Saturday, 30 January 2010

Time to cut Sylvia adrift

Jeff Peel, no supporter of the Conservative and Ulster Unionist alliance, has produced this report of Sylvia Hermon's speech to the North Down branch of the SDLP.

Given that the UUP has a Westminster electoral pact with the Conservative party you can see the significance.

Hermon is rabidly anti-Conservative. It is not out of principle. She is New Labour through and through. A champagne socialist whose tribal hatred of the Tories has obscured the fact that they now carry a more progressive vision for Britain.

This woman has been indulged for long enough. It is high time that she is cut loose and called for what she is. If Hermon has any honesty at all she will make clear her affiliation to the discredited New Labour government.

From the outset of UCUNF I've expressed some sympathy with genuine socialists like Chris McGimpsey, who are nevertheless unionists, but whose traditional Labour affiliations will not reconcile them even to the modern Conservative party. I have no sympathy for Sylvia Hermon, a part time MP infatuated by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

Whether the electorate in North Down has a reputation for independence or not, it is surely not sympathetic to the current Labour party. Indeed, I believe that North Down has been exceptional in Northern Irish politics precisely because it is similar to other British constituencies.

So let us not concern ourselves any more with Sylvia Hermon's take on UCUNF. We have heard enough from her overwrought, Dianaesque theatrical falsetto.

What is the delay? Deal with Sylvia Hermon.

What are they building in there?

Dedicated to the exercise at Hillsborough, which will, of course, deliver better government. Ho hum.

Friday, 29 January 2010

Sir Reg has a lot of explaining to do.

Owen Paterson is reportedly eager to meet Sir Reg Empey as soon as possible in order to discuss pre-Christmas ‘unity’ talks which the UUP held with the DUP, courtesy of the Orange Order. At the very least the Conservatives’ Northern Ireland spokesman will want a convincing explanation in order to clear the air. It is all very well for Ulster Unionists to sneer at the local Tories and their electoral pretensions, but the UUP has, at best, shown recklessness in protecting its link to a party which dwarfs it nationally.

From the outset I have expressed anxiety on this blog that the UUP has not shown itself sufficiently committed to the project of pan-UK unionism. There has been, throughout the process, a suspicion that the party believes it can hedge its bets.

The ink had barely dried on a deal when Sir Reg Empey affirmed that his party had an exit strategy available, if the pact did not yield immediate electoral benefits. The UUP’s North Down MP, Sylvia Hermon, could not have made more explicit her unwillingness to take the Tory whip, yet no action has been taken. We have had endless prevarication on the selection of candidates.

I’ve asked countless times, and I’ll ask once again, how does the party expect to sell the benefits of an electoral alliance which it has persistently demonstrated its ambivalence toward?

I appreciate that there might be an element of tactics to the UUP’s ’unity’ preoccupation. A quick genuflection to the idea in order to deflect DUP criticism and on with the real task in hand. But if this is a tactical manoeuvre it has badly misfired. Where previously ’unionist unity’ was an aspiration for the more myopic elements of ’little Ulster’ unionism now it has become an expectation. The DUP’s troubles have been largely eclipsed.

And at the heart of the business, figures like Tom Elliott, Danny Kennedy and David McNarry, each a prominent Orangeman. Surely that tells a story in itself? The more progressive members of the party appear to have been left out in the cold.

With the big prize of normal politics in Northern Ireland within grasp, a government committed to a Union in which Northern Irish politicians would play a part, the ear of an explicitly unionist British prime minister, we become tangled up in anachronistic cultural preoccupations and the clamour of those ancestral voices. There remains the suspicion that the UUP is more intent on a little Ulster pact rather than one which spans the United Kingdom.

On a parochial level, local activists will wonder on what basis they have spent so many years fighting the DUP, taking the foulest most histrionic abuse, arguing that Ulster Unionists offer something better and different. On a more philosophical level there will be questions about whether the type of unionism which the UUP wants to take forward is actually animated by a genuine commitment to membership of the United Kingdom or whether it owes more to the Orange sash, the Lambeg drum and disdain for the Republic of Ireland. Does it have a positive or a negative vision?

The answers will emerge, I imagine, over the next day or two. They had better be good, or else the recriminations will begin. The UUP might think that it can balance the two, but I quote Arthur Aughey's 'Under Siege', a pivotal unionist text, on the contradictory demands of secular and cultural unionism.

"First that the government should recognise the right of Ulster people to be full citizens of the United Kingdom; and secondly that there should be no further erosion of the protestant heritage. In principle there is nothing contradictory in these two demands, but in practice, the [first] philosophy was founded on those assumptions of protestant supremacy found in the Orange Order, and the second demand was fundamentally at odds with the first. In short, the first represents a defensible, just and universal claim to equality of citizenship in the state; the second represents an indefensible, insupportable and particular claim to set the conditions of citizenship. Protestants, like catholics, have a right to expect equal treatment and equal respect in the United Kingdom, but they do not have the right to stage provocative marches wherever they like, whatever traditional expectations and common prejudice might demand. And of course the same rule applies for nationalists."

Thursday, 28 January 2010

If policing and justice is sorted out, how do we know that another crisis will not arise?

A stately pile in the countryside, prime ministers dancing attendance, talks late in to the night. The only thing missing is a telephone call from the American President. So far. Gordon Brown and Brian Cowen left Northern Ireland, assuring its people that our politicians have embarked upon a “pathway to agreement”. By sleight of hand, sequencing, choreography and other mysterious arts they still hope that a date to devolve policing and justice will eventually be set and the power-sharing institutions will lurch unsteadily on, having surmounted another crisis.

With a resolution to the impasse now supposedly in sight the Northern Ireland public could be forgiven if it is a little sceptical. Even if the remaining difficulties between the parties are overcome, it is still unlikely that the architecture of power-sharing will be altered to prevent the same thing happening again. There is, built into the devolved institutions at Stormont, the potential for a near endless sequence of mini-crises.

Should an accommodation be reached on justice there will remain, to employ a word which Ulster’s politicians hold dear, the potential for ‘modalities’ to create a further snag. And even if all the practicalities are put in place, and a Justice Minister is appointed, the arrangements set to operate over the next two years will be subject to a ‘sunset clause’. The potential for further instability in 2012 is likely to hang like a cloud over the Assembly. Theoretically, of course, the parties simply have time to iron out further disagreements, but when, in practice, has that last happened?

In truth, the template for any breakthrough in Northern Ireland is now wearily familiar. There is, unfortunately, little sign that our politicians are ready to move beyond their addiction to attention grabbing set pieces. Issues which elsewhere form the content of everyday political debate, here become touchstones of the so-called ‘peace process’. Education and the ongoing wrangle over selection, minority language provision, any passionately contended area of policy can become a deal-breaker for one particular party and jeopardise the whole apparatus of power-sharing.

Contrast the workings of the Northern Ireland Assembly to the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood. There very profound differences exist between the unionist parties and a minority SNP Executive. Only frantic last minute negotiations have enabled the Scottish government to pass its budget during the last two years. Yet it is unthinkable that any party which does not get its way might collapse the Parliament or that the Prime Minister might be called upon to intervene.

In Northern Ireland the mechanism is tried and tested. Sinn Féin is attempting to perfect it. Whenever the party senses that it has made promises to its support which it cannot deliver it can threaten to collapse the Executive or fail to operate some aspect of power-sharing. The DUP, for its part, is compelled to be as obdurate as possible in order to emphasise its status as the near immovable bulwark of unionism. A crisis is brought to a head, there are frenzied hothouse negotiations, the British, Irish and perhaps the American governments are required to intercede.

It is tempting to conclude from this dependence on mediation that Northern Ireland’s politics are simply incurably immature. But there are real structural problems within our institutions which underlie this pervading infantilism. Until a way is found to build durable cross community coalitions which do not creak every time there is a difference between parties, then power-sharing will remain vulnerable. Locking implacable foes into mandatory coalition is a potent symbol for a divided society, but it is not effective as a mechanism to channel interests and policy in a non-sectarian direction.

Ultimately, until sufficient voices are raised to demand a system of voluntary coalition in Northern Ireland, the Assembly is likely to remain frail. If we’re content for power-sharing to operate primarily as an emblem of overcome division, we simply need to keep the existing show somehow on the road. If, however we want effective, responsive and accountable government in Northern Ireland then voluntary coalition, with strong cross community safeguards, is the logical direction to travel.

Give us the Justice Ministry or we'll sqweem!

I blogged recently about Alliance's hypocrisy and the party's desperation to get its hands on the justice portfolio. When Sir Reg Empey indicated that the UUP might not accept any deal which the DUP and Sinn Féin concocted, David Ford had something of a strop. And whenever Alliance has a strop about anything, allegations of everyone else's sectarianism are never far behind.

Witness the latest piece of Tweeted petulance from Gerry Lynch (aka Sammy Morse Slugger fans), Alliance candidate for East Antrim.

@ConallMcD If I'd listened to your leader's sectarian, sub-Éirígí, press conference today, I'd be too ashamed to post on Twitter

The target is of course Northern Ireland's newest MLA, Conall McDevitt. His leader's press conference is reported here.

The gist is, predictably, that Sinn Féin and the DUP have locked other parties out of discussions at Hillsborough and should an agreement eventually emerge, whatever it might comprise, it will not have been arrived at by an inclusive process.

Of course Alliance have clearly reached their understanding with the carve-up coalition over policing and justice. They want a ministry, they want it now and anyone who stands in their way is sectarian.

The reality, as I argued previously, is that Alliance is as complicit in Northern Ireland's sectarian system of politics as anyone else. Indeed with their constant harping 'place apart' insularism they have no vision whatever for changing the status quo.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Not enough Northern Ireland on TV?

With the nation’s press creating gridlock in the centre of Hillsborough its timing is a bit iffy, but the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster has published a report alleging that the province has been left ‘comparatively invisible’ on the UK’s TV screens. The gist is that programmes about ‘the Troubles’ are plentiful but there is very little which reflects everyday life, the countryside, history or culture.

Northern Ireland is the least ‘well served’ of the UK’s nations in terms of ordinary programmes being commissioned which portray life as it is lived. Yet, oddly, behind London, we have more success than any other region when it comes to getting programmes commissioned abroad.

The BBC has given a commitment to source more of its output around the nations and regions. Northern Ireland should feel the benefit of this. There are good programme makers out there, but the poor quality of many local productions is hardly the best advert for national commissioners.

Would Jackie’s Jaunts tempt a UK wide audience? It is essentially a travel series fronted by football commentator Jackie Fullerton. Actually the travel tag underestimates the show‘s complexity. It is a gentle meditation on age. Or rather that is the idea. Jackie’s treatment of the topic is rather less than profound.

And how about Great Unanswered Questions? It is a vehicle for comedian Colin Murphy, who is so spectacularly unfunny he’ll make you chew the inside of your mouth to a bloody pulp. It amalgamates quirky facts, a la QI, and a “celebrity” (i.e. another comic you’re unlikely to have heard of) nominating things, a la Room 101. And it is jaw droppingly dreadful.

I’m all for more Northern Ireland on national TV, but can we make sure the programmes are watchable?

Deliberative democracy and a Bill of Rights

On Forth, I argue that the latest leaflet distributed by the Human Right Consortium is a nonsense and the human rights industry represents a resuscitation of 'deliberative democracy'.

IF YOU cast your mind back to the 1990s when Northern Ireland was edging towards the Belfast Agreement, you might recall something called ‘deliberative democracy’ was rather in vogue.

Essentially its premise ran - whatever evidence the ballot box might show to the contrary, voters are not getting the representation they want or deserve. Politicians are a sorry crowd and they should be cut out of decision making and replaced by a selection of community groups, interested parties, businessmen and plenty of nice reasonable women.

For a while it was actually seriously suggested that any political deal was likely to rest upon principles of deliberative democracy. Luckily wiser heads prevailed and the Good Friday Agreement, for all its faults, handed authority largely to democratically elected politicians.

The people of Northern Ireland, however unfortunate their choice, would get precisely the representatives they wanted and deserved. And the most high profile concession to deliberative democracy would be a toothless ‘Civic Forum’ (currently in disuse).

The concept did not die, however, and its manifestations were not restricted to a benign consultative forum.

We have, in Northern Ireland, an unparalleled range of commissions, government funded busybodies and Quangos. Most notably we have a human rights industry, sponsored by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which has taken on a life of its own.

Lately you will have received through your letterbox a leaflet from the ‘Human Rights Consortium’ exhorting you to write to the Secretary of State demanding protection for ’rights like health, housing and education’.

This is part of a high profile campaign, spearheaded by the NIHRC’s Chief Commissioner, Monica McWilliams, to save a Bill of Rights which has been dismissed as unworkable by the government, the Tories and unionist politicians.

The Human Rights Commission, which was itself established by the Belfast accord, spent ten expensive years assembling recommendations for a Bill which entirely ignored the Agreement’s remit. It was an astonishing failure, given the scope for developing rights aimed at achieving equality and tackling the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland’s divided society.

Instead the body and its various offshoots, such as the Bill of Rights Forum, chose to replicate existing rights and champion a battery of social and economic entitlements. Following criticism from the Conservatives, the Secretary of State and unionist commissioners, an official government consultation concluded that the NIHRC’s report was unusable. Which should ‘by rights’ have put an end to the whole exercise, you might think! After all, the government does bank roll the Commission.

Read more:

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Trimble offers warning.

Unionist Lite unfolds the saga of Brian Walker and Sir Reg Empey. O'Neill likens Walker to teenager, half-cut on a tin of Woodpecker. It is, you'll agree, an alluring image. I have recorded my thoughts on this character before. It is scarcely believable that he was a professional journalist. More on Bobballs - who calls it like it is - random bollocks.

Another piece worth reading is Daphne Trimble's call to Ulster Unionists not to 'give in to DUP manipulation'. It is a timely warning at a crucial juncture.

At St Andrews the DUP insisted on an amendment to the 1998 Belfast Agreement that provided that the leader of the largest party at Stormont was to be the First Minister.

This was no gaffe. It was a deliberate ploy to be used in the very situation we now find ourselves.

And we are in danger of falling for it.

The prospect of a Sinn Fein First Minister would be tough for the Unionist electorate. The DUP have used this spectre in the past to blackmail the electorate into voting for them.
Now that their star is waning, and Unionism may be split three ways, they are using the same argument to try and do a deal with us so that they can hold on to something.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Better off in Britain. Scotland's devolution dividend.

The Scotsman has a story which rather neatly distils the economic argument against Scottish independence and the SNP’s flimsy response.

Confronted with hard figures which demonstrate that Scotland does rather well out of its membership of the United Kingdom the nationalists bluster about “anti Scottish propaganda” and take up their mantra of “Scotland’s oil”.

On this occasion the Scottish Office has released figures which appear to demonstrate the Scotland has gained a £76 billion ‘devolution dividend’. The SNP is always quick to attempt to change the frame of reference to patriotism.

If you believe the government’s figures then you are ‘doing Scotland down’, hence you are not a good Scotsman. It’s the type of reductionist, identity based politics we’re accustomed to in Northern Ireland.

It also relies on a sense of entitlement to dwindling oilfields which the SNP is fond of claiming for Scotland. Of course, in the event of independence, the result would be a great deal more complicated.

Still, opinion polls demonstrate that Scots are not fooled by Alex Salmond’s economics. After all, previously the First Minister was intent on emphasising the key role which Scotland’s banking sector, which was saved from collapse by the British taxpayer, would play in an independent nation.

Of course economics only form part of the pro-Union case. The Conservative reaction to this story is the most pertinent, from a unionist perspective.

“People know Scotland is better off socially, culturally, financially and politically as part of Britain”.

Calm heads and a little perspective.

Dear me, what a fuss!

Accompanying the latest crisis at Stormont we have had to endure the frenzied reaction to a meeting hosted by Shadow Secretary of State, Owen Paterson, which included representatives from the DUP.

Designed to promote stability in Northern Ireland, the “Hatfield Talks” have acquired a subtext to suit every agenda.

On his blog, Ian Parsley reacts to the notion that three Conservative hopefuls have withdrawn from the race for candidate selection, due to their unhappiness at Paterson’s meeting. Nonsense, Ian contends, three professional people have simply lost patience with an interminable process.

Of course this insight illuminates an additional raft of internal problems.

The UUP is absolutely determined that its selection procedure will not be hurried. It is hardly fanciful to suppose that the lack of urgency stems from ongoing difficulties with the North Down MP, Sylvia Hermon.

“Indecision is final” as Alan Hansen is wont to declare.

Meanwhile Alasdair McDonnell is the latest figure to fulminate about the “orange card” or sectarian unionist compacts. The SDLP’s prospective leader will have a rather tenuous grip on his Westminster seat, should the DUP stand down in South Belfast.

With hysteria mounting it’s not a bad idea to step back and examine what we know.

The Conservatives have talked to the UUP and DUP about resolving problems around policing and justice. The DUP have suggested some sort of arrangement in the event that Stormont collapses and an Assembly election threatens to elevate Martin McGuinness to the status of First Minister. The UUP has not dismissed this suggestion out of hand.

The rest, frankly, is supposition, speculation, conjecture.

It has been explicitly stated by all those involved that the eventuality of a hung parliament has not been discussed, however much McDonnell or other interested parties would like to insist otherwise. Eighteen Conservative and Unionist candidates will contest eighteen seats in Northern Ireland at the general election. If two DUP candidates are stood down it is a positive result, however it is spun.

There are impatience and disagreements around selection, but the talks are a separate issue. Of course the Observer will claim otherwise. We are in the run-up to an election and the paper is avowedly anti-Conservative. More so as an election approaches.

As for the Stormont situation, we are not yet in an election situation and nor is it inevitable that one will develop. I am nervous that the Ulster Unionists will be used by a DUP engaged in tactical positioning, but I can see the merit in a shot across the bows of Sinn Féin.

Ultimately I would oppose an arrangement with the Dupes, if one were to develop, for two reasons.

First - that party deliberately engineered the situation in which we now find ourselves. It calculated that requiring the First Minister to come from the largest party, rather than the largest designation, would buttress its position. The UUP should not let the DUP off the hook, for any of its indiscretions.

Second - it does not require a change in the way power-sharing is being operated. The institutions, which have failed, will continue as before, along the same lines. Carve-up will be perpetuated and the Ulster Unionists will be complicit.

I also acknowledge, however, that whether we like it or not, the position of First Minister might not include de facto more power than the deputy position but it does entail becoming the senior figurehead for our Executive.

For all the huffing and puffing about bigotry, the worst indictment of sectarianism and hatred in Northern Ireland, is the fact that Martin McGuinness can aspire to that position.

As much as I loathe the DUP, as much as I maintain that their success is a symptom of a damaged society, how much more damning is the strength of a party intimately linked with a recent campaign of slaughter?

One senior figure has suggested to me that the past week could actually benefit the Conservative and Unionist project.

It will be more difficult to blame Ulster Unionists for a breach of “unionist unity” now that the party has shown willing to explore the option. Has the UUP managed to return serve rather effectively?

Losing three able prospective candidates in some ways simplifies the process of selection.

The advantage of working closely with the Conservatives has been demonstrated and the DUP will look even more silly insisting otherwise at the general election.

Despite the usual naysayers, and some elementary mistakes, the situation is not irrecoverable by any means. But Conservatives and Unionists need to wrest back control of circumstances and prove that they are neither at the mercy of events, nor are they stumbling along blindly from one crisis to the next.

The priority should be to select candidates swiftly and begin to set out the advantages of the New Force. Be positive, and forget about putting out inconvenient little fires, whether they are caused by Sylvia Hermon or the DUP.

And rather than colluding with that party in order to bail it out of the situation in which it finds itself, the Conservatives and UUP should be concentrating on twisting the knife.

Friday, 22 January 2010

The DUP to stand down in two seats?

Is some sense finally beginning to emerge from the rumours surrounding Owen Paterson's infamous meeting? The Belfast Telegraph has suggested that the DUP is prepared to give up two Westminster seats in an attempt to secure UUP support for policing and justice.

It might seem like a heavy price to exact, but it makes a degree of sense.

The DUP is rocking after the European defeat, by election results and a series of scandals. It expects to take heavy losses in the forthcoming election.

By voluntarily standing down in Fermanagh South Tyrone or South Belfast or both it appears to take its own 'unionist unity' spiel seriously. Indeed it can be portrayed a a selfless act.

Of course it would be anything but. It would simply be an attempt to smooth things over as regards policing and justice and put off any Assembly election.


Thursday, 21 January 2010

"And we've got plenty more on Peter Robinson....."

Continuing to mine a rich seam of American comedy this morning, you'll remember this episode of the Simpsons.

After Chief Wiggum imposes a curfew, the children of Springfield exact revenge by broadcasting secrets about the adult population. They're quite literally attempting to get their way on policing and justice issues using media as leverage.

Remind anyone of any real life situations?

Last weekend the DUP was supposed to be collecting its figurative teeth from the carpet after high profile revelations in a Sunday newspaper. The stories failed to emerge. Instead, party representatives were reportedly holed up in Hertfordshire, meeting Owen Paterson.

Stability for the DUP was maintained for a week, at least.

With the DUP leaking like a sieve, much to the Tories' displeasure and the talks at Stormont reportedly close to collapse, this could be more of a stay of execution than a genuine reprieve.

No Conservative interest in DUP pact

In today's Belfast Telegraph I argue that interpretations of the famed weekend meeting have spun out of control.

A meeting between the shadow secretary of state Owen Paterson and representatives of the UUP and DUP has been interpreted by some commentators as a sign three-party coalition could be imminent. It is a rather fanciful reading of some mundane facts.

A Conservative spokesman confirmed that Paterson did meet senior unionists in England at the weekend. The stated aim was to "promote greater political stability" in Northern Ireland.

On the political website Slugger O'Toole one blogger was quick to suggest that the Tories were shoring up unionist support in case the forthcoming General Election results in a hung Parliament. It is an analysis that sources in the DUP have been eager to encourage and Conservative sources have denied.

The truth is that there is an explanation that is simpler and much more plausible.

Negotiations over the devolution of policing and justice have reached a critical phase. Although the Conservative Party has insisted that its Ulster Unionist partner has the right to develop an independent strategy on policing and justice, both David Cameron and Owen Paterson have expressed their preference for early devolution. Sir Reg Empey, too, has consistently maintained that the UUP is not opposed to a Justice Minister at Stormont. At a crucial juncture in the policing and justice saga the Tories have simply brought the unionist factions together in an attempt to iron out their differences over this issue.

Certainly there is an agenda to the meeting. The Tories would like to overcome the justice logjam. At national and local level it has been more positive about the prospects of devolution than the UUP. No doubt Owen Paterson is eager to give the DUP an opportunity to address Ulster Unionist concerns.

Power-sharing institutions are once again teetering on the brink of collapse and Paterson is due to inherit any mess that might result. It would be surprising if a prospective Secretary of State were not engaged in attempts to keep the Assembly afloat. After all, some pollsters predict the Tories will be in government in less than six months' time.

Pointing no fingers, but did anybody mention Ian Paisley Junior (not reportedly at the meeting).

The DUP is desperate to avoid leaking thousands of votes to the 'New Force' and its strategists calculate that it might be able to offset the worst damage by appealing to 'unionist unity'. The party recently delivered 20,000 leaflets in the South Belfast constituency making the case for agreed candidates. It has wheeled out its big hitters, repeatedly, to drive home the message.

Conservatives and Unionists, meanwhile, maintain that every elector in Northern Ireland should be given an opportunity to vote for a candidate who can form part of the next Government. It is an aim in which the parties have too much invested to backtrack. In the wake of allegations over the DUP meeting the Tories have reaffirmed that all 18 constituencies here will be contested by UCUNF at the election. It suits the DUP to insinuate that the Tories' commitment is not set in stone. It also suits the SDLP to contend that the meeting potentially offends some principle of impartiality or that it represents a distraction.

In actuality few eyebrows would be raised if an opposition party from the Republic were to hold talks with the nationalist parties across the border. And if Owen Paterson can influence positively the practice of power-sharing in Northern Ireland, surely he has a responsibility to do so?

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Paterson holds meeting. Slugger scoops the mainstream media!

Hold the presses! Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Owen Paterson, has held a meeting. Over at Slugger Mick Fealty gets precious about the genesis of this 'story'. Conall McDevitt hails its exposition as a triumph of new media.

Let me enter one slight note of dissent. This is far from a triumph of new media.

On the contrary, it is a prime example of a non-story which gets picked up by mainstream outlets, between tentative thumb and forefinger, simply because it has been given a mischievous interpretation by a journalist acting in his capacity as a blogger.

The thinking, roughly stated, is 'oh maybe this is significant, we'll mention it, leave out the scurrilous insinuations for safety's sake and append some extraneous detail'. It's actually an example of new media perpetuating bad journalism.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

The Unbearable Pointlessness of Alliance

Does Alliance actually have a philosophy, beyond ‘we are much nicer than everyone else’? David Ford’s party certainly stresses its non-sectarian credentials, but that hardly qualifies as a political programme.

With its haste to allege prejudice wherever it sees so much as a Union Flag, and its insistence that Northern Ireland’s politics are best conducted in a vacuum, Alliance is as dependent upon sectarianism as any other party.

Last week David Ford lashed out at Sir Reg Empey when he suggested that Ulster Unionists will not endorse, sight unseen, any deal which the DUP and Sinn Féin might concoct on policing and justice. The UUP leader’s demand that his party should be consulted is hardly unreasonable.

Ford’s reaction epitomises the spineless and rudderless nature of Alliance politics. Before Christmas he indicated that his own party would name a price for its cooperation in devolving policing and justice. Now, spooked by a suggestion that the Assembly could collapse, and with his sights set firmly on a ministry within the Executive, Ford harangues Empey for not snapping to attention.

Throughout the current period of power-sharing the UUP and SDLP have complained bitterly that their input has been ignored. At the Ulster Unionist conference Sir Reg suggested that his party would demand genuine coalition as the condition for its support for policing and justice. It is a strategy grounded in solid common sense.

Although the SDLP has followed Sinn Féin’s lead and elevated the devolution of justice to the status of a symbolic nationalist touchstone, Mark Durkan’s party would, if it were clever, follow Empey’s lead.

Its representatives are already unhappy that the d’Hondt mechanism will not determine the affiliation of a new justice minister. By urging a swift resolution to the policing impasse, without any preconditions, the SDLP is colluding in a deal which will be to its disadvantage.

The Alliance party too is short-sighted in its demands for devolution at all costs. The issue has acquired a significance it does not deserve, simply because Sinn Féin has insisted that it is critical. With its panic stricken response Alliance is playing into republicans’ hands and, although its priority in the short-term is to get its hands on the justice portfolio, the party could soon find itself marginalised by larger parties within the Executive.

If the UUP and SDLP find it difficult to make their voices heard, how much harder will it prove for Alliance, whose presence at the top table will in any case be determined by a backroom deal, rather than by merit of the party’s electoral strength?

Without a coherent programme of government for justice in place, hasty devolution may not prove to be the coup for his party David Ford obviously anticipates. The DUP and Sinn Féin might thrash out an ill conceived plan which leaves Ford holding the baby, but the ill-starred brat will become Alliance’s responsibility nevertheless.

The truth is that David Ford’s confused and contradictory approach to the issue is merely a symptom of his party’s wider political purposelessness. Alliance, despite its pieties, has no strategy to normalise politics in Northern Ireland. It is thoroughly infected with the notion that we are doomed to remain exceptional, a place apart.

The party relies, for it electoral fortunes, on the electorate here remaining isolated from national politics. Its vision of Northern Ireland, operating most effectively in splendid isolation, is a vision which infantilises voters. It denies them the possibility of full participation in UK politics in case such participation risks widening the sectarian divide.

Ironically sectarianism is actually perpetuated by the type of insular politics, based on division, of which Alliance is an enthusiastic participant and sponsor.

The Alliance party might be the party for ’nice people’, but it lacks any genuine plan for Northern Ireland’s future. It is a function of the broken down politics which characterise our devolved institutions and it is eager to condemn us to more of the same.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Ukraine prepares to ignore the meddlers.

Yesterday Ukraine went to the polls in an election which will unseat the current president Victor Yushchenko. 90% of the ballots were counted today and there is now likely to be a run off in February between Victor Yanukovych, the pre-poll favourite, and Yulia Tymoshenko.

Although Yanukovych claimed approximately 35% of the vote, in comparison to 25% for Tymoshenko, analysts are speculating that Tymoshenko is likely to pick up more support from candidates eliminated in the first round. It is thought that the present incumbent is languishing on about 6% of ballots cast.

Western interest in Ukrainian elections is entirely pre-occupied with the perceived ’pro western’ or ’pro Russian’ leanings of the candidates. Forth magazine has an excellent corrective, from the Ukrainian perspective. It echoes a piece by James Marson, a journalist based in Kiev, who made a similar argument, in the aftermath of last year’s wrangle over gas.

It is simply not the case that Ukrainians go to the polls determined either to issue a hands off warning to Moscow, or to extend an invitation to Russia to absorb the country.

Yushchenko’s performance is so poor because he has failed to root out corruption in Ukraine. He has also become distracted by wrangles with Russia which are, most Ukrainians would argue, a sideshow. His obsession with Nato, for instance, has never been shared by his countrymen. Polls shows consistent scepticism about the need to join.

Meanwhile Ukraine has suffered particular hardship during the financial crisis. Its debts are heavy and its economy has contracted dramatically. The IMF is awaiting the election result before it agrees to release further finance.

Sean’s Russia Blog offers an intriguing piece of hearsay, that Georgian soldiers arrived in Ukraine before the election, with (or instead of) the country's cohort of obeservers. Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions is suggesting that there was some intent to disrupt proceedings.

However the Council of Europe is among delegations declaring the election free and fair.

Ukraine’s politics are fractious, fragmented and the electorate is increasingly disillusioned, which is the flip side of the Orange Revolution. However, despite the potential for fraud, vote-selling etc., elections are keenly contested.

It’s vibrant democracy, of a sort. And in the short-term, it is likely to edge Ukraine away from Nato enlargement, and towards a stabilised relationship with Moscow, whoever wins the run off.

David Miliband and other inveterate meddlers will just have to respect the judgment of the Ukrainian people.

Worst sports journalism ever?

As Liverpool have lurched and stumbled their way out of the major cup competitions of England and Europe and into the predicament of scrabbling to sustain fragile belief in their ability to finish as high as fourth in the Premier League (and thus guarantee entry to the Champions League), isolated hints of recovered effectiveness have been swiftly exposed as illusory. Remembering how the 2-0 defeat of Manchester United in October was immediately followed by submissions to Arsenal and Fulham and then a run of three laboured draws, and how the tentative hopes of improved fortunes encouraged by an away victory over persuasively aspiring Aston Villa at the end of December humiliatingly foundered in last week’s expulsion from the FA Cup by Reading at Anfield, it is difficult to imagine we’ll soon be witnessing a genuine restoration of formidability to the club who once ruled British football imperiously.

Ok, breathe deeply. I appreciate that you'll need a drink of water and possibly a lie down. That little lot did comprise just two sentences!

This is an excerpt of a Sunday Times piece by Hugh McIlvanney, "the most respected voice in British sports journalism".

Have you ever read anything so pretentious, clumsy, overlong? It's like a parody of bad bad wordy writing.

Now, over the past month or two, I've been attempting to make some money writing for newspapers. It's tough.

Rejection is a daily occurrence and rejection, actually, is not a bad result. Far more often your approaches are ignored.

How maddening that a respected journalist can churn out the bilge which I've exhibited above. Try reading it out loud!

Friday, 15 January 2010

Back from the brink? US considered 'limited military options' against Russia.

George W. Bush was the ‘cool head’ at the White House who ruled out military intervention in the conflict between Georgia and South Ossetia.

Sean’s Russia Blog cites Ronald D. Asmus in his book ‘A Little War That Shook the World’ which alleges that senior figures in the American administration urged ’limited’ military action against Russia.

The President showed enough sense to realise that ‘confrontation’ would be inevitable, if the US had directly attacked Russia.

Sean believes the fact that the United States even considered bombing the Gori Tunnel, through which Russian troops and supplies reach South Ossetia, bolsters the thesis that the White House gave Saakashvili a ‘green light’ to confront Moscow.

It certainly provides a prime example of the type of hysteria which characterised American and British responses to the war.

Had the President not provided calmer counsel, best case scenario, the US would have had to explain its intervention in a conflict which an independent EU inquiry later proved was instigated by Georgia.

Worst case scenario (and more likely), war with Russia would have resulted.

Link and you miss it.

Who knows what lies ahead this weekend for the MP for Lagan Valley, Jeffrey Donaldson? It's good to know, however, that Jeffrey's thinking of old friends. Scroll down this list of useful links and click on 'Friends of the Union'. Well it was a Conservative ginger group!

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Ulster Unionists set to romp home in Craigavon.

According to the News Letter it's all over (bar some of the counting) in the council by-election. Jo-Anne Dobson will win with an overwhelming share of the vote. TUV leader Jim Allister has already congratulated the UUP on its success.

Wake up redmen!

Could things get any grimmer for Liverpool and Rafa Benitéz? Marooned in mid-table in the Premier League, bounced out of the Carling Cup by a set of teenage Arsenal reserves, flung out of the Champions League at the group stages and now, the piece de resistance!

Reading, without a full-time manager, languishing towards the foot of the Championship, last night knocked the reds out of the F.A. Cup - at Anfield. And this wasn’t a battling cup upset, ground out in the teeth of wave after wave of Liverpool attacks!

The Royals outplayed their Premier League opponents in the replay, as they did in the first game at the Madejski Stadium. Benitéz’ side proved fortunate that afternoon, scraping a draw despite a lethargic performance.

Lethargy doesn’t begin to describe the dross served up at Anfield. Liverpool’s one-nil half-time lead was a travesty and an embarrassment. There is actually an argument that supporters should welcome this exposition of just how dismal their team has become. The manager does not deserve to get off the hook by scraping unconvincing results. It is better if the crisis at Liverpool comes to a head.

Rafa Benitéz might complain about the resources which he has available. But he is responsible for the spirit and the attitude of the team he puts out. Clubs with next to no money can field sides which at least show determination, ingenuity, fighting spirit and urgency.

Not one Liverpool player will emerge from last night’s debacle with credit.

Torres and Gerrard were withdrawn before the second half began. Certainly Liverpool look toothless without them. But the first period, nevertheless, witnessed a lack of imagination, even with a couple of semi-competent players involved.

As for the rest!

Even Jamie Carragher, who at least showed some urgency during extra time, was woeful during the ninety minutes. If one moment epitomised the difference between the two sides, it was Jobi McAnuff dancing between Carragher and Agger, each of whom had limply extended a leg in token resistance. The Reading winger squirted his opportunity wide of the upright, but notice had been served.

Liverpool ignored it.

Who else can we single out for particular criticism?

The lumpen full-back Emiliano Insua perhaps? He has youth on his side, but it shouldn’t be confused with vitality. Tied in knots for 210 minutes by lively Reading front-men, the defender is like Steve Harkness with a suntan.

Lucas Leiva? The only Brazilian footballer ever to deserve the epithet “plodding”. The central midfielder is clearly colour blind. He rarely passes the football to a player wearing red.

Then there’s the new signing, ‘Il Principino’, Alberto Aquilani. Last night he sauntered around, looking for all the world like a Dad who had once been able to play a bit, disorientated by the pace of a kick about with his son’s mates! The best comparison is Jan Molby, but Jan Molby now, not during his playing days.

What a mess! An awful team, no money to improve things. Greedy, selfish, dishonest owners. And (let’s finally face it Liverpool fans) a negative manager whose mentality is manifestly unsuited to English football.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Fools rush in. Empey right to keep his options open on policing and justice.

So Sir Reg Empey has made it plain that, should the DUP strike a deal with Sinn Féin on policing and justice, Ulster Unionists will not necessarily snap to attention. It is not an extraordinary stance.

It is far more extraordinary that other parties complain on other occasions about being by-passed by Sinn Féin and the DUP, yet they’re prepared to accept, without conditions, any arrangement which the two parties might reach.

Policing and justice has acquired a status, actual and symbolic, which it scarcely deserves. Just because Sinn Féin determines that it is the must crucial issue at the Assembly, doesn’t necessarily mean that other parties become reckless renegades just because they do not share that analysis. It certainly doesn’t mean they are playing fast and loose with the principles of power-sharing.

Remarkably Alliance itself had previously indicated that it was not prepared to facilitate devolved justice, at any cost. The Ulster Unionist party is quite entitled to put a price on its cooperation and the SDLP would be advised to do likewise.

Both parties have complained that the current Executive is not a genuine exercise in power-sharing. They are consistently by-passed when crucial decisions are made. Here is a chance to demand that government in Northern Ireland requires genuine four party input from now on.

David Ford and his party might will have extracted their price for devolved policing and justice already. But it would be foolhardy for Sir Reg Empey to pre-emptively accept any dispensation which the carve-up coalition might concoct. The least we should expect from party leaders, sidelined by this process, is an attempt to keep their options open.

UUP seek win in Craigavon

In the frenzy of political activity over the past fortnight it has been rather overlooked. But today voters go to the polls in a council by-election in Craigavon. A ballot is required in the Lurgan ward after the TUV’s attempt to co-opt a replacement for its outgoing councillor, Mark Russell, was rejected by opponents.

It is a four way contest which does not include the DUP. So voters will not have an opportunity to deliver a bloody nose to that party just yet. The SDLP and Sinn Féin are each fielding candidates, but the likelihood is that either Jo-Anne Dobson from the Ulster Unionists, or David Calvert, whom the TUV wished originally to co-opt, will take the seat.

Despite inclement conditions, it seems that canvassing has been continuing apace in Lurgan. Daphne Timble reports a positive response to the UUP message from the doorsteps. Another by-election victory would boost morale in the run-up to the Westminster poll this spring.

Incidentally, although I should illustrate this story with a more up to date photograph, the combination of Jo-Anne, Eric Pickles and the Ballymena Showgrounds is too good to resist. Pity about the tractors and livestock on the pitch!

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Halting politics because of one man's difficulties

In today's Belfast Telegraph I comment on Peter Robinson's six week leave of absence.

When Peter Robinson announced his intention to step aside from the First Minister's role for six weeks yesterday he chose to prolong a crisis of political leadership at Stormont.

Mr Robinson hopes to use the respite to answer allegations raised by a sensational Spotlight investigation into financial arrangements which his wife Iris struck with a 19-year-old businessman.

But his absence will leave the Assembly in limbo at a crucial period. Peter Robinson's increasingly desperate attempts to safeguard his own career could compromise Northern Ireland's political future and damage the electoral prospects of his party.

It has been a traumatic couple of weeks for the DUP leader in the aftermath of Iris's withdrawal from public life. Seamy revelations about her relationship with a teenage entrepreneur have been accompanied by wider concerns over the Robinsons' financial affairs. It has been suggested that Peter was privy to information about his wife's dealings which he was obliged by a ministerial code to divulge to the appropriate authorities.

Although the charge is rather abstract in comparison to concrete allegations against Iris, the East Belfast MLA clearly has a case to answer. However, politics here cannot come to a halt while Peter Robinson clears his name.

Although, developing a point which I raised on 'Three Thousand Versts' yesterday, where there is damage for the 'carve-up' parties, there is a silver lining.

The prevailing orthodoxy that Northern Ireland's stability depends upon the compact between a strong DUP and a strong Sinn Fein deserves to be tested. If the two parties lose ground at the polls it does not represent a fatal blow to the peace process.

It is unthinkable that the DUP will not sustain damage after the Robinson revelations. The period of drift into which we are now entering can only exacerbate the party's sense of crisis. Its leader has condemned it to the type of 'drip, drip' effect which is currently undermining Gordon Brown's Labour leadership in London.

Meanwhile, Stormont must endure another period of uncertainty, thanks to the personal and political difficulties of one man.

The only possible source of comfort is that, by standing aside temporarily, Peter Robinson might actually contribute to a realignment capable - eventually - of delivering stable government to Northern Ireland.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Centre-ground has responsibility not to squander opportunities.

Peter Robinson is due to make a statement to the Stormont Assembly at 3.30pm this afternoon. This might be the moment that the First Minister chooses to step down.

The immediate aftermath of last week’s Spotlight documentary witnessed a rather muted response from the DUP. The party’s officers met on Friday and this morning there were signs of support for its embattled leader.

On Slugger, Mick Fealty speculates that, far from comprising a public display of unity, pro-Robinson noises are intended to facilitate a dignified exit. Eamonn Mallie hints that the First Minister might jump before he is pushed or choose to cite personal problems and withdraw from public life entirely.

Certainly a clean break would mitigate possible electoral damage for the DUP. After years of silence, the media have got their teeth well and truly into the Robinsons. If Peter attempts to stay in place the major damage which has already been done will be compounded by a drip drip of low level allegations.

The Electoral Commission has begun a review of Robinson’s claim that he donated his first minister’s salary to the DUP. The dealings of Castlereagh Borough Council, for so long the Robinsons’ stronghold, will come under increased scrutiny.

Although, understandably, there is anxiety about the resilience of Northern Ireland’s ’political process’, should Robinson depart, the DUP’s weakness actually represents an exciting opportunity.

If Sinn Féin collapses the executive, and Shaun Woodward calls an Assembly election, it will contest seats in the teeth of a gathering furore about Gerry Adams’ family and child abuse. Clearly the DUP is also riven with internal difficulties. The fall of its first and second families and the attendant whiff of corruption cannot fail to take its toll on a party, already anxious about the potential for the TUV to eat into its vote.

Moderate parties have an unparalleled opportunity to regain ground, almost by default. The centre-ground which held its nose to vote DUP or Sinn Féin is unlikely to repeat its mistake under the current circumstances.

Conservatives and Ulster Unionists, Alliance and the SDLP could soon be handed the political initiative in Northern Ireland and it is imperative that they do not squander it.

When the UUP previously led unionism, and the SDLP were the largest nationalist party, there was not a sustained effort to promote the benefits of the Belfast Agreement. The working relationship was poor. There could soon be an opportunity to do much better.

Update: The DUP has opted for the 'drip drip' to continue. Nigel Dodds spoke for the Assembly team, offering its backing to Robinson, as party leader. Whether this support extends to the retention of each of his roles, is not clear.

Further update: Peter Robinson steps down as First Minister. Arlene Foster takes over his duties, for six weeks at least.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Are you ready? Ladies and gentlemen! Let's Play Darts!

Having disposed of both last year's finalists, young St Helens' darter Dave Chisnall faces Martin "Wolfie" Adams in the climax of the BDO World Darts. Following an epic 5-4 victory against Ted "The Count" Hankey, Chisnall repeated the trick, demolishing Tony "The Silverback" O'Shea 6-3 in yesterday's semi-final.

It will not have escaped your attention that darts is not a sport dependent upon the weather. Whilst football, rugby fixtures etc. have been decimated over the past number of weeks, the arrows have flown straight and true.

I trust that all 'Three Thousand Versts' readers will be glued to their TV screens from 17.45 this evening. In the interim I will repost the piece which I wrote on the equivalent Sunday last year, 'Portrait of the Dartists'.

I’ve spent a significant portion of my weekend explaining, justifying, defending my predilection for watching a cadre of men, disproportionately overweight, uniformly under the influence of lager, who arc a small piece of metal 7 feet nine and a quarter inches into a round board of cork augmented with sisal fibres. It is, I must confess, an uphill struggle. Unless one instinctively appreciates the fluid motion of the darting arm, unleashing its tungsten missile in splendid parabola, flighted unerringly toward the small, red Valhalla of treble twenty, one is unlikely to be persuaded of the merits of the sport of darts.

I describe in vain the hypnotic pleasure of the three thudding arrows which accompany each darters turn at the oche. I laud, to little effect, the arithmetical dexterity required in order to instantaneously calculate a three dart finish in the hundreds. I elicit little sympathy when I invoke the stout musculature required to mitigate the hampering effect of several ounces of gold plate jewellery adorning the throwing arm. I find that the image of lager, beer guts and cheap nylon shirts has predisposed most people to dismiss the game without watching it closely.

The truth is that darts is a magnificently accessible, accepting, even egalitarian sport. It requires skill and application, but does not demand any particular physical attributes. Its fans offer generous, enthusiastic and scrupulously sporting backing to their heroes. Darts is grounded squarely in the culture of the British working class, but it is eager to reach out to any potential enthusiast. The Queen’s grandson, Peter Phillips, watched last Saturday’s action. There is no inverted snobbery to the arrows.

At present the BBC is screening the BDO World Darts Championship taking place at Lakeside Country Club, Frimley Green, Surrey. Although the standard is variable, this competition, rather than Sky’s PDC alternative, represents the sport at its most authentic. Tonight the final features Ted ‘The Count’ Hankey, glorious epitome of darts’ unselfconscious embrace of its own myths and clichés. The forty year old might be 10 years older. He has cut down his pre-match intake of lager from last year’s double figures to a disciplined ’two or three’ pints. Nevertheless he is a previous winner of the championship and has tasted defeat in the final too. He will take to the stage tonight clad in his customary cape, nylon shirt unbuttoned to his navel, throwing complementary plastic bats to his supporters.

His opponent will be Tony O’Shea, whose best previous showing came in 2004, when he defeated Hankey on his route to the semi-final. The ’Silverback’ is a grizzled veteran, performing at the peak of his game and he is likely to compete ferociously at the Lakeside tonight.

If you hadn’t intended to watch, I doubt this humble article will have persuaded you otherwise. For the minority of initiates, fully appraised of the sport’s pleasures, I hardly need remind you that coverage begins at 5.50pm on BBC 2.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Castlereagh council by-election imminent

The latest information suggests that Iris Robinson will step down from her political roles next week.

A general election is due, in May, at the latest. But, as at least two people have helpfully pointed out, the time restrictions involved in issuing a writ for a Westminster by-election renders it unlikely that there will be an early poll in Strangford.

So Iris Robinson's constituents will effectively be without an MP for anything up to four months.

The DUP will want to co-opt a councillor in order to replace Iris in Castlereagh Borough Council, but Robinsons' unionist opponents, justifiably, are likely to demand that the public be consulted.

Expect at least one by-election, and a strong challenge to the DUP's supremacy, within weeks, rather than months.

Here's £50k but if you don't mind I'll keep five.

Well the text jokes are coming in thick and fast, but most of them are unrepeatable. Although the notion that Kirk McCambley's favourite song is 'sure it is old but it is beautiful' is rather a good one.

The best spoof so far, though, is this version of Mrs Robinson which has found its way unto Youtube with indecent speed! Enjoy.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Sleaze, greed, heartlessness. After sorry Robinson saga the electorate awaits an opportunity to punish corruption.

They say that truth is stranger than fiction. Certainly, in the film, the young lover Mrs Robinson chose to seduce was at least old enough to have left university. And Anne Bancroft, we must remember, was only in her mid-thirties when ’The Graduate’ was made.

Northern Ireland’s real life Mrs Robinson turned sixty last September. Her paramour was a nineteen year old butcher’s son from Belfast, for whom she abused her position in order to secure £50,000 of business start-up capital!

Last night’s Spotlight programme unfolded a torrid tale, which, had it not involved Northern Ireland’s most high profile political couple, would have been perfectly at home on the Jeremy Kyle Show.

For the tabloids, the headlines write themselves. A First Minister made cuckold by a boy! An aging seductress called Mrs Robinson! But beyond prurient interest in the seamier details, the political connotations are grave.

On the basis of Spotlight’s allegations, Iris Robinson is clearly guilty of serial impropriety and illegality. The £50,000 which she procured for Kirk McCambley was not declared in the registers of interest, either at Stormont or Westminster. In addition, she did not declare an interest when Castlereagh Borough Council awarded a lease to McCambley for the business which Robinson had bankrolled, the Lock Keeper’s Inn.

The programme also revealed that the Strangford MP demanded a £5,000 cut of the capital which she secured for McCambrey. It did not explain the basis upon which Mrs Robinson asked for the money. Neither was it entirely clear whether Iris’s former lover was required to pay back only the £45,000 which was left, when she pulled the financial rug from under him, after their affair had ended.

The suggestion of material wrongdoing by the First Minister, Peter Robinson, is rather more abstract. He became aware of the financial arrangements into which his wife had entered, before he learned about the nature of her relationship with McCambrey. By failing to alert the authorities to wrongdoing, he abrogated his duty to act in the public interest.

Beyond a protracted debate about parliamentary regulations, Peter Robinson has been seriously damaged by this episode. Jeff Peel calls on the First Minister to resign. It would be the honourable course to take.

Clearly Robinson’s ability to act in the public interest has been compromised and trust in the First Minister has been damaged. Whether Iris understood the exact moment of what she was doing is debatable. It is fair to suppose, on the evidence available, that the woman is neither particularly stable nor very bright. Peter, on the contrary, was well aware of the seriousness of her actions.

Indeed he took charge of the damage limitation exercise, from the moment he learned about the £50,000. Selwyn Black, the whistleblower who exposed this entire torrid business, made it quite clear that Peter prompted his wife to ensure that the £50,000 was returned to its original sources, through solicitors, so that his fingerprints were not on the money. She had had a confused scheme whereby half the money would benefit a church, seemingly in order to assuage her guilt.

Subsequently Peter Robinson learned the full extent of his wife’s relationship with McCambley. She attempted to commit suicide. Eight hours later Selwyn Black, summoned to the Robinsons’ home, called an ambulance and Iris was hospitalised. Her husband had long since left for work where he took First Minister’s questions, joking about his city background as he answered a query about agriculture.

This is the same character whom we were invited to accept as a broken but dedicated family man, attempting to do the best for his wife, two nights ago.

In the wake of the Spotlight documentary, the viewing public are no longer under any allusions as to the true genesis of the Robinsons’ crisis.

Iris Robinson has been ill. She has suffered from depression. Goodness me, she even attempted to commit suicide. But her decision to withdraw from public life was directly prompted by an imminent scandal. It was the first exercise in damage limitation.

Peter Robinson meanwhile has orchestrated events over the past week in an attempt to rescue his dignity and career from a situation which he recognises as execrable. He is an arch-manipulator and cynicism about his motives is entirely understandable.

Of course people react differently to different situations, but it is instructive that the crisis for Peter Robinson reached a crescendo just as the Spotlight documentary threatened to air. When his wife actually attempted suicide, it was business as usual.

‘Robinsongate’, to borrow the inevitable phrase from Jeff, has an added dash of sex, but otherwise it’s all too reminiscent of the Paisleys’ downfall. Sleaze, greed, dirty money and the involvement of property tycoons.

Many within the DUP have a deeply ingrained victim complex, and no doubt the sense that the media is set against them will flourish, after this latest scandal. But over many years the party has chosen continually to emphasise its apparent moral rectitude. Its representatives have been the first to judge others by puritanical criteria. The party richly deserves all that it gets, now that it has been proven that its leadership is thoroughly corrupt.

The First Minister, for his part, is irreparably discredited. As long as he stays in place, Northern Ireland’s reputation will continue to be damaged.

He can hold on for the time being, but the electorate will not forget. It awaits its chance to punish the DUP for its years of hypocrisy and bankrupt ideas.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Suspicion that questions remain unanswered as public stays polarised on Robinsons.

If I’m honest, there was a moment when I wondered whether an article I'd written for yesterday’s Belfast Telegraph, criticising Peter Robinson’s conduct after Cardinal Daly’s death, might not have been rather badly timed.

Watching the television broadcast, during which the First Minister issued a statement about his wife’s affair and subsequent suicide attempt, was a disconcerting experience. It felt like an intrusion on personal trauma. It was difficult not to react, instinctively, with sympathy and pity.

For the time being, the public mood, and media reaction, has swung, predictably enough, in the Robinsons’ favour. But the truth is that the about turn hasn’t been as dramatic as one might expect and neither has it been universal. There remains a degree of cynicism about the timing of these revelations and the sequence of events which led to the First Minister’s statement. The curious formulations which Robinson used to respond to financial allegations did little to dispel a sense that there is more of this story to come.

When I revisited the contents of my article, in light of what we had learned, I wondered whether it impacted upon any of the points which I had made, or invalidated my criticism of the First Minister and the DUP / Sinn Féin carve-up. Honestly I believe that the thrust of the piece stands scrutiny.

It WAS fair to expect a response, issued on behalf of the DUP leader, to Cardinal Daly’s death. Robinson’s response WAS characteristically petulant and the media’s cynicism WAS conditioned by contradictory messages, sent out over months and years, by the First Minister and his party.

Although the Robinsons’ crisis has blown up in the media over a period of days, it is important to remember that for the family, the apogee was nine months ago. Iris Robinson announced her withdrawal from public life after Christmas. Peter Robinson became ‘out of circulation’ over the weekend. But the events which apparently led to all this trauma took place in March last year, and the period immediately before.

In addition, there remain lingering suggestions of financial impropriety. Clearly, although the BBC had been summoned to the Robinson’s Dundonald home in order to film a carefully scripted statement, its journalists did not feel that all the questions which they had raised were satisfactorily answered. Today, Bobballs hints at a link between Iris’ lover and public money issued by Castlereagh Borough Council (Iris is a prominent councillor).

A Spotlight documentary, due to be screened on the BBC, is now the focus of frenzied speculation, which previously centred around the First Minister’s possible resignation.

There are a number of sets of circumstances which could explain why Peter Robinson withdrew to his family home this week. Few would excuse his failure to respond, in timely fashion, to Cardinal Daly’s death.

There may, for instance, have been issues pertaining to Iris’s affair which were not known to Peter in March last year. Some of these matters might have been financial. Their disclosure might even have been prompted by a forthcoming Spotlight documentary.

If the Robinsons wished to take charge of a set of events which were spiralling out of control and limit damage to Peter, then they would have been hard pressed to deliver a more effective piece of crisis management. If the revelations end here, then the First Minister will probably emerge from the episode with his reputation undamaged, and a little more time in which to solve the policing and justice impasse.

But there remains a widespread suspicion that the story has not yet reached its conclusion.

For now, your chosen interpretation of the Robinson saga is likely to be determined by the view you previously held of the couple. Supporters will choose to see a flawed, ill woman and a brave husband, struggling to come top terms with events which have reached a sudden crescendo. Opponents will suspect an exercise in media manipulation, timed to halt a story which was quickly gaining momentum.

McDonnell endorses cooperation with UUP and Alliance.

The News Letter reports that Alasdair McDonnell has proposed an Assembly ‘link up’ between the SDLP, UUP and Alliance.

In reality there is nothing particularly new in the story. McDonnell, whose SDLP leadership battle with Margaret Ritchie is well advanced, is simply proposing talks between the three parties, in order to examine whether there is enough common ground to allow cooperation.

Ritchie has actually travelled further down this road than McDonnell, having developed a close working relationship with Ulster Unionist colleagues in the Executive.

The story certainly emphasises the fact that, effectively, the interests of the UUP and SDLP often collide at Stormont. It makes sense to coordinate efforts to oppose a sectarian carve-up which has marginalised moderate voices.

Sinn Féin strenuously opposes the notion that voluntary coalition represents the future for the Northern Ireland Assembly. However political realities could soon overtake the institutional arrangements which prevail at Stormont.

The three moderate parties should certainly redouble attempts to coordinate their opposition to the DUP / Sinn Féin carve-up coalition.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

The First Minister's excuses are unconvincing.

My latest contribution to the Belfast Telegraph comment pages argues that Peter Robinson's failure to respond quickly to Cardinal Daly's passing was an error of judgement indicative of a larger problem. The two First Ministers are failing to provide the leadership which Northern Ireland needs.

Cardinal Daly's passing should have marked a period of loss and reflection across the community. It's a pity that the First Minister Peter Robinson, rather than setting the appropriate tone, took two-and-a-half days to respond to the churchman's death.

When Mr Robinson finally released a statement it struck a petulant note, hitting out at the media before touching fleetingly upon the life and works of the cardinal.

Doubtless Mr Robinson had had a stressful week. His party remains engaged in an endless wrangle with Sinn Féin over the devolution of policing and justice powers, the Executive is still on shaky ground and his wife Iris was forced to retire from politics after a struggle with ill-health and depression.

The DUP leader chose to cite these personal circumstances to explain the absence of an early response to the Daly family's bereavement. Yet, in an age in which communication is both swift and instant, it is difficult to believe that Mr Robinson or his staff could not at least have found time to issue a Press release in his name.


The episode provides a further hint that the relationship between Peter Robinson and the Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has deteriorated sharply.

When the pair came together to condemn the murders of Sappers Azimkar and Quinsey and Constable Carroll we were told that Northern Ireland had witnessed a defining moment. There is little of that sense of common purpose evident within OFMDFM now.

The common perception is that Robinson and McGuinness have neither the will nor the ability to set an example for a shared society. The First Ministers' office reflects an Executive and a system of government too riven by internal divisions to respond coherently to the public mood.

Robinson frequently reacts angrily when he feels the press has misinterpreted his actions. But he cannot escape culpability for the DUP's mixed messages.

The First Minister claims he was "out of circulation" over the weekend. He fulminates against "elements in the Press" who have mischievously interpreted his silence as a snub to Cardinal Daly and the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland.

Mr Robinson might genuinely believe that he is being treated unfairly, but he has become ensnared in a trap of his own making.

Under his leadership the DUP has attempted to portray its relationship with Sinn Fein both as a truculent and hostile stand-off and a successful, mutual partnership. He has attempted to win back hardliners, arguing that power-sharing is effectively a one-way street, while remaining the figurehead of a purported cross-community coalition.

It is not the media's fault if the First Minister and his party occasionally creak under the weight of their own internal contradictions.

The DUP's bona fides cannot be imputed. By 'fluffing his lines' after Cardinal Daly's death Peter Robinson has missed another opportunity to display the good grace, dignity and respect which he and his party are often accused of lacking.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

I have a dream .... 2020 in a (near) perfect world

Last week every newspaper carried at least one article in which pundits made their predictions for 2010. It was an invitation for rioting imaginations. But they missed a trick restricting themselves to one year. What about the decade to come?

How would we like politics in Northern Ireland, specifically, to look approaching the year 2020?

I have a very definite idea how I’d prefer business to be done.

As yet it remains a distant fantasy, but there are some developments which offer hope that it could, possibly (plausibly) be realised, if the will exists. However the events and developments which appear below are certainly not predictions. They represent a best case scenario.

Let’s look ahead.

As 2020 beckons politics in Northern Ireland have changed, utterly. The last decade has witnessed a transformation which swept away parochial parties in the province and established, effectively, a four party system, integrated with the rest of the Kingdom.

To cast an eye over the past ten years is to contemplate a transition from politics as communal, cultural battleground to a system preoccupied with the every day business of government, locally and nationally.

In retrospect, the first murmurs of the revolution to come could be detected, way back in 2010. That year saw the Conservatives sweep to a 42 seat majority in the House of Commons.

For the first time in a generation Northern Irish MPs took seats on the government benches. Four Conservatives and Unionists from Ulster would become eight, five years later, as the transition to normal politics gathered pace.

At the start of the decade an acrimonious leadership contest did not prevent the SDLP galvanising to achieve a creditable result in the general election. However fissures grew between representatives prioritising ‘social democracy' and the party’s more traditional, nationalist wing.

When David Cameron went to the polls, early in 2015, seeking a mandate for the Tories’ second term, three of the SDLP’s five Westminster MPs ran on the understanding that they would take the Labour whip in a new parliament.

Ballot papers in the 2015 general election had an unfamiliar appearance to local voters. Conservatives and Unionists stood again, eventually emerging from the poll as Northern Ireland’s biggest party. But alongside Labour Social Democrats were a coterie of Labour aligned unionists, drawn from a rump DUP, the UUP’s left fringe and former loyalist groups.

The Alliance party stood on the basis of the Liberal Democrats national manifesto and a Nationalist and Republican grouping comprising greener elements formerly within the SDLP and a reconstituted Sinn Féin, shorn of its abstentionist dogma, emerged.

When the Conservatives won a third term, in 2019, the new political landscape was more familiar. Candidates aligned with the three main UK parties contested seats in Northern Ireland, with the Nationalists and Republicans offering an outlet for those who could not reconcile themselves to parking the constitutional issue until a referendum might prove meaningful.

At Stormont traditional divisions proved more resistant to change. The Assembly in 2012 incorporated Northern Irish Conservatives, added to the UUP’s Assembly team, and a lunatic fringe of Traditional Unionists, but otherwise carve-up government continued unabated.

However, with Northern Ireland’s contribution at Westminster revitalised and a series of logjams paralysing the Executive, change became inevitable.

In 2014, having brokered a deal for the forthcoming general election with constitutional nationalists, Sinn Féin finally dropped its opposition to weighted voting in the Northern Ireland Assembly. A cross community coalition of Conservatives and Unionists, centrist SDLP MLAs and Alliance emerged after a series of heated discussions and party meetings.

With little alternative, an opposition reflecting a Labour bent and unreformed nationalist predilections, either Irish or Ulster, began to cooperate closely.

The transformation in local politics would not be tested against the electorate until 2015, when Northern Ireland’s public showed its appetite for the new configuration. Heavy losers were the TUV, whose obstructionist rhetoric was rapidly becoming redundant and the unreconstructed wing of Sinn Féin, weakened irreparably by Republican infighting over the decision to drop abstentionism.

Northern Ireland’s reshaped political scene has enabled it to prosper as the United Kingdom has emerged, slowly, from recession. Participating in national economic arguments has proved the surest way to recovery. The province certainly shared national pain, as a new Conservative government struggled to contain the deficit, but equally, it flourished as the upturn saw an increase in private investment.

Although, at the start of the decade, its education system was teetering on the brink of transfer chaos, a national culture of decentralisation has allowed parents in Northern Ireland to wrest control of their children’s schooling away from, occasionally erratic, local ministers.

In 2020 most children are educated in integrated schools, a result which is particularly apposite. Before the ’Swedish model’ became common political currency during the ’noughties’, Ulster parents were already using their own initiative to set up excellent and neutral schools.

And as political arguments normalise, division in Northern Ireland’s society has become less pronounced, although of course it remains. Sectarianism persists as a unique subset of social problems which, otherwise, are not so very different to those existing throughout the United Kingdom.

As a long serving Northern Ireland manager, now in his second spell in charge, is wont to say, ’onwards and upwards’. He deserves to be listened to, he’s taken us to two successive World Cups and a European Championship.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Sublime Oblivion makes New Year predictions

At some point, either today or tomorrow, this blog will speculate on the possible shape of Northern Irish politics in 2020. It's likely to be a catch-all of wishful thinking. Still, it's my pitch, it's my ball and I want to have fun!

On the Sublime Oblivion blog Anatoly Karlin offers his geopolitical predictions for 2010. They should be taken a little more seriously than my intended post. Anatoly actually got quite a few of his 2009 speculations right!

Here's one of the most eye-catching this time round.

A new Russia-Georgia war remains a serious possibility, if Saakashvili uses his rapidly rebuilding military forces to make another megalomaniac lunge at reclaiming South Ossetia, or if Russia orchestrates a false flag to give itself the justification to roll in the tanks to Tbilisi and set up a puppet regime. In the latter case, the “new cold war” atmosphere of August 2008 will begin to appear to be distinctly jovial. Likelihood: 10%; Severity: 4.

Let's hope that Anatoly's wide of the mark on this one. And perhaps that his 2009 prediction that Saakashvili would not see out the year comes to pass, albeit one year late!

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Ken Clarke, rather than the Telegraph, offers wise counsel.

It is commonly asserted that the Conservatives have yet to ‘seal the deal’ with the British public, despite the party’s consistent poll leads. There is anxiety in the country, it is argued, that austerity measures aimed at getting the economy back on track, will be applied with excessive zealotry by the Tories.

The Conservative lead has looked most surmountable when David Cameron’s message has steered away from centrist, bridge-building rhetoric, designed to portray the party as ‘progressive’.

The challenge for the Tories is to maintain a softer, communitarian image, whilst emphasising the party’s credentials as an economic custodian. And, in addition, there are difficulties with a Conservative base, which is often less moderate than its leadership. A tax cutting, service slashing programme might not be popular in the country at large, but it would receive rabid support at grassroots.

Yesterday, speaking on behalf of those grassroots, the Telegraph leader urged ‘boldness’ from David Cameron. It meant that he should drop his communitarian, big society rhetoric in order to concentrate on lowering taxes and ’streamlining’ government.

Fortunately the Conservative leader has resisted the paper’s counsel. Instead he is prepared to fight a campaign pledging to protect investment in the NHS and maintain front line services. Shadow business secretary, Ken Clarke, has refused to rule out a temporary increase in VAT, under the Tories.

Of course the state has become over-large, over-centralised, over-mighty under the Labour government. The Conservative party will address these problems. It will trim back, de-centralise, recalibrate the balance between state and society.

And the economic deficit must be addressed, which will require cuts.

But to successfully tackle the debt the government must prioritise sound public finances. That means maintaining taxes, or even considering short term rises, for the time being.

A programme which simultaneously applies pain to the public sector and alleviates the tax burden on the most wealthy will, without doubt, alienate the greater part of the British people. It will destabilise the society which Cameron wishes to build up.

The idea that progressive ends can best be achieved by conservative means remains central to the modern Conservative project. The aim of the good society should not be subservient to any economic ideology.

That means Ken Clarke offers a wiser path than the Daily Telegraph to number 10, for David Cameron.

Daphne Trimble joins blogosphere

I've updated my links and the 'latest' widget to include a new blog by Daphne Trimble. The Ulster Unionist nominee for Lagan Valley opens with a thoughtful critique of the human rights process.

The conclusion offers a nicely condensed synopsis of the argument against socio-economic rights.

If democracy means anything, it means that government is accountable directly to the electorate. The ‘effective enforcement mechanisms’ that the Consortium proposes would mean that government was accountable in court to the judiciary, at the call of the person bringing the case, who, under the current proposals could be an unaccountable body such as the Consortium.

The NIHRC includes at least one sane voice. It is a pity the commission chose to ignore it, when it delivered its final report. Otherwise Northern Ireland might be on the brink of some meaningful rights' legislation.

Friday, 1 January 2010

Medvedev emphasises the need for reform, as he reviews Russia's 2009.

Russian president Dmitry Medvedev has reviewed his government’s performance during 2009, in an interview with Channel One. The state has a substantial share-holding in the Moscow based station and it commands a greater audience share than any of its competitors.

The interview, therefore, corresponds to something like a state of the nation address. It’s an opportunity for Medvedev to assess Russia’s progress and explain to ordinary Russians the course which he intends to follow in the future.

The transcript shows that the President is under no illusions about the Federation’s economic position. Whilst he is quick to point out that stability has been retained despite global financial turmoil, he is aware of the fragility of an economy dependent disproportionately upon the ’extraction and export of raw materials’.

A theme of Medvedev’s presidency has been the need for Russia’s economy to diversify. Russians are acutely aware that the nation’s economic success relies on the cost of oil. The role that plummeting prices played in the Soviet Union’s demise is often overlooked outside Russia.

During the transition between Andropov, Chernenko and Gorbachev, the cost of a barrel of crude halved. Between 1988 and 1992 Soviet oil production fell by 30%. The USSR’s ability to import foreign goods therefore collapsed and its authority was severely undermined in eastern Europe.

The psychological scars remain, and although Russia’s economic revival under Putin has been powered by the buoyant price of oil, Medvedev knows that a robust economy cannot be built upon mineral wealth alone.

The President’s predecessor filled the national reserves and built infrastructure by reasserting the state’s control of the oil and gas industries. But Medvedev acknowledges that competition is necessary if Russia’s economy is to modernise.

By his formulation, the very energy riches which have filled the Kremlin’s coffers have also impaired the development of a diverse, modern economy. But now, “we are absolutely certain that without modernisation our economy has no future …. We cannot live on out natural resources forever, no matter how vast they are”.

Medvedev is on the same territory here that he covered in his ‘Go Russia!’ article at Economic liberalisation in tandem with development of democratic institutions and civil society. It is the type of prospectus which makes Russia watchers hopeful that the President will show his reforming credentials, should he serve a second term.

The signs of progress are already there. Medvedev has courted the liberal press. He has, on occasion, been disarmingly open about problems which Russia faces. And, in the wake of controversy about electoral violations, he has shown willing to address opposition concerns.

Indeed, in Dagestan, the Supreme Court sustained a ruling overturning the election of the United Russia candidate to the post of mayor of Derbent. Other court proceedings are taking place.

Despite the scepticism which has marked European and American relationships with Russia, Medvedev has improved the situation. He has carried out his duties without the belligerence which sometimes characterised the later Putin years.

Although the former President’s shadow still looms large, Medvedev is developing his own platform and his own programme. He remains the best hope for peaceful and successful reform in Russia.