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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Just Finished Reading: Fatal Path – British Government and Irish Revolution 1910-1922 by Ronan Fanning (FP: 2013)

Between 1910 and 1922 the British government followed, according to the author, a fatal path that moved Ireland from a part of the British Isles and the Empire (indeed often seen as a vital component of both) to being an independent and deeply divided state along religious boundaries. Largely through inaction, vacillation, ignorance and not a little arrogance – to say nothing of the reluctance to face up to the issues and actually attempt to resolve them – the British lost Ireland and gained a new and problematically co-dependent partner in Ulster, which almost 100 years later is still awaiting a resolution satisfactory to all parties.

Of course Ireland has been a problem to the English crown for centuries before the third attempt at Home Rule (far short of independence) was raised in the early years of the 20th century in an attempt to quiet the Irish on the issue of an independence that the British mainland nation thought them incapable of. Inevitably though things quickly founded on the issue of religion. Ireland as a whole was largely a Catholic nation with a small Protestant minority largely concentrated in the 6 (or 9 depending on who you spoke to) northern counties. Determined not to be ruled by the Catholics they despised they demanded exclusion from any deal struck with the rest of the country. With the British government in London strongly sympathetic they got the hearing they wanted and, just to be sure, imported a significant number of rifles and other equipment under the noses (or more likely the blind eyes) of the existing authorities. If they were not given autonomy they would simply take it. Inevitably this was unacceptable to the majority southern Catholics and any possibility of successful talks collapsed. Then, in 1914, the Irish Question was shelved to deal with something far more pressing – The Great War.

It was a war that no one really expected to last very long. So when it dragged on and on both sides – North and South – dug in, accumulated arms (far more in the North than the South) and waited impatiently. But seeing England’s difficulty as Ireland’s opportunity a small group of Catholics tried to move things along with the Easter Uprising in 1916. The expected backlash by the British was brutal (after all they had, they felt, just been stabbed in the back whilst fighting for their lives in Europe) and paradoxically did the Republican’s work for them. After that there was much less talk of Home Rule and more talk of Independence. When the war ended (sadly not the war to end all wars) and things began moving – rather inching – forward the stumbling block of Ulster would not go away. Nor did it after the 6 counties effectively declared themselves fully separate from the rest of the island of Ireland. The existence (or promise or even hope) of a boundary commission to settle things once and for all turned out to be little more than an agreeable political fiction. The short sharp Civil War that followed – between the Nationalists and Republicans in the South and against the Unionists in the North finally settled things to no one’s satisfaction with the emergence of the Irish Free State later to become Eire. So it has lasted to the present.

I knew a little bit about this – it’s a subject difficult to avoid living just across a small patch of water from the country involved, being born a Catholic in Liverpool and living through the Troubles (again fortunately at some distance from them!). It was interesting just to see how we got into this mess through years of political manoeuvre, shady deals, compromise, misunderstanding and, to be honest, not a little cynical double-dealing. As I said: politics.  Although clearly an expert on the period I did think that the author laboured his points a little too much and I thought repeated himself a few times too often. I suppose that I should have realised that the focus of the book was on the British government’s side of things and I did find myself wondering about the Irish side of things. Of course this wasn’t really what the thrust of the book was about, so it’s my own fault that I found things a little slow, or sometimes went into detail regarding things I didn’t find particularly interesting.

Fortunately (for me anyway) the last book in this triple-header on Ireland is exactly that – largely the same slice of time but from the Republican viewpoint. Overall this certainly wasn’t a bad book though I did find parts a bit of a struggle and a bit dull. But I’d lay the fault at my door rather than at the author’s. A valuable book for anyone interested in the period.        

Monday, August 31, 2015

Just Finished Reading: Drone Warfare – Killing by Remote Control by Medea Benjamin (FP: 2012)

Drones (or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles as the military prefer them to be known) have been around for a little while now and until comparatively recently caused hardly a stir when they were used in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Part of the reason was, at least to begin with, the numbers where very low – less than 50 in 2000. By 2010 various arms of the US military and, increasingly, agencies such as the CIA had caused this number to increase to 7,500 and that number is still growing. Despite the global financial meltdown and the cut-backs in some defence spending the cost of drones has increased greatly and will continue to do so. Drones are big business and business is very good indeed.

Piloted often from thousands of miles away they are in many ways the ideal killing machine. They are relatively cheap (when compared to a fighter jet), can be deployed again and gain (unlike a cruise missile), can loiter over a target for hours before acting, have sensors powerful enough to pick out individual targets and can, now that they are increasingly armed with Hellfire missiles, eliminate most targets in seconds at zero risk to the pilot. It’s no real surprise that the US military are presently training more drone pilots that bomber and fighter pilots combined. There is even a persistent rumour that the latest NATO fighter – the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter – might actually be the last manned fighter built. It’s been said before but with the latest models of drones soon to come on-line this time it might actually be true.

Of course not everything is sweetness and light in the world of the drone. With the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq practically over (at least from the boots on the ground perspective) drones are increasingly re-tasked to counter-terrorism operations. This means, in effect, targeted killing of terrorists or suspected terrorists largely (though not exclusively) in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. The switched-on amongst you will already see the problem in that seemingly innocuous statement. For one thing we’re not in any kind of state of conflict with any of those countries yet we (in the Allied sense) are killing their citizens (and the occasional American citizen apparently) with little compunction. But, I hear some of you say, they’re bad guys doing (or planning) bad things. Indeed many of them are – ignoring for the moment the so-called collateral damage suffered by those unfortunate enough to be in the blast radius of the drone strike – but is that enough to justify the US (and it is largely the US presently) assassinating potential enemies anywhere in the world in the name of self-defense? Of course they can justify it to themselves – otherwise how could they produce and agree kill-lists - and some of them even call it legal (where clearly from many perspectives it is not). On the face of things it’s very effective. At a rough cost of $46,000 per missile per terrorist commander (if you’re lucky to get one) it’s great value for money. But what you’re actually doing, over time, is producing more resilient organizations (who can cope with its members being eliminated from time to time) populated by operatives that are skillful and lucky enough to avoid drone strikes. Drones are an evolutionary pressure that produces better terrorists – and many more of them as strikes themselves fuel the anger against a country that can kill from the sky at no risk to itself.

All this (and more) is outlined in this rather eye-opening, if sometimes overly polemical, discussion on the effects and likely future consequences of the continuation of the drone program. Presently only undertaken largely by the US, UK and (to a more constrained degree) Israel, the author rightly points out that such an effective weapon in the fight against terrorists of all persuasions will soon be used by any state capable of building/buying and deploying them. When the Russians, Chinese or Iranians start killing their enemies across the world using their own drones who can protest after the USA has already legitimized the practice? Welcome to the future and watch the skies!

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Most graduates 'in non-graduate jobs', says CIPD

From The BBC

19th August 2015

The majority of UK university graduates are working in jobs that do not require a degree, with over-qualification at "saturation point", a report claims. Overall, 58.8% of graduates are in jobs deemed to be non-graduate roles, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. It said the number of graduates had now "significantly outstripped" the creation of high-skilled jobs.

The CIPD said the report's findings should be "a wake-up call". "The assumption that we will transition to a more productive, higher-value, higher-skilled economy just by increasing the conveyor belt of graduates is proven to be flawed," said Peter Cheese, chief executive of the CIPD, the professional body for human resources managers.

The report found the issue was leading to "negative consequences" including employers requesting degrees for traditionally non-graduate roles despite no change to the skills needed for the role. As a result, it found graduates were now replacing non-graduates in roles and taking jobs where the demand for graduate skills was either non-existent or falling.

The trend was particularly prominent in construction and manufacturing sectors where apprenticeships have previously been traditional routes into the industry, the report found. Mr Cheese said that in many cases the "skills premium" graduates had "if it exists at all" was being "simply wasted". The CIPD is calling for a "national debate" over how to generate more high-skilled jobs. It said government and organisations both needed to act to help graduates make better use of their skills, but said the report also highlighted that for young people choosing an apprenticeship instead of university could be a "much better choice".

A Department for Business, Innovation and Skills spokesman said: "We are providing the right mix of university places and apprenticeships to ensure more people have the opportunity to advance their careers and businesses to get the skills they need to grow."

[I was discussing this with some friends recently. My job is certainly not at graduate level and only one or two of my friends have appropriate degrees for their lines of work so it makes me wonder what the point is? I can understand the gaining of a specific degree for a particular job or profession – something that is required for the work being undertaken – but it does seem that some employers simply ask for a degree to limit the competition or to prove (by a very crude standard) that the person can stick at something for 3 years and be trained enough to produce good arguments. I think with most jobs you pick things up by doing them. From my own personal experience none of my university time was of any direct use to any job I’ve held in the past 27 years. Would I describe my degree’s a waste of time then? Only from a work point of view! But that’s not the reason I did them. By demanding degree level candidates in none degree level jobs employers are paradoxically devaluing university education and at the same time effectively forcing people to take degrees just to get their foot in the door. This isn’t really what university education should be about.]