Monday 17 June 2019

Fergal Keane: 'We are looking back in anger, but may find hope on the road ahead'

Under Investigation: The next 12 months could be the defining time of Donald Trump’s turbulent presidency. Photo: AP Photo
Under Investigation: The next 12 months could be the defining time of Donald Trump’s turbulent presidency. Photo: AP Photo

Fergal Keane

The year is petering out in angry stutters. Even though I've spent a week away from social media and its relentless malign sniping, it is impossible to escape the bad-tempered residue of these last 12 months. I have never known a time so angry or leaderless. I trust none of our shepherds. If this is some kind of necessary process on the road to a better world, it had better speed up and be finished.

It is the time of year when it is customary to review the year gone by. I have said my piece on that score. Good riddance. Instead I will offer you my guaranteed to be wrong predictions of the year to come. I am comforted in this task by the knowledge that you will not remember a word of what I have written this time next year. So here we go on the topics of most interest to me, and I hope of some interest to yourselves:

Trump: As the old year finished the Feds were circling closer. The biggest news of the last 12 months was the growing focus on the president's business affairs.

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Way back in 2017 when Special Counsel Robert Mueller began his work, I thought the most significant appointments to his team were forensic accountants and, later, that of Andrew Weissmann who led the prosecution of the big New York Mafia families and directed the task-force investigating the Enron scandal. President Trump not only has Weissmann and co on his case(s), there now are 17 different court cases based on the work of seven different prosecutors/investigators.

His business dealings and campaign financing are being picked apart by stern men and women working around the clock. They are not people you ever want taking your business life apart, especially if you are Donald J Trump. Mueller's strategy has been to avoid the public shouting matches the president loves. This frightens Mr Trump. His enemy chooses his own battleground. It is a place of dry but possibly lethal facts. Expect something very big this year from Mueller. It will be the defining year of the Trump presidency.

Brexit: Writing about this topic without falling foul of one lobby group or another is close to impossible. The raging zealots are always waiting out there on the Twittersphere. I have to admit I have no idea what is going to happen.

There could be a hard Brexit. There could be a deal. There could be a second referendum. But all this anger and division is pointing to more fundamental changes in British politics. We are in the early stages of a great realignment in which new political forces will eventually emerge from the Brexit civil war.

I have the sense of many Tory and Labour MPs watching the battle and wondering where they really belong. It will take a lot longer than a year for that ferment to work itself out. But British politics can never return to what seems like a tame and settled age before the referendum.

The North: The same stalemate will endure. The DUP shows no sign of interest in reaching a deal with the Shinners so that devolved government can be put up and running again. We are back to the politics of no politics that typified the 1980s but without the violence. If there is a hard Brexit, expect a deepening support for a united Ireland among nationalists. But also watch for the effects on middle-of-the-road unionist opinion. Just as with Brexit across the water, we are in a process of long-term shift in the politics of this island. I would once have never imagined a united Ireland in my lifetime. For the record, I am 57. At a generous stretch I might get another 25 years. Who is to say what might come about in a quarter of a century?

Syria: Assad will complete his victory with the assistance of Putin and Iran. In the process, hundreds of thousands will have been killed and millions displaced. Nobody gives much of a damn these days. Putin and the sorry army of useful idiots in the west who have parroted his and Assad's justifications have successfully muddied the picture. So have the likes of Isil and other fanatics whose extremism was a propaganda gift and legitimising argument for the Syrian government as it levelled neighbourhoods and tortured its young in basement prisons.

Russia: Putin will rule another year. But it was not a good year for the autocrat in the Kremlin. He was humiliated by the incompetence of his intelligence service when it set out to kill a former spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury. His daughter was also a victim. The cover-up of this attempted murder was a bad joke. For the first time the world laughed at Putin. How he must have hated that. His Russian state is a vast Potemkin village, far shakier in its foundations than many in the west realise. He is still strong enough to support Assad and to keep eastern Ukraine destabilised by war. But his is not an eternal kingdom.

Africa: It is a big year in Africa with elections in Nigeria (the most populous democracy) and in South Africa (the most advanced.) In Nigeria the incumbent is the favourite but even if he is beaten it is hard to see a radical transformation. The weight of corruption and the grinding war against Boko Haram mitigate against generous expectations. I am more hopeful about South Africa. The new president, Cyril Ramaphosa, is serious about tackling endemic corruption and will, I predict, get the mandate he needs from the people to clean out his own party, the African National Congress, and continue the firing of corrupt officials from state enterprises. Watch out, too, for what happens in Ethiopia. For Irish people, the country is still caught in memory as the place of famine and Bob Geldof's Live Aid. A re-imagining is needed. Think instead about the fastest growing economy on the continent with a dynamic young prime minister who has freed political prisoners, ended a long war with neighbouring Eritrea and appointed women to half his cabinet posts. Africa is the continent of change these days. Watch out for more in 2019.

With that, let me wish you hope in 2019. And kindness. As much as you can spare. Our times demand it.

  • Fergal Keane is a BBC Special Correspondent and Africa Editor

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