Thursday, 30 September 2010

Can Elliott pilot the UUP towards calmer waters?

I'll add a link to the full article if and when it eventually appears on the Belfast Telegraph website, but yesterday I evaluated Tom Elliott's chances of steadying the 'good ship UUP', in the newspaper.

When UUP members elected a new party leader at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall last week, they chose time-honoured Ulster values over the pluralist sensibilities and media savvy of modern politics.  Tom Elliott may be younger than his opponent Basil McCrea, but the delegates, overwhelmingly elderly and male, saw a man in their own image nonetheless. 
Elliott is a genial Fermanagh farmer of Orange stock, who represents a return to some old fashioned certainties for the UUP.  All the airy talk of normalising politics and building pan-UK unionism, which preceded the last election, is now at an end.  UCUNF, the new leader says, is dead, deceased, an ex electoral pact.  
Rather than develop a ‘big idea’ to replace it, Elliott intends first to shore up the UUP’s existing support, and then to eat into the soft underbelly of the DUP vote, which Ulster Unionists still consider theirs by right.  The party believes that a doughty unionist Everyman is needed to oversee this project and if he lacks torrential eloquence, far from proving a handicap, it might actually endear him to voters.
Tom Elliott fits the description and the theory perfectly, but his down to earth persona is at once a strength and a weakness.  Can he really hope to inspire the UUP and capture the public’s attention in a media age?  Can he even hold together a divided and demoralised party, after a leadership battle which exposed its fault-lines to the world?
I highlight the Ringland affair, which suggests that the new leader will have his work cut out.  And I observe that Elliott must find a way to reconcile the younger element, who supported McCrea, to his leadership.

They are the generation which UCUNF brought to prominence and they share a conviction that the old guard’s ham-fisted approach to the Conservative link-up contributed to its failure.  Having acquired some experience at the frontline, it’s unlikely they’ll want to take a back seat under Tom Elliott.  He must find a way to harness their energies or face internal disaffection. 
That means giving the DUP a wide berth.  Elliott rubbished the idea of ’unionist unity’ during his leadership bid, but defined the concept in deliberately narrow terms.  He spoke about ’cooperation’ with other parties and, conspicuously, didn’t rule out coordinating unionist Assembly election candidates with the DUP.  
If such an arrangement does not offend the principles of the new generation of UUP activists, it will certainly frustrate their electoral ambitions.  Ulster Unionists would necessarily be junior partners in any deal with the DUP, and that won’t be allowed happen, nor will the party forfeit the moral high ground over its rival, without an almighty internal struggle.
For all the emphasis which Elliott’s supporters put on his ability to unite the party, a split is possible.  Ringland could be the first, but if others follow, they will surely seek another vehicle for their political aspirations.  
The idea of secular, pluralist unionism strikes a chord with only a limited number of voters, but at the moment most of them support the UUP.  Many more unionists are at least sympathetic to the idea that Northern Ireland should play a central role in UK politics, even if they weren’t prepared to vote for UCUNF on its first electoral outing.  
If a new party espousing such policies were to emerge, it could spell disaster for a rump UUP.  Similarly, if the Northern Ireland Conservatives, who are quietly and steadily building up their presence at constituency level, attract high profile defectors, it could give the Tories the local identity they crave and prove more than a nuisance for Tom Elliott.     
Whoever emerged as Ulster Unionist leader, it was inevitable that the party would face a critical period in its history.  A majority of members trust Elliott to keep a steady hand on the tiller.  If he navigates the good ship UUP to calmer waters relatively unscathed it will be an achievement.  More likely it will perish on the  jagged rocks of an internal split, or simply drift quietly into political irrelevance.  

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Medvedev shows an iron fist in the cause of reform as Luzhkov is dismissed

Further evidence of Dmitry Medvedev’s growing assertiveness in the cause of reform. After a public spat, Yuri Luzhkov, the demotic mayor who ran Moscow like a private fiefdom, has been dismissed by the Russian president.

Luzhkov, a Yeltsin functionary and then a fixture of United Russia who had held his position since 1992, clashed with Medvedev when the Kremlin cancelled a road building project, due to objections by environmental campaigners.

Against a powerful enemy, often portrayed as untouchable, the President showed steely determination. In recent weeks Russian state TV shone a spotlight on the corrupt kleptocracy which Luzhkov operated in Moscow, in order to enrich his own family.

Despite clear signals from the Kremlin that his reign was nearing its end, the mayor clung on to the bitter end and refused to jump. Medvedev held his nerve and applied a much needed shove.

The interesting aspect of this dismissal is that Luzhkov had made some very dismissive comments about the President, suggesting that Russia needed a stronger and more decisive leader at its helm.

With the 2012 presidential election approaching that could clearly be interpreted as a call for Vladimir Putin to return to the top post.

Medvedev believes he has work still to do at the Kremlin, in particular modernising Russia’s economy and recalibrating its foreign policy to attract trade. He may not be as unnerved or unseated as easily as some commentators presume.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Normality still within our grasp in Northern Ireland - guest post.

The following is a guest post by Dr Phil Larkin


So, over the past days we have seen Tom Elliott, the “traditionalist” UUP leadership candidate achieve a very convincing win over his “moderniser” opponent, Basil McCrea. Initially, this author was a little disappointed at this result, believing that the Party itself, as well as progressive, outward-looking unionism needed someone like McCrea, a science (engineering) graduate who completed his first degree at an English university. However, on reflection, it is possible that, if McCrea and moderate unionists stand their ground within the Party, and do not decide to abandon it, and if Tom Elliott means what he says about the UUP continuing to be a welcoming place for the likes of McCrea and his allies, then the Party will continue to have a future. I do not believe that the “modernising” rump of unionists should even think about forming a new political grouping, but rather stay and fight for progress and common sense to prevail within the already existing UUP. The nearest example of what happens when a moderate breakaway faction leads a larger political grouping to form their own is provided for by the Social Democratic Party (SDP), in Great Britain, which led nowhere except oblivion.

Almost three years ago, I wrote an article for another blog advocating the unity of the two main unionist parties in Northern Ireland, the UUP and the DUP. Although I have no regrets about having written the article, I now view such a development not only as undesirable, but impossible also. There are simply too many irreconcilable differences between the different branches of unionism for a merger to work, and this is not just a simple question of metropolitan versus cultural unionism. Since becoming the major unionist grouping in Northern Ireland a number of years ago, the DUP have shown little inclination to move forward the narrative of local politics in any dynamic way. In addition, the all-important unionist middle-classes, who remain so detached from the world of politics, are still given no real incentive or encouragement to re-engage, something which is vital to the future of unionism in the long term. In certain respects, their somewhat traditional attitude towards local government curiously mirrors that of Sinn Fein, in that the vision of what they hope to achieve in office is largely concerned with “pork barrel” aims, that is, dividing up the spoils of the annual grant. That local politics could still be like this in 2021, the anniversary of the founding of Northern Ireland, is a profoundly depressing prospect (see the recent “Union 2010” series in the News Letter).

There is one key issue that the new UUP leadership will have to face up to if he wishes to reverse the fortunes of his party, and that is the local economy. I will proceed to explain later in this article.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Elliott's 'coy definition' of unionist unity leaves the way open for agreed candidates.

In this morning's Irish News I review the UUP leadership campaign and examine the repercussions of Tom Elliott's win.  I conclude by examining his attitude to 'unionist unity':
That leaves the tired old mantra of ’unionist unity’.   Although the Fermanagh MLA rejected it during the campaign, his coy definition covered only the formation of a single unionist party.  That won‘t happen, but there are other options, short of merger with other parties, which are equally unpalatable to liberal Ulster Unionists.  
There is ample evidence, for example, that a drive to agree Assembly election candidates with the DUP is already underway, in Belfast at least.  Elliott’s predecessor, Sir Reg Empey, endorsed meetings between the two parties, aimed at maximising unionist representation in the city.
That might offer the type of ’cooperation’ the new leader wants to see with fellow unionists, but McCrea and others are likely to regard it as counterproductive and divisive.  If the process is widened and deepened it will certainly alienate the liberal wing of the party and a split can‘t be ruled out. 
Of course, like David Trimble, who was perceived as a hardliner when he won the 1995 leader‘s election, Elliott could confound expectations.   The Fermanagh farmer faces an entirely different set of challenges to Trimble.  Whether he can rise to the occasion and, against all the odds, provide leadership that is both brave and inspired, we must wait to see.      
As ever the newspaper is only available online as a facsimile behind a paywall, so unless you have x-ray eyes and can read it off the demo-reader, a newsagent is the best place to pick up a copy. 

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Dysfunctional body bent on self-destruction stages vital meeting. And this time it isn't the UUP.

The cream of local football.  They may have less to celebrate tonight.

Setting aside the Ulster Unionist party‘s leadership election, for the time being, another incorrigible organisation is meeting tonight to make an equally fateful decision.

The Irish Football Association is on the cusp of receiving public money to redevelop Windsor Park, which hosts the international team.  However a set of controversial proposals about the body’s internal structures could derail that process and leave Northern Ireland effectively without a home.

At tonight’s Extraordinary General Meeting delegates from member clubs and associations will vote on the ’Dunloy Proposals’ to reorganise the IFA.  Put forward by a junior team from the Ballymena and District League, this document represents an attempt by amateur clubs to rebalance the Association’s governance in their favour.  
Dunloy needs a 75% vote to go its way if the proposals are to be ratified,  but there is a very real danger that that could happen.  Although senior and intermediate clubs are set against the proposals amateur teams form the bulk of the IFA’s membership.

The reason that this arcane power struggle is of wider relevance is because the Association’s stewardship of the local game is already under substantial government and media scrutiny.

The Culture Minister, Nelson McCausland, has indicated that £23 million earmarked to spruce up Windsor Park and other monies will not be released until the IFA gets its act together.

That entails instigating an immediate independent review into the body’s structures and accepting its recommendations.  It doesn’t involve going off half-cocked and endorsing a junior team’s power-grab, which actually proposes to reduce independent representation on the Executive Board.

McCausland has already made it clear that he is reluctant to hand more public money to the IFA while its President, Raymond Kennedy, remains in place.  Kennedy first announced his intention to resign months ago, after admitting responsibility for dismissing former Chief Executive Howard Wells against legal advice, therefore costing the Association £500,000.

He is still there and his promise to leave is being edged ever further into the future.  The debacle over the President exacerbates the sense of a governing body in crisis and an endorsement for the Dunloy Proposals would make things even worse.      

Of course amateur football, women’s football, schools’ football and the like are integral parts of the game’s grassroots and they deserve to be represented at the top table.  To pursue a project of aggrandisement at such a sensitive time, though, to the detriment of the entire organisation, senior clubs and the international team, is madness.

For the good of local football it must be hoped that these proposals are soundly defeated, or withdrawn. Windsor Park has been patched up for another campaign, but it needs urgent work, and soon, if it is to be fit for purpose in the long term

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

UUP sets its course as Elliott secures thumping win.

Well it appears that the UUP membership has descended, in all its decrepitude, on the Waterfront Hall and done the fateful deed.  All the excitement of UCUNF, pan-UK unionism, normalising politics seems a long time ago and a long way away now.  The Ulster Unionists are back to the dreary steeples and Tom Elliott is their new party leader.

What now?  Will Elliott stick to his promise to reject 'unionist unity' or does his careful definition mean that we're in for the whole depressing charade of agreed candidates, shady back-room deals and a hand in glove relationship with the DUP?  Will he really try to attract pro-Union voters from across the communities in Northern Ireland, or will it be back to the Orange Order and the 'unionist people'?

It's worth remembering that David Trimble was considered the hardline candidate when he was elected leader in 1995, defeating John Taylor.  But the trajectory of his campaign was very different, as were the talents he brought to the table.

We'll have to wait to see where Elliott will take the party, or whether it is actually his hand which is on the rudder at all.  Perhaps he will surpass expectations.  Perhaps he will conform to the worst fears.  Whichever is the case, there should always be an electoral vehicle for moderate, outward looking pro-Union politics, whether it is the UUP or another party.    


Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Is the UUP really set to become the Stumbling and Mumbling Party?

“When I think - I’m a genius, when I write - I’m a distinguished man of letters, when I speak - I’m a fool”, a quote - heavily paraphrased - which is attributed to the Russian émigré writer, Vladimir Nabakov.

I’m sure most of us understand the sentiment.   I certainly do (setting aside the ‘distinguished man of letters’ part).

It’s easy to think of stonking, relevant, insurmountable truisms in private.  It’s a little harder to put them down on paper accurately and concisely.  But it is hardest by far to compose an argument on the hoof and articulate it clearly, under pressure and under the glare of publicity.

That’s why the ability to do so is a rare and sought after talent.  It’s also why, contrary to popular belief, not everyone has it in them to become a front line politician.

The people doing well in politics, the party leaders for instance, are professionals operating at the top of their game.  Like them or loathe them, their communication skills set them apart.  In the modern political world that’s an absolute necessity.

So when I note that Tom Elliott doesn’t have the necessary skills, it shouldn’t be taken as a personal criticism.  It is simply an inescapable fact, which Ulster Unionists will have to face up to - either now or at a later date.

I’ve just listened to Alban Maginness, Stephen Nolan and several Radio Ulster listeners lead Tom a merry dance on the proposed sale of the Northern Ireland Electricity grid to the Republic’s main energy provider, ESB.

Setting aside the issues involved, and Elliott’s struggle with a ropy phone connection, it was blatantly obvious that he was not on top of his brief, whereas Maginness was.  Nor was he able to think on his feet and improvise a decent argument.

Of course, Elliott’s followers argue that while he is not the most sparkling media performer, his personal attributes and feel for grassroots unionism surmount that difficulty.  They need to get real.    

No doubt Tom’s an amiable and gifted man, and an asset to the UUP.  But the party is picking a figurehead tomorrow night, whose main task will be to communicate a message to voters.  The repercussions are serious.  

Tom declined a TV debate with Basil McCrea on Hearts and Minds last week.  It’s clear why.  In a debate he can be made to appear foolish by even a reasonably nimble opponent.

He sounds like a stuck record, he can’t absorb and respond to unexpected or new information and he coins otherwordly, meaningless phrases like ’integration mechanism’ (an adherence to which apparently distinguishes the UUP from the DUP).

Whether or not Tom has a better strategy for the UUP’s recovery or not could actually become an irrelevance.  If the Ulster Unionist party is perceived as the ’Stumbling and Mumbling’ party, it will lose votes hand over fist, should it promise the moon and the stars to the people of Northern Ireland.

This is not a treasurer for the Fermanagh Young Farmers that the delegates are selecting. There is a serious danger that, from Thursday morning, the UUP’s message, which is already incoherent, will become even more indecipherable to the public at large.

To be perfectly clear, I'm not an out and out proponent of Basil McCrea.  I don't like Stormont particularly and I don't like his emphasis on devolved politics to the exclusion of the national.  If I were a UUP member, voting tomorrow night, I'd like another option.  But, in a two horse race, it's no contest!

The party is famously stubborn and recalcitrant, but is it really set to name as leader someone who is so blatantly lacks the necessary skills?

Monday, 20 September 2010

The Lib Dems get used to power and responsibility.

In May Britain’s political sands shifted dramatically and members of the three main parties can be forgiven for appearing a trifle unsteady as they attempt to navigate an unfamiliar landscape.  Conference season provides a platform for their anxieties and gives leaders, who have shaped this new environment, a chance to help their followers find their feet.

Labour is engaged in a high profile contest to crown a leader, of course, and looks set to draw all the wrong lessons from its election defeat.  Next weekend the result will be announced and the party’s membership will be asked to galvanise around its chosen Miliband in a very public coronation.

The Conservatives convene in early October and the atmosphere is likely to be less than celebratory, despite the party's return from a long spell in the political wilderness.  A growing band of Tories resent the dependence of their government on coalition partners and Lord Ashcroft owns the most high profile finger of blame to point at David Cameron.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats provide the season’s first conference, meeting in Liverpool this week (PDF).  And there is ample evidence to suggest that the party faithful are more disorientated than any other group by the new dispensation.

Dissent has been fairly muted so far, but there are rumblings and high profile figures, if they were so minded, could provide a rallying point.  Former leader, Charles Kennedy, has made no secret of his scepticism about early cuts to the deficit, telling activists this weekend that he remains ’an old Keynesian’.

So far Lord Ashdown remains onside, claiming today that a delay in Trident shows that Lib Dems are having an influence in government.  But he is another influential former leader Nick Clegg will be eager to avoid aggravating.  After all, Ashdown did once consider joining a cabinet headed by Gordon Brown.

Along with power comes responsibility and it is true that, in the short-term, doing the responsible thing can bring unpopularity.  But allowing its ambitions to be shaped by political realities can help the Lib Dems grow up as a party.

Ignoring Labour deficit deniers like Ed Balls, and trade unions, whom Danny Alexander correctly identifies as ’spoiling for a fight’, the coalition is on the right side of the financial debate.  Nick Clegg is correct when he claims that the scale of cuts and the damage they will inflict are being exaggerated for political gain.      

As coalition partners the Liberal Democrats must stand to one side and let the scare-mongers scare-monger.  It’s a test of nerve, but it’s the responsible thing to do and, for all the short-term discomfort, it could yet bring its own rewards in the long-term.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Barely anyone cares about the Pope and for that we should be grateful.

With all the blanket coverage of the Pope’s visit to Britain it’s very easy to forget that the real story is how few people actually care.  In fact those who do care can be name-checked relatively quickly and easily.

Some school children were persuaded to care by a morning out of the classroom.  They lined the streets of Edinburgh in order to scream and wave Scottish Saltires as the pontiff’s entourage swept by.

Devoted Catholics care.  Yesterday they mustered in Bellahouston Park, Glasgow, having travelled from across these islands and beyond.  Despite congregating in a venue with a much larger capacity, they numbered fewer than 70,000.

Ian Paisley cares.  He gathered with a handful of fellow enthusiasts from the ’reformed church’ to record his opposition to the papal visit.  It’s fair to say that even he cares less these days though. Fellow Presbyterians have been subject to more vituperative protests by Lord Bannside in the past.    

The ‘New Atheists’ care.  Like ‘anti fascist’ demonstrators they feed off the forces they claim to oppose.  If it ever became apparent that no-one was listening to the Pope, how could they drum up interest in their books or sell their tedious newspaper columns?

People with a personal grievance against the Catholic Church care.  Spurned divorcees, homosexuals and abuse victims, they rail against the faith which they believe has turned upon them.  Their anger is understandable.

For the rest of us, comprising the vast, vast majority of British people, we couldn’t give a hoot.  The pontiff’s arrival is no more interesting than the visit of the next head of state.  Less so, in fact.  

Even Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, presiding over a society supposedly crippled with religious division, don’t care.  One didn’t want to meet the Pope and the other didn’t want to meet the Queen.  They agreed to stay at home and ignored proceedings in Scotland with a minimum of fuss.

So that’s it.  The commonest responses to the papal visit are apathy and boredom.  Even those who should care are putting on a fairly unconvincing show.

It’s all to the good.  I’d rather live in a society which doesn’t care about the Pope than one which cares too much.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Leadership contest good to go?

Over the past few days persistent rumours had surfaced that the UUP leadership election might be subject to a court injunction, possibly instigated by a supporter of Basil McCrea.  

Anxiety had been increasing over the issue of membership lists and in particular votes that were to be granted to new members, admitted to the party during an 'amnesty' in August.  

An emergency executive meeting had been planned to discuss the issue this Saturday, with the very real possibility of a postponement of next Wednesday's leadership election.  The fall-out for the party and its reputation would have been serious.  

It's now emerged that the threat of legal action has been withdrawn and the UUP's executive will no longer meet this Saturday.  So we must assume that the leadership election will proceed next week, as planned. 

That's good news for the party, if the confusion around membership has genuinely been settled to everyone's satisfaction.   

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Only the gullible will accept Georgia's cooked up case at ICJ

In The Hague, exchanges are taking place in a legal battle between Georgia and Russia which threatens to become something of a saga.  Two years ago Tbilisi charged Moscow with a derogation of its duty to eliminate ‘all forms of racial discrimination‘, under the UN’s 1965 International Convention.

The allegation is that Russia’s armed forces engaged in violent discrimination, alongside ’separatist militia and foreign mercenaries’ in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, through at least three separate phases, between 1990 and 2008.

When these proceedings (PDF) were instigated, in August 2008, Tbilisi effectively asked the UN’s judicial organ to endorse its casus belli, at the same time as its invasion of South Ossetia was met with resistance and Russian tanks pushed its forces back into Georgia proper.

A provisional ruling, delivered in the aftermath of the conflict, called on both sides to do all they could to eliminate racial discrimination and urged restraint.  

These latest hearings will not directly deal with Georgia’s charges.  This week the court hears objections from Russia that the case falls outside its jurisdiction.  Lawyers representing Tbilisi, in their turn, will offer arguments that the ICJ should proceed.

Moscow is right to insist that this case should not be heard.  From the outset, it was transparently a political ruse, designed to confer upon a failed invasion the flimsiest pretext of legality.  Georgia simply attempted to cover its back after its President’s military adventurism back-fired spectacularly.

Russia’s lawyers will argue that Georgia launched no objections about its conduct in South Ossetia or Abkhazia, based on ’racial discrimination’.  Even if the charges had substance, it is preposterous to argue that the basis for Saakashvili’s invasion was a dispute which, in fact, did not exist until after hostilities commenced.

As Roman Kolodkin, Russia’s ambassador to the Netherlands, told the court, “the alleged violations of CERD (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination) were never raised by Georgia during the 17 or more years of this so-called dispute”.  

The Georgian government certainly responded swiftly to its predicament, cooking up this case after its South Ossetian intervention went awry.   Only the very partial or very gullible would accept that Tbilisi invaded, in order to hold Russia to its obligations under CERD.

Six figure Twitter sale points to a new market for speculators.

This morning it's reported that one Israel Malendez has sold his Twitter feed, @Israel, to the Israeli state for a six figure sum.

Could this transaction start a rush of Tweeting squatters I wonder?

Speculators have longed snapped up any unused web domain which they calculate could be hot property, particularly if it corresponds to a successful company name or brand.  There are bound to be plenty of available Twitter feeds in the same category.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Desperate need for substance as leadership debate nears its final week.

Article now online.

In today's Belfast Telegraph I look at the fight to become UUP leader and argue that the party needs a battle based on policies, rather than personalities.

This is .... a critical leadership contest for the UUP, but it had been strangely sedate, until the contenders clashed publicly over the weekend.  Their disagreement arose over attitudes to the GAA and homosexuality, with McCrea accusing Elliott of intolerance.  It was an acrimonious spat which illustrates real differences in approach between the two men.    

Elliott may position himself as a consensus candidate, building a wide coalition of supporters from across the UUP.  Ultimately, however, the Fermanagh South Tyrone MLA best represents the more traditional wing of the party and its values.  

Elliott claims backing from liberal figures, emphasising that he will not countenance a full merger with the DUP, but he is known to be broadly sympathetic to the concept of ‘unionist unity‘ and he has made scuppering Martin McGuinness‘s First Ministerial ambitions the central goal of his campaign.  The MLA is also heavily involved in the Orange Order and backed the process which saw a single unionist candidate contest the Westminster seat in Fermanagh South Tyrone.  

Elliott will appeal to rural UUP members who believe that the party is currently too preoccupied with constituencies in and around Belfast.  Ulster Unionist candidates claim more votes in constituencies with an urban sensibility, in the east of the province, but membership is concentrated in rural areas, particularly in Fermanagh.  

He hopes that will give him an edge over his Lisburn based rival, whose unionism has a decided metropolitan liberal tinge.  Basil McCrea is equipped with all the political skills a leader might need to be successful but, in the curious world of Ulster Unionism, that could be as much a handicap as an asset.   
The Lagan Valley MLA is an assured performer, with media savvy in spades and the ability to work a room.  He’s also prepared to reach beyond unionism‘s traditional boundaries, involving himself in a range of cross community initiatives.  

These are valuable qualities for a modern party leader, but older members, and the UUP has many older members, might find it easier to identify with a bluff Fermanagh farmer, whose milieu is the Orange Hall, rather than a slick politician, quite comfortable taking part in a Gay Pride debate or attending a GAA match.  

Perhaps unfairly, there is a perception that McCrea has not yet explained his core political beliefs, beyond tolerance and pluralism, to the unionist grassroots.  Last week he attempted to put ’meat on the bones’, announcing five leadership pledges at Belfast’s Merchant Hotel.  The MLA hopes that these undertakings, which include a promise to make Catriona Ruane’s education ministry a target portfolio for the UUP, kill the notion that he represents style over substance.  

McCrea is eager to stress that his message is business friendly but he expresses scepticism about the UUP’s Conservative link.  He is prepared to countenance cooperation between the two parties, but criticises an electoral pact as ill-conceived.  Elliott also talks about ending UCUNF while retaining a relationship of some sort.   

It is clear that the Conservative affiliation will not survive, in its present form, but the link is unavoidably at the top of the ’to do list’ for any new UUP leader.  Members and voters are entitled to ask for policy detail and genuine debate on this issue and others, alongside fine words and good intentions.  

With the finish line in sight McCrea will hope that his ’pledges’ give him a more concrete prospectus for leadership than his opponent.  It is certainly questionable whether Elliott can actually deliver on his aspiration to prevent a Sinn Féin First Minister, without first striking a deal with the DUP.  

The Fermanagh South Tyrone MLA is still a marginal favourite, but increasingly there are signs that McCrea is gaining momentum.  By the time votes are cast, the UUP’s most important race could well be too close to call.         

N.b. The published article which appears in the newspaper contains some small edits from this version.  

Maze 'shrine' provocation by Deputy First Minister

From Eamonn Mallie's Twitter feed, 'Martin McGuinness says he wants the Maze site to be "a shrine to peace and a shrine to the future"'.  The prospect of any type of 'shrine' at the former H blocks, endorsed by Martin McGuinness, will make many IRA victims' blood run cold.

It's unlikely that the Deputy First Minister chose the word unthinkingly, which renders it provocative.  It will add incalculably to the anxiety expressed by those who suspect that any development at the Maze is likely to act as a rallying point for republicanism and its rewrites of history.

Friday, 10 September 2010

I always predicted we would win .....

After a busy start to the week, I rather missed the opportunity to mark Northern Ireland’s startling 1-0 victory in Slovenia, in timely fashion.  It’s fair to say I hadn’t expected the team to return from Maribor with all three points.

Although we rode our luck at times, credit where credit’s due, it was a gutsy performance at a notoriously tricky venue.  The Slovenes seldom lose at home and it is even rarer that they should taste defeat in the Ljudski vrt Stadium.

Northern Ireland started brightly enough, but as the first half wore on, we enjoyed much less possession.  Indeed the goalkeeper and the back four, who withstood an onslaught, were largely responsible for the victory.  The midfield and forwards provided their defensive colleagues only brief respite from waves of Slovenian attacks.

On so many occasions similar rearguard actions have resulted in either hard luck stories or another 0-0 draw.  At half-time I’m sure most supporters expected the same.  Yet when Kyle Lafferty and Corry Evans entered the fray on 67 minutes, the former seemed the better bet to instigate a smash and grab.

The Fermanagh man certainly made an instant impression, providing a target for passes and holding up the ball.  But it was Evans who scored the winner three minutes later, tapping in a perfect cross from fellow debutant, Craig Cathcart.

Predictably Slovenia piled on the pressure after that.  It was hairy at times, but if it’s one of those nights for Northern Ireland the goal-line simply becomes impenetrable.

Of course, getting off to a perfect start will inflate expectations before games against Italy and the Faroe Islands.  Four points from those two matches would be a great return.  Personally I remain as pessimistic as ever and it would not surprise me one iota, if following our impressive and unprecedented opening away win, we lose against Brian Kerr’s minnows on the next overseas trip.

It would be quite in keeping with Northern Ireland’s unpredictable reputation.

As for the manager, I’m still a sceptic, but to notch three points away, against credible opposition, is one accomplishment to which his predecessor, Lawrie Sanchez, cannot lay claim.  Of course, Sanchez twice masterminded wins against football royalty, England and Spain.  Worthington gets a chance to emulate those achievements when we play Italy on October 8th.          

However it affects the rest of the campaign, and qualification is not yet a realistic expectation, a win in Slovenia was a notable result in itself.  Even during the glory years, Northern Ireland’s away record was often our Achilles heal.  We should certainly enjoy it and hope that the next decent victory on our travels doesn’t take another sixteen years to arrive.

We've come to accept fundamentalist hysteria as a fact of life.

Rationalism and perspective in action.

The extremist pastor, Terry Jones, may have ’suspended’ his Qur’an burning stunt, but it hasn’t prevented fellow extremists, in Afghanistan, attacking a Nato base in protest. Jones’ plans were deplorable, of course, but isn’t it sad that hysterical overreaction from fundamentalist Islam has become accepted as a fact of life?

The Dove World Outreach Centre, which pedals Jones’ hate-filled take on Christianity, is a tiny organisation.  Most sources agree that it attracts fewer than 50 members to Sunday service.  Its controversial ’Burn a Qur’an Day’, scheduled for the anniversary of the 9/11 World Trade Centre Attacks, which falls tomorrow, could scarcely be less well judged, but, for all the public outcry, the worldwide riots which were expected to ensue were hardly a proportional reaction.

I am no proponent of evangelical Christianity, but, if the boot were on the other foot, it’s unthinkable that the reaction would be so vehement.  That’s not to argue that Christian fundamentalism is any more edifying than its Islamic counterpart, but its extremist manifestations are as rare as hens’ teeth and its influence is much less pervasive.

Western secularism may be much maligned but putting religion’s worst excesses back in their box was, without doubt, an achievement.  And, whatever the whys and wherefores of the law of terror, however lamentable  and widespread a tendency to demonise Muslims, the political march of Islam and the resurgence of fundamentalism in the Islamic world is an international scourge.

The fact that its malign influence now affects people in countries which, traditionally, have few cultural links to Islam is more than regrettable.  The concern which it causes for secularists in countries where it is supplanting moderate Islam should never be dismissed, casually, as intolerance.

It’s sad that we live in a world where someone wants to burn a book which is sacred to countless millions of people.  It’s even sadder that we live in a world where the impotent and pathetic protest of an idiot could provoke riots, violence and even death.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

If the UUP doesn't take this opportunity to make itself relevant, it doesn't deserve to survive.

Compare the two leadership elections taking place in the UK at the moment (we‘ll ignore UKIP for the purposes of this discussion).  One includes open hustings, television debates and robust exchanges on policy and philosophy, the other takes place behind closed doors and there are groans of disapproval and panic whenever a public discussion threatens to break out.

I understand that selecting a leader is ultimately an internal party matter, but the UUP should learn some lessons from the Labour leadership battle, taking place across the UK.  In a modern political party it is not sufficient to say, ’it’s our business, we’ll conduct this behind closed doors’.  Even a leadership election is a chance to interact with the public and canvass its views.

There is, of course, a valid argument which holds that dirty laundry shouldn’t be washed in public.  When a party takes part in the democratic process, however, its 'dirty laundry' is unavoidably the public’s business.  A closed process will leave more questions than answers and the leader who eventually emerges will struggle to capture voters’ imagination.

I would urge Tom Elliott and Basil McCrea not to avoid conducting an open and frank debate, visible to everyone who is interested, based primarily on substantive issues rather than internal party politics.  Elliott’s piece on Open Unionism seems to imply that policy is less important to his leadership bid than the internal dynamics of the UUP.

Has the party learned nothing from its recent bruising at the polls?  Unless it has something clear, distinct and relevant to say to voters it will be ignored, and rightly so.  This leadership election should be about who is most likely to find that message and that voice, rather than the integrity of the Ulster Unionist party.

If Ulster Unionists don’t find a way to make themselves relevant to the electorate again then fewer and fewer people will care whether their political club can be ’united’.  If it only exists to ensure its own survival, the UUP doesn't deserve to escape oblivion.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Where in the world is Lady Sylvia Hermon? (3)

O'Neill takes up the hunt at A Pint of Unionist Lite.  The Member for North Down has hardly hit the ground running for the new session, missing two debates well attended by other members from Northern Ireland.  As yet there is no documented evidence that she has made an appearance at Westminster since the General Election.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Are these people not filled with self-loathing and shame?

Some local bloggers make it their business to immerse themselves in ’sectariania’, forever compiling a list of grievances against ’themmuns’.  They seem to think it important to prove which ’side’ in Northern Ireland includes the most hate-filled thugs.  

Generally I avoid covering hate crime and the squalid list of ’dissident’ attacks in Northern Ireland.  They are, after all, terrible topics to commentate upon.  Anyone with any wit knows that it’s inexcusable, it’s loathsome, it’s repugnant - what more is there to say?  The idea that these attacks have political content, which should be taken seriously, is itself beneath contempt.

Sometimes, however, there is an incident which makes you feel so hopeless, which makes the bile rise in your throat to such an extent, that it’s necessary to contextualise it, somehow.

Yesterday saw just such an event, as a group calling itself the Real UFF left two pipe bombs at Catholic Primary Schools in Antrim.  This wasn’t an act of recklessness or omission.  It was a deliberate and pre-meditated attack.

An eight year old boy, Brendan Shannon, on an errand to fetch his classmates’ milk, lifted the device up, in order to show it to his teacher.  Mercifully it did not go off.

Even after an endless litany of hate, sectarianism and brutality which has disfigured our recent history in Ulster, this latest development has the power to shock.  What was the Real UFF’s goal?  Did it intend to murder and maim primary school children, or just frighten and intimidate them?  It’s practically beyond belief.

I don’t know much about this group, which, among the arcane alphabet soup of ‘paramilitary’ organisations here, is still desperately obscure.  It seems to operate only around Antrim and surely it can have recruited only a handful of desperately warped individuals to the cause of attacking children.

Amongst the dregs of every society there are a few people, damaged, sick, lunatic or just plain criminal who are prepared to contemplate actions like these.  The tragic thing is that, in Northern Ireland, they can claim the most flimsy pretense of political purpose to throw over their madness and badness, and we treat them differently.

Does this somehow provide immunity from the sense of utter cowardice, shame and self-loathing which would envelop a normal, functioning adult, tempted to plot an attack on a very young child?  

Certainly if people in the communities from which members the Real UFF are drawn know who make up this group, if they are not filled with such utter contempt that they immediately shun them and provide information to the police, then we should despair, utterly, for the society that we have built in this country.

Monday, 6 September 2010

McCrea upbeat as he challenges Elliott to debate in public.

After this morning’s ‘teething problem’ I will attempt to be more accurate in my account of Basil McCrea’s leadership ‘launch’.  The Merchant Hotel was the venue, chosen because it represents ‘what can be done’ when a local company devotes itself to high standards and ‘excellent training‘.

Unsurprisingly business was indeed a major preoccupation of McCrea’s address.  He talked surprisingly frankly about his own experiences, setting up an ill-fated hi tech company in Northern Ireland.  The Lagan Valley MLA clearly views himself as a candidate for risk takers, dedicated to removing ’the dead hand of the civil service’ from the country’s entrepreneurs.

As yet I have only a hardcopy of the speech, but I will publish it in its entirety, as soon as it reaches my inbox.  Its most striking feature was the five pledges which McCrea unveiled, which will answer charges that there is no concrete policy behind his campaign.

The first, which I misreported earlier, actually promises that, should he become leader, McCrea will not take a ministerial portfolio, instead devoting all his energies to rebuilding the UUP.

The second vows to make education the first choice ministry for the UUP.

Third, McCrea pledges not to form electoral pacts, with the DUP, or anyone else.  That means no unionist unity, but it also means no joint candidates with the Conservative party.  Whether it also rules out taking the Tory whip, should the UUP return future MPs to the House of Commons, is not so clear.

The Lagan Valley Assemblyman also promises that all party MLAs will face a vote of confidence from party members at the end of the year, if he wins the race.

Finally, he pledges to remove the party officer team and compel elected representatives to attend executive meetings.

Clearly there is an argument to be had about each of the five points.  McCrea is confident about his ability to put his point across in public and his promise to debate ’with anyone, anywhere’ is meant as a challenge to Tom Elliott.
He rather wrong-footed journalists this morning by urging them forward to confront his ‘united team’ at the front of the room.  But the scribes duly proved that his prospectus is not fail-safe.

Asked, by the Irish News' Diana Rusk, whether a pledge to take the education ministry was not academic (pun intended), given that Sinn Féin and the DUP would most likely have the first ministerial picks, Basil ad libbed that the UUP would be the largest party under his leadership.

This type of baseless optimism is endemic at Ulster Unionist gatherings, and it invariably sounds like silly bluster, or worse, like a party out of touch with reality.

The Belfast Telegraph’s political editor, David Gordon, was also entitled to ask if the many UCUNF candidates backing McCrea had been wrong, when they talked up the merits of a Conservative link.

The context has changed, over the past two years, argued Basil.  Perhaps.  But meaningful involvement in national politics should still be a key aim for unionists.

The new generation which came to the fore during that Westminster poll was out in force to support their man. Paula Bradshaw spoke, alongside Lesley McAuley, who championed Basil as a leader for ’everyone, regardless of sexuality’, and Trevor Ringland.

John McCallister was master of ceremonies, the only MLA who spoke, although Danny Kinahan was present towards the end (I didn’t get a chance to find out whether that constitutes an endorsement).  Several businessmen, Young Unionists, a former president of the Ulster Farmers’ Union and a Montupet shop steward also voiced their support.  

With reports of more acrimony at a party debate in Bangor on Friday, it appears that McCrea’s campaign may be starting to make Elliott’s camp nervous (or perhaps a prominent rugby supporter within the UUP just wished he was at Ravenhill).

McCrea’s team is exuding confidence.  If it has any basis in reality the leadership race could be a tight run thing.

McCrea unveils pledges

I'm about to head down to the Merchant Hotel to hear what Basil McCrea has to say as he launches his leadership bid.  The News Letter reports that the Lagan Valley MLA will embrace a number of pledges, which he would hold to as leader.

The most eye-catching is a refusal to take a ministry until the UUP is Northern Ireland's biggest party.  Not effectively a pledge to enter opposition, as I initially read it (see below).

That is followed by a pledge to make the education ministry the UUP's first choice.  This would enable the party to run on a platform to get 'rid of Ruane'.

Each position has its merits, taken separately.  I'll be interested to hear Basil explain how they fit together.  Realistically, it's highly unlikely that the UUP will be Northern Ireland's largest party next year.  Can it credibly go to voters promising to oust Ruane as a matter of priority?

Mea culpa.  Don't rush a blogpost out first thing on a Monday morning, when you're in a hurry.  Closer inspection of Basil's pledges reveals that his promise  not to take up a ministry only holds good for himself.  The party leader would not take a ministry, but would, instead, concentrate on improving the UUP's electoral fortunes.  

Friday, 3 September 2010

The futility of hope. Expectations low as Northern Ireland kick off in Euros.

Don't get your hopes up - captain for the night Stephen Craigan look forward to his fiftieth cap.

Will it be déja vu all over again for Northern Ireland in Maribor?  Two years ago, in an Autumn World Cup game, Slovenia won 2-0 in the fortress city, condemning Nigel Worthington’s men to an uphill battle for qualification.

Back then, in a gloomy, angry post I condemned the manager for allowing his team to ’regress to the mean’.  It’s a process which I contend is still ongoing.

The belief which Lawrie Sanchez instilled in his group of players, the discipline and the professionalism he inculcated, did not disappear immediately after Worthington took over.  Instead it dissipated gradually, like sand running through the Ballymena man’s fingers.

Now, following seven matches without a goal and ten without a victory, the side is right back where it started when Sammy McIlroy - enthusiastic, likeable, but tactically naïve - resigned and Lawrie Sanchez took over.

Worthington’s team, meanwhile, is back in Maribor, for another away tie against Slovenia.  The task this time, is to qualify for the European Championships in Ukraine and Poland.  The prognosis is even grimmer than it was in 2008.

The Slovenes, as I reported after that first game, are muscular, competitive and difficult to beat.  The little Ljudski Stadium becomes an intimidating arena whenever Slovenia plays at home.  Despite the locals’ legendary hospitality off the field, Northern Ireland players can expect to be pelted with missiles, if previous experience is anything to go by.

Despite the difficult environment, despite Slovenia’s success in recent years, despite its record at home, the team is beatable.  In the World Cup return at Windsor Park the Slovenes played well, but were beaten by a Warren Feeney goal.  Northern Ireland even looked comfortable enough for 85 minutes in Maribor.

Times have changed since then though, and not for the better.  Our personnel is largely the same, but confidence is lower and crucial players’ careers have not been on an upward trajectory.  

There is mounting speculation that Worthington intends to start Feeney up front tonight, alongside the waning talisman, David Healy.  If this rumour is substantiated the manager’s decision is brave and risky.

For all his previous heroics in a green shirt, Healy’s first team appearances in club football have been few and far between since 2008.  For Northern Ireland he has looked sluggish and discouraged.  More importantly, his last goal came four days after the 2-0 Maribor defeat, against San Marino.

Feeney enjoyed an excellent campaign last time round, doing his best to make up for a lack of goals from Healy.  However he is recovering from a long term injury and has not yet hit the net for his new club, Oldham Athletic.

If Worthington picks the pair, he must leave out Kyle Lafferty, whose disciplinary problems are starting to undermine his talent and Martin Paterson, the pacy forward who is highly regarded by his club, Burnley, but is yet to make an impact for Northern Ireland.

The manager will also abandon his favoured 4-5-1 formation, which is unpopular with fans.  A statement of intent certainly, but a gamble nevertheless.

As the text messages flow in from sunny Slovenia, where the faithful are already bolstering their pre-match confidence with the local brew, it is hard not to be infected by hope.  But the cliché that it is the hope which kills is never truer than for a Northern Ireland supporter.

A point and a goal would represent a good start but there is precious little evidence to suggest that either is on the cards.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Don't let facts stand in the way of a Russophobe rant.

“It’s real basic irony, but still you can get a hoot”.  The quote from the comedian, Bill Hicks, came to mind reading this month’s Standpoint.

Former BBC correspondent William Horsley has decided that the problem with Europe is that it isn’t sufficiently Russophobe (I paraphrase).

Anyway, hark at these gems.
“Russian leaders were emboldened to break new bounds in August 2008 when they sent some 30,000 troops into South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the would-be breakaway parts of Georgia.”
Setting aside the obvious omission of any context to this statement for the time being (there’s more), ’would-be breakaway parts of Georgia’?  Two regions which have never, NOT AT ANY TIME, been successfully administered from Tbilisi as part of a post-Soviet, unitary, independent Georgia.  I’d say that puts them squarely in the ’breakaway’ category without any qualification.
“In what independent analysts have shown to have been a premeditated use of overwhelming military force.”
By Georgia!  Given that the subject under discussion here is the EU’s response to the South Ossetia crisis, it’s fairly significant that the EU’s own ‘independent analysis’ found that Georgia struck the first blow and there was no premeditation on Russia’s part.

Now to the really fun part:
“[An] aspect of that "August war" [which] especially cast[s] shame on the EU: that it failed to act on many urgent pleas from the Georgians to internationalise the dispute and prevent war  Russia sent in its army, as Tbilisi had warned it would.”
Back to that EU report again.  Russia sent in its army .......... when was it again .... oh yes, after Georgian shells began to rain down on Tskhinvali and Georgian tanks began to roll into South Ossetia!.  The chronology is no longer even in serious dispute.

The EU’s shame, according to Horsely, is therefore that it didn’t write Mikheil Saakashvili a blank cheque for his military adventurism in order to draw Europe directly into the dispute with Russia!

Apart from anything else, even if every EU government had signed up to this sabre rattling madness, how would it have enforced its will on Russia in the teeth of a genuine shooting war?  With its non-existent army?

There’s more predictable nonsense castigating Moscow for expecting to be paid for its gas.  The article’s argument, in general, is an incoherent mess, on one hand calling for an expanded EU and more influence for Eastern Europe, on the other deploring the lack of a single voice in Union foreign policy.      

It’s by turns anti-federalist and pro more powers to Brussels.

But at its heart is the fairly common Russophobe fantasy that the chief purpose of any unitary EU foreign policy would be to lambaste Russia.

Are cracks beginning to show in Elliott's coalition?

What’s going on with the coalition behind Tom Elliott’s leadership bid?

The Fermanagh South Tyrone MLA has poured cold water on rumours of merger with the DUP and kept his options open on the Conservative link.  Yet Ulster Unionist Chief Whip, and Elliott supporter, Fred Cobain, couldn’t resist attacking the Tories, suggesting that the UUP would be forced to make an alternative electoral pact with Peter Robinson and his party.

Meanwhile rumours persist that discussions with the DUP about 'unionist unity', at senior levels, are ongoing.

The contradictions don’t end there.  An intriguing little tussle is tucked away in the comments zone of an otherwise innocuous post on Mike Nesbitt’s blog.

Nesbitt, the leading moderate in Elliott’s team, congratulates the Down GAA team on their success in the All Ireland Gaelic Football championship.  Reasonably enough a reader asks how his generous sentiments sit with support for a leadership candidate who reassured UUP members that he wouldn’t attend ’gay pride marches or GAA matches’.

The former Victims Commissioner is quick to deny the allegation on Elliott’s behalf, but it is substantiated by a senior UUP member who provides details and a direct quote.  The statement clearly doesn’t sit well with Nesbitt, but it’s meat and drink to a traditional Orange unionist like Elliott.

In Monday’s News Letter Liam Clarke wrote about inconsistencies which are becoming evident in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA’s campaign.  Tom Elliott’s attempts to be “all things to all people” could become the rock on which his leadership chances flounder.

He has assembled a broad coalition as the basis of his bid and his position suffers from all the flabbiness which that entails.  It’s up to Basil McCrea to ensure that his campaign is tighter and focuses on big ideas, rather than internal party politics.

After all, if Elliott were to become leader on the back of a patched together alliance, what are the chances that he could hold it together, or provide purposeful leadership and a clear message for an Assembly election?    

SDLP's handout addiction

At Unionist Lite O’Neill looks at possible nationalist responses to the government’s deficit plans.  His assessment is that Plaid Cymru and Sinn Féin are beyond help in their analyses, but there is a chance that the SNP and SDLP could, to some degree, embrace opportunities to promote leaner enterprise economies for their respective regions.

The SNP’s ’pork barrel’ tactics are, at least partially, a separatist irritant aimed at London.  So Salmond’s party has a decent opportunity to tacitly accept that Scotland’s economy will benefit from substantial rebalancing.  Although the SDLP has shown signs of original thinking on growth, its dependency culture is more deeply ingrained.

Take Alex Attwood’s  response to proposed coalition welfare reform and its effects on Northern Ireland, where we have the highest level of economic inactivity in the UK.

The government’s view, which will be developed in a report by Ian Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice, launched today in Belfast, is that welfare dependency drives poverty and, therefore, it must be made worth claimants' while to get off benefits and into work.  The Social Development Minister’s view is that Northern Ireland is so dependent on welfare provision it should be exempt from any reform!

In other words, our addiction to benefits is so bad that measures designed to combat that addiction must not apply.  It is a remarkably hopeless philosophy, indicative of a mindset which the SDLP should ditch.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Airport expansion should be kept out of town

Last summer my girlfriend and I experienced a hair-raising landing at George Best Belfast City Airport, courtesy, I suspect, of its infamous short runway.  Returning from a holiday in Brittany our Flybe flight, routed via Southampton, touched down on the tarmac, only to rear up and take to the air again, with the captain muttering ‘landing aborted’ over the intercom.

We proceeded to circle for ten more minutes, with some passengers now in a state of understandable distress, before a successful descent was executed.  On that occasion cross winds were given as an explanation, and, no doubt, the hefty gusts which funnel down Belfast Lough didn‘t help.  However, during its aborted landing, the plane did spend quite a few seconds on the tarmac.  It certainly felt like the pilot thought there was not sufficient runway left to brake safely and decided not to risk attempting to bring the aircraft to a halt.

No doubt Michael O’Leary, announcing Ryanair’s decision to pull out of the City Airport, due to the absence of a runway extension, would argue that my story proves his point.  After all, his pilots have even taken to warning passengers to expect a dramatic landing at the airport, due to its truncated tarmac.  ‘Don’t be frightened’, they reassure their helpless payload.

A proposed runway extension is just one of a number of high profile projects tied up in seemingly endless bureaucracy at the Northern Ireland Planning Service.  There is, of course, a serious problem with its procedures, but O’Leary doesn’t mention that there are also legitimate concerns about siting airports in built up city environments.  Major transport hubs need space, and lots of it.

Numerous small, city centre airports feature unnerving descents.  Their flight paths carry aircraft directly over residential areas, which creates both safety and noise issues.  The City Airport’s location problems are compounded by strong winds and low lying fog, which has on occasion closed the site, while its equivalent at Aldergrove stayed open.

I am a fairly frequent flyer, a keen traveller and an enthusiast for more routes, in and out of Northern Ireland, but I do believe that the International Airport, which is only about seventeen miles from central Belfast, should be the focus for development, rather than the City Airport‘s harbour site.

It needs more convenient (and cheaper) transport links with the city centre, including a rail connection, but the International is much the better location for a major airport.

Michael O’Leary is personally unlikeable and his company is understandably regarded with contempt by many travellers, but it is difficult to have no sympathy with his frustration at the government and civil service ’go slow’ in Northern Ireland.

John Lewis is another company which is rightly furious at the way we do business here.  Surely it is possible to reach planning decisions quicker, even if they don’t go in favour of the major companies who want to invest money in our economy?

The fact remains, however, that it is entirely right that there should be restrictions on the City Airport’s expansion.  Its location is not suitable for unchecked development.  There’s plenty of potential for more flights, more destinations and longer runways just twenty miles up the road.