Thursday, June 25, 2009

Murder in Tehran

"The root of the current unrest is the people's dissatisfaction and frustration at their plight going back before the election," said Iranian Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi. "Because women are the most dissatisfied people in society, that is why their presence is more prominent."

Shirin Ebadi
Philadelphia Inquirer
June 25th 2009

There are some people who, for one reason or another, attach some special significance to dying at the age of 27. Its bullshit of course, but then this is a society where bullshit can wield an often bewildering influence. Members of this gloomy club usually tend to be musicians; Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison to name but five. Last Saturday Neda Agha-Soltan, who was also 27 years old, was murdered by the security forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The disturbing footage of her last moments of life draining away as she lay wounded on a street in Tehran has quickly etched itself into the minds of all that have seen it.

Details about Neda, her political views and her life are still fairly unclear. Even when do get to find out more about this woman we may find little that is remarkable. What we do know in relation to her tends to tell us more about the person she was not. For example, she was not a supporter of Mir Hossein Mousavi. She was not a member of any political movement. She also had no history of involvement in protests or demonstrations. On the other hand, what is known about her is that she was a graduate of Azad University in Tehran, worked as a travel agent and in her spare time enjoyed taking singing, violin and piano lessons.

In a way these tiny details tell us a lot about conditions in Iran at present. Revolutionary situations have a habit of politicising the most apolitical of people. Had Neda been an activist from the Mousavi camp or a member of the underground Tudeh Party then there is a chance that her death may have been overlooked by some. But she wasn't. She was, it seems, just an ordinary member of the public caught up in what is a quite extraordinary set of circumstances.

Thanks to the armed thugs of the Basij militia, the demonstrators in Iran have their first visible martyr. Whether we leftists in the west will view her in similar terms remains to be seen (perhaps it would have required a bullet from a US Marine before she would have been considered worthy of a brief mention on a Saturday afternoon leaflet). However, like Capa's Falling Soldier, Jan Palach and the unknown man facing down the tanks on Tiananmen Square in the 20th century, the shooting of Neda Agha-Soltan may yet become one of the iconic images of this first decade of the new millennium. Let us hope that it may also be a spur for the Iranian people to rid themselves of one of history's vilest regimes.

Death to fascism, as some of us are still in the habit of saying.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Get behind me Satan

"There is a danger... in taking the Devil too lightly, for in doing so man might take evil too lightly as well. Recent history has shown terrifyingly enough that the demonic lies barely beneath the surface, ready to catch men unawares with new and more horrible manifestations."
June 19th 1972

Reason magazine is currently running quite an entertaining article on the ten worst Time front covers ever to, as they say across the pond, hit the news stands. Coming in at number ten is the occult-related one pictured on the left, although I am of the opinion that it probably deserves to be at the top of the list (if only for the fact that it was the one that made laugh out loud). I also recommend that you pay a visit to the actual article itself which appeared in Time back in June 1972. I particularly like the bit about Satanic goings on in sex clubs and the claim that "goat-shaped images superimposed on purple pentagrams" are "being re-enacted all across the US nowadays." Scary stuff. Then again, perhaps not. As Reason rightly remark, the real sinister force developing in the United States during this period and eventually exploding in the 1980s was the evangelical Protestant movement, not the fringe loons slitting the throats of inoffensive little animals in their barns.

Nowadays such rubbish would hardly make the pages of the Sunday World (non-Irish readers click here for said shit publication) yet there was a time when all this divilry was big news, especially in my own neck of the woods. This article brought back a lot of memories flooding back for when I was knee high to the proverbial duck 'the divil' was still a regular on the local scene in Northern Ireland. There always seemed to be a tall tale of one kind or another floating around the classroom and the playground concerning a horned character being spotted in a park or a cloven hoofed individual making an appearance on a cold dark night during an impromptu game of poker. Reports of 'divil worship' of the exotic variety outlined in the Time of 1972 was also not exactly uncommon. I recall one old man who resided not all that far from where I went to school being unfortunate enough to gain the label of a devil worshipper. My best friend once impressed me no ends with his daring tale of how he had been on the devil worshippers land (quite what he did when got onto the old man's farm isn't all that clear). Incidentally, the man in question appears to have been responsible for little other than owning a couple of goats.

That such notions were common should hardly surprise us. Let us not forget, for a long time the Devil had a fair degree of credibility in some of this society's official channels. When my father - and indeed my older brother and sister - were going to school the Devil was very real indeed. They were taught quite sternly that he (for it was a He) existed. This was not the new improved and revised Devil that my nine year nephew is taught about these days; the abstract Devil that is merely a metaphor for all that is bad in the world (the Devil is hunger, the Devil is poverty, the Devil is alcoholism, blah, blah, etc ,etc). As recently as 1991 an International Social Survey Program investigation found that, outside of the United States, Northern Ireland had the highest proportion of citizens believing in Satan than anywhere else on the planet. Good news for the churches no doubt, though some obviously considered the public willingness to believe in such drivel to be important for entirely different reasons. Reports have emerged in recent years that the glut of stories circulating throughout the 1980s in Northern Ireland on the topic of Satan/Lucifer/The Devil and worship of him may not have been entirely coincidental. It has been alleged that such stories were kick-started by the British Army to try and keep gullible locals away from sensitive areas of the province that may have been under their surveillance, amongst other things. Of course, there may be nothing to these allegations but if true it speaks volumes for just how backward the Brits considered us good people of the fair province of Ulster (and, to be frank, they probably wouldn't have been all that wide of the mark).

But as amusing as these anecdotes and clichéd folktales of the horned ones exploits were, kids these days should be able to live much better, more contented lives without worrying about the presence of an omnipotent supernatural creature who they will be condemned to spend all eternity in hell with should they be the slightest bit naughty. That schoolchildren in this country have been liberated from Satan is therefore to be welcomed. Now is the time for educational authorities in this part of the world to finish this half done job and liberate the young from that other equally absurd remnant of ignorance and superstition, God. I suspect that may take quite a while longer.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Eamon Gilmore, giant of the left. Discuss.

Though it comes in for a lot of stick from various sources, I actually happen to be a quite a fan of Wikipedia. True, articles do tend to get vandalised and I'm sure more than a few university lecturers have come across the odd first year undergrad essay containing huge chunks that have been blatantly copied and pasted from the much maligned online encyclopaedia. These points aside, I have found it an absolutely indispensable resource for settling disputes that would in bygone days have carried on days, weeks and maybe even months. Indeed, in the past 24 hours I witnessed a frighteningly intense barroom dispute regarding when Antrim's Gaelic footballers last won an Ulster championship brought to swift Wiki conclusion (it was 1951 if you must know). Still, for every upside there is, inevitably, a downside.

Wikipedia's entry on the topic of social democracy is admittedly quite comprehensive and it provides some useful links to other Wiki and non-Wiki sites, but there is one strange admission in the little box containing the ideology's most prominent thinkers. Eduard Bernstein? No, of course not. He earned his place. Léon Blum? You must be joking. Crosland? Brandt? Palme? Attlee? All worthy of their place if you ask me. But Eamon Gilmore? Eamon Gilmore?! Now, don’t get me wrong. Eamon Gilmore strikes me as being quite a pleasant chap. He comes across as the sort of man you could probably share a pint with and have an ould natter about what he makes of that Joe Canning lad, though he is hardly the sort of historical heavyweight you would place up there alongside, say, Karl Kautsky. Well, not yet anyhow. Still, if Gilmore is to be admitted to this golden circle who else could make it? Mark Langhammer for his one-man socialist crusade in Newtownabbey? Andy McGivern for his endless attempts to join the British Labour Party? John Hume for saying 'post-nationalist Europe' more times than any other individual on the planet?

Oh well. That's Wikipedia. The people have spoken. Eejits.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

"Down with the revolution! Defend the theocracy!"

Just some of the responses on the 'revolutionary left' to the results of the presidential election in Iran:

"We have to accept Ahmadinejad's re-election, not least because all our best friends in that region don't have any elections at all."

George Galloway,
Daily Record
June 15th 2009

"I think it's a consensus on the liberal-left in the US and UK that the Iranian elections were fixed... It is not inherently implausible that Ahmadinejad got 63% of the vote, and it has to be shown that there was a fix. The fact that Ahmadinejad used state oil revenues to fund programmes for the poor can be approved or derided, but it arguably gave large numbers of people an interest in voting for Ahmadinejad against his more explicitly neoliberal rival... So, the first question that occurs is, why should the ballots be rigged?"

Richard Seymour,
Lenin's Tomb
June 15th 2009

Meanwhile, on the real left...

Monday, June 15, 2009

Thinking outside the sectarian box

Back in my university days I had a very good friend who was a very passionate and partisan supporter of Fine Gael. Indeed, Bill (as he shall henceforth be referred to) remains a hardened follower of the crew from 51 Upper Mount Street. So much of a yellow dog FGer is he that in 2002 he was one of those enthusiastically backing the lacklustre Michael Noonan for Taoiseach; and, just in case you've forgotten, that was the year Fine Gael crashed to the joint worst result in their history. Yet despite blind loyalty to Enda's boys and the fact that we agreed on virtually nothing, my Blueshirt pal was still someone whose views I paid heed to and respected. Well, apart from one idea that is.

During one particular chinwag in my living room on an evening back in, I think, early 2003 talk came around to who he would vote for if he resided full time in the black north. Although Bill was far from being an enthusiastic supporter of any of our local political clans one name did consistently pop up - David Trimble. He admired the then Ulster Unionist leader for his pragmatism, his vision and his willingness to put his neck on the line by cutting an historic deal with Dublin, constitutional nationalists and militant republicans. He also had a suggestion: that his beloved Fine Gael and the Ulster Unionist Party form some kind of all-island conservative alliance. I can't actually remember much more about what exactly he was suggesting but I recall considering his idea to be, to put it mildly, staggeringly naïve. OK, the concept was certainly novel but surely not even unionists of the most moderate variety would have any interest whatsoever in forging links with southern nationalists, even if it were on issues which had nothing to do with the dreaded border question… would they?

Over the weekend I stumbled across an intriguing piece written by the Fermanagh-based Conservative Seymour Major. His article was entitled A fast track for ending sectarian politics – the triple Alliance and explored the potential benefits that could lie ahead were Fine Gael to be brought into the current electoral pact operating between the Ulster Unionist Party and the Conservatives. Outlining his idea further, Major states:

I believe that more intimacy is needed for the economic and cultural well-being of Northern Ireland. That means, particularly, freeing up obstacles to cross-border trade, joint planning capital projects, shared public services, shared development or any other public concern which could make efficient use of the land border. Furthering Northern Ireland’s interest on the other side of the border would have added dynamism if there was a political party on the other side to promote Northern Ireland’s interest. In the scenario that I have already provided, the left achieves this by through a triple alliance of the three labour parties. The conservatives and the UUP could also achieve that by aligning with Fine Gael. In practice, that would mean, effectively, Fine Gael joining the New Force. Fine Gael is a conservative party, although it calls itself a party of the 'progressive centre.' It is a member of the centre right EPP. With the Conservatives set to leave the EPP, it will now be in a slightly different political position in Europe. In Ireland, however, there is no reason why Fine Gael should not be invited to set up in Northern Ireland and join a conservative triple alliance.

Not to get too carried away, he recognises that what he is proposing is asking pro-union people to make a "quantum leap" and openly concedes that he doesn't think "many unionists are anywhere near being ready for this kind of politics." Even so, at least he's thinking.

Major also puts forward an interesting proposal that he feels could kickstart genuine centre left politics in Northern Ireland. Oddly enough, it is one that I've suggested on this very blog in the not too distant past. The proposals involve bringing together the SDLP, the British Labour Party and the Irish Labour Party into a three-way alliance, essentially a mirror image of the conservative coalition which he proposes for right wing forces. If you ask me it is as sound a plan as any. Historically political vehicles of all types have failed to bridge the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland for one reason or another. If they were all-Ireland they were naturally viewed with suspicion by Protestants; if they had their HQ in London they were looked upon as alien by Catholics. The sort of left-right formations being advocated by Major make more sense in contemporary Northern Irish politics. Don't forget, the Good Friday Agreement was based on the three strand concept of relationships - Northern Ireland, the island of Ireland and the British Isles. Doesn't it make sense then that our political system would best evolve if the progressive parties operating within it assumed the cornerstones of that agreement as the basis for their organising? I think it would and I am certain others out there share my view that our party system can no longer be dictated by the position our provincial parties take towards the 360 kilometres of border running between Carlingford Lough and Lough Foyle.

A few years back the northern forum of the Irish Labour Party issued a document entitled Part of Both - Excluded from Neither. Some positive sounds were made in it, not least an expression of the party's desire to establish "a formal structural relationship with the British Labour Party." Unfortunately nothing developed out of it. Given the relative briskness with which the Conservative and Unionist alliance was proposed, negotiated and then put to the test in the European elections it makes it even more disappointing that the centre left has not been able to scramble together something along the same lines. Nevertheless, as tempting as it can be sometimes, there is no point giving up. The gap in the market for a progressive, left of centre political formation in Northern Ireland still exists. I just wish we'd stop faffing around and bloody well fill it.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Fascism and how not to fight it

Predictable though it was, it has been incredibly disappointing to see the reaction from some parts of the left to the success of the British National Party in the local and European elections. The open letter that appeared in the online edition of Socialist Worker on Tuesday sounds like it was written by someone who is in some odd way pleased by the BNP victories as it may now provide them with the opportunity to take part in a 21st century equivalent of Lewisham '77.

Martin Smith, SWP top dog and Unite Against Fascsim spokesperson, made a handful of media appearances this week that for me summed up all that is wrong with the anti-fascist movement. Seeing the cretin on Channel 4 News was bad enough but to then see him spouting the exact same nonsense only a few hours later on BBC's Newsnight was just too much. In both debates I was praying for something to develop that would mean Snow or Paxo would have to leave chatting to him in order to devote their time to a breaking news story elsewhere but unfortunately no such story occurred. Instead, we had to endure an embarrassingly inarticulate and clichéd rant against the BNP, the kind of which does nothing to further the case against the far right and one which all fascists nowadays know how to easily deal with.

If we are going to fight back against this rise in support for the British National Party then lets fight them on their policies. Calling them Nazis or antisemites or claiming that if they get into power they will slaughter thousands of blacks, Jews and Muslims is pointless. All they have to do is reject such allegations, leaving us nowhere except in a name calling cul-de-sac. Also, while I have no doubt that many of those involved in organising Love Music Hate Racism gigs do so with good intentions, I have always wondered just how getting Lily Allen, Pete Doherty and a host of third rate pop acts on stage together somehow inflicts a crushing blow against the fascists.

I say give Nick Griffin his day in the sun. Let the bastard sit on the Question Time panel he's been crying about being excluded from for all these years now. When he gets there lets make him answer in the most intricate detail just what exactly he means by 'voluntary repatriation'. Make him tell us just which members of the England football team that turned out at Wembley last night he would like to put on a boat or a plane and have thrown out of the country. Theo Walcott maybe? Joleon Lescott perhaps? Carlton Cole? Ashley Cole? Glen Johnson? Shaun Wright-Phillips? Just what would the average working class Brit think of the notion that these people are not English and therefore should deported in order to turn the clock back to some mythical pre-1950s all-white utopia?

I am of the opinion that a large chunk of the BNP vote is made up of people who are not aware of just what this party stands for. It is because of this that I think the tactics advocated by Smith and friends are absolutely harebrained. Keeping them out of view of the public and handing them the propaganda value of martyrdom does not help one bit. We don’t need to drag up stuff about Hitler and the Holocaust from the 1930s and 1940s in order to scare people. The BNP's policies in 2009 are terrifying enough, yet in most news items about the party in the run up to last week's elections these were completely overlooked.

Then there is the whole question of image. Like it or not, a lot of people out there consider the BNP to now be a respectable right wing political party that deserves to be treated no differently than UKIP or the Conservatives. Nowadays their representatives look respectable. They sound respectable. They wear suits. Some of them even smile. This might sound trivial to you if you happen to be a member of Unite Against Fascism trying hard to apply the anti-fascist tactics of 1930s to the Britain of the noughties, however nobody should be under any illusions that had the far right not ditched their attachment to seventies-style National Front flag waving, Hitler salutes and confrontational marches through ethnic minority areas of English towns and cities then it is highly unlikely that the voters of such areas as Sevenoaks would be giving these goons the time of day. However, if they have won respectability and I think it is probably fair to say that Martin Smith's TV appearances on Monday could only have lost the anti-fascist argument respect from some sections of the public.

It is possible that Smith felt appearing on national telly in a pair of jeans, naff white top and wearing the type of glasses available in the 2-for-1 offer at Specsavers gave him some proletarian street cred but to be honest I thought he just looked like shit. I remember when I was at university I used to see a mature student in his 40s who would hang around the campus all day with people half his age, sup pints in the students union and then embarrassingly flirt with petrified girls after he'd had a few. That's who Smith reminded me of. At least if he had been a tad more presentable it might have disguised some of the shortcomings in his argument, but no such luck. The man's incoherent ramblings were coupled with his vagabond-like appearance made for car crash television.

At one stage in the Channel 4 interview Smith stated, when asked by Snow why the BNP should not be given the same rights as others, that they represent a "revolutionary fascist ideology." What though of those, such as Smith, who represent a revolutionary Trotskyist ideology? Do they deserve similar treatment at the hands of the authorities? I personally do not happen to think so yet this is the danger when you start banning or silencing political parties. It is often difficult to know when you draw the line. If we are to ban far right parties on the basis that they may bring back the death camps and the gas chambers then should we not also proscribe far left groups in case they try to resurrect the gulags at some stage?

It does seem slightly odd that any self-proclaimed revolutionary Marxist would seek the assistance of the bourgeois state's anti-hate laws in order to silence the fascists. I seem to recall Chris Harman writing many years ago in The Prophet and the Proletariat that the SWP position on Islamism was "with the Islamists sometimes, with the state never." Then again, the Cliffite's principles have had a tendency to be chucked out the window when it comes to winning over the Muzzies. Of course, what most people watching Martin Smith probably weren't aware of is his own history of tolerating reactionary far right and antisemitic loons. The Gilad Atzmon affair from a few years back springs to mind, as does his own party's history of refusing to condemn Hamas suicide bombings in Israel (I would love to have heard his views on whether or not he felt that Hizb ut-Tahrir should be banned along with the BNP).

Fear not. All is not lost at this stage. It isn't too late to reverse the gains made by Nick Griffin's despicable little party, but many people out there must first learn one big lesson. The fight against the BNP will not be won with Martin Smith and his mates at the helm. We will never defeat totalitarian political cults as long as the fight against them is being led by the heads of other totalitarian political cults.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Career opportunities

"Several of the women attending Cabinet – myself included – have been treated by you as little more than female window dressing."
Caroline Flint in her resignation letter,
June 5th 2009

Beyond being a 'lovely girl', just what exactly is the point in Caroline Flint? I don't normally have anything to say about her because, quite frankly, she never really does anything worth talking about. The one time I did bother to mention her was back in April when she admitted to not having read the Lisbon Treaty, something which makes you wonder just what else she was doing in her eight months as Europe Minister. Of course, it is possible that her bland letter of resignation to the Prime Minister may contain some element of truth. Gordon Brown probably does use women as window dressing, but then isn't that what politicians right across the globe do? I'm sure if - or, as now sadly looks likely, when - David Cameron becomes PM he'll have a cabinet bursting at the seams with hot young fillies and hip ethnic minority chaps (then again, maybe not).

According to Elizabeth Day, Flint's letter to the Prime Minister was "written in anger after she was not offered the expected promotion." Perhaps someone out there has a heart bleeding for the girl, but I have no sympathy whatsoever. If she didn't want to attend cabinet in what she viewed as a peripheral capacity then fine but don't patronise us with claims to be a "natural party loyalist" when you decide to throw your toys out of the pram on the eve of European and local elections, a move which could do nothing except damage the party you claim to love.

If Flint and co have an argument for why Gordon Brown should step aside then they should provide it. To date they have done nothing of the sort. The Don Valley MP's resignation letter is hardly a manifesto for change nor does it actually point to anything concrete which the Prime Minister is doing wrong. In fact, I have heard no utterance at all from the current band of whiners that says what they would do differently. When Major's pathetic Tory administration was tearing itself to pieces over the issue of Maastricht it was at least doing itself long term damage about something which mattered. The Labour left too has always been lambasted for representing outdated brands of socialism, but at least they represented something tangible. It is probably a safe bet to say that there is no danger of Caroline Flint becoming the next Tony Benn and embarking on a nationwide lecture tour.

As for the window dressing remark, if I were truly concerned about such perceptions would I really have aired them in the same week I posed in a photoshoot for Observer Woman? Probably not. The truth is Flint has no real loyalties or beliefs. This resignation was about her failure to climb another step on the career ladder and nothing to do with her convictions, if she has any.

Without wanting to write the Flintster off altogether I decided to comb the web in order to see what more I could find out about her. There wasn't a lot, although the biography at her website provides some interesting information on what she gets up to in her spare time. Not all that much it seems. Apparently herself and her husband are "dedicated film goers" (so, she goes to the cinema). She also enjoys "leisure time with her family" (whatever that means). We are informed of an "interest" in the fields of education, employment and foreign affairs (though not enough of an interest in the latter to read the most important European treaty of the past decade) yet nothing about any opinions or principles in these areas.

Oddly, Flint is, along with fellow rebel without a cause Hazel Blears, a member of a parliamentary tap dancing troupe of female Labour MPs called the Division Belles (oh dear). As well as this she is also a member of the Fabian Society, something she manages to omit from her little biog. Clearly she feels her membership of the Division Belles to be a far more important feature of the woman she is than belonging to the organisation of Shaw, Wells and Pankhurst. The only detail in her CV that managed to even come close to raising an eyebrow was the bit at the very bottom of the page telling us how Caroline and her hubby "foiled an armed bank robbery, for which the defendant received a ten-year sentence." Now, isn’t that just typical; some poor soul tries to redistribute wealth and New Labour takes the side of the bank.

At the end of her article on Sunday, Elizabeth Day made a defence for Caroline Flint. She stated that the Observer interview and photos "seemed to reinforce the notion that Flint was more interested in publicity than policy." She added that "Flint is an attractive woman who makes no effort to disguise it but then why should she? Just because she looks good in heels does not mean she is not up to the job." This is a distraction from the real issue, albeit not an altogether surprising one. Flint's attractiveness has nothing to do with my personal distaste for her (indeed it may be her only redeeming feature) and I hope that male Labour supporters that offer constructive criticisms of her are not condemned as misogynists in order to stifle the current debate.

So, in the unlikely event Elizabeth Day is reading this, I would just like to add that my visceral loathing of Ms Flint has nothing to do with the fact that she is successful, beautiful and will not go to bed with me. On the contrary, she is not, in my humble opinion, "up to the job" because she is not what Gordon Brown claimed he was when he became Prime Minister - a conviction politician. But then why should she? Holding strong beliefs is no longer a requirement when it comes to getting your pert shapely arse on one of the green leather seats of the Commons. And please do not expect anyone else of principle to emerge when hoodie-hugging, husky
-loving, just-call-me-Dave from the Bullingdon Club class of '87 comes to power.

A year ago I was prepared to defend Gordon Brown. I still am. This is not because I am a dyed-in-the-wool Brownite but because there is no other visible alternative at the present time. A general election is going to take place at some stage in the next twelve months and it is obvious that Labour will now need a miracle to hold onto power. However, they could at least take Bob Piper's advice and go out with a bang. If you are going to lose the next election then why not bloody well lose it as Labour and not as a pathetic group firing out desperate policies with the aim of impressing the odd Tory here and there. The disaster at the polls last week happened because traditional Labour voters did not see any point in leaving their homes to vote for the Labour Party. Use whatever days, weeks and months are left to give them a reason to go to their local polling station and vote next time. Otherwise call a general election now, get the inevitable pain of defeat out of the way and begin the fight back. Either way, it is time for Labour to rid itself of the kind of self-serving careerist twits that have done so much damage to the party.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

I voted SDLP (and I lived to tell the tale)

Voting in Northern Irish elections is almost always difficult if you happen to come from that small section of the community that refuses to define itself as neither nationalist nor unionist. Often the only positive thing that you can gain from your experience of entering a polling station in this fair province is that in casting your vote for Alliance, the Greens, the Workers Party or some other such alternative grouping unlikely to get elected is the short lived yet mildly satisfying feeling that at least you can claim to have played absolutely no role in putting in place whoever your local tribal chieftain happens to be when the results are finally declared. Unfortunately, some people are not even that lucky.

When I voted in my first local government election in 2001 I was bemused to find that the only candidates on offer in my area were the two main unionist parties and their Sinn Fein and SDLP opponents. Even the harmless old liberals of the Alliance Party were clearly much too radical for the people of rural Armagh. Not wanting to look apathetic by staying at home, I travelled to the polling station, spoiled my vote and left feeling that I had done my duty as a citizen simply by bothering to take part in the whole rigmarole.

On Thursday Northern Ireland went to the polls in order to vote for the three lads/lassies they want to represent them in the European Parliament and, once again, I and many others like me have been forced to decide on who we reckon will be the lesser of seven evils. To be honest I actually feel that this has been one of the better Northern Ireland elections, something which quite possibly makes me the only person in these islands currently optimistic about the state of politics. As time goes by it seems that 'normal' issues are beginning to grow in importance.

Yes, so the DUP and the Traditional Unionists fought out a tedious battle regarding whether Diane Dodds or Jim Allister (pictured above with bovine pal) hates the Provos more than anyone else. Yes, both also engaged in a bit of sectarian scaremongering in which they claimed that a vote for the other would help Bairbre de Brún (who was seemed invisible during this campaign) to top the poll. And yes, the tedious expenses scandal did cross the Irish Sea for a while too to take up a bit of our precious time. Yet for once I actually heard things that matter in a European election being discussed by the candidates on television, radio, the papers and the web. Farming, fish, parliamentary attendance records, the single currency, EU membership, the Lisbon Treaty and a whole range of other topics have all popped up in recent weeks.

Up until Thursday's vote I had always stubbornly refused to even contemplate giving a preference to any of the big four parties. Initially it was Alliance that would be my first choice this time round. After all, they usually constitute the lesser evil for we non-aligned types and, in the absence of any credible left of centre alternative, the party's anti-sectarian liberalism is a lot more palatable than whatever else is being offered on the ballot paper.

However, a few days ago I decided to relegate the very affable Ian Parsley to second place. Why? Because this is a European election, and because as things stand the Northern Ireland constituency is represented by three broadly anti-EU MEPs, I decided that my first preference vote would be best served by going to the pro-EU candidate in with the best chance of taking a seat. That meant voting for Alban Maginness.

Over the course of the past few weeks I have been genuinely impressed by how the SDLP and their candidate sold themselves to the electorate. In fact, what surprised me was just how 'unnationalist' their campaign actually was. There was no attempt (none that I heard of at least) to appeal to sectarian instincts and wage a battle to become the majority party of nationalism. Not at all. Alban appeared quite content to promote himself on the basis of his party's pro-European credentials and the influence they would enjoy in Brussels thanks to their membership of the Party of European Socialists. And, when I spoke with an SDLP canvasser, I found it quite refreshing to have someone speaking to me about European affairs rather than more mundane parochial issues.

None of this takes away from the fact that the SDLP still has its flaws, not least the lingering question that I feel still remains over its commitment to social democracy. Let us not forget that it is not that long ago since senior figures in the party were discussing everything ranging from closer ties right up to a full blown merger with Fianna Fail. Despite this, I decided to judge the candidates on where they are in June 2009 rather than where they were a few years back. So, after some hesitation, Alban it was. A tactical pro-European vote rather than a ringing endorsement for absolutely everything Durkan and co stand for, but then I suppose that is what voting in any election is all about.

Whether the SDLP can actually take a seat remains to be seen. At the moment it looks as if that all important third place is going to be a scrap between Allister, Nicholson and Maginness. Regardless of the result though, the party has fought a decent campaign and has taken a small step in the right direction. Is there any possibility that they could ever become the non-sectarian left alternative which Northern Irish politics needs so badly? I don't think so. The organisation's history as being thought of as the representative of one half of the northern Catholic nationalist community is probably too much of a hurdle for it to make significant inroads into the Protestant working class. But things can change over time. We shall see how things unfold.

Oh yes, one last thing. The SDLP campaign did have one major fault: the posters. Just why was Alban wearing a facial expression that looked like he was being poked in the arse? Honestly lads. We don't like things like that staring down from lampposts at us when we're walking to work in the mornings. Sort it out for next time.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Translation: if you don't vote the Taigs will

You would think we would have moved on from this sort of blatantly sectarian scaremongering style of electioneering, but we haven't. The following advertisement was placed in Fermanagh’s Impartial Reporter by the DUP. That is the same DUP currently sitting in government with Sinn Fein. Just in case you had forgotten, as it seems they have (or possibly hope that their traditional base do on Thursday):