Saturday, 27 February 2010

A school of business for Belfast?

A guest post from Dr Phil Larkin


Working as I now am in the South of England, and making frequent trips down to London to visit friends and family, one thing that has struck me is the number of people from Northern Ireland who are living and working down here, either in a professional capacity or as proprietors of their own businesses (this is true also of people from other parts of Ireland, but for the purposes of this article I intend to concentrate only on those from the North). Very often, they are the graduates of top universities, and are highly intelligent, industrious and motivated individuals, keen to advance in their own professions, or build up their own businesses for the benefit of themselves and their families – in other words, the type of people one would encourage to come back and live in Northern Ireland, where they could work as potential wealth creators for the benefit of the whole of our society. They come from all creeds and classes of the Province. Many seem, at least prima facie, to be happy where they are and are content with paying the odd visit back home to visit friends and relatives, and to see the old place again. When asked why they are working over in England, the usual answer is that not only are salary rates higher (especially in professions such as finance, law and accountancy), but also they feel that there is more scope to advance themselves in southern English society without some of the attitudes and petty jealousies of home weighing upon them. It is a source of disappointment to me that the Province seems to forget about these people once they have left.

This article is written primarily from gut feeling as opposed to a long period of intellectual thought, and will not dwell on politics or philosophy to any great degree. It is written not only with the aim of putting forward what I believe to be a sound idea for wealth creation and, eventually, effecting a sea change in societal attitudes for the Province which I still call home, but also to generate comment and criticism. My ideal is that one day relatively soon Northern Ireland will be an ideal place for investment but also a place where people of drive and ambition would be happy to set up private commercial enterprises, unencumbered by begrudgery or envy.

I hope, by submitting this article, to generate critical responses and comment from those who read it.

Ulster’s Brain Drain
Put frankly, Northern Ireland loses a large proportion of the cream of its ambitious young people to English and Scottish universities every year. They come from both unionist and nationalist backgrounds, and many of them never return. They embark on very often lucrative careers in Great Britain, Europe, the US, Australia, and elsewhere. Many local graduates (perhaps too many) appear happy to aspire to the professions, and the public sector as civil servants and teachers. I suspect the reason for this is at least in part due to the continuing emphasis placed on the professions by schools’ careers advisory services in Northern Ireland – by grammar schools in particular (this article does not, I hasten to add, decry grammar schools). There is nothing wrong with wishing for the security of public sector employment, but it is disappointing that so many bright young people back home seem content with falling into bureaucratic positions, and accepting the mediocre but safe and steady salaries that these bring. Perhaps, in our corner of the world, we still have a wary or puritanical attitude towards making money, and are even more sceptical of those who seek to make money.

My proposition is a relatively simple one, and I do not pretend at all that it will solve all of Northern Ireland’s economic problems. But surely it would be a firm step in the right direction. I would propose that an independent or semi-independent School of Business be created in or around Belfast, perhaps affiliated to Queen’s University, or perhaps not, similar to the way in which the Smurfitt School of Business operates in Dublin. No expense should be spared (within reason) on the premises and facilities, and leading businessmen and women from the province should be invited to make donations to the institution, and it could be headed, at least ceremonially, by one of the most established and successful figures in trade or commerce from Northern Ireland. What the School would offer is this: an MBA course of two years duration, in conjunction with an institution such as Harvard University (my institution of choice), allowing those students on the course to claim a Harvard MBA after graduation. They would spend one year of the MBA in Belfast, and another year in the United States. Part of their MBA could involve a one-year stint in business in any part of the world after they had successfully completed their course examinations and dissertations. In a sense, it would operate somewhat like a Rhodes Scholarship in reverse, with a curriculum matching that of other leading international business schools. Substantial salaries and perks should be offered to those who teach on the course – people who should already have an international reputation.

Who should be admitted to the course? Initially, perhaps a small cohort of between 30 – 40 students would be enrolled, after a competitive interview and assessment process. Students would come from the Province, from either a nationalist or unionist background, and wish to settle and make their livelihood primarily in Northern Ireland. I would be inclined to offer first refusal to Oxford and Cambridge graduates from Northern Ireland (in any discipline, engineering, Economics, History, Law etc), at least initially, which would mean that the MBA and any new Belfast School of Business would have to be marketed aggressively in these institutions. In order to finance their studies, those selected for the course would be given a scholarship, and the opportunity for a government loan should they need it.

What about when they have graduated and worked for some time in business, in whatever capacity? These MBA graduates would then be invited to submit a detailed business plan, backed up by a feasibility study, for setting up business in Northern Ireland. If it is judged adequate (and I would hope that many of them would be so judged), then a local government grant could be offered to that graduate in order for them to get their business set up and running, and, if necessary, further credit could be arranged by local government coming to some form of agreement with local banks. For the first years of its existence, our local government should keep in close contact with these businesses and monitor their progress. Year on year, it is envisaged that these MBA graduates would gradually form a vanguard of major wealth and employment creators in Northern Ireland, and the School could then broaden its intake of applicants.

Deflecting Criticism
There may be some readers who already believe that this idea for a School of Business in Belfast belongs only in the realms of fantasy, and would not work in practice. I have no problems with that, provided they explain to me why they hold this belief. I am not so naïve to believe that the mere presence of this School would serve to make Northern Ireland the Singapore of Europe, but at least it would help in creating a Province that makes the statement to the world that “Yes, we are looking beyond sectarian politics, beyond the troubles, and are a society which is positively welcoming to investors, and have enthusiastic people here with the ability to make investment work!” I believe that the idea for a School of Business in Belfast is one which a UUP which has taken great strides to modernise itself and be relevant to new generations could take up, and surely the idea would appeal to the SDLP and Alliance also?

There will also be charges of elitism made against the idea of a Belfast Business School, from a variety of usual suspects. But, I ask detractors, why should the rest of the world snap up the cream of our talent and brains, and why shouldn’t we wish to encourage people who wish to be employment and wealth creators in the Province? Yes, it is true that wealth and privilege brings temptation, but so too does poverty and unemployment, and our society has seen too much of that in recent decades. It is also true that ultimately success in business is not just down to academic credentials, but is also a matter of flair, drive, and industry, but surely we should be willing to take a risk with our best people, if we wish to keep them in the Province creating wealth for us?

Perhaps some of the funds which have been granted or donated to the Human Rights Commission in their self-serving, self-regarding desire to put responsibility for social, economic, and even political decisions into the hands of an unelected set of judges could be funnelled into any School of Business, where I believe that they would do far more good. I recently read a Belfast Telegraph article by a leading academic in Northern Ireland making a mealy-mouthed and whining plea for a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights (which few local people outside the academic community and human rights industry appear interested in), the sub-text being that he simply wanted to justify his position in this world, and the ample grants which he has no doubt received. Isn’t it time that we moved beyond this emphasis on the “rights” culture?

The process by which wealth is created out of little more than brains and raw energy is not new to the North of Ireland, the only part of the Island to experience the industrial revolution. Queen’s Island, on which the shipyards of Harland and Woolf were set up, were no splendid Clyde or Mersey, but a small, insignificant stream, dug out and developed by the sweat of Belfast men themselves, without government financial assistance. Isn’t it time we revisited this “can do” attitude, which, in my opinion, only lies dormant in ourselves and our young people today?

Dr Phil Larkin

Friday, 26 February 2010

A refresher for the IFA on what the laws are and how interpretation matters (not that I have very little faith or anything).

The IFA is going to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland to argue that players with no connection to the Republic of Ireland, other than their passports, should not be allowed to play for the FAI football team, rather than Northern Ireland.

Now I’m sure that the Football Association has taken the finest legal advice, but in case Raymond Kennedy reads Three Thousand Versts, let me remind him what we actually need to be arguing, because it is the existing statutes that will be interpreted.

If players who choose to play for Northern Ireland, but hold ROI passports, can only do so because of inferred British nationality, then the IFA will lose. Players who hold dual nationality can choose an international team which represents either nationality.

If players can play for Northern Ireland by virtue of their Republic of Ireland nationality, in conjunction with other territorial requirements, then they are not entitled to play for the Republic if Ireland football team. They are subject to provisions relating to a nationality which entitles you to play for two teams.

It has already been established that Northern Ireland players cannot be compelled to carry a British passport in order to qualify for the international team. Quite right too. The IFA could justly be accused of discrimination if it required its players to acknowledge British citizenship. The Northern Ireland team welcomes players from across the community irrespective of their political allegiance. It always has.

If the IFA is clever it will use the citizenship criteria and the Belfast Agreement to argue that it is in the liberal position. It must be the association arguing that it is illiberal to insist that British citizenship is inferred despite the fact that Republic of Ireland passport holders, who come from Northern Ireland, don’t claim it.

Double jobbing confusion as Ritchie prepares to stand in South Down.

Chris Brown’s Twitter feed reveals that Margaret Ritchie is scheduled to hold a press conference in Downpatrick this afternoon. We must assume that the new SDLP leader intends to announce her intention to stand for the South Down Westminster seat, vacated by Eddie McGrady, who is retiring.

Ritchie’s decision is puzzling, whichever way you look at it.

Previous leader, Mark Durkan, resigned his leadership because he rejects the notion that the SDLP can be led from anywhere other than the Northern Ireland Assembly. His party likes to stress its commitment to ‘this region’ and its institutions, as if they stand alone from the larger political framework of the United Kingdom.

Yet, should Ritchie win a Westminster seat, and refuse to stand down as an MLA, the SDLP’s commitment to ending double-jobbing will be questioned. After all, Alasdair McDonnell, the MP for South Belfast, has expressed his reluctance to give up one of his posts.

Like the SDLP, the DUP made some initial noises about addressing double-jobbing, then swiftly reneged when it became obvious that seats would be in danger. As yet the Conservatives and Unionists are the only party dedicated unambiguously to bringing multiple mandates to an early end.

Presbyterian Mutual Society. A solution?

On the Cobden Centre website Toby Baxendale explains a piece of high economics which he claims offers a pain free method to refund Presbyterian Mutual customers. The society’s investors are considered the only private savers in the UK to have lost deposits due to the banking crisis.

The article forms a wider critique of institutions which invest savers’ money. By a process of financial alchemy banks, building societies and other organisations, conjure credit from the ether, which increases the money supply and leaves the depositor reliant on an illusion that his / her money is being kept safe until he / she needs it.

Baxendale wants to see legislation which provides savers with the tools to dictate how much risk a bank or building society can take with their money. It is a scheme grounded in conservative principles of sound money and it offers a useful corrective to the idea that conservative economics are in thrall to financial wizardry, or the banking system.

Savers, and politicians in Northern Ireland, will be most interested in the practical solution which the Cobden Centre is suggesting, to end the PMS’ woes.

“Following the work of 5 Nobel Prize winners and the founder of the American Chicago School, I would suggest the following written about in the Day of Reckoning article;

The Bank of England immediately issues notes to cover all the deposits i.e. redeem all the depositors for 100% cash notes and coins to be placed in their accounts. Please note, this costs the Bank of England the price of paper and the ink and nothing else and IS NOT INFLATIONARY and generates no liability to the UK taxpayer – see next point.

At the same time, get the administrator of the PMS to delete all current creditors (the depositors) as these have now been redeemed from the bank’s books by the Bank of England. The deleting of these bank obligations means that the money the depositors did lend on deposit to the PSM no longer exists, so for the sake of argument, if there was £310m of deposits, these have been redeemed in cash by the Bank of England and the equivalent amount of deposits have been removed from the money supply. Cost to the Bank of England = zero and cost to the UK tax payer = zero. Money supply stays the same.

The PMS in administration now has only assets i.e. loans from entrepreneurs /people who are repaying the loans or mortgages. These can now continue to get repaid, but instead of paying the creditors of the PMS, there are now none, so these loans can go into paying off the National Debt.

This way all parties win.”

It is an ingenious scheme, so far as I can tell, and one which the Cobden Centre intends to promote as a realistic method of giving hard working savers their money back. As yet no party has endorsed it as policy, but as Toby notes at the bottom of the article, it would only take one courageous MP to introduce a private members’ bill and the idea could gain legs.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

The selection section

The BBC reports that nine Conservative and Unionist candidates have been agreed, which represents a brisk turnaround. These are the less tricky constituencies, with South Antrim and Fermanagh South Tyrone conspicuous by their absence. Still, good to see progress being made.

Strangford, as expected will be contested by Mike Nesbitt, who has hit the ground running with his campaign. He features in a Guardian interview with fellow candidate, Trevor Ringland, who will stand in East Belfast.

Daphne Trimble can now go about the task of unseating wee Jeffrey in Lagan Valley. She is joined by Sandra Overend in Mid Ulster, Ross Hussey in West Tyrone, Bill Manwaring in West Belfast, Danny Kennedy in Newry Armagh and John McCallister in South Down.

Upper Bann will be contested by Harry Hamilton, the lead singer of Queen tribute band ‘Flash Harry’. He’ll save every one of us etc etc.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

A Tory vs. Labour dust up in North Down? Yes please!

Two Ulster Unionists have swiftly stepped forward in order to fill the breach left by Sylvia Hermon. Bill McKendry and Johnny Andrews are confirmed supporters of the Conservative link-up and strong proponents of pan-UK unionism.

North Down, which has proved UCUNF’s problem seat thus far, now has a strong panel of possible candidates vying for selection. It’s just a pity it took so long.

Meanwhile members of the Labour party in Northern Ireland are keen to secure Hermon’s services. The honourable thing for the North Down MP to do is to stand under the Labour banner.

It would be an exciting development if the two big British parties were to go head to head in a Northern Ireland constituency. That is the type of politics which we must move towards.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Better late than never. Or 17 out of 18 ain't (too) bad!

The UUP has released a list of 17 nominees seeking to become UCUNF candidates for the forthcoming election. Of course Northern Ireland contains 18 Westminster constituencies, however, Sylvia Hermon, MP for North Down, is refusing to stand for the Conservatives and Unionists.

Clearly she has excluded herself from the race. Despite ‘ongoing talks’ the only credible courses of action are, either to put forward an alternative UUP nominee, or simply to leave the way free for the Tory selection, Ian Parsley. After all, the Ulster Unionist, Mike Nesbitt, will be unopposed in Strangford.

The final list is, to be honest, a fairly mixed bunch. A few words about each constituency.

North Antrim: The task of taking on Allister and a Paisley is unenviable by any standards. Rodney McCune found himself unable to defend the UUP’s vote in 2005. Robin Swann’s record in elections doesn’t command a great deal of confidence. He is expected to be the candidate and he could well find himself crushed between the two heavyweight, Ulster nat contenders.

South Antrim: Adrian Watson, a local councillor, is a contentious choice. His brand of unionism is not considered convivial to the Conservatives. Expect a heated discussion in the Joint Executive if Watson emerges as the candidate to face Willie McCrea. The DUP traditionalist would represent a big scalp for UCUNF and it is important to pick the right person to take him on. It would be galling to see McCrea squeak back into Westminster by virtue of the back door. The issue of Watson’s wife, who is reluctant to accept rent from boys who wish to share a room in her bed and breakfast, remains outstanding. What Willie makes of that, we can only surmise.

East Antrim: Rodney McCune fought a gutsy campaign in North Antrim in 2005. He would make an able candidate, attuned to modern Conservatism. The incumbent, Sammy Wilson, is not as vulnerable as some other DUP MPs, and he is well known in the constituency. However Rodney would make an assured opponent, if he gets the nod.

North Belfast: Nigel Dodds held this seat in 2005, with the UUP coming way back in fourth place with 7.1%. Fred Cobain, the selection on that occasion, fancies another rattle. The political landscape has changed substantially since then, but it difficult to envisage the Conservative link offering much purchase in this deeply divided constituency.

West Belfast: Bill Manwaring is another nominee drawn from the wing of the party for whom the Conservative pact makes self-evident sense. He would look to gain votes by emphasising social justice. This is not, it has to be said, natural CU territory, but someone who is willing to get their hands dirty could confound expectations and achieve a credible result.

South Belfast: I believe that the Conservatives’ first choice, Peter McCann, is still in the running for this seat. Which means that UCUNF is likely to be represented by an enthusiastic, fresh face, whatever the Joint Committee’s decision. Paula Bradshaw has a history of community work in the area and should appeal across the class spectrum, in a particularly diverse constituency. A good choice for the UUP in South Belfast.

East Belfast: Trevor Ringland is a former Ireland rugby star with a history of activism against sectarianism. The competition for candidacy is still likely to come from DUP defector and Ballymena councillor Deirdre Nelson. East Belfast is winnable, despite Peter Robinson’s large majority, so the stakes are high.

Strangford: The selection of Mike Nesbitt has been accompanied by a blaze of publicity about his late involvement and his commitment to a Victims Commissioner post. Nesbitt is not a party functionary and he has a chance to freshen up the UCUNF challenge in a winnable constituency.

South Down: John McCallister is considered one of the UUP’s brighter prospects. He is also an MLA. Candidature would keep his profile high in the constituency, but he is unlikely to trouble the SDLP or Sinn Féin in a solidly nationalist seat.

Lagan Valley: An interesting choice. Daphne Trimble is one of the more ‘conservative UUs’, particularly with her husband’s membership of the Tories. She stood squarely against any dalliance with the DUP. Jeffrey Donaldson, meanwhile, has only just returned from a spell of anonymity, during which he probably wasn’t browsing the shelves at Xtra Vision. A Trimble victory in Lagan Valley would be a remarkable turnaround, worth celebrating. Of course Shelia Davidson, the original Tory nominee, might yet emerge as a possible choice.

Upper Bann: A seat which becomes winnable, assuming that the TUV stand a candidate. The UUP has gone for Harry Hamilton, of ‘Flash Harry’ fame. The Freddie Mercury impersonator would inevitably prove a press favourite and if he can persuade the Joint Committee that he has political nous as well as charisma, then the contest will be fascinating.

Newry and Armagh: Danny Kennedy appeared to be one of the prime movers behind talks with the DUP. He did garner a respectable 7,000 votes the last time, but it would be a pity to see the unreformed wing of the UUP emphasised at this election.

Fermanagh and South Tyrone: See above. Tom Elliot speaks the language of the past.

Mid Ulster: Billy Armstrong, another foot dragger, and occasional ’one party unionism’ fan stood the last time. Martin McGuinness will romp home and Sandra Overend hopes to become the UCUNF candidate.

West Tyrone: Ross Hussey was an early nomination, and if selected, he will hope to improve on his brother Derek’s performance in 2005. On that occasion the UUP could only manage fifth, with just short of 3,000 votes. This is, realistically, another exercise in spreading the word, because the constituency is solidly republican.

Foyle: David Harding is not one of the better known UUP nominations. Neither is Foyle a strong area for the Ulster Unionists. Conservatives and Unionists will simply want to challenge the DUP and grow the vote.

East Londonderry: As the chief DUP dissident, Gregory Campbell might not be as susceptible to leaking voters to the TUV, as other figures within the party. The UUP in the constituency has decided to put a fresh face in front of the Joint Committee, Lesley McAuley.

It will be fascinating to see the final list emerge. Hopefully with Parsley inked in for North Down. Then the Conservatives and Unionists can get on with the serious business of selling genuine participative British politics to the electorate in Northern Ireland.

Irish FA must boycott Celtic and Setanta Cups until FAI stop poaching underage players

It was difficult to envisage Northern Ireland’s friendly with Albania generating any type of controversy before Nigel Worthington announced his squad. Now the eligibility issue has once again been sparked by Shane Duffy’s decision to reject inclusion in the panel.

The Everton youngster advanced through the various IFA underage teams, played for the B team and even featured as a substitute in a friendly against Italy, last year. That game seems to have served as a bone of contention. The 18 year old warmed up, but did not enter the fray.

There is still a degree of ambiguity about FIFA’s rules. But Sepp Blatter appeared, last March, to confirm that segregated Irish football teams had the governing body’s go-ahead. Whether the statutes are being applied consistently has not been established beyond doubt.

Duffy is, in any case, a different case to Darron Gibson, or to Mark Wilson, another Northern Irish player selected in the latest Republic squad. He has a parent and a grandparent from the Republic of Ireland, which underpins his eligibility.

The issue here is that a player who progressed through the Northern Ireland setup, taking advantage of its coaching, resources and expertise, is at the last minute poached by the FAI. It is a disgraceful situation.

Certainly the IFA should investigate whichever legal avenues it feels might be available to it. However, its chanced of success, in this instance, are minimal.

The least the organisation should do is launch a protest and review its cosy relationship with the breakaway association (FAI).

There are already discussions taking place amongst Northern Ireland supporters about a boycott of the Celtic Cup tournament, which is due to take place in Dublin, starting next February.

It would send a signal that the IFA considers poaching to be a serious infringement of sportsmanship and neighbourly relations, if it were to withdraw its team from the competition altogether.

And the Setanta Cup, which features club teams from both Irish jurisdictions, is already in a mess. IFA affiliated clubs should be asked to pull out immediately.

If the IFA is serious about ending the FAI’s pursual of its underage players, now is the time to act.

Gerry the moral gymnast

Developing yesterday's post, and focussing solely on Gerry Adams, I write about a moral vacuum, in today's Belfast Telegraph.

The decision to schedule the documentary on Sunday proved unerring. This week the Old Bailey bomber, Dolours Price, is scheduled to present vital information to the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims Remains (ICLVR).

She alleges that Adams was the officer commanding the Provisional IRA in Belfast, directly responsible for setting up two secret cells, 'the Unknowns', tasked with 'disappearing' suspected informers.

These allegations implicate Adams in the killing of Jean McConville, who was abducted, shot and buried on a beach in Co Louth, during the 1970s. The murder is a notorious example of IRA brutality and fanaticism.

During The Bible, Adams talked about forgiveness and said that, after three decades of 'war', "all of us have plenty to forgive and be forgiven for".

Perhaps. But anyone with a shred of decency would concede that some are more guilty than others. McConville's daughter has called for Adams' arrest in light of Price's claims.

The issue of 'the Disappeared' is particularly emotive, because many of the victims were drawn from the very communities which the IRA now claims it engaged in conflict to protect.

On a handful of occasions during the documentary, the producer did attempt to tease out of the Sinn Fein president some meaningful reflections on his own contribution to the sum of human misery in Northern Ireland. He was largely unsuccessful and the documentary was Adams' story, in his own words, coloured by his all-pervading revisionism.

Therefore we had "stupid operation" rather than barbarous mass-murder, "political activist" rather than terror chief. The Shinners' lexicon always bristles with euphemism, but even by their Orwellian standards, Adams is the moral gymnast extraordinaire.

Faced with a victim bereaved by the IRA, Adams emphasised 'corporate' rather than individual responsibility. Alan McBride's wife and father-in-law were killed, along with seven other civilians, in the Shankill Road bombing. The Sinn Fein leader infamously acted as pall-bearer for Thomas Begley, who planted the explosives, along with his colleague Sean Kelly, and died after they went off prematurely.

Adams, and other figures within Provisional Sinn Fein, claim that McBride's victimhood, and the victimhood of his wife Sharon, are precisely equivalent to that of Begley and his family.

The fact that the IRA operative knowingly planted a bomb, in a busy shop on a Saturday afternoon is, effectively, irrelevant.

This logic, which insists that everyone is equally to blame and implies that individuals cannot be held responsible for their actions during a 'conflict', is seductive for paramilitaries and their representatives, but it is also a dangerous, immoral, unacceptable notion.

Not one of the 'actions' carried out by paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland was justified or justifiable. There was not a single terrorist here, no matter how young, no matter how benighted his/her personal circumstances, who had no other option.

However loud the clamour from revisionists and apologists becomes, the truth remains that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland did not support or participate in terrorist activities.

The hundreds of thousands who were not involved, who were actually repulsed by the murder and mayhem unfolding around them, were not part of some privileged elite, nor were they immune from the communal pressures and political forces of the day.

Likewise, those who did murder and maim cannot wheedle out of responsibility for their actions by claiming special dispensation. It wasn't the fault of the 'Orange state', it wasn't due to their youth or naivety, it wasn't because of 'the Brits'. The blame lies squarely with them and with them alone.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Corporate responsibility, Dawn and Gerry.

Yesterday evening the BBC aired the most entertaining Winter Olympic event to date. Ski cross features four downhill skiers, hurtling down a snowboard track, together. They hurdle jumps, perform hair-raising manoeuvres in order to overtake opponents and the inevitable tangled skis cause all manner of spectacular crashes. It was the second most compelling sport on TV last night, the first being Gerry Adams’ moral contortionism on Channel 4.

The Sinn Féin President’s meditations on ‘the Jesus story’ were predictably noxious. Predicated on a monstrous blend of moral relativism and abstraction, Adams’ gospel of the Troubles implies that the killers were no more culpable than the victims. And at the bottom of all our problems, original sin, exclusive to the English, to ‘the Brits‘, absolving Gerry and his comrades of any responsibility.

“Stupid operation” rather than barbarous mass murder, “political activist” rather than terror chief. Adams’ Orwellian lexicon is littered with euphemism. His favourite, last night, was ‘corporate responsibility’. We’ve heard it before, of course. Jeffrey Donaldson wasn’t interested in IRA members’ involvement in Paul Quinn’s murder, so long as the killing wasn’t ‘corporate’.

This morning Dawn Purvis, PUP leader, is quoted in the Belfast Telegraph, arguing that responsibility for Northern Ireland’s past should be allotted ‘organisationally’ rather than ‘individually’. She echoes UDA godfather, Jackie McDonald, who last week called for the Historical Enquiries Team to be shut down.

The logic that everyone is to blame, and that individuals cannot be held responsible for their actions during a ‘conflict’, might be seductive for paramilitaries and their representatives, but it is also a dangerous, immoral, unacceptable notion. Not one of the ‘actions’ carried out by paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland were justified or justifiable. Not one terrorist, no matter how young, no matter how benighted his / her personal circumstances, had ‘no other option’.

However clamorous the revisionists and apologists become, we should always remember that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland neither supported nor participated in terrorist activities. They were not a privileged elite, they were not immune from communal pressures and political forces. The people who did murder and maim cannot wheedle out of responsibility for their actions by claiming special dispensation. It wasn’t the fault of the state, it wasn't due to their youth or naivety, it wasn’t the fault of ‘the Brits’. The blame lies squarely with them.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Are you still here?

The Conservatives and Unionists candidate selection procedure has finally started to deliver some results. After months of prevarication the UUP has begun to put bums on seats and, although I understand another deadline has elapsed, an end to the process is in sight.

The main spanner in the works remains Sylvia Hermon. Clearly the UUP is still attempting to broker some type of fudge in order to let her stand, without accepting the UCUNF banner.

After a year of sweeping the 'Lady' under the carpet, the party doesn't appear to have a bin bag into which she will fit. It is a preposterous situation.

Hermon has repeatedly attacked the Conservative arrangement. Even if she were to agree to take the Tory whip at Westminster, her inclusion as a candidate would undermine the deal. And the very fact that discussions are still ongoing already undermines Sir Reg Empey's status as party leader.

The equation is very simple. The Conservatives and Unionists have vowed to field eighteen candidates. Unless Hermon stands as a UCUNF candidate then a basic premise of the pact is broken. Hermon can't be selected as a Conservative and Unionist candidate because she doesn't support the deal. She can't be selected as an Ulster Unionist candidate because the UUP are engaged in an electoral pact!

Ergo - forget Sylvia Hermon and select Ian Parsley!

Friday, 19 February 2010

The gentleman thief.

Received wisdom in Britain and America holds that Mikhail Khodorkovksy is a ’political prisoner‘. During one instalment of the television series ’Jonathan Dimbleby’s Russia’ the presenter drove past a gaol in which the oligarch has been imprisoned and spoke in hushed tones about the dissident opinions which apparently resulted in Khodorkovsky’s incarceration.

Whereas other Russian businessmen who made their fortunes after the Soviet Union’s collapse were often brash, flashy and obnoxious, Khodorkovsky struck an unostentatious figure. With his modest roll neck sweaters and impeccable manners he is the antithesis of the cliché of the ‘New Russian‘.

However the former owner of Yukos built up his wealth by the same methods as Berezovsky, Abramovich and the rest. He participated in the same smash and grab which witnessed state enterprises ending up the hands of a tiny group of opportunists for a fraction of their market value. And he built up a private security service which has been implicated in crimes ‘up to and including murder’.

The London Review of Books contains an essay by Keith Gessen on the subject, which is well worth reading. It is a review of Richard Sakwa’s book ‘The Quality of Freedom’. Sakwa of course wrote ‘Putin: Russia’s Choice’, a comprehensive examination of the Russian prime minister’s political credo.

Although Khodorkovsky was gaoled for economic violations, and political expediency has a role to play, Gessen argues that the oligarch's fate is not so very different from that of the disgraced tycoon Bernard Madoff. He offers this neat summation.

Khodorkovsky was the only one of the oligarchs who forgot that he was an oligarch, that is, a crook. He decided that because he’d stopped stealing from the company that he was a great businessman, a builder of value! The other oligarchs, when they saw the fuzz, knew they should run. But Khodorkovsky forgot.

Old prejudices re-emerge on left as 'Irish Unity' conference rolls into London.

Sinn Fein’s ‘Irish Unity’ world tour has reached our nation’s capital: London. A venue which has more relevance to Northern Ireland politics than the United States of America, though hardly replete with the people who must be persuaded of the merits of a united Ireland, if it is to ever to become a reality.

Although the conference is as irrelevant as ever, it does offer a neat guide to Republicans’ fellow travellers in the United Kingdom. Despite fitful interest in politics in Northern Ireland, the Guardian has decided to offer blanket coverage.

Is the newspaper an unofficial sponsor of this event? I see that regular contributor, husband of the paper’s deputy editor and former republican prisoner, Ronan Bennett, is taking part. Certainly it’s unusual to find so much comment about Northern Ireland appearing at CIF all at once.

Martin McGuinness rolls out his stock platitudes, Margaret Ward, a regular Sinn Féin mouthpiece, does her bit and Paul Bew’s dissenting opinion is adorned with the headline ‘Roadblocks to Irish unity’.

Bew’s article is the one Guardian piece worth reading, and yes, we are the roadblocks Union fans!

Then there is the venue for this talking shop. Friends are reunited at the TUC. And there’s plenty of Labour involvement. Diane Abbott MP, Jeremy Corbyn MP and, of course, veteran Provo sympathiser, Red Ken Livingstone.

It just goes to prove that whilst the ‘troops out’ fervour might have diminished, all the predictable opinions still exist exactly where you would expect to find them.

These people can talk all they like, but it is sad to see a national newspaper, which purports to cover a plurality of opinion, giving this event such disproportionate coverage. It echoes the bad old days, when even the most liberal unionist or constitutional agnostic, found the Guardian's partiality on Northern Ireland hard to stomach.

A House Divided.

Asked to offer a positive summing up, at the Belfast Salon debate at Belfast Exposed on Tuesday night, I was stuck for something to say. Another contributor, professor of sociology at Queen’s University, Liam O’Dowd commented, with some justification, that my response was rather fatalistic. On reflection, things are not as grim as my conclusion suggested.

Yes, my attitude to the current carve-up at Stormont IS fatalistic. That is different from the type of fatalism, typical of some unionists, which O’Dowd detected. I am not infected by the determinist notion that ’Ulster is sold’, that a united Ireland is inevitable or that Northern Ireland’s future is grim.

On the contrary, I believe that people here will continue to lead productive lives and get on with the project of restoring some form of normality to the province, despite our politicians.

Jason Walsh offered a much better summation, arguing that the current hegemony of the DUP and Sinn Féin is unsustainable, because it doesn’t represent authentic politics, and politics are bound, eventually, to prevail.

Jason echoed a point made by the debate’s chairperson, Pauline Hadaway, who asked whether failure of the current system is not required, in order to underline its futility and emphasise the necessity for something different. Pauline’s idea has merit.

The Belfast Agreement established the principle of power-sharing. It entrenched certain requirements for equality of aspiration. However, ultimately, the structures which it put in place actually institutionalise the sectarianism which the agreement was supposed to overcome.

At Belfast Exposed, I argued that Voluntary Coalition is a necessary next step, if we are to provide the politics which people in Northern Ireland deserve. It is doubtful that we are yet ready to jettison designation in the Assembly. We can, however, operate a system of government and opposition within the confines of community safeguards.

The interesting aspect of Tuesday night’s debate was that each of the panellists aspired to politics which are not dominated by the constitutional issue. Our differences arose when we were asked how we would achieve that goal. For Malachi O’Doherty, the solution lay in the reinstatement of the Civic Forum.

In contrast, Jason and I were sceptical about a power-grab by civil society, but we argued that our regional politics require more involvement in a broader national framework in order to flourish. Of course my preferred framework is the United Kingdom, Jason’s is a 32 county Irish Republic. Small but significant details!

Liam O’Dowd suggested that a subvention from the British treasury is effectively subsidising our exceptional politics. He implied that greater fiscal responsibility within Northern Ireland would hasten the development of new, more conventional, political faultlines.

The difficulty, as a member of the audience observed, is that very few people in Northern Ireland consider it a standalone entity. I hardly think that SNP style, ‘devolution max’ is a panacea for our problems.

The truth is that the DUP, at least, is taking a beating at the polls, because it is commonly perceived that devolution is not working as it should. As yet Sinn Féin has emerged relatively unscathed, despite scandals which would have rocked most other groups.

Still, I am hopeful that if rival parties can make themselves relevant, by addressing the type of issues which dominated the discussion on Tuesday evening, then they can offer something which will make voters’ trip to the polls worthwhile. Otherwise we are stuck at the DUP / SF dead-end. And that prospect could bring the fatalism out in anyone!

A piece for Forth Magazine.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

DUP stooge going out gracelessly

The foremost Conservative critic of UCUNF (sorry Jeff) has been Sir Nicholas Winterton who is rather more enamoured with the DUP. The MP for Macclesfield is renowned as one of the Tories’ few remaining unreformed neanderthals who will leave politics after the next election with the toe of David Cameron’s shoe in his backside.

True to form he’s not going quietly. Winterton previously confounded popular opinion, and good sense, by insisting that MPs should not have to declare their interests at Westminster. Now he’s whinging about travel expenses because he doesn’t want to sit in a standard railway carriage (as opposed to first class) with a “totally different type of people”.

The interview with Stephen Nolan is half way down the page, on the right, and it is spectacularly bad!

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Amidst bullying and threats ICJ has the opportunity to deal a blow to unilateralism.

With the International Court of Justice set to rule on the autonomous province’s unilateral declaration of independence, pressure on Serbia to drop its legal challenge from the so-called ’Quint’ has become intense. At Comment is Free, Bancroft argues that Spain’s plan for fresh negotiations offers a reasonable compromise which high handed behaviour from Britain, Germany, France, Italy and the US is designed to prevent. In addition he highlights threats from Kosovo Albanian separatists to foment further secessionism in southern Serbia.

From the instant Belgrade decided to test Nato’s Kosovar protectorate against the precepts of international law, it has been subject to bullying from the region’s sponsors. The launching point for the CIF article is a ’strongly worded communiqué’ from the Quint which accuses Serbia of “aggressive rhetoric” and “adventurous actions”. As Bancroft observes, the Serbs have vowed to oppose Kosovo Albanian independence by exclusively “peaceful, diplomatic and legal means”. Spain concurs with Belgrade’s verdict that the ICJ judgment offers “ a very important opportunity for restarting dialogue, that would help us find a functional, sustainable agreement for all sides involved in the Kosovo question, which we believe remains unsolved”.

The Spanish argue that Kosovo’s claim violates Serbia’s territorial integrity, under UN security council resolution 1244, and, until the resolution is replaced, the province’s status must be decided by a political process. It is a desperate irony, Madrid contends, that Belgrade’s peaceful, legal attempts to reach a negotiated solution have resulted in a campaign of diplomatic hostility conducted by threatening Serbia’s goal of eventual integration into the EU.

As the Serbs attempt to reopen dialogue on the status of their breakaway region, Jakup Krasniqi, a former spokesman of the KLA and President of the Kosovo Assembly, has indulged in grandstanding about possible secessionist violence from ‘ethnic Albanians in Southern Serbia’.

The spectre of further mayhem, raised by former terrorists, and designed to provide impetus for their political goals, is something with which Northern Irish readers will be wearily familiar. The difficulty, for Krasniqi, is that the majority of Serbs in the north of the Autonomous Province of Kosovo and Metohija don’t accept Pristina’s remit. Ironically, given that the Kosovo Assembly is founded on a separatist claim of doubtful legality, the authorities there have attempted to ensure the north’s compliance by threatening violence in neighbouring regions of Serbia proper.

The ICJ’s verdict will be an important test of the primacy of international law. Is the court prepared to apply, dispassionately, the UN resolution as it stands, or will it bow to diplomatic pressure applied by the larger countries, and wheedle out of its responsibilities? If the latter approach prevails, it will be a victory for unilateralism, and a blow to attempts to foster meaningful and equal partnership.

Nesbitt selection shows imagination.

Bobballs read the runes more than a week ago. The UUP has made a good positive choice for the Strangford constituency, selecting former television presenter, and current victims’ commissioner, Mike Nesbitt.

I’m sure there will be a few noses put out of joint by this decision. Mr Nesbitt’s entry into the race is rather late. But he does represent the type of articulate, high-profile candidate which the Conservatives and Unionists should aspire to field.

If politics are to remain relevant to voters, if they are to give the appearance of openness, then there has to be a route to the top which rewards excellent communication skills and achievement in other fields.

Naturally people who faithfully attend party meetings and work their way up through local councils don’t like to be leapfrogged. However, candidature for high office cannot be viewed as an award for time-serving. The right candidate is the best candidate and one who stands a chance of winning the seat.

Whilst Nesbitt’s lack of political background has the capacity to cause resentment, he is also easily the most imaginative Ulster Unionist selection, thus far. If he is endorsed by the Joint Committee, he stands an excellent chance of taking a seat which has been thrown wide open by Irisgate.

UCUNF has had a shaky period and it is badly in need of some brave leadership and exciting candidates. That means selecting figures like Nesbitt where they are available, and if rumours that Michael McGimpsey is set to belatedly re-enter the fray in South Belfast are true, saying ’thanks but no thanks’.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Out of touch. Much?

What world is Nelson McCausland living in? He thinks that, in the midst of a recession, wasting £25 million on minority language broadcast funds represents "good news for unionists"! Ulster Scots is getting £5 million you see.

What percentage of pro-Union voters have even a semblance of interest in this so-called language, accepted by most leading authorities as a dialect of Scots, which for political reasons has been pursued as a rival to Irish?

Here are a few reactions from a non-politics website frequented by sports fans in Northern Ireland.

I heard a dupe-r on earlier saying that the money for Ulster Scots was good for unionism...can anyone explain why?

Selfish f**king hateful self serving scum.
They've closed a ward in the dementia unit at Holywell hospital due to lack of funds.

What a scandalous waste of money at any time never mind in the middle of a recession. Disgraceful

Absolute disgrace how they can justify this is beyond me

How exactly are they going to spend this £25 million and how did it get to the top of the list?

It just sums up the backwards nature of this place that something like this would take priority. Its a political stunt in order to win green and orange votes in the sectarian mindfield on NI politics.

Although will the hard questions be asked?

I mean do these self serving f*ckers at Stormont ever think of real politics and real issues or are these irrlevant?

Good luck to anyone involved in Ulster Scots (I'd be interested in the history, ancestry, plantation side of things) but throwing another £5 million at it is a joke. Running about in skirts speaking in a Ballymena accent should only be taken so far.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Travel the Trans Siberian. On Google.

A locomotive trundles out of Yaroslavsky Station, Moscow. This is the Trans Siberian and it’s bound for Vladivostok, more than 9,000 kilometres distant.

It is a journey which will take more than 150 hours to complete. And now you can take the trip without a Russia Visa, without negotiating Komsomolskaya Square, its dubious cast of characters or its pervading smell of urea and without the risk of sharing your carriage with a pair of alcoholic migrant workers.

Google have introduced the ‘virtual’ Trans Siberian, courtesy of Google maps and an awful lot of Youtube footage. Listen to Gogol’s Dead Souls, stare out the window and enjoy. But whatever happens, you’re not going to be able to get off at any of the stations and you‘ll have to visit your own kettle, rather than the communal samovar, for a cup of tea.

My advice is definitely to jump to the interesting bits.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Democracy for the rich and trustworthy. More reaction to Ukraine's election.

I’d overlooked this gem from the Moscow Times, but MT highlighted it on Facebook. It is a piece by regular contributor, and host of a political talk show on liberal radio station Ekho Moskvy, Yulia Latynina.

The ironic thing is that, although columnists like Tim Garton Ash would never couch their own pieces in such terms, you get the feeling that the sentiment is not entirely dissimilar as regards the Ukraine election. The odd limp acknowledgment of the democratic process has generally accompanied deeply condescending analyses of the electorate’s choice.

Now, full disclosure here, living in Northern Ireland, with a cohort of ex terrorists in government alongside the Free P Taliban, only the insensate have never questioned whether democracy always produces an ideal outcome.

In the most trying circumstances we remind ourselves of Churchill’s maxim, that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those others which have been tried from time to time. And we consider that, ultimately, the electorate get the representation they deserve.

Still, the notion that poor people cannot be trusted with the franchise? It is an outrageous proposition, however petulant Latynina might feel in the aftermath of the Ukrainian poll. And likening Yanukovych to Hitler? Absurd.

Viktor Yanukovych’s victory in Sunday’s presidential election — not unlike the victories of former Chilean President Salvador Allende, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Adolf Hitler — once again raises doubt about the basic premise of democracy: that the people are capable of choosing their own leader. Unfortunately, only wealthy people are truly capable of electing their leaders in a responsible manner. Poor people elect politicians like Yanukovych or Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

When the Orange Revolution hit Ukraine five years ago, the people arose in a united wave and did not allow themselves to be deceived by the corrupt elite. That elite had reached an agreement with the criminals and oligarchs of Donetsk to make a minor criminal, who could not string two sentences together, the successor to former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma.

Poor people are capable of feats of bravery and revolution. They can storm the Bastille, overthrow the tsar or stage an Orange Revolution. But impoverished people are incapable of making sober decisions and voting responsibly in a popular election. And this, unfortunately, applies to Russia as well. In the unfair presidential election of 2000, Vladimir Putin emerged the winner.

Yulia Latynina is renowned for her intemperance and fits of pique. In another celebrated outburst, she accused a coterie of western politicians, including George Bush Jnr, of being 'recruited' by Vladimir Putin. Stephen Nolan eat your heart out!

The fact is, however, that, often in the post Soviet space, the 'liberals' whom the west lauds and encourages are deeply unpleasant. We think of Limonov in Russia and, to a lesser extent, his ally Kasparov, who has next to no support, but is treated like a statesman in the US.

In Ukraine Yanukovych is vilified, whilst Yushchenko, who made a vindictive, foolhardy and corrupt leader, was heralded as a democrat. Yulia Tymoshenko, the gas princess and friend of oligarchs, is hardly lily-white either. Despite clear, impartial evidence that the election was free and fair, she refuses to accept the people's mandate.

Most damning of all, the infatuation which Mikheil Saakashvili, the Georgian president whose monstrous ego, and nationalist fanaticism, could easily have fomented a third world war.

The moral is simple. 'My enemies' enemy', is not a sufficient basis for friendship.

And the suspicion remains that, for many western democracies, Yulia Latynina's attitude, that freedom only pertains when sufficient ballots are cast for a favoured candidate, strikes a chord.

Shameful, ill-informed, badly researched, ignorant garbage from The Times.

Hot on the heals of Shaun Woodward’s contention that the British government should be neutral on Northern Ireland’s place within the Union comes an extraordinarily sloppy article in The Times. It is actually quite staggering that this has appeared in a nominally pro-Cameron newspaper.

The broad theme is that the Conservatives are set to hand their Ulster Unionist partners a ‘stranglehold of power’ (I kid you not). The piece is manifestly ludicrous and rests on the type of insidious logic which has consigned British people in Northern Ireland to the status of second class citizens politically.

It’s actually worth deconstructing some of the main points, just to demonstrate how utterly preposterous this so-called piece of journalism is. Clearly Sam Coates has been fed a line by Labour spindoctors and has swallowed it hook line and sinker.

“The Conservatives were accused last night of threatening the Northern Ireland peace process by backing changes that could give the Ulster Unionists a stranglehold on power.”

Were they indeed? Well a cursory examination of the facts will confirm that the UUP are currently the third biggest Assembly party, so if these accusations are to be treated seriously by The Times of London, then they had better be good.

“The party is also prepared to intervene if Sinn Féin becomes the largest party after next year’s elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly. It would consider downgrading the post of the Province’s First Minister, which normally goes to the largest party, to prevent a walkout by Unionists — a move that would effectively prevent Martin McGuinness, the former IRA commander, from holding the position.”

A few things occur at this point. 1) The use of the word ‘also’ suggests that this is an additional accusation. Is it actually separate or is the first accusation contingent on the second? I suspect the latter, because there is no separate evidence adduced to sustain the former accusation. Therefore 'also' is completely redundant. 2) The posts of First Minister and Deputy First Minister are currently co-equal. Is the Conservative party proposing to downgrade the FM position in order to make it subordinate to the Deputy First Minister? 3) The post of First Minister didn’t ‘normally’ go to the largest party before the St Andrews Agreement. The Belfast Agreement, endorsed by referenda on both sides of the Irish border, arranged that the largest designation would take the post.

“The proposals have led to accusations that David Cameron, who has insisted that he is a Unionist, is playing with fire in Northern Ireland. Conservatives insist that they would do nothing to jeopardise the peace process created by the Good Friday agreement. But there remains suspicion at their decision to field candidates jointly with the Ulster Unionist Party, under the banner “Ulster Conservatives and Unionists — Joint Force”.”

At this juncture you might wish to check whether The Times website is actually redirecting you to the Andersonstown News! David Cameron has ‘insisted he is a unionist’? He supports the maintenance of the United Kingdom, he leads the Conservative and Unionist party! In which respect is there even a shadow of a doubt to be cast on Mr Cameron’s unionism? What is unionism if it is not an aspiration to maintain the integrity of the United Kingdom?

On the next point, you’ll be way ahead of me already, The N in UCUNF doesn’t stand for Joint Mr Coates. Can Rupert Murdock not afford decent subeditors or do you not know your topic?

“But Owen Paterson, the Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, has promised to review the way in which the post of First Minister is awarded, which could lead to Sinn Féin being frozen out. “There is no timetable on this and there is no hurry,” he said. “But it has always been my party’s intention to negotiate the review mechanisms with all parties in Northern Ireland. This could be a long time coming but it would be done in close contact with all the existing parties and I think if it happens it would lead to a better Northern Ireland.””

Before we start on this paragraph, you might want to read it again. Owen Paterson has promised a review of the mechanisms with ‘all parties in Northern Ireland’. Which ‘could lead to Sinn Féin being frozen out’. If Sinn Féin were involved in a process of review, how would it be ‘frozen out’? Would the party be chucked out of the Executive? No, there is no such suggestion. Would the party be consulted before any change to the OFMDFM mechanism was made? Yes. That is stated clearly. I repeat again. The FM / DFM posts are co-equal. The Belfast Agreement allowed for a simple nomination process which involved the Assembly, rather than the two biggest parties.

On last night’s Hearts and Minds the current Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, indicated that he was not fazed by the prospect of Joint First Ministers bereft of any differentiation. If Martin McGuinness believes such a measure is irrelevant, why is The Times attempting to insinuate that it would ‘freeze out’ Sinn Féin and represents ‘playing with fire’?

“Speaking to the BBC, he added: “We would like to move towards voluntary coalition.” That has raised fears that the pro-United Kingdom UUP and DUP might join forces to create a Unionist “block vote” in the assembly, undermining efforts to leave sectarianism behind.”

Every party, apart from Sinn Féin, has acknowledged that mandatory coalition is not sustainable in perpetuity. No party has seriously suggested that voluntary coalition could operate without some type of cross community mechanism. If there are genuine fears that unionists think that it is a viable strategy to establish a bloc and cut nationalists out of government, then they are held only by people living in cloud cuckoo land!

“Gerry Kelly, a junior Sinn Féin minister in the Province’s executive, said: “There can be no tampering with the institutions. There will be no return to Unionist one-party misrule in the North of Ireland.””

The institutions have been tampered with already, so we shouldn’t take Gerry Kelly’s inflexibility too seriously. But he is certainly right that there will not be a return to one unionist party, or one unionist party rule. There is no serious strategy to return to one party unionist rule and I’m certain that it is not a possibility that Kelly takes seriously. However, it is election year and Labour will attempt to hit out at the Conservatives with every means at its disposal hence,

“Stephen Pound, a Labour member of the Commons Northern Ireland Committee, warned: “This is the bonfire of bipartisanship. This leads to a nightmare vision in which a combined Unionism always turns to the Conservative Party, forcing nationalists and republicans to look to Dublin. For the Conservatives to imply the carefully constructed architecture is subject to a wholesale review opens the door to chaos and the end of any form of power-sharing in Northern Ireland.””

You have to wonder whether Pound has followed anything which has happened in Northern Ireland in the last twenty / thirty years! The Dublin government has already taken on the role of guarantor for nationalist aspirations. The ‘carefully constructed architecture’ has been subject to review mechanisms which were BUILT INTO the Belfast Agreement. People within Northern Ireland want to remain within the United Kingdom and the London government is their government, with a duty to respond to their aspirations.

“Under the 2006 St Andrews agreement the job of Deputy First Minister is automatically handed to the second-largest party – in effect forcing the two opponents to work together and depriving Northern Ireland of an official opposition. The Tories say that, over time, they would want to see a move to a more normal form of government.”

1) Under the Belfast Agreement a much simpler system operated. That Agreement established the ‘carefully constructed architecture’ which Stephen Pound was keen to protect. 2) Why on earth shouldn’t the prospect of functional government be an aspiration for a Conservative party which organises in Northern Ireland? That is the aspiration of every party which has the people of Northern Ireland’s interests at heart.

“But Sinn Féin made clear that there were significant differences between that and a wider review driven by Westminster. Mr Kelly added: “There is no issue of renegotiating or reviewing the power-sharing bodies. Given the nationalist experience there can be no question of a return to Unionist majority rule here.””

There is no suggestion that a wider review ‘driven by Westminster’ is planned. There is no suggestion that unionist majority rule is sought. The article doesn’t produce a shred of evidence.

“Government sources make clear that they do not agree with the Tory strategy. One senior figure said: “Our position is that the institutional arrangements set up by the Good Friday and St Andrews agreements are clear about how the executive will be constituted.” However the source added: “The parties’ decision to look at issues about how the executive will function is a matter for them.””

1) The St Andrews Agreement changed the institutional arrangements established by the Belfast Agreement. Which is why there is a mechanism on OFMDFM which no longer commands support.
2) The Conservatives have made it quite clear that any review will be based on the parties’ input!

Hence the final paragraph, which rather exposes the entire article for the nonsense it is.

“A Conservative spokesman said last night: “There was always a feeling the current arrangement wasn’t perfect. But any change in how the assembly works would have to happen locally. We have always felt the local parties are best placed to sort this out. We are not going to take a proactive role.””

Now countless papers base news articles on flimsy, kite-flying premises offered by party spin-doctors, but The Times added this editorial which we can interpret as an attack on any national party organising on a pro-Union basis in Northern Ireland.

That is an ignorant, condescending and downright preposterous point of view. And the article which formed its jumping off point was poorly researched, confusing and misleading.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Northern Ireland out of Euro 2012?

Members of the Green and White Army are compelled to put on a brave face as regards the Euro 2012 draw, but Mark Watson seems to have weighed our chances pretty accurately on his spoof football blog. Obviously the comedian has spent many hours studying bumbling IFA chief Ray Kennedy, because he captures his idiom with unerring accuracy.

‘Nigel’s done a tremendous job of reviving us as a serious contender,’ Kennedy told reporters, ‘which is why we’re… hang on. Sssh. Italy. Bollocks. No, as I was saying, there’s a real feeling of optimism at the moment, which… Slovenia. Ah, bollocks. But even so, we’re very hopeful that… hang on. Serbia. Are they one of the ones that are a bit of a joke, like Azerbaijan, or one of the really good ones that used to be Yugoslavia?’ After reporters supplied the answer, Kennedy added: ‘ah, bollocks. Bollocks to all that, then.’

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Cameron has the measure of the SNP, but he will still have to handle with care.

Speaking before the Conservatives' Scottish conference David Cameron has laid into the SNP, claiming that Alex Salmond lives in a 'perpetual episode of Braveheart'. The Tory leader also affirmed his determination to avoid boosting the argument for independence.

"If Alex Salmond thinks a Conservative government is going to get in and run the United Kingdom in such a way that makes the argument for independence stronger he has another thing coming."

All good stuff, although I hope that Cameron really has the measure of Scotland's First Minister and is mindful of the accusations of anti-Scottishness which each Conservative decision, however innocuous, is bound to provoke. The cultural kitsch so beloved of Salmond is surprisingly popular in some circles.

As I remarked below:

[In Scotland] nationalism has attempted to weld itself on to a vibrant cultural patriotism. Its response to the instrumental arguments of unionism is that they are unpatriotic, they ‘do down’ Scotland, they rely on a ‘Scottish cringe’.

Alex Salmond’s nationalist populism exerts an undeniable emotional pull. It attempts to avoid the practicalities of economics by placing a very definite ideological price on Scottishness. In order to be proudly Scottish you must believe that Scotland can be independent and successful. Holding your Scottishness in common with any other political allegiance infers a crushing lack of self-confidence which is anathema to the national spirit.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Annoyance as Ukraine shows unwilling to be the rope in an endless tug of war.

The OSCE has hailed Ukraine's presidential election as “open, transparent and honest”, yet Yulia Tymoshenko claims she will never accept Viktor Yanukkovych’s victory.

This is the scion of democracy whose defeat is causing wailing and gnashing of teeth in some newspapers.

The truth is that the coverage of recent Ukrainian politics has been exposed by Yanukovych’s victory. The zero sum game between western liberalisers and neo-Soviet bureaucrats, consistently portrayed in the papers, was misleading.

Ukraine’s ‘Orange Revolution’ was not a defiant repudiation of Russia and an embrace of the so-called west. Voters wished to see an end to corruption in politics and economic stability. Viktor Yushchenko resoundingly failed to deliver and the electorate has chosen to try another approach.

The idea that Yanukovych vs. Tymoshenko represented Russia vs. The West was equally misleading. Vladimir Putin is said to enjoy a positive relationship with Tymoshenko and regards Yanukovych with some distaste. The man from Donetsk wishes to renegotiate Ukraine’s gas commitments.

Of course Yanukovych's Party of the Regions does have its heartland in the Russophone east, but an election isn’t decided in the heartlands. Central Ukraine and Kiev have also swung in this election.

Editorials will dwell on incidents in Yanukovych’s past and allegations which arose from the last presidential election. However it appears likely that he will conduct his duties with a new spirit of pragmatism.
Out will go Yushchenko’s ideological commitment to Nato and baiting of Russia.

Yanukovych wishes Ukraine to become a bridge between Russia and Europe. It might not suit the Russophobe agenda, but a future as a bridge is better than a future as the rope in an endless tug of war.

Uneasy Alliance?

What precisely is going on within the Alliance party? During the Hillsborough negotiations David Ford hit out at anyone who wouldn’t prostrate themselves before the policing and justice juggernaut.

The expectation seemed to be that all parties were duty bound to accept, sight unseen, any deal which the DUP and Sinn Féin might strike, in case the glorious non-sectarian prospect of an Alliance Minister of Justice became imperilled.

A few days later and David Ford is rather less adamant.

In fact, at a meeting of party leaders this morning I believe that it has become apparent that a vote of his party council is now being sought, in order to endorse any acceptance of the justice portfolio. Naomi Long first mooted the possibility on Good Morning Ulster and it appears that Ford has succumbed to pressure. We can surmise that Long is unhappy with the prospect of her party effectively approving the programme for government unto which the new justice measures will be grafted.

If the East Belfast MLA is pursuing a different approach to her leader, emphasising her party’s opposition to a programme for government which dropped shared future, then she is taking a more consistent line.

Both the UUP and the SDLP are opposed to gerrymandering the Executive in order to create an Alliance minister. The parties want d’Hondt to operate.

Prime minister should leave the goalposts where they are.

Now online! In today's Belfast Telegraph I argue against Gordon Brown's proposed electoral reform.

Today MPs decide whether to hold a referendum on the introduction of ‘Alternative Vote’ for Westminster elections. It is part of Gordon Brown’s plan to rehabilitate the damaged reputation of Britain‘s politics. It is also a spectacularly bad idea.

How can an electoral system which affords less clarity, demands more fudge and disconnects lines of accountability between the electorate and its government help to revive public confidence in tarnished institutions and discredited politicians?

Of course we are accustomed to Alternative Vote in Northern Ireland because it is used in council and assembly by-elections. Like AV’s close relative, Proportional Representation, it is popular amongst politics aficionados, who relish its complexity, its labyrinthine twists and the strange vocabulary of ’surpluses’ and ’quotas’.

However, if the prime minister really wants to tackle the ’crisis of legitimacy’ which has afflicted politics since the expenses scandal, tinkering with the voting system is the wrong way to go about it. AV, and PR, might give the appearance of greater accountability, but actually they serve only to exacerbate a popular perception that politicians are a privileged caste, practising a murky and mysterious craft.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Northern Ireland draws the short straw

The best that can be said about Northern Ireland's draw for the European Championship qualifiers is that it will make for some interesting trips. World Champions Italy, Serbia, Slovenia, Estonia and the Faroe Islands. It doesn't get much tougher.

Serbia finished above France on their way to World Cup qualification and Slovenia we know all about, having finished below them in our group. Even the Faroe Islands, managed by former Republic boss Brian Kerr, are tricky opponents. I can almost see the headlines already.

O'Neill is preparing his tank again, but I hope that Northern Ireland fans will get a warm welcome in Belgrade. Estonia is an accessible trip and I always enjoy travelling in Italy. Perhaps the Faroes is the one to miss this time?

Friday, 5 February 2010

The low ideological price tag on British citizenship

Later this month Belfast Salon hosts a debate at the Belfast Exposed Gallery asking whether devolution offers a peaceful future in Northern Ireland, or whether it fosters 'peace at any price'. I will be contributing alongside Forth editor, Jason Walsh.

A series of taster articles will appear at Forth Magazine before the event.

I kick off with a piece about Irish unionism, the nature of British citizenship and the conditions Alex Salmond is attempting to put on Scottishness.

FOR NATIONALISTS it is often a working assumption that Irish unionism is defined and limited by reaction. Its genesis was simply a retort to Ireland’s burgeoning consciousness as a nation, from the 1790s on. And today, in the third century of its existence, unionism is understood to remain primarily a response to, and a denial of, legitimate national aspirations.

John Bew has written a fascinating little book, the Glory Of Being Britons, challenging these foundational myths about unionism. He describes a burgeoning civic philosophy, rooted in enlightenment values, which developed in Belfast from the outset of the nineteenth century. He argues that, far from representing a simple repudiation of Irish nationalism, unionism developed alongside a positive, mainstream association with the British state and its interests.

For Bew, Irish unionism owes at least as much to Victorian state-building, the industrial revolution and an interaction with the British constitution, as it does to recovered memories of 1641 or the Siege of Derry. The implication for modern politics is obvious.

Appeals to a civic, secular unionism can no longer credibly be viewed, through a nationalist lens, as an invention of modern unionists, grafted unto a more elemental framework of ethnic rage and false consciousness. There is a deep and enduring strain of Ulster unionism which is entirely at home within the constitutional structures of the United Kingdom and fosters a rational, defensible and attractive case for Union.

The civic argument for the UK, and Northern Ireland’s membership of it, is not new-fangled. It appeals to selfish instrumental interests but it also encompasses ties of community that rival cultural equivalents, on which nationalism often bases its assumptions of superiority.

It is, of course, difficult to disentangle completely economic and political arguments for the United Kingdom from cultural preoccupations. After all, even the central contention that unionism is more capable than nationalism of separating the concepts of culture and allegiance is, at its essence, a cultural argument, despite the fact that it is also undoubtedly profoundly political.

But whereas Irish nationalism is principally about nationality and the coincidence of allegiance, culture and a claimed territory, British unionism, and specifically civic British unionism, is about citizenship and allegiance to shared political institutions within the confines of territorial sovereignty. This is the ‘fifth nation’ which Richard Rose claimed provides the conceptual glue for the United Kingdom.

The functional nature of the United Kingdom’s constitution provides a strong incentive to participate. Put simply, if you are prepared to work within the political system, and recognise the legitimacy of the institutions which comprise it, then it is likely to work for you. Citizenship of the United Kingdom comes at a low ideological price and its politics encourage a strictly practical focus.

Scotland provides an interesting case in point. There nationalism has attempted to weld itself on to a vibrant cultural patriotism. Its response to the instrumental arguments of unionism is that they are unpatriotic, they ‘do down’ Scotland, they rely on a ‘Scottish cringe’.

Alex Salmond’s nationalist populism exerts an undeniable emotional pull. It attempts to avoid the practicalities of economics by placing a very definite ideological price on Scottishness. In order to be proudly Scottish you must believe that Scotland can be independent and successful. Holding your Scottishness in common with any other political allegiance infers a crushing lack of self-confidence which is anathema to the national spirit.

However susceptible Scots have proved to Salmond’s irrepressible, and rather kitsch, enthusiasm for Scottish culture, they have proved resistant to his arguments against membership of the UK. Support for independence has flatlined at around 30 per cent of the population, which is roughly comparable to previous nationalist peaks. Scotland has shown an appetite for national self-expression, but Scots have stubbornly clung on to an instrumental commitment to Union.

Although the mismanaged British economy was right at the heart of the global economic crash the crisis has been slow to trickle down, whereas the ’Arc of Insolvency’ forms a stark warning of the susceptibility of small, national economies. The UK’s size and influence has partially inured it from the worst financial vicissitudes. There was much talk, prior to the crisis, about the nimbleness of a smaller economic model. But while the larger countries might be slower to turn, they are also better able to weather a sustained buffeting.

The practical benefits of UK membership are widely accepted in the current climate and therefore there has never been a better time to emphasise the civic aspects of Ulster unionism and its inextricable link to the British unionist mainstream. Unionism, as Bew points out, has formed the instrumental core of the United Kingdom for three hundred years. Its functional focus is a sure base from which to aspire to another three centuries.

Northern Ireland – democratic future or peace at any price?
A debate at the Belfast Salon
February 16, 2010
Belfast Exposed Gallery

Spin above substance. Northern Ireland is sold a pup.

So that’s it?

After a fortnight of work the so-called ‘Hillsborough Agreement’ (remember how great the last one was?) comprises twenty one pages and contains enough holes to sustain any number of mini-crises. We can only assume that this tacked together deal is underpinned by a network of behind the scenes arrangements between the DUP and Sinn Féin.

Which is precisely the reason why this type of set-piece has proved necessary in the first place.

With the UUP sitting out this morning’s proceedings, because the party had no input in the negotiations in the first place, the requirement of a functional executive is key to securing all-party support.

Ulster Unionist anxieties on this score will hardly be offset by a commitment to set-up a working group on ‘Improving Executive Function and Delivery’. Rather than undertaking to establish genuine coalition at Stormont, the DUP and Sinn Féin are handing the smaller parties an opportunity to talk about it.

And the working group and timetable established for parading isn’t a solution to that issue either. To be clear, I didn’t subscribe to the view that parades should hold up policing and justice talks to begin with, but clearly the symbolism of removing the Parades Commission has made the Dupes dizzy. There is no clear model here to put the matter to bed.

Underlying problems around the architecture and culture of power-sharing remain. Far from moving beyond the ’peace process’ we can resign ourselves to a politics based on peace-processing. I make my prediction now that the next impasse, the next mini-crisis, the next intervention from home and abroad will only be a matter of time.

With the two parties in charge who could predict otherwise.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Dominic Grieve reiterates pledge to include provisions for Northern Ireland in UK Bill of Rights. And who's that he's quoting?

The Shadow Justice Secretary is delivering a speech on human rights this evening in Belfast. He will criticise the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, pointing out that it has gone well beyond its remit. He will also repeat the Conservative party's commitment to include provisions, specific to Northern Ireland, within the framework of a new UK bill.

And, you'll forgive the conceit, but I'm bound to point out that Mr Grieve has chosen to embellish his speech with a quotation from a leading authority on the topic. Or not.

The NIHRC report, as has been widely acknowledged went a long way outside the remit that had been laid down for it.

“Although I recognise its good intent, it produced a blueprint for a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland which if implemented would represent a fundamental constitutional change. So widespread a vision of justiciable rights is contained within it that it is difficult to disagree with the verdict of Owen Polley writing in the Guardian, a paper normally sympathetic to the creation of greater protection for human rights (Guardian online 3/12/09), that “the NIHRC had become a quasi-political pressure group campaigning single-mindedly for a maximalist interpretation of “rights”, which included handing responsibility for socio economic policy to the judiciary”.

“The Government response makes quite clear that most of what has been proposed cannot be implemented, particularly as many of the proposals would in theory be as relevant to the rest of the UK as they are to Northern Ireland and there is no prospect of their being brought in elsewhere. There is no desire for it. The Labour Government, for instance has itself rejected any notion that socio economic rights should be justiciable in its own UK Bill of Rights proposals.

“But as the Government recognises this still leaves the question of what rights specific to Northern Ireland should be introduced. It has published a consultation paper that seems to me to be very sensible and to pose questions that call for further debate.

Gordon's Alternative Vote scheme is a cynical ruse.

Gordon Brown’s plan to introduce Alternative Vote is a cynical exercise. It is also foolhardy and it is likely to alter profoundly Britain’s constitutional landscape, despite its conception as a half-hearted sop to a public disillusioned with politics.

There are three reasons why the prime minister is considering this type of electoral reform and none of them make it a good idea.

First, he wishes to be seen to be doing something to address a so-called ’crisis of legitimacy’ which has afflicted politics since the expenses scandal. There is a flourishing perception that MPs are not sufficiently accountable to the people they represent and that that is the source of corruption at Westminster. Alternative Vote gives the appearance of accountability. After all, we get to make more than one mark on the ballot paper.

Second, whatever the outcome of the forthcoming general election, Labour is destined for a period in opposition. First past the post is believed to work to the advantage of the biggest party. The government has, for the most part of its time in power, been quite happy with a system which worked to its advantage. Now it wishes to change the goalposts.

Third, the possibility of a hung parliament gives Liberal Democrat calls for electoral reform an unparalleled degree of leverage. We are witnessing Brown’s stockinged foot playing coquettishly on Nick Clegg’s trouser leg. The smaller party is in favour of proportional representation, but it will support Alternative Vote as a supposed step in the right direction.

The truth is that it is, decisively, a step in the wrong direction.

Proportional representation would bring to an end a system of government which has served this country well. The formation of government by a single party would become a rarity rather than the norm. Alternative Vote is a staging post along the way. It makes coalition governments far more likely.

The theory is that it allows the voter to express more fully the extent of his political preference. However it also robs the democratic process of its decisive quality.

It is argued that Alternative Vote results in a more representative polity. However it actually deprives the electorate of the ability to make a clear, informed and accountable choice.

Whereas, under first past the post, voters are invited to judge candidates on the basis of a prospectus for government, then hold the elected party to account for the implementation of its promises, where a coalition is formed every party’s manifesto is, to a much greater extent, a moveable feast. The business of government becomes a behind the scenes exercise in brokering deals.

How can a system which is less clear, creates more fudge and muddies yet further lines of accountability help to revive public confidence in politics and politicians? Systems like PR and AV hide the business of government behind even more artifice and mystery. Which is precisely why they fill political aficiandos with such enthusiasm.