Saturday, 25 July 2009

Blogging break

If I'm honest July has been rather patchy in terms of traffic in any case, so it's an appropriate time to take a break. I'm off to France, Brittany to be exact, and I'd be very surprised if I find the time to post anything. Comment moderation will shortly be operating, purely because of the enormous quantities of bile and rubbish which have surfaced over the past couple of months.

Britishness entails participation

This is a piece which I wrote for another source prior to the twelfth. It wasn't used, so I reproduce it here.

Ostensibly David Cameron should be reassured by the pageantry scheduled to take place in Northern Ireland over the forthcoming holiday weekend. By striking a deal with Ulster Unionists the Conservative leader has asked people here to express their Britishness through participation in national politics.

With the province’s popular public holiday consisting of demonstrations which affirm the Union and celebrate foundational constitutional events in the UK’s history, Cameron’s appeal should find, ready made, a large and receptive constituency. But despite the fact that our place within the United Kingdom is now settled, and despite the fact that an incoming Tory government will strive to normalise our position further, Northern Ireland retains a contradictory attitude to national British politics.

Since Gladstone introduced the first Home Rule bill in the 1880s, Irish unionists have had a difficult relationship with Westminster. Throughout the existence of Northern Ireland, suspicion of the British government’s intentions has often had a sound basis. But it is also true that Ulster unionism has not always used its links with Great Britain to better explain itself, or to cement its membership of the United Kingdom through meaningful engagement on national issues. We have been guilty of focussing too much on a little Ulster and not enough on a big United Kingdom.

Thus the marches which take place on Monday will be viewed by many others on these islands, not so much as a manifestation of Northern Ireland’s exceptional Britishness, but rather as a symbol of the exceptionalness of Northern Ireland’s British citizenry. Which is not, of course, to suggest for a moment that there is anything wrong with being different. Orangeism represents just one of the varied cultures which exist within our diverse Kingdom.

But the Northern Irish unionist party which currently returns most representatives to Stormont and Westminster refuses to engage constructively with politics at national level. We should be mindful of the message that that sends across the water.

Sammy Wilson has begun his tenure as Finance Minister by railing against the possibility of Northern Ireland delivering its share of public sector spending cuts. Like Nigel Dodds before him, he has made no attempt to justify his position as regards the parlous state of the UK’s finances. Indeed by claiming that Conservative promises to ring-fence health spending could impact Northern Ireland, Wilson appeared to miss the fundamental fact that devolved government is funded by a block grant and it will be HIS responsibility to determine how much is spent on each department.

One of the regrettable impacts of devolved government is its tendency to establish rival centres which necessarily compete for power with central government. To a degree that is unavoidable and it is certainly not an effect unique to Northern Ireland. However when unionists adopt, as default, an attritional attitude towards politics at Westminster, challenging the mandate of the UK parliament to make decisions here, showing little interest in national issues beyond their consequences for Northern Ireland, making derisive allusions to ‘squatters’ and so forth, then the ties which bind our kingdom together sustain collateral damage.

Just like people in other parts of Britain, we will often find ourselves disagreeing with the government in London, but the best means to strengthen our position within the UK is to be involved in the debates and arguments which take place at Westminster, not in a semi-detached capacity, but as fully and wholeheartedly as we can. The settled nature of our current constitutional position within the Union means that we no longer have an excuse to exclude ourselves from national politics, whilst nevertheless volubly proclaiming our membership of the nation. The United Kingdom is about participation and those of us in Northern Ireland who value its continued existence must properly participate.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Conservative win in Norwich keeps Tory hopes up

Nick Robinson has had to row back from his initial implication that the Conservatives were struggling to victory in the Norwich by election. The BBC’s political correspondent speculated that the Tories would fall far short of the 17% swing which saw them win in Crewe and Nantwich and insinuated that even an election winning target of 6.9% might be beyond the party. The final result actually brought a 16.5% move towards the Conservative candidate, Chloe Smith. She took the seat with a comfortable 7,348 majority.

David Cameron and his team will be delighted with the outcome, which comes at a time when some commentators have suggested that the Tories have lost momentum. Labour’s collapse might well partly be ascribed to the unpopular deselection of sitting MP, Ian Gibson, but even so, its share of the vote disintegrated dramatically, from forty four to eighteen per cent. This is yet another indication that Gordon Brown’s government is irreparably damaged in the eyes of voters.

And the triumphant candidate, Chloe Smith? As a late term by election winner she has a difficult year ahead. She will not get a flavour for the parliamentary side of her new job until October and she shall scarcely have become accustomed to membership of the Commons before a general election. Iain Dale suggests her priority should be to get started on constituency work, so that the foundations can be laid for another victory next spring.

Scotsman exclusive: Colours are sectarian

You can tell the ‘silly season’ is almost upon us, because the Scotsman is reporting fascinating news that some kerb stones in Larkhall were painted red, white and blue. The paper informs us that this horror was perpetrated by a ‘sectarian girl gang’. Now I have no doubt that their actions comprise a wanton piece of vandalism and all the details in the piece suggest that some underlying sectarianism might motivate the youths in question, but the paper simply hasn’t mentioned circumstances that justify using the word in the article.

We are told that this “is the latest example of sectarian behaviour in the Lanarkshire town known for its over-enthusiastic support of Rangers Football Club and the Queen”. Now I loathe both members of the ‘Old Firm’, I’m a bit of a sceptic as regards our Royal family and I deplore illegal graffiti, so I’m not going to defend the town or its inhabitants on any of the above counts. But are the above components really defining indicators, or corroborating evidence, of sectarianism?

Red, white and blue are three colours, widely displayed, both separately and collectively. They shouldn’t be daubed on public property, but if they are offensive to the beholder, that is his subjective aesthetic judgment. Rangers are one of the biggest Scottish football teams and whilst part of their fanbase is probably sectarian, we mustn’t generalise. We can’t suppose that every Man United fan is a prawn sandwich munching, glory hunting stock broker from Surrey, nor can we presume that every Rangers or Celtic supporter is a bigoted spide. Likewise, not everyone applauds the Queen’s role as head of our state, but it is possible to support a constitutional monarchy without raving about the Pope.

There are mentions of ‘loyalist slogans’ and smashed green traffic lights which provide the hint of fire under the Scotsman’s smoke. So why label particular aspects of behaviour ‘sectarian’ when they do not justify that label? Why not be more responsible and uncover actual instances of sectarianism? It is, at best, a rather lazy use of words.

Election count number 2. Kyrgyzstan. Slightly more contentious.

Norwich North is not the only election count taking place this morning. In Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, 25% of votes cast in the country’s presidential election have already been counted.

In the East Anglian parliamentary constituency, it is expected that the Conservative candidate will win with comparative ease. The current Kyrgyz president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, will certainly be returned with a thumping, improbable majority. In Norfolk Labour’s candidate was confined to bed with swine flu during the final days of the campaign. In Kyrgyzstan Bakiyev’s main rival, Almazbek Atambaev, withdrew from the election on Thursday, claiming fraud.

The country’s central election commission has announced that the President has won 87.7 per cent of the vote so far. In contrast Atambaev, who has already denounced the poll as a fraud, has taken roughly 5% of the counted ballots. Other candidates’ tallies are negligible.

The opposition claimed yesterday that widespread violations have taken place, including ballot stuffing and harassment of monitors. For an impartial assessment we must wait until the OSCE give their view, later today.

What we do know is that the election descended into farce yesterday (polling day) with Atambaev’s withdrawal, which came too late to remove his name from ballot papers. The decision was precipitated by the detention of one of the former prime minister’s campaign managers. The opposition leader has appealed to voters to take to the streets, but the response has been patchy and the capital, at least, remained quiet yesterday.

Like Georgia, Kyrgyzstan experienced a colour revolution in the middle of the decade and the country became a key regional ally for the US. The 2005 presidential election, which saw Bakiyev take power, was hailed as the first free and fair poll in Central Asia.

Kyrgyzstan’s strategic importance to the campaign in Afghanistan remains unaltered, but, in common with its Trans Caucasian counterpart, democratic slippage since the Tulip Revolution has been discernible.

The OSCE’s report, and US reaction, will be interesting.

Update: The OSCE report finds a series of problems with the poll, but 'some positive elements'.

Andrew Sparrow blogs Norwich North count live

To judge from Question Time last night the Norwich North public are a little angry at being asked to vote at all. However it looks odds on that 27 year old candidate Chloe Smith will take the seat from Labour for the Conservatives. The count is taking place this morning and you can follow the action at the Guardian Politics blog where Orwell shortlistee Andrew Sparrow is updating one of his patented live posts.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Report urges new international strategy on Georgia

The Foreign Policy Centre has published a pamphlet entitled ‘Spotlight on Georgia’, timed to coincide with Vice President Biden’s visit to Tbilisi, this week. It is a substantial document and I have yet to plough through all of it. What is clear from my reading so far is that the influential British think tank’s investigations have charted a decline in standards of democracy and human rights under President Saakashvili, despite Western support which is often ‘almost reflexive’.

From the 2003 Rose Revolution, and promising beginnings, degeneration in standards has been discerned in recent years, particularly since 2007. Saakashvili’s autocratic style has precipitated a pool of disgruntled politicians prepared to challenge his regime. Opposition has been suppressed, often by violent methods and press freedoms have been curtailed. In its ‘Nations in Transition’ report Freedom House adjudged Georgia to be ‘less democratic’ today than it has been at any point in the last ten years.

The FPC recommends a tougher response to Saakashvili from the international community. Support for Georgia should be unequivocally dependent on its progress as regards democracy and human rights. It suggests that the new EU Eastern Partnership and its benefits should be linked to clear benchmarks ensuring good governance. In particular, any debate on Georgia being offered a NATO MAP should “focus on the need to meet political criteria rather than primarily on improving military capability”.

“If a MAP is offered, it should be on the basis of significant progress on human rights issues and recognition of the need for a new approach to the territorial disputes. Eventual membership must be conditional on delivering and sustaining improvements in human rights that put it on a par with other new members of the Alliance and on achieving a permanent peaceful resolution to the conflicts over South Ossetia and Abkhazia.”

The FPC pamphlet draws from a broad range of sources and can’t be dismissed lightly. I’m sure I will post on it in greater detail, having digested its contents more thoroughly.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Hague's foreign policy speech outlines the right approach, but the test will be implementation.

Yesterday William Hague delivered a speech to the International Institute of Strategic Studies describing the contours which a Conservative government’s foreign policy would follow. The shadow foreign minister gave the clearest indication to date that his party intends to renounce the interventionism which Labour has practised during its time in office. Existing undertakings in Afghanistan will be honoured, although the strategy there must be reviewed. But the Conservatives will develop their foreign policy around a realist core, making future military entanglements less likely. Significantly, Hague’s address suggests that, whilst Britain should continue to emphasise commitment to democracy and human rights in its relationships with other countries, the proselytising style favoured by David Miliband and other government figures will be replaced by respectful engagement.

It is a speech which will delight advocates of a more cautious and sceptical foreign policy. And it is a speech which is predicated on financial constraints which the UK will experience during the next number of years.

It is debt, bequeathed by the Labour government, and the ‘economic challenges’ that will face its successor, which Hague chose to stress in his opening remarks. But although short-term financial woes and longer term ‘forces of economics and demography’ may erode ‘conventional assumptions about what Britain and its main partners can readily achieve in world affairs’ the UK retains advantages which can allow it to realise its foreign policy objectives. There are compelling arguments, both practical and moral, which support the type of change that Hague envisages, beyond economics. A more circumspect attitude, which recognises and respects differences in outlook between different political cultures, is a virtue in itself. Less hectoring relationships with Russia and China will accrue trade benefits and offer an opportunity to exercise influence, subtly, on the two countries’ conduct. Fewer instances of hypocrisy, adopting a more nuanced stance on international issues rather than seeking out an absolute narrative of right and wrong. If Britain possessed enormous surpluses and a buoyant worldwide reputation, a rethink along these lines would still be welcome.

None of which is to suggest that the UK should seek to isolate itself. The pertinent point is that the dangers which we now face are different from those which dominated the world post WW2. A multilateral approach is required to meet many of these challenges and we are unlikely to achieve multilateralism by constantly extolling our own virtues and contrasting them with the perceived barbarity of potential partners. Hague identifies ‘failed or failing regions’ as a principal concern for the international community in decades to come. Broadly defined these are states, or series of states, which collapse, with the result that terrorism, private armies and organised crime become prevalent. The Horn of Africa is the shadow foreign minister’s example, whilst in Afghanistan and Pakistan the possibility of similar disintegration remains real. Although our promotion of democracy and human rights must remain constant, we should be careful not to undermine stability in areas where states struggle with separatism, which is often intimately connected with precisely the characteristics of failed regions that Hague describes.

In its article about Conservative policy the Guardian suggests that ‘national interest’ will dictate a Cameron government’s approach to foreign affairs, whilst ‘ethics’ defined Labour’s terms in office. The paper appears to me to be systematically hardening its stance on Cameron conservatism as an election looms closer, but even so, this is quite a distortion. Hague demonstrates with repeated examples that following the national interest is not incompatible with an ethical foreign policy. International stability, fewer instances of terrorism, increased prosperity in troubled regions and countering climate change are all objectives which would place Britain in a calmer, safer and happier context, should they be realised. Pursuing foreign wars, colluding in torture, fomenting separatism and taking an enormously subjective view of the constituents of democracy, were not viewed throughout much of the world as ethical successes, whatever the Guardian implies. Hague characterises his vision for foreign policy as ‘enlightened national interest’.

“Britain will be safer if our values are strongly upheld and widely respected in the world. Nor would Britain ever be happy as a nation if we partly or largely retired from trying to influence world events. The citizens of Britain have always been restless in trying to improve the wider world and global in our outlook. We have always been at the forefront of international charity, development aid, and the welcoming of refugees.”

The key is to show respect for the sovereignty of other states, acknowledge that they will pursue their own interests in different ways, and yet remain consistent in promoting our own values. Conservatives are sceptical about the notion that a perfect world, subscribing to common values, is realistic and adamant that it cannot be imposed. They ground their aspirations in what is possible.

“That is why David Cameron and I have spoken in recent years of our approach to foreign affairs being based on "Liberal Conservatism" in that we believe in freedom, human rights and democracy and want to see more of these things in other nations. But Conservative, because we believe strongly in the continued relevance of the nation state and are sceptical of grand utopian schemes to re-make the world. As David Cameron said: "My instinct is to work patiently with the grain of human nature; with the flow of culture, tradition and history."”

From this philosophical basis the specifics of Conservative policy are extrapolated. Armed forces supplied with equipment to do the job which they are asked to do, a Foreign and Commonwealth Office brought back to the centre of decision making, a ‘solid but not slavish’ relationship with America, ‘freshening and deepening’ our connections with Russia and China. It is heartening to read a speech which appears to have learned from the Labour government’s most serious foreign policy errors. If a Conservative Foreign Minister taps into the wealth of diplomatic and strategic knowledge encompassed by the FCO, other objectives will begin to appear more realistic. If David Miliband’s simplistic, meddling, hectoring style, developed on the famous Downing Street ‘sofa’, becomes a thing of the past, the Tories will be much of the way towards a constructive foreign policy.

In common with many of the Conservative keynote speeches and policy documents, the party’s ultimate success will be judged by how effectively it implements its proposals. To date, the instincts, ideas and philosophies which Cameron’s Tories have introduced are often rather sound. I feel that this is particularly true of Hague’s address, which covers another policy area Labour has got lamentably wrong. If it does guide the Conservative party when (if) it enters government, then it will form the basis of sensible, cautious foreign policy.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

If the UDA cared about 'communities' it would go away.

Observers are wondering what exactly is happening within the UDA. Reports suggest that a split has developed between the paramilitary organisation’s north Antrim / County Londonderry members and those who belong to an ‘inner council’ based in Belfast. Last Thursday night, in the Waterside area of Derry, a ‘spontaneous’ march is said to have taken place organised by the ‘Ulster Political Research Group’ in the area.

The UPRG is considered either to be the ‘political wing’ of the UDA, or ‘closely connected’ to the terrorists, depending on the degree of Orwellian language that you are prepared to tolerate. Whichever description one favours, no political representatives have been elected under the group’s auspices.

It is widely supposed that the Belfast based UDA leadership is prepared to destroy its remaining illegally held weapons, whilst in north Antrim and County Londonderry, pivotal figures do not wish to disarm. Whether that disagreement has sprung from the implication, by some sources, that local UDA members were involved in the sectarian murder of Kevin McDaid or whether the scale of government bribery is not considered sufficient to justify renouncing crime, relevant UPRG branches have now withdrawn their support for power-sharing and for the PSNI.

Justifying the Londonderry march, spokesman David Malcolm (not, I presume, the Irish League referee), issued a statement sodden with self-pity.

‘Loyalism’ had been systematically ‘vilified’ and a ‘policing agenda’ is ‘set against’ loyalist communities’. “Loyalist communities have been disenfranchised, isolated and have received no benefits from the Good Friday Agreement”. ‘Mainstream unionism’ has failed to support ‘loyalist communities’ (yes it’s that phrase again). It’s almost enough to make one shed a tear.

I have no doubt that mainstream politicians charged with representing areas which are considered ‘loyalist’ are guilty by omission. One of the most serious omissions is failing to combat the cancerous affect of paramilitarism. Whatever influence these people have established in communities that they now presume to represent has been built up through fear, intimidation and crime.

When the UPRG / UDA talk about funding and initiatives they envisage projects which they are involved in and which they will benefit from. They see themselves as conduits between the so called ’community’ and the government. But communities cannot be nurtured by underpinning the authority of their worst criminal elements. Where else in the UK would government agencies turn to an area’s gangsters, murderers and thugs to oversee its regeneration?

If ‘loyalism’ has been vilified it is because ‘loyalism’ is assumed to be intimately connected with vicious sectarian groups like the UDA and UVF. If ’loyalism’ is assumed to be intimately connected with vicious sectarian groups like the UDA and UVF it is because those groups have acted as self-appointed arbiters of communities which are considered ‘loyalist’. If the ’policing agenda’ is ’set against’ ‘loyalist’ areas, it is because paramilitaries have rooted themselves in those areas so deeply that they have become synonymous with the groups.

Whichever way you care to balance the equation, the organisations are the core of the problem, not part of the solution.

If the UDA has any genuine concern for the communities which it claims to represent, it should immediately disarm, disband and disappear. It is not wanted, in any capacity, by any thinking person. It has held those communities back and it is often the reason that they are not flourishing.

Apologies for the number of inverted commas but they seem the appropriate response to the lexicon applicable to the topic.

Conservatives force climbdown on Common Travel Area.

In the teeth of Conservative and Ulster Unionist opposition the government has been forced to postpone its plans to scrap the Common Travel Area between Ireland and mainland Britain. Immigration Minister, Phil Woolas, indicated that whilst the pertinent clause, which formed part of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Bill, would not be forced through by Labour, the party will not change its position on the CTA for the long term.

So although the people of these islands will be spared passport checks and other inconvenient and impractical measures, thanks to steadfast Conservative and Unionist opposition, the government remains committed in principle to their instigation. Resisting Labour on this issue remains a rolling imperative, and in today’s Belfast Telegraph Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, Owen Paterson, explains the matter’s special relevance to the province and the manner in which integrated political involvement at Westminster can allow voters here a real say in national issues which affect them.

Economic and practical effects of removing the CTA would be felt both north and south of the Irish border, but Northern Irish people would find themselves disproportionately inconvenienced by Labour’s proposals, being ‘no longer…able to travel throughout the UK without showing their passport’. Impacting an integral part of the United Kingdom in this fashion clearly raises constitutional difficulties which are not justified by necessity. Paterson quotes Lord Glentoran, his party’s Northern Ireland spokesman in the House of Lords,

“It occasionally gets forgotten that Northern Ireland is as integral a part of the United Kingdom as Yorkshire or Lancashire. I do not know what the Yorkshireman and the Lancashire folk would feel if they had to provide identification in the form of passports to travel from one county to the other. That is effectively what this Bill is doing for the Northern Ireland folk. Over the years we have had free travel, which has worked wonderfully. The reason that it was necessary and still is necessary is that those who benefit from it are, largely, the poorest in our society.”

And reading Paterson’s account, detailing the process whereby Labour’s initiative was checked, the benefits of participating fully in UK wide politics become obvious. Northern Irish politicians could not have achieved this result on their own. Opposition was centred on the Shadow Home Office’s close liaison with the Shadow Northern Ireland team. An amendment was tabled in the Lords and passed with the aid of Ulster Unionist and Lib Dem support. Democratic Unionist Party peers were absent from the Houses of Parliament during the relevant vote.

“The Government attempted to reintroduce the Clause in June but backed down following sustained pressure from Conservatives in both Houses.”

Damian Green, Shadow Immigration Minister, welcomed Woolas’ decision to consign Labour’s attack on the CTA to the ‘long grass’ by noting that it has been ‘offensive in principle to many of our fellow citizens’ and ‘constitutionally reckless’. Clearly unionist instincts have guided Conservative policy in this area.

Paterson’s conclusion articulates the argument for Northern Irish voters casting a vote for a national party in Westminster elections.
“This whole sorry and unnecessary episode demonstrates why it is essential that Northern Ireland be brought as rapidly as possible into the mainstream of UK politics. Westminster continues to make crucial decisions, including those on the Common Travel Area, which affect every single citizen in Northern Ireland. Westminster is dominated by the main political parties and it is only by being a fully involved, integral part of that political system that the interests and concerns of Northern Ireland’s people can be properly defended.”

"It isn't so much the repetition of these inanities that is so profoundly depressing..."

Regular commenter Gary has kindly sent me a link to John-Paul McCarthy’s article, in the Irish Independent, which offers a savage assessment of Gerry Adams ‘unity’ rhetoric.

“It isn't so much the repetition of these inanities that is so profoundly depressing, so much as the deep intellectual and emotional vacuity that lies at the heart of the non-analysis here.”

McCarthy unpicks the latest buzzwords to discover an ideology which has changed little since 1920. It is worth reading the piece in its entirety, if only to enjoy its author’s Sopranos inspired flourish. But perhaps its most telling passage examines the tangential role which Adams’ fantasies accord the pro-Union majority.
“The article once again emphasises "British policy" as the "key to unlocking the potential for this change to occur", and his references to Britain's "colonial past" are simply a coded way of denying the democratic basis of the unionist desire to go their own way in 1920, however imprecise the constitutional line-drawing was at that point.

So, having waded through the conciliatory references to dialogues with 'ethnic minorities' and Professor Brendan O'Leary's ecstatic theories of future Irish federalisation, we are left as ever with an argument that would have cheered Slab Murphy and Brian Keenan: Get the Brits to force the Prods into line; talk for a bit with them, then start pushing.”

It is a neat encapsulation of the notion that Ulster unionism is simply a misapprehension suffered by poor dupes who have been manipulated by colonialists into the communal delusion that they are British. It fails entirely to grasp the pertinent fact that it is the pro-Union majority in Northern Ireland who provide its connection to the rest of the United Kingdom.

Estemirova report by Newsy

Monday, 20 July 2009

Tesco the 'choice architect'. Arrrrgghhhhh!

I approached Thaler and Sunstein’s modish book ‘Nudge’ with trepidation. I nearly chose not to continue past the odious epithet ‘choice architect’ which appeared in its opening pages. And it would be misleading to imply that I didn’t almost chew through the insides of my face on a couple of occasions when the co-authors’ references to themselves in the third person became too frequent to bear. Yet, my oceanic reserves of irritability aside, I found the work to be animated by a well argued, worthwhile premise and its central thesis was, I acknowledge, communicated clearly.

The book does impart to its readers a curse which endures months after the volume itself has been consigned to the bookshelf. I’d be surprised if anyone has yet managed to read it without finding themselves impelled to identify and categorise any number of ‘nudges’ which suddenly manifest themselves in various political and commercial situations. My suspicion, in this regard, has been substantiated by Rob Greenland’s post on ‘The Social Business’ blog, which recognises that Tesco has been ‘nudging’ customers towards reusing carrier bags during their weekly shop.

Despite a couple of instances when we’ve spilled fruit and veg over the car-park or street after a particularly tired old bag has objected to being filled yet again with heavy groceries, my girlfriend and I continue to march out of Tesco with M & S, Dunnes and Waterstones bags. It appears that increasingly other shoppers are doing the same. There has been a 48% reduction in the number of new plastic bags used. Apart from asking customers whether they need bags on each occasion they visit the till (which is a ‘nudge’ in itself), the company also awards Clubcard points to those who bring their own.

It’s clear evidence that people’s wasteful behaviour can be altered by relatively simple expedients. It also gives me a pretext to post a Tim Minchin video.

Kadyrov - the path of least resistance? Does Moscow really control Chechnya?

Sean’s Russia Blog is one of the best English language sites featuring comment on Russia. It carries a balanced assessment of the Estemirova murder and examines exactly what it tells us about Moscow’s relationship with Russia’s southern reaches, and the nature of stability in Chechnya. Sean suggests that the most significant aspect of this incident is not Kadyrov’s involvement (or lack of it), but rather the flimsy nature of law and order in the region, which the killing exposes. The long arm of the Kremlin retains only a loose grip on its troubled Caucasian republics, any perception of Chechnya and Ingushetia as predominately peaceful is largely misplaced, and Kadyrov is a symptom of the disease of lawlessness, rather than its root cause.

When Memorial chairman, Oleg Orlov, declared, “I know, I am sure of it, who is guilty for the murder of Natalia. His name is Ramzan Kadyrov”, in the aftermath of Estimrova’s death, the world’s media interpreted his statement as a direct accusation. Sean notes that the intent behind Orlov’s charge is rather more qualified. The Chechen president is responsible for rampant crime in the republic and for the arbitrary nature of law enforcement within its borders. He is accountable for the context in which the murder was possible. It would be difficult to deny, however, that Kadyrov’s opponents have a disconcerting habit of meeting premature and violent ends. Too convenient and too much of a coincidence for many commentators.

The thirty two year old has reacted to the murder by promising to hunt for the perpetrators, through an official investigation and ‘unofficially, according to Chechen traditions’. It is hardly an undertaking designed to ameliorate human rights groups like Memorial. And the President has indicated that he will pursue legal action against Orlov and his organisation for the accusation carried on its website. The style of Kadyrov’s presidency, in conjunction with continued criminal incidents on the ground, is contributing to a sense of the lawlessness of the region and the impotence of Moscow in that regard.

“Even if Kadyrov isn’t the culprit behind of all of these abductions, tortures, and killings, it doesn’t bode well for Chechnya or neighboring Dagestan and Ingushetia. Nor Russia for that matter. President Medvedev may express outrage over Estemirova’s murder and call accusations against Kadyrov “unacceptable,” but the truth of the matter is that its been only three months since he announced the end of operations in Chechnya, yet low level violence in the region continues unabated. What is clear to analysts is that Moscow’s control over the North Caucasus is at a minimum. And the more Moscow pushes, the more tense the situation becomes on the ground.”

As I intimated in the post below, whilst this murder, taken in isolation, does not put Kadyrov on a collision course with the authorities in Moscow, it is likely to contribute to the sense that the Kremlin needs to assert itself in Chechnya and Ingushetia. Which, given the turmoil which accompanied two bloody wars, is unlikely to engender enthusiasm in the rest of Russia. However the alternative is to continue to allow Kadyrov a free hand in Chechnya and let the rule of law continue to degenerate. That strategy offers least resistance for the time being, but it could ultimately prove to be an expensive one for Russia to pursue.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Murder puts strain on moral compromises which maintain order in Chechnya

In the wake of Natalia Estemirova’s murder in Chechnya, Dmitry Medvedev has rubbished suggestions that Ramzan Kadyrov, the region’s president, sanctioned her killing. Although, ostensibly, it is possible that the Memorial activist was abducted by a group which was not linked to the Chechen authorities, the incident will raise more questions about the methods by which Kadyrov has stabilised the Russian republic.

After the last campaign in Chechnya the Kremlin’s pressing priority was to restore order without expending needlessly the lives of more Russian soldiers. Clearly Kadyrov, with his rapid ascent through government posts and his strong arm tactics, has succeeded in pacifying the republic. There is scarcely any doubt, however, that the thirty two year old is a highly unsavoury character, given to autocratic and violent methods. Knowingly, Vladimir Putin entered into a Faustian pact when he allowed Kadyrov free rein to subdue separatism in Chechnya.

The former rebel, who fought for independence during the first Chechen war, then switched sides in 1999, has integrated his devoted paramilitary following into the republic’s security forces. This ‘kadyrovtsy’ has been accused of all manner of illegality, kidnapping and murder. Progressing through Chechnya’s government seamlessly since his father, a former president, was assassinated in 2004, Kadyrov assumed the role in 2007, having reached the statutory minimum age required by the Chechen constitution.

Whilst Moscow has given the Chechen President considerable latitude in the furtherance of a secure republic, he has proved a headstrong ally. Having introduced aspects of Sharia law during his period as prime minister, Kadyrov quarrelled with the Kremlin about Chechnya’s oil revenues. He has established a cult of personality around his leadership which barely alludes to any type of democratic propriety. And he has made an attempt to attract back to the Republic a coterie of exiled separatist criminals, on the pretext of providing a new start for the ‘Chechen nation’.

In Northern Ireland we are familiar with moral compromises aimed at realising peace and stability. We are even conversant with crime and violence being ignored, supposedly for the greater good. Compared to the crucible of conflict, terrorism and blood letting which characterised Chechnya from the early 90s, Kadyrov’s regime has obvious attractions for the Kremlin. Whether it can continue to ignore accusations of murder and criminality, in the interests of a quiet life, is doubtful.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Top UK political blogs poll - it's that time again.

Click here to vote in the Total Politics Best Blogs Poll 2009
Can it possibly be that time of year already? Iain Dale and Total Politics are taking votes for the UK’s top politics blogs. The idea is that readers email their list, ranked one to ten, to, ensuring that they select no more, or no fewer than ten. Obviously all votes will be gratefully received and it would be great if we could get some of the Northern Irish blogs further up the top 100 than last year. This site came 70th previously and both Unionist Lite and Redemption’s Son made the top 100.

I'd imagine that Burke's Corner and Bobballs will be knocking on the door this year. And one of my favourite new blogs is written by Moscow Tory who focuses mainly on eastern Europe and its politics.

Anyway, I'm prohibited from telling you what my ten nominations will be. So I will therefore suggest merely that Three Thousand Versts voters transfer to preferred pro-Union candidates. Or not, as the case may be!

London 2012 event to hit Northern Ireland

The organisers of London 2012 are keen to encourage a sense of ownership and participation throughout the United Kingdom.

Although the games themselves will be based in the capital, the bid was prepared on the basis that benefits would accrue nationally. Given the quantity of tax payers’ money required to stage a successful Olympics it is necessary that people across the country feel that they are being included in the festivities.

Such is the spirit behind a series of ‘Open Weekends’ which will take place each year, in the run up to the London games, in an attempt to spread an ethos of involvement throughout Britain’s regions. Last month Northern Ireland’s goal-scoring hero, David Healy MBE, launched the local event which will take place in a variety of venues from the 24 – 26 July.

The programme seems varied enough to interest most people. And although it is unclear whether any British Olympic symbols will be displayed, surely this is a weekend with UK wide benefits which even the most churlish could not object to.

NIHRC's 'loyal but dissenting member' likely to be vindicated. Lady Trimble's evidence.

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster has questioned Lady Trimble, NI Human Rights Commissioner, on her note of dissent which was entered after the NIHRC submitted its final report. Lady Trimble describes herself as ‘personally committed to human rights’ and ‘a loyal member’ of the Commission, but remains convinced that the body did not stick to its remit, outlined in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 which implemented the Belfast Agreement. Her opinion is in accordance with comments which the Secretary of State made when he was interrogated by the same committee. Shaun Woodward expressed the view that the NIHRC’s advice went ‘well beyond’ the brief which it was given, a factor which, he implied, compromised the usefulness of its recommendations to the government.

Under questioning Lady Trimble reiterated her stance, clearly referencing the relevant legislation. Section 69 (7) of the Act prescribes the Commission’s role in drafting a report on a prospective bill of human rights for Northern Ireland. The section, ‘refers directly to paragraph 4 of the rights section of the Belfast Agreement, which sets out that the Human Rights Commission will be invited to consult and to advise on the scope for defining in Westminster legislation rights supplementary to those in the European Convention on Human Rights, to reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland, and drawing as appropriate on international instruments and experiences; "these additional rights to reflect the principles of mutual respect for the identity and ethos of both communities and parity of esteem."’. Trimble’s opinion, which she has developed by closely interpreting the text of the legislation and the GFA, rather than insinuating extra unwritten intentions, is that the NIHRC’s task is limited by these provisions.

“The phrase "to reflect" appears twice. My belief is that that phrase is prescriptive and mandatory, that we have to reflect those particular circumstances and the mutual respect, that those are mandatory and compulsory on the Commission, and that is where I feel that the Commission went too far in carrying out its remit.”

Asked to define what she felt might have comprised acceptable content for a bill of rights, Lady Trimble is not specific, but she is clear. The commission was being asked to address certain post-conflict areas which could be alleviated by provisions relating to ‘mutual respect’ and ‘identity’. This hardly represents a fanciful or unpalatably minimalist interpretation of the NIHRC’s task. It merely reflects close attention to the body’s original remit, as it was outlined in the requisite documents. The extent to which other commissioners declined to adopt a similar approach has been discussed before and is examined again in this evidence. Socio economic rights are ‘common societal problems right across the UK’; they are by no means specific to Northern Ireland. Lady Trimble does acknowledge that the commission spent some time considering whether its proposals would be ‘particular to Northern Ireland’ (although clearly its conclusions were wide of the mark), but in her opinion it neglected the ‘mutual respect’ and ‘identity’ provisos which carried ‘equal importance’ in its remit.

But even if certain socio economic issues were acutely different in Northern Ireland, it would be inappropriate to deal with them in human rights legislation. Especially given that a two track approach to rights, within a particular jurisdiction, is in itself likely to precipitate legal problems, in terms of implementation. Giving force to the eighty odd recommendations which the NIHRC carried in its report would, as Lady Trimble surmises, place Northern Ireland in a ‘a very, very particular standalone bubble’ in comparison to the rest of Britain and indeed even within the European Union. These practical legal implications seem to have rather escaped the commission, although a number of independent experts have raised prospective difficulties which would be associated with its proposals. After an enormous amount of time and money, wasted on the NIHRC and associated consultation, we might finally be edging towards a practical solution. Certainly Lady Trimble’s suggestion that a UK bill of rights could include, bolted on, provisions specific to Northern Ireland, has already been alluded to by Dominic Grieve, the shadow home secretary. And, whilst the government continues with its examination of the NIHRC report, Shaun Woodward has implied that it is probably unusable in its current form. Indeed an interesting exchange during this deposition takes place between David Simpson, the witness and committee chair, Sir Patrick McCormack.

“Q86 David Simpson: Very briefly, in relation to all the work that the Commission is doing, and I think the Committee Chairman met with representatives of the Commission in the Assembly, and I put the same question to them: if when the report is finished, and there is a paper put before the Assembly or the Executive, if they reject it, does that mean that Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland is dead in the water?
Lady Trimble: Well, the remit referred to Westminster legislation, but I would find it very difficult to believe that Westminster would enact legislation if the Assembly had turned it down, so to speak.
Q87 Chairman: I think we would find that a little difficult to envisage as well.”

It is, of course, unthinkable that the Assembly or the Executive would endorse the Commission’s work as it stands at the moment. Nor is it probable that any government would wish to give NGOs carte blanche to take legal proceedings against public organisations which, Lady Trimble alleges, would be the result of allowing any interested person or body, rather than a victim of rights violation, to take legal proceedings on the basis of a human rights bill.

Clearly, from the evidence she provides, Lady Trimble realised that the final document was not going to be tenable as soon as socio economic rights and implementation began to be discussed. She sought, and was denied, permission to submit a minority report. It is interesting to read her thoughts on areas which might have proved fertile ground for rights, but which were either ignored in the recommendations, or where little of significance was proposed. These include freedom of assembly, language, education, culture and identity. One might have thought that there was adequate scope here to craft useful and practical suggestions, relevant to the Belfast Agreement and the Northern Ireland Act.

What is very apparent reading Lady Trimble’s evidence, in conjunction with her note of dissent, and contrasting it with the NIHRC’s report, is that this particular commissioner took a very different approach to her contribution to the commission than the bulk of its membership. She considered that the body had been set a task, prescribed by certain limits, and that its purpose was to stick to its remit and produce an appropriate document. Others within the commission took a line more typically associated with quangoes. They assumed that the remit it was given formed a starting point and, having been established on that basis, the commission was free to expand its focus, set its own agenda and perpetuate its role. The result is that it produced recommendations which will not form the basis of any special human rights provision for Northern Ireland. It is likely that, ultimately, its loyal but dissenting member will be vindicated.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

More democracy = less diversity? Cameron's selection headache.

Might David Cameron’s scheme to select Conservative candidates for Westminster through open primaries be incompatible with his aspiration to make the parliamentary party more representative? That’s the implication of Andrew Sparrow’s article on the Guardian politics blog, which cites evidence that women are less likely to succeed when primaries are the method of selection.

The Conservative leader is already committed to trialing the new procedure in the Totnes constituency which, having returned a Tory majority in 2005, must be considered a reasonably safe seat for 2010. But by undertaking to give local people more say in choosing a candidate, is Cameron compromising on diversity?

It is an interesting proposition, but an open postal ballot is being used in Totnes for the first time. Necessarily the research on primaries must be based on a fairly limited number of instances when the process was used, even if open meetings are considered. We’ll have to wait until the method is employed on a consistent basis, and properly publicised, before its effects can be fairly judged.

Then the conceptual conundrum will be – does it matter if fewer women are selected, if the final candidature is based on popular democratic support?

Gerry Adams the slow learner

Gerry Adams is not, by anyone’s estimation, a parvenu in the world of Northern Ireland politics. Yet, with all his accumulated years of experience, the Sinn Féin leader talks about unionism as if he had no understanding of the thinking which animates it. Scratch the rhetoric and you’ll find, unalloyed, unqualified, lacking even a veneer of nuance, the old republican assumption that unionists are possessed by some manner of false consciousness. Adams does hint that he is prepared to humour the misapprehension (as he sees it) of 20% of Ireland’s population that it is British, however, at no level has he internalised the lessons of the many years of needless violence in which he participated. Britain’s ‘political presence’ on this island is an extension of the British political identity of a majority of Northern Ireland’s inhabitants. It is almost poignant that a lifetime in politics can leave someone so untouched by any understanding of that which he professes to oppose.

The Provisionals’ president is fronting Sinn Féin’s campaign for ‘Irish unity’, which a cynical commentator might suppose had been devised chiefly to keep the party’s nominal leader occupied. Its focus is concentrated on the ‘diaspora’, those who claim Irish descent in the US and GB, rather than the electorate in Northern Ireland, which, sll parties and both governments now agree, will actually determine its own constitutional future. An event had already taken place stateside and now, ironically, the House of Commons’ Grand Committee Room has provided the backdrop for Gerry to develop his thoughts on unionists in a united Ireland. So, gratefully or otherwise, we discover that Adams is prepared to countenance orange parades in a thirty two county socialist republic, ‘albeit on the basis of respect and cooperation’. The latter provision heavily insinuates that any marches would take place in venues which republicans approved and would consist of content which republicans decided to permit. Still, if parading is your thing, I suppose this might be viewed as some manner of concession to an ‘Ireland of equals’, if parades were in and of themselves a political end.

There remain Orangemen for whom the act of parading is located firmly within the context of celebrating the Union and foundational aspects of its history. Indeed there are very many unionists for whom marches have little significance or for whom Orangeism has only tangential relevance to allegiance to the United Kingdom. They will be more interested in Adams’ contention that Britain’s ‘control’ over part of the island of Ireland remains the ‘underlying cause’ of conflict. Gerry wouldn’t be Gerry if he didn’t follow up this scrupulously offensive notion with a self-righteous platitude.

“We need to look at what unionists mean by their sense of Britishness and be willing to explore and to be open to new concepts”

As a unionist I wish to suggest a concept to Mr Adams. It’s not particularly new, but clearly the Sinn Féin leader has not been listening. My ‘sense of Britishness’ is engendered by a real political, cultural and historical bond with the rest of the United Kingdom. It is a bond which does not exist because Britain retains ‘political control’ of part of Ireland, but because I am unequivocally British as well as thoroughly Irish. Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom, not by force of arms, but because my Britishness and the Britishness of a majority here manifests itself, organically, through a political link to the rest of Britain. The political link endures because of us - we do not remain in some sense communally delusional because of the political link. It’s very basic stuff and one might have thought that grasping its precepts went along with embracing the peace process, but Gerry, rhetorically at least, is blatantly not on board.

Further proof of Adams’ flimsy grasp of unionist thinking is provided by his claim that, “within the British system, unionists are fewer (sic) than 2% of the population, they cannot hope to have any significant say in the direction of their own affairs”. In contrast, "as 20 per cent of a new Ireland, unionists will be able to assert their full rights and entitlements and exercise real political power and influence”. It’s an argument worth making to ‘Ulster nationalists’; indeed Ian Paisley was, for a time, almost convinced of its wisdom, in the 1970s. That speaks eloquently of the nature of his politics and their legacy on the party which he formed, but if we are discussing authentic unionism, then this line of thinking makes little sense. Far from comprising 2% of the UK’s population, unionists form a clear majority in each of its constituent parts. And rather than aspiring to secure special group ‘rights and entitlements’ within Britain, genuine unionists in Northern Ireland wish simply to enjoy the rights possessed by British citizens in the rest of the Kingdom, as well as the political entitlements and participation which normally accompanies those rights. Greater influence in a united Ireland might be an argument against unionism, some nationalists might consider it unionism’s antidote, but it is logic which it is impossible to accept whilst remaining, in any meaningful sense, a unionist.

I’m positive that during his long involvement in local politics, whether making a violent contribution or holding silly seminars in the House of Commons, Gerry Adams has, at some juncture, heard of Sir Reg Empey. If he still wonders how Ulster unionists perceive their relationship with the rest of Britain, he should listen to the UUP leader articulating his party’s core values. Northern Ireland, Empey emphasises, is ‘nothing’ without the United Kingdom. The implication is plain. Neither is unionism ‘anything’ outwith the context of the United Kingdom. It is of course possible for Irish Protestants to exist outside the UK and retain something which might be described as a unique culture, but that is something which is separate from unionism and Britishness. If Gerry seriously wished to examine unionism and unionists, he would surely have, before this point, encountered this distinction.

Reading some of Adams’ statements in reports of the ‘unity’ event I’m reminded of his virulent response to the troops’ homecoming parade, last November. ‘Belfast is Ireland’s second city’ he growled, in a candid moment. The inference that a British institution had therefore no business in the town was left unsaid, but was nevertheless made very clear. In a more cerebral setting Adams’ chooses his words more carefully, but their meaning remains the same - Irishness and Britishness are, in his view, two exclusive, imporous contexts which are incapable of coexistence. Whilst he persists with this approach the Sinn Féin president can allude to tolerance, but he will never truly understand what it entails.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Sean Russell memorial vandalised

I wouldn't normally condone any form of vandalism, but I have a degree of sympathy with Dubliners railing against a monument to a Nazi collaborator being re-erected in their midst.

Gombeen Man has a rather good post describing why this memorial is so unpopular amongst the public down south. A substantial constituency does not want to be reminded of "the IRA man who colluded with fellow nationalist fanatic Hitler".

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Short break

Unless the weather is really terrible this weekend there is unlikely to be any further blogging as I'm off to the north coast. Comment moderation is on because, regrettably, some 'friends' of this site seem unable to stay away.

Friday, 10 July 2009

No gimmicks. Just a constructive approach to Britishness.

I mentioned in a previous piece Tim Montgomerie’s open letter to David Cameron, in which he urged the Conservative leader to place Britishness at the centre of the party’s election campaign. Conservative Home today carries Cameron’s reply. In it he argues that patriotic pride is a bottom up phenomenon, inspired chiefly by providing citizens with something to be proud of.

It is a sound response to Montgomerie’s missive because it rules out the option of entering a ‘flag waving’ contest with Gordon Brown, whilst showing an innate understanding of the civic nature of Britishness, whereby institutions, history and certain common cultural coordinates draw a diverse nation together, rather than race, perceived ethnicity or a narrow prescription of culture.

In the previous article I contrasted the conceptual nature of Brown’s unionism with Cameron’s genuine engagement as regards matters pertaining to the Union. By seeking to secure Northern Ireland’s full participation in national politics, the Conservatives have already converted unionist rhetoric into meaningful action. Whether a Conservative government is equipped to strengthen the Union or not, time will tell, but there is every sign that unionism will be embedded within its policies, in a fashion which Labour cannot match. The constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom will be a prime policy consideration for the next government.

“We are the only party that has representation in every region of the UK - including Northern Ireland. We will fight the SNP every inch of the way over their attempts to break our Union apart. And when it comes to the EU, we will always be a strong voice for national sovereignty.”

So, where Labour suggested gimmicks and big government engineering, Cameron promises a more evolutionary approach whereby citizens are given the opportunity to strengthen their sense of identity.

“Britain is bigger than the government it has. Ultimately, Britishness is about Britons. It grows and evolves from the bottom up. It can never be defined by one motto or one politician, but by millions of individuals whose identity is the product of many ingredients. So if we’re serious about strengthening our national identity we should do whatever we can to give these individuals reasons to feel pride in their country.”

Rather than seeking to achieve this aim by inventing national days, introducing mottos or requiring school children to sign an oath of allegiance, changing policies which enervate a sense of Britishness will do more to strengthen commitment to Britain. Thus the Tories propose to curb the worst excesses of multiculturalism. Dominic Grieve has spoken persuasively on the topic, and in Cameron’s piece he too emphasises the undesirability of encouraging a ‘community of communities’. The government must stop interacting with minorities as atomised, imporous units, through unelected, self- appointed representatives. Britons, shaped by whichever particular culture or ethnicity, should be treated as individuals by the state.

Likewise, although abstract values can be identified which characterise Britain, they are not unique to the United Kingdom or its people. We do, however, have a set of unique institutions which often embody those values and which define our political identity. So it is not sufficient for Gordon Brown to stress the importance of ‘liberty, fair play, openness’ whilst he simultaneously emasculates the Houses of Parliament and erodes the very virtues which he claims make Britain what it is. Where is the point in being ostentatiously proud of our armed forces, yet sending them into battle funded for peace time?

Cameron also finds space to address the issue of British history in schools. He favours a less bitesize methodology whereby students would learn key dates and facts in the national story. I have already recorded my approval of this approach.

It is encouraging that the probable successor to Gordon Brown seems to possess a more inherent understanding of what Britishness entails than the current prime minister. What we need is a government which consistently assesses how its policy will affect the Union and develops its programme on that basis. Cameron should leave the gimmicks to Labour.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Newt on the quangocracy.

Newton Emerson has a typically caustic take on the Alliance party’s recent tribunal wrangle with the Equality Commission. David Ford’s former PA had made a series on unfounded allegations of discrimination against her employers.

“Things became messier and murkier as a tribunal panel stepped down rather than hear a medical witness, the Alliance barrister accused the tribunal of bias and Ms Hawkins made demonstrably inaccurate statements. Finally, the case collapsed when the Equality Commission withdrew its financial support, citing an “irretrievable breakdown” with the plaintiff.”

Newt cuts to the quick of the tribunal resignations.

“All three panel members resigned because the chair had “difficulty” with a doctor testifying that Ms Hawkins had exaggerated her claim of disability. This was not because there was any doubt over the doctor’s testimony. It was because the panel did not think anyone claiming to be disabled should be doubted.”

A key point to be determined in the case was whether or not Ford had suggested that Eileen Bell, a party colleague, would be ‘out of her depth’ as Assembly speaker. Emerson observes,

“To portray legitimate criticism of a woman by a man as sexist by default is itself a witless prejudice.”

The thrust of the article is the usurpation of judicial functions by quangoes. Forwarding a particular agenda, powers which such bodies accrue are used on a highly partial basis, funded, of course, by the tax payer.

“The Equality Commission already has statutory powers of investigation and enforcement and a key objective of its corporate plan is “to effect change through strategic enforcement”. This makes the commission a sort of equality prosecution service, with a remit to pursue cases to advance its own agenda.”

A cautionary tale perhaps. Particularly relevant given the quangoes charter that forms the proposed NI human rights bill. If a Conservative drive to cut back quangoes is delivered Northern Ireland should not be outside its remit.

Ethnic murder is ethnic murder despite the context

Rubiya Kadeer is the US based Uighur separatist campaigner whom China has accused of fomenting disturbances in the province. On Sunday ethnic tension spilled over as members of the Turkic speaking minority went on a murderous rampage, with the bulk of 156 victims comprised of Han Chinese. Kadeer describes the violence as ‘a call for freedom and justice’. China has since imposed martial law on Urumqi, where the deadly riots took place.

No doubt the Uighurs of Xinjiang have legitimate grievances against the Chinese government, but a bloody ethnic attack on neighbours should not be allowed to take on the complexion of a second Tiananmen Square. Whether China has an enlightened approach to its minorities or not, it is not helpful to contextualise ethnic mob murder as an outcome of government policy.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Orangefest to be gay but not camp

If two of Northern Ireland’s newspapers are to be believed the Orange Order is sending out contradictory signals about Monday’s parades. The Belfast Telegraph reports that crowds in the city centre will enjoy street entertainment as part of the ‘Orangefest’ celebrations. Iris Robinson will be shocked to learn, however, that one of these acts is to be a ‘Gaiety Engine’ who will be presented by ‘Strangelings’. This revelation seems to sit uneasily with Fionnuala O’Connor’s claim, in her Irish News column, that the Order’s Drew Nelson plans to clamp down on ‘camp followers’.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

The Telegraph, vomit and state sovereignty

Nearly a year after Russia intervened to put an end to Georgian military adventurism in South Ossetia the Daily Telegraph is still filling its leaders with condemnation of the Kremlin’s ‘shameful invasion’. It is almost as if the paper does not want to let its readers forget the painfully simplistic editorial line it took when war flared in the Caucasus. It is like a dog leading its owner back to vomit.

Only the most partisan commentators now persist in the illusion that Georgia was blameless last summer. And the Telegraph’s nasty, sneering piece is nothing if not partisan. It lists triumphantly what it perceives to be Russia’s weaknesses, then with jaw dropping condescension claims, ‘we take no pleasure in pointing this out, for the achievements of the Russian people are exceptional: their literature is justifiably renowned and their stubborn heroism was indispensable to the defeat of Hitler’. Those Russkis are a bad lot, but still, soon there’ll be a lot fewer of them and you’ve got to love Tolstoy!

Whisper it softly in the Telegraph office, but the birth rate in Russia is actually recovering, albeit not quickly enough. And more journalists were murdered when Boris Yeltsin was president than during V.V. Putin’s tenure.

Meanwhile Barack Obama has delivered a speech to Russian students at the New Economic School. The US president spoke about state sovereignty as a “cornerstone of international order”. It is a good principle and one which should apply to Serbia as much as it should to Georgia. Perhaps by withdrawing its support for Kosovo Albanian independence, the US could persuade Russia to recognise Georgia’s claim to South Ossetia and Abkhazia, if appropriate arrangements were made to allow a degree of autonomy.

Certainly state sovereignty is not, in any case, a sufficient pretext to advance a hostile military alliance to Russia’s borders by admitting questionable regimes. A much more imaginative approach to ‘security architecture’ in Europe is required. One which does not pointedly omit the continent’s largest nation.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Obama need not be firm with Russia, just reasonable and fair.

Barack Obama is in Russia today. Thus a proliferation of articles and editorials urging the US President not to trust perfidious, semi-Asiatic barbarians adorn the newspapers. Predictably.

In contrast, few media outlets chose to cover an assassination attempt last month on reforming Ingushetia president, Yunusbek Yevkurov, which constitutes part of a reinvigorated Islamist campaign in the Russian Caucasus. Encouraged by Dmitri Medvedev, Yevkurov has implemented a regime built on principles of glasnost in Russia’s most dangerous region. The terrorist attack was targeted very deliberately at a force for normalisation and transparency, which Wahhabi militants wish to undermine. Fewer reporters still have highlighted the ongoing struggle for democracy in Georgia and the government’s repressive tactics against the country’s opposition. But with Obama in Moscow to meet his Kremlin counterpart, all the clichés about a totalitarian Russian regime, intent on snuffing out democracy along its borders, have been sought out by editors, who show little inclination to qualify stereotype, either by investigating how Russians interpret geo-political events, or examining the nuance of recent developments within the world’s largest country. It is sufficient to know that Medvedev is a powerless puppet figurehead whose strings are pulled by Machiavellian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, and that Russians, as a race of people, only understand stern treatment. One hopes that Obama’s policy advisers take a more subtle approach.

The anti-Russian argument going into this summit is based on two faulty premises. First, that Moscow has no legitimate strategic interest in states around it borders which should check the western impulse to advance its chosen institutions to Russia’s borders. Second, that those states are bulwarks of democracy, whereas Russia is an aggressive totalitarian regime. The truth is that Russians do not see Nato as a progressive guarantor of democracy and their scepticism about the organisation is justified. It is an unreformed Cold War institution which was animated by the precise purpose of countering Soviet power. The very fact that an erratic, posturing Georgian regime, possessed of questionable democratic credentials, is a leading candidate to join, confirms to the Kremlin that Nato is still engaged in strategic machinations to curtail and surround Russia. In Ukraine a corrupt and rabidly anti-Russian president aspires to take his country into the military alliance against the wishes of a majority of his fellow citizens. Russia is an imperfect democracy, but the hostile states which surround it are equally imperfect. The narrative of plucky democrats and bullying dictatorship is not just simplistic, it is ludicrous. Even the EU, which as an entity is less belligerently anti-Russian than Nato, has allowed member states to continue to abuse minorities, when those minorities happen to be ethnically Russian.

Far from constituting the pathological, anti- American conspiracy theorists popularly depicted, 45% of Russians actually approve of the new US President, and Russia is just as eager a consumer of American popular culture as the rest of Europe. A perception of enmity rather than partnership is exclusive neither to Russia nor the West, but it is a mentality which must be consigned to the past. In the opening months of his presidency Obama exhibited every sign that he would pursue a more constructive relationship with Moscow and he mustn’t allow his resolve to be softened by incessant Russophobe voices. Importantly he should recognise that Russia has a genuine grievance when it alleges that Nato aspires to encircle its territories. If the US expects Medvedev to cooperate on Iran, for instance, it is reasonable to offer a more objective approach to Georgia and its treaty membership in return. In the light of shared concerns about Afghanistan, a planned weapons shield in eastern Europe should be scrapped as a symbol of goodwill.

Most of all, Obama should demonstrate a less condescending attitude than his predecessors to dynamics inside Russia. That the US head of state can communicate with Russian citizens via the leading liberal newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, in itself gives the lie to the notion of an incorrigibly repressive regime. He plans to meet opposition leaders in Moscow, but he should be aware that Garry Kasparov has negligible support, despite his popularity with western newspapers. Indeed the chess master counts amongst his political bedfellows ‘National Bolshevik’ leader Eduard Limonov, whose eccentric dogma melds Stalinist nostalgia and overt Nazi imagery. Kasparov might be demonstrating an attitude to the Kremlin which mirrors that of many western leaders, i.e. my enemy’s enemy is my friend, but Obama should aim to show that his democratic principles are consistent.

Already, by terming Vladimir Putin a voice from ‘the past’, the American president has shown insensitivity to the internal political situation in Russia. Diplomacy is not achieved by interfering in a country’s affairs in order to exploit political rivalries. Obama should resist the many voices urging him to be firm with Russia and instead strive simply to be fair and reasonable.

'Born Survivor' grins and Bears it in ireland

Over the weekend a helicopter had to be scrambled to the North Coast after a group of students got into trouble during a Duke of Edinburgh Award expedition. If only they had scheduled their trip a week later they might have avoided any problems (and saved the Republic’s coast guard a pound or two) by watching Bear Grylls guide to surviving in Ireland; screened on Channel 4 on Saturday evening. Conquering the harshest conditions our island can muster, according to Bear, involves stripping half naked in a peat bog and grunting a lot with a dead sheep between one’s legs. Particularly as a Ballymena man, I’d say that seems a small price to pay in order to cuddle up in a stinking, shit encrusted ‘sheeping bag’ for the night.

Would it seem unduly cynical to suggest that Mr Grylls, with all his Special Forces’ experience, made his task seem just a tad more difficult than an unalloyed imperative to survive strictly merited? Let’s face it, he was in Ireland. At any given moment there must have been at least three brand new pebble dashed bungalows within a mile and a half radius. Indeed, as our hero scrambled up precipitous cliffs, and clung on to tufts of bracken for dear life, his cameraman’s most challenging objective would have been to provide a backdrop devoid of old feed bags and empty cans of Harp. Grylls chose to dine on seafood chowder, which he strained through a dirty sock, garnishing the dish with boiled maggots recovered from a seal carcass. I’d be relatively confident he could have absconded to the nearest chip shop, scoffed a pasty supper and still had time to set his campfire before dark.

Of course Bear, with a wealth of survival knowledge, knows best. Bad news when you next encounter a small lough, blocking the route to your preferred destination. Instinctively, a ‘born survivor’ might suppose a quick stroll around its perimeter to offer the best means by which to surmount such an obstacle. Actually he should strip (again), put all his belongings inside a dead sheep and swim across – quickly – in order to avoid hypothermia. Thus transported he will find himself within the confines of a forest park where he might be fortunate enough to find a trail marked with little yellow arrows. A refreshing Mr Whippee and a pee in some malodorous toilets should be only minutes away.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Gillespie - Hungary for success?

Hungarian is a notoriously difficult language, but I have enough faith in my readers to post this link, in the faint hope that someone might decipher it. From these photos it would certainly appear that flying Northern Ireland winger Keith Gillespie has found himself a new club.

Ferencváros, or Fradi as they are popularly known, are a Budapest team with the biggest support in Hungary. I also gather that they will be playing in the country’s top flight next season after a sojourn in the lower leagues.

Good luck to Keith if he has found himself a new club. Perhaps he might yet don the green shirt of Northern Ireland again, if his performances in this new shade of green are adequate. The talent is still there if the temperament and fitness can be maintained as well.

(H/T Tubby Morton OWC)

Update: Yourcousin has kindly provided this synopsis of the article courtesy of his (Hungarian I assume?) wife:

A little late with this one (as per usual) but my wife read it to me and the article essentially relates the fact that Bobby Davidson has the team on a rigorous work out schedule in order to get them up to par for the coming season. The article names the starting goal tender and they fact that Davidson would like to see the continuation of a some of the positive offense they had last year in the lower division. They were trying to get four players to help further this end with Gillespie already agreeing (in the article). That's really about it

Although as O'Neill comments, its is now rumoured on OWC that Sheffield United have scotched the deal. Which is a pity, as cheering on Keith would have might a fine pretext to visit Budapest.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

IRA's Nazi collaborator's statue unveiled in Dublin.

Given that resisting republican rewrites of history is the topic of my post below here's a rather instructive story about what happens when that imperative is cast aside. Pictured is a memorial in honour of 'Irish republican' Sean Russell which was unveiled last week. The Republic's National Graves Association oversaw its reconstruction, after the original was beheaded.

To fill in some history, whilst the Luftwaffe blitzed English cities during World War 2, the IRA's Chief of Staff launched his own bombing campaign in England. Russell eventually lost his life on a Nazi U Boat. This is what 'countenancing' recent history involves for those unfamiliar with republican doublespeak.

No progressive or thinking person would 'countenance' tolerating such revisionism.

The most constructive future for the Maze is to flatten it

I’m going to defend Sammy Wilson. Everyone please retrieve their jaws from wherever they’re now lying.

The outgoing Environment Minister is investigating whether he can de-list buildings at the site of the ex Maze prison. Amongst republican commentators such talk is presented as extremist posturing by the DUP in an attempt to underline its hardline credentials.

Whatever the party’s motivation, as it seeks to remove protection for unremarkable buildings, in which some convicted terrorists happen to have committed suicide, repugnance at such a place being effectively sanctified is neither a hardline attitude nor an unusual one.

Moving this society forward has required some unpalatable compromises, but what it simply cannot entail is acceptance of history, rewritten to suit the provisional movement. It is thoroughly disgraceful to suggest that IRA terrorists should be memorialised and glorified as a matter of course. All the more so where the proposed celebrations are in high profile, publicly accessible sites.

Conferring retrospective legitimacy on a shameful campaign of murder which had the backing of a tiny minority must never be the lesson we learn from our squalid conflict.

The Maze prison is a remnant of a grubby, bloody past and the most constructive future for its buildings is to raze them to the ground.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Leading question disguises unionist intent

The modern Conservative and Unionist Party was conceived as a coalition between Tories and pro-Union Gladstone Liberals. Today the party remains a ‘broad tent’ encompassing a range of opinion. This morning Phillip Blond, writing in Comment is Free, proposes means by which a Conservative government might ‘capitalise’ the poor. His views do not remotely resemble the free market liberalism which other members of the party advocate. I have no doubt that a Conservative government will draw from Blond’s ideas in order to shape the type of ‘One Nation’, socially aware conservatism which the party leader has promised. Equally, there is little prospect that Cameron will set himself the task of reinventing capitalism as a bottom up phenomenon in quite the fashion which Blonde envisages. It is the job of the party leadership to steer the energies of the party as a whole towards a constructive, realisable programme which will translate into successful government.

Which is not to say, of course, that the raw material of members, councillors and candidates does not matter a great deal. The Conservative parliamentary party is expected to look very different after the next election and there has been justifiable interest, from supporters and opponents alike, as to how this group of men and women will be composed. Conservative Home has conducted a survey amongst the most likely new Tory MPs and has examined its findings over the course of the week. Fair Deal and O’Neill both spotted a headline on the website which is both misleading and eye-catching. Unionist Lite has already deconstructed the flawed thinking which led ConHome to describe its survey respondents as ‘barely unionist’.

I’m confident that the Conservative parliamentary party will be strongly pro-Union by inclination after the next election. Most importantly, it will comprise a group of men and women which has committed itself to unionist aims in its manifesto. By rhetoric and action David Cameron has shown himself to be the most engaged and active unionist to lead a national party in many years. Apart from his efforts to build unionist alliances and boost unionist morale across the United Kingdom, strengthening the Union is at the centre of Conservative policy considerations, under Cameron’s tutelage. Unlike Gordon Brown, whose unionism often manifests itself in rather abstract form, the Tory leader gives every sign of thinking about the Union at a much more instinctive level. Whether his policies on Scotland and Northern Ireland play out as he anticipates remains to be seen, but only the most cynical commentator would suggest that, at their heart, lies anything other than a sincere attempt to stabilise the United Kingdom.

In another Conservative Home article Tim Montgomerie asks Cameron to place the United Kingdom's integrity at the core of a general election manifesto. He is thinking in particular about an erosion of identity which means that university graduates often lack even the most basic grasp of their nation’s past. He wants British history to become once more a fundamental part of the school curriculum in an effort to wrest the concept of patriotism away from extreme nationalism. Encouraging constructive pride in one’s country and disentangling patriotism from nationalist dogma is a laudable aim. Balanced UK history, stressing achievement as well as fault, ought to be a compulsory part of schooling.

Apart from the thrust of the article, however, it is abundantly clear that Montgomerie detects, as dominating characteristics of Cameron’s leadership, pride in the United Kingdom as a country and commitment to its future as a nation state. He describes the Tory / UUP pact as one of the ‘high points’ of the party leader’s tenure. The aim of that alliance is to produce a Conservative party at Westminster drawn from each of the four corners of the United Kingdom. Conservatives and Unionists will be committed to strengthening the bonds between the UK’s component parts and, if the party forms its policies with this goal in mind, the party has a better chance of realising that aim than any of its opponents, in Northern Ireland as well as the rest of Britain.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Red Flair - Liverpool to grab new Arshavin?

A quick Premier League transfer snippet. I was aware that Russian Cup winners CSKA’s teen prodigy Alan Dzagoyev had attracted interest from Chelsea. But Ria Novosti believes Liverpool are also chasing ‘the new Arshavin’.

The youngster has played down suggestions that he will leave Moscow this summer, but where there’s a will in football there’s generally a way.

Although it would’ve been better had Benitez’ side made a meaningful attempt to sign the real Arshavin when he left Zenit, perhaps the club’s first Russian player might yet arrive before the new season.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Bring in the clown. New Finance Minister doesn't understand how devolution is funded!

Northern Ireland’s new Finance Minister, Sammy Wilson, has been showing off the grasp of economics which he acquired teaching the subject at Grosvenor High School. Let’s not forget that he was head of department and helped to set some exams.

The East Antrim MP has repeated the DUP’s occasional mantra of ‘Tory cuts’ which, whilst it is echoes a theme developed by Labour leader Gordon Brown, does not quite share the Prime Minister’s intellectual disingenuousness. He is simply lying about his intentions for the economy but the DUP neither knows nor cares about the national picture, as long as Northern Ireland retains the same sized slice of a diminishing pie.

None of which is new or particularly surprising, but Sammy has accompanied his pre-empting of Conservative policy with some ludicrous claims, wonky sums and awe-inspiring ignorance.

Wilson demonstrates his wobbly grasp of Tory pledges by claiming that George Osborne has promised to ‘ring fence’ spending on health and education. His contention is simply wrong. The Conservatives have promised to protect health spending and the international development budget but the shadow chancellor has pointedly refused to treat education in the same way. Wilson might have avoided this error by watching last night’s ten o’clock news!

But it comprises an unimportant detail when one examines the core of Sammy’s argument, which is that, with health and education commanding 75% of Northern Ireland’s budget, the remaining departments must find cuts amounting to 40% of their combined spending. You’d hate to be the one to break it to him, but determining Northern Ireland’s budget is his responsibility!

I made fun of Wilson’s appointment, but who could have anticipated that it would be quite as bad as this! Our new Finance Minister clearly doesn’t understand the basic mechanisms by which devolution is funded. We receive a block grant and it is the Executive’s responsibility to determine how it is spent! Health and education is not an exception.

Smoking ban is rare Labour success. Don't change it.

I notice that a couple of the big Conservative blogs, Dizzy and Iain Dale, have clambered aboard a campaign to amend the smoking ban. The argument is that current legislation is too inflexible and provision should be made for certain exemptions. There is an implication that pubs and clubs especially might choose to operate outside the ban, in order to lure back lost customers.

This type of thinking is obviously attractive to the libertarian strand of Conservatism. Personally I oppose the campaign.

I suspect that the smoking ban’s uncompromising nature has provided the impetus for its success. Without producing hard evidence (although I’m quite prepared to do some research if anyone thinks my contentions are questionable) I’d imagine there are fewer smokers today than there were before the legislation came into force and those who do smoke certainly smoke fewer cigarettes when they are out at bars and restaurants. I am told that medical professionals are already satisfied that the ban has had a positive impact on the nation’s health.

On a purely personal level, I have got used to smoke free pubs and I find them much more convivial than their smoke filled equivalents. I’d be prepared to bet that many other customers feel the same. Yes, if a few bars were to reintroduce smoking I could choose to go elsewhere, but necessarily more and more pubs would revert and the ban would be undermined.

Friends who smoke would naturally tend to gravitate towards premises which permitted their habit and non-smokers in their social circle would probably follow rather than appear unduly censorious. Those who had cut down dramatically on their night out cigarette intake would find it gradually creeping up, despite their best intentions. Many of these people have been amongst the most enthusiastic supporters of smoke free bars, in my experience.

To instinctively prohibit anything associated with health problems is clearly not tenable. However when legislation is in place which is working and which the public, for the most part, has accepted and grown used to, I see little point in tinkering with its provisions. Let pubs entice customers back by other means.