Monday, 31 August 2009

Chief Human Rights Commissioner McWilliams should resign or face the chop. £70,000 a year buys a quangocrat to attack elected politicians.

Rather than actually penning an article about human rights, Brian Walker has simply published, verbatim, Jeff Dudgeon's account of a debate at the 'McCloskey Civil Rights Summer School', on Slugger. The result is that, unique amongst Walker's blogposts, it is actually worth reading.

The NIHRC's chief quangocrat, Monica McWilliams, attended the event and, from Jeff's synopsis, it sounds like she faced a robust challenge from the floor. Given that she has presided over the human rights bill fiasco and continues to defend recommendations, expensively formulated, which comprehensively fail to fulfil the commission's remit, she deserves little sympathy.

McWilliams response to criticism aimed at the NIHRC and its work typifies the fashion in which unelected bodies, purportedly constituted in order to perform a particular task impartially, often develop an entirely independent dynamic of their own. Rather than serving the public they instead start to push a self-justifying agenda, whether it is sustained by their original purpose or not.

The NIHRC's task, as Jeff observes, was to deliver advice on a possible Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. It was not, and never has been, to push through any kind of bill at any cost.

Yet the Chief Commissioner, who failed to deliver a unanimous report, whose body has undergone criticism from the Secretary of State and whose bill is clearly dead in the water, still feels its is appropriate to deliver nakedly political broadsides towards a Conservative party which has no more intention of implementing the NIHRC's recommendations than the current Labour government.

It is from the public purse that we have paid this woman almost £70,000 per annum to oversee the formulation of useless advice, and it is the public purse which continues to sustain her attacks on elected politicians.

It is thoroughly shameful that taxpayers money should be wasted, funding a quasi political pressure group.

Clearly until McWilliams resigns, or is fired, this situation will persist.

The face of fear? Strife scare-mongers in advance of Poland clash.

This week the Northern Ireland football team flies to Poland where it faces its most important World Cup qualifier in a generation. Nigel Worthington’s men will play the first of three games which could, conceivably, send them to the finals in South Africa next summer.

It’s a scenario so exciting that even the Sunday Life might have developed an angle worth reading, without resorting to the contemptible piece of scaremongering which adorned its front page yesterday morning.

“’Psycho’ fans looking to kill Northern Ireland fans during Poland clash” wrote Ciaran Barnes, graduate of that classy school of responsible journalism, the Andersonstown News.

The reporter has visited Chorzow, the venue which the Polish FA finally chose to host the match, in order to chat to its hooligan gangs. Obviously a photographer tagged along, as we were treated to an image of a machete wielding hooligan, clad in FC Ruch Chorzow colours.

Traditionally the Sunday Life leads, most weekends, with an article about a loyalist paramilitary. So offering the oxygen of publicity to mindless thugs is not a foreign concept to ’Northern Ireland’s colour Sunday’.

Still, publicising a mixture of boasts and threats from ‘Krzysztof’, whom the paper claims is a Polish ‘gang leader’, represents a rather cosmopolitan approach to the Strife’s scum fetish. We are told that this luminary has a good job, although he lives in ‘Chorzow slums’. Still Ciaran wouldn’t bend the truth, would he?

Well, to be honest, he might. After all, nine people were arrested following violence at Northern Ireland’s home match. But they weren’t ‘mainly Polish’ as the reporter claims. They were all Polish. He should revisit his own newspaper group’s reports of the arrests for confirmation. And, contrary to Barnes’ contention that most away fans are travelling from Berlin because they ‘fear trouble’, the German capital is the closest large city to the venue, in north west Poland, which was originally scheduled to host the match.

It is true that this tie has been considered a potential ‘high risk’ fixture since the riots in Belfast. The Irish Football Association, the Amalgamation of Northern Ireland Supporters’ Clubs and the Polish and British authorities have worked hard in order to make it a safe trip for travelling fans. Comprehensive arrangements have been put in place in order to minimise the possibility of trouble. Not that Barnes’ article wastes words acknowledging this less sensationalist angle.

Ironically, having thoroughly frightened Northern Ireland supporters, and even more pertinently, their spouses, parents and friends, the Sunday Life then offers more prosaic travel advice on the availability of cheap food and drink, inside the paper. ‘Whilst trying to avoid being stabbed, fans might like to enjoy a Zywiec and a tasty piece of Polish sausage’. (I paraphrase).

It doesn’t, by a long stretch, allow this shockingly substandard newspaper to climb out of the gutter.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Strawberries and cream?

Press release tennis between the DUP and Ulster Unionists has long represented an acquired taste for sports' enthusiasts. Bobballs has had some fun with the dupes latest attack on the Conservative and Ulster Unionist accord.

Michelle McIlveen alleges an irrevocable split within the UUP as regards the Tory deal and notes that David McNarry's 'Putting Things Right' document has disappeared from the party website.

An Ulster Unionist spokesman retaliated by questioning the DUP's reading abilities.

Whether this type of thing influences voters one way or another is doubtful. It does, however, serve to fill up the News Letter's column inches.

Anyway, here's the document in question, replete with the much misinterpreted passage on policing and justice and carried, in full, on the UUP's website.

Friday, 28 August 2009

History or hero worship? Stalin on the subway.

It is impossible, as a first time visitor to Moscow, not to be impressed by the city’s Metro system. It was conceived that the stations should be ‘people’s palaces’ representing their putative shared ownership by Soviet workers. Exploring underground for just an hour or two, a passenger can discover facilities which are sumptuous, ornate, resonant with symbolism, and comprise, in themselves, popular tourist attractions.

Construction of Lazar Kaganavich’s plan for Moscow, of which the metro was an integral part, was begun in the 1930s, with the first line opening to the public in 1935. The underground railway and its stations are, largely, achievements of Stalin’s regime. It is hardly surprising that the troublesome dialogue which Russia periodically engages in with its Soviet past has once again arisen in relation to the Metro.

Renovation of Kurskaya Station, returned to its original glory, has proved a little too thorough for some observers. A verse from the 1944 Soviet national anthem, which adorned the entrance when it opened in 1950, has been restored. ‘Stalin raised us to be loyal to the nation; He inspired us to work and be heroic’. Whilst many Muscovites feel that the refurbishment has simply been completed in accordance with historical accuracy, others allege another official attempt to rehabilitate one of the twentieth century’s most bloody tyrants.

The revival of Nazi symbolism or laudatory references to Hitler would clearly be unthinkable on the Berlin transport system. In many ways it is extraordinary that so many remnants of Stalinism remain in Russia, never mind that one could be restored after years of absence. But the Soviet regime’s longevity, its achievements in defeating Nazism and its formative influences on the lives of generations of Russian people, complicate their relationship with the memory of Stalin.

I haven’t a firm opinion on whether this type of ambivalence should be condemned. I tend to view it as one of the idiosyncrasies which we should endeavour to understand and tolerate in other political cultures. It certainly gives me a perfect pretext to hunt out some Moscow Metro photos, albeit that I can’t find one of Kurskaya itself.

A shared future is not about politically correct dinner party guest lists

I usually find much to applaud in Alex Kane’s commentary. The UUP’s Director of Communications writes a weekly News Letter column, which is frequently cited on this blog with commendation. I have to challenge a section of Alex’s latest piece, however, which includes a rather blithe dismissal of ‘shared future’. It’s a puzzling stance, because the Ulster Unionist party should be proud of its position, holding the ‘Ourselves Alone’ coalition to account for its abandonment of the strategy.

“It is taken as a given that people in Northern Ireland want ‘something different’ in political and social terms and millions of pounds are spent on all sorts of cross-community projects and shared future propaganda.

If only we could all be educated together, live together, play sports together and work together, it wouldn’t be long before the old barriers collapsed, the peace walls crumbled and spanking new parties emerged to build a new Northern Ireland. Isn’t that right?

But maybe, just maybe, most people don’t actually want that at all? I am, supposedly, a pluralist, liberal unionist: but I live in an exclusively unionist area; I work for a unionist party; I am probably best known as a columnist on a unionist newspaper and a ‘unionist commentator’ on radio and television; I have no friends (in the proper sense of that term, as opposed to the Facebook sense in which everyone you know is somehow a ‘friend’) who are Catholic/nationalist; and I have little, if any, inter-facing with Catholics/nationalists other than through politics.

Do you know something? It doesn’t bother me in the slightest! I don’t have sleepless nights about it. And while I want to make unionism as attractive to as wide an audience as possible I don’t want to attract ‘Catholic’ unionists, or ‘women’ unionists, or ‘Hindu’ unionists just for the sake of attracting them.”

Now I appreciate that Alex is being brutally honest in this passage and to a degree he is taking aim at a brand of pomposity which makes itself a worthy target. But he is also carelessly generalising about an issue which is far more complicated than the liberal preciousness which he insinuates is at its root.

The term ‘shared future’, where it has worth, is not about the middle classes assembling scrupulously inclusive guest-lists for their dinner parties. Nor is it about imposing cross community friendships, where they are not wanted.

We have, in Northern Ireland, a society which is aligned along a pronounced sectarian and political divide. It has cost us lives and it is costing us money.

We are not talking here about regrettable, but ultimately inevitable, trends whereby similar groups of people tend to associate with each other. Huge amounts of money are being spent replicating public services, just so neighbours from a different background do not have to share a common space!

Let me be just as blunt as Alex. I DON’T CARE if people in blighted areas of Belfast, or elsewhere, ARE happy with their peace walls, or whether they don’t wish to share a leisure centre or a doctor’s surgery with those who live two streets away. This is an instance where their cooperation ought to be compelled. It is too damaging, economically and socially, to continue to operate de facto apartheid, where the state is picking up the bills.

If, by sharing certain public spaces, a degree of understanding between faiths or political viewpoints is the result, then that is a fortunate by product. But regardless, ‘shared future’ is not some woolly, do good aspiration. It is about tackling real problems which damage society and retard our economy.

Alex’s private affairs are his own and nobody wants to interfere with them. However the ‘community think’ which infects every aspect of political discourse in this country should very much be the concern of policy makers and they should combat it with an armoury of engineered solutions.

Where there are jobs in city centres, a short bus trip away, we are told that there is no employment in ‘loyalist’ or ‘republican’ communities. Where new social housing is planned there develops an inevitable battle about which ‘community’ should enjoy its use. It is unsustainable and untenable madness.

I hope that there is not a more prosaic explanation for Kane’s piece. I.e. a preliminary strike on the issue of candidate selection. The point of creating an inclusive list is that unionism cannot articulate its ‘theology-blind, colour-blind, gender-blind’ nature so effectively by fielding candidates who are exclusively white, protestant and male. Once again, the point is not positive discrimination for its own sake. It is an exercise in communication. I’m sure, given the nature of his job title, Alex understands that point.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Sky Blues stun Champions

This will be your lot today I'm afraid, due to an engagement. Still it's a goody.

For the fifth time in five years Ballymena have put Glentoran to the sword, at the Oval. Kevin Kelbie scored both United goals in a 2-1 win.

Extremely disappointed that I couldn't be there. Still, what a tonic for a team that were rooted to the bottom of the table.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Orde's shared future warning

Sir Hugh Orde isn’t particularly concerned that groups of heavily armed republicans can roam border areas and patrol roads, unhindered by an emasculated police force which has neither the resources, nor the political backing, to do anything about it. I cannot agree.

However Northern Ireland’s outgoing police chief also believes that a lack of political commitment to the ‘shared future’ strategy is retarding progress towards a normal society. His officers are at the sharp end of this failure. He has a point.

Bobballs observes that Alliance, the UUP and the SDLP all acknowledge a need to resuscitate the imperative of integration, whilst Sinn Féin and the DUP’s ‘ourselves alone' coalition stand opposed. Fittingly. After all, the Programme for Government developed by the two parties shelved the ‘Shared Future’ initiative in the first instance.

A mythos has grown up around the Northern Ireland ‘peace process’ that its completion could only be achieved, can only be achieved, because of the political ascendancy of ‘extremes’. Our institutions are said to be more robust because they are based on a coalition between hardline parties.

This accepted wisdom has become a lamentable self-fulfilling prophesy. DUP and Sinn Féin preside over a communal carve-up. That is the basis on which their authority rests and it is in their self-interests to maintain that basis.

The fact that the two parties’ unholy alliance actually perpetuates division, and leaves untouched the root causes of sectarianism has not been addressed. We have been too busy congratulating ourselves and attempting to export the ‘Northern Ireland model’ to blighted trouble spots across the globe.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

“Up here we call it the ‘wha’s like us’ mentality”.

I do promise to leave the Megrahi – MacAskill affair alone for a while – soon – but a post from Liam Murray tickled my fancy. Apart from subjecting the defining characteristics of ‘compassion’ to closer scrutiny, Murray takes the SNP minister to task for asserting Scotland’s ‘moral superiority.

“Up here we call it the ‘wha’s like us’ mentality”

“You have to wonder what characteristics Mr MacAskill would ascribe to our English neighbours”, Murray ponders, “it’s probably best not to ask”.

Mount argument against Tory policy rather than relying on Anglophobe innuendo

I’ve ‘fisked’ Roy Garland’s articles in the past (to use the modish phrase) but with his latest broadside against the Conservative and Unionist arrangement it would be a waste of time. There is nothing new here whatsoever, still less anything approaching an argument, substantiated with facts.

Roy doesn’t like the Tories and he doesn’t trust English people. Actually if he had the courage to follow through his instincts he might conclude that Northern Ireland should be independent. It is ‘unionism’ at its most insular.

I am fully cognisant of the fact that Northern Irish unionists, like pro Union British people elsewhere, cover a broad span of political opinion. They will not all, uniformly, find modern Conservative party policies to their liking. Their arguments, developed on this basis, are, naturally, valid and worth listening to.

But spare me sly innuendoes about English people which preoccupy commentators like Roy Garland and the little Ulstermen of the DUP.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Unionist parties lack the resolve to topple Salmond.

This afternoon a recalled Scottish parliament is due to discuss the decision of its justice secretary to release convicted Lockerbie bomber, Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi. It promises to be an uncomfortable session for the SNP administration, but newspaper suggestions that Alex Salmond’s minority regime could be toppled are guilty of overstatement. Although unionist parties in Scotland remain happy to make political capital from nationalist misgovernment, there is little genuine appetite to bring down the executive.

The Conservatives have been most consistent in their opposition to Megrahi’s release. However justice spokesman, Bill Aitken MSP, has indicated that a vote of no confidence in Kenny MacAskill, whilst possible, would be ‘premature’. The Tories have something of a contradictory relationship with nationalists in Scotland, despite taking a strong line on the Union.

On this issue, Labour’s response is even more problematic. The party’s Scottish leader, Iain Gray, has spoken out against releasing the bomber on compassionate grounds, and other senior Labour figures have voiced their concern. However Gordon Brown has remained stubbornly silent, despite the affair’s international repercussions. The SNP, for its part, has pointed out that Gray’s opposition appeared to develop, only after a decision was reached.

It seems highly improbable that Kenny MacAskill will face a no confidence vote in the foreseeable future, unless he makes an enormous mess of this afternoon’s proceedings. Alex Salmond’s position, lamentably, is safe for the time being.

The unionist parties do have an opportunity, however, to undermine confidence in the minority nationalist executive. It is regrettable that they remain more focussed on their own differences, rather than the separatist threat, and will not therefore round collectively on an administration which is doing Scotland, and the United Kingdom, substantial damage.

Grayling set to evoke Disraeli as Tories ressurect 'one nation' conservatism

Another week, another keynote speech expected from a member of the shadow cabinet. Chris Grayling, prospective home secretary in a Tory government, will tomorrow expound upon the well worn Cameron Conservative theme, ‘broken Britain’, highlighting crime, gangsterism, poverty and social immobility, which he believes have flourished under the stewardship of a Labour government.

It is a further development of the themes which George Osborne laid out in a recent speech at Demos, when he referred to the modern Conservative party as the ‘dominant progressive force’ in British politics. The Tories argue that they are espousing constructive social policies, in tune with a Conservative ethos, which offer the best means to tackle the unique set of problems which the United Kingdom faces.

Grayling presaged his speech with an article in a popular Sunday newspaper. Three Thousand Versts loathes the journal, and its daily sister, so profoundly that any link to its website would compromise our principles. However the continued emphasis of a tradition within Conservatism which is much richer and kinder than Thatcherism is highly encouraging.

Conservative Home notes
the contents of a dossier which the shadow home secretary is publishing, in which he notes that Britain is “heading rapidly back to being a country of "two nations"”. An explicit evocation, then, of Disraeli’s ‘one nation’ conservatism.

Sir Reg shoulder charges McNarry, but he still thinks the Lady's for turning.

Eternally well-informed blogger, staff at bobballs’, assessment of the ‘Putting Things Right’ document was that it represented a mazy slaloming solo dribble by its author, David McNarry (the ‘a’ in that sentence is important). Certainly the Strangford MLA seemed either reluctant, or unable, to clarify a widely misinterpreted section, which pondered possible funding arrangements for devolved policing and justice. His party leader, Sir Reg Empey, has now returned from holiday and explained the disputed text’s significance in terms which this blog had insisted were perfectly obvious to anyone who cared to read the original. Less a brutal sliding tackle, propelling McNarry into the stand, than a subtle nudge of the shoulder, easing him off the ball. The Irish News reports,

“Sir Reg made it clear that the UUP was not putting off the devolution of policing and justice and that their position had been misinterpreted.

Instead the UUP has raised the possibility of London continuing for a period to handle the financial side of policing and justice even if the actual powers were devolved to the north.

“If we had a trial period of five years – then the Stormont budget would not be at risk,” he said.”

The rest of the paper’s discussion with Sir Reg contains good news, tempered by more disappointing detail. Conservatives and Unionists aspire to selecting a more representative stable of candidates, including more Catholics and women – good news. The scope for achieving this aim might be limited in the upcoming general election – bad news. Lady Hermon will not stand as an Ulster Unionist in the next election, unless she accepts the Conservative pact – good news. The party leadership is still holding out some faint hope that she will stand under that banner – bad news! Exercise some discipline Sir Reg. Mitigate the damage!

Friday, 21 August 2009

Will Megrahi affair make Westminster more conscious of devolution's effects?

The SNP used the Megrahi affair to indulge in some distasteful nationalist posturing. Where justice is reserved the events formed a cautionary tale of the possible effects of its devolution.

But how do they reflect the workings of devolution, as it currently operates, and what do they tell us about possible political dynamics, as they might develop in the immediate future?

What the case illustrates most strikingly is that a Westminster government can be powerless in the face of an internal policy decision which directly impacts upon its interests on the international stage.

It has been alleged, as I intimate below, that the Scottish Justice Minister’s determination was convenient for the national government and consistent with its foreign policy objectives. It has even been suggested that pressure was brought to bear on the SNP administration, or that a deal was struck. It is a plausible point of view, derived by seductive reasoning, but it does not negate the hard fact that a recalcitrant devolved minister has the capacity to frustrate national foreign policy, in certain circumstances.

One suspects that, from the perspective of the main parties at Westminster, devolution is frequently considered, if it is considered at all, in rather abstract fashion. Perhaps this exceptional situation will emphasise that it can have very real, enervating consequences for the primacy and competencies of parliament.

Enoch Powell observed that ‘power devolved is power retained’. It was an exposition of constitutional fact, but it did not reflect the difficulty of reversing devolution once it is put in train. The self-styled ‘Scottish Government’ might derive its sovereignty from Westminster, but it wields it without recognising that fact and uses it solely to undermine the source from which it is drawn. So, if we accept that much of the damage has already been done, how can it be mitigated? And how can separatist forces better be contained?

I suggested yesterday that David Cameron’s unionist instincts gave him a chance to confound expectations and underline the interdependence of Westminster and the devolved regions. The Conservative leader yesterday responded to MacAskill’s verdict with a strong rebuttal. It was, he contended, a ‘very bad decision’. The Guardian politics blog takes this to indicate that relations between the Scots Nationalists and a unionist Tory government would be ‘fiery’, despite Cameron’s contention that he wants more constructive engagement with Holyrood.

I have no doubt that the SNP, if it still forms the Scottish executive, will attempt to foster a rocky relationship with whoever exercises power at Westminster, beyond the next set of elections. That, of course, is the party’s style and that is the means by which it has chosen to pursue its objective. The way to counter its intentions is not thoughtlessly to disperse ever greater quantities of reserved power, nor is it is supine acquiescence in nationalist schemes. Cameron must work to oil the interfaces where Westminster and devolved institutions interact and increase the frequency of those interactions. A Conservative administration should take its duties as the government of the United Kingdom seriously, rather than viewing devolution as an excuse to forget about inconvenient problems. The party’s leader has, it should be acknowledged, begun to outline new interactions which might be to the mutual benefit of both the Westminster government and the Scottish executive.

Whilst the nationalist narrative of interference has a certain potency (let’s face it, the purportedly unionist DUP is not averse to its deployment), it is more difficult for an administration to avoid constructive engagement, without appearing churlish. Through subtle engineering Cameron can assert Westminster’s central role in the life of the nation, without adding to the separatists’ appeal. The approach of involvement, explanation, interaction and engagement is applicable to each of the devolved regions.

An advert for devolved justice?

There are a series of problematic value judgements which the facts of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi’s release raise. Is it right to show mercy to a dying man, even if he has perpetrated a heinous crime? If there is a doubt about the safety of his conviction, does it justify his case being treated differently? How far should the hurt which victims have experienced be taken into account where mercy can be shown, or denied?

These are difficult questions, involving slippery moral concepts which will be endlessly debated. Lengthy works of philosophy, or novels, are suitable media to consider such material carefully (although Hernandez is one of many having a go on blogs and columns).

Rather than encroach on the territory outlined above, I propose to discuss (briefly) two issues (which I will divide between two posts) arising from the decision (and its announcement), which are, I suppose, tangential to the points I made about the SNP’s style of presentation, last night. Firstly, from a purely parochial point of view, what are we in Northern Ireland to make of the spectacle of a devolved justice ministry, caught in international headlamps? After all, if the Scottish executive seems overwhelmed by its responsibilities, what are the chances that locally directed policing and justice will result in improved functions here? Secondly, what does the episode tell us about devolution, its relationships, its dynamics and its future?

Clearly, the first issue deserves briefer treatment than the second. Mick Fealty provides a useful synopsis of the current situation, as regards policing and justice, in Northern Ireland, on a post on Slugger. He highlights real concerns that the executive’s performance, thus far, does not justify entrusting it with further responsibilities. The Libyan episode graphically demonstrates the complexity which justice matters can involve and their capacity to assume an international dimension.

Whether, as opposition politicians have alleged, the Scottish 'government' provided convenient cover for a Westminster administration keen to develop its relationship with Tripoli, or whether the SNP was eager to assert its independence, this was a matter which transcended the regional to encompass the national and the international. Yet it remained solidly within the remit of a parochial nationalist politician who embarrassed himself, and his country, by delivering a statement, more focussed on lauding the virtues of a ‘people’, than addressing matters pertinent to the case.

Whatever the effects of so called ‘Scottish cringe’, the Justice Minister’s statement should have caused his ‘people’ severe embarrassment. His performance will sustain those who believe that an early devolution of policing and justice in Northern Ireland could result in confusion, incompetence and humiliation. I do not wish to suggest that successfully reaching a major decision, with international repercussions, is beyond the abilities of Scottish or Northern Irish politicians. Just that the responsibility ranges well beyond the parish pump preoccupations of many of them, including the SNP.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

It's all about us. SNP minister preens his nationalist feathers in spotlight.

'In Scotland we are a people who pride ourselves on our humanity.'

So began SNP Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill's statement, as he announced the release of convicted Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi. He continued in that vein. 'Scotland' 'the Scottish people', their 'values', 'faith', 'beliefs', 'as a people we', and so on, ad infinitum.

It was a momentous decision, which will be strenuously debated and contested, yet, the SNP minister chose to to deliver it couched in preening, romanticised, nationalistic guff, rather than outline his reasoning clearly.

This was all about Scotland (or the Scotland which MacAskill imagines), it was all about nationalism, it was all about the SNP. How utterly risible. How utterly pathetic.

Why devolution needn't mean the end of Britain.

On Unionist Lite O’Neill has published a thoughtful post which invokes the idea of the United Kingdom as a ‘fifth nation’, embodied by the parliament at Westminster. It is an interesting notion through which to explain the interlocking set of identities and allegiances which define a pluricultural and multinational state. O’Neill contends that the political framework which draws Britain together could be more accurately described as a ‘collection’ of fifth nations. I understand what he means, although I wonder whether, in a devolutionary age in which the ‘four nations’ of the UK have assumed a very definite and meaningful political form, the need for a ‘fifth nation’ allegiance and the relevance of the image is not greater than ever.

In maintaining an overarching construct of political identity to which the peoples of the United Kingdom can continue to adhere, unionists might be thought to face a tricky conundrum. It is commonly asserted that ‘Britishness’, in so far as it is exhibited at all, is characteristically understated, unostentatious, even unspoken. How can we encourage greater loyalty to the United Kingdom, its politics and its institutions, without adopting the nationalist methods which we seek to counter? Without destroying much of what we consider intrinsically British and placing, in its stead, a larger replica of competing nationalisms?

I would argue that unionism should not seek to replicate the emotional claim which nationalism makes on its supporters. Or, at least, unionism should seek to make its own claim in starkly different vocabulary. O’Neill’s original source is a piece by Arthur Aughey entitled ‘What is Britain For?’ (published in this PDF, page 4). Aughey includes in his article a concise, but serviceable, definition of nationalism; “a political project to engineer the conformity of identity and allegiance”. If we were to attempt to break this equation down further we would doubtless discover that the identity variable requires a great deal of engineering in order to foster the end result of allegiance. Aughey’s point is that Britain’s sovereign claim on its citizens, coupled with the multitude of ‘civil’ associations in which those citizens are engaged, is at least as ‘primordial’ or ‘organic’ as nationalism’s engineered identity, which it claims embodies those characteristics.

What is implicit in the piece, as I understand it, is that the survival of the United Kingdom does not depend on a toe to toe battle with nationalisms on the issue of national identity. Instead unionists should be eager to emphasise the variety of identities which contribute to a mutable political and cultural concept – ‘Britishness’.

“Britishness means diverse national identities within a common sovereign allegiance.”

The appeal of a multi-national identity which can accommodate a range of composite nationalities should not be underestimated. But, O’Neill correctly observes, devolution has opened up a new context in which the political elements of those identities interact. There are now competing political loci which attract attention and loyalty, in addition to Westminster. Devolved institutions provide succour to nationalists who wish their prescription of identity to conform to a particular national allegiance. Although, as unionists, we might bemoan this development (and like O’Neill my unionism is coloured by an integrationist hue), realistically we must seek to work within its confines in order to strengthen the Union.

If we are arguing that Britishness and the Union are inclusive, and compatible with other felt national and regional identities, we ought to be attempting to minimise attrition between Westminster and the devolved assemblies. Nationalists in each of the three devolved regions have sought to portray plucky, circumscribed proto-national governments, battling with the authoritarian centre for their fair share of power and resources. It is a narrative which a supposedly unionist government has allowed to go unchallenged and which unionist politicians have even, on occasion, contributed to. It provides sustenance to political ideologies devoted to proving that continued membership of the United Kingdom involves unacceptable constraints on perceived nationality.

The countermanding, unionist narrative, which should be advanced and substantiated, is that the devolved institutions are inextricably linked, culturally and constitutionally, to the parliament in London. And that the two strands of government are dependent upon and complement one another. Whitehall and Westminster must be in visible communication with Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast and there should be demonstrable cooperation, consultation and mutual involvement where jurisdictions overlap. Without wishing to introduce a party political element to this post, David Cameron has shown signs that he understands this imperative. It would be a triumph of a Conservative government’s unionist instincts if, confounding most expectations, it were to improve the way in which Westminster’s relationships with sub-national governments are publicly perceived.

I agree with Vernon Bogdanor (and Arthur Aughey, who quotes him) that ‘Britain is less of an artificial or imagined construct, and British loyalty is more organic and primordial than many commentators have suggested’. Britain and 'British loyalty' are sustained by associations which are at least as real, and robust, as those which nationalism claims for itself. Unionists should keep faith in the validity of these associations and argue their importance on their own terms, rather than submit to the vocabulary, and assumptions, of nationalism.

O’Neill recently discussed Karl Popper’s ‘The Poverty of Historicism’ on his blog. The notion that devolved institutions will inexorably drain more and more power from the centre and inevitably result in the break-up of the United Kingdom is hardly historicism in its purist form, but it is shaped by a discernibly ‘holistic’ mode of thought. It would be difficult to argue that devolution is not a constitutional alteration which will prove, in the foreseeable future, almost impossible to reverse. Or that its haphazard implementation has not damaged the United Kingdom as a coherent unit. But I believe it can be modified to better safeguard the Union which still, thankfully, stands at the heart of the constitution.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

McGuinness defends DUP / SF 'ourselves alone' coalition

Describing the content of an interview with Peter Robinson’s First Ministerial partner, Martin McGuinness, Belfast Telegraph journalist Noel McAdam writes,

“the senior Sinn Fein politician repeatedly attacked his other Executive co-parties, Ulster Unionists and the SDLP, but talked up what he argues is the increasing proven ability of his party and the DUP to reach difficult decisions.”

The interview is just the latest evidence that the relationship between Sinn Féin and the DUP bears all the characteristics of a genuine, as well as a de facto, coalition, between two parties whose outlooks are surprisingly similar.

The two parties’ leaders each view government as an exercise in horse trading between two communities. Both believe that other, smaller parties’ roles should be confined to assuming collective responsibility for anything the larger pair decides between them.

Neither likes being held to account by the Assembly or even submitting to meaningful scrutiny by members of the executive. Both are inveterate centralisers, devoted to concentrating power at the top, preferably in the ‘semi detached politburo’ of the First Minister’s Office.

It infuriates McGuinness and Robinson alike, that the Ulster Unionists and SDLP, whilst taking up ministerial positions, insist on pointing out where they have had no input and where they disagree with the ‘ourselves alone’ coalition.

It begins to look too much like politics and democracy, rather than sectarian carve-up, when executive members demand to have a debate, or scrutinise legislation, or have a say in decision making.

If the two parties were a little more honest and a little less Stalinist, perhaps they would admit their meeting of minds. The people of Northern Ireland could choose whether they wanted the carve-up coalition in government and an official opposition could hold it to account.

Of course, come election time, each of these easy bedfellows has to claim that it will ‘smash’ the other.

Could Scottish double jobbing allegations be replicated in Northern Ireland?

David Campbell and Tim Lewis, chairmen of the Ulster Unionist and Northern Ireland Conservative Parties respectively, released a joint statement last week, explaining the process by which joint parliamentary candidates will be chosen.

To summarise, each Conservative or UU association in a given constituency will shortlist one prospective candidate. David Cameron and Sir Reg Empey will, at this stage, have the power to veto any nominee to whom they particularly object. The joint committee will then be asked to draw up a final list of preferred candidates from those hopefuls who have successfully negotiated the first two steps. Finally the Ulster Unionist Executive and the Northern Ireland Conservative Council will each be asked to ratify all the individual candidates.

This procedure at least has the merit of clarity and it should, theoretically, produce a list of moderate, agreed contenders, shorn of any especially contentious personalities. There is also scope for disagreement and controversy, of course, particularly when the committee’s choices are submitted to a wider assembly of party members, represented by the UU’s executive or the Conservatives’ council. The joint committee itself must remain discreet about any strenuous dissent which marks its deliberations.

There is a further obstacle which could await UUP selections, if the party decides that members of its Assembly team would be better deployed at Westminster. Although any successful MLA who subsequently became an MP would be bound to relinquish their Assembly seat at the next electoral opportunity, an instance in Scotland demonstrates that other parties would scarcely allow such a detail to dissuade them from alleging hypocrisy by Conservatives and Unionists over their attitude to double jobbing.

If we were to extrapolate Labour’s logic in attacking prospective Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk MP, John Lamont (an MSP), for possible double jobbing, we might conclude that no politician could switch between legislatures unless their terms ran flush. Conservatives have been quick to point out that David Cameron committed his representatives to, ‘give up the other seat at the first available electoral opportunity’, should they be elected to a second chamber.

There is no inconsistency in Scottish Tories fielding Mr Lamont for a Westminster seat, so long as he is prepared to stand down from Holyrood in 2011, should he become an MP. Nor would there be an instance of hypocrisy should Tom Elliot, to take a prominent example, fight and win Fermanagh and South Tyrone in 2010, assuming that his commitment is to stand down from Stormont at the next Assembly election.

That hasn’t prevented Labour and the Lib Dems attacking Conservatives on precisely that pretext in Scotland. I doubt that Northern Irish parties will be any more careful about the basis of their arguments.

It’s a consideration Conservatives and Unionists should bear in mind as they ponder candidate selection.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Raiders of the lost Arctic Sea?

I wrote a short piece back in December 2007 about the novelistic qualities of some of the year’s news stories. The ‘canoe man’, now hitting the bulletins once more as he attempts to find a publisher for his memoirs, and the ‘polonium murder’ are two prominent examples. Now, in 2009, we have the ‘Arctic Sea mystery’ in which a four thousand ton ship vanished for three weeks and then reappeared in puzzling circumstances.

Russia claims to have apprehended eight hijackers whom it alleges stole the vessel. But intriguingly it appears that they did not use force and nor were the fifteen crew members ‘under armed control’. The Russian navy’s recovery of the ‘Arctic Sea’ has, in the short term, added to the mystery, rather than solving it. However, the authorities have undertaken to provide a full explanation, once they have concluded their investigation.

What is certain is that few fiction writers have dreamt up a plot so pregnant with suspenseful possibility.

Monday, 17 August 2009

Miliband's terror comments were irresponsible

I am not, as regular readers will have ascertained, an enthusiast for the political skills of the Foreign Secretary. But even by David Miliband’s standards, his latest controversial remarks are incredibly ill advised and spectacularly badly timed. As Britain’s troops return in body bags, with stomach churning regularity, from Helmand province, victims of a vicious Islamist insurgency, the minister in charge of foreign policy has chosen to express the opinion that “there are circumstances in which (terrorism) is justifiable, and yes, there are circumstances in which it is effective”.

No doubt Miliband believes that he engaged in a subtle exposition of moral philosophy, when Matthew Parris questioned him about his attitudes to terrorism perpetrated by the group ‘Sizwe’, which claimed the lives of civilians in South Africa. His contention that the racist regime was ‘blown away’ will no doubt enrage those who believe that it was politics which eventually dismantled apartheid and acts of barbarity simply undermined the ANC’s, otherwise justifiable, campaign. But the foreign secretary cannot so glibly divorce his comments from the responsibility carried by his job or the context in which he carries it out.

Terror remains an ever present threat, on the streets of Britain, as well as the parts of the world in which our forces operate. Miliband’s moral relativism provides cover for all manner of inhuman campaigns of violence. After all, who is to determine which groups are in the right? To many, a global Caliphate, or an independent ethno-nationalist state are aims as noble as the destruction of South Africa’s racist architecture.

Miliband is in charge of a Foreign and Commonwealth Office that works in a myriad of nations, many engaged in their own attempts to combat terrorism. What message should they extrapolate from the minister’s philosophising? Should they conclude that the UK reserves the right to assess the legitimacy of terror groups’ arguments and support their violence against sovereign states, should it find in their favour? Would he like to discuss his opinions with relatives in Ingushetia, who today mourn at least twelve victims of violence, perpetrated to sustain a movement fuelled by a poisonous mix of Islamist ideology, tribal gangsterism and separatist sentiment?

It would be regrettable if the media were to foster an atmosphere in which government ministers were reluctant to express any type of personal opinion. However, there is a clear link in Mr Miliband’s case, between the job in which he is engaged, and the remarks that he made. They are, at best, stupid. The notion that terrorism is sometimes a legitimate means to address grievance is extremely dangerous. It is an idea which no responsible government minister would encourage.

Northern Ireland's Number 2. Thanks for your votes.

Total Politics has published its list of Northern Ireland’s top twenty weblogs. The chart has been collated from the votes of readers, who are asked to submit a list of their ten favourite sites. Many of you will know this, because you voted ‘Three Thousand Versts’ into second position. Again! Thanks to everyone who took time out to participate in the poll and include this blog in their list. When the UK chart is revealed, it would be nice if local sites were well represented.

Slugger O’Toole bestrides the world of Northern Irish weblogs like a colossus and it takes the number one position (presumably comfortably). I must confess a love hate relationship with Mick Fealty’s site. The quality of writing varies considerably between team members, it has lost one of its most astute unionist commentators, who contributed under the name ‘Fair Deal’, and it carries a degree of blogging ballast. However it is much the most vibrant forum for political debate in the province (albeit that a fair sample of it is either awe inspiringly repetitive or bordering on pathological), it breaks stories and it aggregates the pertinent issues in a fashion which smaller blogs cannot match. Its links are also the life blood for the rest of the Northern Irish blogosphere which generally builds its traffic through recognition on Slugger.

The rest of the list contains a few surprises. Unionist Lite’s third place showing is not one of them. Nor is the inclusion, at number seven, of ‘Bobballs’, a blog which melds astute commentary and humour to startling effect. But no ‘Burke’s Corner’? Has the scarcity of articles about local politics disqualified it from the Northern Ireland category? Its writing sets it apart from many of the supposed top twenty. And does the grim ethno-nat number crunching of ‘Ulster’s Doomed’ really command an enthusiastic audience? Apparently so. It is a new entry at number six.

There are a couple of good young blogs with which I am not familiar that make the cut. ‘The Dissenter’ has broken in at number twenty and I’ll be adding it to my links shortly. ‘Conservative and Unionist NI’ is a title which speaks for itself and it looks to be a site worth keeping an eye on.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Pandering to our society's most regressive voices

Why should a contemptible republican rabble be allowed to spoil Belfast's Tall Ships event? The News Letter reports that a Royal Marine band will no longer take part in a parade scheduled to take place today, due to a protest planned by the tiny dissident group, eirigi.

This is an organisation which acted as apologists for the murders of two soldiers and a policeman earlier this year. It's the group that intimidated students working in a Belfast shopping centre, as its 'protest' against against Israel's actions in Palestine. It organised an illegal demonstration when the city honoured troops returning from Afghanistan.

The Marines were, quite appropriately, invited to play a small part in a maritime festival organised in a UK city. It would have formed a tiny proportion of the pageantry which has taken place over four days. It is shameful that the most regressive, knuckle dragging representatives of this society should dictate the composition of a major event.

Friday, 14 August 2009

NHS love makes me queasy!

I must confess, the ‘we love the NHS’ campaign, organised to respond to American criticism of the institution, makes me vaguely queasy. Gordon Brown has joined the Twitter group, of course, in another ill advised foray into internet campaigning. Iain Dale has posted rather effectively on the topic, arguing that it is ‘puerile’ to claim ‘love’ for a public service.

Don’t misunderstand me. Reactionary voices in the US, which contend that the NHS is ‘evil’ and resist any move towards state funded health provision, make me even more bilious. I understand the reflex to defend our health service.

But there’s more than a little impulsive nationalism to this popular response to American criticism and there's a distinct whiff of populist opportunism where politicians seek to clamber on board the band wagon.

Everyone has experiences of the NHS, and many of them are good, but few would contend that the service is perfect. We have reason to be proud that health care is available, free of charge, to everyone in Britain, but there is little room to be uncritical and even less to be complacent.

David Cameron has also defended the NHS, against an attack by Tory MEP, Daniel Hannan. The Conservative leader is justified in knocking back the type of hard-line free market libertarian doctrines which make Hannan popular in the US. Particularly because Cameron has consistently emphasised the pivotal role commitment to the health service plays in his socially aware brand of conservatism.

Manifestly, however, the desire of both party leaders should be to ensure that the NHS works as well as it possibly can, rather than becoming involved in an irrelevant debate about its existence.

Vitriol, abuse and comment moderation

Comment moderation has been enabled for the foreseeable future. Anonymous commenters are intent on bombarding the site with vitriolic nationalist (and racist) abuse, both of the Irish and English varieties. This morning I’ve deleted the following gem.

“Only the BNP can deliver a united Britain minus Northern Ireland and the hatred that flows from this cesspit of spite.

Pan UK Unionism is the call of subsidy junkies, desperate to hang onto England's coat tails whilst contributing nothing to Britain. The Northern Irish are worse than paki immigrants.

We should get rid of the whole lot and hand them over to the Irish.”

Charming I’m sure you’ll agree. I’ve also been strenuously instructed to ‘go home’ as have the rest of the Irish. Very confusing for those of us solidly located on the ‘oul sod’.

Apologies for the nuisance value, but I will endeavour to check the comments as frequently as possible. Unfortunately, as more people read the site, the level of bile tends to increase too.

Whether or not it is possible to configure Blogger to accept comments automatically from ‘members’ and allow moderation from the rest I’m not entirely sure. Maybe someone with a bit of technical expertise could offer some advice.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Pan UK unionism or oblivion. An exciting but perilous time for the UUP.

In an article yesterday I alluded to some of the challenges which face the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists electoral force, come the autumn. The News Letter reports that the candidate selection procedure for Westminster elections is ‘under way’ (a process which represents one of the immediate obstacles UCUNF must surmount).

A poll is expected next spring and the alliance must strive to win seats for Northern Ireland in Britain’s next government and, just as importantly, ensure that the arrangement fields a stable of candidates reflecting its stated values and ethos.

After the next Assembly election it is intended that dual mandates be consigned to the past, so the Ulster Unionist Party must nominate, predominately, from outside its group of MLAs. If sitting Assembly Members do wish to stand, they will do so on the understanding that they must forfeit their Stormont seats in 2011, should their Westminster campaigns be successful.

How the party chooses to divide the talent available to it over two parliaments will be a tricky tactical conundrum, but it is likely that unfamiliar names will be blooded at the general election.

This offers an opportunity to field candidates genuinely attuned to the type of inclusive politics which the new force aspires to represent. Of course, each of the eighteen hopefuls who will compete for Northern Ireland’s Westminster seats must be endorsed by both the Tories and the UUP in the forthcoming election. A few of that number are likely to be drawn from the local Conservatives.

It is important that both parties and their constituency apparatuses focus most closely on the qualities of each prospective candidate, rather than which of the two organisations they happen to belong to.

This will be a genuine test of the new relationship and it is crucially important that both parties coalesce into a united and consistent election fighting force, solidly behind eighteen agreed candidates. The type of squabbling which marked the arrangement’s launch could turn the Westminster campaign into a farce.

From the UUP’s perspective, it must decide whether it truly has the will to make itself relevant again. Otherwise there is real danger it could become a fractious, incoherent, widely ignored rump.

The alternatives really are constructive, pan-UK unionism and oblivion. I’m not sure whether the starkness of that choice has been properly absorbed by the party and its leaders yet. It is an exciting time, but it is also a perilous time for Ulster Unionists.

McCann he or can't he? Should goalscorer retain central berth?

Does it seem wilfully perverse to suggest that the most useful lesson Nigel Worthington might have learned from last night’s Israel friendly could prejudice selection of Northern Ireland’s goalscorer, Grant McCann?

The match finished 1-1 after McCann put the home team into an early lead courtesy of a subtly crafted left foot free kick. Yet it is becoming increasingly apparent that accommodating the Scunthorpe player’s goal-threat, as part of a central pairing, involves weakening the spine of the Northern Ireland team.

I don’t for a moment wish to imply that the midfielder does not offer his manager a valuable option. Last night we witnessed the precision which he can achieve with his left boot and his late, timely attacking runs are not matched by either Sammy Clingan or Steven Davis.

However the Clingan / Davis partnership provides Northern Ireland with competitive bite and the ability to retain possession. It is my opinion that we cannot afford, especially playing away from home, to line up under strength in the centre of midfield.

Of course the manager could opt to accommodate McCann on the left, probably to the exclusion of Chris Brunt, or he might resurrect the unpopular notion of one up front, deploying McCann in a supportive role.

My suspicion is, that even should Davis and Clingan form Northern Ireland’s midfield partnership in games to come, Damien Johnson (from the right) will be required to play narrower than he has in recent games, in order to support his central colleagues, simply because we face quality opposition.

Last night Niall McGinn demonstrated that he can operate as an effective orthodox winger, so Worthington might feel that using the Celtic man could take the onus off Johnson to provide width and make best use of his combative style.

Although the home games against Slovenia and Israel yielded a vital win and a creditable draw, there have been signs that our midfield is not especially competitive. During both matches the away sides enjoyed long, unchallenged periods of possession. Against more capable players, any weakness will be fully exploited.

Central midfield is the beating heart of a football team. Nigel Worthington must choose his best combination in those positions and accommodate other talents around his side’s locus. That, to my mind, means playing McCann on the left, or not at all.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

UUP's drift and presentational carelessness could undermine Conservative deal.

If a party intends to put across a new message, consistently, then it is important that it chooses reliable people, in tune with the message’s ethos, to communicate it. The Ulster Unionist party has a vitally important vision to articulate just now. It is engaged in critical work, seeking to normalise politics in Northern Ireland, and strengthen the Union by offering voters here genuine participation in British politics.

This is the most exciting development for Northern Irish unionism in a generation, and it requires steadfast, firm leadership to see it to its conclusion. That means leadership which is prepared to ensure its party’s more regressive voices do not become predominant.

If you were leader of the UUP, and one of your representatives implied that your Conservative allies were ‘wide boy liberalistos’ you might think it clever management if you declined to use that representative to front a major policy paper. You'd be right.

Coverage of the ‘Putting Things Right’ document, released yesterday, was focussed on a relatively short passage which dealt with policing and justice. The post below observes that initial reports were based on misinterpretation of a relatively straightforward section of the report. Unfortunately the paper has been attributed to hard-line finance spokesman, David McNarry, who has subsequently failed to emphasise that this is a finance document, preoccupied with devolving policing and justice only insofar as its funding is concerned.

The MLA gave a rambling, incoherent interview on Radio Ulster and, consequently, a document which the UUP had intended to present as its deconstruction of Northern Ireland’s financial problems became accepted, so far as the media was concerned, as the party’s veto on devolution of policing and justice; and an attempt to outflank the DUP on its hardline wing. This development occurred completely unchallenged, with the UUP apparently oblivious. It represents another publicity foul up for the Conservative and Unionist coalition.

I appreciate that McNarry claims the report’s authorship, but I’m sure it was based on much wider input. The Strangford MLA is not sensitive to the ethos of inclusive politics and he is not likely to flourish if the Tory connection is strengthened. From a purely presentational perspective, this document would have benefited from being fronted by a more nimble media performer and from the perspective of party development, a more moderate voice would have been more appropriate.

The incident exacerbates the sense that the party’s leadership is rather lackadaisically engaged with the UUP / Conservative project and is inept in the subtle arts of media management. There remain suspicions that outstanding issues have been allowed to drift, and will re-emerge in the autumn, a disaffected MP and several ambivalent MLAs amongst them.

The Ulster Conservatives and Unionists got off to a satisfactory electoral start and the future should be bright for the alliance’s constituent parties. But the UUP in particular must recognise that a Rubicon has been crossed. It must embrace wholeheartedly the dispensation to which it is committed. That means more care, more attention to detail and more willingness to apply discipline when it is needed.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Half cocked Attwood and half arsed BBC

How many rash political judgments and alarmist media stories could be avoided if politicians and journalists were to read documents properly before commenting on them?

The UUP released its ‘Putting Things Right’ statement today, which sets out criticisms of the DUP / Sinn Féin coalition’s management of devolved finances and envisages how the position in Northern Ireland might be improved.

A section deals with policing and justice. Its contents have been picked up by the BBC which reports that Ulster Unionists are now seeking ‘a five year financial testing period’ before policing and justice powers can be devolved.

Reacting, no doubt, to the BBC’s story, as opposed to the original text, Alex Attwood (SDLP) blundered in with knee wildly a-jerking, alleging that the UUP has vetoed devolution.

“When Peter Robinson said on July 7 that all the party leaders in the Assembly would have to agree on community confidence before devolution of justice powers occurred he was sharing his veto over the timing of that devolution with the UUP. Today the UUP has given its response. The UUP will find it hard to pull back from this and Peter Robinson's view appears to be that he won't jump without the UUP.”

The following passage created all the excitement.

“Given past performance, there must also be serious questions over the ability of DUP-Sinn Fein to negotiate a proper financial package to support the devolution of policing and justice. Any financial package for the transfer of policing and justice powers needs to be rigorously tested for its financial sustainability, risk management and contingency planning against potential shortfalls and it should be rolled out over a five year period initially being funded entirely by Westminster. Only then, on the basis of the outcomes of this five year period, should it be fully transferred. Clear, robust guarantees must be given that Westminster will not allow the Northern Ireland budget to suffer in the event of additional demands on policing, such as those created by civil disorder. Only on this basis can we responsibly consider the devolution of policing and justice.”

A cautious statement, certainly, which correctly implies that not devolving policing and justice would be preferable to devolving it, partially funded. But, also, very explicitly a statement which anticipates devolution happening and is concerned with the funding which will follow it.

'Progressive' Conservatism remains Cameron's route to election victory

The think tank Demos was considered critical to the development of Blairism. Now, reflecting an altered political landscape, it is often mentioned in conjunction with David Cameron and his ‘progressive conservatism’ project. This afternoon, George Osborne will deliver a speech on the topic, at Demos, which has been extensively trailed in the media this morning.

The shadow chancellor will stress Conservative commitment to social values, communitarianism, localism and green issues, and contrast it with Labour’s woeful record on civil liberties and centralism. This blog has consistently advocated strong emphasis of these aspects of the Tory agenda. I have argued that David Cameron should, on no account, capitulate to the wing of his party which views the economic crisis as a pretext to drop policies aimed at building a fairer, happier society.

To his credit, the Conservative leader has resisted this temptation, whilst delivering a strong message on fiscal accountability. Steve Hilton’s return to the heart of the Cameron team may have stiffened sinews in this regard, but Cameron’s conservatism does appear to have deep and genuine communitarian, ‘one nation’ roots. The route to an impressive election result remains this consensus building, centrist path.

Crucial preparation as Northern Ireland faces Israel

My pre season optimism, as regards the Irish League, survived almost fifteen minutes of competitive action, before Ballymena’s flat footed defence allowed Liam Boyce to fire Cliftonville into an early lead at the Showgrounds. The international calendar begins tomorrow, and although Northern Ireland’s World Cup hopes cannot be dented meaningfully until early September, a poor performance against Israel would certainly send a deflated squad to the crucial qualifier in Poland.

Tomorrow’s clash represents crucial preparation for three matches which will define Nigel Worthington’s tenure as manager. It is just about plausible that Northern Ireland could book a place in South Africa over the next two months and there is a slightly more credible chance that a play off berth could be secured. Objective observers would scarcely expect the team to secure the seven points which are almost certainly the minimum required. Northern Ireland’s away record is appalling. We face Poland and the Czech Republic in Chorzow and Prague. Home form is much better, but Slovakia currently tops the group and their muscular style has achieved impressive results.

Nevertheless, Worthington’s side approaches the last three games with its fate (largely) in its own hands. As a fan, my only aspiration is that we go into the final two matches with a mathematical chance of qualification. Playing a tough team like Israel, with a footballing ancestry linked to eastern and central European countries, will focus Northern Irish minds on the task to come.

Fortunately, all the players whose participation Worthington sought have made themselves available. The manager wrote personally to his squad, urging their involvement and emphasising the importance of a friendly fixture, organised on the eve of the club season. The wisdom of selecting Crusaders’ Coates, rather than Manchester United’s Cathcart, might be called into question, but Worthington’s options will largely conform to the selection decisions he must make in the forthcoming World Cup fixtures.

Keep an eye on my Twitter feed for some live thoughts from the match and build up.

Monday, 10 August 2009

A start to building partnership: treat Russia's security propositions seriously

The anniversary of last summer’s war between Georgia and Russia has formed a pretext for predictable anti-Russian posturing. Politicians in Britain and elsewhere have been quick to rationalise their initial reactions to the conflict, despite the improvement in tone which Barack Obama’s arrival at the White House has precipitated between western governments and the Kremlin during the last six months. However, despite the residual, reflexive Russophobia which informs much of this analysis, it has generally been expressed in terms which are distinctly more temperate than the (empty) sabre rattling we witnessed last August.

Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, is a particularly blinkered critic of Moscow, and compulsively meddles in the affairs of sovereign states. But he met the anniversary of Saakashvili’s invasion with an uncharacteristically muted statement which welcomed President Medvedev’s call for a ‘new security architecture’ in Europe. The Conservative shadow defence minister, Liam Fox, was, regrettably, less circumspect; though his senior colleague, William Hague, has already signalled any Tory government’s intention to pursue a cautious, non-interventionist foreign policy, seeking rapprochement with Russia.

Responding to the change of approach in Washington, policy makers appear to be beginning to acknowledge that continually isolating Russia is a counterproductive strategy. In addition, the conduct of President Saakashvili has emphasised that rabidly nationalist post Soviet demagogues do not, by virtue of being pro American, become perfect, predictable partners. Neither does their countries’ proximity to Russia automatically transform them into the most sanguine, sensible analysts of that state’s geo-political role.

A surge of goodwill towards countries formerly within the Soviet orbit was to be expected after the Berlin Wall fell. But, as the subsequent years have elapsed and western backing has appeared to become more concentrated on states which most forcefully assert their independence from Moscow, rather than dependent on genuine commitment to democracy and human rights, it is hardly bewildering that Russia views American and EU strategy in its geographical vicinity, as not simply antithetical to its interests, but aimed directly and aggressively towards Russia.

In extracts from a paper published by the Centre for European Reform, carried by Open Democracy, Bobo Lo is sceptical about Medvedev’s mooted ‘security architecture’. However, he is forced to recognise that the prospects of modifying current international structures, dating from the Cold War, are not good. And he acknowledges that the Russian head of state has been flexible. Medvedev has moderated his initial comments, in order to envisage an ‘Atlantic’ dimension to suggestions initially focussed on Europe, and talks which would include existing organisations (unconvivial to Russia or not), as well as sovereign states.

The key is inclusion, and a genuine resolve to treat Russia as a partner, rather than the enemy. It is naïve to believe that national interests will not inform future conduct by either of the current ‘sides’, but in order to meet common problems with a truly multi-polar approach, there should at least be an allusion to partnership and integration. A will must be demonstrated to address Russia’s concerns about NATO in particular, given its Cold War origins and rapid eastward progress. Although Georgia and Ukraine remain putatively on the road to membership, the fatal blow which expansion would deliver to building confidence in Moscow is now widely, if not openly, acknowledged.

Medvedev believes there should be discussions aimed at superseding the treaty organisation altogether. He has a point, but he is unlikely to be granted such a dramatic concession. The best he can expect (in the medium term) is a more sensitive attitude to Russian sensibilities, pending discussions about common security concerns.

Russia’s oil wealth not withstanding, it has suffered grievously during the present crisis. Its new weakness has been joyfully greeted by some commentators. The Federation, it is said, needs to integrate, if its economy is to diversify and its potential is to be realised. Western institutions should ignore the Kremlin’s bluster, this line of argument maintains, and call Russia’s bluff, exploiting the lamentable current state of its finances and military. It is a far cry from analysis, often offered by the same sources, which two years ago called for a new Cold War, aimed at a regime which was using vast resources to manipulate the EU into economic dependence.

Whichever short term propositions frame the wisdom ‘de jour’ as regards this enormous country, they do not reflect the enduring rewards which could be achieved by building partnership, underpinned by mutual respect. A good starting point in fostering such partnership would be to treat Moscow’s security propositions seriously, whilst not, of course, necessarily accepting them in their entirety. That is the moderate, cautious, sensible course of policy towards Russia and it is superior to its rasher alternatives.

The DUP is not 'The Unionist Party'.

Permit me to start the week by venting a personal peccadillo. The Irish Independent reports that Jeffrey Donaldson objects to Youtube carrying videos celebrating terrorism. A rather unremarkable story. However, both the headline and story refer to the Lagan Valley MP as 'The Unionist MP' (note the capital letters). I appreciate that there is no factual inaccuracy here. Jeffrey professes to be pro-Union and he is an MP. I have noticed, however, strenuous DUP efforts to style itself 'the' Unionist party. The independent's use of the capital 'u' exacerbates the sense that the little Ulster party is the principal voice of unionism. This is neither factually, historically nor statistically correct.

Friday, 7 August 2009

Heart of a Dog

'Owww-ow-ow-ow! Oh, look at me, I'm dying. There's a snowstorm moaning a requiem for me in this doorway and I'm howling with it. I'm finished. Some bastard in a dirty white cap - the cook in the office canteen at the National Economic Council - spilled some boiling water and scalded my left side. Filthy swine - and a proletarian too.'

The voice of Sharik, canine hero of 'Heart of a Dog', opens Bulgakov's masterful novel. Subsequently, equipped by a Moscow professor with a dead man's testicles and pituitary gland, the stray becomes worryingly human, causing enough heartache that the experimenter reverses his procedure.

Alfie is another dog given literary voice, through his eponymous diary blog, transcribed by Rosemary J kind. He would doubtless sympathise with Sharik's plight and admonish his tormentors, albeit that Alfie's rights based patter might be incompatible with sneering at proletarians.

Rather than indulging Saakashvili's conceit, call for elections.

Exactly one year has elapsed since President Saakashvili ordered his troops to retake Georgia’s breakaway region, South Ossetia, by force of arms. Russia, whose citizens form a majority of the territory’s population, responded by driving Georgian forces back beyond the Ossetian boundary and deep into Georgia proper. Its president’s military adventurism has provided further impetus to increasingly strident political opposition within the former Soviet republic. Realist foreign policy observers within the EU and US have begun to scrutinise the Georgian leader’s democratic credentials with more care. South Ossetia and Abkhazia have sought, and gained, Russian recognition for unilateral declarations of independence. By any sensible criteria, Saakashvili has presided over a tactical and strategic disaster for his country, yet, in today’s Guardian he marks the anniversary of his invasion with a self-valedictory article, portraying his regime as a bastion of freedom which will drive forward democracy in the region and a straightforward victim of Russian aggression.

The first claim certainly does not echo the findings of the Foreign Policy Centre’s ‘Spotlight on Georgia’ pamphlet. The influential think tank drew from a wide range of sources in its examination of the country’s geo-political and socio economic position. It highlighted an authoritarian streak to Mr Saakashvili’s style of presidency, found that, by most indicators, Georgian democracy has diminished since the Rose Revolution and advocated western institutions tying their support for Tbilisi much more unambiguously to commitment to human rights. Corruption and authoritarianism have flourished under Saakashvili’s leadership, certainly since 2007, whilst democratic freedoms for the opposition and a free press have withered.

In its editorial, the Guardian notes that prevailing international opinion does not concur with the Georgian president’s claims about the war’s genesis either. The most charitable analyses suggest that Saakashvili reacted unwisely to Russian provocation. Authoritative sources are increasingly convinced that Georgia prepared a pre-meditated strike, timed to coincide with the Beijing Olympics, to which Moscow reacted with alacrity. Der Spiegel has already reported that majority opinion of an EU fact finding commission, deployed in the South Ossetian border region, is that Tbilisi started the war. Commissioner Christopher Langton, a retired colonel from the British Army is reported as saying, ‘Georgia’s dream is shattered, but the country can only blame itself for that’.

Of course a country is only partially responsible for the actions of its government, particularly if its democratic freedoms are curtailed. Georgia has suffered a catastrophic failure of political leadership, for which Saakashvili should be held largely responsible. Certainly Russia is not blameless as regards increased tensions with its Caucasian neighbour, but it is entitled to be concerned when a president with a recent and proven record of adventurism seeks help to reconstruct his war machine. Given the particularly disastrous course which Saakashvili has set for Georgia, its people should be permitted fresh and fair elections. Rather than stoking his conceit, and encouraging his posturing, western leaders should be pressing the president to grant them.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Totnes vs. local activists.

The Conservatives’ ‘open primary’ experiment in Totnes, Devon, has been widely applauded. Enthusiasm for the new method of candidate selection is not, however, universal. ‘Letters from a Tory’ has compiled a list of objections, some of which are practical and reasonable. Others bear the thumbprint of the political activist jealously guarding his privileges.

Candidate selection is, of course, a thorny issue for grass roots party members. Choosing a suitable nominee to fight an election is traditionally the prerogative of local constituency organisations. Attempts to impose preferred candidates by central structures are frequently resented and it would not be especially surprising if opening the process up to non-party members is also met with resistance by local activists.

Three Thousand Versts has hosted debates around this area before. Suggestions that Conservatives and Unionists in Northern Ireland need to take affirmative action and look at list systems in order to widen and deepen the range of candidates fielded at the Westminster election appal some bloggers and commenters (hello Ignited ;-)). These apprehensions are easy to understand.

Members who have patiently and conscientiously attended meetings and involved themselves in party work feel understandable anger if someone, new to grass roots politics, is fast-tracked to candidature ahead of a diligent and long standing activist or representative. However, those who involve themselves in local branches must endeavour to understand that the clubbable nature of party politics itself contributes directly to voter disenchantment. In order to encourage wider engagement with political processes, some sacrifices can justifiably be sought from party members.

‘A Tory’ is concerned that the Totnes primary might have selected a candidate who ‘does not reflect local parties or local politics’. It is a fair observation, but it rather encapsulates the point of the exercise. Naturally it is important that any aspiring Conservative representative should subscribe to the ethos and policies of the party. By compiling a list from which the public can choose, the party architecture still has a vital role to play. But voters clearly feel that the worlds of ‘local parties’ and ‘local politics’ are neither accessible to them nor are they relevant to their lives.

It is commonly believed that Britain’s ‘political class’ is drawn from too narrow and insular a pool. Making years of professional, or semi professional, political involvement a prerequisite for candidature is hardly a means to address that deficiency. Serving one’s time might signify commendable party loyalty, but it does not necessarily indicate ability and, as a basis for selection, it does not produce a broad and balanced range of candidates.

Certainly Totnes has not delivered, in one fell swoop, an infallible method by which to select parliamentary candidates. It is, however, animated by David Cameron’s desire to bring power closer to the people and it is perfectly in tune with public sensibility in the wake of the expenses scandals. It is unlikely that an open postal vote will become the default mechanism of selection for Conservative Westminster hopefuls, but some degree of wider input is certainly practical and it will blow fresh air through a stagnant system.

Locally, producing a set of representative candidates offers more specific challenges, but there is no reason why Conservatives and Unionists cannot experiment with open meetings to select from shortlists which the joint committee might draft.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Sky's the limit as Walker plots Ballymena title raid (or perhaps not)

The Barclays Premier League begins next weekend and Liverpool new boy Alberto Aquilani could be called into immediate action against Tottenham Hotspur at Anfield (pending medicals). Closer to home the rather grandly titled Carling Premiership kicks off on Saturday. Perennial favourites, Glentoran and Linfield, face trickier opening fixtures than they might ideally have chosen. The reining champions face Distillery in Lisburn whilst David Jeffrey’s shower travel to Coleraine.

However all eyes (or at least these eyes) will be trained on the Showgrounds where Roy Walker’s Ballymena United side begins its title challenge against Cliftonville. The Sky Blues’ pre-season has been rather compact this year and I have only managed to attend one of the friendly matches. It was a rather patchy display against Dunmurry Rec, which the senior outfit eventually won by three goals to one.

That game saw the debut of former international player Andy Smith, a striker of whom much will be expected in the forthcoming year. Walker, has also freshened up his midfield, adding goalscoring winger Okunaiya, Noel Anderson, Philip Carson and veteran Darren Lockhart. Various players have been sold or released, without noticeably diminishing the options available to the United manager.

Much will depend on Andy Smith’s ability to form a partnership with highly rated Scottish forward, Kevin Kelbie. If the two front men can establish an understanding and Gary Haveron, the club’s versatile defender and captain, can remain fit, then Ballymena fans are entitled to expect an improvement from last season.

Since Ards departed the top flight, the Braidman invariably top the table in August, before any games have been played. Only the most optimistic supporter would predict that the club will retain this berth as the season progresses. Roy Walker’s task is to seek a finish in the top five and attempt to bring some much needed silverware to Ballymena, in the form of a cup (any cup).

Flagging Labour will be replaced by a government with a different outlook

I believe the government’s scheme to introduce national ID cards represents a colossal waste of money and should be scrapped as soon as possible. I am not, therefore, unduly excited by Labour’s decision to omit the Union Flag from the card, as a sop to nationalists in Northern Ireland. Jeffrey Donaldson is rather more exercised by the issue and Irish News’ columnist, Fionnuala O’Connor, has trumpeted the flag’s omission as evidence of our tenuous links with the rest of the United Kingdom. Certainly, the government is failing to adorn a silly card with an appropriate symbol for equally silly reasons.

I have criticised O’Connor’s analysis before and the flaws which I have highlighted in her arguments are once again present in this piece. In common with many nationalists, two of her favourite devices are reading provisions into the Belfast Agreement which are not supported by the text and conflating equality of aspiration with equality of outcome. Whilst Labour has demonstrated its inclination to pander to such sensibilities, Cameron’s Conservatives show evidence of a clearer understanding of the British government’s responsibilities in Northern Ireland.

Contrary to nationalist claims, the Good Friday Agreement did not establish the right to hold either British or Irish citizenship. Prior to the agreement the Republic of Ireland was already granting passports to people from Northern Ireland. The document, which was endorsed by referendum in both Irish jurisdictions, certainly affirmed the existing situation whereby the Republic’s irredentist citizenship laws enabled it to grant, by default, residents of part of the UK Republic of Ireland passports.

However, the much cited (and rarely quoted) clause which ‘recognise(s) the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they may so choose’ certainly does not give explicit political effect to nationalists’ wish to conflate ‘Irish’ with the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland remains unambiguously part of the UK whilst a majority here supports the constitutional status quo. Giving effect to the principle of consent in terms of symbols and furniture of state does not prejudice, one iota, people’s ability to identify themselves as Irish.

On one hand O’Connor indulges her instinct to rubbish the ‘Britishness’ of Northern Ireland and maintain that the UK government does not regard it an integral part of the UK. On the other she expresses anxiety that the Conservatives will not be as ‘committed …. to parity of esteem”.
The irony is rich and Orwellian. By O’Connor’s prescription ‘parity of esteem’ involves depriving the people of Northern Ireland of their right to fully enjoy the constitutional status which they have chosen. Clearly some are more equal than others.

The author’s allusion to a Conservative government is instructive, because whilst she can’t resist the temptation to gloat, she seems to understand that her gloating is premature. The Tories are committed to affording Northern Ireland the national political participation which its membership of the United Kingdom should involve. That commitment won’t effect nationalists’ right to campaign for a different constitutional outcome, nor will it interfere with the expression of culture or perceived nationality. The people of Northern Ireland will remain soundly in charge of their own future, whether it is within the UK or not.