Thursday, 28 July 2005

Been away?

I can only apologise for having been offline for so long.

There has of course been plenty to write about, and fans of this Blog will be understandably disappointed that I have not been there to amuse and inform with my traditional fare of forthright bullishness.

I rather felt however, that things would move at a quite a pace and that constant commentary would only result in huge quantities of egg all over one's face as the facts and situations lurched one way then another. I would have become like the thing I most despise - 24hr News. I can't tell you how depressing it is to be close to a news story and to have to endure the constant drivel pumped out by Sky and BBC 24 as they desparately try to fill time with opinion, vaguary and so-called expert analysis. The devil makes work for idle hands.

I also knew however, that I did not possess the words or the clarity to describe how I feel about the developing scenario. I felt that I had to wait a while and let what happens happen. I can't do anything about it, so no point ranting. Everyone has an internal political anomometer and in moments like this I conclude that it is wise to keep quiet until it comes to rest.

We are fast approaching that moment when I can comment. Not on what has been particularly, but on its context and the future. The most important ideas and thoughts are finally surfacing but even now I wonder how I am going to word the thoughts I have.

Now Unionism is really doomed

It is ironic, but three or four decades of fear and violence threatened the Union between Ulster and Westminster less than today’s announcement by the IRA that they are to dump their weapons and commit to a cessation of armed conflict.

If you are a young protestant unionist living in the six counties, I would sell up now and move at least to the mainland, if not further. The game is up, you can’t win now. Ireland will itself be unified by 2015.

[This article is quite long, but I try to keep it engaging and controversial, so please don’t give up too easily.]

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when it dawned on people how to resolve this issue, but I had myself certainly developed a theory sometime in 1994/95. Indeed, after a moment’s madness in the Officers’ Mess in Londonderry, punishment for which was a night on camp duty (proper camp duty that is, sangar sentry / camp patrolling etc like what the Jocks had to do) for all the Officer miscreants, I can plainly recall telling my good friend and now Jasper’s godfather, Major Phil White, exactly how I thought it would all play out.

The key to it came in observing the very stark change of direction and policy once John Major took over from Maggie in 1990. For the best part of a decade, Maggie and the IRA had been to engaged in the most bloody and violent battle. They tried to blow her up, so she had them shot on the streets in cold blood (or so some might allege!). Do read “Big Boys’ Rules” if you get the chance. Maggie’s contribution, other than to provide the SAS and the rest of the Army with the most outstanding training ground, was to fight the IRA into a retreat and force them to look for other ways out. It wasn’t deliberate. It just happened that way. I remain confident that Maggie would have slaughtered every last one of them had she had the chance.

I first served in Northern Ireland in 1992 with the then 3rd Bn The Royal Irish Regiment, in South Armagh and the Newry / Newcastle area. The Royal Irish had only recently been formed from the old UDR and things were changing, despite fierce resistance. At around the same time, I met Lara, who has a very interesting Uncle. By the time I returned to South Armagh in 1994 (three days after our wedding!), the first cease-fire had been called since the only other one in 1973/4. I discovered that Lara's uncle had negotiated both.

When I asked myself why such a person had been called upon to conduct such negotiations, an understandable strategy fell into place:

The IRA had proved themselves a match for anyone. They tied up the best part of half the British Army for two decades!! (Please don’t let anyone tell you our current bombers are sophisticated – they are not, but the IRA were. The IRA’s principal and largely successful aim was to get away and as such their sophistication and ingenuity was admirable). I think it occurred to some people, people who were shut out during Maggie’s reign, that the only real way to resolve the problem – and this is the interesting bit – was to convince Adams and McGuiness that they could achieve the same ends through different means. And those means were Political.

You see the motivation of the IRA leadership had shifted subtly. Religion was less and less important. The real motivation now lay in money and power (perhaps it always did). The terrorism business was proving a highly effective way of controlling vast swathes of people and money. John Major listened and concluded similarly, that the way to peace was through shifting the process away from the knee-cappings and murders and into the ballot box.

If he could give these men a political power to replace their criminal power, they would have to play the political game, and killing and blood don’t play well at election time when you are seeking a popular mandate. They would have to attract votes and have policies and address issues with ideas. MI5 knew also, that Adams and McGuiness were intelligent men and more than a little attracted to the prospect of power and the various trappings that come with it. Suddenly, to retain the power and money they are used to, they have to stop bombing and shooting people.

Fundamental to this process however, had to be the understanding that in time, democracy would create a route to achieving the desired republic. Sinn Fein would one day have a majority and with that majority they can take the beautiful counties of Antrim, Tyrone, Armagh, Fermanagh and Down away from the Crown (and yes, I did deliberately miss out Co. Londonderry!!)

So began the long and bumpy and slightly bloody journey towards the Good Friday Agreement and beyond until we arrive at today. Tony will of course take the credit. He is PM and so it is his right and privilege, but don’t be deceived – it does not belong to him. He has been a passenger in a vehicle built by Maggie and set rolling by John Major.

I played my part, too! I was in charge of the operation to dismantle the first border crossing observation tower at Clady in Co. Tyrone. I say in charge rather than in control, because kids in the village ran rings round us and nicked anything and everything that wasn’t nailed down. It wasn’t amusing at the time, but I am smiling now!

Sinn Fein and the British Govt know that, in time, the Catholics will have a political majority in Northern Ireland and will be able to bring about their desires. They have both accepted the principal that if the majority want it so, then Northern Ireland can join the Republic, but it must be done through the power of elections not bombs.

So after three elections, the share of the vote has steadily increased for Sinn Fein to 25%. The UUP have been demolished. Only Antrim and Down hold out under Unionist control. The political ground is set for Sinn Fein to look quite peaceful in comparison with the currently dominant, Paisley led DUP.

It is going to happen. Within two more general elections, Sinn Fein will have a majority. Birth rates among the Catholic communities are set in place to achieve it.

If the Northern Irish Assembly is restored as a result of today’s action, the DUP will have no choice but to play a part. If they don’t, they will lose. Trouble is it’s check-mate – they lose if they do, too.

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry, cheer or boo, applaud or rant. Good game, good game.

Monday, 11 July 2005


The BBC stoops to a new low.

The following headline is currently running across the BBC Online News home page:

"Traffic to the BBC news site reached record numbers following the London attacks."

However true this may be, the only possible purpose for this story is to promote BBC News and BBC Online through this appalling tragedy.

Blowing your own trumpet in the immediate aftermath of a terror attack is about as low as it gets. Just because some irrelevant and publicity seeking web monitoring body makes such a pronouncement does not justify gazing at yourself in the mirror and giving it oxygen while rescuers are still recovering the bodies.

The millions of people who no doubt did indeed turn to the BBC in time of need, did so because the BBC has a global reputation for integrity, accuracy and reliablility. The point being of course, that people know where to go for information WITHOUT publicity.

Sadly, such a cheap, tawdry and thoughtless marketing ploy such as this just shows how little they deserve their reputation and how quickly they intend to dismantle it.

Thursday, 7 July 2005

Grievous loss in a real war

I am sitting in my office in Holborn surrounded by the fall out from a number of terrorist attacks. My family know I am safe, so I can write here without repproach. My heart goes out to those who have been killed or injured this morning.

London has finally been hit. Everyone knows that it was only a matter of time and scale. As someone who has seen terrorism first hand in Northern Ireland, I can say now that, despite the awful casualties, London has been relatively lucky.

This attack has all the hallmarks of an attack designed to make a small statement at short notice rather than cause maximum damage through long term "big bang" planning. Our Olympic victory in Singapore yesterday sealed our fate as the target but we have our security services to thank for the limited scale of the attack.

It is so often the case that when security is working, long term planning is prevented and small, quick, snap attacks are the only option available.

The individual bombs have been small enough to move around and uncharacteristically targeted without precise relation to others. It is co-ordianted only in as much as it has been apparently random and targeted at busy commuter facilities. This is still an Al Quaeda attack, but it has been limited in success by security measures and specific circumstance. It could have been Paris or Madrid. It was designed to be able to react in a very short time scale.

So, in a limited scale (by their standards at least) the terrorists have demonstrated that they remain alert and capable. They have struck with good timing and done enough damage to achieve the the most desired of goals - public fear. If it turns out that these have been suicide attacks, then we face our worst nightmare - that their are people living amongst now today, who are prepared to die and to kill for their cause. They wear no uniform, they form no army, they simply emerge from the shadows and detonate their device.

Two subjects will, at some point soon, bubble to the surface.

Sadly the issue of ID cards will gain momentum. This would be a travesty since they remain the most terrible assault on our liberty and would do NOTHING to prevent this sort of attack.

More seriously, the issue of our continued involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan will re-ignite. It will be no more than a week before someone says that we brought it upon ourselves, that the war was wrong and that we should withdraw and give up.

They will never have been more wrong. The war against religious extremists started on 9/11 and whilst it may be inflamed by our activities in Iraq, it does not go away if we withdraw. This problem must be faced and fought with resolute fortitude and a momentous determination. This is not a contest we asked for but it is one that we must deal with. Cowardice now will cause only more suffering later.

They are innocent victims today. Their numbers and names are as yet unkmnown but their loss is heart-breaking to their friends and relatives and grievous to the nation. As a nation, however, we must remain committed to enduring the worst in order to secure the freedom and liberty not just for ourselves but also for those living under religious tyrannies.

Tuesday, 5 July 2005

Hoon's "trench foot" starts to smell

There are a number of faults with the American political system, as there are with all political systems, but the one element that I believe they have absolutely right is the time limit they place on their Presidents. Two terms, eight years and thanks very much for coming.

I sense that this limit keeps politics and politicians fresh, motivated and constantly thoughtful. It also keeps the public a little more interested. Surprisingly it doesn't lead to short term-ism because at the eight year point, ex presidents are just as keen to hand over to their party successor as they would be to win themselves. They have to think ahead to achieve this.

Most importantly it avoids the most revolting of British political traits - the bad smell of politicians who have out-stayed their welcome and gone off.

Cue Geoff Hoon - the man most representative of everything that is so repulsive about New Labour: Unintelligent, vain, incompetent, evasive, shallow and deceitful - and today's news that he wants voting to made compulsory, fines for failing to vote and (wait for it) more respect for politicians.

The man who almost single-handedly conspired to put the most senior ranks of Government and the security forces in the dock, wants more respect for politicians and to fine people for not voting.

Deep breathe, count to ten........

The Lord Taketh Away - Part 2

By now you should know my views on benefits. I do not depend on hand-outs from the State. Education bursaries, however, are a different matter.

A great injustice is about to take place and I have no means but these to vent our anger and frustration.

Having given six years of her life to bringing up our children, Lara has, at the wonderful age of 32 (33 tomorrow!) had the determination and motivation to return to University and study to become a valued public servant - a midwife. She wishes to spend the whole of her working life helping mothers and babies through those first anxious and frightening moments of delivery and birth. There are few more wonderful things that one woman can do for another.

Her course is full time and an ever changing balance of classroom coursework and hospital based practical work. Quite rightly, the course is as arduous as the job will be. The hours are long, the pressure immense and the required knowledge levels are huge. Midwives now must combine the traditional values of empathy, care and strength with a considerable intelligence. And, as has become obvious from a recent experience, she must run the gauntlet of the blame and liability culture in the event that mistakes are made (as if the death or incapacity of a mother or baby are not sufficient crosses to bear).

When she is on the ward, she is to all intense and purpose an active member of that shift. She works as hard and long as everyone else and is as much involved in all the goings on as anyone. Her commitment is indisputable. They calculated that they probably do about 1500 hours a year, and essentially this is free labour since the students do not get paid. I am in greater admiration of my wife than I can say.

So here is that injustice.

Her course is a 3 year Midwifery degree. It is a direct entry course (i.e. one does not require to have been a nurse previously) and it is the first such course to be run by Homerton College, Cambridge. The first two years come with an automatic bursary of £500 per month. Yes, that's right, just £500. It covers such things as the childcare that a mature student with children, such as Lara, might need to cover her while she is doing the hours of a traditional 'early' or 'late' or 'night' shift. It isn't much but it helps bear the additional costs of adjusting to a new life. In our case it helps to pay for Anita.

So would you believe it if I told you that we discovered at the start of the second year that the meagre bursary funding is to be stopped in the final year of the degree course.

You have it right. Despite the fact that Lara works for free in hospital in the capacity of a proper midwife, and despite the fact that her chosen career is that of public servant, and despite the fact that she works utterly anti-social hours and despite the fact that Mr Tony Blair intends for 50% of young people to get degrees, Lara must forgo what little support is available and endure additional hardship in order to complete her degree. What is even more ridiculous is that this rule only applies to a handful of students. Most of them are nurses converting to midwives and as such are being paid for by the Trust for whom they previously worked. So the funding shortfall is both comparatively small and relatively insignificant.

We have tried every which way. We have written to the local NHS Trust asking them to help with funding in return for a set period of service on qualification. We have asked the College to find some way. All to no avail. They remain set in their appallingly organised course. We are both furious and upset because £6000 for the final year is nothing for a Trust to ensure the services of a midwife during a national shortage. To us, however, £6000 is a big part of our budget, especially when you don't even have Sky TV to give up to afford it.

When I was training as a soldier and subsequently at Sandhurst to be an Officer, we were signed up and paid properly. Sure it was not the full amount, but it was more than enough to make us think twice before throwing in the towel. Most public servant student training is funded to ensure that the individuals are encouraged to stay. The forces, the police, the fire service. Can you imagine the stupidity of creating one that actually places obstacles in the way and discourages completion?

If she chooses, Lara can switch to the Diploma and retain the money, but I can't tell you how sad that would make her. She wants a degree. Not just because she is intelligent and deserving of one but because that is today's education baseline and what is expected in hospitals today. Lara will be sad, but I will be angry. Angry at the complete lack of thought that has gone into the organisation of this course, angry at the dishonesty of the advice originally given, and angry at my inability to pay for my wife to attain her selfless and deeply caring ambition to be a midwife.



Monday, 4 July 2005

Please hurry up, Robbie. I want to send my children to bed

Just a few short unrelated comments about Live 8:

1. Anita, our lovely new au pair, arrived from Hungary on Saturday morning and immediately put us at ease by making us feel very old by not being born when Live Aid was performed. That's right - not even born! On a plus point, she had managed to make it all the way to 19 without ever hearing of Bob Geldof. Lucky girl. Sadly he has entered her life too now.

2. Swearing featured a lot. Everyone thought they could make their mark on stage with a gratuitous "fuck" or "shit" and sometimes both. Jasper, our youngest, also thought it would be a great idea to start a game of Chinese Whispers round the lunch table with "Fucking Hell". He was saved by his brother who quickly turned it into something else. I am in two minds about swearing. On the one hand, I think that a well placed "fuck" can achieve excellent emphasis or humour. On the other, it is insidious and awful when used by or in front of children. Sadly I swear a lot, even in front of my kids. I know it is wrong but equally I just don't think that bad language ranks alongside violence, for example, in today's list of taboos.

3. Pete Doherty was and is abhorent. To appear on a stage like that, clearly under the influence of a large quantity of stimulants, was hideous. Worse still was and is his patron, Elton John. Sadly, Elton has joined the likes of Michael Jackson; not in his penchant for young boys (particularly) but in his complete lack of membership of the real world. John has just lost the plot and lives in his own little world. They are both despicable people and the sight of celebrities trying to rehabilitrate each other is just as amusing as it gets.

4. The difference between the sanctimonious acts and the good acts stood out a mile. Some of the better performers knew they were there to entertain and support a message through the power of fun. Others were patronising and shallow and just don't see the revolting irony of saying the words whilst wearing jewels worth more than the GDP of most small African nations (Madonna). Perform and entertain - don't preach and patronise. We're not stupid.

5. Robbie Williams rocks. What a star. He is one of very few of the 90's stars who will still be as popular when he is 65 as Pink Floyd and The Who were that night. Many people went out on stage determined to inherit Freddie's mantle, but only Robbie had the talent and charisma to come close. I am always heartened that even in the world of music, the best really does outlast and outshine the worst, no matter what hype it achieves at the time. Bob's real achievement that night was to put Pink Floyd back together. The world and I are truly grateful for that. I intend for the full 16min version of "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" to be played at my funeral!

6. Furthermore, some of the dross on show in Hyde Park just underlined the rubbish argument that Bob put forward for banishing proper African acts from the stage and sending them to Cornwall. Ladysmith Black Mambosa, Mango Groove and Johnny Clegg & Savuka would have kept me firmly in my sofa, but Doherty, Snoop Dog, the Killers, Velvet Revolting and others sent me happily into the garden to pull up weeds. Well done Peter Gabriel for welcoming them.

7. Why does anybody stand at the back of a 200,000 strong crowd??!!

8. Apparently Westminster City Council made a million pounds in fines for late running. £350m per hour past the 9.30pm deadline. Well it was at least midnight before it ended. I'd make Velvet Revolting and Mariah Carey pay it.

9. Yes I did get swept up in the whole poverty history thing, and yes I do think that global events such as this raise awareness and place appropriate pressures on our political leaders to make them think harder and yes I did make my children watch the old images of famine in Ethiopia set to the Car's classic - but I stand by my earlier post: we will not solve Africa's problems by simply singing along to the Boomtown Rats and spraying money at it. We must understand how we got from that level of development to where we are now. We must understand that sustainable wealth creation requires time to develop and that you cannot miss out important development phases that make up the firm foundation. We must look at and understand Africa with appreciation for the social and anthropoligical forces that drive that continent. They are different.

Education, free and fair trade and democracy.

10. Please God may something be done. I really couldn't cope if Bob felt the need to do this again. Keep playing Sting / Floyd / McCartney / Bono / Williams, because if he does have to, he's going to need you again. There's nobody else.

11. Nothing to do with L8 but I watched the Spy Who Loved Me on Friday and finally worked out where Clarkson gets his ideas for Top Gear. Bond car chases. Obvious really. More to the point, why is the identity of the Stig not an issue of national intrigue?