The Blog

Kurdish Questions at the Party Conferences

The British Government is now rightly seeking to mobilise the international community to raise a billion dollars a month to help the Syrian refugees and, as a British minister argued, to help prevent the Middle East erupting into continuous conflict.

The annual British political party conferences and the leaders' keynote speeches this year were mainly concerned with domestic matters which isn't surprising given the increasing intensity of electoral competition in the long run-up to the general election in May 2015.

Foreign relations figured a little though. The Labour Leader's speech majored on his success in stopping what he called a "rush to war" in Syria. At last week's Conservative conference in Manchester, Prime Minister Cameron challenged the idea that it is "time for Britain to re-think our role" because "if we shrunk from the world we would be less safe and less prosperous." Expect more from this debate.

The British Government is now rightly seeking to mobilise the international community to raise a billion dollars a month to help the Syrian refugees and, as a British minister argued, to help prevent the Middle East erupting into continuous conflict.

Sadly, it is commonly assumed that the host countries for refugees are Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey but nearly a quarter of a million Syrians are in Iraqi Kurdistan, with many more likely to come, and which is straining resources there. That specific omission can be corrected.

It wasn't that long ago that politicians and the public in general didn't even know where Kurdistan was on the map but regular fringe meetings have helped highlight the rebirth of Iraqi Kurdistan and have acquired a following at the conferences.

Nadhim Zahawi MP and Robert Halfon MP, key British stalwarts of the Kurdish cause, addressed this year's Conservative event. Zahawi explained that "the Kurds can no longer be ignored or repressed" after what the UK High Representative Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman described as "decades of being the victims of others' decisions."

Senior British politicians increasingly understand the region's potential in diversifying energy supplies and increasing energy security, which was the theme of the speech by the Minister of Natural Resources, Dr Ashti Hawrami.

He announced that a pipeline to export oil from the Kurdistan Region will be operational within a few months: "We are helping the security and continuity of energy supply to the world...Sharing all oil revenues according to the federal constitution and the economic independence of Kurdistan are the recipe for the unity of Iraq."

Yet familiar tunes from the times of Versailles and all that nearly a century ago still echo with audiences that are only now starting to follow events in real time. The Conservative meeting was initially dominated by questions about Kurdish independence.

I was previously heavily involved in Irish issues and recall a common and somewhat timeless fixation with whether Ireland would ever be unified. It wasn't the main priority for most people in Ireland but it was stronger in places which wouldn't suffer any consequences and it took time for many to catch up with that.

It's not for me, as a Brit, to impose a particular solution for the Kurds - north, south, east or west, though I can have a view. Never say never, for sure. But Kurdish leaders from the four different components are focused on forms of federalism or autonomy. Rahman rightly pointed out that independence is discussed more outside Kurdistan than within. Hawrami memorably opined that the Kurds "remarried" Iraq in 2003 but the relationship could not be "just made in Baghdad." Syria may, in my view, prove to be the exception and where a new Kurdish entity could become necessary.

Party members may focus on domestic matters but conferences also boast many international receptions with diplomats, sister parties and activists attending in some force.

It was particularly good to see an Iraqi Ambassador at the conferences after six years without one in London. This absence has made it very difficult for the Embassy to conduct outreach work. The new Iraqi Ambassador, Faik Nerweyi, who spoke eloquently at the KRG fringe meeting at the Labour conference, can now deepen popular relations between Iraq and Britain, with the Kurdistan Region being seen as a gateway to the country as a whole.

The Turkish Ambassador Ünal Çeviköz also attended Kurdish-related meetings at the conferences and engaged politely with those who would once have been considered as beyond the pale. This augurs well, I hope, for the slow peace process in Turkey itself.

Conferences are constantly changing, as I have seen in attending about fifty in five decades. They are shorter and attract fewer activists - a minority at such events - because party membership is falling and the costs of attending are increasing.

However, the annual conferences remain vital forums for international engagement and for our group which needs to make sure that the concerns of Iraqi Kurdistan are amplified and that we constantly seek new ways to build mutually beneficial relations, in which cultural links are as powerful as commercial ones.