Wednesday, 31 December 2008

More from the 'if it has rights in the title it must be good' school of discourse.

“It is time unionists abandoned the ridiculous old defensive reflex that impels them to reject new ideas on principle.”

With no apparent sense of irony this is how Susan McKay concludes a lightsome article about the NIHRC’s report. No matter that her own diatribe singularly ignores the substance of unionist argument and rather revisits the sneering brand of condescension toward unionism on which Ms. McKay has built her career.

Her opening gambit forms a prolonged attack on Lady Trimble for her ’pompous’ use of the word ’outwith’. Why the use of a legal term, by a woman with a legal background, specifically employed in consideration of a legal document should cause McKay so much angst is not immediately clear.

What is clear, is that the columnist is on surer ground formulating ad hominine attacks than considering whether the NIHRC actually did stick to its remit. For those of you who haven’t been paying attention, that is to examine whether there is scope to define rights, supplementary to the European Convention which are necessary due to the particular circumstances pertaining in Northern Ireland.

The unionist argument is that the NIHRC’s recommendations stray far from ’particular circumstances’ including a raft of social and economic matters which are the business of the government of the day. Additionally a bill on this model would seek to apply constitutional alterations, binding future governments to its prescriptions.

In attempting to rebuff this contention McKay ironically goes on to name aspects of the bill which are unproblematic to unionists, including rights which are already protected by the ECHR and its implementation in British law. She chooses to ignore specific provisions about which unionists expressed concern.

It is time Susan McKay abandoned the ridiculous old defensive reflex that impels her to reject unionists’ arguments without reference to their substance.

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Cameron reiterates communitarian vision

Writing on the Guardian politics’ blog today, Toby Helm implies a degree of nervousness on the part of Tory academics who propound the communitarian vision of conservatism which provides such an attractive alternative to Labour’s statist ethos. His contention is that in differentiating Conservative policy on the financial crash from the massive programme of borrowing which Gordon Brown believes is necessary to restimulate the economy, a perception has arisen that David Cameron is reneging on the vision of social responsibility which has paved the way for a Conservative revival.

Perhaps sensitive to such criticism, Cameron has reiterated his commitment to the principles which his new conservatism promises. His New Year message states,

“…far from dropping our green agenda because of the recession, we will this year step up the pace because leadership on the environment will help create the jobs, wealth and opportunity Britain needs. Far from dropping our commitment to make British poverty history, we will this year intensify it because we must not allow this recession to create social problems and costs for the future. And far from dropping our commitment to help the poorest people on the planet because times are tough at home, we will re-affirm in 2009 both the moral and the practical case for fighting global poverty.”

This is welcome clarification and provides a solid conceptual basis for his party to carry the fight to Labour in 2009.

'The White Tiger' by Aravind Adiga

As a reader of fiction I am immediately suspicious of clever narrative devices. When it became obvious that Aravind Adiga’s Booker Prize winning novel, ‘The White Tiger’, comprised correspondence between a Bangalore businessman and the Chinese premier, my cynicism immediately heightened. It is testimony to Adiga’s deft touch that Balram Halwai, his narrator, unfolds a tale of ambition and murder which dispelled all doubt and held me enthralled to its conclusion.

Halwai is an ambitious, able village boy who manages to bridge the gap between two symbiotic but diametrically different Indias. One is an emerging economic powerhouse, fuelled by American outsourcing and represented by gleaming cinemas and shopping malls. Its counterpoint is the rural ’darkness’, squalid, impoverished, filthy; teeming with the homeless and sick. In the gridlocked streets of Delhi these two countries merge and it is the cleavage between them that provides the motor for Adiga’s novel.

The narrator escapes his village and becomes driver to Mr Ashok, son of a wealthy Indian, despatched to Delhi in order to oil the wheels of government. The story is politically charged. Indeed whilst Balram looks to the Chinese prime minister as guarantor of a fairer, more egalitarian regime than the western model, his master also decries the workings of parliamentary democracy as an impediment to India’s ascent. For much of the novel an election campaign is taking place with the ’Great Socialist’ styling himself the candidate of ’the darkness’. The ruling Congress Party is portrayed as incorrigibly corrupt.

Balram has a compellingly conversational voice, equipped with a keen eye and a startling turn of phrase. Although much of the subject manner of Adiga’s novel could be oppressively gloomy, he fashions an exciting ride through the underbelly of India’s new found wealth. It is twin impediments of corruption and economic immobility which entrench the grinding poverty the author depicts. The economy is growing exponentially, but a social ‘turkey coop’ is in place, exacerbated by the traditions of the caste system, which helps constrict the benefits to a small minority.

This is an admirably unsentimental book bereft of the clichés which blight fiction about India. I would rather read Adiga’s unfussy, penetrating prose than Rushdie’s mealy mouthed, pseudo poetic, mangled English, any day of the week. Sebastian Barry’s ’The Secret Scripture’ remains unread on the bookshelf, and I understand it has its vociferous supporters, but ’The White Tiger’ seems to me a worthy prize winner, the competition not withstanding.

Monday, 29 December 2008

A homecoming aimed at those who are already at home

The rather monocultural shape which the SNP’s ‘Homecoming Scotland’ year seems to be assuming has been previously investigated by O’Neill (from whose article I have shamelessly pilfered the above image). From the outset it was clear that a rather kitsch reading of Scottish identity (which is after all particularly prescient for many nationalists) would predominate. In their defence one might posit that it is just such an interpretation which might chime most readily with ex pat tourists at whom the initiative was purportedly aimed.

Shane Greer, however, alleges that the Scottish Executive has briefed its chosen ad agency to promote the event only in Scottish publications. This seems a rather strange strategy to adopt if the aim is attracting visitors from around the world. Greer deduces that from the outset the year of homecoming was aimed merely at stoking sentimental nationalism amongst Scots voters before the proposed independence poll in 2010. It might however have been supposed that the SNP would take more care to dress up its cynical exercise as a legitimate initiative.

I have faith that Scotland’s electorate will not be as easily manipulated.

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Brutality rather than irrationality was Stalin's crime

A number of news sources have picked up on television polls accompanying the Eemya Rossiya (Name of Russia) competition. A series of documentary programmes has examined the bona fides of top contenders and Stalin remains popular in the television vote. The BBC has used the opportunity to examine the dictator’s appeal to contemporary Russians.

One problem I have with this television report is the contention that the Kremlin is ‘rewriting history’ by sponsoring text books suggesting Stalin’s actions as Russian leader were ‘rational’. More nuanced western historians have come to the conclusion that rationality did underpin the tyrant’s actions, even if his methods were deplorably brutal.

Stalin was far from the unhinged paranoiac frequently depicted. He was quite aware that innocent people perished through his terrors, but also realised that his regime depended upon fear. I recently wrote about the Georgian’s enduring popularity amongst Russians on Three Thousand Versts. It is certainly a regrettable phenomenon, but this report rather grasps the wrong end of the stick.

It is wrong to rehabilitate Stalin. It is also quite reasonable to imply that there was method to his awful brutality.

Osborne to announce Conservative tax cut strategy

I previously recorded scepticism as to the efficacy of Labour’s 2.5% VAT cut, aimed at stimulating the ailing economy. Preliminary estimates indicate that in the run up to Christmas the government’s strategy proved an abject failure. Whilst shoppers are now responding to slashed sales’ prices, a tiny cut on most consumer goods proved neither here nor there.

In response George Osborne is preparing to unveil the Conservatives’ proposed tax cuts. At first glance these alternatives appear to make considerably more sense than Labour’s £12 billion scheme. These cuts will be funded, promising to mitigate the crippling burden of debt which the current government is intent on inflicting on Britain’s tax payers.

If Osborne becomes chancellor he will seek to cut National Insurance Contributions, which Labour has stealthily increased. Slashing NIC will benefit all earners as well as businesses, thus providing a real stimulus which finds its way directly into people’s pockets. Additionally a Cameron government would instigate measures to decrease tax suffered by savers and pensioners. Two sections of society most hurt by the miniscule base rate of interest would therefore have some of the pain alleviated.

A Sunday Times' interview with Osborne, which is worth reading in full, implies that these proposals represent the start of a concerted Tory effort to take the political fight to Labour in 2009. Whether an election is called next year or not, campaigning will begin in earnest. It is then incumbent upon Cameron’s party to sustain momentum, possibly the whole way to May 2009.

Friday, 26 December 2008

Creative thinking from McNarry

David McNarry has formulated an ingenuous scheme to free up money in order to tackle the financial downturn. The executive could secure a substantial interest free loan from Westminster guaranteed by superfluous assets (as opposed to Parliament Buildings as the News Letter suggests). Having not examined McNarry’s proposals in detail I have little idea if they would work, but it certainly seems to be a piece of creative thinking from the MLA. Monies might be used to build infrastructure and boost the ailing constructions industry. Of course Alistair Darling might not agree, which would make McNarry's idea academic.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

Boxing Day derbies

Whatever family delights Christmas Day can provide, for me the essence of the season is Boxing Day Irish League football. It offers much the year's largest crowds and frequently it is a rare occasion for Northern Irish fans to feel that they are attending a 'proper' big match. I have spectated at a number of seasonal Big Two clashes, including the famous occasion when the sides took to the pitch with an invisible white ball on a snow white surface, but for me Boxing Day normally features Ballymena United versus Coleraine and all the local rivalry which that fixture entails.

Tomorrow Ballymena host the Gasmen at the Showgrounds hoping to extend a four game winning streak. Points have been at a premium for Roy Walker's men this season, but wins against Glentoran and Linfield suggest a big derby win in eminently possible. So hear's hoping that Kevin Kelbie bangs in a couple and sends Coleraine home with a sound beating. I'm convinced that the Sky Blues are not as woeful as their lowly position suggests. With Ballyclare drawn in the Cup perhaps this season will be the year dor a final appearance.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Merry Christmas to all readers and commenters

Although I don't intend to sign off for the rest of the year or anything dramatic, I will take this opportunity to wish all of you a good Christmas. Keep an eye on the blog though. I suspect I will feel the need to post something!

Cameron, Keynes, society and responsibility.

Burke’s Corner today examines the compatibility of Keynes and conservatism, urging conservatives to re-engage with Keynesian economics. For Burke’s Corner and the thinkers which it cites, the libertarian, free market strain which has predominated in conservative politics over a number of decades is an aberration. Instead, tracing its roots back to Aristotle via Disreali, Burke and Hume, this philosophy urges emphasis on society, its cohesion and protection. It is an encouraging doctrine for someone like me who has become utterly disgusted with the statist ambitions of the Labour party, but who found previous incarnations of the Conservative party somewhat uncompassionate as regards poverty and rather intolerant in other respects.

The current Conservative leader has shown every indication of sympathy with the communitarian argument. Against charges that David Cameron is developing a touchy feely conservatism which lacks authenticity, his supporters counter that it is conservatism rooted in a deep concern for society which is more surely tethered to the authentic tradition. Uncoupling conservatism from harsh free market ideology and disinterest in those who are struggling is to return to a truer reflection of its origins. Kieron O’Hara, whose book ‘After Blair’ envisaged a route to recovery for the Conservatives which would reconnect with the party’s Aristotelian, Burkean past, examines Cameron’s commitment to that template on ConservativeHome.

O’Hara wonders whether an increased emphasis on personal responsibility, centrepiece of a speech the Conservative leader delivered during the Glasgow East by election campaign, should be interpreted as a partial abandonment of Cameron’s pledges to mend the broken society. Perhaps he was repositioning Conservative policy towards a more ‘hands off’ approach. O’Hara notes however that although Cameron was prescribing a facet of society which was broken he was not offering a solution which would fix it. The change was in rhetoric rather than policy. There are policy levers which government can operate in order to benefit society, in addition it can encourage and facilitate changes in culture and behaviour. The opposition leader can urge people to take responsibility for cause and effect in their own lives without resiling from his commitment to help in other respects.

Recently I commended Cameron when he opposed measures to force mothers of very young children to seek work. When the Tory leader says that wealthy bankers should face up to the consequences of their actions, or when he refuses to commit to tax cuts for very high earners, he demonstrates that Conservatives are committed to fair play and to real benefits for the society which they purport to cherish. Responsibility is a virtue which should be encouraged, particularly at a time when financial irresponsibility has brought the world economy to its knees. If Cameron is genuinely concerned about the social fabric of Britain he should advocate personal responsibility. By insisting that bankers are responsible for their actions in the same fashion, but with much graver consequences, than the obese, he is being both egalitarian and consistent.

O’Hara’s concerns are relevant however. By articulating a more compassionate vision of conservatism than his immediate predecessors, Cameron built a strong lead over his Labour rivals. He must be consistent in emphasising the party's commitment to society, even as political discourse becomes increasingly focussed on economic issues. That is the vision of Conservatism which is attractive to voters such as, well, me.

Monday, 22 December 2008

What are your thoughts on 2008 and 2009?

At this time of year there are normally a plethora of retrospectives musing on the happenings of the previous 12 months. The credit crunch and the election of Barack Obama are two global events which will probably dominate most news and politics based assessments of 2008. There was also the small matter of a brief war which flared in the Caucasus following Georgian Prime Minister Mikhail Saaskashvili’s military adventurism.

In British politics David Davis won admiration for the courage of his resignation prompted by the issue of 42 day detention. In contrast the DUP shamefully supported Brown’s government as the legislation scraped through the Commons, causing many commentators to suppose the party had extracted some manner of bribe in exchange for its votes. The Conservative party looked to be galloping toward an unassailable lead and a possible landslide in the next Parliament, but Labour began to claw back ground and recorded a useful win in the Glenrothes by-election.

In Northern Ireland 152 days elapsed with Sinn Féin refusing to carry out its executive duties. Eventually a shadowy deal between the two carve-up parties broke the impasse as the nature of government here became all too evident. Perhaps most significantly for unionist politics the Conservative and Ulster Unionist parties’ fitful negotiations were eventually resolved satisfactorily and a new political force has been created. The deal culminated with David Cameron receiving a tumultuous reception at the UUP conference where he addressed delegates with a text book espousal of inclusive, civic unionism.

I have already recorded my scepticism as regards an early general election. In all likelihood the new entity will have its first electoral run out as European polls are conducted in spring 2009. Jim Nicholson might not represent the most exciting candidate to launch the Conservative and Unionist force, but he has a sound chance of success and a strong performance would get the alliance off to a running start. I certainly hope a strident campaign will accompany Nicholson’s candidature and he returns to the European Parliament with the backing of Northern Ireland’s electorate.

On a personal level 2008 has seen ‘Three Thousand Versts’ almost tripling its monthly readership. Hopefully in concert with other pro-Union blogs this trend continues and we can do our bit articulating our case and promoting our ideas. I hope too that readers continue to find this page an entertaining and stimulating read. And obviously if Liverpool could end the league title drought that would be highly welcome!

I’d be interested to discover readers’ take on the previous year, hopes and aspirations for the coming year or any general thoughts, whatever arena they might pertain to. By all means leave them in the comments zone.

Conor Cruise O'Brien - his legacy

Lavish tributes have been paid to Conor Cruise O’Brien following his death last week. O’Brien was a man who succeeded in setting aside the assumptions of his tribe. An achievement which should not be underestimated.

Not only was O’Brien steadfast and unambivalent in his opposition to terror, but his realisation that unionism formed a rational and defensible political doctrine was a hugely valuable contribution to a more tolerant discourse in Ireland.

Maurice Hayes does not offered unqualified praise for O’Brien, but in his Irish Independent piece he does produce three paragraphs which neatly sum up his political legacy.

“CCOB's great contribution to modern Irish political debate -- apart from his implacable hounding of those who would in any way condone the use of violence -- was to force the recognition of the Unionist community in Northern Ireland as Unionists as well as Protestants.

He cut through the comfortable myths which had sustained the relatively passive anti-partitionist rhetoric of successive governments in which Unionists were dismissed either as a group of deluded patriots who would soon come to their senses or a hard-headed lot who would jump to the side their bread was best buttered on.

Almost single-handedly (in public at least) over several decades, he explained the realities of a complex and confusing set of allegiances and relationships, and forced the Irish public mind to come to terms with the existence of a Unionist community in the North."

Ruane inflicted an insult which NI public should not be expected to put up with

The Irish Times reports that a complaint has been lodged with the PSNI regarding Catriona Ruane’s loathsome address delivered at a West Belfast school prize giving. Certainly her remarks, praising terrorist hunger striker Bobby Sands, would fall foul of legislation aimed at eradicating the glorification of terrorism by any normal application of such criteria. It is unfortunately highly improbable that any charges will be brought.

Ulster Unionist education spokesman Basil McCrea summed up the incident rather neatly.

“It is a matter of profound shame that an Education Minister of the Northern Ireland Executive stood in front of schoolchildren and lauded a terrorist hunger striker. It is also incredibly disturbing that the Education Minister revealed frightening authoritarian tendencies by attacking those who dared to criticise a film that gave a historically inaccurate account of the Civil War.”

Ruane turned film critic at this gathering as well, heaping opprobrium upon those advancing the notion that ‘The Wind That Shakes the Barley’ was not a feat of wonderful impartial film making.

A SF spokesman defended Ruane, describing Sands as ‘an iconic figure, respected around the world’. Unfortunately the IRA’s terror campaign is often portrayed as a romantic struggle. That is a despicable fact with which the group’s victims have had to learn to live. Sinn Féin has always been in the vanguard of rewritten history as regards republican atrocities.

It is clear, however, that a line must be drawn somewhere, and praising perpetrators of terror in the execution of ministerial duties is some way beyond what Northern Ireland’s public should be expected to put up with. As First Minister Peter Robinson should instigate measures to discipline her.

February election looks even less likely as Conservative poll lead increases

In the wake of a YouGov poll, conducted on behalf of the Daily Telegraph, Jonathan Isaby advises readers to forget about an election before 2010. The survey shows the Conservative Party pulling away from their Labour rivals and establishing a 7 point lead. In contrast the Guardian’s politics blog implies that CCHQ is nervous that Gordon Brown might yet go to the country.

I remain inclined toward Isaby’s version. I think it unlikely that the Prime Minister will be sufficiently confident to turn to the electorate within the next few months. In all likelihood Brown will attempt to sit out high unemployment next year in the hope that 2010 might see some light at the end of the tunnel. Despite the improbability of an early poll David Cameron is bound to keep his troops in fighting order in case the unexpected does happen.

As Three Thousand Versts has speculated before the election rumours can only benefit the opposition.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Glens stuffed!

I hope they ultimately win the league, but what a delight to see Glentoran vanquished by a late Kevin Kelbie strike at the oval yesterday! Ballymena may still be bottom but we're too good to go down. Good luck to both the Sky Blues and Glentoran on Boxing Day.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Provo Pravda on the skids?

Given that Irish language newspaper Lá Nua is owned by Belfast Media and its MD is Mairtin O Muilleoir, it is difficult to muster any real sympathy for its predicament as the last issue was printed this week. Muilleoir is a veteran provo supporter and frequently the newspapers which his group produce are little more than sectarian hate sheets, brimming with Sinn Féin propaganda. Perhaps Lá Nua was an exception (self-evidently I have never read it), but given its provenance I doubt it did much to increase the cross community appeal of the Irish language. Perhaps another publisher can provide Irish speakers with an alternative weekly paper, I hope so, but I have no hesitation in wishing any venture Muilleoir and his group touches a swift demise.

Speaking of odious republican hate rags, a piece on Slugger suggests that An Phoblacht, the provo newspaper which once lauded terrorist murders in its ‘war news’ section, is seeking donations after it survived an Ard Fheis motion to close it for lack of interest. Let’s hope that it goes down the toilet as quickly as possible.

Why vote DUP? To back stupid Labour VAT cuts.

Last week the German Finance Minister poured scorn upon Alistair Darling’s 2.5% VAT cut, noting that it was an expensive and ineffective expedient, unlikely to get people spending. Nick Clegg believes the £12.5 billion which it costs would be better spent on direct employment through financing infrastructure. Conservatives argue that targeting National Insurance offers a more effective means to benefit business and get money into people’s pockets. Just about every expert on consumer trends in the UK has cast doubt on the likely efficacy of the government’s scheme.

So what does Nigel Dodds assess as a great benefit of DUP representation at Westminster? His party’s ability to wade in behind government in order to defend an expensive, ineffective, temporary sales tax cut, which will have to be paid back with interest, some time in the not so distant future. Perhaps the pressure of all those jobs Nigel is doing has effected his judgment. Maybe the prospect of adding European duties to his already bulging portfolio is starting to get to him.

The DUP’s independence might permit it to exercise questionable judgment to little effect, but Ulster Unionists intend to participate in the party of government. That will offer opportunities to make a genuine contribution and to shape policy, both for the benefit of Northern Ireland and the entire United Kingdom. (H/T Jeffrey Peel)

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Education Minister lauds terror role model to school children

If it weren’t about Ruane you might greet this little gem with incredulity. Mark Devenport reports that the poorest member of a poor executive attended prize giving at St Colm’s High School in Poleglass in her capacity as Education Minister. In her remarks she then proceeded to stress the gratitude which students should feel toward IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, who had paved the way for their brighter future!

So there we have it. A minister in Northern Ireland’s government abusing her position in order to commend as a role model to children a terrorist who starved himself to death. Simply shameful.

Will Brown adopt a Putinite approach to campaigning?

Yesterday the Guardian’s Michael White poured cold water on the notion that there will be an election in 2009. He believes that Labour is destined to remain behind in the polls and the party will experience defeat in spring 2010,

“Labour's task is to govern with as much competence and dignity as it can muster in the storm, knowing that it will make a return to government in due course that much easier.”

His view represents a gloomy prognosis for Gordon Brown who will certainly not have an opportunity to lose more than one campaign as leader.

The Prime Minister’s predicament is exemplified by Iain Martin’s op-ed in today’s Telegraph. He portrays Brown as the eternal strategist, uncomfortable with front line campaigning and forever seeking excuses to avoid the country’s verdict.

Whatever the precise truth might be, the image of Brown as lofty technocrat, in stark contrast to the easy style of his opponent, will be employed to heighten the sense of a statist government grown remote from the British people and increasingly blasé about the democratic imperative. If the Prime Minister is seen to prevaricate on a 2009 poll such a perception will become increasingly difficult to dispel.

By White’s formulation, it is possible that Brown can only mitigate the damage he does to any successor for the remainder of his term. Martin believes that an election campaign will inevitably benefit David Cameron, as Britain’s electoral system becomes increasingly presidential.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin shares his British counterpart’s top down approach to government (albeit in a country where statism is a longstanding tradition). He prefers to remain above the fray of campaigning, a dignified detachment which has paid dividends with the Russian electorate.

Brown has shown signs he might employ a similar strategy, depicting himself as world straddling statesman detached from the unseemly politicking of his opponents. Whether this tactic will wear well with British voters remains to be seen.

Estonia campaign to persuade Russians to change their surnames

Another indication of the ethnic nationalist character of the Estonian government. The authorities in Tallinn are drafting legislation aimed at persuading ethnic Russians to change their surnames. This type of ‘integration policy’ in Baltic States is rarely remarked upon in the British press, despite its unpleasant character. If a minority, comprising 25% of a country’s population, were treated in the fashion Russians have been treated in Estonia and Latvia, in Western Europe, would the media react with such equanimity? Discrimination against Russians is normally given a by-ball in terms of media opinion and any discontent amongst the Russian population in these countries can then be conveniently blamed on Moscow interference.

Lord Empey?

Conservative Home is canvassing suggestions for new Lords, to be created if government changes any time soon. Michael Howard is a popular suggestion but Ulster Tory wants Reg Empey promoted from Knight to Lord. An interesting idea, although Sir Reg might prefer to get to Westminster as an MP. In which case East Belfast might not be the most fruitful hunting ground.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

'Old stereotypes and caricatures' - Guardian's Russia report demolished.

Dmitry Peskov, from the office of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, has taken a welcome hatchet to a lazy Guardian article entitled (inevitably) ‘Back in the USSR’. Luke Harding’s piece was inconsistent and silly, attempting to draw comparisons between VV Putin and Brezhnev and likening the current difficulties which Russia’s economy faces to the USSR’s stagnation in the 1970s.

The kernel of Harding’s argument is demolished in Peskov’s very first paragraph.

“The central charge in your article, that Russia is fast turning into the Soviet Union, is as unsustainable as it is unfair (Back to the USSR, 10 December). Indeed, your report's grudging admission that Russia now has a market economy and that our citizens have freedom of speech and travel - three fundamental differences between modern Russia and the Soviet Union - undermines any serious suggestion of a comparison between the two eras.”

It is a pleasure to read a calm, measured and reasoned rebuttal of any piece of hysterical scare-mongering and this is no exception. Peskov points out that the very reason Russia’s financial system is currently under pressure is due to its integration with the world economy. Russia faces difficulties, but it is perhaps more equipped to cope than other economies, given the surplus gathered during boom times.

“We fully accept that we still have plenty of problems to overcome in Russia. But it would be nice to think we might see a change in the way our country is reported, and an end to the use of old stereotypes and caricatures.”

Hear hear.

No requirement for London neutrality on Union

Thanks to Gary who drew to my attention this nasty little editorial from Irish American interest newspaper ‘Irish Voice’. Lauding the DUP / SF carve-up, Niall O’Dowd refers to the accord between Conservatives and Ulster Unionists, preposterously, as a ‘potentially sinister development’. It is an article which revisits a series of common nationalist misapprehensions as to the nature of the Belfast Agreement already examined on Three Thousand Versts. Additionally, it highlights a phenomenon which has always been observable but has become increasingly apparent since the Conservative / UUP accord. The most conventional nationalists are much more comfortable, much less disorientated, by the DUP’s little Ulster sectional ‘unionism’ than the inclusive pan-UK vision which will be advanced by the new political force.

There is little point in reprising arguments which I have made exhaustively in previous pieces. The crux is that the British government is not required to maintain neutrality on the question of Northern Ireland’s constitutional position. Ironically, for many years nationalists urged governments in Westminster to become ‘persuaders’ for a united Ireland. Indeed the Labour party’s stated position until the mid 1990s was ‘unity by consent’. Now we are told that neutrality is a cardinal virtue (although evidently not for the Republic’s government). The British government must simply uphold the principle of consent and accept the decision of the people of Northern Ireland as to what the province’s constitutional status should be.

Peter Brooke’s ‘selfish strategic or economic interest’ remark, which it turns out nationalism so prized, was self-evidently nonsense from the moment it was conceived. At the time it served a purpose, stilling apprehension amongst nationalists, but it was always based on an insoluble paradox. There is a clear framework now by which Northern Ireland’s governance and constitutional status will be guided. Nonsensical comfort blankets should no longer be needed, much less when they cause sharp offence to one side of the constitutional argument.

This morning O’Neill highlights virulent DUP rhetoric aimed at Westminster. With Sinn Féin and the greener elements of the SDLP, Weir’s party represents Northern Ireland adrift from London, adamantly opposed to its interest. Therefore nationalism finds it is increasingly comfortable with the DUP and strongly suspicious of an alliance which offers people here direct participation in the government of the United Kingdom.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Conservatives should be good to go in February (almost everywhere!).

As rumours abound that Gordon Brown might call a snap general election in February, Iain Dale has been stoking the fire with some gossip (albeit gossip subsequently rebutted by the ad company concerned). Nick Robinson offers calm assessment of the likelihood of an early poll. He believes that, in the teeth of deep recession, the Prime Minister wants the option to go to the country in February, but is unlikely to use it whilst his party is still behind in opinion polls. This morning's Guardian ICM poll puts the Tories under 40% but still five points ahead of Labour. If the gap narrows further in January Brown would surely be tempted.

The Conservative party will push the notion that Brown is giving the date serious consideration. If an election is not then forthcoming, it should be possible to paint Labour’s leader as the man who ran away from the country – twice. If the rumours gain legs, and Cameron’s party will seek to ensure that they do, Brown could be irreparably damaged. Certainly in terms of calling an election any time before spring 2010 (when Labour will have unequivocally acquired the taint of recession).

Cameron himself has been fighting back on suggestions of equivocation on social issues, implied by Labour as he refused to match Brown’s financial crisis spending plans. The Conservative party has vowed to box clever on the economy, targeting tax cuts where they will be most beneficial, rather than ploughing neck deep into a trough of public indebtedness, which is Labour’s strategy. The danger is that the government can attack Cameron as a free market Tory, unconcerned about poverty and inclined to side with the rich.

In such circumstances it is particularly important that the Conservative party sticks to its promise to realise progressive ends by conservative means and stresses compassionate social policy. To this end Cameron was entirely right to contend that ‘a day of reckoning’ is required to hold rich bankers to account for the part they have played in the unfolding economic crisis. Their fecklessness should carry consequences and any hint of wrongdoing must be thoroughly explored. Any Conservative government should give the FSA tools to both regulate and investigate.

He is even more correct to assert that forcing mothers of children as young as one to prepare to return to work is wrong. Although both parties are agreed that those who can work should be encouraged to do so, it is discriminatory to deprive children from poorer homes of a parent at so tender an age. Single mothers, all mothers, of pre school aged children should have the option of remaining at home without fear of having their benefits stopped.

Cameron has pitched his message just right on this issue, supporting the government’s attempts to get people off benefits and into work, but insisting that the threshold on mothers is too low. It is a contention entirely compatible with his emphasis on fixing society. It represents the type of communitarian conservatism which saw his party build up such a strong lead in the first place.

If Conservatives can assure voters that sound housekeeping and economic realism does not necessarily correlate with abandoning any sense of compassion, their poll lead is likely to rise once again. It is their luxury and Brown’s problem that going to the country is his decision to make. The Conservative Party must keep its message consistent and be prepared for an election at any time. On the mainland that should be eminently possible, although the new Conservative and Unionist force in Northern Ireland could surely do with a few more months!

Russia's difficulties with Stalinist past

Given the recent sequestration of Memorial’s St Petersburg archive, an article by the organisation’s founder, Argeny Roginsky, examining his country’s attitude to Stalinism, is particularly apposite. He finds that Russia’s ‘historical memory’ of the dictator is both painful and ambivalent. Stalin’s crimes have not yet been confronted as they should be, because they raise insoluble questions as to who were the criminals and who were the victims during his rule, as well as interrogating the fabric of contemporary Russian identity in a manner which causes acute discomfort.

Although Russia has made some progress in coming to terms with the victimhood of those who suffered under Stalin, Roginisky argues that it has shown less fortitude in confronting the crimes implicit in that victim status. There has been insufficient legal acknowledgment of state terror as a crime and the perpetrators of Stalinist outrages have not undergone criminal proceedings. The difficulty, Roginsky contends, is disentangling the executioners from the victims. Even within Stalin’s inner circle, those who signed death warrants one day had their own signed the next. Implied guilt is cloaked in ambiguity. Russia’s suffers an ‘inability to assign evil’.

Russia’s current ambitions to reprise ‘great power’ status pose additional problems in coming to terms with the wrongs of Stalin’s era. Roginsky does not allege that the Kremlin under Putin sought to rehabilitate Stalin, but rather suggests that when the Russian population as a whole found difficulty in assimilating Yeltsinite counter-factual narratives surrounding Stolypin, or remote episodes from the distant past (Peter I), as meaningful indicators of identity, achievements from the Soviet era surfaced as a more accessible framework of identity. Putin’s regime adopted a pragmatic approach and it was difficult to repudiate Stalin unambiguously without repudiating some of the nation’s most cherished historical memory, associated with a strong Russia.

The most lucid and evocative memory of recent Russian history remains the Great Patriotic War (WW2). Whatever atrocities Stalin committed against his own people, his legacy is caught up with the defeat of Nazi Germany. Between 24 and 27 million Russians died during World War 2. The belief is that they died defeating a force of pure evil. To impugn the regime which oversaw this victory is in some respects to impugn the sacrifice and hardship which Russia underwent during this period. Roginsky believes that a simplistic narrative of this type has entrenched Russian difficulties in acknowledging the culpability of the state for Stalinist terror.

Tackling the past is a project which is taking place in Russia, albeit in the large part without state help. Roginsky highlights the 800 monuments, across the Federation, to the victims of Stalin. There are almost 300 ‘books of memory’ drawn from regions which Memorial has consolidated into a database of roughly 2,700,000 names. 300 museums in Russia contain detail about Stalinist terror.

Roginsky’s is a thoughtful essay which ends with a lament as to the quality of school curricula teaching Stalinist history in Russia. It examines problems of culture, self-conception and identity which afflict the country as it tries to come to terms with dark episodes from its past. It is worth reading in its entirety. I have expressed the belief before, and it is a belief I would reiterate, that the Kremlin can do much more in this regard. An official state museum of the terror and an appropriate state memorial to victims of totalitarianism should be provided. Organisations like Memorial have done a sterling job in the absence of state backing, but it is time that they had some official help, rather than the hindrance represented by police raids of spurious provenance.

More help for 'professional takers' but workers feeling the pinch are left out.

We are constantly being told that what is different about this particular economic crisis is that it is effecting us all. It is an especially tough time for those with low and middle incomes who are struggling to pay larger bills whilst their employers in turn tighten their own belts by denying salary increases. The economic imposition which has increased most exponentially for all households (and the effect is felt keenly by those on low and middle incomes) is paying energy bills for heat and light. Yet the Northern Ireland Executive’s much vaunted fuel poverty payment will apply only to those receiving pensions and income support!

It would be easy to come over a bit ‘Daily Mail’ on this issue, but frankly this package is not taking into consideration the peculiar circumstances of these straightened times. Those people who are already provided for by the state get more and those who are working hard but find themselves without enough money to pay the bills get nothing. Surely the executive could have devised a wider ranging, indeed a more just, system of assessing requirement for this payment?

Of course there will be people who have lost jobs, or who have been unable to find work, or who simply cannot work for whatever reason, and they require help. I would not for a minute suggest that they should be denied it. But income support is already a rather amorphous system and there will be a hardcore of professional ‘takers’ benefiting from the executive’s supposed largesse, whilst there will be those in real need who miss out.

Margaret Ritchie has raised further concerns about Nigel Dodds’ economic package, claiming that her budget has been raided in order to finance payments. Ritchie's reaction once again highlights the unaccountable nature of government here, where small parties’ ministers are locked into decisions which they disagree with, only to have the executive’s ‘unanimity’ thrown back in their faces if there is a murmur of dissent. They can either attract huge opprobrium by blocking executive business or else they must take shared responsibility for policy which the larger parties have imposed.

Whether Ritchie’s concerns are justified or not (and to be fair the income support qualification was her baby), this is a bad flawed scheme which does not deserve the laurels being heaped upon it. Devolution is actually working very badly.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Hunters becomes Hills

A vital text message has just informed me that the dreadful ‘Deez’ restyling which afflicted Hunters, then was almost killed off, has finally been properly dispatched to the unwise pub makeover shelter in the sky. The uninitiated may not appreciate that I have been charting the saga of a Belfast pub, known in its various incarnations as the Ashley, Hunters, Vaughans and then Deez. I bemoaned its rebirth as Deez, hankering after the original Hunters. Deez did indeed shut down for a period of months, but just weeks ago it appeared to have reopened without any rebranding.

Now, I’m pleased to announce Deez is dead – long live the rather oddly named ‘Hills: the Best’. The newly opened pub apparently features a picture of George in his Northern Ireland top (although as far as I’m aware without any IFA wank wipes) at its door. Obviously as this news has only just reached me I have yet to visit this establishment. Watch this space!

Buy your official Northern Ireland inflatable wife!

Northern Ireland tops are selling for £15 a pop this Christmas via the Irish Football Association shop. A few years ago there was a drought of available merchandise for the discerning fan to purchase and the organisation’s web sales operation was non-existent.

Whether a surfeit of commercial enthusiasm has infected Windsor Avenue this year, I am not entirely certain, but there are some interesting products for sale on the IFA’s website.

For when Ballymena reach the Irish Cup final? The charmingly entitled ‘wank wipes’.

For those long bus rides to Setanta games? The ‘Nookii’ game.

And the piece de resistance, for when your wife leaves you after too many GAWA away trips! An inflatable wife.

Who said Howard Wells was the moderniser and Raymond Kennedy a return to type? The last time I bought tickets from IFA HQ I received two free packets of Tayto crisps. What will my San Marino tickets be accompanied by?

(Sits back and waits to see what Google searches are referred to this site)

My aching sides

I could have trailed through this Business Post article about the Belfast Giants pulling apart the absolute nonsense which it alleges of established sports in Northern Ireland (you know, the ones that people from here actually compete in). I could have pointed out the vastly overblown claims which it makes for the NIO’s almost erstwhile ice hockey team and the fact that it was nothing but a passing craze which has gone out of fashion. Luckily I don’t have to, because this paragraph is more effective (and hilarious) than any ridicule which I could pour upon either the article or the Belfast Giants.

“Jim Gillespie, who has poured $3 million (€2.2 million) of his own money into the Belfast Giants ice hockey team, said the survival of his team was essential for the long-term stability of the peace process.”

Hoy an emblem of UK's stengths

Chris Hoy followed up his Olympic cycling triumphs by steadfastly refusing to allow Alex Salmond or his Scottish nationalist cause to bask in reflected glory. Hoy’s unionism was more demonstrative than articulated, but nevertheless he made it perfectly clear that he considered himself both Scottish and British and that his medals were won as a Scotsman proudly representing the UK team.

Last night Hoy became the nation’s ‘Sports’ Personality of the Year’, emphasising the pride which the whole of the Kingdom feels in one of its greatest ever Olympians. The cyclist was visibly moved to have won this award in a year when so many other sports’ men and women achieved so highly. It was an honour which suggested much broader kinship between Britons than nationalists would like us to believe exists.

Hoy (and the Team GB cycling team as a whole) offers an example of what the United Kingdom can achieve through the combined efforts of its constituent parts. He provided the talent which harnessed a wealth of knowledge and expertise behind the scenes. Despite becoming something of a talisman, Hoy is also the consummate team player.

So whilst Iain Martin’s headline, ‘Chris Hoy Saves the Union’, might be slightly tongue in cheek, he is certainly emblematic of the Union’s strengths.

Friday, 12 December 2008

You can't be Scottish and British! SNP subscribes to Republican Sinn Féin's take on identity.

The minority SNP government in Scotland wishes to make it impossible to select both Scottish and British in the ethnicity section of the 2011 census. The people of Scotland would consequently be corralled into accepting nationalist absolutes when describing their identity. It represents nothing less than a further assault on the ability to define oneself in terms of a plurality of identities. It is a disingenuous one at that, seeking to deprive respondents of the option, rather than persuading them not to choose it.

Scottish Unionist highlights a particularly broadminded exposition of the SNP’s stance.

Why the human rights report has become a unionist / nationalist issue. And why unionists should oppose its recommendations.

The US constitution describes as self-evident truth the ‘unalienable’ rights of man – consisting of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These are Lockean ‘natural rights’ with which man is born possessed and they can only be removed from him by the actions of a third party. Although ‘natural rights’ still comprise a set of basic human entitlements which it should be government’s duty to balance and protect, in modern democratic societies there are a series of additional civic or social rights which have been developed by law. These may complement the protection of inalienable rights, for instance the right to a free trial, or may be additional legal rights developed by custom and consensus, for instance the right to an education. Human rights legislation is a framework whereby aspirations toward protecting these rights, inalienable, or consensual, are laid out. What human rights legislation should not be required to do, is prescribe the means by which government must realise the human rights legislation lays out, nor should it attempt to create rights when there is no societal consensus as to their existence.

The Belfast Agreement, contrary to Irish nationalist assertion, did not require that a Human Rights Act be enacted by Westminster for Northern Ireland. It merely established a commission, with the following remit,

“to consult and to advise on the scope for defining, in Westminster legislation, rights supplementary to those in the European Convention on Human Rights, to reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland.”

The ‘particular circumstances’ the agreement specified as entailing ‘mutual respect for the identity and ethos of both communities and parity of esteem’. You will note that, not only was a bill of rights not guaranteed, but neither the UK government, nor the political parties, were required to endorse any recommendations the commission might make. It is therefore particularly appropriate for parties (by intimating that they would campaign and vote against any bill on this model), and indeed the government (by refusing to draft the bill in its recommended state in the first place), to withhold endorsement for the NIHRC’s report, because it has blatantly not stuck to its remit. The recommendations produced by Monica McWilliams’ quango have wandered way beyond the framework of the European Convention, and its sorties from this template have strayed considerably further than the specifics of respect for identity and accordance of parity of esteem. The two unionist commission members have dissented from the report’s findings and the neutral Alliance Party has expressed its reservations.

The pro bill of rights argument has been woefully simplistic from the process’s inception. It has invoked the self-evident merit of anything which is bundled under the title ‘rights’, ignoring assertions that many of the matters which have been included under that title do not conform to any agreed definition of what a right should consist in. ‘How could anyone oppose rights?’ is how the case is framed. Then there is the nationalist mis-assertion that a bill must be established under the Good Friday Agreement. This deliberate sophistry has informed attempts to attach a caravan of nationalist aspirations to the bill of rights vehicle, on the understanding that anything hitched to the bill will be included in the bubble of invincibility with which nationalism has attempted to equip it.

It is a cunning trick for nationalists to adopt, because it capitalises on the perception of unionism as an intractable opponent of change. Dermot Nesbitt, on the UUP’s behalf, has thus far remained laudably patient, explaining that his party is not opposed to rights in any shape or form, nor is it opposed to providing social and economic entitlements by appropriate means. It is, however, opposed to tying future legislators’ hands on a whole range of issues thus defeating the essential imperatives of accountable democratic governance. Unionists are concerned with basic principles which underpin the United Kingdom’s system of government, such as sovereignty of Parliament and the inability of a current Parliament to bind those which succeed it. Naturally nationalists do not share unionism’s sensibilities as regards the UK’s constitution, particularly as it applies to Northern Ireland. Indeed unionists might be forgiven if they were to deduce that at the root of nationalism’s enthusiasm for the proposed bill lies a desire to subvert the constitution’s application in Northern Ireland. A deduction of that type would neither be baseless nor would it be unreasonable.

There is a near hysterical article on Our Kingdom, written by Damian O’Loan, which demonstrates precisely the type of mangled logic with which nationalism is infusing its argument in this instance. The two stranded objection to the bill advanced by the UUP is dismissed in a fashion which is either wilfully ignorant of constitutional law, or downright dishonest. When the UUP (who are not ‘official Conservatives’ whatever that phrase means) contend that the bill would take powers from democratically elected representatives and put them at the disposal of unelected judges, Damian’s rejoinder is that logically ‘government should have no legislative commitments’ by unionists’ formulation. Transparently this is nonsense which an able 14 year old could effectively rebut. The Bill of Rights proposes to hold future legislation to its prescriptions! That is the point of it! Of course the courts must apply legislation and this legislation applies to government, but equally legislators must have the ability to overturn, amend and create new legislation, across a range of matters, unhindered by courts or a set of prescriptions. That is the essence of the British constitution. The second UUP argument, that the Bill of Rights would not be accepted anywhere else in the UK, he claims is in contravention of Belfast Agreement commitments. We have already established that this is not the case. The proof is in the actual document, which as usual, nationalists have chosen to ignore, implying all manner of unwritten subtext which everyone is supposed to be beholden to. Unionists are asking - would this legislation be accepted in any other part of the UK, taking into consideration circumstances particular to Northern Ireland? The answer is clearly no, and therefore there is no obligation to support the document, which is (hadn’t anyone noticed?) not in the gift of unionists in any case, but would need to be passed at Westminster if it were ever drafted into a bill!

What is clear, from arguments which have surrounded these recommendations, and from reaction to the UUP / Conservative force, is that nationalism is prepared to misrepresent and misappropriate the Belfast Agreement repeatedly, in order to advance its own imperatives and attack British sovereignty in Northern Ireland. The irony, that in so doing it is clearly demonstrating contempt for the principle of consent and for the province’s constitutional status, will not be lost on unionists. For their part Ulster unionists must remain calm and lucid advancing the case against these ridiculous proposals. As Newton Emerson observes in the Irish News, they are likely to find that their position is closer to both main Westminster parties thinking on the NIHRC’s report, than they might initially expect.

I blog here, I blog there, I blog every .... you know the rest.

This is article is written for Our Kingdom and it can be found here.

Lord Smith makes a handful of curious points pertaining to realignment of the Conservative and Ulster Unionist parties, currently being effected by David Cameron and Sir Reg Empey. The Liberal Democrat peer appears confused as to the nature of the Conservative and Unionist force which the two parties intend to create and inconsistent in his criticisms of Cameron’s unionism.

Reconstituting links between Conservatives and Ulster Unionists will not, as Lord Smith contends, further polarise politics in Northern Ireland, still less aggravate increased dissident paramilitarism. If anything the alliance will exercise a moderating influence on unionist politics, shaping a secular, inclusive movement, propounding the values of the Union. The new force will not be about exclusion, or representing one community, it will be about making a case for Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom which appeals to everyone in the province.

The Belfast Agreement, and subsequent tinkering at St Andrews, settled Northern Ireland’s constitutional status. That is the context in which David Cameron wishes to roll out national UK politics, for the benefit of voters here. He has no intention of altering the safeguards which the agreement created, or diminishing the British government’s commitment to respect Irish nationalists’ legitimate aspirations. Insofar as dissident republican paramilitary groups are in any respect sensitive to Northern Ireland’s internal political dynamic, reorganisation of two functionally unionist parties will not register on their radar.

Lord Smith argues that the UUP constitutes only a small rump of Northern Irish unionism and that neither party stands to benefit significantly from forging a link. He believes that David Cameron making a pro-unionist argument from an Ulster Unionist platform represents ‘dangerous posturing’. He might be correct that the UUP are a minority party within unionism, but the party shares the moderate conservative and unionist sensibilities of its larger brother. It forms an ideal vehicle by which Cameron’s unionist vision can be put before Northern Ireland’s electorate. The appeal of offering voters a real say in national politics, of affording them the same political rights and entitlements which those sharing their citizenship enjoy in Great Britain, should not be underestimated.

The Liberal Democrat party was the only putatively unionist group which failed to welcome the recent Calman Commission interim report on Scots’ devolution. Liberal Democrats in Scotland have developed the cosiest of relationship with the nationalist SNP. It is ironic therefore that Lord Smith accuses David Cameron of spreading his unionism thinly.

It seems to me that David Cameron is a party leader who is determined to argue the case for Union. Indeed he is the only party leader determined to argue the case for a United Kingdom, in all its constituent parts. His determination is not born of opportunism or cynicism; rather it is testament to Cameron’s bravery and his commitment to the Union.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Tag-team Salmond bashing

Yesterday Shadow Scottish Secretary David Mundell welcomed the Calman Commission’s interim report and ridiculed the SNP’s rival ‘national conversation’ in a question to Secretary of State for Scotland, Jim Murphy.

"We share the Secretary of State’s welcome for the Calman commission. Does he note the contrast between the application and thoroughness of the interim Calman report and the so-called national conversation, which appears to be little more than a taxpayer-funded blog site for insomniac nationalists? Does he share my disappointment not only with the content but with the tone of the First Minister’s response to the interim report? Will he therefore use his best endeavours to persuade the First Minister that now is the time to show that he is man not a mouse—to use the First Minister’s own analogy—by abandoning the national conversation, which does not have the support of the Scottish Parliament, and by engaging, as many in the Scottish Government wish to do, in the Calman process?”

A quick collision of palms with Jim and the Labour minister replied,

“The hon. Gentleman is right to say that it is both surprising and disappointing that Scottish Government Ministers will not give evidence to the Calman commission. Of course, Scottish civil servants cannot give evidence to the Calman commission. He is absolutely right to say that if the Scottish Government continue to wish to see this process provide the high-quality outcome that we all want, that position should change over the next few months. The hon. Gentleman is right: there are a number of insomniac SNP supporters across Scotland at the moment. That is partly because their economic dream has turned into a nightmare and their ambitions of Scotland being just another Iceland are really a nightmare come true.”

Bi-partisanship at its most satisfying.

Trimble cabinet post would be on merit

A prophet is not without honour save in his own country. Despite his contribution to a peaceful, stable Northern Ireland, Lord Trimble is frequently evoked as ‘bête noire’ by both main communities here. The DUP continues to demonise anything in which the peer is involved, oblivious to the irony that it has now wholeheartedly embraced Trimble’s power-sharing project. Nationalist hostility is perhaps, on the surface, more surprising, but it is in large part based on deep seated suspicion of unionism which is articulate and forward thinking, and to a lesser extent on personal antipathies toward the man’s sometimes frosty demeanour.

Attacks from both sides have accompanied suggestions that Trimble might play a role in any Conservative government formed after the next election. Nicholas Watt predicts that he is likely to become attorney general, a post which has been mooted before and which a predecessor as Ulster Unionist leader, Edward Carson, held previously. Lord Trimble certainly has the formidable legal mind which would be required in such a position. Despite the personal animosity he attracts from erstwhile political opponents, he would constitute a perfect example of an Ulsterman bringing considerable talents to the cabinet table.

In Northern Ireland Trimble’s reputation might not yet be rehabilitated. But his presence in any British government would be purely on merit.

Nein bitte!

German Finance Minister Peer Steinbruck (I’m afraid I can’t manage an umlaut) has rather neatly summed up the efficacy of Alistair Darling’s VAT cut.

"Are you really going to buy a DVD player because it now costs £39.10 instead of £39.90? All this will do is raise Britain's debt to a level that will take a generation to work off."

100% correct. The cut is an expensive expedient which will do very little to stimulate spending.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

A proposed Human Rights Bill that cheapens the concept of human rights

The NI Human Rights Commission’s report has arrived (PDF). Broadly it consists of (who’d have thunk it?) provisions which are already enshrined in the Human Rights’ Act via the European Convention, but to this framework it adds supplementary ‘rights’ which are considered (if the HRC has stuck by its remit) to be uniquely required in Northern Ireland. In his leader’s speech at the weekend Sir Reg Empey highlighted the danger of removing matters from the competence of Westminster and the Northern Ireland Assembly to be decided instead by unelected, unaccountable judges. Set aside the self-righteous platitudes and this document proposes a very dangerous encroachment into the remit of elected politicians.

Having quickly read the recommendations, paying most attention to the additional supplementary rights proposed for Northern Ireland, it is clear that the Commission has strayed far from the remit of human rights and is seeking to impose binding social, educational, housing and employment policies. It is deeply disingenuous to bundle these matters up with human rights. Not only does it cheapen ‘rights’ as a concept, but it seeks to impose an ideological template, far beyond any existing consensus, on a range of matters which should be decided by the elected government of the day. That is not to say that some of the ends which this document wishes to effect are not meritorious, but it is not right that it seeks to remove them from the democratic fray.

Take for instance the outrageous list of grounds on which discrimination is to be precluded,

“No one shall be unfairly discriminated against by any public authority on any ground such as: race, membership of the Irish Traveller community, colour, ethnicity, descent, sex, pregnancy, maternity, civil, family or carer status, language, religion or belief, political or other opinion, birth, national or social origin, nationality, economic status, association with a national minority, sexual orientation, gender, identity, age, disability, health status, genetic or other predisposition toward, illness, irrelevant criminal record, property or a combination of any of these grounds, on the basis of characteristics associated with any of these grounds, or any other status.”

No-one would seriously argue that discrimination is a good thing, but some of these matters are directly relevant, for example, to someone’s ability to do a job. Such a provision would attempt to hold businesses and public authorities to frankly unattainable standards. And then there is the catch-all ‘or any other status’, an open invitation to unlimited legal action, much of which could be funded from the public purse. I might demand not to be discriminated against on the grounds of my laziness or my alcohol problem!

Though just in case I might find that I am being discriminated against because people who fall into a favoured category in that exhaustive list of humanity are being given preferential treatment, I am precluded from protection under a subsequent clause! If I feel that the 4 foot tall, one legged hunchback is a less sound choice for the shelf-stacker's job than I am, it's hard luck if she's being 'ameliorated'.

The issue of prisoners being afforded the vote is currently a contentious political matter. This report breezily accords them an inalienable right to exercise the franchise. No discussion permitted. Again there are legitimate arguments for and against, but surely such a matter is within the competence of any given government? Similarly the Commission wishes to prescribe proportional representation, in perpetuity, as the only means by which to elect local and regional government. Believe me, I support STV’s retention for council and Assembly elections, but can its continued use be seriously presented as an inalienable human right? Owen Paterson MP argues that this clause would contravene requirements in the Belfast Agreement to review the current voting system regularly.

As regards education, ‘no child shall be denied access to the full Northern Ireland education curriculum’. Which, by my understanding, would require every school to provide every course pertaining to a particular age group even if only one child wished to study it. Not an awful thing in a perfect world, but completely impractical.

“Everyone belonging to a linguistic minority has the right to learn or be educated in and through their minority language where there are substantial numbers of users and sufficient demand.”

GCSE papers in Polish a requirement in the near future? Mandarin schools demanded in law?

No-one can be allowed to fall into destitution (no matter how determined their efforts toward that end). Everyone has a right to a job and a house (whether they are available or not). All victims of the NI conflict are entitled to a raft of things, no matter whether their victimhood is a result of their relative's involvement in terrorism or not. There will be a right to an adequate standard of living whether one earns it or not. Everyone has the right to freely choose or accept work (which might interest the Work and Pensions Secretary as he formulates the latest welfare to work reforms).

The list of policy areas which a Human Rights Bill, based on this template, would delegate to the judiciary goes on and on. At Westminster the cabinet has made it clear that a similar bill will not be framed for Britain. As I always suspected, this is an untenable, dishonest proposal for legislation. Both Daphne Trimble and Jonathan Bell have failed to agree with the document, yet they were denied the chance to offer a minority report. It must not be allowed to go any further.

Don't be DUPed again! 'No concession unionism' grants IRA terror shrine.

Edwin Poots will be happy. The Maze site is to be developed after all. Although the Terrordome sports stadium is to be shelved for at least four years, the DUP has granted republicans a terrorist museum as part of its deal to get devolution back on track. With Irish American funding to be ploughed into its development, and Sinn Féin as its consistent champion, obviously the ‘Conflict Resolution Centre’ will be a bastion of good sense and objectivity.

Another triumph for the DUP’s fabled defence of unionism.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Effective unionist representation at Westminster? DUP duck Speaker division.

Unionist Lite has dealt with Nigel Dodds’ expression of pompous concern about ‘maximising unionist representation at Westminster’. O’Neill points out in his piece that Dodds has only managed to ‘represent unionism at Westminster’ in 45% of divisions.

Yesterday the House of Commons debated a matter directly relevant to the nature of Parliamentary sovereignty in the United Kingdom. The debate, on the Speaker’s role in events surrounding the Metropolitan Police’s search of Damian Green’s Westminster office, dealt with elemental issues concerning the type of democracy which we have in the UK.

The House considered how free MPs in this country are to do their job unhindered and how effectively their ability to hold the executive to account is being upheld. An amendment, which would have allowed a Commons’ Inquiry Committee to consider the incident prior to the conclusion of the police’s investigation, was defeated by four votes. A clear reverse for Parliamentary scrutiny on a crucial issue.

Mr Dodds and his party colleagues did not attend. Neither did Lady Sylvia Hermon, who is mourning the death of her husband. But is it not indicative of the DUP’s attitude to Westminster that not one of its MPs could turn for such a vital vote? As Danny Kennedy has remarked,

“This shows just how singularly useless the DUP’s dual-mandate MPs are. This was a crucial vote. The Commons should have been able to investigate the Damian Green affair right away. The DUP has allowed the government to get off the hook yet again.”

O'Loan and Wilson singing from the same hymnsheet

The forthcoming Conservative and Ulster Unionist political force has underwent further broadsides from both the DUP and SDLP. In fact the SDLP’s North Antrim MLA, Declan O’Loan, has made a perverse statement contending that ‘more hope for the true future of unionism’ now lies with Democratic Unionists, as opposed to the UUP. Jeffrey Peel wryly notes that the concordance which the DUP appears to have reached with Irish nationalists on this subject, offers compelling evidence to Ulster Unionists and Conservatives that they are doing something right.

Although I had ambitions to write about other topics today, two press releases, one from O’Loan and one from the DUP’s Sammy Wilson, encapsulate so neatly, on one hand nationalism’s failure to come to terms with consequences of accepting the principle of consent and on the other, the DUP’s abject failure to envisage unionism which is not defined by its entrenchment in one community, that I feel compelled to post once more on the Conservative / UUP deal. Together these statements exemplify the hopeless, insular, sectional nature of Northern Ireland’s current politics, which the alignment is seeking to change. Strap up in the back!

Let’s take Sammy Wilson’s observations first. I’ll warn you, they’re every bit as stupid as we have come to expect from the rubicund japester. Scrutinising David Cameron’s scrupulously pro-Union speech, Wilson has taken umbrage at an undertaking that, “the Conservative Party in government will never side with one part of the community over another”. According to Sammy there are times when ‘a side has to be picked’, according to the community it represents.

“In Northern Ireland there are times when someone has to decide whether they are on the Unionist side of the debate or the Nationalist side of it.”

Of course it is easy to pick apart Wilson’s argument. Even he must realise that adopting a position on the union is an entirely different matter to taking one community’s side over the other. David Cameron has made it clear that he supports the unionist argument on the constitution. He will nevertheless refuse to apply discriminatory policies, based on political aspirations which are different to his own or on the basis of which perceived community someone belongs to.

Despite choosing his words in such a way that they might refer to the constitutional issue, Wilson is simply attacking Ulster Unionists’ idea, shared with Conservative partners, that unionism can be inclusive. The coded message is that unionism must be tethered to an Ulster protestant identity; its principle objective should be advancing the interests of that identity at the expense of its Irish Catholic rival. His analysis simply reaffirms suspicions that the DUP is not interested in strengthening the Union per se, nor is it interested in participating fully in a modern, pluralist United Kingdom. The purest constitutional unionism is not unionism by the DUP’s prescriptions. It understands the word only when it acquires community connotations, to which adherence to any modern idea of Britishness can be merely incidental.

It is a dismal, sectarian vision which has little to do with the Union and little to do with unionism as I understand it. It is also a timely reminder that that which Conservatives and Ulster Unionists are shaping offers an entirely different formulation of what pro-Union politics in Northern Ireland can and should represent.

In its own way Declan O’Loan’s statement is just as grotty in conception and remains equally grounded in outmoded assumptions. It also betrays a common nationalist misapprehension as to what accepting the will of the people of Northern Ireland, in terms of its constitutional future, actually entails. There is unintended irony in a nationalist dismissing so casually unionist aspirations for Northern Ireland’s political future on the grounds that it compromises fair consideration of Irish nationalists’ own aspirations.

“It is a pretence to think that the future of Northern Ireland can be found in conjunction with a party whose appeal is that it might become the government of the United Kingdom. The future for unionism is to work out its development on this island and find its partners in the north and south of Ireland.”

O’Loan has encapsulated in these two sentences the patronising attitude displayed by nationalism toward unionist aspiration, a complete inability to acknowledge that the unionist viewpoint is legitimate, implicit rejection of the principle of consent and explicit rejection of the east-west element of the Belfast Agreement.

If O’Loan accepts that Northern Ireland should remain within the United Kingdom until its people say otherwise, how can he possibly object if unionists (or even nationalists in the meantime) have an ambition to play a part in the Kingdom’s government? What use is Northern Ireland’s membership of the UK if it is not to be accompanied by meaningful democratic input; if its residents are to be deprived of political entitlements which other people in the Kingdom take for granted?

The truth is that O’Loan hasn’t accepted the principle of consent at all. The implication of his statement is that he views the Belfast Agreement merely as a tactical expedient aimed at mollifying unionists until they come to the inevitable conclusion that their beliefs and imperatives are nonsense, or until nationalism manages to undermine Northern Ireland’s status sufficiently that unionists’ views become irrelevant.

A modern, pluralist unionist party seeking to achieve meaningful input into all the constitutional strands which accompany Northern Ireland’s status as a devolved region of the United Kingdom is anathema to nationalists such as O’Loan. Instead he prefers the sectional battles of the DUP, which can be separated with greater facility from the whole messy area of meaningfully adhering to the Union! No matter that the DUP is intolerant, bases itself solely in one community without any ambition to do otherwise and propounds an illiberal brand of Ulster particularism. Its unionism is clearly more convivial to Declan O’Loan because it is surely grounded in the exclusive context of Ulster, with no pan-UK connotations. Its understanding of unionism is more explicable to the tribal nationalist impulse.

There are similarities between the two interpretations of the Conservative / UUP link-up offered by Wilson and O’Loan. Both reject pluralist values of the modern UK, where different communities, cultures and identities can participate without prejudice to their status. Both discard the idea that unionism represents anything other than a sectional label to be applied to one of the communities in Northern Ireland. Both are dismissive of the notion that broader political relationships should exist between Britain and Northern Ireland. In the poverty of their vision they unwittingly illustrate why a new political force is needed.

Raid on archive of Stalinist atrocities

I have written previously of the valuable work which the organisation Memorial carries out in Russia. With its roots in the glasnost era, Memorial has consistently striven to facilitate Russians who wish to remember and mark human rights abuses which scarred the Soviet era. In a state where many people have an understandably equivocal attitude to the past, the task has often been difficult.

I was saddened, therefore, to read in Sunday’s paper that Memorial’s St Petersburg office has been raided and important archives of Stalinist atrocities removed. Sean observes that information on why this raid might have taken place is thin on the ground. The Observer report suggests the authorities are implying there is a connection to an article accused of inciting racial hatred in the newspaper ‘Novy Peterburg’.

Whatever the motivation of the raid might be, Memorial is an organisation involved in a laudable project. The archive which has been seized details repression of many thousands of Soviet citizens in Leningrad and its surrounding oblast. Orlando Figes’ magisterial study of private life in Stalin’s Russia, ‘Whisperers’ draws heavily on material provided by Memorial.

If there is a criminal investigation to be pursued involving the premises of Memorial or staff who work there, the Russian authorities must do their job. However, this material should be returned as quickly as possible and the organisation must be allowed to continue its important work unhindered.

Monday, 8 December 2008

This deal is not about exclusion

I had not intended to post further about David Cameron’s appearance at the UUP’s annual conference. Reading some nationalist interpretations of the Conservative leader’s address and the implications which they drew from his remarks, however, I feel a little more has to be said on the subject of Cameron ‘abandoning’ of a so-called doctrine of ‘neutrality’.

It is important to reiterate, (as Gerry Moriarty recognises in his Irish Times piece) nothing that Cameron said from the platform on Saturday was in any respect incompatible with the Belfast Agreement, nor does it compromise the requirement that Irish nationalism’s legitimate aspirations should be recognised and respected.

The usual shrill republican voices have been haranguing UUP / Conservative efforts on Slugger O’Toole. But sober commentators too have raised concerns. In particular, Damian O’Loan avers that Cameron’s speech is based on misrepresentation of the Belfast Agreement.

“The nature of consociationalism is that it allows the respective parties full expression and the right to seek their objectives democratically. Thus, nationalists want a stability that leads to consolidated ties with the South, then peacefully to an eventual united Ireland. The agreements legislate to support the right to hold this position, specifically outlawing discrimination on those grounds in public and private life. Cameron, in denying its legitimacy, has either not done his homework, or got carried away with his words.”

Damian is partly correct. The Belfast Agreement does accord the respective aspirations recognition and it does outlaw discrimination on the basis of political aspiration. Neither Conservatives, nor Ulster Unionists, are proposing any change to the basis of the agreement. Recognising the legitimacy of an objective does not commit, either politicians within Northern Ireland, or those in the United Kingdom and the rest of Ireland, to agree with that objective, nor does it require them to censor any view that they might hold. The Republic of Ireland has never hidden its aspirations for a United Ireland. The UK government should not be asked to hide its belief that maintaining the Union is of paramount importance. Anyone who suggests otherwise is the one who is actually guilty of misinterpretation.

The basis of the Belfast Agreement is that the people of Northern Ireland must determine its constitutional future; a basis which Cameron explicitly endorsed in his speech. And if the principle of consent is to be fully respected, then the decision which Northern Ireland’s people make must also be respected. That is the principle to which Cameron is committed, as well as the notion that continued membership of the United Kingdom provides the best form of governance for the province.

I can understand why nationalists are worried. The UUP / Conservative alliance aims to provide genuine involvement in UK politics for Northern Ireland voters. It threatens to dilute the focus of politics here on the constitution. If the electorate respond, it will strengthen the Union. But it will not strengthen the Union to the exclusion of anyone on the basis of their community.

Cameron feels the noise at UUP conference

Saturday’s Ulster Unionist Party conference was an exciting event. From early morning there was a buzz around the Ramada Hotel which was not solely attributable to the political stardust conferred by a high profile visitor. A deal with the Conservative Party has instilled in Ulster Unionists a new sense of purpose and SF / DUP’s lamentable performance in government has convinced many that voters will respond to the ‘new politics’ which are on offer.

David Cameron will lead the new political force which his party’s alliance with the UUP creates. The sustained, spontaneous applause which greeted his arrival in the hotel’s conference hall, suggests that the vast majority of Ulster Unionist party members welcome his leadership. He duly delivered a carefully calibrated speech which was designed to buoy the unionist audience and set out the political vision which has informed his decision to seek alignment with Sir Reg Empey’s party.

At the heart of the deal lies Cameron and Empey’s mutual belief that Northern Ireland must access the same political opportunities as the rest of the UK. If voters here are truly to realise the democratic rights and entitlements which accompany their citizenship, they must have the means to vote for a force which can form government. The political integrationism which underpins a pan-UK unionist outlook has been stunningly revived under these two party leaders. Northern Ireland’s current status is, to borrow Cameron’s own phrase, ‘semi-detached’. It need not be for much longer.

This is unionism at its most constructive. It is not only about maintaining and nurturing the Union, it is about playing as full a part in its workings as possible. It is a vision which is inclusive, attractive across the community spectrum, but it is also unequivocal about its unionist credentials. If David Cameron becomes the next Prime Minister he will uphold the will of the people of Northern Ireland as regards the constitution, whatever that will might be, he will work closely and constructively with the neighbouring Irish Republic, but he has spelt out in no uncertain terms that his preference is to maintain the Union.

Why should it be otherwise? If a coherent case is to be advanced that our Union offers an efficient, beneficial and inclusive form of government, how is it possible not to argue that Northern Ireland should benefit from its continued membership of the United Kingdom? Cameron is simply being consistent about his unionism.

“I passionately believe in the Union and the future of the whole of the United Kingdom”, he reiterated on Saturday morning, “We’re better off together – England, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland – because we all bring our strengths to the mix”. When Mr Cameron affirmed his interest, “both selfish and strategic”, in Northern Ireland, he was not only uttering the words every unionist in the audience wished to hear and healing a running sore. He was stating the blindingly obvious.

Those who have rubbished the alignment based on ‘dry electoral statistics’ were condemned in Cameron’s speech. He is doing this deal with Ulster Unionists, because the two parties are compatible and can forge the type of unionist movement which both leaders envisage. It is a movement which will be moderate and committed to ‘progressive ends by conservative means’. The inference is clear. The ascendant ‘unionist’ party in Northern Ireland does not share the sensibilities of modern Conservatives and the Tory leader was not going to be precluded from doing what he believed right simply to avoid antagonising an intolerant party of Little Ulstermen.

Stormy applause marked the conclusion of the Conservative leader’s speech and it deserved the acclaim. As an exposition of what this Conservative and Unionist movement can deliver, as a mission statement of the principles on which it is based, Cameron and his speech writers did a sterling job. The two parties which form this force must now begin to communicate its message to potential voters with similar clarity and precision.