Category Archives: Politics

Those Americans who did not vote for Hillary must accept ghastliness of error

One of the reasons the West and democracy itself are in such a dire position in 2017 is that too many people have come to believe they can have it all their own way without owning the consequences of their selfishness. Prime among the people who have engaged in such selfishness are those who had the opportunity to vote for Hillary Clinton in November and did not do so.

Another reason is the tendency to overexaggerate anything, for example by calling anyone slightly right of centre a “Nazi”. The obvious problem is that when the Nazis actually appear, you look like the girl who cried wolf.

In Virginia at the weekend the Nazis actually appeared, an incident which can only be described as “terrorism” took place, and a young innocent woman was killed. Then, the only alternative to Hillary Clinton in November’s Presidential Election President was lily livered in his response, blaming everyone equally. Essentially, what happened is that the President of the United States gave succour to Nazis.

We should be unsurprised. The same man mocked disabled people, was outed as an outrageous sexist (and sex-obsessed) maniac, cranked up xenophobia and engaged in a campaign of mass deceit during the election campaign. It was obvious who he was. That is why anyone who had the opportunity to vote for the only alternative to him in November and failed to do so needs to look at themselves and accept responsibility for the dire state of the nation now. By allowing someone with the current President’s values into the White House, they are responsible for enabling the further promotion of those values. Those values and the inevitable accompanying behaviour are appalling and dangerous.

It is simply not good enough to say your favoured candidate wasn’t on the ticket, or that the Democratic nominee wasn’t great, or whatever other excuse you can muster. The choice was a sexist, xenophobic Nazi-backed disability mocker one one hand, or a civilised human being on the other. It was not a difficult choice, and those who failed to make it bear direct responsibility for the outcome.

“Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will” – Martin Luther King

It is essential, at the very least, that the error is recognised and that it is never again repeated. With the right to participate in democracy comes the responsibility to elect those who will protect it.

Cable’s task is to make case for second referendum unanswerable

As I have noted several times already this month, the issue for both sides in the UK’s Brexit debate is that neither is truly willing to respect the other and deliver an outcome tolerable to the maximum number of people. Leavers continue to insist that leaving means leaving the lot – no Customs Union, no Single Market, pretty much no immigration. Remainers continue to behave as if we will all just wake up one morning and agree to make the whole issue go away – ignoring the profound fact that a majority of the British public would prefer to leave the EU (or, at least, aren’t bothered either way). Given the closeness of the vote and the fundamental political, social, economic and even global implications, it should be obvious to everyone that a Third Way has to be found – one which respects the outcome of the vote and the British public’s basic view of the EU, while not carelessly and needlessly inflicting massive economic and social damage.

This, fundamentally, is the case for a second referendum. I am somewhat uneasy with it – the world is not made up of binary choices and I am instinctively against referendums on that basis. Nevertheless, if Leavers are so confident that they can strike a deal to leave the EU which, upon fair examination, is acceptable to the British public, then they should have no problem consulting them on it at the polls. Likewise Remainers have to accept that any remote prospect of remaining in the EU, or probably even close to it, will require the same.

On 23 June 2016 the British public rejected David Cameron’s terms for remaining in the EU. Conversely, however, on 8 June 2017 they also refused to give Theresa May a blank canvas to leave the EU in any way she saw fit. It is quite clear, therefore, that the specific proposal to leave should be returned to the people (bearing in mind that a declaration to this effect would probably strengthen Britain’s negotiating hand by emphasising the democratic mandate required).

That is the uneasy but probably unarguable case for a second referendum. The new Liberal Democrat Leader has a clear task ahead…

A Bangor “marina quarter” could thrive

I have had occasion to be in what is referred to as “Bangor town centre” a few times recently and it was in general a pleasant experience. It always struck me, even when I served in its Council, that Bangorians can be a bit hard on their own town. However, I would venture to suggest that is partly because they have a peculiar view of what Bangor is, and indeed what its “town centre” is.

Firstly, Bangor is (by Irish standards) a large town but it is essentially at the end of the line. Unlike places like Lisburn, Banbridge or Ballymena, it cannot hope that people from elsewhere will just pop in for half an hour or so – people have to have a specific reason to visit. This has implications, particularly for what it must offer.

Secondly, after its comparatively rapid expansion during the Troubles (when it was seen as something of a “safe haven”), the geographical and demographic centre of Bangor is in fact Bloomfield. Indeed, Bangor may now be the only town in Western Europe most of whose residents live outside its so-called “ring road” (really a throughpass now)! This too has implications – in line with residential locations, we have business parks, wildlife centres and several major leisure offerings springing up outside the so-called “ring road” and thus away from the so-called “town centre”.

Thirdly, Bangor’s nighttime offering cannot be turned back a generation. The youth of Northern Ireland used to descend on Bangor from all arts and parts again because of the aforementioned “safe haven” perception. The end of the Troubles and the revival particularly of the vastly bigger (and, for most people, nearer) Belfast city centre has changed all that permanently. The past is the past in that regard.

So, what can be done about this? More or less what is being done about it, thankfully.

In fact, I have long believed the area around Bangor High and Main Streets leading from Ward Park through to the Station should be re-designated the “Marina Quarter”. This would be primarily a daytime (but occasionally also specific nighttime) leisure offering, ranging from outdoor facilities (such as Pickie Park) to indoor facilities (more or less as now proposed for Queen’s Parade) with a significant marine element (such as the boat tours now available). This should be accompanied by a deliberate attempt to bring small businesses in the service sector to that location, as it is now decently served by restaurants and coffee shops already and well connected by bus and rail, but much cheaper than Belfast city centre – there is no reason PR or law firms could not be based there, for example. Indeed, the now dilapidated Flagship Centre could perhaps be best reinvigorated not by shops as a retail centre but by service sector start-ups as a business hub. This in turn would bring more people to the area during the day, helping existing hospitality and retail businesses to thrive.

The thinking, in other words, has to go beyond what was there before and also beyond “shops” (twenty years from now most retail offerings will consist of a single Northern Ireland store supported by an internet-based delivery network incorporating new technologies such as 3D printing anyway). In Bangor’s case, provided the designation is right, with determined leadership to follow through roughly on the current course, the future could be very bright.

Chlorinated chicken shows how prejudiced *both* sides are in Brexit debate

I am going to let you into a secret. I don’t know the first thing about food standards and even less about the use of chlorine in the preparation of chicken.

Here is thing, o Twitter users: in 99% of cases, nor do you…

Yet somehow last week half the people in social media appeared to have become experts. Their knowledge was such that they were able to tell us, beyond doubt, that allowing chlorinated chicken into the UK would constitute a “decline in food standards”. But what was this “expert opinion” based upon, exactly?

In the same way as some on the Leave side exhibit all kinds of prejudice against all things Continental, this looked suspiciously like prejudice against all things American. The assumption is that chlorinated chicken is a big food standard problem (because the EU banned it) and, implicitly, that American standards are generally lower anyway. Are they? Well, I don’t know. How do so many people in social media seem to know?

As it happens, chlorinated chicken was banned in the EU in the late 1990s. Do you not remember the big fuss at the time? Well, actually, nor do I.

It appears, in fact, that subsequent advice to the European Commission has been that chlorinated chicken is not, in fact, a major hazard. Presumably, this is why Americans eat it quite happily. Although of course it is a well known fact that European visitors to the United States avoid chicken there in the knowledge that it is chlorinated. Or maybe not so well known fact. Or maybe that they don’t actually avoid it at all?

Implicit to all of this is the widely held view in Europe that North America is an unregulated free-for-all. I can only conclude that most people who think that have never actually been to North America. My own experience of it, in fact, is that you are constantly being instructed everywhere you go – you cannot even enter a car park with all sorts of instructions about which zone to go to if your ticket is green, your car is blue, or your plate ends in the letter “K”. Regulations and bureaucracy are in fact everywhere.

Because I know nothing about food standards, it is absolutely possible that allowing chlorinated chicken would constitute a decline. However, what was noteworthy was how many people who had clearly never before had any knowledge of the issue were suddenly jumping on the issue like seasoned experts. This, as is a constant theme on this blog, betrayed (in the very precise meaning of the word) a blatant prejudice.

I would still very much like to remain in the EU. But you know one thing which definitely does not help that already uphill task? Blatant prejudice.

In NI, we need to be clearer what the problem is in order to solve it

Sinn Féin greatly dislikes the phrase “problem party” when it is applied to it. At one level, it genuinely does not understand why. The short-term reason, to be clear, is that there are only two parties required to enter the Executive – and Sinn Féin is one of them. The longer term reason is that Sinn Féin is, fundamentally, not a party of government; nor, really, is the DUP.

A lot of energy is being spent by the commentariat on the apparently short-term issues. Allegedly, according to the Greens and others, the whole thing comes down to Irish Language legislation. Believing that is a mistake.

Of course, were the Irish Language issue satisfactorily compromised upon, and the odds remain that it will be (albeit somewhat nearer Christmas than now), then the route would probably be clear for the formation of an all-party Executive. There would be much relief (and slapping of backs). Yet none of the problems would really have been resolved.

There remain three main and fundamental problems. First, there is a lack of respect between the two largest parties (that is, basically, why it needs to be an all-party Executive); and this works both ways. For every “curry my yoghurt” there is a “sunny side of the street”. Neither party can even really begin to see the other party’s point on some of these issues – largely because it does not want to.

Second, there is a structural problem. Let us again remind ourselves that the fundamental issue is not that we do not have an Assembly, but that we do not have an Executive. On this, we should move quickly to clarify that Ministers remain in post on a caretaker basis not until polling day but until the next Ministers are appointed; that would have calmed much of the current crisis in administration. We should then move, perhaps less quickly but nevertheless without delay, to a situation where voluntary coalition at least becomes an option (I have outlined in the past how this may work).

Third, there is a cultural problem which goes right back to the electorate itself. Voters still seem to regard Stormont as a county council, with no serious powers. Right now, as I write, absolutely contrary to what the political bubble commentariat seem to suggest, there is in fact no sense of crisis among the general public whatsoever. That there are no politicians in devolved institutions to manage budgets, push forward health reform or administer changes to the school estate should be seen as a crisis, but in fact it is not. Most people when they went to the polls in March, as would be the case if they had to again in October, fundamentally do not believe they are elected a government which will take decisions affecting their daily lives on all the key domestic issues, from hospitals to schools. Yet they are. As a result, we get parties charged with government who have no interest whatsoever in actually governing – and voters willing to give them a mandate not to govern.

Northern Ireland spent over a generation without a devolved government and thus became used to being governed by outsiders – culturally, this runs very deep and thus government by outsiders, far from being seen as the democratic outrage it is, is still in fact what is expected. That, at our very core, is the problem. It is why the next “talks process” should involve far more than politicians.


UK harmed by bizarre exceptionalism

I was planning to write a piece on the frankly bizarre British exceptionalism evident in Brexiteers’ cheery dismissal of the simple facts around the poor performance of the UK economy and its huge vulnerability to leaving the Single Market (which will inevitably send living standards crashing, particularly among the poorest).

It turns out I do not need to, the CER has done it for me here.

Anyone with a genuine interest in the UK’s future and the well-being of its people must read and grasp that linked article.

Did the extremes win this year’s NI elections?

“The Ulster Unionists are finished” wrote one correspondent. “And the SDLP. The extremes won” replied another.

Did they?

Ostensibly they did. I wrote in May 2016 that the goal of the centre parties had to be to reduce the combined DUP/SF vote to below half. In March, it was 56% and 61% of Assembly seats. In June, that was 65% and a complete wipe-out of the centre parties at Westminster. So clearly the Ulster Unionists and SDLP lost and the Alliance Party at best drew.

Certainly one reason Sinn Féin did so well in March was an anti-DUP vote. The exact reverse happened in June (which, by the way, was not a “Unionist surge” versus previous equivalent elections but rather specifically a DUP one). So yes, the DUP and Sinn Féin have won, in the sense that there is no sign of a swing back to their main communal rivals and has not been all century.

Yet all is not completely lost. First of all, it is worth remembering that the DUP and Sinn Féin are not the absolute extremes. Challenges from UKUP, TUV and other anti-compromise Unionists have been seen off completely by the DUP; challenges from the likes of Eirigi and dissident factions have also been seen off by Sinn Féin. People had harder line options but have rejected them decisively.

Moreover, the DUP and Sinn Féin are not what they were. Yes, there are Christian fundamentalists, creationists and outright homophobes in the DUP; yes, there are terrorist apologists who just think Prods should move to Scotland and crazed marxists in Sinn Féin’s ranks. However, they are no longer typical of either party, and decreasingly so. The DUP’s deal with the Conservatives was not one-sided and was politically cute, negotiated by serious players; likewise, Sinn Féin’s response to it has been relatively mature.

The DUP and Sinn Féin represent a type of politics I fundamentally oppose. However, it now falls to those like me to challenge them electorally. As we do so, all is far from lost – because at least the absolute extremes have been successfully marginalised.

Sinn Fein itself has way to go on “respect agenda”

I was lucky enough to be called into BBC Talkback on Wednesday week ago for what presenter William Crawley described as a “very civilised discussion” on language and culture, particularly with regards to the Irish Language Act.

What was interest was the response on social media. This involved widespread mockery of Ulster Scots, essentially for being too close to English to be regarded as a language. Most notably, this mockery often came from official Sinn Fein representatives or accounts.

Let us, first of all, address that concern. As anyone who speaks several languages knows, sometimes phrases are close or even identical. “La luna grande con la costa verde” is good Spanish, and good Italian. “My pen is in my hand” is good English, and good Afrikaans. Inevitably, given its proximity to English, even good Scots will also be quite similar in many respects (not unlike Irish and Scottish Gaelic). This is a simple linguistic fact, which needs to be accepted by all sides engaged in minority language development. (And, by the way, I never once on the programme insisted that Ulster Scots should be considered as having “language” status, merely that there was a case for it and that it should be afforded respect either way. Respect requires understanding, and understanding requires respect.)

So, to start with, anyone mocking this simple linguistic fact is in fact betraying their own ignorance. No one who is multilingual or has genuine command for and respect for language itself would engage in such behaviour.

Then, of course, anyone engaged in such mockery is also engaged in basic disrespect, both for the nature of language itself and for Ulster Scots.

Peter Robinson, former DUP Leader, wrote a fundamentally unhelpful analysis earlier in the week on his Facebook page, but suddenly his analysis was demonstrated to have a grain of truth. Sinn Fein activists are busy demanding respect, but are unable to give it. This is outright hypocrisy.

It should be noted that many prominent Sinn Fein respresentatives and any Irish language activist I know would reject such mockery, and would be saddened by it (I have no doubt that Janet Muller, who appeared with me, would agree). Nevertheless, if they want respect they have to ensure it is offered.

Meanwhile mockery of anything, including Ulster Scots and indeed Irish, is an absolute right in a free society. However, as ever, it should be based on an understanding of the issues and facts. Such an understanding takes effort and time. I am sorry that so few people seem willing to take that effort and time to be able to engage knowledgeably in issues around language and culture (and even appropriate mockery of them). That is, perhaps, the crux of our problem here.

Irish Language Act – where now?

I was on BBC Talkback on Wednesday where I expressed gloom about the prospects of agreement on an Irish Language Act before the “deadline” yesterday.

To be clear, my main point was that this is not really about the Irish Language, but rather about trust between the two main parties here. The Irish Language happens to reflect this in two ways: firstly, it was the withdrawal of funding for bursaries which proved the final straw for Nationalists in December; and secondly Nationalists (rightly or wrongly) generally feel they were promised an Act in 2006 if not before.

Nevertheless, we may look at some of the issues around it.

Unionists tend towards the view that an Act is simply not needed because the Irish Language is already well enough looked after (a view expressed by an Ulster Unionist peer yesterday) or because this is a matter for a Commission on identity and tradition due to report later in the year and has to be taken “in the round”.

Nationalists take the view that an Irish Language Act is necessary to protect and enhance the rights of Irish speakers, and perhaps implicitly because they feel respect for it should be placed in law.

For fear of being cast as a woolly Liberal, in fact I would suggest that objectively neither of those is quite right. Therein perhaps lies the compromise.

To take the last first: Irish speakers have no theoretical reason to believe their own rights alone (and not those, say, of Polish or Gujurati speakers) should be protected in law. Rights would apply equally to anyone who cannot or, arguably, prefers not to use the common language of the vast bulk of the population. That is the case for saying that rights are already protected; or it is the case for placing the rights of speakers of minority or foreign languages in a Bill of Rights; or it is even the case for a rights-based “Minority Languages and Cultural Respect Act”.

However, in fact I do believe there should be specific Irish Language legislation on the grounds that statutory responsibilities to protect and promote the language itself should be placed in law, in order for the language to be maintained as part of our cultural heritage. This is a little different from the “rights-based” approach, even if the outcome would not necessarily be too dissimilar. The issue here is that Irish is a native language in only two jurisdictions, and those jurisdictions therefore are both charged with ensuring its survival as a language in use.

This then, by the curious logic of the talks process, leads to discussion of a “Cultural Respect Act” or whether there should be a standalone “Irish Language Act” accompanied by an “Ulster Scots Act”. Here we need to be clear that an “Irish Language Act” is not just part of “culture and tradition” as Unionists suggest, but fundamental to building trust between parties charged with governing. However, we also need to be clear that delivery of “an Irish Language Act” (note specific phrasing) does not mean delivery of the exact legislation that Sinn Féin or any other party wants.

This takes us back to purpose. The objective of Irish language legislation should be to put the development of the Irish language on a sure footing, while also securing respect for it. This requires Unionists to recognise its importance to many people in Northern Ireland (not exclusively speakers and not exclusively Nationalists); and it requires Nationalists to focus on what is important for the language, noting that this means they have a right to expect an Act but not necessarily one absolutely in their own image. This last point is worth emphasising: when Sinn Féin talks of “implementing past agreements” it has a right to suggest that an Irish Language Act is part of that implementation, but it has no right to insist on the precise Act it wants.

An obvious way around this, of course, is to do both a “Cultural Respect Act” and an “Irish Language Act”. The former would put general rights and statutory requirements with regard to minority languages and cultural respect in general into law (statutory requirements to encourage awareness, spell names correctly, enable government correspondence in languages in use in NI with a written standard, set objectives for encouraging use of minority languages including 10% of the population fluent in Irish by 2031, etc). The latter would add those specifically deliverable for Irish (noting in the preamble the theoretical possibility that they could be added for Ulster Scots or indeed other languages in due course), such as official recognition for Standard Irish in NI and the right to parental choice for Irish-medium education or for their child to learn Irish regardless of which school sector the child attends – a right which is beneficial to the survival of the language as it encourages its use across the community, but which is currently impactable for anything other than Irish. (Politically, Nationalists get their standalone Irish Language Act and establish a broad “respect agenda”; Unionists deliver on matching it, as far practicable, for Ulster Scots and all cultures in general. It is not how I would do it, but it may just work for the key participants.)

Compromise is necessary, in other words. Who knew?

Patience is a virtue

At 2pm today, the Northern Ireland Assembly should meet and appoint an Executive. Objectively, there is no good reason why it shouldn’t; provided there is sensible use (and no abuse) of the Petition of Concern, the numbers exist to deliver comprehensive Irish language legislation, same-sex marriage, guarantees of rights, an ad hoc Brexit committee and delivery of the Military Covenant. The Executive would then be in place to manage the Budget, deliver Health Transformation, manage the crisis around educational places, and deliver on upgrading infrastructure.

We should be in no doubt that it creates serious problems to our public services if no Ministers are in place by the end of today. Literally thousands of decisions need to be made at Executive level; strategies need to be signed off on; Budgets need to be securely allocated; working groups needs to be set in motion; and so on.

Frankly, it is in the balance whether this can be achieved today given what the two main parties need to deliver to those who gave them the mandate they have. Make no mistake, it should be possible and it would be justifiable to punish them electorally if they fail. For all that politics, like humankind, is not always rational.

The crux of the issue is the breach of trust between the two main parties (which continue to have been given the largest mandates before and after), emphasised by the spiteful withdrawal of Líofa bursary funding on 23 December. Given their mandates, it is essential for that trust to be restored for the institutions to function. In that sense, it is true that there can be “no return to the status quo”.

The frustrating but straightforward truth, therefore, is that if they feel they need more time to get this right then they should and will be given it. To be clear, it should not in any kind of rational world be necessary; but, conversely, the right deal is important – more important than when precisely it occurs.

Frustration is legitimate. But patience is a virtue.