Will take more than quick fix to save UK

I will return in due course to the main reason I think Scots should vote “no” next month – the confusion over currency outlined by Alistair Darling last week.

However, the offer by all three UK party leaders to offer further income tax powers to Scotland in the event of a ‘no’ vote will inevitably backfire. It is an example of the crux of Alex Salmond’s argument – Scotland should not be governed by an out-of-touch English millionaire elite.

It seems that yet again the plan to save the UK consists of the English giving more powers to the troublesome Celts and then hoping they’ll stop being so troublesome. That didn’t work 15 years ago – as evidenced by the very fact this referendum is happening – so why would it work now?

The UK is broken. It’ll take more than offering Scots something they would have under independence anyway to stop them, er, voting for independence! Tax was never the issue to start with – Mr Salmond has barely mentioned it and he has never used the powers he has anyway. Indeed it is a peculiarly Westminster bubble thing to focus on tax, rather than broader quality of life issues as Mr Salmond skilfully has.

By the way, what happens if the Scots use their new tax powers to the disadvantage of the already much poorer north of England? How will the northern English feel about the Union then?! The fact even Ed Milliband hasn’t thought of that shows just how much a member of the English millionaire elite he is – and one completely lacking in real vision or ideas. That is seriously problematic for countless reasons.

It is alarming on so many levels that no one in that Westminster bubble is even close to recognising the problem (never mind producing a solution). If the UK is something we cherish – and that’s a big ‘if’ – then a fundamental realignment is needed. This would look something like the federal set-up suggested by Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser. But the very fact no one in London is even in the same book, far less the same page, shows how hopeless the case has become.

The Scots will vote ‘no’ next month – but not least because they know they’ll get a second chance soon enough. Meanwhile the English Millionaire Elite, fully incorporating Ed Milliband, is proving itself totally out of touch – and not just with Scotland…

Progressives also need to learn to accept democracy

It is an obvious thing that for too long some Irish Republicans rejected democracy by pretending Northern Ireland could be bombed into a United Ireland without its people’s consent; and recently we have seen attacks on Alliance Party offices and general disturbances endorsed by Unionists on the basis of a democratic decision taken in line with long-established policy in an elected chamber. As I wrote on here, both Nationalists and Uniomists continue to have difficulty with even the basics of representative democracy – which involves acceptance even of decisions and laws you don’t like, and standing up for the application of those decisions and laws even when you oppose them. That’s how it works.

I’d love to say Northern Ireland’s third “pillar”, what I term “Progressives” (others prefer “liberals”), were absolutely committed to democracy. However, they too have an unfortunate record of attempting to work around the fact the voters chose the wrong people, rather than working together to provide a seriously electable alternative. They need to understand and focus on the fact that democracy is never going to work until people understand the direct link between those they elect and those who govern – something which is a relative innovation in Northern Ireland.

Last week, for example, some Progressives gratuitously attacked Alliance Leader David Ford after he opposed the NI Executive’s spending settlement as a “sectarian carve-up”. They suggested he should “do something”, as he is himself in that Executive. When asked precisely what he should do, few answers were forthcoming beyond perhaps bringing the institutions down. Let’s follow that logic – because the two parties which command a majority in the Assembly have agreed a spending settlement Progressives don’t like, Progressives should simply bring down the institutions?

Let us again be clear about what some people are suggesting here: a majority of a freely elected democratic Assembly take a decision, so a minority of the minority should bring the whole thing down because they don’t like that decision! Let us then be clear, this is the same logic used by flag protesters or even by Republican terrorists – “We are right, everyone else is wrong even though we’re a minority, therefore we get to act as wreckers”. This is the absolute opposite of democracy. It is frankly shameful that any democrat would suggest such a thing.

Too many Progressives still struggle with the basic problem that they are a small minority – I say that as a member of that minority! At election after election, when the religious zealots of the DUP and the terrorist apologist crypto-Marxists of Sinn Féin emerge on top, we hear the same old reaction from Progressives, along the lines that there is really a mass of Progressives out there who for some reason aren’t voting and therefore we effectively get to ignore the election result. We don’t!

We must respect the mandate of those who were elected, and respect their right to carry out and even block policies which they are mandated by the people to carry out and block. That applies even if they were elected to carry out a sectarian carve-up and deliver a vision of Northern Ireland completely at odds from ours. For as long as they are doing it by the ballot not the bullet, you know what? That’s democracy, folks!

What are golf’s “major” championships?

At the conclusion of the final major championship of the year in men’s golf, it seems reasonable to ask – what is a major championship?

The four major championships – chronologically each year the Masters Tournament, the US Open Championship, the Open Championship and the PGA Championship – are regarded as the pinnacle of the game, with golfers often assessed predominantly by how many of them they win (or at least challenge in).

However, the key point is that, historically, the current four majors were not so regarded. There is a tendency to judge past greats – such as Gene Sarazen or Ben Hogan – by the number of current major championships they won. This does not do justice to the fact that, when they played, what constituted a “major championship” was somewhat different. In fact, the term itself was scarcely used!

In 2014, the current major championships are officially recognised. Each carries more ranking points than any other tournament, and each is recognised by all the game’s main professional tours. However, this is comparatively recent.

The story starts in 1930, perhaps, with Bobby Jones’ completion of the quadruple – the Amateur Championship, the Open Championship, the US Amateur Championship and the US Open Championship all in one year. This was remarkable as it involved significant trans-Atlantic travel at his own expense – and he won not a penny for his endeavours. Thus, he soon quit the game but left a further indelible mark by founding the Masters Tournament in 1934, which immediately attracted all the game’s best professionals due to its prestigious founder.

By the late 1950s, the United States was the only country which could support a fully professional tour. Its best players generally regarded the Masters Tournament and the US Open (the oldest tournament played in the Americas) as the most prestigious events to win, but they had no formal status. The Western Open, the North and South Open and the PGA Championship were also deemed notably prestigious. However, top American professionals had begun not to bother crossing the Atlantic to play even the Open Championship (the oldest tournament of all) because the purse was much lower and thus only the winner could expect to cover the cost of the trip. Additionally, the Open was played under different rules (even the balls were a different size) and, in any case, often clashed with the PGA Championship. As a consequence, the Open became more of a Commonwealth title, typically won by golfers from South Africa or Australasia (Max Faulkner’s win at Portrush in 1951 was the last by a Briton until 1969).

This changed dramatically in 1960 when Arnold Palmer, the “Tiger” or “Rory” of his era, won both the Masters and US Open. He opted to cross the Atlantic to play the Open, declaring that he had to win the “British Open” (as the Americans called it) and the PGA Championship to match Bobby Jones and complete what he called a “modern Grand Slam” (a term actually borrowed from the card game Bridge). The challenge thus accepted, he missed out on that year’s Open by one stroke (but won it the subsequent two years), and never in fact won the PGA.

It is reasonable to credit Palmer with saving the Open Championship’s prestige, and also with establishing the PGA Championship as the fourth title required for a “Grand Slam”. However, it was still some time before the term “major” was used for a tournament which would contribute to a Grand Slam, and still longer before the game’s authorities formalised this status. It remained the case that majors taking place in the United States were always won by Americans – post-War until 1979 only South Africa’s Gary Player and England’s Tony Jacklin won majors as foreigners in the United States. The (“British”) Open was more competitive, often won by Australians and even by Argentinean Roberto di Vicenzo (as well as, as it happened, by Player and Jacklin).

Tony Jacklin turned into something of a pivotal figure. He won the Open in 1969 and the US Open at a canter in 1970. He was involved in “the Concession”, securing a half against the legendary Jack Nicklaus to ensure the Ryder Cup (then played between the United States and the British Isles) was halved in 1969 – one of only two occasions post-War until the extension of the matches to include continental Europe that the Americans didn’t win. Jacklin repeatedly challenged for majors over the next few years until a crushing blow at the 1972 (where his three-putt on the 17th matched by Mexican-American Lee Trevino’s holing of a bunker shot allowed the latter to win) destroyed him psychologically as a player aged just 28. He was to return, however…

Enter, in 1979, a young man named Severiano Ballesteros. It seems unbelievable now, but no Continental European had played Ryder Cup until he and Manuel Pinero did in 1979; no Continental European had won a major until he won the Open that same year; and no European of any description had won the Masters Tournament until he did so the following year. He won both tournaments again in the early 1980s before West German Bernard Langer won the Masters too in 1985. Both were pillars in the European team which finally won a Ryder Cup that same year, and then condemned the Americans to their first ever home defeat two years later – the team captain was a certain Tony Jacklin. The Continental challenge saw the emergence of more competitive British players too – Anglo-Scot Sandy Lyle won the Open in 1985 and Englishman Nick Faldo repeated the feat two years later. Major tournaments were now established as global events (the only tournaments which attracted all the best players from all over the world) – but still lacked official standing as such. Challenged on what constituted the difference between a “major” and any other tournament, Lyle responded simply “About 100 years”.

It was Lyle whose famous fairway bunker shot to eight feet secured the UK its first ever Masters win in 1988 – it then won four in a row, as it happened. The authorities had to respond to all of this, installing “Official World Golf Rankings” in 1986 and then securing recognition of “majors” by all main tours over the next decade – meaning that money earned at a major counted towards any Tour’s total, not just the one which happened to host it.

Majors are no longer the only tournaments which attract the best players from all over the world. Four “World Golf Championship” (WGC) events – the Championship, the Matchplay, the Invitational and the Champions Event – now also do, and this is also reflected in rankings points (they count for more than a regular event but less than a “major”). The US Tour’s predominant tournament, known as The Players’ Championship, attracts a similar field and similar rankings points (sometimes even earning reference as the “unofficial fifth major”). The European Tour’s own PGA Championship is also worth extra rankings points, although rarely attracts quite the same strength of field.

For all that, the pre-eminent position of “majors” was well established by 2008, almost half a century on from Palmer’s intervention. Yet in all that time, despite dominating the Ryder Cup, only one European had won the US Open and none the PGA Championship. Enter the Irish, with Southerner Padraig Harrington winning the 2008 PGA and Northerner Graeme McDowell winning the 2010 US Open. Fellow Northerner Rory McIlroy of course trumped them by winning both over the next two years; German Martin Kaymer has also won both, and Englishman Justin Rose also added a US Open in 2013. This is an astonishingly sudden European breakthrough.

Majors have also now become truly global. In recent years Koreans, New Zealanders, Canadians, Argentineans and Germans have won them beyond the traditional powers; and Frenchmen, Japanese, Spaniards, Swedes and Danes have come second. Americans now on average win fewer than every other one – a remarkable decline over 35 years, but unquestionably good for the game in terms of global interest and participation.

What now? It is likely that the majors will maintain their prestige for some time, not least because they complement each other so neatly and all have their own quirks. The Masters Tournament (referred to outside North America sometimes as the “US Masters”) is a purely invitational tournament always played at the same course, famed also for its traditions concerning its champions (not least the “Green Jacket”). The US Open is what it says it is, an open tournament of 120 years’ standing which allows qualification as well as invitation and also has significant Amateur involvement; it is played on courses which punish wayward play and reward precision, and winning scores are frequently high (not infrequently over par). The (“British”) Open is the oldest of them all, also allowing qualification as well as invitation with the most globally spread field of all; it is played on links courses, alternating between England and Scotland (and, now, Northern Ireland) with wildly variable weather accounting for wildly variable scores. The PGA Championship (sometimes known as the “US PGA”) is universally regarded as the least prestigious of the four, yet is for professionals only and thus can frequently ensure that it has the toughest field in terms of the current rankings; courses are usually set less tough than the US Open favouring distance and resulting, generally, in lower scores (often double figures under par over the four rounds is required to win).

The ultimate challenge is to win a major on both sides of the Atlantic – thus on inland courses in the United States where the ball can be played high and positioned through draw/fade and spin, and on links courses in the British Isles where the ball must be kept low to avoid the wind but thus often needs to be run up to the hole than hoisted towards it. Only the very best players achieve this (and some of the very best still don’t).

So those are the major championships – and why!

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.


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