Friday, 31 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 Northern Ireland Water, the Executive at Stormont indefinitely postponed the major overhaul of infrastructure which our water system urgently needs.

The result can be seen in places like Lurgan, where melt water overwhelmed sewers, causing raw effluent to spew into people’s houses.  Northern Ireland’s inadequate sewage facilities have long been criticised by organisations like Friends of the Earth and by the European Court of Justice.

In 2006 a High Court judge was forced to rule that the planning system in Northern Ireland should take sewage capacity into account in the vicinity of proposed new developments.  Many thousands of homes had already been sited where there was little or no facility to get rid of waste.  

The court prevented the Department of Regional Development, in the guise of the then Northern Ireland Water Service, from simply connecting more and more houses to an already overloaded system  

Meanwhile poor treatment facilities attracted yearly fines from the ECJ in Luxembourg.  With environmental effects which can only be imagined, raw sewage pumped into the sea, some of it in the vicinity of popular tourist destinations like Portrush, Portstewart and Bangor.  

It would be naïve to suppose that our recent difficulties, with pipes freezing, bursting and then draining reservoirs of water, aren’t exacerbated by inadequate infrastructure.  If pipes were laid farther beneath the surface, properly lagged and maintained, problems could still occur, but their scale would be vastly smaller.

It’s not as if the authorities were not aware of the issues around investment.  As far back as 2003, when Angela Smith was Labour’s regional development minister at the NIO, she conceded that water charges here would be the highest in the UK, if there were to compensate fully for an under-funded service. 

The message was clear.  Not only was the Northern Ireland Water Service short of money to improve its facilities, due to a lack of water charging, the body was also woefully inefficient in its previous guise as an integral part of a government department.  

Northern Ireland Water became a separate, publicly owned company in 2007, but it still literally leaked money.  Just this year controversy raged over its failure to follow the correct procedure for putting contracts out to tender.  It suffers a financial double whammy of poor governance and under-funding which keeps its service in the dark ages.  

Experience in England and Wales suggests that major investment, particularly in new sewers, can be successful only if water provision is privatised.  Public utility companies like Severn Trent Water were able to upgrade a system which remained relatively unchanged since the Victorian era.

Accountable to share-holders, these organisations were efficient enough to keep costs low while also making the improvements required.  Northern Ireland is now at least twenty years behind and we still show no will to catch up.  

On the contrary, there are signs that our water service is moving in the opposite direction.  During September, the DRD Minister, Conor Murphy, suggested that NIW be fully re-nationalised, prompting Sammy Wilson to describe his Executive colleague’s plan as ‘bananas’.  Questions about the company’s quasi-independent status were already being asked, following an investigation by the Public Accounts Committee.  

Consumers must hope that NIW’s latest troubles can inject some realism into the water debate in Northern Ireland.  The constant deferral of charges has become a rare point of unanimity across the political spectrum.  That particular ’holy cow’ should be slaughtered once and for all. 

The Alliance party was the first to put its head above the parapet, supporting charges.  Sammy Wilson and John McCallister have also shown signs that some of our politicians are prepared to challenge the cosy consensus.  The Executive should simply tell people the truth.  If water charges continue to be deferred then the service will suffer.   

Along with a phased introduction of bills, we need to look urgently at options for privatising NIW.  Otherwise, like Northern Ireland’s drinking water at the moment, money will continue to pour down the drain.  

Politicians should take the lead, but the public also needs to grasp the concept that you get what you pay for where services are concerned.  Water is no exception.  If the system remains under-funded it will continue to under-perform and disrupt our lives.  

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Roy Hodgson - out of his depth

Someone throw him a life raft
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 mentality is still rooted at the level of Fulham or Blackburn.

With new owners in place managed decline is no longer acceptable and lashing out at disillusioned fans its managerial suicide, particular after a performance and a result like last night‘s.  It wasn’t just the defeat that hurt, it was the nature of the defeat.  Abject, bereft of ideas, completely flat.  It’s what we’ve come to expect of Hodgson’s Liverpool.

Everybody knows that he will go sooner or later.  Better to get rid now and use the rest of the season to find the right successor.  The current manager was only appointed because no-one else was available.  Let’s not make the same mistake again.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

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 being highly selective, but his words are not entirely without truth.

There is a serious problem with the consistency of Russian justice, but Khodorkovsky is an unlikely and unconvincing champion of transparency.

The problem, as most commentators see it, is that a clever and articulate critic of Putin was prosecuted.  The counter-argument, which is rarely explored, is that too few oligarchs were pursued for their lawlessness, rather than too many.

An attitude of ‘my enemy’s enemy’ skews critiques of the trial and renders many of them hypocritical.

For a counter-blast, I’d once again highlight Keith Gessen’s excellent article in the LRB and the book which it reviews, The Quality of Freedom by Richard Sakwa.  The Mark Ames piece highlighted above is also worth a read.  There are two sides to this story and the fact that Khodorkovsky is a ‘gentleman thief’ does not render him less of a thief.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

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 rather poor display of faith in the judgement of people on the ground.  Indeed, if the rumours are true, Andrew Feldman capitulated in the face of a threat to withdraw Jim Nicholson from the Conservative group in the European Parliament.

As I understand it, Irwin Armstrong remains as chairman of the party in Northern Ireland, until the exact nature of the arrangement with the UUP is resolved.

For the record, here are Strafford’s proposals to reinvigorate democracy within the Tory party.

  The Conservative Party constitution should be capable of being altered by the members of the Party on the basis of one member, one vote, if 66%+ vote in favour of change.
There should be an Annual General Meeting of the Party to which all members are invited.
The Chairman of the Party should be responsible for the Party Organisation.
The Chairman and Treasurer of the Party should be elected by the members of the Party.
The Chairman of the Party should present an Annual Report on the Party organisation at the Annual General Meeting of the Party for adoption by the members.
The Treasurer of the Party should present the Annual Accounts of the Party to the Annual General Meeting for adoption by the members.
The Chairman of the Committee on Candidates should be elected by the members of the Party and should present a report on candidate selection at the Annual General Meeting of the Party.
The Chairman of the Council of the Conservative Policy Forum should be elected by the members of the Party and should present a report on the workings of the Forum at the Annual General Meeting of the Party.
Regional meetings of the Party, to which all members of the Party in the Region are invited, should be resurrected and meetings should be held at least twice a year.
Regional Chairmen should be elected by all members in their Region.
As part of the formal structure of the Party the Areas should be scrapped, although some Regions may wish to keep their Areas and can do so.
Motions for debate on policy should be allowed at the Party Conference.
Clause 17 of the current Party Constitution should be abolished.

The infamous clause 17 of the constitution states: “The Board shall have power to do anything which in its opinion relates to the management and administration of the Party

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

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 contention that the new government’s ambitions are of a different order to those of the young Tony Blair.  Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, is one of Cameron’s inner circle who has intimated that modernising Conservatives aspire to complete Blair’s still-born revolution of public services.

Gove’s ’free schools’ plan is certainly ambitious beyond the point of restoration.  There is a hint of the utopian about a scheme which the public has greeted, for the most part, with indifference or downright cynicism.

Andrew Lansley’s intentions for the NHS, too, are sweeping.  Prior to the election the Conservatives promised to eschew major reorganisations of the health service.  Instead Lansley has instigated what some experts are calling the biggest shake-up in NHS history.

Again the instinct is complemented by the decentralising philosophy articulated by people like Kruger.  It envisages handing over responsibility - showing faith that, should people be given the freedom to get on with doing what they do best, their work will be competent,efficient and unimpeded by bureaucracy.

It’s a good general principle, but in league with a free market core of ’yellow book’ liberals, the Tory part of the government is pursuing it with too much ideological fervour.  Across the ministries there is fevered activity.  This rush of ’new radicalism’ seems to me, at root, to be a little ’un-conservative’.

I appreciate that the consensus is that Tony Blair wasted his first term in office.  I also appreciate that public service reform is needed and that the economic situation requires decisive government and swift action.  The coalition’s welfare plans, its desire to drive down the deficit and its ambition to reverse excessive centralisation are all laudable, nay unimpeachable.

Still, some of the grand projects across some of the ministries do look a little like change for change’s sake.  It’s not the Conservative instinct to do things just to be seen to do them.  A slower and steadier approach across some areas of government is necessary.

Vince Cable's flapping tongue has got the coalition into needless trouble, but in one regard he's right.  It's all very well Conservatives being suspicious of ideology, but they need to start at home and be a little sceptical of their own dogma.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

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 .....

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 money on it.

Seriously, does anyone watch horse-racing for the sheer joy of the spectacle? I’d imagine such fans are few and far between. It’s down to Barber jackets at the race-track, or desiccated old men shuffling between a grotty public house and an even grottier bookmakers, to watch the vast majority of races.

Why else would meetings take place mainly in the afternoon and on perfectly ordinary weekdays if they were anything more than a depressing and vaguely seedy subculture?

Looking at it rationally, it’s certainly not valid to argue that horse-racing doesn’t constitute a sport. Of course it does. But, at a gut level, I still feel that the whole business is the enemy of everything that's good about other sports. Horse racing is the filler which used to dominate hours of Grandstand, because the BBC didn't have the rights to decent events.

It’s what the barflies in Irish League social clubs, who never make it out to the match, watch. It'll cause an almighty argument when the real supporters come in to see half-time scores.  Horse-racing, to me, is the preserve of bitter little men with a fistful of beaten dockets and too little to fill up their day.

So, no, I can’t possibly celebrate the achievements of Tony McCoy.

It’s the blindest, most unreasonable prejudice, but I despise his sport and everything associated with it.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Moscow wary as Lukashenko cracks down on election protests

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 be said that his figure of 40,000 protestors is rather higher than most sources are quoting.  Although almost all the reports agree that one of the election candidates, Vladimir Nekliaev, was last night rushed to hospital with head injuries, after taking part in a demonstration.

The pattern is fairly predictable.  The election was conducted with some attempts to encourage competition, although it was by no means ’free and fair’.  It emerged early on that the incumbent would win heavily (as expected) and opposition supporters took to the streets alleging violations.  The police response is to make arrests and to attempt to disperse protesters with force.

We’ve seen similar trains of events, with minor variations, after other elections.

It will be interesting now to see what response, if any, is forthcoming from the EU and Russia.  There is a suggestion that Moscow won’t rush to endorse the result.  No doubt the way in which Lukashenko attempted to play Europe off against Russia during his last term will influence the decision.  A fair degree of wariness is understandable on either side.

It must be said that while there isn't genuine democratic competition in Belarus,  equally there's no credible opposition.  Neither the protesters, nor the international community, will be able to point to a candidate who could have beaten Lukashenko, had the count conformed to OSCE's standards.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Mealy mouthed on water charges

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 with the status quo, vis-a-vis water charges.  Apparently its deputy leader was musing on the position in 2007 (or something)!  

(Insert a Paxmanesque drawn out 'yessssssss' - copyright Ultonia)

The issue of water charges has been around since Peter Hain used them as a stick with which to beat the DUP and Sinn Féin into a power-sharing Executive.  Yet the UUP still doesn't know where it stands on the issue.  In its press release the party calls for an 'open and honest debate' on the bills.  

What on earth has been keeping it?

I'm convinced that the Alliance party is pointless, but among all the parties in Northern Ireland it is the only one of any size which has slaughtered the absurd holy cow that water charges must be endlessly deferred.  That shows some guts.  

The UUP has joined the rest, hmming and haaing.  Sometimes indicating that it's prepared to countenance charges, then wheeling back out of populism, or in order to mollify its left wing.  Yes, the DUP is inconsistent too, but that shouldn't hinder the Ulster Unionist party making its position clear.

This reluctance to form a solid position on any issue is quite a recurrent theme for the UUP.  Look at David McNarry's economy document which exhorted the Executive, to erm .... do unspecified stuff.  

With the best will in the world, the UUP is not going to recover until voters have some idea what it actually stands for.  Being 'unionist' and not too nasty is simply not enough.  The party really can do better.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

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, the KLA, is intimately involved in the province’s government (a position which the latest election is likely to perpetuate) and it organises organ harvesting and other crimes.  The report lends credence to claims by Carla Del Ponte, ex chief prosecutor for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, that she was prevented from investigating Kosovar atrocities, including the murder of Serbs in order to harvest their organs.

Thaci’s inner circle is directly implicated in that incident, which is alleged to have taken place within Albania itself, just north of Tirana.

Since 1998 the KLA has exercised a stranglehold over criminality in Kosovo, exerting its supremacy over smaller groups, before Nato sponsored its assent to government.  After Slobodan Milosevic reacted brutally to attacks by Albanian terrorists, Thaci and others oversaw a horrific regime of ’reverse-cleansing’ which affected Serbs, Roma and Albanians whose loyalty was in doubt.

Marty finds that, for the most part, this violence was ignored by the international community, which overlooked Albanian war-crimes, supposedly in the interests of “short-term stability”.  The KLA moved seamlessly from slaughter into government, without relinquishing its criminal enterprises and the regime is now effectively sponsored by the US, most of the EU and Nato.

Serbia’s deputy war crimes prosecutor has hailed the report as a great victory for truth and justice.  Certainly it adds authority to claims against Kosovo which any interested observer would already take as read.  Anything which highlights the complete moral bankruptcy of much of the international community‘s Balkan policy deserves a wider audience.

After a messy ethno-nationalist war, which saw atrocities on both sides and where the result of Albanian terrorism coupled with western interventionism was a brutal reaction by Serbia, there was an opportunity to build a stable future for the region.

Rather than encourage an agreed autonomous Kosovo, within Serbia and with strong democratic guarantees, Nato unilaterally carved up a sovereign state and created a mafia regime.

Kosovo (and Serbia) could be moving towards a prosperous and peaceful future and possible EU membership.  Instead it is a crime ridden, corrupt, quasi-independent mess which cannot hope to command the allegiance of its Serb minority.  Hopefully this report will go some way toward forcing the people responsible to face up to their actions.

University fees and a realistic debate.

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:

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

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 behaviour in deference to local customs.

There's quite a list of dos and don’ts for unmarried men and women, who are legally forbidden from cohabiting in Qatar.  Take your partner, but keep a discrete distance people!  In your western hotel things tend to be tolerated, but there won’t be too much public snogging by anyone, if the letter of the law applies.

Buying alcohol is permitted, but drinking it can be an offence.  This isn’t going to be World Cup 2006.  Fans who want to polish off foaming steins in beer tents are unlikely to be well catered for.  Perhaps this is one for the Green and White Army to miss.

All of these cultural differences, as well as the tiny size of Qatar, its lack of football pedigree and the extreme climate, make it a curious choice for a World Cup.  But it's not true to claim that the effect on gay supporters is the most overwhelming reason to revisit the decision.

As soon as FIFA’s decision was announced it was clear there were quite a few things, taken for granted in the west, visitors will need to ’refrain’ from doing in public.

Monday, 13 December 2010

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 documented instances of minority involvement.

All votes are valuable and it would be remiss of other parties not to look into the best strategies to represent the changing composition of the population in Northern Ireland.

Friday, 10 December 2010

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 price to pay for UCUNF, but it might have been worth it, had the experiment not collapsed after one disappointing election.
The UUP's Conservative connection enabled it to assemble some promising candidates, whose tolerant social attitudes complemented strong unionist convictions. Although the Westminster poll went badly, the party could at least look to develop this seam of liberal talent, which distinguished it from its rivals at the DUP.
Instead the Ulster Unionists binned UCUNF, appointed a leader described as a "traditional unionist" and ignored some of its brightest stars for the forthcoming Assembly election. Trevor Ringland, Paula Bradshaw and Harry Hamilton, all of whom stood for Westminster under the Conservatives and Unionists banner, left. A number of activists, including the chairman of the UUP's Lisburn Branch, also jumped ship, in protest at the suspension of veteran UUP member, John Lund, who is being punished for voicing public disapproval of the party leadership.
Ulster Unionists insist that there are always comings and goings within political parties. Hamilton, who polled well in Upper Bann, is the most significant of the recent batch of defections. The rest, considered individually, are manageable setbacks.
Taken together, though, the year long series of departures suggests a rudderless party, which sheds more personnel with each fresh lurch.
The UUP toyed with 'unionist unity' and lost Alex Kane, its director of communications. When it affirmed its pact with the Conservatives, Hermon and McFarland were thrown from deck. It then veered away from its commitment to normalised, national politics, scattering former candidates in its wake.
More than anything else the Ulster Unionists need to commit to a strategy and stick to it. If the ship can be steadied, there is still potential for a golden sky at the end of the seemingly endless storm.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

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 the Belarusian economy is evaporating.

Still, Lukashenko is making an international public relations push for this election.  It's unlikely to be hailed for its freedom or fairness, but OSCE will monitor the results and a degree of competition has been allowed.

For anyone it suits to be selective about their criticisms, that will be a sufficient fig leaf.  The President is certainly a clever operator.

His attempts at state building since assuming the Presidency have been masterful.  Whereas Belarusian nationalists attempted to jettison all attachments to Moscow and the Soviet Union, Lukashenko fostered the notion of a nation inseparably linked to Russia and its Soviet past.

The idea of a single ‘Union State’, spanning Belarus and Russia, underwrote the President’s new Belarus, but he knew that the balance of power in such a state would heavily favour Russia.  When Moscow pushed too hard for Union, Lukashenko applied the brakes.  Thus far he has banked the economic benefits without being swallowed up.

It was his judgement that there was no appetite in Belarus for a nationalist rewrite of the Belarusian identity.  He was right.  His version, which could look like a bizarre hybrid from the outside, made sense of Belarus’ status as an independent state which was nevertheless inseparable from a larger cultural whole.  

For a successful opposition to emerge in Belarus, it needs to be similarly realistic about the Belarusian identity and jettison wild nationalist fantasies.  That doesn’t appear to be the case for the time being.  So the Lukashenko regime, with all its flaws, won't face a credible challenge.

Standing up for the right to stand.

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 the atmosphere too much.  The Kop Stand at Windsor Park, for example, has created a mighty noise at international matches, since it opened.  Would anyone seriously want to return to the dark, windswept and slightly scary hill which preceded it?

Of course that isn’t quite what’s being proposed.  Germany is an example of best practice when it comes to safe-standing at top stadia.  I took a tour of the Axa Arena in Munich a number of years ago and the terraces there aren’t exactly the traditional concrete mounds of British football.

Rather barriers separate each row of spectators and flip seats can be added for European games.  It’s not the seething mass, for which older football fans have an understandable nostalgia, but it does allow for cheaper tickets and provides a safe area for those who do wish to stand.

Football can’t simply go backwards but if closely regulated terraces can accommodate fans without any compromises on safety, then this proposal deserves closer consideration.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

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 deal
Irwin 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 before we issued any releases.
I was then informed last night, after a meeting was held with the UUP leader and without further discussion with the Conservatives in NI, that the former relationship with the UUP was to continue and we would not be running candidates in the Assembly election. This despite the clear knowledge of both men since I became Chairman, that I would be unable to accept that decision, as I do not accept that the relationship is in the best interests of the Conservative Party, the people of Northern Ireland and our members here. The decision will effectively disband the Conservatives in NI as the sole reason for a political party is to contest elections and the recruitment of activists will be impossible if all they are offered is council elections and pacts with another party
I had hoped we could build our party as a non sectarian party in Northern Ireland that could honestly represent all. In my opinion the Conservative party has now abandoned any serious attempt to change politics in Northern Ireland and has accepted the narrow one community politics of the UUP to attempt to gain one or two MP’s at the next Westminster election.’
Whatever the rights and wrongs of this, there's no doubt that the NI Tories have been led down the garden path by the national party.

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's a very strong possibility that the figure could be as low as 15.

24, Conservative candidates or not, is pie in the sky.

Update:  There appears to be some confusion about whether the 24 figure can be attributed directly to Tom Elliott.  This is being cleared up.  The Irish Times certainly must've permed the figure from somewhere and 'the UUP believes' would suggest that, at the very least, a party source briefed the paper on the figure.  Hopefully this will become clear soon.

Further update: The UUP says this conversation took place among a small group of people, and was not a speech to 'Friends of the Union', as reported in the Irish Times.  That certainly seems plausible as, to the best of my knowledge, that group no longer exists in any organised way.  The figure Elliott gave was apparently purely demonstrative. I.e. were the UUP to be heading toward 24 seats, the Conservatives could cost them two.  The point was simply that the Tories running candidates could cost the UUP seats.

Final Update:  I should add that Elliott says he did not call for the NI Conservatives branch to close.  

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

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

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, (and already the budget is substantially late compared with other devolved regions) it’s the first one for nine whole months.

It's absolutely vita for the two larger parties that any eventual decision is accompanied by as much brinkmanship and playing to the gallery as can possibly be managed without finally toppling the entire edifice.

Monday, 6 December 2010

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 subsequently resigned from the UUP
I now feel with them, that politics in Northern Ireland would be better served by a more progressive approach to the Provinces problems, which a revitalised Conservative Party would provide and thus tender my resignation forthwith.

At the party conference on Saturday Basil McCrea told a BBC reporter that he would be staying put but, following on from criticism of the party by Lisburn Councillor Ronnie Crawford, Lagan Valley is becoming a serious problem for the UUP.

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 words, doubtless sincerely meant.

He went to strenuous efforts to point out that the DUP / Sinn Féin partnership at the centre of the Executive is a ’carve-up’, based on separation, rather than integration or sharing.  It goes without saying, but it deserves to be restated, with Peter Robinson trying to claim the middle ground and the moral high ground.  Despite claims that the UUP is swinging drastically to the right, it's core analysis remains consistent.

The speech also more or less repudiates ’unionist unity’, other than in the broadest sense.  Cooperation with other unionist parties - rather than dodgy deals and electoral stitch ups - is the preference.  If, as the UUP insists, the DUP is doing a bad job, then it shouldn't let it off the hook by presenting candidates as interchangeable.  Elliott is avoiding a huge elephant trap if the Ulster Unionists avoid cuddling up to their rivals.

Finally, the new leader is still keen to weave a ’pan-UK’ element into his unionist credo.  It’s important that it remains an overarching concern, even if the practicalities are very obviously on the slip.  More concrete evidence of a broad, national outlook would be ideal, but the fact that it's still on the radar means that the future isn't all bleak quasi-unionism.

On the flip side there is a notable lack of substantive policy.  The UUP remains more concerned with pointing out where the problems lie with others, and defending its own past record, rather than describing the positive role which it can play in the future.    
‘The way ahead’ section of Elliott’s speech was a misnomer.

Then there’s the section about a link with the Conservative party.  The leader has stated that he wishes to retain a connection, but yet the tenor from many Ulster Unionists is relentlessly negative.  In additional remarks Elliott clarified that he envisages the UUP becoming a Northern Ireland ‘franchise’ of the national party.

I’m not sure how he understands franchising, but I’d imagine that Conservatives will be sceptical of an arrangement which sees no Conservative livery, no Conservative branding and precious little in the way of Conservative policy.  Mr Elliott seeks a relationship which offers a substantial risk and very little benefit to the Tories.

All Watson and McNarry and no responsibility.  It rather neatly mirrors many ‘little Ulster’ unionists idea of Northern Ireland’s relationship with the UK as a whole.  

Lastly, while Elliott struck a reasonably constructive note, the BBC coverage featured party chairman David Campbell growling about Harry Hamilton and other defectors.

Perhaps he feels better having got this off his chest, but provided a sour and unpleasant tenor for the UUP’s annual showpiece.

Friday, 3 December 2010

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

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 excellent stadiums and an established reputation for hosting big events, but the Russian bid fulfilled much of the ’legacy’ criteria, upon which FIFA places so much value.

There will be great stadiums in Russia by 2018.  There will be high speed rail and the reliability and price of Russian railways already far outstrips anything that Britain can offer.  The people will also prove extremely hospitable, if my experiences are anything to go by, and if fans travel with an open mind, many will fall in love with the country.

Moscow hosted the 2008 Champions League Final, a result which for some reason I cannot remember, with a great deal of success.  Red Square became the venue for an enormous celebration, visa requirements were lifted and tens of thousands of British fans travelled to Russia without serious incident.

That’s a track record which the bid team could point to.

Currently the country is celebrating FIFA’s decision and rightly so.  Though I'm sure there is also an awareness that the hard work is now about to begin.  A feast of football is set to take place across thirteen cities and sixteen stadiums.  Fans will travel free on public transport throughout the tournament, which will, no doubt, mitigate the difficulty of covering large distances.  International hotel chains are already expanding their Russian operations and, no doubt, their efforts will now be stepped up.

Handing Russia the World Cup is a good decision by FIFA, it’s an exciting decision and it gives me just seven and a half years to polish up my Russian for Northern Ireland’s trip to Yekaterinburg!

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.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

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

Wee Ulstermen meet the Brits.
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 within the UK, and the government at Westminster is sovereign.

You would expect to hear a republican leader claim that the government’s power to set policy in Northern Ireland is circumscribed by all sorts of imaginary international commitments.  It’s more extraordinary that Peter Robinson argues in precisely the same terms, when it comes to backroom deals on capital spending, rather than an Irish Language Act or a Bill of Rights.

Here are the relevant sections of McGuinness’s posturing address, which doesn't appear to be online:

Last week Owen Patterson, the current British Secretary of State, gave the inaugural Leonard Steinberg lecture in London. It is clear the he was speaking to a select audience of Tories and Unionists as he led out his fundamental Unionist beliefs and stated that 'Northern Ireland is not a hybrid state'. The speech only fell short of stating the failed position of Margaret Thatcher when she said that the North was as, 'British as Finchley.'
While the Tory party has been out of power since 1997 it appears more and more that that they are increasingly out of touch with political developments and the changes since Patrick Mayhew was in Hillsborough. 
In the lead up to the Westminster election the Tories facilitated secret talks between the unionist parties. In the elections they shared a joint platform with the Ulster Unionist party and were roundly rejected, failing to win a single seat. The worst performance by the UUP ever. 
The Tories are again playing party politics with our peace process. They are no longer a side show. They now are the main party in the British Government. As such they inherited the role of joint guardians of the agreements reached throughout the peace process. These agreements must come before party political considerations and ideological positions.
The British Government are the partners in these agreements with the Irish Government. They are not in the remit of the Owen Patterson are any other sole political leader to re-interpret, miss represent or renegotiate.
The agreements gave a substantial role for the Irish Government, they established all Ireland bodies and areas of co-operation, developed the rules for governing the operation of  institutions, increased the powers which are in local hands, set out a financial settlement and left the constitutional position of the north in the hands of the people.
While Owen Patterson is right to say that the North is not a state. It is not. However it is a hybrid reflecting the relationships between Ireland north and south and the aspirations of the people here. A position affirmed by the people north and south.  The North of Ireland is not, never was and never will be as British as Finchley.
The recent record of the Tories in setting aside these agreements or becoming involved in matters which rest with the Executive is a matter of concern.
While Labour commissioned the Saville report is was published under the Tories. David Camerons fulsome apology fully reflected the finding of the report. I welcomed his comments on the day. 
However since then we have had a financial settlement that fails to meet the commitments made by Gordon Brown. Commitments that he recently told me would have honoured regardless of the economic circumstances. The need to consolidate the peace process was greater than the marginal economic saving to be achieved in the North
Given the refusal of Unionists to bring forward an Irish Language Act there is a requirement on the British Government to bring forward an Act as agreed in St Andrews. There is also the commitment to develop a Bill of Rights for the North. These direct governmental commitments cannot be subject to a Unionist veto. 
It is time for Tories to set aside their unionist politics and recognise the aspirations of the nationalists and republicans that live in the North of Ireland and to begin to act as joint guarantors of international agreements.