Thursday, 30 April 2009

Liberal governor shows pluralism in Russia can work

The Moscow Times carries the story of a governor in Russia, who has to contend with a 3.7 billion ruble deficit in his region’s public finances, at a time when industrial output has fallen by 17%. It is an ordinary enough problem in Russian regional government in the current economic climate, but Nikita Belykh is by no means an ordinary Russian governor.

Belykh is an economic liberal who formerly led the Union of Right Forces (SPS), a business friendly party, which was wound up last November. He is a rather exotic specimen in Russian politics and forms an antidote to the loyal United Russia bureaucrats more habitually selected by the Kremlin.

President Medvedev appointed Belykh as governor to the Kirov region in January, despite his outspoken opposition to central government and the SPS man has since been dubbed ‘the Russian Obama’ by one magazine.

In a region with poor infrastructure, and in straightened times, Belykh’s programme of business deregulation is not being implemented in propitious circumstances. However, with a fractious election in Sochi once again attracting adverse publicity for Russian democracy, it is refreshing that pluralism is being practiced in at least one of the country’s regions.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Carlisle in need of a lift

Carlisle United’s fans are renowned throughout English football as the heaviest drinking supporters of any football league club. Is it any wonder?

After Michael Knighton’s ball juggling escapades at Old Trafford came to nought, he purchased the Cumbrian club and subsequently claimed that he’d been abducted by aliens.

Goalkeeper Jimmy Glass may have saved Carlisle from relegation to the Conference in 1999, but it was only a temporary reprieve. The Borderers lost their football league status in 2004 after five seasons in the lower reaches of Division 3.

United have enjoyed relative success since their visit to the non-leagues. Two successive promotions propelled them into League 1. Indeed last term the Blues finished fourth, making the play offs, before succumbing to dirty Leeds.

Now, once again, the trajectory is downwards. Hernandez explains the intricacies on ‘Down and Out’. Carlisle could well return to the football league’s basement on Saturday, and whether in celebration or despair, we can be sure their bibulous supporters will turn to the bottle.

Hague outlines Conservative thinking on the European Union

Shadow Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has given a wide ranging interview to ‘The Times’. With the European election imminent, it is worth highlighting what Hague has to say about the EU.

David Cameron’s ‘deputy in all but name’ has particular responsibility for Conservative policy in this area, and he has been entrusted with the task of building a new group in the European Parliament in which his party will play the central role. The policy which Hague outlines is policy which voters in Northern Ireland can endorse, by voting for the 'Conservatives and Unionists' candidate, Jim Nicholson.

Perhaps the biggest issue in EU politics at present is the Lisbon Treaty. The Tories are committed to holding a referendum on the treaty, in the United Kingdom, if it has not been ratified before a new parliament. In these circumstances Hague’s party will recommend a ‘no’ vote. Additionally, the shadow minister has indicated that, even if the treaty were to be ratified, prior to a general election, the Conservatives will consider holding a poll anyway, on the grounds that ratification would not have the democratic endorsement of the British people.

The Conservative position is that the EU should continue to operate as a cooperative organisation of independent states, sharing a single market. The party does not agree with the French / German urge towards further integration and it views Lisbon as an unacceptable expedient aimed at realising the integrative vision. Mr Hague is determined that Conservatives will be, “active, energetic and engaged members of the EU”, promoting their favoured EU model.

To this end, new Conservative MEPs (hopefully including Mr Nicholson) will join like minded colleagues, after the 4 June election, in forming a new group within the European Parliament. They will leave their current group, the EPP, which broadly supports greater integration. Hague confirms that a name has already been decided and he is confident that members from the requisite seven nations will be found.

The group will not be, by any description, anti-European,
“On issues such as climate change, energy liberalisation and the single market they (are) “great enthusiasts”. “Our difference is that we are not in favour of the institutional aggrandisement of Brussels,” he said.”

Cartoon Corner

By Ian Knox. In today's Irish News.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Invoking pluralism only to undermine its precepts. Protestantism does not indicate a more authentic form of Britishness.

It can be frustrating, attempting to interpret a newspaper’s report of a speech, without access to the original text. It is difficult, for instance, to judge whether an address given by Dr David Hume, the Orange Order’s ‘Director of Services’, offers a plausible elucidation of modern Britishness, albeit one that is concerned to defend a particular tradition within that identity (and its right to self-expression); or whether it represents, as the News Letter’s account suggests, a rather contradictory demand for Protestantism to be reinstated unapologetically at the centre of British identity, at the expense of pluralism.

Examining only excerpts of Hume’s speech, and skipping the silly Donaldsonesque stuff insinuating that Catholics cannot possibly be conscientious British citizens, each quotation is fairly defensible if we suppose that it is placed within a reasonable context. Indeed the speaker includes in his remarks a reading of Britishness which unionists of a civic bent will immediately recognise and applaud,

“The truth is that being British is not about race, or creed or culture. Being British is about pluralism not uniformity, it is about respect for difference and about difference itself.”

Given his generous, and accurate, interpretation of British identity, it is puzzling that, if one judges by the News Letter’s commentary and refuses to indulge the ‘Catholics as political vassals of the Vatican’ headtheballery, then Doctor Hume seems to be insinuating that Britishness has rather a lot to do with ‘creed’. Take, for example, this synopsis, from the newspaper report,

“Dr Hume said that it had become almost embarrassing to speak about the UK in any Protestant context and that labelling people defending their British heritage as bigots was a sign of immaturity.”

If this does fairly represent part of the speech which Hume delivered, then we have two separate theses which either the speaker, or the newspaper, has connected with inadequate qualification. Is it widely considered ‘embarrassing’ to ‘speak about the UK in any Protestant context’? Perhaps. There are those who do consider the Kingdom’s Protestant heritage embarrassing. It is certainly silly to ignore the pivotal role which the reformed faith had in shaping Britain’s history.

Are there those who imply bigotry simply because a particular aspect of Britishness is being defended? Certainly.

But, on the other hand, does defending Britishness necessarily entail celebrating Protestantism’s place in the national story? Unequivocally not. Britishness and Protestantism are two separate, although perfectly compatible, self-definitions within the context of the United Kingdom. It is either lazy, or sinister, to, without qualification, bundle the two concepts together in one sentence as if they comprise two premises of a syllogism.

Taken in conjunction with Hume’s argument against replacing the Act of Settlement, it is not unreasonable to suppose that he is elevating Protestantism and suggesting it indicates a more authentic definition of Britishness.

I have acknowledged previously that there is a legitimate contention, based on constitutional conservatism, which proposes that it is best not to tamper with fundamental aspects of the constitution. Broadly the logic is that, in the case of complicated, interconnected, constitutional tenets, if they are working reasonably well, it is best not to risk the unintended consequences which might flow from interfering unnecessarily with legislation. Whether we accept that the conclusion is correct, or not, it is, at least, a valid approach to the argument. Hume’s thesis is rather different.

“The issue is whether a future monarch would be taking political direction if they were Roman Catholic from the Pope, who is a temporal head of state.”

I believe that this is a much less admissible line to take. Indeed I find it both discriminatory and offensive to Catholics, because its implication is that no Catholic can show true political loyalty to the United Kingdom. It disingenuously conflates submission to the Pope as a religious leader with submission to the Vatican as a political state. It rests on a proposition which Catholics themselves find ludicrous.

By all means, Hume can argue that the Act of Settlement should be retained, but he should do so on the basis of sounder rationale than the belief that a section of British people cannot be trusted, by virtue of their religious faith. Nor is it enough to pre-empt accusations of bigotry by terming them ‘immature’, before effectively accusing vast swathes of Britons of disloyalty, simply because they attend a particular church.

Indeed, the Orangeman loses me entirely when he contends that,

“The solution to it all is very simple. The Vatican should withdraw its insistence that the children of mixed marriages must be brought up as Roman Catholics.”

Now, I appreciate that this is a favourite bugbear for evangelical Protestants (the accuracy of which I cannot verify), but surely it cannot be the only piece of theology on which the Pope’s claim to British Catholics’ loyalty rests? Weren’t we talking about temporal power and the Vatican’s head of state a moment ago? Unless the News Letter has made an important omission I can only assume that the stepping stones along which Hume’s speech is leaping have just allowed him to bound blithely across a rather obvious non sequitur.

I am, as regular readers of this website will testify, intensely interested in the relationship between identity, culture, nationality and political citizenship. I have written about Hume’s address as it has been reported in the News Letter and I apologise profusely if my understanding of its contents has been warped by a reporter’s initial misrepresentation. But from what I have read, it certainly appears to initially describe Britishness in a manner which I fully recognise, before thoroughly undermining the precepts of its own description.

I do not, for an instant, dispute that Protestantism has had a defining role in creating the United Kingdom which we enjoy living in today. Neither would I for a moment suggest that its position should be obscured, derided or ignored. But whilst it is right to recognise the special contribution which the reformed faith has made to our history and to our constitution, and whilst it is right that Protestantism should continue to play an important part in the life of our country, it should not be considered a defining characteristic of ‘Britishness’, nor should it be taken to indicate a more profound or authentic British identity, to which proponents of other faiths can never fully adhere.

Let the Protestant churches and Protestant organisations celebrate British identity, but let us not imply that a, “cultural, social and religious revival across the UK”, should involve Protestants, to the exclusion of other faiths and traditions.

Monday, 27 April 2009

Worst of the worst? The most shambolic public transport company in Europe? Perhaps, but Translink reckons it deserves more of your money!

John McCallister MLA has recorded his opinion that public transport in Northern Ireland should be affordable and efficient. It is scarcely a contentious proposition; although I have reservations about his argument that Translink’s services should be ‘vibrant’. I’ve travelled on Ulsterbuses which have been so vibrant they’ve threatened to leave me without any teeth.

McCallister’s statement is in response to Translink’s plan to raise prices, far above the rate of inflation. He expresses sympathy for the company’s predicament, given the current economic climate.

Setting aside the niceties of nuanced political debate, I beg to differ.

Translink is an awful company, with a disproportionate number of rude and unhelpful staff, which has been making a pig’s ear of Northern Ireland’s public transport and it has a damn cheek to ask its long-suffering passengers for more of their money.

Prices on buses and trains here are ALREADY preposterously high. It costs £1.50 to travel a mile and a half into Belfast from the Lisburn Road on a Metro bus. That is substantially more than a similar journey would cost in London with an Oyster Card, and comparison to services in equivalent regional cities is even less favourable. Frequently the driver on a City Bus will turn his nose up at a £5 note.

From Belfast International Airport a newly arrived visitor will be charged £7 to be taken fifteen miles into the city centre. Should he dare to present the driver with £20 in payment he is liable to be given a tutorial in how unfriendly Northern Ireland can actually be!

A Goldliner to Enniskillen costs £10! More than the private service which runs to Dublin Airport!

I’ll not get properly started on the trains, if only for the sake of my blood pressure. The delays, breakdowns and foul smelling carriages where the toilets’ ventilation is routed INSIDE the train! Or the timetabling, which almost guarantees there will not be a service when one would be convenient. Or the routes, which dictate that you can travel almost nowhere without first connecting in Belfast.

On the whole, British public transport is vastly more expensive and less efficient than services offered on the continent. Northern Ireland surely has the worst public transport in the United Kingdom. Translink is responsible. It is doing an appalling job and cannot be allowed to exploit its customers any further.

Tories must remain focussed on 'progressive ends' as well as 'conservative means'

"I think people know by now that I want us to stand up for the poorest in Britain and to show that fiscal responsibility can go hand in hand with a social conscience."

David Cameron addressed the Tories’ spring forum yesterday and assured his audience that although Conservatives are ready to usher in an ‘age of austerity’, the commitments which he has made to prioritise social justice will nevertheless be upheld. With a general election imminent, it is his party’s central task to ensure voters remain convinced that efforts to constrain public debt will not entail compromising Cameron’s communitarian vision for Britain.

The Conservative leader has consistently argued that combating society’s dysfunction is an effective means by which to ease the burden on the public purse. Far from hampering the imperative to spend money efficiently, tackling social problems is a prerequisite for renewed prosperity. Cameron must repeatedly insist upon the compatibility of these two agendas, right up to (and during) the next general election. And he should continue to stress the emphasis which his party puts on social policy, remaining careful not to allow the inevitable economic debate to obscure important Tory undertakings.

When Alistair Darling announced a 50p tax bracket for those earning over £150,000 it was a measure aimed primarily at undermining the Conservative message on society. Had the party defended too robustly the tax status of salaries which are beyond the wildest dreams of most voters, it would undoubtedly have estranged a substantial section of the electorate. The Tories would have been seen to prioritise the interests of a wealthy elite, at the expense of the poorest people, whom Cameron insists he will stand up for.

Despite the theses advanced by Boris Johnson and others, who argue that the party should undertake to scrap 50p tax at the earliest opportunity, perceptions matter in this instance, even if they are based on shaky premises. Although the Conservative lead now appears unassailable, any temporary resurgence which Labour has from time to time mustered has coincided with doubts about the Tories’ centrist credentials. The party simply cannot afford too dramatic a rightward swing.

Martin Kettle, commenting on Cameron’s speech, observes that the economic crisis has ensured, “politics is now about competing visions of strategies for limited resources”. It will be by assessing the respective attractions of these competing strategies, as well as the parties’ realistic prospects of instigating them, that the electorate will make its choice next May.

The Conservatives chosen strategy remains rather abstract, but, particularly in the short term, that is not a significant concern. There is adequate scope to outline differences in approach which would distinguish a Cameron administration from Brown’s government. The Tory leader, for example, chose the £12 billion NHS computer system to illustrate that his party’s distrust of centralisation would naturally lead to more cost effective government.

Several commentators have detected similarities between the text Cameron delivered yesterday and the thinking of New Labour under Tony Blair. Cranmer has posted on the topic with customary exuberance. However, an essential difference was alluded to in the speech itself. Whereas every initiative by Blairites to furnish institutions with more freedom, whether it involved schools, hospitals or social security organs, was hampered and emasculated by Gordon Brown and his acolytes, David Cameron will have no equivalent ideological battles to fight. His party will decentralise by conviction.
“We'll invite social enterprises, private companies and community organisations to help run our public services not in a limited, half-hearted way, like Labour have, but with passion and enthusiasm, because we really believe in it.”

The difficult decisions which Conservatives will be faced with as regards the public finances will be complemented, rather than obstructed, by the looser structure of services which Cameron envisages. Those are the ‘conservative means’ by which Cameron hopes to achieve ‘progressive aims’. It is important that the public remains fully appraised of the aims as well as the means.

Northern Ireland to celebrate rugby winners

I’m delighted to learn that members of the Ireland rugby team and its coaching staff are to attend a reception at Hillsborough Castle, recognising their Six Nations’ achievements. The Grand Slam winners were welcomed home in style by jubilant crowds in Dublin. However, Northern fans have not yet had the chance to show their appreciation and hopefully an opportunity to do so can be scheduled into the squad’s visit.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Built for Westminster. Built for Europe.

The Ulster Unionist Party used its Annual General Meeting on Saturday to launch Jim Nicholson MEP’s campaign to be re-elected to the European Parliament. Of course the poll’s importance is heightened, for the Conservatives as well as the UUP, because it is the first occasion on which the two parties’ political marriage will be tested against the electorate. The candidate and his party leader, Sir Reg Empey, addressed delegates from the platform, whilst David Cameron provided his contribution via video link.

Unionist Lite, Bobballs and the Young Unionist blog each have coverage of the various speeches. Cameron‘s concise exposition of principles which animate the new force is perhaps most deserving of further scrutiny.

Distilling the alliance to its essentials, the Conservative leader picks three compelling reasons why his party and Ulster Unionists are working together.

- A common commitment to the Union and belief in the strength which it imparts to its constituent parts.

- A shared imperative to offer direct democratic involvement in the United Kingdom's government to voters in Northern Ireland.

- Mutual respect which exists between the two parties.

The compatibility of the two parties’ agendas is particularly evident in the crucible of European politics. Few Conservatives or Ulster Unionists would prefer something other than the European Union characterised by cooperation, rather than an urge to integration, that Cameron favours.

It is a vision of Europe which appeals to a broad spectrum of voters in Northern Ireland, as it does in the rest of the United Kingdom.

The Ulster Conservatives and Unionists arrangement is built for Westminster and for Europe. It offers the Northern Irish electorate a meaningful role in choosing the United Kingdom’s government and in framing its position within the European Union.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Sidestepping 50p tax trap is the sensible move. New chancellor will have more than enough to be getting on with.

An ‘age of austerity’ is the cliché to which journalists have taken recourse in the aftermath of Wednesday’s budget. The Guardian’s Martin Kettle reminds readers that it will almost certainly be Conservatives who must steward the economy through the difficult years from 2010 (many of Alistair Darling’s proposals are to be implemented during the next parliament). Nick Robinson describes the forthcoming difficulties in similar terms and doggedly presses the Chancellor to admit that, evasive language not withstanding, he will be cutting public expenditure.

Darling’s prognosis of an economy overburdened with debt has scarcely surprised the vast majority of observers. And many commentators believe that the government is being much too optimistic in its appraisal of Britain’s ability to cope with mounting indebtedness whilst also embarking upon a financial recovery. If the IMF comprises a substantial impartial authority on national economies (and the Prime Minister has given every indication that he believes it does) then the Chancellor should explain why its projections for growth are substantially below those which his budget has forecast.

That the debate around the economy is increasingly constrained within coordinates which the Conservative party favours, benefits David Cameron and his team. He and George Osborne have been talking about restricting public spending and addressing the budget deficit for many months. Indeed care has been taken not to rule out raising taxes, despite the aversion of many within the party to rises of any description.

Despite predictable derision from the right wing press, it is appropriate that Conservatives should not choose to fight the 50p tax band with particular vehemence. Although doubt has been cast upon its efficacy, and although ideally the extra burden would not be necessary, prioritising the reversal of further National Insurance hikes for modest to middle income households will strike a much more resonant note with the public. In addition it is the right thing to do. High earners, in the bracket for which the new rate will be relevant, can afford to pay more. Progressive taxation is entirely defensible by conservative principles (if not by the tenets of fundamentalist free market liberalism). The Conservatives have done well to sidestep the most obvious of traps.

The challenge for an incoming government will not be to immediately reverse tax rises which have been instigated. It will be to maintain frontline services, whilst delivering promised efficiencies and hacking back layers of bureaucracy which have been allowed to grow unchecked under the Labour government. Although more drastic measures might ultimately be required, with Quangoes, unelected regional assemblies and various commissioners for this, that and the other, there are enough obvious targets to be trimmed back for a new chancellor to be kept busy with that work for the first year of his tenure (at least).

Night Jack wins Orwell Award for blogs

I’ve just returned from an enjoyable two days in London, where the Orwell Prize for blogs was awarded to the excellent ‘Night Jack’ site. Jack Night is a police detective from the north of England, which provides him with a unique and insightful perspective from which to write about criminal justice. Like the ‘North Antrim Interest List’, that eventually topped a previous shortlist including ‘Three Thousand Versts’, ‘Night Jack’ shows mastery of a particular subject, rather than ranging widely across a great many topics. A lesson which I would endeavour to learn, were I not writing primarily for my own pleasure!

My girlfriend and I were pleased to be seated next to Jack Night’s police colleague and representative at the dinner (the pseudonymous author did not feel able to pick up the prize in person). He was a charming and grounded detective whose insight into the Historical Enquiries Team was particularly fascinating. Indeed our conversation formed a neat counterpoint to the entertaining, but rather bombastic discourse, which was animating Peter Oborne, across the table.

We were fortunate enough, during the evening, to meet fellow beaten competitors, Iain Dale and Alix Mortimer (whose well written and humorous Lib Dem blog is well worth bookmarking). Guardian columnist Ian Jack was also especially kind about my writing and indeed his warm description of the blog during the ceremony formed one of the highlights of my night. I’m grateful for the encouragement which he made a point of offering me afterwards.

A wonderful evening then, despite the result (as it were).

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

NI MPs should be treated the same as GB counterparts.

A statement from Harriet Harman contains detail of measures through which the Prime Minister intends to give the system of expenses for MPs some running repairs, pending a more thorough renovation. The most striking proposal would scrap the controversial second homes’ allowance and replace it with a simpler overnight allowance linked to attendance at the House of Commons.

Which is a sensible and necessary expedient. But, as Pete Baker on Slugger and Jonathan Isaby on ConHome have already noted, it may not apply to Northern Irish MPs. A passage of the statement reads,

“H. We will ask the Committee on Standards in Public Life to look at the circumstances applying in Northern Ireland before final application of the flat rate allowance for MPs representing Northern Ireland.”

One circumstance, which conspicuously applies in Northern Ireland, is that 5 Members of Parliament, elected by the province’s voters, refuse to take their seats. Sinn Féin’s abstentionism, shamefully, does not prevent it from claiming monies which are intended to enable MPs to represent their constituents in the House of Commons.

It would seem that, whilst Labour is prepared to link expenses to the purposes for which they are intended in the rest of the United Kingdom, in Northern Ireland it may continue simply to allow them to be used to top up party funds.

There is no doubt that Northern Ireland’s MPs should be treated like their counterparts in the rest of Britain. It will be interesting to see whether the DUP is prepared to argue against special treatment, because, with its double and triple mandates, it also benefits considerably from a system whereby expenses are not connected to attendance.

If the DUP is not prepared to launch such an argument, we need to know why not. Why does it believe a system which gives allowances for work which is not being done is appropriate? What does it feel should be the general rule in the House of Commons and should Northern Ireland be exempt from that rule? If so, why should Northern Ireland, once again, be the exception?

Speaking of which, I see Peter Weir has been dispensing his wisdom on the economy, through a DUP press release. It consists of the usual stuff. Conservatives believe cuts are necessary, cuts will effect Northern Ireland, UUP and Conservatives are aligned, ergo UUP believes Northern Ireland’s block grant should be cut.

Let me reframe the questions I asked last night. Does the DUP believe that the United Kingdom needs to cut its expenditure? If it does, is it seriously proposing that every part of the Kingdom, other than Northern Ireland, should foot the bill? If it does not believe cuts are necessary, what is its alternative economic analysis?

Or couldn’t it care less either way, so long as Northern Ireland continues to get as much money as possible?

New addition to the Northern Irish blogosphere

And rather an articulate one at that. 'Cicero's Voice'. A link has been added on my bloglist.

Monday, 20 April 2009

What would the Finance Minister advise government to do? Does he even care about its problems?

George Osborne and David Cameron have been arguing for months that the government needs to address ballooning national debt and restrict the deficit. And Despite all of Labour’s arch implications that the current Conservative leadership understands nothing about economics, it transpires Alistair Darling is set to announce a budget which seeks to constrain public spending. The last bastion of serious political resistance to the idea that Britain cannot afford to continue a binge of borrowing and spending, as a means to counter recession, appears to have been overcome.

Although not, it would seem, in Northern Ireland, where Finance Minister Nigel Dodds clearly believes that if there is any pain to be experienced in the UK, we will be exempt from it.

Danny Kennedy, deputy leader of the Ulster Unionists, apparently understands the likely implications of the impending budget. He believes that Northern Ireland will be expected to deliver its share of efficiency savings. He estimates the likely cost to be approximately £600 million, which must be trimmed from the block grant. This might be needed because Labour has mismanaged the economy, but it is, nevertheless, a necessity and the executive will need to re-examine its Programme for Government in the light of changed circumstances.

Alliance agrees, although its sums are slightly different and the SDLP, whilst it has not quite grasped that addressing a budget deficit does not mean that saved monies can simply be spent elsewhere, has at least been thinking about how efficiencies might be achieved.

Which leaves the carve-up coalition partners and if the economy has crossed their minds at all, it has served only to entrench their sense of entitlement to exactly the same sized slice of an ever diminishing pie.

Dodds maintains that his party will resist any attempt by this government, or any Conservative government which is likely to succeed it, to ensure that Northern Ireland delivers its share of efficiencies in order to lessen strain on the public purse.

It would be interesting to know how Dodds suggests that the UK government should go about addressing the financial crisis which it faces. Does he believe that it is tenable for Britain to continue to increase spending at the current rate, given the level of debt which is already being carried? I would be genuinely interested to know, because unless he has some rather unique insights, out of step with the rest of political and economic thinking, it is tempting to reach one of two conclusions.

1) Dodds neither knows nor cares about the national finances, so long as money keeps flowing to Northern Ireland.

2) Dodds does realise that spending needs to be restricted, but he thinks that the rest of the United Kingdom should tighten its belt and Northern Ireland should be exempt.

Either supposition would beg the perennial question: is the DUP’s unionism really tethered in any meaningful way to an affection for, or desire to participate properly in, the United Kingdom?

My suspicion is that Dodds would probably lean towards option 2. Which he would no doubt rationalise through the usual special pleading (normally to be accompanied by a goodly dollop of insinuation that the British government is to some degree responsible for Northern Ireland’s woes).

His former leader, of course, actually placed accountability for 30 years of financial retardation squarely at the feet of various Westminster administrations,in the process of advancing a similar argument. Not a mention of republican violence.

Stability in Post Soviet space will only develop when multi-ethnic states are accepted

In an essay considering the chances of successful reconciliation between Russia and Georgia, Ivan Sukhov keeps his most interesting contention for the final paragraph.

“Georgia, like most post-Soviet nations, is a country where the concept of nationality is crucial. A national agenda for Georgians is barely compatible with the thesis of a Georgia for everyone (i.e. for Georgians, Abkhazians, Ossetians, and for all other citizens regardless of their ethnicity). This is not a problem specific to Georgia. It is characteristic of almost all the post-Soviet nations, including Russia itself in many ways.”

It is useful to read Sukhov’s piece in conjunction with a further Open Democracy article, which examines another post-Soviet state struggling to come to terms with ethnic division, Moldova.

Transdniestria, Moldova’s own breakaway region, shares characteristics with South Ossetia. Although as Andrey Kalikh observes, the chances that serious violence will develop there remain slim.

However, many of the frozen conflicts, as well as those which have involved fighting more recently, have undoubtedly arisen because ‘ethno-nationalist’ states have been carved from multi-national space.

Although its size and diversity prevent Russia from being described in such terms, political forces in the Federation, including the Kremlin, have undoubtedly, from time to time harnessed national chauvinism for pragmatic purposes.

For its failure to encourage the creation of multi-ethnic states the west is also culpable. Baltic states have been allowed to join the European Union without dismantling discriminatory citizenship laws for instance. Anti-Russian sentiment is indulged where large Russian minorities are still present. Smaller minorities’ interests have been disregarded by western opinion on the assumption that they simply represent manifestations of irredentism by Russia or other largish states.

And of course, outside the former USSR, Kosovo has provided a precedent, whereby western institutions have indicated their willingness to underwrite ethnic separatists’ aspirations, without any urge to compromise or attempt to accommodate them within the larger state.

No wonder the argument for multi-ethnic states is weakening in the former Soviet Union, rather than strengthening.

Don't believe everything your mates tell you!

I was rather enjoying Boris Johnson’s typically spirited defence of academic selection, on egalitarian grounds, until I happened upon this rather puzzling sentence,

“I know a lawyer from Belfast, a man of my age, who believes fervently that he would never have gone to university had it not been for the grammar school system, and who cannot believe that no one – no one from any party – is objecting to their abolition at the hands of, yes, Martin McGuinness.”

No-one, other than Boris’ own Conservative colleagues in Northern Ireland, their Ulster Unionist partners, the DUP and a coalition of parents and schools spanning the maintained and voluntary sectors.

Symptoms of the same disease

Even the most fanciful commentator would struggle to describe Northern Ireland as a well integrated society. Indeed the political dispensation which provides our regional government is based on community carve-up and neither of the two largest parties is prepared to weaken their grip on respective fiefdoms by pursuing an agenda of ‘sharing’. From the top down, there is an assumption that inclusive housing or education entails unpalatable compromises which cannot help but dilute the ‘cultures’ which are being integrated.

Given the fetish for a particular view of community which our politicians indulge, why then should we be surprised when newly arrived additions to Northern Ireland’s society are not integrated seamlessly or welcomed generously?

In South Belfast a particularly abhorrent attack took place last week which seems to have been racist, or at least xenophobic, in motivation. A group of aggressive, and apparently drunk, young men forced their way into a house in which four Hungarian women were resident. The mob’s goal seems to have been to drive the women out of their home.

I scarcely need iterate how loathsome and cowardly any thinking person will find such an attack. And although it is obviously difficult to discern definite connections along a timeline of thuggish incidents, there have been other instances of people from eastern Europe being attacked and intimidated out of homes in areas of South Belfast in recent weeks. It is for the police to establish details and identify those responsible, but we can say, with reasonable certainty, that a hardcore of hooligans is intent upon driving people from particular areas, on the grounds of their perceived nationality.

Physical attacks are a particularly extreme manifestation of the symptoms, but they are functions of the same disease which causes an almost gleefully unreflective reaction from certain people when they believe that a wrong has been committed which can be attributed to ‘the other’ perceived community. The attempt to suggest that the guilt for bad behaviour should be acquired by an entire section of society, based on perceptions about their religion or political belief, is sometimes quite explicit and at other times it is repeatedly implied, but it is always insidious and represents the type of thinking which rationalises racist thuggery in the first place. I don’t think it diminishes the disgust which one might feel toward the original act, to find such hypocrisy galling.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Minister of the Absurd wants to control what you see

Sammy Wilson has been defending his right to bring ridicule upon Northern Ireland, in a latter to Geoff Hoon. Apparently this region should be exempt from all attempts to reduce CO2 emissions in order that sufficient ‘respect’ be accorded his personal views.

It's devolution see?

So there you have it. Not only should the Belfast Telegraph ignore the DUP/SF coalition’s mismanagement of the economy, media should also be bound to reflect the sensibilities of Democratic Unionist ministers, however ignorant or eccentric.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Gogol debate is an anachronism

The power of great literature to animate debate decades and even centuries after its inception is currently being demonstrated in Russia and Ukraine. A lavish production of Nikolai Gogol’s ‘Taras Bulba’ (which could be considered either a short novel or a rather long short story) has reinvigorated a national ‘tug of war’ over ownership of the work and its author.

VV Bortko’s film is purportedly infused with Russian patriotism, which he interprets as the spirit behind Gogol’s story. Certainly the accepted text which we read today has a strong slant of romantic nationalism which it tethers to Slavophile notions of the ‘Russian Soul’. There is room for controversy, however, as ‘Bulba’ was rewritten by its author from an original version which emphasised the Ukrainian roots of its Cossack protagonist.

Of course, any attempt to project current political preoccupations unto nineteenth century literature is anachronistic. Gogol moved from rural Ukraine to urban St Petersburg and wrote about both. His conception of the ‘Russian Soul’ was bound up with his strong Orthodox faith. The literal locations which Gogol writes about were within the same imperial space.

What is certain is that Gogol wrote in Russian and shaped the golden age of Russian literature. His work often mines Ukrainian culture and folklore, but its grand, national imagery pertains to Russia. ‘Dead Souls’ most memorable metaphor envisages Russia as a speeding troika,

“Thou art not my Russia, soaring along even like a spirited never to be outdistanced troika?”

There is little evidence to suggest that Gogol believed the two aspects of his work were incompatible. President Yushchenko’s contention that the writer, “wrote in Russian, but….thought and felt in Ukrainian”, is rather absurd.

Gogol cannot be co-opted as a supporter of independent Ukraine; neither can we confidently say that he would have opposed its independence, in the modern context. He is an example of one of many cultural links between the two countries and he should be celebrated for his contribution to literature, rather than invoked on one side or the other of a contemporary squabble.

Irony at a basic level

Now, how’s this for irony? Brian Feeney has decided to condemn Northern Ireland’s parties for sectarian mudslinging. The poison dwarf has made a career by insisting that all ‘the north’s’ problems are unionism’s fault. His most sneering contempt is reserved for any party aspiring to lift Northern Ireland out of its sectarian morass or attempting to encourage normal politics here. What a contemptible hypocrite!

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Another failure to grasp the consequences of the principle of consent

Another desperately silly article about the Conservatives’ alliance with Ulster Unionists has graced the Irish News, courtesy of Fionnula O’Connor (again). The requisite insinuation that offering people in Northern Ireland access to mainstream British politics is an infringement of the Good Friday Agreement is included; likewise, anything which buttresses the principle of consent, and the consequences which flow from it, is presented as a backward step.

A few reminders are due Ms. O’Connor and her ilk.

Firstly the Belfast Agreement does not require that the British government should be neutral on the constitutional question. On the contrary, if the British government believes in the values and institutions of the United Kingdom, it should promote them, within Northern Ireland and elsewhere. Certainly the government is bound to ensure that different cultures and political aspirations are respected equally, and it is legally required to uphold the decision of the people of Northern Ireland, as regards its constitutional future. Neither of these obligations requires it to refrain from promoting the Union and its benefits.

Secondly, a “re-emphasis on Britishness”, is neither a pre-occupation solely of the Conservative party, nor should it be equated with a dramatic rightward swing. Examining the values, history and institutions which bind together the UK, is an essential exercise, aimed at determining who we are, what we stand for and where we are going. If, as an aspirant government, the Conservatives were not engaged with such questions, we should be asking why they wish to take power in the first instance.

Thirdly, if ‘British Northern Irelanders’ are disorientated by a national party contesting elections here, they should be worried about the type of Britishness which they are promoting and the essence of the dispensation which they are operating.

Westminster is the national parliament, not simply an actor “in the settled pattern of modern British Irish relations”. If the DUP is ‘bewildered’ by the electorate in Northern Ireland being afforded an opportunity to vote for the next United Kingdom government, then it should be required to explain to voters why they should not have extended to them an ability to fully participate in politics associated with their preferred constitutional arrangement. If nationalists are bewildered, then they should start examining the nature of the principle of consent which they have purportedly accepted.

When this misguided article is distilled to its essentials, we are left with the old nationalist chestnut, conflating equality of aspiration with equality of outcome.

“David Cameron has yet to accept that Sinn Fein and the SDLP are in a Belfast administration on the basis that Irish nationalism has equal status with British unionism.”

David Cameron has certainly not accepted that Irish nationalism has equal status with British unionism and nor should he. The very simple reason lies with results at the ballot box, and acceptance, through the agreement of both sides, of the principle of consent. That is not to say that British unionists and Irish nationalists should not be treated equally, they should be and largely they are. The Conservative government will continue to underwrite this equality, but there can be no equality of outcome whilst democratic principles continue to underpin Northern Ireland’s constitutional status.

Uncheduled Easter blogging break

I'm afraid that untimely internet problems interrupted blogging over the weekend (although I did forsake the blue skies of freedom for a couple of days too). Hopefully it will be resolved soon, although in the interim posting might not be as regular as usual.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Orwell, political writing and blogs.

Some journalists have asked whether Orwell might have written a blog, had the technology been available to him, after the addition of a weblog category to the prize that bears his name. When a longlist comprising twelve websites was announced, Radio 4 invited Hopi Sen to consider the question on its ‘Today’ programme.

I suspect that while Orwell would have been enthused by the potential of political blogging, he would have been appalled by the content and style of many political blogs.

For any writer who makes politics his subject, reading Orwell’s essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ is a chastening experience. Its contents are yet more disquieting when one has been included on a shortlist of six bloggers, contesting an award dedicated to the great man’s memory. The truth is that it is almost impossible to adhere to the precepts set out in the essay.  The essayist acknowledged that even he occasionally infringed his own rules.

It is possible to adhere to the spirit of the essay, if not to follow it to the letter. Indeed for writing, and in particular for political writing, to have merit, it must at least aspire to follow the broader principles which Orwell outlines.

He sets out characteristic elements from which bad prose is frequently constructed, but it is the bad prose itself, and the woolly thinking behind it, which is really George Orwell’s target. His central contention is that words should be employed in the service of the idea which they are being used to express, rather than the other way round. Understand the thought, then search for the words through which to express it. Don’t find a form of words which pleases you and then fit them around the sense which you want to impart. Needlessly wordy, imprecise, evasive or clichéd English serves only to obscure the meaning of a piece of writing.

Cliché is a cunning foe which faces every writer (and that is in itself a cliché). It becomes increasingly difficult to avoid repeating phrases which have been used countless times before. Political writing is particularly susceptible to lapsing into jargon, and it was this jargon which Orwell detested. I hope that I am not the worst offender in this respect, but I realise that, nevertheless, I am frequently guilty. Indeed, I often surround such jargon with a defensive cloak of inverted commas, as if that somehow absolves me of responsibility for the cliché and shifts it down the line, to writers who overused the phrase first.

Reading Orwell’s indictment of post war writing, it is impossible not to feel that he would have been yet more exercised by degeneration of the English language today. His observations actually predate the introduction of a far more insidious lexicon of neologisms introduced by analysts and consultants. How would he have reacted to the use of the word ’future’ as a verb (which seems to cover any form of speculation or prediction)? Would he have approved of a blogger referring to a ’lack of credible candidate matches’ when clearly he means that no candidate has as yet been chosen? This type of jargon serves little purpose other than to dance around clarity. It envelops its reader in fog.

Although Orwell is most commonly claimed by the political left, could he have stomached the vocabulary of ’human rights’ which ’progressives’ (self described) rely upon in order to trump any argument? The ’human right’, so invoked, is rarely specified and even less frequently defined. It is merely introduced into the debate in an attempt to dodge the tiresome process of explaining logically why one’s contention is correct and why one's opponent is wrong. Rather than Caitriona Ruane explain why testing children academically at the age of eleven is a bad system, she tells us that it is an abuse of ’human rights’ to examine a child at that age. This type of laziness happens again and again.

Of course I am predisposed to believe so, but I can’t help but suspect that Orwell would have found more to deplore in the doctrinaire type of nationalist writing and thinking, than in arguments made by brands of unionism which are built on civic principles. Indeed he wrote another savage essay on the topic of nationalism, which he interpreted in its broadest sense, as ideological chauvinism of any kind. With its roots in romantic nineteenth century visions of nationhood, with its sweeping generalisations about the mood, temperament and morals of entire groups of people, very frequently traditional nationalist argument is evasive and imprecise.

Rather than taking words at face value, nationalists who visit this website often try and mine them for all sorts of imagined hidden meaning. I can’t really consider myself Irish, for instance, because I don’t talk about a set of things which the nationalist understands as Irish. Therefore I only identify myself as Irish as a guise. Rather than explain itself properly, nationalism likes to contend, like a stroppy teenager, that we just don’t ‘get it’, unless we succumb to its conclusions. It likes to present itself in terms of feelings or emotions which non nationalists simply can’t comprehend. Orwell’s essay observes of Celtic nationalism.

“The Celt is supposed to be spiritually superior to the Saxon--simpler, more creative, less vulgar, less snobbish, etc.--but the usual power hunger is there under the surface.”

Ten minutes inspecting the comments’ zones of Slugger O’Toole, or perusing Scots’ nationalist remarks left beneath stories on ’The Scotsman’ website, confirms that this observation is not yet redundant. From an entry point of the most seemingly innocuous story one can explore tortuous labyrinths of Anglophobia, normally expressed through the media of 150 word potted histories, encompassing anything from 100 years to 1000. Each is vaguer, less qualified, less buttressed by evidence and more sweeping than the last. Would Orwell have enjoyed reading Brian Feeney, and the prose he constructs from a tool-bag of stock phrases? Should he have read the Good Friday Agreement, would he have invested it with all manner of perceived meaning, not clearly set out in the text?

And yet I am aware that I should avoid attempts anachronistically to co-opt Orwell to one side or the other of modern debates. It was the certainties of dogma, the habit of thinking in absolutes which tends to predominate within ideologies of any kind, to which he was strenuously opposed. Where writing was reasoned and clear, he would have applauded it, where it was evasive and slovenly he would have deplored it, whatever the contents of its underlying argument. Because it was Orwell’s belief that clear writing DEMANDED clear thinking, and that where writing was precise, necessarily its message would be rigorously thought out. Conversely, if an idea was invidious then it could not bear the scrutiny of meticulous prose and it would demand all manner of avoidance, fudge and equivocation from its proponent.

It is easy, infused with modern sensibilities, to read George Orwell’s essay on politics and language and conclude that he was some manner of pedant, whose facility with grammar and syntax allowed him to dismiss, with high handed disdain, the writings of those who were less talented. But that would be to distort his arguments grossly. Indeed Orwell explicitly states that he is not a proponent of standard English and believes that grammar and syntax are ‘of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear’. Additionally, he is quite aware that a spoken and written language is a living and changing thing.

Orwell might be scrupulous as regards the English language, but it is his love for words and his faith in their integrity which causes him to be so demanding. He believes that if the language is used properly, precisely, exactly that it will guard against the worst excesses of bad political thought. Although it is a tenet which can subject the self-scrutinising writer to all manner of disappointment, upholding it should at least be an aspiration.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Tory Unionists?

This article first appeared in the March edition of 'Fortnight' magazine. Clearly some of the material about names and so on has been overtaken by events. The title was added by the magazine.

A Conservative and Ulster Unionist joint committee was formed in January, its purpose to “bring forward proposals on manifesto commitments, branding of joint candidates and candidate selection procedures”. After David Cameron imparted an almost euphoric sense of optimism upon the UUP conference, the committee’s first meeting represented a start to the hard, practical work required to forge a political alliance which will engage in national politics, but also reflect in its policies the regional peculiarities of Northern Ireland.

The new force’s first electoral outing will be May’s European poll, when MEP Jim Nicholson seeks re-election. Marion Little, Conservative ‘Senior Battleground Director’, a woman whose expertise helped Boris Johnson to the London mayoralty, was in attendance as the committee met for the first time. It will be professional and seasoned campaigning experience such as hers which a fully committed Tory HQ intends to bring to Northern Irish politics. Nicholson will be the initial Ulster Unionist beneficiary.

Although scepticism within the UUP over striking a deal with Conservatives has been widely reported (Chris McGimpsey, for instance, has recorded his objections in Fortnight), overwhelmingly the sense is that the parties’ values and agendas are compatible. Even the left of the UUP must concede that Cameron’s vision of ‘progressive ends by conservative means’ offers an attractive alternative to an increasingly rudderless Labour party. Setting aside partisan political tribalism, it is hard to sustain the argument that Conservative aspirations to repair society’s fabric form a less socially aware programme than that of a government which attempted to raise taxes for the lowest earners and is persistently on the wrong side of the debate as regards civil liberties.

There do remain, however, difficult adjustments to be made in order to marry two separate organisations, with two subtly different political cultures, into a single competitive electoral entity. One of the preliminary hurdles which must be cleared will be naming the new force.

Although it is primarily an issue of optics, the movement’s name is a tricky, sensitive matter to resolve. The Conservatives favour something along the lines of ‘Northern Ireland Conservative and Unionist Party’ (although they are flexible about the ordering of words), whereas many UUP members are reluctant to allow the word ‘Ulster’ to be dropped. The first formulation is certainly more accurate geographically and perhaps it would allow for more emphasis on the civic, inclusive nature of the unionism which candidates will espouse. On the other hand, continuity between the Ulster Unionist corporate identity, its history and political culture, and the new electoral entity needs to be clear. It currently seems likely that the UUP might have to move out of its comfort zone with the name and ensure clarity by other means.

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

Perhaps the stiffest test which the entity will face lies in husbanding its response to intra-unionist bickering and in particular brickbats which will be thrown its way by the DUP during the election campaign. The Democratic Unionists, threatened on one flank by Cameron and Empey’s pan-UK unionism, and on the other by Jim Allister and his Traditional Unionist Voice, will be engaged in fevered attempts to ‘out-Prod’ their rival parties. The Conservative / UUP force’s unionism is clearly demonstrated by commitment to the United Kingdom and its politics. It is not in question and it will certainly not be enhanced by sectarian or community posturing. Anything which might be so interpreted must be scrupulously avoided.

Although immediate success is by no means assured, both Cameron and Empey have emphasised that the Conservative / UUP project is for the long term. By advancing a coherent intellectual case the new alliance can demarcate a space for itself within Northern Ireland’s politics.

As opposed to the ‘Ourselves Alone’ unionism offered by the DUP the new force’s unionism must emphasise determination to play a full role in the politics of the nation. It must demonstrate that it represents unionism which extends to participation and contribution; offering action rather than mere words. It must show its philosophy to be unionism which consistently promotes the advantages of Union to all the people of the Kingdom, without prejudice to their ethno-religious background or perceived identity.

That is the message candidates and canvassers must hammer home over the coming years. The new political movement is about the United Kingdom and Britishness, rather than just Ulster. And its vision of the UK and Britishness is one which includes a diversity of cultures and identities.

Conservative government would derail the Sinn Féin gravy train

I was rather preoccupied, last night, with cradling my head in my hands, gritting my teeth and rocking back and forth in despair. Therefore I did not inspect, until this morning, the contents of a press release issued on behalf of Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, Owen Paterson.

Although I am coming rather late to the story, and it is being discussed elsewhere, it is nevertheless worth a brief mention. The meat of Paterson’s statement is as follows:

“Should the Conservatives win a majority at the next election, one of their first priorities would be to restore the integrity of Parliament. I think that it is inconceivable that incoming Conservative MPs would vote to continue paying millions of pounds of public money to elected members who do not take their seats.”

I believe this represents reiteration of current policy rather than anything brand new, but it deserves to be restated given the controversy about MPs expenses and in particular revelations that Sinn Féin is claiming half a million pounds in expenses despite refusing to sit in Parliament. Paterson continues,

"The issue of paying allowances to elected members of parliament who do not take their seats is not part of the Good Friday and St Andrews agreements. The issue was raised by Sinn Féin in 1997 with the then Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, who refused permission on grounds that the House of Commons did not permit what she described as 'associate membership'.”

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Cissokho knows the score

You know how sometimes you just instantly decide that you like someone? This is Aly Cissokho, FC Porto fullback, displaying his knowledge of recent Premier League results at Old Trafford. The twenty one year old French-Senegalese player is said to favour another team in the north west of England.

Myth, half truth and unintended consequences in Kosovo.

The turbulent history of the Balkans is sustained by myth and counter myth. Elision and half truth mark different interpretations of recent events, never mind proto-national narratives, which often delve deep into the medieval past and beyond.

I am currently reading Noel Malcolm’s ‘Short History of Kosovo’. Although the writer is heavily predisposed towards an Albanian understanding of the province’s story, he is prepared, at least, to test nationalist shibboleths on either side of the Serb / Albanian divide.

Malcolm assures us from the outset that he does not believe that prior habitation by antecedents comprises sufficient evidence to sustain current political claims to a territory. Given that he is correct in this contention, he invests surprising energy in bolstering his argument that Albanians are not recent arrivals in the Balkan region.

Although the author deconstructs one side’s myths with greater vigour, and although he requires his deconstructions to bear more weight than they deserve, either because he loads his narrative with counter-speculation or because he builds countermanding nationalist interpretations in their place, nevertheless, he writes beautifully. He also understands that much ‘national memory’ was cobbled together systemically by nineteenth century nationalists.

It is important that current territorial claims on Kosovo shouldn’t be based on romantic narrative, spun with premeditated intent, from diverse threads of folklore and legend, by literary nationalism. It is worth knowing that the Battle of Kosovo Polje did not precipitate an immediate unravelling of the medieval Serb state. And of course, reminding modern Serbs and Albanians that their antecedents did not neatly line up along opposite sides of an Ottoman Islamic / Serb Orthodox divide is beneficial.

It is also imperative that more recent myths about the Serbian province are interrogated and to this end Carl Thomson sets out with clarity some of the chief fallacies which have been propagated since the 1990s about Kosovo and in particular Nato’s intervention there.

Thomson’s analysis is particularly heartening, because it comes from a Conservative perspective, yet roundly rejects the neo-Con, interventionist doctrines which could be detected within the party, even as recently as last year, when war erupted in Georgia. Indeed he is prepared to trace the roots of that conflict, and others, to unfortunate parameters established in Kosovo.

A taste for unilateralism; willingness to operate outside the remit of international law and without sanction from the United Nations; a tendency to pursue wider geo-political aims whilst massaging the truth in order to bolster a case for military action. Each of these traits was to re-emerge conspicuously in the allies' prosecution of the Iraq War.

An apparent willingness to underwrite unilateral declarations of independence, issued by ethno-nationalist separatists, had its own baleful consequences and continues to threaten to reignite various ‘frozen conflicts’.

Kosovo is an example of conservative apprehension of ‘unintended consequences’ being thoroughly vindicated. The principle that a state’s territorial borders should be sacrosanct, unless determined otherwise by international law, has been gravely weakened. Any requirement for international consensus has been sacrificed to liberal interventionism and Thomson is right to contend that the Conservative party’s reaction should be to oppose that development and seek to reinforce previous legal norms.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

SDLP's economy 'discussion document'. Worth doing what it says on the tin?

The SDLP does not agree with Peter Robinson’s assessment that the Programme for Government remains applicable, no matter how economic conditions might change. The party has published a discussion document (PDF) which it claims would deliver an extra £400 million with which to tackle recession in Northern Ireland.

I must confess that I do not have the stomach tonight to delve into detail contained within the report’s 65 pages. And I’m sure there will be latitude for other parties to dispute the SDLP’s sums. Casting an eye over the summary of bullet points, however, it is clear that the party has at least been considering how a PfG, altered to take into account economic difficulties, might look.

There is also some evidence that Mark Durkan’s party recognises that expenditure must be cut, certainly if money is to be found to fund other spending priorities. The document seeks a moratorium on civil service recruitment and proposes freezing recruitment and promotion within the higher grades. That represents at least an acknowledgment of the need to address the burden of our bloated public sector.

Sports fans might ruefully wonder why the SDLP did not throw its weight behind the proposals for a multi-purpose stadium in Belfast earlier. Its report shows signs that the realisation is dawning, within the party, that a city centre venue would offer by far the most comprehensive economic benefits to Northern Ireland. Opponents of the Maze stadium site were making these arguments a number of years ago. The NITHC land which is suggested here as a suitable place to construct an arena has not, to my knowledge, been widely considered before.

Jim Nicholson suggests that the SDLP’s document is ‘only a start’ as regards filling the ’black hole in Northern Ireland’s budget’. If spending needs to be cut out of necessity, how can the saved money, which did not exist in the first place, be diverted into a £400 million stimulus package?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the answer were contained somewhere within the text? If it is, perhaps a helpful, and tenacious, reader might like to point it out.

Otherwise this report should be welcomed, because it attempts to deliver savings without inflicting unnecessary pain. And it makes an innovative suggestion to site the national stadium in a new city centre location, which deserves consideration. What are the chances that certain DUP representatives will be more preoccupied with the proposal to open bookmakers on a Sunday?

Robbo not amongst the chastened. He prefers to let flail.

Even Jacqui Smith had enough decency to appear chastened on this morning’s Today programme, as she attempted to explain away her expense claims. Though clearly she still believes her worst sin is failing to account for a tenner invested in blue movies, rather than spending the nation's taxes on furniture for her family's house. Gordon Brown may be taking a second home allowance, despite being housed in the most famous residence in the country, courtesy of the public purse, but at least he has made some placatory noises about scrapping the payment which he currently pockets. This contrite mood has clearly not yet reached Northern Ireland, where the First Minister reacted to suggestions that his family are receiving extraordinary quantities of taxpayers’ cash, with an aggressive rant which targeted the Conservative and Ulster Unionist parties.

Naturally Tory and UUP representatives were quick to deny disseminating a story that was carried, over the weekend, in two of the most popular tabloids. Whichever source alerted national newspapers to the extent that public money sustains the Robinson clan, it was not responsible for filling out their expense claim forms, nor did it encourage them to employ their children.

Certainly Ulster Unionist deputy leader Danny Kennedy did distribute a press release (according to his party website) which expressed concern at the level of funding received by double jobbing MP / MLAs, of whom the Robinsons are two conspicuous examples. The DUP responded by releasing a note to the media containing a rather amorphous reference to ‘legal advice’, which it was supposedly seeking, relating to so-called ‘inaccuracies’ in the UUP statement. Local media chose not to pursue a story about Democratic Unionist expense claims. The News of the World and Daily Mail were not so easily dissuaded.

Kennedy’s initial piece, which was incomparable in tone to the ‘swish family Robinson’ tabloidese which so offended the First Minister, raised important questions about the enervating effects on democracy of subsidising twice, those with double mandates. Although, to a degree, it is a symptom of their success, MLAs who also represent their constituencies in Parliament enjoy enormous advantages in terms of staffing and funding, in comparison with single mandated Assembly colleagues. Whilst the representative might be thinly spread, in terms of appearing in two separate chambers, he or she nevertheless enjoys an electoral advantage by claiming enough finance to maintain a conspicuous constituency presence. Danny Kennedy was highlighting an issue of public interest, and the DUP’s ham-fisted attempt to stifle debate is typical of the party’s authoritarian approach.

And a scene which also epitomised the DUP and its leader, unfolded in Stormont’s Great Hall yesterday afternoon. White lipped with anger, Peter Robinson, whose temper clearly was not improved by questions about his expenses, harangued BBC political correspondent, Martina Purdy, for having the temerity to ask whether perhaps the programme for government might need to be reappraised. Especially given the fact that, you know, it was based on projections of sustained growth in the economy. Not that the First Minister spat back, with his disdain, irrefutable evidence that the sums added up. Rather his contemptuous barrage was bundled with the meaningless platitude that the PfG had prioritised the economy! It was a pathetic outburst which would have shamed any politician, regardless of their position. ‘Ignorant as sin’ is the colloquialism which most readily sprang to mind.

Of course, whilst the DUP can browbeat the Northern Irish media and bully Martina Purdy, the national press are not so easily cajoled. The First Minister is badly out of step with public opinion if he thinks he can tritely dismiss queries about monies which he and his wife so eagerly claim. The public want to know why the MPs are banking two sets of the same allowance for one apartment. They are curious how the couple can sustain three expensive homes and decorate them in a style which would be considered lavish by a Bolivian drug lord, when they are both supposed to be servants of the state. The DUP is accustomed to meeting political challenges with flailing aggression; perhaps in this instance controlled humility would be more appropriate.

Twenty questions

I'm subject of the latest 'twenty questions to a fellow blogger' feature on the 'Mars Hill' blog. You can read my answers here.

Monday, 6 April 2009

Former ambassador fears Georgia isolated by its leaders

‘Three Thousand Versts’ has previously touched upon a new willingness within Georgia to question its government’s military adventurism in South Ossetia. The Caucasian state’s last ambassador to Moscow has been one high profile critic of President Saakashvili’s regime and its belligerent attitude towards Russia. In an article on Open Democracy, Ambassador Kitsmarishvili argues that Tbilisi should follow Barack Obama’s example and seek to ‘reset’ its relations with the Kremlin.

The pertinent question for Georgians is whether their government will eventually replicate the new trend toward diplomacy emanating from the White House. If it does not, the popular clamour against Saakashvili will surely continue to grow. Otherwise Georgia risks becoming increasingly isolated, as the international community draws the conclusion that its authorities ‘prefer the language of force, pressure and confrontation between the superpowers’.

With bilateralism and diplomacy becoming the preferred means by which their western allies pursue international relations, there is real danger that states like Georgia and Ukraine will appear increasingly out of step. It is particularly important that the former demonstrates its commitment to developing a framework which will avoid further conflict in the Caucasus region. To this end it is necessary to engage with Moscow.

Kistmarishvili suggests that Georgia’s civil society is increasingly at odds with Saakashvili’s government. It is clear that he sees progress being made, only when international participants, the diplomatic community and civil representatives take the lead, rather than the current leadership. There is a suggestion that there could be conflict within the country should its electorate not be given a chance to reject Saakashvili and his regime.

Double helpings for the Robinsons

Much attention in Northern Ireland has focused on the degree to which Sinn Féin representatives have had their snouts stuck in the Westminster trough, despite their ‘principled’ abstention from Parliament. Justifiably so. Though Shinner expense claims hardly reveal anything we could not otherwise reasonably have deduced. Republicans’ objection to British sovereignty in Ireland has rarely impeded a sense of entitlement to squeeze every Great British pound from the hated Exchequer.

Not that DUP attitudes are strikingly dissimilar, albeit that their starting point is somewhat different. The overweening sense of entitlement is still a defining characteristic.

Hence the Daily Mail’s report that Robinsons Iris and Peter are costing the taxpayer almost £600,000 per year.

The double, triple, quadruple jobbery of Democratic Unionist politicians is well worn territory. Clearly the people of Northern Ireland are getting short-changed by their representatives, particularly at Westminster, with the locus of the ‘ourselves alone’ coalition lying well to the north and west.

But Mr and Mrs Robinson also claim a double helping from the controversial second homes allowance, despite living together as a married couple.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Brown won't go the country until he's forced to

Inevitably on any occasion that our creaking, aging government narrows the Conservatives’ lead in the opinion polls, speculation about an early election follows. Gordon Brown has moved quickly to scotch suggestions that 2009 might see him go to the country. The Prime Minister is probably realistic enough to appreciate that any ‘bounce’ offered by his preening G20 performance will be short lived when the summit’s purportedly world changing effects are less than discernible.

When the Chancellor of the Exchequer delivers his budget statement later this month he will be forced to admit that he failed to anticipate how sharply the economic downturn would effect Britain. Yet his predecessor fails to acknowledge his role in precipitating the crisis and has not admitted that his policies have exacerbated its effects in the United Kingdom. Indeed he continues to present himself as the only man qualified to guide this country through recession.

Gordon Brown has shown pathological reluctance to allow the people of Britain their say on his leadership. Without a commanding poll lead he will not call an election until he is constitutionally obliged to do so.

Friday, 3 April 2009

Less defensible to divide by religion than by academic ability

Historians have often speculated that Northern Ireland’s history might have been less troubled had Stormont’s first Education Minister been able to realise his vision of an integrated education system. Under enormous pressure from Catholic and Protestant clerics, Lord Londonderry’s 1923 Education Act was amended beyond recognition. The Minister retired from politics here in disillusionment and an early opportunity to draw some of the sectarianism from society was lost.

Eamon McCann revisits
those events in his Belfast Telegraph column and laments the lack of any current impetus towards integrated schooling in Northern Ireland. Whilst current Education Minister, Caitriona Ruane, deplores separating children using academic criteria, she is supportive of the religious division and indeed she actively encourages further partition of pupils along community lines by championing separate Irish language schools.

In truth the situation in education is merely one of the baleful consequences of political carve-up between Sinn Féin and its DUP ally. The two parties are content to horse trade their respective communities’ sectional interests and call the process government. Commitments to integrate housing as well as education, which were outlined in the Belfast Agreement, have now been forgotten. Indeed the Shared Future policy document was dropped in the early days of DUP/SF coalition.

It would certainly be wrong to force an integrated education system on children and parents. The argument which I advanced in a previous article (linked above) still stands:

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

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

Ironically the divide which serves no educational purpose is not the divide which most concerns Ruane.

No Damned film for Northern Ireland cinema goers

I enjoyed David Peace’s novel ‘The Damned United’ tremendously. Indeed I was so enthusiastic that I indulged in wild hyperbole on this weblog, likening it to Hamlet, with Brian Clough cast as the prince and Elland Road substituted for Elsinore.

Naturally I’ve been looking forward to the release of a film, based on the novel. But today, after searching local cinema websites for a showing this evening, I learned that in Northern Ireland the movie is not yet available. The rest of the UK can watch the film, but its distributors have decided to deny us the pleasure.

Now, I understand fully that demand to watch Michael Sheen play Clough has exceeded expectation. However with 200 prints available you might expect that one could have found its way to Belfast, given that it is a regional capital.

Perhaps Monica McWilliams could graft something for poor deprived cinema goers on to the recommendations for a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights.

Local Conservatives still enthused by UU joint force

‘The Conservative and Unionist baby is healthy and growing’, reports Seymour Major, after Northern Ireland Conservatives met to discuss recent UCUNF developments. It is good to hear that enthusiasm amongst local Tories remains high, even if the choice of metaphor conjures a rather surreal image.

Seymour alludes to agreement being struck as regards logos and branding. When these details have been officially established then joint campaigning can begin in earnest. It is my understanding that a tagline for the election campaign is also close to being unveiled.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Medvedev - Obama meeting likely to be more significant than anything agreed by G20

Overwhelming attention, this week, has been focused on the G20 summit and the argument for international fiscal stimulus. Although Gordon Brown might like us to believe that the resultant communiqué will offer a blueprint capable of saving the world, ‘sherpas’ and officials are even now expending enormous intellectual resources seeking a form of words ambiguous enough to satisfy widely diverging views of the financial crisis. These meetings may represent impressive showcases of draftsmanship by world political elites, but contending domestic agendas dictate that their planet changing potential is grossly exaggerated. Remember Gleneagles, when Tony Blair oversaw an end to African poverty?

That is not to say that important developments are not possible when international political power is suddenly concentrated in one venue. It is just that real progress is unlikely to be reflected in the nuances of an agreed text and it is not necessarily framed by the official agenda of the summit. Arguably the most significant talks which will take place this week occurred yesterday, when the new President of the United States met the relatively new President of Russia. Barack Obama had already exchanged enough honeyed words with Gordon Brown to make even the stoutest stomach a little queasy, but he had not by any means exhausted his reservoir. Dmitry Medvedev was subject to similar effusion.

The relationship between British Prime Ministers and American Presidents is frequently characterised by ostentatious friendship and gushing praise. It might be expected, that between Russian and US heads of state, there would be a more wary approach. Still, as a Guardian editorial observes, warm words are not unprecedented and they do not always correspond with an improvement in the two countries’ working relations. Obama has, however, given every indication that his charm offensive could be accompanied by genuine determination to treat Russia as a respected partner.

By showing willingness to negotiate on missile defence the US President is symbolically rowing back from the carping unilateralism which so blighted George Bush’s relationship with VV Putin. The perception in Russia is that it has not been consulted or respected as an important member of the international community. It is difficult to emphasise enough the extent to which the resultant resentment nurtures a vicious circle which has developed between Moscow and the west.

The world’s economic woes have displayed graphically that Russia is integrated into the global economy and its political life is animated by similar concerns to those which exist elsewhere. Acknowledging that Moscow has legitimate interests, which do not represent a Machiavellian plan for world dominance, is an important step towards creating partnership. The Guardian article refers to a ‘distorting prism of former Soviet satellite states’. It is indeed necessary to take a calm step back from this prism, rather than interpreting the world’s largest state always through its distorting lens. The initial signs are that Obama understands that necessity.

Warren and peace - good night at Windsor as Feeney keeps us in the hunt

Warren Feeney’s glancing header helped Northern Ireland to a fourth consecutive World Cup victory at Windsor Park last night. We remain top of the group and although, realistically, an unlikely sequence of results would be required, there is still an outside chance that Nigel Worthington and his team could be competing in South Africa come summer 2010.

After Saturday’s high tempo display, this was a rather low key performance from Northern Ireland. In the first half the Slovenes formed marginally the better side. They are a physically imposing outfit and with sloppy Irish passing in midfield, Slovenia found it relatively straightforward to outmuscle Healy and Feeney, who were in receipt of a constant supply of speculative balls along the channels.

The second half saw substantial improvement. Although McCann remained a little wasteful in possession and Davis was out of sorts on the left flank, Northern Ireland’s distribution became sharper. Sammy Clingan in particular deserves credit, because he gradually established an important ascendancy in central areas. Slovenia remained a threat with West Brom’s Robert Koren forcing Taylor to tip a thundering shot against the bar. However it was Clingan who provided the decisive contribution, arcing a teasing cross towards the near post which Feeney’s subtle header duly converted.

Off the field, the supporters’ conduct was a much needed fillip after Saturday’s tension. I abandoned my usual spot in the West Stand and was seated a few yards from boisterous but friendly Slovenia supporters. There was the usual banter, shirt-swapping and songs. All the things which football should be about and which are usually associated with Northern Ireland internationals. A minute’s silence marking the tragic death of 19 supporters in the Ivory Coast was impeccably observed.

Normally none of these things would draw comment and I would take them for granted. However, after the violence and ill feeling which accompanied the Poland encounter, there was something purgative about seeing things return to normal. Personally I’m glad that another match took place so soon, in order that football could reassert its primacy.

The game last night was a tonic for Northern Ireland and it opens up some exciting possibilities over the next six months.

N.b. How good does the table look? Thanks to Porter from OWC for locating it.