Sunday, 31 May 2009

Help Northern Ireland, and unionism, to embark on a new path on Thursday.

Friday, 29 May 2009

Cleaning up Westminster by recruiting MPs from I'm a Celebrity. Perhaps the stupidest idea ever?

I appreciate that Joanna Lumley made an effective campaigner and offered the Ghurkhas a recognisable public face. However, on the strength of one semi-relevant precedent, I cannot quite understand why the prevailing mood seems to be that our discredited MPs should be removed at one stroke and replaced by a cohort of celebrities.

Radio 4’s ’Any Questions’ panel included Esther Rantzen, whom the nation seems to have decided would make an excellent representative at Westminster, as adept at ferreting out misuses of public money as her extensive team of researchers proved at finding tragic human interest stories for the audience to coo over on ‘That‘s Life‘. Apparently she is still deciding whether she should stand at the next general election, prompted by a popular clamour. ‘Don’t bother’ shouted one discerning audience member.

Whilst there is nothing inherently wrong in pursuing fame and fortune on television, is someone who has taken that path necessarily going to be less venal that the men and women who have chosen politics as their profession? Have we not had enough idiot MPs' publicity stunts without recruiting from the ranks of I'm a Celebrity - Get Me Out of Here?

Periodically we have a public outcry about salaries at the BBC for goodness’ sake. Now television personalities are paragons of virtue and greed is the preserve of those who are drawn to stand for public office.

I don’t know whether Esther Rantzen lives a frugal life or not, but I’m willing to bet that she has been well paid throughout her career and is not a stranger to having things paid for which you and I are accustomed to financing ourselves.

And incidentally, I’m becoming ….. just a little tired of every political debate on TV or radio becoming mired in questions about expenses. Public anger might be justifiable, although let’s face it, there are other, even more lamentable things in the world on which to vent one’s fury, but there is more than one live issue in today’s politics, however much the media would like to insist otherwise.

By all means let’s have some changes for the better and indeed let us choose a new crop of politicians at the polls, but can we perhaps consider some other matters as well?

Emerson on Northern Ireland's 'community' problem

I normally try to avoid simply quoting lumps of articles without at least commenting upon their contents. However Newton Emerson’s Irish News column is so good on the topic of community (in the aftermath of the McDaid murder) that I will let the requisite sections speak for themselves albeit with a little unobtrusive emboldening. The author is considering DUP representative Adrian McQuillan's initially equivocal reaction to the murder.

We are so inured to the term “community” that we no longer marvel at its many uses and misuses. In this case, Mr McQuillan conjures up a “loyalist community” which is enough of a corporate entity to react yet not enough of a corporate entity to bear responsibility for its actions. How does that work, exactly? How is Mr McQuillan able to read this mysteriously amorphous hive-mind?

Our readiness to invoke a concept like “community” when a mob beats a man to death is disgusting. It might help to recalibrate Northern Ireland’s moral compass if everyone paused to ponder this word every time they heard or casually used it.

The “loyalist community” is represented at Stormont by PUP leader Dawn Purvis, who issued her own condemnation of the murder. Well, sort of. In fact Ms Purvis told �the assembly that sectarianism is “a deadly virus which affects the whole community”.

Here we have another use of the term “community” to imply something quite remarkable, namely that everyone in Northern Ireland suffers from an externally imposed affliction which can randomly manifest itself as a homicidal rampage.

Ms Purvis inherited this metaphysical perspective from her predecessor, the late David Ervine, who used it to great effect. His fashionable nonsense about shadowy ruling class forces exploiting salt of the earth working class types went down a treat with republican pseudo-intellectuals and New Labour idiots.

However, Mr Ervine’s class-war claptrap amounts to nothing more than Mr McQuillan’s equivocation in a suit. It is just another transfer of responsibility to an abstraction, in this case the “illness” of sectarianism.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Don't be duped again! (4) - either Diane Dodds is stupid, or she thinks you are!

On Monday morning the Conservatives and Unionists European manifesto was launched. Based on the national Conservative party manifesto, it outlined a vision of the United Kingdom’s place within a cooperative, outward looking European Union, based on common values and a common market. I observed that in standing on a coherent, relevant platform, based on careful consideration of Britain’s relationship with European institutions, Jim Nicholson was putting faith in the Northern Ireland electorate’s political maturity. The document offered a glimpse of what politics here could become.

Today the DUP has released its manifesto (PDF). Predictably it relies upon the Northern Ireland electorate’s political credulity.

There’s an awful lot of revisionist post 1998 history. There’s the usual carping about ‘unionism topping the poll’. There are four pages about the devolution of policing and justice! And just when you'd given up hope, the first mention of European politics comes on page 16. Indeed the DUP devotes one double page spread to issues pertinent to this election.

In the nugatory European section of its ..... European manifesto.... it pledges to oppose the Lisbon Treaty and support a UK wide referendum, oppose the loss of national vetoes and oppose common policies on immigration, defence and foreign policy. All of which are matters that the British government, rather than 1 independent, unattached MEP amongst 736, must resist. Indeed it is the Conservative government that will put in place legislation for a referendum, should it remain unratified by the time it comes to power.

To add to the manifesto’s rather surreal quality, Dodds promises to return control of social policy to Westminster, reduce global poverty and build improved relationships with China and India. So the Northern Irish public is expected to believe that Diane’s isolated, yapping skirl will realise a revitalisation of national sovereignty and charm India and China. Although, naturally, it would be a U-Turn were she actually to join any EU group which visits India and China, should she be elected, given the abuse her party heaped upon Jim Nicholson for participating in European trade delegations to the US and Australia.

I doubt too whether Diane Dodds (Double D?) will realise her professed ambition to feed and provision the world. Does she propose to divert the Robinson’s £30,000 plus food bill to more worthy recipients?

So, to summarise, here we have, seeking your vote for the European Parliament, a party which has clearly devoted almost no effort to developing its European programme. We additionally have a DUP candidate who treats the electorate as if it is stupid. And, aptly enough, we have a manifesto which prioritises gloss over substance.

This document's purpose is to persuade you to cast a vote for a European candidate who aspires to sit in the European Parliament and yet it musters up only two pages which even nominally address what she might do if she gets there - and none of that bears any relation to reality!

NIHRC - as a good teacher says, 'always read the question'. No Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland under Tories.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland recently intimated that no Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, based on the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission’s advice, is likely to be drafted. David Cameron has reiterated his party’s commitment not to advance rights legislation specifically for this part of the United Kingdom. Instead he foresees any special provision being included in a subsection of a UK wide bill, which the Conservatives will draft during their first term in government. The problems with the NIHRC’s recommendations are clear. The Commission did not stick to its remit and it made an enormous and undeliverable set of proposals. Indeed, under Monica McWilliams chairmanship, and despite the best intentions of its unionist members, the body has assumed the worst characteristics of Quango-tude. It has become an autonomous pressure group, advancing its own agenda with scant regard for elected political opinion, and far too mindful of a host of unelected NGOs.

Examine, for instance, the statement through which the commission responded to David Cameron’s rejection of a specific Human Rights bill for Northern Ireland.

“We were given our mandate under the terms of the Belfast Agreement and have adhered to that mandate in full. The Agreement was quite clear, that additional rights reflecting our particular circumstances, taken together with the European Convention on Human Rights, should constitute a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. If the Conservative Party wishes to deviate from the content of the Agreement that is a matter for them.”

Leaving aside the attack on a political party, it is an instructive exercise to examine the specific provision, contained in the Belfast Agreement, which set up the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. It undertook to establish a body,

“to consult and to advise on the scope for defining, in Westminster legislation, rights supplementary to those in the European Convention on Human Rights, to reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland.”

There is a vast chasm dividing the meaning of ‘to consult and to advise on the scope’ and clearly stating that a Bill of Rights ‘should be constituted’. ‘Supplementary to those in the European Convention on Human Rights’ patently means something very different from ‘together with the European Convention on Human Rights’. That the NIHRC can provide such a loose interpretation of the very document through which it was established tells us all we need to know about its impartiality. Even by the commission’s own construction, after the European Convention on Human Rights was subsumed into British law, courtesy of the UK wide Human Rights Act, its task became even clearer. Define rights ‘reflecting our particular circumstances’.

The British government at no point undertook to enact a Bill of Rights, even if the NIHRC had stuck to the criteria which the Belfast Agreement outlined. There might have been a weighty moral argument in its favour if it had, but instead it blithely ignored ‘particular circumstances’ and produced a document which contained badly drafted provisions on contested social policy, applicable to most jurisdictions throughout the world, never mind particular to Northern Ireland! Ironically there were circumstances peculiar to Northern Ireland which the commission might have examined, as O’Neill observes.

“The right to live free from paramilitary influence, or women's reproductive rights are however two areas which do reflect the particular circumstances existing in Northern Ireland- the NIHRC should have restricted itself to such topics. If it had, then their present, desperate, backs to the wall, defence wouldn't have been necessary and we might well have been on our way to a more specific and appropriate Bill of Rights in Northern Ireland.”

It is an extremely fair point. The NIHRC was invited to make a case for rights, additional to the European Convention, which are specifically required in Northern Ireland. It instead chose to outline a series of aspirational rights which are pertinent throughout the United Kingdom. Therefore it is only fitting that both main Westminster parties should examine ways to enact any further human rights legislation on a United Kingdom wide basis, with specific provisions to reflect any relevant local circumstances. The argument for social policy to be framed in human rights law is just as relevant on the national stage, and the contention which is its antidote; that parliament should determine policy in legitimate areas of political contention, rather than judges, remains relevant on the national level too.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

West must view Saakashvili's regime with clear eyes as Tbilisi protests gain momentum

Yesterday the Georgian opposition held a 60,000 strong rally to demand that President Saakashvili resign. The culmination of six weeks of protests, the event was timed to coincide with a military parade marking Georgia’s Independence Day. The parade was called off to prevent possible violent clashes.

Following calls for ‘direct action’ by some activists, a large crowd converged on Tbilisi’s main station and tried to block trains. The change in tactics is controversial as some opposition leaders suspect it might give the president the perfect excuse to step up his government’s occasionally brutal suppression of protests.

The clamour for an election to replace Saakashvili has been growing since his military adventurism in South Ossetia last year. The recent ‘coup’ by an army battalion, due to participate in Nato exercises, heightened tension. The opposition claimed, with possible justification, that the so called mutiny had been staged in order to distract from its protests. Saakashvili implied involvement by Russian provocateurs, a manoeuvre characteristic of the president when he faces dissent.

Despite infatuation with the Georgian leader, from many quarters in the United States and Europe, there is a substantial and growing body of evidence which contradicts his supposed democratic credentials. And there have been a few indicators that western leaders might be becoming more circumspect about Saakashvili as the dust from last year’s conflict settles and popular resentment in Georgia grows.

To combat nascent international disillusion, particularly in Washington, the Georgian president has poured resources into polishing his regime’s image in the United States. Neither anti-Russian sentiment, which is easily harnessed in support for Saakishvili, nor slick American propaganda, should blind observers to the unpleasant character of the present regime in Tbilisi.

In the wake of Kevin McDaid's murder the tribal drums should stay silent.

I have struggled, over the past couple of days, to form a response to the ghastly sectarian murder of Kevin McDaid. Initially my feeling was that I would not write about it at all. Condemnation of a brutal and senseless killing should go without saying and theorising on the strength of a tragic event can sometimes lose sight of the individual grief which it has precipitated.

In the aftermath of murder diagnoses of continued sectarianism in Northern Ireland are inevitably accompanied by words like ‘sickness’ and ‘cancer’. Although these descriptions describe the virulence of the hatred which still exists within our society accurately enough, familiarity deadens their impact. The very vocabulary which we use to express our abhorrence has been worn threadbare by repeated violence.

Setting aside the predictable political exploitation of such events and the apportioning of wider blame, which no tragedy experienced by human kind has as yet been terrible enough to abate, the known facts of Mr McDaid’s murder speak eloquently enough. Its senses excited by the sporting triumph of a tribal totem, a drunken mob descended on a housing estate, in broad daylight, and kicked to death in sectarian fury, an innocent man attempting to prevent violence. All other details are incidental.

Whatever the context, the rival tribal symbols, the loathsome history of sectarian tension, and all the other things which might form a background to the killing, in order to evaluate this incident, it is sufficient to know that the perpetrators murdered a man in frenzied hatred, because of what they perceived him to be. Naturally, the root causes of the hatred should be addressed in time, but it is vitally important that in contextualising the killing we do not allow its evil facts to be occluded.

Alongside the disgust which this murder makes me feel, and anger at the perpetrators, I am also desperately ashamed to be part of a society where such things are possible: its tribalism, its capacity for hatred. It nauseates me that, in the wake of this event, it is necessary for the Parades Commission to make a determination on a band parade scheduled to pass close to the dead man’s home on Friday night. Cannot, for one night, the tribal drums be stilled voluntarily, in shame, in reflection and in respect?

Kinahan to replace Burnside

A quick snippet. Antrim Councillor Danny Kinahan will replace David Burnside MLA who announced his intention to quit politics in February. (H/T Ignited)

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Food for constitutional thought.

The Guardian’s ‘A New Politics’ debate has been running for the past week or so, featuring submissions of varying merit and practicability. This morning, pre-empting a speech to be given in Milton Keynes on the topic of constitutional reform, David Cameron outlined, in some detail, the changes his party intends to make in order to shape British politics for the better. Clearly, whilst the paper is seeking to instigate an open dialogue around this subject, a contribution from the man likely to lead the next government carries special weight. Cameron conceivably will have the means to realise the alterations which he advocates in the article, which is divided into four parts for the purposes of Comment is Free.

Many of the themes which he touches upon form familiar territory for the Conservative leader. The idea of distributing power to localities, rather than centralising it. The notion that the United Kingdom should assume responsibility for its own laws and judiciary, rather than allowing a maximalist interpretation of European edicts to copperplate a substantial body of legislation or unduly influence its interpretation by judges. The insistence that social justice is better pursued by empowering communities and encouraging responsibility, rather than by imposing ‘one size fits all’ solutions from the centre. The article’s final instalment talks about the information age complementing “the progressive Conservative philosophy: sceptical about big state power; committed to social responsibility and non-state collective action”.

It is also a wide ranging article and some of its sorties are a little speculative and would sit more easily in a policy document, rather than in a treatise for action being placed before the British public, a year or less before a general election.

Cameron’s localist instinct is sound enough. If communities are to be persuaded to take responsibility, then they must have the means available enabling them to do so. Distributing decision making about schools, policing, housing and health locally, as far as is practicable, is a worthy aspiration. Even the ‘general power of competence’ makes sense, so long as local authorities are clearly accountable and the task of bailing out various failed local initiatives does not repeatedly fall to national government. However I do wonder about the merits of a mooted ‘power of initiative’ which would instigate referendums wherever 5 per cent of the electorate demanded it. If this is to be a serious power then it raises practical problems in terms of costs and implementation. If it is desperately difficult to invoke then there is little value in introducing it in the first place. I appreciate that the expenses scandal has precipitated public disillusion which must be addressed, but introducing widespread populist referenda seems less to me like constitutional conservatism and more like new Labour gimmickry.

For similar reasons I have reservations about the proposal to introduce a fixed term for parliament. There is a strong argument, which Cameron makes well, that the House of Commons has become emasculated in recent times, in favour of the executive. He suggests a range of measures which would restore its historic role and enable it, once again, to make a thorough job of scrutinising legislation and holding the government to account. I applaud the notion that the balance of power should be tilted away from the prime minister, towards MPs. But there is a difference between restoring the best aspects of parliamentary democracy to the House of Commons and depriving the prime minister of a prerogative which he has historically possessed. There should be compelling evidence adduced to demonstrate that stripping the prime minister of this power will contribute to more accountable democracy, before such a move is considered. And the repercussions it would have in a range of possible scenarios, should a government fail to be formed, should a government’s position become untenable, should the country resoundingly lose confidence in a particular parliament, need to be scrupulously evaluated.

In contrast I believe Cameron may have dismissed the issue of a new voting system too lightly in his Guardian piece. He argues that proportional representation is not a good voting system because,

“Instead of voters choosing their government on the basis of the manifestos put before them in an election, party managers would choose a government on the basis of secret backroom deals.”

Which is, so far as it goes, an entirely justifiable contention. Larger, multi-member constituencies would deliver a fractured House of Commons, from which a government would have to be fashioned by agreement between parties. The list system, if it were introduced, would further cloud politics’ transparency. But other voting systems do exist which need not enervate democracy or compromise the two party system. Alternative vote allows the electorate to express its preference in a more nuanced fashion than first past the post, but it prevents the diminution of power associated with proportional representation. Although I believe that Cameron is right to discard PR as an option, he should keep an open mind to a replacement for first past the post which might offer voters more scope to articulate their choices.

If the detail of the proposals which the Conservative leader has laid out can, in a very few instances, be questioned, their instinct cannot. By reacting to the current crisis by committing to genuine movement towards accountability, transparency and participation, Cameron is demonstrating that he is a far more responsive politician than the current prime minister. Indeed he has been skilful enough, in his Guardian article, to illustrate that the progressive conservative principles which he has been communicating during his leadership can be extrapolated to offer the type of political change for which there is such public hunger. A message of decentralisation and empowerment does not need to be adapted to the challenges which have been publicised over the past number of weeks. Its precepts already offer the transformation which is required.

All of which means that Cameron does not need to cast round for 'radical' ideas to capture the electorate's mood. He need only keep faith in the strength of his existing programme and argue its merits on the basis that it will deliver what the public wants.

Monday, 25 May 2009

Two fewer snouts in the trough? Winterton and Robinson

Sir Nicholas Winterton, the Conservative backbencher, gained notoriety by defending the right of MPs to retain undeclared interests in conjunction with their political work. Unsurprisingly, in the current climate, he has decided to stand down at the next election; a decision which will no doubt cause his party leader little enough distress.

Winterton, you’ll remember, addressed an audience of DUP members back in January, criticising the UUP-Conservative pact for undermining ‘unionist unity’. With his attitude to expenses, it is easy to see how he could be drawn towards a party containing the Swish Family Robinson.

The fewer sitting MPs of Winterton’s ilk that seek re-election, the better it is for the reputation of the House of Commons. And with his ally, Peter Robinson, also likely to step down from Westminster at the next election, at least two of the most notorious snouts could have been withdrawn from the trough.

Hague launches Conservatives and Unionists manifesto, as Nicholson puts faith in Northern Ireland electorate.

I spent a chunk of this Bank Holiday Monday morning at the Waterfront Hall, where former Conservative leader, and current shadow foreign secretary, William Hague, became the latest high profile Tory to speak in support of Jim Nicholson, the Conservatives and Unionists European election candidate. Launching the force’s Northern Ireland manifesto, David Cameron’s ‘deputy in all but name’, gave a polished and persuasive synopsis of the document and branded the current Labour government the ‘worst in recent history‘.

I offered some initial thoughts on the manifesto yesterday evening, and provided a summary of the main Conservative version, which forms its basis, a week ago. O’Neill provides a little more detail and reaction on ‘Unionist Lite’. A PDF version is now available on the ‘Vote for Change’ website.

Although the Conservatives and Unionists arrangement is perfectly calibrated to offer Northern Irish voters something new in European politics, the pact is built for Westminster, and the modalities which are being put in place for June’s poll provide a flavour of what is to come when Gordon Brown is forced to consult the people through a general election. A United Kingdom Conservative manifesto is launched by the mainland party and local versions provide a slant tailored to the various regional organisations.

This is a system which is already in place in Wales and Scotland, but it represents a substantial test as to whether Northern Ireland is ready for ’grown up’, United Kingdom wide politics. The Northern Ireland document draws substantially on the main Conservative manifesto, asking local voters to consider the larger issues of Britain’s involvement in the European Union, as well as local permutations.

Jim Nicholson will of course fight Northern Ireland’s corner at the European Parliament, a task which, amongst the prospective representatives, his experience and influence make him uniquely qualified to perform. But he is also standing on the basis of a substantial prospectus for change in Europe, based on the United Kingdom’s relationship with its institutions. He is relying on local voters being engaged, informed and appreciative of the wider contexts of British and European politics. Above all, the Conservatives and Unionists project puts faith in the electorate’s maturity and its will to tap into broader political currents.

This trust is in stark contrast to the approach which DUP candidate, Diane Dodds, is taking to persuading voters to her cause. On yesterday’s Politics Show she gave an appalling, yapping performance, which attempted to sideline, almost entirely, any consideration of wider issues surrounding the election. With shrill determination she ignored every nuance of the debate to incant repeatedly the discredited DUP refrains, ’smashing Sinn Féin’, ’topping the poll for unionism’. It was reductionist politics at its very worst. And it serves only to nurture support for that which it purports to destroy. At a time when the Conservatives and Unionists are attempting to articulate something bigger, more ambitious, broader, the DUP is repeating a limiting message, from a limited candidate.

There is an element of risk to this strategy, because the Ulster public is accustomed to a much narrower political narrative. It is quite possible that it is not ready to internalise the type of politics which UCUNF is offering. If that is the case, then the force must remain patient, and keep faith, both in the vision it is offering and in Northern Ireland’s voters. Because this type of issue based politics, tethered to commitment to the entire United Kingdom, is the best, most constructive future for unionism.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Conservatives and Unionists to launch Euro manifesto

The Conservatives and Unionists will launch their European election manifesto for Northern Ireland at the Waterfront Hall tomorrow morning. It will offer a local slant on the main Conservative party manifesto for Europe and has as its basis the same pledges and commitments which prospective Conservative MEPs signed, in the presence of their party leader, last Monday in Lancashire.

The ’Vote for Change’ theme is reflected in the Conservatives’ and Unionists’ view of the European Union, which is considered, “too inflexible; too bureaucratic; too out of touch with the spirit of the age“.

“The Conservatives and Unionists offer a modern vision for Europe - one that is firmly in tune with the instincts of the British people.”

The party is committed to pursuing a Union which has a single market of independent but cooperating nation states at its heart. It rejects the federal model favoured by France and Germany, which it believes remains entrenched within the provisions of the Lisbon Treaty. If that treaty is not ratified before a Conservative government takes power at Westminster, it will guarantee a referendum on the repackaged constitution. Furthermore, a requirement for future treaties to be tested against public opinion, by referendum, will be enshrined in legislation.

How real politicians avoid propaganda in schools.

John Redwood has been outlining, on his blog, the nuanced relationship between Parliament and politics. He provides a number of examples, including the following:

“When I am undertaking a school visit, for example, I need to ask the basis of the invitation. If they want me to visit as MP and representative of all my constituents, then my Parliamentary office can organise it for me. I have to remember not to make political remarks. If they want me to talk to students as a Conservative politician, I need to ask that they have invited in people from other parties on other occasions to balance , and to remind the pupils that I am speaking politically. In that case the visit should be arranged by the MP or by a political assistant paid for from party money and is probably only appropriate for six forms.”

A summary of proprieties which rather brought to mind the story about a veritable mob of DUP representatives descending upon Laurelhill Community College in Lisburn, in order to ’educate’ the pupils about citizenship.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Cameron - no pacts and in it for the long term

On Slugger, Turgon has picked up on David Cameron's determination that the Conservatives and Unionists will not stand aside in certain constituencies, in favour of the DUP. In an interview with the News Letter the leader of the opposition stated,

"We're a United Kingdom party. I don't stand aside in Glasgow because it might help the Liberals. I don't stand aside in East London because it might help the Greens.

"This is a UK party and I want everyone in Northern Ireland to have the chance to vote for what I hope will be the next Government of our country."

This position is entirely consistent and entirely necessary. Depriving voters of the ability to vote for pan-UK unionism is no basis on which to contest elections. There are profound differences between the Conservatives and Unionists and their supposed unionist rivals, which must be played out at the ballot box.

Those who have entered into the UCUNF arrangement in the belief that it can be easily severed are not on the same page as the force's leader.

"I'm a very strong believer in the United Kingdom, that it's a family, and that families need things that bring them together and just as I believe the Conservatives can recover in Scotland, so I believe that in Northern Ireland there should be a Conservative United Kingdom alternative.

"I've believed this for many years, many years and yes, I will stick around for the very, very long haul.

Surely an example of the type of positive, unequivocal message which should be put across during an election campaign.

Incidentally, I believe that another erroneous story is likely to be carried in the Sunday World tomorrow, along similar lines to the claims which the paper made last week.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Hostile reactions to Irish Policing Board meeting undermine arguments for Union

I have written before about unionists who adopt a default reaction of hostility towards the Irish language. It is a particularly unconstructive, counterproductive approach, which fosters a feeling, amongst nationalists, that unionism is unreceptive towards any manifestation of culture in Northern Ireland which it perceives as ‘Irish’.

The DUP in particular, but other unionist parties too, are accustomed to presenting any blow to the Irish language as a victory for unionism. Of course, it is not right that the language should always be accorded precedence, or allocated funds, which it does not merit but, whatever the political misuses it has been put to, it is patently ridiculous to subject an aspect of the United Kingdom’s cultural wealth to blanket animosity.

I am sceptical about the need for many of the things to which the various Irish language lobbies aspire and there are other suggestions, made by language enthusiasts, which I would categorically oppose. I am not convinced, for instance, that an Irish Language Act is required, although I would not necessarily oppose one which took the Scottish model as its basis.

I do, however, accept unreservedly Seymour Major’s contention that a recent Policing Board meeting, held in Londonderry, in Irish, was a welcome initiative. The reaction of Jim Allister, Ian Paisley Junior, Jimmy Spratt and others was entirely predictable and, in my opinion, unjustified.

Naturally there is a valid argument that the Irish language should not become a priority of the PSNI, in terms of resources. But we are talking here about a venture which carried a value, in terms of goodwill, that surely outweighed the cost in pounds and pence associated with a single Policing Board meeting.

Of course unionists’ attitudes to the Irish language are frequently shaped by its cooption to the cause of republicanism. And evidently Sinn Féin’s continued abuse of the language for political purposes distorts policy towards it pursued by unionist parties. But the truth is that Gaelige is only useful to republicans, as a political tool, whilst unionists continue to treat it is an affront to their British identity.

The United Kingdom is a state which draws together a multitude of cultures and traditions. That is its strength. The Kingdom’s proponents in Northern Ireland need to demonstrate that they understand the inclusive nature of the Union which they purport to promote and show some generosity towards one of its indigenous languages. Otherwise instinctive reactions to Irish will continue to undermine unionists’ arguments.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Cameron in Ballymena

Earlier I complained that a lack of Wifi prevented me covering Cameron Direct, live from the Braid Centre in Ballymena. Alas there was no mobile phone reception in the building either, so even the tweeting option was not possible. Perhaps the Conservatives and Unionists leader should have conducted the event in my parents’ house, where they do extend to a broadband connection, which I am taking advantage of. Although given that the town hall was full to capacity, a marquee might’ve been required.

Neill Armstrong, one of Ballymena Borough Council’s Ulster Unionist team, and a strong supporter of the Conservative link, introduced Mr Cameron to an audience of nearly two hundred. It appeared, to begin with, that a group of hardcore types was going to dominate proceedings by crying treachery for the entire meeting. But various pre-prepared histories of the troubles could not occlude the genuine concerns of local people, who quizzed Mr Cameron on education, the prospect of an enterprise zone in Northern Ireland, eating disorders, cerebral palsy and the Presbyterian Mutual building society.

The Conservative leader spoke eloquently again about his desire to bring Northern Ireland back into the mainstream of the United Kingdom’s politics. Generally his message was received well by the Ballymena public. When he suggested that, with the constitutional issue settled, politics should focus on business, hospitals, education and so forth, there was a sustained burst of applause. Cameron batted the inevitable ‘UDA brigadier’ question away with a straight bat, he was ‘assured’ that no such incident had occurred.

Turning to victims, prompted by the ubiquitous Willie Frazer, Cameron rejected the notion of equality of victimhood. There should be a distinction, he intimated, between those whose loved ones had died whilst engaged in illegal activity and relatives of innocent people, killed and maimed in terrorist attacks. The Conservative leader also came tantalising close to criticising his predecessors for signing the Anglo Irish Agreement.

To take an hour of questions, unscripted, is an enviable feat of political dexterity. What is entirely clear from Mr Cameron’s second Cameron Direct in the province is that, not only does he intend to become Prime Minister of the whole United Kingdom, he intends to act like he‘s the Prime Minister of the entire United Kingdom. He is prepared to face people throughout the country, regardless of the local niceties, and face their questions, unprepared. It is an admirable approach.

Twittering Cameron Direct from wireless free Braid Centre!

Cameron Direct comes live from Ballymena’s Braid Centre (the town hall in old money) this afternoon. I will be in attendance, all being well, and I had intended to use ‘Cover it Live’ to bring readers a sense of the event, as it happens.

Regrettably, I’m informed that Ballymena Borough Council’s new, state of the art, multi million pound facility is not equipped with broadband, still less wireless broadband! Which is surprising, to say the least, in a modern civic building which opened only recently.

So it looks like the best I can do is refer you to my Twitter feed, which I shall update by text (in the mean time). Hardly the same, but needs must.

    follow me on Twitter

    Cameron plans to end double jobbing by 2011

    Ahead of his visit to Northern Ireland today, David Cameron has announced that the Conservative party intends to end dual mandates before the 2011 Assembly elections. In an article in this morning’s Belfast Telegraph the leader of the opposition will indicate that his government could legislate to this effect, after the general election, should other parties in Northern Ireland refuse to accept that double jobbing should be brought to an end.

    Cameron’s article reflects comments which he made in a speech to the Scottish Conservative party conference, last week. He is adamant that representing one’s constituents at Westminster must be a full time job.

    “Our new electoral force as Conservatives and Unionists has explicitly stated that “the holding of joint mandates will not be permitted”. I would prefer all the Northern Ireland parties to respond to the public’s justified anger over politicians’ failures and reach a similar voluntary agreement to end all dual mandates before the 2011 Assembly elections.

    However, if we cannot persuade other parties to work with us and bring double-jobbing to an end by mutual agreement, a future Conservative Government would consider introducing legislation to prohibit dual mandates. I am determined that when voters in Northern Ireland go to the polls in 2011 to elect MLAs, the era of dual mandates and double salaries will have been brought to an end.””

    Cameron will also reiterate Owen Paterson’s remarks that it is ’inconceivable’ that a Conservative government would continue to fund absentee Members of Parliament who refuse to take their seats in the chamber.

    In the wake of the expenses controversy at Westminster, these undertakings form an important component of the Conservative and Unionist leader’s plan to restore confidence in politicians and require them to deliver value for money. This commitment will restore the primacy of the House of Commons in the nation’s political life and ensure that members are fully committed to their duties there.

    The quality of Northern Ireland’s representation at Westminster should improve after the Conservatives come to power, thanks to their commitment to end dual mandates. And the only means to ensure that part of that representation can be involved in government is casting a vote for Conservatives and Unionists at the general election.

    Wednesday, 20 May 2009

    Is Miliband incapable of keeping his nose out of other countries' affairs?

    I am reassured to learn that I am not the only one who gets a mite irritated every time David Miliband appears on the evening news, or signs off another print article, sanctimoniously lecturing another state as to how it should manage its internal affairs. Simon Jenkins devotes his Guardian column to the Foreign Secretary’s interventionist hectoring and moralising. Miliband’s trite approach to diplomacy has been touched upon by ‘Three Thousand Versts’ before, and whilst a new incumbent at the White House has encouraged a more subtle method of practising foreign affairs across the Atlantic, New Labour has continued to condescend and patronise.

    The FCO is, I’m sure, a repository of informed and nuanced knowledge of all manner of political and military situations, across the globe. I do not know whether Miliband is inclined to draw sufficiently from this reservoir of expertise, but his simplistic synopses and glib statements suggest that he does not.

    I have avoided, thus far, commenting on events in Sri Lanka. I simply do not know enough about the situation there to offer a useful opinion. But I am sure that Jenkins is correct when he intimates that Miliband has angered both sides in the conflict by needlessly intervening with hopeless platitudes. It was all very well to urge ceasefire from the Sri Lankan government whenever Tamil Tigers sheltered behind civilians, but the authorities in Colombo might justifiably ask why they should interrupt the final stages of suppressing a violent terrorist insurrection within their own territory, whenever Britain and the US claimed the right to pursue terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq, whilst civilians formed ‘collateral damage’!

    Tuesday, 19 May 2009

    No value for UUP in hedged bets

    A confused functionary of the Ulster Unionist Party from North Down has defected to the DUP. It isn’t clear if Mark Brooks, who chaired the party’s branch in the constituency, supports Sylvia Hermon’s stance on the Conservative and Unionist pact, or whether he feels that the leadership was not firm enough in its treatment of the errant MP. Whatever analysis he prefers, it nevertheless seems an odd choice to join a party which has little in common with either Lady Hermon or the Conservatives.

    Despite a lack of clarity in Brooks’ press release, his defection has the potential to further unnerve UUP members, already unsettled by Hermon’s denunciation of the Tory deal. Indeed party leader, Sir Reg Empey, himself sent out a number of ambiguous, even contradictory signals, when he fielded interviews with the BBC yesterday, on ‘Stormont Live’ and ‘Evening Extra’.

    Although much valuable work has been done in creating the Conservatives and Unionists shiny new force, there remains an apparent degree of equivocation on the Ulster Unionists’ part, which threatens to impede further progress and which suggests, at least to me, that some elements within the party have not fully comprehended that the point of no return was passed some time ago. If the deal is operated half-heartedly, or if the UUP attempts to prune it back, I believe the repercussions will be very serious.

    Yesterday, Empey on one hand emphasised the ‘long term’ nature of the initiative which his leadership has brought about, but on the other hand he implied that the dispensation was being ‘tried out’ and could easily be reneged upon, after the general election, if the electorate did not immediately show its enthusiasm for the pact. I appreciate Sir Reg might be trying to still butterflies which Hermon’s intervention has kicked into motion in some UUP stomachs, but it is my feeling that, in the midst of an election campaign, he should be striving to stiffen sinews instead.

    For the past year or so, indeed for longer, if one traces back the thinking which preceded the new force, the UUP has been stressing the ‘pan UK’ element of its unionism. It has promoted the idea that it will offer full participation in British national politics to the electorate in Northern Ireland. And it has presented itself as the party interested in ‘big United Kingdom’ issues as well as the local concerns which animate regional assemblies. The UUP has, at times, been realistic enough to acknowledge that implanting this understanding of its project in voters’ consciousnesses might take time. But its Conservative partners, or those that matter, seem to recognise that too and have indicated that they will show patience.

    So what alternative design do UCU sceptics within the party now envisage it offering the public? How do they think it could go about explaining the dismantlement of a message which it has just begun to impart?

    Could the party seriously explain to the electorate that it had decided not to offer it access to national politics after all? That it had changed its mind about the importance of Westminster, of government, of participation in United Kingdom wide politics? That it no longer believed the ability to vote for a party of government comprised an important aspect of ending Northern Ireland’s semi detached status, or accorded its people a crucial entitlement associated with their citizenship? Or indeed, could it hope to convince voters that none of these things any longer represented a significant advance for unionism?

    Important unionist principles are embedded into the thinking behind the new force. The party will leave itself without a shred of credibility if it disclaims them before they have been thoroughly and repeatedly tested against the electorate.

    It is not as simple as trying something a little different, hitching a ride on the coattails of a popular national party, and then hopping off when it is expedient, in order to carry on as before. If, after the general election, the UUP were to attempt to sever its link with the Conservatives, a substantial number of defections would follow and confidence in the party would reach a new low.

    Which is why there is no value in the Ulster Unionist leadership hedging its bets on this campaign, or on the Sylvia Hermon issue and it is nonsensical for members to suggest that it can!

    Lady Hermon cannot stand in the Westminster election, for the UUP, without seriously undermining her party’s campaign (if the Conservative connection is to endure). Even should she, by some Damascene miracle, decide that she did wish to represent UCUNF, her commitment to the force would clearly be in question. And any suggestion that she could somehow stand, as an Ulster Unionist, but outwith the Conservative and Unionist alliance, is self-evidently nonsensical. To field 17 candidates with the intention that they would sit on the government benches, if elected, and one party colleague who planned to join Labour in opposition, is, to put it mildly, untenable. It would insult the intelligence of Northern Ireland’s electorate to put before it such an arrangement. The only scenario whereby Lady Hermon could realistically stand, as an Ulster Unionist in the next election, is if the UUP withdraw from UCUNF, which would be an act of political madness.

    The reason that the Ulster Unionist Party badly needed an idea, in order to rejuvenate its fortunes, was that it was in a sorry state. The Conservative link has provided that idea and, as it happens, it is a very, very good one. Its strength is that it seeks to consolidate a modern, inclusive United Kingdom, comprised of self-confident component parts, each participating fully in vibrant national politics. The idea is compelling enough to improve the UUP’s fortunes in the short term and benefit unionism in the long term. There are no viable alternatives for the party.

    Which is why it must galvanise behind the idea and sell it, with resolution, to the electorate.

    Rather than mollifying doubters, it is the leadership’s role to explain that the Conservative link is now the only show in town, if the party wishes to remain relevant.

    A lesson in credulity. UDA poster story a smear?

    In a story yesterday, detailing the launch of the Conservative election manifesto, I rather lazily gave way to the assumption that there might be some truth to rumours that a UDA ‘brigadier’ had erected Jim Nicholson posters in North Belfast. In the absence of any denial from the UUP, and appreciating the tangled situation which exists on the ground in many of these areas (I live in one), I suspected that local laziness or thoughtlessness might have made such a scenario possible. It was a hasty judgment to reach and, I suspect, quite probably an erroneous one.

    It is my understanding that, contrary to claims on Slugger O’Toole, the Sunday World’s story was not confirmed by a photograph. Indeed it is based on the supposed testimony of one witness, an unnamed pastor. A pastor in North Belfast who clearly believed he could be identified as the source has contacted the Sunday World to deny any involvement in the story.

    It just goes to demonstrate that these type of smear stories, which appear particularly frequently in newspapers around election time, should be treated with utmost caution.

    Jim Nicholson’s opposition to paramilitaries is on record.

    "It is also deeply worrying that the IMC report again points to the evidence that paramilitary organisations - both republican and loyalist - are involved in ongoing criminality. Such crime holds back our entire society. Again, the PSNI need the full support of our entire community if this threat is to be confronted and overcome"

    Update: The UUP has issued the following statement.

    Over the past few days a number of newspapers have alleged that a ‘UDA commander’ or ‘UDA Brigadier’ was helping to put up posters for Jim Nicholson MEP in North Belfast.

    This is not true.

    Two community groups---the Tigers Bay Concerned Residents Association and Community Voice---have been working very closely with the Ulster Unionist Party over the past few years in the area, addressing socio-economic issues. Both groups have also been working closely with the PSNI, local churches and a wide range of other community groups.

    The Ulster Unionist Party has also been engaging with the Ulster Political Research Group (UPRG), seeking to persuade Loyalist paramilitaries to decommission and to direct themselves towards democracy and community politics.

    Members of the Tigers Bay and Community Voice groups volunteered to put up posters for Jim Nicholson. These groups have no links with the UDA.

    No UDA ‘Commander’ or ‘Brigadier’ put up posters for Jim Nicholson.

    Jim Nicholson commented:

    “The work being done by groups like Community Voice and TBCRA is vitally important if Northern Ireland is ever to move forward. It is important, too, that democratic political parties do everything they can to encourage people in these areas to participate in normal, everyday politics. And that means proving to them that normal, everyday politics works and addresses their concerns.

    “The Ulster Unionist Party has been at the forefront of these efforts and we will continue to do everything it can to ensure that paramilitarism (from whatever source) becomes a thing of the past; and that community politics is built around the needs and concerns of ordinary people.

    "The Ulster Unionist Party has been unstinting in its view that loyalist organisations must decommission and must cease all criminal activities. Most recently I repeated this call in the aftermath of the IMC Report. I want to see all sections of opinion in Northern Ireland embrace exclusively political and democratic politics. This means leaving behind - fully and permanently - the violence and criminality of the past".

    Monday, 18 May 2009

    Paterson outlines benefits of involvement in real UK politics

    This article from Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, Owen Paterson MP, appeared in the Irish News on 7 May 2009. I’m afraid that I missed it at the time.

    A reader has kindly forwarded the text and I believe that it is worth reproducing in full. Particularly given that the Irish News’ online content is subscription only and I’m sure other readers won’t have encountered this very fine synopsis of what the Conservatives and Ulster Unionists wish to achieve with their electoral pact.

    Paterson has, from the beginning, been a strong proponent of the Conservatives and Unionists idea. He has driven forward the project from the Tory perspective and this piece lays out concrete, practical benefits which the alliance wishes to offer voters.

    It is a lesson in how the arguments should be laid out, to appeal to voters across the community. We need to hear more of this and less of the negative stories which have undermined UCUNF over the last week.

    Irish News article- 7th May 2009

    In recent months there has been a genuine misunderstanding about the thinking behind the Conservative Party’s link-up with the Ulster Unionists. I have been involved with this from the outset and I would like to set the record straight. The peace process, which led to the establishment of the current institutions, has always had our strong support. Whatever one’s ultimate aspiration, Northern Ireland’s constitutional status was settled in the Belfast Agreement and endorsed by overwhelming majorities on both sides of the border. However, there is plenty more work to be done before the political arrangements are normalised and Northern Ireland’s society can flourish.

    The key is democracy. Why should Northern Ireland effectively be excluded from the mainstream of political life in the UK? Time and again I meet people from all parts of the community who want to move beyond the polarisation that has dominated politics for so many years. Why should all Catholics be labelled as Nationalists? I understand that Nationalists may not want to vote Conservative and Unionist. However, many Catholics have told me that they want to vote for the policies of parties who could represent them in a national government.

    We emphatically welcome voters and members from right across the community because, for too long, politics here has been dominated by parties that can never hope to form the government, or even be a part of it. That is bad for democracy.

    Some might argue that this does not matter as many decisions are made by the Northern Ireland Assembly. David Cameron has been unwavering in his support for devolution. However, key policies continue to be decided at Westminster. They include taxes, pensions, welfare, social policy and foreign policy. MPs from Northern Ireland have little or no say on them.

    Conservatives and Unionists want to give people in Northern Ireland the opportunity to be active in UK politics. MPs elected here as Conservatives and Unionists will be eligible to serve in a Conservative government.

    The Conservative Party has changed. We are a modern, progressive centre-right party committed to restoring economic prosperity but combined with a strong sense of social justice. We are open to everyone who shares our values, irrespective of their background.

    This is not a short-term initiative, based on narrow party political advantage; it will take time to bed down. We are doing it because it is the right thing to do. To listen to some, you would think that the idea of having normal politics here is an affront. They seem to have their own selfish strategic interest in maintaining Northern Ireland as a political backwater.

    We recognise the vital contribution of the Irish and American governments over many years. We shall keep working closely and constructively with the Republic of Ireland whose collaboration has been crucial to the peace process. Only last week I made one of my regular visits to Dublin, discussing our ideas to improve the economy and politics of Northern Ireland. These trips are always positive; we were in complete agreement in our determination to maintain and improve the Common Travel Area which benefits millions on both sides of the Irish Sea.

    I am here virtually every week and make a point of meeting politicians from all political parties; I want to have good relations with them all. However, I also make a point of going outside the political bubble to meet people from all walks of life. I am convinced that there is a widespread desire for a new form of politics here.

    That is what the Conservatives and Unionists intend to deliver. For David Cameron this is a matter of conviction and principle. He is determined to succeed.

    Owen Paterson MP
    Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

    Cameron launches Euro manifesto for change whilst Nicholson hopes to silence 'ancestral voices'.

    David Cameron today launched the Tories’ European election manifesto. Conservative and Unionist candidate, Jim Nicholson, attended the event, in Rossendale Lancashire. After a turbulent week for his campaign, culminating with tabloid revelations that a UDA ‘brigadier’ may have been involved in erecting UCUNF election posters in North Belfast, Nicholson will be delighted to concentrate, for a day at least, on the message of change in Europe, which he is charged with communicating to voters in Northern Ireland.

    Although neither Nicholson, nor any other senior Ulster Unionist, bears responsibility for a baleful grassroots error, the Sunday World story carried an unfortunate echo of ‘ancestral voices’ characterising a brand of unionism which the new force is keen to repudiate. Unfortunately the influence of paramilitaries is pervasive in many working class areas of Belfast. That is not to offer an excuse for the oversight, but goes someway to explain that it is sometimes not easy to disentangle these deplorable groups from the communities in which they have embedded themselves. O’Neill has laid out clearly his favoured course of action and I do not disagree with it one iota.

    Cameron used his speech today to underscore the ‘change’ motif which his party’s campaign is emphasising. The Conservative leader took the opportunity to challenge Gordon Brown to call a general election, as soon after the Euro elections as is practicable. And he also unveiled a pledge which prospective members of the Conservative group of MEPs must sign.

    Nicholson (and others) will be expected, in carrying out their duties as members of the parliament, to:

    • Publish a breakdown of all office costs, signed off by a certified accountant.

    • Publish details of all travel, including journeys to and from Brussels and Strasbourg and trips to any third countries.

    • Publish the names of all staff, contractors and ‘paying agents’ engaged by us.

    • Publish all expenses claims online and update them on a quarterly basis. Details included in the Register of Members’ Interests will be published on the Conservative MEPs’ website – providing a ‘one stop shop’ for members of the public to access full disclosure details of their Conservative MEPs’ expenses.

    • Continue to oppose – and vote against – any bailout of the MEP pension fund using public money.

    • Publish online details of all meetings with lobbyists and interest groups. We will only accept hospitality from lobbyists and interest groups where it is relevant to the role of an MEP, and where this is of a value greater than £50 it will be listed in the Register of Members’ Interests. No Conservative MEP will accept gifts from lobbyists or interest groups.

    • Press for these standards to be applied across the European Parliament.

    On the economy:

    • Keep Britain out of the euro.

    • Support the return of social and employment legislation to national control.

    • Work for an open and flexible Europe that brings down trade barriers, both within and outside the EU, and set a
    course for other countries to join the EU subject to a rigorous accession process.

    • Work to cut the administration costs of EU legislation by 25 per cent.

    • Defend our opt-out from the Working Time Directive.

    And on efficiency:

    • Oppose wasteful spending throughout the EU, including calling for an end to European Parliament meetings in Strasbourg.

    • Work to save up to 1 billion Euro a year and for a firm cap on the EU budget.

    • Continue to vote against the EU accounts until they are cleared by an auditor.

    • Defend the UK's rebate so we do not pay more than our fair share.

    • Press for legislation to provide greater transparency, access to documents and freedom of information in relation to EU institutions.

    This is a meaningful programme and one which commits the United Kingdom’s largest group of representatives in the European Parliament to impacting European politics for the better. It is a message which must not be undermined, in Northern Ireland, by carelessness, thoughtlessness or irresolution. To authentically change politics in Northern Ireland there must be genuine will to banish the thinking of the past.

    What a pair of (pricked) pricks!

    Not ‘Three Thousand Versts’ usual material I grant you, but I simply couldn’t let this tabloid story from Pravda sail past without comment. Two Russian tourists were treated in a Florida hospital after a drunken escapade during which they attempted to have sex with a porcupine! Apparently relations with the animal are not permitted under state law, and this formed pretext enough for the boozed up chaps to give it a go. For those of you unfamiliar with Pravda’s English service, rather singular English, coupled with the newspaper’s populist bent, renders almost any story hilarious, but this is particularly good.

    Some of the best quotes:

    “Consequences appeared to be very sad. The poor fellows had to take needles from their genitals and treat inflammation for several months.”

    “As it is known, forbidden fruit is always sweet, especially for Russians.”

    “With victorious shouts the drunken friends dropped their pants and started making unambiguous movements with their hips. Having sobered up the following morning the friends realized that they need medical help.”

    Interesting that Pravda has some fun with this ‘senseless law’. Not so senseless in the end for the young men who attempted to break it.

    Saturday, 16 May 2009

    The UUP's miserable week and why it's not irrecoverable

    Wednesday, as Bobballs observed, was a bad day for the UUP. Subsequently, after a decisive initial response, predictable vacillation from the party’s leaders rendered it a miserable week for Ulster Unionists and their new electoral force.

    To get the misery started, North Antrim MLA Reverend Coulter, seemed to imply that no Muslim candidate should have been considered for a top BBC post, Head of Religious Affairs. As if to make it harder for party colleagues to extricate themselves from the mess which he was wilfully creating, he specified that, rather than speaking as a Christian minister, his comments were issued in his role as ’an elected public representative’.

    In comparison to another member of his family, the senescent Presbyterian should normally be renowned for talking stout common sense. Faint praise, because he is vague, ancient, rambling and one of an almost entirely unnecessary breed, clergyman politicians. Whether he meant to make a point about faith leaders taking a greater role in religious programming, or not, what he actually said was deplorable. The party rightly distanced itself from his remarks with alacrity.

    As it happened, any incipient furore which Coulter might have caused was soon overshadowed by Lady Hermon’s comments on the Conservative pact. In the course of explaining an overpayment which she had received, the North Down MP struck out at ‘disgraceful’ Conservative abuses of expenses, venting her visceral dislike of the Tory party, whilst blithely ignoring the fact that Labour MPs, and ministers, had acted just as despicably.

    It was a piece of unthinking partisanship, directed explicitly at the party which has contracted a political marriage with Hermon’s own. Inevitably it preceded an unambiguous acknowledgment that the MP would not seriously consider standing on a Conservative ticket.

    Initial statements from the UUP appeared to cut Hermon loose, which was, rationally, the only course of action open to the party. Afterwards, the Ulster Unionist leadership attempted to row back from disavowing their only MP, seemingly suggesting that the door was still open, should she decide to change her mind.

    Rather than resolving the controversy at the earliest opportunity by affirming that, whilst Lady Hermon would continue to represent the UUP during this parliament, a Conservative and Unionist candidate would contest North Down at the next election, Empey and Kennedy ensured that the party appeared to be begging a recalcitrant, but indispensable member, to reconsider.

    Given that Hermon’s unhappiness with the Tory deal has been an open secret for months, the response was desperately weak. Particularly because her statement need not be the earth shattering, paradigm shifting event which has been portrayed.

    I have previously intimated that the North Down MP’s position is not particularly principled. We are not considering, here, a conviction politician, making a stand against a political philosophy which she views as anathema. Lady Hermon marched into the division lobby to support forty day detention, against the logic of every liberal and progressive argument. The party which she blatantly supports targeted tax rises at the very lowest earners. It dismantled free third level education. She is a New Labour loyalist and if she insists on tethering herself to a discredited government then she should suffer the consequences, should she choose to stand at the next election. O'Neill highlights the comments of a genuine progressive, Fred Cobain, who is endorsing the Conservative dispensation.

    I have read commentary this week, from people who previously supported the UCUNF arrangement, which seems to be suggesting that, following Hermon’s decision, it has suddenly become a bad idea. With respect, that is nonsense. It is important to have an MP, but if that MP doe not represent broader opinion within the party, and if that MP is prepared, in league with a motley crew of Labour diehards and DUP mercenaries, unconscionably to support 40 day pre charge detention, she is far from indispensable.

    The core idea at the heart of the Conservatives and Unionists pact is much too valuable to discard because of Lady Hermon. If Ulster Unionists are prepared to back it, wholeheartedly, in letter and in spirit, its strength will take unionism, and the party, where it wants to go.

    Friday, 15 May 2009

    South Stream progress casts doubt on Nabucco

    It has been a couple of years in the planning but it seems that Gazprom is gathering the wherewithal it needs to push forward the South Stream pipeline. Agreements have been signed with transit states - Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria and Italy - in Sochi.

    The pipeline, which is scheduled to be finished by 2015, would carry gas from Russia, the Caucasus and Central Asia. As such it poses a threat to the EU sponsored Nabucco project which aspires to bring natural gas to member countries from producers in Central Asian and the Caspian without the involvement of Russia or Gazprom.

    Although the more rabid anti-Moscow elements within the EU will see South Stream as a serious reversal which increases dependence on Russian gas, there is a strong argument that the pipeline will increase energy security, by bypassing erratic transit states like Belarus and Ukraine, whose payment disputes with Gazprom have disrupted supplies in recent winters.

    In conjunction with Nord Stream, which comes into operation from 2011 and will bring gas into the European Union across the Baltic Sea, Russia hopes that it can rebuild its reputation as a reliable supplier.

    Fnar, Fnar - Blogpost headline of the day

    I know the expenses' controversy has shaken the political world but perhaps Seymour Major's demand is a tad harsh:

    Cameron must probe all Conservative Euro MPs urgently

    The hungriest couple at Westminster?

    You’ve got to admire Peter Robinson’s audacity. Sorry, strike that, start again. You’ve got to deplore Peter Robinson’s mendacity. After the DUP declared itself confident that it had nothing to fear when the Daily Telegraph investigation touched upon its expenses, the First Minister has defended £30,525 (thirty thousand five hundred and twenty five pounds only) claimed for food bills, submitted over a period of four years by he and his wife.

    Peter claims that this equates to an average of about £73 per week. How did he arrive at this estimate? Three Thousand Versts has investigated, and can exclusively reveal that if one divides £30,525 by four (the number of years which the claims cover), then fifty two (the number of weeks in the year, for slower readers) and then further divides the resultant figure by two (for the number of Swish Robinsons in the House of Commons) one arrives at the princely sum of £73.38.

    It’s good to know that Robbo went to such extravagant lengths to account for the lavish lifestyle he and his wife enjoy at Westminster, courtesy of the tax paying public! Now my girlfriend and I do not live in London, but we eat approximately £50 worth of food per week, between us. I’m sure we could feasibly allow an extra £25 for two people shopping in the nation’s capital. But remember that the pair scoffed a combined total of £144.23 per week.

    Or they would have – had Parliament sat fifty two weeks per year for the last four years! And had they attended the House 100% of the time that the Commons was sitting! Actually the average number of days the Commons sits in one year is 155. Peter has attended 37.4% of divisions since 2005 with Iris clocking up 28.4%. Perhaps we should try the sums again. You can follow my workings on Excel, or on a calculator, should you feel so inclined.

    £30,525 is the exact total which the Robinsons spent on food (close to the maximum of £400 per month, according to the Daily Telegraph). Let’s divide that by four to get the yearly total. Which gives us a mean per year of £7,631.25. Now, if we divide 155 days by 7 we get 22 weeks (or near as damn it). So to get a fair weekly total for Iris and Pete (had they attended 100% of Commons’ business) we should divide £7,631.25 by 22, which would work out at £346.88 per week (or £173.44 per hungry Robbo)!

    If we take a more realistic approach and average out the Robinsons’ attendance at 32.9% we come to a figure of about 51 days attendance per Swish, per year. Dividing the yearly total by 51 we arrive at a sum of £149.63 per day …… or £1,047.42 per week. Which means that Peter and Iris munch their way through £523.71 of groceries, EACH, per week, when they are attending Westminster.

    To apply a little perspective here, the average YEARLY UK food shop is in the region of £5,200.

    All this on top of £571,939 which the Robinson family extract from the taxpayer in salaries.

    Nothing to be ashamed of? Good value? Money used for the benefit of constituents?

    Thursday, 14 May 2009

    Russia - Nato meetings postponed indefinitely

    In the wake of Nato's exercises in Georgia Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, has admitted that no new Russia - Nato Council meeting is planned. Whilst it is hardly surprising, this represents a blow to any nascent partnership with Moscow. Although I have acknowledged the Kremlin's excitability as regards the alliance and its activities, I also believe that the choice of Georgia for manoeuvres was an unnecessary provocation.

    Inevitably the trickiest aspect of western relations with Russia to 'reset' will revolve around a military organisation which was brought into existence to combat the Soviet Union. A genuine spirit of respect and compromise is a prerequisite, and unfortunate posturing in Georgia has set the process back, almost before it had begun.

    'Irish MPs', green ties, can Lady Sylvia really have been offended?

    The Belfast Telegraph claims to have insight into Lady Sylvia Hermon's disgruntlement with the Conservative and Ulster Unionist pact. It cites, as instances of insensitivity to Ulster issues, a senior Tory referring to ‘Irish MPs’ in a meeting with the North Down Member and David Cameron wearing a green tie to a unionist event!

    Without accepting the paper’s interpretation as gospel truth, if the MP was influenced by such petty nonsense, she ought to be ashamed.

    Lady Hermon should be delighted to identify herself as an Irish MP. She should be proud to be part of a continuous tradition of Irish representation in the House of Commons stretching back more than two centuries. She is privileged to represent the part of Ireland which did not secede from the Union. If an ‘understanding’ of Northern Ireland entails dancing around the Irish component of unionists’ identity, then it is refreshing to approach our politics with less ‘understanding’.

    As for the green tie, which event was this at? Did anyone else notice? Are unionists really offended by the colour green? Should Sylvia give up politics and seek to replace either Trinny or Susannah? What tie would she have selected for David Cameron to wear, had he asked? One sporting a Union flag? An orange tie with a Rangers’ pin?

    I sincerely hope that the BT was embroidering its article a little, in the absence of more meaty comment to discuss.

    Wednesday, 13 May 2009

    Bad timing and hypocrisy from Hermon

    So Sylvia Hermon has ended speculation as to whether she will eventually participate in the Conservatives and Unionists electoral force. She has chosen to do so during an election campaign, accompanying her comments with a bizarre rant about Conservative expense claims. Given that Hermon's press conference was called to explain her own embarrassing over-payments and considering that, as a New Labour groupie, her own favoured Great British party has proved astonishingly insensitive and unresponsive to public anger, it was a particular unfortunate choice of topic.

    If Hermon intends to contest the next election, and if she has any sense of integrity, she will align herself explicitly with the Labour party.

    Sir Reg Empey issued the following statement in response to Lady Sylvia's interview:

    The Party Officers and Executive Committee of the Ulster Unionist Party have unanimously agreed, with the Conservative Party, to jointly endorse her UUP colleague Jim Nicholson as the 'Conservatives and Unionists' candidate in the Euro Election.

    "The leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party is disappointed that Lady Hermon, in the middle of an election campaign, has chosen to give a series of interviews in which she has challenged Party policy and the collective decisions taken by her colleagues.

    "Throughout last year and into 2009, we held many discussions at Party Executive level, held roadshows for our members on numerous occasions and ultimately put proposals for a Memorandum of Understanding to our Executive for approval. This very democratic process resulted in two separate meetings of our Executive where the relevant decisions were taken on unanimous recommendations from our Party Officers. At these well attended meetings not a single vote was cast against the proposals. At both of these meetings, our North Down constituency was fully represented by all its delegates who unanimously voted in favour of the proposals.

    "Her own position is not an issue in the present campaign. She was assured last year that she would not be required to take the Conservative Party whip in the lifetime of the present Parliament. Candidate selection for the General Election is not yet underway, meaning that any decisions regarding her own selection process in North Down do not have to be made at this point. This makes the timing of her statements all the more disappointing.

    “The Ulster Unionist Party and Conservative Party will continue with our joint campaign to bring real change to politics in Northern Ireland. We will continue with our campaign to create a new political and electoral force which offers the electorate here an opportunity to be part and parcel of a new pan-UK unionism.

    "I want it to be clear that we have charted a democratic course for the UUP which has been fully endorsed by our Party. Having come through the traumas of the Belfast Agreement, where we had to ask people to work with self confessed republicans, I am confident that working with a Conservative Party which is enthusiastically committed to the Union and the end of British Government neutrality on Northern Ireland, will prove attractive to our members and the wider pro-Union electorate"

    Can Conservatives solve the Scots' Nat conundrum?

    Two unionist bloggers, O’Neill and Scottish Unionist, interpret Conservative attempts to foster a ‘constructive’ relationship with Scotland’s minority government quite differently. O’Neill, arguing from the perspective that devolution weakens the Union, is adamant that cooperating with the SNP merely bolsters the nationalists’ popularity. It should be Scottish Conservatives’ task to oppose separatism in Scotland; and by helping the minority administration to govern effectively, Annabel Goldie, and her party, are abdicating that responsibility, encouraging support for the SNP and simultaneously damaging both the Union and their own long term electoral prospects. In contrast, Scottish Unionist implies that devolved government, if it is popular and is perceived to be responsive to the public, can actually diminish the urge to independence. An emasculated SNP administration, its worst excesses curbed by a requirement for cross party support, can flourish without a commensurate fillip for its nationalist aspirations. Indeed, if the SNP demonstrates that devolution works, it is, to a degree, undermining its own case for independence. Conversely, if it is seen to be a failure, voters will return to the main unionist parties. By seeking to steer the Scottish government in directions which they choose, Conservatives are accruing benefits, for themselves, and for the Scottish people.

    Clearly I am painting these respective positions in broad strokes. I would be delighted if either commentator, or both, wishes to offer a more refined rendering of their views in the comments zone of this post. Indeed if have misrepresented O’Neill or SU, I profusely apologise, and stand to be corrected. If I have understood the thrust of their arguments correctly, I have a degree of sympathy for both.

    David Cameron has, this week, reaffirmed his intention to work as amicably as possible with the First Minister, in order to foster a better working link between Westminster and Holyrood, should he become the UK’s next Prime Minister. It is an approach which ‘Three Thousand Versts’ has endorsed, on the basis that it is unionist in impulse. If one accepts, and I do, that devolution is not reversible at the present time (in fact an attempt to reverse it would actually damage the Union), but if one also believes that defending the Union is vital, then fostering a more engaged working relationship between the national government and its counterpart at Holyrood is imperative. More contact between London and Edinburgh is an impeccably unionist project, even if Alex Salmond is the First Minister. O’Neill, a sceptic about cooperation with the SNP, enjoyed David Cameron’s quote,

    “I will be fully engaged with that bit of Alex Salmond's brain that wants to do the best thing for Scotland rather than break up the United Kingdom.”

    More controversial than possible intergovernmental contacts between Tories and Nationalists, is the existing relationship between the two parties at Scottish parliamentary level. “What exactly now is the point of Scottish Conservatism?” asks O’Neill, upon learning that Annabel Goldie, the party’s current leader, had likened minority government to a “gust of fresh air”. In contrast, on the Guardian politics blog, it is suggested that the Scottish Tories might be on their way out ‘of the political wilderness’. Despite the current, fractured nature of Scotland’s politics the party has risen to 21% in opinion polls for a Westminster General Election. Although part of this rejuvenation is attributed to David Cameron’s nationwide popularity, it is also suggested that devolution, and the leverage a minority government has allowed Conservatives to guide political debate, have also contributed.

    There might be a degree of truth to this analysis, but in 2010 Conservatives’ interaction with the Scottish government is likely to become substantially more complicated. Insofar as the SNP defines itself in opposition to the British government, its interests have converged, to an extent, with the Conservatives, whilst Labour has been in power. The difficulty is that it does not matter which administration presides over the United Kingdom, it will attract equal opposition from Scots’ nationalists. It is going to be excruciatingly difficult for Tories at Holyrood to enjoy the same relationship with the SNP, whenever Conservatives nationally form the next UK government.

    Equally, David Cameron will find it much trickier maintaining civil relations with Alex Salmond in practice than it seems in theory. A nationalist First Minister will not want cooperation between his government and Whitehall. He will want attrition. A nationalist First Minister will not welcome regular meetings with officials in London, whether it fosters better governance for his region or not. He will demand that Westminster keeps its nose out. It is not in his interests to promote cordial, multilayered government which works well for the people of Scotland. It is in his interests to present a devolved administration at odds with its national equivalent.

    If the Conservatives can solve this conundrum, at regional level, as well as at national, the prize will be a more functional United Kingdom. My instinct is that Cameron, and Goldie, must be seen to be scrupulously reasonable and willing to work with Salmond. Although the surest means to demolish the SNP has always been ‘give ‘em enough rope’, such a strategy could have baleful consequences for the Scottish people. Cooperation cushions the impact of nationalist government on Scotland, but Conservatives must be careful and wary in the years to come. Appealing to Salmond’s better nature is scarcely sufficient to still the yearnings of a fanatic.

    Tuesday, 12 May 2009

    No unionist Garlands for Roy

    I find myself tempted, when I consider two articles sourced through News Hound this morning, to present Roy Garland’s Irish News piece as thesis and Alex Kane’s News Letter column as antithesis. However, ‘thesis’ rather suggests a degree of coherence which, with the greatest of respect, Garland’s article does not possess. Indeed it begs the question, in exactly what fashion does its author consider himself a unionist? Because it exhibits (at best) indifference to Northern Ireland’s participation in the United Kingdom and carries at least a whiff of anti-English xenophobia in its arguments. Garland demonstrates all the ‘ourselves alone’ traits which might be used to identify the Ulster nationalist, albeit that he is keen to promote a touchy feely relationship with Irish nationalism within his vision of Northern Ireland.

    The article takes as its starting point Jim Nicholson’s ‘Vote for Change’ motif and its alleged inappositeness. Although I have rebutted this charge in a previous article, I can understand why it might be levelled, by commentators or by opponents of the Conservatives and Unionists candidate. I can even comprehend that Garland, and others, are cynical about conservatism’s compatibility with an agenda for change, on a broader, more fundamental level. I would contend that this is to underestimate the power of the notion of ‘progressive ends by conservative means’ and the philosophical roots of ‘One Nation’ conservatism. However, Garland’s proposition still lies within the bounds of sensible debate. It is when he begins to rant about ‘English Tories’ and dismiss the importance of participating in the British cabinet that the lease is utterly lost. Of the new force he claims,

    “They feel uncomfortable with the very word “Ulster” and point us towards a future based supposedly on their non-sectarian politics. But diverting attention from the needs of this community towards those of English Tories is surely to hide our heads in the sand. The promise of seeing local politicians inside the British cabinet may appeal to ambitious politicians but won’t see many of us jumping for joy.”

    Remember that these words are written by someone who purports to be a unionist! Leaving aside the incontrovertible fact that ‘Ulster’ remains part of the title which will grace Nicholson’s ballot paper, is Garland seriously implying that Westminster politics are an unnecessary diversion from the ‘needs of this [Northern Ireland’s] community’? No need to read the paragraph again. It is a rhetorical question. That is precisely what he states, quite explicitly.

    Twice he dismisses the next government of the United Kingdom as ‘English Tories’, as if the authority of Britain’s government should be diminished, in unionist eyes, if it includes a great many MPs from the UK’s largest nation! It is the type of sneering insinuation, loaded with casual prejudice, which the DUP is familiar with.

    If one were to attempt to cobble together something remotely rational out of Garland’s lazy argument, it might run something like this:

    Northern Ireland is a divided society which is being operated on the basis of ethnic carve-up, presided over by the DUP and Sinn Féin. Although it would be better if the sides became more thoroughly reconciled, ultimately the new dispensation rests on an ethno-religious interpretation of politics here, and on parties staying myopically focussed on the minutiae of local government. If a unionist party begins to advance the notion that Northern Irish voters can participate properly in the politics of the United Kingdom, it will remind nationalists of the province’s constitutional status, which will annoy them. We’d better not do that. Best to keep focussed on the carve-up. He actually writes “we need to see the larger ethnically-based parties leading us out of the sectarian morass”!

    Take away the anti-English references and the pretence of unionism from Garland’s article and you are left with something that could have slopped from the keyboard of Slugger’s Brian Walker.

    I have emphasised before, and no doubt I will be required to emphasise it again, if a political philosophy does not prioritise preservation of and participation in the United Kingdom, it is only masquerading as British unionism, if it identifies itself as such. Contempt for the House of Commons is not a characteristic of unionism. The idea that east west relations should be glossed over, in order not to offend nationalist sensibilities, is not unionism. Any implication that it is not correct to try and promote the Union as the best political home for Northern Ireland, is most certainly not unionism.

    As a reminder of what unionism does consist in, I cite the final two paragraphs of Alex Kane’s piece, which I mentioned at the outset of this article. It articulates how authentic unionism wishes to persuade its opponents of the merits of its arguments and participate fully in a modern, inclusive, civic state.

    “So the primary task of unionism now is to build a strategy and political platform which makes it increasingly difficult for Sinn Fein to convince its core vote that a united Ireland is worth the candle. In my view, that isn’t likely to happen if the DUP and Sinn Fein continue down their present path of mutual veto and ‘us and them’ approach to devolution. It may suit Sinn Fein to keep the divisions alive in the form of a social/civic/electoral border, but it isn’t in the long-term interests of the Union.

    Having forced Sinn Fein individually and the pan-nationalist front collectively into accepting an internal settlement, the next task for unionism is to sell the merits and continuing benefits of the Union and the United Kingdom. That requires us to lift our eyes from a little-Ulster perspective and focus on pan-UK unionism.”

    Whatever the idea that carve-up along ethnic lines needs to be perpetuated in order to sustain a settlement and that it is a waste of time for Northern Ireland parties to aspire to participate in the British government might be, it is certainly not unionism.