Saturday, May 14, 2022

Portuguese diplomat helping solve the Northern Ireland protocol problem

João Vale de Almeida, the distinguished Portuguese diplomat currently serving as the European Ambassador to the United Kingdom, is facing the extremely challenging task of trying to reconcile all sides to the bitterly divisive Northern Ireland protocol.

Born in Lisbon, he graduated from Lisbon University with a degree in history and then spent seven years training and working as a journalist in several foreign countries before joining the European Commission in 1982. He held a number of senior positions, including director general of external relations of the European Commission, the EU’s executive body. He was assigned to Washington from 2010 to 2014 as EU ambassador to the United States and then from 2015 to 2019 as the ambassador to the United Nations.

He became the EU’s first post-Brexit ambassador in London at the beginning of 2020 just as Britain was about to formally leave the union. Now aged 65, he is married with two children and has recently become a grandfather.

The outcome of the highly controversial Brexit referendum saw the ‘leavers’ win with a small majority, 51.9% to 48.1%. The most significant areas in which citizens voted to remain were Scotland, 62% against 38%, and Northern Ireland, 55.8% against 44.2%.  These results are echoed in current wishes among many in Scotland and Northern Ireland to leave the United Kingdom.

That aside, while the UK officially left the EU in January 2020, a period of transition was completed at the end of that year with the signing of a Trade and Cooperation Agreement. It contained a legally-binding understanding that there would be no border checks between the North and the Republic of Ireland lest they endanger the Good Friday Peace Agreement signed by the Irish and British governments in 1998. It was believed such checks would likely have led to more sectarian violence as in ‘the Troubles.’

So what’s all the fuss about now? you may ask. In simple terms, the Brexit agreement included replacing the land border between the north and south of Ireland with a virtual border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK to impose certain restrictions on trade.

The Democratic Unionist Party, long the most popular party in Northern Ireland, totally rejects being separated from Britain in this way. Under DUP pressure, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who signed the 2020 treaty but has since made conflicting statements about the protocol, has indicated he may try and scrap the protocol altogether.

The situation has become more complicated because of the outcome of this month’s Northern Ireland Assembly election. For the first time, Sinn Fein, the republican, pro-Irish unity party won with 29% of the votes, placing the DUP second with 21.3%, a substantial loss.  The result made Sinn Fein’s leader, Michelle O’Neill, eligible to become first minister and the DUP’s Sir Jeffrey Donaldson second minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly in Stormont.

Sir Jeffrey has dug his heels in and adamantly refused any such power sharing until the protocol is done away with. Last Saturday, he said promises about the protocol should have been delivered sixteen months ago. In denouncing the DUP’s attitude, Michelle O’Neill said the opposition party’s refusal to allow a functioning assembly would “punish the public”. The assembly will remain in limbo unless and until London and Brussels come up with a solution.

Ambassador Vale de Almeida made the EU’s position clear by insisting that the UK had failed to come up with any credible alternative to the agreed protocol. He has called upon unionists to make the protocol work rather than fighting against it. He has pledged Brussels’ commitment to flexibility on the implementation of the protocol if the British government demonstrated good faith.

He and his team have   long been working on the problem and will now be all the busier because there seems little let-up up in what has developed into very much more than an international squabble.

Various senior lawyers have scorned UK’s Foreign Minister Liz Truss’ claim that the protocol can be scrapped because the UK can dump parts of the Brexit treaty without the EU’s agreement. Liz Truss’ opinion is reportedly based on that of Britain’s attorney general, Suella Braverman, who believes the protocol is being unfairly enforced by the EU.

Ambassador Vale de Almeida will presumably be concentrating on understanding and explaining  in detail both  sides of the agreement, including that of EU leaders who have recently warned Britain to back away from its threats to override the Northern Ireland Brexit deal.

The protocol has become a war of words. Ambassador Vale de Almeida would probably like to focus much more on joint action by the EU and the UK on the real war in Ukraine.    

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Fatima prayers for peace in Ukraine


Pilgrims  in front of the Basilica in the Sanctuary of Fatima 

Catholic pilgrims from around the world will gatherer in the Sanctuary of Fatima in central Portugal next Friday for the 105th anniversary of the apparitions of the Virgin Mary reported by three shepherd children.

Prior to the COVID interruptions of the Fatima gatherings, several million pilgrims travelled to the shrine each year. The celebrations are held on the 13th of each month, May to October. They will be all the more notable this year because the Virgin Mary is said to have told the young visionaries that without prayer and “the consecration of Russia to my immaculate heart,” Russia would spread its “errors throughout the entire world, fermenting wars and persecution of the Church.”

The apparitions have long been accepted as authentic by the Vatican and a number of popes are said to have carried out the act of consecration.

The majority of religious citizens in Russia and Ukraine adhere to the Orthodox Christian Church that split from the Catholic Church in the 10th century. The first formal meeting between Catholic and Orthodox leaders in a thousand years did not occur until 2016 when Pope Francis met the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in Cuba.

Pope Francis has appealed for peace in Russia’s war against Ukraine, but without success. He had hoped to visit Moscow and meet the Russian patriarch again - perhaps even President Putin too - but that was cancelled. He called for an Easter truce in Ukraine, but was ignored.

Francis has continued his calls for peace while being careful to maintain a neutral stance between the two warring factions. His diplomatic approach is supported by the Vatican, but criticised by those in both the Catholic and Ukrainian Orthodox Churches who feel he should openly declare that Putin is the aggressor and must be held to account for war crimes, including atrocities involving the brutal killing of many women and children.

While Pope Francis has stopped short of directly naming or blaming Russia or Putin, the war has a strong, underlying religious element in that Patriarch Kirill fully supports Russia’s so-called ‘special military operation’ that is openly deplored by Ukrainian and international Orthodox patriarchs. Francis also dep0lores the war and his diplomatic approach has been described by observers as “a political and spiritual tightrope.”

There will almost certainly be prayers for peace at the Fatima Sanctuary on Friday, four days after Russia’s Victory Day commemoration of its defeat of the Nazis in the Second World War.

 The sanctuary with its iconic shrine was visited by Pope Francis in May 2017, the centenary year of the apparitions. Friday’s prayers will be overseen by the Vatican’s Substitute of the Secretariat of State, Archbishop Edgar Pena Parra.

The number of pilgrims present cannot be accurately estimated, but a Fatima spokesperson has told us that groups from 19 mostly European countries - but also from as far away as Canada, the United States, Mexico and El Salvador - have registered to be present.

A great many individual pilgrims do not register and simply turn up. Those who have come a long way on foot, or who arrive in the hope of healing, will be especially welcome.   

Pope Francis praying at the Fatima Shrine in 2017

Friday, May 6, 2022

A very special birthday on Monday

May 9 is the birthday of a delightful foreign resident who has lived in the Algarve for six decades. Today, Monday, Dorothy Boulter has turned 104!

Dorothy has long been greatly admired by many people for her kindness, relaxed attitude to life and warm smile for everyone she meets. Quick-witted, she has been able to cope with and even make fun of her total deafness.

Well-known artist BJ Boulter, says her mother is still “strong and healthy, but now wheelchair-bound and reliant on professional carers.” However, that constant smile “is as lovely as ever.”  It is there in BJ’s latest portrait (pictured above) that will be on show at a special exhibition opening next month in Faro.

On coming to the Algarve in 1962 via Malta, Ismailia, Bombay, the UK and Tanganyika, Dorothy and her late husband Royston bought and ran the beautifully situated Solar Penguin public bar and guest house in Praia da Rocha. She ran it efficiently for 45 years before retiring and moving close to BJ in Estombar, Lagoa. She has lived there ever since, able to look after herself until just a few years ago.

Dorothy’s portrait will be on show with works by various members of the Algarve Artists’ Network (AAN). After a two-year break due to the COVID pandemic, the theme of the AAN’s next exhibition is “Artists for Hope”.  It will be held in the Museu Municipal de Faro from June 11 to August 28. Open Tue-Fri 10-18hrs, Sat-Sun 10-17hrs, closed Mondays.   


Thursday, May 5, 2022

Rugby star 's fundraising event

The British Embassy will join the legendary rugby union star Lawrence Dellaglio in the final stage of  the Cycle Slam 2022 solidarity event in Lisbon on Wednesday 10th May. 

The aim is to raise funds for the Dallaglio RugbyWorks foundation that supports disadvantaged young people with academic problems.


The final destination of this special cycle ride is the emblematic rooftop of Lisbon’s Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology designed by British architect Amanda Levete. 

The UK’s Ambassador to Portugal, Chris Sainty, will join the more than 100 participants at the finish line. They will include Dallaglio himself, Andrew Ridgeley of Wham!, one of the most successful pop groups in the 1980s, and many other national and international figures from sport and various areas of society.  


Dallagliothe former captain of the English rugby team,  launched his first Cycle Slam  in 2010. The inaugural event saw Lawrence flanked by 200 others on a spectacular ride between all Six Nations stadiums, raising more than £1 million in charitable support.


Since that great event,  he has founded Dallaglio RugbyWorks (DRW), a foundation that helps excluded young people to develop their potential. The Cycle Slam is held every two years. 


Through rugby, DRW helps teenagers who are struggling to find their vocation outside of traditional education. The project has already helped and trained a young Portuguese man named José Pereira.



The idea is based on Lawrence's life experience and the difficulty he had in getting over his sister's death in 1989. Rugby played a decisive role in his life at that time.  


In an Embassy statement, Chris Sainty, UK Ambassador to Portugal said: “It is with great pride that we join the 2022 Cycle Slam and the supportive work of Dallaglio RugbyWorks. Lawrence is one of the best rugby players ever and it is a privilege to join him in this commendable initiative.


“The history of the sport cannot be written without mentioning Lawrence and as a Brit, it fills me with pride to witness the work he has been developing over more than a decade in the reintegration of disadvantaged and academically challenged youths.”  

Lawrence Dallaglio commented: “It will be an honor to cycle along Portuguese roads. Portugal is a very beautiful country and one of my favorite holiday destinations. Bearing in mind the historical ties that unite Portugal and the United Kingdom, it was a natural choice to end this Cycle Slam on a high note.”


He added: “It's great to see that rugby continues to grow in Portugal. I know that the Portuguese Rugby team still has a chance of qualifying for the World Cup and I hope it achieves this much-desired qualification. It is great to see that there are organizations in Portugal such as the Escolinha de Rugby da Galiza and the Escolinha de Rugby de São João da Talha, which are also using the sport to help children and teenagers in need.”


The British Embassy in Lisbon  is responsible for developing and maintaining bilateral relations between the United Kingdom and Portugal. It says its stated  mission is “to promote the objectives and policies of the British Government in Portugal, supporting British companies to do business in Portugal, encouraging foreign investment in the United Kingdom, and providing consular assistance to British residents and visitors to Portugal, where necessary.”


The two countries have been united for over six hundred years by the oldest diplomatic alliance in the world.  



Thursday, April 28, 2022

Antonio Guterres visits Ukraine

Guterres sees devastated homes near Kyve

Antonio Gutettes, secretary-general of the United Nations and former prime minister of Portugal, seems to have learned much but achieved little during this visits this week to Moscow and Kyve.

He spent the hours before his Thursday afternoon meeting with the Ukraine prime minister  seeing for himself evidence of the atrocities committed by Russian forces in towns on the outskirts of Kyve.  
Tightly surrounded by security guards, he spoke emotionally. 

"When I see those destroyed buildings, I imagine my family in one of those homes now destroyed and black. I see my granddaughters running in panic," said Guterres. 

He continued: "The war is an absurdity in the 21st century. The war is evil and when you see these situations our heart of course stays with the victims. Our condolences to their families. But our emotions - there is no way a war can be acceptable in the 21st century." 

The secretary-general also visited a scene of the alleged Russian killings of hundreds of Ukrainian civilians. "Here you well know how important it is for a thorough investigation and accountability," said Guterres in the town of Bucha near the capital.  He added that he fully supported the International Criminal Court and the need for investigations into war and humanitarian crimes. Russia has denied targeting civilians or civilian buildings.

Astonishingly, Russian missiles slammed into central Kyve close to Guterres and those accompanying him. A UN spokesperson expressed shock, but said all were safe. It was reportedly the boldest attack on the Ukrainian capital since Putin's forces retreated from Kyve weeks ago.

In a joint news conference with President Volodymmyr Zelenskyy  on Thursday evening, Guterres admitted the UN Security Council had failed to prevent or end the war in Ukraine. He said this was "a source of great  disappointment, frustration and anger." 

But Guterres reaffirmed his commitment to help save those barricaded in Mariupol, which Putin on Tuesday had agreed with him ""in principle."  

Saturday, April 23, 2022

António Guterres in talks aimed at bringing peace to Ukraine


The Secretary-General of the United Nations and former Prime Minister of Portugal, António Guterres, may be about to play a key role in de-escalating the war and bringing about peace in Ukraine.

Guterres is to have separate meetings with the presidents of Russia and Ukraine in their respective capitals. He has already told them he would like to discuss what urgent steps could be taken to end the war, as well as the future of multilateralism based on the charter of the United Nations and international law. The meeting with President Putin and his foreign minister in Moscow is scheduled for Tuesday.  Then on Thursday he is due to meet the Ukrainian foreign minister and President Vlodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv.

Like Pope Francis, Guterres had called for a four-day truce in the conflict during the Orthodox Christian Easter period with Easter Sunday on April 24. Russia rejected the idea.

In addition to pursuing his official tasks of high international office, the secretary-general has spoken emotionally about the sufferings of the war.

“I will never forget the horrifying images of civilians killed in Bucha. I immediately called for an independent investigation to guarantee accountability. I am also deeply shocked by the personal testimony of rapes and sexual violence that are now emerging,” he said recently.

While awaiting a response to his requests for personal meetings and well-aware that the war displaced more than 10 million people in just one month, Guterres sent his UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, Martin Griffiths, to the warring nations to press for an urgent humanitarian ceasefire.

He had previously set up a Global Crisis Response Group (GCRG) and in commenting on the group’s first report he noted that while most attention has been focused on the effects of the war on Ukrainians, it was also impacting in other countries in terms of increased poverty, hunger and social unrest. 

In highlighting overarching points made clear in the GCRG’s report, he said that “far beyond Ukraine’s borders, the war has led to massive increases in food, energy and fertilizers because Russia and Ukraine are lynchpins of these markets.”

He could almost have been talking about his home country, Portugal, but he was referring to no less than 74 developing countries with a population of 1.2 billion – one third of whom are already living in poverty while struggling with soaring food, energy and fertilizer costs. Thirty-six countries have been counting on Russia and Ukraine for more than half of their wheat imports. Prices of wheat and maize were already on the rise, but the war has made a bad situation very much worse.

At the same time - as well-reported in the media - Russia is a top energy supplier. Oil prices are up 60 per cent over the past year, accelerating the prevailing trends.

“Many developing countries are drowning in debt, with bond yields already on the rise since last September, leading now to increased risk premiums and exchange rate pressures,” said Guterres.

The GCRG report also shows that there is a direct link between food prices and social and political instability, which gave rise to Guterres’ insistence: “Our world cannot afford this. We need to act now.”

The secretary-general has not been without his critics. Before his requests for meetings with the leaders in Moscow and Kyiv, a group of more than 200 former UN officials wrote to him saying that he must personally do more to take a lead and mediate a peace, otherwise the UN itself risked “not just irrelevance, but its continued existence.”

These former staff members urged in their letter that the current UN boss should raise his profile and be prepared to take personal risks to secure peace, otherwise the UN itself would be facing an existential threat due to the invasion of Ukraine by one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.

The secretary-general has obviously taken the advice of former colleagues to heart. He faces a massive challenge and we will just have to wait and see what becomes of it.

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Portugal and nuclear weapons


As a country fully committed to nuclear disarmament, Portugal shares most of the concerns of others about the lack of concrete steps on this by the major powers within the United Nations General Assembly.

It is Portugal’s view that the well- documented catastrophic humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons should reinforce commitments to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) signed in 1968, which Portugal sees as the cornerstone for the pursuit of nuclear disarmament.

This opinion, last delivered in a formal statement to the UN in 2018, noted that “we are witnessing a rise in global and regional tensions. We particularly call on the United States and the Russian Federation to preserve the treaty and ensure its full implementation, which is crucial for European and global security.”

The 10th review of the treaty scheduled for January this year was postponed because of COVID restrictions. It will now take place in New York from the 1st to the 22nd of August. Meanwhile, concerns are growing about the possible use of tactical missiles with nuclear warheads let alone intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Concerns increased with President Putin’s implied threat to turn the Ukraine war into a   broader nuclear conflict when he told his top defence and military leaders to put nuclear forces in “a special regime of combat duty.” That is not as worrying as it may sound because both Russia and the United States are understood to keep their nuclear arsenals on high alert at all times.

But then there was that other remark from Putin warning that any attempt by other countries to intervene with his military campaign would lead to “such consequences that you have never encountered in your history.”

Last Thursday the Kremlin went further and threatened to deploy nuclear weapons in the Baltic region if Sweden and Finland went ahead and joined NATO.  Now, the latest bur probably not the last warning from Moscow is that if the US and its allies don’t stop supplying weapons to Ukraine there will be “unpredictable consequences.”

The thinking among Western officials is that all this tough talking may be because of Russia’s setbacks in Ukraine. Unless phase two of its invasion achieves much more success against the Ukrainian resistance, Putin may want to ramp up his hopes for a glorious legacy by going nuclear.

Following Russia’s alleged use of chemical weapons against Ukraine, Putin may also feel the need to go further as his conventional military might is less than that of the former Soviet Union and much less than that that of the 30 combined forces of NATO.

The deliberate use of short-range tactical weapons would be bad enough. Recent studies have concluded that - unlikely as it may be - the use of hypersonic or ballistic missiles equipped with nuclear warheads would create unprecedented destructive blasts and firestorms, hurl up to 150 million tons of smoke and soot into the upper atmosphere and cause widespread and deadly radioactive fallout.

It‘s not possible to foretell the likely impact on Portugal of a large or even a relatively small nuclear exchange between the superpowers. It would involve many unknown factors. If the impact here did not include many deaths from fallout, it could at least enforce even tighter in-house isolation than COVID and affect such things as communications, international trade, food and other essential supplies.

It may not be very  reassuring to most of us, but the fact is that while ‘nuclear’ is a worrying word when applied to warheads rather than the peaceful source of energy, the use of small nuclear devices in Ukraine could be far less destructive than the continued, concentrated dropping of a large number of conventional bombs expected in the days and weeks ahead.