Wednesday, 29 June 2016

From Euro 2016 euphoria to the IFA's new president

While I was in France, watching Northern Ireland compete at Euro 2016, I read Evan Marshall’s brilliant book, Spirit of 58, which charts the team’s first major tournament finals, almost sixty years ago.  

It’s a great story, describing how the country’s manager, Peter Doherty, transformed perennial whipping boys into a squad of formidable professionals, who then advanced to the quarter finals of the 1958 World Cup.  It’s written vividly and lucidly, on the back of freshly researched source material and a wealth of new interviews.

One of the striking themes, which clearly frustrates the author, is the consistent ineptitude of the Irish Football Association, the sport’s organising body in Northern Ireland.  The IFA refused to allow a full panel of players to travel to the tournament in Sweden, it frustrated Doherty’s attempts to scout opposition matches, it botched hotel bookings – with the result that an injury-ravaged team missed out on much needed rest – and, worst of all, it almost stopped Northern Ireland competing in the first place, because of controversy about playing games on a Sunday.  

Fifty-eight years later, much has changed and little has changed.  

The squad of 2016 certainly had all the amenities it needed to compete in France and it played matches on the Sabbath, during qualification and during the tournament itself, with few serious objections.  However, the IFA still has a formidable talent for bungling matters off the field, even while its international team is over-achieving on it.  

Last night, the association elected David Martin as its president.  This is a man who was forced out as IFA treasurer, after the sports minister made it clear that the organisation was not fit for purpose and couldn’t receive government monies while some of its officers were still in place.  Not to be discouraged, Mr Martin failed three independent suitably tests, as he attempted to find his way back into prominent posts in local football.  In 2013, the IFA changed its rules at an AGM, so that officers no longer needed to prove their suitability to an independent panel.

A lot of the problems underlying Mr Martin’s comeback would be familiar to the football community in 1958.  Tiny little clubs, many of them from church leagues, rather than Irish League teams, drove opposition to playing football on a Sunday and jeopardised Northern Ireland’s involvement in the World Cup.  Likewise, Mr Martin built up his power-base in junior football, and he was linked to the ‘Dunloy Proposals’, which almost derailed funding for the new National Stadium at Windsor Park, as small clubs made a grab for more influence.  

The IFA has changed over the years and there are professional staff amongst its ranks.  In most respects, it did a good job of promoting and organising Northern Ireland’s Euro 2016 campaign, so that it was memorable for players and supporters alike.  It would be a real shame if that hard work is undermined by the election of the association’s foremost officer.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

EU debate doesn't impact Good Friday Agreement, but it exposes its 'conjuring trick'

European flag outside the Commission

The Good Friday Agreement was a clever, influential document because it defined a political struggle over sovereignty in Northern Ireland in terms of a much more slippery concept: identity.  No piece of paper could tell people whether they were British or Irish or both, and the prerogative of people born here to take citizenship of the Republic of Ireland existed long before 1998, but the agreement reassured voters that their professed identities would be recognised and respected under new power-sharing arrangements.

Northern Ireland is now in the midst of another emotional debate about sovereignty as UK voters decide whether to stay in the European Union or opt for ‘Brexit’.  Alongside practical arguments about the economy and the Irish border, some campaigners have tried to suggest that the principles which underpin the Belfast Agreement could be undermined by a vote for ‘Leave’.  The foolish implication is that Irish identity in Northern Ireland is dependent upon membership of the EU. 

That is a dangerous idea, which underestimates the extent to which relations between the UK and the Republic of Ireland are on a solid legal footing and overestimates the reach of the Agreement.  All the practical rights of citizenship, residency and freedom of movement, exercised by Irish people in the UK and vice-versa, are enshrined in British and Irish law, most of it predating Good Friday 1998, not to mention Britain’s accession to the European Union. 

Anyone born in Northern Ireland will still be entitled to citizenship of the Irish Republic and, by extension, citizenship of the European Union, whatever the result of the referendum.  Likewise, the Republic is not regarded in British law as a foreign country and, if its citizens are resident in the UK, they have the same rights to live, work and vote as British citizens.  Some arguments are ongoing about how the Irish border might operate, in the event of Brexit, but there’s no serious suggestion that free movement across the British Isles would be restricted.

As for identity, the Brexit debate has shown that it is an elusive concept in comparison to sovereignty.  The Belfast Agreement determined that Northern Ireland’s constitutional future should be decided by a majority of voters here, but it also switched the central focus of politics to more abstract questions around culture and identity.  The arguments over the referendum don’t impact materially on power-sharing or other totems of the ‘peace process’, but they do threaten to expose the Agreement’s most successful conjuring trick.                         

Campaigners on either side of the referendum debate are using emotive arguments to support their points of view.  However, come the 24th of June, we’ll all still have to share the same region and confront the same issues, whatever the final result.  It’s irresponsible and inaccurate to suggest that either the peace process or the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland is under discussion.    Whether the UK decides to remain in the EU, or leave, no-one’s identity is under threat and no-one will be any less British or Irish, after the votes are counted.  

This article is published in today's News Letter.

Monday, 30 May 2016

Northern Ireland's Euro 2016 squad

On Saturday, Michael O’Neill announced his Northern Ireland squad for the finals of a major football tournament.  Not a sentence I thought I’d ever have reason to write, which makes it even pettier that I’m going to have a (very minor) gripe at his selection.

While I have the utmost faith in O’Neill to organise and motivate his team at Euro 2016, in my opinion he has a slightly lop-sided panel from which to choose.  Northern Ireland aren’t taking with them a recognised left full-back and the midfield looks rather threadbare too.

Throughout most of the qualifying matches, O’Neill deployed a conventional back four in defence, with re-purposed midfielder, Chris Brunt, on the left side.  Unfortunately, the West Brom regular picked up a serious knee injury in March, which ruled him out of the finals tournament.

When Northern Ireland played Slovenia in a friendly, the manager picked Michael Smith, from Peterborough United, who can play in either full-back slot.  The former Ballyclare Comrades and Ballymena United player showed promise, defending stoutly and displaying a willingness to get forward.  Previously, Daniel Lafferty had a spell playing reasonably regularly at left-back for Northern Ireland.

Neither man has made O’Neill’s squad, yet, curiously, Lee Hodson, who plays almost exclusively at right-back, will travel to France. 

It looks likely that Northern Ireland will line up against Poland, the Ukraine and Germany with a back three, rather than a back four.  By opting for this formation, O’Neill solves the problem of accommodating three Premier League centre-backs, Jonny Evans, Gareth McAuley and Craig Cathcart, in his team.  He can also, in theory, make do without dedicated full-backs, as the defence will be flanked by more forward thinking players.

In warm-up games, while Conor McLaughlin and Paddy McNair played on the right hand-side, Stuart Dallas and Shane Ferguson, more commonly regarded as midfielders, started on the left.  The results were good, culminating in a comfortable 3-0 win against Belarus on Friday night, but top level opposition could target the flanks as weak-spots for Northern Ireland.

Successful, settled teams rarely play three centre-backs nowadays.  More frequently, the formation is used by managers trying to solve a particular tactical problem.  O’Neill’s conundrum is that he has three or four quality central defenders, but less to choose from at full-back.

However, with this squad, his options will be rather limited if he decides to revert to a back four, or even to stifle a team like Germany by choosing five defenders.  Realistically, a central player, like Jonny Evans or Craig Cathcart, would have to become a make-shift full-back. 

Likewise, if Northern Ireland suffers an injury to a midfielder like Steven Davis or Oliver Norwood, 
O’Neill will have less room for manoeuvre.  Ben Reeves has played little football this season, but he would’ve been a natural back-up for those players.  As it stands, Corry Evans excepted, the other squad members capable of playing centre-midfield are more defensively minded. 

These quibbles aside, what a pleasure to be discussing a squad of Northern Ireland players bound for Euro 2016.  Michael O’Neill knows better than anyone else who he needs in his team and how they should play.  Still, in football, half the fun is in the discussion.         

Come on Northern Ireland!   

Thursday, 12 May 2016

UUP opposition will work better if it's joined by the SDLP

Ulster Unionist leader, Mike Nesbitt, made the first significant tactical gamble of the new Northern Ireland Assembly, this afternoon.  The UUP declined an Executive ministry, to which it is entitled under Stormont’s d’Hondt system, and became the first party to enter ‘official opposition’.

The idea of recognising a voluntary opposition was included in the Stormont House Agreement of 2014, concocted by the two governments, Sinn Fein and the DUP, and restated at the Fresh Start Agreement of 2015.  However, legislation to finally make it possible was introduced and guided through the Assembly by John McCallister, an independent MLA who lost his seat at last Thursday’s election. 

It’s deliciously ironic that Mr McCallister fought an Ulster Unionist leadership election campaign against Mr Nesbitt on the platform of taking the party into opposition, back in 2012.   

The UUP leader has taken a while to get to this point, but pressure to stay out of devolved government has intensified.  The party withdrew its minister from the last Executive, after revelations about the continued existence of the IRA and its links to Sinn Fein.  Yesterday, the PSNI chief constable made it clear to Mr Nesbitt that nothing much had changed in that regard, over the intervening seven months.

The UUP hedged its bets during the Assembly election campaign, refusing to state clearly whether it would take a ministry or not.  Its subsequent performance at the polls was underwhelming, despite widespread expectations that Ulster Unionists would win back seats.  Even still, there was speculation that the party leader could be enticed into the Executive by the prospect of an education portfolio.           

The UUP badly needs to find a compelling reason for voters to vote for its candidates and this decision should give it a clear purpose, which can be turned, in time, into a powerful message to the public.  Success will depend upon the Ulster Unionists’ ability to present themselves as an effective opposition and a credible alternative to the parties of government.

That task will be made easier if it is joined in opposition by the SDLP, which is also entitled to a ministry.  Because of the system at Stormont, no single party can form an Executive, but a cross community, voluntary opposition can start to present itself as a ‘government in waiting’.  Over the next week or so, we'll find out whether Colum Eastwood agrees.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

'The 2015 Election one year on; reflections & predictions (Part 2)' by Phil Larkin

In part 2 of his post, guest blogger Dr Phil Larkin reflects upon the prospects of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party and he predicts that the SNP has reached the peak of its powers.


Corbyn and the Labour Party
Jeremy Corbyn was made Labour Party leader in September 2015, after being nominated for the ballot by a number of Labour MPs, some of whom, like Sadiq Khan and Margaret Beckett, are kicking themselves for being so foolish. Corbyn was elected leader by over 60 per cent of the Labour Party membership, despite the reality that his views run counter to the vast majority of the Parliamentary Party on most key issues. During Ed Miliband’s time the rules on Party leadership were altered to give the membership a bigger say in the decision, and it was possible to join up online prior to the election for a fee of £3. I suspect that many who voted for him were younger members of the population with little or no memories of Labour’s travails during the 1980s. There are no such excuses for those who remember Labour’s fortunes during the 1980s, in particular the 1983 election; they are, quite frankly, old enough to know better.

As Opposition leader, in the estimation of those who supported him, Corbyn would trigger a massive renaissance of interest in politics among the youth of the country, terrify the Tory frontbench, and move the entire ground of British politics. As I predicted at the time, he has done nothing of the kind. He has proved just as wooden, plodding, cranky, and dogmatic as I believed him to be last summer. Corbyn’s political views petrified at some point in the 1970s and have not altered since. Yes, he has permitted those who voted for him to congratulate themselves on being so pure in their left-wing beliefs. He and John McDonnell have also guaranteed hours of fun for those who enjoy participating street protests and demonstrations which make them feel that they have achieved something but in reality all they have achieved is to alienate the wider electorate.

The main reason why Corbyn is always bound to be a disappointment to his followers is because, again, they attributed to him qualities which they wanted him to have, rather than seeing him for himself (the same flight from reality which predicted a Labour/SNP win in the 2015 election). To govern, as they say, is to choose, and Corbyn is not capable of the difficult choices of government. He has been accused of being anti-Semitic, a charge which he refutes, and I am definitely inclined to agree with his rejection of this charge. He is, however, altogether too comfortable in the presence of those who are. His entire leadership has been epitomised by the appointment of Seumas Milne, an apologist for Stalin, as Labour’s Executive Director of Strategy and Communications. How can anyone believe that this is going to make the Party more electable in 2020? I firmly believe that anyone who states either that Corbyn will become Prime Minister or that he will change the nature of UK politics does not, at heart, really believe this. It is simply recitation of dogma.

There has been talk about a possible coup against his leadership should the local election results in May prove dismal for Labour. I am not sure what the results of the local, London Mayoral, and London Assembly elections, will bring for the Party, but frankly I am sceptical about, first, whether there will be any type of coup against Corbyn, and secondly, whether a leadership challenge (even successful) would benefit Labour in any meaningful way. It is likely that a future leadership election would produce a result similar to that of September 2015 should Corbyn still be on the ballot. Even if Labour MPs were to stage a coup against him, leaving his name off the ballot (which, technically, they could do under the Party election rules) this would provoke open civil war between the MPs and the Party membership, fought out in the unforgiving glare of media publicity. It is always a good policy to stop digging when you are in a hole.

Also, I believe that by the mere act of putting Corbyn in power, Labour has already forfeited the 2020 general election. It is probably best to allow him and McDonnell either to step down of their own accord, or wait until the result of the 2020 election, and then hang it firmly around the necks of both men, the MPs that supported them, and those in the membership who put them there.

I am convinced, however, that Labour will govern the UK again. It will require much hard work in purgatory, though. Perhaps the best strategy for the moderate, centre-right wing of the Party is to look beyond 2020, and prepare for the future. It is significant that MPs such as Dan Jarvis and Tristram Hunt are examining the question of how the Labour Party might have relevance in a fast changing society and an economy increasingly dominated by technology. Jarvis especially is cognisant of the great changes which have taken place in UK society and economy since the days of the Beveridge Report and the great Labour victory of 1945. He also notes the reality that the social mobility which characterised the post-War generation appears to have stalled: it is a sobering thought that it could be more difficult now for young people to improve their life circumstances to whatever level talent and intelligence allows them than it was for their parents and grandparents. Some of this is undoubtedly due to the growth in inequality between rich and poor which has accelerated over recent decades. This inequality is self-perpetuating: although real talent can always rise, it is still much easier to succeed commercially or professionally if you come from the right background, went to the right school, and speak with the right voice.

Part of the solution to inequality, as Tony Blair asserted years ago, is obviously education. Where Blair and New Labour perhaps got it wrong was in focusing almost exclusively upon traditional academic style and university education. The aim of his Governments was to get 50 per cent of all 18 year olds into higher education, which in theory was a great idea, but too many young people ended up studying for pointless degrees, leaving them chasing an all too small a number of jobs in services industries and financial services. Strangely, the Tories appear more pro-active on the idea of technical education and hi-tech apprenticeships, with Lord Baker championing the establishment of greater numbers of University Technical Colleges in England and Wales to provide such education for new generations of young people, with a view to them forming part of the labour market immediately on leaving school.[1] These are foundations on which a future centre-left Labour Party can build. I still believe, like Lord Healey, that Labour will be better equipped to manage and govern this technically orientated economy and society better than the Tories.

Sturgeon and the SNP
As I wrote in a previous article, the SNP is riding high at present. Its present surge will almost surely permit it to sweep the board in the Scottish Parliamentary Elections, and probably do extremely well in the 2020 general election (although perhaps not quite as well as in 2015). As I also wrote, however, the almost total victory of the SNP in 2015 will eventually prove its Achilles heel: from their present position, there is only one direction for the Party’s fortunes to go, and that is down. With each passing day in executive office in Scotland the SNP becomes viewed increasingly more as “the establishment” north of the border, and as Labour’s result in Scotland in 2015 demonstrates, political establishments can be knocked down in an instant. Furthermore, as time passes the SNP will be pressed to make the difficult choices on taxes and public spending which the Scottish Parliament and Executive will soon have the legal authority to make, meaning that it will be increasingly less easy for them to blame Westminster for such difficult choices. In addition, as I have set out above, the victory of the Remain campaign in June will reduce the chances of another referendum this generation will be reduced almost to zero: what then will the point of the SNP be? I believe SNP’s story over the next ten years will be that of decline.

[1] I increasingly think that there is something in the words of the comedian Alexei Sayle, who said in an interview that the political right make mistakes only once, while the left seems fated to make the same mistakes several times over. 

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

'The 2015 Election one year on; reflections & predictions' by Phil Larkin

The following is part 1 of a 2 part guest post by regular guest blogger Dr Phil Larkin. In part 1, Phil looks at the Conservative Party, its leader and the likely effects of an EU Referendum.  Tomorrow, part 2 will reflect on Jeremy Corbyn's leadership of the Labour Party and the prospects of Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, in Scotland.  


It is hard to believe that it is almost a year on since the General Election of May 2015. The results themselves were surprising in a number of ways, and there have been unforeseen developments on the UK political stage. The purpose of this article is to make a number of reflections on the events of this past year, and make some predictions about upcoming events on the political horizon.

Cameron, the Tories, and the EU Referendum
The Conservatives’ victory in last year’s election with a small but workable overall majority of 12 was perhaps the biggest surprise of 2015. The feeling of surprise and disappointment with this result on the part of Labour Party activists was due to the fact that some of them had put too much faith in what the opinion polls stated, and they saw in the polls what they really wanted to see. In hindsight, whatever little chance Ed Miliband had of a breakthrough in 2015 was laid to rest by Alex Salmond’s assertion that, in the event of a Labour/SNP coalition, he would be dictating the terms of the government’s budget, combined with Miliband’s seeming willingness and then vacillation over the idea of entering into such a coalition arrangement (quite apart from the reality that Miliband himself cut a lacklustre figure as Labour leader).

David Cameron really was the man of 2015. Not only had he managed to negotiate into existence and then to oversee a relatively successful Coalition Government with the Liberal Democrats in 2010, which lasted a full Parliamentary term, he also brought the Tories back into majority government for the first time since 1992. Furthermore, the Conservative/Lib Dem Coalition led by Cameron had seen off the Scottish independence challenge in the referendum of September 2014.

It is my guess that Cameron decided to capitalise on the prestige gained from his election victory by scheduling the “In/Out” Referendum on the UK’s continued membership of the EU for June 23 this year. I predict that the Remain campaign will win the referendum by a reasonably safe, although not spectacular, majority. The UK will remain in the EU. It is true that the Out campaign can make a lot of noise and appeal to emotions, but, ultimately, unless they can persuade a majority of the UK electorate that life would be clearly, immediately, and demonstrably better off outside the EU. This is something which I do not believe that they can do. It is possible that the overall result will mirror that of the Scottish Referendum of 2014.

As victor in the referendum campaign, Cameron will then extend an olive branch to those Conservative MPs who were part of the “Exit” campaign, promising to forgive, forget, and move on (although I also have a hunch that he will have made mental notes of whose future careers he will assist covertly, and whose he will seek to stymie). In the interests of Party unity, Tory “Brexiteers” will have to accept his hand of friendship. It is difficult to know what will then become of the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party; certainly the fire will have been taken out of their cause, and they will be obliged to accept the verdict of the electorate. The predicted Referendum result will also constitute a body blow for UKIP, and it is hard to see how they can continue indefinitely as a political force. I imagine that the SNP, behind the inevitable staged smiles, will be intensely disappointed that there was not a victory for Brexit: their hoped for trigger for a new referendum on Scottish independence will not be forthcoming.

David Cameron may then leave office a year or so before the 2020 election as the man who saved the Union, preserved the UK’s place within the EU, and shepherded the country through some of the worst vestiges of the recession (whether any of these epithets are fully justified or not). His successor may be George Osborne, although quite conceivably by 2018 or 2019 the Tories could prefer a newer, less shop-soiled figure to lead the Party. Barring some unforeseen event, like an equivalent to “Black Wednesday” in 1992, the Conservatives will go on to win the 2020 election, perhaps with an increased parliamentary majority and an increased share of the vote.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Stop rewarding paramilitaries

The BBC’s Spotlight programme recently investigated a murky tale of intimidation and the relationships between paramilitaries and the authorities, in Bangor.   When unwanted flags were erected in Clandeboye Estate, the police, council officials and politicians advised residents’ representatives to negotiate with a local UDA commander for their removal.  The documentary revealed the extent to which paramilitaries still exert an influence on loyalist areas and how funding finds its way to the community organisations they direct. 

None of this is very surprising, though it is not often reported in such detail.  Not only do paramilitaries continue to exist; to an extent the ‘peace process’ was built upon entrenching the influence of these groups and their proxies within loyalist and republican neighbourhoods. 
The old tactics of intimidation and violence may have been supplemented by a plethora of residents’ associations, cultural societies and community workers, all funded by public money, but many of the same people are in charge and on the payroll. 

There are initiatives which purportedly aim to dilute their influence, or help the organisations to disappear completely.  The Fresh Start Agreement, brokered after a murder was linked to the Provisional IRA, sets up a panel to advise the Executive on disbanding paramilitary structures and an Independent Reporting Commission, to monitor the groups’ activities.  It has attracted controversy already, as Deputy First Minister and onetime IRA commander, Martin McGuinness, gets to nominate members of the Commission.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former Chief of Staff, worked with loyalists to form a ‘Communities Council’ (LCC), which aims to bring groups “in from the cold”.  There is justifiable cynicism about its goals and chances of success.  The LCC is raising cash to ‘transform’ loyalist areas.  Is it simply another way of directing cash toward former and current paramilitaries?          

In republican communities, the provisional movement used its stranglehold to cultivate a political mandate, whereas loyalists failed to move beyond community organisations.  However, in both cases their authority remains underwritten by paramilitary structures still in existence and possessing a potential for violence. 

Until paramilitaries, past and present, are seen as a cautionary tale in our society, rather than sources of authority, aspirational figures or romantic heroes, communities will remain in their grip.  The biggest challenge is to counter versions of history which promote the idea that violence was justified or anything other than a horrific failure.  That means ensuring that public money goes directly into benefitting communities, rather than paying paramilitary members and former members, or funding projects which glorify their bloody past.   

Published first in the News Letter.  21 March 2016.

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

City Hall football reception is a cynical, political stunt

The focus should be on the achievements on Michael O'Neill and his team.
This evening Belfast City Council will vote on a motion proposing to invite both the Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland football teams to a civic reception at the City Hall.  The joint event is a mischievous idea, conceived by SDLP councillor, Declan Boyle, which masquerades as an attempt to encourage reconciliation, but actually undermines efforts to ensure our national football team remains an inclusive, cross-community organisation, representing everyone here.

Northern Ireland’s footballers and their committed supporters, the Green and White Army, can look forward to 2016 with enormous optimism.  Under the leadership of Michael O’Neill, our team last year qualified for a major championship for the first time since 1986, topping its group in the process.  In June the squad travels to France to play Poland, the Ukraine and world champions Germany, in the European Championships - a month long celebration of the continent’s elite, dubbed ‘Le Rendezvous’.

The Irish Football Association (IFA), which organises football here, immediately launched a huge logistical organisation, to ensure that players, officials and thousands of fans have a great experience next summer.  Meanwhile, the Republic of Ireland team, governed by the Football Association of Ireland (FAI), eventually qualified for the competition too, finishing third in its group and winning a two leg play-off against Bosnia. 

In theory the idea of celebrating both teams’ achievements through a reception may seem harmless, particularly because Ireland’s two international sides have never before qualified for a major tournament at the same time.  The Republic is managed by Kilrea native, Martin O’Neill, who previously captained Northern Ireland at the 1982 World Cup, which means two men from our tiny country are in charge of Euro 2016 finalists.  However, the idea of staging such an event at City Hall in Belfast is freighted with political significance, as the SDLP knows very well. 

The IFA and FAI became engaged in a long dispute, after the Republic’s governing association decided to exploit an obscure FIFA regulation and persuade young Catholic players from Northern Ireland’s youth system to defect to the rival Irish team.  The two organisations even clashed at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Switzerland, which affirmed the FAI’s interpretation of the rules, but acknowledged that their application allowed an “unfair ‘one-way situation’” to arise.

FIFA’s statutes and the CAS ruling both made it clear that the players’ eligibility rested on their entitlement to citizenship of the Republic of Ireland, but politicians distorted the arguments to imply that the irrelevant (in this context) Good Friday Agreement created a new ‘right’ to play for either team or even that the FAI had jurisdiction in Northern Ireland, as well as the IFA. 

The SDLP’s motion is a transparent attempt to place the Republic of Ireland team on an equal footing with the Northern Ireland team, in the IFA’s home city, Belfast.  In other words, it has very little to do with reconciliation or community relations and everything to do with promoting the party’s nationalist ideas.  It is also designed to provoke a hostile reaction from unionist parties, which can then be portrayed as grudging and unreasonable.  The teams, their players, supporters and governing associations are being used as the archetypal “political football”.

Unionist parties, for the most part, responded with typical guilelessness.  Councillor Jim Rodgers, from the UUP, contrived the bizarre notion that the English and Welsh football teams should be added to the guest list.  Designed simply to derail any prospect of a reception, the Ulster Unionists’ stunt is even more transparent than the SDLP plan which prompted it.

The Progressive Unionist Party’s leader, Billy Hutchinson, went further, threatening that loyalists might stage demonstrations against the event, similar in style to the ‘flag protests’ which caused disruption in Belfast, after the council’s decision to fly the Union Flag only on designated days.  Mr Hutchinson is an unlikely champion of the Northern Ireland team, given his fondness for sporting England tops and his words carry an unhelpful undercurrent of menace.

The IFA worked tirelessly and successfully to eradicate sectarianism in the stands at internationals and persuade people from right across the community to attend matches at the National Stadium.  The association certainly doesn’t need to be linked, however tenuously, with a set of flag waving protesters, causing a ruckus outside the City Hall.

So far, the SDLP’s scheming appears to be going perfectly.  The motion has sewn discord among councillors and citizens and it is likely to be carried, with Alliance, which has the decisive votes, backing another divisive motion in the council chamber.

The party’s stance is ironic, because its policies are supposed to be based on the idea that Northern Ireland and Northern Irishness can bind British and Irish, unionist and nationalist, together.  Instead, Alliance is about to support a proposal which undermines the idea that Northern Ireland’s teams and institutions are for everyone, implying instead that ‘equality’ means according teams and institutions from the Republic the same status in this jurisdiction. 

They're endorsing a segregationist, nationalist outlook, while at the same time joining the SDLP and Sinn Fein to deliver a small and petty blow to Northern Ireland football and the Northern Irish identity. 

Thursday, 31 December 2015

Would a Sinn Fein election victory really be disastrous for unionism?

Martin McGuinness 2009.jpg
"Martin McGuinness 2009" by Jaqian - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The threat of Martin McGuinness as First Minister has trapped unionists in a self-destructive cycle.

The news from Stormont in 2015 was dominated by the DUP and Sinn Féin finally cobbling together a deal, but in 2016 preparations begin for an Assembly election. 

The two parties concentrated on attacking their smaller rivals, after the announcement of the ‘Fresh Start’ document.   They talk up their shared achievements and claim they’ve taken hard decisions in order to make progress for people in Northern Ireland.
However, the spirit of cooperation is unlikely to last very long, before we’re plunged into another bitter campaign, which will revolve around whether Sinn Féin becomes the largest party in the Assembly.

The threat of Martin McGuinness as Northern Ireland’s First Minister remains the Democratic Unionists’ electoral ‘trump card’.  After Peter Robinson’s retirement, Arlene Foster will be charged with keeping Sinn Fein out of the top job.  The DUP will look to shore up support by claiming it is the only party that can stop Sinn Féin topping the poll.  

It’s an effective tactic, aimed at fending off unionist rivals, but it also encourages negative campaigning and deflects attention away from important issues, which affect voters’ everyday lives. 

Under the original Good Friday Agreement the First Minister was drawn from the largest designation in the Assembly, unionist or nationalist.  In 2006 the St. Andrews Agreement changed the system, so that the largest party at Stormont now has the right to nominate a First Minister.  Opponents complain that the new rules were designed to frighten unionists into voting for the DUP, by raising the possibility that republicans might take a symbolically significant post.

That could be how things work out next year too, but, alternatively, maybe a Sinn Féin win is just the type of shock that politics, and unionism in particular, needs in order to shake it out of its negativity and complacency. 

A recent opinion poll commissioned by the BBC and RTE confirmed that support for Northern Ireland remaining part of the UK is higher than ever before.  Only 13% of people here want to see a United Ireland in the short to medium term.  Majority backing for our current constitutional position, or the alternative of direct rule from Westminster, extends right across the community, among people from both Catholic and Protestant backgrounds. 

In other words, the Union is perfectly safe for the time being, and unionists have no reason to fear for their futures within the UK. 

For the most part, though, unionist politicians reacted to the poll by gloating, rather than asking why their electoral strength doesn’t match the public’s constitutional preference.  The tone unionism sets is still often petulant and defensive, rather than confident and outward-looking.   

If the DUP runs a negative campaign next year, focussed on keeping Martin McGuinness out of the First Minister’s office, and it fails, unionists may be persuaded that a change of strategy or even realignment is necessary.  After all, there are examples of politicians across the unionist parties, and indeed right across the Assembly, who have more in common with each other, than with traditional elements in their own parties.

They aren’t as fixated on cultural, religious or social hang-ups.  They might even recognise, for instance, that same-sex marriage is inevitable, and would rather get on with passing the necessary legislation, rather than allowing that debate to derail other Assembly business repeatedly.  They’d prefer to discuss policies, as opposed to flags or emblems and they’re driven by ambition to succeed in their chosen career, rather than profound attachments to ideology.

In simple terms, the world would not stop turning for unionists if Sinn Féin became the largest party.  Unionism would almost certainly still form the biggest designation in the Assembly, and a majority when it came to important votes.  Unionists would still likely occupy the greater share of Executive posts. 

If a unionist party were to miss out on top spot, it might also prompt some hard-thinking about how to turn wide-spread contentment with the political status quo into votes at the ballot box.  It might get unionism thinking about how it could be more constructive, more confident and extend its appeal to voters who are happy politically to remain within the UK, but still feel culturally Irish. 

It might mean focussing less on ostentatious displays of Britishness, and more on the modern and inclusive aspects of being part of the United Kingdom.  It would certainly involve explaining how Northern Ireland could become an increasingly safe, stable and prosperous place to live. 
Defaulting to a hostile attitude toward things like the GAA and the Irish language would no longer be acceptable.

Perhaps most importantly, unionists couldn’t allow small, symbolic issues to continue to affect a vast, silent majority of people, who are more worried about jobs, services and the futures of their families.  It would mean much less grandstanding over issues like flags or parades, and it might involve some hard conversations with traditional colleagues.  Ultimately, though, it could revive unionism as an electoral force and make Northern Ireland a better place to live.

Neither would the fall-out necessarily affect unionism alone. If Sinn Fein were to become the biggest party, it might cause the SDLP to take a serious look at its future. 

Its leadership contest produced a younger leader, with Colum Eastwood taking over from Alasdair McDonnell, but it focussed on personalities and style, rather than interrogating the party’s underlying philosophy.  The SDLP will still go into the next election emphasising its nationalist credentials and competing with Sinn Féin for the United Ireland vote. 

If the party is still substantially behind its main rival in 2016, it would have reason to reassess that strategy.  Even voters who eventually want to get rid of the border see a United Ireland as a distant, long-term goal.  The SDLP has an opportunity to allow the prevailing mood to shape its message and put nationalism on the back seat, in order to prioritise jobs, health, education and combatting poverty, in Northern Ireland.         

It’s pretty depressing, but almost inevitable, that the Assembly election will be dominated by the identity of the First Minister, rather than debates about everyday issues.  The parties show no sign that they’re prepared to back the legislation needed to appoint joint first ministers, rather than the current system of first minister and deputy first minister.

If Sinn Fein tops the poll, it will be a seismic shock, but ultimately it won’t affect the constitutional position one jot.  With a little vision from rival politicians, it might even force a change in political thinking which would benefit Northern Ireland in the longer term and copper-fasten our place within the UK.  


Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Northern Ireland's past is republicans' new battleground

The story of Northern Ireland’s violent past continues to be redrawn, as the republican movement seeks to cast the British state as an aggressor and campaigns to incriminate soldiers and policemen, while obscuring the deadly role played by the IRA and other terrorists.  It’s a process achieved by describing counter-terrorism and intelligence operations as ‘collusion’ and focussing on the proportionally small number of incidents during the Troubles perpetrated, or allegedly perpetrated, by members of the security forces.

In November, the DUP and Sinn Fein agreed the Fresh Start document at Stormont, following ten weeks of negotiations.  It became easy to forget, after all the ensuing self-congratulations, that the crisis which prompted those talks was created by the IRA’s suspected involvement in a murder and Sinn Fein’s links to its Army Council.

Some passages of the Fresh Start agreement addressed paramilitarism in Northern Ireland, committing resources to fight cross border crime and requiring MLAs to make a hazy promise to ‘rid society of all forms of paramilitary groups’.   However, Sinn Fein pulled off something of a conjuring trick, by switching the focus of negotiations quickly to welfare reform and financial assistance from Westminster.

Progress on 'dealing with the past', which the Stormont House Agreement had made a year previously, was reversed and the new Historical Inquiries Unit (HIU) and Oral History Archive were put on hold indefinitely.  True to form, Sinn Fein blamed the Conservative government, citing its reluctance to reveal details which might compromise national security.

The party continues to portray the state’s reluctance to grant unqualified access to its records as the main obstacle to dealing with the legacy of the Troubles.  Sinn Fein is able to bolster its case using the sentiments of victims’ groups whose focus is, understandably, on the misdeeds of some members of the security forces.  

This emphasis suits perfectly republicans’ narrative.  A democratic government, its soldiers, intelligence officers and policemen can be held to account in a way that shadowy paramilitary organisations cannot.  Sinn Fein can demand full disclosure from the state, secure in the assumption that the IRA will never be required to show similar openness.    

However, it would be wrong to forget that, irrespective of occasional mistakes, misjudgements and misdemeanours, the security forces were motivated, overwhelmingly, by a desire to keep people safe.  The same claim could never be advanced for terrorists. 

Ultimately, the army and police were successful too.  By the latter years of the Troubles, the majority of attempted attacks were being foiled.  Frustrated in their attempts to cause mayhem and riddled with informers, the IRA and other paramilitaries were shepherded down a political path. 

Counter-terrorism involved difficult, murky moral choices, and its practitioners sometimes crossed the line into illegality or downright murder, but its overarching aim was to protect life and property. 

It’s easier to quantify how many lives running an agent like Stakeknife may have cost, rather than how many it saved.  That’s not to say that his activities, and the activities of others like him, didn’t eventually force the single most destructive organisation involved in the Troubles to stop killing and maiming.

The state has a responsibility for its actions and victims have a right to demand the truth about what happened to their loved ones, when state actors are suspected of a role in their deaths.  Someone who has been bereaved because of the actions or omissions of an agent is unlikely to comforted by arguments around the moral compromises of counter-terrorism. The government, though, has a duty not to allow a process aimed at dealing with the legacy of the Troubles to become a means of simplifying and distorting history.

Rewriting the story of the Troubles has become a long-term project for republicans.  It is their contemporary means of pursuing the so-called ‘struggle’ and they’ve had some relative successes.  

The notion that the IRA fought to protect Catholic areas or to deliver human rights, for instance, has gained fairly broad acceptance - outside Northern Ireland at least - though thorough historians of the Provisional movement point out that this narrative whitewashes a campaign of violence which was aimed squarely at driving ‘the Brits’ out of Ireland.

The movement continues its project through focussing on selective elements of the past and pursuing civil actions in court.  Recently eight people who were members of an IRA gang, including the prominent Sinn Fein member, Danny Morrison, received six figure compensation pay-outs, after their convictions for kidnapping an alleged informer were quashed, because the role of the agent Stakeknife in building the prosecution case had not been revealed. 

As the government and the political parties in Northern Ireland struggle to agree ways of tackling the legacy of the Troubles, they bear a responsibility to make sure that the process does not become even more unbalanced.  ‘Dealing with the past’ has to contribute something toward building a positive future.  It cannot be allowed to become permanently a new battleground, through which age-old conflicts are fought.  

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Warplane incident shows Syria has become potential tinderbox

Nato missile system in Turkey.
A multitude of conflicting details, accusations and counter-accusations followed news today that a Russian warplane was shot down, close to the border between Syria and Turkey. 

Russia and Turkey dispute whether the incident took place over Turkish airspace.  There is also some suggestion from the Russian side that the plane was shot down from the ground, rather than the air.  It seems that the aircraft fell inside Syria, possibly about 4km from the border. 

At a press conference, President Putin responded with strong words, accusing Turkey of acting as ‘accomplices of terrorists’.  Meanwhile, Ankara has claimed that Russia violated its airspace and the plane was shot down in accordance with standard practices, after multiple warnings were issued first. 

It’s impossible, so far, to know what happened with any accuracy, but it may be helpful to place the events in a little context.

Firstly, sensitivities around the Turkish / Syrian border are certainly not a new phenomenon.  

Diplomatic tensions have been increasing since Russia started to hit targets in northern Syria and Turkey clearly feels an obligation toward the Turkmen population in the mountain region where today’s incident took place. 

You might remember that further east along the border, when Kobane was under siege toward the end of 2014, the Turks were accused of helping Isis forces, because the town’s defence was conducted mainly by Kurdish fighters.  Ankara is exceptionally distrustful of Kurd militias, which have links to the PKK and its terrorist campaign.    

There is a complex web of allegiances and interests, ethnic, religious and geo-political, spanning the frontier between Syria and Turkey.

The Turks see Isis as a serious regional threat, but they also view Kurdish separatism as an existential danger to their state.  They’re hostile to Assad’s Alawite regime and the schism between Sunni and Shia further complicates Turkey’s attitudes to the Syrian war.     

Aside from its support for Assad, Russia has a particular interest in the northern part of Syria too, because it contains many Russian terrorists who travelled, mainly from the north Caucasus, to wage Jihad in the Middle East.  They include members of Wilayat al-Qawkaz, or Caucasus Province, which is affiliated to Isis, but also fighters from the so-called Caucasus Emirate, which is linked to al-Qaeda and does not recognise the authority of Islamic State.

These two factions reflect a split in north Caucasus Islamism, but they are both fanatical and highly dangerous.  They also hint at the impossibly complex kaleidoscope of Islamist groups now operating in Syria, spanning various grades of extremity and viciousness.

The Russians say that the aircraft downed today was targeting terrorists from Russia.  This seems consistent with the Kremlin’s strategy in Syria so far.

The incident exemplifies how dangerous the situation in the Middle East has become.  A number of countries are engaging in uncoordinated military actions and working to different agendas.  

Meanwhile Islamist groups of various hues have turned swathes of Syria and Iraq into a living hell. 

Left unchecked, the likelihood is that more potentially explosive situations will arise.  

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Freedom of speech, identity and offence

In a 'news analysis' article for Tuesday’s Belfast Telegraph, I examined the tensions which can exist between identity politics and free speech.  It focussed mostly on arguments around gender identity, and speakers being banned from university debates, but it also touched upon the issue of same-sex marriage, which is so topical and incendiary in Northern Ireland.

Maybe the timing of the piece was unfortunate, because there was a lot of anger around on Tuesday morning and justifiably so. 

On Monday, in spite of a majority of MLAs in the Stormont Assembly backing a motion to introduce same-sex marriage here, it was defeated, because the DUP tabled a ‘petition of concern’.   This mechanism requires a majority from both designations in the Assembly to vote in favour of a measure, if it’s to pass.  Petitions of concern were intended to protect minority rights, but they have been used instead as vetoes on any matters which cause disagreement.  

My article got caught up in the ensuing crossfire on social media.  Some commenters thought it apologised for the DUP, a few interpreted it as an endorsement of arguments against same-sex marriage and others reckoned it attacked transgender people.  I got accused of being a ‘fundamentalist’, ‘in hoc to the DUP’ and, most strangely of all, ‘a tool of Zionists’.  All good fun.   

These reactions prompted me to have some rather sniffy and unnecessary thoughts about falling standards of English comprehension.  They also made me want to add some reflections on the nature of freedom of speech and associated modern attitudes.   After all, this ‘right’ is usually still thought to underpin our democracy. 

So here they are:

The right to freedom of speech is not absolute.   I touched upon this in my article, but what does it mean in practice?  Our right to speak freely is curtailed by things like defamation law and ‘hate speech’ legislation.  There are also laws around decency, broadcasting regulations, copyright and a host of other limitations, depending on your preferred mode of expression.  There are all sorts of contentious arguments about the balance between free speech and the law.  However, the point is that restrictions are generally pretty specific.  Yet, the words ‘hate speech’ are often bandied around to criticise a contentious argument, without reference to laws drafted in statute or their interpretation in courts.

      Freedom of speech doesn’t depend upon you agreeing with the argument.  It’s easy to champion free speech for people with whom you agree.  It’s harder to stick up for the principle when you think that the person speaking is wrong, sometimes grievously so.  Or, to turn that around, supporting someone’s freedom to speak certainly does not mean that you endorse their argument.  It doesn’t even mean that you don’t find it ridiculous, hateful or repellent.
      Freedom of speech doesn’t depend upon your approval of the person who is speaking.  Disapproving of someone is not reason enough to deprive them of their right to speak.  So many arguments, about almost any controversial issue, seem to revolve around who is saying something rather than what they are saying.  “So and so shouldn’t get a platform because they are a ‘phobe’, an ‘evangelical’, a ‘fundamentalist’, a ‘bigot’”.  All these descriptions may (or may not) be true, but they are irrelevant to arguments around free speech.  Of course, there is a certain significance to giving someone a platform to speak.  It isn’t always appropriate.  But, at fora like universities and public debates, surely the presumption must be that, if someone isn’t breaking the law by expressing their opinion, then they can be heard and challenged?  And again, being prepared to listen to someone doesn’t imply any kind of approval.    

      Freedom of speech doesn’t mean all opinions are valid.  The concept of freedom of speech does not mean that everyone’s views are equal, or worthwhile, or that anyone is under an obligation to listen.  That’s the sort of misconception that pits doctors against homeopaths in debates about medicine, or scientists against Jeremy Clarkson, discussing climate change.  The flipside of people who want to silence anyone they don’t like, is the ‘I’m entitled to my opinion’ brigade.  Yes, you are entitled to your opinion, but the rest of us are equally entitled to point out that it’s worthless, because you don’t know what you’re talking about.  We’re even entitled to point and laugh!

      There is no right not to be offended.  This actually might be the central point.  With more than 1,100 words to flesh out my thoughts and more time, it would’ve been nice to explain what I meant by ‘identity politics’ and the corrosive effect this notion can have.  To be really short: the idea seems to have taken hold that particular groups of people, or individuals within those groups, who define themselves by certain categories – gender, sex, race, nationality, religion, culture and more – get to decide what offends them and the rest of society then has a duty not to give offence.  There’s a very good article in The Times today, by the columnist David Aaronovitch, examining how this works practically.  On certain university campuses student unions are doing ‘risk assessments’ on all potential speakers, in case any students may feel “threatened or unsafe”.  Now, it’s absolutely right to take people’s sensitivities into account and to attempt, insofar as possible, not to cause offence.  However, we can't apply a completely subjective definition of 'offensiveness'.  It is not enough to say that someone has been offended, so therefore someone else has said something offensive.  If discussing ideas and debating issues cause our students to feel ‘threatened and unsafe’, then they should try to become more robust, or stay away from academia!                

Rantier than I’d expected, but it’s good to vent once in a while.  It is my right after all!  Not that anyone is obliged to listen.