Dowd and Ms Seeley made it across the finishing line. Mrs Kelly, who came sixth in terms of first preferences (4,335) came seventh overall, proving that in a STV-election, first preferences alone cannot guarantee a seat. 

  • On that note – the hashtag #WaitingforUpperBann was a hoot: it was an apt comparison to draw between Beckett’s fabulous play, ‘Waiting for Godot’ and the Upper Bann count. The play is classified as the ‘theatre of the absurd’ which frankly was how the count felt at times.
  • Emma Little-Pengelly (DUP) winning the grudge match v Ruth Patterson (Independent Unionist) in Belfast South: now this was branded as a battle of the grudge. Ms Patterson had been a DUP Councillor, but was expelled from the party after she lambasted the party leadership for parachuting Emma Little-Pengelly into an Assembly seat in that constituency. Moreover, she argued the party was increasingly becoming elitist, and out of touch with grassroots. Having previously said she was considering resigning from the DUP and running as a TUV candidate in South Belfast in the May election, she ultimately opted to run as an Independent Unionist. Mrs Little-Pengelly, a trained barrister, had been a special adviser to then-First Minister Peter Robinson when she was co-opted by the DUP leadership into the Assembly in 2015 – with local councillors Ruth Patterson and Christopher Stalford overlooked at that time. Ms Patterson called Mrs Little-Pengelly “a well-paid blow-in”, and so the battle for Belfast South commenced. Her supporters believed she could snatch the final sixth seat, whilst Mr Stalford was Little Pengelly’s running-mate with only one DUP seat guaranteed. The battle raged during the campaign, with Ms Patterson voicing suggestions that Mrs Little-Pengelly changed her name to appear higher on the ballot paper. Come results night, the battle concluded with Ms Patterson only managing to secure just 475 first preference votes compared to her rival’s 4,511. She then declared she would retire from politics when her councillor term ends in 2019.
  • Joe Boyle coming painfully close in Strangford: Poor Joe Boyle. In his fourth consecutive attempt at an Assembly seat, the Ards and North Down councillor – who came within 31 votes of acquiring a seat in the 2007 Assembly election – suffered another agonising defeat in the race for the final seat. After receiving 2,724 first preference votes, Mr Boyle narrowly lost out on the sixth and final seat to the UUP’S Philip Smith. Mr Boyle found the sympathy for his loss rather staggering: comparing the atmosphere to that of a wake house, he said “I had to tell people it was an election, that nobody had died here.”
  • Jim Wells needing ID and his wife denied entry to the polling station in South Down: it was rather the shambles in the South Down count centre for the former DUP Health Minister. Starting the day in headline- grabbing form, Mr Wells was initially denied entry to the Lagan Valley LeisurePlex count centre for failing to bring identification. Then, his wife Grace was also denied entry because he did not bring proof with him that they were a married couple. Mr Wells was the first candidate to be elected, after receiving 5,033 first preferences and deemed elected on the third count. But he was angry with the manner in which he received this news, saying it was “absolutely outrageous” that his wife had to wait outside.
  • Karen McKevitt and the Constituency Coup that wasn’t: Mrs McKevitt, known for her campaign to install defibrillators across NI, had been a South Down MLA, but she contested a seat in her native Newry and Armagh instead of seeking re-election in South Down. She had made a public statement in October 2015 that she would not contest South Down, and said she was considering quitting public life altogether. By December 2015, she alongside Justin McNulty had received the SDLP’s nomination for Newry and Armagh. The daughter of former SDLP MLA PJ Bradley, Sinead, ended up standing in South Down in her stead, topping the poll on results day. Mr McNulty was elected on the ninth count, and took the final seat as Mrs McKevitt was eliminated on the very same count.
  • The Wild Wild West Tyrone: this constituency saw another political grudge match, namely Daniel McCrossan (SDLP) holding his own versus former SDLP members. They had resigned from the party, mostly as a protest due to the party selecting Mr McCrossan as its candidate for the election. Mr McCrossan had been recently co-opted into the Assembly, and sought to contest the seat in an election. Around ten office-holders and party members resigned in total, some of which decided to stand as independents in the constituency. In short, it was another case of election blues for the SDLP in the constituency: despite winning two seats in the first post Good Friday Agreement Assembly elections in 1998 it has struggled since. Until 2016. For Mr McCrossan held the seat for the party, receiving 4,287 first preferences and was elected on the eighth count. The closest an ex-SDLP party member came was Josephine Deehan, who received 1,778 first preferences.
  • Just Twitter Problems: Jimmy Menagh being ‘elected’ when actually eliminated in Strangford: for those eagle-eyed Twitter users, there was a moment of confused hilarity when several election accounts informed us that Jimmy Menagh, an Independent, was elected. They subsequently had to post a clarification, saying that he actually had been eliminated on the eighth count.
  • A Tale of Selection: Michelle Gildernew, a popular, stalwart Sinn Féin politician had a bit of a confusing start to her campaign. The former MP was initially selected to contest the constituency, alongside sitting MLA Seán Lynch and local councillor John Feely. However, she was replaced on the ticket by the then-current MLA, Phil Flanagan, who missed out on selection at a previous selection convention, after the party’s Ard Comhairle issued a revote. The party ultimately decided to run four candidates in the constituency, having held three seats. Mrs Gildernew received 6,614 first preferences, second only to Arlene Foster (DUP), and was successfully elected. Mr Lynch was successfully re-elected, but Mr Flanagan and Mr Feely were eliminated on the seventh and fourth counts respectively.
  • Whose Preference Vote is it, anyway?: One of my personal favourite moments from the May election was the weird and wonderful voting patterns brought about by the voting system. I wasn’t the only one. Two Sinn Féin candidates, Chris Hazzard (South Down; now Minister for Infrastructure in the Executive) and Daithí McKay (North Antrim; stood down in August 2016) tweeted their amusement at having gaining transfers from eliminated TUV and UKIP candidates in their constituencies. Yes: unionist, conservative candidates had votes transferred to republican candidates upon their elimination. May STV never change.

Chilcot Revisited.

Summer has come and gone, and Autumn is now here. The new academic term is upon us, and I will soon traipse back towards university for a new challenge: my Masters in Conflict Transformation and Social Justice.

I suppose I am drawn to the notion of studying political violence, identity conflicts and the transition from a state of war towards one of peace and shared spaces. I am a citizen of Northern Ireland after all, and transitional justice and political pathways towards peace is what I grew up knowing. I cannot wait to commence my studies, and see where my studies take me.

As I thought about my upcoming back-to-school adventures, I realised that I had not written about my thoughts and summary of the Chilcot Report, that long-awaited report which was finally published on the 6th July of this summer. I thought about this report as I thought about my studies, because it signifies to me at least of the need for a plan for post-conflict: how to rebuild the state, how to integrate all identities, how to ensure stability and peace. Alas, that this has not been found to date in Iraq in the aftermath of that fateful decision undertaken by then-Prime Minister Tony Blair to invade the country.

I wrote about the report in a blog post on the date of publication. I explained how Sir John Chilcot’s report aimed to examine the path towards war in Iraq in 2003, and the country’s subsequent descent into civil war and terrorist violence after the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime. The Inquiry’s remit, I noted, was to examine the UK’s decision to intervene in Iraq, how the British army’s offensive was conducted, and to determine where there lessons to be learnt from same. To undertake this, the Inquiry sought a wide timeframe: from the commencement of war in 2003, to when combat troops were remove from Iraq at the end of July 2009. I noted too how it was expected that Tony Blair would be largely acquitted of blame for the Iraq War. This conclusion was expected to be derived from the report’s main focus, i.e. what commitments Mr Blair gave to then-President Bush, and whether Mr Blair misled the UK public over the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction – which, it transpired, turned out to be non-existent.

I thought to write a fresh blog post several months on, to highlight the key findings of the inquiry.

Prior to the immediate publication of the report, Sir John spoke about his inquiry and its findings. The main conclusions that he reached in this statement included:

  • Whilst military action against Saddam Hussein ‘might have been necessary at some point’, in the vital month of March 2003, he posed no imminent threat.
  • The strategy of containment, having been ongoing at the time, could have been continued for ‘some time’ further, and the majority of the Security Council supported continuing UN inspections and monitoring. ‘Military action at that time was not a last resort,’ Sir John held.
  • The manner in which the UK government decided there was a legal basis for military intervention was deemed to have been ‘far from satisfactory’. However, I should point out that report doesn’t express a view of legality of military action, something that can only be resolved by a constituted court.
  • Sir John found that ‘flawed intelligence and assessments’ formed the basis of government policy on Iraq. Chilcot said of the intelligence provided that ‘they were not challenged, and they should have been’. Moreover, the statement delivered by Mr Blair on the 24th September statement before the House of Commons containing judgements on the severity of the threat posed by Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction was ‘presented with a certainty that was not justified’.
  • The point which bears ongoing relevance today: planning for a post-Saddam Iraq was found to have been ‘wholly inadequate’. Despite repeated, clear warnings, the consequences of the invasion were underestimated. It was found that Mr Blair ‘did not establish clear Ministerial oversight of US planning and preparation.’ Moreover, he ‘did not ensure that there was a flexible, realistic and fully resourced plan that integrated UK military and civilian contributions, and addressed the known risks.’
  • The Inquiry apparently took rather a dim view of Tony Blair’s claim that the difficulties encountered in Iraq could not have been known in advance: it did ‘not agree that hindsight is required’. The Inquiry held that ‘the risks of internal strife in Iraq, active Iranian pursuit of its interests, regional instability, and Al Qaida activity in Iraq, were each explicitly identified before the invasion’ and therefore provided the foundational evidence upon which to undertake planning for a transitional Iraq post-invasion.

As the statement was delivered, comments from various journalists who had had a preview of the report made the rounds on social media. What quickly became a topic of discussion was the collection of letters Mr Blair had written to President Bush, now released as part of the report. The letters could be read as an attempt to impress the US Preisdent with his statemanship and determination, or read as evidence of Mr Blair’s belief in his own importance, and his role in shaping destiny and the future. I however see the letters differently: they read as though written by one trying to convince himself of the merits of his own arguments.

Two notes in particular stood out. One was dated eight months before the war commenced, and within Mr Blair offered his unqualified backing for invasion far in advance of when the beleaguered UN weapons inspectors had completed their work. Blair devoted a mere six lines to post-invasion planning. He said the removal of Saddam “should lead in time to a democratic Iraq governed by the people”, but concluded “just swapping one dictator for another seems inconsistent with our values”. Bu the true line du jour?  “I will be with you, whatever.”

The other note was dated June 2003, and is tinged with panic and a touch of desperation – recognition, it seems, of the scale of the invasion and the sheer size of the project post-conflict. Mr Blair wrote: “But the task is absolutely awesome and I’m not at all sure we’re geared up for it. This is worse than rebuilding a country from scratch.We start from a really backward position. In time, it can be sorted. But time counts against us… My sense is: we’re going to get there but not quickly enough. And if it falls apart, everything falls apart in the region.” How oddly prophetic that note was.

Interestingly, Chilcot rejected the view that the UK would lose diplomatic influence if it had refused to join the war and support the US. Sir John found that ‘Blair was right to weigh the possible consequences for the wider alliance with the US very carefully’, but went on to say that ‘if the UK had refused to join the US in the war it would not have led to a fundamental or lasting change in the UK’s relationship with the US.’

I was in work on the 6th July, and whilst in the office I followed the flurry of news around the publication of the report, especially as Tony Blair himself took to the stage for a two hour-long press conference after Sir John’s statement. This conference served as the former Prime Minister’s platform to offer a defence of his actions. He knew he needed to: his role in the decision to invade was rather roundly damned by the report’s findings.

It was a strange, surreal, and memorable press conference.

For two hours, Mr Blair endured question after question, grilled on the finer points of detail raised by Sir John. Mr Blair submitted the decision to removal Saddam Hussein had been the “hardest, most momentous, most agonising” decision of his time as Prime Minister. Mr Blair took note of Sir John’s criticisms and said he took full responsibility for the failure of post-transitional planning. He however stated firmly that he would take the same decision to proceed with military intervention again, despite Sir John arguing the UK intervention went badly wrong and ‘with consequences to this day’.

It was a press conference that could have taken placed in a theatre. Mr Blair’s voice cracked, and he appeared to fight away tears as he said, “for all of this I express more sorrow, regret, and apology than you may ever know or believe”. Yet Mr Blair on the same stage argued he could not apologise for the decision to invade – “I cannot do that” – and argued he did not make the wrong decision, and he did not mislead the country.

Arguably, that is the problem: what can we believe, truly? With evidence of flawed intelligence that was readily followed, of evidence suggesting the decision to go to war was made before the UN inspectors had finished their work, with evidence of no thorough planning for the aftermath – how can we believe, other than in the very human mistake of believing in overestimated power and leadership credentials?

Ultimately, the overall objective of the long-awaited, controversial report was to identify what lessons should be learnt from this debacle of an experience. Such lessons as identified by the report include:

  • Mr Blair overestimated his own ability to influence US decisions and policy on Iraq. (The Americans would do as they saw fit, with their own intelligence to guide them).
  • The UK-US relationship is in fact strong enough to endure frank and honest disagreement. (Personal grumbles of politicians cannot, and should not, dictate the charted course for their respective nations).
  • Understand the importance of collective ministerial discussion which encourages frank and informed debate and challenge. (A leader should listen to challenges, and understand why his plan is being so challenged).
  • There is a real need to assess risks, weigh options and set and achievable and realistic strategy before any intervention, and to pursue this on a continuous basis.
  • The recognition of the vital role of ministerial leadership and co-ordination of government activity.
  • The pressing need to ensure that civilian and military arms of government are properly equipped.

Of course, the most important lesson to take away from the Chilcot report is that  ‘all aspects of any intervention need to be calculated, debated and challenged with the utmost rigour.’ Whether this will be understood and remembered in the future is another story. We can but hope the lessons of Iraq resonate with future politicians and governments. Such a painful mess cannot be allowed to be repeated.

Mr Blair said during his press conference that he was “a decision maker, not a report writer” when asked about the criticism of his conduct within the report. Hopefully future Prime Ministers can prove adept at both decision-making and report reading.