Thursday, 25 August 2011

Transparency on Spads

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

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

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

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

By itwassammymcnallywhatdoneit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Operation 'Certain Death'

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 25th March, 4.15 pm:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Guest post: The other football world cup

The following is a guest post from itwassammymcnallywhatdoneit, who well be well known among Slugger readers.  Thanks to Sammy for a great pre competition analysis.  Coincidentally I'm off to Dublin on Saturday to see the Irish team prepare for the competition with another match against France. 
On the 9th September the Rugby football world cup kicks off and for a sizeable minority on the island of Ireland this will be the major sporting event of this year – if not the last four.
Ireland, share group C with Australia, Italy, Russia and the USA and if the form book proves reliable, we will qualify as runner-ups to Australia and exit at the quarter final stage to South Africa. Rugby, doesn’t tend to do surprises and the winners, on home soil, are likely to be New Zealand, the strong bookies favourites at 8/15.

Four years ago in France, Ireland were tipped as the dark horses (and with some encouragement from the Irish camp) and then immediately set about proving wrong, those who had mistakenly placed their faith in them - almost losing to Rumania(a team largely comprised of converted Greco-Roman wrestlers) and getting thumped by France and Argentina.  
The rebranding of the proverbial underdogs clearly backfired.
So any optimism about Ireland’s fortunes will have to be kept very quiet and tempered by the knowledge that  if the players get wind of such musings they will no doubt set about falling apart all over again.
So there should be absolutely no talk at all of Ireland’s grand slam win 2 years ago, the fact that we thrashed England(world cup winners and twice finalists) in the final game of this year’s 6 Nations, have a half dozen world class players in O’Driscoll, O’Connell, Ferris, Heaslip, Bowe and O’Brien and that Irish Provincial teams have won the Heineken Cup in 4 of the last 6 years.
And there should certainly not be any discussion of the possibility that if we did beat the very talented but very inconsistent Australians that there would most likely be no further Southern Hemisphere opposition until the final.
No, arguably the most talented Irish rugby team of all time need to keep their heads down, their feet firmly on the ground and with their underdog tag securely in place head off to do battle -  and maybe, just maybe, they will surprise us.
Gwan Ireland.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Democratic Unionist Party are on moderate ground ...... in Sudan

I've been reading The State of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence, after a trip to the Gambia earlier this summer and I was rather startled to discover, in a chapter about Sudan, that the blighted East African country has its very own Democratic Unionist Party.

No doubt the knowledgeable readers of Three Thousand Versts (if any still remain) will be way ahead of the curve on this fact, but it came as a revelation to me.

Now Sudan is not renowned for its history of religious tolerance.  Indeed it provided sanctuary for Bin Laden in the 1990s and it was widely regarded at the time as the country in the world with least religious freedom.

Even back then the Democratic Unionist Party in Sudan campaigned for pluralism and state neutrality as regards religion.  Get your heads around that Northern Irish readers!

Monday, 1 August 2011

Here we go again. Group F and Brazil 2014.

It may have seemed a little premature, given that the race to reach the Euro 2012 finals in Poland and Ukraine is far from resolved, but on Saturday evening FIFA conducted the preliminary draw for the World Cup in 2014.  The tournament will take place in Brazil and Northern Ireland supporters now know the hurdles which their team will face if it is to defy the odds and make it to Rio.

Predictably it’s not going to be easy.

First out of the pot in Group F was little Luxembourg.  In theory the lowest ranked team needs to offer up a simple 6 points, if we have any aspirations of qualifying.  Mind you we saw how that can easily go awry in the Faroe Islands last autumn.  Luxembourg is not the worst side in European football by a long stretch, that title’s reserved for San Marino, and they form exactly the type of stumbling block which Northern Ireland has traditionally failed to avoid.

The 5th seed in our group is Azerbaijan.  In the 2006 qualifying tournament we took 4 points out of our 2 games against the Azeris.  A scoreless draw in Baku was disappointing, but the 2-0 win at Windsor Park set Northern Ireland up for an astonishing victory against England the following Wednesday.  It could’ve been very different though, with Stuart Elliott’s opener coming well into the 2nd half.
Can we get 12 points from our games against these teams?  In theory there is no reason why not.  Mind you historically we’ve had problems achieving that sort of consistency.  I’d imagine 10 points out of 12 would be considered a satisfactory return.

Then we get into the teams ranked above us.

Israel sits third in their Euro 2012 qualifying group.  Although it’s fair to say that their group isn’t as strong as Northern Ireland’s.  Still, the Israelis will fancy their chances at Windsor Park. They can claim a number of stars who play in England or Spain, but other than Chelsea’s Yossi Benayoun they are not household names.  Really we ought at least to be fighting it out with Israel for 3rd place.

To manage one of the top two spots will be desperately difficult.  The form book suggests that they should go to Russia and Portugal.

I’m delighted that we’ve drawn Russia, as it should provide an opportunity to visit the country again, but they are an extremely strong side and will be desperate to reach the World Cup in Brazil, as a prelude to their own turn as hosts in 2018.  Although another big name gets far more attention, for my money the Russian captain, Arshavin, is the best player Northern Ireland are likely to face in this qualification campaign.  The Arsenal man is enormously talented and creative.  He tends to play just behind Tottenham’s Roman Pavlyuchenko and between them they comprise a formidable goal threat.

Portugal of course are no slouches either.  They currently top their group in the Euros, albeit that they’ve shown they aren’t immune to the odd hiccup.  A 4-4 draw against Cyprus and a 1-0 defeat against an aging Norway team will give Northern Ireland some hope.  Mind you the Portuguese squad is a roll call of famous names from some of the biggest leagues in Europe.  And they have a forward who plays for Real Madrid who has a decent reputation.

So a difficult group, but as I commented on Facebook on Saturday night, they’re all difficult for Northern Ireland.  It contains no team which, on a good night, we cannot beat - particularly at Windsor Park.  We've avoided some of the very best and we've avoided sides whose lowly ranking belies their actual ability.

It would be nice if, by next year when the matches will start, the management is in place to really give it a good go.