When he arrives at Common Grounds café, Ross Brown drags his fold-up bike over to the table and props it against the wall. He’s agreed to meet with me to discuss his campaign for Europe and City Council.
Ross, 27, currently works as the researcher to Green Party MLA Steven Agnew. Among many other duties, he is responsible for developing legislation amendments and preparing ministerial questions. I’ve also been told he gives one of the best tours of Parliament Buildings.
A selection convention recently chose Ross to stand as the party’s European candidate for Northern Ireland. This is the first time Ross will be standing for public office.
“Well, to tell a lie, I stood in a mock general election in school, in 4th year. And I won! For the DUP! Of all parties.”
It’s not hard to get Ross talking. He’s so full of energy and passion for what he does that as soon as I ask a question he’s like a race horse bolting from the starting gate. It makes sense that his Sunday hobby is ice hockey.
Since leaving school, Ross has been on something of a political and philosophical journey from his conservative unionist beginnings to where he is now as a Green. I asked him to map that out for me.
“It’s important to say why I had those sympathies in the first place. I grew up in East Belfast going through school and not really knowing an awful lot of people from the other side, as the saying goes.”
“If you’re from Northern Ireland, you’re very conscious of your identity. Always searching for what it is, who am I, and what do I believe. And I think that there’s a general insecurity within the wider Unionist community that I also had. I think a lot of young people do. And in that way, I fell into the way of thinking of the likes of the DUP.”
Ross moved away to London for a spell to work for the Treasury as part of his university training in economics. The enormity of multi-cultural London made an impact on his way of understanding the world.
After London, Ross went to study abroad in America, and ended up at a Catholic liberal arts college in New England. “My American experience really got me to see how similar people are in this part of the world. A hundred of us from Northern Ireland all went out to America to different colleges. And we met up at different times throughout the year, and we were from all different communities in Northern Ireland, and we were all best friends, we had the best craic, and it didn’t matter where you were from.”
“And I just came to realise how similar people are from here. Our sense of humour, which is quite unique to us. And that experience really got me more comfortable in my own identity. It got me to understand a much broader idea of what identity actually is. Because identity isn’t just about your nationality; it’s everything about you.”
When Ross returned to Belfast, for his final year at Queen’s, he a took a course with Dr. John Barry, professor of politics and international studies. Dr. Barry, who sits on the North Down Council as a Green Party representative, had the course read Small is Beautiful by the British economist E. F. Schumacher.
The class was assigned one chapter. “It was a chapter called Buddhist economics,” Ross told me. “And the whole chapter was about the purpose of the economy, what is it all about? It’s about your wellbeing. And what should be the ultimate target of the economy? So after that I decided to read the whole book.” For Ross, reading Schumacher spurred on a new way of thinking about politics and a Green re-imagining of economics.
Why is the European Union important to Northern Ireland
I asked Ross to give me his understanding of the problems with the European Union currently and what relationship Northern Ireland should have with Europe going forward. What followed turned into an hour-long lecture on the structures of Europe, the Euro crisis, how Ireland got into the mess they’re in now, and some suggestions of how to restructure European democratic institutions in order to ensure economic fairness and stability in the longterm.
I’ll create a second post in which I share some of Ross’s further thinking on sovereign debt, bailouts, and solving Europe’s problematic imbalances. Here I’ve simply selected a few key points.
Ross first started with misconceptions of Europe. I didn’t realise this, but the size of the institutions in Brussels, that is, the number of people working for the institutions of Europe, amounts to roughly the same number of workers for a council the size of Birmingham. In relative terms, it’s not a huge bureaucracy.
I asked him to explain what kinds of decisions most affect normal people here in Northern Ireland.
“Europe started off as a trading block without any barriers. The key point there is that when you open up the borders to trade, any standards of products you produce, must be the same everywhere you buy and sell those products. Standards such as chemicals in toys that children play with, safety standards, etc. So all that there is decided at the European level.”
“But then you also have consumer rights. One of the big things that Europe has done recently, for example, is the whole thing about credit charges. I think one of the good examples is if you’re buying a flight online. Ryan Air used to rip you off for using your credit card, making people pay high charges, but the European commissioners said that this was unfair trade, doesn’t reflect the cost. So Europe helps impose a standard for consumers.”
Is the Green Party fundamentally pro-Europe?
“There’s a qualification there. We are very much pro the idea of international democracy. We want to see decision making at the lowest possible effective level. That’s one of our principles.”
“We are pro having a referendum on Europe. That isn’t actually well known. We do think that people ought to have a say. Now, we will campaign to remain within Europe. But not everything about Europe is working right. The Europe at the moment is one of austerity.”
“And because of the agenda of Europe’s governing conservative parties far too many people are suffering. But that’s not our agenda. Our’s is one of a social Europe where people don’t have to pick food out of bins to survive because of the austerity that has been forced on countries.”
“There is a lack of recognition that we are still in a very dangerous place. In a sense that they have not solved the problems that caused imbalances in the Euro-zone. There’s still a risk that we could see countries leave the Euro. And that would cause enormous problems for all sorts of various reasons
Is the Green Party anti-business?
Ross told me that he has entrepreneurial ambitions himself, and once attended the Belfast Enterprise Academy seeking to develop his idea for a tourism project. In wanting to reform and restructure the economy along more ethical lines, he doesn’t want to stifle the creativity and vitality of the market.
I asked Ross to put his message to local business owners. What could he say to gain their confidence?
“The Green philosophy of business is to localise the economy. The key is keeping money in the local area. If you’re spending your money, then you put your money where your house is. If you’re more likely to employ local people, then you’re putting money into the local economy. Particularly for somewhere like Northern Ireland.”
“We’re on this crusade to attract foreign direct investment as if its the only way that Northern Ireland can be saved at the moment. But actually there is an alternative, that we can empower ourselves.”
“We want to see our local businesses grow. And we want to see them become world class industries. But we see smaller businesses as having more of a local connection. When you have a local connection, with local people employed, they’re going to have more of a sense of local loyalty, a local connection, especially compared to a big multi-national.”
Ross is focusing on three key issues going into this election: Caring for Communities, Challenging Corporate Control, and Conserving Our Environment. You can learn more about him and Green Party policies at: http://www.greenpartyni.org
Ross on UTV protesting cuts to welfare.