Thursday 30 April 2009

Reducing the number of MLAs, redux

Last week this blog estimated how a reduction in the number of MLAs would affect the strengths of the various parties and blocks in the Assembly. This estimate was made entirely on the basis of the results of the most recent Assembly elections in 2007, and used the constituency boundaries in force at that time.

The next Assembly election, however, will be carried out under slightly different circumstances. Firstly there will be some marginal changes in the electorate, as the passage of time removes a majority-unionist cohort (the elderly) and replaces it by a majority-nationalist cohort (the 18-22 year olds). Secondly, there will be some boundary changes as a result of the Final Recommendations of the Boundary Commission, published on 3 October 2007.

When both of these factors are taken into account it is possible to make a forward-looking estimate of the outcome of the 2011 Assembly election. The table below shows a synthesis of this blog's estimate, based on three possible scenarios; no change in the number of MLAs (108), a reduction to five per constituency (90), and a reduction to four per constituency (72):

Two things immediately stand out:

1. In all three scenarios the proportion of the seats that would be won by the two main blocks (unionist and nationalist) is remarkably stable,
2. While the drop from 6 to 5 seats per constituency would largely be at the cost of the 'second parties' in each block (the UUP and the SDLP), a drop from 5 to 4 seats would mostly be at the cost of the largest party in each block (the DUP and Sinn Féin).

The first effect is a surprise, as the initial estimate made on the basis of the 2007 results showed Sinn Féin, and nationalism as a whole, suffering from a reduction in the number of seats. It seems, however, that the boundary changes, and the slow effect of demographic changes, have wiped out the negative effects of the reduction in the number of MLAs per constituency. The proportion of seats that nationalism would win – around 43% – is close to the estimated strength of the nationalist vote in 2011 – 43.5%. Unionism still enjoys a built-in advantage, though, with its estimated 47.7% of the vote giving it 49-50% of the seats.

Clearly there are a number of assumptions built into this model. Firstly, that the voters tend to be tribal, and pass their transfers to other parties in the same block. Secondly, that the TUV is not an electoral factor. Thirdly, that Kieran Deeny (West Tyrone) does not stand for re-election, or if he does his support is quite low. Fourthly, that the UUP/Tory partnership fails to inspire the electorate.

The precise outcome per constituency can, of course, be questioned. This blog's estimate includes the following:

For the 'Status Quo' model (i.e. a retention of 108 MLAs):

- Most constituencies see no change
- Belfast North – DUP gain from UUP (additional DUP votes from Newtownabbey)
- East Antrim – SDLP gain from UUP (additional SDLP votes from the Glens)
- Lagan Valley – DUP gain from Sinn Féin (loss of nationalist voters to West Belfast)
- Strangford – SDLP gain from DUP (loss of DUP voters to Belfast East)
- West Tyrone – SDLP gain from Deeny.

When one seat is removed from each constituency, this blog estimates the losses to be:

- East Belfast – DUP
- North Belfast – DUP
- South Belfast – SDLP
- West Belfast – Sinn Féin
- East Antrim – SDLP
- East Derry – DUP
- Fermanagh and South Tyrone – DUP
- Foyle – SDLP
- Lagan Valley – DUP
- Mid Ulster – UUP
- Newry and Armagh – DUP
- North Antrim – SDLP
- South Antrim – SDLP
- North Down – Green
- South Down – UUP
- Strangford – SDLP
- Upper Bann – UUP
- West Tyrone - UUP

When another seat is removed, leaving only four, the losses are estimated as follows:

- East Belfast – PUP
- North Belfast – Sinn Féin
- South Belfast – Sinn Féin and Alliance, SDLP gain
- West Belfast – Sinn Féin
- East Antrim – DUP
- East Derry – DUP
- Fermanagh and South Tyrone – SDLP
- Foyle – Sinn Féin
- Lagan Valley – DUP
- Mid Ulster – Sinn Féin
- Newry and Armagh – Sinn Féin
- North Antrim – DUP
- South Antrim – Alliance
- North Down – UUP
- South Down – Sinn Féin
- Strangford – DUP
- Upper Bann – DUP
- West Tyrone – Sinn Féin

The issue of a reduction in the number of MLAs is going to re-surface, and clearly each party will be doing their own calculations to see which possible outcome suits them best. The unionist parties tend towards supporting a reduction, ostensibly on cost grounds, but nobody should be naïve enough to believe that – they currently think that any reduction will disproportionately affect the nationalist parties. Sinn Féin have already held their council for now, preferring to wait and see what the Efficiency Review Panel says. The analysis carried out by this blog, however, tends to indicate that any reduction will be quite neutral in effect.

Wednesday 29 April 2009

Baiting the bear

Finding themselves on the wrong side of history, the DUP are reacting by confronting the future government in London head-on.

In a speech to the Lagan Valley Democratic Unionist Association on 29 April Peter Robinson said:

" ... When it came to supporting the sort of tougher laws on terrorism that the Conservative Party opposed last year, the DUP was free to do what it saw as being in the best interests of the United Kingdom in general and Northern Ireland in particular. In the future any UUP MP would be expected to vote not for what was necessarily in the interests of the United Kingdom or Northern Ireland but what was in the political interests of the Conservative Party.

Equally, would the UUP sign up to the significant public expenditure cuts for Northern Ireland that the Conservative Party would introduce after the next election? ... "

Plucky or just plain stupid?

It may have seemed sensible to support Gordon Brown on 42-day detention at the time, but it doesn't look so smart now. And to boast about it, and throw it in the faces of the Tories - almost undoubtedly the next British government - looks unbelievably stupid.

Whether the DUP has a strategy for dealing with a future Tory government, allied to its UUP rivals, is unclear. This kind of bear-baiting may simply be a reminder that the DUP are essentially a party of outsiders, not yet used to being in power and having to build working relationships with other power-centres. Ironically, Robinson appears to be better able these days to play nicely with the Dublin government. As this blog has remarked before, the underlying Ulster Nationalism of the DUP leads it continually towards a rapprochement with its nominal enemies in Belfast and Dublin rather than with the genuinely foreign government in London. Such a realisation has not yet occurred to most DUP supporters yet, but perhaps a prolonged period of Tory government will open their eyes.

This weeks bigot award goes to …

Unionist councillor Adrian Watson, pending a decision by the referee.

The BBC reported that on Sunday, Tesco in Antrim Town "had a number of very vociferous complaints both in person and on the phone, including one from a political representative regarding the wearing of the GAA shirts while the group were collecting". The 'political representative' was reportedly Mr Watson.

The issue was a group of under-12 year old girls and boys packing shopping bags in order to raise funds for their GAA club, St Comghall's. Despite the fact that it is common practice for clubs – scouts, basketball, football and rugby – to raise funds in this way, and always wearing their club regalia, Mr Watson complained "on behalf of some of his constituents" uniquely, and 'very vociferously', about the kids from St Comghall's.

Need we ask why? Of course not. Mr Watson was making representations, as he must have known, on behalf of bigots, pure and simple, who were reacting against the GAA because it is a large, successful, proudly Irish sporting organisation.

Following the usual storm-in-a-teacup, Mr Watson very quickly came up with his excuses:

"A story on the BBC website reports that I complained to Tesco following a charity bag pack were children from a local school came along wearing GAA shirts. This is inaccurate. I and the Ulster Unionist Party have no objection whatsoever to Tesco encouraging voluntary, sporting and charitable groups to raise money in their stores.

It is regrettable that the issue of children collecting money at their local supermarket has received this much negative media attention. The society we are building for the people of Northern Ireland must include a commitment to civil and religious liberty for all.

I would hope that this does not impact on the ability of other groups to use this scheme to raise money for good causes. I fully recognise that Tesco are well within their right to do provide this service, allowing school groups, clubs and charities the opportunity to raise vital and much needed funds.

Since the story broke today I have been in touch with the GAA club in question and stressed that I was not involved in the complaint.

This blog suspects that Mr Watson was 'corrected' quickly by his party. But in either case, it is a good sign that the UUP is committed to eradicating the remnants, or appearances, of this kind of bigotry.

[NB this post replaces an earlier post which pre-dated Mr Watson's statement]

Tuesday 28 April 2009

Little Ulster in a little Britain

One thing above all others shows up the narrow, insular and xenophobic nature of unionism – its attitude towards Europe. While Euroscepticism is a fairly marginal and cranky pastime in most parts of the EU, in the UK it has been adopted as a creed by a wide range of people who, to be frank about it, just don't like Johnny Foreigner.

And of course, in order to prove their 'more-British-than-thou' credentials, the DUP feels the need to jump on every anti-EU bandwagon they can find. The irony of a 'unionist' party actively supporting separatism and arguing against the pooling of resources, talent and risks, is, of course, entirely lost on them. It proves, yet again, that their 'unionism' is no more than anti-Irishness, and that they have neither understanding of, or interest in, genuine cooperation between peoples.

Proof of the DUP's position comes from the fact that eight of their nine MP's are members of "Better Off Out" – a "cross-party campaign to communicate the positive benefits for the United Kingdom of being outside the European Union". Their ex-MEP (and now sworn enemy) Jim Allister, is also a member, along with a small group of UKIP, Tory and Independent MEPs.

The whole thrust of the Better Off Out campaign is based on the sort of incorrect, misleading and prejudiced claims about the EU that are so common amongst the 'little Englander' jingoists of the right wing.

Claims like:

"Whilst we are happy to trade with our European neighbours, we are keen to see the UK trade globally, too. As China and India boom, it would be foolish to restrict ourselves to trading only with the continent." There is, of course, no such restriction.

"A decade of EU regulations has cost the UK £107 billion". Again, misleading, because regulations decided in partnership with other EU countries simply replace the need for national governments to adopt their own regulations, which they would have to do even if the EU didn't exist.

"The EU's humourless killjoys have censored [David Cerny's brilliant Entropa artwork]" – it was in fact the government of Bulgaria which asked for the offending part to be covered, as it showed Bulgaria as a toilet. Incidentally, the geniuses of 'Better Off Out' think this work is in the European Parliament when it is clearly in the building of the Council. Perhaps 'Better Off Out' like the artwork most because its depiction of the UK is, well, simply an empty space! (top left in the picture linked; Bulgaria is middle right)

And on and on it goes.

In their attempt to wrap the flag around themselves, to usurp some half-baked 'spirit of the blitz' feeling, and to ingratiate themselves with the narrowest of the Little Englanders, the DUP has signed up en masse to this kind of nonsense. No mention of the money that flows, in its billions, from the EU to Northern Ireland. No mention of the benefits of open markets, free movement of goods, services and people. No mention of international solidarity, of regional aid, of the Erasmus Programme, of the Research and Development Programmes, of the ECB, … nothing. Just blind jingoistic criticism. Not even an attempt to identify any problems and solve them – even Libertas is too pro-EU for them – they just want out, to become the New Albania.

And sensible people in Northern Ireland will vote for a DUP candidate on June 4?

UUP in the British Cabinet?

David Cameron wants Northern Ireland MPs from the Ulster Unionist Party serving in a future Conservative government at Westminster, he said on Saturday.

But who could he have in mind?

The Ulster Unionists' only MP, Sylvia Hermon, has again failed to clarify her stance on the party's new links with the Conservatives.

There are no constituencies other than Hermon's North Down where the UUP has much chance of winning a seat next year. Only in Newry and Armagh does the UUP sometimes outpoll the DUP (in the 2007 Assembly election, for example), and Newry and Armagh has a safe nationalist majority (66%) so there is simply no chance of ever seeing Danny Kennedy MP in the British Cabinet. In fact, even in Hermon's own constituency her situation is precarious. The DUP outpolled the UUP in 2007, and there is no certainty that she will be able to hold her seat in 2010. South Belfast and South Antrim are the UUP's best hopes, but the DUP outpolls them in both, and in South Belfast they must both fight against the SDLP's incumbent advantage.

So David Cameron is either a fool or an optimist. Or perhaps just an attention-seeking ambitious politician. In any case, he faces the prospect of governing a territory in which his party has no elected representatives at Westminster.

Monday 27 April 2009

The Tories are coming

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is desperately clinging to power. This blog speculated that he could have used the bounce from the apparently successful G20 summit in London on 2 April to spring a surprise general election, but if that was ever his intention it was torpedoed by the (unrelated) nasty antics of his 'special adviser' Damien McBride.

Most observers now believe that Brown will not call a general election until the very last possible moment – May 2010.

Regardless of when he calls an election, however, the result is not really in doubt. Brown, and his Labour Party, will lose. The Conservative Party will win. Current estimates of the strengths of the two main parties in the UK parliament post-election are in the range; Conservatives 350-374 seats; Labour 200-224 seats. The House of Commons has 646 members, which means that many observers believe that the Tories will probably get an absolute majority.

This scenario presents an enormous challenge for Irish nationalism. For the first time in modern history nationalists and republicans will be faced with a peace-time Tory government in London. It has always been taken for granted that the Tory Party was anti-Irish-nationalist, based on generations of bitter experience. The recent formalising of the relationship between the Tories and the UUP (as the hybrid known as UCUNF) merely makes this explicit. The Tories have clearly chosen sides in Northern Ireland, and that side is unionism.

What impact this will have on politics in Northern Ireland is hard to gauge. The London government will clearly follow a unionist line, dictated to them by their local allies in the UUP. The disruptive effect of the higher authority following the line of a minor party in the NI Executive will be a new element in Northern Irish politics. The power that such a situation will give to the UUP will be enormous – in effect, if they don't get their way in Stormont they could turn to their partners in London to exert influence on, or to baldly countermand, the decisions of the Executive.

Such tactics would have a strongly negative effect on the functioning of the Executive, alienating not just the nationalist parties, but also the DUP. The DUP, let's not forget, nailed their colours to the mast when they supported the Labour Party on the issue of 42-day detention. This was seen very badly by the Tories, who will not forget … or forgive. So a Tory victory will not be welcomed by the DUP any more than by the nationalists. The duration of the Tory administration could see a cooling of relations between London and Belfast. While the DUP, for reasons of unionist obeisance of London rule, may try to present the return of Tory government as 'good for the union', but the fact that the Tories are the bed-fellows of their UUP opponents will make any close relationship difficult.

A perverse effect of the imminent Tory victory could be the gradual alienation of the Ulster nationalists within the DUP from London, and a growing consensus between Ulster nationalism and (northern) Irish nationalism, as both groups come to see London as a negative external influence. It will not turn the DUP into a nationalist party, but it may well turn it into less of a unionist party. The DUP will be outside the Tory tent, and will be viewed as just another Celtic fringe nationalist party. If the DUP start to view themselves in the same light – unwanted by Labour, unwanted by the Tories – and if an alternative frame of reference, that of Northern Irish/Ulster separatism, becomes gradually less contaminated, the longer-term impact could be interesting.

Friday 24 April 2009

Reducing the number of MLAs?

On 9 April the First Minister and the deputy First Minister (aka Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness) announced the creation of an efficiency review panel to look at, inter alia, the number of MLAs in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

"The FM/DFM would put to the Assembly for approval proposals for the panel’s remit, which might include the size of the Assembly and the departmental structure …"

Given that any change in the size of the Assembly would have to be agreed by the Assembly, it is quite unlikely to agree any significant reduction in the number of MLAs, but since simulations are always fun, let's look at some possible outcomes of such a review.

At present, with 108 MLAs (six per Westminster constituency), the Assembly includes eight parties (one of which is the vanity party of independent Kieran Deeny; and ignoring for now the issue of Gerry McHugh). Unionists have a slight majority of the membership – 51% - to nationalism's 41% and the 'others' who have 8% As such, the electoral system gives a slight advantage to unionism as it received less than 49% of the vote at the last election in 2007.

One of the proposals being considered is a reduction in the number of MLAs to five per constituency (giving a total of 90). While it is difficult to know for certain how this would turn out in practice, due to transfers, this blog's estimate of the outcome is that this proposal is skewed slightly towards nationalism, and would see the nationalist parties winning 44% of the seats (with 42.6% of the vote). Kieran Deeny and the Green Party would disappear, but the PUP might just hang onto their seat.

A more drastic reduction in the number of the seats to four per constituency (giving a total of 72) would give a disproportionate number of seats to unionism (54% of the seats) and would penalise nationalism (only 40% of the seats). Here the Assembly would be reduced to the five main parties only, with very little prospect of any independent or small party getting a seat.

The table below summarises the current situation, and shows this blog's estimates for the two main proposals being mooted, on the basis of the results of the 2007 election:

Other commentators have come to different results. The Alliance Party's Executive Director Gerry Lynch has calculated the following outcome for a 72-seat Assembly:

DUP: 26
UUP: 11
PUP: 0
SF: 20
Alliance: 6
Green: 0
Ind: 0

His position clearly requires him to have more faith in the Alliance Party than is warranted. Nonetheless, as the impact of the different pattern of transfers that a 72-seat model would create is unknown, he may turn out to be correct.

What is clear from such an analysis, though, is that Sinn Féin will never agree to a 72-seat model, as this would see the position of nationalism suffer, giving it a disproportionately small number of MLAs, which would in turn have a negative effect on the number of Executive positions that they could claim. Although a 90-seat model comes closer to a proportionate outcome, the fact that it reduces the unionist share of the Assembly compared with either the current situation or a 72-seat model means that it will not be acceptable to unionism.

So, after a long and convoluted "efficiency review" exercise, we can expect no change at all.

Tuesday 21 April 2009

And now Colin Duffy … !

The European Parliament election on 4 June is really starting to warm up. Apparently leading republican dissident Colin Duffy is considering standing under the Republican Network for Unity banner (though this has not yet been confirmed by the RNU themselves).

Duffy is, of course, a well known hate-figure for unionists who has moved away from Sinn Féin towards the republican dissidents, and who was recently arrested on suspicion of involvement in the Real IRA's killing of two British soldiers in Antrim.

The News Letter says that Duffy's brother, Paul, said the family was "seriously considering" the idea but would not make a decision for about a week.

If Duffy stands, the world will finally get a chance to see how little support the dissidents actually have. It will be embarrassing for them, but probably not enough that they will fold up. It will allow Northern Ireland's voters a wide spectrum of candidates to choose from – from the unreconstructed bigots of the TUV, through the DUP, UUP, Alliance, Green, SDLP, and Sinn Féin candidates, to the unreconstructed militarists of the republican fringes. If they all compete, we will have a clearer picture after the results are counted of where public opinion really stands.

Monday 6 April 2009

Will the G20 bounce hasten the election?

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is notoriously sensitive about the timing of the next Westminster election. Part of his sensitivity comes from the likelihood that he will be thrown out of office, thus becoming, ignominiously, the first Prime Minster in recent times to have never won an election. The other reason for his sensitivity is that he dithered about holding an election in 2007 when he briefly enjoyed a period of popularity after taking over from the increasingly unpopular Tony Blair. Having lost his nerve in 2007 and been mercilessly criticised for it ever since, Brown is unwilling to risk a repeat.

But his problem is that he must hold a Westminster election by May 2010, no more than five years after the last (5 May 2005), and so he cannot wait or too long in the hope that 'events' will turn in his favour.

Politicians generally refer to hold election at times when people feel good about their lives – spring and early summer, for example. Elections in autumn or winter are avoided, as the mood of the electorate may be more negative as the nights draw in and the temperature (and the rain) falls.

So the two optimal times for Brown to call the election are spring this year or spring next year. Next year would be a big risk, because if the economy does not bounce back, then he would be forced to fight an election under very unfavourable circumstances.

At present Brown is basking in the reflected glory of his recent hosting of the G20 in London, and the presence of the new global superstars, Barack and Michelle Obama. If the promises and aspirations of the G20 do not immediately turn to dust, Brown might seize the moment to call a general election. Already the opinion polls have noticed a narrowing of the gap between the Labour Party and the Conservative Party, but unfortunately for Brown, the Tories are still ahead – 41% to 34%. Nonetheless, this may be as good as it will get for Labour, and Brown may decide to risk it, especially if he can find some 'green shoots' to boast about.

So, if Brown takes the plunge, when might it be?

This summer will see the election for the European Parliament on 4 June, and it may suit Brown to hold a simultaneous election for Westminster. Such a move would increase the turnout for the European election, which risks sinking to an embarrassing level in Britain with only the diehard Eurosceptics bothering to vote. But Brown's main preoccupation would be his survival as Prime Minister, and the European election would contribute nothing to that, and may instead allow too great a platform to his ideological opponents. So he may prefer to separate the two elections by a month or so. This could mean a Westminster election in early May – either 7 May or 14 May. The Early May Bank Holiday falls on 4 May, and so there may be a residual feeling of goodwill amongst those who still have jobs, that Brown may feel he can benefit from.

If Brown decided to plump for 7 May, when would be the latest date on which he could announce the election? The minimum timetable, excluding public holidays, between the dissolution of the Parliament and the date of the election is 18 working days. Counting back from 7 May, excluding the public holidays on 4 May, and 10 and 13 April, would require Brown to make the announcement this week, on 9 April.

If he decided to hold the election on 14 May the latest date of the announcement would be 20 April.

So the next few weeks will be of critical interest. If no announcement is made, then Brown will either have to risk an autumn or winter election, or try to cling on till the very last possible date, in spring 2010.

From the narrower perspective of Northern Ireland, all of these possibilities have consequences. An early Westminster election would clear some of the air and allow a recalibration of the strengths of the parties. If it saw the humiliation of the TUV, then this would bring forward Peter Robinson's long awaited discovery of unionist 'confidence' and the devolution of policing and justice. It may also destroy the shaky UCUNF structure, and lead to its dissolution, and the consequent demise of the UUP. When the dusk clears, it could see Northern Irish politics restructured into two dominant parties – the DUP and Sinn Féin. If there is no early election, then tempers and nerves might start to get frayed, especially if the TUV does unexpectedly well in the European election.

As always, the future is uncertain and some of the major influences on the stability of the Northern Irish political structures are external. Northern Ireland will play no part in Brown's decision-making, but his actions will have enormous consequences in Northern Ireland.

Friday 3 April 2009

The Grim Reaper (again)

Death, as they say, is part of life. So this blog will return to it time and time again. Every year NISRA (the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency) publishes detailed figures on the numbers, rates, and locations of deaths in the previous year. The figures for 2008 were published on 19 March, and show a few interesting features:

  • after a fairly steady decline since 1980, death rates seemed to bottom out in 2005, and since then have been slowly increasing again. In fact, given that the population is increasing (as are births) the rate of increase masks a more important increase in the number of deaths.
  • the age at which people are dying is increasing. The percentage of deaths that are of people aged under 75 was around 55% in 1980, but has dropped continuously since then, and people under 75 now account for only 40% of the deaths. In contrast, people aged 85 and over have increased amongst the deaths, and now account for 30%. (The other 30% of deaths are obviously aged 75-85).

The point of interest in these statistics is that, as the Census clearly shows, older age groups in Northern Ireland are more Protestant than younger age groups, and thus, presumably, more unionist. As the age of death steadily increases, this ensures that the proportion of the deaths that are unionists is higher than would be the case if the average age of death was static. This is because at any static age in Northern Ireland the population is becoming gradually more Catholic (and therefore presumably nationalist).

The average life expectancy in 1980 was around age 70, and at that time probably around 80% of people at that age were Protestant – and so deaths of 70-year-olds in 1980 were split 80/20 between Protestants and Catholics.

However, in 2008 the religious breakdown at age 70 had become 66/34, and thus if this was still the average age at death, then only 66% of deaths would be Protestant.

Life expectancy has increased since 1980 (to 71.8 years for males and 78.5 years for females) and now averages 75. At this age, in 2008, slightly less than 70% are Protestant. So it is likely that around 70% of deaths in 2008 were Protestants, rather than the 66% that would have been the case if life expectancy had not increased.

To cut a long story short, the majority of deaths are likely to have been unionist voters, as has always been the case since the foundation of Northern Ireland. Since the last Assembly election in 2007 some 30,000 deaths have occurred, and 70% of them were Protestants. Not all Protestants vote unionist, of course, and many people do not vote at all, but older people generally have a higher rate of turnout at elections than younger people.

If we assume that 20,000 of the deaths were voters (a turnout rate slightly higher than the average), then we could estimate a loss of 14,000 Protestant voters, and a loss of 6,000 Catholic voters. Given the relatively small proportion of the vote received by the Alliance Party and others, it would not be unsafe to assume that the electoral gap between the unionist and nationalist blocks has closed by around 7,500 since the last Assembly election, purely due to deaths.

The gap between the unionist block and the nationalist block in 2007 was 42,121. To lose almost a fifth of that gap in only two years should be a matter of concern to unionism. As new voters (at age 18) are more Catholic than Protestant this means that the gap may be closing even faster.

Time is running out for unionism.