Friday, 29 February 2008

On facilitating remembrance

I was watching the local news earlier in the week and it covered a story about an aggrieved woman who was being evicted from her house to enable an extension to the runway at Derry City Airport. She tearfully explained the extent of the injustice which had been dealt her; casting around for a comparison for her predicament, she cited one of a series of religious wars fought throughout Europe in the mid seventeenth century. “It’s just like Cromwell” she proclaimed.

This woman is not atypical and nor did it seem likely that she was a scholar of that period of history. In Northern Ireland it seems fairly unexceptional for someone to invoke a perceived hurt from 350 years previous to exemplify the unfairness of a local spat over compulsory purchase. Bearing this in mind, it is questionable whether we really need a museum to pour over the details and complexities of our recent Troubles.

That said, not all the ideas being floated by the Healing Through Remembering group actually involve revisiting in detail violence, hurt and the various historical interpretations which the communities perceive as the cause of the same. Ideas that have been submitted include a greenhouse of reflection, a glass tower, an underwater museum, a peace garden and a garden of remembrance.

In the context of our Troubles and the contentious issues they raise, such abstractions are perhaps the only way to remember in any helpful way. These ideas or similar ones provide space for reflection in which people can remember in their own particular fashion and draw an individual meaning which cannot cause hurt or offence to someone who takes a very different view of the conflict.

During my trip to watch Northern Ireland lose in Latvia last year I visited two very different places of remembrance. Travelling via Berlin I saw the Holocaust Memorial – a square kilometre of protuberant concrete blocks through which the visitor could wander and interact. The memorial made no reference to the Holocaust, either directly by providing a narrative, or obliquely through symbolism. The only reaction to such horrible events is to create an abstraction from which people draw their own meaning. The memorial is simply a means to facilitate remembrance. It enables the process, rather than prescribing what that memory should be.

In contrast, in Riga the Museum of Occupation provides a heavily loaded narrative of 20th century history. Latvian misdeeds are virtually ignored and a litany of perceived victimhood is the result. The effect produced in the visitor is not contemplative; it is not one of thoughtful remembrance. Either the visitor accepts the Latvian narrative or indeed they react against it and the effect is in either case anger or disputatiousness.

Of course I am not seeking in any respect to liken what Michael Longley derisively terms “our own tawdry little civil war” to either the Holocaust or the experience of Latvia. I simply draw attention to the different methods of remembering and the varying psychological effects this remembrance can instil. If Northern Ireland is to receive a museum to the Troubles, I strongly suggest that the more abstract and contemplative model is the one we should aspire to.

Thursday, 28 February 2008

Hypocrisy and double-think: Tim Garton Ash on Russia

In countering the more hysterical commentary about perceived Russian tyranny, I am sometimes aware that it might appear that I do not want the country to be more free or democratic. That is assuredly not the case. I simply think that the best way in which to achieve such an outcome is not to brow-beat and demonise Russia, nor is it the display of flagrant hypocrisy and double-think in dealings with the Kremlin.

I do not, for example, think it is helpful to lecture Russia about intervention in their neighbours’ affairs, whilst simultaneously intervening most blatantly and directly in the affairs of a great many countries around the world. I do not believe it is reasonable to invoke international law to denounce separatist conflicts in Georgia (for example) whilst concurrently condemning Russia for invoking international law to denounce Kosovo’s declaration of independence. I do not consider reasonable demonising Russia for a failure to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, whilst reserving the right to shelter wanted terrorists like Akhmed Zakayev and insurrectionist crooks like Boris Berezovsky from Russian justice.

These are merely examples of the double standards applied by western countries to Russia; the litany of hypocrisy is extensive. Russia has been abused, ignored and trampled under foot in the years since 1991. Indeed even as an increase in energy prices and the leadership of Vladimir Putin have allowed Russia to attempt to reassert itself on the international stage, the tendency remains to ignore its input and subvert its interests. Some commentators seem to feel the way to influence Russia and edge it towards western norms of representative democracy is to continue such a process of demonisation and hypocrisy. Timothy Garton Ash of the Guardian is one such columnist.

On the eve of Russia’s presidential election Garton Ash has produced an article epitomising an attitude which can only lead to greater estrangement among Russians from the western prescription of how that great country should rule itself. We know that the presidential election on Sunday is unlikely to adhere to western notions of how a free and fair election should be conducted. Garton Ash is correct when he identifies the Russian regime as neither democratic nor entirely totalitarian. But where he runs into difficulty is in failing to acknowledge that most Russian people are perfectly aware of this too, and not only that, but they actually support and condone the character of the regime which Garton Ash condemns.

Of course Russian ascent to the notion of sovereign democracy does not make it a positive system and nor does it preclude western criticism. It is perfectly reasonable to advance the notion that a freer and fairer system would be preferable and indeed would allow the Kremlin to claim a greater degree of legitimacy for itself. However it should preclude the excoriating and demonising character of the criticism which is increasingly appearing in our newspapers and informing western opinion on Russia. It should also preclude the type of strong-armed and duplicitous diplomacy which Garton Ash proceeds to advocate.

To claim, as the Guardian article does, that “in recent years, the Russian wolf has run rings around the free countries of the world in general, and European ones in particular” is disingenuous to the point of being laughable. A commenter rightly points out below the article that the US is presently building a literal ring of missile defences around Russian territory. NATO has advanced to Russia’s borders despite implicit understanding since 1991 that the former Soviet bloc should not enter NATO and that should it do so, Russia would perceive this as a threat. Western support has fomented a series of colour revolutions in Russia’s near abroad and established a series of regimes which are more convivial to the west, but not necessarily more democratic, than those that preceded them. And only weeks ago much of the EU and the US circumvented the UN to recognise an illegal state explicitly against the wishes of Russia and with no regard to its opinion. If anyone has been running circles around anyone, it is certainly not Russia.

The gist of the article is that the EU must “get its act together” and present a united front against Russia. The message is to intimidate and face down the bear rather than to accord it respect. What is implicit in this analysis is that Russia should be considered an enemy, to be cowed and defeated by diplomatic or economic means if not by military might. Certainly a strategy less likely to win over Russians to a programme of westernising reform is difficult to conceive. But then perhaps Garton Ash’s concern is not actually to win Russian hearts and minds, after all for such a supposedly enlightened intellectual his diatribe is not without its moments of casual and generalising Russophobia – wishing for Putin’s death in one instance or the amorphous comment “there's something about being the top man in the Kremlin that gets to you in the end”.

Certainly Garton Ash is certainly not a believer in international law in any consistent way. Russia’s influence in the UN is cited as “spoiling powers”. Of course that’s the beauty about international bodies and the law they disseminate. It does not allow the kind of unipolar world which Garton Ash advocates to prevail. That is why the countries he champions have to circumvent it. And for that reason his concluding paragraph becomes drenched in irony. In order to avoid pariah status he demands Russia must show “more respect for the sovereignty of neighbouring states, and for human rights and the rule of law, both at home and abroad”.

Perhaps when the US and other states that recognised Kosovo show some respect for the sovereignty of Serbia and for the rule of international law, perhaps when human rights are not set aside due to self-declared special circumstances and perhaps when there is a consistent approach to advocating democracy, these states will have a right to lecture Russia. Otherwise they should recognise that like them Russia is an imperfect democracy, attempting to advance its interests on the international stage and accord it a bit more respect.

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

If the election does not matter why does Medvedev need to trick voters?

As Russia goes to the polls on Sunday, conflicting messages are issuing from pro western opposition within the country. On one hand we are told that the elections are a charade and that the new president will not be receiving a legitimate mandate and on the other we are told that Russians should not put store in Medvedev’s liberal credentials. He is trying to trick those who favour liberal democracy into backing him.

There is a fundamental inconsistency between these lines of argument. If Medvedev needs to win the backing of the Russian electorate, by persuading them that his policies are one thing or the other, if he feels a compulsion to present his beliefs in the language of democracy and rationalise them by reference to concepts such as freedom and the rule of law, then Russia is not in the clutches of autocracy or dictatorship.

Whilst elections may not be free and fair and whilst pluralism may be more an illusion than a reality, the elections do have an importance in Russia and the electorate are still required to provide a mandate for the incoming president. Russia’s democracy may be imperfect, but when Estonian President Toomas Hendrik likens Russia to Weimar Germany and implies that a regime akin to Nazism is developing, he is not only being gratuitously offensive and unintentionally stirring a huge pot of irony, he is also wrong in asserting that there the Russian regime can be characterised as a dictatorship at all.

The facts remain that the Russian authorities are doing their utmost to encourage voter turnout, that Medvedev is attempting to win support and persuade voters to support him and that he requires a strong result to cement his credentials as President and provide a strong base to initiate reform.

Kill the Bill

The argument against the Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland on this blog has thus far been based on the stark fact that we do not need such a bill. Human rights in Northern Ireland are already protected under UK law by the Human Rights Act and the European Convention of Human Rights. No advocate of a bill has yet been able to advance any concrete suggestions as to what it might contain and which additional rights Northern Ireland actually needs.

If the first detail to emerge from the BoR Forum is anything to go by, what we need is to lift the age of criminal responsibility to 16 and then to 18. Think about this for a moment. The implication is that a 17 year old should not be held criminally responsible for theft, rape or even murder. There may be an argument that the current age of criminal responsibility is set too low, at 10 years old, but to suggest that a 15 year old, or indeed even a 16 year old, is not capable of understanding the seriousness of their actions is not just outrageous, it is a notion which is extremely dangerous for society.

It is becoming more and more imperative to kill this bill stone dead.

Gratuitously controversial nonsense with a nasty ethno-nationalist flavour

“Radical unionist” Dr John Coulter is certainly an unusual creature. Indeed to ascribe to him his own label, his “revolutionary unionism” consists mainly of advocating a united Ireland. As you can imagine his take on unionism tends to go down best with nationalists, if they are prepared to overlook the rather unpleasant supremacist stuff which provides the seasoning for Coulter’s singular dish of commentary.

Thus Coulter is a regular in the Blanket and his latest musings take as a jumping off point, the death of IRA hunger striker Brendan Hughes. One of the aspects of Coulter’s take on unionism, with which nationalists will find themselves most comfortable, is the manner in which he uses this term, not primarily as a label of political belief, but rather as ethnic or communal shorthand.

And it is through this prism of ethnic or communal group interests that Coulter’s arguments are filtered. The reason he advocates a united Ireland is because that polity might “permanently unite Unionism, Loyalism, Protestantism and Orangeism”. When he argues that unionists should foster an all-Ireland identity, he is not espousing the type of flexible, multi-faceted understanding of identity discussed on this blog and others. Rather he wishes to see unionists coalesce in a religiously defined monolithic identity and fight their corner under the auspices of this identity in a smaller pond (i.e. united Ireland rather than United Kingdom).

“As a Revolutionary Unionist, I want to see Unionism represented by a single party - the Unionist Party; by a single faith - the Salvationist position as underlined by the New Testament text of St John Chapt 3, verse 16.”

To leave aside the patently absurd notion of a single unionist party coalescing around the notion of a united Ireland, what a depressing and regressive aspiration to want to return to a unionism prescribed by a religious core!

There is an element of the irritant to Coulter. He self-consciously throws out his absurd notions partially I think to see what reaction they get. But in many ways he gives radicalism and singularity in political commentary a bad name. Give me someone like Alex Kane whose analysis is sober and sensible as opposed to this garbage!

Field's contribution is welcome, but he misses the obvious solution

Labour MP Frank Field has been addressing falling participation (PDF file) in UK politics and has turned to the US for inspiration. Field’s contention is that both government and parliament are capable of becoming more accountable and representative. His arguments on representation fall into 5 categories.

Firstly Field believes that voters should have a right to object to too limited a range of candidates. This would entail introducing a category “none of the above”. The second of Field’s suggestions would provide this with more teeth. He suggests that only candidates who achieve over 50% of the vote should be returned directly, otherwise a “play-off” between the top two candidates in the first round would be instigated.

Field also wishes to subject an increased number of public positions to a general vote. Initially this would extend to police chiefs and housing association bosses. Fourthly and more predictably he wants to see group representative politics becoming the basis for admission to the House of Lords.

These are an interesting set of ideas. Although it is hard to see what the French play-off system would do to increase democratic choice that is not also achievable by introducing the Single Transferable Vote. Both systems allow voters greater dexterity to express a spectrum of preference, but in my view STV is the more nuanced system.

In addition, although Field’s instinct to open up more areas of government to voter participation is at its origin a laudable one, is the way to encourage greater turn-outs and more engagement with politics, really to foster a dizzying plethora of various polls?

The most eye-catching proposal Field suggests is also open to this charge. He believes that a system of American style primaries, whereby the electorate become directly involved in parties’ selection processes are necessary. This process he contends would be particularly valuable in areas where parties have safe seats. Voters would have genuine and realistic input into selecting their representative.

Once again it is hard to fault the instinct which leads Field to this suggestion. He is formulating fresh and innovative ideas in an attempt to puzzle out the conundrums of voter apathy and unaccountable government. But a primary system to select a president, given blanket coverage by a rabid media and featuring political heavy hitters dripping with charisma and voter appeal is a very different process from selecting a candidate for a party for one Westminster seat.

Such a system may produce candidates who are popular locally, but would they be in tune with the policies of the parties for which they were standing? If the selection process were thrown open to supporters of all parties and none, would not the result be atypical candidates being selected from the minority party who were closer in politics to that of the majority? If so voter choice could effectively be curtailed rather than enhanced, given that a smaller proportion would involve themselves in the primary than in the actual Westminster election.

Nevertheless any ideas to increase engagement are welcome. This is a crucial debate, but it is perhaps the less headline grabbing issue of proportional representation and the Single Transferable Vote that should be seriously considered.

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Ritchie shows Ruane how it should be done

As Catriona Ruane continues to fulminate at both fellow Assembly members and the press for suggesting that she should do her job properly, it is heartening to see at least one of her ministerial colleagues tackling her brief by setting out concrete proposals and formulating a lucid set of policies.

Margaret Ritchie has outlined her plans to tackle housing problems in Northern Ireland and provide affordable housing based on need. She has consulted widely and in bullet points the following is her plan to tackle problems in this area.

• Build more homes- at least 5,250 in the next three years
• Make the existing co-ownership scheme more attractive for first time buyers
• Introduce a not-for-profit Mortgage Rescue Scheme
• Allow existing social housing tenants the chance to buy a stake in their homes
• Re-use houses through an Empty Homes Strategy
• Requiring future developments to include a proportion of homes for social and affordable housing
• Increase the energy efficiency of new social houses

In addition Ritchie stressed the importance that shared housing would be given in her strategy and announced concrete investment to be made in the Village area of South Belfast.

The minister’s statement comprises a clear articulation of goals, identification of ways in which she can achieve these goals, some concrete short term proposals and shows laudable commitment to environmental aims and to integrating communities by creating shared housing. I wish her well with these projects.

IRA refuse to talk to Eames / Bradley and add another layer to the Provo Irony Cake

Considering that the Eames / Bradley Consultative Group on the Past commenced its work by suggesting that the Troubles constituted a “war” and hinting that amnesties might be given to those involved in terror if they were to come forward and tell the truth about their crimes, it is hard to present the group as deeply antithetical to republicanism. Nevertheless it seems that although the police, MI5 and even the UVF have been prepared to appear before the group, the IRA will not follow suit.

This will intensify suspicion amongst non-republicans that the search for truth which republican representatives pay lip-service to is very much conceived by them as a one way process. There is little or no appetite in republican circles, and certainly from those who were directly involved in violence, to acknowledge their own actions or to accept responsiblity for the consequences which sprang from those actions. Instead history remains a battleground on which the republican movement must seek to impose its own version of events to the exclusion of all others.

Imposing a partial historical narrative with a range of convenient excisions is not a search for truth, nor is it a recipe for reconciliation. The IRA is simply adding to the many-layered cake of republican irony whereby they demand one thing from everyone else and refuse to reciprocate in kind.

Euro 2008 and straw-grasping

If Spain’s government ignore warnings from UEFA and persist in interfering with elections within the Spanish FA, there is a possibility Northern Ireland could be called upon to replace Spain should they be thrown out of Euro 2008. Given that this is a preliminary shot across the bows and that Spain are one of the biggest television draws in the competition I won’t be booking any flights just yet. The precedent being cited is Denmark’s replacement of Yugoslavia in 1992. Denmark of course went on to win the competition, which is an auspicious sign for Northern Ireland. Less auspicious is that in the world of legal precedent, there might be an argument for distinguishing between a country in the midst of a series of wars which bring its existence into doubt and one in which there have been some allegations of government interference in an FA election.

Bicker shows that beliefs are not always paramount in politics

The bizarre defection of Harvey Bicker, a member of the Ulster Unionist Party (albeit latterly an inactive member), to Fianna Fail raises issues as to the varying reasons why people are motivated to become involved in politics or join political parties in the first place. Without meaning to cast aspersions on Mr Bicker, has he really completed an ideological journey from convinced unionism to expounding 32-county republicanism in a matter of a few years?

The stated reasons for Bicker’s defection are a mixture of the cynically pragmatic and slightly bizarre. He sees the move as logical because he is now spending more time in the Republic of Ireland and he claims to wish to represent the views of his “community” within his new party. However far Fianna Fail may be held to have strayed in actuality from its stated ethos, the party still identifies itself as “The Republican Party”. If Bicker intends to articulate the unionist position within this party he must do so as a member of a political structure whose very existence purports to advance an end diametrically opposed to that position.

In actuality then, we can probably discount principle or representing anyone in particular as a prime motivating factor. Mr Bicker is spending more time in the Republic of Ireland and belonging to the Ulster Unionist Party there does not afford influence, networking, status, advancement or any of the other benefits which someone might seek by becoming a member of a political party. I do not know Harvey Bicker, and perhaps I am being excessively cynical, but if espousing a particular set of political beliefs or articulating a deeply held and thoughtful philosophy were his prime motivators, I fail to see how he could have made this political journey so quickly and in the terms which he has desultorily laid out.

It would be disingenuous to conflate a present day political party with its previous incarnations or with its historical precepts, but Fianna Fail does make a conscious attempt to retain a link with its founding ethos. That founding ethos of course rooted itself in anti-Treatyite republicanism, an affirmation of exclusive nationalism on an explicitly Catholic / nationalist model and refutation of the legitimacy of Northern Ireland itself. The modern day party has moved on from each of these strands, but retains rhetorical and emotional links to its past. Any meaningfully engaged unionist would find aspects of Fianna Fail inimical to his or her political motivations.

It is my contention that this defection simply demonstrates what we logically know, that ideas and beliefs are not always the prime reasons that lead people to become involved in politics.

Monday, 25 February 2008

An offensive event hidden behind SF platitudes

In Northern Ireland we become so accustomed to the anodyne platitudes of Sinn Fein that it is possible simply to become inured to the noxious agenda which lies behind them. Thus when we hear the well-worn cliché that there cannot be a “hierarchy of victims” trotted out by West Belfast MLA Jennifer McCann to defend an event she is attempting to organise in Stormont’s Long Gallery, it is important not to forget that not only is the event which she is proposing offensive and disgraceful, but McCann is quite aware that this is the case.

Of course every right thinking person will recognise that not only should there not be any equivalence between all of those who now claim or are claimed to be victims of the violence in Northern Ireland, but that it is deeply immoral to suggest that that equivalence should exist between those who died or were injured going about their legitimate business and those who died attempting to engage in acts of terrorism. In so far as establishing a “hierarchy of victims” is simply the exercise of making this distinction, not only must there be a hierarchy of victims, but not to establish one is an act of extreme and indefensible moral abrogation.

McCann wishes to host a reception in Stormont to celebrate the life of Mairead Farrell, who is a convicted IRA bomber and was shot dead in Gibraltar whilst attempting to cause death and destruction by launching a bomb attack there. To add insult to injury, the organiser is hoping to hold this event on International Women’s Day because she sees Farrell as an inspirational role model for young women! It is difficult to conceive of a more preposterous person to present as an aspirational, admirable figure for young people.

The agenda behind this event has the same motivation as other revisionist Sinn Fein campaigns. It is an attempt to confer retrospective legitimacy on a campaign of terror which was squalid, sectarian, indefensible, utterly needless and ultimately futile. There is simply no valid reason why this agenda should be indulged and it would be manifestly wrong to allow it to take place on public property.

Friday, 22 February 2008

The media must take responsibility for fetishising serial killers

As news broadcasts last night poured over the intimate details of Steve Wright’s life, it was almost possible to smell the ink of cheap printing presses as they began to churn out biographies of another ogre to grace the shelves of Bargain Books. Is someone somewhere already hammering the keys of a computer, rushing to produce the first straight to TV film in order to pruriently sift the psychological make-up of the latest convicted serial killer?

It seems to be a basic aspect of human nature to be utterly fascinated by abhorrent and violent behaviour. Whether this fascination springs from a desire to identify what motivates someone to behave in a despicable way, or whether people actually take a vicarious pleasure in reading about gruesome deeds is debatable. My guess would be that the truth is somewhere in between. Nevertheless the storm of publicity and the relentlessness with which the media analyse those who have committed the most horrible crimes serves a distinctly counter-productive function.

Serial killers in particular become media celebrities and alas their fame is not generally a transient phenomenon. The stories of the most prolific or supposedly enigmatic murderers are endlessly revisited by authors of cheap pop psychological thrillers, documentary makers and fictional film makers. Charles Manson, Ted Bundy or Peter Sutcliffe, to take three examples, have become house-hold names.

If, as the amateur psychologists who benefit financially from our serial killer fetish tell us, those who kill often perceive themselves to be at the margins of society, ignored but craving recognition, what message are we sending to them by treating these killers as such objects of fascination? Shame on the BBC and other media outlets for so unscrupulously and swiftly starting the same process with another killer.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Never Better is a hidden comedy gem

If I have missed a storm of acclaim for a comedy show I am about to hail as a hidden gem, I do apologise. The fact is that I have not seen any mention of BBC2’s excellent 'Never Better' in the television pages of newspapers, nor have I heard anyone outside our house actually talking about the programme.

‘Never Better’ follows Keith, a recovering alcoholic played by the Green Wing’s Stephen Mangan and his attempts to establish a life which does not involve drinking. Black comedy ensues from the fact that Keith has become preoccupied and introspective through giving up alcohol. He moves through life scrutinising his own mood, behaviour and relationships, often oblivious to the needs and perceptions of others.

The series is pointed in lampooning the jargon and platitudes of recovery. Keith attends Alcoholics’ Anonymous meetings and attempts to participate but fails abjectly to engage with the confessional ethos engendered by the humourless leader of the group. Meanwhile Keith’s friend Richard provides a comic foil meeting his friend in a ‘coffee outlet’ (or café as Keith insists) and frequently insinuating that the recovery process is actually having an adverse effect on Keith’s life.

Keith’s grapple with the complexities of family and social life is subtly drawn. The series is also very funny. More people should be watching this programme!

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Why Ulster unionism which owns its Irishness is stronger and more effective

Over at Everything Ulster, Michael Shilliday has highlighted an interesting exchange during yesterday’s Assembly debate on a motion suggesting that in no way could the IRA’s squalid murder campaign be described as a ‘war’. In an answer to a question from Sinn Fein convicted murderer Raymond McCartney, Danny Kennedy commented that he would have no theoretical objection to a united Ireland if the context were the Republic rejoining the Union.

Michael commends Kennedy’s statement, seeing in it reclamation of Ulster unionism’s Irish identity. This is a theme which has been discussed on this blog before, both in a lengthy post devoted to the relationship between unionism and the concept of Irishness and more recently, in a post challenging the description of unionism as a form of nationalism, where I highlighted the thoughts which Education Minister Michael McGimpsey brought to the subject.

As a civic unionist, my view is that people are free to identify themselves as they wish without this self-perception necessarily colouring their political beliefs or allegiances. I do maintain strongly however that it makes patent logical sense for unionists to acknowledge the Irish component of their make-up and indeed to claim proudly their Irishness. In the piece on unionism and Irishness I expressed the view that the most persuasive and self-confident proponents of unionism here were likely to articulate this sense of an Irish identity.

Ulster unionism, by owning its Irishness, not only recognises an important component of its own make-up, history and heritage, but it puts into action the composite qualities which distinguish the philosophy substantively from Irish nationalism. By doing so, unionism is able to challenge some of the assumptions which nationalism presents as taken as read. Unionism gains strength from acknowledging its Irish identity, even down to beginning the basic task of attempting to reclaim a vocabulary which Irish nationalism has conceptually made its own.

Nationalism by its exclusivist nature has made monopolistic claim on the terms Ireland and Irish. I am currently reading Richard English’s authoritative history of Irish nationalism, ‘Irish Freedom’, and English is extremely lucid in setting out the exact modalities of nationalistic thought. A theme which the historian returns to again and again is the notion of exclusivity and its importance to the nationalist conception of an imagined national community which is so central to its vision. Nationalism rejects a plurality of identity. Nationalism cannot accept that Britishness and Irishness are not mutually exclusive, because nationalism conflates Britishness and Englishness, and Englishness is that against which nationalist Irishness is set. Similarly nationalism cannot recognise a version of Irishness which does not set Ireland’s status as a separate political nation at the centre of its understanding of itself.

By enthusiastically identifying itself as Irish therefore, unionism is attacking nationalism on the very exclusivist territory which houses its ideological weakness. By thus identifying itself unionism shows demonstratively the pluralist, inclusive ethos by which it is defined and demonstrates a stark contrast with the competing nationalist vision.

Unionism has thus far been losing the battle for the vocabulary of Irishness. Partly this has been due to a disinclination to claim this vocabulary for itself. Unionism, in its more blinkered forms, has ceded Irishness and Ireland to nationalists. Michael in his piece traces this secession as far back as James Craig and the inception of Northern Ireland. In many ways this process has gone too far to fully reverse, but it is never too late to attempt to change the way in which people understand these terms. The Republic of Ireland should not have a monopoly on the term Ireland. Whenever unionists use the terms Ireland and Republic of Ireland interchangeably, their laziness is aiding this terminological secession. Conversely Northern Ireland has an equal claim on the terms Ireland and Irish, as does the Republic. When unionists jump down the throats of those who use Ireland as short-hand when referring to our teams in sport or our identity in general, they are merely strengthening the nationalist argument. They should instead be explaining that, yes, they are Irish, but that they are also British and attempting to outline the bigger picture that this dual identity implies.

Unionists must be clear that owning their Irishness does not imply a dilution of commitment to the Union, to the United Kingdom or to Britishness, but equally neither does unionism, or owning one’s British identity, imply a dilution of Irishness. Unionists are just as entitled to identify themselves as Irish as nationalists and in no way should Irish nationalists be perceived as more authentically Irish than Irish unionists. Where the two philosophies differ, is simply in unionism’s more complex understanding of identity and in the pluralistic vision which allows it to fully express its Irish identity within the political context of the United Kingdom.

By articulating these views, the change which unionism ought to be seeking to affect, is to foster an understanding of the terms ‘Ireland’ and ‘Irish’ in the wider world, which does not evoke the symbols, iconography and culture merely of Irish nationalism and the Republic of Ireland, but which also includes equally unionism and Northern Ireland. If Ulster unionism declines to meet nationalism on this battleground, then its international credibility and the strength of its argument will be diminished.

Eamon Dummy

Eamon Dunphy is a pitiful excuse for a journalist.

Hernandez has highlighted the following via Football 365:

"Eamon Dunphy: 7.40pm. Tuesday night. 'Inter are a great side. I fear for Liverpool'. 'Italian teams have a great pedigree in Europe and I fancy them tonight'. Eamon Dunphy: 9.40 pm. Tuesday night. 'Inter are not a good side'. They are below the level of the likes of AC Milan.....' (who incidentally are 21 points behind Inter in Serie A'."

Kosovo is not meaningfully independent

In the West we tend to view tinkering in the politics of other countries in order to encourage adoption of regimes in the style to which we are accustomed, as an act of unalloyed beneficence. This interpretation is not always shared by people elsewhere. Indeed in Russia the governments which have emerged through US and EU sponsorship of the so-called ‘Colour Revolutions’ are perceived ostensibly as puppet regimes in an expansionist ideological empire.

There may be merit in this view, but it is rather overstated. Although Western money and encouragement are being used to bring to bear influence, although there is to a degree direct intervention in foreign polities of the most dubious legality, the sovereignty of these states does largely still rest with the governments which may rise or fall due to this intervention. In Ukraine, Georgia, Uzbekistan and elsewhere the West may have gained influence, but this influence has remained nominally indirect.

In the former Yugoslavia something different is unfolding. It is something more direct and something which alternative polarities in the world’s geo-politics have every right to be concerned about. Jonathan Laughland in yesterday’s Guardian was quite correct in asserting that whatever power Kosovo’s parliament nominally wields, it will not be independent and in no meaningful way will Kosovo constitute a sovereign nation. With UN officials being replaced by those of the EU, and with Kosovo’s security continuing to be managed by NATO, Kosovo is in effect an EU / US protectorate.

Not only is Kosovo’s security only underpinned by the presence of 16,000 NATO troops, with a further 1,000 to arrive this month, but the government’s existence rests entirely on the assent of the US and the EU. Should Thaci and his thugs attempt to assert any semblance of independence, they will soon discover that there would have been more functional autonomy for Kosovo, as a self-governing region of Serbia.

(Pictured - Kosovo's new flag heavily influenced by the EU's)

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Benitez Wenger comparison does not ring true

There are more fundamental problems afflicting Liverpool Football Club right now than a lack of results on the pitch. The club’s owners are not the right people to oversee such an important sporting institution and they are emblematic of the malaise which Premiership football in England currently finds itself. Nevertheless, the situation on the field of play is also shambolic. The nadir of Liverpool’s season came on Saturday when the club were dumped out of the F.A. Cup by mediocre Championship side Barnsley.

Paradoxically Liverpool’s ownership woes have strengthened the position of manager Rafa Benitez despite the appalling results which he continues to preside over in domestic competition. After the manager clashed publicly with Gillett and Hicks earlier in the season, loyalty to Benitez has become symbolic amongst the supporters, of opposition to the American owners. A simplistic reading of the attitude runs – the Americans don’t much like the manager, we don’t like them, so we’ll continue to back him to the hilt.

Obviously Rafa had in any case won great popularity by winning major silverware at Anfield, and in particular the 2005 Champions’ League. However the Spaniard has not masterminded steady progress year on year in the Premiership and after an encouraging start performances in domestic competition this season have been abject. Tamely surrendering to Barnsley, in the last domestic competition the reds stood a realistic chance of winning, with major players not selected is the latest symptom of Benitez’s failure to master the complexities of domestic competition.

Saturday’s defeat has caused some to suggest that if Liverpool are soundly beaten at home tonight, against Inter Milan in the Champions’ League knock out stages, that Rafa’s spell at Anfield will come to an end. With the continuing uncertainty regarding ownership, I would suggest that Benitez’s job is safe until the end of the season at least. The manager meanwhile has appealed for patience and has insisted that he will bring the league title to Anfield, given time.

If this is to be the case, there is a worrying dearth of quality which Benitez will have to address. The Spaniard has compared himself to Arsene Wenger and has tried to draw a comparison between the Frenchman’s introduction of talented youngsters to the Arsenal squad, and the project which Benitez is engaged in at Liverpool. Given the sound thrashing Liverpool’s youngsters received from those of Arsenal in last season’s League Cup, this is an unconvincing contention.

Benitez cites Ryan Babel and Lucas as promising young players breaking into the first team, but this pair are scant return given the number of duds he has brought to the club. Arsene Wenger has introduced good young players into English football and blooded them in his side with impressive results, all for a small financial outlay. Benitez has spent a great deal of money assembling an unimpressive and sketchy squad.

Europe has been a happier hunting ground for Liverpool and it is the Champions’ League which again offers a chance of redemption for the under-fire manager. Although they face formidable opposition in Inter Milan, it is more than plausible that the team will galvanise effectively and at least give themselves a fighting chance in the second leg. In European competition defensive solidity is rewarded to a greater extent than attacking flare and Liverpool may not be as harshly punished for their lack of cutting edge as they have been in the league and domestic cups.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

I was somewhat dubious about spending my Saturday night watching a film about a man who emerged from a coma to find himself completely paralysed barring an ability to blink his left eye. Strange then that The Diving Bell and the Butterfly proved to be as uplifting a piece of cinema as it was sad and that Julian Schnabel’s movie actually justifies using the much misapplied superlative ‘life-affirming’.

The film is an adaptation of Jean Dominique Bauby’s book. It charts the author’s emergence from a coma after suffering a massive stroke which left him with “locked-in syndrome”. Impressionistic camerawork with cloudy and sporadic images recreate the impression of Bauby coming out of the coma. Indeed for the majority of the film the camera remains behind the protagonist’s good eye, evoking the claustrophobia of Bauby’s ‘diving bell’. A sense exacerbated by the audience sharing an inner monologue of the ill man’s thoughts and perceiving the rest of the dialogue through his hearing, initially woozy but gradually clearer.

Bauby was a worldly-wise and successful man before his stroke, an aspirant novelist and editor of Elle fashion magazine. After striking speech therapist Henriette devises a system of communication for Bauby, it is his creative energies that drag him from the point where he simply wishes to die and he embarks on the tortuous process of narrating his book. We also become privy to the extraordinary flights of imagination and memory which Bauby characterises as his butterfly, a figurative antithesis to the paralysing and claustrophobic diving bell of his syndrome.

Bauby is an engaging narrator, honest, humorous but flawed. His wife faithfully attends to him throughout his illness whilst he longs for the presence of a mistress who wishes only to remember his fit and healthy persona. Such flaws bring home the humanity of the character. Two of the most affecting scenes in the film focus on his relationship with his aging father. In the second of these the father cannot muster words to utter to his paralysed son over the telephone, until he his struck by the similarities between his own confinement, imprisoned in his flat by decrepitude and that of his son.

An extraordinary film, that examines the indignities and despair our bodies can reduce us to and hints at the ability of imagination and art to offer some transcendence.

Monday, 18 February 2008

Paisley Junior's resignation and Dromore shows that actions eventually have consequences

Ian Paisley Junior has finally fallen on his own sword, hastened by his own party colleagues and with a distinct lack of good grace. He may not be the first politician to unwisely entwine his private affairs and public life and I’m sure he will not be the last, but the sheer volume of evidence suggesting Junior was conducting his duties partly with regard to self-interest has finally caused him to be adjudged a liability to the DUP. In the wake of their defeat in the Dromore by-election the party wished to be seen to be doing something decisive and Paisley is the scapegoat.

With a lawyer’s eye for a loophole Paisley Junior has been conducting his affairs within the letter of the law, but blatantly without the spirit. His position as a public servant, who is supposed to command a degree of trust was becoming untenable. That his father was implicated in the latest controversy, over rent payments claimed for the pair’s Ballymena constituency office, threatened to bring the whiff of sleaze right to the door of the party’s leader.

But despite the action that Paisley Junior has eventually taken, the abiding sense left with the electorate is that he only resigned reluctantly and only because he was forced to. His father’s protestations in the Assembly and his own rental claims have linked him intrinsically to a similar attitude. Ian Paisley Junior and his father are more aggrieved that their grubby dealings have been exposed to the public gaze than they are ashamed that such things happened in the first place.

I always understood honesty to be a paramount tenet of evangelical Christianity, and what is more I was given to believe that this was a matter of transparent honesty rather than merely sticking to the letter of the law. Given that both Paisleys cite such evangelical beliefs as central to their personal and political ethos, to find that they have financial arrangements that are less than scrupulous and which they would have been reticent about publicising raises again the spectre of rank hypocrisy. The fact that Paisley Senior still employs his son, an MLA and until today a junior minister, as a Westminster researcher, is a blatant example. Could either man truly have believed that this was an honest, defensible use of public money?

Dromore may have given the DUP a wake-up call that their actions do have consequences and that they cannot simply say one thing and do another without this eventually having an affect on the electorate’s perception of their honesty. The Paisley family are discovering through this affair that they cannot simply do what they want when they are a part of a government which is supposedly accountable to an electorate and which is funded from the public purse. Perhaps the most profound consequences of the complacency and hypocrisy within the DUP and endemic in its ‘first family’ are yet to emerge.

Kosovo creates a precedent, whatever the West might argue

As Kosovo’s Parliament declared itself a “democratic, secular and multi-ethnic republic” and unveiled a new flag which purports to be an ethnically neutral symbol, celebrations on Pristina’s streets demonstrated a different reality. The flag with which the towns and cities of Kosovo have been festooned is the Albanian flag and the celebrations have seen an ethnic Albanian Diaspora pouring into the Serb province to hail the creation of another “Albanian state”.

In Mitrovica, where a Serb majority still predominates north of the Ibar River, police supervised by French soldiers needed to restrain Albanian celebrations on the south bank, as attempts were made to cross the river in order to taunt Serbs. It is little wonder that the residents of Serb enclaves have little faith in rhetorical commitments offered by the ex-terror chiefs in Pristina that they will protect their community after Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence.

While NATO troops remain ostensibly to help secure Kosovo’s borders and to provide support to the nascent security services of the province, there is widespread recognition that their role is a disincentive for open displays of ethnic violence against the Serb minority. Kosovo is a region central to Serb self-conceptions of history and identity, scattered with historical sites significant to Serbs and Serbia. However the main concern of most young Serbs who live there is to leave.

As much of the west prepares to recognise the province as a state, other regions with local ethnic majorities are taking encouragement that their aspirations to establish ethno-nationalist states and gain international recognition may be successful. Nagorno Karabakh has a much more compelling case for official recognition of its separation from Azerbaijan than does Kosovo from Serbia. The ethnically Armenian province has little historical link with Azerbaijan other than a pragmatic Soviet decision to administer it from Baku rather than Yerevan. Armenians in the province suffered ethnic violence from Azeri forces comparable to that suffered by Kosovans under Slobodan Milosevic. There is little wonder that Karabakh’s Armenians see parallels between their own situation and that of Kosovo. The subtle difference is that Azerbaijan is an American ally which is important to the US strategically and as a result of its oil wealth.

In the Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia local majorities oppose the Georgian authorities and have set up functionally autonomous governments. The EU and the US have been staunch in defending the territorial integrity of Georgia, but how can recognition of Kosovo not undermine their arguments? Similarly, in Moldova Transnistria functions as an independent state, with the assent of the majority of its population, but remains unrecognised.

It might be expedient for western governments to recognise Kosovo’s declaration of independence, particularly given the support it is receiving from key players such as the US, Britain and France, but whilst pragmatic hypocrisy may be an easy solution in the short term, in the long-term it can have consequences. Arguing that Kosovo is an exception and that recognition of the province’s statehood does not create a precedent may seem a neat way to side-step tricky ethical debate but it will not cut any mustard with the various ethnic separatist movements now keenly watching developments in Pristina.

Neither is the argument that Slobodan Milosevic’s cruelties to ethnic Albanians were enough to differentiate this conflict from any other sustainable. Leaving aside the equivalence of Albanian on Serb terrorism, leaving aside the fact that Milosevic’s worst excesses were a direct result of NATO intervention in the region, leaving aside the consideration that countless ethnic squabbles have been treated differently despite similarly appalling atrocities, is the way to heal ethnic divisions and right perceived wrongs really to respond to such things by establishing separate states for those ethnicities? By such a solution are we not merely perpetuating the problems which we are purporting to solve? One perceptive commenter raises historical precedent in the thread below. Have we not been down this route before?

It is no accident that those European countries prepared to dissent from the western consensus that Kosovo should be recognised, are those who most directly feel the effects of separatist movements. They should be applauded for at least attempting to show consistent thinking and not allowing the remoteness of Kosovo to let thoughtless pragmatism prevail. Greece, Cyprus, Spain and Slovakia know from bitter experience that the simplistic arguments of ethnic nationalism are deceptive and facile. They appreciate that splintering nations along majority ethnic lines is not a solution and that compromise, tolerance and accommodation should not be so easily jettisoned.

Friday, 15 February 2008

Blocking independence is defensible morally and legally

Although I posted in slightly facetious fashion about Putin’s comments in regard to Kosovo earlier, the Russian leader’s remarks are prescient and highlight a considerable degree of hypocrisy among the main western cheerleaders for Kosovan independence. It appears that a unilateral declaration of independence is both inevitable and imminent. This will be the culmination of a catastrophic failure by NATO to engineer a responsible compromise in the region.

During the 8 year NATO protectorate established in the wake of a ground invasion, the autonomous ethnic Albanian regime were permitted to ‘reverse cleanse’ Kosovo of more than half its Serb population. Brutal perpetrators of terror were rewarded for their actions with political power and it was made clear to the ethnic Albanian regime in Kosovo that they would not be expected to accept anything short of full independence from Serbia.

Putin can justly point out the hypocrisy and stupidity which America and certain members of the EU have displayed in encouraging nationalist separatism in the region. Kosovan independence will not encourage good government in the Balkans. It will cause a real possibility of conflict in the north of the province, it will retain a corrupt, quasi-criminal government dependent on western magnanimity, it will foment other separatist causes throughout Europe and it will inflict severe humiliation on Serbia, at a time when the country is attempting to consolidate a western leaning democracy.

Serbia and Russia have indicated that they will remain cool-headed in the aftermath of this UDI, but it is justified to oppose Kosovo’s independence through peaceful means. Russia retains the sanction of blocking resolutions in the UN to recognise Kosovo as an independent protectorate. This is morally and legally defensible.

McGuinness - brought to us by a sardonic Martian

Was Martin McGuinness put on earth by some malevolent alien who wanted to taunt mankind through the medium of deep, infinite, ceaseless irony? The layers of irony which surround McGuinness and his statements are as numerous as stars in the sky. You simply need to listen to his pious denunciations of violence and dissident republicans to catch an echo of that impish green man cackling heartily in his tiny ship as he crests the Belt of Orion.

McGuinness famously is so averse to loss of life that he throws every fish back which he catches. And now Marty is up in arms because there’s too much alcohol in Eastenders and Coronation Street, despite the fact that children might be watching! As the Coffee House points out in a blog entitled “One person we don’t need moral lectures from”, McGuinness’s erstwhile activities precipitated night after night of carnage and violence on TV screens during the 70s and 80s, not to mention the children who were killed by IRA bombs.

To paraphrase Bill Hicks, it’s really basic irony, but still you can get a hoot.

Putin declares for Ulster unionism

Vladimir Putin has declared himself an Ulster unionist during his annual Kremlin press conference yesterday. The outgoing Russian premier expressed his disagreement with separatist nationalist struggles and cited Northern Ireland as an example where the territorial integrity of a state had to be protected against separatist sentiment.

"Why do we promote separatism? For 400 years Great Britain has been fighting for its territorial integrity in respect of Northern Ireland. Why not? Why don't you support that?"

A spooky convergence of two of this site’s main themes which could not be ignored I’m sure you’ll agree!

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Russians know election not fair, but will participate anyway

If western democratic values are really based at their root on a belief in a Hobbesian contract whereby the governed consent to the sovereignty of those who govern, then it appears that Russia falls comfortably within this model. A poll conducted by Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty suggests that Russians are under no illusions about the electoral process they are about to partake in.

Despite an acceptance that the presidential election will not be transparent or honest, the electorate assent to the process as it is. Over 75% intend to cast there vote and a majority will support Putin’s chosen successor, Dmitri Medvedev. What is inferred is the emergence of a social contract between the Russian people and the Kremlin.

"There is an unwritten agreement in which people have received a certain level of personal freedoms and a rise in their living standards," Nikolai Petrov of the Moscow Carnegie Center explains to RFE/RL's Russian Service.

Dromore result encouraging for UUP

The by election for Tyrone Howe’s Dromore seat on Banbridge Council appears to have thrown up an interesting result. The Ulster Unionist Party candidate Carol Black has retained the seat for her party, despite being widely considered as a rank outsider (the ward is a multi-member constituency). Significantly it was transfers from Jim Allister’s new unionist party, the TUV which enabled the UUP to retain the seat. It appears that voters attracted by the TUV may prefer to transfer to a party which they consider too liberal, but at least honest and open about it, rather than to the hypocrisy of the DUP.

The Dromore by-election has attracted a disproportionate amount of interest simply because it is the first electoral outing for the new unionist party. The poll will be analysed to discern what effect, if any, the realignment of hard-line unionists to Allister’s group will have on the more mainstream unionist parties.

A single local by-election is a poor barometer of how the unionist vote will be affected in an Assembly or Westminster election, but the DUP will be concerned about this result. They have conducted a muscular, high-profile campaign in an attempt to take this seat. Regardless the TUV achieved a creditable showing, attracting 20% of the vote in a solidly unionist area. And perhaps most significantly those voters are so disillusioned with the DUP that they transferred to a party which is perceived as more moderate, rather than aid Paisley’s party.

Whether this trend persists or not remains to be seen, but the UUP will take encouragement from this result. If the TUV begin to eat into the so-called right wing of the DUP vote and the UUP make an effective push to soften up the party’s perceived left wing, the cumulative effect may offer a road to electoral recovery.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

The Damned United

Before ‘The Damned United’ the last football novel I read may have been Martin Waddell’s ‘Napper Goes for Goal’ when I was 6 years old. Therefore the jacket quotes boasting that David Peace’s book is the “best football novel of all time” did not excite me greatly. However I must admit that having read the novel, I do believe that not only is the boast almost certainly justified (lack of competition not withstanding), but that it is also a considerable novel in its own right.

Another comment on the dust jacket employs the hyperbolic adjective “Shakespearean” and for once its use is almost appropriate. Peace’s novel has Elland Road as Elsinore and Brian Clough plays Hamlet, admittedly with a moderately less gruesome finale. The book unfolds the story of Clough’s 44 day reign as Leeds United manager in the mid-70s through the internal monologue of old Big ‘Ead himself.

Peace’s Clough is a compellingly paradoxical mixture of arrogance and self-doubt. He is fluently verbose, foul-mouthed, drunken, loud, a bully who nevertheless can cajole and encourage his players, obsessive about football and his job but constantly late for work, an energetic and neurotic ball of conflicting traits and emotions. Peace has synthesised a great deal of research to keep the factual incidents as accurate as possible. The novel is eminently believable.

We meet Clough as he prepares to embark on his first day at Leeds. The novel progresses in diary style, day by day, with a back story providing the background to Clough’s turbulent managerial career so far and culminating in the offer to become Leeds manager. The drama springs, not only from the manager’s blustering persona, but from the history of rivalry, indeed detestation between the two parties. Clough considers Leeds physical style, replete with gamesmanship, as inimical to his vision of football. He wishes to impose this vision on a Leeds side whom he advises at the novel’s outset to throw away all their medals, because they have won them by cheating.

The mutual loathing between the manager and many of his new staff and players provides a locus to the novel’s drama as does the moral ambivalence of Clough himself. Whilst Clough’s brand of football was more suited to a purist than that favoured by his nemesis, Don Revie (who has a couple of walk on parts in the book, but generally features as an unseen and haunting presence) he was not adverse to dealing with brown envelopes or being pragmatic about tactics when the situation called for it.

Clough’s mercurial personality is reflected through the many ambivalent relationships throughout the book. His relationship with right hand man Peter Taylor (who refused to accompany the manager to Leeds and is lambasted as a “fucking Judas”), with Derby County chairman Sam Longson and even with his own sons are presented as turbulent.

If you are a football fan, or even if you are not, I would recommend that you read this book.

Following the Russian election online

Although I suspect that my comment about Russia is the least read content on this blog, there is an election in just over two weeks time and I shall plough ahead posting about it whether youse are interested or not!

In this spirit I thought I might highlight some of the main sources through which the election can be followed over the next few weeks (for those who are interested in keeping up with events).

To begin with some background Rupert Wingfield Hayes has been compiling a series of articles over the past few weeks on the BBC’s website. The sequence follows the journalist on a trip along the Volga River where he tries to give a flavour of provincial European Russia as it prepares to go to the polls. The link is to his final instalment, but the previous articles are linked to the right of the page.

Only Dmitri Medvedev has English language content on his official webpage which also provides links to speeches given by United Russia’s candidate. For the perpetually curious the other candidates, Bogdanov, Zhirinovsky and Zyuganov all have Russian language only sites.

For a sideway glance at the election the eXile is worth investigating. The Moscow Times’ perspective is that of western ex-pats and its sister paper the St Petersburg Times also provides coverage. The Russian Information and News network provides the Kremlin’s viewpoint and conversely Russia Profile magazine is funded by the UK government. Pravda also has an erratically translated online edition.

This Assembly we'll be educating Catholics and promoting the culture of Protestants

I am in no way a champion of greater funding for the Irish Language, although I believe it does deserve its slice of the budget allocated to culture. However a story from the Irish News highlights that spending on Ulster Scots from the DCAL will soon outstrip spending on Irish and this is instructive of how the sectarian carve-up in government here is directly connected to the fashion in which DUP and SF ministers are managing their departments.

Put simply, ministers such as Edwin Poots and Caitriona Ruane fund and promote their personal and community interests to the exclusion of projects for the other community or projects which would benefit both communities. Ruane’s focus on Irish medium education, whilst her department cannot produce a clear plan to replace academic selection (which will affect everyone) is the classic example. Less publicised was Ruane’s decision to fund primary school language teachers in a scheme to encourage bi-lingualism in our children. What’s the problem there you might ask? Well as O’Neill quite rightly highlighted, only two languages were included in the scheme – Irish, of which enough has been said and Spanish, which Ruane speaks fluently after spending a great deal of time in Latin America. It is rather like me getting the Education Minister’s job and changing all history syllabuses to cover only the genesis of Irish football and Russian history.

This carve-up is not the best way to govern and it is doubtful whether it can be sustainable in the long-term. It becomes increasingly obvious that a viable cross-community opposition is needed to hold Northern Ireland’s Executive to account. Otherwise sectional interests will continue to dominate departments simply on the basis of which minister holds the portfolio.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

A cunning plan for the IFA?

The Belfast Telegraph is claiming that four weeks after the IFA announced that it had secured Nigel Worthington’s services as manager until 2010, the Ballymena man is yet to actually sign the contract. Given that a stated priority of the Association was ensuring that their new manager could not simply walk away from the job if they were offered a lucrative post in England (as happened with Lawrie Sanchez) it is understandable that accusations of incompetence have been quick to surface.

On this occasion only, I will defer from indicting the IFA so harshly for the time being. From the beginning my thoughts on Nigel have been ambivalent. Perhaps this is a master-stroke by Howard Wells et al. Maybe they suspected that Iain Dowie was soon to be sacked from his position at Coventry City and intend at the last minute to whip away Nigel’s deal and sign a proper manager with unquestionable commitment and who could motivate the Northern Ireland team.

So Why haven't they gone away?

If you were to judge by republican statements following misdemeanours by members of their own movement recently, you might be tempted to conclude that the IRA are merely an invention of British ‘securocrats’ seeking to undermine Sinn Fein. After all such inconvenient occurrences as Paul Quinn’s murder, the Northern Bank robbery, the murder of Robert McCartney, murdering Denis Donaldson etc. can either be ascribed to elements outside the organisation or British provocation within it.

More extreme versions of these conspiracy theories actually suggest that the IRA was so riddled with MI5 / Special Branch spies and informers that the organisation was little more than a British puppet all along. Conveniently this version of events can be used to disclaim the greater proportion of disgraceful deeds perpetrated by republicans during the Troubles.

Given these dark murmurings within the republican movement, and the fact that the political wing of their organisation continues to be hamstrung by its connections with criminals and thugs, wouldn’t the simplest thing be simply to wind up the “military” apparatus altogether? It would be considerably more difficult for the crime and thuggery republicans are keen to disclaim, to shelter under the cover of their movement if the IRA no longer existed.

If the actions ascribed to IRA members truly have no connection to that organisation’s structures and leadership, wouldn’t the best way to remove any ambiguity be to wind up the Army Council and disband the IRA altogether? If, as republicans consistently imply, the inconvenient murders, kidnappings, drug-dealing, fuel-laundering and robberies are only linked to them through a mixture of British / unionist innuendo and securocrat meddling, then this must be the surest way of wrong-footing their opponents and proving their commitment to constitutional politics. As an incidental, but significant benefit, the unionist objection to devolving policing would disappear.

It seems to me that if republican protests are founded in any kind of reality, or even if the simple truth is that elements within the IRA are letting down the leadership by continuing to be involved in criminal and violent activity, that the easiest and most logical course of action would be to dissolve the organisation. Of course the truth may be that republicans really do still need the IRA, to continue to exert influence in their communities and to retain an element of threat against their political opponents.

Monday, 11 February 2008

Unelected, unaccountable and over here

The proliferation of unelected, unaccountable public bodies is particularly apparent in Northern Ireland. Given that these commissions, forums, consultative groups etc. draw from the public purse, but do not derive their mandate from any type of electoral process, you might expect that they would be subject to a fairly rigorous selection process.

Not so. To justify his £60,000 appointment, Bill of Rights Forum chairman Chris Sidoti had to undergo no interview process and was not required to apply for the job. It is comforting to know that the man who has decided to lead the attempts to foist this needless bill upon us (and his initial charge was only to advise whether this was actually necessary) underwent such a transparently fair process of selection!

Make haste to your bunker

Presaging a caustic article anticipating Edward Lucas’ book ‘The New Cold War’ The eXile quotes an anonymous colleague who writes with the journalist at the Economist:
"Ed is known at the paper, as even he would admit, as a bit of a loon.”
I promised a fuller examination of the content of this book, but I am bound to say that it barely deserves such treatment, because it has all the hallmarks of being written by a conspiracy theorist paranoiac.

Lucas’ central thesis is that Russia is engaged in a new Cold War with expansionist ambitions and this war is being waged through the levers of investment and energy. He repeatedly urges a chilly response from the west and indicts countries who foster an understanding with Russia. Germany is particularly susceptible to his lambastes.

He extrapolates this thesis so shabbily, with so much wild speculation and so little substantive evidence that the book becomes at best sensationalist polemic. Some of his more sweeping generalisations about Russia and Russians border on the more serious charge of Russophobia.

Apart from a persistent habit of comparing Putin’s Russia to Nazi Germany and all the offensive hyperbole that implies, Lucas also has a fondness for making wild counter-factual historical assumptions. Did you know that Russia would have become a constitutional monarchy and enshrined western liberal democratic traditions had it not been for the Bolshevik Revolution?

Lucas dismisses legitimate Russian concerns tritely as if they were tactical fabrications. He contends that being surrounded by NATO countries should cause no more concern to Russia than it does to Switzerland. His justifications of the EU and NATO include the astonishingly facile and completely indefensibly stupid observation that membership of either entails banishing “ancient historical hatreds”. .

It is just one of many passages in the book that the reader may wish to read twice just actually to be sure that Lucas has indeed made such a ludicrous contention and presented it as bald, uncontested fact. Another is the presentation of anti-Russian sentiment in Crimea and the Baltic states as an invention of the Kremlin who sponsor extremists to attack Russian people and property to provide a pretext for anger and the argument that Russians who live abroad may suffer bigotry or discrimination.

This is conspiracy theory of the worst type and Lucas’ urging the west to battle-stations is as eerie as a mid-West compoundee explaining what should be done about the Illuminati. The West should coalesce and present a united front, dismissing any concerns about Iraq and other misadventures. Basically the EU needs to snub Russia and throw its lot even more unequivocally in with the US. Dissent from this view needs to be quelled lest “we” lose the ‘new Cold War’. To further this goal international organisations in which Russia is influential should either be influenced to expel that country or if this is not possible should be ignored and circumvented. Naturally this includes many of the functions of the UN.

I read this book aghast that such a work could be presented as a serious investigation of contemporary Russian politics. And it has been feted by many whose agenda it suits. But this is not a serious book, simply because there is no rigorous analysis of the thesis it proposes. That may be a symptom of a journalist writing the book, but what we have is an anti-Russian, anti-Kremlin polemic tinged with a great deal of febrile conspiracy theorising.

Friday, 8 February 2008

Medvedev the calm at centre of presidential storm

To maintain the theme of sporting analogies for presidential elections, if the US presidential contest is the World Cup, the Russian equivalent is some manner of professional wrestling bout. The winner has been pre-ordained since Dimitry Medvedev received the United Russia nomination in early December. Whatever the discrepancies in competiveness between the two elections, the Russian winner will have scarcely less geo-political clout as the world’s largest country continues to exert increasing influence strategically and economically.

Medvedev has so far been engaged in a low key campaign. Following the template created by Vladimir Putin in 2004, United Russia’s candidate seems to regard conventional electioneering as beneath his dignity. As such he has been eschewing stormy television debates featuring the other candidates. Medvedev therefore avoided becoming embroiled in clashes between Democratic Party candidate Andrei Bogdanov who expressed his hopes that Russia might join the European Union and Vladimir Zhirinovksy of the nationalist LDP, who maintained that the West is a perpetual enemy of Russia and should remain so.

Relative newcomer Bogdanov is already a controversial figure and has been at the centre of allegations that his inclusion in the poll is a Kremlin ruse designed to manage the liberal democratic vote (in the sense of western liberal values, nothing to do with Zhirinovsky’s confusingly named party). The Union of Right Forces (SPS) and Yabloko are parties with western democratic leanings which failed to make the poll. Mikhail Kasyanov, whose candidacy for the Other Russia coalition was disallowed after 13% of the two million signatures which he was required to collect in order to run were said to be forged by the authorities, has cast aspersions on the methods by which Bogdanov acquired his quota.

Completing this triumvirate of notional competitors, Gennady Zyuganov has failed to follow through on threats to boycott the election. The Communist Party candidate favours focussing on close ties with ex Soviet states in the near abroad. His brooding television advert features the ex-Soviet functionary advancing through a dark, grey corridor before emerging into a bright (communist) future. Each candidate is entitled to these election broadcasts, screened free of charge.

Despite the air-time allotted to opposition parties so far, the OSCE have declined to monitor the election, claiming that severe restrictions have made such a mission impracticable. Acrimony dating from December’s Duma poll seems to have effected the OSCE’s decision. Russia had given visas for 70 monitors to observe proceedings from a fortnight before the election took place.

Meanwhile at the centre of the storm, Medvedev addresses sanguine meetings of special interest groups with a series of serene, poised speeches. Whatever the doubts of western observers it cannot be ignored that Medvedev has adopted a very different form of rhetoric to his predecessor. It remains to be seen whether he will affect real change and oversee a new period of openness (or glasnost to use the Russian word) during his tenure, but it seems unlikely he would feel that he had to use this language if there were not some substance behind the sentiment.

In a meeting to discuss environmental matters at the Kremlin Medvedev spoke in relatively progressive fashion. Although we are accustomed to politicians playing lip-service to environmental matters, in Russia such issues do not attract widespread concern and Medvedev is not consciously courting publicity. Once again his arguments are couched in the language of law. Medvedev constantly emphasises the need for Russia to become a law-based society. This is the central plank of his campaign oratory so far and it seems improbable that he does not aspire to actually effect changes in this area. In the statement of rationale which fronts his webpage Medvedev explicitly challenges the Putinite concepts of ‘sovereign’ or ‘managed’ democracy.

“Today we are building new institution based on the fundamental principles of full democracy. This democracy requires no additional definition”

The biggest political show on earth

Thus far I have refrained from blogging on the subject of the primaries for the American presidential election. However I have been following the contests in the mainstream media and reading with fascination comment from bloggers who have a much surer handle on the subject, such as Brian Crowe and Peter Munce.

I find Tim Garton Ash’s commentary in the Guardian to be something of a mixed bag, but I did find myself murmuring assent, reading some of his comments about the political contest unfolding in the US currently which appeared in yesterday’s paper. From the perspective of an ignoramus I have been amazed at the facility with which people in the UK have grasped the intricacies and nuances of the American electoral process and the easy fashion in which they have aligned themselves with particular candidates for whom they cannot vote and who belong to parties which they cannot join.

The analogies of sport and entertainment do seem to me to be particularly prescient. Close observers have been able to delineate the various strands of political belief to which the candidates broadly adhere, but undoubtedly the contest thus far seems to hinge more surely on presentation and personality rather than specific policy pledges. We are told, in broad terms, that Hillary Clinton is a candidate favoured by more traditional blue-collar democrats whilst Barrack Obama represents a more centrist approach. For the Republicans we are told that John McCain embodies a compassionate vision of conservatism, whilst Mitt Romney, the candidate who has admitted defeat by pulling out of the race, is a hardline Raeganite free marketeer.

Perhaps we may be given a skewed picture by coverage on this side of the Atlantic, but I get the impression that these broad brush differences are not manifested in many concrete undertakings to pursue particular policies at this stage. The extraordinary thing about these adversarial, personality based primaries is that once the candidates for president have been decided, the two parties will be expected to fall in behind their respective winners. All acrimony must then be forgotten, to the extent that competing candidates may find themselves as running mates seeking election together. Perhaps with this in mind the Democrat candidates seem to have moderated what at one stage threatened to become a viciously personalised contest.

The prolonged, expensive and highly publicised nature of these primary battles nevertheless must surely leave a bitter aftertaste and exacerbate intra party division. We are a million miles away from a few speeches, a quick count and then a cup of tea and a tray-bake at Cloughmills Orange Hall, but my god the contests are a lot more compelling and a lot more fun! Although there are those who will rightly point out that politics should not primarily be about entertainment or fun.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Worthington learns little in Windsor friendly

Northern Ireland succumbed 1-0 to Bulgaria last night in a predictably lacklustre friendly at Windsor Park. Martin Petrov, who was the pick of the Bulgarian side, forced a Johnny Evans own goal following a characteristically forceful run from the left flank. Despite chances for Kyle Lafferty and Steven Craigan, Northern Ireland were unable to respond and indeed at times Bulgaria looked more likely to add to their lead.

On the occasion of a friendly match such as this it was inevitable that Nigel Worthington would take the opportunity to experiment with different personnel and indeed three substitutions were made at half-time, with three more to come. Two of these substitutes were gratuitous nonsense as Linfield’s Thompson and Mannus were introduced in order to court the acclaim of their club supporters. Whether Worthington would have learned anything which he should not have ascertained already is arguable.

Perhaps the most concerning aspect of last night’s opening exchanges was the continuing vulnerability of the defence in the absence of Steven Craigan. Northern Ireland made as many problems for themselves as were created by the Bulgarians. In the first half George McCartney had been the pick of the defenders, with Evans struggling in the air and being caught on the ball on a number of occasions, Hughes low on confidence and Gareth McAuley well out of his depth and frequently out of position. It was McAuley who failed to match Petrov after the defender had beaten Keith Gillespie when Bulgaria scored their goal.

At half time Worthington withdraw Evans to be replaced by Craigan and decided to replace McCartney with Baird, unaccountably leaving McAuley on for the full 90 minutes. Craigan steadied the ship considerably assuming his established role alongside Aaron Hughes. Baird was solid enough at left back but he should have been playing his more accustomed role on the right hand side where his mobility would have been in stark contrast to the lumbering McAuley.

Northern Ireland’s midfield were functioning with a certain degree of lethargy last night. Damien Johnson made a welcome return, but he looked a little off the pace and on a number of occasions was made to look silly by the appalling state of the pitch. In contrast Sammy Clingan appears more confident and assured with every match. He is a skilful and hard working playmaker and it is incredible that he is as yet not playing at a higher level in England. Keith Gillespie had a forgettable night by his standards and Brunt provided his usual mix of devilish delivery blended with occasional frustrating ineptitude. Steven Davis replaced Johnson at half-time and provided more fizz and purpose in the middle of the park.

Predictably Healy provided the most potent threat up front performing with his customary vigour and purpose. Lafferty alongside him unsettled the Bulgarians with his work-rate and aerial ability, although he might have done better on a couple of occasions, when Brunt provided perfectly sculpted left win crosses that just ached to be headed into the net. Certainly the visitors would have been relieved when Laffs departed on the hour to be replaced by Martin Patterson. Patterson was busy and nippy but failed to make any substantial impact. Token spide Thompson replaced Gillespie towards the end and conspicuously made one positive contribution which was greeted by some of the crowd as if a goal had been scored. He pushed in front of the right full back and fell on his face, thus being awarded a free kick. More typical was a diagonal run into touch executed moments before. We do not need another look at him. He is not good enough.

If this friendly has taught the manager anything, surely it must be that Steven Craigan is a vital component of his defence! In my view the match did more to reaffirm the status of established players rather than boost the credentials of those on the margin.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Why unionism is not merely British nationalism

An interesting point is raised by commenter Kloot as he challenges my contentions in the blog below about the BNP. In Kloot’s view, all unionism is commensurate with nationalism, it is simply British nationalism. He applies the same culture / identity templates which apply to Irish and Ulster nationalisms and to the doctrines of such groups as the BNP. Although I have attempted briefly to outline some of the distinctions I would draw between civic unionism and the various forms of nationalism in a reply to Kloot’s post, the subject is interesting and complex enough to require a fresh post and a more lengthy exegesis. Kloot’s analysis is shared by most nationalists, but I would respectfully submit that the root of this analysis is an inability or an unwillingness to acknowledge that there is an alternative to ordering states in anything other than primarily nationalistic terms.

Some of this ground has already been covered in ‘Unapologetic Unionism’ which has a link at the top right hand side of this page. As I acknowledge there, and in my reply to Kloot, some of the politics which masquerade as unionism are indistinguishable from nationalism as regards their impulse and rationale. Norman Porter labelled this strand of unionism as “cultural unionism”. I would further subdivide this category into British Nationalists (who can legitimately claim to be at some level unionists despite the fact that their philosophy disregards some of the most fundamental tenets of the Union) and Ulster Nationalists (who may describe themselves as unionists, but cannot be viewed as such in any meaningful way). Jennifer Todd suggested that Northern Irish unionism was divided along Britsh / Ulster lines, but this carries the implication of the civic motor for the former and the cultural motor for the latter. An intersection of these two categorisations is perhaps most instructive. Certainly however the cultural philosophies use unionism as a short hand for conceptions of Britishness that are prescriptive in terms of culture, religion or ethnicity. In this way they are similar to Irish nationalism.

In his comment below, Kloot takes me to task for identifying nationalism’s preoccupation with culture and identity and denying that preoccupation for unionism. To some extent I accept his point. My arguments for unionism could be open to criticism as overly theoretical and Kloot is after all making inferences from what he sees, hears and experiences from those who describe themselves as unionists and purport to represent unionism. Nevertheless I can only argue from the standpoint of the type of unionism which I advocate, a type which is part of an identifiable tradition of civic, pan-UK unionism. Of course my form of unionism does not ignore culture and identity or demean their relevance. Where the distinction with various forms of nationalism lies is in the emphasis accorded to identity as regards state-building and elasticity in understanding of identity as a concept.

I paraphrased Arthur Aughey in the previous piece drawing the distinction as follows: Irish nationalism is about identity whilst unionism is about values, institutions and freedoms. This synopsis is as useful a way as any to consider the difference in emphasis between unionism and nationalism. No matter how modern and inclusive nationalism seeks to be, it retains at its heart a preoccupation with an ethnic, linguistic or religious core – the fabled and self-evident nation which is its instinctive motor. In contrast unionism regards as its core an adherence to shared institutions and the values propagated by those institutions. A political identity can be established surrounding these values and institutions, but that identity is fluid and elastic. It constantly changes and assimilates to encompass people of various cultural or religious backgrounds. This inclusive ethos is necessary to unionism because at its historical root lies the Union between two nations, England and Scotland in 1707, and the subsequent assimilation of Ireland into this Union in 1800.

In the context of Northern Ireland the difference in attitude toward identity has been discussed many times on this blog. Nationalism accuses unionism of being confused in its conception of identity, because nationalism’s conception is something that is narrow and prescriptive. Unionism meanwhile sees no contradiction in acknowledging both Irish and British identities and will not countenance the notion that this nuanced attitude implies confusion. Consider this quote from the Ulster Unionist Health Minister Michael McGimpsey:

“As I see it, I'm an Irish Unionist. I'm Irish, that's my race if you like. My identity is British, because that is the way I have been brought up, and I identify with Britain and there are historical bonds, psychological bonds, emotional bonds, all the rest of it you know. I'm not so much anti-united Ireland as I am pro-Union with Britain, and I would be quite prepared to take a united Ireland tomorrow, if somehow the whole of Ireland could have some form of Union grafted [on]”

McGimpsey makes a clear distinction between his perceived ethnic or racial identity and his politics. There is no question of ignoring identity and its importance to someone’s political make-up, but there is a clear disinclination to tether ethnic, cultural or religious identity to what McGimpsey sees as his political identity.

Both Irish and Ulster nationalism fail to come anywhere close to this plurality of self-identification. For nationalisms history, race, ethnicity and political identity are indistinguishable (or at least so closely entwined as to defy disentanglement). To retain the focus on the two nationalisms we experience most closely in Northern Ireland, they both draw on historical narratives which imply homogenous roots to their respective cultures and attempt to link the adherents of those cultures with ancient connections to their perceived nation. These narratives share a mythical, almost mystical quality whether it is the Gaelic Irish narrative or the Ulster Scots “Cruithin” alternative. Such foundation narratives are interesting and compelling, but it is their connection with present day political doctrines which is the dangerous nationalist hallmark. In many ways this narrow conception of history begets the narrowness nationalism betrays as it conceives its identity.

I hope this short attempt goes some way to explaining why unionism should not be considered merely as British nationalism despite the fact that some ‘unionists’ undoubtedly betray an ethos which is difficult to distinguish from nationalism.