Showing posts from June, 2010

The chances of 'bread and butter politics' developing in Northern Ireland

I make my contribution to the Belfast Telegraph's series on 'middle ground politics' today.  The topic is unionism's role.  My conclusion:
Northern Ireland edges towards political maturity, but |it is a slow process which could easily be derailed.The devolved institutions are designed to perpetuate community difference and lock parties into a false consensus, rather than encourage a new, healthy, contest of ideas.A voluntary coalition government, with cross-community safeguards, is an alternative model which attracts unionists, and even Mark Durkan, the former SDLP leader, has spoken in its favour. But it is also undeliverable in the short-term.And the likelihood of parties withdrawing from the Executive to form an informal opposition has retreated following Alliance's acceptance of the Justice Ministry.With the present set-up at Stormont, and UCUNF's failure to gain momentum, Northern Ireland's constitutional status is likely to remain the focus of Stormont…

Chechen president takes to the blogosphere

We’ve become accustomed to blogging politicians in the UK. Some of their offerings are relatively thoughtful, others are little more than a sequence of press releases, penned by a member of staff.

In Russia the President himself keeps a Livejournal blog, comprising mainly video entries, in keeping with his modernising image.

A less likely newcomer to Russian political blogging has now emerged from Chechnya. President of the republic, Ramzan Kadyrov.

His first article, entitled, I - Kadyrov, is presumably as thrilling in the original Russian, as it is in translation, judging by the scornful reaction reported in the Moscow Times. Unnervingly the Chechen hardman wants to be friends and describes himself as ‘sociable’.

The authorities in Chechnya are clearly delighted with the traffic so far and I would imagine it is inordinately healthy as media outlets pick up the story.

McDowell and sporting identity

An unedited version of an opinion piece from yesterday's Belfast Telegraph (articles published on a Saturday rarely make it online).
In Northern Ireland we can celebrate Graeme McDowell’s heroics at Pebble Beach without  ambivalence.  However, his achievements have been accompanied elsewhere by a degree of confusion as to whether the Portrush golfer should be considered British or Irish.
Indeed the Belfast Telegraph’s southern sister paper, the Irish Independent, rather ungraciously accused the UK media of claiming the new US Open champion, under false pretences.  McDowell’s coach, it pointed out, like the man himself, says that he is Irish.  So that, it would seem, is that.  
Except, of course, that it isn‘t. National identities are not so impermeable or easily reducible. Possession of one does not exclude holding another.  In this part of the world we have a head start in understanding how complex a concept nationality can be. 
McDowell, like many other sportspeople from Northern Ir…

Important for newspapers that Times paywall works

There’s a fine piece (subs - appropriately enough - required) in Prospect this month, defending the Times’ decision to erect a pay wall around its website.  The author is adamant that hatred for Rupert Murdock should not cloud people’s judgement on the new initiative.

It’s a commonplace that newspapers, almost universally, are now struggling to return a profit, simply because people have become so used to receiving content for free, over the internet.

Either the media must develop a model which recoups all its costs through advertising, or consumers have to pay a fair price for news, whether it is in a printed newspaper, or on the web.  Otherwise quality journalism will not prove sustainable in the long term.

The Times has made its subscription model affordable, and, in the short term, a preview is available to entice potential customers.  It is also rumoured that access will be bundled with other products, such as Sky television packages.

I’ve used the new site, since its introduct…

World Cup encouragement for Northern Ireland.

The bad news for Northern Ireland fans, when the draw was made for European Championship qualification, was that three out of our five opponents had made it to the 2010 World Cup finals.  The good news is that none of our Group C rivals have performed very well in South Africa.

Most conspicuously, Italy crashed out in the early stages, finishing bottom of a group which, on paper, was rather underwhelming.  Northern Ireland fans know very well that Slovakia, who yesterday inflicted a 3-2 defeat on the Italians are a formidable outfit.

Strong, athletic, organised and technically gifted, I was surprised that the Slovaks took so long to get into their stride.  The world champions did not disgrace themselves yesterday but two lacklustre displays against Paraguay and New Zealand ensured there was no room for a slip-up.

The team is clearly on the wane, and lacks the guile which Totti and Del Piero so memorably brought to previous Italy sides.  There will be retirements after the finals too.…

When does Sylvia Hermon intend to do some work at Westminster?

Interesting stats on They Work for You about Sylvia Hermon.  The MP for North Down's last contribution at the House of Commons was back in March.  In fact, since retaining her seat as an independent she has not taken part in any debate, despite business such as Saville and the budget coming before the house.

I hope that Slug can substantiate the information he has posted in the comments section of this thread about complete non-attendance.  I will post the evidence immediately if he can.

In the mean time it's quite clear that North Down is receiving practically no representation at Westminster.  Still, the situation wasn't much better in the previous parliament, and the constituency voted her in regardless.   Frankly, her supporters are getting the representation they deserve.

The question remains whether she stood in the 2010 election out of a genuine desire to serve her constituents, or simply out of spite.

Chancellor strives for balance in emergency budget

The Budget Debate is continuing with predictable rancour.  Punch and Judy politics writ large.  Harriot Harman, acting Labour leader, set the tone in her response to the Chancellor‘s statement, failing to outline any alternative policies or to admit a shred of culpability on behalf of the previous government for the economic mess in which the UK finds itself.

The detail will be teased out over the next few days, but Andrew Tyrie MP, chairman of the Treasury Select Committee, delivered the best instant assessment, concluding that the budget represents a good start for a government determined to take radical action on the deficit.

In George Osborne’s speech great emphasis was placed on the ’progressive’ credentials of the coalition’s plans.  The Liberal Democrats are of course determined to protect the perception that they are committed to fairness, but the Conservatives too, under Cameron’s leadership, have consistently challenged the cooption of the word ’progress’ to a statist, centr…

Elliott to announce leadership bid.

Most eyes will be on Westminster and the emergency budget, but it seems that Tom Elliott MLA is set to make an announcement about his intentions as regards the UUP leadership, this lunchtime.  The Fermanagh South Tyrone Assemblyman will brief the press at 12.45pm today, at Stormont.

Deputy leader, Danny Kennedy, has already ruled himself out of the race, and Elliott is not likely to follow suit.  Whether there will be any clue as to a likely 'dream-team', designed to draw together the two wings of the party, remains to be seen.
There have been rumours that Basil McCrea or Mike Nesbitt could act as Elliott's deputy, if he were to become leader.  It is difficult to see how such an arrangement could work in practice, given the choices that the party faces over its future.   

Tensions between Wilson and Robinson?

In today's Belfast Telegraph I acknowledge that the budget cut penny seems to have dropped with Finance Minister, Sammy Wilson, but I ask whether Peter Robinson shares his realism?

For some time our politicians have realised that separate water charges are unavoidable. With the budget tightening, it would be folly to defer them any longer.To Wilson's credit, he has argued the case for an immediate introduction. It is the type of unpopular decision which must be made in the interests of good government.When the Finance Minister authored a paper, working on the assumption that charges would be introduced for the 2011-12 financial year, however, he was rebuffed by his colleague in the First Minister's officeRobinson rejected the document, describing it as "unwise", and rubbished the notion that the Executive is to implement a 'tap tax'.It is not the first time that the two DUP men have clashed over economic policy. Previously, Wilson declared his scepticism a…

Graeme McDowell adds his name to list of sporting greats.

What an extraordinary achievement! Last night,  Portrush golfer Graeme McDowell became the first European to lift a US Open Championship since Tony Jacklin in 1970, finishing just a shot ahead in a nail biting finish at Pebble Beach.

He's now also the first Brit to win a major since Paul Lawrie claimed the Claret Jug at Carnoustie in 1999.  And a Northern Irishman hasn't won one of golf's top prizes since Fred Daly's Open in 1947!

Most fans probably suspected that Rory McIlroy was the best local hope for a major, but, at thirty, McDowell is at the top of his game.  He has significant experience in the US, where he went to college and his form leading up to the tournament was good.  A couple of weeks ago he won the Wales Open.

So it was that Graeme McDowell became the right man, at the right time.  He has catapulted himself straight into the pantheon of Northern Irish sporting achievement and provided British, not to mention European golf a timely shot in the arm.

A …

Armstrong to chair Tories in Northern Ireland.

Ian Parsley's blog carries an account of the Northern Ireland Conservatives AGM, which took place today.  The most noteworthy business saw Irwin Armstrong, UCUNF's North Antrim Westminster candidate, elected as area chairman.  I believe the other contenders were Terry Dick (from the East Belfast association) and Parsley himself.

Armstrong conducted a positive and spirited campaign during the general election and, had a misleading Belfast Telegraph poll not erroneously suggested that Jim Allister was a serious contender to nick the seat, he could easily have beaten the TUV man to second place.  He will bring a businessman's eye, and experience in marketing, to the local Tories.

It will be interesting to see whether his appointment has an impact on the Ulster Unionist connection.  Parsley hints, in his piece, that he cannot see the value in Northern Ireland Conservatives standing against UUP candidates in the Assembly election.  That is a debate which will be played out in …

Special World Cup 3000 Versts!

An endlessly complex subject - can we unravel the causes of violence in Kyrgyzstan?

Martin Amis is yet to visit Russia but he has written two books about the country.  For the latest, House of Meetings, he claimed to have read ‘a yard of books’, researching his subject.  Orlando Figes, whose poison pen subsequently attracted headlines, disagreed, claiming the novel was based on ’very modest’ reading.

I’d have to agree that Amis’ book was poor and its predecessor, Koba the Dread, which purported to consider the skewed morality of western intellectuals’ infatuation with Stalin, was little better.  His failure reminds the casual observer, drawing on a modest collection of journalism and articles about Kyrgyzstan, that those sources are entirely insufficient to understand a hugely complex situation.

The Ferghana Valley, an ethnic hotbed, where the borders of modern Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan converge, has witnessed the latest horrific outbreak of violence in Central Asia.  The information outlet with the greatest presence in the region,, on Monday…

Cameron sets the tone for unionists' muted Bloody Sunday response

Predictably, there’s been an enormous quantity of analysis and reportage, following the publication of the Saville Report on Tuesday.  If posting has been light over the past couple of days, it’s because I’ve been making an effort to digest the best of it.

There is a lot to commend the thrust of Turgon’s post on Slugger O’Toole, which examines unionist reaction to Saville.  He identifies two ’predictable’ responses which he believes are emblematic.

One, as typified by Gregory Campbell, casts doubt on the report’s interpretation.  The other, as articulated by Sir Reg Empey and others, points to a disproportionate concentration of resources on the victims of Bloody Sunday, as opposed to victims of Republican violence.

I accept that these arguments have been raised and that they are, as Turgon contends, ’understandable’.  I also agree with his broader point that, should we deny moral equivalence between terror groups and the British army, we should also expect standards of self-scrutiny…

Rafa's self-image

Ok, he's left, and there's no need to continue to put the boot in, but a comment from Rafa Benitez, to a press conference introducing the new Inter manager to the Milan media, made me snort with derision.

"I am different to Mourinho.  I have the mentality of (winning) with good football." Er, no Rafa.  You have the mentality of drawing with tedious football.  Ultimately that's why you are no longer manager at Liverpool and its why, unlike Mourinho, you were never able to win a Premier League title.

Can Brazil save the world from tedium?

By all accounts Portugal and Ivory Coast have contributed another dreary ninety minutes to a World Cup which, so far, has produced almost no entertainment.  The first match was ok, in the second half, and Germany were fun, but otherwise it has been a bore.

Despite the Germans’ impressive performance, I don’t think that we’ve seen potential winners yet.  Australia are an aging team, reliant on the muscular skills (aka foul play) of Tim Cahill and Lucas Neill.  Germany were simply relatively comfortable passing around the Aussies’ busy pressing game.

Although Serbia were defeated by an unknown quantity, Ghana, in their first game, they might be on surer territory playing the Germans.

Italy, meanwhile, look a shadow of the team which tasted victory four years ago.  No Del Piero, no Totti and Pirlo consigned to the bench.  Much was made of the entrance of Camoranesi, who did improve the Italians’ performance against Paraguay, but he is too inconsistent to power a team into the latter st…

Will they or won't they stay together?

Mr Ulster has responded to my Belfast Telegraph piece on the NI Conservatives.  He argues that the group cannot ignore identity politics.  The thrust of the piece seems to be that it is not possible to be 'pro-Union' without engaging, to some degree, in communal politics.  He might find much to agree with over at Seymour Major's new blog.

Meanwhile O'Neill argues that the viewpoint of local Tories may be relatively academic.  Probably rightly, he contends that, should CCHQ demand that the UUP link be maintained and should Ulster Unionists remain amenable 'the views of the NI Conservatives on the matter will be of little consequence'.

The looming 2011 Assembly elections will play a role in this drama.  Clearly the Tories in North Down feel that Ian Parsley could claim a seat.  Retaining some connection with the UUP would leave them best placed to achieve this.

On the other hand, the ambitious young candidates who make up the Ulster Unionists' most pro-UCUN…

Minister of the Absurd in good sense shocker! Wilson gets it right, but Robbo's not listening..

It’s not often that I would profess to agree with Sammy Wilson, or to have sympathy with him.  However I think that he’s got it right on water charges.

Northern Ireland relies on a huge subvention from Westminster, we cannot be exempted from a UK wide public spending squeeze and it is no longer tenable to avoid charges for water which are applied across the rest of the country.

Wilson, in charge of the finance brief, has attempted to impress that fact upon his Executive colleagues, and, for his troubles, he has been slapped down by his party leader, Peter Robinson.  Clearly the course is already set for populism and irresponsibility.

We need to budget for water charges introduction and press ahead with them.  We should also look at the possible savings from reinstating prescription charges.

It is no good perpetually ducking the difficult decisions in the belief that our 'peace process' forms a sufficient reason to keep throwing money at us.

Stormont elections a glum prospect after Westminster contest.

Over at Forth I argue that, apart from the almighty sectarian headcount it could represent, Assembly elections are an exercise in futility.  The piece is on Freeview, so please do pop over to the magazine to read it, and have a look around.

Northern Ireland Tories and their options.

In today's Belfast Telegraph I ask where the other partners in UCUNF, the Northern Ireland Conservative party, will decide to go now.  In particular I look at two options which have been mooted.

Seymour Major, a prolific Tory party blogger, has started a campaign for a separate organisation with a new name and would seek to align with the Conservatives at Westminster, but remain agnostic on the Union. The contention is that unionism has become toxic in Northern Ireland and the Tories at national level are indelibly linked to it. This breed of local Conservative doesn't just want to keep the UUP at arm's length, they feel the same about David Cameron.Their difficulty is that any new party would start with an even smaller base than the Northern Ireland Tories.In a devolved UK, constitutional issues are part of everyday debate and, by ducking the border issue entirely, a neutral centre-right group here could not offer either equal citizenship or normal politics.But there is a …

Hard reality to trump dreams? Hodgson managerial favourite ahead of Liverpool legend.

It’s beginning to look like Fulham manager Roy Hodgson could be the man to take over from Rafa Benitez at Anfield.  Several outlets report that Liverpool will approach the London club in the next 48 hours.  It is not considered likely that Fulham asking compensation of £2 million or so would derail any deal.  
The move could raise a dilemma of ‘heads over hearts’ for Liverpool fans.  Because it appears that Kenny Dalglish has expressed his readiness to take up the reins at the club, for the first time since resigning as manager, way back in 1991.

Dalglish was the last man to deliver a league title to Anfield and he went on to do an astonishing job at Blackburn Rovers.  The Scot is now in charge of Liverpool‘s youth Academy, but he hasn’t managed at senior level since 2000, when he spent a brief period in charge of Celtic.

It had been reported that Dalglish was tasked, along with managing director Christian Purslow, with compiling a shortlist of candidates.  For the Liverpool faithful,…

Help required. Is Solzhenitsyn's Homecoming available online?

Venerated by Soviet dissidents, and despised by communists, during his spell in exile, Alexander Solzhenitsyn's star had become rather faded by the time he returned to Russia in 1994.  His scepticism about the West, coupled with a penchant for mysticism and Russian nationalism saw the writer variously (and inconsistently) portrayed as an advocate of Tsarism, a Tolstoy imitator and an arch-reactionary.  With his bushy beard and his grumpy dismissals of modern culture, he became easy to lampoon.

The author's return to Moscow only added to the criticism that he was a man, full of his own importance, and out of time.  Solzhenitsyn embarked on an epic train journey around Russia's provinces, before arriving to chaotic scenes at Yaroslavsky Station.  The BBC filmed a documentary recording this 'homecoming'.  It is no longer available on IPlayer.  And my question to any 3000 Versts reader (yes, it was quite a digression) is whether the programme is available anywhere else …

Stop 'defending' the Union and start participating in it.

This article appeared first at Forth Magazine.
THE BRITISH general election has precipitated a period of very public soul-searching by the main unionist parties. The DUP leader, Peter Robinson, provided one of the election’s most notable scalps, losing his East Belfast seat to Alliance’s Naomi Long, and the Ulster Unionists’ link up with the Conservatives suffered electoral wipe-out, failing to return a single MP. 

As the two parties pour over the tactical failings of their campaigns, and assess the respective positions of their leaders, they face a more profound dilemma. The overall proportion of the vote claimed by unionism was well down.  None of the unionist options available to the electorate captured its imagination. Anti-agreement unionism, in the form of Jim Allister’s TUV, performed worst of all. Its leader, the only candidate from the party to claim a substantial number of votes, was still trounced by Ian Paisley junior in North Antrim.  Had not a wildly inaccurate pre-election…

The glorified debating society meets in special session.

The Assembly can meet in special session if 30 MLAs demand it.  Today it has taken such a step.  Why?

Is it to finally clear up the mess in education?

Is it to demand answers after the Department of Agriculture allowed £60 million of European funds to be awarded to farmers in error, a mistake which will now be corrected at taxpayers expense?

Is it to discuss anything at all within the Assembly's remit?

Is it hell!

The Assembly is meeting to discuss foreign policy, a matter over which it has no jurisdiction whatsoever.  To be precise it is to discuss events in the Mediterranean Sea, surrounding the Gaza flotilla.

The only thing guaranteed to start a row in Northern Ireland quicker than a debate about our history and current affairs is a discussion about Israel’s history and current affairs.  It’s scarcely because we have an enormous population of knowledgeable ex-pat Israelis or Palestinians eager to contribute.

On both sides of the political divide, people in Northern Ireland s…

Time to go for Rafa, but Liverpool's problems will remain.

The formalities are not yet taken care of, but it appears that Rafa Benitez will finally leave Liverpool.  The Spanish manager has had six seasons to deliver success at Anfield and sadly, during that time, the team has gone backwards.

Benitez will always be remembered for the dizzy heights he scaled in his first season at the club, leading Liverpool to its fifth European Cup, in astonishing circumstances.  The following season saw the reds pip West Ham in a thrilling FA Cup final.

Unfortunately those early triumphs were to be the highlights of Benitez’ reign.  Under the Spaniard Liverpool were well equipped for Europe and reached another Champions League final in 2007.  And last term a remarkable second half of the season witnessed Rafa’s first convincing push for Premier League glory.

That unsuccessful bid told a story, however.  Disappointing, negative home performances earlier in the season ultimately cost the team its first title since 1990.  Only when its chances of success wer…

Kennedy's fatuous World Cup motion says it all about Stormont.

The News Letter reports that Danny Kennedy has proposed a motion at the Assembly for local representatives to send their “best wishes” to England in the World Cup.

The business committee will decide whether the UUP deputy leader’s proposal is worth debate.  If any common sense is applied, their deliberations won’t take long.  It isn’t.

Whatever your view on the vexed question whether to support the English this summer, or not, this is exactly the type of amateur debating society nonsense which gets Stormont a bad name.

Kennedy says he will back England in the absence of another home nation in South Africa.  Bully for him.  I’m sure many people here will do likewise, and argue their case at lunch hour or in the pub.

The Northern Ireland Assembly, however, doesn’t have a UK wide remit and there is absolutely no need for it to send good wishes to any team at a World Cup, unless Northern Ireland qualify.  No-one in England will know, nor will they care, if this motion is passed.

It says a…

Ask a silly question ...

A bizarre little letter appears in the Belfast Telegraph this morning, penned by Malachy Scott.  In response to an article I wrote in the paper, demanding a positive rather than defensive outlook for unionism, he challenges my contention that:  
Northern Ireland is part of the UK, and will remain so until a majority of people here decide otherwise.
He asks, "what principle is that exactly?  That a majority in the six counties outweighs a majority in Ireland as a whole?  What happened to the principle of national sovereignty".  
Leaving aside the philosophical point that the author obviously feels it's absolutely self-evident what does and does not constitute a nation, a more direct answer.  It's called the 'principle of consent' and it is accepted, North and South, by the vast vast majority of people in Ireland.