Monday, 28 February 2011

The DUP unveils its candidate list, as the party leaves double-jobbing work half-finished.

With the Republic’s general election done and dusted (not withstanding the small matter of forming a government), campaigning is about to get underway in earnest in Northern Ireland.  This morning the DUP announces its candidates for the Assembly, with polling for both Stormont and local councils set for 5th May.

Alan in Belfast appears to have scooped this morning’s newspapers and the BBC.  You can read the complete DUP line-up and his analysis over at Slugger.  There are some signs of the party‘s much vaunted change of direction on the list, but it also contains its fair share of grizzled veterans.

At Open Unionism O’Neill congratulates the DUP for its partially successful action on double mandates.  He notes that the party’s participation at Westminster has increased exponentially during this term and he chalks that up as one of the few positive legacies of UCUNF.

It’s fair enough comment, but it should be said, the DUP has tackled double jobbing - except where it hasn’t.

Peter Robinson’s pledge that he would be the only Democratic Unionist MP to retain an Assembly seat has been broken.

There wasn’t too much resistance where Sammy Wilson was concerned.  Even the Belfast Telegraph implored the Finance Minister and East Antrim MP to retain his post at Stormont.

With Peter Robinson losing his Westminster seat to Naomi Long, the DUP might be forgiven for strategically redeploying its one exception, especially in a turbulent economic climate.

It’s not at all clear why Gregory Campbell should also be considered indispensable at the Assembly.  He presides over a substantial personal vote in East Londonderry, but his presence on the list will be difficult to justify on anything other than purely selfish grounds.

Maurice Morrow will also juggle Assembly duties with attendance at the House of Lords, if his election campaign is successful.  That mirrors the UUP's cynical decision to field Lord Empey in East Belfast.

The UUP unveiled its candidate list last November.

Friday, 25 February 2011

Votail Fianna Fail to smash Sinn Féin?

If the rumours (spread by rutherford ;)) are true, Fianna Fail candidate, Averil Power, last night dispensed a last gasp election leaflet in the Dublin North East constituency stressing that "only Averil can stop Sinn Féin in this area".  Now you'll not find me arguing with the premise that Shinners should be kept out, or that the party is an aberration in any healthy polity, but there is a certain delicious irony to this type of campaigning.

First of all, is it just me, or is "the republican party" coming rather close to DUP tactics?  In the Upper Bann constituency the unionist party distributed an eve of poll leaflet with an unerringly similar message, during the UK general election campaign.

Secondly, to gild the cliche, surely this is a rather sauceless goose compared to the version served in Northern Ireland?  The southern parties are horrified by Sinn Féin in the Republic, but they were quick enough to demand their inclusion in government up north.  It's a point Jason Walsh touches upon in this pre-election broadside.  We wouldn't have them in our government, but they'll do to keep those barbaric unionists on their toes!

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

"Better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt". McNarry again.

Before it disappears from view, a quick word on the furore surrounding David McNarry’s comments on Invest NI.  The UUP’s finance spokesman challenged the organisation after grants which it awarded to the international law firm Allen and Overy were offered to staff in London as an inducement to relocate to Belfast.

Ian Parsley cuts to core of the matter when he suggests that McNarry was within his rights to complain that the money was not being used for its correct purpose.  The further argument that the posts are “jobs for Northern Ireland people” is ludicrous, particularly when it is made by a so-called unionist.

At the blog Finbar on Tour McFaggen points out that while some staff will relocate from London, 120 brand new posts will be created in Belfast.  This is a massive firm, bringing well-paid jobs to Northern Ireland, which will benefit the economy.  “You’d think that everyone in NI would be happy about the announcement”, McFaggen argues.

Now the Northern Ireland Conservative have waded into the controversy.  Their Chairman, Irwin Armstrong, launches a pointed attack,  
“MLAs who do not understand the requirements of internationally mobile companies and how professional companies assist their employees to transfer between locations but nevertheless feel the need to criticise Invest NI and the work they do, should think very carefully before they jump into the media to expose their lack of knowledge. They should remember Solomon's words 'Better to remain silent and thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt.'“
It’s hardly the first time that McNarry’s political radar has gone awry.  His first instinct seems to be to go on the offensive, without thinking about logic or consequences.  The UUP would be incomparably better off without him.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Can we learn from GB's experience of multiculturalism in Northern Ireland?

In yesterday's Belfast Telegraph I asked whether the current debate in Great Britain includes lessons for a region just starting out on its experience of racial diversity.  Pop over to the BT to read the full article.

In Northern Ireland, we're late-starters on the politics of race. That could actually be an advantage. There's an opportunity to learn from experiences elsewhere. 
If we get it right, we can enjoy the cultural richness diversity brings, while also making newer arrivals feel integrated and at home. 
To date, we've had few high-profile racist incidents in Northern Ireland. Only the attacks on Roma during the summer of 2009 were serious enough to command attention outside the province. 
There's no indication that casual racism, or occasional outbursts of violence, are set to harden into a mood for far-right politics any time soon. 
If the BNP decides to field council candidates in Northern Ireland, it's likely to get short shrift. 
For the time being, we're far more preoccupied with traditional prejudices. But as society becomes more diverse, there is a risk that it will become even more segregated.
The Executive's failure to combat existing home-grown divisions hardly inspires confidence that it will know how to respond.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Monarchists demand a new Tsar while Stalin calls for democracy.

Nicholas II - the last Tsar of Russia.

It’s been the premise of not a few thrillers, but restoration of the Russian Tsar is now the goal of a political party.  RT reports that the Tsarist Russia party held its first congress in Moscow yesterday.

The group proposes that a modern Zemsky Sobor or ‘assembly of the land’ be called in order to choose a monarch.  A rudimentary parliament of that name elected Boris Godunov to the throne after the Rurik dynasty ended in 1598.

The party is certainly ambitious.  It hopes to build up a 10-20% vote share with a populist programme tapping into images and symbols from Russia‘s distant past.

Another less eccentric group is also charged with exploiting emotive historical events for its electoral advantage.

A Just Russia was the pro-Kremlin party designed to offer an alternative to United Russia on the centre-left.  It supported Medvedev’s nomination for the presidency and squeaked into the state Duma at the 2007 election.

But the regime kept its distance from the party, after Putin aligned himself squarely behind United Russia and A Just Russia took a harder left nationalist line, moving into territory dominated by the Communist Party of the Russian Federation.

Now it has won the right to field a candidate called Dmitry Stalin in a regional election for the Khanty-Mansi autonomous region in Siberia.  The Central Election Commission initially banned Stalin because of his contentious surname.

The controversy led to A Just Russia releasing a rather incongruous statement claiming “Stalin demands democracy”.  Meanwhile the party’s political opponents claim it is engaged in dirty tactics, using the candidate’s name to stir up emotions and attract votes.

As ever, Russian news websites are rarely boring.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Signs that the UUP is serious about opposition.

News that the UUP has asked the Government for funding to form an opposition at Stormont confirms two things: 1) the party is taking seriously the possibility of leaving the Executive in order to hold it to account, 2) money is currently an impediment.

Asking for cash is a sensitive issue in the current climate and rival parties are likely to attack the Ulster Unionists’ plans on that basis.  It must be said, though, that no system of government comes without a price tag.  It is inconceivable in most democratic systems that an opposition could function effectively without money to pay for researchers and other staff.

There are plenty of ways to cut spending in over-governed, over bureaucratised Northern Ireland.  A little cash to breathe accountability into the system would be one of our wiser investments.

If other parties fixate on the cost, it is more than likely because they are not genuinely committed to the principle of an official opposition in the first plance.  With Sinn Féin that goes without saying.  The DUP, Alliance and SDLP are less cut and dried cases.

Certainly the DUP’s official enthusiasm for voluntary coalition is probably more tactical than genuine.  It’s inconceivable that the party would want to operate its alliance with Sinn Féin, without the UUP to provide political cover.

The Alliance party has not endured a desperate scramble for a seat at the Executive table just to give it up now.  If there were a voluntary system, it could not so easily pose as a selfless team player.  It would have to stand over the policies formulated by Sinn Féin and the DUP and fight their corner, if it chose to remain in government.

Alongside Ulster Unionists, the SDLP is probably more open to the potential of opposition politics.  Still, if the UUP were to go out on its own, there would be a strenuous debate within the nationalist party as to its response.

There’s an internal fault-line within the SDLP not unlike a similar divide in the UUP.  The greener wing sees Sinn Féin as a more natural ally than Ulster Unionists.  The notion of a coalition of the middle ground can be problematic.

The road to an official funded opposition is fraught with difficulties, but the UUP’s negotiations are significant, taken in conjunction with Tom Elliott’s speech, earlier this week.

The party is clearly thinking about the repercussions of the election and the likelihood that either its suggestion for the phasing of d’Hondt will be rebuffed or that it can’t agree a programme for government with Sinn Féin and the DUP.

It also sounds like there could be more follow through from the UUP than many of us initially suspected.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Elliott unveils "game changer" but can it change the game?

I took a trip over to the Mount Business Centre in East Belfast this morning, to hear Tom Elliott unveil his‘game changer’ for power sharing in Northern Ireland.  It’s being reported as a call for official opposition at Stormont, but that‘s just one component of the UUP‘s ‘big idea‘.

Elliott believes that an official opposition can be delivered over a four year time scale, alongside other measures to improve governance in Northern Ireland, such as cutting the number of MLAs and Executive departments.

In the meantime the UUP proposes a change to the phasing of d’Hondt after Assembly elections.  Rather than have the parties divide up ministries before discussing policy, the Ulster Unionists suggest that a programme for government be agreed, along with budget arrangements, before d’Hondt is run.

Anticipating criticism that the process will take too long, Elliott cites the speedy formation of a coalition government at Westminster, following the general election.  He clearly believes that the new timetable could be instigated, without altering existing legislation.

As well as laying out the UUP’s policy innovation, this morning’s business breakfast is intended to get the party’s Assembly campaign up and running.  It believes it is putting the ball firmly in the DUP and Sinn Féin’s court.

“They stand accused of running a two party carve-up rather than an all party coalition”, Elliott remarked, “if Sinn Féin / DUP want to change, if they want to put this country first, let them speak out today and back this proposal”.

And if the two larger parties won‘t play ball what are the likely consequences for the UUP?

The Ulster Unionists want to fight the election on the premise that they will enter the Executive only if it is possible to agree a programme for government.  Logically, any party which does not agree to a programme would become part of the voluntary opposition.

If the UUP’s rivals insist that d’Hondt must precede any discussions about policy and finance, then the Ulster Unionists will face a familiar dilemma.  Do they refuse to participate in the allocation of ministries and will they stay outside the Executive?

The UUP’s idea certainly has potential.  It’s the most imaginative initiative that we’ve seen since Elliott became leader.

It will only gain legs, though, if the party is prepared to push it hard – right through to its logical conclusion.  That means agreeing a programme for government up front, or walking away from the Executive.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Guardian journalist back in situ

This time last week a full scale row was brewing over the Guardian journalist Luke Harding's apparent 'expulsion' from Russia.  Labour MP Chris Bryant even called for the Kremlin's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, to be denied entry to Britain over the episode.

This afternoon Lavrov delivered a speech at the London School of Economics after meeting William Hague at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office .  His visit attracted some protests from Russian opposition activists, who attempted to pass on a series of symbolic 'gifts' for President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin.

So why has everything gone quiet on the Harding affair?  Quite simple really.  The journalist is back in situ in Moscow.  He reentered the country just a week after being refused entry at Domodedovo Airport.  He uses his Twitter account to suggest that colleagues pursue his "case" at Lavrov's press conference.  A week's enforced leave, though, does not make a compelling story or a diplomatic incident.

Whatever Russia's reasons for denying Harding entry, it allowed him to sort out the bureaucracy and return to work quickly.  That enabled the two foreign ministers to get on with creating "a patient, steady improvement in relations" between the UK and Russia, with fewer distractions.  Good sense prevailed and the Guardian enjoyed a free publicity coup.

Monday, 14 February 2011

DUP selection turns messy.

The UUP is not the only Northern Irish party whose selection process is turning fractious.

Over at Slugger Drumlin’s Rock highlights the curious case of Dr Phillip Weir.  The DUP’s head of policy was deselected in Craigavon where he currently holds a council seat and subsequently failed to get the nod just down the road, in Banbridge.

Obviously the key adviser to Peter Robinson is not easily discouraged.  He intends to try for selection for a third council seat, perhaps that will be the charm.  This time it’s in Lisburn, where Edwin Poots stands down at the next election, in order to concentrate on his Assembly duties.

Meanwhile the News Letter reports that DUP Belfast city councillor, David Rodway, has also been deselected in favour of leading Orangeman, Tom Haire.

It doesn’t look like Rodway will go quietly.  He claims that he may be suffering discrimination because of his agnostic beliefs.  The Cornishman now says that he’s in talks with UUP leader Tom Elliott.

Rodway describes a small group within the DUP “with a narrow view of politics and religion” who “stiched (him) up”.  Not the type of allegation Robinson will want to hear repeated as he tries to claim the unionist centre ground.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Former Liverpool boss gets a suitable post

Well isn't it nice when everything turns out so everyone's happy?

Roy Hodgson is a decent man and a decent coach, so no-one would begrudge him a manager's post in the Premier League.  Just so long as that role isn't at Liverpool.

Just a month after his sacking he has taken up the hotseat at West Brom, which will surely be a more comfy fit for all concerned.   After all, he's got a proven track record of helping average club teams punch above their weight.

Meanwhile Kenny Dalglish has coaxed Liverpool into a four game winning streak in the league, very quickly moving the club up to sixth in the table.  All is not rosy in the garden just yet, but optimism is back, attacking football is back and a chance to build for the future is back.

Liverpool Football Club got a manager suited to its standing and West Brom Albion probably did better than it otherwise would, in terms of attracting an established and respected coach.

Isn't that nice?

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

The Way Back - review at The Dabbler.

I review the Gulag escape movie over at The Dabbler.

UUP shooting the messenger

The following is the original copy for yesterday's Belfast Telegraph article - which is now online.

Who’s to blame for the Ulster Unionists‘ latest batch of problems? According to Mike Nesbitt, they’re the media’s fault. The Strangford Assembly candidate told Stephen Nolan recently that journalists are driving a “narrative” which creates difficulties for the UUP.

If that sounds a bit like shooting the messenger, Tom Elliott sounds like a man determined to shoot himself in the foot. In a newspaper interview, the Ulster Unionist leader blamed party members’ negativity. Low morale, “is being caused by our own people”, Elliott complained.

Slamming your rank and file isn’t clever politics, but the Fermanagh Assemblyman is closer to the mark than Nesbitt. The Ulster Unionists’ problems are largely of their own making. The party is wracked with confusion, mixed messages and indecision.

A couple of weeks ago the UUP looked set to embrace a fresh new strategy when it threatened to reject the Executive’s draft budget. Finance spokesman, David McNarry, announced that his party was “unable to endorse” the document. It seemed that the Ulster Unionists had chosen their battle-ground for May‘s Assembly election.

Almost immediately the back-pedalling began. Less than 48 hours later, McNarry explained that the UUP might support the budget after all. The party simply wanted more detail and, for the time being, it was reserving judgement.

It wasn’t exactly a U-Turn. The Ulster Unionists had left a gaping semantic escape route through which to wriggle: refusal to endorse the budget was never the same as actively opposing it. Still, for the interested observer, it looked like the party came perilously close to adopting a clear, comprehensible position, only to lose its nerve at the last moment.

Outright opposition to the budget would be a risky strategy for the Ulster Unionists. It only really makes sense if the UUP is prepared to withdraw its ministers from the Executive altogether, if their concerns are not addressed.

The party eventually got the worst of both worlds - raising the possibility of resisting the budget and then apparently backing down. It bewildered its own representatives, never mind floating voters. Larne Borough Councillor, Mark Dunn, became the latest defector, criticising the party for its unwillingness to leave the Executive to form a voluntary opposition.

The sense of disarray was heightened when the UUP announced a pre-election pact with the DUP in North and West Belfast. After attacking its unionist rival over the budget and accusing it of carving up power with Sinn Féin, in practically the same breath, the party struck an electoral arrangement with the DUP at local level.

It’s no wonder observers are confused. Even as they edge towards a deal with yet another party, it’s still not clear what shape the Ulster Unionists’ existing link with the Conservatives will take, post-UCUNF.

Tom Elliott managed to prolong the two parties’ relationship, when it looked like local Tories would contest the Assembly election, but the UUP distances itself from its national partner one moment and defends it the next . The Conservatives now plan to open a campaign office in Northern Ireland, suggesting that they intend to field their own candidates in the future, possibly against Ulster Unionists.

The UUP only has itself to blame if unanswered questions are construed as another symptom of confusion and division. Some Ulster Unionists clearly support the Conservative connection, while others want nothing to do with the Tories. In a similar vein, one part of the UUP is itching for a final electoral show-down with the DUP, while another wants ’unionist unity’.

Admittedly the issue of Executive membership is a knottier dilemma and one which the party shares with the SDLP. Can smaller parties effectively challenge the DUP and Sinn Féin while remaining junior partners in government?

It would take extraordinary courage for the UUP to make the leap into voluntary opposition. But, as it stands, Ulster Unionist ministers share responsibility for Executive policies over which they have little or no influence. The party must resolve that conundrum, otherwise it will remain a whipping boy for the DUP or worse, become its little brother in a ‘unionist unity’ arrangement.   

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Russia row at the Guardian.

The Guardian claims that its Moscow correspondent, Luke Harding, has been expelled from Russia for reporting the Wikileaks scandal.  The allegation is a little odd as the issue at hand has been covered extensively in the Russian press.

Nevertheless the newspaper has gone to the rather extraordinary lengths of recruiting the Labour MP Chris Bryant to its cause.  He’s demanding that the British government retaliates by refusing to allow the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, to make a planned visit to the UK next week.  The coalition would be wise to take its counsel elsewhere.

Bryant is practised in the anti-Russia stuff.  Most recently he rushed to condemn Mike Hancock for the grievous crime of having a Russian employee with sympathies for her homeland.  And he also served as under secretary of state in the foreign office during David Miliband‘s virulently anti-Moscow tenure.

In any case, there are two sides to the story.   Ria Novosti reports that the Guardian journalist flouted well known accreditation rules.  It quotes Russia’s foreign ministry, which suggests that, should Harding sort out the paperwork, “he will have no problems entering the Russian Federation”.

Whatever the truth surrounding these events, Sublime Oblivion is most exercised by censorship at Comment is Free, the Guardian’s opinion website.  In a piece entitled ’some comments are freer than others’ it is alleged that up to 20% of follow up opinions have been removed from a piece about Harding, including all of those which are critical of the newspaper.  The blogger includes a synopsis of his own (deleted) contribution.

It's an interesting situation.  Harding's work certainly isn't admired in Russia but that doesn't justify denying him entry.  No doubt there was some opportunism on the authorities' part.  I suppose the acid test will be, will the journalist be permitted to sort out the necessary accreditation and if he does, well he be readmitted to Russia?

If not, it will be fleeting and puzzling score for the Russian government.

Robinson tribute calls media role into question.

BBC 1 Northern Ireland screened Below the Radar’s Peter Robinson biopic last night.  Like the company’s programme about Gerry Adams, this was more hagiography than documentary.  Robinson and Adams, two hugely controversial figures, portrayed as visionary statesmen.

Beyond the moral and factual arguments, this style of broadcasting raises a fundamental issue around the role of an independent media.  Surely its purpose is not to show political figures exactly as they wish to be shown?  That’s a job for PR consultants or party press offices.

I wonder whether the sagas around Robinson and Adams, over the past year, tell us as much about journalism in Northern Ireland than they do about the men themselves.

Twelve months ago the BBC in particular had sunk its teeth deep into Irisgate and the First Minister‘s financial affairs.  It looked like Peter Robinson’s political career was at an end.

Those events were eclipsed by a vastly overblown policing and justice saga., just another in the long series of set pieces to afflict power-sharing here.  As reporters flocked to Stormont, the British and Irish governments sought to bolster the DUP leader and keep talks at Hillsborough moving.

It’s clear that, at that point, Robinson was viewed as a pivotal figure.  Adams likewise.  As the NIO and others saw it, instability in either the DUP or Sinn Féin could put power-sharing at risk.  Should Robinson fall, it was supposed, the Democratic Unionists would take a harder line.

Meanwhile the Conservative party convened the two main Northern Irish unionist parties at Hatfield for their infamous summit.  Ostensibly the aim was to ensure policing and justice were devolved but ’unity’ was also on the agenda.

Roughly a year later the BBC, which initiated Peter Robinson’s problems with its Panorama programme, screens an hour of broadcasting completing his rehabilitation.  In less than 12 months he has gone from cynical wide-boy with an eye on the main chance, to peace-making statesman.

The process has been replicated fairly faithfully in the newspapers.   And something similar has happened with Adams - a man who plotted to cover up alleged sex abuse within his own family.

Did the media connive with the authorities to lay off Robinson and Adams?  Did it swallow the rehabilitation narrative in good faith?  Were the stories and controversies from last year vastly overblown in the first place?

I’d imagine the truth is somewhere in the middle, but each of these possibilities raises its own set of concerns.  However you assess the likely factors, it must be asked whether the process of questioning, probing and playing devil’s advocate, which a healthy media should play, is sufficiently robust in Northern Ireland.

Monday, 7 February 2011

A tribute, a publicity stunt or phishing in print?

This might be the most bizarre media story for a while.  Informed readers were not expecting to peruse a copy of the Sunday Tribune yesterday, but a paper sporting its masthead did appear in newsagents.  The southern Irish publication has entered receivership and it will not be printed for the next few weeks at least.

So what exactly was this doppelgänger?  It was a special edition of the rival Irish Mail on Sunday, "designed for" Tribune readers!  Talk about kicking someone when they're down!

The Mail's editor launches a circuitous and highly unconvincing argument about keeping people in the newspaper buying habit.  It strikes me that the exercise was nothing so much as a print media adoption of 'phishing' techniques popularised on the internet.  

There's certainly not much in the way of industry solidarity for a paper fallen on hard times.    

Friday, 4 February 2011

Yeltsin's birthday and continuity.

If Boris Yeltsin were still alive, he would have celebrated his eightieth birthday on Tuesday.  Although his record in the job was chequered, to say the least, the current Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, paid tribute to his predecessor in Yekaterinburg.

A monument to Yeltsin was unveiled in the city where he lived and where, as a communist functionary during the 1970s and 1980s, he built up his political power base.  Medvedev chose the occasion to announce an expansion of the human rights council, ordering it to investigate the cases of Yukos bosses Sergei Magitsky and Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

It was an interesting piece of symbolism - both historically and in the context of Russia‘s current system of government.  It implied that Yeltsin was the father of democracy and human rights in Russia and it rather suggested that his successors haven’t been as faithful to that legacy as they might have been.

Clearly, there are problems with that interpretation.  It can be argued that Mikhail Gorbachev should take at least as much credit for Russia’s transition to democracy.  Indeed many claim that Gorbachev was the true architect of freedom, while Yeltsin cynically manipulated it to grab power.

As for the former president as a guarantor of democracy - it was Yeltsin who started the process of emasculating the Duma and other institutions.  He allowed oligarchy and factionalism to overwhelm party politics and pluralism in the first place.  And he took on Chechen nationalism in a mismanaged, brutal war, more or less on a whim.

In short, Yeltsin put in place all the features of Russian government which, when Vladimir Putin hammered them into some semblance of order, western observers portrayed as “regressions” from democracy.

Distilled to its essentials, the popular, potted history of post-Soviet Russia runs as follows: the country experienced  a brief flowering of democracy during Yeltsin’s time in power, accompanied by massive corruption and a chaotic economy.  When Putin became President he imposed order and brought prosperity, but clamped down on political freedoms and human rights.

I exaggerate of course.  Even a casual observer knows that this is a gross simplification and can point to a degeneration of democracy during the later years of Yeltsin's presidency.  Broadly though, a lot of media analysis and some academic work comprise variations on a theme.  There are exceptions.

Recently I’ve been reading Richard Sakwa’s book about the Medvedev succession, The Crisis of Russian Democracy.  It‘s more circumspect than the title suggests.  The author launches a persuasive argument that modern Russian history cannot be understood simply as a descent back into authoritarian government.

He suggests a new model for understanding the current regime in Russia, which he calls ‘the dual state‘.  His theory is that the state derives its legitimacy from democratic institutions and adherence to the constitution, but Russia is not a western style liberal democracy because an unelected ‘administrative regime’ subverts the constitutional order. These are the various factions - bureaucrats, oligarchs and siloviki which dominate western analyses of Russia.

Sakwa’s thesis is not that the constitutional state is a convenient front for shadowy forces.  He believes the two tendencies have reached an uneasy stalemate.  The administrative element prevents genuine pluralism from flourishing, while constitutionalism prevents the imposition of full-scale authoritarianism.    

I intend to review the book in full soon.  Sakwa hangs some penetrating insights upon his model.  In particular his theories about the submersion of pluralism within the administrative system and the adaptability of clan politics, which have never developed in Russia to the extent that they have in Ukraine, to competitive party politics.

For the time being, I’ll stick to Yeltsin.  The book is relevant because it supports the point that there are significant continuities between Russian politics under Yeltsin and Russian politics under Putin and beyond.  The liberal, democratic element is still there and it‘s still important.  Medvedev alluded to it when he made his announcement on human rights.

As he signed the presidential decree, he also remarked, “I am doing this right now.  The way Yeltsin really liked to do things”.  It’s a telling comment and it hints at a consolidation of power in one institution which long preceded Putin.  The democratic element didn't die with Yeltsin and the authoritarian tendency wasn't invented by Putin.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Luzhkov mustn't be allowed to stay in Britain.

On Sublime Oblivion Anatoly Karlin notes that the disgraced former mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, has been granted permission to enter Britain.  Contrary to some reports though, he has not yet received a residence permit for the UK.

Austria and Latvia have already rejected Luzhkov’s requests to live within their borders.  His family are currently in Britain and his daughters are studying at a university in London.

All sorts of Russian dissidents, out of favour oligarchs and even terrorists have chosen to make these shores their home, over the past ten years.  Boris Berezovsky, the exiled tycoon who aspires to overthrow Russia’s government by force, and the Chechen rebel Akhmed Zakayev are two of the more prominent examples.

In a recent Conservative Home article, Carl Thomson revealed that 150 extradition requests by Moscow had been rejected by the UK since 2001.  Partly the statistic is explained by links, cultural and economic, which exist between the Russian elite and Britain.  There are many Russians living here and a minority avoid Russia because of disputes with their government or problems with the law.

The UK has no need to admit another failed klepotocrat seeking to avoid fraud proceedings in his home country.  Luzhkov ran Moscow like a personal fiefdom and it is alleged that he abused his position in order to enrich his own family.

Britain has sheltered Berezovsky, a rich manipulator who played the factional game of Russian politics and lost, under the pretence that he’s a dissident and a democrat.  It mustn’t allow Luzhkov to play the same trick.  Let him visit his family and let him leave again.

Conservatives backtracking on UUP link?

Something of a postscript to yesterday’s piece on the UUP / Tory connection.  The relationship looks even more uncertain this morning, after the Conservative party committed to “an ongoing programme of campaigning and development” in Northern Ireland.

In a press release the party’s UK joint chair, Baroness Warsi, announced that the Tories will soon open a campaign headquarters in Bangor.  A full-time member of staff will be recruited to liaise with one of the Conservatives’ “most senior campaign directors”.

In addition, the Tories’ Northern Ireland chairman, Irwin Armstrong, who tendered his resignation in December, is back.  After Tom Elliott and Andrew Feldman’s infamous meeting, he felt that his position was untenable.   Conservative central office looked set to marginalise the local membership, preferring to lend its electoral ‘franchise‘ to the UUP.

Armstrong now believes that his concerns have been addressed:

Today’s announcement from our joint Chairman Baroness Warsi confirms the unequivocal support of our leadership and board for Conservatives in Northern Ireland, their wish to have a close relationship with local Conservatives, to be at the heart of politics here, and that we will be contesting elections in future.

The local Tories will not, at this late stage, contest Assembly elections.  The UUP’s immediate goal of forestalling that threat is still achieved.  In this morning’s News Letter, though, Sam McBride reports that the Ulster Unionists were not consulted, before the latest Conservative announcements on a reorganisation in Northern Ireland.

At the very least it is clear that the local party is still a serious rival to the UUP for the affections and attentions of Tory central office.  Warsi’s statement promises that senior Conservative figures in Northern Ireland “will work with the Board of the party” in order to develop the relationship between its national and local wings.

That fulfils a long-standing aim of the local Tories to gain a foothold on the national party board.  Whereas two months ago its very future was in doubt, the Northern Ireland party is now confident enough to claim,  “we will have infrastructure in place for all future elections including an office and full time staff to support the local Executive and candidates“.

Back in December, Warsi was one of the senior Conservatives who championed the merits of a deal with the UUP, now she claims “the Conservative party in Northern Ireland has the unequivocal support of the party nationally”.

I’d imagine that the Ulster Unionists will be seeking urgent clarification this morning.  The rationale behind the Feldman / Elliott deal was that, even in a relatively weak state, the UUP could exert more influence in the Assembly and do more to strengthen the political centre ground in Northern Ireland, than could be achieved by building up the Tories’ own local presence.

That logic holds for the forthcoming election, but the Conservatives look to be keeping their options open for the future.

The relevant Tory press releases can be read in full beneath the fold.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Facebook changes

In an attempt to update the site's social networking presence a little, I've added a Facebook site for Three Thousand Versts.

Previously the link on the right hand side linked to a NetworkedBlogs application, inviting you to follow this blog.  Now the Facebook site stands alone and you just have to 'like' it in order to follow all the latest posts and news.

Confused?  Me too - but hopefully it'll all become blindingly obvious with repeated use.  Don't be shy, if you are on Facebook you can click on the link and hit 'like'.

Paterson denies Elliott his leadership pledge.

This morning’s Belfast Telegraph confirms that the government will not change the mechanism for selecting the First and Deputy First Ministers.  Yesterday Owen Paterson told the Assembly and Executive Review Committee that he won’t amend the 2006 St Andrews Act by Order-in-Council.

That’s another bitter blow for Tom Elliott, who ran his UUP leadership campaign on the premise that he could persuade the government to do just that.  No doubt the Conservatives expressed sympathy for the Ulster Unionist position that the Belfast Agreement was unjustifiably tampered with at St Andrews.

It was already clear that the game was up last week though.  The News Letter was informed by a third party that Mr Elliott stormed out of a meeting with Paterson over the issue.  The report prompted O’Neill to ask whether the latest UUP - Conservative deal was already unravelling.

It’s an interesting question.  The two ‘partners’ are remarkably shy about outlining the exact nature of their new relationship.  Is the UUP now the Conservative franchisee in Northern Ireland?  Is it bound to take the Tory whip at Westminster and in Europe, in the next set of elections?  The local Tory organisation remains in place, after all, and there are whispers that it is about to increase its campaigning capacity.

It would be wrong to claim that the Conservative / UUP partnership has not delivered anything for Northern Ireland.  Cooperation between Owen Paterson and Lord Empey played a critical role in delivered a deal for PMS savers and the two parties have driven the case for lower Corporation Tax here together, against a background of scepticism.

Whatever informal discussions took place on the issue of the OFMDFM mechanism, though, Elliott was unwise to make his influence on the issue a critical feature of the leadership campaign.  He asked the question and he was flatly denied.  Pretty simple really.

The Conservatives backed down where the Assembly elections were concerned.  Running candidates would have entailed either severing the UUP connection for good or compelling cooperation on the ground.

That doesn’t mean that the current situation will be allowed to drift indefinitely.  UCUNF, for all the confused messages which it issued, at least formed a shared platform for the two parties.  At the current time there is a link, but no-one is exactly sure what it means.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Irish Environment and Northern Ireland Water

Just to point you in the direction of my article in Irish Environment, an "online resource for environmental matters on the island of Ireland".  It revisits the water crisis over the Christmas break.

Transfer deadline frenzy as Liverpool spend big. But has the club made the right decisions?

I can’t say I’ve missed Sky Sports News much since it was withdrawn from Freeview.  Yesterday though, I felt a pang.  As British football clubs flung cash around like drunken sailors, on transfer deadline day, rolling overkill and overwrought hyperbole was precisely what was needed.

Chelsea and Liverpool were the biggest spenders during January‘s window.  As Fernando Torres edged ever closer to a record breaking move to Stamford Bridge, there was an ill disguised frenzy at Anfield to reinvest tens of millions of pounds anticipated from the transfer.    

The club first completed the purchase of Luis Suarez from Ajax.  The fee, a mere £23 million, had been agreed over the weekend, but the player only put pen to paper yesterday.  More controversially, a reported £35 million was then spent on Newcastle’s young striker Andy Carroll.

Liverpool’s caretaker manager, Kenny Dalglish, spoke about securing a “marquee signing” during January in order to boost morale.  In the event the club managed two such purchases, but lost its best player.  There is undoubtedly a high degree of risk to its last minute wheeling and dealing.

The January transfer window is a notoriously tricky option for team building.  With half a season’s football under their belts, clubs can easily be tempted into panic buying and the hot-house atmosphere lends itself to vastly inflated price tags.

If Liverpool’s gamble gives the club a mid-season fillip and gives it the impetus to push on up the table, then Dalglish and FSG will feel vindicated.  If, on the other hand, it deprives a new manager (whomever that might be) of the funds to rebuild in the calmer summer months of pre-season, it will be a major error.

Both the transfers involve players of unproven potential.  Suarez is exactly the type of bright young world star whom Liverpool should be chasing.  He is quick, hard-working and as the videos show, can do a passing on-field impression of Torres.

His reputation, though, has been built at international level and at Ajax, playing in the reasonably forgiving Dutch league.  His youth gives him a good chance of adapting to English football, but Liverpool supporters must be patient, despite the large transfer fee.

Critics will point to Diego Forlan, as a precedent for a Uruguayan international failing to settle sufficiently quickly in England.  And Liverpool need look no further than their own Dirk Kuyt to see that impressive goal-scoring tallies in Holland aren’t always replicated in the Premier League.

At least Kuyt is an asset to the club.  Ryan Babel’s potential was never realised and he is another high-profile player who has moved during the transfer window.  Liverpool finally cut its losses, recouping around £7 million, after the Dutchman signed for Hoffenheim.

If Suarez is something of an unknown quantity, the wisdom of a £35 million investment in Andy Carroll is even more open to doubt.  He is certainly a talent, possessing height, aerial ability and a powerful left footed shot. There are also serious questions over his temperament, discipline, lifestyle and fitness.  Liverpool has spent the sort of money usually reserved for a sure thing, on players about whom there is considerable uncertainty.

Can Carroll and Suarez gel into a formidable partnership?  Will the former, in particular, fit the passing game which Dalglish favours?  Admittedly, I’ve had few chances to watch the player, other than on Match of the Day.  During a highlights package, he’s the man whom Newcastle frenziedly lump the ball up to during the last ten minutes of matches.  For my liking, they became too reliant on hoofing it up to the big man.  Liverpool supporters won't appreciate a similar approach.

If Carroll’s greatest asset is his aerial ability, how, in any case, does Liverpool hope to supply him with consistent service?  The team still desperately lacks width.  There was speculation that the club could also tempt Ashley Young away from Aston Villa yesterday, but that transfer didn’t materialise.

No-one can deny that Liverpool has shown ambition in targeting promising young players and spending serious money.  Partly that ambition was facilitated by Torres departure, partly it was forced upon a new ownership, desperate to reassure fans that a major departure would not derail their plans.

Has the club made the right decisions under these circumstances?  I don’t think there’ll be a definitive answer to that question until at least next season.