Who are today’s political misfits?

A misfit is defined as: “one who is unable to adjust to one’s environment or circumstances or is considered to be disturbingly different from others.”

The historian Dr Éamon Phoenix spoke about a number of ‘Ulster’s political misfits’ last night in a fascinating talk at Bangor library. He outlined the lives of forgotten figures from history such as Sir Denis Henry, a leading barrister of his day who became the first, and so far only, Member of Parliament who was a Catholic and a unionist.

There was R. J. Armour, a Presbyterian minister whose dissenting faith and anti-landlordism led to his conversion to Home Rule, sharing John Redmond’s vision of a self-governing Ireland within the Empire. He even organised a Home Rule rally in his native Ballymoney.

jack_whiteAnd another Presbyterian minister, the Reverend Dr  J. A. H. Irwin, who having never mentioned politics in the pulpit took leave from his congregation in Killead, County Antrim in the early 1920s, ostensibly on an extended holiday, to visit the United States on a speaking tour with none other than Éamon de Valera. The two men became good friends and regularly had tea together after Irwin became minister in Lucan, County Dublin, with Dev consulting him on the finer points of the 1937 constitution.

For me the most interesting figure in the talk was the charismatic Captain Jack White (pictured). The Whites were a family of modest landed stock from Broughshane and Jack, only son of the ‘hero of Ladysmith’ Field Marshal Sir George White VC, was assured of a solid career in the army, just like his father. He saw action in the Boer War as a young officer and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order rather by accident, “having, when taken prisoner, owing to mistaking advancing Boers for British troops, and stripped, escaped from custody and run six miles, warning Colonel de Lisle, and advancing with him to relief of Major Sladen’s force,” according to the citation.

After the war he resigned his commission, disaffected with the army, and disappeared for several years teaching in Europe and working as a ranch hand in Canada before returning to Ireland in 1913. He met James Connolly and, according to Phoenix, was immediately converted to socialism. White became heavily involved with the trade union movement and along with James Larkin set up the Citizen Army. After the Rising and the execution of Connolly, White moved further left toward communism and later still joined up with anarchists in the Spanish Civil War. He finally settled with his second wife, a Catholic, back at the family home in Broughshane in 1938 and following the outbreak of war rushed to offer his services to his country. Unsurprisingly, though not to White himself, he was refused on the grounds of his political activities in the past. “But I’m not orange or green, I’m red,” he is said to have protested, genuinely puzzled by the sectarianism in his native land. He died in 1946.

So who are today’s misfits? Can we compare Armour’s Home Rule rally in Ballymoney to Jim Allister’s anti-DUP rally on Paisley territory following the European election? How about Michael Portillo, who began his career as an arch Thatcherite but later recanted on many of his right-wing views and ran for the party leadership on a socially liberal platform.

Perhaps, but they’re pale comparisons to Captain Jack White.

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Success is no Mystery for Bateman

colin_batemanThere may not have been a bestselling novel dealing with the theft of a pair of leather trousers before, but there is about to be.

The author Colin Bateman has published his latest novel, Mystery Man, a witty tale featuring a Belfast bookseller turned amateur sleuth who encounters many strange characters along the way. Especially interesting is that the fictional bookseller, who goes unnamed throughout the book (“a really difficult task for a writer,” Bateman admits), is based on the real-life owner of No Alibis, a charismatic little bookshop in Belfast which specialises in crime fiction.

Mystery Man looks set to be his most successful novel since Divorcing Jack, which was published in 1992. Ranked among the top 50 crime writers of all time by The Daily Telegraph last year, alongside Ruth Rendell, Arthur Conan Doyle and his own favourite, the American writer Robert B. Parker, Bateman has become better known in recent years as a screenwriter, most notably for the BBC series Murphy’s Law, which starred fellow Ulsterman James Nesbitt.

“For a few years I was best known for Divorcing Jack, then for the next few years I was best known for doing Murphy’s Law, and from now on I think I’ll be best known for Mystery Man,” he says. The BBC have already optioned the rights to make a television series of the new book. “I’ll be writing a script for the pilot episode, but I write a lot of scripts and not many of them get made!” he protests. The book has also been selected as one of the Richard & Judy Bookclub’s Summer Reads, guaranteeing it a prominence that other authors would kill for.

Bateman, who began his career as a journalist on the County Down Spectator, has certainly been a prolific novelist, with Mystery Man his twenty third to date. “I’m already working on the follow up to Mystery Man. I’m calling it The Day of the Jack Russell. Generally when I’m writing I think of the title first, then try to think of a plot to fit around it,” he says.

With books such as Mohammed Maguire, Reservoir Pups and Driving Big Davie, there is a seam of witty, sarcastic Northern Irish humour running throughout Bateman’s novels along with a rich supply of bizarre characters and scenarios. Mystery Man begins with the tale of a lost pair of leather trousers told to a bookseller by the husband of their owner, mistaking the unnamed protagonist for the private eye next door, who has mysteriously gone missing.

Reading the first few chapters to an enraptured audience crammed into the tiny No Alibis, it is clear that Bateman is an entertainer, particularly in prose but also in spoken word. He has a self-deprecating charm that locals seem to love. The evening before, in the new glass and concrete extension to Bangor’s Carnegie Library, a building which might not meet with the approval of the Prince of Wales, he regales the crowd with anecdotes of his time as deputy editor of the local paper.

“My only brush with terrorism was when a window was broken and someone rang up to claim responsibility, as terrorist groups do. ‘I’m from the Animal Liberation Front. We did the window the other night and we want to claim responsibility,’ said this voice before giving a codeword, probably something like ‘badger’. I said ‘That’s all very well, but aren’t you supposed to let us know what the codeword is first?’ ”

n302487This story about inept ‘terrorists’ sets perfectly the context against which Bateman writes his novels. His (and my) hometown is a prosperous, middle-class town which largely escaped the Troubles, the joke being that Bangor is not a town for the haves or have-nots, but for the haves and have-yachts. The Troubles are never far away in most of Bateman’s books but his terrorists tend to be comic, more likely to be foul-mouthed former hardmen turned taxi drivers in the new era of peace, and not genuinely terrifying. Which is something of a relief to those who want to read a Northern Irish novel which doesn’t dwell too much on the violence of the past.

Another screenwriter from Northern Ireland, Daragh Carville, recently called for an end to the ‘balaclava drama’ and argued that post-Troubles plays and books should deal with something else for a change. His new play deals with the themes of the property boom, the credit crunch and the relationship between a self-made millionaire and a prostitute trafficked into Northern Ireland from Moldova.

“I think because the Troubles lasted for around thirty years, anyone writing during that period had no choice but to use them in stories set here, because they were so much part of the fabric,” says Bateman. “I don’t think it’s necessarily true that it’s time to move beyond ‘balaclava drama’. I think that we’ve just become bored with it and need to be looking for newer themes. That has its own problems in that we are now just another boring part of the UK. The danger in our background is quite often what makes us different.”

Does he feel any responsibility for writing about Northern Ireland to a mainly non Northern Irish audience?

“No, I don’t have such big thoughts, it’s just too dangerous a way to write.  If I was to sit down at the start and say, ‘Now I’m going to address this problem in society’ or  ‘appeal to this section’ then I’d be completely lost. I just get an idea for a story and I write it to the best of my ability, and really, it’s up to someone else to say whether it portrays this, or that, or in fact, if it’s utter nonsense.”

His books certainly are not nonsense, judging by how many he has sold since Divorcing Jack. “I’ve been very lucky with the way things have gone with the books, and that people seem to like them.  I was an awful journalist, and I’m not really equipped to do anything else in life, so I’m doing my ideal job and getting paid for it.”

At last, Mr Speaker does the right thing

Michael-Martin-26020_17579tSo the Speaker has gone, forced from office by the expenses scandal that has engulfed Westminster.

Traditionally a job for life, the Speaker of the House of Commons is one of the highest offices in the  land, ranking only below the prime minister, the lord chancellor and two archbishops. But there was nothing traditional about Michael Martin’s time as speaker.

The first Catholic to hold the post since the Reformation, proudly working class (he and his wife dined on macaroni and lemonade during their first evening in the palatial Speaker’s House) and determined to do away with the knee breeches and wig associated with the role since time immemorial, Martin looked like he could have been a reformer.

However, reform there came none. During the very years in which the executive became so dominant and reduced the authority of the House of Commons, Michael Martin did nothing to defend the sovereignty of this august body. As sofa government took hold under Tony Blair, more and more MPs lined up to argue Parliament’s case: Lords reform was needed, stronger select committees were needed and, it now emerges, reform of salaries and expenses was needed.

In his unique and powerful position over the Commons, the Speaker could have initiated changes and reforms, or at least have authoritatively pointed MPs in that direction. Instead it has taken a newspaper campaign, the release every day for almost two weeks of MPs’ expense claims and allegations of outrageous misuse of public funds, to bring these issues to prominence.

Combined with his bungling over the search without a warrant by police of Conservative MP Damian Green’s office, and his shocking attack on the harmless Kate Hoey, the writing should have been on the wall.

But such is the exalted position of the Speaker that hardly anybody thought he would resign. He may be inarticulate and he may have a poor grasp of the procedures of the House of Commons, but Speakers do not quit and they are not sacked, it just does not happen.  And there was the argument that with a general election only a year away, Martin should preside over whatever reforms are recommended by Sir Christopher Kelly and the Committee on Standards in Public Life, and let a new parliament under new rules elect a new speaker.

But as the Daily Telegraph churned out further damaging revelations the scandal turned into crisis, the biggest since Suez according to one commentator. And as the sense of crisis grew the murmurings for Martin’s resignation, for that is all they were, turned into a clarion call. Suddenly it was no longer enough that individual MPs would be punished, nor that a Cabinet reshuffle is likely to see Hazel Blears, the Communities Secretary, booted out, nor that other MPs, such as Douglas Hogg, will not be standing at the next election.

Only one person can take responsibility for the system itself and that person is the Speaker, and that is why Michael Martin had to go. 

It was a stunning departure, the first resignation of a speaker in over two centuries, and it has shaken the House of Commons to its core. His friends will continue to carp that he was ousted unfairly, because of his class, his accent or even his religion, but they do him a disservice. He may not have been a good Speaker, but he has done the right thing.

MPs should be dunked in the moat

52103There is clearly something very wrong with the expenses system for MPs at Westminster, as revelations about Tory “grandees” are splashed across the Daily Telegraph today.

Claims for having one’s moat cleaned, one’s chandelier hung and for horse manure for one’s horses all seem quite extraordinary, and clearly in breach of the spirit if not the letter of the rules, for as Douglas Hogg (the man with the moat, pictured) pointed out, his claims were validated by the fees office. But are they any more extraordinary than the Labour MP Margaret Moran’s claim that she needed her second home in Southampton, many miles away from her Luton constituency, because she needed to see her partner and maintain family life as best as possible, at public expense? The cheek.

The Conservative leader, David Cameron, made a robust response and said he was appalled by the claims. Indeed as this post goes live new rules on what Tory MPs can claim have been announced, while all members of the shadow cabinet who made such extraordinary claims will pay back the money.

While these claims might be lavish, taxpayers in Northern Ireland have been privy to the particularly unedifying sight of double-jobbing MPs getting rich from their various posts and the pleas of innocence from Sinn Fein’s absentee MPs regarding their expenses claims.

No sign of contrition from the First Minister, who receives a salary as a minister, an MLA and an MP, while his wife Iris Robinson also receives two salaries as a member at Westminster and Stormont. With a comfortable home in east Belfast and a holiday home in Florida, it is safe to say that these double-jobbers do not take an “average industrial wage” like their Sinn Fein colleagues.

Which is worse, double-jobbing with two, three or more paid posts, ‘flipping’ from one address to the other in order to claim for furnishings at different houses, or claiming rent for three flats in North London (equipped with widescreen televisions and Sony surround sound systems), for five MPs who do not even sit in the House of Commons?

It would be crude to discriminate, but Sinn Fein’s argument that the properties are used for “Parliamentary business” is not convincing. By not taking their seats the MPs neither attend regular sittings of the house nor committee meetings, the two biggest consumers of an MP’s time when at Westminster. So aside from the occasional meeting at 10 Downing Street, what do they do there? And more to the point, how often were they there?

Suzanne Breen, Northern Ireland editor of the Sunday Tribune, was right when she spoke on BBC Radio Ulster yesterday, demanding that Sinn Fein should produce travel receipts for their MPs so that everyone can see exactly how often they have travelled to Westminster.

It is also time that Northern Ireland’s politicians reconsidered how many posts they can hold at one time.

Whether they think they can manage these various jobs or not, as Environment Minister Sammy Wilson has argued, the changing economic climate has, rightly or wrongly, affected how the voter views what our politicians get up to.

It may be true that all this fuss would not be happening if the country was not in the state of economic crisis it is in. But we are, and our political class must act to reassure the voter, and the taxpayer, that where the average family is sacrificing their summer holiday or shopping at Aldi, politicians will also feel some of the pinch. Or at least pay to have their moat cleaned themselves.

Gurkhas (and a few MPs) defeat Brown at the Battle of Westminster

15268813Yesterday a small but hardy brigade of retired soldiers delivered an unexpected defeat to the Prime Minister.

Gordon Brown lost a vote in the House of Commons over the issue of allowing veteran Gurkha soldiers from Nepal to settle in the United Kingdom.

MPs voted by 267 to 246 to support a motion from the Liberal Democrats protesting that the government’s revised guidelines for allowing Gurkhas to settle in this country were “shameful”.

The result of the vote is not binding but the government will now be under pressure to revise the criteria once again, little more than a week after the new guidelines were published. And in the wider political arena it will be seen as a humiliating, and quite unnecessary, defeat for the embattled prime minister.

From the start the government has handled the issue in a cack handed fashion. The Gurkhas have been campaigning for years to change the rules, ably abetted by the actress Joanna Lumley, whose father served with the Gurkhas. They won the first stage of their fight last year when the High Court declared that the existing guidelines were unlawful.

But instead of coming up with new guidelines allowing greater numbers of veterans to apply for residency, the Home Office botched the whole thing. The new guidelines required veterans to have had 3 years continuous residency in the UK or have close family here, both highly unlikely because of existing rules, or to have been serving for at least 20 years with the Gurkhas, which effectively ruled out those who are not officers as riflemen are pensioned off after 15 years.

Challenged on the new rules, Phil Woolas, the Immigration Minister, claimed that the government had to consider the numbers of people who would be eligible to apply if no restrictions were in place, claiming as many as 100,000 veterans might come forward. He said the revised guidelines would allow around 4,300 to apply, while campaigners insisted that the new guidelines were so restrictive that as few as 100 would be eligible.

And so yesterday the issue went before the Commons, leaving Gordon Brown with an entirely unnecessary defeat on his hands. In Prime Minister’s Questions earlier he had been defending the guidelines, but such was the degree of discomfort for the Prime Minister that he got up to leave the chamber straight afterwards, forgetting that he had not yet delivered a statement to the house, provoking howls of laughter from opposition benches.

There are two issues here. The first is honour and the debt of gratitude we owe to these tough, loyal men who have fought for king and country for over two centuries and whose bravery is legendary. We should be angry that the government has treated these men, many of whom are elderly and living in poverty in Nepal, with such disregard.

The second is politics and the inability of the government to get this relatively small issue right.

Brown’s defeat yesterday was an own goal. After the High Court ruling he could have instructed the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, to revise the criteria properly and be remembered as the prime minister who righted an injustice to the Gurkhas. Instead he will be remembered for sending whips into the lobbies to bully MPs to support him. Not only does he have to worry about the 27 Labour MPs who voted for the motion, but also the other 90 or so who decided to defy a three-line whip and abstained. 

Yesterday’s defeat has left Gordon Brown bruised and embarrassed and rightly so. Even The Guardian today criticises his opposition to allowing more Gurkhas to settle here on the grounds of expense, an appalling argument he would never apply to asylum seekers. 

The Gurkhas won a hard-fought victory in the High Court last year, and that victory should now be honoured.

Up close and personal with an oligarch

Russia Party Over?Not that Alexander Lebedev would appreciate being described as such, as he tells Jonathan Dimbleby in an interview on BBC’s HARDtalk.

As mentioned in a post below, Lebedev bought the Evening Standard back in January for the sum of £1 from Daily Mail & General Trust, owners of the Daily Mail and its associated titles.

There was an outcry when it was announced that Lebedev, a former KGB agent and billionaire businessman, was buying the paper, which is the last surviving daily paper for London. Nothing much was known about what he did in England during his time with the KGB and there is a wider attitude of suspicion and, in some cases, derision when it comes to brash Russian billionaires who like to flash their cash.

There is also understandable concern about the political interests of the oligarchs in their native Russia, specifically their relationship with Vladimir Putin.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former owner of the Russian petroleum giant Yukos, was arrested on charges of fraud in 2003 and is currently languishing in prison, seen by many as a victim of Putin’s campaign to flush out potential political opponents.

The case of Boris Berezovsky is also well-known. Granted political asylum in the UK soon after Putin became Russian president, he is a more overt opponent and once declared himself on a mission to bring Putin down “by force”. He associated himself with a group of Russian exiles in London including Alexander Litvinenko, who was the victim of a shocking poison plot in 2006. The following year a Russian court found Berezovsky guilty, in his absence, of embezzlement and issued a warrant for his arrest. The authorities have also accused him of involvement in the murder of Litvinenko.

In this fascinating interview, Lebedev deals with these and other issues, including that of press freedom in Russia. He reveals that he writes under a pseudonym for Novaya Gazeta, a Russian newspaper he owns with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, whom Lebedev refers to as “my friend”.

But he is coy about his own attitude to Putin. Dimbleby, managing to be dogged but unaggressive, quotes him describing himself as “loyal ” to Putin and contrasts that with critical statements he has made about the former president.

Lebedev protests that the phrase loyalty has been taken “out of context” but states: “I do think we need to reform our political system,” and he goes further by saying that “there’s no way you can deny that the person who has been leading the country…is not responsible for, for example, reforming the electoral system in the wrong way, or not doing a lot to make the judiciary independent, that is quite clear.” 

But while being critical of Putin’s actions, Lebedev stops short of directly accusing Putin of deliberately skewing mechanisms of the state in his favour.

Wisely perhaps, considering the fates of Litvinenko and of Anna Politkovskaya, the investigative journalist who wrote for Novaya Gazeta and was murdered in 2006.

Indy up for grabs

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After months of speculation the Daily Telegraph yesterday confirmed that Independent News & Media (INM) is looking to sell The Independent and the Independent on Sunday.

The loss-making titles have been in trouble for some time and are losing £1 million a month between them, a situation only worsened with the slump in advertising revenues. Sales have also been in terminal decline for some time, and it has long been speculated that INM’s highly-profitable local title, the Belfast Telegraph, has been helping to prop up the Indy and the Sindy.

The question now is whether there will be a buyer for the paper. The timing could not be worse for Gavin O’Reilly, the incoming chief executive who will take over from his father Sir Tony O’Reilly next month. The media industry is amongst the hardest hit since the economic crisis began and there are not many pockets deep enough to purchase and sustain the papers.

Roy Greenslade over at MediaGuardian argues that there will be little interest from private equity as there is no sign of profit from the titles even in the medium term. Will another Russian billionaire will come to rescue perhaps? Alexander Lebedev came to the Evening Standard’s rescue in January when he bought the paper from the Rothermere family, but only at the price of £1. Which happens to be the Indy’s current cover price.