Wednesday, 16 November 2011

A ban on smoking in cars isn't enough.

For some reason, this subject often elicits more response than writing about something like capital punishment, human rights or even state education. It seems that there is no political line when it comes to smoking – this isn’t something that falls on right or left politics. People are often against anti-smoking laws because of the civil liberties aspect and naturally you get alliances from liberals, libertarians and the centre left. But equally people in those camps also see the wider health aspects and can support measures that reduce the health cost to the state of those who smoke.

My position is quite clear and quite simple: smoking should be banned completely.  I accept this is a serious and somewhat controversial opinion but I don’t think it should be. We outlaw all manner of substances without the same level of controversy or opposition so what is it about smoking that makes it so different other than the fact that it currently isn’t banned? Surely if you look at this from nothing but a logical viewpoint, there can be no argument? It is a dangerous substance; it has no positive qualities (any supposed benefits – stress relief – are psychological, not physical) and is a massive financial drain on the health service. Obviously there is significant tax revenue from smoking but this is negated by the negatives effects smoking has on society.

If you want to argue against banning smoking then surely you would have to, by default, argue that the bans on heroin, cocaine, and cannabis in particular are just as invalid? After all, what sets them apart from smoking save for the social acceptability factor? It’s also not just drugs that we ban when they present a danger to society – we ban driving dangerously fast, we ban bad Doctors from practicing, we ban convicted sex offenders from working in schools, and we ban people from drinking alcohol and then driving. Yes, I am well aware of the various differentials but the point is that the precedent is set. When something is a significant danger to society it should be banned unless there is a very, very good reason not to. Civil liberty, often, is not one of them.

There is, of course, evidence that shows that smoking in public places or even very well ventilated places does very little damage to those not smoking themselves, so why not just regulate smoking so that people can only do it under those circumstances? Well, this is the bit about socially acceptable behaviour. Smokers often complain that they are already being made to feel like social pariahs. Good. I’m glad. The very last thing we need is for people to start thinking that smoking is socially acceptable again. However, we need to go further. I took up smoking because others around me took up smoking. They took up smoking because grown-ups smoked.  They did so because it was, to some degree, an acceptable vice in society. That has to change.

The next generation have to grow up with an unquestioned perception in their heads that smoking is as socially unacceptable as alcoholism or drug taking. There must be no silent tolerance of parents pushing pushchairs while smoking or hanging their fag out the car window. The message these actions send to kids is clear – this is an acceptable way for adults to behave. I compare it, in terms of giving your kids the wrong impression, to spitting.

This is, admittedly, a pretty controversial stance to take and, understandably, many who smoke will feel it is an attack on them but really, it’s not: it’s an attack on our society for not properly addressing the issue. I have never understood why smoking was allowed to remain legal and for the most part poorly regulated whilst other, arguably less dangerous substances were banned. Look at the swift action taken on ‘legal highs’ recently. There was no proper consultation, no time allowed for research into the health effects; just knee jerk legislation to appease the public mood.

I used to smoke. I started young (13) and was a very heavy smoker until I was 26 when I first made the effort to stop for good. I can’t remember my last cigarette but it was a very long time ago. This doesn’t give me any deeper insight into the mind of smoker nor does my conversion to a non-smoker inform my opinion. I have had held this opinion since I was a teenager and it is borne from my frustration at what I see as staggering inconsistencies in the law.

While the Minister for Health, Edwin Poots, ponders whether to back a bill calling for smoking in cars where children are passengers to be banned, I hope he considers taking it a step further. It will upset many people for many reasons but for me it’s about the only time I agree with Helen Lovejoy of The Simpsons: won’t somebody please think of the children?

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

State Employment for the long term unemployed? Yes, please Mr Cameron

Don't be surprised: the socialist in me is naturally delighted to hear that David Cameron is considering offering state employment to those who have been unable to find work. That is, in effect, what is being advocated, yes? Well, seeing as it's being advocated by a Conservative Prime Minister I should maybe hold my enthusiasm back and wait for the devil in the detail. Until that comes, however, let's have a completely hypothetical run down of why any such scheme is almost, always doomed to failure in the UK when proposed by a conservative government.

1. Minimum Wage

The absolute surest reason why any such scheme is doomed to fail. Whilst it may be a long held fantasy for many Tories to scrap the minimum wage, the reality is they don't have the political will or courage to try because they know that even if they did, they would fail. You can't very well bleat on about the Unions having to much power if you also think you can take on every single Union, at the same time, united on one issue, and win. So, minimum wage exists and will continue to do so. The only option for the government is to make sure that any work undertaken on a compulsory scheme is paid at the minimum wage but that would be a little bit, well, socialist for a conservative government. It is, for all intents and purposes, mass state employment - an even larger public sector. Not really the objective I imagine.

2. Compulsory Aspect

A fantastically ridiculous introduction to the proposed scheme from the Daily Mail: "under new plans, long term jobless would be forced to undertake voluntary work." I know standards of journalism aren't the highest at that particular newspaper but even a child knows that if you force someone to do something, it isn't voluntary. It highlights though, what problems the government will face with it's proposals. No government in it's right mind will want to use the term 'forced labour' but that is, in effect, what it is. If you don't work, you lose your only source of income. Ideologically, I actually don't have an issue with this provided that the work is reasonable and the pay fair. However, for this to be a Conservative success, it won't be - the right wing public won't tolerate it.

3. Cost

A socialist can make this scheme cost effective. A conservative can not. That's not a claim based on my own bias but a reflection of the facts. The two different perspectives measure success differently - the socialist looks at the value to society, the individual, the state as a whole - the conservative will look at the cost to the exchequer primarily and the cost to society secondary but it will boil down to cost and not value.  So for this scheme to be a conservative success it would have to save money. Being good for society is not a good enough measure. The problem is - it will cost money. The added administration burden alone would be massive and that's pretty much undisputed. The only way this works out financially is if the work undertaken is essential and would have to be done anyway. Of course that presents another problem - if the work is essential then a real job, and not a made up one, exists and should be filled properly.

4. If the job needs doing, someone should be employed to do it.

No matter how you look at it, people on this scheme will be engaged in non essential work. It has to be non essential because unemployment levels are rising which means all essential roles have been filled and all non essential roles have been cut. That's the line we have been fed from the government when questioned on cuts. So why make some people redundant from 'non essential' roles only to have others 'forced' into them? presumably those being made redundant by the state have certain skills, attributes and knowledge that makes them suitable for the role and those who will have to pick up the slack will be untrained, poorly paid and even more poorly motivated.

This idea has not been thought through at all. How can it have been when such staggeringly obvious obstacles seem not to have been addressed before the idea was floated to the media? Obviously, people will disagree with me and dispute, dismiss or even ridicule the points I've made but these points will be made by many others, in real and serious positions of opposition should such the government run with the idea. I repeat: I'm all for the state offering employment to the long term unemployed. But, if you're going to bring in a scheme dripping in socialist principle, at least get a socialist to draft it.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Tories & The UUP - The end of the affair.

When you first read the letter from The Conservatives to the leadership of the UUP, in which they advise the UUP to disband and effectively let The Conservatives take over, you can’t help but laugh at the sheer audacity and cheek of it. Here you have a party with no foothold whatsoever in Northern Ireland suggesting to the oldest party in the province – and despite recent election results, a large, well represented party - that they pack up shop and move out of the way so that The Conservatives have a free run.  It appears idea of crazy men. However, the intriguing thing is that it isn’t. At least, while the idea may be crazy, the men behind it most certainly are not.
Don’t underestimate The Conservative Party: they are not stupid – quite the opposite – and don’t do things without first thinking of the consequences. If we look beyond the suggestion within the letter we start to understand that the suggestion wasn’t at all serious but the message behind it most certainly was – any UUP led partnership with the Conservatives in NI is over. The Tories in NI will play their game now and it will be their rules. If the UUP want to make use of The Tories in future, they will have to accept that.
It’s easy to say that the UCUNF project was always doomed to failure but it wasn’t and for the most part the only thing The Conservatives did wrong was formalising the link up in the first place. After that, every mistake was down to the UUP and those mistakes were borne from the UUP’s own organisational problems. It’s likely that had the UCUNF project never happened, the results we saw for the UUP would have likely been the same save for one or two notable exceptions (yes, I am referring to Lady Hermon). The UUP have no significant activist base (members are not activists by default) and their constituency associations are run almost autonomously by their Chairs.
The only way the project would have worked is if the two parties formed a joint executive that really did have executive power over the two parties. It’s important to be a democratic party, of course, but there are some areas where it’s not democracy that is needed but instruction and orders. None of this brief retrospective analysis is entirely scientific but from the outside looking in, it always seemed like the UUP were in it for the money, so to speak, whilst The Conservatives genuinely thought they were entering a genuine partnership based on mutual objectives.
Now, it seems to me, they Conservatives have re-evaluated exactly what benefit, if any, a formal link with the UUP can bring and have summarised that there is none. Consequently the Conservatives have to assess how they can steal the UUP vote because without a good chunk of that, it’s unlikely the Tories in NI will make any significant electoral impact. How do they do that? Well, getting a few disillusioned UUP members or, even better, elected reps to leave the UUP and join the Tories would be a good start. It’s always easier to campaign with candidates that already have a profile in the community.
My guess is that this letter was an initial step in that strategy. It is a message to UUP members that the Conservatives are serious about their ambitions and that the UUP are now an obstacle to achieving them. The mention of the Secretary of State and The Prime Minister being entirely supportive of the proposal (though one wonders just how much consideration David Cameron really afforded the issue) is there to reinforce the message. How successful the Tories will be in NI is inextricably linked to the UUP whether they like it or not – the stronger and more successful the UUP are, the harder the Tories will have it but if the Tories continue with what I believe is their strategy, then they could well speed up the decline of the Ulster Unionists.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Poppies, Remembrance & Peace.

I was in my early teens when my Grandfather died. I loved him very much and was, naturally, very sad to lose him. However, I remember just how much more of a loss it seemed to be to my sister, 8 years my elder, and never really understood why, at least not until I started thinking about Grandpa recently as the time of year comes around again when remembrance poppies are everywhere and the long running and oft ill tempered debate over their use (ubiquitous on television), symbolism and message rears it's head yet again.

It's clear to me now that my sister's grief seemed to be so much deeper because she had a more mature relationship with my grandfather. For most of the time I knew him, I was very young and as such, I saw Grandpa as most young children do, another elderly relative who, whilst being very nice and generous with his chocolate, had little in common with me. Now, in my early thirties, I would give anything to be able to have him with me now, so that I could engage with him on a different level, ask him questions that would never occur to a child and discuss issues that had little relevance previously.

One thing I was aware of whilst he was still with us was that he, like so many others of his generation, had fought in the second world war. It was never discussed with me directly by either my grandfather or my parents or even any of my siblings but there was no doubt. I had seen photos of him in uniform, I had seen many medals of all kinds, and my Grandpa was also a champion shot (he shot for Scotland and I later realised that many of his medals were for sport shooting, not fighting). A young boy in possession of these facts doesn't need  any more information to jump to the right conclusion. However, I never ever raised the subject of the war with my grandfather and I realise now, looking back with a different perspective, that it was because he never discussed it, or at least he never discussed it when I was around and somehow the unspoken inference that it wasn't to be discussed got through to me.

As a youngster I took this lack of discussion as unquestionable proof that my Grandpa must surely have been some kind of super secret agent who couldn't talk about what he did in the war. I don't know for certain but it is much more likely that the reason my grandfather didn't talk about the war was not because he couldn't but rather that he wouldn't.

Many claim to have the loveliest grandparents but in my case, it was proven in the way he was revered by all he met and not just his family or close friends. He was the very essence of a gentleman and as fine a man as you could ever meet. It is hard for me to imagine this lovely man ever taking part in such a terrible and violent thing as war but it goes some way to explaining why a man can have a room full of memorabilia from his time in service but is unwilling to talk about it. It is the difference between remembrance and glorification.

In the debates about the wearing of the Poppy, that line is all to frequently blurred.

This country has been fighting an awful, awful war on 2 major fronts for the best part of ten years. Whilst we may no longer be deployed in Iraq, the toll is still being paid by the men & women who returned. Not only are the wars truly awful for those fighting, they are also deeply unpopular with the public at home. No wonder then, that the issue of wearing a poppy is courting more controversy each year as many people no longer feel that to wear one is a choice but more of an obligation.

I will wear a red poppy this year, as I have every year. I will wear one because from a young age I understood why it was important to have some recognised form of remembrance for those who had died while fighting in the service of their country. Be in no doubt, they did indeed die for their country. Whether you agree with the political ends of whichever conflict they may have been engaged in, they were ordered there by the people we elected to power. Rightly, or wrongly, each serviceman or woman that dies is owed a debt of honour by us.

What I won't tolerate, however, is the almost fanatical insistence from some that not wearing one is disrespectful, offensive or in some way displays hostility to the armed forces. A friend & colleague of mine wears a white poppy and I fully support his right to do so. I understand his reasoning perfectly and support him wholeheartedly. He will also wear a red poppy on Remembrance Sunday, yet for sure there will be those who take issue with his decision or cite a lack of respect on his part, even if they don't voice it directly to him.

There should never be, in any circumstance, an order to remember the war dead in a certain way and at a certain time. Of course it is correct that there exists a day of remembrance and a symbol of it but never, should people feel bullied into observing that day or wearing the red poppy for surely that defeats the very point of fighting for personal liberties and choice?

Let's remember the original reason for the red poppy was not strictly remembrance: it was a fundraising tool. The British Legion was formed to pick up the slack where the government of the day had not, or more correctly - would not, provide adequate care for injured or retired servicemen. It evolved into the recognised symbol or remembrance some time after it was first used. The British Legion did, and continue to do a fantastic job in caring for ex servicemen and providing the support they needed. Unfortunately, nearly 70 years on and still our service personnel have to rely on charity to get the appropriate care, this time in the form of Help for Heroes.

On Remembrance Sunday, the heads of our armed forces and our political leaders will line up, with the Queen to lay poppy wreaths and the public, largely, will ignore the irony of the sight of those who sent troops to war, failed to care for them while in service and failed to care for them out of service using the poppy to show their respect whilst not doing anywhere near enough to rectify the situation that led to the poppy being adopted in the first place.

It is right that people are educated as to the sacrifices made on our behalf. It is right that people have a way of honouring their memory. It is right that people can show their objection to war. It is not right, nor never will it be, to demand it of people. Wear a poppy, don't wear a poppy. It's up to you, not me.

Build, Build, Build.

Of all the things that annoy me about the ineffectiveness of our political leadership, the constant and stubborn ignorance of the benefits of a strong construction industry rankles more than most. Obviously there are failings in many other areas that, on a day to day basis are more of a concern for me but mostly that's to do with ideology. The attitude to the construction industry though, is not so much about ideology as it is incompetence. There have very rarely been people in positions of power who have either a) understood the industry properly or b) understood it's economic importance properly. Mostly we have had people who have combined both these faults.

Whenever times start to get tough, whether it's a recession or even just a slight downturn, the construction industry is nearly always hit first and hit hardest. There is a misguided belief that when money is tight it should only be spent on essentials and new construction is rarely classed as such. In reality, economically, the reverse is true.

Construction is the great multiplier. More so than any other form of public spending, construction creates revenue for the state. I am aware this is a slightly controversial and for the most part statistically unproven statement but that's because the statistics don't, and often can't, take into account just how much of a multiplier effect that spending has. The statistics also rarely consider the spending in terms of value over cost and as such a project that costs the state £25 billion mostly does stay, statistically, as a negative revenue project. It is nearly impossible to understand the reach that kind of spending has once it goes into the private sector.

This doesn't mean I'm advocating a massive drive to build more and more office towers that stand empty. It doesn't mean I want to see house builders taking on ever more debt to build poor quality homes to be sold at over inflated prices to people who have taken on mortgages they will never be able to repay. What I am advocating is massively increased state spending on key infrastructure projects - urban & rural rail projects, canal projects, port projects, school builds, road upgrades, and perhaps the most important of all; social housing.

These aren't just the sort of projects that help boost the economy in terms of direct and indirect employment or by increasing trade but also by adding value to the country. A country with superior infrastructure is a top competitor for inward investment from both businesses and individuals. We currently compare our infrastructure with others and for sure, it is often equal or favourable to other first world countries but frankly that's not good enough - we don't want to model our infrastructure on other's success, we want them to model theirs on ours. This means construction and it means lots and lots of it.

I don't accept the argument that there isn't any money. It's simply not true. We are, and will remain, a very rich country with significant resources to bring to bear when needed. Undoubtedly, there is an economic crisis but it is not because of our lack of funds but our mismanagement of them. We must address that mismanagement by first stopping the self defeating policy of reducing state spending on construction. People are often keen to apply business norms when looking at the way the government manages state money so they should have no problem with this. For a business to survive and grow, they have to spend on their own infrastructure, be it staff, facilities, plant or stock. The state is no different in that respect. When we scale down our spending on infrastructure, we scale down our chances of a strong, prompt recovery.

Monday, 7 November 2011

The SDLP have bigger problems than bright lighting.

Unsurprisingly, a good deal of the media coverage of Alasdair McDonnell's maiden speech as the new leader of the SDLP focused on the mechanics. McDonnell, blinded by bright television lights, seemed unable to focus on effective delivery, went 'off script' several times, and stopped his speech more than once to complain about the lighting. The broadcast ended before the speech and so the SDLP missed the most important visual; their leader getting a standing ovation from the delegates.

Given that this was speech was being broadcast live this level of unprofessionalism is unforgivable. There is no excuse for it and if the SDLP want to be the party they need to be to win the next election, their media management will have to step up a level. Naturally, the SDLP have implored us to focus on the content and substance of the speech rather than McDonnell's delivery. Having done just that, I'm left thinking that the they should be thankful more people aren't.

The speech, absent the ad libs, weighs in at over 3000 words. Yet nowhere in the speech is there any substantive mention of the most important people of all - the people. The only slight allude to them is when McDonnell mentions how the SDLP need more votes. Apart form being blindingly obvious, that doesn't really cover the subject properly does it? Let's remember that politics is supposedly about serving the public so you would think a major speech such as this would at least make reference to the importance of appealing to the wider public.

McDonnell spoke, unknowingly, almost exclusively to party members & supporters and to their counterparts in the rival parties. You would hope he can rely on SDLP members to vote SDLP and for sure he cant count on not getting votes from party members, so why aim your whole speech at just them? What was there in the speech for the ordinary, non aligned voter? Where was the appeal to people, generally disinterested in politics, to pay attention to the SDLP?

If you were generally ignorant of the political world, listening to that speech yesterday would have given you no clear insight as to what separates the SDLP from Sinn Fein (or, terrifyingly, from the DUP), despite McDonnell's jibe about sectarian turkeys. He goes onto make the most substantive part of his speech, at least in policy terms, on the constitutional issue but echoes the old Gerry Adams mantra that Unionists just don't know what's best for them  when he speaks of 'teasing out where their best long term interest lie'. I'm sorry, Alasdair, but Unionists are quite capable of working that out without your help and have been telling you the answer for many, many years.

I'd like to see McDonnell take the fight to Sinn Fein and win: on a personal level, the SDLP are much more favourable than Sinn Fein. However, this won't happen by merely shaking up the structures within the party or by reviewing and republishing policy. It will only happen by building new relationships with the electorate and by repairing and rebuilding old ones. That means activists, not just members and it means them out, every week, knocking on doors, attending events, listening to the people and helping them. It means making the connection between the SDLP & the people. A good place to start doing that would have been the maiden speech from a new leader. Oh well.

Friday, 4 November 2011

How The Daily Mail proved Hugh Grant's point.

Ah, The Daily Mail. It really is an incredible piece of work isn't it? A newspaper so extreme and twisted that even those dedicated to parodying it struggle to produce anything The Daily Mail isn't prepared to do itself. This week we've had a double helping of the Mail's particular brand of crazy: firstly, in the form of a column from Liz Jones, (who previously asserted that murder victims Joanna Yeates' choice of pizza signalled her desire for a better, more middle class life) where she details, a little too well, the steps she took to try and become pregnant by first her boyfriend and then her husband by effectively stealing the sperm from their discarded condoms.

Second: A column of immeasurable spitefulness & bitterness from Amanda Platell where she almost joyously attacks Hugh Grant for being less than perfect. This column for me is by far more of a worry than anything Liz Jones has or could produce. Liz Jones has personal problems, Amanda Platell has a problem with other peoples personal lives.

It seems the reason for Platell's attack on Hugh Grant is based on two factors: 1. He is a vocal and extremely well received critic of the media and it's behaviour regarding the private lives of famous or newsworthy people. In particular, his criticism in the light of the phone hacking scandal made him an almost de facto spokesperson for the celebrity aspect of the hacking. 2. He likes to have sex with women without being in a formal relationship with them. What Platell mistakenly believes is that the latter issue somehow negates Grant's opinions on the former issue. of course she is totally wrong - it actually validates his opinion.

Platell has an issue with the way Hugh Grant has conducted himself with women. She may well have a point and it may well be the case that his behaviour has been less than exemplary (though the way that she brackets the mother of his newborn child as a victim is staggeringly offensive) but none of that is her business and it certainly isn't the business of the wider public. Hugh Grant has never held himself up as a moral campaigner, as Platell labels him, but as a campaigner for the right to privacy even for those in the public eye. On numerous occasions he has acknowledged his inappropriateness as a role model, even gently mocking his career. I wonder would Platell prefer he take his art completely seriously and advocate his films as serious pieces of cinema. I suspect that, too, would find him attacked for being pompous and taking himself far too seriously.

As far as I'm aware, Grant only ever committed one crime - the Divine Brown incident - but even that wasn't a matter of public interest, just public curiosity. This column from Platell is nothing more than her projecting her morals onto Grant and expecting him to play to her tune and she is using his campaign against press intrusion as a stick to beat him with, not realising that by detailing his love life, bit by bit, with no recognisable purpose other than to shame him; she is making his point for him.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

The tricky subject of politicians pay.

Any politician or commentator looking for a nice safe position to take won’t ever go far wrong attacking the pay & perks afforded to elected representatives. More so than any other public sector employees, politicians salaries, expenses and any freebies they may get are scrutinised and, for the most part, condemned as excessive, unwarranted & distasteful in the current climate (though I’d argue if it’s distasteful, the financial climate is irrelevant). Often the condemnation ticks all those boxes and people can really go to town on the issue.

I, however, tend to take the rather unpopular view that, contrary to popular opinion, most of our politicians are underpaid and yes, I am including MPs in that statement. I don’t particularly care if MLAs, MPs or Councillors enjoy the hospitality of the MTV European Music Awards. I certainly have no issue with them claiming expenses for genuine out of pocket expenditure.

My reasoning: Expectations. I expect my representatives to be a cut above. I expect them to be leaders in their field. I expect them to serve their constituents with a dedication unmatched. Why on earth would I expect all this but not expect them to be well compensated for it? More to point; why would you?

When you set a salary for a role, you consider the role and not the individual and the role of legislator is surely one of the most important in the public sector so why would we want to devalue the role by attaching a less than commensurate salary? Of course, in reality many of our politicians are simply inadequate or incompetent and the expectations of the position are not being met.

In other type of employment this underperformance is addressed by either taking measures to bring the employee up to standard or replacing the employee. Only in the field of politics is it deemed appropriate that the people who were responsible for choosing the employee abdicate that responsibility and call for lower wages, less perks and attack the employee for earning the agreed salary. What logic is in play when people call for measures to devalue the role instead of simply finding a better candidate?

The recent review of MLAs pay at Stormont unsurprisingly returned a verdict that our MLAs should receive a pay rise. It was unsurprising not because that’s what MLAs wanted – in fact, they had no input into the report, it was entirely independent – but because those reviewing the pay applied the correct logic: what should someone fulfilling the demands of this role receive.

Anyone who doubts that being either a full time MLA/MP or even a part time Councillor is not a demanding role needs to shadow one for a week. There is a never ending list of demands placed on these individuals who nearly all do the role through a burning desire to serve their constituents and create better conditions for us all. They do it under constant, mostly biased, & often unfair scrutiny from the media and their peers. They face more criticism in a month than most people would expect to face in a year. Are they effective? Not always, but that, frankly, has little to with their salary. Do we think that knocking their pay down will suddenly spur them into effective work methodology? 

There has been plenty of sniping over elected representatives receiving tickets to the MTV EMAs or the free Snow Patrol concert at Belfast City Hall. So what? It is elected representatives who ultimately make the decisions that bring events like this to the area, why would you not want them to enjoy their success and why would you not want other politicians others to witness first hand just how important these events are for the region?

It is perfectly understandable, especially if you are unemployed and facing real financial uncertainty, to feel aggrieved at those who enjoy reasonable salaries from the public purse. However, your recourse is to make them work for their money or replace them with someone who will, it is not to devalue the role so much that no one with the skills or desire required can afford to take it on.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Can we at least TRY and have an intelligent debate about Occupy protests?

First things first: I'm with the Occupy groups in spirit. I'm not there in person because I have other commitments but I am ever thankful that there are those who put themselves out on my behalf and on the behalf of others to further their cause. So yes, I wholeheartedly support the protests.

I could of course, just leave it there and assume that people will understand that it doesn't mean I want to overthrow the government. It doesn't mean I want the banks to fail. It doesn't mean I want an end to capitalism in all it's forms. Unfortunately, it's clear I can't do that at all because many people, particularly right wing people, have it in their heads that anyone at the Occupy protests is an ultra left anti capitalist anarchist. That simply isn't true. No doubt there are some there and most likely they will be some of the most vocal and high profile amongst the protests but they are not the majority so lets not pretend otherwise please.

Some detractors have quite astonishingly dismissed the protests as a serious movement in their entirety because of the signs claiming that those taking part represent the 99% of the population that are suffering the effects of the recession. They say such claims are nonsense.

Of course it's nonsense. Those writing the signs know it's nonsense because anyone that can legibly write knows that no group, however large & diverse properly represents 99% of the population. But that's not the point. An effective sign doesn't really work if you have to include disclaimers along the lines of "we do not claim to accurately reflect the wide spectrum of political opinion found amongst 99% of the population. We do however represent a cross section of society within that 99% that feel unable to effect a better form of demonstration than direct protest".

Others have pointed to the supposed hypocritical actions of anti capitalist protesters queuing to get a coffee from Starbucks. They ignore the fact that this isn't an anti capitalist protest and those queuing most likely do not claim to represent true/pure anti capitalism. But even if they were anti capitalists, there's nothing wrong with making use of the current system whilst campaigning for a new one. Ironically, capitalists see no issue with using socialised healthcare while calling for it's destruction.

The really nasty ones opposed to the protests reel out tired old clichés about protesters - they should get a wash/job, they're benefit scroungers, they don't live in the real world. The idiocy of such claims is of course that we are in the grips of crippling unemployment. Heating and Fuel is, for many, approaching (or already is at) a prohibitive level. Benefits are being cut and those claiming them demonised by society at large. As for the real world? It's easily argued that those who have found themselves driven to protest by a lack of any other options are the ones living in the real world and those who have kept their jobs and benefited from low interest rates are the ones living their existence in a fantasy.

There is, at least on this topic, a middle ground to be found. We need banks and we need bankers. Our economy relies on profit making businesses and so obviously it's not in anyone's interests to destroy those businesses that still return healthy profits. The flip side of that is that people & small businesses are desperately struggling to stay afloat and it's not a particularly fair or even moral society that allows a tiny section of society to continue to amass enormous wealth, especially when it is often at the expense of those who can least afford it.

That doesn't mean we must throw out capitalism entirely and adopt a pure socialist way of governance but it does mean we must look to find a better balance. That's the conversation that has to be had and that's what the protests are trying to instigate. It would be nice if, just for once, those in power paid attention and didn't go straight on the defensive.

Homosexuality & The X-Factor

I'm an X Factor fan. I'm not in the slightest bit ashamed of that. I know all the arguments against it and pretty much agree with each & every one. It is cynical TV and contributes little, at least in positive terms, to the music industry. It glorifies public humiliation and subjects people, often young people, to unacceptable and artificial levels stress. But, it is absolutely fantastic television and the highlight of my Saturday night (were I younger, free & single this may not be the case).

This post isn't about the X Factor though. Well, it is & it isn't. It's not about any particular evils the X Factor may commit whether related to LGBT issues or not, though there clearly is cause for such a post. No, in this post I am referencing the X Factor because in many ways, the audience and participants provide a glimpse of society in the UK today. That society, for me, whilst incredibly tolerant (through choice or legislation) of homosexuality still has a way to go before homosexuality is accepted, without reservation as an equal sexual orientation as heterosexuality.

Consider the amount of overt heterosexuality on display during any episode of the X factor; Judges referring to how much a good looking male artist will appeal to young girls, highly equalised or romantic interaction between the acts and dancers who are always the opposite sex to them, male contestants talking about the key benefit of success being the ability to get girls. I don't have any problem with any of this. It's perfectly normal and within the boundaries of what is appropriate for Saturday prime time TV.

Now imagine that when you watch the X Factor this Saturday you see this: A judge tells Frankie Cocozza that teenage boys are going to fancy the pants off him, Johnny Robinson performs a romantic song and dances intimately with a good looking, half dressed male dancer and the Judges tease Marcus Collins about rumours he has had his way with 2 members of The Risk.

I can't guarantee it but I imagine the editor of The Daily Mail, Paul Dacre, would spontaneously combust with equal outrage and excitement. The really sad thing is that, on this occasion, the Daily Mail wouldn't be alone. It's highly likely other papers would focus heavily on X-Factor's homosexualisation, they'd just do it with a little more tact. What's more, they'd do it safe in the knowledge that they'd be on safe grounds.

The fact is that for much of the population, tolerance does not equal acceptance. There is still very much an undertone of 'got not problem with gay people as long as they don't flaunt it in public'. This way of thinking is wholly unacceptable and it cannot be allowed to continue unchecked and supported by the public because whilst it remains, homophobia will also continue. Those same people who proclaim they have no issue with homosexuality etc. are the same people who also proclaim that homophobia is wrong, not realising that the two ways of thinking are inextricably linked.

As I said, I'm not accusing The X Factor of being in any way a homophobic TV show - it clearly isn't - but I would love, dearly love, for The X Factor to be brave enough to break down the barrier that still exists and not just show tolerance of homosexuality but give it equal footing and credence and to stop pretending that it isn't prevalent in our society. It may seem unfair to land that burden on The X Factor but as the nations most watched & discussed TV show, I can't help but feel that morally, they should.

Lack of Service

Just a quick note to apologise for this blog going quiet for a while. I could reel out a load of excuses about a busier personal life (which happens to be true) but the real reason is that it was getting progressively harder to a) come up with a subject that I really wanted to write about and b) write something completely original.

There are no shortage of genuinely gifted writers on the internet who put across their arguments in many superior ways than I am able or inclined to do. However, being the best political blogger was never my objective. The reason I started the blog in the first place was to articulate my opinions and arguments in a better format than something like Twitter. I can't deny that I have missed the immensely satisfying feeling I get when a post is completed and published, or when someone says something nice about it.

So; I shall get back to it.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Electronic Voting - Are we missing the point?

I have just read an interesting piece on the Total Politics website by Melanie Batley about the electronic voting, or to be more precise about the potential for it being introduced in the UK. This obviously isn't the first article written on the subject and with all due respect to Melanie Batley, there are far more comprehensive articles out there explaining the in's and out's of e-voting.

What nearly all the pieces I've read on this subject share is a focus on the mechanics of e-voting - whether we can do it and do it securely enough - and I, too, shall pay attention to that aspect. However, what most of the articles tend to ignore is the question of whether it's right to make voting easier. The answer isn't all that simple, at least not for me, and so I think it deserves a little attention drawn to it.

First, the mechanics. I am the sort of individual who can't understand why almost every interaction with the government, or indeed any business, is not electronic. I spent much of my career transferring processes and procedures into digital, electronic systems and produced some staggering efficiency as a result. However, not once did I ever design or adopt an electronic system that I felt provided a completely incorruptible audit trail. When it comes to using electronic systems over traditional systems there is nearly always some form of payoff. In most cases, the gain in efficiency vastly outweighs any increases in risk and as such, the electronic version is favoured.

In the article on Total Politics, a common example is used to highlight where advocates of e-voting feel the government has already accepted that electronic processes are safe and secure enough - that of being able to complete and submit tax returns online. Unfortunately, the comparison fails because the cold hard fact is that, in audit trail terms, tax is not as important as voting. There can be no room for error when it comes to voting because of the potential damage any corruption can do.

The sure fire way to prevent any deliberate corruption from outside sources is to not have any parts of the voting process exposed to any external network. This measure doesn't entirely mean no e-voting (there would be no internet voting but you'd still use some form of electronic interface at the polling station), but it becomes less about making it a better experience for voters and more about making it an easier process for the electoral office.

In saying this, I am not against e-voting because of the mechanics. I'm sure at some point very soon, we will find a solution that meets all the audit requirements. No, I am against e-voting because frankly, I've no desire to make voting any easier for the electorate.

Do we really think voting is difficult? You get yourself put on the electoral register (for free) and when the elections are called, you get a little card through the door telling you where to go, when to go there and what to do. On the day of the election you have all day and all evening to turn up, hand in your little card, write an 'X' against your chosen candidate and pop it in the box. It takes no more effort than registering with a library and then using that Library.

Crucially, with that minimal effort exerted you have played your incredibly important part in the governance of our country. We have heard much in the last few days about 'responsibilities' and the supposed abdication of these responsibilities. I would contend that the most critical of these responsibilities that we have seen abandoned is that of taking part in the electoral process. I wrote just before the local elections in May that the responsibility for governing is on all of us and it is my belief that there should be some effort required to vote.

I honestly don't want a system to cater for someone who thinks that the current amount of effort needed to vote is just too much. If they really thought democracy was just too much effort previously then frankly, I'm not wild about us bowing to their indifference. Just to be clear, this isn't about voter engagement. If politicians successfully engaged with potential voters, then having to physically go to a polling station wouldn't be any sort of obstacle.

I appreciate there are cases where, with all the will in the world, getting to a polling station is a genuine obstacle, particularly for the elderly, house bound and for some disabilities. In these circumstances though, we should be making extra efforts to accommodate them specifically, rather than lowering the effort level for everyone. I'm sure many will disagree, as is their want, but for me, I want people voting because they want to, because they no it's important and because they recognise it is the right thing to do, and not because we have removed all excuses not to.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

This is no Arab Spring.

I suppose, given the unprecedented levels of civil unrest and disorder that we have seen in many countries where previously such actions had been unthinkable, it was almost inevitable that when we, in the UK, experienced our very own unrest & disorder that comparisons with the uprisings collectively termed the Arab Spring would be made.

There can be little doubt that many of those rioting here in the UK shared at least some common complaints with  their counterparts across the Arab world - that of mistrust of those tasked with law enforcement (whether it be the police, secret police or armed forces) and a complete lack of faith in their political leaders. However, there was and still remains an absolutely crucial difference between the Arab Spring and what has happened here in the last week or so: free and fair elections.

The uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria and the smaller protests in other Arab states were successful and will hopefully continue to be successful because whilst there may have been a multitude of complaints amongst the people and whilst there were certainly many underlying causes, all of them combined to produce one clear and unshakable objective; that of overthrowing authoritarian governments where previously they were never given the option.

This is the real reason why comparisons between the UK Riots and the Arab Spring fall apart. It is possible to delve into the detail and argue whether the UK has any moral right to condemn our rioters when we recognise Gadaffi's rioters as a legitimate political entity and then set about bombing the formal government of Libya. It is possible to compare instances of looting taking place in Egypt and Tunisia (there most certainly were) amongst wider protests of anger at the authorities. Critically, though, for those taking in part in uprisings in the Arab Spring there genuinely were no other options open to them. Their governments had utterly failed them, they had oppressed them, brutalised them and often, had murdered them.

Whether people may wish to argue that for certain sections of our society, this is also the case (and, ignoring the numbers involved, it could be) at least in our society we have the option to peacefully overthrow the government via elections. We have genuinely accountable political representation. Yes, they have lied, cheated and stolen and each time they have been found out and, where appropriate, punishments have been handed out and actions taken to prevent it happening again. This is how the system is meant to work. It is not a perfect system; no one has ever claimed it, but it works because when we realise part of it is broken: we fix it.

What really angers me about such comparisons though is that those making them are almost always entirely aware of the crucial differences. Anyone who gives it more than a moments thought can hardly fail to notice why it would be absolutely outrageous for the government of the UK to cede power to a riotous mob so why would they even begin to make such comparisons? My guess is that it is little more than political point scoring on the most part - a chance to make a seemingly clever criticism of inconsistency and hypocrisy against the government.

If that is indeed the case, then it is shameful behaviour. There is plenty of ammunition to fire at this coalition government without having to resort to such nonsensical arguments. Worst of all, it is easy to see through and lets the government highlight the unfairness of the attacks against it. Let's focus on attacking them for their genuine inconsistencies and hypocrisies, not the fabricated ones.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Riots are an opportunity for us to finally address poverty in the UK.

I have held fire on writing a piece about the riots that spread across much of the country (as a Unionist, I won't try and push them as a just English problem) this last week. When such a major news story is ongoing two things are almost certain: 1. Countless articles, blog posts and columns will be written analysing every part of the story and 2. Something will happen that will invalidate every point you want to make. 

Number 1 makes me want to hold off because I recognise that there are many, many better writers out there with far more first hand knowledge of the subject and who can often make the same points I want to make but in a more articulate fashion. Number 2 makes me want to hold off for fear I will look foolish and reactionary or that I have in some way 'jumped the gun' in order to capitalise on an issues currentness. 

In the case of the riots and looting, I was right about Number 1. There have been some truly fantastic pieces written by writers of many differing political viewpoints. However, I needn't have worried about Number 2. My opinion of why these riots occurred is the same today as it was on Saturday: nearly all riots are borne from one mother - Poverty. 

Could I ask those reading this to accept that I do not, at any point condone riotous behaviour in a society that benefits from free &  fair elections and where political representation is plentiful and accountable. There may well be cause to argue the details of such a claim but for the purposes of this post, please don't.  What I want to do is address the conditions in which such behaviour occurs. Whilst it may seem a particularly awful crime, rioting is, at it's base, simply that - a crime. It must be treated as such when punished and it must be treated as such when we look to why it happens.

Crime flourishes from poverty. That really can't be disputed. Obviously not all crime is as a direct result of poverty and not all those who commit it do so because they live in poverty but the evidence is overwhelming in suggesting a clear and direct link between poverty and crime. The usual deterrents against committing offences are either the fear of punishment or a concious thought that what you are doing is wrong. When you are in an impoverished state, there is no fear of punishment. What could be worse than poverty? 

So, we are left to hope that those who have the least in our society will not commit crime simply because it is wrong. Yet this is a society that both explicitly and implicitly demonises being poor. We have perpetuated the belief that by being poor, then by definition you are already doing something wrong. The language many use to describe the poor is nearly always demeaning, even if that is not the intent. When people refer to benefit claimants most people automatically picture in their mind someone who is jobless, or gets some form of disability benefit. Of course the truth is that the vast majority of people who receive some form of state aid do so in order to supplement their income.

Those at the bottom of our society have been completely marginalised. There is no fear of the punishment that crime carries and the understanding of what's right has been completely corrupted. It's easy to point at MP's fiddling expenses or bankers being bailed out as examples of high profile corruption & greed going relatively unpunished but the corruption of what's right is in plain view every day. When massive companies lay off hundreds of their lowest paid yet still pay out huge dividends to shareholders and directors still receive enormous salary packages what signal does that send about what we, as society think is right?

When people have to go around the supermarket buying only the cheapest of produce and then worry if there's enough left over to buy gas or shoes for their children whilst 30 tills ring through hundreds of thousands of pounds in profit every minute, do we really expect people to accept that this is right? Whilst making a profit is fair, making it and then hoarding it whilst millions struggle to survive is surely morally questionable? Can't we strike a balance?

A common complaint from many commenter's over the week has been that these riots can't be about poverty because they were organised on Blackberry's and the rioters targeted luxury goods and not essentials. I just want to put aside for a minute the fact that poverty is obviously relative (no one in the UK suffers the same poverty, at least not in real terms, as many millions in other less affluent places in the world) and reiterate the point that whilst poverty may not have been the specific reason for the riots, it was poverty that created the conditions in which the riots found ground. 

Let's deal with the relativity now. Yes, many people that are technically in poverty in the UK do have a house, they do have money to eat (at least just enough) and many also have mobile phones. They also have Televisions and many have access to the internet. Who seriously wants us to level that down? There will always be people at the very bottom but surely we want what is essentially our minimum standard to be above all other minimum standards? Don't we want to be the country where even our poor are comfortable?

Of course, this is unworkable if those who are unfortunate to be at the bottom can obtain that minimum through the state if those just above can't obtain it through their own means. In other words, when being entirely dependent on the state is more beneficial than working. At present there are very few examples of where this is the case and in those cases it nearly always involves some extenuating circumstances. However, it can't be denied that the financial rewards for working full time are not significantly over and above those for not. This must be addressed but it must be addressed by levelling up, not down. Benefits must not be cut because we simply must not lower our standards. What we must do is explore ways in which work provides much greater reward. 

All of this assumes that work is available and the reality is that it is not but it could be if the Government really wanted to address poverty. It is a myth that we have run out of money. Yes, we are operating with a deficit and ideally we'd like a surplus but Government isn't a business and shouldn't be run with the same objectives. The Government is overly focused on deficit reduction by way of cutting spending when it should be focused on it by way of stimulating growth. The only sure way for a government to stimulate growth is to invest and this government needs to invest massively in social infrastructure in order to properly tackle the causes of poverty - bad education, poor quality housing, lack of facilities. 

We can either spend state money on welfare or spend state money on jobs and investment but either way, we will continue to spend state money so lets try and do some good with it for once. 

Monday, 1 August 2011

Capital Punishment.

In society, well, a civilised society at least, when defining the power of the state, there is an important starting point, an ideal - The state should not harm it's citizens. It is essential to highlight the most important part of that sentence - Ideal. Due to the nature of society, at some point the state will have to move away from that ideal in order to maintain law & order and ensure security of the state itself. What is crucial to maintaining the civilised status is that each step away from the ideal is only undertaken when absolutely essential - when there is no other option left.

The above paragraph has to preface any discussion about Capital Punishment. Quite simply, there is nothing worse the state can do to an individual, it is the ultimate action and is the very definition of a state harming it's citizens. It is as far removed from the ideal as you can possibly get. So how on earth do we get to the point where it is even considered?

Well, the right wing blogger, Guido Fawkes has decided to launch an online campaign to get the matter discussed in Parliament with a view to having Capital Punishment reintroduced for child murderers and police murderers. Whilst I'm sure that Guido does actually support the death penalty I think his motives are more to do with a) his anti EU Agenda - we would have to leave the EU to have the death penalty, and b) his love of publicity.

Unfortunately, whatever his motives, Guido has certainly sparked debate because this is, and will be for some time, an interesting political issue that many people on both sides of the argument are furiously passionate about. For my own part, I can think of very little that I oppose more than capital punishment. Let's take a moment to debunk the most common arguments in favour of capital punishment.

It works as a deterrent to the offender.
It most certainly deters the one who is executed doesn't it? That can't be denied. However, it is not the only way of preventing an individual re offending is it? That's the point - when it comes to deterring the offender, there is another way - life in prison. That can't be argued or debated, the facts are clear: there is another way to stop the offender re offending, thus this reason is void.

It works as a deterrent to others.
Well, there is actually no creditable evidence that supports this view. Consider that the majority of murders are crimes of passion. Is it really reasonable to believe that the offender, at the point of committing the offence would hold back because, whilst a lifetime behind bars is an acceptable risk, the death sentence is not? For those rare murders undertaken for some other advantage to the individual, surely those offending believe they won't get caught and therefore the potential sentence is irrelevant? However, even if you dispute that, there are of course, no shortage of crime statistics, particularly from America, which show that there is no tangible deterrent from the death penalty.

It's cheaper than keeping offenders in prison.
Ignore, if you can, the idea that money should be considered when deciding whether the state should kill someone and focus on the evidence, again, that actually, capital punishment is incredibly costly. Well, at least it is in America. It may not be in China or Saudi Arabia but there is a very good reason for that - they don't feel the need for an exhaustive legal process to ensure, beyond ANY doubt that the offender did indeed commit the offence and surely, there is no other standard to be considered when handing out a death sentence?

After that, all that is left is a desire for vengeance or closure. Neither of those are good enough reasons. As unpleasant as it may seem, even the most vile of murderers still retains the right to life and the state cannot break that right.

There are also political anomalies in play. Support for the death penalty is high among right wingers & libertarians but if you examine the death penalty rationally then it is against the principles that those partuicular political groups hold dear - that of minimal government. Minimal government doesn't just mean small government, it means the government only taking decisions or carrying out actions when there is no other suitable alternative. When it comes to capital punishment, there clearly is.

Despite attempts by some to portray our society as morally bankrupt, we are not. We do not currently have an epidemic of brutal child murders. The murder of a policemen is, and always has been rare in mainland UK and now thankfully, despite the best efforts of backward thinking groups, it is rare in Northern Ireland. This isn't necessarily down to capital punishment being abolished but it does show that it is irrelevant in the for law and order.

Ultimately, the question of capital punishment always comes down to this (at least it does for me): we, as a society have a duty to condemn violence. A state that has violence written in to it's law cannot do so with any authority.

Friday, 29 July 2011

McGuinness inadvertently highlights problem with multiple mandates.

During the course of their investigation into the murder of Constable Ronan Kerr, the PSNI decided that they needed to arrest certain people and they decided the best way to do this was through raids. They also decided to alert the media to the raids. After the individuals arrested were detained and questioned, they were released, without charge, save for one woman. Following this, Martin McGuinness criticised the PSNI for the raids and the arrests.

McGuinness was critical of the arrest of one individual in particular, a 22 yr old man who was apparently in America at the time of the murder. He also made a point that the arrests had caused anger in the area.

Ignoring the fact that a) that the man was in the USA at the time of the actual murder is irrelevant (unless McGuinness has had inappropriate access to the investigation, he doesn't know what role the police may have suspected he had in the murder) and b) upsetting the local community must never be the reason to not arrest a murder suspect, what McGuinness has really done is to shine a light on the problem with him (and others) holding multiple mandates.

When McGuinness spoke, did he speak as Deputy First Minister, MLA for the area, or MP for the area? Sinn Fein, when issuing the press release that followed McGuinness' comments referred to him speaking as an MP for the area. That's fair enough and in many respects it is not completely out of line for an MP to criticise an ongoing police investigation. However, McGuinness is not just an MP. Most importantly of all, he is the Deputy First Minister. The problem with multiple mandates is that the Deputy First Minister should not be levelling such criticisms at the PSNI without due process and, because of his dual role as MP, that is what McGuinness has done.

In performing his role as an MP, he has compromised his role as DFM. Whilst Sinn Fein may try and defend their position, they know that really, they can't. The evidence is in their own press release. If this was something that was OK for the Deputy First Minister to say, then why would he not say it in that role? Which role carries more weight in regard to Policing & Justice? After all, it is a devolved issue.

When Matt Baggott refers the issue to the policing board, as he has indicated he would, will the Sinn Fein members on the board approach the issue without prejudice? After all, the leader of Sinn Fein in Stormont has already passed judgement on the issue. What likelihood a full retraction & apology from the Deputy First Minister? McGuinness has a responsibility within the executive to support the institutions within it. The accountability comes from within the Policing Board. When the second most senior member of our government circumvents that, then what purpose do they serve?

I make no judgement on the validity of the arrests or the raids that bought them about - that itself is a separate issue. What is important though, is to note the anomaly that has come to light because of the dual mandates we still tolerate. 

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Why Pride is still essential.

When I was a little younger and first learned about Pride my first thought was one of genuine confusion. As a straight man, I didn't understand why gay men felt the need to parade their sexuality because I most certainly didn't. However, this conclusion was formed because of my genuine indifference to sexuality. Some people were indeed Gay but I didn't need to get over it; it was never an issue in my eyes. As I grew and matured, the reasons for Pride became all too evident. Whilst I may not have seen sexuality as relevant except to the individual, it was clear that others did.

There are 2 undeniable facts that must be considered during any debate about the importance of Pride:

  1. Homophobia is prevalent in society.
  2. Heterophobia is not.

At the root of that is that our society still tolerates, to an unacceptable extent, discrimination in many forms against people based purely on their sexuality. Now clearly, society is far more advanced in it's tolerance than it was 30 or 40 years ago. Excellent, but it's not good enough. Yes, homosexuality is now legal but it's less than 30 years since that was the case in Northern Ireland. Some of the most vociferous opponents of that law are still politically active today. Consider that: right now, we have representatives and people shaping the political landscape in this country who wanted (and presumably still do) to ensure that gay people are criminals by definition.

Considering the above, it came as no surprise that the DUP have once again, shown what many believe to be their true colours regarding LGBT issues. Asked to attend 'Pride on the Hill' - an opportunity for political reps to engage with LGBT constituents and representatives - the DUP declined, rather predictably. The excuse was that not enough notice was given. That's nonsense. They have known for a year the event would happen. The date for the event was set weeks ago, and the DUP declared they wouldn't attend in advance of an invitation.

Fortunately, Jim Wells MLA was prepared to reveal the real reason for the DUP's non attendance. In a text message to one of the organisers of Belfast Pride, he declared that he found those taking part as 'repugnant'. When someone of Wells stature - he is to be the next Health Minister - says something like that, the devil's advocate in me goes looking for the mitigating circumstance that led to such a thing. In this case, there is none. Offered countless opportunities to clarify or retract his statement, he did neither.

For many of us, this was merely a slight glimpse of the beliefs that many in the DUP hold. While there is no doubt that the party and it's public representatives are now far more careful when talking about Homosexuality, the underlying message is clear to those who pay attention: Homosexuality is wrong. Repugnant, even. Of course this is no surprise considering the past form of the party that wanted to 'save Ulster from sodomy' and in 2007 returned an MP to parliament  (Iris Robinson) who felt that homosexuality was a worse sin than sexually abusing children.

Northern Ireland is, I'm afraid, well behind the times in driving homophobia from society. Iris Robinson would never have been elected in England with those views. Jim Wells would never get anywhere close to front bench politics having said what he said. For evidence of that, look to Jim Grayling who was denied a cabinet role because he supported the view that B&B owners should be able to refuse people on the grounds of sexuality.

Much of this latent homophobia in Northern Ireland is because of the strength of Christianity here. Our government is almost exclusively Christian. The same can be said for Westminster of course, but here they pay a little more attention to it (though only when it suits, of course). When challenged on homophobia, those who practice it will point to their faith as a defence. Well, this is where their argument really falls down because how can something be wrong if God created people that way? "But he didn't!" they cry, "it's a lifestyle choice!".

Well, if they can't be convinced, even in the face of overwhelming evidence pointing to sexuality being a genetic issue and not a lifestyle one, then we are never going to convince them. What is ironic though is that those who point to the fact that science has yet to prove, beyond all doubt, that sexuality is genetic, as evidence that it isn't, are the same people who place their faith in a God that science can not prove exists. That's an astonishing amount of inconsistency right there. It's almost as if they're picking and choosing factors that only support their view.

Belfast Pride is essential in countering such homophobia. It is about making people understand that sexuality is irrelevant in society. That is why Pride is inclusive. This is not just an issue for LGBT people, but for all of us. It is essential that ALL of society stands up and says we won't tolerate our fellow citizens suffering prejudice or discrimination because of their sexuality. It is about showing those who continue to practice homophobia that they are the abnormal ones, they are the ones with issues and they are the ones who need to change.

At some point I hope that Belfast Pride becomes utterly redundant because then it will truly have achieved it's aim.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Why the Left has to stop defending Islam.

Perhaps it wasn't all that surprising that within a few minutes of hearing about the awful attacks in Norway, many people assumed it to be the work of Islamic terrorists. Of course, it has now transpired to be no such thing - indeed the culprit appears to be Islamophobic. What was interesting though was the response to those who had voiced such suspicions. There seemed to be a clamour to condemn people for thinking such things and most of that clamour came from the Left.

This isn't new. Whenever there is an attack (in the written or verbal sense) on Islam in any general terms, whether it be the religion as a whole or the extreme parts of it, you can be sure of a spirited defence from the left wing. Sometimes this defence is needed, and justified (say when people condemn all Muslims as terrorists). Mostly, I'm afraid, it isn't.

In can be said without exception that people across the political spectrum condemn Islamic terrorism outright so lets please at least acknowledge that there is a wider issue with Islam itself because there clearly is.

A little bit of brutal honesty is needed when it comes to Islam, I'm afraid: it is a highly corrupted force in the world. This is usually the part where people acknowledge that the vast majority of Muslims live in peace, respect other religions and wish no ill on others. Sorry, I won't do that. The vast majority of Muslims still believe homosexuality to be a terrible, awful sin. The vast majority still treat women as inferior people. They do this with the full protection of the law in many countries. I will not defend a faith such as this.

I would not, and do not, defend Christianity for much the same reason, though it should be noted that in countries where Christianity is the dominant religion there is nearly always express separation of church and state so at least they're doing something right.

Of course, there are many Muslims who simply don't care enough about their religion to adhere to these most abhorrent ideals but they present no kind of influence in Islam. Their view, once it conflicts with Islam, is irrelevant. They can make no headway in teaching other Muslims that their views are warped. It would be natural to localise this issue and reference all I'm writing to British Muslims but that's not what I'm doing.

I aim this piece at the Muslim states. The states that educate their children strictly in line with Muslim teachings, thus preventing free thought and perpetuating the oppression of gay people and women. States where questioning the validity of the proscribed religion is a crime. These states represent a danger to us all, regardless of our economic relationships with them. The idea that fellow left wingers can even begin to leap to the defence of a religion so inherently corrupted is beyond me.

I will defend the right of people to practice their religion but I won't do it unconditionally. When it starts to negatively impact on other peoples lives, then your religion will be opposed and I will have no part of it's defence.

Darren Clarke. A role model?

During the last round of the Open, Darren Clarke was seen quite clearly to be enjoying a cigarette while out on the course. Unsurprisingly a few people took issue with this. One of them, Eamonn Mallie tweeted his displeasure and disappointment and was, perhaps even less surprisingly, admonished by fans of Darren Clarke. The thing is, Mallie was correct and they, I'm afraid, were wrong. It wasn't just Clarke's smoking that caught my attention though.

Following his win, there was endless talk in the media of the big night that Clarke would surely have. There were direct and indirect references to the amount of alcohol he, his friends & family and his supporters would get through in celebration. Even during his press conference, a pint of Guinness sat in front of him as would a trophy. A couple of days later, a photo emerged of Clarke, Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell having a contest to see who could sink a pint of the black stuff the quickest. 

I should say at this point that I am the worst kind of anti smoking advocate - I'm a former smoker. I also drink alcohol. Not very often, I might say, but when I do I nearly always end up very drunk. So any accusations of hypocrisy on that score are fair.

With regard to his smoking on the golf course, it is quite simply the wrong image to portray. However, I don't limit that to Clarke. I actually think young kids should never have to see anyone smoking, at any time. A hopeless ideal, no doubt, but one I think it's healthy to aim for. Most people would agree that people smoking in cars whilst their kids are in the same car is a very sorry sight. But that disapproval is mostly based on the proven medical risks involved in that scenario. For me, it is more the example being demonstrated that worries. Unless the child is exposed for significant lengths of time to second hand smoke, it is still unlikely that the child will suffer any serious medical issues.

What is more likely to hurt the child is that eventually, after growing up in an environment where smoking is normal, they themselves will start to smoke. Fortunately, the fact that Darren Clarke having a smoke on the golf course raises the argument, shows that we are already getting to a point where smokers are the exception, rather than the rule and the example of normality is one of not smoking.

When it comes to alcohol it's a different issue. It is foolish to try to compare smoking to drinking because for one, drinking is in many cases a social enhancer, whilst smoking is nearly always the opposite. Drinking is actually pleasurable in itself. Smoking is not. However, there is no doubt that alcohol abuse is a major problem for society, the health service and, consequently, the economy. As such, the right balance has to be found.

I don't begrudge Darren Clarke for celebrating his win in the way he did, but that aspect of the celebration should either be a non story or a negative one. The media should never portray it in the positive light it did. Children reading about it would be left in no doubt that heroes and champions are the sort of men who can drink to excess and continue to do so. That can't be the example we set.

Darren Clarke IS a role model. At least in terms of his approach to his golf. He certainly appears to be a very nice guy and the respect  & apparent affection he is afforded from his peers would suggest that he goes about his daily life in the right way. That doesn't mean those of us who criticise his smoking on TV or his compliance with the media's promotion of his drinking can't see the overwhelming positive aspects of his image, we just feel it's important the negative parts are addressed properly.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Why we must not move on from #hackgate until we know everything.

First of all, I'm sorry to use the term 'hackgate' but it's an easy term of reference for this whole sorry saga so I shall continue to do so even though I generally detest any form of 'gate'.

There is another reason for using that term and that is the similarity in scale, if not detail, of what was easily the biggest political scandal of the last century - Watergate. The only thing that keeps this scandal slightly under par from that scandal is the loss of the head of the government. However, this scandal isn't finished yet and, improbable as it may seem, David Cameron could yet end up as an ex Prime Minister sooner than he expected.

It is not just that the scale of the scandal that is important though, it is the issues that underlie that are of the most importance. At it's heart, once the rhetoric has been stripped away, Hackgate is a scandal about police corruption and the implication that the most senior members of our government are involved either implicitly or explicitly. 

There have been calls, most notably from Conservative MP's and right wing commentators, for the press, public and particularly the Prime Minister to move on from the scandal and focus on what they consider to be bigger and more important issues. They are wrong. There is, quite simply, nothing more important to the fabric of our society than Law & Order. 

Without law & order we cannot function. We cannot trade and our current financial problems will pale into insignificance compared to the hell we would soon enter. If you want an example of this, consider some of the worst places to live on earth and their approach to law & order. I know this sounds all very dramatic but it's essential that no amount of corruption is tolerated, no matter how small for indeed, the natural progression of minor corruption is major corruption. 

When that corruption is either carried out or tolerated by those who draft our laws, it is all the more serious and all the more attention must be shone on it. We must not stop until everything there is to now about this scandal is uncovered and examined in the full glare of public scrutiny. 

Politicians saying we need to move on need to remind themselves what is really at stake.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

A few notes about the Phone Hacking scandal.

I could have, had I been inclined, written 1000 words a day about this particular topic in the last week, such was the amount of information coming out, each time giving us a new angle at which to see the whole affair. I thought it was probably wise to hold my fire until we got the whole picture. It became clear after a couple of days, that could be a while and so, I thought I would just write a short bit about as many of the issues as I could.

Deleting Milly Dowler's voice mails
This, for me, still remains the most appalling of the revelations. Unfortunately, it seems to have been largely ignored, but not forgotten, as the story got bigger and bigger. There is no doubt that the scale of the practice of phone hacking is somewhat incredible and that the targets they have chosen beggar belief, but in this particular case, the News of the World weren't just eavesdropping, they were actually taking action that directly affected a) the investigation and b) Milly's distraught parents.

The arrogance involved is breathtaking. News of the World journalists decided for themselves which messages were pertinent to the investigation and which were important to Milly's parents. Those they decided weren't; they deleted. This was all in order to free up space for more messages so that they may pick up something that made for a better story. Such despicable behaviour is beyond comprehension. There may well be charges for police corruption or invasion of privacy resulting from this scandal. The one charge I will be looking out for is that of impeding an ongoing police investigation.

The Guardian's 'crowing' over the loss of the News of the World.
After the initial, almost universal outrage after the first batch of revelations, slowly but surely those of a certain political leaning took stock and realised the paper that did all the running in exposing this was the hated Guardian. This wouldn't do. It's all very well to condemn the phone hacking but letting The Guardian bask in well deserved glory? A step too far. There have been claims it was politically motivated. So what? There is nothing wrong with being politically motivated.

Consider that The Guardian were politically motivated to carry out an ethical, thorough & detailed investigation utilising genuine journalistic skill and training to target an illegal and highly unethical practice carried out by a major media outlet. Then consider that the Media outlet they were targeting were politically motivated in carrying out said practice to gather information of the then Chancellor's seriously sick child.

The Guardian can crow all it likes. They deserve to.

Labour were just as in bed with the media as The Conservatives. 
Yes, yes they were. Labour can't deny that and as far as I can tell, they haven't. The Tories have really not played this very well at all. They were at a natural disadvantage from the off because a) they're the current government and so naturally come under fire for just being in charge when the story breaks and b) because of the existing political issue surrounding the BSKYB bid. However, they had a chance to play it differently and blew it. Labour played it perfectly.

Miliband got to the issue first - they were too close to Murdoch and the rest of the media. Miliband called for a Judge led inquiry before Cameron (it was always going to end up there - why delay the inevitable) and it was two Labour MPs - Tom Watson & Chris Bryant - who had doggedly pursued the issue when others had ignored it. It is no good for Tory MPs to bleat that Labour didn't do enough to stop it whilst in Government because Ed Miliband has acknowledged that failure. We're looking for solutions and leadership, not finger pointing.

The axing of 200 staff to save one woman - why I feel no sympathy for them.
Well, actually that's not strictly true. I empathise with the awful feeling of going from having a job and the security and comfort it brings to suddenly being highly uncertain about the future and your ability to survive. For that aspect, yes, I suppose there is a degree of sympathy but it's only a slight feeling because these people were working for a Newspaper with a truly vile attitude.

These were the people that pursued an agenda of attacking anyone and anything providing it made for good copy and sold newspapers. These were the people that helped to cultivate the idea that anyone on benefits was a layabout scrounger, that any European immigrant was here to milk our welfare state and take our jobs (they never saw the clash involved with that one) and these were the same people that helped to produce a culture of irrational fear of paedophilia that led to a doctor being attacked because his attackers didn't know the difference between a paedophile and a paediatrician.

Finally, these were the same people who helped to promote the idea that public sector workers were, by and large, a prime target for job cuts. I didn't detect an ounce of sympathy from the News of the World then so don't ask me to provide it for them now.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Flags & Identity.

It would seem there is unrest amongst the Loyalist communities. All the talk is of a section of society that feels abandoned, left behind, marginalised. I think, to some extent, that feeling is valid. My problem is that this community is the same community that right now insists everyone else be subjected to their celebrations and traditions. To put it another way, a minority is inflicting it's will on the majority.

I've argued before about the absurdity of a group of people claiming to represent the majority (as Loyalists often do) whilst not being able to return a single political representative to Stormont. I'll not go over that ground again in this post except to say that this unrest comes only a couple of months after elections to Stormont & Council so  quite frankly, moaning about betrayals from political leaders is pathetic and doesn't wash with anyone.

I am an Englishman. I was born and raised in England and for nearly all my adult life I travelled all over the UK whist working in construction. I eventually settled in Northern Ireland because I fell in love with the country and in love with a Northern Irish girl. Never has anyone called into question my British identity. Well, at least not until recently when I got involved in a discussion about Loyalism and, principally because I said I didn't like the idea of hundreds of flags being strung up all over Bangor, it was suggested that I may not be a proper Brit at all.

I have to say, I was slightly taken aback at this. After years spent around the UK, it is quite clear I have been living amongst others who, due to the lack of overt patriotism in the form of flag flying, are clearly not Brits either. There was I, and 60 million others, happily content with my identity when all along, we were all just unwittingly playing Sinn Fein's game for them.

Of course, that's nonsense. I am British. It is my birthright to call myself as such and it is for no man to say otherwise, least of all a Loyalist. Yes, you may deck yourself in the Union Jack and give it your all when singing the National Anthem but that does not give you the right to decide what classifies as Britishness.

There is another aspect to this type of behaviour and that is religious bigotry. There is the explicit and implicit suggestion that Protestantism means Britishness and vice versa. Such thinking is prevalent amongst loyalist communities and it is wholly offensive to the millions of Britons who are either not religious at all or worship under a different faith.

Loyalists should be allowed to celebrate their history and they should be allowed to celebrate it in their traditional way but only when that doesn't impose on the rest of the population. The painting of kerb stones or any other public property in the colours of the Union flag is not patriotism - it's vandalism and it's territory marking of the worst kind. Hanging up hundreds of cheap nylon Union Jacks from lampposts does not make the place look pretty and glorious - it makes it look cheap. If you want an example of how to use flags to create the right impression, look at The Mall before the Royal Wedding.

I don't want to keep writing about Loyalism in a negative light but until Loyalist leaders start to talk about their communities along the right notes, I'll continue to criticise when they hit the wrong ones.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Ian McCrea: Provocative comments & the results.

I need to start by saying that the arson attack on Ian McCrea's car at his family home was, and remains, completely unjustified. Violence in response to words rarely is. Though it is important to note that whilst the act itself was unjustified, it is foolish and irresponsible to pretend that the attack was not as a direct consequence of Mr McCrea's remarks and as such, there is an element of responsibility that needs to be examined.

When Mr McCrea tweeted his desire to see his county's GAA teams beaten so as not to have to suffer the celebrations of GAA supporters in his constituency he either knew full well his comments would be hugely offensive to Nationalists or he lacks the intelligence a position such as has demands. 

In an ideal democracy, the freedom to say what you like, particular for our elected representatives is paramount to it's success. Unfortunately we are far from that. We are still in a post conflict state (for some of course, there is nothing 'post' about it) as the DUP & Sinn Fein are keen to point out when questioned over the way we operate government. It goes to follow that when making any public comments, our representatives have a duty to consider the consequences that may arise from them. 

That is not to say that Mr McCrea should keep his opinions to himself - on the contrary - if he has something he feels needs to be said then it should be said. What Mr McCrea should do however, is to frame his opinions in such a way that they do not unnecessarily (the key word) give an excuse for violence to those looking for one. As unfair on Mr McCrea as that may sound, that is the reality of being a political representative in a country that still suffers from institutionalised sectarianism and faces current and very real threats from internal terrorism. 

There were undoubtedly better ways to articulate his argument. Indeed, he tried to clarify his point (that he was worried about the financial cost to the public purse) so he himself was immediately aware that his initial comments were inadequate and thus unsatisfactory.

We have a Peace, of sorts. It is the responsibility of our politicians to keep that peace and in this instance, Mr McCrea failed and failed miserably.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Why I'm joining the Green Party in Northern Ireland

I am just about to fill in my membership form for the Green Party here in Northern Ireland. It is a decision I have come to after an awful lot of consideration and I believe wholeheartedly is the right one and I shall try and explain why.

I consider myself to be left wing and a social democrat. I'm not feverishly so but it's probably the easiest classification. I am also strongly in favour of maintaining Northern Ireland's place within the United Kingdom. Given that, it is perhaps easy to see why I have remained an independent up to this point. The options, in terms of parties, were limited and whilst I accept that compromises are usually required when joining any political party, there is a limit as to what I was prepared to compromise. 

I confess that at first I paid little heed to The Green Party. After all, I am not an environmentalist and I, like many others, unfairly believed that this was the main qualification for being a Green Party member. It is clear now, that is not the case at all. Yes, there is no question that environmentally sound policy is at the heart of the Green Party but then, why shouldn't it be? What's important though is their position on all policy matters, particularly the economy, education, home affairs and so on. Once I started to properly analyse where the Green Party stood on these issues, it became clear that I was in complete agreement on most of them.

There are still areas of disagreement - Nuclear Power being one, road construction another - but these are issues I think would best be served by working within the party, especially as it seems a party prepared to listen and engage with it's members.

What the Greens in NI also have that appeals is a leader I can support. Steven Agnew has won me over. I have always maintained that Steven is a fantastic politician but I wasn't sure he would have success getting the message out and winning over enough people. He has proven me wrong and the performance of the rest of the Green candidates demonstrates to me that people are starting to respond to the message that Steven and his party are putting out. I have met a few people from within the party and to a man & woman, they are the type of people I can easily associate with. 

As a Unionist, I am prepared to accept the Green Party's position on the constitutional question. It is, by and large irrelevant to our daily life and when cross community issues arise I feel the Green Party can apply genuine non tribal thinking to their resolution. 

Finally, I won't lie and pretend that I don't have ambitions in politics. I want to be in a position to set the agenda. To do so I need to be elected to public office. For a long time I thought that first & foremost the most important thing to do was get elected but it's clear to me now that there is no point in doing so if the agenda you are pushing is the wrong one. Had I joined any other party, it would be. If I am lucky enough to be selected as a candidate at the next elections and even luckier to be elected, it will be on a platform of policies I am completely comfortable with and that is why I'm joining the Green Party in Northern Ireland.