Friday, January 30, 2015

Don't organise, review!

Ed Miliband, Leader of Her Majesty's Most Loyal Opposition and prominent fan of the Norwegian pop group a-ha, rolled into Belfast last Friday with the sort of pomp and attention one would expect to accompany an individual who in just a few weeks time might be the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.  Well, actually, in truth there was no fanfare.  Nor did any member of Joe Public that I spoke to appear to be aware of his presence.  But here he most certainly was, and although the Labour leader's flying visit was for the most part thoroughly unremarkable, he did manage to utter one comment which should provide our local political anoraks with something to chew on.  I refer here specifically to Mr Miliband's statement that he intends to "review" Labour's policy of not contesting Northern Irish elections in the next parliament.

This is an issue which has been a recurring theme in the life of this blog.  Whilst I have been in favour of such a move for quite some time now, I am realistic enough to recognise that there is no prospect of Labour candidates appearing on my ballot paper anytime soon.  There probably would have been a time when a more naïve me would have viewed absolutely any comment whatsoever from a senior party figure on this subject as a step forward of sorts, yet it is difficult to see how any of the words spoken at Stormont Castle yesterday could be looked upon in a positive manner.

Ed might well stay true to his word and issue a review of Labour's policy towards elections in Northern Ireland, but it seems fairly clear that he has zero interest in getting the party dragged into the bleak world of Ulster politics.  His words yesterday were the same words that every previous Labour leader to him would have uttered on the subject: that his party needs to be "honest brokers" in the "peace process", that the SDLP is Labour's "sister party", etc.

As excuses go, those trotted out by the Labour leadership at present are not entirely convincing.  For instance, so what if the SDLP is Labour's "sister party"?  This should in no way be viewed as a reason to keep Labour out of Northern Ireland.  For a start, there is very little about the SDLP that screams 'social democrat' or 'labour' and that has been the case for the whole of my lifetime (folk like Paddy Devlin and Gerry Fitt had given up on the party well before I was born).  If Miliband does still possess a basic Labour value such as solidarity, he should be concerned that left-leaning citizens in this part of the UK do not have the opportunity to vote for centre-left candidates.

Another reason why the Labour policy on staying out of elections here is absolute balderdash is down to the fact it is totally nonsensical to on the one hand claim that organising in Northern Ireland would compromise their role of "honest brokers" when attempting to sort out our petty sectarian quarrels and yet on the other hand openly declare that one of the sectarian parties here is their "sister" organisation.  A quick glance at the top two "key issues" highlighted by the SDLP on their website - a united Ireland and an Irish language act - paint a picture of a party with it's mind on things other than democratic socialism.  If Ed and the rest of the Labour top dogs really want their stance of not dirtying their hands in the Ulster mud to be worth anything, perhaps they would be better declaring that they have no sisters (or brothers) in this neck of the woods.

A third explanation often fired out to ward off any questions on this matter is that, regardless of what Labour might think of the SDLP, Alasdair McDonnell's crew nevertheless remain affiliated to the Socialist International and the Party of European Socialists and therefore it would not be possible to have another group tied to these two supranational left-wing institutions also standing in Northern Irish elections.  This is bunkum as well.  There are numerous countries across the world where the SI or the PES have two or even three affiliate parties fighting elections against each other (Argentina and Israel spring to mind as examples in the SI while the PES contains at least two member groups in Italy and Poland).  There is no reason that Northern Ireland would be unable to accommodate a similar state of affairs.

Ed did highlight one new justification for remaining a GB-only party and, as justifications go, this was poor - really poor.  In an interview with Noel McAdam of the Belfast Telegraph, Mr Miliband pointed out that "the Conservatives if you remember tried to get involved here in a partnership in 2010 and I don't think that was very successful".  Yes, that is indeed correct, Ed, but so what?  Of all the Labour excuses ever uttered on the topic of involvement in 'our wee country' I have to say that this is by far the most pathetic.  So, if I read this one correctly, because the Tories failed miserably in these parts it therefore follows that Labour shouldn't bother their backsides giving it a go.  How very odd.  If it is now part of the organisation's strategy not to compete in places where the Conservatives have made a complete and utter balls of things then I eagerly await Ed sending the order to Jim Murphy for him to wind up Scottish Labour.

Garbage though it might be as an excuse for keeping out of the Norn Iron political scene, there is actually something quite telling about Miliband's remark about the Tory's electoral disaster here.  Perhaps what ultimately keeps the Labour Party out of Northern Ireland is not the potential for squandering their role as "honest brokers" nor is it the possibility of treading on the toes of the SDLP.  No.  Maybe what Labour leaders really fear is the prospect of failure and humiliation. 

Do not forget that these six counties send eighteen Members of Parliament across the water.  It does not seem unreasonable to believe that if Labour's head honchos thought that contesting elections here would gain them even one extra seat in Westminster - particularly in an election as tight as the forthcoming general election appears it will be - then they would put forward candidates and without any hesitation drop the guff about being "honest brokers" in a peace process that ended years ago.  However, the chance of Labour enjoying immediate success in such a scenario is remote and it is equally difficult to imagine them providing any kind of enthusiastic support for the long hard slog of building a party from scratch.  Yet, while Northern Ireland cannot have Labour, we do still require labour politics.  So, is there an alternative path?  Possibly.

The UK Labour Party possesses in these parts an organisation with, I believe, more than 300 members.  The Irish Labour Party also maintains a similar type of organisation.  Would it not be possible for the individuals from these two groups to come together and agree some type of electoral vehicle?  Of course, they would not be standing as the Labour Party but they could still fight elections on a solidly centre-left manifesto.  Unlike other new parties, this possible labour grouping would begin day one of it's existence with the significant advantage of already having several hundred members in its ranks; plus, with over 200,000 trade unionists in Northern Ireland, most of whom are not members of any political party, there is a pool of potential recruits lying in wait.  And, if at some point in the future this group grew to be as significant a force in local politics as, say, the Alliance Party, it would not be surprising if Labour figures in London suddenly had a change of heart when it came to elections on this side of the Irish Sea.

Then again, it could end in a trail of lost deposits.  It goes without saying that there would be no guarantee that such a centre-left electoral front would be successful.  At the moment, however, if you do truly wish to see labour politics exist locally then it would seem that an independent Northern Irish labour formation is the only show in town. 

Yes, a number of similar projects have been launched in the years since the old NILP bit the dust - all of which failed horribly (see United Labour Party, LPNI and Labour 87 for three such examples) - but in fairness all of these were set up during the years of conflict when the chances of success were virtually zero.  Times have changed.  We have seen Alliance knock Peter Robinson off his perch in East Belfast.  We have seen the Greens win seats in the Assembly and in local councils.  We witnessed an independent candidate, Kieran Deeny, come from nowhere to claim a seat at Stormont on the back of the campaign to save Tyrone County Hospital.  In short, people these days have more on their minds than traditional Taig/Prod concerns.

So, let's give it a go.  We have nothing to lose.  It certainly beats the alternative of sitting around waiting on the result of Ed Miliband's review.  I think I might just have an inkling on how that one will turn out.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Not very compassionate conservatism

The Sunifesto is the unimaginatively titled general election manifesto of The Sun.  Do not be overly concerned, the newspaper is not actually contesting the election but in the utterly surreal development that political parties are somehow banned from standing leaving only newspapers able to run for office, this is what The Sun would fighting for.
There aren't any surprises in pages of The Sunifesto.  This is all pretty much what you would expect from the newspaper concerned.  It seems to be a document written for (and possibly 'by') the sort of person that likes to boast of how they "tell it like it is", your average run-of-the-mill pub bore reactionary.  Chuck out the foreigners?  Check.  Scrap the Human Rights Act?  You've got it.  Referendum on EU membership?  In there too.  Cut welfare?  Oh yes.  An appeal to be tougher on crime?  Yup.  Quick swipe at the BBC?  Yes indeed.  And an idiotic anti-politics line about the need for MPs to be 'honest' and cut out the spin?  Very much so. 
Yet now The Sun has even turned its guns on poor old pensioners.  This "vision for a better Britain" calls for an end to "handouts for well-off OAPs" and states bluntly that "they should not get aid to catch a bus".  Not even a measly bus for someone that has worked and paid their taxes for decades?  Goodness me, that is a tad harsh. 

I was always under the impression that The Sun looked fondly on the nation's old folk, but clearly not.  It must just the troops that the hacks at the paper consider worthy enough to breathe the same air as them.  This "aid to catch a bus" line really does sum up the general feeling of nastiness lingering around at the moment - that sense that anyone who appears to be getting anything from the state, no matter how small and insignificant, are parasites and should have it taken off them immediately.
Incidentally, Amazon sold goods worth £4.3 billion in the United Kingdom last year but paid a mere £4.2 million in tax.  The Sunifesto had nothing to say on these sort of practices, which is odd.  After all, think of all the bus passes you could buy with the a decent chunk of that £4.3 billion.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

"Ukraine 1942, Judenaktion in Iwangorod"

I must admit that I am not easily disturbed by photographs and video footage from wars.  I say this not as a boast.  Far from it.  Indeed, I think for people of my age this is quite a common sentiment.  Perhaps it is because we have been exposed from a young age to the most grizzly of images from the Somme, Hiroshima, My Lai, Srebrenica and various other places whose names no longer represent locations but rather act as shorthand terms for very worst of humanity.  In an era that has seen the internet make a mockery of the concept of censorship and where anyone can watch the latest ISIS beheadings on their smartphone, it is unlikely that the generation growing up now will be any less hardened when it comes to the viewing of mankind's atrocity exhibitions. 
Yet there is one photograph which had a tremendous impact on me when I first set eyes on it as a schoolboy and today I find it still retains that same unsettling power.  It is this:
I was fourteen years old and sitting comfortably in my history class when it first appeared before me.  The topic was, as you might have worked out by this stage, the invasion by Nazi Germany of the Soviet Union.  I can still recall the teacher advising us not to look at the photos in our textbook for too long ("I don't want your parents blaming me for giving you nightmares," she said).  The book contained several gruesome photographs but it was this particular one that stood out.  No caption accompanied it to provide any context for the photo, or at least if there was I did not happen to spot it.  For a long time afterwards I just remembered it as that harrowing photo of people being shot in 'Russia'.  Then I stumbled across it again several years later, this time with a little bit more background information provided.
It transpired that the photograph in question was taken in 1942 in a rural area of central Ukraine, close to the village of Ivanhorod.  It came to public attention after it was intercepted by a postal worker in a Warsaw mailroom who then forwarded it to members of the Polish resistance that were able to in turn send copies of it to London.  The back of the photo contained the note: "Ukraine 1942, Judenaktion in Iwangorod".  There are no other details about the image itself, nor do we need any.
For me, what has always made this photograph so chilling is the way in which it can horrify you on several levels.  The first and most obvious distressing feature is that of the woman holding a child in her arms, her back turned to the rifle-wielding members of the Einsatzgruppen.  But that is far from the only unpleasant element.  On the far left there lies the body of a woman, something which can be overlooked on first glance such is the heartbreaking draw of the woman holding the child.  On the far right, although this part of the image is not as clear, one can make out a group of people (other family members of the woman holding the child?) who appear to be kneeling down.  Beside them a wooden stick has been driven into the ground.  The earth next to them appears to have moved.  A shovel is visible.  People preparing their own grave?  Most probably.  And then there is the landscape that surrounds these people in their final moments.  Flat.  Featureless.  Bleak.
When I first saw this photograph I tried to imagine what it must have been like to be there and I still find my imagination playing this macabre game when I see it now.  What was the woman thinking as she held the child tightly in her arms?  What was going through the minds of those poor folk digging the hole?  What did the victims say to one another as they awaited death?  What words were spoken between the SS troops and their Jewish victims?
Yet possibly the most disturbing aspect of this is the very fact that a photograph exists at all.  This was not a photo taken by a spy or an undercover member of the resistance attempting to highlight Nazi atrocities on the Eastern Front.  This was a moment in time captured by the very people who were carrying out this act of mass murder and who felt the necessity to not only record it but to then send out the evidence of their massacre in the mail.  No guilt.  No shame.  No worries.  No need for them to hide their activities.  Quite the opposite - they wanted it to be seen and for it to be remembered forever.  In that they certainly succeeded, though not in the manner that they would have wished.
When I think of the Holocaust, whether today on Holocaust Memorial Day or on any other day of the year, it is this haunting, harrowing black and white image that I keep coming back to.
Several months ago I found myself looking at a video released by ISIS.  The footage I viewed showed a father and son that had been captured by the organisation.  Both men were being forced to dig their own graves.  Once they had finished digging, they were then each shot through the head and buried.  I was immediately reminded of the scene from Ivanhorod in 1942.  Now, as I come to the end of this piece, I hear reports on BBC radio of the killing of civilians by soldiers in, of all places, Ukraine.
Never again?  If only.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

She has a dream (she's just not telling us what it is yet)

I like January.  While some get swallowed up in an air of post-Christmas depression, I have tended to welcome this much-maligned month and embrace the dawning of a new year with a sense of new life and optimism.  I am far from alone too.  All around me I hear people discussing their various resolutions, hopes, plans and dreams.  That last one is particularly important because, as Del Boy once informed his younger sibling Rodney, if one lacks a dream then they will face a challenge when it comes to making a dream come true.

One person who has embraced the new year and outlined her dream for us is the former Fine Gael TD Lucinda Creighton.  Her dream, she helpfully informed us last week, is one of an Ireland which is, and I quote, "a great place to innovate, to grow, to build and expand a small business, to employ people, to work and to be a consumer".  Inspiring stuff I am sure you will agree.

Lucinda's banal blueprint for the future of the nation was given at a slightly puzzling press conference that seemed to act as an announcement about a forthcoming announcement.  In case you missed the story, Creighton and a few pals, Eddie Hobbs being one, are planning to launch a new political party.  At a press conference in Dublin a few days back we were not provided with a launch date, a name for the party nor exactly what the policies of the new party would be - all of which left me wondering why they had bothered at all with this bizarre media event.  Wouldn't it have been better to just wait a few months until you actually have a party to launch?
Call me old fashioned but I get the feeling that the folk involved in this particular project have put the cart before the horse.  It would have always been my view that political parties evolve out of ideas and philosophies held in common by groups of people who come together to organise a vehicle that can help see their aims and aspirations realised.  Lucinda and friends seem to be appealing to people to rally around a hashtag.  Yes, a catchy hashtag - #RebootIreland - but a hashtag nonetheless.
Remarkably this content-free political movement is brazenly calling on its website for new members, people interested in becoming election candidates and financial donations.  Quite why anyone would want to do any one of these three things perplexes me but if you are one of those people who has joined, donated or plan to stand for this party/hashtag/thing then do drop me a line and help me understand the motivations behind such a move.
To be fair, there are some small indications of what this party is going to look like.  Given that Lucinda Creighton is at the helm of this beast, none of the indications should come as a surprise.  One line from their very brief description states that they want an economy that supports "entrepreneurs, employees and consumers".  Another talks about the creation of "a political system that supports freedom of thought, difference and independence".  Bland beyond belief so far.
A tad more intriguing are the comments about "making the public sector public" and fostering a "spirit of entrepreneurism in our public sector" - but only intriguing insofar as they spark one's interest and then do not elaborate any further on what they actually mean.  Likewise with their muttering about a "fiscal and social policy with a targeted Minimum Lifestyle Standard".  This was perhaps the most interesting point to arise out of the press conference and social media launch as the goal of a Minimum Lifestyle Standard generally isn't the sort of thing one would associate with the declaration of principles for a new (and I think it is probably safe to use this term for the unnamed creature) right-wing party.
Clearly we will have to wait another few weeks or months to pass a final judgement on this matter but it would appear that the Reboot Ireland brigade are seeking to fill the gap vacated in 2007 by the Progressive Democrats.  However, the reason that gap was vacated by the PDs was because of the electoral annihilation they suffered that same year - and that was just before the economic crash.  Given all that has happened in the years since then, can anyone seriously say that what the Republic needs now is a new organisation committed to free market economics but with a slightly less liberal stance on social issues?  Evidently I am not going to think so, however I get a sense that very few voters will be attracted by such a prospect.
It would incredibly clichéd of me to roll out the old 'second time as farce' line, though it is difficult not to.  Reboot Ireland is essentially the Progressive Democrats without the substance.  They are the Progressive Democrats without any clear guiding philosophy or ideology.  They are the Progressive Democrats without the political heavyweights like O'Malley, McDowell or Harney (unless you rank councillor John Leahy from Offaly as a big hitter).  And the very presence of Eddie Hobbs in this whole palaver suggests to me a political project that is destined to end in tears.
In short, this all reminds me of another political movement from north of the border which was low on content with regard to policy and high on social media know-how.  I am talking here about NI21.  Like Reboot Ireland, it was a right-of-centre party marketing itself as something new and vibrant that would bring in fresh faces from outside the present political class in order to 'shake things up'.  Within months, the electorate had identified NI21 for what it was - a shallow, opportunistic insult to the intelligence - and the failed fresh faces of Tina McKenzie and co, lacking any serious commitment to the organisation and bored following their lack of instant X-Factor-style success, drifted off back to their old lives.
Reboot Ireland might not fall to such a swift and spectacular crash-and-burn ending, though I would be surprised if it managed to make it all the way to contesting a second general election.  That said, I have been wrong before on numerous occasions.  Who knows?  Perhaps Lucinda's grand vision of a land of happy consumers will be just too good for voters to resist.