Wednesday, 30 June 2010

The chances of 'bread and butter politics' developing in Northern Ireland

I make my contribution to the Belfast Telegraph's series on 'middle ground politics' today.  The topic is unionism's role.  My conclusion:

Northern Ireland edges towards political maturity, but |it is a slow process which could easily be derailed.
The devolved institutions are designed to perpetuate community difference and lock parties into a false consensus, rather than encourage a new, healthy, contest of ideas.
A voluntary coalition government, with cross-community safeguards, is an alternative model which attracts unionists, and even Mark Durkan, the former SDLP leader, has spoken in its favour. But it is also undeliverable in the short-term.
And the likelihood of parties withdrawing from the Executive to form an informal opposition has retreated following Alliance's acceptance of the Justice Ministry.
With the present set-up at Stormont, and UCUNF's failure to gain momentum, Northern Ireland's constitutional status is likely to remain the focus of Stormont elections for the time being.
That's bad for unionism, whose interests are best served by normalising Northern Ireland's status within the UK.
Of course, I am within the 'deadhead' tradition of commentators, who believes that it is unlikely that you can cross a horse and a donkey in order to produce a sheep.  

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Chechen president takes to the blogosphere

We’ve become accustomed to blogging politicians in the UK. Some of their offerings are relatively thoughtful, others are little more than a sequence of press releases, penned by a member of staff.

In Russia the President himself keeps a Livejournal blog, comprising mainly video entries, in keeping with his modernising image.

A less likely newcomer to Russian political blogging has now emerged from Chechnya. President of the republic, Ramzan Kadyrov.

His first article, entitled, I - Kadyrov, is presumably as thrilling in the original Russian, as it is in translation, judging by the scornful reaction reported in the Moscow Times. Unnervingly the Chechen hardman wants to be friends and describes himself as ‘sociable’.

The authorities in Chechnya are clearly delighted with the traffic so far and I would imagine it is inordinately healthy as media outlets pick up the story.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

McDowell and sporting identity

An unedited version of an opinion piece from yesterday's Belfast Telegraph (articles published on a Saturday rarely make it online).
In Northern Ireland we can celebrate Graeme McDowell’s heroics at Pebble Beach without  ambivalence.  However, his achievements have been accompanied elsewhere by a degree of confusion as to whether the Portrush golfer should be considered British or Irish.

Indeed the Belfast Telegraph’s southern sister paper, the Irish Independent, rather ungraciously accused the UK media of claiming the new US Open champion, under false pretences.  McDowell’s coach, it pointed out, like the man himself, says that he is Irish.  So that, it would seem, is that.  

Except, of course, that it isn‘t. National identities are not so impermeable or easily reducible. Possession of one does not exclude holding another.  In this part of the world we have a head start in understanding how complex a concept nationality can be. 

McDowell, like many other sportspeople from Northern Ireland, wears his identity (or identities) lightly.  Asked whether he would prefer to be included in the British or Irish teams, when golf makes its debut at the 2016 Olympics, the player responded, “it’d be an honour to represent your country and I don’t mind which one I play for”.

It’s a pragmatic answer, because McDowell is just keen to play at the tournament, but it also suggests an attitude to nationality which is typically Northern Irish, and by no means confused or unhealthy.  The golfer considers himself British and Irish, and he sees no contradiction between the two.            

Golf, like rugby, is organised on an all-island basis.  McDowell has competed for Ireland alongside fellow Ulsterman, Rory McIlroy and players from the Republic, like Padraig Harrington.  His nationality in team golf has not been an issue up to this point.  

Olympic selection complicates matters, because, strictly speaking, Team GB is drawn from the whole of the United Kingdom and the Irish team represents the Republic of Ireland.  Sportsmen and women here can be included in either squad, because southern Irish citizenship is offered extra-territorially to people in Northern Ireland.  

An individual athlete will most probably make their personal decision based on a range of factors, such as the likelihood of selection or whether their sport has an all-Ireland set-up and culture.  Political allegiance could have an influence, although it is usually well down the list of priorities.  It is a subjective judgement and every sportsperson’s considerations will be different.  

Unlike McDowell, Rory McIlroy has expressed an Olympic preference.  He holds a British passport, and he would rather play for Great Britain.  The rugby player Andrew Trimble, whose sport is also set to be included in Rio 2016, has declared for Ireland.  He plays all his international rugby for Irish teams and can’t imagine representing someone else.  

Both players’ choices make perfect sense, but for the most part, whether sports are organised on an all-Ireland basis, or whether there’s a separate Northern Ireland team, no such decision is necessary.  McIlroy and McDowell performed impressively in the 2009 Golf World Cup in China, where Ireland finished runners-up to Italy.   

Trevor Ringland proudly competed in an Irish rugby jersey, despite an allegiance to the United Kingdom which would eventually lead him into unionist politics.   Footballers from across the community, whether they hold British or Irish passports, have traditionally worn the green and white shirt of Northern Ireland at Windsor Park.    

Golf actually reflects rather well the various layers which can make up a Northern Irish identity.  McDowell competes on the European Tour as a player from Northern Ireland.  He played in a Walker Cup representing Great Britain and Ireland.  And this year he will form part of the European Ryder Cup team.       

The belief is widespread in non-English UK nations that the London media calls sportsmen and women ’British’ only when they are successful.  Following defeats they are identified as Irish, Scottish or Welsh.  That perception might be based on a grain of truth, but it is also sustained by a vat of hypersensitivity.
I doubt Graeme McDowell will be too precious about sharing the feel good factor from his achievements .  We should take an equally generous attitude, and cherish an identity which allows the US Open champion to be celebrated in London and Dublin, as well as Portrush and Belfast.  

Friday, 25 June 2010

Important for newspapers that Times paywall works

There’s a fine piece (subs - appropriately enough - required) in Prospect this month, defending the Times’ decision to erect a pay wall around its website.  The author is adamant that hatred for Rupert Murdock should not cloud people’s judgement on the new initiative.

It’s a commonplace that newspapers, almost universally, are now struggling to return a profit, simply because people have become so used to receiving content for free, over the internet.

Either the media must develop a model which recoups all its costs through advertising, or consumers have to pay a fair price for news, whether it is in a printed newspaper, or on the web.  Otherwise quality journalism will not prove sustainable in the long term.

The Times has made its subscription model affordable, and, in the short term, a preview is available to entice potential customers.  It is also rumoured that access will be bundled with other products, such as Sky television packages.

I’ve used the new site, since its introduction, and I have to say that it is very accessible.  Apart from the interactive content, available only online, it feels like an online newspaper, in a way which other newspaper websites do not.

If newspapers are forced to continue cutting corners to remain profitable, or if websites become so laden with advertising that they are scarcely usable, then readers will suffer.

Any blogger will acknowledge that, while blogs can analyse, it is still main stream journalists who gather the raw material for most content which finds its way unto the internet.

If The Times can find a way to make online newspapers pay, it can only be a good thing for the media and consumers.

World Cup encouragement for Northern Ireland.

The bad news for Northern Ireland fans, when the draw was made for European Championship qualification, was that three out of our five opponents had made it to the 2010 World Cup finals.  The good news is that none of our Group C rivals have performed very well in South Africa.

Most conspicuously, Italy crashed out in the early stages, finishing bottom of a group which, on paper, was rather underwhelming.  Northern Ireland fans know very well that Slovakia, who yesterday inflicted a 3-2 defeat on the Italians are a formidable outfit.

Strong, athletic, organised and technically gifted, I was surprised that the Slovaks took so long to get into their stride.  The world champions did not disgrace themselves yesterday but two lacklustre displays against Paraguay and New Zealand ensured there was no room for a slip-up.

The team is clearly on the wane, and lacks the guile which Totti and Del Piero so memorably brought to previous Italy sides.  There will be retirements after the finals too.  Defensive linchpin and team captain, Fabio Cannavaro, is unlikely to experience the Windsor roar.

With another Group C opponent, Serbia, there is not such a definite story of decline.  The Serbs let themselves down at this finals.  I didn’t get to see their first match, against Ghana, but by all accounts they were dreadful.  Against Germany, in contrast, Serbia played well, albeit against ten men, but there was an element of caution which probably prevented a 1-0 victory becoming more comfortable.

The 2-1 defeat against Australia was unlucky, inexplicable, unforgivable.  The Serbs were all over the non-football nation for large spells of the match, but failed to convert chances.  Ultimately, with the talent at Serbia’s disposal, there was no excuse not to beat the Aussies and beat them well.

Slovenia’s tournament, meanwhile, started hopefully, with a 1-0 defeat of Algeria.  Midway through the next game, against the US, the former Yugoslav Republic was two up, and coasting into the next round.  The Americans came back, to draw 2-2 and, frankly, the Slovenes were under power against England.

Northern Ireland’s first two competitive games in the Autumn will be against the Slovenes, away, and Italy, at home.  In the world cup qualifying tournament we lost by 2 late goals in Slovenia, having looked the better team for large spells of the game.  At Windsor Park, the roles were reversed, when Slovenia dominated, but Warren Feeney grabbed a second half winner.

In theory, Northern Ireland should have nothing to fear in either match.  Two good performances should secure two good results.  In my book, Serbia is the group favourite, not withstanding Italy’s better world ranking, but the Serbs showed enough signs of fragility to encourage Nigel Worthington too.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

When does Sylvia Hermon intend to do some work at Westminster?

Interesting stats on They Work for You about Sylvia Hermon.  The MP for North Down's last contribution at the House of Commons was back in March.  In fact, since retaining her seat as an independent she has not taken part in any debate, despite business such as Saville and the budget coming before the house.

I hope that Slug can substantiate the information he has posted in the comments section of this thread about complete non-attendance.  I will post the evidence immediately if he can.

In the mean time it's quite clear that North Down is receiving practically no representation at Westminster.  Still, the situation wasn't much better in the previous parliament, and the constituency voted her in regardless.   Frankly, her supporters are getting the representation they deserve.

The question remains whether she stood in the 2010 election out of a genuine desire to serve her constituents, or simply out of spite.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Chancellor strives for balance in emergency budget

The Budget Debate is continuing with predictable rancour.  Punch and Judy politics writ large.  Harriot Harman, acting Labour leader, set the tone in her response to the Chancellor‘s statement, failing to outline any alternative policies or to admit a shred of culpability on behalf of the previous government for the economic mess in which the UK finds itself.

The detail will be teased out over the next few days, but Andrew Tyrie MP, chairman of the Treasury Select Committee, delivered the best instant assessment, concluding that the budget represents a good start for a government determined to take radical action on the deficit.

In George Osborne’s speech great emphasis was placed on the ’progressive’ credentials of the coalition’s plans.  The Liberal Democrats are of course determined to protect the perception that they are committed to fairness, but the Conservatives too, under Cameron’s leadership, have consistently challenged the cooption of the word ’progress’ to a statist, centralist philosophy.

To this end the Chancellor has attempted to colour austerity measures with a distinct redistributionist hue.  A 2.5% hike in VAT has been swallowed, as the most efficient means to instantly make a dent in the public debt, but elsewhere there are admirable efforts to make sure that the poorest people in society will be subject to least pain.

Public servants making less than £21,000 per year will be exempt from the public sector pay freeze.  £1,000 has been added on to the personal allowance.  Capital gains tax will go up, but rises will exempt those in the basic tax band.  Benefits cuts will be targeted at people who can work, but are reluctant to do so.

In difficult times, the coalition has attempted to deliver a balanced budget.  In the new spirit of openness which it claims it has instigated, it is now important that the government monitors closely how its policies impact the economy, and reviews them, both in the light of their effectiveness, and changes in the world economy.

Elliott to announce leadership bid.

Most eyes will be on Westminster and the emergency budget, but it seems that Tom Elliott MLA is set to make an announcement about his intentions as regards the UUP leadership, this lunchtime.  The Fermanagh South Tyrone Assemblyman will brief the press at 12.45pm today, at Stormont.

Deputy leader, Danny Kennedy, has already ruled himself out of the race, and Elliott is not likely to follow suit.  Whether there will be any clue as to a likely 'dream-team', designed to draw together the two wings of the party, remains to be seen.

There have been rumours that Basil McCrea or Mike Nesbitt could act as Elliott's deputy, if he were to become leader.  It is difficult to see how such an arrangement could work in practice, given the choices that the party faces over its future.   

Monday, 21 June 2010

Tensions between Wilson and Robinson?

In today's Belfast Telegraph I acknowledge that the budget cut penny seems to have dropped with Finance Minister, Sammy Wilson, but I ask whether Peter Robinson shares his realism?

For some time our politicians have realised that separate water charges are unavoidable. With the budget tightening, it would be folly to defer them any longer.
To Wilson's credit, he has argued the case for an immediate introduction. It is the type of unpopular decision which must be made in the interests of good government.
When the Finance Minister authored a paper, working on the assumption that charges would be introduced for the 2011-12 financial year, however, he was rebuffed by his colleague in the First Minister's office
Robinson rejected the document, describing it as "unwise", and rubbished the notion that the Executive is to implement a 'tap tax'.
It is not the first time that the two DUP men have clashed over economic policy. Previously, Wilson declared his scepticism about a cut in corporation tax for Northern Ireland, arguing that it would inevitably be accompanied by a reduction in the block grant. Robinson, meanwhile, has made positive noises about lower business taxes.
The First Minister probably has the stronger case on that issue. But at least Wilson shows awareness that there are two sides to the public finance ledger.
I argue that, too frequently, the Executive's decision making has been guided by populism, rather than common sense.  It is a trait which accompanies devolution but it is also exacerbated by the navel gazing fomented by the peace process in Northern Ireland.
The Executive is missing opportunities to show leadership. The problem with devolution is it hands regional administrations power without requiring fiscal responsibility. It is too easy to take credit for popular policies and blame Westminster for unpopular ones.
The phenomenon was exacerbated by the fawning attention which we became accustomed to from prime ministers. The 'peace process' inculcated a sense of overweening entitlement. But the rest of the UK doesn't owe us a living. Tough decisions can't be avoided.
With the 2011 Assembly elections looming, the Executive might be tempted to delay the pain a little longer. This would be irresponsible. I suspect Sammy Wilson has accepted this. He still needs to persuade Peter Robinson.

Graeme McDowell adds his name to list of sporting greats.

What an extraordinary achievement! Last night,  Portrush golfer Graeme McDowell became the first European to lift a US Open Championship since Tony Jacklin in 1970, finishing just a shot ahead in a nail biting finish at Pebble Beach.

He's now also the first Brit to win a major since Paul Lawrie claimed the Claret Jug at Carnoustie in 1999.  And a Northern Irishman hasn't won one of golf's top prizes since Fred Daly's Open in 1947!

Most fans probably suspected that Rory McIlroy was the best local hope for a major, but, at thirty, McDowell is at the top of his game.  He has significant experience in the US, where he went to college and his form leading up to the tournament was good.  A couple of weeks ago he won the Wales Open.

So it was that Graeme McDowell became the right man, at the right time.  He has catapulted himself straight into the pantheon of Northern Irish sporting achievement and provided British, not to mention European golf a timely shot in the arm.

A rap over the knuckles for the Belfast Telegraph though.  The paper is catching up online, but this morning's edition cast around for an Irish winner in the wrong place.  "Harrington taking weight off his shoulders as he chases Major glory", reads the headline.  Should've looked a bit closer to home guys!

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Armstrong to chair Tories in Northern Ireland.

Ian Parsley's blog carries an account of the Northern Ireland Conservatives AGM, which took place today.  The most noteworthy business saw Irwin Armstrong, UCUNF's North Antrim Westminster candidate, elected as area chairman.  I believe the other contenders were Terry Dick (from the East Belfast association) and Parsley himself.

Armstrong conducted a positive and spirited campaign during the general election and, had a misleading Belfast Telegraph poll not erroneously suggested that Jim Allister was a serious contender to nick the seat, he could easily have beaten the TUV man to second place.  He will bring a businessman's eye, and experience in marketing, to the local Tories.

It will be interesting to see whether his appointment has an impact on the Ulster Unionist connection.  Parsley hints, in his piece, that he cannot see the value in Northern Ireland Conservatives standing against UUP candidates in the Assembly election.  That is a debate which will be played out in the coming months, particularly from the Autumn onwards, as it becomes clearer which direction the larger party might take.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

An endlessly complex subject - can we unravel the causes of violence in Kyrgyzstan?

Martin Amis is yet to visit Russia but he has written two books about the country.  For the latest, House of Meetings, he claimed to have read ‘a yard of books’, researching his subject.  Orlando Figes, whose poison pen subsequently attracted headlines, disagreed, claiming the novel was based on ’very modest’ reading.

I’d have to agree that Amis’ book was poor and its predecessor, Koba the Dread, which purported to consider the skewed morality of western intellectuals’ infatuation with Stalin, was little better.  His failure reminds the casual observer, drawing on a modest collection of journalism and articles about Kyrgyzstan, that those sources are entirely insufficient to understand a hugely complex situation.

The Ferghana Valley, an ethnic hotbed, where the borders of modern Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan converge, has witnessed the latest horrific outbreak of violence in Central Asia.  The information outlet with the greatest presence in the region, Ferghana.ru, on Monday carried this interview, with Danish journalist, Michael Anderson, who excoriated the European media for its lack of interest and understanding.

The violence in Kyrgyzstan has been portrayed, for the most part, as a simple overspill of interethnic hatreds, which have simmered in the Ferghana Valley since the fall of the Soviet Union.  Although the information coming out of Osh and Jalal-Abad, the two cities worst affected, is sketchy, two themes are repeated in eyewitness accounts and the most informed commentaries, which contradict more simplistic accounts.

Firstly, the casualties, inflicted mainly on ethnic Uzbek populations in southern Kyrgyzstan, are likely to be far higher than any official figures have so far suggested.  Even the most cautious estimates are being revised from the low hundreds, to the thousands.  There are multiple first hand accounts of piled up bodies.

Secondly, there is almost certainly a degree of orchestration to the attacks.  It has been suggested that local authorities colluded, at least tacitly, in what happened.  In Osh a wave of heavily armed men preceded a collection of youths with more rudimentary weapons.  Finally a third cohort of older people and women moved in to loot anything worth taking from Uzbek homes and businesses.

The finger of blame has pointed at the Bakiyevs, whose power-base remains the southern reaches of Kyrgyztsan.  Whether there is direct involvement from the former president, or his son, it seems unlikely that the violence is spontaneous.

There is a deliberate, political subtext to these events.  They are a vicious attack on the Uzbek minority, but they are also a challenge to the authority of the interim government, led by Roza Otunbayeva, the former foreign minister.

The recent history of Kyrgyzstan, its false dawns and the collusion of the US in its misgovernment, is set out in an article by Eugene Huskey, penned after the April revolution.

Post-Soviet Central Asia is endlessly fascinating and dauntingly complex.  But it’s not a region whose problems should be ignored or simplified by a media pressed for time and space.  The USSR’s break-up didn’t cause bloodshed in the region to the extent which many observers expected.

There could yet be a bloody and belated post-script, however, if the old nomenclature regimes fall away and a more authentic nationalism, or Islamism, comes to the fore.  It is no accident that local voices are calling for Moscow to intervene.

Cameron sets the tone for unionists' muted Bloody Sunday response

Predictably, there’s been an enormous quantity of analysis and reportage, following the publication of the Saville Report on Tuesday.  If posting has been light over the past couple of days, it’s because I’ve been making an effort to digest the best of it.

There is a lot to commend the thrust of Turgon’s post on Slugger O’Toole, which examines unionist reaction to Saville.  He identifies two ’predictable’ responses which he believes are emblematic.

One, as typified by Gregory Campbell, casts doubt on the report’s interpretation.  The other, as articulated by Sir Reg Empey and others, points to a disproportionate concentration of resources on the victims of Bloody Sunday, as opposed to victims of Republican violence.

I accept that these arguments have been raised and that they are, as Turgon contends, ’understandable’.  I also agree with his broader point that, should we deny moral equivalence between terror groups and the British army, we should also expect standards of self-scrutiny and accountability from the latter to which the former do not aspire.

The important point is that, however belatedly, the United Kingdom has examined its actions and acknowledged its guilt.  That shows a capacity for reflection which is not matched by Republicans, who still maintain that Bloody Sunday justified thirty years of mayhem and murder.

I would argue, though, that unionist complaints about Saville have largely remained rather low key.  Even from Campbell, who is the most vigorous critic.  The positions have certainly been assumed, predictably, but the rhetoric has been kept in check.

If the inquiry and its report provides the ’justice’ which bereaved families crave, then the £200 million could be worth it.  After all, they still claim that the most important aspect of this process is clearing their loved ones of any blame.

The proviso is that if any subsequent legal proceedings become too lengthy, one sided or vindictive, then the grievances of other victims will be hard to contain.  They will find their voice, inevitably, in the political arena.

So far, the defining moment of the week, for me, was a unionist prime minister, David Cameron, speaking in brave, balanced and conciliatory tones about the wrongdoing of British soldiers.

The distance which he put between himself and events in Derry was defined by time rather than politics.  It is clear that he, at least, does not regard Northern Ireland as someone else’s responsibility, remote from the rest of the United Kingdom.

Unionists here should follow his lead.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Rafa's self-image

Ok, he's left, and there's no need to continue to put the boot in, but a comment from Rafa Benitez, to a press conference introducing the new Inter manager to the Milan media, made me snort with derision.

"I am different to Mourinho.  I have the mentality of (winning) with good football." 
Er, no Rafa.  You have the mentality of drawing with tedious football.  Ultimately that's why you are no longer manager at Liverpool and its why, unlike Mourinho, you were never able to win a Premier League title.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Can Brazil save the world from tedium?

By all accounts Portugal and Ivory Coast have contributed another dreary ninety minutes to a World Cup which, so far, has produced almost no entertainment.  The first match was ok, in the second half, and Germany were fun, but otherwise it has been a bore.

Despite the Germans’ impressive performance, I don’t think that we’ve seen potential winners yet.  Australia are an aging team, reliant on the muscular skills (aka foul play) of Tim Cahill and Lucas Neill.  Germany were simply relatively comfortable passing around the Aussies’ busy pressing game.

Although Serbia were defeated by an unknown quantity, Ghana, in their first game, they might be on surer territory playing the Germans.

Italy, meanwhile, look a shadow of the team which tasted victory four years ago.  No Del Piero, no Totti and Pirlo consigned to the bench.  Much was made of the entrance of Camoranesi, who did improve the Italians’ performance against Paraguay, but he is too inconsistent to power a team into the latter stages.

Among the other contenders, who have played, Argentina were probably the pick.  Clearly they have some talented players and they might have scored more against Nigeria.  But despite Maradona’s animated touchline antics, there was no spark which suggested potential champions.

As for England, they will still comfortably win a substandard group, but their build-up play against the USA was sloooooww.  If they had worn red, and you squinted a little, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were watching Benitez’ Liverpool.

The task of saving the tournament from tedium rests with the Brazilians, who tonight face North Korea, and Spain, whose mercurial talents will, hopefully, destroy the plodding, goal-shy Swiss.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Will they or won't they stay together?

Mr Ulster has responded to my Belfast Telegraph piece on the NI Conservatives.  He argues that the group cannot ignore identity politics.  The thrust of the piece seems to be that it is not possible to be 'pro-Union' without engaging, to some degree, in communal politics.  He might find much to agree with over at Seymour Major's new blog.

Meanwhile O'Neill argues that the viewpoint of local Tories may be relatively academic.  Probably rightly, he contends that, should CCHQ demand that the UUP link be maintained and should Ulster Unionists remain amenable 'the views of the NI Conservatives on the matter will be of little consequence'.

The looming 2011 Assembly elections will play a role in this drama.  Clearly the Tories in North Down feel that Ian Parsley could claim a seat.  Retaining some connection with the UUP would leave them best placed to achieve this.

On the other hand, the ambitious young candidates who make up the Ulster Unionists' most pro-UCUNF wing, will also see Assembly seats as the next priority for their careers.  Short of a UUP / DUP deal, which could cause some of them to jump, they will see their best chance within the Ulster Unionist party in some form.    

Minister of the Absurd in good sense shocker! Wilson gets it right, but Robbo's not listening..

It’s not often that I would profess to agree with Sammy Wilson, or to have sympathy with him.  However I think that he’s got it right on water charges.

Northern Ireland relies on a huge subvention from Westminster, we cannot be exempted from a UK wide public spending squeeze and it is no longer tenable to avoid charges for water which are applied across the rest of the country.

Wilson, in charge of the finance brief, has attempted to impress that fact upon his Executive colleagues, and, for his troubles, he has been slapped down by his party leader, Peter Robinson.  Clearly the course is already set for populism and irresponsibility.

We need to budget for water charges introduction and press ahead with them.  We should also look at the possible savings from reinstating prescription charges.

It is no good perpetually ducking the difficult decisions in the belief that our 'peace process' forms a sufficient reason to keep throwing money at us.  

Friday, 11 June 2010

Stormont elections a glum prospect after Westminster contest.

Over at Forth I argue that, apart from the almighty sectarian headcount it could represent, Assembly elections are an exercise in futility.  The piece is on Freeview, so please do pop over to the magazine to read it, and have a look around.  

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Northern Ireland Tories and their options.

In today's Belfast Telegraph I ask where the other partners in UCUNF, the Northern Ireland Conservative party, will decide to go now.  In particular I look at two options which have been mooted.


Seymour Major, a prolific Tory party blogger, has started a campaign for a separate organisation with a new name and would seek to align with the Conservatives at Westminster, but remain agnostic on the Union. The contention is that unionism has become toxic in Northern Ireland and the Tories at national level are indelibly linked to it. This breed of local Conservative doesn't just want to keep the UUP at arm's length, they feel the same about David Cameron.
Their difficulty is that any new party would start with an even smaller base than the Northern Ireland Tories.
In a devolved UK, constitutional issues are part of everyday debate and, by ducking the border issue entirely, a neutral centre-right group here could not offer either equal citizenship or normal politics.
But there is a strong alternative view, which argues that the existing party should press ahead with its Conservative and Unionist branding - with or without the UUP.
The New Force tag should be dropped and much of the baggage for which UCUNF was ridiculed could be shed with it.
By embracing this approach the Northern Ireland Conservatives would also be ideally placed to attract disillusioned Ulster Unionists, if the UUP decides to go down the 'unionist unity' route.
Indeed, the Northern Ireland Tories could emerge strengthened from a realignment in unionism.
Stiff resistance within the UUP to any DUP link is likely and there remains an influential section of the party convinced that the Conservative pact was a positive strategy.
Indeed, a Northern Ireland Conservative and Unionist party would make a natural vehicle for secular unionism, without Orange trappings and an ideal partner for David Cameron's Government.
If the local Tories instead decide that having a view on the province's constitutional future can be equated with sectarianism, they will quickly return to relative obscurity.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Hard reality to trump dreams? Hodgson managerial favourite ahead of Liverpool legend.

It’s beginning to look like Fulham manager Roy Hodgson could be the man to take over from Rafa Benitez at Anfield.  Several outlets report that Liverpool will approach the London club in the next 48 hours.  It is not considered likely that Fulham asking compensation of £2 million or so would derail any deal.  

The move could raise a dilemma of ‘heads over hearts’ for Liverpool fans.  Because it appears that Kenny Dalglish has expressed his readiness to take up the reins at the club, for the first time since resigning as manager, way back in 1991.

Dalglish was the last man to deliver a league title to Anfield and he went on to do an astonishing job at Blackburn Rovers.  The Scot is now in charge of Liverpool‘s youth Academy, but he hasn’t managed at senior level since 2000, when he spent a brief period in charge of Celtic.

It had been reported that Dalglish was tasked, along with managing director Christian Purslow, with compiling a shortlist of candidates.  For the Liverpool faithful, ’King Kenny’s’ thumbs up would represent an important endorsement for any new manager.

Now the Daily Post has cast doubt on the nature of Dalglish’s role in the recruitment process.  It suggests that, although he is prepared to accept the board’s decision, and support it, he did not play a part vetting prospective candidates.

The legendary Anfield striker instead wants the job for himself, and he believes he has the credentials to take control, after a break of almost twenty years.  It complicates a situation which is already far from ideal.

Unlike Hodgson, Dalglish could count upon the Kop’s unwavering devotion if he were to become manager.  Unlike Hodgson, Dalglish would be likely to restore a positive attitude and fans could look forward to a period of attacking football.

However, without money to bring in the quality which Liverpool currently lacks, there could be an element of Kevin Keegan’s last spell at Newcastle, about any Kenny Dalglish return.  It is extremely unlikely that past glories would be revisited until new ownership is secured.  

If the owners were to hand Kenny the job, it would be their most popular move since stumping up the cash for Fernando Torres.  It could, conceivably, relieve the pressure on Hicks and Gillett, allowing them to take a more leisurely, or greedy, approach to selling the club.

On the other hand, appointing Hodgson is practically an admission of defeat.  He has managed a top level European club just once before, stabilising Inter Milan and building a characteristically solid, unspectacular outfit.  Cynics will say that is precisely what Liverpool needs.

If the current owners stay, then expectations at Anfield have to be adjusted accordingly.  The club can’t afford to bring in, or retain, quality players.  It needs a manager who can squeeze the best out of a workmanlike squad, keep it in contention for a European place and occasionally create an upset against a genuine title contender.

Liverpool, a giant in world football, has not been in that position since the days of Shankly.  It would be the hardest dose of reality to go back there, but that is what a move for Hodgson represents.

Dalglish, in contrast, is a hopeful appointment.  But, with the current difficulties afflicting the club, does he symbolise unrealisable dreams rather than hard reality?

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Help required. Is Solzhenitsyn's Homecoming available online?

Venerated by Soviet dissidents, and despised by communists, during his spell in exile, Alexander Solzhenitsyn's star had become rather faded by the time he returned to Russia in 1994.  His scepticism about the West, coupled with a penchant for mysticism and Russian nationalism saw the writer variously (and inconsistently) portrayed as an advocate of Tsarism, a Tolstoy imitator and an arch-reactionary.  With his bushy beard and his grumpy dismissals of modern culture, he became easy to lampoon.

The author's return to Moscow only added to the criticism that he was a man, full of his own importance, and out of time.  Solzhenitsyn embarked on an epic train journey around Russia's provinces, before arriving to chaotic scenes at Yaroslavsky Station.  The BBC filmed a documentary recording this 'homecoming'.  It is no longer available on IPlayer.  And my question to any 3000 Versts reader (yes, it was quite a digression) is whether the programme is available anywhere else online?  I've tried the very obvious sources (Youtube, Google Videos, Seesaw).

Update:  Thanks for your help folks.  I've now got a copy of the documentary ready to watch. 

Friday, 4 June 2010

Stop 'defending' the Union and start participating in it.





THE BRITISH general election has precipitated a period of very public soul-searching by the main unionist parties. The DUP leader, Peter Robinson, provided one of the election’s most notable scalps, losing his East Belfast seat to Alliance’s Naomi Long, and the Ulster Unionists’ link up with the Conservatives suffered electoral wipe-out, failing to return a single MP. 

As the two parties pour over the tactical failings of their campaigns, and assess the respective positions of their leaders, they face a more profound dilemma. The overall proportion of the vote claimed by unionism was well down.  None of the unionist options available to the electorate captured its imagination.
Anti-agreement unionism, in the form of Jim Allister’s TUV, performed worst of all. Its leader, the only candidate from the party to claim a substantial number of votes, was still trounced by Ian Paisley junior in North Antrim.  Had not a wildly inaccurate pre-election poll persuaded some Ulster Unionists that Allister could catch the despised Paisley, he might have been beaten into third place by a little known Conservative candidate.
Meanwhile, the DUP sought to sell itself on the party’s track record in the Stormont Executive and as a robust defender of the block grant, believing it was set to wield disproportionate influence in a hung parliament. It suffered decapitation and lost a seat.  It has reached the limits of its ambition, as the predominant voice in Irish unionism, and can only hope to tread water.
Ulster Unionists, during the election campaign, argued the advantages of representing Northern Ireland from within a Tory Westminster government. They emphasised, intermittently, the cross community credentials of their arrangement. 
But these became less convincing after prospective Catholic nominees quit ‘Ucunf’ frustrated at the slow pace of change, and the Conservative/UUP hybrid agreed to support a ‘unionist unity’ candidate in Fermanagh South Tyrone.
Indeed, in the election’s aftermath ‘unity’ has become a clarion call, based on its supposed popularity on the doorsteps. How this concept might, in practice, be defined, rather depends on who is doing the defining.
For some, unity merely denotes a sense of civility between unionist parties, who could work together on matters of broad strategy and common interest, such as voter registration. To others it entails a full merger and unionism accommodating its various strands within a single party. 
In actuality, it is difficult to envisage unionists agreeing any substantive aims, beyond a shared desire to maintain some type of link with Great Britain. Even the extent of the political relationship which unionists want with Westminster is a matter of bitter dispute.
Champions of ’unity’, who claim that efforts to build a single group are driven by a groundswell of public opinion, are either being disingenuous or facile.  To the extent that unity is the antithesis of division, of course it is a popular concept. Voters on the ground are consistent in calling for cooperation between politicians of all hues.
Indeed the most common complaint against politicians is that they are too focussed on constitutional rather than ’bread and butter’ issues.
Rather than counteracting a disconnection between unionist parties and the electorate, a single unionist party would exacerbate it. Far from showing signs of strategic thinking, it represents a panicked crawl back to the bunker. 
You only have to listen to unity’s keenest advocates, men like the DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson, Ulster Unionist David McNarry or Orangeman Robert Saulters, to recognise the poverty of imagination at work. Their arguments invoke hoary slogans like ’united we stand, divided we fall’. They talk about uniting around a single identity, rather than a programme of policies.
The problem with the current unionist parties, as Alex Kane has identified, is that their role is to provide an equal and opposite response to republicanism. 
The polity of Northern Ireland is part of the UK, even the most hardened republican accepts this, they just wish to change that fact. The relationship that unionism wants is already in place. Yet unionist parties align themselves around the nationalist notion that it will not endure. No wonder the allegation, so often levelled at unionists, is that they lack confidence.
Ironically, the DUP attempts to portray itself as an emblem of unionism’s resurgent self-esteem. It sells the miserly fruits of a mutual veto, held in conjunction with Sinn Féin, as a series of tactical victories. In truth they are the political equivalent of chest-puffing. A symptom of the party’s failure to articulate an inclusive case for the Union.
The UUP, with its Conservative alignment, showed signs of strategy, but, on its first Westminster outing, it failed. This happened for two reasons: firstly, the Ulster Unionists were weighed down with Orange baggage, which they were unable or unwilling to jettison convincingly. Secondly, not all unionists are Conservatives. 
It is the latter point which commentators have seized upon most eagerly, but it is likely that the wrong lessons will be learned. 
The Conservative link, from its inception, was sold half-heartedly, and then as a magic elevator to whizz the UUP to its previous prominence. When David Cameron was doing well in the polls, and before talk of recession and cuts, Ulster Unionists believed they merely had to cling to his coattails to return a significant cohort of MPs.
As soon as it became apparent that national politics meant a change in content and style, rather than simply waving the union flag even more adamantly, cracks began to appear in the relationship. And as opponents began to attack the Ulster Unionists on the basis of Conservative policy, its flimsy foundations became self-evident. 
Ucunf squabbled and fought its way toward the election, briefly galvanised for a three week campaign, then collapsed into acrimony after the results were announced. Its sceptics then pronounced principles which they hadn’t signed up to, hadn’t properly understood and repeatedly undermined, a dismal failure.
The Conservatives and Unionists promised to reach out beyond communal boundaries which many members were defiantly happy to remain within. It attached to the UUP a set of modern, liberal conservative values which some of its representatives couldn’t articulate and others actively repudiated. If UCUNF wasn’t convinced of its own merits, how could it possibly hope to persuade the electorate they were worth voting for?
The fact remains that unionism, if it retreats further into its communal ghetto, cannot attract new voters. It will simply wither and die, choked by unfavourable demographics. The value of the Conservative link was that it offered unionism a means of looking outwards, to the rest of the United Kingdom and the benefits of Union, rather than inwards, with morbid fascination, to its own anticipated demise. 
In an age of devolution, parties throughout the UK have to make concessions to regional distinctiveness. One size does not fit all. However, unionism’s lifeblood is an allegiance to Westminster and if it cannot provide a tangible connection to the broader currents of British politics, then it will atrophy. It must stop defending the Union and start participating in it. 
The DUP, incurably parochial, and an anathema to the British mainstream both politically and socially, is not well placed to provide this participation. Even the party’s current opposition to spending cuts is less anchored to a considered analysis of economics than an overweening sense of entitlement. Perhaps an age of financial austerity coupled with a spell alongside Labour on the opposition benches, can help locate its ideas somewhere recognisable on the British spectrum. 
The UUP’s Conservative link is likely to be rethought, at the very least. However, a growing group of enthusiasts is coalescing around some of the Ucunf election candidates. Vehemently opposed to ’unity’, they are unlikely to go quietly down that road. A split, and a bolstered Northern Ireland Conservative party, positioning itself as a moderate, secular force, committed to the Union, but not to unionism’s traditional shibboleths, could yet emerge.           
However the unionist tectonic plates might reform after the election post-mortem, it is crucially important to unionism’s health that a secular manifestation, focussed on equal political citizenship within the United Kingdom, does not disappear. 
If Northern Ireland becomes more and more a political basket-case, a limbo-land held at arm’s length by the British government, then unionism has suffered its final defeat. Because unionism worth the name is not about the existence of Northern Ireland, it is certainly not about various strands of Ulster Protestant culture, it is explicitly about the maintenance and quality of a political link to Great Britain. 

The glorified debating society meets in special session.

The Assembly can meet in special session if 30 MLAs demand it.  Today it has taken such a step.  Why?

Is it to finally clear up the mess in education?

Is it to demand answers after the Department of Agriculture allowed £60 million of European funds to be awarded to farmers in error, a mistake which will now be corrected at taxpayers expense?

Is it to discuss anything at all within the Assembly's remit?

Is it hell!

The Assembly is meeting to discuss foreign policy, a matter over which it has no jurisdiction whatsoever.  To be precise it is to discuss events in the Mediterranean Sea, surrounding the Gaza flotilla.

The only thing guaranteed to start a row in Northern Ireland quicker than a debate about our history and current affairs is a discussion about Israel’s history and current affairs.  It’s scarcely because we have an enormous population of knowledgeable ex-pat Israelis or Palestinians eager to contribute.

On both sides of the political divide, people in Northern Ireland simply can’t resist conflating our own troubles with conflict in the Middle East.

When deaths on the disputed aid convoy were reported, on Monday, our politicians couldn’t wait to rush out statements. Sinn Féin, predictably, was first out of the blocks.  The last time I checked (Tuesday evening) it had no fewer than eight hysterical press releases on its website, condemning Israel for murder.  I really can't be bothered to tot the latest tally.  The DUP, equally predictably, called for unequivocal support for Britain‘s ally and the ‘only democracy in the Middle East‘.

The parties didn’t wait for the fog of confusion surrounding events to clear, of course.  Because they’d decided which side was always in the wrong long ago, based on a deeply simplistic belief that Israel and Palestine‘s quarrel shares a template with their own.

No doubt Stormont's vital business today (if it goes ahead) will be argued in similarly rational fashion.

This is another example of the ridiculous, powerless irrelevant nature of the Stormont Assembly.  Add it to Danny Kennedy's World Cup motion.  Except this has made it to the floor of the chamber, thanks to 30+ idiots.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Time to go for Rafa, but Liverpool's problems will remain.

The formalities are not yet taken care of, but it appears that Rafa Benitez will finally leave Liverpool.  The Spanish manager has had six seasons to deliver success at Anfield and sadly, during that time, the team has gone backwards.

Benitez will always be remembered for the dizzy heights he scaled in his first season at the club, leading Liverpool to its fifth European Cup, in astonishing circumstances.  The following season saw the reds pip West Ham in a thrilling FA Cup final.

Unfortunately those early triumphs were to be the highlights of Benitez’ reign.  Under the Spaniard Liverpool were well equipped for Europe and reached another Champions League final in 2007.  And last term a remarkable second half of the season witnessed Rafa’s first convincing push for Premier League glory.

That unsuccessful bid told a story, however.  Disappointing, negative home performances earlier in the season ultimately cost the team its first title since 1990.  Only when its chances of success were almost gone did Benitez’ outfit cast off the defensive shackles and deliver confident, attacking football.

Rafa’s Liverpool sides were always organised and solid, but they frequently lacked inventiveness and conviction going forward.  That memorable night in Istanbul aside, when things went badly, the manager’s cautious approach prevented the bold tactical changes needed to save a match.

How often did Benitez’ team limp to a disappointing 1-0 defeat or 0-0 draw, principally because the coach refused to change the set-up or to introduce a second striker?

Last season his decisions became increasingly erratic and bemusing.  Liverpool slumped to seventh, turning out a series of limp, defensive, embarrassing displays.  Off the field turmoil did not help, but the buck for on field performances has to stop with the manager.

Benitez will leave Liverpool in a demoralised and confused mess, for which he is only partially responsible.  Its parasite American owners have bled the club of finance and remain at the helm, despite repeated opportunities to step aside.

The company is now for sale, there is only a depleted transfer budget currently available, and influential players are reportedly considering their futures.  It is hardly an ideal situation for a new manager to inherit, nor does it lend itself to attracting the type of world class coach Liverpool needs.  

Certainly Rafa has to go, but it is even more urgent that Tom Hicks and George Gillett sell the club they acquired, under false pretences, immediately.  New owners, a new manager and a replenished transfer kitty are all needed to take Liverpool forward.

As for Benitez, his name will always be synonymous with Istanbul, and his commitment to the club has rarely been in doubt.  He can’t survive on past glories forever though.  The current side is a disgrace to the red shirt and it is time for its manager to move on.    

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Kennedy's fatuous World Cup motion says it all about Stormont.

The News Letter reports that Danny Kennedy has proposed a motion at the Assembly for local representatives to send their “best wishes” to England in the World Cup.

The business committee will decide whether the UUP deputy leader’s proposal is worth debate.  If any common sense is applied, their deliberations won’t take long.  It isn’t.

Whatever your view on the vexed question whether to support the English this summer, or not, this is exactly the type of amateur debating society nonsense which gets Stormont a bad name.

Kennedy says he will back England in the absence of another home nation in South Africa.  Bully for him.  I’m sure many people here will do likewise, and argue their case at lunch hour or in the pub.

The Northern Ireland Assembly, however, doesn’t have a UK wide remit and there is absolutely no need for it to send good wishes to any team at a World Cup, unless Northern Ireland qualify.  No-one in England will know, nor will they care, if this motion is passed.

It says a lot about Stormont that any member can contemplate adding this type of pathetic, pointless, points scoring exercise to its business.  This is a toothless Assembly without the tools to seriously hold the Executive to account.

Fewer pieces of Executive business make it to the chamber all the time and, although this motion is unlikely to make it unto the Assembly's schedule, the filler becomes progressively more trivial.

Instead members are reduced to debating whether to support England in the World Cup, or trotting out  simplistic analogies between the Middle East and Northern Ireland.

Ask a silly question ...

A bizarre little letter appears in the Belfast Telegraph this morning, penned by Malachy Scott.  In response to an article I wrote in the paper, demanding a positive rather than defensive outlook for unionism, he challenges my contention that:  
Northern Ireland is part of the UK, and will remain so until a majority of people here decide otherwise.

He asks, "what principle is that exactly?  That a majority in the six counties outweighs a majority in Ireland as a whole?  What happened to the principle of national sovereignty".  

Leaving aside the philosophical point that the author obviously feels it's absolutely self-evident what does and does not constitute a nation, a more direct answer.  It's called the 'principle of consent' and it is accepted, North and South, by the vast vast majority of people in Ireland.