Thursday, 30 August 2007

Is Nigel Worthy?

This day week I will be in Berlin en route to Riga and Northern Ireland’s crucial European Championship qualifying tie with Latvia. Of course I can barely wait and naturally I believe that we can win the game, but that is not to say that I am yet convinced that Nigel Worthington is the man to continue Lawrie Sanchez’s sterling work at the helm of OWC.

In an early post on this blog, I stressed the need for Worthington to maintain a steady ship for the duration of the qualifiers. I suggested also, that his first task should be to speak to his outgoing counterpart and learn exactly what Sanchez’s thoughts were on the strength of the unit he had created. I hoped that Worthington might have had the humility to consider what had been achieved and to try to build on that foundation.

Unfortunately pride and hubris prevented this approach. In an interview in the IFA’s magazine, Worthington boasted that he hadn’t even spoken once to Sanchez. He immediately began to offer an olive branch to players Lawrie had rejected as insufficiently committed to the cause. Unforgivably he lowered himself to begging Darron Gibson to play for the team.

Even without a ball being kicked it was hard not to believe that the unique characteristics of Sanchez’s team – the spirit, the work-ethic, the togetherness and the self-belief – were being immediately discarded by the new manager. Back came the “we need to take who we can get because we’re a small country and a poor team” mentality.

Of course Worthington’s first game was a victory. The predictable Healy brace and a finish by Lafferty obfuscated some of the less encouraging changes on the park. The team had developed a worrying propensity to loiter on the ball and to indulge in square passes. This could prove a most unwelcome development if it is carried into games against more able opposition. That the very same traits were noticed by Norwich City supporters in the previous two seasons does not bode well.
Worthington still has a glorious opportunity to build on Lawrie Sanchez’s achievements of course and victory in Latvia would be perfect to maintain the brimming confidence in the squad, which he can’t simply have wiped out in one international get together. Healy’s genius deserves the stage of a major championships and it almost appears like he’s intent on getting there by himself. With him in the team it is just possible we could still go all the way.

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Careful tongues: The Irish Language Conundrum

One of the most emotive issues arising in current Northern Irish politics is the thorny issue of Irish Language legislation. Understandably unionists are sceptical about the Irish Language lobby, given the long history of nationalism’s use of it as a political and ethno-exclusivist weapon.

As proponents of an inclusive and multinational United Kingdom however, it is incumbent upon civic unionists to accommodate the minority languages within our islands as generously as is practicable, without recourse to any cynicism about the authenticity of those languages or their proponents.

Within the United Kingdom diversity should be cherished and the strain of Irishness which cleaves to the Gaelic language should be no exception. The Irish Language should be encouraged and fully funded in the educational and cultural spheres.

That is not to say that unionism shouldn’t be firm in maintaining that the language has no practical role to play in areas of public life where efficiency and cost-effectiveness are paramount. Replicating forms, necessitating Irish speaking provisions for government departments dealing with the public etc. are unnecessary and divisive measures which will merely waste public money.

The challenge is to be firm in contesting that encroachment in these areas will not be tolerated, whilst stressing the respect and value which we accord the language. Strident attacks on the language lobby play into the hands of the republicans who wish to exploit this issue. The unionist response to proposed legislation shouldn’t be a downright rejection, rather it should be close scrutiny and involvement in the process to ensure that the legislation copper-fastens current language rights and encourages Irish as a valuable cultural area, and does not attempt to introduce expensive and exclusivist dual-language requirements in the public sphere.

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

John Sweeney isn't MY BBC! He produces populist dross.

I only normally watch ITV whenever there is football on and given that Channel 5 reception is non-existent in our sheltered corner of BT9 that leaves me with the BBC and Channel 4. The latter has already gone to reality show hell in a hand basket, so realistically I’m forced to subsist on the terrestrial offerings of our national broadcaster.

This can be a particularly dispiriting experience whenever we have the offerings of John Sweeney masquerading as the Corporation’s cutting edge investigative journalism. Sweeney is best known for screaming at some Scientologists and that incident was in fact the zenith of his output.

Last night we were treated to an appalling documentary, Weeekend Nazis, in which the intrepid Sweeney uncovered the startling revelation that there are some people with unpleasantly extreme political views in Europe and that some of them like to partake in war-games in the British countryside

The reporter’s style is unrepentantly demotic and his voiceovers could be lifted directly from Chris Morris’s character in the Day Today. “If you go down to the woods this weekend ……. You could be in for a big surprise!” boomed Sweeney portentously at the programme’s opening.

What really damns the journalistic merit of such a documentary though, is the lamentable lack of context and complete rejection of a sober, considered delivery. Sweeney’s target in this case, was a predominantly World War 2 battle re-enactment festival called War and Peace.

Very little information was provided regarding the size or nature of this event or how representative the unpleasant side of proceedings Sweeney highlighted was. Without this information and lacking any subjective assessment from the programme’s makers the viewer was forced to conclude the worst. That this was a non-story and at worst an eccentric event had attracted a tiny fringe devoted to glorifying abhorrent politics.
Perhaps there was a story here. Certainly an event attracting David Irving deserves to be examined closely and there was a strong suspicion that many attended because they found themselves drawn to Nazism’s image and imagery. It was certainly not a story that could be drawn out with Sweeney’s cack-handed approach. Someone with Louis Theroux’s flair for investigating subcultures would have made a fascinating documentary about this, Sweeney should be sent out to bully plumbers for Watchdog or something equally suitable for his limited talents.

It's opposition or bust for the UUP

The most vibrant and vital debate within Ulster Unionism continues to rage rather publicly on the Young Unionist blog.

Many have picked up on the archaic structures of the party, which eschew top-down discipline and allow dissenting voices in the public domain thus undermining a consistent message to the electorate. Whatever people’s views on the need for modernisation to party structures, it is blatantly obvious that a vigorous debate is needed within the party to establish what that coherent message should be.

As someone who considers the present administration as effectively a SF / DUP coalition and regards those twin nationalist parties with the utmost distaste, it is hardly surprising that I see opposition as an opportunity for the UUP to distance itself from them and to present a coherent vision opposed to the current sectarian, ethno-nationalist carve-up.

Ulster Unionist concern about the d’Hondt mechanism and its incompatibility with accountable and democratic government dates back to the Trimble era. The party should support ultimate constitutional change, which would establish adversarial government in the Assembly with the requirement of an opposition and a cross community coalition government. There is no question of abolishing the notion of power-sharing and re-establishing unionist majority government. Cross-community requirements should remain and allow new, healthier alignments to emerge, but without opposition only an allusion to democracy is being made.

D’Hondt is not the only solution to ensuring power-sharing. In fact it is a very poor one which the process became fixated on. Abolishing d’Hondt but ensuring power sharing principles through other mechanisms can be the first stage in normalising politics here, now that the broad principles have been almost universally accepted.

For the time being the mechanism is in place and the UUP would be excluding itself from any administration by going down the opposition route. Ideally this decision should have been made prior to Assembly elections (a decision which really would have turned up the heat on the DUP and linked them inextricably to their enthno nationalist bedfellows in SF). Unfortunately the clock cannot be turned back, but self-exclusion is still the route to go if we truly believe the rhetoric we present about DUP / SF (and God knows I do). In time the benefits will accrue electorally and the SDLP will be sorely tempted to follow suit, providing a de facto moderate, cross-community opposition.

There remains reluctance within the party to make wide-ranging or dramatic changes. Despite every commentator’s insistence that internal reform is needed to make the party effective in the modern climate, change has been painfully slow for example. It is up to senior figures in the party to grasp the gravity of our situation and to have the bravery to make a bold decision to arrest the decline. Opposition may seem anathema to a party which was once the only party of government, but electoral oblivion is surely a less enticing prospect, as is being tied to the coat-tails of the DUP as a junior partner with Ulster nationalism having obliterated genuine unionism.

Friday, 24 August 2007

Why the Duke is Special

Last night I was privileged to be present at the last of Duke Special’s 5 themed gigs at the Belfast Empire. I must admit that I’ve rarely been to a more playful or enjoyable concert.

Having watched the Duke supporting Divine Comedy some time ago, I knew that live performance brings his wistful songs on the themes of regret, guilt and loss to stunning life. The singer has a delicate touch and good-natured manner which bring fun to these sometimes sombre preoccupations.

Surrounding his wonderful music, with its attendant sadness and humour, on this occasion, was a carnival of entertainment, the whole being presented through the device of a vaudeville show and the result was hugely entertaining, extremely funny and it both captivated and involved an enthusiastic crowd.

We were treated to a charismatic compere, as well as a series of engaging sideshow acts in addition to the music.

Congratulations to Duke Special for producing something beyond the ordinary and putting on a wonderful show, which nevertheless didn’t threaten to overwhelm the music (still the sparkling highlight of the evening) but rather complimented it and left everyone present feeling thoroughly satisfied.

Monday, 20 August 2007

Maturity and literature (from a reader's perspective)

Having considered Martin Amis one of my favourite contemporary novelists, it was with a degree of surprise and alarm that I discovered I found Yellow Dog and House of Meetings jarringly over-written and tiresomely contrived, when I read these books more recently.

I am currently reading Douglas Coupland’s J-Pod and it is with increasing dismay that I realise that whilst I loved Girlfriend in a Coma, for example, and found it profoundly heart-breaking, I’m finding J Pod just as profoundly irritating. Coupland’s irony drenched techno geeks no longer engage me at all. They are deeply annoying stock figures. The “Zeitgeisty” tics Coupland’s books employ, the stream of consciousness nonsense used to break up the prose and the computer / adspeak rubbish used for the same purpose are so self-conscious, so contrived, so exasperatingly IRRITATING, that I wonder will I be able to last through to whatever trademark heart-rending, life-changing, epiphany-heavy ending Coupland has in store for his main character, Ethan.

I can conceive of two rational explanations for this. Perhaps some writers are largely one trick ponies and it simply becomes tiresome plodding through another book of similar content, written in a similar style. I believe this must be true to some extent, but I also feel that as readers get older we can change just as much as the novelist and I’m convinced that I read differently and have different tastes in fiction, than I did when I was 19 for example.

I look back at some of the things I read and which made an impression on me in my teens and early 20s with something approaching horror. I make no apologies for proclaiming, and can prove empirically and indisputably, that nothing written by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs or almost any so-called “Beat” writer is of any literary merit whatsoever. How I sat through Kerouac’s barely punctuated prose, Ginsberg’s flatulent poetry or Burroughs quasi-pornographic, drug-addled ramblings, I can no longer conceive.

Perhaps it could be argued that I simply becoming more cynical and read with a more hackneyed eye. The flaw in that argument is that I was perhaps even more oppressively cynical when I was younger. My tastes have not become more conservative particularly. I read Bulgakov or Joyce or Grass with as much joy as ever. I think it is simply that as a reader becomes older, he / she has read more and can more discerningly distinguish what is truly exciting, fresh and innovative and what is worthless nonsense

It saddens me to an extent that Coupland and Amis are becoming tedious to read, because these authors are talented and have provided immensely pleasurable reading experiences for me in the past. I still believe that at their best, these men produce intensely beautiful prose and in these particular cases I do believe that it may be fatigue with their themes and style rather than any intrinsic weakness in the original work.

Perhaps there is also an element of the world moving on beyond the subject matter both men dealt with best. Amis in my recollection, was the consummate laureate of 80s and early 90s consumerism, producing hilarious and moving novels peopled with dislocated and damaged characters. Money and London Fields contained comic riffs which had me doubled over with laughter. I’d hate to think that was just the na├»ve perceptions of a young reader. Similarly Coupland seemed to capture something important and profound about a generation obsessed with technology, unanchored to any serious beliefs or philosophy and unaccountably nostalgic for the very recent past. Coupland is older than the generation he now writes about and perhaps his style creaks under the strain. What he writes feels to self-conscious.

I’d love to hear from anyone who continues to enjoy these writers and feels that I’ve been unfair in my evaluation. Similarly anyone who agrees with me, or has found their own tastes in literature changing.

Friday, 17 August 2007

Russia's ethnic nationality policy is flawed

The Russian Empire favoured paternalism, the Soviet Union’s internationalism conferred apparent federal status to nationalities, but retained de facto control through party authoritarianism, Yeltsin presided over the break-up of the Union and urged regions to take as much independence as they could swallow, but in what way is Putin’s Russian Federation approaching its nationalities question?

The short answer is that the two approaches are being spliced and a dangerous disregard is being paid to fostering a sense of civic unity within the regions of the Federation.

The system of republics and autonomous regions operating within the Russian Federation is dangerously dictated by ethnicity. The titular nationalities often dominate their ethnically defined regions with little regard for democracy or minority rights.

Take for example the Republic of Adygea in the North Caucasus. Here the titular nationality comprises only 30% of the overall population, but thanks to language restrictions and other examples of ethnic pandering, 80% of local government jobs are held by ethnic Adygeans. Ethnic nationalists resist the majority desire to have the republic incorporated into the adjoining Krasnodor Province. This pattern is repeated elsewhere within the Federation.

The present nationalities policy in Russia is dominated by short-termism and expediency and it seems unlikely that Putin, coming to the end of his presidency, will show any resolution in tackling this overriding issue. The challenge for the incoming President however, will be to establish a civic coherence within the Federation which doesn’t cleave to ethnicity and which eschews Great Russian nationalism. Only then will ethnic tensions ease, will minority rights be established and respected and will the Federation be strengthened against separtist nationlist sentiment.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Do baldness and obesity make you tell more lies?

There is something almost pleasingly symmetrical about Slugger’s resident Shinner bigot parroting the defamations of another abhorrent mouthpiece from a different tradition.

Clearly incoherent republican propaganda on the internet is one thing, but when the public face of obesity in local sport unravels the sulphurous sphincter of his imagination to dump lustily on the clean floor of truth, the snivelling sycophants who comprise local sports’ journalism gobble up his diarrhoeic offerings with ravenous enthusiasm.

The porcine liar’s vendetta against Ballymena fans seems to date back to taunts referring to his marital break-up. But the fat philanderer seems to see no substantive difference between songs sung by a football crowd and delivering bare-faced lies in a news conference.

Anyone with a modicum of experience of either Ballymena fans or the Irish League in general knows this incident didn’t happen and even Linfield fans are tentatively suggesting that their imbecilic boss has got this one badly wrong. Needless to say Ballymena supporters have reacted with horror at the accusations and every other teams’ supporters have voiced their disbelief at the allegations issuing from the bastion of footballing bigotry’s manager.

The fact that Jeffrey’s comments were blatant lies is no disincentive for the likes of Christopher Donnelly to use them to smear Irish League football, Ballymena as a town and anything else he perceives as predominately unionist.

I would urge the club, who have legal advice available freely at boardroom level, to look into redressing the lies told by Jeffrey and repeated by a third-rate republican propagandist, whether through the courts or by means of a full retraction.

A brief history of Rome, or not

The more observant of what I might optimistically term a “readership”, may have noticed my slow blogging over recent days. I’ve been in Rome, an exceptionally enjoyable trip only spoiled by returning to the greyscale drabness of Belfast.

I’m sure no-one wishes to read a blow by blow account of our holiday, but I do have a handful of observations about a city which has established itself as one of the favourite I have visited.

I don’t believe I have ever been anywhere more laden with the weight of history than Rome. Kerry made the most insightful comment of the trip when she pointed out that the historical gravitas of the place means that it can carry the hordes of tourists without losing anything in the way of dignity or individuality.

There is nothing of the museum about the place. The layers of history co-exist amongst a vibrant, occasionally chaotic and always fascinating present. The sheer longevity of the city shows history being reinvented and cannibalised countless times as successive generations attempt to allude to the continuance of a glorious past.

Perhaps two of the sights made the greatest impression on me personally. Firstly the Roman Forum, political centre of an empire which continues to shape the modern consciousness and our very concept of civilisation. Secondly, and for a similar reason, the riches of the Vatican. Principally what was drilled home to me here was the fact that organised religion is by its very essence a tool of politics and power. Christianity, and in particular Roman Catholicism, was equally imperial in impulse and it is no accident that much of the imagery connected with it was lifted directly from the earlier Roman Empire.

Of course it was incumbent upon me to formulate such profound thoughts whilst guzzling tiramisu, cappuccino and wine in various cafes, but clearly such self-sacrifice is worth the glittering results.

Thursday, 9 August 2007

Inventing symbols and editing history

In my readings of Kiberd I was struck by his perspicacious observation that nationalities are forged by inventing symbols and advancing a highly edited historical narrative of their own genesis. Of course this is precisely the objection to nationalist politics that those of us who advance civic arguments raise. Nationality is essentially a political contrivance and should therefore have no default claim to determine a state’s constitutional arrangements.

Two newspaper articles from the past two days have brought this observation to mind. The Osbourne bull was not invented to symbolise Spain. It was designed to sell sherry and has organically become a symbol Spanish identity. Catalan nationalists are therefore attacking those who consider themselves Spanish, rather than Spain itself, with their acts of petty vandalism on these hoardings. It is a classic example of provincial nationalist victim culture whereby the identity of the so-called nation is defined in terms of negating the metropolitan culture’s symbols and history, rather than by an assertion of anything authentic which can be claimed as the provincial identity’s own.

Meanwhile Sinn Fein continue the tradition of edited history with shameless hypocrisy. On Sunday Belfast will be treated to a “march for truth” which will feature MOPEing republicans wearing black ribbons. All this organised by a party which refuses to take responsibility for its own murderous campaign and many of whose leaders refuse to admit their erstwhile involvement in terrorism.

Monday, 6 August 2007

Identity fetishist of the worst kind

One of the most noxiously abhorrent Bloggers on Slugger O’Toole is Sinn Fein mouthpiece and separateness fetishist Chris Donnelly. His grasp of Byzantine Shinnerspeak constructions isn’t complete or cunning enough to distort the underlying poison they contain. Reading Mr Donnelly’s bigotry can provide a clear and undistorted picture amongst the cleverer republicans’ hall-of mirrors.

Under the guise of “equality rather than neutrality” it is Sinn Fein’s intention to advance a joint-sovereignty agenda under the disingenuous guise of parity for political symbols, thus undermining their rhetorical acceptance of the principle of consent.

This process basically involves accepting any un-inclusive aspects of nationalist culture without complaint, because they are legitimate “symbols” of that tradition whilst maintaining persistent attacks on unionist equivalents. So we have a defence of the GAA’s political constitution and an insistence that unionists accept the “symbols” of nationalism if they wish to play the sports, but equally we have constant and persistent attack on Orange marches as triumphalist, sectarian, irredeemable hatefests and a refusal to draw any distinction between an 11th night bonfire organised by local hoods (for example) and a family friendly march of mainly elderly-folks in a country village

Refusing (despite paying lip-service to the concept) to respect the Northern Irish people’s democratic right to determine their own constitutional arrangements we have the ludicrous argument that symbols from the Republic of Ireland be conferred equal official status in Northern Ireland. As ever SF’s strategy is invidious and devious in the extreme. Under sententious phrases lie an agenda which in no way seeks an “Ireland of equals”, rather it seeks to obliterate one identity and advance another.

Of course the real bile of Donnelly and republican columnist Brian Feeney is reserved for anything which might in any way constitute common ground between the two communities. Anything that in Feeney’s poisonous view smacks of an “Alliance mentality”.

Hence the huge strides made by the Northern Ireland football team and the attendant efforts of the supporters to make supporting Northern Ireland a more inclusive experience drives Donnelly into paroxysms of fury and constitutes a failure to “recognise the two national identities in the North of Ireland” (I know, it sets the teeth on edge!). Note also the ire inspired when a great number of people here had the audacity to describe themselves primarily as Northern Irish (below).

Of course the DUP have only minor difficulties with such strategies but like their partners in nationalism, they have no interest in emphasising what people have in common, rather than what separates them either. Under the ascendant parties we are becoming accustomed to polarisation.

Real basic, irony but you can still get a hoot!

Witness the following extract from the Cinncinati Enquirer, from their interview with statesman extraordinare, Martin McGuinness.

For the next 26 years he and others like him pushed for peace in Northern Ireland, using politics, confrontation, muscle and other means to finally get to the table with the British and sign the historic Good Friday agreement in 1998.

26 years of non-stop peace work. I am actually speechless.

Indulging thuggery under the guise of culture and rights.

Pity the residents of Fisherwick Gardens in Ballymena, the only residents of the town on whom a dissident republican march is to be inflicted.

What exactly William Orr, a presbyterian United Irishman, would make of the band named in his honour, and the organisers of this parade, boggles the mind. This bizarre and gratuitously offensive event is universally deplored by every party with an elected representative on Ballymena Borough Council and is welcomed by almost no-one in the town. It will now comprise a 30 minute “march” of 100 metres by a coterie of thugs in quasi-military dress, to a single drumbeat, separated from a diametrically opposed coterie of oh so dissimilar thugs who will congregate to register their opposition through the medium of abuse and intimidation, by an expensively assembled mass of PSNI officers and Land Rovers.

All very exciting for the thugs and all very lucrative for the PSNI officers. Not quite as pleasant for those who live in the Fisherwick estate.

Every parading issue involves the universal democratic conundrum of competing rights. Theoretically a group, no matter how despicable their views or motives, should be allowed to gather and indulge in whatever dubious antics they feel necessary providing this does not impact excessively on others.

Certainly it is difficult to understand why this parade is necessary, why it is in Ballymena and why this tiny group of people can impose disruption and mayhem on those who live in the area. Ultimately with such a cross-community consensus against the event and given the disproportionate inconvenience and expense it will cause, there is no reason why it shouldn’t be banned entirely.

Clearly this logic works both ways and the incessant parading of paramilitary style loyalist bands in Ballymena town centre may not be as contentious given the demographics of the town, but needs to be looked at in the interests of all residents of Ballymena. It is an endemic problem in Northern Ireland that small, unpleasant subcultures become entwined with wider cultural and political sentiments and acquire a resonance and consequence which they do not deserve.

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

The GAA is open to "whataboutery" whilst it retains a political constitution.

A senior County Fermanagh GAA player Darren Graham has quit the sport because of persistent sectarian abuse inspired by his protestant background.
Whilst the news has been greeted with something approaching excitement by some unionists, I find the story neither surprising nor particularly shocking. This sectarianism exists in many facets of society and in other sports also.
As a Northern Ireland supporter, however, it is hard not to recall the media frenzy which accompanied Neil Lennon quitting the Northern Ireland team and to harbour a tiny inkling of desire that the same outrage greets a very similar story.
In contrast to Irish Football Association, the Gaelic Athletic Association retains an overtly political constitution and its history is firmly grounded in an exclusive Catholic, Gaelic nationalism. The following are extracts from that constitution:
”Basic Aim The Association is a National Organisation which has as its basic aim the strengthening of the National Identity in a 32 County Ireland through the preservation and promotion of Gaelic Games and pastimes.”
“Membership of the Association shall be granted only by a Club, to persons who subscribe to and undertake to further the aims and objects of the Gaelic Athletic Association, as stated in the Official Guide.”
Whilst the Association may not be overtly religiously sectarian it s ethos is blatantly not inclusive and actually its constitution explicitly discourages unionists from membership. Hardly an ethos which discourages the more Neanderthal forms of prejudice suffered by Mr Graham.
GAA fans rightly point out that their sports have transcended their political roots and become popular, exciting spectacles watched by devotees whose primary interest lies far from the governing organisation’s archaic constitution. Whilst such anachronisms exist, however, it is within unionists’ rights to question how welcome they are within the sport and point out the political partiality which separates Gaelic games from other mainstream sport.
Such cultural whataboutery may be frustrating for sports fans and unconstructive generally but it is also inevitable and is in this case within the organisation’s power to eradicate.


Congratulations to Neill Armstrong and Lindsay on their first baby girl Erin Mary, born yesterday!