Friday, 28 February 2014

Has Russia really just invaded Crimea?

Despite US intelligence this morning apparently concluding that Russia was bluffing in its stance towards Ukraine and Crimea, within the past 10 minutes the BBC are reporting that a column of Russian APCs is advancing on Simferopol, while at least 5 Russian military planes have apparently already landed there.

This is despite a warning just a short while ago from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that Russian intervention in Ukraine would be a "grave mistake".

It would appear that Vladimir Putin is setting out to demonstrate the limits of American power and European influence.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

When the Russian bear farts...

Tim Stanley has a good blogpost in The Telegraph, although I find his use of the phrase "new Cold War" as a lazy shorthand for "a standoff between Russia and America" almost as irritating as misplaced analysis that try to portray the current crisis in Ukraine as some sort of relic from the original Cold War.

His conclusion had a definite Mao Zedong character to it, and I am sure was what set off my train of thought:
Russia is a paper tiger. Why we're wasting time hunting it, I cannot imagine.

The Ukrainian crisis becomes an international crisis

My blog post on Sunday about Ukraine disagreed with a New York Times analysis of the driving factors behind the crisis there, particularly the (US-centric) view that it was a hangover from the Cold War.  The writer and historian Anne Applebaum had an article in The Telegraph on Sunday that on the one hand supported my argument, and on the other disagreed with some of my other conclusions, her central argument being that it had nothing to do with ethnicity, geography or language.

With respect to Anne Applebaum, a distinguished historian and writer on Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, I disagree, and feel that her focus is too immediate term and ignores, as did the NYT piece, the larger structural factors.

What has happened in recent days in Crimea (an issue I touched upon in my original post) has shown that in that part of Ukraine at least, language and ethnicity are a factor, and a potentially explosive one at that.

Admittedly, what makes Crimea different is that the majority of the population is Russian, as opposed to Russian-speaking Ukrainians that dominate the west and south of the rest of Ukraine, and sovereignty over Crimea was transferred by the USSR from Russia to Ukraine only 60 or so years ago.  Nonetheless, it has the potential, even if not the likelihood, to ignite Ukraine into a full-blown ethnic or linguistic conflict, should Russia continue in its support for Yanukovich and, more dangerously, take military action from the naval base that it continues to operate in Crimea in support of the Russian separatists.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

The State of Missouri Just Can't Wait to Kill

I had previously mentioned the case of Herbert Smulls, a man executed by the State of Missouri before the United States Supreme Court had even finished deciding on his petition for a stay of execution.

CBS and The Atlantic's Andrew Cohen (a must-follow for anyone interested in the U.S. criminal justice system) has written a follow-up piece on Smulls, and it appears that the behaviour of Missouri officials has not gone unnoticed by either the 8th Circuit or the Supreme Court.

Is the Ukrainian crisis really a leftover from the Cold War?

In today's New York Times ($) David Herszenhorn concludes that, in part, the current crisis and violence in Ukraine is a leftover from the Cold War.  I find the argument thoroughly unconvincing.

In fact, I think that his whole 'primer' does a pretty lousy job at explaining what is going on in Ukraine, missing as it does the key structural, demographic and cultural drivers that divide the nation.

But I'll begin with 'core factor' number two, as this was the one that initially caught my eye.

Second is a lingering Cold War-era fight between Russia and the West for influence over countries in Eastern Europe still suffering from political and economic problems rooted in the Soviet era... Perceiving a threat to its big military and economic interests in Ukraine, Russia exerted enormous pressure to scuttle the accords with the European Union.
The are a number of problems with this analysis.

Firstly, during the Cold War Ukraine was the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, part of the Soviet Union and in no way shape or form part of any fight over influence in Eastern Europe.

(Fun fact: Ukraine, even when part of the Soviet Union, was a founder member of the United Nations and had a seat in the United Nations General Assembly, agreed by accident during discussions between the USSR and USA as WWII came to a close).

Friday, 21 February 2014

Can we get over the ice skating sour grapes?

I didn't expect myself to be writing a blog post about figure skating, but sour grapes really are very unedifying. reports that 1.7 million people (unsurprisingly, mostly South Korean) have signed a petition alleging that the voting in the Sochi competition was rigged in favour of the Russians (a charge rather distastefully put to the American public last night on NBC by figure skater Gracie Gold).

It's all a bit pathetic really; and although Jessica Winter's article, also in Slate, starts off sounding like it is on the side of the tin-foil hat brigade, it is actually worth reading, explaining the conspiracy theory, how the voting system actually works, and the problems that are associated with it.

She also notes that Yuna Kim herself admitted that she didn't have the passion to win she had four years ago (something that couldn't be said about Adelina Sotnikova, the reigning Russian champion), which chimes with Johnny Weir's observations that Kim's performance was a bit wooden, and that she performed one fewer jump than Sotnikova.

For me, the conspiracy theory is all highly circumstantial, based mostly on the assertion that there is a pro-Russian bias among the judges, given that one is Russian and married to the Director of the Russian Figure Skating Federation (ok, you may have something there), one is Ukrainian, and one an ethnic Russian Estonian.  Others also point to the fact that one of the other judges is also "Eastern European", being from Slovakia, which is in central Europe not Eastern Europe.  Slovakia is also strongly anchored in the EU, and a pro-Russian bias is only slightly more likely from her than from the Italian or French judges.

Chilling effect on the internet?

This story originally caught my attention when I saw a tweet from Niall O'Dowd as I boarded a plane for a week's holiday in the U.S. Virgin Islands (that's not relevant to this post, I just like rubbing it in).

O'Dowd's tweet linked to a story in Irish Central (his U.S.-based news website), outlining the circumstances under which a story by John Spain relating to the salary of the Chief Executive of the Irish charity REHAB had been taken down after legal threats from Ms. Kerins' solicitors.  I have made reference to Angela Kerins in a previous post here (REHAB this week released her salary, just FYI: €240,000.  No, I did not accidentally slip on an extra digit.)

O'Dowd stated that the site's host, Clickability, had been warned to take down the story, but didn't actually say that it had been taken down (which would have been, from a legal perspective, a very surprising decision on their part.)  After having read the story I was surprised to notice that the story O'Dowd was referring to was no longer on the site, particularly given O'Dowd's statement in the article "Thank God for the First Amendment" and so tweeted to him asking about it.  I received no reply, so was therefore interested to see this article in Tuesday's Irish Times.

Niall O’Dowd to seek legal advice after online opinion article about Rehab taken down - The Irish Times - Tue, Feb 18, 2014

Monday, 17 February 2014

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

This classical Latin question of 2,000 years ago has no greater relevance than to Ireland today.  The national police force, An Garda Síochána (the Guardians of the Peace), is commonly referred to in English as 'the Guards'.  After a series of policing scandals, in 2005 an Ombudsman was established, the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC), to provide an answer to Juvenal's question of who will guard the guards.

The Commission was partly modelled on the equivalent office in Northern Ireland, but with fewer and blunter teeth.  Its relationship with the Gardaí has been, it has to be said, a tense one (€) over the years, characterised by suspicion (€) and misunderstanding.  GSOC has made some mistakes along the way that caused little love to be lost (€) between the two organisations.  This sits atop the natural loathing that any police organisation has for a body designed to oversee it.  It is just the nature of the beast.

Nonetheless, from a human rights perspective, to have a permanent police ombudsman is something of which Ireland should be proud, and places it in a very small number of jurisdictions in the world to have such a set-up.

It is natural, therefore, that Irish people should be concerned by reports in the press, first broken by The Sunday Times, that GSOC became concerned that the security of its offices had been breached.  They employed a British security company to sweep their offices, in the course of which they discovered three 'anomalies'.  Gavan Reilly outlines what they were in an excellent blogpost, that gets to the heart of a lot of this puzzling issue, or Sunday Times subscribers can recap on the detail from John Mooney here, a screengrab from which I have included below (click to zoom).  It should also be noted that Ireland should be grateful to the 'British' Sunday Times (as members of the Government have repeatedly referred to it) and John Mooney in particular, for pursuing this issue when other Irish media outlets sucked up the Government spin and spat it out again to its readers and viewers.

There are a lot of questions remaining, but to distil what they are, I want to go back through the chronology of what happened, and add my own thoughts and speculation.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

BNP leader's lovechild to be Italian PM

The world seems remarkably nonchalant about the fact that British National Party leader Nick Griffin's love child by Mr. Bean appears poised to become Prime Minister of Italy.

Above, Mr. Bean and Nick Griffin.

Below, the fruit of their secret love, Italian Democratic Party leader, Matteo Renzi.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

The judge with an eye on history

The Washington Post today has an interesting profile of Judge Arenda Wright Allen who penned the historic judgment (covered in my last blogpost) overturning Virginia's ban on gay marriage, surely, with an eye in its place in the history books.

              Arenda L. Wright Allen

Click here for the story. 

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Virginia is for lovers: Happy Valentine's Day

In the latest of a succession of federal court judgments that have overturned states' bans on same-sex marriage, a federal judge in Richmond, Virginia ruled that the state's constitutional ban on gay marriage is a violation of the United States Constitution.  Her decision has been stayed, pending an appeal.

Leaving little room, it has to be said, for doubt as to on which side of the fence she stands herself, Judge Arenda Wright Allen opened her judgment with a quotation from Mildred Loving, one of the plaintiffs in the now famous U.S. Supreme Court case of Loving v. Virgina that saw the state's ban on interracial marriage declared unconstitutional.
We made a commitment to each other in our love and our lives, and now had the legal commitment, called marriage, to match.  Isn't that what marriage is? … I have lived long enough now to see big changes.  The older generations's fears and prejudices have given way, and today's young people realise that if someone loves someone they have a right to marry… I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry.  Government has no business imposing some people's religious beliefs over others… I support the freedom to marry for all.  That's what Loving, and loving, are all about.
What has led to this growing stampede to have state bans overturned, as in Utah, Kentucky (where the issue was the state's refusal to recognise out-of-state same-sex marriages) and now Virginia's constitutional ban on gay marriage, is the U.S. Supreme Court decision of last summer that overturned the Defence of Marriage Act.

Although the Supreme Court declined to hear the merits of the arguments in the California case that directly challenged that state's gay marriage ban, in U.S. v Windsor, as some observers predicted at the time (including Justice Antonin Scalia, in his barnstorming dissent), the Court opened the path to state bans being declared unconstitutional.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Gay, gayer, gayist?

From the comfort of my armchair in Washington and no longer inhabiting the ivory towers of academia, I had no idea what a shitstorm of debate, both in Ireland and in the social sciences, I was wading into with my blog post commenting on 'Pantigate' and use of the word homophobia.  A slightly edited version of it appeared as a column in last Friday's Irish Times.

It certainly provoked mixed responses:

(my mum on the Irish Times comment section, using the pseudonym 'Labhaoise O'Donovan')

I don't think I persuaded many by my argument, as each side in the debate is fairly entrenched, but I still feel that it is the one that would have been accepted by the High Court (which was the legal advice that RTÉ also received). In some respects by paying out, RTÉ has saved the the gay rights activist community from a loss in Court that would have affirmed that to be against gay marriage is not to be homophobic per se.

But in the past week, the debate has further broadened and has led me to ask, why do we even use the term 'homophobia' at all?

When crossing the street became criminal

Way back in the day when for a few months I first gave writing a blog a bash, I wrote a post about an elderly British gentleman and his experience of being arrested (using what would not pass for reasonable force in a British court) and his subsequent experience of the American criminal justice system.

His experience came to mind last month, in the much reported case of an elderly Chinese man who was again subjected to what would appear to be an unreasonable use of force by the NYPD during his arrest.

In both cases the men were arrested for the uniquely American crime of jaywalking.  I asked on Facebook at the time why was jaywalking an issue for American police.  A friend (hi Carm!) came back with the not unreasonable suggestion that:

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Panti's In A Twist

The liberal blogosphere, Facebook and Twitter in Ireland (and indeed further afield) have been ablaze these past few days, following Rory O'Neill's impassioned and stirring speech after the curtain-fall of the Abbey Theatre's The Risen People last Saturday night.  O'Neill (in the guise of his stage persona, Panti Bliss) gave a deeply personal and rousing exposition of the oppressive nature of homophobia, both internalised and external, and derided the Irish commentariat (and RTÉ in particular) for depriving him, as a gay man, the right to define what is and is not homophobic.  It was certainly one of the most powerful pieces of public speaking heard in Ireland in many years.  However, there remains one fundamental problem: O'Neill was fundamentally wrong in his key conclusions.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Things Culchies Love

Yesterday's post of Feilim McHugh's brilliant da, reminded me of a list from many years ago of 'Things Culchies Love'.  If you're not Irish, you probably don't know what a culchie is: it's someone from the country; someone who engages in agricultural pursuits.  I think it's pretty fair to say that Feilim's oul fella is a culchie (the giveaway was the hat).

So, in honour of Feilim's da, here is, resurrected from the vaults of the interwebs, a list of things culchies love.

Monday, 3 February 2014

The most Irish thing you will ever see in your life

No really, this is the funniest thing I have seen in a long time.  It is more Irish than Bono and Sinéad O'Connor dancing The Waves of Tory down O'Connell Street in giant shamrock costumes while knocking a sliotar back and forth between them and skulling a pint with a wee chaser.  It is, pure brilliance.

WARNING: There is some very, erm, authentic language used here.

NSFW, unless you are in Ireland.

Or Australia.

And don't work in a convent.

Unless all the nuns are Irish.

If the embedded video isn't working, click on this link.

Amanda Knox and a Broken Justice System

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

I got really annoyed on Thursday evening, when I read a comment on CNN in an article entitled 'Amanda Knox retrial verdict: Six things to know'.

Firstly, why was she back on trial?  Fair enough, that's a question the answer to which anyone interested in the verdict should know.  Second up:

Had I been eating cornflakes I would have choked on them.  "Renewed questions about the effectiveness of Italy's justice system"?  Here is a line that (if it wasn't) might as well have been lifted directly out of a release from Amanda Knox's well-funded PR machine.

Compare and contrast with its coverage of the execution of Troy Davis, a man put to death in Georgia despite the fact that most of the original prosecution witnesses had subsequently retracted their testimony, alleging they were put under pressure to testify by the police and the DA.

Is that a Neknominate bandwagon I hear passing?

Ireland's Minister for Communications deserves to be moved to Minister for Transport in any Cabinet reshuffle, for he rarely misses an opportunity to jump aboard a passing bandwagon.

UPDATE: among those also clambering on, in the wake of Pat Rabbitte's statement, appear to be most of the British press: see here and here and here for examples.
Minister Rabbitte and his wife.

Today's Irish Times reports that the Minister had called for a ban on the so-called internet drinking game 'Neknominate', whereby you film yourself necking a drink, post the video to Facebook, and then nominate someone else to do the same thing.

It all sound harmless enough, right?  Well, it probably would be, in a normal country with a normal relationship with alcohol.  However, Irish and British people do not have a normal relationship with alcohol, so instead of sun-drenched Australians cross-dressing in bikinis and downing a bottle of Victoria Lager, or attempting to down a beer while water-skiing, we get people downing pints of vodka and biting the head off a dead chicken, downing pints of whisky, and downing beers and then getting into a flooded river.

Sadly, these last two 'Neknominations' appear to have led to the deaths of at least one, and possible two (the circumstances surrounding the whiskey-drinking 'Neknomination' are in dispute) young men in Ireland, which has prompted the Minister to lead the charge of "something must be done!"