Category Archives: Uncategorized

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…

The need to “blame” holds back humanity

I wrote a piece this day last week on the ongoing process of redeveloping the area around the McKee Clock in Bangor.

The very first response to it, on Facebook, was objectively astonishing:

– Bangor was a great seaside resort pre-Troubles [How is this relevant? Most people didn’t even have private transport then!]

– It’s all the fault of the people who allowed Bloomfield and Springhill to be built [Leaving aside that this was decades ago (in fact Springhill was built before I was born!) and even assuming this was a bad thing, who cares? They were built!]

– We should go back through Council minutes to look at who was to blame for the mess at Queen’s Parade (the seafront) [What exactly does this achieve? Even if someone was “to blame” (and it is unclear for what), we are now at such a remove from the decisions that they would in all probability no longer be with us.]

There seems to me to be a remarkable human bias at play here, which is essentially nostalgia. Everything was, apparently, better 50 years ago, so we should essentially turn the clock back and not forward. This is apparent everywhere, of course – its most noteworthy form in Europe is probably the Ostalgie exhibited by many Eastern Germans. This bias has, however, been a constant factor through human history.

However, there is another remarkable and often even more unreal and damaging human instinct at play here: the need to blame.

As another correspondent noted recently, whenever any terrible event happens, we tend to find the reporting of it soon focuses, remarkably quickly from an objective point of view, on determining who was to blame (rather than on what actions should be taken to make things better).

As in the case of Bangor “town centre” (a debatable case anyway), in fact the ascribing of blame often simply does not matter. However, in the end the process of ascribing it takes up so much time and effort, that no time is left over to solve the problem, make progress, or assist those who need assistance.

It is a very human peculiarity. Should we not, however, apply some effort to trying to shift our focus a little – away from blame and towards action, and indeed away from the past and towards the future?

Leftist “fake news” strikes again on public finance

A recent “debate” on BBC Radio Ulster concerning public sector pay was not one of Talkback’s finest.

There were a number of reasons for this, but prime among them was the failure adequately the address the inherent bias that such a programme will inevitably promote; or, put less kindly, to provide real expertise. It was mid July so perhaps it was not for the want of trying, to be fair.

The programme essentially consisted of a trade unionist engaging in outrageous prejudice and plain misinformation. The BBC should simply not allow this.

There were two outstanding examples. First, there was the outright slur that “business owners/the people at the top are money grabbers”. Second there was the outrageous nonsense that the “money is always found for bombing people”.

The first requires an outright apology both from the BBC and from the trade union movement. People who do well in business usually themselves come up by the boot straps; they take astonishing risks; and as a result they create wealth and jobs and generally reinvest in their own community. While it is fair to say they could not do this without public services, it is also fair to say public services could not be funded without them – and they not only ultimately create the wealth to pay for them, but also employment which improves people’s self-esteem, financial well-being and thus is in itself of use to the public (as well as providing goods or services themselves people want to buy and are thus evidently glad of having). To present such people as “money grabbers” betrays an appalling prejudice, demonstrating again that left-wing prejudice is just as bad as any other. Had the victim of the prejudice been one of a number of other groups of people, we would never have heard the end of it.

The second required a bit more expertise, it is true. The notion that the money is always found for bombs is a social media meme, and like most social media memes it is garbage. In fact, the UK has cut its defence capability remarkably and consistently over the past decades, to the extent that it is now unable to engage in any major military operation alone. It is doubtful whether a Falklands or even a Sierra Leone intervention would now be possible. Indeed, outrageously, it is not in dispute that young men and women were sent into armed conflict by the UK this century without adequate equipment. So, in fact it is far from true the money can always be found. Indeed, it is increasingly not found – replaced by a reliance on shared intelligence with the United States or shared operations with France, for example. To emphasise, this is not to discuss the rights and wrongs of such things (that is well beyond the limits of my expertise), merely to emphasise that the slogan presented was pure fake news. The Left, again, is every bit as good at that as the alt-right or anyone else.

The programme also failed to counter adequately other crazy claims (such as an average industrial wage of £35,000) or to address the innate bias, for example, that no one is likely to phone into a show and declare themselves or their sector well paid!

There is a tension in the media between education and entertainment and between knowledgeable analysis and slanted opinion. I am not sure it is a good thing that the latter appears to be winning, even on the public service broadcaster.

Remainers and Leavers must compromise for progress

It was established last year that people who really want to remain in the EU are a minority in the UK. Trying to spin the figures otherwise (“Ah but not everyone turned out”; “Young people wanted to stay in”; “People were fooled”) is a natural part of the grief process, but it does not remove that simple fact. Those who did not turn out clearly were not all that bothered; young people were even more inclined not to turn out than most; and suggesting the people were “fooled” is no way to win friends and influence people. That is to leave aside the many people who voted “Remain” for a quiet life rather than out of any great love for the EU. Blaming the electorate never helps.

Of course, the people were fooled – just not in the way too many Remainers are presenting it. They were fooled in this way: many people who voted Leave did so in the genuine and understandable belief that the government – or, at the very least, the Conservative Party – had a back-up plan for doing just that. Otherwise, why would a referendum with that choice have been put before them?

It is a constant factor of humanity that we believe, amid the chaos of our daily lives, that there is some great power out there directing it all. This is, after all, what underlies all great conspiracy theories. It gives us all comfort that we have a “Government” to keep things under control.

It is, therefore, scarcely believable that such a Government would put a choice of two options before the people with absolutely no plan whatsoever for what should happen in the event of one of those two options being chosen. Most people, regardless of how or if they voted last June, still struggle to believe that.

Yet that is what happened.

There was, and over a third of the way into the process still is, no plan for leaving the EU. As is revealed weekly, the Government has absolutely no idea of the scale of the undertaking, the implications of it, or of how to manage it. And all the time the clock is ticking – any good negotiator knows if you have already shown your cards and you are the only one with a timetable, you are finished.

It is no good Leavers coming out and demanding answers from Remainers. Remainers did not vote for this mess. On the other hand, nor is it any good for Remainers to sit back and let this happen – the consequences of doing that are terrifying. Instead we have to recognise two things: a) the people of the UK would rather not be in the EU; but b) leaving it without a plan is calamitous – and that is exactly what is being pursued.

So, once again, I propose this as a sensible compromise starting point.

Can’t tackle “legacy” without tacking IRA

A recent BBC interview with a former IRA “volunteer” was carried recently as an “apology” for the Birmingham bombings. It was, of course, no such thing.

In fact, it was just the latest in an ongoing attempt to cleanse the IRA of having had any role in the death of innocent civilians. Yet the interviewee had chosen a busy evening, shortly after 8pm, on pay day when more people than usual would be out, to plant a bomb. Far from not trying to kill innocent civilians, he was in fact maximising the number he would kill. That is a simple statement of fact.

There were countless other examples of IRA atrocities carried out in this way, to maximise the civilian death toll, both inside and outside Northern Ireland. That is a simple statement of fact.

Therefore, instead of writing this out of history, this obvious point needs to be written clearly into history, and recognised for the callous and unnecessary disregard for human life it was. By the way, the IRA also killed half the people killed in the Troubles, and was responsible as it happens for more deaths of people of Catholic background than any other organisation. That too is a simple statement of fact.

Reconciliation has long been a word which troubles me, but if it is to mean anything it has to mean a learning from history so as to ensure it is not repeated. Trying to rewrite history to make IRA “volunteers” or any other terrorists a group of people who only ever killed civilians in limited numbers by mistake is therefore the precise opposite of reconciliation – as it would not allow the learning from the past which needs to take place.

Therefore, discussions around legacy will get nowhere until we face the basic facts of what terrorism, carried out predominantly by the IRA but also by others, did to human lives – including that it was targeted at civilians, that it was grotesquely pointless, and that all it accomplished was pain and suffering.

What is “adaptive cruise control”?

My piece on driverless cars a month ago drew some attention and some excellent debate, although there was also some confusion about what “adaptive cruise control” actually is, and why it is in fact a fairly crude piece of technology (or, at least, will soon become so, in all likelihood).

Firstly, cruise control itself is not particularly well understood, for the simple reason we do not really think about it. The system works generally by the driver pressing a button or flicking at a particular speed, at which time the vehicle takes over the operation of the accelerator. This means the vehicle will maintain speed for as long as there is no intervention from the driver, nor anything which would require braking. In other words, the driver still has to look out for obstructions (including slower moving traffic), and notably also has to brake or use gearing on downhill sections to avoid speeding up (as the vehicle only controls the accelerator, nothing else). Primarily for safety reasons, this system was never available at below 40km/h or 25mph.

Secondly, the addition of a radar at the front of the vehicle to pick up traffic in front resulted in “adaptive cruise control”, which has been available on family cars for over a decade. However, in its initial phase, this was of limited additional value as the vehicle still controlled only the accelerator. On motorways it meant the vehicle itself could ease off the accelerator in line with the broad traffic flow (slowing gradually from around 100km/h or 60mph to around 80km/h or 50mph, for example), but still could not brake. The system also continued not to operate at all at low speed, thus had no value in queuing traffic and did not become widespread.

Thirdly, the addition of control of the brake pedal to the adaptive system led to the more modern “adaptive cruise control” (which really should be called something else, for clarity – perhaps “full range adaptive”). This means the vehicle takes control of the brake pedal as well as the accelerator, enabling: a) quicker deceleration when a vehicle is detected in front; b) maintenance of speed even on downhill sections; and c) reduction in speed below 40km/h, indeed even to zero. The system can thus be applied either at above 40km/h or whenever a vehicle is detected in front (even when both vehicles are stopped). Also, unlike regular cruise control, to system generally disallows acceleration until the vehicle is straightened up, enabling speed to be maintained through bends in line with preceding traffic, even if the vehicle disappears from the radar view on the bend itself (provided a speed of above 40km/h is maintained).

“Detection of a vehicle” is the key phrase, however. Modern adaptive cruise systems essentially identify objects in front as either “vehicles” or “obstacles”. Only objects moving forward in the same direction, or stopped directly in front when the operating vehicle is stopped, are deemed “vehicles”; anything else is deemed an “obstruction”. In the former case, the radar system will bring the speed into line (even down to or up from zero); however, in the latter case the driver is expected to take action – which is notable, because the latter case (the “obstructions”) even includes stopped vehicles when moving towards them (for example other vehicles stopped at lights).

The reason for this is that if these “obstructions” were defined any other way, you would find vehicles with adaptive cruise braking at in all kinds of odd places – for example when vehicles come the other way on curves or when road signs appear straight ahead as the road itself bends.

The challenge, therefore, is for technology to better define what is an “obstruction” and what is a “vehicle”. Attempts are being made at, for example, slowing the car for bends ahead (using satnav) or even scanning the scene in front to pick up pedestrians liable to walk out in front. However, although advances have been made, of course 100% assurance is needed before such systems can become widespread; and it should be noted that even modern adaptive cruise control causes some confusion with what it can and cannot do.

It is worth re-emphasising that I think we will see marked advances to the extent that even lower end cars a generation from now will contain autonomous features currently only being trialled in luxury concepts. However, a fully autonomous, driverless future? I’m not so convinced about that, for reasons which go beyond technology.

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.


NI deserves better. Or does it?

People unsure whether they will have a job in the autumn; whether they will get that vital operation this side of 2019; whether their children will get into the school they want… the economy, Health and education appeared, curiously, to be the issues people claim to care about but were absent from the talks process.

Northern Ireland “deserves better”, we reassure ourselves.

Well, no, actually, it doesn’t. Northern Ireland deserves exactly what it votes for. It voted for identity politics in place of good government so that’s what it’s getting.

That’s the thing about representative democracy. You get precisely what you vote for (or what you allow others to vote for while you sit at home).

It is no good asking politicians to show “courage” when those who voted for them didn’t, opting instead for the safety of the communal numbers game. It is no good asking politicians to move beyond party political interest when they were given a mandate to promote precisely that interest on a communal basis. It is no good expecting politicians to prioritise good government when they were elected to prioritise other things.

You get what you vote for – and you don’t get what you don’t vote for.

And you deserve what you get – and you don’t deserve anything else.

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.

Sinn Féin can’t deliver United Ireland

Predictably, absolutely nothing new of real consequence emerged from Sinn Féin’s conference on a “United Ireland” last month. While attendees were invited to think new thoughts, there was precious little evidence of any. We should nevertheless welcome that at least Sinn Féin is now engaged with reality – no, they are not the “legitimate government”, yes Ireland is partitioned in reality, so indeed persuasion (and nothing else) must be the way forward.

For all that, it should be obvious that this is already an almighty task. For all the talk of finding ways to reflect “Unionists’ British identity” in a United Ireland, there is very little evidence that this identity is seriously understood and, in any case, the fact is that Unionists’ British identity is already reflected by the constitutional status quo.

Even if this could be overcome, one of the most obvious “new thoughts” should have been, of course, that Sinn Féin cannot deliver a United Ireland. You simply cannot, on one hand, apologise for a terrorist campaign designed to force Unionists into a United Ireland and then, on the other, act as persuaders of those same Unionists. The level of trust will never seriously be there to accomplish that.

In fact, the very first step in any progress towards Irish unity would be an acceptance that that terrorist campaign was both illegitimate and pointless. It is easy to forget that most Irish Nationalists do accept this basic point, even if they rarely say it as directly. So if a United Ireland is ever to become feasible, it will be those other Irish Nationalists, not Sinn Féin and certainly not Gerry Adams, to make it so.