Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Robinson returns as unionist parties square up for Stormont battle

Parliament Buildings Stormont

“Well, that escalated quickly”, as people on social media are wont to say.  One moment, the rhetoric around Stormont’s latest crisis was predictable and tired, the next, Mike Nesbitt announced his Ulster Unionist party was set to pull out of the executive.  The UUP’s decision put their Democratic Unionist rivals under pressure to withdraw from government as well and collapse Northern Ireland’s devolved institutions, nine months before the next scheduled Assembly election. 

Initially, the DUP responded through its North Belfast MP and deputy leader, Nigel Dodds, who said it would seek to exclude Sinn Féin from the executive, if the republican party did not “deal with the issue” of PIRA members murdering Kevin McGuigan. 

The DUP, Dodds asserted, was prepared to bring down the administration at Stormont “very speedily”, if the “issue” was not “dealt with”, or Sinn Féin’s ministers excluded.  The exact meaning of that bluster, you will have noticed, was not entirely clear, but the tone of his comments suggested that the Democratic Unionists’ withdrawal from government was highly possible, if not necessarily inevitable.

Enter stage left Peter Robinson, fresh from his summer holidays.  The DUP leader quickly dashed off a platform piece for yesterday’s Belfast Telegraph, condemning Ulster Unionists for ‘fleeing the battlefield’ and implying that his party will confront republicans from the comfort of its executive seats.  The content had not changed radically from Dodds’ statement, but its tenor had shifted dramatically.

Mr Robinson expanded on his article this morning, ahead of a scheduled meeting with the Prime Minister, by calling for a four week adjournment of the Assembly and an ‘intensive talks process’ to address Stormont’s problems.  He wants the content to include, not only the murder of Kevin McGuigan and related issues, but also ongoing disagreements over welfare reform and other matters ‘causing deadlock’ between parties.

Suddenly, we’re back in drearily familiar territory, looking at the prospect of another round of crisis talks to overcome problems which, in properly working institutions, would either not arise at all (the fall-out of a paramilitary murder), or else form the everyday substance of government decision-making (reforming welfare and agreeing a budget).

It’s a favourite tactic for Mr Robinson and the parties at Stormont; shifting the onus of deciding what happens next unto the Westminster government, which risks appearing callously cavalier about the ‘peace process’ if it refuses to facilitate more negotiations.  It also raises the highly unlikely possibility of extracting new funds from the treasury to ‘support’ a new agreement, all in the interests of helping poor, benighted Northern Ireland stagger past the latest obstacle to reconciliation.

However, in the current circumstances, Mr Robinson’s call for talks is designed primarily to wrong-foot the UUP.

If the DUP were to negotiate new ways to test political parties’ links to paramilitaries, it would claim that it had successfully emasculated republicans and Sinn Féin, while the Ulster Unionists shirked their responsibilities. And given that Mike Nesbitt’s party has walked away from government, what is its role in helping the executive surmount its difficulties, if talks do take place?  Mr Nesbitt seems unsure.  Meanwhile, the DUP insists that it has remained in the executive to fight for unionism and it will be an exceptionally truculent partner for its fellow executive parties, should it not get its way.

Mr Nesbitt sensibly opposed Mr Robinson’s proposal to adjourn the Assembly.  Indeed, the motion for adjournment has been defeated in the Assembly’s business committee, courtesy of the UUP, SDLP and Sinn Féin.  This deprives the DUP of more time to decide whether it will appoint a minister to replace the UUP’s Danny Kennedy, whose resignation from the executive precipitated the latest round of political tit for tat. 

The UUP’s decision to leave the executive was an intriguing move, though it also highlights inconsistencies in the party’s thinking.  When Mike Nesbitt became leader of the Ulster Unionists he emphasised his intention to stay in the executive, during the leadership contest.  Now his party has framed its choice to withdraw from power-sharing, not only as a principled stand against IRA violence, but also as a way of creating a working opposition at Stormont to improve the way government here functions.

Nesbitt says he doesn’t want the Assembly to collapse and, certainly, the UUP’s strategy relies on the DUP remaining within the executive.  However, the Ulster Unionists clearly intend to attack Peter Robinson on the basis that he hasn’t had the moral courage to withdraw his party from government.   

Peter Robinson will worry away at any perceived contradictions in the UUP’s position.  His return from holiday has certainly coincided with a more confident appearance to his party’s manoeuvres.  There are suggestions that the DUP leader’s powers are diminishing, but he could yet prove to have enough political cunning left to outwit his unionist opponents again.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

The Trigger by Tim Butcher: A review.

The Latin Bridge in Sarajevo
Bosnia and Herzegovina is not top of everyone’s holiday destination list, yet it enjoys warm summer weather, beautiful scenery and its younger residents speak impeccable English.  The country also suffered a bloody and traumatic war during the 1990s and became associated, for many outsiders, with intractable ethnic divisions.

While Nato’s intervention in Bosnia, the siege of Sarajevo and the horrors of Srebrenica shape modern perceptions of the region, younger residents are apparently less aware of its role in the events which sparked World War 1.  That’s one of the conclusions reached by Tim Butcher, a former Telegraph journalist, in The Trigger, which centres on the story of Gavrilo Princip, the young Bosnian Serb who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and plunged Europe into conflict.

The book - part travelogue, part history - investigates how a figure who made such a profound impact on twentieth century history ended up being consigned to relative obscurity, among his compatriots in the southern Balkans.  The author describes attending a concert by Scottish rock band Franz Ferdinand in Banja Luka, capital of the part of Bosnia governed by ethnic Serbs.  The stage features a photograph of Princip, blown up to form a backdrop for the show, which prompts few signs of recognition from the young audience of music fans.

I visited Sarajevo in 2012 and made the pilgrimage to a street corner beside Latin Bridge, where the assassin launched his attack on the Habsburg archduke.  A relatively small museum describes the incident and there is a plaque on its outer wall, recording the most basic account of the shooting.
‘From this place on 28 June 2014 Gavrilo Princip assassinated the heir to the Austrian throne Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sofia’.

In The Trigger, Butcher remarks upon the neutral wording of this memorial, as well as the relatively meagre, and at times inaccurate, material in the museum.  He tries to solicit help to research his book from the museum’s board, but receives a dismissive response. 

Throughout The Trigger its author examines with insight the effects of recent historical events on how Princip is remembered in Bosnia and Serbia.  The teenage revolutionary was an ethnic Serb, which, after the wars of the nineties, is an obstacle to Croats or Bosnian Muslims viewing him positively.  However, he was motivated by Yugoslav nationalism, rather than the specifically Serbian variety, so his memory doesn’t resonate much with modern Serb sentiment either.

Butcher starts his odyssey where the assassin is recalled fondly – in the village of Obljaj, now close to the Croatian border, where he was born and brought up.  The author spends time with descendants of the Serb’s family and begins to follow the route Princip took when he left home to be educated in Sarajevo, a journey which would culminate in his political 'radicalisation' and a plot to kill Franz Ferdinand.

The travel material is enjoyable, particularly for a reader who has visited the region, and Butcher does a fine job of contrasting his hike through a rural idyll with the hellish war-zone the same landscape comprised when he worked there as a reporter in the 1990s.  The author’s journey is a canvass upon which he examines the complicated interplay of twentieth century history, nationalism and identity, in the Balkans.

He clearly admires the political idealism which inspired Princip and his fellow plotters, viewing it as part of a broader struggle against imperial oppression, taking place across Europe at the time.  Butcher is careful to distinguish the assassin’s brand of nationalism, which spanned the various Slav peoples of the region, with Serb nationalism, espoused for instance by Unification or Death, a shadowy group within Serbia’s military, also known as 'The Black Hand', some of whose members were in contact with the Bosnian conspirators.

The historical distinction the writer makes has obvious ramifications for Princip’s current reputation.  He took part in a terrorist plot, but, in Butcher’s view, he doesn’t form part of the lineage of modern ethnic extremism, which created mayhem in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the 1990s.  The teenage radical, the author asserts, would have been horrified by the recent war in Bosnia. 

By delving into his life as a student, a reader and a prisoner, saved from execution only by his youth, The Trigger is a more personal, thoughtful analysis of Princip’s politics and motivations, than traditional accounts of the war’s origins.       

A plot conceived by a group of students in a provincial outpost like Sarajevo could not, by itself, cause global conflict.  Butcher’s book isn’t really about deep and enduring rivalries among the great powers of Europe, which led eventually to war in 1914.  Instead, it ties together strands of history, older and more recent, which saw Bosnia and Herzegovina propelled bloodily, twice in a century, unto the world stage of geopolitics.

It is also an illuminating work of research, casting new light on an enigmatic figure, neglected lately by historians, who planned and carried out an act which triggered a worldwide conflagration.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Stormont might not collapse but paramilitaries continue to disfigure Northern Ireland

The devolved institutions in Northern Ireland are supposedly ‘teetering on the brink’ of collapse yet again. 

After repeated failures to agree a balanced budget or implement welfare reform created months of uncertainty, the Executive’s future is now in doubt because the PSNI believes members of the IRA were involved in murdering a republican hit man.  Despite its apparent seriousness, this particular predicament is unlikely to bring the shaky edifice at Stormont crashing down.

The IRA was supposed to have disbanded its military ‘structures’ and decommissioned its entire arsenal of weapons back in 2005.  It was on the basis of this understanding that power-sharing resumed in 2007 and the DUP entered government with Sinn Féin. 

From the outset it was a fairly flimsy pretext.  

Less than a year after John de Chastelain, the retired Canadian general, oversaw decommissioning, the Independent Monitoring Commission reported that the IRA retained a substantial haul of arms.  Punishment shootings in republican areas continued, Troubles-era weaponry found its way into the hands of ‘dissident’ paramilitary groups, and senior police officers, on both sides of the Irish border, acknowledged that the Provisionals were capable of launching attacks whenever they pleased.  Huge smuggling operations, involving laundered fuel and counterfeit cigarettes and alcohol, persisted in heartlands like south Armagh, allowing IRA godfathers to amass fortunes.     

On either side of Northern Ireland’s divided society, former terrorists made a seamless transition into ‘community’ organisations, often drawing salaries courtesy of the state.  The unspoken truth is that their authority derives from a capacity for violence.  It’s almost irrelevant whether Northern Ireland’s infamous litany of terror groups still exists in precisely the same form.  Working class areas of Belfast, Londonderry and other towns remain under the influence of the same people, the tools of whose trade were guns and bombs.

The latest controversy concerns the murder this month of Kevin McGuigan, an ex-IRA member who was widely believed to have been responsible for killing Gerard ‘Jock’ Davison, the Provisionals’ commander in the Short Strand area of Belfast.  The Police Service of Northern Ireland alleges that IRA members helped murder McGuigan, in league with an organisation called Action Against Drugs.

The PSNI has issued a rather confusing sequence of statements, confirming the continued existence of the IRA and its members’ ongoing involvement in crime, while simultaneously claiming that the Provisionals, “promote a peaceful, political republican agenda”.  Action Against Drugs, the police say, is a criminal organisation without links to the Provos.  Yet they also claim that the IRA ‘co-operated’ with AAD, to murder Kevin McGuigan.    

It’s a lesson in the type of ‘constructive ambiguity’ upon which the political process in Northern Ireland has always been built. 

Enough doubt about the provenance of the plot to murder McGuigan has been raised to allow Sinn Féin to deny that the IRA was involved.  In fact republican politicians are rushing to assert that the organisation no longer exists in any meaningful form.  The contrast to Gerry Adams’ famous threat, “they haven’t gone away you know”, has been rehearsed ad nauseum.

From the unionist perspective, the main political parties greeted allegations of IRA involvement with ill-disguised glee.  There is a predictable cast of politicians relishing republicans’ discomfort, irrespective of any serious consequences for Northern Ireland.

The DUP has been talking up the notion of Sinn Féin being excluded from the Executive, but any ‘exclusion motion’ would require cross community support in the Assembly, which is unlikely to materialise in the current circumstances.  The Secretary of State could table such a motion, or act to end power-sharing on the basis that the IRA breached its ceasefire, but Theresa Villiers will take advice from the PSNI Chief Constable, who has already distanced his force from suggestions that the 
Provisionals are still involved in paramilitarism.

The Executive will only collapse if unionist ministers refuse to work with Sinn Féin and that requires an appetite to step away from Stormont, with its salaries, expenses and the sense of self-importance that accompanies the office of MLA.  It will only happen if the parties feel there is a serious risk they will lose voters’ support by continuing to share power with republicans.   

The McGuigan murder might not cause Stormont to fall, but it does expose the disfiguring influence that paramilitaries still have in Northern Ireland.  Rather than political violence, the focus may now be on organised crime and third sector salaries, but whole working class communities, particularly in Belfast, remain firmly in the grip of former terrorists.  It’s an ongoing problem for our society, which politicians have chosen for the most part to ignore. 

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Yerevan: laid-back, pink and an ideal base for exploring Armenia

Yerevan, capital of the Republic of Armenia, is a cheerful place to visit in summertime.  The city, many of whose buildings are constructed out of a distinctive pink stone known as tuff, is laid-back and full of parks and cafes.

Republic Square, Opera Square and The Cascades, a giant stairway decorated with fountains and artworks, form an axis, running at a diagonal to Yerevan’s grid system.  These hubs are linked by a modern avenue of swanky shops.  If you’re tempted to clothe your children at ‘Armani Kids’, Armenia could be the country for you.

At Republic Square, crowds gather in the evenings to watch fountains ‘dance’ to lightshows and music.  Around Opera Square, people mingle in a series of outdoor watering-holes, like VIP Café, where we were moved on for (presumably) not being sufficiently important.  At the bottom of The Cascades they loiter around the artworks, older Armenians staying entertained with the odd game of backgammon and their younger counterparts making do with selfie sticks.

It’s an easy place to relax and an easier place to enjoy.  But it’s difficult not to be confronted (and appalled) by some of Armenia’s darker history as well.

Those dancing fountains are overlooked by enlarged photographs, at the front of the History Museum, depicting notable citizens killed during the Armenian Genocide.  The purple ‘forget me not’ flower, designed to mark the centenary of the genocide, is visible across the city.  It would be a neglectful visitor who failed to visit Tsitsernakaberd, the Armenian Genocide Memorial and Museum, which stands on a hill, overlooking central Yerevan.     

The museum at Tsitsernakaberd describes atrocities committed against Armenians in Turkey, during the first world war, from an Armenian perspective.  The story includes a background of oppression by Ottoman authorities, preceding 1915, and the genocide’s ‘dark aftermath’.  It’s a deeply affecting exhibit, stirring strong emotions among some members of the Armenian diaspora who visited while we were there.     

Like the Holocaust for Jews, the genocide is understandably a defining event for Armenians.  Their sense of grievance is particularly acute, because Turkey denies that genocide took place.

Recognition in the wider international community is also patchy.  The UK’s Parliament, for instance, has never formally recognised that the massacres comprise ‘genocide’, although the institutions in all three devolved regions have.  The situation is similar in the US, where 43 states recognise the Armenian genocide and the President has spoken of his personal conviction that genocide took place, but hasn’t moved to recognise it formally. 

As far as Armenia is concerned, genocide recognition constitutes ‘unfinished business’.

Outside the museum, the memorial consists of a circle of twelve huge stone slabs, representing ‘lost’ Armenian provinces in modern Turkey, which loom protectively over an eternal flame.  A towering, needle shaped ‘stele’, in two parts, symbolises the ‘rebirth’ of the Armenian nation, following the slaughter.

The complex contains reminders of more recent conflicts too.  On the avenue leading to the genocide memorial, there is a monument to the first Armenian soldiers killed during the war in Nagorno-Karabakh.  Armenia and Azerbaijan clashed over the disputed republic, as the Soviet Union fell apart in the late 1980s and early 1990s. 

While the genocide has left an indelible mark on modern Armenians, the most enduring pillar of Armenian identity is the Armenian Apostolic Church.  Armenia is said to be the first nation to adopt Christianity as a state religion.   The country’s ecclesiastical buildings are among its most popular attractions. 

Geghard monastery, for instance, is a short drive from Yerevan.  Its churches and cells are built partly into the rocky mountains which form its backdrop.  Geghard also boasts a fine collection of medieval khachkars, distinctively Armenian flat stones, decorated with the cross and other motifs, including almost dizzyingly intricate interlacing patterns. 

There was something rather Celtic about the khachkars and there are theories that monks from eastern churches travelled to the British Isles and influenced early Christian art in Ireland and Northumbria.  At Kathoghike Church, the oldest surviving church building in Yerevan, we had a brief conversation with a friendly Armenian priest who implied that there were ancient religious and even racial links between people in Ireland and Armenia.

He rushed away, before we could test a hypothesis that seemed to rest on some dubious theories about the origin of both countries names.  However, there are some striking similarities between the medieval Irish Church and the Armenian Church.  Both drew upon older belief systems and practised forms of Christianity frowned upon by established churches in Rome and Constantinople.

Philip Marsden’s brilliant book, Crossing Place: A Journey Among the Armenians, takes fascinating detours through several heresies that influenced the distinctive and independent form of Christianity which developed in Armenia.  This complicated background of traditions and symbolism made the monasteries and churches we visited, across the country, particularly interesting.

Travelling around Armenia, visitors are reminded that Armenian culture and identity have ranged far beyond the boundaries of the current republic.  It is now a small country, which can be explored comfortably from its charming capital, Yerevan.  It is also a land with varied landscapes and absorbing traditions, which blends the atmospheres of the Middle East and Europe.       

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Prometheus and Pushkin: visiting Kazbek and Kazbegi

Some of the people traditionally most opposed to the idea that the Caucasus is in Europe were French alpinists.  Mount Elbrus is generally now recognised as the highest European mountain, and five other peaks, including three in Georgia, are taller than Mont Blanc, the only mountain from outside the Caucasus range to make the top 10.  One of these Georgian giants is Mount Kazbek, which towers above the Terek River valley and a small town called Stepantsminda, commonly known by its former name, Kazbegi. 

To reach this region from Tbilisi it’s necessary to take the Georgian Military Highway, whose high passes were the Russian Empire’s overland route into Georgia and Armenia. Charles King’s history of the Caucasus, The Ghost of Freedom, describes postal caravans, heavily militarised and including everyone from diplomats to curious foreign tourists, which formed in Vladikavkaz to take mail south.  The poet, Alexander Pushkin, was one visitor who joined such a convoy.

We travelled in the opposite direction, rounding hair-pin bends in a shared taxi, until we left wooded mountains close to Tbilisi and climbed toward the high peaks.   The road has a reputation for danger and, even on a dry, clear day during the summer there were breath-taking moments: risky overtaking manoeuvres, herds of cattle wandering across the carriageway and roadworks which reduced its surface to miles of undulating gravel. 

Close to Kazbegi we encountered a queue of trucks stretching for some miles, destined for the Russian border a short distance ahead.  They had number plates from countries across the former Soviet Union and beyond, but a high proportion seemed to be from Ukraine, and Georgian officials were working their way slowly down the line.  Our driver swung his car out into the middle of the road and roared past the lot, on into the town.

In Tbilisi, the image of Gergeti Trinity Church, set against the bulk of Kazbek and its snowy cone, is ubiquitous on postcards, fridge magnets and other tourist tat.  It’s impossible, though, for those images to capture the scale of the landscape, viewed in person from Kazbegi. 

Anonymous foothills, rising just above the tree-line, were high; more so alpine meadows and craggy peaks.  The church sat on a promontory of mountain grass and scree, far above Gergeti village, which itself looked down a steep hillside toward Kazbegi, in the distance.  And Kazbek, beyond yet more layers of climbing highlands, loured behind cloud, impossibly high, sometimes silhouetted against the sun and sometimes invisible beyond a long tongue of dirty white glacier.

The most popular excursion from Stepantsminda is to Gergeti Church.  It’s a 6km trek up steep paths and a rutted jeep track, although many people prefer to roar past walkers at high speed in an endless stream of Lada Nivas.  When we set out, the church was obscured entirely but, as we climbed, the cloud lifted and its movement throughout the day meant the views were constantly changing.

Georgia’s Orthodox tradition shares with other branches of eastern Christianity a love of building churches in remote and inaccessible locations.  At 2,210 metres above sea level, Tsminda Sameba, or Holy Trinity, is the archetypal example.  Perhaps the idea of constructing religious buildings in such high, difficult places was so monks and priests would be closer to God, or maybe it was for more practical, defensive reasons.  Supposedly holy relics were taken to the 14th century church at Gergeti for safe-keeping, at times of extreme danger to Georgia. 

Just across a dipping meadow behind the complex, lies a ridge leading up toward Kazbek’s glacier and, eventually, its peak.  Greek myth says that Prometheus, who stole fire from Mount Olympus and gave it to mankind, was chained to a mountain in the Caucasus range, as punishment.  The story echoes a Georgian legend about Amirani, who was imprisoned on Kazbek after challenging God.  Georgia’s tourist board (among others) are adamant that Kazbek is therefore the mountain of Prometheus.  There is a tradition among Georgians that the peak is holy and its snowy cone is a perfect setting for the myth.

The path along the ridge provided some solitude after crowds of walkers we’d encountered on the way to Gergeti Church.  We trekked much further than initially planned, past the high pastures and almost to the bottom of the glacier, which lay just beyond another outcrop and the noisy rush of a mountain stream.  Almost 3,000 metres above sea level, the climb was getting difficult and Holy Trinity lay far below, while Kazbegi was tiny, 20 kilometres in the distance.

It took several more hours before we made it back to the town’s main square, named after its celebrated resident, the Georgian writer Alexander Kazbegi.  We drank a well-deserved beer beneath his statue, in early evening mizzle. 

Stepantsminda’s fortunes declined and then recovered again, after the USSR’s collapse.  The streets sloping down toward the Terek River were still filled with abandoned houses and disused sanatoria, dating from the town’s heyday as a Soviet retreat, but new businesses were opening and we stayed in a stylish hotel, dominating one side of the valley.  There were a clutch of restaurants and bars around the main square, as well as the usual assortment of small-town, post-Soviet mini-marts, one strangely called ‘Google Supermarket’ and (probably) infringing copyright by using the tech giant’s logo!      

The town is a few miles from the Russian border and many of its visitors were from Russia, yet there were still hints of Georgia’s recent politics.  One night we ate in an otherwise friendly and exceptionally jolly bar, packed with Israelis and Russians, which displayed a Banderite, Ukrainian nationalist symbol.  There were other similar curiosities around culture and language. 

Of course Stepantsminda's history is bound closely to its northern neighbour.  The Alexander Kazbegi museum draws upon the author’s life, which took him to Moscow and St Petersburg, before he wrote a novel, The Patricide, about a bandit called Koba.  The Georgian Bolshevik Iosif Jugashvili, later known to the world as Josef Stalin, adopted the name as his revolutionary pseudonym.  

The lore and identity of the Caucasus is famously shaped by its highlands and its highlanders.  This wild southern borderland is a fixture in the Russian imagination as well, infusing the literary works of Pushkin, Lermontov, Tolstoy and others.  No trip to Georgia would be complete without visiting the mountains and Kazbegi is a spectacularly evocative destination in the High Caucasus. 


In Tbilisi take the metro to Dedubi Plaza where there is a bus-station.  Marshrutki and shared taxis leave for Kazbegi from here.

The Rooms Hotel Kazbegi is its only international standard accommodation, though there are plenty of B & Bs.

Shared taxis and marshrutki back to Tbilisi leave from Alexander Kazbegi Square.  A tai should cost 80 lari, otherwise you may be getting ripped off. 

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Liverpool's transfer strategy. What strategy?

Brendan Rodgers (cropped) 2
Both fans and media have praised Liverpool FC’s performance in the transfer window this summer, because its management team and owners are perceived to have acted quickly and decisively to sign players.  I don’t agree with this glowing assessment.  I’ve struggled to understand a recruitment policy which seems poorly thought out and haphazard.

I’m not querying necessarily the ability of the players Liverpool have bought.  Some of them are proven performers and others have the potential to do well, if they’re developed properly and given opportunities.  My question is whether the manager, Brendan Rodgers, identified where his team had problems last season and addressed them through the transfer market, or instead bought in volume, including for positions where his squad already has adequate cover.

Damien Comolli, the club’s former Director of Football Strategy, attracted fierce criticism last week when he suggested that Liverpool has taken a ‘massive risk’ by bringing in eight players in close season.  Comolli, who was in charge of recruiting talent to Anfield, was sacked from his post and he can’t be regarded as an impartial commentator, but he might have a point.

To field eight newcomers in the first match of the season - against Stoke - would mean incredible disruption, but, despite another significant investment by Liverpool, it’s almost inconceivable that Brendan Rodgers will make those changes.  Yet there are still positions where the squad has serious weaknesses.  So what was the strategy driving the summer spending spree?

At the end of last season, it seemed the ‘spine’ of Liverpool’s team was where its problems mainly lay. 

The goalkeeper, Simon Mignolet, recovered well from a dismal start to the campaign, but the consensus was that some proper competition for his position was needed.  The Croat defender, Dejan Lovren, was an unadulterated failure and the club clearly needed a much better option at centre-back.  In midfield, Steven Gerrard’s departure left a void of dynamism & leadership, while injuries had taken their toll on Liverpool’s first choice holding midfielder, Lucas Leiva.   

Most famously, Luis Suarez had not been replaced after Anfield to go to Barcelona the previous summer and Brendan Rodgers badly needed another goal-scorer, particularly with Daniel Sturridge spending more time on the treatment table than in training.

There were other frailties too.  Particularly in the full-back positions, where the Spaniards Moreno and Manquillo had fallen short of expectations for a Premier League club aspiring to be in the Champions League.

Admittedly, there have been signings for some of these problem areas.  For instance, securing James Milner’s services was a genuine coup for Liverpool.  The Yorkshireman is consistent, experienced and he’ll attack effectively from midfield positions.  It wasn’t possible to replace a player like Steven Gerrard, but signing Milner is a decent attempt.

At right back, Nathaniel Clyne, purchased from Southampton, looks like he will strengthen the team, adding an unfussy, competent attitude to defensive duties, allied with the ability to get forward.  He inspires more confidence than an ageing Glen Johnson.

Brendan Rodgers has bought an expensive striker too.  Christian Benteke wasn’t most fans first choice candidate to lead the attack, but he has an international reputation and scored goals for Aston Villa, in the Premier League.  We’ll find out whether choosing Benteke is the right decision, but, in theory at least, he’s ready to go straight into the Liverpool team and addresses a genuine weakness. 
In other areas, though, the strategy behind transfers has not been so obvious.

Rodgers bought a goalkeeper.  However, Adam Bogdan is 27 years old and spent the last eight years at Bolton Wanderers.  He’s unlikely to challenge Simon Mignolet for a first team place, unless the Belgian plays catastrophically badly.  A young defender, Joe Gomez, arrived from Charlton.  He’s played well in a number of pre-season friendlies, but his role is likely to be peripheral for the time being.

The other three signings were attacking players, but not centre-forwards.  Danny Ings and Roberto Firmino are play-makers who can play in and around the front three.  Divock Origi is another un-prolific forward, who can play up front or a little wider.  Liverpool already has the likes of Coutinho, Lallana, Markovic and Jordan Ibe, competing for these positions.  That’s not to mention more conventional midfielders like Can, Henderson and Allen, the first choice centre-forward, Daniel Sturridge, or younger hopefuls like Brannagan, Rossiter and Dunn.

The arrival of Firmino, who cost £21 million, caused quite a bit of excitement.  I can’t pretend to know very much about his abilities, but I question whether Liverpool’s priority this summer should have been signing a Brazilian play-maker, given that they’ve already got a tremendously good one in Phillipe Coutinho.  Meanwhile the weaknesses at centre-back, left back and defensive midfield have not been addressed.

From the friendly games so far you would assume that Liverpool intends to play four defenders this year.  James Milner and club captain Jordan Henderson are likely to be selected in midfield, presuming they stay fit.  Having cost £32.5 million, Christian Benteke is going to be picked, more often than not, as the team’s centre forward.

That leaves three empty spots for the plethora of tricksy playmakers stroke forwards stroke attacking midfielders stroke wingers who Brendan Rodgers likes to collect (and, actually, for a balanced line-up it would be best if one of those positions were occupied by a deeper midfielder).  Phillipe Coutinho was the club’s best player last season and Firmino cost a fortune, so, even allowing for injuries and the Europa League, it’s difficult to see why so many similar players are needed.               

Have Brendan Rodgers and his colleagues really evaluated carefully how they want Liverpool to play and bought what they need to realise that vision, or have they bought on the basis of availability?  What is the point of buying someone who might be very similar or no better than a player you’ve already got?  Should there not have been clearer priorities, based on a smaller number of problem positions?

I hope the answers will be clear as the season progresses but, for the time being, I’m sceptical.  

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Tbilisi: romantic, but not dangerous!

The historian, Simon Sebag Montifiore, once described Georgia as “the most romantic and dangerous land in the world”.  He was reviewing Wendell Steavenson’s book, Stories I Stole, a quirky account of the author’s years living in Tbilisi, which I took with me to the Caucasus. 

It described the chaotic 90s and early 2000s when the majority of Georgians’ homes received only a few hours of electricity each day, members of the public frequently carried guns and some areas of the country were notorious for robberies and kidnappings.

With Tbilisi’s streets now completely unthreatening and everything from bridges to Ferris wheels illuminated showily after dark, it was difficult to believe that I was in the same city which Steavenson described.  Georgia, like many other post-Soviet states, has clearly changed dramatically in a relatively short period of time.

The country’s capital is now a vibrant, modern place, centred around its atmospheric Old Town and Rustaveli Avenue - a busy artery, flanked by museums, public buildings and fashionable shops.

Tbilisi is overlooked by an imposing fortress, called Narikala, and Mount Mtatsminda, which offers spectacular views, fresh air and a retreat from heat and exhaust fumes.  A funicular railway runs from a station not far from Rustaveli to a massive restaurant complex and a viewing platform, beside gardens and an amusement park.  It’s definitely worth a trip and the funfair didn’t open until lunchtime on the day we visited, so we had the place more or less to ourselves.

Georgia is particularly famous for its food and drink.  Georgians and Armenians both claim their ancestors were the first people to cultivate grapes for wine-making and the oldest winery ever discovered by archaeologists was in Armenia.  You can try good red and white wines in Tbilisi’s restaurants, particularly in wine-bars like g.Vino where knowledgeable staff will help you navigate local varieties, like the unusually named Pheasant’s Tears (which I consistently misheard as Peasant’s Tears).

These are perfect to accompany a plate of cold meats and local cheeses.  On the other hand, Tkemali, a sour sauce made from wild, green plums and herbs, improves any type of grilled meat.  Another Georgian speciality, Khinkali, is a spicy, filled dumpling, which can be eaten on its own or as a side dish.

Away from the dinner table, Tbilisi has some interesting museums.  The Dmitry Shevernadze National Gallery is a manageable size and it houses well-presented exhibitions of photographs from World War 1’s Caucasus Front and Niko Pirosami’s paintings. 

Pirosami may be Georgia’s most celebrated painter.  His portrait appears on the 1 lari banknote and he painted distinctive, atmospheric scenes from the region, in a primitivist style.  On a short visit to an art gallery, in my view it’s much better to see a couple of good exhibitions properly, rather than tramping for miles past endless floors of paintings, spanning century after century (then probably being too tired to appreciate the good stuff).
A few hundred metres along Rustaveli, the Georgian National Museum displayed an impressive collection of Colchian gold.  This was a fascinating window on Greco-Roman cultural connections which cast Georgia as the backdrop for classical myths like Jason and the Argonauts and Prometheus.

The upper floor was taken up with the more tendentious Museum of Soviet Occupation.  It set out the modern Georgian government’s interpretation of the Soviet period as a struggle for national liberation from Russian oppression.  It formed an interesting counterpoint to an exhibition on the ground floor, which emphasised Georgia’s contribution to World War 2, as part of the USSR. 

There was little mention of Georgian involvement in Bolshevism or the Soviet Union’s elite and the exhibition finished with the assertion that ‘the occupation continues’ in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.  It was a reminder that debates about the past in the Caucasus are still felt keenly and inform current politics.

Georgia is a romantic destination, whose recent past and mix of cultural influences gives it a frisson for visitors.  Nearly every tourist will be introduced to the country through its capital, which is a great place to start, as well as a hub to travel on into the countryside.

Some practical tips, if you're going to Tbilisi:

Erekle II is a pedestrianised street of bars and restaurants in the Old Town.  If you’re confused about where to eat, the easiest thing is to go here.

The metro is a convenient way to travel around some areas of the city, but you’ll need a MetroMoney card to get on board.  This requires a deposit of 2 Lari (about 60p) and each journey is a further 15p.  There is Latin script in metro stations and the announcements are given out in English, so, if you know where you’re going, you shouldn’t get lost.

Tbilisi train station is on the third floor of a shopping centre.  A number of internet sources say that a particular kiosk is manned by an English speaker.  However, we were sent from one kiosk to another, so you might need to be patient.  If you want to book an international train ticket to Yerevan or Baku, remember to bring your passport.

Friday, 24 July 2015

James McClean isn't a political crusader. He's just a very rude and naughty boy.

Was anyone remotely surprised when James McClean, the Republic of Ireland footballer from Londonderry, turned his back during the UK National Anthem, before a pre-season match in the US?  The winger was representing his new club, West Bromwich Albion, and their American hosts had organised music and an English flag, in honour of the visitors.
FIFA WC-qualification 2014 - Austria vs Ireland 2013-09-10 - James McClean 01" by Michael Kranewitter - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 at via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:FIFA_WC-qualification_2014_-_Austria_vs_Ireland_2013-09-10_-_James_McClean_01.jpg#/media/File:FIFA_WC-qualification_2014_-_Austria_vs_Ireland_2013-09-10_-_James_McClean_01.jpg

McClean has been involved in controversy after controversy since leaving Derry City to play full-time football in England. 

He was still in the process of negotiating a transfer from his home town club, when he withdrew from the Northern Ireland international squad and announced his intention to defect to the Republic.  Subsequently he refused to wear team kit with poppies woven into the shirts when he played for Sunderland and Wigan Athletic, at matches on Remembrance Day weekends. 

McClean has also found himself in trouble several times following injudicious use of Twitter, causing public disagreements with managers Martin O’Neill and Giovanni Trappatoni.  Infamously, he used the social media site to express his appreciation for the IRA song, The Broad Black Brimmer.  The player’s Twitter account was deleted for a short while, as a result.

You might detect a thread running through many of the incidents around McClean.  He has cited his nationalist political beliefs and upbringing in the staunchly republican Creggan estate, in Derry, to explain involvement in various controversies.  There has been no lack of commentators, from inside and outside football, ready to do the same.

It could be argued that McClean’s issue with the poppy is a matter of personal preference and political opinion.  Still, it’s worth remembering that an act of remembrance from a football club, whenever it weaves a symbol onto its shirt, is primarily corporate rather than individual.  If a player has difficulties with the communal ethos of a club and its supporters, he should examine why he’s happy to be employed by them in the first place.      

That’s ultimately an internal matter for the clubs.  If they want each player to have a choice whether or not to wear an emblem on team kit, or whether, for instance, they wear a black arm band to mark a tragedy, presumably they’ll communicate that policy to their employees. 

There’s no comparable defence for McClean’s actions during the National Anthem in South Carolina.   It was a display of public disrespect and bad manners.  He didn’t need to sing, or put his hand on his heart or even acknowledge the tune in any meaningful way.  He just needed to stand quietly, show a little dignity and not draw attention to himself – like the rest of his teammates, who come from across the world, including the Republic of Ireland and other places where some people have historical or political issues with Britain.

McClean’s conduct shouldn't be excused either by constant references to his ‘upbringing’.  The player is 26 years old, which means that he was born in 1989 and cannot realistically remember the worst violence in Northern Ireland.  Indeed his unreconstructed attitudes hint at how Troubles era bigotries and hatreds are being passed down to a younger generation, in spite of decades of the ‘peace process’.             

Sportspeople, like anyone else in society, are entitled to voice their views and express their values.  However, it’s possible to espouse principles, even dubious ones, without being disrespectful and antagonistic.  James McClean is not some sort of political crusader; he’s just a very rude and very naughty boy.    

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Will Labour really choose Corbyn as leader?

Jeremy Corbyn

Labour’s members and supporters won’t do it, will they?  Are they really poised to lumber the party with “veteran left winger”, Jeremy Corbyn, as leader?  Everyone from Tony Blair to Polly Toynbee seems to agree that he would be a disastrous choice.

A YouGov poll this week suggested that Corbyn has a substantial lead in Labour’s leadership race.  However, tellingly, the bookmakers still think that Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper will win the contest.

Grassroots members and activists in every political party can be tempted to assert what they regard as “traditional values”, when times are bad.  In other words, to swing left, in the case of the Labour Party, or right, for Conservatives. 

Modern UK elections, though, are decided by a mass of people in the ‘middle ground’, who are nervous of any perceived excess.  They’re not caught up daily in every nuance of ongoing political debate, they don’t experiment with extreme ideologies and they almost always entrust the nation’s governance to someone they think will do the job competently.

Britain is not Greece, or Italy or even France.  There might be growing left wing militancy, but it remains the preserve of a noisy fringe.

If Jeremy Corbyn is elected, the people with most to celebrate will be Conservatives.  You’d suspect that the members and registered supporters who are entitled to vote in Labour's leadership battle will grasp this before the ballot closes in September.     

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Georgia and Armenia - are they in Europe or Asia?

Tbilisi looks a little like Prague from its hillside fortress.
Georgia and Armenia – are these countries in Asia or in Europe? 

Their status has been debated for at least a century, with commentators from outside the Caucasus region usually plumping for south-west Asia, until relatively recently.  Now, more frequently, they are described as European, although that trend is influenced at least as much by politics as geography.

I can’t answer this thorny question.  It is a sensitive matter, linked to the identities and perceived futures of Armenians and Georgians.  However I can give a few impressions of how it feels to visit two fascinating countries.

Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia is a sprawling, modern city, congested with traffic and, in July at least, hot and dusty.  Yet it also feels distinctly European.  Looking down from the Nariqala Fortress at the Old Town, with its narrow streets of stone houses and churches bisected by the Kura River, you could almost be in Prague.

The Georgian people certainly seem to have decided in favour of a future in Europe.  On Rustaveli Avenue the EU flag flies alongside Georgia’s national flag at the old parliament building and the symbol is displayed prominently across the city. 

On the other hand, the curly Georgian alphabet has a distinctly Asian appearance, although, in central areas, it is often accompanied by Latin script.  There are hints of a more Oriental atmosphere at the picturesque, domed sulphur baths or when eating the food, which has a  Middle Eastern inflection.

Outside the city, things are predictably a little chaotic.  Potholes aren’t the only obstacles on Georgia’s roads, as drivers frequently have to contend with cows, pigs and other livestock. 

We travelled into the mountains via the Georgian Military Highway, the traditional route into the southern Caucasus from Russia and the north.  We stayed in Stepantsminda (more commonly known by its former name, Kazbegi), in a stylish, modern hotel, affiliated to a German hotel group.    
The view from Rooms Hotel toward Mount Kazbek. 
The town stands on the banks of the Terek River which, in the lore of imperial Russia, marked the boundary between Europe and Asia.  It is a few miles from the border and about 40 minutes drive away from Vladikavkaz, where the Russian military would once muster before embarking on its campaigns further south.  

Stepantsminda is full of tourists from Russia, but the local businesses most frequently fly flags from the Ukraine, Georgia and Armenia, or countries in western Europe, pointedly omitting emblems from their northern neighbour.  In a bar in the town’s main square, some Russian tourists were eating and drinking below the flag of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, which fought on the German side during World War 2.  The symbol has been revived by modern Ukrainian nationalists.  

In some respects Armenia felt a little more Asian, or at least Middle Eastern, than Georgia, which is borne out by the region’s geography. 

The food is even closer to Lebanese and Persian fare, featuring Lavash flat-breads, baba ganoush and baklava for dessert.  The landscape around Yerevan is dry and arid in July, with barren hills dropping down to a parched plain, stretching toward Mount Ararat and the Turkish border.  The people often look a little more Iranian and a little less Italian than their counterparts in Georgia.

Yerevan is a delightful, laid-back city, less choked, last week at least, with exhaust fumes than Tbilisi.  It has lots of open spaces, wonderful museums and a thriving café culture.  You’ll see far more Russian language signs and hear more Russian spoken.  

The influence of the French, German and British cultures are also in evidence across the city.  In Republic Square the fountains ‘dance’ nightly to a soundtrack including Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, Handel’s Messiah and Rule Britannia, complete with vocals.
Crowds enjoy Yerevan's 'dancing fountains'

In the lusher, greener north of Armenia, the town of Dilijan looks rather Swiss, with wooden chalets climbing the steep hillsides.  Lake Sevan’s shores are fringed with shady camp-sites and picnic spots which could almost be on the west coast of France.

The influence of the diaspora is evident in Armenia.  There were people of Armenian origin from the Unites States everywhere in Yerevan.  We met a French Armenian diplomat and witnessed the christening of an Armenian child from Switzerland, in one of the city’s oldest churches.  A priest even outlined a theory linking Armenia to Ireland, citing some unconvincing etymology based on the two countries’ names. 

In his excellent book about Georgia, Bread and Ashes, Tony Anderson concludes that the distinction between Europe and Asia is arbitrary and largely ‘irrelevant’.  ‘We might much more usefully think of one Eurasian continent and then annoying bits of geography like the Caucasus resolve themselves easily’.

In my view, the most interesting places lie where different cultures and influences converge.  Unfortunately the resulting confusion of ethnicities, identities and languages can also prove combustible.  The Caucasus region, which includes three disputed states and has witnessed numerous wars, is a classic example. 

I’ll be looking at some more aspects of Georgia and Armenia in the days to come. 

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Setting the record straight on Northern Ireland firework incident

Northern Ireland’s last game in Group F of the Euro 2016 qualifying tournament divided opinion among fans.  Some viewed the 0-0 home draw as a missed opportunity, particularly because it allowed Hungary to move within 2 points of the Green and White Army.  Others thought that a point against the group leaders was creditable.

More worrying than the result, was an incident where a firework was thrown from the crowd in the National Stadium, hitting a photographer, who had to be treated for burns.  Home fans were convinced that the missile had come from the Romanian section, but the photographer and most journalists blamed Northern Ireland supporters initially .

Very quickly a video emerged proving that it had been thrown from the seats occupied by travelling spectators.  Not that this evidence affected a series of articles quoting Darren Kidd, the photographer, and repeating the allegation that a Northern Irish hand had launched the firework. 

Blink and you miss it, but a Romanian supporter clearly throws an object in the direction of the photographer - heads of supporters behind him follow it's path prior to the bang.http://youtu.be/4GyxN_VeK18
Posted by Our Wee Country on Monday, 15 June 2015

The Belfast Telegraph corrected its initial reports fairly quickly and even mentioned the matter in an editorial, but for two weeks the BBC kept a report on its website, repeating without context the unfounded claim from Mr Kidd.

Clearly, a firework being thrown from a football crowd is newsworthy at the time and details which emerge later become progressively less newsworthy, as the event recedes into the past.

The photographer made an allegation that a home fan had been responsible quickly and took almost three weeks to issue a retraction on Twitter.  Understandably, his correcting tweet has received little or no media coverage.    

While few sets of football supporters are saints, Northern Ireland fans have no history of setting off fireworks.  It’s worthwhile setting the record straight.  The missile came from a troublemaker among the (largely excellent) Romanian crowd and the victim of the incident has accepted these facts without reservation. 

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

How did Michael O'Neill get Northern Ireland flying high in Euro 2016?

Members of the GAWA with Hungary supporters in Budapest.
Before the Euro 2016 campaign started, hope among Northern Ireland fans that their side might qualify for the finals tournament was low.  Now, with six rounds of matches in Group F complete, rather alarmingly, many of the Green and White Army fully expect to travel to France next summer to watch the Ulstermen, who are second place in the table (two countries from each group qualify automatically and the third has an opportunity to do so through a play-off).
Whether or not that happens, the team’s manager, Michael O’Neill, has done an incredible job to oversee five wins and a draw in this competition, after securing only one victory in his first eighteen international games.  What’s made the difference?

You could argue that the draw for the Euro 2016 qualifying tournament was kind to Northern Ireland.  Certainly, none of the teams in Group F looks equipped to go to France and progress far in the finals.  However, Romania, Greece and Hungary were all expected to finish above O’Neill’s men, while Finland was considered to be at a similar level of ability and the Faroe Islands had tripped Northern Ireland up before.

Growing confidence among the players has contributed to their success. 

In the first match, in Budapest, they played conservatively for 75 minutes, despite the home team struggling to dominate in front of a restive Hungarian crowd.  When Hungary took the lead, it looked like another routine Northern Ireland defeat, but instead McGinn and Lafferty responded positively and combined twice, scoring one apiece to secure an unlikely 2-1 win.

There was an element of good fortune to that victory but it injected belief into a team which had little experience of winning away from home.  After a successful clash with the Faroe Islands at Windsor Park, Northern Ireland played masterfully against Greece in Athens to make it an unprecedented three wins in a row.

That stylish 2-0 victory fed the fans’ expectations.  It was the type of controlled performance no-one was accustomed to seeing Northern Ireland deliver and it pushed us top of the group.  The media, supporters and players all started to talk about qualification, with a seriousness not heard since the 1980s.

Alongside a renewed sense of confidence, Michael O’Neill made tactical changes which improved his team’s fortunes.  Toward the end of the unsuccessful qualifying tournament for the World Cup in Brazil, Northern Ireland set up in a 3-5-2 formation, which often looked more like 5-3-2, when opponents had the ball.  From the first game in Group F, O’Neill deployed instead a fluid 4-3-3 line-up, which switched to 4-5-1 when the team had to defend.  He maintained his previous emphasis on keeping possession, when possible.            

Like a number of supporters, I had my doubts whether Northern Irish players could implement a modern, technical system, but the manager kept trying to play clever, attractive football and his ideas started to work.  These flexible tactics allow Northern Ireland to flood the midfield with sufficient numbers to compete for the ball when they’re not in possession, yet also get players forward to support Kyle Lafferty in attack, when they win back the ball.  The result has been eight goals in six matches.

The task of qualifying for Euro 2016 is far from complete.  Northern Ireland travels to the Faroe Islands next; exactly the type of opponents the team has traditionally failed to score against.  The Islanders have had a remarkable campaign so far too, beating Greece twice, and they’re confident they can get a result in front of a sell-out home crowd.
Northern Ireland hasn’t qualified for a major tournament since 1986 and, with the fans’ expectations so high, nerves are almost bound to affect the players, before the group is over.  However, it is already likely the side will at least secure a play-off place and every one of the remaining four games, against the Faroes, Hungary, Greece and Finland, are potentially winnable.  The manager believes just five more points – which could be achieved through one win and two draws – will probably secure second place. 

It’s an exciting time to be part of the Green and White Army.