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.