Showing posts from June, 2009

Time for existential debate on Stormont as well as Westminster

All the main parties in Northern Ireland, other than Sinn Féin, have indicated that the current brand of mandatory coalition at Stormont is not a system which they would choose to operate in the medium to long term. They acknowledge, uniformly, that safeguards must be built into our regional government to ensure that power-sharing is maintained, but there is consensus that the present arrangement lacks accountability, enervates democracy and breeds inefficiency.

Problematically, however, with republicans explicitly wedded to carve-up government and the DUP more tacitly so, there is little prospect that the Assembly will feature an official opposition in the foreseeable future. Which leaves the parties, and in particular the two that have taken their positions in the Executive, only to find themselves frozen out of decision making, with the task of reimagining how the existing structures might be better put to work.

Although the carve-up coalition partners might be the current bene…

Conservatives and Unionists project is grounded in principle of consent. Which makes them the most pro-Agreement party.

Last summer I revisited Norman Porter’s influential book, ‘Rethinking Unionism’, and reflected that although its content had been prescient, at a time when unionism was moving towards an accommodation with nationalism and republicanism, it was also, in retrospect, deeply flawed. In imagining how a post peace process Northern Ireland might look, Porter underestimated the capacity of unionism, focussed squarely on the entire United Kingdom, to encompass an Irish dimension.

The author’s rethink, rather than operating within the parameters of the philosophy with which it was dealing, chose instead to accept nationalist absolutes as regards political and cultural identity. Ironically, in attempting to furnish unionism with the conceptual dexterity it needed to reach a settlement, Porter jettisoned a multi-layered understanding of politics and culture which allowed it to contemplate simultaneous Irish and British identities in the first place. Liberal, or British unionism, which he doub…

Money too tight for Labour to mention.

Apologies for the rather bitty nature of some posts at the moment. Various aspects of everyday life have tiresomely intruded on blogging time. Admittedly some of the prevalent stories have also required little or no lengthy commentary. They have spoken for themselves.

Take Labour’s ‘Building Britain’s Future’ document, which Gordon Brown will unveil this afternoon. It will form the central plank of the party’s manifesto for the general election and is expected to outline the government’s public services strategy.

The Prime Minister and Liam Byrne have trailed its contents in elliptical fashion. We know that there will be a lot less talk about ‘targets’ and a lot more about ‘rights and entitlements’. But before we have the opportunity even to scrutinise detail in the paper, or examine whether it is merely an exercise in semantics, Peter Mandelson has revealed on the Today programme that the government’s comprehensive spending review will be delayed until after the next election.�…

Sammy's credentials underlined

Lest you should question Sammy Wilson's credentials for taking the finance ministry (he taught economics at a secondary school), Peter Robinson fills in the vital details. He was head of department and set some exam papers. Roll over Milton Friedman!

H/T Rodney McCune

Empey articulates Conservatives and Unionists vision of unionism

Sir Reg Empey has written an article for the Belfast Telegraph entitiled ‘A Vision for the Future’ in the wake of the European election. It perpetuates to an extent the endless game of political tennis between Ulster Unionists and the DUP, but some of the piece deals neatly with the politics which inspired the Conservative / UUP pact.

Sir Reg writes,

“The Ulster Unionist Party has an agenda and a vision for the future. We believe that the Union is a two-way process and that it is stronger when embraced and endorsed on both sides of the Irish Sea. We believe in a Union which spans the entire United Kingdom. And we believe in Northern Ireland being represented at the very heart of British government.”

“Northern Ireland is emerging into new political and economic realities. I believe that the creation of a new political and electoral dynamism will attract a surge of support and enthusiasm from people everywhere who want to leave the past behind in favour of a 21st Century Northern Ireland …

A pointless non-fiction

I am not accustomed to being sent books, free of charge, on the supposition that I might wish to review them. And yet, clearly, it is a practice which I would seek to encourage. So when Patrick Hannan’s ‘A Useful Fiction: Adventures in British Democracy’ found its way through my letter box on precisely that premise, I fully intended to find something positive to write about it. It was with growing disappointment that I realised, with a clear conscience, I couldn’t possibly claim that this was a good book. Indeed even the few points of half hearted commendation which I thought I might bestow upon it were dwindling rapidly. So, attempting to rescue something from my original store of goodwill - Patrick Hannan writes fluent, readable prose. That’s all.

Hannan’s book aspires to be (I think) something of a state of the nation piece, which takes as its basis the notion that devolution has altered irrevocably the landscape of British democracy. Which is a thesis that, whilst it is undo…

Fighting hate with more hate

I observed only yesterday that Peter Robinson shares with Irish nationalist counterparts the habit of describing unionism, and nationalism for that matter, as a ‘community’, defined by common religion and a certain prescriptive view of culture. The Irish News’ resident hate monger, Brian Feeney, also uses the word ‘unionism’ to denote a perceived ‘community’, which allows him to confer collective responsibility for any act which he deems to have been perpetrated by a ‘unionist’ upon a broad swathe of society, whilst simultaneously distancing another section of society, to which Brian believes himself to belong, from any share of blame.

Given that Feeney’s venom is almost exclusively targeted towards ‘unionists’, by his definition, he holds in contempt a mass of people who form the majority of the population of Northern Ireland.

Thus, after stumbling upon an idea which makes some sense, i.e. that attacks on Romanian homes are the mirror image of ‘republican’ riots in mid Ulster and “y…

Looking beyond unionism as a 'community'.

Peter Robinson has appealed for more cooperation between unionist parties, yet in the same interview he attacks Sir Reg Empey as a ‘puppet’ of David Cameron. The irony is not lost on the Ulster Unionist leader. It might suit Robinson to play down differences between Northern Ireland’s two main pro-Union parties after the DUP’s dismal European election result, and to appeal for ‘unity’, but far from ‘pushing in the same direction’ as the UUP, the very language in which the First Minister articulates his understanding of unionism is anathema to the stated purposes of the Conservative and Unionist project.

It would be wrong to claim that the Ulster Unionist party itself has rid itself entirely of the baleful habit of describing unionism as a ‘community’. I criticised Jim Nicholson during his successful European election campaign for referring to the ‘unionist people’. But whilst the UUP must rid itself of a linguistic tic which betrays an old way of thinking about pro-Union politics, …

Peston's Liverpool analogy falls flat

Robert Peston might like the analogy he has drawn between Liverpool FC and the UK economy, but unlike struggling households, corporations or indeed the British government, the club has not incurred its debt by spending money which it did not have. If there is an apposite parallel to be drawn it might be between the Anfield Reds and Ulster Bank, which has remained profitable throughout the financial crisis, but was still forced to constrain its outgoings and shed staff due to a profligate and indebted owner.

Liverpool supporters will not be celebrating Gillett and Hicks successfully refinancing their ownership of the club. It is the Americans’ liability which fans’ ticket money is being used to service. And its is the bloody-minded greed of the two men which has prevented them accepting healthy returns on their original investments offered by prospective new owners.

Peston quips,

“It may have been foolish to borrow too much, but the lesson has been learned (presumably) and the figh…

Urge to democracy not universal

MT ponderds the disparity between western countries’ reactions to political suppression in Iran and Georgia, two countries with records of human rights abuses and rigged elections. Simultaneous to the demonstrations in Iran, “masked police beat dozens of demonstrators in Georgia after they held a protest outside Tbilisi’s main police station demanding the release of six opposition activists who have been held since last Friday”.

“We are told that the values of democracy and human rights are universal. The British government spends a great deal of money promoting these values abroad and lecturing other governments about the need for accountability and transparency in the electoral process. We regularly summon ambassadors from African and South Asian dictatorships to lecture them about their treatment of ethnic or religious minorities, the need for fair elections and the importance of a free press. But time and time again we have shown that we are prepared to turn a blind eye when …

Tidying devolution? Scots Tory calls for English parliament.

I’m currently reading an interesting, if insubstantial, little book called ‘A Useful Fiction: Adventures in British Democracy’, by Patrick Hannan. It is an amiable read, written with a light touch: arguably too light for the subject which it purports to examine. I intend to write about the book more comprehensively when I get time. However, I was interested to note that its speculations about an English parliament forming the last component of a long term devolution settlement are echoed in a piece on Conservative Home, written by a Scottish activist.

I am broadly of the view that an English parliament would dwarf its Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish counterparts to an extent that would unbalance, perhaps fatally, the United Kingdom’s equilibrium. Asymmetries in the current devolved constitutional system form its inherent weakness, but creating an even bigger asymmetry would not be my chosen means to recalibrate the Union. And yet I am aware that there is no appetite in Englan…

Poots is back - and this time its environmental!

Two of Three Thousand Versts’ favourite DUP MLAs are major beneficiaries of Peter Robinson’s perverse executive reshuffle.

Climate change denying, MOT hating, snow fan Sammy Wilson becomes Northern Ireland’s latest Finance Minister, a post which is often considered the executive’s most senior, excepting those of the First and Deputy First Ministers.

Famously Wilson did not wish to take the environment portfolio at all. We can only wonder how spectacularly unenthusiastic he must feel about overseeing the province’s budget for a year or two. Moderately less unenthusiastic than the people of Northern Ireland might be, contemplating the Minister of the Absurd taking the reins of their economy during a major recession.

But Wilson is a doyen of good sense in comparison to his successor as Environment Minister. Edwin Poots developed a reputation for ministerial incompetence, only exceeded by Caitriona Ruane, when he previously held the Culture brief. An enthusiast for the ill-fated Ma…

Roma, immigration and hate-filled youth

In stark contrast to the sweeping hyperbole which filled opinion pages in the weekend newspapers, O’Neill has written an intelligent commentary of issues surrounding immigration to Britain from central and eastern Europe, prompted by attacks on properties housing immigrants in Belfast and a subsequent exodus of Romanian families from their homes. In particular he examines the plight of Roma, many of whom have suffered institutional prejudice, rights abuses and violence in their home countries, before being subjected to wanton thuggery by youths in South Belfast.

O’Neill highlights two issues which are particularly pertinent to the case of Romanian Roma. First, countries from previously communist parts of Europe have been admitted to the EU without sufficient scrutiny of their legal treatment of minorities. Certainly this has partly been influenced by good will and good faith on the part of longer standing EU members. There was (and remains to a degree) widespread sympathy for neigh…

Sammy Wilson the 'ultra nationalist hard man'?

Iain Dale has highlighted the release of a political thriller with the rather instructive title 'Rogue Nation' which takes as its premise Scotland's secession from the United Kingdom. To be perfectly honest it sounds like a crock of the proverbial (although I'd happily take receipt of a review copy if the publisher wishes to prove me wrong).

According to Scotland on Sunday's review the novel's 'ultra unionist hard man' (thank you FD) is called Sammy Wilson. Given the 'ourselves alone' predilections of the character's DUP namesake, I'd venture that 'ultra nationalist' would have been more appropriate.

Euro election 2009: transfer breakdown

Jeff Dudgeon kindly forwarded his statistical analysis of the recent poll. It's the first time I've examined the results in quite such minute detail and it's fascinating to see exactly how votes transferred as the count progressed.

Distribution of Agnew and Parsley’s votes of 42,463

Alban Maginness SDLP 16,325
38% of total New total: 94,814

Jim Nicholson UCUNF 11,392
27% of total New total: 94,285

Diane Dodds DUP 2,914
7% of total New total: 91,260

Jim Allister TUV 4,284
10% of total total: 70,481 Eliminated

Non- transferable votes from Alliance/Green: 44% went to Unionists, 38% to SDLP
7,548, 18% of total

(No longer an option to transfer to de Brun or Parsley/Agnew)

Clearly, as one might expect, the SDLP and UCUNF were the parties to which Alliance and Green voters were most inclined to transfer. The pro-European bias of Maginness' campaign may have given him the edge in this particular election. From anecdotal evidence I believe a substantial number of 'soft'…

Is the Kremlin obstructing anti-Nazi film?

Neo-Nazism has frequently provided gritty material for film-makers. Russell Crowe starred in ‘Romper Stomper’, an Australian take on the subject matter. ‘American History X’ cast Ed Norton as a bright young man who embraced violent racism before undergoing a transformation in prison and returning to his community full of remorse. Shane Meadows’ ‘This is England’ explored the interaction of fascist politics and youth subcultures in Thatcher’s Britain.

Social turmoil in post-Soviet Russia has contributed to its unenviable reputation as a hotbed of racism and extreme nationalism. Albeit that the febrile political scene has calmed down a little since the 1990s. A figure like Eduard Limonov is now known primarily as an accomplice of Garry Kasparov in opposing Putin’s government. But the eccentric writer’s ‘National Bolshevik’ grouping blends racialist theory with Stalinist nostalgia and Eurasianism in a potent red-brown mix.

Limonov’s periods in prison are frequently presented a…

Should Tories reconsider Inheritance Tax pledge?

Neil O’Brien argues in the Telegraph that the Conservatives should drop plans to cut inheritance tax. I can see his point.

Although George Osborne’s proposal is to be funded by a tax on non-doms, it is inconsistent with the imperative of tackling Britain’s budget deficit. Quite simply, tax cuts are an aspiration for governments beyond the immediate future. In the short term priority must be given to combating the public debt and delivering public services as efficiently as possible, whilst striving to retain quality.

Making inheritance tax an exception to an important rule has the capacity to confuse an issue where the Conservatives appear increasingly credible in comparison to Labour.

The electorate is not naïve enough to swallow Gordon Brown’s claims that his government represents continued investment in public services, whilst the Tories offer cuts. It is fully appraised of the baleful state of the nation’s finances.

But whilst voters understand that spending will be slashed …

Recreational auditing? Not for me thanks.

On Slugger Mick has already pointed readers towards the Guardian’s resource for MPs’ expenses. The idea is that the public will investigate the various newly released documents for themselves and the newspaper will collate the information on its website. As I have to sift through financial information all day long as a day job, I will not be participating in the national audit, but I shall be keeping an eye on the documents that appear for these nine reprobates in particular. I gather that Iris has a special predilection for Laura Ashley.

Hole in my Shoe

My nose if firmly to the grindstone today, but in lieu of an informative post, here is Neil from the 'Young Ones' singing 'Hole in my Shoe'. Nostalgia - ahhhhh!

The non-existence of a 'specific unionist culture' is UK's strength.

Seeking to deconstruct nationalism to its essential components, Richard English, in his magisterial history of the phenomenon in Ireland, identifies community, struggle and power as markers indicative of the ideology. He further divides the first marker into a sub set of characteristics – culture, history, perceived common origin, exclusiveness and so forth.

It is a systemic treatment of the topic which doesn’t presume that any such requirements necessarily exist organically, much less that they are primordial by nature. Proto national traits may nurture nationalisms, but it is truer to suppose that nationalisms generally invent nations, rather than the other way about. English does not submit to an assumption that nationalism’s prescriptions are necessary to successfully define a nation state. He does not assume that nationalism is an innately superior means by which to order nation states.

To my mind, his is a rather good definition, because it attempts to characterise the phen…

No public interest in revealing Jack Night's identity

I was shocked to learn that Jack Night, the pseudonymous blogger who won the Orwell Prize back in April, has been ‘unmasked’ by the Sunday Times. At the High Court Mr Justice Eady refused to grant an injunction preventing the paper naming the serving police officer who penned the ‘Night Jack’ blog.

After the awards ceremony I wrote that I had shared a table with a police officer colleague of the winner, who spoke lucidly about the motivations which had led Jack Night to write the blog. Clearly the purpose of ‘Night Jack’ was to illuminate issues surrounding policing, justice and social upheaval through the prism of special relevant experience.

I cannot conceive of any comparable public interest argument which would have impelled the paper to reveal Jack Night’s identity. An insightful commentator has been silenced to no greater good.

Calman does not address separatist culture which impedes relationship between Holyrood and Westminster

‘Power devolved is power retained’. After ten years of regional government for Scotland the integrity of Enoch Powell’s maxim is far from proven. As a unionist, instinctively I recoil from suggestions that further reserved powers should be delegated to Edinburgh, or indeed to the regional assemblies in Cardiff and Belfast. Surely this type of tinkering can only emasculate our national Parliament at Westminster and compound the asymmetries which Labour’s constitutional experiment has inflicted upon the United Kingdom? Is there any plausible argument against the contention that the cords and bonds which hold together the Union are tied looser now than they were before devolution was introduced?

It is with deep ambivalence, therefore, that I consider the report (PDF) of the Calman Commission and its recommendations for constitutional reform which it argues would help the Scottish institutions serve their people better. Although I am innately suspicious of any movement on reserved m…

Gerry Adams' cunning plan for a united Ireland. He can't tell you about it, you know about it and if you don't, you'll find out.

One might suppose that, having purportedly accepted the principle of consent, Sinn Féin had better spend its time convincing people in Northern Ireland of the merits of Irish unity. But with the Republic's economy more closely resembling a bedraggled tabby than a sleek, formidable tiger and the imminent prospect of a British government which actively encourages Northern Ireland's continued participation in the Union, Gerry Adams is reduced to convening a conference of Irish Americans, in order to pursue his mythical 32 County Celtic utopia.

The gathering included luminaries such as Brian Keenan. Not the deceased IRA man, addressing delegates by video link from hell, but rather the pretentious poet-hostage whom discerning Lebanese literature fans confined to a small cell for four years in a vain attempt to protect the reading public from his offences. Unfortunately Islamic Jihad's public-spiritedness did not last forever and their former detainee acquired an audience for …

Improvements to Windsor Park - a last resort which should be tied to tough conditions.

Its incestuous deal with Linfield Football Club is partly responsible for the mess in which the Irish F.A. finds itself as regards an international stadium. The local governing body signed a contract which stipulated that Northern Ireland would play at Windsor Park for a century, with all the extra revenue that guaranteed the venue’s owners. No unambiguous clause, demanding that the crumbling stadium be maintained in accordance with the requirements of international football, was included.

The I.F.A. has helped Linfield improve a valuable capital asset which the club has subsequently allowed to fall into disrepair, but it is still obliged either to use the stadium or pay compensation for a broken contract. Which is not to consider the fortune that our administrators have paid to use a stadium which they helped to finance, damaging the competitiveness of the league which it is their responsibility to oversee and compromising the cross community credentials of that competition and t…

Fitful blogging

My laptop woes are complete, and my hard-drive apparently is partially damaged. Although it works a little, I intend not to blog anything lengthy over the weekend, lest it should freeze whilst I am writing or posting. An incident of that type would lead to my hardware being launched very forcibly against the wall. I should be getting a new drive on Monday and, if I can install it properly, normal service will resume.

Conservative government will halt impetus towards Irish unity

Henry McDonald has penned an article for the Guardian Politics blog which is well worth a read. Considering Sinn Féin’s divergent fortunes north and south of the Irish border, he concludes that any impetus towards integration has effectively ground to a standstill, for the time being. The financial crisis has dulled any appetite for unity in the Republic; the provisionals occupy an increasingly irrelevant position in the southern polity and an incoming Conservative government in London, whilst fully committed to operating power sharing in Northern Ireland, will not be inclined to ‘deepen “all Ireland institutions”’ in the manner which nationalists envisage.

Even disregarding performance at the polls, by McDonald’s estimation the Ulster Unionists have already ensured a degree of influence over the thinking of the next government.

“Within less than a year, however, a Tory party with many in the shadow cabinet committed ideologically to the union will be in power.
Even if the Ulster Union…

Nelson announces Conservative decision at council. But it's not all good news from Ballymena!

Deirdre Nelson, the Ballymena councillor who recently defected from the DUP, has officially announced her intention to fulfil council duties as a member of the Conservative party. It is, admittedly, a little curious that Nelson’s disillusionment with her former party seems to date from Ian Paisley’s departure as leader. The North Antrim MP’s rabble rousing style hardly conformed to the inclusive, pan-UK unionism which the Conservatives espouse. But that is the type of politics which the councillor explicitly endorsed when she explained her decision to colleagues at the council’s offices at Ardeevin, according to the Ballymena Times.

“I have watched, with interest, the recent moves by the Conservative Party to begin to steer Northern Ireland away from sectarian politics into normal UK politics and to ensure that Northern Ireland fulfils (its) role as an integral and necessary part of the United Kingdom, in which all traditions are welcomed.

“This, coupled with the recent visit by Davi…

Stagnant proposals designed to divert attention from crumbling premiership.

What he gives with one hand, he takes away with the other. Gordon Brown’s ideas for constitutional reform, announced yesterday, include a proposal to reduce the period during which the publication of government documents is prohibited, from thirty years to twenty years. A highly commendable measure, designed to facilitate more transparent government, you might suppose. But the Prime Minister also intends to increase the range of documents released only after the statutory period has elapsed, by removing the ‘public interest’ proviso which exists under Freedom of Information legislation. It is a typical piece of New Labour sophistry, which seeks to give the appearance of openness, rather than ensuring its actuality.

When Brown succeeded Tony Blair as premier, he made much of his reformist credentials, as regards the constitution. But far from offering a different style of government to his predecessor, the Prime Minister has contributed more of the authoritarian and centralist st…

Independently minded? Brown can rely on one loyal supporter to the end.

It’s hardly a surprise. I suspect Lady Hermon might vote for Gordon Brown to become Prime Minister for life, if legislation to that effect were put before the House of Commons. A sizeable chunk of the Labour leader’s cabinet has deserted him, but the member for North Down is a die hard loyalist. She’s like Ed Balls without any influence.

In a motion put before the House yesterday evening calling for a general election, Hermon voted against all the opposition parties (other than the SDLP) who supported the motion and with the dying, discredited government. Perhaps she thinks the electorate need not be consulted at all and that Gordon (who plainly knows best) should continue to exercise his wisdom as some manner of benevolent dictator.

Back to the future! Retro Northern Ireland away match shows up lack of depth.

With the political calendar so busy over the past number of days, I neglected to post anything about Northern Ireland’s friendly match in Italy. Unfortunately I only managed to watch our second (third?) string eleven succumb to a young Italy line-up on television. It was particularly galling not to be travelling, as the hundred or so strong support which did make it to Pisa harked back to the ‘good old days’ when green shirts didn’t swamp a city but rather sought each other out, and there was a much more collegial feel to the Green and White Army.

It reminded me of a trip to Zurich some years ago, when Lawrie Sanchez’ team managed an honourable goalless draw, or travelling through Ukraine on the night train to Donetsk (above). Call me a curmudgeon if you must, but my feeling is that those occasions were better fun. There was a keener sense of camaraderie amongst Northern Ireland fans, we were often a novelty for locals and, let’s be honest, there were fewer embarrassing character…

Where are we now? Will Euro 2009 change pro-Union politics?

Britain’s newly elected MEPs will today return to working lives of relative obscurity (unless they are Daniel Hannan), to emerge again only after five years have elapsed, in order to seek your vote. Such is the anti-climactic character of elective European politics. It illustrates the nominal nature of voter participation in the EU and the profound disconnection between its citizens and the institutions which shape their lives. Northern Ireland, for its part, experienced a European election which was by turns both low key and acrimonious. With Sinn Féin’s share of the vote dropping by just 0.3% and the SDLP enjoying only a negligible increase, it was the battle for pro-Union votes which has raised most discussion. Before we wish our three MEPs Godspeed, and they slip dock and sail for Brussels, it is worth surveying how precisely, if at all, Euro 2009 has impacted our politics.

Commanding most attention is the performance of Jim Allister, who defended his seat with spirit and reta…

Mission Accomplished! Conservatives and Unionists take second as glum Dupes wait.

The second count has now been completed. The SDLP has edged ahead by just over 400 votes to lead the remaining contenders. The DUP is now lagging behind in fourth place.

Jim Allister will be eliminated and the redistribution of his votes is crucial in establishing how the final results will look. If, as expected, his supporters do not transfer readily to Diane Dodds, then Jim Nicholson would be overwhelming favourite to claim the second spot. We will now see just how deep antipathy between Allister’s party and the DUP really runs.

2nd prefs: SDLP: 94814; UCUNF 94385; DUP: 91260.

Update: MISSION ACCOMPLISHED! Jim Nicholson is the second MEP elected, passing quota for the Conservatives and Unionists. He has said a few victorious words by the side of Owen Paterson who also looks rather pleased (to say the least). There are now Conservative aligned MEPs returned for each part of the United Kingdom. That is pan-UK unionism in action!