Tuesday, 30 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 beneficiaries of the ‘huckster’s shop’ (to quote Sir Reg Empey) which they have operated at Stormont, even they cannot be complacent about dysfunctional government. Alex Kane wrote in yesterday’s News Letter about disconnect between the electorate and an ineffective Assembly. Unaccountable government makes for a disengaged public and low voter turn-out.

All the impetus during the DUP / SF spell of government has been towards emasculating the Assembly and empowering ministers. Indeed a further power grab has attempted to curtail even the Executive’s decision making function (where four parties are at least nominally involved) and concentrate it within the Office of the First and Deputy First Ministers, locus of Stalinist carve-up politics under Robinson and McGuinness. This is the arrangement which Slugger’s Pete Baker describes as a ‘semi-detached polit-bureau’.

At national level David Cameron has announced his intention to recalibrate the relationship between legislature and executive. It is appropriate that the Conservatives’ partners in Northern Ireland, the Ulster Unionist Party, have advanced ideas as to how the Assembly might better oversee and hold accountable its Executive, at local level. Deputy leader, Danny Kennedy, pondering Stormont’s inner workings, must start from a much lower base than the House of Commons offers Cameron. It is a case of carving out for the Assembly any type of meaningful, independent legislative role.

Whilst criticism has been made of the committee system at Westminster, Stormont committees are feeble organs in comparison. Kennedy estimates that committee business commands just 0.5% of Assembly time. In contrast 81% of business is comprised of private members motions which, no matter how well supported they might be, do not bind ministers. The result is that Stormont really is the much maligned ‘talking shop’ of popular legend. Kennedy wants to see legislation properly scrutinised and revised by committees.

Any initiative which would make the Executive more accountable to the Assembly from which it is drawn should be welcomed and examined carefully. The novelty value of Northern Ireland’s government has long since worn thin and voters will only play their part if the structures are seen to be relevant and responsive. Nationally the expenses scandal precipitated a debate about parliament’s function and its relationship to government. A similar discussion is long overdue at Stormont.

Monday, 29 June 2009

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 doubted would ever reach an accord with nationalism, made the agreement and operated it. Porter’s approach sought greater flexibility by accepting rigid nationalist doctrines. His paradox failed.

If the writer behind ‘Rethinking Unionism’ has recorded any thoughts about the Conservatives and Unionists arrangement in Northern Ireland I would be interested to read them. I detect echoes of Porter’s thinking, when I read a certain brand of highly strung argument against national parties involving themselves directly in Northern Ireland. The emphasis is on fudging the issue of British sovereignty here, on cauterising its political consequences. It accepts the unsubstantiated nationalist proposition that the Belfast Agreement committed successive British governments to the status of disinterested referees in Northern Ireland. Where it departs from Irish nationalism is that it neither foresees not desires any end to this state of suspended animation, but it does share a disregard for the principle of consent as anything other than a hand-break on progress towards a united Ireland.

Porter identifies, in his book, confusion between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome which is inherent in the notion of ‘parity of esteem’. Yet although nationalism expresses the idea differently, demanding to choose between Republic of Ireland and UK institutions (despite putatively accepting the principle of consent), the tendency to see panacea in Northern Ireland's effective political isolation, with causeways of identity and finance providing only strictly necessary connections to Dublin and London, also carries the same assumptions in its DNA.

The author did explicitly repudiate equal status for unionism and nationalism, stating that, naturally, as unionism retained the larger electoral mandate, the British connection should carry the weight of sovereignty and symbolism. But in its emphasis of Northern Ireland as an entity which could be politically separate from the United Kingdom, and its suggestion that a full role in the UK’s politics should be curtailed because of the peculiar position which Northern Ireland holds within the Kingdom, Porter was coming close to Humespeak, whether he acknowledged it or not.

‘Rethinking Unionism’ was written before the Belfast Agreement was conceived or instigated. Whether, with the Irish nationalist aspiration guaranteed a role in Northern Ireland’s government, safeguards for identity and culture and a cooperative relationship with Dublin central to the dispensation, Porter would deny Conservatives and Ulster’s unionists’ entitlement to strengthen Northern Ireland’s participation in Wsetminster is doubtful. Certainly he would recognise that the Agreement does not require that the British government refrain from such a project. With the luxury of retrospect, contemporary commentators have less excuse for their misinterpretation of a document which they have had eleven years to digest.

Of course Northern Irishness is in itself an identity. It is an identity which is often nested within various degrees of Irishness and Britishness. But whilst unionists might view their Northern Irishness and Irishness as integral to who they are, their political identity is British rather than Northern Irish. As a unionist, I am not interested in Northern Ireland, as a political entity, outside the Union. Retaining some nominal sense of separateness might be a cultural objective, or it might shape my sense of identity, but it does not form a political end. Unionism in Northern Ireland, if it can be meaningfully described as unionism at all, prioritises its membership of the United Kingdom over its separation from the rest of the island of Ireland.

Which is why an honest interpretation of the principle of consent is crucial to unionism. If the majority of people in Northern Ireland wish it to remain within the United Kingdom, that cannot be interpreted merely as a temporary break on a united Ireland. The political consequences which flow from the decision must be respected. Which means that certain symbols and furniture of state are appropriate and that full participation in Westminster politics should be encouraged.

The essence of the Belfast Agreement is a level, democratic playing field for political aspirations, rather than equal status for two political results with unequal mandates. David Cameron and Sir Reg Empey have grasped the crucial difference. Indeed by offering people in Northern Ireland the option of participating fully in national politics, Conservative and Unionists are not only in compliance with the letter of the Agreement, but they are expressing its basic principle more fully than any other competing party.

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.

To cut through the jargon, Labour proposes to present its document to the UK electorate, base its election campaign on the contents, and refuse to discuss how any of the policy ideas will be funded. It is a staggering strategy to adopt in its blatant contempt for the British public and it represents a piece of reckless electioneering from an incumbent administration, at a time when responsible governance is so clearly what the country needs.

Rather than concentrating on making a dignified exit when Brown finally grants a poll next summer, Labour’s desperation is making it reckless. Disingenuousness and brandishing outdated stereotypes will be to no avail. The party will simply damage its prospects of returning to government after one term.

Friday, 26 June 2009

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 in which every citizen is an equal citizen in the politics of the United Kingdom.”

“I believe that our relationship with the Conservative Party is the beginning of a new and genuinely exciting development in both national and local politics. The DUP may be content with a 'little-Ulster' approach to unionism and a carve-up with Sinn Fein. But the UUP is not content with that vision or that agenda. We believe in a broader, wider, deeper Union. We believe in the people of Northern Ireland having their voices heard and heeded at a national, European and international level. We believe in a new approach to politics and policy creation here and the building of a socio-economic agenda which addresses our real needs.

That's the unionism that the UUP believes in: and with the Conservative Party beside us that's the unionism we will be jointly promoting.”

Thursday, 25 June 2009

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 undoubtedly true, is hardly enough on its own to sustain a decent book. But beyond this rather amorphous idea Hannan does not get far. The difficulty is that there is no central premise which draws together the author’s ‘investigations’, nor does the half assed collection of anecdote, observation and interview, which forms the book’s core, offer any substantive insight into the issues at which it is gesturing. ‘A Useful Fiction’ reminds me most of the type pf writing which one finds in the magazine of a Sunday newspaper. It is full of sweeping generalisation, garnished by a little local colour but substantiated by almost no empirical evidence. Worst of all, it is composed mainly of hint and insinuation, rather than anything vaguely approaching a conclusion. Reading it is a profoundly unsatisfying experience.

The author is evidently sceptical about the United Kingdom and Britishness and enthusiastic about identities which he perceives as flourishing under devolution. He fights shy of describing himself as a nationalist, but disproportionately it is through nationalist voices that he chooses to investigate the effects of devolved government. There is a pervading sense in the book of unionism as an anti-progressive force, which is never qualified, justified or investigated. Conversely the notion that nationalism can represent anything other than a centre left ideology, committed to egalitarianism and free prescriptions, is not explored. Hannan makes allusions on a number of occasions to the European Union and a blurring of borders and sovereignty, but just when you think he might be about to touch upon something original or interesting, he leaves his thought dangling, half-formed.

What Hannan does do well is cartoon and stereotype. He would probably make a serviceable satirist, but instead he chooses to present his brand of wry cliché as a credible version of Britain as it is in actuality. Thus we have the national identity reduced to obstruction of progress and suspicion of foreigners, as epitomised by readers of the Daily Mail. It might provide a facetious swing to the author’s prose, but this is no serious examination of identity and nationhood. Britain has assimilated an extraordinary range of immigrants, for the most part with few difficulties. We have a society which is remarkably sensitised to causing any type of offence. Yes we are excessively preoccupied with celebrity, sensationalism and have developed a rivalry with our near neighbours. Those are traits which are common to the modern developed world, rather than the UK. Picking out iniquities associated with the mass media and elevating them to defining characteristics of Britishness is neither plausible nor insightful. Taking the piss out of Prince Charles might be fun, but it does not make the rest of his countrymen modernity hating, homeopathic remedy junkies, however much Hannan might attempt to suggest otherwise.

I do not wish to dwell on the most sweeping of Hannan’s stereotypes. He depicts Northern Irish people as a whole, and unionists in particular, as an exotic breed of puritans who lack the charm to interact successfully with their fellow citizens. I think most people here are immune to any offence caused by this type of cliché. I will merely point out that the comparative success which Terry Wogan has enjoyed in mainland broadcasting may partly be due to the mellifluousness of his accent, but Gerry Anderson’s parochial style bombed because it is crap, not because the rest of Britain loathes his accent!

Although I might not agree with its argument, if a book is persuasive, scholarly and well written it still makes a worthwhile read. If its argument is half-baked, if it is poorly researched and if it is composed mainly of hearsay, conjecture and stereotype, then it deserves to be criticised. ‘A Useful Fiction’ will leave its readers less enlightened about Britain and less enlightened about devolution than they were before they read it.

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 “youths on both sides have a lot in common”, Feeney quickly pedals backwards. Whilst a variety of underlying reasons for the violence have been suggested -poverty, lack of education or opportunities, wanton thuggery, racism and so forth - Brian cuts through the nonsense to identify the characteristic which makes these south Belfast teenagers peculiarly inclined to viciously attack Roma homes. You’ve guessed it already. They’re ‘unionists’. Of course they are. They come from a ‘unionist area’ and no doubt, as they revelled in the sounds of crashing glass and crying children, they thought about the Union and how their actions would strengthen it.

Although Feeney hates ‘unionists’ a lot, his most vehement loathing is reserved for a subset of the ‘unionist community’, ‘unionist politicians’. Their cynical, Machiavellian manoeuvrings are what animates the lumpen, unthinking, cultureless Prodletariat. They’ve inculcated a mentality of ‘supremacy and exclusion’ into the ‘unionist community’, a mentality which ‘unionists’ now exclusively exhibit. Whenever ‘unionist politicians’ deplore violence against Roma they are crying ‘crocodile tears’, because it is they who cause the ‘unionist community’ to be violent and racist in the first place.

Perhaps the most ironic aspect to Feeney’s analysis (and certainly its only instructive element), is that the ‘group think’ which seeks to attribute to whole sections of society a label and political opinions, based on their religion or place of birth, is so clearly and demonstrably exhibited. It is the lazy, instinctual tendency to brand people, based on one’s own prejudices and perceptions, as well as a ceaseless need to blame ‘the other lot’, which actually makes Northern Ireland susceptible to racism and xenophobia. As Feeney and Robinson demonstrate, neither ‘community’ has a monopoly on that type of thinking.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

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, from which the party leadership is determined to move away, the DUP and its leader consciously ground their unionism in the notion of a monolithic community, defined along cultural and religious lines.

According to Robinson, the existence of three unionist parties, ‘is not in the best interests of the "unionist community"’, ‘let's have better relationships within the “unionist community”’ he opines. The emphasis from Conservatives and Unionists should be very different. Giving pro-Union voters a choice of candidates for whom to vote is necessary and widens the overall base of support for the maintenance of the United Kingdom. Let’s persuade people of the merits of Union, whichever community they perceive themselves to belong to. Let’s have better relationships within the community in Northern Ireland. Let’s have better relationships within the United Kingdom and let’s build political alliances on a UK wide basis.

The DUP shares a perception with its Irish nationalist rivals that unionism comprises a small, culturally homogenous community of people who live in Northern Ireland and nominally adhere to the Protestant faith. Conservatives and Unionists are clear that unionism describes a broad swathe of opinion, spanning the nation, which believes in the maintenance of the United Kingdom. Unionism is about Britain rather than Northern Ireland and it is predicated on political belief, rather than membership of a perceived community.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

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 fight goes on.”

He should apply that wisdom to the American owners rather than the football club in general.

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 the people committing human rights abuses have declared themselves willing to serve our geopolitical interests.”

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 England for devolution to smaller, sub-national assemblies.

Andrew Morrison, writing in his Con Home article, is certainly right to suppose that there are difficulties to be addressed and his contention that it will be a Conservative government which must address them is perhaps the most interesting aspect of his piece. That means tackling interlocking problems surrounding the Barnett formula and the West Lothian Question. As regards Scottish devolution Morrison foresees the Calman Commission’s proposals forming a self-imposed boundary for Conservative instigated constitutional reform. Stepping outside the confines of those recommendations might stoke resentment aggravated by the SNP myth that any UK government needs a separate mandate from Scotland, in order to legislate on its behalf.

Replacing Barnett with a more up to date formula, by which to allocate tax payers’ money on the basis of need, should indeed be a Conservative priority. A less arbitrary system is required in order to give the appearance of fairness and responsiveness to requirements throughout the United Kingdom. Which is not to say that any of the block grants should necessarily be cut dramatically, but rather that a more flexible assessment of need should be the basis by which money is allocated.

Monday, 22 June 2009

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 Maze stadium / republican terror shrine project, which would have been sited at his constituency, Edwin believes that the earth is five thousand years old, that humans co-existed with dinosaurs and that the universe was created in six days - literally.

All of which would constitute harmless eccentricity if Edwin were a lollipop man rather than a minister of the Northern Ireland Executive.

Not content with embellishing his team with a pair of loons, the DUP leader has added a third. Nelson McCausland might ordinarily be viewed as bringing some baggage to the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, given that he is a ‘true believer’ in the Volk- kitsch of Ulster Scots. His appointment is consistent with the Dupe approach to DCAL, which is to use it as a means to posture against anything which is perceived as ‘Irish’.

For anyone who values culture, art or sport for their own sakes rather than as mediums for sectarian one-upmanship, McCausland makes a depressing appointment. Misty eyed advocates of the ‘Cruithin’ will be rather more heartened.

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 neighbours who suffered under totalitarian regimes, a desire to help them recover from their ordeal and a belief that Union membership brings material benefits which would naturally be accompanied by an embrace of accepted western values. Although it was well-meaning, this attitude was shaped by the conviction that the accession countries should be grateful enough to immediately conform to norms which are patchily applied even in some long standing EU states.

Thus, in the Baltic nations, citizenship laws which discriminate against the sizeable Russian minority remain and in the central and southern reaches of the former eastern bloc, Roma frequently suffer official disadvantages which reflect popular prejudice against their ethnicity. Belfast might currently be smarting from shame induced by its least enlightened citizens’ violence against the minority, but it is far from unusual, much less unique, for racist crimes to be perpetrated against Roma. Indeed, O’Neill observes, similar outrages are too often murderous. It makes a sensational headline, and pleases editors, to brand Belfast ‘the racist capital of Europe’, but although it might represent faint praise to point it out, the claim scarcely bears serious scrutiny.

The second plank of the Unionist Lite article deals with the two tier system for EU citizens who wish to live and work in the United Kingdom. There is an internal inconsistency in this approach which feeds the perception that Romanians and Bulgarians who come to this country are each work shy, unassimilable gypsies who's means of support are crime and begging. Whilst nationals from the newest member states enjoy freedom of movement throughout the European Union, they encounter a range of obstacles if they wish to work in the UK. These measures were instigated due to concern that the influx of eastern Europeans which followed the 2004 accessions would be repeated on a larger scale with poorer inhabitants of Romania and Bulgaria.

The truth is that, whilst there may be sound arguments against untrammelled immigration, it is not tenable to treat citizens from two EU states differently to citizens from the other twenty five. In so doing government is institutionalising the notion that such people are somehow ‘less European’ than their counterparts from other member states. Britain must either press for more rigorous criteria to be applied whenever possible accession countries are considered for entry to the Union or it must look at the reasons why the UK is such a popular destination for new EU citizens.

The issue goes to the heart of Britain’s relationship with the EU, and indeed the nature of the Union itself. If it is predicated on free trade then the movement of labour is inevitable. If its outlook is strategic and its purpose is to disseminate a certain set of political values, broadly democratic in character, then there will naturally be an imperative to expand to the south and east. Whichever inclinations shape the European Union, membership entails consequences, both positive and negative. It is naïve to believe that Britain can immunise itself from those consequences.

Of course such abstraction does not colour the thinking of a hate-filled youth, who propels a brick through a window because he perceives that the family cowering behind it is ‘different’. He is responsible for his own actions and the rigour of the law should be applied to him harshly. But there are many levels of dysfunction which form the backdrop to his crime. Whether it is the parents, who have not inculcated a sense of decency into their son, whether it is a failure in policing his area, whereby criminal elements operating as self-appointed ‘representatives’ are allowed to mediate on behalf of his 'community’, or whether it is inconsistencies in government level policy on immigration. It takes a thoughtful commentator like O’Neill to bring out the complexities of an issue which has precipitated a range of much less insightful analysis over the past week.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

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.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

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' pro Union voters found Maginness an amenable home for their transfer because his campaign focussed on European issues and touched, barely at all, on the constitutional question. Dodds' figures demonstrate that her transfer-friendliness cost her a quota.


Distribution of Allister’s TUV transfers of 66,197

Jim Nicholson UCUNF 37,942
57% of total New total: 132,227 Elected 11,083 over quota

Diane Dodds DUP 24,462
37% of total New total: 115,722 Elected under quota

Alban Maginness SDLP 2,614
4% of total New total: 97,428 Not elected

Allister’s non-transferable votes 1,179
2% of total

No longer an option to transfer to de Brun, Parsley or Agnew (elected or eliminated)

The preference of Allister's supporters to transfer to the Conservatives and Unionists candidate, rather than Dodds has been discussed ad nauseum. The phenomenon proved by no means as universal as might be supposed. 37% of TUV voters were prepared to transfer to the DUP, which indicates either, that whilst registering a protest against that party, they still felt it reflected their politics more accurately than a Conservative candidate, or that a proportion of the TUV vote were voting positively FOR Allister, rather than against Dodds, per sé.

Thanks Jeff.

Friday, 19 June 2009

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 as examples of Putinite Russia’s suppression of pluralism, but they were more often than not related to his participation in violent stunts. One such incident involved an abortive ‘invasion’ of Kazakhstan, where Limonov claimed he would carve out an ethnically pure state for Russians.

Alexander Barkashov is a more conventional neo-Nazi, but in February 1999 one survey adjudged him one of Russia’s ten most recognisable politicians. Vladimir Zhirinovsky is a popular nationalist whose ironically named Liberal Democrats hold forty seats in the State Duma. Even the ruling party, United Russia, has a youth wing, Nashi, which employs imagery that invites occasional comparison with hard-line nationalism.

Abutting these groups is a skinhead subculture which is both violent and murderous. In December seven young gang members were convicted of the murder of twenty migrant workers in Moscow. It was the most high profile instance of racist slaughter in post-Soviet Russia to date.

All of which suggests that Russia should make fertile territory for an examination of neo Nazism on film. And indeed Pavel Bardin’s movie ‘Russia 88’ attempts just that. The skinhead film has created excitement amongst critics, rights campaigners and prospective cinema goers. But Open Democracy’s Russia site suggests that the authorities have not welcomed the work with open arms, despite granting it a distribution certificate. Purportedly obstacles have been put in the way of an eager public watching the film

It is alleged that one scene in particular, during which a portrait of Hitler is flipped, to reveal a picture of Vladimir Putin, has caused official concern. How far the tale of shadowy forces, preventing the film’s widespread consumption, can be believed is impossible to judge, but there is at least the suggestion that the Kremlin is suspicious of a film which its maker claims is intended to help the authorities combat violent racism.

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 by Labour as surely as it will by the Conservatives, they must also remain convinced that the latter party will not forward a tax cutting agenda at a time when every pound is needed.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

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!

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

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 phenomenon without succumbing to an evaluation by its own terms. It steps outside the vocabulary which nationalism has developed in order to justify itself and in so doing avoids the type of circular thinking which nationalist commentators are often guilty of. Certainly it is a better attempt than that offered by Partick Murphy, Irish News columnist, at the outset of an article which is more preoccupied with unionism.

“Nationalism, Irish or otherwise, is easy to define. It usually consists of a shared political identity, within a recognised geographical area, and supported by common cultural features such as language, literature, music, dance, sport and customs.”

The contrast with English’s reading is stark – nationalism here is straightforward, obvious, buttressed by evidence. I have objected before to Murphy’s easy nationalist assumptions. He wrote a shoddy, generalising piece which attacked Britishness both as a nationality and as an identity, on the basis that it could not be defined by nationalism’s cultural prescriptions. His latest offering suggests that he is making some attempt to re-examine the interface between cultural identity and political belief, but still cannot quite reconcile himself to the fact that a particular political nationality need not attach itself to a mono-culture.

An odd aspect to the article is that, several times, Murphy comes rather close to acknowledging something of the fundamentals of unionism as a political philosophy, but, like a dog tethered to a rope, whilst he gnaws at his own creed’s attitude to unionists, he is ultimately unable to free himself of its assumptions, and he resorts to the tested clichés of recalcitrance and culturelessness. At least Murphy is asking the question, albeit that his ability to furnish an answer is hampered by reluctance to set aside a set of criteria into which unionism stubbornly refuses to fit.

“So what are the characteristics of unionism? It has a political identity – union with Britain – but it is rather vague on geography and remarkably weak on culture.”

It is an instructive start, because Murphy has laid down the markers by which he intends to define unionism and they are the exactly same markers which shape his understanding of nationalism. He does not pause to consider whether unionism might have a distinct set of characteristics which do not necessarily comply with the categories which nationalism prescribes. It is an approach which I criticised in his piece about Britishness, when the author attempted to fit the concept with a nationalist straight-jacket. When Murphy correctly contends, “in terms of a specifically unionist culture, there is none”, he has stumbled upon a singular truth, but what he identifies as weakness is actually part of the essential fabric of modern and inclusive unionism.

It is not necessary to assemble a political identity around a ‘specific culture’ (whatever that might consist in). Unionism offers the thesis that the United Kingdom is the best means by which to govern the territory covered by its four component parts. It does not require its adherents to conform to any cultural preconditions, but rather draws its strength from all the identities which it pools, as well as an overarching framework of values, language, common institutions and shared history.

So far from subsisting in three counties of Ulster (as Murphy suggests), unionism is an idea common to the entire United Kingdom. Far from basing itself around a single culture, or being possessed of none, unionism spans many. Whilst Murphy might be happy to characterise TUV supporters’ hostile reaction to Bairbre de Bruin’s Irish speech at the election count as indicative of unionism, I identified in it nothing which colours my unionist inclinations.

He is right that unionists can and should share in culture unique to the island of Ireland, if that is where they live, but he is wrong to suppose that if more unionists do embrace a sense of themselves as Irish, that nationalism will benefit politically. The United Kingdom already encompasses a myriad of identities and sub-identities of which Irishness is merely one ,and that pluriculturalism contributes to the UK’s strength as a political entity. Embracing Irishness is entirely compatible with a strong sense of Britishness, indeed relaxing about the former would help some Ulster unionists to take a less distorted view of the latter.

There is much that is well meaning in Murphy’s article. There is also much that is deeply patronising. And its internal contradiction is that whilst it sets out to propose that nationalists should aim not to estrange unionists from the Irish component of their identity, it singularly fails to recognise that expressing that Irish identity does not entail a corresponding shift towards allegiance to an all-Ireland state.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

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 matters, devolution is now an established element of the British constitution and there is no serious appetite to revisit its basic structures. For the good of people living in devolved areas, and for the greater political benefit of the United Kingdom, the aim must be to make devolution work as well as it possibly can. If, in Scotland, people perceive that the Scottish Parliament has improved the standard of governance which they enjoy, and if a serious, systemic examination concludes that devolution can be further improved, then we are bound to consider that examination closely, albeit with an eye to the continued health of the Union as a whole, and not merely the welfare of Scotland itself.

Although the commission has considered a wide range of possible outcomes, its remit required that it develop suggestions compatible with securing Scotland’s ‘position within the United Kingdom’. That might represent a rather subjective aspiration, particularly considering that the guiding hand was provided by a Labour government with a particularly cavalier approach to the UK constitution. But it was enough to preclude anything other than the most desultory engagement by nationalists with Lord Calman and his commissioners.

The executive summary (PDF) of the final report claims, “In thinking about how devolution should develop further, we have looked very carefully at how it fits into the wider Union that is the United Kingdom.”. And, dovetailing neatly with a theme that David Cameron has developed in his Scottish policies, the recommendations stress the need for different levels of government with responsibility for Scotland; Westminster, Holyrood and down to the local level; to work together. Indeed, it might have noted that an attritional relationship between the Scottish and national governments only serves to bolster the SNP’s campaign for independence. The report offers rather a convincing case for continued Union, as well as a clear exegesis of Scotland’s place within the constitutional fabric of the United Kingdom, but if its practical recommendations would ultimately weaken that Union, then the body has failed to satisfy its remit.

It would be impossible to plausibly maintain, though, that the commission has not, on occasion, cut to the quick of issues surrounding sovereignty and Union. Its first recommendation, for instance, is that there cannot be two interpretations of social rights operating within one political Union. This is an argument which unionists in Northern Ireland have consistently advanced against NI Human Rights Commission proposals that just such a two tier approach to socio-economic entitlements be adopted in this region of the Kingdom. Whatever the vagaries of our rights debate, and there remains a valid view that certain specific additional rights around the area of equality and parity of esteem might be appropriate, the contention that a single set of fundamental rights and a single set of social rights, must operate within the UK parliament’s jurisdiction is established, amongst all but the most fervent proponents of a maximalist Northern Ireland bill.

Conversely the commission was charged specifically with increasing financial responsibility for the Scottish Parliament. There is no acknowledgment in its remit that that aim need not necessarily be compatible with increasing the security of Scotland within the Union, which it also requires. Calman does not suggest disentangling the Scottish Parliament from the current UK tax system, nor indeed dismantling the notion of a ‘block grant’ altogether. The report favours tinkering with the Scottish Variable Rate, applying it to more than the basic bracket of tax, and to more taxes than income tax, as well as obliging the Parliament to raise at least ten per cent of its income tax directly, albeit that no differential with the rest of the UK would be required. Whether this is the same as making a ‘tax decision’ mandatory is a matter of dispute. Certainly it does not facilitate the stiff dose of economic reality which some unionists believe might arrest the impulse to every greater independence, nor does it represent a likely end-point as regards the tax raising aspirations of the Scottish Parliament. Thus far, the Parliament has declined to use the SVR and whether a separatist administration would compromise its ‘blame Westminster’ narrative by using the powers which the commission proposes is highly debatable.

It is certainly an indisputable contention that the report’s recommendations would constitute an extensive revamp of the means by which the Scottish Parliament and its work is financed, including more tax raising and borrowing powers than have been available to that institution to date. Although the block grant burden on Westminster would be eased accordingly, the commission acknowledges that it does not have the ability to recommend that those monies be calculated by a method other than the Barnett Formula. That is the means by which it envisages the block grant being determined for the foreseeable future.

None of which offers prima facie encouragement to unionists and none of which is properly offset by suggestions that different layers of government should operate in more complementary fashion. The language of respect in which these provisions are couched is meaningless whenever the Scottish government defines itself in opposition to its Westminster equivalent. Cooperation does admittedly form an extensive core of the Calman document, which should be welcomed, but whilst it outlines plans for increased oversight of relevant business, by both institutions, structural change is but one aspect of a culture shift which is needed so that devolved institutions work with, rather than against, national government.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

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 unwieldy, tortuous prose after his release.

Star of the 'Irish unity' show, however, was another sentimental nationalist known for the woeful quality of his writing. Unionists will be concerned to learn that Adams is 'confident' that Ireland will be united within a generation. Conversely they will be heartened to read his clear and helpful advice as to how that outcome might be brought about.

"I can’t tell you how to do it. You know how to do it. and if you don’t, you’ll find out.”

OK Gerry.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

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 the international team. Inept, farcical, absurd.

It would be fair to suppose that Linfield FC has something of a brass-neck to propose a further upgrade to its dilapidated home, which could cost the taxpayer £20 million, in order that international revenues can continue to fill its bank account. The club also suggests that a new arrangement could replace the 100 year contract requiring Northern Ireland to fulfil home fixtures at Windsor Park, which has 80 years to run. An offer of questionable generosity, given that the Irish Football Association would effectively be committed to staging international matches at the ground for the foreseeable future, if they were to secure public funding.

If these proposed improvements offer the most cost effective means to provide Northern Ireland with an international home in Belfast then, unfortunately, they must be considered. But the Assembly and sports’ authorities should remember that another scheme has been suggested, for a brand new arena in east Belfast. And if Linfield is to get yet more subsidised improvements to its stadium, justified by international requirements, a tough new deal should be struck whereby the I.F.A. agrees to contribute more to the ground’s upkeep, but international revenues do not accrue to Windsor Park’s owners.

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.

Friday, 12 June 2009

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 Unionist wing of the Conservative alliance fails to return a single MP to Westminster it will, ironically, still exercise some internal influence on the Tories.”

What better way for those who believe in the Union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland to strengthen that Union, than by entrenching the influence of local MPs at the heart of the next Westminster government?

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 David Cameron, has persuaded me that I wish to be an active and valued member of the Conservatives and, therefore, I am announcing with effect from today, I will sit as a Conservative councillor on Ballymena Council.

“I will, of course,” she added, “continue to serve my constituents to the best of my ability and, in time, I trust that they will see the wisdom of my decision.”

Alas the paper doesn’t carry good news in all its pages. Sport’s reporter, Stephen Alexander, confirms that ancient midfielder, Darren Lockhart, will join Ballymena United during the close season.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

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 style which his own technocratic leanings did much to impose upon the Blair administration in the first place. It should not be forgotten that the previous resident at Number 10 was prepared to modernise, but the constant wilful impediment of Brown and his ilk prevented that modernisation taking place. Now, at the fag end of Labour government, with his personal authority thoroughly undermined, the Prime Minister has belatedly cobbled together a package of measures, few of which he is likely to have a chance to implement. It is desperate stuff shaped by the inexorable knowledge that the change which Britain most urgently desires is a change in the government itself.

Where Brown’s proposals have merit, in enabling parliament to hold government to account more effectively, for instance, or using technology to allow greater public participation in, and scrutiny of, parliamentary business, he has been pre-empted by the Conservatives more thorough suggestions. Where he offers something new, he either has no prospect of implementing change, which must be presaged by extensive consultation, or his propositions would damage the constitutional fabric of the United Kingdom.

By intimating that an electoral reform debate might touch upon some type of proportional representation, but admitting that he is committed to retaining the link between MPs and their constituencies, the Prime Minister tacitly acknowledges that any alteration is unlikely under his government. Although David Cameron has laid down extensive plans for reform he has declared his party wedded to First Past the Post. The fragmented type of coalition government which PR offers is not on any serious political agenda. It is dishonest to suggest that it is and it is irresponsible to introduce the notion as an active possibility. Any form of list system or multi-member constituency arrangement would only enervate the House of Commons and participative democracy.

Why then the contradictory message? We might be witnessing a stuttering start to an attempted game of footsie aimed at the Lib Dems, which seeks to pre-empt the remote possibility of a hung parliament. Perhaps this statement is simply Brown shyly extending a tentative toe beneath the Westminster table to worry at the hem of Nick Clegg’s trousers. However, I would suggest that this grab-bag of ideas, drawn largely from other sources, has been assembled primarily in order that the Prime Minister might pay lip service to a reform agenda, which happens to be flavour of the month.

But will the public really be convinced by such a stagnant offering? There is nothing in Brown’s address with genuine political fizz. Where is the imagination or innovation? Where is Labour’s equivalent to the Tory suggestion that Parliamentary candidates should be subject to primary elections? The abiding sense is that these proposals have been introduced simply because the Prime Minister has to be seen to be doing something about the low esteem in which parliament is currently held by the public. They are designed to divert attention from the fundamental fact that his premiership is crumbling to dust.

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.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

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 characters exhibiting ‘never been out of my own country before’ type behaviours. You tended to encounter the same people on each occasion there was an away trip. Now it’s difficult to arrange even to meet up with the friends you’ve travelled with, because several thousand people have converged upon a destination.

Banishing nostalgia for a moment, to consider what happened on the field on Saturday, the vast majority of regular squad members were unavailable to the manager, who turned to a selection of young players from the Under 21 side, augmented by Irish League semi-professionals. In the circumstances 3-0 was accepted by most experts whose generally expressed view roughly coincided with ‘could have been worse’. To a degree I concur with their analysis, but I also felt that Italy’s understrength team performed well within its capabilities. Predictably, for a Worthington line-up, Northern Ireland was confined to a damage limitation exercise, leaving one isolated striker up front and showing little inclination to claim possession of the football.

In the captain’s role Damian Johnson was exceptional, albeit that he played out of position, at right back. His combative skills might have been better employed in midfield, where Grant McCann and Corey Evans tried in vain to get hold of the ball; worse, despite a lack of pressure from the Italians, on the few occasions that they did have possession, they failed to keep it. Although McCann has shown an aptitude for scoring goals from midfield, I have only once seen him convince from a central role. Against Poland at home he adapted to his position in the heart of midfield well enough, with the consequence that Worthington moved Steve Davis to the left side, for the next match, against Slovenia. That game, more typically, entirely passed McCann by. My view is that he is simply not consistent enough for the central berth and should be used predominantly at left midfield. Clingan, Davis and Johnson can each play central midfield with vastly greater assurance than Grant McCann.

On a happier note, Worthington used two goalkeepers during the 90 minutes on Saturday evening and both acquitted themselves adequately. Tuffey might have done more to prevent the first Italian goal, which was fiercely struck but shouldn’t have beaten the Partick player at the near post. He redeemed himself with a fine penalty save during the second half, which prevented a fourth for the Azzuri. Mannus made one or two smart stops from close range, showing good agility and a capacity to get down quickly and deal with shots close to his body. Rangers’ centre forward, Little, offered another positive. He competed manfully on his own up front, after Healy had departed with a groin strain. And to accord parity to the ‘Old Firm’, McGinn contributed a busy shift after he replaced Healy and moved to the wide berth vacated by Little.

Otherwise there was little to be gleaned from this late season friendly. Although the Irish League players participated to a degree, none looked equipped to claim a regular place in the squad. Some of the under 21s might feature more prominently in the future, after experiencing sustained first team action at their clubs, but they will not dislodge established first team regulars imminently. Even Evans, whose potential has been widely discussed and whose older brother made an instant impact when he made his international debut, looked raw and inexperienced.

Before the crucial World Cup qualifier with Poland, Northern Ireland faces Israel at Windsor Park, in August. Worthington will hope to have a full panel to choose from and, frankly, those who return will be more secure in their positions than they were before the Italy game. Northern Ireland rarely has a wide pool of talent from which to draw and the manager is fortunate to have available a relatively strong group of players currently. The problem is that, whilst it is strong, it is also small and obvious candidates are not yet emerging to potentially replace seasoned performers in the event of injury or retirement. Still, the consolation for long-term supporters is that, should our results deteriorate the crack surrounding away fixtures might well improve. Altogether now, ‘we’re green and we’re white, we’re having a ball, the game’s really shite but it’s football for all!”.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

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 retained 66,197 votes, despite representing his anti-powering sharing party Traditional Unionist Voice, rather than the DUP. There has been a degree of alarm that his success represents a dramatic shift for the unionist electorate. That is, at least partly, a misconception. The Democratic Unionists did not honestly subject their plans to operate devolution to the scrutiny of voters prior to the previous Assembly elections. It is the DUP which has changed its position, rather than its supporters. And although Allister will undoubtedly be pleased with the result, the TUV’s European vote may not necessarily transfer uniformly to candidates which the party decides to field at other elections. As a sitting MEP, with a reputation for hard work, his support ranged beyond a hardcore, committed to dismantling the Belfast and St Andrews Agreements. Indeed the European election is perfectly suited to big name candidates whose popularity does not automatically reflect the standing of their parties, region wide. For many years Ian Paisley topped the poll, relying on an enormous personal vote, which remained steady irrespective of fluctuations in the DUP’s performance in other polls. Beyond Jim Allister, the TUV does not yet have a single widely recognised figure. That could change, but it would be wrong to assume that voters attracted by the barrister’s rhetorical flourish will back a motley selection of obscure Assembly candidates, simply because they are endorsed by their leader.

Similarly, it would be premature to suppose that the DUP is on the brink of a Labour style implosion. The party showed its contempt for the electorate on this occasion by fielding a patently under-strength candidate and delivering an almost non-existent prospectus for Europe. I suspect that it is more likely to repeat the latter mistake than the former. We may well see a less nonchalant approach to selection in future, which does not of course guarantee that the party will field quality candidates, particularly when its commitment to tackle double jobbing ensures that available talent has to be stretched a little further. The most profound problem with the DUP’s message in this particular campaign was that it was simply not credible. The party cannot expect to pursue the same attritional style of politics, to which it is so accustomed, and to which Allister is now a more convincing heir, when voters can see that reality is divorced entirely from rhetoric. Whether it is properly equipped to participate in normal politics or not, the DUP cannot avoid them indefinitely. It is in government, it is required to formulate policy and the electorate is not so myopic that it will accept the same old slogans when there is patently no substance behind them. The party must modify its message in line with its status and must engage seriously with its public on the level of policy, rather than communicating through the media of sectarian mantras. If it does not do so, it will become redundant if a more constructive vision of politics is available.

This brings me to the Conservatives and Unionists, who have enjoyed a relatively successful first electoral outing. For the ‘New Force’ the European election was Dromore writ large, as its candidate maintained his share of the vote (indeed he achieved a small increase of 0.5%) and came through the middle of the TUV and DUP to become the first unionist returned. I suppose, to begin with, Sir Reg Empey will be gratified that the Conservative alignment has not proved a turn-off for voters. Although Nicholson did not increase his share significantly, neither did it drop (in line with many predictions), which was a considerable achievement in an election in which the small parties polled particularly strongly. At the very least we can now say that the Tory link is not a liability to the Ulster Unionists. Of course I have already recorded reservations about the candidate and his campaign. I believe that the pan-UK nature of the unionism which the force is espousing might have been articulated more clearly. As an introduction of something new and exciting to voters, there were moments when the campaign was lacklustre and a little equivocal. Nevertheless, the net effect was to transfer successfully the existing Ulster Unionist vote, relatively intact, to UCUNF, a result which has to be replicated if the new dispensation is to work.

The Conservative and UUP leaders will remain hopeful that, if the wilder voices from each party (within Northern Ireland) do not prevail, a quality collection of candidates, marrying experience and fresh talent, can be fielded, in order to articulate an authentic, inclusive Conservative and Unionist message, in time for the general election. The problems which remain are Northern Irish problems and they need to be confronted, so that an explicitly pro-Union, Conservative voice begins to develop. The cultural remnant of the Ulster Unionist party must develop a sensibility more in keeping with promoting unionism as a UK wide phenomenon based on civic principles, or else it must disappear. The party should be committed to planing its rough edges and finding a vocabulary which is distinct from its rivals in Northern Ireland. The theory behind the alignment is sound, but unless that theory is articulated consistently, then its professed ambitions will not be realised.

Of course Conservatives and Unionists must also remain an unambiguously pro-Union party, albeit that its unionism can increasingly go ‘without saying’ if politics in Northern Ireland develop in the direction which Cameron and Empey envisage. Unionism is only akin to Protestantism, in Northern Ireland, if that is the manner in which it is articulated. The local Conservative party here has historically shown reluctance to identify itself as a unionist party, which is, to an extent, understandable, but to an equal degree nonsensical. If a party is committed to the United Kingdom, and nationally the Conservative party certainly is, then necessarily it is a unionist party. Naturally the UCUNF project is about advancing Conservatism in Northern Ireland, but it is also about strengthening unionism throughout the Kingdom, an aim which its leader is much less coy about acknowledging than some of his local members. David Cameron has been consistent in arguing that his party’s ambition to have representation in every part of the UK is intended to widen and deepen the Union. He does not understand unionism as entailing anything other than a commitment to the constitution of the United Kingdom. It should remain very clear to voters where the Conservatives and Unionists stand on the constitutional question and local confusion should not obscure that issue, otherwise we will end up with profoundly un-conservative nonsense, insensible to the view of national sovereignty which formed the European election manifesto’s basis! Down such a route lies the quickest path to electoral oblivion.

It would be easy enough to exaggerate the significance of yesterday’s election result and I am positive that many commentators will attempt to do precisely that. Predictably my view is that the most constructive development for pro-Union voters remains the Conservative and Ulster Unionist arrangement, which, as an edifice, at least is looking perhaps a little steadier after Jim Nicholson’s success. Now that a reasonable start has been made in this campaign, the key is to continue refining the message, which has to be delivered consistently, in a political vocabulary reflecting the Conservatives and Unionists ethos, if it is to convince voters in a general election. The means to achieve this is not to jettison either its conservative or unionist components, but to emphasise their compatibility and ensure that the correct type of conservatism and unionism are articulated. That means a socially aware conservatism which is progressive in intent and an inclusive brand of unionism which is civic and political in character.

Monday, 8 June 2009

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!