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.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Human Rights - People struggling with the definiton.

On the BBC's Sunday Morning Live, Susannah Reid asked viewers to vote on the following question:
Do Immigrant Criminals deserve Human Rights?
I'm afraid to resort to cliché but I very nearly spat my tea out. It's not so much that the question was asked but that it was asked by the BBC who, up to now, I had thought able to grasp the definition of a) what a Human is and b) what a Right is. I know the Daily Mail struggle with it but the BBC?

Unfortunately, this does seem to be a common problem. There are no shortage of people who feel that Human Rights are used almost exclusively by criminals to better their conditions or get off with their crime in the first place. Of course, it's absolute nonsense. Yes, there are examples of clever lawyers using Human Rights legislation in ways that seem highly unfair and distasteful and while it's justifiable to feel aggrieved about such examples it's is wrong to assume that this is the sole purpose of human rights.

Across the world, the battle for human rights is not about helping criminals better enjoy their time in jail but about stopping people being sold into slavery, it's about preventing women from being violently oppressed, it's about fighting religious discrimination and a multitude of other horrors that occur daily. At home, it's about holding the police to account & not being interned without charge, it's about making sure your child isn't disadvantaged because of the colour of his skin and it's about your friend not being turned down for a job because he is gay.

Getting back to the definition - they are called Human Rights for a reason. They apply to all humans and they are rights. There is no room for dilution here and that is the point. No one is exempt, no matter how offensive they may be and at no point can anyone suspend those rights. If they could then what use would they be? History has shown us that time and again, people will decide that other people are less worthy than they are and that usually leads to tragedy. Human rights are effectively a code for all governments to apply to their citizens.

The world will never agree on certain things such as mode of government or the ideology governments should adopt but the world can agree that a few specific rights are universal and cannot be suspended. When we do that we can set about trying to better the lives of millions of people who live without them. Really, who has a problem with that?

Sunday, 26 June 2011

There is no place for Loyalism in NI Politics.

The news in Northern Ireland this week has been understandably dominated by the riots in East Belfast. The fallout of which has led to countless discussions about the reasons for the violence and what can be done to prevent it in the future. As usual, after initial condemnation, it has started to settle into the timeless 'they started it' school of debating that Northern Ireland is expert in.

There are clearly underlying factors that facilitate riotous behaviour and there is nearly always a spark that sets the whole thing off but there can be no doubt that the riots themselves were started by Loyalists. Let's not beat around the bush on that matter. When a few hundred individuals don masks and decide to attack a whole community then that is the matter most pressing and you have to deal with that effectively first.

I am a big fan of talking problems through - it's always preferable to sit down with those who are aggrieved rather than cause them further aggravation by ignoring their protests. So I can understand the First Minister wanting to meet with loyalist community leaders in the wake of the trouble. However, I would hope the First Minister would deliver a very clear message to those leaders that they may not be expecting - something along the lines of 'grow up' and remember we live in a democracy where the will of the minority must not be inflicted on the majority.

That's exactly what Loyalism now is - a minority. It has little support outside of it's own enclaves and even the support within is not strong enough or dedicated enough to provide even one representative at Stormont. This is the trick that loyalism misses - that they are welcome to engage in the political process to further their agenda but that increasingly, their people do not.

I'm sure loyalists would argue against being a minority but those same loyalists constantly moan that they have been left behind after the peace process and that they have no representation. How would that be possible unless they were a minority? The truth is that many loyalists voted for the DUP, some voted for Alliance but nowhere near enough of them thought that loyalism was important enough to vote for the PUP. Yes, it's an imperfect conclusion but then democracy is imperfect.

Loyalists who vote for those parties should remember that loyalism and unionism are not the same thing and when voting for unionist parties should not be surprised when their agenda is not addressed.

So, there is no place for loyalism in NI politics but that is the fault of loyalism and it's leaders and it does not give them the right to violent assembly in order to achieve their goals.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Cameron on Absentee Fathers.

The trick, when trying to sell a position that you wish others to take up, is to make it sound as inoffensive and as obvious as possible. It's not so much about giving people a reason to say Yes as not giving them any reason to say No.

Everyone does it to some extent. The teenager says to his parents 'I just want to spend some time with my friends' when pleading for permission to indulge in late night activities. Spending time with their friends seems perfectly reasonable but with a couple of questions you may soon find out that the night may end up involving all manner of things you find completely disagreeable.

Where I find it used most is in Politics where, naturally, political positions are the order of the day. Yesterday, David Cameron used it quite brilliantly when writing for The Sunday Telegraph yesterday. He was writing about the importance of fathers to Children. Something nearly everyone can universally agree on. In particular he focused on absentee fathers, or runaway dads as he referred to them. He said he wanted the UK to be a place that is hostile towards such people.

That's not a particularly offensive view and it seems pretty obvious doesn't it? Well that's the point. So let's now examine this a little more. The Prime Minister is using this piece to promote and agenda. Again, there is nothing wrong with that and is the whole point of writing such a piece, but what, exactly is the agenda being pushed? Is it that we should make the country hostile to runaway dads? If it is, then Cameron must be implying that it isn't currently.

Now it starts to get a little more interesting because I believe, quite firmly, that the country as a whole is overly hostile to runaway dads. At least it is to those that fit the description in the truest form; those that have completely abandoned their children. Does anyone really know someone that has done that and regard them in any sort of positive light? To use Cameron's comparison, I know people who have been caught over the legal limit and, due to the circumstances of the case, I'd be more tolerant of them than someone who has nothing to do with their children for no good reason. Cameron isn't stupid; he knows that there isn't a real problem with tolerance of runaway dads in the country. So just what is his agenda?

We get a clue when he talks about single mothers. He lauds single mothers. He condemns runaway dads. He explicitly links the two. It is binary thinking. A single mother, in Cameron's mind, means a runaway father. In reality of course, this is hardly ever the case. Single parents exist for a whole variety of reasons but the overwhelming majority of children who are raised predominantly by one parent are in regular contact with the other who will, usually, be financially supporting the child where possible.

There are parents, mostly fathers, who completely abandon their children. They are not, however, the norm and so are not causing significant damage to the fabric of society.

In fairness to Cameron, he did touch on his hopes to address the issues underlying the cause of single parenting. What he doesn't address however, is the uneven hand that fathers are dealt when the relationship with the child's mother breaks down. It is desperately unhealthy for one 'side' to be able to wield all the power and that is unquestionably what happens. There are, of course, many many more issues as to why the relationship may break down in the first place but as Cameron has focused on what happens once it does - fathers running away or, as is most likely; being a smaller part of the child's life than is best for all - he should have at least tried to address why it happens.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Northern Ireland Choice Awards 2011

Ok, I have quite shamelessly nominated myself to win an award for Best Website/Blog at the Northern Ireland Choice Awards. This particular awards process is 2 stage. Firstly, it's a vote chase where those with the most votes are put through to a final round which involves a judging panel making the final decision.

I would very much appreciate it if you would all be so lovely as to help me out by voting for me. In the recent elections I only managed to draw in a grand total of 72 votes so i'd really like to beat that rather measly total!

You can vote by Email, Twitter, Facebook and by Mobile SMS. See below for details.

By Email: Simply send an email to telling them you want to vote for

By Twitter: Simply send this tweet @nichoiceawards My nominee for category 5.1 is 

By Facebook: Post the following on the awards wall My nominee for category 5.1 is

By Mobile SMS: Simply text NITODAY AWARDS followed by NEWUNIONISM.BLOGSPOT.COM and 5.1 then send to 82055 ( this service costs 25p + 1 standard text message per vote. ALL PROFITS GO TO THE WISH NI FOUNDATION). Remember you can vote for FREE by using Twitter, facebook or Email).

We need REVOLUTION! Well, in Public Transport at least.

No party, not even the Green Party, offer proposals that will adequately change the way public transport is used and operated in this country. I credit the Greens with at least having what I believe is a genuine desire to dramatically reduce the reliance on our private cars for transport. I'm confident that the driving force behind most  parties claims to want to do the same are due to political expediency rather than a belief it's the right thing to do. However, the Greens desire to halt all road construction is just plain wrong. We won't get people on to public transport by bullying them on to it.

The reality is that in order to make the changes needed so that public transport is the first choice of transport for the majority is that it needs money. Obviously it's a fair consideration but in truth, it's misguided. If you're going to provide a state funded or state subsidised service you do so because it's needed, because it's critical to the people and to the continuing prosperity of the country. As such, you don't set out to plan what you can afford, you plan what you need.

Now, you can disagree with me but it's the truth and it was the basis for the first income tax. We needed a professional  Navy and once the King and his Admirals had worked out what was needed to do the job, they raised the revenue through tax. You see; they didn't even consider how much to tax until after they had considered what was needed.

Clearly, I understand that in these times, it's not quite as simple as that. For a start, we're not at threat of invasion if our bus service doesn't improve and should the Queen try and raise taxes, well, it won't be pretty. However, the principle remains and must be applied. Let's work out what we need to do and then, if the money isn't there (which it isn't) we have to work out how to work toward the objective with what we have or raise funds another way. To do so, we need to have the objective in place and that is what is lacking.

One of the biggest challenges that would have to be overcome is that the overwhelming majority of our politicians have no clue just how awful public transport is. In Bangor, we're lucky to have a reasonably reliable train service into Belfast but it is a) too expensive b) too infrequent c) too inflexible. The proof of this is that, despite running almost parallel to the road to Belfast, the road is always, always busy and usually congested. People drive because a) it's cheaper b) they can go when they want c) they can go exactly where they want.

It's always going to be impossible for public transport to drop people exactly where they need to be but right now, once you get to Belfast on the train, the vast majority of passengers then have a good walk or a bus to where they need to go. I'm not sure anyone would really describe Belfast Central as being Central in the true sense of the word, at least not in terms of where the majority of commuters to Belfast wish to end up.

Anyway, this is an example of the problem facing Public Transport. The solution isn't an easy one. In fact, the solution is incredibly elusive. When searching for that solution though, we have to make sure that we're not avoiding it because it's just too expensive or too difficult.

So, what of the revolution? For me, public transport isn't just about the environment but about the economy. The freedom to move (whether it be goods, labour or services) and move fair distance, within your borders is key to economic success. Right now, it is becoming increasingly difficult and it's one of the big problems facing the economy that is frequently overlooked. It will take revolutionary level changes to overcome this obstacle and anything less will be nothing more than a plaster to keep us going.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Reparative Therapy - nothing more than a desire to rid world of Gay people

Next Tuesday there is an event taking place in Belfast to discuss, in a manner of words, the best way to 'cure' Gay people of their 'illness'. In our present day society, I can think of little more offensive and abhorrent than such a thing. Fortunately, a protest has been organised to register the disgust of people of a similar mind to me. Unfortunately, it will probably lack the numbers required to make the organisers think twice about what they are doing.

Those unaware of exactly what Reparative Therapy is should take the time to read Patrick Strudwick's excellent work in uncovering what happens when a vulnerable gay man encounters a therapist who tries to 'pray away the Gay'. Perhaps the most awful thing the Therapist in the article does is to try and convince her 'patient' that he must have suffered abuse as a child. All of this is done with the express aim of trying to make a gay man, straight and it's all done under the auspices of Christian kindness.

One of the stated aims of the group is to provide parents with the tools to help their children avoid homosexuality. Just think about what that means: they don't want any more children to grow up gay. They want, effectively, to rid the world of gay people. They may be going about it in a slighter softer way than others have tried before (I'm trying my best to avoid Godwin's Law) but the objective is the same.

How, given the above, is a group like this allowed to continue to spread their word relatively unchallenged, save for a few low profile (but important) protests and people like Strudwick doing their best to expose the problem? As noble as the effort has been so far, it needs heavyweight support and that must come from our political leaders. So far, they have been allowed to avoid the issue but this cannot go on. They need to be forced to take a position.

If you are interested in finding out more about the protest, there is a Facebook page with all the details.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Archbishop of Canterbury raises questions about coalitions that apply here too.

My new post on Slugger O'Toole:

It won’t come as a surprise to most Tories that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams isn’t a fan of theirs, though I imagine even they are surprised at the quite frank criticisms he has levelled at them in his editorial for the New Statesman which is previewed here.
Williams focuses on the speed and depth of reforms that the Tories and their coalition partner are making but for me, the most interesting point he raises is that of whether the coalition has a genuine mandate for making such reform. I don’t question the validity of the coalition and neither should anyone else, but surely it’s right to question whether a party that failed to gain a majority on the strength of it’s manifesto should be able to forge ahead with it anyway thanks to the support of a party with a markedly different manifesto?
The question can be applied here in Northern Ireland, quite obviously. Where we have a system that guarantees coalition, is there really any point to a party putting out a manifesto when it really is nothing more than a list of promises they have little hope of fulfilling? Tom Elliot was right to talk about an agreed programme for government but it was never likely that he would follow up on it and it still wouldn’t resolve the issue that the public can’t really vote for specific reforms or radical change.  Instead they have to blindly support broad ideology in the hope that it will produce the right result after it’s been through the coalition mill.
There’s no easy solutions to the problem but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stop trying to find them.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

A 'Beggar' Nation? It's a little more complex than that.

Well, it seems Shane Greer has a thing for Northern Ireland right now. Last week he was on the Nolan Show talking about how the level of subsidy that Northern Ireland receives is unfair to English taxpayers. To follow that he then sought to further clarify his point with a post on Total Politics entitled 'Northern Ireland is a beggar'. As if that wasn't enough, Shane was back on Nolan again this morning to argue his position, this time in the face of significant, and mostly irrelevant (he's forgotten his roots) and offensive (his accent is funny & his wife is stupid) opposition from the show's callers.

It was the kind of debate that we have come to expect from The Nolan Show which clearly seeks to provoke such arguments over and above reasoned debate. In fairness, it does make for good listening but it rather misses the whole point which for me is; is Shane Greer right in what he says?

Well, the answer to that is Yes. But it's also No. Please bear with me while I try to outline where I think his points have merit and where he completely, and possibly deliberately (for Greer is nothing if not an Agent Provocateur) fails to address the underlying issues that have brought about the undeniable fact that Northern Ireland is far too dependent on funding from and through the Public Sector.

Underlying the whole thing though is an issue of wealth concentration & distribution. No matter your best efforts, in a mainly capitalist society there will always be areas where the wealth is vastly disproportionate. Within England that area is the South East & London while within the UK that area is England. Accepting that as fact then the logical journey is that if NI is a beggar then so is the North of England yet Shane Greer had no issue with the North of England.

Greer has argued with me that as NI is a separate state with control of its own budget it's a different matter. There's a whole further argument to be had there about the Union at what it means but for now I'll paraphrase President Josiah Bartlet somewhat: It wasn't England that declared war on Hitler's Germany, but the United Kingdom and it isn't English troops that make up the British Army. Our contribution to the Union is not solely monetary.

In his piece, Greer makes reference to The Troubles but almost immediately dismisses them as justification for Northern Ireland’s special status. This is very dangerous. Only a fool would argue that crime is not linked to poverty. In NI, crime takes on a very different and massively consequential meaning when it is umbrella'd under a cause. I'm not suggesting that we pay people not to commit crime but that, when considering cuts and the value they may provide, to ignore the unique political environment is, frankly, ridiculous.

The PSNI will confirm that there is a very real threat of increased terrorism. A new generation, unable to secure work, feeling abandoned and unwanted by their ultimate government will make up the new recruits that fuel that threat. What Greer may have missed is that should that happen, it won't just be an NI problem and the cost may end up far higher - the insurers of London's docklands can testify to that effect.

I'm sure Greer believes that somehow, the Public Sector in NI inhibits growth in Private Sector enterprise but I've never understood this argument. What inhibits growth here is a lack of incentive, poor infrastructure and if we're not careful - terrorism. I'm not sure how any of those factors arise from the public sector save for a lack of funding for infrastructure projects which ironically requires more money from the treasury coffers.

Speaking of the treasury coffers, Greer points out, incorrectly, that over and above our block grant this money is English taxpayers money. It's not. It includes revenue from English based companies recording revenue from NI, Scotland & Wales but declaring it in England. Why? Because we are United and so why not? HMRC are quite happy that profits generated in NI, Scotland & Wales aren't split so why should the distribution of public money be based on a divided model?

It serves no purpose for Greer to attack those looking to defend Public Sector workers. It is not the amount of money spent on public services that is the problem in NI, it is the proportion in relation to income from the private sector.

Yes, there are efficiencies to be made and there are indeed some areas that are probably due a cut but if, as is often argued, these cuts are about efficiencies then bringing in the disproportionate funding to NI is irrelevant. Are you cutting because you need to or because you have to?  Too much focus on public spending draws time and attention away from developing a real strategy for growth.

However, even considering the above, it is clear that Northern Ireland is still overly reliant on public money and that we desperately need to grow the private sector but I’m not sure the description of beggar suits.

Within a relationship where one partner relies on the other for the majority of their income, would it be appropriate to call the other partner a beggar for requesting a share of the income that is needed to keep the house in order when it clearly benefits both in the relationship? Of course, the wealthier partner could leave but then they would also no longer enjoy the benefits the relationship offers.

So yes, Shane Greer; NI does have a dependency on the wealthier parts of the UK, but no, it is not a beggar and to be viewed as such by our partners in this particular relationship is unfair & insulting and says more about you than it does about us.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Tom Elliot right to centralise selection, but what next?

Of the many criticisms that were thrown at the UUP and Tom Elliot over the last 9 months, that of internal indiscipline is the one that probably hurt the most, mainly due to the fact it was so very hard to deny. It was also, for the most part, an unfair one to level at Tom Elliot as an individual. In a party like the UUP, discipline is almost impossible to insist on - it has to be encouraged and for the most part, requested. This is because of the decentralised structure of the party which allows each Constituency Association to run almost autonomously.

It was this structure which led to the likes of Paula Bradshaw being deselected in South Belfast and Harry Hamilton facing a similar such scenario in Upper Bann. In my constituency of North Down, it was this structure which saw a UUP Deputy Mayor, Harry Dunlop and another UUP Councillor, Dunlop's wife, Roberta facing certain de-selection before the local elections. Harry took refuge in the DUP (a move which rewarded Dunlop with re-election and the DUP with 4 of the 6 seats in that DEA) and Roberta fought as an Independent against the UUP Constituency Chair, Colin Breen, perceived to be the driving force behind the campaign to de-select the Dunlops.

By changing the rules to allow the party leadership final approval of all candidates, Tom Elliot can now go into the next election with a field of candidates that he can truly support and of course, he will have to accept responsibility for them. Whilst this is unlikely to be a magic fix for all the UUP problems it does at least mean that one problem has become a little easier to Tom - that of putting across a unified message. There will be no excuse for candidates going 'off message' in future as they will have all had to get approval from those crafting the message and will presumably have had to sign off on it before doing so. 

However, this is just one step on the very tall ladder to successful reform. I would advise the next step to be the engagement of a brand expert. With the exception of their Assembly posters, the UUP's branding for the last elections was, to put it kindly, abysmal. Brand isn't just about the fonts and images used in your literature of course, but any expert will tell you that building a professional and respected brand is a lot harder without such standards. 

Tom Elliot needs to decide what type of Brand the UUP want to project, he needs to get his senior people on board, put a strategy in place for realising that vision and then, most importantly and perhaps most difficultly, he has to get his 'troops' to buy into it.  

This is the first indication, for me at least, that the UUP hasn't quite lost sight of the light at the end of the tunnel. 

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Where is the Republican outcry at Smithwick?

Today, the Dail voted to accept a proposal to impose a deadline for the completion of The Smithwick Inquiry into the murder of 2 senior RUC Officers. Chief Superintendent Harry Breen & Superintendent Bob Buchanan who were ambushed and shot by the IRA as they travelled back from a meeting with Gardai in Dundalk in 1989. The Inquiry was called to investigate allegations of collusion in the murder between the IRA and officers of An Garda Siochana. 

To impose such a tight deadline is, quite frankly, ridiculous and makes the whole exercise pointless. There is a wealth of evidence to examine and even if resources were made available, which they haven't been, the evidence requires a concentrated eye to ensure that nothing is missed. When the priority is a deadline and not accuracy, things will be overlooked and mistakes made.

There's a chance you may not have heard much, if anything, about this particular case and that is because the right people haven't been supporting it. By 'right people' I mean those who have experience of battling governments in cases such as these and that means republicans and more specifically, Sinn Fein.

It may seem bizarre to suggest that Sinn Fein fight for the truth to be told over the murders of two RUC officers but when you examine their past form, it really shouldn't be. Sinn Fein's support for previous Inquiries where collusion between state forces and terrorists is suspected has always been argued by Sinn Fein to be a matter of importance for everyone and not just republicans. They're absolutely right. Under no circumstances must agents of the state be allowed to murder or conspire & collude with others to murder.

So, with that in mind, where are Sinn Fein? Where is their vociferous support for the families of Breen & Buchanan (I understand it may not be welcomed, but it must be offered)? 

The reality is that, for Sinn Fein, the identity & background of the vitcim and the perpertrator is the real deciding factor in their hunt for the truth. You can't claim a noble cause and then pick and choose who that cause applies to. 

Sinn Fein may well believe that these men were legitimate targets for the IRA and they may even be bold enough to say so, but they must not be allowed to continue to push their 'human rights' agenda in the press without being brought to task over this case.