Thursday, March 29, 2007

Those were the days

In a few weeks time the Labour Party will have been in power in the UK for a whole ten years. But do you remember that period between Tony Blair's election as leader in 1994 and the great victory of spring 1997? It was a bizarre period. Hatred of the Tories was at its height. So was the British public's love affair with Labour. Opinion polls seemed to crop up in the newspapers on a daily basis (along with endless stories about Tory sleaze) giving Labour all sorts of abnormal leads which everyone assumed would probably evaporate once all those people who voted Conservative in 1992 entered a polling booth and opted to give the boys in blue one more chance. They didn't as it turned out.

There were many though that were a little bit more cautious and recognised the danger behind New Labour's 'win at all costs' philosophy. Comedians were particularly adept in this field. This is a clip from an episode of the Friday Night Armistice in 1996. Up until today I hadn’t actually seen this sketch since the day the show was broadcast. Enjoy.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

The suspect is armed with extremely bad politics. Do not approach.

"The revolution says: I was, I am, I will be again."

These were the words published in the (frankly undeservingly pretentious) final statement issued by Germany's Red Army Faction/Baader-Meinhof Gang, an ultra left terrorist organisation that carried out a string of murders and bombings throughout the seventies and eighties before petering out and dissolving in the late nineties.

Politically, the group were far from sophisticated and viewed by the bulk of the left as little more than nihilistic, adventurers with no attachment to the working class. Marx, Lenin and any other deity of the socialist world that was lying around spare was used merely as window dressing. Take the case of Horst Mahler, one of the gang's founder members, as an example. Back then Herr Mahler was an enthusiastic young 'left wing' lawyer ready to shoot, bomb and bank rob his way to the revolution. Today, he is a leading ideologue behind the fascist and anti-Semitic NPD party in Germany.

This entry isn't really anything to do with the politics of the Red Army Faction though. I've discussed these kind of terrorist groups before when Revolutionary Struggle (imaginative, eh?) bombed the toilets in the US Embassy in Athens a few months back. Instead, it has to do with one of the eras last remaining political prisoners.

Brigitte Mohnhaupt, one of the most infamous of all the trendy 1970s assassins, is to be released today. I've just been reading some details of the story from the BBC website and I was interested to see Steve Rosenberg describe how she was once considered "the most evil and dangerous woman in West Germany." Quite an achievement taking into account the 'evil' and 'dangerous' people produced by 20th century Germany. But should she have stayed in jail? While I might not think so, in Germany the case has split the nation. This has come as something of a surprise to me. Perhaps it's because living in Good Friday Agreement-era Northern Ireland has meant seeing hundreds of Brigitte Mohnhaupts leaving prison early. The son of Hanns Martin Schleyer, a leading industrialist who was abducted and murdered by Mohnhaupt's cell, would like to have seen her remain in prison for life and it is difficult not to sympathise with him. Nevertheless the RAF have disbanded, the threat of violence is gone, most former members have embraced extremely different forms of politics and after serving 24 years in prison Brigitte Mohnhaupt has already been incarcerated longer than many Nazis.

There is something quite tragic about everyone involved in this part of German history, both for the families of people like Hanns Martin Schleyer and even Mohnhaupt herself. Quite what Brigitte will do now is anyone's guess. Getting a job will probably prove quite difficult. B&Q are quite well known for employing people in their late fifties, though I'm not to sure about people in their late fifties who have a record of murdering entrepreneurs. Write a book? It couldn't be any worse than Johnny Adair's. Go on a speaking tour? She could link up with Tony Benn. Join the NPD? Nah, it's been done.

Or maybe she could pursue a career in the music industry. Honestly. Is it just me or do you not think that she possesses (or should that be 'possessed') a striking similarity to the exceptionally irritating Canadian pop/punk girlie Avril Lavigne. Stranger things have happened.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Another fine mess?

"I really couldn't give a fuck."

That was the response I got from someone recently when I asked them about what they thought was going to come out of the recent round of negotiations to get a fully functioning government up and running in Northern Ireland. You could have launched endless sociological studies, surveys, opinion polls and even elections to try and gauge the mood of the general public in the province but this was certainly the best summary of just how people here feel at the moment. Apathetic? You don't know the half of it.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Saint Patrick's Day is cancelled

It was far too good to be true, wasn't it?

Ireland, on Saint Patrick's Day, were going to sweep aside Italy, claim the RBS Six Nations title for the first time since they won the then Five Nations championship way back in the mid eighties and return in triumph to Dublin Airport where they would inevitably be greeted by thousands of cheering fans who would line the streets and watch the victorious team parade around the city in the obligatory open top bus tour of the capital.

This being Ireland of course meant that, despite all the promise and potential, we ending up having the whole thing snatched from us right at the very end after being teased by the prospect of success for an agonisingly long time. Fair enough. We're used to it by this stage. The history of Ireland is a history of glorious failures and near misses. Remember how the Republic's football team got knocked out of the 2002 World Cup on penalties to the Spanish? Recall how Eddie Irvine had the Formula One world title pinched in the last race in Japan in 1999? Or that agonising last gasp defeat to David Campese and the Australians in the 1991 Rugby World Cup? I almost forgot those three Gold medals at the 1996 Olympics which swimmer Michelle Smith subsequently lost after a failed drugs test. And don't get me started on Barry McGuigan. Come to think of it, wouldn't it be great if we were like Luxembourg or Liechtenstein and had absolutely no expectations whatsoever when it comes to the international sporting arena?

Back when we beat England I said that I had an awful feeling that "Vincent Clerc's name may live to haunt Irish rugby fans for many years to come." Nevertheless, another Triple Crown isn't a bad bit of work for this year. Next up is an agonising last minute defeat in the latter stages of this autumn's Rugby World Cup. Happy Saint Patrick's Day. Vincent Clerc is probably a nice enough bloke. Today, at least in my house, he's a bastard.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

"Life is divided into the horrible and the miserable" - a summary of the 2007 Northern Ireland Assembly election

Sometimes there just isn't any point in wasting precious time. I was going to produce my own analysis of the results of the Assembly election today when I realised there was no point - anything I was going to say has already been said by someone elese. So, here's a summary of the fortunes of each party in a few sentences:

The Four Main Parties

Democratic Unionist Party: Vote went up for Northern Irish equivalent of the Taleban with more seats than ever. Lots of Paisleyite rednecks on TV looking very smug last night. All hope is now officially gone.

Sinn Fein: Vote went up for Northern Irish equivalent of the Workers Party of Korea with more seats than ever. Lots of Adamsite clones on TV looking very smug last night. All hope is now officially gone.

Ulster Unionist Party: Managed to do worse than before. Still guaranteed a few seats in the executive. Party leader Sir Reg Empey looks like the aliens from Mars Attacks!. Last sentence has nothing to do with election.

Social Democratic and Labour Party: Did well to avoid complete disaster. Like the UUP, they will have a few seats in the executive. Sharon 'lovely girl' Haughey didn't get elected in Newry and Armagh. Possibly the most disappointing result of the whole election.

The Four Other Parties

Alliance Party: Managed to increase vote and grab an extra seat. Anna Lo won a seat for the party in Belfast South making her the first candidate from the Chinese community to be elected in these islands. Congratulations to Alliance. Does anyone care though? Of course not.

Green Party: Remarkably grabbed a seat in North Down. Polled well elsewhere. Sadly, Kelly 'lovely girl but not as lovely as Sharon Haughey' Andrews did not run for the party. Mildly disappointed by that. Pleased to see them in Assembly.

Progressive Unionist Party: Held on to seat vacated by the late David Ervine thanks to new party leader Dawn Purvis. Did rubbish everywhere else.

United Kingdom Unionist Party: No seats left. Bob McCartney took his dog for a walk to avoid seeing the results. At least Portillo had the balls to turn up for his humiliation in 1997.

Abandon all hope ye who enter here

Socialist Environmental Alliance: Eamonn McCann. Derry. Water charges. 2,000 and something votes. McCann makes quip about SEA being one of the four main parties in Derry. The revolution can surely only be days away.

Conservative Party: Oh well. God loves a tryer. Or something like that.

People Before Profit: Ran the 19 year old Sean Mitchell in the Belfast West constituency. Got 774 votes. SWP declare victory. The rest of the province yawns.

Socialist Party: Well guys, at least nobody is dead.

The Workers Party: See above.

United Kingdom Independence Party: One member in Northern Ireland. OK, how many seats do you think they won?

Labour: No, not that Labour you fool. The 'party' that should be known as 'Malachi Curran'. Stood in South Down (again). Did shite (again).

Make Politicians History: By the next election there is the possibility that Rainbow George's party (which has Alex Higgins amongst its supporters) may actually win more votes than The Workers Party. 221 votes in total this time round. He also gave a copy of his CD to a very amused Gerry Adams at the Belfast count. Another successful election then for the eccentric blow-in from London.

Procapitalism: Congratulations most go to Charles Smyth for achieving the almost impossible by finishing behind Rainbow George in the only constituency he ran in, Belfast South. Procapitalism's 22 votes is a clear rejection by the people of Northern Ireland for free market economics.

Independents: Kieran Deeney, the doctor from Omagh, got re-elected in West Tyrone. And, eh, that's it. Tips for potential careerist politicians in Northern Ireland: join a party.

So, there you have it. A short, easy cut-out-and-keep guide to the 2007 Northern Ireland Assembly election. There isn't a whole lot to be happy about, unless of course you happen to be from the near 60% (yes, there were that many) of the population who voted for the DUP and Sinn Fein. Chin up. Things will improve as surely as day follows night. The left will eventually find its voice. Sectarianism will evaporate. And - mark my words - Sharon Haughey will eventually become an MLA. The next five years will just be that wee bit more difficult for myself and other Shazza watchers.

Remember, as Stephen Hawking put it, all we really are is an advanced breed of monkey.

How true.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Lest we forget

Jean Baudrillard died this week, though I only discovered so this morning when reading the latest ranting from the folks over at Harry's Place. I can't say I ever became a scholar on the man but I did learn enough about him during my years at university to know that I loathed both him and postmodernism in general.

Baudrillard reminds me of a very dark period in my life called my postgraduate year. Spending eighteen months in below-par shared accommodation drinking cheap booze, smoking rolled up cigarettes and having virtually no money at any time reading the musings of an obscure postmodernist who reckoned that the 1991 Gulf War did not take place is not an enlightening experience. At this point I should say to all 'A' Level or Leaving Cert students out there reading this who think student poverty will be a great laugh I can tell you it is actually pretty shit (although your undergrad experience will probably be made pleasant by an obscene loan from the Student Loans Company which, to my mind, nobody in Northern Ireland has ever bothered to pay back).

Incidentally, Captain America also died this week - cut down mortally while leading a fight against the mandatory registration of super humans by the Federal Government. Although fictitious and an obvious instrument of the United States propaganda machine during the Cold War it is probably fair to say that the Captain brought a lot more joy to peoples lives than the aforementioned philosopher from Rheims. Sadly, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the lack of a clear enemy for the US, Captain America had become sort of redundant. With 'Captain America v Al Qaeda' probably a little bit too touchy a subject for young minds, the man who defended the stars and stripes against the red threat was recently reduced to combating large government and the comic book equivalent of ID cards...for mutants. Actually, maybe that's not a bad idea. I wonder if there is an opening in this part of the world for a superhero prepared to fight water charges and establish a power sharing executive by March 26th? The kids would love it.

Farewell, Jean Baudrillard and Captain America. Whatever we thought of you, the world really is a duller place.

Friday, March 09, 2007

SF dun good. DUP dun good 2. The left? ROFL! I leave country tmrw.

Did anyone else out there subscribe to the BBC's "groundbreaking" (their words, not mine) free text message service which sent regular updates to your phone regarding the Northern Ireland Assembly election? You probably won't admit to it but as soon as I heard about it on Radio Ulster on Tuesday I texted 'election' to 81222 and awaited what astounding 21st century political news technology the Beeb would be about to hit me with. Oh dear.

Over the course of 48 hours my trusty old Nokia 3310 received what can only be described as utterly indecipherable messages from the whizzkids at Broadcasting House. This was one of last messages I got at around four o'clock today:
BBC FST McHugh SF Morrow DUP.NDwn Weir DUP McFarland UUP.UBann Savage UUP. WTy Bresland DUP Deeny Ind. SAnt Burns SDLP Clarke DUP Sford Hamilton & McIlveen DUP.
I wasn't actually looking for "groundbreaking" technology or anything of the sort. That much is clear as I own a Nokia 3310 for goodness sake. All I demanded was the odd bit of juicy news and gossip from around the count centres. Instead what I got were text messages which tried to shove far too much information into a tiny amount of space. 160 characters to be exact. The result was something which looked like someone trying to do something they clearly shouldn't - like that moment at a wedding when your uncle gets up to dance to Babyshambles.

My dad now and again sends me text messages, though I really wish he'd just bloody well phone me and use those free minutes he's always going on about. It is slightly embarrassing having to read mobile phone text messages abbreviated in that style teenagers use by a man who was born the same week the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union. But of course this was "groundbreaking" for a reason. Where better for the BBC to 'break the ground' with such a service than in the old colonial backwater of Northern Ireland where, quite frankly, nobody will give a fuck if the whole thing goes arseways. I assume the plan now is to use this text update thingamajig in upcoming elections throughout the rest of the UK. Readers in Britain must be salivating at the prospect. Still, the thought was there. Public service broadcasting, eh?

I honestly did mean to write something about the outcome of the actual election but the results were so unremarkable (and gloomy) that I became distracted by the BBC text message service. Says something about democracy, doesn't it? As those groovy cats at the Beeb would say, c u l8r.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Same Tories. Same danger.

I remember seeing a headline in either the Guardian or the Observer shortly after David Cameron became leader of the Conservative Party. The headline read "Cameron: we got it wrong on apartheid". It makes you think, doesn't it? Here is a man who hopes to be by the end of this decade the Prime Minister of one of the wealthiest and most powerful countries in the world only now accepting that the Party which he has been a member of for most of his adult life just possibly may have made an error in refusing to support the opposition forces which strived for years to bring down one of the most racist regimes of the 20th century.

However, Cameron and his hoody loving group of hippies now represented something new and fresh. Thatcherism and sleaze were out. Ethnic minority and female candidate quotas were in. The Tories were no longer the heartless bad guys of British politics. They just wanted a bit of love from us all. The mask slipped slightly today. The Party's Shadow Homeland Security spokesperson Patrick Mercer told a London newspaper that being called a "black bastard" for a black solider was part of life in the British Army. He claimed that "a lot" of "idle and useless" ethnic minority soldiers were using racism as a "cover" to complain. One solider from an ethnic minority who he knew from his experience "was constantly absent and had a lot of girlfriends". But then the Rt Hon Mr Mercer reckons this is no different to making fun of someone who is fat or ginger, which is of course completely acceptable.

Just what planet does Patrick Mercer live on? Clearly it’s the same planet inhabited by Daily Mail readers who will no doubt agree with him and see his persecution as just another example of political correctness gone mad. Red heads should grow up and take a joke. The overweight should learn to have a laugh. And, following on such complex logic, black people have equal rights now so why can't they just enjoy an upper class Tory twit from a military background having a poke at the black bastards. Conservative Central Office could save us all a lot of bother and just bring back Norman Tebbit. At least we knew where he stood.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

If Martina Purdy says things are "steady" then that's good enough for me

Election Day is quite dull in Northern Ireland, which is a tad disappointing if you happen to be a political junkie like me. General elections in the Republic, council elections in England, by-elections in Scotland, assembly elections in Wales or simply any other election in which I can get coverage via my TV or radio - any of these feed my obsession. I even recall at one point last year spending a well deserved day off work watching BBC Parliament's repeat coverage of the 1983 British General Election, something you would think someone of my persuasion would prefer to avoid.

Northern Irish elections just don't feed my habit. When the polling stations shut we all go to bed. No marathon through-the-night counts. No results coming in from some nondescript rural backwater constituency at 4.30am. No endless cups of coffee. No Paxman. No Dimbleby. No arguments. Nothing really.

Voting has now ended for the 2007 Northern Ireland Assembly election but the first result is still more than twelve hours away. Political correspondents have had little to do though in fairness they rreally did do their best to make things exciting through the day. RTE informed us that goings-on at polling stations was "low key" while BBC Northern Ireland made some ridiculous remark about voting being "active". Martina Purdy, a girl sure to triumph at any lovely girls contest, arrived in the afternoon on Radio Ulster to inform us with her soft North American dulcet tones in a manner that only she could possibly deliver that things were indeed "steady."

Basically, we know next to nothing but estimates say that approximately two-thirds of people have voted. Which means that one-third have been extremely naughty. We'll know more tomorrow. Much more.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Posters, posters everywhere and not one worth a vote

I was in Glasgow at the weekend and, in case you are wondering, had a great time. I was a bit let down though at having to spend a fiver to see a partially deaf Welsh comedian at the State Bar off Sauchiehall Street (you have been warned). Other than that it was a grand way to spend a few days. On my return I discovered that the hallway of my house was completely awash with leaflets and that the lamppost outside my front door had an enormous poster tied onto it of a local Green Party member with her face terrifyingly gazing through my bedroom window. Election Day is near and, as always, I'm excited. Not everyone is sharing my enthusiasm. It has been widely accepted by most observers that this has been the dullest election campaign in Northern Ireland for many years. I'm not so sure. True, the run up to the 2007 Assembly election hasn't been accompanied by a bombing campaign or the sort of fire and brimstone speeches made from the backs of lorries that we used to see in the past.

What most people in the province don't seem to have realised is that what we are witnessing at the moment is the slow - very slow - transformation of politics in this part of the world. I come from a generation in which assassinations, bombings and politicians making public calls for one section of the community to be incinerated was part and parcel of everyday politics, including during election time (in fact, incineration was quite a vote winner in its day). Now, with the troubles ended and politicians looking to share power with the other community rather than incinerate them, it has been difficult for many people here to readjust and see the discussion of hospitals and roads as 'normal'.

It is probably safe to say that this is the most 'normal' election since the foundation of Northern Ireland. Can anyone out there remember an election campaign in which water charges have been one of the main issues? Or grammar schools? Or the environment? Or rates? Sure, we have still heard quite a bit about inquiries into killings during the years of violence and endless, tedious debates on what measures it is going to take to form an executive but much of the debates on TV and radio discussed issues which wouldn't have been out of place south of the border or in Britain. Just tonight I saw Gerry Adams being grilled by a member of the audience in a televised BBC debate on Sinn Fein's increasingly ambiguous stance on the Private Finance Initiative. But that's one of Gerry's problems. I face a dilemma of my own. The polling stations open in a few hours and, for all the choice laid out in my hallway, I still have not decided where to put my preferences. If you are a curious type, I live in the constituency of Belfast South. Choice is clearly not a problem for me; it's just a matter of who I should choose.

So, what do you reckon?

Should I vote SDLP, the official party of the Socialist International in Northern Ireland? Or should I vote for that Green Party woman who is currently staring through my window? Should I strike a blow against sectarian apartheid and vote for the liberal-minded souls of the Alliance Party? Then again, I could always cast a vote further to the left. Running in this section of the field we have Jim Barbour, a Trotskyite fireman and member of the Socialist Party, and Paddy Lynn, a Stalinist market trader and candidate for The Workers Party. The Progressive Unionist Party are putting on a brave face in the wake of David Ervine's death and running a few candidates in this election in Belfast, though I would be willing to bet a fair bit of my hard earned cash to say, if the results are as bad as I expect, that this may in fact be their last electoral outing. Parties running who I won't be voting for are the DUP, Sinn Fein, the Ulster Unionists and the UK Unionist Party. The latter have at least pulled off something of a coup by appearing to have found a member in south Belfast who is not Bob McCartney. David Hoey, who bears more than a passing resemblance to a leading German politician of the thirties and forties, has the thankless task of running on the UKUP ticket. Finally, if I feel like some kind of bizarre protest vote I can rely on the ever present Rainbow George and his Vote For Yourself Party or even Charles Smith from the equally peculiar Procapitalism party.

I should reserve a special mention for Roger Lomas of the Conservative Party. I rabbit on a lot on this website about why I think the Labour Party should organise in Northern Ireland. The Tories have managed to assemble some sort of party apparatus in this neck of the woods and seem to garner what support they have from that sector of middle-class unionism who are irked with the current UUP though still far too respectable to vote for the Paisleyites. They have a handful of councillors and are running in half of Northern Ireland's constituencies, including my own. This campaign really seemed like the first time the Tories took their involvement in the province seriously - they even managed to get David Cameron over for the campaign. While it would be a major surprise if any of their guys actually got elected tomorrow at least they can say they tried. The National Executive Committee of the Labour Party can make no such claim.

I remain undecided.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

And the Oscar goes to…me?

Step aside Ilyena Vasilievna Mironova*. The most important award of the past week has gone to none other than me. Imagine my surprise when I discovered this morning that I had just had an honour bestowed on me by Three Score Years and Ten, a fine blog run by the former Labour MP for North East Derbyshire, Harry Barnes.

I was one of five blogs to receive the coveted Thinking Blogger Award while Harry described yourfriendinthenorth as "criticism and commonsense about politics and life in Northern Ireland." It is safe to say then that clearly Harry is a man of good judgement. Perhaps someday I will return the favour and give Three Score Years and Ten the gong that it deserves, but if I were to do so at the moment there I realise most of you dear readers would be up in arms and proclaim the whole ceremony a fix.

On a more serious note, as Joint President of Labour Friends of Iraq Harry has been one of those voices that consistently highlights the real revolutionary struggle taking place in Iraq. It's safe to say that probably over 90% of reports in the news on Iraq either paint the conflict there as either some form of clash of civilisations between east and west, between the US and British forces and the Iraqi insurgents or else a simple sectarian war between the savage natives of a backward society. Truth does exist in both of these ways of looking at the conflict. Coalition forces are being attacked. Sectarian murders are being carried out on a huge scale. However, the struggle of Iraqi workers is being almost completely ignored, unless of course you happen to stumble across the odd article about the subject in the Guardian or the Morning Star**. I recall reading an article on the IFTU website a while back in which Harry highlighted the importance of Iraqi workers fighting back against "rip off capitalism" and suggesting that the country was in line to become the mass auction house that Russia became in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. He has also been a staunch supporter of democracy and the freedom of organisation for trade unions in Iraq. That is what truly puts someone on the left. To those of you reading who may be inclined to use abstract quotes from Lenin to justify throwing your weight behind al-Qaeda, the Swords of Truth or any of the other ultra right Islamic fundamentalist movements currently slaughtering workers in their hundreds at universities, houses, markets and schools in Baghdad and across that troubled country perhaps now is the time to stop and take time to think. Don't be afraid to change your mind.

Right. My acceptance speech is over. Apologies for not mentioning Himself.

*This is the real name of Dame Commander of the British Empire, Helen Mirren. I didn't actually know this until I read it in the Sunday Tribune at the weekend. Just thought I'd show off.

**Yes, I do read the Morning Star. No, I do not have much time for the Communist Party of Britain (or the Communist Party of Ireland). I have come to the conclusion that I am probably the only reader of paper in Northern Ireland. The only shop that seems to stock it in this country is Eason in Belfast city centre - and they only seem to ever get one copy in. It also arrives a day late so it literally is yesterday's news.