March 07, 2017

NEED TO KNOW

On the Altar of Brexit

Talks to salvage Northern Ireland’s local government quickly deteriorated Monday as the Irish-nationalist party Sinn Fein demanded that the pro-British Democratic Unionists dismiss their leader, embattled Arlene Foster, as the province’s first minister, reported Reuters.

It’s a demand with teeth.

That’s because the surprise results of a snap election this past weekend has catapulted Sinn Fein, the former political wing of the Irish Republican Army, within one seat of the Unionists, preventing the latter from obtaining a majority in the provincial assembly for the first time since the Irish partition of 1921.

Britain and Ireland brokered a delicate power balance between Catholic Irish nationalists and Protestant unionists with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended three decades of bloody sectarian violence.

The deal mandated an all-or-nothing political wedding between Catholics and Protestants, forcing the two parties to supply provincial government’s first minister and deputy first minister.

Under the agreement, the government collapses and new elections occur if either official leaves office. That’s what happened in January, when Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein resigned as deputy first minister in protest against a botched green energy plan that went nearly $600 million over budget, the New York Times reported.

Foster spearheaded the plan and refuses to quit despite public outrage and whispers of a cover-up.

Opposing sides now have three weeks to make amends and form a government. If they aren’t able to do that, Northern Ireland will have to submit to direct rule from London.

In post-Brexit Britain, that could make an already contentious political atmosphere more fraught.

Northern Ireland voted 56 percent to 44 percent to remain in the EU during last year’s Brexit referendum. Subsidies from Brussels prop up the struggling province, with some 87 percent of farmers’ income coming from the bloc.

While the Unionists endorsed Brexit, Sinn Fein was in the Remain camp. The issue likely helped drive Sinn Fein voters to the polls in the snap election, the Financial Times reported.

Free movement across the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland was likely on voters’ minds, too, the Atlantic reported. It’s still not clear if Brexit will erect a barrier on a boundary that has granted free travel to Irish and Brits since 1923. Closing the border could inflame tensions between Northern Irish Catholics and Protestants.

London is working to preserve the open border. But with provincial politics seemingly unresolvable, Brexit looming and a renewed referendum on Scottish independence not out of the question, the future of the UK hangs in the balance, the Guardian opined.

“This is why Northern Ireland’s latest political impasse matters so much, to all of us in Britain as well as in both parts of Ireland,” the left-leaning British newspaper wrote. “We cannot sit idly by as this country is broken up and sacrificed on the altar of Brexit.”

WANT TO KNOW

Shields Up

The US responded to North Korea’s ballistic missile test by beginning the deployment of a missile shield for South Korea that China has criticized as further militarizing the region.

One of five major components of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD) arrived on Monday, the New York Times quoted a spokeswoman for the United States forces in South Korea as saying. The system could be fully operational within a couple months, other officials said.

The accelerated deployment follows North Korea’s test launch of four ballistic missiles – one of which landed uncomfortably close to Japan – on Monday. US President Donald Trump promised to protect its Asian allies in calls with South Korean and Japanese leaders on Monday, emphasizing that the US would use “the full range of United States military capabilities” to neutralize the missile threat.

However, the planned rollout of THAAD has already raised hackles in China, where the Chinese media urged people to boycott South Korean products and companies and a retired general went so far as to suggest that Beijing should knock out the shield with a military strike.

Not In My House

The Israeli parliament passed a controversial travel ban into law Monday that prevents non-residents who support boycotts of Israel or Jewish settlements in the West Bank from entering the country.

The travel ban – backed by the ruling right-wing coalition in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament – also applies to people associated with companies or advocacy groups supporting boycotts.

The legislation describes boycotts as a “new front of war against Israel” and mirrors earlier efforts from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and supporters to portray pro-Palestinian boycott movements as an anti-Semitic effort to isolate Israel economically, wrote the LA Times.

Opponents of the law caution a travel ban will increase frictions between Israel and international groups opposing West Bank settlements.

But supporters see boycotts as critics taking things one step too far.

“I’m not allowing anyone who humiliates me to come into my house,” one conservative lawmaker told the Knesset. “We aren’t against legitimate criticism, but there’s no connection between that and to call for a boycott on the state of Israel, which is crossing a red line.”

Dangerous Crossing

Pakistan opened its border with Afghanistan for two days in an effort to improve relations and avert a budding humanitarian crisis resulting from thousands of Afghan visitors stranded in Pakistan.

The border has been closed for 18 days in response to a string of attacks in Pakistan that the government has blamed on Pakistani militants using Afghan territory as a base from which to stage assaults back home.

Even as the move to reopen the border was declared, Pakistani Taliban fighters attacked three border posts in Pakistan’s Mohmand tribal area, resulting in the deaths of 10 militants and five Pakistani soldiers, Al Jazeera reported.

DISCOVERIES

Insomniac

Anyone complaining of lack of sleep should get some perspective.

After all, wild African elephants only sleep two hours a night, according to a new study recently published in the journal PLOS One.

Using what the Washington Post calls “animal Fitbits,” researchers tracked the elephants’ activity levels over the course of more than a month.

Their research showed that the creatures slept in short bursts throughout the night, in what’s called polyphasic sleeping.

For elephants, that regiment of on-and-off napping appears to be enough – despite the fact that some elephants went as long as 46 hours without resting, having roamed as far as 19 miles during sleepless periods.

The jury’s still out amongst scientists as to how elephants sleep so little without biological consequences.

“Why this occurs, we’re not really sure,” Paul Manger of the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa and the study’s lead author told the BBC. “Sleep is one of those really unusual mysteries of biology – along with eating and reproduction, it’s one of the biological imperatives. We must sleep to survive.”