Monday, December 31, 2007

Au revoir 2007

I could insult you by writing my very own review of 2007 but I won't. You deserve better. I'm sure by this stage you've seen and read dozens of assessments of the past twelve months, most of them featuring Jimmy Carr in one shape or form.

At the risk of sounding like an angst ridden teenager I do find those lost days between Christmas Eve and New Years Day somewhat depressing. Yes, the final week of the year is fun in that you can crack open a bottle of beer at midday without any fear of been branded an alcoholic. However, it is also quite a sad week. It is a week of unpredictable opening times at the shops (hence the annual panic buying at Tesco on December 24th). It is a week of unpredictable opening times at the pubs (hence the annual panic buying at off licences on December 24th). It is a week - and I find this particularly annoying - of wafer thin newspapers, most of which contain some hastily prepared supplement looking back on the year. More often than not something happens to remind editors that 'news' does not go on holiday over Christmas - for instance the Tsunami back in 2004 or the murder of Benazir Bhutto a few days back. It is a week too when people make silly promises to themselves.

At work today I overheard two people having an incredibly dreary chat. Small talk is something I tend to avoid. If I don't want to speak to you I won't waste your time or my own by making mundane observations about the weather. Unfortunately for the two ladies concerned - who both looked like they wanted to leave the room but neither wanted to risk insulting the other by doing so - they were trapped in a huge vat of small talk. No weather references this time but there were comments aplenty regarding New Year resolutions. It was all fairly run-of-the-mill: one was giving up smoking; the other was going to try and lose weight.

This reminded me of an entry I had written on this site at the end of last year in which I pointed out that I had never actually made a New Year resolution at any stage in my life. I also said that I didn't intend to, however drawing on inspiration from OJ Simpson I did go as far as to speculate what would happen 'if' I ever did actually make some. Four possible resolutions popped up. All of them were pretty unforgettable. Actually, I couldn't recall one of them until I went into the archive. Anyhow, here's how I would have done had I bothered to make these my resolutions for 2007.

"Well, how about I pledge to eradicate my spates of irregular blogging?"

I would have succeeded in this one. I have written 139 entries during 2007. That proves that while I'm not yet prolific in this business I can at least take comfort in knowing that I still have a life away from my laptop. 139 isn't that bad though, is it?

"I suppose I could become a tad more environmentally friendly as well…Leaving taps on, leaving windows open, forgetting to switch off the heat - I stand accused of them all."

I would have crashed and burned on this one. I don't think I leave taps on any longer but that change appears to have come about not as the result of any great masterplan. The heating in my house seems to have been left on permanently for the past four months. While I'm hardly Jeremy Clarkson I am a lost cause on the environmental front. And to think I was considering voting for the Green Party a few months ago.

"Keeping up with technology would be another good thing to do."

I bought a new laptop and a printer. I got a digital camera and learned how to print my own photos at home. My partner has an iPod which I know how to switch on and listen to, though I'm still a bit in the dark as regards how you get the tunes from the internet to the device itself. I think this would have been a successful resolution. Moving on.

"I really reckon I need to go to more gigs in 2007, though as someone who loves a pint of stout and a pub with an open fire that one might require some working on."

Not very many gigs in 2007. Lots of open fires and pints of stout. I do intend to see Radiohead next year. And the Mighty Boosh too, but would they count as a 'gig'? A definite fail as regards this one then. Maybe I'll change my ways when Ticketmaster ditch that booking fee thingy. What's that all about? Oh, and why do some bands still not come north? We're sick up here of having to head south anytime someone decent decides to visit Ireland. The troubles aren't an excuse anymore. Thom Yorke, if you happen to stumble on this between now and the summertime, please drop by when you are on the island.

And with that we reach the end of yourfriendinthenorth for 2007. I can't say its been a bad year but it could have better. Please come back in 2008. I will, hopefully, still be here tomorrow.

Peace and all that.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

God save us

Earlier this evening I watched Songs of Praise on BBC One. I didn't watch all of it. That would be torture. Nevertheless I saw enough. This is not a programme I usually make a point of setting time aside for. The primary reason for not watching this long running series (1961 if you must know) is that hymns tend not to stimulate non believers like myself to any degree. Another reason is that it is shit.

Tonight's show focused on people who are setting out to make a difference in 2008. Among the nauseating self-righteous guests was fitness guru Rosemary Conley (who claimed that it was her Christian faith - rather than her training - that kept her fit) and Andy Hawthorn (an organiser of an odd 'popular front' type Christian group called Hope 08). As those familiar with the programme will no doubt know all of this overt sincerity is punctuated with hymns. One that caught my eye today was entitled King of Kings.

Grovelling constitutes a large part of Christianity and King of Kings adequately reinforces that level of foolish subservience to 'Him'. What really annoyed me though was the over-the-top cheerfulness of the singers in the choir. With the exception of Pyongyang, there are few places in the world where you could hope to see someone sing the words "I live to serve your majesty" while wearing an expression bordering on the orgasmic. BBC One on a Sunday night is that place.

I've never printed the words to a hymn on this website before and I doubt I ever will again. There was just something about King of Kings that really got me. So here it is. A one, a two, a one, two, three four:

King of Kings, Majesty,
God of heaven living in me.
Gentle Saviour, closest friend,
Strong Deliverer, beginning and end,
All within me falls at Your throne.

Your majesty I can but bow,
I lay my all before You now,
In royal robes I don't deserve,
I live to serve your majesty.

There is a serious point here of course: is there any need for religious broadcasting of this type? ITV ditched the equally tedious Highway back in 1993. Maybe, just maybe, the BBC will eventually go out on a limb and remove this weekly dose of irrational sing-along nonsense from our screens once and for all. We shall see.

Friday, December 28, 2007

A martyr for the cause

Only minutes before I learned of the murderous attack on an election rally for Benazir Bhutto in the Punjab region of Pakistan I was watching an episode of BOOKtalk on BBC Parliament featuring Tony Benn. Far from grilling the former Labour MP, presenter Mark D’Arcy invited Benn to regale viewers with anecdotes and opinions we had all heard more times than we care to remember. Not unexpectedly the subject of Iraq and the war on terror arose and, as tends to happen these days, the old clichés came up with it too: we were brought to war on a lie, it was all about oil, Saddam Hussein was a secular ruler who hated Islamists, millions protested on February 15, the west armed the Baathist regime in the 1980s, etc, etc. How sad it is to see a man of the stature and intellect of Tony Benn reduced to throwing out the sort of bland one-liners you could find on the back of any StWC leaflet. It is not just Benn though. To paraphrase the repulsive George Galloway, he isn’t the only one. How many leftists, liberals and people who should know better are currently aligned with the anti-war/pro-insurgency movement? Too many.

Benazir Bhutto was not one of them. She was leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party, a centre left organisation and member group of the Socialist International. She was the first woman to be elected leader of a majority Muslim country. Educated at Harvard and Oxford, Ms Bhutto was pro-western, secular and a strong female figure - qualities that the Islamic world is in dire need of at this moment. She was also steadfast in her support for the ongoing struggle against Islamic terrorism. Detractors will no doubt point out the more controversial moments in her life, such as the allegations of corruption during her time in power, but after years of military dictatorship her charismatic return in October was just what Pakistan required. She was aware of the risk involved in going back to her homeland. In the past her father and two brothers had lost their lives at the hands of the military. She could have taken an easier option. She could have used her wealth to live a quiet and luxurious life in London or New York. She did not.

News of her murder did not come as a surprise. One got the impression that the obituaries which appeared in the immediate wake of her death had been written quite recently. In the past few weeks there had been numerous images on TV and in newspapers of her standing on podiums addressing supporters and waving to followers from the sunroof of a Toyota Landcruiser. With members of the public clearly able to run up and touch her on the street it would hardly have taken much military planning to murder a poorly protected 54 year old woman. Islamist groups affiliated to al-Qaeda had made clear that they would gladly kill her. It was also widely believed that many in Pakistan’s notorious ISI would be only too happy to dispose of this troublesome lady. Two months back 140 people were killed in an attempted assassination just hours after her return. On Boxing Day a 15 year old bomber was apprehended by police near a rally in Peshawar. Yesterday her luck finally ran out. Bhutto was shot dead by a gunman on a motorcycle. He later detonated a bomb that killed more than twenty other civilians. Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility.

One of the many things that made Benazir Bhutto a hate figure for extremists was her promise that if she came to power she would allow US troops to pursue militants fleeing Afghanistan across the border into Pakistan. This would have been one of the most important steps in the war against al-Qaeda and its allies. Of course, it could still happen. Bhutto, while undoubtedly an integral and inspirational figure for many millions of people, was still just one part of a wider movement. It is my hope that the PPP are able to regroup, to find a new leader and to win the forthcoming election when it takes place. Smashing terrorism and building democracy cannot be achieved with the support of thugs like Pervez Musharraf.

In dark times like this men and women like to reassure themselves that perhaps some good can emerge from a tragedy. Unfortunately at the moment the future for Pakistan is uncertain. There are few reasons to be cheerful. Only a glut of questions have surfaced in the wake of this brutal murder. Will the January elections in Pakistan go ahead? How will Musharraf react to the current crisis? Can the Pakistan Peoples Party find a leader capable of replacing Bhutto? Will this killing strengthen the Islamists or will it weaken them in the long run? Can Pakistan ever be a democracy free from military interference? Only time will tell.

As Nick Cohen likes to point out, during the 20th century the forces of democratic socialism have traditionally been on the correct side in crucial battles: opposition to the tragic waste of young life in the first World War, support for Republican Spain in the thirties, support for the fight against fascism in World War II, opposition to Stalinist communism during the Cold War and support for the process of European integration in the current era. Since 2001 the left has been confused in its approach to the post-9/11 world. Some claim to be ‘anti-war’. Some favour an isolationist foreign policy. Some are simply too immature to stomach being on the same side as ‘Dubya’, even if it’s the right place to be. Some will even admit to giving ‘critical support’ to the terrorists. None of these positions though offer any hope for a better world, and surely isn’t that what being on the left was always about?

Benazir Bhutto did offer hope of a better Pakistan. A comrade in the Socialist International, she was a revolutionary in the truest sense of the word. Today we on the anti-fascist, pro-democratic left have our most prominent martyr in the current struggle against military dictators and obscurantist terrorism. The beginning of a democratic revolution in Pakistan in 2008 would be the greatest tribute to her.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Nollaig shona!

I won’t bore you with long entries today. I just thought it would nice to leave you with my favourite Christmas song on this special day of the year. Well, if this is actually a Christmas song. A lot of you have probably forgotten Passengers, a moniker used by U2 to release a concept album back in late 1995. Unlike the rest of humanity I actually thought the album was quite good, or at least interesting which is a lot more than you can say for the band’s last release How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. In case it has slipped your mind the album, titled Original Soundtracks 1, featured fourteen songs written for films that didn’t exist. One of them was Miss Sarajevo, a track featuring U2 and the now sadly departed Luciano Pavarotti.

I must admit that at the time I found the track a bit milky and sincere but it has grown on me over the years. And while it is universally agreed that Bono is an arsehole (though an easy target too if you ask me) the message in the song - a condemnation of the international community’s failure to intervene during the conflict in Bosnia - still stands up in an era where it is the ‘progressives’ in our midst who are the main advocates of an isolationist foreign policy.

Incidentally, Miss Sarajevo wasn’t a Christmas number one in 1995. Earth Song by Michael Jackson was. Now that is fecking injustice. Merry Christmas:

Monday, December 24, 2007

It’s the most wonderful time of the year

Twas the night before Christmas when I sat in my house
Drinking Bushmills with painkillers to numb up my mouth.
I pay all my taxes, I am honest and fair
But despite my endeavours I can’t get healthcare.

If you want to be cheered up on Christmas Eve I suggest at this point you go elsewhere. If you want to hear about the problems I faced this week trying to find a dentist then read on you miserable git...

On Tuesday evening something happened to me that could potentially have ruined my Christmas: I broke a tooth. It happened just before six o’clock in the evening (I remember this because Frank Mitchell was doing that annoying weather forecast where he shows pictures of old people and children) while I was rushing to get ready to hit the pub for a work colleague’s leaving party. I never darkened the pub’s door sadly. Instead I sat in agony in the living room with my troublesome tooth which - although wobbly and moving about quite a bit - was still deeply rooted, inconveniently situated right at the back of my mouth and therefore unlikely to fall out anytime soon, and definitely too risky to twist out.

I popped into Belfast City Hospital’s emergency dental clinic and sat in the queue with about a dozen other people who were all holding their mouths and groaning for about an hour. Incidentally, why are the magazines in waiting rooms so shit? I had three celebrity publications to choose from and none of them were even from what you could call the top end of the market. I appreciate the NHS is strapped for cash but surely they could have splashed out a few extra pennies and got the latest issue of Heat left in the waiting room. Anyway, moving on.

After sixty minutes of reading about how much Kate Garraway loved her time on Strictly Come Dancing there came the words I was waiting for. “Can Johnny Guitar come to room one,” announced the lovely girl. Fantastic. Not only was my toothache going to get its ass kicked but it was going to get it kicked by a lovely girl. Actually, it wasn’t. First of all the lovely girl never appeared again. The dentist turned out to be an elderly man who looked a bit like Charles Dance and the dental nurse had the perm from hell. Still, I’m not shallow. At that stage I would have let even the unsightly Mitchel McLoughlin go to work on my teeth if I had thought he could do away the suffering.

“I’m afraid we can’t perform any extractions or fillings as this is only the pain clinic. You’ll need to see a dentist tomorrow,” said the nurse. My heart sank. Going to a dentist with a toothache only to be told that they can’t either a) remove the tooth or b) put a filling in it is a bit like going to Eason and being informed that you can’t purchase any books. At least the Charles Dance look-alike put some sort of temporary filling in which managed to kill the pain for a few hours, but (literally) at a price.

“There’s a charge of £6 for that,” the permed one said. What? Could this be right? Fair enough, I know I’m not entitled to free dental treatment anymore but could the two minute process of sticking what appeared to be a piece of cotton smeared in goo into a hole really be worth £6? And in an NHS hospital of all places. My teeth, a complete mess was when I was young, were straightened for free thanks to the National Health Service. For the guts of five years I had the best orthodontic treatment anyone could hope for, not to mention a series of different braces that set my chances of pulling as a young lad back by light years. Yet now, barely ten years on, I was being asked to shell out six quid for a lump of cotton that had been lodged into my mouth by a dentist who doesn’t extract or fill in teeth. Damn them if I was paying this. I was asked for documentation and produced my driving licence, medical card and prescription charges exemption certificate. No good, I still had to pay. Then I remembered - I didn’t have any money with me and, as the NHS doesn’t yet take Mastercard or Maestro, the nurse had grown tired of the whole thing and told me to go. Off home I went.

Thank goodness I didn’t hand over £6. The next day the temporary filling unceremoniously popped out of my gob as I walked among scores of Christmas shoppers at the traffic lights in front of City Hall. Suave, eh? The pain was back.

I was still registered with a dentist back home but he was too far away for me to go to and get back in time for work. So if the hospital couldn’t do anything for me perhaps an NHS dentist could do a favour. If I could find one. I rang my nearest dentist who quickly informed me that they were a private clinic. “You’ll be doing well to get a National Health dentist in south Belfast,” the receptionist told me. My morale was hit once more. Regardless of her words I phoned around every dentist in the greater Belfast area that I could find. Some of them did cater for NHS patients, but none of them could help. No cancellations. No chance of even a Christmas favour. If I wanted some form of treatment I’d have to be registered with their clinic. I accepted defeat and moved on.

It was time for Plan C, the plan I said I would never resort to in my life. I was going to go, urgh, say it quietly. Really quietly. I was going to go, ssshhh, errr… private. Bastards. I walked into a private clinic on the Dublin Road, explained that I was in excruciating pain, told them that I couldn’t get help from either the hospitals or the run-of-the-mill dentists and would like to make an appointment. ASAP. I would pay whatever sum was required. I was desperate. “I’m sorry but we can’t help,” muttered a receptionist who clearly hadn’t read the instructions on her fake tanning kit. “We don’t do one-off treatments. We cater for people who are looking to become long term customers.” Customers. Not patients. How nice. I couldn’t even pay someone to take a look at my tooth. Well feck them all.

I’ve been lucky in one regard I suppose. I’ve been able to get some special heavy duty prescription painkillers which do the trick. Christmas should at least be bearable. There are two views you could take of my whole predicament. One is that I am a stupid bugger for forgetting to register with a dentist when I moved to Belfast and therefore I deserve all I get. Then there is number two, the more humane one, which is that surely giving me a good telling off would have sufficed and the hospital could have provided some emergency service and sorted me out for a fee. Who knows, I might even have thrown Charles Dance and the nurse enough money for a Christmas drink. Sadly I have been forced to sit around for the past five days groaning and mumbling about how barbaric the system is to my partner (who I assure you is suffering in a different way). What I have discovered is that I am nowhere near alone in this situation.

According to the Guardian website 10% of people in Britain are not registered at all with a dentist. A third claim that there are no NHS dentists close to them. A staggering 22% said that they did not even know how to register with a dentist. 13% are on a waiting list while another 30% cited ‘other reasons’ for their problems. Even those that have decided to go private have not done so out of choice. The report in the Guardian states that three quarters of private patients felt that they were forced into it as a result of the lack of NHS dentists. But for me by far the most shocking statistic was undoubtedly the one featured on the CNN website which states that a survey by Dentistry Watch of 5,000 patients in the UK found that 6% of people had resorted to performing extractions of their own teeth at home using pliers and other instruments. It is simply amazing that despite ten years of Labour government a report can find evidence of people using clove oil and Polyfilla to do homemade fillings in 21st century Britain. Nye Bevan would not be amused. And he’d probably have a bit of sympathy for little old me as well. Sniff.

There is a (sort of) happy ending to this tale of woe. One dentist was willing to enter into the spirit of the festive season and offered me an appointment. For January 14th. Could have been worse though. A clinic nearby told me that they couldn’t offer me a registration appointment until May. After reading the CNN website I suddenly feel like one of the lucky ones. Looks like me and those painkillers are going to get to know one another quite well over the next three weeks.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The festive season is coming and the Imam is getting fat

Christmas is cancelled. Apparently. Well, that's what some of the papers say so there must be some morsel of truth in it, right?

In the unlikely event that you haven't yet come across this load of twaddle the story goes that a by-product of our multicultural society has been the dilution of the 'old' Christmas we all knew and loved thanks to an unholy alliance of liberals, leftists, soft conservatives, Muslims, shady think tanks, militant atheists, easily offended ethnic and religious minority groups, scientists, the European Union and people who believe that Princess Diana may not have died as a result of an MI5 assassination plot headed by the Duke of Edinburgh. OK, so I was being a tad mischievous including that last group but I think you get the idea from whereabouts these rumours of the death of Christmas are emanating.

The first thing you should know is that this is not just a British story. It seems that Christians across the globe feel that they are finding it increasingly difficult to celebrate the birth of their lord. Even an avid newshound like myself was stunned by the amount of items on the internet regarding this subject.

Take a few seconds of your time to perform a Google search under the words 'Christmas' and 'political correctness' to see what I mean; the number of articles returned are in the millions. In fact if you want a real idea of just how widespread this whole matter is go a step further and do a Google news search. Stories on this are popping up every few minutes. While I was writing this a story cropped up no less than ten minutes ago in an Oaklahoma-based newspaper Tulsa World featuring conservative talkshow host Glenn Beck offering his opinions on how the "bizarre world of political correctness" has damaged Christmas. Two hours before that "Enough Political Correctness" was the headline in a Los Angeles rag lambasting the use of the term 'holiday season'. A few hours before that The Daily Telegraph was asking its readers what was "killing Christmas". Around the same time a Lancashire website covered the story of how Hyndburn Council had circulated a memo ordering workers to behave themselves during staff parties and not to do anything that could be considered offensive to their co-workers (tut tut, you can't even offend people these days). I read the unfortunately still alive Alf McCreary spewing out some drivel in The Belfast Telegraph last week about the dangers posed by secularism. And down the road in Dublin an Irish Independent feature penned by Gemma O'Doherty a few days before lamented the danger posed to the traditional Christmas work party by - yep, you guessed it - the "very politically correct" society we all live in. I could go on but you get the idea.

Here's my view. There is no move to destroy or even change the nature of Christmas. I see very little difference now in 2007 between the Christmas I had as a kid and the Christmas my nieces and nephews will be having this year. Virtually everyone I speak to thinks the same. Older people will remark that kids get more presents in modern times, but shouldn't we be thankful that people have more surplus cash these days than they did fifty years ago?

The next time you read a column by Richard Littlejohn, Fiona Phillips, Peter Hitchens or someone of their ilk trotting this drivel regarding the death of Christmas I suggest that you fling them a letter and tell them to wise up, think seriously about this subject and then be honest with us - nothing has changed. The (pagan) Christmas tree still sits in the centre of all our cities, towns and villages. The (modern Coca-Cola designed) Santa Claus is still doing the rounds with his reindeer pals. Has the overtly Christian element of Christmas receded? Of course it has, but that's because the overt Christian element of our society has also receded. Religion is for most people a private affair and, if people would be honest, what we are celebrating at this time of year nowadays is an end of year festival with its roots in Christianity. That doesn't stop Catholics, Anglicans, Presbyterians and the rest marking it in their own way by attending their relative masses and services. I simply appeal to them not to try and lecture the rest of us on the birth of a man in a shed in the Middle East two millennia ago while we're having a relaxing drink on the night of December 24th.

I am an atheist and have been since I was old enough to give the subject any degree of coherent thought (those meaningless prayers during the period of preteen indoctrination don't count). Despite this I love Christmas. I love the run up to it. I love going into the centre of Belfast on a crisp, cold, dry winter night and seeing the lights, the decorations, having an overpriced snack at the continental market and picking up gifts for friends and family. I love that period between Christmas Eve and New Years Day where your only real concern is what you're going to eat and where you're going to drink. I love It's A Wonderful Life. I love the faces on all the excited kids queuing for Santa's grotto. I love the Christmas specials on TV. I love decorating my house. I love sending and receiving cards. I hate turkey but I bloody well eat it anyway. This is what the vast majority of the population associate with Christmas and none of it is associated with Jesus of Nazareth.

Should I and everyone else give all this up on the grounds of faith or lack of faith? Of course not. As a work colleague recently remarked to me in his traditionally blunt fashion when discussing this point: "I've been to Gay Pride for the past two years and I'm not even queer." Forgive me for lowering the tone but you get his point.

Christmas is the way it is because people want it and enjoy it that way. It's not down to obscure quangos or politically correct pressure groups. Just as tabloid tales of coffee shops banning references to black coffee on the grounds of racism should be taken with a pinch of salt please take a similar dose of the white stuff when the same publications attempt to shock with tales of Mrs Claus being forced to don a hijab in some shopping centre in Birmingham.

Merry Xmas, comrade.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Not traditional, just out of date

I had an idea that hardline loyalism was in the twilight stages of its political life in the very early months of this decade. Only a matter of weeks after leaving a century in which unionists could have counted on men of such stature as Carson and Craig to maintain the link with Great Britain we were faced in the summer of 2000 with an altogether different and less savoury image of Protestant strength: Johnny Adair.

To be precise it was Johnny Adair prancing around a housing estate in Portadown with his pet Alsatian dog dressed in a pro-UDA t-shirt. As he and his shrinking band of thugs attempted to bring life to an already dead protest at Drumcree one did not need to be an expert in the field of Irish politics to spot who yesterdays men were. Seven years on and even a halfwit like Johnny Adair has accepted the game is up. The former Shankill Road paramilitary has spoken of his ‘support’ for peace. It seems that everyone has accepted that there can be no going back. Everyone apart from Jim Allister that is.

I almost felt sorry for Jim (pictured above) when I read about how he was setting off on a crusade to take unionism back from the hands of the treacherous DUP. How times have changed. Not long ago the launch of a new rejectionist unionist party would have made for headline grabbing news. Today it barely makes any sort of news whatsoever. You can be forgiven if you missed the launch of the blandly titled Traditional Unionist Voice, the new political vehicle that is supposedly going to put unionism back where it belongs - in a position to be sold out by someone else.

In the event that you would like to know more about TUV (goodness knows why you would) a leaflet for the new party is available on Jim Allister’s European Parliament website. It is unremarkable in that it reads just like you would expect it to read, probably due to the fact that you have read it somewhere before. Switch a few words around and this could have been a leaflet attacking Terence O’Neill when he was the leader of the Unionist Party attempting to build bridges with the Republic. Substitute the references to the Saint Andrew’s Agreement with references to the Sunningdale Agreement and this could have been a flyer from the spring of 1974. It could have been a flyer too from one of those many mass protests against the Anglo-Irish Agreement in the eighties. Or it could have been anything produced by the DUP, UKUP, NIUP or any of the plethora of anti-agreement unionist groups that sprung up in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement in the nineties.

The difference today is that unionists, possibly for the first time in living memory, are relatively at ease. There are no mass protests. There is no fear of sell out. There is no feeling that a united Ireland is just around the corner. They believe that the war is over, and more importantly do not believe that anyone is planning on starting another one anytime soon. They trust nationalists. They trust the Dublin government. They even trust the Provos. And power sharing has been much easier than anyone could have expected (well, between the DUP and Sinn Fein at least).

Perhaps in spite of all this Jim Allister senses a reservoir of discontent just waiting to be tapped into, though if you ask me he is simply wasting his time. There is no gap in the market for the TUV movement. The main disputes in Northern Irish politics in 2007 were disputes over what most would term 'bread and butter' issues: the Eleven Plus, the Causeway visitor centre, funding for the health service, etc.

The future for this brand of unionism is dark and, in a bizarre sort of way, we have the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party to thank for that. Unionism's intransigent wing is leaderless. Over the past forty years the forces of not-an-inch unionism have been able to rely on the presence of a charismatic firebrand leader like Ian Paisley. Today they must make do with an uninspiring one dimensional barrister from Crossgar surrounded by a handful of aging and embittered former DUP c-listers like Charlie Tosh, a repulsive homophobic Castlereagh councillor (who incidentally bears a staggering similarity to Slade's Noddy Holder).

If Jim Allister thinks that his Traditional Unionist Voice will be an electoral force when it comes up against the well oiled and well funded powerhouse of the DUP then he is clearly more dense than that QC title after his name would lead us to believe. Just don’t get too attached to the plush surroundings of Brussels and Strasbourg, Jim. After June 2009 you’ll have a lot more time to spend around Crossgar.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

It seemed so plausible

Last week I was grumbling about the outlandish creationist beliefs held by Mervyn Storey and a large chunk of his colleagues in the DUP assembly party. The late great Bill Hicks and his famous joke about fundamentalist Christians and their explanation for dinosaur fossils was mentioned at the end of that article. As I’m heading off for Paris in a few hours I thought I would need something to think of to cheer me up when sitting around a freezing cold airport on dark dank winter day waiting to be herded onto a horrible budget airline before attempting late tonight to navigate the Parisienne metro using my abysmal knowledge of their native language. OK, my moan is officially over. Here's Bill:

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The never-ending story of the poor teddy bear

Never caught short when it comes to having a pop at Muslims the British National Party have launched a new teddy bear for Christmas which you can - if you are that way inclined - purchase for three pounds and fifty pence from the organisation’s online shop.

Don’t worry, I haven’t whipped out my credit card and bought one. But you do have to wonder about how fascists spend their time. What I mean is this story broke less than a week ago yet today the BNP somehow has a plentiful supply of little brown bears sporting the party logo and the name of the main man in Islam. There are two possible conclusions that can be drawn here. Either a handful of far rightists spent the weekend at home with a consignment of kids toys sewing labels onto them or, and it is plausible, they already have loads of this kind of stuff lying around for their children to play with.

As long as the BNP stick to this sort of thing I’ll sleep safe in my bed. I doubt grassroots Nazi activists in Germany during the thirties were sat at home with a needle and thread sewing ‘Moses’ and ‘NSDAP’ onto pigs.