NI needs to tackle rampant Islamophobia

I am delighted to see not only that plans for a larger Islamic Cultural Centre have been approved, but that they drew no opposition from any party on Belfast City Council.

It remains alarming, however, how rampant Islamophobia in Northern Ireland has become. Indeed, it is so ingrained, that we have to question to very foundations of our community relations policies and programmes – because, in this regard, they appear to be having limited if any success.

The most basic example is the underlying notion that all Muslims are Daesh-sympathising terrorists. Let us even leave aside the fact that most of the students using the Centre will be from Indonesia, a country which has contributed nothing to global terrorism but suffered significantly from it (notably in Bali). We have to ask serious questions about how anyone from Northern Ireland could cast an entire people as terrorists, given our own experience! This is such a senseless accusation that we have to ask whether it is, in itself, a hate crime – for those making it are clearly incapable of living in a genuinely civilised, pluralist society.

We then have the notion that Muslims are an “alien culture”. They are in fact the culture which has contributed vastly to Western science and mathematics (the numerals we use, for a start), and which has been consistently intertwined with us. This has not always been a happy relationship, but from the Crusades to Western imperialism it is evident that the cause of any unhappiness has scarcely been one side alone! Religiously, they are not particularly different – the core messages of the Qu’ran are the same as those of the Bible.

Of course, just as Christianity has difficulty with its fundamentalists, Islam has difficulty with its. Just as peaceful, loving Christians are the victims of these fundamentalists, so are peaceful, loving Muslims. The vast majority of Christians despaired at terrorism in Northern Ireland perpetrated by self-identifying Christians, at the horror of the Holocaust carried out by what many regarded to be Europe’s most civilised Christian nation, and indeed at the two World Wars with each side led by predominantly Christian countries. Likewise the vast majority of Muslims despair at the ongoing horrors in Syria and Iraq, and feel shamed by the notion that they are carried out supposedly in the name of the religion (while in fact being carried out in marked contravention to its holy book).

Then of course we have the ludicrous notion that somehow refugees are Daesh’s route to influence in Europe. Actually, refugees (noting the distinction from economic migrants) are escaping Daesh. Daesh does not need to hide within groups of refugees risking their own lives to cross narrow strips of water. It already thrives on the radicalisation of some Muslim youths already in Europe – a radicalisation made somewhat easier if non-Muslims around them go out of their way to be overtly Islamophobic.

In some ways most alarming of all is that Northern Ireland’s (and Europe’s) Islamophobes are actually doing Daesh’s work for it. They are buying into the very “clash of civilisations” that Daesh wishes to create, because such a clash will bring more vulnerable young people into its way of thinking, all while utterly destabilising Western civilisation (not least given the number of Muslims living perfectly peacefully in the West).

The actual clash is between civilised people – who recognise that the Rule of Law must apply equally to all, that different views and values must be fairly represented in society, and that those of different political opinions and objectives have an equal right to be heard provided they do not engage in hate or violence – and uncivilised people. Daesh is made up of uncivilised people. We in Northern Ireland and the West should not be joining them in that group.

Belfast City Council should be applauded for extending the hand of friendship to its Muslin community and, particularly, for doing so in a way which integrates them (through a Cultural Centre open to all) rather than banishes them to “their own community”. It is just possible that, in this case, the politicians were ahead of the people. It is time people stopped doing the work of Daesh for it. We must recognise, in opposition to all fundamentalists, the value of an integrated, multicultural society.

Google, Apple, and tax…

Apple last year announced the creation of 1000 jobs in Cork.

This was cause for rejoicing, of course. 1000 jobs means 1000 incomes in the area – created externally but spent internally. Contributions in income tax and social insurance will help the revenue, which will also benefit from VAT paid on items and services in local retail outlets, eateries, dry cleaners and all sorts of others – whose business will also itself be further boosted, potentially creating further jobs (even if part time) and so on.

There will even be indirect effects, such as house prices rising, not least because half of the jobs will be taken by foreigners coming into the area and spending locally who otherwise would not have been there to do so.

To repeat, all of this is created by an external company, at no cost to the Irish taxpayer beyond the investment made in the IDA, who try to encourage such job creation for the quite obvious reasons noted above.

Oh, one thing: Apple does not pay any tax in Ireland.

Is that a problem?

That question maybe is not quite so easy to answer in practice as it is in principle, eh?

Indeed, the Irish Government is quite determined that Apple not pay it any tax; precisely because if it was forced to, it may not operate in Ireland at all (thus depriving it of the income tax and VAT revenue its employees deliver and promote).

As a side point, Google’s owner “Alphabet” recently overtook Apple as the world’s most valuable company. It employs 3000 people in the UK, who contribute £150 million to UK revenue in income tax alone.

How is that principle versus practice coming along?

Airport rail link highly complex

A very sensible call in the Assembly yesterday to re-open the Antrim-Lisburn railway line was turned into something different by the media, namely a call for a rail link to the airport. That latter is much, much more complex and is a different case entirely (and the re-opening of the Antrim-Lisburn line, a good idea in itself, should absolutely not be predicated upon it).

The call for a railway link to the Airport is one of those things that people believe to be obvious but never take time to think about. The Twitter generation, sadly, is less inclined to think than it should be…

Let us start there: when are the biggest queues at the airport?

Very early in the morning.

The “red eye” flights to London and elsewhere are most packed (and most expensive) early in the morning – often between 6am and 7am – precisely because that’s when most people need to travel for a day’s (or even week’s) work.

To get to the airport for even an 0645 flight, you would want to be there at 0545, thus on a train leaving Central at 0515 at the very latest. Of course, you would want to get to Central by train – so there would need to be options from, say, Carrickfergus or Bangor from 0430. Remember, even this does not cover earlier flights! (There is no point running a service only from Central if people have to drive to it from the suburbs – they may as well just keep going and drive to the airport!)

Currently, the train system begins operation at 0600.

So there is an immediate problem. The whole system – drivers, station staff, security, porters etc as well as the actual trains – would need to come into operation a full hour and a half (actually really two hours) earlier. This would come at significant cost to the whole system (at least in Greater Belfast), all for one service! This is not seriously viable financially on current passenger numbers (given there is no guarantee huge numbers currently travelling to the airport by car or coach would transfer to the train anyway).

On top of this, services would have to be reliable and regular. This is a problem in itself because in fact there is no other reason to go to the airport other than for flights. Most airports which have rail connections (a small minority among comparable populations, contrary to popular opinion!) also have large conference centres, business premises, even entire industrial sites adjoined to them. It is hard to see the point in any service which is less than hourly (as it would simply be of no use to most people embarking on or meeting particular flights), yet any service which is as regular as that would still surely be fairly empty through most of the day (and thus would make a considerable loss).

It gets worse. An additional regular service like that would put impossible pressure on the Dargan Bridge, currently single track into Central from Yorkgate (unless, ludicrously, all services went via Lisburn, which would surely render them unlikely sources of transfers from the coach services available). The Bridge itself is due to be dualled as part of the York Street Interchange project, but the track would also need dualled, at considerable cost. The good news is that this is planned. The bad news is it is planned for the year 2040 (no joke). Again, all for one service (a service which comes at great cost to the overall system while itself being loss making).

The case for the Lisburn-Antrim service is clear cut (looking at transfers to bus routes etc.), but this is in its own right. The case for a link to an airport which has no other facilities and relatively few passengers (not least because it shares them with another nearby airport, but also because of the size of the area it realistically serves) is however much harder to justify. The public may want it, but try asking them to pay for it…


Transfer tests remnant of appalling political failure

Transfer tests have to end. They are a crude, nasty, unfair system of determining who goes to grammar school (and which). They pigeon-hole children and force parents (in  effect) to pay for coaching. The consequence is that many children end up in the wrong school and many parents run up debts (in both time and money) that would not be necessary in a fair system.

The outcome of it all, as we saw reported in the latest OECD report, is literacy and numeracy standards lower than the average in the developed world (that they are higher than England, whose standards are the worst, is nothing to write home about), while the cream of the crop leave school able to administer but not innovate. We churn out accountants, lawyers, civil servants and all kinds of other bureaucrats – but no entrepreneurs or general wealth creators. Meanwhile teachers continue to be pressurised with all kinds of administration of their own (and constantly live under threat of discipline if they look once at the wrong pupil or even the wrong parent the wrong way). The system has its good points, but fundamentally it doesn’t work for anyone.

The transfer tests represent the ultimate political failure – one side failed to realise the harshness of it all, the other failed to analyse the problem properly in order to solve it.

Firstly, as mentioned in the past on these pages, no one asks the obvious question: what is the education system for? Even lessons grouped by subject are a fundamentally Victorian method, designed for sending people off to govern 19th century India rather than to create wealth in a globalised 21st century economy. Without agreeing what we want from the system, we are never going to agree how to get it.

Secondly, what is the cause of the transfer test? It is that grammar schools are oversubscribed. Why is this? It is because they are perceived automatically to be better than other schools. Why is this? Generally, it is because they are, given the common (academic) curriculum. So no one then asks the other obvious question: why is there a common curriculum? If pupils are genuinely not academically minded and thus not desiring of a career as a civil servant, an accountant or a university lecturer, why give them the same curriculum as those who are? Maybe there is an answer to this – but I have never seen the question posed.

Thirdly, let us face a few home truths. Parents are going to want the best for their children; not all schools are going to be the same; so there will be and should be an element of choice.

So, never mind the daft sectarian games, let us face the fact that the current system is unfair on children, parents and teachers and answer the question: how do we enable that choice to be made in everyone’s best interests?

Abortion debate in Northern Ireland

I am usually overt about opinion on these pages, but I thought it may be helpful to set out where we are with the abortion debate in Northern Ireland. I am very concerned that social media is as usual ablaze with “black and white” on an issue on which there is, as a matter of fact, a lot of grey.

Specifically, those seeking a particular outcome are duty-bound not just to call for it on social media and to castigate those they oppose, but to consider precisely how they are going to attain the outcome they seek in a democracy in which many people take a different view (and in which many of those people taking a different view have an elected mandate from the people). There remains a very real problem of people making demands to feel good about themselves, rather than considering how we progress towards an outcome.

I would welcome any corrections or further notes of precision on this, as the objective is to help debate (for the record, I have arrived at a broadly progressive viewpoint on the issue, but this is not about my opinion but about how to go about improving the standard of debate around the issue and particularly around what progress is practically deliverable in the short term).

Firstly, currently, there has been no legislative change in Northern Ireland since 1861 (the issue has been devolved to Stormont since 1921), meaning that any form of abortion in Northern Ireland is in effect illegal – with the penalty applied to the person carrying out the abortion. Regulations were in place allowing abortion in circumstances that the mother’s life or mental well-being were at risk, but the legal position around these regulations is unclear. It is not illegal to travel elsewhere to seek an abortion, and the practical outcome is that thousands of women have done just that in recent decades.

Secondly, there is a definite majority in the Northern Ireland Assembly which is sceptical about any legislative change at all and which is opposed to extension of the 1967 Act (as amended or otherwise) which applies to Great Britain. (That Act is in itself worth reading – the practical outworking of the Act, as applied in subsequent judgments, is arguably quite different from its original intention. Even if it were passed in Northern Ireland, it is possible that legal precedent and judgments would deliver a slightly different outcome in practice. The details of this, however, are for law courses, not a single blog post.)

Thirdly, the current Justice Minister, David Ford, has decided to try to legislate – this may be read either as clarifying the law or changing it, depending on your point of view. He judged two things: a) leaving the 1861 Act in place (which, for example, requires women to give birth to fatally deformed children) would be frankly obscene; and b) attempting to introduce the 1967 Act from Great Britain would be voted down in the Assembly, given that everything has to pass both the DUP and Sinn Fein. Frustrating though it may genuinely be to admit it, rationally he is right on both counts.

Fourthly, the Minister decided that the priority was to seek to change the law to deal with cases of fatal foetal abnormality or sexual crime (rape, in other words), judging that there was at least the potential to get a law dealing with these (i.e. allowing abortion to be carried out in Northern Ireland in those circumstances) through the Assembly. The subsequent consultation: a) confirmed that there was support for and a means of legislating to allow the offer of “termination” in cases of fatal foetal abnormality; and b) noted support for allowing “termination” in case of sexual crime, but found no way to legislate specifically for this.

Fifthly, this is where judging the situation becomes trickier. It is just about possible that there would be support in the Assembly before or after May’s election for allowing abortion in cases of rape, but in practice not (given absolute DUP and SDLP opposition) in general – but, legislatively, the former cannot be achieved without the latter. For this reason, it is not possible to pass legislation in the Assembly – now or in the foreseeable future – to allow abortion in cases of rape.

However, sixthly, there was then a legal judgment stating that not allowing abortion in case of fatal foetal abnormality or sexual crime was incompatible with human rights. The judgment in effect stated that Human Rights Law requires the Assembly to legislate to allow abortion in both cases. The complication, as noted above, is that this in effect means legislating effectively to allow abortion whenever requested (referred to often as “abortion in demand”, although I personally dislike that term as it diminishes the genuine trauma involved around the decision). Concerned that the practical outcome of all of this would be no legislation at all to change or clarify the obscene 1861 Act, the Department appealed the judgment in an attempt to allow it at least to pass legislation concerning specifically fatal foetal abnormality. Whether that concern is justified is a matter of opinion up to a point, but we should note that passing anything through the NI Assembly equivalent to the 1967 Act in Great Britain will not be possible any time soon (for a start, it is inconceivable that the DUP will dip below the 30 seats necessary for a Petition of Concern this decade).

I hope, finally, that this provides some explanation as the complexity of the subject in general given the make-up of the NI Assembly, and in particular of the process of achieving legislative change on the issue of abortion. There are of course many other issues here – the relative lack of female representation in the Assembly, the evidence that the Assembly is out of step with public opinion on this issue, and the desirability or otherwise of religious doctrine interfering on evidence-based policy-making being among them. Those are topics which need to be debated, but which are beyond the confines of a short blog piece.

For what it is worth, in my opinion, it would be worthwhile to test support in the Assembly both for extension of the 1967 Act and specifically for allowing the offer of “termination” in the case of fatal foetal abnormality. In my judgement, the former would fail by a big majority (as it stands), but the latter has at least the potential to pass right now. That would provide clarity at least to some, though no doubt even its advocates would point out it would not be enough to meet the requirements of the judgment. In the meantime, we will watch the appeals and cross-appeals of that judgment with interest.



NI bank notes and myths…

A quick one today on the yesterday’s subject of myths…

It is a common complaint among the Northern Irish that Northern Irish banknotes are not accepted in England “even though they’re legal tender”.

Except, well, they’re not…

In England and Wales, the only legal tender (form of money which must be accepted, in effect) is Bank of England notes.

In Scotland and Northern Ireland, there is no legal tender at all.

So shopkeepers in England – and indeed anywhere – are perfectly entitled to reject a Northern Irish (or Scottish) bank note.

So, get over it! :)

UK needs to get over its ‘motorway-phobia’

I wrote eighteen months ago about the need for England to build thousands of miles of new motorway. Other than a few extensions in Scotland, new no stretches of motorway have been built in the UK for over a decade. Neighbouring Ireland has built hundreds of miles (in a country with a twelfth of the population); comparable European countries such as France and Germany typically add hundreds each year.

It is a bizarre thing that the very notion of constructing a “motorway” has been cleaned off the political agenda entirely, including in Northern Ireland. While over the border 53km of motorway are being constructed in the rural west of Ireland, the notion of building an actual motorway anywhere in Northern Ireland (or probably of any length anywhere in the UK) is simply beyond debate.

The easy reaction is to suggest that this is for “environmental reasons”. If it is, it is nonsense. Not building “motorways” does not mean not building “roads”. In Northern Ireland alone, the A1 Newry Bypass, the A4 Dungannon-Ballygawley and the A8 Newtownabbey-Larne have all been constructed to expressway standard (with grade-separated junctions) and 70mph limits – so have the precise same environmental impact. Now the A26 Glarryford-Armoy and A6 Randalstown-Castledawson are under construction to the same standard. Lots of other such roads are currently planned (not least the infamous A5 Derry-Aughnacloy upgrade).

In Northern Ireland (as in England and Wales), “motorway” status, formally, is simply conferred upon a road (in theory almost any road, but in practice those built to at least 70mph design standards with grade-separated junctions) to designate its special status, notably restricting its use to vehicles over a certain power (i.e. not bicycles, tractors and such like). This is potentially quite important, as it clearly designates a high-speed road for cars and lorries in opposition to a general all-purpose road available to all users (including pedestrians). It is clear, when you see blue on the map, that the standard you are getting is a 70mph multi-lane road with grade separation throughout. Green, on the other hand, can be anything, from an urban thoroughfare with bicycles, pedestrian lights, school crossings and 30mph zones, to a full multi-lane expressway with a “hard shoulder”, stopping restrictions, prohibitions for certain vehicles and a 70mph limit.

It is helpful to road users to clarify the distinction – which is why almost every country does! Most notably, given their design standards (in practice) almost invariably include an emergency lane, long slip roads, wide lanes and variable speed limits, “motorways” are by far the safest roads.

To be clear, there is a case for not formally designating at least some of the aforementioned new roads “motorway” (for example, it is not so easily done if the road is built “online”, i.e. is an upgrade of an existing road, not least because there is generally no clear alternative route for bicycles and tractors). However, it hard to believe none of these could be constructed to motorway standard and so designated. For example, almost the entirety of the A5 proposal is “offline” with plenty of room to construct long slip roads and graduate bends as required – given that the old road would exist as an adequate and relatively traffic-free, all-purpose route for cyclists and tractors (compare the old N1 between Belfast and Dublin), “motorway” status for the new A5 would make clear sense.

Removing “motorway” from our vocabulary when it comes to new infrastructure is not in fact helping any cause. We build the roads anyway – just not quite a safely. We should re-introduce it… maybe alongside the word “toll”…

For good government, NI needs to overcome basic myths

Nowhere else in the world does healthcare become politicised in this way” said one recent contributor to a BBC debate.

In one line, she defined what is so dysfunctional about Northern Ireland “politics”. We have a bizarre notion of what “politics” is, and how exceptional we are.

Of course, healthcare is politicised in every democracy. What is more, that is exactly how it should be. Why on earth would it not be politicised? What on earth do we think we elect politicians for, if it is not to make decisions about healthcare, education, infrastructure and so on?

Every time the Assembly debates flags or a Council debates sporting invites, the coverage is vast. When they debate “real issues” – healthcare, education, infrastructure and the rest – it is more limited. Every time, numerous people comment how ridiculous it is that symbols and identity get such coverage and real issues (like, er, healthcare, education and infrastructure) do not.

Yet when we move on to those “real issues”, we then have this bizarre notion that they should not, in fact, be “politicised”. So in fact, logically, politicians should spend all their time talking about identity, is that right?

The comment also spoke to a bizarre exceptionalism; a belief that somehow everything is automatically different (and inferior) in Northern Ireland. There are many more such examples. How many times, for example, do we hear about our “unique” ability to mess up capital projects (even though Germany – yes, Germany – has an airport opening this year over a decade late)? More specifically, how many times, for example, do we hear about how Belfast Airport is “uniquely” not directly connected to the rail network (nor are Dublin, Cardiff, London-Luton, Bristol, Berlin-Tegel… or indeed most airports, actually)? We even now have the “most dangerous prison in the UK” (even though it is considerably less dangerous than average on almost every relevant measure). Everywhere else in the world is apparently full of geniuses who build everything on time, link up infrastructure perfectly, make prisons universally peaceful, and of course magically “not politicise” stuff that we elect politicians to deal with. Northern Ireland uniquely fails in every regard (despite the world-class Titanic Belfast centre forming part of the fastest rising tourist numbers in the UK, the most punctual train service in the UK, by far the lowest prison population in the UK, and healthcare only blighted politically by the fact it isn’t politicised because everyone is simply populist about it…)

Facts, eh?

It is time we came to terms with what “politics” is (“balance of powers/interests”, to give it its very original meaning), and with the fact that, when we do, we will look much like any other post-industrial society in Western Europe.

Ulster Scots will never cum on, an aye claucht tae the Airis

The Depairtment Cultur in Norlin Airlan is cam tae the view, at the oncum o the Ulster-Scots tongue wad lyk be best taen awa frae it. Wha nou coud “beir the gree for aa that”?!

Coud it be, but, at the mukkil problem here isna whaur the oncum o the tongue gaes on, but whit hit bes ettilt at?

Thar a notion, at the oncum o Ulster Scots wad aye be ettilt at the ae thing as the Airis. In Norlin Airlan, aabodie kens richtlie, hou this wad be! But thar nae pynt tae siclyk. Ulster Scots isna the lyk thing, an haesna the lyk things nott for its oncum (for a wheen reasons, as kythes on this steid an ithergaets).

An aye claucht tae the Airis, Ulster Scots will lyk juist win tae naewhaur. Thar ither, better ensaumpils athort Europe o whit Ulster Scots soud be ettilt at. Laich Saxon, Swiss German, ein Catalan an ithers shaws a road, at wad ansuer tae Ulster Scots (an Scots aagaets) – tongues, as bes the lyk o the staundart langage, as fowk forordinar taaks mair nor wryts, an as wis aince richtlie unner threit.

An thinkan mair on whitwey fowk coud mak uiss o the tongue (for ensaumpil in new music or leiteratur), mair fowk wad tak a interest – an no sae monie wad fash thairsels, anent wad it be a langage in its ain richt or no!

A langsom collogue anent “status” an whitwey Ulster Scots gets on agin the Airis is nae road foerairts. It is tym for a chynge in our wey o gaein. We maun wirk thenou for the guid o the tongue, an it leivan yet.

Hae yeirsels a braw Burns Nicht!

Sweden causing harm by trying to be nice

I wrote late last year about how it is necessary to judge policies not by their intentions but by their outcomes. The (relatively) new Swedish Government is finding that out the hard way – adopting policies of no doubt noble intention which are actually causing considerable harm.

(Relatively) new Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom intervened several times in recent weeks on the topic of Israel’s “extrajudicial killings”. What she said was absolutely justified. However, it has seen her banned from Israel, and that is a serious problem – Sweden has traditionally been seen as a neutral broker in moving the Israel-Palestine process forward, but has now succeeded in removing itself from that role. This is all for the sake of a few words which, while justified, were actually never going to help move things forward. They drew and inevitable response from Israel which will result in more damage than good.

Of course, more well known is Sweden’s ludicrous immigration policy. It was no doubt a policy of fine intention for Sweden to throw its doors open to refugees from across the Middle East and North Africa. However, the outcome has been vast pressure on Sweden’s public services, huge difficulties at the borders of the European Union as people seek passage through, and most of all that refugees have arrived in the “promised land” with no realistic prospect of building a career there. News that police have been covering up prosecutions for crimes, most notably sex attacks, committed by refugees from Afghanistan, is just a subset of this tendency – it is well intentioned to try to stop news of such things spreading fear among the broader population, but in the end it makes this far worse when the news does spread.

To be very clear, this very blog will show that I have been opposed to Israel’s current government’s warmongering, and supportive of accepting more refugees than we are in Northern Ireland. However, going too far, even with good intentions, can have negative and even dangerous consequences.

Countries like Sweden, which have not always been in position to provide moral leadership but may feel justified in doing so now, need to do better than naively pursuing policies whose negative practical consequences anyone can foresee. Europe’s response to the Middle East in general is an incoherent mess, but while we have a duty to get this right morally, we also have a duty to get it right practically. To fail in the latter is to contribute to worsening the problem, not solving it.


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