Attwood shows SDLP spiralling out of control

Northern Ireland’s answer to Natalie Bennett last week was Alex Attwood.

Early last week he stated clearly and without doubt that it was time to stop investment in south and east Belfast and shift it all to north and west.

Within hours he was contrite, going on the media to correct himself.

Firstly, but less relevantly, this showed what a mess the SDLP has become. One of its own leaders decided to go out on a limb without even contemplating the consequences for his colleagues. Demanding no more investment in one of your Westminster seats, when you only hold three, is the height of selfishness if nothing else.

Secondly, and more worryingly, it is total garbage. If Mr Attwood thinks he can direct innovative global firms with turnovers many times that of the entire Northern Ireland devolved budget specifically to invest in north and west Belfast, he has simply lost the run of himself. Besides, Belfast is in total just 100 square kilometres – it’s not exactly unknown for people to make the mammoth twenty-minute commute from one part of it to another and there are these wonderful things called buses and trains to help where necessary!

One thing which damages investment anywhere, in fact, is such ludicrous public representatives promoting such a ludicrous silo mentality. Until we forget these daft silos and promote Greater Belfast and all its people as a whole, we will never enable it to reach its full economic potential and create the jobs and wealth we need.

Bennett interview criticism misses point

All cats have four legs. My dog has four legs. Therefore my dog is a cat.

That is the spurious logic used by people who propose to vote for inexperienced populists (whether left or right) instead of the established parties at the forthcoming UK General Election. Surely it couldn’t get any worse? Last week came the ultimate warning that yes, actually it could get a lot worse.

You cannot fail to have some sympathy for Natalie Bennett, who made headlines for all the wrong reasons after a series of frankly bizarre media interviews culminating in her effective substitution at her party’s own launch.

However, the criticism focused on her “performance” and, thus, missed the point. Everyone has an off-day, as she fairly pointed out herself. The issue was not her “performance”; the issue was quite simply that she was ignorant on a vast range of issues.

It was largely missed, but she started the day by suggesting that the UK should make concessions to Vladimir Putin. Goodness knows the “established parties” have made some appalling foreign policy errors in recent years, but that goes beyond even any of those. Putin is a man who takes chunks of neighbouring countries’ territory, bans homosexuality outright, has national computing systems destroyed within the EU, has planes shot from the sky, and has opponents murdered not just outside his own office (as he did this weekend) but even on the streets of London – the notion that he can in any remote way be reasoned with is straightforward nonsense. The worst thing was that she suggested this in the name of “human rights”. To confuse seeking to do things in a peaceful and civilised manner on one hand, and rolling over to tyrants as they destroy people on the other, is a dangerous delusion which would only enable the outright destruction of human rights, not the promotion of them.

Then, she moved on to housing. Apparently, it turned out, she believed houses could be built for £60,000, with the added clear implication that all that was needed to build up communities was to build houses. In fact, houses take considerably more than £60,000 to build anywhere in the UK (currently the Northern Ireland Housing Executive is losing money having to sell some at more than that in the inner city), and in any case come with additional land fees, HR costs and add-ons for the likes of communal gardens and shopping zones. This is basic knowledge, and anyone seeking serious influence should at the very least know how to find it out.

Beyond basic lack of knowledge there are two further linked problems here – even when the Greens have no idea how to implement their policies; and this is partly because of a growing and nasty tribalism in British politics.

The challenge in politics is not just to have ideas, but to have at least some idea how to carry them out. This means that even when the Greens have good ideas, they are now back-pedalling by suggesting they cannot be implemented soon. Yet ideas such as a Basic Income could be implemented immediately, if only the Greens were willing to take advice and step outside the confines of the populist “anti-austerity left” to build coalitions to get things done.


We actually live in a civilised multicultural country, with a growing economy, comparatively low unemployment, falling crime, a vibrant arts scene, a globally respected broadcasting system, the world’s most visited capital city, a highly innovative service sector, top-class universities, a world-renowned health service and a reputation for world-leading research in key areas such as genetics. The implicit idea that all our leaders are fools who know nothing is demonstrably not so – and people know it!

It is bizarre how many people seem to think politics is about blaming everyone else for not implementing the policies you want, rather than seeking influence to implement them – a view particularly prevalent among twentysomethings. The sooner the Greens realise my dog is not a cat, the better.

English have to grasp team sports are not about individuals

It is incredible. At the weekend, England, a relatively wealthy country of 53 million people, was comfortably beaten at cricket by Sri Lanka (a much poorer country of just 20 million) and at rugby by Ireland (a comparably wealthy one of just over 6 million). This came after further humblings at the Cricket World Cup by New Zealand (4 million) and Australia (23 million), all following in from elimination from football’s World Cup at the hands of Uruguay (3 million) and Costa Rica (6 million). Even the hockey team has mustered only one major success since 1988. Seriously?!

I cannot help but think the media’s reaction was informative. Bring back “KP” (Kevin Pietersen) into Eoin Morgan’s side and all will be well, apparently. Did anyone writing that stop to consider, just consider, that the very fact they were even debating whether or not a South African should play for an Irishman’s team is the basic problem?!

The point is twofold. First, England has a peculiar inability – at any team sport – to bring through talent to elite level. Second, the English seem to believe you succeed at team sports merely by changing around individuals.

The problem is that the culture of believing that teams are effectively just groups of individuals, and that scant thought should be given as to how those individuals best work together, is becoming ever more pervasive. The English media are also quick to pin team failures on one individual, but slow to recognise when that was obviously nonsense – how is the successful campaign to remove Alistair Cook as England’s one-day captain working out?

It is hard to get away from the fact this all derives from our general culture of thinking that there are easy solutions to complex things – we believe we can solve the entire financial crisis just by changing a few politicians in much the same way we believe the English cricket team would be world beaters with one change of personnel. The idea that this is a much broader problem, consisting not just of spending or personnel but also of efficiency and team-building, seems beyond our grasp.

Yet the New Zealanders, Australians and Sri Lankans (even, dare I say, the Irish) seem instantly aware that sporting success – even social success – come from working as an efficient and cohesive unit, not just tampering with the edges of the line-up on a near trial and error basis.

Those who drive public debate in England – managers, administrators, commentators and so on – now have a responsibility to recognise there is something fundamentally wrong when a country of such vast population and resources fails so comprehensively at team sports time after time. Public debate has to shift away from individual performances here and there, and on to the business of building teams as efficient units which operate cohesively. Otherwise, this same story will be repeated for generations.

That dress – and linguistics…

I am amazed that I haven’t written about the subject of language and colour before, because it forms the start of every single training course I do, regardless of the topic.

So, what colour is this dress?
The dress...

Well, what colour is this car?
A car...

Here’s the interesting thing – the language we speak will, to a large degree, determine what colour we see things as.

For example, we know a banana is yellow. Even if a banana is placed under a blue light this making it blue, we will still see it as yellow – because we know a banana is yellow. Our brains actually correct our vision to record the colour as the one we know it to be, even as another part of our brain is seeing it as blue. If memory serves, there was a BBC Horizon programme about this some years ago.

Speaking of fruit, the classical Romans did not initially have oranges. Not only did this mean the word for the fruit was missing from Latin, but so was the word for the colour. The colour word is taken from the fruit. Ancient Romans, at least before familiarisation with the exotic fruit, would literally have seen anything orange as either dark yellow or light red. Traditional Irish has no colour orange at all, likewise generally using “buí” (more usually translated as yellow, thus also the colour of a banana…)

Likewise, in Traditional Irish, the above car is unquestionably “glas”. It is in fact right in the middle of the spectrum; no Traditional Irish speaker would be in any doubt about it. “Glas” covers anything from the colour of a grey horse to the colour of a murky sea (blue) – but not all blues, most blues are in fact “gorm”.

A lot of this is also determined by the environment. The Romans also had no word for “brown” (French had to borrow “brun” from Germanic); in Latin, brown things are generally described as red. To emphasise: this literally meant they saw them as red, not brown, as their brains reconnected the colour with the language. Germanic languages, spoken 2000 years ago predominantly by people living in forests, did have “brown” no doubt because of that arboreal environment.

In English, we see a lot of things as “green” (anything from a dark bush to perhaps even a tennis ball) where, in many languages, these different shades (say a dark bush, grass, lime and a tennis ball) would be clearly distinct (i.e. a different word altogether, the same way we distinguish purple from crimson from pink from red from orange). On the other hand, some languages do not meaningfully distinguish blue from green at all – seeing the sky and foliage as marginally different shades of the same colour.

Only a distinction between white/light and dark/black is universal in all languages. Interestingly, if any languages have only those plus a third colour, the third colour is always red. If there is a fourth colour, it is generally centred roughly on the colour of a tennis ball (yellow or green); if there is a fifth, the other of “yellow” or “green” comes next. Only upon the introduction of a sixth does blue appear – in other words, every single language which distinguishes between five colours excludes blue; every single one which adds a sixth includes blue. These terms are somewhat relative, but they are fundamental to how we literally see the world.

Those are the linguistics. The car, officially, was platinum green. You may make your own mind up about the dress!

Sinn Féin still financially clueless

I was pleased to hear Sinn Féin was putting forward a motion on revenue raising. Sadly, in the event, it was thoroughly underwhelming.

It swiftly became evident that Sinn Féin doesn’t even understand the concept of “revenue raising”. A loan from the European Investment Bank is a good idea, but it’s already being attempted and is still a loan, it’s not “revenue raising”. The Living Wage is an economic pay issue but not in any way “revenue raising”. So we were left with removal of the Rates Cap – the same Rates Cap which is so regressive, Sinn Féin voted for it when it was introduced…

The DUP, which claims to be against revenue raising, is actually more concretely for it than the “Socialist” Sinn Féin. It now not only supports Prescription Charges, but also a slight rise in Tuition Fees.

It is very difficult to run an administration in which parties are so financially misleading or clueless. Others may determine which…

Pay MPs more to stop second jobs?

I was on BBC Radio Ulster yesterday on the subject of MPs’ pay.

I found the whole debate fascinating and, as I said, I have come to no clear conclusion on it. However, the case I made was as follows, and I wonder what people think of it.

Firstly, MPs do have an incredibly important job – they make the laws of the land and oversee other policy (including foreign). For this, they are paid considerably less than, for example, many people who interpret the law or even enforce the law at a high level.

Secondly, the job involves immense stress. They represent 100,000 people, generally live away from home much of the week, and often work crazy hours in a pressurised environment. They have to balance interests of constituency, party and country in situations of high complexity. Small wonder that, only half way through the current parliamentary term, one sixth of the new intake of MPs had separated or divorced from their partner at time of election. That is a monumental price.

Thirdly, the job involves huge public scrutiny. MPs are held to higher standards than most people even in their daily or private lives. This is also highly challenging.

So, for a high level of professional skill, mad hours and huge stress, what do we pay them?

They earn two and a half times the average, but that is about the same as a public sector agency CEO in Northern Ireland; marginally less than the average school principal or police superintendent across the UK; and significantly less than the average NHS manager or GP. So where do we put them on the scale?

I think politics has to be a vocation, so I just about rule out GP-level salaries (even though, we may note, 800 people in the Northern Ireland Health Service alone earn over £100k, at least 50% more than MPs). However, maybe around a Superintendent of Principal, at approaching £80k?

The quid pro quo, as I suggested, was zero tolerance for other income of any direct kind at all – resignation of paid directorships, no dividends, probably no property either. There would also be zero tolerance on dodgy expenses claims. My suspicion is the public would live with a pay rise in those circumstances, even a fairly significant one.

I don’t accept, by the way, the line that there are loads of “good people” turned off politics by the “low salary”. In the case of Malcolm Rifkind (you’ll have to excuse me omitting his “title” in the current circumstances), you are dealing not with someone who needs more money, but with a pathetic man who has gotten well above himself. So I do not believe higher pay would end such issues entirely, but it would make them a lot clearer cut. I wonder if that’s a compromise we could live with?

Regional press need to make first move to tackle innate sexism

Peter Oborne’s remarkable letter of resignation from the Daily Telegraph contained an interesting section about how the press (and the media in general) have certain “duties” when it comes to democracy.

I wholly agree and indeed I wrote last week about how the media have a duty to inform. This is something which applies most obviously to the public service broadcaster, but I think it applies to the press as well – not least here.

The regional press is in serious trouble in Northern Ireland. Sales are declining and newspapers are now largely kept afloat by advertising. Since much of that comes from the public sector, which is itself heading into choppy waters, even that is no security. I am sympathetic to their plight – after all, it is hard to compete when you have to pay hard-working journalists less than the public sector pays press officers. However, it does not yet seem to have occurred to enough people that, in order to survive at all, you have to add value.

The focus thus far of much of the coverage, ten weeks or so before the election, has been the age-old soap opera of “Unionist pacts” – a soap opera whose character are 90% males of above average age. The tiresome old charade is played every time, just so that politicians and journalists alike can fill space without having to think too much about real issues which may actually affect people. The whole nonsense takes place in an ever decreasing bubble from which the vast majority are excluded, and it is unsurprising that articles starting from such a prism usually mention only male candidates. The fundamental problem with this is that it is very boring and utterly irrelevant for the vast majority of the population, not least the 51% female share. This is not a “victimless crime”; turning off so many people in this way is extremely bad for democracy, and the media need to stop enabling it.

Lest you doubt me, let us remember that to, er, “compensate”, we often then get an unbelievably patronising article or two about how “glamorous” any female candidates look. Such articles focus on women on the ballot paper as if they are candidates for Hello Magazine rather than a Legislative Assembly or a Council, thus making the “Lovely Girls Competition” in Father Ted look advanced.. This again becomes a charade politicians (given the male dominance of the profession) are willing to go along with – staggeringly, in AD 2015, one party’s own press office referred to one of its own candidates as “photogenic” (one of her top three most positive traits, apparently).

This is all acutely embarrassing in what is supposed to be a modern society, but let us be clear: politicians will get away with this – the penalty may be a lower turnout but the same number of them will be elected regardless. However, journalists and editors need to realise that they won’t – the penalty is declining newspaper sales until there is no newspaper.

The press needs to realise, quickly, that democracy is not a soap opera, and the task of reporting it is not regurgitating the same old male-dominated charade that happens all the time but enlightens no one. For the sake of themselves, and for democracy, it is time candidates were assessed equally and on their merits – regardless of gender, and regardless of “community affiliation”.

Chelsea’s fundamental problem with racism and xenophobia

It was 1 September, 1997 – the early days of multi-channel television and the (dial-up) Internet. I was sorry to hear Lady Diana had died during the wee hours, but never one for celebrity it was not something I dwelled on. I switched to German satellite TV, only to find that it too had handed over all its channels to coverage of the incident.

So I went to the Arsenal FC web site “chat room” to talk about something else, but in vain – I was by a stream of highly sympathetic messages about what had occurred. People from Beijing, Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, Copenhagen and elsewhere were queuing to pay their respects. Many paid specific respects to England/UK given that she was from the same country as Arsenal, but generally it was accepted that the world had lost someone special. It was all done in a spirit of generosity, and was in its way quite touching.

The only other club which had anything similar in those early days was Chelsea FC, so I headed over there really out of interest to see if something similar had occurred. Oh dear.

A Swedish supporter paying respects was told in response: “Get lost, she was British. Ours. Nothing to do with you”.

One message from Waterford was met with the retort: “Get lost. Your lot killed Mountbatten”.

Except, er, they didn’t write “Get lost”.

This was but one example of many – from a Tottenham Hotspur supporter’s letter this week to a FourFourTwo article a decade ago – which indicated there is something different about a very significant number of Chelsea FC supporters. This does not apply to all of them, of course; but the level of xenophobia, racism and anti-Semiticism – or general “fear of other” – experienced when coming into contact with Chelsea supporters is vastly disproportionate.

We know this in Northern Ireland, with our own battles trying to overcome the innate “fear of other”. Indeed, it was sadly predictable that one of the three supporters identified in connection with last week’s incident was from Northern Ireland. What we know beyond all dispute is it is not good enough to think you can overcome it by applying a penalty to a few who happen to get caught or happen to display this fear at a particular extreme; nor is it remotely reasonable to dismiss it as a “few bad eggs”.

No one doubts the sincerity with which its manager and lead executives have approached last week’s incident, but the truth is Chelsea FC has a particular problem. It needs to start by admitting it.

Who is hoping for Esperanto?

Cxu vi parolas Esperanton?” he asked.
Iomete” I responded, startled that someone had actually asked me that.

We were outside a conference in Chisinau, Moldova; he was Romanian. He did not speak my language, I did not speak his, yet we mustered a conversation about linguistic minorities. What was going on?

My last two language blogs have both focused on Ulster Scots, and specifically on some people’s desire to use government money to provide translations in a language which is in fact made up. I have noted that this is a gross inefficiency and total nonsense, because there is a real Ulster Scots in which it is possible to write formally (as I demonstrated by writing both pieces in formal Ulster Scots). I noted also that, for all that, if you are developing a language which has fallen largely out of use, the very formal end is the wrong end to start.

The other thing, of course, is that not only does real Ulster Scots exist, but so do real made-up languages. However, they are usually “made up” in a consistent and logical way. Some have a specific dramatic purpose – Klingon was made up, for example, and even contains irregularities for realism. Others have been deliberately designed to be regular and easy to pick up (much unlike the garbage put out too often under the heading “Ulster Scots”), the most famous of which is Esperanto.

L.L. Zamenhof, topically perhaps, grew up in the mid-19th century in a town which was then within the Russian Empire but which is now in Poland, and where the contemporary dialect was in fact a version specifically of Belorussian. Himself a Jew, he in fact probably spoke Yiddish (closely related to dialects of Western Germany) natively, and married a Lithuanian. This mix of languages (his father also taught French and German) seemed to him to cause confusion and confrontation, and so as a young man he created a wholly new language, with a vocabulary predominantly of Latinate, Germanic and Slavic origin, to be used as everyone’s second language. He did so under the pseudonym “Dr Hoping” or, in his new language, “Doktoro Esperanto”, and so the story (and the name) began.

The language he designed had just 16 “rules”. He had begun in 1878, entered into widespread correspondence and thus changed his language to something very close to the current one by 1887, attempted a reform based on further correspondence in 1894 which was almost universally rejected by supporters, and then laid out the “16 rules” of the new language in the “Fundamento de Esperanto” of 1905.

Zamenhof was a remarkable innovator. He did many of the simple things well – ensuring that all parts of speech and all tenses were formed entirely regularly, for example. He also did some complex things well, developing an elaborate system of affixation from which new words with immediately understandable meanings can be derived (for example sana ‘health’ goes to malsana ‘ill-health’ to malsanema ‘prone to ill-health, sickly’ to malsanujo ‘sick person’ to malsanulejo ‘hospital’ in the same way that bela ‘beautiful’ goes to malbela ‘ugly’, batalo ‘battle, war’ goes to batalema ‘bellicose’ and lerni goes to lernejo ‘school’). He did introduce some tricky but arguably simplifying measures such as the 45 “correlatives” (translating words such as ‘how’, ‘hence’, ‘what kind of’, ‘in this way’); and some quirks such as an accusative case used even with adverbs and what is, in effect, a subjunctive mood.

From 1905, however, Esperanto developed in very much the same way as any other language. There were battles over usage (particularly around participle tenses and neologisms, i.e. new words entering the language). There was even a split, as 10-20% of speakers left on 1907 to speak a reformed version called Ido (meaning “derived from”), which removed some awkward sounding letters and some of the quirks, but also became slightly less predictable. Some innovations have crept in – new affixes or even derivations from affixes, and the ability to convert adjectives directly into verbs (e.g. vi belas “you are beautiful”).

Zamenhof’s own destiny, having designed a language as a vehicle for world peace, was to receive a cruel lesson from human nature. He himself died with the world at war, in 1917, and yet even worse was to follow – all three of his children perished in the Holocaust a generation later. Sadly, there is rather more to peace than communicating in the same language, as we know in this part of the world.

Therefore, the goal of the so-called pracelistoj (roughly “original goal people”) has not been achieved and never will be – in any case, English fulfils most of the role they were proposing for Esperanto globally, despite their rational claims that this gives the English-speaking world an unfair advantage. However, Esperanto retains a sizeable speech community, as many now in East Asia than in Europe, and given its “origins” in a mix of the three main Indo-European branches (spoken by more than half the world’s population), it does offer on account of its regularity a potential bridge into language learning – not least for a Chinese person wishing to learn an Indo-European language or indeed, say, for a Spaniard (Latinate) wanting to learn Russian (Slavic). Some primary schools in England are even trialling its use as a first “foreign language” because children find they can communicate in it so quickly that they are then inclined to continue language learning rather than deem it “too difficult”.

There are qualifications and diplomas available which can be attained quickly given the language’s regularity and predictability. I got mine in 2004, but to my shame have not kept it up – mi estas malfelicxe eksesperantisto; mi estis gxin plejparte forgesinta. It is a pity. It was later in 2004 that I went to Chisinau. I would not now be able to have a conversation with a random Romanian outside a random conference in a random venue in Moldova. Yet it was a remarkable thing that the conversation took place – Esperanto may not have achieved its “pracelon“, but it has certainly achieved something.

Just because something is unpalatable, doesn’t make it untrue

“Just because something is unpalatable, doesn’t make it untrue”. So said former world record triple jumper Jonathan Edwards about losing his faith, as it happens. However, the phrase has sprung to mind very often since I first read it, not least when looking at the local and global economy we live in.

As they got out the begging bowl to the UK Government in the Stormont Castle Agreement in mid-December, the DUP, Sinn Fein, SDLP and Ulster Unionists all put their name to a document which states:

  • “Structural level social divisions create inefficiency” (Paragraph 44)
  • “Additional costs have been driven by duplicating services” (Paragraph 44)
  • “Division tends to impact disproportionately on those who experience poverty” (Paragraph 45)
  • “Initiatives which would assist…[would include] acceleration of integrated and shared education” (Paragraph 47)
  • “[Shared education will] bring about future savings in the Budget” (Paragraph 48)

It’s magnificent stuff – go and read it yourself.

Of course, one obvious thing you would need to do to address “societal divisions” is ensure teachers in schools are themselves well acquainted with the diverse society in which we live. Another obvious thing to do would be to stop the inefficiency of small teacher training colleges which require subsidies (leaving quite aside the fact they train too many students anyway). No doubt, we would particularly want to do this because of the particular penalty paid for those divisions by those experiencing poverty, say, in places like West Belfast. Naturally, to maximise the investment in “integrated and shared education” you will want teachers who themselves were trained in integrated and shared settings. And it goes without saying that merging, say, teacher training into a single University campus would not just deliver all the above benefits, but also future savings to the budget.

Here’s an odd thing though – when the Employment Minister specifically set out a reform programme of teacher training to achieve all of these things, exactly as the other four parties wanted in an Agreement they all supported, the other four parties went out of their way within two months to block him doing so. Just because something’s (electorally) unpalatable…

I mean, anyone would think those four parties aren’t serious about tackling the costs of division and the inevitable inefficiencies and poverty that goes with them! But that couldn’t be, could it…?



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