Category Archives: Uncategorized

Nationalists need to show respect, not just demand it

I was accused the yesterday of “not respecting the aspirations of Nationalists”.

Which is odd, because on this blog alone you will find:

The really messed up thing is you will find none of those from actual Nationalists! You will struggle anywhere in all of the Internet to find any concrete, practical, detailed proposal or even debate-starting outline for any of the above from a Nationalist commentator, and certainly not from a Nationalist Party (random demands or proposals which involve Unionists waking up one morning and suddenly realising they are Irish count as neither “detailed” nor “practical”, for the record!)

I have even met representatives of Nationalist parties in a purely personal and voluntary capacity to discuss all of these, particularly the first two (deliverable as they are within the confines of the current Agreement) – and have happily done so anywhere from a leather-seated coffee house to the Felons’ Club.

As it happens, I also spoke strongly at a major conference in Dublin last month, attended by the Tánaiste and Scottish Minister for External Relations, of the legitimacy of Irish Government intervention during the EU referendum in defence of the interests of Irish citizens in the UK (most notably in Northern Ireland where citizenship is automatic) and of cross-border trade and leisure. My intervention was by invitation but, again just to be clear, was entirely voluntary. I may have missed it, but I don’t recall any actual Nationalists making this point publicly.

So I politely contend that I fully respect Nationalist aspirations, and indeed have acted purely in a voluntary capacity to try practically to fulfill them. Could it be, in fact, that it is Nationalists who are not so good at offering the same respect they demand?

Entitlement culture has no place in Remembrance

I have long wondered what it is that makes me uncomfortable about Remembrance in Northern Ireland.

Obviously, I have no problem with the concept. My grandfather was an officer during the First World War. My father reports being told that his memories were of “constantly marching” – it was, indeed, a much more mobile conflict that popular history suggests. I still have the medals. My own father, of course, served for forty years.

However, I think I put my finger on the discomfort when re-watching the wonderful ITV documentary from the 1970s, the World At War. Historical Adviser to the series was Noble Frankland, who served in the RAF during the War and then became Director General of the Imperial War Museum.

Entirely in line with what several other ex-soldiers say in the final episode (then 25-30 years after the War), Mr Frankland says that those who fought in the War directly often returned home expecting some kind of gratitude. Those who had remained at home, however, did not remotely see it that way; all, including Mr Frankland, agree in retrospect that they should not see it that way either. Soldiers did report struggling with the re-adjustment, the lack of recognition, and coming to terms generally with normal life once again.

My sense is that there are some people in Northern Ireland who do not just wish to remember, but who still expect the gratitude those soldiers initially expected. They could do worse than consult Mr Frankland (who is still living, for the record). Not only does he point out that no such gratitude ought to be expected, but also that future generations can never be expected to understand. Remembrance is not about expecting some kind of gratitude for what ancestors did, and it is not about creating an entitlement culture based on who is a descendant of those on the “right side” and who isn’t; it is, first and foremost, about recognising the brutality and wastefulness of war, respecting those who through no fault of their own were thrust into it (both directly and indirectly), and re-emphasising the importance of avoiding it where at all possible in future.

As for the manufactured outrage about who does or does not wear a poppy, it is undignified and is all about scoring political points now rather than representing the memory of the Fallen in the past. It is shameful.

We can glorify the memories of heroes of the War (as Belfast City Council recently did touchingly with regard to James Magennis VC), but we should not glorify war itself; and nor should we expect some sort of gratitude or entitlement based on what our ancestors may or may not have done. We most certainly should not abuse the memory of those who made the ultimate sacrifice to play political games.

When asked why they were fighting, the soldiers on the World At War give a wide variety of answers – for freedom, for each other, for no particular reason at all. However, none of them was fighting so that we would abuse the past to constrain our and others’ future. As the clock strikes for the eleventh hour tomorrow, we need to remember just that.

The challenge of democracy

I found it thoroughly uplifting to hear that a majority of Northern Ireland’s democratically elected legislature had voted in favour of extending marriage to same-sex couples. It was only a slight swing from the previous vote, but it brought Northern Ireland into line with its neighbours and most of the civilised world in having a legislature in favour of allowing civil marriage for love with no restriction. All is not lost in this little place!

On a slightly more negative note, this did then move us on to the inevitable, and quite proper, outrage that the motion in fact nominally “fell” because the DUP applied a “Petition of Concern”, which effectively enabled it to block the motion on its own. This move was indeed undemocratic, straying obviously quite beyond the original purpose of the Petition system.

However, many of the same people decrying the DUP’s move as “undemocratic” raised no such concerns when both Nationalist parties did the same thing to block welfare reform. Some, indeed, even expressed relief that they had done so. You cannot have it both ways.

In fact, some of those slamming the DUP in this case were the same ones demanding a Petition be used to block the DUP’s “Conscience Clause”. In this case, I find myself completely against the proposed legislation, but it had cross-community social support (as the Catholic Church also made positive noises about it) and therefore was something to be defeated by rational debate, not a sectarian blocking mechanism.

Indeed, the Petition of Concern has now become a means not of encouraging rational re-think, but of nullifying any debate at all. Instead of engaging in serious discussion of the issues, with a view perhaps of seeking to change views through persuasion or at least reach accommodation by compromise, we now just form our own minority social circles and then block everything we don’t like through a Petition. This is undemocratic, as clarified above – but we are all guilty of it!

It is not good enough to say “Ah, but they are different issues”. If some of those are issues of overriding Human Rights or Equality Law, that is for the courts to sort out. But if they are otherwise matters of political opinion, we need to accept that it is precisely that upon which people are elected.

None of this is to say, by the way, that Petitions of Concern should be eliminated altogether. I think it is reasonable to use them to delay potentially harmful legislation while human rights and equality implications are considered; and conceivably even to block outright things which did not appear in a Programme for Government (although even that is subject to my own contention that the agreeing of such a Programme should precede Executive formation).

However, it is to say that we have a basic problem with democracy – from Loyalist to Liberal, from Republican to Radical. We like to accuse others of being “undemocratic” when Petitions go against us, but we do not self-reflect when we use them for our own ends. Fundamentally, we believe our own ends are of greater value than our opponents’ – but that is what elections decide, not our own judgement about sectarian blocking mechanisms.

Democracy is a challenge. Too few of us are up to the self-reflection necessary for it – a problem which exists well beyond Northern Ireland, for what it is worth.

The remarkable journey continues…

A blatant re-post with minor update from five years ago, but surely appropriate on the day that’s in it…

This day 85 years ago was born in Plumstead, South London, a young boy with few prospects named Derek.

His parents were themselves born 30 years apart, and had a seriously disabled daughter already, consequence in all likelihood of an attempted back-street abortion (she was born just months after they were married). Four years later another brother was born, but that same year the father was diagnosed with cancer. By the time the Crystal Palace burned down in 1936 – an event Derek witnessed with his own eyes – his father had already died. His mother was left with him, an invalid daughter, and a babe-in-arms.

Pre-Welfare State, this was a hopeless situation. The children were placed in homes or with foster carers. As the War began and the doodle bugs began to drop, even this became untenable, and Church homes took over. Derek was forced to forego a proper education despite obvious ability, and ended up so wracked by hunger that he resorted to eating candle wax. As the War ended, he had little option himself but to choose a military career.

This was a tremendous stroke of luck, as it turned out. A combination of sporting prowess and sheer determination saw him sent all over the world – to Egypt, to Malaya, to Hong Kong and elsewhere. With his own eyes, he saw Germany as it was occupied upon the fall of Nazi-ism; Borneo under invasion by Indonesia; Cyprus after partition.

It was small wonder, after retirement, that Derek chose to venture back to spend much of each year for a whole decade in South Africa – a neat symmetry, given his own father had himself fought in the Anglo-Boer War. He came to love South Africa, which his father had seen divided and in ruins; he came to love Germany, which he himself had seen divided and in ruins; he came to love a woman from Northern Ireland, itself recovering from being divided and in ruins.

He still lives at home, which now means on the Northern Irish coast; admittedly the mind – both in terms of concentration and memory – isn’t what it was after 85 years of rich and frequent use, but he is still fundamentally healthy and the sense of humour which got him through on so many occasions is still intact.

Few have lived such rich and eventful lives. This is why so many people are proud to have a friend they call Derek.

I myself am proud to call him “Dad”.

If you want to protect borders, it’s helpful to know where they are…

It pays to be careful whose advice you buy as the EU referendum campaign kicks off.

The "Leave EU" campaign is so committed to the UK, that it doesn't even know where its borders are...

The “Leave EU” UK referendum campaign Facebook ad mysteriously includes the whole of Ireland…

The “Leave” side wants to “protect our borders”, but evidently doesn’t even know where “our borders” are…!

Delay in tax credit changes the sensible next step

There are numerous aspects to the tax credits debate which should probably be dealt with distinctly. Let us try to do so in three main areas.

Firstly, are the Conservatives right in principle to change the system so that the burden on subsidising low pay falls on the business not the taxpayer? In my view, yes, very much so. Pay should be at a significant enough level that anyone in work is better off than anyone opting not to work, and anyone working full time is better off than anyone working part time – with certain exceptions (albeit perhaps one around parenthood).

Secondly, are the Conservatives right to do this as part of their plan to cut the welfare bill and close the deficit? There, I don’t think they are. Welfsre should always be distinct from budgetary deficit-reducing. They should be doing this because it is the right thing to do, not because they want a quick fix to their somewhat adventurous claim that they can close the deficit in a single term.

Thirdly, has the Lords a right to intervene? There I really do see both sides, but also I see that both sides are hypocritical. Conservatives are suddenly finding the Lords being unelected to be troublesome; and others are suddenly finding it more in touch with the people than those the people elected. Both sides, in other words, need to think again.

The constitutional issue is peripheral to the direct impact on changes to tax credits, which I support but which are being moved through too quickly. A three-year delay at least in implementation would mean wages had risen to even up the loss in most cases, still close the deficit on the welfare side, and would give people time to plan. That is something which is politically deliverable surely. It is the right response now.

Ignorance and hatred causing democratic meltdown

After a recent announcement on welfare reform, I saw a tweet to Iain Duncan Smith which accused him of “deliberately fermenting hatred and division”.

Now, arguments for or against his proposals are all part of the cut and thrust of democratic debate, but how likely is it, really, that having attained Cabinet office, anyone at all would decide to “ferment hatred and division”?

This becomes even less likely when you consider that the individual in this case is not going any higher. Iain Duncan Smith already holds the highest office he could possibly hold, given that he is an ex-Party Leader. So why, precisely, would he decide to spend his time deliberately dividing up the place and causing hatred?

Here is the thing: the tweeter concerned would no doubt be the first person to (claim to) oppose sectarian, racist or xenophobic ignorance and hatred; and probably the first person to demand evidence-based policy making. Yet she herself exposed her own ignorance and hatred by pre-determining, not just without evidence but in fact contrary to all evidence, that Iain Duncan Smith would decide to spend his hours in office “fermenting hatred and division” because he’s a Tory. (Let us be honest: that was why she reached that conclusion, wasn’t it?)

It is the tweeter’s own blind ignorance and hatred which is causing a complete meltdown on the Left, and in fact a broader democratic meltdown. By being guilty of all she claimed to oppose, she gave away the most alarming point of all: she was not willing to engage in debate.

After losing the Conservative Party leadership without even getting to fight an election (that does and sometimes should happen, those on the Left should note…), Iain Duncan Smith did not decide to disappear from politics, even though he could no doubt have earned a lucrative living on the circuit as others do. On the contrary, he decided to set up a think tank, partly with his own money, to investigate the causes of poverty and propose solutions which may work. He spent a lot of time on estates, notably Easterhouse in Glasgow where he is still well respected, trying to determine what drove poverty and social exclusion and to come up with alternatives to the failed policies which caused such exclusion to come about. Upon the return of a Conservative-led government six years after the think tank’s establishment, he then sought to reform the welfare system largely in line with what that detailed, on-the-ground research had determined.

You may disagree with some of the outcomes; I do, as it happens – after all, no matter what the quality of our research, we all ultimately have our pre-determined biases. It also so happens that Iain Duncan Smith is a hard man to like, privately or publicly (although he is easy to respect, once seen in action). However, let us be very clear: his actions were hardly those of someone who had decided to “ferment hatred and division”!

By merely dismissing him as a hater and divider, in complete opposition to the evidence, the tweeter (sadly representative of too many involved in what passes for “political debate” these days) was doing a fundamental disservice to democracy and to those in whom she implicitly claimed to have an interest. Like so many, far from engaging in debate, she chose to shirk one; far from seeking solutions for others, her focus was merely on feeling good about herself.

This is a nasty development, rendered more obvious by social media and absolutely evident in the work of many friends of the new Labour leadership, among others. It is in fact itself borne of ignorance and hatred, and it is fermenting division. It is causing a democratic meltdown which, though it applies currently predominantly on the Left, will serve none of us well.

For reference for linguistic pedants (self-described…), the tweet did say “ferment”…

Northern Ireland must urgently master *reform*

The education system is in gridlock. Welfare Reform is stalled. The Health Service is dysfunctional. The devolved institutions themselves fundamentally do not work.

Northern Ireland simply doesn’t do reform.

This may be an inevitable consequence of a bloated public sector arising out of the Troubles, a time when nothing could really be planned in the long term. If this is so, it need to change – fast.

Reform is a particular skill. It requires an ability to bring people along, firstly with the need for reform, then with the destination of the reform process, and then with what it is going to take to get to that destination. It is hard work, entirely unsuited to most career public servants and to the type of politician we elect.

This is the fundamental problem with our political “debate”. We never ask, at the most basic level, what our education system is for (it is not to churn out another generation of non-reforming public servants). We never ask what the basic objective of welfare provision is (it is not a lifestyle choice). We never ask what it is we must do to ensure our Health Service works (it is not about state-delivered care only once people are ill). We never ask, really, what our devolved institutions are for (they are not, now, merely to administer pots of money handed over from London).

A real debate would be about whether education is all about results, or whether it is about preparing people for work (perhaps, therefore, separating primarily vocational and academic streams), or whether it is more broadly about preparing people for life in general (with more emphasis on civics, team building, etc).

real debate about welfare would establish that it is designed as a safety net; it might add that it is also for those who fall on hard times and to provide a helping hand to those left behind by other systems (in education and health) which are not working; and it might also add a particular connection to health and well-being.

real debate about the Health Service would ask, firstly, if it is viable to have a Service free at the point of access (since we have already given up on that for optical and dental treatment) and then, if so, how this can best be managed. It would think about the structure of the Health Service; it would consider the appropriate development of the Health Estate; and it would also consider issues such as personal responsibility for health and promoting general well-being.

Indeed, a real debate about the institutions would reflect on the need for good government; on the need for democratic choice; and on the need to do all this while reflecting the diverse national affiliations, identities and religious backgrounds of all of the people.

All of these are interconnected, of course. One reason we do not do reform, after all, is that there is no collective responsibility in the Executive, enabling any Minister trying to pursue reform to be cornered by “colleagues” from other parties behaving like a populist opposition!

In other words, one of the main things we have to consider when reforming the devolved institutions is precisely how we make them able to deliver reform elsewhere! It is time we got good at reform…

Rule of Law – Part III

Another issue with the Rule of Law applying equally to everyone is that this is also the case financially.

A recent case revealed that Carers’ Allowance was being paid, in the case of one Councillor, directly into Sinn Fein’s bank account.

There has long been an issue with Sinn Fein representatives’ salaries being paid directly into party accounts. This is irregular and, in the case of benefits, illegal. It has implications for tax, as much as anything else. Sinn Fein has to realise that money in its account which should be taxed is being taken away from public services, not put into them – it does not get to dictate such things. We are long past the point where this should be being enforced.

However, that was not the most peculiar aspect of the Councillor story. What was peculiar was that the Judge, essentially, did nothing about it, even though it goes beyond irregular.

We are, therefore, left with the bizarre situation that Sinn Fein is taking a particular position on benefits which is of relevance to its own party bank account. This is a blatant clash of interest – as well as being illegal.

Elected representatives should pay the tax they are due to pay and receive only the benefits to which they are entitled.

At the talks, all parties can agree to that, right?

Rule of Law must apply – Part II

If we accept that the Rule of Law must apply equally (as per yesterday’s blog), that will also apply to parades and protests, and to Ministers.

The latter is important. I have long argued that an independent panel is required to enforce the Ministerial Code. One of the main reasons for this is that there have been clear cases over the past three years or so of Ministers breaching the requirement under that Code to support the PSNI. As a result, the PSNI do not have cover to enforce the law – resulting in ludicrous cases stretching as far as the PSNI effectively apologising to paramilitary groups for doing so.

At the talks, all parties can agree to this, right?


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