22 March 2005

A matter of Principal

Playing for an under-13 rugby team against Down High School back in the Dark Ages I picked up the ball with murderous intent. I envisaged a jinking run through the opposition to score a spectacular try at the corner flag. Unfortunately I was bundled prematurely into touch and banged my head against a stone wall, known to be the school’s secret weapon. They say I have not been the same since.

Many years later, having forgiven the wall, my wife and I had the honour to be guests at the school prize-giving, she to give out the awards, I to make a speech of unparalleled density.

It is therefore with special interest that I follow the controversy over the plan to rebuild the school on a new site. It certainly deserves a new building and a new site – several options were examined – and I join the cry of a previous Principal, ‘Up Down’.

I have read the various consultants’ reports, carried out at the behest of the South-East Education and Library Board, regarding the school’s preferred choice, covering everything from impact on traffic, to flora and fauna, and from bat colonies to sustainable drainage.

While the reports are highly professional, there is (understandably) a pervading air of sympathy with their paymasters’ proposals, and I am left with many uncomfortable feelings.

The proposed site is right in the middle of the stunningly beautiful Quoile River basin, bounded by the Cotterhill and Finnebrogue Roads, in a designated ‘area of outstanding natural beauty’ and adjacent to a special landscape policy area.

School buildings for 1300 pupils, with car park, new foot bridges and extensive playing fields will ensure that a much-cherished landscape will be an area of outstanding natural beauty no more.

If even the most devious property developer tried to build some high-quality houses on that same site, far less obtrusive than a large school complex, he would not have the remotest chance of succeeding and I doubt if he would have any local support whatsoever.

The school’s proposal has of course substantial support, thanks mainly to a letter campaign organised by the school itself, though there is an even greater number of objections lodged with the Divisional Planning Office, including those from historical, heritage and conservation interests and from the National Trust.

None of these critics deserves scolding by the Principal. They are not being ‘deliberately used as vehicles to support the views of outside objectors’. They simply ask that other alternatives be considered in the same detail and that the debate be widened.

The Principal should put away his cane.

15 March 2005

Before you start dancing

In my insatiable thirst for truth and justice I fear I have been attacking the Labour leadership too often in this column.

So what about the Tories?

They propose to increase public spending on the things they love most – policemen and prisons top the list – and they promise oodles of money for pensioners, schools, road repairs, the army and childcare. The buzz word is ‘choice’. They will demonise immigrants and get tough on crime. Great stuff. Traditionally on the side of the rich, they are now on the side of the poor as well. Miraculously they believe they can easily find the cash to deliver these expensive mouth-watering promises but, at the same time, they plan to reduce their own spending power by cutting our tax bill.

How? Simple. Everybody else in the government machine will have to be more efficient because the Tories have splendid theories on cutting waste and reducing bureaucracy.

When last in power they had the same intentions. They invented ‘efficiency savings’. Everybody else called them ‘cuts’. They cut and cut and cut for successive years right across the board without any guidance on how the cuts could be achieved.

‘Quangos’ – independent executive agencies and public bodies, allocated bits of government work – are a special target. They are popular targets because we have all been conditioned to despise them. Few people recognise that quango boards – often unpaid or in receipt of token fees – provide an independent managerial service, supervising, challenging and holding to account many important services, from policing to health, from food safety to transport, from broadcasting standards to international development.

Without them, management teams within the civil service could bumble on, set their own targets, miss them if the going was rough and cover up their inefficiencies.

Here at home the diminutive Health Promotion Agency is a good example. Their task is shared by other energetic organisations and together they are making a huge difference in creating awareness and re-shaping attitudes to personal health and diet. Indirectly they will save lives and vast amounts of unnecessary health service expenditure. You can get that work done within the civil service, and get bogged down by interdepartmental duplication, or you can create a stable well-motivated and qualified specialist group of health-promotion professionals at less expense. Then make them responsible to an independent experienced board representing the broad spectrum of society, capable of challenging government policy and practice. Not a bad formula.

So when the pied piper plays his beguiling efficiency and tax-cutting tune, just do your arithmetic before you start dancing.

08 March 2005

Unusual suspects

Are the proposed new terror laws a ‘travesty and perversion of justice’ or are they necessary to protect us from a real threat to our very existence? How far can we act on intelligence information rather than on hard evidence?

It was a catastrophic judgement on that very issue that took us into Iraq in the first place.

To justify the war, politically, the fear of international terrorism has still to be kept alive. Car bombs in Iraq are used to underscore the possibility of terror taking a new direction towards our own country and, ironically, that possibility has greatly strengthened since the invasion. Opponents of the war warned of that probability from the outset. It is claimed that Al-Qaeda has been weakened but new detached cells are likely to spread over the world. A devastating attack on a western city can be put together in the remotest corner of the earth.

The argument now is that our own domestic law has to adapt to meet the new threat.

All-out opponents of change invoke Magna Carta. That noble statement of principles was by no means a product of thirteenth century high-mindedness – more a tough deal between two power blocs to meet the realities of the day.

The law has moved on a bit since the year 1215 yet court procedure clings to centuries-old practices which limit information-gathering and the presentation of evidence. Smashing a globally-coordinated terror ring cannot rely on permission from your local Justice of the Peace. The problem is to find a way of taking swift preventative action even before sufficient evidence can be gathered and thus we slip easily into various levels of detention without trial. (That idea didn’t exactly work in Northern Ireland a few years back.)

Perhaps we should put more effort into understanding why often intelligent, sociable and popular young men – and women – are willing to become suicide bombers. Fear of getting caught has always been an important factor in dealing with crime but now the rules have changed and the task is so much greater.

Polls suggest that the great majority of the population are behind these new stricter short-cut measures but law that affects only a minority can still be bad law. Grudgingly, and with deep apprehension, I find myself acknowledging the need of some kind of change.

Still; I would like to see the proposals getting a severe mauling as they go through the parliamentary process if only to demonstrate that we are entitled to real debate this time.

01 March 2005

Al-Jazeera - stay tuned

In a previous incarnation I was invited to set foot in hot-and-sticky Riyadh, capital of Saudi Arabia, to work on a project to develop a pan-Arab satellite-driven television service. While initial correspondence was being exchanged I was suddenly struck down by an acute attack of cold feet. Hornet’s nest is too mild a phrase to describe the political and cultural complications. The BBC and the British Council, originally responsive to a request for help, grasped their respective barge poles and I stayed at home.

It was therefore with some slight personal interest that I observed, many years later, the arrival of the al-Jazeera television station from dinky little Qatar. In the eyes of the West it soon became the abhorrent mouthpiece of the axis of evil. But opinions have wavered to some degree because the station has offended the Arab world as well. The enemy of our enemy, it is sometimes reasoned, may yet be our friend.

Al-Jazeera is by no means a paragon of virtue. The West is enraged when it carries threats from al-Qaeda but is curiously disinterested in those rare occasions when the al-Qaeda tone is softer and more reasoned. This recent statement is perhaps worthy of a second glance.

The freedom that we want, says al-Qaeda, is not the freedom of interest-bearing banks and vast corporations and misleading mass media; not the freedom of the destruction of others for the sake of materialistic interests; and not the freedom of AIDS and an industry of obscenities and homosexual marriages; and not the freedom to use women as a commodity to gain clients, win deals, or attract tourists; not the freedom of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and not the freedom of trading in the apparatus of torture and supporting the regimes of oppression . . . and suppression, the friends of America; and not the freedom of Israel, with their annihilation of the Muslims and destruction of the Aqsa mosque; and not the freedom of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.

Their statement is actually reflecting, not simply the venomous hatred of madmen holed up in some mountain stronghold, but mainstream Muslim opinion. It might be said that it also reflects the ‘more parochial Islamist disdain for America's liberal sexual culture’ but we must remember that Arab computers, just like yours and mine, are inundated with US-originated pornographic ‘spam’.

Our freedom is a freedom of monotheism and morals and probity and asceticism and justice . . . Reform cannot be brought about by B52 bombers.

Some day the West and the Muslim world must be reconciled. The first small step in that process may well be a willingness to listen.