Friday, 28 November 2008

'To suggest unionists are anything other than Irish ....', RSF's prescriptions echo Adams.

The Republic’s President, Mary McAleese, visited an Orange hall in Cavan yesterday and in the course of her engagement made the following remark,

“It is possible to be both Irish and British, possible to be both Orange and Irish. We face into a landscape of new possibilities and understandings.”

It did not take long for a Republican Sinn Féin spokesman to reject her contention,

“It is not possible for someone to give their allegiance both to Ireland and to Britain. Britain represents the denial of Ireland’s rights. Orangemen should instead be encouraged to recognise that they are exclusively Irish, and to work for the benefit of the Irish Nation rather than adhering to narrow sectarian Orange ideology. To suggest that Unionists are anything other than Irish amounts to a tacit acceptance of Thatcherite claims that the Six Occupied Counties are ‘as British as Finchley’.”

The statement represents a classic slice of immoderate nationalism, issuing from a dissident fringe of republicanism. It is hardly surprising to find repellent ideology espoused by such a group.

Of course RSF’s reading of Irish identity is shared by many within mainstream republicanism. Provisional Sinn Féin’s President, Gerry Adams, made comments on the Belfast military homecoming parade which were in absolute concordance with the view propounded by his former colleagues’ organisation. Adams’ argument against an Irish regiment of the British army walking the streets of Belfast, which in the heat of the moment he stripped of rhetorical niceties, was ‘this is Ireland’s second city’. Self-evidently trappings of British identity are invalid on the island of Ireland, by Adams’ prescription.

Even within constitutional nationalism, which has at least notionally accepted the possibility that multiple identities can exist, there is often reluctance to acknowledge that Irishness and Britishness are compatible. There is a residual notion that unionists are mistaken about their British identity, that they are possessed of ‘false consciousness’. There are unionists too, who take a reductionist view of identity, identifying Irishness only with the Irish Republic and maintaining, without undue irony, that Northern Ireland is not Irish.

Rejecting any mixture of the two identities within oneself is different from rejecting the possibility of such a mixture within other people. To hear the type of prescription made by RSF so unashamedly expounded is thankfully becoming a rarer occurrence.

It offers a timely reminder that one of the merits of Britishness is that by its very essence it happily subsists alongside other identities. The fact is that Mary McAleese is right, it is possible to be British and Irish, but it is more than that, it is a distinction and strength to be both British and Irish.

Green arrest poses questions for Home Office and Met

Whichever way you look at it, the arrest of shadow Home Office minister, Damian Green, was an extraordinary event. Reportedly 9 (nine) anti-terrorism officers from the Met Police attended the MP's apprehension!

More bizarre still was the explanation for Mr Green’s arrest. Purportedly it was for publishing documents received from a Civil Service ‘whistleblower’. Government leaks are an established means by which the opposition garner information as to the workings of government.

The Prime Minister and Home Secretary claim to have had no prior knowledge that the arrest would be made. How far this is attributable to maintaining ‘plausible deniability’ remains to be seen.

The arrest certainly made for a bad day for Parliament. Its ability to hold the executive to account has suffered a reverse. It will be interesting to see if anything further comes out of this, because on existing information, it is the Home Office and Met Police which emerge from the incident with most questions to answer.

Whether an investigation into Green's conduct is justified will emerge in time, but the nature of his arrest certainly has all the hallmarks of a huge error of judgment.

Bill of Rights argument remains as vague as ever

In less than a fortnight the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission delivers its recommendations on ‘scope and substance’ for a proposed Bill of Rights. To that end 'Hearts and Minds' invited a panel, consisting of the SDLP’s Alban Maginness, Dermot Nesbitt from the UUP and Mark Kelly from WAVE Trauma Centre, to discuss the need for a Bill of Rights.

Maginness and Kelly contended that a Bill of Rights is necessary and both men couched their arguments in the type of mealy-mouthed platitudes which have characterised this debate from its inception. To distil their case to its essence, if legislation contains the word ‘rights’ in its title it must be good. How could anyone possibly be against rights? As the discussion drew to its close Kelly plopped the juicy cherry atop a bakewell tart of saccharine inanity. People were dying whilst they waited for a NI Human Rights Act, he intoned!

Dermot Nesbitt must have felt like he’d stepped into a parallel universe. ‘What can a Human Rights Bill do to combat poverty?’ he queried. No answer was forthcoming. ‘How would it alleviate the economic crisis?’, ‘in what way would it create more jobs?’ after the inevitable trump card of financial turmoil was invoked. Again, no response was proffered. Nesbitt explained that he is not against rights, nor is he against social and economic entitlements, but this bill could only replicate one and intervene inappropriately in the other.

What the Belfast Agreement required, and what the industry which has grown up around the mooted Bill of Rights has abjectly failed to deliver, is detail of a single so-called ‘right’ which is uniquely required in Northern Ireland. Human rights legislation is already extant in Northern Ireland, in the form of the Human Rights Act, which enshrines in UK law the European Convention. If additional rights are required here, there must be compelling and detailed evidence as to what they might consist in, rather than vague moralising about a ‘rights based society’.

Early indications of what the Commission would suggest were ominous. But that is in some ways the very nature of the beast. Any Bill is likely to entail both replication of existing rights and a set of contended, aspirational economic policies, dressed up as rights. The rest is likely to be so vague as to spawn an entire subculture of litigation.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Conservatives should commit to 45p tax if social responsibility remains their message

Conservative Home is canvassing Tory supporters as to their preferred strategy on 45p tax for high earners. The website quotes shadow treasury spokesman, Phillip Hammond,

“Clearly if the government is going to announce a huge package of additional borrowing today there will have to be large tax rises after the election. Of course people on higher incomes will have to pay their share of that but don’t let anybody be deluded by the political spin into thinking that the black hole that Labour has created will be filled by a tax on a really quite small number of very higher earners, it won't. We are talking about a couple of billions of pounds, the hole is likely to be a hundred billon pounds big, its going to require tax rises across the board and I’m afraid it will be ordinary families and businesses that are hit not just the very rich.”

If the statement seems somewhat ambiguous on the merits of the 45p rate, I’d imagine that the ambiguity is deliberate. Labour will not recoup a significant proportion of its planned borrowing from introducing a higher tax band for a tiny number of earners. Then again it is difficult to argue that those who make over £150,000 a year could not afford to contribute some more. The Tories are rightly wary of criticising a measure which, whatever its expediency, is likely to garner sympathy from the majority of British people.

There is a yawning gap between someone who earns £35,000 and someone who earns £150,000, which I believe it is appropriate to recognise by means of progressive taxation. Of course there is an argument against discouraging high achievement and wealth creation, but it is right to strike a balance, and £150,000 a year is, in anyone’s estimation, an awful lot of money. If, intrinsic to the value system of Conservatism, runs a strong thread of social responsibility, then surely it is socially responsible to demand a little more money from the very rich?

If I am reading the fraternal doctrines expounded by Conservatives such as Danny Kruger, and developed so elegantly on the blog Burke’s Corner, correctly, conservatism respects and acknowledges expertise, knowledge, excellence - in short it recognises the existence of elites. As a corollary of this recognition, and the rewards which flow from it, conservatism demands from those elites a greater assumption of responsibility, as regards society. By such conservative precepts, if my understanding is correct, the principle of 45p tax should be unproblematic.

Understandably perhaps, the Tories seem a little unsure how to jump on this issue. Iain Dale wants the party to avoid making clear its position altogether. However, at a time when the party’s opposition to Gordon Brown’s economic package is being presented as reneging on its promises to be socially responsible, supporting 45p tax offers an opportunity to reiterate the party’s commitment to fairness. If Tories are still serious about advancing the notion of progressive ends by conservative means, to do otherwise might prove counter-productive.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Like being savaged by Daniel O'Donnell

Dennis Healey famously likened a political attack he endured from Tory minister Geoffrey Howe to being ‘savaged by a dead sheep’. As tongue tied UUP MLA, Fred Cobain, allowed Jeffrey Donaldson’s pompous intonation to swamp a perfectly valid argument on Radio Ulster’s Evening Extra yesterday, I had pause to reflect, how much more unpleasant it must be to be savaged by Daniel O’Donnell. It wasn’t a good performance from poor old Fred, who simply failed to assert himself, and Mark Carruthers controlled the piece badly, allowing Donaldson to drone on endlessly and barely affording Cobain any time to outline his argument.

The issue at hand is an attempt by the Executive, indicative of the DUP and Sinn Féin’s approach to power-sharing, to minimise the role of Assembly committees in scrutinising its spending plans. Mark Devenport succinctly outlines the respective arguments on his blog, something which Radio Ulster abjectly failed to achieve in its item. Quite reasonably, Cobain and others object to executive papers being rushed through without adequate scrutiny at the committee stage. This is the way business has been conducted in this Assembly from its inception, a feature of government carved up between DUP / SF, parties which see the Assembly’s role as a rubber stamp for programmes that they have horse traded near to death between them.

Jeffrey Donaldson prattled on about economic crisis, how vital these measures were, the poor cold pensioners etc. in his most condescending tone. Later the predictable litany of texts and e-mails flooded in, lambasting work-shy MLAs, implying that Cobain and others were reluctant to eat into Christmas holidays. The actual issues were almost entirely ignored.

MLAs holidays are a red herring here, as Jeffrey Donaldson well knows. Sinn Féin and his party can’t be allowed to thrash out every issue behind closed doors before shunting it through the Assembly in double quick time. He points to 150 days of deadlock to justify the alacrity with which measures are being brought forward. Those 150 days are not a reason for high-handed, unaccountable government; they were a symptom of the same disease.

Ukraine refuses to pay its gas bill - again

Russia Profile highlights the seasonal ‘pantomime’ which takes place every year when Russia suggests that Ukraine should pay for its gas. Gazprom is threatening to put up its prices to supply Ukraine with gas to ‘European market levels’ if the cash strapped state does not pay up. Meanwhile the Ukrainians demand a stay of execution and negotiations.

An EU expert on energy supplies, Pierre Noel, observes,

“Every year in December the Russians say to Ukrainians, ‘OK, you have to pay for the gas you consume,’ and the Ukrainians say ‘well, let’s negotiate’.” If the Russians get angry enough they can close off the pipe, as they did in 2006. The Ukrainians will then steal gas intended for Gazprom’s major customers in Europe. So they come to some kind of settlement and then next winter it starts all over again.”

Although analysts disagree as to the extent of the problem, there is largely consensus that fault is on the Ukrainian, rather than the Russian side. Ukraine is insistent on using the lever of safe transit of energy supplies in order to extract cheap gas from Russia (contrary to prior agreements). It threatens to steal when Gazprom insists that it must pay fair prices. This is widely known, but rarely mentioned when the favoured narrative of Russian bully, tyrannically menacing its ‘near abroad’ is invoked.

'A Christmas Carol' - a political analysis from Burke's Corner

Burke’s Corner offers a political deconstruction of ‘A Christmas Carol’, written in response to Michael Gove’s contention that Dickens’ ‘little Christmas book’ is a seasonal cliché. As a Tory, Gove should appreciate the tale as a reassertion of socially responsible conservative values, in the teeth of Scrooge’s classically liberal analysis. The piece avers,

“Dickens leaves us in no doubt that Ebenezer Scrooge stands in the tradition of the Whigs, Puritans and the Manchester School. His redemption comes when he overthrows his Whiggish, Puritanical thinking and embraces the old merry tradition of Christmas and the tory notion that he has obligations to others in society.”

Typically erudite stuff from Burke’s corner. The blog concludes,

“Rejecting both the libertarian and the statist creeds, A Christmas Carol gives a seasonal celebration of the tory values extolled by Kruger. Perhaps Michael Gove should cautiously await the striking of the clock on Christmas Eve ... just in case a ghostly visitation is required in order to convince him that A Christmas Carol is much more than "a seasonal cliché".”

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

SDLP plan new constitution based on Irish language equality

Highlighted by Michael on Slugger, the third clause of the SDLP's proposed Irish Language Bill,

3. To the extent that any provision in any other Act of Parliament or any other Act of the Northern Ireland Assembly, or any other form of legal regulation, is inconsistent with the provisions of this Act, the provisions of this Act shall take precedence.

Without wishing to damage my liberal reputation on Irish language issues, I feel it may be a little too far to position a piece of language legislation as the supreme statutory authority governing Northern Ireland. Does the SDLP really think it can use power, devolved from Westminster, to assert precedence over all Acts of Parliament made there?

Minority languages need to be encouraged in Northern Ireland and afforded a measure of protection. We certainly do not need 'official languages' - we do not comprise a separate state - and we do not need legal impositions guaranteeing provision of a language in work, the courts and government, "irrespective of the ability of that person to speak and / or understand these languages".

I have criticised unionist hostility towards the Irish language, but this maximalist approach is the nationalist corollary.

If I were a SDLP draftsman, the broad summary of what I would be suggesting might be something like this.

Form a funded development body charged with promoting understanding and use of the Irish language.

Ask the body to develop the Irish language segment of a government Minority Languages Strategy, to be agreed by ministers.

Ask the body to perform a supervisory role as regards education. It would be required to provide guidance for authorities and schools.

An advisory function for the body as regards public broadcasting and its provision of Irish language media.

An advisory function to help public bodies, local councils and government departments which wish to develop Irish language provision in terms of services.

Lazy, appalling, pointless dross attacking Tory /UUP deal

Roy Garland has a characteristically confused, rambling and contradictory piece in the Irish News, attacking the UUP / Tory deal. I studiously avoid the term ‘fisking’ (it’s too easily mispronounced), but let’s have a detailed look at Garland’s non-argument. Unfortunately he hits his stride early, and I’m compelled to begin with the very first sentence.

“Ulster Unionists have entered a formal electoral pact with the Tories on the heels of an informal pact with Jim Allister’s TUV.”

Ulster Unionists do not have a pact, informal or otherwise, with the TUV. Both parties are very clear on this point. The two groups had a discussion, which is a normal and usual thing to do in politics. Garland’s nationalist colleague Tom Kelly actually congratulates the UUP for shunning the TUV in favour of the Tories in his Irish News column. Garland continues,

“A few months ago I gave a guarded welcome to a vague UUP/Tory link-up but the TUV pact conflicts with the pluralist motives supposedly underlying the Tory link-up.”

A TUV pact WOULD conflict with ‘pluralist motives’ behind the Tory link-up. There was no TUV pact. It is worth noting though, that in this sentence Garland supposes pluralist motives behind alignment between Ulster Unionists and Conservatives. Initially he welcomed these developments. Bear this in mind as he starts making unsubstantiated statements a little later.

“Now I wonder if continuing the descent into oblivion might have been a better option than being in a Tory poker game.”

Garland is for ‘vague’ link-ups, but a concrete link-up makes the UUP part of a ‘Tory poker game’.

“Ulster Unionists had an opportunity to take the lead in Northern Ireland politics but they flunked it.”

An interesting statement, if it were moored to any manner of context whatsoever. Is he talking about pre-1997 Ulster Unionists? Further back? What has it got to do with the present UUP’s travails? Presumably this opportunity was not presented to the party within the time frame of its latest talks with Tories.

Garland then indulges in a short digression on the subject of unionist unity, which he rationalises, but does not commit to, other than indicting the UUP for opposing the DUP’s leadership. Pluralism, sharing and other such concepts are not at this juncture mentioned. It is however implied that the UUP’s Tory link-up is aimed at putting the DUP on the back foot. Now, if Garland is suggesting that Ulster Unionists would like to encourage unionists to vote for them, and not for the DUP, then he might have a point. If he is suggesting that the UUP is trying to outflank the DUP on its own ground, then his argument really does not bear any scrutiny.

“There is deep-seated reticence regarding a UUP/DUP merger even without Ian senior in charge. Elements of the old guard – Iris, Willie, Sammy, wee Ian etc – are seriously inhibiting factors.”

Ok. So we’re back in the realm of reality again. There are profound differences in content and tone between the UUP and DUP which continue to preclude any possibility of merger.

“A Tory link-up may seem a clever alternative strategy but I suspect it to be too clever by half because it has left the Tories playing Orange cards with UUP novices.”

We could hold a competition to establish what this sentence means. Any ideas? Just for fun and no prizes.

“David Cameron’s declining lead over Gordon Brown together with the Conservative retreat to parts of England means the Tories desperately need to pull something out of the hat.”

Ok. That is an analysis (and a contentious one) of the current national political situation. Why does it render the UUP’s vision of offering voters meaningful participation in Westminster politics a bad idea? The Conservatives will not always form the UK’s government. Sometimes the party will be strong and others it will be less so. It still plays a leading role in the politics of the country, whether from opposition or government. In any case, the Tories are holding up well in the polls, they’re still ahead and the party retain Westminster representatives in every part of the UK (other currently, than Northern Ireland). That has not changed since Roy commended the idea of ‘vague’ link-up!

“The dubious claim that they are the party of the union is unconvincing and many unionists still blame them for suspending the old Stormont and supporting the Anglo-Irish Agreement under Thatcher.”

It is the only party to organise in all four corners of the UK. It is the only major national party which explicitly calls itself ‘Unionst’. It is the only national party offering to become involved as an unambiguously unionist force in Northern Ireland. The political situation is incomparable to 1973 or 1985. Ulster Unionists are aligning with a contemporary party, not offering an endorsement of every previous Tory policy in Northern Ireland.

“The new link-up is also supposed to reflect a new dynamic, pluralist ethos but it is more of an Orange card to steal a march on the DUP and of course Irish nationalists.”

Why is it an ‘Orange card’? Is there a shred of evidence to sustain this contention? His previous sentence witnessed Roy opining that the Tories were not the true party of Union, now he lambastes the UUP for playing an ‘Orange card’ by linking up with Conservatives. If ‘stealing a march’ on Irish nationalists, or the DUP, involves strengthening the Union, then the UUP is entirely justified in seeking to do just that. If Garland believes the Union is in any respect intrinsically linked to the Orange Order or Orangeism, he has a very narrow understanding of what it represents.

There follows this paragraph, which frankly does not deserve comment. It stands on its own as a piece of insightless ramble.

“Some think the Trimble duo – David and Daphne – are central to all of this but UUP representatives deny it. The former UUP leader is now a Tory peer while Daphne remains in the UUP but apparently working for her Tory husband and another Tory peer as parliamentary researcher. Others think that for some reason the great and good of the UUP are keen to welcome local Tory “professionals” into their party.”

Then we have,

“The real motivation seems to be to upstage the DUP, consign it to the history books and find a plausible rationale for their own existence. This is considered legitimate politics and in any case the UUP’s support for the Good Friday Agreement was always less than whole-hearted.”

So the UUP wish to offer a better alternative than exists currently in Northern Ireland, win votes and present a coherent set of policies. How cynical and unacceptable! I’d suggest it is not only ‘considered’ legitimate politics, it is actually made from the materials which legitimate politics consists in. And what is the final sentence supposed to imply? How does it fit into Garland’s ‘argument’? Does he have an argument? Are the UUP jettisoning the Belfast Agreement as part of the Tory deal? I missed that document!

“Having led the way to powersharing the UUP cannot now successfully undermine the DUP from the right. If it did they might bring the whole edifice down.”

Leaving aside the assertion that the UUP are moving to the right of the DUP, for which there is precisely no evidence (and Roy does not think of offering any), what does the rest of this nonsense mean? Have either the UUP or the Tories (whose deal encompasses Europe and Westminster for the time being) intimated that they wish to collapse power-sharing? If not, is any unionist dissent from the DUP’s line illegitimate because it might undermine that party and bring down power-sharing? Are we to be deprived, not only of national politics in Northern Ireland, but of any politics at all?

“They want to shed the English Tory image but they look more like lame ducks snapping at Gordon Brown’s widely applauded efforts to steer the economy through recession.”

Bearing in mind that this follows on from the point above, indeed it is housed within the same paragraph, you might wonder how it relates in any way to Garland’s previous sortie. I would suggest that it does not. I would suggest that the entire article is comprised of unsubstantiated contentions, largely untethered to a central thesis, bound only by prevailing negativity toward the UUP and Tories. Garland gets paid for this!

“The UUP will refuse to revert to subservience to English Toryism and the Tories cannot afford to be closely associated with myopic unionism. While claiming to remain on the right on the constitution the DUP might revert to its original aim of being on the left on social issues. But neither party is serious about tackling the sectarian elephant in the room. As for a “shared future”, it doesn’t seem to feature at all in their thinking.”

This is Garland’s conclusion. You will note that it does not draw together the themes of the article, because, in this particular piece, themes were virtually non-existent. It offers another unsubstantiated speculation on how the DUP might react to the realignment. Then it alludes to the Tories requiring inclusivity and denies the UUP is interested in fostering this. It offers no evidence to sustain this view and doesn’t address the glaringly obvious point, that if the UUP is not interested in moving beyond sectarian politics, why is it moving forward on the basis that it is and why is it seeking to link with a UK wide party which will have no truck with sectarianism?

I realise that I have wasted way too much time on a desperately poor piece of commentary. There are no doubt legitimate and coherent arguments which will be made against the Conservative / UUP link-up and I should concentrate on addressing those. But it makes me angry that this type of dross gets printed and that its author gets money for such lazy drivel. A series of unevidenced, vaguely sententious contentions with little thread to link them, does not comprise political commentary. What we are often offered in Northern Ireland’s papers, with a few notable exceptions, is way way short of that.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Healing psychological wounds, Tory deal makes explicit economic and strategic interests

Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Brooke’s contention, in 1990, that the UK government had no ‘selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland’ inflicted something of a scar on the Ulster unionist psyche. The British government’s statement of constitutional neutrality may have fallen short of nationalists’ demand that it become a ‘persuader’ for a united Ireland, but it instilled in unionism an insecurity from which it has yet to recover and had, as its basis, an unsustainable paradox formulated largely to facilitate a process of appeasing republicanism.

If Northern Ireland’s status as part of the United Kingdom were to mean anything, its government would evidently retain an interest, both economic and strategic, despite protestation to the contrary. Brooke’s formulation was patent nonsense, and it has not been borne out in reality. Westminster has pledged to respect the will of the people of Northern Ireland, as regards its constitutional status, and whilst that status remains within the United Kingdom, the government’s interests will remain. It is high time that unionism completed its convalescence from the trauma which the ‘interest’ statement induced. The Conservative Party’s decision to align with Ulster Unionists offers a means by which to affect the recovery.

Northern nationalists’ cause has always been underwritten, to a greater or lesser extent, by sponsorship from the Republic’s government. Although its constitutional claim has been removed, Dublin’s irredentist ambitions remain an ingrained aspect of its political culture. Only last week Bertie Ahern reaffirmed the ‘imperative’ of the Republic’s aspirations for unity. With consent the accepted basis for constitutional change and a framework to ensure both unionist and nationalist aspirations are respected, there is no reason why the British government cannot play a similar role for unionists.

Indeed there could not be a more consistent or logical position for a Westminster government to assume. The Republic of Ireland believes that Northern Ireland would be best governed as part of a united Ireland, the argument might run, and although we respect that aspiration and continue to work with the Republic’s government as friends and partners, we believe in the merits of the United Kingdom, and contend that Northern Ireland’s continued membership of that Kingdom is best for its governance and its people. Such a position comprises no threat to the status of Irish nationalism or the respect it is accorded within the UK. Safeguards have already been established and agreed through the Belfast Agreement and its St Andrews re-launch.

There could be no clearer indication of interest, no clearer statement of intent, in terms of according people in Northern Ireland the full gamut of entitlements which Britishness entails, than MPs from Northern Ireland participating in government. That is what the Conservative party is offering through its alignment with Ulster Unionists. Sir Reg Empey argues the case in today’s News Letter, emphasising that Conservatives will be standing for unequivocal, non sectarian unionism in Northern Ireland. If the Tories form the next government, it will represent an avowedly unionist party taking the reins at Westminster.

“When this (Tory deal) rolls out, people will have an opportunity to vote for candidates at elections who are very likely to form the next British Government and will have real power in decisions over taxes and fuel duties and influence over interest rates and the overall economy. And while I am 100 per cent supportive of devolution, I am also 100 per cent supportive of our place in the United Kingdom and that side of our constitution. This link with the Conservatives means we can have our cake and eat it if you like – by being involved in both governments that matter to our region.”

Since 1990 much has changed within the UK. Asymmetric devolution has arrived and nationalism has hitched itself to an anti-Labour protest vote in Scotland and Wales. Northern Ireland’s place within the Union is more secure and arguably Scotland’s less so. In his comments to the paper, Sir Reg Empey stresses that Ulster unionism must position itself within the broader argument for the Union and he is absolutely correct. It is this context which has refocused national political parties on the unionist imperative and has afforded secular, non sectarian Northern Irish unionism an opportunity to assert itself in the broader unionist family.

Unionists in Northern Ireland are being offered an opportunity. It is an opportunity which promises strong and enduring membership of the United Kingdom consolidated by full participation in British national politics. It is an opportunity which can bring untold benefits, but as a corollary, carries with it responsibilities. Ulster unionism must show that its commitment to the United Kingdom is real and amounts to more than a symbol of community identification. It must demonstrate that its vision of the Union is generous enough to accord with the realities of modern Britain. If it is up to those tasks, it can begin at last to carve out a meaningful role at the centre of government and in robustly defending the whole Union.

It is a prospect which is as exciting as it is enticing.

What he gives with one hand.......?

Given the unalloyed enthusiasm which he engenders in some news followers, I think I’m unusual in finding Robert Peston extremely irritating. It’s something to do with the staccato emphasis, apropos of nothing, with which he imbues every report. I was therefore somewhat relieved and refreshed to hear Nick Robinson breaking the big economic story yesterday.

Robinson has discovered that, allied to an immediate cut in VAT, the government is to raise taxes at the next election, introducing a 45% band for top earners. This move will be impregnated more with symbolism and populism rather than practicality (as just as it might seem). It is likely to raise a mere £2billion, which is small change next to Gordon Brown’s planned borrowing, never mind that already incurred.

On the Today programme Robinson speculated that Labour’s main means of recouping some of its astronomical debt more likely lies in the realm of National Insurance. This of course would affect every wage earner and every business in the country. Smoke and mirrors is the phrase which springs to mind.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Playing on a 'Sticky' wicket, McDonald bowls out the provos

Henry McDonald’s examination of republican revisionism, 'Gunsmoke and Mirrors', will most likely be read in one of two ways. The reader might regard it as an exploration of dishonesty, fanaticism, futility and abhorrent ideology inherent in the provisional movement. Equally it can be seen as an exposition of ‘slow learners’, who bitterly opposed policies which were regarded as a sell-out, before adopting those self-same policies and turning on those who maintained the brutal doctrines to which they had previously adhered.

Either way, the common thread is dishonesty and a wilful attempt to ‘dress up’ and justify its campaign of violence as a success, when by any of the precepts which Sinn Féin and the IRA set itself, it was a woeful failure.

Although the deceit practised by Gerry Adams, and other provo leaders, was frequently a conscious and knowing process of lying, often the movement sustained itself by self-deception as much as by deceiving others. McDonald explores the evolving political garb in which the republican movement dressed up its ethno-nationalist murder campaign. Leftist politics and third world colonial theory were pragmatic guises which were adopted and shed as the situation demanded, whatever inconsistencies they might evoke.

The most pernicious deceit peddled by Sinn Féin is the fallacy that 30 years of violence were visited on Northern Ireland as a necessary expedient to achieve 'rights' and 'equality'. McDonald talks to republicans who are reduced to laughter by the notion that they were fighting for such abstractions. Sinn Féin was not interested in equality, or acknowledgment of the legitimacy of its aspirations. It took the provos well into the 90s to recognise that the British presence in Ireland did not comprise troops from England, but rather the unionist population which lives here. It was only with this realisation that a settlement became possible.

McDonald is keen to argue that the Official IRA, subsumed into the Workers’ Party, had come to these conclusions in the late 1960s. Much of his narrative hinges around the suggestion that had the provisionals accepted this logic, had the movement acknowledged that unionists had legitimate aspirations too, then 30 years of violence might have been avoided. Most of what comprises the current settlement, in McDonald’s view, would have been achieved much earlier, had the IRA's violence not taken place.

The book isn’t a history of the IRA or an exhaustive examination of the provisional movement. Rather, it comprises a central thesis, which McDonald fleshes out over 200 odd pages. It is a compelling, and tidily presented, argument. Although its contents might seem somewhat obvious to those who have watched Sinn Féin’s metamorphosis, they benefit from being laid down in sequential, if rather atomised, fashion.

The book provides more evidence that the IRA’s terror campaign was odious and Sinn Féin are lying about it, but oddly it will also probably provide succour for those extremists who believe the provos have sold out.

National UK politics for Northern Ireland (or 'we're unionists, now let's start acting like it')

I hailed the joint statement from David Cameron and Sir Reg Empey, in which the two leaders’ intention to forge a Conservative and Ulster Unionist political movement was announced, back in July. From its inception, I predicted that the two party working group set up to further these aims would encounter difficulties, but that the higher purpose behind it should prevail. At the moment Sir Reg Empey went public on this, there was no other game in town for the Ulster Unionist party. Having promised Northern Ireland national politics, having pledged to develop a pan-UK unionist movement, to renege on those commitments would have spelled disaster for the UUP and Empey personally. The jump was made when the statement was released, there was no going back.

So it has proved. Agreeing to meld two historically linked, but separate parties, each with its respective identity and political baggage, into a single electoral force, has not by any means been easy. Members and representatives have expressed doubts. It would be surprising if many of those doubts do not remain. But despite moments of hesitation and prevarication, the Ulster Unionist leadership has shown its mettle and reached an agreement which is significantly to the benefit of unionism. It goes without saying that I am delighted at the consensus arrived at in two east Belfast hotels last night that the movement will be created, and secular, national, unionist politics will be offered to the people of Northern Ireland.

Sir Reg Empey has offered considerable leadership to his party in masterminding the rapprochement between national Conservatism and regional Ulster Unionism. He has shown a generosity of vision which reflects what unionism can be and should be in Northern Ireland. When I met shadow secretary of state, Owen Paterson MP, to discuss the Conservative outlook on a pan-UK unionist force, his enthusiasm for the idea and the commitment of his party shone through. This has come about because both parties share a common vision of what the Union should be about and passionately believe that Northern Irish people should have access to a meaningful voice at Westminster.

O’Neill cautions that agreement last night is only a beginning. Undeniably, he is correct. The foundations have now been put in place on which this movement will be built, but it will also take hard work and application to develop secular, inclusive, pan-UK unionism and to attune Northern Irish politicians' ears properly to national politics. The vital framework is now in place, but the two parties’ relationship must develop and the type of politics which has been promised must be delivered.

Welcoming last night’s developments, David Cameron reiterated what those politics consist in,

“It will give all the people of Northern Ireland, for the first time in decades, a new choice in politics. For too long Northern Ireland has been outside of the mainstream of politics in the United Kingdom. This new political force will help change that, and allow everyone in Northern Ireland to participate fully in political life both in Northern Ireland and throughout the United Kingdom.”

Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom is secure. Unionists in Northern Ireland can now begin to participate in its politics.

New Conservative and Unionist Political Force Created

I'll be posting more on last night's historic decision later, but I thought it would be useful to reproduce the summary version of last night's UUP / Conservative party agreement, as carried on the Conservative NI blog (PDF). This document contains the important detail.

1. The Conservatives and the Ulster Unionists have agreed to form a Joint Committee which will have as a core aim a desire to change politics in Northern Ireland in order to enable all electors in Northern Ireland to participate fully in the politics of the United Kingdom

2. The Joint Committee (consisting of 4 Conservatives and 4 Unionists) oversees developments. It will be responsible (for) coordinating the identification of candidates for the General Election and have responsibility for running the European and General Election campaigns.

3. Jim Nicholson MEP will be the candidate for the European election and, if elected, will sit as a full member of the Conservative group, and shall be in receipt of the Conservative Whip in the next European Parliament. He shall have the same rights and responsibilities of all MEPs taking the Conservative Whip.

4. Successful candidates at the General Election will be full members of the Parliamentary Conservative Party. They will have the same rights and responsibilities as all other MPs taking the Conservative Whip.

5. Both Parties recognise that the holding of office as a Member of Parliament, Member of the European Parliament, or Member of a Legislative Assembly, is a full-time position. Both Parties consider the holding of multiple mandates to be undesirable and neglectful of the needs of the electorate. Accordingly, the holding of joint mandates will not be permitted. If an MLA offers him/her self as a candidate for a Parliamentary seat they will undertake to resign as an MLA on election to that Parliament.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Conservative - UUP negotiations near successful conclusion

Tonight is decision night for the Ulster Unionist executive (you read it here first). A 65% majority would commit the party to fielding joint candidates with David Cameron’s Conservatives in the European election next year and the Westminster contest beyond that.

Mark Devenport reports that the only serious sticking point which remains is agreeing a name. 'The Conservative and Unionist Council' is one option, whilst many UUP members would favour an additional 'Ulster'.

Although an official name for the unionist ‘movement’ is not a life or death issue, I would suggest that ‘Conservative and Ulster Unionist’ offers clarity and continuity which can only be beneficial to both parties.

The arrangements which seem to have been reached represent a successful conclusion to negotiations. A Conservative and Ulster Unionist Committee will be formed in order to reach consensus and run joint candidates. The two parties will retain separate identities, but the link will be formal, explicit and provides access to genuine national party politics for the Northern Irish electorate.

Ranting about Irish language only diminishes impact of legitimate arguments

Although I implied previously on Three Thousand Versts that the UUP is the unionist party most likely to constructively address Irish language issues, without presenting itself in intractable opposition to the language, I certainly did not mean to suggest that universally the party had begun taking this approach as yet. Fair Deal was quick to accuse me of partisan bias on that thread, so to be fair I should address new comments by an Ulster Unionist who frequently falls into the trap, which it is my contention unionists must avoid.

David McNarry is regularly and vocally to be heard putting himself in ostentatious opposition to anything pertaining to the Irish language. I have criticised him before in this regard, suggesting that, whilst I could understand his frustration at the political use of Irish in parliament buildings, he had better curb his irritation, as it was becoming counter productive. Whilst I appreciate that McNarry might be more interested in the hard-line kudos such outbursts lend him, I would reiterate my previous criticisms after his latest remarks.

Attacking the manner in which the DUP reached its behind-closed-doors accommodation with Sinn Féin, McNarry raised the spectre of the Irish language as regards policing and justice.

“My understanding is that Sinn Fein will, once policing and justice is secured, insist upon the Irish language being an equal language to English and spoken by all PSNI officers, used for cautions, arrests, charging procedures and all processes leading to and including court appearances. Sinn Fein will deny this, plead ignorance and try to make policing and justice and an Irish Language Act each separate issues. They are and should be treated, quite correctly, as separate issues but that is not the sinisterism behind republican thinking. With policing and justice in the bag Sinn Fein will move to link it to the full utilization of Irish language usage as a rights issue in the administration of law and order – this cannot be allowed to go by default.”

Sinn Féin might well try to conflate these two issues and if they do unionists will be within their rights to point out that such a conflation is both wrong and discriminatory. Why chose this juncture to start howling about a strategy which Sinn Féin may or may not employ in the future? McNarry is simply succeeding in making himself sound paranoid. Rather than describing worst case scenarios which are totally unacceptable, why doesn’t McNarry try thinking about what is appropriate and acceptable?

If, when unionism does need to make the argument against expensive, impractical and discriminatory imposition of the Irish language, its case will be heard much more sympathetically, if it hasn't conspicuously been propounding the threat which the language comprises, repeatedly, where that threat has not yet manifested itself, and if it hasn’t been seen to celebrate each reverse in funding which the language suffers.

The Downward Spiral

How bad was Northern Ireland’s performance last night? The worst for a long time. The worst from a list of poor performances under Worthington. So bad that even the manager, who has been in flagrant denial each time Northern Ireland has produced slipshod displays under his tutelage, was forced to acknowledge how poorly his team performed.

After a 2-0 home defeat at the hands of Hungary, it is tempting to point to mitigating factors, and Worthington has done just that. Many of his first (and even second) choices were missing. Important players have not been playing regularly for their clubs, whether because of injury or managerial choice.

The truth is that each game Worthington stays in charge there is a little less coherence about the team, a little less of the belief which Sanchez engendered. The Northern Ireland team is in a downward spiral.

Whatever the deficiencies with personnel, in a game like last night's, the manager is responsible for the team’s spirit and system. Neither is there under Worthington. There was singular failure to close down Hungarian players quickly. Northern Ireland players consistently slouched some yards away whilst their counterparts popped the ball around (not always to great effect admittedly) unhindered.

The midfield, without Davis, was simply dreadful. Between it and the strikers there was an unbridgeable gulf. Any meaningful link-up play was absent and the top two looked isolated, particularly in the first half. Added to shapeless and undisciplined defence, was there anything positive to take from the team’s performance?

Lafferty played hard in the first half, before he was withdrawn in favour of Warren Feeney. The referee had a pivotal role in depriving Northern Ireland of our most effective player, refusing to allow Lafferty to compete with Hungary’s defence. Although, in any case, too often no team-mate offered the big Fermanagh man any support as he manfully held the ball up.

Derry City’s Niall McGinn came on in the second half and buzzed around busily. It was nice to see some enthusiasm imbued in a lacklustre contest, although his passing left something to be desired and with all due respect, he wasn’t beating the fullback.

And that’s it. Everything else was negative and everyone else was dire.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

'Clear blue water' means accountability and choice.

One of the less baleful consequences of the financial crisis is that every political pundit, columnist, and indeed blogger, has become an amateur economist, whether economics were previously his/her ‘specialist subject’ or not. Economics’ centrality, as the pivotal issue on which politics turns, might be disputed but its importance is not. Therefore it does no-one any harm whatsoever to start thinking a little harder about how money and markets interact with government.

The truth is, however, that we are dealing with a theoretical rather than an exact science, dismalness not withstanding. National economies are staggeringly complex, that complexity is multiplied infinitely for the world economy, and its workings are hotly disputed.

Yesterday I suggested that David Cameron is beginning to present a coherent economic argument, based on principles of fiscal responsibility and sound money. A commenter dissents from the Conservative view and commends Paul Krugman’s New York Times blog, which posits the counterintuitive notion, that more of the irresponsible spending which created the crisis is what is needed to get us out of it. Essentially this is to hold that the deflationary cure to the liquidity crisis is worse than the disease.

I don’t know which of these analyses is right, although I certainly have an opinion as to which has its basis in sounder logic. But in many ways that is what is cheering about the route down which Cameron is going. His position is based on cogent argument, it dissents from his opponent’s view and the electorate can begin to assess the comparative strength of each analysis.

The predominant phrase in editorials this morning has been ‘clear blue water’. As the best means to tackle Britain’s economic crisis, indeed the world’s economic crisis, is hotly disputed, there should be ‘clear blue water’ between the parties. If a party political consensus were to be formed around Gordon Brown’s economic policies, as they become increasingly contentious, then the Prime Minister and his government would be evading the rigours of accountability.

Brown is offering runaway spending to plug a deflationary gap in the economy and he plans to borrow to fund his plan. Cameron is proposing to spend judiciously and curb borrowing. The public now has a genuine choice as to how it wishes government to tackle recession and prepare Britain for recovery.

Politkovskaya's trial will raise questions for the Kremlin, but not the questions its most vehement opponents want.

When Novaya Gazeta’s crusading journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, was murdered in 2006, there followed a stream of innuendo implying that the Kremlin had ordered her death. Conspiracy theories involving VV Putin’s regime are ten a penny, but even by the fantastic standards of such conjecture, the idea that Russia’s president had ordered Politkovskaya’s killing was not one of the more plausible.

The journalist was certainly a robust critic of the Kremlin, but Putin was not being disingenuous when he dismissed the notion that her journalism constituted a threat to his regime. To be frank, Politkovskaya was a fly on the hide of an elephant. Indeed the president acknowledged that her criticisms were healthy and welcomed them. She was not censored or silenced. Any large bookstore in Moscow or St Petersburg carries copies of Politkovskaya’s books to this day.

Alas the vast majority of Russians have no interest in reading them and have little sympathy for notions that the conflict in Chechnya was prosecuted in unnecessarily brutal fashion. It was a dirty war, against a terrorist enemy who lived amongst civilians. Russians believe that a certain amount of mess was justifiable and even necessary. Their attitude is not untypical of those who have been subjected to campaigns of terror wherever in the world it afflicts state and society.

Even had the Kremlin been in the habit of killing its most challenging opponents, it would have had little motivation to dispose of Politkovskaya. Indeed, as Putin observed at the time, the journalist’s death had much more potential to damage Russia’s reputation than her work had ever had.

That is not to say that the trial of alleged conspirators, charged with the journalist’s assassination, is not potentially embarrassing for Russia’s government. One of the defendants, Pavel Ryaguzov, was an officer in the Federal Security Service. Chechen involvement in Politskovskaya’s murder is almost certain and the grubby fingerprints of the Russian republic’s Prime Minister, Ramzan Kadyrov, are unlikely to be far away.

The trial is taking place in open court, enabling justice to be done and to be seen to be done. This, despite the fact that Ryaguzov’s involvement would have entitled the judge to order closed proceedings. There are likely to be tricky questions which Putin and his successor Dmitry Medvedev will face arising from this trial. The Kremlin’s decision to allow a thug such as Kadyrov to maintain peace in Chechnya by dubious methods is likely to shape many of them. It is the type of post conflict, moral conundrum which is common in many trouble spots.

Amongst Russia’s critics there has been grudging surprise that this murder is to be tried in open court. It is politically expedient for Putin, they mutter.

The fact is that the Kremlin is unlikely to have anything nearly as extravagant to hide as its most rabid opponents have spent the previous two years implying. It is peculiarly twisted logic to criticise justice for being transparent, simply because it might prove relative innocence on behalf of someone you wish to implicate in a crime. If an open trial is politically expedient for Putin because it will show that he had no involvement in killing Anna Politkovskaya, then all the better. It will put an end to false allegations and innuendo.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

No transparency, no accountability - government Northern Ireland style resumes

Both Ignited and the Ulster Unionist website ponder exactly why 152 days without government were necessary to reach agreement which will bring Sinn Féin back to the executive table on Thursday. Ostensibly the two parties have simply agreed that a process aimed at achieving devolution of policing and justice will now take place. The UUP piece points out that either issues around the Maze, Irish language, academic selection etc. remain unresolved with the potential to derail executive government once again, or else side deals have been done, indicative of the opaque carve-up which represents Sinn Féin and the DUP’s preferred method of business.

Fair Deal outlines detail which he understands has been agreed, on Slugger. There will be a process aimed at bringing about devolution of policing and justice, operating on the basis of a cross community vote. The aim is to arrive at temporary devolved arrangements which must then be firmed up by 2012. What is being announced, publicly at least, is merely an agreement to agree sometime in the future. This is carve-up government at its least transparent. The UUP piece cites one aspect of firm agreement in the documents,

“Where is the accountability in a system in which the DUP and Sinn Fein, without consulting the Assembly or Executive can both 'be minded' to appoint an Attorney General and then name the person?”

The executive will meet on Thursday and hopefully it can begin to actually tackle issues which are relevant to people in Northern Ireland. This entire episode, however, reinforces suspicions that Sinn Féin and the DUP will continue to govern behind closed doors, trading off against each other’s sectional interests and ignoring smaller parties. Although government in Northern Ireland may be revived, it is still gravely ill and nothing has been done to remedy the root causes of its illness.

Tories bite back on economy and defend Osborne

After Labour excoriated shadow chancellor, George Osborne, for ‘irresponsibility’ and ‘talking down’ the pound, over the weekend, the Tories have launched what has every appearance of an effective comeback on economic issues.

In the Telegraph, Boris Johnson defends his colleague’s right to offer a prognosis on the economy. Although this contention might appear self-evident, the government has reacted with increasing petulance on each occasion that an opposition politician dares to question the wisdom of Gordon Brown’s economic plans. Labour chose to interpret Conservative support for its bank bail-out as an open ended commitment to support all of its anti-recessionary measures. As Brown’s spending pledges become increasingly extravagant, and as tax cutting initiatives are launched in tandem, then it is not only inevitable that opposition politicians will challenge him, it is their duty to do so. Johnson asks,

“How can there possibly be a "convention" that stops shadow chancellors from pointing out the baleful effects on sterling of an irresponsible fiscal policy? Surely that is the very definition of his job?”

Meanwhile David Cameron has been offering his assessment of Gordon Brown’s proposals for unfunded tax cuts, by quoting the Prime Minister’s previous thoughts on, well, unfunded tax cuts.

“To make unfunded promises, to play fast and loose with stability (indeed to play politics with stability) is ... something I will never do and the British people will not accept.”

Cameron offers strong arguments that fiscal responsibility is what is required in the current climate. After all, it is widely agreed that irresponsible borrowing got the UK into the particular mess in which it now finds itself, why then should more irresponsible borrowing solve the problem?

The Conservatives argue that unfunded tax cuts now will inevitably mean substantial tax increases later, at precisely the point when the economy might otherwise be recovering. In concert with promises to curb growth in spending, the Tories are edging toward coherency which was lacking in the party’s economic message up to now.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Roy told to sling his hook - Worthington does something right.

Nigel Worthington’s Northern Ireland team faces Hungary on Wednesday night in an uninspiring friendly fixture. With well over two months to go before World Cup qualifying resumes in San Marino, it is difficult to see how the match could yield anything useful, other than a chance for the manager to have a get together with his players.

Already a number of pivotal members of the team have been made unavailable by their clubs. Captain Aaron Hughes is the most high profile absentee, and with Craigan, McAuley and McCartney also missing, Northern Ireland’s defence will assume an unfamiliar look. At least we will be spared (at the back in any case) the idiosyncratic choices which Nigel Worthington often inflicts on the starting eleven. Only four recognised defenders remain in the squad.

And, to be fair, Worthington has shown some fortitude, declining to bring Roy Carroll straight back into the squad following the Derby goalkeeper’s decision to make himself available again. Last summer the erratic Fermanagh man decided he didn’t want to be included, unless he was guaranteed a starting berth. We can do without his lack of commitment.

Putting it off 'til next time?

It would be, I acknowledge, unduly churlish to pen a virtual heckle at news that the impasse over Stormont executive meetings may be close to resolution. If, at long last, Sinn Féin has decided to return to work and meet its counterparts at the executive table, then a start can be made on the long backlog of work which has accumulated over the course of 152 days. Doubtless there will be relief in Downing Street and self-congratulation from Northern Ireland’s two main parties if the stuttering show can be kept on the road for a while longer.

However, although a resumption of executive business will offer the optical illusion of effective government and although Provisional Sinn Féin may be placated for the time being, the same system which resulted in over five months of stasis will remain, with all its weaknesses and failures intact and the same parties predominant. Redemption’s Son offers some useful analysis of detail which might comprise a deal between the Shinners and the DUP. But where Ignited shows most perspicacity, is in his realisation that the detail of any deal matters less than what created the deadlock in the first place,

“namely …. one party can hold it (Stormont) and the Northern Ireland people to ransom. It is unacceptable, and it could be repeated in the future unless legislated against.

Rather than provide bypass surgery which could tackle root causes of the patient’s problem, the blockage will merely be pushed further along his arteries, where it remains a permanent mortal threat (you will note from this metaphor that I am not a heart surgeon by profession). Jim Allister puts it rather more crudely,

“this short-termism will be rewarded by Sinn Fein returning for more when they next need to gorge on Unionist concessions.”

David Trimble liked to use Henry Kissinger’s formulation, ‘constructive ambiguity’, to describe areas of the Belfast Agreement which were deliberately left open to the preferred interpretation of either side. As devolution beds in, problems naturally surface and under the existing system, with Sinn Féin and DUP in the ascendant, ambiguities, pre-existing and newly invented, provide an open ended excuse for refusal to govern.

Ignited suggests that unionism in particular must show initiative and tackle issues before they arise, rather than merely reacting to the latest crisis. I wholeheartedly agree. Unionists had the chance, for example, to produce suggestions on how the Irish language might be accommodated within Northern Ireland, thus drawing poison from the debate and shaping it preemptively, into a form amenable to unionism.

Whilst the DUP leads unionism this type of constructive approach is unlikely. The party, in common with its Provo rival, seems increasingly to relish crisis. Intractable, inefficient and occasionally inoperable government will await Northern Ireland for the foreseeable future. Over a longer time frame, if devolution is to persevere, then surely voluntary coalition (with cross community safeguards) must be what all sane parties should strive towards. With the prospect of endless deadlock and no opposition to hold the executive to account, efficient government is an impossibility under the present system.

No Stone Turned? 'W.' is a disappointment.

I assume that I’m not the only man, who when he pushes his choice of film for a prospective cinema visit, ends up squirming in his seat with an uncomfortable sense of personal responsibility when the movie turns out to be crap? Having expressed meaningful ambivalence toward ‘Easy Virtue’ and some manner of psychological examination of Kristin Scott Thomas in French, I particularly didn’t want Oliver Stone’s ‘W.’ to be as poor as it was.

Quite honestly, Stone’s film is not a substantial biopic of the most controversial American president since Nixon. It is lightsome, simplistic, unconvincing and occasionally brutally poorly acted. The director never quite seems to decide whether he is attempting a serious examination or playing it for laughs. There is little sense here of what animates Bush as a politician. Instead he is portrayed as an innocent abroad, bumbling along through a series of ‘gut decisions’ (graphically illustrated by Josh Brolin who occasionally gives his belly a demonstrative pat when something especially gnarly arises), which lead him, first into the presidency and then into Iraq, as backroom neocons pull the strings.

Not that there isn’t a valid argument that Bush hasn’t been the most instrumental thinker behind his programme as president, but Stone’s portrayal comes close to absolving him of responsibility for decisions which were ultimately his alone. The executive process which takes the US into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq takes place in knockabout meetings in ‘W.’. Bush paces the room throwing out invitations to various advisers to offer their tuppence worth, pats his belly and then generally accedes to Cheney and Rumsfeld. Dramatically pleasing perhaps, but highly unconvincing.

Then there is the appalling depiction of Condoleezza Rice, inflicted by Thandie Newton, who twitches, grimaces and ahems in a nasal whine which brings to mind one of the nerdy kids in the Simpsons. Newton’s Rice would be lucky to get a job in Walmart, never mind becoming one of the most trusted members of a government administration.

Bush himself is played as a silly Texan charmer by Josh Brolin. Allusion to his age is made only by variable proliferations of grey in the actor’s hair, whilst Laura hovers around the late 20s / early 30s mark for the duration of the film. ‘W.’ drinks, carouses, crashes his car, fails to achieve gainful employment, pulls Laura, collapses whilst running, gets saved, gets ruthless, gets elected, becomes president, chokes on a pretzel. It’s just a sequence of events and not a serious attempt to get underneath its eponymous character’s skin. There is a running theme whereby George Bush Snr. feels disappointment in W. and he in turn resents his able sibling Jeb, but this is the nearest Stone comes to suggesting what might have motivated the outgoing President to strive for that post.

This is entertaining enough fare at times, but from a director who has produced substantial political films in the past, it is also disappointingly simplistic.

'What has the CDU got which the Tories haven't?'

Asks Iain Dale's Diary. A literal answer might be, alignment with a regional party. For how much longer will that be a valid answer?

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Am I missing something?

O'Neill has pointed out previously that controversy about a UK team for the 2012 Olympics is premature. Perhaps it is last night's attendance at Belfast Beer Festival, but I'm really struggling to understand exactly what the story is in this article from Scotland on Sunday.

FIFA has been urged to investigate allegations of "political interference" in the row over football's Team GB for the 2012 London Olympics.

If Fifa finds Scotland and the other three home associations guilty, it could suspend or even expel them from international competition until the governmental interference stops, as recently happened with the Polish FA

The most glaring error first. Poland has not been suspended or expelled from international competition. On the contrary, Poland is in Northern Ireland's World Cup Qualifying group. Admittedly its FA was threatened with expulsion due to political interference in its internal workings.

Which brings me to my second point. The regulations to which this article refers, and which the SNP seems to believe apply to home nation FAs after Jim Murphy tabled an early day motion, "welcoming assurances given (to) the Scottish Secretary, by Fifa saying that a Team GB would not undermine Scotland's ability to compete in its own right in future tournaments", prohibit direct interference by government in the working of football's national governing bodies. The Polish government was threatening to actually step in and run the Polish FA!

Seeking assurances on behalf of football associations as a means to encourage them to agree to something is AN ENTIRELY DIFFERENT THING! It's rather obvious that Peter Wishart MP, who made the ludicrous accusation of political interference, doesn't have a legal backround. He should stick to making awful Celtic flavoured rock.

Friday, 14 November 2008

Putin, statebuilding and the Campaign for Equal Citizenship

I’ve been reading Richard Sakwa’s book ‘Putin: Russia’s Choice’ over the past few days. The author does a fine job of explaining how the former president’s political programme, ‘sovereign democracy’, ‘managed democracy’, ‘the dictatorship of law’, call it what you will, comprised a rational and defensible, if imperfect response to unique challenges which Russia faced post-Soviet Union and post Boris Yeltsin. It is the most forensic examination of the politics of Putin’s Russia, which I have as yet read.

‘Three Thousand Versts’ often wrestles with matters of identity, nationality, culture and these concepts’ interaction with more concrete notions of citizenship and state. Problems related to these areas are particularly abundant in Russia, with its huge land mass, plethora of ethnicities and disputed history. I therefore read Sakwa’s chapters which deal with Putin’s approach to state-building, national identity and the regions with particular interest, because he has tackled issues which are more acute, but share resonances, with some of those which we face in Ireland and indeed throughout the United Kingdom.

Northern Ireland's 1980s' Vladimir Putin?

When Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin as President, he inherited a state which had fragmented, asymmetrically, its sovereignty across countless regions and republics through a series of bilateral treaties. He took over a state without an agreed flag, without words to its national anthem and struggling to establish a sense of shared purpose amongst its people. The disintegration of the supranational structure which had bound together the people of the USSR, threatened not only to undermine the coherence of its constituent republics, but also the existence of Russia itself.

Comparatively, Putin left Dmitry Medvedev a confident, powerful state, possessed of the normal range of symbols, and bound together by a strong, desirable civic citizenship which encompasses the endless range of ethnicities and cultures comprising the Russian Federation. By no means has Putin surmounted all the problems which he faced, in this area, at the outset of his presidency, but certainly he bequeathed to Medvedev a stronger, more coherent, more defined unit than he inherited from Boris Yeltsin

Although Putin’s credo is rarely applicable to the UK, there are times when it is tempting to conclude that it's more the pity. Yeltsin had fragmented Moscow’s sovereignty across a series of asymmetric bi-lateral treaties, creating vast disparities in the quality of citizenship available throughout the Federation, fostering a system of government by local clan, encouraging various republics and regions to make declarations of sovereignty and nourishing separatist nationalism. Putin combated asymmetric devolution effectively, subjecting treaties to central constitutional law, forcing them to lapse and enforcing a largely standardised political system across the Federation. It was a textbook reassertion of sovereignty. I could see a similar claw back of devolved power in the UK bringing a broad smile to the face of O'Neill, amongst others.

Another theory of Putin’s which strikes a chord is his belief that strong, national political parties are the means by which citizens should be able to access politics and as a corollary the full range of standardised entitlements which accompany their citizenship. To countermand clannish regions and an outrageously fragmented political system which meant that there was little parity of access to politics between regions, Putin rolled out the national party system across Russia. Although those who accused the former president of authoritarianism and marginalising regional parties may have had a point, few will argue that his reforms did not strengthen the link between parties and politics in Russia or allow previously unheard voices access to national politics without the distorting prism of local clans and local corruption.

Although minimum membership requirements, 7% quotas for access to parliament or party lists are not tenable options in the United Kingdom, Putin’s contention that access to national political parties is the best means to full enjoyment of citizenship remains valid. It is the same idea that fuelled the Campaign for Equal Citizenship which had its heyday in the 1980s and it is the basis on which Conservative and Ulster Unionist parties will seek to forge a shared political movement next week.

Adams overeggs the irony pudding

The kind approach would be to ignore Gerry Adams’ latest outpourings, regarding them with contempt which they undoubtedly deserve, but so laced with hypocrisy are comments delivered to a fundraising dinner in New York, the temptation to dissect some of the choicest morsels is simply too great.

Sinn Féin’s president increasingly resembles a cranky old uncle of the provo family, seeking to compensate his waning influence by delivering intemperate barrages from the chair in the corner. Unfortunately the authority which Adams does retain is sufficient to ensure that his increasingly intractable tone exerts a baleful influence on the situation at Stormont, as Mark Devenport intimates on his blog.

The most emotive of Adams’ remarks is of course that which likened unionists to Afrikaners, a statement which falls short of comparisons Mary McAleese and Father Reid drew between unionists and Nazis, but is clearly pregnant with implication that nationalists suffered something comparable to apartheid in Northern Ireland. Whilst it is clearly intended to offend, Adams’ ‘Afrikaner’ jibe is merely indicative of the objectionable tone which he is cultivating especially keenly at the moment. The richest irony and plummiest hypocrisy can be savoured elsewhere in Adams’ pudding of a speech.

Take this contention, delivered almost in the same breath in which ‘Mr Pot’ accused unionists of having an ‘Afrikaner wing’ and characterised them as ‘petty, mean-spirited and negative’,

“By working closely with the unionists; by being patient and strategic; by recognising unionist concerns and fears on the one hand, and challenging bigotry and prejudice on the other, it is possible to make progress.”

Working closely with unionists! Sinn Féin has refused to hold an executive meeting with either unionists or fellow nationalists in one hundred and fifty days. If that represents ‘working closely’, one would hardly wish to witness what the party adjudges an intractable approach to represent! If anyone is exhibiting patience in Northern Ireland’s present political impasse, it is the three other executive parties stoically awaiting Sinn Féin’s return to the executive table.

And how can the provisionals expect to challenge bigotry and prejudice on one hand, yet create it on the other? Scarcely a fortnight ago Adams was rejecting the validity of British soldiers marching in Belfast on the basis that it is ‘Ireland’s second city’. He was explicitly repudiating principles of tolerance, diversity and pluriculturalism that day and yet he presumes to challenge bigotry and prejudice now! If Adams wishes to combat bigotry and prejudice he should start by taking lessons from the mayor of Derry City Council.

SF’s president claims his party’s project is about ‘nation building’. I presume that the nation he wishes to build is predicated on a 32 county Irish Republic. If his party is serious about wishing unionists to be part of that nation, it should begin to demonstrate its bona fides and show disinclination to drive every vestige that is perceived as British from this island.

If Sinn Féin cannot stomach aspects of Britishness in Northern Ireland, which it has agreed will remain part of the UK until a majority here decide otherwise, what are the chances that it would tolerate perceived British culture in a 32 county state?

Arresting Chaos

This is appropriately named Inaki de Juana Chaos, a convicted Eta terrorist who has come to be resident in Ireland (how might that have happened I wonder?). De Juana murdered 25 people by means of a bomb in 1987. He was subsequently released from prison in 2004, having served only 17 years, benefiting from Spain’s notoriously Byzantine sentencing guidelines.

On his release De Juana immediately resumed ostentatious support for Basque separatist terrorism, having previously penned threatening letters from his prison cell. Spanish authorities are seeking his extradition from Northern Ireland and he will attend proceedings in Belfast’s Laganside Court on Monday morning, in an attempt to avoid an arrest warrant being issued here.

Hopefully a warrant for De Juana’s arrest is issued in Belfast and I wish the Spanish authorities every success in putting him behind bars for a very long time.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Burnside leads with realignment message

With detail of the Conservative / UUP merger to go before the Northern Ireland party’s executive on 20 November, David Burnside is the latest Ulster Unionist representative to try his hand speaking the language of realignment.

Burnside attacked Alex Salmond’s SNP and its DUP allies. Reflecting on the impotence of regional assemblies and the primacy of Westminster, in light of the economic crisis, he commented,

“The power over taxation, over the pound in your pocket remains in Westminster. That is what makes the Ulster Unionist alliance with the Conservative Party so significant and important for people in Northern Ireland. As part of a national administration after the next election, they will be a voice at the heart of power speaking up for Northern Ireland and for more finance. The DUP are an isolated rump at Westminster, with no friends.”

Speaking about the defence of the whole Union, opposing nationalists in Scotland, emphasising the pre-eminence of Westminster, highlighting the isolation of the DUP. This is good stuff from Burnside.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Illegitimate questions?

There is consensus that a clash over the Baby P affair, at Prime Minister’s Questions, was unseemly. And the weight of opinion seems to concur that Gordon Brown should take the lion’s share of blame for a heated altercation with David Cameron.

After all, it was the Prime Minister’s irritation that the Conservative leader had raised the issue at all, which saw him accuse Cameron of using the baby’s death to make a party political point. His evasiveness up to that point had led his counterpart to press him on the matter, which represents a quite legitimate area of concern.

It is not good enough, to elude responsibility for each issue, by arguing its unique unsuitability for the arena of party politics. Brown’s problem is that he does not like to be challenged, on anything, and he is prepared to play the emotive card in order to avoid a difficult question.

For unionism's own sake, integration must not be cast by the wayside.

When Lord Londonderry attempted to introduce integrated education to a nascent Northern Ireland state in the 1920s, he faced opposition from both Catholic and Protestant churchmen, as well as politicians drawn from the two main communities here. In 1998 the Belfast Agreement contained provisions by which the parties undertook to encourage integrated housing and education. As regards integrated housing, any progress which the NIHE attempts to make is often accompanied by opposition from both Sinn Féin and the DUP. Witness, for example, the controversies about mixed housing provision on the Crumlin Road gaol site, or in Enniskillen.

Although integrated education occasionally is accorded lip service by both sides, neither is prepared to seriously promote its expansion, certainly at the expense of the existing segregated system. The Catholic Church remains one of the prime proponents of segregated schools and education minister Caitriona Ruane has concentrated her efforts on further segregating Northern Ireland’s education system, with her obsession for Irish Language Medium schools. Neither are unionists shy of evoking the spurious defence of parental choice, whenever the integrated argument is seen to be too robust.

Of course choice is important. Ultimately the responsibility for educating a child rests with its parents and it is the state’s job to enable them to discharge that responsibility by the best means possible. A ‘choice’ argument should not, however, be used to obfuscate half-hearted commitment to the principles that integrated education in Northern Ireland is positive, welcome, needs to be encouraged and exerts a constructive influence on our society. After all, the integrated movement has been very much been driven by parental demand from its inception.

A report by the Integrated Education Fund has stressed the importance of persuading church leaders that integrated schooling is not inimical to religion and is overwhelmingly beneficial to children. From the IEF’s perspective, that is a laudable aim. Sustained and genuine commitment from the education minister and from politicians across the spectrum would add weight to its cause. A simple acknowledgment that integration and sharing is a best case scenario for Northern Ireland’s young people would be a start. Concrete encouragement for those schools which seek integrated status, and schools within both the controlled and voluntary sector that wish to cooperate with each other and share resources, must also be forthcoming.

With DUP and Sinn Fein in the ascendant the ‘shared future’ has been both literally and figuratively dropped. Those who have a commitment to making Northern Ireland an inclusive and normal part of the UK, should not allow the principles of integration in either housing or education be cast by the wayside.

Diver eschews republican intolerance

When troops were welcomed home on the streets of Belfast, republicans maintained that their problem was with the ‘coat-trailing’ military parade, rather than the civic reception or church service. Strange then that Sinn Féin and its fellow travellers have spent the start of this week eviscerating Derry City Council’s SDLP mayor, Gerard Diver, for hosting an informal reception, mainly for the Territorial Army, at Guildhall in the city.

To clarify then, republicans object to the mayor hosting an informal reception, with no military trappings or uniforms, behind closed doors, to welcome home mainly TA soldiers from the city who happen to have been serving in dangerous places throughout the world. A stunning degree of intolerance. Sinn Féin is not interested in inclusion or reaching an accommodation with unionists as is becoming increasingly clear. Instead, it intends to combat every vestige of British identity on the island of Ireland.

Well done to Mr Diver for showing that there some nationalists appreciate what concepts like ‘sharing’ and ‘respect’ actually entail and are prepared to put them into action, rather than merely talking about them.

Joint candidates plan seeks UUP executive nod of approval

To follow up on Frank Millar’s Irish Times’ article, a reputable source has confirmed to me that his understanding is, Millar is correct. A UUP executive meeting this week will consider proposals to select joint candidates and fight joint campaigns in forthcoming European and Westminster elections with the Conservative and Unionist Party. Should a 65% majority assent, the proposals will be accepted, otherwise the matter will come before an extraordinary general meeting.

If this information is correct, it represents precisely the type of progress this blog has been calling for. It would also, presumably, be enough to justify David Cameron addressing the Ulster Unionist party conference at the start of December.

Without a formulated deal, the DUP has tried to undermine efforts and drag the UUP back into the morass of sectarian politics. No doubt an announcement will see an intensification of the Democratic Unionist campaign. The UUP must work hard to get behind its vision and explain it to the electorate, when, if, progress is made.

Update: I am informed that due to the sad death of Sir Jack Hermon there will be a short delay in detail coming before the executive meeting. The new meeting has been convened for 20 November.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Electoral deals will not safeguard the Union

Sammy Wilson has found time, between lauding the emission of carbon and raging about the stupidity of vehicle testing, to gibber about need for ‘unionist unity’. The irony of DUP politicians calling for unionism to unite will never wear thin, but the party has fastened unto the notion since Peter Robinson’s succeeded the arch splitter, Ian Paisley, as leader. Its ardour for ‘unity’ has increased since Ulster Unionists entered talks with the Conservative party, aimed at forging a pan-UK unionist movement.

Of course, what the DUP is intent upon (at least since it assumed the mantle of Northern Ireland’s biggest party), is not unionist unity at all, it is Northern Irish unionist unity. Its call is merely for a closing of community ranks. The UUP has its eyes set on a much more profound unionist alliance stretching across every region of the United Kingdom. The best means to defend the Union, in its entirety, is not restricting the choices available to unionist voters at the ballot box. Becoming involved in national politics, forging relationships with unionists across England, Scotland and Wales, that is an altogether grander vision.

It is nonsense to claim, as Sammy Wilson does, that contesting each of Northern Ireland’s constituencies would undermine unionism. Corralling voters into voting for a candidate with whom they are not comfortable, in order to maintain a seat for a putative community, is not a means by which to underpin the Union. If the electorate in Northern Ireland is to have the choice of participating in normal British politics by voting for a Conservative and Unionist candidate, that choice should not be denied voters in Fermanagh South Tyrone or South Belfast.

The best way to underpin the Union is not to maintain a myopic focus on the constitution. It is to get on with making Northern Ireland a successful, integral part of the United Kingdom and the UUP/Tory plan offers the best prospect of achieving this. The DUP will continue to attempt to undermine a deal by worrying at the concept of ‘unionist unity’ as they understand it. It does not help when senile old coots (still) within the UUP, or indeed the party leadership, start using similar language.