Friday, 29 October 2010

'New unionism' frustrated or just a marriage of convenience? The fallout from UCUNF.

In 2008, when the UUP and the Conservatives declared their intention to pursue pan-UK unionism, alongside other commentators, I was justifiably delighted.  Not, as some people were quick to suppose, for petty party political reasons, or out of spite.

It did genuinely appear possible that a positive, outward looking connection to national politics could transform unionism in Northern Ireland, for the twenty first century.

That optimism has taken a battering over the past two years.  The disappointment built gradually, until, finally, UCUNF became the chief fatality of a spectacular electoral car crash.  Various groups are now picking through the wreckage to see whether anything is salvageable.

The Conservatives are considering whether they have a future in Northern Ireland politics, Tom Elliott has been asked to prepare a paper detailing his suggestions for the two parties’ relationship and an enigmatic ‘2010 Group’ has emerged within the UUP, pushing a pan-UK agenda.

I hope that the various interested factions look a little deeper than the ‘realpolitik’ of forthcoming elections.  Because I believe that the source of UCUNF’s downfall was more profound than sloppiness or poor organisation.

There was a much more fundamental failure to properly develop underlying principles and cohere around them.  The project’s philosophy was under-thought, under-realised with the result that it was eventually delivered stillborn to the electorate.

The Conservative and Ulster Unionist connection was supposed to roll out the full political entitlements of British citizenship to everyone in Northern Ireland.  We were finally to enjoy representation and participation which the rest of the UK takes for granted.  

A strong unionist force, stretching across the Kingdom would counter regional nationalism by making a positive case for the Union.  In Northern Ireland, where unionism had often relied on a zero-sum argument with nationalists, that meant a dramatic shift in focus.  Unionists here would finally be on the front foot, arguing the benefits of the United Kingdom, rather than the horrors of a 32 county Republic of Ireland.
Some of these themes certainly found their way into Conservative and Ulster Unionist literature - speeches, newspaper articles and so forth - but it’s fair to say that the ideas they hinted at were never thoroughly worked through.

There is a simple enough explanation for that failure. Although there were senior figures within both parties who were on the same page, consensus about which values the United Kingdom should represent or the merits of its citizenship, didn‘t run particularly deep.    

While the UK’s pluralism, its multi-national nature or its layered identities can be presented as strengths, equally, even within unionist circles, there are those who regard those qualities as weaknesses.  

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since 2008, but I suppose that, over the past couple of years, my support for UCUNF was animated by a hope that a ‘new unionism’ would become mainstream within the UUP and Conservatism.  That a certain body of ideas, which have always existed in the margins of unionism, in Northern Ireland at least, were about to come of age.

That hope has been dashed.  The ’new unionist’ mood isn’t about to hit the mainstream any time soon.  But I now wonder whether it ever actually existed in the first place and, if it did, whether it bore any relation to the reality of UCUNF?  Or did the ’New Force’ merely borrow some of its clothes?

Was there actually an identifiable intellectual energy underpinning the project, which is still there to be harnessed, or was it just coincidence that two parties’ marriage of convenience struck a chord with the rarefied concerns of a few Northern Irish unionist eccentrics?

I don’t exactly have the answer to those questions, although I do have some thoughts, which I hope to develop over the next while.  And I‘d be interested to hear what other people think, particularly those fellow travellers for whom the idea of a UK wide politics struck a particular chord.

Is there anything to be salvaged?  And I don’t necessarily mean in a party political sense.  Is there a mood or an intellectual energy which is still there to be tapped?  A ‘new unionism‘ for want of a better phrase.

I was inspired to write this piece by Arthur Aughey’s contribution to ’Progressive Unionist Voice’.  Against mounting disillusion and cynicism it reminded me of the ideas which attracted me to unionism in the first place and which I'd hoped would gradually become common currency as the Conservative link developed.

Arthur, I think, is an enemy of fatalism among constructive, thinking unionists and I battle to share his optimism.  In terms of party politics, a sunny outlook is difficult.  Ulster particularism is the order of the day in Northern Ireland.

The exact configuration of unionist candidates in the next election, and the fallout for both of the parties who formed UCUNF, is important, of course.  Far more important, in my view, is the health of the ideas behind unionism, in Northern Ireland and beyond.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Where in the world is Lady Sylvia Hermon? (5)

It feels like banging one's head against a brick wall.  No-one apparently cares.  I suppose in a region which returns five official abstentionist MPs, what's another unofficial abstentionist?

Still, it's worth pointing out, just for the record (and for the eccentric few who actually do care about Northern Ireland's voice being heard at Westminster) that the member for North Down has now racked up her century.

Drum roll please ..... the 'independently minded' Lady has participated in 0 votes out of 102 during this parliament.  Count 'em!  Even Alasdair McDonnell, a notoriously work-shy member has notched up 24 votes.

An extraordinary record anyone would surely agree.  Even at the Spending Review announcement and the subsequent debate, which will surely affect even the prosperous denizens of the Gold Coast, Hermon was conspicuous by her absence.

How long will this record continue before it's flagged up outside a handful of blogs?  Have the local papers in North Down expressed any concern?  There hasn't been a peep in the regional press.

Update:  In the comments zone Bob Wilson points out that Hermon didn't even make it to the Northern Ireland Select Committee considering a cut in Corporation Tax.  

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Kennedy to DEL. McCallister to deputy leader. Empey to the Lords?

Tom Elliott has freshened up the UUP team at Stormont.  John McCallister is promoted to deputy leader, which will be interpreted as an olive branch to the party’s liberal wing.  He replaces Danny Kennedy, who takes Sir Reg Empey’s portfolio as Minister for Employment and Learning.  The rest of the changes can be viewed here.

Although McCallister’s elevation might soothe fears that supporters of Basil McCrea will be ostracised under the new leadership, Elliott has simultaneously filled an executive post with one of his key allies.  Kennedy is an amiable politician, but his performances are often less than stellar.

In the aftermath of Lord Browne’s recommendations into university funding and the Northern Ireland specific Stuart Review, the new minister’s in-tray is already full to overflowing.  He faces some exceptionally difficult and potentially unpopular decisions in his first year in office.

John McCallister may be the shrewder of the two appointments.  Another liberal figure, Danny Kinahan, had been mentioned in connection with the deputy‘s position, but Elliott has gone further, by choosing an out and out Basil McCrea supporter.  Whether his decision can patch up the divisions in the party, remains to be seen, but it should go some way to reassuring disaffected McCrea backers.

The proviso is that McCallister, like Elliott, is from a farming background.  This rural tradition is strong in the UUP, but it yields ever fewer votes and it would be a pity were the party to ‘over-egg’ agriculture at Stormont.

Meanwhile Sir Reg Empey’s departure from the executive is likely to signal a step back from the frontline of everyday politics here.  His spell as leader was an odd mixture of the visionary, the malformed and the stillborn.  Hopefully the ’new unionism’ whose future he foresaw will not die because he lacked the fortitude to promote it fully.

Despite its ultimate failure he did take risks to promote politics with a pan-UK flavour and that was a laudable contribution.  Will Empey finally make it to Westminster in the new year, taking up the Conservative and Unionist cause at the House of Lords, rather than defending his Assembly seat in East Belfast?

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Rathcoole, the PUP and paramilitary self-delusion

Across north Belfast to Rathcoole.

I’m a little bit slow off the mark with this one, and Pete Baker on Slugger has already juxtaposed new party leader Brian Ervine’s insistence that the PUP should not act as ’an apologist’ for violence, with Ken Wilkinson’s comments about street violence in Newtownabbey, doing just that.

It’s the usual story, as parroted by generations of republicans and loyalists.  A riot in the Rathcoole Estate can be ascribed to the presence of police, who raided houses in the area, in order to investigate UVF murders and other crimes.

The PUP recently voted to retain its link with paramilitaries, a connection which Ervine alleges ’fixates’ the media and prevents it reporting the party’s ’tremendous work’.  Work that members clearly believe would be undermined without the patronage of the UVF and ’Red Hand Commando’.

The necessity of the paramilitary connection is usually explained by a euphemism beloved of Troubles apologists - ’conflict transformation’.  It is underpinned by an implication that terrorist groups and their members were victims of social and economic circumstance, rather than free agents engaged in criminal activity.

If we strip away the mealy mouthed, earnest nonsense, its purpose is to transform authority and influence once sustained by violence, into political esteem and money.  It’s about giving ’the men’ what they believe they deserve.  

The fact that this process is far less developed on the loyalist as opposed to the republican side, is the source of the much vaunted anger, which exists within working class Protestant communities.

The problem with ’conflict transformation’, wherever it takes places in Northern Ireland, is that it rewards people who deserve to be punished.  It perpetuates their authority, which they established through illegal means, and it sustains their self-deluding and self-justifying mythology.

In republican areas it has been tolerated as a short-term price of peace, but it is ultimately to the detriment of any community.

Monday, 25 October 2010

There will be blood

The Belfast Telegraph link is now available and in today's paper I focus on the spending review and, in particular, local reaction to cuts.
the notion that poor, benighted Northern Ireland is to be mercilessly squeezed by the perfidious Tories, was not unduly dented by the fact that we actually got off rather lightly, in comparison with the rest of the UK. 
It made little difference that we can expect only a 6.9% cut to our block grant, while the average government department will see its spending constricted by 19%.  Not even a cool £200 million, stumped up by the Treasury to reimburse investors in the ill-fated Presbyterian Mutual Society, could draw poison from local attacks on the Chancellor and his government.
Foremost among the critics are Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, who allege that Osborne has broken a promise to deliver £18 billion of infrastructure improvements to Northern Ireland.  That figure was thrashed out behind closed doors with Gordon Brown, in the wake of the St Andrews Agreement, but Sinn Féin and the DUP believe that their backroom deal is binding.  
Speaking on the coalition‘s behalf, Secretary of State Owen Paterson insists that the target can still be met, if ministers here are prepared to pull their weight.  He points out that the Executive has been handed a number of levers to keep capital spending on track.  
Such faith in our politicians to take responsibility for their own difficulties is touching, but it is also naïve, and it graphically demonstrates why we have a particular problem. In truth the cuts really will hurt us more in Northern Ireland and we really are unlikely to see the fruits of an £18 billion capital spend.
The cuts, I argue, are set to cause a nationwide battle and Northern Ireland will bring its own peculiar enmities to the quarrel.
The whole United Kingdom is on the brink of its very own culture war, inspired by an atavistic political hatred of Conservatives, harboured by elements within the Unions and the left.  Quite simply, there are too many people who are spoiling for a fight with the new government.  It was almost impossible for the coalition to devise a route to recovery which would avoid confrontation.    
In Northern Ireland, the struggle has the potential to be even more rancorous, thanks to our own complicated national loyalties.  Contempt for the Tories will be exacerbated by other tribal resentments.  Whether one chooses to blame ‘the Brits’ generally, or the English more specifically, will depend largely on political affiliation. 
The supposed severity of government cuts is not the chief source of our worries.
If the people of Northern Ireland have reason to quake in their boots, it’s not due to a 1.7% year on year cut, applied by London.  The real worry is that the task of achieving that saving has been passed on to a group of politicians in Belfast who seem congenitally incapable of acting collectively or responsibly. 
The Northern Ireland Executive is not a passive victim of the new economic situation: it has options.  It can open new funding streams, privatise assets and strip back the cornucopia of Quangos and commissions, bequeathed to us by the peace process.  The coalition government has instigated the cuts, but in Northern Ireland, the buck stops at Stormont.

Friday, 22 October 2010

More DUP fault-lines develop

Prioritising paid work has meant slow blogging over the past couple of days.  A more lengthy assessment of the CSR's effects on Northern Ireland is in the offing.

But in the mean time it's interesting to note that the Finance Minister formerly known as 'Red Sammy' Wilson  has throughout the run-up to cuts struck a more realistic figure than his DUP colleagues, whom Belfast Telegraph Political editor, David Gordon, notes are becoming increasingly Keynesian (and it takes one to know one).

Meanwhile the party's former leader, the Reverend Lord Doctor Ian Bannside Paisley, has taken what appears to be a dig at his successor's new found love of integrated education.  In a thoroughly baffling News Letter column he includes this gnomic offering:

The lively debate concerning education which this week has exercised many is a debate that we cannot luxuriate in or afford commissions on, while there presently is not the funding for classroom assistants, for library books, for support teachers, nor indeed before the whole issue of the 11-plus is even sorted. 
It would seem that at the start of this dig there needs to be a  few areas roped off and a decent site-map laid out before us, rather than everyone running about with their own shovel and creating a quagmire rather than a tunnel. Sometimes I just don't dig it!
We await a development of Peter Robinson's ideas on education, but if they really do comprise a genuine integration or secularisation of schools, rather than a take-over of the Catholic sector, this is a timely reminder that he could run into strong opposition within his own party.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

A story still-born or still gestating?

It’s difficult to know what to make of Eamonn Mallie’s latest ‘exclusive’ at Slugger.

It’s hardly a secret that although Tom Elliott’s leadership win was popular among the UUP’s elderly and rural grassroots, some moderate activists were dismayed.

Rumours that disillusioned members would organise were inevitable and murmurs about a ’2010 Group’, prepared to protect some of the more inclusive aspects of UUP policy, actually pre-date the Elliott vs. McCrea contest.

The notion that ’national politics’ or ’pan UK unionism’ are ideas worth advocating was not going to disappear due to one disappointing and mismanaged election.

Mallie says that the group has met and even quotes a source, but I can’t help feeling that he has ’broken’ a story long before its gestation period is up.  Metaphorically we have a few conjoined cells, rather than anything which the general public might recognise as a baby.

The fact that there are rumblings within the UUP, that something is up, is hardly an insight and it doesn’t constitute a story.  People with an interest in the party have been ‘watching this space’.

Mallie is undoubtedly a fine journalist, with a finger on the pulse.  I cannot understand why he hasn’t let this one run a little further until he had some detail, some people prepared to put their heads above the parapet and something worth reporting.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Progressive Unionist Voice

A new (cunningly named) blog is up and running - Progressive Unionist Voice.  There are a variety of interesting posts up already, including MLA John McCallister's interpretation of 'Progressive Unionism'.

I've contributed a guest post too, arguing against unionists who have formed a coalition 'together against the national interest' with separatists across the UK.  And I highlight an argument from Peter Robinson that is so profoundly anti-unionist that it staggers the mind someone who calls himself a unionist would use it.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Three polls in one day for weary Ulster voters

Northern Ireland’s political parties face a triple electoral whammy next May, with local council and assembly polls taking place at the same time as the Alternative Vote referendum.

I wonder what appetite hard-working activists and an apathetic general public will have for campaigns starting in the grey months of Winter and running into the early Spring?

No doubt some of our representatives will be more up for the fight than others.  Still, it’s hard to envisage them inspiring a healthy turnout from an indifferent electorate.

If the menu of political options is unchanged, or even decreases from previous polls, even the anoraks among us may be scrabbling around for a candidate worth backing.

One interesting question for the run-up to May 5th  2011, how will the local parties advise their supporters to vote on AV?

If self-interest is the guiding principle, and surely it will be, you would imagine the UUP, SDLP and Alliance will back it enthusiastically, while the DUP and Sinn Féin might not be so keen.

The referendum should keep party number crunchers busy for the next few months.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Sinn Féin's cunning budget plan

I notice that one of Sinn Féin's suggestions to plug the budget shortfall of £1.9bn in Northern Ireland is a £2,000 monthly levy on mobile phone masts.  Anyone notice any faulty logic at work?

Some of Northern Ireland's rural areas already suffer from some of the patchiest mobile phone coverage anywhere in the UK.  It's a nuisance for residents, visitors and it sure as heck discourages business.  Will the communications giants be rushing to plug these gaps at £24,000 per year per mast?

Ironically some the areas worst affected are Sinn Féin strongholds.

Poorly thought out, 6th form financials from republicans?  Who would've thunk it!

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Where in the world is Lady Sylvia Hermon? (4)

From shameful to shameless.  The MP for North Down HAS been sighted at the House of Commons this term.  She deigned to turn up to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.  And indeed she actually briefly broke her silence in the main chamber at Northern Ireland questions, bothering herself about the demise of the murderous thug Billy Wright.  Since then, according to They Work for You, nothing.  Including no votes at all, zero, nadda.


Keen not to corroborate Andrew Marr’s observation that bloggers are ‘very angry people’ subject to ‘spewing and ranting’, I kept my counsel last night.  Unfortunately the bile has not yet subsided and I suspect that it might persist until March, at the very least.  That is Northern Ireland’s first opportunity to make good the debacle in the Faroe Islands.

If we go to Serbia and win, then maybe - just maybe - I might begin to calm down.  How do you start to describe last night’s performance?  Is there even any point?

Eleven professional footballers, passing the ball aimlessly in front of the proverbial set of teachers and postmen, without a hint of threat, without any penetration.  And it wasn’t an aberration, however much the Worthington apologists will tell you otherwise.  That is how his teams play football.

Against better sides, who actually attempt to play themselves, we occasionally get away with it.  Last month Slovenia pasted us for seventy minutes, then Corry Evans bundled in an away goal and all was rosy in the garden.  Against Italy we were happy to sit in front of them, they were happy to sit in front of us and the inevitable result was a 0-0 draw.

Against limited opposition there is no forward gear, nothing extra, no ideas, no hope, scarcely any point in even being there.  On a heavy pitch Northern Ireland moved the ball right to left, ponderously, then left to right, slowly, then backwards, before resuming the sideways trajectory again.

When we do this against moderate opposition for twenty minutes, and lose, it allows the manager’s fans to claim that we’ve done quite well.  The colloquialism ’footering about’ epitomises Worthington’s chosen style.

Were there any positives?  Not many.  McGinn showed more purpose and penetration than his teammates in the opening period, but his delivery was poor and he faded badly in the second half.  Given that the Celtic player is returning from a long-term injury his performance was at least excusable.

Lafferty proved a nuisance to the Faroes’ defence and despite a few powder puff efforts his goal was the one high point of a miserable night.  He’s the only current Northern Ireland player who looks likely to score.

Otherwise there was nothing to redeem this abject, disgraceful, pitiful team.  I don't want to think about them, I don't want to talk about them and the fact that their next match is in a month's time makes it far far too soon.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Kyrgyzstan - bastion of democracy or fragmented ungovernable mess?

In post Soviet politics, one man’s ‘vibrant democracy’ is another man’s ‘fragmented, ungovernable mess‘.  Kyrgyzstan held its first election under the country’s new parliamentary constitution on Sunday and the result makes Ukraine look like a straightforward two party system.

These elections, which are being reported as free and fair, were an upshot of the ’revolution’ which ousted President Bakiyev.

If the poll had a victor, however, it was the party sympathetic to the previous regime, Ata-Jurt, which came out top.  A proportional cohort of its candidates will take their place in the new parliament, alongside representatives from 5 other groups, which cleared the 5% threshold.

Each of the ‘successful’ parties polled between 7.24% and 8.88% of the total vote.  That, of course, means that almost two thirds of the electorate cast a ballot for candidates from groups which did not make it into Parliament.                

The provisional President, Rosa Otubayeva, has the formidable task of patching together a coalition.  Under the new constitution a new prime minister is required to be in place 30 days after vote counting is complete.

Whatever government emerges from this election, it is unlikely to be particularly stable.  One school of thought holds that it is better to have Ata-Jurt inside the administration, or at least inside the Parliament, rather than forming a disillusioned rump outside.

Whether that analysis holds, or whether southern Kyrgyzstan remains a potential rallying point for future 'counter revolution', remains to be seen.

Previously the Tulip Revolution was misinterpreted as a victory for the forces of democracy, rather than the result of tribal politics, and it yielded Bakiyev's regime.  Now, the same cheerleaders appear to be championing a 'one size fits all' approach to the Kyrgyz government.  For the sake of regional stability, we must hope their judgement is sounder this time round.

Tories ponder their next move as the UUP circus continues.

The NI Conservatives have unveiled a new website, which is currently being knocked into shape.

In the news section you can read about a delegation from Northern Ireland which visited Birmingham last week for the Tory party conference.  Irwin Armstrong (chairman) and Dr Paul Megarity (vice-chairman) engaged in high level discussions about future Conservative involvement in Ulster with party co-chair Andrew Feldman and Secretary of State, Owen Paterson.

All parties seem to be agreed that the Conservatives are here for the long-term.  Whether that means standing candidates in the forthcoming Assembly election remains to be seen.  I detect a gathering sense that there is that possibility.

In parallel with the local Tories’ deliberations, Tom Elliott has been asked to place his proposals for future involvement between the Conservatives and the UUP before the Prime Minister by the end of the month.  Cameron, for his part, will consider whether his party is prepared to maintain a formal relationship with Ulster Unionists.

Can Elliott salvage anything from UCUNF?

That may depend upon the UUP’s approach to ’unionist unity’.  If the party were to agree candidates in certain Northern Ireland constituencies with the DUP, and talks to that end are believed to be ongoing, then Cameron would find it more difficult to continue the Tories’ relationship with the UUP.

As ongoing divisions see the Ulster Unionists stumble from tragedy, toward farce, and with Elliott electing to boast publicly about putting the Prime Minister in his place, Tory patience on the mainland is wearing thin.

If local Conservatives were to run in next year’s poll, backed by a national apparatus, they would have the capacity to cost the UUP seats, at the very least.

Calling all students from Northern Ireland

Go and have some travel experiences before your tuition fees rocket!

Inge Sodeland from the International Student Festival in Trondheim, Norway, is inviting Northern Irish students to take part in the event's dialogue seminars.  ISFiT is the largest festival of its type in the world and it takes place between 11-20 February next year.

The Dialogue Groups seek to gather students from different sides of conflicts to meet on equal grounds in a neutral environment. In February 2011 we invite students from the conflict areas of Armenia/Azerbaijan, Rwanda/Burundi and Northern Ireland for a dialogue seminar in Norway. Through different communications exercises, role-play and social activities the participants and the facilitators will explore the consequences of the conflict and the opportunities for the future. Dialogue, leadership and project development will be important topics throughout the seminar. In total 24 participants - four representatives from each side of the three different conflict areas, will spend 20 days in Norway working with dialogue, sharing different experiences, and having lots of fun:)

The closing date for application is 15 October, so time is of the essence.  There's an application form here.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Accentuate the positive. Cameron's key to a happy Union.

In Thursday's Belfast Telegraph (not online) I argued that the Conservatives must not allow their deficit reduction programme to obscure more positive policies.

David Cameron delivered a keynote speech to the Conservative Party Conference for the first time since the formation of a coalition government, at the ICC in Birmingham yesterday. The Tory leader was eager to emphasise his credentials as a Prime Minister for the whole of the United Kingdom, claiming that its four constituent nations are “stronger together, and together is how we must remain“.

The Conservatives formally ditched their pact with Ulster Unionists this week, after a disastrous showing at the general election, but Cameron remains keen that Northern Ireland should play an active role in national debate.

The Tories are unpopular outside England, and the Prime Minister knows that he cannot simply ignore the competing regional interests which devolution has unleashed, if the United Kingdom is to remain strong on his watch.

To this end he spoke of his determination to use “every means at our disposal” to combat an “increased threat” posed by dissident republicans and he attacked the nationalist government in Scotland for releasing the Lockerbie bomber, contrary to British interests.

The Prime Minister also claimed that his apology for Bloody Sunday proves that “when this country gets it wrong, we’ll admit it”. And he commended the work of three predecessors, John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, in securing a peace settlement here.

Cameron clearly wants to reach out to people in Northern Ireland, but his message of socially responsible cuts is a difficult pitch, in a region so heavily dependent on public spending.

The Conservatives’ concerns about our addiction to subsidy were evident even before the coalition government was formed. The party’s failure, in conjunction with its UUP partners, to gain Westminster seats here, was widely ascribed to Cameron’s unfavourable comparison of the Ulster economy with economies in the former Soviet bloc.

The Tory proviso remains that, as Northern Ireland’s ’unsustainable’ public sector shrinks, there will be space for private enterprise to flourish, leaving the province’s finances in an incalculably healthier state. In the continued absence of home-grown Conservative representatives, it falls to Owen Paterson to make this argument, selling spending cuts to the public and to a sceptical Assembly.

The Secretary of State’s difficulty is that the axe is starting to fall before the government can make good on positive commitments to Northern Ireland. Although a consultation document on growing the private sector is expected soon, its recommendations will provide cold comfort to those who have already lost their jobs.

The government is likely to recommend that powers to cut Corporation Tax are devolved to the Stormont Assembly. It may also consider a package of measures which turn Northern Ireland into an ’enterprise zone’. Even if such radical surgery can be agreed quickly, however, it will take time before the benefits trickle down to the local economy.

Cameron and Paterson will argue that the coalition must make difficult decisions in a the face of overwhelming debt. Their government is doing the responsible thing and, ultimately, Northern Ireland will reap the benefits. But critics point to other, more straightforward pledges, which remain unfulfilled.

Out of pocket investors at the Presbyterian Mutual, for example, have not yet been reimbursed. The Conservatives indicated before the election that they would quickly resolve the PMS saga, which Labour allowed to rumble on for over eighteen months.

However, another five months down the line, savers could be forgiven for suspecting the promise was idle. Likewise, Sinn Féin’s parliamentary privileges and allowances continue unabated, despite a Tory commitment to terminate payments to abstentionist MPs.

These are sensitive issues and the Conservatives could not possibly be expected to deliver immediately on every pre-election pledge in a coalition government. But taken together they represent a slow start in office for the Secretary of State. Unlike Iain Duncan Smith, for example, Paterson is not considered one of the new administration’s early ministerial hits.
Within Cameron‘s government there are often very visible strains, not just between Tories and Lib Dems, but among colleagues in the Conservative Party, some of whom see spending cuts as an ideal opportunity to hack back the state, while others want more efficient public services to form the bedrock of a big society.

The Prime Minister’s role is to balance the competing factions and ideologies within Conservatism as well as the interests of the two parties which make up the coalition. The deficit is quite properly an overriding concern for David Cameron, but he mustn’t let cuts obscure some of the more positive aspects of his government’s work.

The coalition does have a positive message for Northern Ireland. It is prepared to consider special arrangements in order to encourage entrepreneurship and the private sector. At a meeting during the Tory conference the Secretary of State also indicated that his party could throw its weight behind the integrated education movement.

There is a risk, however, that all the talk of cuts and the fear that they engender will make David Cameron deeply unpopular here, despite all his best intentions. He and Paterson need to show that they understand those apprehensions and that their government is about more than deficit reduction.   

Thursday, 7 October 2010

IFA set to gag Northern Ireland supporters' protest -EXCLUSIVE

The Irish Football Association (IFA) is set to deploy a UEFA anti-racism directive in order to gag supporters protests, at Fridays international clash between Northern Ireland and Italy at Windsor Park.

Fans had planned to display banners, highlighting what they believe amounts to a systematic plunder of the Associations underage players by the Football Association of Ireland (FAI), which governs the game in the Republic of Ireland. Earlier this year the IFA took the FAI to court, in an attempt to stop the Republic picking players from Northern Ireland.

The Court of Arbitration for Support (CAS) ruled in the FAIs favour, finding that FIFA regulations allow the Republic of Ireland to continue selecting players from Northern Ireland; including players who have already played for one of the IFAs underage teams. It did however acknowledge that the existing situation represents an unfair one way street which disadvantages the IFA.

Northern Ireland supporters connected to the successful website Our Wee Country channelled their frustration into two banners protesting at the FAIs selection policy. One warned the association to stop interfering with our kids and another accused the southern body of creating Football Apartheid in Ireland.

The pro-IFA banners were displayed without controversy during Northern Irelands European Championship qualifier in Slovenia, which the team won, but the association has indicated that they will not be welcome at Windsor Park on Friday.

The IFA cites a drive by UEFA, the body charged with running football in Europe, to banish racist displays from football stadia. But the associations spokesman acknowledges that the banners are not an issue in terms of racism and that UEFA has not expressed any concern over their content.

The supporter who commissioned the banners, travelled from Mumbai in India in order to attend matches in Montenegro and Slovenia. He emphasises that the banners are intended solely as commentary on the FAIs predatory selection policy and do not refer to any other institution in Ireland.

He also believes that the IFA is curtailing fans freedom of speech in order to protect lucrative commercial interests. The Northern Ireland team will take part in an inaugural Celtic Cup tournament, hosted by the FAI in Dublin next year.

It is an allegation which Geoff Wilson of the IFA denies.

The fans have a right to free speech but we are just trying to do whats right for football in Northern Ireland. We want the team and the fans to remain focussed on beating Italy.

Faroes trip a must win for Northern Ireland but anything against Italy is a bonus.

If pride comes before a fall Northern Ireland fans are teetering on the brink ahead of their team’s European Championship qualifier with Italy.  The last time such dizzy optimism infected the Green and White Army a new campaign was starting at Windsor Park, with Lawrie Sanchez’ men fresh from beating England the previous season.  The result?  A 3-0 mauling at the hands of Iceland.

The circumstances are slightly different this time.  Northern Ireland has already got this set of qualifiers up and running with an unlikely away win in Slovenia.  So 3 points are already on the board.  And the Italians comprise precisely the type of opposition which the Windsor roar has a habit of unsettling.

These portents have persuaded some supporters that Italy’s scalp will inevitably be added to those of illustrious predecessors like Spain and England.  It will surprise no-one to learn that I‘m not so certain.

Tomorrow evening has all the incipient ingredients of a damp squib.  Over-confidence, wounded opposition and a likely sense of anti-climax, should things not immediately go Northern Ireland’s way.

After their disastrous World Cup performance in South Africa, under a new manager and bereft of stellar names, the Italians are unlikely to be complacent.  Indeed Nigel Worthington’s squad are just as likely to be infected by that vice, as they showed against Slovakia in the previous campaign.

In Pirlo, Italy has a potent playmaker who Northern Ireland must take care to shackle from the earliest stages.  Chris Baird would be the natural choice to perform that role.

Up front, our best chance of a goal might be Kyle Lafferty, who has run into some form at Rangers.  If he can’t unlock the Italian defence, it will be up to midfielders like Davis and Brunt to produce a rare moment of magic.

The truth is that, should Italy win the game, as they probably will, it is not a disaster for Northern Ireland.  We shouldn’t expect to beat the top ranked teams.  The acid test is the Faroe Islands on Tuesday.  Anything less than a win there will be a disaster for Worthington.  And history shows that it is precisely the type of game which can trip us up.

Cameron needs to hold on to communitarian vision.

At Ultonia, Lee is dismissive.  At Northern Ireland Centre-Right, Seymour Major is still in the throes of ecstasy.  My take on Cameron’s conference speech is somewhere down the middle.

Certainly I didn’t feel that this address featured the rhetorical pyrotechnics which the Tory leader has occasionally produced.  It felt a little laboured, it didn’t depart substantially from the script, and given that it was delivered by the first Conservative prime minister since May 1997, it wasn’t even received that rapturously by the Tory faithful.

In today’s Belfast Telegraph, which is not yet online, I consider Cameron’s references to Northern Ireland.  The headline ’Fine words, true.  But do you really get us, David?’ is not really an accurate reflection of the article's content.

As a commentator, rather than a politician, I’m not restrained from saying that the Conservatives don’t need to ’get us’ and if they do finally 'get us' it will be to our detriment.  The demand that they do is based on a ’little Ulster’, ’we’re the centre of the world’, ’we’re different and everyone should dance attendance’ mentality which disfigures this province.

Cameron speaks to Northern Ireland on the same terms as everyone else in the United Kingdom and long may he continue to do so.  As a unionist I ask for nothing else.

When I observe that, “ the deficit is quite properly an overriding concern for David Cameron, but he mustn’t let cuts obscure some of the more positive aspects of his government’s work“, and I argue that our heavy dependence on public services makes “his message of socially responsible cuts .. a difficult pitch“ it isn‘t special pleading.

These are the same arguments which take place, to different extents, the length and breadth of the United Kingdom.  There is real apprehension that spending cuts will cause pain and unemployment, but Cameron’s speech was about emphasising the positive aspects of his vision.

The ’Big Society’ has been heavily lampooned, but the Prime Minister is sticking to his communitarian guns.  And he is right to do so.  The problem is with the unmemorable phrase rather than the concept itself.  And if it received with scepticism in the Tory party, that is because the social nihilism of Thatcher is still so pervasive.

The deficit remains key, and fiscal conservatism is important, but the Tories can’t allow it to annihilate the better instincts which Cameron has allowed to flourish within his party.  That holds just as good for Northern Ireland, as it does elsewhere.

His speech suggests that our Prime Minister understands that imperative.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Liverpool's US nightmare to be ended by more Yanks?

Could Liverpool’s nightmare be over?  There is certainly a little more hope today, after a bid to buy the club by the parent company of US baseball franchise, ‘Boston Red Sox’, was accepted by the board.

The proviso is that the two Americans who are currently in charge are fiercely resistant to the deal, claiming that Liverpool FC has been undervalued.  In a desperate attempt to derail a takeover, Hicks and Gillett, tried to sack two members of the club’s board yesterday.

They claim that their fellow directors are not acting in the company’s interest.  It is a brass-necked contention from the pair, who saddled the club with a crippling debt following their leveraged buy-out.

A majority on the board, the bank which financed the debt, the fans, the manager and Liverpool’s players have all agreed for months that Hicks and Gillett are the problem.

Should the club finally get a buyer, its problems will not be at an end.  Liverpool will still be in the bottom three and the playing squad will still need investment to make it competitive.

Debt free and a little more care-free, however, Anfield would be a less demoralised place.

I last visited for the Sunderland game a couple of weeks ago and the mood among fans was at rock bottom.  Stephen Gerrard joined a post match protest by supporters to get the “Yanks out”.  Will it be a case of “Yanks out” and “Yanks in” after the international break?

Monday, 4 October 2010

Putting brilliant!

A picture tells a thousand words!

Let's hope the week can continue in this vein for Northern Ireland's sportsmen (and women).

Trevor Ringland resigns from the UUP

I'm currently listening to Talkback where Trevor Ringland has announced his reluctant resignation from the UUP.  He is currently explaining his reasons and fending off strident criticism.  The Ulster Unionists, he contends, should be doing more to oppose 'managed segregation'.  Although he acknowledges that he backed himself into a corner, with his ultimatum to Tom Elliott, insisting that the leader should attend a GAA match.

He quits hot on the heals of the news about Paula Bradshaw and although it is in slightly unusual circumstances, it will become much more significant if the trickle of departures becomes a stream.  

Friday, 1 October 2010

They're going to get you too? Another one of the UUP's young stars bites the dust.

In the Belfast Telegraph on Wednesday, and on this blog yesterday, I suggested that Tom Elliott must find a role for the younger generation of UUP activists who backed Basil McCrea.  Their energies, I hinted, would find another outlet, if they weren’t harnessed in the party’s interests.

Prominent among this group is Paula Bradshaw, widely acknowledged as a ‘rising star’, who performed creditably for UCUNF (given the circumstances) in South Belfast.  She is considering her political future after being denied the opportunity to run for the Assembly elections.

One selection meeting doesn’t constitute a ‘night of the long knives’, but it will be interesting to see whether this pattern is repeated elsewhere.  Harry Hamilton, one of the more exciting prospects unearthed by UCUNF, has already ‘bitten the dust’ in Upper Bann.

It’s early days, but after its choice of a ’grey man’ as leader, will the UUP throw away the chance to brighten up its candidate list for the Assembly elections?