Watch the birdie


Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson

I am somewhat embarrassed to admit it, but sometimes I think politicians are given a hard time. I suspect that if many of us were to be judged on the standards we expect of our politicians, we’d be found wanting.

Many a journalist has accepted gifts and hospitality, yet castigated politicians for doing the same. Likewise, the expenses scandal saw a fair degree of doublethink. In my day I’ve seen many an inflated expenses form from a colleague. But hypocrisy is part of the human condition, and harsh judgments are made.

Northern Ireland is dealing with one such instance at the moment. A golfing trip by the first and deputy first ministers.

Trips abroad – jollies in journalistic jargon – are often a target for comment in the papers. You know the stories, local councillors going to Florida to look at how bin collection is handled or visiting Amsterdam to examine how the Dutch authorities manage the vice trade.

Some of these trips can be legitimate. Politicians often need their horizons expanded, countries need to engage in soft diplomacy to build relations and foster trade, and sometimes the only way to find out how something works is to see it at first hand.

Quite what category you would put Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness’s visit to Gleneagles, where this year’s Ryder Cup is being played, is anyone’s guess. Rory McElroy certainly doesn’t need them cheering from the sidelines.

Unsurprisingly, the visit has not played well back in Northern Ireland where people are increasingly fed up of the inability of their politicians to work together.

Anyone who understands political history will be familiar with the term Rotten Borough. Northern Ireland is a Rotten Province. The Northern Ireland assembly is a disgrace to democracy.

The MLAs – 108 of them – are twiddling their thumbs while collecting their salaries and expenses. No legislation is being passed, yet major reform is needed to deal with the deep social problems that blight the lives of people from both traditions.

In that context, the visit to Gleneagles looks like a giant two fingers to the people of Northern Ireland. No doubt it will be said that their presence increases the chances of attracting major golfing tournaments to some of Northern Ireland’s exceptional links courses.

A much better way would be by demonstrating to the world that Northern Ireland is facing up to its responsibilities, and its politicians are focusing on the things which make a material difference to people’s lives. They need to demonstrate it is a functioning democracy.

Business, tourists, and multi-million pound-earning sporting events will come to Northern Ireland when people are confidence they are coming to a society that is comfortable in its own skin.

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness both have to watch their backs politically. But sometimes history calls on politicians to put their own personal preservation to one side, and to take the tough decisions needed to advance the best interests of their people.

If ever a place needs leadership, it is Northern Ireland. It will not be found on a golf course in central Scotland.



Live music – the gift that keeps on giving

The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra opened its new season in Glasgow last night. It was a blistering occasion – a heady mixture of Russian music, Mussorgsky’s Night on the Bare Mountain, Scriabin’s Piano Concerto and Shostakovich’s tenth symphony. The City Halls were packed for the concert, which featured the Tchaikovsky prize-winning pianist Barry Douglas (above) and which was conducted by the orchestra’s charismatic chief conductor Donald Runnicles. It was broadcast live on Radio 3.

In the classical music world, the future of the BBC orchestras is a constant topic of idle speculation, and over the past couple of months the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra has been the subject of particular attention. One of the consequences of Scottish independence would have been the break-up of the BBC. Whether a Scottish broadcaster would have had the resources – or indeed the inclination – to maintain the orchestra was unclear.

The BBC’s pivotal role in the development of classical music in Britain cannot be underestimated. It remains one of the primary patrons of new music, in addition to the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, it sustains orchestras in Wales and England (the BBC Symphony, the BBC Philharmonic and the BBC Concert orchestras) and its funding for the Ulster Orchestra is critical to its survival. The BBC Proms remains one of the most remarkable festivals of music in the world today.

Times have changed, resources are limited, and the pressure on BBC Radio Three is enormous.

When the Ulster Orchestra was founded in the 1980s, its funding model was supposed to be rolled out across the BBC orchestras. The BBC Northern Ireland Orchestra morphed into a new organisation with the Beeb as a partner alongside the Arts Council, Belfast City Council and the private sector (in the form of tobacco giant Gallaher – now JTI).

Luckily for the other orchestras, the experiment stopped there. Unfortunately for the Ulster Orchestra, it has left it in a perilous position – underfunded by the Arts Council (itself underfunded by a Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure which is no champion for the arts) and neglected by Belfast City Council which does not understand the value of this cultural asset.

The notion that the private sector in Northern Ireland would step up to the plate was fanciful. There’s no private sector there worth talking about.

Compared with its sister city Belfast, Glasgow is well served. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the Scottish Ensemble and the BBCSSO all command audiences, and the music scene is vibrant.

They benefit from being able to draw on a larger population base than their Belfast cousins. But crucially they are based in a city which has put cultural tourism at the heart of its strategy. Glasgow is proud of its cultural assets in a way Belfast is not – for all the investment there has been in capital infrastructure in recent years.

As the broadcasting environment changes, the BBC orchestras will face more and more challenges to justify themselves.

Many people will have little sympathy for an art form for which they find it hard to relate to, and the arts are an easy target for the number-crunchers and bean counters. The creative industries rely on people, and people are expensive.

But without creativity, we are nothing. Directly and indirectly, the creative industries feed our souls and have a significant impact on things we do value as a society – the creation of wealth. In a world where brain rather than brawn is the key differentiator, creativity has added importance.
Our musicians, actors, dancers and singers provide the type of creative environment which stimulates our minds.

And there is another reason why we should support and sustain our orchestras. There is nothing quite like the communal experience of sitting in a hall with 1,000 strangers experiencing music live. There is a level of engagement and excitement which cannot be replicated (as BBC Radio 3 discovered through its ill-fated experiment in broadcasting concerts ‘as live’ rather than live).

We live in a needy world, we have to priorities where we spend our money, but a world which has no place for the arts and creativity, which has no ears for music, is not worth inhabiting.

Salmond: Scotland’s Independence martyr

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAlex Salmond’s shock resignation in the aftermath of the independence referendum result brings an end to one of the most colourful political careers in Scottish politics.

And Salmond’s influence stretched far beyond Scotland. The Westminster press corp regarded him as one of the most astute politicians in British politics. His innate political ability exposed the paucity of the current batch of national political leaders.

Salmond’s departure, so quickly after the loss of the independence vote, came as a shock. But it is astute. By passing the baton to the next generation, he will help the nationalists regroup, and develop their tactics for the next assault on the Union. His deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, is almost certain to succeed him. She is a formidable politician, who has learned an enormous amount from this campaign. And, if anything, she wants Scottish independence more than her fallen leader did.

The gap between Yes and No was clear. But those who think the vote draws a line under this particular constitutional adventure are wrong. The fun is just beginning, and the nationalists believe time is on their side. The No voters are primarily older Scots, while Yes galvanised the young.

It is trues that the simple arithmetic of the result suggested a cut-and-dried decision to keep the status quo. As soon as the result was clear, the banks – who had threatened to flee south in the event of a Yes vote – were issuing statement saying ‘it’s business as usual’.

But it’s not business as usual. The United Kingdom has looked into the abyss and realised it is not immortal; to save his skin Cameron has over-promised powers to Scotland; Labour has lost authority in its electoral heartland, and after a poor showing on the stomp few now see Ed Miliband as a prime minister in waiting.

The Scottish Nationalists may not have won, but they have succeeded in dealing a near fatal blow to the British body politic. Alex Salmond has already banked the extra powers offered by a panicked prime minister and the other main UK party leaders. Ever the pragmatist, it will be used for extra leverage as his party continues to establish itself as the natural party of government in Scotland.

Ironically, this independence poll was a vote Salmond did not want. He would have preferred to establish the SNP’s credentials in government before going to the country on independence. He was not supposed to win the last Scottish Parliament election outright – indeed the voting system had been established to deprive parties of an absolute majority.

Minority government would have suited him well. But having been returned with a full mandate, he had no choice but to go now with the referendum. It was in his manifesto. He played it long – the No side wanted the ballot earlier in this parliament. But in his heart of hearts, Salmond must have known the timing was not right. The final result was probably as good as he could have hoped for.

Also bad for him was the timing of the YouGov poll showing a majority for Yes. Westminster mobilised and threw money and more powers at the Scots, the Yes campaign lost control of the story for a crucial couple of days, and the No voters focused on what they had to lose.

Peaking too soon is often fatal, and so it proved. Like Moses he has seen the promised land, but will never reach it himself.

Although they won the war, and you cannot dismiss the scale of the victory, the Labour-led Better Together campaign lost most of their battles. Lacklustre Alastair Darling failed the leadership test, and the No campaign only started showing passion when Labour’s fallen leader Gordon Brown entered the fray.

The loss of Glasgow, the cockpit of Labour in Scotland, to the Yes campaign bodes ill for any hope of a resurgence for the party at the next Scottish parliamentary election. Disaffected Yes voters are flocking now to the SNP.

The only party leader who emerged from the No campaign with dignity was the youthful Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, a former broadcast journalist. Her high profile may help the Tories claw their way back electorally. Yes, there are Tories in Scotland – almost half a million in the last general election.

The result has ended one constitutional crisis, but it has created another. David Cameron said the British constitution will be turned on its head in months rather than years or decades, but the pledge – made without consulting Tory backbenchers – is unravelling, and constitutional experts are already warning of the unintended consequences of his timetable. As we have seen over the weekend, English nationalists are waking up to the impact on them and their constituents.

English Tory MPs (there is only one in Scotland) find it hard to justify subsidising a socially liberal Scottish regime to their English constituents who are feeling the pinch. Free higher education, care for the elderly and free NHS prescriptions north of the border are being subsidised by the English. Northern Ireland, and its head-in-the-sand Assembly evokes a similar reaction.

Expect to see guerrilla warfare in the Commons and Lords over new constitutional programmes, a resurgence of English (rather than British) nationalism, and a Scotland disappointed once again by the pace of change – with almost half the electorate feeling they have been cheated forever of their birth-right to be a nation once again.

For all the talk of a federal UK, it is hard to see how it could function effectively with a country as large and rich as England – its population is some 54 million – alongside the minnows of Scotland (5 million), Wales (3 million) and Northern Ireland (1.8 million).

There’s one other constitutional oddity from this campaign that is worth reflection. Widening the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds has been a success. They have taken their obligations seriously, listened to the debate and made their decisions. Many voted Yes. Hopefully the disappointment of the outcome will not discourage them. There is no question in my mind that the franchise should be extended for all elections.

The underpinning principle of the Northern Ireland peace process, was John Hume’s post-nationalist doctrine: people not territory. It was a vision which promised a new way of managing our relationships with others: a turning away from the narrow nationalism of the 19th century which saw two world wars, provoked genocides across Europe, and created a world divided by walls.

Recent events in Eastern Europe suggest that nationalism has not gone away. Salmond tried to position the SNP as civic nationalists. But there was a degree of flag waving and triumphalism in this campaign that was disturbing and backward looking.

With independence now off the agenda for at least a generation, it remains to be seen whether Salmond’s successor has the intellectual and emotional capacity to become Scotland’s John Hume. Can the SNP heal the wounds of this campaign, and unite the Scottish people, in the process delivering the material rewards they promised? The alternative is unthinkable, retiring hurt and bloodied; wrapping the Saltire more tightly around their shoulders and retreating into factionalism.

By falling on his sword, Salmond has neutralised the impact of the lost referendum vote on the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon who headed up the Yes campaign, and made a martyr of himself in the process. Salmond is not without his negatives, but his speedy and unexpected resignation has garnered a fund of goodwill for him and his cause, and created another flawed hero for Scots to rally round.

A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on Saturday September 20

Ian Paisley and the Zelig Complex


One of the downsides of the explosion in blogging, micro-blogging  and online publishing is the emergence of the Zelig Complex. Those of a certain age will remember the Woody Allen film in which his character inserts himself into historic events. Zelig so yearns for approval that he changes character – chameleon like – to blend into whatever situation he finds himself in.

Allen, who seems to have the inside track on modern neuroses, knew instinctively then that we were entering a period of human history when mankind was so self-absorbed that we would lose sight of where the line between reality and celebrity lies. Photo-bombing and the Selfie are the most recent manifestations of this.

In journalism, the equivalent is the retelling of stories of close encounters with statesmen and women, stars, writers and artists and anyone else likely to earn for themselves a footnote in history. Often the source of anecdotes for dinner parties, or bar room banter, these stories can assume mythic proportions. Their currency is highest at the moment when the subject of the story passes into history.

I have led a sheltered life, and these moments for me are few and far between. When news came this week of the death of the Rev Ian Paisley I was presented with one of those moments. Nervous of betraying my Zelig-like tendencies, I initially stayed my hand. But it is impossible to let this passing of an era go without committing some thoughts to the page.

There is an old Irish tradition of never speaking ill of the dead. For some it’s an easy stricture to observe. Others test it. With the passing of Ian Paisley, it is a rule of etiquette that has been pushed to the limits and beyond.

Ironically, it was a former leader of the consensus-seeking, polite and middle class Alliance Party who couldn’t withhold his negative judgment on the ‘Big Man’ of British and Irish politics. John Cushnahan expressed astonishment at the way history was being rewritten. Paisley’s life was marked by “nakedly sectarian acts and deeds”. For the majority of his political life, Paisley had inflicted “pain and suffering” on the people of Northern Ireland throughout his political life.

As an antidote, the handwritten words of Paisley’s political foe, and then job-share partner, Martin McGuinness has a poignancy alongside a continuing political charge. “In rising above old enmities we pointed the to a better and peaceful future. The peace process and I have lost a friend.” (Zelig-ologists will notice the intrusive ‘we’ in his comments.)

The irony is that, for Ian Paisley, his 2007 conversion to the principles of power sharing came too late. By that time thousands had lost their lives, and many more had lost their belief in a positive future for Northern Ireland. He achieved his life-long ambition of being First Minister, but as a leader of a party that had a Pavlovian response to the prospect of working with republicans and nationalists.

Ian Paisley had trained them in the art of saying No. And he trained them well. His successor as DUP leader, Peter Robinson, has proven unfit to the task of peacemaker, and the so-called peace process is running into the sand.

In a balanced and compassionate editorial, which did not pull its punches, The Irish News summed up his legacy well. “Today the party which he founded is constrained in policy and politics because the theory and practice of Paisleyism lives on. For him that represents an unfortunate political legacy. For the rest of us it is a burden which we have not yet learned to unload.”

On reflection, it’s difficult not to believe that there were two Ian Paisleys operating in Northern Ireland at the same time. There was the anti-Catholic bigot, and the MP who worked as hard for his Catholic constituents as the Protestant ones; there was the man who opposed violence, and the firebrand who used paramilitarism as a weapon. There was the fundamentalist fire and brimstone preacher, and the loving husband I once witnessed patting his wife on the bottom as they queued for food at a carvery. (Zelig moment there).

I did not know him well. But I met one Ian Paisley who went for me in a television interview, implying I had suggested in an editorial that he should be shot. “You said you wanted me silenced… silenced.” In fact what the paper had said was if he had nothing constructive to say “a period of silence was recommended”.

On another occasion, at a dinner party, I met another Ian Paisley who put a comforting arm around my shoulder and praised the work of Imagine Belfast 2008 – the company that failed in its bid to bring the European Capital of Culture to the city. I was its chair and that day the Northern Ireland Audit Office had issued a mildly critical report on how we went about it. I was expecting a ribbing, but not a bit of it.

He was, it must be said, the life and soul of that particular party. Relaxed, supremely self-confident, and cracking jokes. He could easily have had a career on the stage (and perhaps he had).

Yet this was the same Ian Paisley who, a generation earlier, had been preaching at the end of a street while a mob was intimidating my in-laws out of their home. My wife became a refugee in her own city. Yet she sat beside him laughing and enjoying the crack. Such is the journey some have made in Northern Ireland.

Reflecting now a few days after his passing, the Ian Paisley I see in my mind’s eye is an ordinary human being, like the rest of us afflicted by the Zelig Complex.

He inserted himself in history, and changed it irrevocably. But for all Martin McGuinness’s fine words (and he carries a lot of baggage of his own) I doubt that Paisley’s lasting legacy will be a positive one. Northern Ireland remains the land of: “Never, Never, Never.” There are people engaged in sectarianism today who never experienced the Troubles. I hope history proves me wrong.

May he rest in peace.












Unionism’s Last Stand

They’ll be playing the Sash in Edinburgh on Saturday when the Orange Order takes to the Scottish capital’s streets to oppose independence. But it may be the last hurrah for unionism. There’s a bandwagon rolling, and it’s got the word ‘Yes’ written all over it.

The end of empire, decades of out of touch government from Westminster, and the centrifugal force of devolution has taken its toll on the United Kingdom.

Some 400 years after the English and Scottish crowns were united, and 300 after the parliaments were combined, the Union is on its knees, and on September 18 Scotland’s five million voters will decide whether it should be put out of its misery.

I will be one of them – an Irishman abroad who, as a Scottish resident, has been invited to join this act of self-determination.

The politics of the Green and the Orange, so much part of my growing up and working life, is evident in Scotland too. There are warnings on the trains about the consequences of indulging in sectarian abuse; issues of Church and state are still part of the political and cultural discourse and, although they are leagues apart now, Celtic and Rangers’ competition still has its edge.

Scots today try to play down the ancient enmities that have their roots in the Presbyterian plantation of Ulster, and the mass immigration of Irish Catholics to Glasgow and its environs. But every now and then it manifests itself – like the parade in Edinburgh’s Princes Street on Saturday.

I doubt they will scare many No voters into the Yes camp, but the Orange march is still an embarrassment to those campaigning to keep Scotland in the United Kingdom – as is UKIP leader Nigel Farage’s intention come up and campaign in Scotland for a No vote. The No campaign – whose banner Better Together is increasingly taking on the tinge of irony – needs both like a hole in the head.

It has disassociated itself from UKIP and the Orange march. You know a campaign is in trouble if it is constantly distancing itself from its supporters.

Sinn Fein has been sitting this one out, conscious that it does not want to scare off those who might be willing to take a risk with an independent Scotland. Officially the party says ‘it’s up to the Scots’. But you can be sure there’s a crate of Champagne in the Sinn Fein HQ’s fridge chilling in case the vote goes for the ‘aye’ camp. The phrase ‘England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity’ still carries its potency.

Republicans know that without Scotland, the UK as we know it ceases to exist, and we can only guess at the unintended consequences for the politics of Northern Ireland. The Ulster-Scots bond is strong – but working class unionists are as distrustful of Eton-educated English Tories as are their Scottish counterparts.

If Better Together loses the vote on the 18th, it’ll not be because of the boys in bowler hats, or the lunatic fringe on the British right. It will be because the people of Scotland have lost faith in the United Kingdom’s ability to deliver the quality of life they want for themselves and their children.

And it will because Better Together has been unable to articulate a positive vision of the United Kingdom and how it can benefit the Scots.

The No campaign – made up of Labour, Liberal Democrat and Tories – is an uneasy coalition of political foes. They proved to be incapable of finding a compelling message that resonated with the electorate – emotionally or intellectually.

It’s hard to champion the Union when so many of your supporters are still sore about Thatcherism, the Poll Tax, the Miners’ Strike, the war in Iraq, and the bedroom tax.

The polls have been narrowing, with the first registering a Yes at the weekend. It’s hard to imagine any poll that has been quite so much of a game changer. That said, I suspect the likelihood remains that Scotland will vote No next week. The status quo tends to have the advantage in referendums – particularly among the ‘don’t knows’ and ‘won’t tells’.

But I wouldn’t be willing to put my money on that outcome.

In addition to the final decision of the undecided, another unknown is the extent to which the Yes campaign can mobilise those who traditionally don’t vote.

This section of the electorate, alienated from the political process, will be tempted to give London a bloody nose, and the SNP has been paying particular attention to them. It has also been courting the Labour vote who feel disenfranchised by the Conservative-dominated coalition, and who have never forgotten Maggie.

Whatever the outcome, SNP leader Alex Salmond will almost certainly emerge stronger from the vote. If he loses it will not be a shock, and he will have built a platform for the next assault.

If he wins, he will join Robert the Bruce, William Wallace and Robert Burns as one of Scotland’s heroes.

He has already transformed the political landscape of the UK, forever.

The grim reality for David Cameron and the wider unionist family is that United Kingdom, as we know it, is dead in the water. Once the independence genie has been let out of the bottle – and it has been – it cannot be put back in. Greater powers for Scotland, certain whatever the outcome; and increasing frustration with a remote and out-of-touch government in London, will lead inevitably to a break.

Salmond is well aware of his history. It is not an accident that the referendum was called in the 700th anniversary year of the Battle of Bannockburn when Robert the Bruce routed the English.

From the ramparts of Stirling Castle, the statue of Robert the Bruce looks out over central Scotland – from the monument to Braveheart William Wallace and along the River Forth as it weaves its way to Edinburgh. In the 700 years since his victory over the English, Scotland has been through tough times. It has been battered and bloodied. But today it is self-confident and has developed a strong sense of identity that transcends the kitsch Scottishness of Andy Stewart and his tartan-clad ilk. Many feel this is its time.

If the vote is No, the debate about Scotland’s future in the United Kingdom will only intensify. If the vote is Yes – everything changes. “Hope springs exulting on triumphant wing,” wrote Robert Burns. Alex Salmond will be hoping that his sense of optimism for the future carries the day.

This article first appeared in The Irish News on September 9 2014