Category Archives: Uncategorized

Putin’s not under pressure at all – except to act even more aggressively

Vladimir Putin is “under pressure” (to sue for peace) apparently after the apparently obvious and inexcusable Russian involvement in the horrific downing of a civil airliner, killing 298.

No he isn’t. Not by a long stretch.

Yet again, the West can’t see outside its own bubble – unable even to play devil’s advocate. Yet few play the devil’s advocate better than Vladimir Putin.

A devil’s advocate would point out that Ukraine was always a borderland. It has always been split between various large states (actually usually empires), from Poland-Lithuania to the Soviet Union. To Russians, Russia is “Great Russia”, Belarus is “White Russia” and Ukraine is “Little Russia” – Eastern Slavic brothers, in other words. What they saw in Ukraine in February was Western meddling within Greater Russia.

A devil’s advocate would continue to note that no such Eastern meddling would be allowed by the United States anywhere in the Americas or within other spheres of interest. The United States has brought down unhelpful regimes in the Western Hemisphere many times. Of course, it has frequently intervened in the Middle East, geographically well away from home – even bringing down an Iranian civil airliner on one occasion.

A devil’s advocate would continue to reference the point I have frequently made that ethnic or linguistic Russians within the Western sphere of influence (e.g. NATO or the EU) are treated as second-class citizens, effectively disallowed even the vote in some cases (whereas they are allowed a vote in Russian elections, note well).

Looked at that way around – and the whole of Russia does look at it that way around – and you see that far from being “under pressure”, Vladimir Putin will in fact be encouraged to act more aggressively to put a complete end to the apparent Western meddling within Greater Russia.

Why are the Western media and civil society so unable to see this obvious – and frankly exceedingly dangerous – point?

McIlroy shows NI can be the best when it tries

His is a very distinctive, and confident, strut down the fairway. Few global sports fans would not recognise Rory McIlroy now, striding to another victory.

Rory McIlroy with the famous Claret Jug (Paul Ellis, Agence France)

Rory McIlroy with the famous Claret Jug (Paul Ellis, Agence France)

He will probably not dominate in the way Nicklaus or Woods once did, but that is only because golf is a more global sport now – the top ranks in yesterday’s Open included Americans yes, but also Italians, Irishmen, a Spaniard, a Frenchman and so on. Recent major-winning countries include Korea, New Zealand, Argentina and Germany. Above all of those, Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell can challenge, and Rory at his best can soar. It is remarkable – and he’s ours!

It bears repeating then – if we can do golf, why not other stuff? Why not aspire to a social model others may wish to copy, to business innovation others may wish to buy, to public services others may envy?

If a young man from Holywood can do it, so can the rest of us. A bit less negativity and a bit more confident strutting, and we’d be a better place!

Unionists need to admit: so-called “British” culture is nothing of the sort

Unionists have been busy putting out joint Statements a lot recently – not necessarily a bad thing, in fact. The DUP claims this led to a better Twelfth. I’d be inclined to agree.

In fact, it bears noting that the Twelfth this year was something of a triumph for Unionism – precisely because it was largely respectful and usually fun (the same cannot be said for some of the events the previous evening, but let’s focus on the positive for now). The picture of the Orangeman doffing his hat to the Priest at St Patrick’s should live long in the memory – it represented the real Orange Institution and the real NI.

However, one statement in particular caught my eye – because with direct reference to parades disputes, it referred to “British culture”.

The problem is that what they describe as “British culture” is nothing of the sort. The even greater problem is they really need to admit it, for their own sake.

I spent much of my break – inadvertently in fact, due to the passport crisis – in England. More so than in my youth, much of which was spent there, England is now a very “English” place – not the mistaken type of “English” which mistakes “Englishness” with “Britishness”, but a very specific, patriotic and even multi-cultural “Englishness”. This is both bad and good news for Unionists (of any variety).

It is bad news for Unionists in NI because the post-devolution has seen the strong, and to my eyes positive, development of a clearly English identity. English flags are more prominent than Union Flags in England; the word “English” and “Englishness” is now used unashamedly (and, to repeat, to mark a clear distinction from “Britishness”); the English have decided, and not before time perhaps, that the correct response to the development of devolved identities elsewhere in the UK is the development of their own. I have long cautioned that the biggest danger to the Union (i.e. the UK union) may come from England, when the English decide it simply isn’t worth it any more.

On the other hand, it is good news because in my youth there was a real risk that “Englishness” would become adopted, frankly, by racists (closet or otherwise) and that “English” would come to mean not “British-Scottish/Welsh/Irish” but “English-immigrants/blacks/others”. That it has become a positive expression of clear and unifying identity (for the most part) is evidence that such a turnaround can happen – once the basic problem (in the case of “Englishness” the on-going differentiation with “Scottish” and “Welsh”, even politically) is accepted.

This development – as well as positive expressions of Scottishness, Welshness and a grown-up 21st century not particularly Anglophobic Irishness – has left Unionists lost. What they describe as “British culture” is totally foreign to 98% of Britons – in other words, it isn’t. They are left in a trap, claiming a “Britishness” they have in common with no one in order to distinguish themselves from the “Irish”, who have a worldwide diaspora. Whereas their Nationalist neighbours share a broad cultural identity with residents of the Republic of Ireland and millions of people of Irish heritage globally, Unionists do not share a cultural identity with anyone – not even their own professional class. It is this which leads to displays not of “British culture”, but of obvious insecurity.

This insecurity is not anyone’s fault, in particular. However, it is people’s fault if they choose to ignore it. It is time we all stopped using the term “British culture” for cultural displays which, while for the most part wholly legitimate displays of Ulster-Protestant culture, are actually anything but “British”.

Back in a fortnight…

It’s July – time for a fortnight off!

Thanks to all readers of this blog – any (reasonable!) thoughts on it, let me know below!

Prescription Charges wrong for those with long-term conditions

My own position on prescription charges – and I write here in a purely personal capacity – has been slightly but understandably misunderstood. I am not particularly in favour of their return; what I argue is that, if people want more public spending, they have to be honest about where they are going to raise that money. If that does include Prescription Charges, they should say so; if it doesn’t, they should say where else it will come from.

What I am clear about is that if Prescription Charges do return in NI, they should return taking account of the basic principle of the NHS, which boils down to the point that no citizen should be penalised for happening to have a condition. I have a friend who has a huge range of allergies and thus often requires allergy relief pills; I have no objection to contributing to those as much as she does – it’s not her fault! Likewise, people with asthma did not ask to have asthma and thus should not pay more for access to the Health Service than the rest of us (which would effectively be the case if they had to pay for every prescription). There is a huge range of conditions which lead to greater prevalence of other conditions or diseases, and again those with such conditions should not be penalised, in effect, for happening to have them.

We do have to recognise that not only do Free Prescriptions lead to a loss of Health funding which has to be recouped from elsewhere, but also to more prescriptions (because they are now free) and more strain on the system – as evidenced by the 25% rise in prescriptions written in NI since they became free. On the other hand, it could be argued that Free Prescriptions are a basic aspect of a Health Service free at point of access. After all, if you pay for prescriptions, why not for surgery, or even just medical advice?

Regardless, it is clear to me that people with long-term conditions have life hard enough without being penalised further by having to pay for prescriptions, even if it is only up to £25 per year. That is more than someone like me, currently without any, is ever likely to pay. Whether free prescriptions remain for the greater populace is an even debate for me; but there is no doubt that free prescriptions should remain in place, universally, for people with long-term conditions.

Progressives must stop talking of “Centre” Ground

I was delighted to see NI21 candidate (and, more importantly from a social point of view, author of “Legacy”) Jayne Olorunda join the Alliance Party last week. She will not be the last to make that transition and help build a united, purposeful Progressive movement.

So, what do “Progressives” actually stand for? That was the perfectly reasonable question posed by one correspondent.

I have some thoughts on that, but I am not sure how many I speak for when I put those thoughts forward. Before I do so, however, I will say one thing about which I am absolutely sure – they must abandon all talk of the “Centre” Ground.

The “Centre” is a no man’s land filled with uncertainty and vagueness. It is a ground with no principles. It exists merely because the extremes exist. Its purpose is merely to balance those extremes rather than take them on. I have no interest in such unclear pointless irrelevance, and nor should anyone else!

Being “Progressive” is not about that at all. It isn’t about being in the middle, but about being out in front. It was in fact summed up by the 2011 Alliance slogan “Leading Change”.

So my thoughts…

As a core principle, “Progressives” regard the future as likely to be better than the past (certainly if we make it so).

“Progressives” prioritise jobs, health and education – but absolutely not nationality.

“Progressives” make no distinction between individuals based on background. They do not believe that any one group has a particular claim on this part of the world.

“Progressives” are untroubled by immigration, believing it on balance to be a good thing, noting particularly that immigration to NI from outside the British Isles is a good sign of how far we have come.

“Progressives” are pro-EU and quite globalised, noting that solutions to key issues (environment, free trade etc) require organised international responses.

“Progressives” in NI tend to regard their primary identity as “Northern Irish”, but are not nationalistic about this (given the point above).

“Progressives” support integrated education, community relations funding and shared leisure facilities as a priority.

“Progressives” tend to support the arts, noting the correlation between prosperity and strong arts scenes.

“Progressives” tend towards support for greater government revenue (and thus relatively high public spending) but not necessarily higher taxes – broadly supporting water charges, prescription fees and even road tolls and being wary about lower corporation tax.

Notwithstanding their support for the arts, “Progressives” are instinctively wary about public funding for general culture (including minority languages).

“Progressives” tend to support academic selection in the broad sense, but to oppose crude testing at 11.

“Progressives” speak highly of NHS principles but some would not be totally opposed to some charges (see above).

“Progressives” tend to support reform of welfare to promote work and reduce the benefits bill, but to oppose cruder aspects such as caps.

“Progressives” are unflinching in their absolute support for the Rule of Law, and see issues of parades and symbols as solvable only and primarily on that basis.

“Progressives” are future-focused and thus want to move on quickly from the past. Most, however, recognise a managed process is required.

The main point here, for all that, is that “Progressives” are a small third bloc (10% at the last vote count), and cannot afford to split over details. I may not be right about the above tendencies, but the key is to have some principles and base policies to agree on and build around. Most of all, these must be “ahead”, not “in the middle”!

Northern Ireland’s economic day of reckoning is nigh

Last week, fresh from their various breaks over the election period and public holidays and with the ten-week summer recess looming, our beloved MLAs found nothing more important to talk about than a suspension motion against one of their own number which couldn’t possibly pass anyway. Such mediocrity really shouldn’t be tolerated, but it generally is of course.

Mediocrity

The problem is, there are real issues MLAs should be discussing – and openly. They have, in fairness, touched on health and education recently. However, a serious set of proposals to deal with the forthcoming economic and financial reality still eludes them. Yes, we have an economic strategy and some decent recent investment announcements, but that isn’t the thorough preparation for the new reality which is necessary. Indeed, we won’t notice the difference until it’s too late..

The new reality is the inevitable consequence of the Scottish referendum. This will see more powers, including financial powers, devolved to Scotland and quite possibly also to Wales, meaning that:

- the Barnett formula will be replaced by a public spending settlement much more advantageous to Wales and the North of England and much less advantageous to Northern Ireland, which will be expected to raise more of its own income;

- failure to reform welfare will see Northern Ireland have to fund an ever increasing welfare gap;

- corporation tax may be devolved, but not uniquely to Northern Ireland, rendering it much less advantageous than the existing figures (which assume lower corporation tax uniquely within the UK) suggest, to the extent that it will in fact almost certainly be a bad idea; and

- the implicit expectation by the Treasury (and in the rest of the UK, insofar as it thinks about it) will be that Northern Ireland introduces water charges, removes rates caps, reinstalls prescription fees, and doubles household rates.

The alternative will be actual cuts – i.e. not the odd public sector worker not moved up a scale and the occasional closure of a highly inefficient body here and there; but real job losses in the public sector, huge cuts in the number of quangos and oversight bodies, and mass close downs of public-funded voluntary sector organisations.

This is the choice which is coming, without any doubt at all. If we wish to maintain public spending at anything like current levels, we will have to raise far more of it ourselves in the new quasi-federal UK. Where are the preparations? Where is the demand for them? We won’t notice there weren’t any until it’s too late…

How long can we tolerate current First Minister?

Let us be clear, a protest outside a Nigerian’s new home involving the draping of banners is inherently racist. It is so in precisely the same way that hanging a national flag off a lamp post until it becomes a rag is sectarian. It is the act which is racist or sectarian, not the banner or symbol.

If the First Minister, fully seven years into the current devolved settlement, cannot grasp that obvious point, he is not fit for office.

He is not fit for office because this is not a victimless problem. Tens of people over the past few months have been put out of or denied homes to which they were fully entitled. When it is a clear case of a victim with rights against a protestor or evangelical preacher seeking to deny those rights or promote vilification, any public representative must instantly and unfailingly endorse the former.

The sad, almost unutterable truth is that this all demonstrates that we have not moved on politically at all. So that then raises the next obvious question: for how long can we tolerate Ministers who currently endorse breaching the Rule of Law, interfering in independent processes, and blatant displays of racism and sectarianism?

The difficulty with this question is that it is impossible to remove Ministers (and pointless anyway, as they would merely be replaced from within the same party). So what we are really asking is: for how long can we tolerate an Executive existing which is incapable of ensuring the Rule of Law prevails and the most marginalised in society are adequately protected?

UUP continues rise in Border (English) areas

Some time ago, I wrote this post noting that in Northern Ireland, as in the United States, political preference often matches historical settlement patterns.

So it continued last month.

In the four new Greater Belfast Council areas (Belfast City, Antrim-Newtownabbey, Lisburn-Castlereagh and North Down-Ards), the top four parties in terms of seats (with first preference vote in brackets) were:

  • DUP 65 (28.4%)
  • Ulster Unionist 36 (14.3%)
  • Alliance 26 (12.2%)
  • Sinn Fein 22 (16.4%)

As it happens this was a particularly good result, trend-wise at least, for the Ulster Unionists, who reclaimed their position as the second party of local government in Greater Belfast. However, I ignore Greater Belfast for the purposes of comparison with historical settlement, as it is naturally the centre of Northern Ireland’s administration and commerce and is thus an area people move into and out of with comparatively greater frequency than more rural areas.

In the rest of County Antrim and the North Coast (Mid-East Antrim, Causeway Coast-Glens and Derry-Strabane – i.e. the historical Glens, Route, Coleraine, Derry City and north-west Tyrone), the results were:

  • DUP 35 (24.3%)
  • Sinn Fein 26 (21.5%)
  • Ulster Unionist 21 (14.0%)
  • SDLP 17 (14.8%)

In this case, the DUP essentially maintained its dominance – it doesn’t quite match the Greater Belfast ratio of outpolling and out-scoring the Ulster Unionists by 2:1, but it is close to it. (For reference, the Sinn Fein-SDLP ratio is 2:1 in Greater Belfast but is reduced to 3:2 here).

However, in what I call the Border-Rural area (Fermanagh-Omagh, Mid Ulster, Armagh-Banbridge-Craigavon and Newry-Mourne-Down – i.e. Counties Tyrone, Fermanagh, Armagh and Down outside the Greater Belfast and Greater Derry area, plus that part of County Londonderry not originally in County Coleraine), the results were markedly different:

  • Sinn Fein 57 (34.4%)
  • Ulster Unionist 31 (19.5%)
  • DUP 30 (16.3%)
  • SDLP 24 (18.4%)

Here, the Ulster Unionists are (and always were) ahead of the DUP in local government, and are actually closing on them at Assembly level too. This is increasingly the case the further west you go – in County Fermanagh, the Ulster Unionists outpolled the DUP by almost 2:1.

It remains clear, therefore, that the Ulster Unionist vote is strongest – and is rising fastest (or declining most slowly) – in areas of predominantly English settlement during the 17th century. This would, naturally, be reinforced by a denominational split – it appears clear from these figures that Anglicans are proportionately considerably likelier to vote Ulster Unionist than Presbyterians.

It would appear also, in fact, that the same may apply to the Sinn Fein-SDLP split, which is divided West/East, i.e. between areas which were Normanized (where the SDLP polls much more strongly) and areas which remained Gaelic (where Sinn Fein scores better). This split has long been known to exist between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail (people with Norman surnames, most obviously FitzGerald, are more inclined towards the former than the latter). The SDLP was significantly more competitive, for example, in the Route part of County Antrim (controlled into the Middle Ages by the Norman McQuillans) than in the western part of Causeway Coast-Glens (which remained mainly under the Gaelic O’Kanes). Sinn Fein outpolled the SDLP typically by around 3:1 in former (Gaelic) O’Neill and Maguire territory. In this case, however, I would be less certain it has to do with historical settlement – it may simply be a matter of the SDLP polling more strongly in more urban areas (e.g. in the town of Ballymena rather than in the rural Roe Valley area).

This may all just be a geographical quirk of course. But I doubt it!

None so illiberal as, er, Liberals…?

I describe myself on my Facebook profile as “Heterodox Liberal”, a title actually given to me by a Conservative Unionist. I like it – to be clear, I am Liberal on the grounds that I believe in individual (and indeed social) freedom, in allowing the maximum reasonable degree of self-identification, and judging people on merit rather than background (be it religion, politics, sexual orientation, gender of whatever).

However, I cannot help but feel that sometimes, in some contexts, Liberals are the most illiberal people of all – particularly when it comes to religion.

To be clear, I am a Christian but also a raving secularist. I do not believe religion has any place in our schools at all, for example – a position much more extreme than the Alliance Party’s, for example (and, as it turns out, a position much more consistent than any adopted by any party in Great Britain, if recent debates are anything to go by!)

However, that is not illiberalism. It is simply a view that religion has its place – and a school with a diverse intake (as all schools should be) is not that place. There is a distinction between this and the outright illiberalism often (perhaps unwittingly) entered into by other raving secularists.

This is perhaps most obvious in the same-sex marriage debate – which is too often (and self-defeatingly, for those in favour of it) is reduced into a battle between the secular and the religious. Worse, by “secularism”, proponents of social change all too often really mean “state-sponsored atheism”. That is absolutely not what it means – and, in a society where a comfortable majority still identify as religious, it renders their case utterly hopeless when it comes to the democratic vote. If, for example, same-sex marriage is ever to pass in Northern Ireland, it will in fact need to be adopted prominently by people who self-identify as Christian.

It also became obvious in the recent debate over Pastor McConnell’s remarks. The First Minister earned scorn, and rightly so, for backing the Pastor. Both subsequently semi-apologised, noting that they were sorry if their remarks had caused offence (not what I would call an apology, but a move in the right direction). Some correspondents were astounded by my and others’ position that the Pastor’s apology should be accepted (on the grounds that he was speaking from a religious viewpoint) but not the First Minister’s (on the ground that he was required to speak from a secular one).

To be clear, many self-confessed “Liberals” argued that the Pastor’s apology should not be accepted, essentially because it retained a degree of religious intolerance about it. But that’s the thing – religions are intolerant. Christianity, at least in the form adopted by most “Christians” and all Churches that I know of, demands acceptance of Christ into your life or you are doomed to Hell. The logic of that is that all non-Christians are doomed to Hell, regardless of how good they are. I see no need to provoke hatred or use the sort of language the Pastor used, but we also need to tolerate that for practising Christian groups there is no room for compromise on that point – it’s the ultimate either/or.

Politics is utterly different from religion in that it absolutely requires compromise at all times (this may explain why comparatively religious societies, such as Northern Ireland or the United States, aren’t great at politics). For that reason, a political debate is utterly different from a religious one – the former must deliver a (compromise) outcome, the latter absolutely cannot; and for that reason, the requirements of a political apology are different from the requirements for a religious one.

This is why, while Liberals preach “tolerance”, they struggle with how far you can tolerate intolerance; and thus how far you need to tolerate religions which are (almost by definition) uncompromising, irrational and intolerant – at least at their core. It is evident that Liberals have some way to go in learning how to tolerate the open and free expression of religious views on one hand, while rightly not tolerating religious fundamentalism and oppression on the other.

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