Thursday, January 27, 2011

Missing in inaction

I haven't heard much about the Northern Ireland Labour Forum in recent times. Just in case you've forgotten, the NILF was set up in 2002 by the leadership of the Labour Party in the Republic to provide members up in this neck of the woods with an organisational structure. The forum was launched at the Linen Hall Library in Belfast with the then party leader Pat Rabbitte in attendance and members of the group included the prominent trade unionist Mark Langhammer as well as former Democratic Left supporters in the six counties that had been marooned in an odd state of political limbo following the 1999 merger.

In the years following its formation the group produced newsletters, published policy documents, recruited at universities, held meetings, put forward motions to conference and contributed to the party in many of the same ways branches south of the border would contribute, except for in one important area - elections. There had been much talk and speculation that they would stand candidates in local council elections however by 2009 the party had published its 21st Century Commission report which made clear that when it came to the north there would be no Labour candidates fighting for seats. So, that was that. All of which makes you wonder what the point of the NILF is these days and just why any left-leaning nordie would want to be a member.

The forum still had an online presence on the Labour Party website, though over the past couple of years it was rarely updated. Earlier this evening I decided to pay it a visit to see if anything had changed. When I got there I noticed that the party website had undergone a bit of renovation in time for the big election next month, however the section for the Northern Ireland Labour Forum had bizarrely disappeared. Well, perhaps not all that bizarre. Joining a political party that doesn't contest elections is a bit like going to a restaurant that doesn't serve food. Nevertheless, it would be nice to know what the current status of the northern members is in the party. All of the other sections appear to get a mention: Labour Youth, Labour Women, Labour Equality, the Labour Trade Union Group, Association of Labour Teachers, Labour Party Lawyers Group and the Labour Social Services Group. No NILF though. Have they been disbanded? Or have they become so pointless that the party leadership has forgotten that they even exist?

Although I never held out much hope that Labour would actually put their money where their mouth is and stand candidates in elections, I do feel that the forum (if it still exists) could play a crucial role alongside local members of UK Labour, trade unionists and other socialists and social democrats in the formation of a broad-based democratic socialist party in Northern Ireland. You might think that the fate of this tiny grouping is insignificant and in the grand scheme of things in local politics that may well be the case, but as a socialist living in a region where the anti-sectarian centre-left do not hold as much as a single council seat a voice in the wilderness is as good as no voice at all.

Ironically, at the top of the new Labour website are the words 'One Ireland'. Not quite, lads, not quite.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Thanks for the ceasefire. Now, would you please go away?

"But if Eta may not have changed much, its circumstances and those of the society surrounding it certainly have. The organisation is a shadow of its former self, a lumpen rump. Under siege from the Spanish and French security services, as well as the Ertzainza, the Basque autonomous government police, Eta has been thoroughly penetrated, losing leaders almost as soon as it appoints them. For a group with a cellular structure, this can only happen when it is down to its last cells and, to judge from Eta's erratic behaviour, its last brain cells too."

David Gardner
Financial Times
January 20th 2010

So, with a whimper rather than a bang, ETA's armed campaign for an independent Basque homeland has been terminated. Dressed in outfits resembling some form of fashion fusion between the Ku Klux Klan and the Provisional IRA, the organisation stated that they had "decided to declare a permanent and general cease-fire which will be verifiable by the international community." Note well that this is, apparently, a "permanent" ceasefire. Not a mickey mouse ceasefire like those that have gone before. Permanent. Total. Unequivocal. In other words, no going back - the old methods are over. Now, what next?

Back in September when they made their first ceasefire statement I said here that ETA was essentially looking what the Provisional republican movement in Ireland was seeking in the 1990s, namely a face-saving way out of a conflict they realise they cannot win but also cannot admit to having lost. The problem is just what can the Spanish government possibly offer a terrorist group who in both political and 'military' terms have never been weaker than they are now. Following their original ceasefire announcement I remarked that "the Basque Country already has its own parliament, its own police force and sets its own taxes" and that there was "nothing to negotiate." So it remains. There will be no Basque equivalent of the Good Friday Agreement. The best they can realistically hope for is prisoner releases combined with the legalisation of their outlawed political wing Batasuna. In short, not much to show for almost half a century of armed struggle. ETA is going to find it tough to do as their Irish comrades did in, as Henry McDonald put it, dressing defeat up as victory.

Some will no doubt view the response of the governing socialists to the ceasefire upgrade as intransigent but their uncompromising stance comes with a lot of valid reasons. Back in 2006 the government responded positively to the ETA ceasefire of March that year and opened up talks with representatives of the organisation, talks that included the moderate constitutional nationalist PNV. On December 29th of that same year José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero spoke of his confidence for a lasting peace. 24 hours later ETA detonated a massive van bomb at Madrid-Barajas Airport killing two Ecuadorian workers and injuring dozens more. With that track record, and with support for the group having deteriorated enormously over the past five years, the response from Madrid should not be viewed as inflexible but rather the only possible one open to them.

Even so, depending of course on how ETA conducts itself in the coming months, the Spanish government still has a part to play. Their first step must be legalising what was Batasuna and providing the movement with the space to develop a political platform. If the 100,000 spoiled votes at the last parliamentary elections in the region were anything to go by there is still a fairly sizeable minority of people who need their voice to be heard in the democratic arena. Facilitating this should be relatively straightforward. Given that HB was tolerated during the worst years of ETA terrorism it should be possible to reverse the ban of 2003 without too much uproar being created. More complicated will be the emotive subject of prisoner releases, though that will be a bridge that will inevitably have to be crossed at some stage. Tied to all of this must be the winding up of ETA as a paramilitary force and that development may still be some way off.

While there may not be much potential for a Basque version of the GFA there may be a slight possibility of a Basque Adams or McGuinness emerging from the ashes of the failed ETA campaign. It will be interesting to see whether the movement will have the imagination to reinvent itself to meet the demands of a new era or whether it will just slowly die off. As an organisation with strong bonds to physical force Irish republicanism it could take historical encouragement from the manner in which Fianna Fail appeared from the anti-Treatyite defeat in the Irish Civil War to take power in the Free State less than a decade later or how their present day allies in Sinn Fein managed over a similar period of time to move from pariahs prosecuting a failing armed campaign to sitting in government in Belfast with their old unionist enemies.

With Spain presently being hit hard by recession and rising unemployment could a left-wing pro-independence party free from the whiff of cordite be an attractive alternative to both the conservative PNV and the governing PSOE? Maybe, maybe not. One thing is for sure, neither the present state of affairs nor a return to the style of politics espoused by pre-2003 Batasuna will appeal to the people of the Basque Country. If the so-called Basque 'national liberation movement' wants to have a future it will need to change and adapt – and do so quickly.

All of this will become clear in the long term. In the short term ETA must make clear that they intend to depart the scene for good and convince the people that they genuinely mean it this time. To do so will take more than a statement being read from behind a desk by three masked anonymous men. The ball remains in their court.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A woman's place is not on the touchline (apparently)

When someone writing in the Daily Mail describes you as being "mean-spirited, misogynist and just plain outdated" you should probably take it as a sign that you might just be a little out of touch with the modern world. The remarks made by Sky presenter Richard Keys and pundit Andy Gray about lineswoman Sian Massey and West Ham vice-chairwoman Karren Brady have drummed up a lot of debate in recent days. In a way it seems almost wrong to attack both men. There has been a lot of self-righteous guff uttered in relation to the incident and today's sacking of Andy Gray by Sky (the people that bring you such enlightened viewing as Essex Babes, Northern Birds, Viewers Wives and red hot Mums) was most likely done with a view to protecting their own image rather than consciously striking a blow for the rights of women.

Nevertheless, sacking was the only option open. Such a measure makes clear that daft comments about women not understanding the offside rule are not deserving of a £1.7 million annual salary and a spot in front of the cameras discussing the biggest league in the world's most popular sport. This is not, as some will no doubt try and portray it, as a free speech issue. Nobody is trying to take away Andy Gray’s right to be a curmudgeonly old misogynist, but there is a time and a place for airing such views and the workplace is certainly not one of them. Those providing the excuse that these are the sort of remarks you hear from football fans up and down the country are also missing the point. That does not justify them. In the seventies and eighties terms such as 'nigger' and 'wog' were acceptable ways to describe the small minority of black players in the game at the time. Just because a particular form of intolerance is widespread does not make it any more acceptable.

Perhaps one of the more heartening aspects of this whole cringeworthy episode has been the support voiced by players and managers for Sian Massey. Let's hope that the controversy does not have a negative long term impact in driving women away from the game. Quite a few years back the powers that be in football decided to make a concerted effort to smashing the presence of racism in the sport. A similarly large stick needs to be taken to tackling the prejudices of sexism and homophobia in the game.

And the irony after all of this? Torres's goal was onside. Good call, lineswoman.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Two sugars please

On this day in 1950 the author, journalist and democratic socialist George Orwell sadly, and prematurely, passed away. As someone listed in the inspiration column on the right of this blog it would be remiss of me not to mention him in some way. So, as the kettle behind me hisses its way towards the point of boiling, some of Orwell's thoughts on the issue that most divided him and I - tea:

Tea - unless one is drinking it in the Russian style - should be drunk without sugar. I know very well that I am in a minority here. But still, how can you call yourself a true tea-lover ifyou destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it? It would be equally reasonable to put in pepper or salt. Tea is meant to bebitter, just as beer is meant to be bitter. If you sweeten it, you areno longer tasting the tea, you are merely tasting the sugar; you couldmake a very similar drink by dissolving sugar in plain hot water. Some people would answer that they don't like tea in itself, that they only drink it in order to be warmed and stimulated, and they need sugar to take the taste away. To those misguided people I would say: Try drinking tea without sugar for, say, a fortnight and it is very unlikely that you will ever want to ruin your tea by sweetening it again.

Thanks but no thanks, Arlene

Not the sort of email one wants to see in their inbox first thing in the morning:

Trouble in the message centre

If you think your job is bad, an article by Department for Work and Pensions call centre employee 'William Davies' in today's Guardian might just make you think again. As someone who worked in one particularly awful call centre several years ago I can well recognise his description of staff being "chained to their desks, monitored for every minute of the day." But ridiculous levels of scrutiny aside, the other element in the article that clicked with me came in the piece below:

Our priority should be helping people find work and providing a good service to the thousands of vulnerable customers we deal with: pensioners, disabled people, those living in poverty. Instead we have approximately five minutes to deal with each customer...

The call centre I worked in handled contracts for a various range of businesses that sold everything from car insurance to broadband packages yet rather than placing an emphasis on teaching us how to provide excellent service to the customers we were instead given a short crash course in what it was we were going to be selling, thrown onto the callfloor with a fairly poor understanding of the product concerned and then encouraged by management to get rid of the caller in as short a time as possible (usually somewhere around the three or four minute mark).

I could never really understand this as the moment someone would call you up your thoughts immediately turned to how you were going to get them off the line in order to keep your stats up. The actual service that you were providing was of secondary importance. Katrine Williams seems to agree. The PCS union's national negotiator and a worker at the Jobcentre Plus call centre in Newport, Ms Williams has said that the "two targets that matter to management are answering the calls and spending as little time as possible on the phone. If a call takes too long, we get somebody telling us to finish the call." Really, there is just no pleasing some people.

Breaks tended to be a further bone of contention. Not since my schooldays had I seen the need for someone to take a piss getting treated with such suspicion. According to William Davies, the DWP call centre only allows staff "19 minutes a day to use for toilet, refreshment and other breaks." You do wonder where they plucked the figure nineteen from. Would twenty minutes have been pushing it way too far?

Another common trait of call centres is the massive staff turnover rate. According to Davies the DWP's office has lost 20% of its workforce since April, a statistic that doesn't really shock me in the slightest. Because pay is normally poor and working conditions almost always atrocious, call centre jobs are used by many to fill a gap until something better comes along. I do not know of any business that would tolerate a situation where one-fifth of its workers departed in an eight month period. When you take into account the amount of money it must cost to be regularly recruiting and training staff to fill the vacancies left by those who get fed up extremely quickly you begin to wonder whether improving pay and working conditions might actually be in the interests of management rather than just the workers.

The 48 hour strike by several thousand workers in these call centres has now ended, however I imagine the dispute is a long way from being over. This one will be worth keeping an eye on.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

To be free in 2011 means to participate: images and slogans from the latest great unrest

The good comrades over at that always excellent leftist blog The Great Unrest have compiled a neat little gallery of posters from the encouraging wave of student protests in Britain. Some of them are good (a few clever plays on 'kettle' and 'kettling') while some of them are a tad predictable and unimaginative (you do wonder sometimes whether there is an article in the SWP constitution which calls for the word 'resistance' to be used on all posters). Strangely enough my own particular favourite of the batch on display did not contain one single word of English, yet in a way said so much more than most:

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Breaking the connection with reality

I've always been puzzled as to just what sort of person nowadays buys the Sinn Fein publication An Phoblacht/Republican News. Back in the days of the armed struggle I suppose it made sense from a Provo perspective to maintain an official newspaper that would that would act as a cheerleader for the shooting of census collectors and retired cops. These days though I fail to see the point of it. With the old 'War News' column now long gone and the repackaged pro-establishment Shinners in government with the DUP, do readers really rush out to buy AP/RN in order to find out about Michelle Gildernew's latest visit to a cattle market or if Conor Murphy has succeeded in having the roads gritted?

If you haven't read AP/RN before it might be worth taking a trip over to its online edition if only to see just how incredibly rubbish it is. The main page at present contains an extremely unexclusive interview with El Presidente Gerry Adams. If you have trouble finding this particular feature it is situated just below the range of scrolling photographs of Gerry Adams at the top of the page which is positioned just above the picture of Gerry Adams bearing the banner 'leadership in a time of crisis' which is in turn placed just to the left of a YouTube video of, you guessed it, Gerry Adams.

In amongst the North Korean-style yawnfest of Gerry worship this week is an article which really does make you wonder whether An Phoblacht/Republican News has the most gullible readership of any newspaper or magazine on the planet (Pyongyang included). This morning I came across the following headline via a link on Facebook:

Shankill Road voters are switching to Sinn Féin, say loyalist leaders
Now, to be fair, this story is based on comments made by a former UDA prisoner called Colin Halliday so I can't accuse AP/RN of inventing it completely out of thin air. However, I can accuse them of giving it a little bit too much space and perhaps providing readers with a slightly misleading headline. Shankill Road voters switching to the Provos? Come off it. Not even the loyalist who made the comments appears to think that. What he does provide is some anecdotal evidence of a few ballot papers that were supposedly seen coming from mainly Protestant areas where people had voted Sinn Fein. Is it true? Possibly. Is it worth getting excited about if you are a Shinner? Not really. After all, down through the years there has always been a few dissidents within either community that have voted for someone from 'the other side'.

If Sinn Fein want to start getting votes from the Shankill Road and other such areas then they could start by taking one small step in that direction - asking people in Protestant areas if they would like to vote for them. How many Sinn Fein posters would put up on the Shankill Road at the last election? How many houses were canvassed on the Shankill Road at the last election? I'm not a gambling man but if I were going to put money on it I'd hazard a guess that the answer to both questions would be somewhere in the region of zero.

"But Johnny," I hear you say, "it would be far too dangerous for Sinn Fein people to enter these areas." In my view if members of the Provisional movement, as was mentioned in the post previous to this, found themselves able to enter the Shankill in days gone by to plant bombs they should in peacetime be able to go there to convince the Protestant community of the benefits of republican politics. If they cannot then so be it. Let them continue with their harebrained policy of only asking 40% of the population if they'd fancy voting for them but while they do so can they please drop any pretence of being 'socialist' and just own up to being what they always have been - a sectarian Catholic nationalist party.

One doesn't have to go back to Connolly's involvement with striking workers at an aluminum factory in Larne in 1913 or the Shankill Road contingent that marched at Bodenstown in 1934 to see a different manifestation of republicanism. After the repulsive Shankill loyalist George Seawright was forced to stand down from his Belfast City Council seat in 1986, the only person to challenge his wife Liz and force a by-election was Peter Cullen of The Workers Party. While Cullen attracted very little in the way of support and Mrs Seawright ended up romping home with over 90% of the vote, it was still a principled act on the part of the WP to fight for the seat and canvass in an area during a particularly dangerous period of the Troubles where UVF and UDA violence had escalated following the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. No such anti-sectarian principles exist within Sinn Fein at the present time. I recall one particular Shinner canvassing in my area at the last Assembly election remarking that the road I lived on appeared to be "a good road" because there happened to be quite a few GAA flags flying from houses at the time, a handy way of indicating what the faith of the occupant was. Perish the thought that the poor man would have had to speak to one of those bloody Prods.

The Provo attitude - and indeed the attitude of many nationalists on this island - to the Protestant and unionist community in Northern Ireland is quite a patronising one. Back in the old days there was a belief within republicanism that if only the British would leave and allow a united Ireland to come into being then those intransigent huns would give up their silly orange ways and become loyal citizens of an Irish Republic. This does still persist to an extent and the AP/RN article about the voting practices of certain people on the Shankill Road is a prime example that the residue of that belief still contaminates contemporary republican thinking. Just as they once believed Protestants would automatically integrate into a 32 county Irish state without any need for persuasion whatsoever, so too today do some republicans think that Protestant Sinn Fein voters can be magically created without even putting in the most basic work of going into loyalist areas and seeking out support.

There is a famous line from the 1940 Walt Disney film Pinocchio where it is said "anything is possible if you just believe." Whether it is talk of a united Ireland by 2016 or mythical Protestants flocking to vote for their party, you can't help but think that for some within Sinn Fein and AP/RN it could be the line that best sums up their politics.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Probably quite deceitful: Pat Sheehan's attempt to legitimise sectarian murder

Probably quite civilised. Those were the three words Pat Sheehan, Gerry Adams's replacement at Stormont, used to describe the nature of the IRA's terror campaign. It is a commonly held belief within Provisional Irish republicanism that their armed campaign was somehow morally superior to the actions of both the loyalist paramilitaries and of the state forces. Regardless of whether or not it is true (and it is not), Pat Sheehan certainly did not do a very good job of trying to convince people of the civilised nature of the so-called 'armed struggle'.

Rejecting that notion that the Provo campaign was a sectarian offensive soaked in the blood of innocent civilians, Mr Sheehan stated that "the IRA, if it had wanted to kill Protestants, could have left a 1,000lb car-bomb on the Shankill." Out of all the locations in Northern Ireland he could have chosen this was a rather unfortunate one. You would have thought that the new West Belfast MLA would have been aware that the organisation he was once a member of did in fact detonate several bombs over the years in this part of his constituency. Two immediately spring to mind for me, the most obvious and most bloody being the October 1993 bombing of Frizzell's Fish Shop which left nine civilians dead.

The other PIRA bombing in the area that I recall was the attack on the Balmoral Showroom in December 1971 that killed four civilians. Coming amidst the regular acts of sectarian slaughter in the dark days of the early seventies, that particular bomb attack on civilians doing their Christmas shopping has probably been forgotten by most people outside of that area. It only sticks in my mind because of a brief mention it received during the 1999 BBC documentary Loyalists in which a description was given of the body of a decapitated infant found in a pram in the wreckage of the blast. In all two children were murdered in the attack on the furniture store; Tracey Munn, who was two years old, and Colin Nicholl, just seventeen months old. As Pat Sheehan said, all carried out in a "probably quite civilised" nature.

The 'we could have killed a load of Prods if we had wanted to' argument is an old one which is at the same time both brutally crude and blatantly untrue. It is not, however, one that Pat came up with by himself. The earliest example of it I can recall comes in Gerry Adams's 1986 book The Politics of Irish Freedom where he states that the IRA could have killed a lot more Protestants if they had desired to. It would appear Mr Sheehan is merely regurgitating a pathetic point of view first put forward by his predecessor nearly three decades ago (neither Sheehan nor Adams comment on the fact that the PIRA actually killed more civilians - well over 600 - than any other organisation involved in the Troubles). Of course, there is another angle to this that often isn't taken into account - what is sectarian murder and what constitutes an innocent victim? I have no doubt that my concept of what was sectarian and who was a civilian would be very different from that of Pat Sheehan.

Let me give you an example of what I mean by this. Wallace McVeigh was a 45 year old Protestant businessman. In May 1991 he was shot dead by Provisional IRA gunmen at Balmoral Market in south Belfast. He was not a member of the security forces. Wallace McVeigh's 'crime' was that his distribution company supplied fruit and vegetables to the British Army. For the armed goons of the Belfast Brigade this made him a collaborator with the occupation forces, a cog in the wheel of the British war machine in Ireland. Yet another "probably quite civilised" assassination in the long war. In my view, and I would hazard a guess in the view of most people on this island, this was nothing more than a grubby sectarian murder.

Defenders of the Provisional IRA's legacy will point to that organisation's record in targeting members of the security forces as evidence that the majority of their killings were not random killings. Yet scratch the surface and you soon discover that nor were they examples of sophisticated military prowess either. Take for instance the 204 members of the Royal Irish Regiment and Ulster Defence Regiment killed during the years of violence. Few republicans would argue that these men and women were anything other than fair game, yet they would be less quick to point out the fact that 162 of those 204 people were off-duty at the time they were murdered. Also considered legitimate targets were other non-combatants like Edgar Graham and Robert Bradford, civilians who were members of political parties.

The problem with the campaign waged by physical force republicans was that Pat Sheehan and his colleagues made up their own rules of engagement, rules which meant that a tenuous connection to the security forces was enough to categorise you as a legitimate target. The result of this definition of 'legitimate' meant that a substantial portion of the Protestant population of Northern Ireland automatically became potential targets for murder meaning that the killing of virtually any Protestant in the province could be moulded and shaped in such a way to make it appear legitimate. But outside of the hardcore supporters and swallowers of Provo propaganda, does anyone genuinely consider Wallace McVeigh as a collaborator with imperialism? No.

The rationale used to justify this pointless killing is similar to the UDA's attempt to jazz up the mass murder of Catholics at Greysteel as an attack on the "nationalist electorate" or INLA leader Seamus Costello's claim that there was a difference between killing Protestants (illegitimate) as opposed to killing unionists (legitimate). The term 'Orwellian' is these days thrown around fairly loosely by people who have probably read very little by the great man himself, but if you happen to be an English teacher currently studying Nineteen Eighty-Four with your class and you want to give them an example of doublespeak then the language used by paramilitary organisations here over the years wouldn't be an entirely poor one to provide.

One of Sheehan's other points was that the conflict here did not take place on the same violent scale as the conflicts seen in the Balkans following the collapse of Yugoslavia. Writing in last Friday's Belfast Telegraph, Owen Polley makes the important point that we should not rush to thank Pat and his friends for not killing us in greater numbers. He states:

Sheehan's choice of language is obscene, but it is more of what we've come to expect from the Sinn Fein propaganda machine. It is his broader point which deserves a little more attention. He notes that Northern Ireland didn't witness the scale "of mass killing and genocide" which characterised other ethnic conflicts. That much is true enough. But the absence of an Ulster 'Srebrenica' owes precious little to the IRA, or to the urban revolutionaries and nationalist fanatics who filled its ranks. The last thing we should do is congratulate terrorists - whether republican or loyalist - for their 'civility' during the Troubles.

But, of course, there was no such civility worth speaking of. No civility from the Provo gang that massacred Protestant workers in Kingsmill. No civility from Lenny Murphy and his 'Shankill Butchers' who abducted and slowly hacked to death innocent Catholics they picked up on the streets of Belfast. No civility from the INLA members that sprayed a Pentecostal Church in Darkley with gunfire killing several worshippers. No civility from the UDA murderers that shouted 'trick or treat' before shooting customers at a bar on Halloween 1993. No civility either from the soldiers of the Parachute Regiment that cut down fourteen unarmed civil rights protesters in Derry in 1972. Had all sides in this conflict been able to kill more they would have done so. That they didn't manage to do so deserves, as Owen Polley says, nothing in the way of praise or congratulation.

Tragically though I am afraid that as the years go by the protagonists in our little conflict, men like Pat Sheehan, will come to be judged in a much more positive manner than they deserve to be. Within the nationalist community it appears to get more and more difficult to find people willing to unreservedly condemn the PIRA campaign, particularly difficult I am sad to say amongst the young. Gauging support for loyalist paramilitarism has always been a difficult task but it is not beyond the realms of possibility that the passage of time, accompanied by some poorly written ballads, will transform men who shot taxi drivers and bombed bars into brave soldiers who defended Ulster in her time of need. The first sense I got that there was a peacetime reassessment of militant loyalism by some of the more 'respectable' elements of unionism came when John Taylor, a former Ulster Unionist MP and present member of the House of Lords, said in an interview with the journalist Peter Taylor that the UVF and the UDA had "achieved something which perhaps the security forces would never have achieved, and that was they were a significant contribution to the IRA finally accepting that they could not win."

You may consider the attitude of the coming generations to the Troubles as an irrelevance yet the fact is it will be the interpretation of our past by those coming generations that goes a long way to deciding the future of this country. Irish history has a strange Groundhog Day character to it. There is no reason to take for granted that the current period of peace we are lucky enough to live through will not come to the familiar and bloody end that so many others have. There is still a struggle to be fought, a struggle waged in favour of an anti-sectarian perspective of our history which prevents the Pat Sheehans and the Gusty Spences of this world from completing their transformation from paramilitary thugs to wise old pipe-smoking grandfathers.

The Troubles must be recalled for it was: a sectarian conflict which witnessed 30 wasted years in political terms and 3,524 wasted lives in human terms. It was not in any shape or form "probably quite civilised." Such an assertion crumbles at the slightest bit of scrutiny. All we require is for there to be enough people around to provide that scrutiny and resist the attempts by the Provisional republicans and their loyalist equivalents to portray the 'war' in this country as an honorable one. It was nothing of the sort.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Free the Saudi Arabia one

You may remember last month that Mohamed Abdul Fadil Shousha, the governor of South Sinai, appeared to blame Mossad for a series of shark attacks on holidaymakers in the Egyptian coastal resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. The basis of the conspiracy theory was simple: Jewish secret agents throw nasty shark near to where people are swimming, shark attacks kill swimmers, Egyptian tourist industry brought down as a result. There was of course not one single shred of evidence for any of this but then this is a part of the world where things like facts and evidence are but minor details when it comes to whipping up a good old scare story about 'da Joos'.

Hot on the heels of that comes the latest Zionist animal infiltration into Arab territory with the capture by Saudi intelligence services of an Israeli spy vulture. No, you read that correctly, a spy vulture. The Daily Telegraph states:

The large bird, which was carrying a GPS transmitter and a tag bearing the identification code R65 from Tel Aviv University, strayed into rural Saudi Arabian territory at some point last week, according to a report in the Israeli daily Ma'ariv. Residents and local reporters told Saudi Arabia's Al-Weeam newspaper that the matter seemed to be linked to a "Zionist plot" and swiftly alerted security services. The bird has since been placed under arrest.

If this incident proves anything it shows just how absurd paranoid antisemitism is and how potent a force it remains. In certain parts of the Arab world once the Jews become linked to something, regardless of how seemingly innocuous it is, it can rapidly spiral into a sinister conspiracy theory directed from Israel by the forces of Zionism. According to the Israelis the bird is actually part of a long-term academic study of the migratory habits of the bird. Nevertheless, under arrest this Jewish vulture remains. So, anyone out there fancy launching a campaign to free the poor old thing?

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Inspiration deficit

The new Fine Gael website was launched yesterday morning. Or it could have been the morning before yesterday morning. I wasn't really paying attention that closely. Perhaps I should be doing so as in all likelihood, though it pains me to admit it, in a few weeks we will see a Fianna Fail-led coalition government in the Republic replaced by a Fine Gael-led coalition government. Yes, Labour will probably play their strongest second fiddle ever in that government, but second fiddle it will still be. It is also likely that the far left, in the shape of the United Left Alliance, will record their best result in the history of the 26 county state (before inevitably splitting and disintegrating shortly afterwards).

However, barring a really big upset, the people of the Republic are going to get just what they have received after every other election that has ever been held down there: a right-led government. And this after all the economic turmoil and predictions of generation defining political realignment. It has all the makings of a huge anti-climax. However, if you want a little snapshot of just how big an anti-climax the next administration is going to be then all you have to do is a pay a visit to the updated Fine Gael website. Emblazoned across the top of the new site for 2011 - the year of the great return to power - is the following:

Inspiring stuff it most certainly is not. It's extremely unlikely that these words will go down alongside "All Power to the Soviets!" or "¡No pasarán!" as one of political history's great one-liners. It's not even up to the standard of that most shallow and empty of recent political slogans, "Yes We Can". At least with that apolitical political slogan there was a willingness to be proactive and an expression of intent to do something, even if it was not entirely clear what it was that 'we' were capable of doing. In fact, this line from Enda Kenny about listening is actually quite an odd statement to be given such prominence for what it appears to be saying is that Fine Gael has no ideas, or at least if it has ideas they are not as important as the ideas of those people who are not members of the party. Of course, it may just be that I am over-analysing what is in reality a fairly crap PR gimmick that doesn't stand up to much scrutiny from anyone with a single functioning brain cell.

However, what deserves to be scrutinised are the three questions FG ask their readers on the site and they range from the ridiculous to the downright cynical. Firstly, to the ridiculous. Visitors to the site are asked what they think of the Irish Republic's current problems. This is, I would hazard a guess, one of the most pointless questions ever asked in the history of mankind. Just what sort of response are the folks at Fine Gael hoping to get to this one? Everyone thinks that the state is in a mess - that much we know. I can only assume that the guys and gals at Upper Mount Street are having a competition to see how many different ways you can say that the country is well and truly screwed. The next question does make a bit more sense: it asks the reader how they propose to improve the country. Fair enough? Well, not really. While not as utterly pointless as question one, it does leave you wanting to ask the likely leaders of the Republic's next government just why a few months before the general election they are seeking the ideas of members of the public on how to improve the economy rather than placing an emphasis on their own proposals.

Last but not least is the cynical third question where Fine Gael ask "how can we earn" your support. I say cynical because this appears to get the whole normal process of political communication arse about face. Call me an old traditionalist but I like a political party to set out their stall, explain what they stand for and then let me decide for myself whether I want to vote for that particular organisation or not. The way FG is now selling itself would seem to me to suggest that, instead of being the tools by which parties win power, matters of policy and ideology are now subservient to the supposedly unrelated goal of something called being elected. This dumb trick does have a slightly clever edge to it though. The cleverness lies in the fact that someone in the higher echelons of FG clearly realises that we live in a climate where politicians are, to put it mildly, not all that popular. What better way then for Fine Gael politicians to capitalise on the anti-political sentiment than for them to order themselves to shut up and listen to the plain people for once in a bizarre act of self-imposed silence. Clever, just not clever enough.

While there has never really been all that much difference between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael on what is often referred to as the 'bread and butter' issues, it always at least seemed to be the case that the latter of the two had something slightly more substantial in the way of an ideological (namely centre-right) standpoint. FF on the other hand never displayed any consistency in this regard. They could one day be found in the same camp as Eurosceptic nationalist parties in Brussels, then the next day aligned with the Liberal Democrats and their pro-European ELDR allies, only for the following day after that to be found boasting (as in the case of Bertie Ahern and Brian Lenihan Sr. at various times) of their strange interpretation of 'socialism'. In truth Fianna Fail will be whatever you want them to be. All things to all men yet in reality meaning nothing to no-one. Now, as the Soldiers of Destiny's poll rating slides downwards, Fine Gael are making a move to steal their clothes when it comes to the art of cynical vote-grabbing.

If I was going to offer a word of advice though to Fine Gael my message would be to cut out the cheap gimmicks. I think a lot of people in the Republic would actually disagree with Enda Kenny's assertion (if indeed he ever uttered the words in the banner at the top of the screen) that politicians talk too much and don't listen enough. The truth is that we have heard very little from Enda in recent times, so uninspiring and disastrous have some of his media performances been that his airtime seems to have been kept to a bare minimum. His front bench team, made up as it is of individuals like Michael Ring and Michael Noonan, seems long in the tooth in parts and equally as uninspiring as their leader. Rather than saying nothing and listening it is about time people heard what Enda Kenny and Fine Gael have to say, what it is they will do differently from Fianna Fail and how a government led by them would be different to one led by Labour. This is what people want to know about, not PR tricks designed to give the public a false sense of empowerment.

For decades now the political divide in the south has been drawn along Civil War lines. While it may be a long time since the issues at stake in the Civil War were a part of contemporary political discussion, neither sadly has anything really replaced those issues. General elections have been something akin to glorified local council elections, with the effect being that the people more often than not got glorified local councillors as national parliamentarians. What is now needed more than anything else is for the coming general election in the Republic to be a good old fashioned adversarial war of ideas. With leaders of the standard of Cowen and Kenny I would not hold out much hope for such a battle. If, however, Labour and the Shinners and the far left can really turn themselves into formidable forces in the course of the campaign and we do have the much needed ideological struggle that I am speaking about then anything is possible. The major story of this year's election in the 26 counties may yet turn out to be not who is leading the government following the vote but rather who is leading the opposition in Leinster House.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

VAT = Vote Against Tories

This one was probably staring us in the face in retrospect, but Kevin Maguire of the Daily Mirror beat everyone else to it:

Cameron didn't have to raise VAT. Cameron said he wouldn't hike VAT. Yet Cameron upped VAT. Next time the PM maintains he has "absolutely no plans" everyone will start counting their money. Cameron isn't entitled to ask for trust after this costly deception. What does VAT mean? Vote Against Tories.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Michael vs Michael

Just a few months ago in Galway the veteran Labour Party TD Michael D. Higgins came up against the much more annoying and certainly much less cerebral figure of Michael Graham, a representative of the Tea Party movement from the United States who was on tour in Ireland at the time. To be completely honest the overall quality of the debate, which covers topics from the Middle East to American healthcare, isn't the best; as I've already said, Michael D. wasn't exactly sparring with his intellectual equal here. It is, however, entertaining in the way that an argument in a pub is entertaining once two guys decide to really go at each other (and it is also worth it just to hear Deputy Higgins use the word "wanker" in his typically polished tone of voice). Note too how George Hook, the man 'chairing' the debate, simply disappears for the vast majority of it. A replacement for Dimbleby he most certainly is not:

Hat Tip: Joe Duffy