Wednesday, 30 April 2008

IFA in invitational league chaos

The blog you’re about to read deals with something I know very little about. "Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose", mutter regular readers. On this occasion I have an excuse for ignorance though, as my chosen topic is the Irish Football Association’s planned invitational league. You see, the IFA itself has yet to actually decide the format next season’s senior domestic league will assume, despite the fact that it will kick off in less than four months time.

This would be rather astonishing in any other UEFA jurisdiction, but in Northern Ireland it has barely raised an eyebrow, because frankly we are accustomed to bungling and confusion from our governing body. They have announced a broad intention that there should be 12 teams in the new league and that those teams will be selected from a group of 14 which have been granted ‘domestic licences’ by the IFA. Otherwise the details are sketchy and have not yet been finalised.

A clue as to the league’s composition came on 23 April when the fourteen licences were granted, in typical IFA fashion after the initial stadium criteria needed to secure them had been dropped. Three current Irish Premier League teams failed to gain a licence – these teams were Larne, Limavady and Armagh. Alongside Institute these three teams finished outside the top 12 this season, although the IFA maintain that the criteria for granting a licence are financial, coaching and stadium based (although this requirement was waived this year), and not determined by achievement on the field or geographical location. The top 12 IPL teams gained licences, as did Institute and First Division Bangor.

It has not yet been determined whether the final twelve teams will be invited by reference to their final positions in this season’s league table (which would be a relatively simple and logical solution) or whether different criteria will be applied to differentiate between them. Donegal Celtic reached the Premier League in 2005-2006 after Omagh Town went out of business and were heralded in some quarters as successors to the famous old club Belfast Celtic, which dissolved in 1949. The erroneous idea that Celtic are ‘good for the Irish League’ seemed to secure them a licence despite their lack of infrastructure. A similar misapprehension exists that the league ‘needs’ a team from Northern Ireland’s second city. It will be interesting to see whether Institute are crow-barred into the league in order to satisfy the idea that the league must have a team from Derry.

To add to the confusion, a team which the league does actually ‘need’ have put their inclusion in doubt by submitting a late application to be part of the new league. In the recent past, Portadown have a record on the pitch only eclipsed by Belfast’s Big Two of Glentoran and Linfield. In relative terms they have a large support and in addition are currently extensively refurbishing their ground. Now it seems that participation in senior football next year is by no means assured. Portadown are citing traffic delays as the reason for late submission and a decision is likely to be made today.

Other uncertainties hang over the new set up. It remains undecided whether automatic promotion and relegation will operate from the revamped second tier. This may well be dependent on the successful club(s) holding a licence. Will these licences be achievable? Will ground criteria be applied despite the IFA’s history of waiving such criteria? There are UEFA edicts demanding promotion and relegation as part of a league set-up if that league is to proffer qualification to European competition. How will the new league be formatted? It is suggested that 22 games would be too little if teams were to compete only home and away. Likewise, with Setanta commitments, 44 games would more than likely be too many. Splitting the league into two for the concluding months of the season has been suggested, but this system is unwieldy and yields a great many matches of little significance.

Already the invitational league has diminished local football by contriving to deny Larne a licence whilst DC and Institute have gained theirs. I don’t trust the IFA to implement their plans in a logical fashion or to instigate a system which is beneficial to all the league's clubs. Jack Grundie, a Linfield Trustee, has predictably been appointed chairman of the league and whatever format the IFA choose will doubtless follow the template his club favour.

Update: It looks like Portadown will not be in the new league after all. It will kick off without one of Northern Ireland's leading clubs. The Ports will appeal the decision.

Monday, 28 April 2008

They may be nationalist separatists, but they're our nationalist separatists

When the US, UK and others assented to the dismemberment of Serbia along ethno-nationalist lines, there was an expectation that separatist movements throughout Europe and beyond would garner encouragement. Two autonomous republics of Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, that are de facto independent from the authorities in Tbilisi, were said to be amongst those which might take the opportunity to make their own unilateral declarations of independence.

These regions of the Caucasus did not assent to Georgia’s own claims of independence, asserted as the USSR split up in 1991. Majorities in both regions claim close allegiance to Moscow. In 2006 80% of Abkhazians had taken Russian citizenship. When Russia objected to Kosovo’s declaration of sovereignty being recognised, and was ignored, the temptation to further underpin pro-Russian breakaway republics elsewhere was inevitably going to be strong.

So it has proved. Vladimir Putin recently urged his government to consolidate ties with the authorities in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The latter has also become the subject of allegations traded between Tbilisi and Moscow as tensions escalate following Putin’s statement. Georgia objects to the presence of Russian ‘peacemakers’ in Abkhazia, much as Serbia takes exception to foreign NATO troops occupying territory within its borders.

The US is explicitly backing Georgia and views Russian ties to the Abkhazian regime as an incitement to separatists. On this occasion the Americans may be correct, but their criticism of Russia lacks any moral authority after the Kosovo episode. If Kosovo’s independence can be justified with recourse to arguments of self-determination, then why should the same criteria not apply to the Abkhaz or Ossetians?

Wright leaves Sky Blues rudderless

In May 1989, still some six months before the Berlin Wall fell, Ballymena United lifted the Irish Cup at the Oval in Belfast, Paul Hardy’s back heel accounting for Larne in the final. The Braidmen have not lifted a senior trophy since and on Saturday another manager announced his departure from the club.

Like all his predecessors since Alex McKee masterminded the cup win, Tommy Wright’s tenure at the club has ended in failure. The big ex-goalkeeper has been in charge for three seasons having previously enjoyed comparative success as manager of Limavady United. Although he cites personal concerns amongst the reasons for his resignation, the tenor betrays a disappointment with results and the conviction that he has taken the Sky Blues as far as he could.

Wright traces his disillusion to the end of February. Around Christmas Ballymena had strung together a fine run of wins and threatened to mount credible campaigns in the Irish Cup and in the league, where a strong finish might have secured Setanta Cup qualification. This threat turned out to be illusory as the side slumped back to the kind of form they had shown previously.

Wright’s departure will cause a degree of unhelpful disruption, but it may also hasten the departure of several players who are manifestly not good enough to bring the club trophies. There is no obvious replacement for the manager, although reserve manager David Dorrian has tasted title success with the second string and the Ballymena board are said to be keen on derby rivals Coleraine’s Marty Quinn.

Whoever receives this poisoned chalice will have a long and difficult task ahead of them. It seems more than probable that the twentieth anniversary of 1989’s cup win will come and go with the drought continuing.

Update: As stated in the comments section Jim Grattan was appointed as Ballymena's next manager. Alas it seems he will not be able to retain this position.

Friday, 25 April 2008

Queen's student newspaper celebrates man's death

The Gown is the student newspaper for Queen’s University Belfast and as such those who write in it are (presumably) hoping to become the bright young journalists of the future. As a man who is now no longer in his twenties, I might not be expected to encounter this organ, but my girlfriend studies at Queen’s and therefore ‘The Gown’ has once or twice found its way into our living room.

It is in general a pretty poorly written paper and would not normally merit a second glance, but the latest edition featured a front page splash which was so poorly judged and tasteless that I felt moved to mention it on Three Thousand Versts. The latest ‘Gown’ has decided to adorn its front cover with a piece which fairly transparently celebrates the death of a man who lived in the Holylands.

Under a headline proclaiming “’Scourge on Society’ Found Dead in Holylands” the paper runs an unbalanced article in which it features allegations about Paul Arbuckle terrorising students in the area and vandalising their cars. In addition quotes from students, expressing relief that the 25 year old ex-resident of Jerusalem Street has died, are printed in the paper. Nowhere in the piece is there any regret expressed toward Mr Arbuckle’s family nor is there any attempt at balance to reflect the fact that a young man has had his life cut short.

Now I did not know Paul Arbuckle and I would not like to comment on what type of person he was when he was alive. Certainly the ‘scourge on society’ tag is attributed to a judge rather than applied merely at the discretion of the paper. However I think that it is in dreadful taste to publish an article which more or less rejoices in the death of a young man. Whatever Mr Arbuckle’s crimes against students, there is no suggestion that he was a murderer or was in some way irredeemable.

In addition the article then segues into a discussion of sex crime in the University area. There is no explicit connection made between Mr Arbuckle and such crime, but if an implication in this regard was not intended, the article was poorly enough constructed as to make the connection in the reader’s mind.

I appreciate that whoever penned this article and the editor who decided to publish it probably believed that they were being daring and edgy. Actually if an article exposing Mr Arbuckle’s alleged activities had been published during his life it would have displayed more gumption. To wait until someone is dead and then to trumpet their demise across the front page of a student newspaper is both cowardly and ill-judged.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Irish Times on NI football - errors and inaccuracies

Somebody called Bryan Coll has been pontificating in the Irish Times about the ‘emerging Northern Ireland’ in a series with the portentous title ‘Out of the Night’. This particular instalment deals with sport, and in particular football and it is worth picking up a number of the more glaring inaccuracies which it contains.

Coll attends a Glentoran vs. Cliftonville match and picks up some of the indicators which suggest a team with support drawn from the unionist community is playing one with support drawn from the nationalist community. He then takes out his broad brush and begins presenting erroneous information.

“Matches between Glentoran and Cliftonville are mild encounters compared to the ultimate religious face-off that is Linfield versus Cliftonville (Northern Ireland's equivalent of the "Old Firm")”

An Old Firm clash is the bitterest rivalry in Scottish football, a Big Two match is Northern Ireland’s equivalent (Glentoran versus Linfield). Linfield versus Cliftonville is resoundingly not Northern Ireland’s equivalent of an Old Firm match. Of course it suits Coll’s article to suggest that the Irish League’s premier rivalry is aligned along the religious divide, but it is also simply not true.

“The chief lung-power for the Glentoran chorus comes from a 20-strong group of teenagers nested in the top corner of the home stand. Here they are as close as possible to a group of young Cliftonville fans, pressed against the fence which divides the adjacent terrace about 200 yards away.”

Anyone who has been to the Oval will appreciate that the fence separating the visitor’s terrace is not 200 yards away from the main stand. 200 yards away from the main stand would be on the Sydenham Bypass.

Coll begins to talk about efforts to combat sectarianism by the Irish Football Association and by the fans of the Northern Ireland football team.

“So hostile was the atmosphere at Windsor Park in the 1980s and 1990s that at one point attendances plummeted to a mere tenth of the stadium's capacity.”

Attendances for international matches were never even remotely as low as a tenth of the stadium’s capacity. In the 1980s Windsor Park had a capacity of 25,000 which went down progressively for safety reasons until 15,000 could be fitted in during the 90s. The lowest attendances for Northern Ireland games at any point during this period were in the region of 7000 – 8000. The sums are fairly self-explanatory.

“ANISC's "Sea of Green" campaign encourages fans to wear Northern Ireland's green and white colours to international games instead of the red, white and blue regalia previously favoured in the Windsor Parks stands.”

I do not recall red, white and blue regalia being favoured by anything more than a small minority of fans at any point during my time attending Northern Ireland games. The SOG enterprise was initiated to encourage Northern Ireland fans to wear their colours and thus to make an impressive spectacle. Green was already the favoured colour through which to show support and that has been the case ever since I attended my first match in 1985.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

The slightly bizarre world of Northern Ireland's incoming 'first family'

Suzanne Breen's Sunday Tribune interview with Iris Robinson is what might be described as an ‘eye-opener’. In it we gain an insight, should we want one, into the private life of our soon to be first minister and his wife, and what is revealed is rather twee and vaguely disquieting. Indeed reading passages detailing the history of Iris’ fawning adoration for her husband it might be judicious to keep some manner of receptacle handy in which to project copious quantities of vomit.

“”My mother said, 'there's plenty more fish in the sea'. And I said, 'I don't want fish, I want Peter. Iris got her man: "One evening, Peter appeared on his cream Vespa. 'I'm sorry, take me back', he said.”


“"He was very handsome, he stood out from the other boys," she recalls. "All the girls danced attention on him. My strategy was to ignore him. I'd walk past him, nose in the air. It worked. He noticed not being noticed and asked me out”

Are merely examples of several extracts from the interview which could be used as emetics by the NHS. If that doesn’t work the sentence “Oh, Peter's been at the blackcurrant and vanilla balls”, doubtless will.

Whilst it is easy to mock the Robinsons’ ‘his and hers sweater’ style romance, it is yet easier to scoff at the footballers’ wives sensibility which the article suggests dictates the décor of their house. Iris claims the credit for the interior decorating herself and it sounds …. well, just a smidgeon overdone.

“The opulence of their home is striking. Curtains of wine and gold silk rising into a central coronet; towering Chinese vases; hundreds of china figurines and sculptures – Marie Antoinette inches away from the Last Supper. Chandeliers hang in every room – "I think I was born in another era," Iris says. Each room is themed: the dining room is Oriental; a sitting room is old English; the bathroom is Italian; one bedroom is Scottish, another French”.

And just in case any there might be any residual traces of lunch left,

“The Robinsons' bedroom has a massive four poster Gothic bed with heart-shaped cushions. Then, there's Iris's lilac dressing room. She blushes trying to hide black lacy underwear lying on the bed for a function later that night.”

If “the mother of all Union Jacks” which flies from a flagpole in the front garden were replaced by the flag of some banana republic in central Asia, the descriptions could plausibly refer to the palace of a tin-pot dictator. How apposite for a DUP leader. Peter Robinson the incoming Ulstermenbashi!

And the Ulstermenbashi sounds a tad confused given that this article has him supporting two football teams who are bitter derby rivals.

“The Robinsons have a study each. Peter's is a sombre, masculine room of leather and dark wood, dominated by a 64" flatscreen TV – to watch his beloved Chelsea and Spurs”

With Israel apparently encountering a problem with Jewish neo-Nazis I guess anything is possible.

Given the pair’s supposed derision for Sinn Fein and the IRA, it is also confusing to learn that they prominently display a card received from Gerry Adams, congratulating them on their wedding anniversary last year. Perhaps the ‘Brothers Grim’ sobriquet has been applied prematurely.

But here we must leave the strange world of Iris and Peter Robinson, with the former tootling into the distance in her “black and cream soft-top mini” listening to Patsy Cline. I would suggest that Louis Theroux would find fertile territory for a documentary should the chance ever present itself. Personally I am going to have a bath because I feel vaguely grubby having spent this article mocking people's private lives. I do apologise, but it would have taken a better man than me to resist the temptation.

Chelsea FC try to cheat their way to a history

An aberration from Jean Arne Riise has put Chelsea in the driving seat to reach the Champions League final in Moscow and may be the Norwegian’s last significant contribution at Anfield. Deep into injury time, added on at the whim of disgraceful referee Konrad Plautz, Riise’s attempted headed clearance stole victory from a dominant Liverpool side and gave Chelsea a first leg away goal in the semi-final first leg.

And theft is an apt metaphor to use of a night when Chelsea attempted to cheat their way to the final deploying the dramatic skills of Didier Drogba who attempted to feign injury continuously and the knees and elbows of John Terry who persistently assaulted and fouled Liverpool players throughout the 90 minutes. Terry was eventually booked after chopping down Javier Mescherano at knee height and a competent referee would have been furnishing him with a second yellow and expelling him from the pitch.

The match opened in frenzied fashion and it took some 30 minutes for Liverpool to assert their dominance. In the opening period ball retention proved difficult and the triumvirate of Torres, Babel and Kuyt showed a tendency to give away possession. As nerves settled Xabi Alonso and Javier Mescharano began to govern the midfield and Liverpool’s superiority was reflected in chances created. Gerrard’s through ball should have been converted by Torres who instead found Cech’s body. Then two minutes from time Kuyt’s mishit cross was not cleared properly by Frank Lampard. Typical tireless industry from the Dutch striker won back possession on the eighteen yard line and Mescherano helped the ball into the area where strength and persistence saw Kuyt find the net.

The striker, deployed on the right by Rafa Benitez, had previously shown indecision one on one with the Chelsea goalkeeper and had tentatively chested a long pass within Cech’s grasp when really Liverpool should have taken the lead. The Dutchman is indefatigable however and made a case for being named man of the match, with his goal and his tireless running of the line in the second half.

It was Liverpool’s dominance during this second period that made Chelsea’s equalising goal hard to stomach. Benitez’ side might yet rue failing to turn this superiority into goals. Cech produced an acrobatic stop from Gerrard’s dipping volley and Torres shot again into the body of the Chelsea keeper. The red tide was relentless, but possession only infrequently precipitated clear cut chances and these chances were in any case not converted.

Still, Liverpool have shown themselves a better team than Chelsea, and although Riise’s own goal gave the result a blue hue and made the London side favourites to progress at Stamford Bridge, Rafa’s men should travel to Stamford Bridge with confidence. Chelsea’s ground provides an anaemic atmosphere in comparison to Anfield and Avram Grant’s collection of rarefied prima donnas may well be jittery with the prize so nearly in their grasp. Inevitably Bruno Cheyrou’s goal will not be the last Liverpool ever scores at Stamford Bridge and we are more than capable of scoring there next Wednesday.

Whatever the outcome, Chelsea represent much of what is bad about the modern game and no-one at that club, neither their overpaid players, nor their passionless little band of supporters, deserve to grace a European Cup final.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Alex Kane. Politics and religion.

Alex Kane is inviting a deluge of angry letters by putting his head above the parapet in the Newsletter to opine “keep your religion out of my politics”. Kane, by his own admission an “evangelical atheist”, believes that religion has been “a destabilising, lunatic and mostly unhelpful aspect of human history”. Unsurprisingly his conclusion is that religion’s influence in politics has been particularly pernicious and he believes that it continues to exude a divisive influence to this day.

On Slugger O’Toole Kane’s article has precipitated a debate as to the extent to which religion has influenced politics in the past, what influence it continues to exert in the present and whether this influence can be said to be wholly negative. I am sympathetic to Kane’s premise, but it is harder to disentangle secular and religious influences in the development of western society (or the UK) than he allows. If we condone extensive elements of the constitutional, political and cultural ethos of a society, is it fair to unequivocally dismiss something as elemental as the religion of that society as a positive shaper of these same values?

In western societies Christianity has shaped how we think, moralise, legislate and govern. It is difficult to conclude that its influence on all these aspects of our society was exclusively negative. Similarly if societies in which Islam or Hinduism have been integral, for example, produce great art or scientific excellence, can we divorce those achievements from the religious context in which they were realised?

Of course this more abstruse aspect to the debate does not diminish the strength of Kane’s central thesis as regards religion and politics today. Nor is there any denying that religion has caused division and fostered fanaticism historically.

Coulter plumbs the depths with race war garbage

I have mentioned before the preposterous, gratuitously controversial nonsense propounded by ‘revolutionary unionist’ Dr (!?) John Coulter. This supposed political commentator writes outrageous enough articles for the Blanket, nominally a political journal, but his most florid output is disseminated through that organ of intellectual discourse, the Irish Daily Star.

Normally I would not get too exercised about journalism in such a newspaper, but Coulter’s latest column was on Newshound today and I believe it is an outrageously sensationalist and indeed inflammatory treatment of a serious subject. The article purports to deal with racism in Northern Ireland, an issue which has arisen after xenophobic attacks on Lithuanian immigrants in Cookstown.

Instead of analysing seriously the causes and effects of these attacks and deducing what might be done to prevent them, we have a febrile evocation of the BNP winning the forthcoming London Assembly election, boatloads of jackbooted fascists streaming into Ulster, Islamic terrorists rampant throughout Ireland, bloody race war replacing sectarian conflict and even the malevolent ghost of Enoch Powell cackling delightedly at the unfolding mayhem.

All of which would be merely laughable, were it not presented as a knowledgeable academic’s assessment of a truly insidious phenomenon.

Can Liverpool add to 5 European Cups and 18 Leagues?

Liverpool supporters are quick to point out the disparity between the club’s glittering history and the relative lack of a similar tradition at Chelsea. Going into tonight’s semi-final first leg the London club will be acutely conscious, not merely of the inferiority of their record over the longer term, but of more recent history and two previous defeats against Liverpool at this stage of the Champions League.

Liverpool vs. Chelsea fixtures have acquired a deeper resonance since Roman Abrahamovich’s arrival at Stamford Bridge. They represent a clash between football royalty and the game’s nouveau riche. Their character was further sharpened by the personality clash off the field between cerebral Spaniard Rafa Benitez and Chelsea’s brash Portuguese manager Jose Mourinho.

Paradoxically, with the more measured Avram Grant at the helm, Chelsea may be better equipped to withstand the fevered atmosphere of a Champions League semi-final. Benitez has suggested as much and is both wary and respectful of his counterpart. On this occasion Chelsea will enjoy the advantage of home advantage in the second leg, something which Liverpool have benefited from in both previous clashes.

Nevertheless Liverpool’s previous experience reaching the final, and indeed winning, the world’s premier club competition, should instil a degree of self belief in the Anfield reds. Benitez has been quick to point out the comparative strength in the current squad as opposed to the team from 2005 who famously won the competition. He is also realistic enough to apprehend the extent of Liverpool’s task and the manager has been quick to identify Chelsea as favourites to win the tie.

Tonight Liverpool must ensure that they add to a history which Chelsea can only impotently aspire to.

Monday, 21 April 2008

IFA stick the arm in, then dispatch Dumbo to invite the rest of the circus

Supporters who attended Northern Ireland games when Windsor Park was rarely full to capacity are to be repaid for their loyalty when the IFA ask them to shell out one payment of £165 for the privilege of watching the team in forthcoming World Cup qualifiers. The block-booking scheme, which forms fans’ only chance of securing tickets for competitive games, will cover 5 matches as opposed to the previous scheme’s 6 and still manages to work out more expensive.

Despite weighing in at a hefty £33 per match, fans’ anger will concentrate on the removal of a 50/50 cost spreading scheme whereby a £10 surcharge allowed the payment to be made in two separate instalments. As ever it will be the most committed supporters who foot the bill and those with low incomes and families will suffer the most.

Although the IFA clearly should not be expected to remain immune from the laws of supply and demand, this short-sighted policy shows scant regard for supporters. There has been considerable expenditure in the association in recent times with a new computer system and other capital expenses. It seems that the organisation is moving to boost cash-flow in the short-term and in order to do so they are prepared to risk the anger of fans. In actual fact in removing the 50/50 scheme the IFA will deprive themselves of £10 additional revenue from each supporter who would have chosen that payment plan. Immediate greed has prevailed against sound business sense.

As if to exacerbate supporters’ sense of alienation, bungling DCAL minister Edwin Poots has been dispatched to the US with sanction to secure Northern Ireland a friendly with MLS side LA Galaxy! If this story had arisen on April 1 I would have instantly dismissed it as incredible. It offends the dignity of Northern Ireland, one of the first international sides in world football, to be chasing friendly games with LA Whothefeck! Why would we want to play a friendly against an American club side? Because Beckham plays for them? Our international team is not a circus!

Skidelsky - I was right to oppose intervention in Kosovo

Robert Skidelsky opposed Nato intervention against Serb counter insurgency in Kosovo from the opposition benches of the House of Lords in 1999. His dissent from the Tory party line cost him his job and put an end to the economist’s brief political career. In the Guardian’s Comment Is Free he argues that hind-sight has proven him right. Skidelsky explicitly equates Kosovo with the subsequent Iraq debacle, seeing in it a precedent for intervention on flimsy evidence, with disregard to international law, which actually caused the situation on the ground to deteriorate.

The first strand of Skidelsky’s argument against intervention at that time, was in fact precisely that it would set up a dangerous and damaging precedent for intervention. Human rights, democracy and self-determination are not legal grounds for going to war against a state unless there is an international consensus as framed and enforced by the UN Security Council. Where human rights abuses are particularly severe, he acknowledges that there may be a moral obligation to act contrary to international law, but Skidelsky’s assessment of the situation in Kosovo in 1999 is based on facts as opposed to the subsequent Nato narrative which has become prevalent.

Skidelsky cites the OSCE’s findings to support his argument. It is widely accepted, but largely overlooked when the intervention is evaluated, that Nato bombing actually caused a dramatic increase in death and expulsion. “The ‘humanitarian disaster’ was in fact precipitated by the war itself” Skidelsky argues. He continues "the term "genocide", freely bandied about by western interventionists, was grotesquely inappropriate at any time”.

The article is circumspect about the effects of the bombing. Kosovan Albanians did accrue some benefit principally by wresting political power and influence from Serbs. However economically all sectors of society have suffered exponentially with employment in Kosovo currently topping 44%. In addition criminality and corruption are endemic and Kosovo has been ‘reverse cleansed’ of half its Serb population since 1999. These effects hardly constitute a net gain.

The war against Serbia was prosecuted on the basis on a ‘pre-emptive strike’ designed to ward off a supposed potential humanitarian catastrophe. Events in Bosnia had hyper-sensitised Europe as to the possible consequences of Serb aggression and the need to actually prove the imminence of such a catastrophe was dispensed with. This furnished George Bush and his neo-con advisers with a direct model from which to rationalise an attack on Iraq, based on an equally flimsy premise. Skidelsky believes that bombing Serbia provided a pretext for developing the doctrine of ‘pre-emptive war’ and “opened the door to the proliferation of unilateral, lawless use of force”.

Furthermore he concludes that in encouraging Kosovo’s Albanians to eschew a possible negotiated settlement based on autonomy, America and her allies fostered “a regressive answer to a genuine international problem: how to hold together multi-ethnic, multi-religious states in a reasonably civilised way”. Skidelsky highlights the opposition to recognising Kosovan independence held by the majority of multi-national states. Nine years after the bombing Kosovo now provides a template for secession, ethnic irredentism and dismemberment.

Friday, 18 April 2008

A predictable consequence of undermining Serbia's sovereignty

Predictably outgoing Russian President Vladimir Putin has moved to consolidate ties between his government and breakaway Republics Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia. The areas have enjoyed de facto autonomy since waging separatist wars against the Georgian government in the early 1990s. Majorities in both regions wish for independence from Georgia. In fact there is a striking similarity between these two separatist provinces and the Serbian province of Kosovo.

Unlike the US and other western states which have recognised Kosovo’s independence, Russia is doing so such thing. Putin’s government merely intends to increase cooperation with de facto governments. The United States and European Union have criticised any such moves because they undermine the sovereignty of Georgia. But this is the logical consequence of much more blatant disregard for Serbia’s sovereignty.

A Duke at the Movies

A word about the Duke Special concert which I attended last night at the Studio in the Waterfront. Duke Special is an artist whose performances reward repeated attendance because two gigs are rarely similar. Last night’s show was part of the Belfast Film Festival and as such it was punctuated by a series of cinema shorts. In addition a puppeteer and a suspended acrobat provided quirky entertainment.

The short films the Duke and his team had chosen were predictably visually arresting. A Czech animation, ‘Songs from the Prairie’, provided something of a recurrent motif for the evening. The movies which accompanied songs were chosen for appropriate atmospherics. The music was as subtle and textured as ever, overlaid last night with the classical intonations of a harpist. In this show the more established tunes took a back seat to new material, although the pounding anthem ‘Salvation Tambourine’ was a highlight.

‘Monsters in the Dust’ is a stand out new song which beautifully revisits well worn Duke Special territory of love and regret. According to the man himself its lyrics were inspired by Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray.

This was the third time I have watched a Duke Special show in under a year and not once has there been even a suggestion of staleness or a performer going through the motions. I urge you to go and see him if you get a chance.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Hicks, Gillett or Parry? Get rid of them all!

Sandwiched between Liverpool Football Club marking the 19th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster and a vital Champions League semi-final tie against Chelsea, Liverpool’s co-owner Tom Hicks has thought it propitious to give an interview to Sky Sports, in which he refers to the club’s chief executive as ‘a disaster’. Hicks’ interview seems to comprise an attempt to re-ingratiate himself with supporters, but in its spectacularly poor timing and its back-biting character these comments are unlikely to restore confidence in the reviled co-owner.

Ironically Hicks comments about Parry do contain a grain of truth. Parry’s fractious relationship with manager Rafa Benitez and his tendency to dawdle in the transfer market, have detrimentally effected attempts to build a world class team and launch a sustained challenge for the Premiership title. In contrast courting Rafa Benitez and making vague promises to clear debt saddled on the club by the American takeover, should he become sole owner, seems like insincere fire-fighting.

Rather than winning over supporters, when Hicks trades allegations of culpability with his partner George Gillett, he merely reinforces the view that neither man should be involved in the club.

Liverpool Football Club is in the wrong hands. Ideally the 2008-2009 season would start without Hicks, Gillett or indeed Rick Parry. In the mean time all three should keep quiet and let the spotlight rest on Rafa Benitez and the team he aspires to make Champions of Europe for a sixth time.

Nationalism which negates the possibility of unionism's existence

Nationalism is a mode of political thought which cannot seem to countenance the possibility that alternative outlooks exist. This is demonstrated by an insistence that such outlooks simply constitute alternative strains of nationalism or by the contention that those who do not align cultural or national identity flush with political statehood are confused about their identity or even lack any ‘true’ sense of identity.

The United Kingdom provides a peculiar conundrum for nationalists, because majority populations in each of the constituent countries actually wish to remain part of the kingdom and are quite comfortable with the plurality of identity which that implies. I have taken the liberty of cutting and pasting part of a comment left on O’Neill’s blog about Welsh nationalists’ campaign to have Land of My Fathers played before the FA Cup Final in deference to Cardiff City’s involvement, in order to illustrate my point.

Fakey (of the teeth-grindingly irritating Fake Empire blog – why does he add a ‘y’ to the word like for god’s sake?) views the Union in the following terms,

“My perspective is the devolution genie has thrown up a question UK-Neo Unionism hasn't been able - either by choice or by denial - to deal with: is the UK a United Kingdom of distinct but interlocked Nations or United Kingdom of 'Regions'. To suggest the UK is made up of Nations is to admit the arbitrary nature of the Union - that secession is a valid and democratic expression of that nation’s citizenry. The 'Regional' argument is that within a United Kingdom a sense of nationhood is reduced to a secondary inferior inherently emotional status when placed beside Neo-Unionism's preferred default superior identity setting of 'Simply British'.”

Leaving aside the pejorative implication that unionism is not part of a continuous tradition; this paragraph belies the manner in which nationalists’ minds tend to short-circuit when the boundaries of a state do not cleave neatly to their conception of what comprises a ‘nation’. Like a child failing to grasp the possibilities of his toy, Fakey simply keeps attempting to force a round peg into a square hole.

Unionists (civic unionists certainly) do not accept that a sense of cultural or national identity is the default mechanism by which to order a state. Civic unionists are therefore uninterested in prescribing the limits of people’s felt or perceived national identity. Northern Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales are nations if people within them feel them to be such. They exhibit characteristics of nations in so far as they have acquired much of the cultural apparatus which allows people to cleave their felt national identity to them. That does not preclude them from also being regions of the United Kingdom and nor does it make their inclusion in that state any more arbitrary than states which are ordered along nationalist lines. Nations are indeed themselves invented and arbitrary units.

Fakey clearly sees a flourishing sense of regional, or indeed not primarily British national, identity as inimical to the Union. He refers to “how people within the UK's Nations see themselves and the inability of Unionism to process this new truth”. The wish to express regional or national identity other than Britishness, is of itself enough for Fakey to infer a lack of cleavage to the Union. Clearly this argument is a non-sequitur. It is manifestly possible to simultaneously feel two aspects to one’s cultural or national identity. It is similarly manifestly possible to separate a sense of cultural nationality from a sense of political nationality. Such nuance does not relegate ‘nationhood’ to “a secondary inferior inherently emotional status”. Rather it allows that aspect of identity to flourish without lumbering it with prescriptive ethno-nationalist baggage.

The more dogmatic forms of nationalism posit a view of history in which the nation is self-evident, almost primordial. By definition it is not possible for this nationalism to countenance the existence of unionism as rational political discourse. Nationalism in its essence dismisses the possibility of unionism’s existence, because nationalism believes that all political alternatives are merely disingenuous reinterpretations of its own central premise. It is unionism’s strength that it can rationalise and encompass nationalism, whilst the reverse by definition cannot be the case.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Internal difficulties bode ill for Robbo

Peter Robinson has been chosen by his party’s Assembly group to succeed Ian Paisley as leader. The undemocratic nature of this process aside, questions have been raised as to Robinson’s ability to unite the various factions in the DUP. I highlighted an excellent article by Alex Kane on this site, and yesterday on Everything Ulster, which argues that Robinson cannot heal the fissures which ultimately lead to Paisley’s resignation.

On Slugger O’Toole a post
which discusses Frank Millar’s updated biography of David Trimble, quotes a paragraph dealing with the future of the process, in which Trimble played such a pivotal role, from the book’s conclusion,

“[the DUP] expect Irish republicans and nationalists to take and sustain the cross community initiatives and outreach necessary to stabilise and secure Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom. That task falls to the party of the constitutional status quo. And to meet it, the new DUP will have to reinvent itself all over again.”

On a similar theme the Irish News greets Peter Robinson’s appointment with an editorial contending,

“his [Robinson’s] future lies in maintaining a partnership with nationalists based on mutual respect”.

In order to make the power sharing arrangements in Northern Ireland sustainable and workable, it requires more than simply running the institutions set up in the agreements. Something other than a sectarian carve-up is required. In order to strengthen the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, it is now necessary to build strong shared institutions, on a cross community basis and to instigate a society which reflects that shared ethos. The internal difficulties Robinson will have to overcome within his own party do not bode well for his chances of successfully taking up this challenge.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Addiction and personal responsibility

BBC 2 last night aired a programme on addiction entitled Am I Normal, presented by clinical psychologist Tanya Byron. The documentary itself did not arrive at any startling conclusions, finding that addiction could be attributed to a combination of biological, psychological and social factors. What it did expose however, was the tendency to use the description ‘addiction’ as a means to absolve people of personal responsibility for a whole range of excessive, compulsive and damaging behaviours.

I have no particular medical knowledge and I would be reluctant to dismiss a gamut of research adduced to support the theory that behaviours as well as substances can be addictive. I am in no position to dispute these findings, which amount to brain scans proving that people seek to replicate experiences which release endorphins (if I have understood correctly), but there are various social implications which arise if we decide to take this broader approach to the definition of addiction.

In particular it is important that medicalising behaviour which damages either the subject or those around them, does not equate to suggesting that the subject has no control over the exhibition of this behaviour. There should be no suggestion of removing or diminishing the personal responsibility these 'addicts' are asked to assume for their own actions, on the basis of their alleged addictions. Most addiction experts have in my understanding moved away from the approach that addicts are predetermined and helpless victims of a disease. I believe it is now acknowledged that there is still an element of choice, albeit limited in chronic cases, incumbent even in alcoholism or drug addiction. As a society, we should certainly not be in the business of absolving of responsibility, those who claim to be addicted to behaviours where no physical dependency is possible. Of course psychological addiction is a real and powerful phenomenon , but if, when addicts drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes or inject heroin, free will is still at work, how much more so is this the case when people are ‘addicted’ to chocolate, computer games or pornography?

If research is being carried out in order to understand the human brain more completely, then such work must surely be valuable. If that research finds that certain compulsive behaviours share characteristics with more established addictions, then we have discovered something important about the causes of such compulsions. However one twenty year old computer game enthusiast last night ascribed violence he had inflicted upon his parents (when they removed his computer due to excessive game-playing), to his ‘addiction’ and the therapy he was receiving seemed to facilitate this logic. Here we run into difficulties and encounter thinking which would have legal consequences and ramifications for our publicly funded health service.

Monday, 14 April 2008

Don't go down this route.

The Irish Independent carries an article by Emer O’Kelly which highlights how the Irish language is misused by ethno-nationalists and how this political misuse actually causes antagonism toward the language. The article focuses on the Republic of Ireland, but it is equally pertinent in Northern Ireland where the language is often considered as inextricably linked with republicanism. Of the nationally minded language zealots O’Kelly alleges,

“Its politically-minded proponents (as opposed to those who just speak Irish fluently and gracefully without using it as a weapon) refuse to accept the irrelevance of the language in most people's lives, and by their antagonism towards that majority view, have gone a long way to institutionalising negativity towards the language.”

O’Kelly highlights how the Republic’s commissioner for the Irish language has attacked appointments to the justice system where he questioned the appointee’s fluency in the Irish language. She argues that such campaigns are nonsensical given that the priority of court proceedings should be that all parties understand what is being said, “they [Irish speakers] can understand perfectly in a court presided over by a Judge with less than perfect Irish. And that is the point of language in a court of law”. This is an argument which is dismissed as unionist bigotry when it is averred in Northern Ireland as an objection to providing Irish translation, forms in Irish etc. to perform the practical purposes required of public bodies.
Investigations by the Irish Language commissioner have also been launched into various health and disabilities leaflets which have been provided only in English. O’Kelly laments the mentality of those who have made the complaints which the commissioner has been obliged to investigate.

“It reminds us that generations of people who didn't speak fluent Irish were actively discriminated against in education and employment as a matter of course and so-called patriotism in this country. That's the time viewed with nostalgic regret by the language police.”

In Northern Ireland this is the route down which we will be embarking should an Irish Language Act be imposed which needlessly enshrines the use of Irish in aspects of public life. It is a route down which we will be going if Irish is made a requirement or an advantage for various types of public employment.

The language zealotry which O’Kelly describes does not spring from an uncomplicated love of the language; rather it is inextricably linked with a prescriptive and ethno-nationalist vision of Irishness. In Northern Ireland it is epitomised in campaigns masterminded by Sinn Féin. As the Republic of Ireland becomes an increasingly modern society, many are lamenting the creation of ethno-nationalist machinery which the state has yet entirely to shed. We must resist being encumbered with equivalent machinery in Northern Ireland which regressive strains of nationalist opinion are intent on introducing.

The Irish language has an important cultural role to play in both Northern Ireland and the Republic. Its use should be encouraged and the language should be promoted and funded with the help of public money. Those who wish to use it as a badge of authenticity which denotes true belonging to an ‘Irish Nation’ undermine the cause of the language. Similarly attempting to impose the language on people through the mechanics of the state can only alienate those who do not wish to speak it. In Northern Ireland we must apply these lessons as they have been learnt in the Republic.

O’Kelly eloquently indicts the counter-productive attempts of ethno-nationalists to impose the Irish language,

“they didn't manage to "revive" the language; they came close to destroying it because they made it a badge of narrow, right-wing nationalism, the antithesis of what culture should stand for. They're still trying to do it; they don't love the language, they're merely language xenophobics. And they count their fellow citizens who can't, or merely don't wish to speak Irish as foreigners, certainly as less Irish than they are.
That's why so many people hate Irish; it's been used to bludgeon them for years. And the sooner those who really love the language admit it, and take them on, the better.”

Ignoring inconvenient war crimes

The wars in former Yugoslavia and in particular the insurgency and counter insurgency in Kosovo are understood largely through a narrative which has been imposed by NATO and proliferated by the US and other influential countries through the organs of the UN. This interpretation holds that Greater Serbian irredentism was overwhelmingly the aggressor in Yugoslavia causing Serbs to commit unspeakable war crimes against largely innocent peoples who simply wished to participate in Europe’s second ‘springtime of the nations’.

A great deal of time and energy has been expended attempting to bring Serb war criminals to justice, and rightly so. However, less resolute have been attempts to prosecute those from the various other belligerent sides in the wars, who were guilty of committing atrocities against Serbs. Recently former Prime Minister of Kosovo, Ramush Haradinaj, was exonerated for crimes committed by the Kosovan Liberation Army of which he was one of the most feared leaders. Many witnesses were too frightened to give evidence against this terrorist godfather. One of his colleagues, Hashim Thaçi, is currently Prime Minister of a government which has been recognised by many western countries as that of a sovereign independent state.

Carla Del Ponte, who was chief prosecutor for war crimes in former Yugoslavia, has complained bitterly that the UN protectorate in Kosovo prevented her from pursuing prosecutions against ethnic Albanian war criminals. Such prosecutions would have been inconveniently at odds with the perception of Serb only aggression which the authorities are attempting to promote. They would also have made more difficult the project of eventual Kosovan independence which Nato presented from the beginning as a fait accompli to the Albanian separatists.

Del Ponte’s new book ‘The Hunt – Me and War Criminals’, contains startling allegations that the Kosovan Liberation Army ran a grotesque operation harvesting organs from Serb prisoners, who were then killed. Investigators came across the clinic in which this took place and where 300 Serbs were then being literally butchered before their organs were spirited into Albania itself, to raise money on the international organ market. The prisoners’ kidneys were being removed before their deaths. Many were begging to be killed before this process took place.

Much of the protest at these allegations seems to arise, not from the substance of the claims, but because of the inopportune timing of Del Ponte’s book. Human Rights Watch assessed the evidence as “sufficiently grave” to warrant a serious investigation.

Of course, although there is evidence that this crime has been committed, it has not been proven as yet. But that is in any case the point. It is manifestly correct to investigate rigorously war crimes which have been perpetrated by any side in a conflict. It is not right to investigate the crimes of one side and ignore those of the other. There is no doubt that the war crimes of Serbs have been pursued with more rigour than those of the Kosovan Liberation Army. Clearly this is partially because members of that organisation are crucial within the government which Nato wishes to promote as that of an independent sovereign state.

Wretched DUPe whips up (sorry!) Irish cream row

The Newsletter has a great deal of fun with dairy product puns, as the paper charts the antics of North Down DUP councillor John Montgomery, who last week made an idiot of himself by objecting to Marks and Spencer describing some whipping cream made in Northern Ireland as ‘Irish whipping cream’. NDBC’s Corporate Committee then passed, by two votes, Montgomery’s proposal that they write to the company and complain.

These are the sort of antics that made the DUP infamous. They are also the type of antics which make right thinking unionists tear their hair out in despair. Instead of disclaiming the terms Ireland or Irish, unionists should instead be keen to clarify that they refer to the entire island and are just as applicable to Northern Ireland as they are to the Republic. Whipping cream from Northern Ireland is incontrovertibly ‘Irish whipping cream’ and all but the most wretched imbecile would acknowledge this without difficulty.

Of course, the more subtle points about geography and identity aside, what is really pitiful about Montgomery’s complaint is that it is so desperately puerile (as acknowledged even by Montgomery’s party colleague Leslie Cree). Take the statement from the councillor, “I was in Marks and Spencer last month looking for some cream, and was in a rush, so I had no alternative but to pick up what was labelled ‘Irish cream’”. He is clearly suggesting that the description ‘Irish’ would have dissuaded him from buying the product had he not been in a rush.

Thoroughly pathetic.

Friday, 11 April 2008

It is Agreement's implementation which has exacerbated division

Over the past couple of days I have sifted through a quantity of the newsprint devoted to evaluating the impact of the Belfast Agreement 10 years on. Some accounts are thought provoking and some less so. Most acknowledge that Northern Ireland has benefited from the agreement as regards consolidating peace and facilitating a degree of economic recovery. The more thoughtful articles also contend that the way in which the agreement has been implemented and the peace process outworked, has actually compounded division in our society, as well as sending a deeply troubling message about the rewards which political violence can accrue.

Yesterday Lord Trimble, who played such a pivotal role in leading unionism to acceptance of the agreement, wrote in the Daily Telegraph about the work still to be done in order to create a truly peaceful society and criticised the Labour government’s repeated concessions to republicans in their desperation to implement the deal. Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s article in the International Herald and Tribune questioned how the Northern Ireland peace process could be presented as a paradigm of conflict resolution when what it has delivered is government led by Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, “a man who, if he were Serb, would be indicted at The Hague”.

In today’s Independent
Gary McKeone adopts a similar approach. Like the previous two articles he draws from the implementation of the agreement the lesson that guns and extremism have flourished whilst adherence to democracy and moderation have resulted in “near annihilation”. Again Jonathan Powell’s dismissal of Seamus Mallon’s objection when an ‘undercover diplomat’ acting on behalf of the Labour government commented ‘the problem with you guys is you don’t have guns’ is quoted. The lesson to be drawn from the Northern Irish experience McKeone surmises is as follows;

“Terror works. Nothing like it to focus the mind. Shoot them coming out of churches; bomb them in restaurants; play trick or treat with a machine-gun in a pub. Stick at it long enough and the next thing you know, you're taking a brief from a civil servant and climbing into a chauffeur-driven car.”

Of course the agreement which was drafted in the run up to Good Friday ten years ago, did not have inherent in it the inevitability that Northern Ireland would be divided between the extremes. Rather it was the implementation of the deal and the Labour Government’s refusal to back David Trimble when he demanded that republicans conform to democratic norms, which compromised his party and led to the electoral success of the DUP. Similarly Sinn Féin’s successes in this regard increased their cache in the nationalist community and marginalised the moderate SDLP.

When Northern Ireland is presented as a model for other peace processes, it is worth remembering that profound mistakes were made. In their eagerness to placate threats from republicans to return to violence, Tony Blair’s government exacerbated an already divided society and destroyed any immediate possibility of building Northern Ireland on the basis of increased sharing. Whether this damage can be repaired remains to be seen.

Lost Cosmonaut - entertaining but 'anti-tourism' premise fails to convince

On a thread about travel literature on ‘The Dreaming Arm’, I mentioned yesterday that I was reading an unusual piece of travel writing by an author called Daniel Kalder. Kalder styles himself an “anti-tourist” and his trips focus on empty, dreary and forgotten places. He is derisive of the more conventional form of tourism which he sees as seeking a bogus authenticity in beauty and cultural exoticism. Whilst I understand his cynicism, I also wonder whether his exploration of “black holes” is simply another, equally doomed, attempt to seek out his own perception of ‘authentic’ or ‘real’.

The book which I have just finished is entitled ‘Lost Cosmonaut’ and it charts Kalder’s rather slapdash explorations of European Russia’s least celebrated ethnic republics. And his account is both entertaining and at times hilarious. Even within Russia these republics are obscure destinations. I consulted Lonely Planet’s guide to Russia every now and again during my reading and with the exception of Kazan, which is a reasonably well known provincial Russian city, no other destination Kalder mentions has an entry in the guide.

Kazan is the capital of Tatarstan and it is the first destination the author visits in ‘Lost Cosmonaut’. Kalder’s style is to reveal the nature of these republics through his experiences and to add a little context here and there. The self-consciously desultory nature of his explorations can hinder this process somewhat. This travel writer likes to spend long evenings watching television in his hotel room, he eschews the local cuisine to eat in McDonalds style eateries and rarely leaves the urban hinterlands in which he finds his own conception of beauty. Whether this approach actually uncovers more about the nature of the places he visits is arguable, but I would imagine that the author might claim that that he is not trying to uncover any truths.

Tatarstan, Kalmykia, El Mari and Udmurtia are four of the Russian Federation’s twenty one ethnic republics. They are based on the titular nationalities whose homelands the republics are perceived as comprising. These arrangements were largely based on fairly arbitrary decisions hurriedly made as the USSR was being established. After many years of Tsarist Russification and economic migration from other parts of Russia and the Soviet Union, these republics carry only remnants of the cultural identities on which they are predicated. It is the residual character of these cultures, the ambiguous status of the republics, the fact that the people have largely integrated into a larger Russian culture but can’t quite complete the process due to their nominal ‘nationality’ that interests Kalder.

When the author allows himself to interact with local people he comes close to illuminating the pathos and ambiguity that colour these destinations. His encounter with the High Priest of Mari paganism is a particularly memorable section of the book. This man’s understanding of his religion is at odds with the leading books detailing Mari beliefs and his life experiences are grounded in the Soviet Union in which he was employed as a ‘shock worker’. He proudly displays articles to the author which he wrote for the Soviet press.

I enjoyed this book hugely and I did sympathise with Kalder’s attitudes about travel. But I did ultimately have to question whether in firmly eschewing conventional pretensions and hypocrisies, if the author was not setting up an alternative set of pretensions and hypocrisies of his own. He is withering about tourists who like to look at poor people in exotic locations. I would suggest that there is nothing intrinsically more laudable about looking at poor people in bleak locations. Whilst Kalder likes to claim that he is not seeking to draw moral lessons, there is a degree of criticism implicit in what he alleges of other tourists. He therefore should not be immune from accusations of exoticising and romanticising grimness.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Why Franklin Graham rallies should worry us

We do not need any great reminder of the influence of fundamentalist evangelical Christianity in Northern Ireland. After all our largest political party is rotten with those who believe they are being guided by God. In fact our outgoing First Minister, who is accustomed to preaching the most virulent form of Christianity, will shortly be replaced by Peter Robinson, who attends with his wife the revivalist evangelical Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle, one of the largest church congregations in Europe. It is quite an indictment of the nature of the party when Robinson is considered to be on the godless secular wing of the DUP.

In case we needed another reminder of the influence of fundamentalist Christianity, 30,000 people (that is thirty thousand people) from our little province of 1,500,000, attended rallies featuring the evangelist Franklin Graham in Belfast’s Odyssey Arena over the weekend.

Of course, in the United Kingdom, people are entitled to freedom of conscience and freedom of belief. No-one would seriously suggest that such meetings should be prohibited, but it is worth paying attention to some of the insidious doctrines which Graham and other fundamentalists of his ilk preach. Because whilst we may believe it is a good thing to respect a wide range of beliefs, the point is that, through their participation in politics, fundamentalist Christians effect very directly the freedom of choice exercised by other people in Northern Ireland. If huge numbers of people adhere to fundamentalist Christianity in Northern Ireland, we have a right to be worried. In fact I would argue that we have a duty to be worried.

Graham of course is particularly influential in providing the theological basis to George Bush’s neo-Conservatism. He is aggressive in his attitudes towards Islam and homosexuality and hawkish in his foreign policy. When Graham’s sympathisers here raise the argument that it is disrespectful to people’s sincere religious beliefs to criticise events such as those in the Odyssey at the weekend, consider the preacher’s declaration “I believe Islam is a very evil and a very wicked religion" and ponder just how much respect to others’ sincerely held religious beliefs that statement entails. In the wake of 9/11, when religious leaders may have been expected to exercise a calming influence Graham urged “let's use the weapons we have, the weapons of mass destruction if need be and destroy the enemy”. He has also expressed the widely held evangelical opinion that Aids is God’s punishment for immoral behaviour and homosexuality.

I believe that Graham is entitled to such opinions of course and I would defend his right to express them. I do however find his views particularly unpleasant and it makes me worry when 30,000 people flock to events bearing his name over an April weekend. Already we have a body of politicians in powerful positions who would like to compromise science and education by forcing children to be taught creationism in schools, we have a lobby who would deny abortion to women on religious grounds which they do not share, we have in power a party whose members have protested outside theatres when something as innocuous as Jesus Christ Superstar played. Fundamentalist Christianity fosters a degree of intolerance which we cannot afford to accept in our society, it also wishes to impose itself politically and curtail freedoms. It is a menace to us all.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Victims' commission row exposes nature of carve-up

The row over victims’ commission legislation which has broken out in the Northern Ireland Assembly lends particular pertinence to novelist Glenn Patterson’s sardonic piece, on Comment is Free today, accusing the twin nationalisms axis of “a consensus of crowing”. DUP / SF have of course achieved remarkably little since forming a government, despite their indulgence in constant self-congratulation. And in the unravelling of a deal which the carve-up were attempting to impose, we gain a startling insight into the high-handed fashion by which business is conducted by these two parties.

In January it was announced that rather than appoint one victims’ commissioner (which would have cost the public purse approximately £250,000 annually) a victims’ commission comprising 4 commissioners would instead be appointed (at the cost of approximately £750,000 per annum). The ludicrous pretence used to justify this decision being that the First and Deputy First Ministers had been so overwhelmed by the quality of candidates available for the post that they had felt compelled to offer posts to the four eventual appointees. It was rather like something the original Chuckle Brothers might have presided over on Saturday morning TV -‘You’re all so good we simply can’t separate you and we’re going to give you each a prize’.

Those of us of a more cynical bent were criticised by the twin nationalisms axis for daring to suggest that this profligate decision was not designed to deliver a better service for victims and was less attributable to the reasons stated by the OFDFM, than to the two parties’ failure to agree on a single commissioner. The most risibly distrustful commentators even hinted that this failure resulted in a deal between Paisley and McGuinness, which would be instigated and funded at the public’s expense, and would produce a commission likely to reflect widely differing definitions of what constitutes a victim. The implication of such a ludicrous allegation would be, of course, that if Ian Paisley had agreed to this deal or compromise, that he was knowingly acquiescing in the appointment of a commission with at least one member who would recognise perpetrators of terror who were killed in the course of their activities as victims equal in status to those killed or murdered by the IRA.

Appointing four commissioners has necessitated a change in legislation and an amendment proposed by Alliance to appoint one of the commission leader of the team has provoked outrage from Sinn Féin. Their apoplexy does not stem from support for the amendment proffered by the UUP and SDLP, who view it as a distinctly sensible provision that will enable the new commission to work efficiently and who would like to impose some definition on roles which have been left unaccountably ambiguous. Rather they are scandalised at members of the DUP expressing support for the amendment. They are breaking the conditions of an agreement struck by Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin fulminates! Who would have thunk it?

In the death throes of Ian Paisley’s tenure as First Minister, it is understandable that his party are less inclined to abide by the terms of an agreement struck by their leader, particularly as its implications become clear. The episode does however expose both the imperious style of their outgoing party leader and the authoritarian nature of the axis they have set up with Sinn Fein. Had not the DUP begun to think twice about the deal which had been struck, a piece of damaging horse trading would have been imposed on the people of Northern Ireland, despite the dissent of all the smaller parties. This still might happen.

And it is this aspect of the DUP / SF relationship which Patterson has diagnosed so accurately. They do not care about anyone else’s mandate and perhaps even more pertinently they did not care about anyone else’s mandate when they were the smaller parties either. Patterson’s rueful observation is that the peace process which emerged pandered to this disrespect for others’ opinions. The author quotes from Jonathan Powell’s new book ‘Great Hatred, Little Room’. Powell comments,

"Seamus Mallon's complaint is that we talked to Sinn Féin because they had the guns. My answer to that is: yes, and your point is?"

As the novelist observes,

“His point, Jonathan, is that at the time Sinn Féin did not have the majority of even the nationalist vote.”

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Even Americans can appreciate the irony when Shinners get sanctimonious

Who says that American don't do irony? is a website of the Entertainment Consumers Association and covers topics “where politics and video games collide”.

A blog entry notes that Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly has provided his blessing to the Byron Review which deals with children’s use of the internet and violent video games.

“We can’t help but noting Kelly’s Wikipedia entry, which reports that he was found guilty of conspiracy in regard to a 1973 terrorist bombing in London which killed one person and injured 200 more. He subsquently escaped prison, shooting a guard in the process.

It’s good to see that he’s concerned about violent video games.”

The West's New Cold Warriors are the biggest handicap to Russian democracy

At Burke’s Corner Brian Crowe has written lucidly on avoiding unreasonably provoking Russia. Brian explicates the real differences which inform western and Russian outlooks and implicitly acknowledges Russia’s right to follow a different course. In the view of Burke’s Corner what is required is respect for Russia’s history, interests and geography. This respect would necessarily entail a less aggressive and expansionist agenda within NATO.

Writing at Comment is Free, former Danish foreign minister Uffe Elleman-Jensen is less inclined to accord Russia respect. Rather he has chosen to interpret Russia’s scepticism about eastward NATO expansion as ‘bullying’ and clearly regrets the end of a period during which the Kremlin could safely be ignored on the world stage. When Uffe-Elleman laments that, “1989 was not the end of history. History threatens to return”, the substance of his grievance is actually that 1989 did not signal the end of Russian influence and did not herald a unipolar world.

His comments illustrate very graphically post Cold War confusion as to the role of NATO. Another blogger with an interest in Eastern Europe and occasional Three Thousand Versts commenter CW raises this confusion in the comment zone of a previous thread.

“NATO has outlived its original cold war era purpose of providing a defence mechanism against ground attack for the west European states against the Soviet bloc. Now it seems to have taken the role of an international police force come aid agency concerned mostly with protecting the geo-strategic-economic interests of Uncle Sam.”

In his article Uffe-Elleman conflates the military alliance NATO, with the political institutions of the EU and indeed with the more nebulous terms “Europe” and “the West” barely attempting to distinguish between any of these different concepts, geographical descriptions and international organisations. NATO is simply another aspect of an indivisible block comprising ‘the West’, built around the United States and the EU, self-evidently promoting the universal values of “democracy and freedom”.

This mentality echoes Edward Lucas’ book ‘The New Cold War’ which advocates a more confrontational and united approach to relations with Russia from the US and EU. As Robert Service argued in an article in Sunday’s Observer, such an attitude merely cements the authority of more authoritarian leaders in Russia and discredits the credentials of liberal democracy in the eyes of ordinary Russians.

Monday, 7 April 2008

Groundless allegations quietly forgotten about

An interesting post-script from a story from last year. When Estonia’s computer systems suffered attacks from hackers last April the government alleged that these attacks were launched from the Kremlin. A year later Estonia is braced for more attacks, but the allegations appear to have dissipated. Indeed it emerges that a 20 year old Estonian has been prosecuted for the attacks.

Estonia has a large, alienated Russian community who were incensed when a memorial to Soviet war dead was removed from central Tallinn.

Friday, 4 April 2008

'“Civic society” has attempted to write its own permanent and legally binding programme for government'

Newton Emerson takes an interesting approach to the Bill of Rights Forum, detecting in its proposals an attempt to impose the primacy of ‘civic society’ in government. Emerson argues that the various interest groups have not only ignored political representatives' input in the forum, and shaped the report’s proposals exclusively on their own terms, but they are also creating an executive role for the judiciary who must oversee all legislation to make sure that it conforms not only to the bill’s provisions, but also to its spirit.

The Forum established a working group to establish how judicially enforceable its suggestions might be. This group paid particular attention to ‘programmatic’ or ‘target’ rights. The report recommends that a ‘justiciability audit’ be carried out to continue this process. Yet more money required from the public purse. The argument so far is that economic and social legislation should be brought before a judge even if the objective of that legislation conforms to the requirements of the Bill.

Emerson is justly cynical about the motivations for the interest groups in framing their suggestions in this way:

“Now “civic society” has attempted to write its own permanent and legally binding programme for government while also appropriating the powers and resources to enforce it.”

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Bertie is no Gorby

Like Ian Paisley before him, Bertie Ahern’s announcement that he will resign next month has been greeted with a plethora of political obituaries. Paisley’s resignation was presaged by suggestions of improbity and to say that there was a whiff of fiscal impropriety hanging over Bertie Ahern would be quite an understatement. Nevertheless these retrospective articles have in the cases of both men, at times bordered on eulogy. Columnists and colleagues alike, once a resignation has been tendered, have instantly begun to downplay and ignore the unfolding scandals which caused them.

With Ahern, unlike Paisley, the praise has been unambiguous and almost universal. Fintan O’Toole’s article on Comment is Free has been completely atypical:

“Allegations that he had taken large sums of cash from private donors while he was minister for finance in 1993 and 1994? That he had failed to pay tax on at least some of that money, even though he was in charge of the tax system? That he had been brazenly untruthful in a set-piece TV interview he gave when the Irish Times first broke the story in the September 2006? That he had misled parliament on numerous occasions? That his sworn evidence to a tribunal of inquiry investigating corruption in the planning system in Dublin has been, at best, highly evasive and, at worst, almost risibly incredible?”

More representative is Henry McDonald’s article in the Guardian, which praises Ahern’s statesmanship, ascribes his downfall to petty local difficulties (that’ll be difficulties in his main job of honestly running the Irish Republic) and even compares the outgoing Taoiseach to Mikhail Gorbachev. Today’s Newshound links countless similar news pieces and a clutch of fawning editorials.

The issue of Ahern’s honesty, or lack thereof, is for the most part swept aside. O’Toole is not as forgiving. He highlights Ahern’s early interdependence with the reprehensible and crooked Fianna Fail leader Charles Haughey.

“The performance was so magisterial that it was almost forgotten that he was the political protege of the flagrantly corrupt former Taoiseach Charles Haughey. When Haughey admiringly referred to Ahern as "the most skilful, the most devious and the most cunning", the remark was treated as a joke. It is only now, when the tribunal of inquiry is looking into unexplained transactions totalling almost €900,000 in today's terms, that we realise just how cunning he really was.”

The issue of honesty is surely integral to assessing how fit a person is to retain high political office? It is not enough simply to sweep aside such allegations by pointing to economic success or involvement in the peace process.

But that appears to be precisely what is happening with these evaluations of Ahern. The peace process has been adopted by commentators as an emblematic and absolving motif for Ahern’s career. One of Ahern’s most prominent contributions to that process was removing the constitutional claim on Northern Ireland from the Republic’s constitution. This helped to enshrine acceptance of the principle of consent and removed a central tenet of nationalist ideology in the process.

If Ahern bears any comparison to Gorbachev it is because both men dismantled the more offensive aspects of an outdated ideology. In Gorbachev’s case his progressiveness and foresight contributed to his downfall, in the case of Bertie Ahern we would do well to remember that his more laudable actions played no part in his demise.

Liverpool - Arsenal clash promises to go down to the wire

Next Tuesday promises a tense quarter final in the Champions League after Liverpool and Arsenal’s first leg tie at the Emirates last night ended in stalemate. Rafa Benitez will be the happier manager as his team gained a draw and scored an away goal in a match which saw Arsenal enjoy more possession. However he will be mindful that in the previous round Arsene Wenger’s side travelled to Milan after a drawn first leg and dominated AC before running out comfortable two goal winners.

Anfield is a venue to inspire awe and trepidation amongst opposition players on big European nights and it is in this competition that Benitez’s success rate is at its most formidable. Liverpool will need to be more enterprising at home than they were at times last night. For large periods of the game they were happy to cede possession. And whilst this tactic paid dividends ultimately, there were moments when Arsenal broke through Liverpool’s resolute defence and might have given themselves the advantage in the tie.

Both goals were shabby affairs defensively. In particular Arsenal’s Adebayor was permitted to head home a corner completely unchallenged. Four Arsenal players were likewise unmarked should the striker have missed his opportunity. Liverpool’s goal was more attributable to Steven Gerrard’s powerful run past Toure, but the Arsenal defence will have felt they could do more to prevent Dirk Kuyt bundling Gerrard’s cross into the net.

The goal heralded Liverpool’s most comfortable spell of the match. Until half time it appeared that the team in third choice black were more likely to take the lead. Wenger’s decision to bring Walcott and Bendtner on changed the game in the second period. Walcott’s runs troubled Jamie Carragher who was operating out of position on the right. Arsenal were to dominate possession and create a number of chances after the interval.

Credit must go to Dutch referee, Vink, who had a good night and was not impressed as Hleb threw himself to the ground after brushing against Dirk Kuyt’s arm. A lesser referee may have changed the course of the tie. Equally pivotal was Bendtner’s unwitting clearance of an effort from Fabregas. Liverpool dug in manfully and withstood the pressure applied to them. Mescherano in particular produced an outstanding performance intercepting, tackling and blocking to the chagrin of the Arsenal support.

This was certainly not Liverpool’s finest performance this season however. Jamie Carragher produced heroics in the second half in particular, but he was simply not as effective on the right hand side of defence. Ryan Babel produced a listless display and was rather profligate in possession of the ball. On one occasion he flighted a pass across the entire breadth of the pitch just outside his own 18 yard line. The incident must have given Rafa Benitez palpitations. When the Israeli orphan child Benayoun replaced Babel his performance was equally poor.

The majority of Liverpool’s players emerged from the match with credit however. Skrtel is growing in confidence weekly in central defence and in general the entire back-line was magnificent. Although Alonso was anonymous in midfield and eventually Benitez replace him with Lucas, the rest of the central unit was extremely solid. I have criticised Dirk Kuyt relentlessly this season, but I must say, his work-rate was integral to achieving a creditable result last night. He even came closest to scoring a second goal, drawing a sharp low stop from Almunia. Dirk celebrated his goal by manically running toward Steven Gerrard shouting “fucking hell”. These sentiments exactly reflected my surprise at the quality of his performance. Torres too produced a typically high energy display.

Before this tie is concluded next Tuesday night the two sides encounter each other in Saturday’s league clash. This will provide an interesting dilemma as regards team selection. Both managers will most likely be wary, recognising that Tuesday’s match is more crucial in terms of realistic opportunities to acquire silverware.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

When is a nationalist not a nationalist?

It is a rich irony that nationalist politicians do not believe that local politicians are capable of reaching a decision about the Bill of Rights. Both Sinn Fein and SDLP representatives have expressed a preference for this bill to be implemented by Westminster should the bill get to that stage.

Nationalists appealing to the British government to implement legislation in Northern Ireland may be ironic, but it is hardly surprising given the content of the report containing proposals for the Bill of Rights. The bill comprises sections which read like a nationalist wish list and any vote requiring cross community consensus, or even a simple majority, would be unlikely to be carried in the Assembly.

Rather than a bill which aims to protect the human rights of everyone in Northern Ireland, the proposals weld on to duplication of existing human rights law, measures which impose a duty to ignore the crimes of terrorists and a duty to fund from the public purse unnecessary services in minority languages.

Opposing NATO expansion is both understandable and correct

George Bush’s insistence ahead of the NATO summit in Bucharest that Georgia and Ukraine should be set on the road to full membership exposes the train of thought which is souring relations between Russia, America and other western states following the American line. The attitude is not simply that Russia’s foreign policy concerns are not legitimate. Effectively the way the US is acting denies that Russia has any legitimate foreign policy concerns at all.

To advance this military alliance, historically hostile to the USSR, in a way that will encircle Russia and penetrate deep into the country’s sphere of influence undermines Russia’s interests without a shadow of a doubt. If Russia were to enter a military alliance with Canada and Mexico would the US remain unconcerned because the Kremlin insisted the alliance was not a threat to the US? The US may maintain that expansion does not pose a threat to Russia, but ask the states which are poised to join why exactly they wish to join the alliance. These states wish to join in order to assert their independence from Russia.

The idea that expanding NATO in this way will foster, as Bush suggests, a safer, freer world is a fallacious notion in any case. There is little evidence, certainly, that the people of Ukraine have any desire to join the alliance. Russia is right to oppose moves to expand NATO to encompass Ukraine and Georgia and France and Germany are correct in opposing such moves from within NATO.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Wiping the slate clean for terror criminals - more 'highlights' from the Bill of Rights proposals

Yesterday I hinted at the consequences the Bill of Rights proposals would have as regards those who were involved in crime as part of terrorist organisations throughout the troubles in Northern Ireland. The document defines victims in such a way as to encompass anyone who was endangered by their involvement in criminal acts. Thus someone who was blown up whilst attempting to plant a bomb in order to kill others, would be considered a victim under the remit of this proposed legislation.

It seems that in the detail of the proposals for a Bill of Rights lies a clause which would have more direct legal consequences.

“Public authorities may not unfairly discriminate, either directly or indirectly, against anyone on one or more grounds ……. Including …..irrelevant criminal record or conflict related conviction”.

You will find the text under the Equality provisions of the report, under clause 2. This wording is opposed strongly by the UUP, DUP, Alliance Party NI and by the Catholic Church. These objections are contained in subsequent pages of the report, but the clause has nevertheless made it into the final recommended text.

Apart from providing a sharp reminder of how unrepresentative the process of compiling this report was, this clause epitomises the type of insidious content, straying far from the human rights remit, which this bill is likely to contain. Firstly this type of clause belongs firmly within the remit of equality legislation.

The rights lobby have been accustomed to justifying the need for this legislation by contending that it would comprise an ‘overarching framework’ of rights. Specifying criteria which public bodies may not use to make decisions is not an overarching framework

Beyond this clause’s inappropriateness within the frame of rights legislation, there is its content. Taking the proposition that there are ‘irrelevant convictions’ and presumably relevant convictions, this clause supposes that any ‘conflict related’ conviction must be irrelevant within the context of an individual’s dealings with public bodies. This is patently not the case. A criminal conviction is a criminal conviction and must be treated as such.