Friday, 30 May 2008

Mary Robinson. A united Ireland 'isn't on the agenda' and 'doesn't need to be on the agenda'

Mary Robinson was president of the Republic of Ireland when the state still made an irredentist constitutional claim on Northern Ireland. The offending clauses were altered after the Republic’s voters endorsed the Belfast Agreement in 1998 and it is instructive that ten years later it is Robinson’s view that a united Ireland “"isn't on the agenda" and "doesn't need to be on the agenda". In an interview with William Crawley, the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights added that a united Ireland, " isn't even relevant to the context of what is happening [here now] ... There is no constituency of pressure for a united Ireland".

The view which Robinson is articulating is similar to that which Maurice Hayes ascribed to the majority of voters in the Republic who endorsed the 1998 accord. This reading of the agreement views it as a permanent or long-term arrangement for Northern Ireland, departing from the northern nationalist view that it represents a staging post on the route to a united Ireland. The southern electorate, having discharged their emotional duty toward northern nationalism, in Hayes’ analysis saw the agreement as ‘a polite way of saying so-long’.

In ensuring that the irredentist machinery was removed from the Irish constitution and the principle of consent enshrined in the Belfast Agreement, David Trimble and his party strengthened the safeguards ensuring Northern Ireland’s constitutional status, but the process was also facilitated by a desire within the Republic to disengage from northern nationalism. This disengagement is to be encouraged as it engenders realism within northern nationalism and fosters a stable atmosphere in order to strengthen Northern Ireland’s institutions.

The encroachment of Fianna Fáil into the politics of Northern Ireland is an unwelcome retrograde step in this regard, as Hayes observed. There is a danger that further organisation in Northern Ireland will send ambivalent signals to both nationalists and unionists here, with destabilising and unhelpful results.

In contrast, the attitude which Mary Robinson articulates, contributes to a much more constructive atmosphere within Northern Ireland. There are challenges to be met by both sides of the political divide. Unionists must help build a successful Northern Ireland which seeks to include and make welcome the Irish nationalist tradition. Nationalists meanwhile must accept that the constitutional question has for the foreseeable future been settled, and recognize that their acceptance of the principle of consent entails respecting that constitutional position and not seeking to undermine it.

Wogan for a smaller Europe?

Russia’s delight at adding a Eurovision winner to April’s sporting triumphs in football and ice hockey was not shared by Terry Wogan. Indeed the presenter, whose sardonic commentary exemplifies the Eurovision contest for those watching on the BBC, has threatened to quit before next year’s final, in protest at what he considers the ‘geo-political’ factors which determine voting.

Now I must confess that, if I watch Eurovision at all, my habit is to tune in only after the music has finished and the voting has commenced. Perhaps it is the ‘geo-political’ influences which colour the votes from various countries which I actually enjoy. Mark Mardell offers the theory that large minorities from neighbouring countries may explain why the voting often seems to be determined by physical proximity. I have no doubt that there is some truth to this suggestion.

Equally, even where there are not substantial minorities living in adjacent countries, and where there is little historical affinity, or indeed outright antipathy, between neighbours, often votes still accrue to each other. I would suggest that the reasons why this might be are quite simple. There are similarities of language and culture in various areas, whether they are Scandinavia, the Baltics, the Balkans or wherever, which (get this Terry) actually incline people to appreciate similar music.

When Wogan bemoans the standard of the eastern European entries, or those from elsewhere and claims the competition is being transformed into a farce, he is actually simply reflecting an opinion that the music which is prevailing is crap and that the British entry is better! There’s nothing terribly sinister in the fact that many eastern Europeans disagree. What Wogan is effectively objecting to is the fact that more countries with cultural sensibilities which he doesn’t understand are competing.

The horizons of Eurovision have expanded and Terry’s just not comfortable with that. He needs to lighten up.

Thursday, 29 May 2008

Principle of consent should be upheld despite SF complaints

A couple of days ago Mark Devenport reported that the Assembly Commission had furnished Sinn Féin’s Barry McElduff with a list of ‘symbols and emblems’ contained within the Stormont Estate. To refer to many of the contents which appear on the list as ‘symbols’ or ‘emblems’ is actually stretching the terms to breaking point. All the various paintings, ornaments, artefacts and paraphernalia which have been acquired since the building opened have been included, whether they are on open display or in storage.

McElduff has already released a statement on PSF’s website, urging a ‘shake-up’ in the distribution of symbols. As yet the tone is fairly sanguine, although whether this is because of the storm of derision at previous PSF symbol ‘audits’ in local councils, or whether the Shinners have as yet to decide which objects they will choose to be offended by is not clear.

There are a number of items in the existing list which reflect the Irish nationalist tradition and more which allude to a more all encompassing sense of cultural Irishness. If reasonable proposals are made whereby more emblems of this type can be introduced in the interests of equality, reasonable unionists should not have any difficulty with such suggestions.

Reflecting a sense of Irishness and acknowledging the Irish nationalist tradition within Northern Ireland is not however to be confused with recognition of symbols and paraphernalia associated with the Republic of Ireland state, nor does it require the removal of furniture of statehood which reflects Northern Ireland’s constitutional status as part of the United Kingdom. Sinn Féin should not be allowed to employ an equality agenda to attempt to wriggle out of the consequences of their acceptance of the principle of consent.

Good riddance, as wastrel heads to 'Tics

In terms of unrealised potential, Harry Kewell must be amongst Liverpool FC’s most disappointing transfer deals. The Australian had a great deal of talent, but singularly lacked the desire and application to translate that ability into match winning performances at Anfield. I for one will be breathing a sigh of relief if, as the Belfast Tele is reporting, the club cut their losses and send Kewell packing to Celtic. At Parkhead he can hobble unwillingly down the wing looking forlornly at the bench or suffer gout as much as he pleases without Liverpool shelling out £75k a week.

Empey seeks Scottish graduates for NI jobs

I went to Scotland to study, my girlfriend acquired her first degree in Scotland, my sister was educated in two universities in Scotland, a high percentage of my friends attended universities in Scotland and I would estimate that approximately one third of my school year did likewise. Universities in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen are filled with Northern Irish students and naturally many do not return to these shores when their studies are completed.

Sir Reg Empey has been spearheading a campaign, not to reverse the trend, but rather to attract graduates from Scotland to Northern Ireland to work. To this end four top companies lined up alongside the Minister for Education and Learning at Glasgow University’s Summer Graduate Fair at the SECC. The intention is to establish a presence at various graduate fairs throughout Britain.

This is a welcome initiative and I hope it is a successful one. The brain drain is a marked phenomenon, but it is healthy for talented people from Northern Ireland to move throughout the UK and play a full role in the success of the country. To offset this movement we simultaneously must seek to attract talented people from the rest of the United Kingdom, to contribute to this region of their country.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Stop funding these terror rags

Semantic moral gymnastics about ‘one man’s freedom fighter’ not withstanding, someone who has been convicted of bombing civilian targets and is directly implicated in the eight murders which resulted, is unambiguously a terrorist. Brian Keenan, the violent republican extremist who died of cancer last week, carried responsibility for many more murders and there is not a shadow of doubt that any right thinking person will have abhorred this man’s legacy and adjudged the manner in which he chose to use his talents wholly despicable.

That republicans celebrate Keenan’s life and regard him as a hero is of course unsurprising. Their viewpoint is indefensible and it is a reminder of precisely the character of people we are dealing with as regards Provisional Sinn Féin and its supporters. It is still less of a surprise to find that the Andersonstown News contains a glowing and sinister tribute to Keenan within its pages. Those who are responsible for this paper and its stable mates are disgraceful, unacceptable people.

Under a headline which reads ‘Brian: a Soldier of Ireland’ we read that the paper considers Keenan “exemplified everything that was fine and decent about republicanism and the republican struggle”. A turn of phrase which ironically highlights precisely that republicanism and the republican struggle epitomise the very opposite of everything which is fine and decent.

Unfortunately one of the ambivalences of enjoying the pluralism and freedom which living in the UK ensures is that detestable people have the right to publicly air their detestable views. Whilst Keenan and his fascist colleagues attempted to bomb a dissenting majority into a united Ireland, they simultaneously enjoyed the protections which living in the state they so reviled afforded. When they made their pragmatic decision to cease killing it allowed their agenda an ever greater airing.

It is not incumbent on the government however, to publicly fund the dissemination of these disgraceful views. The supreme irony is that Martin Miller and his cronies have lacerated the government for insufficiently subsidising the hate spewed from their newspapers, whilst simultaneously drawing substantial quantities of funding.

I would submit that all the funding should be stopped.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

The benefits of a 'quality education' at RBAI?

A number of months ago Peter Munce provided a fairly succinct assessment of Lib Dem MP Lembit Opik over at Baronsville. I would tend to concur with Peter’s conclusion and add that I tend to the view that the member for Montgomeryshire is not nearly as entertaining as he seems to believe himself to be. And therefore there was little amusement derived from Opik’s Guardian article, pleading the case for his fiancé’s native Romania as a surrogate team for British supporters in this summer’s European Championships, to offset incredulity that this son of Estonian immigrants appears to believe that Romania was once part of the Soviet Union!

Please note Sir Kenneth Bloomfield!

Avoiding relapsing into 'managed decline'

The Ulster Unionist Party holds it’s AGM this Saturday and Alex Kane has been contemplating the role of the party’s structures (which Sir Reg Empey has been in the process of overhauling) in preventing modernisation. Kane’s view is that throughout unionist history, when pivotal opportunities presented themselves to the UUP to modernise, become more pluralist and thus to make Northern Ireland a more stable entity, the party’s leadership was hampered by its decentralised structure and its various disparate pressure groups.

Kane raises former leader James Molyneaux’s diagnosis that “we must reassess every facet of our structures and overhaul every aspect of our operations”, and acidly notes, “the reality, of course, is that Mr Molyneaux didn’t do that”. The ‘broad church’ approach to the unionist party made top down change impractical and contributed to Molyneaux presiding, Brezhnev-like, over a period of unionist stagnation from the late 70s through to the mid 90s, during which political developments left unionism behind and serious reverses were inflicted.

The connection of UUP internal party organisation to the history of unionism and Northern Ireland as a whole constitutes an interesting angle, and when David Trimble began to move unionism into a position whereby it was taking the initiative, internal difficulties would form a significant barrier which he was forced to work hard to overcome. However the failure, until recently, to actually provide a dynamic for change is rooted in a deeper unionist malaise.

In his conversations with Frank Millar
, David Trimble characterises the approach of his predecessor as the party’s leader, Molyneaux, as ‘managing unionism’s decline’. The ambition which Trimble set himself throughout his tenure was to move the leadership of unionism from a position whereby it saw its purpose as ‘managing decline’ to a position from which it actively sought to strengthen the Union through engagement with the governments and other parties.

Trimble effected this change. From a position in which the Anglo Irish Agreement was imposed on unionists without any consultation, unionism became central to the process which culminated in the Belfast Agreement. But the process must be continued. With the DUP and SF ascendant in a sectarian, carve-up administration, replete with mutual veto, the capacity for unionism to retreat into recalcitrance and inertia is very real.

It is up to the UUP, streamlined into a modern and effective party, to relentlessly work to solidify the Union and present the case for its continuance, whilst reflecting the pluralist values which typify the United Kingdom. That the DUP, with its sectarian DNA, it Ulster nationalist impulse and its illiberal tendencies cannot do.

Friday, 23 May 2008

'New' cold warriors simply haven't adjusted to end of the old one

The Guardian’s Jonathan Steele is amongst the most sober and sensible commentators on modern Russia. Whilst acknowledging that the country has problems as regards western notions of democracy and freedom, he simultaneously identifies sound historical reasons, both in the recent and more distant pasts, why this should be. He also emphasises the importance of a neighbourly relationship with Russia and defends its right to both chart its own path and defend its own interests on the international stage.

Today Steele focuses on EU efforts to renew the expired Partnership and Cooperation Agreement and the difficulties which are inherent in these attempts. In one particularly perspicacious sentence Steele cuts through the bellicose tone of those who suggest that relations with Russia are inevitably going to degenerate into a ‘new cold war’.

“Far from being in a "new cold war", neither the EU nor Russia has yet adjusted to the end of the old one and the past two decades' turmoil of newly released post-Soviet nationalisms.”

The idea of a new cold war is simply a symptom of attitudes which have not yet adjusted to the idea of a strong and independent Russia not comprising a threat.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

More on Russian football and national resurgence

I hope to take Marc Bennetts’ book Football Dynamo to Russia next month as part of my holiday reading. It is subtitled ‘Russia and the People’s Game’ and purports to be an examination of football’s role in the world’s biggest country.

Bennetts has an article on Open Democracy’s new Russian blog (see also the updated links menu) today which hopefully provides something of a taster. His chosen topic is Russia’s football resurgence and its links to the political and economic fate of the country.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Lugovoi case not proven

The press have picked up on Andrei Lugovoi’s intended attendance at an event in Moscow tonight, at which a lot of British people will also be present. Lugovoi has garnered substantial publicity thanks to allegations that he murdered ex-KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko. These have propelled him into the Russian Duma where he represents Zhirinovsky’s extreme nationalist Liberal Democratic Party (not as the Guardian claims, a pro-Kremlin party, but rather a party in opposition to Putin’s United Russia).

It is perhaps a timely moment to remember that theories about Lugovoi murdering Litvinenko, whether under instructions directly from Putin, or directed instead by a renegade group of ‘siloviki’, are merely that – theories – and that a growing body of evidence is being adduced to suggest that Britain’s case against Lugovoi is a weak one and that other possibilities are equally plausible. Mary Dejevsky has provided a useful synthesis of these arguments in the Independent (many of which draw on an extensively researched New York Sun article by Edward Jay Esptein). She breaks down the problematic aspects of the case into a number of categories which I will briefly reprise here.


Polonium 210 is not necessarily, as has been presented in the press, produced only in Russia. Any country with a nuclear reactor not inspected by the IAEA can produce the substance, including India, China, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea.

Polonium 210 is considered an unlikely murder weapon due to its cost. It is however highly prized on the international market, due to its application in constructing nuclear devices. Thus the possibility that Litvinenko died from accidental exposure to the substance, whilst involved in a smuggling operation, should not be discounted.


The former agent’s involvement has been adduced due to his meeting with Litvinenko coupled with the trail of radiation left in various locations to which he was linked. However Epsteain has suggested that the British authorities have omitted flights and contaminated sites which do not suggest the involvement of Lugovoi in order not to contradict their thesis. Alternative theories linking the omitted sites point to Litvinenko himself being the source of the radiation. An office building owned by Boris Berezovsky was reported at the time to be contaminated, but does not feature in the revised ‘official trail’.

The poisoning is alleged to have taken place in the Pine Bar in the Millennium Hotel via a contaminated pot of tea. Lugovoi insists that he does not remember tea being served during his brief meeting with the dead man and no CCTV footage has been produced to prove otherwise, despite plentiful cameras in the bar. Corroboration of tea being served, given 7 months later by a waiter to a newspaper, is flimsy evidence at best. Dejevsky concludes:

“If there was any deliberate poisoning – by tea, or any other substance – the most plausible venue appears to be a room at the same hotel where the two met earlier that same day (1 November). But the two had met on two previous occasions as well: two weeks before at another hotel, and in August at Litvinenko's home. There is nothing, however, to prove conclusively who poisoned whom – nor to disprove the theory that Litvinenko might somehow have been poisoned by mistake.”

Lugovoi claims that MI6 attempted unsuccessfully to recruit him on several occasions. He also maintains that a motive has not yet been provided to suggest why he would murder to Litvinenko, or put his family at risk in order to do so. He has remained consistent under questioning.


Given the high profile of this case, very little attention has been paid to the exact nature of Litvinenko and his associates. “The authorised British version is that Alexander Litvinenko was a political refugee who paid the ultimate price for his vocal opposition to Putin”. Of course Litvinenko was in the pay of unreformed crook Boris Berezovsky, but what his duties actually entailed has not been made clear.

There are problems with claims that he used his intelligence knowledge to perform industrial due diligence and in terms of his use to western intelligence services, the US turned down his asylum application due to the low level nature of the material he was offering. His business relationship with Lugovoi extended back over 10 years both men having connections with Berezovsky. Pertinently it was Litvinenko who approached Lugovoi to organise the meeting which has become the centre of allegations.

Another of Litvinenko’s acquaintances was Italian businessman Mario Scaramella who is known to have been involved in ‘such murky deals’ as smuggling nuclear material. Another piece of circumstantial evidence links Litvinenko with the world of nuclear smuggling – his opaque business dealings took him frequently to Georgia where a Russian man was caught in an FBI sting attempting to smuggle uranium in 2007.


Of the link with MI6 Dejevsky comments:

“It seems safe to say that Litvinenko had a relationship with MI6, which could be seen as providing a motive for Russia – or rival Russian exiles – to eliminate him. But it could also be seen as a hint of desperation: perhaps he could find no other line of paying business. Whatever the truth, MI6 probably knows more about what happened to Litvinenko, and why, than might be concluded from its complete non-appearance in the authorised British version of his death.”


Berezovsky’s name surfaces time and time again in the Litvinenko case. He employed the dead man and also enjoyed connections with his alleged murderer (indeed he had previously employed Lugovoi’s security company). During Litvinenko’s protracted death the dissident billionaire bankrolled a publicity company to present the ex-spy’s demise as he wished it to be presented. Whether Berezovsky truly believed Litvinenko to be poisoned or not, the narrative he advanced became accepted, even after it was established that polonium, rather than thallium, was the substance which he had ingested.

Of course none of these ‘clusters of questions’ proves conclusively that the British government’s allegations against Lugovoi are not correct, it is important to remember though that there are other explanations which have not yet been properly investigated.

David Trimble and the principle of consent

Frank Millar’s book about David Trimble, Price of Peace, takes the form of a series of extensive conversations with the former UUP leader, examining the beliefs, motivations and tactics which informed his political journey from the early 1990s onward. Price of Peace is a discussion, a dialogue, predicated on the ideas surrounding outward-looking, progressive unionism and therefore reading it is a stimulating experience, which raises issues which chime resonantly with the themes of this blog.

A passage in the book investigating the principle of consent and its role within unionist politics and those of Northern Ireland, in particular struck me as especially relevant, given a post carried on this site from Friday last. The two men discuss both the history of the principle, as it relates to the Northern Irish state, and the extent of Trimble’s achievement in enshrining that principle in an agreement to which all main sections within nationalist Ireland eventually subscribed.

The principle of consent, which acknowledges that any change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland must only take place with the consent of a majority of its people, is the bedrock of unionist argument. When Millar traces its acceptance by the British government, and the roots of its subsequent acceptance by the Republic of Ireland’s government, to the early 1970s and the Prime Ministership of Edward Heath, Trimble is quick to correct him.

The 1920 Government of Ireland Act, which set up the northern state and the southern Free State, carried implicit within it, the notion that Northern Ireland’s people would have to assent to any future all-Ireland parliament. This interpretation was effectively accepted by both governments when they signed the Anglo Irish Treaty and further enshrined by the Tripartite Agreement in 1925. Trimble’s thesis, and it is difficult to refute, is that the Irish Free State subscribed to the principle of consent and that the southern state abandoned that position only when it adopted de Valera’s irredentist constitution in 1937.

Whilst the British government restated the centrality of consent from 1973 onwards, it did not consistently cleave to its own undertaking. Trimble argues that the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement and its clause regarding the principle were effectively a means of saying ‘we’ve changed some things without consent, but we’ll not do it again’. Thus when Millar posits that the unionist leader ‘oversold’ consent’s inclusion in the Belfast Agreement, Trimble is able to argue that his achievement was not only in persuading nationalists to subscribe to a central unionist tenet, but that even the British government’s commitment to the principle was being substantially solidified.

Of course persuading nationalists to sign up to the principle of consent is a different matter altogether than making them adhere to what they signed up to. The equivocal attitude of nationalism to a principle which it purportedly accepts has been raised numerous times on Three Thousands Versts (most recently in the post cited above). There are differing degrees to which nationalists’ adherence to consent is either genuine or merely rhetorical. Trimble identifies the SDLP as committed to the principle for example. In contrast Sinn Féin’s approach is deliberately disingenuous and their policies are frequently designed actually to undermine the principle of consent.

The challenge for unionists is to clearly argue that having accepted the principle, nationalists should be expected to live with the consequences. Nationalists must persuade a majority of people within Northern Ireland to change their mind on the existing constitutional situation, rather than attempting to change it through stealth and sophistry.

A year of blogging

One year ago today Three Thousand Versts of Loneliness opened with its first post, a tentative effort speculating whom the IFA might choose to replace Lawrie Sanchez as Northern Ireland manager. From such humble beginnings, the humility has continued, although I’ve learned a bit about the technicalities of blogging in the interim. Hopefully some of the additional widgets and changes in layout offer a more user friendly experience for those who have stuck with us.

Gradually a web of links has been established with bloggers sharing similar preoccupations and through this expedient a readership has evolved. Posts about Northern Ireland politics have from the beginning been the most popular and Three Thousand Versts has become something of a fixture in the (admittedly small) unionist blogosphere. I’ve particularly enjoyed exchanging ideas and debate amongst readers and posters in this virtual community.

As regards recognition and approbation there have been a number of highlights during the year. In the initial tentative stages during which I was relatively clueless as to how to build links or publicise content to readers, Michael Shilliday helped enormously by identifying the blog as a UUP flavoured site and linking it both on the Young Unionists erstwhile website and on Slugger O’Toole. Slugger has picked up a number of posts from this site over the course of 12 months and traffic invariably rises substantially as a result. Indeed it was Slugger’s Mick Fealty who selected Three Thousand Versts as 18th best political blog in Ireland, back in September, thus securing inclusion and a brief synopsis in ‘Iain Dale’s Guide to Political Blogging’. Additionally the book mentioned us as 224th in its list of British political blogs, as voted by the general readership. Faint praise perhaps, but pleasing after only a few months online. An article on Russia’s new president was also featured in American online magazine Slate.

Some fascinating debates have ensued following posts on the blog, occasionally from unexpected sources. Observations springing from a trip to Latvia attracted the animus of a cadre of Baltic nationalists and a lengthy discussion of ethnic nationalism in post Soviet states resulted.

At one point in the year an impassioned plea for the rights of those with long hair was heard and a Canadian became very adamant that Northern Ireland had a long tradition of playing ice hockey.

Thank you to all readers and commenters and I hope you’ll stick around for another year, and all being well, some further debate and discussion.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Theocracy is dead, long live theocracy!

Whither the new technocratic, secular DUP under pragmatic Pentecostalist Peter Robinson and Nigel Dodds from the Free Ps liberal wing (ho-hum)? Onward towards a future where extremist clerics do not play a significant leadership role in the party? Or not as the case may be.

London, Chicago and Cullybackey

At the risk of losing my readership entirely, I couldn’t resist drawing attention to this confluence of famous TV programme, be-afroed Northern Irish singing sensation and the province’s finest village, Cullybackey.

Not only has Duke Special produced the theme tune for Northern Ireland’s version of Sesame Street, alongside children from the Diamond Primary School, his newsletter also details venues where the Duke will record his new album, “London, Chicago and Cullybackey”.

The attractions of London and Chicago will pale into insignificance when the Duke samples a chicken fillet burger from the Moby Chip. Although if he fancies a drink in Wylies, there’s a possibility his keyboard skills might be required to play the Queen on the trusty Casio at closing time.

Monday, 19 May 2008

Paisley - From Demagogue to Democrat?

In the introduction to ‘Paisley: From Demagogue to Democrat?’ Ed Moloney asks ‘was Paisley the only member of his flock who never really or truly believed his own gospel?’ and the book certainly points to a cynicism within the man which dictates that the only principles which he does not expect to be unbending are his own. This biography of the outgoing DUP leader plots the machinations whereby, fomenting division and fuelling hatred, he opportunistically carved out both his own church and political party from the main bodies of Presbyterianism and unionism respectively.

Moloney’s updated book is particularly lucid charting the symbiotic, nurturing relationship between Paisleyism and republicanism throughout the troubles and into the present dispensation. The IRA’s campaign provided the climate of fear in which Paisley’s politics could thrive and conversely his brand of sectarianism and recalcitrance contributed to an atmosphere where violence could flourish. Often the DUP leader would flirt deniably with loyalist variants of such violence, before drawing back when the physical threat of these organisations had served its purpose. Now Paisley’s party and republicans sustain each other in much more overt fashion, in turns evoking the bogey man of the other for electoral advantage, and presiding over an agreed carve-up of Northern Ireland into their respective fiefdoms.

Whilst Paisley’s political career is well documented, the early sections of this book, drawn from the previous edition co-authored with Andy Pollak, document his family roots and those of his church, in the extreme fringe of rural evangelical Christianity. This was a world in which dancing, attending the cinema and wearing bobbed hair were often considered sinful and where fierce theological disputes would flare up with preternatural intensity. Ian Paisley travelled all over Northern Ireland, seeking out dispute and confrontation, single-mindedly capitalising on whatever dissent he could find in order to build his own Free Presbyterian church. Religion enabled him to establish a following, enflamed by his hyperbolic and hate-filled rhetoric, which would provide the bedrock for his political movement.

Paisley’s on-off movement toward politics was inseparable from his anti-Catholicism. Only weeks after he was ordained, the new minister became linked with the extremist National Union of Protestants. His various promises to remain out of the political sphere would be pragmatically set aside on numerous occasions, until he was eventually involved in politics on a full-time basis and every vestige of an undertaking he had made to his church was abandoned. Moloney describes this transition in meticulous detail from rabble rousing crowds on the Shankill Road into attacks on Catholic property, through to increasingly rabid attacks on the Official Unionist establishment, until eventually Paisley stood against Terence O’Neill in the Bannside constituency, thus formalising his involvement in politics.

Paisley’s incessant cries of treachery which contributed to the departures of O’Neill, Chichester-Clark, Faulkner, Trimble and others have been documented thoroughly before. Much of the detail of his political ascent will be familiar material for readers who have an interest in the period. Moloney does however recount some fascinating background from the formative history of the DUP of which I was unaware. That Paisley toyed with notions of Ulster independence will shock no-one who has identified the nationalist bent to his politics, but that he briefly occupied an integrationist position or that he spoke positively about the prospect of a united Ireland (albeit one with a constitution altered to disestablish Catholicism and afford protection for northern Protestants) may be initially surprising. His fellow traveller in setting up the party, Desmond Boal, was eventually to plump for Irish federalism as his preferred solution to ordering statehood on the island. Of course these departures from anything definable as unionism are not inconsistent with the Paisley’s credo. His unionism springs merely from a strategic consideration of how best to lead his Ulster Protestant ‘Volk’ rather than any real commitment to the Union or to the United Kingdom and its values and institutions.

Moloney’s book delivers its most pertinent analysis examining the DUP’s rise to become unionism’s largest party through recalcitrant opposition to peace initiatives and the subsequent about-face which Paisley performed to assume power when this process had been completed. Although DUP sources are not named, impressive research has been conducted into the dynamics within the party as its leadership manipulated it towards power-sharing with Sinn Féin. Much space is devoted to the relationship between Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson, which vacillated between loathing and mutual reliance.

Apart from Paisley himself, the most scathing criticism in this book is reserved for Tony Blair. Moloney sees Blair’s constant concessions to Sinn Féin following the Belfast Agreement as a pivotal reason for the eventual triumph of the extremes. The mutual relationship between Paisley and republicans could clearly be observed during this period as both prospered together as a result of Blair’s mismanagement of the process. As it became clearer that a deal between the DUP and Sinn Féin was possible a conscious decision was made to jettison the two more moderate parties. The current carve-up at Stormont is a direct result of decisions made during this period.

‘From Demagogue to Democrat?’ is a meticulously researched account of Ian Paisley’s malign influence on Northern Ireland. Moloney allows the facts and analysis to speak for themselves, fashioning a comprehensive and academic account, without really examining the emotional pull which Paisley’s charisma manages to exert on his followers. The demagogue’s motives are examined and Moloney comes to some scathing conclusions. Whether Paisley has entered power with Sinn Féin to scorn a unionist establishment which has in the past spurned him, or whether taking the First Minister’s position is merely the culmination of a lifetime’s cynical manipulation, he has crowned a career epitomising hatred and bigotry, by exemplifying unprincipled hypocrisy even more convincingly.

Friday, 16 May 2008

Fianna Fail, consent and undermining unionist confidence in the Republic's government

Maurice Hayes has been outlining his thoughts regarding Fianna Fail organising in Northern Ireland and the mooted deal between that party and the SDLP. The former Republic of Ireland senator adjudges any serious incursion into northern politics a possible destabilising influence which could undermine the underlying purpose of the Belfast Agreement, as accepted by a large majority in both Irish jurisdictions.

Hayes’ article raises a point which is worth picking up on from a unionist perspective. He interprets Southern Ireland’s overwhelming endorsement of the Agreement as “a polite way of saying so-long rather than a bid for further and closer engagement”. The motivation of this relative disengagement is inspired by a desire to give breathing space to northern politicians in order to let them establish their own institutions and order their own affairs.

He argues that Fianna Fail’s movement into Northern Ireland is contrary to this impulse and that it will have an unsettling influence on politics here, particularly for unionists. He is quite right to highlight this danger. Fianna Fail’s direct involvement in electoral politics here will reinforce unionist suspicions that nationalists have not wholeheartedly subscribed to the principle of consent and that an agenda of constitutional encroachment subsists alongside a rhetorical commitment to respect unionism’s democratic position.

Unionists expect and can deal with Sinn Féin’s attempts to subvert Northern Ireland’s constitutional position. Even the constitutional nationalist mindset is such that a narrow line lies between strengthening ties with the Republic and seeking to rebalance the state’s constitutional equilibrium toward Dublin. But in order to win space for agreement, it has been necessary for the Dublin government to persuade unionists that they can be something of an honest broker.

The most concrete manifestation of Dublin’s bona fides was of course dropping articles 2 & 3 of the Republic’s constitution but a sequence of more subtle diplomacy has built up a vital element of trust between unionists and the south’s political establishment. Hayes is an astute enough observer to realise that this fragile edifice could incur serious damage if Fianna Fail make serious inroads in Northern Ireland.

Zenit and Russian revival

As a minority of Rangers fans brought their club into disrepute in Manchester on Wednesday night, Russia celebrated UEFA Cup victory by a team who are being touted as a symbol of the country’s revival.

Throughout Russia supporters greeted Zenit St Petersburg’s 2-0 victory at the City of Manchester Stadium as if it were a national triumph. And it does not take a great leap of imagination to present it as such. The club’s most high profile supporter is new president Dmitry Medvedev, who now shares power in tandem with the office's previous incumbent, and fellow St Petersburger, Vladimir Putin.

The wealth and influence new Russia has acquired derives from energy resources and in particular natural gas supplies. Zenit St Petersburg’s wealth derives from Gazprom, its main sponsor and the country’s largest gas company. Of course Gazprom is also inextricably linked with the Kremlin and Russia’s political establishment. The company plan to build a controversial new headquarters in St Petersburg.

One of the first sources to congratulate Zenit on their victory was the Russian Orthodox Church, a pillar of Russian identity, drawing explicit parallels between the club’s progress and that of Russia itself, "Russia is regaining ... energy, hope for a better future and for its own rightful place in the world". The speaker of Russia’s upper house, the Federation Council, Sergei Mironov (another influential St Petersburger) described the win as a victory for all Russian sports.

The Moscow Times of course reports other quintessentially Russian instances of excess which accompanied Zenit’s trophy win.

“One fan in Belgorod, after heavy toasting of the victory with friends, decided to take a break from the revelry to set fire to the door of his ex-wife's apartment.”

Despite Russian football’s reputation for hooliganism, the most violent incident in St Petersburg itself ensued when teenagers used a flagpole outside the Japanese consulate to swing upon and inadvertently bent it out of place! Over a thousand miles away in Perm there were 13 arrests, as post match celebrations took the form of an impromptu drunken march.

Whether it is fair to impute representation of Russian national revival to Zenit or not, the club’s success does substantively spring from the new wealth and confidence which has returned to the country. If Dick Advocaat can keep his side together, they may yet become the first Russian club to make a sustained challenge for the Champions League. Their UEFA Cup win meanwhile joins Russia’s successful bid to hold the Winter Olympics at Sochi, as sporting symbols of the country’s return to the world stage.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Celtic's exclusion forms pretext for MOPE

Recently I highlighted potential for chaos and confusion as the IFA finalised the composition of their new invitational league which is due to kick off next season. I questioned the manner in which 14 domestic licences were allocated but suggested that, having allotted these licences, the IFA should now issue invitations for their new top tier, to licence holding clubs, based on last season’s league position. Of course the IFA instead used Byzantine criteria (established last season) which allocated points for various aspects of infrastructure and organisation within the clubs, rather than simply judging their successful licence application as proof of adequacy in this respect and turning to comparative success on the field.

Predictably potential has been realised and chaos and confusion HAVE ensued. Firstly, for submitting their application thirty minutes late, Portadown were excluded from the league. Subsequently an appeal against this draconian penalty was rejected. One of the Irish League’s top sides will not be included in next season’s competition due to an administrative blunder. Why the IFA felt that this punishment was the only course of action open to them, rather than the imposition of a fine or a points penalty, is not clear.

Additionally the criteria the IFA applied, enabled First Division Bangor and North West club Institute to leapfrog Donegal Celtic, whose league position was higher than either, into the invitational league. Donegal Celtic are appealing the IFA’s decision. Therefore two clubs who finished in the top 12 last year are to be excluded from the league – Portadown and Donegal Celtic.

Portadown are much the bigger loss to the Irish League. However predictable sources have been quick to interpret Donegal Celtic’s exclusion as evidence of sectarianism from the IFA, thus their plight is currently attracting the more heated discussion. Rather than questioning the basis of the criteria used to issue invitations to the league the cry of oppression has gone up, “they’ve been excluded because they’re a club from nationalist West Belfast”. It is impossible to emphasise enough what utterly pathetic nonsense such claims comprise.

The IFA’s means of selection was inept. God knows I’m the first person to impugn the organisation for their regular displays of incompetence. But the clubs had agreed to the criteria which were used and had ample time in order to work towards ensuring their invitation would be forthcoming. Bangor FC’s hard work in this respect has paid off, even though, by no criteria based on their on-field exploits would they have qualified for inclusion. The IFA actually relaxed necessary ground-requirements in order to allow DC’s promotion in 2006. Similarly ground criteria were dropped from the points system which eventually propelled clubs above the Suffolk Road club and into the invitational set-up, in order to provide teams such as Celtic with more time in which to improve their dreadful facilities. Donegal Celtic otherwise would have had no chance of acquiring a domestic licence in the first place.

There is not a shred of evidence to substantiate allegations of IFA sectarianism. The episode is unfortunate and I have sympathy with Donegal Celtic and their supporters, but they are only one team out of a number who feel harshly treated. It is scarcely believable the zeal with which those who otherwise have no interest in Northern Irish football or the Irish League have rushed to make ill-considered and ill-informed accusations of bigotry. There has rarely been a more apposite example of the Most Oppressed People on Earth mentality.

Donegal Celtic claim to be a team with ambition and potential. Next season they will most likely line up in Irish League football’s second tier, due to a silly method of selecting teams for an invitational league, instigated by the IFA. The club has every right to appeal, but they are unlikely to be successful, as the criteria which were most likely to be used were outlined a year ago. Their course of action in the case of a failed appeal should be a strenuous attempt to gain promotion from the Intermediate League next term and they should simultaneously attempt to get their dilapidated little ground in order. Meanwhile those of a republican bent, who are forever on the lookout for possible offence, whether it constitutes going through the cupboards of council offices searching for Princess Diana mugs, or alighting upon a dispute within local football and trying to impart on it a patina of sectarian bias, deserve only disdain.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Scaling an Everest of incompetence

We have established that Caitriona Ruane makes a disastrous Minister for Education and that she should either resign or be sacked as soon as possible. We are however not yet fully aware just how staggeringly gargantuan the scale of Cat’s uselessness will turn out to be. Already she has proved herself an intrepid Sherpa of stupidity, navigating remote passes, and peaks of Himalayan ineptitude whilst other ministers shuffle around the foothills or potter about their tents pitched at base camp.

And just yesterday another sheer wall of ice and rock proved no obstacle for Ruane, as she ascended yet further the heights of incompetence. The issue is academic selection once again and what might replace it. The latest answer appears to be – academic selection. Or rather partial academic selection, for those who want it. Which is rather similar to the status quo, whereby parents can either enter their child for 11 plus exams or not.

The quirk which our asinine mountaineer has seen fit to add is that grammar schools may draw only 50% of their intake from this academic test, thus compelling them to make up the other places by considering other criteria, such as a child’s post-code or presumably whether their father knows a member of the board of governors. Very egalitarian.

This piecemeal approach to selection is the work of an addled mind. Ruane claims that only a minority of children will transfer next year by means of academic selection, but what if a higher proportion of pupils are entered for the test? Some children will be assessed by academic criteria and some will be selected on an entirely different basis. Who will make the decision which children should be selected by which criteria if more than 50% take the new test? The new transfer exam will take place in grammar schools and will be set and marked by the CCEA. Apparently it will encompass a wider area of testing than the current 11 plus. Who will teach this test? If teaching in primary schools does not reflect the needs of the new test, will parents feel compelled to secure their children extra tuition?

Rather than enshrining fairness, Ruane is intent on instigating a system whereby education will be allocated by post-code, whereby two tiers of children will be established with no regard to ability – those who take the test and those who do not, whereby parents may feel compelled to secure extra expensive tuition for their children in order to prepare for a test which is not properly covered under the primary school curriculum, whereby the pressure put on children is magnified by taking a test in a strange environment.

This arrangement is initially to span the next three years and during this time Ruane intends to phase out selection. So for three years children will be asked to pass through a system which is neither fish nor fowl, simply because this woman has not got her act together and produced a coherent plan to replace academic selection with an alternative means of post-primary transfer. Rather than actually get down to work and produce proposals which might sort this mess out, Ruane has produced a plan which both the UUP and SDLP have identified as ‘cobbled together’ Meanwhile the minister hopes to have three more years in which to decide exactly how she envisages children’s transition to post primary education unfolding.

If the minister makes it through three years in her current job, it will be something akin to a miracle.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

You'll never walk alone / beat Maik Taylor

Legendary goalkeeper Elisha Scott was one of only three Northern Ireland internationals to play first team football for Liverpool. Scott played his final games for the reds in the 1930s, around about the time when Aghadoey born forward Sam English also turned out at Anfield. Despite Jim Magilton’s best efforts it is now over 70 years since a Northern Ireland player played a senior fixture for Liverpool.

Is this about to change? Various sources are suggesting that another Northern Irish goalkeeping great, Maik Taylor, is poised to join the reds in the twilight of his career. Rafa Benitez views 36 year old Taylor as a reliable and experienced understudy for first choice Pepe Reina. Despite the lack of first team opportunities which Maik might face, it would be tremendous for Liverpool supporting GAWA to see him between the sticks at Anfield.

Pragmatism, the moral high ground and moving between the two

Saturday morning saw me tramping around Belfast’s limited collection of book shops searching for a copy of Frank Millar’s, David Trimble – The Price of Peace, to no avail. Amazon also currently list the book as ‘out of stock’ despite its release date being last month, although that site does include a page advertising a previous edition of the book as David Trimble – The Prince of Peace, which made me chuckle. To compound my frustration, Alex Kane has clearly acquired a copy of the book and discusses its contents in his News Letter column.

Kane’s piece draws on Millar’s book and a polemic by A Tangled Web’s David Vance (Unionism Decayed) to illustrate two very different strands of unionist thought. Frank Millar’s sympathetic treatment of Trimble, Kane views as representing the pragmatic strain of unionism which prioritises carving out the best deal available and Vance's book is an example of what the columnist describes as “moral high-ground unionism (the view that almost anything is better than terrorist appeasement)”.

The DUP are not the only unionists to have made the journey from ‘moral high ground unionism’ to pragmatism, but the rapidity, sophistry and cynicism of their transformation has been staggering. Between 2006 and 2007 the party’s rhetoric underwent a 180 degree about turn, simply because circumstances were right to propel them into government and Paisley into the First Ministership. Kane describes the DUP’s conversion as a ‘hop, skip and a jump into government with Sinn Fein’.

David Trimble’s UUP did the heavy lifting which eased the DUP’s passage into government. However Kane views the ascendant party’s hardest challenges lying ahead. He quotes Millar, “the DUP will have to reinvent itself all over again”. The party faces the difficulty of retaining its core support whilst proving that it can deliver effective government despite mutual veto (with the compromises which that necessarily implies). And if there is to be any progress beyond the current community carve-up, the party must also effect reconciliation and sharing, despite its own sectarian past and the violent sectarian past of its government partner.

As a postscript I have ended up ordering the book via publishers Liffey Press.

Monday, 12 May 2008

Paisley doesn't deserve our gratitude!

As Ian Paisley conducts his ‘victory lap’ I have begun to read Ed Moloney’s biography ‘From Demagogue to Democrat’. The book will require its own review, but for the time being I will say that refreshing the memory as to the very real damage which the man inflicted on this country is timely, given the plaudits he is receiving from all quarters. Rather than the sense of gratitude and relief which seems to characterise attitudes to the ‘new Paisley’ from those who abhorred the old, there should instead be anger at the utter bare-faced audacity and blatant hypocrisy of the man. We should be no more grateful to Paisley for his pragmatic decision to suspend his incitements to violence and hatred and to refrain from wrecking power-sharing initiatives, than we should be to McGuinness / Adams et al for deigning not to shoot people or blow them up.

Thus I read with incredulity the revelation in last week’s Belfast Telegraph MORI poll, that Catholic respondents gave Paisley an approval rating of 37%, the second highest behind Martin McGuinness. This is a man who has spent most of his career in the public eye heaping the vilest abuse on Catholicism and its adherents. He once commented of Catholics that ‘they breed like rabbits and multiply like vermin’. It is hard to conceive of a remark more hate-filled and dehumanising.

Meanwhile the BBC’s Politics Show for Northern Ireland has chosen him as ‘Politician of the Year’ and George Mitchell has been praising his contribution to peace. Have we forgotten already what a despicable man Paisley actually is?

Russia: A Journey with Jonathan Dimbleby

Last night the BBC aired part one of a new series following Jonathan Dimbleby’s 10 month odyssey over 10,000 miles of modern Russia. I found it difficult to assess on the evidence of 60 minutes whether the programme will present a useful portrait of the Federation. Dimbleby’s stated objectives certainly display a degree of ambition, but it remains to be seen whether he will succeed in reflecting the outlooks, lifestyles and preoccupations of real Russians or whether in seeking to impose a narrative on the material he has collected, the show flounders under the weight of metaphor and interpretation and collapses into easy cliché.

Both outcomes suggested themselves during the programme last night. There were plentiful interviews in which Russians were allowed to voice their opinions with only occasional interjections from the presenter. On other occasions however the grand, national metaphor made an appearance. The north’s White Nights we were told, coupled with accompanying long, dark winters suggested the history of Russia. Dimbleby at one point received a prolonged battering from a masseur in a banya, ‘I feel like the Russian people’, was his portentous comment.

The programme is available on I Player.

Friday, 9 May 2008

Northern Ireland's democratic deficit

Mick Fealty has chosen to focus on Northern Ireland’s democratic deficit in his reflection on a year of devolution, carried on Comment is Free. Yesterday I alluded to deficiencies in our system of government as regards accountability, but it is worth quoting Mick’s most pertinent paragraph in order to slightly develop the point.

“With mandatory coalition it is simply not possible to vote the government out. Even if voters shift their allegiance there is no decisive tipping point at which the electorate can collectively punish parties that don't come up to scratch. At most, success and failure are only relative points on a single continuum. The danger in the long term is that it institutionalises mediocre government and the system fossilises into elective patronage that cannot be challenged.”

Yesterday none other than the First Minister delivered a rare moment of perspicacity and transparency, acknowledging that government here is “not perfect and not wholly democratic, but the best [he] could get for the people of Northern Ireland”. Rather a mellow understatement from a man whose career was built on grotesque rhetorical inflation of imperfections in similar initiatives to which he did not assent.

Without proper provision for opposition at Stormont, executive initiatives are not subjected to the scrutiny which is essential in delivering effective government. Nor, as Mick has outlined, can voters clearly express their democratic judgment on how government has been conducted when it becomes time to go to the ballot box. In the present carve-up, Sinn Féin and the DUP are free to impose their will on the smaller parties, without assuming clear responsibility for the policies which they adopt.

Understandably within nationalism
there is reluctance to countenance a return to straightforward majority rule. Any opposition system should be structured to reflect the acceptance of power sharing principles which all but the most recalcitrant extremes now acknowledge. A system whereby voluntary coalitions can form governments if they satisfy certain cross-community criteria should be no less Byzantine in construction than d’Hondt.

Amongst unionists, constitutional nationalists and smaller groups there appears to be at least an acknowledgment that the current system is flawed and that movement toward an oppositional system is desirable. Albeit tempered in some cases by a note of caution which maintains that in the short-term mandatory coalition is required to build trust and confidence.

Republicans and republican apologists are less interested in providing Northern Ireland with better, more efficient government. Their interest is simply in maintaining structures through which they can impose their agenda. Whether these structures are actually accountable to the electorate or reflect its democratic wishes is largely irrelevant.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Devolution isn't delivering

Today marked the first anniversary of current power sharing arrangements at Stormont and as such provided a pretext for reflection on a year of devolved government. Mark Devenport has provided something of a balance sheet for devolution on the BBC website and ironically the Belfast Telegraph (which I have been eviscerating below) has carried the results of a Mori opinion poll recording the public’s attitudes to the institutions, and the politicians who man them.

In the early weeks of devolution last May, I suggested that Northern Ireland’s public was not in the grip of ‘heady optimism’ contemplating the renewal of local government, but rather the mood was one of ‘indifferent scepticism’. At that time I observed,

“Unless my circle of family, friends and workmates are chronically unrepresentative, the “fresh new start” heralded around the world, went by remarked on by people here only with a few cynical asides and weary expressions of overwhelming apathy.”

Scrutinising the results of the Mori poll it appears that little has changed. 79% of respondents feel that the Assembly’s performance has been either indifferent or poor. 72% believe that restoring devolved powers has made no difference to their lives.

Devenport’s piece identifies the executive’s greatest achievement as its continued existence. The BBC’s political correspondent is then scrambling for positives to attribute to Northern Ireland’s government. Agreeing a programme for government was hardly a remarkable accomplishment given that the document merely sets out a vague list of aspirations. Compromise delivered over super councils has produced suggestions which are neither fish nor fowl. And so we are left with much vaunted handouts to a handful of flood victims, the fact that either by luck or by design Northern Ireland avoided a foot and mouth outbreak and the observation that Paisley and McGuinness form a reasonably effective pair of salesmen when faced with American business men.

Devenport is on substantially firmer ground listing the negative aspects of our devolved government carve-up. Stand offs between unionists and nationalists, DUP / SF authoritarianism and disregard toward smaller parties, the failure to address democratic deficiencies in a system which does not provide for opposition or accountability. Devolved government is not perceived to be delivering by the people of Northern Ireland and looking ahead, taking into consideration the disabling factors mentioned, there is little realistic prospect that it will begin delivering to our satisfaction any time soon.

Perhaps the only positive to be garnered on this anniversary is the poor poll showing of Sinn Féin when respondents were asked who would command their first preference vote if there were to be an immediate election. The republicans came in 4th on 11% behind both the UUP and the SDLP. Such a result would promise some real hope for Northern Ireland.

Community Telegraph - so bad, it's good!

The Belfast Telegraph has a stable mate I particularly enjoy reading. The Community Telegraph is so bad it’s actually funny. Take the restaurant reviews for instance. They're something like a school magazine article, provided by an author who's struggling with GCSE English, after the teacher had done a bit of editing.

I am particularly keen on the review, carried in this week’s South Belfast edition, of the restaurant Bourbon in Belfast: The reviewer furnishes us with an astonishingly literal description of the dining experience:
“We were greeted by the hostess who checked our booking before leading us to our table. We were presented with our menus and were moments later asked if we would like to order a drink."
And later:
“The waitress opened the wine, poured it for us and asked if we were happy with it — which we were.”

This is heady stuff and damned useful ..... if you have never before dined in a restaurant and wish to know the exactly what eating out entails.  The review continues in this vein, ‘the starters arrived. I picked up a fork and began to transfer quantities of food into my mouth’ or similar. I urge you to read it. ”One bite in and I quickly paused. I spotted something. A large black bit of food” is a particular highlight.

A number of weeks ago a review of Nick’s Warehouse informed readers that “tastefully but not pretentiously decorated, we sat down at our table and scanned the menu”. It is comforting to know, as a reader, that our proxy diners were well turned out.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Why not a referendum on devolution Gordon?

The Labour leader in Scotland, Wendy Alexander, has given Gordon Brown a headache by advocating an early referendum on independence. Her proposal, which does not have Brown’s support, is being presented as further undermining his leadership, hot on the heals of the 10p tax band controversy, Labour’s mauling in local elections in England and Wales and dissent on the issue of 42 day detention.

The notion of an early poll is in itself commendable. “The SNP tactics are all about delay and fomenting grievance. I firmly believe the SNP should not be allowed to control the question, the timing and the agenda”. Internal wrangling within Labour may be music to the nationalists’ ears, but being asked to put up or shut up on the issue of independence at such an early juncture terrifies them.

O’Neill cites John Redwood and calls for an English poll on possible independence to accompany any Scottish referendum on the matter. Certainly, as a unionist, the prospect of forcing the constitutional issue to a vote and subjecting putative nationalist sentiment in the United Kingdom to rigorous scrutiny is an alluring one. The miasma of various discontents, which manifest themselves in electoral or rhetorical support for nationalist parties or policies, must be required to crystallise in the form of unambiguous votes for dismemberment of the United Kingdom, if we are to consider seriously the nationalist case.

Nationalists will argue that support for independence varies depending how the question is framed. But it is the question ‘do you wish Scotland / Wales / Northern Ireland to leave the United Kingdom and become independent?’ which is the kernel of the independence debate. Mealy mouthed formulations suggesting the empowerment of sovereignty are merely a type of sophistry. Beano gives a pertinent answer to the nationalists’ point on Slugger O’Toole. If respondents are giving different responses to the two questions it ‘would suggest that people are lacking something in their understanding of the terms in the question”.

Coincidentally in the thread below it is also Beano who expresses doubt as to whether the UUP have presented themselves sufficiently effectively as proponents of what Johnny Andrews refers to as ‘overarching pan-UK unionism’. I am concerned that a fair-minded unionist, and a close observer of unionist politics, does not perceive in the UUP a clear articulation of this strand of unionism. On the specific point regarding the UUP I would argue that the importance of thinking within the larger UK unionist context is a view which is strengthening within the party. If that is not coming across then the party must do more to promote its stance in this regard. Taking a broader approach, what better incentive to encourage unionists throughout the UK to formulate together their arguments, to foster friendship and understanding across their party political boundaries and to build mutually a sense that a coherent unionist case can be forged against separatist nationalism, than a series of referenda on the continuance of the Union?

Had Gordon Brown called a snap election during 2007, he would now be undergoing a difficult period early in a term for which he had acquired a popular mandate. Instead many within the Labour Party are considering seriously whether it is necessary to dispense with the Prime Minister as leader in order to recover enough to stand a chance of winning a general election in 2009 / 10. The prospects of Brown being won over by the notion of striking whilst the iron is hot are frankly slim.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

DUP's pact proposals - treat with caution

In the light of Labour’s local election woes, Jeffrey Donaldson and Gregory Campbell have been suggesting that unionism should strike an electoral pact to maximise influence wielded at Westminster. In the eventuality of a hung parliament or a tight majority for either Labour or the Tory party, ten or more unionist MPs would form a powerful bloc capable of exerting disproportionate influence.

DUP representatives, and in particular those DUP representatives who have defected from the UUP such as Donaldson, are unlikely and belated proponents of unionist…. er ….. unity. However if a deal on Fermanagh South Tyrone and South Belfast constituencies were to secure an extra UUP seat in the latter and deprive Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew in the former it might sweeten a bitter pill for UUP supporters.

An electoral understanding along these lines has long been mooted and if it were simply to comprise withdrawing the UUP candidate for FST in return for DUP withdrawal in South Belfast I believe it would be beneficial to the UUP to agree. It would not be beneficial to strike a more comprehensive arrangement and taint the work done to present the UUP as a more secular party interested in overarching pan-UK unionism, by allying with the DUP’s Ulster nationalism.

Republicans pose threat to Alzheimer's sufferer Hermon

Dissident republicans attempt to carry on the campaign of terror which the bulk of their fellow travellers have strategically abandoned. The latest brave action they have been involved in is gathering intelligence on the whereabouts of the gravely ill ex RUC Chief Constable Sir Jack Hermon. On police advice his wife, the UUP MP Lady Sylvia Hermon, has arranged to move her husband, who needs 24 hour care for Alzheimer’s disease, from a sick bed in a nursing home.

The News Letter condemns
the fanaticism of the dissidents, reminding us that those responsible for these actions are the same people who organised and carried out the Omagh bomb and reflecting that they appear ‘devoid of all sense of humanity’. It is worth remembering that all that separates these people from mainstream republicanism is simply a lack of pragmatism. Morally they are made from exactly the same stuff and mainstream republicanism’s ‘war’ required an identical mentality.

Realigning power in Moscow not necessarily a bad thing

Tomorrow is an historic day in Moscow as for the first time a popularly elected Premier will replace the previous incumbent at the end of his term. The spectacle is likely to encompass a closely managed piece of political theatre redolent with pomp and circumstance. The new President will be inaugurated in the Andreyevsky Hall of the Kremlin’s Great Palace, a former tsarist throne room. The historical undertones are not accidental.

Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev will become President of the Russian Federation and will swiftly appoint the outgoing President, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, as his Prime Minister. It is the dynamic between these men, and the way in which the ‘tandem’ they are to form is to operate, which is preoccupying western commentators. The consensus is that in the short-term at least V.V. Putin will retain enormous influence and the replacement will remain dependent on his predecessor’s endorsement in order to underpin the authority of his presidency.

Certainly Medvedev derived his huge mandate in March from Putin’s patronage and a commitment to the outgoing Premier’s programme. Although a radical change in direction is unlikely, there is an opportunity for a different tone to be established in relations between Russia and the West, should there be a will in that respect. Similarly the new President has an opportunity to demand more efficiency from state owned energy giants. Analysis has focussed on the likelihood that Putin will retain a degree of power, and that analysis is probably correct, but that does not mean that Russia’s governance will not change with the arrival of Medvedev.

There will not be a wholesale decampment of constitutional power or even de facto power from the President’s office to that of the Prime Minister, but there remains likelihood that Putin’s presence at the White House may soften the stranglehold on power exercised by the President. Sean’s Russian Blog points out that for the first time since Boris Yeltsin moved to weaken the Duma, that a Russian Prime Minister will truly exercise his constitutional right to select a cabinet. He observes that ‘diarchy is better than autocracy’. If Putin’s Prime Ministership causes power to be shared more equally amongst Russia’s institutions should the west disapprove simply because the impulse is his desire to retain influence?

Friday, 2 May 2008

New Belfast stadium still tenable

The Guardian’s Henry McDonald is in agreement with popular wisdom which maintains that Peter Robinson will sound the death knell of the Maze Stadium project before his elevation from Finance Minister to First Minister. Speculation has been rife for some time that Robinson would not assent to a business case which is sketchy at best. The scheme has been discredited for some time and the longevity of plans to build a sport facility at the site of the ex-prison can be attributed more to political expediency than any real conviction that the Maze site was the best available.

For quite some time a majority of Northern Ireland football supporters have voiced their preference for a stadium in Belfast with the attendant amenities and infrastructure which this would entail. The Northern Ireland football team has always had most to lose if a 30,000 seat stadium was to be built at the Maze. Ulster rugby and the Ulster GAA agreed to use the stadium for some games should it be built, but both sports intended to keep their homes at Ravenhill and Casement Park respectively. It was only the IFA prepared to put all its eggs in the Maze Stadium basket.

Subsequently it will be the Northern Ireland football team with most to gain should the planned stadium flounder. Robinson has indicated that separate provision would be made for all three sports if, as expected, he decides to kill off the Maze proposals. This may take the form of improvements to all three sports’ existing homes. The idea of a new and separate home for football in Belfast is not untenable however. Belfast City Council has indicated an interest in hosting a stadium through private finance which would also provide a venue for concert events. A sufficient redistribution of the Maze Stadium’s capital allocation could be enough to get that project up and running.

Moscow visa chaos was avoidable

In June 2007 EU countries with the exception of the UK, the Republic of Ireland and Denmark signed a visa facilitation agreement streamlining procedures and instigating reciprocal visa arrangements with Russia. Had the UK not suspended negotiations to enter into this agreement, then the furore regarding Champions League Final tickets would not be occurring.

Admittedly, since the events of Tuesday and Wednesday this week, I have become less sympathetic than I might otherwise have been to supporters who wish to attend what promises to be the dreariest European final ever. Nevertheless it is indicative of patronising attitudes to Russia that on one hand the Russian Embassy is urged to ease visa requirements, or indeed suspend them altogether, whilst on the other Russian fans who wish to watch Zenit St Petersburg play Rangers in Manchester’s UEFA Cup Final are expected to supply biometric information and perhaps to undergo interview.

Supporters seeking visas to attend the Moscow final now must process their requests through the Russian National Tourist Office. On a personal note this is a relief as I have a tourist visa to negotiate from the Embassy for late June and the last thing I need is it being swamped in applications from Mancs and Rent Boys.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

The Great Girona Gold Hunt

For someone with purported disdain for local programming I have found myself praising a number of BBC Northern Ireland’s programmes lately. I retain the right to spittle flecked apoplexy when ‘Have I Got News for You’ is replaced by ‘Good Dog Bad Dog’ or when a particularly good ‘Question Time’ panel is eschewed in favour of Daithi McKay, Dawn Purvis, Sean Neeson and Edwin Poots or an equally stellar selection of political thinkers on ‘Let’s Talk’. However I am quite prepared to fight the corner for local output when it is as good as Monday night’s documentary ‘The Great Girona Gold Hunt’.

As a child I visited the Girona treasures in the Ulster Museum. I was aware that the Spanish Armada ship had been wrecked somewhere close to Dunluce Castle in the autumn of 1588, but I had a number of misconceptions about the incident and I did not entirely understand the significance of this particular wreck until I watched the programme. It had been my understanding in fact that it was Dunluce that the Girona was attempting to reach on the fateful night when 1,300 on board lost their lives. I was also under the misapprehension that the ship was merely another Armada vessel of the many lost on the Irish coast that year. I did not appreciate that it represented a breakthrough in naval technology, or that the ship’s passengers were the surviving elite knights of Spain’s nobility.

The documentary fascinatingly outlined the ship’s attempted flight to Scotland (not to refuge with the Catholic McDonnell family of Dunluce Castle as I had believed), its wreck at Port na Spaniagh (pictured) near the Giant’s Causeway and the subsequent discovery of the same wreck by Belgian diver Robert Stenoit. It made sense of a great deal of folklore from the North Coast and the Glens of Antrim. The McDonnells had reputedly taken in 5 surviving Spaniards who had escaped the wreck, but their prime contribution was to loot enough gold to build the Elizabethan manor house at the castle, and obfuscate the actual location of the ship’s demise.

The Belgian team were to extrapolate clues and eventually found the treasure, but the unsung hero of the episode was Laurence Flannigan who negotiated for their finds to remain in Northern Ireland. His legacy is that the most important collection of Armada treasure is situated in Belfast, a fact which surely would be more worthwhile as a sales pitch to tourists, rather than encouraging them to take bus-trips around our most deprived areas gawking at murals.

The documentary is available on I Player.

Time to go

As regular readers will have ascertained, one of my favourite columnists writing about Northern Ireland is Alex Kane, a commentator with a secular unionist hue which I find particularly amenable. I frequently link Alex’s News Letter column, and this week it is a particular pleasure to draw readers’ attention to a piece which sees him in strident form, dealing with our executive’s disastrous Education Minister.

Caitriona Ruane has fought off a robust challenge from the DUP’s Minster for Arts and Culture, Edwin Poots, to claim the title of worst minister in the Northern Ireland Executive. Her tendency to avoid fulfilling her brief by recourse to mealy mouthed, self-righteous platitudes has singularly failed to obscure the fact that she has refused to outline a strategy for replacing the contentious Eleven Plus exam. Caitriona has failed to fool anyone. Alex provides perhaps the most unremitting and succinct analysis of Ruane’s performance which has been offered to date.

“How thoroughly, fundamentally, demonstrably and serially incompetent must a Minister be before Executive colleagues, departmental committee members and MLAs collectively, round upon them and hound them from office? I only ask, because Caitriona Ruane---whose level of ineptitude appears to be incalculable---remains in a job at which she has proved herself utterly unsuitable. And it’s not just the fact that the scale of her uselessness is of epic proportions; it’s also the fact that every question or criticism is greeted with an arrogant disdain or a patronising putdown.”

Kane views Ruane’s performance as something of a litmus test for the NI Executive’s effectiveness. If the Assembly and the Executive drawn from it proves incapable of “chopping down and dumping the ministerial deadwood”, then its credibility is damaged and the perception that ministers are accountable is also dealt a blow. Ruane does not command the confidence of her colleagues, two thirds of head teachers are opposed to her and parents are organising meetings throughout Northern Ireland to protest her incompetence. If the Executive is in any serious way responsive to either the public or the Assembly, Ruane must walk and must walk soon before she has time to do more damage.