Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Cameron, the Lockerbie bomber and devolution

There won't be too many posts on the blog this week, but I will briefly draw your attention to another Belfast Telegraph article, which considers the Megrahi mess.  The edit lost a little of the thrust of the original, so the text below is a little different to the published column.  

I consider the chain of events which set in train the bomber's release and conclude:
[It's} Hardly surprising that after the release took place last August, opponents alleged Labour was secretly delighted.  The party had secured its preferred outcome without getting its hands dirty.  A nationalist Scottish Executive, flexing its muscles and styling itself a ’government’, was more than happy to boast that it had reached its decision independently.
When Kenny MacAskill appeared in front of the world’s press to deliver a crowing speech about the unique ’humanity of the Scottish people’, he didn’t expect that his ruling would cause the SNP to crash in the polls.  Nor could he anticipate that a full year later Megrahi would remain alive and American fury would be unabated.
MacAskill is now attempting to wriggle off the hook, claiming that he did not have ’a great deal of discretion’ over the matter and merely followed procedure.  That‘s a stark contrast with twelve months ago, when he positively revelled in the limelight.
Meanwhile the First Minister, Alex Salmond, prefers to brazen things out, insisting that the decision was reached for the right reasons.  In truth, the Scottish Executive chose the wrong issue to attempt to parade its autonomy in front of an international audience.  Rather than showing strength and independence, it seemed parochial and out of its depth.  The UK government, many observers concluded, had stitched it up like a kipper.                
Unfortunately for David Cameron, however crafty his predecessors might have appeared, the release was a classic example of short-termism.  A year on, the BP connection is back in the spotlight, medical experts suggest that Megrahi could live for another decade and the US is seething that its closest ally let a mass murderer swan off to claim adulation in the Middle East.  
The new British prime minister is left to clear up a diplomatic mess not of his making and the affair highlights a problem which could be of even greater concern.  Megrahi’s release shows that the Westminster government can be powerless to prevent a devolved region making a decision which impacts directly upon UK foreign policy, or acts to the detriment of the national interest.    
Although MacAskill probably had the tacit agreement of London, in these circumstances and pressure may even have been brought to bear on the Scottish Executive, he still had the potential to disrupt relationships between Britain and the US.  
As the Prime Minister returned from an uncomfortable first official visit to America, he had cause to contemplate the mercurial nature of devolution back home.  Eleven years after its introduction to the UK, the consequences have not yet been fully explored or understood. 

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Sinn Féin - trying to be simultaneously establishment and anti-establishment doesn't work.

In a column in yesterday's Irish News (as ever paywall and facsimile in situ) I considered the recent violence in Belfast.
Our traditional summer riots this year acquired added menace due to the close involvement of dissident republicans.  Using the Orange marching season as their pretext, paramilitary groups orchestrated violence in several areas, marshalling an army of young foot soldiers, distinguished by their loathing for the police, and dismissed by Sinn Féin as ’anti-social elements’.  Despite this direction by shadowy forces, and the obvious parallels with trouble from another era, recent events have a distinct modern edge.   Between cameramen - who jostle with the rioters - helicopters and mobile phones, the latest disorder in North Belfast was captured for posterity from every conceivable angle.  
These are the ‘Youtube riots’ of a new generation and a proliferation of amateur video merely focuses yet another spotlight on the Police Service of Northern Ireland.  The PSNI was already arguably the most scrutinised police force in the world.  In the face of fierce rioting, it is certainly the most restrained.  
I argued that the PSNI is hampered in its attempts to police nationalist areas by Sinn Féin's attempt to be, simultaneously, anti-establishment and of the establishment.

Despite the intense provocation and acute danger it faced, the PSNI’s response remained resolutely proportionate.  Remarkably, in the teeth of serious threats to the safety of its officers, the force refused to lose sight of the wellbeing of rioters. 
This new sensitive approach to policing in Northern Ireland represents, to one end of the political spectrum, the civilising of a brutal militia, to the other it marks the emasculation of law and order.  Most people simply recognise that enormous strides have been made towards providing a police service acceptable to the broadest possible cross-section of the community.  
Nevertheless, the PSNI remains hamstrung in its attempts to police republican areas by half-hearted backing from Sinn Féin.  Its journey on policing has been remarkable, but the party still feels comfortable only when it holds the force to account, and unnerved when it offers genuine support.  Witness Gerry Kelly’s eagerness to condemn a limited number of baton rounds fired by officers last week.  
This antiestablishment ethos appears ever more ludicrous with Sinn Féin firmly entrenched as a fixture of UK regional government.  It also feeds traditional antipathy toward the security forces and makes it easier for dissidents to furnish so-called ‘recreational rioting’ with its hard political edge.  
Politics provide the violence with its peculiar venom and politics allow dissidents to harness youthful rebellion, but Holy Cross parish priest Fr Gary Donegan correctly identifies that there are more conventional factors at play.  The rebellious undercurrent which breeds disdain for police is not confined to nationalist areas.  The walls of loyalist neighbourhoods are often adorned with graffiti warning ‘police touts’ of possible violent consequences.  Further afield, tens of thousands of Facebook fans felt moved to hail ’kop killer’ Raoul Moat as a ‘legend‘, after he gunned down an officer in the North East of England.  
The potential for general disaffection to spill over into violence toward the police, is not exclusive to Northern Ireland.  The circumstances which allow terrorists to turn that disaffection into an ongoing deadly threat are more unusual.  And the intense critical scrutiny, under which the PSNI must counteract that threat, is more or less unique.  
Last week’s disorder raises issues around personal and parental responsibility which politicians cannot reasonably be expected to address.  The context of alienation, deprivation and boredom that surrounds young rioters, however, is exacerbated by an ineffective Assembly and an inactive Executive.  
Policing riots would be much easier were Sinn Féin to back the PSNI properly, and drop a chippy, anti-establishment posturing which becomes more absurd with each passing year.  Condemning violence, and maintaining a presence on the ground, is all very well, but the Shinners need to be consistent. 

Friday, 23 July 2010

ICJ's 'clear' Kosovo ruling leaves plenty of scope for ambiguity.

Confounding expectations, the ICJ (whose website is creaking a bit under the strain) produced a clear determination on Kosovo’s declaration of independence.  Sort of.

Rather than consider the matter of the province’s statehood in  the round, it ruled merely on the narrow question which Serbia put to it.  ‘Is the unilateral declaration of independence by the Provisional Institutions of Self-Government of Kosovo in accordance with international law?’.  The court’s answer was ‘yes’.  There was nothing unlawful about the declaration of independence, as it was issued.

Considering the scope of the question, the ICJ noted ‘[it] is narrow and specific; it asks for the Court’s opinion on whether or not the declaration of independence is in accordance with international law … it does not ask about the legal consequences of that declaration’.

In other words no guidance was asked for, and none was given, on the legality of Kosovo’s statehood, its right to put independent government into practice following a declaration, or other administrations’ decisions to recognise part of sovereign Serbia as a separate state.

The court has merely decided that a declaration of independence is not, in and of itself, illegal.  It has also determined that the independence statement cannot be considered part of the process of provisional government, which was established by the UN.

The ICJ therefore did not find the declaration infringed UN resolution 1244, which endorsed an interim Assembly for Kosovo.

The issue of statehood has not been resolved, to anyone’s satisfaction.

Whether Serbia made an error or not, by asking the wrong question, is a matter for conjecture.  At blogoir, Charles Crawford suggests that the omission was deliberate.  Belgrade did not want to give the ICJ scope to explicitly endorse Kosovo Albanian independence.

Keith Ruffles, in contrast, has detected enough in the judgement to sustain separatists elsewhere.

The clearest message, from the court’s decision, is that the legitimacy of declarations of independence should be determined in the political arena, and not by international law.

Champions of Kosovo’s independence will seize upon the judgment as an endorsement.  The US has already done just that.

In fact, it is nothing of the sort.  Its significance will lie in the response of undecided members of the UN.  If it does not act as a pretext for further recognition, then the future of this part of Serbia will remain in doubt.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

The IFA is on the right side of identity argument

With the football eligibility argument hitting the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, in today's Belfast Telegraph I defend Northern Ireland players right to be considered Irish.
Careful reading of FIFA's statutes shows that, if the FAI position is upheld, it denies the right of players born in Northern Ireland to consider themselves Irish only. FIFA asks that a single nationality, qualifying a player to compete for more than one international team, is held in conjunction with certain territorial or family requirements. A dual national, meanwhile, qualifies, as of right, for teams representing either of his nationalities.
If the FAI wants to take its pick of players born in the north, irrespective of any other criteria, it must rely on an inference that they possess dual nationality and are British citizens, whether they like it or not.
Currently a player who carries an Irish passport can use it as proof of nationality, if he plays for a Northern Ireland team. A few years ago nationalist politicians justly fought a suggestion from FIFA that a footballer could be compelled to produce a British passport in order to confirm eligibility.
Although, to the letter of UK law, everyone from Northern Ireland possesses British citizenship unless it is renounced, the IFA, quite rightly, does not require any of its players to acknowledge British citizenship or carry a UK passport.
The Belfast Agreement has been bandied about to support the Republic's position. In truth, it is the IFA which is working with the grain of the agreement and the FAI and FIFA playing fast and loose with identity rights.
The CAS can't rule for the FAI without accepting that nationalist players, choosing to play for Northern Ireland, are automatically British, whether or not they claim that nationality. That would run counter to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement.
There are numerous valid objections to the FAI's strategy. Is it ethical for a neighbouring association, on friendly terms with the IFA, to poach young players after they benefit from considerable coaching and investment in Northern Ireland? Is it right to target players from one community background?
The identity issue, however, is the most powerful argument.
Requiring young nationalists to acknowledge British nationality, if they are to represent the Northern Ireland football team, is a fundamentally illiberal notion. If it were the IFA's position, there would be uproar - and rightly so.
Indeed, if the logic were extended further, participation in all Northern Ireland's teams, institutions and the Northern Irish identity itself would depend on an acceptance of Britishness, with Irishness the exclusive preserve of the Republic. That is a recipe for segregation, rather than sharing.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Where in the world is Lady Sylvia Hermon? (2)

Another fortnight has elapsed and the MP for North Down has still not been sighted at Westminster.  Theyworkforyou still records no contribution from Sylvia Hermon since March of this year, during the last parliament.

The House of Commons is due to rise for its summer recess on 27 July and will not be recalled until 6 September.  If Hermon fails to make a late appearance, she will have ignored entirely the new parliament's first session.

During the election campaign she promised to make 'every vote count' as an independent.  So far more than thirty votes have taken place, with a new activist government she claims to oppose getting into the swing of its first term in office.  Clearly none of these divisions has concerned Hermon or the voters of North Down.

It would be interesting to know whether she intends to start representing her constituents in September or continuing to act like quasi-nobility.

No clear verdict on Kosovo expected from ICJ

Tomorrow the International Court of Justice will rule on Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia.  Sponsored by Nato, the province is already recognised as an independent state by 69 countries, but many more are sceptical of its claims.

In theory the ICJ could offer the best guidance for governments who are unpersuaded, either way, by the Kosovo Albanian case, even though its verdict will not be binding.  However it is much more likely that the court's guidance will not lean clearly toward either party.

Certainly Serbia expects status negotiations to follow tomorrow’s determination, while Kosovo Albanians are talking down its significance.  Independence, they argue, does not depend on the court’s endorsement.

Belgrade demonstrated peaceful intent and respect for the international community by referring Kosovo to the ICJ, but the court has neither the authority, nor the will, to clear this issue up for good.  International law exists in theory, but in practice power resides with the states who make up the UN.

It is highly unlikely that the ICJ will intrude, more than it absolutely has to, on such a sensitive subject.  In yesterday’s Guardian, Ian Bancroft outlined tensions in the EU over Serbia’s future membership and Kosovo’s independence.

Further afield, a host of frozen conflicts, disputed territories and breakaway regions could quickly become much more volatile, if the ICJ were to deliver an unambiguous verdict.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

The Kremlin should ignore Limonov's latest wheeze.

Fascist Rolf Harris lookalike sticks his tongue out.

When commentators berate Russians for their stubborn support for Putin, Medvedev and United Russia, they rarely touch upon the alternatives.  The truth is that the opposition in Russia comprises a sorry, rag-tag bunch.

‘The Other Russia’ was a coalition of anti-Putinists including, most prominently, the liberal chess player Garry Kasparov and Eduard Limonov, an iconoclast writer, whose ’National Bolshevik’ party is banned.

A party has now been formed using the Other Russia name, in order to fight parliamentary elections, led by Limonov.

His eccentric ideas are easy to dismiss as a joke and the National Bolsheviks were indeed renowned for their Dadaist exploits.  However their leader was sincere enough in his ’red brown’ Eurasianist beliefs to travel to Bosnia in order to fight alongside the Bosnian Serb war criminal Radovan Karadzic.  And he was arrested for leading an attempted ’invasion’ of Kazakhstan, a territory which Limonov believes should be annexed to Russia.

The Other Russia’s leader is an extreme nationalist who, in most regards, would be considered a fascist, yet he is also connected intimately to ‘liberal’ figures in the opposition.

Now his new party has launched a typically whacky manifesto which includes a plan to relocate Russia’s capital to Siberia, in order to counteract ‘westernisation’.

Meanwhile the Solidarity opposition movement, which emerged from the Other Russia coalition too and is closely linked to Kasparov, also intends to stand candidates at the election.  Its lead figure, Boris Nemtsov, recently launched a vicious polemic attacking Putin.

A batch of ‘Putin. The Results. Ten years.’ was seized by police in St Petersburg, providing Solidarity with much needed publicity, and later returned, after its contents were found not to constitute ‘extremism’.

The liberal wing of the opposition is described as a collection of ’scrubby little organisations’ with ’no future’ by its own leaders.  It cannot fairly be described as ’extreme’.

But liberals have coordinated their efforts with Limonov and others, who, in any society would be considered extremists.  The new party, fronted by a National Bolshevik, might well be intended to draw a response from the authorities, who can invoke extremism legislation.

The best strategy for the Kremlin would be to ignore the group as an irrelevance.

Can Hague keep foreign policy on course?

In today's Belfast Telegraph I look at coalition foreign policy and the internal tensions which William Hague must overcome to make sure that his realist philosophy is pursued.

Not only must the coalition determine how its new philosophical approach might translate into practice, there are also fault-lines within the Government, and within the Conservative Party, which could ensure tensions over foreign policy, rather than quarrels about the economy, are the greatest threat to its survival.
Perhaps the most conspicuous source of disagreement between the Conservatives and their new partners remains Europe.
Liberal Democrats champion a central role for the UK within the EU. By contrast, the Tories' manifesto promised to repatriate powers from Brussels to London and Hague is on the eurosceptic wing.
The minister has a delicate balancing act to perform: maintaining constructive relationships with key EU countries, fending off excess Lib Dem euro-enthusiasm and, simultaneously, rampant euroscepticism in his own party.
David Cameron's instant rapport with Angela Merkel should help. Their views might diverge when it comes to EU integration, but at the latest G8 summit they formed a united front on deficit reduction.
Cameron's easy confidence on the world stage will aid the Foreign Minister as he juggles the coalition's conflicting views on Europe and strives to maintain a 'special relationship' with the US. But Hague could find differences with the Defence Secretary trickier.
Liam Fox is a proponent of the type of liberal interventionism practised by Blair and David Miliband.
In opposition, Fox scolded Russia during the war in South Ossetia and remained reluctant to revise his opinion after an EU investigation showed Georgia had started the conflict. It was an example of the type of grandstanding diplomacy which Hague has pledged to avoid.
Indeed, the Foreign Secretary specifically earmarked Russia, and a clutch of emerging world powers, like China, India and Brazil, as states with whom Britain should be seeking to develop closer partnerships.
He also suggested that the UK needs to look afresh at the size of our military. Fox has flatly rejected the notion that the Armed Forces could be reduced in size.
Nevertheless, in order to forge a balanced and successful foreign policy, Hague must ensure that his cautious approach prevails.
Likewise, he must find a middle way on Europe, avoiding the hard scepticism of the Tory right, as well as Lib Dem enthusiasm for an integrated EU which is badly out of step with voters.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Cole comfort as Hodgson shows ambition in the transfer market.

A signing to warm the hearts of sceptical Liverpool supporters, awaiting the season with little enthusiasm (that's me!).  The creative England international Joe Cole, whose lack of football at the world cup actually enhanced his reputation, has today penned a four year deal at Anfield, becoming the new manager's first addition to the squad.

Cole is a quality player who attracted interest from Arsenal and Tottenham.  This signals that Roy Hodgson is not prepared to manage Liverpool's decline.  Instead he has ambitious plans and intends to craft a squad capable of claiming back a place in the Premier League's top four.  More importantly the signing will create some optimism around a rather dispirited club.   

Friday, 16 July 2010

Conspiracy theories and a blueprint for federal Moldova.

It’s over a week old, but I’ve just discovered an intriguing article on Michael Averko’s blog.  In a wide ranging discussion about disputed territories in Europe Averko drops in a snippet about the functionally independent Pridnistrovie region (also known as Transnistria or Transdniestria), which is widely recognised internationally as part of Moldova.

Apparently opponents of President Yanukovych are keen to foster the idea that a surreptitious agreement has been struck, between Kiev and Moscow, to absorb Pridnistrovie into Ukraine.  It's new to me, but it certainly fits the favoured narrative of a resurgent Russia, seeking to win back, territory by territory, its Soviet sphere of influence.

Averko points out glaring inconsistencies in a theory which is almost certainly designed to smear Yanukovych.  Neither Russia nor Ukraine support Pridistrovian independence and  Moscow has already knocked back a suggestion, popularly endorsed by referendum in the territory, that the breakaway region should become part of Russia.  As a solution, it would make no sense for either Ukraine or Russia, and it wouldn't be endorsed by a majority of Transnistrians.  

He does however imply that the idea could be a useful lever to achieve an enduring settlement in Moldova.  Perhaps the notion that absorption into Ukraine is a serious option could persuade Chisinau to grant Pridnistrovie substantial autonomy under a federal system.

In other words, could Russia and Yanukovych turn a conspiracy theory designed to attack them to their own ends?

It was my circumstances wot made me do it.

Shrine for a murderer

Two articles caught my eye in this morning’s papers, ostensibly about different issues, but bound together by a similar mindset.

The first was SDLP councillor Nicola Mallon’s apologia for rioters in North Belfast - not yet online at the Belfast Telegraph.

Although their actions are wrong, she suggests, we can’t forget the context which surrounds the violence.  Deprivation causes the poor mites at Ardoyne to riot.

The second appears in the Independent, written by regular columnist Mary Dejevsky.  She considers the case of cop-killer Raoul Moat and, like the despicable crowd joining a certain Facebook group, she has adopted him as a type of anti-establishment icon.

The murderous body-builder was apparently representative of a class of underdogs, “who genuinely feel that the odds, in the way society is organised today, are stacked against them”.

Now, I am far from a reactionary “hang ’em and flog ’em” type, but this rush to excuse disgraceful behaviour by blaming everyone else is just plain wrong.

The crimes are barely committed and their aftermath digested before someone is dashing to absolve the perpetrators of blame.

The circumstances experienced by Raoul Moat, who killed a police officer, or the rioters attempting to kill one in Belfast may not be ideal, but they are better than those experienced by many millions of people around the globe, who do not resort to violence, however acute their misery.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Top 10 blogs times again

Click here to vote in the Total Politics Best Blogs Poll 2010
It's that time of the year again.  Total politics is compiling its list of top 10 blogs.  There are a number of good new contenders to choose from, as well as all the old favourites.  And any votes for this particular site would of course be appreciated.

An obsession with constitutional change holding back devolved regions.

Unionist Lite investigates the think tank Policy Exchange’s latest report. ‘The Devolution Distraction’ (PDF), suggests that Scotland’s ‘constitutional obsession’ has led to bad government.  Its author, Tom Miers, finds that an increase in funding has not been matched by the achievements of the Scottish Executive.

The source of the failure is, Miers believes, a preoccupation with constitutional reform, to the exclusion of what we in Northern Ireland are fond of describing as ‘bread and butter issues’.
“Only on constitutional matters is there any drive for change.  Yet the problems Scotland faces are political in nature, not constitutional. If the huge increase in ‘accountability’ that took place with devolution in 1999 did not improve matters, there is no reason to suppose that further constitutional change will help.”
Holyrood, it is argued, already has the powers and the autonomy to get on with making Scotland a success.  The contention that it is hampered by Westminster is simply an excuse and a red herring.

It is a more thorough development of the instinctive argument, which many unionists launch, that devolved administrations tend to take credit for everything which goes right, and blame central government for everything which goes wrong.

Miers describes a ‘conspiracy of inaction’ which draws on an obsession with constitutional matters.  Although ‘the [devolved] mechanisms … have the potential to work well’ the contention that more powers are needed to provide effective government provides an inbuilt excuse for stasis.

The rewards for inaction are particularly tempting for nationalists, whose interests are advanced by seeming to prove that the current set-up is not sufficient.

I’m having a little trouble with the PDF beyond page 20, which means that I haven’t read the full document, but, so far, it has proved a compelling thesis.

Obviously some of the logic upon which it relies is more generally applicable to devolution settlements outside Scotland.  It would be interesting to see how it stood up to academic investigation, in that regard.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Unity on Orange terms is the last thing unionism needs

I contributed a column to Friday's Irish News, anticipating fresh calls from Orange platforms for 'unionist unity'.  I didn't watch the television highlights of demonstrations last night, and the Belfast Telegraph doesn't have much about Orange speeches in its Twelfth coverage, so the prediction remains to be tested.

The Irish News operates a subscription service and it is a facsimile of the daily newspaper which lies behind the paywall, rather than a genuine online version, but this (slightly edited) extract provides a summary

[T]he enduring ability of the Orange Order to undermine unionism, whenever it attempts to be constructive or threatens to box clever, (shouldn't be underestimated).  
The organisation, which is now considered a stalwart of the Union, took a while to be convinced of its merits.  During the first part of the nineteenth century senior Orangemen were zealous advocates of restored Dublin rule.  The Act of Union, they feared, would result in a modern form of citizenship, eventually delivering Catholics an entitlement to vote. 
They were right of course.  But the Order and its allies successfully worked for three decades to delay a measure aimed at quickly reconciling Irish Catholics to their place within the United Kingdom. 
Orangemen helped to sustain a nationalist conceit, which persists to this day, that unionism is nothing more than a response to, and a denial of, Ireland’s legitimate national aspirations.  
In those early years, Liberals and Peelite Conservatives in Ulster , driven by a positive allegiance to the British state, championed the Union for its ability to deliver Catholic emancipation, a Catholic university and the Reform Act.  Orange voices opposed all those things.  
Members of the Order were therefore among the most vocal campaigners against the development of a tolerant, modern British state, whose merits they now purport to cherish.  And the truth is that its interventions are just as unhelpful today to moderate unionists, who hope to appeal beyond the confines of the Ulster Protestant community. 
The Orange Order in South Belfast, for example, recently intervened in the general election campaign, calling for the withdrawal of an articulate young UCUNF candidate, Paula Bradshaw, in favour of the DUP’s rather less dynamic Jimmy Spratt.  
And Orange Grand Master, Robert Saulters, has repeatedly attempted to play midwife to a united unionist bloc.  He either doesn‘t accept, or doesn‘t care, that any party formed along those lines would have even less chance of attracting liberal or Catholic pro-Union voters, were it brought into existence with Orange help.
Neither is it an accident that the foremost proponents of ’unity’ within the Ulster Unionist party are Orangemen.  The most hard-headed fanatic, David McNarry, is unabashed about his belief that unionism is strengthened, rather than limited, when it aligns around a single identity.  
But there are also signs of exasperation at the Order’s political interference.  Tom Elliott, favourite to become UUP leader and a senior Orangeman himself, has urged the organisation to stay out of politics.  No ’unity’ sceptic, Elliott’s heckles were raised nevertheless by Saulters’ repeated interventions. 
The Orange Order frequently alleges that it is demonised and, to a degree, it has a point.  It is not the ogre of popular myth.  As a fraternal organisation it can play a constructive role and it forms an important part of the religious and cultural fabric of communities.  
It should not, however, have an active role in unionist politics.  Unionist politicians should ignore its demands for a united party and instead concentrate on building a secular and inclusive case for Northern Ireland’s continued participation in the United Kingdom.      

Friday, 9 July 2010

News Letter canvasses views on Union 2021

It’s worth flagging up the News Letter’s ’Union 2021’ series of articles, which is to run throughout the summer.  The paper is asking academics, commentators and politicians to consider how healthy our connection with  Great Britain will be, in ten years time, when Northern Ireland is one hundred years old.

The contributions are being drawn together on a Facebook page.  As yet I can’t find a similar section of the News Letter’s website, but only Paul Bew’s article so far has not made it online.  The common theme is confidence that the Union will endure, but there are differences as to the meaning and development of Northern Ireland’s UK status.

In a typically far sighted piece, Arthur Aughey argues that Ulster unionism’s constitutional preoccupation has become a mainstream concern since devolution and the resurgence of Scottish nationalism.  He urges unionists here to contribute to the debate about what Britain should become, in an age of ‘territorial diversity’.

Other notable contributions so far have been made by academics Henry Patterson, Alex Kane and Graham Walker, who all urge unionists in Northern Ireland to be constructive and participative.  The News Letter's own Ben Lowry notes the growing number of Catholics happy to describe themselves as 'Northern Irish'.

All good thoughtful stuff.  Mind you tomorrow Peter Robinson will stick his oar in.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Days of Thunder - Journalist's year with a marching band

In Blood and Thunder, Darach MacDonald does for marching bands what Ruth Dudley Edwards did for the Orange Order in The Faithful Tribe.  Entering the bandsmen’s world as an outsider, the Catholic journalist evaluates loyalist parades on their merits, as positive cultural phenomena, rather than intimidating displays of supremacy.

Last year MacDonald followed the “tight wee band”, Castlederg Young Loyalists, as it toured Northern Ireland during the marching season.  He discovered a group of disciplined musicians, committed to their music, who form part of a subculture comprising 20,000 young people.

And MacDonald is particularly good connecting flute bands within broader frameworks of culture.  The author not only sketches a long history of fifes and drums in Ulster, rooted in Orange and martial traditions, he also examines the similarities between ’blood and thunder’ and other types of ‘youth music‘.

His conclusion is that, although the bands are a product of age old Irish Protestant customs, they owe a great deal to popular culture as well.  The raw edge to the music coupled with thunderous percussion produced by the drummers, bears comparison with types of modern dance, or even the aggressive heavy metal favoured by American soldiers in Iraq and Afganistan.

MacDonald is adamant too that marching bands are rapidly evolving.  There is a shift away from cacophonous sound and edgy bandsmen, towards virtuosity and discipline.

The journalist is clear that the early ’blood and thunder’ movement could be rough and ready, with an emphasis on alcohol, aggression and paramilitary trappings.  However he argues that, two or three generations later, the most popular bands comprise accomplished musicians, who have made concerted efforts to express their culture positively.

With its youth, its competitive element and its political edge, MacDonald draws analogies between loyalist bands and the GAA.  He believes that both movements fulfil a similar role by inculcating values of discipline and local pride into young people in their respective communities.  Each offers young males “a controlled and energised environment to explore and give voice to their cultural identity”.

Aside from its cultural commentary, Blood and Thunder provides an intimate portrait of the bandsmen and women from Castlederg and a blow by blow account of the marching season.

The latter, recorded in diary form, can become rather repetitive, with long lists of venues and participating bands, drawing heavily on the News Letter’s weekly bands’ column.  The former provides the book with colour and human interest, depicting the Castlederg Young Loyalists as an engaging and motivated group, who welcome the journalist into their midst with good humour and openness.

As a border town, the scars of the Troubles are deep in Castlederg and despite the youthfulness of the band members, their outlook is shaped by a tragic events in the area.  The books contains powerful stories, which recount violent deaths in the small community, including those of members of the band.  Twenty three people from Castlederg were murdered by terrorists during the Troubles and no charges were brought for any of the killings.

It is this backdrop of recent, unresolved violence against which the author believes the occasional defiance of bandsmen should be judged.  And he also portrays great resilience in the book, without any political edge.  Neil Johnston, a young bandsmen involved in a serious car accident, is spurred on by his participation in marches to complete his rehabilitation and walk, against all the odds.

Blood and Thunder makes a lively and fair-minded companion to this year’s marching season.  It also immediately becomes the chief resource for an aspect of Ulster culture which has previously been ignored by the media and academics.

Where's our community spirit gone?

In today's Belfast Telegraph I wonder whether the social cohesion which saw Britain through previous crises has gone for good.
Are people today unwilling to make sacrifices for the greater good? It can certainly seem that way. The debt crisis has not been greeted universally by steely determination to sort out our collective financial woes.
Although most people accept that the deficit should be cut, or everyone will suffer the consequences, the blame and the buck are too often passed elsewhere. The attitude is that someone else, anyone else, can take our share of the pain.
Don't touch my water rates, my pension, my pay rise or the services my family use. Another sector, another department or another region can foot more of the bill. Even modest economies are fiercely contested. The message that a little restraint today will ensure a brighter future tomorrow cuts little ice.
It's a trite comparison, but one wonders how the United Kingdom would have defended itself had the current crop of Britons been responsible for keeping the home fires burning in the 1940s. The current Government has responded quickly to a crisis it inherited but, despite warning about cuts ahead, there's been little to inspire citizens to do their bit willingly. David Cameron and Nick Clegg speak about society sharing the pain, but their rhetoric is hardly Churchillian.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Where in the world is Lady Sylvia Hermon?

A fortnight after Sylvia Hermon's inactivity at Westminster was highlighted she has yet to make a contribution, according to 'TheyWorkForYou.com'.

Hermon - last spotted by this teddy bear.
In fact, now that the quasi-abstentionist MP for South Belfast, Alasdair McDonnell, has finally broken his silence, the member for North Down is the only Northern Ireland MP who has neither spoken nor tabled a question.  I gather, also, that Hermon was conspicuous by her absence whenever the Columbanus Festival was launched in Bangor.

The MP ran her campaign on the basis that she would turn up and, as an independent, make 'every vote count'.

It appears that the electorate in North Down has been conned.  Does this woman actually intend to do any represent her constituents at the House of Commons, or did she stand at the last election simply as a gesture of spite towards UCUNF?

(H/T Slug)

"I have done the business with Mary Harney four weeks ago."

McGimpsey - did the business with Harney
Northern Ireland's politicians have a great propensity for boasting about their readiness to "do the business".  Gerry Adams likes to claim he's up for "doing the business", Peter Robinson likewise, but no more so than the Health Minister, Michael McGimpsey (just not too often).
"I have done the business with (ROI health minister) Mary Harney four weeks ago in our meeting in Armagh.  And as far as I'm concerned until the next meeting comes along, that's it."
Quite so minister.

Monday, 5 July 2010

No more Mr Nice Guy .... new UUP boss must take a stand.

In Saturday's Belfast Telegraph (not online) I looked at the challenge facing a new UUP leader and called for a genuine battle of ideas in the leadership contest.

The UUP needs a fresh start.
They say that an addict has to reach rock bottom before he can mend his ways.  Has the UUP reached just such a political moment, after UCUNF‘s capitulation at the Westminster election?

Without an MP for the first time in its history, the party has promised to examine its failure thoroughly and make itself relevant again.

This process of reinvention will involve three strands.  Firstly, the UUP will complete the early selection of candidates for next year‘s Assembly elections.  Secondly, it will choose a new leader to take over in the Autumn.  Thirdly, throughout the summer, the party will review what went wrong in May.

Although candidate selection and self-scrutiny are critical to any resurgence, the leadership battle will determine the UUP’s chances of success.  A new leader must set the party’s course for the next few years.  He, and all the candidates mooted so far have been men, will be responsible for putting any other elements of the plan into practice.

Whoever emerges as the winner (Tom Elliott is a clear favourite) cannot simply wrestle with electoral strategy.  It is more important to determine what the UUP actually stands for - what is its purpose and where does it hope to go?  Unless the party can successfully engage with issues voters care about, and make sure its message is consistent, any amount of organisational tinkering will be in vain.

Certainly the late choice of candidates was a problem at the general election.  In particular UCUNF’s foremost target seat, South Antrim, saw a lengthy wrangle which culminated in the selection of  Sir Reg Empey, three short weeks before the poll.  And the UUP leader was at least a recognisable face, others had to build up their profiles from scratch.

While a new leader will have to consider such details, he can’t lose sight of the broader picture, if the party hopes to reconnect with voters who chose to stay at home, or put their X elsewhere.  That will involve making clear where the UUP stands on important issues, clamping down on internal dissent and defining a positive role for Northern Ireland in national politics.    

Given the party’s history as a ‘broad church’, the Ulster Unionist leadership is hardwired to seek consensus and strongly inclined to keep all strands of opinion on board.  The difficult truth is that this approach, which once ensured dominance, has been rewarded with diminishing returns since the 1980s.

The UUP is by turns both liberal and hardline, centre right and social democrat, anti-sectarian and intolerant.   While attempting to be ’all things to all people’ is not necessarily a bad political strategy, it takes a more disciplined party to successfully walk the tightrope.  Too often the UUP’s contradictions are played out publicly in clashes between senior figures or multiple takes on the one issue.  

Rather than make the party tighter, more disciplined and more coherent, there is real danger that Ulster Unionists will attempt to rebuild the looser, less purposeful coalition that preceded UCUNF.  This type of thinking is easily extended to some form of spurious pan-unionist pact.

The UUP needs to remember that its decline long preceded any dalliance with the Conservatives.  There was already confusion as to what the party stood for, simply because it is perilously difficult to build a comprehensible platform on bread and butter issues, when everyone has a different opinion and there is little or no discipline to enforce an agreed position.

Ironically, the party’s decision to endorse a prospective centre right government actually compounded the electorate’s confusion, thanks to blatant ambivalence toward the project at the most senior levels.

Instead of burying its political differences in a display of false unity, the UUP should allow them to animate its leadership contest.  Any prospective leader should set out clearly and openly where they stand on all the major issues, their plans for Stormont and how they envisage Northern Ireland’s playing a part in national politics.

Then, having received a mandate from the membership, they will have the authority to demand that the rest of the party backs their strategy.  Because, for the Ulster Unionist party, it is no longer enough to be ’nicer’ unionists than the DUP.      

Friday, 2 July 2010

New look, same old content.

You may (or may not) have noticed that 'Three Thousand Versts' has been tweaked in terms of appearance.  I've availed of some of the new design tools on Blogger, in an attempt to provide a slightly cleaner, less cluttered finish.  My question to readers is, does it work or do you prefer the old look?  And are there any reservations or annoyances which you would like ironed out (post content is not on the agenda!)?

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Hope springs eternal as Hodgson takes the reins at Anfield.

Traditionally, the appointment of a new manager would give fans cause for hope.

Roy Hodgson arrives at Anfield amid acute apprehension that Liverpool's best players are about to be sold, in order to service a sky high debt run up by the club's owners.  His first task will be to ensure that Gerrard, Torres and Mascherano all commit their futures to the reds.

The new manager has only once taken a job remotely comparable.  He steadied the ship at Inter Milan, but you could hardly accuse him of stacking up trophies at the Italian giants.

Liverpool supporters know that Hodgson's arrival does not rid the club of its most pressing problems.  They are looking for something to inspire hope and optimism elsewhere. It's a sad situation for a great club.

Hopefully, however other circumstances pan out, Hodgson gets the best from the players who do commit to Liverpool and spends whatever limited funds are made available wisely.  Joe Cole is available, and signing a quality player like that would at least allow fans to look forward to the new season with some enthusiasm.

All Ireland unionism and an important theory

‘Dilettante’ is rapidly becoming one of my favourite blogs.  Written by a ‘half Irish’ Conservative, based in Manchester, it takes a keen interest in constitutional issues and is stout in its defence of the Union.

In his latest post Dilettante explains that ‘what we have we hold’ is not the limit of his unionist philosophy.  He envisages a United Kingdom which could one day readmit the Republic of Ireland.

This aspiration, he notes, is usually filed under the bracket ’neo-unionism’, but it a deeply amenable concept to many secular unionists.

Although it is hardly a likelihood in the near to medium future, why not advocate such a possibility, in order to emphasise that ’Irishness’ is not necessarily the preserve of an independent Irish state?

The Republic of Ireland seceded from the United Kingdom.  I’m proud to be an Irishman from the part of Ireland which did not secede and I’d enthusiastically welcome any popular movement in the south to rejoin.

Of course there are few signs that any such movement could develop, but the notion that the Republic might join the Commonwealth is frequently mooted.  The Queen is likely to visit in the not so distant future.

The importance of the idea, which is as yet a pipe dream, is its desirability in theory.  It helps frame the context of unionism which recognises, and aspires to overarch, all the cultures of the British Isles.