Thursday, 22 December 2011

The State Duma elections and their aftermath


A belated word on the State Duma elections in Russia and their aftermath.  United Russia suffered a striking decline in support, managing 49.4% of the vote and scraping an outright majority, though the party lost the constitutional majority of 2/3rds which it previously enjoyed.

The results have attracted a great deal of attention and commentary in the western media for two reasons.  Firstly, the disappointing outcome for United Russia has been interpreted as a sign of growing disillusionment with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his successor as President, Dmitry Medvedev.

That’s not an unfair thesis.  Putin has acknowledged himself that some voters have taken the opportunity to give their country’s rulers a bloody nose at the polls.  He ascribes this phenomenon to difficult financial circumstances, but there’s also more than likely a growing sense of weariness and resentment at an elite which has dominated politics for 11 years.

It’s still almost inconceivable that Putin could lose the presidential election which will take place in May and, with two six year terms possible, he may remain Russia’s figurehead until 2024.  Almost any politician, however popular, will experience a degree of public fatigue if they stay at the top level of politics for so long.  In the UK the Conservatives suffered it under Thatcher.  The same thing happened to New Labour under Tony Blair.  People get bored.

Britain, though, is a parliamentary democracy, while Russia is a Presidential Republic.  However closely associated United Russia is with the Kremlin, they are not one and the same.  Power is concentrated in an ‘administrative regime’, rather than the party or parliament. 

The wild caricature that frequently appears in editorials in newspapers like The Times or The Daily Telegraph is not remotely accurate.  Russia is not a neo-Stalinist one party state.  United Russia has never been allowed to monopolise power completely and there has always remained, quite deliberately, a degree of distance between the ‘regime’ and the ‘ruling party’. 

There is little doubt that Putin isn’t as popular as he once was.  That doesn’t mean that his personal popularity doesn’t far outstrip the collective popularity of United Russia and it doesn’t mean that he can only be re-elected as President if the will of voters is misrepresented by a fabricated election result.

The other aspects of the Duma contest which commanded column inches are the allegations of wide-spread ballot rigging and the subsequent street protests which took place in Moscow and other Russian cities.  

There little doubt that irregularities did take place and the Kremlin’s own probe uncovered more than 2,000 violations.  That’s not to say, though, that the election’s outcome was substantively distorted.

At Sublime Oblivion Anatoly Karlin provides polling data from all the major companies in Russia.  The final result for United Russia was forecast remarkably accurately by these figures and the party’s percentage of the vote was actually at the lower end of what was predicted.  Exit poll data was a little more variable.  

Regional breakdowns certainly showed discrepancies in a number of regions (the Caucasus results rarely look credible), but there is nothing to suggest widespread or centralised fraud.         

United Russia certainly had a bruising election, Vladimir Putin will certainly have a challenge to maintain his popularity ahead of the presidential poll and many Russians are certainly very cross at the corrupt fashion in which the election was administered.  The swell of dissent, though, hasn’t led to suppression or a crack-down.  Indeed, quite the reverse. 

There’s every indication that the new Duma will prove an extremely rambunctious forum for political debate.  And the outgoing president has just proposed comprehensive reforms to revitalise pluralism in Russia. 

Of course many commentators will react cynically to these liberal overtures.  But neither Medvedev nor Putin has ever shown themselves to be impervious or unresponsive to public opinion.

And then there’s the continuing lack of a credible opposition.  The Communist Party remains the second biggest bloc in the Duma.  For all the opprobrium heaped on Vladimir Putin by certain newspapers and politicians in the UK, who seriously contends that President Zyuganov would be a positive development for Russians?

Or how about a stage nationalist demagogue like Zhirinovsky?  Eduard Limonov, restyled as an opposition leader, after his ‘red-brown’ fusion of Nazism, Bolshevism and Dada, the National Bolsheviks? 

The poster boy of the protests, Alexei Navalny, who coined the nickname ‘party of swindlers and thieves’ for United Russia, is another unabashed nationalist.  Perhaps Mikhail Prokhorov, the right leaning businessman who briefly led Right Cause, is the least alarming rival to Putin who has emerged so far. 


At the moment the best outcome for the protestors in Russia may not be an immediate change at the top, but rather an improved system, which allows a credible alternative to emerge through time and offers reforms which make future elections work better.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Positive case for Britishness as well as the Union


You could be forgiven for missing the poll on Britishness contained in this month’s Prospect Magazine.  It’s buried in a series of articles about the UK’s involvement in the European Union. 

Yougov found that people in England who identify primarily as British are less likely to want to leave the EU, while people who describe themselves first as English are much more likely to want immediate withdrawal. 

It’s hardly a startling revelation that nationalism often coincides with euroscepticism.  More eye-catching is the break-down in the number of people who identify first as British / English.  This survey suggests that over 60% of people in England view themselves primarily as English rather than British.  That compares to just over 40%, as recently as 2008.

Again, you might say it’s hardly surprising in a post-devolution UK, with nationalist politics influential in Cardiff and dominating governments in Edinburgh and Belfast, that Britishness is being eroded.  The extent of that decline, though, should be a major cause for worry. 

Arthur Aughey recently wrote that English nationalism is, as yet, still a mood rather than a movement, but the poll seems to confirm that the mood is being nurtured by an aggressive assertion of Scots’ nationalism north of the border.

It would be wrong to infer that there is not still a major disconnect between Scottish nationalists’ constitutional aspirations and those of the bulk of Scottish people.  The SNP has acquired a reputation for delivering competent government, which has brought electoral success.  That is its mandate, but it doesn’t stop Salmond et al from pursuing another agenda.

The forbearance of English public opinion is generally quite remarkable, but constant attrition from Holyrood can’t help but affect attitudes south of the border.  And the same process is taking place to a lesser extent between London and Belfast, with the Stormont executive dominated by Irish Nats and Ulster Nats.

None of this is fatal for the Union, of course.  The British identity can comfortably exist alongside its component identities.  Nor can it necessarily be assumed that the figures can be explained simply as an expression of English resentment at the lack of collegiate spirit from other corners of the Union.  The financial crisis has thrown at least one more element into the mix. 


The fact remains, though, that English support for the Union can’t be taken for granted.  There’s a need to make a positive case not only for the United Kingdom, but also for a sense of Britishness itself.  The identity which explains the interlocking history of these islands, the political institutions which define our citizenship and the cultural similarities which we share.  

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Nationalism hindering opposition in Belarus


The World Affairs Journal has published a nicely written article by James Kirchick, called ‘The Land of No Applause’.  It’s a sprawling account of modern Belarus and well worth reading.

The author quotes some startling statistics which suggest that popular disillusion with President Lukashenko is spreading and they lead him to the obvious question – why hasn’t a credible opposition emerged in Belarus?

It’s a little disappointing, but at this point Kirchick opts for a traditional answer.  He argues that a viable challenge to the President has not developed because Lukashenko has so effectively suppressed Belarusian national identity.  While that is a tidy enough explanation, I suspect it reflects only one aspect of a more complex situation. 

The President took power in 1994, at a time when the politics of nationality were to the fore in Eastern Europe.  He judged that there was no similar appetite for a nationalist rewrite of identity in Belarus and, it must be said, he appears to have judged correctly.

Conversely the most prominent forms of Belarusian opposition were often linked to hostility toward the Russian language, an equivocal attitude toward Soviet achievements in World War 2 and efforts to cut all links with Moscow.

To western eyes Lukashenko has constructed a rather strange hybrid.  Belarus is an independent state which is also an inseparable part of a larger cultural space shared with Russia.  To Belarusian eyes, though, it’s rather neatly reflects the country’s post-Soviet identity.

Of course that isn’t to excuse the basket-case economy, the suppression of pluralism or the eccentric demagoguery.  But it does partly explain why opposition movements haven’t become credible and it suggests that nationalist fantasies are helping to keep Lukashenko in power.

The article mentions a number of enemies of the President’s regime who are almost as scathing about the so-called opposition.  That tells a tale and it would have been an interesting angle to investigate further.    

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Guest post: Germany resists British calls for greater European integration.

The following is a guest post from itwassammymcnallywhatdoneit. I should point out that all views expressed in guest posts are solely the opinions of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of Three Thousand Versts.


As economic crises rage across the Eurozone, it is still not clear whether we are witnessing the (relative) decline of Western Capitalism and the passing of the prosperity baton to the East (as the Olympic  baton goes in the opposite direction) or just the latest Western adjustment to the fallout from the financial crisis.

The Chinese, sitting pretty on trillions of dollars in foreign reserves responded to being tapped up by an indebted Eurozone by suggesting that "European labour laws induce sloth, indolence rather than hard work." and told the Europeans to get their act together before looking for their help. (The US of A, having recently had its credit rating downgraded was not invited to provide assistance, presumably to spare their blushes.)
Last week, the crisis in Europe centred on the small Mediterranean country of Greece, perhaps but the Aperitif to a main course of Italy and Spain (with Ireland and Portugal as side dishes) for the perfidious and greedy Markets seeking to devour any country showing economic weakness.

The Greek political class, facing warnings of expulsion from the Eurozone and even from the EU itself, withdrew the 'threat' of consultation with the Greek people via a referendum and promised to toe the austerity line.

In Britain, strangely, there was little support for the Greek referendum position from the British Prime Minister, who, although using the promise of a referendum on Europe to get himself elected leader of the Tory party, was telling the Greeks to hurry up and sign up to the Euro austerity deal.

David Cameron though, finds himself in the very awkward position of needing to throw a few anti-EU bones to his anti-EU backbenchers to chew on in order to stave off further parliamentary rebellions, whilst trying to avoid a (further) dressing down from European colleagues for daring to talk down Europe at such a sensitive time.
The British Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr George Osborne has been eagerly repeating the (new?) Tory party line that greater European integration is required in Eurozone countries in order for the Euro to work - you simply cannot, so the argument goes, have such divergent economies as Greece and Germany sharing the same currency and with the same interest rates-unless there is central control of economic policy. Britain, Osborne insists, cannot and will not, bail out the failed currency. The European central bank, must be the lender of last resort for the Euro and stump up the cash to solve the Euro debt crisis.

Except, the European Central Bank does not seem inclined to do such a thing and instead, much to British annoyance, the supplier of cash to Euro countries in these crises, may well be the IMF - part funded by Britain. Ed Balls, Labour’s  Shadow Chancellor,  opportunistically sniffing Mr Cameron's political blood has publically demanded that no British cash arrives in Europe even under the IMF flag of convenience.

So why does the European Central Bank seem reluctant to be the lender of last resort? Well if the BBC political correspondents are to believed it all boils down to one word 'Weimar' - that tragic period in German history when their severe economic difficulties were dealt with by quantitative easing (a practice now very worryingly popular in non-Euro and heavily indebted Britain).

Perhaps a couple of hours of heavy output from the Frankfurt printing presses and there would be enough cash to lend to Greece and Italy?
As the name suggests the European Central Bank- is a European institution - which might lead some to believe it should be run for the benefit of Europe as a whole but it rather looks to others, to perhaps being run by, and for the benefit of,  only one country.

Germany, believed by many to be a 'good' European and a central part of project Euro, a project allegedly set to undermine the Nation states of Europe, is now perhaps showing her true (National) colours.
... surely all that frightful fretting by Eurosceptics over the threat of a European super state hasn't been for nothing? 



Friday, 4 November 2011

Dowie for manager!

I was unsure of who I wanted to succeed Nigel Worthington as Northern Ireland manager, but my mind's now made up.  I give you Mr Iain Dowie esq. and his mission statement.
"we need to get some passion back. We can't have players not turning up, then playing for their clubs at the weekend, and we have got to stop the trend of losing so many players to the Republic. If we can do that, anything is possible, as Billy Bingham showed in the 80s. We haven’t been to a major tournament since, and that is something that needs putting right. It's a tough group we are in for the next World Cup, but we really should be able to compete with teams like Israel. We will, if we can get back to making Windsor Park a difficult place to come to on a wet and windy night. That has to be the aim, and it is a realistic one."
Well said Mr Dowie Sir!  There's been a lot of technocratic talk about the respective merits of various candidates' CVs.  Let's cut through the nonsense though, splitting hairs about achievements in the lower leagues in neither here nor there.  Lawrie McMenemy had the most impressive CV of recent Northern Ireland managers, and he was the worst manager.  Arguably his namesake Sanchez had the least striking club record.

Dowie understands the Northern Ireland set-up and he understands the fanbase.  He can put fire into the the players' bellies, get the stands roaring again and, most importantly, put out a team charged with harrying, pressing and disrupting superior opposition.  That's the only way we can compete and challenge for qualification.

The only thing the IFA need look at in its recruitment process is the above quote.  It is the most inspiring, no nonsense statement any candidate has made to date.  And the man has a record in management to compare with the rest.  Offer him a contract right now.

P.S. I'm fully aware that my photoshop skills are appalling.


Hard-line leaders driving trades union members toward strikes


Following Unison’s strike last month, Nipsa, which represents 45,000 workers across the public sector, is urging its membership to vote ‘yes’ in a ballot, aimed at bringing about industrial action.  

Not only will any further stoppages bring widespread misery, but the vast majority of union members don’t want to strike.  Unison’s walkout was carried on a ballot of just 18% of its membership. 

That’s hardly surprising.  Most employees join a union, simply expecting it to help them if they encounter a problem in the work place, while their leaders are sometimes driven by hard-line politics.  

Where the latest batch of strikes is concerned, unions readily admit that they don’t know the details of public sector job losses which they say are in the pipeline.  Some of those potential redundancies could yet be avoided with a little flexibility where it comes to pay and conditions.  However their stock response is nothing to do with protecting jobs.  They just repeat, “you can’t cut your way out of a recession”.

That’s nothing to do with pay, or conditions, or even possible lay-offs; it’s an abstract political theory.  And it’s extremely foolhardy to persuade people to risk their livelihoods on the basis of an economic doctrine, especially when it’s based on a flawed understanding of our current financial circumstances.   

What the unions don’t seem to grasp, as they call for more public spending, is that the mess which the current government inherited from Labour is primarily a debt crisis, just as the turmoil engulfing international markets stems from anxiety that countries will not be able to pay back what they owe. 

In difficult circumstances, the chancellor, George Osborne, managed to defy a world trend and stabilise the UK’s economy, but he could only do that by devising a credible plan to cut our deficit. 

In contrast the seventeen countries which use the euro are currently locked in crisis talks.  Setting aside the bizarre jargon of ‘Greek haircuts’ and ‘big bazookas’, the crux is that you can’t tackle a debt crisis by continually taking on more debt.

Thankfully, as a region of the UK, we’ve got room for optimism.  We’re part of a relatively stable economy and our government took prompt action to get the deficit under control.  We’ve also got a favourable settlement on our block grant, avoiding the worst spending cuts, felt across the rest of Britain.

We still need to do our bit, of course, and save money where we can.  And the parties at Stormont need to be more straightforward when they spell out which cuts are necessary, so that jobs and services can be saved where possible. 

As for the unions, they can only serve workers’ interests well if they are constructive and flexible.  Most of their members, after all, aren’t fiery leftists, spoiling for a fight with the government.  They just want help and advice which enables them to keep their jobs and work hard in decent conditions.  The unions should stick to looking out for their welfare, rather than campaigning for strikes on the basis of outdated political ideology.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

All registered parties will contest State Duma election

Elections to Russia's State Duma will take place on December 4th.  Ria Novosti reports today that all of the registered parties will contest the poll and points out that this is the first time that has happened since 1993.  The Russian ministry of justice provides a list of the contenders.

It includes Pravoye Delo, or Right Cause, the free market friendly group, whose newly appointed leader, Mikhail Prokhorov, was recently ousted.  Other contenders Zyuganov's perennial challengers, the KPR (Russian communists), and another veteran's grouping, the LDPR, led by nationalist rabble-rouser Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

Pollsters were suggesting that United Russia, whose list will be topped by the outgoing President, Dmitry Medvedev, might struggle to retain the 2/3rds majority which it needs to change constitutional law.  Levada's latest suggestion is that voter apathy might help the party to maintain its dominance.   

Friday, 21 October 2011

Oh minister, where art thou?


Sinn Fein reps are quite the culture vultures this week, with the notable exception of culture minister Caral Ni Chuilin.   Máirtín Ó Muilleoir is curating an exhibition of ‘political art’ hosted at the Golden Thread Gallery.
 It includes an offering by Conrad Atkinson (above), which apparently caused controversy back in the 70s, when Protestant museum workers refused to hang the painting at the Ulster Museum.  
As it happens, they may have acted on aesthetic rather than sectarian motivations, because, aside from its questionable 'political message', the artwork looks rather like it was painted by a disturbed four year old child.     
However all art exhibitions are certainly not equal in Shinner land.  According to the Irish News our so called culture minister has declined an invitation to attend the Royal Ulster Academy’s 130th Annual Exhibition, which gets underway at the Ulster Museum today.  One of its exhibits is a rather striking portrait entitled “Remember Mary Travers”.   

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Guest Post: Leave our Alain alone

By itwassammymcnallywhatdoneit




As we know well in Northern Ireland, predicting someone’s views on a range of issues doesn't require a crystal ball, just a clue as to their background - their name, the school they attended or their address. Once you have sniffed out those details, you can identify their tribe and you can then have a fair stab at working out what they think.


Of course, tribalism is not just confined to Ulster and tribal loyalties are not always that straightforward. Take Monsieur Alain Rolland for example, born and raised in Ireland but with a French father. For many Welsh rugby fans such continental lineage was proof positive of his preference for the land of his father, Wales's opponents in the rugby world cup semi-final and of course explains his 'outrageous' decision to send off the Welsh captain Sam Warburton.


When England were knocked out of the world cup, by perhaps the bitterest of their many 'old enemies' France, Wales found themselves up against the same opponents and the centre of British media interest in the run up to the semi-final. Unlike poor unloved England, who had exited in disarray in the glare of dreadful publicity, all the media stories about Wales were extremely positive. Rather than tossing dwarves in the local hostelries, we were told the Welsh formed themselves into a Choir and whiled away the hours singing harmonies - no going on the pop and chasing the local talent for them. David Cameron, perhaps reeling from the Fantastic stories circulating about his defence secretary Mr Fox(who by now was rivalling the English rugby team for bad press) declared his Prime Ministerial support for Wales and ran the Welsh flag up the mast in Downing Street.


Not a bad word was muttered against the Welsh, not even from the Irish - still smarting from the hiding we took from our fitter and younger Celtic cousins the previous week. Cymru am byth.


The stage was set.


Only France stood between Wales and a world cup final and with the Millennium stadium, rocking with 65,000 (more than at the game itself), there could only be one winner?


But after 17 minutes of the semi-final the Franco-Irish referee reached into his pocket and took from it a card - colour Red, not colour Yellow(which would have been in contravention of the IRB directive issued only weeks previously). Yet every rugby pundit and Welsh (or English) fan or ex-player who could overcome their indignance to be interviewed or to tweet, insisted that it was a 'dreadful' or 'shocking' or 'awful' or 'outrageous' (or all of the preceding) decision. Of course, part of this indignant outrage was based on ignorance of the rules and part based on sheer disappointment. Rugby pundits, who had previously demanded consistency from officals, were now calling for inconsistency, a Yellow card because it was only the 17th minute, a Yellow card because it was the semi-final of the world cup, a Yellow card because the perpetrator had no track record for foul play, a Yellow card because otherwise the game would be wrecked, a Yellow card because a red would stop Wales getting to the world cup final. Shame on you Alain – deep shame.


Jamie Roberts, the outstanding Welsh centre and Irish and British Lion(who is completing a medical degree in his spare time) was clearly struggling to keep his emotions under control when he was interviewed directly after the game - but pointedly refused to criticise the referee's decision. Such a dignified response was not however in evidence from the Welsh coaches with each of them lining up to condemn Rolland for enforcing a punishment designed to prevent serious spinal injuries in this extremely physical contact sport. (Warren Gatland, Wales's head coach, further added to his repuation for ill-judged remarks, by bizarrely trying to claim credit for not cheating during the match by faking a player injury).


In France of course, there was a somewhat different tribal reaction, with coaches and ex-players joining a chorus of approval and lauding Monsieur Rolland for a fine decision.


Back in Ireland, I suspect we too, have rallied behind ‘our Alain’, the bilingual, Garret Fitzgeraldesque official who oft represents Irish Rugby in major tournaments (long after our team have departed) and we will be ready to remind anyone daring to criticise him that the only person who should be in the dock for the incident in the 17th minute is Wales's outstanding young Captain Mr Warburton i.e. the person who actually made the reckless and dangerous tackle.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Difficult job for new Northern Ireland manager as Worthington era draws to an end.


This blog and Nigel Worthington’s spell as manager of Northern Ireland are about the same age.  My first post, way back in May 2007, dealt with the IFA’s search for a replacement for Lawrie Sanchez, who had just taken up an English Premier League job at Fulham.

It’s fair to say that after Worthington took charge, I was quickly a sceptic.  As early as 7 June2007, I voiced disillusionment with his tendency to ‘talk down’ players and two months later I asked, for the first (but not for the last) time, ‘is Nigel worthy?’.  

Now Worthington has announced his intention to leave the post after his current contract elapses on 31st December.   We’ve come full circle and the IFA has to start the search for his successor.

Back in that opening blogpost I expressed the hope that Jim Magilton would end up in the Northern Ireland hot-seat.  More than four years later and this time the West Belfast man is the bookmakers’ favourite to take over from Worthington.

If Magilton does get the job he will have a formidable task ahead. 

Back in 2007 Sanchez left the Northern Ireland set-up comparatively healthy, but it doesn’t look nearly so robust in 2011.  The playing staff are low in confidence, each match sees a series of high profile cry-offs and the FAI’s poaching strategy is beginning to seriously affect the pool of players which a new manager will have at his disposal.

Worthington is gone and there’s no point labouring the point, but he has to take a share of the blame for the depressing state of Northern Ireland football. 

The belittling comments about his own players started as soon as he took the job and continued throughout his reign. 

He scarcely made any attempt to ensure that squad members turned up for international duty rather than crying off injured at the behest of their clubs; let’s face it, if he had, he wouldn’t have had a shred of credibility.

Nigel himself was the worst offender when he was manager of Norwich City.  He persistently withdrew Phil Mulryne and Paul McVeigh from Northern Ireland squads, until Lawrie Sanchez was forced to invoke the 5 day rule, which prevents players playing for their clubs until 5 days after an international match for which they’ve declared injured.

Far from showing contrition, Worthington vehemently defended his conduct, even after he’d become an international manager.  

How could his complaints be taken seriously when other club bosses did exactly the same thing?
On the poaching issue he was confused and hypocritical.  He didn’t seem to understand FIFA’s eligibility criteria and he often resorted to contradictory arguments about players playing for the country in which they were born.

That’s before we get to the slow, tedious style of play which he inculcated.  He couldn't seem to grasp that, because 'Northern Ireland aren't Barcelona', as he once witheringly observed, that we have to disrupt teams, play at a high tempo, get the ball forward directly, rather than attempting to play passing football.

In fairness his legacy isn’t all bad.  The new manager will inherit a healthy youth set-up and a scouting network which should help to identify future stars. 

And future stars are sorely needed because at the moment the squad looks rather threadbare.  

There's a nucleus of ageing players, some of whom are retiring, while others fail to get game-time at their clubs.  There's a small handful of players in their prime, some of whom withdraw from squads on a regular basis.  And there is a larger pool of unproven young players, many of whom are now actively being courted by the Republic of Ireland.

Good luck Jim, or whoever else the IFA decides to put faith in.  You're going to need it.  

Friday, 30 September 2011

Russia's presidential saga resolved as Duma election takes a familiar shape.

Last Saturday a lengthy political saga finally came to an end at United Russia’s conference in Moscow.  Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin announced that the latter will contest next year’s Russian Presidential election.  This resolves the “will he or won’t he” speculation about President Medvedev seeking a second term in office.

There will, of course, be many Russian liberals who see this decision as a fatal blow to Russia’s democracy.  There will also be a chorus of “we told you so”s from commentators hostile to the Kremlin who always maintained that Medvedev’s presidency was a sham.  

Their arguments have some force, but they’re very far from the full picture.  

The President has defended his decision to step aside and let Putin contest the election, observing that the Prime Minister is Russia’s “most authoritative” leader.  

The Russian public has consistently expressed its preference for Putin, ahead of Medvedev, where polls gave a choice between the two men.  Alexei Levinson, from the Levada Institute, runs through the figures on Open Democracy.

Another switch of positions between Medvedev and Putin hardly suggests flourishing political competition, but it is broadly reflective of the will of the Russian people.  Russia will end up with the President whom a majority wishes to fill the post. 

Earlier in the year I mentioned the thesis of Richard Sakwa’s book, The Crisis of Russian Democracy.  Sakwa argues that the competitive element in Russian politics is subsumed within the administrative system but he also maintains that the ‘constitutional’ aspect of Russian politics holds the worst excesses of the unelected ‘administrative regime’ in check.

He can’t be re-examining his theory with any undue concern this week.  The competitive element seems more than evident after the liberalising Finance Minister, Alexei Kudrin, was forced to step down, when he expressed unwillingness to serve under the new arrangements.  And the fact that Putin felt obliged to observe the letter of the Russian constitution, before launching his comeback, emphasises that proprieties hold some force.

Witness the Kremlin’s efforts, now in disarray, to establish the market-friendly party Right Cause as a contender in December’s State Duma elections.  Sakwa has a fascinating article in OD explaining how the leadership of billionaire, Mikhail Prokhorov, has fallen apart.

Only months ago Right Cause was being touted as a pro-Medvedev, liberal alternative to Putinite United Russia.  Now Prokhorov has been ousted, Right Cause is in a mess and Medvedev has stepped aside to give Putin a free run.

There is a justifiable degree of scepticism about the independence of the parties which can realistically challenge for seats in the State Duma; whether it’s Just Russia or even Zhirinovsky’s LDPR, but although United Russia is dominant, the party isn’t allowed to hold a monopoly of power and both Putin and Medvedev remain a step removed from it.   

That’s just another small reason why the “Putinism = the new Stalinism” editorials which graced many papers on Monday morning seem so hysterically shrill. 

So we move towards an election in December that will be viewed effectively as a plebiscite on the inverted Putin – Medvedev tandem which will surely follow the presidential contest in March.  It's all a little familiar, given the equivalent contest in 2007.    

Friday, 16 September 2011

You don't learn basic honesty at journalism school.


For months now the Johann Hari affair has gripped the political blogosphere.  The Independent columnist caused consternation when he was caught out embellishing some of his interviews with quotes taken from other sources. 

Now I don’t intend to make any contribution to the highly personalised debate which has taken place for and against Hari.  I didn’t particularly enjoy his columns, but neither did they send me into apoplectic rage.  The most I can say about his writing is that it was highly ideological and as such it had that precocious-but-angry adolescent feel to it.

His interviews, I must admit, I rarely bothered to read.  The Independent may take a great deal of pride in its ‘journalistic integrity’, but it’s by some distance the least read national quality newspaper and it is (let’s be honest) seriously dull. 

Its coverage of the UK regions is frankly shameful and the best that can be said about the re-modelled paper is that it’s dropped those intensely irritating ‘issue’ front pages, which had a minimum of text and a big picture illustrating the ‘outrage’ of the day.

I did buy the Independent yesterday though and I  read Hari’s ‘personal apology’.  It was highly unconvincing.

The columnist is promising to take a four month course in journalism, after which he intends to continue working at the Independent.  He assures his readers that any future articles will be published online with accompanying foot-notes and, where interviews have taken place, video evidence of their content.

Now, I know that Hari must attract readers to the Independent, but for goodness sake, give it up!  

Who on earth wants to read a journalist who is so discredited that he has to jump through hoops before anyone can believe a word that he’s written?  "Interesting interview, but I’d better boot up the old computer and double-check that it actually took place"!

Imagine if a cowboy handy-man caused litres of brown sludge to swamp your bathroom; would you employ him six months later if he pledged to undertake a plumbing night-class?

The preposterous conceit here is that Hari didn't quite fully realise that he was doing something wrong, because he’d been fast-tracked through the world of journalism and hadn’t received the necessary basic training.  As someone who isn’t a trained journalist, but who has tried, for a spell, to make a living writing in newspapers and magazines, I resent that analysis.

Hari is accused of plagiarism. 

He went to Cambridge for goodness sake.  Is anyone seriously suggesting that no-one ever walked him through a few basic lessons in not copying huge chunks of other people’s work and claiming it as his own?  That’s one of the first things that any university drills into its students nowadays.  It’s even a major theme in schools.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that anyone can walk into a newspaper and do the job of a seasoned reporter.  But honesty - basic intellectual honesty - in writing, that’s not something that can be picked up at journalism school. 

Since time immemorial writers have taken different paths into journalism.  But if you’re currently thinking of making money by penning articles professionally and you haven’t come up through the traditional route, working for a local paper, whether your background is academia, politics or even blogging, your prospects have just got that bit bleaker.

And you have Johann Hari to thank.  

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Boundary changes in Northern Ireland

If you're one of the chosen few pouring over details of the boundary commission's proposed changes to the electoral map in Northern Ireland, this map will prove useful.  We're set to lose 2 out of our current 18 Westminster constituencies and these are the commission's plans to change the boundaries.

The possible electoral ramifications will keep pundits busy over the coming weeks and months, but a few weird and wonderful geographical / local identity issues will also keep debate boiling.

For instance it's intriguing that the new mid-Antrim constituency will snake out from the coast to encompass Ballymena, as well the East Antrim locale of Larne and Carrickfergus.  Indeed Ballymena town will be separated from outlying villages like Cullybackey and Broughshane, which are part of Ballymena council and undoutbedly part of the same area.

No doubt there will be similar issues elsewhere.  Intriguing.  

Monday, 12 September 2011

Guest Post: Rugby, thuggery, and the judge

A guest post by itwassammymcnallywhatdoneit


Rugby, thuggery, and the judge

Manu Tuilagi is an outstanding rugby player and at 20, he is the youngest of six professional rugby playing brothers.

His 5 older brothers have all represented Samoa, but Manu, having arrived from Samoa at the age of 13, declared for the England senior team having played through the National age grade structures. Season 2010-11 was Manu’s first season in the Aviva Premiership and he almost immediately showed his potential, not only as an outstanding prospect for his club Leicester, but also as a future England international.

In boxing parlance, he weighs in at 17.5 stone and stands 6.1 tall (reach undeclared) and as he proved on the 14th May, when lining out for Leicester against Northampton, in the Aviva Premiership semi-final, he packs a hell of punch.

His Tysonseque attack (shown here about 30 seconds in) on England’s winger Chris Ashton, would have been worthy of Iron Mike himself and resulted in both players being sin-binned. After the game, which was a knockout blow, not only for Ashton but also for Northampton’s Premiership interest, a clearly angry Northampton coach, Jim Mallinder, whilst acknowledging that Ashton had pushed Tuilagi, reasonably complained that “you cannot react with three punches to the head without a red.”

In the fallout from the affair, Jon Sleighthome (ex England and Northampton), observed in the Northampton Chronicle and Echo, the following Tuesday - “I am sure that the citing officer, and the disciplinary panel will make an example of Manu, and the outside chance that he had of being in England’s World Cup squad were extinguished in a blow.” But although Sleighthome’s prediction did seem like a reasonable one, with Tuilagi indeed being cited and the incident being categorised as a “top level entry offence”, he hadn’t reckoned with the RFU disciplinary committee, headed up by His Honour Judge Jeff Blackett.

Blackett commented that “the top-end range is eight to 52 weeks and we determined that the appropriate entry point within that range is 10 weeks." And having gone for the lower end of the range the committee then decided that the 10 weeks should be “reduced by 50% to reflect Manu's youth and inexperience, his admission of guilt and his genuine remorse."

As the English rugby blog Blood and Mud  commented “He's 20, not 12 so youth is no mitigation. On the 'Admission of guilt'; he was recorded on TV from two angles punching the shite out of someone, how exactly could he plead not-guilty? Then we have 'Genuine remorse'; where he's basically being rewarded for not saying "I'm glad I smacked the bastard and I'd happily do it again".

The convenient leniency shown by the RFU for such outright thuggery not only reflects very poorly on English rugby in particular - with their National team’s pedestrian midfield now bolstered by the dynamic Tuilagi at the World cup - but also reflects very badly on the image of rugby in general. …and for those of us, who like to complacently lecture football (soccer) supporters on what they can learn from Rugby what this tawdry episode and others (such as the Bloodgate affair also featuring Judge Blackett) reminds us of, is that there are far more serious matters than falling over in the penalty area and arguing with referees which are rather more deserving of our attention.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Four points or bust for Northern Ireland in next two games


Another Northern Ireland match is looming.  Last time the team took an early lead against the Faroe Islands, before falling into the old pattern of slow sideways passing.  Luckily the introduction of Niall McGinn, early in the second half, revitalised the line-up and Steven Davis notched up a second from long range, before Pat McCourt decided to take the Islanders apart twice with his mesmerising ball skills.

This time the opposition is a sight stiffer.  Mind you, over at The Social Club, Jonathan Wilson notes that the Serb manager, Vladimir Petrovic, has indicated that he would be happy to return from Belfast with a draw

It is therefore likely that the Serbs, with a number of players missing, will set up defensively against Northern Ireland.  Nigel Worthington is also an innately cautious manager and it looks probable that McCourt and Kyle Lafferty, both of whom are reportedly suffering from calf-strains, will be missing,   It's therefore shaping up to be a turgid encounter.  Think about the Italy game, where both sides were happy to sit in front of each other’s defences.

Theoretically a draw would keep Northern Ireland in the hunt, with all eyes then turning to Tallinn, where we play Estonia on Tuesday.  My feeling is that a win is needed, because it is by no means likely that we will take three points in an away game against reasonably credible opposition.  Estonia have already beaten Serbia during this campaign.

Without a shadow of doubt, two draws will leave too much to do.

It's not that supporters ought to expect Northern Ireland to qualify, but they do have a right to expect the team and the coach to give it their best go.  Unless there is a properly committed performance on Friday night and unless there is a clear will to win, as distinct from a will not to lose, then calls for another manager to be given a chance in the next campaign will grow louder. 

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Transparency on Spads


SPECIAL advisers, or Spads as they’re generally known, are a rather unique type of civil servant. Appointed directly by ministers, they aren’t required to go through a competitive recruitment process and their role is openly political.
Spads do operate within certain limits; for instance they can’t get involved in campaigning during elections, but they’re bound by no requirements of impartiality. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but it means that, effectively, the taxpayer foots the bill so that ministers can receive highly political advice.
Obviously such an arrangement should carry with it some pretty strict responsibilities, because while parties and ministers pick Spads, it’s the public that pays for them. At Stormont, though, the special adviser role seems be shrouded in secrecy and recently it has attracted one controversy after another.
There was widespread revulsion earlier this year when Sinn Féin culture minister, Caral Ni Chuilin, chose a convicted killer, Mary McArdle, to be her Spad. Quite understandably the family of Mary Travers felt the appointment was an unacceptable insult to their loved one’s memory.
The public has a right to expect that only people of good character and standing should be given special advisers’ posts, which come with a healthy salary.
In the instance of Mary McArdle, it’s pretty clear that that precept wasn’t kept to. The appointment was a hurtful and unnecessary reminder of a terrible crime and it seemed, to many people, like a reward for an act of violence.
Where public tax money is used we also have a right to expect it to be spent as sensibly and efficiently as possible, but in the case of special advisers at Stormont, prudence doesn’t seem to be a major consideration.
The First and Deputy First Ministers’ Office alone has eight special advisers, with the 11 remaining departments boasting one each. By comparison, Owen Paterson, a member of the UK cabinet, has a single Spad and Alex Salmond, the First Minister in Scotland, makes do with one part time adviser.
Recently the News Letter reported that the maximum salary for Spads in Northern Ireland would rise to £90,000 a year. That is substantially higher than the wages of all but a handful of special advisers to the Westminster administration, which governs over 60 million people.
If you tot up the figures, Spads at Stormont could be costing us approaching £7 million over the lifetime of an Assembly. In fact, we can’t know the total cost to the public purse because their salaries are kept secret!
In contrast, when David Cameron became prime minister, his government published a complete list of its special advisers, including exact details of their pay grades and salaries. That’s a healthy attitude to transparency, but it’s also simply what the public deserves. Unfortunately, in Northern Ireland, the executive is falling far short of these standards.
There really isn’t any excuse for this lack of openness. The Stormont executive has got to catch up with Westminster and provide a full list of special advisers and their salaries. This is basic information which we all have a right to know.
We also need to ask whether it is really necessary for Northern Ireland to have 19 Spads when Scotland, a country with a population three times as large, can make do with 11.
Where taxpayers’ money is being spent, secrecy is no longer acceptable. The new government at Westminster has breathed a new spirit of openness and accountability through public life. People in Northern Ireland deserve the same approach at Stormont

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Guest post: What does a vote for Sinn Féin really mean?


The following is a thought-provoking guest post by itwassammymcnallywhatdoneit.  It's interesting because it rather flies in the face of the usual nationalist analysis: i.e. that a vote for Sinn Féin does not necessarily imply any degree of approval for the IRA's campaign of violence.  


By itwassammymcnallywhatdoneit


Berty Ahern,  famously opined that SF and the Provos are two sides of the same coin”. 

Now, if we leave aside the boul Berty’s general tendency to get things wrong (especially when he was Taoiséach) and if we also leave aside the amusing protestations of President Adams that he has never heard of the IRA (or whatever it is Gerry likes to tell us from time to time) and assume that on this one at least, Bertram is on the money, then what does that tell us about the majority of the Northern Nationalist electorate who vote for SF?

Well, it surely tells us, that Northern Nationalists have, at the least, an ambivalent attitude to the Provo’s campaign of violence. It surely also tells us, that Northern Nationalists view the Provo campaign as having been more inspired by politics than criminality - and that however unpleasant and unfortunate some of it may have been,  those who organised it (and according to Berty that would be the current SF leadership), are now fully deserving of the rewards of political office.

It is not as if the Nationalist electorate have no choice. The decline of the SDLP began when John Hume (probably the most popular Nationalist politician since the 1930s in either part of the island) was still at the helm and that decline has continued with the SDLP’s two remaining redoubts, South Down and Derry coming under increasing electoral siege.   

No one in the SDLP has ever fired a shot, or set off a bomb, or organised any such activities, and yet, having stood their political ground and supplied in John Hume the political architect of the current settlement, not just between Orange and Green, but also between Ireland and Britain, they nevertheless find themselves losing out to SF - who are now claiming the SDLP’s political ground as their very own.

Nationalists, it would therefore seem, don’t not vote for the SDLP because, as it is sometimes claimed, they don’t cut the political mustard, but rather because most Nationalists prefer to vote for a party, who (according to Berty) did either fire guns and set off bombs or organised such activities.

Northern Nationalists now accept the legitimacy of the northern political arrangements but their current voting habits suggest they also accept the legitimacy of a Provo campaign of violence that helped destroy the previous political arrangements.

Such views on the legitimacy of the Provo campaign are not of course shared by Unionists, but Unionists do generally share Berty’s view of the relationship between SF  and violence, as reflected in the continued use of the term ‘SF-IRA’ and the occasionally less than diplomatic outbursts such as the ‘SF scum’ remarks by UUP Leader Tom Elliott.

Perhaps, it is with deference to Unionism’s sensitivities, or perhaps because of the proverbial ‘Catholic’ guilt, that when Nationalists are opinion-polled the level of SF support is generally under recorded.  But, when it comes to the polls that really matter, Nationalists clearly prefer to vote for those who (according to Berty), have a violent past.

…and however politically uncomfortable it may be to admit this in a society still scarred and divided by decades of violence and still striving to come to terms with that past - let’s not pretend otherwise.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Operation 'Certain Death'

It's nearly six months late, but here's my take on Northern Ireland's rather bizarre trip to Serbia.  It's an early, diary style draft of an article which appeared in Four Four Two magazine.



They’ve become known simply as ‘The 200’.  A group of Northern Ireland fans determined to defy security warnings and a UEFA edict in order to attend their country’s Euro 2012 qualifier in Serbia. 

It’s 1.15pm on Friday 25th March and FourFourTwo dashes across Budapest airport on a mission to join these steely souls.  I reach the gate just as it closes and collapse in a sweaty, panting heap on the connecting flight.  Next stop Belgrade - home of the most feared football hooligans in Europe.

Violence at Serbia’s last qualifying match in Italy led UEFA to rule that the game against Northern Ireland at Red Star’s ’Marakana’ Stadium should take place behind closed doors.  After protests from the Irish Football Association (IFA) the authorities grudgingly agreed to admit travelling fans who booked their trips prior to the ruling.  

There is speculation in the Northern Irish press that Serb Ultras aren’t happy and intend to wreak revenge on visiting supporters.  FFT peaks out the aircraft window and sips a drink.  Let Operation ‘Certain Death’ begin!

Friday 25th March, 4.15 pm:

Three hours later and the pace has slackened, with FFT’s taxi stuck in Belgrade Friday afternoon gridlock.  “There is a problem”, explains the driver, “you bombed our bridges”.  The passengers protest their innocence.  “Nato destroyed the bridges”, the Serb admonishes, “now the traffic is bad“. 

Just twelve years ago Serbia was bombarded from the air by the west.  Our visit coincides with the anniversary of Nato’s intervention in the Kosovo War.  No wonder some Serbs are a little touchy!  We decide it’s quicker to walk.

We’re en route to the Intercontinental Hotel, headquarters for the Northern Ireland squad and IFA officials.  There we will be given match tickets and hush-hush details of a pre-game meeting point.  Serbian police will ensure our safety before a convoy of buses leaves for the ground. 

An atmosphere of caution and secrecy has shrouded all the arrangements for this match.  In October Northern Ireland fans’ travel plans were plunged into chaos after hooligans rioted in Genoa and UEFA handed Serbia a supporters’ ban for its next qualifier.  The IFA sought refunds for fans who had already shelled out money, but it quickly became apparent that many of the ‘Green and White Army’ intended to travel to Belgrade anyway.  The Association and supporters’ representatives changed tack and lobbied UEFA to reverse Serbia‘s punishment. 
          
Eventually the authorities decided that a small number of Northern Ireland fans could attend the game after all, but Serbs would still be locked out.  It was a reluctant concession. UEFA even offered free tickets to the Europa League final in Dublin, to tempt potential travellers not to make the trip. Northern Ireland supporters are made from sterner stuff than that.  The vast majority chose to stick with their original plans and two months later they’re forming an orderly queue for tickets.  They number just over 240, with UEFA revising its estimate of 200 upwards to accommodate all but a small handful who booked after the deadline.   

Kristijan has travelled from Macedonia to meet supporters from the internet forum ’Our Wee Country’ (OWC).  He explains that the notorious Serb warlord Arkan was gunned down right here in the Intercontinental’s lobby, back in 2000.  The Red Star fanatic recruited many members of his Tigers paramilitary group from among the club‘s hooligan element.  They subsequently became notorious for their brutality during the war in Bosnia. 

A sobering thought and another reminder of Serbia’s troubled recent history.

5.30pm:

Back in central Belgrade things are relaxed.  Most Northern Ireland supporters ignore warnings to keep their colours hidden.  This isn’t a typical away trip though.  The Green and White Army likes to gather en masse in a city centre square to drink and meet locals, but today small groups hurry to bars and keep things low key.
  
FFT joins one set of supporters in Bar Red on Skadarlija, a Bohemian street in the heart of old Belgrade.  Two policemen sit inside watchfully, resisting fans’ attempts to buy them beer.  It seems to be an unnecessary precaution, because the Northern Ireland contingent are getting on famously with locals.   A TV crew stops to interview travelling fans and ply them with slivovitz, the local plum brandy.  They film Gordon McKeown from Portadown downing a shot and turning an alarming shade of purple.  “It’s an interesting mix of flavours”, he concludes diplomatically.

We chat to a group of Montenegrin Serbs who describe themselves as ‘Ultras’.  They’re miffed to be locked out of the game but they take our banter in good part.  A drunk guy at the bar is going to attend.  He describes himself as a journalist and pulls out a sheaf of press passes.  “Are you working?” asks an incredulous FFT.  Apparently so.  That’s one match report which should be worth reading!

7pm:

Supporters in University Square board a fleet of buses.  Access is strictly ticket only and a burly security guard frisks passengers for bottles or cans.  For an hour or so fans have gathered in the square, mingling with early evening commuters and surrounded by heavily armed police. 

The convoy jolts into motion, flanked by motorcycle outriders with sirens wailing.  Each junction is manned by traffic policemen to ensure that there are no delays.  An occasional passer-by waves or makes a thumbs down gesture but it’s hardly ’welcome to hell’ stuff.

FFT asks Marty Lowry, owner of the OWC forum, about his experience in Belgrade so far.  “It’s been great”, he confirms, “everyone’s been exceptionally friendly, though the local supporters like to tell some hair-raising tales”.

“We visited the two main club grounds yesterday, which are less than a mile apart.  We bought some souvenirs at the Red Star shop and the staff warned us to keep our bags well hidden if we were walking anywhere near Partizan.”

The ‘Eternal Derby’ between Red Star and Partizan Belgrade is one of the most fiercely contested in world football.  Marty clutches a bunch of white tulips in an obscure tribute to Partizan.  FFT doesn’t accept the offer of a flower to carry into the Red Star Stadium!

Our bus pulls up outside the ground amid a media scrum.  Disembarking Northern Ireland supporters are met by rows of armed police in body armour and, with every conceivable access route closely guarded, there are more officers than spectators.  There isn’t a Serb fan in sight and photographers scramble to snap partying supporters beside frowning policemen.  For riot police these guys are pretty tolerant though and they don‘t complain as 240 fans crowd round to jostle for photographs.  A familiar face, Gerry Armstrong, hero of Northern Ireland’s 1982 World Cup squad, looks on with bewilderment.

8.15pm:

The last few supporters pass through security after a long and occasionally ill-tempered wait.  The novelty of the searches has long since worn off and a UEFA delegate chivvies the stewards along. A rigorous frisk is followed by a once over with a metal detector.  Supporters ditch little mounds of coins which are eagerly snapped up by some Serb children who have slipped through the ranks of policemen. 

Inside the Marakana Stadium FFT takes in a surreal scene.  The Northern Ireland contingent is housed in Red Star’s VIP section, a phenomenal distance from the pitch.  Green and White foot-soldiers lounge in enormous, cinema style chairs facing a row of security guards.  The rest of the 53,000 seat arena is empty - save for a packed press gallery (just imagine how it might look whenever West Ham moves to the Olympic Stadium).   

Northern Ireland supporters have a boisterous reputation and as kick off approaches they do their best to create an atmosphere.  In this cavernous stadium, though, it feels like their chants simply drift off into the chilly Belgrade night.

When the teams line up and Northern Ireland’s anthem is played over the PA there is a palpable sense of relief.  Early arrivals witnessed a rehearsal where the Republic of Ireland’s anthem was played instead!      

9.10pm

Mayhem in the VIP section as Gareth McAuley connects with Chris Brunt’s free kick to head the opening goal.  It’s Northern Ireland’s first first-half strike in two years and the fans are almost in raptures again when Kyle Lafferty squanders a glorious opportunity to nick a second. 

Munching a choc ice in the bar at half-time, Richard Oliver from Ballymena is apprehensive, despite the score-line.  “Knowing Nigel Worthington (the Northern Ireland manager) he’ll try to shut up shop.  There’s a long 45 minutes ahead”, he warns FFT.  It’s a prophetic analysis.  The fans become frustrated after the interval, as Northern Ireland drop deeper and deeper.  “Attack, attack, attack!”, becomes the most frequent chant, replacing, “shall we sing a song for you”, and, “big ground, no fans”.

When the equaliser finally comes, the press gallery, which tonight contains more than 100 “accredited journalists“, explodes with delight.  The Serbs’ second is inevitable and it’s greeted with delirium by a small group of bus drivers in our section.  The Green and White Army belt out “2-1 and you still don’t sing”, but on this occasion there is a riposte.  “Serbia! Serbia!”, ventures a lone driver.   

Usually stoical in defeat the Northern Ireland supporters feel that Worthington’s negative tactics are to blame.  Kenny Armstrong from Ballymena asks why Celtic’s “Derry Pele” Pat McCourt is not introduced.  “The game’s crying out for his creativity”.

The match limps to a close and Northern Ireland are beaten 2-1.  Dejected fans muster a final roar for their heroes who respond with applause.  The Serb team also comes over to wave and receive an ovation from Northern Ireland supporters.  It’s a nice touch.

In normal circumstances there would be a lengthy wait for home fans to vacate the stadium but tonight it’s straight back unto the buses for another police escort.  The streets are quiet, without any sign of celebrating Serb fans.  Back at Bar Red, though, our Montenegrin friends are triumphant. “Even without any fans, Serbia wins.  UEFA will be disappointed - they punish our supporters, but we win anyway“.  They feel that their team has prevailed, despite an unfair disadvantage.  
 
Saturday 27th March, 11am:

At Republic Square, in Belgrade City Centre, FFT contemplates the previous day with fellow Northern Ireland fans. 

After all the horror stories, Serbia has confounded expectations.  There’s disappointment about the result but overwhelmingly everyone’s impressions are positive.  The principal regret is that home fans weren’t there to complete a memorable experience.  “Can you imagine 50,000 Serbs in that stadium”, enthuses Gavin Nixon from Belfast, “the atmosphere would be incredible”.

Last night green and white were the prevalent colours but this morning it’s just green.  A small group protests against Nato’s action in Libya, waving posters of Muammar Gadaffi, who provided aid to Serbia after it was bombed in the late 1990s. They’re particularly keen to hand out green Libyan flags to tourists.  It’s a fitting image.  Belgrade has proved welcoming, exciting and, contrary to its reputation, surprisingly beautiful, but history and politics are never far away. 

A guide arrives to conduct a walking tour featuring bomb damaged buildings and murals which are guarded night and day by Partizan Ultras.  Belgrade’s attractions are never conventional!  Members of the Green and White Army shuffle along behind, nursing hangovers, but hoping to visit Serbia again sooner rather than later.