Monday, 30 May 2016

Northern Ireland's Euro 2016 squad

On Saturday, Michael O’Neill announced his Northern Ireland squad for the finals of a major football tournament.  Not a sentence I thought I’d ever have reason to write, which makes it even pettier that I’m going to have a (very minor) gripe at his selection.

While I have the utmost faith in O’Neill to organise and motivate his team at Euro 2016, in my opinion he has a slightly lop-sided panel from which to choose.  Northern Ireland aren’t taking with them a recognised left full-back and the midfield looks rather threadbare too.

Throughout most of the qualifying matches, O’Neill deployed a conventional back four in defence, with re-purposed midfielder, Chris Brunt, on the left side.  Unfortunately, the West Brom regular picked up a serious knee injury in March, which ruled him out of the finals tournament.

When Northern Ireland played Slovenia in a friendly, the manager picked Michael Smith, from Peterborough United, who can play in either full-back slot.  The former Ballyclare Comrades and Ballymena United player showed promise, defending stoutly and displaying a willingness to get forward.  Previously, Daniel Lafferty had a spell playing reasonably regularly at left-back for Northern Ireland.

Neither man has made O’Neill’s squad, yet, curiously, Lee Hodson, who plays almost exclusively at right-back, will travel to France. 

It looks likely that Northern Ireland will line up against Poland, the Ukraine and Germany with a back three, rather than a back four.  By opting for this formation, O’Neill solves the problem of accommodating three Premier League centre-backs, Jonny Evans, Gareth McAuley and Craig Cathcart, in his team.  He can also, in theory, make do without dedicated full-backs, as the defence will be flanked by more forward thinking players.

In warm-up games, while Conor McLaughlin and Paddy McNair played on the right hand-side, Stuart Dallas and Shane Ferguson, more commonly regarded as midfielders, started on the left.  The results were good, culminating in a comfortable 3-0 win against Belarus on Friday night, but top level opposition could target the flanks as weak-spots for Northern Ireland.

Successful, settled teams rarely play three centre-backs nowadays.  More frequently, the formation is used by managers trying to solve a particular tactical problem.  O’Neill’s conundrum is that he has three or four quality central defenders, but less to choose from at full-back.

However, with this squad, his options will be rather limited if he decides to revert to a back four, or even to stifle a team like Germany by choosing five defenders.  Realistically, a central player, like Jonny Evans or Craig Cathcart, would have to become a make-shift full-back. 

Likewise, if Northern Ireland suffers an injury to a midfielder like Steven Davis or Oliver Norwood, 
O’Neill will have less room for manoeuvre.  Ben Reeves has played little football this season, but he would’ve been a natural back-up for those players.  As it stands, Corry Evans excepted, the other squad members capable of playing centre-midfield are more defensively minded. 

These quibbles aside, what a pleasure to be discussing a squad of Northern Ireland players bound for Euro 2016.  Michael O’Neill knows better than anyone else who he needs in his team and how they should play.  Still, in football, half the fun is in the discussion.         

Come on Northern Ireland!   

Thursday, 12 May 2016

UUP opposition will work better if it's joined by the SDLP

Ulster Unionist leader, Mike Nesbitt, made the first significant tactical gamble of the new Northern Ireland Assembly, this afternoon.  The UUP declined an Executive ministry, to which it is entitled under Stormont’s d’Hondt system, and became the first party to enter ‘official opposition’.

The idea of recognising a voluntary opposition was included in the Stormont House Agreement of 2014, concocted by the two governments, Sinn Fein and the DUP, and restated at the Fresh Start Agreement of 2015.  However, legislation to finally make it possible was introduced and guided through the Assembly by John McCallister, an independent MLA who lost his seat at last Thursday’s election. 

It’s deliciously ironic that Mr McCallister fought an Ulster Unionist leadership election campaign against Mr Nesbitt on the platform of taking the party into opposition, back in 2012.   

The UUP leader has taken a while to get to this point, but pressure to stay out of devolved government has intensified.  The party withdrew its minister from the last Executive, after revelations about the continued existence of the IRA and its links to Sinn Fein.  Yesterday, the PSNI chief constable made it clear to Mr Nesbitt that nothing much had changed in that regard, over the intervening seven months.

The UUP hedged its bets during the Assembly election campaign, refusing to state clearly whether it would take a ministry or not.  Its subsequent performance at the polls was underwhelming, despite widespread expectations that Ulster Unionists would win back seats.  Even still, there was speculation that the party leader could be enticed into the Executive by the prospect of an education portfolio.           

The UUP badly needs to find a compelling reason for voters to vote for its candidates and this decision should give it a clear purpose, which can be turned, in time, into a powerful message to the public.  Success will depend upon the Ulster Unionists’ ability to present themselves as an effective opposition and a credible alternative to the parties of government.

That task will be made easier if it is joined in opposition by the SDLP, which is also entitled to a ministry.  Because of the system at Stormont, no single party can form an Executive, but a cross community, voluntary opposition can start to present itself as a ‘government in waiting’.  Over the next week or so, we'll find out whether Colum Eastwood agrees.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

'The 2015 Election one year on; reflections & predictions (Part 2)' by Phil Larkin

In part 2 of his post, guest blogger Dr Phil Larkin reflects upon the prospects of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party and he predicts that the SNP has reached the peak of its powers.


Corbyn and the Labour Party
Jeremy Corbyn was made Labour Party leader in September 2015, after being nominated for the ballot by a number of Labour MPs, some of whom, like Sadiq Khan and Margaret Beckett, are kicking themselves for being so foolish. Corbyn was elected leader by over 60 per cent of the Labour Party membership, despite the reality that his views run counter to the vast majority of the Parliamentary Party on most key issues. During Ed Miliband’s time the rules on Party leadership were altered to give the membership a bigger say in the decision, and it was possible to join up online prior to the election for a fee of £3. I suspect that many who voted for him were younger members of the population with little or no memories of Labour’s travails during the 1980s. There are no such excuses for those who remember Labour’s fortunes during the 1980s, in particular the 1983 election; they are, quite frankly, old enough to know better.

As Opposition leader, in the estimation of those who supported him, Corbyn would trigger a massive renaissance of interest in politics among the youth of the country, terrify the Tory frontbench, and move the entire ground of British politics. As I predicted at the time, he has done nothing of the kind. He has proved just as wooden, plodding, cranky, and dogmatic as I believed him to be last summer. Corbyn’s political views petrified at some point in the 1970s and have not altered since. Yes, he has permitted those who voted for him to congratulate themselves on being so pure in their left-wing beliefs. He and John McDonnell have also guaranteed hours of fun for those who enjoy participating street protests and demonstrations which make them feel that they have achieved something but in reality all they have achieved is to alienate the wider electorate.

The main reason why Corbyn is always bound to be a disappointment to his followers is because, again, they attributed to him qualities which they wanted him to have, rather than seeing him for himself (the same flight from reality which predicted a Labour/SNP win in the 2015 election). To govern, as they say, is to choose, and Corbyn is not capable of the difficult choices of government. He has been accused of being anti-Semitic, a charge which he refutes, and I am definitely inclined to agree with his rejection of this charge. He is, however, altogether too comfortable in the presence of those who are. His entire leadership has been epitomised by the appointment of Seumas Milne, an apologist for Stalin, as Labour’s Executive Director of Strategy and Communications. How can anyone believe that this is going to make the Party more electable in 2020? I firmly believe that anyone who states either that Corbyn will become Prime Minister or that he will change the nature of UK politics does not, at heart, really believe this. It is simply recitation of dogma.

There has been talk about a possible coup against his leadership should the local election results in May prove dismal for Labour. I am not sure what the results of the local, London Mayoral, and London Assembly elections, will bring for the Party, but frankly I am sceptical about, first, whether there will be any type of coup against Corbyn, and secondly, whether a leadership challenge (even successful) would benefit Labour in any meaningful way. It is likely that a future leadership election would produce a result similar to that of September 2015 should Corbyn still be on the ballot. Even if Labour MPs were to stage a coup against him, leaving his name off the ballot (which, technically, they could do under the Party election rules) this would provoke open civil war between the MPs and the Party membership, fought out in the unforgiving glare of media publicity. It is always a good policy to stop digging when you are in a hole.

Also, I believe that by the mere act of putting Corbyn in power, Labour has already forfeited the 2020 general election. It is probably best to allow him and McDonnell either to step down of their own accord, or wait until the result of the 2020 election, and then hang it firmly around the necks of both men, the MPs that supported them, and those in the membership who put them there.

I am convinced, however, that Labour will govern the UK again. It will require much hard work in purgatory, though. Perhaps the best strategy for the moderate, centre-right wing of the Party is to look beyond 2020, and prepare for the future. It is significant that MPs such as Dan Jarvis and Tristram Hunt are examining the question of how the Labour Party might have relevance in a fast changing society and an economy increasingly dominated by technology. Jarvis especially is cognisant of the great changes which have taken place in UK society and economy since the days of the Beveridge Report and the great Labour victory of 1945. He also notes the reality that the social mobility which characterised the post-War generation appears to have stalled: it is a sobering thought that it could be more difficult now for young people to improve their life circumstances to whatever level talent and intelligence allows them than it was for their parents and grandparents. Some of this is undoubtedly due to the growth in inequality between rich and poor which has accelerated over recent decades. This inequality is self-perpetuating: although real talent can always rise, it is still much easier to succeed commercially or professionally if you come from the right background, went to the right school, and speak with the right voice.

Part of the solution to inequality, as Tony Blair asserted years ago, is obviously education. Where Blair and New Labour perhaps got it wrong was in focusing almost exclusively upon traditional academic style and university education. The aim of his Governments was to get 50 per cent of all 18 year olds into higher education, which in theory was a great idea, but too many young people ended up studying for pointless degrees, leaving them chasing an all too small a number of jobs in services industries and financial services. Strangely, the Tories appear more pro-active on the idea of technical education and hi-tech apprenticeships, with Lord Baker championing the establishment of greater numbers of University Technical Colleges in England and Wales to provide such education for new generations of young people, with a view to them forming part of the labour market immediately on leaving school.[1] These are foundations on which a future centre-left Labour Party can build. I still believe, like Lord Healey, that Labour will be better equipped to manage and govern this technically orientated economy and society better than the Tories.

Sturgeon and the SNP
As I wrote in a previous article, the SNP is riding high at present. Its present surge will almost surely permit it to sweep the board in the Scottish Parliamentary Elections, and probably do extremely well in the 2020 general election (although perhaps not quite as well as in 2015). As I also wrote, however, the almost total victory of the SNP in 2015 will eventually prove its Achilles heel: from their present position, there is only one direction for the Party’s fortunes to go, and that is down. With each passing day in executive office in Scotland the SNP becomes viewed increasingly more as “the establishment” north of the border, and as Labour’s result in Scotland in 2015 demonstrates, political establishments can be knocked down in an instant. Furthermore, as time passes the SNP will be pressed to make the difficult choices on taxes and public spending which the Scottish Parliament and Executive will soon have the legal authority to make, meaning that it will be increasingly less easy for them to blame Westminster for such difficult choices. In addition, as I have set out above, the victory of the Remain campaign in June will reduce the chances of another referendum this generation will be reduced almost to zero: what then will the point of the SNP be? I believe SNP’s story over the next ten years will be that of decline.

[1] I increasingly think that there is something in the words of the comedian Alexei Sayle, who said in an interview that the political right make mistakes only once, while the left seems fated to make the same mistakes several times over. 

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

'The 2015 Election one year on; reflections & predictions' by Phil Larkin

The following is part 1 of a 2 part guest post by regular guest blogger Dr Phil Larkin. In part 1, Phil looks at the Conservative Party, its leader and the likely effects of an EU Referendum.  Tomorrow, part 2 will reflect on Jeremy Corbyn's leadership of the Labour Party and the prospects of Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, in Scotland.  


It is hard to believe that it is almost a year on since the General Election of May 2015. The results themselves were surprising in a number of ways, and there have been unforeseen developments on the UK political stage. The purpose of this article is to make a number of reflections on the events of this past year, and make some predictions about upcoming events on the political horizon.

Cameron, the Tories, and the EU Referendum
The Conservatives’ victory in last year’s election with a small but workable overall majority of 12 was perhaps the biggest surprise of 2015. The feeling of surprise and disappointment with this result on the part of Labour Party activists was due to the fact that some of them had put too much faith in what the opinion polls stated, and they saw in the polls what they really wanted to see. In hindsight, whatever little chance Ed Miliband had of a breakthrough in 2015 was laid to rest by Alex Salmond’s assertion that, in the event of a Labour/SNP coalition, he would be dictating the terms of the government’s budget, combined with Miliband’s seeming willingness and then vacillation over the idea of entering into such a coalition arrangement (quite apart from the reality that Miliband himself cut a lacklustre figure as Labour leader).

David Cameron really was the man of 2015. Not only had he managed to negotiate into existence and then to oversee a relatively successful Coalition Government with the Liberal Democrats in 2010, which lasted a full Parliamentary term, he also brought the Tories back into majority government for the first time since 1992. Furthermore, the Conservative/Lib Dem Coalition led by Cameron had seen off the Scottish independence challenge in the referendum of September 2014.

It is my guess that Cameron decided to capitalise on the prestige gained from his election victory by scheduling the “In/Out” Referendum on the UK’s continued membership of the EU for June 23 this year. I predict that the Remain campaign will win the referendum by a reasonably safe, although not spectacular, majority. The UK will remain in the EU. It is true that the Out campaign can make a lot of noise and appeal to emotions, but, ultimately, unless they can persuade a majority of the UK electorate that life would be clearly, immediately, and demonstrably better off outside the EU. This is something which I do not believe that they can do. It is possible that the overall result will mirror that of the Scottish Referendum of 2014.

As victor in the referendum campaign, Cameron will then extend an olive branch to those Conservative MPs who were part of the “Exit” campaign, promising to forgive, forget, and move on (although I also have a hunch that he will have made mental notes of whose future careers he will assist covertly, and whose he will seek to stymie). In the interests of Party unity, Tory “Brexiteers” will have to accept his hand of friendship. It is difficult to know what will then become of the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party; certainly the fire will have been taken out of their cause, and they will be obliged to accept the verdict of the electorate. The predicted Referendum result will also constitute a body blow for UKIP, and it is hard to see how they can continue indefinitely as a political force. I imagine that the SNP, behind the inevitable staged smiles, will be intensely disappointed that there was not a victory for Brexit: their hoped for trigger for a new referendum on Scottish independence will not be forthcoming.

David Cameron may then leave office a year or so before the 2020 election as the man who saved the Union, preserved the UK’s place within the EU, and shepherded the country through some of the worst vestiges of the recession (whether any of these epithets are fully justified or not). His successor may be George Osborne, although quite conceivably by 2018 or 2019 the Tories could prefer a newer, less shop-soiled figure to lead the Party. Barring some unforeseen event, like an equivalent to “Black Wednesday” in 1992, the Conservatives will go on to win the 2020 election, perhaps with an increased parliamentary majority and an increased share of the vote.