Boris Johnson's 'lefty crap' could cost him London's Irish vote

Almost every sketch of Boris Johnson includes the same adjective: gaffe-prone. And with good reason – during his chequered political career, the current London mayor has variously accused the city of Liverpool of “wallowing” in its “victim status”, compared Tory party in-fighting to “Papua New Guinea-style orgies of cannibalism and chief-killing”, and described anti-capitalist Occupy protestors as “hempsmokingfornicating hippies in crusty little tents”.

But even for a man with such a vertiginous list of blunders and non-sequiturs, Johnson’s recent broadside against the St Patrick’s Day dinner in London seems particularly ill-conceived. In an interview with The New Statesman, Johnson dismissed the event, which ran from 2002 to 2008, as “lefty crap”. “I’ll tell you what makes me angry,” the London Mayor told interviewer Jemima Khan, “spending £20,000 on a dinner at the Dorchester for Sinn Fein”.

First things first, the facts. As reported in the Guardian and elsewhere, the St Patrick’s Day dinner was part of the annual celebrations established by Johnson’s predecessor in Mayor’s office, Ken Livingstone, but was not directly funded by the public pursue. The dinner never cost 20 grand: it was self-financed with any profits made donated to a London Irish charity.

The £150-per-ticket black tie event was cancelled in 2009 when Johnson decided to reduce the Mayor’s contribution to the St Patrick’s Day parade and festival from £150,000 to £100,000. As a spokesperson for the Mayor’s office said at the time: “Although the St Patrick’s Day Dinner has been self-financing in the past, this could not be guaranteed.” On these rather tenuous grounds, an event which had been popular with Irish politicians, celebrities and dignitaries (and was certainly not “for Sinn Fein”) was canned.

In some respects Johnson’s outburst is of a piece with David Cameron’s visions, still inchoate despite over a year and a half in power, for a ‘Big Society’. Without doing his homework – hardly a first for the former Have I Got News for You contestant – the London Mayor lashed out what he assumed was a government-sponsored event, the kind of state involvement that the Prime Minister frankly would like to see less of. Unfortunately, the mythical Dorchester dinner was just that, a myth. As Cameron himself is discovering, the boundaries between state and civil society are not as clearly delineated as Westminster mandarins might imagine.

However, there is a more worrying aspect to Johnson’s factually inaccurate, mean-spirited attack on the St Patrick’s Day event in London. If the spin is to be believed, Boris represents the cuddly, approachable face of modern Conservatism. With his thatched hair, smiling phizog and penchant for self-deprecation, the London Mayor putatively epitomises how far the Tories have come from the “nasty party” of Thatcher and her ilk.

But behind the sharp suits and the media training, the Conservative and Unionist Party – to give its full name – retains a deep rooted ambivalence towards Ireland and its cultural and political expressions. Johnson’s reduction of the St Patrick’s Day dinner to Sinn Fein attests to an inability – or unwillingness – to appreciate and engage with the diversity of Irish people and political visions that survives to this day, despite the successes of the Peace Process in Northern Ireland.

Given their own historical baggage on the Irish Question, it’s hardly surprising that the Tories have found it most difficult to adapt to the post-Good Friday Agreement dispensation. Last year, Johnson’s Deputy Richard Barnes, publicly compared the cost of high speed rail upgrades to the work of “Irish builders”, while too often the new, shiny Conservatives cry ‘Sinn Fein’ or ‘IRA’ to de-legitimise Irish issues and concerns, just as Boris himself has done in this instance.

The latest gaffe could turn out to be a costly one of the incumbent in May’s mayoral vote. Polling figures released earlier this week suggest that Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone are neck-and-neck in the race for London Mayor. In a tight contest, the Irish vote could turn out to be crucial, especially in London’s outer-ring where many older Irish people have moved to and which is likely to be a key election battleground.

During his tenure, Boris Johnson has attempted to improve his links with Black and Asian communities, with some degree of success, but has concentrated less attention on the Irish community in London. The mayor’s latest outburst is unlikely to endear him to Irish voters.

With more and more young people leaving for London every month, Irish interest in London politics has seldom been higher. Last weekend, the Irish Independent even dedicated a leader to the contest. It’s title? ‘Why Boris is So Out of Touch’. The short piece ended with a question: ‘what are the odds that the London Irish community will exact their revenge on Mr Johnson in next May’s mayoral election?’ What odds indeed.

This article originally appeared in the Irish Post.

The Maze and dealing with the past in Northern Ireland

If ever a country was defined by a punctuation mark, it’s Northern Ireland and the forward-slash. A history of conflict has produced some awkward semantic contortions: Catholic/Protestant, Nationalist/Unionist, and, of course, Derry/Londonderry, that waggish ‘Stroke City’. Less celebrated, but no less contentious, is another double take, the Maze/Long Kesh.

Last week it was revealed that the European Union had, in December, approved a £18m funding package to establish a ‘peace-building and conflict resolution centre’ at the Maze, where the notorious H-Blocks once stood. What to do with the 360-acre site on the outskirts of Lisburn, about ten miles from Belfast, has been a recurrent source of political discord since the prison, built on the former RAF Long Kesh base, was closed in September 2000.

In 2002, the Maze Regeneration Unit was created within the devolved Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. Three years later, after a lengthy, torturous consultation process, A New Future for the Maze/Long Kesh was published. The Maze/Long Kesh: Masterplan and Implementation Strategyreleased in May 2006, consolidated the main proposals for the site, chiefly the construction of a sports stadium and an International Centre for Conflict Transformation.

The stadium – a 40,000-seat affair to be shared by Northern Ireland’s three main sports, football, rugby and Gaelic Games – was shelved in the face of significant unionist opposition. Comprehensive plans for the site have yet to be released on foot of last week’s news, but are now expected to include a more palatable, at least to unionists, scheme to rehouse the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society at the Maze, alongside the conflict resolution centre and a residential development.

In October, following a testy exchange in the House, the Stormont Assembly passed a motion recognising ‘the potential social and economic benefits which the utilisation of former security sites, such as the site of the Maze prison, can bring to Northern Ireland’. The motion called on First Minister Peter Robinson to progress development at the Maze, including a conflict resolution centre on the site where ten republican hunger strikers died in 1981, a move previously opposed by Robinson’s Democratic Unionist Party.

Last week, Jeffrey Donaldson, erstwhile anti-Belfast Agreement Ulster Unionist and now DUP MP for Lagan Valley, gave the planned centre a surprisingly hearty endorsement. ‘Far from it being seen as a shrine, it is about looking to the future. The peace building centre can help us look and focus towards the future,’ he said. However, many unionists, including the Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliott, are opposed to the proposal, which Traditional Unionist Voice’s sole MLA Jim Allister dubbed ‘a Provo victory’.

The Maze conflict resolution centre, as Laura McAtackney has written, is an attempt to replace the site’s ‘negative associations’ with a ‘physical expression of the ongoing transformation from conflict to peace’. In that respect, the recent fracas over the centre reflects the incomplete nature of Northern Ireland’s own post-Troubles transformation. Almost a decade and a half after the signing of the Belfast Agreement, Stormont still has no functioning anti-sectarian strategy, despite the country’s well-published, sclerotic divisions. Meanwhile, the threat of prosecution from the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s Historical Enquiries Team has stymied any prospect of an authoritative account of what took place during the Troubles, as researchers at Boston College recently found out to their peril.

How, or even if, the Northern Ireland’s fractious past is to be acknowledged and commemorated is not just a question for historians and archivists. This year marks the start of a succession of distinctly live centenaries: the Ulster Covenant, signed in 1912; the Battle of the Somme; the Easter Rising; the Civil War; and, finally, the partition of Ireland. As Hegel famously observed, ‘the one thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.’

Cillian Sheridan: 'They were probably expecting an unbelievable player, then I turned up'

Just before Christmas, Cillian Sheridan was invited to appear as a pundit on Sportscene, BBC Scotland’s flagship football show.

In studio, the on-loan St Johnstone striker’s analytical skills were more Garth Crooks than Alan Hansen — “I’m rubbish at talking about football,” he says candidly — but it was his sartorial choices that provoked most comment: Sheridan, on his BBC debut, appeared wearing a bright red yuletide pullover, complete with green Christmas trees.

As a consequence, for a brief moment, the Cavan man’s jumper was the hottest property in Scottish football. A tabloid even arranged a photo shoot in which the rangy striker, who was described as being “on trend for 2012”, modelled the finest Christmas knitwear.

Reclining on a wooden chair in a busy café on Woodlands Road, the bustling main artery connecting Glasgow city centre with the bohemian West End, Sheridan smiles as he recollects his first — and possibly last — visit to BBC Scotland: “I brought the jumper with me to the show. I asked (the producers), ‘Can I wear this?’ They said it was okay so I put it on.” The producers, you sense, were less accommodating when the former Celt’s phone rang twice live on air. “It was a shambles. I doubt they’ll ask me back again,” he laughs.

The Sportscene episode epitomises Cillian Sheridan: insouciant, irreverent and imminently likeable. As followers of his refreshingly honest, and often very funny, Twitter feed will testify, this is a man who sports a tattoo of a moustache on the index finger of his left hand and could seldom be accused of taking football, or life, too seriously. As he says himself, “I don’t get worked up about things, it’s not my style.”

In a week dominated by the dyspeptic transfer window — characterised, once again, by average players demanding exorbitant wage — Sheridan feels, in some respects, like the antithesis of the Sky Sports-era footballer. There are no rings on his fingers, he wears a few days’ worth of stubble across his prominent jaw line and speaks with a casual ease seldom evinced amid the media training and PR consultants that are part and parcel of the modern game. Sheridan’s is the relaxed attitude of a young man who practically fell into football. While many of his contemporaries in the current Ireland squad began their careers in the League of Ireland, the Bailieborough man was signed by Celtic as a schoolboy. Sheridan only took up soccer seriously at 16. That year he was also a Cavan minor, where his impressive performances in midfield led the Brisbane Lions Aussie Rules team to offer him a chance to move Down Under.

The financial rewards of football proved too great, however: after a spell at Dublin side Belvedere Boys and breaking into the Ireland under 17 set-up, Sheridan plumped for Celtic Park. But Gaelic football remains his true love: during the summer he is often to be found in the stand at Breffni Park watching Cavan in the Ulster championship. “I see the start and the end of the season. They’re normally out before I go back,” he quips.

Life at Celtic, at least initially, was good. Under former manager Gordon Strachan, he swiftly graduated to the senior side, making his Champions League debut as a substitute against Manchester United in 2008, aged just 18. Two weeks later, Sheridan started the return leg of the same clash. But when Strachan departed in 2009, to be replaced first byTony Mowbray and then Neil Lennon, his first-team options dried up. Neither manager ‘fancied’ the striker, who was farmed out in a succession of loan deals to Motherwell, Plymouth and St Johnstone. In similar situations, ego-driven young footballers are wont to grow restive, but not, it seems, Sheridan: “I was never bitter towards (Mowbray or Lennon). I never said ‘I should be playing’.”

Faced with silently rotting in the reserves at Celtic Park or a merry-go-round of frustrating six-month loan deals, Sheridan made a surprising decision: he joined Bulgarian club CSKA Sofia. It was a brave move that seemed to pay immediate dividends as Sheridan began life in Bulgaria by starting, and scoring, regularly. But when the manager was sacked after two months, the striker found himself out of favour and isolated far away from his friends and family. “When you’re not playing over there it’s hard,” he admits.

Self-deprecating, perhaps to a fault, Sheridan suggests CSKA may have had unrealistic expectations of the young Irish targetman when they signed him two summers ago. “I went over the day after starting against Argentina (in a 1-0 defeat at the Aviva in August 2010), so they were probably expecting an unbelievable player. Then I turned up.”

After the sojourn in Sofia, Sheridan feels at home back in Scotland. He lives near Glasgow University, and commutes to Perth, where St Johnstone are based. Under new managerSteve Lomas, the Saints have maintained their strong early-season form — they currently stand fifth in the SPL — with Sheridan, who has teamed up effectively with co-striker Fran Sandaza, chipping in with some important goals, including the equaliser in Sunday’s draw atHearts in the fifth round of the Scottish Cup.

Despite having three caps to his name, the lanky striker doesn’t talk up his chances of figuring in Giovanni Trapattoni’s plans for the European Championships. “Realistically I’d only (get into the squad) through injuries. And even then when fellas do pull out there are other fellas that are playing in the Premiership who weren’t in the first squad who will be ahead of me.” When it comes to football, Sheridan is nothing if not phlegmatic.

He might not be booking flights to Poland but his performances before Christmas led to paper talk of a move away from McDiarmid Park. Sheridan, who was injured when the transfer window opened, chose to repay St Johnstone’s faith, renewing his loan deal until the end of the season. It was an example of another trait rarely associated with footballers: loyalty.

Such fealty is even more remarkable given that CSKA Sofia — he is still contracted with the Bulgarian club until 2013 — routinely pay his wages over eight weeks late. “It’s a bit unusual alright. I’ll get two months’ wages and then nothing for two months,” Sheridan says in his soft Cavan drawl.

Wages, or more correctly their absence, has been a major issue in Scottish football this year: Edinburgh club Hearts have been sanctioned by the Scottish Premier League for consistent late payments to players, one of whom, Ryan Stevenson, went on a very public strike. Sheridan, in contrast, describes his ambiguous financial situation as simply “annoying”.

The hope now is that St Johnstone will prove a springboard for a permanent move — and a secure pay packet — perhaps elsewhere in the SPL or, his favoured destination, England. After six moves in less than four years, there’s a sense that the peripatetic striker would like to settle down, preferably somewhere a bit closer to Cavan than Eastern Europe.

Sheridan regularly returns home to visit friends and family. Both his parents are teachers in Bailieborough and, if it wasn’t for football, he would have probably followed in their footsteps. One aspect of the profession in particular still appeals: “Teachers have the best holidays you can get! We only get June off, but they get three months for summer as well as Christmas. Pretty nice.”

In the overexcited world of football, Cillian Sheridan is one player who definitely knows how to take it easy.

This piece originally appeared in the Sunday Independent on 12/02/2012.

Irish Emigration is No Lifestyle Choice

Every St Stephen’s Day I play soccer with a group of school friends in Longford, my hometown. It’s not a pretty sight – 22 over-fed men, their prime fast disappearing over the horizon, huffing and puffing on the local Gaelic pitch – but it’s been a tradition for well over a decade, and old traditions die hard.

In recent years, our annual kickabout has taken on a decidedly international feel. Now we’ve got players jetting in from Dubai and Australia, Brighton and Barcelona (although, sadly, we’re still no closer to Barca-style tiki-taka soccer). There’s incongruous bronze suntans on show in the wan winter light, t-shirts bearing logos from bars half a world away and erstwhile schoolmates asking one another decidedly non-existentialist questions about ‘where are you these days?’

Doubtless my yuletide teammates – university-educated, under 35, upwardly mobile, ostensibly living it up in far-flung places – were the kind of people Michael Noonan had in mind when he waded into the emigration debate last week. ‘There are always young people coming and going from Ireland. Some of them are emigrants in the traditional sense, but simply there are people who want to get off the island,’ the Fine Gael Finance Minister said during a press conference on the Troika review of Ireland’s bailout program.

Noonan, who has been in the Dail since 1981 and earns a hefty six-figure salary for his troubles at Finance, went on suggest that it is wanderlust, not joblessness, that’s behind the rise in emigration: ‘For a lot of people going, it’s not being driven by unemployment at all. It’s being driven by wanting to see another part of the world.’

The most generous reading of Noonan’s remarks – elsewhere Sinn Fein’s Pearse Doherty described the minister’s comments as ‘deeply insulting’ – is that emigration for Irish people is a lifestyle choice, like changing hair colour or opening a Twitter account. Unfortunately, this establishment trope, echoed in 2010 by then Fianna Fail minister Mary Coughlan’s description of emigration as ‘not a bad thing’, flies in the face of reality. According to the Economic and Social Research Institute, more than 40,000 Irish people emigrated in the year to April 2011. This figure is expected to almost double this year.

With unemployment running at over 14%, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist, much less a social scientist, to work out the connection between an economy choked to death by a punitive IMF/EU bailout and a seemingly endless succession of austerity budgets, and the lengthening queues at long haul flight desks at Dublin airport.

And if Irish people are so predisposed to emigration, as Noonan insinuates, why didn’t more leave during the boom? Going back to my annual soccer game (the last time, I promise): five years ago almost every single player lived within the state, most drove down from their homes in Dublin or Galway for the Christmas holidays. They lived and worked in Ireland because that is what the vast majority wanted to do. Based at the time in Belfast, I was probably the closest our game had to an exotic import (and definitely had no tan to show for my travels).

Branding emigration as a ‘lifestyle choice’ isn’t just a crass and out of touch aside from an aloof government minister. It’s part of a wider shift that depoliticizes Irish emigration, reducing it to a personal choice to stay or go that each individual makes, a self-interested decision which Irish state and society has no right to influence. Government, then, is no longer responsible for stemming the tide of emigrants at home, and is able freely to abdicate its responsibility to provide real opportunities for young people beyond ‘here’s a decent education, here’s a plane ticket, good luck’.

Depoliticizing emigration has effects outside Ireland’s geographical borders, too. If the lads playing soccer on St Stephen’s Day are wide-eyed flaneurs, freely choosing to sell their labour around the world in a global economy, any claim to a political voice back home is severely weakened. You chose to leave so why should you have any say in how the country is run now?

It’s a tired argument rehearsed ad nauseam during debates about extending voting rights to Irish emigrants before the 2011 general election. Since then positive noises made by Fine Gael and Labour about emigrant voting on the campaign trail have dissipated somewhat in a climate where government paints emigration as a youthful jaunt around the globe, rather than a difficult, often unwanted relocation.

The appointment by President Michael D Higgins of former Hackney councillor Sally Mulready as emigrant advocate on the Council of State is to be applauded. As is the government’s announcement that the issue of emigrant voting rights in presidential elections is one that will likely be discussed in the Constitutional Convention that is planned for this year.

But as long as emigration is construed as a lifestyle choice, unmoored from the social, political and economic reality at home, calls for meaningful change in Ireland and wider political representation for emigrants abroad will continue to fall on stony ground.

 This piece originally appeared in the Irish Post.

Referendum fever is crossing the Irish Sea

LAST Saturday, Tyrone defeated Derry in the final of the McKenna Cup at the Athletic Grounds in Armagh. Among the sell-out crowd was an unlikely acolyte of Ulster GAA: Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson. While right-wing unionists decried the DUP leader’s first trip to a GAA match as treachery, Robinson appeared to enjoy the game, even signing autographs inside the stadium.

Robinson’s companion at Saturday’s match was Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness. Judging by the shared smiles and chatter inside the VIP area at the Athletic Grounds, it seems fair to say that the deputy and First Minister were talking more about sport than politics.

Whether McGuinness mentioned his intention to push for a referendum on the constitutional future of the north to Robinson during the half-time break on Saturday will probably never be known, but in an interview published in Monday’s Irish Examiner, the deputy First Minister stated clearly for the first time his party’s desire for a vote on Irish unification in the near future. “It just seems to me to be a sensible timing,” he said. “It would be on the question of whether or not the people of the Six Counties wish to retain the link with the United Kingdom, or be part of a united Ireland.”

Referendums, it seems, are in the Irish Sea air. Both emboldened by and envious of the SNP’s recent success, Sinn Fein is keen to capitalise on the new, more fluid dispensation towards the UK’s constitutional future by putting the issue of Irish unity firmly on the political agenda.

Under the Good Friday Agreement, a referendum on Irish unification can be held no more than once every seven years. Any decision on such a plebiscite rests with the British secretary of state, although in practice it would require support from the DUP and even the Ulster Unionist party if it were to be given the green light.

McGuinness outlined a provisional timetable for such a referendum, saying that the vote could take place in the next Assembly term, possibly as early as 2016 – the centenary of the Easter Rising, the republican revolt that, eventually, paved the way for Irish independence. Comparisons with Bannockburn and 2014 have, unsurprisingly, not taken long to surface.

And yet, the political reality of Sinn Fein’s referendum gambit is very different to that of the SNP. Barring an act of God, a referendum on Irish unity in 2016 would be roundly rejected by Northern Irish voters. According to the 2001 census, just over 53 per cent of the population hails from a Protestant background, with 44 per cent from a Catholic background. However, the most recent Northern Ireland Life and Times survey found that 73 per cent backed the union with Britain: among that figure were 52 per cent of Catholics.

Putting the debate about a united Ireland on the political agenda appears to be the driving logic. Sinn Fein has watched with no little interest as the tenor of the independence debate in Scotland has shifted from process to specifics.

The ripple effects of the Scottish referendum are being felt across the UK: from Liberal Democrat power-broker Simon Hughes’ calls for an English parliament, to the wary glances being thrown northwards by Welsh first minister Carwyn Jones. But it is in Northern Ireland, with its long-established nationalist and unionist tribes, where any moves towards independence in Scotland are likely to be most keenly felt, and politically exploited.

Ironically it was McGuinness who cautioned Northern Irish politicians against getting involved in Scottish politics. Speaking before the Stormont Assembly last month he described Scottish independence as “an issue which could be used to create divisions in this house or even in our Executive or even between the First Minister and myself”.

For their part, Northern Irish unionists have made little secret of their position on the Scottish question. Speaking at a British-Irish Council summit in Dublin earlier this year, Peter Robinson spoke of his own Scottish roots and his desire for “Edinburgh to remain within the United Kingdom”. Meanwhile, Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliot wrote in the Belfast Telegraph that “this is a time for us all, as unionists together, to support a continuance of a strong United Kingdom”.

A referendum on Irish unity would place Westminster in a bind. The Good Friday Agreement avers that the future of Northern Ireland will be settled by a majority vote of its people. Given the north’s turbulent history and its fractious relationship with Westminster, it would be difficult to countenance a Conservative or Labour leader wading in on the side of the union. Any repeat of the cross-party support marshalled against Scottish independence could have disastrous, even fatal, consequences in Northern Ireland.

All this talk of constitutional change omits one key player: the Republic of Ireland. In Dublin, appetite for unification is scant and getting scanter. The economic cost of absorbing the heavily subsidised Northern Irish state would almost certainly be beyond the Irish state in its current hairshirt incarnation. Indeed Sinn Fein owes its recent electoral success south of the border more to its left-wing position on social justice and employment than any tropes of republican history.

In Ireland right now, it’s a referendum that might not happen that’s prompting the most public discussion. A recent Red C poll showed that 72 per cent of the Irish electorate wants a plebiscite on the latest EU treaty. If Irish voters do get their wish, this’ll be one political game Westminster, Holyrood and Stormont will all be watching with interest.

This piece originally appeared in the Scotsman, February 1.