The vote this week by Dublin city councillors to halt an agreement to lease homes for social housing from the pension fund of BAE Systems, a British arms company, is the only outcome to this debate that we should be able to live with. The councillors’ refusal to house people under a roof financed by conflict and suffering in Yemen must be heard loud and clear.
Dublin City Council (DCC) is not commenting on the matter, and as yet has not confirmed it has pulled out of the deal. The fact that this agreement is still even under consideration is further proof if any was needed that there is something rotten about housing policy in Ireland.
Housing policy goes to the heart of who we are as an independent nation state. Ours is a history of dispossession; from the evictions and destitution of the famine to the decades of emigration that followed.
But dispossession doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Ireland’s historical struggles played out against the dominance of colonialism globally, the legacy of which has placed us in the unusual position of being both western and to a large degree postcolonial.
This legacy places a responsibility on us as a country and people not just to sympathise with countries that experience food insecurity or conflict, but to actively interrogate what we are doing as a western European state that allows these injustices to happen.
Nowhere is this interrogation more needed than the war in Yemen, consistently named the worst humanitarian disaster in the world since it began in 2015.
BAE has made at least £17 billion in revenue supplying the Saudi-led coalition for the war in Yemen, a war which has left millions of people on the brink of starvation. Some 8,783 civilians have died in Saudi-led coalition airstrikes on civilian targets since 2015.
In September this year Henrietta Fore, executive director of Unicef, said that in Yemen, 11.3 million young people are depending on humanitarian assistance to survive and 2.3 million children under five are “acutely malnourished” – nearly 400,000 of whom are at “imminent risk of death”.
BAE’s role in supplying arms to the Saudi-led coalition has been supported with incomprehensible enthusiasm by the UK government. Despite warnings from the start of the bombing, almost seven years ago, that war crimes were being committed, UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia continued unabated. BAE’s Typhoon and Tornado aircraft have been central to Saudi Arabia’s devastating attacks on Yemen. BAE Systems also has 6,300 employees in Saudi Arabia supporting the Saudi air force as part of the British-Saudi defence co-operation programme.
There is legislation which explicitly states that the UK government will not grant a licence for arms exports “if there is a clear risk that the items might be used in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law”. Air raids have frequently targeted civilian gatherings such as weddings and busy marketplaces where there was no military target nearby.
In June 2019, following a successful legal challenge brought by Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), the UK court of appeal ordered the UK government to stop issuing new arms export licences to Saudi Arabia, and retake all licensing decisions. Following the government’s decision to resume issuing licences in 2020, CAAT was granted permission for a further legal challenge into the legality of the UK government’s decision, which we look forward to being heard in 2022.
While other major suppliers, in particular the United States, have made some moves to limit such arms sales, the UK government has shown unrivalled tenacity in maintaining arms supplies of all types in the face of strong political and legal challenges. Bizarrely the UK is also ‘penholder’ on Yemen at the UN Security Council in New York, leading on the negotiation and drafting of resolutions on the country.
There is something unique about Ireland, and it’s not just being good craic. We are frequently listed among the most generous and charitable countries in the world, and for the most part that sentiment stems from solidarity rather than pity. In March the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney, pledged an additional €5 million in humanitarian assistance from Ireland for the crisis in Yemen, bringing Irish aid to the region since 2012 to €22 million (and in the process making any potential agreement with BAE’s pension fund by DCC all the more absurd).
But it also means there’s an onus on us, and on our institutions in particular, to examine what structures we are sustaining and sanitising especially under the guise of ‘business as usual’. BAE’s statement simply noted: “Like most pension funds, property is part of our portfolio.”
Over the last number of years we have seen institutions, including universities, museums and private companies, under pressure to acknowledge the role slavery has played in the accumulation of their wealth. What makes these inquiries into the past meaningful rather than performative is if we use the same logic to ask ourselves what are we – or perhaps our investments, pensions and contracts –doing right now that supports racist colonial systems such as the international arms trade. The arms trade is not a normal business, unless you consider war crimes par for the course.
Katie Fallon is parliamentary co-ordinator for the Campaign Against Arms Trade