Friday, May 20, 2011

Same as it ever was

I don't believe in reincarnation or the odd idea that negative things which happen to you represent punishment for your sins in a past life, however if I did I would probably say that having Newry and Armagh as my constituency for Westminster and Assembly elections in Northern Ireland would be the supreme being's method of penalising me for whatever evil I got up to in my previous living form.

In what was already a fairly dull Assembly election to begin with, Newry and Armagh seemed as if it were the constituency at the very cutting edge of this latest electoral yawnfest. The six men elected in 2007 to misrepresent good folk from Loughgall to Crossmaglen were all reelected in 2011, all six of whom can now safely drop the pretence that they have any deep ideological differences and sit comfortably in the same coalition administration in Belfast. The campaign in the area didn't capture the imagination much either, possibly because there wasn't one specifically unique 'Newry and Armagh issue' for people to get stuck into (at times I found myself almost resenting Mid-Ulster for having a hospital which appears to have been under threat of closure since the dawn of time).

The candidates were all remarkably dull as well. No Willie Frazer for entertainment. No Paul Berry sex scandals to give us a chuckle. No Sharon Haughey posters for me steal. In fact, no women at all. And no left-wing candidates either. The most exciting development of the whole campaign for me was finding out that my constituency had its own hashtag on Twitter (#nar11 if you must know).

In the end I gave an extremely unenthusiastic first preference vote to David Murphy of the Alliance Party. I don't know David Murphy. I didn't see any of his posters in the area, nor was I visited by any canvassers for the Alliance Party. I didn't get a leaflet from him in the post. I can't even tell you what the man looks like. In fact, at one point I had a slight doubt in my mind as to whether or not David Murphy even existed but, in a landscape bereft of socialists and females, an Alliance candidate seemed almost revolutionary.

To be fair to my own constituency the news wasn't much brighter in the other seventeen areas. The election of Steve Agnew in North Down does give progressive-minded people a slight glimmer of hope. The growth in support for the Alliance Party is also a welcome development. The People Before Profit Alliance also put in a couple of good displays in Foyle and Belfast West. Overall the vote for non-sectarian candidates came in at around 10%. One in ten choosing to venture outside the sectarian bloc sounds encouraging until you take into account that the combined vote for Alliance and The Workers Party at the 1982 Assembly election was 12%. The idea that we may actually have travelled backwards since the era of hunger strikes and daily terrorist attacks should give us cause for concern.

While the state of Northern Ireland's non-sectarian bloc is a little disheartening, the state of the left is simply dismal. Any hope of a peacetime SDLP developing into something even vaguely social democratic seems to have all but evaporated. In my own neck of the woods they were circulating a leaflet providing the numbers of nationalists (for that read 'Catholics') that didn't turn out to vote in Newry and Armagh last time around. Even if one were to ignore such stupid tugging at the green heartstrings, there wasn't much in their wider campaign to indicate a leftward shift. Like almost every other party in the north the SDLP has thrown their weight behind the calls to reduce corporation tax, a policy that the political mainstream seems to consider the solution to all our ills (John Lowry's description of it as a step on the path to a "Liechtenstein on the Lagan" would be closer to my own way of thinking).

Results on the far left were mixed. Not even the most dedicated supporters of The Workers Party or the Socialist Party could find anything to smile about in the results for their candidates. The People Before Profit Alliance did slightly better. Eamonn McCann took over three thousand first preferences in Derry while Gerry Carroll polled surprisingly well in Belfast West with 1,661 votes. It speaks volumes for the far left that even in such difficult economic times for workers in this part of the world cooperation between parties is nonexistent. Well, in NI at least. Perhaps I'm missing something that is glaringly obvious but does it not seem strange, given the SWP and the Socialist Party are all-Ireland entities which joined forces to create a united left front in the 26 counties in February, that the same two organisations run against each other in the 6 counties just a few weeks later? Of course, in the end it wouldn't have mattered a jot - the far left would have remained seatless - but it would have at least sent out a positive message that the days of pointless bickering were in the past.

The future for the left in Northern Ireland appears no better now than it appeared ten, twenty or even thirty years ago. That is something I take no pleasure in saying but it is, I believe, the truth. At the next Stormont election will we see the same old faces from the far left fighting a losing struggle in the same old constituencies that they've been unsuccessfully contesting for years? Almost certainly. Will the centre-left once again fail to even show up? Probably, though I live in hope of being pleasantly surprised.

In summary then a good election for the Democratic Unionists, Sinn Fein and the Alliance Party. The decline in fortunes for the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP continues. The Greens are in the same position as they were following the last Assembly election, though this time they have more young and media-friendly representative flying the flag for them at Stormont. This election also finally confirmed what we always suspected about the Traditional Unionist Voice, namely that they are a one man band. Apart from Jim Allister narrowly winning the last seat in North Antrim that party appears to have little or no future. The Protestant people of Ulster have now sent out a message in the European, Westminster, local council and Assembly elections that they have no desire to return to the pantomime politics of the pre-Saint Andrew's Agreement DUP.

Even more of a one man show than the TUV appears to be the Northern Irish wing of UKIP. Their first adventure in NI politics ended with Newry and Mourne councillor Henry Reilly polling well but all of their other candidates performing dismally. On the left, as I have already commented, things remain in the same pathetic hopeless state that they always have been in. One piece of good news at least was poor showing from the British National Party. The far right group stood candidates in three constituencies (including the hideous Ann Cooper in Belfast East) and lost their deposits in all three.

Finally, a word of congratulations to Procapitalism who it would appear have replaced the now defunct Natural Law Party as possibly the most bizarre party in the province. Charles Smyth, their sole candidate (and perhaps member) in Northern Ireland, got 29 first preference votes in Belfast South, an increase of seven from the 2007 contest. Mr Smyth can now take some time off to celebrate at home with a glass of wine and a couple of Ayn Rand novels. Well done, Charles.

And that, as they say, is that. See you again in four years time for more... of the same.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Still living in the shadow of the gunmen

Quite a few years ago, during a typically dull and damp Saturday afternoon in Belfast, I did quite an odd thing. I decided to spend £10 of my hard earned cash by climbing aboard a red double-decker bus and allowing myself to be taken on a guided tour of the city in which I lived. Leaving aside the driver and the tour guide, I was probably the only local person in the vehicle. Playing the part of a tourist on your own stomping ground is a truly surreal experience as well as an interesting one. The tour provided me with a little taste of what outsiders visiting here see when they come to our land and, to be honest, I was not overly impressed with what I witnessed.

The tour turned out to be a sickening cocktail of bad history mixed with equally bad comedy. While I appreciate that most foreign tourists do not want to explore the minutiae of our troubles when they jump on a tour bus for a one hour trip around the city, I did find the light-hearted treatment given to a conflict in which thousands of our citizens had been killed distasteful and more than a little bit embarrassing. As someone who has been on similar tours in other former conflict zones in various parts of the world I can only say that I had never encountered anything as crass before or since. Had the tour guide's gags been funny it might not have been so bad but sadly his material was probably even worse than anything I've ever come across on the unfathomably unfunny BBC Northern Ireland series Give My Head Peace.

Quite a large portion of the tour focussed on Belfast's vast array of paramilitary wall murals. These paintings which adorn the gable walls of houses in many working-class districts of the city can be viewed as either the work of talented artists celebrating the feats of brave men who defended their community in dangerous times or else as little more than sectarian dogs marking their territory (I side with the latter interpretation).

Thankfully in recent years there has been a move away from terrorist murals and towards a form of art that reflects and celebrates things a tad less threatening. Images of Gaelic games, Alex Higgins, the Harland and Wolff shipyard and David Healy's winning goal against England in that famous World Cup qualifier game against England are just four examples of new murals which have appeared in Belfast in recent years. In my own native county of Armagh the people of Portadown no longer have to suffer the hideous visage of loyalist mass murder Billy Wright staring down at them from a wall in the Brownstown Road area of the town, a repugnant sight now happily replaced with images of George Best in the red of Manchester United and the green of Northern Ireland. Unfortunately some out there seem to want to take a backward step.

As the BBC reported last week, two new murals are currently being painted in east Belfast which depict armed and masked UVF members from our recent troubles, one of which will actually be replacing a relatively new mural dedicated to Glentoran Football Club. The question that everyone seems to be asking about these two new murals is just who it is exactly that actually wants them to be there. MLAs, councillors (including John Kyle of the UVF-aligned PUP), community workers, clergy and your everyday ordinary bloke on the street all appear to be united in opposition to these latest works of paramilitary art, all of which does cause you to ask the next question which is why something cannot be done to remove such acts of criminal vandalism.

Perhaps part of the answer lies in the response of our political representatives. Take, for instance, the pathetic attitude taken towards these murals by Ulster Unionist councillor Jim Rodgers when he appeared on Radio Ulster last Tuesday morning. If ever there was an example of a human being beating around the bush then this was it. Rodgers balanced his opposition to paramilitary murals by stating that he was not against ones which paid tribute to the old Ulster Volunteer Force and also noted that murals in Belfast were a major tourist attraction.

On the first point, I am not all that sure about how adequate murals celebrating the old UVF really are. If the Belfast of the future is a place that tolerates images of loyalist paramilitaries from the early 20th century then, given our deeply ingrained culture of 'whataboutery', it will most likely have to be a place that tolerates gable wall paintings of IRA flying columns from the 1920s (you know, parity of esteem and all that). Secondly, so what if these are a major tourist attraction? Take a trip to Berlin and you will find very little evidence of the wall constructed by the Stalinists that divided that city for almost four decades. Perhaps we could take a leaf out of Berlin's book and preserve a few murals for the purposes of tourism, if only to show outsiders what a perverse society we once were. There surely must be no sane individual out there that would want to live in the shadow of one of these monstrosities and they certainly should not be forced to do so in the name of attracting camera-wielding foreigners. Tourism is one thing, a cheap holiday in other people's misery is quite another.

So, what is to be done? In my view the local councils in the areas where these things exist need to develop some backbone and begin to take immediate action to remove paramilitary murals from our midst. If alternative works of genuine community art can be agreed upon then fine; if not then they should be removed. Ordinary folk can also make a difference. For example, when dissident republican graffiti went up in Belfast and Derry celebrating the murder of Constable Ronan Kerr in April people in the areas affected came out and removed it. Their example is proof that people in working-class communities do not have to be constantly living in fear and do have the guts to come out in the open – unmasked – and stand up to the unelected armed thugs that yearn to exercise a Mafia-like control over what they see as 'their' areas.

A combination of local authorities taking a tough stance on them coupled with a more vocal rejection from people on the ground would be a massive step forward to consigning these things to the dustbin of Irish history. Paramilitary wall murals have no place in the Northern Ireland of the future, or indeed that of the present. In short, it's time for them to be decommissioned.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The problems of trying too hard

I never thought I would find myself writing here about hip hop, BBC Radio 1Xtra or indeed the works of a certain individual who goes by the name of Mic Righteous but at this precise moment in time that is exactly what I am doing. When a friend remarked to me yesterday about a bizarre act of censorship he heard on the aforementioned DAB radio station I felt I just had to find out some more about it.

So, what's this whole kerfuffle about? Well, it appears that back in February the Beeb saw it necessary to edit out the word 'Palestine' from the Mic Righteous track Fire In The Booth when it was played on Charlie Sloth's show. For some evidence that this strange episode actually occurred click here. Now, regardless of your opinion of the tune, does this not seem a little peculiar? The BBC have responded by stating that they have a responsibility to be impartial when dealing with controversial subjects, which is entirely understandable, however I fail to see how the mere use of the word 'Palestine' could be interpreted as controversial.

This seems to be one of those occasions where the corporation has managed to manufacture a rod for its own back. Had this song been broadcast unedited would they now be snowed under with complaints from angry hip hop-loving supporters of Israel reeling from the offence of hearing this filthy word been used in public? Of course they bloody well wouldn't. By going to the bother of removing it though they have laid the foundations for something which could be much bigger. Like the Ross-Brand fiasco from a few years back, this didn't seem to get much in the way of complaints from the general public when it first went out three months ago. Unlike the Ross-Brand fiasco though I somehow cannot imagine that the Daily Mail will this time be publishing articles advising people to get offended.

I have always been of the opinion that the BBC's coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has, rather than being biased in favour of one side or the other, been characterised by an extraordinary degree of ineptitude brought around by the odd lengths it goes to in the struggle to remain impartial. For every example someone like David Vance will have of pro-Palestinian bias there will always be a George Galloway waiting in the wings to highlight examples of how Auntie is controlled from the centre by those malign Zionist devils. However, even by the BBC's usual standards, this recent example of bizarre editing policy on Radio 1Xtra is truly absurd. Advice to BBC? Stop trying so hard.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Realignment of politics my arse

Wouldn't it be great if it was like this all the time? Well, the sad truth is it probably will be like this all the time. Or for quite some time to come.

I'm not all that surprised by the news from Castlereagh that the DUP and the Ulster Unionists have formed a pact following Peter Robinson's party's loss of overall control of the council. After last year's debacle in Fermanagh and South Tyrone with the agreed pan-unionist candidate Rodney Connor there seems to be a continuing desire within unionism for some form of sectarian unity to combat the continued growth of Sinn Fein. However, while you may not agree with pacts in places like F&ST, you can at least appreciate the crude rationale behind them. Castlereagh is a different kettle of fish altogether.

The Castlereagh Borough Council area is around 80% Protestant. At the last election only two of the 23 seats on the council were taken by nationalists, both of whom were from the SDLP making the borough one of the few Provo-free zones in the north. A unionist pact in such an area does not just represent a sectarian alliance, it represents paranoia on a frankly extreme scale. And with the DUP's Jimmy Spratt calling on the pact to be replicated "in other areas across the Province" it is not difficult to see why many nationalists are unwilling to see the mandatory power-sharing element of the Good Friday Agreement tampered with at any point in the near future.

This grubby little pact in a tiny little corner of an insignficant little state is yet another sign that when it comes to eradicating sectarianism our current batch of mainstream political parties are just not up to the job. And why would they be? After all, their very existence is based on the continued survival of bigotry. Sectarianism is in their DNA. Yes, they may pay lip service to the so-called 'shared society' and our First Minister might pretend to have an interest in integrated education but when push comes to shove pacts and deals and local agreements will be struck to make sure 'themuns' are kept out. Nationalists do it in Belfast South. Unionists do it in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. They'd probably all like to do it in every area if only they could only find a way of getting everyone in their respective communities on board. I sometimes wonder why both sides here don't just drop the facade that there are serious differences between their various competeting organisations and go back to the pre-1969 way of doing things: a single unionist party and a single nationalist party.

So, welcome to the new Norn Iron. It's much the same as the old Norn Iron. At least the shopping centres are better.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Timely

Below is footage from last week's Orwell Prize shortlist debate on the British monarchy. Unfortunately, like with so many of these public meetings you find videos of online, the sound quality isn't all that good but nevertheless it is still bearable. A similar discussion (with much better sound quality) took place on the last edition of Radio 4's Moral Maze in which they asked if the monarchy was compatible with a truly meritocratic society. Give both a listen when you're having a cuppa. Infinitely better for you than wasting a sunny Friday watching two toffs getting hitched: