Posts

Showing posts from December, 2010

Northern Ireland gets the water service it pays for

In yesterday's Belfast Telegraph I argued that the current water crisis can't be dismissed as an act of God.


There has been plenty of public criticism of Northern Ireland Water, after its supply suffered serious stoppages and shortages over the Christmas period.  The consensus is that while the company’s emergency plans were inadequate, the crisis itself, caused by thousands of pipes bursting as ice melted, was unavoidable. 


Of course the weather over the past few weeks has been severe, even unprecedented.  Any company would struggle as the thaw struck.  In Northern Ireland, though, decades of neglect and underinvestment left us with an ancient and crumbling system.  Major disruption here was inevitable. 


For that our politicians must take their share of the blame and the water consuming public cannot be absolved from responsibility either.


The hard truth is that you get what you pay for.  By deferring water charges, with overwhelming popular support, and refusing to privatise Nor…

Roy Hodgson - out of his depth

Image
Is Roy Hodgson for real?  Rather than address the shame of leading Liverpool to a home defeat against bottom of the table Wolves, he has turned on the fans.  They are not supportive of the club he claims.  Nonsense.  They aren’t supportive of you Roy.  Hardly surprising in a season which has seen defeats against Blackpool, Northampton and now this.

Hodgson has added luminaries to his playing staff like the abominable Christian Poulsen and Paul Konchesky, both of whom could vie for the title of worst Liverpool player ever, his post-match remarks have become increasingly bizarre and he shows every sign of being in denial about how far the club has actually fallen.

Most supporters were sceptical about Hodgson’s appointment, but they were prepared to give him a chance.  He’s now been at the club for long enough to judge that he can never ever take it in the right direction.  He’s manifestly unsuited to the role.  He simply doesn’t understand the standards expected at Anfield.  His mentali…

Before you accept received wisdom on Khodorkovsky.....

The international news media is a curious thing.  It descends, periodically, upon a country or a region, crow-bars a story into one of its easy narratives and before any nuance can be teased from the broader detail the circus moves on elsewhere.

It is left to longer form journalism and academia to stick with a story and make some sense of it.

With the verdict of the Khodorkovsky trial the world’s news crews descended once again on Moscow.  Their story was already written.  A dissident prosecuted by an oppressive regime for political reasons.  An outright defeat for the rule of law and conformation of Russia‘s legal nihilism.

Received wisdom is not entirely inaccurate where the Khodorkovsky case is concerned.  There is doubtless a political element to his prosecution.

It is also almost certain that the oligarch is guilty of substantial and serious crimes.  When Prime Minister Putin dismisses the furore surrounding the trial, stating, ‘a thief should be in prison’, he is guilty of bei…

Do as I say and not as I do? Decentralisation and the Conservative party.

As I intimated below the modern Conservative party spends a great deal of time emphasising its commitment to decentralisation.

It’s ironic then that a great many members are becoming disillusioned with the Tory apparatus precisely because it is so centralised.  One prominent campaigner, John Strafford, has highlighted how the party lost members hand over fist since local associations were deprived off power, in a document called 'Where is the party going?'.

It’s a startling figure, but it is claimed that there are 105,000 fewer paid up Conservatives since David Cameron became leader.  Strafford ascribes the exodus to the lack of input afforded to members and the marginalisation of the ’volunteer party’.

It’s a thesis that will chime rather resonantly with many Northern Ireland Tories.  Although Tim Lewis argues in yesterday’s News Letter that rumours of its demise are grossly exaggerated, the local party has effectively been wound up by a dictat of central office.

That’s a r…

Slow down, you're going too fast.

Danny Kruger’s little book ’On Fraternity’ was an attempt to define the Cameron credo.  It placed the ’New Conservative’ blend of social responsibility and decentralisation within a wider Tory tradition.  Today the author has a spirited piece in the Financial Times, defending the coalition’s frenzied approach to instigating reform.

All across government ministers are engaged in the type of ’grand schemes’ which Conservatives are generally thought to regard with scepticism.  Kruger’s argument is that their motivation is to restore rather than to build anew.  To a degree he probably has a point.  At Slugger Mick agrees that ’good old fashioned Tory values’ rather than ’neo-Whiggism’ is the order of the day.

Vince Cable, whose candour with reporters posing as constituents has the government rocking this morning, prefers to use the term ’Maoist’.  That’s hardly a recommendation, even taking into consideration Cable’s socialist past.

Some Tory cabinet members flatly contradict Kruger’s c…

Passing the torch

If you haven't yet done so, read O'Neill's update on two of Northern Ireland's quango oligarchs.  Unionist Lite just keeps highlighting absurdities which others miss.  The little bit at the end of his piece, about the NIHRC's dissertation award took my eye.  A Katrina Killen, who won the prize, summarised her effort thus:

In this dissertation it was noted that a dichotomy exists between civil and political rights and socioeconomic issues whereby the latter are often marginalised within the field of transitional justice.This occlusion of socioeconomic issues has the potential to lead to the reoccurrence of violence.


If you speak English, as opposed to insidious gobbledygook, you may wonder what this means.  I'd translate it roughly as follows - "keep the money flowing".  I paraphrase of course.  Still it's good to know that the rights industry is self-perpetuating by encouraging the next generation to speak its absurd language.

And the award for starving oneself and beating a horse goes to .....

Image
There’s really no excuse. I should be delighted that ’AP’ McCoy (it’s apparently mandatory to use the initials) won Sunday’s BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award. He’s the only Northern Ireland born competitor ever to achieve that feat and the first Ulsterman to do so since Barry McGuigan.

The thing is, try as I might to fight the bias, I simply hate horse-racing. Every now and again I feign an interest in the Grand National, or even Cheltenham at a stretch, but if the truth be told I loathe the sport. It seems to me to have more to do with gambling than competition.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate that jockeys are fearless, skilled, highly conditioned athletes. But then Celine Dion’s a good singer. It’s what you do with your abilities that counts.

Eating less food than a famine stricken tribesman in order to beat a horse with a stick, to me, is a fairly poor use of one’s talents. Particularly when no-one has the faintest interest in your endeavours, unless they have mon…

Moscow wary as Lukashenko cracks down on election protests

Image
Belarus went to the polls yesterday and preliminary results indicate that President Lukashenko has been returned with a whopping 79.7% of the vote.  Although the pre-election campaign was conducted with an eye to observing formalities, it nevertheless descended into recrimination and clashes between the opposition and the police.

Indeed Ria Novosti reports that protestors in Minsk attempted to storm the Belarusian Parliament building, provoking a ’fierce response’.  An attempt perhaps to emulate confrontations in Kyrgyzstan earlier in the year, when troops opened fire on demonstrators and battles raged over the possession of government buildings.

Despite previous contrary reports from the Russian news agency, Ria Novosti now says that OSCE observers were not satisfied with the conduct of the election.  The vote count, monitors say, was flawed and the police response to opposition rallies “heavy handed”.

That tallies with Dan Hamilton’s account on Conservative Home, although it must b…

Mealy mouthed on water charges

Image
I'm reluctant to have yet another pop at the Ulster Unionists, but they do so frequently lay themselves open to criticism.

Take the latest furore surrounding John McCallister and his comments on water charging.  The UUP deputy leader suggested on the Nolan Show that household bills may be a lesser evil if they were to lead to better protected public services.  It was an eminently sensible comment.
There is a strong parallel between water charges and student fees.  Neither water nor education is ever free.  Somebody is picking up the bill, whether the cost is applied directly, or pocketed more surreptitiously from the public purse.  
No water charge means a sacrifice elsewhere.  No amount of pathetic, fantasy land, little Ulster, neo-Keynsian press releases from the DUP should persuade anyone otherwise.
But here's the difficulty.  Certain UUP figures rushed to disclaim McCallister's comments and now the party has issued a mealy-mouthed clarification stating that it is happy wi…

Breaking news for some people - Kosovo is a criminal state.

Readers of The Times and some other papers may well be startled to learn this morning that Kosovo is a murderous, criminal ‘state’ and that its prime minister, Haksim Thaci, is the biggest villain of all.

It’s not exactly news to anyone who makes the least effort to stay independently informed about events in the Balkans.  To be fair, almost uniquely among British newspapers, the Guardian has carried occasional articles taking a fair and balanced look at the Serbian province and its affairs.

That newspaper has acquired the full text of a report to the Council of Europe on organised crime in Kosovo.  It is the result of a two year inquiry headed by the Swiss human rights investigator Dick Marty and it will be published in full tomorrow, although a provisional draft is available on the Council’s website.

Its contents are grimly predictable.  Kosovo is a major conduit for heroin into Europe and its prime minister heads the mafia which smuggles the drug.

The ethnic Albanian terror group,…

University fees and a realistic debate.

Image
Slugger carried an excellent blogpost yesterday by Michael Shilliday, who broke down the consequences of student debt associated to a hike in fees.  It's a bit of an eye-opener and Michael's argument that scare-mongering over the issue could have the greatest effect on take-up of university places is persuasive.  In yesterday's Belfast Telegraph I also argued for a more realistic debate on education cuts and fees.  The final article was edited down a little, so I include a fuller version below the fold:

Qatar - the World Cup of restraint?

It’s hard to feel sympathy for Sepp Blatter very often, but reading this morning’s papers, I felt a little.  The Belfast Telegraph reports that the FIFA president laughed off concerns that gay fans might experience problems at the 2022 World Cup, which is to be held in Qatar (there's even an illustration for Bobballs and his phwoaraway Tottygraph!).

Homosexuality is illegal in the Middle Eastern emirate, which operates Islamic law.  Blatter’s advice to gay supporters is ’refrain from sex’ during the World Cup.

Predictably he’s being pilloried for this tongue in cheek remark, but he has a point.  There are a hundred reasons why Qatar is an inappropriate venue for a World Cup and the prohibition on homosexuality is just one of them.

FIFA, sponsors, TV and embassies will no doubt all be lobbying the Qatari authorities to apply Islamic law leniently during the tournament.  Still, the fact is that things are done differently there and all sorts of supporters will have to change their …

SDLP goes after Polish vote.

The SDLP is showing some imagination by running a Polish candidate for next year’s council elections.  Immigrant communities in Northern Ireland have grown exponentially over the last few years and parties need to examine how immigrant votes can be won.

I know that the UUP experimented with leaflets in minority languages during the 2005 general election campaign, but I’m not sure quite how engaged unionist parties were with this issue in 2010.

Poland is obviously a strongly Catholic country and some people might assume that the natural allegiance of Poles living in Northern Ireland would be to nationalist parties.  Immigrants of all types, though, are far more likely to be swayed by economic and practical arguments, rather than the age-old constitutional debate.

There’s a swathe of new voters to be tapped and the best way to go about it is by reflecting their presence and their concerns in the political arena.  That's the approach the SDLP is taking and Alliance too has well docum…

UUP must commit to a strategy and stick to it

In today's Belfast Telegraph I comment on Tom Elliott's conference speech and the UUP's latest batch of defections:Any party is obliged to be optimistic about its prospects at conference, but the defensive note this year was unmistakable. Alongside the debacle of May's Westminster election and a fractious leadership battle, the UUP has haemorrhaged talent at an alarming rate over the past year.In its defence the party points out that there are now over 2,500 Ulster Unionist members - more than at the same point in 2009. The outflow, however, includes the UUP's last remaining MP, an MLA, its director of communications, former candidates and senior activists.The party's decision to fight May's election on a joint ticket with the Conservative Party cost it Sylvia Hermon, who later retained her North Down Westminster seat as an independent. Alan McFarland followed his mentor out of the UUP, losing it an Assembly seat.Two prominent representatives was a high pri…

The lack of a credible challenge to Lukashenko isn't all down to tyranny.

The result of the presidential election in Belarus is hardly in doubt.  Alexander Lukashenko will certainly serve a fourth term.  It’s unlikely, though, that this time the result will be attended by a storm of controversy in the west.

In 2006 President Lukashenko’s victory sparked protests in Minsk, aimed at overturning the result.  Demonstrators hoped to replicate the much vaunted ’Orange Revolution’ in Ukraine and the media in the EU and the US responded with a great deal of criticism of ’Europe’s last dictator’.

Times have changed.  Lukashenko, often portrayed as a Russian patsy, no longer enjoys a warm relationship with the Kremlin.  In fact over the last term, the Belarusian President has devoted much energy to playing footsy with the EU, in order to play it off against Russia.

That is turning out to be a game of rapidly diminishing rewards.  The European Union no longer has a surplus of money with which to woo countries at its borders and Moscow’s incentive to heavily subsidise …

Standing up for the right to stand.

Image
During my younger days ‘the right to stand’ at football matches was a bit of an old chestnut.  I remember leading a debating team in English class defending terraces.  Hillsborough had changed football forever and clubs were steadily implementing the Taylor report, but many fans believed that ’safe standing’ areas could best maintain the atmosphere and traditions of the game, without compromising safety.

It’s scary to think how many years later (something-teen), but football terraces are back in the news.

The Independent reports that Liberal Democrat MP, Don Foster, has tabled a motion proposing that clubs, up to the top level, should be permitted to construct standing areas.  90% of the Football Supporters’ Federation is in favour, so there is a rare opportunity for Lib Dems to feel some love With this initiative.

Over the years, I must admit, my passion for terraces has somewhat dimmed.  I rather like watching a match seated and, so long as the game is exciting, seats don’t damage…

NI Conservatives' chairman resigns as local party hung out to dry by CCHQ.

Despite Elliott's weak negotiating position, it appears that NI Conservatives will not stand in the Assembly elections after all.  The local party's chairman, Irwin Armstrong, has tendered his resignation with immediate effect.  His statement outlines the course of events which led to this action.

Conservative Chairman in Northern Ireland tenders resignation over UUP dealIrwin Armstrong Chairman of the Conservatives in Northern Ireland today announced his will submit his resignation to the Northern Ireland Executive, he said‘It is no longer tenable for me to remain as Chairman after I was informed by our party Co Chairman and N.I. Secretary of State some weeks ago that the Prime Minister had decided we would be running candidates in Northern Ireland in both Assembly and local council elections and I accepted their word, informed my Executive and key activists, and prepared press releases on that basis, I was then asked to wait until the leader of the UUP had been informed befo…

Outlandish predictions (aren't, apparently, always all they seem)

O'Neill has already dealt with Tom Elliott's demand that the Conservatives wind up their local branch in Northern Ireland.  I want to pick up on a different point raised by the UUP leader in his address at Westminster.  According to the Irish Times:
The UUP believes it could win 24 seats in next year’s Assembly elections if the Conservatives do not field candidates, but this number could fall by two if they do.Now there's confidence and there's cloud cuckoo land!  From where on earth do the Ulster Unionists draw the notion that they'll gain between 5-7 Assembly seats in next year's election?

My suspicion is that they've simply fallen back on figures from the European election.

There's a growing history of the UUP setting itself up for humiliation by making outlandish pre-election predictions.  Does the party never learn?  You can't factor in events, but as it stands, the UUP will do well to keep 17 seats.  At the very outside it might nick 18. There…

The first crisis since the last one? And devolution is supposed to be working?

Image
There will be slaps on the back all round when Stormont makes it through its first full term next year.  Assuming, that is, that its latest mini-crisis can be overcome.

The prospects of the DUP and Sinn Féin striking a budget have supposedly deteriorated, with the provos threatening to throw some toys out of the pram because they haven't yet conducted their customary behind-closed-doors showpiece with the British government.

That’s ok by Peter Robinson, but the Finance Minister, Sammy Wilson, is insisting that the Northern Ireland Executive do the work at hand, without the optics.  It’s sound advice.  There’s a Conservative led coalition government in place.  Things are going to be done a little differently now.

An apparent crisis, hot-house talks and a raft of supplicants descending on Number 10, at every cut and turn, is no longer on the agenda.  Thank goodness for that.

Meanwhile, back at Stormont, haven’t they all done well?  After all, if this does develop into a stand-off…

Another resignation from Lagan Valley UUP

Following on from the departure of John K Lund, it appears that Lisburn UUP's chairman Roderick Oliver has flown the UUP coup.  I've been forwarded the following resignation statement.

I have spent the last two months considering my position within the UUP I did feel that at one stage, that with an alliance with the Conservative Party, the UUP was actively moving to be a mainstream party within the United Kingdom, and not just an insular fringe party within Northern Ireland, trading on unionist dogma The UUP/Tory electoral link, was grossly mismanaged by the UUP leadership, which resulted in the electoral disaster in the Westminster elections this year Since this time, the party has regressed to within it's "comfort zone", and is clinging to the misplaced belief that "things will come right again". I have discussed my position with other disaffected members of the party several times over the last two months and notice that several of them have already subse…

Elliott and the UUP conference: positives and negatives.

I spent the weekend in icy Fermanagh, and not at the Ulster Unionist conference.  Ironically, if the cliché rings true, half the County enjoyed subsidised transport in the other direction.

Still, reportedly 400 delegates heard Tom Elliott deliver his speech at the Ramada Hotel in Belfast, whereas just shy of 1,000 crowded into the Waterfront Hall to elect him leader, so perhaps the Enniskillen fleet wasn‘t quite so well-filled this time.

The speech is carried on the UUP website and it reads reasonably well, although the Belfast Telegraph reports that the delivery was stilted.  In contrast, Alan from Belfast thinks that Elliott is getting more assured.  Perhaps both are fair comment.

In terms of content there are positives and negatives in the text.  To allay critics who accuse Elliott of being a ’dinosaur’, he makes strenuous efforts to define his unionism in positive terms.  It is grounded in ’pluralism and an equality of citizenship and opportunity’, the UUP leader claims.  Fine wo…

Set aside the prejudice and look forward to a great World Cup in a great country.

Image
Nobody likes a bad loser.  Ian Parsley is pretty much on the money when he remarks that England just needs ‘to get over’ its failed bid for World Cup 2018.

FIFA’s decision to award the tournament to Russia has become an opportunity for the media to air all the predictable Russophobe clichés.  The startling revelation that US diplomats don’t much trust the Kremlin is sufficient pre-text for sneering references to a ‘mafia state’.

It’s not that anyone would seriously dispute that there is corruption in Russia, or ‘legal nihilism’ as President Medvedev prefers to describe it.  Of course there are also a host of countries with a much better image in the west, whose problems in that regard are as bad, or worse.  They tend to get a ‘by-ball’, to use football terminology, so long as they are pro-American.

The facts are that Russia is likely to stage a great World Cup, the country is an established football nation and it could not be overlooked any longer.  England certainly has some excell…

UUP Conference broadcast

Unfortunately I'll not be in Belfast to cover the Ulster Unionist conference this year.  The party meets at the Ramada Hotel, with Tom Elliott delivering his first key note speech as leader.   It's fair to say that he needs to produce something fairly startling in order to truly grasp the voting public's imagination in advance of next year's elections.  In the pre-conference broadcast, the UUP introduces some of its Assembly candidates, including 'young guns' like Rodney McCune, Jo-Anne Dobson and Lesley Macaulay.  It's by no means a bad effort.

Northern Ireland isn't a 'hybrid state'. Oh yes it is! Oh No it isn't!

Image
While one part of the First Minister tandem spent his weekend assuring followers that the Union is secure ’for as far as one can see into the future’, his other half was addressing Sinn Féin supporters in London, telling them that ’the North’ is a political hybrid, rather than a full part of the United Kingdom.

It’s fascinating, and rather pathetic, to hear the Deputy First Minister attempt to explain away Northern Ireland’s UK status.  McGuinness’s current beef is that the Conservatives are not to be deflected from direct involvement in Northern Ireland politics.  

With characteristic disregard for democracy and the principle of consent, he regards that as unwarranted ’party political interference’.  It’s absolutely vital for Sinn Féin to present the various Agreements and the whole ‘peace process’ as something other than it is.

McGuinness can tell as many lies as he likes about the government’s ’obligations’.  It doesn’t make a tap of difference.  Northern Ireland remains solidly w…