Monday, February 26, 2007

"Maggie Thatcher, can you hear me?"

Having beaten England three years in a row you would think we wouldn't get all that excited by yet another victory over John Bull. For some reason though there was just something that wee bit more special about Saturday's hammering of Jonny Wilkinson and his mates. The pre-match atmosphere was electric... and I didn't even see it. Unfortunately, I spent that part of the afternoon stuck with my partner on a poorly signed backroad somewhere in Kildare (we still caught the majority of the game thankfully).

The dilemma now for us is that if Ireland are to win the Six Nations this year we have to pray - or in my case really, really hope - that England actually beat France when they meet on March 11th at Twickenham. If that doesn't happen we'll be relying on the Scots to overturn the French in Paris which doesn't look very likely going by their recent form. England, of course, will eventually return to their winning ways. There'll also be a day when they give us a hiding that's equally as bad - if not worse - than the one we have just inflicted on them. For now though we can gloat. Still, I have the awful feeling that Vincent Clerc's name may live to haunt Irish rugby fans for many years to come.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Waging the war against liberalism... from Donaghcloney

There is a part of me that likes David Vance. And then there is another part of me thinks the man is a fuckwit.

The part of me that likes him is a part that recognises David Vance is someone who wants to talk about politics, not just perpetuate the Northern Irish obsession with whether or not a border is going to remain in Ireland. Vance is the former Deputy Leader of the United Kingdom Unionist Party. He contested numerous elections in the Upper Bann constituency for the UKUP although he never succeeded in making any kind of a breakthrough. He's a smart guy, but then the UK Unionists always were a party that always contained more colourful and more intellectually astute characters than were usually associated with the drab world of unionist politics. At their peak the party could claim five MLAs, a number of councillors and such scholarly members as Bob McCartney and Conor Cruise O'Brien (oh, and Pauline Armitage). These days Vance runs his own marketing company and runs the very popular website A Tangled Web.

Which brings me to the part of me that thinks he is an eejit. Take a quick flick through the pages of A Tangled Web and I think you'll see where I'm coming from. Vance is a conservative, which is fair enough. However, he is a conservative in the tradition of Bill O'Reilly and Ann Coulter. He is the sort of man who when he lambasts 'liberals' he really means anyone lying to the left of Henry Kissinger. He hates 'political correctness' (no, I don't have a clue what that is either). He doesn't have much time for Muslims. He is the Daily Mail. He is the Daily Express. He likes Blondie.

Yet, as we live in a land that has given us Mitchel McLaughlin, Vance is a virtual godsend as he can at least provoke one's emotions (as opposed to the aforementioned Derryman who doesn't appear to have any whatsoever). I was reading A Tangled Web earlier today and came upon this, an item entitled 'Lock Up The Homeless'. It included the following quote from the Big Issue founder John Bird:
"What nobody wants to acknowledge is that 90 per cent of people in and around homelessness have drink and drug problems. And 90 per cent of that figure are people who cannot control it. It is addictive behaviour and the only way to tackle it and stand any chance of 'curing' the homeless is to treat it as the mental problem it is. Addiction doesn't fall under the remit of the 1983 Mental Health Act. But it should. The people who are homeless through addiction are feckless, unstable, unreliable, incapable of holding down a job, feeding themselves or cleaning themselves. You take them into a hostel, patch them up and put them in State housing on benefits and they continue to kill themselves at the State's expense. They are ill and should be 'sectioned' - lifted from the streets and confined in the care of the mental health system, behind bars if necessary. It sounds drastic - and I expect a lot of outraged criticism - but it is the only realistic solution."
David's response:
" I have to admit that I find this is a refreshingly direct approach to the issue. I think Bird is right to speak of a 'homelessness industry', just as there is a 'poverty industry' and liberals would do well to reflect on Bird's core argument. Do we really care about those who are homeless, or do we care more about feeling good with ourselves?"
I'm not going to launch into a rant about homelessness. This is simply an example of what takes place at A Tangled Web on a daily basis. Sticking the boot into beggars, liberals, asylum seekers, etc has been a common occurrence in the media in other parts of the world, especially with the tabloid press in Britain and - increasingly - the tabloid press in the south of Ireland. In this neck of the woods it remains something pretty much unheard of outside of the pub. Perhaps that's why it makes for such compulsive reading. As Northern Ireland inches closer to the type of politics that exists in the rest of these islands the national question will be replaced by 'normal' politics. Just don't expect it to be all that normal.

The two different parts of me that I spoke of at the start are both correct. Vance is a likeable old fuckwit. No, I don't agree with him but he beats listening to Nigel Dodds rambling on about the Provisionals 'meeting the requirements specified in the Saint Andrews Agreement' or getting subjected to Martin McGuinness talking about the bloody 'equality agenda'. If you want to take a look or, as I masochistically do, follow on a regular basis the mutterings of Vancey and his chums then pay a visit to A Tangled Web. Go on. You know you want to.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Here today, gone tomorrow: just where do the SWP stand?

Left-wing trainspotters must have a field day with the Socialist Workers Party. Even by the preposterous standards set by Trotskyists over the years there are few organisations on the extreme left that have formed and subsequently abandoned as many front groups in their time. In fact, there have been so many fronts/coalitions/alliances made up by the party that you would think there wouldn't be room for any more. You would be wrong.

The Northern Ireland Assembly election on March 7 sees the latest grouping of SWP members absurdly pretending to be someone else with the formation of the People Before Profit Alliance. The PBPA (catchy, isn't it?) was formed a couple of years back and has held numerous meetings around the Republic. Now this shoddy vehicle has been kicked over the border presumably with the intention of seeing if it can perform the miracles up here that it proved incapable of doing down there.

How many SWP-related groups can you remember from the past few years? Let's see. There was Globalise Resistance, remember them? I wonder where that section of the 'movement' has gone to. They popped up in the wake of the Seattle protests of 1999 when the anti-capitalist movement was all the rage. Now they are hardly bothered to even update their webpage. Then there was Global Justice. Don't worry if you don't remember them, the members of Global Justice probably don't remember it either. GJ was a short-lived experiment by the party when they thought they had a vague understanding of environmental politics. They didn't. The 'green' front has never been seen since. There was the Campaign Against Selection which was launched by a few teachers who also held party cards. Then there was that great electoral front: the Socialist Environmental Alliance. It wasn't really an alliance or a coalition of course. It was Eamonn McCann. He polled fairly well on a couple of occasions up in Foyle but the alliance has done little apart from smashing up the offices of Raytheon in Derry.

One of the most interesting and unintentionally comical aspects of all this is the fact that the Socialist Workers Party doesn't put much effort into disguising the fact that groups like those mentioned above are little more than the SWP under a different name. Let me give you an example. One of the contact phone numbers for the new People Before Profit Alliance in Belfast is the same as a phone number for the SWP in the city. Incidentally, it has also been used in the past for the Belfast Anti War Movement. Oh, and it was also used for the Socialist Environmental Alliance.

Just in case you thought that I might be wrong and that this mysterious phone could simply be getting sold on around Belfast from one individual to the other (each of whom has an odd penchant for setting up small, left-wing coalitions), I suggest you pay a visit to the website of the Electoral Commission for Northern Ireland. The PBPA was recently registered with the commission as a political organisation. This site lists the names of the leader and treasurer of the group, and what political party do you think these two guys are members of? I'll give you another clue if you haven't guessed yet. At the moment it seems that only one candidate will be put forward for the group, a 19 year old student from west Belfast called Sean Mitchell. As well as being a PBPA candidate, he is a member of a group based at Queen's University called Students For Change. And Sean Mitchell is also a member of which party? OK, I won't insult your intelligence by telling you.

This phenomenon of stooge groups is not just a characteristic of the SWP in Belfast, it exists wherever they organise, both in Ireland and Britain. Tales of IST-related groups and parties trying to dominate movements and form fronts can be heard about from Dublin to Athens and from London to Melbourne. In an interview with 'Fortnight' in December 2003, the environmental campaigner George Monbiot made the following comments:
"Nobody organises better than the SWP; nobody mobilises better. They are amazing. They have the cadres, the party structures - almost brain washed participants who virtually devote their lives to what the party tells them to do. But they are almost impossible to work with unless you come in on their terms. There is a constant danger that they use the shared opportunities that they create purely as a recruiting ground for their own party."
I couldn't have put it any better, George.

Two things have always stuck me about the Socialist Workers Party - the lack of continuity in their ranks and their absurd political inconsistency. It is these factors which I feel consistently set them apart from the pack. The latter has been one of the party's most regular blunders. Perhaps the most infamous was its passive backing for the Provisional IRA's so-called armed struggle during the troubles in Northern Ireland. I remember reading Chris Bambery's book Ireland's Permanent Revolution, a sort of outline of where the party stands in relation to the national question, and being astounded at just how much of the Provisional republican historical narrative Bambery and his cohorts had swallowed. There was in truth very little in it that was socialist - it was a 'Brits out' document. The modern conflict was a battle between the evil English and IRA guerrillas. Protestants and unionists were written out of Irish history.

The SWP has since performed a back flip in this area. Read the Where We Stand section of Socialist Worker any week and you will read the typically meaningless slogan that "our flag is neither green nor orange but red." There are numerous areas exactly like this one where the party has done shameful u-turns. This is because it has a tendency to go through childlike phases, picking up one issue when it likes (the environment, Iraq, anti-capitalism, etc) only to drop it after a few months and move on to the next one.

I spoke to an SWP member a couple of years back and asked him whether he thought it had been an error of judgement to have supported the IRA campaign. "We never did anything of the sort," was the reply. This didn't surprise me. The poor guy hadn't forgotten - he genuinely didn't know. I am pretty sure that in ten years time there will be a completely new, fresh faced 19 year old undergrad SWP members sitting in a pub denying that the party ever refused to condemn suicide bomb attacks on civilians by Islamic fundamentalists. A lot of party recruits have come and gone since the mid-nineties change of party policy in relation to the republican movement. How interesting it would be to see membership details for the past decade to see exactly how many have bothered to stick it out. This, adequately, leads me on to my second point.

Continuity in the ranks tends to be a massive problem for the SWP. Only the most dedicated of members remain with them for long periods of time. Like a really bad outsourced call centre, SWP branches tend to have a large turnover in membership. You can say what you want about The Workers Party, the Communist Party or the Socialist Party in this country, but by and large they have a lot of men and women who have worked in the parties for, in many cases, decades. It would be a safe bet to say that if you were to attend a meeting of your local SWP branch this week and then went back in five years time (perhaps maybe even in six months time) you would be hard pressed to recognise anyone in the room.

So how do people end up with them? Well, some people I've known in the past joined after bumping into them outside McDonalds or Tesco following a pretty innocent Saturday afternoon of shopping. Others join them at the university or college freshers fayre, only to leave when they discover shots of vodka at £1 down at the union is much more appealing than selling Socialist Worker in the pouring rain. Some members are actually 'workers' in the truest sense of the word, but from my personal experience this seems to be a minority. In almost all cases, the people I met had left the organisation after experiencing a frightening cultish intensity from the local branch head honcho who simply would not stop phoning them up. So fronts come and fronts go. Members come and members go. The only success that the SWP really has to brag about is the fact that it has managed to survive.

Finally, there is one basis on which I can end this entry on a positive note and it is this: the Socialist Workers Party, regardless of how many fronts they try to trick the electorate with, will never take power. Not by ballot. Not by strike. Not by violent uprising. Not by anything. Like neo-Nazis and Scientologists, Plymouth Brethren and Seventh Day Adventists, they will always have big ideas but nothing more than that. Their followers will spend a lifetime (if they make it that far) living on the margins waiting for a revolution that will never come. For those of you who have hopes that the People Before Profit Alliance may be about to cause a major upset on March 7th I would advise you to scale down your hopes. Maybe set your sights on winning back that £150 deposit. The teenage PBPA candidate for Belfast West is probably a nice bloke who genuinely wants to change the world. The truth is that this brand of socialism has never delivered anything, and it never will.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Vincent Clerc ruined my weekend

Forget Richard Dawkins. If God existed I should be in the pub now celebrating Ireland's win against France in the inaugural rugby international at Croke Park. Instead I'm here. I was in Barcelona this time last year when France attempted to ruin my holiday by destroying the Irish with a superb first half display in the Six Nations game at the Stade de France. That day the best time won. It's fair to say that we deserved it on this occasion. But there you go. We don't do fairytales in Ireland and today proved it; beaten with a last gasp try from Vincent Clerc.

I like the French. They are one of those countries you can just about tolerate losing against. England comes to Dublin in two weeks time. Now that'll be a different kettle of fish. Still, it was a thrilling finishes to todays match whatever way you look at it. Here's how the French killed us off for those of you who didn't see it. It's taken from French television. You have to love just how excited the commentators get towards the end:



Magnifique!

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Rugger at Croker

Croke Park finally opens its doors on Sunday to the outside world as Ireland's rugby team take on France in the first home game of their 2007 Six Nations campaign. Admittedly the game that everyone is looking forward to takes place in a fortnight's time when England arrives in town. Believe me; it's going to be big, and it won't all be about sport. This topic of English players walking on the hallowed turf of Croker has been dominating the chit chat in workplaces and pubs around Ireland for weeks now, particularly within the GAA fraternity.

Over the past twenty years the Gaelic Athletic Association has transformed itself beyond recognition. Gone are the controversial rules banning foreign games on Association soil and the regulations barring members of the British security forces from playing football and hurling. Today the packed stadiums, all year round television coverage, lucrative sponsorship deals and millions and millions of Euro (and sterling) bursting the coffers at Headquarters all mean that Gaelic games have never been as popular as they are at the moment.

With the peace process came a new sense of tolerance and liberalism within the GAA. The various restrictions were thrown out of the organisation's constitution by almost every county in the country. Nowadays not only does the Garda Síochána have their own GAA squads but so does the Police Service of Northern Ireland. The GAA have also surprised many by throwing their support behind plans to build a stadium on the site of the old Maze Prison near Belfast which could be shared by the Northern Ireland soccer team, Ulster rugby team and used for staging Ulster football and hurling finals. In short, virtually everything that the Association has touched in the past two decades has (almost literally) turned to gold.

Now, however, the realisation of just what this brave new world actually means in real terms is hitting home to a lot of the GAA's traditional base. I have heard many complain that they do not want to see Prince William and Prince Harry frolicking around in the stands that the hard earned cash of grassroots members helped to build. Others are quietly galled at the possibility of hearing Sweet Chariot being sang at full gusto by the travelling English supporters. Some still object to the very idea of any non-Irish game being held at the ground. The main grievance overwhelmingly is horrifying thought among some of the sound of God Save The Queen reverberating around the stands of the great stadium on Dublin's northside.

For those of you reading this who maybe don't realise why this attitude is being taken when the Welsh, Scots, French and Italians (and even Irish supporters on England's previous trips to the capital) don't appear to have any similar gripes with the Limeys perhaps then now is the time to explain one little point of detail. Croke Park has some, shall we say, baggage. Following the assassination of fourteen British intelligence agents by the IRA in Dublin on the morning of November 20th 1920, the British Army opened fire on a crowd at a football match in Croke Park killing fourteen and injuring many more. It was a day of hostility which saw dozens die in violence around the city and became known as Bloody Sunday.

The match against England is, therefore, very symbolic. I view it in a very positive manner though as it shows just how far we have come in such a short space of time. The thought of an English team (especially an English rugby team representing as it does in the minds of many the higher echelons of English society) playing at Croke Park was simply ridiculous. However, that is what is exactly going to happen before the end of this month.

I have no doubts that the match will pass without incident. Violence is, off the pitch at least, unimaginable. Nor do I expect the English anthem to get booed. Let's face it, this is a rugby crowd and you're taught not to do that kind of naughty thing at Blackrock College. True, Republican Sinn Fein and the few dissidents that remain will mount a protest attended by the usual string of geriatrics but that'll be it. The majority of GAA people I know - young and old - are happy that Croke Park will be hosting rugby and soccer matches over the next few years. They are proud that now people from all around the world will get the chance to see the splendour of Headquarters. Yes, some have expressed reservations but even they will grudgingly accept that we live in a new age. Plus, there is also the small matter of the financial benefits.

Historic events happen a lot in Northern Ireland and sport tends to be one of the most popular arenas for landmark happenings. Tomorrow, rugby will be played for the first time at the home of Gaelic games. The following day, Monday, will mark the tenth anniversary of the death of the last British solider in Northern Ireland. We are clearly living in better times. How is that for progress?

Friday, February 09, 2007

Warning! This film contains footage of Sammy Wilson

This day last week I wrote about my recent application for membership of the Labour Party. As you may remember, while the Membership and Communications Unit did not turn down my application neither did they open up their arms and shout 'come and join us'. As things stand, only around one hundred people here in the province are card carrying members of the Party and, by the looks of it, the leadership are in no great rush to recruit any more. Towards the end of the article I wrote that "Northern Ireland has, in my opinion, the worst quality of elected representatives in Europe. If you can think of anywhere worse drop me a line. For now we are going to have to put up with those same second-rate representatives, most of who wouldn't make it onto a parish council in England, for the foreseeable future."

Now its time for the evidence to back up that statement about how poor our councillors, MLAs and MPs really are. The following item is taken from 'The 11 O'Clock Show', a now defunct Channel 4 programme famous for not being very funny though it still managed to help launch the careers of Ali G and Ricky Gervais. In this piece Ali G travels to Northern Ireland to interview some of our leading (no, really) political figures. They include DUP MP Sammy Wilson, Sinn Fein MLA Sue Ramsey, Lord Mayor of Belfast David Alderdice and the Executive Officer of the Orange Order George Patton.

Sadly, all of these people are still active in politics. Help:

Thursday, February 08, 2007

The proprietor, the food critic, her meal and his feelings

Imagine the scenario: you are a food critic, you go to a restaurant on an assignment, you have your meal, you decide that the food and the surroundings are below par and you go home and write your review. A simple task surely? Not so here in Belfast. In a city where people tend to get offended remarkably easily, freedom of the press probably isn't the kind of concept which you would expect to be embraced readily.

Caroline Workman - a "celebrated restaurant critic" according to Slugger O'Toole - wrote a review of Goodfellas pizzeria on Kennedy Way in the west of the city back in the summer of 2000. The article, which was printed in the Irish News, was critical of the restaurant giving it one star out of five and knocking its smoky atmosphere and poor food. On Thursday the newspaper was ordered to pay out £25,000 as poor old Ciarnan Convery who owns Goodfellas was apparently hurt by the story. My heart bleeds for him.

I have little time for either food critics or restaurant owners, but if the former can no longer perform their duty as the latter now somehow see themselves as being beyond criticism then we really have entered quite worrying territory for the most basic form of free speech. Finally, for what it's worth, I have in the past visited the abovementioned establishment. And, yes, it was pretty bad. Sorry if I hurt your feelings Ciarnan. Please don't take legal action.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

A cunning plan?

Eric Hobsbawm is ninety years old this year and by the looks of things is still going strong. I've been a great admirer of Hobsbawm since I was a nipper studying history at secondary school and his three volume history of the world since the French Revolution should be read by everyone at some point in their life (his autobiography Interesting Times is also a great read too). A Communist Party activist back in the 1930s, old Eric clearly hasn't turned his back on activism just yet.

I was pleased to see the great man pictured in Monday's Independent in an item concerning the formation of a new organisation called Independent Jewish Voices. Hobsbawm is one of a number of prominent individuals (others include academics, rabbis, film director Mike Leigh and professional intellectual Stephen Fry) to have signed up the principles of IJV. The IJV is a positive development, though their founding principles don't contain anything too radical. They call for a respect for human rights, to oppose all forms of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia as well as a desire for Israelis and Palestinians to live under peace and security. The IJV claim that their "initiative was born out of a frustration with the widespread misconception that the Jews of this country speak with one voice - and that this voice supports the Israeli government’s policies."

So, a positive development even if hardly a pioneering one. Like immigration and Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of those topics where proper debate can sometimes be suffocated by hysteria. If this assists in facilitating more debate around the issue then it will be worth it. Who knows: perhaps Lord Melchett could yet turn out to be the bridge between the warring factions in the Middle East... or maybe not on second thoughts.

You can find out more about Independent Jewish Voices on their website.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Once upon a time in Cuckooland

In Britain they have the Official Monster Raving Loony Party. In Ireland we have Republican Sinn Fein. Believe it or not I have always held an odd form of admiration for Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, the President of RSF. Ever the political purist, Ó Brádaigh and his small band of followers still refuse to accept the legitimacy of either Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland preferring instead to recognize the Army Council of the Continuity IRA as the sole legal authority on the island. This 'sole legal authority' has never really done that much. Despite supposedly been in existence for the best part of two decades it has not actually inflicted one single casualty on the dastardly forces of the crown and its military activity amounts to little more than bombing hotels in county Fermanagh. A slightly witty friend of mine from Derry once compared CIRA to the A-Team: armed to the teeth but not particularly good at killing people.

There isn't really much you need to know about RSF. Politically, they aren't all that sophisticated. Their ideology stopped developing in 1921 and can be summed up in two words - Brits out. They are a fairly insignificant group and have their roots in the Sinn Fein split of 1986, the minutiae of which I don't have the time to go into. Its membership is generally thought to be quite elderly (their military wing is referred to by some republicans as 'dad's army'). Elections aren't a big thing for Republican Sinn Fein which is why yesterday's announcement that they intend to stand candidates in most of the north's constituencies in the upcoming Assembly election is so bizarre. When I saw the report on the RTE website I immediately thought that I must be hallucinating. First of all, it's a surprise because RSF have always objected to having to take an oath under the Elected Authories (Northern Ireland) Act which basically means that they must reject political violence to be considered eligible to stand for public office. Probably the real reason though why they have always given electoral politics a wide berth is down to the plainly obvious fact that they would in all likelihood receive a paltry number of votes.

Completely detached from reality, much of the activity of Ruairí and co are based around the kind of protests and stunts similar to the one which they plan to hold at the forthcoming Six Nations rugby game between Ireland and England in Dublin. Protesting? At a match featuring an all-Ireland squad made up of both Catholics and Protestants? Yes indeed. According to a statement issued by RSF this isn't just any old game of rugby, this is "all part of the continued efforts to normalise the British occupation of Ireland." The statement also said that it is Republican Sinn Fein's "intention to provide a political focus to those wishing to protest at the symbolism involved in the flying of the English flag and the playing of God Save the Queen in Croke Park, the scene of a massacre of Irish people by British forces in 1920…we are determined to ensure that this illegal occupation is never considered acceptable." Lads, it’s a game of fecking rugby!

I honestly can't wait to see the results for the Republican Sinn Fein candidates on March 7. Regardless of what happens I'm sure it will do little to change their own warped interpretation of history and politics. Reality clearly isn't an issue for Mr Ó Brádaigh and his Ard Comhairle. For the rest of us though it will provide a chance for a cheap snigger at perhaps the oddest party in Irish politics. And besides, when it comes to lost deposits in Northern Irish elections it really is about time The Workers Party had some competition.

Monday, February 05, 2007

The only left that's left

Finally. After resembling something close to a child that was getting a bit carried away in the run up to Christmas, the first big book release of 2007 (for me at least) has finally arrived. Nick Cohen's What's Left?: How Liberals Lost Their Way is out in the shops today. To put it mildly, there has been a bit of discussion about this one. Cohen has been one of the most articulate defenders of the credentials of the democratic left in Britain over the past few years. One of the primary architects of the Euston Manifesto, he has been a stern critic of both conservatism and the ultra left, the two of which have converged to some extent in recent times.

Christopher Hitchens gave a good outline of where exactly Cohen stands in the Sunday Times a few weeks back:
"Cohen has no problem with those who are upset about state-sponsored exaggerations of the causes of war, or furious about the bungled occupation of Iraq that has ensued. People who think this is the problem are not his problem. Here's his problem: the people who would die before they would applaud the squaddies and grunts who removed hideous regimes from Afghanistan and Iraq, yet who happily describe Islamist video-butchers and suicide-murderers as a 'resistance'. Those who do this are not 'anti-war' at all, but are shadily taking the other side in a conflict where the moral and civilisational stakes are extremely high."
Notice anyone from this description? I have in recent years sat startled during various debates and meetings when I have heard members of the supposed 'left' - people I have known for quite a while and considered as friends - spout slogans such as 'we are all Hezbollah' and praise the fact that the Taleban have 'waves of suicide bombers' to use against American and British soldiers in Afghanistan.

A couple of weeks back I wrote an entry here on Iraq. I said that I was against the war in 2003 and if I could do it all over again I would still be against the invasion. What I went on to suggest was more or less the same as what Cohen and many others on the left have proposed, namely that at this point in time we have two choices: support the building of a democratic Iraq or support a so-called resistance made up of some the most reactionary elements on the planet. Guided by little more than an obsessive hatred for the United States, many on the far left have inexplicably chosen the latter. The response was predictable. I received some silly comments and got a few nasty (and unintentionally hilarious) e-mails, including one from a quite well known UK-based blogger who said:
"Your argument is racist drivel, and you don't know what you're talking about. I agree with your critics: you're a disgusting creep."
Racist? I've looked through the article again and there isn't much I could find that would have been overtly offensive to Iraqis. Drivel? I don't know what I'm talking about? Well, the guy is entitled to his opinion but it would have been nice to point out what was wrong with the entry. A creep? Fair enough, I am a bit of a creep. Another e-mail described me, apparently without irony, as a "Bush loving cunt."

There is a serious side to this. That element of the left which gravitates towards the Socialist Workers Party, Respect, the Stop the War Coalition and, on this side of water, the Irish Anti War Movement have become bereft of any constructive ideas on Iraq. With no politics beyond their slogans, the anti war movement (in truth a movement which largely supports the violent insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan) is intellectually bankrupt. When faced with potential debate these people will resort to insulting their opponents and labelling any fellow leftists who do not favour siding with their new found right wing allies as 'pro-imperialist'. Every now and again they will find scant window dressing to back up their repulsive position. One which I read quite often from the SWP perspective is the comparison of their cheer leading of Islamic extremism to the views expressed by Lenin at the time of the Easter Rising in Ireland. To compare the 1916 uprising to the butchers and sectarian death militias of Baghdad, the woman-hating Taleban of Afghanistan and the suicide bombers of Hamas is at best naïve.

To this day I remain bewildered as to how a section of my comrades have chosen clerical fascism over basic secular democratic values. History will no doubt judge their folly. For now, if you've read Cohen's previous works, Cruel Britannia and Pretty Straight Guys, you'll know just how bloody good this man is. Advertising doesn't take place on this blog but just to repeat again for your own information What's Left? is out in all good bookshops from today. I suggest you take a look.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

They don't make them like they used to

A couple of weeks back I mentioned how the trailers for Jean Luc Godard's films were in most cases better than whole movies made by some directors. This is actually the one which I had in mind when that utterance was made - the promo trail to 1960's Breathless, or À bout de souffle if you're French is up to scratch. You're probably wondering why I'm talking about trailers. Nowadays of course they don't really deserve a mention, with each one seeming to feature the same gravel-voiced American male who attempts to whet our appetite for each coming feature by saying something along the lines of 'this summer' in a drawn out and calculated manner.

Things were very different during the era of the French New Wave and Breathless epitomised everything about that period. While I don't think that its Godard's best movie, it is hard to argue against Breathless almost undisputedly holding the unofficial title of The Coolest Film In History. It is equally hard to think of any other movie fronted by two people as beautiful as Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg. I don't want to sound like I'm a nostalgic old fart pining for some mystical golden age of cinema. Nothing of the sort. To be honest though, you can't really imagine seeing something similar to this at your local multiplex cinema nowadays, can you? If you haven't seen Breathless before you no doubt will after this. Exquisite:

Saturday, February 03, 2007

I'm not racist, but...

For a man relying on the support of the left if he is to stand any chance of becoming Taoiseach after this year's general election in the Republic you would think Enda Kenny would have chosen a slightly better form of words when it came to discussing a matter as sensitive as immigration. In case you haven't heard, at a meeting of the Fine Gael parliamentary party and general election candidates in Clontarf the Blueshirt leader declared that the Irish are a "Celtic and Christian people" and that now was the time for a "real national debate" on immigration. The result has been a minor furore.

However, I would actually defend Enda on this occasion. Why? Well, because I don't see what he has done wrong. He didn't say anything that was notably over the top. He didn't stray off into Norman Tebbit or Gerry McGeough territory or even, heaven forbid, Jade Goody territory. There was no 'cricket test' moment, or 'GAA test' if we were to put it into our own context (when did Mayo last win an All-Ireland senior football title, Enda?). I have no doubt that had he not used such an ill advised term as "Celtic and Christian people" then it is almost certain that we would not have heard anything about this speech. I have read through Kenny's words several times and I cannot find one controversial proposal. What the leader of the opposition was merely doing was proposing a debate. Nothing more, nothing less. He outlined three fairly soft principles: that immigrants have responsibilities, that immigration must be managed responsibly and that immigration must be a force for improving living standards.

Immigration is a touchy topic. Terms such as 'racist' or 'fascist' can be thrown around with great ease and aimed at sometimes even the most liberal of individuals by those too hysterical to contemplate a proper debate on the issue. Discussing it is essential as we are currently undergoing the greatest demographic change on this island for centuries. Equally, someone in as prominent a position as the leader of Fine Gael should surely be aware that the language used here is important. Words can be manipulated with great ease and, especially on this subject, each one will be analysed and scrutinised to an abnormal extent. "Celtic and Christian" therefore should not have been used for two reasons: one, because it is so clearly open to misinterpretation and, secondly, because the subsequent furore generated by the usage of the term has managed to get in the way of the message Kenny was obviously trying to convey.

I genuinely hope we do get an FG/Labour coalition a few months. People south of the border deserve better than Bertie. But good God Enda, why do you make things so bloody difficult for yourself? Word of advice: sack your speech writer.

Friday, February 02, 2007

I applied to join the Labour Party and all I got was this lousy e-mail

With all of those reports I had been reading recently pointing to rapidly falling membership numbers within the British Labour Party I bit the bullet and decided I'd help my comrades out in the only way I thought I could: by applying to join that great institution of Hardie, Attlee, Bevan and Blair. According to the Fabian Society, if membership numbers keep plummeting at the current rate then the party will have no-one left by 2010 and therefore will have no-one to gloat for them at the opening ceremony of the Olympics when they arrive in London. So, you would think under these circumstances that they welcome me with open arms - a young, energetic fellow left-leaning citizen of the United Kingdom. Not exactly.

Here's what I got in response:
Dear Mr Guitar

The Labour Party in Northern Ireland

Thank you for your e-mail requesting to join the Labour Party.

Our Annual Conference in 2003, agreed rule changes that had the effect of allowing individuals to join the Labour Party if they lived in Northern Ireland. The rule changes also made clear that it was for the National Executive Committee (N.E.C.) of The Labour Party, to determine where we organise. In January this year the N.E.C. determined that the Labour Party would organise in England, Scotland and Wales.

Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) exist to support the activity aimed at ensuring electoral success at Parliamentary elections. It is clear from their decision in January, that the N.E.C. has determined that the Labour Party will not be contesting elections in Northern Ireland and that therefore no CLPs will be formed in Northern Ireland.

Individual members in Northern Ireland can apply to become parliamentary candidates where the Party organsises, can attend Annual Conference or become a member of the N.E.C. or National Policy Forum (through their Trade Union or a socialist society) and attend Spring Conference. They will also receive the Party magazine and can take part in national all-member ballots.

It will be for the N.E.C. to determine whether or not they wish to re-visit this matter in the future.

Thank you again for contacting us.

Regards,

(NAME REMOVED)
Membership & Communications Unit
The Labour Party
I get it. Basically a polite way of telling the irksome Paddy to fuck off.

OK, you could accuse me of covering old ground on this one. I knew exactly what sort of response I was going to get and indeed wrote quite an extensive entry back in December regarding the state of the left in Northern Ireland. What is the state of the left? To sum it up in four simply easy to remember points:

1. The Social Democratic and Labour Party organises here, but even it knows it doesn't really do what it says on the tin. It ain't social democratic. It ain't labour. It's a nationalist party.

2. The Irish Labour Party have recruited and organised party structures north of the border, but they will not contest elections.

3. The British Labour Party will also recruit in Northern Ireland, but they probably only did it so they could stop having to send back Andy McGivern's invalid membership application forms. As the Membership and Communications Units letter to me displays we in Northern Ireland can 'join' the party but that is it. No election campaigns. No party structures. No clout. We basically have the same membership rights as someone living in Australia.

4. The combination of three factors above means that the only left in the province that is visibly doing anything (and even that isn't very much) are the two main Trotskyist factions, the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party. We'll deal with their malign affect on another occasion.

At least things have improved, even if only slightly. There was a time when an application to join the Party would have resulted in your form simply been returned to you with a 'thanks but no thanks' letter enclosed. Today people in Northern Ireland can join the Labour Party whereas before they faced an outright ban. While Andy McGivern's admirable perseverance paid off with a change to the rules on membership in 2003 the past four years have seen the Labour hierarchy do absolutely nothing to accommodate their comrades across the Irish Sea. The last I heard of Andy he was planning on taking the Labour Party to court over their treatment of Northern Irish members. All people on the democratic left should support him in his struggle. Surely the committed socialists and social democrats that joined the Party in this part of the UK deserve more than a glossy magazine every few weeks?

While I am not naïve enough to believe that Northern Ireland's wrongs will be somehow righted with the establishment of a few Constituency Labour Parties it would at least give the progressive elements in society here a boost. The current sectarian carve up cannot go on forever. In modern day western Europe we alone stand out like a sore thumb - a religiously segregated electoral system through which every few years we select parties that can never properly govern. Even if we do get our much sought after Assembly and Executive up and running you really do have to ask what the point will be? We have no say whatsoever over who holds the real reigns of power in London.

I would like to see Labour organise here. And the Liberal Democrats. And, yes, even the Tories (they currently have a stand off-ish type relationship with their members here). Nationalists need not worry - this wouldn't be us getting absorbed entirely into the body politic of the UK and the final act of copperfastening partition. Far from it. In fact, I would also welcome Fianna Fail and Fine Gael extending their parties organisations north. Anything to make things interesting. You may think this sounds desperate but things really are worse than most people realise. Northern Ireland has, in my opinion, the worst quality of elected representatives in Europe. If you can think of anywhere worse drop me a line.

For now we are going to have to put up with those same second-rate representatives, most of who wouldn't make it onto a parish council in England, for the foreseeable future. But, to borrow a well known political slogan, our day will come. Eventually. Until then we on the left in Northern Ireland are going to have to make do with the most basic of membership rights. Oh, and of course the Party magazine.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Quite what Alex Salmond thought of it is anyone's guess

"I thought it would have had more about Scotland in it." These were the words uttered by a nice lady I overheard chatting outside the cinema with her friends after the end of Kevin MacDonald's The Last King of Scotland. How disappointed, and no doubt baffled, the woman must have been on realising that this had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with that chunk of land lying to the north of England. She actually did quite well to make it through to the end. While not the most violent film I've ever witnessed, watching a man getting suspended from a ceiling by his nipples is a fairly grizzly image to have to sit through. So congratulations to the old lady outside the cinema door on the Dublin Road.

Despite eagerly awaiting it for some time I am sad to say that I found the whole experience a little unsatisfactory. The only work of MacDonald's I had seen prior to this was his Michael Douglas-narrated documentary on the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics, One Day in September. That was a pretty average historical document. While this may not fall to the run-of-the-mill depths of his 1999 production neither does The Last King of Scotland leave you yearning for its eventual DVD release later in the year.

You probably know the plot: Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) is a graduate doctor who decides to flee the boredom and conservatism of his rural existence at home and head to Africa to apply his medical knowledge in Uganda. Arriving at a time of great political upheaval, once there he comes across by chance the nation's new dictator Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker) who takes the young Scot under his wing. When Amin offers him a job as his personal doctor/advisor Garrigan abandons the rural health centre which he had originally arrived in Uganda to assist.

McAvoy isn't all that great. Maybe it was because I couldn't extract from my mind the image of Mr Tumnus. Maybe it was because he was almost constantly sharing his scenes with a heavyweight like Forest Whitaker. Whatever the reason, his unconvincing performance as the western adventurer never really grabs you. The much more accomplished Gillian Anderson sadly makes only a brief appearance. It is intriguing to watch Amin degenerate from a supposed 'liberator' and an eccentric - even slightly loveable - buffoon into a paranoid and sadistic dictator. However, McAvoy's character is bland in comparison. At times it was almost as if he was getting in the way of the storyline and towards the end I wasn't particularly concerned about the fate of young Garrigan. You almost wonder whether it would not have been better simply to send the 28 year old Glaswegian back home and just have made a film solely about Idi Amin.

The movie signs off with a fairly substandard conclusion. If MacDonald's aim was a tense finish he didn't come close to it. The final scene is long and drawn out, its plodding along made all the more tedious by the fact that it is blatantly obvious how it is going to end. At the risk of spoiling it for those of you who haven't seen it, a semi-happy Hollywood style ending in which the doctor lifts off into the sunset surely was not an apt way to conclude a film about one of the most brutal dictators in African history. Would the brutality of Amin not have come across more clearly if Garrigan had met the same end as the natives depicted who opposed his leadership? Then again, they were black. You have to wonder just how happy the American and British audiences would have been seeing the nice fun loving white man (Mr Tumnus in fact) being recaptured and mutilated by Amin's sidekicks.

The film does have a few plus points. For a start it looks great. Kevin MacDonald clearly did his work in recreating the imagery and the atmosphere of the urban sprawl of seventies Kampala. And Forest Whitaker really is as good as those newspaper and magazine reviews of the movie had suggested prior to its release. In fact, he is probably so good that he is now almost guaranteed not to win an Oscar. (Though I suppose there are logical grounds for permanently excluding anyone involved in the making of Battlefield Earth - A Saga of the Year 3000 from ever winning recognition at the Academy Awards).

'The Last King of Scotland' is worth a look but I really doubt if you'll be enthusiastic enough to go back at a later date for a second look. Even with Forest Whitaker's sterling portrayal of Idi Amin there is little else in the film to help lift it out of the dreaded 'average' category. How the film would have turned out in the absence of Whitaker doesn't bear thinking about.