Monday, 31 December 2007

Campbell's New Year tidings far from happy

Being wrenched from my bed this morning in order to work when the rest of the population seem to be off until Wednesday was not a propitious start to the day. To compound my misery, the rain is falling in torrents, my workmates are predicting the coldest January on record with temperatures falling below -10C and Gregory Campbell has offered his synopsis of devolution in Northern Ireland over on Slugger.

Mick notes Campbell’s distinctly cheerless tone which a desultory deferral to flawed party-line does little to disguise. The DUP MP is fairly openly derisive of his leader’s relationship with Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

“Who would seek to defend the photos that give the mistaken impression that not only is political business being done with Sinn Fein but that enjoyment is being had while doing it?”

Of course such a statement presupposes that Ian Paisley is not having a wonderful time cosying up to Sinn Fein and his former IRA commanding deputy. I have little doubt that Campbell does not genuinely hold this misapprehension, but is rather delivering a huffy message that the Chuckle Brothers image is becoming counter-productive amongst the DUP’s grass-roots. Paisley is patently having a ball and has displayed beyond doubt that personal aggrandisement is his chief motivation.

Perhaps the most notable characteristic of Campbell’s statement is how perfunctory his attempts to claim the first six months of devolution as a success are in reality. In fact his scepticism about the entire project is fairly transparent. The usual DUP claptrap claiming credit for forcing republicans to decommission is trotted out without particular conviction. But the tenor of the message is hardly uplifting.

“We have another 12 months to demonstrate the tangible improvements that this form of devolution offers, we must not waste the opportunity for this and future generations.”

As an accepted barometer of opinion from the DUP rank and file Campbell’s disillusionment may well be more serious and endemic than the party has acknowledged thus far.

Friday, 21 December 2007

Al Fayed sacks Sanchez

I was saddened today by the announcement that Lawrie Sanchez has been sacked from his job at Premiership club fulham. Sanchez has been given a ludicrously short period of time to make an impact as the West London outfit’s manager with the club’s descent into the relegation zone and four defeats in the last five convincing his chairman Mohammed Al Fayed to wield the axe.

What Al Fayed knows about football isn’t worth knowing and I would suggest that he has made a mistake with this display of impatience. The ex-Northern Ireland manager’s departure coupled with continued uncertainty about the future of the current incumbent, Nigel Worthington, has led to some speculation that Sanchez could be asked to retake the reins of the international team.

I doubt that either the IFA or Sanchez will be as quick to consider this route. Sanchez was after all quite open about his desire to return to club football. His achievements as Northern Ireland manager were remarkable, but he did leave midway through a European Championships qualifying campaign and the IFA would not want to risk a recurrence of that defection. Managerial comebacks have a nasty habit of failing to live up to previous glories as well, although Billy Bingham was a notable exception.

Lawrie’s tenure in charge of Northern Ireland was an unqualified success and he left the GAWA with cherished memories which will last a lifetime. I wish him well in his attempts to get a new job and I’m confident that he will be back in charge of a club side in the not too distant future.

Thursday, 20 December 2007

Putin's delight at title

I was interested to note this morning, the delighted noises issuing from the Kremlin at the announcement of Vladimir Putin as Time Magazine’s Person of the Year 2007. This seems to be at variance with the lack of importance usually accorded western opinion by Russia’s current regime. It appears that Putin is just as susceptible to seeking a little validation as the rest of us!

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Irritations of the Year 2007

I have no intention of blogging a series of retrospective posts as the year draws to a close. Nor will I be adding a modish “y” to the word like. “Likey”! Why the hell do people do that? However the Guardian’s “most irritating person of the year” survey made me consider on whom exactly I have focussed the majority of my not inconsiderable ire during the last 12 months.

I must admit that my opprobrium is an ocean in a state of constant flux, perpetually rising. Daily it expands to claim great fresh tracts of human behaviour. During a large part of this year I have been without a car and therefore my road rage has been substituted for pedestrian rage. Previously I may have been most exercised by the driving manners of those in vans, most often those in white vans, most often those in white Ford Transit vans. Or it may have been the drivers of four by fours who attracted the majority of my bile. Why do these people need their vast suburban tankers to transport children to school? They block every carriageway with their vehicular impressions of God – so wide you can’t see around me, so high you can’t see over me.

I am currently rediscovering these frustrations, almost with grim satisfaction and a sense of reunion with long absent friends. But for most of the year I have allowed the detestation of those who ride bicycles on the footpath to shelter in the rage warm caverns they vacated. I am of course aware that there is insufficient provision of cycle lanes, in Belfast in particular, but that does not comprise an adequate excuse for the hordes of idiots zipping through pedestrians with wild abandon. A bike is a vehicle. Vehicles are supposed to be on the road.

Deviating from the concept of irritating people slightly, I wish to remain on the subject of transportation, but nominate a company. Translink’s provision of public transport in Northern Ireland is expensive, unpunctual, rude, uncleanly and unreliable. A couple of years of years ago they took receipt of a fleet of brand new trains from Spain. Already their carriages are filthy and they smell disgusting. Incredibly the vents from the toilets are directed back into the train carriages! Only Translink would commission trains with such a design flaw. Then we have the announcements on platforms, announcing the train as running late …. by however many minutes have already elapsed at the time. ‘The 7.30 to Bangor will be 4 minutes late, 5 minutes late (1 minute later), 6 minutes late’! Translink’s buses are designed to accommodate only the legs of infants, amputees and dwarves. Their drivers are the most incourteous, miserable cast of characters I have had the misfortune to witness. If you hand them £1.50 to pay a £1.30 fare they accept it like you’ve scooped up dog excrement and presented them with a bag of it.

Speaking of dog stool, those who allow dogs to shit on the pavement and then fail to remove their leavings should, by the rules of natural justice, be submerged in a vat of the stuff until they come within an instant of drowning. My girlfriend is admittedly more active on this issue than I am. She has had the dog warden around pledging to act. I contribute only vituperative tirades, but I am equally incensed. The pavements of Belfast are consistently smeared with a coating of diarrhoeic canine crap.

Moving on to specific individuals, few people in the sport of football can be as downright infuriating as Linfield manager David Jeffrey. The man relishes publicity and controversy and the most irritating thing is that the local press are imbecilic enough to lap up his limelight seeking bullshit. He decided to escalate an ongoing row with Ballymena fans by knowingly telling blatant lies about us in newspapers. Despite being cautioned by his club and by the Irish Football Association he still refuses to apologise or retract his remarks. This obese liar clearly sees himself as a manager in the mould of Ferguson or Mourinho and he won’t allow his lesser status to dissuade him from making all kinds of ridiculous statements. I don’t know who irritates me most – Jeffrey and his lies or Northern Ireland sports journalists who allocate space in their newspapers to covering them.

Indeed local journalism is a rich source of fury for me. I have lambasted the Belfast Telegraph on several occasions, but I have yet to mention the journalist whose column is least deserving of space in the newspaper. Billy Weir is a grim little man, whose observations are as amusing as digesting and passing a quantity of razor wire. It baffles me why he would be given the opportunity to share these observations with the general public. It confounds me that some people enjoy them. It stupefies me that he was given an award for his journalism. This obnoxious shortarse with his bunched fist face epitomises everything that is bad and mediocre about the Telegraph and its stable mates.

I would like to end on a specifically personal note and nominate my flatmate’s sister who has been foisted on us for the past several weeks. Her braying Tyrone accent, her ill-mannered observations, her cloying inanity all contribute to her status as by far and away the most irritating person in my life at the present moment.

Atheism and religious art

Brian Crowe’s prohibitively erudite blog, Burke’s Corner, picks up a story concerning militant atheist Richard Dawkins’ attitude to Christmas. Brian detects a contradiction between Dawkins’ strident anti-Christian polemics and his enjoyment of explicitly religious Christmas traditions and allusions.

It transpires that Dawkins is an unlikely participant in the singing of carols and acknowledges more generally that a lack of basic knowledge of biblical literature diminishes full appreciation of our culture. There is certainly a fundamental irony in so visceral an opponent of Christianity appreciating and indeed participating in singing songs which celebrate the very narrative which he feels has inflicted so much damage on society.

Brian quotes Theo Hobson writing in the Guardian’s Comment Is Free:

"it won't do to call carols beautiful but meaningless. For their beauty is obviously related to their content. Their power derives from the particular story they tell: the birth of a baby which is also the arrival of total hope for the world, the triumph of good over evil, light over darkness. The beauty of this myth exceeds aesthetics. For its beauty is not neutral but is tied up in an assertion of value".

This is certainly a valid point, but if we lay aside the particularly vociferous and perhaps somewhat vicious character of Dawkins’ disapproval of religion, is it fair to say that a rejection of belief prohibits someone from appreciating works of art which have derived from that belief? I would argue that it does not. Likewise, I would assert that it is even possible to appreciate the beauty of the work of art and still contend that the belief which inspired it is damaging, without in any way seeking to divorce the beauty from the belief.

It is an evident truism that purposeful conviction provides power to any work of art. Religious faith has proved a particular inspiration and has provided us with a countless number of treasures. In submitting to the beauty of this art we are intrinsically acknowledging the importance of faith in inspiring its creation, but we are not in any way necessarily endorsing that belief ourselves. It is possible that sharing that religious belief heightens the experience of appreciating the art, but that is a purely subjective factor. I didn’t feel as moved by seeing Michelangelo’s Moses in St Peter’s in Chains church is Rome as my mother who is a devout Christian for example. That may or may not be down to differences in faith and belief; it could equally be ascribed to different light, tiredness, museum fatigue, hot weather or any number of other factors.

I find the notion of Dawkins belting out Christmas carols bizarre. Participation seems to me to suggest an entirely different level of engagement with the content of a song, than merely enjoying listening to it. I do not however believe that criticising a faith which has inspired a work of art makes one a hypocrite to appreciate that work.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Ethno-religious nationalism: SF's mask slips

Sinn Fein couches so much of its rhetoric in the vocabulary of equality that it is easy to forget that the party are in actuality an extreme group of ethno religious nationalists. In case we were in any doubt, Martina Anderson MLA, erstwhile bomber and ‘Unionist Engagement Director’ has striven to remind us by protesting that Catholics from places other than Ireland shouldn’t be counted as Catholics for the purpose of fair employment legislation.

As if Anderson’s previous means of advancing her politics wasn’t fascist enough (i.e. attempting to bomb innocent people), she is attempting to deny workers the right to classify themselves as Catholics on monitoring forms, simply because they are not Irish nationalists. This woman who attempted to murder people is only interested in equality and protection for her own narrowly defined ethno-religious tribe. The previously stated aim of preventing sectarianism clearly is not important, as Polish or Lithuanian Catholics (for example) do not seem to count for Anderson.

Putin's shadow looms still larger over Medvedev presidency

Given that the Guardian has been warning everyone for some time that Vladimir Putin does not intend to give up politics and that there will be two centres of power when the next President of the Russian Federation is elected, the paper’s surprise at Putin’s indication he will accept the position of Prime Minister under Medvedev is slightly excessive. It confirms my suspicion that despite repeated stern warnings in the western media, that there remains an incredulity that Putin really intends to take the path which he appears to be taking. We may have predicted it, but we didn’t really believe he would have the audacity to actually go through with it, if you will.

Putin does not intend merely to install his chosen lieutenant as president and then retire gracefully from politics to let his successor get on with things. He genuinely does intend to remain active and potentially undermine the authority of Dmitry Medvedev. He claims that no constitutional alterations will take place in order to redistribute power in favour of the Prime Minister. If such an undertaking is genuine it suggests that Putin will exercise a supervisory role over his charge. Such an arrangement requires Medvedev to remain subservient to Putin’s programme. If he wavers from that position a potentially damaging power struggle could well ensue.

Medvedev should comfortably win the presidential election in March. Inevitably though his mandate will be viewed as derived from Putin’s sponsorship and in many respects this view will indeed be correct. With Putin retaining a high profile position as the President’s Premier, Medvedev’s position will undoubtedly be undermined. For the time being this predicates that Russia’s politics will focus increasingly on personalities rather than on the institutions of government of which they are a part.

Order protest not doing them any favours

I have admitted in the past an ambivalence toward Orangeism and the Orange Order. I would like to be more sympathetic, but the organisation really doesn’t do itself any favours at times. You have to wonder does anyone at all furnish the Order with public relations advice, and if so do they listen or does some dour Ulster thranness cause them to act directly counter to these suggestions?

Take the OO’s protests outside Hillsborough Castle last night. It takes a peculiarly warped sensibility to make genuine victimhood appear like a specious type of martyr complex, but the Orange Order has managed it. There is a concerted and sectarian campaign by republicans to attack the Order’s property. That is a fact and one which has gained the organisation some sympathy. These attacks are particularly reprehensible because they are aimed at small rural Orange Halls which play a pivotal role in their communities and are often used by people of all religions and political opinions for a myriad of purposes.

Why then, instead of highlighting the insidious nature of these attacks and how they are aimed not only at the organisation but at the very fabric of the communities in which the Order exists, do 200 Orangemen (including Grand Master Robert Saulters) elect to bear posters with the legend “fair play to protestants” and engage in whataboutery claiming the police would be more concerned with attacks on GAA halls?

Monday, 17 December 2007

FIFA's final decision is to make no decision

FIFA purport to be world football’s governing body. That being the case they have displayed a remarkable disinclination to govern as regards the eligibility dispute. Initially FIFA indicated that the loophole whereby the FAI was poaching Northern Ireland footballers would be closed. Following political pressure exerted by Dermot Ahern and the Republic of Ireland’s government, FIFA then indicated they might rule that both associations could pick any player from the 32 counties of Ireland’s two states.

The IFA could not accept this proposal for reasons that have been repeated on this blog so many times I’m actually beginning to bore myself. It should then have fallen to FIFA to make a definite decision on the matter at the Executive Committee meeting in Tokyo at the weekend. Remembering that the issue arose after the IFA sought clarification on FIFA’s rules it is scarcely believable that the response runs as follows:

“The Executive Committee decided to leave the current regulations regarding the eligibility of players to represent association teams unchanged.”

In other words FIFA have avoided the issue. Their spokesman indicated that should a dispute arise between the two associations in future that it should be referred to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland. This confirms indubitably the suspicion that FIFA wished to abdicate responsibility for resolving the matter.

Predictably the IFA and their breakaway association counterparts are interpreting FIFA’s statement very differently. Indeed the true Ireland team’s association have said that they are awaiting clarification from FIFA, so we truly are back to square 1.

The IFA’s motivation in raising the Darron Gibson case was in order to challenge circumstances which already pertain – i.e. the FAI are poaching Northern Ireland born players and fielding them in their representative sides. FIFA have declined the opportunity to redress this ridiculous situation. It seems that until the matter is taken to the CAS, the FAI will continue to exploit the Republic of Ireland’s aggressive irredentist citizenship laws and selectively target nationalist footballers born in Northern Ireland on the basis that they hold Republic of Ireland passports.

Palestine row in Fermanagh

One of the more puzzling aspects of Northern Irish tribalism for visitors to the country is the display of Palestinian and Israeli flags by republicans and loyalists respectively. Although I’d imagine that identification with the two sides has existed for some time, its graphical display on flag polls is surely a fairly recent phenomenon.

On a visit to Enniskillen this weekend my attention was drawn to the letters page of the Impartial Reporter, in which a debate over a proposed crystallisation of these supposed alignments was raging. The newspaper’s webpage only has selected content from the print version and links to the letters are not available. However, the gist of the controversy is an attempt by an organisation known as the Irish Palestinian Solidarity Group to persuade the Fermanagh District Council to twin the county with Beit Sahour.

The District Council have elected not to pursue this proposal, an eminently sensible decision which nevertheless has fostered controversy and has been challenged in the council chamber by Sinn Fein (quelle surprise). Beit Sahour is a town near Bethlehem which has become symbolic of Palestinian resistance and the intifada.

Clearly the group in question is attempting to foist a partial and politically loaded twinning on the county and Sinn Fein is playing an active role in supporting such action. Thankfully the council have elected to dismiss the proposal as counterproductive.

Friday, 14 December 2007

Lazy tripe in Tele

The Belfast Telegraph is a rag. Fatuous nonsense is daily propagated in its opinion pages and columns. Take Laurence White’s ill-informed offering on the eligibility row. It makes me genuinely angry that this hack feels it is necessary to share his opinion on an issue of which he clearly has no knowledge and which he has patently been following only on the most superficial level.

Let’s examine some of the most obvious flaws in White’s piece.

“Unionists argue that introducing this rule will harm relationships between the two international football teams in Ireland.”

This is White’s summation of the entire argument against FIFA’s proposal as expounded on the Assembly floor! Firstly unionists alone did not argue against the proposal. Despite the contention that the debate was disputed along sectarian lines, the cross-community Alliance Party which takes no definite constitutional stance was solidly against the proposal and has been from the outset. The rationale for the IFA position has been set out on this blog ad nauseum and the damage of relations between the two football teams is one of its less compelling facets. Sectarian apartheid in football, the undermining of shared Northern Irish institutions and a manifest lack of fairness all form much more fundamental planks of the argument advanced against FIFA’s proposals.

“Of course, the politicians should get offside on this debate as soon as possible. They have little or no influence with FIFA and their comments, no matter how guarded, will always be interpreted as sectarian.”

This piece of penetrating analysis might have come straight from a school playground or from some brainless bint having her nails polished. “All those politicians are just sectarian so they are”. Of course the most ironic point is that FIFA had indicated that they would rule in favour of the IFA and in line with their own rules, before the Republic of Ireland’s government and a coterie of nationalist politicians began lobbying the world governing body. FIFA have blatantly been influenced by politicians and will choose the path of least resistance. It is up to politicians who are interested in fairness and in shared spaces to make sure that the path of least resistance isn’t this preposterous, gutless proposal.

“The number of international class players in the province who will opt to play for the Republic is small”

This statement completely ignores the prevailing political undercurrents present in society. In case White has missed it, the ethos of the two largest political parties in Northern Ireland is actually separate but equal. The purpose of campaigning so vehemently for the right of Northern players to play for the Southern team is to perpetuate this trend in football. Football does not operate in a vacuum although White obviously is under the impression that it does. Witness these patronisingly imbecilic comments, completely dismissing the notion that footballers might have any other motivation other than money:

“Almost all international standard players play in the English leagues. There the motivation is money, not creed”
He continues

“The Northern Ireland team, at present and in the past, has shown that it can perform well above expectations when made up of the best eligible players, no matter what their religious or political beliefs”

That is exactly what the IFA and their supporters are attempting to protect. The essence of the argument is that it is preferable that the Northern Ireland team continues to make use of the best eligible players regardless of their religious or political beliefs. FIFA’s proposal will undermine this.

“There was a sickening episode a few years ago when Neil Lennon, a Catholic and Glasgow Celtic player to boot, was booed by his own Northern Ireland fans, even though he was an integral part of the team.”

This sentence perhaps sums up the lazy, ill-informed nature of the column. Where is the qualification that a tiny number of fans booed Neil Lennon? Where is the acknowledgment that the vast majority of supporters expressed their backing of the player publicly and vocally?

“Thankfully, the IFA acted promptly and effectively against the boo boys.”

The IFA appealed to supporters to back Lennon and this duly happened. It was the supporters who deserve the bulk of the credit for facing down the boo-boys, for galvanising in an impressive display of self-policing and for launching their own campaign to rid Windsor Park of sectarianism.

It is Laurence White, rather than the politicians who should in this instance keep his nose out of football.


David Healy was preposterously overlooked by an Anglocentric press choosing the BBC’s Sports’ Personality of the Year shortlist. The Guardian is somewhat redressing the balance by listing Sir Dave of Killyleagh in number 1 spot in their Football Personality of the Year poll.

A ridge browed midget Argentinian monkey currently leads the voting, so I would urge you to exercise your mandate and vote for a more deserving candidate – Heeeeaallllllyyyyyy!

Thursday, 13 December 2007

'Putinologists' sceptical about immediate Russia - Belarus merger

In the depths of the Cold War a political science analysing the intentions of the CPSU leadership developed in the West. This field became known as Kremlinology. Recent machinations within Russia’s ruling elite have become as intriguing, labyrinthine and clandestine as they were at any time during the Cold War, and the focus is on one man in particular. Analysts of Russian politics have of necessity become ‘Putinologists’ during his tenure as President.

To add to an already convoluted set of possibilities created by Putin’s lapsing second term, speculation is mounting that the Russian Federation and Belarus may be planning an imminent political union. The notion that the two states may reunite has existed since the USSR was dissolved. There is little to separate the countries in terms of language or culture and Belarus has conspicuously not followed the route favoured by other ex Soviet republics of seeking closer connections with the EU and NATO.

During the 1990s Belarus suffered even greater economic trauma than Russia itself and despite public support, concerns about the cost of absorbing a poorer republic was a disincentive to Russia encouraging ideas of reunion. Economic recovery in both countries and a common antipathy toward the US and EU diagnosing faults in their systems of government mean that the possibility of merging is much more serious.

Belarus’ president Lukashenko has even more authoritarian impulses than Putin and despite increased cooperation and close ties between the countries, he has clashed with the Russian leader over gas provision. Whether the Belarusian is prepared to cede control even to Putin remains to be seen. The two men are currently meeting in Minsk to discuss cooperation and harmonisation between the two states.

Closer integration on a gradual basis is the stated aim of the two governments, but the possibility that constitutional changes might allow Putin to become President of a united state has been exercising commentators. They speculate that the process might be accelerated in order to subordinate both Russia and Belarus’ presidencies to Putin.

Immediate political union with Belarus is perhaps one of the more unlikely options which Putin is likely to follow in order to retain political power. A process of cooperation between the two states will continue and as their interests become more closely entwined it is likely that integration will take place at some time in the future, but Lukashenko is too headstrong a figure to allow this merely as a mechanism for Putin to remain head of government.

Maze farce from inept Poots

The Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee at the Northern Ireland Assembly has had a meeting adjourned due to the paucity of material provided to debate the proposed plans for a sports Stadium at the Maze. MLAs walked out of a meeting with developers having not been provided with a business plan or feasibility study.

Using the functions of government to publicise aspirational plans without any substantive detail being produced is a clear abuse of process. It is little surprise that Edwin Poots is the minister responsible. With an eye for detail that rivals Catriona Ruane, he has adopted the half-baked Maze proposals as his pet project.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Medvedev won't be Putin's puppet

The shape Russia’s future government may assume is beginning to emerge after Dmitry Medvedev was revealed as Vladimir Putin’s favoured successor as president. With Putin’s monopoly of power, Medvedev effectively becomes president elect.

The role that Putin himself will adopt when Medvedev takes up the presidency has been subject to much speculation. Putin has given contradictory signals about the possibility that he might become Prime Minister, but this option has gained further credibility after Medvedev expressed his hope that the current President would become Prime Minister after March’s election.

Although there are those who have expressed cynicism about the independence of Medvedev, he will be acquiring a role with extensive powers and it should not be presumed that Putin’s continued influence will relegate the new President to simply being a figurehead. He is a trusted ally of Putin and clearly intends his mentor to retain a crucial position, but whilst he may seek continuity that does not make him a puppet.

Ruane only concerned with one form of division

Barry White has raised the lamentable performance of Education Minister Catriona Ruane in his column. Ruane’s poverty of scope has already been questioned on this blog. As White identifies, she has one idea, changing the age of selection from 11 to 14. He concedes that academic selection at 11 is no longer tenable but maintains that Ruane still isn’t addressing the real structural problems within our education system.

White’s argument is a strong one. Our schools are currently operating in four different sectors with 50,000 empty places and Ruane has shown little inclination to confront this issue. In fact as a leading difference fetishist she is exacerbating the problem by promoting the Irish Language sector and championing the separate status of Catholic Maintained schools.

Academic selection is not the only factor fostering division and separation amongst pupils. If Ruane really wants to promote equality and harmony between schools she should provide more support for schools who wish to adopt integrated status and for those schools who wish to share and collaborate in terms of resources and curriculum. Seeking to abolish division based on ability, but to maintain community division unscathed is neither consistent nor helpful in building a better Northern Ireland.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Indo claims advanced all-Ireland league discussions

The Irish Independent claims that top clubs from Northern Ireland and the Republic are in “advanced discussions” about the formation of an all Ireland football league. Such a suggestion has arisen periodically, but the cooperation fostered by the Setanta Cup seems to have crystallised into more serious plans.

Whether Eircom clubs consider such a league as a genuine option or whether there is an element of tactical positioning due to disputes with the FAI is debatable. Personally I view the prospect with ambivalence. Whilst supporters would welcome the prospect of a larger stage on which their clubs could develop and display increased ambition, there remains concern about the financial ramifications.

Increased transport and travel costs both for clubs and supporters demand instant success from the league. Unless crowds increase despite a presumable increase in prices and unless television offers adequate incentives it seems likely clubs would overstretch themselves and this could lead to severe financial difficulties.

The IFA will at some point be asked to come on board with this and I would have severe reservations about cooperating with the FAI unless they are willing to back down in the player eligibility argument.

UUP lead the way on football eligibility row

The eligibility issue is raised at Stormont this morning in a motion proposed by David McNarry and Danny Kennedy of the Ulster Unionist Party. The debate is a timely reminder that FIFA’s Executive Committee meets this weekend and are likely to formalise a decision on the matter.

If the Executive Committee’s decision is along the lines of the proposal FIFA advanced to the two Football Associations, this motion will become especially pertinent. FIFA’s proposal is a shameful abrogation of responsibility which threatens to create football apartheid in Ireland. It is vital that if this proposal is ratified and enforced then the IFA should be given every encouragement from politicians and the public to fight the decision through FIFA’s own appeal process and in courts if necessary.

Effective voluntary segregation would be an appalling road to go down, whether on the sports field or in other aspects of life. Yet the twin nationalisms carve-up lends itself to just such a tendency. Misreading the Good Friday Agreement to propose that recognising the Irish and British national identities in Northern Ireland allows both access to separate institutions is an insidious argument. This issue is about protecting the Northern Ireland football team specifically, but it also embodies a will to protect shared spaces in a wider context.

Proposed: That this Assembly opposes the recent eligibility proposal outlined by FIFA; believes it has the potential to cause serious harm to international soccer relations on the island of Ireland; and calls upon the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to assist the Irish Football Association in opposing the ratification of this unfair and unjust proposal

Monday, 10 December 2007

Blind faith: Northern Ireland's christianity based on ignorance

It is hard to know what to make of the results of a survey carried out by several religious groups which suggest that knowledge of Christianity in Northern Ireland is lagging behind that of the south.

The groups themselves have sprung to the conclusion that Ireland, north or south, cannot be referred to as “Christian” any longer. Their inference is that this is not a good thing and developing secularism is a negative trend. Naturally I would reject such a contention. In any case other surveys tend to suggest that Christianity still flourishes. Northern Ireland has been found to be the most “pious region” in the UK.

I would be willing to wager that a survey of religious affiliation would reveal a far greater adherence to some manner of religious label than in any other part of the UK or indeed than in the Republic of Ireland. There is an element of political or ethnic identification in the readiness of people here to declare belonging to a branch of Christianity, but that very fact contributes to a more complicated picture.

The inference that I would draw is that many people in Northern Ireland increasingly retain residual links to religion which are not backed up by knowledge and do not necessarily translate into deeply held or thoughtfully considered beliefs. There is a tendency to adopt Christianity simply because of tradition and a reflexive conservatism that sits well with some of its principle tenets.

In many respects this attitude brings with it all the negative baggage of religious belief with none of its redeeming features. Christianity retains inordinate influence whilst many who defer to it do so only out of nominal convictions. All that piety and none of it backed up by knowledge or a thoughtful commitment to faith.

Yeltsin wasn't Russia's democrat: Putin is following in his footsteps

Dmitry Medvedev looks set to be the next President of the Russian Federation. Whether he acquires real power or whether Vladimir Putin, who will give United Russia's chosen candidate his backing, retains the bulk of influence will become clear in the months after the March election.

Putin’s murmurings about alleviating election fatigue have been interpreted in a sinister fashion by some commentators. The suggestion is that Russia is embarking on a course whereby managed elections could become effectively no elections at all.

The difficulty with this argument lies not necessarily with the assertion that Putin is becoming increasingly tyrannical but rather with the conception of Russia between 1991 and 2000 being on a meaningful road to liberal democracy. This view posits a tradition of authoritarianism linking Putin to the Soviet regime, interrupted by movement toward a democratic path under Boris Yeltsin.

More subtle commentators may acknowledge a much earlier psychological attachment to authoritarian rule in Russia and link a continuing tradition of autocratic and tyrannical government further back to the Tsarist regime. But in so doing they tend to conflate Yeltsin’s regime with the Provisional Government in 1917 and the continuance of an urge for liberal democratic reform.

This is a fallacy. Yeltsin actually began to roll back the liberalising reforms Gorbachev had instigated after the fall of the Union in 1991. The executive and legislative functions acquired by the Supreme Soviet under Gorbachev were not retained. Rather Yeltsin manoeuvred to be free of scrutiny from representative bodies and preferred to rule by presidential decree. These machinations culminated of course in the constitutional crisis of 1993 with Yeltsin strengthening his autocratic hand.

It is inaccurate and disingenuous to portray Yeltsin as a democratic reformer. Yeltsin presided over a liberalising of the market, not a strengthening of democratic traditions, institutions or the building of strong civil society. Gorbachev was in fact a much more profound proponent of democratic freedoms after the journey he had completed by 1991.

Vladimir Putin has presided over a much more coherent and efficient ordering of Russian society than Yeltsin managed, but he is merely following a centralising instinct which his predecessor shared. It was Yeltsin’s brusque treatment of representative reforms Gorbachev had instigated and his contempt for the Congress of People’s Deputies and its upper chamber the Supreme Soviet which began the degradation of liberal reforms in Russia.

Gorbachev identified this trend as early as December 1991 when 3 of the 15 republican presidents disregarded democratic and constitutional procedure to preside over the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States and the destruction of the Union. His derisive term was instructive of Gorbachev’s own political and liberalising journey – he referred to them as “neo-Bolsheviks”.

Cynical observers might see in the treatment of respective Russian leaders and western evaluation of their reforming instincts less desire to see the democratic will of Russian people protected or enhanced and more interest in unfettered access to Russian markets and resources.

Traditional Unionist Voice: agreeing to disagree

Traditional Unionist Voice - not an ill-fated combo about to enter X Factor, but the title of Jim Allister’s motley unionist “movement” opposed to power sharing, attempting to add to the political morass in Northern Ireland. This group claim to have set up branches and are seeking donations, but as yet they are declining to style themselves a “party”, presumably in order to beat a more gracious retreat should support fail to emerge.

It is unlikely that a substantial number of the electorate will support the group, but there is now an alternative home for the hardline fringes of the DUP. Defection will become a more enticing prospect now that there is somewhere to defect to. Despite the uncompromising stance the movement is assuming, there is at least more consistency to their approach than the blatant hypocrisy and about turns of the First Minister and his party. Whilst you may disagree with Allister’s opposition to power-sharing, at least his objections are based on principle and did not evaporate when the trappings of power became available.

The leaflet the movement has issued on its launch states the aim of providing “effective democratic opposition to the present DUP/SF regime”. A reactionary group like the TUV do not offer an alternative to the sectarian carve-up which currently exists. Perhaps in providing an alternative to the perceived right of the DUP, the grouping can mop up voters who resent giving their votes to the larger party under false pretences. This may heighten the impetus for a middle-ground representing a shared future to provide the tenable opposition to the pertaining carve-up.

Friday, 7 December 2007

Novelistic News

Who can claim to be immune from the odd bout of tipsy pretension? There is a certain conceited satisfaction to be had swirling cheap red wine around an outsized glass and pretending to follow a discussion on avant-garde opera late on a Friday night. I urge you to try it. If Eko Eschun and Mariella Frostrup’s features swim and morph into a drunken blurry soup, simply place a hand over one eye or admit defeat and fall into a fitful slumber.

Mark Lawson used to host the Late Review and he has an article in the Guardian today pondering the novelistic qualities of some recent news stories. He gives some examples but misses out the most intriguing and apposite story – the Byzantine thriller of London’s Polonium Murder.

Nevertheless there are some interesting ideas in the piece, particularly when Lawson ponders the internet’s influence. His argument is that access to media such as Facebook or indeed blogging encourages people to live their lives as a “structured narrative”. The acts they commit become more akin to fiction than reality and they provide their accompanying commentary through these websites.

This blurring of life and art is a pillar of post-modernism and certainly isn’t a new idea. It is an intriguing notion however that a new sensibility influenced by the web and other new media is having a real effect on the stories we are seeing in conventional news sources.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Conventional Kosovo 'wisdom' re-emerges

After Simon Jenkins delivered a thoughtful and balanced critique of the Kosovo question in the Guardian, Tim Garton Ash resumes the propagation of conventional wisdom via the same newspaper. He persists with the misapprehension popular in the US and amongst some (but not all) EU member states that Kosovan independence will produce a more stable, well governed Balkans.

The whole tenor of this article is severely flawed. The author acknowledges that what he proposes isn’t entirely fair, but there is no acceptance that a fairer solution was possible. He follows the line that Kosovan independence has been inevitable since Slobodan Milosovic took aggressive action against the Serb province, but that is manifestly not the case. The idea that Kosovan independence is inevitable arose from NATO promises to Kosovan leaders. Those promises encouraged the notion that autonomy within Serbia should not be accepted.

Milosovic was a reprehensible character, but to impugn an entire nation on the strength of his actions is counter-productive. Wrongs were inflicted on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, but there is little qualitative difference between the wrongs inflicted on Kosovan Albanians by Milosovic and the wrongs subjected on Serbs by Thaci’s Kosovan Liberation Army. A much overlooked fact remains: the KLA had inflicted more death and mayhem before NATO took action against Milosovic than Serbs had inflicted on Kosovan Albanians. It was after NATO action that the Serb leader stepped up his campaign and began a serious attempt to ethnically cleanse the province.

Kosovan independence will not provide good governance for the region. The government will be headed by Thaci and a coterie of KLA thugs. This is in no way, as Garton Ash suggests “the least worst outcome”. Leaving aside the wider ramifications the consequences for Kosovo itself will be damaging. The nascent state will be led by an ethno-nationalist terrorist with a penchant for smuggling operations. Thaci has been termed Kosovo’s Gerry Adams, but a more accurate comparison would be an all nationalist Northern Ireland government headed by Thomas ‘Slab’ Murphy.

The comparison doesn’t end there because the nature of the nationalism being indulged here looks beyond an independent Kosovo. There is an ultimate yearning to be united with ethnic Albanians in Albania itself to form a Greater Albania. This vision will gain momentum if Kosovo’s independence is recognised and will cause disquiet in Greece, Macedonia and even Bulgaria, where Albanian minorities aspire to the same nationalist goal.

Garton Ash’s credo is that promises of EU membership will cool tempers throughout the region, whereas actually an independent Kosovo, recognised by the EU, will form a strong disincentive for Serbia seeking membership. This is a highly emotive issue for Serbians and insensitive handling will push them towards an alignment with their fellow Orthodox Slavs in Russia.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

The left hand makes a statement to bemusement of the right

“Joined up government” is a political neologism which has been overused and misused until it has become hackneyed cliché. The term can be useful shorthand to describe the element of consistency and coherence which we as an electorate expect from politicians when they come together to form an executive.

The Northern Ireland Executive is the archetype of an administration failing to deliver “joined up government”. In many ways this is inevitable as the constituent parties of the mandatory coalition do not have a coherent platform on which they can agree. If an example of this were needed, we have a perfect one with the publication of Catrione Ruane’s “vision” for the future of the education system.

Ruane’s document has not been discussed by the Executive, it was not provided for in the Draft Programme for Government or in the Draft Budget proposals and Ruane did not even consult with the Minister for Employment and Learning, whose remit is intrinsically linked to that of the education ministry. All this before we even examine the contents of the document.

Leaving aside the substance of the contentious issue of selection for post-primary education for the moment, we can take it as a given that any system which replaces the status quo, must provide for an alternative. It is somewhat shocking therefore, to read the amorphous document, lacking any substantive detail, full of the usual empty Sinn Fein platitudes, which Ruane has delivered.

After sanctimoniously condemning others for fixating on selection in discussions about education, Ruane’s document lingers on this subject throughout with single-minded obsession. When the document claims it will weed out inequality in education by ensuring “no child will be at a disadvantage because they can’t afford tuition or coaching” it is of course myopically concerned with the 11 Plus. Unless Ruane plans to achieve this “equality” by simply abolishing all testing from 11-19!

The gist of Ruane’s document is that selection at 11 will be replaced by “election” at 14. There is scant detail on what this entails and how it can be delivered by our current schools. “Structural changes” are hinted at, and post 14 schools are mentioned, but no mechanisms are outlined and how existing 11-19 schools may adapt to these changes is not considered. Furthermore, there is no cost analysis and the only criteria to replace selection in the interim, before the new system is introduced are community, geography and family.

Mark Durkan, the SDLP leader, is an advocate of selection at 14 but his analysis of the document is as follows:

"For many years, we have called for selection at age 14. Unfortunately, having waited so long for this statement it is both short on detail and short of financial certainty.
"The Minister seems somewhat complacent about the numbers of children who will be able to get their first choice school. The potential implications of this have already been flagged as an issue in the northwest, where demand outstrips supply for schools.
"Careful scrutiny will also have to be made of her proposed criteria of community and geography and what these will mean in practice. The SDLP is particularly concerned that disadvantage will not be reinforced through a postcode lottery.”

With this nebulous statement, for which she has sought no approval from her colleagues, Miss Ruane cements her reputation as one of the least effective ministers in an ineffective executive. More fundamentally she has exposed the lack of coherence and scrutiny being delivered by the administration.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Why unionism's understanding of identity is more generous: Des Browne

Friday was Saint Andrew’s day, an occasion which was marked on more focussed (or observant) blogs than mine. In the Times Des Browne, the Secretary of State for Scotland, took the opportunity to ponder the increasing tendency to conflate a strong sense of Scottish identity and nationalism. Browne refutes the idea that nationalism is the natural vehicle for pride in Scottish identity and correctly recognizes the differences between patriotism and nationalism.

One of the key accuracies in this article is Browne’s identification of nationalists’ preoccupation with a geographical and cultural prescription as the only substantive definer of identity. This he rejects:

“In other words, it is possible to love your country without it being the sole principle of your identity, a pillar of nationalist thinking.”

The nationalist is unable to grasp the nuances which allow people to assume a multiplicity of identities. It is the broader, more generous and more flexible understanding of identity which defines civic UK unionism and distinguishes it so starkly from the narrow confines of nationalism. Part of this flexibility allows a separation of cultural and political identity.

The unionist, whether he is Scottish, Irish, English or Welsh has a breadth of thinking on identity lacked by the nationalist. He can own completely his cultural identity within those descriptions, he can even tie his national identity to those descriptions, but that does not in any way contradict his sense of belonging to a wider UK or to a broader British identity.

Because unionism assumes a much more complicated understanding of identity, in practice it must be more inclusive than nationalism. Browne’s formulation is as follows:

“I am unequivocally against narrow-minded nationalism in all its guises for the simple reason that it is divisive rather than unifying. It excludes by inference all those who do not accede to its credo and it makes its arguments through an unwavering reliance on sentimentality and populism. Being a modern Scot is a good deal more varied than the simple formulations of nationalism allow.”

He continues by reaffirming the wider sense of self held by the unionist Scot. Without compromising pride in the Scottish identity the unionist does not reject the broader social, political and historical contexts which tie him to the institutions of the United Kingdom and to the other peoples of these Isles.

“The Union has as much claim to a formative influence on our sense of our selves as any nationalist rendering of the past. Scotland continues to benefit from having an identity that has the confidence to stand side by side with others as a single, powerful whole. For most of us, there exists no great contradiction in being both Scottish and British.”

Browne is directing his comments towards Scots, but they have equal resonance in the other constituent parts of the United Kingdom where nationalism appeals to atavistic, tribal instincts. British nationalism too, which seeks to define itself on an ethnic and mono-cultural basis, shares all the characteristics of its regional cousins. The conclusion he reaches is framed in the context of St Andrews day and the issue of Scottishness is his prime concern, but it is applicable on a much more general basis wherever a nationalist basis for understanding identity competes with a broader, civic analysis:

“The choice on St Andrew's Day is between a parochial inwardness or a more generous, open and modern way of describing Scottishness both to ourselves and others that allows us to go forward as a nation with pride but not prejudice."

Monday, 3 December 2007

Poots young earth nonsense makes me ashamed

I want to be proud of coming from Northern Ireland, really I do. I am eager to tell people where I come from and I will defend this place when I think that it is being unjustly criticised. When David Healy fires in another winning goal and reacts with self-deprecation, it is easy to be proud of our province and the qualities of its people.

But for every David Healy, there is also an Edwin Poots. An imbecile propounding a particular combination of truculence and illogicality, which unfortunately is as characteristic of a great many Northern Irish people as is the unassuming modesty of Sir Dave.

Poots is Northern Ireland’s culture minister. Poots is not especially interested in a wide range of cultural pursuits. Poots also believes that the earth is 5,000 years old, that dinosaurs co-existed with human beings and that our world and everything in it was created in 6 days. Poots makes me profoundly ashamed.

Putin's Plan results in United Russia's victory

With ominous predictability early reports suggest that United Russia have polled around 63% of the vote in yesterday’s Duma election. When eliminated parties votes are redistributed it is possible that the party will command a 2/3 constitutional majority in Russia’s parliament.

The outcome of this closely managed election reinforces the dominance of the pro-Kremlin party. In 2003 they managed 37.6 % of the vote. The result will also furnish Putin with the “moral authority” he sought to pursue the continuation of his policies into the tenure of a new presidency.

United Russia insists that the constitution will not be changed in order to allow Putin to seek a third term. Political parties must name a presidential election candidate by 23rd December. The exact nature of Putin’s intention to remain as “national leader” may become clearer after United Russia convene to select their chosen candidate on 17th December. Putin retains the option to lead United Russia in the Duma and to become Prime Minister of the Russian Federation.

The party’s leader Boris Gryzlov believes that United Russia will win upwards of 250 seats, but contends that the results prove Russia’s credentials as a multi-party democracy. Given the lack of substantive debate on policy and the toothless character of many opposition parties, this is a dubious claim. In addition to the foregone conclusion that the Communist Party would be represented in the new parliament, however, the likelihood is that they will be accompanied by Zhirinovsky’s LDPR and A Just Russia. As I observed on Friday, the LDPR’s claims to independence have been increasingly questioned and A Just Russia was established as a pro-Putin centre-left alternative to United Russia. Sergei Mironov, A Just Russia’s leader, has indicated that his party may seek to ally themselves with the Zyuganov’s Communists in opposition in the new Duma.

Reports of outright fraud at the polling stations seem to be few and far between. This election has been manipulated through exerting pressure, a stranglehold of the media and utilising the administrative arms of government. Cruder measures have not been required although some instances of intimidation or bribery were reported. It would have been more remarkable in such a huge country covering such a large landmass, of this had not been the case.

Friday, 30 November 2007

Identity fetishists defend "right" to tribalise areas

Woe betide the man who puts his head over the parapet in Northern Ireland and argues for integration and neutral spaces. The Alliance Party are subjected to vicious attacks from Brian Feeney and today Newton Emerson has been fielding a broadside on Slugger O’Toole for having the temerity to suggest that a neutral ethos needs to be preserved if the Assembly begins to require social housing provision as part of new developments under the 1991 Planning Order. With the carve-up between the TNA in operation, flaunting your symbols is in, separate but equal apartheid is in and the idea that we should look toward a shared future is certainly out.

Emerton highlights the lack of will to instigate mixed social housing. He points in particular to the Crumlin Road plan, where a wrangle over the development being allocated to one community, may yet see no social housing at all on the site. A genuinely mixed development in Fermanagh was attacked by Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew because it does not cater solely for nationalists (she perceives that community as being in greater need in the area).

Emerton is right to be concerned. But his concern is offensive to the identity fetishists who constantly evoke the “rights” of communities rather than individuals. He is accused of everything from snobbery (for not respecting the so called culture of the “communities”) to infringing the right to self-expression because he wants assurances that tribal markings will not be tolerated. Yes. There is that word again. The “right” to be as sectarian and tribal as you like is rapidly becoming paramount in this society.

Duma election set to be undermined by Putin's Plan

Russia goes to the polls on Sunday in order to elect 450 deputies to sit in its parliament, the Duma, for the next four years. The ballot is taking place amidst increasing accusations of unfair electioneering and vote rigging.

The chances of anything resembling a free and fair election diminished substantially from the moment it became clear that the poll would be considered a referendum on Vladimir Putin’s status as “National Leader”. Although the President enjoys popular support in Russia, his presence heading the United Russia list, is not alone sufficient to ensure that the party achieve the 60% plus mandate which Putin feels is needed.

Turning a parliamentary election into a personal approval poll itself undermines the worth of that institution, but a number of strategies have been employed to ensure that the Duma will not comprise any meaningful opposition to Putin or United Russia. Electoral reform designed to stifle independent candidates and small parties had already been instigated before Putin’s intentions became clear. Demanding a 7% threshold of the total vote in order to admit a party to parliament drastically limits the spectrum of representation in such a large and diverse country and coupled with a chronic lack of media exposure for smaller parties the effect is particularly dramatic. This poll will also operate solely on the list system, thus abolishing the limited number of constituency elected deputies, a likely source of independent representatives.

The Guardian today runs a story highlighting rumours which have circulated for some time that public employees are being galvanised in support of United Russia and therefore Putin. Already it has been alleged that public rallies organised in support of the President have been bulked out by public employees compelled to attend. The suggestion is that these employees will be strongly pressurised to vote for Putin and indeed that a level of supervision will stiffen this compulsion. The Guardian’s Leader is cynical about the democratic bona fides of the election and suggests that should voters still deliver an unsatisfactory result, despite the favourable conditions for United Russia, there is still possible recourse to computer fraud for the pro-Putin authorities.

Meanwhile the opposition parties have been heightening their much repeated complaints about unfair treatment in the media. It is instructive that the opposition parties which have been accorded a level of coverage (all be it much less than United Russia) are Zyuganov’s Communists and Zhirinovksy’s LDPR. Zyuganov’s party enjoy something in the region of 14% of the vote and will form the bulk of limited opposition in the Duma. Zhirinovksy’s ironically named Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, may fall below the 7% threshold, but despite the demagogue’s fiery reputation have assumed a Kremlin-friendly line. Fielding Andrei Lugovoi was a typical piece of demotic anti-Western posturing by Zhirinovsky, but it also sits comfortably with the theme of Putin’s prevailing rhetoric.

The poll on Sunday will be at best limited in its freedom and the result is likely to be a resounding win for Putin and United Russia, despite indications that spiralling food prices have lessened the party’s popularity in recent weeks. Perhaps the most interesting developments will take place after the election but before the end of Putin’s term in March. During this period Putin’s intentions for maintaining his “national leadership” will manifest themselves. Whether he eludes constitutional rules by resigning before his term elapses, or whether he actually changes the constitution in order to stand for a third term are matters for conjecture. Putin may or may not manipulate a third term as President, but what has become patently obvious is that he does not intend to relinquish his influence on Russian politics any time soon.

Thursday, 29 November 2007

A bad day for football as IFA once again live up to Inept Farcical Absurd tag

The leading Northern Ireland fanzine from a few years ago used to run a series of articles entitled Inept Farcical Absurd, highlighting the incompetence of the Irish Football Association. The series was a long one, sometimes running to several separate ineptitudes per issue, and if the magazine was still alive another couple would have been added to the “to do” list.

Last night the IFA held an Extraordinary General Meeting in order to make much needed changes to the body’s archaic Articles of Association. Having previously failed to gain a 75% majority required to abolish the ban on Sunday football, thankfully the voters stepped out of the 19th century and last night carried the necessary amendment.

No such common sense displayed when presented with proposals to cut the Executive Committee from 18 to 10 members. That would after all have complied with government recommendations which have been linked to a much needed £13 million injection into the sport. Unbelievably this funding has been on the table for over 2 years and yet the IFA cannot get its house in order and fulfil the requirements. This is almost entirely due to reluctance on the part of association members to relinquish their influence and to give up the perks and benefits that accompany the same.

Coupled with the IFA’s acceptance of the Maze business plan, yesterday was a bad day for football in Northern Ireland.

No relation to Warren: more blethering from Feeney

Brian Feeney really is a venomous little man. He has been ranting at the moderate middle ground once again, lecturing them for their temerity in questioning the Twin Nationalisms Axis. Indeed he explicitly indicates that he would take great delight in the Alliance Party being wound up and voters who do not want to take a constitutional position being disenfranchised. His most withering criticism is reserved for anyone who wishes to see democratic accountability introduced in Northern Ireland. This he maintains will never happen, for the simple reason that Feeney says it won’t.

The way he frames his derision for the oppositional system of politics seems to suggest that he views it as some manner of foreign and detrimental British construct, suitable for nowhere but Westminster. Because Mary Harney will survive a no-confidence vote, there is no purpose in opposition and the only politics worth pursuing are those of government. How those who once railed against authority change their tune whenever their representatives gain some!

Feeney’s carping lecture lingers on that paradigm of political probity, the Republic of Ireland government. Even if the Dail was the epitome of accountable and workable governance, it is difficult to see what point Feeney is attempting to make. The Republic’s government is certainly comprised of a coalition, for the simple reason that it is extremely rare for southern parties to achieve an outright majority.

A voluntary coalition is of course a very different animal from a mandatory coalition. A further distinguishing factor is that the Executive in Northern Ireland is in many senses not a coalition at all. The parties do not come together to formulate policy. Their appointees come together to form an Executive, whose machinations are then often concealed from the parties they represent. This Executive is not even in any meaningful way subject to the scrutiny of the Assembly. Of course we’ve already been subjected to Feeney’s theory as to why Northern Ireland must be governed by an unaccountable cabal. Unionists are in the majority and unionists cannot be trusted.

Feeney’s derision is not confined to unionists on this occasion. The SDLP are also on the receiving end and he retains his most pointed contempt for Alliance – “the NIO’s front party”. Anyone in actual fact who isn’t part of the Axis’ carve-up. Feeney is so remorselessly withering, and yet the central planks to his argument are manifestly rotten. The UUP is indicted for not having “copped on that the administration at Stormont isn't like the two-party system at Westminster and isn't ever going to be”. Well if that is the case, why on earth are the party’s oppositional proponents making perfectly clear that their preferred option is to go into joint opposition with the SDLP, thus making the actual reality of a SF / DUP coalition a technical reality also? Where is the evidence for Feeney to back up his assertion that any unionist in Stormont believes in, or aspires to, a one party government?

The entire concept of parliamentary opposition seems to be problematic for Feeney.
“Suppose they did go into opposition. That would mean more ministerial positions for the DUP and Sinn Féin.Now here's the crucial question. Would it mean any more money for the new ministers' departments? Nope. It would simply make it easier for the First and Deputy First Ministers to allocate resources because members of their own parties couldn't whinge.”

This is of course complete illogical nonsense. The purpose of going into opposition is patently not to free up more money for whichever ministers fill the positions the two parties would leave. That would be an entirely counter-productive strategy. The parties would go into opposition because their voices are not being listened to, policy is being imposed on them and yet they are expected to assume responsibility for that to which they are opposed. Clarity and accountability are the concepts the parties would be striving toward. In Feeney’s cynical opinion these ideas are obviously not worth a jot. The rationale for going into opposition is so blatant as to barely need elucidation – these are not policies we agree with, we are leaving the two parties who have formulated these policies to be accountable for them, we will question the policies which we do not agree with and outline the alternatives from outside the Executive.

The actual crux of what Feeney is saying boils down to two sentences:

“However, unlike in a voluntary coalition they have no leverage over the big parties. They just have to thole it.”

No Feeney, the smaller parties do not have to “thole” it. What indeed is the point of having ministries without having influence or leverage? Sinn Fein and particularly the DUP are hysterically frightened of their administration being exposed for what it is – a coalition between those two parties. There is no benefit to be gained from remaining in an Executive without any real semblance of power. The SDLP and UUP need to be as ruthless as their opponents were when they were the two main parties.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Don't give in to the Twin Nationalisms Axis' bullying.

The character of the Stormont Assembly and particularly the Northern Ireland Executive is being fascinatingly exposed bit by bit and the picture which is emerging bears no resemblance to a democratic or accountable institution. Finance Minister Peter Robinson has been fulminating at SDLP / UUP dissent over the draft programme of government and budget proposals.

In response Reg Empey accurately described Robinson’s comments as “a thinly veiled threat” to collapse power sharing arrangements and presumably to lay the responsibility at the feet of the two moderate parties.

In the DUP / Sinn Fein carve-up debate is inimical and the two parties wish to impose their will on the smaller members of the executive whilst being fire-walled from the electoral consequences of their policies by forcing their opponents to assume joint responsibility. The most basic concepts of democratic accountability are being undermined.

The most encouraging thing about this Stalinist display of authoritarianism from the Twin-Nationalisms Axis is the extent to which it is providing common ground between the UUP, SDLP and even the Alliance Party. Oppositional traits are emerging within the Assembly and within the Executive itself. It now falls to the leaders of the moderate parties to face down the bullying threats and if necessary to resign their places at the Executive table. If the cost of involvement in government is being implicated in slashing the health budget and failing to properly fund Social Housing, then that cost is not worth paying.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Another inviolable human right invented?

I couldn't help but titter at this story carried by the BBC about a 15 year old "rock music fan" being discriminated against because of his shoulder length hair.

Now whether Grant Stranaghan of Ballyclare High should be allowed to wear his hair long is an issue on which I have not yet formed any view (and nor am I likely to, because frankly it is not a very interesting question). But I will say that the reaction of his father to his son's treatment and the threat of legal action may be construed as just, well ..... A LITTLE BIT OVER THE TOP!

"I could have cried when he told me what they did to him - they put him in a room and threw work at him, no contact with anyone.This is Northern Ireland in 2007. Solitary confinement, I think it's called."

Yes. This is Northern Ireland in 2007 and thus we have a huge song and dance about a pupil being required to work on their own for a while because they've breached school rules. Mr Stranaghan must have a dim view of his son if he adjudges a wee while in his own company worthy of tears. I think this father needs a reality check.

Being put in a room and given work is called education, solitary confinement is being put in a cell for days on end and not given any distractions to wile away the time. I doubt that Winnie Mandela, reflecting on another spell for Nelson in the punishment cells of Robben Island ever had cause to concede, as does Mr Stranaghan about his son's solitary confinement, "he did say he got plenty of work done, but I don't think it's fair".

The monks in Burma have nothing on this poor martyred youngster! The incorrigible whiners of Stalin's Gulag should count themselves lucky that they didn't have to spend an hour away from their mates concentrating on GCSE coursework! You have to feel for his suffering father shedding salt tears at the persecution of his son, all on the basis of some distinctive lank adolescent locks.

Mr Stranaghan claims young Grant had work thrown at him? I strongly suspect he had work given to him, although when I was at school I would have been grateful to have some nice light work whizzing past my earhole as it was considerably more likely to be a chalk duster! I also clearly remember being locked in a music store for 80 minutes because I wasn't able to play Silent Night on the recorder. Somehow I survived this ordeal without recourse to the courts.

I'll let the poor oppressed victim of this heinous injustice have the final word:

"I would be depressed without my hair".

Well wouldn't we all! Let's be grateful Grant Stranaghan lives in the age of nit shampoo.

Monday, 26 November 2007

Healy still a wanted man in Prague?

A rather pertinent point has been raised by David Healy himself, who has reminded the IFA that his return to the Czech Republic may allow a rather sticky legal situation to re-emerge arising from Northern Ireland’s previous visit in 2001.

Back then the GAWA had travelled in substantial numbers to Prague and on the day of the match were transported to Teplice, several hours away and close to the German border, in an endless convoy of coaches. A small square close to the stadium was colonised and several hours of beer and song were shared with Czech supporters. An emergent striker called Milan Baros played a role in the Czech’s 3-1 win, coming off the bench to score a goal in stoppage time, after Kuka’s 88th minute strike had finally edged his side in front. I had missed Phil Mulryne’s equaliser, having already made a move to the refreshments queue just prior to half-time.

Having returned to Prague that evening and spent several hours in the legendary Thirsty Dog pub, a Ballymena / Coleraine detachment of GAWA foot soldiers were winding their way up Prague’s medieval Karlova when a rumour emerged that several of the players were in an adjacent bar. Sure enough a crepuscular basement venue was playing host to the goalscorer Mulryne, Peter Kennedy, Glenn Ferguson, Michael Hughes and the beknighted one himself – Sir David Healy of Killyleagh.

This venue was not to witness the bouncer attacking incident which was to earn this quintet, with Mulryne substituted for goalkeeping coach Tommy Wright, the title of “Prague 5”. That doubtful honour was reserved for the Atlas Cabaret club near Wenceslas Square. Our personal brush with greatness ended having secured photographs and insulted Glenn Ferguson by asking him to take one of us “with the players”. We moved on to another venue. Rumours emerged the next day that 5 players had been arrested. This proved to be the case. It was alleged that they had attacked a bouncer with a vase after he had demanded some outrageous sum to permit them to leave the nightclub. With typical competence the IFA left the next day after the players had been released and didn’t wait to see what the outworking of the incident would be.

Now of course, Healy is worried that returning to Prague, he’ll be met by the Czech police and arrested for a supposed attack on one of the extortionist thugs who man the door of Czech nightclubs.

Update: Jim Boyce says Healy will be grand. He doesn't actually quote any sources for his opinion or indeed provide any evidence to back it up. Nor does he say that he's actually checked with the Czech authorities.

NBP hoods undermine Kasparov's claim to legitimate dissent

Garry Kasparov has become the most recognisable face of Russian dissidence remaining in Russia, particularly for Americans. The former chess champion is emblematic in the western media of the Other Russia umbrella movement formed to coalesce disparate political groups opposed to Vladimir Putin.

Kasparov is widely viewed in Russia as a pro-American stooge but in the west he is increasingly seen as something of a martyr for democracy, silenced and bundled into the back of police vans by sinister minions of the dictator Putin. No doubt his latest arrest and 5 days prison sentence will elicit more sympathy.

Whilst it would be hard to argue that political opposition in Russia is given the freedom of expression and democratic rights which it should, it is worth pointing out the nature of some of the membership of the Other Russia and considering whether all of its members would be welcomed unto the streets of many western capitals to protest or whether their behaviour would be tolerated by the forces of law and order.

The Other Russia encompasses parties ranging from the anarchic left to extreme rightists and nationalists. Both main democratic parties functioning in Russia – the liberal Yabloko party and unremitting free-marketeers, the Union of Right Forces, refuse to join the grouping because of extremist elements (although members within both parties are involved). Consider Limonov’s National Bolshevik Party who appear to have been pivotal in fomenting problems at Saturday’s demonstration.

Limonov is perhaps the coalition’s second most high-profile leader. He is a bizarre figure and his banned party are unpleasant to say the least. Behind the red brown fusion of communism and National Socialism his party propounds, lies the supremacist ideology of neo-Eurasianism. This doctrine proposes an Empire stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific under Russian dominance. These rarefied beliefs manifest themselves on the ground in fascist and racist hooliganism. It is hard to imagine a party less compatible with western conceptions of liberal democracy.

By allying themselves which such parties Kasparov and other members of Other Russia undermine their credibility as upholders of a democratic ideal. The hooliganism that accompanies the National Bolsheviks provides a pretext for the rallies being disrupted and leaders being arrested. Because Kasparov and the like oppose a regime or find it oppressive and inimical to freedom, this is not an excuse to share a platform with communists, fascists or bizarre combinations of the two, who would be, by any standards, many times more dangerous than any regime led by Putin should they ever come to power.

Oxford protests are counterproductive

I find the hysteria over allowing Nick Griffin and David Irving to speak at the Oxford Union puzzling. It seems to me that creating a controversy over their appearance affords them much greater publicity than simply allowing them to speak and ensuring that their unpalatable views are robustly challenged.

Griffin and Irving’s opinions on politics and history respectively are abhorrent. If however they remain within certain legal confines it is not possible or desirable to stifle their right to expound them. Both men already have media through which to express their views and therefore it is important that they should be scrutinised and should be subject to open debate. By this means their poison will be exposed and countered.

What exactly heightens the risk of these men attracting more sympathy? Is it the address that they are making to 450 invited students or the sight of them being barracked by10 busloads of various “anti-fascism protesters” who are to converge outside the Oxford Union tonight?

Freedom of speech will always, even in a free and liberal society, be subject to certain legal strictures. It is important however, that we are not afraid of marginal and unpleasant opinions, but that we see in our toleration of their expression an indictment of the very things they propose. A liberal society should have confidence in its values and in the value of open debate.

A stiff test, but cause for optimism

After I’d passed a frustrating afternoon spent with an ear on Radio Five Live and an eye on Tolstoy’s Master and Man, the BBC finally transferred to Durban and transmitted, frankly confusing coverage of yesterday’s 2010 World Cup draw. In fairness to the broadcaster the bloated, unwieldy and interminable manner of the occasion did not lend itself to an efficient or indeed brief programme.

I soon aborted an attempt to comprehensively note down the groups as they were drawn, scotched by the BBC’s late arrival and the babble of their commentary for an event which is reasonably self-explanatory. Therefore it was left to the presenter to inform me of the composition of Northern Ireland’s group as he insisted on talking over the main draw proceedings.

As the dust settled, it emerged that Northern Ireland would face the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia and San Marino. This is an extremely tough draw and far from ideal. Slovakia and Slovenia are arguably the toughest possible opponents from their respective pools and on the last occasion we faced the top two teams they both inflicted defeats both home and away.

With our improved form in recent years, however, the squad will fancy their chances of taking points in any of the group matches. The Czechs are marvellously efficient qualifiers who eased through the breakaway association’s group with consummate ease. On this occasion though they may face a stiffer Irish test. In the last World Cup qualifying campaign, our early optimism was decimated by Poland who inflicted a 3-0 home defeat on a beautifully sunny Saturday afternoon. But they now face a much improved Northern Irish team and the IFA should refrain from offering them such amenable scheduling on this occasion.

Slovakia and Slovenia are the archetypal opposition against which we tend to underachieve. They are the Latvia and Iceland of the new campaign. It is vital that we begin to put these types of teams to the sword if we are actually to qualify for a tournament. Needless to say 6 points will be expected out of the San Marino games.

Coupled with the ease of travel to these destinations Northern Ireland fans have reason to remain optimistic. We have played two of the sides in recent qualification series, but the Czech Republic and Poland aways remain two of my best trips on GAWA duty.

Friday, 23 November 2007

A lack of understanding or deliberate ignorance?

Disappointment expressed by nationalists at unionist politicians’ non-participation in the Irish parliament’s joint committee on the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement yesterday betray a true lack of understanding of unionism. It is difficult to decipher whether this is borne of wilful naivety or whether nationalism really does disregard the genuine disparity in the vision it has for future constitutional arrangements here and that held by unionists. Do nationalists really not “get it” (to borrow the horrible phrase employed over the eligibility debate) or is it simply a matter of not wanting to “get it”?

The Good Friday Agreement and the subsequent aesthetic whitewash it received in St Andrews reaffirmed that constitutionally Northern Ireland remains part of the UK and so it will remain until such times as a majority here says otherwise. Certain all-Ireland bodies have been established, accountable to the Northern Ireland Assembly and further bodies were set up to discuss the “totality of relationships” across the whole of the British Isles. Unionists have accepted these arrangements. They wish to share power with nationalists and everyone else in Northern Ireland, but have no desire to fundamentally alter the new dispensation any time in the near future.

I realise, of course, that nationalists have a very different outlook on where they see the agreement ultimately leading. They wish to emphasise and increase the all-Ireland aspect of the institutions. Incrementally they view a Northern Ireland Assembly under some manner of joint sovereignty as an achievable goal in the relative short term. For nationalists therefore participation in Dail committees and possible representation in the Irish Senate are important symbolic steps.

I acknowledge these aspirations and I respect the right of nationalists to participate in such arrangements, whilst ultimately viewing them as a futile and symbolic obfuscation. Why cannot nationalists extend the same respect to unionists’ desire simply to remain part of the United Kingdom? Instead they condemn us for not taking part in such bodies despite the fact that they are clearly inimical to our political beliefs. Why is it viewed as intolerable intractability not to acquiesce in nationalists’ project to further involve the Irish government in Northern Irish affairs, when the entire essence of unionism is that we wish our political arrangements to remain part of the UK?

Taking part in Dail committees is a charade, albeit one that is loaded with important aspirational symbolism for nationalists. Perhaps it is time for nationalists to accept that unionists’ aspirations are very much different and afford them some respect.

Onwards and Upwards

Rarely have Lawrie Sanchez’s words been more appropriate. After the roller-coaster of the European Championship Qualifying campaign, there is barely time for Northern Ireland’s fans and players to draw breath before the World Cup Qualifying draw is made in Durban on Sunday.

David Healy is understandably optimistic after his remarkable achievements. Already Northern Ireland’s talisman is looking forward to the next challenge.

The FIFA World Rankings were released at 10am this morning and will be used to seed the teams into 6 pots. Eight groups of 6 teams and one group of 5 will comprise the European zone, encompassing the 53 member associations of UEFA. It is my understanding that the pots will be as follows (based on the rankings released this morning):

Pot 1:

Czech Republic

Pot 2:


Pot 3:

Northern Ireland
Republic of Ireland

Pot 4:


Pot 5:


Pot 6:

Faroe Islands
San Marino

An intriguing draw lies ahead for fans who will already by working out which teams will favour Northern Ireland and which countries they may wish to visit.