Friday, October 22, 2010

This is capitalism

The current assault on the living standards of working people cannot be viewed in isolation. While it is logical that we are always first and foremost concerned with the situation in our own country, and indeed in our own local area, austerity measures like those announced on Wednesday by that repulsive little creep George Osborne are hitting workers right across the globe. However, few measures I have come across are as downright absurd at those currently planned in the tiny African republic of Malawi.

At present a pension reform bill is proposing that the retirement age for Malawians be raised to 60 for men and 55 for women. The problem? The average person in the country can only expect to live a mere 50 years, a statistic that puts Malawi near the bottom of the world's life expectancy list (210th and out of 224 nations to be precise).

I suppose from a right-wing point of view it makes perfect sense: avoid the financial burden of pensions by setting the retirement age at a point the majority of the population will never actually live to. Cameron and Osborne must be sitting at home right now in awe of the Malawian government and wondering how they did not think of such an ingeniously wicked plan. Not that they would ever do anything like that of course. Would they?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

"I have no interest in a party that does not want to be at the centre of government in Westminster"

Hot on the heels of Boyd Black's contribution to the News Letter's Union 2021 series, the Rev. Chris Hudson, another Labour Party supporter in Northern Ireland, has offered some thoughts of his own in the paper on the current state of party politics here:

We should not be blackmailed by any party that sees every election as a Rangers v Celtic match. Let Sinn Fein and the DUP continue the politics of the tribal head count but the rest of us must motivate the people of Northern Ireland towards inclusive issue based politics… Maintaining cultural and religious characteristics as criteria for supporting a political ideology will only sustain Northern Ireland in a static wasteful divided society as we approach 2021.

The crucial line in the piece comes with his assertion that "I have no interest in a party that does not want to be at the centre of government in Westminster." I could not agree more. There are few other parts of the world I can think of where the citizens seem content to be governed by parties that do not have as much as a single vote in their region. Surely such a scenario cannot continue to exist for many more years?

I do sometimes wonder whether I'm beginning to sound a tad repetitive in regularly posting on this site about the subject of Labour contesting elections in Northern Ireland and thereby maximising the UK-wide left vote, but following the savage cuts announced yesterday by the right-wing administration in London and the utterly hopeless response of our tiny little ineffectual sectarian six county parties I realise that I shouldn't be concerned at all. In the coming months I intend to be more repetitive.

Friday, October 15, 2010

By jove, I think he's got it. Maybe.

I almost choked on my Fruit Pastille this evening when I spotted a headline on the UTV website stating 'Robinson wants to end school apartheid'. Apparently the leader of the Democratic Unionists, a party that to put it mildly could never have been considered one of the cheerleaders for integrated education, has now arrived at the conclusion that perhaps separating children on the basis of religion in Northern Ireland has not been such a grand idea after all. He says:

We cannot hope to move beyond our present community divisions while our young people are educated separately. The reality is that our education system is a benign form of apartheid, which is fundamentally damaging to our society. I entirely accept that such fundamental change will not happen overnight but that is no excuse for further delay in making a start. I know that we will face difficulties in dislodging the vested interests that are so strong in this sector, but I am absolutely convinced that we must.

The First Minister also added, in what will undoubtedly be the most divisive aspect of his remarks, that the government should stop funding schools that separate "our children almost entirely on the basis of their religion." Very well, a late convert is better than no convert at all I suppose. However, has Robinson and his crew really changed their tune?

At the present time it is simply too soon to tell whether we are witnessing a Damascene conversion. If we are then it is a truly spectacular one. The DUP have been harsh critics of integrated education over the years, usually employing the old tactic of scaring supporters away from the proposal with the belief that their kids will be forced to play Gaelic games and learn Irish under such a system (the Catholic Church has traditionally used the prospect of these two things being removed under an integrated structure in order to frighten its own followers). Ian Paisley once went as far as to describe integrated education as "Romanist indoctrination." Even right now Peter Robinson's own website states in the education policy section that he "opposes existing privileges for integrated and Irish medium schools which have a detrimental impact on other schools." From his recent remarks though, especially the one about cutting off funding for schools that separate children on the basis of their religion, it would seem that Robinson now does not want to just give integrated education a few privileges with regard to funding but rather make sure it has outright priority over all other forms.

His comments also come as a surprise when viewed in the wider UK context. The New Labour government were always keen to talk up the benefits of religious schooling. Nick Clegg, Lib Dem leader and an atheist, said this week that he is considering sending his children to a faith school. Prior to the general election this year the Tories pledged to increase the number of faith schools. How ironic it would be that at a time when the trend on the other side of the water was drifting towards giving religious creeps control over the education of British children that Northern Ireland could become a model for good community relations and social cohesion.

Let us not get too carried away. The idea of integrated schooling goes way back in this part of the world. Our first Minister for Education, Lord Londonderry, proposed it for primary pupils in the early days of the northern state but then, as now, it was shot down by the churches. In more recent times, with the honourable exception of Alliance, it has either been rejected by mainstream politicians or else treated as a matter of minor importance. If Peter Robinson is prepared to move beyond this state of affairs then I will applaud him. Until I see something more tangible than the words just uttered I shall refrain from clapping too loudly.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Ignoring the inevitable?

According to The Chosun Ilbo the South Korean military is planning to step up psychological operations against its neighbour to the north by changing the frequency of its radio broadcasts from FM to AM so that it can be heard by more of the oppressed citizens of the DPRK (strangely enough North Korea is said to be carrying out psy-ops of its own via, of all things, Twitter). At the same time the south is preparing to send balloons carrying transistor radios across its northern frontier in order to make sure people there get the message. Seoul has announced that it will also increase leaflet drops in the north and resume propaganda broadcasts via loudspeakers along the border. All nice gestures indeed, but hardly ones that will have Kim Jong-il quaking in his boots. With the regime in Pyongyang looking to be as firmly in power as they have ever been, now may be the time to adopt a slightly tougher attitude.

Back in March the north torpedoed the South Korean Cheonan warship killing 46 sailors. The south did not respond. In August the north fired 110 artillery rounds into the West Sea. Again the south did not retaliate. With such blatant military provocations added to Seoul's continuing reluctance to take a more aggressive stance against North Korea, it is not hard to see how the editorial in The Chosun Ilbo was able to draw a historical parallel with the attitude taken by democracies in 1930s Europe to the threat of fascism:

Looking back at history, repeated failures by governments to live up to their word, especially in matters of diplomacy and national security, often ended up inviting war. In the 1930s when Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime rearmed itself violating the Treaty of Versailles and occupied portions of Czechoslovakia, the British and French governments merely issued verbal warnings saying they would not tolerate additional acts of provocation. Judging the discrepancy between rhetoric and action as weakness, Germany ended up invading Poland. It was then that the UK and France declared war on Germany, starting World War II, which ended up costing tens of millions of lives. Winston Churchill said World War II could have easily been avoided if proper steps were taken at the right time. South Korea's words and actions must always be consistent. That is the only way to prevent North Korea from misjudging the situation.

Totalitarian dictatorships are of course unpredictable beasts in that they can often collapse just as easily as they can declare war. At the opening of the 1980s few people predicted the revolutions that would sweep eastern Europe in the final months of that decade. There may be some hoping that the DPRK, now officially in a period of transition to a new leadership, will suddenly implode at some point in the near future in the same way that Romania, Czechoslovakia and their Stalinist neighbours did in that momentous year of 1989. Unfortunately, that is unlikely. Even more disgraceful than those indulging in such wishful thinking is the fact that there are many senior officials in the south who are content for the status quo to continue, so afraid are they of the potential cost of reunification and the possibility of millions of their fellow countrymen flocking to Seoul and other cities in the south in the wake of the 65 year old border evaporating.

One thing is for sure though, eventually something will have to give. When it does it may well be that we end up witnessing the rapid disintegration of the Kim dynasty. Alternatively, it could be a more horrifying scenario that could leave Seoul and its western allies wishing they had avoided falling into the age old trap of appeasement. For now South Korea may not be interested in war, however it may discover at some stage in the not-too-distant future that war is very much interested in them.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

The meaning of Tom Elliott

It will be interesting to see who Sinn Fein and the DUP eventually choose to replace Gerry Adams and Peter Robinson because, if their partners in government are anything to go by, it seems that to lead a political party in Northern Ireland these days one has to be dour, monotone and breathtakingly uninspiring. The SDLP set the bar rather high when they elected Margaret Ritchie as their leader last year. Last week members of the Ulster Unionists surpassed even that when they elected the Fermanagh farmer Tom Elliott as their man to take the once monolithic party of unionism in Ireland into the future. But who is Tom Elliott and in just what direction is he going to take the organisation?

Elliot's CV is certainly impeccable for anyone wanting to lead a unionist party. He is a Past County Grand Master of the Orange Order within Fermanagh and Assistant Secretary to the Grand Lodge of Ireland and is also a member of the Royal Black Preceptory. He served in both the Ulster Defence Regiment and Royal Irish Regiment, is a former member of Fermanagh District Council and has been an MLA for Fermanagh and South Tyrone since 2003. So, that's his background, but what precisely can we expect from his leadership? At this point things become a little less clear.

Tom Elliott's website currently contains two short videos of him being interviewed by former UTV presenter Lynda Bryans, though to be honest neither really sheds much light on what exactly he stands for beyond some general banalities about him being a family man and wanting to secure the union (declarations of marital infidelity and a desire for a 32 county socialist republic aren't likely to gain you many votes in a UUP leadership election).

Last month's joint Q&A session featuring himself and his leadership rival Basil McCrea for the News Letter does tell us a little bit more about the man, though it was again difficult to detect just what Elliott's big idea was to help turn around a party that is presently in the worst electoral state of its 105 year history. When asked what the key difference would be in his leadership compared to that of previous UUP leaders, Elliott stated that he would "ensure that grassroots members of the Ulster Unionist Party are kept aware of party policy and informed how decision-making is proceeding." He added that he would also focus on "party development to ensure electoral recovery and structured community planning that will provide political confidence for the electorate." Nothing all that groundbreaking there you might say. On the following question of whether the Ulster Unionists could become the biggest pro-union party in five or ten years, he merely answered that people would be "keen to vote for the UUP when they experience the cohesive and progressive approach that the UUP will be pursuing under my leadership." Inspiring stuff it most certainly is not.

If you had managed to remain awake at this point you would have made it to the third question and, for many people in Northern Ireland, the biggie: unionist unity. In his answer, Basil McCrea clearly ruled out a pact with the DUP saying that the UUs had to stand on their own two feet. Elliott though gave a slightly more cryptic response:

I am convinced that the electorate wants us to contest elections as the Ulster Unionist Party. If you're asking me if I will work to cooperate closely with the present government, then the answer is obvious – I have already made tentative arrangements to ensure that is done in a constructive, planned and ongoing manner. As at present, I am happy to explore a working relationship with other parties on specific issues if that will benefit all the people in Northern Ireland, but I will ensure that we will not be pushed over by nationalists, republicans or other self-interested and compromised unionists.

It was a smart answer from a man many would like to portray as something of a country bumpkin. There are those in the UUP that want nothing to do with the DUP, there are those that would happily enter into an electoral arrangement with them in some constituencies if it meant keeping a nationalist out and there are those who still harbour the dream of a single united unionist party. Elliott's answer here gave a little bit of everything to everyone.

For the anti-pact brigade there was his recognition that the "electorate wants us to contest elections as the Ulster Unionist Party," while the unionist unity enthusiasts can take hope from his declaration that he is "happy to explore a working relationship with other parties on specific issues." Don't forget, Tom was the Ulster Unionist hopeful who stood aside to give 'pan-Prod' candidate Rodney Connor a free run in Fermanagh and South Tyrone in this year's general election, so fans of unionist unity would have plenty of reason to be impressed by his track record in this area. Basil's answer was more straightforward – no pact. In saying such a thing, McCrea would have almost certainly lost the votes of those enthusiastic for some form of pan-unionist cooperation. Tom was leaving the door open for everyone. Again, when asked about who the party's main opponent was, the man who would go on to win the leadership race managed to give in an answer in which he didn't mention any party whatsoever. McCrea stated quite clearly that their "electoral battle is with the DUP."

What about the bread-and-butter issues, I hear you ask. Details of what concerned both men were a bit thin in this area. If anything, the Ballinamallard man probably gave the more comprehensive answer of the two. While McCrea spouted out something about the UUP adopting a 'can-do' attitude and having a determination to make a difference (how very New Labour), Elliott said that he wanted to see a more coherent education strategy for transfer between schools as well as a structured review of overall governance in the province.

The prospect of a Sinn Fein First Minister seems to be the only thing left (short of a full-blown united Ireland of course) that has the potential to frighten unionists. When the issue reared its head in the News Letter interview, Mr McCrea pointed out that the First Minister's office was a joint office and that the alternative to a republican taking that post if they were entitled to it would be a constitutional crisis. A good firm honest answer you might say, but then again one that some UUP members could have interpreted as a tad soft. His opponent chose his words more carefully, accusing the Democratic Unionists of "selfish and perverse negotiating" at Saint Andrews and handing the Provos the opportunity of taking the top job at Stormont. He claimed that he was negotiating with the British government to change the legislation back to what it was at the time of the 1998 referendum but would not comment any further. It was, like his answer to the unionist unity question, extremely clever. He didn't exactly say that he would oppose a Sinn Fein First Minister under any circumstances, but he did at least make it sound as if he was unhappy at the prospect of there being one.

It would be daft of me not to mention the moment of the campaign: Tom Elliott's remark that he would not be attending either a gay pride parade or a GAA game. As comments go it was an incredibly negative one, but not an entirely dim-witted one either. While he is far from being some sort of Machiavellian political strategist, I very much doubt that it was a slip of the tongue on his part; Elliott knew exactly what he was saying and who it would appeal to. Like it or loathe it, even within the more moderate unionist party, such intolerant posturing still has a fanbase. It was also a direct swipe at his election rival who has in the past attended both the Belfast gay pride march and GAA events in an attempt to broaden his party's horizons. Tommy boy though was having none of it and, as he well knows, there are plenty of people in the party quite happy not to have their horizons broadened. This was the point at which the contest probably hit its lowest point with McCrea questioning whether Elliott would visit Peadar Heffron, the Irish-speaking, GAA-playing PSNI officer who was critically injured in January in a dissident republican car bomb attack.

For me, the protracted debate over these comments became incredibly boring very quickly. Unfortunately though, any time the leadership contest was discussed in the media they rapidly raced to the top of the agenda. The day after he became party leader, Tom Elliott was on Radio Ulster's Talkback show with Wendy Austin. Once again, the GAA/gay pride comments were the first thing he was grilled on. You may have thought that now with the election over he may have expressed some form of regret and expressed a wish that he had chosen he words more carefully. Not a bit of it. Elliott stated that he had no interest in either Gaelic games nor gay parades and that he would not be engaging in what he called "tokenism." It was a weak explanation.

Trevor Ringland, the former Ireland rugby international and UCUNF candidate in East Belfast in the general election, was right when he stated that such acts by unionist leaders were a crucial part of building the so-called shared society that we hear much about but which there is very little evidence of coming into being. Aren't politicians though, particularly party leaders, supposed to turn up at events they couldn't give a damn about? Is Tom just going to attend events which are of interest to him? It certainly appears odd to me, but then I'm not leader of the Ulster Unionists. It remains to be seen whether the new head of the party will be taking up Mr Ringland's offer of a ticket for next year All-Ireland football final at Croke Park. If he has any idea about how to play this politics game and all the displays of falseness that accompany it he should be there, even if can't tell the difference between a 45 and a square ball. If he is still intent on not going to Croker, he can always pass the ticket onto my good self (my email address is on the right-hand side of the screen, Tom).

An ominous sign for the future of the Ulster Unionism may be found in the apparent break up of the party's liberal wing in the days after the election result. Trevor Ringland resigned at lunchtime on Monday. Lesley Macaulay's position as a candidate for the party in East Londonderry at the next Assembly poll is now thought to be under threat. Also rejected this week as potential candidates for Stormont in Upper Bann and Belfast South were Harry Hamilton and Paula Bradshaw. All four of these individuals were UCUNF candidates at the general election in the spring. While it may not yet constitute the Stalinesque 'purge' that some people having been talking about, it is obvious to everyone now that the moderates in the UUP face a tough battle in the coming months. Some may decide the battle isn't worth it and join Alliance. Some might decide to run as independents. And some, like Trevor Ringland, might throw in the towel altogether and return to concentrating on community work and playing in Queen tribute bands. Whatever happens, it is difficult to see the Hamiltons and the Macaulays playing a major role in the higher echelons of the party at any stage in the near future.

Back to the question I posed at the start of this: just who the hell is Tom Elliott? Is he a homophobic, anti-Catholic bigot who wouldn't be caught within ten miles of a GAA pitch or a parade full of gay boys? Is he a practical leader whose fairly ambiguous answers to questions during the campaign display a man who is at heart a classic political pragmatist? Will he be, like David Trimble, the man many some considered the more hardline of the candidates in the race to become leader only to eventually turn out to be an open-minded liberal who will have a transformative effect on the party? Or will he be none of these, a man totally bereft of ideas and unable to turn around the ailing fortunes of the Ulster Unionist Party; incapable of banging the Lambeg drum louder and out-orange the DUP, while at the same time not imaginative enough to steer them in an alternative direction?

He certainly is neither an intensely anti-Catholic bigot nor a rabid homophobe, however the fact that he is willing to appeal to both sections of the community shows that he is still willing to indulge in a spot of populism when he deems it necessary. He will most likely be a pragmatic leader that is well aware of the fact that the days of intractable 'no surrender' unionism are dead and buried, though that in itself is hardly worthy of a round of applause as the party had already reached this stage under the leadership of Trimble and Empey. The big challenge facing Tom Elliott is whether or not he will be able to take the organisation beyond what it is now, namely a minority party of unionism designed for those 'decent people' who still find the DUP a wee bit too distasteful. Tom might well be a nice chap who probably made a decent councillor and Assembly member down in Fermanagh, but a born leader? I doubt it.

Now, more than ever, the UUP requires a leader with charisma, vision and a big idea about where it can go next. Trimble dragged the organisation kicking and screaming out of the not-an-inch era in a courageous act of historical necessity. Empey, for all his flaws, attempted to reposition the party firmly on the centre-right of local politics while giving them input into the national political scene by forging links with the Conservatives across the water. The next stage on the journey needs someone who is both courageous and imaginative at the head of the organisation. To that extent, the members of the Ulster Unionist Party would appear to have chosen the wrong man. Tom Elliott may not be a step backwards for unionism but there is certainly nothing to suggest he is a step forwards. For now, Elliott appears little more than a step to the side, and that is not what the UUP needs at the present time.

The mysterious death of comrade Hardy

That the left has had its fair share of lunatics over the years is beyond dispute. That the French Trotskyist outfit Lutte Ouvrière (Workers' Struggle) ranks extremely highly in the insanity stakes is pretty much beyond argument. LO is an organisation that has fascinated me for quite some time due to its absolute weirdness. A highly secretive conspiratorial sect that is said to be difficult to even become a member of, one former activist has described the "iron discipline which rhythms the life of this Trotskyist organisation, whose responsibles (cadres) do not have the right to have children, lest they be excluded." In fact, the organisation takes secrecy to a whole new level with even its very name being unclear (Lutte Ouvrière is actually the name of the weekly newspaper it publishes, not the title given to the organisation itself). Add to all of this the fact that party members function under aliases meaning that many of the committed militants do not know the real names of their fellow LOers and you pretty much have an image of fully-fledged political cult.

But now Lutte Ouvrière, or whatever the hell they are called, have really outdone themselves. Robert Barcia, alias 'Hardy' (don't ask) and leader of LO since 1956, has died. So what, you may well ask. Don't we all die? Well, yes we do, but not in the circumstances of comrade Hardy. Barcia died on July 12th last year, however news of his passing was only revealed a fortnight ago - a whole fourteen months after the poor sod's communist heart stopped beating. Why though? Was the shock that great? Were they under the false impression that the man was immortal? I realise Leon Trotsky once remarked that old age is the most unexpected of things that can happen to a man, but I'm sure even he didn't consider the harsh reality of death to be that much of a surprise.

A spokesperson for the party denied that they had indulged in a spot of corpse hiding. Nathalie Arthaud, the current head of this strange cult, commented: "I've read that we did everything to hide Hardy's death. That's totally false! If you had called me a year ago I would have told you the truth." So, according to Nathalie, someone had to ask if Robert Barcia was dead before they would tell us? How very, very odd. Even the North Koreans didn't attempt to hide the fact that Kim Il-sung had kicked the bucket in 1994.

Given LO's clandestine nature we may never find out just what the thinking was that led to this whole peculiar episode. Transition issues? Possibly. Political parties that have been under the same leader for a few decades do usually have difficulties when that person passes on and the time comes to find a successor. The next time The Right Honourable Member of Parliament for Belfast West hasn't been seen around for a few weeks it may just be time to start asking a few questions regarding his whereabouts.

What if Facebook had existed years ago?

It probably would have looked something like this:

More tomfoolery here.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Just one more thing

Here is an interesting little insight into how members of the Labour Party in my patch voted in the recent leadership election. David Miliband came out on top with 34.26% of the vote while Andy Burnham, the only candidate to support allowing Labour to fight elections in Northern Ireland, also put in a strong showing by gaining the support of a quarter of local party members. The guy who ended up winning the contest, our Ed, finished a lowly third. Diane Abbott came in a distant fourth. And, finally, I think it is fairly safe to assume that Ed Balls and Yvette will not be contacting the Northern Ireland Tourist Board for their latest brochure.

Chucking ice cream at tanks

It would appear that the Real IRA's threatened assault upon the "bankers and the institutions they serve in financing Britain's colonial and capitalist system" has finally begun. The opening strike in the early hours of yesterday morning was something of an anti-climax since it was not the high-profile economic target that they had hinted at but rather a branch of the Ulster Bank on the Culmore Road in Derry. Nevertheless, no matter whether it is a bomb detonated in the City of London or one set off outside the offices of a bank in a small Northern Irish town, such acts remain reckless and put the lives of scores of innocent civilians at risk. But what has brought on this shift in tactics?

There are some who reckon that such pathetic faux anti-capitalist bluster will attract disaffected young people in the working-class nationalist ghettos of Belfast and Derry, however I am not so sure. Do angry young republicans foaming at the mouth to get the Brits out of Ireland really join a paramilitary group in order to blow up their local banks? Probably not. While last month's statement to Henry McDonald of the Guardian may impress a few kids looking to add a little touch of red to their deep green nationalism it will most likely not have any major impact on filling the ranks with new recruits.

Up until now the Real IRA, and indeed all of the other republican groups in Northern Ireland claiming to be the IRA, have not had much success in launching attacks on the security forces. Despite being around now for twelve years, the RIRA have failed to kill a single police officer. With Operation Banner now a period consigned to the history books the group does not have a visible military presence to launch attacks on, though ironically for a republican group they would love nothing more than to have British troops back on Irish streets. Recent bomb attacks have tended to take place, primarily in the hours of darkness, on court houses and police stations, yet because such buildings have been heavily fortified since the days when they were targets for the Provisional IRA the actual damage caused to them has been fairly minimal. As an Irish News journalist remarked in the wake of the attack on Strand Road PSNI station in August, the car bombing had about the same destructive impact on the base as ice cream would have if it were thrown at a tank (unfortunately the same could not be said for a nearby kebab shop – surely not a legitimate target even by the RIRA's pathetic reasoning – which was destroyed in the blast). The ice cream/tank analogy could just as easily be applied to the impact bombing a branch of the Ulster Bank will have on global capitalism.

After a string of botched operations and ineffectual bomb attacks it could well be that some in the Real IRA have decided on adding a few soft targets to their list. With an armed struggle against kebab shops not an option, targeting banks probably sounded like a decent bet from the point of view of a dissident republican commander; there's lots to choose from, they aren't heavily guarded, they aren't heavily fortified, they can justify it by spouting out some crap about capitalism and colonialism, plus the images of a few destroyed buildings plastered across the front pages of the morning papers will help re-establish a bit of their terrorist credibility. Everyone's a winner. Well, everyone except the 99.9% of the Irish people that don't support them.

So, let us not give these imbeciles and their supposedly radical rhetoric the time of day. These are the desperate actions of desperate men carrying out a pathetic armed campaign that has the support of nobody bar themselves. In recent years the now-abandoned ETA campaign in the Basque Country had descended into a farce, a violent and murderous farce, but a farce nonetheless. With their terrorist capabilities severely weakened and their public support shrinking rapidly, they were reduced to carrying out attacks on people and institutions unconnected to the Spanish state – universities, businessmen, journalists, even an attempt to extort money from a Basque footballer.

If the Real IRA genuinely believe that bombing a small branch of a bank in a small city in the north-west of Ireland is striking a blow against "Britain's colonial and capitalist system" then they are about as much in touch with reality as David Koresh and his apocalyptic Branch Davidian cult were. That there are some out there who advocate talking with the dissidents is frankly laughable. We must do two things in relation to them: a) ignore them, and b) let the Police Service of Northern Ireland and An Garda Síochána do their work with the full help and cooperation of all the people on this island. Their support base is miniscule. Their potential for growth is small. With attacks like those of Tuesday morning, they are their own gravediggers.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

"There is a right-wing wind blowing over Europe"

The above heading comes from a line written in a Guardian article last month by Henning Mankell, crime fiction writer and author of the excellent Wallander series of novels, in the wake of September's Swedish general election and the stunning success of the right-wing Sweden Democrats. The SD has been growing steadily since its formation in 1988 and last month made its parliamentary breakthrough taking 20 seats in the Riksdag with 5.7% of the vote. So, should we be worried?

We on the left should always be concerned at the growth of a nationalistic, right of centre, anti-immigration party regardless of what part of the world it happens to rear its head in. However, the parties of the far-right in Europe, or to be more accurate those parties to the right of mainstream European conservative forces, are quite a mixed bag and much more complex than one might at first imagine. If you want to learn a bit about the far-right it is usually advisable to look at just what sort of company the organisation you are looking at keeps. The SDs choice of pals is extremely surprising. The BNP, the Front National in France and the Hungarian Jobbik movement, to name but three, are all grouped together in the European Parliament under the Alliance of European National Movements banner, as well as in a wider association of extremist organisations called Euronat. These parties do have an ally in Sweden, though it is the electorally insignificant National Democrats (an organisation with no MEPs, no MPs and a mere three out of Sweden's almost 13,000 local government seats).

When one traces the roots of the SDs back to the late 1980s then they will indeed find that they too were once connected with this repulsive band of fascist neanderthals but in recent times they have repositioned themselves with more respectable types, namely the Alliance for Europe of the Nations. This name may well ring a few bells with Irish readers as it was the pan-European entity which Fianna Fail was hitched up to until last year when it jumped ship, somewhat confusingly, to the Liberal Democrat group. Members of the alliance at present include French Gaullists, Sicilian autonomists and some Eurosceptic parties in the Baltic states and other parts of the old eastern bloc. So, while certainly to the right of the EPP parties, it would appear that the SDs are not as far to the right as the Griffins, Le Pens and Morvais of this world.

Of course, this does not make the Sweden Democrats any less repugnant. They advocate staunchly anti-immigrant policies, maintain some deeply homophobic views, they are vehemently anti-EU and do not shy away from whipping up some good old fashioned hysteria about the threat posed to Swedish democracy by Muslims. However, if you can stomach buying a copy of today's Daily Express the chances are you will come across all of these forms of intolerance in the one edition that you choose to purchase. This mix of nationalism, conservatism and traditional right-wing populism places them closer to UKIP, the Greek LAOS and Geert Wilders's Party for Freedom in the Netherlands than the more ethnonationalist factions of the reactionary right. As I said, it does not make them any less horrible but it does mean that we are in combat with a slightly different political force. To that extent, Henning Mankell is right when he says that Swedish leftists, liberals and the moderate right should have argued the SDs to oblivion.

My position has always been simple. If we are going to ban fascists then let us ban them from the outset. It is not undemocratic to deny freedom of speech to totalitarian organisations that have as their goal the destruction of free speech. This means having the guts to nip such parties and organisations in the bud when they are still in their infancy. There is no point in quoting Voltaire and making grandiose statements about free speech when these parties are miniscule only for you to then turn around and begin to call for their election broadcasts to be banned once they have tasted some degree of electoral success. The choice is clear: stamp them out and consign them to the history books with German national socialism and Iraqi Ba'athism or else take them on. In the majority of cases we will be forced to do the latter.

How pathetic then it is to read of the leader of the Left Party in Sweden, Lars Ohly, refusing to have his make-up done at the same time as SD head Jimmie Åkesson prior to a television interview. Is this the best that the left can do? Is this what they call anti-fascism? At least if comrade Ohly had punched this nauseating little creep in the face I could have had a bit of respect for him but such childish whinging about having to share rooms with these people reminds me of the petty stunts unionist politicians in Northern Ireland used to pull back in the days when Sinn Fein were still in quarantine.

The far-right operate best when they can portray themselves as victims of political correctness, of people being denied the right to 'tell the truth'. Give them a level playing field and they either end up looking like fools (as with Nick Griffin's crash-and-burn Question Time performance last autumn) or else split due to internal personality conflicts (as was the case with Austria's Freedom Party). But regardless of whether the party in question is of the reactionary populist type or the more hardline ethnonationalist variety, we are not going to be able to ignore them out of existence. Arguing them into oblivion is our only option.

In doing so we should not take our eye off the ball. There is indeed a right-wing wind blowing over Europe, but we should not focus all our attention on the smaller, more extreme manifestations of hate on the political fringes. This year we have witnessed the destruction of dozens of Roma camps in France and the forced deportation of hundreds of Roma to their countries of origin. These horrific acts were carried out under the orders of a supposedly moderate, centre-right administration in Paris. It may yet be that in these harsh economic times it is the mainstream forces of conservatism - the Sarkozys, the Berlusconis, the Camerons - that pose the most serious threat to European society. With men like this heading so-called 'moderate' conservatism, that right-wing wind may yet become a hurricane.

Probably the worst interview in the world. Ever.

Bloody fecking hilarious though:

Where have I heard that one before?

The lefties too stubborn to quit over at Cedar Lounge Revolution have in recent years put in an absolutely Stakhanovite performance in building up the Irish Left Online Document Archive, a collection of policy documents and newspapers from various strands of the left ranging from obscure Trotskyist groupuscules through to the mainstream British and Irish Labour parties. Great stuff if you're the sort of person who enjoys spending their Saturday nights tucked up on the sofa poring over the ins and outs of The Irish Industrial Revolution (and I speak as someone who spent last Saturday night reading a lengthy exchange between leftists on the subject of Kronstadt).

The latest addition to the Irish Left Online Document Archive does not take us as far back as the Russian Civil War. In fact, it comes from 1984. The piece concerned is the agenda for the 23rd national conference of the youth section of the British Labour Party and in particular its references to Northern Ireland. In some ways the document seems almost as remote as the aforementioned rebellion in north-western Russia in the early twenties; its hard to imagine the 'detrotted' Young Labour of today calling for anything like a "trade union organised workers defence committee to protect working class homes against sectarian and state violence." Even so, some causes never date. Given that the Labour Party in Northern Ireland has in recent days launched a petition calling on the leadership to grant members here the same organising rights as those in Britain, I found the following motion quite timely:

... the only way forward for Northern Irish workers is the formation of a Labour Party based on the Trade Union Movement with socialist policies, and sees the importance of the British Labour movement in the achievement of this aim.

Here's hoping another 26 years are not allowed to pass without there being a proper left of centre alternative on offer to workers in Northern Ireland.

Monday, October 04, 2010

We, the undersigned...

The Labour Party in my neck of the woods is at present running a petition calling on the party leadership to allow members of the organisation here to stand candidates in Northern Irish elections. The petition will later be given to Labour's National Executive Committee in order to show the substantial amount of support there is out there for such a move. Go to the Labour NI homepage and add your name to it.

We can do better than this.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Kronstadt revisited

You either think it was a necessary act to help defend the October Revolution or else you reckon it marked an early signpost on the road to totalitarianism in the Soviet Union, as Victor Serge put it a "first step towards Stalinism." Either way, the exchanges below between Chris Cutrone of the Platypus Affiliated Society and the ever readable Principia Dialectica on the topic of the 1921 Kronstadt rebellion (spotted via Poumista) provided me with sufficient entertainment on a Saturday night spent supping tea, munching soda bread and regretting not leaving the house. The mention of Kronstadt also reminded me of a debate I once had with an anarchist in Banbridge (those blokes do turn up in the oddest places) on this very subject. I actually believe he was the first anarchist I ever met. I wonder what ever happened to him?

Anyway, enjoy. Usual far-left geekery warnings apply:

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Friday, October 01, 2010

Possible new conspiracy theory for people bored with all the David Kelly nonsense

How long before the Daily Express start questioning the 'official version' of Peter Boatman's suicide which took place earlier today? It would seem that some people out there aren't prepared to wait that long. Where would we be without a bit of good old fashioned paranoia?