Monday, 30 August 2010

McCrea is the candidate capable of delivering change.

With the much touted 'third man' failing to emerge in the UUP leadership contest, it now appears that the line-up will be Elliott vs. McCrea.  In the Belfast Telegraph Alex Kane penned a gloomy piece which suggests that neither candidate is capable of holding together the Ulster Unionist 'coalition'.  

It is true that the party's prognosis is grim, whoever takes charge.  Sir Reg Empey has to take responsibility for UCUNF's failure, but at least he made a serious attempt to carve out a new role for the UUP in unionist politics.  Neither candidate, so far, has articulated anywhere near so radical a plan for the party's future.

If, however, the leader is to be either Basil McCrea or Tom Elliott, only McCrea can offer anything which comes close to a prospectus for change.  Elliott has styled himself as the consensus candidate, but he cannot hide the fact that he represents the more traditional wing of the party and its values.

Of course there is no guarantee that McCrea can appeal to new voters and expand unionism's appeal beyond its historical base either but at least he intends to try.  Elliott can only hope to shore up the party's existing supporters and target an improvement in its former heartlands.  

The UUP has to grasp, once and for all, how serious its position is.  This leadership election represents a gamble - whether to 'stick or twist'.  Elliott might be able to manage the party's decline, deliver 14-15 MLAs and a decent representation in local councils.  The Ulster Unionists can be a junior, politer partner of the DUP in the future under Elliott.  

McCrea can, if he shows determination, deliver a party with a modern sensibility and a genuinely moderate unionist ethos.  He won't guarantee an immediate revival at the polling booth, but he does offer a different style of unionism.  

The question is, has the UUP reached rock bottom, or does it need to fall even further? 

Sunday, 29 August 2010

New international football blog

Just to point you in the direction of a new blog about the Northern Ireland football team, run in conjunction with the supporters' website Our Wee Country.  It's up and running in time to chart the latest farcical goings on at the IFA and assess the team's chances of claiming some points in Slovenia on Friday.  Expect more on that game here too.

Friday, 27 August 2010

CSI Belfast. Executive's integration strategy is a flimsy framework for sharing.

Well I'm now back in the country and a only a little knackered after a 2.30am start yesterday.  In time I will return to some of the developments in politics in Northern Ireland, including the UUP leadership race.  Hopefully I'll also share a few reflections on Istanbul, where I've spent the last nine days.  Any city which can simultaneously house a popular Ramadan festival and Gunther von Hagens Body Worlds exhibition makes an interesting subject!

To be going on with, in my absence the Belfast Telegraph published this article, in which I attack the OFMDFM's consultation document on a CSI strategy.

How best to set the mood for a Programme for Cohesion, Sharing and Integration in Northern Ireland? Not, ideally, by bickering for two years over the content of a discussion document.
Still, we mustn't be churlish. At least the First and deputy First Ministers have finally published a text for consultation and now the public can have its say.
Anyone with a passing interest in a shared future for Northern Ireland should certainly take time to respond to the CSI document. To put it mildly, it needs a bit of filling out. In fact the Cohesion Strategy, in its present form, is a flimsy manifesto for sharing - all fine words and little detail - and a gaping hole when it comes to integration.
Shared schools and mixed housing are a paradigm for any cohesive society, but the programme skates blithely over two issues central to its stated objectives.
It prefers platitudes and survey results from the Northern Ireland Life and Times survey, to targets and hard statistics about the costs of division.
Although the report makes a commitment to 'shared space', a push for more integrated education and housing is not included among its 'key aims'.
Existing statutory duties to increase provision in these areas are referenced, but it is a fleeting allusion and the text has nothing new to add.
SDLP Assembly Member Dolores Kelly summed the document up accurately when she observed that it "lacks conviction". In truth, our prospectus for sharing was authored by two parties, Sinn Fein and the DUP, who are uncommitted to the concept and undecided what it means.
The genesis of this latest, most serious push for a workable CSI strategy offers little evidence that the larger parties regard it a pressing priority.
It was finally brought to fruition only because Alliance linked development of 'Shared Future' to its acceptance of the justice portfolio. The CSI consultation is the offspring of February's negotiations over the devolution of policing - and it shows.
The 'Agreement', which followed days and nights of 'hot-house' talks at Hillsborough Castle, was a study in ambiguity, and the new document is scarcely any different.
It accepts that we should all rub along together better, and that, objectively, sectarianism is a bad thing, but there is scant acknowledgment that segregation does society substantial and profound damage.
Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness will argue that the programme is a starting point; an outline whose detail will be fleshed out by public consultation and various Executive departments.
But it has been two years in the making and it is clearly not sufficiently robust, even as a template, to support a successful strategy.
The document, for instance, does not attempt to quantify a financial cost for segregation in our community. As a starting point, the Alliance Party claims that approximately £123m efficiency savings can be quickly achieved by tackling division.
While those figures are questionable, the Programme for Cohesion does not make a contribution to the debate on possible economic benefits of integration.
That's an important omission, because putting a price-tag on segregation emphasises that CSI is not a wishy-washy aspiration, it is about tackling concrete problems which have measurable effects.
Too often 'shared future' is portrayed as a preoccupation of interfering do-gooders; as though its ambition were to ensure everyone here has an inclusive circle of friends from which to craft politically correct dinner party guest-lists. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Huge amounts of money are spent replicating public services in Northern Ireland, each year, just so neighbours from different backgrounds do not have to use the same facilities.
'Shared future' is about society saying enough is enough. It is important to integrate, not because cross-community friendships are warm and cuddly, but because we can no longer afford segregation.
The CSI document needed to reflect an instinctive, hard-edged grasp of sharing, which Sinn Fein and the DUP conspicuously lack.
The two parties are elected to fight a corner for their respective communities, in terms of resources, services and jobs. Their political interests are bound up with peace lines and separate amenities.
If folk who live two streets away do not want to use the same leisure centre or doctor's surgery, it is a DUP or Sinn Fein representative who will take up their cause.
Instead, our political leaders should be telling people that it is too expensive, economically and socially, to operate de facto apartheid, whenever the state is expected to pick up the bills.
An uncomfortable and uncompromising message for sure. The very antithesis of the woolly aspiration which critics allege 'shared future' comprises.
The woolliness actually comes into play where the concept is interpreted by politicians who either don't understand, or don't accept, its precepts. They make a half-hearted commitment to integration, but push its achievement ever further down their to-do list.
The Programme for Cohesion, Sharing and Integration threatens to entrench that approach as official policy.
Its consultation offers a last chance for people in Northern Ireland to ensure that flesh goes on the bones and any resultant legislation is rendered meaningful.

Monday, 16 August 2010

All quiet on the eastern front

Postings on Three Thousand Versts have already been regrettably intermittent over the summer.  In my defence, blogs are allowed a silly season too.  With the UUP leadership debate getting underway in earnest in September and political life in general cranking back into gear again service should return to normal.  There will, however, be a short cessation to recharge the batteries.  See you soon!  

Friday, 13 August 2010

IFA carries on regardless with the Celtic Cup

Jennings launches the Carling Nations Cup
In the aftermath of recent events, I’m disappointed to see that the Irish Football Association obviously still intends to send a team to take part in the ‘Carling Nations Cup’, hosted by the FAI next February.  Yesterday Pat Jennings attended the launch of the new competition at the Aviva Stadium on behalf of the IFA.

Although the round robin tournament in theory offers a change from endless rounds of stultifying international friendlies, now is not the time to taking part in a new enterprise with the FAI.  The breakaway association has demonstrated time and time again that it doesn’t respect the IFA’s remit.

There is widespread scepticism among Northern Ireland fans about this Celtic competition, which will feature the original Ireland team, the breakaway Catholic Irish team, Wales and Scotland.  Indeed the idea of a boycott has already been bandied about.

A match played against the breakaway side, with Northern Ireland fans understandably fuming at that association’s incorrigible behaviour, is a bad idea.  A piecemeal boycott is an equally untenable proposition.  The IFA should immediately withdraw from the competition in protest at their treatment.  The problem is that it has no backbone.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Time to bench Healy but Paterson on the right is a waste of time.

It’s just short of a month since Spain lifted the World Cup , but international football is already set to return for the 2010/11 season.  For the original Ireland team, it will be a relief to get back to onfield action, after a summer dominated by other issues.

Nigel Worthington’s men are in Montenegro for a warm-up friendly, in advance of September’s European Championship opener against Slovenia.  And warm-up is the operative word.  Temperatures in Podgorica are set to soar into the mid thirties today.

The value of these type of occasions is a matter for debate.  Club managers are resentful when players are taken away, in the middle of last minute preparations for the new season, and senior players often pull-out of games which are perceived to be meaningless.

Nigel Worthington will argue that it is a useful chance to blood inexperienced squad members before a qualifying campaign, where they might well be needed.  It’s also an opportunity for seasoned players to get back in the international mindset, weeks before an important competitive clash.

Then there’s the little matter of Northern Ireland’s first choice centre forward pairing.  It is vital that Worthington establishes, before the important action, who should partner Kyle Lafferty up front.

Incredibly, David Healy is no longer assured of his place in the team.  He faces another season frozen out of top level action at Sunderland and his last heroics in a green shirt are beginning to fade ever further in the rear-view mirror of memory.

I’ve supported Healy’s claims to automatic selection in the past, but the problems of form and fitness are becoming critical.  Unless he can unexpectedly break into the Sunderland team, or secure first team football elsewhere, Worthington must regard other strikers a better bet to score.

That means finding a foil for Lafferty, the most talented of Northern Ireland’s younger front-men.  Martin Paterson, the Burnley forward, could well start tonight, but he has performed poorly in previous matches, hindered by the manager’s tendency to start him on the right wing.

Warren Feeney is the tried and tested option.  He moved to Oldham during the summer and his goals played an important part in the World Cup qualifying series.

My fear is that Worthington will deploy Paterson wide once again and a chance will be lost to determine whether he can finally show goal-scoring form in a Northern Ireland shirt.

The Irish team is now uniquely handicapped in world football and needs no further neutering by a manager whose selections are often baffling.  Any achievements, however, will be all the sweeter if FIFA’s discrimination is overcome.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Political fall-out from Russian fires can't be assessed now.

The New York Times reports disillusionment in Russia with the authorities’ response to wild fires and deaths resulting from this summer’s heat-wave. Even Ria Novosti, a news agency owned by the Kremlin, records ‘waning support’ for the President and Prime Minister. In particular it quotes a source citing ’growing fatigue surrounding Putin’s popularity’.

The prime minister, as is his style, has publicly taken charge of efforts to combat the wildfires. According to Ria Novosti, he took to the air in order to personally extinguish two blazes, within 200km of Moscow. The story describes Putin’s antics as a ‘stunt’, which, on reflection, is hardly an inaccurate description.

Voices of opposition in the media are even more critical. The horrendous controversialist, Yulia Latynina, writing in the Moscow Times, characteristically claims that “in developed countries, citizens don’t perish in fires”. Her fiercest criticism is reserved for Putin, who signed off a ’Forest Code’ in 2007, which prohibited forest rangers from putting out small, naturally occurring wild-fires.

That decision has been cited in a number of articles about the current crisis. At Sublime Oblivion, however, Anatoly Karlin makes a spirited defence of the code. If forests are not permitted ’small contained fires every few years .. layers of dead biomass accumulate’ and the threat of out of control conflagrations becomes substantially more serious.

He argues that an un-containable natural disaster has occurred, due, for the most part, to climate change. The Russian government’s response may well be inadequate, but it could not hope to avoid entirely the backlash which follows any such event.

That is a critical point. No doubt there is a lot of concern and anger in Russia just at the moment. Some of it will be directed at the government. The same happens in any society which is hit by a crisis of this scale. There is certainly no evidence at the moment to suggest that any cover-up has taken place.

Whether the public takes out its frustration on Medvedev and Putin, in the long-term, remains to be seen. It is certainly not the time to judge while Russia is still burning.

Monday, 9 August 2010

SNP's Islamist wing slammed by anti-extremism watchdog.

The Scottish Executive’s flirtation with radical Islam has been highlighted before, on this blog, and elsewhere.  Now the Scottish Islamic Foundation, which has claimed a full third of ’equality’ funding in Scotland, since 2007, has been named as an 'entry level' Islamist group by anti-extremist think tank, the Quilliam Foundation.

The group was set up by Osama Saeed, who stood as an SNP candidate in the last election.  Its spokespersons have advocated introducing Sharia law to Scottish jurisprudence and state funded Islamic schools.

The Scotsman reports that the Quilliam Foundation, a brain child of former radical Islamists, recommends that ’local and central government should be wary of engagement with these groups’, citing a risk of ’empowering the ideology behind terrorism’.

Two years on from conflict in Georgia, Russia seeks to win the peace.

President Medvedev talks to President Bagapsh in Sukhumi.

Two years ago this weekend Georgian shells started to rain down on South Ossetia’s capital, Tskhinvali.  The robust military action which Russia took to defend the contested breakaway republic is still a matter of controversy.

However, the European Union’s fact-finding report confirmed, unequivocally, that acts of aggression from Georgia marked the beginning of the conflict.  The document bolstered the case for governments in the US and EU to reconsider their reflexive backing for President Saakashvili.

The regime in Tbilisi continues to show, periodically, an authoritarian bent, and its behaviour is still erratic.  Saakashvili’s military gamble, which briefly threatened to push the US into direct confrontation with Russia, now looks like a massive miscalculation.

Dmitry Medvedev marked the war’s anniversary by visiting Abkhazia, the other Black Sea region whose unilateral declaration was accepted by the Kremlin, in the wake of conflict.  Recognition comes at a price and the investment programmes which the Russian President unveiled are dependent on economic reforms, which will integrate the two tiny republics’ economies with Russia’s.

Moscow argues that harmonisation and the free movement of goods are necessary, if South Ossetia and Abkhazia are to prove viable entities.  In Tskhinvali, where there is support for a united Ossetia within the Russian Federation, that proposition is uncontroversial.  In the Abkhazian capital, Sukhumi, there is a more independent spirit and Russia’s mentorship is viewed as a necessity, rather than an end in itself.

Certainly, for the region’s stability, and for the citizens of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the republics’ economic rehabilitation is a necessity.  Before the war the most likely solution to the problem of these breakaway areas was an acceptance of autonomy by Georgia.  Having tasted recognition, albeit limited, of their statehood, that is unlikely to satisfy the governments in Sukhumi or Tskhinvali any longer.

Friday, 6 August 2010

The third man? The UUP's mystery leadership hopeful.

The News Letter reports this morning that Sir Reg Empey is to step down within ten days, in order to let the UUP’s leadership battle begin in earnest.  Other contenders can then officially join Tom Elliott MLA, the only hopeful who has openly declared an intention to stand, in a contest which will culminate in a vote, open to all party members, scheduled for the 23rd September (or the 24th if you prefer to believe the BBC).

Certainly Basil McCrea will break cover and add his name to the race, once the formalities are taken care of.  Behind the scenes, his campaign is already cranking into gear.  He offers a liberal alternative to Tom Elliott’s traditional Orange credentials.  McCrea is known as a pragmatist who is happy to reach out across community boundaries and he is perhaps the party’s most polished media performer.

There is a perception, however, that the Lagan Valley MLA’s ’bottom line’ - the detail of what he stands for and the fundamentals of his political philosophy - is not known.  He needs to put ’meat on the bones’ if his challenge is to become fully formed.  Otherwise he will remain a 'least worst' option for members who are wary of Elliott’s Orange background, his Fermanagh location and his sympathy for ’unionist unity’.

There is also the intriguing suggestion that more contenders might come forward, after Empey steps down.  Alex Kane mentions, in his News Letter column, ’a potential candidate’ who is hostile to the Conservative pact.  At Devenport’s Diaries, blogsitter Martina Purdy,  dismisses several names who have been linked to the leadership contest.

Alan McFarland, whose attendance at the Assembly has dropped away dramatically since he became an independent, is understood not to be interested in a comeback and a second tilt at the position.  Jim Nicholson is UCUNF’s only successful candidate so far and has cooperated with Conservative colleagues in Brussels for years.  Even if he were interested, he could hardly be the figure Kane is describing.  Likewise Tim Lemon, who backed the Tory pact, and made an unsuccessful bit to unseat party chairman, David Campbell.

So the identity of the anti-Conservative candidate remains a mystery.  A McGimpsey or even a Hermon, perhaps?  The News Letter adds grist to the rumour mill by suggesting that the contender might be unelected.

An unelected but influential figure, sceptical about the current Tory party leadership and convinced that UCUNF is ’dead as Monty Python’s parrot’?  Who does that sound most like, I wonder?

Kevin Myers rips into The Guardian

Early this year the Guardian provided blanket coverage of Sinn Fein’s ‘Irish Unity’ conference in London.  A questionable editorial choice, given that the talking shop was considered irrelevant by just about every other British newspaper.

Usually its pages are light on comment from Northern Ireland, but the paper’s one regular contributor of Ulster opinion is a certain Gerry Adams.  Whatever patronising, tacked together, imbecilic garbage occurs to the Sinn Féin president, can’t be rushed to the Guardian’s presses quickly enough.

His latest sortie draws ridiculous parallels between Afghanistan and the Northern Irish Troubles.  And I only wish that Kevin Myers response had also been carried by a national British paper.  It appeared in the Irish Independent and you can also read the full article in today’s Belfast Telegraph.  Here I reproduce my edited highlights.
I'll take criticisms of NATO/US/British policies in Afghanistan from anyone -- Amnesty International, the Quakers, the Greens, even The Kingstown Presbyterian Sewing Circle -- but by God I won't take it from that lying Pharisee, Mr Gerard Adams, MP, who now swears he was never in the IRA. There's a lawful war in Afghanistan, authorised by the UN, in which soldiers from 40 countries -- including Ireland -- are serving. So what in the name of all the gods of journalism is 'The Guardian' doing, employing a defeated terrorist warlord as a moral arbiter over the British Army that had effectively beaten  
NOW, I'm not really too surprised that the wretched little Jolyon or Tarquin of 'The Guardian' -- who commissioned Gerry Adams to write a moralising sermon about Afghanistan -- apparently knows nothing about events in Northern Ireland. After all, few English people usually seem capable of remembering anything at all about Ireland, but English liberals, out of an apparent mixture of masochistic insipidity and pathological self-loathing, seem positively to rejoice in regular recitals of British atrocities. So naturally, Jolyon or Tarquin are probably totally unaware of the IRA's murderous deeds: Birmingham (21 dead), White Cross (10 dead) and La Mon (12 dead, including three married couples), never mind Gerry Adams's many little japes.
But have 'The Guardian' features editors already forgotten the allegations of only a few months ago, that for two decades, Gerry Adams had done nothing substantial about a republican who decades before had been accused of child-rape? The alleged victim finally told Gerry Adams about this accusation 22 years ago -- and the result was not the usual IRA response: a bag over the head, and a hole in both. No indeed: the Sinn Fein activist in question moved from Belfast to Sinn Fein circles in Dundalk, and later to the US and Donegal.
So, as a matter of interest, would 'The Guardian' ever commission an article denouncing British policy in Afghanistan from an Irish Catholic bishop, against whom were resting allegations of passivity over child-abuse such as those being made against Gerry Adams MP?

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

No magic bullets but doing the right thing can still benefit unionists.

Civic and economic arguments for Union are not magic bullets which can transform ideological nationalists into enthusiastic unionists.  I don’t think anyone ever suggested that they were.  Certainly I’m under no misapprehensions in that regard.

In my contribution to Union 2021, I advocated unionism which plugs into the UK mainstream, and addresses economic issues as a matter of urgency, because it can make Northern Ireland more successful and secure wider acceptance of our place in the United Kingdom.  Lee at Ultonia, in a constructive blogpost, accuses me of economic determinism, which I don’t think is quite fair.

I prioritise economics in the article because economics will frame the fiercest debates in the UK over the next ten years and reshaping Northern Ireland‘s economy is the immediate task for local politicians within that context.  If unionism is to move beyond its constitutional preoccupation, to offer 'unionism plus', then economics has got to be the place to start.  I certainly don’t believe that growing the private sector is a panacea for all our difficulties.  I don't believe it will make separatism disappear.

Nor should a new emphasis in unionist politics be viewed as some type of ’triangulation’ exercise (to use the hideous jargon of party tactics).  An unreformed unionism attempting to lure centre ground voters by turning its attention away from a hardcore of supporters which it takes for granted.

The goals of normalising politics, participating nationally and appealing across community boundaries, are worth pursuing in and of themselves.

The dogmas of nationalism will not dissolve because unionism starts emphasising its compatibility with a range of identities and cultures.  However, fewer of the twenty odd per cent of Catholics who are sympathetic to the Union might be inclined to vote along communal lines.  In the event of a border referendum, it’s difficult to envisage how unionism’s cause would be damaged by paying less attention to identity issues and more to the economy.

That’s why Christopher Montgomery’s analysis in the News Letter puzzled me.  Nationalists are not unionists, nor or they more unionist than they used to be, he argued.

And?  I’m not sure that anyone had ever suggested either of the theses which he is so keen to rebut.

Regardless of how nationalism chooses to present itself:

Unionists' best response is to continue to build a plural and positive case for Union. And to make Northern Ireland a successful and indispensable region of the United Kingdom.

The Maze was no Aviva

Irish rugby unveiled its new home on Saturday.  The Aviva Stadium, situated on the site of the old Lansdowne Road ground, is a gleaming glass and steel structure which, despite reservations about its capacity for Six Nations matches, instantly becomes Ireland's most impressive sports' venue.

In Northern Ireland the chances of a multi-sports arena being built in the foreseeable future died with plans for a stadium at the Maze.  In today's Belfast Telegraph I anticipate the complaints that we too could've had a world class facility and I argue that the middle of nowhere was never a plausible location.

a city centre arena, like the one unveiled in Dublin, was never on offer in Northern Ireland. The Government, backed by Sinn Fein and the DUP's former Culture Minister, Edwin Poots, repeatedly stressed that it was the Maze or nothing.
The prevailing wisdom of town-planners, developers and academics was against an out-of-town development. Examples of similar projects elsewhere also suggested that it was a bad idea, but the sports' governing bodies were told that no alternative would receive official sanction.
Served by inadequate transport links and lacking any other infrastructure, the Maze was an unlikely site for a world-class facility and a prime location for a 'white elephant'.
The IFA, the Ulster Branch and the GAA did eventually sign up to the proposals, but their backing was always lukewarm. Fans, who were, after all, to be the end users of any stadium, were even less enthusiastic.
True, the GAA fraternity, accustomed to showpiece occasions at rural venues, was comfortable enough with the Maze plans. Ulster Rugby supporters were prepared to tolerate some Heineken Cup matches played outside Belfast, but there was no appetite to relocate, wholesale, from Ravenhill.
The vast bulk of Northern Ireland football fans were still less equivocal, rejecting, in no uncertain terms, the IFA's acceptance of the Maze as a future home for the international team.
Some pundits and nationalist politicians were quick to dismiss these legitimate concerns and imply a political undercurrent to the supporters' objections.
In fact, the fans' protests voiced no anxiety about sharing facilities with rugby or GAA, nor were they preoccupied with the Maze's place in republican history. Football simply had most to lose from a bad decision, because all international home games were set to be played at the new stadium.
The Northern Ireland fans' lobby, co-ordinated by the Amalgamation of Supporters' Clubs, highlighted, with remarkable acuity, genuine difficulties with the proposed site. A series of papers were produced examining problems with the Maze, related to transport, capacity, design, location and the economy.
Supporters' groups also proved eloquent advocates of alternative proposals, designed to accommodate all three major sports, within walking distance of Belfast city centre. Their view on the transformative potential of urban sites was supported by a survey commissioned from the University of Ulster by Belfast City Council.
And it won unlikely political backing from the SDLP, which belatedly championed a city centre stadium's economic benefits.
Northern Ireland fans, and other proponents of an arena in Belfast, reflected an expert consensus that modern stadia should be sited in city centres rather than out of town. Now that the Maze plans are dead and there will not be a multi-sports stadium, the argument that an out-of-town development would be better than none at all will gain currency.
Yet what if it had been built and opened in the teeth of financial crisis? It's doubtful that the private investment required to fill out the site with amenities would have materialised.
The Aviva is enviable because it combines space-age design with a location in central Dublin. We should admire it and aspire to something similar.
But it certainly doesn't make a drafty, underused Maze Stadium, surrounded by vacant lots, a better idea.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

The Islamist paradox in Turkey

The Bosphorous Straits: Where Europe meets Asia

David Cameron’s recent remarks in Turkey aroused some interest in my household, because we are currently planning a trip to Istanbul.  In preparation, various books with a Turkish theme are strewn here and there.

Our hastily assembled reading list is often, unsurprisingly, preoccupied with competing European, Central Asian and Middle Eastern influences which are brought to bear on the country.  It is the territory of Orhan Pamuk’s fiction and a recurring motif of his memoir, Istanbul: Memories of a City.

Burke’s Corner has hosted a debate on Turkey’s European credentials in recent days.  Brian is insistent that the country’s cultural and religious heritage sets it apart from the rest of the continent, but his contention has met stiff resistance from some commentators.

In Christopher de Bellaique’s Rebel Land, which examines Turkey from the wilds of the south-east, bordering Iraq, the author concludes that it ’contains, in a big rectangle, both a ’we’ and an ’other’’.  It is an interesting reflection in an interesting book.

De Bellaique, a British journalist fluent in Turkish, was convinced by Turkey’s secular bona fides when he lived in Istanbul.  Indeed he even described himself as a Kemalist.  Moving to Tehran, he became smitten by Persian culture and defends the Islamic republic against its fiercest critics.

Given this history of caprice (he was previously a denier or the Armenian genocide), I wonder whether his commentary on Turkish minorities is entirely reliable.  Certainly, an unseemly sympathy for Islamism and Kurdish separatism occasionally creeps into the book.  The author’s objection to the PKK seems to lie with its authoritarian tendencies, rather than its terrorist tactics.

However, toward the end of Rebel Land, an interesting paradox is suggested.  Under the moderate Islamic regime of Prime Minister Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, Turkey’s hopes of EU accession may have been bolstered rather than undermined.

Ironically, the belligerent secular edge of Turkish republicanism repelled, rather than attracted, Brussels.  To the Justice and Development Party, the bond which fellow Muslims share is more important than civic claims of the state.  It has therefore relaxed policies on minorities and overtly religious displays which often courted international disapproval.

Despite its brand of Islamism appearing an anathema to Europe, an Islamic party, rolling back prohibitions against the religion, may have made Turkey a more realistic proposition for EU membership.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Make Northern Ireland work economically and it will work politically.

In this morning's News Letter I make my contribution to the Union 2021 series.

NO contributor to Union 2021 so far, with Jim Allister the conspicuous exception, believes that Northern Ireland's position within the United Kingdom is under immediate threat.
I agree with the majority view. Our constitutional status is safe.

The important question is not whether we will be part of the UK in 2021 (we will). Instead, we should consider how we can start to participate fully in the UK at a political level and broaden acceptance of our British status, locally and nationally.

These goals are within the grasp of unionists in Northern Ireland like never before. The key to their realisation is outward-looking politics, plugged into the UK mainstream.

The biggest threat to their achievement is a possible retreat to the trenches of identity politics, under the guise of "unionist unity".

With a new pro-Union government at Westminster, unionists in Northern Ireland are, for the first time in a generation, working with the grain of British politics.

If there is a will to move from the sidelines, we have an unparalleled opportunity to normalise our position within a devolved UK.

That means striving to build an enterprise economy, so that we can be weaned off our dependence on the financial subvention from London. If Northern Ireland can be made to work economically, then it will work politically.

It makes little sense for unionists to keep pushing the constitutional issue to the fore.

If instead the focus is on economic achievement, contributing to the politics and culture of the UK and ensuring that Northern Ireland is a desirable place to live for everyone, then support for the Union will flourish. If we are seen to pay our way, then mainland resentment at our addiction to subsidies will die away.

Unionism should always work to make the UK successful and ensure that Northern Ireland benefits from that success.

It must always seek to be broader, rather than narrower. It is hard to envisage a single unionist party broadening, rather than narrowing, unionism's appeal.

If truth be told, the most common arguments for "unionist unity" concentrate less on defending our UK status and more on culture. The mentality is that one tradition needs, constantly, to fight its corner against the other.

The notion is therefore advanced that unionism must unite in order to counter the advances of nationalism.

In fact, nationalism is strengthened whenever unionism is monolithic, inward-looking and concerns itself with the well-being of one community. Where unionism is pluralist, outward-looking and emphasises its compatibility with a range of cultures, nationalism becomes uncomfortable.

Unionists from across these islands should certainly argue together the benefits of the United Kingdom and the harmfulness of nationalist separatism, but in Northern Ireland unionism should also seek to reflect a broader range of social and economic opinions at the ballot box.

At assembly level, it is important that unionism's diversity is represented and that power-sharing works well. It would be silly to become preoccupied with the largely symbolic matter of whether Sinn Fein can claim the first minister's post.

Unionist parties certainly need to rethink their politics, but 'unity' threatens to divert, rather than concentrate, their energies on that task.

No right-thinking person wants Martin McGuinness to become first minister.

Sinn Fein's success is the most conspicuous political evidence of sectarianism in Northern Ireland. However, if McGuinness were to take the post, it would be a symbol of our dysfunction, rather than its cause.

Unionists' best response is to continue to build a plural and positive case for Union. And to make Northern Ireland a successful and indispensable region of the United Kingdom.