Wednesday, 31 October 2007

McNarry attacks deserve UUP censure

One of Reg Empey’s aims in overseeing a restructuring of the UUP, is to establish some semblance of coherence and discipline within the party. It is therefore an acute embarrassment that after a successful party conference, a senior party representative has seen fit to attack Margaret Ritchie over her handling of the CTI affair.

David McNarry’s intemperance has been channelled in other unfortunate directions only a short while ago and it seems there is a pointed determination by this MLA (who views himself as leadership material) to veer off the party line.

One of the party’s strengths has long been its capacity to encompass a plurality of opinions and this is certainly an admirable and democratic tradition. Increasingly however, there has been a realisation that there must be some form of discipline in order to present before the electorate, something resembling a coherent message.

The fact that Mr McNarry consistently expresses opinions which are not in keeping with the type of constructive unionism the party wishes to advance, in conjunction with the reality that he is speaking for a small proportion of his fellow party members, should galvanise the party leadership to take action against him.

Putin and United Russia : the backdoor to increased parliamentary sovereignty?

Vladimir Putin spent yesterday attending ceremonies to remember the victims of Stalinist terror. The venue was Butovo in the southern reaches of Moscow and the Russian Federation’s president took the opportunity to speak about the values of political freedom and pluralism.

Given Putin’s reputation for “managed democracy” it would be easy to scoff at such sentiments. Indeed commentators have been falling over themselves to suggest that Putin will still contrive a third term as president, implying public rallies urging him to stay are part of a premeditated plan.

Such commentary is quick to dismiss Putin’s involvement in December’s Duma elections as a ruse. The inference is that Putin will decline his seat in Russia’s parliament and instead claim a strong result for United Russia (whose list he heads) as a mandate to change the constitution and stand once again in presidential elections.

Putin has consistently denied that he will attempt to seek a third term and it would require an astonishing about face if he were now to change his mind. Initially western commentary was quick to suggest that his candidacy for United Russia meant that the President intended to become Prime Minister and exercise power from this position.

The difficulty with this argument is that it posits the Duma playing a more pivotal role in Russian politics and correspondingly implicit is the notion that constitutionally the parliament’s status would benefit and the presidency may be weakened. Such a hypothesis sits uneasily with the assumption that every machination Putin plans is a devilish autocratic plan which will be damaging to both the west and Russia alike.

Say No to Titchmarsh

I am becoming increasingly exercised by the BBC’s insistence on destroying potentially high-quality programming by inflicting on viewers the ubiquitous imbecile Alan Titchmarsh as presenter.

This smug, self-regarding cretin is a tired parody of himself, yet from sub-Partridge day time chat shows he has somehow been promoted to fronting the Corporation’s prime time flagship natural history series Britain: A Natural History and latterly The Nature of Britain.

If it wasn’t bad enough having his irritating round head constantly filling the TV screen, on a visit to Waterstones on Saturday I rounded a corner to be confronted with an entire display of smirking Titchmarshs as the incurable scrivener has seen fit to inflict a volume of autobiography on the unwitting public. It is titled in irksome Yorkshire dialect “Nobbbut a Lad”, which on its own is enough to justify a book burning. Titchmarsh’s debut novel, I am reliably informed, featured an overlooked TV gardener becoming a national sex symbol and conquering the nation!

Surely I can’t be alone in wanting this flatulent fraud consigned to the television dustbin! What is he for? Why is he on television? Can someone please remove him? If he wants to eat his dinner off the ground having first had a badger test it for poison let him do it in his own time!

FIFA decision substantively implemented

Despite FIFA’s reluctance to issue a definitive statement clarifying their position on the IFA / FAI eligibility row, the substance of their decision is already being put into practice.

It seems that FIFA will ignore politics and stick to sport, ignoring the difference fetishists and allowing the IFA to continue to field a truly representative team from this part of Ireland.

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Would Feeney back cosociational model for Ukraine?

Brian Feeney's latest piece of sectarian bluster was blogged here.

O'Neill fascinatingly took apart Feeney's understanding of government and history in Lebanon over on A Pint of Unionist Lite.

To surmise, if we were to logically extrapolate the thesis this tiresomely partial columnist advanced, we would conclude that in all divided societies, functioning democracy is not possible because majorities cannot be trusted not to oppress minorities.

One such divided society is Ukraine, where Party of the Regions leader Viktor Yanukovych, whose party narrowly lost a bitterly contested snap election, is suggesting that a government of national unity needs to be formed.

Perhaps we should send over Mr Feeney and he can provide much needed advice on cosociational models of government to aid the people of Ukraine? Or would we find that there are minorities and minorities and that the pro-Russian population of Ukraine don't quite fit into the type Feeney is so eager to protect?

Cultural diversity is a tasty dish

The intricacies of a loyalist bandsman's run in with Anna Lo, are a little bit slippery. The Irish News claims that a loyalist demonstration is being organised to protest against the MLA because she addressed a letter to him which included his band's name. The band contends that it is protesting at a number of injustices visited by the Parades' Commission.

Nevertheless it does seem that the route chosen is deliberately taking in the Donegal Pass in order to stop at Lo's constituency office there. The area is the heart of South Belfast's Chinese community.

Whether there is an element of racism to the planning of this parade or not, you can't help but get a hoot from the spokesman's disclaimer of this and assertion of the tolerance of its participants.

"The fact that she is Chinese does not, in the eyes of the band, impart any blame or responsibility for her foolishness on to the wider Chinese community.

"Indeed, many of the bandsmen may on their way home enjoy a Chinese meal

My only other comment would be that organising a parade of 3000 people to protest at a letter which the sender has since apologised for sending, might be ....... JUST A SLIGHT OVERREACTION!!!

Monday, 29 October 2007

What's sauce for the goose

President Putin is boxing clever at the Russia EU summit by threatening to establish an institute in the model of EU funded NGOs in the heart of the European Union.

With the EU and America funding bodies explicitly for the purpose of influencing Russian politics, Putin is simply suggesting that Russia exercises a similar role in the EU.

With the European Union having ignored human rights infringements in the Baltics and other areas of Eastern Europe for geo-political reasons, there is work for such a body to focus on.

"Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected analyst, said one of the institute's priorities should be highlighting discrimination against ethnic Russians living in countries once part of the Soviet Union, like Estonia and Latvia."

High UUP morale at confidence boosting Conference

Buoyed by realisation that the nature of the DUP / Sinn Fein twin nationalisms axis is becoming ever more transparent to the electorate and that the voters are becoming aware too of the damage that this unholy alliance can visit on Northern Ireland, the Ulster Unionist Party’s Conference this weekend saw an upswing in morale and a rejuvenation of ideas.

The Ulster Unionist Council’s endorsement on Friday night of plans to modernise party structures and streamline the convoluted internal party rule book provided a galvanising backdrop to Saturday’s Conference in the Ramada Hotel. An efficient party coalescing around a progressive and coherent unionist programme is the aim of the restructuring process and it is encouraging that the party is edging toward policies which fulfil this criteria.

Margaret Ritchie’s appearance and the enthusiastic reception accorded to her stole the headlines over the weekend, but there was more than cosmetic value in the Social and Development Secretary’s presence. Her comments on the sectarian carve-up promulgated by DUP / SF and her identification of common ground between the UUP and SDLP point to a possible increased understanding between the two moderate parties. In forging a closer relationship between the middle ground there is a real possibility of challenging the two main parties and perhaps even edging towards a cross community coalition in opposition.

There is, not coincidentally, strong evidence that the notion of opposition is gaining momentum. Two leading representatives, David Burnside and Basil McCrea, spoke in favour of distancing the party from the Executive. It is becoming increasingly evident that the only way to provide effective government and allow the centralist, Stalinist SF / DUP carve-up to be challenged is to move towards the concept of cross community opposition.

Further encouragement was provided by vocal articulation of the party’s commitment to the Union as a whole. The contention that the DUP are Ulster nationalists and that the UUP must reiterate ceaselessly that it is they who value and cherish a big United Kingdom rather than a little Ulster, has been a preoccupation of this blog for some time. Councillor Mark Cosgrave proposed a motion supporting a pan-UK unionism. In a time when the Union is being challenged not only in Northern Ireland, but in all its constituent nations, it is of course paramount that the Ulster Unionist Party be central in strengthening relationships with unionists throughout the UK and putting forward the case for Union all over these islands.. Johnny Andrews spoke from the platform on this theme:

“We will continue to press for a Royal Commission into the future of the Union, for above all else we must participate and contribute to the Union and gain and build friendships within and throughout the United Kingdom.”

The new objectives clause of the UUP demands demands that the party must promote and strengthen the Union. That is a signal duty of the party and must forever be central to its ethos. Andrews is right to assert that the Union’s principles and values are under threat in Northern Ireland under the DUP’s leadership.

“ The UUP once again needs to grasp the true principles of Unionism. We need real practical cross-community politics rather than subsidised sectarian politics through DUP and SF’s axis of state interference.”

It is heartening to hear the areas on which the UUP need to concentrate identified from the platform and the true principles of unionism articulated with clarity. Formulating these ideas unequivocally as party policy and expressing them in a coherent and disciplined fashion through centralised party structures, the UUP can offer a clear and vibrant alternative to the DUP’s Ulster nationalist programme.

Friday, 26 October 2007

Brezhnev offered his support for Nixon over Watergate

It has emerged that as Richard Nixon succumbed to the Watergate affair in 1974 he received support from an unlikely source – Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev.

Brezhnev recognised the pressures being brought to bear on Nixon by the scandal and was concerned that the disruption might have a detrimental effect on improving relations between the two superpowers.

This fascinating insight into relations between the two most powerful men in the world has been uncovered in newly released US State Department documents. Through the Soviet ambassador to the United States, Brezhnev urged “self-control and fortitude” from his American counterpart. The secret message expressed confidence in Nixon’s ability to withstand the mounting pressures

"No doubt, there are some people -- and not only in the United States -- who anticipate that Richard Nixon won't be able to take it and will crack under the pressure," Dobrynin said he told the president on Brezhnev's behalf. "But, we are pleased to note, you have no intention of giving them that satisfaction."

The chilling self-awareness of a killer with an eye for posterity

As another serial killer finds his exploits pored over by the public and the media, the self-perpetuating dynamic of such crimes is particularly evident. Convicted serial killer Alexander Pichushkin, or the Chessboard Murderer as he has been inevitably dubbed, is the classic example of a demented egotist whose self-delusions are being gratified by the storm of publicity and psychological analysis his case has created.

Although particular responsibility might be laid with pathological consumers of the ghoulish industry of serial killer books, films and documentaries, we are all culpable to an extent for this phenomenon, simply through a completely reasonable fascination with the mentality and motivation of murderers.

Pichushkin’s courtroom statements bear the patina of self-regard that suggests the killer is only too aware that he is speaking to a worldwide audience. They are comments from a man relishing his time in the limelight. He must be only too aware that when he claims that he broke no laws and was “above” his victims that he imaginatively invokes Raskalnikov’s rationale in the minds of many of the public (particularly in Russia).

“I alone decided the fate of 60 people. I was prosecutor, judge and executioner. I decided who was to live and who was to die. I was almost God."

It is a chilling but aphoristic assertion full of awareness that it will be repeated in posterity as part of the narrative of its utterer’s crimes.

Consociational contention is a front for MOPEry

Brian Feeney consistently produces republican tinged commentary which belies his status as a supposed constitutional nationalist. Quite simply he reviles and detests unionists.

Feeney’s latest contribution is effectively his contention that the people of Northern Ireland should forever be denied accountable government or democratic norms, basically because he believes we can’t be trusted with them. It doesn’t take too much reading between the lines to uncover Feeney’s subtext. The electorate cannot be allowed to hold the executive to account because unionists are a majority and can’t be trusted:

“The arrangement is the price unionists have to pay for making themselves so objectionable over the 50 years they had a free hand here. “

Northern Ireland is forever to be consigned to the status of Lebanon, because Feeney is a MOPE and unionists are in his view irreformable, this despite the fact that every suggestion of introducing opposition at the Assembly has been presaged by an acknowledgment that it must be based on cross community coalitions.

Feeney’s article is vicious, sectarian bile from a commentator who does not want Northern Ireland to be a better place, or to work more effectively, because that would undermine the case for a United Ireland. If he truly believes that this “consociational” model is necessary in a divided society, he would apply it to any All-Ireland model he aspires to.

Spin and presentation more important than health

Roy Beggs Junior has pointed out the disparity between the proposed increase in spending for the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister and that designated to health.

"It is staggering to think that the DUP-Sinn Fein Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister is receiving greater priority than our National Health Service. That this is occurring at a time when health expenditure in the rest of the UK is rising at a significantly greater level will only increase the unacceptable disparity between health care in Northern Ireland and elsewhere in the UK."

Incredibly spending on the OFMDFM has increased from £32m in the previous devolved administration to £73.9m in the current dispensaton.

It takes a lot of money to keep the rictus grins of the Chuckle Brothers in place.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Shiny Happy Programme for Government

The Draft Programme For Government 2008-2011
has been released today bedecked with smiling children giving a thumbs up on the cover.

Very appropriate you might think because if the executive was to take a stance on "the children" it would almost certainly be in favour. Children are great and we're all for them! And on the strength of this document the executive is for a great many other fantastic things as well.

The NI executive is:

Pro more employment
Pro less poverty
Pro better public services
Pro everything being just great in Northern Ireland generally!

Maybe a little more detail on how these objectives will be achieved would be nice?

Benitez in denial as Kuyt and Voronin draw another blank

At the risk of this blog becoming dominated by football comment, I must follow up on the Liverpool story of yesterday with some observations about the appalling 2-1 defeat to a very average Turkish side.

My opinion that Kuyt and Voronin form an unworkable forward partnership has been reinforced by their ineffectual performance. The two players are both inclined to drop into deep positions to collect the ball and neither produces runs off their partner or along the line to provide a foil to the other. The combination doesn’t work Rafa!

Liverpool’s build-up play to the final third has been worse on occasions this season, but there were very few options for the midfield to pick out. The responsibility for attacking impetus therefore rested once again solely with Steven Gerrard.

The manager meanwhile decided not to remedy this with an early change. Rather he elected to delay bringing Peter Crouch on until 10 minutes from the end, giving the targetman very little opportunity to create an impact and lessening the capacity of Liverpool’s creative players to tailor their approach play to his introduction.

Why exactly Benitez wasted his time bringing on an untested central midfielder with 15 minutes to go, is a mystery only he could solve.

Disappointingly the manager appears to be in denial, praising Liverpool’s performance and blaming bad luck for the disastrous reverse last night.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Difference fetishists: Why they hate the GAWA so much

A persistent theme on this blog has been opposing the fetishisation of cultural and communal difference as actively pursued by Sinn Fein, with sporadic collusion from the DUP and “loyalists” in the unionist community when it suits their agenda.

The difference fetish is pursued in a perniciously euphemistic language heavy with phrases such as “respect for symbols” and “equality rather than neutrality” which are employed with gnawing frequency and feature in balefully disingenuous, subjective interpretations of the concept of human rights.

You will recognise the fetishists through their desire to see whatever divisive symbols or activities their own community can muster thoroughly perpetuated whilst simultaneously rejecting the validity of anything comparable issuing from the other community.

However, what draws the most venom from a true difference fetishist is anything that represents a shared Northern Ireland, a drawing together of the two communities or a shared cultural space for both to engage. The very idea that Irish and British identities can be equally expressed through common cultural or sporting experiences is total anathema to these people.

Thus the decision by FIFA for which the official announcement is still pending, that international eligibility for the football teams on this island will be decided by territory rather than by an individual’s perceived nationality has drawn shrill protests from the fetishists. Showing a wilful ignorance of Irish football history they wish to see a situation where the Republic of Ireland team represents a nationalist Irish tradition and the Northern Ireland team represents unionist British tradition.

By perpetuating the lie that the Republic of Ireland football team is “Ireland” and represents everyone who considers themselves an Irish citizen on this island, they misrepresent the intentions of the Good Friday Agreement as well as the actuality of FIFA’s statutes.

The Good Friday Agreement enshrined people’s right to consider themselves Irish, British or both. What certainly wasn’t enshrined in that agreement was a right to ignore the laws, institutions or territorial reality of Northern Ireland, nor was it agreed that the institutions of the Republic of Ireland, whether legal, cultural or sporting would extend their remit over the entire island.

The reality is that there is not one football team that represents Ireland. There are two football teams, both Irish, which represent different territorial parts of the island. Whilst that is the case the mooted FIFA decision is the only sane one that can be reached.

Of course what really, really annoys the fetishists is the strides made by Northern Ireland’s own supporters, the self-styled Green and White Army to make supporting their team a fun and inclusive experience.

Benitez must give Gerrard freedom to damage Turks

Tonight Liverpool Football Club faces Besiktas in an away Champions’ League tie in Istanbul in the knowledge, that should the team not return with a win, failing to qualify from the group stages of the competition is a very real possibility.

Rafa Benitez simply must mastermind a victory for his side tonight despite the club’s principle goal threat, Fernando Torres, failing to recover from injury and not travelling with the squad. Compounding this problem, Liverpool’s attacking momentum is reliant on Steven Gerrard whose instinct to drive the team forward from midfield was rewarded with substitution in Saturday’s derby match against Everton.

A disgruntled Gerrard was understandably unhappy with Benitez’s decision which the manager justified by contesting that Gerrard had been “playing with his heart, as opposed to his head”. Whilst the captain’s performances have been fitful since recovering from a metatarsal injury, on Saturday he had returned to his forceful best, providing his trademark thrusting runs, and forcing Everton unto the back foot after they had taken an early lead.

If Benitez cautious instincts prevail in Istanbul and he asks his talismanic captain to fetter his attacking instincts, it is hard to see where Liverpool might muster the goal power to overcome (admittedly mediocre) opponents. Kuyt and Voronin form a predictable and similar pairing where pace, incision and finishing are sacrificed for bustling industry and holding up the ball. Without forward movement from midfield such a combination will struggle to break down the Turkish defence.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Larkin's blueprint for unionism has a logical lacuna

In something of a departure for a site more accustomed to demotic tub-thumping, A Tangled Web carries a thoughtful essay by a Queen’s Law professor with a distinguished name – Dr Phil Larkin.

Dr Larkin’s article on the SDLP was mentioned on this blog before.
Turning his thoughts to unionism he has produced some considered and insightful observations, undermined by a deeply flawed central thesis.

Larkin’s championing of economic liberalism, his rejection of the cultural model of unionism, his encouragement of an inclusive approach etc. are all beyond reproach. However the conceptual flaw in Larkin’s argument is that whilst roundly rejecting the communal model he then encourages the unionist community to coalesce around a single political monolith.

The argument for a single unionist party has been covered in depth on this blog on several occasions, and it belies an ultimately limited understanding of unionism that Dr Larkin falls back on this flawed concept as his vision for the philosophy's future.

Larkin has clearly noted that Ian Paisley and the DUP have largely followed the UUP’s lead in eventually accepting the Good Friday Agreement. But to extrapolate further that the party is ready to discard the vestiges of cultural unionism, still less move beyond communal politics and to believe that their electorate would move with them is extreme naivety.

The core of the DUP’s acceptance of SF as partners in coalition is not the same desire to safeguard the union which motivated David Trimble. Rather it is to institutionalise a communal carve-up which established the party as the undisputed leader of their “tribe”. The limitations of such an approach is becoming daily more evident and for unionists who wish to move beyond communal politics to shackle themselves to such a group would be hubris.

Larkin is at his surest when he highlights the weaknesses inherent within nationalist parties and republicanism in particular and when he proffers advice on how unionists might effectively counter nationalist argument and tactics. He correctly identifies the poverty of Sinn Fein’s understanding of economics. The party have yet to fully expunge their adolescent Marxist posturing never mind replace it with a modern understanding of how best to forward an economy.

To imply, from a passing familiarity of some of its more able representatives with the vocabulary of economics, that the DUP are ready to advance a dependence economy toward private sector growth and market competitiveness, is optimistic indeed, given that the party’s policy has thus far merely been to demand a greater subvention in the most hysterical and emotive language.

Larkin advances sounds arguments encouraging unionism to present itself better and to reach out to members of the other community with the unionist message. He makes astute observations regarding the methods we should be using to win “the battle of history” as he terms it, involving a realistic and candid assessment of the limitations of unionist rule. Larkin’s contention that acknowledging the misdemeanours in our own past will prompt a less febrile and more realistic debate about the extent of those misdemeanours is indeed a fair one. Acknowledging that unionism had flaws in the past shows that lessons have been learnt and strengthens confidence that modern unionism will not repeat the same mistakes.

The academic’s comments about unionists embracing their Irish heritage also have merit, all be it qualified by the assertion omitted by Dr Larkin that embracing Irishness in no way undermines the legitimacy of unionists’ sense of Britishness. Whilst it would certainly be wonderful if a unionist politician could address an audience in fluent Gaelic, neither should unionists be buying into a prescriptive sense of Irishness which posits that language as an indicator of its authenticity.

Victory for Northern Ireland and the IFA!

The IFA and Howard Wells may finally have proved their worth by forcing FIFA to confront the issue of the partitionist FAI poaching the original Ireland football team’s players.

It looks likely the FIFA’s statutes will be applied (the decision should be announced today), despite the fallacious idea that the breakaway association are entitled to quote the Good Friday Agreement and present themselves as some manner of all Ireland team.

From now on players born in Northern Ireland will only be eligible for Northern Ireland, unless they qualify via parent or grandparent for the Republic.

Of course this is merely copper-fastening the original gentleman’s agreement which the predatory southern association had reneged on. The decision will not operate retrospectively and Darron Gibson, who precipitated the IFA pursuing the issue, can continue to play for the breakaway team.

Monday, 22 October 2007

Destroying the culture of Divis

The Angrytown News today highlights the plight of tenants in a complex of flats in Divis.

Pyjama police
The unhappy tenant hit out at “the pyjama police who patrol the corridors”.
“Who do they think they are telling us we cannot wear PJs?
“Loads of women around Divis wear pyjamas going about their daily business, it’s part of our culture,” she added.

We'll be hearing that human rights are being infringed next.

N.b. (Picture does not depict a Divis resident)

Friday, 19 October 2007

Because a government eventually must govern: The Ritchie debacle

The tortuous floundering of the Stormont executive is being dissected in minute detail on other blogs. Details of the legal advice obtained (through means on which aspersions are already being cast by Margaret Ritchie’s department) by the Belfast Telegraph does seem to suggest that the initial expert briefing received by the Social Development Minister did state that withdrawal of funding would be susceptible to challenge in the courts.

Whatever the legal intricacies, the affair’s legacy will be the perceptions it leaves with the general public, not to mention the possible damage it inflicts on the power sharing institutions.

As Ritchie pointed out in a robust defence on last night’s Hearts and Minds, the Northern Irish public undoubtedly supports her decision to withdraw funding from groups linked to the UDA. And the general impression being transmitted from Stormont to the casual observer is that of a fractured and ineffective Assembly running aground against the rocks of party political differences.

The DUP have been trying to spin this episode as an example of Mrs Ritchie illegally countering executive requirements for collegiality, but their position is undermined by the fact the minister announced her intention to take this course of action 60 days prior to releasing a statement that the funding would be withdrawn. If the executive had disagreed with her intended actions, or perceived them, in the tiresomely ubiquitous jargon, as a “solo run”, then there was more than adequate time to clarify this with Mrs Ritchie.

Whether the DUP have legal right on their side or not, the issue raises much more fundamental issues about the working of the executive. .There is not, and simply cannot practically be, anything resembling proper collective responsibility in this four party mandatory coalition government.

The Telegraph comments “the Executive - which has issued just two statements, on flooding and foot and mouth, in six months - [needs] to reach difficult conclusions, soon”, but there is simply no possibility that this will happen to an extent which would deliver efficient and workable devolved government in Northern Ireland.

If anything constructive has emerged from this sorry debacle, it is in common ground found by the UUP and SDLP. Through cementing new alignments like this and moving forward toward effective adversarial politics on a new cross-community basis there remains the possibility of redemption for devolution, if a real will to provide effective government actually exists.

Five months ago the creation of this power sharing executive was sold as an epochal event. Those of us who pointed out that creating a devolved administration was not an end in itself, if that administration was not effective and institutionalised a sectarian carve-up, were dismissed as naysayers or bitter losers, whose own parties had been marginalised by the triumphal march of the DUP / SF.

After 5 months of stasis, spin and self-congratulation the executive is unravelling as it is forced to confront real issues rather than remaining a cosmetic exercise. Whilst the current structure remains the institutions will increasingly lose what potency they retain as a symbol of rejuvenation and progress whilst continuing to fail abjectly in making the transition into effective administration.

Cyclists are not pedestrians

There seems to be an almost universal misapprehension under which the cyclists of Belfast are labouring, that they have the right to cycle on the pavement.

This is not the case. A bicycle is a VEHICLE and as such it should no more be whizzing along the pavement narrowly missing those on foot, than should a car or indeed one of these increasingly rapid and huge mobility buggies.

In the meantime may I urge pedestrians who are using the pavement as of right, to harangue and perhaps even stick an umbrella in the spokes of these idiots who do not understand that if they can't cycle on the road the shouldn't be cycling at all.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Ireland - friendliest place or a triump of myth over substance?

Lonely Planet seems increasingly to be considered the definitive voice in determining how desirable a country is as a travel destination. When they proclaim Ireland the world’s most friendly country, even given the facetious tone of the criterion applied (assessing the United States the comment is ”all they ask is that you leave the shoe bomb at home”), the opinion will be listened to.

It is therefore worth considering briefly whether Ireland is in fact inordinately friendly, or whether this laurel has been bestowed on our island largely due to lazy cliché.

I work on the presumption that this “honour” applies to the whole of Ireland, given that there is no specification to the contrary and the horrendously platitudinous summation reads “these days after the end of the 'Troubles', a cautious optimism reigns supreme, infecting the land once again with the feeling that anything's possible”.

Presumably then, the compiler of this list did not start their holiday by getting the airbus from Belfast International Airport and proffering the driver a £20 note in payment. In fact given the findings, I’d be relatively sure they avoided public transport altogether.

It seems unlikely also, that such elevated findings would have been forthcoming had the visitor(s) taken a taxi in Dublin or Belfast and got unto the subject of immigrants. The most welcoming country in the world if you’re not intending to stay or take a job!

Whether Ireland is the friendliest country in the world to visit as a tourist, really isn’t for someone who lives here to answer. It is a commonly held perception that it is, and whether this is down to successfully marketing a myth or not, that perception is being strengthened by this Lonely Planet list.

Incidentally – Latvia isn’t on the list! Quelle surprise!

Draw is Swede: but Nigel still has to convince

It was pleasing to see Northern Ireland arrest the decline under Nigel Worthington with an excellent result and creditable performance against Sweden in Stockholm.

It would be wrong to go over the top and adjudge this result as the moment Worthington’s charges regained their form after a period of transition. There are two more matches remaining in this group and in order to convince the IFA to renew his contract, it is my belief that the manager needs to win one of them.

Although both work-rate and attitude of the team were unrecognisable from the previous two games, Northern Ireland were playing an oddly anaemic Swedish side and really captain Aaron Hughes might have dealt better with the speculative far post cross which saw Olaf Mellberg sneaking in to give Sweden a fifteenth minute lead.

Sweden showed little inclination to push forward for a second and they seemed happy to cede possession, which suited the style of play Worthington favours. Chris Brunt’s long range effort came closest to equalising before Kyle Lafferty’s wonder strike. Brunt remains frustratingly enigmatic, with a mixture of beautifully crafted left foot shots and crosses subsisting alongside much more numerous scuffed and misplaced efforts.

It would be churlish to be overly negative about an away draw against a top 10 ranked side. Northern Ireland did play some neat stuff at times and most of the players turned in commendable performances. Although it was not a night when a heroic rearguard performance was required (and Hughes’ lapse for the first goal not withstanding) seeing the centre back combination of the Fulham man and Steven Craigan reconstituted was a confidence restoring decision for both team and fans.

I’m loathe to admit it, but George McCartney was also effective, providing strong overlapping runs with Brunt on the left hand side, whilst never neglecting his defensive duties. Gareth McAuley was replaced by Tony Capldi towards the end, but made one particularly good challenge and did nothing to undermine his case for a regular berth in the squad.

In midfield, both Davis and Clingan were tidy, if unspectacular. The mercurial Brunt worked hard and provided the most effective wide outlet, but his delivery was erratic. I’m afraid to say though, that Ivan Sproule’s skills do not match his lightning pace and the game largely passed him by, with the exception of a couple of pacy runs.

Lafferty deserved his man of the match billing up front, holding the ball up well and competing tirelessly despite being perpetually harassed by the French referee and being subjected to a completely unjust booking early on. By his own high standards Healy was merely proficient, but always offered a threat and was closely marshalled by the Swedish defence.

Despite the improved performance, questions will remain about Worthington’s tenure as manager. This morning the BBC have chosen to run with a story about players drinking after the defeat in Latvia (an open secret amongst fans and one which has been repeated constantly over many years). It was this type of unprofessional behaviour which Sanchez had effectively combated and its re-emergence under the new regime remains a concern despite the team rallying and producing a result in Stockholm

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Obesophobia: Just eat less everyone!

Pathologically steer clear of populist wisdom, is a maxim to which adherence would normally be advisable, but occasionally there arises an issue in the media where common sense is apparently so palpably subverted that it is simply not possible to resist manifesting an attack of the “Jeremy Clarksons”.

Initially I was tempted to respond to the news that a study had declared individuals no longer responsible for their own obesity, in just such a fashion. Having ruminated briefly on the issue and simultaneously on a full fat buttered slice of toast, I came to the more measured conclusion that although this was the angle the BBC were taking on the story, the experts behind the research were simply highlighting the scale of the problem and concluding that it was simply not enough to submit the issue to individual responsibility ALONE any longer.

The damning statistics detailing decreased productivity and spiralling costs of care for obesity related conditions for the NHS, does compel the government to consider what it might do encourage healthier eating. Any initiatives however, should be constrained to education and encouraging healthier diets and life-styles. Actually changing dietary habits, or adopting a healthier lifestyle, remains solely the prerogative of the individual however this story is reported. It is simply none of the government’s business to actually attempt to regulate what people consume and how they spend their leisure time (whether through indirect taxation or other methods).

Now if you’ll excuse me I must go and buy some beer before ordering a curry for a sedentary night watching international football.

Dingle is a cautionary tale

An interesting story has been unfolding in the southern Irish press over the past couple of days. The main source of intrigue for me personally, is watching the Irish Language lobby, which in Northern Ireland persists in framing its arguments as part of a spurious “rights based” agenda, merrily trampling over much more fundamental rights from their position of ascendancy in the Republic.

The issue arises in Dingle, where the population have had their run-ins with the Irish Language extremists before, demanding that the name of their famous town, popular as a tourist destination, remain in the anglicised form. Irish people from County Kerry are now being denied education in the main spoken language in the Republic, English, in Dingle.

The Irish Examiner today published a fierce and entirely justified rebuttal defending the priority of children's education.

The controversy in Dingle is a cautionary tale in the north where legislation to go down a similar hubristic road is a current political battleground. We can see the damaging and exclusivist effects of extremism in the language issue, as it is used to forge an ethno-nationalist agenda at the expense of good sense and in a way damaging to individuals.

Avoiding the phrase "I told you so" ....

Martina Purdy’s commentary on yesterday’s events at Stormont neatly echoes some of the recurring themes of this blog.

The underlying tensions which threaten to destabilise the executive as real issues are broached have been evident to anyone with even a marginal interest in events at Government Buildings. Although why the DUP are actually taking issue with Margaret Ritchie’s withdrawal of funding to the UPRG is another matter.

The structural difficulties alluded to have been a stable of recent posts also. However the most interesting point raised is in the conclusion to the article. If ministers are not hamstrung by the unworkable inefficiencies of collective responsibility, do the DUP’s claims that they made fundamental changes to the 1998 Agreement to prevent unilateral action by ministers justified?

You don't have to be mad to be a terrorist, but it helps.

Michael Stone intends to defend his "performance art" by calling both Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley as witnesses, when he is tried for his bizarre slow motion attack on Stormont.

But what really puts the cherry on his wobbly mental blamange may be the following comments regarding BBC NI's satirical animation Folks on the Hill - "I knew nothing about Stormont until I watched that show on television. I found it very realistic".

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Lib Dems leadership quandary

On only one occasion did I exercise my franchise on mainland Britain and whatever the merits or demerits of that youthful decision, my X was etched indecisively beside the name of the aspirant Liberal Democrat MP.

Whether I would have stood by my chosen party in subsequent elections is a matter of conjecture, for which even I can not claim to have the answer. But regardless, my personal legacy from the 1997 election is that I harbour some residual sympathies toward the third party in British politics.

Whilst I am in confessional mood, I must also admit that I was a sucker for Charles Kennedy’s amiable wit and indeed his apparent fondness for a tipple, if anything made me more sympathetic to his leadership of the party. So it was with no particular joy or excitement that I descried the ascension of an aging party grandee, Menzies Campbell, to party leader.

Whether Campbell’s resignation yesterday suggests that he was a victim of ageism, is a matter on which various people will proffer different opinions. The postponement of the election for another 2 years and a perception that a younger leader would offer the party a fresher image, certainly seemed to figure in the minds of party members as their support for the leadership faltered.

The chief failure of Campbell’s tenure however, was an inability to draw together post-Kennedy factions and get them to coalesce around his leadership. The party correspondingly failed to maintain the dynamic public profile which Kennedy and Paddy Ashdown had previously established.

To be brutally frank, the quality of leadership contenders being bandied about to replace Ming Campbell is unlikely to cause many sleepless nights amongst Conservative or Labour strategists. If the Westminster party were to follow the instincts of their grass roots and consider seriously recalling Kennedy, then I have no doubt that the two main parties would be more discomfited.

Monday, 15 October 2007

Robinson's message is correct but inconsistent with party line

Although Peter Robinson has been one of the most consistently and incurably obnoxious local politicians over the course of his career, there is little doubt that his pragmatism and organisational ability set him head and shoulders above most of his fellow party members as regards political ability.

His party affiliation notwithstanding, Robinson has delivered perceptive and considered analyses in speeches before; therefore it is not especially surprising that he has identified the economic and organisational weaknesses of the power-sharing arrangements his own party have been denying over the past number of months.

Robinson and the DUP claimed they would wrest a huge peace dividend from Gordon Brown. When this was not immediately forthcoming they claimed that implementation of power sharing structures was dependent on the same. That vow turned out to be as empty as other DUP promises and it has fallen to Robinson, as Finance Minister, to warn us that there will be significant belt-tightening required in the forthcoming Budget and Programme for Government.

The East Belfast MP has not flourished for over 30 years within the DUP without resorting to their archetypal posturing, but he is also astute enough to absorb the crux of our economic difficulties without resorting to shrill indictments of the British government.

It does not require an economic genius to recognise that Northern Ireland is unhealthily reliant on public sector spending, but when Robinson comments that the “days of large increases in public spending are not sustainable", he is actually striking a dissonant chord from the orthodoxy of his party’s economic policies (all be it a starkly more realistic one).

"We need an economy that creates wealth not merely one that consumes public spending." Is incontrovertible truth as regards the Northern Irish economy, but it is a million miles away from Paisley lambasting Gordon Brown as “the enemy” because he refuses to indefinitely fill the coffers as a reward for recalcitrant bigots from each side of the community deigning to form an ineffective administration together.

Robinson has also identified the democratic and decision making weaknesses in the current system of devolution, and in so doing is according with the views of more imaginative members of the UUP. He advocates opposition and comes within a whisker of proposing cross-community coalition, before submitting to the atavistic instincts of his party and condemning community designation.

Community designation is manifestly not ideal, but whilst we have a divided society it is simply not possible to do away with it altogether and not return to a position of majority rule by one community.

The least euphonious of Robinson’s remarks are again grounded in patent reality. Northern Ireland’s devolved institutions, and the attendant arms of local government and administration, form an unwieldy and unsustainable bureaucratic behemoth which must be drastically reduced in order to facilitate efficient and cost-effective government and public services. The Finance Minister alludes, but does not linger, on the public service job cuts all of this must mean, he also fails to pursue his own logic to the inexorable conclusion that the local government restructuring both unionist parties vehemently opposed, needs to be instigated in some form.

Nutty Nigel loses grasp of reality completely

If there was any hope left that Nigel Worthington may be anchored to reality in at least some tenuous fashion, this was comprehensively disproved by the erstwhile Canary's reaction to the England rugby team's snorefest semi-final against" France.

"What an exciting match that was!"

Ukrainian mess finds echoes in a novel

Intrigue continues behind the scenes in Ukraine, as President Yuschenko attempts to cobble together a coalition to govern the politically fractured state.

The West’s favoured Orange coalition has cracked irrevocably.   If Yuschenko elects to form a government with a wafer thin majority, including his former ally Yulia Tymoshenko, whom he now loathes, it is difficult to envisage it becoming stable.

Tymoshenko, whose personal popularity now eclipses any other politician in Ukraine, will refuse to be part of any administration which includes Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions. Incredibly Yuschenko would consider resuming coalition with a man he previously accused of attempting to steal the disputed 2005 election, such is his enmity toward Tymoshenko.

It is against the background of this unfolding, real-life political drama that I have been reading Andrey Kurkov’s ‘The President’s Last Love’ over the past week or so. It is a complicated novel in terms of its structure, but it is also relevant to the past 2 year’s upheavals in Ukraine (despite being released just before the dramas of Yuschenko’s disfigurement and the so-called Orange Revolution).

Kurkov interlinks three separate strands of the story, which take place in three different eras. The first is a fond and evocative coming of age tale, set mainly in the dying embers of the Soviet Union. Second is a tragic contemporary love story, set against the protagonist’s career as a rapidly promoted, post-Soviet apparatchik. Third is a savage satire on post-Soviet politics, set in the year 2015.

To give away much more about the plot would spoil the novel, but it features a malevolent oligarch, a heart transplant and the beatification of Vladimir Ulyanov (Lenin) by the Orthodox Church.

All the endearing strangeness of Death of a Penguin is present in Kurkov’s book, as well as a timely dissection of contemporary Ukrainian politics. An essential piece of reading, given that fact has proved almost as strange as fiction for Ukraine's government in recent years.

Friday, 12 October 2007

The internet and anonymity

Following on neatly from Naomi Klein’s observations about blogging, Chris Hope has highlighted in his Daily Telegraph blog that the most visited political party website on the internet is that of the BNP.

The ensuing debate as to why this might be is unfolding on Slugger.

My perspective is that the frisson of taboo is sufficient exciting to get people Googling frantically in search of the far right. There is a “through the fingers” fascination which has much in common with the instinct which causes web users to send each other links to David Icke’s site or those devoted to certain more “niche” sexual practices.
Both stories raise certain fundamental questions about the nature of the internet / blogging and these phenomena’s relationship to mainstream media.
During the BNP debate, the anonymity of internet usage has been mentioned as a possible factor in the statistics. Within their own homes web users will pursue interests which they wouldn’t dare indulge in a library or newsagent.
Of course contributing political opinion on the internet can also be an anonymous affair, the blog you are currently reading being a prime example (although my perfunctory anonymity is a shallow and easily demolished edifice). There can be little doubt that retaining anonymity whilst giving opinion does somewhat lessen the burden of responsibility which that opinion attaches to the contributor. That is a distinction which journalists have not been slow to point out.
This anonymous blog is, as I’m sure you’ll agree a repository of moderation, tolerance, erudition and irrefutable good sense. More fallible bloggers may feel their anonymity frees them to express unpalatable and extremist views.
Whether this corresponds to a triumph of free speech and liberation of our collective unconscious for the betterment of mankind, or whether it is dangerous to provide a platform which is anonymous both in its creation and consumption is a question much too profound for a hungry man at 4.50pm on a Friday afternoon.

Swede home to Northern Ireland

It appears that things will go from bad to worse under Nigel Worthington. Injury problems have deprived him of Johnny Evans and Keith Gillespie for the trip to Sweden next Wednesday.

Worthington has persisted in describing the two dismal defeats by Latvia and Iceland as “unlucky”, which defies belief and suggests that he has little or no idea what needs to be addressed in order to improve results.

Meanwhile the replacements for Evans and Gillespie will be footballer / boozer Gary Hamilton and Sean Webb. Yes that’s Sean Webb of Accrington Stanley. Accrington Stanley! Who are they? Exactly!

Word of the day

It is perhaps best not to analyse Naomi Klein's political pronouncements too closely. That may better be left to callow youth, whose adolescent reflexes are best satisfied by the "anti-globalisation poster girl".

Fair play though, she can coin a phrase - BONOISATION!

She also gives us bloggers a touch. The gist of her argument is that people are spending too much time formulating argument and too little time firebombing their local McDonalds. Still ..... "Bonoisation".

Underpaid Medical Secretaries Plight Raised in Assembly

This summer I became vicariously acquainted with the important and responsible work carried out by medical secretaries in the NHS.

I have also come to understand that there is a shortage of candidates to fill these positions in Northern Ireland, due to the derisory wages offered. The result is a large backlog of work, inefficiency in delivery of services and public money being wasted by plugging the gap with agency staff.

The SDLP’s Thomas Burns raises this issue today in the NI Assembly’s written questions and outlines the disparity between medical secretaries in Northern Ireland and in the other devolved regions:

Questions to the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety

1. Mr Thomas Burns ( South Antrim):
To ask the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to provide an explanation of why all medical secretaries in Northern Ireland were matched to Band 3 pay levels, regardless of experience, compared to 70% of medical secretaries in Wales and 80% of medical secretaries in Scotland, who were matched to Band 4 pay levels.
(AQW 584/08)

Thursday, 11 October 2007

Please Darling, can we have some more?

The Belfast Telegraph notes aghast in its leader that Alistair Darling only intends a 1.9% increase in public spending for Northern Ireland as announced in his Pre Budget Report. This represents a lower growth rate than that to which we have become accustomed.

There follows a confused piece in which it is acknowledged that the Northern Irish economy is overly-reliant on the public sector but Mr Darling is criticised for expecting growth to come from the private sector. It is also presented as a “bad thing” that Finance Minister Peter Robinson is expected to deliver savings by increasing the Assembly’s efficiency.

Perhaps the fact that “devolution is a costly exercise, as the public is discovering, with 11 departments to finance and another - justice and policing - on the way” should cause us to examine whether devolution is necessary, whether it can be delivered in a more efficient manner and whether its extent shouldn’t be limited, rather than eliciting howls of outrage when greater and still greater subvention isn’t forthcoming from Westminster.

Lenin to be buried at last?

An aide in Vladimir Putin's Kremlin regime has suggested that the time to remove Lenin's embalmed body from the mausoleum in Red Square has arrived.

Coming from a senior figure whose remit covers the square, this suggestion must be taken seriously.

Certainly, burying the body would remove a potent symbol connecting the new Russia to the Soviet era. Given the capitalist development of modern Russia this only seems fitting.

The move will anger Communists and an older generation who have largely missed out on the country's growing prosperity and remain nostalgic for the certainties of the USSR.

The current bribery to desist gangsterism is part of an ongoing process

I am resoundingly not a fan of Lindy McDowell’s demotic tirades in the Belfast Telegraph. However it is hard to find flaw in her analysis of the current impasse in presenting £1.2 million to a group of criminal thugs in order to persuade them to disarm.

McDowell is correct in dating capitulation to gansterism early in the peace process. She is also correct in asserting that Margaret Ritchie is making the best of a bad job by moving to withdraw the funding.

Resurgent Radiohead release In Rainbows

The blogosphere has been alight recently with excitement about the new Radiohead album In Rainbows, and the band’s characteristically unusual method of vending it to the listening public.

I have refrained thus far from offering my tuppence worth (anyone genuinely interested will have known for some time the idiosyncratic release details), but having parted with my chosen cost and listened to the record a couple of times after it became available yesterday, I must rip from my tortured soul the following remarks.

It takes something rather compelling to sunder me from a book or a newspaper on my daily commute, but listening to a new Radiohead recording is one such compulsion. In Rainbows does, it must be said, reward the effort. Although any album, and particularly an album by Radiohead, can only be evaluated properly after a number of listens and possibly even after a number of weeks, first impressions are that In Rainbows sets a welcome course between the abstruse experimentation of Amnesiac and Kid A and the distorted, guitar dystopias of OK Computer.

What I can say, with little reservation, is that In Rainbows is a more impressive album that Hail To The Thief.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Biting the hand that feeds you

In 1984, seeking a government grant to fund the completion of the North Stand, Linfield FC needed the Irish FA to sign a long term lease in order to secure the funds.

With Linfield being the IFA’s pet club, a contract was quickly formulated and so cosy was the relationship between the two that no-one within the Inept, Farcical and Absurd governing body bothered to include any release clauses.

23 years later Linfield continue to receive handouts, rulings and clientalism of all kinds from Windsor Avenue, but despite the hundreds of thousands of pounds they receive annually from hosting Northern Ireland international matches, they have let their stadium fall into a state of unusable disrepair.

Of course if you deal with the despicable it doesn’t matter how much toadying you do, it doesn’t matter how much you bend your own rules to accommodate them, it doesn’t matter how partially you favour their interests, they will screw you over whenever things don’t entirely go their way.

A lesson the IFA are about to learn the hard way.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Saying nothing can be the best policy

It is difficult not to have sympathy for David McNarry’s views on the Irish Language within the Assembly. It must be galling to have one’s time wasted and patience exhausted by an exercise in political posturing by Sinn Fein.

To then be accused of anti-Irishness, simply because you refuse to play along with this charade quietly is a further preposterous indignity.

Making an issue of his frustrations, however, is playing into the hands of Sinn Fein who are intent on stirring passions on this issue and turning it into a specious equality agenda. I have indicated before that unionists need to maintain cool heads on this issue and not succumb to anything which can be perceived as a gut reaction to the Irish Language.

Monday, 8 October 2007

Boney M - treat or provocation?

One of the more surreal moments I have experienced on my travels was when I got into a clapped out Lada taxi in Donetsk and realised that the radio was pumping out Belfast by Boney M.

It transpires that further east in the former Soviet Union the 1970s disco group are to be inflicted on the denizens of disputed South Ossetia in what might be interpreted as psychological warfare from the Georgian authorities.

Executive divisions illustrate the drawbacks of devolved administration

It is difficult to take Daithi McKay’s posturing over the Seymour Sweeney controversy remotely seriously, but understandable disquiet within the executive about the affair illustrates perfectly the inadequacies and frailties of the form of putative government established in Northern Ireland.

In an executive established by enforced coalition, unity is only ever a cosmetic façade and when a hint of controversy manifests itself, naturally this flimsy construction comes crashing down as the other parties jostle to distance themselves from their supposed partner’s difficulties. The current government will most likely survive the Causeway issue, but sooner or later the whole fragile edifice will disintegrate.

Of course the very idea that disparate or indeed diametrically opposed parties can deliver coherent government without an element of opposition is inherently flawed. Either they merely allude to government, endlessly prevaricating on important issues and producing only a compromised mish-mash delivering nothing (this has so far been the tenor of the current executive) or they exist in a stasis of stalemate.
Electorally d’Hondt delivers a supreme nonsense, a parody of democracy whereby parties compete at the ballot box before being expected to unite around a programme of government under the conventions of collective executive responsibility.

The limitations of the current system of devolution are already beginning to manifest themselves in this young executive and it is inevitable that they will become ever more apparent as the novelty of a functioning Assembly wears off and the electorate seek delivery. It will be ultimately for the parties to decide whether they are happy to continue short-changing the people of Northern Ireland with an insipid caricature of democracy and government or whether they are prepared to move toward political maturity and deliver an adversarial system of government with power sharing requirements.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Don't disenfranchise the moderate unionists of South Belfast

One of the luxuries of commentating on politics, rather than being an active participant, is the ability to stand above the Machiavellian horse-trading that often dictates, more than principle, the actions of a party.

I have already recorded my scepticism regarding rapprochement with the DUP. Fielding single unionist candidates seems to me capitulation to sectarian carve-up and represents a submission to the regressive communal politics right-thinking unionists need to oppose.

Nevertheless I acknowledge that such a deal has its attractions for the UUP, particularly as regards the constituencies of Fermanagh South Tyrone and South Belfast. Not only would the party stand to gain one of the lost Westminster seats from such a deal, but the FST constituency would be wrested from the grip of Michelle Gildernew and its electorate would once again be represented in parliament.

I was less than surprised, however, to discover that the deal likely to be proposed by the DUP, is less advantageous to unionism and more driven by self-interest than the offer which had been expected by most commentators. Journalist David Maxwell is indicating that his understanding is that the DUP will offer to cede Fermanagh South Tyrone to the Ulster Unionist candidate, who will run unopposed by the DUP, on the understanding that South Belfast’s only mainstream unionist candidate is Jimmy “Splitter” Spratt the bellicose, rubicund ex-policeman who let in the SDLP’s candidate McDonnell at the last election.

In a constituency with a high proportion of liberal unionists Spratt will cause votes to be lost to the Alliance and the SDLP. Certainly I personally could not consider voting for such a candidate. The conventional wisdom has always been that the DUP would stand a decent chance of winning FST and that in liberal South Belfast, a UUP candidate would have a greater chance of success.

The real motivation for the DUP’s decision is that they are quite aware that if Tom Elliot or another UUP candidate wins in Fermanagh, it will be viewed as a victory enabled by the generosity of the DUP. If he loses, another crisis will be precipitated for the Ulster Unionists and the seat is unlikely to be seriously contested by the party again.

Accepting this deal would be bad for unionism, bad for Northern Ireland and bad for the UUP. If Maxwell’s understanding of the DUP’s proposal is correct, the Ulster Unionist Party should field candidates in both constituencies, avoiding disenfranchising their supporters in either, and standing a good chance of regaining South Belfast, perhaps with the leader seeking election.

Weird "science": Causeway centre could be a portal for loopers

Pete Baker has been tenaciously blogging on two fronts over on Slugger O’Toole. But his latest thread fascinatingly links the allegations of cronyism against the First Minister, over his backing of Seymour Sweeney’s plans for a new visitor centre at the Giant’s Causeway, to the DUPiban’s emerging belligerence over creationism.

It is as scary as it is preposterous that visitors to our shores may be treated to the wisdom that the causeway was formed 4000 years ago during Noah’s flood! As a poster on Slugger wryly notes, they may as well advance as science the "Finn MacCool Theory".

Ukrainian museums bend history to suit nationalist narrative

There is a fascinating article in today's Moscow Times which is particularly pertinent given the discussions on this blog recently, about manipulation and omission of history in the service of presenting a palatable nationalist narrative.

Sinn Fein's rewriting of Northern Irish history and elision in the national story of Latvia have been touched on in recent weeks, but this article is particularly fascinating given the divisions which still effect Ukraine and are currently dominating the election there.

Ruane demonstrates her priorities once again

As the bitter dispute with classroom assistants drags on and money which these people are fully entitled to continues to be withheld, isn’t it nice that the Education Minister is obviously so focused on the task at hand, i.e. Irish Medium education. MOST IMPORTANT ISSUE EVER.

Apologies for subjecting you to a link from the worst paper in Ireland by the way.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Old chestnuts won't win it for Tories

The Guardian is confident that Gordon Brown will call an early election at the beginning of next week, predicting that the poll will take place on November 1.

The Conservative conference is already being used as the launching pad for David Cameron’s campaign, but despite the headline grabbing announcements regarding Inheritance Tax and Stamp Duty , it appears from David Davies speech that traditional Tory attacks on immigration and Euro-scepticism will be rallying points for the election, despite Cameron’s progressive reputation.

Time and time again it has been proven that in British politics these issues galvanise a very vocal minority, but that they are simply not pivotal enough to most people to form the battleground on which an election can be won.

Taken as a whole the British electorate is a more tolerant and liberal body than is often recognised. They have accepted and integrated a number of immigrant waves with only relatively minor social unrest. They largely accept that their society is a diverse and multicultural place and although Euroscepticism does exist, voting patterns show it is much less endemic than many analysts would argue and the British are in general, a fairly outward looking people.

If all the Conservative Party can offer in the forthcoming election is a couple of marginal tax cuts, demotic posturing on immigration and Europe and a snide campaign transparently based on Gordon Brown’s Scottishness, I have every confidence that the electorate will once again reject them.

Michael Palin's New Europe - a defence

I am an unapologetic fan of Michael Palin and currently, when I’m not watching his current series New Europe, I’m pouring over the accompanying book, which Kerry bought me for my birthday.

Unfortunately I have misplaced the link, but Palin’s current series has not attracted universal acclaim. I read one review in the Guardian which suggested that the ex-Python was exacerbating perceptions of the “otherness” of eastern Europeans by focusing on the quirks and eccentricities of their cultures. The reviewer believed that this would undermine the purpose he seemed to ascribe to the programme, namely harmonising relationships between the so-called “old” and “new” Europes and encouraging acceptance of new members of the European Union (!!).

I don’t know quite what the most disturbing facet of this critique is. It may be the overarching responsibility assigned to an amiable television presenter or indeed it may be the subtext that the people of the United Kingdom can only empathise with bland identikit cultures and that the viewers don’t have the wit to realise that Palin may focus occasionally on unusual or atypical subject matter. Perhaps the reviewer fears that the accession states and aspirant accession states are simply too unique and interesting to be encompassed in a supra national EU mulch of identical bananas and precisely delineated chocolate.

In any case I reject the criticisms levelled at Palin’s series. In the programmes so far, he has picked up on various cultural intricacies (as he is bound to do in a travel programme) but has also deployed his affable charm to draw local people into talking about their own perspectives on the past , perceptions of the present and aspirations for the future. His touch is light and subtle and he allows people to develop their own thoughts on difficult subjects such as conflict and history without infusing them with the nuance of his own interpretations.

I contend that the presenter’s light-hearted style is not only entertaining, but also allows a more natural insight into the places he visits than more “serious” broadcasters sometimes deliver. In not seeking to uncover dramatic social or political revelations, but experiencing other cultures with an open mind and a generous spirit, I firmly believe that Michael Palin still produces the best travel documentaries on television.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

From the nationalist perspective: beyond communal politics

This blog is written from a unionist perspective, by a member of a unionist party and inevitably therefore, debates within unionism tend to predominate.

It is worth pointing out however, that a debate is also going on within Irish nationalism attempting to make sense of where the new dispensation leaves the traditional imperatives of that creed's political representatives, and it is not without its parallels to that within unionism.

I was fascinated and heartened therefore, to read an excellent article by Dr Phil Larkin blogging on The Long Lane, analysing the tasks lying ahead for the SDLP. Larkin comes to some conclusions about the future of moderate nationalism which are not unlike those advanced by the more progressive voices within unionism. The following passage in particular urges the SDLP to look beyond communal politics and its preoccupation with a rights based language grounded in outdated perceptions.

The first truth is that the constant emphasis on individual and group rights indulged in by both communities in Northern Ireland is essentially a hangover from the decades of “zero-sum” politics from which the province suffered. Any advantage gained (or, more usually, perceived to be gained) by one community was seen as gained at the expense of the other, who, in return, demanded the same “rights” off London, or else lobbied Dublin to secure them. This bred a pernicious legacy. Most importantly, it led both unionists and nationalists seeing themselves as victims, and obscured the reality that all groups could work together for a shared and prosperous future. Overemphasis on “rights” by political groupings is not symptomatic of a politically confident and economically advanced society: just witness how far Gerry Adams’ plaintive cry that “people have rights”, when talking about the southern economy, advanced him and his party with Irish voters during the May election

Putin may seek Prime Ministerial role

It appears that President Putin is not ready to relinquish day to day involvement in federal Russian politics when his term as president ends in March next year.

Whilst he has confounded speculation that constitutional changes might be made to enable him to seek a third presidential term, he has indicated that he may run as a candidate for United Russia in the Duma elections in December and would consider becoming Prime Minister of the Russian Parliament given a favourable result.

With buoyant personal approval ratings and given the campaigning advantages United Russia will undoubtedly enjoy, this favourable result is largely inevitable. Putin would be required to resign his presidency in order to take his seat in the Duma.
Certainly Putin’s active involvement as Prime Minister would not appear to be conducive to a new president establishing new and independent policy initiatives, especially as the new president is likely to gain victory primarily through Putin’s patronage.

Although ostensibly the situation appears democratically deficient to our western sensibilities, it would be wrong to forget that there is little appetite in Russia for any radical new direction and President Putin remains hugely popular. Although western governments may desire a fresh new start for the Federation and would wish to see the outgoing president exercising as little influence as possible, it is patronising to prescribe such an outcome for a Russian population who to not share these aspirations.

McGimpsey plugs Irish Language cash leak

Health Minister Michael McGimpsey has addressed wasteful madness whereby all press releases and advertisements for his department were automatically translated into Irish.

It is precisely this type of profligate nonsense (predictably introduced by Bairbre de Bruin), of no benefit to anyone, which undermines goodwill toward the Irish Language lobby.

Hopefully this rare instance of common sense will not soon be overturned.

Deteriorating situation in Ingushetia indictment of ethnic policies

One of the failures of Vladimir Putin’s administration has been his handling of the nationalities issue in the Russian Federation. I discussed the ethnic basis of regional government which Putin has been happy to perpetuate in a previous post.

A failure to attempt to foster civic coherence and act against preferential treatment based on ethnicity is a dangerous recipe for ethnic strife when coupled with a preference for strong armed regional leadership.

In the Caucasian Republic of Ingushetia ethnic violence has been a daily occurrence for some months now. A mixture of nationalist separatism which for years has spilt over from neighbouring Chechnya, Islamist terrorism and resentment at the imposition by Putin of President Murad Zyazikov, is contributing to a potentially explosive situation.

It is no mere coincidence that the violence has taken a predominantly ethnic form with all non-Ingush possible targets.

Monday, 1 October 2007

Straw raises the spectre of English nationalism as Tories focus on West Lothian

Jack Straw writes about the difficulties inherent in excluding MPs from elsewhere in the UK from voting on matters pertaining to England in today’s Daily Telegraph.

He raises both the practical difficulties of establishing the exact remit of a bill and all its clauses, as well as the more subtle consideration of the financial and other implications any legislation passed for 85% of the UK’s population may have on the rest of it. Straw rightly points out that whilst the power of levying taxation remains with Westminster, it is impracticable to cleanly separate bills in that parliament by their regional remit.

With the Conservatives continuing to focus on the West Lothian question, Straw challenges David Cameron’s party’s unionism and suggests the Conservative party may have jettisoned its historical roots to become the party of English Nationalism.

Whilst any ideological commitment to nationalism in Cameron’s Tories is questionable (and some may suggest any ideological content to Cameron’s Tories is questionable), certainly the party is prepared to tap into little-Englander sentiment and doesn't mind undermining the very constitutional fabric of the United Kingdom in order to attack Gordon Brown.

Insidious New Age nonsense

Whatever the alignment of certain planets and the confluence of my energies over the weekend, I experienced an event of astonishing serendipity. Having spent a considerable part of Friday ranting about the charlatanism and imbecility of New Age beliefs, having been provoked by a quick inspection of a shop named “Solstice”, I switched on BBC 2 on Saturday night to witness Steven Fry venting his spleen on exactly the same subject during an old repeat of Room 101.

For the duration of Fry’s monologue I managed to restrain myself to fervent nods of the head, before erupting in a torrent of agreement as he concluded his remarks. “Inappropriate ransacking” of cultures surmises Fry’s objections, as well as the melding of all these disparate, cannibalised facets into something so amorphous and woolly that it could be fleeced and knitted into a cardigan.

The shop I had need to enter epitomised everything the comedian objected to. Buddhas from the subcontinent, dream catchers from North America, “energy” crystals from …… pass, Feng Shui from China etc etc. All no doubt perfectly in context within their own particular culture, but none immune from pilfering by opportunistic old hippies for vending amongst their foul smelling incense and tie dye drapes. Then of course we have the rehabilitation of various aspects of ancient paganism.

For all my secularism and distaste for religion, it grievously offends me when a vague, incoherent hotch-potch is advanced as an alternative belief system. What elevates this from irritating to insidious is the amount of people hawking such nonsense for money.

Eeee Iiiii Eeeee Iiiii Eeeee Iiiii ohhhhh!

Up the political bloggers league we go!

I recall an incident in the Ukraine when a young tennis player was introduced to a cohort of Northern Ireland supporters. "I'm the 86th best Under 21 tennis player in Ukraine", was greeted with the rejoinder "that's a coincidence. I know the fella who's 52nd".

I'm trying hard not to exercise the same cynicism on learning that this blog has been named by popular vote as 224th best political blog in the UK for the purposes of Iain Dale's book. A couple of other notable blogs linked to this site were in and around the same area.

221 Young Unionists 222 Clive Davis 223 Media Lens 224 Three Thousand Versts... 225 Remittance Man 226 A Pint of Unionist Lite

Hopefully, considering the relatively short time the site has been going, this means the output is read and appreciated by some of you. Many thanks to those who voted.

Why Harris's suggestion is bad for the Union

David Trimble’s leadership of unionism was mould breaking in a number of ways, not least of which was his willingness to draw from an eclectic group of advisers, many of whom had backgrounds which were anathema to traditional unionists.

Typical of this tendency was Trimble’s appointment of erstwhile Marxist / Republican Eoghan Harris, some time Official Sinn Fein and Workers’ Party ideologue.

Harris now sits in the Republic of Ireland’s Senate as an appointee of Bertie Aherne. He retains an unerring capacity to create controversy and on Friday he chose a UUP function at Belfast’s Reform Club, to express his opinion that the party no longer served any useful function within unionism and should merge with the DUP.

The hoary old chestnut of one party unionism has been the subject of a recent post on this blog and I do not intend to revisit the topic in any detail here. I will point readers in the direction of Alex Kane’s rejoinder in his column in this morning’s Newsletter.

Kane’s most pertinent point is that monolithic unionist representation would not only disenfranchise a substantial proportion of unionists, but would exacerbate the communal and sectarian carve-up of politics currently epitomised by the DUP / Sinn Fein’s ascendancy.

Under the dispensations enshrined under the Good Friday Agreement and implemented latterly after discussions at St Andrews, the constitutional issue here is settled for the foreseeable future. Unionism, self-confident unionism, realises that sectarianising and communalising politics here, only serves to promulgate an atmosphere whereby these arrangements are not seen as permanent. Communal politics ensures that the constitutional issue remains the central battleground here. What is best for unionism and for Northern Ireland is parties finding common ground across community groupings, not cementing sectarian division.