Tuesday, 30 June 2015

How did Michael O'Neill get Northern Ireland flying high in Euro 2016?

Members of the GAWA with Hungary supporters in Budapest.
Before the Euro 2016 campaign started, hope among Northern Ireland fans that their side might qualify for the finals tournament was low.  Now, with six rounds of matches in Group F complete, rather alarmingly, many of the Green and White Army fully expect to travel to France next summer to watch the Ulstermen, who are second place in the table (two countries from each group qualify automatically and the third has an opportunity to do so through a play-off).
Whether or not that happens, the team’s manager, Michael O’Neill, has done an incredible job to oversee five wins and a draw in this competition, after securing only one victory in his first eighteen international games.  What’s made the difference?

You could argue that the draw for the Euro 2016 qualifying tournament was kind to Northern Ireland.  Certainly, none of the teams in Group F looks equipped to go to France and progress far in the finals.  However, Romania, Greece and Hungary were all expected to finish above O’Neill’s men, while Finland was considered to be at a similar level of ability and the Faroe Islands had tripped Northern Ireland up before.

Growing confidence among the players has contributed to their success. 

In the first match, in Budapest, they played conservatively for 75 minutes, despite the home team struggling to dominate in front of a restive Hungarian crowd.  When Hungary took the lead, it looked like another routine Northern Ireland defeat, but instead McGinn and Lafferty responded positively and combined twice, scoring one apiece to secure an unlikely 2-1 win.

There was an element of good fortune to that victory but it injected belief into a team which had little experience of winning away from home.  After a successful clash with the Faroe Islands at Windsor Park, Northern Ireland played masterfully against Greece in Athens to make it an unprecedented three wins in a row.

That stylish 2-0 victory fed the fans’ expectations.  It was the type of controlled performance no-one was accustomed to seeing Northern Ireland deliver and it pushed us top of the group.  The media, supporters and players all started to talk about qualification, with a seriousness not heard since the 1980s.

Alongside a renewed sense of confidence, Michael O’Neill made tactical changes which improved his team’s fortunes.  Toward the end of the unsuccessful qualifying tournament for the World Cup in Brazil, Northern Ireland set up in a 3-5-2 formation, which often looked more like 5-3-2, when opponents had the ball.  From the first game in Group F, O’Neill deployed instead a fluid 4-3-3 line-up, which switched to 4-5-1 when the team had to defend.  He maintained his previous emphasis on keeping possession, when possible.            

Like a number of supporters, I had my doubts whether Northern Irish players could implement a modern, technical system, but the manager kept trying to play clever, attractive football and his ideas started to work.  These flexible tactics allow Northern Ireland to flood the midfield with sufficient numbers to compete for the ball when they’re not in possession, yet also get players forward to support Kyle Lafferty in attack, when they win back the ball.  The result has been eight goals in six matches.

The task of qualifying for Euro 2016 is far from complete.  Northern Ireland travels to the Faroe Islands next; exactly the type of opponents the team has traditionally failed to score against.  The Islanders have had a remarkable campaign so far too, beating Greece twice, and they’re confident they can get a result in front of a sell-out home crowd.
Northern Ireland hasn’t qualified for a major tournament since 1986 and, with the fans’ expectations so high, nerves are almost bound to affect the players, before the group is over.  However, it is already likely the side will at least secure a play-off place and every one of the remaining four games, against the Faroes, Hungary, Greece and Finland, are potentially winnable.  The manager believes just five more points – which could be achieved through one win and two draws – will probably secure second place. 

It’s an exciting time to be part of the Green and White Army.

Monday, 29 June 2015

Pussy Riot go to Church at Glastonbury

Pussy Riot by Igor Mukhin
I’m not a big fan of attending music festivals.  I camped overnight at one only once, during the early 2000s. 

My ancient, flimsy tent fell down during a thunderstorm in the small hours and I shivered through an uncomfortable night in a soaking wet sleeping bag, before wandering about Punchestown Racecourse aimlessly until it was time for breakfast.  My friend and tent-mate decided instead to gather up his belongings and sleep in the car, which was parked in an enormous field where he was promptly mugged and relieved of his wallet.

Good times.

‘Punk feminists’ Nadya Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina have carved out something of a career courting politically minded, bohemain westerners.  Church, meanwhile, has embarked on her own attempts to become recognised as a left-wing ‘activist’.

The Independent has an account of the three women’s discussion at Glastonbury (above), which seems to have been as incisive as you’d expect.  “Can I join the revolution too”, it encouraged the Welsh singer to ask, “I want to be in Pussy Riot”.

Ironically, its two most famous members have actually been expelled from the punk band which doesn’t record music or stage concerts.  Pussy Riot’s performances were stunts masterminded by the ‘performance art’ collective, ‘Voina’, which traded on shock value and obscenity.  The idea of a politically motivated, female group of punk musicians has proved more easily digestible in the media outside Russia.     

Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina have become anti-Putin celebrities after serving gaol terms for recording an expletive-ridden video in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Moscow.  Fame enough to secure an appearance at Glastonbury and the admiration of Charlotte Church.

Sunday, 28 June 2015


If you were a loyal reader of this site, you've probably fallen out of the habit.  I've turned into a very irregular poster.  However, that is going to change and there will be a great deal more content soon.

Independent comment about politics in Northern Ireland will resume.  Likewise content about the rest of the UK.  And you'll get news and views on Russia and Eurasia, as well as stuff about football and culture.

Soon, I'll be heading to the Caucasus for a short while.  Georgia has suffered floods recently, which caused a number of fatalities, and the media responded by publishing multiple photographs of hippos on the loose in Tbilisi.  In Yerevan, Armenia, protests against a hike in electricity prices have prompted comparisons to the Ukraine and its Maidan 'revolution', helpfully dispelled by Anatoly Karlin.

It's an interesting time to visit the region and I'll be writing about it all on the blog.

Do please pay me a visit.

Friday, 26 June 2015

State of the Union

It’s over four years since I last blogged regularly about constitutional issues in the United Kingdom.  During that time independence for Scotland was rejected at a referendum and we've had a Prime Minister who emphasised repeatedly his unionist credentials.   So is the Union in a healthier state in 2015 than it was in 2011?

If you look at its prospects for the very short-term, the answer is probably ‘yes’.

The ‘Better Together’ coalition managed to fend off a muscular movement for independence, in the Scottish referendum.  That campaign was polarising, ill-tempered and, at times, looked nail-bitingly close, but the Union between Scotland and England survived.  Whether it emerged from the fight unscathed, is another matter.

In the afterglow of victory David Cameron told the UK that there would be “no disputes, no re-runs, we have heard the settled will of the Scottish people”.  Even the ever-pugnacious Alex Salmond, winded by defeat, appeared to reaffirm his pre-poll pledge of no more independence referenda “for a generation”. 

Of course, ‘a generation’ is not a fixed period and, in any case, it is relatively brief, measured against the history and politics of a nation state.  Judged with reference to this longer time-scale, I believe the Union is weaker now than in 2011.

The differences between England and Scotland, politically, have widened during the past four years, and even since the referendum.  Rather than derailing the Scottish National Party (SNP), the unsuccessful independence campaign filled its ranks with new members and gave it enough momentum to destroy Labour in the 2015 General Election.  Nationalists now dominate overwhelmingly Scotland’s allocation of seats at the UK Parliament in London and form the devolved Scottish government in Edinburgh.

It’s possible to juggle numbers and statistics or philosophise about the unfairness of electoral arithmetic at Westminster elections, to prove that there is still a substantial, pro-Union majority.  But the SNP’s current position is remarkable, however it is measured, for the time being it is unchallenged and it allows the party to focus politics in Scotland round the independence debate to an even greater degree.

Fifty six of Scotland’s fifty nine Members of Parliament are there with the purpose of confronting the Westminster government and, ultimately, working toward the United Kingdom's dissolution.  That must have a corroding effect on relationships within the Union and the political bonds which hold it together.  The SNP has persuaded Scottish voters, successfully, that socio-economic issues are determined by an ongoing struggle between Edinburgh and London.  It is against that backdrop that the Labour Party was decimated in the General Election.

Aside from issues round leadership and organisation, Labour struggled to convince electors that it could be trusted to fight for resources and special treatment for Scotland, at Westminster.  The referendum cast the party as an ally of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats and, while nationalists failed to win their war over independence, they won an important battle to claim centre-left Scottish votes.

This idea of politics as a 'tug of war' has shaped politics south of the border too.

Among voters in England, attitudes to Scotland seem to be more hostile, after a divisive independence debate, followed by a General Election where English nationalist themes were frequently implied.  It may have been fair to highlight the possible consequences of certain MPs having undue influence in a hung parliament but, in the unrestrained atmosphere of a Westminster campaign, a legitimate argument could quickly acquire an anti-Scottish, rather than an anti-SNP, colouring.

This atmosphere has continued after the election, with the new Conservative government confirming its commitment to grant ‘English votes for English laws’, in the Queen’s Speech.  Under these relatively benign proposals, procedures will be tweaked, with members representing England, or England and Wales, forming a committee scrutinising legislation affecting only those parts of the UK, before it is subject to a full vote in the House of Commons.  Opponents are already grumbling about the potential to create ‘two tiers’ of MPs.

The Tories claim their ideas will strengthen the Union, addressing English grievances before they develop into outright nationalism.  In the current atmosphere, though, any changes to the constitution will have to be drafted carefully and argued with extreme delicacy, if they are not to deepen divisions within the UK.

David Cameron says the Conservative government intends to introduce more cuts and rebalance the economy dramatically, with lower taxes and lower spending, especially on welfare.  Irrespective of whether these plans are right or wrong, there will remain an atmosphere of extreme sensitivity around public spending, over the course of the current parliament.

Against this background, English perceptions that the devolved nations get a great deal out of the Treasury, at their expense, are likely only to flourish, particularly with the Scottish Parliament due to get greater tax and borrowing powers soon.  The government’s policies toward Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland will be shaped, almost inevitably, by sentiment in England.  There is little appetite there for generosity and concessions toward the seemingly spendthrift Celtic regions.

Once, the greatest threat to the integrity of the United Kingdom was believed to come from Irish nationalists.  Yet Northern Ireland has been mentioned in this article only in passing, because the latest farce at Stormont is a side-show, largely irrelevant to the longer term future of the Union.  The UK’s fate will be determined overwhelmingly by the complicated knot of relationships between England and Scotland.

Disappointingly, in the aftermath of the independence referendum, little progress has been made on examining why these relationships have been unravelling.  Nor has there been a serious discussion about how to encourage people across four nations in the UK to feel more attached to their common British identity.  It’s these big conversations which are more likely to suggest how to repair damage caused by devolution and increasing nationalism, rather than tinkering with aspects of the constitution.   

There are still compelling practical reasons for a majority of people in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales to choose to remain within the United Kingdom.  Yet the more emotional arguments for Union seem to be losing their power, at least in Scotland, where a younger generation is apparently enthused by the prospect of independence.    

This might look like a bleak prognosis from a pro-Union writer and I am certainly not suggesting, like so many separatists, that break-up is inevitable.  However the ‘no’ vote at the Scottish independence referendum did not signal that the United Kingdom is out of danger. 

The campaign and its aftermath damaged the Union profoundly.  If there isn’t a proper and concerted attempt to repair that damage, the UK may well encounter less surmountable challenges in the future.