#LE19 Northern Ireland’s Council Elections – what to look for

The count takes place tomorrow morning for Northern Ireland’s Council elections, previewed here.

As ever in Northern Ireland, it is difficult even to agree what the key question of the election is. Some see it as “standing up” to the other side of the sectarian divide; others see it as an opportunity to give the big parties (or a particular big party) a bloody nose. The DUP argue they need the “strength to deliver”; Sinn Fein focused on “rights” and Brexit and the border; the Ulster Unionists tried some kind of “deliver change” narrative; the SDLP turned to Europe but also had to explain its Fianna Fail link-up; and the Alliance Party demanded change. What will the electorate make of this?

Given Northern Ireland’s preferential voting system (known as “Single Transferable Vote”), this is a test match rather than limited overs – the count will in fact likely take two days fully to complete. However, more than half of individual counts will be complete and we will have some idea of overall first preference vote share by end Friday (albeit including some which may go beyond midnight); tallies and some early results should in fact give us a clear indication of general trend by lunchtime.

So, what are we looking for?

Firstly, we already hear turnout being described as “low”. However, in fact it is not bad for what is the first standalone Council Election in Northern Ireland this century. Inevitably, however, the vagaries of turnout are important. We already have indications that turnout is comparatively lower in areas where it was higher in the General Election to deliver the DUP surge.

Secondly, Sinn Fein and particularly the DUP did not do particularly well last time, in 2014, as per performances in other elections around that time. At 24.0% and 23.1% respectively, both parties scored 4-5 points lower vote share in that election than in the most recent Assembly Election in March 2017. It is likely that their vote share will be lower than at the last Assembly or General Election in each case and this will be presented as evidence of “noses bloodied”. It is only really a story, however, if vote share heads below mid-20s towards the 2014 figures or even lower.

Thirdly, assuming there are at least some gains to be made from the big two parties, the question arises which parties will make them? The Ulster Unionists in fact scored a relatively healthy 16.1%, over 100,000 votes, in 2014; the SDLP did rather more poorly but 13.5% was still comfortably more than double what Alliance managed, with a then disappointing 6.6%. Depending a little on just how much ground there is to gain, holding ground is likely respectable but still sobering outcome

For the DUP, defending its 130 seats and maintaining its status as largest party in local government will likely suffice. However, the realities of Northern Ireland geography and of ground they have already gained in other elections south of Lough Neagh (notably in Down and Armagh) mean that it should expect to have a few more seats at the close of play versus 2014.

For Sinn Fein, there is a growing risk that its failure to deliver is beginning to cost it votes. Its total of 150,000 last time (rising subsequently to close to 200,000 in March 2017) is therefore unlikely to be surpassed. Again, however, a low turnout and ground already gained in South Down in particular mean that anything below last time’s total of 105 seats would be a severe disappointment, and ultimately gains are still to be expected.

For the Ulster Unionists, it will be extraordinarily difficult to defend what were excellent results last time notably in the Fermanagh, Banbridge and Armagh areas. 100,000 votes on a lower turnout would be some achievement; a rather lower total and vote share is probably to be expected, although this depends on exactly how the public has read the message of “change” on one hand but “Unionist loyalty” on the other. If the party emerges with anything like last time’s haul of 88 seats, it will be content enough; however, its performance is probably the hardest to predict (as it is often good at winning late seats on transfers).

For the SDLP, this campaign has been tough as it has had to explain the link with Fianna Fail, an apparently new stance on abortion, and in Belfast City the loss of three Councillors during the outgoing term. It that context, it too would probably be pleased with repeating last time’s 66 seats, a task made trickier by a subsequent clear swing away from it in areas where the SDLP previously held but no longer holds MPs.

For the Alliance Party, there is reason to believe its vote share will be higher, as last time’s 6.6% was the worst this decade. The difficulty will be turning more votes into more seats. Some of the best hopes for that are in Belfast City itself, but with a lot of ground to make up before seat gains become a serious prospect it will be important to watch early tallies to see if the improbable moves to probable. Elsewhere, the party will hope for a bit of luck in terms of late seats that it generally lacked last time when mustering a slightly disappointing 32.

For other parties, this may be an election of real opportunity although it is unclear whether they have been able to get key messages across. On the Unionist side, TUV did quite well in 2014 but is running fewer candidates this time and so may have a mixed day; UKIP will also wonder if Brexit plays in its favour among Leave-Unionists. The Greens in Belfast City will be looking to gain further seats, perhaps most obviously in Botanic and Lisnasharragh (again, early tallies will tell a tale). Some prominent Independents for one reason or another may feel that the public mood and relatively low turnout versus other elections may turn some seats their way.

There are, fundamentally, 80 separate races and it will be some time for the whole story to be revealed. It is probably worth avoiding the early social media excitement but taking a look at the score at lunchtime, as the trends in terms of actual votes counted begin to become clear.


Notion of referendums on social change in NI is extraordinarily dangerous

I have seen several times recently the idea expressed that a way through the current breakdown in democratic structures at Stormont is via referendums – for example, on same-sex marriage.

This is well-meaning. It is also naively dangerous.

Let us follow the logic to see why.

Firstly, someone (who?) has to legislate for the referendum. Let us ask a simple question immediately here: if that entity can legislate legitimately for a referendum, say on same-sex marriage, why can that same entity not just simply legislate for same-sex marriage?

It should be noted that this is an entirely different concept from the referendums in the Republic of Ireland. Even there, it should be noted, the referendums were to remove a constitutional prohibition on a particular piece of legislation. However, the legislation itself was carried through by the legislature. This brings us to the very problem in Northern Ireland – the legislature cannot act without in effect a double majority. This would remain the case regardless of what the referendum outcome was.

Secondly, allowing a referendum to take place is an acceptance that either outcome is possible (noting that it is also unclear what the actual question would be). Since it is generally established that same-sex marriage is a rights issue (rights are being denied to a particular section of the population uniquely in Northern Ireland which are enjoyed by everyone else in Northern Ireland and by that section in all neighbouring jurisdictions), this is extraordinarily risky. Human Rights by definition cannot be subject to the whims and prejudices of the population, even of a majority of the population. So what would a “no” vote to same-sex marriage achieve?

Thirdly, let us assume there is in fact a “yes” vote. We still have not achieved anything. Politicians on one side will use the same argument they currently use in the face of majority support for same-sex marriage among elected legislators – that same-sex marriage breaches the rights of one “community” as only a minority of it (Unionists, we assume in this case) supports the change. Unionists may still demand the right to refuse legislation, using the Petition of Concern, on the basis that the referendum passes with only minority support from one “side”. So we are back to the exact problem we already have.

The worst thing, however, is the precedent it sets. Underlying it is the notion that social changes (or perhaps any areas of policy) which are too difficult for the Assembly should be put out to referendum for a straightforward majority vote on a binary question. This would be a disaster in a divided society such as Northern Ireland, where safeguards are intentionally put in place precisely to avoid political decisions being made in this way, as they could ride roughshod over the interests of certain sections of the community. Life is, in any case, much more complex than binary questions and straightforward majorities – the only way Northern Ireland (or anywhere else) can be governed is in fact by mature consensus and compromise.

As ever, what we have here are people trying to get to their preferred outcome by the quickest possible route. However, they do not consider how complex the route is; how it does not resolve the fundamental issues; and how it could set a precedent which may well result in the exact opposite of their preferred outcome in future.

Northern Ireland is a complex and diverse society. Governing it is complex too. If there are issues of rights which are currently not being applied in Northern Ireland, the UK Government is the sovereign authority with a duty to act. Otherwise, we need to face our complexities and develop institutions to manage them which work rather than shirk.

#LE19 Northern Ireland’s Council elections – preview

Thursday sees Northern Ireland’s second set of Local Council Elections under the current boundaries, with 462 Councillors to be elected from 80 District Electoral Areas (DEAs; each electing between five and seven) to 11 Councils.

Each of the 80 DEAs are effectively separate contests, but there are clear geographic distinctions across Northern Ireland.


I have noted before on this blog that the swing in Unionism from Ulster Unionist to DUP (often via “Other Unionist”) which started around the time of the Agreement was initially much more pronounced on the North Coast (broadly, areas of Scottish settlement) and in urban areas (obviously Greater Belfast and particularly the City Council area) than it was in the southern border areas (areas of predominantly English settlement).

It was only in the re-aligning Stormont and Westminster elections of 2017, clearly therefore after the last Council elections, that the DUP also became clearly the lead Unionist party across Down, Armagh, South Tyrone and Fermanagh.

As we come to understand the picture of the 2019 elections, therefore, it is perhaps this that we need to watch. As above, if you split the 2014 results into five geographical areas – what we might call Belfast City (the Belfast City Council area); Outer Greater Belfast (Antrim/Newtownabbey, Lisburn/Castlereagh and Ards/North Down); Down/Armagh (Newry/Mourne/Down and Armagh/Banbridge/Craigavon); Mid/West Ulster (Mid Ulster, Fermanagh/Omagh and Derry/Strabane); and Antrim/North Coast (Causeway Coast/Glens and Mid/East Antrim).

Council names are still extraordinarily silly, by the way. The difficulty arises from a requirement that no new Council name could incorporate any element of the past Council name except if all elements were incorporated. The result is daft. If we remove that requirement, something like Belfast; Sixmilewater; Clandeboye-Downshire; Clandeboye-Ards; Mourne; Armagh-Iveagh; Mid Ulster; Fermanagh-Strule; Foyle; Causeway-Glens and Mid-East Antrim would be much more straightforward.

When we look at the results (taking the five main parties) in those five broader areas, an intriguing picture of the first preference vote from 2014 emerges:

Belfast City

Sinn Fein 29.2% (19 seats); DUP 19.0% (13); Alliance 11.4% (8); SDLP 10.0% (7); UU 9.0% (7).

Outer Greater Belfast

DUP 36.1% (52); UU 18.4% (29); Alliance 12.7% (18); SDLP 6.9% (8); Sinn Fein 5.9% (3).


Sinn Fein 28.4% (22); SDLP 21.5% (20); UU 19.7% (15); DUP 16.8% (17); Alliance 2.9% (2).

Mid/West Ulster

Sinn Fein 39.0% (51); SDLP 17.9% (24); DUP 15.9% (21); UU 15.1% (18); Alliance 1.3% (0).

Antrim/North Coast

DUP 30.0% (27); UU 17.9% (19); Sinn Fein 12.6% (10); SDLP 8.4% (6); Alliance 6.6% (4).

In Greater Belfast broadly (so Belfast City Council and the three which surround it), there is no reason not to expect the line-up to remain more or less the same. The likelihood, given the trends over the past five years, is that versus 2014 the DUP, Sinn Fein and Alliance will strengthen a little and the SDLP and Ulster Unionists decline a little, but only in ways reasonably foreseeable.

Likewise in Antrim/North Coast, we may probably expect the same trend to the extent that Sinn Fein may end up roughly level with the Ulster Unionists and Alliance perhaps ahead of the SDLP. However, again this is reasonably predictable.

In Down/Armagh and the southern part of Mid/West Ulster it becomes much more difficult to predict anything with confidence, because here the Ulster Unionists were ahead (in fact, often well ahead) of the DUP. In Fermanagh in 2014, the Ulster Unionists outpolled the DUP by almost 2:1; across rural Tyrone the gap was much narrower, but the Ulster Unionists were still clearly ahead; the Ulster Unionists were the largest party by first preference vote in Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon beating the DUP almost 2:1 again in the DEAs of Armagh and Banbridge and largely holding their own elsewhere. This pattern was repeated, almost slightly more to the advantage of the DUP, in 2016 but then shattered in 2017 (when the Ulster Unionists lost their Assembly seats in South Down, Newry/Armagh and Mid-Ulster at Assembly level and clung on to seats in Upper Bann and Fermanagh/South Tyrone only after being outpolled 2:1 by the DUP in constituencies they had previously been polling almost level).


Therefore, while the media focus will be on Belfast (which will suit me as I expect Alliance to do rather well there) and perhaps on what happens to the SDLP after the Fianna Fail link-up, in many ways the story of the election will be in the southern border Council areas. If the Ulster Unionists can at least challenge to stay ahead in places such as Banbridge, Armagh and Fermanagh, then there may be some basis for a future revival at Assembly level; however, if the swing in the Council elections matches that at Stormont and Westminster, it will constitute an existential crisis.

The most interesting thing north of Lough Neagh is how many DEAs the SDLP will not be contesting – almost the entirety of the Mid & East Antrim council area and also the Ballymoney DEA, where it ran two candidates last time. These are complete withdrawals from places where the SDLP has won Assembly seats in the not overly distant past. Overall, the SDLP is running candidates in only 61 of the 80 DEAs (whereas even Alliance is contesting 72), meaning over a fifth of the population will have no SDLP candidate to vote for at all.

It will be interesting to see also if this is matched on the Nationalist side, where the SDLP had often held its own in areas where Ulster Unionists polled well (although this geographical link is inexact). In large parts of southern Co Down, from the Ards Peninsula down to the western Mournes (and most notably in Downpatrick, where the SDLP polled exactly half the vote in 2014) the question arises whether Sinn Fein’s gains will match those in 2017 (notably when it took the South Down Westminster seat so comfortably).

In many ways, therefore, it is to the south of Lough Neagh where the real story of these elections will be told.


Could football and hockey learn more from each other on rule changes?

Just over a year ago I wrote this piece on the difference between officiating (association) football and (field) hockey. It touched at the end on what the two sports could learn from each other. As both sports embark on a round of rule changes, are they doing any learning?


The changes to the Laws of the Game to apply from June have been poorly reported, as some expected changes (notably to the penalty kick) have not in fact been accepted.

The outright changes to the laws are that:

  • from a goal kick or defensive free kick in the penalty area, the ball will no longer have to leave the area to be in play;
  • substituted players will leave the field by the nearest boundary line; and
  • yellow and red cards will be available as sanctions to team officials as well as players.

How thrilling.

The real changes are, as ever, to the interpretations and explanations of existing laws and procedures. Most notably, the laws of the game now clarify what may be described as “gaining an unintentional advantage” (my phrase) as one of the three instances:

  • a change of possession;
  • the creation of a “promising attack”; and
  • the scoring of a goal.

A team “gaining an unintentional advantage” so defined will be penalised if it comes about due to the ball striking the hand and will cause a dropped ball if the ball strikes a match official.

This means that even an unintentional handball will be penalised if it leads to a change of possession, the creation of a “promising attack”, or the scoring of a goal. It also means that if the ball hits a match official (most obviously the referee), play will no longer automatically continue; if this leads to a change of possession, the creation of a “promising attack”, or the scoring of a goal then play will re-start with a dropped ball. Notably, “handball” is itself more specifically defined (players must not make their body bigger unnaturally or hold their hands above their heads or they are liable to concede the offence of the ball hits the hand or arm) and the procedure for a “dropped ball” is amended so that it is not longer contested (possession returns to the team which last touched the ball except in the penalty area, where possession automatically goes to the goalkeeper regardless of last touch; note the laws were amended in 2012 so that no goal can be scored direct from a dropped ball).

There are some other technical changes too, perhaps most notably that:

  • forwards will not be able to interfere with a defensive “wall” at a free kick;
  • goalkeepers will be required only to have one foot on the line at a penalty kick; and
  • the team winning the toss will be able to choose to kick off (with the other team then choosing ends).

The IFAB (the International Laws Committee, in effect) also highlighted the requirement for captains to be responsible for the conduct of their team and for respect for referees, but made no specific amendments in this area.


Hockey’s new rules are officially already in force although, as with football, in practice they will only apply from next season.

There are two highlight changes:

  • the game will be played in four quarters (maximum 15 minutes) with time stoppages at penalty corners at all levels (although the precise nature of that stoppage will still vary between levels); and
  • the “kicking back” (ahem, “player with goalkeeping privileges”) is abolished, albeit technically as an experiment.

In fact, there are some other subtle changes which are less reported by will likely make more difference to game play, notably the allowing of a free hit for an offence inside the circle to be taken anywhere in the circle and the abolition of shadowing inside the circle of attacking free hits just outside the circle except where they are taken immediately. There are also some very minor amendments to the permitting of the propelling of the ball by any part of the body by the goalkeeper (this was previously restricted to feet and kickers), the penalising specifically of the taker of a penalty corner (the gloriously named “injector”) for any attacking encroachment into the circle, and (usefully for umpires) the specification that an offence must be by definition “against an opponent”. There is also some tidying up over the end of a penalty corner, which is now consistent at all times for all purposes (with common sense on face masks still being worn briefly after the penalty corner ends also being written into the rules).

Rejected changes

A proposed change to the laws of football which was widely expected to proceed by some reporters but did not happen was to the end of the penalty kick. There was an experiment in some leagues that the penalty kick would end as soon as it was saved or hit the frame of the goal, with play then restarted with a goal kick. This would have brought penalty kicks taken in regulation into line with penalty kicks taken in shootouts (and also right at the end of the game or half) – and interestingly also with penalty strokes in hockey.

Hockey-like experiments with “sin bins” (i.e. temporary suspensions from play) and rolling substitutes are ongoing.


The most obvious alignment above concerns the coin toss before the match. As they were before 1997, football captains will again, like hockey captains, be entitled to choose to start the game (but doing so cedes the right to choose ends). Interestingly, the justification given for this was the amendment to the kick-off rule in 2016 which brought the kick-off in football almost exactly into line with hockey’s centre-pass (or “pushback” or “passback” as it is still more commonly known, even though the ball need not be pushed and can be played forwards).

However, for me the most interesting trend is the notion (again, note this is my phrasing) of “gaining an unintentional advantage” with regard to handball. This is not a million miles away from hockey’s rule that any contact with the ball by the body is an offence, but (like any offence in hockey) is penalised only if it causes a disadvantage to an opponent. Could football be heading in the same direction with handball (or even, in the longer term, more generally)?

Both sports are also introducing procedures to speed up the restart when the defending team receives a free in its own defensive area.


Some of the changes will in fact cause divergence. Hockey will, for example, keep the rule that play simply continues if the ball strikes an umpire. Hockey also retains the requirement that players leave (as well as enter) the field on the same side within three metres of the centre-line for substitutions, which will be specifically contrary to football. Hockey goalkeepers will also still be required specifically to have both feet on the goal-line for penalty strokes.

Football is also introducing cards for team officials, something hockey abolished. There is also little prospect of football moving towards quarters, which hockey will at all levels (at least so far as the rule book is concerned) from next season.


The football authorities are better than their hockey counterparts at explaining the precise reasoning for changes to the laws. Agree with the changes or not, their purpose is clearly outlined in football; it is arguable whether this is so with hockey. The amendment to require all hockey matches to be played over four quarters with time stoppages for penalty corners has raised particular concern because, to many, it is an unnecessary time-keeping complication at lower levels with no clear purpose.

The outcome of the way changes are presented is that it is easier to see where football may be going (hence the interesting idea that it may be heading towards a more hockey-like interpretation of an offence as needing to cause a disadvantage to an opponent, at least in some instances, before it is penalised).

There has been some discussion in football of moving to rolling substitutes as hockey did in the 1990s (at the same time, in fact, that it removed offside). However, with the changes to the requirements for leaving the field for substitutions just introduced, this would appear now to be unlikely in the short term.

The report (by former referee David Elleray) which recommended the ball be put directly back into play from goal kicks (now adopted) and that penalty kicks not have rebounds (which was expected to be adopted but was not) also included two further proposals taken directly and overtly from hockey. One was to have the game shorted to two halves of thirty minutes but with time stopped for all breaks in play (not exactly as hockey but close); and the other was to allow “self-passes” at free kicks (i.e. remove the restriction that a player taking a set piece cannot play the ball again until it has been touched by another player). However, neither of these has even reached experimental status.

The likeliest convergence for me, therefore, is the possibly reasonably imminent introduction of “sin bins” (temporary suspensions from play) at all levels of football, although exactly how this will be done is anyone’s guess.

Fundamentally it seems, for now at least, that there is as much divergence as convergence between the sports when it comes to the rules.

“Liberals” need to work out how to oppose appalling populism more positively

We humans are emotional beings. It makes us all the more interesting. Most of the best things in life are emotional (and irrational) after all – from romantic love to supporting a sports team. These things do not make sense when considered in a reasoned way, but they are what drive our passions and thus they are the basis of our art, our music and our culture.

Psychologically some would suggest we human beings fall broadly into one of two categories – fast-mode or slow-mode thinker. 


This brings us not to Brexit (though it very well could), but to a recent leaflet sent around the Botanic DEA of Belfast by one of the DUP candidates for the forthcoming local election.


To me and to almost anyone in my social circle, this leaflet is clearly appalling. However, almost everyone in my social circle is a “slow-mode” thinker when it comes to such things.

To a “fast-mode” thinker when it comes to politics, on the other hand, that leaflet is so appalling as to be likely to work. After all, a “fast-mode” thinker might say, are we seriously suggesting local homes shouldn’t go to local people? That we shouldn’t control immigration? That there shouldn’t be more funding for Loyalist areas in need? 

The fast, automatic, unconscious response to such a leaflet is in fact to agree with it instinctively. From any sort of Unionist viewpoint, make any of the proposals negative and they are clearly wrong. This is why groups whose governmental record is atrocious but whose electoral record is good resort to such leaflets at election time – they draw the fast, automatic, unconscious response to agree, and thus they win support and votes (enabling them to continue to make a mess in government but get away with it electorally).

From a slow-mode thinker’s point of view, such a leaflet is extraordinarily difficult to counter, for two prime reasons. Firstly, those of us who engage with politics (and thus in “slow-mode” thought around political issues) and thus make the effort to consider the complexities of such things can see the appalling reality of what such a leaflet is trying to achieve – just a little reflection on it has us recognising that segregating society into “in-groups” and “out-groups” (and setting one against the other for apparently finite resources), exactly as that leaflet intends, rarely has happy consequences. Secondly, and worse still, we arrive at that conclusion so quickly (given our experience as “slow-mode” thinkers in politics) that we simply cannot comprehend how anyone else would not arrive at it. What a “slow-mode” thinker sees as obvious, a “fast-mode” thinker simply does not see at all – and vice-versa. 

Ultimately, most people are too busy to spend vast amounts of time thinking about politics. That is for others to do (hence they often disparage “politicians” as a group, despite being responsible for electing them – politicians are supposed to be trusted to get on with their job while the res tof us get on with ours). This is a fundamental division which populists are brilliant at exploiting. They play to pre-conceptions (and worse) to deliver emotional appeals to “fast-mode” thinking which, without pause for consideration, seem obvious and incontrovertible. Slogans such as “Take back control” or “Make America Great Again” are perfect for this, appealing additionally to a sense of loss and an instinctive desire to put things right without really having to spend time thinking about the hows and whys. 

“Liberals”, often academics or professionals who spend longer comtemplating government and politics, have not even yet worked out what is happening as they simply cannot comprehend the appeal of electoral slogans and promises which, to “slow-mode” thinking, are so obviously wrong. Furthermore, they also find it harder to deliver the same sort of unity the populists seem (initially at least) able to rely on. As “slow-mode” thinkers with regard to politics, these Liberals fall out with each other over details (last year the British Liberal Democrats even managed to lose one of their 12 remaining MPs over their European policy, previously their most defining and unifying policy area) and thus end up arguing with each other over minor side points. They have no influence over these minor side points anyway because, as political “slow-mode” thinkers, they cannot fathom the electoral appeal of cases made to “fast-mode” thinkers and thus keep losing elections.

I myself have no idea what the answer to this conundrum is, or I would long ago have shared it! What I do know is that political “slow-mode” thinkers have to get cuter than simply pointing to appalling leaflets and assuming that what is obvious to them will be obvious to everyone. My own suspicion is that “Liberals” will have to become less relentlessly negative, particularly apparently about those who engage in “fast-mode” thinking politically, and instead make appeals to them through more positive messaging on the key issues. For example, instead of pointing out how appalling an anti-immigration message is, they should attempt to sell immigration as a good thing; instead of pointing to the blatant sectarianism of prioritising only “Loyalist” areas in need, make the case for a deal for all areas in need and that they can achieve far more by working together rather than apart. Ultimately the task is to change the instinctive immediate response on issues such as immigration and sectarianism so those who have no time for political “slow-mode” thinking nevertheless share the instincts of those who have.

In short, “Liberals” too need to come to terms with the fact we are not primarily rational, but rather emotional animals. After all, that is what unites us and we are all the more interesting for it…

Updated slightly after a correspondent, who prefers to remain anonymous, linked to Kahneman hypothesis of “fast” versus “slow”; I am no psychologist but it is worth noting Kahneman’s early research was on “loss aversion” also referenced above as a key electoral driver, and that he also wrote extensively on the “illusion of control” (hence the success of the slogan).

Should football learn from hockey on video reviews

In this article, “football” means soccer and “hockey” means field hockey. (As they rank first and third globally in terms both of sports participated in and sports attended, this is as it should be…!)

In the recent Champions’ League fixture in Gelsenkirchen between Schalke and Manchester City, six minutes were taken up by the referee trying to establish if a handball incident should result in a penalty, in part because it turned out the in-stadium video replay was not working so he had to go “blind”, taking the word of the video replay assistant team. A similar rigmarole (albeit with the system working) took place even in the World Cup Final. While “VAR” has generally been applauded for making decisions more accurate, it has been challenged by those who feel it takes too long (or does not account sufficiently for the speed at which the game is played particularly with reference to handball decisions – a clear example occurred last night, when Napoli was awarded a ludicrous penalty via VAR more or less for kicking the ball at the arm from close range in a Serie A game against Juventus).

It does seem to be an unwieldy system. Not only can it take a considerable length of time for a decision to be reached, but typically five video assistant referees are involved. That is a lot of effort, combined with significant opportunities for things to go wrong (the assistants are often located remotely, sometimes several hundred miles from the stadium).

In parts of the world where rugby is known, some have suggested a “TMO” system would work better, but I have argued before here that it too takes too long and, particularly, that it has led to on-field referees becoming over-reliant on the technology. Even the award of clear scores can be delayed, at the expense of time and indeed the base emotion which is the very reason many of us attend and enjoy sport.

Hockey’s system is not absolutely perfect either, but seems to offer a happy medium. In that case, a “video referral” is made to a single video umpire in a booth after an on-field decision has already been made, and the video umpire may be asked only very specific questions (“I am looking for a foot in the circle”; “I need to check if it hit an attacker’s stick”; or similar). The video umpire then responds essentially affirmatively, negatively, or with the line “I can see no clear reason to change your decision”.

The key difference is that, although hockey umpires may themselves make a referral (particularly in the case of goal versus no goal), each team also has the right to ask for reviews. In each half, each team may request a referral for major decisions as many times as it likes until it is wrong (in which case it loses the right for the rest of the half). Therefore, umpires are less inclined to make their own referrals but can quite openly ask teams appealing for or against a major decision “Do you want to refer it?”

The other difference versus football is that the on-field umpire is bound by the video umpire’s decision if one is clearly given either way (which is effectively what had to happen at Schalke when the video system at the side of the field was not working). Football has long had the culture of the referee’s decision is final, so “VAR” has been constructed to enable that. How important is that, really?

Clearly, there are differences. Football has offside to consider; hockey has two types of major decision (penalty stroke and penalty corner) as well as goal or no goal. Match timing is different too (in football time keeps running for reviews and is then added on; in hockey the clock stops). However, would it not be easier if football abandoned all the extra video assistants checking for everything and instead went for team referrals? It’s a question worth considering, anyway!

Schools should teach “language”, not languages

This drop in the number of school pupils taking or even being offered languages in Northern Ireland is fairly typical of the UK as a whole (although not, in fact, of Ireland).

At one level it is indeed alarming. Living solely in English is to cut off access to other cultures and other ways of doing things in every walk of life. It is even unhealthy.

However, a drop in the number of languages on offer in schools is not necessarily a bad thing if it leads to a long needed correction. In fact, the way languages are taught in schools is outdated and, for most pupils, hopeless. This could well be the reason fewer schools are even offering them.

Firstly, the process on language teaching itself needs to be reformed. As I have written many times here, “vocabulary lists” and “dry grammar” are no way to learn a language. Asking for vanilla ice cream when you know you would prefer strawberry, or saying you have two sisters and one brother when you’re an only child, is the final straw in the inevitable loss of interest. This is even more the case when it all seems so pointless.

Secondly, however, the very notion of teaching each language as a separate subject needs to be challenged. Do we teach probability separately from trigonometry? No, we teach mathematics. So why teach languages separately?

Many of the basic principles of Spanish and Portuguese, French and Italian, or all four of those languages together are the same. We could even learn Esperanto first as an introduction to get pupils interested. Some of the principles of Indo-European as a whole are interesting. Even the broad notion of language (that some use compass directions for left and right, or others use relevance rather than time as the key verb distinction) can draw attention. Keep it interesting and pupils will learn.

It is time to think again about the whole thing. It is not that pupils are any less interested in languages in principle. The problem is the way they are taught fundamentally does not work.

The original post ended there, but it is worth adding the first comment to the text at this point. Edward McCambley writes:

The difficulty is with time. Perhaps the greatest act of educational vandalism since the dissolution of the monasteries was the Labour Goverment’s decision to abandon school study of a modern language GCSE. This meant, in effect, for many pupils, a modern language for two years. This is worthless.

The way forward is to do what Irish medium schools do. Make a language other than English central to the curriculum. And before the True Brits get worked up: I am not (sadly) an Irish language speaker. I might add that the abandonment of modern language study by that well known local business, Queen’s University, in its pursuit of Asian money, does not help.

Whether that way forward is viable is debatable. However, it is worth noting that pupils are already leaving some Irish-medium primary schools with GCSEs in two languages (typically Irish and Spanish). Parents are told that it is for them to ensure English-language competence is maintained. That must be food for thought?

Colour clashes becoming ridiculous in top-level football

In next week’s “Super Bowl”, a toss-up will decide which team wears white and which team wears a colour. The teams will be easily distinguishable even where reception is poor or even in black and white.

Sheffield Wednesday in black, with the goalkeeper in purple, defend against Chelsea in blue. How “easily distinguishable” are these colours?!

Yesterday’s FA Cup tie between Chelsea and Sheffield Wednesday was yet another example of (association) football failing to do the bleedin’ obvious. Blue faced black with one goalkeeper in purple. None of these was easily distinguishable, as required by Law 4, particularly the visiting goalkeeper from his own team mates. It was ridiculous.

It used to be so much easier. Referees wore black, goalkeepers generally wore green (or generally yellow in the unlikely event that a team chose to wear green), and teams were easily distinguished. This was managed despite each club maintaining only two kits for outfielders.

These days, despite clubs being allowed three or sometimes more kits, colour clashes are common, particularly between dark colours (black versus blue or claret, for example). Goalkeepers often wear shirts which are barely distinguishable from their own team – Arsenal’s has even contrived to wear dark pink at home, blatantly clashing with red. Even if the referee is satisfied at the distinction (and I would not be), the viewers at home can hardly be. What is more, it is all so unnecessary.

In the name of rampant commercialism, we have made a simple thing complicated. If goalkeepers wore green and referees wore black, one team could wear a predominantly dark colour (just not black or green) and the other light. Why make it all so hard?!

How to learn languages Review (repost)

Every Friday this year, I have run through how to learn the major Western European languages.


It is important to emphasise that, in terms of learning, the story starts with this general vocabulary list and overall introduction. Without it, the other introductions to each individual language and language group make sense, but have limited value.


Then we need to note that all the languages referred to – the entirely of  both the Romance/Latinate and the Germanic language family (as well as many others) – derive from a single language known by modern linguists as Proto-Indo-European.


Anyone embarking on learning several languages – particularly if these are Romance/Latinate, Germanic and/or Slavic – may consider first learning the constructed language Esperanto. This is relatively simple, but offers some introduction to the principles and complexities/challenges/fun of language learning (from tricky phonology to the subjunctive mood, alongside some unintentional irregularities). It can also be useful for vocabulary, drawn as it is largely from Latin or Latin-based languages but also in significant part from Germanic and Slavic.


What are usually referred to as “Romance” languages are those derived from Latin – among national languages, this means (from west to east in Europe) Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian and Romanian. They all carry over complex verb systems (with three tenses and a range of moods, and full verbal agreement) and two noun genders (with full adjectival agreement). In fact, almost half the linguistic change between Classical Latin and each of those languages had occurred by the time they split apart; thus they are not only derived from the Classical Latin of Cicero and Caesar but in fact from the Late Latin still in some use at the time of Charlemagne – having some comprehension of that late version (also known as “Vulgar Latin”) is a huge advantage to anyone wishing to learn any Romance language, and particularly to anyone wishing to learn more than one.

All other things being equal, perhaps the best Romance language to start with is Italian. It is the most conservative of the main national Romance languages, and therefore includes most of the features found in the others.

On the basis that it is easier to learn a relatively complex language before a structurally more straightforward one, next may be Portuguese. From a purely European point of view, this one seems marginal, but the growing role of Brazil as a regional power perhaps gives it as much significance as any other in the modern world.

Structurally more straightforward (comparatively) is arguably the most useful foreign language for English speakers to learn, Spanish. The main complication is that the phonology of Spanish has changed markedly since the Golden Age, although spelling has (broadly at least) kept up. With almost half a billion native speakers worldwide, and a significant role also within the United States, this is rapidly becoming the first language in schools in the English-speaking world with good reason. Its only drawback is that learning other languages having learned Spanish generally takes longer than the other way around.

For all that, in the British Isles French generally remains the first foreign language, with its remarkable cultural power and astonishing phonological development. This is not particularly linguistically helpful, however, as its distinct phonology (a product, at least in part, of notable early Germanic influence) means French is further from the other three modern Romance languages looked at here than any of the other three is from any of the others.


Germanic languages derive from what is referred to by linguists as “Proto-Germanic”, spoken at the same time as Classical Latin. They display simpler verb forms (with only two tenses, rare use of subjunctive mood and even in some cases elimination or near elimination of verbal and some adjectival agreement) but a broadly more complex noun (albeit simplified in some modern standards), with the neuter case maintained at least in some form across the board. The first major written text in Germanic is in fact in the now extinct East Germanic language of Gothic, contemporaneous with the Roman emperor Constantine.

The first written version of any Germanic language still in existence was in fact the West Germanic language of Old English, also known as Anglo-Saxon, from which modern English (and also Scots) is derived. Old English bears almost no more relation to modern English than Gothic does, but the intermediate period gave us the language of the first great English literary figure, Chaucer. This is known as Middle English, but is markedly further removed from the modern language that the Early Modern English of Shakespeare as the speed of language change slowed down after the invention of the printing press.

Modern English is, of course, something of a hybrid given the influence on it of Latin, Norman French and other languages; like French, it is complicated by the fact it is written to reflect medieval rather than modern pronunciation, and there has been a sound shift since. The most widely spoken West Germanic language other than English, and the most conservative and obviously Germanic language still widely used, is German, with the remarkable ongoing complexity of its noun system; it is grammatically complex, but at least its written form reflects its sound shifts.

Another less complex West Germanic language is Dutch, interesting in its own right but also because of its even more grammatically reduced daughter language spoken in Southern Africa, Afrikaans. This is the nearest national language in existence to English (but the reverse does not apply).

There is also a group of North Germanic languages, split between the Western or Insular ones (Icelandic, Faroese and arguably one standard of Norwegian) and the Eastern or Scandinavian ones (Norwegian, Swedish and Danish). To some degree each group of these is mutually intelligible (they are significantly more conservative as you move northwest), but Danish is outstanding for its remarkably reduced/progressed phonology.


It has been my contention throughout that tying the knowledge of the basic vocabulary at the outset to an overall historical overview and then a fundamental grammatical outline gives us a much faster route to becoming at least proficient in several foreign languages without having to learn each from scratch. This way, language learning need not be such a chore, and in fact takes on a much more interesting route.

Nevertheless, as ever, I am open to any corrections, queries or contrary views!

#Brexit thread from November 2017

A Twitter thread I wrote on 16 November 2017 has begun attracting attention again – probably because so little of the Government’s thinking has meaningfully changed since! It ran like this…

This evening in Germany, David Davis has demonstrated a frankly humiliating misunderstanding of even the basics of the EU. A quick thread. 1/

Firstly, even if somehow Angela Merkel were scared that the German economy could be crippled by, er, not being able to export freely to a smaller country like the UK, she cannot intervene to offer the UK a special deal. No one can. 2/

Let us repeat: the EU is the Single Market and the Single Market is the EU. Let us also repeat: the Single Market is a market of *rules*. This is the fundamental point David Davis has still failed to grasp. 3/

For that reason, participation in the Single Market by any non-EU State is determined by which rules that State is willing to adopt. And that is the end of it.

(Norway adopts nearly all of them, for example; Moldova just a few.) 4/

David Davis therefore still hasn’t grasped that this negotiation is not “We give a bit, you give a bit”. It is essentially “Here are the rules of the Single Market; tell us which ones you no longer wish to apply and that will determine your level of participation in it.” 5/

This really should be obvious. How otherwise could a 27/28-member bloc function if it did not have *rules*? And those rules cannot be amended other than with the support of the whole bloc. 6/

This is all to leave quite aside that David Davis vastly overstates the UK’s economic importance. Germany sells many multiples more cars in China and the US, for example. That is a basic matter of fact. 7/

UK really should have worked out by now, more than halfway between Referendum Day and Brexit Day, that this whole “They’ll bend to our will” stuff is a *myth*. It can’t happen – and wouldn’t, even if it could. 8/

And for any UK Minister to go anywhere else and tell the locals not to put “politics before prosperity” is, right now, to set a new world record in gross hypocrisy. For that is precisely and embarrassingly what the UK alone is doing with #Brexit. 9/

David Davis’ call for co-operation in the interests of mutual prosperity was met with an obvious first question from a German journalist.

“If that is what you want, why are you leaving?”