Thursday, October 29, 2009

I've been down that road before

I don't usually listen to Stephen Nolan's morning phone-in show on Radio Ulster. Nolan is probably a decent enough chap out of the studio but in it he produces the sort of programmes that just don't float my boat. Maybe it's his persistent and utterly tedious references to his weight problem. Perhaps it's his inclination to make the most mundane topics sound highly controversial (a particular favourite at this time of year is the topic of 'youths' setting off fireworks which, while admittedly upsetting if you happen to be a pensioner or a household pet, hardly warrants the Iran-Contra style treatment our Steve gives it). It could well be his habit of letting us in on some of the dull things that have happened to him while he's been doing whatever chat show hosts do when they aren't hosting chat shows. Example: today we learnt that Stephen has a phobia of mice and a few days ago got the wing mirror of his car broken on the Ormeau Road. Enthralling stuff.

But that's enough Nolan knocking for one post. My gripe here isn't with the big man or the yahoos in north Belfast throwing bangers at Jack Russells. My beef is with Jeffrey Donaldson and John O'Dowd. The Daniel O'Donnell and Herman Munster of Northern Ireland politics made an appearance on yesterday morning's Stephen Nolan Show to talk about parades. Yes, that's right, parades. Contentious parades. Traditional routes. "You're not coming into our area." "We've been coming into your area for years." Parity of esteem. Queen's highway. You know, that sort of drivel.

Now, forgive me if I sound naïve here but I was of the opinion that this was an issue that, while certainly not resolved by any stretch of the imagination, had at least run its course. Obviously there will always be sporadic and isolated outbursts of trouble like that in Ardoyne back in July but parades disputes do seem like a very nineties row these days, sort of like asking someone whether they prefer Blur or Oasis. Drumcree, once a global byword for what a pack of wankers we all are in this part of the world, has virtually disappeared off the agenda. For instance, I know quite a few people from both sides of the fence in Portadown and I cannot remember the last time the thorny old issue of the parade down the Garvaghy Road came up in conversation but it certainly seems like years. After peaking in the mid to late 1990s, interest in whether certain people walked down certain roads or not began to wane following the now almost forgotten incineration of three children in a loyalist petrol bomb attack in Ballymoney during the week of violence surrounding the Drumcree dispute in 1998. How unfortunate that it took the burning to death of a seven, a nine and an eleven year old to put things in perspective for some people.

The main crux of the argument on Nolan's show was that Donaldson and the DUP want shot of the Parades Commission while O'Dowd and Sinn Fein want it kept in place. Whatever the rights and wrongs of either position I couldn't help but think, particularly given our current economic circumstances, that these two MLAs really should be concerned about other things right now. I personally find it extremely difficult to give a damn whether the Parades Commission stays or goes. Most of these contentious parades take place in working class areas, areas that are being hardest hit by the recession. I would hazard a guess that right now most people living in places like Garvaghy, Ardoyne, Rasharkin or the Springfield Road are probably more likely to be biting their nails over whether they'll still have their job next week rather than the threat of some bowler hatted men strolling past their front door.

Then again, why should Jeffrey and John care about minor issues like that? The Provisionals and the DUP were born out of the sectarian hate of the early 1970s. Tribal warfare lies at the very heart of these organisations; it is their raison d'être. That is why even when parades are no longer an issue for the majority of us they remain so intent on bringing it up. It is all they know. It is in their DNA. They don't do 'normal bread and butter politics' because they neither know how to nor desire it. But then these people didn't end up in power by accident. Oh no. It was the good folks of Norn Iron that put them there. At the last Stormont election in 2007 more than half of those that voted gave their vote to either the DUP or the Provos. Tragically, despite all the usual phone calls to big Steve from people pretending to be surprised and moaning about how rubbish our elected representatives are, I cannot see those figures changing all that much by the time the next Assembly poll comes around. Still, there's no point simply being all cynical and depressed. Listening to this ridiculous argument between two fecking halfwits should surely convince everyone that an alternative to the green/orange power bloc is now more necessary than ever. It's time for the left to get its finger out.

As for Stephen Nolan, I think I'll have to skip him. Well, for a few weeks at least. Tomorrow I'll tune into Pat Kenny and see what he's nattering on about in his usual one-dimensional wooden yet somehow reassuring manner. Yesterday's Donaldson/O'Dowd experience left me a wee bit scarred and reminded me why ages ago I abandoned listening to Talk Back and its poor old host David Dunseith, a man who for twenty years sounded as if he was constantly on the verge of suicide. If the Beeb really want to win me back they could make a start by commissioning more programmes that use the undisputed talents of Karen Patterson, Jo Scott, Sarah Travers and the Charlie's Angels line up that is the BBC Northern Ireland trio of weather girls (just where did they get that Jackie McCann lass, eh?). I haven't really gone so far as to come up with ideas for what sort of shows they all should be used for, but I've been bandying around this idea of a sort of sexed-up version of Lesser Spotted Ulster to friends of mine for ages now. You have to admit that the idea of Karen and Sarah tramping about through some bogland in Tyrone would be a lot easier on the eye than Joe Mahon. Or indeed John O'Dowd. I can but dream.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

There's a silver lining in here somewhere

Even if your country has gone tits up in the past twelve months I suppose some people might still consider this latest news from Iceland to be a sign of progress. It really irritates me that they have the gall to call those hideous places 'restaurants'.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Go girl

Has there ever been anyone less suited to a political party than Lady Sylvia Hermon? As the events of last weekend proved, evidently the woman is neither wanted nor really wants to be in the Ulster Unionists as long as the UCUNF thing is in operation. Just leave, Sylvia. Just leave.

Interesting... very interesting!

An interesting little development here on the footballing front. Liam Coyle, former Derry City star and (briefly) Northern Ireland international, has said that now is the time for his hometown club to rejoin the Irish League nearly forty years after their bitter exit. Derry City withdrew from the league back in 1972 following the outbreak of violence in the province made it unsafe both for away fans to visit the Brandywell and for supporters of the Maiden City side to travel to other parts of Northern Ireland. By the mid-eighties the Candystripes were playing in the FAI's League of Ireland and have generally performed well since. Unfortunately the club is now, to put it lightly, in a spot of bother and Coyle reckons moving back to the north would help ease the financial turmoil they presently find themselves in. Coyle isn't the only one up for it. Linfield manager David Jeffrey has said he would welcome such a move. In fact, most fans of Irish League clubs I have spoken to about the Derry City issue have generally been quite positive about them making a return. And, for what its worth, so would I.

It was sad that Derry City ever had to pull out of the Irish League in the first place, but then in the early 1970s there were a lot of sad things taking place in this part of the world. Perhaps the biggest impact their leaving had was to reinforce the perception among many nationalists that northern football was somehow a 'Prods only' zone. Times have changed though and, as the team's participation in recent Setanta Cup competitions proved, matches between them and clubs with a traditionally Protestant support base are much less likely to end in all out warfare on the terraces.

Liam Coyle's remarks are bound to generate a fair bit of discussion on the banks of the Foyle and it will be intriguing now to see what the view is from the up there (I don't know about you but I sense an Eamonn McCann column on this is just around the corner). From the handful of Derry people I've spoken to on the subject down through the years I have to say that the idea of returning to the Irish League was never received all that warmly. People there are intensely passionate about their club, particularly given its tumultuous history. Back in my university days I was good friends with a mature student who had been a fan of DCFC for donkeys years. As far as he was concerned going back into the Irish League was a non-runner, not for any particularly sectarian reasons, but simply because they were now settled in the League of Ireland and switching seemed like a pointless excercise. A much younger student from the city, though admittedly one of those people with more loyalty to a Glaswegian team than to a team situated within a mile of his home, suggested that fans would not want to swap away journeys to Dublin and Cork for trips to "hunsville." So, if you're enthusiastic about the return of the Candystripes to northern footie I would warn you not to get your hopes built up.

Even so, who knows what the future might hold. We certainly aren't going to see any sudden moves by the club that will have Pat McDaid making his way down to Windsor Avenue to reaffiliate. Not yet anyhow.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Back to the start

There is something slightly disturbing about Italy at the present time. Take a few seconds to mull over the following few points. The current government headed by populist PM Silvio Berlusconi contains a number of neo-fascist figures, such as Gianfranco Fini and Allesandra Mussolini. Gianni Alemanno, a man with a long history of participation in the far right, was elected mayor of Rome last year much to the joy of a skinhead crowd who greeted him with Nazi salutes and referred to their new man as ‘duce’. That great love of all Italians, football, is plagued by the growth of fascism both on and off the pitch. Perhaps most frightening of all is the emergence of a bizarre paramilitary force calling itself the Italian National Guard which patrols streets wearing uniforms that would not have looked out of place in the same country in the 1930s. Even more astounding is the fact that this militia is being tolerated by the government. Of course, one would think that rising fascism combined with the worst recession since the first half of the 20th century would have provoked a firm response from the left. Wouldn’t you? Not exactly.

Yascha Mounk’s article from the current issue of Dissent makes for interesting reading if you are in any way concerned about the state of the left, not just in Italy, but across the continent. While the primary focus of the piece is on the Italian opposition’s dismal failure to rid the country of Berlusconi, it also carries within it a warning for the rest of us in Europe. Much of it I was nodding in agreement with, not least the piece where Mounk speaks of the left struggling to retain a sense of purpose (“self-satisfied about a Pyrrhic victory in the cultural field, yet lacking a popularly appealing economic program”). However, one particular point on which I would take issue with Mounk is his assertion that "the only left-wing party in Italy worth taking seriously today is the PD."

Granted, there are not all that many parties on Italy’s depressingly fragmented left worth taking seriously yet can this mixed bag of a party even be called ‘left wing’? I don’t think so. The PD is a strange creature; a broad based coalition of people whose only common ground at times seems to be a shared loathing of the present Prime Minister. The party was formed two years ago by the welding together of a plethora of various organisations ranging from social democrats to regionalists to former communists to moderate Christian democrats.

My problem with the Democratic Party is the extent to which it has stretched itself to win new supporters in the belief that a massive drift rightwards is what is required to oust the present administration. In moving right it may have won over some centrist and liberal elements and hoovered up some smaller parties but it also in turn lost the support of traditional democratic socialists like Fabio Mussi, now leader of the newly formed Democratic Left, and the group around Enrico Boselli and Riccardo Nencini which also opted out of joining the PD to set up the Socialist Party. These men were hardly unruly Trotskyists like the Militant faction in the British Labour Party in the 1980s and Walter Veltroni’s failure to carry them with him in his great ‘Obamaesque’ project says more about the PD than it does about them.

The Democratic Party also lacks a recognisable left wing identity. Since the birth of the party in 2007 there has been a large amount of infighting taking place around the issue of which organisations they forge links with in other countries. The PD is not, for example, a member of the Socialist International. Neither is it a member of the Party of European Socialists. If it were a genuine party of the centre left joining these two institutions would not be a bone of contention but for the PD it has been, with one faction even pushing for membership of the European Democratic Party (which has amongst its affiliates the conservative Basque Nationalist Party).

The practicalities of political life have also been problematic for the PD. While working together in broad based electoral fronts like Romano Prodi’s Olive Tree coalition was one thing, fusing all of these sects together into one party and getting down to the hard slog of day to day work is a different thing altogether. The problems of having a membership with such a diverse range of backgrounds and political traditions is highlighted by Mounk in his Dissent article:

... The PD, mostly to cover up its internal divisions, continues to copy Berlusconi’s pleasant-sounding, content-free generalities. The party program on the PD website is full of well-intentioned wishes for “safer schools” or “to protect and value the Italian cultural and artistic heritage,” but sparse on details and lacking in overall vision. Posters that the PD plastered all over Rome at the time of the conflict in Gaza sum this up perfectly. They lamely read, “War in Palestine: Try for Peace.”

I am not suggesting that the Democratic Party would be better off retreating into a cul-de-sac in which they adhere to some strictly defined dogma condemning them to a life of eternal opposition, but then this is not a straight choice between being dogmatic and operating a party which has no principles bar that of getting the present government out of power. Any part of the progressive left with serious ambitions about taking power needs the right mix of principles and pragmatism in order to attract the support of the masses. This is not the sort of ground that the Democratic Party currently occupies.

What Italy needs at the present time is, ironically, the exact same thing that Northern Ireland also requires: a proper left of centre democratic socialist party. That a country with such a deep rooted socialist tradition cannot assemble such a vehicle at the present time is staggering. The two Italian organisations currently affiliated to the Socialist International – the Socialist Party and Democratic Left – may be sound enough when it comes to policy but in truth they are not so much political parties as they are small factions of the old PDS/DS that refused to go along with the vacuous Veltroni project and therefore the potential of any of these parties to develop into something along the lines of the Labour Party in Britain, the PSOE in Spain or PASOK in Greece is highly unlikely.

Thankfully there is a glimmer hope that some realignment may be taking place to help fill the gap between the Democratic Party and the myriad of hard left sects. During the European elections in June the Socialist Party and Democratic Left came together with the Greens and two other smaller radical groupings to form the Left and Freedom list. They gained almost one million votes nationally and fell just short of the 4% threshold required to take a seat. While this was not the sort of result to give Signor Berlusconi sleepless nights it did at least show that, even while the centre left is fragmented and disorganised, there remains a sizeable base of support out there for that brand of politics. Since the Euro elections the organisations involved in Sinistra e Libertà have been exploring the possibility of transforming this electoral front into a united centre left political party. Unfortunately not everyone has turned out to be so enthusiastic for this new realignment. A disgruntled Bobo Craxi has departed to set up yet another separate organisation, the misleadingly named United Socialists. So be it. The important thing is that there is now a realignment taking place that should bring together a number of smaller parties that in truth should never really have been apart in the first place.

A long struggle lies ahead for those attempting to rebuild Italian social democracy. Beginning all over again is hardly desirable but when the alternative on offer is power without either principles or a clearly defined political philosophy to help guide you then sometimes square one is not that bad a place to find yourself.

Friday, October 23, 2009

A hollow victory for the goodies

So, who do you think 'won' last night's Question Time (or as it probably should have been called Question Time: BNP Special)? Be honest, this isn’t really so much a debating show nowadays as much as it is a contest to see who can get the most rounds of applause. On that basis David Dimbleby's newest guest didn't do well at all.

Personally, I thought Nick Griffin died on his arse big time. I actually believed he would do much better than he did. I thought we had a guy on our hands that would be far too slick and cunning to be outwitted by the Straws and the Huhnes of this world, a sort of neo-Nazi version of Eamonn McCann. What we witnessed was the exact opposite of that. Rather than coming across as an anti-establishment individual untainted by the power and corruption of the Westminster crew, Griffin looked a fidgety mess as he trotted out his party’s hate-filled views on immigrants, ethnic minorities and gay people, came out with a silly conspiracy theory about the BBC being part of some "ultra left" plot, couldn't give a straight answer on whether the Holocaust had taken place or not and, most absurdly, made some nonsense remark about the Ku Klux Klan being "non violent" while he was sat beside a black American woman (Bonnie's subsequent tongue lashing left him looking a little kid that had just been told off by a school teacher). But will any of this really matter? Nope.

The truth is though that this show was fairly meaningless. It is unlikely that anyone that has not voted BNP before will have been won over by Griffin's far from exceptional performance, yet nor will anyone stupid enough to have cast their vote for them in the past probably be turned off due to anything said on Thursday's Question Time. Remember, the BNP are in this for the long haul. They know that their entire political future was not going to be lost on one TV appearance. There was a time when a Sinn Fein appearance on television would usually end up being a show about whether or not Sinn Fein should even be on television. Similarly, last night's Question Time was all about the BNP but someday, and probably not a day all that far away, they will appear again and the show will not discuss the Holocaust, or Churchill, or the KKK or Nick Griffin's past. They'll be asked for their views on a range things and they'll give their answers. No mention of Hitler of Himmler or David Duke. No protestors outside the gates of the studio. No Lab-Con-Lib anti-fascist popular front on the panel. No fuss whatsoever. Just another political party, except they won’t really be. By that stage they'll have won the long war for that which they crave most - acceptance.

Some of you probably think that we won something last night. We didn't. We are sleepwalking towards an acceptance of fascism as a legitimate form of political expression in the United Kingdom.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Littlejohn says: no free speech for fascists!

OK. That's it. I'm now officially confused. We have Richard Littlejohn going around talking like he's Weyman Bennett. Could someone please tell me what the hell is going on?

My view? Give Griffin his day in the sun. I do wish the panel had been better though. Peter Hitchens and Jon Cruddas, a couple of guys that actually seem to understand the BNP, would be able to do a much better job.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

A pan-European referendum for a pan-European treaty

Thank Christ that's over. It may not have been pretty but at least the Irish Republic has now finally passed the Lisbon Treaty - and by a sizeable margin at that. More than two-thirds of southerners voted in favour of the treaty with only two constituencies, both in the Democratic Peoples Republic of Donegal, opposing it. So, that's that. Well, for the time being at least. The question we should be asking ourselves at this stage though is just how we avoid more horrible messes like this popping up again in the future.

I have been of the opinion for some time now that it would be infinitely healthier for democracy if all major European treaties, such as Lisbon, were put to the people of the continent in a pan-European referendum. We have heard a lot in recent months about how this treaty would supposedly streamline decision making and make the union a more efficient beast. Very well. Then why not discard this cumbersome practice of having 27 member states all individually attempting to ratify these landmark agreements, regardless of whether they do it via a vote in parliament or a national referendum, and instead have a single EU-wide referendum on these big questions? This isn't a new idea by any means and support for it comes from various sections of the political spectrum. Proposals for polls being held on a continental basis have been floated in the past by everyone from the Union of European Federalists to Declan Ganley. Such referenda would be accepted by any half decent Euroenthusiast as a step forward in the integration process while hardened Eurosceptics would no longer find themselves able to whinge about how ordinary folk were not consulted by their governments. In fact, if I didn't ban myself from using the word I would almost say that this question is a matter of commonsense.

For now, let's just be thankful that the most unpleasant referendum campaign I've ever had the misfortune to witness has now come to an end… unless of course the government in Dublin decide that Lisbon will now be decided over the best of three.