Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Leadership required in the face of DUP's hypocritical 'unity' calls

Every time a DUP representative appeals for ‘unionist unity’, surely even the most brazen hypocrite amongst them must feel a little unease at the rich brew of irony which they knowingly stir. Jeffrey Donaldson, who waited until after the 2003 Assembly election before resigning from the Ulster Unionist Party, is the latest to lecture Sir Reg Empey’s party on ‘dividing unionism’. The hypocrisy could scarcely be more bare-faced.

I have recorded my scepticism about aspirations to make unionism more monolithic before, on several occasions. Unionism should be seeking to strengthen its overall electoral strength, reflecting the politics of as wide as possible a cross section of the electorate. It should not be seeking to close ranks along communal lines. That restricts voters’ choice, stifles unionism’s attempts to appeal across communities, exacerbates the sectarian carve-up of Northern Ireland’s politics and ultimately, therefore, weakens the Union.

Since Peter Robinson was snubbed by David Cameron and the Conservative Party, due to perceived differences in ‘content and tone’, his party has been either frenziedly attacking the UUP for entering talks with Tories or proposing ‘unionist unity’. If a satisfactory arrangement is reached ‘unity’ squealing will increase and the DUP will attempt to portray Ulster Unionists as resistant to their attempts to build a single happy cooperative unionist family.

Despite what the Democratic Unionists might believe, unionism does not begin and end in Northern Ireland, nor does it imply merely representing one community or background. The Ulster Unionist Party has an opportunity to create a much larger unionist family, to participate fully in the politics of the United Kingdom and to both normalise and de-sectarianise Northern Irish politics, much to the benefit of the Union. Too often in the past, the more retrograde aspects of unionism have held such vision back. Real leadership is required to ensure that on this occasion the same does not happen.

Ten 'names of Russia' which didn't make the list

Just for fun I’ve compiled a list of ‘Names of Russia’ which did not make it into the final twelve. It is, I appreciate, rather heavy on literary figures. I’d be interested in readers’ comments or suggestions.

1. Leo Tolstoy – Literary giant, whose realist novels, in tandem with Dostoevsky’s works, defined Russian literature’s golden age. His political and religious convictions both reflected and shaped many of the prevailing political and reformist trends in late nineteenth century Russia.

2. Mikhail Gorbachev – Communist General Secretary whose project of evolutionary reform for the USSR sadly was unable to prevail when faced with centrifugal forces and nationalism unleashed by Boris Yeltsin and others.

3. Ilya Repin – Ukrainian born artist whose realist paintings informed Socialist Realism, but far exceeded the merits of that genre. Produced startling and varied canvasses often said to reflect the latent political power of the Russian people.

4. Nikolai Gogol – The father of Russian prose. Dostoevsky believed his generation of novelists had emerged from beneath ‘Gogol’s Overcoat’. His satirical style and almost surreal, slightly grotesque characters informed Dostoevsky’s own novels as well as those of later novelists such as Bulgakov.

5. Rurik – Varangian Prince whose dynasty would rule Kievan Rus and the Russian proto state.

6. Marshall Zhukov – The military commander, born in Belarus, who led the liberation of the Soviet Union from Nazi occupation during the Great Patriotic War. His troops would eventually reach Berlin.

7. Mikhail Lomonsov – scientist, writer, poet, Lomonsov’s peasant background did not prevent him making a huge contribution to the standardising of the Russian literary language. His experiments in heat and light played a role in shaping modern science.

8. Ivan Turgenev – With Tolstoy and Dostoevsky formed the great triumvirate of ‘golden age’ Russian novelists. A westerniser by sensibility, his finest work was ‘Fathers and Sons’.

9. Yuri Gagarin – The first man in space deserves a mention.

10. Anton Chekhov – Master of the short story, his clear eyed narrative style has been hugely influential in modern literature. Pioneered the ‘stream of consciousness’ device before Joyce.

Monday, 29 September 2008

The dozen 'names of Russia' which epitomise the country?

It is not just in Britain that governments like to indulge in a spot of identity navel gazing. In Russia a Kremlin sponsored competition has been taking place in order to establish the ‘Eemya Rossiya’ or ‘Name of Russia’. The premise was that one name, popularly chosen, should emerge which peculiarly embodies Russia’s culture and history. It is the type of initiative which you might expect Liam Byrne to endorse as part of ‘Britain Day’.

The Russian competition has been attended by controversy. Stalin was included in the initial long list of 500 names, suggested by the organisers. Indeed the Soviet dictator would have finished second in the poll, had he not been stripped of one million votes due to alleged vote rigging on the internet. Whether this can be ascribed to genuine vigilance on the part of the pollsters, or an attempt to sanitise an embarrassing verdict by the Russian people, the Georgian eventually finished twelfth, which in itself exposes Russia’s ambivalent attitude to its most brutal recent leader.

Eventually it was a more distant historical figure who became ‘Name of Russia’. Alexander Nevsky was Grand Prince of Novgorod in the 13th century. He repelled invaders from Germany and Sweden whilst containing the Mongol Horde through diplomacy. Nevsky became a pivotal figure in Russia’s national story and underwent canonisation by the Orthodox Church. The country’s most famous street, Nevsky Prospekt in St Petersburg, bears his name.

Russian literature occupies the second and third places on the list. Alexander Pushkin is Russia’s national poet, enjoying a status commensurate with that of Shakespeare in Britain. Dostoevsky’s intense, psychological novels epitomise an outlook which is self-consciously and distinctly Russian. It is not surprising that a Slavophile writer has performed so well in a poll taken in the present climate. Of course he is also one of the greatest figures ever to grace literature, in any language, which also boosts his credentials. Tolstoy surprisingly does not make the list.

Other political figures included in the list certainly do not appeal to western sensibilities. Peter I built Russia into a European power, but his methods were frequently brutal. He has been voted in at number 4, whilst Lenin will also be a controversial choice at 5. Ivan the Terrible commands eighth spot and represents another strong, but cruel leader, whilst the Tsar-Emancipator Alexander II is a less contentious choice. Also included are Alexander Suvorov, whose victories in the Napoleonic Wars secured him hero status in Russia, Catherine the Great and Pyotor Stolypin, the Prime Minister some believe might have helped Russia become a modern state and avoid the excesses of Bolshevism, had he been backed wholeheartedly by Nicholas II.

Just above Stalin, at number 11, lies Dmitrii Mendeleev, who bequeathed to scientists (and schoolchildren everywhere) his periodic table. The list graphically demonstrates that Russian people do not share the outlook and the imperatives which are often prescribed for them by western commentators.

Faint hearts never won fair ..... er ....... Cameron

As the moment when the Ulster Unionist and Conservative parties must reveal the detail of their new relationship draws closer, perhaps some of those in the smaller party can be forgiven the odd wobble of resolve. With the modalities as yet unclear, and the stakes for the UUP undoubtedly higher, it is natural for party members to wonder whether the course their leader has set is the correct one. If, to extend the Politics Show’s rather laborious metaphor, Empey and Cameron are on the cusp of political marriage (an interesting image I grant you), there were always bound to be some pre-wedding nerves.

With the Conservative party conference commencing yesterday, commentators have begun to reflect some of this last minute anxiety, particularly as theory is put into practice and the Tories and UUP begin to sound like one party. Lord Trimble rounded off the conference’s first day by rallying his Conservative colleagues to contest every seat in the UK. This explicit statement of intent has worried Ignited, who explains his apprehension on Redemption’s Son. He is concerned that Trimble’s declaration might suggest an arrangement rather different from the CDU/ CSU model which Ulster unionist blogs have advocated as the probable shape for the emerging movement.

I disagree. I do not see anything new or threatening in Trimble’s remarks. From their inception, the idea of talks between the two parties was to emerge with a movement whereby the Tories could claim to encompass the whole of the UK. I don’t think that Ulster Unionists need be disconcerted by the rhetoric which accompanies this. Yes, the UUP must retain something of its own identity and ethos, but equally, if it is to mean anything, the realignment must connect the two parties in a clear and unequivocal fashion. Ulster Unionist candidates will be representing their own party in coming elections, but they will also be representing the wider alliance with Conservatives. They will be Conservative and Ulster Unionist and if the Tories have any compunction in claiming them as their own, then, frankly, the deal has not been worth pursuing.

I have stated previously that by no means do I think of myself as naturally conservative. Nevertheless, the predominant emotion which I am feeling on the verge of Sir Reg and Dave’s nuptials is one of excitement. Excitement that a UK-wide unionist movement is being forged, excitement that Northern Irish unionists are being invited to play a full role in their nation’s politics and, increasingly, excitement that the side we will be on, is the side which is committed to preserving British civil liberties and ousting the political bankruptcy of Gordon Brown’s Labour Party.

There is one thing which I must insist. Sir Reg is the groom.

Queens censoring political conversation on weblogs?

I’ve just had a text message from a concerned Three Thousand Versts reader (er, ok, it was my girlfriend) who has just discovered that this blog has been prohibited by Queens for its new term. In fact the ‘all weblogs and social interaction sites’ are apparently now blocked between 9-5pm.

Now whilst I understand that QUB wish to keep computers free for students to work, rather than to update Facebook, weblogs are often involved in discussions which have direct academic relevance. Why should Queens’ students not be involved in the type of open ended dialogue promoted on this site and others?

Whilst I’m sure the intention is not censorship, the effects might be rather similar. Is it really beneficial for students to be deprived of access to Iain Dale, Slugger, Guido Fawkes etc?

Friday, 26 September 2008

The SNP's flirtation with radical Islam

On online magazine Demokratiya, Tom Gallagher has an article which examines the SNP’s courtship of radical Islamists as a means by which to manage the Muslim community in Scotland and deliver its vote for the nationalists. Gallagher believes that Salmond’s party is playing a dangerous and divisive game in this respect, albeit it one which is consistent with the nationalist predilection for emphasising ‘group rights’ rather than individual rights.

“The SNP is using multicultural levers to manipulate religious identity in Scotland for electoral advantage, which I believe is likely to revive inter-confessional tensions as well as those between secular and religious interests.”

In its attempts to wow, particularly the Catholic and Muslim votes in Scotland, the SNP is approaching the communities as sectional interests rather than appealing to voters as individuals.

“They have mobilised not just autocratic Catholic prelates but radical Islamic politicians in the hope that by offering them group rights they will deliver an ethnic block vote to the party. This raises the spectre, in some eyes, that in a Scotland fully under SNP control, individual citizenship will count for little and the party will rule through a large bureaucracy which franchises control of education, policing, and other policy areas to mobilised factions inside and outside ethnic minorities.”

Gallagher is not kite-flying on this issue; he supports his thesis with substantial evidence. Additionally, the SNP’s tactics are consistent with nationalism’s conceptual insistence that people must be divided into distinct and exclusive groups, defined by religion or culture.

“It obliges people to belong to groups, defines those groups by cultural, or religious attributes, gives rights to such groups, and favours the granting of privileges (subsidies, quotas, legal immunities and so on) to them, in order to reinforce their identity. Community ‘leaders’ are hired by the state in order to manage these groups and state agencies proliferate to shape policies around their needs.”

Many of the policies which Salmond is pursuing in this area have been discredited in the rest of the UK. By forming a Muslim Police Association, for example, he has created “a separate tier of police to liase with Muslims, (encouraging) many of them to believe that they cannot approach non-Muslim officers with their culturally-specific problems”. These are measures which are helping to entrench, rather than overcome, division.

The specific groups and leaders to which the SNP are turning in order to engage Muslims as an ethno-religious group create particular concern.

“Salmond works largely through energetic young religious radicals who have advocated the return of an Islamic Caliphate, display an obsession with the Middle East and ending Western influence there and who support the incorporation of Sharia law into British jurisprudence.”

Close links between the SNP and the Scottish Islamic Foundation have been examined on Scottish Unionist previously. The organisation is an energetic pressure group for state funded Islamic schools. Alex Salmond supports the objectives of the group and its chief executive, Osama Saeed, to have schools in which the Koran is taught, the hijab is worn and the sexes are segregated. Amanullah de Sondy, lecturer in Islamic Studies at Glasgow University, has no doubt such schools will “leave young Muslims vulnerable to extremist pressures”. Gallagher notes,

“There are no strong voices pointing out that young people could be pushed towards introspection and even religious militancy through the insistence that Muslims combine a Scottish allegiance with an active search for their religious roots; nor drawing examples from other countries to suggest that tilting the Muslim community towards radicals could damage community relations in a traditionally volatile city like Glasgow.”

Scotland’s ‘Il Duce’ is so eager to pretend that Scotland is already an independent nation that he has been authorising ambassadorial outreaches to various parts of the world. The SIF is his administration’s ambassador to the Middle East. This is an organisation with close ties to the Scottish Palestinian Solidarity Campaign which has enjoyed a commensurate rise in its influence on Scots public life. “Mick Napier, its chairman, said in March that the West Bank Jewish theological college, Merkaz Harav (attacked in March, resulting in the killing of 8 students) was a legitimate target and the Palestinian attackers were acting in self-defence.”

Both Napier and Saeed addressed an event last August called ‘Weaving the Tartan: the Muslim contribution to Scotland’’. Saeed took the opportunity to propound the theory that, “Muslims don’t need lessons in democracy – they invented democracy and freedom of conscience and Islam spread so fast because it opposed tyranny”. A dangerously radical and highly contestable thesis by most standards. At the same event Aamer Anwar, a human rights lawyer, “proclaimed that the roots of terrorism in the West lie in the actions of Britain and the USA in the Middle East”. An argument which absolves terrorists themselves of any blame for their actions.

Due to the patronage of the SNP, Anwar and Saeed have become the pre-eminent figures to which the BBC has turned, in Glasgow, to provide a Muslim perspective. Their leadership credentials have therefore become self-perpetuating.

“Within the Muslim community, this editorial policy boosts radicals, as the uncommitted assume that it is only such views which count in Scottish life.”

Gallagher believes that the SNP’s centralising and authoritarian instincts have served to dampen criticism from both the media and universities. The Herald and Scotsman are increasingly emaciated organisations which are reluctant to criticise Salmond.

“Nor do the universities in Scotland have many voices prepared to speak up about the damage being caused by the state using religious figures to manage communities. There are no strong proponents of secular liberalism comparable to A.C. Grayling in England. This is hardly surprising since identity politics was legitimised first in academia and then by state service-providers. Recently, Edinburgh University’s Islamic Studies department received a huge bequest from a Saudi Arabian foundation. My own visits to the holdings of the premier centre of Islamic studies in Scotland reveal a paucity of works that examine Islam, and especially its politicisation, in a critical light.”

In the short term the SNP may benefit from its policies as regards Muslims, but in the long term the sectional aspect of these policies stores up trouble for the future.

“It is acceptable for Mr Salmond to look for votes among Muslims. But he should approach them as individual citizens whose religion is only one aspect of their identity and not necessarily the primary one. To franchise out the community to religious radicals and to use his party and the state agencies it now controls to buttress a religious identity is a highly irresponsible act. It means that a sectional outlook is likely to become entrenched in the community as it is placed in the control of religious gatekeepers. The opportunities for misunderstanding and friction with other Scots will surely abound.”

Gallagher’s article is not only a timely warning, but also a masterful exposition of the secondary damage which the nationalist outlook can inflict on society.

McCann on those who wish to retain 'ugly scaffolding'

Whilst Eamon McCann’s brand of computer-disc-purloining politics is hardly my cup of tea, I do admire his commitment to fairness and the absence of the least shred of communal or sectarian bigotry which he exhibits.

Given these qualities, it is scarcely surprising to read McCann’s defence of Mark Durkan’s suggestion that ideally the Northern Ireland Assembly’s system of designation will ‘biodegrade’, nor is it surprising that he has identified the tribalism which has driven the strongest criticism to which the SDLP leader has been subjected. Referring to Durkan’s suggestion, McCann notes,

“Some, obviously, think this “nonsense,” and that anyone daring to envision a political system no longer structured in accordance with sectarian designation must have some petty, ignoble reason for so doing. That tells us rather more about them than about Durkan. “

Thursday, 25 September 2008

'Rooted cosmopolitanism', Yahya Birt's contribution to Britishness debate

A Pint of Unionist Lite and Scottish Unionist have already picked up on an article by Yahya Birt, carried first in Emel Magazine, examining Britishness in the Muslim community. Far be it from this blog to pass up an opportunity to muse on British identity! Therefore I thought I would hop on the bandwagon and highlight some of the finer thoughts which this piece articulates.

In his commentary, O’Neill emphasises the increasing tendency, when considering the question of Britishness, to capitulate to nationalist assumptions and insist that respondents define their identity in exclusive terms. Thus we have polls (and the census) which ask whether someone feels Irish, Scottish, Welsh, English or British, but does not offer a combination of two or more categories.

Birt believes that Britain’s ethnic minority groups are, in general, comfortable with their British status. Taking the specific instance of Muslim Britons, he comments, “Polling usually confirms that Muslims are comfortable in being Muslim and British, antagonism only arising when slanted questioning asks respondents to choose one over the other”. This illustrates perfectly O’Neill’s argument, which is that goalposts should not be moved in order to slant the question and deprive people of a means by which to express this genuinely felt symbiosis of identity. His point holds for the spectrum of identities which can be held in common with Britishness.

Birt himself has an instinctive understanding of the nature and roots of British identity. He correctly asserts its ‘political, civic’ character which often “contrasted with one’s ethnic or cultural background”.

“It was a marriage of four nations – Welsh, Scots, English and Irish – that came into its own from the early eighteenth century.”

Common historical experiences, political institutions and economic interests formed the anvil upon which this marriage was forged into a state and a national identity. Although many of these initial aspects have changed beyond recognition, nevertheless Britishness has been permeable, mutable and flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances. We need to find a vocabulary by which to explain and defend the nature of that porous and changing identity and the Union which it represents.

In its own way, Birt is attempting to define this vocabulary. Examining current attempts to ascertain what Britishness consists in, he notes,

“A better approach, perhaps, is to commit to an open-ended conversation about how to define what we Britons have in common, as well as seeing in cultural diversity a source of wisdom, and an opportunity to expand the wellsprings of our collective imaginations.”

His central idea turns the euphemism, which Stalin employed to attack Jews, on its head. Hence we have ‘rooted cosmopolitanism’, “a principled looking out at the challenges and opportunities of the world from our home, while never losing a sense of who or where we are”.

This is the type of language which those who are committed to maintaining the United Kingdom and the flexible and diverse range of identities which it represents must seek to speak. It admits of the need to emphasise strong cords which bind us together and does not preclude the possibility that we need to define and solidify the common cultural ground which we share. Simultaneously it allows for the porous nature of Britishness and the diversity which it encompasses, and identifies that diversity as strength rather than weakness.

Over to the Tories

Brian Crowe has marshalled a calm response to Gordon Brown’s conference speech, avoiding the spittle flecked apoplexy which it induced in me. Over at Burke’s Corner he has provided a thoughtful critique of its weaknesses, synthesising the most penetrating comment from newspapers and the web.

Brown’s speech was aimed primarily at repairing damaged morale within his own party. Brian’s view is that, consequently, it did little to speak to the country as a whole and where the Prime Minister bothered to address pressing issues at all, his rhetoric was heavy on platitudes and light on specific policy.

Burke’s Corner is eagerly looking forward to David Cameron’s response at next week’s Conservative party conference. Similarly, Gaby Hinsliff has turned her attention towards next week’s proceedings in Birmingham, asking ‘what does Cameron have to do to win back initiative?’ at the Guardian’s politics blog.

Although the article’s title somewhat presupposes the disputable thesis that Brown did wrest back the initiative with Tuesday’s speech, its content is rather more sanguine.

“The conference hall certainly bought Brown, although it's not clear whether the rest of the country is exactly filling its boots. But while a good speech boosts confidence it doesn't answer bigger questions about whether he can run a government.”

Hinsliff believes the Tories greatest challenge is presenting clear and tenable policy to tackle the economic crisis. George Osborne’s previous strategy, which rested on efficiency savings and pledging expenditure based on projected growth of the economy, has undergone subtle repositioning as the down turn has bitten. The shadow chancellor must explain how he intends to husband public expenditure in straightened circumstances.

The Guardian blog piece cites an article by John Redwood, who has been giving serious thought to how he might tackle the economic difficulties currently presenting themselves to Gordon Brown. His piece is a slightly counter-intuitive mixture, particularly for a Thatcherite. On one hand he wishes to free the hands of the Bank of England, which might be expected. On the other he advocates Keynesian counter-cyclical methods of stimulating growth and presents his thoughts on regulation.

In the present climate, and given Cameron’s centrist inclinations, this mix may well find favour with the Conservative leader and his shadow chancellor.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

10p tax rate. Why is Gordon really sorry?

Listening to Gordon Brown’s speech at the Labour Conference yesterday, an uninformed visitor to our country might have been tempted to conclude that the reason the British people are turning against the Prime Minister is because he is ‘too serious’, or merely because we are a nation of curmudgeons who have become heartily sick of his ceaseless attempts to instil ‘fairness’ in the United Kingdom.

If only this were so, the country would be functioning perfectly under Labour’s tutelage and the only factors which might possibly animate a desire to oust the government would be boredom and self-interest. I’m afraid that this is resoundingly not the case. There are concrete reasons for Labour’s difficulties at the polls. People are genuinely angry with the government.

Having examined Labour’s erosion of civil liberties yesterday and visited its assault on the country’s constitution on numerous occasions, let's for a minute look at the issue of the 10p tax rate. A Labour policy which Brown ascribes to mistake and which he likes to claim has caused him a deal of hurt. What can the Prime Minister possibly mean when he claims that abolishing the lower tax rate was a ‘mistake’? Is he genuine when he says "it really hurt that people felt I was not on the side of people on middle and modest incomes"?

Is Gordon Brown, whose last budget as Chancellor contained the measures to abolish 10p tax, seriously telling us that he did not realise this would be disadvantageous to those on lower incomes? Does he expect us to believe that no-one within the treasury had worked out how people’s tax computations would change? That is simply beyond any thinking person’s credulity.

What the Prime Minister regrets, is that, when he attempted to screw money from the poor, the perception was not that he was helping those with ‘middle and modest incomes’. His ‘mistake’ lay, not in taking money from the lowest earners, but in neglecting to benefit enough in the middle bracket that this fact could safely be ignored. His ‘mistake’ was failing to appreciate how many people would be uncomfortable watching the poorest people pay more in order to allow middle and high earners pay less. His ‘mistake’ was that he did not get away with it, that his sophistry was insufficient. That ‘mistake’ he pledges not to repeat again, but that 'mistake' had nothing to do with fairness.

Of course, Brown’s apologies not withstanding, 10p tax is not coming back under this government. Alistair Darling may be returning £120 to tax payers this year, but there remains a £90 shortfall for those on rock bottom wages. Whether Labour continues to fund a curtailment exercise from the public purse for a couple of years or not, the damage has been done.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Because they care!

DUP anxiety about the welfare of Ulster Unionist party members has rapidly become an obsession. Previously their concern was for North Belfast MLA Fred Cobain and whether talks between the UUP and the Conservatives were upsetting for him. It soon transpired that there was nothing to worry about.

Now that Cobain has become the party’s chief whip, the dupes are no longer so attentive. Instead they have turned their fastidious attention toward David McNarry, the outgoing whip, who (despite the new job as finance spokesman which awaits him) they insist is being ‘punished’ or ‘demoted’.

I’ve no doubt that McNarry will soon assure Dundela Avenue that everything is just fine. The DUP’s pastoral care must have come on a lot since the days of Paul Berry. It’s really rather touching.

"Trying to work out what animates Russian behaviour should not be considered a treasonable offence"

Often it is diplomats, rather than politicians, to which we must turn for a sane and sober assessment of international events. On Open Democracy’s Russian blog, Sir Roderic Lyne, former ambassador to the Russian Federation (2000-04), has called for temperate analysis and assessment to prevail, when considering western relationships with Russia. His predecessor and namesake, Sir Roderick Braithwaite, previously called for more understanding of Russia’s position, in an article which was highlighted on this blog.

Lyne begins by cutting through the hyperbole which attended the conflict between Russia and Georgia.

“This is not Russia's 9/11; nor Prague 1968 nor Budapest 1956 nor Munich 1938. The thesis that the Cold War has come back is untenable ……… Emotion stirred by half-truths, ancient prejudice, spin and counter-spin makes bad policy. As the embers begin to cool in the villages of South Ossetia, all sides will need to ask themselves where the conflict has left us, and where we go from here. This requires calmer calculation than has been possible up to now.”

Having appealed for calm, Lyne begins to examine the special circumstances which have influenced Russian foreign policy in order to assess whether the Kremlin genuinely is formulating a strategy of confrontation with the west.

Russia remains in transition after the post-Soviet trauma; its leaders are still shaped by that trauma to a greater or lesser extent.

“With the exception of Dmitry Medvedev, they were in their 30s and 40s when the USSR collapsed.”

Although Putin has often been quoted referring to the collapse of the USSR as a tragedy, it is less frequently noted that he also commented, “anyone with a head should know it could not be put back together again”.

“The Russian "political class" is not monolithic. It is, quite naturally, pro-Russian: to expect Russians to be "pro-Western" is absurd. Across the spectrum, the elite is highly critical of the West, and has no trust in the United States. But it divides between those whose feelings might be termed atavistic or revanchist and those who make a reasoned critique, in sorrow as much as anger, of Western policies - especially the Iraq war, the Kosovo affair from 1999 onwards, United States plans for theatre missile-defence, and, not least, the expansion of NATO.”

There follows a systematic examination of how Russia might be thinking, what its tactics are and how effective those tactics might be. Some of it may be wrong and some of it might be condescending, but the approach is reasoned.

“Trying to work out what animates Russian behaviour should not be considered a treasonable offence. If our analysis is inaccurate, our policies will be wrong. We may not like the present phase of the Russian transition, but we are going to have to live through it. We may not like the present Russian leadership, but we cannot change it. It is strongly entrenched, enjoys wide popular support, and we must assume it will remain in power for many years to come.”

Many of the conclusions which Lyne arrives at, I would question. His approach does not quite extend to acknowledging that Russia has foreign policy interests which must be accorded respect and accounted for in international geopolitics. His call for a more considered view and his notion that a constructive relationship is more likely to visit change within Russia, than ‘containment’, or confrontation, is eminently sensible.

Author gives timely reminder why Labour must go

The Counter Terrorism Bill, which includes plans for 42 day pre charge detention, is due for its third reading in the House of Lords next month. It is likely to face a robust challenge and could well be voted down in parliament's second chamber.

John le Carré, the novelist and former spy, has picked a particularly timely moment, therefore, to register his disgust at the proposed legislation.

“I'm angry that there is so little anger around me at what is being done to our society, supposedly in order to protect it. We have been taken to war under false pretences, and stripped of our civil rights in an atmosphere of panic.”

The author’s comments reflect widespread disillusionment, amongst those of liberal sensibility, with Labour’s systematic destruction of basic liberties. Arguments against erosion of freedom have married increasingly harmoniously with Conservative calls to preserve rights, fundamental to the UK’s constitution. David Davis MP enjoyed backing from both camps as he eased to a majority of over 15,000, in a by election precipitated by this issue, earlier in the summer.

Le Carré’s literary status will ensure that his remarks once again highlight the importance of this debate. He is by no means the most influential ex-spy to raise doubts about the government’s plan however. Lady Manningham Buller, who retired from her position as head of MI5 last year, has already opposed 42 days in the Lords, calling into question whether the measures would in fact allow security services to counter terrorism more effectively.

As this assault on law and liberty continues its progress through parliament, the disparate alliance against the legislation must hold. It is indicative of an authoritarian instinct, careless of rights and freedoms which underpin our society, cavalier with the fabric of our constitution, which characterises this Labour government. It represents compelling proof that as broad a coalition of British people as can be built, should strive to see the back of Gordon Brown and his party, as soon as possible.

Monday, 22 September 2008

A must read - O'Neill on Edgar Graham

I’m not in the habit of posting links, which I believe noteworthy, but to which I have nothing to add. Today I must make an exception after reading O’Neill’s piece about Edgar Graham on A Pint of Unionist Lite. Graham was only twenty nine years old when he was callously murdered by republican terrorists, because he was both talented and a unionist. O’Neill unfolds events surrounding the murder, in a post which is simultaneously a tribute and a poignant appeal to fellow unionists not to take freedom to articulate their position for granted.

If you have not yet read it, I urge you to do so.

A blockage in the executive plumbing?

Shaun Woodward believes that policing and justice might be devolved to the Northern Ireland Executive within 12 months. I suppose he MIGHT be right. In the same speech he stressed the importance of the executive beginning once again to meet. Yet in contrast, on the Politics Show, the Northern Ireland Secretary seemed to suggest the present ‘tense situation’ is not a crisis and that the media have been responsible for exaggerating its import.

For 12 months Northern Ireland’s ‘government’ comprised an optical illusion and now that illusion has been shattered. Executive business has heaped up unresolved throughout the period of devolution and now, thanks to the recalcitrance of Sinn Féin, the executive has stopped meeting entirely.

The Labour government are becoming increasingly desperate to get Gerry Adams’ party out of a hole and to re-animate the Stormont charade. If that is achieved, the carve-up will rumble on, performing its impression of government until the next bout of intractability from Sinn Féin or the DUP.

Until there is an acknowledgment that the present crisis, and it is a crisis, is a symptom of an unworkable system, rather than some initial difficulties, then imaginative solutions will continue to be dismissed and fundamental problems will continue to be ignored. If Woodward has his way the blockage will simply be pushed further down the pipe, rather than being cleared.

Review: Kosovo, What Everyone Needs to Know

Tim Judah is The Economist’s Balkan correspondent and, however justified O’Neill’s reservations about that magazine might be in general terms, he remains arguably the most authoritative British journalist writing about the region. ‘Kosovo, What Everyone Needs to Know’, is his latest book, a slim, but surprisingly detailed account of Kosovo’s history, up to and including the unilateral declaration of independence and its aftermath.

In previous books Judah has drawn on personal experience and enlivened his histories with a smattering of anecdote. The confines of this OUP series demand a more concise approach. Nevertheless, the book is readable and manages largely to furnish its readers with both sides of the story. Occasionally impartiality is achieved at the expense of the flow of prose, often place names are provided in two or even three languages.

Judah ably charts the current conflict’s origins in a low intensity Albanian terrorist campaign. He notes the unwitting role which the international community played in aggravating the conflict into serious aggression. He explains the lamentable mismanagement with which Slobodan Milosevic invested his campaign of counter insurgency as well as the manner in which Nato became effectively the KLA’s airforce, negating any possibility of compromise between the two sides, then underwriting the possibility of Kosovo’s independence.

As to Kosovo’s future, Judah does not have any easy answers. In the most propitious circumstances, it is possible that the province could become (just about) a viable state. However with the north retaining its links to the Serb administration, with its current lack of infrastructure, the pervasive influence of crime, Albanian ethnic nationalism and its questionable legal status, it will remain a Nato protectorate for the foreseeable future.

Friday, 19 September 2008

A More United Kingdom? Nice talk, shame about the actions.

As a GCSE English Literature student, the only text that I loathed more than Wordsworth’s ‘Lyrical Ballads’ was ‘Cider With Rosie’ by Laurie Lee. You might say that I was not exactly entranced by bucolic English idylls at the age of 16, whether they were rapidly changing or not. I wanted instead, to read some god-awful nonsense by William Burroughs or subject myself to fifteen hundred pages of Norman Mailer.

Honestly, I cannot remember whether Lee’s book deserved my disdain, I suspect not. Nevertheless, when I discovered that Liam Byrne’s Demos report, ‘A More United Kingdom’ (PDF), quotes ‘Cider With Rosie’ at the outset, it immediately acquired a bundle of negative associations, before I had even begun to inspect it properly.

Byrne’s report has already attracted ridicule, with its 27 suggestions to celebrate a proposed national day, one of which is drinking! Undoubtedly, despite weighing in at 90 odd pages, much of this document is fairly fatuous stuff. Nonetheless, leaving aside the headline grabbing passages, there are indications here that Byrne has a reasonably solid grasp of the benefits and merits of the United Kingdom, even if his argument that Labour is best placed to preserve the Union is both misplaced and ironic.

The report’s central tenet is sound enough. Byrne posits that respect for difference does not imply that we cannot celebrate that which we share as British people. Principal amongst these commonalities must be a set of ‘shared standards both civic and legal’. These are characterised simply as the ‘rules of the road’ by which our society maintains its character and its function.

Of course the questions which this initial gambit raises are, which other points of cohesion can be legitimately celebrated and what exactly do the fundamental standards or ‘rules of the road’ entail? Byrne’s report attempts to present its answers as if they were extracted from British people themselves, although many are hoary old Labour think-tank chestnuts.

Thus, we have suggested a ‘Bill of Rights and Duties’, or the citizenship curriculum, attempts to codify Britishness, alongside more organic notions like inculcating respect for those who sacrificed their lives in the World Wars or coalescing around the London Olympic celebration.

The three broad categories, under which Byrne proposes to galvanise efforts to forge a more united Kingdom, are, (his pet project) a national day, a stronger defence of the union and “the Labour Party leading a renewal of civic pride and association as part of a broader, sustained effort to regenerate Britain’s poorest places”.

Obviously it is notion of a national day which has attracted most press attention and in particular the ideas, (again) supposedly harvested from the British people, about how this day might be spent. We can largely dispense with the latter suggestion, not because the notion is not worthy, but rather, because it simply represents the type of posturing which Labour feels it must indulge in, in a vain attempt to appear as if it has not jettisoned completely its founding instincts.

I shall return to Byrne’s mooted robust defence of the Union in a moment, but first I’d like to touch briefly on the ‘rules of the road’. These are outlined as follows.

- Learning English.
- Signing up to tolerance.
- Paying your way.
- Obeying the law.

As a set of aspirations to which all British people, or people who wish to become British, should subscribe, these are relatively uncontroversial. Although I would suggest that many British born people are less likely to fulfil the third suggestion than many who come here from elsewhere. Yes, anyone who cannot speak English should attempt to learn. Yes, tolerance should be expected and the rights and freedoms which we take for granted must be upheld by all citizens. Certainly people must be expected to obey the law. Everyone should attempt to pay their way, but realistically there will be those who cannot. Are they any less British than those who can?

As I have previously intimated, Byrne appears to understand the strengths of the United Kingdom instinctively enough. Britishness he posits ‘is a de facto construction of multiple identities’.

“An argument for dissolving the Union would be a lamentable admission that in this age of diversity we are unable to master the task of marshalling, combining and celebrating what is in common between our modern plurality of identities.”

Undoubtedly he is correct when he avers,

“The UK would be tragically diminished if Scotland sued for divorce. And within a torn UK, our sense of England – our past and our future – would shrink. And the implication of this must surely be that more English, Welsh and Irish politicians and civic leaders need to find space and time to make the argument for the Union.”

His argument for a sustained defence of the Union is impeccable,

“surely our task in Britain today is not to plan a separation, but to combine better a Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, atheist, English, Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish Britain into one United Kingdom.”

Stirring stuff, were it not for the stark fact that Byrne’s party has visited more harm on the Union since taking government in 1997 than perhaps any party before it. His party continues to undermine and diminish the bonds which hold the Union together. Its constant, ill considered constitutional tinkering threatens to destroy the very thing which it purports to value.

Much of the document constitutes justification for a pre-emptive strike against the Conservative Party, which Byrne warns will attempt to dominate the ground of ‘fraternity’. He claims to be seeking a means, “where(by) we seek to keep the standards and norms that have been shaped by our national history and re-imagine how to apply them to the challenges of today”. If he seriously believes that the Labour government have thus far followed a constitutional project which answers this description, he is in deep denial.

We're off to Dublin in the green

The notion of a ‘Celtic nations’ tournament has been knocked about for a while. In the absence of any English enthusiasm to resurrect the old Home International Championship, it has been left to Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the Republic to push ahead with plans of their own.

Concrete detail is only now beginning to emerge. The Four Associations Tournament will first be played in Dublin in 2011. It will comprise a league format, with 2 games taking place in February and a further four in May.

The competition certainly sounds like a great idea in theory. Rather than national teams participating in three anaemic friendlies, full blooded derby matches will offer players and spectators a much more challenging, rewarding experience.

In recent years Northern Ireland fans have enjoyed travelling to matches in Cardiff, Manchester and Glasgow. In addition Windsor Park has hosted two home matches versus Wales and a memorable victory against England.

Tickets for the Croke Park tourney are likely to be in great demand. On the last occasion the original Ireland team visited Dublin, we returned to Belfast with a win. Hopefully in three years time we can bring back three victories.

Ryder Cup underway

It is time to grip the old ‘Gentleman’s Persuader’ once again, as the Ryder Cup is underway in Valhalla. Europe has made a habit of dominating the opening exchanges in recent years and just now has eased ahead in two of the opening foursomes, the other pair remaining all square.

I expressed some concern about the captaincy of Nick Faldo in a previous post. He did little to inspire further confidence earlier in the week when his opening selections were photographed by a fortuitous zoom lens. The captain attempted to pass off his scribblings as a ‘lunch list’. Cunning stuff Nick, especially as the paper comprised exactly the pairings which took to the course a couple of hours ago.

Meanwhile the US captain, Paul Azinger, appeared to invite misbehaviour by the home crowd with an equivocal message, “We want to get them rockin … We don't want anybody out of hand, but of course there will be alcohol served and of course be some minor cases, but we are engaging the crowd”.

We should expect as high a standard of etiquette from the American galleries as normal then.

Team leaders aside, I like the Ryder Cup. I like the team spirit which it engenders. I like that Europe has its own cohesive identity when it comes to golf. Here’s hoping for another win.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Convenient dictatorship - Azerbaijan

Georgia’s president, Mikhail Saakashvili, has his own singular methods for dealing with opposition to his corrupt regime. Recent history which has been conveniently forgotten in the rush to acclaim his country as a bastion of freedom in the Caucasus.

Saakashvili is not the only American client in the region. Azerbaijan is corrupt, anti-democratic, repressive and an important strategic ally of the US and Nato. Ilham Aliyev is currently holds the presidency which was conferred on him in much the same fashion as a family heirloom.

On Comment is Free, Nina Ognianova highlights continued abuses of human rights, oppression of press freedom and the lack of democratic credibility which will attend forthcoming elections.

Don’t hold your breath for a storm of western opprobrium. Azerbaijan is too conveniently placed geographically and too rich in oil and gas to consider rocking the boat. Now if the regime were pro-Russian, that would be a different matter.

Fermanagh by election results as they happen

First count

Sinn Féin (Coyle) 1815
SDLP (Flanaghan) 739
DUP (Foster) 1925
UUP (Johnston) 1436
Alliance (Kamble) 231
Independent Republican (McHugh) 158

Quota 3153

SF have asked for a recount. Assuming the results are upheld, Alliance, SDLP and Independent Republican will drop out for the second count.

Second Count

UUP 1640
DUP 1994
SF 2327

Arlene Foster is likely to win after UUP transfers are distributed.

Final count

DUP 3165
SF 2383

Nothing more to see here. I will not be a hypocrite and pore over results. There is little surprising or particularly instructive here.

Belated gloating and the wonders of positivity

It is much easier writing gloomy posts about football rather than upbeat ones. By that rationale, I should be devoting a blog or two to the continuing woes of Ballymena United. But rather than wallowing in the ceaseless misery which accompanies every supporter of the Braidmen, I will attempt to accentuate the positive and comment on Liverpool’s remarkable week.

At the outset I must confess that I was unable to catch the entirety of last Saturday’s match. Instead, I deduced its progress from a series of initially ominous and then progressively delirious text messages, before enjoying hugely the BBC’s highlights. Although I might not have watched it live, nevertheless I feel bound to offer those readers with an inclination toward Manchester United hearty and heartfelt taunts.

I was fortunate enough to attend Liverpool’s previous victory against the Mancs, when Peter Crouch secured a 1-0 FA Cup win in February 2006. Prior to that match, Liverpool had last beaten United in 2004, when Danny Murphy’s goal stunned the home crowd at Old Trafford. Saturday’s 2-1 triumph was a splendid result, its significance underlined by Torres’ absence and the limited contribution of Steven Gerrard.

From the highlights which I watched, Liverpool’s victory could be ascribed principally to tackling United with a positive attitude. After fifteen poor minutes, during which Benitez’ men ceded possession, the Anfield reds began to press their opposition, seeking out the ball and using it positively after it had been confiscated. The acquisition of Spanish winger Riera, provided the team with natural width which has previously been missing.

For periods of last night’s Champions’ League fixture against Marseille, Liverpool showed a similar attitude. Although Benitez set his team up more narrowly, a similar pressing game prevailed for much of the first half. The French side’s tricky forwards capitalised on Liverpool’s high line on occasion, evading the offside trap, creating several chances and scoring one. However Rafa’s men soon asserted their superiority, with Gerrard striking back instantly and then converting a penalty won by Saturday’s hero, Ryan Babel. There were a number of additional chances and the reds were good value for a 2-1 half time lead.

Rather than continue in this vein, in the second half Liverpool reverted to deep lying defence, offering Marseille the ball and inviting their forwards to break down the resistance. Consequently the match was narrowly won, with no goals in the second half, and the French team could count themselves unfortunate not to capitalise on a clutch of opportunities.

In fairness to Benitez, his players began to look a little weary in the second half, following Saturday’s exertions. Additionally, matches in Europe do require a different approach, and Rafa is a past master at setting up his teams along those lines. However, I can’t help but feel that Liverpool would have won at a canter last night and actually allowed their manager to turn his mind to the weekend’s league action, had the manager urged them to continue pressing in the second period.

An away win in the Champions’ League is nevertheless a good result, and no doubt Rafa will continue to oversee effective European performances. The proof of the pudding will come in the Premiership. Will Liverpool continue in Saturday’s vein, or will the cautious approach soon prevail again?

Walker loada rubbish

Former BBC employee Brian Walker has overrun Slugger O’Toole lately with countless poorly structured, poorly written posts. It is possible quickly to recognize and avoid these by subjecting each Slugger piece to a cursory inspection and identifying those which feature characteristic lack of paragraphing and a tenuous grasp on the technicalities of linking source articles. Although I generally evade Walker’s posts by this method, occasionally (and unfortunately) I have persevered and found that their content is as unrewarding as the style in which they are written.

Today, for instance, I inflicted upon myself Brian’s thoughts on a mooted Fianna Fail / SDLP merger. In actual fact, he is right to welcome news that the Southern Irish party has dropped this proposal from its agenda; however, the logic by which he arrives at this conclusion is parochial nonsense. To summarise, Walker believes that pursuing realignment with larger parties, whether they are from the rest of the UK or from the Republic of Ireland, is an unwelcome distraction from ‘the internal affairs of Northern Ireland’ for Northern Irish parties.

“The same goes for a Conservative government in London. The only thing that would revive the idea would be a full merger between the Ulster Unionists and the Conservatives. Mergers with metropolitan parties in London or Dublin are the product of wishful thinking, the dream of achieving the nirvanas of a secure Union or Irish unity by the back door – and in the short term dishing the Shinners or the DUP. All they’ve achieved so far is to cause left-right splits within parties that are still essentially communalist i.e. tribally-based. and if they have any sense, the metropolitan parties will avoid getting dragged into the mire.”

What a depressing and contradictory credo! We must maintain our communal politics in order to prevent the ‘national question’ assuming centre stage in “an Assembly system designed to move it to the edges”. In order to complete the “hard graft of making Stormont work”, Walker thinks we must insulate ourselves from national political issues, accept the marginal and non participatory status quo and entrench and institutionalise communal division.

An SDLP / Fianna Fail merger was a bad idea. It would have failed to recognise constitutional realities and implied disrespect for the principle of consent. Encroachment by the Republic of Ireland’s governing party would represent a destabilising influence and alert unionist suspicions as to the constitutional bona fides of the Dublin government.

Alignment between the UUP and Conservatives is not remotely comparable. Such an alignment will give people within Northern Ireland the opportunity to participate directly in the wider politics of the state to which they actually belong. The result will be stabilising rather than destabilising, it will normalise politics rather than maintaining focus on the constitutional issue.

Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom and the politics of the United Kingdom bear direct relevance to Northern Ireland. There is no serious argument to be made that UK parties offering UK voters a chance to participate directly in UK politics is a retrograde step or threatens to undermine power sharing. Maintaining one eyed concentration on how exceptional we are and refusing to look beyond our traditional communal morass does not represent the best way forward.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

You know it's going to happen

Without wishing either to stretch a metaphor or put literal minded readers off dinner, Northern Ireland’s politics comprise a cramped, crowded, sweaty, incestuous hothouse. This week the hothouse is being strapped to the back of a media lorry and transported down the road to Enniskillen. The council by election which is to take place there will no doubt by minutely dissected and its significance projected endlessly (and speculatively) unto a bigger stage by those parties which feel they have done well. That is the nature of the, frankly vaguely ridiculous, hothouse.

The truth is that this by election will be influenced by a series of peculiarities, local or otherwise, and the significance accorded to its result should not be overstated. The News Letter’s Stephen Dempster is correct when he states that this is not Dromore and that extrapolating the state of unionism from the election is not a possibility. This election is of unfortunate provenance, it features a pressurised battle between Sinn Féin and unionist parties, Arlene Foster (DUP) is a preternaturally well known candidate in comparison to the rest, the TUV have decided not to stand.

I have been reading with interest the arguments and counter arguments pertaining to this election. I find Basil Johnston’s (UUP) argument, that Arlene Foster’s u-turn on double jobbing makes her a poor candidate, compelling. However, I don’t believe that the result will tell us an awful lot about political trends one way or another. The by election is significant for Fermanagh, but will provide little idea how the electorate are thinking elsewhere.

A silly time to promise tax cuts?

Nick Clegg’s stated desire to cut tax for low and middle earners and to finance these cuts by freeing his party from certain public spending commitments has met with a predictable response. Left wing commentators complain that the Liberal Democrat leader is jettisoning principle and flirting with Thatcherism, meanwhile right wing analysts believe that Clegg’s proposals are mere sophistry and would not deliver meaningful tax cuts at all.

The Liberal Democrats are seeking to present themselves as a tax cutting party for two principal reasons. Firstly, the party is seeking to reposition itself in line with prevalent public opinion and move demonstrably away from Labour, a party which is perceived as statist, centralising and wasteful of public money. Clegg wishes to carry a convincing fight to Labour at the next General Election. Secondly, with the Conservative Party increasingly buoyant, Lib Dems must protect seats they currently hold, which may be threatened by a resurgent Tory Party. The perception is that tax cuts appeal to voters who may consider shifting allegiance next time.

What Clegg cannot know is whether the economy will continue to spiral downward or whether the current panic can be arrested at the level of high finance. In any case, there is an argument that recession has already arrived. Unemployment is rising, bankruptcies are increasing and if high financial strife filters down into more quotidian sectors of the economy, the situation will become steadily worse. Is it, in a time of such turbulence, either tenable or advisable to be offering tax cuts?

George Osborne, a man who has a realistic prospect of putting in train the economic policies which he lays out over the next few years, has promised no such thing. Whilst the Shadow Chancellor would like to cut tax in principle, he acknowledges that any Conservative government is likely to begin its life hamstrung by Labour’s mismanagement of public finances and curtailed by world wide economic difficulties. If unemployment is high, and both the work force and employers are feeling the pinch, necessarily the public purse will come under increasing pressure at a time when the government is simultaneously struggling to maintain tax yield. Under these circumstances, delivering tax cuts would be an impossibility.

After 11 years of Labour the United Kingdom’s electorate may be heartily sick of authoritarian, centrist big government, which has taxed and spent, to little discernible effect, but in times of economic downturn people also seek security. If circumstances are to become considerably more straightened, people’s priorities will lie less on enjoying unencumbered the money which they have earned, and more on the security which the state provides should money be less plentiful.

At a point when the public might start to increasingly examine opposition parties’ ability to afford social security, as well as their ability to offer a different style and outlook to Labour, perhaps Nick Clegg’s adoption of tax cutting rhetoric might do more to persuade voters that the Lib Dems are not a serious contender for government, and less to sway their support behind that party.

Headline of the year!

Albeit a little nausea inducing, courtesy of Mark Devenport. Some nonentity from Hollyoaks has expressed his disapproval of Iris Robinson's anti-gay comments in a celebrity magazine.

Mark's headline - "Iris in 'Heat'".

Monday, 15 September 2008

Harmonising hymn sheets for the UUP / Tory marriage

Without wishing to pre-empt the findings of the UUP – Conservative Working Group, it is my understanding that some detail will soon emerge as to how the parties’ relationship might develop. This will entail, at a minimum, the Tories endorsing Jim Nicholson and contributing to his campaign in the European election and an embargo on candidates from the two parties running against each other in the foreseeable future. It is as yet unclear whether modalities of nomenclature are ready to be announced or whether the Northern Irish party will receive financial backing from Conservative coffers.

More evidence of increased cooperation is already emerging. Tom Elliot MLA has rowed in behind a Conservative spokesman on the environment, endorsing Peter Ainsworth’s view that Labour is not providing enough support for British formers and that more emphasis must be placed on promoting local produce as an alternative to expensive and environmentally unfriendly imports. Meanwhile Sir Reg Empey has stressed a convergence of values between Ulster Unionists and Scottish Conservatives, as the Scottish Parliament’s Tory leader, Annabel Goldie, met him at Stormont today.

The UUP leader used the occasion to reflect on the benefits which Scotland’s devolved government accrues from the lack of an enforced coalition. Of course Empey is right in this respect. Voluntary coalition, albeit with cross community safeguards, offers much more effective government. What is more immediately significant about both statements, however, is that the Ulster Unionist message is being married to the larger, UK wide message of the Tories. “The economic downturn, repairing our broken society, energy independence, environmental challenges”, are issues which are common throughout the Kingdom, and these are the areas on which David Cameron is focussing his rhetoric.

Empey’s conclusion offers a nice synopsis of the thinking behind the proposed realignment,

“With Annabel Goldie I am gravely concerned over the threat posed to the Union by the rise of Scottish Nationalism. The diversity of the United Kingdom is our strength - the pride we each take in our English, Northern Irish, Scottish and Welsh identities. But we are stronger together, within the Union.”

It will be fascinating to see the concrete detail which emerges from the Conservative / UUP Working Group over the next month or so. Clearly though, the process of harmonising the two parties is already underway.

In support of clod-hopping Tyrone GAA types!

I am not known for my love of County Tyrone nor for my interest in GAA, however I managed to drive to Enniskillen and back over the weekend, past Dungannon, through Augher, Clougher, Fivemiletown etc., without noting anything either intimidating or offensive. Two wrongs don’t make a right and complaining about a Tyrone GAA pennant on a car in a car-park is as pathetic as objecting to a British Olympic Association flag or the infamous 'Boots’ Union Flag'.

Provided it doesn’t entail dragging their sofas unto the streets of Belfast, then getting blocked before playing hurling amongst cars, the people of Tyrone are entitled to enjoy their sport and culture unencumbered. Perhaps both sides here need to start treating others as they would wish to be treated themselves as a preliminary to arguing their own case for discrimination.

Britishness - avoiding the straightjacket

Alexandra Runswick’s post on Our Kingdom discusses an RSA / Heritage Lottery Fund lecture entitled ‘Britishness – A values based approach is not enough’, a contention precipitated by Labour’s attempts to draft a ‘Statement of British Values’. Keynote speaker, Dame Liz Forgan, argued the importance of culture to the formation of national identity, noting “that while values are fixed, culture is porous and constantly evolves”.

She raises an important point. Certain cultural commonalities are naturally key constituents around which an identity coheres. History, language, common institutions and indeed common values undoubtedly help forge the culture which we share. However, I would add two notes of caution to Forgan’s analysis. Firstly, as I have already intimated, values, culture and institutions cannot be easily separated. Rather the three interact and mould each other.

The values which are inherent in Britishness have necessarily been shaped by the UK’s constitution and the institutions which underpin it. Whilst we need not formally define those values, and whilst a formal process of defining those values may not accrue any great benefit to the coherence of the United Kingdom, nevertheless a strong sense of Britishness should be characterised by a sense that our constitution ensures rights and freedoms which are important.

Secondly, Forgan is correct to assert that culture is porous and mutable. It is true to say though, that some cultures are more porous than others and that a characteristic of nationalism is its discomfort with changes which might occur within the culture to which it has attached itself. That is not to propose that nationalists are always hostile to other cultures, or cannot move easily enough between them. But the core culture to which nationalism adheres, is to its nationalists, a very definite edifice possessed of certain specific characteristics and explicitly excluding others.

Britishness is not possessed of such prescriptive confines and unionists must not be tempted to capitulate to nationalist demands that it should be, if it is to exist as an identity at all. The British identity is in its essence a porous and heterogeneous construction and to define it by the prescriptions which nationalism requires is to distort it beyond recognition.

Friday, 12 September 2008

The finest travel writer

I first became aware of Philip Marsden’s travel writing when I read ‘The Crossing Place’, his nuanced journey examining Armenian history and identity. I've enjoyed re-establishing the acquaintance, having got my hands on Marsden’s ‘Spirit Wrestlers’, an account of his travels in southern Russia and the Caucasus, examining the ethnicities and religious sects who subsist in that region.

The book is ten years old, but it is particularly relevant given recent problems in areas the author visits. Marsden actually travels through South Ossetia, living with a local doctor named Pushkin and meeting the breakaway republic’s president, on his way to 'Georgia proper'. Even discounting contemporary relevance, it is simply a joy to read writing of the calibre Marsden produces. His prose is rich, nuanced, perfect in pitch and tone. It makes me profoundly jealous.

He shares none of the cynicism which characterised Daniel Kalder’s account of travelling in Russia’s ethnic republics, which I praised with qualification on this blog. Marsden has endless empathy and regard for the people and cultures which he encounters. Neither is he as flowery as Colin Thubron. He writes with lyricism and poetry, but does not waste a word. There are no dubious analogies or fanciful metaphors in Marsden’s work.  Everything is precise.

The subject matter is also fascinating. The ‘Spirit Wrestlers’ of the title are Doukhobors, a radical Christian sect who were shunted around southern Russia and exiled to the Transcaucasus. The author visits Molokans (or milk drinkers), Kuban Cossacks, Zaporozhians and Yezidis, who were demonised as devil worshippers due to their reverence for a fallen angel. His journey takes him from the mighty Don river, through the Russian Caucasus and finally into Georgia and Armenia.

This is travel literature at its very best. You are unlikely to read any better travel writer than Philip Marsden.

The power of tribalism

Via Pete Baker at Slugger, a particularly pertinent article (given the debate carried below) by Henry McDonald on the Guardian politics blog, has come to my attention. McDonald addresses the vehement derision with which many nationalists greeted Mark Durkan’s suggestion that designation might one day become unnecessary and that cross community, voluntary coalitions might spring up.

“In essence, the criticism, much of it venomous, directed at Durkan illuminates the power of tribal politics in Northern Ireland. By merely daring to gaze into the future and hint that perhaps one day there could be sufficient respect and trust to produce a government of volunteer parties Durkan faced accusations that he was not only naive but in addition disloyal to his own tribe.”

Let people enjoy their Sunday!

The low profile which Ian Paisley has maintained since his retirement has actually impressed me. I suspected that his ego would require him to remain a public figure and that he could easily become the ‘ghost at the feast’ of Northern Ireland politics. As yet he has not fulfilled that role and has contented himself, in terms of public participation, merely with a column in the News Letter.

It is predictable enough that this week he has used this platform to attack Glentoran and the Irish Football Association for rearranging a fixture to last Sunday. I am always slightly bemused by the suggestion that playing sport is a violation of this so called day of rest. If, as Paisley believes, God provides us with Sunday for our own benefit, that we might “rest both mind and body from the matters that occupy us during the other six days”, enjoying that day by watching or playing football is a fine way to rest the mind and rejuvenate the body!

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Johnston distances himself from sexist remarks

Ulster Unionist Fermanagh by election candidate Basil Johnston must be congratulated for swiftly moving to distance himself from unfortunate comments made by former MLA Sam Foster to the effect that DUP candidate Arlene Foster's role as wife and mother would mitigate against her effectively doing her political job. Whether these remarks were sexist, or whether they were merely unfortunately expressed, undoubtedly they represented an unacceptable attack. Arlene Foster's candidature should be questioned, on the grounds that she is already an MLA and a minister. Her status as a mother and a wife is irrelevant. Whether Sam Foster recognises that or not, Basil Johnston certainly does.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Is progressive Conservatism an oxymoron?

Richard Reeves, director of centre left think tank Demos, has been considering Conservative claims to a ‘progressive’ agenda on ‘Comment is Free’. The piece is worth reading in its entirety, but a number of passages are particularly pertinent, given the debate which Chris McGimpsey’s comments have sparked and the wider themes of Conservative ideology, with which this blog has been grappling over the past few months.

Reeves is sceptical regarding the claims of conservatism to a long history of prizing social justice. Whilst he acknowledges the bona fides of Disraeli’s ‘one nation Conservatism’ and the legacy of William Wilberforce, he is quick to dismiss the Torys' post-war endorsement of the National Health Service and Keynesian economics. However, regardless that he remains unconvinced by narratives which trace a continuous ideological lineage for ‘progressive’ Cameron Conservatism, Reeves dismisses Labour’s contention that Conservatives cannot genuinely frame a programme which prioritises equality and fairness.

“It is foolish, however, to suppose that the Conservatives are prevented by some political law of gravity from being progressive in the 21st century. ………. To be progressive is to believe that societies ought to move forward, and that the measure of this advance is the expansion of freedoms and life chances for all - but especially the most disadvantaged. Iain Duncan Smith's long-standing interest in social justice helped to prepare the ground; and there are now a number of areas, including civil liberties, the environment and education policy, where the Tories can now plausibly claim to be more progressive than Labour.”

The argument that conservatives recognise the importance of a cohesive and functional society and that they are the natural custodians of the values which such societies promote, are the foundations on which Cameron Conservatism rests.

“The Conservative critique of Labour's policies on poverty and inequality is that they have dealt merely with the symptoms of the disease, without addressing the root causes. In his August speech on the theme of fairness, Osborne said: "To tackle deprivation, it is not enough simply to transfer money - we need to tackle the complex mix of entrenched worklessness, family breakdown, drug and alcohol abuse, and rising indebtedness that perpetuate the cycle of poverty."”

Whilst he remains doubtful about their innate ‘conservatism, Reeves nevertheless concludes by endorsing the progressive instincts of fleshed out policy which the Conservatives now propound.

“The list includes an expanded health-visiting service for parents, tighter credit controls to protect people from debt, stronger rights of parental leave, and increased funding for schoolchildren from poorer backgrounds. Good stuff, but it is not clear what is especially "Conservative" about these approaches.”

Advocates of its ‘communitarian’ strain will argue that these approaches are very specifically Conservative and that only an erroneous conflation of Conservatism with economic liberalism occludes the convivial relationship between inherently Conservative instincts and social responsibility. Whichever side of the ideological argument one favours, it is undeniable that increasingly Labour's social policies are being questioned whilst the Conservatives' capacity to advance a compassionate agenda is being taken more seriously.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Ending designation offers no threat to nationalism

Mark Durkan’s weekend speech to the British and Irish Association at Oxford University, carried in full in the comment zone of a post on El Blogador, has attracted a wealth of comment across the blogs. In a section of the speech, the SDLP leader expressed his belief that the current power sharing arrangements at Stormont will be transitional and that, as confidence and normality in Northern Ireland’s politics increases, there will be an opportunity to remove ‘ugly scaffolding’ inherent in the present dispensation and progress beyond the system of designation.

Durkan’s comments chime resonantly with the views of Ulster Unionist leader Sir Reg Empey. Indeed, the conviviality of the speech to unionist perceptions of where the institutions should be headed, has undoubtedly contributed to the vehemence of Sinn Féin’s response. Martina Anderson’s statement is typical. A sneering implication that unionists cannot be trusted to participate in normal democratic politics.

Of course there is nothing radical or threatening to nationalism contained within Durkan’s remarks. Neither the SDLP, nor any unionist party which favours reforming mandatory coalition to make government more democratic or accountable, think that it is either possible or desirable to reinstate unionist majority rule. There will be mechanisms included in any altered Assembly insuring against this possibility. Weighted majorities have long been mooted as a possible solution and a post on Slugger has raised this possibility again.

The truth is that it is not unionist hegemony which Sinn Féin fears might result from removing designation and mandatory coalition, nor do the Provisionals discern any genuine threat to rights. Rather, Martina Anderson, Martin McGuinness and their ilk, are opposed to stability and normality in Northern Ireland, and the political realignments which might reflect stability and normality. In addition, removing the perpetual lock of mutual veto and mandatory coalition, introduces a degree of democracy and accountability with which an authoritarian party like Sinn Féin are profoundly uncomfortable.

If Northern Ireland is stable and normal, if nationalists and unionists are participating in politics which do not necessarily conform to a constitutional fault line enshrined in the machinery of government, then Sinn Féin’s purpose is substantially undermined. That should not prevent other participants from both nationalism and unionism, striving to deliver a system which is truly accountable and which genuinely provides better government and a better Northern Ireland, for everyone.

My ritual pre match keen of pessimism

After the weekend’s bitter disappointment, Northern Ireland have an opportunity to get our World Cup 2010 campaign up and running when we face the Czech Republic at Windsor Park tomorrow night. Once again we will be required to line up without influential front man Kyle Lafferty, and increasingly it looks as if George McCartney will be another absentee.

If McCartney misses out, even Nigel Worthington should have the tactical nous to reshape the back four in relatively effective fashion. Jonny Evans can move to left back, which apart from covering McCartney’s absence, also allows Hughes to resume his successful centre back partnership with Craigan. Chris Baird or Gareth McCauley would then be asked to take up the right back berth vacated by their captain.

The manager will probably choose McCauley, because I imagine he will think it foolhardy to pick a conventional 4-4-2 midfield, rather than selecting Baird as stopper. In fairness, on this occasion he might be right. With Damien Johnson injured, Northern Ireland do not possess a natural defensive midfielder. Although it would be positive to select Clingan and Davis as the central pairing, against an outfit like the Czechs, that might represent too much exposure for the defence.

Whichever solution Worthington favours for his midfield dilemma, what he must allow for is delivering support and service to Healy. A second striker must be selected and must be played in position. In addition, Brunt should be utilised on the left flank from the start, particularly in the absence of George McCartney at left back. If an attacking midfielder must be sacrificed, after his abject performance in Slovakia, I feel that player should be Gillespie. At his best, Gillespie offers pace and precision down the right flank, but I have doubts whether we will ever see Keith’s best at Windsor Park again. He is getting older, seemingly without acquiring any of the wisdom and experience which often compensate for declining pace. At Gillespie’s worst, we may as well play with 10 men.

Previous astonishing displays at Windsor Park not withstanding, I am pessimistic about this tie. I do not have confidence that Worthington can deliver tactical decisions sufficient to outwit a superior side. Northern Ireland are due a defeat at home. It is my fear that tomorrow night, after three remarkable years, normal service will be resumed.

Monday, 8 September 2008

McGimpsey's view is grounded in outdated assumptions

To a degree I sympathise with the dilemma posed by the proposed Ulster Unionist – Tory pact for those who share an outlook similar to Chris McGimpsey. He regards himself as a custodian of the working class community in West Belfast which he represented for many years. His view of UK politics is still formed by the assumption that the Conservative Party’s policies are inimical to the interests of poorer sections of society, whilst Labour’s instincts are more inclined towards social justice. Whether he still believes there is a clearly defined left – right divide, certainly he retains a strong aversion to the Tories.

I understand the instincts which caused McGimpsey to pen an attack on the possible realignment, but I believe that he is wrong.

Labour governments, under Blair and Brown, have instigated a string of measures which have all but severed any lingering association that party may have had with social justice. It was a Labour government which abolished the 10p tax band. The system of benefits and credits which Labour has constructed actually fails to reach the lowest earners and those suffering most deprivation, instead focussing on helping the aspirant lower middle class. The new system of taxing cars levies a surcharge on those who cannot afford to upgrade their vehicle to a newer model. It was Labour that oversaw the demolition of free higher education in this country. Labour has systematically removed legal safeguards and freedoms which underpin democracy in the United Kingdom. Labour has taken large numbers of young men, most drawn from communities like McGimpsey’s, and sent them to die in Afghanistan and Iraq, under the flimsiest of pretexts.

Although David Cameron’s rhetorical commitment to social justice has not been tested, there is not a shred of evidence to support the contention that his party would marginalise poorer communities any more than the current Labour government has already managed. Conservative inclination, under the present leader, strays far from unalloyed adherence to market economics and big business. Cameron’s developing credo is a communitarian conservatism, which prefers evolution to wholesale reform, but in its instinct to preserve the essential fabric of society, necessarily must address concerns of social justice. Whether these theoretical niceties will translate into effective policy remains to be seen, but amongst all classes, the perception is that Labour is demonstrably failing.

Although Conservatives have previously failed to establish a meaningful toe hold in Northern Ireland’s politics, Empey’s initiative is not, as McGimpsey contends, destined to fail. When Tory candidates previously stood, they were hampered, in large part, by a dominant centre ground UUP, which commanded votes from those who may otherwise have been inclined to vote Conservative. The proposed realignment should, by all accounts, retain a distinct identity for Ulster Unionist candidates, whilst making their concrete alignment with the Conservatives explicit. This is a very different model to the precedents which McGimpsey attempts to invoke.

Whatever proposals eventually emerge from the Working Group, by no means will the result deprive unionists of a vote for social justice. On the contrary, voting Ulster Unionist will be a positive step towards ensuring our representatives have an unprecedented opportunity to shape the future of Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.