28 December 2005

A Christmas story

The story so far.

In 2002 there was a high-profile televised police raid on the Sinn Féin offices at Stormont which uncovered (it was alleged) a Republican spy ring.

All shades of Unionism dashed to the moral high ground. The SDLP was suitably shocked. There was no way the DUP would share democracy with people who were undermining its very foundations. Result: the Assembly was dissolved.

Thousands of sensitive Government documents (all nicked) were recovered (it was alleged) from Sinn Féin's offices. Three leading party officials were charged and were to face trial. Sinn Féin pleaded total innocence.

Now read on.

The leader of the spy ring was (he tells us) working for the enemy, to wit, the British Government. That being the case he was involved in stealing documents, spying against the British Civil Service and/or pro-British political parties while at the same time reporting back to his British masters. For such a complicated mission he probably deserves the bribes they were paying him. Completing his annual income tax form must have been a nightmare.

So if the spying was shared by the Brits, heavily disguised as Sinn Féin, should not all the 'decent' law-abiding democracy-upholding political parties forgive and forget – in the spirit of Christmas? And let's get back to the Assembly again. Right?

Wrong.

Every party is blaming every other one. Kissing and making up will have to be deferred.

The master spy in this pulp-fiction true-life detective story is one Denis Donaldson – no relation of Jeffrey I understand. Call me old fashioned, but if a double-crosser's cover is blown I don't think it's a good idea to call a press conference and tell the world about it. They don't do that sort of thing Denis in Chicago or Sicily.

But then he was about to be 'outed' by the British. Really? Why would British Intelligence (or lack of it) want to tell the world it was declaring one of its spies redundant? He was also about to be tried but, out of the blue, it was decided it would not be in the public interest. I wonder why.

Just a few weeks ago the bold Denis was paraded by Gerry himself as a brave innocent patriot who had stood up to the false accusations of perfidious Albion – not the words used but that was the gist of it. And yet Gerry didn't know he was being double-crossed, cuckolded, two-timed, shafted and cruelly deceived by this patriot and close buddy for the past twenty years.

So is that why the SDLP think that Gerry should resign – out of respect for his own colleagues?

The function of a column like this is to take a difficult issue and make it clear for readers.

Well I can't succeed every time.

20 December 2005

Economics - the truth

'A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money.'

So observed US Senator Everett Dirksen about 40 years ago though his political supporters claim that he never actually said that.

But it's a very appealing analysis. Economics is so painfully dull – think of Gordon Brown – that a little flamboyance is surely welcome. Anything is better than 'prudence'.

Economics is a unique subject in one vital respect. Nobody, least of all economists, shares any of its major central beliefs. The reason is simple. There aren't any.

Even in the much-dreaded subject of mathematics, about which I claim to know a tiny little bit, we all agree that 2 plus 3 works out at 5 and that the story about the square on the hypotenuse is actually true.

Back in the 17th century Galileo failed to convince the Church that the Earth revolved round the Sun. So they put him in prison. He was graciously pardoned in 1992, 350 years later – they like to think long a hard before taking decisions like that. Meanwhile geographers, astronomers, geologists and all manner of scientists side with Galileo and share a common core of agreed knowledge. So do engineers, doctors, farmers, historians (except in Ireland) turf accountants, airline pilots and painters and decorators, but not economists.

Economists can of course reel off a whole series of definitions. They can unfold the mysteries of inflation, growth, GDP, GNP, RPI, public sector borrowing etc at the drop of a footsie, but they haven't found a way of inter-relating them and they can never agree on what to do.

They do however spend a lot of time pitting one technical term against another. All we want to know is whether the price of petrol or Guinness is going up or whether our pensions are worth the paper they're not yet written on. But to get simple answers we have to wade through Gordon Brown's theories, promises and excuses.

I think Tony should put him in charge of transport.

I suspect he would then lower the 30 mile-an-hour speed limit to 28.5 but devise a system of rebates so that owners born before 1 January 1985 with vehicles emitting less than 200 g/km CO2 on 1 April 2006 could apply to drive at 32.7 mph. As a gesture to Europe he might also phase in a change to driving on the right – trucks and buses in 2006, cars in 2007.

Presenting his recent pre-Budget report he faced down humiliation in grand style. Never admitting that he had badly misjudged the economy over the past year he claimed a magnificent triumph over adversity.

His forecasts for growth this year and next were both badly wrong. His promise to restrict borrowing has been broken.

But his supporters will claim he never actually said that.

13 December 2005

Outsourcing

It used to be called 'sub-contracting', the practice of large organisations with large contracts inviting smaller specialist firms to take on some of the work in the interests of efficiency. Then it became 'outsourcing' and the newly invented name covered over an alarming increase in scale.

Outsourcing would seem to have acquired a new sinister lease of life.

It's called 'rendition'. Rendition means transferring suspects from one country to another. Though legal under international law it is being disgracefully abused. Prisoner interrogation is now outsourced to interrogation centres in countries with lower human rights standards.

Is it done to save money? Perhaps. Is it done to get a better result more quickly? That's the real question. The implications are all too horribly clear.

Condoleezza Rice has admitted that Washington has carried out renditions of suspects but claims that it never takes place where it is believed that the individual might be tortured.

'The US does not tolerate, permit, or condone torture under any circumstances,' Dr Rice asserted. 'The US does not employ rendition to move a suspect to a country where he might be tortured.'

Following that very precise denial Condoleezza Rice would not take questions. Nobody was surprised. The problem is that her statement hangs on the phrase 'where he might be tortured'. Remove that phrase and rendition for interrogation purposes can be nobly defended.

Torture is internationally understood to be 'any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person'.

So if the pain is less than severe is it OK?

In August 2002, the Assistant US Attorney General said that 'the adjective severe conveys that the pain or suffering must be of such a high level of intensity that the pain is difficult for the subject to endure'. He suggested that 'severe pain' must be severe enough to result in organ failure death.

The White House distanced itself from his view but the CIA is on record in seeking authority for more 'aggressive interrogations' and exemption from a ban on subjecting prisoners to 'cruel and inhumane treatment'.

It has never been denied that accepted standards of CIA interrogation include the following.

Standing prisoners for 40 hours and more, shackled to the floor, denying them sleep and causing 'sensory deprivation'.

Making a prisoner stand naked in a cold, though not freezing, cell while dousing him with water.

'Water boarding' – binding a prisoner to a board with feet raised, and wrapping cellophane round his head. Water is poured onto his face and is said to produce a fear of drowning which leads to a rapid demand for the suffering to end.

If none of these is torture then Condoleezza's conscience is absolutely clear.

06 December 2005

Prodigal son

Amidst all the remarkable expressions of feeling following the death of George Best I pick out just one thing. It is the fact that, at so many venues, the expected one-minute silence gave way to a one-minute applause.

In doing so the vast crowds seemed to want to recognise a greatness beyond sheer footballing genius, and to set aside George's tragic inability to control his personal life.

Alcoholism is a medical condition.

Not many years ago, mental illness, particularly depression, was barely recognised as such and those who suffered were often expected to find a cure in 'pulling themselves together' or 'accepting responsibility'. That kind of attitude has not gone away and there will be many who will sit in judgment upon Best's litany of broken promises.

Shamefully, there were times when we was exploited by the media. I recall the occasion when he made an inebriated appearance on a famous television chat show, having first been given every opportunity, perhaps even encouragement, to drink in the Green Room beforehand. They used to play the same trick on Oliver Reed.

When George got his liver transplant there were thousands of seriously ill patients waiting hopefully for their turn under what was believed to be a professionally-regulated national scheme. The small percentage on that list with drinking problems would not have been considered unless they had been dry for a long period and unless doctors could be satisfied that there would be no chance of slipping back to old ways.

George was given the benefit of a very considerable doubt and I shall leave it to others to decide whether the national scheme at that point was operating correctly. My own wife died one week before she was due to go to London to begin her transplant process. I bear no grudge.

Problems related to drinking have now become political. The Government's approach is to permit longer drinking hours. The theory is that, in order to avoid drunken brawling at 10 pm, there are now extended drinking opportunities which will somehow mysteriously eliminate brawling at midnight.

Some weeks ago, I was driving from Strangford to Downpatrick at around 2 am. My headlights illuminated a group of young women, hopelessly drunk, who were turning their hind quarters towards oncoming traffic, lifting what passed for micro-skirts to display their little naked rounded bottoms. Is that just good fun, or an indication that drinking habits have already taken a dangerous turn for the worse?

George Best will inspire every kid with football in his heart. I don't believe that the darker side of his life will lead others to follow his destructive lifestyle – quite the reverse.

For George is the prodigal who wanted above all else to return home but who never could make that difficult journey.