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!

World Cup – the decline of Europe?

England has struggled for 60-80 years now to come to terms with the fact that just because football originates there does not mean its national team is any good at it. Yet this World Cup raises an intriguing question – could the same now apply to the whole of Europe?

Clearly, Europe remains not just where the game came from but also home to its richest and best leagues. However, is it producing its best players and national teams?

The performances of Lionel Messi, Neymar, Luis Suárez (when he’s not hungry), James Rodriguez, the Valencias (when they’re on the pitch), Joel Campbell, Rafael Marquez and others from Latin America would very much suggest otherwise. Of course, anyone can produce players – Samuel Eto’o and Didier Drogba have excelled at club level but never played a World Cup knock-out game after all. What about national teams?

From 1986, when the modern World Cup introduced knock-out from the last 16, until 2006, consistently nine or ten of those 16 were European. However, in 2010 this fell dramatically to just six. At this World Cup, from a European perspective, things have not recovered.

What is further interesting is the assumption that European teams are the mighty ones. Group C, for example, was supposed to be a battle between Italy and England for top spot with Uruguay the main threat because of its Liverpool connection. In fact Costa Rica won the group easily and both European teams went home. Portugal was supposed to cruise through with Germany; Spain with the Netherlands; Russia with Belgium and so on. Even when European teams did get through, it was often a close thing (none closer than Greece).

For all that, all is not lost for Europe. Even with six out of 16 last time, coincidentally all playing each other, three still emerged to contest the semi-final and two the final. This is also an “away” World Cup – the last one in Europe saw four European semi-finalists (there have never been fewer than three at a European-hosted World Cup). Europe still produces excellent players (Ronaldo, Müller, now Pogba etc) and teams.

However, it is clear that we can no longer assume European dominance. A re-assessment of how we look at the game globally is needed.

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?

England needs to move faster to avoid further embarrassment

The fact that Roy Hodgson had more success with Switzerland than with England shows beyond any remotely reasonable doubt where the problem with English football lies – and it’s not with the manager.

The problem lies in a single German phrase. “Den Ball englisch kicken“, loosely translated, means “to kick the ball English”, but is used to refer to an aimless hoof upfield. That sums it all up.

For half a century now, the English have been both technically and tactically inferior from the very start. As I have written many times before, the problem is not that there are too many foreigners in the Premier League, but rather and specifically that English players are not good enough to play in it.

The new academy at St George’s will help, and the number of coaches being brought through is very impressive. However, I suspect still too many English players will grow up playing 11-a-side rather than small games (that’s when they’ve dragged themselves away from the X-box to play at all); and as a result they will grow up relying on the “big bloke up front”. That leads not only to technical deficiencies, but also tactical ones. Watch how England’s plan to draw level against Uruguay consisted of whacking it down the flanks and hoisting it into the box over and over again. There is a combination of a lack of trust in their technical ability to do something more creative and accurate than that; and there is no tactical notion about how to draw another team out of position and play around or through them.

I cannot help but think that even these deficiencies would not be magnified so brutally at the highest level if England had its players’ mental preparation right. I found it truly bizarre, for example, that preparation for the big game against Uruguay included talks from senior players about how awful it is to go out of a big tournament. Surely that’s mad?!

With a population of 53 million and the richest domestic league in the world, there can be no excuses. There should be less time spent on daft B-team leagues and more time spent on real youth development.

If you’re going to be a grammar pedant, learn to play fair…

“Hang tough”. “Eat fresh”. “Look good”. These are all perfectly good Standard English, as we all know.

It pays to analyse them, however, because some adverb pedants are making fools of themselves over similar usage!

One case reported this week was of a family who, led by a 15-year old, complained vehemently about the slogan “Barks as bad as it bites”. The slogan is perfectly good Standard English, for the same reason as the first three examples in this post are!

An adverb describes a verb or, typically when placed initially or finally, an entire clause. This can lead to quite different meanings – “He went hopefully to the station” (describing the verb – he was hopeful as he went) is very different from “Hopefully he went to the station” (describing the clause – essentially I, the speaker, was hopeful).

However, in the case of “hang tough”, “eat fresh”, “look good” or even “barks bad”, we have no adverbs. “Tough” and so on do not describe the verb or the clause; they are effectively adjectives (with an implicit noun omitted because the meaning is clear – “hang a tough time”, “eat a fresh sandwich”, “look a good sight”, “bark a bad sound”).

The slogan absolutely does not mean that that the “bark” is “bad”, but that the outcome of it is. It is not an adverb but an adjective. If you’re a pedant, it pays to play fair…

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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