Friday, 29 August 2008

Cameron as Whiggish Burkean

On Comment Is Free, David Marquand argues that it is a misunderstanding to portray David Cameron as a Thatcherite who is donning the clothes of compassionate social policy as mere expedience. His article chimes resonantly with After Blair, Kieron O’Hara’s examination of Cameron Conservatism, which I reviewed recently.

His central contention is similar to O’Hara’s. He views conservatism as a Burkean tradition which seeks to preserve and to effect reforms by evolution rather than wholesale change. The proponents of this type of conservatism see no contradiction in a Conservative government seeking to emphasise social concerns or to refrain from instigating an aggressive free market agenda. You'll notice the juxtaposition of the lower and upper case 'c's.

“[Cameron] offers inclusion, social harmony and evolutionary adaptation to the cultural and socioeconomic changes of his age: a 21st century equivalent of the amalgam of preservation and improvement once lauded by Burke.”

Like O’Hara, Marquand views Cameron’s rhetoric on the maintenance of freedom and the arrest of statism, in concert with his emphasis on protecting “the precious filaments of civil society from the pressures of resurgent capitalism, hyper-individualism, resentful populism, family breakdown and state encroachment”, as a peculiarly apposite doctrine for modern politics.

Whether the reality of Cameron’s social commitment is as benign as sympathetic commentators suggest remains to be seen, but to use the obligatory modern terminology, the centrist ‘narrative’ which must attract liberal voters, but emphasise the continuity of his conservatism, is certainly well on its way to being woven.

P Sinn Féin can't be allowed to poop the Olympic party

A Sinn Féin councillor has complained to the Equality Commission after it adjudged a British Olympic flag erected for four hours at a leisure centre in Craigavon to be unproblematic. The emblem incorporated the Union Flag as part of the British Olympic Association’s lion logo.

Three Thousand Versts has consistently argued that the principle of consent must not be disregarded, by erasing consequences which naturally flow from Northern Ireland remaining part of the United Kingdom, under the guise of equality. Sinn Féin has persistently instigated a policy whereby any outward manifestation of Northern Ireland’s constitutional status is considered offensive and must be removed on grounds of parity of esteem.

It is correct to provide neutral public spaces and shared environments where flags and symbols are not appropriate. I have volubly supported, for example, initiatives to furnish the Northern Ireland football team with its own anthem. I do not wish to see buildings and lampposts festooned with flags. I am a strong advocate of cultures and traditions in Northern Ireland being afforded recognition and accorded respect, as the many cultures and traditions which comprise the UK as a whole should similarly be recognised and respected.

There are however consequences which remaining in the United Kingdom entails, which nationalism as a whole, and republicanism in particular, signed up to when they accepted the Belfast Agreement and which they must begin to accept in practice. Most importantly there is the primacy of Northern Ireland’s constitutional status along with the furniture and symbols of state which accompany that status. In addition there are certain sporting and cultural connections which as residents of the United Kingdom, the people of Northern Ireland must be free to enjoy.

The UK is the next Olympic host and the Great Britain and Northern Ireland team represents all of that territory. Northern Irish people cannot be excluded from celebrating and participating in the Olympic party because of the petty mindedness of Sinn Féin.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Is that the sound of desperate Koppites?

Last night I ate my way through almost a full tub of M & S ‘Extremely Chocolaty Mini Rolls’, one bag of cashew nuts, one bag of Walkers ‘Gary’s Lamb Curry’ crisps and an eight chunk Dairy Milk such was my apprehension watching Liverpool struggle to a 1-0 extra time victory against Standard Liege.

Dirk Kuyt eventually bundled home Ryan (not Marcus) Babel’s cross after 117 agonising minutes. Ironically it was probably the first time in 210 minutes of both legs that a Liverpool player had proffered a cross from wide. Hernandez reflects the commonly held opinion that Liverpool needs a winger, fast.

I wholeheartedly agree and I also endorse his contention that Albert Riera will not suffice. Stuart Downing has Premiership pedigree and is available for around £14 million. If Liverpool cannot muster such a sum in order to launch a realistic challenge, there is something seriously amiss at Anfield.

Miliband's belligerence shows insensitivity to history

Over at Burke’s Corner, Brian highlights an extraordinary comment by Foreign Secretary David Miliband on Radio 4’s Today programme (I was starting the car as he said it and I nearly stalled), in which he reassured listeners, "there's no question of launching an all-out war against Russia". Brian was equally aghast, and he is right to contend that the fact Miliband thinks he has to make such a statement speaks volumes about his refusal to act as a Foreign Secretary should and ease tension between Britain and Russia.

The would be Labour leader chose Kiev in Ukraine as a location for an address which basically denies that Russia has legitimate foreign policy interests or a ‘sphere of influence’. Miliband’s language towards Russia is persistently the most strident from the major European governments.

In his remarks, not only does Miliband ignore the fact that Nato set the template (followed by Russia in the case of Georgia) of ignoring international law and undermining the territorial integrity of sovereign Serbia, but as David Hearst argues in Comment is Free, he is showing spectacular disregard for the complexities of Ukrainian history when he uses Kiev as a venue to denounce Russian interests in the ‘near abroad’.

The very name ‘Ukraine’ means borderland. It is composed of eastern and central regions in which the population are drawn culturally and linguistically toward Russia and a western portion in which its people are more inclined toward the rest of Europe.

As Hearst eloquently writes,

“Does Miliband not realise that Ukraine as a nation has historically been torn between east and west, and what does he think would happen to old wounds if he, among others, starts to tug a little bit harder?”

The relationship between Ukrainian and Russian identity is symbiotic. The Russian state has its roots in a precursor based in Kiev. The Ukrainian people are deeply divided as regards their attitudes to their neighbour and a relatively peaceful accommodation has only been reached because the fine balance of politics and identity has been recognised.

Russia retains a Black Sea port at Sevastopol in the Crimea. This is ostensibly the potential flashpoint over which Miliband is extending moral support to the Ukrainians. Crimea is an overwhelmingly Russian area which was an intrinsic part of the Russian SSR before Khrushchev chose arbitrarily to reward his acolytes in the Ukrainian SSR with the territory. Whilst arcane details of Soviet history might seem unimportant to David Miliband, it is complexities such as this which mean that this particular tinderbox should be left alone by western politicians.

Hearst warns,

“By going to Kiev to send Russia a signal that Moscow will not be allowed to have a veto over Ukraine joining Nato, Miliband is stepping blindly and foolishly into a minefield. Thus far Russians and Ukrainians of all political colours, blue and orange, and of all ethnicities have resolved their differences by negotiation and largely without bloodshed. The new map has been changed as much by western military and oil interests advancing eastwards into the Black Sea as it is by Russia's bullying of its neighbours. But one is a product of the other.”

Johnston offers genuine commitment to local government

Next month’s Fermanagh by election has already been highlighted on Three Thousand Versts alongside the attendant issue of ‘double jobbing’ which Arlene Foster’s candidature invokes. Foster previously resigned her council seat in order to concentrate on her roles as an MLA and a minister.

A year later and she is back, contesting a by election in which her main rivals will be Sinn Féin’s Debbie Coyle and UUP candidate Basil Johnston. In addition, Karen McHugh represents the torrid world of dissident republicanism, although a positive aspect is that she may pose a threat to Sinn Féin’s vote. Rosemary Flanagan stands for the SDLP and Alliance’s Dr Kumar Kamble completes the field.

Arlene Foster has made a rather belated and tactical appeal to her supporters to transfer their votes to the UUP candidate. Clearly she does not want the DUP to stand accused of losing a seat to Sinn Féin by fostering (pun intended) unionist infighting. In such a situation, given the strength of republicanism, it makes sense to transfer to other candidates which oppose SF.

However, the best value for unionists’ first preference vote in Enniskillen remains Basil Johnston who offers a genuine commitment to local government, rather than a mere tactical reacquaintance

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

The outworking of unheeded warnings

Russian president Dmitri Medvedev has recognised unilateral declarations of independence by both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, some 15 years after the republics broke away from Georgia. Very clearly it is a deplorable thing when the internationally recognised territorial integrity of a state is disregarded. The dismemberment of a state, or the attempted dismemberment of a state, cannot be applauded.

However, whilst two wrongs do not make a right, it has been pointed out several times on this site that Kosovo formed a precedent which would encourage separatist regions to declare independence, and, specifically in the cases of several frozen conflicts in the former Soviet Union, would encourage Russia to respond by affording recognition of its own. Saakishvili’s attempt to bombard South Ossetians into accepting his government’s sovereignty provided a pretext for Russia to harden its support for independence in the two regions.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia are illegal states which should not gain recognition. Equally Kosovo is an integral part of the sovereign state of Serbia and its recognition is illegal. Excellent columnist Jonathan Steele, in examining ‘lies and hysteria’ surrounding the South Ossetian war, draws the analogy further to examine just how hypocritical outrage from NATO members (and the US in particular) has been.

“Suppose Serbia's leaders were suddenly to kill US peacekeepers, fire rockets at civilian houses in Pristina and storm the town, wouldn't the Americans be expected to expel the invaders, even if the UN still recognises Kosovo as legally part of Serbia?”

Russia’s recognition of the breakaway republics is wrong and should be condemned. To couch this condemnation in hysterical terms, or to use either recognition or the war as a pretext for punitive measures against Russia, would be both deeply unjust and entirely counterproductive. The war and its aftermath should be a timely reminder that Russia too has strategic interests and cannot be indefinitely disrespected and ignored.

It is worth quoting Steele’s conclusion in full.

“Nato and Russia are boycotting each other for the moment. But business will soon resume as western leaders see this was a manufactured crisis rather than the start of a new cold war or some cataclysmic shift in international relations. When Nato's foreign ministers met last week, France and Germany made that point. The alliance promised reconstruction aid to Georgia but no support for rushing it into Nato. Earlier this year, France and Germany had the courage to defy Washington and say it was too early to invite Georgia. They were right then, and are even more so now.”

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Sinn Féin antics show Stormont is a straw house

Having discussed below the infantile antics of Ogra Sinn Féin, it is worth for a moment considering the ridiculous and self-defeating posturing in which the senior party are currently indulging. To summarise, if other parties within Stormont do not agree that the institutions are ready and stable enough in order to devolve policing and justice, or if they maintain that an executive involving the Provisional Movement does not yet have enough public confidence to handle such an important brief, well then, Sinn Féin might well collapse those power sharing institutions, thus proving their perdurable immutability and the immense lack of volatility which republicans bring to the business of government.

Gerry Adams has been huffing and puffing on roughly this theme for some time now. Caoimhghin O Caolain, who leads SF in the Republic’s parliament, is the latest senior party figure to echo Adams' ominous sentiments. Martin McGuinness is conveniently on holiday, although as surreal as it occasionally seems, McGuinness now represents the ‘good cop’ in SF’s petulant attempts to get its way.

Sinn Féin is a past master at this type of brinkmanship and there is very little chance that its threats will be followed through. Not least because it knows that elements of the St Andrews Agreement which it claimed as part of the deal were in no respect fastened down or agreed with other parties. Mark Durkan has captured the hubris at the heart of Sinn Fein’s fulminations, “"the soundings coming from Sinn Féin at the minute are more ludicrous than ominous. Are Sinn Féin saying they are going to see the assembly and North-South Ministerial Council being put back on ice?”.

Any fragile edifice of trust which Sinn Féin has established will be destroyed completely should it pull out of the executive. It cannot and mustn’t be allowed to dictate terms on this issue. Meanwhile its antics are undermining the very arguments it is simultaneously trying to put forward.

Provos vs. Pat?

Have you ever wondered how junior Provos spend their time, now that ‘Introduction to Explosive Devices’ courses are a no-no? The Irish News has provided a fascinating insight. It turns out Ogra Sinn Féin members are striking a blow for a 32 county Ireland by painting Royal Mail post boxes green. Now I don’t know how young Provisional recruiters are prepared to go, but I had assumed that Ogra SF were roughly the same age as other party youth wings, rather than 8 years old! More importantly can these young hoodlums not be prosecuted for vandalism?

Panorama and Britishness

Later today I must remember to print out an emboldened notice in 72 point script and sellotape it to the television. WARNING: PLEASE REMEMBER THAT PANORAMA IS RUBBISH!

The last time I inflicted the BBC’s ‘flagship current affairs programme’ upon myself, it prompted an intemperate rant about John Sweeney and his eerily Chris Morris-esque ‘Weekend Nazis’ documentary. Alas, I had forgotten this previous experience when I settled down last night to watch Panorama’s supposed examination of modern Britishness.

I suppose that in the blogosphere we are spoilt with a surfeit of reflective sites which ponder extensively and thoughtfully questions of identity and nationality, political and cultural, as they impact upon the United Kingdom. Still, it was shocking that the national broadcaster should produce such a trite, gimmicky, slanted and at times downright offensive treatment of a complex and fascinating subject.

It was particularly frustrating that the programme touched upon issues which deserved a much more thorough and considered examination. The Labour government’s project to define and impose a sense of Britishness is ill-considered. What is more, it seeks to impose Britishness at the expense of other identities which can be held in common. Why, for example, isn’t the British government seeking to allow multiple expression of identity on census forms?

Rather than focus on such issues, Vivian White’s documentary instead chose to attack Britishness and present it as an identity felt only by white nationalists, Ulster Orangemen and a Labour Party trying desperately to retain its hold on the United Kingdom. The evidence adduced was a series of vox pops with teenagers and people on the street, many of whom looked blank when asked to describe what Britishness meant to them. Of course a vox pop of any nationality asking such an abstract question would produce its fair share of blank looks.

As for the BNP, naturally British nationalism abuses the concept of nationality by defining it in exclusive terms and appealing to popular sentiment against the ‘other’, but the BNP and other British nationalist groups have been overwhelmingly rejected time and time again at the polls.

In the midst of all the tricksy photography, fast cuts and gimmicky editing, it was easy to miss Northern Ireland’s introduction to the debate, but even so the reaction, ‘oh god no, that’s Drumcree’, escaped me as Britishness (presented by the BBC) became the preserve of fanatical Orangemen. To drop this portrayal of Northern Ireland, graced by neither context nor nuance, into the debate was typical of the facile approach this programme took. Northern Ireland is a crucible of contested identities and two minutes of flags and murals added nothing to an already lightsome whole.

Ironically this snide documentary was presented on the same day that the UK’s Olympics team flew home to a rapturous reception, after two weeks of galvanising British people around its efforts. The important aspects of Britishness, the shared history, institutions and values, were barely touched upon, and the fact that Britishness is a mutable thing which encompasses all those who subscribe to it, was lost entirely. What is Britishness? It is you and me and all of us. The BBC, which is in a unique position to examine this carefully, instead produces populist, insubstantial nonsense in the guise of its flagship documentary show.

Friday, 22 August 2008

Poots the 'superprod'

We have established repeatedly that Edwin Poots is a congenital idiot, but his latest press release raises the bar of imbecility, even by his standards. Responding to a suggestion by Basil McCrea that there should be a debate as to whether Northern Ireland’s football team should have its own anthem, Poots gibbered the following,

““For an Ulster Unionist Assembly Member to be openly advocating the scrapping of “God Save The Queen” is a shocking state of affairs. Is there any Unionism at all left in the UUP? It looks like they have they slowly transformed into a blue-tinged centrist grouping without Unionist principles or convictions. Basil McCrea has exposed just how anaemic his party’s brand of Unionism truly is.””

Does Poots have any notion what unionism actually consists of? Is he so stupid that he believes an intrinsic element of unionism is retaining the UK’s anthem for a sports team which is representing, not the United Kingdom, but Northern Ireland specifically? And how dare he call into question the unionism of a party which is attempting to open Northern Ireland up to mainstream UK politics, at a time when his own party become ever more estranged from the rest of the Kingdom?

For the record, Basil McCrea is right to infer that a debate is necessary about Northern Ireland’s future anthem. Scottish fans’ reaction to God Save the Queen is an irrelevance to the issue at hand, but both Scotland and Wales have their own anthems for sports in which they compete separately from the rest of the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland should be no different.

The only thing Poots’ comments expose, is how limited his own conception of unionism is. Poots’ unionism, and the unionism of many of his colleagues, has nothing to do with promoting British values and institutions. His only concern is a populist appeal to ‘Ulster protestant’ sentiment. That is why he seems completely unable to understand why a unionist party would wish to form an alliance with a mainstream British party (as alluded to by his ‘blue-tinged centrist grouping’ remark). Poots is solidly within the DUP’s ‘Ourselves Alone’ camp, and that is why he leading the DUP’s assault on the UUP / Conservative talks.

Of course, petty party political point scoring and irony aside, the most insidious aspect of Poots’ statement is the cynical fashion in which he is attempting to politicise the Northern Ireland team to his own advantage. With ‘Football for All’ and other fan-based initiatives, the IFA and its supporters have been attempting to foster a friendly and inclusive atmosphere at games, with much success. The anthem is an emotive debate amongst supporters, but many see it as an anachronism which needs to go and will form the final part of the jigsaw as regards these efforts. Progress has been hard won and the last thing that is needed is Poots’ intervention, appealing to lowest common denominator sensibilities and attempting to hi-jack the Northern Ireland football team as a manifestation of cultural unionism.

This noxious character had to be removed from the sport and leisure brief after making a balls-up of the job. His one-eyed attempts to locate an international stadium in his constituency still dog football in this country. Now he is on the sidelines he should keep his nose (and/or ears) out of our team’s affairs and let the supporters decide whether they want their own anthem.

GAWA turn the other cheek after anthem booing

There have been moments, I will admit, when as a Northern Ireland fan I have felt shame at the conduct of some people who would also describe themselves as supporters of the team. These moments have generally been endlessly analysed and recycled by those for whom the very fact that there is a Northern Ireland football team causes grave offence. There is certainly no need to revisit them here.

On more occasions I have felt a great deal of pride to number myself amongst a fanbase which is simultaneously passionate about their team and good natured toward opposing supporters. All those glorious nights at Windsor, for example, when a wall of noise has made Northern Ireland seem indefatigable and England, Spain, Sweden or Denmark has succumbed to the combined efforts of team and crowd.

At away games in Czech Republic, Spain and Poland the home crowds have applauded the vocal support offered by the Green and White Army after matches have ended. The applause is always reciprocal and often there is an attempt to replicate one of the opposition’s chants. In Teplice we chanted ‘Czechi’ (albeit with the addendum ‘Fullerton’, in Albacete ‘oles’ were exchanged with the Spanish crowd and in Warsaw ‘Polska’ rang out from the away supporters before the Polish supporters responded with a rousing chorus of ‘Northern Ireland’.

Wednesday night saw one of the moments when I have been proudest to be a member of the GAWA. After Northern Ireland’s anthem was accompanied by a chorus of ill-mannered boos and jeers, rather than responding in kind, 7,000 Ulstermen accompanied their Scottish counterparts in a rendition of Flower of Scotland, rather dubiously led by a Kenny Rogers lookalike. This piece of cheek turning, coming after the rather disrespectful response accorded to God Save the Queen, was of course marvellously appropriate.

The supporters continued to provide vocal backing to their team despite a poor spectacle on the pitch. David Healy might have provided Northern Ireland with a win, drawing a fine spot kick save from McGregor, after Feeney had been felled in the box. Still, 0-0 was creditable, given that Worthington’s team played most of the 2nd half with ten men, following debutant McGivern’s harsh dismissal for an innocuous second yellow card.

Top 10 Northern Irish blogs - 2nd!

Last year, a few months after starting the site, I was rather gratified when Mick Fealty selected Three Thousand Versts 18th best Irish political blog. This year the top 10 Northern Irish blogs (as selected by readers’ votes) have just been announced and we’ve come in at number 2! Naturally Slugger O’Toole has taken the top prize.

Many thanks to everyone who voted for this blog in their top 10. It is both surprising and not a little humbling to discover that people are not only reading, but also enjoying, the rather scattergun selection of musings which I post. Congratulations to the other blogs in the list as well. There are a good few on there that comprise my morning reading every day. The top 10 is as follows:

1. Slugger O'Toole N
2. Three Thousand Versts N
3. A Pint of Unionist Lite C
4. Redemption's Son RW
5. Conor's Commentary L
6. Everything Ulster N
7. Devenport Diaries M
8. Balrog LW
9. Modern Unionist Voice N
10. O'Conall Street N

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Brief cessation of blogging

There will be no posts tomorrow or Thursday due to Northern Ireland's friendly match in Glasgow.

Cuddly Conservatism: After Blair.

Craving a more thorough understanding of Cameron Conservatism, a desire sharpened by recent moves toward realigning the Ulster Unionists with the Tory party, I recently ordered a copy of Kieron O’Hara’s book ‘After Blair: David Cameron and the Conservative Tradition’. Rather than offering merely an exposition and critique of the Conservative leader’s strategy, which I had expected, this book is a rather more subtle affair, attempting to define conservatism (small C) in ideological and philosophical terms, before arguing that the ideology outlined offers both electoral rejuvenation for the Conservative Party and a suitable response to particular policy issues which impact British politics at the present time.

O’Hara’s contention is that individualistic neo-liberalism, although it can claim responsibility for modernising the UK’s economy, does not offer an accurate reflection of Conservative thinking. Whilst he does not repudiate markets, O’Hara’s conservatism is much more firmly rooted in belief in society. He believes that strong societies transmit values, knowledge and stability, which have a worth that should not be underestimated. He offers a vision of Conservatives as the surest custodians of society and its mores, not opposed to change, but favouring evolution rather than revolution. Furthermore, he makes it clear that in an inclusive, secular and tolerant society, it should be an inclusive, secular and tolerant set of values which conservatives seek to protect.

Although it is written with a light touch, O’Hara’s book is not facile analysis. In the opening section he seeks to place conservatism in a grand philosophical framework stretching from the sceptics of antiquity, through Burke and Hume. Scepticism, O’Hara presents as the core of the conservative philosophy as he understands it. Conservatives are inherently sceptical of the merits of grand schemes, as well as the effects of all manner of tinkering. The conservative imputes that the burden of proof always lies upon the person arguing for change, rather than the person arguing for the status quo. This is because he values stable societies and fears that change can have unintended destabilising effects. This O’Hara characterises as ‘the change principle’.

The second tenet which underpins O’Hara’s vision of conservatism is ‘the knowledge principle’. To summarise very briefly, this is the notion that knowledge can transcend the individual who originally holds it and become institutionalised. By the workings of this principle, knowledge is transmitted through tradition and the mechanisms of society encompass elements of knowledge and rationales, which although their original basis may have been forgotten or distorted, nevertheless carry an intrinsic value. When you start to haul down institutions and reorder parts of society there may be a collateral effect in terms of lost knowledge. No individual or bureaucracy can possess sufficient knowledge to ‘coordinate and direct a dynamic, complex society’, so an attempt to do so is ultimately futile. Allowing the organic transmission of society’s knowledge is generally the healthiest option, unless strong evidence can be adduced to support innovation.

Paradoxically, O’Hara argues that, precisely because we live in a rapidly changing world, conservatism is particularly relevant. The philosophy is not railing against change, rather it is an admission that our knowledge and resources are limited and that we cannot conceive or understand in their entirety, the workings either of the world we live in, or the societies within it. The author sequesters for conservatism the Rawlsian liberal notion that the individual’s rights must be balanced against the interests of society. The interest of the public as a whole cannot be compromised by individual freedom, an idea which again pedals backward from unalloyed free market philosophy.

O’Hara carries this philosophical analysis forward into the arena of policy and simultaneously examines extant issues and assesses Cameron’s performance so far in light of his arguments. Often he finds himself broadly in agreement with Conservative Party policy as it is being developed. However he remains sceptical about the ability of the ‘third sector’ to supplant public services and indeed argues against the need to continue sweeping public sector reform.

Unfortunately the author neglects to examine in detail an area where his formulation of conservatism should be particularly relevant. Constitutional changes are briefly touched upon, but surely Labour’s disastrous experiment in asymmetric devolution, is a classic example of embarking upon grand schemes without properly examining the likely consequences and collateral effects. Launching devolution must represent the Labour government’s greatest failure to discharge the burden of proof required for change.

‘After Blair’ is a compelling and ambitious book. It is also a considerable exposition of a thread of conservative thinking. I began to wonder though, if the book was not simply critiquing new Labour rather than expounding a philosophy distinct to the Conservative Party. Certainly O’Hara is persuasive and does a fine job of weaving strands of conservative history and philosophy into a narrative basketwork which exposes the hubris of Blair’s government. He cleverly identifies the worst aspects of Blairism and presents conservatism as its natural opponent.

Of course the author is ultimately offering an assessment of the ground which the Tory party should occupy, and therein lies the force of his critique, but whether this position is such a coherent extension of Conservative history and tradition as O’Hara argues, well I’m sceptical. Which I’m sure he would argue makes me a classic conservative.

Monday, 18 August 2008

Football and Scottish nationalism

With the Northern Ireland trip to Hampden coming up on Wednesday, I did a little Googling at lunchtime in order to gauge the mood of Scotland fans before the match. Are they looking forward to a big ‘home nations’ clash? Do they expect a difficult test for their team? That type of thing. Now, football fans’ forums are hardly regarded as repositories of temperate good sense, but even so, I hope that the tenor of comments on one particular thread of the Tartan Army messageboard is not indicative of the political mood of the Tartan Army. Perhaps the nadir comes when one fan, irked by the attempt of another supporter to emphasise the broad base of his country’s support, asks in bemusement “so if yer not a nationalist why are you supporting Scotland?”.

What lies behind such a comment of course, is the nationalist inability to understand how someone can be proud of a perceived identity without seeking for it a separate political status. In this case, how can someone be simultaneously a proud Scot, cheering on his football team and yet disagree with the imperative of Scotland leaving the United Kingdom?

Another exchange demonstrates the mindset further. A Northern Ireland supporter hints that part of the vocal banter at the match might include a traditional GAWA stable, ‘you’re just a small part of [insert adjacent country]’, in this case England. It makes no sense respond some Scotland supporters, you should sing ‘you’re just a small part of Britain’, that would hurt more; we’ll sing ‘you’re just a small part of Ireland’ to you. Of course singing ‘you’re just a small part of Ireland’ to Northern Ireland supporters is merely stating the obvious and would outrage or amuse no-one. And given that Scotland is inescapably part of Britain; our supporters might discern little humour in chanting the former either.

The torrent of abuse which ensues on this thread toward the English or is inspired by the word ‘Britain’, and by extension the opprobrium heaped on Northern Ireland supporters because we are perceived as approving of ‘Britishness’, reminded me of a comment by Billy Connolly flagged up by Scottish Unionist recently.

“It's entirely their fault [the SNP], this new racism in Scotland, this anti-Englishness. It was a music-hall joke before - you know, like Yorkshire v Lancashire or Glasgow v Edinburgh. But there's a viciousness to it now that I really loathe and it is their fault entirely.”

I suspect that what Connolly is referring to is evident in the rhetoric being casually knocked around on this football forum. Scotland football supporters have always ‘hated’ the England team, to varying degrees. That’s what football supporters do. Whether they were unionists by conviction did not matter one jot. Northern Ireland supporters are something similar. ‘We hate England more than you’ rang out from the GAWA when we played Wales in 2005. But sporting pride and rivalry is being politicised by forces of nationalism, in the same fashion that nationalism attempts to monopolise all manifestations of its chosen cultural identity.

Hopefully unionists in Scotland will resist the intolerant attitude of their nationalist counterparts and continue to proudly roar on their team. Pride in our respective parts of the United Kingdom and rivalry between them should not diminish in any way our commitment to the whole.

Friday, 15 August 2008

Dust down the gentleman's persuader.

My gift to you, the readers of Three Thousand Versts, this weekend! Enjoy. I have yet to better 256.

Are Scottish Labour also edging toward CDU/CSU model?

The CDU/CSU model of party affiliation which operates in Germany has previously been discussed on Three Thousand Versts. Significantly, as stated in the earlier post, it is my understanding that it is the German/Bavarian model which both the Ulster Unionists and the Tories have in mind for the realignment of their respective parties. On Redemption’s Son Ignited has been exploring the modalities and outlining the advantages which both parties would derive from establishing this type of relationship.

As the UU and Conservative parties explore the CDU/CSU model as a means of reconciling common national goals with regional differences, it appears that the Scottish Labour Party may be thinking along similar lines. In an article in the Sunday Times Henry McLeish, former Labour first minister, expressed the opinion that in order to affect a recovery in Scotland there is “the need for the party in Scotland to have much greater autonomy; the need for the Scottish Labour leader to have more power and a wider authority”.

McLeish argues that the Labour party in Scotland needs the freedom to pursue a ‘new mindset’ and establish a ‘new identity’. Although instinctively unionists may baulk at the notion of greater autonomy or different structural links between central parties at Westminster and their regional manifestations, something radical is needed to provide, as McLeish puts it, “a powerful antidote to the resurgent SNP”. The idea has been around for a while, that the Scottish Labour Party must be allowed to express a more robust ‘Scottish’ identity to challenge the SNP and paradoxically to offset its challenge to the Union.

“Being uncompromising in our defence and promotion of Scottish interests should no longer be considered to be at odds with a renewal of the Union and our role in it.”

Whether or not one accepts the argument that Labour has yet to accept the realities of a new political identity and a new political culture (which McLeish puts forward), it is interesting that the means he advocates by which to address these perceived deficiencies have characteristics in common with the arrangements by which the Conservatives and Ulster Unionists are, contrastingly, seeking to move together. From a Labour monolith, McLeish and others wish to carve a more distinct identity, in order to reflect regional differences. In contrast, from two distinct parties, the UUP and Tories wish to forge an electoral alliance, whilst retaining something of their separate identities, and in so doing are acknowledging those regional differences.

Although the goals are subtly different and although the starting points are diametrically opposite, the end points for which both are striving are strikingly similar. Whether this represents a discernible, or important, new current in British politics remains to be seen.

UUP/Tory working group tackle double jobbing

As I have stated on the thread itself, I concord with Beano’s assessment of the significance of a story on the Conservative NI website proclaiming ‘Conservatives May Outlaw Double Jobbing’. That the idea has surfaced though, and at this particular time, is in itself interesting.

With the UUP / Conservative Party working group in session, no doubt there will be discussion of policy where the Ulster Unionists could claim substantial input, or derive benefit. Preventing double jobbing between Westminster and the Northern Ireland Assembly would substantially weaken the DUP and ask serious questions of Sinn Féin's abstentionism whilst simultaneously offering unambiguous benefits to constituents. It should be the type of idea which the UUP is pushing.

Of course double jobbing is actually not legally prevented in the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly either, so whether the UUP are proposing such measures or not, this is at best a tentative suggestion. Does it, however, provide an insight into some of the substance which the working group might be discussing? Does it represent the type of benefit which the UUP and Northern Ireland might be able to derive from their link-up?

Update: It is my understanding that the issue HAS been under discussion in the working group and that the UUP will endorse the notion later today.

Further update: Danny Kennedy has supported Conservative proposals to tackle double jobbing.

“I welcome this indication that an incoming Conservative administration will consider legislating against double-jobbing. Northern Ireland deserves full-time MPs, such as Lady Sylvia Hermon. For those of us who believe that Westminster is actually very important, the prospect of the present situation conti nuing – of at best part-time MPs splitting their time between the Northern Ireland Assembly and Parliament – is both worrying and shameful.

“There is, of course, the fact that this problem particularly afflicts Northern Ireland . Across the UK , there are only 17 double-jobbers in the devolved institutions in Belfast , Cardiff and Edinburgh . No Members of the Welsh Assembly are MPs. Only one Member of the Scottish Parliament is a MP. By contrast, 16 Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly are MPs, including – ridiculously – 7 Ministers and 1 Junior Minister. It is also worth noting that the DUP and Sinn Fein are the real problem parties on this matter. Of the 17 double-jobbers throughout the UK , 9 are DUP and 5 are Sinn Fein.

“Our fellow-citizens in Scotland and Wales do not suffer from this plague of double-jobbers. Nor should we in this part of the United Kingdom .

“Restoring integrity to Northern Ireland ’s representation at Westminster is surely something dear to any unionist, to those who believe in the significance of the Westminster Parliament, and to those who value good government. I fully expect the parties packed with the double-jobbers to disagree and drag their heels. I trust, however, that the next Government will see things differently – and move to restore integrity to Northern Ireland ’s representation at Westminster ”.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Inclusive unionism and the Orange Order

Even allowing for the rather hysterical tone which characterises political disputes in Northern Ireland and despite accounting for the time of year and the lack of news, it is peculiarly pathetic that the row regarding Jeffrey Peel’s comments about the Orange Order is rumbling on. Rather than allowing the matter to die a quiet death, David McNarry MLA has decided to dump lustily on the clean floor of common sense and demand a Tory apology, despite the fact that the party has already distanced itself from Peel’s comments and stressed their personal nature.

The specifics of the argument are amply dealt with below and need not be dignified by any further discussion. The blog did not represent the official position of the Conservative Party NI, much less the national party. It patently does not reflect Ulster Unionist thinking on the Orange Order and that should be the end of the micro-debate. A much more interesting argument entails what exactly the position of inclusive, non-sectarian and forward thinking unionism should be as regards the loyal orders.

As previous posts on the topic testify, I have little inclination toward, or interest in being involved with, Orange culture. That is not to say that I would deny the legitimacy of that culture, or even its links to unionism. Nevertheless I saw the removal of institutional links between the Ulster Unionist Party and the Orange Order as an extremely progressive and necessary development. Unionism should be involved in protecting a range of cultures and identities which exist within the UK and should recognise their compatibility with unionism specifically and more generally with Britishness. To privilege one of these cultures above and beyond others runs counter to the inclusive sensibilities which the United Kingdom represents and which unionism should reflect.

Orangeism is a cultural manifestation of what is variably referred to as the protestant, unionist or loyalist community. It is intimately linked to forms of so called cultural unionism which place the Union within a Protestant British context. Whether or not its identification as any form of unionism at all is a misnomer, this form of politics, which seeks to present a monolithic front representing one community and one perceived identity, is interested in preserving the United Kingdom only in so far as that preservation advances the interests of the community / perceived identity. Unionism which is focussed instead on the advantages of the Union and the values which underpin the United Kingdom should be seeking less intimacy with the Orange Order.

Of course that is not to say that members of the Orange Order should not be involved in UK focussed unionism or join parties which represent that ethos. That would run counter to the principles of tolerance and inclusion which unionists must seek to propagate. People who express their belonging to a gamut of cultures and identities, through membership of a range of cultural or religious organisations, should simultaneously feel comfortable within unionism. Nor should unionist parties not defend the rights and interests of the loyal orders and their members. On the contrary, Orangeism’s rights and interests should be protected and advanced alongside the rights and interests of any number of cultural groups within the United Kingdom.

Woeful Liverpool lower their Standards

After watching Liverpool’s anaemic display in Liege last night, I rather wished I’d been watching the full-blooded Slav derby discussed below. Leaving aside a creditable performance from the Belgian champions, Benitez’s side were truly appalling. It is difficult to name one player who emerged with credit, with the notable exception of goalkeeper Pepe Reina. The Spanish keeper was called upon to save a dubious first half penalty and otherwise dealt well with spirited Liege attacks.

Liverpool’s tactical deficiencies were worrying enough. The midfield was overrun whilst Kuyt and Benayoun somehow managed neither to tuck in and prevent their central colleagues becoming out-numbered nor to provide any meaningful width. Alonso was particularly isolated alongside Plessi who looked like a deer caught in a truck’s headlights. Consequently the totality of service provided to Keane and Torres consisted of hopeful long balls struck by the left foot of Agger or flighted from 30-40 yards toward the edge of the 18 yard line.

The most worrying and embarrassing aspect of this performance however, was the sheer gutlessness of Liverpool’s display and their abject failure to provide any answer when faced with a team who were prepared to get stuck in. The Premiership prima donnas were bullied and harried by Standard Liege (quite rightly too) and responded with aggrieved spells on the floor clasping various bruises. Liverpool were entirely unable to step up and engage a physical side on their terms. Instead they battened down the hatches in order to escape with a scoreless draw.

Obviously key players were missing last night. Mescherano in particular would likely have flourished in an attritional battle with Liege’s midfield. But any 11 players from a Liverpool squad should have had the spirit and ability to do better than the team did last night. Liverpool’s Premiership opponents will hardly be concerned if they were watching this inept display. In fact Alex Ferguson may well have been sniggering into the expensive glass of red, with which the popular imagination always furnishes him.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Spartak vs. Dynamo renews an old and bitter rivalry

I will be watching Liverpool as they play Standard Liege in a qualifying tie for the Champions’ League tonight. The round’s plum tie, however, is taking place fifteen hundred miles away in Moscow. FC Spartak will renew their Soviet era rivalry with Ukrainian club Dynamo Kiev.

Spartak were regarded as the anti-establishment side in Moscow. Formed independently, with the involvement of the legendary Nikolai Starotsin, the club was eventually connected to the food workers’ union and only latterly the Komsomol, whilst the other great Moscow clubs were formed and financed by the army, the police and the national railways respectively. Spartak won 12 Soviet titles despite their uncoventional background. A chapter of Marc Bennetts’ book ‘Football Dynamo’ dedicated to the club is called ‘Spartak is a religion’, such is the fervour of their loyal supporters.

In contrast to their metropolitan rivals, Dynamo Kiev carried with them the regional hopes of the Ukrainian SSR. The team acquired iconic status in Ukraine after 8 members of the pre war 11, under the team moniker 'Start', defeated a series of German military sides by large margins during Nazi occupation. Their place in Ukrainian folklore was underpinned by 13 Soviet titles which were viewed by some as a source of national pride, won in the teeth, as they would have argued, of Soviet occupation.

The two clubs renewed their rivalry in 1994, winning one apiece from two bitterly contested matches in the Champions’ League group stages.

Batting the DUP for 6

O’Neill and Ignited have already touched upon Edwin Poots’ citation of an old blog carried on the Conservatives NI site (link at the side of the page) as a damning indictment of the UUP / Conservative Party talks. The offending post (which has now been removed) represented an intemperate and intolerant attack on the Orange Order by one blogger who was furnishing the world with his personal opinion (some of us will insist on doing just that!). It is a mark of the DUP’s desperation to find an angle (any angle) by which to attack the talks, that Poots has chosen this flimsy pretext in order to play the ‘Orange card’ and accuse “the Ulster Unionist Party [of] abandoning this valued and much-loved part of our community as they rush to embrace an anti-Orange agenda”.

Today the News Letter has a piece which charts increasing Conservative frustration with the DUP and details exasperated retorts made by both parties after this puerile attack. The Tories quite predictably point out that the comments express a personal opinion, rather than party policy. “The Conservative Party has no issue with the Orange Order. It is perfectly legal organisation and many of its members are engaged in charity and church work”. Indeed there are those whose membership spans both organisations, David Trimble for instance. The UUP press office is more accustomed to scattergun vitriol aimed in its direction from Dundela Avenue. Its response runs as follows.

“Judging by its most recent ill-tempered statement, the DUP Press Office appears to be having a bad few days. The accusation that the UUP is engaged in a ‘diatribe’ against other unionists is quite frankly laughable – it was, after all, the DUP’s Edwin Poots who first attacked the UUP and members of the Orange Order in an inflammatory manner. It is highly regrettable that the DUP have – yet again – chosen to bring the Order into partisan politics.”

Or to quote Tom Elliott “it is disturbing that the DUP is spending its time trawling through old website stories rather than focusing on governing Northern Ireland”. DUP attacks may in the past have stung and even damaged the Ulster Unionist Party, but Cunningham House must be enjoying driving full tossed deliveries such as this across the boundary ropes (and Edwin Poots is nothing if not a tosser).

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

What about the South Ossetians? - Sean's Russian Blog

Sean’s Russian Blog carries two wonderful pieces which raise an important point about the war in Georgia which seems increasingly to have been missed in its coverage – what about the South Ossetians?

“How quickly the South Ossetian War has become more about Russia and the United States, East and West, George Bush and Vladimir Putin, than about the poor South Ossetians caught in the middle.”

In a searing indictment of Georgia’s president Saakashvilli, Sean examines the roots of South Ossetian aversion to Georgian hegemony. Of course paradoxical Soviet attitudes to ethnic self-government played a part. On one hand they carved out administrative regions on the basis of titular ethnic nationality, on the other hand they did a slapdash and arbitrary job.

“When the Bolsheviks drew up its Republics, Autonomous Regions, and autonomous oblasts in 1936, the North Caucuses was an artificially crafted mosaic where political borders ran counter to (emergent) ethnic ones.”

The frozen conflict which Saaskashvilli has so ruthlessly defrosted has more recent origins. Sean quotes Human Rights Watch.

“Between 1989 and 1992, fighting flared in the South Ossetian A.O. and in Georgia between ethnic Ossetian paramilitary troops and Georgian Interior Ministry (MVD) units and paramilitaries. South Ossetia had demanded to secede, and Georgia cracked down on the renegade area by sending in troops. Approximately 100,000 ethnic Ossetians fled Georgia and South Ossetia, and another 23,000 Georgians headed in the other direction. One hundred villages were reportedly destroyed in South Ossetia.”

Or in synopsis,

“When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the South Ossetians became one of the many internal ‘Others’ for the Georgians to proclaim their new found nationalism [against]. That is, Great Georgian Nationalism was predicated on its vicious denial to the ‘Other’”.

Ethnic nationalist conflicts have characterised the post Cold War world and this is no different.

“However much people want to point to South Ossetia as a Russian proxy, they still have to somehow account for the fact that South Ossetians gleefully take those passports, use Russian currency, and are running not into Georgia but into Russia to escape the violence. I think we have to remember that however one wants to attribute blame for the conflict, there are some real reasons why the South Ossetians want to ditch Georgia altogether. Yet in all the reporting that has come out in the last few days, the South Ossentian voice as an agent of his or her own present and future has been more or less muted. In its place have stood a number of metonyms: Russia, Putin, Georgia, rebels, proxies, oil pipelines, NATO, the United States.”

Sean turns to Human Rights Watch again in order to highlight the misery which has been suffered in the crucible of this conflict – South Ossetia itself.

“from 8 August to the afternoon of 10 August, the Russian Federal Migration Service recorded 24,032 people crossing the border to Russia. Given that the population of South Ossetia is a mere 70,000, that is quite a large percentage of the population.”

“Human Rights Watch visited a camp for the displaced in the village of Alagir and interviewed more than a dozen individuals, including those from Tskhinvali and neighboring villages. Those from the city reported spending more than three days in the basements of their houses, unable to come out because of the incessant shelling. Two individuals from Tskhinvali – a mother and her pregnant daughter – said their apartment building was severely damaged by shells and they only dared to come out of the basement on the fourth day, early in the morning of August 10, when Russian troops took full control of the city and started transporting local residents to a safe zone. They said the convoy consisted of six buses (about 27 people each), escorted by the military to the safety zone.”

“Residents of Satskhenet village told Human Rights Watch that after the village came under heavy artillery fire on the night of August 7, all women, children and elderly (more than 100 people) started fleeing their homes; most of them spent the next two days hiding in the woods and then trying to make their way toward the Russian border. They were assisted by the Russian military in the village of Ger and transported to North Ossetia.”

“Eduard Kokoity told Interfax that up to 1,400 killed by Georgian troops. The Independent quoted Ludmila Ostayeva, 50, a resident of Tskinvali who fled to the Russian border, “I saw bodies lying on the streets, around ruined buildings, in cars. It’s impossible to count them now. There is hardly a single building left undamaged.”

Yet Saaskashvilli can present a with a straight face a piece in the Wall Street Journal presenting Georgia as an innocent victim of untrammelled Russian aggression.

““This war is not of Georgia’s making, nor is it Georgia’s choice….. [rather it is about] the future of freedom in Europe.”

Such hyperbole is now being echoed in American statements.

“’Russia has invaded a sovereign neighbouring state and threatens a democratic government elected by its people. Such an action is unacceptable in the 21st century,’ Bush said. Cheney declared that Russia’s actions ‘must not go unanswered.’ Presidential Candidates McCain and Obama, always ready to look Presidential, also weighed in. McCain called for NATO intervention and reminded Russia that to be part of the civilized world means to respect its values. Obama condemned Russia’s military push saying that “There is no possible justification for these attacks.”

Sean brings us back to the most pertinent question.

“And what about the people caught in the middle? South Ossetians are finally beginning to bury their dead.”

Shiels back in the squad as GAWA hit Glasgow

Progress of a sort as Nigel Worthington has selected the majority of his best available players for Northern Ireland’s friendly in Glasgow next Wednesday. Michael Duff had been unavailable through injury and his return will provide a boost in defence. Dean Shiels omission has long been a mystery, and he will be hoping to get a chance to impress.

Unfortunately Peter Thompson, who has decamped to Stockport for a couple of seasons before he returns in failure to the Irish League, has once again found his way into the squad at the expense of Grant McCann. Another notable absentee is Ivan Sproule who fails to make the 20 despite Worthington’s complaints about a lack of wide players.

Although I’m a bit sceptical about the figures, it’s rumoured that 8,000 of the Green and White Army will be marching on Scotland for this fixture. Hopefully they’ll not all be on my sailing. That should allow for quite an atmosphere for a friendly match though.

Monday, 11 August 2008

Peter Robinson dabbles in UK politics

Before 1997 the greatest danger to the United Kingdom, as it is currently constituted, was posed by Irish nationalism. More than ten years later, after Labour’s ill-considered devolution experiments, the inconsistencies and asymmetries inflicted by Tony Blair and his government form a considerably profounder challenge to unionists. In concert with the insidious creep of electoral nationalism in Scotland and Wales, these structural problems offer a far more pressing threat than anything which is currently happening in Northern Ireland.

The Ulster Unionist party has signalled its determination to be actively involved in a pan-UK debate concerning the Union’s future, in order to address the most pertinent challenges which unionism now faces, by investigating a new arrangement with the Conservatives. The idea is to carve out a far more central role at the heart of the UK’s politics. As O’Neill highlighted last week, even the DUP’s leader, Peter Robinson, with his party’s politics still firmly attached to the parish pump, has alluded to structural conundrums which devolution has posed.

Robinson was speaking specifically on the subject of ‘English votes for English laws’ which Ken Clarke’s democracy taskforce has suggested should form the basis of Tory policy toward the so called West Lothian Question. The DUP leader suggests that such a solution would ‘weaken the Union’. O’Neill points out in his piece that the Union was weakened at the point when the Labour government created ‘inequities arising from the asymmetrical devolved system’.

Robinson allows at least that the question is ‘very complex’. His party have rarely been so understated where it perceives Westminster‘s ‘meddling’ in Northern Ireland’s affairs. Indeed the Democratic Unionists have shown little commitment to, or understanding of, the notion of the national parliament’s ultimate sovereignty as regards the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland.

Robinson’s predecessor as party leader was wont to describe direct rule ministers as ‘squatters’. The First Minister’s wife has made accusations against ‘the Brits’. Most recently the DUP have strongly opposed any attempt to legislate on abortion for Northern Ireland from Westminster. The matter should not be reserved they argue, even though it falls under the remit of policing and justice, an issue which they formerly claimed would not be devolved for ‘a political lifetime’. On a vitally important national debate regarding 42 day detention, the DUP used their votes to extract maximum political advantage from the national government, claiming it would do the ‘right thing’ for Northern Ireland.

Of course there is an argument against enacting English votes for English legislation, which has its basis in UK constitutional law. Westminster has not transferred any degree of sovereignty to the three legislative institutions in Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales. Westminster retains the constitutional right (Sewel Convention not withstanding) to override, veto or ignore legislation enacted by devolved administrations. In theory Westminster still enjoys ultimate competence for all legislation which is passed in Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales. To bar non English MPs from English votes would therefore create a hierarchy of power in Westminster in which MPs from English constituencies would enjoy greater privileges. In addition, members of the government elected in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland would be unable to vote on English issues.

Of course, given the derision which the DUP heaps upon Westminster whenever it inconveniently reserves matters on which Robinson’s party does not see eye to eye with the government and given the virulent terms in which the DUP expounds its ‘ourselves alone’ politics, the party’s objection to English votes for English laws is unlikely to reside in an overwrought respect for the sovereignty of the national parliament.

The constitutional quandary which Labour has bestowed upon the United Kingdom requires sustained attention. Realistically, whether it is a good thing or not, devolution is here to stay. Scotland in particular has warmed to its parliament and to wrest it away would be counterproductive. It is also unlikely that in the foreseeable future it will be possible to remove competence in any significant fashion or restructure devolution to the institutions’ detriment.

The other purported ‘solution’ which cannot be countenanced is an English parliament. Such a body would irreparably unbalance the Union and deal a severe blow to any remaining vestige of unity within the Kingdom. Four separate national interest bodies would then exist and England would dwarf its three neighbours. The centrifugal forces exerted upon the Union would be unsustainable. I am reminded of the Soviet Union’s dying embers, which were doused, not so much by emerging regional separatism, but by a sense of grievance and a demand for institutional recognition fostered by Boris Yeltsin‘s courtship of Russian nationalism.

The challenge for the Conservatives and other parties prepared to address this thorny issue is to extinguish any sense of grievance which may be developing in England without diminishing Westminster’s sovereign authority or inflicting further damage on the psychological ties of Union. It is an awesome task which will require innovative, creative thinking. It is a task that is well beyond the parochial mindsets of the DUP.

'Pipeline war' a misnomer argues Steele

Jonathan Steele is amongst the most astute commentators on Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has turned his attention to the conflict in the Caucasus and as usual his analysis is largely accurate.

Steele refutes the notion that the war is focussed on the much cited Baku-Ceyhan pipeline which carries oil to the west from Azerbaijan. The pipeline is merely incidental to the violence.

“The …pipeline is only a minor element in a much larger strategic equation: an attempt, sponsored largely by the United States but eagerly subscribed to by several of its new ex-Soviet allies, to reduce every aspect of Russian influence throughout the region, whether it be economic, political, diplomatic or military”

Georgian president Mikhail Saaskashvili is not only the eagerest exponent of this strategy, he is also the most excitable leader in the region and on this occasion he has over-reached beyond not only his own country’s military capability, but also beyond the capacity of his allies to proffer help. His actions have effectively put an end to the prospects of an improvement in relations with Russia under his tenure.

“Has his escalation of the South Ossetian crisis done more than destroy any chance of normalising Georgian relations with Russia as long as he remains president? Has it reinforced his image among many western leaders as a hothead, and set back his hopes of getting a promise from Nato this autumn to start membership proceedings?”

In Steele’s opinion two courses of action now present themselves to Russia. Either it can remain in South Ossetia and retain the status quo whilst thrashing out a deal with Saaskashvili. Alternatively the Russians might encourage a unilateral declaration of independence from the Ossetians and may even facilitate a referendum on amalgamating the region with its North Ossetian neighbour.

In conclusion, Steele reasons that this disastrous escapade could spell the end for the Georgian president.

“When the fighting ends and the dust settles, Saakashvili may also face an onslaught from his political opposition in Georgia. In the heat of battle, parliamentary leaders have rallied round the national flag, but if a ceasefire comes with all Georgian troops and civilians driven out of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Saaksahvili may be called to account for losing not just territory but the chance of early membership of Nato as well.”

The Guardian’s coverage of this crisis has far exceeded in quality and subjectivity that of any other national paper.

Meanwhile, if it is possible to extract any humour whatsoever from the lamentable situation in Georgia, two Northern Irish tourists might have managed it(H/T Fair Deal). The News Letter provides the following quote:

“We’re Ulstermen and we’ve paid for this holiday and we’re going to enjoy it. The drink and food is cheap and the people are wonderful and this is a very interesting time to be here – why would we want to go home early?”

Harrington - the world's best fit golfer?

When Padraig Harrington won the 2007 Open Championship at Carnoustie it was a wonderful achievement, but it was tempting to assume that we had watched the crowning achievement of a good tour player’s career. After all, the previous European winner, Paul Lawrie, had rarely challenged in major championships after his 1999 victory. However the Irishman proved himself to be of much higher calibre when this year he repeated his triumph and claimed back to back titles. Now Harrington has raised the bar yet further and less than a month later secured the USPGA Championship at Oakland Hills.

Harrington’s achievement is astonishing and quite simply it has elevated himself into golf’s pantheon. With Tiger Woods injury ongoing, Team Europe will be able to claim the world’s best golfer when it clashes with the Americans this September. Winning the Open Championship is one thing, winning a major in America is another, to do both within the space of a month – such an accomplishment is reserved for the very best.

Friday, 8 August 2008

If war is breaking out in Georgia, the link to Kosovo is clear

The breakaway Georgian republic of South Ossetia has become a crucible for dispute between the Russian and Georgian governments. The region has retained de facto independence from Georgia since the early 90s. Following Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence and its acceptance by NATO, Russia has strengthened ties with South Ossetia and its status is underpinned by the presence of Russian ‘peacekeepers’.

It would appear today that the situation has escalated and war between Georgia and Russia is close. According to some reports it is already underway. Georgia has launched a full scale assault on the republic in an attempt to wrest control back from the separatists. 15 civilians and 3 Russian peacekeepers have been killed in these actions. In response it appears that Russian warplanes have struck targets in Georgia.

Although Georgia has de jure claims to sovereignty over South Ossetia, to launch such an attack in the present climate was an act of extreme foolhardiness. After all the majority of South Ossetians reject Georgia’s sovereignty, a high percentage hold Russian passports and the cultural ties between Russian North Ossetia and the south are particularly strong. It was always unlikely that Russia would not take action in the circumstances which pertain.

Georgia’s sovereignty has been illegally curtailed, but justly Russia and South Ossetia can point to similar circumstances in Kosovo. There is a direct correlation between western countries recognising the Albanian ethnic republic in Serbia and the violence which is breaking out in South Ossetia today. Georgia accuses Russia of propping up the separatist republic. It considers that Russian troops' presence in South Ossetia constitutes an occupying army on its territory. The NATO presence in Kosovo was openly acknowledged, but Serbs viewed it in a similar fashion.

The situation in Georgia is a graphic representation of competing nationalisms in action. Georgia claimed its right to self-determination from the USSR. The Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia wished to retain links to Russia and certainly did not want to be part of Georgia. Accordingly they exercised their right to self-determination (as they perceived it). And so it goes on. If a war really is breaking out in Georgia it is a direct result of the current trend to disregard sovereign nation states and indulge those who would dismember them.

Winning over the pro-Union 'nationalists'

The UUP and Conservative Parties have commissioned a poll from YouGov to examine their premise that pro-Union Catholic votes are there to be won. The figures are encouraging and will reinforce the parties’ common view that an inclusive unionism, underpinned by a deal between the Ulster Unionist and Conservative Parties, can broaden its appeal to attract new voters.

The survey found that 28% of SDLP voters would be happy to remain within the United Kingdom and a minority (44%) aspire to a united Ireland. Even amongst Sinn Féin supporters, 16 % were found to favour Northern Ireland remaining within the Union.

What is striking about these figures is that a substantial proportion of the perceived nationalist electorate are simply voting along community lines rather than registering disapproval of the constitutional link between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. They are voting for parties that they understand to represent their community, but they are quite happy to remain part of the United Kingdom.

As Reg Empey acknowledges, although the results should be treated with caution, the figures are substantial enough to suggest that there is a significant proportion of the electorate who currently vote nationalist, but who wish to retain the Union. ‘For other reasons’ these voters feel more comfortable giving their support to the SDLP or even Sinn Féin.

Shadow Secretary of State Owen Patterson sees the result as an affirmation of the UUP / Tory project.

“The poll confirms there is a demand for what we are currently talking about with the Ulster Unionists, which is national politics, and that people do look more to mainland Britain than perhaps to southern Ireland.”

The challenge for the new alignment is to offer pan-UK, pro-Union politics, which represent, and certainly do not alienate, voters of all cultural identities. There is clearly more of an appetite for the severance of cultural and political identity amongst Northern Ireland’s electorate than is often allowed.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

The league without referees? Another IFA farce.

My first reaction this morning upon learning that Irish League referees, led by infamous Linfield fan Davy Malcolm, were considering strike action to get higher match fees, I suspect may have been shared with other supporters. ‘An extra £50? For that lot? They’re incompetent! I wouldn’t give them 50p’ and so on.

This is, after all, a group of men (and indeed women) who count amongst their number the appalling Frankie Hiles, a prancing, grinning imbecile from Coleraine who once expressed the opinion on local television that nothing was sweeter than seeing a team from Ballymena being defeated (albeit that the interview was concerned on that occasion with rugby). Hiles had officiated Ballymena United games on countless occasions before and has done so on many more since those remarks, with predictable consequences. An apposite analogy might be Mike Riley (from Leeds) admitting his loathing for all things Mancunian in an interview ostensibly about rugby league whilst conducting a career which saw him repeatedly ruling out Man Utd goals at Old Trafford and possibly even scrambling home a winner for the opposition in the Cup Final. Except, of course, that if Riley did that he'd be my hero.

A strike by match officials is never going to attract a groundswell of support from paying fans who believe that referees’ chief ambitions are to victimise their club and sabotage their otherwise inexorable march to glory. Of course as reviled as they are by supporters, without a referee there can be no game of football. You would think that a football governing body at least would recognise the importance of match officials to the smooth running of their competitions. Not, apparently, when the governing body is as stunningly inept as the Irish Football Association.

The dispute has been widely reported to hinge on a demand from the Northern Ireland Referees Committee to increase match fees from £70 to £120. Admittedly that’s a substantial increase, but if you look a little beyond the BBC’s report (written two days before the re-launched league is due to commence), it becomes clear that this isn’t a sudden demand opportunistically sprung on the IFA as they try to ensure their new competition gets off to a smooth start. The Association made promises three years ago, when referees voiced their concerns, and have subsequently failed to deliver. It transpires that the IFA agreed to an increase in travelling expenses from 25p per mile to 30p per mile, but that change has not yet been made. Given the increase in fuel prices over that 3 year period, it is positively restrained for referees to request only the promised 5p.

Two weeks ago the News Letter reported that referees must continue to buy their own kits, despite Toyota clinching a 5 figure deal to sponsor match officials’ shirts in the new league. Senior officials here have reached a standard which entitles them to referee international matches and European fixtures, yet they receive the lowest match fee for any UEFA nation’s league with the exception of Wales. For a junior fixture in the IFA’s new Championship, this will be £30 and the ref will be assisted, not by further match officials, but by a linesman proffered by either team.

The set up is amateur, insulting and it is little wonder that the standard of officiating is often adjudged to be poor. Paying £15 a year, buying kit, driving around the country at your own expense and receiving little in the way of support from your association all to be abused by players, managers and fans and frequently castigated in the media. I wouldn’t bother. Would you?

The upshot is that the IFA hope to have a much trumpeted league competition commencing on Saturday, supposedly signalling a bright new era for Irish domestic game, and there may be no referees willing to officiate. That could leave them no option but to postpone the fixtures which would represent an even bigger farce than Portadown being excluded from the Premier division in order to spend a season beating intermediate teams by 5 and 6 goals every week. Of course the IFA might be able to put off the action by promising to address referees’ concerns. Although why the officials would believe them is anyone’s guess. Their Committee has set an 8pm deadline tonight for these matters to be resolved.

The EU's role in encouraging nationalism

CIF today carries a piece by Ian Buruma examining the possibility of the disintegration of Belgium, which touches on attitudes toward separatism, particularly within the EU, that facilitate the dismembering of nation states. The article is a pretty anaemic effort if I’m honest, but it raises some points worth touching upon.

Chiefly Buruma is correct to identify that the European Union is playing a contradictory role in stimulating separatism which could eventually work to its detriment. The idea of a ‘Europe of the regions’ in concert with the promise of financial subvention, encourages the notion that otherwise unsustainable regions can achieve independence, either within the EU, or at least under some manner of tutelage. Fuelling the motors of ethnic and linguistic nationalism could however begin to work in a very different fashion, inimical to the EU’s centralising project.

“Why, for example, should the prosperous Germans continue to have their tax money pooled to assist the Greeks or the Portuguese?”

Buruma identifies the irony of the European Union playing a role in facilitating nationalism.

“The EU now seems to be encouraging the very forces that postwar European unity was designed to contain.”

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Solzhenitsyn and historical memory

I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never read any Solzhenitsyn. The articles which have paid tribute to his work following his death have sharpened my resolve to do so. Open Democracy’s Russia site carries a particularly pertinent piece on behalf of Memorial, which since 1992 has campaigned for a public space in countries of the former USSR, to remember the victims of totalitarianism there and to retain an historical focus and contemporary understanding of the wrongs which were committed under oppressive regimes in those states.

In June I wrote about historical memory in Russia, highlighting the importance of Memorial’s aims. Mikhail Gorbachev had offered his support to a campaign seeking to establish a ‘national memorial’ to the victims of Stalin’s purges, an initiative which a fine article in RIA Novosti had commended. On Three Thousand Versts I commented,

“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.”

Memorial’s piece on Open Democracy echoes this theme and emphasises the important role which Solzhenitsyn played in presenting an untrammelled account of the Gulag and state oppression. In particular the importance of Gulag Archipelago is stressed,

“It made the crucial importance of understanding the past for the sake of the future clear to many people. At first such people could be counted in their tens, then in their hundreds, then thousands”.

At a time when in Russia the worst excesses of the Soviet regime, and in particular the regime of Stalin, are being reinterpreted in an equivocal fashion, Solzhenitsyn’s work remains especially relevant.

One of my few disappointments in visiting Russia was confirming how little public space, either in discourse or monument, is devoted to remembering those who were victims of totalitarian regimes. Memorial's article points out that whilst Solzhenitsyn is still read, his legacy will be that those victims are not completely forgotten.

“Now people have started talking about ‘the end of the Solzhenitsyn era'. We categorically disagree with this view. ‘The era of Solzhenitsyn', the era of recovering historical memory, is not going to end with his departure. “

'The largest chip on Europe's shoulder'

Newton Emerson has turned his satirical eye on the West Belfast Festival with devastating effect in the Irish Times. In particular he takes umbrage at the media’s uncritical acceptance of the festival organisers’ claim that it constitutes ‘Europe’s biggest community festival’. He then turns his remorseless gaze on claims that it has a ‘strong international theme’. No small irony there for Emerson to enjoy given that the festival springs from a region of Belfast which constantly demands recognition of its separateness from the rest of the city, and is doing so through just such events.

The best line is reserved for the end of the piece.

“Why not take an international trip across the Border yourself, and see the largest chip on Europe's shoulder?”

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Rethinking Unionism 12 years on. Or a post about SF and flags as it was originally conceived.

I’ve been rereading Norman Porter’s ‘Rethinking Unionism’ over the past few nights. It had been a long time and my memory of it had grown dim. When I first read the book its rigour, vision and ambition made a strong impression on me, but while I thought what Porter said was important, I also found it flawed. His attempt to furnish unionism with a philosophy through which to pursue a rapprochement with nationalism was necessary, indeed in many ways he was successful and his ideas anticipated the contours which would shape the Belfast Agreement, but he was prone to throw the baby out with the bath water and underestimate the flexibility of unionist thinking that subsequently showed itself to be less rigid than Porter described.

In his book, Porter defines two strands of unionism that he thought prevalent at the time he was writing. He argues against both of these strands and proposes his own 'superior' philosophy. He identified forms of unionism that accorded more importance to, on one hand a specific Ulster protestant character, and on the other political Britishness.   That was not new, but the phrases ‘cultural unionism’ and ‘liberal unionism’ became widely referenced wherever unionism was discussed academically.

The book describes a third form of unionism, closely aligned to a notion of civic politics, which he describes as ‘civic unionism’. But rather merely than advocate that unionism focussed on the civic idea of a state (and in particular the civic character of the United Kingdom), Porter proposed a particularly Northern Irish outlook separate from a broader vision of the Union.

It is easy to be wise in hindsight, but while Porter’s attempt to make philosophical space for an accommodation with nationalism within Northern Ireland was influential and timely, he failed to anticipate that unionism could accept devolution, recognise Irish nationalist claims and yet retain its focus not on Northern Ireland, but on the totality of the UK. Of course devolution had not yet happened in the rest of the UK when Porter was writing his book, but ‘civic unionism’ at its best and at its purest is actually the strand that is focussed on the Union and focussed on normalising and integrating politics in Northern Ireland with the rest of the UK. It is the ‘British’ unionism which Porter dismisses in his book that wears most easily the civic clothes he commends. In many respects liberal unionism has become synonymous with civic unionism, whereas the specific conception which Porter gave the latter term has not come to fruition.

Of course one of the primary difficulties encountered in Porter’s book, is that in seeking to explain why unionism must come to an accommodation with nationalism, he begins to accept nationalist assumptions and nationalist terminology. There is much conflation of the term Ireland and Irish with the Irish Republic for example. Porter accepts that ‘Irishness’ must be afforded a political manifestation and this manifestation he links to the Irish Republic. Like all those who accept nationalism's inflexible views on identity, he denies that those terms can have different meanings for different people. He fails to seriously address that unionism might have its own idea of Irishness, or that it might have several, or that a multitude of different groups might understand Irishness in a different way. Instead his formulation is that Irish nationalists understand Irishness in a particularly political way and therefore it is that understanding that must be recognised. How this process is to be limited, or what consequences it might have for other understandings of Irishness, is again not addressed.

While concessions have been made to Irish nationalism, it is not necessary, as Porter believes, to also accept the terms by which nationalists understand them. The Irish Republic’s consultative role in the affairs of Northern Ireland has been recognised, for example, but that has little to do with a specific Irish dimension or an Irish identity, it merely recognises relationships which exist on this island. When Irish nationalism is recognised within the frameworks of Northern Ireland, it is Irish nationalism that is being recognised, not Irishness. When ‘Irish identity’ is mentioned in the Belfast Agreement that is a different matter again and Irish nationalism does not enjoy a monopoly of that term. It is important not to be cavalier with the concepts and terms that surround culture and identity. It is the broader and more nuanced approach that thinking unionism brings to these terms, reflected in the language it uses, which underpins the pluralist vision which should be at its heart.

Porter was seeking to destroy unionist shibboleths and explode unionist excuses for not moving the political situation forward, when he wrote this book back in 1996. To a degree he succeeded. But his haste to sweep the floor clean for a compromising vision, he was too dismissive of the nuance and pluralism which led many people to their belief in the Union and in the United Kingdom. He was also too eager to reject thoughtful renunciations of nationalism’s narrative and assumptions. Something that is clearer in retrospect than it may have been at the time.

Incidentally, I was going to nudge this post toward the inappropriate display of the Republic of Ireland’s flag in the Belfast Lord Mayor’s office. My discursiveness seems to have defeated that intention.