Friday, 31 October 2008

Readers endorse Tory deal

A word about the results of the latest Three Thousand Versts poll. As you will observe, a rather underwhelming 34 votes were cast, 18 (52%) adjudged themselves more likely to vote UUP in the event of a deal with the Tories. 29% would be less likely to vote UUP, for 2 people it makes no difference and 11% would scrutinise the detail of any deal and then decide.

So tentative support for a deal of some form from this blog’s readers.

Unconvincing unionism is better than no unionism at all

The long awaited by election in Glenrothes takes place next Thursday. Scenting much needed victory Gordon Brown has visited the constituency twice this week. Alex Salmond, meanwhile, has campaigned eleven times already, in the run up to the poll.

Scots’ nationalism’s Il Duce is accustomed to this style of politics, treating every by election as if it is a plebiscite on his own popularity. Although I deplore Labour’s mismanagement of the Union, it is important that the nationalists do not win next week’s contest.

Labour may make inept and unconvincing unionists, but even if they appear sometimes to be dismantling the United Kingdom inadvertently, at least its dismantlement is not the party’s stated aim.

Belfast SDLP dances to Shinners' tune

You would not expect the SDLP to play dog whistle politics in the mould of Sinn Féin and neither has the party done so as regards Sunday’s homecoming parade for troops in Belfast. Instead the SDLP has urged nationalists to avoid Belfast city centre at Sunday lunchtime, but this in itself is a problematic intervention, because it implies that the event is exclusive to one community.

Although many spectators who wish to attend the parade on Sunday will be unionists, there are nationalists whose family will be involved, no doubt there are nationalists who simply may wish to watch the event and by no means should politicians be invoking a communal imperative that they should stay away. The politics of Belfast dictate that the SDLP must continue occasionally to make sectarian shapes in order not to be outflanked by Sinn Féin.

In contrast SDLP councillors in Ballymena, including veteran nationalist representative PJ McAvoy, will be in attendance as the town welcomes back RIR soldiers tonight. A Catholic priest in the town has already urged his parishioners to do likewise. The parade in Ballymena has attracted little of the sectarian, political baggage which republican protests have conferred upon Belfast’s equivalent event.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Tom Elliott gets stuck into Labour's Britishness policy. More of the same please.

UUP MLA Tom Elliott has made a welcome intervention in the ‘Britishness’ debate. He shows a sound grasp of Labour’s paradoxical approach to the Union and to British identity, on one hand visiting untold damage on the institutions which shape Britishness and on the other attempting to impose it from on high.

“You cannot undermine the very institutions and history that define what it is to be British and then lecture the public about the importance of Britishness. And yet this is precisely what Labour has done.”

Reading closely Elliott’s comments, I am not sure he is placing enough stress on the most damaging of the government’s assaults on Britishness, but he is nevertheless identifying much of what is wrong-headed in New Labour’s policies on the Union and the constitution. Although immigration and Europe are issues which could be handled better, to the benefit of the Union, they are relatively tangential when set against the erosion of basic British rights and freedoms and persistent constitutional tinkering, as epitomised by the disaster of asymmetric devolution.

It is not perhaps politic for a representative of a party which remains an advocate of devolution for Northern Ireland to stress too pointedly the manner in which the government’s devolution experiment has eroded the Union. I don’t, however, accept that there is necessarily a contradiction between recognising that devolution is here to stay and attempting to offset the damage which it has visited upon the Union. Neither should unionist politicians be reluctant to stress the ultimate sovereignty of Westminster nor disinclined to insist that devolution should be subject to strict limits and represents an end point rather than a process.

Although Elliott might have explained more clearly the nature of institutional damage which Labour has visited upon the structures which bind the United Kingdom together, the points he does choose to stress have merit. There should be greater effort to integrate immigrant communities and enhance social cohesion. The means to achieving such an end must see government interacting with citizens as individuals, possessed of certain rights and entitlements, rather than treating them as adjuncts to particular ethnic or religious groups.

Elliott observes of integration,

“This must be done through engagement with the community via public events, historical events; more education based on British values of family and democracy and increased opportunities for public displays of patriotism. We must show people that no matter what faith they believe in or colour they are, there is a place for them in British society and as British citizens.”

He is correct. All these things are important. But more important still is the character of the interfaces through which government interacts with society. If these interfaces facilitate, rather than impose, if they treat people equally, rather than as members of particular preconceived groups, then a sense of belonging will flourish much more readily.

Similarly, Elliott is quite right to aver, “for too long, the Labour Government and others have sought to destroy feelings of patriotism by introducing laws that were always going to dilute the civil and religious liberties that many here hold dear”, although I believe that he is not highlighting the most egregious instances whereby Labour has attempted to visit this destruction.

It does not require reference to the EU to find examples where the government has attempted to unravel the very fabric from which Britishness is made. Forty two day pre charge detention is a particularly prominent example, but there are others. Labour has bequeathed Britain a surveillance society, it wishes to introduce ID cards, it has undermined basic tenets of the British legal system, it has sought to establish torture evidence as admissible in British courts. That is not to say that there is not an important debate to be conducted as to the benefits or otherwise of the Lisbon treaty, but it is not the EU which has played the greatest role in causing people to examine whether Britain stands for anything honourable or important in the modern world.

There are stronger, more pertinent arguments to be raised against Labour’s mismanagement of the Union and its poor husbandry of British identity. But Elliott has made some useful points and he is clearly thinking about unionism in a wider pan-UK context. It is these types of debates in which Northern Irish unionists must be involved and a UUP / Conservative realignment would facilitate that involvement.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

An electoral pact next week is good. As long as there's a new political movement by Christmas

On Slugger, Pete Baker has picked up Frank Millar’s aside that an ‘electoral pact’ with the Conservative Party is likely to be formalised by a UUP executive meeting next week. Millar is an insightful and well informed journalist, particularly as regards Ulster Unionism. It is likely, therefore, that movement on the proposed deal will take place next week.

Interesting questions therefore remain. What will be the extent of movement which we can expect from next week’s executive meeting and will this movement encompass the whole of any emergent deal?

Millar uses the rather amorphous term, ‘electoral pact’. Recently the same vocabulary was deployed to accuse Ulster Unionists of reaching an agreement with the TUV, recommending mutual vote transfers in the 2009 European election. Perhaps the language implies that whatever is agreed next week may not include the full range of exciting possibilities which David Cameron and Reg Empey’s joint statement initially suggested.

My suspicion is that it is an agreement for European elections which the executive is ready to endorse. This will involve Tory backing for Jim Nicholson’s campaign and a shared UUP / Conservative manifesto for Europe.

Of course this represents the least problematic strand of cooperation between the two parties, given that Nicholson already works closely with Conservative MEPs in the European Parliament and belongs to the same group. Much, much more is required if the realignment’s potential is to be realised.

I would be surprised if trickier aspects which have held up the Conservative / UUP movement’s formation are ironed out before next week. But they should and must be overcome as swiftly as possible.

My understanding is that advocates of the deal are still hopeful David Cameron and another huge Tory name could address the rearranged UUP conference in early December. That affords a slightly more forgiving timetable.

Ross and Brand - proof that Britain loves outrage

A great many people want to be outraged. It is an observable facet of human nature. Perhaps they glean some manner of perverse enjoyment from being driven into barely contained hysteria and exercising muscularly whichever circuit of the brain is engaged in generating self-righteousness.

Recently a leaflet was posted through my letterbox, inviting me to protest against paedophilia. Now I, along with 100% of other right thinking members of society, am opposed to paedophilia. I’m opposed to paedophilia being tolerated and opposed to paedophiles carrying out whatever unpleasant acts they feel compelled to perform. Why would I need to engage in a protest in order to clarify this stance? Barely anyone disagrees with me. No serious pressure group is proposing that paedophiles should have the right to engage in their favoured activities!

I can only assume that the entire purpose of this rally was in order to vent outrage and anger that such a phenomenon exists in the first place. It was driven by the same instinct which causes people to stand outside court buildings, waiting to pelt a police van containing a notorious killer with eggs or abuse. These people are not generally connected in any way to victims. But for some reason they feel a special grievance so acutely that they must add some impotent and outraged acts to the legal punishment which is exacted on society’s behalf.

Although this type of outrage has its intrepid outriders, it is also a group phenomenon and it is frequently generated even when much less serious causes are at its root. Take the current storm of public indignation precipitated by entertainers Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand. Don’t get me wrong, I felt a bit of indignation when I heard about their antics myself. But today, as the story continues to rumble on, and as Britain’s population queues up to describe its personal affront at the pair, I can’t help feeling the pudding is becoming JUST A LITTLE over egged. Both Gordon Brown and David Cameron have been drawn into statements for goodness sake.

And, as the outcry reaches its shrillest pitch, the actual reason why the comedians do deserve some opprobrium seems to be being lost. The issue is Ross’ and Brand’s treatment of the actor Andrew Sachs and his family. That is all! It’s not about whether the pair are amusing, it’s not about whether people say ‘fuck’ on TV too frequently, its not even about whether the programme’s listeners were offended. It is simply about whether it is permissible to indulge in some very personal, unsolicited abuse and invade someone’s privacy, as a means to entertain an audience.

I believe it is not permissible, and clearly the majority of people agree with me. But let’s all take a step back, get things in perspective and stick to the point of the debate. If the outcome is a few quid off Jonathan Ross’s pay packet then we can all go back to being outraged at criminals and paedophiles.

By the way the doyen of outrage, the Daily Mail, hasn't half taken the opportunity to print lots of photographs of Sachs' granddaughter!

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Britain Day isn't dead, it's just resting.

It seems that the death knell for a national day sounded prematurely yesterday. The BBC reports Labour rowing back on Michael Wills’ previous statement. O’Neill is suitably scornful of the mixed messages issuing from government. It does rather reek of, ‘what the minister meant to say ………..’.

Tim Luckhurst mirrored my own error by assuming that Wills’ statement actually reflected government policy. On ‘Comment is Free’ he advances a puzzling argument that in abandoning plans for a ‘British day’, Brown indicated that he no longer needs ‘Britishness’ as a concept.

Now that it transpires the government has not ditched the idea, Luckhurst’s point is moot, however the insinuation that such a day would galvanise Britons around British identity or that it would help to shape a ‘British narrative’ remains.

The author mentions July 5th, the date of formation for the NHS in 1948, and September 15th, which carries historical resonance, both as a high-tide mark in the 1940 Battle of Britain and as the birth date of a great (perhaps the greatest) Briton. His suggested dates allude to important aspects of the national story and represent laudable values and institutions intrinsic to our United Kingdom. But would it strengthen a sense of belonging to impose a contrived holiday, engineered by the government, on these days?

My view is that government’s job is to facilitate and nurture a sense of British identity, rather than imposing its vision of that identity on its people. If a strong, vibrant, healthy society is encouraged and Britain’s constitutional fabric is cherished, then feelings of common identity will necessarily and quite organically become stronger.

Rather than focussing on gimmicks, Gordon Brown and his ministers should concentrate on making Britain a place to be proud of and protecting the integrity of its institutions.

There is a role to be played by government arguing the centrality of Britishness to the peoples of the United Kingdom, as well as the imperative of maintaining the Union for the good of its constituent parts. That is to be achieved by a dialogue with citizens, rather than social engineering.

Parade must not be dragged down to Sinn Féin's level

Last night I watched the Nolan programme. I’m not proud of myself. In my defence a mate of mine was in the audience and had been quite insistent that I should watch.

Naturally, given that Sinn Féin’s protest against young Irish men and women walking freely the streets of Belfast is a matter likely to inflame passions, Nolan opened with a rabble rousing debate on that topic.

The very fact that the welcome home parade has become a matter of such contention is the result which Sinn Féin was seeking.

Sunday should be, certainly would have been, principally a family occasion. There should be, certainly would have been, an orderly crowd in celebratory mood, joyfully welcoming back young people who have been doing a difficult job in dangerous circumstances.

With republican protests, whether organised by an extreme lunatic fringe or the lunatic fringe to which we’re more accustomed (i.e. Provisional Sinn Féin), I fear that the parade will acquire an added frisson for disreputable elements on both sides. Because a republican rabble has decided to protest the parade, the danger is that attendance becomes more enticing to a counter-rabble identifying themselves as loyalists.

That is the result which Sinn Féin is attempting to precipitate with this protest. They wish to dull the lustre of a celebration of bravery and safe-return and imbue it with the grubby communal flavour of a band parade past Ardoyne shops.

The best answer is for normal people, who were inclined to attend the parade before the controversy, to attend it regardless of these tawdry protests. This should be a day remembered for the original reasons which led to its organisation, rather than the zero sum sectarianism which republicans wish to bestow upon it.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Tug of war continues as Ukraine faces cold winter

The IMF is to lend Ukraine £10.4 billion in an attempt to stabilise its economy. Although the conditions are as yet unclear, it would appear that a programme to save banks and trim costs will be required. In the face of this crisis Victor Yushchenko seems determined to continue his feud with Yulia Tymoshenko and force an early election.

Ukraine is particularly susceptible to the current financial crisis because it has borrowed heavily in order to bring its economy into line with the west. With steel exports collapsing and the hryvnia rapidly devaluing there is real risk that inflation could spiral higher than its current level of 25% (already the highest in Europe).

Divisive leadership has contributed to Ukraine’s woes and there does not appear to be any will, on Yuschenko’s part, to mend bridges in order to tackle the crisis. Economists have warned that an election will exacerbate the inflationary pressure on the hryvnia and prevent the stability which Ukraine now desperately needs being instilled.

The fissures which divide Ukrainian politics have been aggravated by pressure from the US and sympathetic members of the EU. When David Miliband called for Ukraine to move towards the EU and Nato, he hardened the resolve of someone like Yuschenko to pursue divisive policy and not to reach an accommodation with political rivals.

As Russia comes to consider how amenable it might be, as regards continuing to supply its neighbour gas below the market rate, the Ukrainian President is intent on taking his country into Nato (against the wishes of the majority of Ukrainians) and refuses even to compromise with moderates such as Tymoshenko. That does not represent much incentive for Russian flexibility.

Playing tug of war over Ukraine has very real consequences. Sponsoring Yuschenko as Ukraine’s leader has very real consequences. Unfortunately it will be the pensioners and poor of Ukraine who are on the receiving end this winter.

Poppy Day represents a more authentic 'Britishness' than Labour can ever hope to engineer

Michael Wills MP, Minister of State for Constitutional Renewal, has indicated that plans for a mooted ‘national day’ have been shelved. Answering a written question from Conservative MP Andrew Rosindell, Wills confirmed that although parts of Lord Goldsmith’s citizenship review would be considered, “there are no plans to introduce a national day at the present time”.

Hopefully it is correct to read between the lines that there are actually now no plans to introduce a national day at all. The initiative represented Labour’s belief that a greater sense of Britishness can somehow be engineered by launching top down, state sponsored gimmicks. Gordon Brown’s instinct is to impose, rather than encourage or nurture.

With identity, in particular, that is an approach which cannot work. Labour is chasing its tail in attempting to encourage more British sentiment amongst people in the United Kingdom. It is top down constitutional reform which diluted felt Britishness and damaged the Union in the first place. The party imposed sweeping constitutional changes without properly examining what the consequences might be in terms of identity. Its only instinct to check these consequences is to re-impose the sense of Britishness which it inadvertently damaged. Labour is like a drunk man who has broken the TV and attempts to fix it by repeatedly walloping it with his fist.

The British identity is a subtle construct, bound up (as shadow justice secretary Nick Herbert identifies) “in our institutions, culture and history”. It is easy to damage, but it is less easily repaired.

Certainly the means to do so is more subtle than Labour realise. It is a process of nurturing and encouraging those institutions, culture and history which contribute toward the identity. How much more eloquent, for example, is Remembrance Sunday in defining part of what it means to be British, in comparison to any number of reports or suggestions which the government might wish to instigate?

Friday, 24 October 2008

Celebrate Parliament's sovereignty, don't attack it

The government’s procedural manoeuvre, in order to block parliament voting on an amendment to extend the Abortion Act to Northern Ireland, was widely applauded by unionist politicians. Indeed Jeffrey Donaldson had gone so far as to threaten ‘constitutional crisis’ should the amendment be considered and accepted. On last night’s Hearts and Minds, Donaldson continued to argue that it was not Westminster’s business to impose abortion legislation on Northern Ireland.

Although Noel Thompson made a passable fist of exposing the paradox at the heart of Donaldson’s contention, he did not make the most pertinent point. Abortion is a justice issue. Policing and justice are issues which have not yet been devolved. The Sewell Convention, West Lothian question etc. may be related issues, but they are merely incidental, because policing and justice are reserved matters and the crux of the DUP’s present impasse with Sinn Féin is that the unionist party believes they should remain reserved for the time being.

Inevitably policing and justice will be devolved, but I tend to agree that it would be better to reserve those powers to Westminster. For one thing, women in Northern Ireland might not then forever be denied NHS services available throughout the rest of the UK. And on a broader level, minimising the extent of devolution is better for the health of the Union, although that seems to be a secondary concern in the minds of anyone but a handful of UK unionists.

O’Neill has picked up on the Daily Express’s interpretation of comments by David Cameron, on the campaign trail in Glenrothes. The paper claims Cameron went “his furthest yet in admitting that devolution has weakened the link between Scotland and England”. The quoted comments do not quite support the weight which the Express wishes to attribute to them. Nevertheless O’Neill contends, “the truth is, of course, that devolution has weakened the Union”. If Cameron did not say that devolution had weakened the Union, then he should have said it.

Realistically devolution is here to stay and additionally it plays a pivotal role in the settlement which has brought relative peace and stability to Northern Ireland. I would, however, agree with O’Neill’s thesis that asymmetric constitutional meddling by the Labour government has visited untold damage upon the Union. Whether more thorough, more thoughtful reform might have devolved power without this collateral damage, I do not know. I do know that Labour’s model has been a disaster and that the more power is devolved the more thoroughly that disaster is exacerbated.

Moral issues of abortion aside, it is deeply disquieting to hear so called unionists argue against Westminster’s interference in matters which are still reserved to our national parliament. Sovereignty resides at Westminster and it is the essence of unionism to protect that sovereignty, whether the government of the day elect to devolve its elements or not. As a unionist, I do not want more power devolved to Stormont, or to Holyrood, or to Cardiff Bay. I have accepted the necessity of the devolution which has taken place, but I am happy for Westminster to retain responsibility for as wide a remit as possible.

Additionally, I remain mindful that parliament is sovereign and that it can exert powers which it has previously chosen to devolve, at its own discretion. If, for example, the actions of a devolved administration are inimical to the broader values of the United Kingdom, Westminster positively must act to countermand that administration.

I do not, like Jeffrey Donaldson, attack parliament’s ability to legislate for Northern Ireland. As a unionist, I celebrate when devolution is checked and the sovereignty of Westminster asserted.

Sir Dave attracts the MOPEs, again

Is this perhaps the most ludicrous piece of MOPEry yet recorded? David Healy has been subject to death threats after some Celtic fans construed a comment he made in an interview, following his goal against San Marino, as a sectarian remark. Let me provide a verbatim transcript of what Sir David actually said.

“I am pleased the famine or the drought or whatever people would call it is over. I am pleased with the score sheet and pleased that we won.”

Confused? I don’t blame you. It takes ingenuity to find offence in such an innocuous observation. But if you’re bitter enough, self obsessed enough, deluded enough – then you MIGHT manage it. Listen carefully.

The rationale of these idiots is that a proportion of Rangers’ supporters sing a bigoted, anti-Irish song entitled ‘The Famine is Over (why don’t you do home)’. David Healy is Northern Irish and comes from (presumably) a unionist background; ergo by using the word ‘famine’ the striker was alluding to the anti-Celtic, sectarian song.

Of course, anyone with faculties of logic, objectivity or a functioning brain might counter, ‘but Healy used a perfectly ordinary piece of football jargon to describe his relief at scoring a goal. Perhaps he was merely saying what he meant’. That is why they aren’t scurrying off to post illiterate death threats on Youtube.

No wonder David is both exasperated and incredulous. Perhaps he knows how the PSNI feel.

The Duke's still Special

I knew that there had to be an advantage (other than convenient access to international matches) to living in Northern Ireland as opposed to the rest of the UK. Availability of Duke Special’s second studio album, whilst mainland Britain must content itself with the equivalent download, finally provides one. My understanding is that contractual issues with Duke’s previous record company have dictated that the CD is not available in the shops in England, Scotland or Wales.

Waiting for a few more months to acquire the disc might not seem like a great imposition, but ‘I Never Thought This Day Would Come’ is appositely named. ‘Songs From the Deep Forest’, Duke Special’s brilliant first album, was first released well over two years ago. It has been a long wait for fans, mitigated only by the release of EPs, downloads and regular touring.

The ‘tricky second album’ is a well worn musical cliché, so does the Duke’s album fall into this trap? Duke Special is relentlessly creative and the answer is a definite ‘no’, although that is not to say that there are not laboured moments amongst the new release’s gems.

It is with one of these rare lapses in fluency that the record opens. On the first couple of listens ‘Mockingbird, Wish Me Luck’ seems a little ponderous, if pleasingly whimsical. However, the Duke swiftly hits his stride. ‘Sweet, Sweet Kisses’ is an addictive piece of pop, there’s almost a hint of bubblegum, and it will no doubt sell well as the album’s first single.

‘I Never Thought This Day Would Come’ reflects accurately the mix of eccentric fun and cerebral subtlety which characterises Duke Special’s music. ‘Diggin’ an Early Grave’, is a Victorian, monster mash stomp, which is certain to be a live highlight. ‘Flesh and Blood Dance’ has already proved a crowd favourite when it was introduced to audiences last year. ‘Let Me Go (Please Please Please)’ could be the Duke’s take on a George Harrison Beatles song and ‘By the Skin of My Teeth’ offers an up beat swing number.

There are torch lit moments on this record too. The contemplative ‘Those Proverbs we made in the Winter Must End’ is joined by the achingly beautiful ‘If I don’t Feel It’. Then there’s the musing ‘Why Does Anyone Love’ and blues-tinged ‘Nothing You Could Do Can Bring Me Round’.

The test of any album is how the listener lives with it over months and years to come. Immediately though, ‘I Never Thought This Day Would Come’, has pleasures to yield. Whether it matches the sustained appeal of ‘Songs From the Deep Forest’, time well tell.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

With Sinn Féin it's still always the police's fault

Old habits die hard in Sinn Féin. Although the Provos are now reputedly 100 per cent signed up to policing and the rule of law, whenever republicans riot, it is perpetually the police who are at fault.

Normally this instinct is manifested by claims of heavy-handedness. The PSNI’s mere presence in an area is often presented as sufficient provocation for an attack.

Then there is the old chestnut of agents and informers, whereby every instance of republican misbehaviour is attributed to perfidious securocrats, who infiltrate all manner of organisations, in order to instigate mayhem in the name of innocent republicanism.

John O’Dowd has plumped for the latter option in order to explain republican violence in the Craigavon / Lurgan area last night.

An impartial observer might submit to O’Dowd’s reasoning. Perhaps the PSNI is so starved of excitement that it foments all manner of dissident disorder, which its officers can then enjoy at close quarters.

On the other hand the observer might wonder who had most to gain from trouble orchestrated by the Shinners’ former comrades. In particular, with the Assembly deadlocked and policing and justice unresolved, who might wish to see instability apparently result?

Of course the attacks may have been carried out by ‘dissident elements’ of republicanism over which O’Dowd and his ilk have no influence whatsoever. When Sinn Féin begins to unequivocally back the police against republican attack, without innuendo or insinuation, their bona fides can be viewed with less cynicism.

Who cares about the sleaze? He was talking to a Russian!

Edward Lucas really is a deranged gem. He is to Russophobia what Brian Feeney is to anti-unionist sectarianism.

Commenting on the travails of George Osborne, he is not terribly concerned whether or not the Shadow Chancellor was attempting to solicit an illegal donation. The problem was that Osborne was associating with a Russian!

Neither is Lucas’ criticism merely aimed at the Conservative party. Tories, Labour, Lib Dems, they’re all at it! Treating Russians like normal people rather than the incorrigible thugs which they uniformly are.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Russia and its rational responses

Previously I applauded Sir Roderic Lyne’s reasoned approach to ‘reading Russia’, although I noted that Lyne did not extend to recognising Russia’s foreign policy interests. The former British ambassador’s attempt to inject a little rational argument into the debate has been answered by Fyodor Lukyanov, who offers a comparative assessment, examining how Russia’s actions have been reactive to changes in the world rather than aggressive in instinct.

Lukyanov’s point is that Russia is often considered in isolation, as if its actions are apropos of nothing and as if its ‘self-confidence’, ‘resurgence’ and ‘aggression’, (as perceived by western observers) are instincts engineered exclusively within Russia, arising independent of external events and driven only by a peculiar Russian mindset. His argument is that Russia is not operating within a vacuum.

“In reality Russia is a fully-fledged and essential part of the many and varied currents in today's world. It is a question not just of global economics, which is more or less acknowledged, but also of political trends defining the behaviour of the leading players in international relations. The Russian state, like all the others, is seeking answers to the challenges thrown up by global politics and economics.”

Following the Soviet Union’s collapse, the world did not return to a state of happy equilibrium. Rather, the unipolar international situation, in which the US and EU operated unfettered, was an aberration, which would be redressed when other major nations had reacquired a degree of geo-political leverage. This redress would be in response to the conduct of foreign policy by the western powers, and in particular the US, rather than a display of spontaneous aggression toward them.

“Firstly, the West's peaceful expansion was only possible because the time was unique. Russia was in a geopolitical coma and unable to resist. China was taken up with its own development and was not yet thinking of a global role.”

The advance of western institutions took place without significant reform. The same organisations, which had been developed after World War 2 and had been employed throughout the Cold War, began to expand into territory vacated by the former Soviet Union. Rather than recognising the significance of the fall of that entity, rather than instigating wide ranging solutions which might have reformed the former Soviet empire, the same international institutions were retained and hegemony was asserted.

“As far back as the 1990s the international institutions, which had not been reformed after the end of the cold war, started showing signs of dysfunction. At that point the world leader, instead of taking over the process of transforming the international system, decided to go its own way and rely on its own strength and opportunities. The USA had, after all, plenty of both.”

This approach culminated in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. An invasion which brought into stark relief the role which raw military might continued to assume in geo-politics.

“It is clear that in the 21st century, on the basis of false evidence, bypassing international law and without any kind of political or legal justification, a sovereign state can be invaded, its regime overthrown and the country occupied. Military strength, which during the 1990s was seen to have lost its critical significance, has now returned to world politics full-scale and in the most brutal form."

In Lubyanko’s assessment, given the undermining of international institutions represented by Iraq, given the chaos and dysfunction which that invasion visited upon international politics, it is natural that states equated strength with stability. In other words, over the five intervening years, Russia has been following an entirely appropriate and rational programme of consolidating its own strength in an uncertain world, facilitated by an unprecedented escalation in the price of hydrocarbons. In pursuance of these aims, subsuming companies such as Yukos into the state becomes tactical necessity.

The ‘Colour Revolutions’ which swept Russia’s backyard constituted another external threat. There were popular mass movements around which these revolutions coalesced, but there was also a degree of truth in Russians’ belief that US policy was to foment them, and that the purpose was strategic and aimed at Russia. The policy of ‘sovereign democracy’ was therefore an understandable reaction to possible foreign interference in the country’s internal affairs.

So Lubyanko’s perception is that Russia, rather than pursuing a coherent strategy for its own aggrandisement, is instead extemporising its best response to the challenges which confront it. In this approach it is little different from other countries or blocs which seek to protect their own interests and are subject to the currents of geo-politics.

This argument has much to commend it, and it should make instructive reading for those who consider Russia recalcitrant, aggressive and incorrigible

In the wrong hands - parasites strip LFC of profit to pay their debt

Liverpool FC could be in the possession of Dubai Investment Company right now. DIC would have financed a new stadium, taken on any debt held by the club and provided something toward a transfer kitty, in order that Rafa Benitez might rebuild his team.

Indeed, having had their initial bid spurned, in favour of American owners Gillett & hicks, the Arab investors have returned several times, offering the pair substantial profits on top of their initial investment, to sell the club and unburden it of the requirement to pay debt which they incurred in its purchase.

Against this background, Liverpool will announce profits of £40 million, £25 million of which will be immediately siphoned off to service the borrowing which landed the club with these parasitic Yanks in the first place!

Apparently the pair reaffirmed their ‘commitment’ to Liverpool and their intention to remain owners for the foreseeable future. Their commitment is not wanted or needed. The club need new owners, who can afford their acquisition outright and consequently allow profits to be spent where they are needed, on the stadium and on the playing staff.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Boring myself and others - UUP / Tory deal again

To be honest, I’ve bored myself writing about the Ulster Unionist – Conservative talks. My perspective is that I want the deal done and I want the deal done now. Then we can begin to build the type of inclusive, pan-UK unionism which Cameron and Empey promised and which can transform Northern Ireland’s politics for the better.

Since I last touched upon this topic (and it wasn’t very long ago) several further, lengthy pieces have graced newspapers, either defending or criticising the UUP leader for his handling of the mooted alignment, either proposing or rejecting the notion that such an arrangement would be a ‘good thing’ for Sir Reg’s party.

I do not intend (on this blog) to sift these articles for arguments which accord or do not accord with my view, although those arguments are there and they are worth reading. What I would like to do is draw attention to the strength of the original ideals on which a UUP / Tory compact was to be forged and ask whether these have not been lost sight of, particularly on the Ulster Unionist side.

Read the statement which Empey and Cameron endorsed again. It is about taking Northern Ireland beyond communal politics, involving Northern Irish politicians in national issues, rejecting Ulster ‘nationalism’, forging a broad pan-Union, pro-Union coalition which encompasses the whole United Kingdom. It offers a blueprint for secular, constructive, modern unionism which can transcend traditional divisions and help edge the entire framework of Northern Ireland’s politics away from the constitutional issue. In short, it is the most exciting opportunity presented to civic minded unionists in a generation.

Why are we no longer hearing rhetoric which matches the ambition of the plan which the two leaders put forward? Why is the rationale for this deal no longer being forcefully advanced?

When I read Alex Kane discussing talks between Ulster Unionists and the TUV in the same breath as the Tory discussions, I’m deeply disappointed. When I hear that Sylvia Hermon considers her infatuation with Gordon Brown sufficient reason to reject a deal with the Conservatives, I’m similarly disillusioned.

The TUV are remnants of a past to which unionism cannot return. The fact that they claim to be pro-Union is not sufficient reason for the UUP to advise transfers to that party (or the DUP). Ulster Unionist voters can decide for themselves who would best use their transfers and that might be Alliance or SDLP.

New Labour has inflicted terrible damage to the Union and the progress which is on offer for Northern Ireland’s politics is too great to obstruct because of support for Gordon Brown. Whether we accept Tory claims to be progressive or not, a deal would liberalise politics here. That is the bigger picture.

Although I appreciate that lofty argument does not always translate to practical politics, there is nothing practical about remaining transfixed by the headlights, unsure which way to bolt. There is a lifeline on offer here, and Reg Empey had better take it before it is withdrawn.

Panorama - praise where praise is due

I have previously recorded my rather dim view of the BBC’s ‘flagship’ current affairs programme, Panorama. From the moment Jeremy Vine introduces the show in trademark overblown fashion, I frequently find it sensationalist, gimmicky and facile.

Therefore, I am happy to report that last night’s edition bucked this trend. Rather than populist bombast, Sunday Times’ Moscow correspondent, Mark Franchetti, presented a thoughtful and balanced documentary, in which he allowed Russians a voice to describe how exactly they view themselves and their relations with ‘the west’.

Given the programme’s tagline, ‘Should we be scared of Russia?’, I’m sure many prospective viewers (myself included), expected a diatribe describing an evil and autocratic regime masterminded by Putin and Medvedev. This could so easily have become an opportunity to focus on belligerent, drunk, racist Russians in order to portray the country according to those clichés. Instead Franchetii allowed intelligent, articulate, persuasive opinion to emerge, in order to demonstrate to a British audience, how different the same situation can appear from a Russian perspective.

This was Russia, driven by the same imperatives as western European states, but unique in terms of history, culture and outlook. It was Russia, bequeathed with the same ethnic and border complexities visited on other post Soviet states, attempting to do right by its citizens. It was Russia, with a confident people enjoying the benefits of economic resurgence, after the penury and humiliation of Yeltsin’s tenure as president.

What this programme did remarkably well, was make explicable a point of view which has been too infrequently aired in the media. Rather than simply exacerbating fear, it attempted to foster understanding and that approach can only be lauded.

Why Boris is right to endorse Obama

The US election is politics’ Premier League. Throughout the world there are people who aren’t going to the match, indeed they're not entitled to attend a match, but nevertheless, almost everyone has a favourite team.

This morning Boris Johnson declared himself an Obama fan in the Daily Telegraph, which represents a significant addition to the list of British Conservatives who will be celebrating, should the Democratic candidate win, in the wee small hours of the fifth of November.

Traditionally, of course, Conservatives feel much more inclined toward Republican candidates in American elections. However, there is something of a sea change in this particular election. Iain Dale previously examined the phenomenon in an article which suggested that David Cameron himself might quietly favour Obama.

Meanwhile Burke’s Corner turned its erudite gaze toward the underlying reasons which are making Conservatives in the UK comfortable with the Democrat ticket and uncomfortable backing McCain and Palin. In addition to the ‘themeless pudding’ which has constituted McCain’s message, the strident populism and anti-intellectualism which has come to characterise recent Republican campaigns (personified by the GOP’s Vice Presidential pick), is particularly inimical to more thoughtful conservatives.

Boris’ article ponders a number of good reasons to choose Obama over McCain, which are pertinent whether you share the London mayor’s Tory politics or not. In particular, it seems scarcely believable that the United States would consider returning a President who is even more hawkish than the current incumbent, given the disastrous American interventions over the last 6 years. McCain prides himself on his grasp of foreign policy and his belligerence therein, but it is hard to refute Johnson’s analysis of how inappropriate this outlook has become in the modern world.

“However well-intentioned it was, the catastrophic and unpopular intervention in Iraq has served in some parts of the world to discredit the very idea of western democracy. ……….., it is not clear how America under McCain would recover her standing in the eyes of the world …… But is this bellicosity really what the world is crying out for today?”

Boris, no doubt mindful of his own history of gaffes, is actually relatively forgiving of McCain’s outrageous, “Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran”, synopsis of policy toward that country. Charity aside, Johnson recognises, “if I were an Iranian politician, those words would make me want a nuclear deterrent all the more”.

Not only is McCain intending to escalate the existing conflict in Iraq, he is also prepared to use the threat of American military intervention to bully and coerce other perceived opponents, from Iran to Russia. His presidency would have an aggravating, rather than a palliative effect, in the fraught arena of international politics.

Of course, as the election becomes closer, it is increasingly easy for politician pundits, such as Boris Johnson, to endorse the overwhelming favourite. On this occasion he happens to be right to do so.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Crime and nourishment

No value added whatsoever, but in case anyone missed it, you must read this post from Dave (or d@\/e as he prefers) at Another Bloody Blawg. Whilst the whys and wherefores of the film ‘Hunger’ have been discussed elsewhere, Dave reminds us of the criminal (and murderous) acts, for which the Hunger Strikers were incarcerated. It is a beautifully simple exercise which speaks for itself.

Donaldson demands devolved justice

Campaigners, unionists amongst them, gathered at Stormont on Saturday in order to protest Diane Abbot’s proposed amendment to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, which would extend the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland. That’s correct, unionists (self-described) were protesting against clear legislation on termination of pregnancies, which would afford women in Northern Ireland the same access to an NHS service, which they enjoy throughout the rest of the United Kingdom.

To add a further layer of irony, Jeffrey Donaldson and other unionists, argue that it is wrong for Westminster to legislate on this issue, which should be devolved to the Stormont Assembly. Indeed Donaldson warned that imposing the British position on Northern Ireland could precipitate a constitutional crisis and the collapse of power sharing institutions. Abortion is a justice matter, which means, well …to argue that policy should only be decided in Northern Ireland, is to insist that policing and justice should be devolved.

So basically, a rough outline of Donaldson’s stance – devolve justice to Northern Ireland or there will be a constitutional crisis and we might not allow power-sharing to function. Eerily familiar you might agree.

The argument has been made that a clear majority of Northern Ireland’s people do not approve of abortion. Frankly it is a non sequitur to therefore contend that women should be forced to seek terminations in England, Scotland or Wales. Nobody who disapproves of abortion will be required to have one. Extending the legislation will simply allow women, who are already going through an extraordinarily traumatic experience, to mitigate the expense and disruption which that experience additionally visits upon their lives.

He might have signed for Spurs, but Pavlyuchenko's a United (Russia) man

This is an odd story. It transpires that Tottenham striker Roman Pavlyuchenko has been elected, on a United Russia ticket, to Stavropol Krai Duma. This is double-jobbing on an epic scale. Perhaps he should have joined the DUP? Commuting from London to South Wset Russia, Pavlyuchenko's voting record might be comparable to the Dupes at Westminster!

Friday, 17 October 2008

Holding Brown to account is not playing 'political games', it is Cameron's democratic duty

Did Labour really expect that Conservative support for the government’s plan to save Britain’s banks, would prevent the opposition holding Gordon Brown to account for his mismanagement of the economy indefinitely? Yvette Cooper, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, accused David Cameron of playing ‘juvenile political games’ at a time when the ‘British people want calm leadership and serious policies to get through tough times’.

Actually the opposition leader not only has the right to assert Gordon Brown’s responsibility for failed economic policies, it is his democratic duty to do so. Bi partisan support for one policy cannot be allowed to occlude government culpability, even if it is tackling a situation of its own making by agreed means. David Cameron was right to critique Labour’s economic policies in a speech to the city this morning and, although it is easy to be wise in hindsight, neither did he do a bad job.

It doesn’t take an economic genius to deduce that Gordon Brown’s debt fuelled boom was short-term hubris. Well over a year ago, even this humble weblog was suggesting that his addiction to deficit could ultimately result in serious consequences.

David Cameron will not produce an instant antidote to the current crisis. However, his rhetoric of responsibility and balance strikes a melodious note compared to the discordant racket of borrow and spend which Labour bequeathed.

David Cameron’s message, whether it is focussed on social issues, the importance of community, or the economy, is beginning to coalesce around certain common and coherent themes. That cannot be a bad thing and it is increasingly in contrast to the disjointed thrashings of a failed Labour government.

Sinn Fein can't be allowed to disrupt Royal Irish parade

If reminder were needed of the tawdry sectarianism which characterises Sinn Féin, it is provided by the party’s intention to disrupt a homecoming parade for the Royal Irish Regiment, to be held in Belfast in two weeks time. Here we have a group of young Irish men and women, representing both of our main communities, drawn from either side of the border, whose bravery and safe return Sinn Féin would deny us the right to celebrate and acknowledge, simply because they have chosen to pursue careers in the British armed forces.

Ironically, in Shropshire, where the regiment has been based, but a long way from most of the soldiers’ homes and families, Rangers will enjoy a ‘homecoming’ parade without contention. Shadow Secretary for Northern Ireland, Owen Patterson, pays tribute to the young men and women, who will be recognised in his constituency. The Royal Irish has been deployed in Helmand Province on Operation Herrick 8. Their task has been to, “mentor and assist the Afghan National Army in all aspects of its operations including training and operations”.

Whatever the political arguments against involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, First Battalion’s Rangers have been working hard to assist Afghans stabilise their stricken country. However one might deplore the decisions which led to our troops presence in two theatres of combat, their hard-work, bravery and skill is not in question. These virtues should be recognised, loss incurred by the injured and fallen must be acknowledged and the safe return of those who put themselves in harm’s way ought to be celebrated.

Whilst republicans may present objection to Britain’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan as the ostensible reason for their opposition to homecoming parades, the reality is much more elemental. The provisionals simply have an enduring and visceral hatred of all things British and in particular the British Army. That hatred is particularly acute when the British soldiers making up the army also happen to be Irish. They spent thirty years trying to kill and maim members of Britain’s armed forces and they continue to object to them walking Belfast’s streets.

Should football take its share of regulatory medicine?

On the Today Programme this morning, there was an interesting encounter between the BBC’s sports’ correspondent, Mihir Bose, and former Labour Minister for Sport, Richard Caborn. Bose abandoned any serious pretext of neutrality in order to launch a fairly explicit call for the government to pre-empt financial crisis in football and appoint an industry regulator.

Bose has been charting football’s malaise closely on his BBC blog for some considerable time and offers strident argument that all is not well. Previously, Premier League football clubs had become high status vassals to be traded among a coterie of foreign businessmen. Now the credit crunch has put into question the sustainability of debt which clubs have obtained and the financial structures which have allowed their owners to acquire them.

Football Association chairman, Lord Triesman, last week revealed that English clubs were £3 billion in debt and argued that measures must be taken to bring the situation back under control. In addition he highlighted deficiencies in the ‘fit and proper persons test’, which governs who may or may not buy a Premier League club. It is unlikely that Triesman did not have former Manchester City owner and ousted Thai Prime Minister, Thaksim Shinawatra, in mind.

Meanwhile West Ham United, owned by an Icelandic businessman, has suffered the double whammy of that country’s bank collapse and the bankruptcy of XL, the club’s sponsors. With the debt which Premier League teams have taken on, coupled with straightened financial circumstances for their putative benefactors and the likelihood of smaller offers when the Premiership’s television deal is up for discussion in a few months, it is surely only a matter of time before a club gets into serious difficulties.

The club which I support, Liverpool, might be preparing to launch its first sustained title challenge in years, but the owners, George Gillett and Tom Hicks financed their takeover by saddling the club with huge debt. The two Americans have already been forced to restructure this debt in order to sustain their ownership, but the credit crunch and instability at the main creditor, Royal Bank of Scotland, has put the club’s new stadium in doubt. Hicks and Gillett have intractably refused to entertain financially sounder bids from the Dubai Investment Company, and are obstinate enough to put the jewel in Britain’s football crown in jeopardy.

The specific financial difficulties which clubs face are not unrelated to fundamental deficiencies in the sport, as it has developed since the formation of the Premier League. In the 1990s, David Conn, wrote a masterly study of the manner in which Sky TV’s money and a new generation of football entrepreneur, had alienated clubs from the communities where they drew their support and starved football’s grassroots of much needed funding. With foreign ownership and an unprecedented influx of players, the situation is immeasurably worse in 2008.

A fundamental rethink as regards our national sport is now necessary. Bose’s view is that only government regulation can provide the impetus to affect the changes which are needed. He points to the Enterprise Act, whereby other football clubs acquire the status of preferred creditors when a club goes into administration, as an existing precedent for regulation. One model is Germany, which tackled financial difficulties within its game by imposing a strict auditory regime and requires part ownership by fans’ cooperatives in order to ensure supporters’ involvement and participation.

The English game has enjoyed a debt fuelled boom in recent seasons which has accrued considerable success at European level. In the short term, regulation might be unpleasant medicine and will undoubtedly rein in some of the runaway spending which is responsible for the Premier League's dominance. Ultimately it is a medicine which might well be needed, for the overall health of the game throughout Britain, and for the financial sustainability of clubs in England. It is a predicament which is not unique to football.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Ignoring Russia's language in order to deny its interests

Peter Rutland writes in the Moscow Times, highlighting the disparity between intentions which have been ascribed to Dmitri Medvedev and Vladimir Putin and the language which the men themselves have used. Often their pronouncements have been misreported, or at least reinterpreted in more sinister language, in order to imply more bellicose intent than careful examination of their statements actually yields.

Neither Medvedev nor Putin have ever actually used the term ‘sphere of influence’, despite widespread reporting which suggests that both men have explicitly laid out a doctrine asserting such a sphere exists within the former Soviet Union. Even ‘near abroad’ which was common parlance to describe adjacent states throughout the 1990s, has fallen into disuse to be replaced be the more diplomatic ‘near neighbours’.

Russia has not used the language which the foreign press has ascribed to it. Rather, the Kremlin’s foreign policy has been outlined in terms of interests. Russia has legitimate foreign policy interests and the subtext behind western misrepresentation of Medvedev and Putin’s pronouncements on the subject, is that neither the US nor its allies are prepared to acknowledge that Russia has any interests at all.

Job done but real challenges lie ahead

Having demanded that Nigel Worthington’s Northern Ireland team deliver a convincing win against San Marino, I suppose I should acknowledge that the players fulfilled their remit. Admittedly the team from a ‘hill in northern Italy’ were probably the worst outfit to grace Windsor Park in quite some time (and that includes Irish league sides). Still, you can only beat what’s put in front of you.

For half an hour it looked like Europe’s worst team could precipitate a new low in Worthington’s troubled reign. From kick off, Northern Ireland dominated possession, but took a while to break down a side that defended in numbers and rarely offered even a token foray in counter-attack. Eventually Grant McCann squared a cross from rampaging full back George McCartney and David Healy scrambled home his 35th international goal, to his obvious relief.

After San Marino fell behind, it quickly became evident just how bad the team actually was. For a start, they could not tackle. Northern Ireland players ran past them at will – Gillespie, McCartney and Davis had a field day – and either met no resistance or were crudely upended by mistimed challenges. Just before half time Grant McCann struck a crisp shot past the goalkeeper from 18 yards and his goal ended the match as a contest. Surely McCann did enough to secure his place in the squad for the next series of games in February?

The second half was a stroll in the (Windsor) park. Kyle Lafferty had the simplest task, converting the third after the keeper weakly parried Healy’s shot. When San Marino had a man sent off for hitting Michael O’Conner, Northern Ireland really might have run up a cricket score. Instead only Steven Davis’ first international strike added to the tally, his deft back heal rounding off a decent performance, after good work from Lafferty at the by-line.

We can assume that every team in the group will take six points off San Marino, so any satisfaction garnered from this performance should be qualified. Although Northern Ireland played some nice football, and showed how much better we can be with a positive approach, there are few international teams that will be as forgiving or as accommodating as last night’s opponents.

Northern Ireland faces Hungary in a friendly next month and then there are three qualifiers in February which must yield nine points. On last night’s showing, San Marino away is a banana skin which really should be easily enough avoided. Slovenia and Poland at Windsor Park will offer stiffer challenges, but Worthington has given himself no leeway and he must lead his team to two victories.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Tory deal offers no insurmountable problems

Fair Deal, Slugger O’Toole’s DUP blogger, is ever vigilant for anything which can be construed as dissent within the UUP, so it was inevitable, that whilst I pondered the knotty problems of Nigel Worthington’s managerial reign, FD would blog Liam Clarke’s article about Lady Sylvia Hermon and the UUP / Tory deal. I’ve briefly outlined my thoughts on that Slugger thread, but it is useful to flesh out here, the arguments with which I would counter some of the points Clarke raises.

By way of disclaimer I would stress that Clarke’s interpretation may or may not fairly represent where Lady Hermon stands on the proposed realignment. My comments are intended neither to pre-empt her response to any concrete suggestions which the working group (which she has taken part in) might suggest, nor to condemn her for taking a less than constructive attitude to the UUP / Tory proposals. I merely wish to tease out the conundrum which would be posed by an MP declaring loyalty to New Labour and refusing to subscribe to any mooted arrangements.

Firstly the circumstances which pertain, whereby Ulster Unionists can boast only one Westminster MP, undoubtedly distort the picture somewhat. During this parliament, that MP has been used to her position as a one woman band. Consequently she has enjoyed a great deal of discretion to vote as she wishes and shape an agenda which is not particularly representative of prevailing opinion within her party. A classic instance occurred during the debate over 42 day detention, when Lady Hermon was out of step with colleagues in the Lords. She is still, however, a representative of a party, and representing a party occasionally involves principled compromises in order to hold the party line.

Which brings me rather neatly to my next point. I have some time for Ulster Unionist members who uphold socialist principles and thus struggle to countenance a deal with the Conservatives. I have less sympathy when the struggle derives from infatuation with the ideological vacuum of New Labour. Chris McGimpsey, whose analysis I have also taken issue with, argues from the standpoint of representing a working class constituency and propounding traditional Labour values. Hermon represents prosperous North Down and her adherence to Blair and Brown derives from less fundamental principles.

Once again, 42 days provides a useful indicator. Every progressive, liberal and communitarian conservative argument, of any worth, on pre charge detention was ranged against Gordon Brown’s measures. Subsequently the House of Lords sounded the Terrorism Bill’s death-knell, to acclaim from across the political spectrum. To vote loyally with the government on this issue shows, not so much strong commitment to liberal or progressive principle, as much as a smitten desire to please a party leadership other than one’s own.

Clarke makes great play of North Down’s reputation for independence and Hermon’s popularity within that constituency. I would not necessarily draw the same conclusions which he attempts to adduce from its past incilnation to depart from Northern Ireland’s political norm. Rather than descrying a strong proclivity toward independent candidates, I would tend to see a constituency which feels less comfortable with traditional Northern Irish party divisions. In actual fact, I see a constituency for which the Conservative alignment would be directly relevant. After all, one of the mavericks which Clarke name checks is Robert McCartney, a man whose political career was dedicated to bringing Northern Ireland’s politics into line with the rest of the United Kingdom. Additionally North Down remains the Northern Irish Tories only serious political redoubt.

If anything Lady Hermon’s constituency bears closer resemblance to constituencies within other parts of the United Kingdom, than do other Northern Irish seats. Perhaps that is why it has previously been inclined to vote for candidates which do not always resemble those elected in other areas here. As such, North Down is likely to share the aversion to New Labour which constituencies throughout the United Kingdom have been developing, in the next General Election. Whilst its electorate may not return a hard-line unionist rather than the sitting MP, it certainly might prefer a Conservative and Unionist candidate as opposed to an independent, firmly aligned to a failing Labour government.

These are points which must be born in mind by Lady Sylvia Hermon and the UUP leadership as they consider their next move. The Ulster Unionists have a once in a lifetime chance to strengthen the Union and bring normal UK politics to Northern Ireland. Lady Hermon would be a fine addition to the Conservative and Unionist movement, but she cannot be allowed to derail plans (if that is her intention). As I have intimated previously, it is vital that Sir Reg Empey remains steadfast on this, or his leadership will have failed and failed abjectly.

Lack of ambition typical of Worthington

Tonight Northern Ireland play San Marino, and although Nigel Worthington insists that a scrappy goal accompanied by three points would satisfy him, anything less than a handsome win will do little to persuade supporters that the manager is up to the job.

Worthington was quick to assure fans and media that his charges had performed adequately, despite being defeated 2-0 by a woeful Slovenian outfit on Saturday. He is fooling no-one. Thus far his team have secured one point where seven were eminently winnable. Had Northern Ireland achieved a successful start to the World Cup qualifying campaign, then certainly, three points by any means would be the priority. Instead, Worthington is presiding over a team which is low in confidence, low on goals, low on points and badly needs to get its season kick-started.

Coming off the back of a remarkable European Championship group, there was always a danger that Northern Ireland’s next matches could be anti-climactic. Although there were strong performances throughout the team, the results which Lawrie Sanchez masterminded, drew on the confidence engendered by David Healy’s heroics, and were built on the goals which he scored. It was inevitable that, if Sir Dave’s goals dried up, we would struggle to replicate a strong campaign, which almost saw us qualify for the European Championship finals. Any manager would have found such a situation difficult.

Even allowing for the unpropitious circumstances bequeathed upon Worthington, the manner in which he has executed his duties is questionable. He likes to regard his favoured style of play as a little more cerebral than his predecessor’s. He talks a lot about ‘playing football’. Actually, translated into practice, Worthington’s tactics rob the Northern Ireland team of its robust edge, whilst accruing no dividend in terms of positivity, by way of compensation. They are caught between two stools.

Sanchez’ side had a rugged edge which enabled them to battle out results, particularly away from home, even when goals were hard to come by. Under Worthington the team looks both anaemic, and unwilling to attack. It is a worrying combination.

Even with two strikers up front, including the combative Lafferty, Northern Ireland struggle to provide them with service. Admittedly Worthington has been hamstrung by Keith Gillespie’s lack of match fitness. He is, after all, the most natural winger available to the manager and, frozen out at Sheffield United, he simply doesn’t look capable of the thrusting runs and wicked crosses of which he is undoubtedly capable. But why did Worthington replace Grant McCann with a left back, Ryan McGivern, on Saturday, when the match was crying out for some pace and attacking intent? For this lack of adventure alone, the manager was asking to be punished. Slovenia duly obliged.

Why has Worthington’s one change to the squad for San Marino been drafting in defensive midfielder Michael Gault, rather than a winger such as Ivan Sproule? These lapses in judgment have proved too frequent to write off. The manager seems intent on selecting Linfield players for his squad, whether they meet tactical requirements and whether or not they are good enough. Perhaps his strategy is to seek friends in at least one quarter.

In other quarters Worthington’s friends are rapidly dwindling. I was sceptical about his appointment from the beginning. Less and less frequently do I hear anyone springing to his defence. If Northern Ireland do not win tonight, and win well, I believe yet more people will reappraise their support for the manager.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

More care needed from UUP

I’d imagine that someone in the UUP press office received quite a bollocking yesterday after a press release was issued which appeared to announce an electoral pact between the party and Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice. Danny Kennedy had the initial task of disclaiming such an arrangement on Radio Ulster and Sir Reg Empey has issued denials in this morning’s newspapers.

The mistake really was rather serious. Meeting with any party to discuss the ramifications of particular elections, or the issues surrounding those elections, is part of normal constructive party work. Issuing a joint statement with one particular unionist party leader, emphasising the desirability of unionists transferring their votes appropriately, and agreeing to campaign accordingly, has all the appearances of a pact. On Evening Extra, Mark Carruthers insisted, surely with some justification, that if it looked like a pact and it barked like a pact then it was a pact.

To its credit, the UUP leadership have been quick to recognise the error and firmly insist that there is no UUP-TUV voting pact for the European election and that, actually, nothing other than existing Ulster Unionist policy on suggested transfers, was contained in the statement. Certainly swift clarification was required. Beyond its putative adherence to the Union, the TUV stands for little which UUP members could subscribe to. It would be difficult for many Ulster Unionist representatives and canvassers to recommend a no.2 vote cast for Allister. As an Ulster Unionist voter, I certainly will not be including him near the top of my ballot paper. The TUV represent much of the type of politics that I deplore and which I want unionism to move beyond.

It is cheering that, as he moved to distance himself from the TUV, Sir Reg Empey also continues to brief party members on the proposed Conservative deal. That alignment represents modern, forward thinking unionism, whilst Allister’s party represent the past.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Gordon the bank manager?

If, at the heart of the banking crisis we are currently witnessing, there lies a correctional mechanism whereby ‘sound money’ is reasserting its primacy as against the illusive nature of credit, then how far should the government intervene to prevent that mechanism? This dilemma lies at the heart of two posts, carried by the Telegraph politics blogs, which are gravely concerned how the government’s input in the running of banks which it has taken a stake in, might effect their function.

Christopher Hope quotes Derek Simpson, joint general secretary of the union Unite, a major provider of Labour Party funds,

“The measures announced today must be bound to undertakings by the banks of no job losses, no repossessions and an end to the bonus culture.”

Simpson’s demand for no repossessions is extraordinary. No-one supports callous treatment of those who find themselves unable to pay because of unforeseen circumstances, but to provide a carte blanche for mortgage holders to default without allowing banks access to their collateral, would be irresponsible and unsustainable. Although it is not in government’s interests to see thousands of people evicted from their homes, neither should this be combated by permitting unlimited bounced payments at the expense of the tax payer.

Of course it is not a government source suggesting that such a thing should happen, but rather a union leader. Although Unite may have donated a large proportion of Labour’s funds over the past few months, scaremongering over the influence of union bosses has rarely had much firm basis in fact during new Labour’s tenure in government.

It is doubtful that banks in which the government has a controlling, or significant, stake, will unconditionally refrain from repossessions, or indeed guarantee every current employee the security of their jobs. There will be political pressure, however, to steer banks in a direction which is not necessarily good for them or good for the economy. There will be temptation to absolve HBOS, RBS, Bradford & Bingley or Northern Rock from the responsibility of making difficult decisions or taking unpleasant action, lest it should reflect badly on Gordon Brown.

Alex Singleton posits the hypothetical scenario whereby HBOS or RBS must pull the plug on a large Scottish business and speculates that a political storm would attend such an event. You can be sure that the shrill and populist shriek of Scots’ nationalism is foremost in his mind, when he suggests such a scenario.

Although the government denies its intention is to actually run the banks, Singleton points out that it is nevertheless seeking seats on their boards. In a situation, such as he outlines, intense pressure would be felt by the government and it would be in a position to control the relevant bank’s response.

“The political impulse will be to prevent businesses going to the wall during this recession (including those which were unprofitable in the boom years and relied on mushrooming overdrafts). Likewise, Westminster pressure to issue large numbers of mortgages, during a recession in which house prices are falling, is likely to encourage irresponsible lending.”

Although I don’t have a difficulty, as Singleton does, with reining in top bankers’ excessive pay and bonuses, I can certainly see the larger paradox which he is raising. If an excess of credit caused the problems we are now in, why should a renewed expansion of credit alleviate them? He quotes Hayek, writing about the 30s depression,

“Because we are suffering from a misdirection of production, we want to create further misdirection - a procedure that can only lead to a much more severe crisis as soon as the credit expansion comes to an end.”

It would be both callous and wrong to rely on the market to correct, unfettered, the current economic crisis. It is right for the government to intervene. However, Iain Dale is right to point out that the particular severity with which the credit crunch has struck the UK and its banks can be ascribed to policies formulated by Gordon Brown and his government,

“With Brown as chancellor Britain let its finances get out of control and encouraged a debt boom, the like of which we had never seen before.”

Gordon Brown built his economic edifice on debt and runaway spending and it is from that position of indebtedness that he must spend more in order to alleviate the worst excesses of the crisis which threatens to engulf us. Had he based his policies on sounder principles from the beginning, although the global situation would still have meant difficulties, Britain would be better placed to weather the financial storm. If Gordon Brown inflicts his particular reading of ‘prudence’ on major banks, where will that take them, or indeed the tax payer?

The banks, in which the government is taking large stakes, should be required to operate within a strict framework, but they must also be independent of the political imperatives of a failing Labour government. That government must take substantial responsibility for the economic turmoil in which Britain now finds itself, and if Gordon Brown is allowed to exacerbate his past mismanagement, then he can only inflict more damage on the country.

Unionism can help depoliticise Irish, to its benefit and to ours.

I’ve argued previously on Three Thousand Versts that unionists must adopt a more subtle approach to the Irish Language. Although I recognise the difficulties that its politicisation has precipitated for unionism, I believe that a more constructive strategy can minimise the political capital extracted from the language by Sinn Féin and locate unionist argument on a more tenable footing as regards the diversity of cultures encompassed within the UK, and their protection.

Perhaps this position might be gaining a little currency in some quarters. Dawn Purvis suggested to the Progressive Unionist annual conference, held on Saturday, that it is counterproductive for unionists to continue to treat the Irish Language as a cultural battleground. She would like to see the DUP ‘wrest control of the debate’ from nationalism by bringing forward proposals for Irish Language legislation. Her view is endorsed by an unlikely source on Slugger O’Toole.

Whether it is necessary for unionists to shape an Irish Language Act, in order to seize initiative on this issue, or take less dramatic steps, I am not quite sure (although I can certainly see the attractions of Purvis’ argument). What I can state with absolute conviction, is that it would be entirely beneficial for unionism if its main parties drastically rethought their attitude to Irish.

Openly celebrating any perceived reversal which is inflicted on the Irish Language lobby is simply not good enough (and I will admit that both main unionist parties have at times been guilty of this). It exacerbates a vicious circle whereby Sinn Féin is seen to be advancing the language’s interests against the intractable opposition of unionism.

Unionists can draw poison from this debate by forming constructive suggestions to help the Irish Language to flourish, whilst simultaneously imposing more appropriate parameters than its fundamentalists would be inclined to draw. Whether the means to achieve this is an Irish Language Act or not, unionists can propose initiatives to boost Gaelige (and other minority tongues) within the cultural sphere, whilst ensuring that expensive and discriminatory initiatives to impose its provision in public life, the courts, local government and private business, are not included.

In so doing, the language will become less politicised, and that can only be to the benefit of those who truly hold its interests to be of paramount importance. Unionism will benefit too.

Regression to the mean

Doctors do not generally give great credence to mooted ‘miracle cures’ or non medical interventions. Often they explain supposed success for such methods by pointing out that people simply do not stay sick indefinitely, they get better, or regress to the mean. The reverse is also true. If someone is feeling unusually buoyant, healthy, full of beans, they will return to a more stable plane. Normal service will resume. Such appears to be the case with the Northern Ireland football team.

After three years of extraordinary results, optimism and confidence, the international side has regressed to its mean of mediocrity. What is more, the manager, Nigel Worthington, appears quite happy to allow this regression to continue unabated. He believes Northern Ireland played well on Saturday night, as the team slumped to an abject 2-0 defeat against indifferent opposition.

Admittedly Maribor was not an easy place to secure three points. The Slovenes kicked, hacked, shoved and elbowed Northern Ireland players for the duration of the match. In particular, Healy and Lafferty were subject to brutal treatment from the opening moments. Purportedly the unfriendly atmosphere was exacerbated as missiles reined down from the stands on the men in green. And then there was the referee, as inept a figure as I have seen officiate at international level for quite some time.

Despite the unpleasantness, there was simply no excuse for the Ulstermen to return empty handed. Slovenia, like Slovakia before them, are a poor side. It took Northern Ireland only five minutes to establish parity of possession. Although the imbecile referee declined to award Slovenia a fairly obvious penalty in the first half, they otherwise rarely threatened Northern Ireland, until 84 minutes and their opening goal.

But what did Worthington’s team create with their possession? Next to nothing. Once again the wide players were ineffective. Healy was kicked into submission early on and it was left to Lafferty, carrying a back injury, to offer any threat up front. He tried his best, but had little support from his team-mates.

Northern Ireland’s World Cup campaign is over. Make no mistake about it. The most galling aspect of this failure is that Lawrie Sanchez, the man who instilled confidence, belief and positivity into the team is watching each match from the Setanta Sports’ studio as an analyst, when he should be managing the team instead of Nigel.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Ahtisaari's work in Kosovo deserves no prizes

I wouldn’t usually post twice on Kosovo in one day but I was surprised to learn (and yes it did involve me scanning one of Brian Walker’s posts on Slugger) that Martti Ahtisaari is to receive this year’s Nobel peace prize. I can only assume he is being recognised for work in Indonesia and Namibia, although I know nothing of his contribution in these places, because he certainly should not be receiving plaudits for his involvement in Kosovo.

As UN Special Envoy to Kosovo, Ahtisaari eschewed mediating between the Serbs and Albanians, instead choosing to underpin Nato’s early decision that the province would become a nominally independent protectorate. The Ahtisaari Plan put these ambitions into action, making largely symbolic allusions toward protecting minorities, which have not in the event been adhered to.

Serbia, supported by the Russians, would not support Ahtisaari’s plan for independence preferring the compromise of an autonomous Kosovo, within the sovereign state of Serbia. The US and EU insisted that his formulation was the only viable solution and refused even to countenance the notion of autonomous Serb areas within an independent Kosovo.

Ahtisaari’s influence in Kosovo did not promote compromise. He was not a mediator, as much as a means for Nato to enforce its preferred solution. If this prize rests in any degree on his work in Serbia, then it should not be awarded.

The gloves come off: Chekov vs. Mouse (Part III)

Readers with good memories may remember that I was locked in a battle of wits many months ago, with some manner of super-rodent possessed of abnormal cunning and intelligence. In common with locations on which the media descend to cover the story ‘du jour’, just because the reports have dried up, it does not necessarily follow that the situation has ended.

In fact the conflict has remained frozen over most of the summer. My foe’s last appearance was in mid July, just after I returned from Russia. I had lifted the traps at my girlfriend’s behest, lest we should return to the smell of decomposing mouse. When Chekov’s away …… We were enjoying an Indian takeaway (the cupboards were bare) when the intruder reappeared, displaying even more insouciance than normal.

It was clearly necessary to remilitarise the living room, re-priming traps and equipping myself with poison (a WMD deterrent if you will). This display of might appeared to do the trick. There hadn’t been sight or sound of the mouse since. Not a scurry around the skirting boards, not a sign of dislodged bait, not a nibble of the stereo’s wires, not so much as a tiny little stool deposited on the carpet. Nothing. Until last night.

My assumption that displaying the awesome hardware available to me had persuaded the vermin to pursue his campaign by other means (i.e. by deciding to hang out in someone else’s house for instance) has proven incorrect. He was merely marshalling his resources, and last night he indulged in a petulant display of defiance, coordinated not from his traditional redoubts in the fuse box and chimney breast, but largely from underneath the settee, which has not, up until now, been an area where he has commanded much support.

It is not possible to compromise with a mouse. By virtue of their mousiness they adhere to sets of behaviour which negate my constitutional and democratic rights (as outlined in the rental agreement). Either the mouse must renounce its mousiness (and perhaps align itself with more respectable creatures, such as spiders, with which I happily cohabit despite differences in culture, identity and political belief) or it must eventually be expelled. It cannot expect to continue crapping all over the living room floor, eating things and generally indulging in behaviour which seeks to stop the room working well and remaining a viable entity.

Bearing this in mind, last night the gloves came off and a sachet of seed like poison was left beneath the settee, on the lid of a tub of ‘Extremely Chocolaty Mini Bites’. Within minutes a sound of rustling seeds on plastic was clearly audible. Removing this menace will ultimately benefit all the residents of the house.