Friday, 27 June 2008

Three Thousand Versts goes on holiday

I doubt very much whether there will be any more posts on the blog until 16 July. I’m going on a two week jaunt to Russia which I will no doubt be describing when I get back.

Do svidaniya Rossiya! Olé l'Espana!

Last night Russia succumbed to a second Euro 2008 thrashing against Spain. From the start the Spanish showed more vigour and energy, with Russia returning to the type of one paced, leaden football that they had produced previously in this tournament only in the group game against the same opposition.

The Russians will point to an anonymous performance by Andrei Arshavin, although in truth none of their stars turned up for this game. In contrast Spain played some exciting stuff on a sodden pitch in Vienna. Cesc Fabregas in particular orchestrated much of his team’s play after replacing injured David Villa.

On a difficult night like this, failing to produce their incisive passing game, Russia did not have players to dig in and dominate a battle in midfield. Xavi finished after a one two with Senna, to give Spain the lead early in the second half. After that Russia looked thoroughly beaten. Fabregas provided ammunition for Guiza and then Silva to secure an easy victory.

Good luck to Spain in the final. They are a fine side when they play like this, and Northern Ireland fans can always say that we beat the winners on their way to the final, should they lift the trophy in Vienna.

Thursday, 26 June 2008

A Unionist Academy should be run by those who value the Union, not the DUP.

The DUP intend in the autumn to launch a think tank entitled the ‘Unionist Academy’. The party states that its aims are, to “promote… unionist culture and the advantages of the Union; encourage unionist learning in the community and provide a forum for unionist strategising and policy-making”. Along with a mooted ‘British Cultural and Equality Unit’, which is to provide legal advice on republican attempts to excise and erode British emblems from public life, this group aims to liaise with a wide range of ‘community groups of all types’.

From the outset Three Thousand Versts must record scepticism as to whether the DUP values the Union sufficiently to explain why it carries intrinsic value, understands that British culture is something broad and mutable enough to encompass a plurality of religions, races, lifestyles and political beliefs, or is capable of developing strategies and arguments which promote the whole Union in a modern and inclusive fashion. Presuming that the tone of the News Letter article which announces the initiatives takes its cue from press statements by the DUP, it is hard to envisage this ‘Academy’ advancing anything approaching reasoned, nurturing arguments for a strong, inclusive Union.

Peter Robinson’s comment reveals the thinking behind these DUP plans, "there has been something of a cultural war in Northern Ireland. We intend to fight back”. His party believe that there is an ongoing struggle between British culture and identity and Irish culture and identity and they intend to man the trenches through the formation of these groups. So instead of promoting the multicultural benefits of Union, their intention is to enter into a narrow sectional tug of war. This standpoint is informed by a conception of identity, culture and nationality which both Sinn Féin and the DUP share. It is a nationalist conception which cleaves cultural identity to political nationality and does not acknowledge the possibility of plurality of identity as it is often felt.

There does not need to be a war between British and Irish cultures in Northern Ireland, however those cultures are conceived or understood. Clearly by the DUP and Sinn Féin, this stand-off is viewed as a battle between what they adjudge to represent Ulster Protestant and Irish Catholic culture respectively. Of course both these cultures can be encompassed and accommodated by the pluralist, tolerant conception of Britishness which lies at the heart of modern secular unionism. The DUP’s language certainly suggests that it has no grasp of such niceties.

A Unionist Academy think tank could represent an opportunity and a useful idea. It could synthesise and collate what the Union means to various adherents. It could set about forging coherent arguments by which the Union can be promoted and defended. It could examine the many and varied conceptions of British culture. It could bring together various strands of pro-Union thinking from across the British Isles, fostering understanding, friendship and cooperation. Indeed it could present a programme for protecting and cherishing all the many strands which form the kaleidoscopic culture of the modern United Kingdom, of which the Ulster Protestant tradition is undoubtedly one. It could even set about defending the symbols of the United Kingdom from inappropriate encroachment by those of other states.

This blogger does not expect the DUP led Unionist Academy to follow such a programme. Other unionists on a UK wide basis (and why shouldn’t bloggers lead?) certainly should.

'Deez' new management - 'we're going to get Hunters kicking again'

A follow-up to Beano’s post on Hunters / Vaughans / Deez (which an anonymous commenter informs us below, was originally known as the Ashley Arms) I have been asking a few questions and have got to the bottom of what’s currently happening with the pub.

Apparently the place’s owners are a company known as the Dual Group. Hunters’ incarnation as Deez was not an initiative of this group who instead had leased the premises out to whichever genius conceived the gaudy colour scheme and '600 capacity venue' marketing nonsense.

Clearly Deez was every bit as unsuccessful as this blog predicted initially and its lease has now reverted to the original owners. The manager I spoke to last night says that a return to the name Hunters is imminent, although I had to chuckle when he stated that his aim was to get ‘Hunters kicking again’.

I have to credit my girlfriend with the observation, ‘they should forget about getting it kicking and just let it kick back’. Although given our anonymous commenter's contribution, perhaps the promise should in any case be to get 'the Ashley kicking again'.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

You don't know what you're doing

With justification Caitriona Ruane’s failures as regards fundamental aspects of policy have provided a focus for the bulk of criticism which Northern Ireland’s education minister has attracted. That said, Caitriona doesn’t just do macro-incompetence, she can manage micro incompetence with equal ease.

Roy Beggs, UUP MLA for East Antrim, has pointed out that the worst minister anywhere ever ™ promised to deliver a leaflet outlining her proposals for post primary transfer procedures to every house in Northern Ireland, without having any notion how much such an operation will cost. After a question was tabled in order to establish the information, it transpired that this promise had been quietly dropped.

Of course Ruane’s vague proposals have certainly not yet been agreed by the executive and any document containing them would represent nothing more than the minister’s own view on how post primary selection should proceed. Sequestering public funds for a huge, unnecessary mail drop outlining official policy would be idiotic enough, drawing down the money to deliver propaganda would be a more serious offence altogether. The fact that she says she will do something without having any real idea whether it's possible or not, says everything you need to know about the woman's fitness for office.

Roy Beggs sums the matter up nicely, “this simple issue poses more questions as to whether or not the Minister knows what she is doing. There is still a looming crisis concerning post-primary transfer and the Minister is making chance statements about issues that have not even been agreed”. Ruane is incapable of managing even the simplest detail of her brief.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Hockey problem reflects a common misapprehension

I’m not a fan of field hockey and at first glance a post about Olympic eligibility on Slugger O’Toole didn’t greatly raise my hackles, but on closer examination I think the story highlights the manner in which the term Ireland is often wrongly viewed as analogous to the Republic of Ireland and demonstrates that this can have a practical effect in prescribing and limiting people who wish to exercise a plurality of identity.

The crux of the story is that a change in the rules prevents Northern Irish hockey players, who have competed for the Ireland hockey team in competitions featuring separate England, Scotland and Wales sides, from representing the Great Britain and Northern Ireland team in the Olympic Games. In previous Olympic tournaments Northern Irish players have played integral roles in medal winning GB & NI teams, but now they are forced to rule themselves out of international tournaments in which Team GB do not compete, if they wish to play for the UK side. Obviously it becomes extremely problematic to play consistently at the required level if players wish to go down this route.

Of course the difficulty is that in the Olympics, UK and Republic of Ireland national teams are fielded across the events, whereas the Ireland hockey team is composed of players representing the whole island, north and south. When Northern Irish players play for Ireland in hockey they are not representing the Republic of Ireland, they are representing their part of the island in a team which represents both parts, despite their different constitutional arrangements. There should be no question that these players are asked to compromise their ability to play for a team which reflects those constitutional arrangements when that is appropriate and when the opportunity presents itself.

Of course this type of misunderstanding is not confined to hockey. The Irish Rugby Football Union fosters just such a disingenuous conflation when it allows anthems and symbols of the Republic of Ireland to be displayed at its representative teams’ matches in Dublin, but does not allow the Northern Ireland / UK equivalents in Belfast. Instead the IRFU released a nonsensical statement when Ireland played Italy at Ravenhill claiming that the match was technically an ‘away’ fixture.

In rugby this conflation is confined to symbols and therefore it carries mere annoyance value to unionists, who feel it most acutely simply as a refusal to accord proper respect. In this case hockey players are being practically prevented from representing their country at the Olympic Games and that frankly, is not good enough.

Was Conrad as antithetical to Dostoevsky as he supposed?

I have been reading Joseph Conrad’s attempt at a 19th century revolutionary Russian novel, Under Western Eyes. The book is considered Conrad’s riposte to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and many of the devices and conclusions of that great novel are inverted and even satirised. Despite Conrad’s supposed detestation of Dostoevsky, however, I can’t help feeling that the two novelists perhaps had more in common than the Pole might acknowledged and their treatment of common themes in their novels may not have diverged as radically as he believed.

Joseph Conrad was born in what is currently modern Ukraine (then part of the Russian Empire) into a passionately nationalist family of Polish aristocrats. Indeed his father was arrested by the Tsarist authorities for his involvement in the movement which would foment the 1863 January Uprising by citizens of the Polish – Lithuanian Commonwealth. His father’s arrest and exile, coupled with the subsequent premature deaths of both his parents, is generally held to have contributed to Conrad’s dim view of Russians and the Russian state. It must also have informed the antipathy towards revolutionary movements, whose intemperance he believed swallowed up the lives of those they touched, which is very much evident in Under Western Eyes.

Conrad’s dislike of Dostoevsky sprang from the Pole finding his antecedent ‘too Russian’. In contrast he admired the westerniser Turgenev. It's ironic then that Conrad’s revolutionaries owe more to the preening, conceited, mutually self-sustaining extremists in ‘Devils’ than the genuinely remarkable nihilist Bazarov, whom Turgenev portrayed in ‘Fathers and Sons’.

Under Western Eyes assumes not only the structures of Crime and Punishment, but its imagery is also redolent of the older novel. To take an obvious example, both books draw heavily on images of ghosts and spectres. Both Razumov and Raskalnikov encounter visions of their respective victims (in Razumov's case his supposed victim). Conrad’s ‘a moral spectre is infinitely more effective than any visible apparition of death' can be read as a direct interpretation of Dostoevsky’s work. Although Conrad inverts Crime and Punishment, Razumov’s journey of conscience bears striking resemblance to that of Raskalnikov and whilst the moral odyssey does not end in the same place, both writers take their characters along a similar route.

In terms of motivation and self-conception, Razumov is a strikingly different character to Raskalnikov. Raskalnikov views himself as a ‘Napoleon’, entitled by providence to set aside conventional morality in order to perform remarkable acts. In contrast Razumov wishes to pursue a much quieter route. He has no preconceptions about achieving greatness or effecting change. He wishes instead to excel at his studies and achieve whatever degree of prominence he can through coventional routes.

Dostoevsky’s protagonist, fuelled by conceit and self-regard, commits a pathetic act of murder in order to prove to himself how exceptional he is and discovers instead that he suffers from conscience just as acutely as most other people. It is others who thrust the conception of exceptionalness unto Conrad’s anti-hero, who suffers no such pretence, and it is this burden which frames his moral dilemma. Razumov’s crime is in itself a ‘phantom’, or at least it is in the minds of the various revolutionary students of St Petersburg and the émigrés he encounters in Geneva. Nevertheless the internal struggle which he faces leads him to much the same place as Raskalnikov, burdened with remorse and asking, ‘do I suffer from conscience just like anyone else’? Albeit it is a secular / humanist mode of thinking which brings Razumov to this place, rather than the discovery of Christian humility which Raskalnikov experiences.

Conrad’s novel undoubtedly bristles with antipathy toward Russia at times. His narrator, an aging English teacher of languages, voices many generalisations on the Russian character and the incurable nature of Russian despotism. Admittedly Dostoevsky, and indeed a vast swathe of golden age Russian writers, were quite happy themselves to discourse in broad strokes on the make-up of Russian national character. Dostoevsky viewed the Russian 'curse' as primarily a western import which the country would throw off, to return to a prelapsarian state. Conrad's Russian curse is in contrast something intrinsic to its people and their character. Both however offer similarly binary, if diametrically opposed, interpretations of Russia's woes. There are conservative traits to both the writing of Conrad and the work of Dostoevsky, both of whom ultimately frown on the rash nihilist impulse.

Conrad is equally scathing of both the absolutist monolith which rules pre-revolutionary Russia and the revolutionists who wish to bring it crashing down. Dostoevsky’s initial revolutionary sympathies were tempered by a belief that Russia’s course should be separate from the west and that Orthodoxy and tsarism played essential roles in shaping and sustaining a unique Russian identity. Razumov initially views himself as a liberal, but when confronted with direct action against despotism he is forced to acknowledge his convictions are framed by the assumption that strong, centralised rule is necessary for Russia.  Raskalnikov ultimately seeks redemption through religion which reveals its power through the love of Sonya. Although Conrad despised Raskalnikov's conversion, interpreting it as a symptom of a brand of mysticism, which was the disease rather than the cure, his own character also eventually finds a similar type of stoical balance.

Despite Conrad’s intention to write Under Western Eyes in opposition to Crime and Punishment, it is  a remarkably Dostoevskyian novel. Both works are also as relevant today as when they were first written. Crime and Punishment might have been anticipating the psychology behind any number of crimes and criminals from the last two centuries. Conrad’s observations about revolutions remain strikingly pertinent, indeed almost prophetic.

“A violent revolution falls into the hands of narrow minded fanatics and tyrannical hypocrites. The scrupulous and the just, the noble, humane and devoted natures, the unselfish and the intelligent may begin a movement but it passes away from them.”

A fierce antipathy toward Dostoevsky may have inspired Conrad’s novel, but nevertheless that writer’s work informed Under Western Eyes in ways which are not antithetical. Despite the difference in outlook between these writers they share more than divides them.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Great minds think alike ..... Poots, Corr and conspiracy theories

Jim Corr has spent his career riding on the coat-tails of his glamorous sisters; Edwin Poots has ascended the political ladder thanks to the patronage of the Paisley family. Perhaps an underlying sense of inferiority explains why both men have succumbed to the attraction of outrageous conspiracy theories. The musician has been expounding the traditional brand of ‘New World Order’/ Illuminati/ Freemasonry tinged drivel which informs cranks worldwide, whether they are right wing Americans preparing heavily armed compounds, David Icke or crazed Islamist terrorists. ‘Potty Pootsie’, to use the tabloid vernacular, believes that Maze stadium plans were only scuppered by a vast institutional conspiracy within the civil service.

Ostensibly it might be held that Corr’s beliefs edge those of Poots in terms of nuttiness by virtue of their febrile, unhinged quality. Remember though, that Poots has form in this regard. After all, he believes, despite all geological and scientific evidence to the contrary, that the world was created in seven days, just five thousand years ago. Jim Corr may believe that there is ‘a push towards global government [that] totally correlates with the Freemasonic agenda’ and he may maintain that ‘Tony Blair is a 33rd degree Freemason. That's fairly common knowledge’, but despite his threat that he may stand for political office, his unfeasible beliefs make it extremely unlikely that he would be elected, whilst Poots’ creationist wibbling is considered quite unremarkable (and actually rather ‘de rigueur’) within Northern Ireland’s largest party.

As regards the Maze Stadium debate, Poots stands isolated even within that party. Following his effective sacking by Peter Robinson from the DUP’s executive team, it appears that Poots now considers himself unfettered and is intent on propounding his unlikely theories as to the project’s viability. Despite the overwhelming weight of professional and official opinion insisting that the proposed stadium would claim vast quantities of public money and that the business plan was flawed and unsustainable, Edwin insists that the civil service are inherently biased against the Maze site and that it is perfectly viable, but for their negative interventions. The pattern of DUP politicians’ resistance to any expert advice that does not bear out their pet theories recurs repeatedly.

Meanwhile Jim Corr is convinced that there is a vast conspiracy to control everyone on the planet by implanting microchips in their brains and he steadfastly maintains that 9/11 was a staged attack orchestrated by the US government. He should get together with Edwin Poots and trade theories.

Insider's take on the marching season

Ignited has begun what promises to be an interesting series of posts over on Redemption’s Son. He intends to blog his experiences of the marching season as it unfolds, through the prism of his own membership of the Orange Order. The initial post provides some insight into his motivations in joining the Order and his perceptions of what membership means to those who have joined.

When Ignited comments, “the Orange Order is a family; and that is not lost on its members”, I am reminded of Ruth Dudley Edwards book ‘The Faithful Tribe’ in which the author is noticably seduced by the familial aspect of the loyal orders and the acceptance which she found amongst its members. Ignited is circumspect about some of the problems within the Order, but he is also firmly committed to the principle that marches should not be restricted.

I have recorded on this blog my ambivalence and indeed apathy as regards Orange culture. I believe that in many cases the orders have not presented themselves in a favourable light and have a tendency to assume a victim mentality which proves counter-productive in putting their case across. I would acknowledge that some attempts are being made to make parades more trouble free, family friendly occasions, but the continued participation of paramilitary style bands undermines the Orange argument that parades are harmless and should be tolerated as legitimate expressions of culture. Put simply, the Order has a lot of work to do, and seriously needs to look at the manner in which it manages public relations.

Of course my belief is that it is important to allow different identities and cultures to express themselves without hindrance where possible, and I do not in any way exclude Orange culture from this tenet. Tolerance of diversity is one of the important principles which define the modern United Kingdom. As I commented in a previous post, “I fully acknowledge the validity of the culture from which they [the Loyal Orders] spring and I defend the right of that culture to express itself in these ways, unhindered as much as possible, within the confines of the law and within reasonable boundaries of nuisance and risk”.

As an Orange agnostic I look forward to reading the perspective of an insider, throughout the summer on Redemption’s Son.

Euro 2008. Russia reach the semis.

Another day, another post about a Russian triumph in Euro 2008. On this occasion Guus Hiddink’s side defeated the manager’s home nation, the Netherlands, 3-1 after extra time. Sean’s Russian Blog carries the ubiquitous Youtube video of well-healed young Muscovites hanging out of expensive cars waving Russia’s flag and various containers of alcohol.

They can be forgiven an excess of enthusiasm, because their side looked genuinely world class on Saturday. Although the Dutch were disappointing, Russia’s relentless waves of attack, getting both midfielders, and those rampaging full backs forward, looked irresistible at times.

Despite this adventure the Russians nevertheless managed consistently to get enough men back to defend in depth when necessary. And all the while, their best efforts were orchestrated by the clever, subtle talents of Andrei Arshavin. He really is a wonderful little player to watch. He reminds me a little of Jari Litmanen.

Russia now faces Spain in the semi-finals and on the strength of their performance against Holland they should not fear Aragones side. The Spanish were unable to break down stultifying Italy in 120 minutes last night, eventually relying on a penalty shoot-out to progress. Although Spain have a galaxy of star players, Russia really are the form team of this tournament.

On a personal level I am beginning to get a little anxious about the prospects of an airport transfer we have arranged for Moscow next Sunday night materialising, should Russia be involved in the final that evening!

Friday, 20 June 2008

Here's to a new management for Hunters?

Beano has brightened up my Friday afternoon by rumour-mongering that the ‘Deez’ incarnation of Hunters’ pub might already be approaching its end and the pub may soon be under new management (yet again).

 He has written a wonderfully vitriolic post detailing his objections to the ‘600 capacity venue’ (as it styles itself) and its ‘insufferable vulgarity’. My own contribution on this topic, bemoaning the re-branding of Hunters, was written only in March, so if Beano is correct, Deez took less than four months to prove an abject failure.

Unlike Beano I must admit that I have not boycotted Hunters since its name change, although I have been more inclined to walk the extra few yards to Ryans. But I felt strangely compelled to find out whether my own prediction of its demise would prove accurate or whether the new management had actually cleverly identified a gap in the market for a structurally old fashioned pub, decked out in day-glo yellow, with pretensions of being a club.

During the day or in the early evening, it is almost possible to ignore the horrible colour scheme and gaudy flyers and imagine that you are simply in a plain old fashioned pub again. I went to Hunters one evening to watch the Carlisle vs. Leeds play-off semi-final and was quite content, until five minutes from the end when a racket that could dislodge fillings began to thump from the upper level.

I would advise any prospective visitor to Deez, should they choose to go there before it changes hands once again, to watch out for certain signs. If a plethora of idiots starts running up and down the stairs clutching CD cases and take-away pizzas, vacate the premises, the amateur DJs and their hangers on have arrived and in 30 minutes lamentable music will be thumpingly audible wherever you might choose to sit.

In his Everything Ulster piece Beano queried whether the pool tables had survived Hunters’ restyling. He really shouldn’t have asked. The actual tables remain but they have been outfitted with a vomit-inducing cloth of red and yellow swirls. How any sane owner could spring to the conclusion that such a surface would provide a stylish counterpoint to his premises’ décor is beyond me.

Naturally I join Beano in welcoming Deez imminent demise. Although if this incarnation of the pub has a saving grace, it is that the bar-staff are helpful and pleasant, any new owners could do worse than retain them. Still, the idea for Deez was terrible and the execution was worse. In his article Beano pleads ‘give us our f**king pub back’. I'll raise a glass to that.

Remembering the lesser crime.

The Soviet and Nazi regimes both committed atrocities during their occupations of Lithuania. During nearly 50 years of Soviet rule, 74,500 people died or disappeared, due to summary executions, whilst in prison or during deportations. The Nazis occupied Lithuania for three years and killed 240,000 people, 200,000 of whom were Jews.

Jonathan Steele examines
why then Vilnius’ Museum of Genocide Victims is focussed only on the Soviet crimes and why this pattern is repeated in terms of public remembrance throughout Lithuania’s capital. Steele concludes that anger about recent Soviet occupations, “blocks discussion of Nazi mass murder and the fact that too many Lithuanians eagerly supported it”.

Football fever in Russia

Russia Blog is getting excited about Euro 2008. Indeed it is drawing parallels between Guus Hiddink and Peter the Great in terms of successful Russo-Dutch exchanges of expertise. Meanwhile, in Moscow, fans have been taking to the streets in order to celebrate the national team’s achievements.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

EU must respect its own rules to retain any credibility

You know that the EU is heading into questionable territory when Tim Garton Ash, a committed Europhile, questions its conduct in threatening to push the Lisbon Treaty forward despite rejection by referendum in the Republic of Ireland; a threat which implies a readiness to sideline the Union's own constitutional requirements. Instinctively I am sympathetic to the European project. I believe that greater cooperation and even integration within the Union is positive and desirable. I can see that in order to work effectively the European Union needs to reform and empower its institutions. However if those institutions are to assume greater powers, if the EU wishes to extend its remit, then there should be a corresponding increase in democratic accountability.

There are two significant problems of perception for the European project to tackle which bear direct relevance to the Lisbon Treaty. Firstly the Union is perceived to be a colourless bureaucracy that has little connection to people’s lives, or to important issues of policy, but is nevertheless intent on meddling and imposing senseless restrictions on citizens who fall within its remit. To change this perception the EU needs to make its institutions more effective. To change this perception the EU needs the Lisbon Treaty. Secondly, it is perceived (with justification) that the EU suffers from a democratic deficit and that the organs which wield power in Brussels are precisely those that are not directly electable. This perception of unaccountability will merely be exacerbated should the Republic of Ireland vote be ignored.

The first perception can only be tackled by the Lisbon Treaty, or a reworked constitutional arrangement. The second perception is a major obstacle in persuading the people of Europe that the EU should acquire a more important role in the first place. The second perception contributed to the Republic’s electorate rejecting the Treaty last week. Another Guardian columnist, Simon Jenkins, devoted yesterday’s column to decrying politicians’ contempt for elections and direct democracy. In Europe this tendency is particularly marked, because the EU derives its power, not directly from the people, but rather from a pooling of sovereignty by the states which constitute it, administered by their current governments. As such there was little prima facie reason that the EU needed to seek popular sanction for changes at all, which makes the Republic’s constitutional requirement for a referendum all the more frustrating for Eurocrats.

That said, the fact that the Republic of Ireland referendum is the closest Europe’s citizens get to expressing a view on the Lisbon Treaty, means that the result cannot be swept under the carpet and that the EU’s own requirements that each country should separately mandate a new treaty in order that it is accepted must be adhered to. Otherwise the sense that the Union’s power is too remote from its people will be exacerbated and the sense of disenfranchisement many people feel from the project will increase.

I am not necessarily opposed to an increase in sovereignty for the EU, nor do I discount the crafting of a common foreign policy for the Union. However, if these additional powers are to be acquired, I believe that it is necessary that Europe’s institutions are more directly accountable to its people. A good start would be to respects its own constitutional rules on unanimity.

Lyric set for demolition

The Lyric Theatre is due to be levelled later today to make way for a brand new facility. The replacement is sorely needed as the current theatre is uncomfortable, pretty chilly and very poorly soundproofed. Nothing quite damages the impression of twelfth century Denmark, like hearing an ice-cream lorry revving its engine and playing ‘the Entertainer’ at full volume, somewhere outside.

The theatre has contributed to a fair amount of dross over the years, Marie Jones’ career spring to mind, but it is still the leading arts’ theatre in Northern Ireland. Hopefully the work goes well and it will open on schedule in March 2010.

Russia show themselves to be contenders

At the outset I declared that I would be supporting Russia in the European Championships, and after an uninspired start Guus Hiddink’s team showed themselves genuine contenders last night with a slick, inventive display of passing football against Sweden.

In their opening fixture, against Spain, Russia had demonstrated in spells, their adroitness in possession, but a propensity to play at pedestrian pace and a readiness to surrender the ball, allowed a strong Spanish side to claim an easy victory. In the following encounter, against Greece, the Russians improved, turning possession more effectively into opportunity and allowing attacking full-back Yuri Zhirkov licence to roam unfettered on the left flank.

Last night, with crafty forward Arshavin returning, Russia began to produce the ole football which characterised Zenit St Petersburg’s UEFA Cup winning campaign. They won 2-0, with goals from rangy Spartak striker Roman Pavlyuchenko and Zenit’s Arshavin, but would have increased that margin substantially, had their forwards not shown almost comic profligacy in front of goal.

Russia will now play Holland in the quarter finals, the first time they have competed in the knock out stages since playing the same opposition in the 1988 final. This is striking evidence of the gathering strength and youthful vigour of Russian football. Their opponents have confounded expectations, and criticism from Johann Cruyff (amongst others), to prove themselves worthy successors to previous illustrious Dutch teams.

I am slightly worried for Russia, for the simple reason that, although they may match (and indeed mirror), the Dutch facility for passing and movement, I believe the Netherlands may be more adept when it comes to converting intricate combinations of passes into goals. Russia’s principle out and out striker (for Arshavin is more of a provider who drifts wide frequently or operates in the hole) is Pavlyuchenko, who boasts skill, speed and height, but whose goals to chances ratio has not been good.

That said, Russia were entrancing last night, and sides managed by Guus Hiddink acquire an aura when they compete in finals competitions. Against Sweden their speed of thought and craft looked at least equal to that so far displayed by the Dutch. The quarter final will be on Saturday night and I would like to see Russia progress, if only to facilitate more pretentious ‘Russian football and national revival’ blog posts from yours truly.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Kennedy listening to the fans?

It is encouraging to hear the IFA president, Raymond Kennedy, making a statement on a new stadium to house the international team, which echoes grassroots feeling amongst Northern Ireland supporters. For too long the game’s governing body here has ignored the viewpoint of its customers, who will actually patronise any stadium, and has instead pandered to the government’s notion that the Maze Stadium plans were the ‘only show in town’.

Although Chief Executive Howard Wells remains wedded to the idea of an out of town, multi-sports’ white elephant in the middle of nowhere, Kennedy has expressed his support for a stadium in Belfast, specifically mentioning the Ormeau Park plans.

"I would love to have a nice, spanking new stadium at Ormeau Park."

Hear, hear Raymond!

Chekov 0-1 Mouse

Last night my rodent nemesis delivered a humiliating reverse in the war of wits being fought in our front room. This morning I found that one of the mouse-traps had been tampered with and the piece of bacon had been removed (also presumably nibbled) before it was tauntingly deposited on the floor some inches from the device. The trap had not been sprung.

Previously the cunning freedom fighter had emerged once again from behind the television and disappeared into the cupboard housing our fuse box. This raised my hopes that I may have had him trapped. No such luck. The mouse might henceforth be known as Steve McQueen, because he had managed to find some minute route of escape.

This morning I sprung the trap myself and have reset it with the bacon more firmly lodged in the bait tray. I would, however, be unsurprised to find it gone tomorrow morning. My mouse appears to be a worthy adversary and it may be time to take the gloves off. Poison could be the only answer. I refuse to pander to the rodent lobby’s spurious rights agenda.

Promoting the Irish Language through TV and film is an appropriate initiative

To dissent from Lord Laird’s opinion, I do not believe that £6 million funding secured for the Irish Language Broadcast Fund (and seemingly announced on behalf of the government by Gerry Adams!) is either ‘disgusting’ or ‘despicable’. The means by which the funding was secured is certainly a concern. It seems that in the Labour Party old habits dies hard, and Sinn Féin’s threats have once again been rewarded with a dividend. Noteworthy also, is that the linkage between the Irish language and the Provisionals becomes once again implicit, with SF portrayed as the language’s champion.

But actually, funding broadcasting initiatives for this language seems to me to represent precisely the type of cultural support which it should receive. With some justification unionist politicians might argue that there are other ways in which the money could be spent to the greater good, but these types of arguments arise wherever cultural initiatives receive funding. Governments must always balance competing interests which require money, and whilst healthcare and homes are a high priority and should frequently be given precedence, there has to be room for cultural projects which are not purely practical. The emotive argument of the kidney dialysis machine vs. the art exhibit may pull at heart strings, but it offers a disingenuous and simplistic view of public finances.

The Irish Language is part of the cultural fabric of the British Isles. It is therefore worth protecting and indeed funding. It is not appropriate to promote the language through public services, government documents and the like, but to provide cultural initiatives surrounding the language with funding is entirely appropriate. The reflex to oppose anything which Sinn Féin support should not be allowed to obfuscate this fact.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Arthur Aughey on 'progressive patriots'

Perhaps as a reaction to Brown’s appropriation of the idea of Britishness, and perhaps because leftist politics have, since the disintegration of the USSR, turned increasingly away from internationalism to embrace localism, those who presumptuously term themselves ‘progressives’ have become increasingly inclined to raise the English nationalist banner. In a review of a new book entitling itself ‘Imagined Nation – England After Britain’, Arthur Aughey offers a critique of the conceptual knots which these ‘progressive patriots’ tie themselves in, and challenges the false assumptions about Britishness which inform the narrative these people are advancing.

In order to rationalise attempts to break up the United Kingdom, and in order to cleave their new found nationalism to an identity which they adjudge convivial, it has become de rigueur to write naval gazing tomes in which the English national identity is offered a set of civic, multi-ethnic, liberal clothes. Aughey notes the incoherency between this vision and actual patriotic English sentiment as it is displayed more popularly.

“ It is an idea that, in the past, it has struggled to reconcile with native populism. There has always been the suspicion, best expressed in the past by Paul Gilroy, of the ‘two World Wars and one World Cup’ beer-fuelled nativism lurking beneath the traditionally conceived civilities of Englishness.”

He identifies an elitist particularism which informs the naïve vision of English nationalism which these people would like to engender,

“because in England's case the future will not be one of chauvinistic flag waving. English nationalism will not be a dangerous nationalism (it will be exceptional) and it might become the model for others to copy (it will be exemplary). It will be civic, liberal, multi-ethnic, hybrid, mongrel (continue and repeat).”

The separatist impulse from which this outlook is formed springs from a central misconception about the United Kingdom. This is an assumption that the Union was forged in order to enable the pursuit of empire and when the Empire disintegrated so did the necessity for Union. Aughey explains the double-think behind this rendering of the UK,

“ to understand the United Kingdom exclusively as a project, that is a polity united by a common purpose externally defined, is not only to exclude its civic character but also to subscribe to the lure of separatist logic.”

He continues,

“to hold this view is, I would argue, one-eyed and it does less than justice to the civic character of Britishness, found in those procedures and relationships which specify the conditions of belonging, ones which continue to secure the allegiance of the majority in all parts of the United Kingdom.”

Aughey then turns to the wildly assumptive title which presupposes that even if Britishness has not yet died its final death, there is inevitability to its demise. The pretext is to suggest that the structures which define an old identity are rapidly disintegrating and there is therefore an urgent need to redefine English identity because the redefinition will soon be required to cleave to a new political dispensation. Aughey is dismissive of these ‘certainties’.

“Despite these certainties, the United Kingdom is not fated to break up. It is certainly fated to change but that is an entirely different matter. Of course, the existence of the Union has always been contingent but it is probably wise for those interested in a new England to stop trying to jump over Rhodes.”

The paradox that these so-called ‘progressive patriots’ face is that they have a destructive impulse when it comes to the United Kingdom, yet that same Kingdom is the structure which embodies values of liberalism, civic politics, multi-ethnicity, mongrelism and so on which they claim to cherish. They are tying themselves in knots attempting to rationalise why they wish to destroy those values and advance parochial separatist nationalism instead.

The Tories and equivocal unionism

On Unionist Lite I’ve been engaging in debate, presumably with a member of the Northern Ireland Conservatives, as to whether unionists might find a more constructive home within that party, rather than becoming members of a Northern Irish unionist party. In common with many unionists of a pan-UK bent, I am sympathetic to the idea that the national parties should organise in Northern Ireland and that ideally they would form the most natural home for unionists who simply wish to play as full a part as possible in UK politics and who do not view the label ‘unionist’ merely as communal shorthand for the term ‘Ulster protestant’.

The ideal scenario whereby I would be happy enough to join one of the national parties is not yet in situ. Firstly, the choice in Northern Ireland is confined to the Conservative Party, and I am deeply sceptical as to whether the Conservatives constitute my natural political home. In addition, that party shows no signs of acquiring anything close to the electoral strength which might allow it to challenge the other parties in Northern Ireland. And rather fundamentally, I am doubtful about Cameron’s unionist credentials. Contradictory and equivocal noises have been forthcoming from the party under its current leader, in turns affirming its commitment to the Union and courting English nationalist sentiment.

The Conservative Party NI, in arguing that their branch of the party has the ear of its national leadership, often aver the frequent liaison between their members and Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Owen Patterson. Patterson yesterday gave an interview to provo hate rag the Andersonstown News. Whilst treating with appropriate caution anything that issues from this deplorable group of government subsidised newspapers, a direct quote leaps out from the interview.

“We have made such progress, very much thanks to close collaboration between London, Dublin and Washington. That is a very critical link to keep going.”

Patterson’s comment is linked to his contention that there remains a distinct role for a Secretary of State in Northern Ireland. Now I happen to agree that Secretaries of State should remain within the UK’s devolved regions in order to liaise with the local administration and represent Westminster in matters which are not devolved. Their role certainly should not be to collaborate with other governments in running the province. Patterson’s comment suggests that he views Northern Ireland more as some manner of international protectorate, nominally under the control of Great Britain, rather than an important and integral region of the United Kingdom. It seems to me that he is not singing off the same hymn-sheet as the Conservative Party Northern Ireland. That dissonant note between the two epitomises the reasons why I do not believe the NI Tories represent a convivial home for unionists.

Monday, 16 June 2008

Mongol: Genghis Khan, David Davis and pre-charge detention

I watched the Kazakh film ‘Mongol’ on Friday night and it offered two hours of arrestingly ‘epic’ film making. A mythical interpretation of the history of Genghis Khan’s rise to prominence form the subject matter for the movie. Headstrong son of a tribal leader, Temudjin survives being repeatedly imprisoned, and fuelled by a combination of pride, tradition, love and faith, progresses to unite the various warring Mongol tribes.

Aul' Genghis, as depicted in Russian director Sergei Bodrov’s film, is a cracking chap and an exponent of law, fair wages for his employees and the progression of women’s role in society. He is a dutiful husband and father, only compromised by his frequent absences and an inability to impregnate his wife (although he happily accepts all her offspring from other liaisons). I rather got the impression that if Genghis were around today, he’d take a dim view of 42 day pre-charge detention.

Chekov 0-0 Mouse

I apologise in advance if today’s posts are a little on the lax side. I didn’t sleep well last night. In fact for much of the night, I lay awake in a state of agitated blood-lust, straining to hear the thwap of an activated trap, and possibly the anguished squeal of a vanquished mouse.

My foe is far from Burns’ ‘wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim'rous beastie’. On the contrary, whilst it may be inaccurate to say that the rodent ambled from behind the television when making its first appearance, during Friday’s Holland vs. France clash, certainly its scuttle was imbued with a casual lack of urgency which suggests that it already considers itself an inhabitant of the house fully entitled to enjoy the amenities of the living room.

My girlfriend was initially inclined to accept the mouse’s claims of equality of residence (mainly on the grounds that it reminds her of a gerbil), and was eventually moved more by her father’s observations that mice breed, eat things, suffer incontinence and get into cupboards, rather than my argument that ‘it’s unsanitary. What if I want to lick the carpet?’.

As my suggestion that I fashion a trap with a glass and some string, then dispatch the animal with a hammer was not greeted with enthusiasm, yesterday found us both contemplating an array of traps, poisons and devices promising repulsion. On the grounds that the closed trap ‘looks like a torture chamber’ it was vetoed and two conventional traps were purchased.

Yesterday evening I baited these with bacon, primed them and settled down to watch Turkey vs. Czech Republic with the nonchalance of an experienced hunter. Unfortunately when the mouse finally made an appearance it acted with equal nonchalance, perambulated the living room, did not even pause to sniff the bacon and disappeared into the chimney breast.

This morning, I made my bleary eyed way downstairs to find two intact traps and a distinct lack of dead mice. Still it is only half time and I will best this cunning and worthy opponent, on penalties if necessary.

In other news, yesterday a bird shat on me. Thanks for reading Three Thousand Versts.

Friday, 13 June 2008

Euro 2008 gathers pace

Last night I watched Austria steal a last minute point from Poland when Howard Webb punished a Polish defender for a little wrestling with Sebastian Proedl in the penalty area. It was anything but a clear cut penalty, yet Austria deserved a draw, after forcing a number of saves from Polish goalkeeper Artur Boruc.

Donning a Northern Ireland supporters’ hat, there is still more encouragement to be drawn from Poland’s uninspired display. The Poles’ offside trap was so diabolical in the first half that David Healy and Kyle Lafferty must be licking their lips in anticipation. In addition, although they are comfortable in possession, the Poles lack an incisive, pacy forward to provide a goal threat.

The previous day another World Cup opponent, Czech Republic, showed in flashes the fluidity and technique which has made them feared opponents. But ultimately they displayed all the signs of a team in decline and were comfortably beaten by Portugal, 3-1.

I must say, after a sluggish start, the tournament is now proceeding at a decent clip. Croatia’s defeat of favourites Germany provided the competition’s first surprise result. Three Thousand Versts' Euro 2008 poll has also proved popular and it is has become something of a barometer of opinion as it changes and develops match on match. When Portugal claimed a second impressive victory and became the first quarter final qualifiers, they leap-frogged Spain and Germany to top the poll on 39 votes.

Holland has also been gathering a following as the tournament progresses.

As we get to the business end of the competition it promises to be an interesting fortnight.

Davis resignation will precipitate a debate which UK needs to have

Whatever the exact motives for David Davis’ resignation from parliament, his actions will result in a thorough national debate being instigated on the importance of civil liberties to the United Kingdom. Gordon Brown’s claim that the public support his controversial 42 day pre-charge detention measure will be subjected to forensic scrutiny because Davis is intent on placing that specific debate within a broader context. This broader context will involve examining how highly British people value freedom as a central tenet of their state’s governance, and whether those foundational freedoms have been eroded incrementally to the extent that the ethos of our Kingdom has been undermined.

If Davis’ narrative of erosion will prove ultimately convincing remains to be seen, but whether the British people decide that they are happy to cede certain freedoms in order to feel safer, or whether they agree with Davis that the pretext of security is being employed to bolster an ever more intrusive and unaccountable state, it is a debate which is critical in determining the type of United Kingdom in which its citizens want to live. Three Thousand Versts therefore applauds the Ulster Unionist peers who have offered their support to David Davis’ by-election campaign. It makes me proud, that in stark contrast to the DUP, Ulster Unionist politicians are prepared to involve themselves wholeheartedly in a national argument which is fundamental to determining the values which define our state.

I happen to believe that Lords Maginnis, Rogan and Laird are correct in their contention that personal liberties and legal protections are intrinsic to maintaining the type of United Kingdom I want to live in and represent the central tenets on which the concept of Britishness is built. Lady Sylvia Hermon has taken a different view, but it is a position which she has reached by deliberating on the issues, rather than evaluating what benefits she could extract from its adoption. It is a position which she is entitled to adopt and one which she will no doubt be prepared to defend.

Over at Burke’s Corner Brian Crowe has produced a typically learned post, extracting passages which outline some of the freedoms afforded to us by Acts of Parliament and common law, which are now threatened by hastily conceived legislation. The electorate in David Davis’ East Yorkshire constituency will undoubtedly return him to Parliament, but by the time his campaign has elapsed the entire United Kingdom will have focussed its collective mind on the worth it accords to such legal protections. That alone makes his resignation a worthwhile exercise.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Belarus and Lukashenko's geopolitical balancing act

Kommersant, Russia’s business daily, carries an article examining the manner in which Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, plays Russian and western interests in his country off, one against the other, in order to strengthen his own position and copper-fasten the independence of the state. Translation renders the piece into somewhat idiosyncratic English, but it is worth persevering, because this is an interesting departure from perceived wisdom that Lukashenko, the vanity of a tyrant not withstanding, is effectively in the Kremlin’s pocket.

Fedor Lukyanov argues that Lukashenko has used Belarus’ strategic position, as the last bulwark separating Russia from NATO, to extract economic concessions from Russia, with the minimum secession of sovereignty and influence to the Kremlin. In tandem, Belarus’ proximity to both Russia and Poland allows Lukashenko to court the EU, without political pluralism ever seriously entering discussions.

Maintaining this delicate balance allows Lukashenko to retain such a firm grip on the governance of Belarus. To move too dramatically in either direction would compromise both his personal position, and the fragile sense of national identity which the country has established. It will be a geopolitical miscalculation, a movement in either direction from the centre of this see-saw, which Lukyanov believes may eventually account for Lukashenko’s regime.

Russia Day - a national day with a date which inspires ambivalence

Today is an official holiday in Russia, marking the country’s ‘national day’. The 12th of June was first decreed a holiday in 1991 when Boris Yeltsin’s government instigated Independence Day. Given that Russia has not undergone foreign occupation since Moscow freed itself of the ‘Tartar yoke’ in 1480, the day is viewed with ambivalence by the majority of Russians. The nominal ‘independence’ to which Yeltsin was alluding was a declaration by the Russian Congress of People’s Deputies in 1990 that Russia had become independent from the federal authority of the Soviet Union.

The holiday has since undergone two name changes, and it is now known simply as ‘Russia Day’. However, despite Putin’s attempts to harness the day to an all-encompassing sense of national pride, “on this day we honour our motherland, our Russia. We honour the country of a thousand years history and unique heritage, the country which united on a huge space many peoples, territories and cultures”, it retains its link to an historical event which represents, not a moment in Russia’s history to be celebrated, but rather a missed opportunity, the dismemberment of a state and the beginning of a period of great economic hardship.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Parochial politics and 42 day detention

Unfortunately a cursory glance over the last page of posts on this blog might give the impression that it only exists in order to attack the DUP. This is not so (honest!), it’s just that they are undoubtedly a shower, and a number of stories have arisen lately which happen to graphically demonstrate this.

Take for instance the fashion in which the party have been using the 42 day detention bill, a piece of legislation which encapsulates a vital debate about the nature of liberties in the United Kingdom and the defence of its citizens against the threat of terror, to gain leverage with the government and indeed the Conservative opposition.

The DUP are not renowned for their attendance at Westminster, but they claim they will vote in the best interests of the country on this issue. It is odd then that they are taking so long to decide in which direction the country’s best interests lie. Indeed, although the debate is currently ongoing, the DUP’s final group meeting has had to be postponed until 5pm in order that all 9 MPs can attend.

If a deal has not been done between the DUP and the government, then the party has certainly been attempting to extract as much benefit from playing hard to get as it possibly can. Nick Robinson suggests that Peter Robinson’s party are not alone in seeking to advance their agenda by playing politics on an issue of national importance, but certainly their parochial attitude makes them a particularly conspicuous case.

The truth is that no convincing case has been advanced to suggest that 42 day detention will have a beneficial effect on national security. Civil liberties and the foundations of British justice are being compromised for no discernible benefit other than showing that Gordon Brown can force a contentious piece of legislation through Parliament.

Update: It is fairly incredible about how bare-faced the DUP are being on this issue. On one hand they persist with the contention that they voted on the balance of issues at hand, on the other they are shamelessly gloating and boasting about the leverage they can now exercise. Gregory Campbell,

"The DUP now holds the balance of power at Westminster and we will use it to force the pace for the benefit of Northern Ireland until the next general election, which could be two years away."

Iain Dale sums up the Tory mood referring to the DUPes as 'duplicitous bastards'. Ain't that the truth?

Ignorant Sammy in DUP's Alliance against Science

If any further evidence were needed to demonstrate why it is necessary to maintain a strong alternative unionist voice to the DUP, the party itself has been providing it over the last week or so. In addition to Iris Robinson’s remarks about homosexuality, we learn that Mervyn Storey, an inveterate proponent of young-Earth creationism will replace Sammy Wilson as chair of the Assembly Education Committee. And as noted below, Sammy himself has found a suitable role in the DUP’s Alliance against Science, becoming Environment Minister.

Sammy is a clown, with the red nose to prove it, but it is not funny having a clown in charge of Northern Ireland’s environment. He has wasted no time outlining his understanding (or lack of it) of the issue of green house gases contributing to climate change.

"I am not convinced and I don't think that there is any firm evidence to show that all of that climate change is due to CO2 emissions."

Which as a literal statement may be true, but in the very terms in which it is framed, exposes the Environment Minister’s ignorance. Pete Baker on Slugger points out that there are no serious claims that Carbon Dioxide is responsible for ‘all’ climate change. Of course what Wilson is implying is that gases created by human activity, the so-called ‘green-house gases’ are not, in the main, the cause of climate change.

Pete quotes the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which bases its opinion on a synthesis of peer reviewed and published scientific literature,

“Most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic (human) greenhouse gas concentrations.”

Sammy Wilson is assuming responsibility for a brief, bringing with him a set of pre-conceived, ill considered, cranky views set in opposition to the overwhelming scientific consensus, which are directly relevant to the job at hand. It both beggars belief and typifies the philistine obduracy of the party which he represents.

Will Wilson prepare his own body of credible scientific research, in order to support his theories on climate change? No he will not. And nor will he need to, because he is in a position whereby he can immediately begin to impact our environment, without having to in any way establish his credentials or propound any alternative theories. Ignorance is bliss.

Kane rejects DUP's overtures

The News Letter today reports Alex Kane’s comments on Peter Robinson’s unionist ‘unity’ overtures, delivered to South Down Ulster Unionist Constituency Association, last night. His objections to ‘cuddling up’ with the DUP are twofold. Firstly Kane doubts the bona fides of the Democratic Unionists and secondly he does not agree that the pro-Union vote would necessarily be strengthened by a pact or a merger.

The tactical cynicism of Robinson’s approach has already been discussed on Three Thousand Versts. In a succession of pieces it has also been pointed out that the idea of unionism gaining strength through unity is fallacious. "In my own view the best way of increasing and maximising the pro-Union vote is for the DUP and UUP to do their own thing," is Alex Kane’s view and it also summates accurately the opinion professed on this blog.

Unionism is not, and should not aspire to be, a monolith. Monolithic unionism would succeed, not only in disenfranchising a substantial proportion of unionists, but also in exacerbating a communal /sectarian political division which weakens the Union. As I have previously argued, sectarianising and communalising politics in Northern Ireland, only serves to promulgate an atmosphere whereby the constitutional arrangements are not seen as permanent. Communal politics ensure that the constitutional issue remains the central battleground here.

The DUP’s brand of ‘unionism’ is incompatible with many of the core beliefs which the Ulster Unionist Party has been moving to promote. The politics which the DUP describe as unionism are equivocal about the Union itself. As a unionist party, which puts the Union at the heart of its politics, the UUP does not need to move closer to a party which has described the UK Prime Minister as ‘the enemy’, stated that the British government was responsible for the retardation of Northern Ireland’s economy and whose erstwhile leader described British government ministers in the NIO as ‘squatters’.

I have repeated this mantra many times before, but the UUP’s business must be to delineate its unionism clearly from that of the DUP. I am speaking of a unionism which is not merely a cultural or communal label, but which genuinely values the benefits of remaining in the United Kingdom and our ties to its institutions.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Robinson's hand remains unconvincing

It would be churlish not to register some pleasure that the Northern Ireland Executive’s second worst minister, Edwin Poots, is a casualty of Peter Robinson’s first reshuffle of the DUP’s executive positions. Placatory noises have issued from the First Minister, to the effect that the Lagan Valley MLA could return to a ministerial role in eighteen months time, but I will believe it when I see it.

Less encouraging is the rest of the reshuffle’s content. The DUP continues its insistence on double and triple jobbing its high profile personnel. Meanwhile the new Environment Minister is Sammy Wilson, an appointment which could be viewed as something akin to putting Dracula in charge of a blood bank. Wilson may be the DUP’s jester, and he may not be drawn from the religious wing of his party, but he shares with his fundamentalist colleagues a tendency to refute established scientific opinion. Sammy may not be so rib-tickling when he puts into action his self-professed scepticism over the overwhelming scientific consensus regarding climate change.

And whilst, as a football supporter, it is encouraging that a fan of the game is in charge of the sports’ remit, sport is only one aspect of culture, arts and leisure. Gregory Campbell has already fairly openly admitted that he has little interest in arts on Good Morning Ulster today. When the News Letter trumpets his ‘keen interest in culture’, it’s tempting to conclude that this keen interest encompasses a fairly limited slice of ‘community culture’.

Nigel Dodds will be minister of finance, and in common with Wilson and Campbell, it is difficult to envisage that his Westminster duties will not play second fiddle to such a complicated brief. Arlene Foster is not a Member of Parliament, but she has acquired a portfolio at the Department of Trade and Industry, which will require her to travel widely promoting Northern Ireland business. It is difficult to see this as an ideal position for someone with a young family. .

Peter Robinson has shuffled his cards, but his hand remains unconvincing.

Monday, 9 June 2008

Robinson's comments are indicative of a predominant strain in the DUP

I have refrained from too much comment on the Iris Robinson controversy as I believe that her remarks speak for themselves, and indeed are indicative of the strain of condemnatory Christianity which infests the DUP. A couple of bloggers’ thoughts are worth reading however.

Brian Crowe on Burke’s Corner argues from the perspective of more mainstream Christian churches that Robinson’s hate filled rant is aberrant to genuine Christian teaching. I am in no position to comment on Brian’s contention that, “the Christian tradition has a responsibility and obligation to act with respect towards gay people - a responsibility and obligation that flow from foundational Christian beliefs with regards to creation and redemption”, but it does confirm to my mind that Robinson’s Christianity is of a particularly virulent strain, and although she does not belong to the Free Presbyterian Church herself, that organisation, which still exercises a hugely influential role in the DUP, is characterised by a similarly judgmental predisposition.

Brian argues that Mrs Robinson’s views are theologically unsound. That is an argument which he can probably sustain with reference to clerical opinion, but although her views may not be typical of mainstream Christianity, they are typical of countless evangelical Protestant sects, and it is from this constituency that the DUP draws a disproportionate number of its members and an even more disproportionate number of its leaders.

Meanwhile Ciarán from Draw Breath scrupulously explains why it is not sufficient to adduce principles of free speech in defence of Mrs Robinson’s decision to describe homosexuals as ‘disgusting’, ‘loathsome’ and ‘an abomination’. It is not her right to express these views which should be attacked, but her suitability to hold public office, or to represent the public, part of which she volubly accuses of being ‘disgusting’, ‘loathsome’ and so on.

The real problem, of course, is not even Mrs Robinson per se. It is the character of the party which has been voted in as Northern Ireland’s largest. This party is embarassing Northern Ireland and embarassing unionism throughout the UK and beyond.

Czechs and Poles fail to convince

A few words about a rather lacklustre first weekend in the European Championships. Nigel Worthington should be a relatively happy man after he watched two matches featuring forthcoming opponents and neither proved particularly awe-inspiring. The Czechs at least managed to win their match against a Swiss side which should really have gained something from a dreary spectacle. Poland produced neater football at times, in a 2-0 defeat to Germany, but were easily outclassed in the end and carried little goal threat.

I must confess that despite Czech Republic vs. Switzerland being the first match of the Championship, I did pick up a book and merely half-watched the game throughout most of the second half, it was so bereft of excitement. From the moments I did watch though, the Czechs produced an oddly incoherent performance, with Jan Koller stranded on his own up front and proving ineffective. They desperately needed a player with enough craft and thrust to provide a threat from midfield. Injured Thomas Rosicky was badly missed.

In contrast Poland’s clash with Germany offered the brightest entertainment and most convincing quality of the tournament so far. The best two players on the pitch were of Polish extraction, however unfortunately for Poland they were playing in the white jerseys of Germany. From the opening moments Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose (whose family name was originally spelt Kloze) looked likely scorers. Indeed Podolski was eventually to notch both goals and give Germany a comfortable win.

Memorialising Russia's dark past

RIA Novosti carries an opinion piece by Maxim Krans which examines Russia’s relationship with its Soviet past. Krans condemns an equivocal attitude towards the darker aspects of the USSR which has become increasingly prevalent as 1991 recedes into distant memory. In particular he is critical of the rehabilitation of Stalin which has crept into Russian textbooks and the teaching of history under Putin’s regime. Notably RIA Novosti is a state owned news agency and the article is published not only on the English language site, but also within the opinion section of the Russian language site.

The debate has arisen as Mikhail Gorbachev and others have appealed for a ‘national memorial’ to be established in memory of those who lost their lives in Stalin’s purges. In addition Gorbachev has suggested that Lenin’s embalmed body be removed from the mausoleum on Red Square and buried in accordance with his own wishes. Although the commentator is rather disingenuous in implying from this a wish on Gorbachev’s part to bury the legacy of Lenin. The embalming of Lenin was Stalin’s initiative and one which the man himself would have deplored.

Certainly it is remarkable how little public acknowledgment of victims of Soviet oppression exists in Russia. Organisations like ‘Memorial’ have lobbied for public remembrance of those who perished or suffered in the Gulag, and have enjoyed some success, but in general any attempt at remembering such events has been extremely modest.

Much has been written contrasting Germany’s perceived successful efforts to remember and reconcile its past, with Russia’s perceived failure to acknowledge or even disclaim the dark legacy of its own repressive regimes. There are reasons for this apparent disparity and some of them are valid. Clearly Germany’s 12 year period of Nazi rule cannot compare to Russia’s 74 year experience of Soviet communism. Successive generations were implicated in a political project which encompassed vast variations in its oppressive character. Stalin can clearly be compared to Hitler without difficulty, but Russians must wrestle with a much more equivocal sweep of history in their consideration of the Soviet Union as a whole, and naturally their feelings about the past will be somewhat ambivalent.

However Krans, and Gorbachev too for that matter, are quite right to maintain that remembering the wrongs of the past is important, not only in order to respect the victims of those wrongs, but also to avoid repeating similar mistakes in the future. To this end there are certainly events which it is possible to remember and condemn without ambiguity. The execution of 22,000 Polish officers at Katyn in 1939 is one such event and the extremity of Stalin’s purges is another. The new president should look urgently into a fitting national memorial to these events.

Friday, 6 June 2008

Feedback on layout needed

On and off today I’ve been tinkering with the new ‘My blog list’ links menu which has been made available on Blogger. Personally I am torn as to whether it offers much of an improvement, or whether it simply adds more clutter to the screen. To surmise, basically the links menu updates whenever a new story is posted on a linked site. I’ve decided to leave a few sites linked through this new menu over the weekend and if anyone finds it useful please leave a comment below. Otherwise I might just stick with the straight, alphabetical list of sites only.

Fundamentalist, Ulster nationalist First Minister? Who'd have thunk it?

Iris Robinson did a fine job of emphasising her husband’s pragmatic and secular instincts earlier this week on the Nolan show. Having spent some time bemoaning the loss of the word ‘coloureds’ and offering homosexuals the services of a psychiatrist to get them ‘turned around’, Iris stressed that she shared these beliefs with her ‘born again Christian’ husband. Wonderful. Only in Northern Ireland could Peter Robinson represent progress in edging the First Minister’s post away from an even more extreme religious nut-case.

And as if to emphasise the element of continuity between Robinson and his Ulster nationalist predecessor, O’Neill makes an interesting contribution in the comments zone of a post on Slugger which includes a ‘TagCrowd’ of the new First Minister’s inaugural speech. He notes that there are no tags for ‘unionist’, ‘unionism’, ‘Britain’, ‘British’ or indeed ‘UK’. The King is dead, long live the King.

Counting down the days ....

Thank god Paisleyite lickspittle Edwin Poots will soon be shuffled away from the DCAL brief. Matthew Parris retains the distinction of summating Poots’ credentials most pithily during a radio discussion with the Lagan Valley MLA, ‘Good heavens! You’re the Culture Minister!’ was Parris’ astonished remark.

Poots has been utilising the death throes of his time in office, to berate Civil Servants for providing realistic assessments of the Maze Stadium plan, on Good Morning Ulster.

"There have been those within the civil service who have been opposed to the project at the Maze right from its conception."

Maybe because it’s a crap and ill-conceived project Edwin?

Belfast City Council has meanwhile
produced a shortlist of five possible city based sites, replete with a business plan and forwarded it to the relevant departments.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Signs that Medvedev is loosening the 'power vertical'?

Yevgeni Kiselyov has an interesting assessment of Dmitry Medvedev’s first four weeks of power in today’s Moscow Times. Kiselyov acknowledges that no ‘revolutions’ were possible in such a short time frame, but nevertheless discerns a number of important indications that Medvedev’s ‘pet projects’ threaten the machinery whereby Vladimir Putin maintained his presidential ‘power vertical’.

Medvedev has spoken repeatedly of his desire to move Russia away from a culture of ‘legal nihilism’. There are important signals that the president intends to act on this campaign promise. A number of cases whose pursuance could be adjudged primarily political have been dropped. In addition Medvedev has admitted frankly that court decisions are often influenced by pressure from bureaucrats and that officials lobby judges (often with money changing hands). An unprecedented statement from a leading Supreme Arbitration Court official, that a top official within Putin’s administration has attempted to influence court decision, bears hallmarks of being sanctioned by Medvedev.

The significance of these developments is that movement toward an independent judiciary would deprive the president of one of the prime levers with which Putin exerted pressure on political rivals. Kiselyov recognizes that it is as yet early days, and that Putin spoke, with commendation, of the rule of law early in his presidency, but the indications offer some encouragement nevertheless. Particularly in conjunction with a letter in which Medvedev suggested to state Duma deputies that a bill making it easier to shut down media organisation be dropped.

After a month during which Putin has taken an equal share of high profile state appearances, Medvedev hosts the prestigious St Petersburg International Economic Forum this weekend, confounding expectations that Putin would once again be the star attraction.


After 45 minutes watching the animated film ‘Persepolis’ last night, I imagined that I would be blogging unadulterated praise this morning and urging all Three Thousand Versts readers to get tickets ASAP. Actually it began to ramble a little after the hour mark, either that or the pre-show coffee had reached my bladder enough to make me restive, or perhaps it was a combination of the two. Nevertheless, this charcoal animation, examining the experience of liberal Iranians following the 1979 revolution, was still arresting enough to deserve some plaudits.

I gather that the film is adapted from a graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi on whom the protagonist of this coming of age fable, ‘Marji’, is presumably based. Marji is a little girl when we join her secular, left leaning family and revolution flares against the Shah. Initially they welcome these events and even the emergence of fanatical Islamists in government is dismissed as a passing phase. Soon, however, the oppression and sexism of the new regime becomes the focus of the family’s resentment.

Marji is sent to school in Europe to escape an airless regime and the dangers of the Iran-Iraq war. There she is patronised and finds that western freedoms come replete with an exploitative underbelly. After a period of homeless ness she returns home to an Iran where moral policemen and fear have acquired a quotidian quality and Tehran’s residents are trying as best they can to normalise their lives.

Marji is an amusing cartoon to follow through these various transitions, and there is enough substance drawn from historical events to provide the animation with political frisson. She is however a cartoon, and as the film follows the tortuous narrative of depression and divorce which accompanies her return to Iran, it rather loses momentum. Much stronger are the earlier scenes in which her childish imagination filters the revolution into humorous narratives.

Still the animation is striking and there is enough humour to leave you feeling positive toward this charming little film.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Euro 2008 tips and favourites

Northern Ireland fans will be watching the opening match of Euro 2008 with particular interest. World Cup qualifying rivals the Czech Republic kick off the tournament at tea time on Saturday with a match against co-hosts Switzerland. Although the Czechs are perceived to be a team on the wane, they are still strong contenders to progress from Group A which also includes Portugal and Turkey.

Group B similarly contains forthcoming opposition as a strong Poland team contend with Germany, Austria and Croatia for two quarter final slots. Although however intently GAWA members scout World Cup adversaries, there will still be a rueful element watching this tournament on TV, when with a little more attention we could have qualified.

I have opened a poll (on the top right of the page) giving you an opportunity to vote for your tip to win the competition. It’d also be interesting to know who you are supporting and your reason for lending a team your backing and/or tipping them.

It will not come as a huge surprise to anyone to discover that I personally will be cheering on Russia. Pat Nevin is backing Guus Hiddink’s side to get to the final, which would be an intriguing prospect as my girlfriend and I will be arriving in Moscow on the day it is to take place. His prediction should not be discounted. Russian football is buoyant at the moment and the team is strong in every department. Andrei Arshavin in particular provides the attacking craft which can transform contenders into champions.

I’m backing the Russians to qualify ahead of Greece and Sweden in Group D, although their other group-mates, Spain, are so mercurial that they will astonish no-one should they either win the tournament at a canter, or finish bottom of their group. With Liverpool’s number 9 spearheading the Spanish attack and Arbeloa and Reina also in the squad, they retain a certain amount of affection. Indeed Torres’ firepower will be pivotal; if David Villa and he gel then Spain may prove unstoppable.

Group C has acquired the ubiquitous ‘Group of Death’ sobriquet on this occasion. Two sides from France, Italy, the Netherlands and Romania will exit before the quarter final stage. I would contend that both France and Italy are potential winners, but Holland will not provide a sustained challenge on this occasion. They may account for either of the other two and qualify from the group, but there are too many mediocre players in the Dutch side for them to win it. In contrast, France has the potential star player in Ribery and the Italians’ lack of fire-power did not prevent them becoming World Champions in 2006.

Despite Garth Crooks suggestion that Poland are potential winners, Germany and Croatia look better bets as we return to Group B. The Germans have firepower in the form of Klose and Pidolski with Ballack and Schweinsteiger providing the ammunition. Meanwhile Croatia comprises one of the tournament’s dark horses.

Posturing Sinn Féin threaten election

It is appropriate that Ian Paisley is spending his last day as First Minister cuddling up to fellow UK regional nationalist, Alex Salmond. His Scottish counterpart is rather more circumspect than Paisley in public, but together perhaps privately they can reflect on the evils of the ‘Brits’. Immediate concerns, however, are focussed on the handover of the First Minister’s position from Paisley to his successor, Peter Robinson, and the potential for Provisional Sinn Féin to derail the process by declining to re-nominate Martin McGuinness for the Deputy First Minister’s post, a position which is tied to that of the First Minister.

With his customary flair for understatement Paisley has deemed any potential failure to nominate, “an evil thing”, although you might be forgiven for thinking that it would not constitute the Provisionals’ most evil action throughout the years. Nevertheless the threat is being taken seriously, to the extent that Gordon Brown invited both SF president Gerry Adams and Peter Robinson to Downing Street yesterday, in an attempt to reach an accommodation.

On Everything Ulster and Slugger, Michael has been speculating as to PSF’s motivations for this potential move. My suspicion is that it constitutes something of a huff in an attempt to gain leverage on issues such as devolution of policing and justice and an Irish Language act. The danger is that, having invoked this threat in order to gain leverage, the Shinners may not wish to exhibit weakness and be seen to back down without firm commitments on the issues which they have raised.

Should neither side be prepared yield, a fresh election would be likely this year. That is a prospect which is not appealing either to the DUPes or the Shinners.