Monday, 31 January 2011

News Letter Best of the Web

Last week I stood in for the inimitable Geoff McGimpsey and reviewed the blogs for the News Letter.  Here's what I picked out.

It’s the time of the year when native Scots, Ulster Scots and wannabe Scots alike munch haggis, recite verse and indulge in a wee dram or two, in tribute to Rabbie Burns.  The poet wrote “whisky and freedom gang the ‘gither”, but The Dabbler blog isn’t prepared to take anything for granted.

It poses the burning question “what would Rabbie drink?”, if he were able to drop by on one of his eponymous suppers.  “As a working class lad from Scotland, today’s answer is probably vodka”, Ian Buxton speculates, ignoring the more obvious tipple - Buckfast tonic wine.

Ian Parsley is more interested in Burns supper nibbles, or “an thaim as taaks the Braid”.  Even where I’m from, that’s a river running through Ballymena, rather than fodder for the toaster.  Which adds piquancy to Parsley’s query, “where are these ‘Ulster Scots’ speakers?”.

He’s also concerned about the Republic’s “political meltdown” or as @williamcrawley prefers to term it “Cowengate” (geddit?).  Fianna Fail is enduring a tough time but it’s still a massive institution south of the border.  Ian employs a football analogy, “in the way that FC Barcelona is ’more than a club’, Fianna Fail is ’more than a party’”.  Ole!

Speaking of football, the issue of sexism in the sport, exemplified this week by Sky Sports’ presenters Richard Keys and Andy Gray, is exercising many bloggers.  Gray was sacked following comments about a female assistant referee and other unsavoury revelations.

Yourfriendinthenorth reckons it was a fair cop.  “Sacking was the only option”.  And the irony behind the incident?  “Torres’ goal was onside.  Good call lineswoman!”.

Tenacious bloggers Dilettante and O’Neill are less impressed with Owen Paterson‘s responsiveness.  They wrote to the Secretary of State  three weeks ago and , to date, have received no reply.  Consequently they’ve turned their original correspondence into an open letter, which appeared on several websites over the course of the week, including Slugger O’Toole.

It’s a simple query really.  What’s going to happen to the Northern Ireland Conservative party?  “In recent weeks there has been some confusion about the future of the party”, they claim, “if you were able to clarify that position, we would pass it on to our readership”.  Over to you Mr Paterson.

While the Secretary of State’s silence is an issue for the blogs, no-one would accuse Jim Allister of similar reticence.  In fact some would say that he and his party are allotted more column inches than their electoral strength strictly deserves.

Former Westminster candidate David Vance disagrees.  On his blog, A Tangled Web, he takes the local media to task for its failure to cover TUV press releases.

“I suppose that is one way to control our electoral prospects - the Soviets knew that if you control the message, you control the results”.  Never let it be said that the News Letter is determined to strangle your party’s prospects David - here’s one more mention!

Another aspiring politico is in a better mood after Ulster’s advance to the quarter finals of rugby’s Heineken Cup.  Rodney McCune, the UUP Assembly candidate for East Antrim, celebrates the team’s achievement, but he can’t resist a political sting in the tale.

“With a Humphreys at ten, Ulster can achieve anything.  In Contrast an Executive lead by Sinn Fein and the DUP seems destined to achieve nothing”.  Maybe Peter Robinson should think about promoting William Humphrey MLA to ministerial duties?

Rodney’s not the only one taking an online pop at the DUP this week.  @JohnODowdMLA accuses the party of considering free school meals a “hairy fairy idea”.   Now I’m sure the DUP doesn’t actually want to abolish free school meals, but its true that its representatives haven’t always been keen on “hairy fairies”!  

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Egypt and revolt in the Arab world - sometimes it's better the devil you know.

First Tunisia and now Egypt.  Demonstrators forced a change of government in Tunis and now President Mubarak’s regime is being challenged in Cairo, prompting hopes that a democratic revolution could sweep North Africa and the Middle East.

The usual parallels are being drawn: the fall of communism in 1989 and the so-called ‘colour revolutions’ in parts of the former Soviet Union and the Balkans.  The media has already dubbed the Tunisian uprising the ‘Jasmine Revolution’.

The British government, in the guise of Foreign Secretary William Hague, threw its lot in with the demonstrators in Egypt yesterday.  On the FCO website he urges the authorities in Cairo to “listen to the concerns of those demonstrating” and respect freedom of speech.

It's difficult to give out a substantially different message, but the overall tone is suitably cautious. Hague is careful to urge restraint from both sides.

Cairo is not Tunis.  Egypt is the largest Arab state and has often acted as a bulwark of stability in a turbulent Middle East.  The only organised opposition to the government is an organisation linked to Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, which wants to implement Islamic law.

There are a range of authoritarian regimes across the region, but we need only look to Iraq for proof that it is easier to unseat an unpleasant government than put something stable and enduring in its place.

Often the most likely alternative to an unpalatable incumbent regime is even worse.  After all, the west’s current bete noir, the Islamic government in Iran, came to power after popular strikes and demonstrations against an autocratic monarchy.

The “colour revolutions” which newspapers invoke whenever protests across the Arab world are covered, were themselves a mixed bag.  They describe a diverse range of events which affected the relevant countries‘ systems of government quite differently.      

It could be argued that the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the uprising against Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia both secured some lasting democratic gains, even if there were problems associated with both.  In Kyrgyzstan, though, one political clan was simply replaced by another.  Georgia had a similar experience, and President Saakashvili’s so-called democratic credentials are now thoroughly discredited.

Nobody would describe President Mubarak as a democrat, but he has kept a sprawling and potentially volatile country stable and shown diplomacy dealing with some fairly touchy neighbours in the wider region.  The people of Egypt are entitled to challenge his regime - they certainly aren’t at liberty to vote it out of office - but we can’t be blind to the fact that a virulent strain of populist Islamism is eager to fill any political vacuum.

That pattern is replicated across much of North Africa and the Middle East, which is not to say that protesters shouldn’t press for democracy where it is denied.

It’s right to be wary about the outcome of events though.  For governments in the west and their allies in the Arab world, there is some truth in the maxim ‘better the devil you know’.  They can’t afford to disregard broader geo-political issues or throw caution to the wind by cheerleading revolution.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Baron Adams of Northstead - aka the Green Baron?

"Wellity, wellity, wellity" as Homer Simpson once observed.  We've finally seen it all.  Not quite Lord Gerry of Andersonstown,  but certainly Baron of the Manor of Northstead.  In reply to a question from Nigel Dodds, the prime minister confirmed:

"I'm not sure that Gerry Adams will be delighted to be Baron of the Manor of Northstead. But nonetheless I'm pleased that tradition has been maintained."

Let's hope the interviewers in southern Ireland are appraised of the Sinn Féin president's new title.  He ought to be addressed properly during the election campaign.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Terrorists attack Moscow airport.

From preliminary reports it looks like a deadly blast at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport was caused by a suicide bomber.  The explosion ripped through the international arrivals hall, killing at least 35 people and injuring around 130.

Domededovo is Russia’s busiest airport and a major hub for flights to and from the rest of Europe.  I have experience of the long queues which congregate at the immigration desks, and there must’ve been thousands of passengers in the terminal when the bomb detonated.  Some eye witness accounts of the aftermath are beginning to emerge and they are horrific.

This is another attack clearly calculated to maximise loss of life and injury.  Last March, 39 people were killed during a series of coordinated suicide attacks on the Moscow metro, attributed to the Chechen ’Black Widows’ group.

Female suicide bombers also blew up two aircraft, which had taken off from Domodedovo, back in 2004.  Whoever is responsible for the latest atrocity, Moscow remains a prime target for murderous attacks by Caucasian terrorists.

A brief post-script.  RT 's twitter feed suggests that the Russian security services "had been informed" about a possible terror attack on Domodedovo.

Quite a revelation, given the subsequent explosion.  If it is true there will be serious questions about how seriously the threat was taken and what preventative measures were put in place to counteract it.

Further details are beginning to emerge.  It seems that the probable attacker was a male of Caucasian appearance (in the Russian sense).  The latest reports suggest that the bomb exploded in the free area of the arrivals zone, rather than beside the baggage carousel or immigration.  I.e. where people come to meet passengers off flights and outside the remit of metal detectors etc.  

The BBC has released footage of the aftermath of the attack.  If you want to view the original tape it is here, but the video, as it unfolds, is more upsetting than the version used on the bulletin.

Further update:  The news agency Ria Novosti suggests that at least two men were involved.  They are both dead and there is a suspicion that they intended to leave the bomb, rather than conduct a suicide attack. An accomplice may have driven the pair to the airport.

Bloggers send 'open letter' to Owen Paterson

O'Neill from Unionist Lite and Dilettante, this morning go public with an email addressed to the Secretary of State, Owen Paterson.  The text is as follows:

Dear Mr. Paterson,
We are writing to you concerning the position of the Conservative Party vis-à-vis its activity in Northern Ireland. As Conservative and Unionist bloggers we have been firm supporters of Mr. Cameron’s policy of political engagement in the province, and we hope to be able to continue to facilitate in our small way the efforts of the party there. In recent weeks there has been some confusion about the future of the party in Northern Ireland, and if you were able to clarify that position for us, we would then be able to pass it to our readership.
Kind Regards,
Dilettante, oneill
Paterson has been notably silent on the shape of the Conservative party's continuing relationship with the UUP and how it can lead to meaningful involvement in UK politics.  Exactly how do Paterson and Cameron intend to extend equal political citizenship to Northern Ireland under the current circumstances?
The issue is, at the very least, under explained at present.  It will be interesting to see whether the intrepid duo can provoke any response by going public. 

Saturday, 22 January 2011

In the Northern Ireland executive everyone has responsibility and no-one has responsibility

On a theme related to yesterday's post about the UUP's lack of direction, in the News Letter's Political Review yesterday, I wrote about the executive's accountability deficit.  It's an issue which has been thrown into stark relief by the water crisis and continuing wrangling over the budget.
 According to the Finance Minister, Sammy Wilson, the Northern Ireland Executive “came of age“ when it published its draft budget last month.  Agreeing a financial package for the next four years is certainly an accomplishment, achieved in trying circumstances.

Previous Northern Ireland budgets did little more than divvy up spoils of the ‘peace process’.  By accepting that they cannot simply wish away spending cuts, minsters here now acknowledge, in theory at least, that self-government means taking responsibility and reaching difficult decisions.

Unfortunately one instance of maturity doesn‘t mean our representatives have reached political adulthood.  Things are already starting to unravel.  Wilson complains, with some justification, that his fellow ministers did not follow up on their initial good work by quickly devising spending plans for their departments.

That means a consultation, intended to give the general public its say on the budget, becomes something of a futile exercise.  The Assembly has little time to absorb the detail which underlies legislation it will be required to vote upon.  Even the Executive, which must take collective responsibility for the budget, is hard pressed to examine its likely consequences with any rigour.

This lack of scrutiny is typical of the way in which regional government operates in Northern Ireland and it illustrates the problems which bedevil power-sharing institutions at Stormont. 
You can read the full article at the News Letter website. 

Friday, 21 January 2011

Budget confusion leaves the UUP looking more rudderless than ever.

Did the Ulster Unionists suffer a failure of nerve or a failure of communication earlier in the week?

The party looked all set to go to war over the draft budget, when  David McNarry, the UUP’s finance spokesman, announced that it was “unable to endorse” the document.

The troops, though, were not yet mustered before they were stood down and yesterday McNarry appeared on the BBC’s Hearts and Minds, to confirm that his party was merely “reserving its judgement”.

His interview, alongside the DUP’s Simon Hamilton, should make uncomfortable viewing for UUP supporters.  Their man wriggled and grimaced and backtracked and prevaricated.

As soon as the Ulster Unionists’ apparent resistance to the budget emerged, I expressed scepticism.  I noted that the party had left open a semantic get out.  Withholding endorsement is not the same as outright opposition.

I predicted that the UUP would complain, but ultimately fail to take a stand.  After all, the two Ulster Unionist ministers had already abstained, rather than approve the draft, back in September.  The u-turn was worse than expected.

On Tuesday, it appeared that the party had resolved to take the fight to the DUP.  Two days later details emerged of a ‘unionist unity’ deal in north and west Belfast.  By Thursday evening the UUP’s position on the budget had dissolved into the usual mealy-mouthed mulch.

On Hearts and Minds, Noel Thompson asked David McNarry for his party’s alternative to the draft figures.  When Ulster Unionists are asked for their bottom line on anything these days, the response is similar - we need to talk, we need to look at it, form a committee, write a paper, do various 'stuff'.  Anything other than articulate a clear, comprehensible position.

What does the average voter on the street now think when he or she hears the words ’Ulster Unionist’?  I bet it’s not usually positive.  I bet it mainly centres on disarray, confusion and crisis.  And I bet that the budget debate, so far, hasn’t improved their opinion of the UUP.      

It’s not all the party’s fault.  As I argue in today’s News Letter, the system of government in Northern Ireland is flawed.  It practically impossible to challenge the larger parties effectively from within the executive.  The SDLP suffers from precisely the same problem.

The UUP’s troubles are exacerbated, though, because part of the party is itching for an electoral show-down with the DUP, while another part tries to encourage a ’unity’ pact.  The party is divided, its coffers are empty and there’s no direction from the top, because the leader is an uninspiring functionary.  

The Ulster Unionists berate the DUPes one moment, then cuddle up to them the next.  They snipe at the Conservative party, then attempt to reaffirm the two parties’ political relationship.  They oppose the budget, then they just want to talk about it.  They even manage to accidentally use their mobile phones to leave abuse on long-standing representatives' voice-mail!

All this, once again, a matter of months before an election!  If it were the plot of a political novel, it would be dismissed as too far fetched.

Even more far fetched is the faith of some activists, who genuinely believe that the party is on the brink of electoral recovery.  Their evidence is little more than the ‘traditional’ edge to Tom Elliott’s unionism, his orange background and the fact that, unlike Empey, the public doesn‘t automatically associate him with David Trimble.

The UUP currently doesn't seem to have a purpose, much less a plan.  It appeared to come close to acquiring one this week.  Whether that was by accident, or by design, the party now looks more rudderless than ever.

Channel 4's comedy news show has potential.

Last night, rather than watch Huw Edwards et al, I tuned into Channel 4’s new “comedy and current affairs show”, 10 O’Clock Live.  It was a bit rough round the edges, but it’s an interesting concept nonetheless.

David Mitchell, Lauren Laverne. Charlie Brooker and Jimmy Carr host a live programme based on recent events, which includes round table discussions and interviews.  The mixture of satire and levity with debate and opinion is rather unfamiliar in this country, but we‘ll get used to it.

The presenters were visibly edgy last night and the whooping live audience was just distracting, but a willingness to blend jokes with a semi-serious look at issues has potential.  The interviews were pretty superficial and David Mitchell was given the run around by David Willetts, but you could tell he was really trying!

I’d imagine the format will get tighter as the weeks progress.  Channel 4 should certainly lose the audience, but hopefully it keeps mixing the satire and sketches with political guests and discussion.  Even Jimmy Carr decided to throw in a few opinions alongside the gags last night.

Perhaps that will get old quickly, but on its first outing it was even charming.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

The country vs. country argument. Football's Team GB and the Olympic games.

Another football post which touches upon politics.  The head of the British Olympic Association, Lord Moynihan, is determined to raise the spectre of legal action, in an attempt to pressurise the Irish, Scottish and Welsh FA’s into accepting a genuine UK team for the London 2012 games.

During December O’Neill highlighted his shenanigans.  At that point he envisaged players from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, suing the BOA for non-selection.  He’s refined his legal analysis over the past month.  The players should now sue their home associations in order to establish eligibility for a UK side.

Back in 2008 FIFA declared itself happy to endorse a single team for the Olympics, without prejudice to the four existing home nations which currently compete in international football tournaments.

However, the four associations made an agreement between themselves that only English players will participate.  The authorities in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are still anxious that their independent status could be compromised.

That is the football establishment happy.  Moynihan and the BOA, though, remain dissatisfied with a solution that will see Britain represented by an England U23 XI, supplemented by some over-age players.

I can see both arguments.  As a British citizen, I instinctively like the idea of a properly representative team, picked on merit, for whichever sport.  Fans outside England will not, in general, feel a strong affinity toward an XI selected solely from England.  As a football fan, though, I support the associations’ efforts to protect, at all costs, the separate traditions of their four international teams.

The Olympics are very much a side-show for football and elements within FIFA have campaigned for many years to force the four Home Nations to compete as one.  The FA, SFA, IFA and FAW can’t afford to take any risks with their status.

However you weigh the argument, Moynihan’s spurious legal interventions are entirely unhelpful.  Representative football is by its very nature discriminating.  Players don’t have a right to play for an international team - selection is an hour handed out entirely at the discretion of a governing association.    

O’Neill fairly comprehensively exploded the argument that players could sue Team GB for non-selection.  For any proceedings to arise the BOA would have to select players expressly against the wishes of the three abstaining football associations.  Even in that eventuality, it’s difficult to envisage an effective remedy against an association that decided to stop picking any player who accepted the Olympic call.

The most imaginative solution remains David Cameron's idea that Northern Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales should compete against each other for the honour of representing Britain at London 2012.

Gullit takes over at Terek Grozny!

A sniper keeps watch as Terek play Dynamo Moscow.
The Independent asks whether it might be ’the worst football transfer in the world’.  On his blog, ‘I - Kadyrov’, the President of Chechnya has already announced that he expects a top five finish.  Ruud Gullit is certainly taking on a different type of pressure by accepting the manager’s post at Terek Grozny.

Ramzan Kadyrov, whose authority in Chechnya is total, is the president of Terek, as well as the autonomous Russian republic.  There's plenty of back material on the blog dealing with the unpalatable compromise which Moscow reached with this thug, in order to achieve a little stability in the Caucasus.

Gullit will answer to him and, in any clash of egos, the gangster and former guerrilla fighter could be substantially more formidable than Ken Bates.

Terek currently play in the Russian Premier League, bankrolled by Kadyrov.  The club’s most famous achievement was an unlikely victory in 2004, when Grozny, then in the second tier, beat Kryla Sovetov from Samara in the Russian Cup final.

There’s a bit less romance to Gullit’s arrival, which must be oiled by huge amounts of money, but it is equally bemusing.  The former Netherlands captain could accumulate riches in the Middle East or the US, but he has chosen to manage in dangerous, brutally governed, semi-Islamist Chechnya.

The club only returned to play its home games in Grozny in 2007, after winning the cup from a base in neighbouring Stavropol.  Teams from the Russian south also receive a famously hostile reception from supporters in Moscow and other more northerly regions.

For one of the stars of European football, this will be a different experience.  Will he stick with it for more than a few days, or can we expect to see Gullit beat a hasty retreat?

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

The Draft Budget - does the UUP have a plan?

Is the UUP guilty of opportunism, or is it finally setting out its stall under Tom Elliott?

Last night, following bitter clashes between the Finance and Health Ministers, Ulster Unionists announced that they won’t back the Draft Budget.  Michael McGimpsey has consistently complained that his department hasn’t been afforded enough money to maintain NHS services.

It must be said that a refusal to endorse the budget is by no means the same as a pledge to oppose it.  UUP ministers and the SDLP minister originally abstained when the Executive putatively ’agreed’ the draft.

If the party merely wants to give the impression that its ministers are accepting the figures under duress, then there is nothing particularly new about its tactic, nor is it likely to capture the public’s imagination.  The Ulster Unionists are simply stepping up their complaints a gear or two.

Acting as ’grit in the oyster’, during the Hillsborough talks over the devolution of policing, just made the UUP look confused and petulant.  It’s opponents were able to portray the party as ’anti-agreement’ and it appeared to many voters that it was motivated mainly by sour grapes or was engaged in political manoeuvres.

The UUP’s subsequent attempts to wrest more Executive influence for itself and the SDLP from the Hillsborough debacle were doomed to failure.  The two parties are just as peripheral as ever to the real decision making.

Over at Open Unionism, Geoff notes that the party’s response to the budget, “is an opposition stance”.  He asks, if the UUP has chosen the battlefield, does it “have a battle plan?”.

It’s a piquant question.  If the Ulster Unionists simply intend to oppose from within again, then the impression of constant complaint, ill-grace and underlying impotence could be perpetuated.

If, on the other hand, McGimpsey and Danny Kennedy are prepared to pull out of the Executive, in order properly to hold it to account, a clear strategy is emerging.  If the settlement for the Health Minister is unacceptable, then he shouldn’t remain in post to administer it and to take the blame.

I’m afraid, at this stage, that impotent complaint is still the more likely scenario.  See the interim budget response which the UUP has rushed out on its website.

In that case the party is easily portrayed as a constant obstacle when things need to get done.  And one that can, in any case, be easily surmounted.  If, on the other hand, the UUP is prepared to oppose the Executive and its budget plan, then the party might just begin to look purposeful again.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Could McClarty's candidacy put UUP seat under pressure in East Londonderry?

One of the batch of recent Ulster Unionist defectors, David McClarty, has decided to defend his Stormont seat as an independent.  The East Londonderry MLA was the only UUP candidate to squeak home in that constituency last time, although he was still some 2,000 votes under quota.

His decision will give the party a major headache.  It is running two of its brighter prospects in East Londonderry, Lesley Macaulay and David Harding, but there was always a suspicion that the Ulster Unionists would have to settle for one seat.  McClarty’s involvement throws even that likelihood into considerable doubt.

In the 2010 general election Macaulay claimed a reasonably creditable total of 6,218 votes.  This time round some of those voters will stick with McClarty and those who remain loyal to the Ulster Unionists will be spread across two candidates.  Things are likely to get very tight and only the most indefatigable UUP optimist would predict a gain in East Londonderry this time round.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Extraordinary revelation from the former President of Ukraine!

I suppose we realise well enough that the devil will find work for idle politicians to do.  Still, this revelation from Viktor Yuschenko's press secretary, Iryna Vannikova,  is startling.
"Viktor Yuschenko has regular intercourse with all influential politicians in Ukraine. This is a fact."
The Ukrainian News Agency reports:
She also said Yuschenko has intercourse with Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili, former presidents of the United States and Lithuania Bill Clinton and Valdas Adamkus.  
In fact the only politician Yuschenko hasn't been 'having intercourse' with is Yulia Tymoshenko.  My goodness!

(H/T Moscow Tory)

Is the glass half empty or half full for the government in Oldham?

Was the Oldham East by-election result a particularly bad one for the Lib Dems?  Labour held the seat comfortably, increasing its majority from a perilously slender 103 to a relatively healthy 3,558.

On one hand Labour’s vote actually increased after the ignominy of its candidate, Phil Woolas, being turfed out of Parliament and suspended from the party.

On the other hand, the Liberal Democrat vote fell by just under 3,000 against the backdrop of a turnout which had collapsed from 61.2% in May to 48% this time round.  In fact the Lib Dem share of the vote is actually very slightly up.  It is the Conservative share which has taken a serious hit.

Given the controversy which attended Nick Clegg’s elevation to deputy prime minister, it could be argued that his party's total isn't too bad.  After all, the government traditionally gets a tough time at by-elections.  The Lib Dems were last night trotting out the statistic that a governing party has not gained a by-election seat since 1982.

Equally the Tories’ lacklustre campaign in Oldham may have been affected by tactical voting.  If the Conservative and Lib Dem totals were aggregated they would stand at 44.7% of the vote, rather than 58% in May.  That statistic doesn't look quite so clever for either party.  Just how many Tories lent their support to the Liberal Democrat candidate?

It’s practically impossible to reach a judgement on the health of the government, based on this by-election result.  As far as coalition politics are concerned, we are, in any case, in uncharted territory.

Taking opinion polls and this result in concert, it’s fair to surmise that Labour is benefiting from becoming an opposition party rather than constituting an unpopular government.  Others are doing the nasty and unrewarding work of clearing up the economic legacy bequeathed to them.

What we can say for certain is that the governing parties’ combined vote exceeds the Labour total by some 923.  Whether you believe that offers a lesson for future elections, in terms of coordinating campaigns or resources, will depend upon your outlook on the coalition.

A convenient distraction from the DRD's problems.

In yesterday's Belfast Telegraph I considered Conor Murphy's proposals for bilingual road signs, its divisive potential and the coincidence of timing which see's it distract from the Minister for Regional Development's bread and butter woes.
Has the Department for Regional Development not got enough work to do? Cynics will wonder whether it's entirely coincidental that Sinn Fein's Conor Murphy has chosen to publish controversial proposals for bilingual road signs just as criticism over the water crisis reaches a crescendo.
The issue is a useful distraction for the minister. His DRD consultation paper envisages traffic signs featuring either Irish or Ulster Scots alongside the English language.
A 'proposer' would petition the local council for bilingual "welcome signs" for their town or village, "supplementary plates" for warning notices (for example underneath the red triangles which warn motorists that a school is ahead) or tourist signs.
Murphy claims the policy would be of little financial consequence to his department because the proposer would bear all costs for altering a sign.
We can safely assume, though, that if the plan does go ahead, the public purse will not emerge unscathed. By the department's own admission, proposals are most likely to come from local councils themselves, or from managers of public facilities.
Then there are the expenses involved in consulting the public, not to mention the man hours wasted on drafting a paper in the first place, when DRD has so many more pressing issues at hand.
To date there is still no sign of spending plans which the department needs to submit to the finance minister as part of a draft Budget.
While the DRD starts a consultation on bilingual signs, its foot-dragging on finance means the public can't subject the draft Budget to similar scrutiny. We can contribute to a trivial and divisive debate on Irish and Ulster Scots until our hearts are content, yet offering an informed opinion on spending plans which will affect all our lives during the next four years is practically impossible.
Murphy's timing is attracting justifiable criticism from political opponents. But it is unlikely to bother him much. He's too busy playing to the gallery.
The bilingual sign policy will help rally Sinn Fein supporters around the beleaguered minister in his hour of need.
It is, after all, a hoary republican chestnut wrapped up in a set of politically correct new clothes.
Even the draft Equality Impact Assessment accompanying the consultation paper concludes the policy has the potential to damage "good relations between persons of different political opinion".
The DRD airily dismisses that criticism, maintaining that it will confine its proposals "to discrete areas where there is confirmed overall support for the signing".
In Northern Ireland, that means marking out, with supreme accuracy, which community is dominant in a given locality.
In fact it could well become a mark of loyalist or republican pride for an area to sport these signs.
It's as effective as scrawling 'Prods out' or 'Taigs out' on a wall, but it guarantees a row in the council chamber and costs the public money.
Could anything be better suited to Sinn Fein's purposes? The party can pretend to occupy the moral high ground, claiming it is fighting the corner for minority languages, while starting a good old-fashioned sectarian ruckus to distract from the bread and butter controversies afflicting its minister. It also neatly matches its preference for separation, rather than sharing.
Read more:

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Murphy gets a sectarian bun-fight started - just as he intended.

In today's Belfast Telegraph I have my say on Conor Murphy's proposed policy to cantonise Northern Ireland with traffic signs in either Irish or Ulster Scots.  Why not commission the graffiti artists who spray  "Prods out" or "Taigs out" on walls to DRD instead?  It would be cheaper and just as effective.

Over at Newswhip Jason Walsh highlights a tiff between Alliance and the SDLP over the issue.  Conall McDevitt sees Anna Lo's "ghettoisation" and raises her a "sectarianism".  A pointless quarrel over a pointless initiative.

As anyone who read the piece in today's Tele will know, I'm highly suspicious of Murphy's motives in raising this issue, particularly right now.  It's the typical Sinn Féin tactic of sparking controversy, starting a sectarian bun-fight and then claiming the moral high-ground.

The DRD minister should complete his spending plan for the draft budget and sort out Northern Ireland Water, rather than dragging up divisive nonsense intended to provoke a reaction.

DUP hacked

The DUP website has been successfully hacked, according to ''.  The website reports that an 'Irish language activist' successfully published a spoof news story on the party's official site.

A reproduction of the article appears here.  It must be said, given the material available, it's a pretty tame effort at lampooning the party.

A bit of Irish, a bit of criticism of homophobia within the party.  Mind you, if certain rumours about the DUP's selection of local election candidates stand-up, there may be some highly unexpected progress on that front.

Watch this space.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

6 Clicks for the Endless Voyage

To paraphrase Mark from Peep Show, I'm about to strap on the nose-bag and eat some serious (paid) work.  So the likelihood is that blogging will be slow again today.  Over at culture blog The Dabbler though, I choose my 6 internet distractions for an "endless voyage".  It's a hugely fun to compile, based on an Anthony Burgess short-story and the website runs it as a regular feature.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Hague's EU Bill faces stormy passage

William Hague writes in today’s Telegraph, defending the provisions of his European Union Bill, which reaches committee stage tomorrow.  As a significant piece of constitutional law, the legislation will be considered by a committee of the whole house, entitling any MP to contribute to a clause by clause dissection of its contents.

The bill is supposed to deliver the ’referendum lock’ on any future European Union treaties or transfers of power between Westminster and Brussels.  A significant body of Tory Eurosceptics, though, insists that it is riddled with loopholes and doesn’t go far enough.  Two rebel amendments are proposed, which could derail the government’s plans.

Hague is insistent that the legislation represents a significant consolidation of democratic principles and empowers parliament against an over-mighty executive.  Still, it will remain up to the government to make a decision on whether a proposed transfer of powers is 'significant'.

The Foreign Secretary’s proviso is that any ministerial decision will be open to judicial review.  “Any British citizen will be able to go to court to enforce the electorate’s rights“.  In truth, it's a rather messy solution to a messy problem.

Taken in the round, though, parliament and the people will have more tools at their disposal to scrutinise potentially contentious European Law, if this bill is passed.  And although Clause 18, which deals with the effect of European Law on the sovereignty of Parliament, is largely symbolic, it does attempt to lay to rest a perennial constitutional chestnut.

It states explicitly that it is only by Act of Parliament that EU law is directly effective in Britain.  A distinction which might be of interest chiefly to students of the constitution, but which clarifies the nature of the UK's relationship with the EU.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Pride and passion back at Anfield. An exciting 6 months lie ahead for Liverpool, but Dalglish is not a long-term solution.

This morning Kenny Dalglish finally replaced Roy Hodgson as Liverpool manager.  It’s a case of out with the new and in with the old, as King Kenny takes up a post he vacated almost twenty years ago.

Officially it is an interim appointment, but Dalglish’s popularity at Anfield will mean he could prove difficult to unseat, if Liverpool’s form improves, or if, miracle upon miracles, the team can finish the season with a trophy.

Back in June I wrote about the respective merits of Dalglish and Hodgson, when it emerged that one of the pair was likely to take over from Rafa Benitez.  As I saw it, one candidate for the job represented optimism and the other resignation.  Kenny could boost morale and get the players playing exciting football, while Roy was better placed to manage a team in decline.

Since then the club has had a change of ownership, John W Henry and New England Sports Ventures replacing Hicks and Gillett.  It’s early days, but it seems that Liverpool FC is now on a far sounder financial footing.  Although the transfer kitty is likely to be small in comparison with Manchester City's or Chelsea's, managed decline is no longer an option.

The owners were right to dismiss Hodgson.  Had there been the least sign of improvement under his tutelage, had there been even the faintest hint of how he planned to revive the club, then the manager would have deserved time to implement his plans.

The problem was that there was only one direction Liverpool was going under Hodgson.  His system didn’t work, the style of football he preferred made Benitez look gung-ho and he signed some of the most mediocre players ever to take to the turf at Anfield.

His legacy is Christian Poulsen and Paul Konchesky.  A pair of journeymen so average that it is hard to understand how he could even imagine that they would contribute to a club of Liverpool‘s stature.    

Therein lies the problem.  If the club had remained crippled by debt, if it had had to scrimp by for the next few seasons, a shadow of its former self, avoiding relegation and perhaps aspiring to a place in the Europa Cup, Hodgson was the man for the job.

With even moderately competent owners, that can never be Liverpool‘s fate.  Despite the haste of some so called experts to write it off, despite all the bitterness and envy which built up over decades of success, the club is still an institution of world football.

Less than six years ago it was a champion of Europe.  Go back less than four and it was in its last Champions League final.  Two years ago there was a concerted push for the league title, which failed despite a healthy total of points.

After one and a half poor seasons and a struggle with debt which has been successfully resolved, it is manifestly absurd to claim that the club should reassess its ambitions.

Liverpool can and should compete for honours every single season, without fail.  That needs to be the goal of the owners and the manager.  Forget all the nonsense talked by people who hate the club and want to see its decline - the supporters do have a right to expect better.

Whether Dalglish can deliver, I don’t know.  His appointment is exciting, but I am a little apprehensive.  His last spell in management was in 2000 and that was in the Scottish League.

There will be no lack of pride and passion at Liverpool under King Kenny and the backing from supporters will be absolute.  Still, fairy tale endings rarely happen in football.  The sport is cut-throat and realism usually prevails.

Liverpool is still in disarray, thanks to Hodgson, his predecessor and the previous owners.  Realistically its problems will not be resolved by the summer and, I‘d love to say otherwise, but I doubt they‘ll be resolved by Kenny Dalglish.

A young, modern manager is needed, with the technical know-how and vision to build Liverpool for the long-term.

There lie ahead six roller coaster months under KK.  They’re sure to be exciting.  But I hope that the club uses them to consider who is best placed to mastermind a genuine revival, starting next season.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Conservatives should stand at Assembly poll

Just to point you in the direction of a blogpost I've contributed at Conservative Home.  I argue that the Tories' latest deal with the UUP, which involves not contesting Stormont seats in May, is a backwards step in terms of the party's commitment to bring normal politics to Northern Ireland.  If you feel moved to leave any feedback there's a comment zone beneath the post at Con Home.

Pat Sheehan and 'civility'

In yesterday's Belfast Telegraph I argued that, if Northern Ireland remained "quite civilised" during the Troubles, it was no thanks to Pat Sheehan or other IRA members.

Is it a shock that Pat Sheehan, convicted IRA bomber-turned-West Belfast MLA, has a warped view of the Troubles? As the latest back-street revolutionary to turn Armani-clad seer and represent Sinn Fein at Stormont, it would be more surprising if he saw republican violence for the futile nihilism it was, rather than as a "probably quite civilised" campaign.
That won't relieve the hurt and revulsion felt by victims of 30 years of IRA 'civility' when they read his comments - made in an interview with David McKittrick.
The Assemblyman, recently co-opted to replace Gerry Adams, lauds the organisation for its restraint: "The IRA, if it had wanted to kill Protestants, could have left a 1,000lb car-bomb on the Shankill," he reasons.
Of course, the IRA did actually leave a bomb on the Shankill Road. It killed 10 people, including eight innocent shoppers and Thomas Begley, the IRA 'volunteer' who planted the device.
To Sheehan, and those who share his jaundiced mindset, those casualties don't quite qualify as 'blood-letting', because the perpetrators claim they weren't the intended target.
The whole notorious catalogue of republican atrocities can be dismissed with the same complacent logic: Enniskillen, La Mon, Bloody Friday, Claudy, all terrible mistakes. "I don't believe the IRA went out to kill civilians," Sheehan says.
The rationale is that, because it could have been even more callous, more indiscriminate, more murderous, the IRA's actions were "quite civilised".
Sheehan's choice of language is obscene, but it is more of what we've come to expect from the Sinn Fein propaganda machine. It is his broader point which deserves a little more attention.
He notes that Northern Ireland didn't witness the scale "of mass killing and genocide" which characterised other ethnic conflicts. That much is true enough.
But the absence of an Ulster 'Srebrenica' owes precious little to the IRA, or to the urban revolutionaries and nationalist fanatics who filled its ranks. The last thing we should do is congratulate terrorists - whether republican or loyalist - for their 'civility' during the Troubles.
The most important difference between Yugoslavia and Northern Ireland is that, while it failed as a state and fell apart, our security forces refused to allow us to descend into similar chaos.
We have the police and the army to thank for containing republican violence, harrying the IRA and maintaining a semblance of peace. Sheehan's comrades attempted to bring anarchy to our streets, but ultimately law and order prevailed.
Where it enjoyed the greatest freedom, in south Armagh and other border areas, the IRA showed no aversion whatsoever to ethno-religious violence.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

'Blood and bone' nationalism from Salmond.

Over at Nationalist Mythbusting sm753 is in great form dissecting Alex Salmond's claims to 'civic nationalism'.  After donating water during the recent crisis, Salmond explained that the Scottish executive was helping out because 'they' (that is us - the Northern Irish) are "blood of our blood, bone of our bone".

There are two ways of looking at this statement.  sm753 is interested in the unrepentant 'blood and soil' ethnic nationalism which informs Salmond's choice of words.  At Unionist Lite O'Neill notes that the inter-connectedness of the United Kingdom's peoples is something which nationalists more often attempt to ignore.  The emphasis is usually on difference, rather than similarity.

Either way, it would be churlish not to acknowledge an act of generosity on the part of the authorities in Edinburgh.  The supplies were no doubt badly needed.

Sadly NIW, out of cack-handed incompetence, did not avail of all the help to which it was entitled.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Rearranging the deckchairs - NIW chief set to jump, or be pushed.

It looks like Laurence MacKenzie is to be the fall-guy for Northern Ireland’s water debacle.  Without a major overhaul of the way in which NIW is governed and funded, though, his forced resignation is mere tokenism.

Northern Ireland’s water service went down the ’GoCo’ route in 2007 but the resultant company is a curious, under-funded, quasi-independent hybrid, without clear lines of responsibility.  

The Executive was quick to shift the blame for the current crisis unto NIW, which it describes as an ’arms length’ body, but the Minister for Regional Development, Sinn Féin's Conor Murphy, appoints the Board which runs the company.  His power to hire and fire runs right up to Mr MacKenzie.

Earlier this year, of course, the company was mired in controversy over breaches of competitive tendering regulations.  A senior civil servant was suspended after allegations of interference in a Stormont Public Accounts Committee investigation.

Rather than demand that genuine independence for NIW, Murphy responded by re-jigging the Board and demanding that the company be fully re-nationalised, much to the chagrin of some Executive colleagues.        

The manner in which water is paid for in NI is equally oblique.  Although the service is supposedly covered by the regional rate, set by the Stormont Assembly, NIW actually receives its funding direct from DRD.

The extent of the subsidy drawn down from the block grant is unclear, but with rates in Northern Ireland frozen below levels in the rest of the UK for the last few years, it’s pretty clear why money hasn’t been available to provide a major overhaul of infrastructure.  

NIW is a public utility blighted by government interference and under-funding.  Until it is privatised, or at least until its independence is asserted, then it will continue to perform poorly.  In Northern Ireland, with our deplorable system of government, it’s tempting to conclude the less input from the Executive the better.

If Mr MacKenzie does go it won’t necessarily mean Northern Ireland Water can invest in adequate infrastructure.  Unless structural changes are made it will still leak money and the lines of accountability will still be deliberately obscure.

If truth be told, even if Conor Murphy goes, NIW’s problems will still remain.  He is a mere cipher for his party’s lamentable influence on the Executive.  Sinn Féin can get rid of him, but we can’t get rid of Sinn Féin under the current system.

While fantasy economics and an overweening sense of entitlement continue to exert an influence on Executive policy, demanding resignations from employees like MacKenzie is simply re-arranging deckchairs on the Titanic.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Pro-Union confidence?

Over at Open Unionism O’Neill has delivered something approaching a New Year message.  In a post called ‘Quiet confidence’ he sketches an optimistic picture.  It strikes me that, if O’Neill is right, although ‘unionist’ parties in Northern Ireland are in disarray, the objectives of unionism here are in relatively good shape.
If I were a nationalist, the last two election results and their consequences would... greatly disturb me. In the Euros of 2009, the DUP fought on the traditionalist (accept no substitute) 
“Vote for us, Keep them out!” ticket. They didn’t “smash Sinn Fein” because the pro-Union electorate wasn’t that bothered about “smashing Sinn Fein”- it was self-confident enough to instead exercise its democratic right.
Well worth reading the whole article.