Category Archives: Uncategorized

No, we do not “give Trump a chance”

The reaction of the UK and Irish Governments to the election of Donald Trump as US President has appalled me.

It is jumping on a bandwagon which has already become too mainstream – that we should “give Trump a chance”.

Nonsense.

Mr Trump had his chance. During the primaries and then the general election campaign, he abused that chance.

Overtly mocking a disabled reporter should have been the end of it for a start.

Essentially suggesting sexual abuse of women was tolerable should certainly have been the end of it.

Suggesting that an entire nation was made up of “rapists” was utterly unacceptable.

And now the demonstration of all this is upon us – a President Elect who hides from scrutiny behind a social media account, thinks crucial government appointments are a game show, and recruits almost exclusively white men alongside a Vice President who thinks homosexuals can be cured.

So to anyone who thinks we should “give him a chance”, I say what the hell is wrong with you?

The United States has elected to its highest office a dangerous narcissist who stands opposed to the basics of open, civilised democracy.

Give him a chance?!! We must oppose him proactively and vehemently at every turn – just like the majority of Americans did earlier this month.

 

Media misrepresenting Finance Minister’s solo run

The media and various lobbyists were very excited last week over the Finance Minister’s plans to allocate £22 million to social enterprise and similar good causes. This gained him quite a lot of coverage.

The obvious problem is: he doesn’t have the money.

The money is dependent on a reform of rating he announced in the Assembly.

The obvious problem is: the Executive hasn’t agreed to that reform.

So, whether it should or shouldn’t, it can’t and won’t happen.

Indeed, he had not even spoken to his DUP partners about it before he announced it. Given that proposals such as removing the rates cap are directly contrary to established DUP policy, and he did not even give them the courtesy of trying to develop a compromise before making the announcement, there is zero chance of it happening.

So a Sinn Féin Minister has made an apparent pledge of £22 million he cannot hope to deliver on.

This is the same Sinn Féin Minister who made a pledge to introduce same-sex marriage legislation, urged those pursing it through a private member’s bill to let him do so, and then had to withdraw his proposal because it lacked Executive agreement – exactly because, again, it ran directly contrary to his partner party’s policy.

It should by now be apparent that delivery is not Sinn Féin’s strong suit. We have a Health Minister who has set out “the only road map” to Health Reform but is not even consulting on that road map (far less developing a practical action plan to deliver it); and an Infrastructure Minister overseeing delay after delay on his party’s long proposed A5 and A6 upgrade projects (evidently he and his colleagues had never thought to check the processes had been carried out correctly even though they have been in the Executive for the full nine years since the first public inquiry). Meanwhile the DUP has been able to keep down household taxes, complete two major road projects in the east (one of which, the A8, really should have been well down the list), and even now put in a Unionist Justice Minister to keep half-used courthouses open.

The media and lobbyists should know better, therefore, than to report Sinn Féin ministerial announcements as if there is even the remotest hope of them happening without prior Executive backing.

The real story here is the Finance Minister is all talk. He is about to get his plans blocked again – for the second major time in just six months including summer recess, that is some going…

How to leave EU – a response, at last!

I asked, way back on 30 August, for thoughts from those who voted Leave about how the UK should actually go about leaving the EU.

Until 23 November, I had received no response. Then I found myself in correspondence with a UKIP MEP and asked if he would put forward his proposal on this blog.

Now, admittedly, his initial response was in fact primarily about why we should leave rather than how (it is peculiar how many people who say the referendum is final then insist on refighting it), although for the record he did mention we did not need Trade Deals.

However, after a second email reminding him of the challenge he did kindly respond – and I am content to publish that response in full here, as promised.

I have written a book entitled __ ____ __ _______, that explains in detail how we can leave the EU.  You can obtain a copy from _________ _____ ___ if you would like to read it.

Now, clearly, I have had to abridge that a bit because the thing is, by “obtain”, he actually meant “purchase”.

The requirement to actually pay money to read his views about how to go about leaving the EU is an interesting example of his commitment to his cause, and perhaps explains his party leadership’s obsession with another senior businessman-politician across the Atlantic.

Nevertheless, that is literally the most detailed response I have had for three months, so we should be thankful for that.

Can anyone do better?

No reason to believe child abuse is solely thing of past

We heard over the past week of widespread child abuse in football a generation ago. It is utterly horrific.

Yet I am concerned we are treating this still merely as a series of isolated incidents which occurred decades ago. We may note that they affect people who are still living, but our underlying safety mechanism kicks in and says “Different area, different era”.

I hope someone reading can demonstrate what I am about to write is wrong.

Firstly, we are now at the stage where this is not a series of isolated incidents, but rather the norm. Huge numbers of children were abused as a matter of course to the extent they normalised it as part of their upbringing – by TV figures, sports coaches, priests, family members and others. Nor was this confined to the UK and Ireland – for example, a well known TV commentator in Australia was found guilty of child abuse in the 1970s only last week.

Secondly, therefore, the notion of child abusers as “one in a million” weirdos is dangerously wrong. In fact, vast numbers (i.e. a significant percentage) of men are capable of committing child abuse, given the chance. The whole notion to me is so utterly repellent that I cannot begin to comprehend this, but the common theme seems to be a kind of warped and sick power play. The more and more the abuser gets away with it, the more and more he does it. He enjoys the fact he has power over victims to stop them reporting it.

Thirdly, therefore, we know this remains vastly understated. The horrendous reality is that this means it is vastly understated even right now. It is, after all, only decades on that this is being reported. Though we like to kid ourselves otherwise, there is no reason to believe that similar revelations about now will not take place decades from now. Remember, the perpetrators are generally well thought of “pillars of the community” involved in volunteering and charity work.

Finally, I fear therefore that we haven’t even begun to tackle this effectively. It is one thing to introduce “child protection policies” and such like, but this gets to only the tip of the iceberg. It seems to me there is a much deeper and widespread social and perhaps psychological problem here with the terrifying number of men who continue to view other human beings as objects for their own gratification. We surely have to ask some basic questions, like why in a civilised society so many men would even give the slightest thought to carrying out such ghastly acts?

The whole issue is so repulsive to the rest of us that the easiest thing, particularly for people like me who have no expertise whatsoever in the area, is not to think about it. But it is now evident that the scale of the problem is so horrifyingly vast, that we do need to think about it for the sake of genuinely vulnerable human beings whose lives are being ruined.

I hope someone reading this can at least allay some of my worst fears about the scale of this horror.

We were never all that keen on the “truth”

Northern Ireland is a complete joke of a place. It has the lowest wages in the UK, the most poverty and the worst health; there’s a road fatality every day and a murder every week; its education system is a farce. Its public transport is laughable and, uniquely in the British Isles, it can’t even get a train connection to the airport. No wonder far more people leave the place than come to it!

Show that sentence to most people in Northern Ireland, and perhaps beyond, and few would quibble with it. Most indeed would enthusiastically agree, perhaps even adding a few more pointers to just how useless we all are.

Yet every statement above is complete and utter nonsense.

Northern Ireland’s wages are indeed below the London-skewed UK mean but now approaching the median among UK regions, its poverty rates are if anything lower, and life expectancy is also about the UK/EU average; on average there is a road fatality every five days and a murder once a month; Boston College recognises Northern Ireland’s basic education as the best in Europe and the best in the English-speaking world. Northern Ireland’s trains are the most punctual in the UK and, post-bus lanes, more people now enter Belfast City Centre than before; and there is a train connection to one airport with a platform accessible on foot within 20 minutes of leaving the plane (highly unusually for a city of Belfast’s size which, typically in the UK, wouldn’t have one, as Dublin hasn’t). Perhaps as a result, in fact five more people come to Northern Ireland to live every day than leave it.

Take a screenshot of the above paragraph and check how often things are said – from private conversation to media debates – which run contrary to it and are, therefore, just plain wrong.

We can see that this “post-truth” era is nothing new. It is perhaps more visible than it was – in fact, in the past, it would have been much harder to stick a blog post on the web for the world to see to tackle the myths we all take to be true.

What is interesting, however, is that even people reading this who may have been surprised by the “correction paragraph” above will still find themselves repeating the myths. One thing about human beings is that once they understand something to be the case, they find it extremely difficult to remove that knowledge from the brain and replace it with the correction. This basic psychological fact can of course be abused by unscrupulous individuals, who will happily report rumours and news, have it placed well up the Google charts, and then turn them into apparent “facts”.

As an acquaintance pointed out, this merely reflects a norm. It is standard marketing and sales technique to appeal to emotion first, and only then provide some back-up information. Successful political movements will do the same thing – which is why ability to communicate (emotive) values is far more important electorally than the development of rational and coherent policy positions.

We were never all that keen on “truth”. If you want something rational which operates solely on the basis of facts presented, it is called a computer. We are human beings, and we are not “post-truth” because we were never “pre-truth”!

It’s the divergent traffic flows, stupid

The Infrastructure Minister was on BBC Good Morning Ulster last week and, as ever, said some things which were accurate and others which were more dubious.

The Minister attained his mandate on a party pledge to prioritise infrastructure upgrades in the West (notably the A5 Derry-Strabane and Omagh-Ballygawley; and the A6 Derry-Dungiven and Castledawson-Randalstown). He has a case when he suggests that the media focus on the East (and the M2/M3/A12 York Street Interchange) because most of them live there and it is easier to do stories there.

However, his case is not bullet proof. In fact, most people in general live in the East, and Belfast commuters are seeing markedly high increases in commuting times. Nearly 120,000 vehicles pass through the York Street Interchange every day, whereas on most of the two stretches of A5 he is prioritising ahead of it barely 20,000 do. The East gets the bulk of infrastructure upgrade funding for the simple reason that it provides markedly better (and clearer) value for money.

But then, that case is not bullet proof either, because one of the reasons people live in the East is, directly or indirectly, that the infrastructure is better. Perhaps, if the A5 were upgraded, considerably more than 20,000 vehicles a day would use it, encouraging trade and leisure opportunities along its length?

Although then, are we not supposed to be discouraging vehicular traffic for environmental reasons?

As a matter of fact, detailed studies go into the social and economic benefit of each upgrade. In order, the greatest benefit is in fact offered by the A6 Castledawson-Randalstown upgrade, just ahead of the York Street Interchange, followed by the A5 upgrade taken as whole (although the potential complication there is that literally most of the benefit applies to the Republic) and then, some way behind, the A6 Derry-Dungiven.

Such studies are not perfect of course; there is a strong case that they overstate the economic case and existing traffic levels and do not place sufficient value on alternatives.

In the case of the York Street Interchange (I say reluctantly as it would have most benefit to me personally), it is clear alternatives should be considered whether it proceeds or not. There are several issues here, emphasised not least by last Tuesday’s chaos:

  • if more people used public transport, particularly into and out of the City Centre, fewer vehicles would use the Interchange anyway;
  • if journey times were more staggered, fewer vehicles would assemble at the lights around York Street at the same time (even if the total daily traffic flow remained the same); and
  • if the entry points were tolled, people would have incentives to investigate alternative means of transport or times of travel.

Ultimately this means speedy advancement of the Belfast Rapid Transit system and the purchase of new stock – the good news is both of these should be complete by end decade. It may also be helpful to restrict smart passes (free travel for over-60s) to non-peak hours, to stagger usage times, although the benefit here may be marginal.

However, it also means consideration of something else, a logical progression of what the Minister said but would probably never specify: there are too many free parking spaces for government employees in the City Centre. This has come to be seen as a standard perk, but in fact it should be brought to an end. It is this which adds literally hundreds, perhaps thousands, of vehicles to the traffic flow at York Street Interchange – and, what is more, it adds them all at the same time during rush hour! It is exactly this which earns Belfast the title of “most congested city in the UK” – it is not, in fact, congested as such but it does have one of the biggest discrepancies between volume of traffic at peak hours and volume of traffic otherwise. The principle is simple – if you want to park in the City Centre, you should pay for the privilege regardless of who you are.

There is also a growing move globally towards tolling motorways, a key part of the strategy which gave the Republic of Ireland the finest motorway/expressway network in Europe. Northern Ireland would have the added advantage of being able to implement this entirely electronically.

Yet, while all of this would help, none of it is quite the issue. Three locations have not yet been mentioned: the A2 Dee Street lights (exiting Belfast to the east); the M1/A1 Sprucefield Junction (exiting Belfast to the southwest); and the M2/A8 Sandyknowes Junction (exiting Belfast to the north). Unless these are sorted, the full benefit of an upgraded York Street Interchange will not be apparent.

The reason is divergent traffic flows. The ideal is to have traffic exiting the city moving on a freeflow basis at least until there is a major divergence. The most important example of this is the A2 east from Belfast, where the major divergence is at Knocknagoney but there are two sets of lights stopping mainline traffic in advance. The absolute necessity is to remove these lights (at Dee Street and the City Airport, where an alternative westbound access would be necessary); the absolute ideal would be to make Knocknagoney freeflow too, similarly to Tillysburn just east of it.

Likewise, heading southwest, the proposed M1/A1 flyover (thus removal of all roundabouts on the Belfast-Dublin mainline) is high priority, supporting divergent traffic flow in a way which would see traffic even as far back as the Westlink through Belfast travelling more freely in rush hour. Heading north, fixing Sandyknowes is admittedly an altogether more complex task, requiring a second junction further north (actually at about where the new Ballycraigy services are) to take Mallusk-bound traffic instead – but again, fixing this would have benefits all the way back to the M2/M5 Shore Motorway.

Fixing junctions in such a way does no the require hectares of new land to be covered in concrete and it would have very significant beneficial effects to Greater Belfast traffic. Tying it to encouragement of the use of public transport – by both carrot and stick – and marked benefits would be apparent for all. Toll some of it, of course, and money would become available for upgrades in the West.

That is why it is all about divergent traffic flows!

Chancellor in fantasy land re EU-27 “economic interest”

UK Chancellor Philip Hammond thinks the rest of the EU will not force the UK out of the European Free Trade Area because it is “not in their economic interest to do so”.

Clueless.

Because here is the thing: as Mr Hammond well knows, leaving the EU in the first place is not in the UK’s “economic interest”.

Yet he is in a government proceeding to do so because it is being held hostage by British-nationalist populists.

Well you know what? The next French President will be held hostage by French-nationalist populists (if not one herself); the next Dutch government will be held hostage by Dutch-nationalist populists; the current Danish government already is held hostage by Danish-nationalist populists; the next Austrian President will be an Austrian-nationalist populist; the Hungarian government is a Hungarian-populist one; Bulgaria just elected a Russian-leaning President; and Italy is, well, Italy (cf. this coming Sunday).

Leaving the EU is not in the UK’s economic interest but it is in its government’s political interest (it judges, anyway).

Well you know what? Forcing the UK out of the Free Trade Area may or may not be in France’s, or the Netherlands’, or Denmark’s, or Austria’s, or Hungary’s, or Italy’s, or Bulgaria’s economic interests, but it definitely will be in their governments’ political interests.

See? Leaving the EU means it is 27 against 1.

Well you know what? That means the 27 will get what they want – politically.

Why the world is collapsing towards chaos

The end of the Cold War a generation ago was supposed to herald a new, prosperous, free era. For at least a decade, it seemed this was so. 2016 has shown it to be a bitter illusion.

Three things happened as a direct result of the end of the Cold War, none of which was foreseen at the time.

Economically, a new, true globalisation occurred. It became possible to expand East, and get things manufactured more cheaply. This suited the West, by and large, because it lowered the cost of living and meant “stuff” was suddenly accessible to the average family which would not otherwise have been; and it suited the East because it provided jobs, income, skills and potential to join a new global “middle class”. Indeed, so compelling was this arrangement, that the poorer East began lending the richer West money to buy its products. Credit boomed, credit crunched, and a Great Recession began from 2007. People were left bewildered.

Militarily, the direct threat was removed. Russia retained nuclear weapons but it was so weakened there was no serious chance it would use them. Its territory (as it saw it) was scythed up and some of it became part of the West. Meanwhile all kinds of non-State threats, from Al-Qaeda to ISIS, grew up with no Cold War side to align to (and be bought off by). They became terrorising in their own way, first locally and then globally. The West, which had not yet worked out this was a post-State world, got involved in wars it did not understand and could not win. A bitter Russia used this to encourage the terror groups, causing refugee crises, promoting division and arming rebels. People were left scared.

Technologically, a defence system of interlinked computer stations developed by the Pentagon was no longer needed. Instead, it was further interlinked globally and given to the world – as the World Wide Web. This great liberation would lead anyone to be able to access any information from their pocket – but also any misinformation. This mass democratisation of information and knowledge enabled groups to network – for good purposes, and for bad. Increasingly people formed their own networks, ignorant of other networks, and then began to be stunned as elections and campaigns did not work out in their favour because other networks had proved more efficient and the facts, as they saw them, had been ignored. People got angry.

Economically bewildered, militarily scared, techno-communally angered, a generation on from the Cold War the time was ripe for rampant populism – simple, 140-character solutions to complex, multi-webpage problems. As they saw manufactured products and commodities such as steel now being imported in vast quantities from countries with cheap labour and no welfare, England’s post-industrial north felt it had nothing left to lose from the chaos of Brexit and America’s Rust Belt felt it had nothing to lose from the chaos of Trump (and next year the same will happen in France). As they see refugees pouring in and causing rapid change in areas already in administrative decay, Austria will opt for the chaos of Hofer, Italy for the chaos of changing PM by referendum as happened in the UK, and the likes of Bulgaria and Moldova will turn from the over-democratic and stalled EU to the security of dictatorial Russia. Technology will not help – surrounded online only by like-minded souls, we will continue to ignore each other’s concerns, each other’s fears and each other’s anger. That ignorance will itself, as it always does, breed fear, hatred and violence.

We were supposed to “remember” this weekend. But actually none of us really does remember. The horror of the trenches has passed into history. And, unhindered by the actual ghastly memories, we have set ourselves on a course to repeat it. The lights are dimming across Europe (and North America) again.

Brexit negotiations will not feature Border – at all

When I ask people their biggest concerns about “Brexit”, the common response in Northern Ireland is “the border”.

An important, brief point here: in the negotiations between the UK Government and European Council, the border will not feature at all.

So, if you hear anyone telling you what they intend for the border, beware! What happens to the border will be determined by the law of unintended consequences.

The key aspects of the negotiations which are relevant will be free movement – of goods and services (primarily covered by the Customs Union), of people (primarily covered by the Common Travel Area) and of labour (primarily covered by the Single Market, or “EEA”).

If the outcome of those negotiations results in anything short of free movement on all of those counts, then the border will need to be manned – quite obviously. Again, beware anyone who suggests otherwise!

If the UK leaves the European Union Customs Union, then there will need to be some sort of customs control at the border (unless the UK maintains exactly the same Customs arrangements as the European Union – something which would surely defeat the object of leaving it). That need not necessarily be immediately at the border itself; it could be well to either side of it (and indeed it could be so far north of the border that it effectively takes place at the ports).

If the UK leaves the Common Travel Area (probably consequent to leaving the Customs Union), then there will be passport checks. This, it has to be said, is very unlikely; furthermore, even if it did happen, it could even be managed in such a way that the checks take place at ports and airports.

If the UK leaves the Single Market, then again there will be tariffs on goods going in either direction which will mean border checks to apply them. It would be no use Northern Ireland remaining within the Single Market, because then it would face tariffs with Great Britain. Again, the scale of these checks will depend on what precisely tariffs are applied to.

The key issue here is that what happens to the Border will be determined by other parts of the negotiation. It is not, itself, part of the negotiation.

US Election – beware false “assumed narratives”

There has been significant condemnation of pollsters after the outcome of the United States Presidential Election, and certainly the exit polls in some states were quite wacky to say the least (misleading me, and many others, to think Hillary Clinton had won fairly comfortably).

However, to me the main flaw lay with the media narrative, which proved to be utterly wrong.

Apparently numerous groups, from women to Latinos, were going to punish Trump and win it for Clinton. That simply did not happen.

What actually happened was a perfectly normal Presidential Election. As usual, after two terms of one party in the Oval Office, there was a swing to the other party (enough to put it in). The swing was pretty even across all ethnic groups – Hispanics were more likely to vote Republican for President in 2016 than 2012 just the same way whites or blacks were. Clinton of course secured a greater comparative share of the female vote, but Democratic candidates almost always do. It was all quite normal.

Furthermore, every single state which had a Senate Election voted the same way for Senate as it did for President. This was in fact the first time this had ever happened. In other words, Republicans voted for the Republican slate, and Democrats for the Democratic slate. It was almost abnormally normal.

In the end, therefore, there was no shock about the winner – or, at least, there would not have been had the pundits, chattering classes and media not come up with an “assumed narrative” of what difference the candidate would make.

Oh, and by the way, if there is one thing more criminal than getting it wrong before the election, it is getting it wrong afterwards! Not all the votes are counted yet. Trump will, in fact, outpoll Romney; and Clinton, in fact, will not fall far short of Obama. Even now, there are “assumed narratives” floating about the Internet based on false totals.

The pollsters themselves can be affected by “assumed narratives”. The blame for missing the essential normality of the outcome does not rest primarily with them (even though those exit polls were seriously crazy…!)