Saturday, 28 February 2009

UUP now on Twitter. And are some people already losing sight of the point of C & U alignment?

Just a note to say that the much improved UUP online operation has now launched on Twitter.

Perhaps the party should also break its silence on exactly which form of the new name joint candidates will campaign under. There remains a degree of confusion.

To my mind it makes a great deal of sense to retain ‘Ulster‘, or indeed ‘New Force’ in the official title, yet to accord more prominence to the much less fussy ‘Conservatives and Unionists’.

Let’s not quibble over a word, which is rooted in the history of Irish unionism, but might after all be interpreted as an irredentist claim over three counties which are not within the UK.

Ulster Conservatives and Unionists or Conservatives and Unionists for the sake of brevity. The point is the message. It is frustrating that time is being lost putting that message across.

Friday, 27 February 2009

Conservatives and Unionists launch new force

Initial reaction to this afternoon’s launch of Ulster Conservatives and Unionists as a new electoral force has begun to appear.

The BBC has chosen to emphasise Lady Sylvia Hermon’s conspicuous absence from joint events thus far. Clearly she has yet to be persuaded of the alliance’s merits.

There will be plenty of time to make up her mind though. I understand that there will be no pressure on the UUP’s MP to take the Conservative whip before the next parliament.

Lady Syliva’s dilemma is also the focus of a diabolically confused and practically illiterate piece on Labour Home. Although Sir Reg Empey and David Cameron announced their intention to forge an electoral compact last summer, the LabHome blogger feels the launch might be a reaction to Labour’s belated decision to organise in Northern Ireland!

The Guardian’s Henry McDonald picks up on Sir Reg Empey’s suggestion that a Conservative government might undertake to give Northern Ireland ‘enterprise zone’ status. This would enable tax incentives to be offered to businesses choosing to set up here. Similar zones have worked well and have transformed previously blighted areas, such as Liverpool and London’s Docklands.

Yushchenko is unpopular because of his failures

This piece by James Marson on Comment is Free is worth reading. The pertinent point is that Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yushchenko, has not become unpopular because he has bravely held a pro-western, pro-Nato line against a perfidious Russian conspiracy.

Although Yushchenko’s anti-Russian stance, and in particular his hard line during the war in South Ossetia, has scarcely helped heal divisions in Ukraine, he is unpopular chiefly because of his inability to, “deal with the problems that the Orange revolution targeted: primarily, the concentration of power and money among a venal elite who are immune to prosecution”.

David Miliband take note.

Conservatives and Unionists set for launch

The title has been finalised and the joint committee’s report has been endorsed by both parties. The Conservative and Ulster Unionist parties will field joint candidates in European and Westminster elections, appearing on the ballot paper as ‘Ulster Conservatives and Unionists – New Force’.

The formulation is undeniably clunky (and employment of the ‘New Force’ addendum in initial form should be avoided at all costs for obvious reasons). Nevertheless, the new joint website indicates that candidates will campaign simply as ‘Conservatives and Unionists’. The new logo is pleasingly unfussy.

In a Telepraph article Sir Reg Empey restates the thinking behind the new venture. That is, of course, what is most important.

A press conference at noon will launch the UCU venture. Unfortunately I can’t attend due to work commitments. I will, however, be very interested to hear how it has gone.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Irishness on a sliding scale.

‘Ulster’s Doomed’ is a nasty little weblog devoted to collating evidence which it purports proves that one tribe in Northern Ireland is out-breeding the other. Actually all it really demonstrates is the incorrigibility of a certain type of nationalist mindset. The ‘echo chamber effect’ which Sunny Hundal highlights in the Today programme article dictates that the comments zone houses still more unpleasantness.

Take this anonymous offering, posted below a piece which states (on the basis of newspaper sales) that Northern Ireland contains more nationalists and fewer unionists today than it did one year ago.

“Part of the problem for the Protestant community is that they have been told endlessly that they are British - and that in a way that excludes any element of Irishness. I think that this leads to a disengagement from life here in Ireland. No wonder that so many go to University in Britain and stay there. No wonder that so many buy 'national' British newspapers instead of provincial ones. If one is going to be British one might as well go straight to the source.”

What a dispiriting attitude to identity, and yet one that is clearly informed by an identifiably nationalist understanding of the concept. Whilst cleverer nationalists might be more adept at obfuscating this constricting element of their view of identity, which the commenter asserts so baldly, frequently the sentiment is, at its core, the same.

The comment above takes umbrage at ‘the Protestant community’ (by which it presumably means unionists, if unionism is even deemed to exist beyond defining an ethno religious group) describing themselves as British, identifying with British culture and institutions and therefore (as the author proposes) disengaging ‘from life here in Ireland’. Ironically it determines that the source of this ‘false consciousness’ is that unionists have ‘been told endlessly that they are British’ (presumably erroneously in the commenter’s view) and it alleges that it is a particular brand of Britishness which excludes Irishness! So the comment’s author is decrying the exclusive nature (as he sees it) of British identity whilst he simultaneously seeks to deprive Irish people of their right to consider themselves British!

The core accusation that unionists ‘disengage’ from life in Ireland is reflected in the Slugger piece. Given that Northern Ireland remains within the United Kingdom and given that unionists are involved in the government, businesses; indeed all aspects of every day life in Northern Ireland, we can dispense swiftly with that hypothesis. It is refined somewhat on Slugger, framed as disengagement from ‘the state to the south’ and from nationalists. The sentiment is the same.

Although the commenter on ‘Ulster’s Doomed’ rails against unionists who disown their Irishness and the Republican blogger on Slugger is resentful of unionists who claim the term, the implication from both is that engagement with nationalism increases one’s authentic Irishness, whilst engagement with the United Kingdom decreases it. If the Irish identity is seen as being capable of accommodating unionism and the British identity at all, it is something of a sliding scale, whereby nationalism represents the epitome of Irishness and unionism is its antithesis. How Irish you are depends on how much Irish nationalist culture and how many Irish nationalist assumptions you assimilate, rather than how Irish you feel.

The point, of course, is that an inclusive view of identity does not set out to cast doubt on the authenticity of someone’s felt identity, nor does it attempt to interrogate aggressively the reasons which might motivate someone to identify themselves in a particular way. Whether a nationalist is telling me that I am not British, or whether he is implying that I am not Irish, he is, in both cases, attempting to prescribe my identity to fit his own limited conception of what an identity should entail.

Unionism, at its best, is better equipped to accommodate a broader, more generous understanding of identity. That isn't a weapon. It's an inherent strength of the philosophy.

Ulster Conservatives and Unionists. Actions speak louder than words.

It is said that discretion is the better part of valour. But ahead of tonight’s UUP executive meeting, the BBC has learned that ‘Ulster Conservatives and Unionists’ is likely to be the banner under which the new electoral force stands. I had understood that the two parties, and the joint committee they set up, wanted to maintain a tight ship until the name had been passed by the executive.

With the probable formulation now in the public realm, it is certainly now fair game for blogs such as 'Three Thousand Versts'. It had become apparent, over the past couple of weeks, that the UUP argument for retaining the word ‘Ulster’ in the name under which joint candidates would stand was likely to prevail.

Clearly I was susceptible to the Conservative notion that replacing ‘Ulster’ with ‘Northern Ireland’ might best reflect the inclusive ambitions of this political project. However I acknowledged earlier this week that there was little merit in becoming too precious about an ultimately trivial matter.

There is manifestly nothing offensive about the word in this context and it helps to placate UUP fears that the party’s identity would be lost in a larger entity, possibly to its electoral detriment.

‘Ulster Conservatives and Unionists’ affords clarity as far as the arrangement’s lineage is concerned. There will be less scope for confusion when voters take to the ballot booth. And as for the civic nature of the unionism which candidates will espouse, actions will undoubtedly speak louder than words.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

In order to salvage any of Eames Bradley, Woodward had to kick £12,000 payout into long grass

Secretary of State Shaun Woodward’s decision to rule out any possibility of a £12,000 payout to the relatives of everyone killed in the troubles (within the UK) is unsurprising. It was necessary, both to avoid justifiable moral revulsion and in order to salvage other recommendations contained in the Eames Bradley report. This one clause might otherwise have deemed an extensive report effectively worthless, had it not been swiftly and unequivocally kicked into the long grass by the government.

What Eames and Bradley produced is not entirely without merit. It is imbued with an underlying desire to see closure which many people in Northern Ireland share. Putting a stop to endless calls for expensive public inquiries is plainly a necessary aspiration. Despite criticism, I also believe it makes a decent fist of suggesting structures which might enable victims’ families to hear the truth about what happened to their loved ones.

However Tom Elliot articulates some objections which the Ulster Unionist Party has as regards the Consultative Group’s findings. They are relevant, pertinent and pertain to the equivalence which has been accorded to terrorists with those who did not perpetrate terror, but were its victims.

The report comes before Westminster’s Northern Ireland Select Committee today.

Longlisted for Orwell Prize!

This is really rather exciting. ‘Three Thousand Versts of Loneliness’ has been longlisted, in the blog category, for the Orwell Prize. Seeking to encourage George Orwell’s aim of elevating ‘political writing into an art’, two winning writers are normally chosen, one for authorship of a political book and one who has excelled in the field political journalism.

This year, however, sees the introduction of a prize for blogging. The list of entrants comprises a strong national field, many of whom would be considered ‘big beasts’ in the weblog world (not to mention a fair smattering of professionals).

I have been grateful for whatever small degree of recognition this site has gained since its inception, but it really is beyond my wildest expectations to be a contender for “the pre-eminent British prize for political writing”.

Details of the other eleven longlisted blogs and the posts on which they were judged are available here. Iain Dale and Oliver Kamm react to their inclusion.

Update: (Be grateful - I nearly decided to start another thread!). Radio 4's programme discussed the blog prize this morning. This piece from its website asks whether Orwell would have blogged, had he been around today.

Sad news

Some sad news, which puts in context the party political squabbles which get us so animated so much of the time. David and Samantha Cameron’s six year old son, Ivan, has died. He suffered from cerebral palsy and epilepsy. Condolences to the Cameron family at a very difficult time.

Update - Nick Robinson has a thoughtful blogpost on Ivan's death.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Confessions of a secret U2 fan

If I can take you into my confidence for a moment or two, I would like to make a guilty admission. I am a closet fan of the rock band U2.

This pathology from which I suffer was once worse; much, much worse. And what’s more, at one point I wore my status with Pride (even in the name of love?).

When I was seventeen or eighteen (merely a Boy), not only did I own every U2 release, but I held in contempt anyone who even so much as suggested that Bono and co were, well, Bad. Additionally I read avidly every book and interview that I could get my hands on which had even a tangential relevance to the group or its music. I had album posters in my room and I greeted as manna from heaven almost every pronouncement which the singer made from behind those ridiculous wraparound shades. Hell, I even paid a dubious character in a pub near Lansdowne Road over one hundred Republic of Ireland pounds to secure a ticket for the band’s Popmart show. Such, at that time, was my Desire (ahem).

U2 were largely responsible when I ploughed through such worthless dross as the works of William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. To be fair I also became aware of Truman Capote, Raymond Carver and Norman Mailer because the band name checked those authors too.

Even back then, however, I was not immune from the odd bout of Bono precipitated embarrassment. Frequently I wished he hadn’t said something at which I inwardly cringed. Yet more frequently I wished he’d said something clearly, not imbedded in ironic gibberish, or murmured elliptically, or delivered (as was once his wont) in a mid Atlantic twang. My fandom was constantly battling with innate cynicism and intense irritability. The very fact that a member of my favourite band styled himself 'the Edge' became hard to reconcile with the grinding motion it induced in my teeth.

As the years passed, irritability grappled fandom to the ground, kicked sand in its face, and capered deliriously into the Beautiful (new) Day, at last liberated from a disabling enemy. I still liked the music (although it became substantially less compelling as Achtung Baby receded into distant memory) but I was free to applaud Paul Theroux when he observed, ‘there are probably more annoying things than being hectored about African development by a wealthy Irish rock star in a cowboy hat, but I can’t think of one at the moment”.

Yet, despite myself, when I hear that the first U2 album for five years is about to be released and when I learn that the reviewers’ consensus is that it represents their best work since the early 90s, I cannot help but become a little excited. Perhaps this anticipation has skewed my judgment rather, because when I heard Bono being interviewed on the Today programme this morning, I found to my surprise that he spoke lucidly and without undue affectation.

So my guilty secret is that I will be buying the new album when it is released, most probably I will like it and I might not even find the accompanying interviews insufferable, as long as sensible, self-effacing Bono is not replaced by his ‘artist’ alter-ego.

Goldie addition is good news for the Union

An important development towards a closer relationship between government at Westminster and the devolved regions has been announced. David Cameron has added the Conservative party’s leader in Scotland, Annabel Goldie, to his shadow Cabinet.

Previously on ‘Three Thousand Versts’ I've argued that aspiring to augment communication and involvement between Westminster and Holyrood was an inclination self-evidently unionist in character. Providing the party’s Scottish parliamentary group with a permanent voice at shadow Cabinet level underlines the importance which Cameron is according to the devolved regions.

He is endeavouring to ensure that any Conservative government would represent the entire United Kingdom and enable that kingdom to work as well as possible, both at unitary level and as four constituent parts.

To this end further regional additions to the shadow Cabinet would be welcome.

The right to reject republican revisionism

The Irish News reports that a case brought by two former terrorists will be heard by the House of Lords this morning. Sean McConkey and Jervis Marks are challenging an employment tribunal which found that the Simon Community charity which employed them was entitled to treat the pair unfavourably on the basis of their political extremism and criminal pasts.

Convicted murderer, McConkey, claimed that the case would determine whether former IRA prisoners, “should be allowed to play a positive role in society”.

With unrepentant terrorists at the heart of Northern Ireland’s government, such people currently play a more than sufficient role in society. Whilst enabling them to continue to do so, we should not prejudice employers’ discretion to choose whether or not their organisation feels a former terrorist makes an appropriate employee.

We hear a lot about the rights of former prisoners, but these people were convicted of criminal offences which were carried out in the furtherance of a violent, extremist cause. The republican interpretation of the troubles should not be legally enforced on prospective employers.

To do so would confer retrospective acceptability on people which society is fully at liberty to consider pariahs. The right to say, ‘we will not employ those who murdered and maimed’, is much the more important entitlement in this case.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Cameron's commitment, names and 'Unionist Unity'.

I previously commended David Shiels’ Belfast Telegraph piece on the Conservative and Ulster Unionist electoral force. He has another article at Conservative Home today, covering the same topic, which addresses a number of important points.

In previous debates regarding the new alignment, doubt has been cast on how much determination and courage David Cameron is showing by entering into a deal with Ulster Unionists. Regular commenter (and blogger) yourcousin, for instance, goes so far as to suggest that the Tory leader’s unionism is merely a pragmatic tactical guise.

Shiels rebuts any such suggestions without equivocation. He speaks of, “the determination with which the Conservative Party’s leadership has approached the mission of offering a radical break from the traditional, sectarian nature of politics in the province”. Cameron and Owen Paterson have signalled a clear departure from their party’s recent policy on Northern Ireland’s politics,

“His (Cameron’s) critics overlook the historical tensions he has had to overcome in order to sell this deal to his own party.”

The point is that this is not a risk free venture for the Conservatives by any means. It has required work, flexibility and a genuine commitment to delivering national political involvement across the whole United Kingdom.

Shiels is aware that there are problems which have yet to be overcome. He recognises UUP concerns about the new dispensation’s name, stating that many within the party wish to protect its ‘Ulster identity’. Insofar as this analysis is accurate, he is absolutely right to assert, “the UUP must not forget that the real prize is the possibility that they will reclaim the ‘Unionist’ identity which has long been sidelined in British politics”.

I have consistently argued that Ulster Unionists must take a phlegmatic approach to naming the new entity. I also believe that anxiety about their party’s continued corporate identity allied to a desire that the electoral force should as seamlessly as possible retain the vast bulk of UUP support (whatever the scope for attracting new voters might be) plays as prominent a role as any notional sentimental attachment to the word ‘Ulster’ in fuelling that apprehension. Early talk of a ‘takeover’ contributed in no small part.

I understand Tory nervousness about ‘Ulster’ featuring in the name, but although I am keen that UUP members should not be too adamant about framing a formulation which includes the word, neither should Conservatives be too precious about its inclusion. It is actually a relatively small issue, and I’m sure a compromise can be reached. In any case, there are official names and names which appear on election literature. These do not always correspond.

Although I differ slightly from Shiels’ interpretation of the naming issue, I am fully in concordance with his analysis as regards ‘Unionist Unity’. Despite the protestations of a pro DUP News Letter editorial, whilst the overall strength of the pro-Union vote in comparison to nationalist clearly remains important, ‘Unionist Unity’ is a concept often invoked for purely cynical reasons.

What the paper contends ‘has always been a commendable objective’ was actually frequently employed to prevent normalisation of politics in Northern Ireland for selfish party political reasons. It is hard to argue that when Official Unionists deployed a ‘Unionist Unity’ message to crush Northern Ireland Labour they achieved anything other than refocusing politics on the constitutional question and nurturing nationalism.

Ironically the UUP now finds itself on the other side of the argument, attempting to deliver normalised politics, and in so doing strengthen Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom.

Brown and Walpole

His colleague Robert Peston might have scooped all the accolades in the past year (pun intended), but it is Nick Robinson who inspires me to fandom. I was therefore delighted to learn that the BBC’s political editor is to present a series examining, “the history of those who've lived and worked behind the most famous front door in the world”. That is British Prime Ministers, for those of you a little sluggish of mind on a Monday morning.

By way of introduction Robinson’s blog contains a fascinating little article drawings parallels between Gordon Brown and a famous predecessor, Sir Robert Walpole. The first Prime Minister presided over an economic crisis prompted by a bursting bubble of investment in the South Seas. He also faced media criticism every bit as robust as anything Gordon Brown has had to contend with.

It should be an interesting programme and I’d imagine it will become available on I Player.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

No need for more minutes at half time

The Observer reports this morning that the International Football Association Board (meeting in Belfast next week) will discuss adding an extra five minutes to half time, because it is concerned that, “players and referees have no time for rest at some stadiums after walking to the dressing room”. Poor mites!

It has not been lost on the paper that the extra minutes would also enable the generation of considerably greater advertising revenue for FIFA and TV companies.

Not too many years ago half time lasted just ten minutes. Frankly, if young men cannot rest and be out on the field ready to play another half in fifteen minutes, then they should not be considered professional athletes and should seek another profession.

As usual it would be fans who actually attend matches in the cheap seats who would be most inconvenienced, to the benefit of TV companies, armchair spectators and corporate hospitality types who get an extra few minutes to quaff champagne and network, without anything as trivial as football getting in the way.

At the same meeting the Irish FA will push for the introduction of sin bins for certain offences. This is an idea which might work. It seems to have been successful enough in rugby.

The cruel side of me wishes to point out, however, that with crumbling Irish League stadia hitting the news ( I’m pleased to report that I visited Seaview yesterday without a wall falling on me) and having just outlawed the biggest domestic fixture of the season, Raymond Kennedy et al had better use any excess ingenuity to sort out problems closer to home.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Minister of the Absurd, 'I never wanted job in the first place'!

If you didn’t laugh you would cry! Sammy Wilson has admitted that he wasn’t ‘mad keen’ to take on the Environment Minister’s brief in the first instance, only took the job because Peter Robinson urged him to do so and had a slender grasp of what it would involve!

Setting aside Sammy’s Vicky Pollard diction, imagine handing anyone an important executive post on the back of such lack of commitment and self-declared ignorance! If an employee in Burger King were to express similar sentiments there would be questions asked about their position!

I apologise for excessive exclamation mark usage, but honestly!

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Will Medvedev allow government to become a dialogue with Russia's people?

Comment is Free carries an article by James Marson examining perceived discontent fomented by the economic crisis, in Russia. It is a more thoughtful piece than the brand of ‘perfidious Kremlin’ geopolitical waffle which most commentators are producing. Whilst the Federation is by no means the oppressive totalitarian state which is frequently depicted by western media, undeniably a more open, accountable approach would afford Russian democracy more air to breathe. Medvedev is by no means a lost cause in terms of steering his country towards that outcome.

I have previously insisted that Putinite notions of a ‘power vertical’ and ‘sovereign democracy’ are by no means as insidious as they have often been portrayed. In many respects they simply represent Russian solutions to Russian problems, drawing on a political tradition which differs dramatically from the experience in western Europe and the US. Against the backdrop of a huge, diverse state, Putinism has attempted to strengthen national party politics, bolster central institutions and standardise political rights and entitlements, associated with Russian citizenship, across a kaleidoscopic array of competing constitutional arrangements and claims on Moscow’s sovereignty.

Putin was bequeathed a Russia whose regions his predecessor urged to take ‘as much sovereignty’ as they could swallow. His policies were a rational, and at least partially successful, response to the difficulties which such irresponsibility precipitated. But Russia today faces a different set of challenges (albeit with many of the late 90s set ongoing). Putin has realised a structure which can deliver democracy yet diminishes the worst centrifugal effects which were inherent in Yeltsin’s Russia. It should now be possible to encourage the type of two way conversation which forms the most laudable component of flourishing democratic societies.

Despite what naysayers insist, there are signs that President Medvedev is prepared to enable that conversation. Marson’s article points out that he recently visited the editor of opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, Dmitry Muratov, and investor Mikhail Gorbachev, to get their perspective on the country’s mood. Although Marson argues that this is an indictment of how closed off the presidency has become, his contention is a little mischievous. Undoubtedly the meeting indicates a willingness to engage with contravening voices. The President’s videoblog invites comments from its viewers and Siberian Sun highlights Medvedev’s candid admission that his administration’s ‘e government’ efforts are far from satisfactory.

I am a strong believer that Russia’s people should decide what form of government is most suited to them, and that their decision should be respected elsewhere. Thus far they have elected to keep faith with the Putinite model. If Russians' concerns are changing then its leadership should be responsive, otherwise it will lose popular backing it has thus far retained. And if that happens I will be as strong as anyone in my condemnation, if the present incumbents fail to step aside. As yet that is to deal in the counter-factual. Medvedev’s presidency remains in its early stages and it will be judged by how it deals with current difficulties and those yet to come.

Paying more for less. Britain's rail rip off.

Last week I travelled reasonably intensively on the Italian rail network, Trenitalia. From Wednesday to Saturday there was only one day when my girlfriend and I did not take a train. We suffered no delays to speak of. Our second class carriages were clean and comfortable and we covered fairly long distances both quickly and inexpensively.

Contrast this experience to the misery of rail travel in Britain. Although I am not a particularly frequent user of the mainland rail network, nevertheless I have spent many hours waiting in stations for delayed services, staring forlornly at sidings where the train has come to an unaccountable and interminable halt, inhaling noxious air which seems to emanate directly from adjacent toilets. All of which comprises an unimpeachable service when it's set against Translink’s efforts to deliver public transport to long suffering travellers in Northern Ireland.

Not that Italian trains are uniquely superior to those in Britain. Swiss trains, German trains, Spanish trains, Danish trains, Polish trains, trains in Ukraine and Russia – I have used all of them without the slightest hitch and each one has been cheaper and pleasanter than any train journey in the British Isles. A delayed train in any of these countries is a remarkable event.

Yet which EU country has the highest train fares? You’ve guessed it.


Leadership speculation music to Labour opponents' ears

Although Michael White is probably right when he insists that Harriet Harman is not positioning herself to make a pre-election Labour leadership bid (as another Guardian blogger suggests this morning), it is a sure sign that Brown’s ‘comeback’ is well and truly over that media speculation about a possible successor is back.

David Cameron will want to guard against complacency, but the Conservative Party is likely to form the next UK government irrespective of who leads Labour at the next election. Indeed Labour figures with long term leadership ambitions would be well advised to shelter from the fall out of defeat as best they can, rather than challenging Brown at this juncture.

Any speculation, however, will be grist to the Tory mill. As opposed to a galvanised party, steered by the self-styled saviour of the world, it looks increasingly likely that Conservatives will face a divided Labour party in all kinds of disarray.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Not everyone is telling the same old story

Fair Deal has produced a pair of exhaustive essays on Slugger entitled ‘Euro 09 and the DUP’. Fewer words have been expended on some university dissertations and one has to be awed, perhaps even ashamed, by the sheer bloody-minded seriousness and tenacity with which he approaches his subject. When all is said and done, however, his topic remains the DUP; its impoverished vision of unionism and the dour tribal politics which it thrives upon.

In his conclusion Fair Deal manfully wrestles with the notion that the DUP might advance a coherent ‘narrative’. Whatever this might comprise, and he is (by his own admission) much more lucid prescribing what it should NOT consist in, it is unlikely to outline with any conviction the party’s vision for how Northern Ireland can best contribute to and participate in the politics of the United Kingdom.

The DUP ‘narrative’ will also almost certainly fail to address what membership of the kingdom should mean to the people of Northern Ireland, or to ponder the political, historical and cultural bonds which bind the UK together. Whilst it is easy to sneer at their opponents’ erstwhile slogan ‘Simply British’, it is more difficult to explain why a party which identifies itself as unionist should show so little interest in how its own Britishness is defined through its relationship to the rest of the kingdom and that kingdom’s politics.

Fair Deal contends that, “it is unlikely that the election will offer anything radically new in the battle of ideas between Unionism and Nationalism”. Whilst the type of thinking which has precipitated the Ulster Unionist / Conservative force is not exactly freshly minted, it nevertheless consists in ideas which have been reinvigorated. And although their reintroduction has yet to be tested at the polls, electoral unionism has been offered intellectual dynamism on a realistic platform.

After previous flirtations with pan-UK ideas, Ulster unionism has begun to explore properly the interface between it and its Great British cousin. It is offering unionism which examines, not merely what it means to be Northern Irish and opposed to Irish nationalism, but what it means to be Northern Irish, British and an eager and willing participant in a big United Kingdom.

Specifically, in his two articles, Fair Deal is discussing the forthcoming European election. During this campaign, the Conservative and Ulster Unionist message must of course dwell on issues particular to the European Union, as well as those pertaining more widely to the politics of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland. But in comparison to the moribund and reductive type of politics which the DUP specialises in, there is a clear opportunity to articulate uplifting, forward thinking, outward looking unionism at its best. If it is to be a battle of narratives, then the UU / Cons are possessed of much the more compelling.

Not that I am naïve enough to believe that a positive or invigorating brand of unionism will necessarily translate into immediate success at the polls. It could quite plausibly emerge that Northern Ireland’s electorate is still motivated primarily by fear of the other side and mobilised most readily by a negative campaign which plays on that fear. Perhaps it is unionism defined by a communal rather than a civic impulse which will prevail again; unionism which is marooned on an island of Ulster particularism, with little ambition to build integrative political causeways to the rest of the UK.

The point remains that the ideas which animate the Conservative and Unionist project are the right ones. They express unionism at its most constructive and they locate it within a sure philosophical framework. The European election is the first opportunity to begin advancing a project which stands to benefit the Union exponentially, should it gather the electoral momentum it deserves.

Whether Jim Nicholson tops the poll or not, it is Conservatives and Ulster Unionists who have a new message to sell to pro-Union voters, and it is the best message which those voters have available to them. As the DUP cast around for a ’narrative’ for this particular election, the UUP / Cons should draw strength from this realisation and begin to tell their own story with maximum conviction.

Labour in Northern Ireland edges us further towards equal citizenship

Although its mismanagement of the United Kingdom’s government has proved lamentable, I must join O’Neill in welcoming news that the Labour Party is officially organising in Northern Ireland. It should seek to fight elections here as quickly as possible.

If a small number of UUP members feel so alienated by the Conservative link-up that they no longer have a home within the former party then local Labour might represent a convivial alternative.

And ideally the SDLP would seek a similar arrangement with Labour as that established between Ulster Unionists and Tories, but there remains too traditional a nationalist streak within Mark Durkan’s party for that to become a likelihood.

Given the Northern Ireland party’s statist inclinations and tendency to support the government in crucial votes, perhaps the most obvious link up should be between Labour and the DUP.

Levity aside, anything which can edge politics here towards normality, and which gives Northern Ireland voters greater access to political choices enjoyed by the rest of the UK, can only be a positive development.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

One year on Kosovo remains an affront to international law

I must, at some point, have signed up to a Foreign and Commonwealth Office mailing list, because I receive regular e-mails featuring, disproportionately, assorted inconsistent and condescending musings dispensed by David Miliband, in which he variously condenses, simplifies and misrepresents a series of geopolitical circumstances throughout the globe. His latest offering extols the success of one year of Kosovo Albanian independence, wilfully ignoring the baleful sequence of events which recognising theuniversal declaration put in train, and oblivious to the fact that Pristina is not even close to becoming capital of a functioning, healthy or democratic state.

Most conspicuously, recognition of the Kosovo Albanian claim by the US, UK and other western powers established a trend for unilateral, sparsely recognised declarations of independence. South Ossetia and Abkhazia, similarly semi-independent, quasi states predictably followed the Balkan example. Although the full implications of the precedent set in Kosovo have yet to work themselves out, one immediate piece of fall out was war in Georgia. Other regional conflicts may follow.

Meanwhile, in Kosovo itself, even the most enthusiastic cheerleaders for the province’s independence agree that the northern Serb regions are not under Pristina’s control. This represents almost one quarter of a small country. 15,000 UN peace keepers remain in Kosovo and reliance on EU ‘mentored’ alternatives is, as yet, pie in the sky.

The Serb minister responsible for Kosovo, Goran Bogdanovic, insists that the province should still be considered an integral part of Serbia. By any reasonable interpretation of international law he is almost certainly right.

By recognising Kosovo’s independence, fifty five states have denigrated the legal principle of territorial integrity and simultaneously bolstered ethnic nationalism as a preferred option to decide borders. Tensions in the province have only increased over the intervening year and EU structures designed to fill a security vacuum have not yet even been deployed. It has not been possible to copper-fasten Kosovo as a quasi-independent EU protectorate, never mind as a functioning independent state!

Serbia continues to seek a ruling from the International Court of Justice. Until this institution makes a ruling, an independent Kosovo remains an affront to international law.

Nail stoutly hit on head

Alex Kane on Gerry Adams,

Republicanism championed by Mr Adams is a brutal, half-baked, blinkered, myth-ridden, intellectually redundant and economically fatuous ideology. His speech in Limerick was the sort of hand-me-down, crypto-revolutionary junk you would expect to hear in a shebeen after one too many glasses of poteen. It was the speech of an old man in a great hurry: the speech of a man who had finally realised that his political ambitions would remain unfulfilled.

Ironically, it is a speech that unionists, if they had any sense, could learn from; for it demonstrated that there is practically nothing left in all-Ireland republicanism other than hot air and wish fulfilment. Mr Adams will continue to travel the world, addressing diminishing audiences of the curious and the still delusional. Yet, wherever he rests his head at night, Gerry Adams knows one thing for certain: his day isn’t coming.

Getting rid of regional government. Lucky old England!

Let me pre-empt anticipated criticism (hello Fair Deal) and acknowledge that I am not amongst the most convincing or consistent advocates of ‘localism’. I have instinctive distaste for anything that smacks of the parish pump; I am quick to condemn parties that are excessively preoccupied with local issues to the exclusion of national questions; I am dismissive of ‘unionists’ who show scant regard for the retained sovereign power of parliament; hell, I even hate most regional variations on TV.

Not that any of these predilections, of course, are inconsistent with a belief that nourishing the grass roots of democracy is to the ultimate benefit of our kingdom. I have therefore read Conservative proposals to revamp local government and decentralise powers from Westminster and Whitehall with interest and without prejudice. The difference between David Cameron’s plans to devolve power and haphazard constitutional vandalism inflicted by Labour is that the former will seek to organically cultivate and empower local institutions, whilst the latter imposed wholly inorganic, asymmetrical, poorly defined devolved assemblies which led to fundamental imbalances in government.

Apart from encouraging local councils to assume more responsibility, and striving to make those institutions more accountable to local people, the Conservative plans also seek to remove a layer of regional government in England. Although Gordon Brown has already indicated that he will remove unpopular, unelected English regional assemblies from 2010, Tory proposals would return their powers to local government, rather than to Regional Development Agencies.

In Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, there will be those casting a rueful eye towards England, believing that the Conservative model could be applied more widely. Alas we are stuck with our regional government for the time being.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Ashamed of Wilson? Don't be duped again! (3)

The fact that Northern Ireland’s environment brief is in the hands of ‘climate change sceptic’ (or Minister for the Absurd), Sammy Wilson, has garnered UK wide attention following a well publicised rant about an energy efficiency advert. Following on from his hapless performance on Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme, the rubicund buffoon found himself the subject of a Sunday Times’ profile in yesterday’s paper.

In fact, Sammy has performed so poorly, with his constant gaffs and steady stream of unrestrained, sub-Clarkson, populist ranting, that Esoterica NI speculates Peter Robinson might be prepared to recall Edwin Poots to the executive as a replacement. Such is the life of the post-Paisley DUP leader! Deciding which one of a pair of lunatics spews the least embarrassing brand of flat earth cobblers.

The Times’ article puts Wilson’s comments in the context of other expressions of DUP nutterdom. Why on earth shouldn’t it? This is a party which consistently expresses views which are anathema to the vast majority of British people, never mind British politicians. It succeeds only in exacerbating the sense that Northern Ireland is out of touch with the rest of the nation. It makes our politics the subject of ridicule.

Of course the Sammy Wilson profile only scratches the surface. Banned ELO concerts, tsunamis as God’s revenge for sin. An exhaustive list of embarrassing views expressed by party representatives would be practically endless. Northern Ireland’s electorate might not forever forget its sense of shame when it goes to the polls.

A snowball's chance? Job done in San Marino

I intend that normal service should resume this week. Indeed I had rather hoped to post something about the San Marino trip yesterday, but starting the day at 3.45am (Italian time) rather militated against anything more ambitious than slouching on the settee yesterday evening. First things first, thank you to Hernandez, who responded to my tweeted entreaties and reassured an anxious group of snowbound Northern Ireland fans that the match was in fact on. It had looked desperately unlikely earlier in the day.

It would be unduly churlish to complain about Northern Ireland’s performance on Wednesday night. Although the San Marino team proved every bit as bad as it had appeared at Windsor Park, Nigel Worthington’s men did their job with minimum fuss. Given the ease with which Northern Ireland took a two nil lead, I did feel that a more whole hearted display in the second half might have yielded a truly resounding result. Additionally, three players have picked up suspensions for the must win game against Poland, which could prove particularly expensive.

To focus on positives for a moment, Damien Johnson made a welcome return after his injury lay off. The midfielder had an impressive game down the right flank. Steven Davis turned in a classy performance, looking much the most accomplished player on the pitch. Unfortunately he is also one of the players suspended next time. Northern Ireland will greatly miss the assurance he shows with a ball at his feet. Grant McCann too showed tireless work rate and capped his performance with a fine goal. So as a whole the midfield established its superiority early in the match and on overwhelming terms. Actually San Marino should have been overrun.

Whilst San Marino the team succumbed, but held its own, the match venue was swamped by a green tide. From Rimini, Bologna and high up the mountainside in San Marino itself, Northern Ireland supporters converged on the rudimentary little ground in Serravalle. Basic some of the facilities may have been (queues for two male toilet cubicles were horrendous), but the San Marinans must know a thing or two about drainage.

It is difficult to describe just how rotten an afternoon Wednesday was in the San Marino – Rimini area. From Bologna (dry but dull) the sky got progressively angrier as we approached Rimini by train. 40 kilometres away it was dry, although at 1pm it might’ve been dusk. 20 kilometres from the town the skies opened and we arrived in the train station amidst incessant icy torrents of water. The conditions only got worse as our service bus climbed towards San Marino. There was not a lighter spot in the sky when we edged slowly through Serravalle. And as we rounded hairpins in order to reach historic San Marino city, on the edge of the Apennines, rain turned to snow.

By the time we disembarked at the bus’s final stop, there were nine inches of the white stuff, we had passed a number of abandoned vehicles, the driver had struggled to maintain traction on several occasions and there was not a living soul to be seen. We had serious discussions with fellow NI travellers as to whether it might be better simply to return on the same bus and take our chances with accommodation in Rimini. Had we not found a café with some more Northern Ireland fans, had not a kind San Marinan helped us to find the hostel and explained that this hillside Republic was perfectly accustomed to such weather, I fear that we would have immediately begun our descent.

As it happened, the next morning was gloriously sunny and San Marino revealed itself to be a scenic little place, albeit rather sleepy. Certainly the descriptions of Rimini as something akin to Portrush suggested that we made the right decision. We shared a taxi bus with some fellow supporters to the ground, enjoyed a fun post match session in the London bar and experienced nothing more unpleasant than wet feet. Whether John Paul II, whose image hung above our bed, would have approved has to remain doubtful.

Generally we had an excellent trip. Without boring you with detail, I was particularly impressed with Florence. It helped that our accommodation was excellent. A hostel in name, but beating most hotels in terms of facilities. We had a PC, internet access and Sky TV in our room. It is undoubtedly a beautiful city. Well worth visiting despite the baying hordes which infested it, even in February.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Worth reading

The Young Unionist blog carries a decent enough exposition of the UU / Conservative deal’s rationale, laid out by the Chairman of Merseyside Conservative Future, who happens to be from Northern Ireland originally. He contrasts the DUP’s brand of Ulster particularism with unionism offered by the new force which emphasises involvement in UK wide politics.

“The Conservative-UUP pact offers Northern Ireland two things. Firstly, the genuine chance of achieving the political representation it is due and secondly, of creating Unionism, based not on religion but by employing the best arguments we have – that the combined strength of the United Kingdom is far greater than the sum of all our parts.”

GAWA duty calls

Although there are a couple of topics I might post on a little later, given the opportunity, for the rest of the week I will be on Green and White Army duty in Italy/San Marino. In the meantime please feel free to follow me on Twitter where (technology permitting) I will attempt to provide a flavour of the match's build-up, as well as an update or two of the onfield action.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Axe falls on Big Phil

Tony Adams seemed to be the major managerial casualty this weekend, losing his job after Fernando Torres rescued three points for Liverpool at Fratton Park. Now, however, the Chelsea website is reporting that 'Big Phil' Scolari has been dismissed. A club which doesn't understand it's proper place in the world? I think so.

Depressing attitudes

A depressing little story appeared in the Sunday Tribune yesterday illustrating that whilst attitudes may be changing as regards recognising the heritage which we share on these islands, there remains in Ireland, north and south, a deep vein of hatred towards anything which might be associated with the ‘other side’.

Students at St Mac Dara’s community college in Dublin have been persuaded to alter a mural depicting historical events of 1916. A parent complained in an anonymous letter that one half of the painting, which portrayed Irish involvement in the First World War, included a ‘loyalist symbol’. The offending item was of course a poppy.

No matter that the other half of the mural was dedicated to the Easter Rising which also occurred during that year. No matter that the poppies were painted as part of a wider view of Flanders’ fields. This lone, spineless bigot was determined that no image which he associated with the British tradition would grace a mural at his child’s school.

Of course he got his way, drawing a desperately confused remark from the college’s vice principal,

“It is absolutely no way a loyalist painting. There was some concern because at the bottom of the mural they portray the Flanders fields and there were poppies in them; not the poppies in terms of English history."

What this garbled nonsense is supposed to impart is anyone’s guess. The poppy is a symbol of remembrance precisely because it evokes Flanders. It is not specifically an English symbol and what ‘poppies in terms of English history’ might be, well, I am personally at a loss.

It is hard to see how removing a symbol of respect, loss and remembrance because of the anonymous objections of one bigot teaches children involved a lesson of any merit. Still less that requiring them to reconsider the mural’s contents indicates ‘a level of maturity’.

The pertinent point, as Paul Kingston at least acknowledges, is that almost a quarter of a million Irishmen took part in WW1, many of them sacrificing their lives. If remembering them is still equated with loyalism, even in the minds of a few, there is still a great deal of work to be done on pernicious attitudes which exist on this island.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Articulating an impeccably unionist message on Scotland

Whilst a certain appallingly poor blogger on Slugger O’Toole has been endeavouring to imply that David Cameron is compromising his unionism in an article which he has written for Scotland on Sunday, anyone who bothers to read the SoS piece will conclude that it is scrupulously unionist both by inclination and by content. Addtionally it is certainly not, by any description, at odds with remarks delivered by Conservative peer, Lord Trimble, in an interview with Edinburgh’s Evening News.

In his article Cameron rightly argues that more cooperation between the governments at Westminster and Holyrood is required. He envisages a constructive and engaged relationship with whichever administration happens to be in place in Edinburgh.

“If we win the next election at Westminster, we would govern with a maturity and a respect for the Scottish people. I would be a Prime Minister who would work constructively with any administration at Holyrood for the good of Scotland, and I would be in regular contact with the First Minister no matter what party he or she came from.”

Not only a worthy sentiment, proposing to oil the attritional interface between national government and devolved government in Scotland (attrition which benefits nationalists), but an impeccably unionist sentiment, by most sensible interpretations. How can the proposition to increase active involvement from Westminster and Whitehall in the government of Scotland be anything other than a unionist proposition?

Importantly, cooperating with Scotland’s government does not entail anything less than wholehearted opposition to the nationalist designs of Alex Salmond’s SNP. Seeking to benefit Scotland and deliver more effective government, within the constraints of the constitutional vandalism which has already irreparably been visited upon the United Kingdom, is a more effective means of protecting the Union than reflexive opposition to everything Holyrood proposes. In his interview, David Trimble argues forcibly that the SNP is failing and that its momentum will inevitably be lost. He suggests that for Scotland, “exhausting the SNP alternative is probably a necessary rite of passage."

The Conservative leader is equally forthright rebutting nationalist claims,

“If elected, I will do everything in my power to ensure that the SNP will not be able to split up the UK. I want to be a Prime Minister of the whole UK. That's not because I'm some kind of megalomaniac, it's because we have so much in common and we have done so much together.”

There is no discernible fissure between the unionism outlined by Trimble, a unionism wherby, “there is only one sovereign parliament in the UK, end of story. Power devolved is power retained”, and the vision articulated by his party leader. Both men seek to conserve the constitutional apparatus which Labour has not managed to inflict damage upon. Both men wish to see the United Kingdom work as best as it possibly can.

It is worth reflecting again on the rationale which has led Cameron to build a UK wide Conservative and Unionist force, encompassing Northern Ireland’s Ulster Unionist party. It is a rationale which the Tory leader applies to Scotland in his article,

“We are now the only major party to field candidates in all four parts of the UK. Across the water in Ulster we are building a new force in Northern Irish politics, by combining with the Ulster Unionists to create a modern, moderate centre-right force. Scotland too needs a force that promotes conservative values – the family, enterprise, and a strong country – and that stands up for the UK at the same time.”

Euro 2009 blog

David Cather has started a blog dedicated to the 2009 European election campaign in Northern Ireland and beyond. He's kicked off by introducing himself, outlining a few preliminary thoughts and formulating a commenting policy. A laudable enough project and the site should be worth keeping an eye on (although it is likely to be slanted towards the DUP).

I can't help noticing, however, that he does seem to have omitted a notable unionist politics site from his bloglist!

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Poll puzzler

ConHome carries results from the latest ICM Sunday Telegraph poll. Bizarrely both Labour and the Conservatives are down four points and the Liberal Democrats have climbed by six. Have either Nick Clegg or his party upped their performance in some way which I have not been able to discern or is this poll a rogue? Any suggestions to unravel this conundrum gratefully received.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Minister of the Absurd

Not content with his buffoon status as Minister for the Environment who doesn’t believe in climate change, Sammy Wilson, minister responsible for road safety, branded it ’absurd’ that he should be fined after riding his motorcycle without an MOT certificate. Ironically if there were a Department of the Absurd Wilson would be a leading candidate to take charge. His latest sortie is to attack schools which had to close earlier in the week, you’ve guessed it, because of the state of the roads for which Sammy is ultimately responsible!

Lagan College principal, Helen McHugh, explained why she was forced to close her school today,

“A decision to close is not one that we take lightly. I went into school at 7.15 this morning to carry out a site inspection and I had a very difficult journey over myself with the car sliding all over the place. We didn’t take that decision lightly and we do take the children's education very seriously. When we phoned the parents they were very understanding.”

Unionist support for the Holyrood budget

All the unionist parties in Scotland have now crawled on board and passed the SNP minority government’s budget. Scottish Conservatives had already joined nationalists in support of the package’s first reading. Liberal Democrats and Labour MSPs have since extracted enough concessions to secure their backing, leaving only two greens opposing the budget in a subsequent division, following its initial one vote defeat.

Each party has done exactly the same in this instance. Annabel Goldie’s Conservatives found Alex Salmond and his finance minister John Swinney immediately receptive to their preconditions. The Tories therefore voted with the government at the first time of asking. Labour and the Lib Dems had their concerns addressed only after inflicting a narrow defeat on the SNP.

The truth is that no party believes that Scotland would benefit if they were to force an early election, or render unworkable the current administration at Holyrood. In the teeth of recession, with Labour weak, pro-independence sentiment waning and Conservative revival in its nascent stages north of the border, precipitating a crisis would have unpredictable results, both for the parties and for the country.

The current minority arrangement has its attractions for both government and opposition MSPs. With power delicately balanced each party has a degree of leverage. Through horse-trading and negotiation it is possible to exert influence incommensurate with a party’s representative strength. From Salmond’s perspective, he can claim credit for every perceived success the Scottish government enjoys, and blame every perceived failure on recalcitrant unionist parties.

Ultimately, however, a regional, nationalist party governing a majority unionist area of the United Kingdom will have a baleful influence on coherent politics there. Witness Salmond’s attempts to paint the illegality of SNP local income tax proposals as a consequence of ‘English colonialism’. It is an attritional, divisive brand of governance which will necessarily take its toll on the fabric of Scottish political life.

Although none of the national parties yet feel that the time is right, eventually the nationalist menace must be confronted.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Lindsey refinery dispute hints at an EU problem

With a new deal on the table aimed at resolving the Lindsey oil refinery strike, 'Mark Mardell’s Euroblog' has teased out the more interesting ramifications of a possible solution to the dispute. Although 100 jobs for local workers, offered by the Italian company at the centre of the controversy, might do most to address the immediate concerns of picketing strikers marching around with Union Flags, it is an undertaking to ensure Italian employees are retained under conditions negotiated by British Trades Unions, which establishes a more prescient precedent.

Under the terms of the renewed offer, it would not be possible for Italian workers at the site to undercut British employees (as European law permits). They would instead be earning Union rates commensurate with those earned by their UK colleagues. Significantly, the government has played a role in steering both sides towards this outcome.

Mardell speculates as to whether Labour might now push for greater standardisation, as regards workers’ rights, across the EU. Although he remains doubtful, a compelling precedent would nevertheless be set within the United Kingdom if such a high profile case is solved in the fashion which has been suggested, although obviously no legal obligation could be imposed.

Many observers have watched this dispute with mounting distaste, detecting underlying xenophobia at work. ‘Your Friend in the North’ excoriates a strike which has been heavy on national flags and pejorative terms for fellow EU workers, but rather light on solidarity.

It was Gordon Brown (via the BNP) who provided a tagline for the refinery strikes, and if nothing else, the affair is a lesson in the baleful effects of populist oratory. The genie should never have been let out of this particular bottle.

There is, however, a genuine problem, exacerbated by the economic downturn, wherever cheap labour is seen to be undercutting local workers. It is at its root a European Union problem, albeit one that has been inflamed by the Prime Minister’s irresponsible rhetoric.

Hermon right to consider Tory deal carefully.

Lady Sylvia Hermon met David Cameron yesterday to discuss the Ulster Unionist / Conservative electoral arrangement, but has yet to come to a ‘final judgment’ as to its merits. It transpires that she is engaged in a series of meetings with senior Tories which will presumably culminate in the UUP MP making clear her attitude to the new Conservative and Unionist force.

Lady Hermon is only now resuming her involvement in politics following the death of her husband, Jack. She is entitled to listen to what Conservatives have to say before coming to a conclusion and it is encouraging that she is obviously giving the deal careful consideration rather than subjecting it to a knee-jerk reaction.

Whilst a small number of dyed-in-the-wool, statist socialists may retain a tribal distrust of the Conservatives, moderate, centrist politicians should not be dismissive of Cameron’s message. If it is the communitarian, society led vision of conservatism which the party continues to emphasise then it is offering an attractive and meritorious alternative to Labour.

Genuine incompatibility of principle would be a legitimate reason to oppose the Conservative / UUP compact, residual loyalty to a discredited government would not.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Something to polish the car with?

Not content with selling sex toys the IFA has a new range for sale on 'its' megastore. Thanks to Snoopy, who drew this to my attention. Someone with a bit of IT experience needs to set this store up with some filters.

Or how about this, should you want something to read on the plane to San Marino?

Cameron the Communist?

If David Cameron has any doubt that he is on the right track espousing ‘moral capitalism’ as an appropriate response to the current economic climate, he should banish it, following Simon Heffer’s extraordinary diatribe in the Daily Telegraph. The champion of Little England summons up a monstrous, hypocritical rant invoking the type of Free Market idealism which should be anathema to a Conservative like Cameron, for whom scepticism of ideology forms a central tenet of his philosophical credo.

This is Heffer at his tub thumping worst. Markets are the guarantor of freedom and are inherently ‘moral’. Market regulation is conflated with constraint of people’s liberty. Any type of interference in markets is akin to communism. Cameron is proposing to ‘Sovietise capitalism out of existence’.

Clearly this brand of utopian faith in markets is exactly what the current Conservative leader opposes. He is not suggesting heavy handed regulation. He simply plans to regulate against the worst irresponsible excesses and steer the economy towards a broader base of capital. It is an ambition which has a sure philosophical lineage within conservatism and it is a more moderate, more attractive reading of that tradition than anything Heffer espouses.

It is no accident that the Conservatives have recovered their extensive lead at the same time that Cameron has chosen to re-emphasise his communitarian credentials. The best way to fritter away that advantage would be to listen to naysayers like Heffer.

Don't be Duped again! (2) - Voting for a Conservative and Unionist candidate is better for the Union

True to every prediction offered since her application for the post was made public, Belfast city councillor Diane Dodds has taken the DUP’s candidature for this year’s European election. Unnerved by the prospect of running against sitting pro-Union MEPs, Jims Nicholson and Allister, Peter Robinson’s party were desperate to secure a big name to run in June’s poll. Unable to persuade genuinely significant figures to be sidelined at Strasbourg, the ‘big name’ hoping to be returned by the DUP is only possessed by marriage.

Whoever the DUP chose, its campaign was always destined to turn around twin pivots; fear mongering and an appeal to unionists to close ranks behind its candidate. The two ‘Ourselves Alone’ parties have a symbiotic relationship, bordering on a Faustian Pact. Success from one benefits the other and ultimately the aim is a sectarian carve-up of Northern Ireland’s electorate. Despite the mutually beneficial relationship enjoyed by the Dupes and their Sinn Féin coalition colleagues, despite their cosy coexistence for the rest of the year, come election time fear of one is the main means by which the other seeks to drive up its own vote.

Of course, as O’Neill intimates on Unionist Lite, the health of the Union does not rest on the DUP topping a European election poll. Certainly it is necessary that the overall vote for continued Union is maximised, but voters must consider which type of unionism it is that they want. If it is unionism which genuinely values Northern Ireland’s place within the UK and wishes to contribute fully in national politics, the DUP has little to offer. Ultimately, for the benefit of the United Kingdom as a robust political entity, and to strengthen Northern Ireland’s position within that Kingdom, a vote for Conservative and Unionist candidates will always be more effective than a vote for the DUP.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Too much moderation?

I feel I must record my support for Slugger O'Toole's poster and commentator, Turgon, who has been censored for quite valid comments about the odious loyalist terrorist, Billy Hutchison. Ignited has the details. Although it is a difficult job moderating a busy blog dealing with contentious subjects, my feeling is that a line has been crossed.

Ruane mayhem due a bad minister and a failing system

Are there are no bounds to Caitriona Ruane’s irresponsibility and incompetence? Unable to negotiate an end to academic selection she has presided over dismantlement of an imperfect, but tested, system and its replacement by deregulation, chaos and confusion.

In 2010, rather than one means of regulated selection for post primary schools, there will be a myriad of different tests, devised by various grammar schools and groups of grammar schools, allied to a range of unenforceable ‘guidelines’ which the minister ‘unveiled’ yesterday as if they were a coherent alternative to the Eleven Plus.

Constrained by an ideological straightjacket Ruane has been unable and unwilling either to compromise or accept that her position is untenable. She has provided a one woman demonstration why the current executive arrangements are unworkable in the longer term.

Ulster Unionist ministers, Sir Reg Empey and Michael McGimpsey have pointed out that Ruane has not only made a nonsense of the idea of collective responsibility within the Executive, she has also shown the contempt with which ministers can treat majority views expressed by the Assembly.

The system of government which has developed in Northern Ireland not only lacks any credible democratic credentials and has dispensed with notions of accountability; it is unable even to hold its members in check or enforce notional requirements for consensus.

Irresponsible Gillespie out, but no excuses should Northern Ireland fail to win

Nigel Worthington was snowbound yesterday and the Northern Ireland manager didn’t make it to Belfast in order to announce his squad for the San Marino match on Wednesday week. On this occasion he should not shoulder criticism for the panel’s most notable absentee.

Not only is Keith Gillespie without a club, having been released by Sheffield United, the player has also been uncontactable for eleven days. Worthington can’t vouch for his fitness, his state of mind or even his availability. There was no choice other than to omit Gillespie from the squad.

Michael Duff and Ivan Sproule (who simply does not appear to be on the manager’s radar) may consider themselves worthy of inclusion, but otherwise the squad is largely uncontentious. Deprived of one winger, Worthington has given himself the option of two more, selecting Celtic reserves McCourt and McGinn.

The manager knows that anything less than three points would be disastrous for Northern Ireland. He must set his team up positively from the outset, because San Marino might prove difficult to break down at home. That means employing both Lafferty and Healy up front (injury permitting) and giving the midfield licence to attack.

Either McCourt or McGinn might be required to play wide, despite lack of experience and first team football. It will be a difficult call for the manager to make (given quality available to him in the centre of the park), but deploying Brunt in order to provide width has not always been a successful strategy.

San Marino appeared to be a desperately limited outfit at Windsor Park. When they are at home, packing the defence, only a positive outlook from Northern Ireland should insure against an upset. A win is the minimum travelling supporters should expect.

Monday, 2 February 2009

What's in a name? Unionist, Conservative and standing in Northern Ireland.

Sir Reg Empey has given a careful response to suggestions that the Conservative and Ulster Unionist electoral force will campaign under a name which does not include the word ‘Ulster’.

Quite reasonably the UUP leader points out that his party’s title is not up for debate,

“The name of the party is not going to change, nor is any part of its constitution which defines it as the Ulster Unionist Party. What we might put on a ballot paper is one thing, but the name of the party is not going to change.”

I have argued that Ulster Unionists have to be phlegmatic about nomenclature. Northern Ireland is geographically a more accurate term and as long as the link between Ulster Unionism and the new entity is made quite explicit there is no reason why a word with largely historical significance needs to be included.

The UUP’s continued existence and its identity is secure. It has additionally acquired a sense of renewed vitality and purpose by forming a pan-UK unionist movement with Conservatives. It is vital that Ulster Unionist voters are clear about their favoured party’s involvement in the new force. It is equally important to reflect a sense of offering something new and exciting which has not been available on previous ballot papers.

The terms ’Unionist’ and ’Conservative’ define the shared values and policies which joint candidates will espouse. ’Ulster’ does not describe anything particularly pertinent to the new arrangement. There is enough room to emphasise continuity between the UUP and the Conservative and Unionist electoral arrangement within campaign literature without needless dogmatism over a name.

An indictment of NI's newspapers that anyone pays any attention to Curran.

I see Tom Elliott has been pulling apart Ed Curran’s Belfast Telegraph ‘analysis’ as to the state of unionism, in which the paper’s editor calls for a single unionist party. Predictably the MLA finds it riddled with inconsistencies. What Elliott can’t say, but I can, is that Curran’s pieces are to serious political journalism what Dan Brown’s books are to the canon of English literature.

He has presided over the Tele’s descent into quasi tabloid trash. It is an indictment of the standard of Northern Ireland’s newspapers in general that anyone is even responding to the lamentably written, poorly argued garbage which he passes off as political comment.