Friday, 30 November 2007

Identity fetishists defend "right" to tribalise areas

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

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

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

Duma election set to be undermined by Putin's Plan

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 29 November 2007

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

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

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

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

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

No relation to Warren: more blethering from Feeney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Another inviolable human right invented?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I would be depressed without my hair".

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

Monday, 26 November 2007

Healy still a wanted man in Prague?

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

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

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

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

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

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

NBP hoods undermine Kasparov's claim to legitimate dissent

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oxford protests are counterproductive

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

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

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

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

A stiff test, but cause for optimism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 23 November 2007

A lack of understanding or deliberate ignorance?

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

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

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

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

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

Onwards and Upwards

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

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

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

Pot 1:

Czech Republic

Pot 2:


Pot 3:

Northern Ireland
Republic of Ireland

Pot 4:


Pot 5:


Pot 6:

Faroe Islands
San Marino

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

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Sammy in cloud cuckoo land

No harm to Sammy Wilson, but whilst he may be considered the less obnoxious face of the DUP, no-one is going to seek from him penetrating analysis or cogent political theorising.

He has launched an abstruse attack on the UUP’s unionist credentials in the wake of a motion by the party calling for a Royal Commission to consider the future of the Union.

Wilson actually attacks the party for copper-fastening the principle of consent into the Good Friday Agreement! Can he truly believe that such an assurance, on which the British Government had explicitly predicated its continuing presence in Northern Ireland, was not necessary or weakened our link with the rest of the UK?

The UUP ensured that this principle, which the British Government had already accepted as the proviso for its interest here, became universally accepted by both governments and more importantly by republicans. Whilst Trimble’s negotiation of the GFA could be challenged in terms of strand 1, which ensured the early release of prisoners and effectively the abolition of the RUC, even the naysayers acknowledge that his attention to detail on the constitutional strands (2 & 3) was nothing short of impeccable.

Wilson’s own party have of course belatedly accepted the principles which the UUP managed to establish. His attack based on legislation thats fundamentals had already been superseded and undermined is woefully naïve. Does Wilson not remember the Anglo-Irish Agreement? Does he not recall the constitutional and status based changes that pertained when unionists excluded themselves from a process of negotiation?

The UUP took responsibility whilst Wilson’s party abdicated it and set about winning the best deal available for unionism to secure Northern Ireland’s constitutional status. In this the party undoubtedly succeeded despite paying the price in more emotional and symbolic issues. There are avenues through which the UUP can be attacked, but the constitutional issue is patently not one of them

Wilson claims that as a devolutionary party the DUP makes no apologies for fostering relationships with the other devolved regions, but I note he makes no allusion to his own leader terming the UK a “federation of states”. Creating relationships with other regional assemblies is one thing, cosying up with nationalists within those assemblies and attempting to form a joint lobby to harangue Westminster is nationalism, pure and simple. Wilson’s party is undermining the very basis of the United Kingdom.

Perhaps Wilson’s most bare-faced statement. Let us paraphrase his own contention and say he has a “brass neck”, runs as follows:

"We have enhanced the east-west axis which the UUP shamefully sidelined whilst they set up unaccountable North-South bodies. My colleagues and I are determined to strengthen Ulster's position within the Union."

Sammy – just because you say something does not make it true! Who established an east-west axis in the first place? And how exactly are the DUP enhancing such an axis with their woeful records of Westminster attendance and their insular derision for the political establishment?

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

COME ON NORTHERN IRELAND!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Prior to Saturday’s match against Denmark I had been nervous as a kitten for three days. Oddly with the match against Spain imminent and the resolution of our qualifying campaign only hours away, I have lapsed into some manner of Zen-like serenity.

This may be attributable to my non-attendance at the match, an unavoidable consequence of limited holiday leave. Or it may be that in the depths of my soul I have already let go of this campaign, adjudging it a remarkable achievement, but acknowledging somewhere in my subconscious that on this occasion we’re not going to make it.

I suspect that actually it is merely the calm before the storm and that by 7pm tonight my stomach will have clenched into a nauseas knot and a low roar of anxiety will have enveloped my thoughts. As is often the case for the most fraught football matches I watch on television, I am heading home to view it. There I can pass through the agonies only with my father, who will be going through the same.

Perhaps this campaign has delivered the last of its dizzying highs. However I have just a suspicion that perhaps this group of serpentine twists has not offered up its final piece of drama just yet.

Tonight I am a Latvia fan. We’ve had our disagreements, me and the old Latvians as you may or may not recall, but just now I love their nationalism, their language and as far as I’m concerned they can do what they like, as long, AS LONG, as they manage to beat Sweden!

The Northern Ireland team meanwhile, comprises an extraordinarily resolute group of individuals who in forging a unique team spirit have achieved something that far transcends the sum of their constituent parts. They can do something historical in Las Palmas tonight. They have the courage, they have the belief and they certainly have the skill.

So come on Nigel Worthington and the boys. One last push! WHAT ABOUT IT OUR WEE COUNTRY!!!!

Conventional Kosovo wisdom challenged

How refreshing to read Simon Jenkins sober and sensible reflection on the Kosovo situation at Comment is Free. Redressing the conventional balance, Jenkins fails to follow the unthinking line followed by most journalists on this topic and examines in some detail the complexities of the situation in the Serb province.

Jenkins is correct in stating that the current malaise is largely due to failed NATO strategy and omission in the region. He also correctly asserts that criminals and terrorists have been rewarded and mollified simply because it suits western interests. “He may be a bastard, but he’s out bastard” is a quote normally attributed to Harry S Truman and it still provides a neat synopsis of the high-handed and morally bankrupt foreign policy which allows such people to attain US and EU patronage.

Of course the irony is that by pandering to Kosovan separatism, the west is actually driving Serbia into the arms of Russia, as well as undermining the advancement of nascent democracy, just as there appeared to be developing a greater desire to turn to the west and seek closer integration with the European Union.

The Irish Language : failing to learn lessons from our southern neighbours

Contrasting stories regarding ‘Gaelige’ this morning suggest that as Northern Ireland prepares to launch itself into inappropriate territory in deference to Irish Language extremism, the Republic of Ireland is being forced gradually to extricate itself from just such a hornet’s nest.

Demanding Irish Language qualifications from lawyers was ethno-nationalist folly which persists in other areas of life in the Republic such as teaching and the Civil Service. It is undoubtedly an indication of the increased pluralism and self-confidence of society in the south that this requirement is being abolished.

The prerequisite of Irish has been identified as “no longer practical or realistic” and by these criteria, as well as by basic standards of inclusiveness, surely other requirements which seek to prescribe Irish for those working in public jobs must also become obsolete. Ironically the expensive and impractical maintenance of Gaelic as an official European Union language is becoming increasingly onerous. A lack of qualified translators is delaying EU business and Bertie Ahern (who speaks no Irish himself) has to urge his colleagues to use the language on European visits in order to justify its status.

Simultaneously Sinn Fein are attempting to introduce special funding arrangements for Irish Language Medium Schools bringing them into line with the integrated sector. These measures will not only provide the schools with a funding advantage, but will impose a further administrative and financial burden on an already stretched education system.

ILM education is not analogous to the integrated sector and it does not deserve to be supported by special funding arrangements when other sectors are struggling to keep schools open. Integrated education is given allowances to encourage the work it does bringing children from both communities together and emphasising that which we share. The stark facts are that if anything ILM exacerbates what separates the two communities.

These stories for me epitomise everything that is wrong headed about the Irish Language movement. The priority of Irish Language activists should be to encourage the use of their language and to promote it amongst those who do not speak it, not to demand its inclusion in aspects of public life where it becomes divisive, expensive and discriminatory against those who do not wish to speak it. It appears that in the Republic of Ireland the latter attitude may be on the retreat whereas in Northern Ireland many wish to take us down the path which the south is now being forced to abandon.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Kosovan chaos closer

With Kosovo’s likely Prime Minister Hashim Thaci threatening to declare unilateral independence for the Serb province, the sponsors of Kosovar separatism have been put into a spin.

Thaci’s assurance that no declaration will be made “without coordination with our partners Washington and Brussels" will doubtless relieve those who have offered little incentive to Kosovans to compromise with their Serb neighbours but now consider it inopportune that partially reformed gang leaders should display their assertiveness before it suits those who have fostered it.

Thaci himself led the terror group the KLA and was an organiser in the Drenica Group, which provided finances through crime, controlling between 10-15% of criminal activities in the province. The Group were involved in smuggling arms, stolen cars, oil and cigarettes, as well as prostitution and had links with international criminal groups in Albania, the Czech republic and Macedonia. Thaci’s sister is married to Sejdija Bajrush, one of the leaders of the notorious Albanian mafia.

There is little wonder that the Council of Europe attributed an “alarmingly low” turnout at the election in which Thaci’s party has topped the poll, to "a profound dissatisfaction among the population" which springs from the perceived corruption of the region’s leaders. Kosovo’s Serb minority boycotted the election altogether.

These are the same leaders into whose control the US and some European leaders are preparing to deliver the sole responsibility for Kosovo’s government.

Bennett doesn't allow topic of article to distract from good Irish republian MOPE

Ronan Bennett was once a convicted IRA terrorist but in his current incarnation he turns out novels of lumpen prose.

Bennett’s wife is the editor of Comment is Free, the Guardian’s Blog, and thus it is in the G2 section of the paper that we are treated to an article, ostensibly about Martin Amis’ wrangles with Islam, which crowbars in a quite remarkable number of allusions to the Irish Catholic (and I use Bennett’s own religious definition) as MOPE.

What is it about the Irish Republican psyche that wants to project their own parochial concerns on every situation of conflict or discord which has ever manifested itself since the dawn of history? Why are they compelled to seek in misery, wherever it occurs, some echo of their own perceived suffering?

Bennett does not make it past his almost unreadably clumsy opening paragraph, before directly conflating the entire religion of Islam with the Irish. Racist supremacism is charged against Amis and the Irish Catholic is of course a perpetual fellow sufferer. Terry Eagleton, the Marxist professor who became involved in a public spat with Amis, is congratulated for being descended from that stock. Presumably we are invited to contemplate this because Amis is simultaneously oppressing the Muslim and his Irish Catholic counterpart.

Most tellingly Bennett takes issue with Amis’ fictional imagining of one of the 9/11 bombers as a cold-blooded killer. Bennett’s implication is the classic terrorist sympathiser’s attempt to invert the role of perpetrator and victim. It is a trait which republicans certainly DO share with murderous terror groups worldwide.

I cannot condone the comments from Amis which caused the initial controversy. It is a deeply illiberal impulse to suggest that discrimination based on religion or indeed on ethnic origin is the only way in which a terror threat can be countered. It is also a manifestly counter-productive point of view.

However it would also be an abdication of responsibility to ignore the rise of Islamism in the UK and elsewhere or to causally quarantine that rise from the verifiable fact that an intolerant brand of Islam is increasingly flourishing and being allowed to flourish. I may not agree with Amis’ conclusions, but I reserve his right to enter that debate and to do so without counter debate including attacks on his father.

I certainly find it rather ironic that someone who in his younger years supported forcing the majority of the population to accept his political opinions through violence, should be so quick to impugn another's liberal credentials or indeed imply fascism.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Tragedy in Donetsk

In 2003 I spent an enjoyable few days in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine with fellow Northern Ireland supporters. It was with a great deal of sadness that I learned of the tragedy which has befallen one of the most friendly, distinctive destinations that I have visited anywhere in the world.

Ukraine’s coal-mines have a notorious reputation, due to the unusual depth of the seams coupled with antiquated equipment. The Donbass region has suffered tragedies before and indeed the Zasyadko mine, in which nearly 80 miners lost their lives on Sunday, has claimed the lives of its workers repeatedly.

Donetsk is a city with mining woven into its very fabric, both literally and metaphorically. The mines are actually present in the city itself, with passages and tunnels running underneath streets and houses. I played football at Metallurg Donetsk’s training ground, which despite its urban location stood next to a large slag heap. The industry is an essential aspect of the identity of the city’s people. The city’s main football team are called Shakhtar, which translates from the Russian as “Miner”.

This tragedy will have an impact on the entire community in Donetsk. It can only be hoped that lessons are finally learned from this terrible accident and that safety regulations become substantially tighter in Ukraine, to prevent such a thing happening again.

Healy the king rains at Windsor

Northern Ireland’s phenomenal, brave football team produced another stunning performance at a sodden Windsor Park on Saturday night, keeping qualification hopes alive, although hanging by the slenderest thread.

The GAWA have become accustomed to these celebratory occasions, but they are never taken for granted. Torrential rain had put this one in jeopardy and there was an air of disbelief when it became apparent that the match would go ahead. The supporters were, by their own ground quaking standards, quiet in the early stages, drenched from their journeys into the stadium and convinced that the referee would put to an end to the spectacle being splashed out in puddles in front of them.

Ultimately though Windsor Park shook with familiar noise, as the team achieved their third comeback against higher ranked opposition to complete another incredible triumph in this campaign. Since early evening rumours had been circulating in packed pubs around South Belfast that the pitch was unplayable and the game wouldn’t go ahead. Fans arrived at the ground in hope and faith, but when Vink, the match referee performed an inspection several minutes before kick-off, the ball did not appear to bounce and water lay visibly in several areas of the pitch.

The supporters’ relief was palpable when the teams were greeted with a huge roar on their appearance several moments later. The opening stages were a little surreal with the players attempting to dig the ball out of puddles. Gareth McAuley got himself in an aquatic tangle early on and the ball was stopping dead in the surface water.

All’s well that ends well. It is easy to say as a supporter of the winning team, but given their bravery throughout this campaign and given the manner in which Northern Ireland adapted to these conditions, I strongly believe we deserved this victory and this night as much as wins against England, Spain and Sweden. The team were magnificent. No-one shirked their responsibilities, no-one failed to make a contribution, no-one allowed their fortitude to waver for an instant.

Even having experienced the dizzying joy of comebacks against Sweden and that wonderful night against Spain when OWC fell behind twice against a star-studded team, it was hard to envisage repeating these achievements when Bendtner put the Danes ahead early in the second half. What incredible determination then from this indefatigable Northern Ireland team!

And the goalscorers! Warren Feeney’s tireless efforts made him a contender for man of the match and were only equalled perhaps by midfield dynamo Sammy Clingan. Feeney’s goal was fitting reward for his efforts, connecting with Chris Brunt’s beautifully crafted left wing cross and glancing his header past Sorenson in the Danish goal. Feeney would thump a dipping long range effort against the upright ten minutes later, an agonising moment that seemed to indicate it may not be the Irish team’s night.

But a match is never unwinnable for Northern Ireland whilst David Healy, god amongst men, king of green and white kings, continues to wear the IFA badge. How can his stature, his achievements, his innate genius, be described to the uninitiated? He is the greatest player ever to wear the Northern Ireland jersey. George Best underachieved and he produced his most memorable football in the red of Manchester United. Healy has spearheaded some of the most unlikely victories in the history of international football. In an outfit which even at its best has been famously goal shy, he has struck 33 times, 13 in this qualifying campaign. His achievement is unprecedented. No player has scored more in a European Championship campaign. Healy beats the record of world-class Croat striker Davor Suker, a man who played his club football with Real Madrid, not Fulham or Leeds or Preston.

Healy’s goal was a moment of graceful physical poetry. Controlling the ball with his back to the Danish goal, a deft touch earned him the space for a balletic turn. With the feel a world-class golfer displays with a sand iron, Healy’s right foot described an arcing, elegant parabola. His delicate chip was beyond Sorenson’s despairing glove, in the only square inch of the goal in which it was possible to score. It was a goal that can’t really be described. The result of a man in glorious harmony with his sport and his surroundings.

This match was an ecstatic, explosive celebration of a remarkable campaign and the togetherness of an extraordinary team. Sadly it is unlikely to make any real difference to the outcome of the group. Results against Iceland and Latvia have determined that we will not qualify. Latvia will not achieve the unthinkable in Stockholm, even should Healy and his fellow magicians conjure their greatest trick to date in Gran Canaria.

Nigel Worthington struck the only false note on Saturday evening, implying that the appalling conditions had benefited his charges. That was an unfortunate and belittling remark, which would not have been made by his predecessor. This Northern Ireland team have achieved astonishing things in all weathers, and it was not adverse conditions that won them this game, but tenacity, courage and skill.

Friday, 16 November 2007

Republican violence and the law of diminishing returns

Glancing over an Economist article linked by News Hound this morning, I was struck by a phrase which encapsulated perfectly for me, the current attitude to violence within republicanism.

“Violence is yielding diminishing returns.”

Here we have a concise summation of the reasons why small numbers of republicans only are currently involved in violence. This bald statement of course implies no moral engine for the republican mainstream’s abstention from bloodshed. And therein lies its accuracy.

Returns are diminishing, therefore violence has diminished and support for violence has diminished. Recent dissident attacks have garnered little support and have attracted the censure of mainstream republicanism simply because they are no longer strategically valuable for republicans, not because of any sense of revulsion for the nature of the acts or the effects they might have on victims.

Of course morally there is no distinction whatever between the dissidents and mainstream republicans. Gerry Adams on one hand lauds Irish republicans’ violent acts, committed without any semblance of popular support from the nationalist community, praising them for “keeping faith with their republican past”. And then on the other hand he attacks current dissident republicans because they lack a mandate.

Eamon McCann sums up the hypocrisy of Adams and the rest most concisely. His conclusion is striking for a man who in the past applied the republican label to his own politics. Republicanism has encoded in every strand of its history, symbolism and mythology the idea that unmandated violence is justifiable.

“It is republicanism that is the problem”.

Spin over substance : the Northern Ireland Executive

The carve-up of politics in Northern Ireland can be a debilitating and self-perpetuating phenomenon. As this process has become institutionalised and as the electorate has fallen behind the two parties perpetuating it, so the predominant political commentary in local newspapers has followed the electorate to disseminate largely the viewpoint of the same two parties.

And so we have the Irish News, traditional bastion of moderate nationalism, not only modifying its editorial stance to reflect the prevailing currents in nationalism but also giving space to those who simply despise unionists such as Brian Feeney and republican ex-terrorists like Jim Gibney.

Gibney’s evaluation of the first 6 months of the Executive is such a doctrinaire Sinn Fein reading that it may as well have issued straight from a press release. Firstly Gibney plays to the crowd and hails the formation of the Executive as a triumph of Sinn Fein’s reasonableness against unionist intransigence. He actually seems to suggest that there was doubt in the minds of commentators and voters over whether the DUP intended to form an administration after the election!

It is no accident that the “style” of the new administration is Gibney’s first port of call in eulogising its success. This government is the most patent triumph of style over substance. Much store is placed on the effusive charms of Paisley and McGuinness. No acknowledgment is made that the pair have been given the task of actually delivering government, as opposed to entertaining the populace, and this they have singularly failed to do.

Trimble and Mallon, who Gibney compares so scathingly to the current incumbents, may not have exuded warmth or wisecracks, but they were serious politicians who grasped the substance of issues and were not prepared to muddle along in a directionless mulch, hailing the world-changing qualities of their government.

Note the brief mention Gibney accords to the Executive’s actual record. Once again we are treated to eulogies concerning the money handed out to those whose properties were damaged in floods, an early exercise in populist politicking by the nascent administration. Certainly not an example of delivery of effective government as Gibney suggests.

The executive is not producing accountable government in Northern Ireland. The executive is barely producing government at all. It has sailed along on 6 months of self-congratulation and goodwill from outside the province. Unless accountability is afforded by the two moderate parties forming an opposition, we will continue to have the tendency to grandstanding, impoverished debate and a lack of substance, which has so far epitomised the new arrangements.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

Northern Ireland must keep eye on the ball

I don’t know about other Northern Ireland supporters, but I for one can feel the nerves jangling for Saturday’s crunch European Qualifier with Denmark. Not easing this apprehension is a tendency in the media and amongst some fans to look ahead towards the game against Spain in Gran Canaria next Wednesday.

Northern Ireland must not underestimate the task facing them on Saturday. Denmark are favourites to win the match at Windsor Park and the slightest complacency, the least inattention to these first opponents and the trip to Spain will become an irrelevance.

I’m disappointed to hear Nigel Worthington drawn in to speculations about the outcome of the group. His job is to keep his players myopically focused on the immediate hurdle ahead of them.

Worthington is missing 3 crucial players for Saturday’s game. Kyle Lafferty, who produced his best performance in the emerald green in the last game against Sweden, serves a suspension after being given an unjust yellow card in that match. Damien Johnson will miss out again due to injury and George McCartney is unavailable with damaged ligaments.

I am far from a fan of McCartney after his self-exclusion from Lawrie Sanchez’s squads and bearing in mind his idiosyncratic line in excuses for absence prior to that. The West Ham fullback did however offer a useful outlet in the Sweden game providing purposeful overlaps beyond Chris Brunt on the left flank.

Either Tony Capaldi, or preferably Johnny Evans, will deputise at left-back but it is unlikely that either will offer the penetration and crosses forthcoming from McCartney in the previous game. The responsibility to provide width will therefore fall mainly on Chris Brunt’s shoulders. This is truly the match for a talented young player to produce what he is capable of.

Brunt has a cultured left foot, but two often he is lacklustre with his crosses and fails to beat the first man. On Saturday evening that is simply not good enough. The time has come for Brunt to fulfil his potential and show himself a crucial member of the Northern Ireland midfield.

Freedive with Sir Walter Raleigh

Last night I watched an overblown and silly film about Elizabeth I, Elizabeth the Golden Years.

Now I acknowledge that artistic licence is the prerogative of historical drama and that the various shenanigans made for a rather entertaining film, but some aspects of this stylized movie deserve particular mention for being so draw-droppingly daft!

The movie was a brief skite over events leading up to and surrounding the 1588 Spanish Armada, climaxing with the defeat of Phillip II’s fleet. Historically this was masterminded by Lord High Admiral Charles Howard aided by inclement weather, although from the film it was tempting to conclude that victory was mainly attributable to Sir Walter Raleigh.

Some of the most extraordinary scenes accompanied this battle, particularly the moment when Raleigh (Clive Owen) unaccountably executed a graceful dive from his ship and spent several minutes swimming purposefully under the tumultuous battle above. I believe that Raleigh was responsible for the coastal defence of Devon during the Armada and was remarkably efficient at raising levies to facilitate the war effort, who would have thought that he also went diving underneath the Spanish fleet in such cunning fashion!

Sadly the exegesis of this remarkable underwater action was not provided in the film as the action cut away and we only learned Walter’s fate later when he appeared unscathed and remarkably dry on the deck of another English ship.

Kudos must also go to the Queen (Cate Blanchett) herself who observed the unfolding action in a solitary cliff-top vigil as the storm blew her night gown dramatically backward, lightning flashed and the ships flickered in a warm CGI glow on the horizon.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

There ain't no Republican like a Sinn Fein Republican

There is always a hoot to be had from the hypocrisy of Irish republicans and the Derry Journal produces an editorial rich in just such hilarity.

The subject matter of the article is of course extremely serious. Rejuvenated attacks by republicans against members of security forces and particularly against members they perceive to be part of their own community.

The newspaper’s conclusions however are ripe with irony. To begin with we have a ringing endorsement of Martin McGuinness based on his republican credentials and the rather sinister condoning of his having “walked the walk”. The article then develops into an attack on those who are currently er… “walking the walk”.

The distinction the newspaper draws between one set of violence and another? “The community” no longer supports it. Who or what this "community" the paper so adamantly evokes comprises is not stated. If it refers to the community in Northern Ireland as a whole, well I am bound to point out that that community never supported republican terrorism either now or in the past. If it refers to the nationalist community, it also behoves me to point out that whilst McGuinness et al wreaked their havoc they were never afforded the support of the nationalist community at the polls. We can only assume that in the Derry Journal’s opinion the only community which matters is the fabled “republican community” and if they now back McGuinness and his like in their pragmatic peace then this is holy writ and condemns their fellow travellers who take a different view as fascists.

Of course McGuinness’s own organisation enforced its political viewpoint against the majority by means of violence, both against their perceived community and against the people of Ireland as a whole. They were every bit as fascistic as those fellow republicans they term “micro groups”. And if they have strategically dropped the violent aspect of their fascism, the monolithic, centralist stranglehold they exert politically on their communities suggests that old habits die hard. The violence of the current dissidents and the violence of the mainstream republican movement are morally directly equivalent and denial of this fact remains such a blatant irony that it can never fail but to provoke mirth.

'Putin's Plan' gradually emerging

President Putin has delivered telling criticism of United Russia, the party whose list he heads for the 2 December Duma elections.

"The party has no stable political ideology or principles for which the overwhelming majority of members are ready to fight. ... And, as a rule, being close to those in power, as United Russia is, all kind of crooks try to latch on to it, often with success"

The irony of Putin’s comments is that United Russia’s policy can be summated as slavish deferral to the Kremlin and Putin himself. The lack of political ideology and principles merely illustrates the relative lack of importance of Russia's parliament and the party system to the Federation’s governance.

Putin views the upcoming election as a referendum on the continuance of his personal power. Heading United Russia's list is fairly transparently, merely a vehicle by which to achieve this aim.

"If the people vote for United Russia, whose list I lead, it means that they trust me and, in turn, means that I will have the moral right to hold those in the Duma and the Cabinet responsible for the implementation of the objectives that have been identified so far,"

The President’s observations will doubtless increase speculation as to his exact intentions after the election and when his second term elapses in March of next year.

Putin has restored national self-esteem on the world stage and engineered an oil and gas based economic recovery in Russia. However he has done little to develop civic structures in the country. The national identity Putin has rejuventaed cleaves to traditional nationalist symbols such as the Orthodox Church and to his own personal popularity. The weakness of parliamentary politics, the lack of strong civic institutions, the corresponding underdeveloped sense of civic identity and a pandering to ethnic policies in the Federation's regions, mean that Putin's departure from the public life would create a political vacuum in Russia. His statements appear to reaffirm that he is only to aware of this.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Danish Test Will Prove Nigel's Worth

Northern Ireland’s European Championship qualifying match against Denmark on Saturday is being billed as the most important fixture the team have played in 20 years. Theoretically this is true, because should Spain fail to beat Sweden in their qualifier and should Northern Ireland take 6 points from the next two games, it is the Irish side which will travel to Austria and Switzerland next summer, rather than the star-studded Spanish team.

This is an unlikely scenario and one which we would not have faced had two appalling performances against poor Latvian and Icelandic teams produced the points we had a right to expect. It is tempting to say that it is also a scenario which we would not have faced had Lawrie Sanchez remained at the helm of the national team.

The team’s confidence should have recovered after an excellent point earned in Sweden, but it is difficult to envisage this feat being bettered with a win in Spain. Saturday’s game is another stiff test with Denmark also carrying a nominal chance of qualification into their last two games. Ever since the Danes succumbed by 4-1 to a poor Republic of Ireland side, there has been an unspoken assumption amongst supporters that we have every chance of beating them.

This is not a match we should approach with any complacency however. The Danish team are favourites and they will expect to take all 3 points at Windsor Park. If Northern Ireland are to achieve a result it will only be through an effort of the magnitude of previous incredible nights at Windsor Park.

Nigel Worthington has appealed to supporters to arrive at the ground early and to back the team in their inimitable fashion. An evening kick-off should ensure that this backing is forthcoming and that the magical atmosphere of Sanchez’s three most unlikely victories in Belfast can be recreated. It is now up to the manager to send out a team to grace the occasion and prove that he has the same tactical acumen and inspirational qualities to instigate a victory as his predecessor.

Representation that works

Predictably i have yet to receive a reply from Edwin Poots as regards the eligibility argument (which I make no apologies for raising ad infinitum on this blog).

In contrast Danny Kennedy MLA's response was swift and he has certainly been true to his word advancing this issue robustly and with intent.

Monday, 12 November 2007

A bus tour of Belfast: stones not included

For some time I have been fascinated by what exactly the sightseeing tours of Belfast offer their customers. The bus-trips were in the news last week having been subject to attacks in West Belfast, but proving that in some respects all publicity is good publicity, my curiosity was “re-piqued”. And so this weekend my girlfriend and I decided to avail of the services of the main operator and experience their open-topped bus tour.

After the initial shock of being charged £11 each we took up our seats in the lower deck of what appeared to be a reclaimed and almost entirely unrefurbished service bus which had had the roof removed. The upper deck was already fully populated and the lower deck’s windows were smeared with seasonal road dirt, thus inhibiting visibility for the delights we were to be shown.

As we lurched forwards down High Street, our guide (Michael), clad in a red bomber jacket which gave him the appearance of a colourful nightclub bouncer, wrestled with his microphone, extending its cord to the fullest extent up the stairs of the bus and commenced his commentary. This he delivered in facetious vernacular throughout the rest of the tour.

Having briefly discussed the city’s origins as a port he launched into a rather contestable discourse on the Albert Clock, claiming that locals referred to it as “the leaning tower of Belfast”. We were then invited to descry the fountains of Custom House Square which were not in actual fact operating.

The tour crossed the Lagan and passed the Odyssey complex before taking in the post-industrial wasteland which currently comprises the so-called “Titanic Quarter”. The commentary made desultory mention of the ship-building industry and indeed the Titanic itself as well as mentioning Shorts aircraft factory. Most emphasis was placed on the promised development of the area – “the biggest waterfront development in Europe” no less, if the tour guide is to be believed. The imminence of something worth seeing and the present lack of it became a leitmotif of the Belfast tour.

We were about to embark upon one of the most thrilling sections of our trip. The bus edged unsteadily unto the Sydenham bypass. Rather than talk about the community of Sydenham and its tradition of employment in ship-building and industry, our guide turned his attention to the George Best City Airport, which he compared to the John Lennon Airport in Liverpool and then furnished us with a brief list of carriers. There followed the dubious claim that Belfast was the “leading short-break destination in the UK”. As this title was unqualified with any proviso about city size I can only conclude that it was inaccurate (more short-breaks than Edinburgh or London??!!).

Michael then treated us to a fulsome explanation of Northern Irish people’s relationship with the flat-pack furniture chain Ikea, which has culminated in the introduction of a store being opened at the Holywood Exchange. Never before has an out of town shopping development featured in any tourist guidebook or bus-tour which I have taken in another city.

Subsequently we embarked up the Knock dual-carriageway towards Stormont, replete with a singular analysis of the Northern Ireland political landscape by our jocular guide. Cunningham House offered an excuse for contemplation of David Trimble’s impact on the peace-process. “Whatever you think of the man, he eventually got a Nobel Peace Prize, so fair play to him”.

We arrived at Stormont shortly after 2pm, but were warned not to disembark the double-decker should we wish to view the parliament grounds, as no further buses would be arriving that day to resume the tour. The suggestion was that we might wish to come back the following morning, presumably expending another £11 for the privilege. Stormont was dealt with by a short eulogy for Mo Mowlam, some “banter” about the politicians therein being “cow dung”, a brief dialogue with a security guard regarding a local working mans club and an exegesis on the importance of rally cars to the peace process.

Thence back to the Sydenham Bypass, where our guide decided to take a short break until we “get back to the city centre where there’s something to see”. At this point the (inevitably local) toddler in front of us had taken to screaming “load of shite” as an accompaniment to the commentary and it was hard not to concord with his synopsis.

Crossing the Queen’s Bridge Michael decided that once again Belfast had features notable enough to interest the tourist. We were treated to his criticism of public art as he lambasted the “thing with the ring” (as he termed “the doll on the ball”). His assessment of the Waterfront Hall, was “like the Odyssey but a lot smaller”. He was however elegiac in his praise of St George’s market, evoking some far from fascinating childhood anecdotes.

Our driver negotiated the city centre traffic, taking us through the dreary November streets past the (again imminent) Victoria Centre and once again past the Albert Clock where Michael treated us to his knowledge of the Belfast vice industry. Predictably the Cathedral Quarter “is to be redeveloped and will become Belfast’s arts and culture quarter, but at the moment it’s derelict”. We were then invited to contemplate the significance of a statue of Lenin to our left, marking Belfast’s main gay nightclub. This was accompanied by a cheery declaration of Belfast’s tolerance and ironically a mildly homophobic crack about the bus driver.

We proceeded through Carlisle Circus and up the Crumlin Road, stopping briefly at the courthouse and prison. The gaol provides one of the few genuinely interesting sites which visitors may be tempted to return to on the tour. Of course being an interesting location, Michael dwelt on its history very briefly.

The next section of the tour took us down the Shankill Road. Tourists were invited to get off and visit souvenir shops with a range of paramilitary merchandise and Michael became unaccountably excited by a newsagent known as “the Chocolate Shop” proclaiming its merchandise “Belfast’s finest souvenirs”. The historic Church of Ireland and other buildings were ignored and we were instead invited to examine a clapboard mural of Edward Carson fastened to the outer wall of a local Co-op and some scorched earth which an 11th Night bonfire had decimated.

From the lower Shankill we proceeded to the Lower Falls. Identical spides, different football shirts. Pregnant teenagers hanging out of white tracksuits indistinguishable, but a completely different style of mural for the discerning traveller. The Falls’ attractions numbered a wall with murals to more or less every group of murderous separatists in Europe and beyond, a hunger strike memorial, the Sinn Fein constituency office and a remembrance garden to those who had blown themselves up in the furtherance of attempting to blow everyone else up. Fair to say there was a theme developing. The more interesting old buildings, the Royal Victoria Hospital and St Mary’s University College were ignored.

Crossing the West Link at Broadway we were treated to the wonders of Tate’s Avenue and our guide redeemed himself somewhat by expounding the wonders of David Healy’s strike against England. Unfortunately this was a transient enthusiasm and he soon resumed a recurrent lambaste against local football before advising his passengers to keep their eyes peeled for unclothed students in the upper floors of Tate’s Avenue’s flats.

The rest of the tour consisted of extended personalised advertising of various restaurants, pubs and nightclubs on the way into the city centre. The most useful advice to tourists at this point was a suggestion that they “access the quadrangle” in Queens. In Michael’s idiom and given his earlier thinking on the student population this sounded rather like some manner of sordid euphemism.

Kerry and I decided to discontinue the tour at Jury’s Hotel having had thoroughly enough of the delights of Belfast for one day. I came away reinforced in my opinion that tourism is woefully catered for in the city and shocked that £11 was the price of such an information bereft tour.

Sinn Féin's galling hypocrisy in condemning Remembrance Day disruption

Dissident republicans displayed their contrition for the deaths of 11 people and the injury of more than 60 in the 1987 Enniskillen bombing by disrupting the equivalent parade 20 years later with a bomb-hoax and actually planting a primitive device at a ceremony in Newry.

In a galling display of hypocrisy Sinn Fein MLA Mickey Brady condemned these actions with the statement: "People and communities should be allowed to commemorate and remember their dead in peace, without hindrance and in a spirit of mutual respect". But what actually separates the mentality of the dissident groups who carried out these despicable actions at the weekend and the republicans who Mr Brady’s party represents who actually carried out the bombing 20 years ago?

Other than the fact that tactically mainstream republicans have decided that inflicting death and injury on innocent people is for the time being counter-productive, the only qualitative difference is that the PIRA had a greater capacity to actually inflict the damage, rather than making notional gestures towards doing so.

It is worth noting that no-one has ever been convicted of the Remembrance Day Bombing in Enniskillen and that republicans have not yet displayed actual penitence by moving to bring the mass murderers to justice. Until Mr Brady’s organisation can show that they are meaningfully remorseful for their murderous actions, they should refrain from sermonising against groups who are after all simply maintaining the detestable traditions which his party have only recently strategically set aside.

Ballymena United fans vindicated and Jeffrey warned

Earlier this season David Jeffrey lied about Ballymena United fans and gifted those with an agenda against local football and against perceived unionist fans.

Unsurprisingly the fact that Ballymena's fans have been unequivocally vindicated with the IFA finding that there was "no basis of fact in the allegations made by Mr Jeffrey" has attracted less publicity.

Mud sticks and the damage has already been done by the bald obese liar.

Jeffrey and Linfield have been given offical warnings by the IFA - this is of course an ineffective slap on the wrist.

Friday, 9 November 2007

Rockin' Raskalnikov

My favourite novel is Crime and Punishment, so it is not without reservation that I greet the unveiling in Moscow of plans to make a rock opera based on Dostoevsky's masterpiece!

Dostoevsky's work has been adapted by composers on many occasions, but the rock opera medium is a first. Fans of the author will be worried to learn that this version abbreviates Razumikhin's role and excises Dunya altogether.

Tim Rice is reportedly interested in bringing the show to English speaking audiences.

The Berlin Wall : ambivalence and re-evalutation

Today marks the 18th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Guardian reports via Der Spiegel that more than 1 in 5 Germans would welcome its reinstatement. 90% of Germans from the old GDR believe that the East German state afforded greater social protection than the current unified German state.

This ambivalence to the Wall’s demise may seem bemusing and even shocking to those of us who remember its destruction as an epoch defining event. Its fall seemed to symbolise more than any other single event, the failure of the communist system, the demise of the Soviet Empire and the triumph of western values of freedom and democracy.

The survey’s findings seem more shocking still because they pertain to Germany; a state which to external observers has recovered from the legacy of two world wars and 40 years of division, to take its place as a modern industrial powerhouse at the heart of the European project. How can modern Germans look back with nostalgia at a Stalinist basket-case which had by its demise become bankrupt both in the literal economic sense and in the metaphorical moral sense?

Anyone who has travelled in the former Eastern Bloc and spoken to those who live there will be less surprised that East Germans in particular look back at their erstwhile state with mixed feelings. Throughout the old Soviet Empire, even the most liberal and Western orientated citizens of the new Europe have ambivalent feelings about the past. They will willingly acknowledge that increased freedoms have to be offset against turbulent social changes, poverty and the ravages of suddenly implemented free markets. Why should East Germans, experiencing high-unemployment and having suffered the destruction of their heavy industries and the dismantling of a cradle to grave welfare system, not share these anxieties?

Neither should it be surprising that people in the west are beginning to re-evaluate exactly what the fall of the Berlin Wall meant. Famously Fukuyama hailed the destruction of the Iron Curtain as “the end of history”. This was the moment when economic liberalism and democracy triumphed over its main ideological opponent. The result would be global stability, prosperity and freedom. There were no more wars left to be fought.

Of course this analysis now seems laughably naïve and naturally the event which was most neatly symbolic of this worldview has correspondingly acquired a taint of failed narrative. The fall of the wall and the break-up of the Soviet Empire was a harbinger, not of increased stability, but of the polar opposite.

Islamism was already a far more intractable opponent of western values than communism (after all a child of western discourse, of German discourse) could ever have been. Raeganite myopia failed to recognise this and the seeds of a flourishing and aggressive challenge to the west were ignored in unseemly haste to fell Gorbachev’s reforming regime.

West Germans were first to feel the effects of the huge movement of peoples which followed the demise of communism. Before the wall had fallen East German citizens were flooding west through newly opened borders in Czechoslovakia and Hungary. The transience of populations has become one the defining issues in Europe today. The days of the Berlin Wall can seem almost a paradigm of stability. Ethnic tensions and nationalism also flourished in the old Eastern Bloc, most demonstrably in a series of bloody Balkan wars.

Of course Der Spiegel’s poll also implies that 4 out of 5 Germans remain happy that the Wall came down and few people would wish to reinstate regimes in central or eastern Europe which were oppressive and anti-democratic. As those born as the Wall fell come of age though, this poll should give us pause for thought about western assumptions and cause us to question current narratives as we continue to reflect on those of the past.

Recommended reading: The Berlin Wall: 13 August 1961 - 9 November 1989 by Frederick Taylor

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Speaking too soon

Yesterday the Moscow Times printed a condescending opinion piece by Yulia Latynina, an anti-Kremlin political talk show host, which suggested that ongoing and increasingly violent protests In Georgia were a sign of “a strong and secure government”.

Interpretation, in Moscow, of the demonstrations against Mikheil Saakashvili’s corrupt and dictatorial regime as an indication of its imminent collapse and of strong public disillusionment with the pro-Western government was merely suggestive of Russia’s atrophied understanding of democracy. In democratic societies, Ms Latyina assured us, such demonstrations were a sign of self-confidence and indicative of a democracy in rude health.

Today the Guardian reports the situation in Georgia as its greatest crisis since the “Rose Revolution”, presumably “in the same spirit, (as Soviet) news reports from the 1970s showed demonstrations in the United States accompanied by self-gratifying predictions that U.S. imperialism would soon collapse”.

Mr Saakshvili’s robust government has declared a state of emergency.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Shameful FIFA attempt to wheedle out of decision

Irrelevant, incoherent political whining has paid dividends and having initially indicated that their clear eligibility rules would be applied, FIFA are now attempting wheedle out of their decision and foist an illogical, cowardly fudge to avoid the attentions of ethno-nationalists with no interest in international football beyond their disgraceful political agenda.

FIFA have asked the associations for feedback on this deplorable compromise and if Howard Wells and the IFA have a semblance of a spine, they will reject it in no uncertain terms and pledge to defend their position in court if necessary. Wells’ initial reaction to FIFA’s suggestion is encouraging.

"(the suggestion is) totally inconsistent with the body's own rules which apply to the other 206 countries in Fifa".
"I am extremely surprised about this, to say the least, staggered in fact.
"All we are asking is for Fifa to apply their own rules consistently to all members of their organisation.
"This proposal flies in the face of what was said to us just a few weeks ago at a meeting in Zurich."

FIFA’s proposals are that, rather than clarify the eligibility issue by applying existing rules, a completely unprecedented situation should pertain (since the issue was first raised in the 50s at least) whereby both associations can pick players from all 32 Irish counties. FIFA’s statement is couched in mealy mouthed, spineless rhetoric which does little to hide the motivation behind their pathetic back-tracking – attempting to avoid making a clear decision.

"With the objective to find an amicable solution which is acceptable for both member associations the FIFA Legal Committee has made the following new proposal: any player holding the nationality of the Republic of Ireland that was born on the territory of the Republic of Ireland would, by agreement between the two associations, also be eligible for the representative teams of the Irish Football Association.

"In other words, every player born in Northern Ireland, holding the UK nationality and being entitled to a passport of the Republic of Ireland or born in the Republic of Ireland and holding the Irish nationality could either play for the Football Association of Ireland or the Irish Football Association. FIFA has informed the IFA and the FAI about this proposal and asked both associations for a feedback."

This proposal completely undermines FIFA’s own territorial requirements for international eligibility and is legally unsustainable. The organisation clearly hope that the IFA will be mollified by the possibilities of poaching Southern players and that the issue will therefore go away.

This is an example of the worst kind of politicians meddling in sport. Dermot Ahern, Pat Ramsey and the like have managed to undermine football’s governing body and this will set an extremely dangerous precedent. FIFA must know however, that their so-called compromise is neither acceptable, nor is it sustainable. Their own rules are not being applied fairly or consistently and the IFA will have watertight grounds to object to this suggestion should it be sustained as a decision despite their reservations.

As pressure from nationalist politicians has caused FIFA to reconsider their decision, it is vital that unionist politicians now back the IFA.

E-mail the Minister for Culture Edwin Poots:

or Northern Ireland supporter and UUP deputy leader Danny Kennedy


My letter to Danny Kennedy:

Dear Mr Kennedy,

I wrote to you previously regarding the Maze Stadium issue, as a party member and Northern Ireland football fan, congratulating you on your work to highlight the pitfalls of this project and received an extremely detailed and encouraging reply.

I am aware that you are a keen follower of the Northern Ireland team and therefore I am sure you are aware of another issue pertaining to the IFA which has been in the media lately. Having initially received a positive response in their attempts to clarify the eligibility issue whereby the FAI has been poaching Northern Irish players to play for the Republic of Ireland team, the IFA have now been notified of a suggestion by FIFA that players from all 32 counties in Ireland should be eligible to play for either the IFA or the FAI teams.

I’m sure you will agree that this suggestion is an unacceptable fudge and a disgraceful about face from the position FIFA had indicated it would adopt. The reversal is clearly influenced by the constant meddling pressure of nationalist politicians such as Dermot Ahern and Pat Ramsey. FIFA is basically attempting to wheedle out of making a difficult decision due to the politicisation of the issue by nationalists.

If this suggestion becomes a sanctioned ruling, international football in this country has suffered a body blow from which it may never recover. Not only has that, but the very concept of a shared Northern Ireland has itself suffered a blow. If this suggestion is enforced as a decision, it threatens to segregate football here. The agenda of nationalist politicians is to dilute the sense that the Irish identity can be included in Northern Irish institutions and exacerbate the situation whereby northern nationalists cleave to southern institutions. Their agenda (if successful) will not only have an effect on our sport, it will also increase division in society and politically it attempts to limit the cultural and sporting shared spaces which the two communities can inhabit.

Football is an important part of our culture and matters a great deal to people on both sides of the religious divide. I feel therefore, that it is absolutely necessary to redress the balance and for unionist politicians to back the Irish Football Association to the hilt on this issue. These are the types of issues which ultimately will dictate whether Northern Ireland is a success or a failure. As a unionist politician with a special interest in football, and with a supporter’s commitment to the Northern Ireland team, I urge you to publicly take issue with the fudge which FIFA wishes the associations to adopt and to back the IFA in whatever way you can in whatever actions they decide to take against this ridiculous “compromise”.


Danny Kennedy's response:


Many thanks for your message - I agree with all your points and have done so publically via the News Letter. I also will be requesting an urgent meeting with Howard Wells and the IFA, to keep the pressure on them to oppose the FIFA ruling. I will endeavour to keep you informed of events, feel free to stay in touch

Best wishes

Danny Kennedy

No response from Mr Poots. Quelle surprise.