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The unnoticed markers of Ulster English

For all the political furore about Irish and Ulster Scots, we tend to overlook the intricacies of modern Ulster English.

Language is a surprisingly complex social construct. When we speak, we are aware of some of the regionalisms in our speech, and we may even opt to use them intentionally – for the purposes of anything from social solidarity to humour. We may not even be aware of some of them!

There is therefore a distinction between what is sometimes referred to as “Standard Ulster English” and the broader Ulster dialect. The latter is an intentional departure from formal speech, where the former is what we use even in relatively formal contexts provided it does not hinder the comprehension of outsiders. What are the markers of formal Ulster English, versus Standard British English?

Tense

A discussion like this often begins with vocabulary (those are, after all, easier for non-linguists to discuss), but many of the most obvious markers are grammatical.

For example, to express ongoing duration Ulster English prefers the present tense/aspect rather than the perfect, making it progressive for all verbs except ‘to be’.

I’m working here all that time (I have been working here all that time)

She’s in Belfast five years now (she’s been in Belfast for five years now)

He’s living there since the flooding (he has been living there since the flooding)

Here, the Ulster usage is more reflecting of all the other languages I know than Standard British English is.

Ulster English can also tend towards preferring the past to the perfect if there is doubt about relevance to the present time:

Were you ever in Cavan? (Have you even been to Cavan?)

This is not universal but in some cases it can be closer to typical American usage than British.

Note also that Ulster English prefers the conjunction where even with reference to time (compare wo in colloquial German): the occasions where this really matters (the occasions when this really matters). 

Subordinate clauses

For questions in a subordinate clause, Ulster English often orders words in line with a normal question, where Standard British English prefers a conjunction followed but non-question word order:

I don’t know is she here yet (I don’t know if she is here yet)

I wonder how many had he scored before that (I wonder how many he has scored before that)

There is a possibility that this hints at an underlying Irish language influence (as do the “verbless subordinate” clauses found in more informal Ulster English: I came in and him just sitting there).

Vocabulary

Some non-standard words are in such common use in Ulster English that they can be used even in quite formal situations, often because they defy easy “translation” (thole, scundered).

As in Scotland, wee is a diminutive – more or less equivalent to little in Standard British English but more commonly used. ‘Diminutive’ means not only that it indicates small size but also endearment.

Interestingly, however, some words are also more commonly avoided. Perhaps, anyone or shall (see below) are often avoided, with maybe, anybody or will preferred.

Some words are descriptive of things found more commonly in Ulster and may be unfamiliar to some outsiders, but they are not strictly non-standard: barmbrack, lough, drumlin, traybake.

Modal verbs

Modal verbs are a specific subset of verbs in Germanic languages, deriving typically from verbs whose past form has become present, which mark emotion or attitude (necessity, volition, option etc).

Ulster English barely uses shall or ought to at all, and might tends to be restricted to emphatic statements.

May is used in Ulster English more in the Standard sense of ‘had better’: well, you may be there on time (well, you had better be there on time). Standard English may is usually substituted for a construction involving maybe in Ulster English: she will maybe come but it’s not certain (she may come but it’s not certain).

Ulster English also happily uses will even for collective suggestions: Will we go by train (Shall we go by train).

Ulster English also tends to treat have as a full verb with modal tendencies rather than as a standard verb:

Have you a pen (Do you have a pen/Have you got a pen)

She has ten of them sitting at home (She has got ten of them sitting at home)

Nevertheless, this usage is uncertain and subsequent reference nearly always treats ‘have’ as a standard verb even in Ulster English: Have you a pen – yes I do (now rarely have); you had twelve of them, didn’t (now rarely hadn’tyou.

Some common verbs which are not modal but have similar meaning are made progressive: Are you wanting another table (Do you want another table).

Much of this usage reflects Scottish English.

Phrases

Some common phrases are different in everyday Ulster usage.

How are you is often used in Ulster English upon first introduction (very formal Standard English has How do you do).

I don’t care is used in Ulster where Standard British English would use I don’t mind; the distinction between ‘care’ and ‘mind’ in these contexts is not maintained in Ulster English.

Summary

These are some of the ways in which Ulster English, even in formal situations, varies from Standard British English. Of course, in all cases these represent broad tendencies, but it is noticeable that the distinctions persist even away from more deliberate “dialect speech”.

Now what the hell is going on?

For those of us in Northern Ireland is was another bemusing and baffling political week, even by the standards of, well, Northern Ireland.

What actually happened?

Brexit

Firstly, at UK level, the UK Government wanted to put through a “meaningful vote” motion as required by an amendment forced long ago by now whipless Conservative MP Dominic Grieve, to accept the deal it has done with the European Union over the UK’s withdrawal, then due this coming Thursday (31 October).

However, an amendment forced by Mr Grieve’s fellow Conservative “rebel” Oliver Letwin declared in effect that no such vote could be “meaningful” until the actual Act enabling the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union and fulfilling the deal had passed Parliament. This is designed to ensure the UK does not exit the EU with no deal, which could still potentially have happened had Parliament passed the Meaningful Vote but not the legislation that needs to go with it.

Losing to Mr Letwin’s amendment as the ten spurned DUP MPs switched sides, the Government then withdrew the Meaningful Vote but continued on Monday with legislation to implement the deal. This reached third reading, the first time that Parliament has actually shown majority support for any particular means of leaving the EU (although it is not true, as some media outlets reported, that the deal ever went “through Parliament” as the process is not yet complete). However, losing a “programme motion” meant that the Government could not proceed with the legislation as quickly as it wished, meaning that it would run out of time by 31 October and under the Benn Bill (a piece of legislation passed before “prorogation”) be forced to accept an extension to 31 January if offered by the European Union.

At this, the Prime Minister threw the head up and instead said that if he couldn’t get his legislation through in time for 31 October and was forced to 31 January, he would instead prefer to go to the people in an election, for which the soonest date under the Fixed Term Act 2011 is 12 December. However, there he runs into the problem of how to force the election – he is unlikely to get a two thirds majority for the necessary motion, so he would either have to put down legislation for such an election (which could be amended – for example, to force votes at 16 or even simply to change the date) or vote no confidence in himself (this has been done twice in Germany in the last 40 years to force elections, but is liable to misinterpretation in the UK).

Meanwhile, for its part, the European Union has said that it will offer an extension (which will have to be accepted by the UK Government unless it is for a date other than 31 January and Parliament specifically rejects it, which is unlikely) but has not yet said to which date. There is a temptation, particularly in Paris, to offer just ten days or so – enough time to get the relevant legislation through the UK Parliament and approval of the deal through the UK Parliament and the European Parliament. The likelihood will be a fudge, as last time (when 29 March became initially 12 April and then 31 October), with something like 14 November dependent on safe passage of legislation turning back into 31 January or even at the outside 30 April (this date is relevant as it is the end of the current EU budget period).

The UK Parliament will then spend a few days determining whether to have an election on 12 December (or indeed some other date in early 2020) and then whether to continue with passage of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill and a Budget. The threat of a “Government strike” has been mentioned but is just silly.

Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland itself, amendments to the Executive Formation Act which achieved Royal Assent in July had clarified that, if no Executive were formed by midnight on 21 October, same-sex marriage would be legalised and abortion liberalised with exact details to be sorted through regulations by Easter 2020.

For clarification, the UK Government has clarified that same-sex marriage will formally become legally recognised in Northern Ireland in mid-January, with first registrations of marriages (accidentally but appropriately) taking place a month later in the week of Valentine’s Day. On abortion, Sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 (essentially the criminalisation of women seeking termination) have been deleted but the Criminal Justice Act 1945 (rendering the “destruction of a child capable of being born alive” illegal) continues to apply. The confusion here is that the latter Act refers to 28 weeks as the term after which a child is definitely capable of being born alive, but it should be noted the reverse logic does not apply (so this does not mean that a child under 28 weeks is definitely not capable of being born alive); in practice termination is a medical procedure which by law must be carried out by regulated medical professionals and under the law no professional is going to risk carrying one out other than in a case of Fatal Foetal Abnormality (i.e. not capable of being born alive under the 1945 Act) until regulations clarifying legality are completed around Easter time.

What happened in the Assembly on Monday was high farce. It is worth re-emphasising that an Assembly can only sit to scrutinise and legislate upon appointment of an Executive; and an Executive can only be appointed once the First and deputy First Minister accept their offices (appointment is automatic to the largest party and then the largest party in a different designation). As has been noted here before, Northern Ireland is unusual in that regard because other jurisdictions allow legislatures (Assemblies) to sit and allow Ministers (i.e. Executive office holders) to retain their role as caretakers after elections until they are replaced; in Northern Ireland, however, Ministers lose office on election day and the newly elected Assembly cannot function before new ones are in place. In practice, this means the Assembly can only function if both the DUP and Sinn Fein agree to let it function.

That does not mean that the Assembly cannot meet, but previous “talking shop” Assemblies have never worked because ultimately they consist of demands being made with no one taking responsibility for carrying out the Executive functions which would deliver them. Meeting (via “recall”) is not the same as functioning (via “restoration”), in other words.

A meeting took place on Monday at the behest of enough Unionist MLAs (30/90 MLAs overall is the required number), but Sinn Fein did not even attend, far less accept the role of deputy First Minister as required for the institutions to be re-established. However, a bizarre attempt was then made to skirt around standing orders so that the election of a Speaker and an Executive would not be necessary for the Assembly to resume its legislative functions. Even more bizarrely, it turned out there had been an exchange of correspondence over the previous 24 hours between a DUP MLA and the Attorney General (who, note well, advises the Executive not the Assembly and is also a long-standing anti-abortion campaigner) about a Bill which a DUP MLA had drafted to remove the amendment referring to liberalisation of abortion. Somewhat ludicrously, despite the DUP needing majority support and holding only 28 of the 90 seats including the Speaker’s, this had not been shown to anyone other than the Attorney General. Inevitably and correctly, the whole charade was ruled out of order by the Speaker on his own legal advice.

This piece is to outline factually what occurred and why the consequences were what they were, but it must be pointed out that this was in no way a serious attempt by the DUP to overturn the amendment liberalising abortion from midnight that night (21st/22nd). Even had the Speaker chosen to ignore his own legal advice and allow the sitting, the legislation and even any appointments made would have been struck down by the Courts anyway. Had the DUP really wished to act, it would have spent the previous 3-4 months working out how to restore the Executive, a move which automatically would have rendered both amendments (on same-sex marriage and abortion) void on their own terms. It chose not to do this, and thus it chose to allow the legalisation and liberalisation to proceed. What happened in the Assembly on Monday was an attempt at diverting blame, even though the simple fact is that had the DUP carried through the deal to restore the institutions in February 2018, there is zero chance that such liberalisation would have occurred by now or even imminently.

The local parties were given another three months by the Secretary of State to reach a deal to restore the institutions otherwise, under the existing law, he will have to set a date for an Assembly Election on 13 January. In practice, however, he can always have that law amended by Parliament.

What now?

Who knows? File the below under “somewhat educated conjecture”…

Clearly Brexit is the priority for everyone in politics both around Westminster and Stormont, and in practice there is close to zero prospect of a deal to restore the Executive (and thus the Assembly) before there is some clarity on it.

If the UK Government is determined to have an election on 12 December there are some risks it could take to try to force one, but it will probably not be minded to – it does not really want an election on that date, it just wants to accuse the Opposition of being chicken.

The EU will likely offer a “flextension” – something like 14 November in case of relevant legislative and administrative requirements to implement the deal being met, 31 January otherwise; in practice this will automatically be accepted by Parliament.

There is a chance (to be filed under “possible but not probable” but still higher than most commentators think) that the UK Government is not serious about its “strike” and that the UK Parliament will pass the Withdrawal Agreement Bill in early November, with the UK thus proceeding to leave the European Union under its terms in mid November. An election will suddenly be deemed less urgent in such circumstances, particularly if a Budget passes, and may well then be delayed until the spring.

There is also a chance that the Bill will be amended in such a way that it requires the deal itself also to be reworked. Quite where such a chaotic outworking would lead us is unclear.

There seems scant evidence of a majority in Parliament to force a deal versus remain referendum (a so-called “People’s Vote”), but if such evidence does emerge it could be one reason the Government is keen to avoid proceeding with the legislation this side of an election (since a referendum could be forced via an amendment).

In the end, the best bet is to be prepared for anything…

 

 

 

Northern Ireland joins the modern world

Rainbow flag

I would like at this juncture, as same-sex marriage is confirmed as legal in Northern Ireland as of early 2020, to congratulate all the campaigners who have fought for this hour in Northern Ireland.

It was an unnecessarily complex fight. Contrary to commonly stated belief, Northern Irish society is no more backward than anywhere else. The population has favoured legalisation for as long as it has in neighbouring jurisdictions. However, the requirement for a “double majority” in the Assembly, and then the collapse of that Assembly, let to the law in line with popular opinion never being passed.

Also passed as of now is the decriminalisation of abortion and the requirement to legalise abortion in line with the recommendations of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against All Women (CEDAW). I think, broadly, almost everyone will be content with decriminalisation – I would suggest most pro-life campaigners (albeit not always the most vocal ones) have no desire to criminalise young women in a crisis. Clearly, this is otherwise a highly sensitive issue and although my own view is that UN Committee recommendations on Human Rights should long ago have been adhered to, I do understand why some people (particularly but not exclusively those of strong faith) have concerns about precisely how this is being done.

For the record, my own view is that it needed to be done via Westminster (even if not necessarily in the exact way it has been) given the DUP showed no interest in serious talks about restoration of devolution. This is evidenced by the fact they did not bother even to draft legislation until yesterday (a Sunday), nor to show it to other parties (whose support, obviously, would be required to pass it) even after bizarrely showing it to the Attorney General, who has no role in advising MLAs. Indeed, other parties were only leaked a copy of the legislation after midday yesterday (the scheduled Assembly sitting time).

There was in fact no prospect of any functioning Assembly liberalising abortion to the extent it has been liberalised as of this minute. The DUP rejected the deal available in February 2018 which would have restored that Assembly; and then messed around for four months from June 2019 without even attempting to win support for its proposal to stop Westminster’s liberalising intervention. Therefore, whatever your view on this highly sensitive issue, the DUP bears prime if not sole responsibility for the fact that, as of right now, Northern Ireland has (theoretically at least) the most liberal abortion laws in Western Europe. If you agree with Arlene Foster that this is a “sad day for Northern Ireland”, you also have to accept that she played a greater role than anyone in bringing it about.

It should be emphasised that some fears of what Northern Ireland’s abortion law means in practice, while no doubt felt genuinely, are overstated. The law on “child destruction” (a ghastly term but the one used in the 1945 legislation still in effect) continues to apply and, legally, medical procedures have to be carried out by regulated professionals. In the absence of legal clarity, it is highly unlikely any more than were already occurring will take place (aside perhaps from some tragic cases of fatal foetal abnormality) before that clarification comes (probably at the end of March). The fundamental change is the decriminalisation of women; what is legal for medical professionals is still to be clarified and given killing a child capable of being born alive is still a criminal offence, no professional will take any risks in that regard today any more than they would have yesterday.

Meanwhile, let us just reflect on the good news that Northern Ireland now has equal marriage legislated for, and that as a society we can join the modern world. Now we just need to take the opportunity in no doubt imminent elections to un-elect the incompetents who have delivered nothing but uncertainty, concern, and the precise reverse of what they profess to support.

Politics has changed utterly. Commentators need to catch up.

Politics globally, and certainly in the English-speaking world, has changed utterly in the second half of this decade.

The whole concept of what is “right” and what is “left” has gone out of the window. As attitudes towards internationalism, identity, social liberalism and basic fact checking become the defining political issues whereas economics and finance take a back seat, totally new coalitions are emerging. People who were well apart five years ago are now 90%+ aligned on the key issues; conversely, people who generally saw eye-to-eye until recently (when political debate was dominated by taxation levels and public ownership issues) now find themselves at completely opposite ends of the spectrum.

This means there is no point, when seeking to report or analyse, in going back very far. There was a gradual shift in allegiances in the UK through the ’70s after the Oil Crisis and perhaps a more marked one around the Great Depression in the inter-War years, and the United States saw ruptures around segregation in the late ’60s, but surely nothing of the scale of what has just happened on either side of the Atlantic.

Here in Northern Ireland is no exception. It is obvious that voter patterns are breaking down completely, though few yet seem to willing to include this in their commentary. At the very moment you might expect re-entrenchment on the old nationality grounds, in fact it is the Progressives who reject “orange/green” who are rapidly growing as younger voters look for something new. This is still treated by reporters and commentators as something of an aberration before normal service is resumed, but in fact all the evidence is that the “aberration” is becoming permanent and that in fact in any forthcoming election the Progressives will gain further ground. This does not suit the dominant framework for reporting Northern Ireland, which has always been based on the lazy assumption of two mirror, competing “communities”; that lazy assumption is going to have to change as those who reject “orange/green” increasingly determine Northern Ireland’s future.

Most relevantly of all, we have now reached the stage where a lot of elected politicians, including the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, routinely lie. Although politicians were always inclined towards sins of omission or exaggeration, never before had political correspondents and commentators also had to behave as outright detectives. Still they take announcements from on high as worth reporting and assessing even if they are in fact plainly just ludicrous diversions.

In the UK, the key point here is that Brexit is a symptom, not a cause. Brexit emerged from the new politics of just outright lying and then blaming everyone else. That is now the standard format for seeking office, and commentators need to realise it. A lie is a lie and a myth is a myth. These cannot just be reported, they need to be tackled – and corrections forced.

It is well known what assumption is the mother of, which makes it worth emphasising that old assumptions have never been less safe. Politics has changed utterly. It requires utterly new reporting and commentating methods too.

Time now for Government of National Unity

I had no intention of restoring a political aspect to this blog, but recent events require more than Twitter threads!

We have now seen an utterly laughable proposal from the UK Government to the EU, even more laughably put forward on a “Take it or leave it” basis. Obviously, it is designed for the EU to leave it, and for the political blame game thus to be neutralised.

As a matter of fact, this is unlikely to work. Far from being evil geniuses, Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings are in fact evil charlatans. The EU will bat it back, offering the original Withdrawal Agreement or an extension, and clarifying the UK is responsible for the consequences if it rejects both (particularly since rejecting the latter is illegal).

The facade has gone on long enough. What is required immediately, as I wrote some weeks ago, is not an election or a referendum but a Government of National Unity.

Let us now state clearly what such a Government could do:

  • declare a national emergency (the current Government is bound to do this anyway) on the basis that the whole process of leaving the European Union is tainted by lies, misinformation and, particularly, corruption;
  • publish “Yellowhammer” in its entirety and announce an inquiry into that corruption (the Hedge Funds and foreign-based interests pursuing “No Deal” in their own selfish interest) and into those threatening to stoke violence;
  • revoke Article 50 on the basis that the inquiry needs to be complete and placed before the public before the issue is returned to them;
  • clarify that the “leave” promises people voted for in good faith were in fact utter codswallop (presenting the details publicly as necessary) and that “no deal” means chaos and then endless negotiations (a million miles from “getting it done”), and instead state an intention to hold a referendum, once inquiries are complete and published, to leave the EU on EFTA-Association terms;
  • increase funding for the NHS by £350m/week;
  • reform the BBC charter to stop the nonsense of “impartiality” between fact and fiction and between knowledge and ignorance; and
  • reform referendum rules (to include an “Independent Advertising Standards”-type body scrutinising claims made during them) and change the electoral system (to PR-MMP, as in Scotland and Wales).

Wouldn’t such a government be illegitimate and undemocratic? It would command a democratic majority in the House elected by the people, and would certainly be more legitimate that one which is in the pockets of foreign-based Hedge Fund managers who are making big money by bettering against the UK…

#Brexit’s fundamental dishonesty exposed

I fully respect that a majority of people in the UK voted to leave the EU in 2016 and, I believe, that it is still the case that a majority of people in the UK would rather not be in the EU. Whether they can really be bothered with the hassle of leaving is the question now.

I can also grasp why people, even for reasons of purely emotional nationalism, would be attracted to notions of “taking back control”. I do not share but I think I understand the fear, particularly in post-industrial landscapes, of globalisation in general terms.

What I will never comprehend, however, is how people continue to support positions which blatantly veer from one extreme to the other.

Firstly, we were told that we would “take back control of our borders”.

Then, however, we were told the precise opposite: “Let them put border posts up, we’re not going to!”

Those two positions are diametrically opposed. They could not be more opposite. The notion that you take control of your border by leaving it completely unprotected and unmanned is obviously ludicrous. Frankly, a two-year-old could grasp how these are absolutely opposing things.

Now we are told that there will be border posts. So actually we will put border posts up. That is diametrically opposed again to what the Prime Minister himself said 40 days ago.

Logically, one of three things must apply:

  • you supported the Prime Minister 40 days ago when he said there would not be border posts;
  • you support the Prime Minister now when he says there will be border posts; or
  • neither.

In other words, on this issue and leaving aside all the practical consequences, you cannot possibly have supported the Prime Minister 40 days ago, and still support him now.

This is the fundamental dishonesty with Brexit. People will literally propose something as an advantage and then, just a few weeks later, support something diametrically opposed to that supposed advantage. Not for a second will they consider that this is an obvious logical fallacy, nor that Brexit is underpinned by a raft of logical fallacies.

Ultimately, it does not matter how many people vote for something, if it is underpinned by logical fallacies it is underpinned by logical fallacies. In other words, the whole thing is fundamentally dishonest; and is creating a further dishonesty as people refuse, almost by definition, to be honest enough to admit it! The Prime Minister knows the whole thing is based on fundamental dishonesty, and so does every one of his “supporters”. He has no plan and no idea, so he randomly presents ludicrous ideas in the hope no one will point out the emperor is wearing no clothes.

Unfortunately, matters are made worse by the fact we have a Government and an Opposition who engage only in logical fallacies and the inevitably consequential dishonesty on any issue at all (combined with outrageous extremism and sheer incompetence of a scale never seen before in UK politics in living memory).

The honest and logical truth, if anyone is interested, is that there are only two types of Brexit – pointless, or damaging. (And, by the way, since we are on the subject of the honest truth: the bridge is daft; we don’t need 40 new hospitals, we need properly paid and equipped staff; and the magic money tree won’t fund any of this anyway. We could also do with some honest reporting that this is all classic “dead cat strategy” every time.)

But how many of us are interested?

Suspension of Parliament… or not, as it turns out

Having run a series of blog posts on the suspension (or prorogation) of Parliament, it turns out that, well, it is not suspended.

That was the unanimous determination of the UK Supreme Court this morning. This is in itself a remarkable constitutional event, as the UK Supreme Court itself came into existence as separate from Parliament a decade ago next month.

The usual alt-right supporters will no doubt now try to claim the Judges are “enemies of the people” for ensuring that the people’s representatives can assemble to scrutinise the work of a government which represents only a minority of those people… it is important to note that this is democracy and the rule of law working exactly as it should.

It is worth emphasising that prorogation is different from recess. Parliament would usually be in recess at this time of year for Conference Season; however, this would apply only to the House of Commons and the usual business of Parliament otherwise (the House of Lords, Committees, Questions etc) would proceed unhindered. In any case, the House of Commons had specifically rejected recess for Conference Season this year given the urgency of Brexit.

The media will focus on the politics, and particularly on the blow to the Prime Minister’s standing.

For all that, the supposed blow to his standing may in fact be irrelevant except perhaps to a small minority who are specifically bothered about his lying to the Queen. Ultimately, the fact that the Prime Minister is a charlatan with a history of mendacity and incompetence was already obvious except to those unwilling to see it. They will probably still be unwilling.

The real issue, however, is what happens now, as the variables have shifted somewhat.

As Parliament is not suspended, it can now meet. The Opposition now has more time to demand publication of relevant documents, to deliver legislative certainty about avoiding “no deal”, scrutinise what the Government is actually doing to achieve a deal with the European Union, and conceivably even to force a referendum.

What comes next is unpredictable, by definition. No doubt an attempt will be made to force an election – perhaps even via a “Constructive Vote of No Confidence” (the Government trying to force no confidence in itself to force an election, which would require only a majority of MPs voting rather than a two-thirds majority of all MPs). The Prime Minister may even consider a “put up or shut up” resignation (although by convention he has to send for a replacement if he does that and that would, again by convention, be Jeremy Corbyn as Leader of the Opposition). The Opposition does not currently look in a fit state to form a coalition government even on a caretaker basis, but no doubt some will look again at how possible this is in order specifically to avoid “No Deal”.

On bridges and Brexit

Shortly after the EU referendum in 2016, as Sterling plummeted, I received from Berlin the largest translation/editing contract I had ever received. The irony of being a Brexit beneficiary was not lost on me, but I set to work.

The translation concerned the environmental statements for a construction project known as the “Fehmarn Belt Fixed Link”. Why would I mention this? Because it is relevant to explaining just how fanciful, ignorant and idiotic the people currently trying and failing to run the UK actually are.

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The Fehmarn Link would cross from the Danish island of Lolland to the German island of Fehmarn, each themselves connected to the mainland respectively of Sealand (the island on which Copenhagen is located and thus also connected directly via the Oresund crossing to Sweden) and Continental Europe – marked yellow above. It is particularly important because the car ferries which currently cover the route cannot take Heavy Goods Vehicles, and thus freight traffic has no option but to head around via the island of Funen and the peninsula of Jutland to access mainland Europe from eastern Denmark (and thus most of Sweden) – marked red above.

While Denmark was busy building impressive bridges (not just across the Oresund but also across the Great Belt between Sealand and Funen – on the red route above) in the 1990s, plans began for the connection to Germany.

However, having even awarded provisional contracts, the bridge plan was changed in 2010 to a tunnel, largely because this would be less likely to be a victim of closure and also because it would be less disruptive to shipping. In 2015 the bill to proceed with construction subject to EU funding (supported by Germany and Sweden) passed the Danish Parliament. Tolls on the crossing would see the total cost recouped in perhaps 30 years.

Let us be clear about a few things here:

  • the total length of the crossing would be less than a quarter of that between, say, Scotland and Northern Ireland;
  • construction would be less than a quarter of the cost given the sea is not so deep so masts/pillars would not be so high, and even at that is now projected at €5.5 billion (itself surely an underestimate);
  • the connection benefits more than half of the population of Scandinavia (so, 12.5 million or so) linking them to German-speaking Europe, Benelux and beyond (100 million upwards);
  • motorway links (but for 25km the German side) already exist to either end of the proposed crossing;
  • there is a very specific benefit for freight traffic which literally cannot use the existing ferry service.

Despite this, and despite the proven aptitude of the Danes for such things, the project has inevitably become embroiled in legal wrangles and as we approach the 2020s, a generation after planning began and a decade after the current proposal was agreed, construction still has not started.

The population of the entire island of Ireland and Scotland combined is less than the 12.5 million just one the minority side of the Fehmarn Belt; the cost would be many times greater and never recoverable from the vastly lower amount of traffic using it (given it links such low and sparse populations); the crossing would connect a primary A-Road to a secondary A-road the latter two hours’ drive from any motorway; and in any case no constructor would take on the work as it crosses the site where unmapped munitions were dumped in 1946.

So tell me this, what kind of complete idiot would you have to be even to suggest such a thing?

It is fanciful nonsense borne of utter ignorance about the realities of finance, engineering, geography, history or frankly anything at all.

Is there any chance we could stop electing such idiots? (Oh, and could we now stop talking about it? Talking about it is exactly what the Prime Minister wants us to do to avoid discussion of his other crazed delusions.)

Suspension of Parliament – update

I wrote this last week on the likely next moves after the Prime Minister secured the Queen’s permission to suspend Parliament last week.

Somewhat contrary to what I wrote, it appears that the Opposition reckons it does have time to pass legislation designed to prevent a “no deal” Brexit (specifically, to prevent one any time before the end of January or perhaps in effect the end of April 2020). Of course, it remains to be seen if the legislation drafted is watertight and if there is time to pass it.

However, in many ways the effect of this legislation would be the same as a no confidence vote. It would, after all, specifically tell the Prime Minister that the legislature does not have confidence in his Brexit strategy. There is also little doubt that the Prime Minister himself will treat it that way, and so the next move will be for him to claim the Opposition is forcing him into an election on the assumption that he lacks the confidence of the House.

However, strictly speaking a “Vote of No Confidence” would not have been passed in such a context, so the procedures after one would not apply. There would be no countdown to an automatic election; instead, there would still be a requirement for two thirds of MPs to assent to an election (as happened in 2017).

(The Prime Minister could attempt to put confidence on the vote on the final Bill requiring an extension of EU membership to be sought, in which case the procedures would apply if this were allowed. This is very risky for all sides, however; for the Prime Minister it risks allowing the other side to form an administration without an election, and for the Opposition it risks an election too late to make any difference to Brexit.)

Remember, an election causes Parliament to be suspended anyway. Even if legislation is passed and receives Royal Assent (and even more so if it has not passed), it is a high-risk strategy to force the suspension of Parliament until close to 31 October, not least because it would be conceivable that no new Prime Minister would be in place by that date regardless of the date and outcome of the election. This again raises questions about just how watertight legislation can be, when it will likely in effect require action by the Prime Minister in the run-up to 31 October in any case. What happens, for example, if there is no Parliament sitting to ensure that he adheres to the law as passed? What happens if a Prime Minister, still in office post-election as the Opposition decides if it can form a coalition to remove him from office, or indeed reinvigorated by having won the election, simply ignores (or repeals) the legislation?

The Opposition needs to proceed, therefore, with caution here. It wants to stop “no deal” but it also has to be sure that, if it comes to one, the current Government carries the entire responsibility. An election close to 31 October, for all kinds of reasons, risks the UK falling out of the EU with no deal by default regardless of what legislation is passed and what the date or outcome of an election would be, with the added political consequence that the Conservatives could blame Opposition meddling for any resultant chaos.

The likelihood therefore is that, despite current overt denials, there will be pressure for an election from the Government. The Opposition (specifically the Labour Party) will still need to assent to one, however, noting that the Prime Minister then decides the precise date. The question then becomes whether the anti-No Deal side has the coherence and foresight to recognise that, in every sense, an election close to 31 October would likely merely add to the problem rather than provide a solution.

It is anyone’s guess what will happen now. For what it is worth my instinct is the Government, advised by people who think militarily rather than politically, will end up overplaying its hand.

NB: These blog posts are written for the purposes of analysis rather the political promotion. Obviously, with the latest Northern Ireland poll (DUP 29%, Sinn Fein 25%, Alliance 21%, UU 9%, SDLP 8%) means from a purely partisan point of view I quite fancy an election…!

Thoughts on Italian cooking

Just to add to the displacement activity on this blog in recent weeks as democracy itself crumbles, we turn to Italy…

Italy is a country I much admire. Despite political dysfunction and economic stagnation, it still manages to host the healthiest population in the world, and with more heritage sites in any individual region than there are in most entire countries it has rapidly become our favourite holiday destination.

My favourite aspect of it is the food and, while I am far from a gastronomic genius, I was asked for some thoughts on preparation of pasta dishes. I thought I may as well share them here – if ever a blog post were open to correction, it is this one…!

Purpose

Firstly, what are we trying to do with an Italian pasta dish? Well, in the “Anglo-Saxon world” we tend to think that we cook some pasta, concoct (or just buy) as sauce, and then bung them together, merely using the tasteless pasta (because we invariably overlook it) to transport the sauce to the mouth. Such utter barbarism!

With a real, authentic Italian dish what we are trying to do is flavour the pasta. The pasta itself should then contain the mix of flavours in the dish.

Ingredients

We want ingredients that are as fresh and high quality as possible, of course. Make sure you have a decent extra virgin olive oil; the right cheese to complement the dish (some require pecorino; others something spicier like provolone; don’t just add parmesan to everything because it looks Italian); and ideally some direct import branded pasta.

Most of all, tomatoes (and lemons) grow outside in warm climes. So of course we English speakers put them in the, er, fridge. Another marker of Anglo-Saxon sacrilege! They’re fruit, so put them in the fruit bowl!

Pre-preparation

When you are cooking the dish you will probably only have ten minutes or so (because you’re not going to overlook the pasta…) so it is worth having your ingredients out and ready in advance.

For a Puttanesca on Saturday I had my bowl out ready for my peeled tomatoes, my olives chopped, my peppers chopped, and my capers and seasoning lined up in order of use, before I began anything else.

Pasta cooking

Now, Anglo-Saxons again take note, we want our pasta to cling to the flavours in the dish. So we don’t want to cook all the starch out of it! That is why people in countries where they both enjoy their food more and live longer than we do (what a combo that is) cook it al dente – that way the favour clings on.

Into the pasta water we are also going to add a lot of salt. This is partly to enable us to bring the flavour out of the pasta later in the preparation, but it is also because we are going to use the pasta water itself to add cream. So we are talking a tablespoon per person for almost any dish. (In my case, however, the salt then goes back in the cupboard – we shouldn’t need to inflict it directly on the sauce when we already have it in the pasta water.)

Sauce

“Sauce” is actually quite a strong word for the accompaniment to a real Italian pasta dish. In some dishes it will be barely visible at all as it clings to the pasta. Three things are of prime importance.

Firstly, keep your pans the same heat. This is going to end with pasta cooking in with the “sauce” but that combination is not going to work if you transfer from pan to pan at different heat, as then they won’t meld. Personally, I find it easier to go high right at the start (just to get the water boiled or the garlic sautéing or whatever) and move to middle for most of the cooking period, but each to their own as long as they are the same temperature.

Secondly, stir or shake vigorously. Whether it’s just garlic and oil or a whole host of ingredients in your pan, you need to mix those flavours. This is particularly important when introducing cheese because you absolutely do not want that stuff clumping. (Also, if you scrape the bottom of your pan occasionally and leave the odd mark, that’s fine; you’re not going to be trading it in any time soon…)

Thirdly, particularly if you are going to add cheese, your sauce should be too watery or creamy at some stage – if it isn’t, add some pasta water to make it so. Then don’t worry – the heat in the pan will ensure it comes together.

Do not be afraid either to add plenty of seasoning through the cooking process, and at different stages. One thing, however – stick to one herb and one pepper. Do not put in basil and then randomly add rosemary; and adding black pepper to a dish which already has red pepper or vice-versa is an absolute no-no. Personally I rarely use passata or canned tomatoes (although I often keep them handy to “save” a sauce if an experiment doesn’t work out!) – I more often simply use fresh tomatoes peeled and crushed by hand alongside, if necessary in some dishes, a little salsa.

As well as garlic cloves, there are other things you can use to flavour your dish and then withdraw. If I am adding lemon, for example, I will quarter the lemon and, having sprayed or sprinkled it over, place the peel in the pan too to emphasise the flavour, before withdrawing it prior to adding the pasta (and cheese). For a Nerano, I withdraw the courgettes (zucchini) once they are browned while the garlic cloves continue to infuse into the oil, season them with basil, and then put them back in the pan while removing the garlic cloves just prior to adding the pasta and cheese.

Personally, I find white wine vinegar useful to separate out the flavours in some spicier dishes before melding them again; I occasionally use sautéed onion or even onion granules as a useful replacement for anchovies (if anchovies are unavailable or serving vegetarians); and I like to add pepper flakes of different sizes to the same dish just to vary the taste (you can do this by holding the top of the grinder out and then in, or even simply just by adding full peppercorns alongside ground pepper or sliced red pepper alongside ground flakes or better still direct import peperoncino).

Serving

Towards the end you will take the pasta over (likely with some pasta water) and add it to your “sauce”, stirring vigorously as you do so. That is how the flavour transfers to the pasta, with the salt in the water serving to bring it out further and the remaining starch in the pasta itself serving as a glue.

If you are adding cheese at this stage, do not overdo it – that is another Anglo-Saxon horror story as our dishes are so bland to start with we like to bury them in mounds of mozzarella or grated cheddar! With a real Italian dish there should be serious flavour already, so any cheese should be specifically chosen and complementary to the overall blend.

Then a trick is to place the plate on top of the pan from which the pasta has been taken to warm it up as you finish stirring and then serve. Ideally, you will lift the pasta out of the pan and just twist it as it hits the plate for the authentic primo piatto look; by all means add a sprinkle of cheese (if relevant) and a little more seasoning for aesthetic purposes at this stage.

Recipes

Oh no no no.

Italian cooking is about the ingredients and the mixture of flavours; and so it is about method, not recipes. Aside from grating or grinding (when I do count how often I do it based on what worked last time) I measure nothing – I do everything purely by sight.

That is the fun of it. There is significant trial and error but once you hit the right method for a particular dish, you will know and remember!

For what it is worth, my favourite is Amatriciana, essentially a Carbonara with tomato instead of egg (and red pepper instead of black). Even more so than with Carbonara, however, this absolutely requires direct-import guanciale from the Rome area, which itself contains some more saltiness to bring out the other flavours (if you absolutely must use something else, try pancetta but add salt, however reluctantly).

For vegetarians I prefer Puttanesca, modified with onions instead of anchovies, in which I also cheat authenticity a bit by adding both green and black olives (chopped by hand, to maximise the melding in with the other flavours). “Recipes” for this often contain sugar, but since the whole point is to be healthy I avoid that!

The most remarkable dish I find is Gricia con le Pere, more or less a Carbonara without the egg or an Amatriciana without the tomato (which is thus a Gricia) but with pear strips added, ideally then caramelised. Astonishingly, it works!

My own favourite quick go-to is Nerano mentioned above, although the right spicy cheese there is hard to come by. A quicker similar alternative is simply Limone or even more simply (at least in terms of ingredients) Cacio e Pepe. Another fairly quick option is my own, combining tomato, lemon and fennel with garlic and maybe some spinach.

Practice makes perfect

The best way to learn is to do, and that means it takes a few goes before everything comes together as planned. It is a lot of trial and error, but it is really not long before you can turn out the same dishes at home that you had overlooking the gondolas or the Coliseum. By all means use YouTube or web sites like Giallo Zafferano as a back-up to follow the experts as they prepare various dishes, but nothing succeeds like just practising it yourself.

The key is to remember that fundamentally the joy of Italian cuisine is that it uses simple ingredients so efficiently to create such remarkable flavours, and that is both the fun and the genius of it.