Thursday, 31 March 2011

Feldman pledges to back Conservatives in Northern Ireland.

Andrew Feldman, the Conservative chairman, visited Bangor yesterday to open the party’s new campaign headquarters.   He subsequently addressed a dinner in North Down, setting out the Tories’ plans in Northern Ireland, in a speech which should boost morale among local activists.

Feldman made significant assurances to Conservatives here.  The Northern Ireland party wants to be treated just like it would in any other region of the United Kingdom - last night the chairman pledged to do just that and to ensure that local Tories have “the tools to succeed”.

His motives have been questioned elsewhere, but let’s be blunt: if Conservative Central Office had any intention of cutting Northern Ireland Conservatives adrift it wouldn’t sink more time and resources into the organisation here.

Yet Feldman opened the new office and pledged to staff it with a full time employee paid for by CCHQ.  The new staff member will report to one of the party’s most senior campaign directors and access the Conservatives’ state of the art campaign resources.

That’s a serious commitment.  It certainly isn’t a sentimental concession designed to placate loyal members in North Down.  Politics isn’t a sentimental business and if the Conservative party centrally wasn’t dedicated to building up its profile in Northern Ireland, it would simply get out and stay out.

In the interim, Feldman spelled out what he expects from local activists.  The party needs to grow its membership and its organisation on the ground.   Northern Ireland is expected to play its part in a nationwide recruitment drive.

A sustained attempt to build from the ground up seems like good stout common sense and it should help ensure a solid platform to stand candidates in future elections.

There’s not a shadow of doubt that David Cameron’s unionism is genuine or that the ’one nation’ approach he brings to politics throughout the UK is still in evidence.  There’s obviously been a debate within the Conservative Party about how best to bring mainstream British politics to Northern Ireland.  Despite the vagaries of the debate and the frustrations of UCUNF the Tories are still determined to realise that goal.

Feldman’s visit and the tenor of his speech is a clear signal of that continued commitment.  There is absolutely no obligation on the Conservative Chairman to visit Northern Ireland to rally troops for “the future of the party in this great part of the United Kingdom”.

UCUNF may be dead, but it appears that the ideals behind it are alive and kicking.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Never a dull moment with the UUP

A rather hectic week last week prevented me from commenting on the UUP’s nightmare start to the election campaign.  When Thursday started with high profile stories of a sex scandal and a resignation splashed across the newspapers Tom Elliott could hardly have expected the day to get worse.  Cometh the hour, cometh McNarry, who decided to tear into Basil McCrea and John McCallister, live on the Nolan Show.

The pair had deviated from their leader’s view on Martin McGuinness and the First Minister’s position.  In league with North Belfast MLA, Fred Cobain, Elliott suggested to Liam Clarke that the UUP might form a single Assembly group with the DUP, after the election, in order to prevent Sinn Féin taking the top spot.  It was, he assured us, both possible and legal.  McCrea and McCallister begged to differ, insisting that unionists should simply accept the result of the election.

It’s quite a merry-go-round for the Ulster Unionists.  The leader surprises leading figures within his own party by announcing controversial policy through the pages of the Belfast Telegraph - the miffed 'liberals' respond by contradicting him on live radio - McNarry rings in to deliver one of his trademark rants.  If there are other parties for which this type of thing happens, they are few and far between.

Elliott seems to be adopting a curious leadership style whereby he throws the liberals in his party a bone, then announces something to mollify the hard-liners.  Hence we had the talk about opposition and agreeing a programme for government before forming the Executive followed by fulminating about McGuinness and suggesting that UUP ministers will form a bloc with the DUP.  The problem is that the positions are often completely incompatible.

O’Neill neatly summarises the result.  The DUP is now coasting towards topping another Assembly poll without any hindrance from the Ulster Unionists.  Peter Robinson need only keep a steady ship.

The UUP will certainly be about after the next election, they have too many MLAs with personal followings for it to be otherwise, but the party will do exceptionally well to avoid losing ground.  And as a collective the Ulster Unionists are widely perceived as more hapless and divided than ever before.

There’s nothing to suggest that the new Assembly will witness a more purposeful, coherent force.  If anything Elliott is sowing the seeds of more dissent, more acrimony and possibly more defections, with his confused policy positions.

One thing we can say about the UUP - watching it and reading about it is rarely dull.  If the party does disappear at some point during the next ten years there will be a cracking book to be written about its slow suicide.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

No Plan B for Northern Ireland as Nigel looks to burgle Slovenes again.

My personal trip to Serbia turned into something of an epic, thanks to travel complications.  Via seven airports, five delays and six flights, though, I finally made it back.  Tonight it’s Northern Ireland vs. Slovenia in a match which could signal a premature end to our qualification hopes.

The match in Belgrade posed more questions about Nigel Worthington’s future.  Fans questioned his choice of personnel before the game had even started, but it was the tactical decisions (or lack thereof) during play which were fatal.

Northern Ireland took a 1-0 lead, after unexpectedly dominating the first half.  Rather than press home the advantage the team reverted to the slow, negative approach which the manager so clearly favours.

Worthington was unfortunate that Lafferty had to be replaced by David Healy at half-time.  But he chose not to give the striker more support and he refused to make changes as his players became pinned back by wave after wave of Serbian attacks.

In the end the 2-1 defeat seemed inevitable.  The younger players whom Worthington had selected drifted out of the game badly, but the manager let them struggle on regardless.  It was the classic example of a team without any plan B.

That will be a problem again at Windsor Park.  Already it looks likely that Northern Ireland will line up looking desperately lightweight up front.  Warren Feeney is expected to start and although he has showed excellent work-rate and an eye for goal in the past, his career and fitness are both in doubt.  As a lone striker graft on its own is not likely to be enough.

During Slovenia’s last visit to Windsor Park the visitors dominated the match, but failed to show a cutting edge.  Likewise, in Maribor last Autumn, the Slovenes squandered chance after chance and succumbed to a late Corey Evans goal.

Northern Ireland must hope that their luck against Slovenia holds.  It’ll probably be another dour performance and the best we can hope for is a scrambled goal and lots of last gasp defending.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Minister McCausland continues his 'Kulturkampf'.

With a Conservative / Liberal coalition government in place at Westminster, hands-off government is  in vogue in London.  Not so in Belfast.

Here there are few more hands-on Executive members than Nelson McCausland.  His conception of the work of a culture minister is more in tune with a 1930s dictatorship than a liberal democracy in 2011.

Fresh from telling the Ulster Museum which history it should reflect in its collection and how much swearing should take place in the theatre, the minister intensifies his ‘Kulturkampf’ by demanding that Belfast Festival change its programme.

No such difficulties for McCausland’s chosen projects.  It’s a golden age for the Ulster Scot and only two days ago his department published a document promoting marching bands.  Talk about the silo mentality and ministers’ fiefdoms!

The latest intervention by McCausland asks for more pro-Israeli views at the Belfast Festival at Queens and “some southern gospel music”.  I wonder how exactly the minister would define his remit.  He seems to think its his job to tell people what their culture is.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Government responsive on Corporation Tax issue.

The chancellor of the exchequer is still in the House of Commons defending his budget statement.  One of the eye catching measures announced by George Osborne this afternoon is an additional 1% cut in corporation tax, aimed at stimulating growth, on top of the 1% which was already planned.  In order to signal that Britain is ’open for business’ the rate will also fall in the succeeding three years, reaching 23% in 2014.

Appropriately enough, just before the budget debate, Owen Paterson announced that the consultation paper on devolving corporation tax raising powers to Northern Ireland will be published tomorrow.  It’s argued that we are peculiarly disadvantaged when it comes to attracting international investment, because our near neighbours in the Irish Republic enjoy a CT rate of just 12.5%.

The Secretary of State has long championed the idea that the Stormont Assembly should be allowed to cut taxes in order to make Northern Ireland a more competitive destination for business.  The initiative is very much the Conservatives’ “baby”, with local parties blowing hot and cold on the issue.

Our current crop of politicians may yet decide to reject an opportunity to stimulate the economy.  In the short term, tax receipts are likely to fall and Sammy Wilson has put on record his scepticism about making up the shortfall.  Any decision to devolve the tax could also spark controversy in other UK regions.

No-one can deny that Paterson and the government have gone the extra mile in an attempt to help Northern Ireland help itself.  There are powerful arguments around the rights and wrongs of varying taxes within a single state, however, if CT is devolved, it’s an impressive response to the unique demands of our economy and a show of political pragmatism.

Business spelt out the unique problems facing Northern Ireland and it looks like the government has listened.  We'll soon see whether local politicians want to be handed responsibilities and opportunities or whether they just want to be nannied.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Opposition prospects.

Another note to point you in the direction of an article published elsewhere.  In this month's AgendaNI magazine I sum up the debate around an opposition in the Assembly.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Budget 'buddies' squaring up for six week sham fight.

My column from Friday's Irish News (not online).

In seven days time the assembly will dissolve ahead of May’s election.  That means anyone who’d got used to the current cuddly relationship between the DUP and Sinn Féin will have to readjust.

For a six week period the parties will inhabit only one of Northern Ireland’s parallel political realities.   It used to be known as normality.  It’s a place where the ‘budget buddies’ are implacable foes.

So where a week or two ago, he was lauding Caitriona Ruane and Conor Murphy for their prowess in the executive, DUP leader Peter Robinson will claim he’s the man to halt Sinn Féin in its tracks. His colleague in the first minister’s office, Martin McGuinness, will cease being a responsible partner in government and resume his role as chief menace to loyal Ulster.

Meanwhile the Shinners will stop acting like Sammy Wilson‘s backing chorus.  Instead we’ll hear a lot  about the “united Ireland project” which is rolling forward with irresistible momentum thanks to Sinn Féin.

They’ll hark back to the hunger strikes, whose anniversary coincides with polling day.  We might even hear again about the “re-conquest of Ireland”; a phrase coined by Gerry Adams to describe his party’s 3.4% swing in the Republic’s general election.

Sinn Féin will tempt nationalists with the prospect of beating the DUP into second place and nominating a first minister, with unimaginable consequences for Northern Ireland.  The DUP will drive its campaign with the threat that Sinn Féin could become the biggest party and nominate a first minister, with unimaginable consequences for Northern Ireland.

It’s a mutually beneficial relationship, powered by the fear and loathing it inspires in voters.  This year it will be turbo-charged by the notion that Sinn Féin can expect a ’bounce’ after its relative success in the Irish election.

No-one is keener to foster that idea than Sinn Féin itself, but with the DUP likely to buy into it too, it could become a self-fulfilling prophesy.   In many respects the northern campaign kicked off immediately after the election count in Louth, with Adams posturing and preening for the cameras.

Admittedly Sinn Féin had reason to celebrate, but against the background of Fianna Fail’s implosion, its share of the spoils was hardly overwhelming.  Adams et al achieved moderate success, by surfing anti-establishment feeling and barely mentioning the North.

FF, with its strong nationalist credentials, was decimated, yet the vast bulk of voters fled to parties traditionally less preoccupied with the border.  Hardly evidence for a resurgence of old style republicanism, still less an important victory for an “all-Ireland project” or a “re-conquest of Ireland”.

Indeed prevailing wisdom in the Republic holds that if Adams’ old style anti-partition politics come to the fore in the Dail, rather than the party’s younger generation, Sinn Féin will struggle to build upon a decent electoral platform.

The party’s seasoned northern hands were wily enough to make hay while the sun shone nonetheless.  All that stuff about conquests and advancing the all-Ireland cause is aimed primarily at northern rather than southern voters.  And it finds no more receptive audience than the DUP.

On the Monday morning after the Irish poll, with some counts still continuing, the unionist party unveiled its candidate list for the assembly election.  It was accompanied by the predictable dour warnings that a Sinn Féin First Minister would hand republicans a propaganda victory and the DUP’s doomsday scenario that Martin McGuinness could take the top spot and refuse to meet the Queen.      

The fact that the two parties often work together like a single unit in the Assembly isn‘t mentioned.  No matter, either, that their MLAs and ministers forged a genuine alliance during the three months it took to pass the budget from its draft stage.

The paradoxes don’t end there.  If Sinn Féin does get a ‘bounce’ it will come from an election where it acted principally as a vehicle for protest.  Here the party’s robust defence of an austerity budget firmly entrenches it within a new political establishment.

The DUP will play the Martin McGuinness card for all its worth, yet simultaneously talk up its record of cooperation in government, brandishing novel liberal credentials for the benefit of moderate unionists, .

It’s an irony that the two parties are just as interdependent fighting an election as poisonous enemies, as they are acting like cosy colleagues and passing legislation at Stormont.  That may infuriate opponents - but the DUP and Sinn Féin show every sign of continuing to juggle their contradictions successfully.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Budget wrangle brings opposition closer.

Sorry for the slow blogging this week.  Part of the reason was a trip to watch Liverpool succumb to FC Braga in the Europa League.  Anything must be cheerier than that, even Northern Ireland politics, and in that spirit I direct you toward my piece in Wednesday's Belfast Telegraph.  I argue that, with de facto opposition developing at Stormont, sooner or later the institutions will have to change.

The contours of an opposition to the de facto coalition between Sinn Fein and the DUP are already taking shape. Outside Stormont the two larger parties pose as the bitterest of enemies, but in the Assembly chamber and around the Executive table they often act as one.
During the Budget debate MLA after MLA rose to chastise the SDLP or accuse the UUP of complicity in "Tory cuts". The only way to tell Sinn Fein from DUP was the "cúpla focal" of Irish deployed by the Shinners. 
Across the Assembly the smaller parties looked embattled, huddling together against a tongue-lashing from Wilson and his supporters. It was raw, angry politics, but it was democracy in action nonetheless. 
With the UUP and the SDLP still considering their positions in the Executive, there is an intriguing possibility that the system at Stormont may change by default. 
It appears the Assembly is evolving opposition politics, whether there is consensus on tinkering with the institutions or not. Sinn Fein and the DUP represent a majority of voters in Northern Ireland and they're entitled to force through decisions on that basis. It's up to other parties to point out where their policies are flawed and advocate credible alternatives. 
It's become increasingly apparent during the Budget wrangle that the UUP and SDLP are already acting like an opposition. The structures should be put in place to let them do that job properly. 
Two parties are now thoroughly marginalised within an Executive effectively operating as a coalition between Sinn Fein and the DUP, with Alliance a willing junior partner. Whether they pull their ministers out now, or encourage them to hang on until the election, the UUP and SDLP must still present an alternative to DUP/Sinn Fein-led government. The debate about an opposition at Stormont rages on, but things are already moving in that direction. Sooner or later the formalities will be put in place and our politics will be the healthier for it.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Politics at Stormont slowly coming to the fore.

In Friday's News Letter I contributed a column on the budget debate to the paper's Political Review.  If you can stomach the scarily detailed headshot (seriously guys - invest in some serious airbrushing technology!) it's now online.

Towards the end of the article I consider the upshot of the debate.

Michael McGimpsey and Danny Kennedy, the UUP’s executive members, voted explicitly against the budget. Alex Attwood, the SDLP’s social development minister, simply absented himself from the chamber, in order to avoid breaking the assembly’s ministerial code. 
It’s an odd way of doing business. But then the system of government in Northern Ireland is a strange system. On the one hand the smaller parties say their voices aren’t heard in the supposed five-party coalition. 
On the other hand, the larger parties claim that the UUP and SDLP are prepared to accept the trappings of power, but refuse to take responsibility for taking the difficult decisions. 
Neither argument is without merit. But ironically it is the black cloud of recession which might offer a silver lining for Stormont. 
Since the financial crisis, the old sectarian wrangles have receded into the background, while the economy — the focus of normal politics — has taken centre stage. 
The budget exchanges at Stormont were venomous and they expose some deep political divisions, but for once those divisions aren’t along traditional lines. 
The debate was certainly a depressing spectacle at times. There were some poor quality speeches and our parties are still desperately confused about where they stand on the left — right spectrum.
Still, while the parties inevitably resort to age-old antipathies come election time, there are new interests and alliances coming to the fore in the assembly. 
Something resembling real politics is threatening to break out. The power-sharing structures may soon need to change in order to catch up.

    Friday, 11 March 2011

    No whitewash here ...

    So that's the Robinsons' rehabilitation completed then.  More than a year after it was begun.  Policing and Justice devolved, Peter Robbo and his mates preserved.  All is well in Northern Ireland.  Sleep well.

    The budget and stadium construction. Put those celebrations on hold.

    The very future of international football in Northern Ireland has been in doubt in recent years, thanks to a crumbling stadium at Windsor Park in Belfast.  The local league has also suffered, with inadequate facilities falling foul of health and safety requirements.  One of the few pieces of good news in the budget is that money has been set aside to improve sports venues in Northern Ireland.

    The headline amount is £138 million, with GAA and rugby union getting £61.4m and £15m respectively.  Football is also set to claim a £61.4 million share.

    The IFA has released a statement welcoming its allocation and, in difficult economic times, securing funding to renovate Windsor Park and other grounds is a result, but the Association should be aware that the figures require a bit of exploration.

    Firstly, the aspiration is to give football £61.4 million over six years, rather than the four years covered by the budget.  The figures reveal (PDF) that it will come on stream slowly, with sport as a whole receiving only £11.8 million in capital spend next year.

    That will rise to £69.8 million in 2014 - 15.  Only £133 million in total is allocated over the four year budget period.  Not all of that money will be poured into the "big three" sports‘ stadium plans.

    Secondly, the whole of football’s share is not on firm foundations.  The presumption is that the full allocation for rugby and GAA stadiums is allotted during this four year period, as is the £25million required to refurbish Windsor Park.  The balance required to complete football’s ’regional stadiums’ then needs to be found in the following four years’ budget.  I’d not be treating that as if it were money in the bank just yet, if I were the IFA.

    Supposing it receives the full sum and can complete the work on budget, the Association will be required to divvy up its money among deserving projects.  Rather surprisingly, the IFA does have a strategy document which lays out its priorities.

    Its objective is to develop Windsor Park as a national stadium and in addition provide six regional facilities, three with a capacity 6,000 or more and three with a capacity of 4,000 or more.  These would be distributed, two apiece, across three roughly defined geographical areas: Greater Belfast, Mid Ulster and the North West.

    As it stands, the IFA’s priority, after Windsor Park, is to develop a stadium in East Belfast, which will house Glentoran FC, further develop the Coleraine Showgrounds and Shamrock Park in Portadown and establish a National Training Centre.

    Reportedly, some of the money will also go to Derry City Council in order to build a new stadium.  That could prove contentious, as it will house Derry City, who play in the Republic’s League of Ireland rather than the IFA's Irish League and who have had a chequered financial past (to say the least).

    Football and the other sports are entitled to be relieved that their stadium plans have not been wiped out by the economic crisis.  Though the IFA, in particular, shouldn’t celebrate too heartily just yet.  It still has a difficult task ahead to ensure that Northern Irish football and the international team emerge with decent facilities and a hopeful future.

    Thursday, 10 March 2011

    The art of saying something and nothing.

    UCUNF is dead says Tom Elliott.  Tell us something we don't know Tom.  He's already made it perfectly clear that the UUP will stand under its own banner in forthcoming elections.  So what's new?

    Well the Ulster Unionist leader's relationship with the Secretary of State has deteriorated, after Owen Paterson declined to change the mechanism for nominating the First Minister.  Other than that - not much.

    Jim Nicholson is still part of the Conservative group at the European Parliament.  There are few complications with Lord Empey acting as a Tory peer, now that he will not run for the Ulster Unionists at Stormont.  And the whole troublesome topic of taking a whip at Westminster can be deferred for another few years.

    Wednesday, 9 March 2011

    Budget debate rages on.

    I've been dipping in and out of the budget debate at Stormont today.  A vote will take place some time later this evening.  Meanwhile both the SDLP and the UUP have proposed amendments to the Finance Minister's figures.

    The Ulster Unionist suggested reallocation amounts to an extra £165 million for health in the first year of the budget.  It would be interesting to know whether there are any negotiations taking place outside the chamber.  Can we consider that the price-tag for UUP votes? 

    Tuesday, 8 March 2011

    No to normalisation from First Ministers,

    So the DUP and Sinn Féin are ‘furious’ (to use the journalistese) that David Cameron won’t constantly listen to their special pleading.  They're learning that this is a hands-off Prime Minister who allows his ministers to run their own departments, hence the government's go to man in Northern Ireland is Secretary of State, Owen Paterson.

    Ed Miliband, who visited yesterday, claims in contrast that he would operate an “open door” policy (revolving door?) for Stormont’s top politicos.   Mark Devenport points out that the Labour leader is not so quick to communicate with his own supporters in Northern Ireland.  When David Cameron comes here, his followers are the first to know.

    The chief difference is that Cameron always visits, in part, as an active Conservative politician seeking backing for his party and its allies in this part of the United Kingdom.  That doesn't make us exceptional enough for quasi-statesmen like Peter Robinson or Martin McGuinness.

    Monday, 7 March 2011

    Drop the ill-conceived sports' section of the Justice Bill.

    The Assembly is set to consider the Justice Bill again today, once Edwin Poots is done thrilling members with the latest instalment on High Hedges.  Previously, when David Ford’s draft went before the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure, it became apparent that Part 4 of the Bill, which covers sport, is unfit for purpose.

    I previously pointed out that David McNarry, while he couched it in typically inflated, sectarian terms, had a valid point when he argued that football should not be the sole focus of sections on ticket touts and banning orders.

    GAA, football and rugby clubs around the country have also been alarmed by the sections on alcohol at sporting events.  It’s been pointed out that the legislation would not simply cover the pesky aggressive louts whom the authorities want to stop drinking - it would also put an end to ANY corporate hospitality at sports venues and punch a massive hole in many clubs’ business models.

    Ulster Rugby has been particularly vocal, voicing its concern that rugby at Ravenhill will be unsustainable without bar receipts and entertaining.  The Ulster Branch recently invested heavily in a new grandstand to house corporate guests.

    The response from the IFA and football clubs generally has been, predictably, less organised and coherent.  Though the SDLP's Declan O’Loan did raise the issue of very well run “corporate dinners” which one Irish League club uses successfully to supplement its income.  It’s difficult to see what earthly purpose could be served by preventing such an event from taking place.

    A hastily drafted clause intended to prevent sectarian or political chanting has already been dropped.  It seems that the entire sports section of the Bill was lifted straight from old GB legislation, with little or no thought to the consequences.

    Perhaps its time for the Justice Minister to drop Part 4 of his bill in its entirety.  The UUP's East Antrim candidate, Rodney McCune, pointed out below the previous thread that the test for any legislation is necessity.  He's justified in claiming that David Ford has failed to satisfy that test.

    Friday, 4 March 2011

    Opposition politics already evolving at the Assembly.

    So what did we learn from this morning’s Budget debate at the Assembly?  Not much in concrete terms.  We know that the Finance Minister claims (PDF) he has found an extra £120 million for health and £150 million for education, but the UUP and SDLP are still sceptical about the figures.

    From a broader perspective one thing is certainly clear.  The contours of an Opposition to the de facto coalition at Stormont are already taking shape.  The exchanges in the chamber this morning, tattered and fractious though they were, looked a lot like a Budget Statement debate at Westminster.

    The core of the Executive, Sinn Féin and the DUP, bummed up Sammy Wilson’s speech as best they could.  It was, after all, their programme which was revealed to the Assembly.  The UUP and SDLP scrambled to grasp the detail and respond, for the time being managing to land few blows.

    In a so-called five party coalition it looks like dysfunction, in a voluntary coalition it looks a bit like normal politics.  The opposition listens to the Finance Minister’s statement, having had the details presented as a fait accompli only hours before, and then sets about drilling down into the figures and poking holes in the spin.

    The DUP and Sinn Féin might pose as the bitterest of enemies, but we’ve witnessed on many occasions how they can act as one in the Assembly chamber.  This morning MLA after MLA from the two parties rose to chastise the SDLP and accuse the UUP of culpability for “Tory cuts”.

    The Alliance Party, still pathetically grateful for its gerrymandered ministry, suggests that the smaller unionist and nationalist parties should put up and shut up by leaving the Executive.  On one level this is seriously ironic - both are entitled to ministers under d’Hondt, while Alliance is not.

    On another it makes perfect sense.  Let the DUP and Sinn Féin suck the life-blood out of their APNI fig-leaf.  Get on with doing the job you’ve already been edged into doing but do it wholeheartedly and well.

    If the coming election were fought on a truthful basis the electorate’s choice would be self-evident.  Keep the current DUP-Sinn Féin coalition, or vote for the UUP and SDLP, in order to encourage them to form an alternative government.

    Instead we’ll have a charade where this morning’s bosom buddies will tear each other to shreds.  The DUP will urge voters to marginalise Sinn Féin - it's de facto ally.  It’s a nonsense and with every passing year it becomes yet clearer that it’s a nonsense.

    There is already a governing coalition in place and, although the UUP and SDLP have ministries, they’re not part of it.  The smaller parties are increasingly acting like an Opposition.

    Opposition politics are already evolving at Stormont.  The formalities are not yet in place, but that's the way things are moving.

    Thursday, 3 March 2011

    Happy birthday Gorby - fitting recognition as President Medvedev decorates Gorbachev,

    Yesterday Mikhail Gorbachev celebrated his eightieth birthday.  The architect of reform in the former Soviet Union is the epitome of a ‘prophet not without honour, except in his own country‘.  Feted in the rest of the world for dismantling the apparatus of a totalitarian state, he is a marginal figure in Russia.

    There are signs, though, that his contribution is beginning to be recognised.  In the Manezh Central Exhibition Hall in Moscow, within spitting distance of the Kremlin’s walls, an exhibition of photographs,  ‘Mikhail Gorbachev: Perestroika’, charts his career and political evolution.

    More significantly Gorbachev was awarded Russia’s highest national honour to mark his birthday.  President Medvedev decorated the former Soviet leader with the Order of St Andrew.  Medvedev spoke about the ’immense labour’ Gorbachev contributed to Russia and the USSR at a ’difficult and dramatic time’.

    Elsewhere commentators are using the occasion to reflect upon Mikhail Sergeyevich’s legacy.  In Novaya Gazeta, which Gorby part owns, Lilia Shevtsova argues that in recent times  “only one leader - Gorbachev -  determined the long-term history of the global order”.  At oD Russia, Archie Brown hails a politician whose “open mind” took him on a journey from communism to social democracy.

    “Let God, history and Gorbachev himself judge his failings”, implores Konstantin von Eggert in a Ria Novosti column, “his achievements are monumental”.  Even those who disagree with him, von Eggert observes, acknowledge that Russia’s greatest living statesman is honest.

    In another lengthy feature on the Ria Novosri site Nikolai Troitsky is more ambivalent about Gorbachev’s achievements.  “His reforms actually caused the collapse of the country”, Troitsky says - echoing the misgivings of many of his countrymen, but he continues, “thanks to his efforts, freedom was given room to flourish”.

    Meanwhile, the Moscow Times notes that there “are several aspects [of Gorbachev’s career] worthy of emulation by Russia’s current leadership”.  The liberal paper, aimed at the Russian capital‘s expat community, recommends modern “perestroika” for the economy and a new spirit of glasnost among the country’s politicians.

    The man himself also continues to advocate reform.  He urges greater freedom and fairness in State Duma elections due to take place next December.  And although he claims to like both Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin personally, he hopes Putin will not consider a third term as President, once Medvedev’s current spell elapses in 2012.          

    Of all the charges levelled at Gorbachev, the most unjust is that he is merely a relic of communism, who set out to tweak the Soviet system and ended up unleashing forces which he could not resist or understand.  The former President of the USSR was no powerless bureaucrat, he was a genuine reformer whose vision evolved as events unfolded.

    It was fitting that he received recognition from Medvedev, a man who some argue represents the better instincts of the current Kremlin regime.  The President frequently emphasises the importance of encouraging business and entrepreneurship in an orderly environment governed by the rule of law, while Gorbachev started the tentative process of granting enterprises’ independence and permitting private ownership, back in the late 1980s.  Medvedev pays lip-service to the merits of an open press, while Gorby owns an opposition newspaper.  They both talk about freer and fairer elections as a mark of progress.

    There is understandable reticence, some differences and neither man wants to get too cosy, but there is a continuum there.  It’s fitting that Dmitry Medvedev showed his respect for a worthy forbear and wished Mikhail Sergeyevich happy birthday in style.

    Wednesday, 2 March 2011

    i confused!

    The Independent's brief i (there I did it) newspaper has been available in Northern Ireland for a couple of weeks now.  It's a decent stab at a quality paper in digestible form.   

    It must be said though that the Independent sometimes takes the breath away with its lazy and ill-informed coverage of Irish politics, north and south. Compact cousin doesn't look like it's going to be much better.  Take today's 'Opinion Matrix', which compiles comment on selected stories, from 'home and abroad'. 

    Under a caption, "Ireland's long road to prosperity", the paper notes, "The past few years have been appalling for Ireland's economy.  Could recent elections provide a much needed fillip?".  

    Now although the paper erroneously refers to the whole of Ireland, we're talking the Republic here.  After all, that's where the election just took place.  

    So which commentary does i choose to reproduce?

    "Sustainable peace will require years of focused work by the Assembly and Executive.  But we must set the direction and invest resources for the development of civic society.  The draft budget should be adjusted to recognise the interconnectedness between prosperity and creating a stable society.  We need a Programme for Government and a Budget in which building a peaceful society is a central theme.  Some things just don't go away you know."

    That is Duncan Morrow's commentary on the Stormont budget for Northern Ireland, as printed in Monday's Belfast Telegraph.   But then you'd already worked out it wasn't talking about the other part of Ireland!

    I do enjoy the Independent and I was enjoying i.  But you can't help wonder about some of the paper's other content, when it gets things close to home so wrong.  Not so long ago the Independent ascribed a loyalist pipe bomb attack in Antrim to Republicans, so this isn't a single lapse by any means.

    Empey won't double job after all - UUP keeps the moral high-ground.

    When the UUP included Lord Empey on its candidate list for the Assembly election I accused the party of attempting to wriggle out of commitments on double mandates on a technicality.  Eamonn Mallie reports that the former Ulster Unionist leader will not now contest his seat in East Belfast.  He notes "Reg Empey has set the bar on double-jobbing".  You can't say fairer than that.  Credit to the UUP for doing the right thing in this instance and taking the moral high-ground.

    Tuesday, 1 March 2011

    Libyans need only look to NATO's "successful" operation in Yugoslavia to prove intervention isn't needed.

    What a month to debate military intervention in another country’s affairs!  The 24th of March marks the twelfth anniversary of NATO bombing Yugoslavia.  The supposed success of that mission buoyed the interventionists, inspired Tony Blair and set the scene for a bloody decade to come.      

    Now the Gaddafi regime is proving resistant to concerted internal opposition to remove it and peaceful western pressure for it to go.  Yesterday David Cameron asked his Ministry of Defence to draw up plans for a “no fly zone” in Libya, which could prevent the Colonel bombing his enemies.  It’s not Belgrade 1999, but the rhetoric about not “standing idly by” has a similar ring.  Nick Robinson asks whether this could be "Cameron's first war".

    No wonder some Libyans are nervous.  They need only look at Iraq to see the possible costs of western “help“.  The debate still rages as to whether the country is better off, now that its bloodthirsty dictator has been removed and replaced by foreign soldiers and a political vacuum.

    Never mind Iraq, the Yugoslav bombings are still cited as the model for successful intervention: even though they were disastrous for Serbia, Kosovo and the wider Balkan region.  The only genuine winners were politicians in NATO countries whose reputations were given a short-term boost.

    While the explicit intention of Operation Allied Force was humanitarian, it quickly turned into a bombardment designed to bring down the Milosevic government.  Its brutal tactic was to destroy Serbia and make normal life untenable for the population, in order to force “regime change”,

    As a predictable consequence, in Kosovo, the protection of whose population was the ostensible aim of the bombing, the Yugoslav army’s anti-insurgency tactics turned into all out ethnic cleansing.  The Balkan refugee crisis became incomparably worse.

    In Serbia proper, NATO unleashed indirect chemical warfare, deliberately targeting factories, oil-refineries and similar targets; a tactic outlawed by the Geneva conventions.  Cluster bombs peppered the Serb countryside, resulting in deaths and maiming civilians.

    The attack's environmental and economic cost was felt far beyond the former Yugoslavia.  As oil from bombed refineries poured into the Danube, the wider region suffered. Romania's struggling economy alone lost an estimated £1 billion - an astronomical sum for that country at the time.

    And of course the bombing's consequences still disfigure the region to this day.  The Milosevic regime is long gone, but Serbia’s politics and economy remain stunted.  He must take a large share of the blame, but the bombing made things incomparably worse.

    In the aftermath of its Operation, rather than sponsor a process of reconciliation, NATO put in place a runt state - Kosovo - still unrecognised by four of its own members.  The legacy is crime, smuggling, gangsterism and reverse-cleansing.  Kosovo’s Prime Minister, Haksim Thaci, has been exposed as a murderous thug, but to paraphrase Harry Truman, he’s NATO’s murderous thug.      

    So that takes care of a “successful intervention“.  There have been a couple more since, widely regarded as not nearly so successful.

    I’m no military expert.  I don’t know whether a ’no fly zone’ can be implemented quickly and painlessly.  If it is a risk free way of preventing Gaddafi from wreaking mayhem, it should be looked at.  But let’s draw the line there right now.

    Better late than flawed: The CSI Strategy

    Over at the Integrated Education Fund's new blog I ask why the Executive's Programme for Cohesion, Sharing and Integration has stalled.