We must not lose focus on road safety

Northern Ireland has had a proud road safety record this decade – per capita, it has had the lowest fatality rate in the world. However, that has changed this year. Already there have been as many fatalities by mid-August in 2014 as there have been in the entirety of other years.

It is foolish to race to too many conclusions based on one year’s figures. However, it remains the case that we are losing focus. For example, I have no objection to a 20mph limit in Belfast City Centre, but this is unlikely to save a single life – it is an extreme rarity for anyone to be killed on a city centre road. On the other hand, I have long advocated a reduction in the single carriageway secondary road limit, because it is on that type of road where a hugely disproportionate number of casualties takes place – yet no one seems to mention this.

Wesley Johnston is the expert here, but a few other points from this year’s comparatively poor record do stand out:

- proportionately, an unbelievable share of fatalities this year are male (thus far over 90%);

- a significantly disproportionate share of fatalities and casualties for some time now have been cyclists or motorcyclists;

- a significant cause of the dramatic rise in fatalities this year has been head-on collisions (sometimes, sadly, accounting for multiple fatalities in a single incident).

The first of these was already being looked at, because it was long the case that males were likelier to be killed on our roads than females. However, this year that has been particularly marked. We do need to target more of our road safety education to take account of this.

The second of these has been taken more seriously in Great Britain – for example through its ‘THINK!’ advertising. It is my impression that drivers consider other vehicles but do not pay proper attention to the likelihood of cyclists or motorcyclists being nearby (not that this is entirely car drivers’ fault either, by the way). Also, the “engineering” aspect of road safety needs consideration – where possible, for example, cycle lanes should be separated from the road, not just random add-ons with markings.

The third of these I have long been concerned about. I was struck many years ago by adverts in farmers’ fields in Germany which showed a car pulling out to pass another car approaching a slight bend, with the simple words “Ihr letzter Fehler?” (“Your final mistake?) underneath – a very effective message.

We have – as a society, to be clear – come a long way on road safety in the past few years and one bad year does not remove all those advances. However, I cannot help but think we are losing focus (through campaigns such as the 20mph one), and not looking at the things which are really seeing people killed and injured.

When it comes to road safety, we cannot afford to miss the things which matter, because they cost lives. It’s time for a re-think in our education, our advertising and our emphasis.

Belfast “most tolerant city in UK”

A survey by the Office of National Statistics (contributing to an EU-wide project interviewing 41,000 people in 79 cities) recently saw 75% of those questioned in Belfast agree with the premise “The presence of foreigners is good for my city”. It was the only UK city to score higher then the EU average (the others surveyed were London, Glasgow, Cardiff, Manchester and Newcastle).

A freak result, surely? After all, there was another round of disgraceful bigoted attacks only last week.

Well, that is possible but statistically unlikely. So why this seemingly bizarre outcome?

Firstly, the media are right to highlight hate crimes, which happen all too frequently in Belfast. Yet could it be that it is carried out by a minority not only increasingly desperate to oppose social change but also subconsciously aware of their minority status as they do so?

Secondly, as a legacy of sectarian conflict, Belfast arguably has a higher tolerance of hate crime than it really should have. There is still likely to be more support/protection for those who do it than elsewhere; but that does not put in doubt for one second the fact that the vast, vast majority in every part of the city oppose it.

Thirdly, the media don’t report the good side – good news doesn’t sell after all. They don’t report the Ukrainian delayed on a ferry and thus unable to access his home who was immediately offered an overnight stay at the home of a fellow passenger; they don’t report the queue at the city centre bus stop who agreed that a new Polish immigrant had such a convoluted route home to his new residence that they just pooled together on the spot and paid a taxi fare for him; they actually scarcely mentioned the selection of (by citizenship) Indian, Polish, Lithuanian, Spanish and Australian candidates for election recently.

Fourthly, and I accept this is controversial argument, there is an argument that the Troubles prove we are a pretty tolerant lot. Where similar ethno-religio-national clashes have resulted in the complete removal or even extermination of one side (compare us, for example to Yugoslavia), ours actually saw the maintenance of at least the basics of public administration, application of the Law and local elected representation.

Finally, there is also an argument that Belfast is a blunter place than most. Just because other societies are not open about intolerant (or frankly racist, xenophobic or homophobic) views, does not mean those views are not held. There is an argument at least for saying that putting such views out there actually demonstrates the need to discuss and tackle them – something which may in fact make us generally more tolerant, not less so. (“Tolerant” is not a great word here, by the way, but that’s probably for another blog piece!)

Over to you, dear readers – what say you?

Why the lack of outrage re thousands dead in Syria, Iraq, Sudan, etc?

I should probably have a specific tag for posts which pose questions to which I am not sure of the answer and want readers’ help. This is one such.

As the death toll passes 1500, I continue to be disturbed at the lack of basic humanity shown by those who think Israel’s current actions are anything other than grossly disproportionate and counter-productive. Even the United States is beginning to accept that reality now, even though it has not yet acted upon it.

However, 1500 is the number killed daily by Assad, or by ISIS in Iraq and parts of Syria. That is also the number killed in South Sudan after a government (sectarian) crisis broke out there a year ago, where there is now a humanitarian crisis of the scale of the Irish famine. This is to say nothing of the 1500 killed (one fifth on a civil airliner) during Russia’s war games in Eastern Ukraine, nor indeed of the appalling Ebola outbreak in West Africa. So why all the concern about Gaza, and not about these and other horrors ongoing elsewhere?

Let us leave aside for the moment the fact that the West in complicit in the partition of Sudan which entirely predictably was going to lead to sectarian violence. Several reasons have been suggested: Israel/Palestine is longer standing; it is a clear case of two sides (goodies versus baddies); where we stand on Israel/Palestine is also a self-definition (say, of Unionist/Nationalist or Right/Left); there is a direct religious interest in the Holy Land; there is a moral imperative after the Holocaust; there is a highly economically relevant Jewish diaspora in the United States; and others. All of these strike me as likely parts of the story. In this particular case, that the average age in Gaza is 17 surely also has something to do with it.

I cannot help but think, however, that another reason is that Israel is a Western country. By falling over themselves to try to argue that we in the West cared more about people killed on MH17 than people killed in Gaza, some commentators rather embarrassed themselves by missing the obvious point – that they themselves don’t seem to care about people killed or displaced in Syria, Iraq or South Sudan. Actually it rather seems to me that we do not omit to mention non-Westerners who were killed, but rather people who weren’t killed by Westerners (and Israelis count as Westerners).

I wonder also if there is even a collective guilt in the West. We all – every one of us – accept basically a global system policed predominantly by the United States (in preference, say, to Russia or China). Because of economic, geo-political and even internal concerns, the United States finds Israel a useful ally. Thus when Israel – seen almost as a proxy for the country we are happy to police the world at least to an extend – carries out a set of appalling and counter-productive atrocities, we look on powerless knowing that we endorse the system which brings such things about. After all, it’s easy to boycott Israel, but try boycotting the United States…

In Syria, Iraq and South Sudan, we in the West don’t believe we are participating so long as people are killing each other – even if, for example, Syria’s Assad kills more Palestinians than the IDF (which is the case, of course); or if more Christians are displaced than Muslims (“Wait, there are Christians in the Middle East?!”)

In other words, I don’t know the answer. But I do know there is a hell of a lot of hypocrisy about on the subject. Almost no one really believes every human life is equal – as is illustrated by our selective reaction to all these horrors.

 

NI needs to drop “loser” mentality

Northern Ireland’s Commonwealth Games results were average; in fact, in sports not beginning with ‘b’, they were frankly poor. They compared markedly badly, even per capita, with Scotland’s and, particularly, Wales’. Other than in boxing, things haven’t improved much since the severe embarrassment of just two medals in Melbourne eight years ago, and we do need to assess why.

Boxing, of course, saved the day – Northern Ireland’s nine medals in boxing were comfortably more than any other country’s (although others won more golds). And boxing also probably provides the answer – summed up by team captain Paddy Barnes, who said effectively that the boxers simply felt they were better than anyone else (in marked contrast to both the past in boxing and the present in any other sport played at the Games).

I wouldn’t be foolish enough to argue with Paddy Barnes about anything (!), but I also happen to believe he’s right. There remains a mentality that we are innately inferior; that any medal, even at Commonwealth level, is to be regarded as a surprise; and that somehow we are fundamentally a bunch of losers. Thank heavens Paddy Barnes doesn’t think that way!

We can easily name three other Northern Irishmen who don’t think that way – Graeme McDowell, Darren Clarke and Rory McIlroy, through whom Northern Ireland has mustered more major champions in the past four and a bit years than any other European country has managed in the past forty and a bit. In golf, even more so than in amateur boxing, we are genuinely world class. So why should we not expect to be in other sports?

Indeed, why should we not expect to be in other things, generally? It’s time to follow Paddy Barnes, expect victory, and stop thinking everyone else is automatically better. In other words, it’s time we stopped being and accepting losers.

Belfast Pride needs proper status

Honestly, going on parades of any kind just isn’t my thing – in the same way rock concerts or road racing aren’t. However, the Twelfth is clearly a significant event and television coverage reflects this; events such as Tennents Vital are well trailed; and the just past North West 200 and upcoming Ulster GP are given appropriate “major event” status by the Tourist Board.

This weekend another well-established and huge gathering takes place in Northern Ireland – a day of fun and frolics to be attended by thousands. Indeed, there is potential in future for it to grow, one year, into Europe’s showpiece event in a not dissimilar way to the MTV Awards or Giro Grande Partenza. I speak, of course, of Belfast Pride.

Much is made of this politically, and rightly so; but much could also be made of it socially and economically. It attracts people to Belfast. It brings people into shops, leisure facilities and cafés they would not otherwise frequent. Hotels can be booked out. In short, it is a significant boost to the city centre and its traders.

So you are left to wonder – why no “major event” status? Why so little trailing well in advance by the mainstream? I trust an evening’s coverage is being planned by BBC NI as I write? I ask these questions genuinely – but they do need answers. I wouldn’t like to think a Pride event would not be treated even-handedly…

Obama’s support for inhumanity means Nobel Prize must be removed

It was a crazy decision to award Barack Obama the Nobel Peace Prize before he had done anything. It devalued the prize at the time. It renders it utterly pointless now.

The 2009 award was yet another of those bizarre times when so much of humanity – particularly on the left, but not exclusively – get caught worshipping someone as almost a new Messiah when there is no evidence even to suggest basic competence. So it was when Obama was elected – purely because he was eloquent he was going to bring peace, democracy and fair play to the entire planet, apparently. I wonder how those who fell for the charisma and omitted to check for any competence feel now, as he blatantly endorses the IDF’s terror in Gaza?

It is all very well picking on Israel, but Israelis are informed by the most atrocious trauma in human history – they respond so outrageously and obviously disproportionately because they are, collectively, psychologically disturbed by that. The one country, in fact, that has both the power and psychological balance to end the horror in Gaza – right now – is the United States. And the one man who could order it is Barack Obama.

“We will reach out our hand, if you unclench your fist”, he said at his first inauguration. Get this – he was lying! He is no different from anyone else – interest before principle. It’s time to withdraw his prize, and place a black mark next to his place in history.

Nationalists in NI must recognise need for institutional reform

Mandatory coalitions can actually work. There’s been one in Switzerland of the same four parties since 1959, in effect. However, Northern Ireland’s doesn’t work – it is time for Nationalists to face that obvious truth.

Northern Ireland’s system delivers a modicum of stability – but it is an expensive stability which delivers nothing but gridlock.

Ministers who breach the Ministerial Code – say, by endorsing terrorism or racism – are left in office. Issues such as educational or welfare reform are left untouched at huge expense. What Sir Humphrey once described as ‘organisational atrophy and administrative paralysis’ has become the ingrained norm.

There is a serious long-term penalty for this. As the institutions increasingly look like the utter facade they actually are, people justifiably give up on them – either by electing to them communal mouthpieces or not voting at all in the immediate term, but more worryingly by losing general faith in democracy in the long run. The opposite of democracy is chaos – chaos in which, in NI more than most places, gangsters and terrorists are only too happy to roam.

Thus, it is simply not good enough for Nationalists to endorse the pathetic status quo. There is no rational reason not to support, or at least engage with, Alliance proposals at least. As it happens, looked at objectively, there are some perfectly reasonable Unionist proposals out there too. It is time for progress and reform.

In 1998 we opted for democracy over terror. Now it’s time we made that democracy work.

Forget football statistics

There has been a tendency in the last few years to introduce an American-style statistical analysis to football. It may make a few companies some money – but it is completely pointless.

To be clear, specific statistics used to help plan nutrition or fitness levels are useful – but rarely likely to appear on screen. However, the ones provided as an overall match breakdown, to wow the armchair viewer, are pointless.

The World Cup rather proved this, with statistically good teams eliminated in the first phase, and statistically hopeless teams cruising through to the later knock-out phases. The only statistic which matters, after all, is the scoreline in goals. Often a team which “completes more passes” does so because it is going nowhere and has run out of ideas; one which “has more shots” often does so because it is wildly firing from long range; one which “has more corners” often achieves this as a result of a succession of them, all easily defended. Sometimes the most effective midfielder is the one who patrols the centre circle rather than running 15 miles; the most effective striker is the one who maintains possession while his team catches its breath; and the most effective goalkeeper makes few saves because he clears the danger before the shot can even come.

It’s all nonsense, and does nothing for the reality of the game. No stat can substitute for the sheer disbelief so many felt when the host team surrendered so horribly against Germany – we were watching a collective breakdown which was mental and psychological as much as physical and skilful. For a short period, a collection of young Brazilian men simply melted in front of a global audience of nearly a billion. It was a quite startling event, the first time I have known immediately that I was watching a sporting collapse which would become prominently known even to people as yet unborn. Here’s the thing about that game – Brazil had more possession, more shots, more shots on target, more corners… in fact the Brazilians won the game on every single statistical indicator. But that doesn’t help when you lose 7-1…

Labour wisely accepts ‘anti-cuts’ rhetoric nonsensical

British Labour’s biggest problem going into the next election is that its own Leader looks as weird and out-of-touch as the incumbent Prime Minister. Perhaps his most awkward intervention before the bacon sandwich debacle was his appearance at an ‘anti-cuts’ Union rally when he tried to pretend he was with the crowd. His party confirmed at the weekend that he really isn’t – and rightly not.

 

Labour now accepts it was talking nonsense about the ‘Squeezed Middle’ and would in fact tax those on middle incomes more; and it also now accepts opposition to the Coalition’s spending plans (which see public spending rising in absolute terms but falling in real terms) is nonsense. This makes Labour a vaguely credible government – and it marginalises the ‘anti-cuts’ brigade who are, quite simply, wrong.

They are wrong because public spending isn’t actually falling in absolute terms; they are wrong because public spending reductions are not the same as ‘cuts’ (they may simply mean doing things more efficiently – to be supported, surely); and they are wrong because, as everyone now accepts, you cannot simply keep public spending ballooning when revenues are vastly lower than expected. Be very clear – anyone opposed to this is denying reality and not to be trusted.

It is worth repeating why revenues (at least over this parliament) have been so much lower than they were and, more relevantly, than they were projected to be. It is quite simply that the UK is a significantly poorer country than it was or, more accurately, than we thought it was in about 2007. Within three years of the run on Northern Rock, the UK Treasury’s revenues had fallen to 14% below where they were projected to be three years previously – the equivalent figure almost everywhere else in the West (aside from Southern Europe and Ireland, understandably) was around 5-6%.

In other words, the UK is 14% poorer than we reckoned. To sort that, we need to invest in skills, technology and innovation particularly where export-focused – as, in many cases, we are. But let’s be very clear, we cannot just spend money no one’s actually gone out and earned.

You don’t “defend yourself” by creating martyrs and encouraging terror

Okay, reluctantly, I’m going to bite and enter into the Middle East “debate”…

Like most people who have actually visited Israel and the Occupied Territories (i.e. both, albeit in my case the West Bank not Gaza), my first response to the all too regular outbreaks of murdering and maiming in the region is human concern. These are by and large fine, diligent, fun people who just want to get on but realise they are pawns in somebody else’s game. It doesn’t help to “take sides” partly because dividing the world into “goodies” and “baddies” is generally neither helpful nor legitimate, but mainly because it creates the view that this is some sort of sport where we have “our team” and “their team”. Actually hundreds of human lives are being wasted, and thousands of friends and relatives are being left in despair. It is more helpful to show concern at innocent lives being wasted through the actions of warmongering idiots than to pick a side on the basis of national or religious affiliation.

Closer to home, of course, we have the particular and frankly unbelievably irritating spectacle of thousands of people who have never been near the Middle East picking their “side” to legitimise their view of Northern Ireland rather than the basics of democracy, the Rule of Law and Fair Play. It is borderline pathetic to see people pick “Palestine” or “Israel” in the precise same way they pick “Celtic” or “Rangers”, and then justify or condemn everything from that ill-defined and frankly ridiculous position. It was the Israelis who kicked the British out in pursuit of a national homeland, and the Palestinians who (generally) seek partition, but, well, you know…

My good friend Richard Price pointed out the outrageous offence these parallels cause. The Army and RUC may have done some bad and illegal things, but they never carpet-bombed Newry; so shame on those who endorse equivalent actions elsewhere. Many people on all sides may have suffered from terror, but never on the scale of those on the Israeli/Palestinian border right now and on countless previous occasions; so stop pretending we “understand”. Most of all, we were never blatantly pawns in a global game, powerless in reality to do anything about our own society’s future – as we proved in 1998.

Then of course there’s the “well-meaning” but in the end almost equally non-sensical attempt to propose solutions which apparently “worked” elsewhere, which almost always involve for some reason involve South Africa. Let us leave aside the complete coincidence that Mandela’s release came five months after the Fall of the Wall (when the West no longer needed the White South Africans to defend Southern Africa from Communism) and 15 years after the ANC more clearly defined its goals and means of attaining them through popular protest and internal sanctions of a kind. Get this: South Africa is South Africa; Northern Ireland is Northern Ireland; and Israel/Palestine is Israel/Palestine.

Of course, there are universals in seeking peace and democracy, but so determined are we all to take “sides” or make “parallels” which happen to suit us that we tend to miss them. Firstly, if you want peace, it’s a good idea to stop killing each other; anyone doing so is to be condemned without reservation no matter what – and, for the record, you certainly don’t create peace by bombing hospitals and murdering children (an inevitable consequence of current Israeli action, no matter whose narrative it suits). Secondly, there’s more to democracy than voting – if people vote Likud or Hamas, be clear you’re not moving towards democracy (see above). Thirdly, and here’s the real biggie, people need to be motivated to seek peace – never underestimate the power of a populist seeking to justify violence for their own (not their people’s) ends.

On Israel/Palestine I will say this: we are all complicit in demotivating those who seek peace. The West has clearly decided that it is in its interests to prop up Israel, no matter how many children it murders; or even dare I suggest to promote instability in the Middle East no matter how many millions of lives it costs. I can only guess at the reasons for that, but I would guess they are at least indirectly almost all to do with oil. Until we in the West decide it’s actually in our interests to seek a degree of stability in the Holy Land through actions not words – and to deal with the short-term economic penalty (presumably a rising cost of living) to do so – we can put out all the hashtags we like, nothing will change. Honestly, I don’t expect to live to see that day – sadly.

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