Author Archives: ianjamesparsley

Surely action needed on rugby refereeing?

Rugby Union is not my sport – in the sense that although I don’t mind watching a good game of it, I never played, coached or officiated. Therefore, I need readers’ help on any discussion of it!

On Saturday, Scotland came close to defeating New Zealand in what would have been the Scots’ greatest victory for at least a generation if not ever. However, the officials failed to issue two yellow cards to New Zealand players and Scotland fell a score short.

In the second instance, the referee saw it wrongly but was convinced by what he saw – awarding a knock-on when in fact an advantage played would have put Scotland in for a try and probably seven points (as it went back for a penalty this was a gain of four over what actually happened, so they would have had eight minutes with a numerical advantage to find three more – quite possible). It seems widely accepted that Southern Hemisphere teams are specifically skilled at getting away with niggly fouls, and indeed that this skill is almost regarded as part of the game. Is that really viable?

Perhaps even more gallingly, in the earlier instance the referee allowed himself to be talked out if giving a justified yellow card by the television match official (TMO). This sort of thing is just ludicrous – what is the point of a TMO if he overturns correct decisions?!

With television cameras everywhere and the game now professional, this is only going to become an increasing problem. Refereeing rugby at the top level – under current circumstances and with current rules – is surely becoming a practical impossibility.

For a start, it seems to me that the laws of rugby are incredibly complex and yet they do not remotely clarify every eventuality. My understanding is that there are more laws in rugby governing merely what happens at the breakdown than there are for the entirety for football or hockey. The scrummage has now become all but a lottery, with so many regular infractions and a culture developing that some are overtly ignored (such as the put-in) that in almost any case a penalty could be given either way. This is before we get to the sheer danger element of a game now played by bigger men at bigger speeds.

Then there is the issue of the TMO, which is a good idea seemingly applied terribly. Too often, the TMO actually gets it wrong, or there is an element of lottery, or it is just unclear; furthermore, the whole process takes far too long and in many cases is unnecessary (used merely as insurance), often resulting in individual halves lasting approaching or even over an hour. The rules around the TMO surely need reformed; perhaps to something in line with American Football where teams have a limited number of challenges if they genuinely believe an error has been made.

It seems to me, however, the referee also needs further help on the field. Would there be a role for additional assistant referees (perhaps close to the action and positioned on sidelines but even coming in behind the try line when appropriate), refelecting some proposed developments in football? Is there even a case for two referees, as in hockey; or even many more (say, seven), as in American Football?

On top of this, as an outsider but someone presumably to whom the game hopes to appeal as an observer, really something has to be done to simplify the laws, perhaps at the same time as making the game safer. It seems to outsiders like me too often that the game is settled by penalty kicks which appear to be awarded for the most bizarre reasons. Surely the spectator should be watching the ball rather than the umpire’s arm?!

Readers… help, please!



David Davis demonstrates humiliating misunderstanding of EU

I set off something of a Twitter storm on Thursday evening after David Davis’ speech in Berlin. I replicate my thread in one place here:

This evening in Germany, David Davis has demonstrated a frankly humiliating misunderstanding of even the basics of the EU.

Firstly, even if somehow Angela Merkel were scared that the German economy could be crippled by, er, not being able to export freely to a smaller country like the UK, she cannot intervene to offer the UK a special deal. No one can.

Let us repeat: the EU is the Single Market and the Single Market is the EU. Let us also repeat: the Single Market is a market of rules. This is the fundamental point David Davis has failed to grasp.

For that reason, participation in the Single Market by any non-EU State is determined by which rules that State is willing to adopt. And that is the end of it. (Norway adopts nearly all of them, for example; Moldova just a few.)

David Davis therefore still hasn’t grasped that this negotiation is not “We give a bit, you give a bit”. It is essentially “Here are the rules of the Single Market; tell us which ones you no longer wish to apply and that will determine your level of participation in it.”

This really should be obvious. How otherwise could a 27/28-member bloc function if it did not have rules? And those rules cannot be amended other than with the support of the whole bloc.

This is all to leave quite aside that David Davis vastly overstates the UK’s economic importance. Germany sells many multiples more cars in China and the US, for example. That is a basic matter of fact.

UK really should have worked out by now, more than halfway between Referendum and Brexit Day, that this whole “They’ll bend to our will” stuff is a myth. It can’t happen – and wouldn’t, even if it could.

And for any UK Minister to go anywhere else and tell the locals not to put “politics before prosperity” is, right now, to set a new world record in gross hypocrisy. For that is precisely and embarrassingly what the UK alone is doing with Brexit.

David Davis’ call for co-operation in the interests of mutual prosperity was met with an obvious first question from a German journalist: “If that is what you want, why are you leaving?


To address some issues raised subsequently…

That these basic misunderstandings of the EU were apparent during the referendum campaign does raise some questions over the legitimacy of the outcome. David Davis himself spoke of a “UK-German trade deal” – something which is impossible.

What brings the referendum outcome more into question is the whole myth that the EU would “bend to the UK’s will”. Firstly, this vastly overstates the importance of the UK’s economy in the modern world (even though some continue to deny it, moving to WTO rules would mean that suddenly the majority of the UK’s trade would be conducted under them as opposed to a very small proportion; whereas for the EU, it would make a much smaller difference – from a very small proportion to a still quite small proportion). Secondly, and more importantly, it ignores the fact that the EU is a Single Market based on rules which are agreed between all its members and this cannot just be altered by a few appointed negotiators. (To be specific, I noted that Germany sells more cars in China, including those manufactured there – a notably point in itself since supply line problems threaten the entire UK car industry post-Brexit.)

Although I understand what is meant by the term “remaining in the Single Market” and “remaining in the Customs Union”, I prefer more precise phrasing. The EU is the Single Market – so if you are not in the EU, by definition you are not in the Single Market; however, you may participate in the Single Market (as Norway and Iceland do almost fully, Switzerland does fairly fully, or Moldova does partially), provided you adhere to its rules. Likewise, the Customs Union is the EU Customs Union – so if you are not in the EU, by definition you are not in its Customs Union; however, you may choose to form a new Customs Union with it (the Irish Government’s phrase “remain in the same Customs Union” is quite helpful and precise here.)

Leaving the EU does not automatically mean leaving Euratom; Euratom’s membership happens to be the same as the EU’s currently, but in fact it comes under a different agreement. So even though it has indicated it wishes to leave (for reasons I cannot grasp), the UK could and absolutely must opt to remain in it – otherwise there will be a serious threat in areas such as radiotherapy treatment.

Some Leavers argue that the fact the EU is a market of rules and thus in effect cannot negotiate means the UK should simply prepare to leave with no deal. There is some logic to that position. The fundamental problem with it, as noted above, is it is not what was the stated position of the Leave campaign during the referendum – quite on the contrary, they said both before and after that a “good deal” would be “easy” and even (simply incorrectly) that “no one [was] talking about leaving the Single Market”. It may also be noted that at a General Election in June aimed at giving the Conservatives a mandate to negotiate any kind of Brexit, they did not receive that mandate and indeed a (narrow) majority of votes were cast for parties advocating “maintenance of all the benefits of the Single Market”.

From an objective point of view, plainly on the basis of the “will of the people” the UK Government has neither a mandate to remain in the EU, nor to leave it with no deal. Therefore it seems to me almost inevitable, not least as the implications become clearer, that the people will need to be consulted again to establish what their “will” actually is. 

Nolan doesn’t do “debate”

Stephen Nolan recently tweeted that interest in attending his TV show demonstrated the public appetite for “debate”. Therein lies the problem. Nolan does not do debate, or even conversation. And what he does do is actually quite damaging.

What shock jocks do and, in Northern Ireland at least, that is what Stephen Nolan is, is slanging matches. Those are quite different from debates. Slanging matches consist of opposing sides simply stating their view, often quite loudly and occasionally rudely, without even beginning to listen to the opposing viewpoint. Debates, at least if they are to be meaningful, are quite different from that.

The purpose of a debate, in fact, is to reach a meaningful conclusion – quite often one which, by definition, will be a compromise. For this to happen, in practice, there at least has to be agreement on the basics of the issue.

For example, if someone fundamentally believe that a living being exists from conception and someone else takes the view that life does not occur until birth, they cannot have a meaningful debate on abortion; that can only happen if both participants at least take the basic position that life occurs somewhere between conception and birth (in which case a meaningful debate, potentially with an agreed outcome, can take place on the circumstances and timing under which an abortion should be allowed to occur).

What Nolan does, deliberately, is pick the extremes. As a result, no actual debate can take place. This is why it in fact becomes necessary, for example, for parties involved in negotiations to ignore his show. If the founding basis of his show is not even agreed (or is even just plain wrong, as per his recent radio show on roadworks), then absolutely nothing constructive can arise from the slanging match which inevitably results.

I suspect the Northern Irish public are interested in debate, but for that to happen it needs a mix of genuinely representative and expert opinion (and probably more than two sides – there is no reason to believe an outcome has to be constructed solely on binary viewpoints) to produce the basis at least for a conversation which may deliver a meaningful outcome.

Since the BBC is supposed to be about educating and informing (leaving others to chase ratings), maybe it is time for a fundamental rethink of how it does such programmes.

Catalonia and Northern Ireland – both cases of two nations in the same space?

In my response to the Haass Talks I suggested that they would get nowhere without first agreeing what Northern Ireland is. I posited that Northern Ireland is a “multinational state”, exemplified by the town centre of Downpatrick, where at one location three streets meet – Irish Street, Scotch Street and English Street. That, right there, is Northern Ireland.

You cannot begin to make any argument around the future constitutional status or broad cultural policy of this place without starting from there. We are the crossroads of three nations (albeit for most purposes “English” and “Scotch” here are content to share the designation “British”), and the best we can do is make the intersection between them as freeflowing as possible – allowing expression of Irishness and various forms of Britishness, without doing so in a way which is provocative or simply unreasonable.

This has not been wholly unsuccessful by any means. The parades issue (profoundly one of reasonable expression of identity) has largely been resolved, even if it took the best part of two decades. However, many so-called “debates” never truly get started (as the Haass Talks didn’t) because they do not agree on this fundamental starting point.

I am very frustrated by the way in which people elsewhere in Europe, and most obviously in Scotland and across Ireland, have approached the breakdown in Catalonia merely by foisting their own prejudices upon it. This is all the more frustrating because the situation – and the assumptions around the situation – are profoundly different there, and elsewhere in Spain. The history, the culture, the role of the security forces, the attitude towards voting are all different – sometimes obviously and sometimes subtly – so as to defy detailed understanding from afar. One thing does strike me as a parallel, however – Catalonia is also a location where two nations (I accept this is a controversial word there!) share a single region.

The answer in Northern Ireland – and it is the answer whether people care to accept it in full or not – is to allow people to choose either nation, and while accepting sovereignty will be determined by the majority in a referendum also reflecting this dual nationality in the institutions (such as cross-border bodies, etc). Absolutism one way or the other – demanding everyone be of just one nation and utterly ignoring the other – did not and cannot work.

That, inevitably, will also be the answer in Catalonia. You cannot “stand with the Catalans” without reflecting that, by nationality, some are Catalan but not Spanish, some are Spanish but not Catalan, and some are both. “Freedom” for one nation inevitably means oppression of the other. Any constitutional outcome, therefore, cannot consist of absolutism – but rather will have to reflect the dual Catalan-Spanish national identity of the region. The truth in the end is that the Statute of Autonomy, similar to Northern Ireland’s “Good Friday Agreement”, is the answer – or, at least, a good deal closer to it than either Direct Rule from Madrid or outright independence outside the EU.

The other current parallel is that in both cases there are two Leaders insisting on their own absolutism with no real sense of give and take. However in Northern Ireland, exceedingly frustrating though it is, at least they are talking to each other and perhaps even seeking to mend relationships. As we look to Catalonia we may usefully reflect that we are, in fact, the lucky ones.

EU customs issues need more careful discussion for NI SEZ

Leave voters need to learn one thing and learn it quickly. A “no deal” Brexit is not an option. Not only would it cut the UK off from all global trade, but it would restrict cancer treatments, stop extradition of criminals, and potentially even limit foreign travel. To suggest the UK enhances its negotiating position by suggesting it is an option is sheer unadulterated lunacy – for the simple reason that it isn’t an option.

Remain voters also need to learn something too, however. They are often just as bad at suggesting options which simply do not exist. One such, presented primarily by the left-wing press at the weekend, was that Northern Ireland could somehow remain in the Customs Union and the Single Market while also remaining in the UK all while the rest of the UK does not remain in the Customs Union and the Single Market. That is administratively, economically and politically impossible.

Let us just assess the technicalities quickly. If you leave the EU, you leave its Customs Union and its Single Market. It would be possible for the UK as a whole then to form a Customs Union with it (not the same as “remaining in” the Customs Union, as it would almost inevitably have exceptions); and it would be possible for the UK to participate in the Single Market – perhaps in a very limited bilateral way like Moldova, perhaps in a more formal free trade way like Switzerland, perhaps in a fairly full way like Norway and Iceland. The key phrase there is “participate in”; the EU is the Single Market and the Single Market is the EU, but non-EU states may participate.

From Northern Ireland’s point of view, it would be ludicrous – taking an objective position economically and administratively – to put in place practical barriers to trade with the rest of the UK. Northern Ireland relies on the rest of the UK for common regulations in areas such as Health, for shared intelligence, and (not least) for the vast majority of its current trade. So the notion that it would somehow erect a practical restriction to free movement (of anything – people, workers, goods, services, information) between it and the rest of the UK is simply not viable. No one is seriously suggesting it and be wary of reports that anyone is.

What Northern Ireland could do (assuming, ahem, its devolved institutions are operational in some form) is relocate customs spot checks away from the actual border (turning them from an administrative point of view into something more like excise) and at the same time maintain EU standards to a wider degree than the rest of the UK. Customs checks would take place at point of origin or destination (whichever is geographically in Northern Ireland) or at the ports (specifically for goods which do not have origin or destination in Northern Ireland). By maintaining common standards across a range of areas with the EU (and thus the Single Market), “Made in Northern Ireland” would come to mean “maintaining the highest standards both in the UK and the EU”. Then, by declaring Northern Ireland a “Special Enterprise Zone” maintaining its own rates of corporation tax and air passenger duty as well as “highest UK/EU standards”, Northern Ireland could participate in the Single Market on a preferential basis to the rest of the UK (all while having unhindered access to and from markets in the rest of the UK).

However, it is important, particularly here, to get the descriptions right. This is not shifting Northern Ireland out of the UK and it does not require shifting actual political borders in any way whatsoever. It requires some administrative differences between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK which are much in line with those which already exist. We may reflect, regardless of our own constitutional preference, that the outcome would mean maintaining the Irish border free of physical infrastructure while making Northern Ireland the best place in the world to invest, at least for some industries, because it could access without hindrance the widest possible customer market across the whole of the UK and the EU.

So let us stop the fantasies on either side, and focus on the prize. Participation is the key word!


At Stormont, democracy must prevail – even when it’s wrong

Even with a strong tail wind we are realistically at least a month away from any deal to restore our devolved institutions, for all kinds of reasons, and possibly rather longer. That leads some in the commentariat to suggest it is stretching its viability. Yet that is another example of what I referred to yesterday – people trying to overturn democratic outcomes through artificial interventions. The people must get what they voted for.

The current Northern Ireland Assembly (the one the people elected) actually exists – it does not sit because of Northern Ireland’s bizarre insistence on having an Executive before its legislature may meet to discuss anything else, but it does exist. It was elected in a free election with a broadly proportional system, and the people voted for what they voted for in the full knowledge that it would likely deliver gridlock, paralysis and atrophy.

So gridlock, paralysis and atrophy are what they must get. It’s called democracy.

I have of course long argued on these pages that the requirement for an Executive to be formed before the Assembly may meet to discuss anything should be removed; I have argued that the requirement for two specific parties to agree before an Executive is formed should also be removed; I have indeed argued that the requirement in effect for any decision to have an absolute majority of both designations should also be removed except where in legitimate instances where minority interests may genuinely be harmed. All of those moves would be legitimate for a Secretary of State to make in the interests of good government, and may well enable restoration. So that is where the focus should be – nowhere else.

But, for all that, there is no getting away from what the people voted for. In a system which they know requires partnership government, they voted for parties with commitments which made it very difficult for them to be partners. Democracy requires that the voters experience the consequences of their choices. After all, it is only then there will ever be even the remote possibility that, next time, they may make a more sensible one…

NI’s problem, in the end, is we don’t care about each other very much

Upon establishing that I was a “Protestant”, a German student once asked me why I hated Catholics. It was a quintessentially abrupt and of course nonsensical question. There are exceptions but in Northern Ireland we do not, by and large, hate each other.

Nor do we care about each other very much, however. I am increasingly of the view this is our fundamental problem.

To give another German reference from my past, I had a friend who was an interpreter for a group from Baden-Württemberg in southern Germany on a trip to meet MLAs at Stormont some years ago. “What was striking was that not a single MLA asked them about where they came from”, she said. It strikes me to be a trait of Northern Irish politicians more than most that they show no interest in anywhere or really anyone else.

Even internally. The pages of the Newsletter have been a particular disappointment in recent weeks. Even supposedly “moderate” unionists have lined up opposed to the great bogeyman of an “Irish Language Act”. None has bothered to ask the question why the idea is so important to so many of their fellow citizens. Not once was it suggested that perhaps, if this issue meant so much to a large number of fellow citizens, some effort should be made to enable it (even the few Unionists arguing for an ILA did so fundamentally on Unionist terms). They just don’t care.

Of course, this works both ways. Not meeting royalty, not ever using the official name of this place, or indeed not even shaking hands with Duke of Edinburgh students are all examples of a callous disregard for fellow citizens. So what if they’re offended? We really don’t care.

Arguably we are even seeing a third strand to this, with predominantly young social liberals emerging not as an anti-sectarian voice but actually as a third communal bloc, ranting angrily at anyone who shows any hint of, say, national pride or religious faith.

This the crux of the breakdown. We are right and they – well, to be honest, we really don’t care about them. Their interests and their priorities are secondary to ours and can only be dealt with in that order.

This is how we come to this remarkable position where people who access the same Health Service, use the same transport, go to schools financed from the same budget and even share the same workplaces fundamentally do not care about each other enough even to think (far less advocate) that it may just be a good idea to show interest, demonstrate respect and work to enable things which are important to them to happen.

As a result we end up in two, nay three separate polities. We have Unionists who want Unionist politicians to stick up for them, Nationalists who want Nationalist politicians to stick up for them, and Progressives who are long past caring about the whole thing. As a result the absence of government over health and education is met not with mass demonstrations in the streets, but rather with a collective yawn.

20 years on from the Agreement, is it not time we began to care about each other?

Could someone please turn the UK off and on again?

As of today Britain, long a beacon of stable democracy, cannot even hold a Cabinet meeting.

Things would be bad enough with past misconduct bringing Ministers into disrepute (and not just in London; one has also gone in Scotland), key party funders hiding tax offshore and the Government in any case lacking a parliamentary majority. However, the central issue remains that the Government is hopelessly divided over Brexit; and that the division is not ideological, but rather between those who have some notion of the real world and those who have none whatsoever.

The UK Government is stumbling towards a “no deal” Brexit not because it is what it wants (we need to be very clear there is no parliamentary majority and thus no democratic justification for a “no deal” outcome), but because it lacks the basic ability to understand what it is doing. The three main Brexiteer Ministers are lazy incompetent bunglers, incapable of understanding that the EU is far less the complexities of what leaving it actually means.

What is means is no material to carry out vital cancer treatments; no means of administering flights between the UK and the Continent or Ireland; no arrangements for transporting dangerous criminals across the UK border; and so the list goes on, making economic collapse and calamitously slashed government revenue for delivering public services almost the least of our problems. The fundamental issue is on the UK side – it does not understand that the EU is a Single Market of rules, and those rules cannot just be broken by a quick negotiation feint here and there.

We are probably already long past the stage where the only conceivable way out of this was to apply to join EFTA. That would at least have given a framework for cooperation, but with the UK Government so unstable (in every sense) and public life generally clearly in such a shambolic state, there is now a fair chance such an application would be rejected.

Let us just be clear: the UK Cabinet cannot meet.

That means the UK is fundamentally ungovernable.

This was not the case before 23 June 2016.

So in fact, now, the only definite way out of this is to rescind notification of Article 50.

Less versus fewer

“Because we had fewer chances we had less chance.”

That just sounds right, doesn’t it? Yet one of the most common “errors” we see in daily English concerns “less versus fewer” (and its cousin “number versus amount”, but we will leave that be here).

It is an error, by the way, and not just a matter of non-standard usage (a different thing). For me, however, it is an entirely forgivable error because the reverse uses the same word: “Because we had more chances we had more chance.”

Indeed, I would suggest that a century from now, “less” will be deemed correct in both instances and the (longer) word “fewer” will be consigned to the designation “archaic”.

However, what is going on here?

In fact, what is going on is relatively simple. “Less” derives from the comparative form of “little”, and therefore in effect means “more little”. So, above, “we had little chance” goes to “less [more little] chance”.

The derivation of “fewer” is more obvious; it is the regular comparative form of “few”. So “we had few chances” and then “fewer chances”.

By removing the comparative element we can select the correct one. It would be literally senseless to write “we had few chance” (thus equally senseless to write “fewer chance”); and likewise it would be senseless (or at least convey the wrong meaning) to write “we had little chances” (thus equally odd to write “less chances”).

So this is not really very complicated. However, will it still be observed in the 22nd century? There’s little chance…

Do we need to re-assess how legal cases are brought?

Big health warning: there is one legally qualified person in my household, and it isn’t me.

However, I have written before several times about the totally spurious case raised against the construction of the A6 expressway from Toome to Castledawson – a case which may have cost the public purse as much as £8 million (surely better spent on cancer drugs and the like) as well as the time delay caused (inconveniencing literally tens of thousands of people every day).

There must, in a democracy, be a means and even financial support for people to make a challenge where they believe the law has not been applied. However, in the A6 expressway example, there simply was and is no case. At no stage was any instance given of how construction of the expressway breached any law. Fundamentally, one person did not like the fact a democratic decision had been made to build it, and a legal firm seemingly was happy to take the money to push paper around at a cost of millions. This, surely, is an utter farce.

Last week, there was another example of this. A campaigner decided he would challenge the Conservative-DUP confidence-and-supply deal “on the grounds it breaches the Good Friday Agreement”. There is an obvious problem with this: it doesn’t.

The Agreement is very clear. By sovereignty, Northern Ireland is part of the UK until its people decide otherwise, and its people may always choose to be British. This, quite obviously, means they have every right to participate in the politics and government of the UK.

Indeed, it is utterly obvious also that this person would not have raised a case against a Labour-SNP arrangement of the same type (and he in the past raised no query about the SDLP taking the Labour whip, as it always did). Ultimately, as with the A6 expressway example, he was raising a legal challenge simply because he did not like a democratic outcome.

Therefore, after the judgment, it was made absolutely clear that the taxpayer would not bear the cost of the entirely spurious legal challenge. So why was that not the case with the A6?

We simply cannot continue to allow spurious legal challenges to be made by people who do not like democratic decisions. It is this which in fact profoundly damages democracy. Democracy requires and demands that we have the opportunity to make our case, but also that we accept the outcome when it goes against us. We are of course perfectly at liberty to continue to argue against democratic decisions as long as we ourselves do so democratically. But this nonsense of millions of taxpayers’ money being spent on legal challenges to perfectly legitimate democratic decisions must end right now.

So maybe legal experts can tell me. When a case is made to prosecute someone for a crime, a reasonable argument has to be made that the person may be found guilty before the case is allowed to go to trial by the prosecutor’s office (in Northern Ireland’s case, the PPS). Surely a similar test with a similar level of scrutiny should take place before a legal challenge is even allowed to go to court (far less at taxpayers’ expense)?

Actually what the Good Friday Agreement was about was putting democracy before anything else. So it is important that it is not undermined by spurious legal challenges in this way. All thoughts welcome.