Monday, 31 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 advancing various agendas under the guise of rights and equality arguments (the altercation about the use of Stormont’s Long Gallery for instance) it is natural for unionists to be suspicious. The absence of a clear citation of anything approaching the generally accepted notion of a human right, which might require specific provision in Northern Ireland, has compounded this suspicion. The document which is about to emerge is unlikely to calm those fears.

There are a plethora of provisions dealing with areas already covered by legislation and indeed rights already enshrined by the Human Rights Act (1998) and the European Convention of Human Rights which that act codified in United Kingdom law. For example slavery looks set to be abolished under any Human Rights Act for Northern Ireland. There are vague platitudinous provisions covering abstract concepts which will allow rich pickings for the legal profession.

“Public authorities shall, when the circumstances so warrant, take special and concrete measures to achieve and sustain full equality”.

Wow! Full equality. If that is what we achieve in Northern Ireland through this proposed legislation and at the behest of public authorities, our little country will have become a fully fledged utopia. There’s nothing like setting the bar a little high! A little later we unearth the following sentence.

“The death penalty shall be abolished. No one shall be condemned to such penalty or executed”.

Whatever criticisms you may level at Northern Ireland, we do deserve credit for using the ultimate sanction so sparingly up to the point when the Human Rights Act will abolish it! You’d think with all those mass murders and bombings someone would have been tempted. Similarly the draft includes provisions outlawing domestic violence, sexual violence, harmful traditional practices, and sexual harassment - all of which are in very clear contravention of UK and EU laws anyway. The instances of this type of duplication are constant in this document. In fact nearly all the provisions which are concerned with actual human rights and the prevention of actual wrongs are duplicating laws enshrined elsewhere.

The Commission’s remit was to investigate whether there were special circumstances relevant to Northern Ireland which made specific provision for human rights necessary. This responsibility they have blatantly failed to fulfil. Most of the document has no special relevance to Northern Ireland whatsoever. The sections which can be argued to have some specific relevance stray far from the accepted remit of human rights legislation. We have a section covering indigenous languages which if adopted could smuggle in by stealth all the least savoury aspects of the mooted Irish Language Act. The chair’s proposed draft includes a ‘right’ to be educated in indigenous minority languages which would bind education boards not only to fund Irish language education from the public purse (as currently occurs) but would also require Ulster Scots education to be provided if any demand was to emerge. The expensive and needless requirement for public bodies to provide forms and speakers of these languages to communicate with those who insist that they must conduct their public business through such a medium is also contained in the chairman’s draft proposal. In themselves these things are highly contentious notions, in no way related to human rights, and it is patently wrong to saddle them on to legislation purporting to cover that area.

The section on nationality contains the seeds of disagreement too, although the chairman’s proposal finds a wording which does reflect the constitutional status of Northern Ireland.

“Everyone born within the jurisdiction has a right to British nationality and to recognition of any Irish nationality that he or she may hold.”

Although this clause does state the present position on nationality with a degree of accuracy (i.e. there is a right to British nationality with an option to simultaneously take up dual nationality in the Irish Republic), there is nothing new to be added to the Good Friday Agreement’s treatment of this issue. It does also reflect the possibility of people identifying their nationality in a nuanced way, but that is not a right of which people can be deprived in any case and it certainly does not need to be provided for in new legislation. If you have a right to free expression and a right not to be discriminated against on grounds of nationality then you necessarily also have the ability to define yourself as you wish. If governments in London and Dublin recognise you as a citizen entitled to a passport and allow for that in law, then those are all the citizenship laws that are needed.

Bizarrely the draft report then turns its attention to education, another area for which the state has been providing universal provision for more than 100 years. The chairman’s proposal would appear to guarantee us all the right to be educated in perpetuity. “Everyone has the right to an education and access to lifelong learning”. Given that only school age education must be provided for free will this effect any change or alter the status quo? In order to deprive people of the right to life long learning it would be necessary to remove their brain and/or lock them in a windowless room. What does this clause mean? We will only discover what it means if it is adopted in a bill, if it becomes law and if lawyers begin to pursue expensive litigation which will provide some manner of judicial interpretation.

One of the criticisms of the bill has been the assumption that its provisions would seek to establish economic rights. The argument is not that some measure of social security does not need to be provided in Northern Ireland, but that the extent of this should not be prescribed by human rights legislation. This is self-evident common sense, but if the report is an accurate indicator then the bill will nevertheless plough onward into this contentious area. The chairman has moderated an initial proposal which sought to enshrine a continuous improvement in living conditions. He has suggested improving conditions “beyond bare adequacy”, but even this accommodation could gain much in interpretation. What is ‘bare adequacy’ and what should the state be required to furnish people with in addition to providing adequately for their needs? This should be a matter for a democratically elected government, un-prescribed by legislation drafted by unelected quangoes. Economic policy is fundamental to the political choices which voters are asked to make at the polls. To circumscribe economic policy in this way is to diminish democracy itself.

The document deals with criminal justice in a great deal of depth, but the sections which would have most effect concern increasing the age of criminal responsibility to 18. The seriousness of that proposal has already been discussed at length elsewhere. The document takes an insidiously broad approach to defining victims of the troubles describing them as those who have survived “violent, conflict-related incidents”. This definition will clearly extend to those who have been involved in criminal and terrorist activity.

The document is long and stultifyingly bland. It will take more detailed perusal to draw out the full implications of its provisions. The overwhelming sense from the report is exactly what sceptics have been expecting. It is an exercise in duplication, in platitudes and in attempting to legislate outside the rights remit. There is no sustainable argument that these proposals should be the basis of a Human Rights Bill.

Friday, 28 March 2008

Another good local programme shock! 'Sons of Ulster'

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 encouragement, argument and bribery which was most compelling.

The programmes showed the dynamic which establishes itself in these institutions where any spark of individuality or initiative can be the catalyst for abuse or violence on ‘the landings’. The cast shouted, swore, walked-out, disrupted and attacked each other with dummy weapons, but eventually managed to coalesce and deliver a creditably raw performance of a powerful play.

Ultimately it seemed plausible that (as the governor of the prison believed) the play had genuinely been the positive experience that the inmates insisted it was. They did seem to progress in terms of teamwork, focus, confidence and ambition through the exercise. Some no doubt will re-offend, but others may have been profoundly changed by performing this play.

It has been many years since I have seen the play (on a school trip in Dublin’s Abbey Theatre) and it was certainly apposite material for a group of errant young men. The parallels between the characters in the play and the prisoners who played them were evident. The inmates understood the characters and their situation innately and there were members of the group who actually were filled with enthusiasm when they spoke of the play and its themes.

For this reason alone this series was a remarkable success and for his patience and hard work Gordon deserves credit. On a side note, this series was to be shown some months ago and was pulled at the last minute. I can only assume the unidentified splodge who had clearly been edited from the final programmes was something to do with this late withdrawal.

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 of conspiracy for Russian voters, openly functioning as Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Russia.

The truth behind Post Soviet masonry in Russia seems to be more prosaic than the febrile imagination of Russian nationalists would allow. It functions as a social club and networking facility for businessmen. Although the organisation has re-established itself in the years since 1991, it has a relatively small membership and shows little sign of re-kindling the enthusiasm it enjoyed with the nobility in th 19th century.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Little to learn from stroll at the Park.

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 Steven Davis, lively in midfield and finding the freedom to roam forward with Damien Johnson sitting deeper beside him, and Keith Gillespie, who produced an agelessly vigorous performance on the right flank.

The second half was a dreary 45 minutes though with much of Northern Ireland’s adventure negated by substitutions. Georgia had a considerable amount of possession and would have had the better of the half had a dubious goal not been bundled into his own net by a Georgian defender. Some sources have credited this goal to Peter Thompson who was engaged in attempting to obstruct the goalkeeper when the ball may have glanced off him.

Georgia were diabolical opposition and this friendly will do little to clarify the confused tactics of manager Nigel Worthington. The squad he picked for the friendly was far from the best available to him and he managed to debilitate the team in the second half with needless tinkering. 3 nil up in a friendly this experimentation would have been understandable if it had involved credible personnel, but the players Worthington should have been investigating were not in the squad.

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 the IFA. The site’s home-page even carries the explicit message that the site is “fiercely independent”. The title comes from a post match interview given by Northern Ireland centre-back Barry Hunter after we’d achieved a wonderful 1-1 draw away to Germany “what about our wee country?” the delighted player exclaimed. It is not intended either to attract or repel nationalists Brian.

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Freer people or freer markets? Dmitri Medvedev interviewed.

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 Vladimir Putin. Liberalising reform will only take place within a framework which Medvedev adjudges convivial to retaining economic stability. The social changes which the new President mentions, in terms of housing, education and health, are real enough aspirations, but these too will be constrained by economic considerations. Medvedev believes he can deliver the benefits of Russia’s new wealth to its citizens, but he will not leave the economy vulnerable in the furtherance of this aim.

The incoming president does believe firmly however in the primacy of law. He keeps returning in his interview to the importance of the separation of powers and to the need to subject both government and society to the rigours of an independent judiciary. Speaking of the Kremlin Medvedev is unequivocal:

“You probably mean should the executive power observe the decisions that are taken by the court? Without doubt yes. In exactly the same way as they should observe the laws”.

There will be a tendency for western media to focus on Medvedev’s comments regarding NATO and Russia’s near abroad. He is circumspect about the prospect of Georgia and Ukraine joining NATO. Of course Russia would see this as a threat and an encroachment in her sphere of influence. Medvedev is right in contending that “no state” would welcome a different military bloc which indeed was formed in order to oppose its interests advancing to its borders.

Perhaps some of the most interesting segments of the interview deal with the topic of state industry. Medvedev acknowledges a need for more independent directors in companies, but he is resolute in his insistence that state infrastructure monopolies such as Gazprom or Russian Railways will remain. And it is this issue which really contains the substance of ideological problems which America and the west have with Russia. Russia’s energy wealth has flowed straight into its coffers from state owned monopolies and this is inimical to the evangelists of the free market.

It will be interesting to see if Dmitry Medvedev begins to marry economic improvements in Russia with real reforms in terms of pluralism, media independence and a law-based society whether western criticism dissipates. If this doesn’t happen Russians will have a right to query whether personal freedoms form the basis of concern about Russia’s democracy or whether the argument is really about free access to its resources and markets.

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 Northern Ireland be a special circumstance? Do some sea and a more recalcitrant nationalism to oppose negate the unionist argument?

If Brown wishes to defend the Union as a concept, he had better remember that there are four countries within that Union. He had better defend the entire Union. But I would draw another point from this article and the prevailing attitude in Britain which it belies. Ulster Unionists need to be thoroughly engaged in the UK wide debate about the Union and its shape and future. Ulster Unionists must be eloquent in their defence of the whole Union, if they have realistic hopes of unionists from Britain doing likewise. Parochialism is no longer an option and the argument for Ulster Unionism must be framed ever more firmly within a broader debate for Union.

There Will Be Blood is actually extraordinary

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 form a theme of the film which climaxes in a spectacularly powerful denouement. Without wishing to give the ending away, the climactic scenes in turn fill the cinema goer with amusement, then almost with a vindicated sense of revenge and finally with appalled horror.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s film ranges from the dirt and claustrophobia of mines and the oil industry to the epic expanse of the Californian desert. For the opening 15 minutes there is no dialogue at all. We join Day Lewis hewing an airless hole with a pickaxe and other rudimentary equipment. Daniel Plainview is a silver miner who chances upon oil and ruthlessly, obsessively converts this discovery into a fortune and an empire. He adopts a dead colleague’s son, HW, and his relationship with the boy as his father is at once loving and deeply exploitative.

Despite his growing wealth Plainview remains an isolated figure throughout the movie, fuelled by his obsession for oil and a misanthropic disgust for the rest of humanity. His moments of doubt and humanity are manfully overcome through force of ambition and hatred. A relationship Plainview establishes with a man purporting to be his long-lost brother comes to an abrupt end and the moments of guilt and affection inspired by his son are instructive, but ultimately short-lived, moments of weakness. But Day Lewis’ character is nevertheless compelling. He is equipped with a remarkable stentorian drawl and a hunched urgent walk.

The voice he deploys in persuading investors to support his ventures and in acquiring the assent and property of small communities in order to drill for oil on their land. Little Boston is one such community and its heart is a curious church presided over by Eli Sunday with his exuberant performances of casting out devils. Plainview has to reach a reluctant arrangement with Sunday in order to continue to exploit the large oil reserves lying underneath Little Boston. There are a number of extraordinary confrontations between the two men throughout the film.

Meanwhile an accident caused by successfully striking the oil deafens Plainview’s adoptive son HW and the oilman’s response to this misfortune provides another dynamic for the film. At no point is Plainview entirely unaware or oblivious to his son or his injury, but his fixation with oil is a much more potent preoccupation. This is a subtle approach to the relationship and allows some possibility of redemption for Plainview throughout most of the film. It is this type of ambivalence which I believe makes this film so much more compelling than No Country for Old Men.

To compelling characters are wedded thoughtfully expounded themes. The relationships between oil, religion and money I have already touched upon. These are threads which connect early 20th century America with the contemporary country and indeed with world geo-politics. Of course the film is exploring the origins of an industry which many would contend is fuelling both literally and metaphorically the present war in Iraq. Anderson will have been aware of the allegorical significances which could be attributed to his movie.

But the film is much more subtle and complicated than a mere morality fable about the corrupting influence of oil and money. It is drilling into much more profound and elemental territory concerning the fabric of the world we live in and the people who live within it. This is startling, dark and lapel-grabbing stuff. CW is correct in his assessment on The Dreaming Arm that the meaning of this film is confusing and elusive. But unlike No Country for Old Men, to which the film has stood comparison, this is not because there is a moral and philosphical vacuum at the heart of the film – but because there is so much going on. This film will repay close and repeated viewings. I understand it to no greater a degree than CW, but I am bound to say that nevertheless I loved it.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

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 bursting – section entitled “Miserable Childhoods”. Assenting to the basic tenet of market capitalism, supply conforming to demand, it can only be assumed that a not insubstantial proportion of offspring wish to pay tribute to their mother’s nurturing skills by presenting her 500 odd pages detailing the desolation which can be wreaked on a child.

Of course the reason that so many books detailing miserable childhoods are published is because people read them. Over at Comment Is Free, Libby Brooks asks why authenticity is so important to readers and why there is an insistence that such stories are memoirs rather than fiction. Misery memoirs, whether concerned with childhood or not, have been subject to allegations of embellishment and have even been exposed as entirely manufactured. Brooks mentions James Frey’s addiction ‘memoir’ A Million Little Pieces and Margaret Seltzer, whose book about a drug-running mixed race child was exposed as fiction. I recall controversy concerning the authenticity of Frank McCourt’s books and the storm of protest issuing from Limerick in particular when Angela’s Ashes became popular. Brooks argues that ‘all writing is creative’ and the veracity of these books is not an issue if they are written well and point to a more universal truth.

I wonder why exactly these books have become so popular at all. That some people who have undergone terrible experiences have turned these into successful books does not surprise me, but I wonder what it says about readers that there is such a voracious appetite for misery. Reading a book is not a passive experience like watching television or a film, nor is it a short-lived experience such as reading a newspaper article. When you read a book, you spend a substantial amount of time with that book. You build a relationship with it and develop an emotional connection with its narrative. What motivates people to spend so much time immersed in the unpleasant experiences of others?

In Libby Brook’s article she suggests that “proxy maundering is [being] mistaken for emotional literacy”. This proxy maundering can sometimes be fairly indistinguishable from lurid fascination. The content of these childhood memoirs seems to be disproportionately concerned with physical, psychological and sexual abuse. For me it is sufficient to know that these things occur and perhaps to hear of their occurrence on news bulletins. I appreciate that they are hugely damaging and I understand that it is imperative to attempt to stop such things. I do not need to immerse myself in the worlds of successive victims and nor frankly do I want to. If a book is exceptional it may illuminate, educate and enlighten in a way that enriches the reader, but the sheer proliferation of these titles makes me sceptical as to their quality.

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.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Labour / SF cosiness only affirms Trimble's importance

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 McGuinness does not believe the Bloody Sunday enquiry was a necessary concession to bring republicans on board.

There has been little in the extracts which I have read that will cause a dramatic re-appraisal of the run up to the Agreement. Peter Mandelson and others have long contended that unnecessary concessions were made to republicans in Tony Blair’s eagerness to secure a deal. There is a great deal of incidental detail recording the warm relations which developed between Powell, Blair and the various republicans. Once more, this is hardly an astounding revelation. With the exception of Mandelson, the relationship between Blair’s government and Sinn Féin has been consistently touchy feely.

To my mind the process which Powell outlines in his book reinforces the important role that the UUP played in re-focussing attention on unionism. In a process that was largely taking place between Blair’s government and SF / IRA, David Trimble managed to crowbar open a pivotal space for unionism, and from that position shape a deal which addressed unionist concerns.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

The Agreement ten years on

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 was based on a conviction that something needed to be done to ensure a brighter future for Northern Ireland. I believed that the deal brokered on behalf of unionism by David Trimble, did not weaken the Union one iota and that although concessions to Sinn Féin were unpalatable, ultimately they were a price worth paying. I still largely believe that this judgment was sound, although I am embarrassed to admit that I did not pay much heed to the constitutional niceties dealing with how devolved government here would actually function.

With the luxury of ten years hindsight, those initial symbolic sticking points for unionism assume a less insurmountable complexion. Kane argues correctly that reform of the RUC and prisoner releases were inevitabilities with or without the assent of unionists. David Trimble was astute enough to realise this at an early stage and to make his paramount aim the constitutional matter of shoring up the Union. Rather than the abolition of the RUC and the release of prisoners on licence occurring with unionists looking on impotently, Trimble managed to use these issues as levers in order to secure a better deal for unionism. Of course by railing against these concessions the DUP were eventually to destroy Trimble, all the better to agree to the substance of his deal later. But that does not mean that the UUP’s course was not both correct and courageous.

Similarly decommissioning was an issue which attained much greater symbolic significance than it substantively merited. Handing in a quantity of weapons did not in any meaningful way signal a change in republican strategy. Those changes occurred many years before. Decommissioning has not made Northern Ireland any more or less peaceful than it was before those symbolic gestures were made. All major parties in Northern Ireland have subsequently accepted that Sinn Féin should be included in power sharing whilst they are the biggest nationalist party. All the DUP rhetoric about ‘generations’ having to pass dissolved when they assumed the leadership of unionism.

So ten years on from the Good Friday Agreement, much to the commentator’s credit, the objection which Kane had to overcome in 1998 is the greatest weakness in the current arrangements in place today. Four parties are forced into a mandatory coalition and are expected to assume collective responsibility for the actions of the Executive. This arrangement results in either deadlock, or measures being forced through despite the objections of smaller parties who are nevertheless then implicated in decisions they disagree with. This situation is anti-democratic and lends itself to bad government. It also tends to perpetuate the sectarian divisions inherent in our politics and stifles the possibility of interests being politically reflected along alternative lines as normality asserts itself.

In the early days of the Assembly when attempts were being made to shore up a fragile edifice, susceptible to challenge and liable to collapse at any moment, asking all parties to share power made a degree of sense. In 2008 this is no longer the case. Northern Ireland is relatively peaceful and widespread violence is unlikely to re-emerge. The Assembly is well established and the lack of opposition is only serving to hinder effective government.

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. Cup semi-final at Wembley as a pivotal part of Cardiff City’s high-flying Championship side and Ivan Sproule continues to impress at Bristol City. Each of these players has a far sounder case for inclusion and plays at a far higher level than the Linfield triumvirate. This is a shameful decision. For the first time since I first attended a Northern Ireland game in 1985 I wonder whether I actually want to be at Windsor Park next week at all.

Friday, 14 March 2008

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 mouths of those who oppose the Maze. He distils the entire argument against the Maze, which has involved supporters and politicians interested in all three sports, into the following phrase “Unionists want what they call a ‘national’ stadium, though of what nation they can’t say, but more importantly one that they own. They can’t own one if they have to share it with fenians prancing about in it”.

Brian Feeney hasn’t really been following the debate over the Maze stadium, has he? He does not understand that the principle of sharing a facility between the three sports has been accepted by all sides, but that the issue is location. Certainly this has fomented arguments that separate accommodation can be found, but at no stage has there been any substantial attempt to argue that GAA cannot be accommodated at a shared stadium in Belfast if one was forthcoming. Sharing a stadium with GAA is not an issue for football supporters, neither is it an issue for rugby supporters and I seriously doubt it is an issue for the vast majority of unionists. For all three groups (and for those who belong to two or more of those categroies), as well as a substantial number of GAA supporters, building a white elephant in the middle of nowhere, which will not provide a good atmosphere for any sport is an issue.

More to the point, how dare Feeney project casually such bigotry on unionists, without any evidence and in such emotive terms? The rest of his article, if you can bear to read it, is an attempt to imply that that whole area of arts and culture is anathema to unionists. Yes, he is trotting out that lazy, fallacious cliché! This is bigotry of a very basic and obvious character. Every time you think there is no place lower for Feeney to crawl, he prostrates himself on his belly and slithers to a new low.

Twin nationalisms carve-up assumes a physical and administrative shape

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 this contention, but the DUP have been won over to 11 councils, just in time to avoid local elections which were due next year.

The 11 council plans do not maximise efficiency, but neither do they avoid a sectarian carve-up. This compromise actually delivers the worst of both worlds. Northern Ireland will now be divided very clearly between a nationalist west and a unionist east, with all the difficulties for minorities that that entails. Belfast, meanwhile, has been gerrymandered in favour of Sinn Féin. The four Westminster constituencies which comprise the city in any sane observer’s eyes will not be used to determine the new city boundaries. Instead swathes of Castlereagh, well within the city’s ring-road and serviced regularly by city service buses will become part of Lisburn. Preposterously Newtownabbey will form a council with Antrim.

These arrangements make no administrative sense, nor do they reflect the conception of residents as to where they live. Any resident of Castlereagh or Newtownabbey will identify themselves as living in Belfast, rather than in Lisburn or Antrim. The bizarre redrawing of Lisburn’s boundaries to justify its city status is already an illogical aberration. The fact is that Belfast has been gerrymandered in order to satisfy the demands of Sinn Féin. Northern Ireland’s largest city has become another bargaining chip in the constant game of horse trading between these two abominable parties.

Thursday, 13 March 2008

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’s.

Goldsmith’s suggestions are aimed at fostering a greater sense of belonging within the United Kingdom. He is exploring methods whereby peoples of various nationalities and origins can coalesce around a common core which identifies them as British. The review which he has produced to this end is a fairly piecemeal approach to the issue. Common sense suggestions, such as providing extra funding for immigrants to learn English, flounder amongst the type of headline catching, but ultimately fatuous, ideas that commissioning such reviews tends to produce. These ideas are a self-justifying confection which unconsciously or otherwise seeks to rationalise the expenditure required to produce the report / review. Thus we have the suggestion that children should pass through a citizenship ceremony when they leave school, or the idea that a British Day should be instigated as a public holiday.

As someone who believes that Britain and Ireland are intrinsically linked by both history and culture, like Ciarán I would regret any moves to diminish the acknowledgment of that relatedness. Instinctively I feel that emphasising the common links between Britain and Ireland is a more constructive pursuit than underlining distinctions between the two islands or the two polities within them. It is vitally important also, that in the quest to define and shape a sense of British identity, we do not forge a narrower understanding of that identity. The strength of Britishness is that it is not a brittle or prescriptive in the way that some national identities can easily become. It would be deeply regrettable if an instinct to be seen to be “doing something” and an excess of national navel gazing were to change this for the worse.

'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.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

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

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 it took from fans prior to matches, this caused a great deal of resentment.

It's the excitement of a packed bar before kick-off which led to my affection for the place. On those early visits the pub seemed both huge and dangerously full. We would push our way through a mass of bodies to the bar where two people would join the sweaty scrum waving bank-notes at the staff.

Pints secured the heave resumed, usually leading to the back of the pub and hopefully a little nook or cranny with some spare elbow room. Familiar faces would shout out greetings as they bludgeoned through the crowd and as kick-off approached songs would be struck up. I remember poring over newly developed photos from away trips, concluded a few days before, or dissecting a copy of the fanzine.

That memorable night when Northern Ireland defeated England, I visited the pub both before and after the match. The only standing room available that night was outside on the street and after the game the Lisburn Road looked more like Buenos Aires. A group of us stood at the corner outside the bar with plastic glasses and watched a cavalcade of cars hooting their horns and flying scarves and flags out their windows. It was very different on nights such as the Wednesday Northern Ireland lost 1-0 to Armenia. Initially I was so depressed I went home immediately, to watch Teachers, but my friends coaxed me out and we huddled in Hunters hugely dispirited after that match.

Another occasion which sticks in my memory epitomised the dark pre-Sanchez days, following Northern Ireland. It was in Hunters that we learned a death threat had been made against our captain Neil Lennon and that he would not lead out the team against Cyprus that night. The atmosphere in the pub was bemused, depressed and angry. Who had done such a thing? Other times when Northern Ireland suffered defeats Hunters offered some light relief. After a defeat against Canada a mate split his trousers performing a dance-routine to Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean.

In truth, the pub could seem empty and dead when there wasn’t a match on. Its size was a problem on those occasions, when a solo drinker might share it with a senescent escapee from Toal's, intently studying a copy of the Sporting Life. If you wished, you could find a darkened corner where you needn't see another soul until it became time to seek out another pint.

In many ways, though, that was also the place’s attraction. It was an unpretentious pub and even in the evening you were likely to find a seat and get a drink at the bar without having to wait. There would even be a degree of peace, unless a graveyard slot DJ from Downtown Radio arrived to compère the weekly quiz.

Yet the quietness of Hunters also contributed to its downfall, because the pub has been through several ownerships and has suffered a number of makeovers since its 'heyday'. The essence of the bar has never been entirely lost, but neither has any refit or re-launch improved it.  Something of the original is always diluted or lost.

 Throughout these changes, though, the character of the clientèle has remained more or less the same. I can only assume that like me, they continue to return despite the alterations rather than because of them.

When I visited Hunters at first, it was a large city pub extending over two floors and several levels. The décor was basic. It was pub-like. Hunters looked like a pub.

The fittings were wooden and unpretentious, the floor was wooden and unpretentious and the seating was upholstered, green and unpretentious. The place was large enough that drastically different groups could easily happily coexist in not so close proximity. The students sitting in the window alcoves would not bother a set of spides bickering over who owed what to whom in a game of pool upstairs.

Then the owners decided that it was necessary to rip out the stairs, sunder top from bottom and classify the former a nightclub. Hunters subsequently became known as Vaughans at some point during the late 1990s. No-one actually referred to it as Vaughans, but Vaughans its owners insisted on calling it nonetheless.  And to this effect they erected a large gold coloured V over the entrance.

The pub closed for a spell last year and, despite rumours that it was to make way for yet another block of apartments, it instead re-opened as plain old Hunters and happily reintroduced the stairs. The bar was an indivisible whole once again (that’s whole with a w!). Prior to the match against Denmark it was just like old times, the pub heaving over both its floors.

On Friday night however, as I contemplated a quick pint, I noticed that the windows were unaccountably blacked out. When I attempted to enter, a bouncer informed me that the pub was not yet open, which was a surprise at 7.30pm. Three quarters of an hour later, walking past the bar again, I noted with some dismay that Hunters was being attacked by a troupe of circus performers, that it had acquired a smart car covered with advertising and that it was re-opening (yet again) under the misapprehension that it is actually called Deez. Yes, that is Deez with a Z!

Putting this down to either hallucination or bad dream, I arranged to watch Liverpool’s tie with Inter Milan at Hunters last night. Horrifyingly the pub is indeed now being styled Deez, boasts a gaudy yellow logo and is urging its customers to ‘Eat, Drink, Dance’. Two of these we all do anyway, if we are to stay alive, and the third is not something any sane person does in Hunters.

Of course the patrons last night were there to watch football. They were the same type of people who might have attended the pub at any point in its existence. They happily watched the game on the pub’s many screens and then left immediately when football gave way to a “fancy dress” night and the sound track switched from Martin Tyler to a collection of cheesy house music. The peak of my disillusionment came when I discovered that the bar now has a toilet attendant to help me dry my hands after I urinate.

As you will see from the link to Hunters’ Bebo site, the pub has decided to implement a few other image changes, a bit like a teenager who has gone to university and decided to present a new persona to the world, . Hunters is now calling itself Deez, styling itself a ‘600 capacity venue’ (as opposed to a pub) and it speaks very poor quality English in the first person.

But like the teenager who pretends he is something he is not, Hunters' past will catch up with it. It is a plain, simple pub and it always will be.

Two bemused old locals were sipping pints of Harp last night and looking slightly alarmed as Scooter began to blare over the speakers. They've survived all the incarnations Hunters can throw at them and have no intention of being replaced by clubbers at ‘Shake’ or student nurses.

Hunters has never prospered as a club or 'entertainment venue' and it never will. My message to the owners is that it should stop trying. Let Hunters do what it does well, serve pints, screen sport and at a stretch prepare snacks for customers.

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

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 pragmatism gave him an instant grasp of realities for unionists after the Anglo Irish Agreement and effectively his failure to move beyond assent for Paisley’s position denotes both a lack of leadership and a reluctance to put principle ahead of his own political advancement. All the reasons for Paisley and the DUP attracting increased opprobrium from the unionist electorate will remain prescient under Robinson; indeed he embodies the characteristics of the party’s leadership which are beginning to rankle with both its grassroots members and the public at large.

Apart from the culpability of Robinson and involvement in everything that was disingenuous and destructive in the DUP’s policy. Kane is right to question the process whereby a new leader is likely to be selected. Indications are that the decision will be reached from within the party’s Assembly Group rather than through consultation with its membership. Given the allegations of cronyism and nepotism which have hastened Paisley’s departure it seems scarcely believable that this elitist form of selection will prevail. The DUP are about to select their first leader since 1971 and their own members are not to be consulted. The centralist instincts of the party have on occasion been their strength, but as their grass-roots become disaffected with the leadership cabal, then those same instincts can be disabling.

Torres in form but my agonies will persist

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 would pay dividends. And despite all the extra years I have spent watching the Anfield reds, it has to be said that she was right. Eighty minutes I spent writhing and moaning like a heroin addict in withdrawal, ten minutes I spent jumping around the living room with delight.

In my defence Liverpool went into that night’s match fresh from an appalling F.A. Cup defeat at home to Barnsley. Since that game they have completed five straight victories and go into tonight’s away leg against Inter as favourites to progress to the quarter finals. Nevertheless you will not be surprised to learn that I am nervous about the match. Inter Milan are currently romping away with Serie A and their squad is stacked with the type of highly rated personnel to which Liverpool aspire.

Certainly Rafa Benitez tactics for European games are rarely wrong and there is ample precedent to show that Liverpool can travel to difficult venues and defend heroically. Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard are meanwhile in a rich vein of goalscoring form. But Liverpool have been so mercurial this season and have delivered so many disappointing performances, that it would be folly to go into this match with too much confidence. Even in Europe there have been intolerably poor displays. Losing against an appalling Besiktas outfit springs to mind.

Then there are the auguries and portents. In the 1965 European Cup semi final Inter Milan overturned a 2 goal first leg deficit inflicted at Anfield and denied Bill Shankly’s team the chance to become Britain’s first Champions of Europe. The very overconfidence of the English media, who have assumed their normal habit of self-satisfied crowing after Arsenal’s victory in Milan last week, can often presage a defeat. If Liverpool were not the English representatives tonight I would perhaps be urging on the Italians.

I can only hope that I am proved wrong once again. Removing the figurative egg from my yokey visage will be only a pleasure.

Monday, 10 March 2008

Did Enoch Powell entrench multiculturalism?

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, suggesting that his experiences of a segregated society there made him particularly averse to something similar occurring in Britain. There was a great deal of pragmatism inherent in the timing of Powell’s address however. He had hidden his thoughts on the issue of immigration from his colleagues in the Shadow Cabinet until delivering the speech and it was intended to be a very stark challenge to the authority of Edward Heath, who was then leader of the Conservative Party.

A central theme of the film was the contention that Powell’s speech, rather than checking the advance of multiculturalism, actually had the opposite effect. After the incendiary effect of his words throughout working class England became evident, liberal forces galvanised and entrenched multiculturalism through legislation to counter racism and grant money made available to immigrant communities. “Everybody became ethnic” as one contributor to the programme wryly observed.

This film was an interesting treatment of a fascinating man. The lasting impression it left was that whilst Powell was entitled to raise concerns about immigration, the inflammatory fashion in which he chose to do so was ultimately ill-advised and damaging to his career.

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 party as family or club which the members chose seeking the greatest sense of belonging. Although it is commendable that the DUP is making young members feel valued, I suspect that these particular representantives' decisions to join were more likely extensions of felt community affiliations than the culminations of considered and thoughtful political processes.

The author Glenn Patterson and the playwright Gary Mitchell then discussed Paisley’s career and the impact of his downfall from different ends of the unionist spectrum. Mitchell’s comments betrayed atavistic fear from a community that sees itself as rudderless and to some extent has lost a leader. Patterson was quick to contend that Paisley was far from unambiguously a representative of the loyalist working class. The social component of the DUP’s policy has dwindled to non-existence from the party’s foundation.

The tendency of Paisley to set himself up as the antithesis of “big house unionism”, epitomised in the 1960 and 1970s by Terrence O’Neill and Chichester Clark, was simply a tactical ploy. The DUP were just as inclined to divert the attentions of working class loyalists away from social concerns toward the atavistic politics of sectarianism as was ever the case with the more cynical attempts of the UUP to undermine the Northern Ireland Labour Party in the 1950s.

Patterson provided a more prescient analysis of the 10 months of devolved government which has followed last May. He was dismissive of the notion that work had actually been achieved and described the type of glad-handing between Paisley and McGuinness which has so rankled with many people, as ‘Hello politics’. Devolved government had already operated here and Paisley opposed it tooth and nail. Patterson’s predictions for the year ahead were gloomy.

Friday, 7 March 2008

Because the principle of consent has consequences

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 their antics in the council premises of Limavady or Banbridge are any indication. Expect Wikipedia to receive a deluge of hits from the computers in SF’s offices as attempts are made to establish how ‘offensive’ various items actually are. The republican argument is that their culture must also be represented in Stormont if unionist symbols are to be allowed. The Good Friday Agreement is frequently invoked to this effect.

Of course the GFA is concerned with respect being accorded to British and Irish identities. Most unionists would have little difficulty in acknowledging Irish culture in Stormont – harps, shamrocks and other symbols of Ireland, indeed some allusion to the Irish Language or portraits of constitutional nationalist politicians would be appropriate.

It would not be appropriate to erect symbols of violent terrorism or to recognise a culture which sanctifies murderers, at Stormont. That was not the intention of the Good Friday Agreement and no amount of Sinn Fein revisionism will make it otherwise. Similarly, the stark fact is that some unionist symbols must be given priority over their nationalist equivalents, simply because Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom.

If nationalists see symbols which represent Northern Ireland’s constitutional status as part of the UK as unionist I am afraid they will simply have to put up with those symbols until such a time as Northern Ireland is no longer part of the UK. Irish symbols are appropriate at Stormont and other publics buildings, symbols of the Republic of Ireland are not.

Sinn Fein know that their campaign of terror will never be legitimate in the eyes of most reasonable people in Northern Ireland and their attempts to present veneration for this campaign as a form of cultural expression is merely subterfuge to attack symbols which represent Northern Ireland’s place in the UK. But Sinn Fein has signed up to the principle of consent and they must accept the logical consequences of this.

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 of young people like myself". It was almost a thank you. It was sickening.”

Sickening indeed. Following Northern Ireland’s politics there’s a lot to find sickening and much of it come from these two men and their parties. Jenkins evokes Paisley’s religious fanaticism and bigotry, lucidly capturing some of his most famous anti-Catholic utterances. It is careless however to ascribe Paisley’s existence to ‘post-colonial partition’ which Britain tends to ‘do badly’. There is no consensus on ascribing to British rule of Ireland the term ‘colony’ and it is an unhelpfully counter-factual assertion to claim Paisley’s extremism derived from partition. The colonial model does not fit Ireland snugly; the truth was more complicated and there is sufficient evidence to argue that the seeds of partition were sown long before 1921 and made it an inevitability, not merely an arbitrary and unnatural decision of the British government.

Neither is it historical to claim that unionist politicians acknowledged reform was needed only in the 1970s and 1980s. O’Neill and Brookeborough had already made allusions to the requirement to reform and indeed throughout the existence of the Northern Ireland state, there were those within unionism who argued that nationalism would best be countered by making the state more inclusive. The simple statement that Catholics were ‘persecuted’ is in itself contentious. When Jenkins casually puts David Trimble in a lineage of progressive unionist leaders who opposed ‘persecution’ he is being disingenuous. Even if we accept the term to describe some elements of discrimination which did occur within the Northern Irish state, by the time Trimble was working to reach an agreement with nationalism, nothing analogous to this term meaningfully existed.

There follows another lazy piece of historical generalisation in the next paragraph in which Jenkins describes Catholics being ‘driven into the arms of IRA gangs’. Firstly only a small number of Catholics joined the IRA and these people were certainly not ‘driven into the arms’ of anyone. Jenkins is trying to move his narrative on in a relatively short article, but such rash assertions are not helpful.

The substance of the article is however retrieved and Jenkins summation of Paisley’s relationship with loyalist terrorism is telling:

“While Paisley claimed to reject violence, his bloodthirsty language laundered the brutality of the loyalist paramilitaries.”

Paisley’s incendiary tirades would consistently foment violence and destruction from which he would then quickly dissociate himself. A pattern which was to recur time and time again.

Jenkins has now found his stride:

“Between them Adams and Paisley made Northern Ireland ungovernable and brought death, destruction and untold misery to tens of thousands of their countrymen. They offered no leadership towards compromise and undermined those who did by pandering to the baser instincts and fears of their supporters. They were the Taliban of Europe, operating in their equivalent of Tora Bora, the fields of South Armagh and the Orange Order halls of the Shankill. The death toll rose to 3,500.
Adams and his collaborator, Martin McGuinness, destroyed Hume's SDLP, and Paisley's histrionic fundamentalism destroyed Trimble's unionism.”
“These men eventually eliminated moderate leaders so they could claim moderation for themselves. They smashed power-sharing so they could share power between themselves. They now pretend that change could not have been faster because the people would not let them. The climate of public opinion in the province was not ready.
That is a lie. These men were the climate, and it was one of systematic bigotry and violence”

Jenkins beautifully articulates the anger of moderate and thoughtful people as they survey the sectarian carve-up which now pertains. His analysis of Tony Blair’s contribution to the peace process is penetrating:

“Tony Blair cleared from the battlefield the moderate clutter of Hume and Trimble so that Adams and Paisley could see the whites of each other's eyes”

“Blair's prisoner release turned more terrorists and gangsters on to the streets of Britain than anything in modern history. By pandering to extremism it destroyed the electoral bases of both Hume and Trimble. It rewarded Adams for his negotiating cunning and Paisley for his intransigence. The spoils of violence were recouped by the men who had opposed peace.”

Simon Jenkins article is extremely good on recent history, but in providing a broad-brush gloss on more distant events he perhaps undermines some of the arguments which he then articulates which startling accuracy.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

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?

Glancing at the political obituaries which have followed the announcement of Ian Paisley’s imminent 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 abusive. Additionally it was extremely damaging to unionism. Paisley’s routing of Trimble was the culmination of a process whereby Paisley’s oppositionism destroyed successive opponents until figuratively he became the last man standing and there was no party left to do the deal, which he had spent his life opposing, other than his own. Paisley’s crowning achievement became the epitome of cynical pragmatism and hypocrisy.

Paisley’s campaign of vilification left Trimble a reviled figure amongst many unionists, forced to limp from Northern Irish politics to the Tory benches of the House of Lords. In many ways the UUP leader was the antithesis of Paisley, thoughtful and reserved (despite his famous temper) where Paisley was blustering and effusive. There is sweet irony in the fact that Paisley’s travails have partly been caused by the very effusiveness which made him a more charismatic character than Trimble. It stuck in unionist gullets to see Paisley glad-handing in expansive fashion with those in Sinn Fein who were responsible for murder and mayhem. It would have been unthinkable for Trimble to have acted in such a fashion.

Perhaps it is therefore a propitious moment for unionists to re-evaluate Trimble’s contribution and contemplate the ironies of his demise. It is my opinion that Trimble is long overdue his rehabilitation given the poison the DUP reserved for a man they termed with characteristic abusiveness ‘the purple turtle’. Whatever his faults, it was Trimble who began to assemble a modern and thoughtful unionist edifice to present to a world which viewed unionist politics as reactionary and anachronistic. And in many ways Trimble DID shift mindsets from a preoccupation with reaction and defence to a more constructive and progressive frame of reference. Under Trimble’s leadership unionism began to set the agenda rather than merely responding to it.

Trimble’s weaknesses were in failing sufficiently to sell his deal to unionists and in being excessively trustful of Tony Blair. Nevertheless the Good Friday Agreement was an excellent deal for unionists. Trimble’s academic eye for constitutional law enabled him to copperfasten the Union and roll back the most perfidious aspects of the Anglo Irish Agreement. The symbolic concessions this required were hard for many to stomach, but Trimble put the Union first and in this respect his unionism was impeccable.

The unpopularity which Trimble suffered subsequently cannot be separated from the vicious campaign which Paisley led against him. As the First Minister is forced to step down and his duplicity becomes more widely acknowledged it is necessary for unionists to re-examine the opprobrium they heaped on a former unionist leader’s head at Paisley’s behest.

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.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Irish Freedom by Richard English

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 develop from the ideas of Rousseau and the French Revolution but acknowledging that there are continuities and elements of proto-nationalism on which modern nationalisms also draw. He argues that three common characteristics can be observed in nationalist movements – community, struggle and power. The first characteristic is shaped by a series of sub-strands – culture, history, ethics, perceived common origin, exlusiveness and so on.

English is rigorous in applying his theoretical constructs to the Irish model throughout his book. He challenges the notion that there is a single original Gaelic or Irish race and points out that historians are often at odds with nationalist arguments which are frequently framed in the context of a single historical narrative for their perceived nation. The author charts the development of an Irish proto-nationalist consciousness from the arrival in Ireland of Strongbow in 1170. It was from this point that meaningful elements of what English describes as the “proto-nation” can perhaps begin to be detected.

The reformation provided a more concrete impetus for Benedict Anderson’s “imagined community” to develop in Ireland. Protestantism’s failure on this island allowed Catholicism to become entwined with a sense of being more authentically ‘Irish’. Ironically the leaders of the first identifiable Irish nationalist movement in the modern sense, the United Irishmen, were mainly Protestant and drew on the revolutionary ideas of Rousseau and Thomas Paine. However the 1798 rebellion soon assumed sectarian overtones in its execution and English is lucid in demonstrating that although attempts were often made to separate Catholicism and nationalism, the connection was strong and Catholicism has powerfully shaped nationalism right through to the present.

Indeed Catholic Emancipation was the theme of early 19th century nationalism under the leadership of Daniel O’Connell. O’Connell’s subsequent anti-repeal campaign fed into a tradition of constitutional nationalism which offered an alternative, even though its attitude toward more violent forms of struggle was often ambivalent. English raises the possibility, for example, that Parnell may have been sworn into the IRB. The more violent tradition is also traced from the United Irishmen, to Young Ireland, the IRB and then to the IRA from 1916 onwards.

English subsequently examines the Catholic Gaelic autarky of de Valera’s Ireland and the continuance of the exclusivist, violent tradition practised by the Provisional IRA in Northern Ireland. He is careful frequently to test the empirical evidence against his hypothesis that nationalism is composed of a synthesis between community, struggle and the quest for (or consolidation of) power.

His book is a scholarly and thorough treatment of the subject. He exposes the fallacy of the notion of an authentic Irish people with Catholic and Gaelic roots, but acknowledges nevertheless that there is a long and explicable tradition of Irish distinctiveness. The ironies in his book are the ironies of Irish nationalism itself. The central role which England played in providing an other against which nationalism defined itself for example, whilst simultaneously it was England who in many ways brought Catholicism to Ireland and imported many of the intellectual ideas which were to stimulate nationalism. Neither is he afraid to examine the internal contradictions of nationalism whereby one group is declared a nation and presumed to have the right to self-determination, whereas the nationalist will decline to extend that right to a minority within his notional territory.

This is an impressive book that demonstrates Irish nationalism should not be viewed in splendid isolation, but should be examined within the larger global proliferation of nationalist ideas. It is an aberration to view nationalism within Ireland as a largely progressive force, whilst adjudging it as illiberal in other contexts.

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 enable nationalists to feel more included in the Northern Irish state. He contributed nothing toward the process of achieving peace, but then performed an astonishing about face in order to acquire power. Northern Ireland does not owe anything to Paisley and in particular unionism does not owe anything to a figure who only divided weakened and undermined it at every turn.

Whilst nationalists who attempt to lay the blame for the Troubles solely at Paisley’s door are clearly not being either honest or accurate, undoubtedly he inflamed the situation and played a significant contributing role in creating a place where violence flourished. Seamus Mallon quoted Malvern Street murderer Hugh Arnold McClean on Radio Ulster this morning "I am sorry I ever heard of that man Paisley or decided to follow him". Mallon correctly identified Paisley’s primary driver as a lust for power. And it is that lust for power which makes him an irredeemable figure. Not only was Paisley’s influence poisonous, but his venom ultimately proved not to be principled poison. He was prepared to simply jettison all his supposed beliefs when presented with the opportunity to assume power.

I cannot in all conscience wish Ian Paisley an enjoyable retirement. I hope he is plagued by guilt and regret for the course he chose to follow and the damage which his selfishness left in his wake. I hope this loathsome man does not choose to meddle in politics from the sidelines and that his retirement is a quiet and private one.

Inevitably when Reg Empey was interviewed this morning the spectre of a united unionist party raised its ugly head again. Henry McDonald yesterday examined the travails of the Paisley dynasty on the Guardian’s politics blog and in so doing also raised an issue which has remained dormant on this site for a number of months. I was heartened by Sir Reg’s answer. He maintained that a united unionist party would exacerbate the sectarian headcount aspect of Northern Irish politics. Unionism must remain reflective of the wide spectrum of opinion it represents and not present itself simply as an ethno-religious group.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Accept the offer and go!

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 footing. I was dismayed when the board favoured Gillett and Hicks bid, but like other fans, I was also prepared to suspend judgment until the pair had stamped their style of leadership on the club. When Fernando Torres arrived at Anfield it appeared that the Americans might offer the financial muscle to allow Liverpool to compete at the highest level.

Clearly these hopeful beginnings now seem a long time ago. A divided duopoly, saddling the club with repayments on their own investment and displaying a style of ownership unsympathetic to the club’s traditions, are simply not the hands in which the world’s greatest club should lie. DIC will eliminate the club’s debt and will show strength of purpose in growing their investment. Whilst ideally the club would re-enter local ownership, realistically the Share Liverpool scheme is not going to achieve its aims.

DIC offer the best hope for stable and sympathetic ownership at this moment in time. If the football club is going to be run as a business, at least it should be run as a good one. I wholeheartedly hope that Gillett and particularly Tom Hicks see sense tonight and accept DIC’s £400m offer. They will walk away with a handsome profit, which is more than they deserve from their brief tenure at the club.