Saturday, 18 February 2017

The worst crime spot in Northern Ireland

A stolen and burned out car near St Peter's Cathedral
Today the Irish News reported on crime and 'paramilitary-style' shootings in the wake of two recent gun attacks in West Belfast.  

The journalist referred to young people racing stolen cars on the Falls Road and the fact there have been seven gun attacks in West Belfast since the start of the year.  'Given there were 20 similar shootings in all of 2016, this is a marked escalation.'

She finished the article by saying: 'A police crackdown on criminality and antisocial behaviour in order to restore public confidence is the most effective way to fill a vacuum otherwise inhabited by armed groups.  However, in places such as Divis, with the highest crime rate in Northern Ireland, that is a daunting - and to date - insurmountable task.'

I thought of that when someone commented to me on how 'things are better on the Falls'.  The truth is that there are deep-seated social problems, that residents in some streets are terrorised, and that it is unsafe to drive there when the 'Divis hoods' are about.

Yes there is no area immune from anti-social behaviour and crime but Lower Falls has the highest crime level in all of Northern Ireland.

I was also struck by the journalist's observation that so far the task of dealing with this issue has been 'insurrmountable'.  In spite of all the government investment, the policing resources, the special initiatives, the Sinn Fein-sponsored Community Restorative Justice (Ireland) and the community development, this problem seems to be endemic.

That was the legacy Gerry Adams left behind him when he headed off south to Louth.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Sir Hans Sloane

Sir Hans Sloane
This morning Carol Kirkwood, the weather presenter on BBC, broadcast from the Chelsea Physic Garden in London, the second oldest botanical garden in Britain.

The reference to the garden brought to mind its association with a famous Ulster-Scot from Killyleagh, Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753).  He was the son of Alexander Sloane and the family had come across to Ulster from Ayrshire in Scotland.

Sloane Square, Hans Place and Hans Crescent were all named after him as was Hans Sloane Square in his native Killyleagh.

He is remembered as a physician, naturalist and collector who provided the foundation of the British Museum.  He was also physician to Queen Anne, King George I and King George II.

In 1713 he purchased the Manor of Chelsea, which he leased to the Society of Apothecaries, and this initiated the golden age of the Chelsea Physic Garden.

Hans Sloane statue in Killyleagh

Monday, 13 February 2017

Crocodiles and dinosaurs.


This is a dinosaur and on many occasions Sinn Fein politicians and other republicans have described unionists as dinosaurs.

Some years ago on Radio Ulster, Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly, who is a convicted bomber, said that Gregory Campbell of the DUP was a 'dinosaur'.

Then during the 2015 general election Michelle Gildernew, the outgoing Sinn Fein MP in Fermanagh & South Tyrone, described her Unionist opponent Tom Elliott as a 'dinosaur'.

Such comments are part of the cut and thrust of political life and I am sure that neither Tom nor Gregory got particularly upset about it.  I know I didn't get upset when Anthony McIntyre, a former IRA prisoner and now an independent republican, described me as a 'DUP dinosaur'.

This is a crocodile and recently Arlene Foster said of Sinn Fein, that, 'If you feed a crocodile, it will keep coming back for more.'

That remark provoked a lot of 'faux outrage' and apparently republicans were appalled that anyone would dare use such an expression.

Now both dinosaurs and crocodiles are reptiles and yet while Sinn Fein can use the reptilian phrase, somehow it is wrong for unionists to use a reptilian phrase, indeed one that is a variant of a statement made by Sir Winston Churchill.

Just another example of republican 'double standards'.  Don't do as I do, do as I say.'

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Election 2017

If I want to know what folk are thinking and if I want to know the issues that matter to them, there is no substitute for going out round the doors and speaking to them face to face.

There is no television camera recording them, there is no pressure to say what they think an interviewer wants to hear and I find that people are generally very open and willing to talk.

I started out ten days ago and already we have covered a fair part of the constituency.

Day after day, Monday to Saturday, we have been knocking doors, talking to people and hearing many different views.  It is possible that there is a slight skewing towards older people, who are more likely to be at home during the day on weekdays, but we were out today both morning and afternoon and  the response was much the same.

The response has been encouraging and many different issues have been raised, including new social housing, maintenance of older Housing Executive properties, regeneration, health, education, anti-social behaviour, policing, illegal dumping, Brexit and an Irish Language Act.  Many people refer to Sinn Fein and express their opinions on its new leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O'Neill, but many others simply want to ask questions about very local practical issues that they face.

What strikes me however is that the range of subjects is very different from those that dominate some of our newspapers and radio and television programmes.

When it comes to assessing the mood in this part of Northern Ireland I think that by now I and my party colleagues have gained a good sense of it and I haven't detected any major shift from the mood last year.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

North Belfast constituency

This is a corrected version:

The candidates list for each constituency has now been published and in North Belfast we have DUP 3, Sinn Fein 2, SDLP 1, UUP 1, PUP 1, People Before Profit 1, Independent 1, Alliance 1, Green Party 1 and Workers Party 1.

People Before Profit is a flag of convenience for the Trotkyists of the Socialist Workers Party.  So it will be interesting to see how they poll and what happens to their transfers when they are eliminated.

The Workers Party, which had its origins in the Official IRA, is certainly persistent and have fielded a candidate yet again.  However the posters they have put up so far have the words Socialist Alternative in large print and Workers Party in really small print at the top.  Are they setting themselves up for another change of name.  They used to be Sinn Fein, then Official Sinn Fein, then Sinn Fein the Workers Party,and now the Workers Party so another name change could be a possibility.

The Green Party are fielding the same candidate again and there is also an Independent candidate about whom I know nothing.  It was suggested by Raymond McCord in the newspapers that he might run in this election but that suggestion hasn't materialised.

There is certainly going to be a scramble on the far left but as regards the main parties in North Belfast, they are fielding the same candidates as last year, while the UUP and PUP have changed candidates.

I am not expecting any major shift in support for the main parties and we are in for an interesting campaign and an equally interesting count.

The DUP encourages voters to transfer to other pro-union parties as has generally been the case across the unionist family, but sadly this time Mike Nesbitt's fascination with Colum Eastwood has overruled that and there is no encouragement from the UUP for Ulster Unionist voters to transfer to other unionists.  That is disappointing because with five seats instead of six in each constituency those final transfers could prove very important.  I don't think Mike had really thought through his slogan of 'Vote Mike, get Colum' and this is the outworking of his flirtation with the SDLP.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Reframing the Irish language debate

It's time to reframe the debate the Irish language and an Irish Language Act.

Languages are primarily about communication but here in Northern Ireland the Irish language is about much more than communication, for it is also about affirmation, the affirmation of an Irish identity.  It is about affirming Irishness, affirming an Irish identity and building an affinity with an Irish nation.

It is important to grasp that fact if we hope to understand what Sinn Fein is about as regards its Irish language strategy.

We don't hear much in Northern Ireland about the concept of 'affirming identity' but it is a fairly common concept in the field of cultural studies and central to any understanding of Irish language politics.

Another important idea is one that has been common in the field of good relations and that is EDI or 'equity, diversity and interdependence'.  Indeed some folk used to speak about JEDI, 'joined in equity, diversity and interdependence'.

So when it comes to cultural identities it is essential that these are affirmed in a way that meets the aspiration of 'equity, diversity and interdependence'.

The affirmation of identity happens in a number of ways especially broadcasting and primary, secondary and tertiary education,  so is there any equity about the affirmation of our various and diverse cultural identities?

Certainly there is not much equity in the field of broadcasting when it comes to our cultural traditions  and the cultural identities of the indigenous communities that make up Northern Ireland.  How are those other traditions reflected in broadcasting, if we use Irish language broadcasting as a benchmark?

Moreover the Belfast Agreement provided a basis an enhanced status for the Irish language and greater support for Irish-medium schools.  Irish medium education certainly affirms and validates a distinctively Irish Gaelic identity.  The Belfast Agreement actually increased the cultural imbalance and that has been left to us by the architects of the Belfast Agreement.

So there is a conversation that needs to take place if we are to build a shared and better future but I suspect it is a conversation that Sinn Fein will shy away from.

Sinn Fein prefer the current situation where they demand an Irish Language Act and unionists say no.  We are right to say no but it can make us appear negative and that is part of the Sinn Fein strategy.

It's time to get off the back foot and on to the front foot.  It's time therefore to turn the tables on Sinn Fein and for unionists to demand full equality for their cultural identities and the affirmation of those identities, whether that be Ulster-Scots culture or Orange culture or whatever.  In so doing let's make sure that the core concepts of 'equality' and 'affirmation of identity' are right at the heart of the debate.  

For too long the equality and human rights industries have pandered to the demands of the Irish language lobby while at the same time ignoring the cultural interests and cultural rights of those of us who embrace other cultural traditions.  Sinn Fein talk about a lot about equality so what about some equality for the rest of us.

George Orwell said that his book Animal Farm reflects events leading up to the Russian Revolution of 1917, for which this year is the 100th anniversary.  That book contains the memorable sentence, 'All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.'  It's a bit like that with Sinn Fein who seem incapable of coping with equality.

An insight into Radio Ulster's Talkback

This morning I was contacted by the DUP press office and asked to go on to the Talkback programme to discuss some comments made today by Arlene Foster in relation to the Sinn Fein demand for an Irish Language Act.  

However when the programme started it was clear that William Crawley wanted to speak about a wide range of issues and the focus was not on an Irish Language Act as I had been led to believe.

Then after some initial input from former Sinn Fein MLA Daithi McKay it was over to those who were phoning in and the comments of William Crawley.

I reported on what people were saying to me as we went round the doors canvassing and when I listed the top issues William Crawley responded, 'I find that hard to believe.'  Well he may find it hard to believe but he hasn't been out around the doors in North Belfast talking to people, whereas we have.

The first phone-in caller said that he had been a long-time DUP voter but that he and others had been conned.  I responded to him and then he also raised the issue of 'a hall in Portglenone' that he said didn't exist and repeated a claim that the 'non-existent' hall had been awarded a grant by a DUP minister.  When I asked him if the source for this was the Irish News, he admitted that it was and then it all began to fall into place.  The 'long-term DUP voter' reads the Irish News.

The caller could have picked the story up from the Belfast Telegraph which exposed the misreporting in the Irish News, or from the NewsLetter, which also exposed the erroneous report in the Irish News.  However the caller wasn't aware that the Irish News report was erroneous so clearly he had picked it up directly from the Irish News.  That is the only plausible explanation.

Furthermore he had got the location of the hall wrong because it was actually about a hall in Randalstown, not Portglenone, and he had his core facts wrong because as has been widely reported by others the hall has actually been there in Randalstown for decades and has been leased by the Orange lodge to an Ulster-Scots cultural group, which made the application.  And that's what I find strange.

So how many DUP voters read the Irish News but don't read either the NewsLetter or the Belfast Telegraph?  I would suggest they're few and far between.

That is one of the problems with phone-ins.  Anybody can come on and claim to be anything, even if they're not.  I much prefer to assess public opinion by talking to people face to face rather than relying on a Radio Ulster phone-in.