Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Patience and flexibility the virtues required from Conservatives and Ulster Unionists

A document obtained by the BBC last week surprised nobody by revealing that the Conservative party’s preference was to merge with Ulster Unionists. The UUP was not prepared to be absorbed into the mainland organisation and instead an electoral alliance was forged, with a view to contesting the European and Westminster elections. Rather than NICUP we have UCUNF, and the Northern Ireland party’s separate identity has been preserved.

Although the ‘New Force’ got off to an ill-tempered start, calm seems mercifully to have been restored. Seymour Major reports that Jim Nicholson MEP received an enthusiastic reception at a recent Conservative dinner, drawing tempestuous applause from an audience which hailed him as ‘our candidate’. There does remain a degree of disgruntlement amongst elements of the NI Conservative Party, who feel they have been sidelined by central Tory headquarters and question Ulster Unionists’ commitment to ‘Conservatism’ (as they would define it).

Perhaps a certain degree of acrimony was inevitable as the detail of this political marriage was developed. However, without being privy to detailed discussions, it seems to me that outward harmony could have been maintained with a little more patience and a little less impetuosity.

To begin with fundamentals, I would contend that the Ulster Unionist Party is right to retain a separate political identity, certainly for the time being. Furthermore, I believe that it will be to the Conservative Party’s advantage if it allows the relationship to develop over a period of time, rather than demanding that its partner becomes instantly indistinguishable from one of its own branches.

Although the UUP’s travails have been much discussed, it remains an established party in Northern Ireland. It is the electoral strength which Ulster Unionists retain that will provide the Conservatives’ bridgehead here. Not, with the utmost respect, support held by the local Tory party.

That is not to suggest for a moment that there should be any compromise of the inclusive unionism on which this alliance has been predicated since its inception, nor is it to deny that Ulster Unionists must accept profound change in terms of image, branding and even personnel. Mark Devenport remarked on Sunday’s Politics Show that ‘for Conservatives, this is seen in a … UK wide perspective’. And that must be the vision for the UUP too. Neither a quick fix for financial woes, nor a short-term gimmick to acquire bounce from a popular prospective Prime Minister, represent compelling reasons for this project’s pursuit.

The new grouping must intend, as a joint entity, to afford people in Northern Ireland access to national politics and to offer a meaningful alliance of Conservatives and Unionists, committed to strengthening Union, across the whole United Kingdom. Its constituent parts must also subscribe fully to these aims and be prepared to undergo a little discomfort in order to achieve them. Naturally the national dynamic of this force, and the imperative of equal citizenship which it upholds, suggests the impetus of its development should be towards the larger party, which already stands in the rest of Britain. But movement in that direction should be given time in order that it can be tested against the electorate, beginning with the existing pool of Ulster Unionist and Conservative voters who clearly have to be brought with the entity if it is to gain any purchase on Northern Ireland’s politics.

As for the compatibility of Ulster Unionism with Cameron’s Conservatives, I would suggest that doubts are exaggerated. All political parties, never mind electoral alliances, are umbrella groups which encompass a diversity of views. Although built on sound conservative philosophical foundations, Cameron’s politics are constructing something of a centrist coalition. ‘Progressive conservatism’, working with Demos, continual reassurances on Conservatives’ social commitment; all grounded in ‘One Nation’ communitarianism, but also strategies calculated to appeal across a wider political spectrum than the Tories' traditional base. I do not believe that extending the coalition to encompass some of the more social democratic Ulster Unionist representatives will damage Conservatism. On the contrary I believe that they represent precisely the type of people whom Cameron is seeking to win over across the United Kingdom.

The philosophies which have animated this entity’s creation remain sound and they should continue to invigorate its election campaigns. Patience and flexibility are twin virtues which leaders on both sides much encourage if its chances of success are to be maximised. Whilst there must be evident will within Ulster Unionism to develop normal British politics in Northern Ireland, the party should be given time to enable as painless as possible a transition. Conversely there should not be undue resistance to change if that resistance is wedded only to stubborn traditionalism.

I for one remain optimistic that the two parties can get the balance right and deliver real change and a Northern Irish voice in government.

Only the lonely. A suggestion for Jacqui Smith.

Boris Johnson is in rude form (literally) in this morning’s Telegraph, after his appearance on last night’s ‘Dispatches’. He indulges in an entertaining ‘romp’ around the topic of Jacqui Smith’s expense claims.

Personally, I wonder if the Home Secretary could not have spun the story to her advantage? After all her husband’s ‘night of rapture’ (to steal Boris’ phrase) is compelling evidence that the poor man is left alone in the family home too often!

Incidentally the Channel 4 programme about Johnson was poor. Despite a litany of innuendo, all that could be concretely ascertained is that some people believe the London mayor should be doing a better job.

Monday, 30 March 2009

Making a joke of accountable government.

If there were no Democratic Unionist Party to rebut and ridicule where would Northern Ireland blogs find material?

Actually, given the extra space the Dupes absence might create, in which proper local and national politics could flourish, I’m sure we’d do alright. Fewer instances of nutterdom to discuss would allow more space for serious, reasoned debate.

Still, it’s rather futile pondering the counterfactual. The DUP will be with us for the foreseeable future.

At the tail end of last week, Jeffrey Donaldson decided the best way to defend the Act of Settlement was to invoke some turn of the eighteenth century, anti-Catholic propaganda. This week begins with his party employing a cross community mechanism in order to protect its infamous Environment Minister from the censure of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

It is an absurd situation that a topic as universal as climate change should be subject to a cross community vote. And it demonstrates how ineffective are the mechanisms by which the Assembly is expected to hold the executive to account, when the best it can do is introduce impotent motions which are in any case subsequently blocked by a minority of MLAs.

Like Caitriona Ruane, Wilson does not command the confidence of any party in the Assembly other than his own. But until Peter Robinson decides a DUP reshuffle is necessary, we are stuck with him. Meanwhile Sammy Wilson can continue to embarrass Northern Ireland with his eccentric views on climate change, just as Ruane can plunge our education system into chaos as long as she retains the support of her party hierarchy.

That is what passes for politics in this country.

Conservatives should choose their European allies carefully

I was disappointed to read in Sunday’s Observer an allegation that William Hague has met representatives of the Latvian ‘For Fatherland and Freedom Party’ (link from today’s Guardian). The Conservatives have not denied the paper’s assertion, which makes it particularly unsettling.

Having committed itself to leaving the federalist EPP, Hague’s party is now casting around for partners with which to form a more Euro-sceptic coalition in Brussels. Nationalist groups in eastern Europe form a hardened, but frequently unpleasant fringe, which opposes ceding more power to the EU, but otherwise might appear rather unpalatable to the mainstream centre right in Britain.

The ‘Fatherland and Freedom’ party has a hard-line wing which views the Latvian Waffen SS as brave resisters of Soviet aggression. It commemorates the exploits of this unit and its actions reflect a deeper ambiguity in Latvian society as regards its attitude toward those who collaborated with the Nazis during World War 2.

‘For Fatherland and Freedom / LNNK’ (the group merged with the Latvian National Conservative Party) also campaigned for even stricter citizenship laws during the 1990s. Latvia’s legislation in this area is considered ethno-nationalist in character, and imposes discriminatory language requirements on the large Russian minority, yet the party wished to take an even harsher approach.

I appreciate the David Cameron feels he has to retain the backing of his party’s Euro-sceptics. I understand why the Tories are leaving the EPP, given that its agenda of greater European integration is unpopular with the British public. He should choose his European allies carefully, however, because around the fringes of Euro-scepticism lie some unpleasant nationalist parties.

Worthy winners overshadowed by off the field violence

From the earliest days of Nigel Worthington’s spell as Northern Ireland manager I have questioned his judgment, his tactical acumen, his perspective on international football and his man management skills. In short, I have publicly doubted whether Worthington possesses any of the credentials which would qualify him to assume the mantle of his predecessor, Lawrie Sanchez.

When Northern Ireland achieved a considerable success under his leadership, defeating Denmark at Windsor Park, I suggested that the victory owed more to residual confidence imbued by the previous manager, rather than any wisdom that the current incumbent had imparted. The team began this World Cup qualifying campaign with two defeats in Slovenia and Slovakia and I felt that my judgment had been vindicated.

Although I do not yet feel ready to replace the ‘Lawrie is our leader’ with ‘Nigel is our leader’ when I belt out ‘we’re not Brazil’ from the stands and although I’m still a confirmed sceptic who will not be scrutinising the family tree for relations in South Africa any time soon, Saturday’s win against Poland was Worthington’s managerial victory, and he thoroughly deserved it.

The team which ran out at Windsor Park, depleted by suspension and injury, was filled with an indefatigable spirit which first manifested itself under Sanchez. Our current manager may have inherited a team, in which that quality was already instilled, but it hasn’t been lost, and he requires credit for maintaining it through some indifferent results.

Northern Ireland needed a win on Saturday and Worthington duly sent out his side prepared to work, to press the opposition and most of all, to attack. Only in the last fifteen minutes did the team begin to retreat. Even when the score was 3-1, it looked likely that our players would score another goal. I have accused Worthington of negative tactics in previous games. He took an impeccably positive approach on Saturday evening.

As for man management, what about Chris Brunt? The left sided player responded to his absence from the starting eleven in San Marino by playing by far his best game for Northern Ireland. Brunt should be congratulated for reacting with a positive attitude to his exclusion and working all the harder after his recall. It says a lot for his professionalism. But it also indicates that the manager understands his player and can get the best out of him.

Whether Worthington can motivate his team to go on and win crucial home games against Slovenia and Slovakia remains to be seen. I certainly have no difficulty acknowledging success where it is deserved, and eating a little humble pie when I am proved wrong.

On a less happy note, most readers will by now know that Saturday’s 3-2 win was somewhat overshadowed by crowd trouble prior to the match. A substantial hooligan element travelled with the Polish supporters, some of whom will be in magistrate’s court this morning. It is always desperately disappointing when violence mars a great sports’ event. I witnessed the police closing both Lisburn Road and Tate’s Avenue for a spell whilst pitched battles took place.

Undoubtedly orchestrated and premeditated determination to engage in hooliganism, from a tiny minority of Poland’s followers, led to scenes, unprecedented in my time watching international football in Belfast. However, there were those, attending the match or otherwise who allowed themselves to be drawn into fighting, with varying degrees of eagerness, from the Northern Ireland side. I condemn their actions unreservedly and with shame.

I hope never again to see incidents of the character of some of those which I saw in South Belfast on Saturday. And I hope those who perpetrated them, on either side, are punished and do not have the opportunity to attend football matches again. They are not wanted by any genuine fan.

Meanwhile the attention of Northern Ireland followers turns to the Slovenia match on Wednesday With Steven Davis and George McCartney set to return, Worthington must decide whether it is appropriate to shuffle his pack, or retain the weekend’s winning team. It is another test of his managerial skill and one which I will, for once, not seek to pre-empt.

Friday, 27 March 2009

Religion above state? Only for the unbearably smug.

Satire is the only sane response to Jeffrey Donaldson’s remarks on plans to reform the Act of Settlement. O’Neill’s post on ‘Unionist Lite’ is, therefore, especially nicely judged. The DUP junior minister’s religio-constitutional musings would be funny, if they were not so serious. Donaldson is, after all, a leading representative of Northern Ireland’s biggest pro-Union party.

There is an argument, based on constitutional conservatism, which can be invoked to defend the status quo. Cranmer, good Anglican that he is, makes a fist of it. It does not involve inferring that Catholics cannot show sufficient loyalty to the United Kingdom because of their religion, nor does it bizarrely imply political, rather than merely religious, allegiance to the Vatican as a component of Catholicism.

Personally I am more readily persuaded by Henry McDonald, and his contention that the constitutional impairment of Roman Catholicism is to the detriment of the Union, particularly in Northern Ireland, where it forms an impediment for some Catholics, who might otherwise be more comfortable expressing unionism. It certainly represents an embarrassing, though minor, anomaly for those of us who argue the essentially civic character of British citizenship.

As for Donaldson, his comments acquire an additional layer of irony when one considers his warnings of ‘constitutional crisis’ had the Abortion Act been extended to Northern Ireland. Obviously, whilst placing religion above country makes Catholics a hazard to the United Kingdom, Donaldson’s own explicit threats against the sovereignty of Parliament, which were animated by his religious faith, don’t preclude him from being a model (Protestant) citizen.

Sorry politicos, it's international football time again. Will Worthington decline continue? I suspect it will.

Fewer than thirty hours remain until Northern Ireland faces Poland at Windsor Park and still ‘Three Thousand Versts’ has not recorded its habitual pre-match lament of pessimism ‘assessing’ the team’s chances (or lack of them)! Do not fear, it’s not that I’ve been filled with overwhelming confidence for this World Cup clash. On the contrary, I’m quite sure that Nigel Worthington’s side will receive another walloping from the Poles tomorrow. Slovenia on Wednesday should be a different matter, but by then our hopes of qualifying for South Africa 2010 could be dead in the water.

If it were not enough that Poland fields a strong team which recorded a resounding 3-0 victory during its last visit to Belfast, Northern Ireland’s task has been made yet more difficult by the absence of a number of key players. The squad has been depleted both by injury and by costly suspensions incurred in the match against San Marino. A comfortable victory in that game may have put Northern Ireland joint second in the group, but how expensive could indiscipline by Steven Davis and George McCartney prove? Kyle Lafferty also picked up a second yellow card in Serravelle, but he subsequently succumbed to ankle ligament damage, which deems his suspension, retrospectively, rather irrelevant.

With Steven Davis, out goes Northern Ireland’s greatest source of creative guile. The Rangers’ midfielder offers a range of passing which his international team-mates will struggle to replicate. Sammy Clingan shoulders greater responsibility in Davis’ absence, but although the Norwich playmaker has undoubted ability, he has rather failed to reproduce the crafty football which marked his first few caps. If Northern Ireland is to offer any serious attacking threat, Clingan and his colleagues in midfield must show more than they have in recent outings. Grant McCann, Damien Johnson and Chris Brunt are likely to feature.

If Northern Ireland’s midfield does, somehow, manage to create chances, do we have the forwards to convert them into goals? It is the perennial question for our international teams. Lafferty’s unavailability is particularly unfortunate. His physical presence would have unsettled the Poles and his injury has intervened just as the Fermanagh man began to plunder goals regularly in Scotland. Martin Paterson would have been keen to make an impact in Lafferty’s absence. The Burnley striker’s injury is untimely. Therefore the pressure to score will once again rest disproportionately on David Healy’s shoulders. He has played little football for Sunderland this season and has looked out of sorts even in the green shirt of Northern Ireland, but Poland will see him as our main goal threat nevertheless. Healy should be partnered by Warren Feeney, who is industrious, and has in the past formed a productive partnership with his lordship from Killyleagh. Let’s hope that those two can see out the match, as Worthington’s attacking options consist of two obscure reserve players, from Sheffield United and Glasgow Rangers respectively.

Despite George McCartney’s suspension, defensively the manager still has resolute players to call upon. Let’s face it, they will be needed. I’d imagine our best chance of a result is holding out for 0-0 if these guys are in form. McCartney’s adventurous runs from full back will undoubtedly be missed, but Jonny Evans slots seamlessly enough into the left sided role. That leaves Aaron Hughes and Stephen Craigan to reprise their successful partnership in central defence. If that experienced pairing has an off day, Northern Ireland could be in serious trouble. McCauley or Baird will claim the number 2 shirt. As ever, Maik Taylor will be a busy man in goal.

Somehow, with opposing teams in Group 3 taking points off each other, Northern Ireland has remained in touch, despite appalling defeats by Slovenia and Slovakia. The position, however, flatters the team and its manager. Other sides have a game in hand, Northern Ireland has played San Marino twice and all the most difficult away matches lie ahead. To retain even the slenderest hope of qualifying, we must take four points out of these two impending home games. Realistically we need all six. Nothing I have seen since Nigel Worthington has become manager persuades me that we have the tactics or the belief to win both games.

Nevertheless, I will be at Windsor Park, screaming my lungs out for the lads and hoping for a miracle. Please Nigel, prove me wrong.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Latvian freefall

Paul Mason (coincidentally one of the competition in the Orwell blog shortlist) has been examining the financial crisis in eastern Europe. His report from Latvia is worth watching, particularly because the Baltic state was being heralded as an economic success story in the very recent past. The pattern of huge borrowing to encourage unsustainable growth is replicated across the former Soviet bloc, with a few more robust exceptions.

Coincidentally ‘Prospect’ also contains a dispatch from Riga in its latest issue (I‘m not on commission for the magazine by the way). Tom Chatfield considers the over capacity available in a country with a rapidly dwindling population. The capital itself has 20% fewer inhabitants since 1991. Chatfield hints that many of the people who have left Latvia come from its Russian speaking minority. He doesn’t investigate the discriminatory language and citizenship laws which have hastened that loss.

An economy in freefall and a large minority which feels it has experienced institutional disadvantage. Not a happy combination. But at least part of the picture was fully available to EU leaders who were so eager to see Baltic countries accede.

Localism - can the right ideas be turned into successful policies?

When the Conservative party announced the contents of a green paper on local government reform in England, I welcomed the initiative rather ruefully, given that regional government is soundly entrenched in the rest of the United Kingdom courtesy of devolved institutions.

Nurturing the grassroots of democracy, decentralising power, localising decision making – all intrinsically noble goals which aim to facilitate the type of participative society Cameron Conservatives are keen to encourage. To further these objectives, the Tories intend to remove a layer of regional assemblies in England. The party’s goals won’t be as readily achievable where emasculated local councils subsist under an expensive stratum of regional government, which, in order to justify its existence, must retain functions local government could perform.

However, in April’s ‘Prospect’ Demos Director Richard Reeves emphasises (subs required for full article) that the sound theories of localist policy are not always matched by practicalities. And as if to underline his point, the Audit Commission has just accused seven councils in England of ‘negligence’ after they paid £33 million into Icelandic banks just as their collapse was known to be imminent. Should local authorities be trusted with the power of ‘general competence’ which the Conservatives propose and if they should, will a political culture accustomed to ascribing blame to central government change to reflect the shift in responsibility?

Reeves observes that whilst Conservatives may aspire to devolve power locally, the centralised system of tax will almost certainly not be altered correspondingly. Cameron’s party has already committed to keep council tax low. Indeed the green paper allows for referenda to challenge significant increases. If more power is to be devolved to local government, then more money from the central tax take will need to accompany it. ‘Representation without taxation’ is Reeves’ formulation, and he is a little sceptical as to whether a new government would wish immediately to dispense the power it has just acquired across localities, together with the funding required to exercise it.

If power is given to councils (and from there on to the ‘little platoons’), there will necessarily be greater diversity of provision and decision across the country; matters which are pejoratively described as depending on ‘postcode lotteries’ will become more common, rather than less. A pluralist society will be encouraged, but also a society where regional differences become more pronounced.

And although decision making might be distributed by Westminster and Whitehall to local authorities, it does not necessarily follow that the public perception of responsibility will immediately flow in the same direction.

“In time, citizens and the media will recognise that power has shifted. But it might be a wait, given the nation’s long history of looking to Westminster. “We’ll probably be out of power by the time the penny drops,” sighs one Tory.”

In common with Cameron’s social emphasis the localist agenda will require his government to be resolute. Enthusiasts urge sweeping changes during the Conservatives’ first year in government, lest sinews on this issue should progressively weaken. Both Thatcher and Blair espoused localism before their terms as Prime Minister, but their respective governments both pursued centralising policies in actuality. There is an argument that Cameron must pass the required laws before he has time to change his mind.

There are issues of confidence at stake here, as well as issues of national self-confidence. Do Cameron and his cadres trust local people to make decisions? Is there enough self-confidence in the coherence of British values to allow pluralism to develop in the assurance that the nation’s conception of itself will not suffer? I believe that the key to the proposals is that they have an organic impetus, seeking to enable democracy to flourish from the bottom up. The Conservatives intend to empower localities, rather than take a constitutional hatchet to institutions of government. The feeling of participation, of closeness to power, which this will engender, can only benefit national politics in the long term.

If Labour’s heavy hand were to oversee this project (because the party has invoked localism from time to time), one might expect atomised, dissociated regions and a dissipated whole. The challenge facing the Conservative party is to enable confident, politically empowered communities, eager to participate in a revitalised United Kingdom. In common with other areas in which the party faces challenges, its leader is drawing on the right ideas, whether he can turn them into executable government policy will determine his success as a Prime Minister.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Orwell Shortlists Announced

It transpires that my status as George Orwell's rightful heir is now established beyond any reasonable doubt! 'Three Thousand Versts' is on the shortlist! I'm amazed and humbled in equal measure. This is surely the equivalent of Ballymena United reaching the Champions League group stages!

The other blogs (and authors) shortlisted, congratulations to all of them:

Alix Mortimer - The People’s Republic of Mortimer
Andrew Sparrow - Guardian Politics Blog
Iain Dale - Iain Dale’s Diary
Jack Night - Night Jack
Paul Mason BBC Newsnight - Idle Scrawl

I'm sorry for being a little incoherent, but I am stunned!

Stadium for Belfast?

The BBC is reporting that proposals to build a new football and rugby stadium in east Belfast have already been discussed with DCAL. The plan would involve upscaling a smaller design which was set to complement an arena at the Maze.

The business consortium, Eastonville Traders Ltd, wishes to construct a 20,000 seat venue on the Danny Blanchflower Stadium site, which is an existing facility for youth football. At an estimated cost of £66 million the project would weigh in considerably cheaper than the Maze scheme and it could be completed in three years.

With its close proximity to Belfast city centre, good road links and an adjacent airport, Sydenham seems, prima facie, an ideal location for a new sports’ stadium. Fingers crossed this proposal might have legs.

Ten years since Serb bombing

Two ‘Comment is Free’ pieces today reflect on the tenth anniversary of NATO’s bombardment of Serbia and the legacy which it bequeathed the region. The immediate aftermath of bombing, when a humanitarian crisis was precipitated by military action which had the purported aim of halting just such a catastrophe, which was said to be ongoing in Kosovo, has been well documented. Ian Bancroft finds, a decade later, that diplomacy and international law have been two of the chief casualties of NATO’s action whilst Simon Tisdall believes the universal declaration of independence by the Albanian regime in Kosovo has not had a stabilising influence on the west Balkans.


“Pre-intervention portrayals of the conflict in Kosovo were not, however, a failure of intelligence, but an act of willing deceit; designed to reduce the conflict to terms that betrayed the complexity of a situation involving a previously designated terrorist organisation, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), and a heavy-handed state security infrastructure which had been for decades contending with ethnically-motivated crimes in Kosovo. Detailed reports by Amnesty International suggesting that the death toll was in the hundreds did little to deter talk of an on-going genocide. The media and NGOs, meanwhile, did little to challenge Tony Blair's portrayal of the war as "a battle between good and evil; between civilisation and barbarity; between democracy and dictatorship". This tendency to portray conflicts in terms of such dichotomies serves only to inhibit both the conception and voicing of alternative solutions to inherently complicated issues, whose roots run much deeper into history than is often acknowledged.”


“Under the terms of security council resolution 1244 of 1999, the territory remains under international administration. Europe also is divided. Five of the EU's 27 members do not recognise Kosovo, regarding its unsanctioned secession as a dangerous precedent. Worldwide, only 56 states have opened ties. Undeterred, Kosovo's leaders are increasingly kicking out against their "protectorate" status, though not against the EU aid and security assistance that helps keep them in business. "The Kosovo authorities... have repeatedly stated during the past months that resolution 1244 is no longer relevant and the institutions of Kosovo have no legal obligation to abide by it," the UN's progress report said.”

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Separatist solidarity and the SNP

O’Neill highlights the crude ethno-nationalist sentiment which informs an SNP aide’s recent analysis of the political situation in Northern Ireland, in the light of republican murders. A Herald article examines Mark Hirst’s comments and political reaction to them, both from his own party and its opponents. His argument can be summarised, in blunt terms, as advice to nationalists to outbreed unionists, switching strategy ‘from the bomb … to the bedroom’, as he charmingly puts it. It is not, of course, a unique contention in nationalist circles and it finds echoes on this side of the Irish Sea.

Neither the SNP, nor other modern nationalist parties in the main, expressly articulate such crude ethnocentric narrative. Hirst’s article has, however, prompted Scottish Unionist to consider the Scottish Nationalists’ tendency to endorse multiple separatist causes, throughout Europe and beyond. Far from restricting its ambition to the independence of Scotland, the SNP supports campaigns to dismember other parts of the United Kingdom, as well as Spain and Canada. Through its involvement in the European Free Alliance, the party associates itself with groups whose collective objectives extend to shattering the sovereignty of states throughout the EU.

This intra-nationalist solidarity is reciprocated and it is also replicated whenever separatist causes pursue similar tactics (except of course where they clash with other countermanding separatist causes). Take a drive through republican redoubts in Belfast and the walls are adorned with murals celebrating violent separatism throughout the world, be it in France, Spain, the Middle East or Latin America. Scratch a proponent of separatist nationalism and you will find he is predisposed to ‘fragmentation and emasculation’ of states far beyond his own (to borrow SU’s excellent phrase).

That, of course, simply reflects the inclinations of an ideology which, logically extrapolated, demands that political statehood must flow from any claim of national identity, even should it issue from the tiniest group.

An alternative view upholds the sovereignty of existing states under international law, expects those states to respect the minority cultures which exist within them and encourages recognition of multiple and nested identities. That way lies plurality and tolerance, rather than violence, or programmes to outbreed the neighbours.

Iris' remarks were disgraceful, but they weren't a crime.

When Iris Robinson made objectionable statements about homosexuals, I remarked,

“It is not her right to express these views which should be attacked, but her suitability to hold public office, or to represent the public, part of which she volubly accuses of being ‘disgusting’, ‘loathsome’ and so on.”

I am puzzled as to why gay rights campaigners are protesting against an entirely justifiable decision by the PSNI not to press charges against the MP.

It is possible to hear outdated, offensive remarks on almost any talk radio programme on a daily basis. No-one would suggest that contributors to the Nolan Show etc. should be routinely prosecuted.

Mrs Robinson is a public representative, of course, and we are entitled to expect more from her. That is a matter which pertains to her employment, however, and not to criminal law.

Her comments were undoubtedly wrong, but they were never likely to constitute ‘incitement’ and an offence before the law. Protests against the content of Robinson’s remarks are legitimate, protests demanding that she be prosecuted for expressing an opinion, however ‘vile’ that opinion might be, certainly are not.

Grand Slam celebrations show way forward on neutral symbols

Had the citizens of the Republic of Ireland congregated in Dublin to toast the Ireland rugby team's triumph, carrying the flag of their country, of their part of Ireland, one could scarcely have objected. However the squad does represent all thirty two counties and both jurisdictions on the island. It was therefore both heartening and appropriate that the celebrations were marked overwhelmingly by the mass display of a neutral, green IRFU flag. Rugby’s governing body has not always showed as much sensitivity as the organisers and fans at Sunday’s event.

I sincerely hope that the team will be invited to Belfast in order to recognise their achievements, representing both parts of Ireland. It would be wonderful to see a similar spectacle in front of the City Hall. Failing that, the Assembly should host a reception, for a team which is rightfully as much ‘at home’ in Belfast, as it is in Dublin (whatever the IRFU might claim).

Monday, 23 March 2009

Cameron must hold his nerve against the free market fundamentalists

I welcomed David Cameron’s speech, given last week, in which he acknowledged that it might not be possible to deliver tax cuts early in a Conservative administration. In the wake of his address, however, a degree of controversy has enveloped Tory thinking on the economy, focussed particularly on two contentious tax policies.

Although Ken Clarke’s remarks, which appeared to contradict his party’s pledge to raise the threshold for Inheritance Tax, have attracted headlines and speculation, they represent the less telling aspect of the debate. Iain Dale urges Clarke to accept that his comments constitute a ‘gaffe’. The Conservative party still intends to commit in its manifesto to a £1million minimum for Inheritance Tax.

More fundamental is the argument about 45p tax, for those who earn more then £150,000 per year, and whether Conservatives should reverse that Labour measure when they come to power. It reflects something of a long-standing fault-line in the party, between ‘One Nation’ conservatives, prioritising a coherent society, at ease with itself, through a commitment to social fairness, ‘progressive ends by conservative means’ is Cameron’s favoured formulation, and those with a more ideological commitment to the free market.

There is an argument to be made that the 45p rate will be counterproductive and will inhibit the economy’s recovery. Some of the calmer proponents of this view offer a persuasive case. Less compelling is the type of rhetoric which asks, why if Cameron is cautious about taking a hatchet to the public sector, and why if he does not believe that tax cuts should be the immediate and overwhelming priority of government, is he in the Conservative party at all?

That is to diminish and dismiss the communitarian strain of conservatism, which has always maintained redistributive taxation is a valid means to nurture a society at ease with itself and which contributed to the post war consensus as regards the welfare state. Cameron has resurrected a strain of conservatism which was neglected during the 1980s and 1990s and breathed new life into its philosophies. It has come under attack, but the Conservative leader should stick with it.

Of course Cameron remains essentially a fiscal conservative, and, to that end, he stresses the imperative of curtailing borrowing. He seeks, as well, to deliver streamlined, efficient public services and augment them with flourishing, contributing organisations drawn from civil society and the voluntary sector. That is all to the good, but Cameron also recognises the corrosive effect on national morale that delivering a tax cut to the extremely wealthy would have. Those who earn enormous wages can afford to pay a little extra into the public purse, especially in straightened times. Perhaps, as the economy recovers, that small burden can be lifted. But it should not be a pressing priority to lift it immediately.

Although a responsible, thriving market, based on free but regulated trade, can complement a functioning and prosperous society, it is wrong to submit to an ideological belief in its innate benefits. If the conservatism which Cameron’s Conservatives articulate is doubtful that the free market offers a panacea, and insists that its rules should not represent an absolute, intractable doctrine, then it is grounded in a classic tradition of conservative scepticism.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

School for scandal - DUPes in child propaganda claim.

Jim Allister is attempting to generate something of a furore about a ‘citizenship roadshow’ at Laurelhill Community College in Lisburn, which involved a highly representative panel of no less than five DUP politicians. The Traditional Unionist leader has accused Peter Robinson and his party of ‘taking over’ the school for ‘political propaganda’.

Although I would uphold children’s right not to be subjected to the blethering of more than one DUP spokesman at a time, surely the school itself is ultimately responsible for the composition of the panel? With this in mind, it would be interesting to know who at the school organised the event, why they didn’t invite representatives of other parties, and if the organiser had any prior connection to the DUP?

Certainly an unbalanced line-up of this type does smack of indoctrination when it is chosen to address young minds. And given the subject matter, were the panellists really best placed to lecture children on citizenship? After all, the DUP shows scant regard for the sovereignty of the British parliament and its interest in national politics is frequently confined to blackmail.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Pro the unborn life. Prepared to risk the lives of women who are already born.

When Diane Abbot sought to amend the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, in order to extend the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland, Jeffrey Donaldson threatened ‘constitutional crisis’ unless the government performed a tactical manoeuvre to block the amendment being heard. Now the Department of Health has issued guidelines in order to advise health professionals in Northern Ireland on the legal position as regards terminating pregnancy. Donaldson and his colleagues have voted against the advice at the executive.

On Good Morning Ulster, Jeffrey, with all the smugness one associates with him, assured listeners that laws on termination would not be liberalised in Northern Ireland. All the political parties agree.

Which is all well and good, but rather overlooks the fact that abortion falls under the remit of justice, and as we are all aware, policing and justice remain reserved matters. Donaldson and his ‘toy town parliament’ buddies (to borrow O’Neill’s phrase) are not responsible for establishing Northern Ireland’s abortion laws. That responsibility falls to Members of Parliament at Westminster.

Of course nominal unionism has not prevented the DUP (and to an extent other unionist parties on occasion) from attacking Westminster’s sovereignty as regards Northern Ireland (constitutional crisis Jeffrey?). Frequently we hear the argument that MPs in London should not interfere in business which concerns our region. Indeed a short lived, DUP slanted blog recently suggested that MPs at Westminster should not debate the possible devolution of powers which that institution currently retains!

Donaldson and his DUP colleagues should not be able to have it both ways. If they wish politicians in Northern Ireland to have responsibility for laws on abortion, they should call for policing and justice to be devolved immediately. Otherwise Westminster retains discretion on that matter and Westminster should decide. Clearly depriving women here of a service available, on the NHS, throughout the rest of the United Kingdom is something parliament should address.

In the particular instance of the Department of Health’s guidelines, it is pathetic that members of the executive oppose affording health professionals more clarity. And it is entirely wrong to seek to ensure doctors must jump through hoops in order to secure a termination which might save the life of the prospective mother. That represents fundamentalism at its worst, when a hard-line stance on abortion, and a dread of creeping liberalisation, endangers life. Which is, as Bill Hicks once observed, ‘kinda base irony’ considering these people describe themselves as ‘pro-life’.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Not in government, but half an eye on the second term? He should have.

Examining David Cameron’s latest speech (PDF) on the economic crisis, it is clear that the Conservative leader is acutely aware that he will almost certainly soon be in a position to put theory into practice. Cameron chose to dwell on ‘difficult choices’ which will face the next government and wisely declined to promise tax cuts if and when his party win the next election.

Tim Montgomerie offers another neat synopsis of the main points on Conservative Home. Importantly Cameron continues to emphasise that his commitment to social reform will not be compromised by the need to bring public debt under control. That is key. And it will test his communitarian sinews, so to speak, to implement an ambitious programme of social reform in the teeth of recession.

In order to bring public finances under control, Cameron insists that he can neither promise to match Labour’s spending plans, nor can he undertake not to raise taxes. A Conservative government will seek to deliver efficiencies and to bring spending under control.

With every announcement of new policy, or elucidation of underlying principle, the Conservatives are now attempting to enunciate a practical programme for government. If the party is to govern for more than one term, it is imperative that its policies are deliverable.

To rein in ballooning government indebtedness is fundamental to conservative economics and Cameron is quite right to state his aspiration in this regard. Whether he can deliver this without swingeing cuts remains to be seen. The best result is probably to arrest the exponential growth in Britain’s deficit without inflicting significant damage to frontline services or precipitating a serious spike in unemployment.

That much should be possible. And if a Cameron government can deliver it and prioritise its commitment to society, then a second term will become a probability.

Immortalising the quotidian

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I must confess that I have spent the last forty minutes scrutinising my house from various angles, courtesy of Google’s ‘Street View’ utility. I suspect I was at home when the images were taken, because my car is parked outside. My next door neighbour certainly was. She’s gossiping over the fence to the woman two doors down.

I’ve also been taking the opportunity to scrutinise some of the restaurants in which I recently ate, during a visit to Florence. There’s an umbrella obscuring the menu at the All‘Antico, so I can’t tell whether the excellent steak in Chianti sauce was available the day Google visited.

Perhaps Street View is intrusive. The detail is certainly phenomenal. And I’d imagine it will become a necessity for all manner of snoops and burglars. There may well even be innocent practical purposes to which it can be put. I'd speculate though that the primary benefit is that it's novel and rather entertaining.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

It will be Cameron's responsibility to redress society balance

Burke’s Corner believes a consensus on ‘post liberal’ politics might be developing. He bases his assertion on Frank Field’s Prospect article, which proposes compulsory civic service for young people and suggests that prevailing political trends of social liberalism have allowed atomised individualism to prevail over the maintenance of a strong, coherent society.

Field’s thesis is not so terribly far removed in its themes from an article written by ‘progressive conservative’ Philip Blond in the same magazine, which argues, “(t)he current political consensus is left-liberal in culture and right-liberal in economics. And this is precisely the wrong place to be.”

Two further pieces, carried today by the Guardian and Telegraph websites respectively, come from opposite sides of the political spectrum, and both contemplate the best means to build the ‘good society’. Significantly both John Cruddas and Tim Montgomerie start from the premise that British communities have suffered the consequences of individualist politics and need a different approach. One which involves repairing damaged social filaments, neglected over the past thirty years.

Obviously the two men differ as to the economic policies which should accompany attempts to reinvigorate society, and, to an extent, on the degree to which the state should be directly involved in the process, but from both of these Labour and Conservative perspectives, the prognosis is similar.

Pre-emptively, Montgomerie urges David Cameron to preserve his emphasis on social policy, despite the right libertarian impulse, articulated within his own party, which urges government not to involve itself in how people live their lives. Retrospectively Cruddas bemoans the fact that Tony Blair lost sight of his communitarian instincts after assuming office. The means to achieve ‘the good society’ is a matter of contention, but traditions within either party stress its importance, whilst countermanding elements are reluctant to interfere.

Clearly there is a happy medium to be sought. If social liberalism has been elevated to the detriment of society then there is a problem which must be addressed. It is hard to argue, though, that its elevation has not coincided with greater tolerance of difference. That tolerance is an attribute and something it would be a pity to discard. The task is to redress the balance as regards liberalism, not to jettison its principles entirely. Neither the Conservatives nor Labour need be in the business of attempting to square circles. It is quite possible to encourage social engagement and participation within communities as well as combating a range of social ills at their root, without any drastic diminution of Britain’s status as a tolerant nation.

Time is running out for Labour. The party has largely squandered its time in office in this regard. The Conservatives, in contrast, have an opportunity, and responsibility will lie with David Cameron to ensure that the actions of his government match his rhetoric on social policy.

Holylands violence - self-perpetuating

Another Saint Patrick’s Day, another riot in Belfast’s Holylands. Trouble in an area which is now overwhelmingly populated by students has become self-perpetuating. The common perception of the neighbourhood behind Queens, between University Street and the Lagan, is that the population consists of out of control, cider deranged, hurley stick clutching student savages, living cheek by jowl with predatory sex offenders. Consequently the more, to avoid sounding like an erstwhile UUP election campaign let us say ‘conscientious’ student, tries to avoid living there. And long term residents continue to move out.

It has been suggested that the universities should take responsibility for their enrolees and do more to combat anti-social behaviour off campus. Certainly expulsion offers a strong disincentive and would deprive trouble makers of the very reason they are resident in Belfast in the first place. Although attributing blame is never easy in such instances.

Clearly something needs to be done in order to break a damaging cycle. The Holylands might be the most conspicuous example, but Saint Patrick’s Day revelry does tend to acquire a certain frisson in Belfast which is missing elsewhere.

Yesterday I caught a bus from the City Hall travelling along the Lisburn Road. It was full of Celtic shirt wearing, tricolour waving, bottle-clutching teens going who knows where. These youngsters were clearly underage, blatantly quite drunk and determined to share a repertoire of songs lauding violence inflicted on the police. It was an unpleasant journey shared by a number of elderly people and children.

Saint Patrick’s Day is by no means unique amongst cultural events in Belfast in being accompanied by a certain amount of yobbery. And the actual City Council events are relatively innocuous, albeit that the trappings surrounding the events are not particularly inclusive in their representation of Irishness. It is sad that the day is being tainted by incidents such as the rioting in the Holylands.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Air ambulance scheme deserves support

Michael McGimpsey’s performance as Health Minister has been one of the rare success stories of the Northern Ireland Executive. Despite acquiring one of the most challenging departments, and facing a constant fight to retain funding, the South Belfast MLA has delivered free prescriptions and targeted investment where it is badly needed. Tackling the most pressing health issues and seeking to modernise the ambulance service’s elderly fleet, McGimpsey is a minister with an understanding of his brief.

With this in mind, I am all the more puzzled at the Department of Health’s frosty reception to the Ireland Air Ambulance initiative, which is currently undergoing trials. Largely it is accepted that a degree of centralisation and specialisation is inevitable within the modern NHS and Northern Ireland, which has a small, dispersed rural population, is obviously no exception. The ability rapidly to transport patients from areas where local hospital provision is either not available, or is inadequate for particular emergencies, surely has the potential to save lives.

I appreciate that ground ambulances must remain a pressing priority in terms of the department’s funding. But the proposed air service would be provided by a voluntary organisation, which is a model successfully used in the rest of the United Kingdom. Indeed it is precisely an example of the type of ‘third sector’ involvement which David Cameron wishes to encourage as an adjunct to government provision of public services.

Rather than treating the air ambulance as a threat to its funding, the Department of Health should welcome this initiative, as an aid to providing an improved, efficient service. Maintaining the NHS monolith should not be afforded higher priority than delivering effective provision, particularly when an Ulster Unionist minister is in charge.

If this is a joke it's a corrosive, damaging joke

‘Radical unionist’, Dr John Coulter, makes an unlikely proponent of the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists electoral force. Indeed it is surprising to read warm words from the Irish Star’s political columnist as regards ‘pan-UK unionism’, given that the ‘radical’ notion which most conspicuously distinguishes Coulter’s ‘unionism’ from the philosophy’s mainstream is his advocacy of a united Ireland!

There is not, however, any need to recalibrate one’s assessment of the Star as an organ of political analysis. Nor is there any requirement to reassess whether a wilful absence of sanity still best characterises Coulter’s work. He has managed to get the reasoning behind Empey and Cameron’s initiative reassuringly arse about tit.

“The Unionist NF should not be used as a trendy trick to suck up to Catholics. Unionist NF will only emerge as a genuine new force if it can return to the party's Protestant grassroots and physically get them out to vote.”

Setting aside Coulter’s childlike glee at playing fast and loose with nomenclature, it isn’t difficult to spot where the two party leaders might take umbrage with his analysis. The rest of the article is along similar lines; maximising the Protestant vote, single candidate in Fermanagh South Tyrone and South Belfast and so on. It is as silly, contradictory and oblivious to the stated aims of the new force, as it is possible to imagine.

‘Quelle surprise’, readers might reasonably respond. After all, what else would you expect from Coulter and the Irish Star? Nothing better I can assure you.

That doesn’t diminish the fact that it is corrosive to have such rubbish, presented as commentary, in a newspaper most frequently read by nationalists. Not only is Coulter’s view of politics in Northern Ireland shaped by crude nationalism, it is shaped by crude nationalism defined, in the most explicit fashion, by religion. It reinforces all the suspicions and prejudices which might colour nationalists’ view of unionism and it panders to nationalism’s need to reduce unionism to something which fits a nationalist template.

If, as I suspect, Coulter’s commentary is primarily meant to be entertainment, it is damaging and offensive entertainment which simply isn’t funny.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Michael Gove on the fanatical ideologues of Islam and Republicanism

Perhaps Michael Gove reads ‘Three Thousand Versts’. The Shadow Secretary for Children, Schools and Families has drawn parallels between hate filled republican ideologues and hate filled Islamist ideologues. He asks,
“How can anyone in Northern Ireland justify a recourse to murderous violence for political ends when the political process is so determinedly inclusive and every tradition is carefully respected? And how can any British citizen, however opposed to any Government policy, ever think it right to slander, barrack and abuse young men who have risked everything in the service of this country?”

The answer?
“The hatred that drives the Real IRA is a product not of blind killing rage but the bitter fruit of ideological commitment. The ideology of Irish republicanism, which celebrates blood and martyrdom and holds that the sacrifice of innocents is a price worth paying that Ireland may be free of perfidious Albion, has the murderers of Massereene barracks in its grip. What drove them to kill was a belief their acts were sanctified by a belief system which gave them warrant to operate outside the ordinary rules of law and morality.

In the same way the protestors who hurled the foulest abuse at the Royal Anglians as they celebrated their homecoming in Luton felt no shame because they believed their outrage was justified by the ideology they serve. For the extreme Islamists, Britain is a land of barbarism, and will remain so until it accepts sharia, acknowledges that Muslim lands should be fused into a new caliphate and the black flag of Islam flies over 10 Downing Street.”

SNP fall behind in Scotland

Although the Conservative party’s lead over Labour has fallen by 2 points in the last month, David Cameron’s personal approval rating has reached a new high, according to the latest YouGov poll. However the survey’s most eye-catching finding is in relation to Scottish politics.

For the first time since it formed a minority government at Holyrood, the SNP has fallen behind Labour in the regional opinion poll. It seems that Alex Salmond’s insistence on a referendum on independence is beginning to test Scottish voters’ patience. Only 32% agree with the First Minister’s contention that it is appropriate to hold a vote on secession from the United Kingdom next year.

With Gordon Brown’s party remaining unpopular nationally it is indicative of deep disillusion with the SNP’s nationalist agenda, to the exclusion of effective governance, that Labour has edged ahead in Scotland.

The Scottish government’s strategy of short term populism allied to its agenda of stoking resentment against Westminster is a dreadfully impoverished vision at a time of recession. Perhaps the electorate is beginning to see through Salmond’s hubris.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Sealed with a kiss! Liverpool trounce the Mancs.

All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for Liverpool to be negative

When Liverpool demolished Real Madrid last Tuesday night, Benitez’ team played the brand of football I like to watch. When the opposition had the ball, Liverpool hassled, harried, pressed and pressurised the Spanish side. More often than not possession was stolen from Madrid, frequently by the dogged Argentinian, Mescherano. When the Anfield Reds had the ball, they pushed forward, purposefully, and attempted to score a goal. It is a style which suits Liverpool. They won 4-0.

Naturally I was delighted to see the team progress into the Champions League last eight. There was, however, a certain degree of frustration, having watched such a splendid performance, that Liverpool do not attempt to play a high tempo pressing game more frequently. Benitez is much more comfortable instructing his players to sit in deeper positions, ceding possession of the football to the opposition, particularly in European matches.

With his side facing Manchester United at Old Trafford this lunchtime I fully expect the manager to return to type. Although he insists his players will attempt to reproduce Tuesday night’s energetic performance, I would be surprised if Benitez does not encourage them to take a more cautious approach. It is a pity, because if the team plays like it did on Tuesday night, or even if it plays with the same committed, wholehearted style, United will realise that they have been in a match.

Benitez has seen Liverpool’s future. It is a positive, high tempo, pressing game. Today sees an archetypal battle of good against evil. It is a perfect time to show that he can be flexible as a coach.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Fundamentalist ideology causes terror - not the British government or unionists

I suppose, given what has happened in the intervening period, terrorism in Northern Ireland now seems neither as exceptional, nor as novel, as it appeared to much of the world in 1998. It is a regrettable change of context, but in the United Kingdom, in the rest of Europe, indeed throughout the world, fundamentalist ideologues, prepared to kill and maim for the advancement of their dogma, comprise the ‘threat within’ with which societies have become accustomed to coexisting. The Islamist terror which imperils much of the world is primarily viewed as derivative of religious fundamentalism, and the doctrines advanced by republicans are nominally political, but both murderous republicans and murderous Islamists are driven by fanatical adherence to the orthodoxies of their respective ideologies.

In order to counter Islamist extremism, measures were introduced in 2006 to make encouraging terrorism an offence. Websites, and groups which exist around the fringes of terror, have arguably acquired increased allure for disaffected Muslim youth as a consequence. Similarly a slew of pages on social networking sites are presently adorned with dissident republican imagery, slogans and taunting messages referring to the recent killings in Northern Ireland. Youthful rebellion has rarely been so morally unpleasant. I have briefly inspected entire interwoven Bebo networks containing this material. There is no point in providing links. But clearly, amongst a certain milieu, cheerleading murder involves little stigma, indeed it carries a certain social cachet.

Neither does it require much patience or application to locate the grubbier environs of the republican blogosphere, where last weeks murders have been greeted with qualification rather than condemnation. Whilst Anthony McIntyre’s ‘Pensive Quill’ (its writing is as overwrought as the title suggests) adjudges the killings futile, it pronounces the ‘operation’ successful and praises it as ‘courageous and imaginative’! I’m afraid your eyes are not deceiving you. McIntyre’s own inverted commas not withstanding, he has hailed the point blank shooting of five unarmed young men, two of whom were delivering pizzas, as an act of courage and imagination.

Moving down the food chain (if you can bear the misspelling and mangled syntax) ‘Organised Rage’ carries a blogpost which bristles with ideological absolutism. The piece echoes other commenters on Slugger, who genuinely believe that unionists and the British government should bear the lion's share of culpability for last week’s murders. Under the dismissive title ‘The death of two British Tommy’s (sic) and a Plod doing his duty’, the author begins by denying that the killings constitute crimes at all. Declining to succumb to the republican imperative, the British government (in league with unionists) has failed to keep political momentum inexorably moving towards a united Ireland. This constitutes a moral abrogation, an offence against nature, who knows what else. It renders the murder of policemen and soldiers as inevitable as the eventual 32 county utopia which we will all one day be proud to call home.

This noxious, scattergun rant even manages to hint that Sappers Azimkar, Quinsey and Constable Carroll might well have been casualties of the ‘progressive’ struggle to get rid of the 11 plus! The central implication is that republicans cannot be held accountable for their actions unless a constant stream of concessions is granted to them and to their community.

All of which is couched in the type of infantile, class struggle rhetoric normally confined to episodes of ‘The Young Ones’. Insofar as unionism is considered at all, it is either a monolithic enemy of the preordained path of progress, or it doesn’t know what’s good for it. Either way it is more to blame for the ‘political acts’ which dissident republicans are committing than the terrorists themselves.

“Whilst Britain holds a part of Ireland by force of arms, there will be Irish people who will oppose them with arms.”

Except Britain does not hold any 'part of Ireland by force of arms’. Part of Ireland remains within the United Kingdom because a majority of its people wish it to remain within the United Kingdom. The impediment which prevents people from recognising this is unblinking, unquestioning dogma.

Whereas it is generally recognised within Britain and elsewhere that ranting from the lunatic fringe of Islam is anathema to civilised debate, dissident republican views have been disseminated on mainstream politics websites and by publishing houses with little compunction. Even in the wake of brutal murder these people have not had pause to interrogate the tenets of their dogma. It is so much easier to blame everyone else.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Problems with Muslim interest groups are part of a broader malaise

Recently, prompted by a speech delivered by Dominic Grieve, I posted on the subject of multiculturalism and suggested that successive Labour governments had adopted damaging policies in this area, to the detriment of British society. Ruth Dudley Edwards has penned an article pondering these very failures, provoked by protesting Islamic extremists who hurled abuse at troops returning from Iraq, at their homecoming parade. It is worth considering her piece, if only to develop a little further some of the themes which I had already touched upon in the first blogpost.

The kernel of Dudley Edwards’ argument is that radical Islamists have been singled out by the government for special treatment and are handled with kid gloves in order to dissuade them from committing violent acts. The result is that moderate Muslims are sidelined and extremists are accorded prominence, within and without their communities, which they do not deserve.
“(W)hy else would the Government throw £90 million at PVE (Preventing Violent Extremism) – an unaccountable, contradictory, bureaucratically convoluted counter-terrorism initiative that has the authorities snuggle up to homophobic, misogynistic West-haters, just so long as they don't actually use violence?"

She cites a Policy Exchange report, ‘Choosing our friends wisely’, which highlights instances where the government has funded initiatives which have only served to radicalise young people and to promote extremists' representatives. The article’s conclusion emphasises divisions within the government itself as regards engagement with Muslim groups.
“As Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Ruth Kelly came to realise that government policy towards Muslims was counter-productive. What is necessary, she says in the foreword to this report, is to stop pandering, to give incentives for good behaviour and disincentives for bad, and to defend the Western values shared by many British Muslims. She has a special commendation for Hazel Blears, who almost alone in the Cabinet is standing up to Jack Straw in the interests of national unity, common sense and morality. Moderate Muslims, embarrassed daily by their so-called community leaders, deserve a total change of direction in government policy.”

The thrust of Dudley Edwards’ article is not wrong. The threat of Islamic terrorism has resulted in the government’s misguided policies on multiculturalism being particularly closely focussed on that community. The consequences have been especially dire. In terms of precedent, violent dysfunction has become a prerequisite to command the government’s attention.

The issue is, however, part of a broader malaise. It is a malaise exacerbated by insistence on dealing with people through the prism of their perceived membership of racial, religious or ethnically defined interest groups. The Labour government has become entirely accustomed to engaging with communities predominantly through these interest groups and their self-appointed leaders.

It is a lamentable approach to take to community relations and actually encourages a reductionist view of minority cultures, whereby whole sections of society are defined by preconceived assumptions based on their ethnicity or religion. An urgent rethink is required.

Rage against the dying of the light. Gillespie finds another club!

There are few sounds more pleasing to the Northern Ireland fan’s ear than a stiletto ‘KEITH’ cutting through cold night air at Windsor Park, to be hammered home by an adamant ‘GILLESPIE!’. When the Green and White Army chants the name of its favourite winger, the noise is fearsome.

And a fearsome sight is what Gillespie comprises for opposition fullbacks when he is in full flight. Blistering pace, close control and a right foot which whips the ball consistently towards the danger zone are all characteristics of Keith’s game. Unfortunately ill discipline, the capacity to be easily discouraged and a red mist which occasionally makes the player look intent on acquiring yellow cards, are all additional traits which accompany his undeniable talent.

Nevertheless, it’s good news for Northern Ireland supporters that Gillespie has been signed by Bradford City. He had become a free agent earlier in the season after being released, not without a degree of acrimony, by Championship side Sheffield United.

Keith is 34 and with doubts about his match fitness remaining he is unlikely to feature in Nigel Worthington’s plans for forthcoming make or break World Cup games against Poland and Slovenia.

Although some supporters would name Gillespie in their squads if he were 70 years old and walking only with aid of a stick, I believe the manager has little choice but to omit the winger. Damien Johnson can play on the right flank and if Worthington seeks a winger to come on as an impact sub, fully fit Ivan Sproule is the safer (and quicker) option.

Certainly, Keith Gillespie has, through the years, made a significant contribution to the Northern Ireland football team. It would be marvellous to see his invigorating wing play once again illuminating Windsor Park, after sustained first team football for Bradford.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Whichever party wins next election cuts will be inevitable.

If you were to believe increasingly anti-Conservative DUP propaganda, a Labour victory at the next election would render Northern Ireland immune to spending cuts. The government too wishes to propagate the myth that only a Tory government would seek to trim public expenditure, as the recession begins to ease.

Nick Robinson cuts through received wisdom and argues that, on the basis of the Treasury’s own projections, there will be cuts, irrespective of which party is in power. Of course Northern Ireland will be effected, in common with other parts of the United Kingdom. But only within a Conservative government can local politicians play a role in shaping national economic policy.

McGuinness' words do comprise unequivocal condemnation

Today in Northern Ireland people from across the province will come together in silent protest at the violence which has occurred here since Saturday night. As ever there are divergent interpretations of the context which surrounds the murders. There also remain acute disagreements as to the best means of combating the menace of republican terror. However, the overwhelming sentiment, shared across the communities in Northern Ireland, is that our violent past should not be revisited under any circumstances. “Northern Ireland does not want to go back” is the message, which Michael succinctly articulates in an article on Conservative Home.

In the wake of events at the weekend I was quick to criticise Sinn Féin for an inadequate, vacillating response. To an extent this criticism stands. On Brass Neck Mick Fealty is scathing about Gerry Adams in particular, comparing him to an elderly Yasser Arafat, in the light of a dithering interview with Radio 4’s Today programme. In contrast, it would be wrong not to acknowledge that deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, struck an appropriate note when he condemned the dissident murderers as “traitors to the people of the island of Ireland”. His words, delivered at the side of Sir Hugh Orde and the First Minister, Peter Robinson, represent the most unequivocal disavowal of the actions of fellow republicans which Sinn Féin has yet been able to muster.

Naturally unionists will be inclined to reflect on the bitter irony of McGuinness’ verdict bearing in mind his own violent past, for which he has offered no repentance. But this is no time to be churlish. A clear denunciation of the murderers was what Northern Ireland required from Mr McGuinness, and that was what he delivered, resoundingly, and in language likely to resonate amongst his own community.

Of course the real test for the deputy first minister and his colleagues lies ahead. Already the first signs of acrimony are becoming manifest, as the PSNI conducts its investigation into the murder of a colleague in Craigavon. Important questions remain as to the conduct of Sinn Féin.

Will mainstream republicans remain supportive of the police as officers strive to root out killers from within the very communities to which Sinn Féin must then turn in order to seek continued support at the ballot box? Will the party recognise that the chief constable retains operational discretion for his force, which includes the ability to call upon a certain amount of support from the army, should he believe that that support is necessary? Will the Shinners accept that, as part of the United Kingdom until the electorate decides otherwise, it is entirely appropriate that the UK’s armed forces should keep peace time garrisons in Northern Ireland?

It remains to be seen how Sinn Féin’s response will bear up, as investigations are conducted and the security forces attempt to eradicate the dissident threat. Ultimately, Northern Ireland will be a normal society only when unrepentant murderers are not voted into office. But it would be wrong not to recognise when progress is being made or when significant developments occur. McGuinness’ statement was such a development.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Acceptibility of Scottish AND Northern Irish banknotes should be affirmed by legislation

Shadow Scottish Secretary, David Mundell, is currently attempting to steer his Scottish Banknotes (Acceptability in the United Kingdom) Bill through the House of Commons. He has raised important matters by introducing this legislation; issues which are pertinent not only to Scotland, but also to Northern Ireland, where banks also produce their own notes.

Embarrassing, inconvenient and deeply annoying circumstances surround suspicion, and even refusal, of banknotes which are, after all, denoted in sterling. There are even some incessantly argumentative characters who have, in the past, been so intent on paying for items with Northern Irish notes, that they have insisted that publicans take back pints of lager, despite the prospective purchaser holding crisp Bank of England twenties in their wallet!

The acceptability of both Northern Irish and Scottish notes should be enshrined in legislation. This would place a compelling moral obligation on businesses to accept them and it would help educate a swathe of ignoramuses (ignorami?).

A republican problem which could have baleful consequences for us all

Another morning. And we have woken up to learn of another murder in Northern Ireland. Last night Constable Stephen Carroll was gunned down by republicans in Craigavon as he responded to a call for help, lodged by a frightened member of the public. It goes without saying that another family has been bereaved. On this occasion a wife no longer has a husband; children have been deprived of their father. And to what purpose? As far as I can see, it is purely because the most extreme recidivist elements of republicanism want to destroy the beginnings of normality in this country. They cannot bear the thought that people in Northern Ireland might live their lives without murderous interruption – in peace.

O’Neill observes that despite the glib guarantees with which Gordon Brown responded to Saturday’s Massareene Barracks murders, we cannot be confident that the perpetrators, of that particular attack or of the killing last night, will ever be brought to justice. Indeed the Prime Minister’s words brought to mind the aftermath of the Omagh bombing, during which Tony Blair made similar assurances. In order to apprehend the murderers, the PSNI will require full, unequivocal cooperation from the republican communities in which terrorists have previously been harboured. Although members of Sinn Féin have, up to a point, recommended that the authorities should be furnished with information, that message was not delivered immediately and without reservation.

The truth is that the Real and Continuity IRAs, republican terrorists acting under whatever title, CAN do irreparable damage to the peace process. Although mainstream republicanism is pledged to support policing and justice, it believes its function is primarily to hold the police service to account. It is not chiefly animated by a desire to help deliver more effective policing or a safer society. This oppositional role necessarily puts Sinn Féin in conflict with attempts by Sir Hugh Orde and his force to anticipate and prevent attacks by dissident groups.

To a degree the provisionals are constrained both by their own history and by the mood of communities from which they draw their support (as an anonymous commenter intimates on yesterday’s thread). Can Sinn Féin endorse wholeheartedly a rigorous security response without losing part of its electoral base? Indeed, can Sinn Féin endorse wholeheartedly a rigorous security response without providing succour to the groups which have carried out these vile crimes?

I acknowledge that there is an element of squaring a circle to this dreadful conundrum. Republican communities, whilst not (for the most part) offering explicit approval of the murders which have occurred, will remain predisposed to construe any tightening of security, or even a determined attempt to root out the killers, as disproportionate. Sinn Féin, even should its leaders be inclined towards a different interpretation, will feel obliged to anticipate and mirror the mood of its supporters.

Of course the truth is that many years of virulent anti security forces, anti British government, anti-law and order rhetoric has shaped community attitudes, which in turn have boxed Sinn Féin into this corner. If Sinn Féin has a problem, it is largely of its own making. It is, to be quite blunt, a problem within republicanism. Albeit one which could have baleful consequences for everyone in Northern Ireland.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Earth to Rafa! We're only playing for one trophy now.

BBC’s football service reports that Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez faces a ’make or break week’. The Spaniard feels that the club’s season hinges on two games. One being tomorrow’s Champions League clash with Real Madrid, another being Saturday’s Premier League match at Old Trafford.

Rafa does face a ’make or break’ week. He must ensure that his charges salvage some possibility of winning a major prize this season by retaining their first leg advantage over Europe’s most decorated club. Saturday is just for pride.

And if there is even a shred of complacency shown by the home team tomorrow, then all hope of adorning the cabinet with another trophy will be gone for another season. Liverpool could easily lose 2-1 or allow Madrid to take the match to extra time. Especially if Benitez does not set up his side to go and win the game.

Positivity is key. And Reds supporters haven’t seen much of that since Newcastle were beaten 5-1.

A deeper sickness

It is difficult to know what to say about the horrible events which took place in Antrim on Saturday night. It is a struggle even to turn one’s thoughts this morning to Northern Ireland and its politics. The only words which are not freighted with futility are words of sorrow and sympathy for the men who were shot so mercilessly, and their families.

Sad, indeed tragic events, unfold in our newspapers, on our television screens and occasionally in front of our very eyes, daily. To an extent we become inured or else we seek comfort in the mutuality of our revulsion. The nature of this weekend’s horror was somehow particularly difficult to stomach, accompanied as it was with the unedifying, hollow charade which masqueraded as condemnation from Sinn Féin.

For fourteen hours the party remained silent. Its reaction, when it came, was laced with equivocation and qualification, heavy with the implication that republicans remain the troubles’ real victims. ‘Counterproductive’, ‘an attack on the peace process’. And Martin McGuinnness and Gerry Adams could not temper their veiled attacks on the British armed forces for one afternoon. .

These are men who clearly still believe that, but for considerations of tactical expedience, a British soldier in Northern Ireland, whether in an operational capacity or not, represents a potential legitimate target. ‘No mandate’, ‘no strategy for a united Ireland’. If the killers had had a little more support, if they had had a little more tactical ‘nous’, then evidently Adams and McGuinness couldn’t have faulted their actions.

As ordinary politicians queued up to express their disgust at the attack, it was hard not to adjudge their words ultimately impotent. The murders are the symptom of a deeper sickness in our society which has not been adequately addressed.

Although the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland naturally feel repugnance at Saturday’s events, it is worth reflecting, will the killers be receiving a popular mandate to govern in twenty years time? Will they be accorded the status of 'victims'? Will they have been retrospectively exonerated by their own communities?

One of the most common reactions to this attack has been to resolutely vow that it will not disrupt the peace process. Certainly that is important. No-one wants to return to a place whereby murder and mayhem becomes a commonplace on Northern Ireland’s streets.

The characteristics of a normal society, however, will not be discernible here until both main communities feel as much revulsion for the moral compromise of voting unrepentant murderers and their apologists into government, as they do for the freshest murders which have been committed.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

And from Reg Empey

Writing in the News Letter. After a week of nonsense, Sir Reg offers a timely reminder why this 'new force' is important.

Some fun has already been poked at the term "New Force." So be it. That is the nature of politics. But let me say this: this is a new electoral and politcal force for the Union. This is a new force which spans the entire United Kingdom. This is a new force which can put Northern Ireland at the very heart of UK politics. This is a new force which offers new opportunities and prospects for the entire electorate. This is a new force which is able to promote a vision and version of the Union which isn't dependent on head counts and scare tactics. This is a new force which is able to offer a credible, costed, intellectual alternative to the dreary old mantras. This is a new force which has the potential to reach those tens of thousands of pro-Union voters who have opted out because they believed that a vote for a seemingly parochial party was a waste of time.

More about Conservative / UUP deal in print

Details of the current issue aren't available on the website as yet, but if you haven't had enough on 'Three Thousand Versts', Fortnight magazine this month carries a long article by yours truly arguing the strengths of pan-UK unionism. You're all given permission to leave your computers to rush out and buy a copy. Chop chop!

Incidentally my cover is blown! The piece isn't written pseudonymously.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Stop the infighting and start fighting the election

Mick has beaten me to the punch on Slugger, but I received the same e-mail he broke earlier, explaining why Conservative NI vice chairman, Jeffrey Peel, has resigned from the Conservatives and Unionists’ joint committee. I have no desire to get involved in apportioning blame or a bitter round of recriminations. But it has saddened me, that when members should have galvanised to put across immediately an important political message, there has instead been an undignified and childish spate of wrangling about branding.

This has been played out with peculiar vehemence on several blogs. So that one or two in particular have become, for a time, effectively dedicated to attacking members of respective political parties whose values and aspirations the authors have previously purported to share.

I am not desperately interested in these spats, their whys and wherefores, and I do not want to become involved in them. As far as I’m concerned the issues underlying disagreements have in no regard justified the acrimony and ill feeling which surround them. There has been more than a hint of breast beating, aimed at establishing placement in the pecking order within the new group. And it seems that this process has claimed an early victim.

The truth is that both sides have been needlessly intractable, although from the beginning it was inevitable that some noses would be put out of joint. The NI Conservatives are a small political group locally, and whilst their contribution to the new force is valuable, it is through cooperation with Ulster Unionists that CCHQ hopes to roll out national politics in Northern Ireland. It has been accepted centrally that this must represent a process, which will be advanced over a relatively long time frame. Clearly some people within the Northern Ireland party don’t have patience enough for this long game.

Ulster Unionists, for their part, must recognise that if this force is to work, if it is to be meaningful, then they must accept change. Initially some people might be taken outside their comfort zones and there might be some casualties. But the truth is that the UUP was failing. Abjectly. It has been given an opportunity to advance unionism in a direction which previously only existed as intellectual aspiration. It is not possible simply to use David Cameron and the Conservatives as an electoral fillip to boost an unreformed UUP. If it were possible, it wouldn't in any case be a useful exercise.

At length I have espoused the benefits of this linkup and endorsed its pan-UK, equal citizenship agenda as unionism at its most constructive. It is a vision which is far too important to be jettisoned because of an unseemly bout of bickering.

The Conservative / UU carpet might yet get bloodier. Which is deeply regrettable. If needs must, then this should take place as inconspicuously as possible.

Meanwhile the respective leaderships must get a grip of this situation, get a grip of their troops and start putting together a coherent, unified campaign for the European election.