Thursday, 29 January 2009

Sharing wasn't the problem. The Maze stadium was a bad proposal.

From the perspective of a fan of the Northern Ireland football team, I was opposed to the Maze stadium proposals for purely apolitical reasons. The plans would simply have delivered the wrong facility in the wrong place

Naturally, as a unionist, I was also deeply unenthused by the prospect of a terrorist museum being erected / preserved at the Maze site. However my apprehension in that regard had little to do with concerns about the suitability of the stadium.

The act of building a sports’ venue at the Maze would not have metamorphosised the adjacent hospital into some manner of IRA shrine by some indelible law of nature. Nor will scrapping plans for the stadium necessarily involve shelving the ‘peace and reconciliation centre’ (ho hum), as is becoming increasingly apparent.

I can also say with absolute certainty that the vast majority of Northern Ireland supporters have no difficulty sharing a stadium with the GAA (in principle). There may be reservations as regards design implications, but that is an entirely different issue and does not sustain the outrageous slurs which Feeney and others have insisted on making.

If there were to be a stadium, suitable to the needs of the football team in terms of facilities, venue and capacity, most Northern Ireland supporters wouldn’t care less if Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness booked it every other weekend for bouts of homoerotic mud wrestling, as long as it was available and in good condition when international fixtures came around.

Of course the very notion that a multi sports’ venue would increase interaction between communities is questionable. Providing facilities where no-one feels uncomfortable is desirable. But the three sports which signed up to the Maze project would not have used it at the same time!

Any decent sized shopping centre would do more to ‘bring people together’, or a city centre cinema. Requiring fans to travel to a god-forsaken former prison in the middle of nowhere in order to watch their respective sports was not a good plan to heal society in Northern Ireland. Neither is scrapping it a major setback.

So if, as reports suggest, Gregory Campbell intends to scrap plans for a stadium at the Maze, his action is justifiable on purely practical grounds. It was a bad design and it was a bad site.

It is a decision to applaud, but it shouldn’t necessarily sound the death knell of either a new stadium or the notion of sharing it between two or more sports. An innovative proposal, taking into account modern notions on stadia location and answering to the needs of the IFA, IRFU and GAA is surely not beyond the ken of our best architects.

It’s just a pity that so much time has been wasted considering options at the Maze.

Partnership or Cold War mentalities?

Thanks to Brian from Burke’s Corner who pointed me toward a couple of articles carrying quotes from Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s ambassador to NATO and former leader of the erstwhile Rodina party, which is now subsumed in the Just Russia coalition. Rogozin is an articulate proponent of the Russian position and he is particularly persuasive when he argues common interests between the EU, US and Russia comprise a sum greater than those matters which divide the three.

“We suggest principles that are really hard to object to. Who is going to deny that security should be equal, indispensable and indivisible for all? Who could be against demilitarizing the entire centre of the European continent using military force solely to defend our common borders in the Pacific area? Who could be against ruling out military planning, especially nuclear planning, against each other? These things are totally reasonable; it’s a new world outlook. It’s a new vision of collective security for everyone. Therefore, what Medvedev is offering is hardly questionable.”

Rogozin blames a Cold War mentality for hampering efforts to repair relations between Russia and the west. As if to demonstrate the point, today’s Telegraph carries a nasty little editorial urging Barack Obama to capitalise on Russia’s economic weakness in the face of falling oil revenues. Exploit the Russians whilst they have other concerns to address is the basis of the argument. A more unpleasant, short term approach it would be difficult to imagine.

In contrast, Crunchy Con, Rod Dreher’s neat synopsis perhaps deserves to be the final word on this debate,

“in the long run (that is, this century), there is no reason for Russia and the US to be at odds, and real cultural reasons for us to be more closely united than we now are -- especially given the steep projected decline in European and Russian populations.”

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Don't be DUPed again (1)!

The DUP has proved unable to secure a big name in order to spearhead its efforts to win back the European parliament seat which it no longer holds. An MLA and two councillors will seek the party’s nomination, the prospective candidates being Robin Newton, Diane Dodds and Deirdre Nelson.

Whoever is successful it is clear that the DUPes’ campaign will assume an all too familiar pattern. In 2007 the party raised the spectre of a Sinn Féin First Minister, having first instigated the change which made that situation possible. It was a piece of disgraceful and barefaced cynicism.

Frightening the unionist electorate will once again comprise a central role in the DUP’s tactics. The inevitable party ‘spokesman’ (aka press office hack) apparently said (or perhaps more accurately e-mailed to local newspapers) the following,

“This election will be a clear battle between the DUP and Sinn Fein. It is crucial that Sinn Fein does not top the poll.”

No matter how much a voter might loathe Sinn Féin, he is also be entitled to ask, why is it so crucial that Bairbre de Bruin doesn’t top the poll?

There are three seats available. If one of them is inevitably going to go to the Shinners, surely the DUP’s priority must be to ensure two others stay with unionists? Especially with the party being so big on ‘unionist unity’ n all! It is certainly desirable the Provos don’t top the poll. Ideally they wouldn’t get a seat at all. But crucial?

A pedant, or someone with a passing interest in consistency, might also wonder why, if the DUPes are so focussed on sidelining Sinn Féin, they spend so much time at Stormont carving up power with the Provos and trooping into the same division lobby.

And, of course, we hear Robinson et al constantly extolling the virtues of the power sharing agreement the two parties are dominating! One would almost think that SF’s hegemony in the nationalist community suits the DUP!

Meanwhile the DUPes managed to acquire the services of one of the Conservatives’ remaining Neanderthal backbenchers as an after dinner speaker. True to form he has criticised his leader’s deal with Ulster Unionists on the grounds that it compromises ‘unionist unity’. (Yes, that predictable and inconsistently applied old chestnut).

Nicholas Winterton is perhaps best known for defending the right of MPs to retain many different undeclared interests alongside their political work. Doubtless he feels at home speaking to a party which has scarcely hidden its determination to extract ever more from the exchequer.

His remarks remain just as invalid as the entire ‘unity’ argument’s substance. Depriving unionists of the choice to vote for a candidate which best represents them does not strengthen the Union one iota. A 300 odd strong bloc of unionists in the UK parliament strengthens it substantially.

Monday, 26 January 2009

New political climate in Georgia

Blogging might be a little slow and brief this week due to the encroachment of real life. Rather than comment extensively on Jonathan Steele’s CIF piece on Georgia I will simply commend it to your attention.

Suffice to say that Steele detects a change in attitude toward President Mikheil Saakashvili military adventurism. Georgians are increasingly cynical about a head of state feted by American neo-cons.

Again, Barack Obama’s arrival at the White House offers an opportunity to reappraise Washington’s unequivocal support for a regime with dubious credentials as regards democracy.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Russia NATO Council meets

Encouraging news that NATO’s relationship with Russia might be normalising in the aftermath of war in South Ossetia. Radio Free Europe reports the first meeting of the Russia NATO Council since the alliance suspended contact citing Russia’s ‘disproportionate response' to events in the Caucasus.

The Kremlin’s envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, said ‘the ice is thawing’. Russia is keen to cooperate as regards transport routes to Afghanistan. It sees continued insurrection there as a threat to the stability of its borders with Central Asia.

Treating Moscow with respect and consideration affords opportunities to build meaningful partnership. Barack Obama has a window of opportunity to pursue constructive policy toward Russia. An early meeting with President Medvedev would offer a chance for Obama to demonstrate good faith.

Friday, 23 January 2009

Progressive conservatism will deliver the middle ground

Iain Martin is upset that David Cameron has addressed an event organised by Blairite think tank Demos on the topic of ‘progressive conservatism’. In contrast Martin Kettle commends the content of the Conservative leader’s speech. He believes Labour’s tendency to contemptuously dismiss the very notion that another party can forward a ‘progressive’ agenda is misplaced. There is no particular reason to question Cameron’s bona fides on such issues as fairness, equality of opportunity, environmental sustainability and public safety.

When the UK electorate returns the next Conservative government, whatever it is voting for, it will not be voting for a return to unalloyed Thatcherism. Resentment against Demos’ Blairite background is one thing, suggestions that Cameron should not steer a centrist course, or should resile from his agenda of progressive conservatism is entirely another. It is no accident that reaffirming commitment to socially responsible policy and distancing the party from the harder edge of free market economics, Cameron has begun to re-establish the poll leads which Labour had eaten into before Christmas.

Whilst Gordon Brown continues sneering at Conservatives, alleging that they form a party which doesn’t understand the economic crisis, his own efforts to circumvent it have included blatant cherry picking of Tory policy. First a plan to reward companies for employing the long-term jobless was pilfered and then Labour adopted a scheme to underwrite bank loans which the Conservatives had been advocating for some months. With the downturn continuing unabated, Kettle’s notion that Brown no longer looks the surest custodian of the economy is gaining credibility.

When Cameron presents the Conservatives as a party which cares about notions such as fairness and equality, he is not only reassuring the British public. He is invoking a narrative which is both persuasive and grounded in reality. Kettle argues,

“There is surely a strong historical case for saying that this is in many ways a progressive, small-c conservative country and for claiming, as Cameron does, that this tradition stretches across parties. And there is indisputably a strong progressive, big-C Conservative thread in its political history, stretching from Bolingbroke through Burke to Peel, Disraeli, Macmillan and Gilmour. Now, if yesterday's words mean anything, it stretches to Cameron too. To pretend this is merely a sham is pitiful.”

The tradition to which Cameron wishes to return is not only attractive to voters; it is the right direction in which to lead his party. Not withstanding financial turmoil, the Conservative leader must stand firm in the notion that there is more to politics than the economy. He must resist the more aggressive assertions of the free trade fundamentalists and strive to deliver fiscal balance and responsibility allied to conservatism rooted in concern for the health of society.

Progressive conservatism is a meaningful and worthy aspiration.

Just go!

No, not Caitriona Ruane this time.

Although it hardly represents an excuse for some dismal on field performances, Liverpool’s high league position has been achieved despite an unseemly boardroom civil war which has drawn in manager Rafa Benitez.

The club’s American owners have not delivered on promises which they made when they took over the club. In addition the relationship between the pair has deteriorated to the point that the tandem is unworkable.

Ominously George Gillett does not appear to have agreed to negotiations, but if the Kuwaiti family with whom Tom Hicks is discussing a sale is even reasonably conscientious, they would offer a distinct improvement to the Americans.

To Hicks and Gillett I say – sell, go away, don’t come back.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Labour's assault on liberties is linked to its misrepresentation of rights

It is to good purpose that we speak of civil liberties being ‘eroded’. Frequently this corpus of law, which protects freedoms, rights and entitlements inherent in our British citizenship, is diluted almost imperceptibly. The Labour government’s systematic diminishment of our liberties has been a monotonous drip, frequently camouflaged by the rhetoric of security. The overall effect is that often we do not realise that a freedom is under attack until is already gone. We remember that it was once enjoyed, but not the exact circumstances or timing of its removal.

To this end Comment is Free is developing an aide-mémoire detailing legislation through which Labour has deprived Britons of liberties since its election victory in 1997. Subsequent to that date the government has created 3,600 new criminal offences which Lord Phillips, until recently Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, has described as a ‘ceaseless torrent of legislation’. Afua Hirsch introduces the guide with a brief exposition of acts which have applied in some high profile examples where liberties have been curtailed.

A considerably different medium, ConHome, also examines the civil liberties issue today. Dominic Raab is Chief of Staff for the new Shadow Justice Secretary, Dominic Grieve. He argues that Labour’s removal of basic protections for individual liberty has coincided with deliberate misrepresentation of the concept of human rights. Increasingly rights are portrayed less as defences against the arbitrary removal of freedom and more as legal entrenchments of dubious claims on the state. I wonder if he has read the NIHRC’s recommendations for a Bill of Rights in Northern Ireland. It is a document which makes an apotheosis of this erroneous interpretation of rights.

Raab wants a new Bill of Rights for the United Kingdom which will, ‘provide greater clarity and stronger protection for our fundamental freedoms, but give maximum flexibility to restore democratic control over - and check - the flow of novel claims dressed up as human rights’. In other words a legal architecture which strives to find some balance between rights and responsibilities. Raab’s boss has already expressed the opinion that Northern Ireland should be included in such a bill, albeit with room to provide any additional safeguards for identity and parity of esteem which might be appropriate.

Concern with the removal of liberties is not a partisan issue. As the campaign against forty two day detention demonstrated, opponents of Labour’s assaults on freedom are drawn from across the political spectrum. The government has not just offended a libertarian fringe. It has repeatedly attacked fundamental principles which underlie the Kingdom’s constitution and its political identity.

It should not be forgotten, however, that whilst the process has entailed a diminution of rights in the accepted sense, it has also involved an exponential increase in the erroneous invocation of rights as a concept. Both phenomena need to be urgently addressed.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

A quote which I read today (in no way a quote of the day!)

Don’t worry. I don’t intend to replicate O’Neill’s ‘Quote of the Day’ feature. Still, this pithy synopsis is worth reproducing in unvarnished form. Danny Kennedy highlights the carve-up at work.

Yesterday, in an ill-tempered display, First Minister Robinson hit out at the UUP, Alliance and SDLP for co-operating on the Financial Assistance Bill. He had the cheek to describe the three parties as an 'unholy alliance' - on the same day as he and his party trooped into the voting lobbies 6 times with their friends in Sinn Fein. 3 democratic political parties co-operating to hold the First Minister and deputy First Minister to account is positive, democratic politics - Messers Robinson and McGuinness clubbing together in a power-grab is truly 'unholy'.

Preferred candidates' lists defended

Stephen King offers his take on the ‘preferred candidates’ debate in the Irish Examiner, arguing that parties need to bring more talent in from outside in order to remain (become?) representative and relevant. It is a strong case and he conjures a world of dismal halls, cups of tea and idiosyncratic selection choices which will be immediately identifiable to anyone who has attended a party meeting in Northern Ireland.

It is understandable that party members who have loyally attended such meetings for many years would be resentful of lists and the ‘blow ins’ they might comprise. Those who have been patiently working their way up the party hierarchy can find themselves sidelined and the prerogative of local members to select their own favoured candidate is circumscribed.

But if parties wish to attract the best talent and aspire to represent accurately the electorate they must compete to attract, then an influx of fresh candidates is the quickest way to achieve those ambitions. Conscientious political involvement is not necessarily an indicator of representative ability. Nor does winning the backing of a sparsely attended meeting of elderly members always demonstrate that a candidate will be attractive to a broad spectrum of voters.

Hail to the King?

Examining the substance of Barack Obama’s rhetoric, an article in January’s Prospect noted that, not only is there nothing particularly audacious about hope, but if the formulation were reversed to read, ‘the hope of audacity’, it would make little difference to either the meaning or content of the phrase. It was an observation which returned to me as I listened to Obama’s inauguration speech yesterday.

The address was not to my taste. Upholstered by metaphor and platitude, it sounded like narrative from a Hollywood movie. American presidents frequently do. There were traces of a significant message, but it was difficult to disentangle from high flown, meaningless speechifying.

Burke’s Corner takes the US to task for ignoring its own Lockean myth in its inauguration ceremony. It forms less a celebration of sovereignty which rests with the people than a quasi monarchical coronation. Obama is elected whereas our own head of state is not, but it is hard to disagree that this distinction can be rather lost in the pomp and circumstance.

The News Letter reports that the new president might grace Northern Ireland as early as April. If he does pay us a visit it will not be the best day to be a motorist in Belfast.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

We need fewer departments and fewer MLAs, but don't forget we also need more accountability.

Both the Irish News and Redemption’s Son have carried articles supporting the contention that Northern Ireland’s executive should be comprised of fewer departments. A motion in the Assembly proposed that the existing 11 department administration should be cut to six or seven. The DUP found backing from Ulster Unionist and Alliance MLAs, whilst Sinn Féin abstained and the motion was passed.

Government at Stormont, and the Assembly from which it is drawn, are bloated institutions. Five million people are represented by 129 MSPs in Scotland. The Welsh Assembly is composed of sixty members for a population twice that of Northern Ireland. Meanwhile we have 108 MLAs. And Sir Reg Empey has raised the infantile fashion in which money is squandered by this cadre of men and women.

His point is that a reduction in departments is not enough, on its own, to save money. We need to cut civil service functions and we need a commensurate effort by MLAs not to fuel bureaucracy unnecessarily. With too many representatives, all of whom are seeking to justify their presence at Stormont, this will not happen unless we start by shrinking the Assembly to between sixty or seventy members.

And whilst it is important to make regional government efficient, requirements for accountability should not be neglected. The DUP and Sinn Féin have connived, not only to make the executive less accountable to the Assembly, but also to bolster independent functions of the OFMDFM within the executive. Efficiency is desirable. An overly centralised, authoritarian carve-up is most definitely not.

Certainly reducing the size of Northern Ireland’s government is both vital and necessary. But a smaller executive should also be subject to much more effective scrutiny from a smaller Assembly. That is the model we need to strive towards.

Long and winding roads....

Some of my favourite Google searches which have linked readers to this site over the past month.

Daniel O’Donnell

DUP idiot in Europe

fred cobain blog "gaelic" -kurt -curt -nirvana -frances -bean

Who are the taigs in Ireland?

If you're responsible for number 3, get help!

Rafa in denial as two more points dropped

‘If you can meet with triumph and disaster/ And treat those two impostors just the same’. Perhaps Rafa Benitez has internalised Kipling’s words a little too literally. It seems he can’t distinguish between triumph and disaster.

Last night Liverpool failed to beat limited, dogged - let’s stop beating about the bush - negative, dirty Everton, despite taking the lead through a Gerrard thunderbolt with twenty minutes to go.

Rather than capitalise on second half dominance by pushing on in an attempt to kill off the opposition, Benitez withdrew his star striker in favour of woeful, deep lying midfielder Lucas Leiva. The denouement was predictable from the moment Liverpool tried to shut up shop.

Everton’s goal might have been scruffy; a free kick flighted into the box from a non-existent foul, nodded in by Tim Cahill whilst Martin Skrtl looked on like the simple minded idiot in a 1920s' play. But with Liverpool’s unspeakable rivals getting into their point pilfering stride, another home draw (against a poor, poor side) underlines just how far Benitez’ side are from championship winning material.

Clearly Rafa hasn’t cottoned on. Yet.

Monday, 19 January 2009

Do McIlveen and Simpson want to establish a general principle?

Free P tub-thumper David McIlveen and DUPe gospel singer and occasional MP, David Simpson, have called on Translink to ‘respect the feeling of Christian bus drivers’ by allowing them not to drive buses with humanist adverts on the side. I wonder do they wish to establish a new principle whereby employees can vet all the advertising carried on the side of public transport?

Perhaps conscientious objectors should have been exempt from driving buses with those noxiously disingenuous ‘that’s why we need a Bill of Rights’ adverts resplendent on the side. Maybe temperance advocates should be allowed to opt out from promoting Harp lager by means of 12 feet high pints on the back of double-deckers. There’s no reason Christians should get special treatment after all!

My feeling is that whilst drivers are entitled to their convictions equally the company is entitled to carry legal advertising without consulting each employee. If the rigours of someone’s conscience are incompatible with free speech on the side of a bus, naturally they have a decision to make. If they feel they can’t do their job then the company must look for another employee.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

McCartney appealed to similar impulses but offered nothing concrete

A discussion about preferred candidates on Redemption’s Son led Ignited to suggest that the current Ulster Unionist initiative had been tried before, when Robert McCartney and others spearheaded the ‘Campaign for Equal Citizenship’ back in the nineteen eighties. I countered that McCartney had never seriously threatened to deliver an arrangement whereby Northern Irish candidates had a good chance of being elected as members of a governing party at Westminster. Undoubtedly, though, current developments do appeal to similar impulses as the CEC. If the internet had been widely available in 1986, and had I been a peculiarly politically precocious nine year old, ’Three Thousand Versts’ would almost certainly have been coloured by an integrationist hue.

During the early part of that decade James Molyneaux was proud of his links with Thatcher’s Conservative Party. Under the influence of Enoch Powell, there was an integrationist bent to his politics. But the party was also possessed of a strong devolutionist wing. In his ‘History of the Ulster Unionist Party’ Graham Walker suggests that calls for ‘unionist unity’, allied to Ulster Unionists’ innate conservatism and unwillingness to internalise politics, which logically extrapolated would necessitate the party’s dissolution, led to McCartney’s expulsion. Sceptics, or even those who wish to steer the new dispensation in a particular direction, point to his demise, and that of 80s integrationism as a mainstream unionist idea, as evidence that it is unwise to attempt to normalise politics here in line with the rest of the UK.

Of course there are a great many factors which distinguish Northern Ireland in 2009 from Northern Ireland twenty years ago. And the Ulster Unionist Party is a considerably different institution from that which existed in the eighties. Is it legitimate to extrapolate from McCartney’s ultimate failure that we should be doomed forever to retain the same political model, stripped of the political access which mainstream Westminster parties afford? Naturally I would argue that circumstances are currently much more propitious as regards Northern Ireland’s involvement in national politics than they were in 1986. The paradox is that, to an extent, a reverse for integrationism in its purest form has facilitated movements towards part of what the CEC envisaged.

The notion that participation in national politics is necessary in order that citizens might enjoy the full gamut of rights and entitlements which accompany their citizenship is unique neither to Northern Ireland nor to the United Kingdom. Although I’d imagine few civic unionists would appreciate the comparison, I’ve observed before that VV Putin’s attempts to impose national party politics in Russia have at least partially been inspired by an urge to ‘equal citizenship’. From the perspective of a different political culture, the former Russian president’s introduction of membership quotas and minimum electoral targets, in order to sideline minority and regional parties, seems unacceptably authoritarian. But despite employing a typically Russian, top down model, Putin’s rationale was not terribly different from that which informs bottom up projects, seeking to allow British citizens in Northern Ireland access to mainstream national politics.

A legacy which Putin inherited from his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, was a notoriously asymmetric constitutional relationship between Moscow and its various regions. Labour’s devolution project has bequeathed to the United Kingdom its own set of devolved asymmetries. Ironically, whilst this constitutional tinkering has visited irreparable damage upon the UK as a coherent unit, it has moved Northern Ireland into a less unique position within the Union. In the nineteen eighties integrationism foresaw administrative integration, as well as party political integration. With administrative tasks devolved to Scotland and Wales as well as Northern Ireland, the former aspiration has become less tethered to the latter. Devolution has actually facilitated Conservatives and Ulster Unionists in their project to bring Northern Irish voters the choice to vote for the next Westminster government.

The principle distinguishing factor between what the new force will set before voters and the narrative advanced by Robert McCartney is that the former is based on a concrete relationship. Although McCartney’s aspirations were admirable, as were the aspirations of Kate Hoey and other advocates of ‘equal citizenship’, they did not garner significant support from any mainland party. When the Conservatives eventually set up here in 1989, their organisation in Northern Ireland was instigated by the leadership, rather it was forced upon the party at Conference. It is not fair to say that voters in Northern Ireland have been offered before what Conservatives and Ulster Unionists are now offering.

This is something new, unique and imminently attractive to anyone in Northern Ireland who aspires to exercise to the full their citizenship of the United Kingdom.

Irish Cup washout poses some awkward questions

Yesterday I had the dubious pleasure of driving to Ballyclare, buffeted by wind and lashed by rain, in order to watch 45 minutes of football, half-covered by a leaky shed. Ballymena United's cup tie was subsequently called off, at half-time, with the Sky Blues leading 1-0. Conditions had not worsened noticably in the 45 minutes which were played.

If the pitch was unplayable, or there were safety considerations, why was the match started in the first place? The referee inspected the pitch just five minutes before kick-off. Several other ties were similarly abandoned at half-time.

The cynic in me suspects that playing enough minutes in order to negate the necessity of refunds for supporters might have been a prime consideration. Of course the clubs and the IFA can help allay such any suspicions by opening up the gates for the re-arranged fixtures. In the light of some very dubious decision making, surely this is the least fans deserve?

Friday, 16 January 2009

Perfect timing as Conservatives outline environment plans

Part of the rationale for constructing a third runway at Heathrow, an airport transparently unsuited to that type of expansion, is an ambition to enhance its reputation as an ‘international hub’. Several of these eerie, parallel worlds exist throughout Europe and include Amsterdam and Frankfurt. I spent a few hours in the latter during the summer, hopping between Lufthansa flights in order to get to and from Russia.

It is a horrendous place to spend time, negotiating multiple security checks and eating plasticky German bratwurst. There is little sense that the visitor is on planet Earth, never mind in Germany. He spends a trance like hour or two in the chill of too efficient air conditioning, impatient to be spirited away to his ultimate destination. Such is the future which the government seeks to encourage at Heathrow. Outside the narrow confines of the aviation industry, ‘hub’ status yields limited benefits.

It isn’t an especially difficult decision for the Conservatives to oppose the runway’s construction. It underpins green credentials which David Cameron wants to emphasise, it tallies with a suspicion that air travel will not continue to expand, the time scale over which it will be rolled our should afford Tories the opportunity to arrest an unpopular Labour plan and it is an ill advised initiative in the first place. The shadow cabinet must be grateful that the government has presented them with a gilt edged opportunity to adopt a strong position. Even before Labour member, John McDonnell MP, made an obviously premeditated grab for the Commons mace, in protest at the Transport Secretary’s announcement.

There could scarcely be a more propitious time for Cameron to outline his environmental programme. Built around a £1 billion investment in the National Grid the Conservative leader’s plans are aimed at encouraging a less carbon intensive society. ‘Smart grid technology’ will allow customers to choose off peak times to use electricity at cheaper rates, more efficiently. Meters will enable consumers to feed electricity back into the grid, for appropriate recompense. A system which is already operating successfully in Germany.

In addition there will be a capital guarantee scheme, encouraging risk-averse energy companies to finance householders to make their houses greener. A Conservative government would underpin loans which could then be recouped through energy bills, made substantially smaller by loft insulation and so on.

No doubt Labour will accuse the Tories of opportunism and gimmickry. But it becomes increasingly difficult to persuade the electorate that the opposition lack substance when it is articulating genuinely constructive policy themes and resisting destructive Labour schemes. In the same way, levelling charges of ‘doing nothing’ appears increasingly silly as the government adopts Conservative ideas to tackle the financial crisis.

David McNarry. Remembering those cool heads I mentioned below?

Why don’t I pre-empt the DUP press office, no doubt beavering away at a press release to attribute to one of its representatives, and react to comments made by David McNarry to the UUP Women’s Council?

His speech will be interpreted as an attack on the inclusive agenda adopted by the UUP / Conservative coalition. In particular it is already being reported as a warning not to sideline the Orange Order as an important ‘stakeholder’ (to adopt that horrible term) in unionist politics.

Mr McNarry urges the UUP, “keep a distance from the wide-boy liberalistos but do not shut out the Orange Order”. Additionally he warned David Cameron that there would be considerable opposition, particularly within the Order, to removing the Act of Settlement.

Whatever a ‘liberalisto’ might be (and I’d imagine I might be bordering on that description), I’m sure most parties contain both members and representatives counselling against their influence. No doubt there are Conservative MPs who would offer similar advice to that party’s leadership. McNarry offers a hard-line perspective, but it would be wrong to attribute it too much weight.

As for ‘shutting out’ the Orange Order, as Assistant Grand Master, the MLA is naturally defensive of the interests of that constituency. The UUP should not ‘shut out’ the OO, in the sense that members of the party who are also members of Loyal Orders are entitled to play a full role within the new force. And as an important cultural institution in Northern Ireland, Orangeism deserves to be supported, as long as it is not to the exclusion of other, similar pursuits.

I am not McNarry’s biggest fan. I’m in disagreement with his remarks on the Act of Settlement. Although it was an important foundational constitutional document, I believe that certain of its provisions are anachronistic. The monarch should no longer be bound to a particular faith.

He is entitled to his position, which is certainly approaching the harder edge of right wing, and his particular cultural interests, which are Orange. No doubt he can be accommodated within a broad, centre right party, but neither should his apprehension be allowed to distract from the main goal which the new electoral force must strive toward.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Send the bugger back?

I must tip my hat to Fair Deal who pointed me towards an article in the Belfast Telegraph claiming that Nigel Worthington is being lined up for a return to his former club, Norwich City. The Canaries are currently without a manager since Glenn Roeder got the chop. Obviously such speculation causes grave disquiet at the IFA, where memories of Lawrie Sanchez’ mid-campaign departure for Fulham still rankle.

Certainly brief consultation of Google reveals many papers are running with the story that Worthington could provide interim cover, taking the manager’s post until the end of the season. The suggestion is that he need not relinquish his duties with Northern Ireland in order to do a temporary job at the Championship club. Given the acrimony of his departure, I’d be surprised if he would accept a short-term arrangement and I would be equally astonished if Norwich supporters welcomed him back enthusiastically.

Although I’m not Nigel’s biggest fan (to say the least), neither do I think managerial disruption at this juncture of our World Cup campaign would be beneficial. Ultimately, however, it will not be Worthington who leads Northern Ireland to its next major finals.

If he does wish to go back for another spell at a club with unrealistic aspirations, whether it is full-time or on a temporary basis, on no account should he be allowed to continue his duties with the IFA. I’ll shed no crocodile tears and we can begin an earlier search for a manager to arrest the decline Worthington has set in motion. Personally I don't think it's remotely likely.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Knee deep in our own filth.

I appreciate this piece will make me sound cranky, old and curmudgeonly, but an article about litter, from today’s Daily Telegraph, struck a particular chord. It reports that the amount of rubbish dropped on Britain’s streets has increased five fold since the 1960s. I neither know whether these statistics apply to Northern Ireland as well as to mainland Britain, nor was I around in the sixties to appreciate what five times less litter might have looked like. But I definitely do live in part of Belfast which is knee deep in the stuff.

My only quibble with the Telegraph’s opinion piece, which begins with the reporter demanding a teenager pick-up a flyer which he has just deposited on the ground, is that it does not cover litter’s twin evil in the world of dirty streets, dog shit. It seems to me that willingness to allow one’s dog to stool at will on the public thoroughfare is a mentality intimately linked to indifference many people show towards living in an locality piled high with its own residents’ rubbish.

It is a troubling conundrum, because in many ways the area in which I live is a far more cohesive community than anywhere else I’ve resided. Why then is it by far the dirtiest?

Why is it that every garden is scrupulously maintained, kitted out with a population of gnomes and assorted faux classical statuary, yet chip containers, newspapers and sweet wrappers are allowed to blow in drifts around the adjacent streets? Why is it that the community’s collective stewardship of its children is taken for granted, so much so that an unaccompanied child will think nothing of asking you to bring him a glass of water, just because it’s your house he’s playing outside, but simultaneously small children are allowed to play on streets smeared consistently with diarrheic canine faeces?

Over Christmas, whilst residents competed with each other to assemble the most elaborate displays of Christmas lights and decorations outside their houses, simultaneously, bin bags, loosely tied and spilling their contents of rotting food, soiled nappies and worse were piled up at roadsides, many days before any bin collection was due.

Polystyrene packaging, broken white goods, garden implements, suites of furniture and so on are frequently dumped in similar fashion and sit for weeks, disintegrating on the street. One call to the city council is enough to arrange collection of large items. Multiple copies of free papers flutter around for days after their delivery. Almost uniformly drinks cans, take-away cartons and the like are deposited on the ground, not by people passing through, but by people who actually live nearby.

I can understand fly-tipping; I can understand people who throw things out of car windows; I can understand litter being left at venues after public events. I simply can’t understand why people would wilfully, stubbornly, almost proudly choose to live amongst their own filth. My only speculative theory is that this trend represents a petulant reluctance to assume responsibility for anything other than our immediate personal environment. ‘I am meticulous about the upkeep of my property, but it’s someone else’s job to clean the street, therefore I will dispose of whatever I like in it’! No matter that much of the rubbish simply blows onto private property in any case.

On a national scale, litter is hardly the most pressing problem facing society. As an example of communities feeling that they’re owed a living, but that someone else should take responsibility, it’s a rather instructive emblem.

Inventing Britain? Nicholas Crane's Britannia.

‘Nicholas Crane’s Britannia’ is being broadcast on BBC 2 on Tuesday evenings at the moment. Crane follows in the footsteps of historian and antiquarian, William Camden, whose topographical study of the British Isles presaged the Union of the Crowns and contributed to the geographical treatment of these islands as a single entity.

Crane is a geographer, and historically his portrayal of Camden as a kind of proto-unionist, carefully laying foundations for the United Kingdom, might be viewed as a trifle anachronistic. At one stage in last night’s programme, as he retraces the Elizabethan traveller’s route through Scotland, Crane claims that Camden envisaged the various parts of Britain would be ‘stronger together than they would be apart’.

That assertion, made on behalf of a sixteenth century topographer concerned with describing strange foreign lands, is perhaps more than a little over-egged. ‘Britannia’ is, nevertheless, a compelling tale, and the argument that Camden’s study, through content rather than intention, encouraged the concept of political unity, is an intriguing hypothesis.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Unashamedly applying compatible principles to the issues in Northern Ireland

Perhaps I’ve been a little too zealous, pressing Ignited to specify issues which he fears candidates of the new Conservative and Ulster Unionist force might be reluctant to deal with, lest they ‘get their hands dirty’. If this is the case, it is only because I recognise that Redemption’s Son is a weblog offering a surer grasp of grassroots unionist opinion than that to which I would ever lay claim. I greatly respect Ignited’s analysis and I would like to fully understand the apprehension expressed in his article.

If he fears Conservatives will be loathe to put their heads over the parapet on any contentious issue which divides people in Northern Ireland, I’m bound to say that I don’t agree. It is my belief that David Cameron’s party is fully committed to applying its principles to the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland. These principles are for the large part compatible with those of the Ulster Unionist Party. If that were not the case, then a deal would not have been completed in the first instance.

Just because a majority of nationalists, or an alignment of nationalist parties, happens to take a particular tack on an issue, I do not foresee the Conservative or Ulster Unionist parties shying away from laying out their position. I was particularly heartened, for example, to hear Dominic Grieve’s strong rebuttal of the Northern Ireland Human Rights’ Commission’s lamentable suggestions for a Bill of Rights, specific to this part of the UK.

Very clearly these proposals, which aspire to remove elected representatives’ discretion to deal as they see fit with a raft of socio-economic matters, are inimical to Conservative principles. The very approach the NIHRC took to defining human rights, cheapening the concept, seeking to diminish the division between state and society, could not be less reconcilable with the ethos of Cameron’s Conservatives. In contrast, it offers a perfect example of Ulster Unionist philosophy coinciding with that of the new style Tories.

Not only has the shadow home secretary undertaken that a Conservative government would throw out the NIHRC’s draft without hesitation, he suggests that Northern Ireland should be included in a new UK bill, drafted by his party and tweaked to reflect any particular circumstances which might pertain to Northern Ireland. In other words, this part of the UK would be treated like any other, not withstanding local circumstances. Any Bill of Rights would be set in a larger framework, with some specific provisions crafted to adhere to the original remit which the Belfast Agreement laid down.

Not only is Grieve transparently in the right on this issue, his counter-proposals are precisely compatible with arguments unionists have been raising. Just because right and interest coincide, there will be no embarrassment simply because nationalists happen to be arguing from a different perspective.

Monday, 12 January 2009

Gerry demands an emergency piss in the wind

Talk about overreach! Gerry Adams has called for an emergency debate on Gaza ……. in the Northern Ireland Assembly. The speaker has dismissed the idea that such a debate is necessary on the grounds that events in Gaza do not comprise a local issue. It might be supposed by anyone with even the flimsiest grasp of reality that he shouldn't have needed to waste breath pointing that out. That analysis, however, does not account for Gerry.

With cool heads, Conservatives and Unionists can deliver electoral results

Upon reading a press release from DUP deputy leader, Nigel Dodds, last week, I had intended to write a piece arguing that it represented something of a statement of intent. In the forthcoming European election, squeezed between hardline rejectionist unionism advocated by Jim Allister’s TUV and a pan-UK unionist message issuing from the joint UUP / Conservative campaign, the DUP will appeal unashamedly to atavistic, communal self-interest. It will seek to portray itself as protector of the Ulster protestant community and defender of Orangeism. Somehow, though, I got waylaid and meanwhile O’Neill has written persuasively about this very topic, arguing that a clear divide will emerge over the next year and unionism is approaching ‘a fork in the road’.

Without wishing to retread ground which the Unionist Lite piece more than adequately covers, I do think it is especially appropriate that O’Neill has contrasted Dodds’ statement with comments from shadow secretary of state Owen Paterson and Conservative ‘Battleground Director’ for the UK, Marion Little, which lay out their vision of inclusive unionism. It bears the question, how will pan-UK, British, inclusive unionism stand up to a buffeting from exceptionalist, ‘Ourselves Alone’, little Ulsterism? I believe the answer depends on Ulster Unionists holding their nerve, remaining calm under attack and persisting with a consistent message which stresses the merits inherent in Union, the inclusivity of British citizenship and identity and the importance of full involvement in the United Kingdom.

There is no guarantee that such a strategy will pay immediate electoral dividends, but in its intellectual clarity it will allow the new force to build momentum over a period of years, towards changing politics in Northern Ireland. At the very least, the ‘unionist community’ might be forced to examine the character of its unionism. Does it spring from a meaningful, modern sense of Britishness or does it consist of little more than a nominal, sentimental attachment of Ulster Protestantism to the Union Flag? Although this introspection might become a turbulent process, at least it will focus the electorate’s mind on what exactly it is that they will be voting for, when they choose to back a UUP / Conservative candidate. A clear dividing line provides a clear sense of purpose. Ulster Unionists should not get nervous when they see one developing.

Although expertise brought to bear by Little and her team will offer Conservative and Unionist candidates in Northern Ireland exponential benefits, Tory central office is not accustomed to running campaigns against a rival as malicious as the DUP. The party has made its own a uniquely abrasive style and has built its success on vituperative abuse aimed at nationalists, politicians from both Britain and Ireland and the special venom which it reserves for attacks on fellow unionists. The new force will be bombarded with the worst of the DUP’s ire. Tories will be depicted as meddling outsiders who have no place involving themselves in Northern Ireland’s politics and the irony of so called unionists offering this critique will be lost in malignant rhetoric. Doubtless there will be an anti-English slant too and the implication that North Down Conservatives, with their effete supper clubs (as the DUPes see it), are some how out of touch with the rest of society.

Most of all though, the DUP intends to bang the Orange drum. Its candidates will contend unashamedly that they are standing up specifically for the Ulster protestant against the Irish Catholic. They will claim that they have improved the lot of the Orange Order and have secured ever greater funds for Ulster Scots projects. There will not even be a veneer of pretence that the DUP aspires to fair treatment for all communities. As regards the current dispensation at Stormont, this analysis makes some sense. We have a carve-up government where communal interests are traded off against one another. It is a lamentable way to govern, it does unionism harm and it prevents Northern Ireland normalising itself as regards the rest of the UK, but that is the way the system currently works. At Westminster and in Europe things are very much different and this approach is transparently counterproductive.

How should Ulster Unionists and their Conservative partners respond to these lines of attack? The answer is with forbearance, patience and determination not to be drawn into the sectarian morass which the DUP will do its damnedest to ensure envelops the parties. As far as the Orange Order is concerned, the new force should defend and promote the legitimate expression of all cultures within the United Kingdom as a whole and Northern Ireland specifically. Respect and support should be afforded to the loyal orders, but equally to Irish language groups, for instance. Of course where the Orange Order has legitimate grievances they should be addressed, but equally this should not be to the exclusion of a variety of other interest groups representing other specific cultural aspects of our society.

The argument for Northern Irish participation in a main UK party at the European Parliament is a strong one. Yet more so, the case that Northern Irish representatives, participating fully in the Westminster government. would benefit both Northern Ireland and the Union. And whatever the dynamic which ‘carve-up politics’ has brought to devolved government here, does the electorate really aspire to a continuation of this system in perpetuity? Surely it would be better to build normal politics, inclusive politics through which decisions are made on their merits, rather than as part of a process of sectarian horse trading? If voters wish for something more, for efficiency, for a modicum of accountability, then a vote for the DUP or Sinn Féin makes little sense.

Finally, when the DUP takes its communal approach in order to attack Conservatives and Unionists, the new force’s rejoinder should be unashamed espousal of purist, political, civic unionism. We believe the United Kingdom offers the best political framework for the benefit of its peoples. We are proud of our Britishness and proud of Britain, proud that Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom. We want to play a full role in the politics of our nation. Our unionism extends to participation and contribution; it offers action rather than mere words. We wish to promote the advantages of Union to all the people of the Kingdom, without prejudice to their ethno-religious background or perceived identity. That is the message candidates and canvassers must hammer home over the coming years. This is about the United Kingdom and Britishness, rather than just Ulster.

Few supporters of the new electoral force are either naïve enough to think that immediate success will come easily, or believe that if progress is achieved quickly, it will take the form of an overwhelming turnaround. But Cameron and other Tories have repeatedly stressed the long term commitment which they bring to this project. Simply by a forthright, consistent delineation of principles and a professional approach to campaigning, the foundations of a recovery will be laid. That basis must not be undermined by ill discipline or hot heads when the election brickbats begin to fly. All those who support Conservative and Ulster Unionist campaigns must remember that it is because the DUP knows its 'unionism' is incompatible with most visions of modern Britain, that it will be so vehement and so vicious.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Portrait of the dartists

I’ve spent a significant portion of my weekend explaining, justifying, defending my predilection for watching a cadre of men, disproportionately overweight, uniformly under the influence of lager, who arc a small piece of metal 7 feet nine and a quarter inches into a round board of cork augmented with sisal fibres. It is, I must confess, an uphill struggle. Unless one instinctively appreciates the fluid motion of the darting arm, unleashing its tungsten missile in splendid parabola, flighted unerringly toward the small, red Valhalla of treble twenty, one is unlikely to be persuaded of the merits of the sport of darts.

I describe in vain the hypnotic pleasure of the three thudding arrows which accompany each darters turn at the oche. I laud, to little effect, the arithmetical dexterity required in order to instantaneously calculate a three dart finish in the hundreds. I elicit little sympathy when I invoke the stout musculature required to mitigate the hampering effect of several ounces of gold plate jewellery adorning the throwing arm. I find that the image of lager, beer guts and cheap nylon shirts has predisposed most people to dismiss the game without watching it closely.

The truth is that darts is a magnificently accessible, accepting, even egalitarian sport. It requires skill and application, but does not demand any particular physical attributes. Its fans offer generous, enthusiastic and scrupulously sporting backing to their heroes. Darts is grounded squarely in the culture of the British working class, but it is eager to reach out to any potential enthusiast. The Queen’s grandson, Peter Phillips, watched last Saturday’s action. There is no inverted snobbery to the arrows.

At present the BBC is screening the BDO World Darts Championship taking place at Lakeside Country Club, Frimley Green, Surrey. Although the standard is variable, this competition, rather than Sky’s PDC alternative, represents the sport at its most authentic. Tonight the final features Ted ‘The Count’ Hankey, glorious epitome of darts’ unselfconscious embrace of its own myths and clichés. The forty year old might be 10 years older. He has cut down his pre-match intake of lager from last year’s double figures to a disciplined ’two or three’ pints. Nevertheless he is a previous winner of the championship and has tasted defeat in the final too. He will take to the stage tonight clad in his customary cape, nylon shirt unbuttoned to his navel, throwing complementary plastic bats to his supporters.

His opponent will be Tony O’Shea, whose best previous showing came in 2004, when he defeated Hankey on his route to the semi-final. The ’Silverback’ is a grizzled veteran, performing at the peak of his game and he is likely to compete ferociously at the Lakeside tonight.

If you hadn’t intended to watch, I doubt this humble article will have persuaded you otherwise. For the minority of initiates, fully appraised of the sport’s pleasures, I hardly need remind you that coverage begins at 5.50pm on BBC 2.

Friday, 9 January 2009

Joint committee 'hits the ground running'

The Conservative and Ulster Unionist joint committee met for the first time last night and by all accounts it was a successful start to the real business of running candidates together. The attendance of Senior Battleground Director, Marion Little, from Conservative central office is a clear indication of the type of campaigning muscle which the link up will bring to Northern Ireland.

Chairman David Campbell was encouraged that the committee has already made such progress.

“The DUP seems unable to choose a candidate for Europe whereas we’re already hitting the ground running. Jim Nicholson is a highly respected European MEP – and a senior member of the Conservative Group in Europe. The electorate knows he works hard for their interests, supported by his Conservative colleagues. Therefore our focus now is to support Jim and his campaign team – providing all the resources he needs to put clear blue water between him and other candidates. The joint committee is working well already.”

Campbell’s new colleague, Neil Johnston, who chairs the Conservatives, NI area, stressed the importance of involvement from his party’s electoral experts.

“The core team working on Jim Nicholson’s campaign is now in place and we have direct liaison with the campaign team at central office. Indeed the first meeting with Jim’s team will be held today following last night’s joint committee meeting.”

Clearly serious, professional people will be involved in helping Jim Nicholson to retain his European seat this. There is every opportunity to harness this expertise and run a first class campaign.

New Northern Ireland politics blog

I've been pointed in the direction of this site, Esoterica NI, which is a new addition to the small stable of Northern Irish politics blogs. It's not immediately apparent where the author's political sympathies might lie (not necessarily a bad thing), but the stories so far are tidily written. Worth keeping an eye on.

Adams - possible premature senility?

I give you the second of Gerry Adams' blog pieces. It is awe-inspiringly incoherent. Had the bearded wonder taken some manner of dodgy mushroom before, gibbering incoherently, dare I say it, shivering in a blanket, he pecked out this chef-d'oeuvre of republican blogging? Perhaps he simply forgot to take his medication?

Georgians to hold Saaskashvili to account for Ossetian war?

Thomas de Vaal, author of the definitive book on Armenian – Azerbaijani conflict, has an acutely observed article in this month’s Prospect examining how Georgia’s politics might be changing, to the detriment of those who led the country into war (subs required).

De Vaal examines the baleful effect Saakashvili’s military adventurism has had on communities straddling the border between South Ossetia and Georgia proper. He concludes that in order to stabilise arrangements in these areas Georgia will have to tone down assertions of sovereignty, instead concentrating on the rights of its people, in order to facilitate the opening of contested borders and return of displaced peoples.

There is pathos in de Vaal’s tales of divided but intertwined communities. In 1991, during the first attempt to coerce South Ossetia into a separate Georgia and reverse the autonomy it enjoyed as part of the Soviet Union, Georgian villagers from Meghvriskhevi stopped militias from looting the adjacent Ossetian village, Grom. This year Grom’s residents repaid the favour and residents returning after the Russians and Ossetians had retreated to their pre war positions, found their property untouched.

“The tragedy of South Ossetia is of a war that local people, mixed together by trade and intermarriage, did not want. The conflict tore up those relationships, with atrocities on both sides.”

Now, on either side of the border, troops are digging in, fortifying a frontier that had previously permitted a high degree of permeability. A situation which de Vaal believes must be addressed politically from the Georgian perspective.

“A harder option is to concentrate on the rights of people, not territories and to begin to open up the Abkhaz and Ossetian borders from the Georgian side…… In other words, renouncing some claims of sovereignty, so that ordinary people can go home.”

Whilst there is little to indicate that Saaskashvili’s government is prepared to soften its stance, there are signs that it might soon be held to account for its role in fomenting war (a role which it has not yet accepted it played). Two senior government diplomats have resigned in order to criticise Saaskashvili for planning the war and choosing to ignore mediation attempts. De Vaal detects that more and more government supporters are ‘jumping ship’.

He quotes former Georgian ambassador to Moscow, Erosi Kitsmarishvili, “if the Georgian people want the right to tell the Abkhaz and Ossetians they should be living in a common home with us, we need to be able to tell them we judged the people who were responsible for all this."

It is a process which, if consolidated, would not only benefit Georgia and its people, but those of the entire region and indeed Europe as a whole.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Irresponsible states undermining partnership with Russia

Peter Lavelle has been writing lucidly on the gas row between Russia and Ukraine for some weeks now. His latest piece sets out hard commercial facts which underpin the dispute. Lavelle’s employment for Russian owned English language television station, Russia Today, has made him a target for especially vitriolic Russophobe attacks, however he is a seasoned observer of this annual wrangle and his article sets out sequentially the compelling case which Gazprom can make for its actions. Ukraine is guilty, at least in part, of attempting to exploit suspicion of Russia for its own commercial gain.

Many eastern European countries inflated their economies with cheap credit when world markets were buoyant and consequently they are feeling the pain particularly acutely at the present time. Ukraine is no exception, and to add to its malaise the bottom has fallen out of the commodities market, a vicious double whammy for a country dependent on steel exports. Having previously required bailouts from the IMF, Russia’s neighbour is now banking on anti-Kremlin sentiment, and Europe’s dependence on gas transited through Ukraine, proving adequate levers to allow it to default on its debts and have its energy bills subsidised for yet another winter.

The truth is that were Gazprom not a company inseparably entwined with the apparatus of the Russian state, the taps would have been turned off long ago. It is true that Russia has occasionally treated its neighbours as clients in return for preferential energy prices. That does not bind it to provide cut price gas in perpetuity where its influence is spurned, simply to avoid reproach from anti-Russian opinion in the west. Ukraine was offered gas at effectively half the market rate, despite purported tension between the two governments. On previous occasions, even when it has reached an accommodation with Gazprom, it has then failed to deliver on the terms for payment.

Ukraine, with annual attempts to avoid its responsibilities, should shoulder the lion’s share of the blame for diminishing energy security in Europe. It is simply not a reliable transit country, given that it might fail to pay for its own gas and begin to steal that which is intended for others at any given moment.

Much has been written about Russia attempting to assert itself belligerently on the world stage. A little more attention should be devoted to the irresponsible actions of former Soviet states, who take American and European patronage as an invitation to act provocatively toward their larger neighbour. Ukraine’s actions do not compare to the military adventurism of Mikheil Saaskashvili, but the same principle applies. Currently countries such as Ukraine and Georgia are wilfully undermining partnership between Russia and the west.

Field hits out at government's handling of economy

The government’s strategy to tackle the financial crisis has been criticised by influential Labour back-bencher, Frank Field. The MP for Birkenhead, who recently led a back bench revolt against abolition of the 10p rate of tax, writes on his blog that he feels, ‘a deep unease about the Government’s strategy to counter what is euphemistically called a recession’.

The striking thing about Field’s piece is that his analysis is not terribly different from that of the Conservative party. He is scathing about the efficacy of a 2.5% Vat cut and identifies the government’s failure to get credit moving to viable businesses, despite its partial renationalising of the banks. Although the credit crunch problem has been self-evident for months, Labour has done little to address its effects on the economy.

“Weeks and weeks later the Government still hasn’t announced how it can throw extra lifelines to viable companies who are being denied a working capital from the banks. Giving the banks more assets for capitalisation is almost as pointless as the VAT cut. The Government now has a small clutch of nationalised banks. Why isn’t it using them to get credit out to viable firms?”

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

'Why is the DUP's hurt and upset necessarily part of a story about the UUP and the Tory Party?'

Bobballs wonders why every time the News Letter runs a story about the internal organisation of the Ulster Unionist and Conservative parties, it feels bound to include in its article a diatribe released by the DUP press office.

“Why should the by-the-numbers, repetitive bashing from the DUP necessarily be a core part of this story? Why were there no better options to get under the skin of the story? Why just take two press releases and run them together?

Instead of publishing the invective, why not investigate the reasoning? Y'know, that old journalism maxim of shining a light into dark corners etc. No?

Why is the DUP's hurt and upset necessarily part of a story about the UUP and the Tory Party? It makes no sense.”

Examining the substance of a press release, on this occasion attributed to Michelle McIlveen, Bobballs asks,

“Why must we endure all this bollocks about unionist unity when the DUP thinks the next UK government (which is not neutral on the union) is just a big supper club? And WTF is a supper club?”

Hear hear! Both funny and true.

My own personal Tripadvisor

A purely personal post through which I aspire to tap the urbane cosmopolitanism and richly cultured nature of ‘Three Thousand Versts’’ readership. I know you must all have travelled widely given the breadth of knowledge betrayed by your commentary. And as no doubt you are much too sophisticated to be seduced by flattery, I shall spare you preliminary compliments and hasten to the nub of my query.

My girlfriend and I have a trip booked which commences with Green and White Army duty in San Marino, but leaves us the best part of three days to explore the micro-republic’s locality. Our itinerary will initially be reasonably straight forward. We arrive in Bologna on match day, must transport ourselves to San Marino city where we have a room booked and then we must get to the stadium.

From Thursday morning until our return flight on Sunday we are free to explore the region. That is where my august readers come in! Florence does not seem to be far away from San Marino and it is certainly accessible by train from Bologna, but is there a quicker way to get there from San Marino which avoids retracing our steps? On a short trip is it worth having a couple of nights in Florence or would we be better to concentrate on Bologna? Are there alternative destinations nearby where we would be better spending our time?

Many thanks in advance my worldly wise friends.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Still no Euro candidate as DUP's indecision is final

No-one wants to be the DUP’s European election candidate it would seem. As Ignited reveals on Redemption’s Son, the deadline to apply has been extended to 23rd January, with a selection meeting postponed indefinitely.

Clearly Peter Robinson is experiencing difficulties persuading a high profile candidate to stand. With Jim Nicholson set to avail of a slick Conservative campaign team and Jim Allister rabidly snarling at the Dupes, who would want to take this poison chalice?

Whether Nigel Dodds finally has his arm twisted to stand is now a moot point. Clearly the DUP is in disarray. Perhaps 'Big Ian' might consider a comeback? What about Pootsie or Ian Junior?

Alan Hansen has a stock phrase which he trots out to admonish an ineffectual defence about to concede a shambolic goal, ‘indecision is final’. Just now it rather neatly sums up the DUP.

Clowns to the left of him, jokers to the right? Cameron's policy: restraint should be emphasised rather than unalloyed free market ideology.

Reflecting further on yesterday’s speech on the economy, one of its important innovations was David Cameron’s promise to exempt health, schools, defence and international development budgets from any spending cuts which a Conservative government might seek to make. This commitment was a rejoinder to opponents who maintain that a Cameron government would immediately begin to dramatically hack back public spending with some manner of ideological, small government machete. The truth is that Cameron will be neither willing nor able to significantly shrink the public sector in the short to medium term.

The battle over the economy, which is now raging between Labour and Conservatives, is a confrontation based on the ethos which each party brings to its stewardship of the economy. Cameron is arguing for responsibility and restraint rather than a dramatic application of free market economics. Gordon Brown plans to tackle the financial crisis by exponentially growing the state, based on an enormous bubble of debt. Cameron aspires to constrain this growth, target tax cuts and deliver savings where they can be found. On this morning’s Today programme, Nick Robinson observed that the Conservatives are promising little more, by way of pruning public spending, than the Prime Minister himself had promised to deliver in efficiency savings, before the banks were bailed out.

That is not to say that Cameron does not wish to realise a substantial change in emphasis as regards state spending. His project is to enable communities and grow society, ultimately tempering the centralising instincts of the state. That will require structural alterations in order to free up funding which will then be invested directly into society. But Cameron is aware that instigating changes by revolution, rather than evolution, would be counterproductive, particularly in the current climate. By introducing drastic reforms to government immediately, internal fissures would inevitably open up. Mick Fealty points out that decentralising power locally sits uneasily with Tory plans to freeze council tax for instance.

In many respects Cameron’s difficulties in defending his plans for the economy lie as much with supporters who conflate conservatism with free market liberalism, as with his Labour opponents. They are keen to interpret his reluctance to saddle future generations with a crippling burden of debt as submission to their economic ideology. By no means is that necessarily the case. It is certainly not the argument which the country wants to hear. Cameron’s plans to instigate a less centralised state must coincide with a corresponding project to nurture society at its roots. It is a more efficient, rather than a less caring, balance which should be sought.

Monday, 5 January 2009

Cameron's balancing act on the economy

There is no doubt that David Cameron has a difficult balancing act to perform in order to persuade the United Kingdom that his is the most efficacious economic policy for tackling the current crisis. On one hand he must maintain that Gordon Brown’s plan to expand exponentially the debt bubble which got Britain into the mess which it finds itself in is unsustainable. He is bound to contend that Britons must become a responsible nation of savers, rather than a populace addicted to debt. On the other hand he will argue that under his tenure the UK economy would begin to grow again, that Conservatives have policies which would free up credit for business and mitigate the worst excesses of correction which the market is likely to exact. It is a case which might appear to contradict itself, but it is also perhaps what the country needs to hear.

If Cameron’s solution to our financial problems seem paradoxical, that is because it is a paradox in the financial system which he is seeking to combat. On this morning’s Today programme the Conservative leader identified two countermanding but interrelated difficulties which the economy faces. Firstly there is a ‘debt crisis’,

“Britain is spending more as a percentage of our national income than when Denis Healey was Chancellor and Britain went bust. The answer to a debt crisis cannot be more borrowing and that is why the VAT cut was such a "criminal" waste of money.”

Secondly there exists a credit crunch, whereby businesses are having their lines of credit stopped by banks. To tackle these problems Conservatives wish to constrict government borrowing, encourage the nation to begin saving again, yet also persuade banks to begin to lend to viable businesses.

The package of measures which the Conservative party announced today meets the challenge systematically. David Cameron’s speech deserves to be read in full, but for readers in a hurry Iain Dale provides a brief synopsis. The policies which were unveiled would alleviate the punishment which low interest rates has inflicted on savers and pensioners. In addition the incentive to save money would be restored, or at least disincentive would be lessened.

Allied to existing Conservative policy, providing tax incentives for new jobs, cutting Corporation Tax and NIC and underwriting bank loans to business, today’s announcement offers action to tackle problems afflicting the UK economy. Far from ‘doing nothing’ the Tories have attempted to reach a balanced alternative to offer the British electorate as opposed to Labour‘s ‘spend now tax later‘ scheme. Whether the correct mix has been found remains to be seen, but even to aspire to balance is more than Gordon Brown's government has managed.

Conservative / UUP Joint Committee work will offer opportunities, once the name is decided.

The Conservative and Ulster Unionist parties have appointed members of the Joint Committee which they agreed to form in November, a statement of intent that the new force is set to be progressed early in 2009. From the Conservatives’ press release, their representatives will include, Owen Paterson MP (Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland), Neil Johnston (Conservatives NI Chairman), Jeffrey Peel (Conservatives NI Vice Chairman) and Paul Megarity (Chairman, North Down Conservatives). The Ulster Unionist members will comprise Lord Maginnis, Danny Kennedy MLA, David Campell (UUP Chairman) and Cllr. Mark Cosgrove (UUP Treasurer).

The Committee’s task will be to “bring forward proposals on manifesto commitments, branding of joint candidates and candidate selection procedures”. This is hard, practical work required to forge a political alliance which will engage in national politics, but also reflect in its policies the regional peculiarities of Northern Ireland. And although Conservatives and Ulster Unionists have declared that they share common values and compatible agendas, there will remain difficult adjustments to be made in order to marry two separate organisations, with two subtly different political cultures, into a single competitive electoral entity.

One of the preliminary hurdles which must be cleared will be naming the new force. Although it is primarily an issue of optics, the movement’s name is a tricky, sensitive matter to resolve. My information is that Conservatives favour something along the lines of ‘Northern Ireland Conservative and Unionist Party’, whereas many UUP members are reluctant to allow the word ‘Ulster’ to be dropped. The first formulation is certainly more accurate geographically and perhaps it would afford more emphasis on the civic, inclusive nature of the unionism which candidates will espouse. On the other hand, continuity between the Ulster Unionist corporate identity, its history and political culture, and the new electoral entity should be absolutely clear. My feeling is that the UUP might have to move out of its comfort zone with the name and ensure clarity by other means.

Notwithstanding issues around the name, priority must be given to forming a coherent and attractive set of policies, attuned to the ethos of the two parties, then selling it to the Northern Ireland public. To this end Jonny Andrews has written a well-argued piece in the Belfast Telegraph outlining the basis of the Conservative / UUP deal and the benefits which it can bring to Northern Ireland. Any self-declared unionist whose unionism is in any regard tethered to commitment to, and participation in, the political life of the United Kingdom must give serious consideration to casting his or her vote for a Conservative / UUP candidate. And additionally those voters who might be ambivalent to Northern Ireland’s constitutional status, but nevertheless want a meaningful say in the Parliament and politics which affect them, should also find the new force an attractive option.

The first joint candidate which the two parties will field is MEP Jim Nicholson. It is imperative that a consistent and forceful message is transmitted from the off. Although the coming European election campaign might specifically involve securing Nicholson’s re-election, more generally it represents an initial opportunity to articulate to voters values which Conservatives and Ulster Unionists share, to explain the pan-UK vision which informs the electoral alliance and to demonstrate the confident, outward looking, inclusive unionism on which both sides want their alliance to be predicated. To this end the candidate and his team must be careful not to be drawn into the intra-unionist bun-fight which will characterise the TUV and DUP European election campaigns. Those two parties will be engaged in attempts to ‘out-Prod’ one another. The Conservative / UUP force’s unionism is demonstrable in commitment to the United Kingdom and its politics. It is not in question and it will certainly not be enhanced by sectarian or community posturing. Anything which might be interpreted in that way must be avoided.

Although Peter Robinson has already begun to scare-monger about Jim Allister splitting the unionist vote (that old ironic chestnut), the TUV man will doubtless retain many votes from disaffected, erstwhile DUP supporters. Against this background Nicholson has an opportunity to close the gap on Robinson’s party, which is yet to even agree a candidate. It is an exciting year for the new electoral force which can consolidate the good work which led to its creation.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

A better class of 'Down and Out' drinks port!

Previously I commended to my readers the blog ‘Down and Out in Lenzie and Lossiemouth’ which never fails to amuse me. Sadly Hernandez has been blogging rather infrequently during the last number of months, but there has been a sudden burst of activity over the holiday period, as well as a tantalising clue as to which reasons might lie behind the site’s temporary dormancy.

Wishing his readers happy New Year and reflecting on his own ambitions for 2009, Hernandez writes,

“I am aiming to ease back on the bottle and find some stability. My blog has suffered recently due to excessive drinking.”

I wish Hernandez all the best in his endeavours, although I would suggest that it is bad sign that on January 2 a new post appeared reviewing an expensive type of port which he has taken to drinking. Seemingly as an aperitif before setting about the Jack Daniels!

Israel must have an achievable endgame in mind to justify its actions

Thus far I had refrained from commenting on Israel’s ongoing action in Gaza. It is an issue which tends to draw the worst type of immoderate opinion from supporters of both sides. On one hand we have cretins like Annie Lennox, in league with long term terror apologist and anti-Semite Ken Livingstone, who seem to believe Israel shouldn‘t exist in the first place, on the other we have trite celebrations of the violence, typified by this venomous article from A Tangled Web.

On the Young Unionist blog Rick Cairns has written a more nuanced piece which explores something of the background to Israel’s action. And Iain Dale has penned a well argued article upholding Israel’s right to defend its citizens.

I have a lot of sympathy for their point of view, but I wonder, as ground troops move into Gaza, what endgame the Israelis foresee for this conflict? Short of killing every member of Hamas, it is difficult to envisage Israel’s actions undermining Gazan support for that terror organisation. If, by bombing and invading, Hamas’ ability to sling rockets into Israel at will can be stopped, action is entirely defensible.

If on the other hand, Israel believes a short war can realise regime change, or cause Palestinians to reconsider their tactics, I suspect a lot of lives will be lost to little effect.

Saturday, 3 January 2009

All eyes on Gerrard as Liverpool start FA Cup campaign

Last year Liverpool crashed out of the FA Cup to Barnsley. The previous season Arsenal left Anfield having inflicting a 3-1 defeat. On both occasions Rafa Benitez fielded weakened starting elevens. This year it appears that the Reds’ Spanish manager will accord the world’s oldest cup competition appropriate respect, selecting club captain, Steven Gerrard, and other first choice players. This evening’s third round tie against Preston, therefore, might witness the start of Liverpool’s most serious attempt to win the trophy since the dramatic final triumph against West Ham in 2006.

Naturally all eyes will be on Gerrard following the alleged assault in a Southport nightspot for which he has been charged. And inevitably Liverpool supporters will be inclined to afford their captain the benefit of doubt in this instance. His on field heroics have hitherto been accompanied by unobtrusive conduct off it. Gerrard has consistently shown himself to be a dedicated professional. If it transpires that Liverpool’s midfield powerhouse was involved in an incident whereby a ‘garrulous’ Manchester United supporter was forcibly silenced, will it tarnish previous achievements in the eyes of Koppites? I doubt it very much.

Benitez is affording Gerrard an opportunity to show that he will not be distracted by events surrounding his arrest. 2009 promises to be a vital year for the club and its captain and neither can afford to be preoccupied with anything that is not related to winning matches and collecting trophies.

Henry Patterson on applicability of NI peace process and the marginalisation of victims

As yet the piece does not seem to be available online, but one of Ireland’s finest contemporary historians writes in today’s News Letter, debunking the myth that Northern Ireland’s peace process offers a template for resolving other conflicts. In particular he challenges the notion, posited recently by both Peter Hain and Jonathan Powell, that ‘dialogue without preconditions’ is a prerequisite for edging terror groups toward peaceful means. He argues that previous unconditional engagement with Provisionals served only to intensify the movement’s violence, whilst progress was made when talks were clearly linked to the IRA calling a ceasefire.

Patterson also draws attention to the manner in which victims of terror have been marginalised. Consideration of ETA’s campaign in the Basque region of Spain has crystallised his thoughts. In Spain, ’organisation of victims have had a much higher profile than victims’ groups in Northern Ireland’. Here ’the discourse and thinking about victims’ issues have been dominated by groups which focus on victims of state violence’. A category, of course, which excludes the vast majority of victims, who suffered at the hands of republican terror. Patterson contends that the process was built to ’an unfortunate degree’ on sidelining the bulk of victims and submitting to the elisions of Republican terminology.

As an exposition of why unionists might feel uncomfortable with slanted ‘truth gathering’ exercises in which only one side properly participates, as an explanation as to why replacing terms such as ‘terrorist’ with less ‘value laden’ formulations such as ‘former combatant’ has a corrosive influence on victims, Patterson’s article is excellent. He concludes, ‘I would like to think that Eames/Bradley would mark a new departure in the sorry story of victims in Northern Ireland, but I am not holding my breath’.

Friday, 2 January 2009

'Ethical capitalism' - Cameron restates ethos of responsibility

On the heals of a New Year message, in which David Cameron stressed his commitment to responsible social policy and a green agenda, the Conservative leader has called for ‘more ethical capitalism’ in a radio interview. He has clearly begun 2009 keen to emphasise that his party does not represent unalloyed free market ideology, nor is it heartless or ‘do nothing’ as Labour has implied.

Cameron is right to underline the Conservatives' continued dedication to these principles. Although the party was bound to oppose Gordon Brown as he pledged to borrow the UK out of trouble, there has been a danger that the communitarian message would become lost in the hard economics of the financial crisis. The Conservative emphasis on fiscal accountability must not be confused with reluctance to help the needy or determination to rapidly shrink public services.

Untrammelled free market economics have been discredited and Cameron’s call to instil a greater sense of responsibility within business and the financial sector chimes melodiously with his communitarian reading of conservatism as well as the mood of the electorate. His party is also formulating plans aimed at helping consumers and businesses as well as getting credit moving where it matters most.

"We need a more ethical capitalism. I don't think the answer to the current crisis is to tear up the market system and go back to 1970s-style socialism, but we do need a more ethical capitalism in which we recognise that business has real responsibilities. Business is not just about making money. It is also about acting in an ethical way and I think we need to build a more ethical capitalism in Britain as we come out of this dreadful recession.”

Cameron will do well to ignore the wilder fringes of his party and stick to this line.

Could 2009 be the year when Shinners sideline Adams for good?

Reviewing the previous 12 months in politics in Northern Ireland, Mark Devenport observes that 2008 witnessed the DUP sidelining its long-standing leader, Ian Paisley, and the personality cult which attended his leadership.

Perhaps 2009 will be the year that the DUP’s partner in sectarian carve-up, Sinn Féin, relegates its own aging demagogue, Gerry Adams, to the hinterland of enforced semi-retirement. The provos’ president was reduced to a series of intemperate ethno-nationalist diatribes over the course of 2008. In a bizarre role reversal Martin McGuinness was deployed as good cop to Adams’ bad.

Increasingly, the West Belfast MP’s influence, even as a figurehead, might hinder Sinn Féin. His rhetoric is likely to prove counterproductive as republicans become ever more institutionalised at Stormont. Additionally, and significantly, his patronage of executive liability, Caitriona Ruane, will become an impediment to removing the party’s most embarrassing minister.

Adams hard-line outbursts are occasionally still useful to Sinn Féin. In the latest, he has been playing to the republican gallery once again, claiming that his party are set to launch a reinvigorated campaign pushing for Irish unity.

Gerry’s protestations might mollify some of those republicans who fear that Sinn Féin is now less compelled by the imperative of uniting Ireland than enticed by the prospect of tightening its grasp on executive powers at Stormont. But the contradictions inherent in his utterances and the way in which they undermine confidence in the settlement, will ultimately damage the ability of Sinn Féin to work efficiently in government.

I have previously likened some of Adams’ remarks to those of an embarrassing, cranky old uncle sniping from the corner of the room. Comments reported in the Belfast Telegraph fall squarely into this category.

His party has acknowledged that Northern Ireland’s constitutional status will not change, without the consent of the majority of people here. Nevertheless Adams is advocating the mobilisation of ex pat opinion in America and Britain. To what end? This is a call for a return to republican tactics of internationalisation which accepting an internal settlement rendered redundant.

When Adams talks about ‘building the republic’ by ‘increment’ he is illustrating precisely that he does not understand what committing to consent entails. Not only is he in denial as to the nature of the resolution his party signed up to, but he is clearly delusional as to the sympathy which Irish republicanism now commands internationally.

“If you move outside the diaspora and talk to anyone, they will tell you — and I defy anyone to contradict this — that most people who know anything about Ireland know the British government should have no claim or jurisdiction.”

So by this contention, not only does Adams hold the Belfast and St Andrews Agreements in contempt, but so does ‘anyone’ you might care to talk to! Under these agreements the governments of the UK and the Republic of Ireland, the political parties (including Adams’ own) and an overwhelming majority in both parts of Ireland, accepted that the British government’s jurisdiction rests on the will of the people of Northern Ireland! The agreements are enforceable in international law and have been lauded throughout the world. Yet in Gerry’s parallel universe British sovereignty in Northern Ireland is universally deplored!

Although such a statement bears absolutely no scrutiny whatsoever, issuing from the president of Northern Ireland’s second biggest party it is deeply unhelpful. Deploying Adams occasionally for a spot of republican grandstanding might help with Sinn Féin’s grassroots, but ultimately it is corrosive of its own vested interests. The moment might be coming when pragmatism wins out over sentiment and Adams finds himself removed as president. In the mean time I expect that he will remain a marginal voice, particularly in the domestic political arena.