Showing posts from 2015

Would a Sinn Fein election victory really be disastrous for unionism?

"Martin McGuinness 2009" by Jaqian - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The threat of Martin McGuinness as First Minister has trapped unionists in a self-destructive cycle.

The news from Stormont in 2015 was dominated by the DUP and Sinn Féin finally cobbling together a deal, but in 2016 preparations begin for an Assembly election. 
The two parties concentrated on attacking their smaller rivals, after the announcement of the ‘Fresh Start’ document.   They talk up their shared achievements and claim they’ve taken hard decisions in order to make progress for people in Northern Ireland. However, the spirit of cooperation is unlikely to last very long, before we’re plunged into another bitter campaign, which will revolve around whether Sinn Féin becomes the largest party in the Assembly.
The threat of Martin McGuinness as Northern Ireland’s First Minister remains the Democratic Unionists’ electoral ‘trump card’.  After Peter Robinson’s retirement, Arle…

Northern Ireland's past is republicans' new battleground

The story of Northern Ireland’s violent past continues to be redrawn, as the republican movement seeks to cast the British state as an aggressor and campaigns to incriminate soldiers and policemen, while obscuring the deadly role played by the IRA and other terrorists.  It’s a process achieved by describing counter-terrorism and intelligence operations as ‘collusion’ and focussing on the proportionally small number of incidents during the Troubles perpetrated, or allegedly perpetrated, by members of the security forces.
In November, the DUP and Sinn Fein agreed the Fresh Start document at Stormont, following ten weeks of negotiations.  It became easy to forget, after all the ensuing self-congratulations, that the crisis which prompted those talks was created by the IRA’s suspected involvement in a murder and Sinn Fein’s links to its Army Council.
Some passages of the Fresh Start agreement addressed paramilitarism in Northern Ireland, committing resources to fight cross border crime a…

Warplane incident shows Syria has become potential tinderbox

A multitude of conflicting details, accusations and counter-accusations followed news today that a Russian warplane was shot down, close to the border between Syria and Turkey. 
Russia and Turkey dispute whether the incident took place over Turkish airspace.  There is also some suggestion from the Russian side that the plane was shot down from the ground, rather than the air.  It seems that the aircraft fell inside Syria, possibly about 4km from the border. 
At a press conference, President Putin responded with strong words, accusing Turkey of acting as ‘accomplices of terrorists’.  Meanwhile, Ankara has claimed that Russia violated its airspace and the plane was shot down in accordance with standard practices, after multiple warnings were issued first. 
It’s impossible, so far, to know what happened with any accuracy, but it may be helpful to place the events in a little context.
Firstly, sensitivities around the Turkish / Syrian border are certainly not a new phenomenon.  

Freedom of speech, identity and offence

In a 'news analysis' article for Tuesday’s Belfast Telegraph, I examined the tensions which can exist between identity politics and free speech.  It focussed mostly on arguments around gender identity, and speakers being banned from university debates, but it also touched upon the issue of same-sex marriage, which is so topical and incendiary in Northern Ireland.
Maybe the timing of the piece was unfortunate, because there was a lot of anger around on Tuesday morning and justifiably so. 
On Monday, in spite of a majority of MLAs in the Stormont Assembly backing a motion to introduce same-sex marriage here, it was defeated, because the DUP tabled a ‘petition of concern’.   This mechanism requires a majority from both designations in the Assembly to vote in favour of a measure, if it’s to pass.  Petitions of concern were intended to protect minority rights, but they have been used instead as vetoes on any matters which cause disagreement.  
My article got caught up in the ensuing …

New contract forces junior doctors to get militant

Traditionally, medicine is not a particularly militant profession.   However, last Saturday, hundreds of doctors and their supporters were angry enough to congregate outside Belfast City Hall, to protest against a new contract for junior doctors, proposed by the government.
The health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, is determined to drive through changes he claims are necessary to deliver the ‘seven day NHS’ that Conservatives pledged in their general election manifesto.  The British Medical Association (BMA), which represents doctors across the UK, opposes the new contract, on the grounds that it will compromise patient safety and force its members to work exhaustingly long hours. 
Currently junior doctors are paid at a standard rate for working between 7am and 7pm, on weekdays.  They receive a higher rate of pay, or ‘banding’, when they work nights, weekends or beyond 7pm in the evening. 
Legally, junior doctors can be asked to work up to 91 hours per week, under their current contract, …

Northern Ireland 'paramilitary assessment' surprises no-one

Over the past six weeks, Northern Ireland’s Executive has not operated properly, even by its own fitful standards.  After revelations that IRA members were involved in a murder in Belfast, and the subsequent resignation of the Ulster Unionists’ only minister, the Democratic Unionists devised a bizarre ‘go slow’ to prove that it was not ‘business as usual’ at Stormont. 
Almost all the DUP's ministers, including the party’s leader and Northern Ireland’s First Minister, Peter Robinson, resigned from the Executive.  However, finance minister, Arlene Foster, was nominated to replace Mr Robinson in a temporary capacity, supposedly to prevent nationalist parties from running amok in government.  Meanwhile, the party’s remaining three ministers, whose portfolios include health, enterprise and social development, were continually re-nominated to their positions, from which they then resigned again, on a weekly basis. 
Confusing?  Absolutely.  Inexplicable?  Pretty much.
After weeks of mano…

Politics is going through an angry, uncivil period

This article is originally from the Belfast Telegraph (9th October 2015).
At the Labour conference last week, the party’s new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, appealed for a new, ‘kinder’ form of politics.  Seven days later, as Conservatives gathered for their get-together in Manchester, some left-wing protesters refused to heed his call.  Delegates entering the venue were abused, spat at and even pelted with eggs and other missiles. 
The protesters didn’t distinguish between Conservative activists and neutral visitors to the conference either.  BBC Northern Ireland’s political correspondent, Stephen Walker, and even the high profile, hard-left columnist, Owen Jones, were among journalists who experienced the novelty of being described as ‘Tory scum’, as they covered events at Manchester Central.
Politics has always been a tribal business, exciting high passions and strong emotions, but there seems to be a particularly nasty, uncivil tenor to some of the debates currently raging across the UK.…

The SNP: Fiction & Reality (Part 3) by Dr Phil Larkin

"Edinburgh IMG 3994 (14732734838)" by Reading Tom from Reading, UK - IMG_3994. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

In the final part of his survey of the SNP, Dr Phil Larkin looks at the party's future and concludes by emphasising the importance of Scotland to the rest of the UK.  

The SNP’s Future? As any military manual will tell you, a salient, or bulge, into enemy territory is a dangerous position for an army to be in, since it can be attacked from three sides. The 56 seats won by the SNP in May constitute just such a salient. Had they won, say, 30-40 seats, it might actually have been better for them, since they could continue to enthuse their core support with the cry that there “is still more work to be done.” A victory of such a resounding nature means that there is only one direction for the SNP’s electoral fortunes to head, namely, southwards. The present UK Government, with its small but workable majority, is not beholden in any way to the SNP, does n…

The SNP: Fiction & Reality (Part 2) Dr Phil Larkin

In the second part of guest poster Phil Larkin's piece on the SNP, he looks at the party's record in government and the current case for independence.

The SNP: Government and Opposition It is easy to forget that the SNP has been in government in Scotland since 2007, since they have perfected the art of being in power while simultaneously acting as if they are also the opposition (sometimes to their own decisions). It is also instructive to look at some of the decisions they have made, and measure these against the Party’s self-professed radical left image. The central basis on which the SNP is founded, namely, the theory that “home rule” is better rule, should be relatively easy to test, since it only requires an examination of their record in government. At present, the Teflon quality of the Party seems to make it immune from the reality that their record in government in Scotland has been far from exemplary in many respects.
To begin, the abolition of tuition fees by the SNP in…

The SNP: Fiction & Reality by Phil Larkin

Periodic guest poster, Dr Phil Larkin, has contributed a penetrating overview of the SNP, which I've taken the liberty of splitting into three separate posts.  This is a detailed dissection of the nationalist vision for Scotland and why it isn't tenable.  Today, why the 'commentariat' has lost its mind over Scottish nationalism and why electors in Scotland voted for the SNP.

By Dr Phil Larkin


Every few years, elements of the media and political commentariat seem to lose their power of reason over a particular issue. At present, this issue is the SNP’s victorious 2015 General Election. If some sources are to be believed, the end of the UK is nigh, and the SNP are set to continue from glory to glory until this wondrous event takes place. They are deemed by some commentators to possess a masterful political vision, and have a crystal clear strategy mapped out to achieve this. They are ready, willing, and able both to end the austerity policy and to turn Scotlan…

Cross party think tank proposes 'new Act of Union'

Two recent articles on Three Thousand Versts have expressed concern that the UK’s constitutional issues have been allowed to drift, since the ‘No’ campaign won the Scottish independence referendum.  With that in mind, it was interesting to read a piece in yesterday’s Sunday Times, proposing a new Act of Union. (Free version here):
The article launches a cross-party group called the Constitution Reform Group and carries the signatures of Sir Menzies Campbell, Peter Hain and Robert (Lord) Salisbury, who belong to the Liberal Democrat, Labour and Conservative parties, respectively.  The group, it claims, consists of “retired cabinet ministers, practising politicians, former parliamentary officials and civil servants, lawyers, journalists and academics”.
The authors express concern about the government’s provisions to create ‘English votes for English Laws’ on the basis that they will create t…

Offering more and more autonomy will not fend off nationalists' challenge to the UK.

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, has warned David Cameron not to ‘disrespect’ the Scottish people’s choice to return 56 SNP MPs at the election last May.

Naturally, Ms. Sturgeon has a selective view of which election results should and should not be respected.  She doesn’t show much regard for the overall outcome of the general election and, just a year after the independence referendum in Scotland, her party is threatening to demand a re-run, so her ‘respect’ doesn’t extend to the 55% of voters who opted to remain within the UK for at least ‘a generation’, either.

The Conservative Party won a narrow majority of seats in the House of Commons in May 2015, but it’s clear that nationalists will offer a rolling challenge to the government’s authority in their nations, throughout this parliament.

In Northern Ireland, for instance, Sinn Féin and the SDLP consistently claim that the Tories have ‘no mandate’ to impose welfare reform.  It doesn’t matter that the parties at Stormont wer…