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Belfast Arctic veterans receive honour from Russian government

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This morning, in Belfast, I was privileged to witness veterans of the Arctic Convoys receiving the Ushakov Medal, from Russia’s ambassador to the UK.  This honour is the culmination of a lengthy campaign to recognise the brave servicemen who risked ice floes and U-boat attack, to bring vital supplies to the Soviet Union, during World War 2. 
The British government presented veterans with the Arctic Star, belatedly, in 2012.  Before that, rather shamefully, there was no medal for taking part in the convoys. 
It also took some time before the Foreign Office would allow the Russian government to show its appreciation for the servicemen.  The Medal of Ushakov was first presented to British sailors in June 2013, when Vladimir Putin and David Cameron conducted a ceremony, during the Russian President’s visit to London.
Most of the surviving seamen who crewed the convoys are now in their nineties.  The event in Belfast was a poignant occasion, with many proud family members in attendance,…

From Protest to Power - a snapshot of the Democratic Unionist Party

The Democratic Unionist Party is firmly established as Northern Ireland’s biggest political party and its dominance of Ulster unionism is no longer disputed.  However there are surprisingly few books which make a serious attempt to explain the DUP’s success or describe the political beliefs which motivate its members.  From Protest to Power sets out to fill that gap.
Jonathan Tonge et al’s book is not a party history, aimed at the casual reader.  This is an academic work, with a price-tag to match.  If you want a more lurid account of the DUP, from its origins in Ian Paisley’s protest politics, through to involvement with a ‘third force’ and on to the downfall of its founder and leader for 37 years, you’re probably best to look elsewhere.
Its publisher, Oxford University Press, describes From Protest to Power as the ‘first ever survey of the Democratic Unionist Party’.  The backbone of the book is extensive research into the attitudes, backgrounds and beliefs of 1,600 members and ove…

Ukraine Diaries: Dispatches from Kiev - Review

Andrei Kurkov is Ukraine’s most famous author and he may be the best contemporary novelist writing in Russian.  His books are translated into beautifully simple, elegant English and ‘Ukraine Diaries: Dispatches from Kiev’ has just been published by Random House. 
Kurkov’s first language is Russian and his novel, The Good Angel of Death, does a good job of lampooning Ukrainian nationalism.  However he is also a fervent supporter of the ‘Maidan’ protesters who overthrew President Yanukovych, in Kiev.
His diaries are an enjoyable, partial account of events in Ukraine between November 2013 and June 2014.  Kurkov has little empathy for countrymen who did not support the violence in the capital which deposed Yanukovych.  Nor does he include in his book any of the atrocities committed by nationalist militias, some of which are still taking lives in the Donetsk region, where the new regime is not generally accepted. 
Although he expresses some concerns about the conduct of Pravy Sektor neo-Nazi…

No justification for World Cup boycott

David McCardle, at the ever stimulating Futbolgrad, asks whether western countries should boycott the 2018 World Cup, which is due to be played in Russia.  He writes quite a complicated article, arguing that the competition is likely to cause popular protests against Vladimir Putin’s regime.

I’m unsure about how realistic that notion is.  The Sochi Winter Olympics were outrageously expensive, but didn’t prompt threatening demonstrations and Russia is not Brazil.  A stronger argument for refusing to boycott the Russian World Cup is simply that a boycott would be wrong.

So far the most prominent voices suggesting such action are either chauvinist American politicians, like John McCain, or English people who still harbour hopes that the tournament will be moved to England.

Ever since the decision was taken to stage football’s greatest spectacle in Russia there has been whinging in the UK media.  This is inspired, I suspect not by humanitarian concerns, but rather by resentment that Engla…

My favourite Liverpool XI

As a Liverpool supporter, it’s hard to summon up any resentment toward Luis Suarez, even though he’s now decided to pursue his career in Spain.  Kenny Dalglish signed the controversial striker from Ajax for £22.8 million, back in January 2011, and the club recouped about £75 million through this summer’s transfer to Barcelona. 
In the intervening three and a half seasons, Suarez scored almost 70 goals, most of them sublime, becoming, in the process, arguably the greatest player to pull on the red shirt.  He didn’t spoil his relationship with Liverpool fans by joining another Premier League club and, as well as enough money to buy a large part of Southampton’s squad, he left memories which will fuel many decades of pub-bore conversations.
He’ll always be one of my favourite players, unless he does something utterly daft, like signing for Man United, and his departure got me thinking about who else might make up a completely subjectively picked XI of crowd favourites, from across the …

MH17 passengers victims of a preventable war

I’ve just returned from two weeks in Cuba - not the easiest place from which to follow world news.  The internet is restricted and slow, wifi scarcely exists and the English language edition of the island’s only daily newspaper, Granma, publishes mainly stagnant propaganda on behalf of the Castro brothers. 
As a result, I’ve had to catch up with the tragic story of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, which crashed in eastern Ukraine on its scheduled route between Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur, resulting in almost 300 deaths.  Western countries and the current authorities in Kiev claim that the passenger plane was struck by a missile fired by ‘pro-Russian’ forces and supplied by Russia.  These allegations are refuted by the separatists and have drawn a flat denial from the government in Moscow.
For the time being, it is difficult to determine the exact truth.  Investigators from the Netherlands are struggling to access the crash site, which lies in territory fiercely contested by both sides …

Northern Ireland blogging nostalgia ain't what it used to be.

I spent a little while over the weekend slimming down the ‘blog roll’ of websites on the right hand side of this page.  The majority of links were either defunct or more or less disused.  It made me think, if the ‘weblog’ is not dying, its best days are certainly behind it. 
Of course, my own site has become a fitful affair.  There are times when a visitor might expect to see tumbleweed blow across their screen, rather than a fresh new article, and when I do post, the number of hits is negligible. 
I’ve never had an enormous interest in theoretical discussions about blogging as a medium.  Personally, if I hadn’t written blog-posts, I would have written something else.  I would have pitched my material to newspapers, or offered articles to magazines, or squirreled them away in notebooks.
I didn’t start a blog because I wanted to be a blogger.  I started a blog because I enjoyed writing.
Still, all those dead and dismembered links caused more than a twinge of nostalgia.  Five years a…

The US never has been and never will be a football country

Why have so many neutrals been supporting the USA in this World Cup?  There is a natural tendency to back an underdog, but remember that the United States contains 330 million people. 
Some people clearly think, deep down, that the greatest sport in the world needs to be endorsed by Americans, to have truly global credentials.  Let’s be clear, the fact that the United States has never taken to football is a reflection on that country's sporting predilictions, rather than the greatest game in the world.
The US took over 90 minutes to be beaten by a small European nation with an average World Cup pedigree and that has now been taken as some type of triumph.  It really isn’t.
Football has no need to proselytise.  It already is the world’s game.  It has no requirement to expand into any new territories, because the ‘new territories’ are the freakish exception, rather than the rule. 
Meanwhile, sport in the US is generally a poor spectacle.  ‘World’ competitions span one country, co…

Ukraine - sorrow the sensible reaction

One year ago, Ukraine had its problems, but it was stable and peaceful.  Twelve months later, the east and the south of the country are ravaged by civil war, while the Crimean Peninsula has become part of Russia.  The lowest estimates suggest that over 300 people have died so far during the conflict, and the BBC reports that over 14,000 refugees have fled the fighting and crossed the Russian border.
The turmoil which has engulfed Ukraine, since President Yanukovych fled the country following protests and violence in Kiev, is, above all, desperately sad.  From the Rada's declaration of independence in 1991, until the latter part of 2013, the country’s fractious, fragmented politics remained peaceful, barring the odd bout of fisticuffs in parliament.  The new nation state managed to span, more or less successfully, a complicated patchwork of cultural identities, languages and political affiliations.
The two sides in the civil war now badly need a little time and some common ground i…

The developing situation in Ukraine

A number of months on and after any number of possible pretexts, the predicted Russian intervention in eastern and southern Ukraine has not yet materialised. 
The most notorious blood-letting took place in Odessa, where thugs from Pravy Sektor and nationalist football hooligan gangs torched the House of Trade Unions along with many of the people inside, accompanied by allegations that police colluded in the incident. Russia also expressed its opposition in strong terms as Ukrainian forces killed up to 50 members of pro-Russian forces who were occupying the airport in Donetsk.  Its military, however, still did not get involved. While the Kremlin has waged a propaganda war against the new regime in Kiev, which has been returned in kind, there is clear reluctance to become embroiled in any sort of conflict in eastern Ukraine.  There are even grounds to argue that, since its actions in the Crimean peninsula, Moscow has acted with surprising restraint.
Of course, the government in Kiev c…

Guest post: Tony Benn: Myth and Reality

TONY BENN: MYTH AND REALITY  A guest post by Phil Larkin Introduction Few can have missed the passing on of Anthony Neil Wedgewood-Benn (commonly known from around 1972 by his self-created title “Tony Benn”) last week. Over the last decade and beyond, ever since he stepped down as an MP in 2001, he had gained the reputation for himself as the kindly old sage of the British left, puffing his pipe, drinking large mugs of tea, appearing on stage at Glastonbury and providing stirring orations at ‘Stop the War’ Campaigns (in whatever corner of the world war happened to be taking place). He was sort of a sanitised, grandfatherly George Galloway, with far superior manners and courtesy. My main and abiding memory of him before his death was the very funny (and revealing) spoof interview which he did with Ali G: apparently he had jumped at the chance to explain the idea of socialism to young people when offered the interview (of which more below). I also recall him shepherding Gerry Adams and Mar…