IMPACT organiser Una Faulkner was in the House of Commons last Friday as the British Government debated fresh airstrikes over Iraq, targeting Islamic State militants. A self proclaimed “political junkie”, Una writes in this week’s blog about the atmosphere of the debate, the formalities of the House of Commons and the distance she felt between the decisions made in London and the effects of those decisions on ordinary citizens a world away from Westminster.
As a long time spectator of the political circus, the chance to observe a live House of Commons debate was an opportunity I could not pass up. The fact that the debate, which took place last Friday, would also have full attendance of all 650 MPs, including the main party leaders, and solely concerned the situation in the Middle East, would excite any political junkie.
What’s happening in Syria, Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries right now, as the forces of Islamic State have become more visible, is shocking and, to many observers, confusing. The horrific cycle of warfare, invasion, insurgency and counter-insurgency has long been a feature of news from the region.
The current situation is so complex that trying to figure out what exactly is happening is baffling. What seems beyond doubt is that ISIS / ISIL is a determined and growing organisation that has captured international attention with its acts of stage managed brutality as it expands its influence. Increasingly, ordinary citizens are displaced by yet another cycle of violence in the region.
The debate in the House of Commons last Friday was about Prime Minister David Cameron’s plans to embark on airstrikes over Iraq. The motion was backed by the dominant party in opposition, the Labour Party led by Ed Miliband. From the outset, the outcome of the debate appeared inevitable, and the airstrikes began not long after the debate concluded.
Pomp and ceremony
The debate was the first following the summer recess, so the House of Commons was a hive of intense activity and fascinating to witness. The ceremonial formalities prior to the debate are steeped in British tradition. Whatever your personal views of the pageantry on show, it’s quite the spectacle.
The Speaker of the House, who I learned also lives in the far tower of the House (not Big Ben), is led to the House holding the ceremonial mace. The mace was traditionally a symbol of military commanders but within the Houses of Parliament it represents the authority of the Queen. Parliament cannot lawfully meet without the mace present.
Following the formalities, including obligatory prayers (which we weren’t allowed to witness) the debate was initiated by the British Prime Minister, David Cameron at 10:30am. His call was clear and direct; support from the house to initiate airstrikes over Iraq. His speech can be interrupted throughout by other MPs. The Prime Minister decides either to accept or reject these interventions, referring to the proposer of the interjection as ‘My Right Honourable Friend / The Right Honourable Gentleman/The Right Honourable Lady’. I was surprised to note that personal titles and names are not used.
Like all of us, I’m accustomed to Cameron’s media presence. Consequently, my expectations were not that high regarding his oratory or debating skills. Nonetheless, in a packed Commons chamber, regardless of my own personal view, his skill in this (surprisingly claustrophobic) environment was impressive.
Following the PM’s speech the Opposition leader, Ed Miliband, got up to speak. His speech echoed Cameron’s, calling upon the moral duty of the country. What I found interesting was that almost a full hour of debate had passed before anyone mentioned the inevitable civilian casualties.
The tactical necessity and moral duty of Britain, the bravery of the troops and the urgency to support their efforts were reiterated again and again. But it took an hour before the killing of innocents was mentioned, almost as an aside in the Opposition leader’s speech.
Coming from Ireland, a country neutral for so long, this debate was almost alien to me. Here, a relatively small group of people were making a decision to re-engage in a war that they had played a major role in starting more than ten years ago.
There’s no doubt that innocent people will be killed, injured and forced to flee. The decision to launch airstrikes will affect the lives of those living in the Middle East for generations yet to come. The lasting impact of such action was not something I felt was given any space during the debate.
The outcome, therefore, was not surprising. Within 48 hours air strikes were launched against Islamic State targets in Iraq.
We’re told this is being done to eradicate ISIS, but if the Iraq War had not been initiated in the first place would ISIS even exist? Arguably not, and the cycle of violence seems set to continue. The western powers and ISIS have one thing in common; neither have any interest in negotiating peaceful terms and the air strikes are a fresh round of terror for the ordinary citizens in those border regions in Iraq and Syria.
It’s a world away from the Commons chamber where the decision was made. It was a fascinating, though poignant, process to have witnessed.
Una Faulkner is an organiser with the Dublin Care Services branch of IMPACT.