Thursday, February 25, 2010

Labour Lady?

I am presently in two minds as to what to make of the news that leading members of the Labour Party in Northern Ireland are attempting to woo North Down MP Sylvia Hermon into their camp and run her on a party ticket in the forthcoming general election in the constituency she has represented at Westminster since 2001. It probably seems odd to some of you reading this that after four years of me moaning on this website about the absence of a left of centre alternative in the province that I am now refusing to get excited about the potential of Labour obtaining their first ever parliamentary seat in this country. My grounds for concern are fair though.

Apart from the fact that the woman herself is yet to comment on the proposal, the reason I am not elated just yet with the news is the slightly artificial impact it would have on those striving to see a Labour presence here. Membership in Northern Ireland is still awfully small. Indeed, it is highly questionable whether the party membership as it currently stands would be strong enough to contest elections at any level whatsoever here. Given that is the case, having a Member of Parliament while the party does not even hold a single council seat would paint a slightly false picture of the organisation's strength in Ulster. Also, just how strong are Lady Hermon's social democratic credentials? I may be wrong but I still view her as less of a socialist and more a disaffected unionist. Boyd Black and his colleagues have campaigned long and hard over the years to get Labour to set up stall in the north. Regardless of how high profile the potential new recruit is, I see no point to at this stage attempt to fast track things by accepting into the fold someone whose commitment to the cause remains highly uncertain.

What I would prefer would be a firm commitment from the Labour leadership to show the same interest in Northern Ireland that Cameron's Tories have shown and get down to the hard and frankly unglamorous business of launching a recruitment drive, getting new members organised into branches and preparing for a properly planned election campaign when the next Westminster poll arrives a few years down the road. On that I won't be holding my breath. Who knows, perhaps I could be proved wrong and a card-carrying Sylvia in Westminster would spur on some of those in Labour's high places to show more interest in the six little counties across the Irish Sea that they have ignored until now.

Watch this space.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Nasty party, nasty little man

Rory Stewart. New face of the Tories. Appearance on Question Time not popular with everybody. From his Wikipedia entry late last night. See second line:

Don't worry. It's been tidied up.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Opposition isn't working

Just what, if anything, does the Conservative Party stand for at present? It would be nice to know because, as you've probably realised by now, we're not that far away from the next Westminster election and if the polls are anything to go by there seems to be a fairly decent chance that DC may be our next PM. What we do know is that they are supposedly a 'new' Conservative Party and should not be confused with the Conservative Party of Maggie and Norman (Mr Cameron can hardly make it through an interview without making this point). The latest advertising campaign by the party - 'I've Never Voted Tory Before But...' - seems to suggest that even the hierarchy of that organisation has come to realise that they really were, and possibly still are, a horrible pack of bastards.

However, it is not enough for a party to come to power simply by being a) 'new' and b) not Labour. This is where my problem currently lies with the Tories. They do not appear to have any sort of coherent set of policies or represent any particular shade of recognisable conservatism. One day they're talking about clamping down on immigration and realigning themselves with some of the most racist and homophobic elements in the European Union, the next day they're talking about forming worker cooperatives and having chats with Johann Hari about how cool they are with gay marriage.

Today they were back to being moralistic right wingers. On this morning's BBC One Breakfast programme David Willetts was firing out Thursday’s big headline-grabbing policy announcement that his party are pledging to crack down on irresponsible marketing aimed at children. This is one of those policies that is at the same time both conservative and not really all that conservative. It is conservative in the sense that it appeals to the old fogey section of the electorate that moan about our kids 'growing up too quickly', whatever the hell that actually means. Perhaps these people want us to go back to that golden pre-'yoof culture' era prior to the 1950s when we allowed our kids to grow up nice and slowly by sticking them in uniform and sending them out to the trenches to be slaughtered in the Somme, Passchendaele and Ypres (given that choice I'd prefer my as yet unborn offspring to be watching Power Rangers: Jungle Fury any day). Let's face it, older people will always be shocked by whatever young people are getting up. I'm only 29 but even in the past few days I've found myself lambasting everything from e-books to Jedward.

Does David Willetts genuinely believe that the young girls he mentioned on BBC One this morning are really going to stop wearing Playboy-branded clothing because a Conservative government passed legislation banning the marketing of such things through parliament? If he does then he is an even bigger knob than I already take him for. Something else worth adding is that the policy is also quite unconservative to the extent that it will look to many, particularly within the Conservative Party I would imagine, like unnecessary state interference. Indeed, had the government proposed this its not beyond the realms of possibility that they would be getting attacked by Mr Willetts on the basis that it would be yet another example of Labour’s nanny state tendencies. I suspect that he isn’t that stupid and that this is a very cynical and frankly unimaginative vote-winning policy thrown together to appeal to that section of our population blinded by nostalgia and a belief that things were better in the past. If the guff on gay marriage and cooperatives is meant to capture the disillusioned Guardian reader then today's garbage is clearly aimed at winning over the socially and culturally conservative Daily Mail chappy considering whether or not to put his tick beside the local UKIP candidate in the forthcoming general election.

So, which face is the face of the all-new Tory Party: the David Cameron that gives an interview to Attitude or the David Cameron that realigns his party with Polish gay bashers? In my view, probably neither. I don't think the Tories really have a side or a shred of principle left to speak of, certainly not at leadership level anyhow. To that extent Gordon Brown was probably right when he described Margaret Thatcher as a "conviction politician." Yes, her convictions may not have been mine but at least you knew were you stood with her. Not so with DC. His only philosophy appears to be power without principle. In a way this makes the Cameron-era Conservatives that bit more dangerous. They may well end up pursuing the sort of liberal conservative line followed by the Sarkozys and the Merkels of this world, but on the other hand they could lurch drastically to the right and adopt the sort of domestic policies which their ECR allies in eastern Europe practice. The truth is that we simply don't know and, sadly, will only get to find out the hard way - when Cameron and his pals come to power. Of course, as Peter Hitchens pointed out in his book The Broken Compass last year, had we a media that was genuinely interested in politics we all might get to know a bit more about the man likely to be the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Instead, what we have learned about the Leader of the Opposition over the past 24 hours is that he likes cans of Guinness, playing darts, watching Lark Rise to Candleford and doesn't let his daughter listen to Lily Allen. Sure what more do we need to know? Welcome to Downing Street, Mr Cameron.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The revolution will not be shown in multiplexes

It takes a lot to make me laugh out loud but this following bit from an extremely unusual review of James Cameron's latest blockbuster movie managed to achieve it:

People will watch Avatar, enjoy it and perhaps even have their thinking changed by it to some degree, but will they act on it? Is the film organising people? Is it drawing them towards a real movement? It is not… It is disconnected. It's a protest song that very clearly isn't "at one with the people in the great battle" to put a stop to imperialism. In summary: good as Avatar is, it's not going to build a meaningful anti-imperialist movement in the West for us.

When you come away from a visit to the cinema bemoaning the fact that the film you just saw does not do anything to "build a meaningful anti-imperialist movement" then I'd hazard a guess that maybe, just maybe, it may not be the production itself that is at fault. Some people expect far too much for the admission price these days.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Do the math

It's news like that which was contained in Friday night's Belfast Telegraph showing Sinn Fein topping an Inform Communications poll of the current voting intentions of 1,080 Ulster folk that gets lots of easily excited nationalists jumping up and down in anticipation that the reunification of the national territory is just around the corner. Sadly for them, it isn't even close. So, what do all these figures mean?

To be honest Friday's poll results weren't really the stuff of front page news at all. For a start Sinn Fein has already topped a province-wide poll that actually matters, that being the 2009 European election. Bairbre de Brún, the candidate in that election, managed to do this not due to any increase in support for her or her party but thanks to the presence of the TUV's Jim Allister in the field. Secondly, the findings of the poll prove little more than the fact that support for the four main parties is more or less at the same level as it was last June. Thirdly, let's all be honest and admit that the first thing most of us do when we see these polls is tot up the combined unionist vote and set it off against the combined nationalist vote in order to see how the game of 'fantasy border poll' is going. The answer: not good if you're a nationalist. The combined Sinn Fein/SDLP vote remains more or less what it was in the mid to late 1990s. And, given that neither nationalist party is bothering their arses to try and win over Protestant support for their vision of a 32 county Irish Republic, the prospect of any change in the constitutional status of the six counties is slim to say the least.

But if the Tele poll is correct, and it probably isn't too far off the mark, there is a very good chance that after the next Assembly election the Shinners could find themselves top dogs in Stormont and Martin McGuinness may find himself in line to become First Minister of a political entity he was once committed to bombing out of existence. Naturally, some unionist MLAs are said to be sweating it out over this one and many see this as the next big crisis in local politics. It seems the horror of Marty becoming loyal Ulster's leader will be a step too far. Why should it be though? In a roundabout sort of way it could even help their case.

Assuming that the results of the next Assembly election did mirror the results of the Inform Communications poll, as I see it unionists would be absolutely mad to make a fuss over the prospect of First Minister McGuinness. After all, it wouldn't actually make one iota of difference in terms of who wields power; First Minister and Deputy First Minister are posts of equal standing so nobody would be losing any clout. What would be the point in kicking up a stink over something that is purely cosmetic? Plus, as I've already said, a Sinn Fein First Minister could even strengthen the pro-union argument in the sense that it would remove any notion that Northern Ireland was either the sectarian state or the failed political entity which they claimed it was for so many years (just how many examples in history can you think of where a man became the leader of a country whose name he refused to say?).

To their credit unionists have come a long way from the days of the hysterical protests against the Anglo-Irish Agreement. The unionist electorate are a more accepting lot than most nationalists seem prepared to acknowledge. For instance, after some initial dismay they got over the idea of Martin McGuinness being the man responsible for their kids education. They also got over the former leader of the Provisional IRA in Derry becoming Deputy First Minister. And they also know that, after almost a year on from last year's European election, the ground doesn't open up and swallow them just because Sinn Fein manages to top a poll. Likewise, if Sinn Fein does have the greater number of seats in Stormont after the next election, I am convinced that their candidate will get the necessary cross-community support from Assembly members. If the leaders of unionism should have learned one thing from the peace process it is that a fully functioning, stable and democratic Northern Ireland is a lot more damaging to republicanism than anything the SAS was ever able to inflict on the Provisional movement. Of course, the problem for unionists is that they don't always know when they've won. The symbolism of a republican First Minister and the potential flack that mainstream unionists would be forced to take from the Allisters of this world could potentially scupper any swapping of positions for the chuckle brothers. We shall see.

Intriguing times undoubtedly lie ahead. Yet while Martin McGuinness may well be Northern Ireland's First Minister by 2016, the Provo peace strategy goal of achieving a united Ireland in time for the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising has now well and truly evaporated. In fact, talk of Irish unity seems to have taken a back seat in recent times. Going by the figures in Friday night's Belfast Telegraph it's not hard to see why. Fifty-plus-one remains quite a distance away.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

"I'm not going to waste my life"

Were you surprised when George Lee announced his resignation earlier this week? I never could take him seriously as a parliamentarian. When I looked at him over the past nine months I didn't see the Fine Gael TD for Dublin South, but instead an ex-RTE employee who had made a bad career move. What Enda Kenny obviously thought was a master stroke at the time always looked to me to be a fairly risky move. If any good comes out of this I sincerely hope that it will knock on the head any notions floating around in the skulls of party leaders that celebrities, for want of a better term, make good politicians. Yes, for a while they may attract lots of headlines and make for fancy window dressing but often they just don't fit in. George Lee definitely did not fit in.

We should have known earlier. I heard George with Charlie Bird chatting to Miriam O'Callaghan on RTE Radio 1 a few weeks back and talking about his life and career up to now. When it came to speaking about his decision to enter politics I was struck by how little mention was made of the actual party he had joined. Fine Gael seemed to play second fiddle to his desire to 'want to do something' about the recession. That's all fine and good and I am not for one second suggesting that our Geordie's heart wasn't in the right place but sadly in the current crisis one has to be offering something a bit more than simply a desire to want to get things done. George is an extremely well qualified man and I am sure he understood only too well that there can be no action without policy, so perhaps he did have a plan to help drag the Republic out of the current recession. If he did it's just a pity he didn't bother to show us it.

He was extremely lucky in many ways too. George Lee skipped the dreary bit of politics. He skipped the bit where you join your area's branch or cumann. He skipped the dull local meetings where endless amounts of tea get consumed and fellow members get passionate about the state of pavements in the vicinity. He skipped the bit where you go canvassing for a candidate in your area. He skipped the bit where you climb up ladders to put up posters for your party when its pissing down rain. He skipped the bit where you learn to make friends and influence people within your party in order to gain their support to become a candidate. He skipped the unglamorous world of local government. The usual years of hard thankless work undertaken by most TDs in Leinster House was bypassed by George. He basically walked into Dail Eireann, all of which makes his throwing of toys out of the pram nine months into his stint even more unfathomable. Just how impressed did he expect Enda and Richard to be with his MSc in Economics from the LSE?

As a Labour partisan I could not care less about the fortunes of either George Lee or his party, yet in some strange way I feel slightly embarrassed for the man. Had he lost the by-election back in June at least that would have been it done and dusted - he tried and failed. Had he resigned following yet another Fine Gael defeat at the next general election then that wouldn't have been too bad either - again, he tried and failed. What has transpired looks like an absolute mess and an embarrassment for everyone involved. To enter the Dail, spend nine months farting around without saying one memorable thing and then blowing town and moaning about how nobody is listening to you does make one cringe a bit. I do not side with the prophets of doom though. Both sides in this debacle will recover. Lee will go back to his old day job and Fine Gael will most likely retain their place at the top of the opinion polls.

But it could all have been so different. We could have had a Hollywood ending. Fine Gael could have won the next election and George could have found himself sitting at the cabinet table. A few years down the line and who knows where he could have been. Minister for Finance? Tanaiste? Taoiseach? Instead we got none of that. On Monday George Lee rode off into the sunset on his Segway. Farewell, George. We'll never see the like of you again. We hope.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Thoughts on the crisis in social democracy

Typical. The worst crisis in capitalism for eighty years happens and suddenly the electoral fortunes of the left start to go into decline. Dr Henning Meyer gives his views on why this is so and what can be done:

Hat Tip: Social Europe Journal

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

The end of an era

If the events of yesterday proved anything it is that we certainly do live in interesting times. No, I'm not referring to the latest round of crunch talks at Hillsborough Castle which bored the entire population of this fair province senseless. I'm talking about the events of February 8th - the day the remaining armed groups here (dissidents excluded) decided that they'd had enough of guns and bombs.

Take case number one for instance. I have to admit to being genuinely surprised that the INLA decided to heed the wishes of the working masses for once and decommission all of its weapons (well, I guess most of it anyway). After all, like the UDA a few weeks before it, this particular paramilitary organisation had no great incentive to get rid of the only things it had to show for a quarter of a century of futile terrorism. Its political wing, the Irish Republican Socialist Party, does not have one single elected representative on the island of Ireland and nor is it likely to make any kind of breakthrough soon at Dail, Stormont or council level. Combine its present dismal support base with the fact that the Irish Republican Socialist Movement has a long history of almost always doing the wrong thing and shooting itself in the foot (or to be more precise, its fellow members in the head) and one wonders at just how they have managed to get it right for once. Yet get it right they have. It's just a pity about Darkley, Droppin' Well and all the rest of the stuff they got up to between their formation in 1975 and the statement read out by their spokesmen yesterday afternoon. The IRSP now says that republican socialists will be pursuing their objectives by "solely political means." Good luck to them on that one - they'll need it.

Just one final thing though on the Erps before moving on to another piece of unexpected news: on Monday's online RTE report it stated that the Irish National Liberation Army "had a reputation for ruthlessness during the Troubles." Just what the hell does this mean? This isn't the first time I've seen this kind of meaningless line accompany a news report on the INLA. Please don't misconstrue this as me providing some sort of defence of Costello's gang. Ruthless they undoubtedly were, but I don't really see anything that sets them apart as being particularly unique in the callousness stakes. To be brutally honest if ruthlessness doesn't form part of your reputation then terrorism isn't really your game. I'd like to know just what set the INLA apart from, say for instance, the Shankill Butchers gang that operated within the UVF in Belfast and enjoyed spending hours chopping up random Catholics that it plucked off the street? Or, in order to strike the now compulsory non-sectarian 'balance' required in all writing about Northern Ireland, what about the lad and lassies of the Provisional IRA's internal security unit (aka, 'nutting squad') who indulged in the sort of torture their pals of the reformed faith based on the Shankill would have greatly admired? It puzzles me slightly when the INLA are singled out as if they were somehow a wee bit grizzlier than the rest. Perhaps they were, perhaps they weren't. I can't really tell the difference. What I reckon this regular "reputation for ruthlessness" line proves is that when a journalistic cliché catches on its very rare for it ever to be questioned let alone be got rid of. But I digress.

Now, onto case number two, and while I was pleasantly surprised by the INLA's disarmament declaration I was (at first) absolutely flabbergasted by the news that the Official IRA had announced that it too had decommissioned its weapons. This raised a whole multitude of questions. Firstly, how can an organisation that doesn't exist have the necessary structures available to carry out decommissioning? Secondly, how can an organisation that doesn't exist issue a public statement saying that it has carried out decommissioning? Third, there had been a rumour circulating that the Stickies were up to something but nobody knew quite what. When a few weeks back the Irish News contacted John Lowry, the WP representative in west Belfast, he claimed to know nothing about it. He may well have been telling the truth too. With Tomás Mac Giolla kicking the bucket this week and the latest press releases on the party website being more concerned with water charges and cutbacks in Waterford's bus services, its appears highly unlikely that aging Stickies have been spending recent days dandering through fields trying to locate some muskets and blunderbusses. So, what is going on? Well, strap yourself in because this is where it gets slightly weird.

It now transpires that the Official IRA that decommissioned yesterday is not the Official IRA. Think of the guys that did as the 'Official Official IRA'. This is the Official IRA (ORM) as opposed to the Official IRA (WP). This faction was formed, not during the great schism of 1969, but in 1997 by some disgruntled Sticks based primarily in Newry. As always, the reasons given for the split depend on which side you listen to, however in this case even getting to hear either argument tends to be difficult.

The Official Republican Movement is one of Ireland's most obscure groups (in thirteen years they haven't even bothered to set up a website). What we do know about them is that they grew out of a group called the Campaign for Democracy in The Workers Party, that they were expelled for getting up to some unpleasant stuff down in Newry, had a quick feud with the mainstream non-existent OIRA, toyed with the idea of setting up an organisation called Republican Left, decided not to and now these days don't seem to get up to much more than hold an annual Easter Rising commemoration (though I do know one man from Newry who was told one Saturday night that someone was going to "get the ORM" for him so perhaps they have, how shall we say, a reputation for ruthlessness). Still, fair play to them for coming up with a clever plan to grab a few headlines. As for OIRA (WP), the whole decommissioning deadline thing seems to have passed them by. Then again there is the chance that perhaps they've fallen into the most absurd trap of all and after all these years of saying so have now actually convinced themselves that they don't exist.

Before I go I must offer big congratulations to the South East Antrim UDA who also confirmed that they too participated in the all-day decommissioning party and rid themselves of their weapons. If you are wondering why the South East Antrim UDA didn't decommission last month along with the rest of the Ulster Defence Association the simple answer is that the South East Antrim boys had a bit of a fall out with the mainstream hoods and for the last couple of years has been doing its own thing up around Carrickfergus. I must plead ignorance here and admit to not knowing precisely what exactly this UDA split occurred over. Call me snobbish, but I suspect the reasons are not all that complex. Deep-seated ideological divisions are rarely found among people who put t-shirts on their Alsatians.

Many people will no doubt look upon what took place yesterday as the state-sponsored mass disposal of incriminating evidence. Let's not be too cynical though about the events of Monday. As it stands the only armed groups now operating in Ireland are those that emerged after the ceasefires of 1994 (we'll be understanding folk and not demand that Fianna Fail and the UUP locate weapons from previous spats). The paramilitaries of the 1969-1998 era are now gone. Good riddance to the lot of them I say. In this early part of 2010 Northern Ireland is a place with a lot less illegal weaponry buried in ditches and fields and backyards than it was just a few weeks ago. Now, next up: let's decommission those fucking peace walls.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

"A greatly underestimated figure"

Tomás Mac Giolla, former President of The Workers Party of Ireland, died today. He was 86. I am sure that in the coming days there will be many obituaries written for him, both in the columns of our national newspapers and by humble bloggers like myself. I shall forgo writing an obituary. For me to do so would be a gross insult to the man's memory. I did have the good fortune to meet him on one occasion, but even then it was merely a swift greeting and a firm handshake. I simply did not know him well enough to give him the sort of grand send off he deserves (anyhow, Garibaldy fulfils this role much more effectively than I could hope to do).

No doubt everyone will have their own specific memory of Tomás Mac Giolla and thoughts on him. If I was asked to give one word that springs to mind when his name is mentioned it is this: Carrickmore. It was at Quinn's Corner in that county Tyrone village back in May 1972 that Mac Giolla delivered the speech which outlined clearly the position of the Official republican movement (a speech which is, incidentally, still published by the WP in pamphlet form). These were tumultuous times in the history of Ireland. The Official IRA had just declared a ceasefire. On the other hand the Provisionals were intensifying their violence while loyalist terror was spiralling too in response to the collapse of the fifty year old one-party Stormont regime. Only a few weeks prior to Mac Giolla's Carrickmore oration fourteen civil rights demonstrators had been murdered by the British Army in Derry. The possibility of sectarian civil war in Northern Ireland was a very real one. How convenient it would have been for the Official wing of the republican movement to take the easy road and appeal to the base sectarian instincts of the Catholic nationalist population from which they had sprung. Rather than do so though both they and Tomás Mac Giolla opted instead for the road of socialist politics. In an era when sectarian division is worse than ever and when cities and towns across the north remain partitioned by so-called 'peace walls' the following segment of the speech is particularly striking:

When we say that a form of government will be maintained here, we say it because we believe that Orange sectarian power over the Protestant workers has not yet been destroyed. Only its total and irrevocable destruction, will liberate the Protestant working class. The Irish revolution, which must continue and to which we pledge ourselves, demands the support of the Protestant working class. People have talked about the Provisionals trying to bomb one million Protestants into a Republic; but they would not - could not - and no one can - and no one as far as we are concerned would try - to bomb them into a socialist republic. That would be the ultimate contradiction and the ultimate stupidity. We need those million Protestant working people on the workers' side in the Irish revolution.

Sadly, it took the Provisionals another few decades to realise that those one million Protestants could not be bombed into a 32 county republic.

The Workers Party split in 1992, the same year Tomás unfortunately lost his Dail seat in Dublin West. From then on he, as well as the movement he was a member of for most of his life, struggled on the margins of Irish politics. Yet this too I suppose is admirable in its own way. Lenin once stated that it was important to fight not only at times of great revolutionary fervour but also in periods when there was little chance of success because, at the very least, revolutionaries would leave behind them a heritage of struggle that could be picked up by those that would come after them. On this point Tomás Mac Giolla was certainly a true Leninist for the last eighteen years of his life.

Earlier today the current WP leader Michael Finnegan described Tomás Mac Giolla as a greatly underestimated figure. He certainly was that. A man well ahead of his time, or to put it as one of his comrades once put it, right too soon.