Monday, 30 November 2009

Stop the consultation, get rid of the Chief Commissioner and bury the Bill.

After the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (or part of it) delivered its advice on a Bill of Rights for the province, the government has published a consultation paper on the subject.

At Slugger O’Toole, Belfast Gonzo observes that the NIO document has dispensed with most of the NIHRC’s work. The Secretary of State previously noted that the body had strayed far beyond its remit.

Gonzo asks whether Monica McWilliams, the chief commissioner, should resign her post.

She has failed in her brief, she has taken a nakedly political approach to a public position - helping to turn the commission into something resembling a pressure group - and she has been paid £70,000 per annum by the tax payer. This blog has long previously contributed its voice to the campaign for resignation.

The Consultation Paper notes that the British government has already discharged all the duties which were required of it, under the Belfast Agreement, in order to safeguard rights in Northern Ireland. Despite nationalist claims to the contrary, the accord did not include a mandatory Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. Indeed, the Commission which was charged with investigating the scope for such a bill did a dismal job.

In the NIO document it is pointed out that, “over half of the rights proposed in the NIHRC’s Advice are equally as relevant to the people of England, Scotland and Wales as they are to the people of Northern Ireland and, therefore, fall to be considered in a UK-wide context“. There is much more in this vein. And it echoes countless independent critics who were ignored at each stage of the Commission’s project.

The vast majority of rights issues which pertain to Northern Ireland are equally applicable to the rest of the United Kingdom and ought to be discussed within the context of a national debate. The few matters which are specific to Northern Ireland, and which the NIHRC, ironically, largely ignored, can quite easily be appended to a UK wide bill.

The consultation into a bill of rights, like the Human Rights Commissioner, has outlived its usefulness. It should be stopped, before it wastes any more precious pounds.

Blogtalk (Episode 6)

Blogtalk (episode 6) from Northern Visions/NvTv on Vimeo.

Mick Fealty, Gary McKeown and Máirtín Ó Muilleoir discuss this week's topics.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Bow Group's 'More for Less' document

A quick line this morning (there will be lengthier posts appearing later this week I can assure you). John Redwood and Carl Thomson have produced a pamphlet entitled 'More For Less' on behalf of the Bow Group. It aims to set out practical methods which could deliver public savings cuts whilst protecting front line services.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Eighteen candidates - no discussion!

Tom Elliott MLA has appeared on Hearts and Minds attempting to fudge the issue of agreed candidates. He also claims to be 'relatively' supportive of the Conservative and Unionist pact. O'Neill has previously pointed out that the Fermanagh man appears to have a shaky understanding of what UCUNF actually involves. We know that it entails eighteen candidates and yet UUP representatives still remain coy about declaring unequivocally that eighteen candidates will stand.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Liverpool sign striker Placenta?

Benitez' new player gets a medical?

I am, it should be said, rather cynical about experimental medicine of any type. However the basting of Liverpool Football Club's players with horse placenta I fully support. Better yet, play the placenta at centre forward instead of Andriy Voronin.

The civic space: Towards a civic unionism

At Forth magazine, I write about unionism's capacity to deliver civic politics to Northern Ireland. Jason Walsh will reply from the nationalist perspective.

Jason and I share the conviction that Northern Ireland’s politics ought to focus on civic discourse, if they are to assume a less confrontational, less sectarian shape. My contention is that a province, remaining solidly within the United Kingdom, is best placed to draw upon civic and institutional influences, rather than the cultural preoccupations which currently predominate, precisely because the state is a multi-national construct which makes its appeal primarily on the basis of political allegiance, rather than a perceived monolithic identity. It is incumbent upon unionists to celebrate the diversity of their state and frame their arguments in civic terms, rather than continue to call forth Conor Cruise O’Brien’s ‘ancestral voices’.

Read more:

Sorry Liverpool depart Champions League.

Liverpool’s Champions’ League victory recedes ever further into the rear-view mirror of history. It is now the fifth season since that campaign, which climaxed in Istanbul, and to celebrate the club has tumbled out of this year’s competition at the group stages.

Rafa Benitez’ side was not eliminated on the strength of its performances against Debrecen. Although last night the team delivered another unconvincing one goal victory against the minnows. Liverpool, under Benitez, have a habit of doing ’just enough’ to beat substandard opposition in Europe and have often advanced on that basis. This time two fortunate victories against the Hungarians could not offset a defeat at Fiorentina and, crushingly, one point from six against Olympique Lyonnais.

The brutal truth is that Benitez’ team deserves to be eliminated from the Champions’ League, just as it deserved to be beaten by Arsenal’s second string in the Carling Cup and just as it deserves to languish seventh in the Premier League.

An exceptional run of form between January and the end of last season obscured the incontrovertible fact that the squad is really rather threadbare. With Xabi Alonso’s replacement suffering an interminable injury, Fernando Torres sidelined and Steven Gerrard struggling for fitness, Rafa Benitez can field only a distinctly ordinary team.

He has exacerbated his problems with some inexplicable decisions. Yossi Benayoun, producing rampant performances in a free role behind the striker, was consigned first to the wing and now to the bench.

The Greek, Kyriagos, continues to feature, despite a string of lamentable performances. A series of mediocre players which Liverpool’s budget, and Benitez’ transfer decisions, brought to the club have had their inadequacies continually exposed, simply because the manager has been forced to select them.

The fans have been remarkably patient with their manager, but he should be under pressure. The derby is on Sunday, and another defeat cannot be explained away with reference to the club's American owners.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

If they act like thugs, and join an organisation devoted to thuggery, safe to say, they're thugs.

‘When Tory politician William Hague referred to loyalists as ‘thugs’, my heart sank’, claims Roy Garland, in his weekly diatribe against ‘English’ Conservatives. ‘No group of people’ should, he contends, be dismissed in such a way. Not even, apparently, groups whose activities conform to the very definition of thuggery.

First, I don’t believe that Garland’s ‘heart sank’ when the Foreign Secretary attacked loyalist paramilitaries. On the contrary, his communal instincts kicked in, ‘he’s having a go at ussuns as well as themmuns, what an opportunity’ (or words to that effect).

Second, his latest article contains a heart rending tale of a nice young man who joined a paramilitary organisation and then began to change it. Indeed it is positively glowing on the topic of loyalist groups and their stout community work in general.

What a load of twaddle! This is the same narrative, told from a different perspective, which we get from Republicans. Fine young men, compelled by extraordinary circumstances to commit dreadful deeds.

Nobody would claim that paramilitaries are irredeemable. They can gain acceptance by leaving paramilitary groups and joining the lawful society which they have previously terrorised. Attitudes like Garland’s just entrench the influence of shadowy groups within the very communities which he purports to care about.

Loyalist thugs have used guns and intimidation to run areas which, rightly or wrongly, felt under siege. William Hague is absolutely right to pledge to oppose them at every opportunity. Roy Garland, in contrast, demonstrates precisely the moral ambivalence to Protestant terrorists which has undermined unionism over a series of decades.

No group of people deserve to be labelled thugs? How about the morons who murdered Kevin McDaid.

Scots' support for the Union solidifies

When unionist parties vote down Alex Salmond’s proposed independence referendum he hopes to encourage the idea that democracy is being denied. A new poll demonstrates that Scots might not be so receptive to this argument after all. According to You Gov, backing for independence has fallen to 29%, whilst support for the Union is up four points, to 57%.

Anthony King set the question, in line with the SNP’s proposed ‘softly softly’ approach. Rather than seeking honestly the Scottish people’s assent to break up the United Kingdom, the party will propose a mealy mouthed formulation about ‘negotiating a settlement with Westminster‘. King observes that in rejecting this proposition,

“most Scots regard the idea of a referendum on Scottish independence as an irrelevant bore and that, if any such referendum were held in the near future, it would be overwhelmingly defeated".

Indeed only one in eight Scots named a referendum as one of the top two priorities on which Holyrood should concentrate.

Salmond is well aware that his Referendum Bill will not gain the assent of the Scottish Parliament. His strategy is to use its defeat as a springboard for the general election, during which he will portray the SNP as the party prepared to give the electorate its say on Scotland’s constitutional future.

This survey indicates that there may be less leverage in these tactics than Salmond hopes. It also demonstrates that a referendum would kill stone dead, for a generation, the notion of Scottish independence.

Perhaps the brave response from unionists would be to grant Mr Salmond his separatist poll, on the understanding that it poses an honest question to the electorate and that the answers are restricted, simply, to ’Yes’ or ’No’.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Conservatives should be able to avoid asking for Clegg's help

In the wake of the Observer’s Ipsos-Mori poll, which suggested that the general election could result in a hung parliament, Nick Clegg has indicated that, in that eventuality, his party might be prepared to enter into an arrangement with the Conservatives. On ‘The Andrew Marr Show’ the Liberal Democrat leader set out a position which it is difficult not to interpret as encouragement to the Tories.

"Whichever party has the strongest mandate from the British people, it seems to me obvious in a democracy they have the first right to seek to try and govern, either on their own or with others.”

On Conservative Home Jonathan Isaby suggests that Clegg would find it impossible to sell coalition with the Tories to grass roots Liberal Democrat supporters.

However the modern Conservative party, with its emphasis on social justice, is relatively in tune with liberal sensibilities. Although, as Isaby observes, it is unlikely to accede to demands for proportional representation.

Ultimately, the Observer’s poll is not in line with the vast majority of surveys, which still indicate that the Tories are likely to form the next government with a clear majority. There might be fewer Conservative MPs than David Cameron would ideally like, but as long as he plots a centrist course, a hung parliament can be avoided.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Young Unionist Chairman addresses Conservative Future Scotland

Congratulations to Michael Shilliday, whom many of you will know. He had the distinction of addressing the Conservative Future Conference this afternoon. The final draft of his speech is reproduced below.

Mr Chairman it is a tremendous privilege to be addressing this conference, Alasdair and I were delighted to be invited, and are delighted to be here. Your hospitality and generosity have been greatly appreciated, and we have been greatly impressed at the scale and organisation of this conference.

In years gone past, similar gatherings of Young Conservatives in Scotland would I am certain have counted amongst them unionists from Northern Ireland, either as members of the Conservative Party locally, or as guests from my party, here as friends in support of a party and a cause with which they would have had considerable sympathy.

I feel however Mr Chairman, a particular honour in addressing this particular conference at this particular time, because I feel that I am here not only as a friend, but also as a colleague and partner. I am the first Chairman of the Young Unionists in 40 years who has been able to say that, and I do so with a great sense of pride.

The historic agreement reached between our two great parties earlier this year, is hugely important for the future of Northern Ireland. By putting to the electorate a potential government for the first time in a generation, by giving them the opportunity to have their voice heard in national government for the first time since 1974, and by putting Northern Ireland back at the heart of United Kingdom politics, the Ulster Unionist Party and the Conservative Party have taken Northern Ireland society a step further away from conflict and a step closer to being at peace with itself.

However Mr Chairman it should not be said that our renewed partnership is in any way surprising.

Firstly Ulster Unionism and British Conservativism are traditionally and closely aligned movements. We are not engaging in a new departure but re-establishing an old friendship which stemmed from the foundations of Irish Unionism in the 19th century. The reasons for that friendship drifting apart are numerous and contributory to the failure of the Conservative Party to become electable in Northern Ireland over the years since. But the recognition of those facts and the magnanimous manner with which the Conservative Party has dealt with those legacy issues has played a massive role in setting them to one side and allowing us to progress. David Cameron has publically reiterated the regret of Mrs Thatcher for the Anglo Irish Agreement, and emphatically contradicted Peter Brooke’s statement that the UK Government had no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland. That was necessary, that took courage, and that speaks volumes about the commitment of the leadership of the Conservative Party to our shared initiative.

Secondly Mr Chairman, for the Ulster Unionist Party, re-establishing a link is another step on the road to a shared Northern Ireland, at peace with itself. That road began in earnest in the mid 1990’s and the UUP has achieved much in that time and since which we are rightly proud of. The IRA has surrendered its weaponry and core ideology to a partitionist settlement within the Union under the Crown. The principle of consent secures the future of Northern Ireland as an integral region of the United Kingdom to it’s people, and the ever increasing proportion of Catholic support for the Union leaves me with a certainty that I will not see a united Ireland in my lifetime. At it’s core, the dual legacy of the Belfast Agreement is peace, and an enduring Union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Having made those achievements, it is entirely predictable that the Ulster Unionist Party would seek to reengage Northern Ireland with national politics – that is the logical progression of the Belfast Agreement. The Ulster Unionist Party having achieved it’s mission of securing Northern Ireland within the Union, has taken the logical step to seek new goals and pursue new avenues for politics in Northern Ireland, with an old friend and partner.

Of course Mr Chairman it will not be lost on anyone here that the battle to keep our Kingdom united is no longer dominated by Irish separatism. Today it is arguable that it is you and not I who face the greatest challenge to British unity. Whilst it is crucial to remember that the rise in electoral support for the SNP does not correspond to a rise in support for Scottish independence, the realities of Scottish politics as it exists makes it incumbent on all unionist parties in Scotland to make the case for the union clearly and unequivocally in the years ahead.

That challenge will be heightened for the Scottish Conservative Party in the event of there being a Conservative and Ulster Unionist Government next year. The ourselves alone alliance of the SNP and DUP have made clear that they intend to try to pin the blame for any and every pressure and failure on the finances of their administrations on an English Tory Government. It is up to us in the Scottish Conservatives and Ulster Unionists to make sure that they don’t get away with that lie. It is up to us before and after the election to be honest about the public finances, and to be up front with the public in the face of unashamed hypocrisy and dishonesty. It is up to us to make sure that the Scottish and Northern Irish electorates know that a Conservative Government is not an English Government, it is a British Government, fighting for Scotland and fighting for Northern Ireland.

And it has to be said that the National Conservative Party has done much better in the past three years than the previous three in recognising the realities of the United Kingdom beyond England. The “little Englander” mentality that was the prevailing image of the Conservative Party has largely been replaced. The phoney argument about “subsidies” for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has all but disappeared from the lexicon of English representatives. Sir Edward Carson, very much the father of Ulster Unionism, argued passionately for extra resources for schools in rural Mayo and elsewhere in pre-partition Ireland. The principle was equal services for equal taxation of equal citizens. That principle still holds today, and no longer is the Conservative Party backing away from that commitment to our nation. No longer is the Conservative Party suggesting that Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish MP’s should be a lower class of MP. It is quite clear that David Cameron knows that he could be the last Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and that he is doing what is necessary to avoid such a situation, out of conviction. It is clear that the Conservative Party is determined to maintain the entire Union.
Of course one of the key benefits to both parties of our partnership, is the opportunity to engage with each other and learn from each other’s experiences. Perhaps there is a heightened opportunity for Unionists and Conservatives in the devolved regions to co-operate. Where your party has a history of scepticism towards devolution, mine once had a thriving debate between devolutionists and integrationists. The Ulster Unionist Party has long put that debate behind us, and as a friend, I urge Scottish Conservatives to fully embrace devolution.
I strongly believe that devolution is not something to be feared by Unionists, but something to be embraced . Devolution, approached positively, can secure the union, rather than threaten it or undermine it. Devolution is fundamentally a form of bringing about decentralisation of power and greater local control, principles that should be welcomed and advanced by Conservatives.
In Northern Ireland through our two Ministers, Sir Reg Empey (Employment and Learning) and Michael McGimpsey (Health), we are making tangible, positive and innovative improvements to public services on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland that is responsive to the needs of our region. Michael McGimpsey has recently completed the most fundamental overhaul of the Northern Ireland Health Service since my party founded it in the 1950s. Opinion polls rank our Ministers as among the most popular, respected and appreciated ministers of the current Northern Ireland Executive.

The challenge then for what you might call the "Celtic Conservatives" is to both nurture our hunger for Executive authority in the devolved political arenas, and upon obtaining such authority, readily demonstrate the effective difference that can be made when conservative solutions are applied to social, economic and political problems.
Boris Johnston in London, has shown what can be done, when Unionists and Conservatives set our sights on resting control of a devolved body from the grasps of charismatic socialism. It is vital we do not surrender any of the devolved executives to the bankrupt intellectual houses of socialism and small-minded nationalism.

For Unionists and Conservatives, the coming days weeks and months are about change, change we all desperately need from a Labour Government that has long outlived it’s welcome. The United Kingdom desperately needs a modern and forward-looking Conservative Government at Westminster.

But we also need modern and forward-looking Conservatives in the Cardiff, Holyrood and Stormont Executives. The entire United Kingdom needs change at all levels and in all institutions. To create that change, the United Kingdom needs the Conservative Party at all levels to embrace devolution, win authority in all devolved regions, and to govern. Conservatives and Ulster Unionists hold the key to preserving the Union in the long term. It’s now up to us to go forward, persuade the electorate, and do it.

Alliance prefer Hermon to Parsley?

Jeff Peel doesn't reveal any sources, but on his (Public) Diary blog he suggests that the Alliance Party is set to 'support' Sylvia Hermon 'rather than' Ian Parsley in the North Down race for Westminster.

How this support would manifest itself is not made clear. Conservatives and Unionists have not selected a candidate for North Down, but the former Alliance man, Parsley, has been nominated and it is thought that the Conservative party is unlikely to countenance an endorsement of the current Ulster Unionist MP.

Is Alliance set to intervene in another party's selection process or is it prepared not to stand in North Down, should Sylvia Hermon decide to contest the seat as an independent? Perhaps, within the party, there is simply a preference for a figure considered to be left liberal, rather than a recent defector?

After all, whether or not, as Jeff contends, Alliance voters are intrinsically sympathetic to the Conservatives, its leadership are a rather different case.

An intriguing, but rather confusing, piece of gossip.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Blogtalk NI (Episode 5)

Blogtalk (episode 5) from Northern Visions/NvTv on Vimeo.

Brian Crowe from Burke's Corner, Alan Meban from Alan in Belfast ans Slugger's oppression correspondent, Chris Donnelly, discuss several topics.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Armstrong aims to remind electorate that Conservatives and Unionists offer best option in North Antrim

The media has already established its angle on the North Antrim general election contest. It’s all about Jim Allister and whichever Paisley is nominated to rebuff his challenge. To a degree the preoccupation with the DUP / TUV contest is understandable. After all, in 2005 Senior romped home with more than 25,000 votes and Ulster Unionist candidate, Rodney McCune, was beaten to second spot by Sinn Féin.

However, four years have elapsed and Northern Ireland’s electoral landscape looks rather different. Conservatives and Unionists will hope to improve their vote share considerably in the constituency. The TUV’s irrelevance to Westminster politics is manifestly obvious, and the Paisleys‘ reputation has been tarnished, even within their traditional heartlands. If voters in North Antrim need any reminder of the venality which caused the family’s downfall, they need only glance at a whopping £500,000 advice centre in Ballymena.

Of course, if UCUNF is to benefit from a fragmented DUP vote and its own particular relevance to a Westminster contest, it is important that the right candidate is selected. The UUP in the area has chosen two hopefuls to appear before the party’s selection committee. Ballymena councillor, Neill Armstrong, and Robin Swann (a defeated candidate at the last Assembly election).

In 2005 Neill had the distinction of increasing his vote in the Ballymena North ward, very much against the predominant trend for Ulster Unionist representatives. In contrast to his opponent, he has a record of election success with an established reputation, particularly in the Ballymena and Cloughmills areas. And, in a climate where the perceived impermeability of the political class can represent a severe handicap, Armstrong is an integral part of a successful family business.

It is my belief that, in order to achieve the results which are needed, UCUNF’s general election candidates should have an innate understanding of the pact’s principles. They should, in other words, be wholeheartedly committed to the Conservative and Unionist project. I know that, from its inception, Neill has been a strong proponent of the New Force and enjoys cordial relations with the local Conservative party.

In the speech which he delivered to the North Antrim selection meeting Neill described, in lucid terms, the particular relevance of the Conservatives and Unionists to North Antrim.

Our society suffers from all the ills of family breakdown, drug misuse and disengagement amongst young people, which Cameron is preoccupied with. Our society is broken just as society on the mainland is broken, and it is that broken society which we can address by becoming part of a Conservative and Ulster Unionist government.

Conservatives and Unionists believe that tackling these problems, realising progressive ends, is best achieved through socially conservative means.

As a husband, and a father with a young family, a government which wishes to make marriage the cornerstone of society is music to my ears. It is a message which will have resonance on the doorsteps, from Ballymoney to Bushmills, from Ahoghill to Aughnacloy.

As a business man, involved in a flourishing family firm, I’m excited by the prospect of a government which will cut red tape, and allow our company to generate employment unfettered. Owners of other small businesses in North Antrim will certainly feel the same.

As a local councillor, I appreciate that excessive government centralisation has taken its toll on communities and on democracy.

The Conservatives and Unionists believe local people should be empowered, and decisions should be made at a local level, in order that solutions can be tailored to a particular area.

It is simple common sense. And the people of North Antrim are renowned for their common sense.

In conclusion, as someone who is proud to be a Briton and a unionist, I am convinced that the Conservatives and Unionists will form a government which is good for Northern Ireland and good for the integrity of the United Kingdom.

The historian, FSL Lyons, coined the phrase ‘we are all Northern Ireland now’. With devolved governments operating throughout the UK, and unionists in Wales and Scotland facing their own separatist threats, it has never been more pertinent.

Our nation’s integrity faces challenges Kingdom wide and it is a Kingdom wide political movement which is best placed to defend the Union.

Unionism, in the sense by which I understand it, involves protecting the constitution of the United Kingdom. Britishness involves playing a full role within that Kingdom and participating in its politics.

Unionists in North Antrim have an ideal opportunity to do just that and I am eager to play my part in offering them that opportunity.

I’m certain that whoever is selected to contest North Antrim for UCUNF will deliver a stark reminder that the constituency is not all about Allister and Paisley. I think Neill would do a particularly good job.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

DUP refuses to have a grown up budget debate.

Once again the DUP has attacked Ulster Unionists on the basis that their Conservative partners intend to tackle the budget deficit. Simon Hamilton, during a finance debate, alleged that 10% cuts in the block grant would be sought, under a Tory government.

First of all, the Tories have not specified a 10% cut for Northern Ireland. Second, all parties agree that the UK's budget deficit must be reduced. Does the DUP seriously reject this analysis? Or does it believe that Northern Ireland alone should not play its part in delivering efficiencies?

If it doesn't recognise the need to cut spending, then it should outline its alternative economic plan for the UK, if it takes its position as a unionist party seriously. Although my suspicion is that grown up politics is a leap too far for Robinson's party. It is more suited to operating as a local pressure group, constantly demanding more money.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Margaret Ritchie's balls and a lack of sectarianism in Northern Irish politics. The weird world of John Coulter.

Margaret Ritchie may have won twice as many nominations to become SDLP leader as her rival, Alasdair McDonnell, but the South Belfast MP has managed a coup of his own. The party’s deputy leader can now count ‘radical unionist’, John Coulter, amongst his backers. I’d imagine he feels humbled, perhaps even ashamed.

Coulter, in his weekly contribution to that venerable political digest, the Irish Daily Star, sets out the case for McDonnell, in characteristically linear fashion. If you dare read his piece, first fasten your mental feet around the stout shaft of a logical pogo stick, because you’re about to hop all over the place! Basic anatomy, religious fundamentalism, southern politics, northern politics and wild baseless conjecture are the inchoate selection of ingredients scattered unevenly atop John’s latest opinion pizza.

A warning for Glentoran fans. Read Coulter’s opening gambit carefully. That 6-0 defeat might still smart, but he’s not proposing a particularly devious scheme to get rid of your manager.

“Big Al McDonnell is the only nationalist boss who can help create a future New Force/Fianna Fail Stormont Executive.

Sorry to wee Maggie Ritchie, but she lacks the political balls to bring the SDLP back into government and return moderate nationalism to its glory days under John Hume.”

We’ll skate over the assumption that the SDLP might still wish to shackle itself to a party whose support in the Republic is collapsing, shall we? The suggestion that Ritchie’s ‘lack of balls’, political or otherwise, might undermine her leadership credentials immediately locates Coulter’s commentary at the less enlightened end of the spectrum.

But his musings about nationalist politics are positively mainstream in comparison to his analysis of unionism, and in particular the Conservatives and Unionists pact.

“The big problem facing the New Force of UUP and Tories is not candidate selection, but how to mobilise the estimated 100,000 church-going Protestants who have put Bible before ballot box and not bothered their wee holy bums to vote.”

No doubt, in unguarded moments, David Cameron explains the project in similar terms. Or, definitively, not!

Where Coulter’s estimate of 100,000, non voting, ‘church going Protestants’ has sprung from, we can only surmise. The notion that religiosity is a common barrier to political commitment in Northern Ireland should leave even the casual reader boggle eyed with disbelief. If a vast quantity of politically abstentionist evangelicals have been patiently waiting for a Conservative alliance to put ‘Biblical Christianity back into unionism’, I’m Skippy, the bush kangaroo.

John wants UCUNF to, “stop pissing about trying to present itself as some kind of trendy political paradise for atheists, humanists or other assorted secular nutballs“. Nutball is as nutball does, one is tempted to respond.

A lot of intellectual energy has been expended, attempting to tease out the identity of the (mythical?) ‘garden centre Prod’ whose latent electoral power is believed to remain untapped. I’ve yet to hear it proposed that this unengaged beast is apathetic because Ulster politics lacks a sufficiently severe dose of fundamentalist Christianity!

The idea that the Conservative and Unionist alliance is unattractive to committed Christians is surely, in any case, erroneous. Its policies are calibrated to appeal across faith barriers. Which is another reason why Coulter’s advocacy of an arrangement whereby Catholic interests are looked after by the SDLP / Fianna Fail and Protestants are represented by UCUNF is little better than the current carve-up at Stormont.

Rapping Gordon Brown

From the Impressions Show.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Adams' tours of 'bandit country'

Gerry Adams, or 'this blog' as he now prefers to call himself, would no doubt be keen to assure voters that they are not witnessing the fag end of his political career. After all, he recently assured the media that he will remain Sinn Féin's president as long as he damn well pleases (or words to that effect). Democracy, eh?

Still, there's no harm in having more than one string to your bow. Gerry is already a confirmed man of letters (albeit one who attracts widespread academic derision) and 'a blog'. Now he's turning his attention to the tourist industry, offering guided tours of South Armagh. I'm sure 'Cú Chulainn Tours', staffed by ex republican terrorists, offers a highly impartial account of the area's history!

Friday, 13 November 2009

Conservative appointment signals a party eager to get started, but they're still waiting for Sir Reg.

At the general election, whether it is held in March, April or May, Conservatives and Unionists will field a strong slate of candidates across eighteen constituencies in Northern Ireland. Today the Conservative party announced that Jonathan Caine will rejoin its team, becoming Chief of Staff to shadow secretary of state, Owen Paterson, in the run up to the poll.

The appointment is a statement of intent from Tory leader, David Cameron. He is treating the campaign in Northern Ireland with the utmost seriousness and the Conservatives are prepared to invest in the best people in order to make it a success.

Caine spent more than eight years as Assistant Director of the Conservative Research Department, where he specialised in Northern Ireland. Between 1991 and 1995 he operated as special adviser to two secretaries of state here. Latterly, he is a director at lobbying firm Bell Pottinger Public Affairs. Owen Paterson describes him as ‘one of the foremost experts on Northern Ireland politics’.

The addition of another serious figure to the Conservative and Unionist team indicates that the Tories, at least, are eager to begin campaigning in earnest in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, as I intimated yesterday, the Ulster Unionist selection process has dragged on in several constituencies. Compounding these delays, the party’s leadership has proved unwilling to firmly dismiss speculation that agreed unionist candidates could stand in South Belfast and Fermanagh South Tyrone.

This prevarication is expensive. It is important that the New Force starts to explain its vision and introduce its candidates to the voting public, as soon as possible. The sense of impatience within all levels of the Conservative party, and amongst Ulster Unionists in constituencies where selections have already been made, is becoming palpable.

The pact has been forged on the clear understanding that eighteen candidates will contest eighteen seats and the potentially contentious business of allocating the constituencies to one or other of the parties may as well be started sooner, rather than later. There’s no valid reason not to get on with it!

Wells, that's a lot of money.

The Belfast Telegraph reports that the IFA could face a bill approaching £500,000 after settling an unfair dismissal case, brought by former Chief Executive Howard Wells, out of court. Wells was fired months after he began internal grievance procedures, citing anti-English racism within the Association. David Bowen, who held the post before Wells, was also awarded an enormous pay off when he was replaced at the helm of Northern Ireland’s football governing body back in 2005.

During Wells’ tenure at Windsor Avenue, he became incredibly unpopular with supporters, and his dismissal was widely welcomed. Admittedly the former Chief Executive proved a consistent advocate of a multi-sports stadium at the site of the former Maze prison, which enthused few fans, but otherwise the animosity which he attracted was puzzling.

It was commonly perceived that Wells’ stewardship coincided with a spell of excessive commercialism at the IFA. However, for years football people had bemoaned a lack of professionalism within the Association. The Chief Executive introduced new ticketing systems, supporters schemes and other unpopular measures. The IFA began to operate like a business, which, although it might have attracted supporters’ ire, was the corollary of professionalism which Wells was determined to instil.

Similarly, during his time at the association, Wells was eager to modernise its internal structures in order to achieve more effective decision making. He was appalled that approximately £8 million of government funding was almost lost to the local game, because a small coterie of junior clubs were intent upon blocking Sunday football. Parallels can easily be drawn with modern political parties. His plans were unpopular with grassroots‘ administrators, but they were absolutely necessary.

Wells also attracted opprobrium from Northern Ireland’s influential league club, Linfield, and its rabble of supporters. He rightly contended that the contract which governs the use of Windsor Park by the Northern Ireland national team was completely unacceptable. The arrangement, which legal experts have described as ‘unprecedented’, commits the IFA to a one hundred year lease of Linfield’s home ground, and entitles the club to 15% of all revenues from international games.

Any competent Chief Executive is absolutely obliged to dismantle this anti-competitive deal, by any means possible. Wells would have been abdicating his responsibilities, had he ignored a handicap which the IFA had wilfully inflicted upon itself. He underestimated, however, the overlapping and vested interests between Windsor Avenue and Windsor Park.

Tomorrow evening Northern Ireland fans will assemble for the team’s friendly match against Serbia. The national side has enjoyed a relatively successful four years and a commensurate increase in revenue. Yet the IFA’s finances are set to undergo substantial strain. It is a predicament which is, at least partly, self-inflicted.

The supporters will no doubt continue to complain about a lack of professionalism . The new Chief Executive, Patrick Nelson, has a lower profile than Wells. But if he is prepared to combat vested interests within the organisation, he should receive more wholehearted backing than his predecessor.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

March General Election looks unlikely.

Nick Robinson explains his workings on the Newslog blog, but for reprobates slouching at the back of the politics' classroom, the answer to all this tiresome pre-Budget calculus is that a March general election is now extremely unlikely.

The BBC's politics editor believes that Conservatives nationally will be relieved that Gordon Brown cannot capitalise on an 'element of surprise'.

I'd imagine that the Conservatives and Unionists in Northern Ireland will also welcome an additional month or two to prepare for a poll. The selection process is proving more laborious than expected, with several constituencies lagging behind. Which will frustrate the areas where candidates have been selected and are raring to get started campaigning.

The Fall of the House of Paisley - by David Gordon

David Gordon played his own part in ‘The Fall of the House of Paisley’ by providing the print media’s most comprehensive coverage of the political dynasty’s links to property magnate Seymour Sweeney, and reporting other scandals which rocked the DUP during 2007 and 2008. Indeed the journalist brought to popular attention a number of the important scoops which underpin his new book’s narrative.

It should be acknowledged, however, that a local blog, with its relative lack of resources, doggedly matched the Belfast Telegraph for detail as the extent of cronyism in the Paisleys’ North Antrim constituency became apparent.

The book’s blurb describes its contents as ‘the slow demise of a powerful political dynasty’, but the actual succession of events which precipitated the departure of Ian Paisley Junior from government, and subsequently resulted in the resignation of his father from the First Minister’s office, unfolded relatively quickly. Gordon’s book moves the story along with suitable rapidity, whilst delving into sufficient detail to satisfy political anoraks.

The title is instructive. ’The Fall’ makes little attempt to revisit territory already forensically examined by Ed Moloney in his Paisley biography, ‘From Demagogue to Democrat’. The landscape which Gordon describes is populated by disorientated DUP members, struggling to rationalise their leader’s new friendship with Martin McGuinness, disquieted by hints of greed and embarrassed by his increasing propensity for ‘senior moments’.

And always in the background, Junior, with his overweening sense of entitlement, spiv-like eye for the main chance and conspicuous absence of inherited charisma.

If his political followers found it difficult to adjust to the reality of Paisley in government, imagine the trauma experienced by religious acolytes, for whom his incendiary proclamations had not comprised rhetoric, but instead represented literal, divinely inspired truth.

‘The Fall’ adeptly charts the anguish which power sharing caused within the Free Presbyterian Church. Paisley’s resignation as moderator foreshadowed a similar process, during which he chose to jump, before he was pushed, from leadership of the DUP.

As well as describing, in detail, the sequence of events which presaged the Paisleys’ resignations, Gordon also offers a blackly cynical critique of Northern Ireland’s political institutions. A lack of accountability, a self-actuating sectarian divide and the entrenchment of an atomised political class are characteristics which he highlights and explores briefly.

At times the argument is admittedly almost impermeable in its grimness. The lack of meaningful involvement, for Northern Irish voters, in the politics of Westminster is criticised as an abdication of democratic principles, yet the Conservatives’ attempt to foster participation is also dismissed as a manipulative ruse.

I interrupted Robert Service’s biography of Trotsky in order to read ‘The Fall of the House of Paisley’. And it is, in itself, a tribute that I was prevented from returning to revolutionary Russia until I’d read the last page of Gordon’s book.

The author suggests that Paisley entered government with Sinn Féin in order to circumvent Enoch Powell’s prophecy that ‘all political careers end in failure’. Not only did the axiom ultimately reassert itself , but ‘The Fall’ helps to ensure that the denouement of the Paisley story will be remembered accurately as a tragedy, rather than a triumph.

'The Fall of the House of Paisley' by David Gordon is officially launched at Queen's bookshop today. It is available from 3000 Versts bookstore.

Blogtalk NI (Episode 4)

Conall McDevitt, Gerard McKeown and I discuss remembrance, the Kelly Report and Nelson McCausland's blog. Anyone who wishes to get involved, please email

Blogtalk (episode 4) from Northern Visions/NvTv on Vimeo.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

'Sound republicans' - exempt from justice?

I don’t suppose that I was the only one reminded of Stuart Neville’s novel ‘The Twelve’, when I read newspaper reports detailing SOCA’s seizure of a South Armagh republican’s assets, which took place yesterday. Newsline featured pictures of Sean Gerard Hughes’ farm, and I almost expected to hear the whine of an injured bull terrier.

Sinn Féin’s response has, thus far, only exacerbated the sense of déjà vu. Neville’s book was a work of fiction, but the Republican movement which provided its backdrop hardly required a painstaking imaginative effort.

For the uninitiated, or those outside Northern Ireland, the Serious Organised Crime Agency was granted a court order to seize assets belonging to Hughes, on the grounds that they are suspected to come from laundering the proceeds of mortgage fraud, evading tax and fiddling the benefit system. He has previously been convicted of fraudulently claiming income support.

Sinn Féin’s MP for the area, Conor Murphy, who is also Regional Development Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive, has responded angrily to SOCA’s investigation.

“Sean Hughes is a sound Republican. He has spent his entire adult life engaged in the struggle for Irish unity and Independence. He has championed the peace process and the campaign to end political policing. There have been numerous attempts over the years to smear Sean’s character. …… The raids today on Sean’s home and those of a number of his relatives have caused deep anger in South Armagh. There is no justification for the deliberate targeting of Sean and his family today….As in the past when political unionism gets itself into difficulties, as the DUP have in recent weeks, the faceless opponents of Irish Republicanism who are still in prominent positions will seek to come to their rescue with operations like we have witnessed today.”

For clarity’s sake, we should set aside the many accusations of cold blooded murder and causing explosions which have been levelled at Hughes. Though they will colour many people’s perception of the type of man whose character Conor Murphy clearly believes impeccable.

Here we have a minister of the Northern Ireland Executive, purportedly supportive of policing and justice, interfering directly in its procedure, on the basis that a convicted fraudster is a ‘sound republican’. I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Remembrance and perceiving hostile intent where none exists.

Tomorrow is Armistice Day. Although commemorations are more commonly held on Remembrance Sunday, in the UK, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month is marked by two minutes silence, in memory, in particular, of those who died in the First World War. Hostilities ceased, on the Western Front, at that time in 1918, after four years of mechanised warfare had wrought devastation on a generation of young men.

Yesterday, whilst recording an episode of Blogtalk NI, I was asked to consider the issue of remembrance and in particular controversy which often becomes attached to the simple act of remembering, in Northern Ireland. In retrospect, I am dissatisfied with the answer I gave and pre-emptively, I would like to add a few thoughts here.

Slugger O’Toole provides a useful snapshot of febrile debate which can attend simple, reverential acts, such as wearing a poppy, or laying a wreath. If you have the time, and the patience, there are pages and pages of it. In addition there are also serious, contemplative, generous posts, which do the subject justice. Conall McDevitt argues that the Republic of Ireland should have its own monument at the Western Front, in order to remember properly war dead from the south.

Perhaps the nastiest piece of commentary surrounding remembrance, this year, comes from the Andersonstown News and its ‘satirical’ columnist ‘Squinter’. It describes the period preceding Poppy Day as “the traditional three-week orgy of Up Yours Fenian Face”.

This ‘analysis’ might masquerade as humour and it certainly represent the most hostile interpretation of remembering offered in any newspaper, but it is a particularly acute example of a more general sickness which afflicts this province.

There are a disproportionate number of people in Northern Ireland inclined to perceive hostile intent in any tradition, political opinion or culture to which they do not subscribe. It’s all about them. Making them uncomfortable, rubbing their noses in it.

This preternatural sensitivity is not the sole preserve of either side of the constitutional question. Whilst quiet, dignified acts of remembrance can be construed as petulant displays of anti-nationalism by one commentator, an interest in a minority language or enthusiasm for a particular sport can be perceived as inherently anti-unionist by another.

Neither is the phenomenon confined to niche publications like the Andersonstown News. Brian Feeney’s output consists of little else. The use of ‘Fenian’ as a pejorative is regularly ascribed to any unionist who happens to dissent from an opinion held by the journalist. The Maze stadium is a much more trivial issue than remembrance, but all sorts of nefarious motives were implied of football supporters who happened to favour an arena in Belfast.

There have been efforts, of course, to hijack particular traditions and events, in order to use them as political weapons. Republicans have misused the Irish language and that has hardened some unionists’ prejudices against it. Similarly, it has been reported that loyalist paramilitary groups have attempted to attach themselves to legitimate Remembrance events, to the horror of genuine ex servicemen.

We should be politically sophisticated enough, however, to separate such instances from the norm.

In the vast majority of cases, almost uniformly in fact, acts of remembrance are solemn, dignified and sincerely felt. They are undertaken in a spirit of respect for sacrifice and sorrow at loss, rather than with an underlying sentiment of ‘up yours Fenian face’. Surely any reasonable person will instinctively understand the difference?

Monday, 9 November 2009

Towards civic politics. Two different interpretations.

Mr Ulster contemplates an absence of ‘civic nationalism’ in Northern Ireland on his blog, prompted by the promotion of its ethnic cousin in Scotland, by the SNP First Minister. He believes that politics in the Republic of Ireland have embraced a more civic interpretation of nationalism, whilst there is no equivalent movement to the north of the border. In contrast, Jason Walsh, writing in Humanism Ireland, argues that secularisation and diversity in southern Ireland would be boosted incomparably if the state were to absorb Northern Ireland’s populace.

As a unionist, I accept neither argument, although I see the merits of each. Dublin, I admit, is liberal and cosmopolitan to an extent which cannot be claimed of Belfast. Disfigured by a recent legacy of violence and sectarianism, Northern Ireland’s politics are currently dominated, on one hand, by the Ulster nationalism of the DUP and, on the other, by the Irish nationalism of Sinn Féin. Neither party is interested in promoting a philosophy which can appeal across a broader spectrum of society.

Mr Ulster contends that the basis of civic nationalism is preparedness to accept ‘all residents’ of Ireland as Irish. The British equivalent is equally a form of civic nationalism. He is prepared to acknowledge that there is some willingness to contemplate this type of inclusivity within the UUP and the SDLP, but he insinuates that the Republic of Ireland has moved farther and faster.

I would raise a couple of reservations. First, to paraphrase a Russian axiom, used to emphasise that Moscow is not necessarily representative of the rest of that country, Dublin is not the Republic of Ireland. It is impossible to evince the proposition that the welcome for immigrants, and their acceptance as ‘genuinely’ Irish, has been universal across a broad swathe of society in the Republic, rather than amongst a section of the urban middle class in its capital.

Second, whilst nationalism, by framing its prescriptions along less excusive lines might edge towards a ‘civic’ model, it is quicker to envisage a broader definition of the identity which it attaches to political allegiance, rather than contemplate the possibility that allegiance need not coincide precisely with identity in order to form the principal building block of a state, in the first instance.

Jason, who describes himself as a republican, comes close to an acknowledgment of this distinction. The common understanding of ‘Irishness’, prevalent in the Republic of Ireland, might be widening, but it is still predicated on allegiance to the ‘Irish’ state and recognition of a special status for an ‘authentic’ Gaelic interpretation of the culture. I don’t get the sense that the notion that political allegiance to the state and cultural Irishness can be separated is gaining substantial momentum.

I assume that Jason sees the introduction of a region with distinct cultural and political differences to the rest of Ireland as a means to sever the two concepts. I can be ‘Irish’, culturally, without owing any allegiance to the Republic of Ireland, and I should be able to offer allegiance to that state without embracing a prescriptive cultural reading of ‘Irishness’.

Although its manifestations in Ulster have not always reflected the adaptability of Britishness and its willingness to span a multiplicity of identities, unionism is better placed, philosophically, to embrace civic politics. The state it promotes emphasises political allegiance and institutions, rather than a particular cultural reading of identity. Which means that an acknowledgment of the ability of different cultures, identities and even nationalities to subsist under the British umbrella, is already a working assumption within the UK. Unionists in Northern Ireland need to do more to demonstrate, substantively, the strengths of their state, in this regard.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Allister worried by New Force

A very brief post this evening. I'm still shivering after a chilly afternoon in Lurgan. It is worth observing, however, that Jim Allister, in his speech at the TUV conference, devoted his opening remarks to the Conservatives and Unionists, rather than the DUP. There is a New Force in unionism, it is seeking to involve Northern Ireland in national politics rather than move further down the road of Ulster exceptionalism.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Glasgow North East by-election candidates

The by-election to replace Michael Martin will finally take place on November 12. The winner will barely have become accustomed to their new environment before they are back on the campaign trail. The BBC has a profile of each of the candidates - a rum lot to be perfectly honest - other than Ruth Davidson. She will do well to increase the Conservatives' vote. This is a rather grim part of Glasgow.

Incidentally, Down and Out in Lenzie and Lossiemouth, whose penthouse flat is decidedly not in Martin's old constituency, highlights another 'betrayal' by the SNP.

Facing down the Eurosceptics and neocons

I’m sure this post will foreshadow a more erudite article, around a similar theme, at Burke’s Corner. I’d imagine that BC is adamantly buffing his polished philosophical prose as we speak. Nevertheless, I like Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s latest Comment is Free piece enough to offer my own, doubtless rather more superficial, interpretation. Hopefully it’ll do until the real thing becomes available.

Wheatcroft is convinced that the Conservative party must cast off the excesses of hardline Euroscepticism and neoconservatism, as it formulates its foreign policy, in order to embrace an older tradition which is cautious, realistic and diplomatic. He detects that David Cameron has been at his least sure footed reacting to issues beyond the scope of domestic politics.

In Europe he has isolated his party from the mainstream, by withdrawing from the EPP. The Conservatives are now estranged from natural European allies. Wheatcroft describes the furore over Lisbon and a referendum as a “self-destructive obsession”. He argues that the ‘moral impetus’ for centralisation was lost when French and Dutch voters rejected an EU Constitution. Although Cameron’s scepticism about bureaucracy at Brussels has healthy enough roots, it is hard to argue with the thesis that it has led to some counterproductive decision making.

I certainly endorse wholeheartedly Wheatcroft’s contention that Cameron suffered his ‘worst moment of all’ during Georgia’s war with Russia. The suggestion that the Georgians should have been immediately admitted to Nato was an enormous lapse of judgment which has since been placed in even starker relief by the European Union’s independent enquiry, which concluded that Georgia started the war.

It was obvious from the outset that conflict in South Ossetia was not simply a result of Russian aggression. When Cameron wholeheartedly, and without reservation, backed the government in Tbilisi, he was providing succour to a President whose aggressive adventure cost many lives. He adopted an astoundingly unreflective policy directly from the neoconservative wing of his party. He was, at best, badly advised.

Had Georgia been member of Nato when the shelling of Tskhinvali began, Britain, the US, France, Germany and other member states, would have been drawn into conflict with Russia, on the side of the aggressors! In truth, Cameron’s response was as belligerent and reflexive as that of David Miliband.

However, William Hague, the shadow foreign secretary, has given every indication that the Conservative party intends to take a more cautious approach, if it forms the next government. He has spoken of the need to promote British values internationally, within realistic limits. Iraq and Afghanistan have brought the need for a more sceptical attitude to military intervention into sharp focus.

Wheatcroft heralds the selection of Roy Stewart, an arch sceptic on intervention, as PPC for a safe Tory seat. Hopefully his candidacy is reflective of broader trends within the party. The philosophical underpinnings of Cameron conservatism are thoroughly compatible with measured, cautious foreign policies. An incoming Conservative government should let that tradition prevail.

Kelly Report puts DUP on the double jobbing hook

The report which Sir Christopher Kelly’s Committee on Standards in Public Life published on MPs’ expenses and allowances on Wednesday, as yet, only comprises recommendations. Nick Robinson, on his blog, has set out the likely process for its implementation, during which MPs might, he contends, attempt to ‘smooth off the sharpest edges’ of the proposed reforms.

The committee has advised that a mandatory end to double jobbing in Northern Ireland should be imposed in time for the 2011 Assembly election, although it is prepared to contemplate postponement until 2015. Sixteen of our eighteen MPs are also MLAs, whilst Alex Salmond retains the solitary dual mandate outside Northern Ireland. It is unlikely that strong opposition will emerge to this particular Kelly proposal.

Which makes the dilemma for Northern Irish parties, and in particular the DUP, all the more interesting. Its leader recently indicated that he was likely to abandon a hastily formulated commitment to end double jobbing. Peter Robinson’s initial promise was made at the height of the expenses scandal, after David Cameron undertook to legislate against dual mandates, should the Conservatives form the next government.

Robinson clearly believes that he can simply abandon his pledge without sustaining any significant collateral damage. The Kelly Report’s intervention might cause him to think again.

If Cameron does become the next prime minister, any plan for an early end to double jobbing will carry an emotional heft which previously it might have lacked. A Tory government will simply be implementing, to the letter, an independent recommendation, and the DUP will struggle to argue that it is the specific target of a hostile measure.

So what options remain for Robinson and his party, as they contemplate strategy for a general election? How, for instance, will the DUP tackle the dual mandate problem in East Belfast, its leader’s parliamentary constituency?

It could decide to restore its original pledge to abolish double jobbing. However Robinson has already admitted that this would spread talent desperately thin. The party’s advantage over rivals in the next general election is maintained because its candidates are relatively recognisable, within the rather cramped proscenium of Northern Irish politics. If the DUP is forced to dip deeper into its resources, and fields fairly obscure candidates, its rivals will be hugely heartened.

If this scenario were to unfold, Robinson would almost certainly forfeit his Westminster candidature. It is unthinkable that he would not stand at the next Assembly election. Without its leader’s large personal vote in the constituency, it is conceivable that the DUP could lose East Belfast.

Alternatively he might choose to ignore the Kelly Report, assuming that it is not implemented before the election, and run for Westminster. Surely a foolhardy option, unless Robinson calculates that dual mandates will be allowed to remain until 2015. David Cameron has indicated otherwise.

If, by 2011, Robinson remains an MP, and runs in the Assembly election, he will have two options, should he retain his Assembly seat (assuming the Tories have implemented the necessary reform). He will be forced either to resign his positions at Stormont and co-opt a replacement MLA for his constituency, or stand down at Westminster, precipitating a by election. These choices would be replicated for other double jobbing MPs.

If this scenario were to unfold, very serious questions could be asked of Robinson’s judgement. The DUP would be accused of precipitating a needless by election, or a needless series of by elections, one year into a parliamentary term, purely to advance its own selfish short-term objectives.

If the DUP has problems, and surely it accepts that it does, the Kelly Report has exacerbated them substantially. Its leader has decisions to make. It will not be possible for Peter Robinson to extricate himself easily from his double jobbing conundrum.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Kennedy blasts Martin for Bill of Rights interference

Danny Kennedy has taken the Republic’s Foreign Minister, Michéal Martin, to task for ‘megaphone diplomacy’ after he intervened in the Bill of Rights debate. In a statement to the Seanad Mr Martin claimed that the proposed bill comprises ‘unfinished work’ and he deemed its implementation a necessary and outstanding part of the Good Friday Agreement.

We have revisited the original text many times on this blog and there is little point reproducing it again. The Belfast Agreement established a Commission charged with investigating the possibility of a Human Rights Act, it did not lay down a requirement that any advice should be implemented. In any case, the remit which the Agreement set out was largely ignored in the recommendations which the NIHRC eventually produced.

Danny Kennedy argues that the Republic’s government cannot reasonably advocate socio economic rights in Northern Ireland which it would not be prepared to apply to its own jurisdiction. Neither is Martin entitled to append requirements to the Belfast Agreement and demand their implementation. If it isn’t in the text, it isn’t part of the accord.

SDLP contest is important but Northern Ireland needs a revival of moderate politics on both sides of the divide.

In his News Letter column Alex Kane emphasises the importance of the SDLP leadership contest to prospects of a constructive, workable Northern Ireland Assembly. In stark terms, if the moderate nationalist party cannot recover and challenge Sinn Féin’s ascendancy, then devolved government will continue along current lines, perpetuating a community tug of war which results in stasis.

Although Kane is right to identify the Shinners as the principal obstacle to partnership, I do not accept his contention that it scarcely matters which party leads unionism. The DUP has contributed substantially to the current dysfunction at Stormont and it acts as a brake on progress. It might not share Sinn Féin’s paramilitary past, but it is also a party of carve-up, rather than partnership.

Fault does not exclusively lie with parties on one particular side of the constitutional question. If Northern Ireland is to enjoy effective, efficient regional government and some degree of community cohesion, it must experience a revival of moderate politics on either side of the divide. To this end the UUP is attempting to revitalise its fortunes through a linkup with the Conservative party. The SDLP hopes that a change in leader might make a similar resurgence possible.

Liam Clarke provided a comprehensive analysis of the impending contest in the Sunday Times. He is right to claim that neither of the two contenders, Alasdair McDonnell (current deputy leader) or Margaret Ritchie (social development minister), are likely to create an immediate sense of excitement about the party’s prospects. But the very act of having a contest will generate interest and debate. And neither McDonnell nor Ritchie are on the ‘green’ wing of the party.

Tory Story worries
that the SDLP could attempt to pick needless fights with unionists in order to compete with Sinn Féin. Had Declan O’Loan or a similar figure announced an intention to fight a leadership battle, I might have shared his concerns. With two more moderate figures contesting the post, I believe a more cooperative approach will be favoured.

Margaret Ritchie has enjoyed a constructive relationship with senior Ulster Unionists, including Sir Reg Empey, and on occasions she has encouraged the two parties to coordinate their efforts on issues of mutual interest. McDonnell isn’t generally associated with a posturing style of politics either, although some of his recent statements on a proposed Bill of Rights might engender some concern.

Whoever eventually emerges as the SDLP’s leader will face many of the same problems that Empey faces as Ulster Unionist leader. There will doubtless be similar internal debates as to the best strategies to win back voters. For the best interests of Northern Ireland it is important that the parties can cooperate around areas of mutual interest and emphasise the extent to which communal carve-up is not working.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

A report to make Iris cry into her heart shaped pillow.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life has finally published its report on MPs’ expenses and allowances. The BBC has a PDF of the full ‘Kelly Report’ and a useful synopsis for the impatient or time restricted reader. Some of its recommendations will send a chill up the collective spines of Northern Ireland’s MPs, particularly those within the DUP. It is worth remembering that the conduct which the report recommends is best practice which MPs should have abided by in the first instance.

Recommendation 40:

The practice of permitting a Westminster MP simultaneously to sit in a devolved legislature should be brought to an end, ideally by the time of the elections to the three devolved legislatures scheduled for May 2011.

Which is augmented by the following observations in the introduction,

16 out of 18 Northern Ireland Westminster MPs are also members of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Five of them currently hold ministerial positions there. The only other example of dual mandates is that the First Minister of the Scottish Parliament is also an MP. He has indicated that he will not be standing at the next Westminster election. We recommend that ‘double jobbing’, as it is known in Northern Ireland, should be brought to an end, ideally by the next elections to the Assembly in 2011. We recognise that this will be a demanding timetable but the issue is an important one.

The DUP, of course, has recently backtracked on its commitment to end double jobbing.

Recommendation 15:

MPs should no longer be able to appoint members of their own families to their staff and pay them with public funds. Those currently employing family members should be able to continue to do so for the life of one further Parliament or five years, whichever is the longer.

Five generous years, which will allow the Robinson clan to scrutinise closely the ‘help wanted’ ads.

Recommendation 14:

MPs who share second home accommodation as partners should be entitled between them to claim up to a limit of one individual cap on rent or mortgage payments, plus one-third.

I know poor old Iris will feel unfairly victimised, but she and Peter were conspicuous offenders again. They were one of a number of parliamentary couples claiming double mortgage helpings on one property. She should indulge in a good old cry into one of the ‘heart shaped cushions’ in her humble east Belfast shack.

The opulence of their home is striking. Curtains of wine and gold silk rising into a central coronet; towering Chinese vases; hundreds of china figurines and sculptures – Marie Antoinette inches away from the Last Supper. Chandeliers hang in every room – "I think I was born in another era," Iris says. Each room is themed: the dining room is Oriental; a sitting room is old English; the bathroom is Italian; one bedroom is Scottish, another French

Eurosceptics the new Ulster Unionists? Hardly.

I’m a little puzzled by a section of this blog, by Iain Martin, carried on the Wall Street Journal’s site. Martin (presumably the same one who writes for the Telegraph) hails the death of ‘British Euroskepticism’ (sic). It is this passage, however, which had me scratching my head,

“The defeat of British Euroskepticism reminds me quite a bit of what happened to Ulster Unionism around the turn of the century. One minute it seemed to be winning the arguments. It was strong, then the wind changed and it wasn’t - in any way that we had previously understood it - there any more. Its former adherents couldn’t quite see the point of carrying on as they had previously done and within months had “adjusted to reality”. Quickly, they were prepared to adopt positions they would have previously though unthinkable.”

Ulster Unionism ‘wasn’t there anymore’? Undoubtedly accommodations were reached which were disorientated many unionists, but unionism, devoted to retaining and strengthening the Union, certainly didn’t disappear. Neither had Ulster Unionism been strong prior to the mid-90s. On the contrary it had been ignored for years. I simply can’t see that Martin is comparing like with like.

Car Crash TV

Sweet revenge for all of the less enthusiastic readers of this blog. I am aware that I appear to be giving birth to some of the sentences which eventually lurch unsteadily into existence. To paraphrase Nabakov, “In my head I think like a genius, I write reasonably proficiently, but I talk like an idiot”.

Also contributing to this episode of blogtalk, Conall McDevitt and Gary McKeown, both of whom preside over rather good sites.

Blogtalk (episode 3) from Northern Visions on Vimeo.

If you're a blogger, and you would like to get involved in Blogtalk NI, please email

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Rafa's responsibility - whatever the statistics imply

‘The Fink Tank’ is the Times’ attempt to unravel the mysteries of football by statistical analysis. It usefulness is circumscribed by the fact that the sport does not, in reality, bear much resemblance to a game of Championship Manager. Rather, it is determined by the attributes and performances of flawed human beings, forged into a team with the help of another flawed human being. And both players and manager are, in turn, subject to the vagaries of wind, rain, beachballs and several million other variables.

Nevertheless ‘The Fink Tank’ is useful for exploding various statistics based fallacies which are common currency for fans and football journalists alike. Take, for instance, the widespread assumption that Rafa Benitez’ Liverpool squad has been expensively assembled. In actuality the 2009-10 panel is ranked fifth in the Premier League by cost. Manchester City, Chelsea, Manchester United and Spurs’ squads each required a larger budget to build.

Hard statistics also show that the Anfield club has overachieved relative to the size of its wage bill, under the Spaniard’s tutelage. On the field of play supporters can point to patchy defending, injuries and the absence of Xabi Alonso to explain Liverpool’s poor form. However, analysis refutes the suggestion that flawed tactics and poor judgment in the transfer market have proved more critical than an absence of investment. To borrow from tabloidese, ‘boffins’ contend that boardroom failures, rather than managerial deficiencies are to blame for Liverpool’s problems.

I certainly accept that Benitez has not received the backing required to mount a serious title challenge.

In order to build on last season’s campaign, during which a competent but rather shallow squad achieved a remarkable sequence of results after Christmas, the manager needed to retain the services of all his best players and add several more, including a striker to replace Robbie Keane. He was not given the financial wherewithal to go about his task properly. Had money been scraped together, David Villa, to take an example, would today be plying his trade at Anfield.

No-one can convince me, however, that the manager cannot do better with the resources he has to hand. Whilst the statistics might prove otherwise, eye witness appraisal of the evidence on the pitch should not be dismissed.

At Craven Cottage on Saturday Liverpool fielded Andriy Voronin, a Benitez buy whose impact on the club has been negligible. In defence, a lumbering Greek, fresh from gifting Arsenal safe passage in the Carling Cup, extended his endless hospitality to Fulham’s forwards. Kyriagis has been inexplicably allowed to pursue a career at Anfield, despite failing to fulfil Newcastle United’s requirements and proving inadequate at Glasgow Rangers! When Torres was withdrawn towards the end, a complete failure to provide cover for the striker was, again, exposed.

Liverpool only have one decent striker, not because the financial cupboard is bare, primarily, but because Rafa Benitez rarely likes to deploy more than one forward at a time. Voronin and Kyriagis are at the club, not because it is forced to deal only in the bargain basement, but because the manager chooses to bolster his team with obscure fringe players who rarely make it out of the reserves.

The other nuance which the statistics miss is the simple, blindingly obvious fact that when Liverpool play positively and press the opposition, results improve, irrespective of the personnel selected. The Manchester United game, which did not feature Gerrard and saw Torres hauled off before the end, is a prime example. In contrast, Liverpool failed to put a single decent challenge in against Arsenal last Wednesday, and should have lost heavily. If Benitez’ side are happy to sit back and cede possession to the opposition, they lose.

I agree entirely that the prime obstacles to Liverpool’s success are its owners, rather than the manager. There is almost no chance that the club will have the resources to purchase the three players which are a bare minimum if it is to seriously trouble the top two, without eroding the quality of the current squad. I would like to see a solid young defender, as opposed to a ropy old one, a fit midfielder and a world class foil for Torres introduced. I’m sure Benitez has similar aspirations.

But that doesn’t excuse home defeats to Lyon or signing Voronin, Kyriagis, Dossena and the like. Losing six games in seven is Rafa’s responsibility, whatever the statistics might suggest.

Cameron battens down the hatches for a Eurobuffeting.

For an illustration of the bind in which David Cameron finds himself as regards Europe, one need only read Barry Legg’s piece in today’s Guardian.

Legg had a short but cantankerous parliamentary career, on the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative party. However, it would be wrong to dismiss him as an unrepresentative crank, based on a history of Westminster rebellion. The former MP is close to senior figures, including Iain Duncan Smith, and his views are representative, for better or for worse, of a substantial section of the Tory grass roots.

He is prepared to present any policy which does not include a referendum on Lisbon as a betrayal, whether the Treaty is ratified by all twenty seven countries, or not. The Bruges Group is limbering up to do similar.

Whilst more sanguine commentators agree that David Cameron took a risk withdrawing the Conservatives from the EPP, and disagree about the effectiveness and bravery of his decision, Legg contends that the formation of a new group was too little too late.

The Tory leader has, for the sake of party management, excited the senses of the Eurosceptics, and as he positions the Conservatives for government he will struggle to contain their bloodlust.

The Telegraph’s editorial
this morning is calmer, acknowledging the difficulties of ‘unpicking’ a ratified treaty, but describes a manifesto commitment to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with Europe as a ‘poor second best to the referendum’.

Cameron, meanwhile, must wish that his EU difficulties would simply go away. The abstracts of his stance on Europe, a broad scepticism about centralisation, concern about accountability, remain fairly centrist. He does not want a first term which is dominated by wrangles with the EU.

Europe is an important issue to Cameron, but it is one important issue amongst many. Unfortunately some members of his party are rather more fanatical about the perceived inadequacies of the EU.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Former Bel Tel ed unrepentant as White Elephant disappears into the distance.

“I wish I had listened to Malcolm's advice before pouring out so much undiluted advocacy for the Maze”, concedes Ed Curran. Seasoned local football journalist, Malcolm Brodie, had advised the former Belfast Telegraph editor that a multisports stadium on the former prison site was not viable.

So does Curran’s rueful admission represent the beginnings of an apology for submitting readers to a barrage of ill-advised, senseless propaganda? Unfortunately not. He remains implacably convinced that a flawless project was sunk by sectarian prejudice, rather than practical objections and pragmatism. Curran has got it so wrong, yet remains convinced that he is so right, that it is almost poignant.

None of the three sports governing bodies were half hearted in their commitments to a multisports stadium simply because it was to be shared, whatever the ex Tele supremo might insinuate. There was no significant undercurrent of sectarianism from supporters which caused the project to flounder either.

There were, however, a number of practical difficulties which one set of facilities entailed. Pitch size and stadium capacity were two prominent examples. The three sports have different needs. GAA requires greater capacity and a larger playing surface than Ulster Rugby or the international football team.

The principal reason that the Maze was such a bad idea, however, was not its multisport element. Quite simply, the location was entirely unsuitable for a modern stadium. Curran alludes to various consultancies, which were, he contends, a waste of money. It’s no wonder he objects to the findings of experts in stadium location and design. Consistently they emphasised that out of town sites were an outdated concept.

Modern stadia should be located close to city centres, where they contribute to the vibrancy of their urban environment and make use of the existing infrastructure which surrounds them. The collateral on the local economy hardly needs to be emphasised.

Instead of accepting that his arguments were, from the outset, badly flawed Curran trots out another series of ‘straw men’. He stresses that total costs quoted for a stadium at the Maze included building the new infrastructure which it required (why on earth would they not?). He makes a ludicrous appeal for integration.

“Never mind integrated education, why not try out an experiment in sharing the playing fields of Ulster?”

As regular readers will appreciate, I’m a strong advocate of ‘shared future’, but I recognise that integration which ignores practical considerations is not a sustainable model. By Curran’s logic, everything should be integrated into everything else. Drag racing through the local shopping centre? A crossfire of darts criss-crossing the bowling alley?

The Maze stadium was a bad, top down idea which engendered little enthusiasm within sports because it did not suit their needs. The Belfast Telegraph journalist would do well to admit this, rather than writing columns which would seem fanciful on a conspiracy website.