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Showing posts from March, 2008

Duplicity and platitudes - the Bill of Rights.

Ten years after the Belfast Agreement the draft proposals for a Northern Ireland specific Bill of Rights are set to emerge today. Mark Devenport has got hold of a provisional copy of the report and has produced it in full on his BBC blog. I have been consistent in arguing that human rights are universal and that there are no human rights which need to be enshrined in legislation specific to Northern Ireland. Any bill will simply overlap existing provision for human rights and encroach on other areas of law for which the human rights remit is not appropriate. Unionists also fear that the bill will advance an agenda of diminution of Northern Ireland’s constitutional status under the guise of the rights agenda.

This fear is not simply unionist paranoia. Both unionist parties as well as the Alliance Party have expressed concern regarding the composition of the Bill of Rights Forum and are likely to record opposition to proposals in the draft report. Given Sinn Fein’s proclivity for…

Another good local programme shock! 'Sons of Ulster'

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I am no fan of the Northern Irish actor Dan Gordon. He is best known for his role in the execrable comedy series Give My Head Peace and the other part which brought him to prominence was the lead in Marie Jones’ One Night in November – a ‘play’ which makes it its business to demonise fans of the Northern Ireland football team.

This week however, BBC NI have been showing a fascinating programme in which Gordon directs a group of prisoners from Belfast’s Hydebank Wood Young Offenders’ Centre in a performance of Frank McGuiness’ play ‘Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Toward the Somme’. The programme followed the process of Gordon selecting his cast and rehearsing the play with them over a number of months.

Last night the four part series culminated with a performance of the play given to a selection of fellow inmates, staff of the prison and a rather arbitrary group of local luvies. However it was the process of cajoling the prisoners to produce the performance through a mixture of …

Russian freemasonry today recalls Tolstoy

In Tolstoy’s novel War and Peace the character Pierre Bezukhov joins the Russian Freemasons. Bezukhov is seeking in masonry a mystical connection that can reconcile two prevailing Russian currents of thought, that of the Westernisers and that of the Slavophiles. The character naively expects the secrets of the craft to deliver some manner of revelatory self-knowledge. This expectation inevitably leads to disillusion as Pierre finds something which simply reflects the structures of Russian society in which he is already an unwilling participant.

“Under the Masonic aprons and insignia he saw the uniforms and decorations at which they aimed in ordinary life.”

Pierre’s disappointment is brought to mind by the Moscow Times’ article exploring freemasonry in Russia. During Soviet times freemasonry ceased to exist. It was one of the many independent organisations opposed by the Communist authorities. More recently Democratic Party presidential candidate Andrei Bogdanov provided a whiff o…

Little to learn from stroll at the Park.

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Northern Ireland eased to a comfortable 4-1 victory against Georgia last night after an anaemic encounter at Windsor Park. The first half saw the bulk of the action with strikers Lafferty and Healy showing real quality, sharing three goals between them. Lafferty’s contribution was especially impressive. He delivered a hard-working, energetic display capped off by two goals, one a neat slotted finish and the second a fine headed goal. The young forward has pace and skill as well as the height to impose himself in the air.

Healy’s goalscoring haul in the European Championship campaign was marked by a presentation by UEFA president Michel Platini prior to the match. Northern Ireland’s talisman had a mixed night though. A long range effort in the first half gave Healy his 34th goal in a Northern Ireland shirt, but in the second half his attempt to clear Georgia’s penalty kick saw the Fulham player score the first own goal of his international career.

Other notable contributors were…

Shooting fish in a bucket. Feeney again (briefly, I promise)

Another week, another tirade of abuse aimed at unionists masquerading as political commentary, from Brian Feeney. I am boring myself picking apart Feeney’s nonsense on a regular basis, never mind the readers of this blog. I do not propose to analyse his latest offering, an incoherent and constitutionally confused rant which includes a reference to unionists as “horses’ asses” (yes Brian is that pathetic!).

Other than pointing out that not accepting nationalists’ aspirations for a united Ireland does not equate to bigotry (and nor does not following the machinations of the Dail), I want only to linger on one glaring inaccuracy. Feeney decides in the course of his abuse to deliver a sideswipe toward Northern Ireland football supporters.

“It may be ‘our wee country’ to unionists (that’s what they call the IFA fans’ website, to attract nationalists) but it’s not.”

Leaving aside the sweeping and inaccurate political point, the fans’ website entitled Our Wee Country has no connection to th…

Freer people or freer markets? Dmitri Medvedev interviewed.

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Dmitry Medvedev has given a lengthy interview to the Financial Times. It is the President-elect’s first major interview with a western news source. Choosing the FT is significant in itself. The UK and the City of London in particular play an important role as trade-partners and financiers of Russia’s economy. Medvedev’s stated priority is retaining stability economically and growing and liberalising the economy. Delivering an interview to the FT is a strong signal that Russia is open for business and in particular open to foreign investment. Equally the interview will raise hopes of a thaw in political relations between the UK and Russia.

I have read the interview quickly and there are a number of noteworthy points to raise even after a relatively cursory perusal. Medvedev continues to emphasise his commitment to improving the standard of living for Russians. This is his stated priority and he believes that this can best be achieved through broad adherence to the policies of Vl…

Brown's article only serves as a reminder that Ulster unionists must be UK unionists

I’ve been away from a computer over the Easter break and so have rather missed the boat commenting on Gordon Brown’s extraordinary article purportedly defending the Union in the Daily Telegraph. O’Neill has provided a blow by blow account on Unionist Lite. His contention is that Brown’s Labour government dealt the gravest blows to the integrity of the Union in the first place through their devolution project and he is unsurprised to find their leader doing such a shoddy job of defending it now.

The startling thing about Brown’s article is that his entire argument explicitly focuses on England, Scotland and Wales’ place in the Union and pointedly avoids mentioning Northern Ireland. As O’Neill correctly notes, the entire basis of Brown’s multi-national, dual identity argument for the Union is rather undermined by this omission. If a strong sense of national identity does not militate against fully participating in the Union and feeling an overarching British identity, why would North…

There Will Be Blood is actually extraordinary

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It is six days since I watched There Will Be Blood and the film is still rumbling restlessly in my head, like an oil well about to explode skywards. This movie is one of the most singular pieces of film-making that I have ever seen. It is unsettling, arresting and at times even rather funny. And a note to the Coen Brothers – Paul Dano’s greasy young preacher is a much more disturbing character than Javier Bardem’s lumbering, taciturn killer in No Country for Old Men. Watching his depiction of a charlatan evangelical exercising power over a small community was rather like chewing tin foil, so viscerally did it manage to set the teeth on edge.

Eli Sunday, Dano’s character, is part of the twin axes on which the film turns. Little Boston, where Daniel Day Lewis’ character Daniel Plainview begins to drill oil, is in the grip of two of America’s chief preoccupations – money and religion. Both the struggle between these powerful motivators and the grubby accommodations which they reach …

Why the proliferation of misery memoir?

Recently I happened to be in Belfast’s WH Smith searching for a card to give to my mother for Mother’s Day. In such shops the calendar year is punctuated almost weekly by festivals of consumerism for which it is absolutely imperative to expend one’s money on the tat suggested by appropriate displays (if you do not you are being both churlish and negligent). Mother’s Day is just such an event, sandwiched between Christmas and St Patrick’s Day, and Smith’s were punting, amongst other wonderful items, cards which would speak to your mother in the dulcet tones of Elvis Presley, Cliff Richard, Donnie Osmond or indeed Daniel O’Donnell. Classy.

With a card sorted out the intrepid shopper needs a gift to go alongside and with its roots primarily as a book-seller, Smith’s were offering a range of appropriate titles. Alongside the displays of romances and celebrity biographies, outfitted in saccharine Mother’s Day lavender and bedecked with images of fluffy puppies, sat a large – nae a burst…

A note for The Times of London

Just a passing note, but one that covers an inaccuracy worth pointing out. The Times in its editorial today trumpets 'The Queen Should Visit Ireland'. The Queen is currently in Ireland! Oddly much of the article appears to acknowledge this point fairly explicitly. It is rather a pity that consistent accuracy cannot be maintained.

Labour / SF cosiness only affirms Trimble's importance

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Following on from yesterday’s post about the GFA - the extracts in the Guardian this week from the book ‘Great Hatred, Little Room’ make interesting enough reading, but should also be treated with caution. On Comment is Free, Mick Fealty points out the limitations of biography in explaining historical events. Jonathan Powell’s book provides a personal account of the Labour government’s role in the peace process, but it does not explore all the elements which made that process possible. Mick’s contention is that a substantial contributor to the British government’s confidence in dealing with republicans was the infiltration of that movement by intelligence operatives.

The latest extracts reprise, from the government’s perspective, the much repeated story of the clinching stages of the Agreement and in particular Tony Blair’s letter assuring unionists that power-sharing would be collapsed if decommissioning was not forthcoming. More surprisingly another extract reveals that Martin …

The Agreement ten years on

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The Good Friday Agreement was actually reached on 10th April 1998, but with Good Friday falling this week it seems that the ’10 years on’ retrospectives are starting early. Alex Kane offers his analysis in the Newsletter and outlines the personal process by which he reasoned his eventual support for the Agreement in 1998. It was not the potent issues of symbolism with which most unionists wrestled that were the prime objections Kane had to overcome. Rather he had most difficulty with the failings of democratic accountability inherent in the Agreement, particularly the lack of provision for an official opposition in Northern Ireland’s devolved government, a weakness which has yet to be addressed almost ten years on.

I wish I could claim to have undergone such a process of considered and thoughtful analysis before casting my own ‘yes’ vote by post that May. At that time I was one of the many Northern Irish students enrolled at universities in Scotland. My assent for the Agreement wa…

Worthington must go!

From the beginning I have been sceptical about Nigel Worthington as Northern Ireland manager, but in the wake of his latest squad announcement I am throwing all ambivalence to the wind and pleading – JUST GO WORTHLESS! In order to ingratiate himself (and re-ingratiate the IFA) with Linfield and their rabble of supporters, Worthless has picked no less than three of their players in his squad to play Georgia next week. No other Irish League players are selected. Dean Shiels, Grant McCann, Tony Capaldi and Ivan Sproule, successful players in fulltime leagues are all omitted. Shiels is playing regularly and scoring regularly for Scotland’s third best side yet still Peter Thompson is preferred, despite repeatedly looking out of his depth when previously capped. Grant McCann has played well for Northern Ireland in the past and has posed a potent goal-threat, he scored at the weekend for Scunthorpe – Michael Gault is in the squad ahead of McCann. Tony Capaldi looks forward to an F.A. C…

Feeney's latest - unionists don't do culture

If a good dose of sectarian bile is what you’re missing in your life, then Brian Feeney’s weekly Irish News column is a godsend. It is puzzlement to me that a reasonably good newspaper persists in publishing his hate-filled rants. Perhaps they do so out of amusement value. Perhaps people are entertained by the vein bulging derision Feeney heaps on unionists week on week. Those of us with more discretion will feel that Feeney epitomises a type of institutionalised bigotry that already gains far too much exposure in Northern Ireland. That joke isn’t funny anymore.

Feeney turns his attentions towards the Maze stadium debate and concludes that anyone who might prefer a national sports stadium to be in Belfast, does so only out of unionist bigotry. It’s not so much this contention that makes Feeney’s piece so offensive, because his entire output consists of making unfounded and sweeping allegations against unionism, but the abusive language which he then persists in putting into the …

Twin nationalisms carve-up assumes a physical and administrative shape

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When Ed Moloney launched his new biography of Paisley at the Ulster Hall earlier this week he commented in his address “I have always been of the belief that both these parties, the DUP and Sinn Féin, needed to be closely watched. Now that they are running the country, they need to be watched very, very closely”. The truth of his remark was reinforced yesterday as the twin nationalisms axis moved to perpetuate the figurative carve-up of Northern Ireland’s politics over which they have presided, with a literal carve-up of the province’s local government.

The DUP and SF between them have reached a deal to re-organise Northern Ireland’s 26 councils on an eleven council model. Previously the DUP, like all the other parties other than Sinn Féin had insisted that 15 councils would be the ideal number to streamline administration whilst also ensuring against Balkanisation and an effective repartitioning of Northern Ireland. The Ulster Unionist Party and the Alliance Party have stuck to thi…

The danger of navel gazing and change for change's sake

Lord Goldsmith’s citizenship review has attracted a wealth of comment, both in the mainstream media and indeed on various blogs. O’Neill and Ciarán have discussed the proposed changes to rules permitting Irish and Commonwealth citizens resident in the UK to vote in Westminster elections. The discussion on Draw Breath assumes a fascinating theoretical dimension as Willowfield argues that those born in Northern Ireland claiming citizenship of the Republic of Ireland do not need to be provided for by special dispensation as Goldsmith suggests. It is on their tacit, but unclaimed, citizenship of the United Kingdom that the right to vote in Westminster elections rests, rather than on their residency in the UK as Irish citizens. Ciarán is more concerned with potential diminishment of an arrangement which acknowledges the special ties that bind together the people of this archipelago. I find myself agreeing with the crux of his argument as well as assenting to the detail of Willowfield’…

'Let Russians be Russians' says ex ambassador

Sir Roderick Braithwaite expounds a sensible and sober assessment of Russian democracy in the Moscow Times, via the Financial Times. He rubbishes both the notion that the west needs to dictate to Russia how its government should be ordered and also the argument that Russians are genetically indisposed to democracy and incapable of instigating it.

Braithwaite argues that Russians are a sophisticated and knowledgeable electorate, quite capable of using the franchise they do possess to unseat a regime should they wish to. He sees their assent for Putin and now Medvedev as a rational response to the chaotic 1990s. This argument is well-founded and dismisses the mildly racist suggestions that Russians are incorrigible opponents of democratic politics.

The former UK Ambassador’s conclusion is that we should allow Russia to find its own way to democracy without excoriating attacks on the character of its regime.

Leave Hunters alone! The many incarnations of a Belfast pub.

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Apologies for the following rather parochial post. It won't mean a great deal to people at the vast majority of points in the cluster map at the bottom of this page. Still, today I wish to complain about the constant reincarnations inflicted on a pub on Belfast’s Lisburn Road, which I will never, despite what various owners might contend, know as anything other than Hunters.

I have been visiting Hunters for over ten years on and off. The pub came to my attention initially as the essential pre-match watering hole for Northern Ireland home games. Then for substantial periods Hunters has been my closest bar – the local which I repair to for essential Premiership games, or just to read the paper and have a pint after work. The relationship has not always been smooth. For a spell when Northern Ireland was less popular and following the team was not as fashionable as it has become recently, the pub refused to admit supporters after games. Naturally, given the large quantities of cash i…

Robinson will be a new leader, but it will still be the same old DUP

Two dramatically different readings of the DUP’s succession dilemma intersect on one important point. John Coulter’s silly caper through the next 8 years of Northern Ireland’s politics is preoccupied with his usual unionist unity mantra, whilst Alex Kane in contrast outlines the reasons why Peter Robinson will be little more convivial to the Ulster Unionist wing of unionism than Ian Paisley. The point on which the two men concur (in Coulter’s case a rare moment of lucidity) is in identifying Robinson as intrinsically linked with Paisleyism and the DUP’s current problems. If Paisley is tainted goods in the eyes of voters and in the eyes of the party’s hard-core, then so to is Robinson.

On this basis Kane contests the wisdom of appointing the East Belfast MP as leader. He presents a strong case, calling into question the democratic credentials of the DUP itself and rebutting the suggestion that Robinson is likely to affect a rapprochement with the UUP. Kane argues that Robinson’s pr…

Torres in form but my agonies will persist

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I am, and am completely aware of being, an incorrigibly gloomy watcher of football. I approach most fixtures either with an expectation of defeat, or in the firm belief that the opposition are such a diabolical outfit that anything less than a cricket score will simply obfuscate the frailties endemic within the team I follow. Confidence and enthusiasm are for me traits only exhibited in the flush of relief after a good victory.

Watching games on television is a particularly agonising, purgatorial pursuit. I tend to hunch restlessly in front of the TV, maintaining a perpetual incanted commentary of doubt and complaint. Thus during Liverpool’s first leg Champions’ League tie against Inter Milan I became convinced that a lack of cutting edge would limit us to a 0-0 draw. ‘It’s no good having all this possession and not scoring’, ‘it’s got 0-0 written all over it’, ‘they’re happy to soak up the pressure’ etc etc.

In contrast my girlfriend was insistent that Liverpool’s dominance woul…

Did Enoch Powell entrench multiculturalism?

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I do not wish to give the impression that I spent the entire weekend watching television, but with the 6 Nations and the F.A. Cup quarter finals both on the BBC it wouldn’t be terribly far from the truth. Another interesting programme I happened upon on Saturday was Rivers of Blood (still on I-Player), an examination of the effects that Enoch Powell’s infamous speech had on Britain. The speech was given forty years ago this year and Michael Shilliday has already blogged on Slugger to mark the occasion with a piece questioning whether Powell should be considered a racist.

Whilst it did not seek to label Powell on the basis of his speech, the BBC’s programme did attempt to establish the genesis of the politician’s thinking and the motivations which led him to deliver it when he did. The text was reproduced in parts and indeed footage taken at the time was used, but there was surprisingly little contextualisation of its content.

The film drew in Powell’s experience of India, suggesti…

Paisley and the DUP youth

The BBC’s Politics Show from Northern Ireland yesterday focussed on last week’s inescapable story, Ian Paisley stepping down from the leadership of his party and his role as First Minister. Although in many respects I am heartily sick of these retrospectives (which is ominous for the actual occasion of his retirement and indeed eventually his death) the programme was interesting enough to merit a mention.

Particularly so the interview with young members of the DUP from QUB. What was striking about these young people was their apparent inability to explain with reference to actual political beliefs why they had joined the party. Certainly Ian Paisley was barely mentioned which was the angle the show was pursuing, but there was a much more profound philosophical vacuum at work.

Putting aside the taught mantras of “working for the unionist people / community” (in itself a telling choice of words to inculcate) and “delivering for unionism”, we were left with a version of political par…

Because the principle of consent has consequences

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Good sense has prevailed and the Assembly Commission have ensured that an event to celebrate the life of IRA bomber Mairead Farrell cannot be held in Stormont’s Long Gallery. All parties other than Sinn Fein objected to the premises being used. An outcome Jennifer McCann MLA must have known was ineivitable even as she initiated her attempt to organise this deliberately offensive and provocative commemoration at the seat of Northern Ireland’s government.

The decision of the Assembly Commission was unsurprising. Equally unsurprising was SF’s response, a demand that a list be given of all symbols, statues, pictures etc. at Stormont. A cynic might even suppose that Sinn Fein did not believe when they proposed this event that there was a realistic chance they might be allowed to hold it at Parliament Buildings and instead their purpose was to launch an attack on perceived unionist symbols at Stormont.

And Sinn Fein’s definition of unionist symbols is likely to be wide. Particularly if…

Adams praise of Paisley is 'sickening'

Another day, another piece by Simon Jenkins to analyse. On this occasion Jenkins finds himself exercised by a valedictory article about Ian Paisley on the Guardian’s own Comment is Free blog. The author of this ‘eulogy’ as Jenkins characterises it, is none other than Gerry Adams and in the headline the Sinn Fein president describes Paisley as “a fascinating and gracious man”. Jenkins raises some excellent points in his article and is sickened by this praise of a man so responsible for Northern Ireland’s troubled past, by another who is in fact still more culpable. On this occasion though, I cannot heap unqualified praise on his article, there are a number of points I would take issue with.

Jenkins opens strongly, accurately identifying something akin to nostalgia in Adams’ recollection that Paisley played a formative role in his political development.

“As for Paisley's role in inciting violence and tension, it "whetted my political appetite and radicalised a generation …

World Book Day. Don't be shy!

The frontispiece of BBC Northern Ireland’s website informs me it is World Book Day. Rather than inspiring in me a burning desire to pick up a paper-back immediately, this fact instead alerts me to the possibility that there are those in the world (and even indeed in this country) who would not find it strange if they weren’t to pick up a book on a given day.

I am confident that readers of Three Thousand Versts do not number amongst such philistines. Therefore I wish to know exactly what it is that you are currently reading or what you have recently read that you would recommend. My current book is Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart.

Will Paisley's demise see the rehabilitation of Trimble?

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Glancing at the political obituaries which have followed the announcement of Ian Paisley’simminent retirement as First Minister and leader of the DUP, I can’t help but wonder what feelings David Trimble is experiencing watching the demise of a man who expended so much energy destroying him. Surely there must be an element of grim satisfaction as Paisley is forced to fall on his sword after only a year as Trimble’s successor at the helm of Northern Ireland’s Executive.

Trimble was only the last in a succession of unionist leaders whom Paisley destroyed for their attempts to find an accommodation with nationalists. And Trimble retains the distinction of not only suffering political destruction at Paisley’s hands, but then subsequently being forced to suffer the indignity of watching the demagogue assuming his clothes and signing up to a deal which differed only aesthetically from that to which Trimble had agreed.

The campaign Paisley waged against Trimble was nasty, personalised and ab…

Jenkins on the Russian elections

Simon Jenkins has written one of those rare articles in yesterday’s Guardian which cause me to chuckle and grunt my assent at practically every paragraph. Jenkins points out how different elections seem to provoke inconsistent responses from the west. He argues that democracy is far from a realisable or absolute set of values. I’d recommend that you read the article.

Irish Freedom by Richard English

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As I have mentioned in previous posts, I have been reading Richard English’s magisterial history of Irish nationalism, Irish Freedom. Previously I had read English’s history of the IRA, Armed Struggle, which had impressed me as much the most subjective and fair minded history of the republican movement that I had come across. Similarly I would commend Irish Freedom as a cold eyed and balanced account of nationalism in Ireland.

English is intent from the beginning of the book, on not only explaining Irish nationalism within Ireland itself, but also locating it within a larger global context. This book does not comprise a hagiography of patriots and martyrs, but rather an exegesis of what exactly nationalism is and how its Irish specific version fits into the phenomenon generally. Thus there is a lengthy examination of whether nations truly are a modern invention or whether they can claim ancient roots.

The author is circumspect, concluding that nationalism as we understand it did d…

Paisley's retirement should not usher in one party unionism

I have no wish to linger unduly on the subject of Ian Paisley’s announcement that he will retire in May but I must raise a few points in passing. Firstly the announcement was not as the media would lead you to believe “a shock”. The actuality that Paisley would step down in May was widely anticipated even if the timing of the statement was not. Secondly, as Reg Empey pointed out on Good Morning Ulster today, the DUP leader is being ousted from his position, rather than stepping down gracefully. This is an important distinction and one that should not be lost in the rush to analyse Paisley’s legacy.

Additionally it must be pointed out that Paisley’s influence on unionism and on Northern Ireland was almost entirely pernicious. The fact that he belatedly decided to embrace power-sharing should not be allowed to obscure this. Paisley destroyed successive unionist leaders who attempted to introduce power-sharing and indeed those who attempted to make any accommodation which would enab…

Accept the offer and go!

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I have expressed the opinion through this blog that DIC do not offer a panacea for Liverpool’s ownership woes. My feeling is that the bind the club find themselves in is actually indicative of a more fundamental problem infecting the Premiership as a whole. Football clubs, once organically linked to the communities toward whom they contribute a sense of pride and belonging, are now simply investment opportunities for foreign capital.

However I also share with most Liverpool fans dismay at the present owners, who have disingenuously saddled the club with a large quantity of their debt and have proceeded to fall out despite the fact their tandem ownership is barely a year old. Hicks has publicly aired grievances with manager Rafa Benitez in a fashion that is inimical to traditions of the club and the pair have failed to provide sufficient backing to enable us to compete in the transfer market.

From the beginning it was my view that DIC offered more stability and a sounder financial…