An MI5 sting directed at the New IRA is raising some tricky questions. The big questions are “why now?” and “what about Lyra McKee?”  And “what has a Palestinian GP from Edinburgh got to do with all this?”

Ten people were arrested in August in an operation said by police to be directed against the New IRA. Nine of them were members of the revolutionary Irish republican party Saoradh. One of them was a Palestinian doctor from Edinburgh, arrested at Heathrow airport and then taken to Belfast to be charged under terrorism legislation. His name is Issam Hijjawi Bassalat. His arrest triggered a little flurry of media speculation about supposed links between republican terrorism and Middle Eastern terrorism, helped along by the usual nameless security sources.

The operation has a name, as they do in the movies. It’s called Arbacia. Arbacia is a type of sea urchin that looks rather like the spiny-rayed sun that appears in the Saoradh logo. The police evidently want Saoradh to know that they are targeting it.  At a press conference on 24 August Chief Constable Barbara Gray said: “This investigation did not start last week and it will not end this week.” She added: “It is a longer term investigation that will look into every aspect of the activities of the New IRA in its entirety.”

In fact there have been no further arrests. Gossip from a “security source” reported in the Guardian on 12 October carries a hint of finality that was absent from earlier reports. So what has been going on? Continue reading

On 10 March Scotland’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Gregor Smith, published a statement setting out the way that contact tracing was being used to counter the spread of coronavirus. He described contact tracing as “a fundamental part of outbreak control, used by public health professionals around the world.”

But at the First Minister’s press conference on 2 April, Chief Medical Officer Catherine Calderwood said: “the thought that the testing in some way slows the virus or is a part of our strategy to prevent transmission is a fallacy.”

What happened between these two statements? I sent the Scottish Government a freedom of information (FOI) request to try to find some of the answers. What I found was shocking.

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Sheku Bayoh

On 21 March the Scottish Government announced the terms of reference for the public inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of Sheku Bayoh. It remains to be seen whether Sheku Bayoh’s family will finally obtain justice.

Bayoh died in Kirkcaldy on 3 May 2015 after being restrained by police using CS spray, pepper spray and batons. The Lord Advocate announced in 2018 that no police officers were to be prosecuted and re-affirmed this decision on 11 November 2019, after the Crown Office had completed a review of its own earlier decision. The following day, Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf announced in the Scottish Parliament that a public inquiry would be set up. He announced in January that the inquiry would be headed by retired judge Lord Bracadale.

The public inquiry is being set up under the Inquiries Act 2005. It will cover the matters that would have been covered by a Fatal Accident Inquiry (FAI), plus some matters that are beyond the remit of an FAI. An FAI is mandatory for all deaths in police custody, but the requirement may be waived if the Lord Advocate considers that the circumstances of death have been sufficiently established by other proceedings, such as criminal proceedings or a public inquiry. Continue reading

Charts of COVID-19 data

The Scottish Government’s “COVID-19 – A Framework for Decision-Making” was widely welcomed when it was published last week. That must partly have been because it was, after all, a plan, and strategic planning has so far been either absent or invisible.

The plan has also won friends by avoiding the incautious language used by Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock and some of their advisers. Instead, it quietly arrives at much the same place by keeping references to enforceable human rights to a bare minimum and filling the gaps with aspirational but unenforceable principles like “dignity” and “autonomy”.

But the plan has not aged well. For example, it describes the Scottish Government’s COVID-19 Advisory Group as being “in alignment and discussion with the advisory structures in other parts of the UK including SAGE”. The day after it was published, the Guardian revealed that members of SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) include Dominic Cummings and Ben Warner, a data scientist that Cummings had worked with on the Leave campaign for Brexit. According to the Guardian, Chief Medical Officers and Chief Scientists of the devolved administrations are allowed to “sit in” on meetings, but not to contribute.

So the UK Government’s scientific advice has been shaped at source by politics. Scottish officials evidently knew of the problem. Ministers must have known too, as must members of the  COVID-19 Advisory Group. They all left it to the Guardian to break the news, very late in the day, to the rest of us. Continue reading

Jeremy Corbyn represents by far the most promising political project in Europe. It’s a desperately precarious project, often on the back foot, always under threat, always at risk of being smashed or de-railed or co-opted by forces well to the right of it. It could hardly be otherwise for a movement born in bleak times, raised on the arid soil of the Labour Party, and forced to chart a pathway to power through the Brexit labyrinth. History rarely plays nice, and the 21st century has not improved her mood.

But in its combination of radical soul, mass engagement and proximity to power, nothing else in Europe comes near to the Corbyn movement. There is no need to qualify this by saying “nothing else in electoral politics” because at present nothing outside electoral politics has a capacity for anything beyond mild agitation. And there is no need to qualify it by saying “except the SNP”, because the centre of gravity of the SNP is far to the right of the Corbyn movement in every respect except its demand for Scottish independence and its open opposition to Trident (most Corbyn supporters probably oppose Trident too, but they are hamstrung by Labour policy). Continue reading

Islamophobia on newsapaper front pages

The definition of Islamophobia put forward last year by Westminster’s All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims has been criticised by police chiefs, who claim that it could impede their Islamophobic counter-terrorism policies. It has been rejected by the Tory party and the British Government. With credentials like that it might be thought that the work of the APPG deserves vigorous support. Unfortunately, it’s more complicated than that.

The definition is supported by the Muslim Council of Britain, a wide range of other Muslim organisations, the Labour Party and Plaid Cymru. But organisations signing up to the definition need to be very clear and explicit about exactly what they are supporting. The problem lies in an apparent attempt by the APPG – or at least by  a tendency within it – to use the definition of Islamophobia as a Trojan horse to promote the controversial IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition of anti-semitism, which equates criticism of Israel with anti-semitism.

The APPG’s Co-Chair, Wes Streeting, recently put himself in the front line of the Labour Party’s wrangle over the anti-semitism by signing a statement calling on Jeremy Corbyn to re-impose the recently lifted suspension of left-winger Chris Williamson. Williamson had been suspended for saying that the party had done more than any to stand up to racism and had “backed off too much” in the face of allegations of anti-semitism.

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Vigil for Christchurch, Edinburgh Central Mosque

Text of the speech I gave at the vigil for Christchurch held on the steps of Edinburgh Central Mosque, Sunday 17 March 2019

There is nowhere else to begin than with the dead and injured, their friends and families, their work colleagues, the wider community in Christchurch, the relatives and acqaintances all around the world, all now grappling with shock and grief.

The phrase “thoughts and prayers” has become a tired cliché. But truly, I don’t believe that’s a weak phrase if you really mean it, and I don’t have any better words to cover the loss. So now let me turn to something that I think I do have words for. Because what starts with thoughts and prayers can’t end with them.

I’m usually very, very cautious about what I say immediately after a terrorist incident because the facts are usually very unclear. But this time there seems to be no doubt at all about what the killer thought he was doing, and why. It’s all there in his manifesto. Continue reading

Anti-semitism is a crime, anti-Zionism is aduty

Earlier this month the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party drew fire for adopting the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition of anti-semitism without adopting all the examples including in the IHRA guidance. It’s no surprise that supporters of Israel are enraged by this approach.

The IHRA definition, taken together with its examples, institutionalises the conflation of anti-semitism with anti-zionism and robust criticism of Israel. It wedges a propaganda foot in the door of liberal democracy as firmly as if it had been crafted to do so. It is at least as much an intervention in international relations as a contribution to the global struggle against racism. Because of that, supporters of the IHRA definition have had to bypass UN structures and instead create the appearance of international acceptance through a series of unilateral decisions by friendly governments. That fact alone should be a strong hint that the IHRA definition is a poor place to start in defining anti-semitism. Continue reading

Stand Up to Racism Scotland refused to keep Friends of Israel off its anti-racism march in Glasgow. In the end, supporters of the people of Palestine did Stand Up to Racism’s job for it. But Stand Up to Racism still argues that unity against racism means at least arms-length unity with the Israel lobby. And it still argues for resisting “those who would divide us” without saying who, or how. In fact, Stand Up to Racism is encouraging a division between acceptable and unacceptable kinds of anti-racism. Anti-racism that’s willing to name and shame Israeli apartheid is apparently unacceptable. It would be bad enough that this position has gained a grip on Stand Up to Racism Scotland. What’s worse is the way that it happened. Palestine activists keep Friends of Israel behind an aprtheif wall

On Saturday 10 March the steering committee of Stand Up to Racism (SUTR) Scotland overwhelmingly voted down an emergency motion calling for the Confederation of Friends of Israel in Scotland (COFIS) – an organisation that works with the Israeli government to undermine Scottish solidarity with Palestine – to be told that it would not be welcome on the anti-racism march being held in Glasgow the following Saturday. How did that happen?

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Revulsion over British complicity in Saudi war crimes has put Britain’s relationship  with Saudi Arabia under welcome scrutiny. But government and business links between the countries are deep-rooted and will not easily be loosened. Attention is likely to be deflected onto Britain’s Muslim communities. They are at risk, yet again, of being scapegoated from the outside and de-politicised from the inside. A Scottish initiative is a world leader at doing just that.

Stop Arming Saudi
Stop Arming Saudi. Downing St, London, 11 July 2016

Saudi Arabia’s use of British arms to commit war crimes in Yemen is the latest in a long line of scandals afflicting the UK-Saudi relationship.

In July the High Court dismissed a claim by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) and other organisations that arms sales should be suspended. Part of the hearing was held in secret. The judgment – which CAAT says it will appeal – is instructive. It combines masterly legal fudge with some breathtaking statements. For example, it says: “The UK is a bystander in this volatile conflict”.

The judgment takes for granted the Government’s position that it is not a party to the Yemen war. At the same time, it argues that the UK’s strong links with Saudi Arabia and the support given to the Saudis by UK personnel mean that the Government is well placed to decide whether there is risk that war crimes are being committed. The judges say:

“The reality of the position is that the Secretary of State has available to him and his advisers a significant amount of information relating to the conflict in Yemen and the conduct of Saudi Arabia as part of the Coalition.” Continue reading