Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Tank commander McFarland defers to his superior officer.

The Belfast Telegraph might express its shock at Alan McFarland’s resignation from the Ulster Unionist party, but let’s be honest, it would have been more surprising had he remained a member. The former tank major has long been a patsy for General Sylvia in North Down.

Indeed, in 2005, he stood for the party leadership as Hermon’s cipher. The writing was on the wall as soon as McFarland’s commander in chief deserted the UUP to ally herself with the DUP.

The North Down MLA, who, like his boss, now styles himself an ‘Independent Unionist’, was elected on an Ulster Unionist ticket. The honourable course of action would be for McFarland to resign in order to allow the UUP to co-opt a representative for its seat.

Instead he has decided to retain a seat which he won under the false pretences that he would remain an Ulster Unionist throughout the lifetime of the Assembly. It is an unprincipled action, but a lack of principle is not surprising from an acolyte of Sylvia Herman.

Here we have self-styled ’liberals’ in hock to an authoritarian Labour party, which removed 10p tax for the poorest in society and conducted a loathsome attack on British civil liberties. We have ’non-sectarian’ politicians who find alliance with the Conservative party unpalatable, but are unashamed of their arrangement with the DUP.

The 'Del Boy' Robinsons - sleazy, greedy and discredited.

Greed, money, sex and sleaze. The Iris Robinson affair stank of each.

First Minister, Peter Robinson was clearly implicated, but there was no smoking gun. The absence of any specific proof of wrong-doing seems to be enough for the DUP. It has limped along with its discredited leader and even managed something of a revival as the Labour government sought to bolster its position.

Now, however, the BBC has produced further seedy revelations.

Remember the Robinson's property developer friend, Fred Fraser? He was one of the men from whom Iris procured £50,000 for her teenage paramour, Kirk McCambley. It transpires that he also sold the Robinsons a valuable piece of land, worth at least £75,000, for the grand total of £5. A generous chap, I'm sure you'll agree!

During the height of the property boom its value sky-rocketed, before the pair sold it, again for the princely sum of £5, despite its market value now topping £220,000. The lucky recipient was another property developer, who was seeking to build a new estate of houses. None of the requisite declarations of interest were made, at council or parliamentary level.

Anyone who has worked in the accountancy sector will appreciate that HM Revenue and Customs are particularly interested in land which changes ownership for nominal sums. Any accountant worth his salt will warn a client that the taxman will treat the conveyance as if it were transacted at market value. The purpose is to prevent Capital Gains Tax wheezes.

The BBC has asked whether tax was paid on the full market value of the land, but is yet to receive a reply.

Once again the media's legitimate interest in the First Minister's affairs is being portrayed by the DUP as unreasonable. However the public has every right to know whether its representatives are involved in a series of dubious deals with property developers.

As the Paisleys clearly demonstrate, at least two families within the DUP thought it was within their rights to pursue their own enrichment by developing mutually beneficial relationships with property tycoons. People in Northern Ireland should be angry. Their trust has been betrayed.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Can the Tories get their mojo back before the general election?

Last night’s ‘chancellors’ debate’ witnessed some uncomfortable moments for George Osborne. The Conservatives will be relieved to get his tussle with Alistair Darling and Vince Cable over, so early in the election campaign. Channel 4’s programme acted as a starting pistol for the parties’ television battle, but the Tories hope deft performances from David Cameron will give them the edge in three set-piece leaders debates, which form the centre-piece to TV poll coverage.

Although Osborne made a brave attempt at ’triangulating’ his pitch to both traditional Conservative voters and the centre ground, the shadow chancellor struggled to defend his party’s latest pledge on National Insurance. Whereas, just a year ago, the Tory message was confident and it was conservative politics which fizzed with intellectual energy, the imminent election, and narrowing poll leads, have caused the party and its leader to look less sure-footed.

Despite the ’gravitational pull’ of the Thatcherite right, Cameron famously insisted that his party were ‘never going back’. The Tory leader is at his best emphasising elements of modern conservatism. The party’s recovery of its ’one nation’ tradition, commitment to a society at ease with itself, an innate distaste for ideology and dedication to maintaining the NHS.

Cameron previously critiqued his predecessor’s espousal of ’the politics of “and”’ astutely. He was not unsympathetic to Michael Howard’s notion that tax cuts and a radically smaller public sector could exist alongside the compassionate society. But he correctly insisted that voters did not buy the idea that front line services could be maintained while, simultaneously, substantially lower taxes were delivered.

Clearly the Conservatives have not ditched their appeal to the centre-ground. But there needs to be recognition that their response to the economic crisis has made it less convincing. Obsorne is right to insist that cutting 50% tax cannot be a priority, but he should also put Inheritance Tax in the same category. And although there is a strong argument that reversing the increase in NIC will benefit the economy, the Tories should have costed the measure much more persuasively.

Phillip Blond is one commentator who has interpreted Conservatives’ emphasis on the deficit as a lurch to the right. He is absolutely correct when he insists that the Tories must concentrate on reaching out beyond their core support, in order to achieve the necessary result. But the public finances are THE crucial issue at this election and Cameron and Osborne cannot ignore them, however uncomfortable the message.

The Conservatives have, thus far, attempted to portray themselves as responsible custodians of the economy and the public sector. Few voters doubt that there will be spending cuts, whichever party is returned to government, but the majority also want services protected. That is the constituency David Cameron and George Osborne have to convince, if the Conservatives are to secure a working majority.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Print the PMS investors' money.

Last week, Shadow Sectretary of State, Owen Paterson, conducted an exchange with Paul Goggins, the NIO’s Minister of State, about the fate of PMS savers. The transcript can be read here.

To digress briefly, apart from Paterson’s questions, you can also sample the horrendous, obsequious attitude of Sylvia Hermon to Goggins and his superior, Shaun Woodward.

“Excellent ministers for Northern Ireland”! On what planet does this woman live? Thoroughly inaccurate and cringe-making, at the same time!

One of the controversies these ‘excellent ministers’ have presided over is the failure to reimburse Presbyterian Mutual investors, rendering them, thus far, the only British savers who have lost out, because of the banking crisis.

Paterson promises a Conservative secretary of state will “stand up for the people of Northern Ireland” as regards this issue. I hope he is right. One group which has suggested a possible solution to the PMS situation is the Cobden Centre.

In today’s Belfast Telegraph I applaud the Centre’s intervention for its imagination.

The Cobden Centre, spearheaded by seafood entrepreneur Toby Baxendale, is keen to see the Bank of England issue new notes and coins to PMS investors who currently cannot access their money. Any inflationary effect would be mitigated by erasing deposits and allowing the Government to recover the society's investments, to set against the national debt.

So far, the First Minister and deputy First Minister have indicated that they envisage three possible ways out of the Presbyterian Mutual's predicament.

They would prefer a commercial buyer for the society to emerge, underwriting deposits which are currently frozen.

A 'Northern Ireland solution' has been mooted, but it is an ironic label, because it can only take place if the Treasury provides a bailout.

Finally, the least satisfactory option would set up a hardship fund in order to alleviate the worst effects of the collapse and compensate the most needy investors. The Cobden Centre is proposing a fourth option, injecting imagination into a debate which has become focussed on passing the buck.

A recent report by the Treasury Select Committee suggested that the Executive should bear responsibility for failing to identify a regulatory loophole which rendered the PMS vulnerable.

It drew a predictable response from Peter Robinson and Arlene Foster, whose department Westminster accuses of being asleep at the wheel.

Presbyterian Mutual customers are less interested in apportioning blame than in recovering their hard-earned money. After all, even savers with the collapsed Icelandic banks were eventually refunded from the public purse.

On the Cobden Centre website, Baxendale argues that the Bank of England can print money to cover PMS savings, without creating excess inflation.

Instead, the Mutual's deposit books could simply be wiped clean and loans which it made to property developers and buy-to-let entrepreneurs could be recovered by the Treasury.

Although the society operated under an exemption from the FSA, by the time of its demise, it engaged in investment activities similar to those which precipitated the banking crisis in the rest of Britain. Therefore, when investors began to withdraw cash, with confidence plummeting, the PMS's reserves became dangerously depleted.

The Cobden Centre believes that the Presbyterian Mutual offers a lesson for the entire financial sector in the UK. It is pressing for legislation which would require banks and building societies to hold more of their deposits in reserve. Depositors should have a greater say on the level of risk to which their savings are subjected.

Of course, interest rates would be adjusted accordingly but, the centre insists, it is the customer who must decide whether his/her money should be kept safe in a vault.

The current regulations encourage a 'credit overhang' with only a fraction of savers' money available to a bank or building society at any given time.

When the PMS went under, it had £5m cash against £310m deposits which could, by the society's own rules, be requested on demand.

Northern Rock, the Royal Bank of Scotland and other institutions operated with similar imbalances, but they were deemed 'too big' to fail. It is not difficult to understand, given the sums involved, how the panic which engulfed PMS savers had such calamitous consequences.

Moscow metro tragedy: Russia and the west faces common foe.

Tragic news from Moscow of a type which the city hasn‘t experienced for six years. This morning two suicide bombers killed at least 37 rush hour commuters at the Lubyanka and Park Kultury metro stations.

A strike at the Lubyanka station, which stands close to the former KGB headquarters, and still houses the current Russian security apparatus, the FSB, is likely to be symbolic. The square is just a brief walk from the Kremlin.

Park Kultury is better known as Gorky Park. It lies a little up the Moscow River, but it is also at the heart of the city. The metro is notoriously busy and, no doubt, at 8am local time, was crammed with people attempting to get to work.

It is believed that two female suicide bombers carried out the attacks. Whether they were Chechen, as reports suggest, or part of the wider Islamist insurgency in the Caucasus, time will tell.

Certainly it is a reminder that Russia is struggling with a fanatical and lethal foe operating within its borders. In November twenty six people were murdered in an explosion on a train between Moscow and St Petersburg.

Russia is right at the cutting edge of the same battle against terror which has effected all western countries. It has a crucial battle to fight and it deserves support.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

In no way a quote of the day.

A year or so ago the DUP was presenting itself as a party of free marketeers and advocating a cut in Corporation Tax. The Conservative and Unionist candidate for North Antrim, Irwin Armstrong, has picked up on a lurch to the left by the Finance Minister, who recently came out against a lower rate for Northern Ireland. Has 'Red Sammy' returned?

Previously the Finance Minister sought to present himself as a champion of enterprise and his party claimed to be a business friendly party. Now he is setting himself against a measure which the business community says it needs to drive forward the private sector and create jobs during a difficult economic spell for Northern Ireland.

Perhaps he resents the fact that it is Conservatives and Unionists who are actively working towards a tax reduction and, after the general election, could have the tools to deliver it, as part of the government of the United Kingdom. Whereas the DUP will remain impotent at Westminster, without any influence in reserved matters like taxation.

Friday, 26 March 2010

The problem with Russia's liberals.

Recent anti-Kremlin protests in Kaliningrad Oblast, the Russian exclave which sits between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea, have attracted attention, because of their size. Thousands of demonstrators have been involved in opposition rallies, aimed at the region’s governor Georgy Boos.

There has been some speculation, in the British media, that a coherent ’liberal’ alternative to Vladimir Putin’s United Russia is emerging. The excitement is misplaced. Genuine liberal democratic parties in Russia are tiny and the opposition most frequently championed in western newspapers is a motley crew.

The chess player, Garry Kasparov, is feted in the United States as a Russian ‘dissident’. He plays a prominent role in the ‘Another Russia’ coalition, which styles itself the country’s main anti-Putin opposition.

‘Another Russia’ is made up of an assortment of groups including Eduard Limonov’s outlawed National Bolsheviks. This charming party melds far left Bolshevism, extreme nationalism and ‘Eurasianism’. Essentially it is a national socialist amalgam of Slav supremacists intent on a single state stretching from the Pacific to the Atlantic Oceans.

If Limonov is a democrat, Gordon Brown was the last winner of Dancing on Ice.

Moscow Times’ columnist, and Ekho Moskvy presenter, Yulia Latynina provides more evidence of the type of liberalism to which Russians are frequently exposed. In the aftermath of the Ukrainian election she blasted the electorate, claming, “impoverished people are incapable of making sober decisions and voting responsibly in a popular election”.

In her latest diatribe, she characterises the Russian voter as an insensate, tractor driving drunk, Vanya, who is incapable of telling what is good for him. She doesn’t like Putin’s popularity, she blames it on the Russian people and she will spit condescending venom at them, until they mend their ways.

Vanya has been drinking for the past 30 years and uses his tractor mainly to get to the local store to buy another bottle of vodka, not to work his plot of land.

In contrast, the typical Chinese peasant is prepared to work, eat and sleep at the factory for five years straight to save up a few thousand dollars to open his own little kiosk selling fruit or other goods. Vanya the tractor driver will never vote for a liberal opposition candidate, nor will he take part in a protest or rebellion. Deep in his soul, he understands that he doesn’t deserve anything more in life than his beloved bottle of vodka.

It is easy to understand, given the economic chaos of the nineties, and opposition like this, why Russians prefer to vote for stability in the shape of United Russia. Better the devil you know than the devil that despises you.

There are more moderate opposition parties in Russia. But these groups, like Yabloko and Right Cause, get harangued for being ‘in league’ with Putin.

While the noisiest ‘liberals’ take forms like Another Russia and Yulia Latynina, the vast majority of Russians will be repelled by the ‘opposition‘.

Do we want full-time parliamentary representatives or glorified social workers?

In this morning's News Letter I examine the curious attitude that exists in Northern Ireland towards Westminster MP's.

WHAT makes a good MP? You might think that attendance at the House of Commons would be a useful start.

Too often, in Northern Ireland, however, attentive constituency work is mistaken for an assiduous approach to Westminster politics at large.

Although constituency work is an important aspect of an MP's duties, often it is prioritised, to the exclusion of attendance at the House of Commons, by local parties. I argue:

Regular surgeries are a must, and any diligent member will take time to listen to his or her constituents' concerns, but an MP should serve the constituency as a whole, as well as the individuals which make it up.

That means attempting to drum up investment for the area, exerting influence at parliament on its behalf and attending debates and divisions in the House of Commons.

If an MP spends precious few hours in parliament, and a great many filling out forms for a constituent, for example, then it is probable that he or she is not making the best use of time and therefore, the service being provided is not as good as it should be.

The DUP's recent attack on Mike Nesbitt, on the grounds that he would, apparently, be unable to fill in a DLA form, typifies the mentality, but each of the parties has, traditionally, been guilty of the same short-sightedness.

Many politicians and parties in Northern Ireland have a curious attitude to politics at Westminster. General elections are often treated as if their chief purpose were to maintain the profile of local politicians between Assembly contests.

Consider the upcoming tussle in North Antrim. Jim Allister, of the TUV, and the DUP's Ian Paisley Junior will engage in a vicious, personal battle, but the arguments are sure to centre around power-sharing at Stormont.

It will be left to Irwin Armstrong, the Conservative and Unionist candidate, to inject a dose of relevant Westminster politics.

Sinn Féin, of course, refuses to sit in the House of Commons at all.

While DUP MPs are amongst the most eager claimants of expenses, they are the rarest attenders at Westminster.

Yes, they all have duties at Stormont, often at council level too, and they work hard in their constituencies, but their constituents are, effectively, left with part-time representation at national level.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

The Russians aren't coming to the Belfast Telegraph.

As anticipated, the Russian oligarch, Alexander Lebedev has bought the Independent and the Independent on Sunday. So far as I can tell, despite attempts to suggest otherwise by Roy Greenslade and Brian Walker, the Belfast Telegraph was never intended to be part of the deal. So Northern Ireland’s largest daily paper stays in the possession of the Irish company INM.

Ulster Museum - vote early, vote often!

The Art Fund Prize dispenses £100,000 to a gallery or museum which has shown originality and excellence. The Ulster Museum has of course undergone a stunning refit recently. Your votes won't decide who gets the prize, but they might influence the judges, particularly if you give reasons. And, in any case, we don't like getting beaten in a poll!

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Hermon - not so independent, or liberal, as she wants to appear.

An interesting piece on Ken Reid’s blog, highlighted by Pete Baker, on Slugger O’Toole. Sylvia Hermon, who, for her persistent attacks on her own party, has acquiring something of a reputation for independence, seems to be establishing an alliance with the DUP.

The deselected North Down MP has yet to announce her intention to stand in the forthcoming election, but she has clearly begun electioneering anyway. Reid highlights ‘cordiality’ between Hermon and DUP MPs, at the Westminster debate about policing and justice.

In fact Reid understands that no Democratic Unionist candidate will stand against Hermon in North Down and practical help ‘on the ground’ is likely to be forthcoming.

Of course it is not the first time that a Hermon - DUP axis has appeared. The same protagonists banded together to force Labour’s draconian 40 day pre-trial detention legislation through the Commons. Indeed, O’Neill ably demonstrates, that Hermon, despite her liberal reputation, is even more authoritarian than the DUP, according to Liberal Democrat Voice.

With Sammy Wilson coming out against recommendations for a cut in Corporation Tax yesterday, and haranguing company directors, it’s not hard to see a left-authoritarian alliance developing between Labour, Hermon and the DUP.

The people of North Down are reputedly attached to their current MP, but do they really want to cast a vote for a figure who supports a discredited Labour government at Westminster and a sectarian carve-up at Stormont?

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Replacement for Kane brought in at UUP

Hand of History reports that the Ulster Unionists have appointed a new Director of Communications. Davy Sims has an impressive CV in media and public relations, which you can delve into, in detail, on Ivor's blog.

This appointment could inject much needed professionalism into the party's press operation and offer a pre-election boost for the Conservatives and Unionists.

Of course the previous incumbent, Alex Kane, alleged that a lack of communication hampered his duties as director of same. Ultimately, Sims' influence will depend on how successfully he is integrated with the business end of the party.

Note to commenters

In order to keep the commenting process as simple as possible, and in order to avoid requiring commenters to sign up with some type of I.D., anonymous commenting is enabled on this blog. THAT IS NOT TO SAY THAT ANONYMOUS COMMENTS ARE ENCOURAGED. Anonymous comments are not moderated with any great care and will appear or not appear at my whim. Particularly because, often, they come from exactly the same IP addresses used by a registered user, or an unregistered user who otherwise comments using a handle.

The courteous thing, and what I want to encourage, is to use a handle, or a name, and stick to it. You don't have to have a Google or a Yahoo account. Simply use the box provided when you're commenting, or add a signature at the bottom of your post. Of course this system is also open to abuse, but at least it encourages people to make their comments vaguely attributable.

The surest way to guarantee your view is put across on Three Thousand Versts is to use a registered account, the second surest is to consistently use a non-registered handle. Those who choose to stay completely anonymous have no right of reply and their contributions may be deleted.

This will particularly be the case in the run up to the general election, because already, all manner of party activists abuse anonymity.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Salmond and Robinson - birds of a feather?

O’Neill has already highlighted the possibility of a ‘Celtic Bloc’ designed to extract nationalist concessions at Westminster, should the general election result in a hung parliament. Several newspapers have reported discussions between the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the SDLP and, yes, the DUP.

At the SNP’s Spring Conference the party set out its strategy, which is heavily weighted towards the possibility that a hung parliament might occur. Peter Robinson has also set out his stall, in similar fashion, highlighting the opportunity to realise ‘key strategic gains’ in the event of an inconclusive election.

With polls steadying for Conservatives over the weekend a decisive victory is still very much achievable. However, almost all commentators agree, a hung parliament would be the worst possible general election result for the United Kingdom. Three parties committed to the dismantlement of the UK might be expected to aspire to that outcome, but the DUP is purportedly a unionist party!

The seventeen out of eighteen Conservative and Unionist candidates who have been unveiled hope to participate in the British government. They aspire to contribute to the governance of their country. In contrast, the DUP shares a wreckers’ agenda with its nationalist colleagues from across the UK.

The definition of unionism which Robinson prefers has nothing whatsoever to do with genuine commitment to the UK. It is a parish pump opportunism which seeks only to exploit difficulties at Westminster.

The UUP has made its allies the British Conservative party, a piece of Union building which has been attacked with vitriol by Democratic Unionists. Meanwhile the DUP’s bedfellows are Alex Salmond and Ieuan Wyn Jones, politicians devoted to breaking up the UK!

Rodney out of the blogs in East Antrim.

Rodney McCune, who has the task of winning back East Antrim from Sammy Wilson and the DUP, is the latest Conservative and Unionist candidate to launch a campaign blog. Mike Nesbitt's site has already become a lively record of the Strangford hopeful's clashes with the DUP and Daphne Trimble's blog is a little more sedate, but thoughtful.

Rodney kicks off with the broad outline of his pitch to voters in East Antrim.

"The growing momentum for change in East Antrim is born of a desire to see full-time committed local MPs making a difference at Westminster. The momentum for change is growing because people here want a direct say on our future national Government."

"After twelve years in power this Labour Government is stale. It sadly comprises of the third and fourth tier of Labour MPs elected in 1997. Only a change of governing party will bring about the fresh intake of talent we need to move beyond the expenses scandal and tackle the serious immediate challenges our country faces."

"Sadly local MPs make no real impact at Westminster and no real contribution to important matters of national debate. Double-jobbing means part-time MPs. If every Member of Parliament took the approach of many of our local MPs our entire system of Parliamentary democracy would fail."

"I offer people here the chance to influence and shape our future national Government and I offer people here the chance to vote in a full-time MP who takes their parliamentary and constituency duties equally seriously."

Saturday, 20 March 2010

The runners and riders - UCUNF

Eight more candidates selected this morning.

Rodney McCune in East Antrim.
Lesley McAuley in East Londonderry.
Paula Bradshaw South belfast
Foyle is David Harding
Irwin Armstrong takes North Antrim.
Ian Parsley North Down.
Tom Elliott Fermanagh South Tyrone

So only the tricky South Antrim decision remains elusive. It could well produce a bit of a surprise.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Conservatives and Unionists set to announce final nine candidates.

The Conservatives and Unionists look set to announce their final nine candidates, filling out the full slate of eighteen, tomorrow morning. I'm led to believe that both the Conservative Area Executive and the Ulster Unionist Executive are scheduled to meet in order to rubber stamp the line-up.

The apparent defection of Deirdre Nelson from the Northern Ireland Conservatives provides further corroborating evidence, and tells us one possible certainly didn't make the cut!

Presaging an announcement, the nine candidates already selected have biographies, added to the Conservatives and Unionists Facebook page. Sir Reg Empey and Owen Paterson appear in this morning's News Letter promoting the benefits of the New Force.

Let's be clear what that means. If the Conservatives win the election, Conservative and Unionist MPs from Northern Ireland will be able to play a full role in a Conservative Government. That includes being eligible to serve as ministers.

No other party standing in Northern Ireland at the election can offer this. It is worth remembering that the largest current party in Northern Ireland secures less than one per cent of the entire United Kingdom vote. The reality is that they are permanently in the lower divisions of UK politics. By contrast, Conservatives and Unionists will be playing in the premier league.

To listen to some commentators or parties here, you would think that the idea of having normal politics is an affront. These people seem to have their own selfish strategic interests in maintaining Northern Ireland as a political backwater – either from the standpoint of a little Ulster mentality or because they want to portray Northern Ireland as a failed entity. We believe that Northern Ireland deserves better.

Conservatives and Unionists will be backing a government committed to tackling our national debt, promoting economic growth, delivering social justice and strengthening society; we will improve our public services and maintain our security in an increasingly dangerous world.

It is only the Conservatives and Unionists who are committed to ending the scandal of double-jobbing that scars politics in this part of the United Kingdom.

In David Cameron, we believe that the United Kingdom will have a Prime Minister with the ideas, the energy and the determination to put our country back on its feet after years of Labour failure. One thing's for sure. We can't go on like this.

That’s why, when the election comes, we’ll be asking people in Northern Ireland – like their counterparts everywhere else in the United Kingdom – to vote for change.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Adams' world tour continues but he's not listening to voices closer to home.

In today's Belfast Telegraph I use Gerry Adams' latest US Tour as a jumping off point to examine Sinn Féin's lack of focus on the people who will actually decide the constitutional future of Northern Ireland.

The annual St Patrick's Day exodus to the United States is not what it used to be.

During the 1990s, Northern Ireland would gratefully empty its entire cohort of politicians, clutching suitcases full of green clover and emerald ties, unto a fleet of Boeing 747s bound for Washington.

Stormont's most ardent pedlar of Irish kitsch then is still, all these years later, its greatest enthusiast for a transatlantic jolly. Gerry Adams arrived in Boston on Saturday, scheduled for a full week of paddywhackery, focussed on promoting the goal of ‘Irish unity' among the island's diaspora.

He really needn't bother. The Sinn Fein president is already treated like a superstar by the section of Irish America he prefers to court.

Adams’s breakfast date on Sunday morning saw him lead a cross-party choir of senators and other New England legislators, who belted out rebel favourites, including the Boys of the Old Brigade.

Meanwhile, back in Northern Ireland, this newspaper added the final touches to a poll which revealed that 85% of Protestants and 26% of Catholics would vote to remain part of the United Kingdom in any border referendum.

I continue:

From recent pronouncements it is clear that Gerry Adams now accepts that there is something which sets Northern Ireland apart from the rest of the ‘Irish nation'. “We need to look at what they [unionists] mean by their sense of Britishness,’’ he conceded, during a speech in Cardiff.

The Sinn Fein president has suggested a range of concessions which might reconcile ‘them’ (unionists) to a united Ireland. These revolve mainly around Orange parades.

Adams is making a simple category error. He uses ‘unionist' or ‘British' as shorthand for ‘Ulster Protestant', ignoring the inconvenient fact, highlighted by the Belfast Telegraph's poll, that a quarter of Catholics also favour Northern Ireland's position within the UK.

The difficulty is that, in spite of his supposed best intentions, Adams hasn't listened to unionists during all his years in politics. After all, by a ‘sense of Britishness', nothing terribly mysterious is implied.

Simply, unionists have a clear, rational and defensible political allegiance to the United Kingdom, which Sinn Fein is not entitled to override, other than through persuasion and argument. Unionists are British because they want to remain part of the United Kingdom and enjoy representation at Westminster.

The roadblock to ‘Irish unity’ lies, not outside Ireland, not in the Machiavellian machinations of the London Government, but in the hearts and minds of 55% of people in Northern Ireland who wish to remain part of the UK.

So Gerry Adams might have fun courting acclaim from armchair republicans in Boston, having a good old sing-song and decking himself in green, but he won't advance the goal of ‘Irish unity’ one iota on his travels. That prize is within the gift of voters in Northern Ireland.

A mess - on the field and off it. Liverpool faces European exit.

Liverpool's prospects of claiming some silverware this season could end at Anfield tonight. If Rafa Benitez' side cannot overturn a one goal deficit against Lille the Europa Cup will have gone the same way as the League Cup, the F.A. Cup and the Premier League.

Fernando Torres has indicated that he might have to look elsewhere to pursue trophies, Albert Riera has highlighted the manager's lack of communication with players and Steven Gerrard's recent conduct suggests that he is feeling the strain.

On the pitch, a comfortable win against Portsmouth not withstanding, Liverpool's form has gone from bad to worse. Lille are a plodding, mediocre team and the 1-0 victory they were handed in France came courtesy of a deplorably negative display by the Anfield men.

Liverpool couldn't muster a goal either at Wigan Athletic. Even a team as gutless as Tottenham Hotspur was able to run in nine goals against the Latics.

Torres is conservative when he suggests that five or six top class players need to arrive in the summer in order to provide impetus for a serious title challenge. Long-term, only a change of manager, and a re-evaluation of the tedious style which Benitez favours, can affect lasting improvement.

However, the club is also in critical need of an injection of finance. A New York based group has proposed a £100 million investment, in return for a 40% stake in Liverpool. The money would pay off a chunk of debt which the Royal Bank of Scotland is demanding within twenty days.

How can Britain's greatest football club have reached this lamentable state of affairs? Even two years ago Dubai International Capital offered £500 million to become owners. The present incumbents, Hicks and Gillett, felt they could do better.

Now, with RBS expressing its impatience, the Americans are still reluctant to sell. Although it was their takeover, their lies and their lack of resources which saddled the club with its debt in the first instance!

Liverpool supporters are left wondering when this nightmare is going to end. Will it cost them their prized asset, Torres, and with him, any chances of League or Champions League glory for the foreseeable future?

They can be forgiven for cursing the previous chairman David Moores, and his Chief Executive, Rick Parry, who brokered the deal with Hicks and Gillett.

Monday, 15 March 2010

The President of Georgia or television prankster?

If Georgians were under any misapprehension about their President before the weekend's bizarre developments in Tbilisi, surely now they must concede that he's mad, bad and dangerous to know! Saakashvili's government controlled TV station, Imedi, broadcast the news that Russia had invaded, as part of its main 8pm news bulletin.

For the eagle eyed, a disclaimer had preceded the story, and a commercial break, describing it as a consequence which could unfold, should the Georgian opposition replace Saakashvili.

None of which prevented widespread panic in Georgia and journalists based in the region mobilising to cover a new war which had apparently flared in the Caucasus. The President had been killed, reports claimed, to be replaced by opposition leader, Nino Burdzhanadze.

The elaborate hoax was clearly aimed at Burdzhanadze, who has recently visited Moscow, for talks with the Kremlin, in an attempt to normalise relations between the two countries.

To put this episode into context, particularly in the light of US and British support for Saakashvili, and his reputation as a proponent of liberal democracy in the region, imagine our government requiring the BBC to announce on the 10 O'Clock News that the UK was under attack by, for instance, the Russians.

Using real footage of Vladimir Putin, Fiona Bruce would tell us, in apparent seriousness, that Gordon Brown had been murdered and David Cameron installed as Prime Minister. This would form part of Labour's election campaign!

Not lightly did thousands of people join opposition leaders on the streets of Tbilisi, in order to protest this latest moment of madness. You can imagine how terrifying news of imminent war is in a nation which still has Saakashvili's invasion of South Ossetia, and the Russian response, fresh in its memory.

Perhaps the only benefit of this extraordinary incident is that it might hasten the Georgian President's departure and reinforce in western minds just how unsuitable and unstable is this apparent 'force for democracy' in the southern Caucasus.

Clarke is right to stress the importance of 'liberal' votes

I'm currently reading 'The Conservative Party: From Thatcher to Cameron' by Tim Bale. The book examines the Tories' years in the wilderness and examines failures of strategy which yielded three heavy general election defeats on the trot.

Bale produces some compelling evidence to sustain his contention that Conservatives were slow to recognise their 1997 defeat as a genuine repudiation of Thatcherism. The three leaders who succeeded John Major, to a greater or lesser extent, concentrated on a 'core vote' strategy, playing to the Tory gallery, rather than developing policies to appeal to a broad section of the British public.

It is only under David Cameron, Bale insists, that the Conservative party has begun to re-engage with the centre ground voters who generally determine the outcome of general elections. It is a convincing theory, with sits easily with the latest thinking in political science departments.

Indeed, on the basis of opinion poll evidence, the Tories have tended to do worse when they emphasise 'right wing' economic dogma and better when Cameron's communitarian bent has predominated.

Ken Clarke, famously on the 'left' of the Conservative party, has issued a rallying call urging Tories to do more to court 'liberal' voters.

The Shadow Business Secretary previously advised David Cameron and George Osborne not to rule out tax rises as a means to tackle the deficit. He has also championed the need to defer any short-term cuts to Inheritance Tax.

Clearly, as someone who was attracted to the modern Conservatives by the notion of 'progressive ends by conservative means', I believe that Clarke is entirely right to take this approach. The Tory call for fiscal responsibility and a start to tackling the deficit is entirely justified. However, if constrained public spending is accompanied by tax cuts, in the short-term, justifiably there will be claims of inconsistency and callousness.

There should be no major attempt to cut taxes until a convincing recovery is underway and the deficit is brought under control, particularly at the top bands.

Neither is it necessary for the Conservatives to keep beating the drum for constraint in public spending. That battle is won. The public is convinced.

But it is also nervous that free market fundamentalists within the Tory party might use the deficit as a pretext to hack back essential services. They are encouraged in this notion by the constant refrain of Peter Mandelson, amongst other Labour figures, and some media elements.

When David Cameron, or, more rarely, George Osborne, attempts to provide reassurance on this score, stressing commitment to the NHS, and the provision of other excellent public services, he is articulating the type of conservatism which can win a comfortable majority.

One flag that won't end up on a lamp-post.

Now I don't know whether much of the Northern Bank millions remains unspent by Sinn Féin and the IRA, but if there is a spare $500,000 still lying around republican coffers it could serve as an opening bid for this rather flimsy looking item.

The Bloomsbury auction house in New York is charged with selling "the only full-sized tricolour of the 1916 rising extant". Apparently it was retrieved by British forces from the GPO in Dublin.

It might be, as the blurb points out, a flag "of enormous historic importance", but I would suggest, whoever buys this piece of Irish linen has too much money. It's estimated to raise between $500,000 - $700,000 USD!

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Notable, quotable.

Michael Gove, responding to Peter Mandelson's comment, that whilst David Cameron had not chosen to go to Eton, he had decided to join the 'Bullingdon Club'.

"When Peter Mandelson was at university he joined the Young Communists and travelled to Cuba to listen to Fidel Castro."

An entirely pertinent reply which just about summed up the unconvincing nature of Andrew Rawnsley's 'Dispatches' documentary about David Cameron, screened on Channel 4 last Monday.

At the time I was watching a proper car-crash, as Liverpool lost to Wigan Athletic, however the show is available on 4OD.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Discipline Hermon to stop her electioneering

Is the UUP prepared to allow Sylvia Hermon, unhindered, to engage in electioneering at its expense? The North Down MP hit out at Ulster Unionists over policing and justice. taking particular umbrage at remarks levelled at the secretary of state, Shaun Woodward, which she claimed were 'bewildering'.

Clearly she believes that the UUP's dalliance with Conservatives entitles her fellow champagne socialist, and Tory turncoat, to exact any punishment he sees fit.

The party responded with the following statement:

“The Ulster Unionist Assembly Group took its decision to oppose the devolution of policing and justice at this time with the full support of the Ulster Unionist Party Officer team and with the full support of the Party Executive Committee. This is how the UUP make democratic decisions. It is regrettable that Lady Sylvia’s position does not reflect the view of the party and it is disappointing that she failed to voice her concern at the Party Executive meeting rather than in the media.”

“There is widespread anger throughout the party at the approach of the Secretary of State, especially in the days leading up to the decision to attempt to pressurize and bully the UUP. In addition to this pressure, Mr Woodward was also supportive of the exclusion of the UUP from the Hillsborough negotiations.”

For some considerable time now it has been Hermon's habit to absent herself from the decision making process within the UUP, and throw brickbats from outside. We can only suppose that her attacks will become more frenzied in the run up to a general election which will probably see her stand as an independent, against the Conservatives and Unionists.

Will the Ulster Unionist party's disciplinary committee permit Hermon to snipe from the sidelines, or will it apply its own rules? It is worth quoting the UUP standing order on discipline:

4: Members of the Ulster Unionist Party, elected representatives and members of Representative Bodies shall comply with the Collected Rules and Standing Orders of the Ulster Unionist Party and its Executive Committee and this implies actions that are clearly conducive to furthering the aims and objectives of the Party. Members and elected representatives must act with integrity in the furtherance of the Party’s aims, objectives and policies.

A public attack on the Party, or on Party policy, by a member of the Party or of a Representative Body, will generally be regarded as an act of indiscipline.

Hermon is a high profile representative, and she has persistently released statements which can be considered acts of indiscipline. Will she be punished and, if she is not, are the party's own rules being ignored by the very people who are charged with upholding them?

Gorbachev, twenty five years on.

The Yorkshire Post carries an interesting piece by Lord Howell, marking a quarter of a century since Mikhail Gorbachev took power in the Soviet Union.

It was during the evening of March 10th 1985 that Communist Party General Secretary, Konstanin Chernenko, who had been slipping into decrepitude for at least a year, died. The Central Committee wasted little time appointing Gorbachev as successor.

Much revisionist ink has been spilt diminishing Gorbachev's reformist credentials. By some assessments he was simply engaged in a belated rearguard action, attempting to salvage a crumbling empire. However, at the time of the General Secretary's appointment, neither the shape of 'perestroika', nor the dismantling of oppressive structures which accompanied it, were inevitable.

Certainly Gorbachev aspired to breathe new life into a moribund Union. His aim of withdrawing Soviet forces from Afghanistan was not realised until 1989, but it was an ambition from the outset. The USSR still wielded incredible power when Gorbachev reversed the Brezhnev Doctrine.

Howell refutes the notion of the Soviet leader as little more than a Communist apparatchik, swept along on tides of history which he could not understand and hadn't the firmness of purpose to resist.

“He had a vision. This was of a gradual unfolding of great Russia, after the dark years of trauma, enshrined in the twin goals of perestroika and glasnost – breaking out from past stagnation and opening out Russian society. This required nothing less than the removal of the Communist party machine, with it myopia and its deadly dogma, from every walk and level of Russian life.”

In its eagerness to see the USSR broken up, and new markets opened, the west did not support Gorbachev's gradualist project. Instead he was bombarded by “facile advice poured into Russia by ill-informed western economists, ideologues and even statesmen – all telling Russian leaders that they only had to lift all controls and the markets would produce the goods”.

The result was chaos, disintegration and Yeltsin. It is clear how Howell ranks the first president of the Russian Federation, as against the statesmanship and vision displayed by Gorbachev.

“Yeltsin, although brave, was also lazy, bottle-happy and content to let the nastier Russian elements have their way. Criminal and official activities became sinisterly and indistinguishably mixed – and remain so.”

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Another Brown wobbly as he slams top soldiers.

Sometimes Gordon Brown's brass neck literally makes the jaw drop.

His latest spat with former soldiers comes smartly on the heals of the prime minister's appearance at the Chilcot Inquiry, during which he claimed that military commanders were always provided with the equipment they requested in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The chronology is instructive, and tells us all we need to know about the veracity of Brown's statements.

First the prime minister makes his claim. Lord Guthrie and Admiral Lord Boyce accuse Brown of disingenuous answers. At PM's questions Gordon reacts with the equanimity we have come to expect and rants about Tory officers.

Soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq have persistently complained about the inadequacy of their equipment. Should we suppose that they too are motivated by party political spite?

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Accentuate the positive - Alex Kane, unionism and the principle of consent

The News Letter carried a lengthy interview last week, in which former communications director Alex Kane explained his departure from the Ulster Unionist party. Branching out, to speak about unionism more broadly, he declared its “vision, strategy and promotion … a mess”.

One comment from Kane, which does not appear online, struck me as a very self-evident, but entirely pertinent piece of analysis. Contemplating the post Belfast Agreement landscape, Kane implies that the core of political instability in Northern Ireland, the reason that a ‘centre-ground’ is prevented from emerging, lies with nationalist parties.

Both Sinn Féin and, more importantly, the SDLP, each view the Good Friday accord as ‘a staging post’ on the road to eventual dismantlement of the border.

Well of course they do! Nationalism’s goal is a thirty two county Irish republic.

A justifiable retort might point out that nationalist aspirations need not prevent unionism being confident and outward looking. Unionist parties can still build up relationships across the United Kingdom and participate fully in the business of national and regional politics. Indeed they can cooperate, across the constitutional divide, with the aim of normalising Northern Ireland politics, within a British framework.

However I believe Kane is driving at something beyond a statement of the obvious here. He isn’t simply whinging about nationalists being nationalists.

One of the prime obstacles to developing power-sharing which works, to getting on with making Northern Ireland a stable and inclusive entity, is nationalist failure to embrace fully the principle of consent. And it is that failure, to which I believe Alex Kane is alluding.

The Belfast Agreement unambiguously upholds the right of a majority within this region to determine its constitutional future. The nationalist understanding of this provision is, however, very far from unambiguous.

Rather than accept the status of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom, and work to persuade a majority to accept a united Ireland, nationalists have quite openly and unapologetically pursued a strategy aimed at making membership of the UK as meaningless as possible.

Most commonly this has been within the context of a peculiar reading of ‘rights’ which conflates equality of aspiration and cultural equality with equality of political outcome. Nationalism maintains that, in the interests of fairness, its adherents should be free to ignore constitutional reality in Northern Ireland and have access to ever greater institutional recognition of their perceived allegiance to the Republic of Ireland.

You can see it in the SDLP’s demand to extend elections for the southern president north of the border. It is clear whenever either nationalist party claims ‘parity of esteem’ for the Republic of Ireland’s flag. And, let’s be honest, it lies at the bottom of the assumption that northern players should be free to play for the southern football team.

The idea is that, because British and Irish identities are accorded an equal status under the Belfast Agreement, everyone should be free to pick the institutions that he or she prefers, whether they are UK or ROI based. And if you suspect we’ve only seen the thin end of the wedge, in terms of this type of thinking, you’re most probably right.

If northern deputies sat in the Dail, for instance, even if they started off only with observer status, there would soon be a push for them to have full voting rights. The raft of Republic of Ireland symbols, institutions and entitlements which nationalists might seek to access swiftly becomes endless.

So how should unionists respond? Was it a mistake to back the Belfast Agreement, as Kane intimates, because nationalists are intent upon using it for their own ends?

The constitutional core of the Good Friday accord remains beneficial to unionism. Northern Ireland’s constitutional status is no longer a matter of constant, rancorous dispute, however much republicans in particular attempt to claim otherwise.

Nationalism is restricted, for the time being, to attacking the expression of our membership of the United Kingdom, rather than its substance. Whilst the main nationalist parties’ commitment to the principle of consent is certainly illusory, they cannot doom a concerted unionist effort to normalise our place within the UK to failure.

The responsibility on unionists, if they are not to appear incorrigible, is to pick their battle-grounds carefully and to make a genuine effort to disentangle the political entitlements which are essential to full membership of the United Kingdom from the ‘parochial stupidities’ which, traditionally, they are more accustomed to defending.

A positive will to participate fully in the UK’s institutions, political or otherwise, and a constructive campaign to ensure equal treatment within the Kingdom, positions unionism as outward looking and engaged. Such unionism is likely to flourish, particularly in the event of a Conservative government. And it can form an effective counterweight to nationalist attempts to dilute our British status.

Unionism which is preoccupied only with sectional ‘Ulster protestant’ interests and is most grimly determined to deliver constant humiliation to, for instance, the Irish language or the GAA, will only create resentment.

It does nationalism’s work for it, by encouraging the notion that ‘Irish’ cultural preoccupations must be wedded to a nationalist political allegiance. The Union Flag becomes a symbol of cultural subjugation, rather than political reality.

The outlook for unionism should not be grim as Kane paints and opportunities for cross community cooperation which is good for unionists do exist. The key is getting our priorities straight.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

'Decent people' should back the Ulster Unionists

I recently took part in a debate, part of the Exchange Mechanism project at Belfast Exposed, which asked whether the current system of power-sharing in Northern Ireland offers a democratic future or peace at any price. Although the panellists had different opinions about the best way forward, there was consensus that the current dispensation, as it is operated by the DUP and Sinn Féin, is not working.

A week later the Platform for Change initiative launched. The faces, at that event, were different, but the sense of frustration with politics here was precisely the same. In Northern Ireland an ever swelling chorus of voices is singing from the same hymn sheet – our politics are a mess and the Assembly needs to work more effectively.

When Sir Reg Empey described the Executive as a “huckster’s shop” he struck a popular chord which the UUP leader had not managed to strike since he urged the DUP and Sinn Féin to stop ‘arsing about’. It is generally acknowledged that the two larger parties form an impenetrable cabal, committed only hazily to notions of sharing power.

Almost every commentator, almost every politically engaged member of the public, is sceptical about the prospects of the Hillsborough Agreement delivering genuine improvement at Stormont. Yet the idea also persists that the institutions need to be protected at all costs and any concerted effort to use the current policing and justice fiasco to change the status quo is branded irresponsible or destabilising.

The way in which the Hillsborough deal has been carved out demonstrates graphically the problems with the current system of power-sharing. Allowing the current situation to continue will simply result in an endless series of crises and an endless series of impasses. We ought to have the backbone to sort things out now.

Yet the hysteria which has attended the UUP’s decision to vote against an untransparent agreement, carved out between two despicable parties, and including innumerable undeclared side-deals, is quite incredible.

In Northern Ireland we have become infected by a ‘peace processing’ mindset which afflicts not only the DUP and Sinn Féin, but has also thoroughly permeated the type of engaged, educated, socially liberal people who most adamantly insist that they want ‘normal politics’. The same people who deplore the ability of the Education Minister to wreak havoc in schools.

If the Hillsborough Agreement falls it will be entirely the responsibility of the parties who negotiated it. If consensus isn’t reached it is not cause for wailing and gnashing of teeth, it will represent a rare case of politics breaking out and a party pushing its own objections and aspirations in the teeth of overwhelming groupthink.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Cobden's PMS solution not inflationary 'in any way'

A quick further mention of the Cobden Centre's scheme to reimburse Presybterian Mutual investors. The discussion has continued apace over at the organisation's blog. Toby Baxendale, who outlined the plan initially, explains in detail the reasons why the measure would not create inflation.

the loans will recover £200m to £250m according to the Administrators.
At the moment the demand deposits of £300m still exist in the UK money supply M4 definition which is not only money, but money and other near money substitutes. With our definition of Actual Money Supply, this is still the same.
Once the PMS has been wound down and all loans collected, there will be a shrink of the money supply to the exact tune of this loss. So anywhere between £50m and £100m. This is deflationary and will happen in some years time. We could let this happen and the creditors will take a hair cut in the normal way we have become accustomed to.
Or we could print £300m of cash now and give to the demand deposit owners, the savers of the PMS and at the same time delete the demand deposits. M4 and our measure Actual Money Supply does stay the same.
For doing this, the State could get the one off windfall gain of all the loans being paid back to it to pay off part of the national debt as it has allowed all the depositors to remain exclusively whole.
I would think this is a unique and brilliant solution to a very real problem to totally innocent people who have deposited under the misguided belief that “their” money would be safe!

Telfer embarrassed by Flower of Scotland

Nobody would deny that ‘Flower of Scotland’ is a rousing anthem. Both football and rugby teams in Scotland now employ a song which is fairly explicit in its separatist sentiment.

“But we can still rise now
And be the nation again.”

However, at least one figure, influential in Scots’ rugby, feels embarrassed by the nationalist and anti-English content of the lyrics. Jim Telfer, formerly Scotland’s coach and a renowned player, at international level and with the Lions, wants a more ‘mature’ anthem, according to the Scotsman.

“Telfer said the song encouraged anti-English "chippiness" and should be replaced.
Telfer – whose 1990 Grand Slam winning side was the first national team to adopt Flower of Scotland – said: "We need to stop defining ourselves through England, and it would be a sign of maturity if we got ourselves a decent national anthem.””

If national parties can't intervene in Northern Ireland, then we have been consigned to second class citizenship.

In this morning's Belfast Telegraph I make a rather belated intervention in the debate about Conservative involvement in Northern Ireland. This is a response to the hoopla which graced comment pages in the Times and the Guardian a few weeks ago. The gist, however, certainly remains relevant.

Shadow Secretary of State Owen Paterson has reacted with annoyance to Labour attacks on the Tories' involvement in Northern Ireland politics.

His exasperation is understandable. The current Government took Britain to war in order to impose its favoured system of government on distant parts of the globe.

Yet Labour implies that the Conservatives have overstepped their mark by expressing an opinion on the system of devolution employed in a region of the United Kingdom.

I continue:

Admittedly, the Hatfield House talks, hosted by Conservatives and purportedly touching upon the controversial topic of 'unionist unity', contributed to the current wave of anxiety. Particularly as they foreshadowed the umpteenth crisis at Stormont and yet another intervention in the 'peace process' by the Prime Minister.

The UK Government certainly needs to stand above zero-sum, cultural tugs-o'-war which attend issues like parading and the Irish language. However, to argue that it should not be permitted to select our representatives as ministers, or promote Northern Ireland's place within the Union, is dangerous humbug.

The constitutional preference of a clear majority here remains membership of the United Kingdom and, unless that status is accompanied by political entitlements, taken for granted in the rest of Britain, then people in Northern Ireland are effectively being condemned to a form of second class citizenship.

To contend that power-sharing is too fragile to permit voters to choose their national government makes a nonsense of the principle of consent, which is supposed to underpin the Belfast Agreement. Whatever we might mean when we refer to the 'peace process' it is surely not supposed to prevent us playing a full role at Westminster.

Read more:

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Stormont and the blame game

Over at Forth I lament the circling commentators preparing to blame the UUP for any collapse at Stormont.

if power-sharing is working so badly, why does prevailing wisdom insist that it must be preserved at all costs? Sinn Féin and the DUP will be the chief beneficiaries of maintaining the sectarian carve-up, and whilst they can, between them, carry more than enough votes to impose the Hillsborough settlement, it is they who should be expected to promote its merits.

The current situation is that the Democratic Unionists, on one hand, champion their bright new deal, yet on the other, insist that the UUP must support it too, or else the bigger party will bring Stormont crashing down!

It is a perfect reflection of the state of democracy in Northern Ireland. ‘The peace process’ has become an untouchable shibboleth, an end in itself and woe betide us all if any politics threaten to break out. It doesn’t matter a jot if consensus is real or imposed. What is important is that consensus is seen to be reached.

I continue:

The truth is, far more fatalistic than those who want to exploit the current ‘crisis’ to engineer a reformed Assembly, are those who would protect it at all costs. They believe that the current brand of power-sharing is the best that we can hope for. They react with horror when any ‘centre ground’ politician raises his head above the parapet to suggest otherwise.

Yet they are often the same people who complain that politics in Northern Ireland aren’t addressing the issues which matter; that they focus on cultural irrelevancies, and ignore more pressing concerns.

If the SDLP and UUP endorse the SF / DUP deal on policing without first securing lasting improvement in Assembly function the parties will have proved themselves as spineless as their counterparts in Alliance. It is entirely unremarkable politics to insist that if input is ignored then votes will not be unforthcoming.

Friday, 5 March 2010

The DUP is, most certainly not, Spartacus.

They’re a complicated little lot, the DUP, are they not?

Mervyn Storey MLA is decidedly unexcited by the prospect of full frontal nudity, extreme violence and orgies, promised by the forthcoming television series ‘Spartacus’. In fact he’s called for it to be banned.

Regrettably we are not informed whether he canvassed the opinions of other film enthusiasts within the party before he issued his statement.

I was interested, however, in the juxtaposition between Storey’s take on ‘Spartacus’ and the fashion in which Culture Minister, Nelson McCausland blithely swatted away concerns that the HBO series ‘Game of Thrones’, due to be filmed in Northern Ireland, might be, well, extremely violent as well.

The grin was practically cracking Nelson’s face as he expressed his comfort with middle-ages themed, on screen violence.

Now either the DUP is quite relaxed about violence, and it’s the sex which makes it go all squirmy, or it doesn’t give a monkeys, as long as the filth is filling the coffers of Northern Ireland’s film industry.

Incidentally, Nelson, perhaps you could secure Jeffrey Donaldson an advance copy of ‘Spartacus’, so he can, you know, make up his own mind on the contents. Purely for research purposes - obviously.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Northern Ireland stuck in the mud

Anyone who has followed Northern Ireland over the years will have witnessed some dire performances. A couple of games against Canada spring to mind, not to mention a 1-0 home defeat to Armenia.

I remember few occasions, however, when the display has been as flat, as inept, as spiritless as it was in Tirana last night. Simply, the players weren’t interested. Wherever they wanted to be on a wet night at the start of March, it wasn’t in a crumbling stadium, on a boglike pitch, chasing Albanians.

Make no mistake - Albania is not a good side. However, for spells last night, Northern Ireland made them look like world-beaters. Or to be more accurate, we looked like San Marino.

No-one on our side emerged from a 1-0 reverse with credit. From one end of the pitch to the other tackles were limp, passes went to red shirts or to no-one at all. It was a terrible spectacle and a shameful performance.

Even Jackie Fullerton, the commentator, had a night to forget. He seemed unable even to identify members of the Northern Ireland team and he was oblivious to several substitutions. Fullerton consistently identified Rory Patterson as Kyle Lafferty, after the Rangers’ striker had been withdrawn.

Goalkeeper, Maik Taylor, came out of the contest with his reputation untouched. The free kick which curled beyond his outstretched glove was a paradigm of accuracy and pace. His replacement, Jonathan Tuffey, misdirected a clearance, but otherwise performed confidently enough.

Outfield though, the standard was universally dreadful. Davis, usually the fulcrum of Northern Ireland’s passing game, seemed to be stuck in the mud. He covered the spectrum of distribution, both short and long, with unerring inaccuracy.

His Old Firm rival, Niall McGinn, had easily his worst game at international level. As a nippy winger, reliant on skipping past the full-back, the pitch offered more of an excuse for McGinn than some of his team-mates.

Healy and Lafferty, for instance. Given that the surface was so heavy it was an awe-inspiring sight to witness the ball bouncing several yards away from the latter, after each misjudged first touch. You’d have thought he was playing with a tennis ball on tarmac.

Healy’s main contribution was to lose his temper and attempt to stand on an Albanian defender. He still produces moments of quick footed guile. Unfortunately, last night, these were few and far between. And they tended to occur in wide areas rather than the box.

In retrospect, it is difficult to see how Nigel Worthington can take anything useful out of the debacle in Tirana. All the lessons which it taught him were negative. In fact supporters can only worry about the lack of application and team spirit exhibited by the players.

Thank goodness there are six long months before Northern Ireland again face opposition in a competitive match!

Rumours abound that the IFA hopes to arrange a trip to Estonia or the Faroe Islands to open up the European Qualifying campaign. On the strength of last night’s performance, either game is eminently losable.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

With a new coalition in the Rada Ukraine can move on.

Despite a unanimous verdict from international observers that Ukraine’s presidential election was free and fair, Yulia Tymoshenko has continued to accuse Victor Yanukovych of stealing upwards of 1,000,000 votes on his way to victory.

Now, the Orange coalition built around Tymoshenko in the Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, has dissolved, after it failed to prove that it can any longer command a majority.

Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions will attempt to construct its own coalition, in order to implement the programme which Ukrainian voters endorsed at the polls. Tymoshenko has responded by questioning the legitimacy of any arrangement which might emerge.

The new President’s victory has not proved universally popular, but he emerged with a mandate to clear up the mess created by his predecessor Yushchenko and the Rada government led by Tymoshenko.

Ukraine’s politics have long been factional and fragmented, and it is hardly surprising that the prime minister has lost control of the Rada in the wake of the election. Yanukovych’s party is entitled to investigate whether it can form a government.

The vitality and competitiveness of Ukraine’s election has been applauded throughout the world. The people having spoken, however, it is time to put aside the politics of accusation and allow the country to return to normality.

Yanukovych is hardly the world’s slickest politician, but he is reluctant to allow his country to be used as the rope in an endless tug of war between ‘the west’ and Russia. If he sets aside Yuschenko’s anti-Kremlin grandstanding and makes meaningful progress on the economy, then his presidency will benefit Ukraine.

Political games - but the buck stops with the DUP.

What an extraordinary predicament for the UUP!

I’ve just listened to Basil McCrea setting out the party’s position on policing and justice on Stephen Nolan’s radio programme. It was difficult to disagree with a word he uttered. Even Nolan seemed to be bereft of an attack route. At one stage he seemed to be arguing McCrea’s case for him.

The party insists that it has not had input into the deal on policing and justice, it is not privy to what is on the table and therefore it will not endorse it, without clear evidence of progress, when it is put to a vote.

The DUP, which alongside Sinn Féin has excluded smaller parties from the nitty gritty of the decision making process, has indicated that it will not proceed without Ulster Unionist backing!

No doubt, should the UUP vote against devolution, or abstain, the Dupes will blame Ulster Unionists for wrecking the deal. It is a thoroughly preposterous situation and it is 100% indicative of the DUP’s selfishness and cynicism. It takes a special type of one-eyed idiot not to realise what they're up to.

If that party wants Ulster Unionist backing, it should start addressing some of the concerns which the UUP, and the SDLP, have about executive function and the detail of policing and justice.

If it believes that its deal is a good one then it should vote accordingly, with or without UUP support.

Ulster Unionists do not object, in principle, to the devolution of policing and justice. The difficulty is devolution to an executive which Sir Reg Empey describes as a ‘huckster’s shop’.

Hucksterism is no more in evidence than at the current time, with an attempt to browbeat parties into backing an agreement which they haven’t formulated and which clearly includes side-deals to which they are not privy.

Yet the DUP is intent on directing public fury at the dysfunctional executive towards a party which insists that its performance must improve.

Very cunning I’m sure. But also dishonest and thoroughly bad for Northern Ireland.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Tories ahead in tech wars with iPhone app

On Sunday David Cameron made a speech trailed as the Conservatives’ pre-election ‘relaunch’ at the party’s Spring Conference. It reaffirmed the communitarian platform on which the Tories’ manifesto will be built.

Good schools, support for the NHS, a redistribution of power away from the centre, family friendly policies – they are the ‘progressive ends by conservative means’ which Cameron has long championed.

Against a background of tightening poll margins, this is the type of centrist message which can steady the ship for the Tories. The party also hopes to spread the word by a more imaginative use of new media than its opponents.

To this end the Conservative iPhone App has been launched. Now I only have an iPod, but I downloaded it anyway, for wifi use, and it is rather slick. As well as the latest news, and synopses around various policy areas, there’s a ‘swingometer’ which demonstrates graphically the type of swing which the Tories need to return to government.

Hardly an accurate barometer, but a fun toy nonetheless. A further indication that the Conservatives have a feel for modern campaigning which eclipses Labour.