Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Council should ignore absurd World Cup motion

The Green and White Army has been dragged unwillingly into city council politics in Belfast once again.  SDLP councillor, Declan Boyle, proposed a motion calling for the Northern Ireland football team to boycott World Cup 2018, due to take place in Russia, in protest at that country’s participation in the war in Syria.

Mr Boyle attracted fewer than one thousand votes in the last local election, but he’s used his mandate to urge a national football association to intervene in one of the thorniest geopolitical issues in the world today.  The absurd grandiosity of his motion aside, it shows a flimsy grasp of the complexity of a vicious civil war in Syria.

Russia’s military support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime is controversial and its methods brutal, but it exposed the ineffectiveness of western countries’ tactics and acted decisively to defeat Islamists in Palmyra and Aleppo.  Meanwhile, the US and European countries have pursued a confused policy, including backing tacitly groups linked to Al-Qaeda, when they have been attacked by government forces.  To put it mildly, the situation is complicated and it isn’t the Irish FA’s job to weigh the merits of civil war in the Middle East, or to contribute to demonising Russia.  

From the moment that Russia was awarded the World Cup, politicians have tried to meddle in the home countries participation and the media has focussed on bribery, hooliganism and Vladimir Putin.  The coverage has been biased and it draws upon the West’s political rivalry with Moscow and England’s hurt at not hosting the finals.  Actually, there will never be a better time to visit the world’s biggest, most fascinating country.

2018 could be one of the best World Cups ever and Northern Ireland fans will have a ball, should our team qualify.     

The dictum “keep politics out of sport” isn’t influential at Belfast City Council.  Whether donning Linfield scarves in the council chamber, or proposing to invite multiple national teams to City Hall receptions, local councillors love to court controversy by debating issues related to sport, particularly football, in the council chamber.  They should concentrate on matters that fall within their powers, and on delivering better services for their constituents.  

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

If you blame Russia for nearly everything you're a xenophobic bigot.


There’s an entire sub-genre of political commentary devoted to pointing out the intolerances and hypocrisies of self-described ‘liberals’.  So it’s not a new observation that some of the people who take most pride in being ‘broad-minded’ actually harbour the deepest, most implacable prejudices.  In fact it’s been a vintage year for liberal illiberalism, fuelled by anger at the outcome of the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s victory in the US election.


Some commentators attribute those election results to a rise in xenophobic or racist attitudes.  In other words, they allege that voters are currently more inclined to feel negatively toward entire groups of people, based on nationality or perceived background.  A worrying development, most would agree.  Except that some groups of people, indeed some nationalities, are subjected to sweeping generalisations by the same commentators, sometimes in the same articles.


These types of inconsistencies have probably always existed, but it seems they are getting worse.  They were once commonly directed at Israelis and even, to an extent, Northern Irish protestants but, just at the moment, the people it’s most ok for liberals to smear are Russians.  It’s a witch-hunt led by the Democratic Party in the US, but it extends to the UK and parts of western Europe too.


The Democrats and their supporters want the world to believe that Hillary Clinton was beaten by Donald Trump only because Russians interfered in the election.  Russians hacked her campaign team’s emails and Russians spread ‘fake news’ that tilted US public opinion in Trump’s favour.  Right-thinking, liberal people are ‘hawkish’ and tough on Russia, while those who want better relationships with Russians are Vladimir Putin’s ‘puppets’ and ‘apologists’.


In the UK, a Labour MP, Ben Bradshaw, claimed that it is “highly probable” that Russia interfered in the EU referendum.  He offered no evidence, but the supposed perfidy of Russians certainly did feature in the campaign.  The ‘remain’ side alleged that Britain would be ill-equipped to deal with a “newly belligerent Russia”, outside the EU, and Boris Johnson was dubbed an ‘apologist’ after suggesting that Brussels’ foreign policy may have contributed to the conflict in the Ukraine.  


Attention can be diverted from any political result one doesn’t like, or any insinuation of wrongdoing, by howling about Russian ‘cyber warfare’ and ‘fake news’.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s Brexit, Trump, an Italian referendum or British Olympians penchant for taking ‘anti-asthmatic’ steroids just before they compete.      


While hacking does take place and some of it originates in Russia, the evidence linking it to the Russian state is flimsy.  As for ‘fake news’, its definition has expanded to encompass, not only flagrantly invented stories, but also any editorial line or news outlet one doesn’t like.  The Washington Post recently published a story alleging that ‘fake news’ had affected the US election, based on ‘research’ supplied by a group, PropOrNot, that equates ‘non-mainstream’ views with Russian propaganda.  The paper later appended an editor’s note to the article, explaining that it didn’t “vouch for the validity” of PropOrNot’s findings and acknowledging that its methods were flawed.  


The New Yorker did a very effective job of examining “the propaganda about Russian propaganda”.  The definition of “fake news”, it found, was broad enough to include “not only Russian state-controlled media organisations, such as Russia Today, but nearly every news outlet in the world”.  


The allegation could be levelled at many of the more outlandish stories about Russia in western media, for instance Russian football hooligans waging “hybrid warfare” on their state’s behalf or The Times’ description of Russian language programmes at British universities as a “secret propaganda assault” by the Kremlin.


The idea that Russia has been unfairly demonised is not the preserve of hard-core Putinists either.  Mikhail Gorbachev, a former statesman who is profoundly respected in the west, has spoken about western “provocation” and believes that negative western press coverage has enhanced the President’s popularity at home.  In particular, he believes that analysis of Russian foreign policy objectives has been unfair.


The conflict in the Ukraine, where a violent putsch took place, unsupported by the majority in the state’s eastern and central provinces, has been portrayed as unalloyed aggression by Russia.  There has been an obstinate insistence on viewing the war simplistically, ignoring Moscow’s perspective and the perspective of a large proportion of the Ukraine's population.   Meanwhile, the Kremlin’s support for President Assad in Syria has prompted the west to take the part of rebels, many of whom are Islamists, linked to Al Qaeda among other terrorist groups.    


Russia’s conduct in neither of these countries is blameless, but it is rational, conforms to a coherent view of world affairs and advances its own interests.  None of this nuance is reported or debated in western newspapers, other than the odd isolated column, and Russians’ fiercest critics are nearly always self-styled ‘liberals’.  The indecent urge to confront or even to fight Russia is aired constantly.

There are words for demonising an entire nation of people on the basis of cliches and generalisations.  They are prejudice and xenophobia.  The Russian state’s actions, like any other state, are sometimes unscrupulous and questionable.  It’s foreign policy is sometimes at odds with the UK and it’s system of government is not the same as ours.  To blame it for everything though, which is the current trend, is irrational and bigoted.

Monday, 12 December 2016

SF want unionists to forget that Northern Ireland issue is about sovereignty, not identity.

For some years now, Sinn Fein’s representatives have been spouting platitudes about accommodating unionists in an “agreed Ireland”.  The party’s latest bout of navel-gazing is prompted (it claims) by the aftermath of of the EU referendum. Brexit, Sinn Fein says, “changes everything”, including the assumption that unionists will necessarily oppose “Irish unity”.

In its new document, Towards a United Ireland, the party proposes a series of ideas to recognise the “unique identity of Northern unionists and the British cultural identity”.  

Alex Kane does a good job of debunking the view that unionism, or Northern Ireland as an entity, can survive Irish unity.  I agree with him.  Unfortunately, though, the notion that the political divide in Northern Ireland centres on identity rather than sovereignty is deeply ingrained, and not just among nationalists.

Over the past few decades, Sinn Fein has changed the way it talks about unionists, either because its ideologues genuinely think differently or just because its propaganda has become slicker.  

The brutal slogan ‘Brits out’ was first given a polish so that, in theory, it omitted Ulster unionists, who were merely under the misapprehension that they were British, whereas they were actually Irish.  Then the Shinners recognised, in theory at least, that there is something that sets unionists apart from the rest of the “Irish nation”.  Gerry Adams, for instance, made the sanctimonious admission that “we (republicans) need to look at what they (unionists) mean by their sense of Britishness”.  

This document seems to suggest that Sinn Fein thinks “they” mean, holding a British passport, having a “relationship” with the royal family, feeling an affinity for “loyal institutions” and, it is even implied, learning in separate schools.  All of this amounts to the “recognition of a unique identity”, that could find constitutional form in Sinn Fein’s fantasy ‘United Ireland’ through the survival of a Stormont Assembly, whose powers would be devolved from Dublin rather than Westminster.

It hasn’t occurred to republicans, or they dare not contemplate, that Northern Irish unionists’ Britishness comes from a rational, defensible and deeply felt political allegiance to the United Kingdom.  This allegiance cannot be accommodated in a united Ireland, because its substance is Northern Ireland’s inclusion in the UK and the sovereignty of the parliament at Westminster.  Take that away and you are left with the baubles of a national identity outside a nation state.  

It’s understandable that Sinn Fein and other nationalists think this way, or, at least, present their arguments this way  The Belfast Agreement defined a political struggle over sovereignty in terms of identity.  

Sinn Fein sold the deal to republicans on the basis that it transferred power from London to the island of Ireland and secured recognition for Irish nationality.   Only now are the hard edges of sovereignty in Northern Ireland reemerging, as Brexit shows that Westminster’s authority was not diluted at all by the Good Friday Agreement.      

Unfortunately, unionists have often defined their politics in terms of identity as well.  Certain politicians popularised the idea that the Belfast Agreement represented a defeat for unionism, on that basis.  Unionist parties were often happy to stay at the margins of UK politics, using national debates to air parochial concerns and extract more money from Westminster.  The goal of putting Northern Ireland at the centre of UK politics and UK society was marginal, at best.

In fact, ideas not unlike Sinn Fein’s proposals have even been discussed at the fringes of loyalism, and perhaps beyond.  The notion that Northern Ireland as a political entity could or should endure outside the UK is not uncommon.              

After almost 100 years of its existence, a distinct Northern Irish identity does exist, and it has political expression through the devolved Assembly at Stormont.  That doesn’t mean that it can survive autonomously.  Politically Northern Ireland is defined by its place in the United Kingdom.

The idea of becoming a devolved region of a 32 county Irish state, with the same old parties retaining their stranglehold on power, is horrifying.  No amount of Orange parades, Prod schools or symbols of royalty could make it any more palatable.  We would be better taking our chances in a unitary Republic, where something like a mature political culture has developed.  

And if Northern Ireland did leave the United Kingdom, be under no illusion, Ulster unionism would be no more.  There might remain Ulster protestants, people with a British cultural identity and even British citizens, but they would not be unionists.  Without the United Kingdom, or at least the prospect of reviving the United Kingdom, unionism does not exist.

It’s simple and axiomatic, but it clearly bears repeating, Northern Irish unionism is the political belief that Northern Ireland should be part of the United Kingdom.  While it is affected by issues of identity, culture and symbolism, it is not defined by them.  Let’s by all means have a discussion about the border, but don’t pretend that unionism can be accommodated in a United Ireland, or that the essence of the issue is anything other than where sovereignty lies in Northern Ireland.  


 

Friday, 28 October 2016

Competence, not electoral flirtation, the way forward for UUP & SDLP

Is there a party more promiscuous, politically, than the Ulster Unionists?  For ten years, at least, the UUP has tried to meet “the one”, to help it secure electoral success and greater influence. 
  
Back in 2006, Ulster Unionists persuaded former PUP MLA, David Ervine, to join their Assembly group, in an attempt to gain an extra Executive minister, though the arrangement was thwarted eventually by Stormont’s rules.  Then they fought two elections with the Conservatives, under the clumsy title, Ulster Conservatives and Unionists - New Force.   

At the last Westminster election, Ulster Unionists struck electoral deals with both the DUP and independent unionist, Sylvia Hermon.  In Fermanagh South Tyrone, both main unionist parties campaigned for Tom Elliott, while the UUP stood aside in North Belfast, East Belfast and North Down, to give rival candidates a free run. 

Now they’re at it again.  

At the Ulster Unionists’ annual conference last Saturday, Mike Nesbitt cavorted on stage with Colum Eastwood, announcing the party’s latest dalliance - the SDLP - its partner in Stormont’s official opposition.  “Vote (for) Colum and me and you get a whole new middle ground politics”, the UUP leader promised the public. 

This budding relationship may not yet be “exclusive”.  In a pre-conference interview with the News Letter, Nesbitt refused to rule out another pact with the DUP, aimed at maximising “the number of pro-Union MPs from Northern Ireland. 

Sam McBride wrote about the risk of confusing voters with multiple alliances, and noted that, to date, electors have been reluctant to transfer between unionist and nationalist candidates, or vice versa.  There are other profound difficulties with marrying the parties’ philosophies, as well as their views on everyday issues at the Assembly.  

The most obvious difference - on whether our constitutional future should lie with the UK or the Republic of Ireland - could have been surmounted more easily prior to the ‘Brexit’ referendum.  After all, Eastwood pledged that, under his leadership, the SDLP will try to “make Northern Ireland work”, despite its long-term goal of a united Ireland. 

However, the British public’s decision to leave the EU has revived nationalist hopes of loosening links with Great Britain and binding us more closely to the Republic of Ireland.  The SDLP has promoted the idea of a “special status” for Northern Ireland that preserves elements of EU membership and dilutes ‘Brexit’, as it is likely to be implemented in the rest of the United Kingdom.   

The UUP campaigned for ‘remain’, but it cannot reconcile its unionist principles with the idea that a nationwide vote is not binding in certain parts of the UK.  Likewise, the party can’t justify taking part in Enda Kenny’s forum about the future of the island after Brexit, while it’s styled a ‘national conversation’ that purports to tackle policy for Northern Ireland. 

Then there are a myriad of issues around the economy and welfare, where the UUP should, in theory, be more realistic than its partner.           

That isn’t to say that working closely with the SDLP is a bad idea, if it’s done properly. 

Together, the two parties form the Assembly’s ‘official opposition’ and they are the main alternative to the power-sharing Executive, made up of the DUP and Sinn Fein.  Their task is to scrutinise ministers’ decisions effectively and build a reputation for competence, that persuades voters they could do a better job. 

Sadly, that seems very difficult currently.  Neither the UUP nor the SDLP has presented a coherent critique of Stormont’s failings, never mind a decent plan to do things differently.  Their appeal to voters relies mainly on the perception that they are less obnoxious than rival parties with broadly similar outlooks. 

Mike Nesbitt has to persuade voters that the UUP and the SDLP comprise a credible opposition to the Executive, before anyone will believe that Northern Ireland politics has anything so grandiose as a "whole new middle ground".   



Monday, 24 October 2016

World Cup qualifiers get serious for Northern Ireland

More fireworks at the National Stadium in 2017?
The World Cup Qualifiers are about to get serious for Michael O’Neill and his Northern Ireland team.  After taking four points from their first three games, the Ulstermen must beat Azerbaijan on November 11th at the National Stadium, if they harbour realistic hopes of reaching the finals tournament in Russia.  

Then, for 2017, four consecutive matches are scheduled, at home against Norway and the Czech Republic, and away against San Marino and Azerbaijan, that are all potentially winnable.

Earlier this month, Northern Ireland put in a spirited enough performance in Hanover, losing 2-0 to Germany, who scored both their goals early in the first half.  There’s little doubt though that the Germans will win Group C comfortably.  That leaves the Czech Republic, Norway and, potentially, in-form Azerbaijan, vying with O’Neill’s team for second place.  

Northern Ireland’s task is to win this four country ‘mini-group’ and inflict another defeat on San Marino.  Then, in October 2017, Germany will come to Belfast, where anything is possible in front of a boisterous crowd at WIndsor Park.  

So far, we’re doing as well as can be expected.  It’s a measure of Northern Ireland’s progress that a 0-0 draw away to the Czechs was greeted without much enthusiasm by supporters.
 
It was still an impressive result, undermined only by a lacklustre performance in the second half. Three late goals against San Marino, which secured a 4-0 victory, put the gloss on another rather flat display.  
I doubt a single member of the Green and White Army will complain if Northern Ireland continues to amass points without playing scintillating football.  Azerbaijan will be tough, wily opponents, whose players are schooled in the dark arts of time-wasting and play-acting.

They have a high-profile manager, the Croat Robert Prosinecki, who has organised a resolute defence.  So far in Group C, the Azeris have found the net infrequently, allowed their opponents to control possession and proved difficult to score against.  All attributes that are very familiar to Northern Ireland fans.  

Traditionally, this is exactly the type of game in which we’ve struggled.  That tradition changed during the last campaign, as Michael O’Neill built a side that defeated habitually mediocre to middling opponents, particularly in Belfast.  Hungary, Greece and Finland were all decent but unspectacular teams. Exactly the type of sides against which, previously, Northern Ireland dropped points.  

Germany excepted, the World Cup qualifying group has a similar feel.  The Czech Republic is a football nation with pedigree, currently down on its luck.  Norway has fielded several formidable, physical sides, but its latest team is not one of them.  The Azeris are improving, but they’re still underdogs against most opponents.

Finishing in second place is achievable, although, in this competition, it doesn’t necessarily secure a place in a play-off to reach the finals.  Eight out of the nine second place teams will get a play-off slot though and Michael O’Neill believes Northern Ireland can be one of them.

That means extending an impressive record at home, where we were last beaten in 2013, and scoring at least once against an Azeri side that is yet to concede a goal.  If Northern Ireland wins, the Green and White Army can go into 2017 confident that history can be made once again.

Friday, 21 October 2016

All-Ireland Brexit forum against basic principles of unionism

An Taoiseach Enda Kenny with D COS Sp R Adm Mark Mellett.jpg
There are often good, valid reasons to criticise the two main unionist parties in Northern Ireland but they do not include occasions when they act consistently with basic principles of the Union. Unionists cannot possibly take part in an all-island ‘national conversation’ around Northern Ireland’s constitutional status. The most fundamental tenet of unionism is that we’re part of the UK state, not an Irish ‘nation’.
In the Irish TimesNewton Emerson covers the practical reasons why neither the DUP nor Ulster Unionists can attend the southern government’s Brexit forum.
In short, this assembly has no authority and there are other, more appropriate avenues through which to discuss arrangements for the island of Ireland after the UK leaves the EU. The Good Friday Agreement set up north-south and east-west bodies, so that matters of common interest can be discussed without ignoring Northern Ireland’s constitutional position, or offending nationalists. Meanwhile, the government is designing its own process to consult with devolved regions.
When it suits, the Brexit forum has been described as a ‘conversation’, because the word is innocuous and refusal to participate in a conversation is normally thought unreasonable. Unionists can therefore be cast as sectarian nitwits, who refuse to talk in case they’re “sprayed with holy water at the door”. At the same time, the SDLP, the party whose hysteria since the referendum has been shrillest, implies that it is irresponsible to boycott the forum, because its conclusions will shape Northern Ireland’s future.
Neither slur forms a decent case for unionists to take part. Either the forum is an irrelevant sideshow, or else it promotes a national interest that unionism rejects explicitly.
The DUP and the UUP took opposing sides during the referendum campaign, but both accept, without reservation, the government’s right to implement Brexit in Northern Ireland. Neither can consider seriously arrangements which diverge significantly from the rest of the UK. In contrast, the SDLP and other nationalists encourage the idea that Northern Ireland could have a special status, precisely because they wish to loosen our ties with the rest of Britain and bind us more closely to the Republic of Ireland.
They’re well within their rights to pursue those tactics, even if old-fashioned Irish nationalist aspirations lie beneath apparent new concerns for Northern Ireland’s electoral mandate and its economy. Unionists are within their rights to respond by ensuring that Brexit isn’t used as an excuse to lever the United Kingdom further apart culturally or politically.
The DUP and the UUP have often failed to strengthen the Union effectively. Insisting that the UK’s decision to leave the EU is extended in full to all its regions and refusing to participate in an ‘all-Ireland conversation’ about Northern Ireland’s future, in contrast, are perfectly sensible decisions.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Theresa May, conservatism and Conservatism

In her first leader’s speech at a Tory Conference, Theresa May tried to explain the type of Conservatism she hopes to practise.  Although her address was popular with many delegates and the Tories’ poll ratings soared, it attracted frenzied criticism from left-liberals, who interpreted the sections on immigration as reactionary, and economic liberals, who were alarmed by May’s talk of government intervening to control markets.


Previously, I wrote that the new prime minister was associated with ‘pragmatism’ rather than any particular political ideology.  Mrs May’s conference speech suggested that she thinks Conservatism is something more than a commitment to free markets.  Her call to remember “the good that government can do” and her derisive comments about the “libertarian right”, were seen by some members of her party as a direct attack on their beliefs.


So, alongside alongside claims that May’s policies amounted to fascism, there were equally inflated suggestions that she was advocating socialism.  Rhetoric that tilted leftward on the economy and rightward on immigration made the implication of ‘national socialism’ irresistible to some commentators.  Tip-toeing around all that hyperbole, the speech combined some of the new populism affecting politics, with more traditional conservative themes.           


It is highly unlikely that Theresa May’s Tories will regulate companies heavily.  She prefaced her remarks about the economy by emphasising the party’s commitment to free markets.  The government’s slim majority in the House of Commons, and the hostility of a significant number of Conservatives, would prevent May from introducing a significant programme of regulation, even if that is what she intended.


There may be some limited measures aimed at protecting consumers, in particular industries.  The government is already involved heavily in ensuring wider broadband provision and mobile phone signal for example, because these services are considered particularly important to the rest of the economy.  Banks may be required to ensure that interest rates for savers reflect more closely the Bank of England base rate.  There may even be some legislation, largely aesthetic, around company governance.  


The policies trailed at party conferences often disappear rapidly, because these speeches are about setting a particular tone and attracting headlines, rather than the detail around important issues.  Mrs May’s speech was designed to appeal to voters, ‘ordinary working people’ as she insisted upon calling them, who regard big businesses with suspicion and feel that top executives are frequently paid too much money. The prime minister was telling them that the Conservatives are on their side.  


That’s not to say that she won’t make another speech soon, soothing any anxieties that her words might have caused among businesses, and emphasising that the financial industry and other publicly unpopular industries are vital to the economy.  In fact that is very likely.


The idea that Mrs May is trying to place herself ‘equidistant’ between right and left is not particularly illuminating.  In my previous blog, I observed that the idea of a Tory party torn between Thatcherite free marketeers and ‘One Nation’ Conservatives is a simplification.  Broadly, market liberal ideas, the meat of Thatcherism, are taken for granted across the Conservative Party and, until relatively recently, they attracted few serious challenges across British society.


So far, Theresa May’s team has made a rather good job of reading the mood of Britain, after the EU referendum.  While the Tories’ poll ratings reflect this success, they need to deliver a coherent plan for Brexit and govern well, rather than merely echoing public opinion.


Some more excitable activists reacted to Theresa May’s defence of government and her criticisms of failing markets by alleging that she was not espousing Conservatism.  That depends whether Conservatism (big ‘C’) is still underpinned meaningfully by conservatism (small ‘c’).


British conservatives defend free markets and civil liberties, because they are a defining feature of the UK's culture and society.  However, the free market libertarian desire to strip back regulations, laws and institutions as a matter of principle is something very different from conservatism, as it is usually understood.


Classical liberalism is an undeniable, and important, aspect of the modern Conservative Party.  There are a smaller number of Tories who describe themselves as ‘libertarian’.  Almost the entire party accepts the broad thrust of Thatcherite economics, to some degree.


Perhaps Theresa May was being needlessly antagonistic when she hit out at the ‘libertarian right’.  That doesn’t mean that her speech wasn’t deeply ‘conservative’, even if some of her colleagues would like to rid the Conservative Party of the ideas she articulated.