Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Two months is a long time in politics and a political lifetime for DUP leader.

Peter Robinson made his contribution to Union 2021, the News Letter's series of essays, toward the end of September.  He urged unionists not to be complacent:
the future of unionism is bright, but there are two significant hazards on the road ahead.
The first is complacency. It derives from the belief that the constitutional question has been settled for evermore. This is claimed by some unionists but it is certainly not the view that republicans take.
In Saturday's much vaunted pitch for the middle-ground, the DUP leader made a statement which sounds a lot like his own definition of complacency.
The issue of the constitutional position of Northern Ireland has been settled for as far as one can see into the future.
"That battle has been fought and won. Against that settled backdrop, let us focus on the people's real everyday agenda."
Too often unionists are negative or defensive about Northern Ireland's status
Being pedantic, I suppose it's possible to argue that 'for evermore' is not exactly equivalent to 'as far as one can see into the future', but, at the very least, that's an enormous shift in emphasis over two short months.

For the record, I believe that the later pronouncement is more accurate.  On this blog, and elsewhere, I've long developed the theme that unionism is entirely useless if unionists continue to defend the Union without properly participating in it.

Northern Ireland is part of the UK and will remain so until a majority of people here decide otherwise.  That principle in enshrined in international law.  Yet our politics are still based squarely around Irish nationalism’s premise that the British link is impermanent, rather than unionism’s contention that it will endure.
Unionist politicians have for far too long fixated on nationalist aspirations, to the detriment of strengthening a political relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom which is already in place.  They are like a nursery school class full of unruly toddlers who scream and scream for playtime but are too preoccupied with their tantrum to notice that it has arrived.
Unionism doesn’t need to become one party, nor does it need the UUP to repudiate British Conservatism.  Instead, other Northern Irish unionists, with different political allegiances, should focus on their own links with like-minded national groups. 
The alternative for unionism is to remain myopically focussed on the constitutional issue.  If it does, it will always struggle to appeal beyond its base and demographics could eventually deliver a united Ireland.
If unionist parties are not careful, their very existence will contribute to the Union‘s demise.
The UCUNF experiment is dead, but the point about unionist parties stands.  As I argued in the Belfast Telegraph;

I suppose I’m asking whether Northern Irish unionism, in any of it current guises, actually has a long-term strategy or if it exists only to perpetuate itself.  Do purportedly unionist political parties in Ulster really have the best interests of the United Kingdom at heart?
They frequently claim to be defenders of the Union, but the stark truth is, since the Belfast Agreement delegated any change in Northern Ireland’s constitutional status to periodic border referenda, parties defined solely by ’unionism’ serve only to highlight differences between the province and the rest of the UK.
There is a strong argument that they could best defend the Union by disbanding and persuading members to align with the main British parties, either officially, or at first, unofficially.

Monday, 29 November 2010

British columnists writing on Russia and a genuine example of 'Scottish cringe'.

I don’t suppose Ria Novosti, the Russian state news agency, is everyone’s idea of required reading, but if you enjoy good writing it's worth bookmarking.  The website has added two fantastic British columnists to flesh out its Opinion pages.

Marc Bennetts wrote ’Football Dynamo’, a vigorous and personal book about soccer in Russia, and his articles just as lively.  The latest ponders recent events on the Korean Peninsula, vis a vis the prophecies of a long dead, blind Bulgarian psychic.  The author is currently working on a book about Russia’s fascination with the occult, so this singular topic is right up his ally.

Daniel Kalder covered similar territory in his book ’Strange Telescopes’ and the cynical Scotsman’s weary take on the world is also carried by Ria Novosti on a weekly basis.  Kalder now lives in Texas and his columns form a series, ’Transmissions from a Lone Star’, which highlights some of the quirkier aspects of American and Russian culture.

The writer, who coined the phrase ’anti-tourism’ in his travelogue ’Lost Cosmonaut’, this week muses upon inappropriate messages on advertising hoardings.

He finds one particularly fine example in his native land:

A few years ago in Scotland we revived our national parliament after a three-century hiatus. The country’s new leaders immediately started blowing lots of cash on huge billboards proclaiming our cosmic superiority:  
SCOTLAND: THE BEST (SMALL) COUNTRY IN THE WORLD. In spite of this apparent self-confidence however, Scottish men continued to enjoy the shortest life expectancy in Western Europe (I believe even the men of Belarus, who suffered the worst effects of Chernobyl and are governed by a baldy tyrant with a comedy-like moustache, live longer). 
The Scottish death spiral is brought on by too much drinking and smoking, too many drugs, casual violence and the unhealthiest diet in Europe. These habits in turn are inspired by a mixture of despair, boredom, poverty, dreary weather and an almost Dostoyevskian pleasure in self-annihilation- not to mention the fact that many of these vices are intensely pleasurable, at least in the short term. Nevertheless, the Scottish Parliament got straight to work paying for enormous billboards with giant pictures of fruit on them that were posted around the country. You know when you’ve been mango’d said one, echoing the slogan for a popular fizzy drink, thus insulting the intelligence of millions.

Now that’s what I call a Scottish cringe, but will his compatriots in the SNP see the humour?  If he'd written this for the Scotsman he would need to strap up tightly and don a crash helmet.

Friday, 26 November 2010

NI Tories can learn Scottish lessons.

It's beginning to look like there will, after all, be Conservative candidates contesting next year’s Assembly elections in Northern Ireland.

Whether this first Stormont sortie can provide a solid base, on which to build for subsequent outings, depends not only upon support and resources proving forthcoming from CCHQ, but also upon the party mustering local candidates and a local identity with which to imbue national Tory politics.

If the Conservatives in Northern Ireland are embarking upon a sustained push to raise their profile and attract voters, they would do well to learn from the lessons with which their counterparts in Scotland are currently grappling.  There the party is struggling to match its national revival and to come to terms with life ‘post devolution’.

O’Neill highlights the Sanderson Report which is attempting to come to grips with the Scottish Tories’ difficulties.

Throughout Britain the national parties are struggling to reconcile broader UK themes with devolved politics in the nations and the regions.  It's a hugely complicated task, but it's vital that they try.

We need welfare reform in Northern Ireland precisely because of our high dependency levels.

In yesterday's Belfast Telegraph I argued that, while the detail of Iain Duncan Smith's White Paper might be up for debate, the principles behind it certainly aren't:

In a world where each government proposal is instantly critiqued by self-interested groups with official-sounding names and subjected to mysterious 'equality impact assessments', a shadow of doubt is soon cast over the stoutest common sense.
When the coalition announced it could not afford to continue to pay out £25,000 yearly rents - beyond the wildest dreams of hard-working, affluent families - to benefits claimants, there was an outcry.
Even Boris Johnson, the Conservative mayor of London, likened the policy to ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.
Iain Duncan Smith's welfare proposals did not provoke such an overblown response, but the usual critics were out in force, alleging the measures amounted to an attack on vulnerable people. Their claims bear little scrutiny.
The Work and Pensions Secretary's White Paper on a 'Universal Credit' has wrongly been bundled together with the Government's deficit reduction programme.
Actually, Duncan Smith's plans to make work pay will cost £2bn more in the short term - and it's simply not true that they are inspired by the same instinct as cuts.
Undeniably, there is still an unreformed Thatcherite wing of the Conservative Party which sees the necessity of slashing spending as an opportunity to pursue the ideological goal of a smaller state.
These welfare reforms are something completely different.
They spearhead a drive to encourage, or 'nudge', people to be responsible and industrious, rather than lazy and dependent, which forms the core of what David Cameron describes as "progressive Conservatism".
It's the type of ambitious policy which enabled Cameron to shed the Tories' stuffy image in the first place and which still helps to bind the party to its Liberal Democrat partners.
The Universal Credit is not about penalising people who cannot find employment. Properly implemented, it will help those who are prepared to go back to work and punish only incorrigible claimants who simply refuse to take a job.
Its aim is to maintain support for jobseekers who want to work, even for a few hours, but who fear that, if they do, their benefits will be withdrawn, leaving them worse off.
There's room for an argument about the details, but most people will agree the principle is sound enough and it is absolutely vital Northern Ireland is not excluded from these reforms.
Contrary to the protestations of our Social Development Minister, Alex Attwood, we need the scheme precisely because our take-up of benefits is so unusually high.
Attwood insists it is unreasonable to punish the unemployed when there are no posts for them to fill. That argument ignores the thrust of the White Paper and its long-term objectives.
It might seem blindingly obvious, but the point has clearly been missed: if there aren't any jobs on offer then people will not be penalised for refusing to take them.
And in tune with the Government's chief aim of simplification, sanctions for abusing benefits will be spelled out clearly.
In contrast, for people who really are entitled to help, the coalition hopes the process of applying will be less daunting and, theoretically, take-up should be higher where it's needed the most.
Whether the Government's proposals can achieve their stated aims is up for debate.
To usefully take part in that discussion, Duncan Smith's critics need to delve into the detail of his paper, rather than criticising its broader ambitions.
The vast majority of the public will agree that it’s perfectly fair to give people a nudge if they persistently refuse to move from dependency into work.  That’s not a harsh or unfeeling principle, it’s actually the unimpeachable human heart of the coalition’s programme, even in a time of austerity.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Proper integration means secular education.

In the interests of impartiality, how about a little praise for the DUP?  It’s pretty infrequently that there is cause to hand any out.  Still, the party has not yet reverted to type on the education issue.

Indeed when the Alliance party proposed a motion at Stormont calling on Caitriona Ruane to actively promote an integrated and shared education system in Northern Ireland, the DUP provided the backing needed to pass that motion.

Less worthy of applause, on this occasion, were the SDLP, Sinn Féin and, disappointingly, the UUP, who all backed an amendment seeking to water down the resolution.  The existing sectors should be encouraged to interact more, rather than amalgamate, according to the amendment.

The motion was passed without any alteration and rightly so.  The Belfast Agreement called for progress on integrating education and housing and the original motion is only a restatement of existing obligations which the Education Minister refuses to carry out.

Her preference is for a fragmented system and asking existing sectors to share a little, rather than properly integrate offers her a get out.  Actually the motion should have been much stronger and called for a genuinely secular, integrated state system.

It’s disappointing that three parties chose to be mealy mouthed about a commitment to shared education.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Mixed bag for the UUP as the party looks to avoid lost seats.

Cross posted on Open Unionism.

As promised, some reaction to the UUP Assembly candidates list, revealed yesterday.  Like O’Neill, the first name which took my eye was Reg Empey, whose impending elevation to the Conservative benches at the House of Lords has not prevented his selection for East Belfast.

On ‘Unionist Lite’ Michael Shilliday notes that the Lords is neither an elected nor a salaried position and therefore the party treats it as exempt from strictures on double-jobbing.  That will be considered, by most people, to be too convenient a get out.

Simply, if you can’t be a Lord and remain in the House of Commons, neither should you become a Lord and remain at the Assembly.  If the UUP wants to wriggle out on a technicality then there will be criticism and, in my opinion, it will be justified.

It has been suggested that the party’s process has simply not caught up with Empey’s sudden peerage.  I hope that that is the case and that an alternative candidate will be selected in due course.

Looking at the rest of the list - the UUP has 17 Assembly members at the moment - and frankly it’s goal should be to have 17 after the election.  There are very few likely gains on the horizon and a few constituencies where existing seats will be under considerable pressure.

Take East Antrim for instance.  With boundary changes and the continued popularity of Sammy Wilson, Ulster Unionists will do tremendously to retain their two seats.  Rodney McCune kept the vote up well during the general election, but running alongside Roy Beggs jnr, a well known name in the area, he must rely on sweeping up transfers in order to hold on.

Tom Elliott will hope that Rodney can do it, because he badly needs an injection of young talent for his Stormont team.  It’s likely to be a tight run thing.

In North Antrim a perceived safe pair of hands, Robert Coulter, steps aside.  Two candidates, Robin Swann and former Ballymoney DUP man Bill Kennedy, will fight the constituency but, realistically, the UUP needs to concentrate on keeping its existing seat.  Coulter didn’t manage a quota last time and Jim Allister might scrape one in May, so the Ulster Unionists must hope that one of their men takes one for the team and that the SDLP’s Declan O’Loan gets edged out.

East Londonderry is another seat where the UUP returned an MLA under quota last time out.  The party is putting up two good candidates this time, in Leslie Macauley and David Harding.  It’s an odd situation though, because the pair both come fresh to the battle and, realistically, they are competing with each other.  Whether the de-selection of David McClarty, the sitting MLA, will impact upon the campaign, we must wait and see.  It has at least the potential to prove a complicating factor.

By no means is the UUP’s deputy leader, John McCallister, safe in South Down either.  He should be able to hold on, but the SDLP and Sinn Féin will think that there is an extra seat there for either party, if they can organise their transfers cleverly enough.

In South Belfast Michael McGimpsey could be the man to lose out, even though he is a sitting minister.  East Belfast is Empey territory, but (as above) he really should to do the honourable thing, given his impending Lordship.  North Down should theoretically offer a chance of a gain, given that Alan McFarland’s seat was won under the auspices of the UUP, but who would bet on it returning to the Ulster Unionist fold with McFarland standing as an independent?

There are currently two Ulster Unionist seats in Upper Bann, by the skin of their teeth, but can the ticket really sustain a third candidate again, without room for embarrassment?  Meanwhile Danny Kinahan is defending his South Antrim seat, won last time by David Burnside, with the added pressure of rabble-rouser Adrian Watson as a running mate.

Right the way down the slate then there is doubt and pressure.  There are good candidates, but there are others, like Watson and McNarry, who if they were to join the DUP, would slot immediately into its less reasonable wing.

It’s definitely not the worst list the UUP could put together, but it’s still going to be a desperately difficult election for the party.  No doubt the habitual exuberant optimism will kick in as May approaches, but if the Ulster Unionists are realistic, 'what we have we hold' will be a good result.

Monday, 22 November 2010

UUP Assembly candidates

I'll hopefully get to comment on the list soon, but just at the moment I'm between a Queen's medical school prize-giving (not on my own behalf I might add) and rushing out to gavaryoo pa Russki, so, without any added value, here are the UUP's Assembly election candidates:

North Antrim:            Bill Kennedy                Robin Swann 

East Antrim:              Roy Beggs (Jnr)        Rodney McCune

South Antrim:            Danny Kinahan          Adrian Watson 

North Belfast:             Fred Cobain 

West Belfast:             Bill Manwarring 

South Belfast:            Mark Finlay                Michael McGimpsey 

East Belfast:              Reg Empey                Tim Lemon 

North Down:               Colin Breen                Leslie Cree 

Strangford:                 David McNarry          Mike Nesbitt 

South Down:              John McCallister 

Newry & Armagh:      Danny Kennedy 

Lagan Valley:             Mark Hill                     Basil McCrea 

Upper Bann:              Jo-Anne Dobson       Sam Gardiner            Colin McCusker 

F&ST:                         Kenny Donaldson      Tom Elliott 

Mid Ulster:                  Sandra Overend 

West Tyrone:             Ross Hussey 

East Londonderry:    David Harding           Lesley Macaulay 
Foyle:                          Still to select 

Budget 'Ramadan nights' in Istanbul.

Sultanahmet from the Galata Tower.

A short travel post by way of something a little different.

During balmy Ramadan evenings this August, Istanbul’s old town - Sultanahmet - teemed with bearded men and head-scarved women, who awaited the evening call to prayer, before breaking their fasts around festive family picnics.

Meanwhile, across the crowded waters of the Golden horn, a gleaming minimalist art gallery, Istanbul Modern, housed German anatomist Gunther von Hagens’ controversial ’Bodyworlds’ exhibit of plastinated corpses. And the current European Capital of Culture prepared to host a World Basketball Championship and U2‘s latest show.

In the Turkish capital, European chic and Middle Eastern bustle form a happy blend, scorched by a hot blast of Central Asian steppe. Yet, despite its undoubted exoticism, Istanbul is easily accessible from the UK and can be experienced on a tight budget.

In Sultanahmet cheap accommodation is plentiful. The friendly hostel ‘Second Home’ is one of many thrifty options, serving hearty breakfasts on its roof-top and offering a mix of clean doubles and dorms.

Five minutes walk from the heart of historic Istanbul, it proved an ideal base to explore the winding streets and Ottoman mosques of the old town. Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque form a centre-piece to this area, book-ending a pleasant park, which exemplifies the city’s mix of old and new. You can access free Wifi here, among the ancient buildings.

Emperor Justinian’s 6th century ‘church of the divine wisdom’, or Aya Sofya, is still Istanbul’s most breath-taking sight. Its thirty metre dome seems to hover over the main body of the church and the building comprises one of the few surviving examples of Byzantine architecture in the city.
Sultanahmet’s Ottoman heritage, in contrast, is plentiful.

Topkapi Palace was the Sultanate’s seat of power for over four centuries. You can explore its opulent harem and shady courtyards in a morning. The Blue Mosque, designed by the Ottoman master Sinan, epitomises Islamic architecture for most tourists. Unfortunately Suleymaniye Mosque, which experts regard as a superior work, is currently closed for renovations.

A day in old town Istanbul can be rounded off perfectly with a Turkish kebap at Doy Doy. The restaurant’s prices are a snip and it enjoys stunning rooftop views of the Marmaris Sea and the Blue Mosque.

Although Sultanahmet has more than enough attractions and contrasts to fill any city-break, it’s worth taking one of the regular ferries across the city’s busy waterways, the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus, to experience a different Istanbul.

Along Karikoy waterfront lie fish restaurants and galleries, while a funicular railway whisks passengers up the hill to Taksim, the beating heart of modern Istanbul. From the square, the main shopping artery, Istlikal Caddesi, winds it way through Beyoglu. This ‘European’ district plays host to the city’s trendiest clubs, restaurants and its lively ‘Meyhanes‘, with their roving bands of gypsy musicians.

An evening here forms a lively counterpoint to historic and religiously conservative Sultanahmet. And it demonstrates that the although the notion of Istanbul as a unique blend of East and West, ancient and modern, is centuries old, it remains fresh and relevant today.    

Parsley resigns but Alliance still a dead end.

I don’t suppose that Ian Parsley’s resignation from the Conservative party can be regarded as much of a shock.  The North Down UCUNF candidate’s frustrations and the local Tories’ internal discussions were played out daily on his blog.

It made for an entertaining read, but it was an odd way of doing party politics.  There was always a suspicion that once Parsley’s work at the Campaign for Social Justice was at an end, he would decide to end his connection with the Conservatives too.  

Many of the complaints Ian aired on his blog were perfectly reasonable.  Without doubt the UUP election link up was a botched job.  It’s also true that the post UCUNF fall-out has taken a ridiculously long time to sift through.  Any push to stand Conservative candidates at next year’s Assembly election will be compromised by a short run up to the campaign (in contrast the Tories‘ general election allies have finalised their candidate list).

Still, it is one thing for independent or friendly commentators to offer candid analysis and it’s another for a key party figure to provide a running critique of its internal affairs in public.  In actual fact it did Ian no favours, because it enhanced a popular perception that he is not a team player.  Rumours about his political future were rife, way before this resignation and the headlines in this morning’s papers had a definite ’Parsley’s at it again’ flavour.

I don’t know whether he will stand for the Assembly or concentrate on retaining his council seat, nor do I know whether he is likely to stand as an independent in any future elections.  I would suggest that independence would be the more honourable route to take and, in North Down (so the cliché runs), a strong-mind or an autonomous spirit are not necessarily handicaps for the aspiring political representative.

His resignation blogpost contains overtures to former colleagues in Alliance, but Parsley’s politics are sound economically and they are firmly plugged into the UK mainstream.  It would be a retrograde step to rejoin a party which is agnostic on the Union and whose politics may be anti-sectarian, but are some distance from ’normal’ or ’mainstream’.

Yes, Stephen Farry has done a good job of injecting a dose of hard-headed realism into Alliance’s financial analysis, but his efforts at Stormont are undermined by Naomi Long’s deficit denial at Westminster.  The party has no credible plan to normalise Northern Ireland’s politics.  Its future depends on institutionalising ever further our status as a place apart.

To turn around David Ford‘s phrase, Alliance is a ’blind alley’.  Well-meaning, nice, but totally committed to the concept that Northern Ireland is a unique, fragile thing, to be handled with care.  The outcome of that logic is that our politics must consequently remain forever in an infantilised bubble; on the UK‘s financial drip, but never playing a full role in British politics, lest the sectarian apple-cart should be upset.

The Alliance party is no home for moderate pro-Union politicians, nor is it a home for anyone who wants to move this place on, rather than simply manage our divisions.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Baby steps towards genuine acceptance of the principle of consent?

In Friday's Irish News I suggested that Margaret Ritchie's poppy, and the willingness to call Northern Ireland by its proper name, may suggest a more compatible approach to the Belfast Agreement's underlying principle. Not everyone agrees. In fact one commentator has described me as an SDLP 'apologist'.  Here's the article in question.

Margaret Ritchie received praise and criticism in almost equal measure when she wore a poppy on Remembrance Sunday.  Rather than an act of respect and reconciliation, some nationalists saw a gesture at odds with the SDLP’s commitment to a 32 county Republic.

Ritchie affirmed that ’Irish unity’ is the party’s overriding goal recently, during a speech at its annual conference, but she also stressed that she would use the term ’Northern Ireland’ without reservation and cooperate with unionists, in order to make government here a success.

To some, that implies that the SDLP leader is all over the place politically.  The pursuit of a united Ireland, they reason, is not compatible with wearing a poppy or acknowledging Northern Ireland‘s existence without qualification.

A rather more positive interpretation is that the SDLP is getting to grips with one of contemporary nationalism‘s enduring contradictions.  Under Ritchie‘s leadership, its change of tack might finally reconcile its aspiration for Irish unity with longstanding acceptance of the principle of consent.

The right of Northern Ireland’s population to determine its own constitutional future formed the basis of the Good Friday Agreement, but the SDLP endorsed it generations before Sinn Féin took the plunge at Stormont Castle.

The party has sometimes been less quick to recognise that the principle has consequences.  Accepting the will of a majority to remain part of the UK is worth less, if you also reserve the right to undermine that democratic choice at any given opportunity.  

Too often any good faith fostered by the SDLP’s early endorsement of consent was offset by the party’s elastic use of the phrase ’parity of esteem’.   The concept quickly became a convenient catch-all for nationalism.

It could describe cultural and political rights, guaranteed by the Agreement.  But, by the same token, it could be turned to demand an equal status in Northern Ireland for symbols and institutions of Irish statehood, which unionists could not possibly accept.

Sinn Féin was undoubtedly the worse offender in this respect, but the SDLP has been guilty too.  The party pushed the notion that political representatives here should elect senators to the Republic’s Seanad and its youth wing still lobbies for the Irish President to be selected by northern as well as southern voters.
It is with some justification that unionists suspect both nationalist parties’ strategy is to erode UK sovereignty by stealth.  Indeed, as the SDLP jostled with Sinn Féin for electoral supremacy, that aim was often stated fairly explicitly.

It’s only natural that a nationalist party should energetically pursue its aspiration for a united Ireland, but if its methods are less than transparent, then it can’t be surprised if opponents react with distrust.

Of course, part of the problem is that unionists and nationalists each view the Good Friday and St Andrews Agreements as a route to very different destinations.  Unionists want self-government within the UK to form an end in itself, while nationalists see it as a ’staging post’ on the road to a united Ireland.

The Agreements don’t make these objectives any more reconcilable.  But they do lay down ground-rules for pursuing long-term aspirations, while still making Northern Ireland work in the short-term.   The most fundamental of these is the principle of consent.

Nationalism can approach the principle in two ways.  It can accept it reluctantly, as a necessary evil, and work to make Northern Ireland’s status as part of the UK as meaningless as possible.  Or it can endorse it wholeheartedly, acknowledge that the democratic choice of the majority has consequences, and work to persuade voters that their constitutional future lies elsewhere.

One option is generous, straightforward and can build goodwill and good relationships with political opponents.  The other encourages suspicion and helps to ensure that everyday issues continue to take a back-seat to an endless tug-of-war at Stormont.

Margaret Ritchie is not confused, when she espouses the merits of Irish unity while donning a poppy on her lapel.  She is actually making a respectful, bridge building gesture, enormously appreciated by most unionists.

When the SDLP leader champions a 32 County Republic and, at the same time, pledges to make Northern Ireland work, there is no contradiction.  She simply encourages her party to make its aspirations fully compatible with the principle of consent.      

Long may she continue to take that attitude.  If nationalism, or a significant section of nationalism, can accept the spirit of the principle, as well as its letter, it will breathe a fresh blast of good faith through the distrustful corridors of Northern Ireland politics.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Sir Reg becomes Lord Reg.

Arise Lord Reginald of Empey!  It's hardly an earth shattering surprise, but the news has been confirmed that Sir Reg will be elevated to a peerage.  Let this be the first blog to congratulate him on reaching Westminster at long last.  O'Neill points out that he will sit as a Conservative and no doubt he will be a useful addition to the Tory benches.

Although Unionist Lite is correct that Empey's stewardship of UCUNF wasn't sufficiently brave, I still think he deserves huge credit for taking radical steps to revitalise Northern Irish unionism.  Two cheers for Lord Reg!

Thanks to the anonymous commenter below who points out that Alistair Cooke, who taught at Queen's University Belfast, will also become a Conservative Lord.  

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Can UKIP save the Northern Ireland economy?

The news that UKIP intends to contest Assembly elections in Northern Ireland emerged toward the end of last week.

Yesterday the BBC carried a brief snippet about the story, including reaction from deputy leader, Paul Nuttall, who reckons that ’a fragmentation of unionism’ makes it a great time for the party to become involved in politics here.

That’s an odd reading of the political mood, by any stretch of the imagination.  UKIP struggles to attract attention in the rest of the UK, other than at European elections and the field already looks rather crowded for the Stormont poll, next May.

It’s just about possible that, in a proportional election, UKIP candidates might claim a few transfers.  The party does have a Northern Ireland councillor to its name, Henry Reilly, in Newry and Mourne, although he won his seat as an Ulster Unionist, before defecting in 2007.

Perhaps UKIP hopes the Republic’s financial crisis, and its disastrous experience with the Euro might send a wave of Euroscepticism crashing over the border.  

If the party is looking for a novel policy to push in Northern Ireland, it could adopt Daniel Hannan’s suggestion that the Republic ‘rejoin the Sterling area’.

It’s certainly a stout Eurosceptic idea.  It just needs a bailout with punitive conditions attached, in order to force southern VAT sky high and send shoppers in their thousands scurrying northwards towards Enniskillen Asda.

If we all go and live in Enniskillen and find work in Asda, UKIP might then be considered saviour of the Northern Ireland economy.

Otherwise, as much as I applaud any national party prepared to contest elections in Northern Ireland, they will need some pretty eye-catching ideas to become anything more than an eccentric footnote to the Assembly poll.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Secretary of State pledges to continue to offer mainstream politics, "in partnership or on our own".

The Secretary of State is due to give a lecture at Policy Exchange tonight, in memory of the late Tory peer Leonard Steinberg, who founded the Northern Ireland Friends of Israel group.

As a lifelong Ulster Unionist and a Conservative, Steinberg’s political commitments spanned two parties currently reassessing their relationship and Paterson will use his address to re-emphasise the Tories’ determination to bring national politics to Northern Ireland.  
“Our opponents have made much of the fact that we didn’t win any seats in May.  In fact we achieved over 100,000 votes for national politics and we came very close in three constituencies.  For every five votes we secured we won no seats, while for every seven votes the DUP secured they won 8 seats.
Although I remain an unapologetic supporter of the first-past-the-post system it does sometimes throw up tough results.But despite the General Election not going quite as well as we would have hoped in Northern Ireland, David Cameron and I remain committed to the principles on which we fought it.”

He will continue:
“For us, it’s a simple matter of democracy.  It is surely wrong that the people of Northern Ireland, alone in the United Kingdom, should be deprived of the opportunity to vote for parties that can form its government in Westminster.
As David Cameron put it, why is it that people from Northern Ireland rise to the top of our Armed Forces, excel in business, sport and the arts, yet nobody sitting for a Northern Ireland constituency serves in the British Government?  This is an anomaly.  It is undemocratic.  And it should change.
That’s why we made sure that written into the Coalition Programme for Government is a clear commitment “to work to bring Northern Ireland back into the mainstream of UK politics”.  There are some who attack this position and tell us that it is incompatible with the UK Government acting as an ‘honest broker’ between the Northern Ireland parties.  I disagree profoundly with this.
For a start, the logic of that argument is that Northern Ireland people should be effectively disenfranchised and treated permanently as second class citizens when it comes to electing their government.  That cannot be attractive to anyone who believes in democracy and the basic right to equal citizenship.  Why should people from Northern Ireland be excluded from playing a part in electing their national government?
I simply do not accept that having an electoral interest or, putting it another way, being a ‘player’, prevents us from working with all parts of the community to build a better Northern Ireland for everyone."
That’s interesting as a restatement of the principles behind UCUNF, but the ‘consequences’ which Paterson insists should flow from the democratic will of the people of Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom are more interesting still:

“One is that there is no reason why the constitutional issue should remain the defining characteristic of Northern Ireland politics.  It was settled on the basis of the consent principle.
And another is that people in Northern Ireland should be able to play a full role in the mainstream of political life in the country of which they legitimately form a part.
That’s what the Conservative Party, in partnership or on our own, will continue to offer.
We want to see local politicians developing local policies but also have a major influence at national level.”
That sounds like a commitment to long-term involvement here, with or without the participation of the Ulster Unionist party.

I understand that the UUP finally delivered its homework to the Prime Minister last week, regarding the future relationship of the two parties.  The Conservatives haven’t yet responded, but sources suggest that they consider the document offers little to progress the connection.

Whether that will stiffen sinews in terms of a local Tory reorganisation remains to be seen.  Offering national politics doesn’t necessarily mean standing for devolved institutions, but the Secretary of State’s tone suggests that the Conservatives have no intention of simply cutting their losses in Northern Ireland, in the long-term.

Flogging the Bill of Rights horse

In today's Belfast Telegraph, I comment on the latest NIHRC lobbying campaign, as highlighted by O'Neill.

One of the leading Northern Irish blogs, ‘A Pint of Unionist Lite’, recently highlighted a fresh bout of lobbying, designed to resuscitate the Commission’s ailing recommendations.
Last month McWilliams paid a visit to the House of Commons, meeting Scottish Labour MP Michael Connarty, who subsequently raised the moribund Bill of Rights at Prime Minister’s Questions. Following his discussion with the outgoing Commissioner, Connarty remarked, it was clear that the government intends “to breach the spirit and the letter of the Good Friday Agreement” by failing to implement the NIHRC‘s advice.  That is an assertion borrowed directly from the human rights lobby and it simply doesn‘t stand up to scrutiny. If anything, it was the NIHRC which disregarded the Belfast Agreement, when it concentrated its proposals on rights already secured by existing legislation and socio-economic aspirations, rather than developing rights particular to the circumstances of Northern Ireland.
The Commission’s work has been rejected by consecutive governments and picked apart by a raft of independent experts. Yet rather than take on board those criticisms and revisit its report, the NIHRC has intensified a campaign to force through highly controversial recommendations.
The NIHRC’s politicking has nevertheless won it support in high places. The US Congress heard submissions from rights activists, who asked Barack Obama to lobby on their behalf. And the Dublin government has openly advocated the Commission’s proposals, making several questionable interventions.
’Unionist Lite’ points out that McWilliams’ own Commons visit coincided with another question in the chamber, from Margaret Ritchie, directed at NIO minister Hugo Squire, which asked about the organisation’s resources. The SDLP has persistently championed the NIHRC’s cause, broaching no discussion about its contentious definition of ‘rights’.
Yet the NIO set out in extensive detail clear, practical arguments which caused two governments to disregard the Commission’s proposals. The NIHRC was asked to develop rights, specific to Northern Ireland, focussed on equality and parity of esteem. 
Instead it produced a list of universal entitlements, which are already protected under UK law and the European Convention, supplemented by a wish list of socio-economic aspirations.  It wasted a fantastic opportunity to deliver legislation which could make a genuine difference to the future of Northern Ireland. The NIHRC’s proposals have long since been dragged off to the knacker’s yard. It needs to stop flogging that dead horse and start making a realistic contribution to the rights debate.       

Monday, 15 November 2010

Barton selection makes a hollow farce of international football.

Unless you’re a committed football fan this may have escaped your attention, but the Northern Ireland international team is in action on Wednesday night.  I say the international team, but it’s more like the third string.  Regular squad members have been dropping like flies ahead of our home friendly with Morocco.

It was ever thus with these types of matches and doubtless it gives the manager a headache.  Still, there’s absolutely no excuse for his selection of Adam Barton, an English youngster who is eligible to play for Northern Ireland, but has yet to decide that that’s where his future lies.

Nigel Worthington has called Barton up, in his own words, “to sell Northern Ireland to him”.

Of all the witless decision the manager has made since taking over from Lawrie Sanchez, this is by far the worst, particularly bearing in mind the elgibility controversies which have blighted his reign.  He is effectively inviting a player to give us a trial run in a friendly match.  It debases the notion of an international cap irreparably.

What is to discourage another player, tempted to play for the breakaway association’s Republic team, from dipping his toe in the international pond with the original Ireland outfit, to see how he likes it?  It opens the way for all sorts of abuses and it creates a precedent that such actions are perfectly ok by us.

Worthington stooped low when he recalled ‘Biggles’ McCartney, whose commitment to the team was such that he pulled out of an away friendly in Armenia, due to the country’s apparent proximity to Iraq.  He stooped lower still when he selected Shane Duffy, after the player had communicated his intention to go elsewhere.

This is his lowest act yet.  Awarding a cap to an uncommitted player, as an inducement to play for Northern Ireland.

The famous green shirt has never before been so thoroughly demeaned.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Press release ping pong.

Or 'Faux outrage makes for poor politics'.  This column formed part of Friday's 'Political Review' in the News Letter.  I ponder the futility (and puerility) of many of the press releases put out by the main unionist parties here.
For the most part these press releases simply reinforce the public's perception that politicians are easily distracted from proper work by pointless, puerile games.
They sustain the view that politics are a nasty, vicious business, which should be regarded with the utmost cynicism.
As a party set up to confront and confound the DUP, it's no surprise that Jim Allister's Traditional Unionist Voice website is chock full of aggressive, accusatory press releases.
The most lengthy rallies, however, are still conducted between the Democratic Unionists and the UUP. 
Only last week East Belfast MLA, Robin Newton, endorsed a statement accusing former Ulster Unionist leader, Sir Reg Empey, of cynically re-designating the UUP's Victoria branch HQ as an 'Advice Centre'. 
The insinuation was that it had only been opened as a publicity stunt ahead of next year's assembly election. A press release in Empey's name angrily rejected the allegation and dubbed the DUP assemblyman 'Nasty Newton'. 'So much for unionist unity!', it thundered.
Previously the Open Unionism blog highlighted a press statement from the DUP's Upper Bann MLA, Sydney Anderson, which it felt was the "dumbest, most irrelevant and pathetic" ever released by a unionist party.
Anderson claimed that a Union 2021 article by the UUP's Mike Nesbitt had advocated Northern Ireland becoming part of the Republic, subject to a deal on 'financial arrangements'.
It was a fairly transparent attempt to distort Nesbitt's position and it was completely futile, because, beyond the points-scoring, it was just too silly to become a news story. 
Countless similar examples can be found on the two parties' web archives. Tom Elliott uses the word 'integration' and the DUP accuses him of being opposed to devolution.
The UUP responds with sarcastic missives about the likelihood of 'unionist unity'. And so on - ad infinitum. The frequency of these exchanges may intensify as an election approaches, but low level warfare continues all year round. 
Not that incivility in politics is restricted to unionism or to Northern Ireland.
The example of Phil Woolas, a Labour MP whose election victory has been annulled because he played dirty, will give politicians across the UK pause to think more carefully about their tactics. 
When it looked like he might lose his Westminster seat, the former government minister made allegations about a Lib Dem opponent which were later deemed to be 'untrue'.
The Election Court found that Mr Woolas had knowingly stoked racial tensions and made false accusations during the campaign.
Not only has the result been overturned, pending an appeal the respondent is also banned from standing for elected office for three years.
The judgment sets an important precedent, because the judiciary has shown that it is prepared to overturn an election result, if the successful candidate can be shown to have knowingly misled the public about an opponent during the rough and tumble of a campaign.
It's a point which the local parties should absorb as May's local government and Assembly elections approach.
Petty point-scoring might seem irresistible at the time, but childish insults aren't a substitute for winning an argument on policy.  They might even get you suspended from politics.

Friday, 12 November 2010

A brutal beating hints at deeper problems and a debate behind closed doors.

The savage beating of Oleg Kashin hit the headlines in Britain yesterday, as Russian journalists gathered to show solidarity for their colleague in Moscow.  Reporting news can be a dangerous business in Russia and Kashin is just the latest in a succession of cases of intimidation, violence and even murder.

The thirty year old was beaten into a coma - he suffered two broken legs, mangled fingers and serious damage to the skull.  Notably, reports of the incident suggest that none of his personal belongings were taken.  The attackers did a methodical, brutish and highly effective job of silencing the journalist.

The easy response to such incidents is to allege that the Kremlin organises punitive beatings (and worse) for dissenting investigative journalists.  That’s a gross simplification.  A complex blend of corruption, vested interests, youthful nationalism and ’legal nihilism’, can underlie such attacks.

Kashin, it appears, does not fit the stereotypical template of a campaigning anti-Kremlin reporter in any case.  He was no Anna Politkovskaya.

In a sympathetic opinion piece, Ria Novosti (the government news agency in Russia) notes that Kashin, who works for the Kommersant newspaper, has no history of human rights activism, nor is he even considered an ‘investigative’ or ’opposition’ journalist, in the normal sense.

Indeed his reporting was not only fairly straight down the middle stuff.  Sean’s Russian Blog describes its ‘healthy scepticism for all sides’ and its ‘nuance’.  None of which prevents a thorough journalist treading on toes or attracting the ire of one of Russia’s fiercely nationalist youth groups.

Sean points out that Kashin annoyed Nashi, the Putinite youth organisation which opposes foreign control in Russia and ‘Young Guard’ (Molodaya Gvardiya - the youth wing of the United Russia party) with his articles.  These groups are not without their connections to instances of violence and hooliganism.

The attack on Kashin, however, bore the hallmarks of a more professional form of thuggery.  And the reporter had worked on stories concerning a hugely controversial scheme to build a motorway connecting Moscow and St Petersburg, through the historic Khimki Forest.

The Khimki scheme has become a scalding hot potato in Russian politics.  Against strong opposition from environmentalists, the road got the go ahead, backed by business interests close to Prime Minister Putin.  President Medvedev intervened to suspend construction and the fall-out was a row with Yury Luzhkov, which cost the former mayor of Moscow his job.

Another journalist who investigated corruption around the Khmiki road, Mihkail Beketov, suffered brain damage in a similar attack, back in 2008.  Beketov, editor of the local paper Khmkinskaya Pravda, was dragged through the courts and accused of slander nevertheless.

Ria Novosti’s article reports that detectives in Moscow’s Criminal Police Department, who are charged with investigating the Kashin incident, were offended by journalists gathering outside their Petrovka headquarters to demand a successful investigation.  Their intent to provide just that, they felt, should go without saying.

The brutal truth is that the clear-up rate for attacks on journalists in Russia is terrible.  It’s understandable that people in the profession are angry, concerned and probably just a little scared.

There are difficulties in Russia which ensure that Kashin is unlikely to be the last reporter attacked in this fashion.  President Medvedev has demonstrated his awareness of the myriad problems which make such incidents probable.  A legal system which he describes as ’nihilistic’ is just one facet of a ‘work in progress‘ which is some distance from completion.

The Khmiki road scheme, over which Putin and Medvedev appear to be at odds, also hints at a deeper power play, which is taking place behind closed doors, as the 2012 Presidential election approaches.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Edging towards tolerance of remembrance?

Perhaps one year soon Armistice Day will pass without a modest symbol of respect and remembrance inspiring a single display of hatred and intolerance.  Unfortunately 2010 wasn’t that year.

First we had the so-called ’Green Brigade’ and its illiterate protest at Celtic’s decision to display a poppy on the club's famous hooped football shirts.  Now the Andersonstown News reports that Relatives for Justice, a republican victims group, has asked BBC Northern Ireland to ban poppies in the interests of ‘neutrality‘.

Last year it was that newspaper’s columnist, ‘the Squinter’, who took anti-poppy bile to a new low, by describing the British Legion’s fundraising campaign as a “three week orgy of ‘up yours fenian face’”.  I posted on that occasion, lamenting the tendency to perceive a simple act of remembering as a hostile political act.

There’s no particular need to rehash the same old arguments for the Relatives for Justice campaign.  It’s enough to note that there are also more hopeful stories, as Remembrance Sunday approaches.

Margaret Ritchie, the SDLP leader, will wear a poppy at the ceremony in Belfast.  The BBC reports that she will become the first nationalist leader to do so.  She calls it an act of ’reconciliation’.  Hopefully it’s also intended to represent how much history is shared between the traditions in Ireland.

Certainly a cross-border service held in Drogheda last Saturday acknowledged a legacy of common sacrifice.

Such gestures offer hope, that a time when respect and tolerance for the act of remembrance can become the overwhelming norm, is not so very far away.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

PM treads a fine line between upholding values and preaching.

I thoroughly loathed the type of hectoring, preaching foreign policy practised under the Labour government.  David Miliband, an FCO minister prepared to offer his self-righteous and often deeply ignorant tuppence-worth on almost any internal matter, affecting almost any country, typified that approach.  

I also had some misgivings, therefore, about David Cameron’s decision to scold China for its lack of political freedoms and human rights abuses.  It should be a cornerstone of conservative (small c) foreign policy that every country is different and that those differences should be respected.  It isn’t the role of the UK government to judge whether each and every state has ordered its own affairs correctly.

William Hague set out his template for foreign policy, preferring genuine diplomacy to the megaphone variety and placing British interests at its heart.  The watchwords were realism and trade.

Sure enough he's overseen an instant improvement and there are signs that it is already paying dividends.  The new government has been quick to identify emerging powers with whom a warm relationship is key.

Russia, India and Turkey have already been targeted, with some success.  China is, however, the foremost priority in this regard and the extent and seniority of the British delegation in Beijing underlines its importance.

The first instinct of a conservative foreign policy (in the best sense) should be respectfulness to other nations and other ways of doing things.  That’s not to be confused with obsequiousness and there’s no reason why partnership should not be accompanied by a certain amount of candour.  So far the coalition has done a decent job of striking the correct note.

And, despite my misgivings, on this occasion I think the Prime Minister just about got the balance right too.   He stressed that he could not claim any ’moral superiority’ and acknowledged the unique difficulties of governing a country with a population exceeding 1.3 billion.  It’s a highly pertinent point.  Look at the centrifugal forces which nationality and regionalism cause in a small country, like the United Kingdom.    

Cameron is able to claim that he upheld and promoted the values of Britain’s government, without proselytising or hectoring.  There‘s a fine line between the two, however, and the PM needs to tread it carefully.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Healy finally scores. And Worthington drops him.

Two great strikers who badly needed a boost netted goals for their respective clubs over the weekend.  Fernando Torres bagged two spectacular efforts as Liverpool defeated league leaders Chelsea, 2-0.  And David Healy notched his first strike for seven months, as he debuted for new club, Doncaster Rovers, following a move on loan.

Great news for Northern Ireland.  Perhaps it might give Sir Dave the confidence to grace Windsor Park with a goal next week, when Morocco visits for a friendly match?

Except that that won't happen.  Because after selecting Healy all through his barren patch, Nigel Worthington has left him out now that the guy has got a club and hit the net.  Maybe Northern Ireland's leading goalscorer will be grateful for the opportunity to concentrate on getting his club career back on track.  Maybe it's just another eccentric decision by the manager.  

Friday, 5 November 2010

Alliance defection puts onus on the Tories.

I must confess I’m a little saddened by Paula Bradshaw’s decision to cast herself into the political black hole called Alliance.  The party is awe inspiringly pointless and its pointlessness was underlined by Naomi Long’s refusal to take up a seat in government alongside her Lib Dem allies.

Alliance had a perfect opportunity right there to make itself relevant and be something other than a bunch of nice people, whinging about dog dirt.  The party flunked its test spectacularly.  It remains a mere function of Northern Ireland’s divided society, with no vision for politics here, beyond a kind of perpetual suspended animation.

Yet, I wonder whether Paula had any credible alternative just at the moment?  As O’Neill mentions, on Unionist Lite, Tom Elliott has so far failed to hand in his homework, set by the Prime Minister at the Tory conference.

That leaves the Northern Ireland Conservatives in limbo as they await the go-ahead from CCHQ to begin an Assembly election campaign here.  The situation is beginning to have a look of chicken and egg about it.

There are some very prominent party figures whose patience with the Ulster Unionists has been exhausted and who are ready to back the local Tories.  But there are also dissenting voices, Jonathan Caine rumoured to be among them, urging patience with the UUP and its new leader.

There is also some understandable anxiety in the Conservative ranks that the available candidates for next May are not particularly high profile, as things stand.

Potential defectors to the Tories are unlikely to jump without assurances that the party will run and CCHQ will provide funding, while London is less likely to back an Assembly campaign unless local Conservatives can guarantee some new names.

Into the bargain, as last May’s debacle showed, a unfamiliar slate of Tory hopefuls will need a reasonable run up time, otherwise any chance of making an impact in a Stormont poll will be negligible.  So the UUP’s purposes are best served by delaying its verdict on the Conservative connection for as long as possible.    

If David Cameron and Owen Paterson still intend to bring the full political entitlements of British citizenship to Northern Ireland, a bit of firmness will be needed.  The Ulster Unionists cannot be allowed another round of endless procrastination.  Otherwise more politicians like Paula will be lost to unionism and to meaningful politics.

The UUP must either put forward a credible plan for an enduring relationship with the Conservative party - which will deliver pan-UK unionism - right now, immediately.  Or the local Tories must be given a chance to relaunch and fight May's election as a revitalised force.  CCHQ, it's over to you.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Parties must be led by practical economics rather than ideological adventurism.

If the article comes online I'll link it, but in yesterday's Belfast Telegraph I assessed the various finance papers and proposals which the parties in Northern Ireland have issued over the past few weeks.  My conclusion is that (to varying degrees) they're as much about long-term political objectives as practical economics and the problem to hand.

 Hot on the heals of proposals on the economy from Sinn Féin, Ulster Unionists and even the TUV, Peter Robinson launched the DUP’s own cuts strategy on Monday.  
In common with rival efforts, the paper is as much about setting out the party’s ideology and drawing some red lines for negotiations ahead, as about delivering savings or growing the private sector.  
When the party advocates reducing the number of departments at Stormont, it knows very well that Sinn Féin is adamantly opposed to a slimmer Executive.  And a proposal to squeeze North South bodies will attract nationalist ire, despite coy DUP claims that there are no ulterior motives to its suggestion. 
Likewise, the centrepiece to Sinn Féin’s financial analysis is a demand that tax varying powers should be migrated from Westminster to the Assembly.  That is extremely unlikely to happen, and if it did, the most likely effect would be to make us all substantially worse off.   
For the Shinners, though, it is important to be seen to attempt to wrest powers away from London to the island of Ireland, whatever the likely consequences.  Their aim is to present power-sharing as a ‘staging post’ on the road to a 32 county Republic, rather than a destination in itself.
In a similar vein, Sinn Féin’s document majored on hammering banks and Caitriona Ruane even helpfully suggested that she could save money by curtailing the number of A Levels offered to sixth form students at grammar schools.  
None of these ideas are likely to build consensus at the Assembly, or even to do much to address the budget shortfall, but they all symbolise neatly the party’s worldview and its political aims.  
The trend isn’t restricted to the two larger parties either.  ‘Social partnership’, the SDLP’s favoured response to the economic crisis in Northern Ireland, is little more than shorthand for an anti-Tory coalition between the Executive and Trades Unions.  
The Ulster Unionist document, ’You heard it here first’, is not statement of ideology as such, but it does form a fairly accurate summary of the party’s message over the past few years.  It’s a convoluted way of saying ‘we told you so’.  Even Alliance’s insistence that tackling division is the best way to save money, owes more to the party’s long-term goals than to immediate economic necessity. 
By producing finance documents post haste, the parties are eager to give the impression that they have engaged with the crisis facing Northern Ireland.  In truth the hard work has scarcely begun and these papers and proposals represent little more than positioning for the difficult negotiations ahead.
The acid test will come when the Executive meets behind closed doors and at that point the serious power-brokers will be the DUP and Sinn Féin.

The prospects of successfully blending two apparently incompatible documents appear bleak, but there are at least some common coordinates.  Both the DUP and Sinn Féin acknowledge, for example, that the public sector wage bill is a problem, although they suggest different approaches to tackling it.  
The bravest proposal from Peter Robinson’s party is a two year salary freeze for civil servants earning over £21,000.  That’s some distance from Gerry Adams’ insistence that top public employees should take a wage cut, but it does suggest a useful place to start the bargaining. 
Unfortunately none of the parties, other than Alliance, is prepared to champion the introduction of water charges: a revenue stream which the Executive surely cannot ignore indefinitely.  The DUP do suggest that the regional rate should be unfrozen, but rises in line with inflation will not substantially improve the balance sheet.      
Whether a more realistic approach prevails when the Executive meets to thrash out its emergency budget, time will tell.  The day of reckoning is approaching for our politicians and if ideological wrangling takes precedence over practical economics, there will a real cost in terms of jobs and prosperity, felt by everyone in Northern Ireland. 

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

McNarry and the art of tainting a valid point with a persecution complex.

I very rarely agree with David McNarry, but he does have legitimate concerns about football supporters being singled out under the proposed Justice Bill.  He asks why sections of the legislation dealing with ticket touts and banning orders apply only to football matches.

Of course fans of Gaelic games and rugby, the other sports affected by the Bill, point to the comparatively few incidents of disorder (off the pitch at least) which take place at their matches.  That’s hardly the point.  If an offence is committed which justifies a ban, or if touting takes place, surely it’s best to have the requisite legislation in place, whether it’s needed very frequently or not?

The specific provisions dealing with football are designed to bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the United Kingdom, in terms of crowd safety, but common sense would suggest that there is no reason to restrict useful law to one sport only.

McNarry being McNarry, though, a valid point isn't allowed to get in the way of a pathetic mope.  According to Mark Devenport, he alleges that targeting football discriminates against 'working class Protestant males'.

Firstly, any discrimination will be against a much more specific group (no women at the games McNarry attends obviously).  It will apply only to someone who commits an offence at a football match or attempts to sell on a ticket illegally.  Law abiding fans need not worry one jot.

Secondly, so long as we're generalising, someone had better inform the supporters of Donegal Celtic, Cliftonville, Newry City and, heck, even the Polish hooligans whose misbehaviour hastened the drafting of this section of the legislation, that they are all ‘working class Protestants’.

And that's before we get started on 'football for all'.

Why does every issue, for someone like McNarry, have to come down to religion, communalism and putting people in a box?

There’s a reasonable point to be made here on the basis of parity between the sports.  There’s a legitimate argument that rugby and GAA should be ’regulated matches’ for the purposes of the touting and banning order sections of the Bill, just because the law is relevant.  There’s even a valid question as to whether some of the other sections of the legislation, pertaining to alcohol and aspects of conduct by spectators, are properly drafted and necessary.

But a campaign of persecution against the poor downtrodden Protestant?  Give me a break.

Sing hallelujah! Someone's pulled the plug.

NI direct down.

OFMDFM down.

Northern Ireland Executive down.

The levers of direct rule.  Up and running!

How long have I been asleep?  Please let it be true!  So long as some of the NIO ministers are direct representatives from Northern Ireland, elected to a Conservative government, then we have reached nirvana.

Update:  oh well that didn't last for long.  We've still got our Fisher Price government.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Ukraine looks set to endorse Yanukovych's path.

The surest outcome of Ukrainian elections is an acrimonious dispute after the results come in.  Yesterday the country took to the polls once again, as Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions faced its first big test since the presidential run-off.

Exit polls for the local elections suggest that the President’s party has retained its lead, with 36.2% backing Yanukovych’s group.  That compares favourably to 35.32% recorded by the Party of the Regions in the first round of the presidential vote.  Yanukovych eventually won that contest in a run off, securing 48.95% to Yulia Tymoshenko’s 45.47%.

Back in January and February, there was unanimous consensus among international observers that the right result had been reached.  The OSCE found the poll ’free and fair’.

Representatives from the CIS Interparliamentary Assembly have already concurred with the Prime Minister’s verdict that no major violations were registered this time either.

Still, a flawless poll didn’t stop protests from Tymoshenko in February and it's little surprise that the likely losers’ are pre-empting the outcome by  striking up their allegations good and early.  No doubt, as the official results are announced, there will be a growing chorus, irrespective of observers' verdicts.

The likely end product remains an endorsement of President Yanukovych’s policies and further proof that Ukraine‘s independence need not be underpinned by a divisive form of ethno-nationalism.