On Torches and Jubilees


Today was a seriously early start and the sheer amount of patriotism was utterly exhausting. When a person spends most of his life being told that he should absolutely not be proud to be British, being confronted with an entire day (and more to come) when such behaviour is positively encouraged, a person can become quite fatigued.

The day started with a scamper down the road to see the Olympic Torch Relay gallop through Ards, en route to the thriving metropolis of Comber and thereafter Belfast.

The crowds were more than respectable at a time when all God-fearing people ought to be rolling over in their beds. After the Coca-Cola lorry and the Samsung big screen truck had trundled through, a pasty teen sprinted past the crowd with nary a wave. Several of the crowd had been engaged in the slow blinking beloved of the just-awake and in fact missed the whole thing.

Undaunted, we decided to hunt down further glimpses of the ancient Olympic stick of fire and high-tailed it to the seat of government at Stormont.

There we shivered and muttered through an hour or so of foot-shuffling unpleasantness before the torch re-appeared, this time in the custody of a lady of rather more mature years. She seemed to determined to enjoy her five minutes of fame - indeed, it appeared that she was keen to stretch it out to a half hour or so - thus providing many more opportunities for photographs.

With St John's Ambulance presumably on a high state of alert, she began to clamber the steps at the front of Parliament Buildings, only to find herself suddenly in the clutches of our never-popular Culture Minister, who I think is probably really called Carol Cullen. I like to imagine that there then followed a brief scuffle which resulted in the Minister's bouffant "do" catching light, but it was not to be.

Pausing only to gurn towards the cameras and raise her hands aloft five or six more times, our intrepid standard bearer finally surmounted the steps and the flame was promptly "escorted" from the torch into a lantern (of which Wee Willie Winkie would be proud) before being removed from public view and presumably debriefed by MI5 on what the Minister had said to it.

A brief hiatus followed, during which the next bearer was photographed endlessly in the presence of various local politicians and Mike Nesbitt.

Then it was just a matter of wrestling the lantern from Wee Willie, transferring the flame, and pelting down the steps towards Belfast, where the flame would see service later in the day to light the ceremonial tower of 1000 tyres, piled slightly too close to someone's house.

I'm guessing this pattern is the same all over the UK? Right?

After a light breakfast of lard and exhaustion, we settled to watch the main event of the day, which was in no way Olympic focussed - the Thames River Pageant. Much has already been written and tweeted about the lamentable BBC coverage of Sunday's centrepiece of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations. I agree with most of the criticism, but cannot quite grasp the surprise that the Beeb should have got it wrong. Have we really forgotten the travesty of broadcasting that was the "William and Kate Wedding". Broadcasters no longer have any faith in the attention span of viewers and insist on short segments of genuine coverage interspersed with inane nonsense presented by a random blonde.

One would have thought that the authorities would catch on that television viewers might be rather more interested in watching the actual spectacle rather than watching the people who have come to watch the spectacle. Rumours that the European Football Championships coverage will now consist of Gary Lineker interviewing a man who is watching the match are, thus far, apocryphal.

The thing that has gladdened my heart about the events of the long weekend is the explosion of national pride. Rather than the usual sneering unpleasantness which the media reserves for public displays of loyalism and royalism, we have been treated to a picture of a truly United Kingdom - united under the Crown and under our national colours.

In recent years, the UK (and its liberal media) has become obsessed with the notion of multi-culturalism to an extent which has become stifling. It has not been a true multi-culturalism anyway - rather, we have been cowed into believing that we cannot express anything of our own British identity for fear of offending our immigrant neighbours. We must tolerate their peculiar beliefs, even if they are anathema to the British way of life, but heaven help us if we dare express even a hint of pleasure or pride in being subjects of the Queen.

For a few days at least, that seems to have been swept away. The country is draped in red, white and blue. The television is filled with Palaces and corgis. Yet there has been no revolt by the forces of Islam. There has been no uprising of the people against their former Colonial Masters. The sky has not fallen.

I fear it will not last - but I very much hope that it does. I am enjoying being proud to be British.

Carried Away with Yourself

At a time like this I'm not sure that I could really use the phrase at the top of this post and not think of David McClarty.

His conduct over this past week or so should appear in Wikipedia under "what happens when people start to believe their own publicity". McClarty has for many years been a second (or possibly third) division politician in Northern Ireland. Many years I remember attending a conference which addressed just outside Coleraine. He was the local warm-up act for the more substantial speakers who would follow and he performed adequately. Indeed, warm-up act is just the phrase. There was little of important in his remarks to an overtly political crowd. His address consisted mostly of jokes about the variable fortunes of Coleraine Football Club. As recall, we were told that they were going "all seater", through the purchase of a three piece suite. We laughed. We chuckled. We applauded warmly and noted that he could place words in roughly the right order whilst being aimiable. These are traits frequently lacking in the Ulster politician.

When he left, we forgot about him.

At the time of writing, McClarty's Assembly biography page records him as an Ulster Unionist member and his own vanity site at www.davidmcclarty.co.uk still bears the "Ulster Unionists" branding which seems to have been abandoned by the party shortly after he appears to have abandoned the site in around 2006. Notwithstanding his now oft-stated fondness for Twitter, his web-updating-skills clearly left him some time ago and we are told that:

he is one of two Ulster Unionist members of the Northern Ireland Assembly representing East Londonderry. He also sits on Coleraine Borough Council

His biography reads as a tale of mid table mediocrity. He neither disgraces nor distinguishes himself. It is highlighted that he was, at one time, the Ulster Unionist Party's Chief Whip in the Assembly. This was a Party Man. Capital P.

So, what went wrong? He lost a selection meeting. He wasn't the first to do that. He won't be the last. The reasons for de-selection can be varied. I neither know nor care what they were in this case. It can be personality clash. It can be petty jealousy. It just doesn't matter. I doubt there will ever be a truly definitive account of the reason for his failure to make the ticket, but fail he did.

What we have then, is a situation where a politician of a fair vintage, placed his name in the hat for selection. He wanted to run for his Party. The Party he had served for many years. The Party which had used his services to whip other members into line. He was content with their manifesto and direction. So content that he felt he wanted to associate himself with it publicly and seek election on that ticket.

But his colleagues didn't feel the same.

They wanted someone else, so they selected someone else.

Of course, this little drama was played out in the public arena. Local media, starved of much intrigue in the election campaign, were only too happy to run with the account of an MLA getting dumped by his local Association. And thus the standard "period of reflection" began. After the reflection, McClarty took the (admittedly brave) step to go to the electorate alone.

So, what manifesto did he run on? What did people expect to get if they voted McClarty 1?

Well, logic dictates that they expected to get an Ulster unionist - but not an Ulster Unionist. After all, a few weeks before he had felt sufficiently ad idem with the UUP that he had been willing to sign up to their policies. Unless his enforced-conversion to independence also divested himself of his principles, one could presume that he remain a Party man at heart, local difficulties excepted. I have little doubt that many of his former supporters loyally followed him, thinking themselves no less unionist for doing so. Who could blame them? They knew that this was just a situation where a fundamentally decent man seemed to have been "done over" by his former mates, didn't they?

And so it unfolded. The Ulster Unionist Party had a pretty poor showing across the country. McClarty clearly retained a lot of his local support and was duly returned, doubtless to the chagrin of the local UUP members who had wanted to see the back of him. As the results trickled in, commentators eyes started to turn towards the Coleraine area when it became apparent that the d'Hondt formula was likely to relegate the UUP to the lowly position of one ministerial seat.

Sickeningly, the Alliance party, with half the electoral support of the UUP started to bleat that if the UUP could entice McClarty back into the fold, then democracy would be subverted and the will of the people thwarted. Alliance would be "deprived" of its second seat in the Executive. For those not following the plot, I should pause to reinforce the fact that Alliance believes that they ought to have twice the Executive representation of the UUP which has twice the support. Yes, I can spot the subversion of democracy too - but it happened when Policing and Justice was handed out, not at this election.

I digress.

Eyes were on McClarty. Would he or wouldn't he?

I have to admit that I called it wrong. I heard his remarks about Tom Elliott and that acceptance speech. I heard him talk of the calls, texts and Tweets he was receiving (which seemed clearly to be coming from Alliance supporters, anxious to queer the pitch). Despite that, I thought that he would look at the mathematics of the Executive and realise that his movement back to the UUP (and the policies he had wanted to stand on) would seal an additional unionist (small "u") seat in government. I thought he would realise that his electors were unionist and that this was what they would want. I was utterly wrong. And so is he.

By running as an independent, he didn't suddenly become a member of the Alliance Party and the only consequence of his decision has been to bolster that supercilious and unpleasant little group. He secured for them an unrepresentative second seat at the Stormont Top Table. When a McClarty voter expressed his or her preference on the ballot paper, did they think that was what they would get? Vote McClarty, Get Ford (or maybe Farry)? Surely not.

Shame on him.

The press (and a good proportion of unionist politicians) seem to recognise that there is a feeling in the unionist electorate that they would prefer to see greater unity on this side of the house. Yet here we have one man, and one ego, who simply cannot put aside his own personal squabbles for the benefit of the cause. The petty nonsense of his position seems all the more ridiculous when I can't shake the feeling that McClarty will await the seemingly inevitable fall of the House of Elliott and then slink back into the Party under new management. And they will have no option but to take him back.

Love or loathe Jim Allister, I suspect that McClarty has done more damage to unionism in the last few days than Jim will manage to do to the DUP in a whole term.

On Voting

Posts with titles like this have several different ways to go.

Firstly, I could hector and badger people with talk of the generations who made great sacrifice to allow us the privilege of exercising our vote.

Secondly, I could launch a blistering attack on those with whom I do not identify politically and urge you all to vote for my preferred candidates.

Thirdly, I could trot out a lot of nonsense already posted across the web by various members of the intelligentsia, misleading the general public about the value of Alternative Voting (there appears to be little in truth) and, utterly seduced by Eddie Izzard (who seems to have come down with a nasty case of the "Bono"s) explain to you why we ought to be happy at the prospect of endless coalitions.

I'm not going to do any of that. (Except I maybe have already offended against that in making the third point above).

In common with a lot of people in Northern Ireland, I'll be going to the polls today with a slightly heavy heart. It is hard to recognise this place nowadays. We seem to have become resigned to the notion of terrorists in Government and we are lumbered with a system of government that is far from any form of democracy I can recognise. The well-worn phrase "no matter who you vote for, the government always gets in" was never more apposite than in Ulster.

Throughout what has passed for a campaign, the interviewers have been able to ask each of the main four parties which posts they have their eye on, once they are back in government. What a bizarre state of affairs. No question of whether you might get back in. Just a query as to what Ministry you might fancy.

On the outside of the tent (for the time being), Jim Allister has been greeting about the lack of opposition at Stormont. A greet which I have considerable sympathy with. However, his (likely solo) election won't fix that. Indeed, if his party snaffles a few votes from the DUP here and there, all that will do is make the spectre of Marty being First Minister all the more likely. The reality is that the system at Stormont does not allow for opposition in any meaningful sense, unless the Parties choose to absent themselves from the d'Hondt process of job-picking - and that seems unlikely. Reform of the system is certainly something that should happen, but Jim and his collection of acolytes cannot achieve that.

Speaking of things that cannot be achieved, I am drawn to the Ulster Unionist Party. What a mess. Tom Elliott just seems out of his depth. In that respect, he makes a perfect team with Margaret Ritchie of the SDLP. The point which the DUP has made (slightly apologetically for fear of seeming arrogant, I think) is that the UUP is simply not running enough candidates to take the First Minister's job.

Pause for a minute and consider that.

They aren't actually running to be First Minister.

If they were successful in every seat they are standing in AND the DUP vote collapsed, Sinn Fein would get the top job.

Is that really what their supporters want? I doubt that. I'm pretty confident that it isn't what their members want. Indeed, I suspect that most of their candidates don't want it either.

The size of the UUP roster of candidates means that they are in fact saying to the electorate that if they want a unionist First Minister then they must vote for the DUP. The logic of that is almost to say "vote DUP, but see us right with other preferences". Just crazy. Surely they should be at least putting up the pretence of offering a genuine choice for the First Minister's job?

It will surprise no reader of this blog to know that I am a unionist and always have been. I am a member of no political party and am perfectly prepared to dish out opprobrium all round me. I have been critical of all hues of unionism at various stages in the past and have supported different parties and individual candidates. What makes me sad this time is that I feel there is simply no genuine choice.

I have been unhappy at various aspects of DUP policy (although more content with them than the UUP for many years now). I remain sceptical in the extreme about the "workability" of the regime at Stormont. But there is no choice. The UUP doesn't want the job and the DUP does. That's where it starts and ends.