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Expert Comment: G8 comes to Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland Monday 17 June 2013

As Northern Ireland hosts the G8 summit, Senior Lecturer in Politics Dr Michael Holmes looks at the security arrangements surrounding the event.

There is a certain irony in the fact that Northern Ireland is playing host to the G8 summit on 17-18 June. On the one hand, a key aim of the Good Friday Agreement was to bring about the “normalisation” of security arrangements in Northern Ireland. There has been considerable progress in meeting that aim. Indeed, David Cameron declared how proud he was that the summit could showcase the progress that had been made in the North.

And there is much to be proud of. The violence that plagued the North for decades has largely ceased, major paramilitary organisations have decommissioned their weapons, the police service has been reformed, and the British Army presence has been scaled back considerably. There are still huge problems, but for the most part they are being dealt with through peaceful political channels.

But on the other hand, the G8 summit sees some quite extraordinary security arrangements returning to Northern Ireland. The new police service has bought surveillance drones and has called in 3,600 additional police officers from other UK forces, providing special training in riot tactics and the use of armoured cars – all for the summit. So why is there this return to an “abnormalisation” of security, even if only on a temporary basis?

The answer lies in the nature of the G8. This is an organisation where the leaders of the eight wealthiest capitalist economies (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the UK and the USA) meet to discuss issues of common concern. Its focus is primarily on economic issues, though inevitably politics and foreign policy often crop up on the agenda as well.

The G8 has been the subject of some very intense criticism, less because the organisation has a great deal of power (although it undoubtedly promotes neo-liberal economic policies) than because it is a symbol of a political elite meeting in an undemocratic and unaccountable setting. Therefore, it is perhaps inevitable that G8 meetings have attracted protesters. Most notably, there were huge protests in Genoa in 2001, and subsequently it became the practice for G8 summits to be held in remote, inaccessible locations to minimise the potential for protests – on the last occasion that the UK hosted the summit in 2005, it was held in Gleneagles, with protesters contained 65 km away in Edinburgh.

The 2013 summit in County Fermanagh encapsulates the problems of the G8. The outcomes are likely to be limited. There will probably be some vague, platitudinous statements about working together to come through the current economic depression, but the austerity policies that are doing so much damage in the UK and in the rest of the EU will not be altered. And there will probably be some statement about the importance of development for the wider world, but that will certainly be couched in terms of greater liberalisation and marketisation of African, Asian and Latin American economies – an approach that is strongly contested.

And to allow the event to occur, there will be a huge security clampdown, with extensive preparations to prevent protesters from disrupting the summit. Cameron has stated that he sees the summit as an opportunity to show the world that Northern Ireland is “open for business, open for investment” – and yet to do this, it seems it needs to be shut to protesters, shut to alternatives, shut to democracy.

The problem with this is that it highlights the growing disconnection between political leaders and the citizens they are supposed to serve, and it underscores the extent to which political leaders are far more sensitive to the demands and interests of a business elite than they are to the interests and values of voters. While the G8 itself might not be as powerful as some try to make out, it shows up the problems of an increasingly remote political leadership.

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