Thursday, 31 December 2009

A cautious approach to electoral reform is far from stupid

John Rentoul’s column in today’s Independent is worth reading. Its eye catching headline questions the Conservatives’ reputation as ‘the stupid party’, suggesting that Tories’ calm approach to electoral reform suggests a long-term mentality.

In contrast, Labour’s 1980s enthusiasm for tweaking the voting system has been rekindled, just as the party prepares for another prolonged spell in opposition.

Rentoul is implying that the government’s attitude to the issue is purely reactive.

During the vast majority of its years in power the Labour party has been satisfied with an arrangement which worked in its favour. Now that defeat is imminent, and Liberal Democrats’ support is sought, Gordon Brown has thrown his weight behind a shift to Alternative Vote.

In contrast, although the Conservative party requires a much greater share of the vote than Labour, in order to command a substantial majority, David Cameron proposes less fundamental changes.

The Tories favour fewer MPs in the House of Commons and hope to standardise constituency sizes, more consistently, across the UK. But first past the post will remain the bedrock of Westminster elections under the Conservative party. Cameron plans merely to tweak the electoral system - even though it is weighted against his party.

The Liberal Democrats favour full proportional representation and the issue is often cited as a likely deal maker - in the result of a hung parliament. If either of the larger parties wants to form a coalition with the Lib Dems, flexibility on a new voting system is a probable price.

But PR, or AV for that matter, does not represent an insignificant concession. Implementing either would change significantly the constitutional topography of this country.

The formation of government by a single party would become a rarity, rather than the norm. And although, ostensibly, this would ensure a more representative democracy, in reality the electorate would be deprived of clarity of choice and accountability.

Under a coalition, the business of running the country increasingly depends on deals brokered behind the scenes. Every policy decision is reliant upon negotiation, compromise and, inevitably, fudge. Governments struggle to develop coherent and purposeful programmes.

David Cameron is ingrained with conservatism in the most authentic sense. He is not opposed to change, but remains cautious about its possible consequences. The modern Conservative party is inclined to weigh carefully the case for constitutional reform, whereas Labour has preferred to rush in and attempt to sort out any resultant mess later.

Only one approach is stupid and it doesn’t conform to the cliché.

Praise from Caesar! John Coulter loves Irish bloggers. We just keep pumping shite!

O'Neill has broken the news already, but the unionist blogging triumverate Bobballs, Three Thousand Versts and Unionist Lite, have won an award!

This site's favourite political commentator, John Coulter of the Irish Daily Star, has nominated us for his 'Gobshite of the Year' gong. It is hard not to feel humbled, perhaps even ashamed!

The Gobshite Cup goes to Irish political blogging for all its terrific support of the Fearless Flying Column in 2009.

Top sites are the UUP arse-licking Bobballs, A Pint of Unionist Lite, and Three Thousand Versts of Loneliness. Keep pumping out that shite folks; sorry, that should read informed political comment

Fear not John! None of the 'shite-pumpers' have any immediate plans for retirement.

We must not forget Iris's intolerance of others.

In today's Belfast Telegraph, I argue that sympathy for Iris Robinson's depression should not obscure the unpleasant reality of her politics.

Even by the DUP's standards, Mrs Robinson's politics comprise an unpleasant concoction of bigotries, seasoned with a predictable dash of ethno-religious fanaticism.

This unpalatable dish is served up with a sizeable side-dollop of spite, epitomised by Iris's triumphant nine-finger salute which taunted Tory MPs after DUP votes had secured a Government victory on 42-day detention, or by her serial "unparliamentary" harassment of the Health Minister, Ulster Unionist Michael McGimpsey, for which she attracted official censure.

It is possible, of course, to elicit human sympathy for Robinson in light of the mental illness which has forced her to step back from her duties. Perhaps the condition might even permit a kinder interpretation of the extremity of some of her outbursts.

But the sum total of hatred and intolerance encompassed by Northern Ireland's politics will be diminished by Iris Robinson's retirement and that is not a result to lament.

I conclude:

Iris Robinson deserves support as she attempts to recover from a debilitating condition. Most people in Northern Ireland will be all too aware of the damage which depression, and other mental illnesses, can inflict upon friends and family.

We can, however, extend the Strangford MP sympathy and good wishes without applauding an erratic and unconstructive political career, occasionally characterised by a vicious and vindictive use of language

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Iris - owning up to health issues might do some good

More to follow on Iris Robinson's departure. However it is worth quoting a snippet from Clive Aslet at the Daily Telegraph.

I don't know whether to accept that the Northern Irish MP Iris Robinson's stated reason for quitting politics – depression – is the whole story. A row about the fact that she and her First Minister husband employ four family members on their staff may have also been a contributory factor. But I welcome the attention she has drawn to the issue of mental health, which remains too little understood.

Stigma surrounding mental illness has certainly dissipated, but it is still a very real issue. Whether one accepts that Iris Robinson's decision to give up her public role is an uncomplicated health matter, or not, she has performed a useful service by owning up to her condition.

Assessing her contribution to Northern Ireland's politics is, of course, an entirely different matter.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

A barbarous execution

I strongly believe that cultural and political differences which exist throughout the world should be respected. We cannot expect to impose, unilaterally, a single set of values, defined as ‘western‘, on states with long traditions, and histories, which do not conform to the western European / north American experience.

However, by any standards, the execution of Akmal Shaikh, in China, is a senseless, vindictive and barbaric act.

It would be difficult to deny that Shaikh was convicted of a particularly unpleasant crime and it is known that heroin trafficking in Asia frequently carries the most severe penalties. It is also fair to point out that the involvement of a Briton in the Chinese drug trade is a matter freighted with historical resonance.

If Shaikh’s bipolar condition had been investigated, and deemed irrelevant to the facts, then China’s misdemeanour would be of a different order entirely.

But the court refused even to take into consideration a mental illness, which his family claim made Akmal Shaikh severely delusional. We can only speculate about the precise nature of his disorder and its effect on the executed man’s capacity to assume legal responsibility for his actions. We cannot know for definite whether he really did believe that he was entering China to embark upon a career in popular music, or whether he was aware of his cargo and understood its harmful nature. But any court, and particularly one which had available to it the sanction of death, should have considered in detail the possible repercussions of Shaikh’s illness.

Amnesty International claims that China carried out 1,718 executions in 2008. A tally which corresponds to nearly five each and every day. Because Mr Shaikh is a Briton, his case has attracted substantial coverage. How many more people have been killed in questionable circumstances in the furtherance of China’s idea of justice?

The Unforgiven

Eoghan Harris is a commentator accustomed to transgressing republican shibboleths. In his latest Sunday Independent piece he ponders Gerry Adams’ response to a family history disfigured by involvement in campaigns of terrorist violence, as well as paedophilia.

Although Harris takes a circuitous, and rather more interesting route, he reaches a conclusion which echoes my own reflections on the Sinn Féin president’s skewed sense of morality. It is ‘time (Adams) took the final step and admitted that the armed struggle “besmirched” the tricolour as much as the abuse’.

Gerry Adams might command sympathy by describing shame at the abusive actions of his father. He might, Harris hints, even seek to exploit a national mood of sympathy, as the Republic of Ireland as a society grapples with its own issues around clerical and institutional abuse. But if we are generous, and allow that Adams’ motivations may not be exclusively tactical and manipulative, still, we can hardly applaud his candour or courage.

It would take genuine courage for the Sinn Féin MP to admit that he was a member of the Provisional IRA, and that its murderous campaign, like the campaign perpetrated by its predecessor and his father’s generation, was a disgraceful, bloody and unjustified aberration.

Harris is charitable enough to evoke Shakespearian complexity and the duality of man. Adams’ crucial role in the ‘peace process’ can still be chalked up as a positive in his favour.

I am less inclined to ascribe mainstream republicanism’s about-turn to a ‘better angel‘ residing within any of its leaders. Strategic pragmatism lead the provisionals in Sinn Féin and the IRA to cease, rather than renounce, violence. The wider movement remains wedded to gangsterism, crime and vigilantism, all of which are wont to bubble to the surface (occasionally bloodily) from time to time.

‘Hope’ might persist. But it is a fragile edifice. If Adams and his ilk show genuine contrition for their campaign it will become sturdier. However we will know that Northern Ireland is healthy, and a robust hopeful future lies ahead, only when the idea of voting for a party which has yet to renounce its history of violence and terror, makes the vast majority of people here, sick to their stomachs.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Paisley Junior's geography awry

Ian Paisley Junior clearly isn't on his hols yet (or at least the DUP press office is still at work). Christmas Eve morning witnessed a press release on the party's current most pressing preoccupation - its rival's internal candidate selection procedure. The website only features a truncated version, but its is the unabridged text which provides the authentic Junior pyrotechnics (ho hum!).

The Labour tendencies of leading members of South Belfast UUP are well-known. Does this explain the Tory insistence on imposing a blow-in upon the local UUP Association? The Tories are now insisting that all who refuse to subscribe to their views must be purged from consideration as UUP candidates, as has been demonstrated by the Tory intolerance towards the UUP’s solitary MP.

The UUP is being hollowed out at the behest of a party who when they last contested an election in South Belfast got 108 votes. Experienced veterans are being pushed aside in favour of a bunch of Notting Hill liberals who don’t understand Unionism and cant represent our community”, said the MLA

Confused? I don't blame you!

Junior is clearly appalled that the UUP's left leaning representatives have been overlooked in the South Belfast constituency, yet he is also adamantly opposed to 'Notting Hill liberals'.

It is a formulation which recalls David McNarry's 'wide-boy liberalista' outburst. And it makes as little sense. Neither of the probable South Belfast candidates, Peter McCann and Paula Bradshaw, is from London, or England. They have 'blown in' from nowhere more exotic than other areas of Belfast. Indeed Paula has a long history of community work in South Belfast.

I'd like to believe that a 'seasoned veteran' standing in the constituency would have commanded Paisley's support. I hadn't realised he was such a fan of Michael McGimpsey or Bob Stoker. But the truth is that the former has an important job in the Northern Ireland Executive which has quite rightly precluded him from a Westminster contest. Clearly Conservatives and Unionists, unlike the DUP, are taking seriously their pledge to abolish double mandates.

Either of the two UCUNF selectees who remain would make a much better MP than the DUP's likely candidate, Jimmy Spratt, another prospective double-jobber. They may not conform to Paisley's little-Ulster reading of unionism, but they are thoroughly compatible with the UK wide vision which the New Force seeks to promote.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Can you spot the mistake?

Dreadfully poor from the Guardian's editorial today, on the topic of televised leaders' debates.

Northern Ireland is a different situation entirely [from Wales and Scotland] because the UK [wide?] parties do not compete for seats there,

The poll leads swing like a pendulum do?

Opinion polls should be treated with caution. If that aphorism needed any further emphasis it has been provided by two surveys which show starkly different results, published within two days of each other.

First, on Sunday, the Observer released its Ipsos Mori poll, which showed strong support for the Conservatives's approach to the economy and recorded a seventeen point lead for David Cameron's party.

In contrast, the Independent's ComRes poll suggests that the Tories' lead has been trimmed to nine points, with Labour up 5% since its last survey. An odd result given that Alistair Darling's Pre Budget Report was greeted, in general, with scepticism by the media.

Under the Observer's piece, Sir Robert Worcester, founder of MORI, offers something of a corrective to sensational newspaper headlines about changing poll leads.

Nine of the past 10 polls show the Conservatives at or over the 40% level, where they have been since July. Three leads were 17%, three below 10%. Not one varied in the Tory share by more than 3% from the 40% average.

It's worth noting that UK Polling Report, which is generally offers fairly circumspect analysis, is of the opinion that the ComRes version is most likely a rogue poll.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

UK regions should not be deprived of leaders' debate by nationalist small mindedness

The BBC, Sky and UTV will each screen a live TV debate between the three candidates to become British prime minister.

Inevitably Alex Salmond is indulging in a strop about the arrangement, despite the fact that his party does not organise nationally and his own lack of participation in the next general election.

The serious point is that, whatever nationalists might maintain, the most important facet of Westminster elections is their determination of the next government of this country. Minority parties should, of course, be granted airtime, and the networks have vowed that there will be devolved equivalents to the UK wide leaders' programmes.

The contest to become prime minister is, however, of national interest and it deserves its own broadcasts, without an irrelevant contribution by Alex Salmond, or another member of his party. Regional debates are the forum where regional figures’ input is appropriate.

In Northern Ireland, no doubt, we will be treated to a head to head between Peter Robinson et al which will make the heart swell with pride. In Scotland Salmond will probably take an inordinately pivotal role in the SNP’s campaign, despite his non-candidature. The party relies on his personality cult. If there’s a debate for Scottish leaders, he’ll be there.

None of which should deprive viewers in the ‘nations and regions’ of the opportunity to engage fully with the UK wide campaign to determine a new prime minister. That is the most vital debate which will take place between now and May and it has nothing to do with Alex Salmond.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Paedophilia shameful, murder fine. Adams' warped sense of morality.

Gerry Adams’ influence within Republicanism might be on the wane, but he has lost none of his capacity to astound and revolt. First we had Adams’ interview on Christ and forgiveness. Now another clear example of the Sinn Féin president’s warped morality has emerged.

Speaking about ‘Republican honours’ accorded to his father, who had repeatedly abused children within his own family, Adams’ observed,

“I didn’t want him buried with the tricolour, I think he besmirched it.”

It is impossible to read this statement without reflecting on a succession of IRA funerals which Adams was happy to attend. Thomas Begley, who killed himself in the process of murdering nine Saturday afternoon shoppers on the Shankill Road, clearly did not ‘besmirch’ the tricolour, in Adams’ estimation. He was happy to act as Begley’s pall bearer.

Gerry feels that emotional, physical and sexual abuse of children brings shame on the Republic of Ireland flag whilst murder, maiming, torture and all manner of other crimes all add to its glorious legacy. His hypocrisy is nauseating.

Friday, 18 December 2009

The 'second coming' this Christmas?

I’ve just returned from a couple of days in the lakelands of Fermanagh where my only indulgence in media, new or old, comprised the odd glance at email and some overheard Evening Extra.

I am rather late, therefore, to address the one story which will dwarf all others over the Christmas period. Forget Copenhagen and climate change, disregard ceaseless squabbling over policing and justice, ignore the Chilcot Inquiry’s endless procession of ennobled civil servants. The hot topic to accompany turkey and stuffing, this year, is Lawrie Sanchez and his proposed return as Northern Ireland manager.

The BBC reports that Sanchez is already in discussions with the Irish Football Association. And judging from the interviews which he gave yesterday, the former Fulham boss is prepared to fight hard to replace Nigel Worthington.

Sanchez criticised the fourth place finish which Northern Ireland ultimately achieved in the World Cup qualifiers. He regrets leaving international management to pursue an unsuccessful career in the Premier League. "I loved my time with Northern Ireland and I'd like to finish off what I started”.

Sanchez’ message is carefully calibrated in order to appeal to Northern Ireland fans, over the heads of the IFA. Negotiations to renew the present manager’s contract have stalled and the predecessor hopes to encourage the notion that there is a cost free alternative. Lawrie Sanchez is eager to create a clamour for his reinstatement.

It’s difficult to know how the IFA should react.

Sanchez’ first spell as Northern Ireland manager was an unqualified success. He took over a team which had gone well over 1000 minutes without scoring a goal. By the end of his first qualifying campaign, the goals were flowing and England had been defeated. For the next two years Northern Ireland became practically unbeatable at home. It was a shame that Sanchez left midway through the next set of qualifiers, lured away by the bright lights of the Premier League and Fulham.

Understandably, some supporters will maintain that he cannot be trusted. He may not stay around to finish the job.

Nigel Worthington is substantially higher maintenance than Sanchez, demanding almost twice the salary. However, he has improved as a manager, and his approach to the job is, to a degree, more thorough. The Ballymena man has revamped Northern Ireland’s youth set up. He is a ‘director of football’ for the IFA in the mould of another former manager, Bryan Hamilton.

Worthington’s rein has been blighted by tactical naivety, an inability to make effective substitutions and the indiscipline of certain players. Sanchez runs a tighter ship, demands complete professionalism and loyalty and he is undaunted by reputation. It is difficult to a envisage a lenient response from Lawrie to a pre match booze up of the type which presaged Northern Ireland’s critical World Cup match against Slovakia. Phil Mulryne and Jeff Whitley were swiftly dropped after similar transgressions under Sanchez. Nigel Worthington sought no such sanction.

Football has a long history of disappointing comebacks. However, it’s worth remembering that Billy Bingham’s second spell as Northern Ireland manager saw the team qualify for two World Cups.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Not so fast. South Belfast contest remains open.

I was a little perturbed to read Mick Fealty’s post on Slugger this morning indicating that only Bob Stoker and Michael McGimpsey would seek an Ulster Unionist nomination for South Belfast. Presumably Mick is writing on the basis of information which he has been given. However, I’m pleased to say that I’m led to believe that he has rather jumped the gun.

It is my understanding that nominations for the constituency do not close until Friday.

Back in September, on Open Unionism, I expressed the hope that a fresh list of UUP candidates would emerge, not drawn in main from the Assembly party. I stand by that analysis and I believe that, for the most part, candidates will not already be MLAs.

South Belfast in particular is sorely in need of a new, vital contender who can articulate with enthusiasm the advantages of the New Force. Despite Michael McGimpsey’s creditable performance as Health Minister at Stormont, or more accurately because of it, I believe that he should concentrate on his Executive duties.

The name mentioned in conjunction with South Belfast which best personifies a new and hopeful form of politics, I believe, is Paula Bradshaw.

She has worked closely with deprived communities in the constituency and has, accordingly, an existing profile. As a young activist her appeal can extend across class divisions and age barriers, in a way which is not true of some of the other personalities who have been mooted for the seat.

Previously ’Three Thousand Versts’ has expressed its support for Neill Armstrong in North Antrim. Equally, Paula Bradshaw in South Belfast represents another energetic young voice, in tune with the ethos of the Conservatives and Unionists arrangement.

Double jobbing amendments show normal politics in action.

There is more or less unanimous agreement, in theory, that double jobbing should be brought to an end. However the DUP has hinted that it will backtrack on a previous commitment to abolish its dual mandates by 2011. Similarly, SDLP MP and MLA, Alistair McDonnell has indicated that he is content to double job for the foreseeable future. Clearly Northern Ireland’s politicians cannot be trusted, on their own initiative, to bring an early end to double and triple jobbing.

The Conservative leader, David Cameron, has already pledged to impose a solution as regards dual mandates, should he become prime minister. But there is no reason why Northern Ireland’s involvement in the party political mainstream need wait for the general election in order to pay dividends. The Tories have proposed a series of amendments to the Northern Ireland Assembly Bill which would immediately offer a strong disincentive against continued double jobbing.

Under the amendments, proposed by Shadow Northern Ireland Minister, Lord Glentoran, an MLA would be unable to claim a salary, expenses or allowances whilst he or she is an MP or MEP. In addition the Conservatives propose that a third party should set salaries, pensions and allowances for MLAs.

A recent Belfast Telegraph poll showed that 71% of Northern Ireland’s voters disapprove of double jobbing. Clearly this is a demonstrable example of national politics forming an important arena in which decisions which benefit Northern Ireland can be made. The Conservative party, on an election footing, is actively engaging with issues of importance to local voters, in order to attract their support. That is what normal politics is all about.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Other than perpetrating cold blooded murder and beating up women he's bothered no-one!

I’m afraid that, once again, this piece resembles a ‘Quote of the Day’ which ‘Three Thousand Versts’ purports not to carry.

The Ulster Political Research Group is a rather grand title for the UDA’s ‘advisory wing’. This repository of wisdom has defended Torrens Knight, the loyalist murderer, who was recently returned to prison after an assault on two sisters in Coleraine.

You’ll remember that the brave soldier’s original conviction was for entering the Rising Sun bar in Greysteel where he and his colleagues proceeded, indiscriminately to gun down eight unarmed civilians who happened to be drinking there.

The UPRG’s Ali Crawford commented,

“As far as I am led to believe Torrens Knight has bothered no one in or around Coleraine since his early release up to the point where he has been found guilty, pending appeal of this alleged assault."

Well good for him! Between his involvement in cold blooded murder and assaulting women Mr Knight has been a fine upstanding citizen! With due deference to Roy Garland, we'd better not label this character a thug.

Northern Ireland fans bid to lure back Darron Gibson?

I was idly browsing Ipod / Iphone 'apps' yesterday when I came upon a little programme relating to the Northern Ireland football team. 'Fanchants' promises 'professionally recorded and remastered chants' in order that you might enjoy the atmosphere of the terraces, wherever you are, at any time. I just wonder where and when exactly the company recorded their selection of Green and White Army favourites! Most of the oeuvre is there alright, but I wonder if you can spot the tune which Northern Ireland supporters are not exactly famed for belting out with gusto?

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Fleming confirms Robbo = Stalin

I don't usually do a 'Quote of the Day' but this calls for an exception. George Fleming, I assume the same George Fleming who signed a letter attacking UCUNF, has called for a pact with the DUP, citing precedent.

Where would the UK be today had Sir Winston Churchill not signed a pact with Stalin's communist Russia during World War II?

In politics and in a time of need you sometimes need to do a pact with your enemy's enemies if you want to defeat the true enemy - Nazism in 1945 and Irish nationalism/republicanism in 2009.

Read more:

Peter Robinson as Stalin I see. Alistair McDonnell poised to wipe out six million Jews? Perhaps George is overegging the pudding on that one? Startlingly inappropriate is the phrase which springs to mind.

Friday, 11 December 2009

The world of Alliance - where having an opinion on the constitutional question denotes sectarianism

Tom Campbell, an Alliance party councillor in Newtownabbey, contributes the latest letter in response to my ‘eighteen candidate’ Belfast Telegraph article. It contains a line which arrested my attention.

“At least he (me) was frank enough to admit that his cause is a ‘unionist’ one as opposed to the spin that the new electoral arrangement between the two parties is somehow a ‘post sectarian’ one.”

A neat insight into the Alliance mentality, whereby actually taking a position on Northern Ireland's constitutional status deems someone sectarian!

It’s rather an important question, don’t you think - which state ought Northern Ireland to form a part of? Yet one party ducks it entirely and levels accusations of bigotry at those who do have an opinion!

The Conservatives and Unionists CAN move beyond ‘sectarianism’ by decoupling the political component of unionism from any religious and cultural baggage. It’s a simple enough concept.

In time the pact’s unionism can be taken for granted, even go without saying. That’s the position which I would like to move toward. Whereby the constitutional question plays a much less prominent part in Northern Ireland’s political discourse, because it is considered, at least for the time being, settled. Whereby all unionists simply get on with playing a full role in the United Kingdom and its politics.

Abkhaz election highlights the need to reappraise thinking on Georgia's breakaway regions

Abkhazia goes to the polls on Saturday in order to elect its president and the contest is likely to be dominated by two contenders who last went head to head four years ago. Sergei Bagapsh is the current incumbent and Raul Khadzhimba is his main challenger and the current prime minister.

The Black Sea region, which traditionally attracted Soviet officials seeking rest and recuperation, is ostensibly identical in status to South Ossetia. Its independence is recognised by Russia, Venezuela and Nicaragua. The rest of the world considers it part of Georgia.

However, whilst prevailing opinion in Tskhinvali favours eventual absorption into the Russian Federation, and unification of the southern and northern parts of Ossetia, in Sukhumi there is a more complicated relationship with Abkhazia’s Moscow patron. Leaders insist that they are animated, not by an aspiration to reunify with Russia, but by the desire to achieve full independence for Abkhazia.

In the previous election the Kremlin offered its backing to Khadzhimba, and Bagapsh’s eventual victory was attributed to a buoyant sense of national identity, although he gained important votes from ethnic Georgians in Abkhazia, who still number about 40,000.

This time, the potential electorate has been limited by a requirement for Abkhaz passports to be used as identification. Russia is not officially supporting any of the five strong field.

It is expected that the election could require a run off and that, in this eventuality, falsifications would be likely. Because Abkhazia is not a member country, OSCE observers will not be present to assess the legitimacy of the election. The Moscow Times reports that Russia’s Central Election Commission will attend. However, international observation will be badly circumscribed, in deference to Georgian territorial sensibilities.

Territorial integrity is certainly an important concept and unilateral declarations of independence should be discouraged in almost every circumstance. I am no more eager that Abkhazia, South Ossetia or Transnistria should be recognised internationally, than Kosovo. Perpetuating a dangerous precedent is no more desirable that the precedent itself.

However Abkhazia and South Ossetia have never willingly been part of an independent, post Soviet Georgian state. Certainly neither region assented to the unilateral abolition of their autonomy which Tbilisi attempted in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s dissolution. Georgia’s sovereignty never extended, de facto, to its breakaway territories.

It is up to the international community to deal with the circumstances in the Caucasus as they are, rather than as they would like them to be. In the FPC’s Spotlight on Georgia report, Thomas de Waal argued that the western policy response had not yet addressed the actual situation in the two territories. He called for ‘status neutral’ interventions, which would not necessarily entail abandoning support for Georgia’s territorial integrity.

Making a meaningful attempt to observe Abkhazia’s elections would be a useful start. And ultimately Georgia should be encouraged to institutionally acknowledge the regions’ exceptional circumstances.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Ian Paisley Junior responds to my eighteen candidate article.

The piece which I wrote for the Belfast Telegraph arguing that UUP coyness about eighteen UCUNF candidates should come to an end has precipitated a more or less instant response from Ian Paisley Junior. It comprises a concoction of little Ulsterism and innuendo which provides a neat summation of the DUP’s version of unionism. The party, in truth, has little aspiration to play a full role in the United Kingdom’s politics, or strengthen Northern Ireland’s role within the Union, it is much more preoccupied with fighting parochial cultural battles against Irish nationalists.

The Conservatives and Unionists arrangement offers the chance for Northern Ireland to participate in a pro-Union bloc comprising more than 320 MPs. Far more critical to the UK’s preservation, Junior contends, are two seats which may or may not be taken from Irish nationalist parties, should the UUP and DUP agree single candidates for South Belfast and Fermanagh South Tyrone. He is mired in precisely the short-termist, ourselves alone mindset which placed Northern Ireland on the ‘window ledge of the Union’ in the first place.

Does the DUP ever envisage a normal, participative role for the people of Northern Ireland, within the UK? If so, what is its strategy for achieving such a result? And if not, in what respect is it a unionist party in the first place?

I doubt we’ll ever get satisfactory answers. After all the DUP has shown no sign that it cares how Northern Ireland’s economy fits into a broader UK picture. So long as our block grant is preserved the rest of the country can hang.

However, it is important to clear up a few of the misrepresentations which colour Paisley’s interpretation of my article.

1) No threat is implied, financial or otherwise, by the insistence that UCUNF is predicated on eighteen candidates in eighteen constituencies. Nor is the subtext that the Conservatives should browbeat an unwilling UUP into acquiescence. But when a political deal is reached between partners, clearly it must rest upon principles. Providing EVERYONE in Northern Ireland access to national politics is critical to the New Force project. If that precept flounders then it undermines everything else which underpins the electoral pact.

2) The ‘stream of consciousness’ (what an odd phrase to use) which results in my conclusion that eighteen Conservative and Unionist candidates would ‘strengthen the Union’ is relatively straightforward. Providing the electorate in Northern Ireland with the means to elect the next government of the UK will strengthen the Union. Playing a full role in day to day Westminster politics, rather than preserving a status which is exceptional, and semi detached, will strengthen the Union. Attempting to heal division, rather than exacerbate it, will strengthen the Union.

3) Unionism and the Tory party might not be concepts one and indivisible (Tory, Tory, Tory - the Dupes refusal to say ‘Conservative’ manages to make them sound both childish and vaguely autistic), but the Conservative party is a national, UK party which champions the Union. What is Junior’s definition of unionism? Does it have anything to do with the United Kingdom as a whole or is its solitary stronghold Ulster? We know, after all, that his father flirted with Ulster independence and indeed a federal Ireland. I much prefer Sir Reg Empey’s contention that unionism, without the United Kingdom, does not exist.

There is no attempt in Paisley’s article to argue that agreed candidates would not contribute to the ‘overall sum of sectarian bitterness’. It is a point which he ignores entirely. Likewise, he does not address the restriction of voter choice which a deal would entail.

Ian Paisley jnr is attempting to prevent political entitlements, associated with British citizenship, from being offered to people in Northern Ireland. He is intent on preventing the electorate from playing a full role in national politics. And he has the audacity to present his attempts as a prospectus to strengthen the Union! Anyone whose unionism is informed by a genuine desire to participate in the United Kingdom, rather than sectional Ulster Protestant interests, will surely see through his diatribe.

David Gordon's excellent book, 'The Fall of the House of Paisley', is available at the bookshop.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

A Northern Ireland football museum?

The East Londonderry MLA, David McClarty, has suggested that a football museum should be included in plans to find the Northern Ireland international team a permanent home. It is an excellent idea.

Whether Windsor Park is redeveloped, or a new stadium is built, the IFA has a rich history dating back to 1880. It is one of oldest associations in the world. There is a fascinating story to be told about the overachievement of its representative teams, as well as the critical part Northern Ireland played in the development of the game.

Famously, William McCrum, a goalkeeper and businessman from County Armagh, is credited with the invention of the penalty kick.

Then there is the gallery of star players who have represented Northern Ireland, from Elisha Scott to David Healy, and the most celebrated of them all, George Best.

For many years Northern Ireland was the smallest country ever to have qualified for the World Cup. In 1958 Danny Blanchflower’s team reached the quarter finals. And in 1982 a player from the 1958 squad, Billy Bingham, reprised Blanchflower's managerial achievement and, in so doing, led his side to its most famous victory. Ten brave men inflicted a 1-0 reverse on the competition’s hosts, Spain.

Bingham and his team would qualify for the 1986 finals in Mexico too. Forty year old Pat Jennings played his last international game against Brazil.

And surely pride of place in any football museum would go to the Home International trophy! The last championship took place in 1984 and Northern Ireland remain champions of Britain. Another extraordinary achievement for Bingham and his players.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Tory tax policy seeks to nourish society, unlike Toynbee's short-termist alternative.

Polly Toynbee's latest ‘class war’ piece is a conceptually threadbare piece of writing. I get the impression that whilst she still feels compelled to bang the tribal political drum she is now barely convinced by her own arguments.

Despite what Toynbee might contend, the Cameron Conservative message that a Tory government will prioritise poverty is getting through. It has remained a consistent thread through various policy documents. The simple truth is that the Guardian columnist instinctively recoils from an approach which tackles the causes of poverty as well as its symptoms.

Thus measures which encourage responsibility, help people into work or remove tax penalties on married couples and savers are presented, not as attempts to nourish society, but rather, in Polly’s world, become unconscionable attacks on the poor.

Toynbee argues that each of the shadow chancellor George Osborne’s tax plans is intended to benefit the seriously wealthy. Her claims do not bear scrutiny.

It is true that the Conservatives plan to raise the threshold of Inheritance Tax to £1 million. Indeed, I have argued that this commitment should not be included in the general election manifesto. During the next parliament there will not be a propitious moment to cut taxes. The emphasis should be restoring fiscal responsibility.

However it has been made clear that the threshold will not be a pressing priority. Certainly there is not, as Toynbee appears to allege, an existing pledge to reverse the 50p tax rate immediately. Although its efficacy is questionable, the top tax bracket was ostensibly introduced in order to tackle the deficit. It will remain, until the economy begins to show definite signs of health and stability. At the earliest, its abolition is four years distant.

The Tories have not, as Toynbee suggests, committed to tax penalties for those who are not married. The intention is simply to remove existing disincentives which effectively discourage the formation of stable families.

Whilst an attempt to engineer a return to some arcadian 1950s notion of the ‘nuclear family’ is neither desirable nor possible, it is not right to encourage, through the tax system, the dissolution of families. To argue that married couples should continue to be penalised, and to invoke redistribution as the rationale, is an untenable argument.

Government policy on tax cannot simply be dictated by mathematical calculations. It should aspire to a more complex calculus which seeks to balance the books whilst providing the framework within which society can flourish.

Toynbee’s is rather a depressing analysis which omits this grander vision. Her preferred means of achieving equality is simply to expropriate money from rich, middling and even struggling working people, in order to feed an over centralised state, which in turn will distribute left over funds to an underclass of dependents. It is actually a model for social stasis.

The Conservative alternative certainly does not repudiate the need for redistribution. On the contrary, it prioritises the needs of the poorest. But it also aspires to reward people where they take responsibility for themselves. It is ever cognisant of the need to nourish society’s roots and make it better, so that people’s lives will improve and ultimately the state will have fewer dependants.

Running eighteen candidates is a nonnegotiable component of the Conservative and Unionist pact.

In today's Belfast Telegraph I argue that any ambiguity about the eighteen candidate issue undermines the Conservative and Unionist message.

The Conservatives and Ulster Unionists' electoral pact has, from its inception, been predicated on 18 candidates contesting all 18 Northern Ireland constituencies in the next General Election. No ifs, no buts, no maybes.

Yet the UUP remains coy about declaring unambiguously that UCUNF will not stand aside for the DUP in either Fermanagh/South Tyrone or South Belfast.

Tom Elliott MLA is the latest senior figure from within the party to claim that he is open to discussions with Peter Robinson. At the party conference in October leader Sir Reg Empey appeared similarly reluctant to dismiss speculation about 'agreed candidates'.

However, if the UUP is still committed to offering the Northern Irish electorate normal politics and a full participative role at Westminster it must extend its offer to every voter, not merely those who live where there is a comfortable unionist majority.

Incidentally, personal conceit compels me to point out that "promising to extend political entitlements linked with British citizenship to British people to whom it has previously been denied" did read "British people to whom they" in the original copy! I know, I know!

Monday, 7 December 2009

Perm nightclub fire. The aftermath.

Vladimir Putin has announced that bereaved families whose loved ones died in the Perm nightclub fire will each receive 500,000 rubles compensation. The measure exacerbates the sense that this incident, which cost 113 lives, was not simply a terrible accident.

The Lame Horse nightclub failed to observe fire regulations. And its owners are reported to have left the city in an attempt to flee the scene, shortly after it burnt down. It has been alleged that the premises suffered from ‘the same firetrap conditions’ for eight years.

The club’s website ‘gallery’ shows revellers dancing beneath a dry weave of twigs. In retrospect it does appear an obvious fire hazard. Although many of us will have been in venues throughout Europe which appeared equally unsafe.

The site itself has become a poignant and disturbing remnant of a death-trap. The menus, the news section, hold the same macabre fascination involved in browsing the diary of a murderer.

A criminal investigation is now in progress, which could result in charges of ’reckless negligence’ and seven year prison sentences for those responsible. Whether a little soul searching will take place about corruption in Russia remains to be seen. Dmitry Medvedev has spoken before about rooting out legal nihilism.

Of course corruption and negligence are not exclusive to former Soviet countries and other similar incidents have taken place before.

What is beyond dispute is the terrible suffering which this fire has caused.

At the Russian embassy in Riga, Latvia, crowds have gathered to lay flowers and a book of condolence has been opened. In Russia itself a day of mourning has been observed. The shared grief of fractious rivals a potent symbol of the universal impact of human tragedy.

Shooting the messenger. Human rights' industry voices anger at government consultation.

The Director of the CAJ has reacted with predictable petulance to the government consultation on a proposed Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. In a letter carried in today’s Belfast Telegraph, Mike Ritchie observes that the document only recommends that two rights included in the NIHRC’s advice should be implemented. The paper also published a short article containing Ritchie’s criticism on Saturday.

The letter takes the usual self-righteous tone preferred by the rights’ industry, yet it is predictably oblique in terms of detail. Because the government has rejected most of the NIHRC’s report, it implies, it must therefore be against the concept of rights altogether.

The truth is that, had the NIHRC operated within its remit and produced a credible set of rights, applicable to Northern Ireland’s particular circumstances, its advice might have been implemented. Instead, it chose simply to concoct a bundle of aspirations, attach the term ’rights’ and expect it to attain a special, untouchable status.

And groups like the CAJ cheerled this approach every step along the way!

The NIHRC and its acolytes have actually cheapened the concept of rights. And they have spectacularly missed an opportunity.

Its final report could have addressed sectarianism and issues around parity of esteem, or delivered to women in Northern Ireland a right to choose. The document actually brought the concept of human rights into disrepute in the province.

Rather than defend the dismal performance of the NIHRC, human rights organisations should be asking why the commission has failed them so spectacularly.

Blogtalk NI (Episode 7)

The final episode in this series.

Blogtalk (episode 7) from Northern Visions/NvTv on Vimeo.

Geoff from Bobballs and Alan from Belfast form this week's panel. The show features coverage of the Slugger O'Toole Awards, at which Alan picked up the blog gong.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Give Salmond his referendum. But insist on the right timing and the right question.

I’m afraid that I’m a day or two late on this, but it’s worth reading Alan Cochrane’s coruscating assessment of the SNP’s white paper on a separatist referendum. Alex Salmond hopes to introduce a confusing poll offering several options, one of which would be his favoured option of full independence. Neither of the three unionist parties is prepared to entertain any type of referendum in the foreseeable future, although Cochrane believes that the Lib Dems are most likely to be pliable.

I am entirely in agreement with the article’s thrust. It is a disingenuous document, with important omissions and its timing is spectacularly selfish. However, I don’t believe that unionists should dismiss a referendum out of hand. A poll, held as the economy begins to recover, could kill separatism stone dead for a generation. The key is ensuring that the question is clear, unambiguous and demands a definitive answer. 'Do you wish Scotland to remain within the United Kingdom?'. Yes or No.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Nonentity scores a couple of goals in a reserve competition, hack writes ill informed nonsense.

One of Manchester United’s reserve players, Darron Gibson, scored a couple of goals on Tuesday night, in a competition which gives clubs a chance to deploy their second string. The Old Trafford side were lucky enough to be playing a team famed for its gutlessness.

Gibson is known chiefly for his decision to desert the Northern Ireland youth setup in order to play for the breakaway association in the Irish republic. His decision to snub the original Ireland team has caused an ongoing wrangle between the IFA and the FAI.

Ian Herbert, a football correspondent for the Independent, has picked up a story from the Belfast Telegraph, revealing that former Northern Ireland manager Sammy McIlroy approached the player in order to persuade him to play for his country.

Presumably he was successful. After all, the 14 year old Gibson went on to play for the schoolboy team, representing Northern Ireland in the Victory Shield. However the predatory breakaway association subsequently poached the midfielder.

None of which has anything to do with the Belfast Agreement, despite what Herbert might contend.

Neither FIFA, the IFA nor the FAI were signatories of the Good Friday accord. It does not contain any provisions pertaining to football and the clauses on nationality and identity are irrelevant to the Gibson case. The Republic of Ireland’s institutions were not granted jurisdiction in Northern Ireland.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Will Allister's party show consistency?

The TUV takes pride in its robust stance on terrorism. Indeed, we are led to believe, that contempt for violence is the party's raison d'etre. Which makes it all the odder that a prominent member, Trevor Collins, has organised a petition seeking the release of loyalist thug Torrens Knight.

Knight is guilty of murder, including the Greysteel massacre. Mr Collins offers an apology which echoes many similar republican analyses (and indeed Roy Garland), "the Troubles in Northern Ireland provoked many a young man to do things that they wouldn't have done in normal circumstances".

How a young man could be 'provoked' into firing a semi automatic weapon, premeditatedly, into a public bar is a question which boggles the mind. The fact that he has now been convicted of attacking two women tells us all we need to know about this 'loyalist'.

I sympathise with the TUV's view that convicted killers should be in gaol. Although I recognise that for the greater good, some murderers in Northern Ireland have been released. To actively campaign for the release of a contemptible character like Torrens Knight is outrageous. Jim Allister should expel the offending member from his party, if it is to retain a shred of credibility.

Comment elsewhere

Over at Comment Is Free (where Mikhail Gorbachev has also made a contribution today!) I argue that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission is a busted flush and that rights specific to the province should be incorporated in a UK wide Bill.

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) was established under the Belfast agreement to advise on the scope for implementing a bill of rights specific to the province. After a process that lasted more than 10 years, and cost millions of pounds of taxpayers' money, a government consultation has dispensed with most of the recommendations assembled by the commission.

It found that the advice disregarded existing national and international rights protection, was founded on unrealistic expectations and, most damningly, strayed far beyond the remit outlined in the Good Friday accord. Unionists have called for the chief commissioner, Monica McWilliams, to resign.

Policing and justice devolution back on?

The DUP had been insistent that it will not let itself be rushed or bullied into devolving policing and justice. There are, it insists, issues to be addressed before enough 'confidence' exists to proceed.

And yet, according to the BBC, MLAs are being asked to nominate a minister by next week. It is possible that Peter Robinson is hoping to stabilise a Stormont boat which appears to have become rather rocky. It is widely believed that the DUP have most to lose should Sinn Féin pull out of power-sharing, if an election would ensue.

There remains a suspicion that the First Minister would be prepared to do a deal but other members of his party are not so keen. If the DUP was genuinely concerned about public confidence, as opposed to the mutable shopping list which it is forever compiling, it would focus on comments such as those O'Neill highlighted on Monday.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

An Ulsterman's adventures in the Russian far north

Lying to the north of St Petersburg, between the chilly waters of Lake Ladoga and the White Sea, the Republic of Karelia is an autonomous region of the Russian Federation. Forest stretches over more than half its territory, and of the remainder, fully a quarter is comprised of water.

Historically, the region known as Karelia included parts of eastern Finland and for a time, during the Russian Civil War, hopes were raised that an independent state might be forged by the majority Finno-Ugric population. Fuelling Karelian aspirations was an Ulsterman who would later become an independent unionist MP at Stormont!

Colonel Phillip James Woods was an unlikely talisman for nationalism at the edge of the Arctic Circle. A champion of the British Empire, he had served in the Second Boer War under Baden Powell, taking part in the Relief of Mafeking. He became involved in the nascent Ulster Volunteer Force, and with other members of that organisation, helped form the 36th Ulster Division, which took heavy casualties at the Battle of the Somme.

With war raging throughout Europe, Russia experienced the October Revolution in 1917, and the Bolsheviks came to power. The new government in St Petersburg would undergo a turbulent period before it established an empire which would appear impregnable for seventy years. Russia was thrown into a bloody civil war, which would last well into the 1920s, when the Bolsheviks gradually began to assert dominance.

After the Soviets signed the Brest Litovsk treaty, which effectively closed the eastern front in World War 1, and ceded swathes of territory to the Germans, the case for an allied intervention in Russia began to build. Significantly, the new Bolshevik regime also threatened to default on enormous debts owed by the Russian Empire to western powers.

In June 1918 an expeditionary force was dispatched to the Arctic Circle which included British and French troops. Its aim was to secure the region against intervention by German and Finnish forces, before aiding the anti-Soviet whites and, in Churchill’s words, strangling ‘at birth the Bolshevik state’

Arriving in Murmansk with the Allied Intervention, Woods was based at Kem, on the White Sea. He established the Karelian Regiment, which became known as the ’Irish Karelians’. The regimental badge consisted of a shamrock inset on an orange background. Woods helped push the Germans and their Finnish allies out of East Karelia and, in so doing, inspired dreams of independence which were, ultimately, unrealistic.

In the aftermath of the Great War there was little public appetite in Britain for yet more casualties suffered in a distant conflict. In 1919 British forces were withdrawn, Woods included.

Four years later he was sitting in the Northern Ireland Parliament, as a member for Belfast West, contributing to the history of unionism. A fascinating figure, I’m sure you’d agree and one which I’m looking forward to researching more closely.

Thick as mud, Education Minister carries on regardless.

“Don’t know what I’m doing here / I’ll carry on regardless”, sang the Beautiful South. It is a lyric which could have been written for Northern Ireland’s Education Minister. Caitriona Ruane proved incapable of striking an acceptable compromise on selection for post primary schools. Other parties continue to make progress towards an agreed position, but the minister carries on regardless.

Similarly, her two bills aimed at establishing an Education and Skills Authority (ESA), which would centralise functions currently carried out by the five Education and Library Boards, as well as the CCEA exam board and the Regional Training Unit, have run aground at Stormont. However, in a statement delivered to the Assembly yesterday, Ms. Ruane set out plans to (you guessed it) carry on regardless of dissenting voices and start implementing the ESA project.

The two UUP ministers, Michael McGimpsey and Sir Reg Empey, have delivered their response:

“The statement made today by the Minister of Education represents an incredibly worrying development. At no time has Minister Ruane sought the support of the Northern Ireland Executive for her ‘transitional governance’ plans for education. This is despite the Ministerial Code requiring a Minister to bring any cross-cutting and ‘significant or controversial’ matters to the Executive.

“Nor has the Minister’s Bill creating the Education and Skills Authority passed the Northern Ireland Assembly or received the Royal Assent. In fact, the very reason the Minister has decided to bring forward transitional plans is precisely because of the lack of support in the Assembly for her Bill creating the ESA.

“Without the support of the Executive or the Assembly, the Minister of Education has arbitrarily decided to give ‘a much more direct role’ in the governance of our education system to a body – the ESA – which has not yet been created by legislation nor received the assent of the Northern Ireland Assembly or Executive.

“Devolution is meant to be about democratic accountability – not ministerial authoritarianism. We are now calling on the Executive to urgently convene and require from the Minister for Education an explanation for her actions"

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

A mutable Agreement, if our aims are being advanced.

In an Assembly debate about north / south bodies yesterday, the UUP’s deputy leader, Danny Kennedy, raised an interesting paradox. Nationalists in general, and the SDLP in particular, have often invoked the Belfast Agreement as if it were infallible and permanent truth. Yet their professed aspiration is to use the accord as a starting point. They aim to gradually integrate Northern Ireland with the Republic. It is a contradictory position which could justify charges of hypocrisy from unionists. After all the accord is consistently cited in order to attack unionist positions on everything from the Bill of Rights to policing and justice.

Mr Kennedy: I begin my contribution with a quotation:

“all-Ireland arrangements are essential for nationalists who want to share the life of the rest of the island. Those balances are essential for unionism, too, in order that unionism has an agreed relationship with the rest of the people of this island. However, if one begins to pick and choose, and have an à la carte approach, one must understand that that is beginning to unpick requirements that are essential for longer-term stability and prosperity on this island.” [Official Report, Volume 37, No 5, p260, col 2].

That is a quotation from the Member for West Belfast Mr Attwood in the debate on a DUP motion that called for a reduction in North/South co-operation.

I agree with the analysis of North/South arrangements that arose from the Belfast Agreement. It is crucial that we recognise that North/South co-operation is sensible for practical reasons and necessary for political stability in Northern Ireland. However, as Mr Attwood outlined, balance is required for unionists. The North/South arrangements are not an embryonic form of united Ireland, and unionism was very careful to make sure of that in the 1998 negotiations. We fought long and hard to ensure that North/South co-operation was practical and not ideological. We fought for that balance, and we feel that it was right.

Mr Attwood cannot have it both ways: he cannot proclaim that the Belfast Agreement is Holy Writ and then table a motion that ignores it. The Belfast Agreement contains provision for the possible extension of North/South co-operation in mutually beneficial areas. The motion’s call for enlargement is based on nothing more than ideological predisposition. The Belfast Agreement protects against that; it protects unionists from ideological solo runs, particularly those from the SDLP, for “North/Southery”. It also protects against creeping North/South integration against the wishes of the people of Northern Ireland.

A review of North/South arrangements is ongoing. Some might wonder why the review team is yet to report, given the extended period — nearly two and a half years — that it has had. Therefore, background motions such as the one before us and the one tabled by the DUP earlier in the year are premature. In many ways, the debate is abstract without the findings of the review, which will report on possible new areas for co-operation. Any areas that are identified will be subject to great scrutiny in this place and in other places, as were the original areas of co-operation that were agreed in Castle Buildings. That is how that arrangement for government in Northern Ireland works.

The SDLP knows full well the intricacies of North/South co-operation. Mr Attwood outlined them in February when it suited him to argue for no change; he cannot turn that argument on its head in November when it suits him to expand co-operation. That is why the Ulster Unionist Party will support the amendment.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Stop the consultation, get rid of the Chief Commissioner and bury the Bill.

After the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (or part of it) delivered its advice on a Bill of Rights for the province, the government has published a consultation paper on the subject.

At Slugger O’Toole, Belfast Gonzo observes that the NIO document has dispensed with most of the NIHRC’s work. The Secretary of State previously noted that the body had strayed far beyond its remit.

Gonzo asks whether Monica McWilliams, the chief commissioner, should resign her post.

She has failed in her brief, she has taken a nakedly political approach to a public position - helping to turn the commission into something resembling a pressure group - and she has been paid £70,000 per annum by the tax payer. This blog has long previously contributed its voice to the campaign for resignation.

The Consultation Paper notes that the British government has already discharged all the duties which were required of it, under the Belfast Agreement, in order to safeguard rights in Northern Ireland. Despite nationalist claims to the contrary, the accord did not include a mandatory Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. Indeed, the Commission which was charged with investigating the scope for such a bill did a dismal job.

In the NIO document it is pointed out that, “over half of the rights proposed in the NIHRC’s Advice are equally as relevant to the people of England, Scotland and Wales as they are to the people of Northern Ireland and, therefore, fall to be considered in a UK-wide context“. There is much more in this vein. And it echoes countless independent critics who were ignored at each stage of the Commission’s project.

The vast majority of rights issues which pertain to Northern Ireland are equally applicable to the rest of the United Kingdom and ought to be discussed within the context of a national debate. The few matters which are specific to Northern Ireland, and which the NIHRC, ironically, largely ignored, can quite easily be appended to a UK wide bill.

The consultation into a bill of rights, like the Human Rights Commissioner, has outlived its usefulness. It should be stopped, before it wastes any more precious pounds.

Blogtalk (Episode 6)

Blogtalk (episode 6) from Northern Visions/NvTv on Vimeo.

Mick Fealty, Gary McKeown and Máirtín Ó Muilleoir discuss this week's topics.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Bow Group's 'More for Less' document

A quick line this morning (there will be lengthier posts appearing later this week I can assure you). John Redwood and Carl Thomson have produced a pamphlet entitled 'More For Less' on behalf of the Bow Group. It aims to set out practical methods which could deliver public savings cuts whilst protecting front line services.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Eighteen candidates - no discussion!

Tom Elliott MLA has appeared on Hearts and Minds attempting to fudge the issue of agreed candidates. He also claims to be 'relatively' supportive of the Conservative and Unionist pact. O'Neill has previously pointed out that the Fermanagh man appears to have a shaky understanding of what UCUNF actually involves. We know that it entails eighteen candidates and yet UUP representatives still remain coy about declaring unequivocally that eighteen candidates will stand.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Liverpool sign striker Placenta?

Benitez' new player gets a medical?

I am, it should be said, rather cynical about experimental medicine of any type. However the basting of Liverpool Football Club's players with horse placenta I fully support. Better yet, play the placenta at centre forward instead of Andriy Voronin.

The civic space: Towards a civic unionism

At Forth magazine, I write about unionism's capacity to deliver civic politics to Northern Ireland. Jason Walsh will reply from the nationalist perspective.

Jason and I share the conviction that Northern Ireland’s politics ought to focus on civic discourse, if they are to assume a less confrontational, less sectarian shape. My contention is that a province, remaining solidly within the United Kingdom, is best placed to draw upon civic and institutional influences, rather than the cultural preoccupations which currently predominate, precisely because the state is a multi-national construct which makes its appeal primarily on the basis of political allegiance, rather than a perceived monolithic identity. It is incumbent upon unionists to celebrate the diversity of their state and frame their arguments in civic terms, rather than continue to call forth Conor Cruise O’Brien’s ‘ancestral voices’.

Read more:

Sorry Liverpool depart Champions League.

Liverpool’s Champions’ League victory recedes ever further into the rear-view mirror of history. It is now the fifth season since that campaign, which climaxed in Istanbul, and to celebrate the club has tumbled out of this year’s competition at the group stages.

Rafa Benitez’ side was not eliminated on the strength of its performances against Debrecen. Although last night the team delivered another unconvincing one goal victory against the minnows. Liverpool, under Benitez, have a habit of doing ’just enough’ to beat substandard opposition in Europe and have often advanced on that basis. This time two fortunate victories against the Hungarians could not offset a defeat at Fiorentina and, crushingly, one point from six against Olympique Lyonnais.

The brutal truth is that Benitez’ team deserves to be eliminated from the Champions’ League, just as it deserved to be beaten by Arsenal’s second string in the Carling Cup and just as it deserves to languish seventh in the Premier League.

An exceptional run of form between January and the end of last season obscured the incontrovertible fact that the squad is really rather threadbare. With Xabi Alonso’s replacement suffering an interminable injury, Fernando Torres sidelined and Steven Gerrard struggling for fitness, Rafa Benitez can field only a distinctly ordinary team.

He has exacerbated his problems with some inexplicable decisions. Yossi Benayoun, producing rampant performances in a free role behind the striker, was consigned first to the wing and now to the bench.

The Greek, Kyriagos, continues to feature, despite a string of lamentable performances. A series of mediocre players which Liverpool’s budget, and Benitez’ transfer decisions, brought to the club have had their inadequacies continually exposed, simply because the manager has been forced to select them.

The fans have been remarkably patient with their manager, but he should be under pressure. The derby is on Sunday, and another defeat cannot be explained away with reference to the club's American owners.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

If they act like thugs, and join an organisation devoted to thuggery, safe to say, they're thugs.

‘When Tory politician William Hague referred to loyalists as ‘thugs’, my heart sank’, claims Roy Garland, in his weekly diatribe against ‘English’ Conservatives. ‘No group of people’ should, he contends, be dismissed in such a way. Not even, apparently, groups whose activities conform to the very definition of thuggery.

First, I don’t believe that Garland’s ‘heart sank’ when the Foreign Secretary attacked loyalist paramilitaries. On the contrary, his communal instincts kicked in, ‘he’s having a go at ussuns as well as themmuns, what an opportunity’ (or words to that effect).

Second, his latest article contains a heart rending tale of a nice young man who joined a paramilitary organisation and then began to change it. Indeed it is positively glowing on the topic of loyalist groups and their stout community work in general.

What a load of twaddle! This is the same narrative, told from a different perspective, which we get from Republicans. Fine young men, compelled by extraordinary circumstances to commit dreadful deeds.

Nobody would claim that paramilitaries are irredeemable. They can gain acceptance by leaving paramilitary groups and joining the lawful society which they have previously terrorised. Attitudes like Garland’s just entrench the influence of shadowy groups within the very communities which he purports to care about.

Loyalist thugs have used guns and intimidation to run areas which, rightly or wrongly, felt under siege. William Hague is absolutely right to pledge to oppose them at every opportunity. Roy Garland, in contrast, demonstrates precisely the moral ambivalence to Protestant terrorists which has undermined unionism over a series of decades.

No group of people deserve to be labelled thugs? How about the morons who murdered Kevin McDaid.

Scots' support for the Union solidifies

When unionist parties vote down Alex Salmond’s proposed independence referendum he hopes to encourage the idea that democracy is being denied. A new poll demonstrates that Scots might not be so receptive to this argument after all. According to You Gov, backing for independence has fallen to 29%, whilst support for the Union is up four points, to 57%.

Anthony King set the question, in line with the SNP’s proposed ‘softly softly’ approach. Rather than seeking honestly the Scottish people’s assent to break up the United Kingdom, the party will propose a mealy mouthed formulation about ‘negotiating a settlement with Westminster‘. King observes that in rejecting this proposition,

“most Scots regard the idea of a referendum on Scottish independence as an irrelevant bore and that, if any such referendum were held in the near future, it would be overwhelmingly defeated".

Indeed only one in eight Scots named a referendum as one of the top two priorities on which Holyrood should concentrate.

Salmond is well aware that his Referendum Bill will not gain the assent of the Scottish Parliament. His strategy is to use its defeat as a springboard for the general election, during which he will portray the SNP as the party prepared to give the electorate its say on Scotland’s constitutional future.

This survey indicates that there may be less leverage in these tactics than Salmond hopes. It also demonstrates that a referendum would kill stone dead, for a generation, the notion of Scottish independence.

Perhaps the brave response from unionists would be to grant Mr Salmond his separatist poll, on the understanding that it poses an honest question to the electorate and that the answers are restricted, simply, to ’Yes’ or ’No’.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Conservatives should be able to avoid asking for Clegg's help

In the wake of the Observer’s Ipsos-Mori poll, which suggested that the general election could result in a hung parliament, Nick Clegg has indicated that, in that eventuality, his party might be prepared to enter into an arrangement with the Conservatives. On ‘The Andrew Marr Show’ the Liberal Democrat leader set out a position which it is difficult not to interpret as encouragement to the Tories.

"Whichever party has the strongest mandate from the British people, it seems to me obvious in a democracy they have the first right to seek to try and govern, either on their own or with others.”

On Conservative Home Jonathan Isaby suggests that Clegg would find it impossible to sell coalition with the Tories to grass roots Liberal Democrat supporters.

However the modern Conservative party, with its emphasis on social justice, is relatively in tune with liberal sensibilities. Although, as Isaby observes, it is unlikely to accede to demands for proportional representation.

Ultimately, the Observer’s poll is not in line with the vast majority of surveys, which still indicate that the Tories are likely to form the next government with a clear majority. There might be fewer Conservative MPs than David Cameron would ideally like, but as long as he plots a centrist course, a hung parliament can be avoided.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Young Unionist Chairman addresses Conservative Future Scotland

Congratulations to Michael Shilliday, whom many of you will know. He had the distinction of addressing the Conservative Future Conference this afternoon. The final draft of his speech is reproduced below.

Mr Chairman it is a tremendous privilege to be addressing this conference, Alasdair and I were delighted to be invited, and are delighted to be here. Your hospitality and generosity have been greatly appreciated, and we have been greatly impressed at the scale and organisation of this conference.

In years gone past, similar gatherings of Young Conservatives in Scotland would I am certain have counted amongst them unionists from Northern Ireland, either as members of the Conservative Party locally, or as guests from my party, here as friends in support of a party and a cause with which they would have had considerable sympathy.

I feel however Mr Chairman, a particular honour in addressing this particular conference at this particular time, because I feel that I am here not only as a friend, but also as a colleague and partner. I am the first Chairman of the Young Unionists in 40 years who has been able to say that, and I do so with a great sense of pride.

The historic agreement reached between our two great parties earlier this year, is hugely important for the future of Northern Ireland. By putting to the electorate a potential government for the first time in a generation, by giving them the opportunity to have their voice heard in national government for the first time since 1974, and by putting Northern Ireland back at the heart of United Kingdom politics, the Ulster Unionist Party and the Conservative Party have taken Northern Ireland society a step further away from conflict and a step closer to being at peace with itself.

However Mr Chairman it should not be said that our renewed partnership is in any way surprising.

Firstly Ulster Unionism and British Conservativism are traditionally and closely aligned movements. We are not engaging in a new departure but re-establishing an old friendship which stemmed from the foundations of Irish Unionism in the 19th century. The reasons for that friendship drifting apart are numerous and contributory to the failure of the Conservative Party to become electable in Northern Ireland over the years since. But the recognition of those facts and the magnanimous manner with which the Conservative Party has dealt with those legacy issues has played a massive role in setting them to one side and allowing us to progress. David Cameron has publically reiterated the regret of Mrs Thatcher for the Anglo Irish Agreement, and emphatically contradicted Peter Brooke’s statement that the UK Government had no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland. That was necessary, that took courage, and that speaks volumes about the commitment of the leadership of the Conservative Party to our shared initiative.

Secondly Mr Chairman, for the Ulster Unionist Party, re-establishing a link is another step on the road to a shared Northern Ireland, at peace with itself. That road began in earnest in the mid 1990’s and the UUP has achieved much in that time and since which we are rightly proud of. The IRA has surrendered its weaponry and core ideology to a partitionist settlement within the Union under the Crown. The principle of consent secures the future of Northern Ireland as an integral region of the United Kingdom to it’s people, and the ever increasing proportion of Catholic support for the Union leaves me with a certainty that I will not see a united Ireland in my lifetime. At it’s core, the dual legacy of the Belfast Agreement is peace, and an enduring Union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Having made those achievements, it is entirely predictable that the Ulster Unionist Party would seek to reengage Northern Ireland with national politics – that is the logical progression of the Belfast Agreement. The Ulster Unionist Party having achieved it’s mission of securing Northern Ireland within the Union, has taken the logical step to seek new goals and pursue new avenues for politics in Northern Ireland, with an old friend and partner.

Of course Mr Chairman it will not be lost on anyone here that the battle to keep our Kingdom united is no longer dominated by Irish separatism. Today it is arguable that it is you and not I who face the greatest challenge to British unity. Whilst it is crucial to remember that the rise in electoral support for the SNP does not correspond to a rise in support for Scottish independence, the realities of Scottish politics as it exists makes it incumbent on all unionist parties in Scotland to make the case for the union clearly and unequivocally in the years ahead.

That challenge will be heightened for the Scottish Conservative Party in the event of there being a Conservative and Ulster Unionist Government next year. The ourselves alone alliance of the SNP and DUP have made clear that they intend to try to pin the blame for any and every pressure and failure on the finances of their administrations on an English Tory Government. It is up to us in the Scottish Conservatives and Ulster Unionists to make sure that they don’t get away with that lie. It is up to us before and after the election to be honest about the public finances, and to be up front with the public in the face of unashamed hypocrisy and dishonesty. It is up to us to make sure that the Scottish and Northern Irish electorates know that a Conservative Government is not an English Government, it is a British Government, fighting for Scotland and fighting for Northern Ireland.

And it has to be said that the National Conservative Party has done much better in the past three years than the previous three in recognising the realities of the United Kingdom beyond England. The “little Englander” mentality that was the prevailing image of the Conservative Party has largely been replaced. The phoney argument about “subsidies” for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has all but disappeared from the lexicon of English representatives. Sir Edward Carson, very much the father of Ulster Unionism, argued passionately for extra resources for schools in rural Mayo and elsewhere in pre-partition Ireland. The principle was equal services for equal taxation of equal citizens. That principle still holds today, and no longer is the Conservative Party backing away from that commitment to our nation. No longer is the Conservative Party suggesting that Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish MP’s should be a lower class of MP. It is quite clear that David Cameron knows that he could be the last Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and that he is doing what is necessary to avoid such a situation, out of conviction. It is clear that the Conservative Party is determined to maintain the entire Union.
Of course one of the key benefits to both parties of our partnership, is the opportunity to engage with each other and learn from each other’s experiences. Perhaps there is a heightened opportunity for Unionists and Conservatives in the devolved regions to co-operate. Where your party has a history of scepticism towards devolution, mine once had a thriving debate between devolutionists and integrationists. The Ulster Unionist Party has long put that debate behind us, and as a friend, I urge Scottish Conservatives to fully embrace devolution.
I strongly believe that devolution is not something to be feared by Unionists, but something to be embraced . Devolution, approached positively, can secure the union, rather than threaten it or undermine it. Devolution is fundamentally a form of bringing about decentralisation of power and greater local control, principles that should be welcomed and advanced by Conservatives.
In Northern Ireland through our two Ministers, Sir Reg Empey (Employment and Learning) and Michael McGimpsey (Health), we are making tangible, positive and innovative improvements to public services on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland that is responsive to the needs of our region. Michael McGimpsey has recently completed the most fundamental overhaul of the Northern Ireland Health Service since my party founded it in the 1950s. Opinion polls rank our Ministers as among the most popular, respected and appreciated ministers of the current Northern Ireland Executive.

The challenge then for what you might call the "Celtic Conservatives" is to both nurture our hunger for Executive authority in the devolved political arenas, and upon obtaining such authority, readily demonstrate the effective difference that can be made when conservative solutions are applied to social, economic and political problems.
Boris Johnston in London, has shown what can be done, when Unionists and Conservatives set our sights on resting control of a devolved body from the grasps of charismatic socialism. It is vital we do not surrender any of the devolved executives to the bankrupt intellectual houses of socialism and small-minded nationalism.

For Unionists and Conservatives, the coming days weeks and months are about change, change we all desperately need from a Labour Government that has long outlived it’s welcome. The United Kingdom desperately needs a modern and forward-looking Conservative Government at Westminster.

But we also need modern and forward-looking Conservatives in the Cardiff, Holyrood and Stormont Executives. The entire United Kingdom needs change at all levels and in all institutions. To create that change, the United Kingdom needs the Conservative Party at all levels to embrace devolution, win authority in all devolved regions, and to govern. Conservatives and Ulster Unionists hold the key to preserving the Union in the long term. It’s now up to us to go forward, persuade the electorate, and do it.