Thursday, September 30, 2010

The last breath of loyalist politics

Had the PUP been infiltrated by members of the republican movement as part of some convoluted covert conspiracy to undermine the party it is unlikely that they could have done as good a job in destroying the organisation as the present leadership has succeeded in doing in recent years. For a group connected to an armed terrorist faction that displayed a certain callous expertise over the years in the murder of innocent civilians, the political arm of this section of Northern Ireland's loyalist movement has become extremely proficient in shooting itself in the foot every time the chance arises. Last night they discharged another few rounds into their tootsies when they voted to retain their links to the Ulster Volunteer Force and Red Hand Commando.

Even if they had chosen to sever their links to these paramilitary groups I somehow doubt it would seriously alter their fortunes in the short, medium or long term. The PUP is in terminal decline. The slide started when Billy Hutchinson lost his Stormont seat in North Belfast. It deteriorated further with the death of leader David Ervine in January 2007. In June, following the UVF murder of Bobby Moffett on the Shankill Road, Ervine's successor and the party's only MLA, Dawn Purvis, resigned as head of the organisation. With no MPs, no MLAs and only a couple of councillors in the whole of Northern Ireland it would now appear that the writing is on the wall for loyalist politics.

There was a period back in the wake of the CLMC ceasefire in October 1994 when it looked as if the parties aligned to the two main Protestant paramilitary groups – the PUP and the Ulster Democratic Party – might actually carve out a significant place for themselves on the province's political scene. It didn't materialise. I must admit to having been one of those on the left who watched the development of loyalist politics with interest back in the mid to late nineties. Some of the early signs were indeed promising. Both the UDP and the PUP, particularly the latter, were making leftish noises on various issues ranging from abortion to the 11-plus, noises that set them apart from the traditional conservative representatives of unionists in the UUP and the DUP. Today the political representatives of loyalism find themselves in a sorry state.

It is difficult to understand what led members of the Progressive Unionist Party to last night make the decision that they did. While I might be personally of the view that the Pups are dead and buried, surely there must have been a sizeable section of the membership present that realised some sort of change has to be made to try and turn things around. A clean break with the thugs and bully boys of the UVF and RHC would have sent out a positive message. Maintaining the link is unlikely to win much in the way of new support.

Prior to the vote there was a discussion on Stephen Nolan's Radio Ulster show yesterday morning featuring BBC Northern Ireland's former security correspondent Brian Rowen. In the item Rowen made reference to people trying to encourage the UVF to follow a political path. A political path? Don't insult our intelligence. In the year 2010 such talk simply perplexes me. This is the language of the peace process, a peace process that reached its conclusion several years ago. It is sixteen years next month since the loyalist ceasefire - sixteen years. It is twelve years since the Good Friday Agreement. It is also five years since the Provisional IRA completed decommissioning and disappeared off the scene. The question now really has to be asked within loyalism is just what are organisations like the UVF for? Who is it that they exist to oppose? Does it not strike these halfwits just how absurd it is that the Provo's military wing has been wound up, Sinn Fein sit in the government of Northern Ireland, they accept the institutions of partition and give their full unconditional support to the police while loyalists continue to maintain armed vigilante organisations that do nothing except stick two fingers up at Her Majesty's law in this part of the United Kingdom? Perhaps irony isn't their thing.

To hell with them I say. We have had sixteen years of relative peace and quiet in Northern Ireland now. It is time for us all to move on, though it is a pity that the PUP has proved incapable of doing so and opted to remain tied to a band of brutes. If these fools had any interest in politics they would have went down that avenue long ago. As I have already pointed out, it is half a decade since the Provisionals declared a formal end to their campaign. Surely that declaration alone removed the raison d'être of paramilitary groups like the UVF. If it did not then I would happily invite a supporter of the organisation, or indeed someone from the Progressive Unionist Party, to leave a comment on this website or drop me an email explaining exactly what it would take to see the disbandment of this illegal army. While I never considered their terror campaign justified, nor did it do anything to keep these six counties in the union with Britain, they are now, by their own criteria, redundant.

The truth is that there is no longer any politics in the UVF. If there was they would not exist. They are an apolitical gangster mafia. They are a purely criminal organisation. These men are not interested in general elections or Assembly elections or local council elections. They are interested in drug dealing, extortion rackets and controlling territory just as much as any Sicilian don. It is difficult to imagine the organisation that provided Northern Ireland with such sadistic sectarian psychopaths as Gusty Spence, Lenny Murphy and Billy Wright could actually degenerate to an even lower level than it was in the days before 1994. In the near two decades since it declared a cessation of what it called "operational hostilities" (or shooting taxi drivers, factory workers and people drinking in pubs to you and I) the so-called 'hardmen' of loyalist paramilitarism have contributed largely to the destruction of the very working-class Protestant districts they laughingly once claimed to be defending.

If the majority of members of the Progressive Unionist Party wish to remain manacled to such groups then they are welcome to them. I hope they enjoy their company. If there is, however, anyone left in the party professing to hold progressive or left of centre views then I would appeal to them to do the right thing: take a leaf from their former colleague Dawn Purvis's book, get to hell out of the PUP and start to build a genuinely anti-sectarian democratic socialist force in Northern Ireland.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Decisions, decisions

Members of the Labour Party in Britain made two big decisions last week. One of the decisions was a fairly sound one. One of them was, sadly, not so sound.

Taking the negative one first, party members in London have selected Ken Livingstone as their candidate for the next London mayoral election. The selection of Livingstone is, in my view, a significant step backwards. It is not that the man is too left-wing as some would you have you believe. On the contrary, the man misleadingly nicknamed 'Red Ken' is just not left-wing enough. Remember that Livingstone is the man who once described the despicable Yusuf al-Qaradawi as "one of the leading progressive voices in the Muslim world" and an individual who is the target of a "huge smear campaign organised by the Zionists." For those of you not au fait with the hate-filled preaching of this supposedly progressive Islamic voice, al-Qaradawi is on record as saying that the Holocaust was divine punishment for the Jews sent by Allah in order to "put them in their place." To say that this vermin is one of Islam's shining lights does not only put your socialist credentials at risk but it is also a gross insult to the tens of millions of Muslims out there who would want absolutely nothing to do with such filth.

Livingstone is also the man who in 2000 broke his original promise not to run as an independent in the inaugural London mayoral election if he did not obtain the Labour nomination. His loyalty to Labour has been brought into question numerous times in the years since, by his involvement in everything from appointing members of the Trotskyist microsect Socialist Action to his GLA administration and only this year appearing on the RESPECT general election flyers for George Galloway who stood against Labour's Jim Fitzpatrick in Poplar and Limehouse.

Since losing to Boris Johnson in the last election in 2008, Livingstone has been advising Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's favourite Latin American goon, Hugo Chavez. Ken is also still well capable of making the odd outrageous statement now and then. During the London Labour Mayoral hustings over the summer he shamefully stated that the intervention in Iraq had "took the lives of 52 Londoners." Quite which act of Anglo-American imperialist aggression the newt enthusiast blames for taking the lives of almost 3,000 New Yorkers four years previously is not entirely clear.

Still, the members of the Labour Party in the city have spoken and Ken Livingstone is to be the candidate for Mayor in 2012. Very well. The crucial thing now is for activists in the city to unite behind the Livingstone campaign in order to boot out Boris. Having a charming upper-class buffoon present Have I Got News For You was relatively amusing. Having him Mayor of the largest city in the European Union is not so hilarious. Unlike Ken who ran against his party in 2000 when he wasn't chosen, Oona King (who had thrown her hat in the ring in the race for the Labour nomination) has given her full backing to his campaign to defeat Boris Johnson. That's real political maturity, comrade Livingstone.

On the bright side, the Labour Party on Saturday chose Ed Miliband as their new leader. It was clear from very early on in the race that the new leader would be one of Ralph's boys, the question was which one. Personally, I did not mind who became leader as long as it wasn't Ed Balls or Diane Abbott. Neither Balls nor Abbott are particularly bad human beings, they just aren't natural born leaders (but then again, they never were going to win). I liked a lot of what I heard from Andy Burnham, not least his promise to give Labour members in Northern Ireland the same rights as members in GB (but then again, he was never going to win either). In the end it was a clear cut choice: Miliband or Miliband.

In the beginning I favoured David over his sibling. He was, at the risk of sounding slightly shallow, the more Prime Ministerial of the two. He also had the more impressive CV and had played a more senior role in the last Labour administration. As Foreign Secretary for three years he had a higher international profile than his brother. Yet the truth is that when it came down to the nitty gritty of ideology there was very little to separate the two. Both men are firmly on the centre-left of British politics. Because there was so little to separate them politically one could only really make their decision on who was best to lead the party on the basis of what I would usually consider to be the more superficial elements of politics. Which one came across best on the hustings? Who seemed the more engaging of the two on the BBC Question Time special a few weeks back? Which of the brothers possessed the personality and leadership qualities necessary to get British citizens off their backsides at the next general election and go to their nearest polling station to rid the country the present Conservative-Liberal coalition (incidentally, I don't use that naff 'Con-Dem' term to describe the present government)? On all of these I thought Ed just about edged it. Miliband the elder came across a tad wooden, a bit aloof. I'll say it again, these are not normally the things I would focus on in a political battle, but in a clash where there was so little to split the two men policy-wise you just had to make your call based on such factors (and nowadays such factors unfortunately influence a lot of people when it comes to deciding which box they'll tick on their ballot paper).

Now begins the long struggle to oust the Tories and their Liberal hangers on. There are reasons too to be cheerful. As Laura Kuenssberg observed during the BBC's coverage of the result on Saturday evening, party members appeared united and in a buoyant mood. So they should be. This is not 1983. Even when faced with an unpopular government at a time of recession headed by a Prime Minister for whom nothing could ever seem to go right, Cameron and the Conservatives still failed to land a knockout blow in the last general election. Many who voted Lib Dem back in May now feel betrayed by the deal they subsequently struck with the Tories. The most recent YouGov opinion poll has Labour ahead of the Conservatives for the first time in three years.

Already the right-wing press are starting to show just what sort of lengths they are going to go to in order to make sure Ed Miliband never makes it to Number 10. "Get ready for 'Red' Ed Miliband, the unions' choice," read the headline to James Kirkup's piece in the Daily Telegraph. Expect to hear much more of this type of thing in the coming months and years. The idea though that Ed is now going to drag the party back into the bad old days of the early eighties is frankly codswallop. Nothing that he has said points toward such a move. However, hard facts are often less important than perceptions and particularly when those very perceptions can be actively encouraged by a tremendously conservative media in order to frighten an electorate (there is no need to drag up stories about 1992 and Sun headlines again).

But then nor should people on the left moan and whine about what the Tory press say. They are called the Tory press for a reason – they are Tories. It should not be a surprise that they are hostile to the new leader of the Labour Party. Do not forget that Tony Blair did not make it into Downing Street thanks to Rupert Murdoch. The Sun only declared for Blair on March 17th 1997, a mere six weeks before the election when it had become clear to absolutely everyone that the Conservatives were on their way out. It wasn't of course that the said publication had undergone a sudden conversion to democratic socialism. Far from it. Mr Murdoch does not like to be seen backing a losing horse and if in a few years time Ed Miliband has a sizeable lead in the polls going into a general election I would not at all be surprised if we witnessed a similar move. So, to hell with the myth that Labour cannot win an election unless the Kelvin MacKenzies of this world are saying nice things about them. It has been done before. It can be done again.

One week. Two decisions. So, Red Ed for PM and Red Ken for Mayor of London? Aye, I'll settle for that.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

"Action, drama and excitement all the way here in Belfast..."

The video below will most likely be mystifying to those souls not of this island who are fortunate enough to be unfamiliar with the regular Saturday afternoon occurrence on BBC Northern Ireland whereby the highly agreeable Gabby Logan is removed from our screens and replaced with the much less photogenic visage of Mark Sidebottom who subsequently informs us of the results of local sporting events that most likely had more people present on the pitch than in the crowd. Thank goodness for the BBC's Red Button service:

Monday, September 27, 2010

Polls apart

Opinion polls. Just where would we be without them? Or more precisely, just where would journalists be without them? Poll findings, no matter how unspectacular they may be, are always a good way to fill a few column inches. Personally though, I couldn't give a damn about them. It's not that I share Peter Hitchens's slightly conspiratorial view that polls are "the best way to influence public opinion, largely because they're treated as impartial oracles of the truth by most people who read them." I don't believe they do shape public opinion. I don't give a damn about them because I reckon they are pretty much meaningless. A news story about an opinion poll is essentially a news story about absolutely nothing.

Take the findings of two separate opinion polls the Irish Republic last week. The first one was the Millward Brown Lansdowne poll for TV3 News. It threw up the following results:

Labour: 35%
Fine Gael: 30%
Fianna Fail: 22%
Sinn Fein: 4%
Greens: 2%

Much excitement followed. The Labour Party has never received anything higher than 19.5% in a southern election. The TV3 News poll has them on almost double that (and more than treble what they recorded at the last general election in 2007). Cue lots of speculation about Eamon Gilmore becoming Taoiseach and Labour forming the first left-led government in the history of the state. Then, only a few days later, another poll arrived. This was the Red C poll for the Sunday Business Post and it painted a completely different picture:

Fine Gael: 31%
Fianna Fail: 24%
Labour: 23%
Sinn Fein: 10%
Greens: 3%

Now, if you ask me, the second poll would appear to be the more accurate of the two. Both polls seem to agree that Fine Gael support is hovering somewhere around the 30% mark while support for the Soldiers of Destiny is in the low 20s. Both polls also concur that the Greens are in a spot of bother. However, where they wildly differ is in their reading of support for Labour and Sinn Fein.

The Millward Brown Lansdowne poll, if it were accurate, would signal something of a disaster for the Provos. It certainly would not have been the sort of thing Gerry and co would have been imagining ten years ago when Sinn Fein were talking up their chances of overtaking Labour as the third largest party in the Republic and the leading force on the left of southern politics. When one takes into account the fact that in the 1981 general election the Anti H-Block prisoner candidates took 3.1% of the vote in the state, it would not say much for the new slick unarmed Sinn Fein machine if they were only capable of pulling in an extra 0.9%. Yet I somehow doubt that support is actually that low. As high as 10%? Perhaps not, but I would still expect to see some sort of an improvement on the 7% they received in the disappointing 2007 election.

The Labour results are the ones which differ most outrageously; 35% for TV3 News, 23% for the Sunday Business Post. It may just be me being cynical in order to not get my hopes built up for a gargantuan red surge but 35% appears to overestimate the level of support for the party. Not surprisingly, the Labour website has the TV3 News poll right at the top of its page and an interview with Eamon Gilmore on RTE's News at One accompanying it. Just as predictably, they have no details whatsoever of the much more modest Red C poll findings that appeared a couple of days afterwards. I suppose that, regardless of which survey of public opinion you read, it is probably safe to assume that Labour are heading for the best general election result in their history. In that we lefties can take some comfort.

So, seven days on and we are none the wiser about the way the public south of the border are thinking. If anything we might actually be even more confused. Maybe now is the time to reach into my big bag of clichés and pull out an old favourite: there is only one opinion poll that really matters – the general election.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Fine Gael's peculiar addiction to populist drivel

I used to think it unfair to call a member of Fine Gael a Blueshirt. Yes, one of component parts in the formation of the party in the early 1930s was the repulsive Blueshirt movement. And yes, the head of that movement, General Eoin O'Duffy, did become the first leader of the Fine Gael party. And yes indeed, the organisation did have its fair share of loons many moons ago, such as the hideous Oliver J. Flanagan of Laois who could always be relied upon for a good swipe at the Jews and the Freemasons. Yet I have always considered it a low blow to throw the Blueshirt insult in the direction of the boys and girls of the so-called United Ireland Party. Now, I'm not so sure.

Make no mistake, I am not saying that Fine Gael is a racist or neo-Nazi party. To label them such would frankly be ludicrous. It is very much a party of the mainstream European centre-right. However, that is precisely what makes the comments of some members in recent times so concerning. It would not be so bad if loose talk was confined to people like redneck Enniscorthy FG councillor Patrick Kavanagh and his remarks back in June about members of the travelling community "ethnic cleansing" areas of Wexford of settled people, but it is not limited to such individuals. Leo Varadkar, hardly a marginal figure in the party, not too long ago was proposing a voluntary repatriation scheme for foreigners which involved giving them free dole money to go back to wherever they came from. Enda Kenny, the leader of the opposition and person likely to be the next Taoiseach, is not afraid of indulging in a bit of the old racism himself. The man who once referred to the Congolese revolutionary leader Patrice Lumumba as a "nigger" has also expressed concerns in recent years about how immigration is eroding Ireland's "Celtic and Christian" identity.

You could of course claim that all of this is quite mild, that nobody at 51 Upper Mount Street is proposing the construction of concentration camps in Connemara but then that would be to miss the point. Voluntary repatriation, 'niggers', ethnic cleansing, Celtic and Christian identity; these are not terms that should be in the vocabulary of any run-of-the-mill respectable mainstream conservative political party. These are dangerous phrases. Once such language becomes respectable amongst the political class it can have a much more extreme manifestation by the time it trickles down to street level. We witnessed such phenomena here in Northern Ireland during the Troubles when well dressed, well heeled politicians would effortlessly whip up hate and then distance themselves from the subsequent sectarian bloodshed. Racism may not yet carry the same level of violent hate in southern society that sectarianism has historically commanded in the north, but if senior members of Fine Gael can speak openly of planning to send immigrants home and call Africans niggers you can sure as hell appreciate how difficult life can become for the lone Romanian working behind the counter in the chipper on a Friday night or for the sole Nigerian kid in the school classroom.

A few days back I was listening to Ryan Tubridy's show on RTE 2FM and caught his interview with Gerry Breen, the Fine Gael Lord Mayor of Dublin. Mr Breen's big idea at the moment is to get the drug addicts and beggars - most of them foreign as he helpfully pointed out - away from around the centre of Dublin and onto some as yet unspecified location. Apparently Dublin is a "soft touch" (yes, he really did use such a hackneyed cliché) for these undesireables and they are, among other things, frightening the tourists. This is an odd if unoriginal proposal. Such reactionary drivel really should not get beyond the letters page of a trashy right-wing British tabloid or the drunken halfwit propping up the bar at your local but, like the comments of Varadkar and Kenny mentioned previously, that is just what has happened.

Breen of course isn't stupid. He knows that the sort of talk that would get you a round of applause from Sun readers and talkSPORT listeners can also get you votes. Populist garbage like this will be well received in certain unthinking quarters. The Lord Mayor is well aware that there are plenty of frustrated working-class men and women on the dole queues of Dublin aggravated at their drop in living standards in the post-Celtic Tiger era and only too happy to back a politician seen to be stamping out some make-believe network of professional beggars from eastern Europe who are making thousands on a weekly basis out of their citywide racket. Whether or not such a racket actually exists is another thing, but then populist rhetoric doesn't necessarily have to have the truth on its side to be effective.

In fairness to Tubridy, he did push the Lord Mayor for a more comprehensive outline of what exactly it was that he proposed. Where would these beggars go, wondered the presenter? Breen didn't know. Did he have any concrete answers on how to solve the problem of begging in the city, Tubridy asked? The First Citizen again replied with a no and stated that he wasn't there to provide solutions (just indulge in a little bit of 'Paisleyesque' stirring up). A lot of information on the problem, he acknowledged, was anecdotal. In short, the only tangible thing to come out of the interview was that the current Lord Mayor of Dublin doesn't seem to like seeing poor people in the flesh.

So, what can we put these unbalanced displays of intolerant idiocy by Breen and his party colleagues down to? Are they just inherently racist and can't help it? No, of course not. Is it part of the historical residue remaining in the Fine Gael DNA from the Blueshirt era? Too simplistic. I think it has much more to do with a noticeable shift in the politics of the European mainstream centre-right. Whether it is President Sarkozy's UMP in France or Silvio Berlusconi's People of Freedom alliance in Italy, Fine Gael's European partners have all moved sharply rightwards in recent years. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that some in FG could be getting dragged in with them in that general direction. They could be worse I suppose. Some mainstream former EPP groups, such as the British Tories, have drifted so far rightwards that they have formed a completely new European body and allied themselves with nasty little east European factions like Latvia's Fatherland and Freedom party, an organisation that takes quite a generous view of the Nazis. And as the explosion in support for ultra-right parties in normally tolerant European countries like the Netherlands and Sweden proves, hardline posturing by the centre-right does not limit the growth of extremists. If anything it encourages them. The centre-right, in Ireland and elsewhere, should be displaying competent and responsible leadership, not indulging in populism of the worst kind.

As I have already said, this is not about Fine Gael becoming a fascist party; it is about members of that party saying things that would not be out of place in a press release from the BNP. I cannot imagine an elected representative for FG in the Fitzgerald or Bruton years coming out with ridiculous guff about travellers ethnic cleansing people or voluntary repatriation or taking a shot at the beggars. This is not the sort of chatter one expects from a party that could very well this time next year be in government in the Republic. More to the point, and from a left-wing perspective, just how would a Labour Party in coalition with FG feel if similar trash talk was to raise its head during their time in power with them? Only time will tell on that. Let us hope that Fine Gael display some wisdom and do not follow the drift to the right being pursued by their continental cousins. If they are incapable of doing that then perhaps they may just be a little more deserving of the Blueshirt label than I previously thought.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Black on red: the Labour contribution to Union 2021

The Labour Party now accepts members here and our membership is growing rapidly. But that is not enough. Labour must now accept its responsibility to help shift our politics away from its current basis in communal politics. To move on, the public need Labour Party candidates standing in elections.

Boyd Black speaketh the truth! The secretary of the Labour Party in Northern Ireland offers his tuppenceworth to the News Letter's Union 2021 series. A short piece but a decent analysis of where we are, how we got here and how we move on.

Oh, and congratulations to Ed Miliband on winning the party leadership. The boy done good. And if he gives Labour members in Northern Ireland the same organising rights as their comrades on the other side of the Irish Sea then I'll love him more than he loves that brother of his (which may or may not be all that difficult, depending on which rumour one believes).


England play in white, Wales play in red, Scotland play in dark blue so why is our wee Norn Iron playing in green?!? Our team should take the field in a kit most fans see as our national colour - Orange!!

Orange our national colour? Is it? I think this is what one calls an identity crisis - a Facebook campaign to get the Northern Ireland soccer team playing in the same colours as Armagh's GAA lads and lassies. Truly bizarre:

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The absurd world of 'unionist unity'

The criminally unfunny Hole in the Wall Gang spent years trying to produce comedies on the Northern Ireland situation. They were all shit. As anyone that actually lives here can testify, reality is hilarious enough. For example, news emerged today that the leaders of the DUP and the Ulster Unionists have written to An Taoiseach to express their objection to the proposed takeover by the ESB of Northern Ireland Electricity. According to the RTE website, the unionist leaders described the plan as "inappropriate" and stated that "it amounted to the purchase of a 'key component' of Northern Ireland's national infrastructure."

One could perhaps applaud the actions of the unionists if they were attempting to keep NIE in public ownership, but that isn't the case. NIE was privatised back in the early nineties and is at present owned, through Viridian, by the Atlanta and Bahrain-based bank Arcapita (a company which was known as the First Islamic Investment Bank before owners decided on a name change in the post-9/11 climate). So, why the outcry? What is the big difference between Viridian owning this "key component" of Northern Ireland's infrastructure and the ESB owning it? It would appear to be that unionist opposition to the purchase appears to be based solely on the notion of 'them boys down there' keeping the lights on up here. And to think some people wonder why Northern Ireland is an economic wasteland.

Welcome to united unionism, 21st century style. The orange card has been played many times in Irish history, however this latest display of pan-Protestant unity in the face of the threat of 'Fenian electricity' really does mark a new and slightly surreal low.

Monday, September 20, 2010

A view from the belly of the beast

Yoani Sánchez on the extremely unsocialist plans by Cuba's Stalinist dictatorship to boost unemployment by one million and the utter uselessness of the country's only legal union:

... What I see around me is an 'omni-proprietary' state, owner of the machines, the industries, the infrastructure of a nation and of all the decisions made about it. A master who pays the lowest possible wages and demands applause and unconditional ideological fealty from his workers. This miserly owner now warns that he cannot continue to employ more than one million of those working on the public payroll. "To advance the development and actualization of the economic model," we are told payrolls must be drastically reduced, while opportunities for self-employment will see only the smallest and most controlled expansion. Even the Cuban Workers Center — the only labor union allowed in the country — reports that the layoffs will come soon and we must accept them with discipline. A sad performance for those whose role it is to represent the rights of their members vis-a-vis the powers-that-be and not vice versa.

We on the left who are fortunate enough to live in the democratic world should not hesitate in declaring our solidarity with Cuban workers against the actions of the regime in Havana. We do not waver in voicing our opposition to the savage cutbacks by the Cameron and Papandreou governments here in Europe. We should not flinch from opposing the equally brutal measures of the Castro dictatorship. Solidarity requires consistency, not hypocrisy.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Ratzinger?

I promised myself that I would not write anything here regarding the visit of Joseph Alois Ratzinger to Britain this week. Launching attacks upon the Roman Catholic Church is a remarkably easy thing to do nowadays. Everyone, including a large proportion of Catholics, realise that the institution is rotten to the core and has quite a bit of internal tidying up to do before it gets whatever dignity it had back again (though if you are an Irish Catholic reading this I would encourage you to visit and follow the instructions provided).

However, after listening to Mr Ratzinger's comments about Nazism somehow being the product what happens when faith is absent in a society I just had to say something. Actually, I don't have to say anything. I shall leave it to Herr Hitler himself, speaking in Berlin in 1933, to explain just what he thought about the presence of a god in society:

We were convinced that the people needs and requires this faith. We have therefore undertaken the fight against the atheistic movement, and that not merely with a few theoretical declarations: we have stamped it out.

There was more godbothering from the Führer the following year:

National Socialism neither opposes the Church nor is it anti-religious, but on the contrary, it stands on the ground of a real Christianity. The Church's interests cannot fail to coincide with ours alike in our fight against the symptoms of degeneracy in the world of to-day, in our fight against the Bolshevist culture, against an atheistic movement, against criminality, and in our struggle for the consciousness of a community in our national life, for the conquest of hatred and disunion between the classes, for the conquest of civil war and unrest, of strife and discord. These are not anti-Christian, these are Christian principles.

And not forgetting Hitler's remarks during the negotiations for the Reichskonkordat that every single Catholic now seems to have conveniently forgotten about:

Secular schools can never be tolerated because such schools have no religious instruction, and a general moral instruction without a religious foundation is built on air; consequently, all character training and religion must be derived from faith.

These types of remarks by Nazism's head honcho are not tucked away in the pages of obscure old history books. You can find them quite easily, complete with the relevant footnotes and sources, on that horrible godless website known as Wikipedia. I have no doubt that Mr Ratzinger and Catholics of his ilk who spew out such historical falsifications are well aware of just where Adolf Hitler stood on the question of atheism. They are many things, but they are not stupid. They know the facts. What they desire is for the rest of us to forget them.

Popes and cardinals and bishops can do many things but they cannot rewrite history. The history of fascism in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s is closely tied with the history of Catholicism in that era. Even this week's state visit was only made possible thanks to the 1929 Lateran Treaty signed between the Holy See and Benito Mussolini establishing the Vatican City State as an independent entity. And what of the Ustaše in Croatia? Or Salazar's Portugal? Or Francoist Spain? Or the fact that the head of fascist Slovakia was Father Jozef Tiso? Even here in Ireland, a country where the far-right never managed to make a breakthrough, a 700-strong volunteer brigade from the Blueshirt movement which travelled to Spain to support Franco's overthrow of the democratically elected republican government was given the blessing of Catholic priests.

Fascism and Nazism did not arise out of the absence of faith. Their origins, not exclusively but to a large extent, lay in its presence in these societies. That the leader of this discredited institution is, 65 years after the end of the war, still attempting to peddle the myth that Hitler and his followers were somehow atheists does not give us much hope today for an honest conclusion to the more recent crimes involving child raping priests. I suppose we can always hope, or, if you still have the stomach for it, pray.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The myth of Blair's subordinance to Washington

"And wouldn't Clem Attlee and Ernie Bevin have applauded when in Kosovo, faced with racial genocide in Europe for the first time since they fought fascism in the Second World War, it was Britain and this Government that helped defeat it and set one million people free back to their homeland?"

Tony Blair
Speech to the Labour Party Conference
Bournemouth, England
28th September 1999

'Bush's poodle'. I never did like that slogan for some reason. Perhaps its because I always associate that particular one with the cigar-chomping dictatorship fanboy George Galloway, or maybe its simply because it lacks any semblance of wit or humour that protest slogans have often thrown up in the past. I do fear though that the totally inaccurate interpretation of British foreign policy during the Blair years summed up by such simplistic one-liners, namely that London blindly followed whatever the administration in Washington told it to, has become accepted almost as hard truth nowadays. I don't just mean truth to the small foolish band of Trots, Stalinists and anarchists that shouted and hollered and threw eggs around at Tony Blair's recent book signing in the Eason store on Dublin's O'Connell Street, but rather to what you could call the average bloke in the street. Such a view though ignores the facts.

Say that a leader or a politician has principles these days and you will most likely be laughed at. Say that Tony Blair or indeed anyone involved at the top of the Labour Party over the past thirteen years were principled and some people would have you sectioned. Nevertheless I am convinced that Mr Blair was a man of principle when it came to his belief in interventionism, in his opposition to old Bennite isolationsim, in his anti-totalitarianism, in his belief in social democratic internationalism. Take two conflicts that the United Kingdom intervened in before George Bush even came to power in the United States: Kosovo in 1999 and Sierra Leone in 2000.

Christopher Hitchens mentions both military campaigns in his review of Tony Blair's memoirs in this month's issue of Atlantic. While they are unlikely to alter the mindset of anyone who believes that the former Prime Minister is a war criminal who should be up in trial in the Hague, the comments make for worthwhile reading. On the successful national liberation struggle in Kosovo, Hitchens writes:

The Tories had been all but pro-Milošević during the Balkan horrors—a cause of shame that Blair did much to redeem by pressing a hard line on the attempted Serbian cleansing of Kosovo. The record plainly shows that he was more determined than Washington on this occasion, while expressing the imperative for a badly compromised Europe to face the responsibility for its neglected Adriatic front. Before the fall of Milošević, furthermore, he went to Chicago in April 1999 to deliver a significant speech, in which he stressed that internal affairs were not a disguise under which despots should be allowed to conduct genocide or rearmament. He specifically mentioned the outstanding case of Saddam Hussein. (At this point, George W. Bush was a somewhat isolationist governor of Texas.)

Secondly, on the smashing of the thugs and war criminals of the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone - without the involvement of the US:

This West African country, originally established as a haven for free slaves, was by the year 2000 being overrun by a criminal mercenary force sponsored by the insane Liberian dictator Charles Taylor. Its funds came from the blood-diamond racket, and its tactics were those of child-soldier enslavement and hand-lopping. A vestigial UN force had done about as much to stop this as UN forces customarily do. After a direct appeal from Sierra Leone’s president, Blair decided to commit troops, who very swiftly dispersed the mercenaries and arrested their ghastly leader, Foday Sankoh. It is not too much to say that another Rwanda had been averted. Blair might have been forgiven for claiming more credit in this instance than he actually does.

On the more controversial interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq one may have their differences with Mr Blair, however from reading A Journey I do not detect any hint of man who simply went along with those wars merely because his 'master' in Washington told him too. To claim that Tony Blair was a poodle is as absurd as portraying Jacques Chirac as a hardcore opponent of US imperialism.

And what of the results of those two campaigns? Both certainly remain works in progress, though the democratic revolutions in Afghanistan and Iraq have already made significant leaps forward. In Afghanistan we have a flawed young democracy which may take time to mature, but given a choice between that or else the return of the Taleban and al-Qaeda there should be no question of even neutrality in the present struggle. Better news lies further to the west where Operation Iraqi Freedom has now come to an end. The leaders of the Hussein clan dictatorship have had their Ceauşescu/Mussolini moments. Two successful general elections have been held in the country since 2005, the last one returning to power the secular Iraqi National Movement (which includes various liberals, leftists and even the Iraqi Communist Party). The current President of Iraq is Jalal Talabani, a member of the Socialist International-aligned PUK and one of those Kurds that Saddam tried his best to wipe off the face of the earth. Given where we were less than a decade ago I think I can use the word 'revolution' to describe the transformation that has occurred.

When these revolutions are finally complete and the people of these lands live in peaceful, free and independent republics just what will the anti-war movement in the west have to show for its endeavours, apart from ten years of pretending to care about international law? Had groups like the StWC and the IAWM put forward alternatives (like Peter Tatchell to his credit did) I could have accepted their opposition, but they put forward none. Their strategy was to oppose all interventions at all costs and to dress up their opposition with self-righteous guff about international law that they couldn't give a damn about.

The reality of their 'anti-war' position in practice meant peaceful co-existence with fascism, and thereby the continuation of the Ba'athist and Taleban wars against the beleaguered opposition movements that western leftists and liberals should have looked upon as their comrades. If they can take no joy in the the prevention of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, of the maintenance of democracy in Sierra Leone, of the overthrow of theocratic fascism in Afghanistan and of the smashing of the Ba'athist dictatorship in Iraq then so be it. History will show that when revolution came they opted for the status quo. Tony Blair did not. Let them throw eggs.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Actually existing Thatcherism

The news from Cuba this past week can probably best be summed up as follows: first of all, Castro the elder admitted to an American journalist that the present Cuban model of a centrally planned economy isn't working and then, a couple of days later, we hear of a sweeping privatisation drive and plans to kick one million people out of work. Nice to see the Cuban revolution is still going strong, isn't it?

The big difference between what is taking place in this Caribbean outpost of Stalinism and the harsh set of cutbacks being planned in these islands by George Osborne and Brian Lenihan is that British and Irish workers can attempt to fight the cuts in their own lands through their organisation in free and independent trade unions. Cuban workers have no such luxury. Yes, there are indeed independent trade unionists in Cuba, it is just that unfortunately quite a few of them are behind bars with political activists, homosexuals and anyone else that disagrees with the Communist Party. The only trade union recognised by the Cuban state is the CTC, the Confederación de Trabajadores Cubanos. Their response to the Havana government's plans? Predictable:

Our state cannot and should not continue maintaining companies, productive entities, services and budgeted sectors with bloated payrolls and losses that hurt the economy.

Spoken like a true Tory neoliberal, don't you think?

The response to the regime's latest economic plans from the Morning Star, the Cuban Support Group - Ireland and others like them in this part of the world should be interesting.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Workers unite... just the Protestant ones though

I was interested to read an article by Andy Martin on the BBC website yesterday evening concerning the possible changing nature of the Ulster Defence Association and its alleged move away from criminality and illegal activity. All of which is good news of course, even if it is slightly belated. The years since the October 1994 ceasefire have been torrid ones for the loyalist organisation. With the threat of armed Provisional republicanism removed from the scene, the UDA rapidly degenerated into an apolitical mafia gang headed by a whole host of bizarre thugs and goons. What Andy Martin's article doesn't explore though is where the UDA is going in the long term. Will its leadership be happy to shut up shop and drift into the history books or will they attempt to pursue a new political path? A clue may lie in an article featured in the local press a few weeks ago.

The Union 2021 series has been a regular feature in the News Letter over the past couple of months in which people of various political stripes have been asked to provide their vision of Northern Ireland on its centenary, a landmark date just a little over a decade off now. One contributor who caught my eye was Paul Clissold, general secretary of the Ulster Political Research Group in south Belfast. As most readers with an interest in Northern Irish politics will know, the UPRG has been the political mouthpiece for the UDA ever since the Ulster Democratic Party disintegrated back in the early 2000s. In the years since there has been no signal from the UDA that they intend to have another go at the party politics game, though in his article Clissold hints at a possible change in attitude and uses some interesting language. He states:

I contend that there is a new dynamic in this country that would allow a left of centre working class unionist/loyalist political party to flourish. A party that campaigns for the aspirations of the working class and understands the plight of the poor and dispossessed. A party that embraces the past and encourages all shades of loyalism to come together. A party that lives and breathes in the area and campaigns for employment, education and regeneration. Such a party has a place in our society today and will be surely much needed in 2021 when it is hoped that we will be out of this terrible recession and into a period of growth.

This is interesting for a number of reasons. First of all, here we have an indication from a senior loyalist activist that a new party may be about to emerge from the ashes of the UDA in the post-paramilitary age in Northern Ireland. Secondly, and more even more interestingly, Clissold states that such a party would be “left of centre.” A small sign of progress then for myself and my comrades? Well, not exactly.

This left of centre party spoken of here would be a “left of centre working class unionist/loyalist political party.” In other words, this is a Prods-only 'socialism'. Given that at this precise moment we are witnessing the slow-motion disintegration of a left of centre loyalist party, namely the UVF-aligned Progressive Unionist Party, one really has to ask why on earth Mr Clissold feels the need to form yet another such organisation when the lessons of history prove quite clearly that such a party is not the sort of vehicle that is capable of winning over mass support.

If Paul Clissold and the Ulster Political Research Group feel that there is a new dynamic that would allow for the flourishing of a new left-wing organisation in Northern Ireland why do they not put their money where their mouth is and attempt to build a force to represent and fight for the interests of disadvantaged working-class Catholic and Protestant communities? The answer is because Clissold and his friends have no interest in building such a vehicle. Indeed, I very much doubt whether what he and the UPRG have in mind could even be described as being in any way recognisably 'left'. Class politics is only class politics if it fights on behalf – or even claims to fight on behalf – of the interests of the whole working-class. Clissold's vision of a party does not do this. Yes, such a grouping may well draw its membership from the working class but that does not in any way make it left-wing or socialist. After all, the vast bulk of the British National Party’s membership comes from underprivileged white working class communities. What Clissold appears to be offering us here is little more than a thinly defined orange 'leftism' which remains at heart deeply sectarian.

Just in case you feel I am being too cynical and should perhaps be giving the UPRG an opportunity to prove their worth, the next paragraph should shatter any hopes you have of even the most moderate social democratic force emerging out of the ranks of loyalism. On the subject of the much talked about concept of unionist unity, Clissold states:

Unionist unity is ultimately desirable and can be achieved through an eventual maturing of all strands and elements within the broader unionist family. My particular brand of working class loyalism must be housed in this family before true unity can be achieved. If that means a gradual realignment of the status quo currently monopolising the market then I welcome it.

So folks, there you have it in black and white. Unionist unity is “ultimately desirable” and this so-called working class loyalism “must be housed in this family.” When it comes to the crunch Clissold, the working class loyalist, does not view his working class neighbours in the Lower Ormeau and Short Strand and Ardoyne and the Falls as his comrades but rather the reactionary Christian fundamentalists of the DUP and the Tory-linked Ulster Unionists.

What Clissold proposes in his Union 2021 column is in reality not a left of centre party at all but rather a glorified community organisation that will do little more than highlight problems in and campaign for funding for deprived Protestant areas, most likely those were the UDA was once strong. You can call this many things but it is not socialism. There is no sign that this vehicle will attempt to radically break away from its traditional roots in the manner that, for example, the Official republican movement did with The Workers Party when they shed their nationalist baggage in a sincere if failed attempt to win support from Protestants. Would this new party make a concerted effort to win votes from the Catholic community or would its engagement with them be limited to an annual visit to a meeting at Féile an Phobail and a few rounds of golf with Martin McAleese? I'll let you guess the answer to that one.

Don't get me wrong, just as there were decent left-leaning types in the old Ulster Democratic Party so too are there most likely people in the UDA and UPRG who, had they been born on the other side of the Irish Sea, would be partisan Labour supporters. Paul Clissold is probably one of them. However, what Clissold and co have to do is ask themselves this question: can a genuine realignment of politics really occur in Northern Ireland while party politics is shaped by organisations which place their position on the border above everything else on their list of priorities? My answer to that is no. If people within the UDA and UPRG seriously want to make a break with the past and are sincere in their desire to see centre-left politics in the province then they need to make centre-left politics their number one priority. Unfortunately, as long as loyalists view unionist unity as being “ultimately desirable”, they offer no potential for changing the status quo in Northern Ireland, regardless of how much noise they make about left of centre politics.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Be afraid, be very afraid

An odd thing happened in recent years in the field of British politics: it became radical to be a Liberal Democrat. Remember those thrilling days of Cleggmania a few months back in which an entire country was inexplicably swept off its feet by the ultra-bland lightweight MP for Sheffield Hallam? I do. How I cringed at the sight of impressionable people placing 'Liberal Democrats' in the political views section of their Facebook info in the days after that first live televised debate (oddly enough many of these people lived in Northern Ireland were the party doesn't even exist). Perhaps you recall how Charles Kennedy and his party were treated by some in 2003 as the saviours of progressive politics in the UK for their stance in opposing the liberation of Iraq. Or maybe it was Vince Cable that floated your boat. What was it again that made Vince such a media favourite in recent times? Ah, yes. Good old Vince carved out a place for himself as a modern day economic prophet because he predicted some years back that we might just have a recession at some point in the future (of course, Herr Marx's 160 year old observations about the cyclical boom-and-bust nature of capitalism remains completely redundant and irrelevant in the contemporary world).

Vince is back in the news again, though I doubt that the middle-class Guardian readers that got a strange radical kick out of aligning themselves with the Lib Dems prior to last May will be singing his praises at this weekend's dinner parties. Mr Cable is now voicing his support for the privatisation of Royal Mail. Yes, that's correct; in a period when capitalism has screwed up royally (no pun intended) the great British economic prophet of our time is now proposing that a postal service that has functioned successfully in state hands since the time of Charles II be handed over to the capitalists.

The idea that the private sector is slick and efficient whereas the public sector is cumbersome and incompetent is taken to be axiomatic by many nowadays. Recent history though should teach us otherwise. Such a view is crude and simplistic. British Rail may not have been in an ideal state when it was privatised by the Conservatives in the 1980s, however two decades later could one honestly claim that UK railways are a gleaming example of how a 21st century public transport system should be run? I doubt it. Could a better job have been made of it if British Rail had been kept in public ownership and an attempt made to rectify the problems that it had? Hardly a far-fetched scenario if you ask me. Perhaps those enthusiastic for the privatisation of Royal Mail should take some time to dwell on that.

It is not just socialists who have problems with privatisation. In his twilight years Harold Macmillan famously likened the Thatcherite programme to “selling the family silver.” Peter Hitchens, Daily Mail columnist and a man certainly not of the left, has frequently spoken of his support for the renationalisation of the railways. And, since we're on the subject of the Royal Mail, it is worth taking a glimpse across the Atlantic to see what President Barack Obama had to say when he was asked about the possibility of privatising the United States Postal Service. His answer was as follows:

Bad idea most of the time. There are examples where privatisation makes sense, where people can do things much more efficiently. But often what you see is companies want to buy those parts of a government-run op that are profitable, and they don't want to do anything else. So, for example, the US Postal Service, everybody would love to have that high-end part of the business that FedEx and UPS are already in, business to business you make a lot of money. But do they want to deliver that postcard to a remote area somewhere in rural America that is a money loser? Well, the US Post Office provides universal service. Those companies would not want to provide universal service.

Well put, Mr President.

You see, opposition to privatisation and deregulation does not always arise out of the ridiculous notion that people like myself are simply dogmatic old leftists who hate entrepreneurs and the private sector. Supporters of privatisation have for many years stated that their ideas are based on common sense, efficiency and pragmatism. In my view it is the democratic socialist vision of a society armed with strong public services free from the influence of private profit that is in fact grounded in common sense, efficiency and pragmatism. It is that democratic socialist vision which is absent among even the best of the Liberal Democrats and it is for that reason that the Lib Dems were not, are not and can never be considered as a genuine alternative to the Labour Party, regardless of how frustrated some of us may have become at certain points in the Blair-Brown era. Perhaps now those of you still getting high on the Cleggmania drug will find the more potent dose of something called reality enough to erase whatever illusions that particular trip conjured up. Worse may be about to follow. Now may be a good time to amend your choice of 'Liberal Democrats' on the political views part of your Facebook profile.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Time for peace, time to go

So, does ETA's ceasefire announcement today really signal an end their senseless decades-long terrorist campaign or are they just once again playing with us? In recent years violent Basque nationalism has been almost crippled by the twin combination of tough action from the Spanish and French security services plus an increasing disinterest in their brand of politics from native Basques (the last regional elections witnessed the centre-left PSOE triumph). Just as their colleagues in the Provisional IRA declared a cessation at a point where they were at both a political and 'military' low, so too is ETA looking for a respectable way out of a clearly doomed armed struggle.

However, things are much worse for ETA than they were for Provisional republicans in Ireland in the late summer of 1994. In terms of violence, the ETA campaign was becoming increasingly more absurd and nihilistic as it targeted people and institutions with little connection to the Spanish state. Since ending their last truce in 2006 with a bomb attack on Madrid Barajas International Airport that killed two Ecuadorian immigrant workers, the organisation has carried out attacks on solicitors, journalists, businessmen, French policemen, it has bombed the University of Navarra (an act written about on this very website at the time) and perhaps most bizarrely of all attempted to extort money from French Basque international footballer Bixente Lizarazu.

Today's declaration is not so much a ceasefire as it is a white flag. The question we need to ask now is will Madrid respond by facilitating the sort of face-saving compromise that allows Provisional republicans here in Ireland today to ridiculously claim that they 'fought the British to a stalemate' (and I should add also permits loyalists to claim that their massacres of Catholics supping pints in bars somehow secured the union with Britain). I very much doubt they will. In fact, they have no moral obligation to. ETA has no mass support in their homeland. The majority of Basques do not want complete separatism from Spain, and even amongst those that do ETA remain a minority. Also, what would such a peace settlement look like exactly? The Basque Country already has its own parliament, its own police force and sets its own taxes. There is really nothing to negotiate. The situation ETA stare at now is less like that of PIRA in 1994 and much more like that of the IRA in 1962 when they were forced to terminate their disastrous Border Campaign which had embarrassingly petered out due to the exact same reason – no support.

My own hunch is that if ETA behave themselves and perhaps even disarm in the coming months and years we could see the legalisation of Batasuna, thereby providing the movement with a chance to rehabilitate themselves as respectable politicians. Add to that some form of agreement on prisoner releases and perhaps then they could claim some kind of victory, but in short they are defeated army.

ETA deserves no congratulations for today's announcement. There is no doubt as to what needs to be done next. Leire Pajin, secretary of the governing Spanish Socialist Workers Party, puts it more clearly and straightforward than I ever could:

Spanish society, a democracy like ours, demands from the terrorist group something very clear: put down your arms for good and disband.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Slavoj Žižek, can you hear me? Your boys took a hell of a beating!

What a difference 24 hours makes. This time yesterday few people were holding out much hope for a decent Northern Irish result in the opening match of the Euro 2012 qualifiers in Maribor. Even I thought I was been a tad optimistic with my prediction of 0-0, which to be honest would not have been a bad result for a team that had not found the back of the net in 592 minutes and that were coming off a string of friendly defeats to such international footballing behemoths as Albania and Montenegro. Add to that the fact that they were going up against Slovenia, a team that had qualified for this summer's World Cup, and you'll realise why morale was so low in the build-up to Friday's match. But then along came Corry Evans. Three minutes on the field. First touch of the ball. Goal. 1-0 win. Perfect start. You really couldn't ask for more.

Northern Ireland aren't exactly known for their away record. Give them the Spanish or the English in Belfast and they'll bury them. Put them on a plane somewhere and they'll lose to just about anyone. In the aftermath of the Slovenia game I was trying to recall the last result of that calibre outside of Windsor Park. There is a smattering of draws against the likes of Demark and Ukraine that stand out over the past decade or so, but the last away win against a team of a half decent quality (i.e. not Liechtenstein) that I can remember was a 2-1 victory against Austria back many, many moons ago in the Euro 96 qualifiers. It's also encouraging to get off to such a good start as the last two campaigns have been marked by first day disasters.

Looking back now it is agonising to think just how close Norn Iron came to making both Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010. In both campaigns they performed well against the big teams, beating or else drawing with the Czechs, the Spanish, the Swedes and the Poles. Minnows like San Marino and the aforementioned Liechtenstein were also disposed of easily. The problems always arose against those tricky 'middling' outfits – the Latvians, the Icelanders, the Slovaks. Was yesterday a false dawn or the turning of a corner? We'll find out in the coming months. What we do know is that one of the toughest assignments in this campaign is now out of the way. Let's hope they don't blow all that good work by doing something stupid (you know, like dropping points up in Tórshavn).

The big fish in this group is Italy, which when you consider the other big fish that were swimming about in the draw is not a bad one to have at all. Like their neighbours and fellow powerhouse France, the Italians are somewhat wounded at present having just come out of a disastrous World Cup that saw them fall to a first round exit. Italian fans, a grumpy lot at the best of times, are especially grumpy right now and there are clearly problems in the camp as well. After sixty minutes of play last night in Tallinn the 2006 World Cup winners found themselves trailing to the Estonians. Yes, they won 2-1 in the end, but the youngsters of Northern Ireland should not fear this aging Italian squad when they arrive in Belfast in four weeks time. While a win would be fantastic, a draw followed by a thumping victory over the Faroe Islands would leave our wee country with seven points out of a possible nine. There's certainly worse ways to go into the Christmas period.


Thieving feckers!

I know there's been a big controversy surrounding the FAI and their poaching of northern-born footballers for the Republic team, but this is just ridiculous:

Friday, September 03, 2010

Some words of inspiration and a bloody big meeting

Entertaining as always, today's Korean Central News Agency update carries a fascinating little story about Kim Jong-il's visit to a cooperative farm back in 1999. Surely the sort of stirring tale Nigel Worthington and Signor Trapattoni should be reading in the changing room to their players for that extra bit of motivation before they take to the pitch in the Euro 2012 qualifiers later today:

One day in September Juche 88 (1999) General Secretary Kim Jong Il provided field guidance to a co-op farm in Jagang Province. He looked at the cabbage garden and expressed great satisfaction over the garden taking on a new look, saying that potatoes had been raised there when he had visited the farm in June. After being briefed on the weight of a cabbage and the yield per hectare by the chairperson of the farm's management board, he appreciated the farm for producing vegetables as third crops though it was in a highland. He said that vegetables had been transported to the province by train before, but now the demand of the province for vegetables was satisfied by itself. He then praised the people of the province for creating new things, not complaining about difficult conditions, noting that it was of great significance that three crops for a year were raised in the province, the northern highland. Before leaving the farm he encouraged its officials to do a good job in three-crops farming and promised to send high-yielding seeds to the farm.

Fascinating stuff indeed.

I don't know which aspect of living in this totalitarian prison state would be worse: a) the poverty, famine and threat of being murdered by the Korean People's Army if you attempt to escape, or b) the persistent day-and-night bombardment in newspapers and on television (if the electricity is working) of the latest mundane antics of the Supreme Leader. If you don't die from starvation the chances are you'll be bored to death.

On a more serious note, delegates of the Workers Party of Korea are said to be gathering in the next few days to do, well, something. Pyongyang being Pyongyang though, it isn't quite clear just what they'll be getting up to. Some in the western media are peddling excited gossip about the prospects of this being the meeting where a successor to the Dear Leader will be chosen. Then again, on the other hand, it could just be a meeting of corrupt old men in a fancy city centre establishment where dull speeches praising an inept leadership will be dished out by people detached from the realities of life in their country and afterwards all the delegates will dine on the best of cuisine and get royally sloshed while the population outside suffer on. Which when you think of it makes it sound a lot like the Fianna Fail Ard Fheis.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

A little peace of déjà vu

Is there anyone out there that holds any hope whatsoever of success at the forthcoming peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians? With the bad feeling from May's IDF raid on the Free Gaza flotilla which left nine people dead still lingering, not to mention the outlandish remarks made by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef of Shas at the weekend, the latest massacre of four Jewish settlers by Hamas in the West Bank on Monday night looks like the nail in the coffin for these discussions. Nevertheless, bad atmosphere and everything else included, the show must go on.

Perhaps compromise can be reached. Stranger things have certainly happened. I recall on the eve of the commencement of all-party negotiations in Northern Ireland back in 1997 the Sinn Fein chief negotiator Martin McGuinness telling supporters at a rally in county Tyrone that their goal in the talks would be to "smash the union" and wondering to myself how such a man was ever going to cut a deal with David Trimble, the sash-clad unionist hardliner who had spent the previous summer prancing around ditches in a field near Portadown heading the protest against the rerouted Orange Order parade at Drumcree. Six months later and an agreement had been signed. Of course, that was only the start of a new phase of difficulties which only really resolved themselves with the Saint Andrews accord in 2007.

Even if there is a deal between Netanyahu and Abbas the real problems will only just be kicking off. Hamas will be a problem, as will numerous other hardline Palestinian organisations. In the other camp the Jewish settlers are always going to be troublesome, plus right-wingers in Israel like Rabbi Ovadia Yosef can be guaranteed to make things hell for any leader that tries to reach an agreement with the Palestinians.

"I came here today to make peace" - so said Benjamin Netanyahu in a press conference in the early hours of this morning where he described Mahmoud Abbas as his "partner in peace." Is he telling the truth? Is this clever PR speak to make it sound as if he was genuinely trying before the talks collapse in failure once again? Or are we on the verge of something bigger? I have always believed that, tough as it may be to take at times, peace deals are best negotiated by the hardliners. John Hume and David Trimble could shake hands as much as they wanted in the presence of Bono, the truth is that peace and stable government only became guaranteed in my part of the world once Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley had finally reached an understanding.

The present Israeli government is certainly seen as a fairly hardline one. It is lead by Likud and contains within it some of the most reactionary parties in the Knesset. If they can reach a deal with their neighbours then there is a chance it may just be accepted by a large enough majority in Israel. The Palestinian side is more difficult to work out. Mahmoud Abbas might think that a peace deal is possible within the next year, however what will Hamas make of it all? They have sent out signals before about being open to declaring a permanent ceasefire but it is hard to see the leadership of the Islamic group support any deal that did not involve them in the negotiations.

The tragedy in all of this is that we all know what the deal in the Middle East is going to basically look like, when it arrives as it surely must at some stage. Just as the Good Friday Agreement was essentially the Sunningdale Agreement repackaged to make it acceptable to people who had brought down the 1974 peace arrangements only to realise a quarter of a century and a few thousand deaths later that nothing better was on offer, it is likely that two-state solution which will eventually be agreed upon by Israeli and Palestinian leaders will more or less be one which was rejected in the past.

We have to hope. Just a couple of hours ago two more Israelis were shot and wounded in a gun attack in the West Bank. But just as dissident republican and loyalist terrorists did their best to scupper peace talks here in late 1997 and early 1998, the present violence on the West Bank should be the spur for both sides to agree a settlement rather than the reason for negotiations to be terminated. Time will tell whether or not Netanyahu and Abbas can succeed where Barak and Arafat failed a decade ago. As I said, we have to hope.

Belfast in the rare oul times

Taken from recordings made during the Mitchell and Kenyon visit to Ireland early in the first decade of the 20th century, this short film of the view from a tramcar in a wonderful looking Belfast city centre during 1901 represents some of the first recorded motion picture footage anywhere on the island. Fascinating stuff, particularly if you are aware of just how shite the area around the CastleCourt shopping centre looks nowadays:

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Just who could she be talking about?

Since I took a pop earlier today at the Beeb and an uncharacteristic if amusing error made on the sport section of their website at the weekend, perhaps then I should point out that they have also today produced a handy cut-out-and-keep style guide to the Labour leadership contest. But just who the hell is Diane Abbott referring to in the passage below? I wonder:

We're not going to be able to engage with society and, particularly, engage young people in politics, if they see the political class as a caste apart, a strange sort of geeky young men in suits.

Voice from the grave?

I spotted this on Saturday night while flicking through the footie results. To be honest I'd actually forgotten who it was that managed Derby County these days but I'm pretty sure that, regardless of what the headline writer for the BBC website says, it isn't him:

In fairness to the Beeb, they've fixed it.