Thursday, 27 November 2008

Worrying Challenge to Freedom of Expression

I hadn’t actually heard about this incident until I spotted an article on it while leafing through a recent copy of PR Week, but it certainly raises issues over freedom of expression and where the boundary lines ought to lie.

A couple of weeks ago, a Waterstone’s branch in Cardiff decided to cancel a book-signing by poet Patrick Jones, the brother of Manic Street Preachers member Nicky Wire. The move came after the campaign group ‘Christian Voice’ described the book-Darkness Is Where the Stars Are- as “obscene and blasphemous” and protested at the shop in question. The national director of Christian Voice, Stephen Green, said the decision to cancel the event was a triumph “for the Lord, not for us. The Lord had not even showed me what we should do at Waterstone's, only that it should be Christlike.”

In response, two Members of the Welsh Assembly have invited the poet to read his work at the Assembly next month. Mr Green isn’t too pleased at this latest development, saying: “It’s a disgrace this should be happening in the Assembly. Peter Black [one of the AMs involved] has alienated all his Christian constituents. He has made it official Lib Dem policy to insult Jesus Christ.”

Christian Voice first came to prominence in 2004 when they launched a vociferous campaign against the BBC screening of ‘Jerry Springer the Musical’. At the time, the BBC refused to back down, saying that the artistic merit of the show outweighed any offence it may cause.

It’s a pity Waterstone’s didn’t take a similar stance.

Notwithstanding the content of the book- which I haven’t read- throughout the history of modern literature, the medium has been about creativity, breaking new ground and challenging people’s views.

That Waterstone’s waved the white flag so willingly on this issue sets a dangerous precedent. They say that they will continue to sell the book in their stores, but obviously weren’t prepared to stand by it when the heat was on.

Waterstone’s need to make up their mind where they stand on the issue of literary freedom- they can’t have it both ways.

And there’s another thing that should be borne in mind. The people who are protesting against this publication aren’t its target audience. It’s one thing being offended; it’s quite another to seek out offence.

Clearly there is a place for intervention when something is so repulsive to a significant chunk of society, or where there is a strong chance that it could incite crime for instance, that to do nothing would be bad judgement or negligent. However, to acquiesce at the first sign of issue being taken by a small, vocal group of protestors is nothing short of censorship and challenges the concept of freedom of expression.

Waterstone’s make their money by selling readers the literary creations of authors. Perhaps they should have taken this into consideration before turning their backs on Patrick Jones and his fans.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Flag of Inconvenience

Over on Slugger, Mark McGregor has pointed out a useful site based in Romania which lays out the record of Members of the European Parliament.

Closer inspection of Bairbre de Brún's profile shows her party designation as 'Sinn Féin' complete with a union flag.

Her southern counterpart Mary Lou McDonald gets a tricolour on hers.

Oh the joys of Irish/ British/ Northern Irish (delete as appropriate) politics...

Monday, 24 November 2008

Community Shock

There was a palpable sense of shock in Newry in Mourne yesterday as news came through of the deaths of four young police officers on the road between Warrenpoint and Rostrevor. Indeed, I've just got word that the council has cancelled its meeting tonight as a mark of respect.

Policing by its very nature is a dangerous job, but not since the Troubles has a police force in the north sustained this level of death in one incident. The circumstances of the accident and the possibility that the armour, which was aimed at protecting those inside, may have made the situation worse just makes it even more tragic.

One thing that has come across to me is the sense that people from all sections of the community feel this loss personally, which gives some sense of how young officers like this are building a new police service for everyone.

My thoughts are with the families of those who lost their lives yesterday.

Rest in Peace.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Situation Rectified

I just noticed that the commenting facility on Northern Notes was somewhat restrictive in that people had to register, etc. to leave a message on the blog. However, I've now changed the settings which will make it a lot easier to leave comments.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Fine Gael National Conference

Teilifís Éireann are broadcasting live from the Fine Gael National Conference in Wexford today. The party itself will also be streaming leader Enda Kenny's speech tonight from 8.30pm. The event isn't an Ard Fheis as there's no voting, so it will essentially act as a showpiece for Fine Gael to set out its stall ahead of any possible snap election.

I remember chatting to Enda Kenny before the last southern election in 2007, and at the time he was quietly confident that they could return enough TDs to form a government. In the event, his party fell short, although they improved massively on their 2002 seat tally. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then, including the financial crisis and budget cuts, and I think it would be fair to say that Kenny et al will be hoping that another election isn't too far off.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Is shopping in the north unpatriotic?

It was somewhat baffling to hear southern Finance Minister Brian Lenihan complaining on RTÉ radio that “We’ve enough problems with people going to Northern Ireland for many goods and services… there is a huge loss of revenue to Northern Ireland because of all the purchases that are taking place there,” as featured on last night’s Hearts and Minds. This came along with his comments in the Dáil that his budget was “No less than a call to patriotic action.”

Is the Minister suggesting that money being spent north of the border is less desirable than money being spent in the south? Surely as a party which aspires to Irish unity and has attempted to form Cumainn in the north, it shouldn’t matter to Fianna Fáil where on the island goods and services are being purchased. Yes, the southern government may not derive tax revenue from items bought in the north, but with the British government forking-out more money to sustain the north that it hauls-in in taxes, it’s not as if Whitehall is filling its coffers thanks to southerners stocking up with booze in Sainsbury’s in Newry.

The southern government has pumped a lot of money into the north, for instance through the funding of the Narrow Water bridge project, but this risks being undermined if it appears that their support for the people of the north is highly conditional and secondary to the wellbeing to the people of the south.

Brian Lenihan has to accept that the simple rules of economics apply. Gone are the days when people would blindly follow what the government told them- Mr Lenihan has raised VAT, put a ‘levy’ on people’s income, the euro is strong, and retail prices in the south continue to stay high above those in the north, so it should come as no surprise that people are looking for the cheaper option by coming north.

It isn’t the responsibility of shoppers to stay south of the border and pay above the odds- if the southern government wants people to spend their euros in Dublin instead of Belfast, then they’re going to have to make shopping in the south more appealing by offering tax breaks and tackling the exorbitant prices in the Republic. Otherwise, any complaints from the southern government about people straying north of the border just comes across as, well, unpatriotic.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Important Assembly Business: Strictly Come Dancing and The X Factor

With conspiracy theories doing the rounds over John Sergeant's sudden departure from Strictly Come Dancing (I'm afraid I can't be counted as a fan of the show myself), as the BBC show and its rival on ITV, The X Factor, reach their respective climaxes, the following question has appeared in the Assembly list for answer:

"Questions to the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure

1. Mr Shannon (Strangford):

To ask the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure if his Department would issue a statement to support and vote for Christine Bleakley in Strictly Come Dancing and Eoghan Quigg in X Factor."

I'm sure everyone would support said individuals, but with the recent scandal over BBC and ITV phone-ins, the Minister may stop short of encouraging people to vote in these shows.

That said, it seems that Sinn Féin already beat Jim to it when it comes to getting involved in this TV talent show phenomenon...

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

That Word 'Historic' Raises Its Head Again

The other week I said the word 'history' usually forms part of a cliché when used to describe events.

It seems Shaun Woodward doesn't read Northern Notes.

The Northern Ireland Secretary described the DUP and Sinn Féin's decision to sit down together after a five-month hiatus since, erm, they last did it, as "historic".

As a pal on Facebook said: "[I'm] amused that Mr.Woodward believes the decision to hold Executive meetings is 'historic'. Exactly how many historic breakthroughs is it possible for NI to have?"


Tuesday, 18 November 2008

The Executive Est De Retour. Hopefully.

After 152 days of deadlock, it appears that the Executive will finally meet. The news comes as the DUP and Sinn Féin announce that they've come to an arrangement over the devolution of policing and justice.

The Executive will now meet this Thursday and will continue to do so on a weekly basis until the mammoth backlog of work that has built up since the Ministers last sat down together is cleared.

Meanwhile, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness have said that they may invite John Larkin QC to become the new Attorney General for Northern Ireland.

So what took so long? When jobs are being haemorrhaged left, right and centre and people are facing into a winter of fuel poverty with the high retail price of oil and gas, I can't see how it would really have been that difficult for the key players to have sat down over tea and scones a few months ago (or even at St Andrews long before that) to sort this out. Ultimately all the grandstanding has come to nothing- they've reached a compromise, which was always the only possible outcome short of collapsing the devolved institutions. Gone are the days when the Prime Minister and Taoiseach would jet-in to bang heads together, throw a few million quid at the north and dander off into the sunset with everything sorted. Now local politicians are having to sort out problems for themselves.

Business in Northern Ireland is crying out for the devolved administration to come up with tailored plans to deal with the local effects of the financial crisis. Workers are looking to Stormont to stimulate growth and protect jobs at a time when there is very little good news on the employment front. International leaders have been meeting continually to find ways of softening the blow of the impending global recession. Yet it is only now that the Executive in Northern Ireland has cleared issues that have a medium-term deadline so they can get around to focussing on problems that face people right now.

I don't think people are too worried if there's a battle a day, just so long as the politicians produce the goods in time. With the hissy-fit over, for now, that's what the public will be expecting and demanding.

Monday, 17 November 2008

The Game of Politics

Kensei over on Slugger O’Toole posted an interesting article in which the problems facing Nintendo in 2005 are equated to those of the SDLP around the same time. In the face of stiff competition from global giants Sony and Microsoft, Nintendo had been forced into third place in the gaming market. However, they set about taking a strategic approach to develop new markets and boost sales, in the process redefining the market with the advent of the Wii and DS platforms.

Kensei argues that, unlike Nintendo, the SDLP has taken none of the key steps needed to change the status quo and thus remains in a peripheral position.

In the whole 1990s Sonic v Mario war, I was firmly in the Sega camp. However, Kensei has a point. Despite the fact that the Executive deadlock has just passed the 150-day point, the SDLP seems unable to capitalise on the stagnation or develop a strategic and original approach to make the most of the stalemate.

It is simply not enough to stand by and wait for a competitor to mess-up. A viable alternative has to be provided in order for people to change their voting habits. Sinn Féin built-up such an alternative in the late 1990s, culminating in them overtaking the SDLP in 2001. They didn’t hang about waiting for people to get bored with the SDLP- after all, Hume’s party had been the biggest on the nationalist side for three decades, so there would have been plenty of waiting to do- they worked to develop a product that many voters obviously felt comfortable switching to from the SDLP. And so it is now, save with the roles reversed. Sinn Féin may be having problems delivering, but if nationalist voters are to withdraw their support for Adams’ party and bring about a new dynamic within the Executive by voting for the other nationalist party, then the SDLP has to provide a strategic, competent, attractive, relevant and viable alternative for voters.

If the SDLP wants to make inroads, it needs to grab the proverbial Wii controller and score a home run while the opposition team is looking the other way.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Donegall Place: Block It Off and Open It Up

The appalling tragedy earlier this week of a young girl being killed by a bus in Belfast city centre was an accident waiting to happen. Royal Avenue and Donegall Place are deathtraps. I don't know how many times I've had to weave in between vehicles just to get across from one side to the other while doing a spot of shopping. There's only one pedestrian crossing on a stretch of main street that must run for at least half a mile. Where else in Europe would this be the case? Can you imagine Grafton Street having traffic careering down the middle of it?

For a long time I've thought that Donegall Place could become a focal point for Belfast if it was closed off and pedestrianised. It would provide a great open space that could accommodate cafés, stalls and entertainment. Not to mention safety for shoppers.

Belfast has come on a lot in recent years- the winter market at City Hall and Victoria Square are great additions. But it needs to think about the bigger picture if it's going to compete with other cities such as Edinburgh and Dublin. Having narrow paths and a busy road on the main shopping street is not a good thing. Keeping shops closed until one o'clock in the afternoon on a Sunday is not a good thing. It time for Belfast to think about what's best for the people who live in the city and those who are visiting.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Alban's Moustache- Death By A Thousand Cuts

Earlier in the week I blogged about my suggestion that Alban Maginness should lose the 'tache for Children in Need. I can now confirm that the date with the man with the blade has been set. By the power of Facebook, via internet trendsetter Alasdair McDonnell, I got word that the North Belfast MLA's much-loved lip-dressing is for the chop tomorrow. There will be no reprieve. There is no right to appeal. The remains will be laid to rest in the barber's bin.

Rest in Peace.

Update: Photographic evidence has now been received of the moustache being decommissioned:

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

The Armistice: Ninety Years Ago Today

'Dulce et Decorum Est'
By Wilfred Owen (18th March 1893- 4th November 1918)

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, —
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Monday, 10 November 2008

The Chop for Charity

I suggested recently to people in the SDLP that Alban Maginness should shave off his famous moustache to raise some cash for Children in Need. I thought my proposal had fallen on deaf ears until the following press release popped into my inbox:


With Children in Need fast approaching the Chair of the SDLP Assembly Group, Alban Maginness MLA, has agreed, with a little persuasion, to shave off his moustache in the name of charity. This decision has not been taken lightly by the esteemed member – the moustache has been an integral and longstanding part of Mr Maginness’s makeup.

Alban hopes to hold a shaving ceremony on Thursday of this week and photographic evidence of this particular piece of decommissioning will be provided! Speaking today Alban said:
“This is a decision I have not taken lightly. My moustache has been a close friend to me over the years, through good times and bad, through thick and thinning! It was present at the birth of my children and during many election campaigns walking the streets of North Belfast. The thought of being without it, for even a short while, fills me with both fear and trepidation.

On a serious note though, the moustache can grow back, I may even prefer life without it, but through the small efforts of many fundraisers throughout the North every year, Children in Need provides hope for many of the most needy and most overlooked sections of our society.

The truth is that we all can make a difference, however small. We can all work alone or with others to, to draw attention to the event, raise funds for Children in Need, and take part in the knowledge that we are taking part in something bigger. My moustache may have been a major part of my life, but it is only one small story among thousands that are told every year when raising money for Children in Need.”

I know it'll be tough for Alban to wave goodbye to this much loved appendage, but he'll be fine- so long as he maintains a stuff upper lip of course...

Death By Whimper

The British Labour Party's 1983 election manifesto was once described as the "longest suicide note in history". In the event, Labour were thrashed, but managed to survive. The demise of the Progressive Democrats was a much more protracted affair than one ill-advised document, but ultimately is has been final and conclusive. The PDs are at an end.

At a special conference held at the weekend, the party membership gave their seal of approval to the leadership's previously stated position that the PDs were no longer viable and ought to be wound up.

There were some dissenting voices though. At the end of a four-hour debate, some 161 delegates wanted to keep the party going, compared with 201 who voted to see it put out of its misery. However, with party leader Ciaran Cannon, former leader and Health Minister Mary Harney and founder Des O'Malley all wanting the axe to fall on over two decades of operation, any attempt to keep the life support machine running was about as likely to succeed as a campaign to get Sarah Palin appointed Secretary of State in Obama's new administration.

The erasure from existence of the Progressive Democrats will create some headaches for Fianna Fáil. I think it's fair to say that the PDs took a lot of the flak for some unpopular decisions made during successive administrations, particularly with regard to health, thus shielding the senior coalition partner from much of the public censure. Mary Harney has signalled that she won't be returning to join her original party, Fianna Fáil, but will be going it alone. Assuming she loses the Health portfolio on account of her no longer having any numerical clout in the Dáil at her disposal, and Greens aren't stupid enough to take on the role, the responsibility will fall to Fianna Fáil to appoint a Health Minister from within its own ranks. This carries with it the burden of having to take often unpopular decisions, particularly given that they've chosen to adopt a slash-and-burn approach to healthcare provision.

The party is over for the PDs, but it's Fianna Fáil who may suffer the hangover.

Friday, 7 November 2008

A Question of Life and Death

Earlier in the week I suggested that Fianna Fáil might be on a purposeful crusade of ineptitude with a view to losing enough seats in the next election for Fine Gael to seize power.

The plot thickens.

Now the southern government has announced that in order to save money it is scrapping plans to roll-out the HPV vaccine to schoolgirls. The programme would have cost less than €10 million annually, a drop in the ocean in terms of government expenditure.

How can they possibly justify this? Here we have a simple jab that can prevent young people dying. Yet now, for the sake of a few quid, the government is willing to risk these people's lives. This is a shockingly callous and unnecessary move that targets yet again the most vulnerable in society. And when you take into account those people whom the southern 'health service' will have to treat when they contract cancer thanks to not having been given this vaccine, will the government really save that much? That's if they bother treating them of course.

After the drama of the budget, is it really conceivable that the southern government would make another faux-pas so soon and still actually want to hold on to power? Something doesn't add up.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

History Is Made

To say that history has been made is usually a cliché, but upon the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States of America, the phrase can be legitimately deployed. For the first time in American history, a black man has been elected head of state.

The importance of this cannot be overestimated.

When Obama was born, America was a very different place. Life for people in many parts of the country was one of segregation. Civil rights activists faced violence and death. Many black people were even prevented from voting.

But not now.

Obama preached the ideology of change during his campaign and spectacularly managed to mobilise a nation of young and ethnic-minority voters to join those who traditionally cast their ballot every four years. The world was entranced as finally they saw a spectacular way to sweep away eight years of right-wing rule under George W Bush.

However, Obama does now face a tough challenge. He inherits an economy in tatters, US troops are still stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan and he has to deliver on all his promise of change.
History has been made. America has taken a glorious and proud step forward. The world watches in hope.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

My US Presidential Prediction

Part of the fun of elections is predicting how things will turn out when the polls have closed and all the votes have been counted. In reality in US Presidential Elections, there is only real competition in a handful of states, and it is there that the decision will be made today. I've tended to give Obama the benefit of the doubt in the particularly close states, coming to a conclusion that he will secure 363 Electoral College votes to McCain's 175.

Monday, 3 November 2008

A Cunning Plan?

Speaking on Saturday night at Fine Gael's President's Dinner, Enda Kenny told the audience that his party needs to be ready for a General Election in 2009. Kenny also said that the current southern government has lost authority, adding that Fine Gael is ready to lead and make the tough decisions necessary to restore the Republic's economic growth.

The Mayo TD also announced that he will be touring the south until the end of the year, attending 30 public meetings organised by Fine Gael across the state.

All this comes a week after a Sunday Business Post/RedC opinion poll showed Fine Gael gaining five points against a Fianna Fáil drop of 10 points.

However, this all seems a bit too simple for me. It was completely out of character for the arch-pragmatists of Fianna Fáil to dish out a budget that was about as well-advised as Russell Brand delivering etiquette lessons to the Women's Institute. And now we have talk of going to the polls again.

I have a sneaking suspicion that it would suit Fianna Fáil to lose the next election (when I say 'lose', I mean top the poll as they always do, but without enough seats to command a majority). After all, in terms of economics we're in for another couple of lean years at least, and if belt-tightening happens under a Fine Gael administration, Fianna Fáil could relax for a bit safe in the knowledge that it's Kenny's party that will take the flak. As Kenny admits, tough decisions will need to be taken by whoever governs, and protests on the streets of the south by disgruntled septogenarians and parents in recents weeks show just how angry people can get about these things. Then, when things start to pick up a couple of years down the line, Biffo's Boys could slide back into the limelight and claim credit for things going well again. Meanwhile, Fine Gael would be left on the electoral scrapheap for a generation.

There may well be an election next year. Fine Gael may well get into government. But Enda Kenny might want to think hard about what he wishes for at this particular juncture in the global financial crisis.

Sunday, 2 November 2008


Eamon Phoenix compiles a column in the Irish News- 'On This Day'- in which he selects stories that appeared in the newspaper in the 1930s. 'Tis quite interesting reading those quaint tales of a bygone era.

So when I spotted in yesterday's newspaper a job ad stating: 'The Highways Hotel is now recruiting Kitchen Staff (may suit housewives)', I assumed the good Doctor was giving us a flavour of what 'Jobs On Thursday' looked like in days gone by, given its somewhat anachronistic approach. Alas I was wrong. It would seem that said ad is of latter day origin.

I must check in again next week. Perhaps some enterprising individual will have taken out space for a notice reading: 'Chimney Sweeps required (may suit eight-year-old urchins)'. Or maybe not.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

DUP Conference 2008

I was down at the DUP Conference at the Armagh City Hotel this weekend. The big-hitters were all on-message, with Dodds singing the praises of Robbo, Robbo singing the praises of Iris, and everyone singing the praises of Ian Paisley. Which is just as well, as the BBC were filming everything.

Sinn Féin was the biggest recipient of speaker condemnation, although there were a few digs at Jim Allister as well. Notwithstanding the oft-rumoured threat from the TUV and the fact the Executive hasn't met in months, the party put on a strong and confident front. Of course, there wasn't really much likelihood of dissent anyway given that their conferences consist purely of pre-planned, set-piece speeches by MLAs.

Nigel Dodds whipped up the 400-strong audience before Peter Robinson arrived onstage to the strains of the Verve's 'Bittersweet Symphony'. The choice of music was quite apt given that Robinson's joy at stepping out of Paisley's shadow after a quarter of a century has surely been marred by the derailment of devolved government.

The issue of devolution of policing and justice was unsurprisingly a hot topic, with the DUP leader saying that his party wanted it to happen, but only when that most immeasurable of things- unionist community confidence- is sufficient.

Overall, the DUP will surely be happy that their first conference since Peter Robinson became leader went smoothly, but the one question that wasn't answered over the weekend was 'Who's going to be the DUP candidate for Europe'? Diane Dodds might have some time on her hands since she lost her West Belfast Assembly seat and Edwin Poots hasn't fallen out of favour with the leadership- indeed, Robinson said he wanted to see the Lagan Valley MLA back in the Executive before too long.

Whoever they select, they'll have to make their mind up pretty soon.