Sunday, February 19, 2012

Earth calling Daniel

I like Daniel Hannan. I like him for the same reason I like Peter Hitchens. He's a good writer. He's a proper ideological conservative. He isn't a drab careerist like Louise Mensch or Esther McVey or any of David Cameron's other quota-filling A-List nonentities. He has something to say, even if I rarely find myself nodding in agreement with what it is that he has to say. Sometimes, however, he can be just a little bit mad.

On Wednesday I came across a particularly pointless post of Hannan's on his Daily Telegraph blog. The subject was that old favourite of his: the European Union. Now, the blurb at the top of his blog states that Daniel "loves Europe, but believes that the European Union is making its constituent nations poorer, less democratic and less free." No problem there. While I might be a foaming-at-the-mouth Euroenthusiast, I accept that there are many people out there with legitimate concerns about the EU and that not all of those people who advocate leaving the union are extremists. The odd thing about Hannan's article was that it did not just criticise the European Union but rather bizarrely questioned what exactly constitutes the geographic entity known as Europe.

In a piece entitled 'Americans! Please stop calling us Europeans!', Hannan writes:

Britain is a common-law democracy, connected by outlook and sentiment to the wider community of English-speaking nations. We may be only 22 miles from Europe but, these days, distance hardly matters. Look at where our international telephone calls go: North America, the Caribbean, the Indian subcontinent, Australia, New Zealand. In an age of Twitter and cable television, geographical proximity is trumped by ties of language and law, habit and history, blood and speech.

Just what on earth has Hannan been smoking? Is he serious when he states that because English-speaking people in the United Kingdom are more likely to communicate on Twitter with English-speaking people in the United States or Canada, rather than with someone in Amsterdam or Berlin who's language they can't speak, that this makes us less European? Indeed, does this mean that a monolingual Twitter user in Madrid is less European because they converse more with Twitter users in Argentina and Chile than they do with ones in Rome or Warsaw? Of course not. And as for his point about cable television, I think Mr Hannan will find that DVD boxsets of everything from The Wire to Sex and the City are as popular with young people in Munich as they are with those in Manchester.

Dan Han also remarks about how he takes umbridge at Stateside conservatives who ask him what the UK intends to do about the crisis in Greece. He observes that this is akin to him asking Americans when they are "finally going to vote against Hugo Chavez." Again, this is an extremely badly made point for a man of Hannan's intellect. Given that Venezuela is neither in a political union with nor on the same continent as the United States of America, the analogy does not really have much credibility.

Another claim which he makes is that Britain's short distance from mainland Europe does not really matter when it comes to deciding his country's identity, but does he seriously believe - and can he find people who agree with him - that we should feel closer to "the Caribbean (and) the Indian subcontinent" than Paris, a city which nowadays is a mere two hour train journey from London? I find it difficult to believe that deep down he truly does believe this garbage. Perhaps he is just trying a little too hard. After reading the article again, I did get a slight feeling that the man he is trying hardest to win over to the view that Britain is not in Europe is in fact Daniel Hannan.

I have no problem with DH and others like him putting forward an argument against the European Union. However, when he starts to assert that the United Kingdom is not even a European country we have entered a whole new sanity-free realm. I am not going to be so fickle as to replicate his argument from a different perspective and attempt to make the countries in the Anglosphere which he referred to seem 'more foreign'. To be honest, there isn't anywhere in either Europe or North America these days that seems totally alien to me (and I could add Australia to that given that nearly everyone in Ireland appears to have relocated there in the past few years).

Anyhow, here's hoping that Daniel Hannan gets back to writing engaging and thought-provoking articles as soon as he can. He can do so much better than this sort of crazed Eurosceptic jibberish. But there is, however, one question I would like to ask the MEP for South East England if he ever happens to stumble upon this modest little blog: if I'm not living in Europe right now what the hell continent do I belong to?

Saturday, February 18, 2012

New money for old roads

Any good idea that has been suggested in Northern Ireland over the past couple of years has generally been rejected by the powers that be on the grounds that there isn't enough money around these days to fund projects that could change our wee country for the better. "Nice idea," they say, "but how are you going to pay for it?" A valid point you might think. After all, just like the rest of Europe, aren't we are presently living in 'austerity Ulster'? Isn't now the time to batten down the hatches until the economy begins to pick up again? And, since we're doing recession clichés, aren't we all in this together?

How strange it is then to see that while there may not be enough cash floating around to do things that would improve Northern Ireland, there's still hundreds of millions of pounds available for us to throw at questionable road building projects which will have very little impact upon the vast bulk of people living here. I should make clear that not all of the more than £500 million package announced at a press conference earlier this week by the First and Deputy First Ministers should be considered a waste. £90 million for a new hospital in Omagh is a welcome move. Some more of the dosh will be set aside for refurbishment work at Altnagelvin in Derry and the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald. So, credit where it is due.

What I cannot come to terms with is the immense amount of money being wasted on roads. The gargantuan sum of £330 million is going to be spent on upgrading two sections of road on the A5 (these two sections are the stretches of road between Omagh and Ballygawley and Derry and Strabane). A further £105 million is going to be spent on improvements to the road between Belfast and Larne while a smaller amount - £57 million - will be pumped into further upgrades to the Belfast-Carrickfergus road.

Why is this irritating me so much? Well, in recent times the incredibly simplistic 'the-money-is-not-there' argument has been used to shoot down any proposals put forward by those of us who are opposed to cuts in, for example, the health service. However, when it comes to spending money on the NHS there can be few projects out there that would cost our Executive as much as building a completely new hospital in Omagh. Yet, when compared to how much it is going to cost to upgrade two sections of road west of the Bann, the new hospital in Tyrone appears to be something of a bargain.

I should at this point make clear that I am not anti-roads. I have no problem with roads being upgraded. What I do have a problem with though is the fact that in a time when money is supposedly scarce we appear to be prioritising what funds we do have on four sections of the Northern Irish road system. While it is good news that these plans will create several thousand jobs in the construction sector, you do have to wonder what the other long-term benefits of this will be.

The main one that I have heard bandied around is that it will reduce journey times. That would probably be a wonderful benefit if it wasn't for the fact that Northern Ireland is pretty small (and - unless it plans to regain Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan anytime soon - will probably remain the same size). In a place where you're rarely any more than a couple of hours from wherever it is you want to drive to, just how much time can half a billion quid reduce your journey by and, most importantly, is it worth it?

My problem with these plans lies in their utter myopia. Aside from creating some much needed short-term employment in a sector hit hard by the recession, there seems to be little in the way of worthwhile long-term benefit. If the Stormont Executive had displayed some imagination it could have invested the hundreds of millions in our public transport system. Improving and expanding our railways would create employment, it would certainly reduce journey times for travellers and few long-term benefits could be better than reducing our dependency on the car. So, why not? I'm pretty certain £500 million could deliver quite a lot in this area. While the money wouldn't completely reverse the appalling act of social vandalism caused by the recommendations of Sir Henry Benson (our own wee Dr Beeching) all those decades ago, it could at least buy us a decent rail link between Belfast and the International Airport. In fact, in some ways, you could say that we already have the basis of a rail link built and ready to go.

Although most people probably don't realise it, the Lisburn-Antrim railway line which closed in 2001 is still in operation and is maintained by Northern Ireland Railways for the purposes of training their drivers. This line actually passes the old Aldergrove station which was shut during the closures of the 1960s. What all of this means is that there already exists a railway line laid out for us that passes within a few hundred metres of Belfast International Airport - we just choose not to use it. Would it have been far too outlandish an idea to suggest that some of this week's money go to funding a project such as the development of a rail link with the International Airport? I think not, although clearly when it comes to the issue of public transport we need to be investing money on more than simply developing a rail connection with the airport at Aldergrove. But that's just one idea. I'm sure all of you reading this can think of numerous other - and better - ways to spend the money soon to be splashed out on the upgrade of the roads concerned.

When all is said and done, I can't really claim to be disappointed or let down by the present administration at Stormont. Not in the slightest. I have always expected absolutely nothing from them, least of all anything in the shape of imagination or long-term vision. If you want local representatives with those sort of qualities then it might be time you started to look outside of the Executive parties for answers. Unfortunately, the current sectarian coalition is likely to be around for another while to come, so all of us can look forward to more of the same uninspired policy announcements and dull managerial politics from the folks on the hill. And if that doesn't provide you with enough reasons to re-elect our tribal chieftains at the next Assembly election, the multi-million pound reduction of the journey time on that gruelling fourteen mile trek by car between Derry and Strabane surely will.

We're spoiled. We really are.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Jangly three-chord indie pop done properly

2012 has got off to a slow start in terms of new music (never a good thing). January, that slow month between Christmas time and the Six Nations, always requires a few good albums to get your year kicked off properly. No such luck over the past four weeks sadly. Even so, every month has at least one album worth listening to. In recent times the very mention of jangly three-chord indie pop has been enough to send me off to sleep. Done properly, however, it still has a certain appeal. And here is Brooklyn three-piece Hospitality doing jangly three-chord indie pop properly on their eponymously-titled debut album: