Friday 29 May 2009

More betting odds

As the election approaches, the betting activity increases. The odds quoted by Paddy Power have changed again.

For the book on 'Northern Ireland - to top the poll?', Paddy Power are now quoting de Brún's odds at 2/11, which is getting very close to what punters might call a dead cert. A bet of €10 at those odds would return you only €11.82.

Diane Dodds odds on being the 'woman who tops the poll' have lengthened yet again, to 3/1. Since the start of the formal election campaign the bookies have been continuously lengthening her odds – from 11/10 to 2/1 and now 3/1. If the bookies and their punters are correct, the DUP's "disaster" may be about to become reality.

Paddy Power have added an additional book on 'Northern Ireland - to win a seat?'. Here, as might be expected, the odds on both de Brún and Dodds are very short; both are quoted at 1/50, which would return a profit of only 10 cents to anyone willing to bet €10. Interestingly, the next shortest odds are Jim Nicholson's, at 1/12. Both Allister and Maginess are on 5/1, and the two also-rans have odds of: Agnew 20/1 and Parsley 25/1.

So it seems that the wisdom of the punter, as reflected through the betting odds is that both de Brún and Dodds will win seats easily, though de Brún will top the poll, and that the third seat will be taken by Nicholson. Maginness will remain 'always a bridesmaid and never a bride', while Allister will slink off to plot his next move. If, as the odds predict, Parsley scores even fewer votes than Agnew, it surely is time for the Alliance Party to take a long hard look at itself.

A constitutional referendum?

That is apparently what Peter Robinson thinks the European Parliament election on 4 June actually is.

At the launch of the DUP manifesto, Peter Robinson gave a speech in which he said that: "The European election is the only Province-wide poll and is regarded as a test of Northern Ireland’s constitutional position."

So the cat, never well hidden, is out of the bag. The DUP really do see all elections as part of the constant process of constitutional referenda. They are right, of course, but nonetheless it must be worrying them, as election after election sees unionism's slim lead being whittled away.

Thursday 28 May 2009

Labour Force Survey Religion Report 2007

Although it is not particularly new (it was published in March this year), the 2007 Labour Force Survey Religion Report is, as always, a fascinating compendium of information on the religious breakdown of Northern Ireland, and on the evolution of that breakdown. [For the enthusiasts, the 2006 LFS Religion Report is here]

The report is too detailed to be summarised in one blog entry, but some interesting snippets include:

2.3 Population aged 60+: Figure 2.3 shows the composition of the population aged 60+. The proportion of Protestants was 66% in 1990 and 63% in 2007. The proportion of Roman Catholics was 30% in 1990 and 31% in 2007. The proportion of the population aged 60+ from the other/non determined group was 5% in 1990 and 6% in 2007.


2.4 Population aged 16-24: The composition of the population aged between 16 and 24 is shown in Figure 2.4. The proportion of Protestants was 49% in 1990 and 42% in 2007. The proportion of Roman Catholics was 44% in 1990 and 50% in 2007. The proportion of the population aged 16 – 24 years from the other / non determined group was 7% in 1990 and 8% in 2007.

In short, although it is based on samples rather than the whole population, the LFS Religion Report shows that the deceleration of the Protestant proportion of young adults is incredibly fast: from 49% to 42% in less than a generation. These are the people who are going to get the jobs, buy the houses and have the kids in the next few years! And the older people, those who comprise most of the deaths, remain two-thirds Protestant.

If 50% of the 16-24 year-olds are Catholic, then at least 50% of new entrants to the workforce should also be Catholic. But where will they work? Well: ' … over the period 1993 to 2007 the percentage of Catholics with higher qualifications has increased from 17% to 31% and the percentage of Protestants with higher qualifications has increased from 17% to 26%' – so with a greater proportion of the greater number with higher qualifications (Catholics: 31% of 50% = 15.5%, against Protestants: 26% of 42% = 10.9%), Catholics can expect to take around 60% of the better jobs. Figure 7.2 in the report shows how this gap is actually increasing over time.

Being based on samples means that there is always some variability in the results, but taken over the period in question, 1990-2007, the patterns in the many graphs and tables in the report are clear and unequivocal – Northern Ireland's workforce, like its general population is rapidly becoming less Protestant and more Catholic. Nothing in this report argues against the general thesis of this blog, that within the next generation Northern Ireland will have a Catholic majority, and that unless a major change happens, this will be followed by a nationalist majority. Ulster, it seems, is still doomed!

Wednesday 27 May 2009

UCUNF and the Irish language

The UUP have traditionally been opposed to all manifestations of the Irish language in Northern Ireland. On occasions this opposition has been clearly motivated just by anti-Irish bigotry, and on occasion it has been dressed up in 'rational' concern about the cost of providing services.

David McNarry MLA epitomises the 'naked bigotry' approach:

"I beg to move

That this Assembly reaffirms its support for the recognition given to the Irish language and Ulster-Scots culture through Foras na Gaeilge and Tha Boord o Ulstèr-Scotch as an equitable framework for the expression of these linguistic and cultural traditions; objects to the proposal for an Irish language Act in light of these arrangements; and calls on the First Minister and deputy First Minister to request all members of the Executive Committee to recognise the sensitivities of using the Irish language by refraining from its use in the Assembly Chamber, in Committees and in written communication with MLAs.

Not content simply to try to ban it from the Assembly, the UUP MEP Jim Nicholson tried to block its adoption by the EU as a full official language:

UUP hits out at EU upgrade for Irish language (23/06/2005)

Ulster Unionist Party MEP Jim Nicholson has hit out at the decision to upgrade the Irish language to official EU status, branding the decision "a purely political campaign".

"It will only serve to overburden a linguistic regime, which is already struggling to cope with 20 official languages," he said, criticising the British government's backing for the measure.

"We have got to question the (British) government's priorities in investing moral and financial support in the promotion of the Irish language at a time when budget constraints are being felt in public sector areas such as health and education," he said.

Sinn Féin MEP Barbara De Brún became the first MEP to address the European Parliament in Irish since it became an official language of the EU.

The 'rational approach' is followed, amongst others, by UUP MLA Tom Elliott:

"Waste of money in provision of Irish language schools (17/11/2008)

Ulster Unionist MLA Tom Elliott has raised his concern over figures released by the Department of Education this week in relation to funding in Irish language schools.

In a question to the Minister of Education, Caitriona Ruane Mr Elliott had asked her to detail the average amount spent per primary seven pupil in an Irish language school and in a school within the controlled sector during the 2007-2008 school year.

In her response the Minister revealed that as an emerging sector, 'Irish medium schools have additional costs associated with their particular type of provision'. Overall the answer detailed that average £2,509 was spent per primary seven pupil in the controlled sector while £3,025 was spent on those in Irish-medium schools.

Commenting on the funding difference Mr Elliott said: "If you look at this as an isolated figure it does not seem too bad - only a difference of £516. However if you put it into realistic terms and look at it in terms of even 100 pupils then this is a difference of £51,600, or 1,000 pupils this is a difference of £516,000 - this is a considerable amount of money when put in context."

"Looking at this difference I once again echo my parties belief that there is no requirement for Irish Medium schools with the subject easily incorporated into mainstream schools without the additional costings of a separate school."

However, since the UUP-Tory Party common-law marriage has taken effect, a slight moderation in the position has begun to appear. Where previously no UUP member would countenance any support for Irish, on the fringes of the party (in its limited blogosphere) there are signs of change. Although the unionist bloggers represent only themselves, they may also be more representative of the younger element entering the UUP, or at least entering UCUNF.

Fermanagh Tory Seymour Major, for example, has recently completed a long investigation into the Irish language, and has arrived at these conclusions:

"In principle, the Irish Language should be nurtured so that it has the best chance to flourish within the Protestant community and eventually become a unifying rather than dividing (sectarian) symbol

(6) If the Irish Language Act can be transformed into a non-divisive and Unifying symbol for Northern Ireland, the costs of implementing promotion proposals under (8) below will actually save money indirectly in the longer run.

(7) To take no further action legislatively would be as divisive as the SDLP proposal.

(8) An Irish Language Act is recommended which would

(a) Be similar to the Scottish Act of 2005 in the sense of appointing a Board to devise a plan and strategy for promotion of the Irish Language. The Board would be required to consider the terms stated in the Belfast Agreement.

(b) Not have the same stated aspiration in the pre-amble of the Scottish Act (i.e. having a view to giving the language official status in the future). Instead, a pre-amble would be less committed. (See above under “Constitutional rights and Identity”)

(c) Place an obligation to facilitate the teaching of Irish in all Northern Ireland schools without it being made compulsory."

Even a traditional UUP member like the anonymous 'Chekov' of Three Thousand Versts is less than fully negative:

"I am sceptical about the need for many of the things to which the various Irish language lobbies aspire and there are other suggestions, made by language enthusiasts, which I would categorically oppose. I am not convinced, for instance, that an Irish Language Act is required, although I would not necessarily oppose one which took the Scottish model as its basis."

And even in the Assembly, some UUP members have been able to discuss the Irish language without feeling the need to inject the previously-obligatory condemnation:

"Coulter reveals cost of Irish language translation (26/05/2009)

Rev Dr Robert Coulter, the Ulster Unionist Party Assembly member for North Antrim and UUP Stormont Commissioner, has revealed more than £1,200 of taxpayers' money has had to be spent by the Assembly on Irish language translation services.

Dr Coulter was responding to a question in the Stormont Chamber from his party colleague David McNarry from Strangford during oral questions to the Assembly Commission.

Dr Coulter said: "To date, £1,270.38 has been spent on the translation of Assembly publications into the Irish language through our existing print contract.

As far as future costs are concerned, the print contract for the Assembly is out to tender and is due to be awarded during the summer recess.

Allied to the main printing requirements that are covered by the contract, there will be a requirement for a number of associated services, of which written translation will be one. Definitive costs at present are not available as those will be based on the demand for such a facility.

Quite telling in this exchange was the fact that the costs of Irish language translations were so low, calling into question the 'rational' argument against the language.

And earlier this year, a UUP Mayor actually participated in a launch of an Irish language survey in Moyle district:

"Déardaoin 12 Márta [2009] beidh an Comhairleoir Willy Graham, Cathaoirleach Aontachtach ar Comhairle na Maoile, beidh sé ag seoladh suirbhé ar dhearcadh an phobail i dtuaisceart Aontroma i leith na Gaeilge.
Beidh an ócáid ag titim amach i bParlús an Ard Mheara i mBaile a’ Chaistil ar 7.30in."

What this seems to indicate is that, without yet making any fuss about it, the UUP is softening their position on Irish. At the time of the UUP-Tory linkup there was considerable talking up of the prospects for 'non-sectarian' politics, and the prospect of attracting votes from previously non-unionist voters.

Although most Irish speakers and Irish language enthusiasts tend to be nationalists, they are not, of course, all republicans. Unionist antipathy and bigotry has pushed supporters of Irish closer to the SDLP and Sinn Féin, but it may have become apparent to the strategists of UCUNF that this was, in many cases, a reaction to unionist antipathy. Remove the antipathy, and possibilities open up. Many Irish language enthusiasts actually dislike the way that Sinn Féin has (mis-)used the language, but dislike outright bigotry against their language even more.

It is possible, therefore, that UCUNF – largely through its Tory input, in all likelihood – has made a strategic decision to abandon the traditional unionist antipathy towards Irish. By doing so, it may be seeking, if not yet the votes, at least the transfers of 'moderate' nationalists. The European Parliament election is too soon for such a strategy to have any impact, and in the up-coming Westminster election transfers do not occur, but in 2011 there will be two significant elections in which UCUNF will be fighting for every possible transfer, in order to maximise its seats in the Assembly and on the new local councils. If, as widely expected, the Tories win the up-coming Westminster election, then the new Secretary of State will be a member of UCUNF, and in a position to use his or her powers to push through 'Irish-friendly' measures, perhaps in the area of broadcasting.

This blog will be watching closely to see if the 'green shoots' of linguistic sensitivity really do appear, or if they turn out to be false hopes.

The related area of sport, and specifically concerning the UCUNF attitude towards the GAA, similar moves would have to be made if the partnership hopes to receive any significant transfers from SDLP supporters. This will also be watched as the GAA season really gets under way. If senior members of UCUNF are seen to attend GAA matches – in a complete reversal of past behaviour ­– then it will be clear that change has started.

Increase in the electorate – who gains?

The SDLP has received some research from American researcher Dr Michael Moriarty (quoted in the Irish News) which suggests that they could benefit from the recent increase in the electoral register. Ronan McCay, SDLP Director of Organisation and Election Planning, writes that this research implies that:

" … we’re very much in the race. The Irish News article shows that this election is game on, that it’s in our hands and that it can be done."

Dr Moriarty's findings are, as yet, not in the public domain. But the parts quoted in the Irish News and on the SDLP Youth website are simply erroneous.

The article states that:

"Research for the SDLP by an American, Dr Michael Moriarty, points to 65 000 potential new voters on the register and claims that the breakdown is approximately 50 000 nationalist and 15 000 unionist. He adds that the party needs an additional 20 000 votes to win a seat."

However, a very quick consultation of the statistics published by the Electoral Office shows that, since the most recent election (the 2007 Assembly election) the electorate has only increased by 49,949. Even if Dr Moriarty is using the electoral statistics from the last European Parliament election in 2004 he is wrong – the increase since then has been 85,184.

Dr Moriarty's methodology for estimating the breakdown of the increase is unknown. But it is an established fact that deaths since 2007 have been around 30,000, and around two-thirds of these have been Protestants (and thus presumably unionists). New entrants to the electorate (those reaching their 18th birthday) have been around 50,000, of which slightly more are Catholic than Protestant. Putting these two figures together it is possible to estimate that the 'natural increase' in the electorate since 2007 has been around 20,000. Of these, largely due to the Protestant majority amongst the elderly, around 17,000 are Catholic and 3,000 are Protestant. So the net natural increase of Catholics in the electorate is less than 15,000.

Yet the electorate increased by 49,949 during the period. Evidently the Electoral Office has improved their registration rates, and it has to be assumed that these extra registrations are more or less representative of the areas in which they live. Multiplying the increase by the known voting breakdown (unionist or nationalist) in 2007 allows us to estimate how many of these new registrations were probably unionist and how many were nationalist.

Unfortunately for the SDLP (and nationalism as a whole) the increase in registrations was slightly stronger in unionist areas, so the effect of the improvement has marginally helped unionism.

Of the approximately 50,000 new voters in 2009, 20,000 are due to 'natural increase', and 30,000 are due to improvements in the register.

The 20,000 (natural increase) break down as 17,000 nationalists and 3,000 unionists.
The 30,000 (additional registrations)break down as 14,000 nationalists and 16,000 unionists.

The total increases in the potential voters for the two tribes is, therefore:
- Nationalism – plus 31,000
- Unionism – plus 19,000
Thus giving nationalism a net increase of 12,000 since 2007.

But turnout rates in the European elections are low (51.7% in 2004), and there is no reason to think that this election will buck that trend in any significant way. So the actual net increase in the nationalist vote may be barely 6,000 – shared between Sinn Féin and the SDLP.

If the SDLP needs 20,000 extra votes to win the third seat, it will not succeed.

Monday 25 May 2009

Jim Allister, hot on their heels

At the start of the European Parliament election campaign there was a hope – maybe even a belief – amongst the DUP that Jim Allister was a hopeless candidate. Without the DUP machine, they perhaps thought, he was reduced to a one-man band, supported only by his family and die-hard supporters, and lacking the finance to mount a successful campaign to retain his seat.

Well, the sheer number of his posters shows that he has both the financial and human resources to mount a decent campaign.

And it seems to be paying off!

At the start of the campaign the popular belief (as expressed, quite accurately, in the willingness of punters to wager their hard-earned cash) was that he would, in all likelihood, receive between 30,000 and 40,000 first preference votes. Not a bad score and one that might embarrass the DUP by pushing them into second place behind Sinn Féin’s Bairbre de Brun.

After a few weeks of real campaigning, though, the popular feeling has shifted dramatically. The punter now believes – and is willing to stake his money on it – that Allister will receive over 60,000 votes. The graph below shows the situation at 13 May, and the situation today. The height of the line reflects the odds on Allister receiving a particular score (for convenience odds of, e.g., 7/1 have been converted into 1 divided by 7. Hence the shorter the odds the higher the line):

It can be clearly seen that in less than two weeks the punter has shifted his (or occasionally her) belief in Allister’s vote-gathering ability significantly upwards.

This presents real problems for both of the other unionist candidates. Every vote that Allister gets is a vote that they will not get. And let’s not forget – in the last European election in 2004 there were only 260,000 unionist votes. So if Allister takes 60,000 of the unionist votes, this leaves relatively few to be divided between the two other unionists. If Allister’s votes fail to transfer in large numbers to Jim Nicholson of the UUP – who was barely 4,000 votes ahead of the SDLP last time – then the unionist nightmare of two nationalist seats may become reality.

Linked to Allister’s increasing share of the unionist vote is a serious weakening of Diane Dodds position. From earlier odds of 11/10 to top the poll Dodds odds have now deteriorated to 2/1. It seems that the punter believes that Allister’s additional votes will come from Dodds as well as Nicholson (whose odds have also lengthened, from 10/1 to 12/1). Allister seems to be successfully turning this campaign into a three-horse race for the unionist vote, with wholly unpredictable results.

Clontibret redux?

DUP leader Peter Robinson is prone, as events in Clontibret in 1986 showed, to invade the south.

However, time may be mellowing him. In 1986 he invaded the tiny County Monaghan village of Clontibret at the head of 500 loyalists, who physically assaulted the two Gardaí in the village, and held a paramilitary parade in the street. For this he was arrested and fined, and rather than succumb to martyrdom in Portlaoise Prison he paid up and left, earning himself the nickname 'Peter the Punt' amongst some of his erstwhile friends.

Now, a generation later, and hopefully a little wiser, Robinson no longer openly consorts with loyalist paramilitaries. But he clearly retains a hankering for parts of the south, as the map of DUP advice centres on their website shows:

At the bottom left, clearly south of the border (the grey line) there seems to be a DUP advice centre in Manorhamilton, county Leitrim! Further north there is another advice centre in Raphoe, County Donegal.

The DUP's new-found border-blindness is to be commended, and perhaps reflects an attempt to atone for the abandonment of southern unionists in 1922. Perhaps their next step will be to stand candidates in elections in the south - a step they have not yet dared - but if they take seriously Martin McGuinness's advice they may do so in the not-too-distant future.

Jim Nicholson … oh dear!

Things seem to be going from bad to worse for Jim Nicholson and the UUP.

Firstly, in the middle of Nicholson's campaign for the European Parliament election his party's sole MP, Sylvia Hermon, made it clear that she was opposed to the UUP's partnership with the English Tories, and would not stand under the UCUNF banner – thereby effectively distancing herself from both the UCUNF project and from Nicholson. Her timing was such that it can only be seen as a vote of no confidence in the Tory link-up, and, as a relatively popular woman, especially amongst the civic unionist wing of the UUP, such an anti-endorsement can only cost Nicholson votes.

Then, several of Nicholson's Euro-colleagues, Tory MEPs Dan Hannan and Roger Helmer, both admittedly on the right wing of the Conservative Party, effectively endorsed Nicholson's rival, Jim Allister. Although both prefaced their endorsement of Allister with polite praise for Nicholson, the very fact that they were effusive about a clear UCUNF rival, rather than dismissive as one ought to be in a closely fought election, spoke volumes. Helmer was careful to stress that he was not endorsing Allister over Jim Nicholson and that if he were voting he would give Allister his second preference vote after Nicholson. But a nod is as good as a wink to a blind man.

And on 18 May it was reported that the UDA's north Belfast leader John Bunting had been spotted erecting Nicholson’s election posters. A UUP spokesman denied the party had received support from loyalist paramilitaries; “We met the UPRG recently and they raised concerns that our association with the Conservative Party would lead to us abandoning working-class communities. Clearly the UDA has not endorsed the UUP and neither have we endorsed the UDA,” he said – though the evidence seems to be that the UDA is very much endorsing Nicholson. What Nicholson's Tory friends have to say about receiving support from a senior member of an illegal sectarian terrorist gang is, as yet, unclear. But at the very least one can now be certain that the UUP is not "for all of us", or even that "decent people" vote UUP.

Another huge embarrassment for Nicholson came a day later, when the chairman of the UUP in North Down, Mark Brooks, publicly defected to the DUP. It was bad news for the UUP that he did so, but in the middle of an election campaign it must have hurt badly. Amongst his motives, Brooks said he had been unhappy for some time within the UUP, especially over moves to form an electoral pact with the Conservatives. Ouch … this was the big feather in Nicholson's cap! To add insult to injury, Brooks offered his backing for DUP candidate Diane Dodds in next month’s European election.

Finally (for the time being), Nicholson's new friends in the Tory party have upset the carefully constructed unionist tribal front by declaring that, in the Westminster elections that must come within 12 months, they will not agree to any pacts with the DUP in order to try to re-gain the seats in South Belfast and Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Cameron said there was "no chance" of the joint UUP-Conservative alliance standing aside in either Fermanagh and South Tyrone or South Belfast. While South Belfast certainly hurt the UUP, it was, after all, only won by the SDLP – Fermanagh and South Tyrone, though, is a different story. A seat with a slight nationalist majority, it was nonetheless held from 1983 to 2001 by the UUP, thanks to a unionist pact and a split nationalist vote. More than anything else, though, Fermanagh and South Tyrone was Bobby Sands seat, and even though a generation has passed, the bitter hatreds of rural Northern Ireland continue to fester in the constituency. Stealing the seat back from Sinn Féin's Michelle Gildernew through a new unionist voting pact would be greeted by unionists all over Northern Ireland as a huge triumph. That the leader of the English Tories has, in a rather blasé manner – and in the middle of an election campaign – effectively announced that such a tribal triumph is likely to be denied, will anger many unionists, and this will, of course, reduce Nicholson's vote and the number of transfers he might receive. And he will need those transfers if he has any chance of being re-elected.

So poor Nicholson must soldier on, assailed from the civic wing of unionism, from the tribal wing of unionism, and even from his friends in the Tory party. The hill he has to climb on June 4 seems to just get higher and steeper every day. If he clings on to the third seat he will be a very lucky man, but every day the chances that he will fail grow a little more.

As further proof of Nicholson's difficulties, the bookies odds on him topping the poll have lengthened from 10/1 a month ago to 12/1 now. The odds offered on both of Nicholson's rivals for that third Euro-seat, Allister of the TUV and Maginness of the SDLP, have remained unchanged, though still longer than those of Nicholson. The bookies estimate of Allister's likely vote, though, has increased significantly. If some of those votes are ex-UUP voters who fail to transfer back to Nicholson, he could be in trouble.

Wednesday 13 May 2009

The bookies still favour de Brún

In February this blog first reported on the odds being offered by bookie Paddy Power on the outcome of the European Parliament election. We promised to return to the subject on and off during the campaign.

Now that the list of candidates is known, and the opening gambits have been played, it might be a good time for another look.

Despite a lot of PR-induced clamour, the situation appears to have changed very little. The odds being offered on the number of votes that Jim Allister will receive have not changed at all. Paddy Power's customers expect him to get between 30,000 and 40,000 votes, exactly as in February.

However, in the book on who will top the poll, the odds have slightly shortened for Sinn Féin's Bairbre de Brún, and lengthened for the DUP's Diane Dodds.

In February de Brún was the bookie's favourite to top the poll with odds of 4-5 (this would mean that on a 10 euro bet, you would receive an 18 euro payout, including your initial stake). Diane Dodds' odds were even (i.e. for your 10 euro you would receive 20 in payout). What this meant was that the bookie reckoned that de Brún was more likely to top the poll than Dodds.

Today, however, the odds on de Brún topping the poll have shortened to 4-6 (the payout thus drops to 16.67 euro on a 10 euro take). Dodds' odds have lengthened to 11-10 (increasing the possible payout o 21 euro). This represents an increase in the betters' belief that de Brún will top the poll, and a decrease in their faith in Dodds.

The bad news for the UUP (dressed up as UCUNF) is that all their spin has not changed the punters' opinion of their candidate's chances of topping the poll. 14-1 in February and still 14-1 today. Likewise for the SDLP, Greens and Alliance candidates – there has been no change (and probably no bets placed) since February. It seems the only real competition is between de Brún and Dodds.

Partition costs billions

Well, in fact the Alliance Party said that segregation costs billions, but the principle is the same.

Stephen Farry said, on 5 May, that: "Anyone serious about finding efficiency savings in Northern Ireland cannot afford to avoid addressing the huge costs involved within the fallacy of trying to manage a divided society rather than building a shared future."

"… there are the indirect costs of providing duplicate goods, facilities and services for separate sections of the community, either implicitly or explicitly … ", and "... there are hidden factors, linked to divisions, which impact upon the cost environment that Departments and agencies have to respond to".

Now while it seems natural to the Alliance Party – probably the most partitionist of all of Northern Ireland's parties – to talk only of divisions within Northern Ireland, their thesis is equally valid for the costs of the border.

If the Alliance Party had a shred of political consistency they would be equally vocal about the costs, north and south, of the border. As a 'liberal' party, non-sectarian and rational, they should be keenly aware that for a small island like Ireland to duplicate hundred of functions costs billions, while the cost to businesses supplying the country is raised by the necessity to comply with two different tax and regulatory regimes.

While some may argue that as long as unionism (too frequently assisted by the Alliance Party) represents a majority of Northern Ireland's electorate, the border – costly as it is – will remain regardless, this should not stop the Alliance Party from campaigning against the negative effects of the border. They should be campaigning for harmonisation of taxes and rules north and south, for much more north-south cooperation and for increases in the areas managed by North-South Implementation Bodies.

But all we hear is silence.

It seems that the Alliance Party has a very large blind spot – one that affects everything south of Newry. Its policies and statements barely mention the other three-quarters of our little island, as if it thinks that Northern Ireland is a little island of its own, floating just off Scotland. In this it is reminiscent of many unionist bodies, which have over the generations tried to pretend that Northern Ireland has one, and only one, external relationship – that with Britain.

Alliance Party policies barely mention the south, and make no attempts whatsoever to describe the benefits – for everyone in Northern Ireland (and the south) – of much closer cooperation. Until they address this large blind spot, and its consequences, their concern for the cost of divisions within Northern Ireland sounds like hot air, and their whole policy framework continues to look extremely unionist.

Tuesday 12 May 2009

Kindergarten politics

Whilst politics in Northern Ireland almost always resembles a primary school playground, for the current European Parliament campaign it seems already to have regressed to the kindergarten.

There are, broadly speaking, three groups competing in the election: unionists, nationalists and 'others'. Some within these groups have seemed more enthusiastic to attack within their group than outside of it.

Unionism has dragged the campaign down as far as it can. The three unionist parties (DUP, UUP-UCUNF, and TUV) have spent more effort in attacking each other than in confronting their ideological foes.

The DUP is fighting a war on two fronts – against their nemesis Jim Allister, who won a seat for them in 2004 and then walked away from them – and against the UUP-Tory hybrid called UCUNF. Despite blustering about 'ensuring a victory for unionism' by topping the poll, what they really want is to take back the seat from Allister, and see off his challenge from the wilder fringes of unionism. But they are afraid to give Allister the oxygen of publicity, and so they rarely, if ever, refer to him – preferring to use the coded language of unionist poll-topping, which in their minds can only be achieved by the DUP.

The UUP has descended quickly to the gutter. From its initial boast of offering a 'vote for change' (despite standing the same drab candidate as they have stood for 20 years!), they have moved directly to intra-unionist cat-fighting by setting up the site – a childish site devoted only to attacking their main unionist rivals!

The TUV, of course, exists only to goad the DUP, and spends most of its electoral efforts on them alone. Their manifesto launch contained tirades against the DUP for having entered into the Executive with Sinn Féin:

" … if the DUP were honest their message in this election would be terrorists in government, education in chaos, IRA Army Council intact. What odds. Vote Dodds!"

And the manifesto itself is a litany of complains about the DUP:

"Sadly, the DUP’s neglect of Ulster in Europe continues. Edwin Poots MLA is supposed to represent Northern Ireland on the important Committee of the Regions in Brussels.
In the two years from October 2006 he attended only once! Nigel Dodds MP is supposed to represent Northern Ireland on the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. Since 2006 he has attended only once! Is this the abysmal level of non-representation Northern Ireland wants to go back to in the European Parliament? If not, vote Allister 1 – the man interested enough to do the job, and do it well.

"With the two sitting Unionist MEPs defending their seats, it is unfortunate the DUP has seen fit to split the vote."

"The sad truth is that the DUP would rather see Jim Allister out of Europe than Barbara de Brun … "

"… we are wasting millions on pointless cross-border bodies – whose every financial demand has been meekly rubber-stamped by the two DUP Ministers … "

And on, and on, and on …

The Alliance Party has also failed to meet basic standards of political maturity and cooperation. Alliance, which claims to be "a strongly pro-European party" initially declined to advise its voters to transfer to the only other unequivocally pro-EU party – the SDLP. Rather late in the day, it now has "finally established there is more than one pro-EU candidate in this election" – an amazingly grudging statement given the SDLP's history of constructive engagement since 1979! It still stops short of actually advising their voters to transfer to the SDLP, though, leaving observers with the feeling that the Alliance Party would be equally happy with any of the Euro-sceptic unionist candidates as with another 'strongly pro-EU' candidate. It seems that the Alliance Party just cannot throw off their residual unionist tendencies, regardless of how awful the unionist candidates are.

Any party that is prepared to let anti-EU candidates win an election, rather than another party that shares 90% of its principles, clearly has other agendas at work. If, in a European election, the Alliance Party cannot advise its voters to transfer to the only other similar party, this raises questions about their true motivation. Alliance may claim that, as 'liberals' they cannot justify advising voters to transfer to a 'socialist' party – but if the effect is that an additional right-wing unionist anti-EU MEP is elected the effect for Northern Ireland could be strongly negative. Surely, in a spirit of pro-EU cooperation the Alliance Party can leave its petty unionist prejudices out of its decision, and advise its voters to transfer to Alban Maginness. This is, after all, an election for who represents Northern Ireland in the European Parliament – it is not a border poll. So far, the Alliance Party appears to be blind to this rather obvious truth, but there is still time for them to redeem themselves.

Policing hasn't gone away, you know

Last year's big issue, the transfer of policing and justice powers from London to Belfast, hasn't gone away. The attention of Northern Ireland's limited number of politicians and commentators is currently being diverted to the European Parliament election (which has the strange feature of being as interesting to the political anoraks as it is boring to the general public), and the issue of corruption by MPs in Westminster..

But the long stand-off in 2008 and its muffled compromise have not yet resolved the issue. Policing and justice have not yet been devolved, and while part of the compromise was clearly that nothing would be done until the European election was over, that time has nearly come.

So where are the signs of movement?

Well, so far there have been two significant signs. Firstly, Peter Robinson recently 'discovered' that the UDA were not cuddly social workers – since this was clearly not a revelation to him, it signifies that he has realised that he must start to take a responsible position vis-à-vis loyalist violence in order to be consistent. It implies that he foresees a need to project a mature and responsible position on policing.

Secondly, the emphasis that the DUP are placing on the reasons for delaying the devolution of policing and justice has changed. In the past they consistently claimed that they could not agree to devolution until there was sufficient "confidence of the community" (the 'community' being, of course, only the unionist half of the whole). Now, however, the emphasis has shifted decisively to the issue of money. No longer is the un-measurable 'confidence' the key stumbling block – it is the budget.

On Friday 8 May in Derry, Peter Robinson put it like this:

"Clearly it is important that we get the issue of policing and justice right and that means we have to have the confidence of the community in the devolution of those functions. We also have to have the funding in place. It would be entirely wrong for us to have those powers devolved unless the money was there for us to do the job properly and negotiations with the Treasury and the Prime Minister will continue to make sure we get that right."

He was asked how long did he think the negotiations will continue: "Until we get the right answers," he replied. Pressed for a possible timetable, he added: "If you start putting time limits then you give the opportunity to the Treasury to be able to simply play for time on the issue and I'm not going to do that."

On the issue of unionist 'confidence', Robinson was equally clear. Asked about his working relationship with Martin McGuinness, Robinson said:

"I think that everybody knows the past is not hidden. We saw the action of the Deputy First Minister standing with the Chief Constable after the murders of the two soldiers and a policeman calling for support to be given to the PSNI and asking for people to pass information on. That's exactly what we expect of elected representatives and I think again people will see that as a sea change in the way republicans now act."

That is a very thinly veiled retreat from the previous position, and provides Robinson with cover to claim that now he (aka 'the community') has confidence in Sinn Féin.

Reading between the lines, this implies that policing and justice will be devolved a soon as the budget is agreed, and the European election is over. Any further delays will be seen by Sinn Féin as evidence of extreme bad faith, and could lead to another deadlock like that of 2008 – which the DUP will presumably not want in the run-up to the Westminster election next year.

Monday 11 May 2009

Jim Allister standing on the issues (not!)

On 4 June voters in Northern Ireland will get a chance to vote for their three MEPs – Members of the European Parliament. The elected few will enjoy five years of committee work and Plenaries dealing with the minutiae of EU affairs. So, of course, the criteria on which they should be elected should include their positions on the key areas of EU competences.

But, no … apparently one of the candidates, Jim Allister, thinks that people should vote for him to be their MEP in order "to give their verdict on the "obscenity of terrorists in government"." Does he mean 'terrorists' in the European Commission (the only government the European Parliament has any say over)? No, apparently he means Stormont!

"If the people in this province think it is marvellous to have Martin McGuinness as their joint first minister then I'm not their man," he said.

"If they think it is fantastic that Sinn Fein has been able to reduce education to an absolute shambles then they'll want to thank those who gifted them that office. If they think it is acceptable that south Armagh IRA can murder Paul Quinn and their Sinn Fein can continue in government then they will not be voting TUV but if all those things abhor them then I am their man."

So there you have it. A candidate for the European Parliament thinks that the role of an MEP has nothing to do with European affairs, and everything to do with petty Northern Irish politics. Allister insults his electorate by telling them that voting for him can or will have any effect on Northern Irish politics, when it manifestly does not. Does he not know what election this is? It is not an Assembly election, where such statements, predictably extreme as they are, might make some sense. It is a European election, where the voters should expect a sitting MEP to stand on the basis of European issues of relevance in Northern Ireland.

Any voter who is actually interested in European affairs should not vote for Allister, because he clearly has no real interest in Europe.

I'll hunt you down and kick your ass!

Long-time unionist politician, and current First Minister of Northern Ireland, Peter Robinson has just discovered that the UDA are nasty thugs!

According to the Belfast Telegraph;

"Last week’s publication of the Independent Monitoring Commission’s latest report into the activities of the main paramilitary organisations is understood to have shocked both Peter Robinson and Jeffrey Donaldson because of the extent of UDA crime activities it laid bare."

Hang on a second. The UDA has existed since the early 1970s. It has murdered hundreds of innocent Catholics (and some innocent Protestants too). It retains an arsenal of weapons, and has not yet decommissioned a single one. It has been involved in thuggery, crime, prostitution, protection-rackets, extortion, and sectarian murder for years. And only now is Peter Robinson 'shocked'?

"Over the six months covered up to March, the IMC reported that the UDA had been responsible for many brutal assaults and said there was even an intelligence report that one senior member had shown an interest in acquiring firearms."

One senior member? They already have hundreds of weapons – weapons that Peter Robinson knows fine well about. Why the new-found 'shock'?

But don't worry, because now, after only 259 known (and another 250-300 probable) murders the UDA (and their UFF nom de plume) are finally going to face the wrath of the Conqueror of Clontibret.

"The UDA leadership is to be given a ‘final’ warning from First Minister Peter Robinson today — to give up their crime empire or face being crushed.

Mr Robinson is expected to deliver the stark message during a planned DUP meeting with the leaderships of the two main loyalist paramilitary organisations.

How Robinson intends to 'crush' the UDA is, as yet, unknown, especially since he has resolutely avoided taking any responsibility for policing and justice. But no doubt the pussy-cats of the UDA will be shaking with fear – after only 38 years of turning a blind eye to their murderous activities Peter Robinson has finally had enough – now he's "shocked" and he's going to hunt them down and kicks their ass.

'Rattachisme' elsewhere

The impending electoral victory of the Tories in next year's general election in the UK has started to awaken hopes (or fears) of an acceleration in the breakup of the UK.

The UK is not Europe's only shaky state, though. There are a number of other states where people actively discuss options for 'after the divorce'. We have already seen peaceful divorces (the old Czechoslovakia) and incredibly bloody divorces (the old Yugoslavia). Spain is another example of centrifugal forces at work, though so far without breaking the state up.

But another, smaller, and less news-worthy example is perhaps a better analogy for Northern Ireland – Belgium. The history of Belgian governance is a case-study that people in Northern Ireland should be aware of, because its parallels are interesting and it has so far managed to conduct its communal squabbling without a single death.

For many years Belgium was dominated by French-speakers (parallel: unionism), who imposed their symbols on the state and country, and seriously attempted to impose their language on the Flemish. In the last half-century the Flemish community has enjoyed a resurgence, and now enjoys a comfortable (60%) majority of the population, with a proportionate membership of the Parliament. But, in a spirit of power-sharing (parallel: GFA) the constitution reserved exactly half of the cabinet positions for members of the two communities (parallel: two main communities in both Belgium and NI).

The good news for unionists is that despite having achieved political dominance after over 100 years of struggle (parallel: how many years is it since 1922?), the Flemish community have not sought to break up Belgium and create a 'Greater Netherlands' comprising the Netherlands and Flanders.

The bad news for unionism, though, is that debate on "post-Belgium" is not over, and it is now the 'losers' – the out-voted, out-numbered, previously-dominant French speakers who are debating what to do if, or when, Belgium is dissolved.

On Saturday, in Liége in Belgium, an informal gathering called the Etats généraux de Wallonie (EGW) discussed options for post-Belgium, with the outcome being that the majority (75%) of the participants opted for an orphan Wallonie to seek unification with France – called rattachisme. Only 16% voted for an independent Wallonie.

Although the meeting, and the result, have no official importance, it is nonetheless interesting to note that public opinion tends strongly towards unification with a larger and historically 'significant-other' state next door, rather than attempting to go it alone, with the risk of becoming the new Albania.

In the light of any 'post-UK' discussions, it is clear that the same options would face Northern Ireland – and hopefully public opinion here would be as pragmatic as in Wallonie.

Friday 8 May 2009

Unionists may destroy the union

It seems fairly inevitable that the Conservative Party will win the next general election in the UK. Or, it might be better to say, in England.

The Conservatives are unionists: "I support the union" says David Cameron, time and time again. They have proved this in the Northern Irish context by jumping into bed with the UUP – "a party of the Union" – through the formation of UCUNF.

Logically, therefore, it might be expected that a Tory victory in 2010 would strengthen the UK and weaken nationalism.

But the Tories presently hold only one of the 59 Westminster seats in Scotland, three of the 40 in Wales, and none at all in Northern Ireland. Even with the anticipated swing towards the Tories in 2010, their total of MPs outside of England may reach barely 17 out of 117 (including three gains in Scotland, ten in Wales, and none in Northern Ireland). The Tories are simply an English party.

The UK may then revert to the situation of the Thatcher years in the 1980s, when Scotland and Wales saw the Tory government as an unfriendly foreign power, and nationalism grew in opposition to it. Writing in The Guardian yesterday, Mark Perryman noted that:

"Through three consecutive general election defeats between 1979 and 1992, Labour maintained the semblance of effective opposition because for millions the promise of a Labour government remained the alternative to Thatcherism. After 2010 that prospect may not have the compelling purpose it once had, certainly not in the immediate aftermath of the wasted opportunity for change that the new Labour years will come to represent after being defeated by the Blair-lite Tories."


"In Scotland and Wales after 2010, independence won't simply be an end in itself in place of British labourism – it will be the purpose of opposition, and thanks to Labour, the institutions to fulfil that ambition now exist."

The victory of the unionist Tories in England in 2010 will give an enormous impetus to the nationalist movements in Scotland and Wales, leading to increasing tensions within the UK's constitutional structure. The very success of 'unionism', in the guise of a very English Tory party, may come to be seen as 'foreign' rule, where England, always the biggest part of the UK, essentially rules the UK in its interests. The Labour Party, a party genuinely popular in Scotland, Wales, and large parts of England was, ironically, much more a party of the UK than are the Tories.

How long the Tories remain in power may be crucial to the disintegration of the UK. Thatcher ruled for 11 years, and kindled nationalism in a way that had never been done before. Now the foundations are laid and the institutions are in place, a further prolonged period of unsympathetic Tory rule may tip the balance.

No UK means no place for Northern Ireland. The breakup of the UK would leave it unwanted by England or Scotland, and too poor to go it alone – even if a majority of its people wanted that. There is, of course, one logical direction that it can take – a direction favoured by an increasing number of people – re-unification with the south.

Practical nationalists must hope for a crushing Tory victory in England in 2010.

Thursday 7 May 2009

No surprise candidates for Europe

The definitive list of candidates for the European Parliament election on 4 June has just been published by the Electoral Office. It contains no surprises at all. As already signalled, Colin Duffy did not nominate himself, and neither did any other dissident republican. Despite their claims, neither did Libertas.

The list of candidates is:

Steven Agnew - Green
Jim Allister - TUV
Bairbre de Brún - Sinn Féin
Diane Dodds - DUP
Alban Maginness - SDLP
Jim Nicholson - UCUNF
Ian James Parsley - Alliance Party

Putting sport above politics

The organisation of sport in Northern Ireland is complicated. Each sport has at least one, and sometimes two, governing bodies. Sport Northern Ireland (SNI), the umbrella body, recognises one governing body per sport as the lead organisation for the governance, control and development of the sporting activity, but in a few cases unrecognised bodies also operate.

More complex is the fact that governing bodies may have a wider jurisdiction than Northern Ireland, covering, for example, Ulster (nine counties), Ireland (32 counties), or the UK.

Of the approximately 80 sports disciplines recognised by SNI around half are governed by all-Ireland federations or organisations, 13 by specifically Northern Irish federations, and the rest by UK federations. The sports organised on an all-Ireland basis include many of the biggest and most popular, including basketball, cricket, Gaelic games, cycling, show jumping, golf, hockey, rowing, rugby, squash, swimming, table tennis, and tennis.

What this means is that in many cases there are national teams and championships that cover both the southern and northern jurisdictions. This has led to many debates, discussions and, of course, arguments about the expression of team identities for these sports. In some cases there is no disagreement, as in Gaelic games, because all players and supporters share a common identity. But in other cases the divergent identities of players and supporters can lead to problems. Some sports have tried to get around the problem, such as the IRFU's adoption of a neutral team anthem, Ireland's Call, or Cricket Ireland's three shamrock logo But the issue of flags and songs persists, and will continue to cause frictions as long as there is no single symbolism that all can feel comfortable about.

To avoid sport-by-sport piecemeal solutions, in order to resolve this problem and to provide an agreed set of symbols for all of the sports that are organised on an all-Ireland basis, the two ministers concerned, Martin Cullen, Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism in the south, and Gregory Campbell, Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure in the north, should come together and commission, in co-operation with the governing bodies themselves, a set of neutral symbols that can be used in both parts of Ireland and abroad, and to which no sportsman or woman, or supporter, would object.

Such symbols should include a single flag, a single anthem, and a single logo. None of these should contain elements that are contentious for either part of the country – no 'green, white and orange' and no 'red, white and blue'. These symbols, once agreed, should replace the use of all other symbols at all levels, and in all circumstances. Over time, the governing bodies of the specifically Northern Irish federations may come also to use the same symbols in order to avoid alienating people from one or other community, and in a spirit of compromise and bridge-building so might the GAA.

It is curious, given the extent of all-Ireland sport, that responsibility for sport was not given to a North-South Implementation Body in the Good Friday Agreement, nor even identified for co-operation between existing government departments. It is likely that the fiercely partitionist, and strangely popular, game of soccer had a large part to play in this. But it is not too late, and other areas of co-operation and implementation can be added if there is the political will.

There is no reason for both Ministers not to start to take action on this area immediately.

Monaghan 1861-1911

One of the myths propagated by unionists is that the independence of the southern 26 counties led to an 'ethnic cleansing' of Protestants. It is certainly true that between the last 'British' census held in 1911 and the first 'Irish' census held in 1926 there was a significant drop in the number, and proportion, of Protestants in the 26 counties – but since this period included such events as the First World War, and the withdrawal of British military, administrative, customs and postal workers from the 26 counties it may be hard to separate those British-born returning to Britain from those Irish-born (if any) who might have felt compelled to flee. Nonetheless, the argument will continue to run, especially in the absence of any evidence.

It is enlightening, though, to look at the 50 year period between 1861 and 1911 – a period for which we have the statistics, and, more importantly, a period when British power was at its zenith. During this period the British colonisation of Ireland appeared to all extents and purposes to have been finally and fully achieved. The 1798 rebellion was a distant memory, and the disputes were more concerned with land reform and ensuring an equal place in the 'United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland' for Catholics. Irishmen were disproportionately represented in the British army that was carving out an empire upon which the sun never set. Attempts at a rising in 1848 had come to nothing, and although there were occasional attacks by the IRB, the movement was stronger amongst émigrés in America than in Ireland.

The period between the Famine and the First World War should have seen a flowering of Irish Protestantism. Free from any threats of violence, and watching their country becoming integrated with Britain, they should have had a confidence not seen before or since.

How, then, can we explain the reality? During this period of increasing prosperity and British power, the number of Protestants in many of the 26 counties tumbled. Why, with Queen Victoria on the throne, and the map coloured pink from Canada to New Zealand, were Protestants retreating from much of Ireland?

Monaghan, an Ulster county with a significant Protestant population in 1861 (26%) experienced a catastrophic decline in the numbers of the three main Protestant denominations during this heyday of the British Empire.

The number of members of the Church of Ireland, 17,721 in 1861 had declined to 8,725 only 50 years later – a drop of 50%. Presbyterian numbers dropped by 44%, from 15,149 to 8,512. Only the small Methodist population remained largely intact, dropping only 10% from 439 to 395.

Many other counties showed similar drops – in Roscommon between 1861 and 1911 the number of Church of Ireland members dropped by 67%, while in Monaghan's neighbouring county of Cavan the number of Methodists also tumbled by 40%. Even Protestant-rich Donegal saw drops of 40%, 42% and 28% respectively for members of the Church of Ireland, Presbyterian Church and Methodist Church between 1861 and 1911.

By any reckoning these drops are dramatic. If they had happened in newly-independent Ireland there would have been cries of ethnic cleansing. But they didn't – they occurred under British rule, and at a time when that rule had never been stronger.

Is modern-day Northern Ireland experiencing the same thing? Protestant populations are aging and shrinking in many areas, especially west of the Bann. If this continues, areas like Fermanagh and Tyrone may face a future not dissimilar to their neighbour Monaghan, where Protestants now make up barely 8% of the population, compared with 26% in 1861. At present Protestants make up barely 30% of Tyrone's population.

Opponents of the demographic argument for Irish unification should look closely at what history can teach us. While no two contexts will be the same, it is interesting to compare Monaghan then with Tyrone now, and try to imagine Tyrone, and all of Northern Ireland, a generation or two down the line.

Wednesday 6 May 2009

A Generation of reparations

The apparent softening of Sinn Féin's determination to achieve Irish reunification and sovereignty as soon as possible has led some commentators to draw incorrect conclusions. From the extremes of unionism there comes crowing about how unionism is now dominant, while from the extremes of republicanism come accusations of betrayal.

Yet at the same time both extremes are keenly aware that Sinn Féin continues to push an agenda that is nationalist in word and deed. Sinn Féin has clearly not capitulated to unionism, and equally clearly has not betrayed its republican aspirations. Unionists continue to whine about Sinn Féin's on-going policy of removing, or balancing, British and unionist symbols, in contradiction to their claims of unionist dominance.

So what is really happening? Why is Sinn Féin not pushing for immediate British withdrawal, and immediate Irish sovereignty?

One possible reason is staring us all in the face. In the current economic climate unionism is right about one thing – the south could not afford the north. The sheer scale of the dependence of Northern Ireland on financial transfers from wealthy south-east England means that immediate British withdrawal would lead to economic meltdown, not just in the north but also in the south, which would have to try to foot the bills. To be blunt, Northern Ireland is an economic basket-case kept going only by the fact that the majority of its people live off the taxes of the British. In the current recession that is not going to change – there are simply not going to be any big new investments in Northern Ireland in the next few years. Ironically, however, Northern Ireland's welfare dependence may mean that it will suffer less from the recession than other parts of Ireland or Britain.

The best short-term financial strategy for Northern Ireland, therefore, is to continue to suck money out of south-east England until the global economy improves. In this way people in Northern Ireland have a standard of living that is far superior to that that their productivity would provide, and they have no strong incentive to change that situation. Given the complexities of the British taxation and expenditure systems, any increase in productivity in Northern Ireland would not particularly benefit people in Northern Ireland. In the same way, a non-functioning private sector economy does not particularly reduce the standard of living in Northern Ireland.

The demographic evolution of Northern Ireland's population is going to deliver a Catholic majority within a generation, and this will, in all likelihood, translate into a nationalist majority – or at least a nationalist plurality. When this happens, and national re-unification becomes the principal political issue in Ireland, it will be important for Northern Ireland not to be seen as a welfare dependent drag on the economy. But this situation is still 15 years away – another two full business cycles. In the meantime, while demography is working its discreet magic, Sinn Féin's strategy may simply be to work away on removing the visible symbols of Britishness, while deliberately extracting as much money as possible from the British state – a form of invisible reparations for the generations of damage and division that Britain has caused in Ireland.

In this way Sinn Féin will be in a position to lead Northern Ireland into the new Ireland with good roads, schools, hospitals, housing and infrastructure, all financed by the unwitting British taxpayer. Unionist boasts of intra-UK solidarity are hollow when the 'solidarity' is in reality a one-way flow from south-east England to poorer regions including Northern Ireland. But the real irony is that these transfers are acting as reparations payments that will in turn facilitate the reunification of Ireland in a few years.

Tuesday 5 May 2009

Hope against hope – the hopeless Ian Parsley

Well, if repeating the word 'hope' incessantly worked for Barack Obama, then why shouldn't it work for the hopeless candidate of the Alliance Party in the European election?

"Parsley submits nomination and says a vote for him is vote a for hope"

"The politics of fear is about scare tactics from the past, demanding votes simply to fulfill a redundant argument of interest only within Northern Ireland. The politics of hope is about a positive message for the future - a positive message which voters can send out to the whole of Europe by choosing a new type of politics on 4 June."

"Europe - Time for the Politics of Hope", "… we have set out on a campaign where you can replace the politics of fear with the politics of hope", "… we are replacing the politics of fear with the politics of hope."

"We must deliver message of hope"

And so on. A quick Googling of Barack Obama's collected campaign speeches will probably give you a fairly good idea of what the hapless and hopeless Parsley will come out with next.

How sad that the Alliance Party was reduced to selecting as its 'unity' candidate (did the Green Party not get that message?) a first-time district councillor who, in his whole political career, has received 343 votes, and only got elected in the most Alliance-friendly corner of Northern Ireland on the coat-tails of David Alderdice.

Apart from what Parsley's selection says about the paucity of talent in the Alliance Party, and the unwillingness of its more senior members to submit to ritual humiliation, the man himself is a rather pompous, self-important example of all that is wrong with the Alliance Party (have a look at the 'history' of his Wikipedia article – do Wikipedia now allow vanity articles?)

Look, also, at some of his statements on Europe and the European election:

" … in June, voters can make a clear statement that Northern Ireland is ready to move on from conflict, to lead Europe's recovery from recession … ". To lead Europe's recovery from recession … ?! Has he no idea of how small and irrelevant Northern Ireland is, or how completely retarded it is economically? There is barely a private sector in Northern Ireland, and yet Parsley expects it to 'lead Europe'.

" … The news [of 30 jobs created by Eircom] underlines the potential Northern Ireland holds to attract investment and to lead Europe out of recession … ". That again!

"… this campaign is about improving our engagement with Europe, not by rolling over to every directive making us work for Europe, but by directing Europe to work for us …". Um, sorry to point this out to you, wannabe-MEP, but directives are not open to discussion – they must be transposed into national law. You will 'roll over' to them, or face fines imposed by the European Court of Justice.

" … we should focus on the concrete health and quality of life benefits of environmental conservation in local communities. There is no reason whatsoever the Greater Belfast area should not be a world leader in all of these fields … ". Does he want to represent 'Greater Belfast' or Northern Ireland?

"At this time of educational uncertainty, economic decline and environmental chaos, it is time for everyone who is ambitious for Northern Ireland to unite and speak with one voice, and to make that voice heard in the most powerful parliament in the world." More powerful than the US Congress? The Bundesrat? Westminster? A parliament that cannot even initiate its own legislation! What planet is Parsley on?

In any case, it is rather academic who the Alliance Party select to lose in the European Parliament election. Their vote is insufficient to get their candidate elected. In the past they have received small votes, or have not even stood. To avoid humiliation in 2004 they 'lent their support' to John Gilliland – a 'unity' candidate who failed to unify many people. In 1999 their voters deserted them for John Hume, in 1994 they got 4.1% of the vote, down from the 5.2% they received in 1989. In 1984 they received 5.0%, down from 6.8% in 1979, which was the first directly elected European Parliament election in Northern Ireland. So Parsley has not got a very steep hill to climb – a vote that has declined to zero (6.8%, 5%, 5.2%, 4.1%, 2.1%, and zero%) can only bounce back upwards.

The main hope for Parsley is that the more short-sighted of the DUP's elderly voters will mistake his name for that of Ian Paisley, and give him their votes by mistake. Failing that, he will be lucky to attract the 30,000 votes of the diehard Alliance supporters.

Sylvia Hermon – the fly in the UUP's ointment

The UUP and (some of) the local Tory Party in Northern Ireland are trying as hard as possible to spin their common-law marriage as something new and wonderful, in the hope of picking up a bounce in forthcoming elections.

Their partnership is not, of course, anything wonderful at all. It nearly crashed before it took off, as the backwoodsmen of the UUP couldn't part with their beloved misnomer, 'Ulster'. And despite the courtship of the almost-undoubted next government of the UK, the 'unionists' of the UUP could not bring themselves to actually unite with the British Tories, preferring to remain detached and particular.

But, through gritted smiles, the British Tories continue to pretend that all is well, while the UUP gloat over the dowry.

One rather obvious and embarrassing fly is, however, spoiling the ointment – the UUP's sole MP, Sylvia Hermon. She has, so far, steadfastly refused to give her blessing to the UUP-Tory partnership, and openly supports the Labour government in London. She continues to give the same lame excuse to explain her absences from UUP affairs – the death (in November 2008!) of her husband, the ex-head of the RUC, Jack Hermon. No one would question her right to mourn, but the woman is paid to do a job, and a six month leave of absence seems a little long, so it is clearly a 'diplomatic' absence. In other words, she is putting off, for as long as possible, her eventual decision. By doing so, she is making very clear that she is not in favour of the Tory link-up.

The Tories have even gone so far as to dangle the carrot of a cabinet position in front of her, but to no avail.

Some say that she is waiting to see the outcome of June's European Parliament election to decide whether or not the UUP-Tory alliance is worth supporting. If so, this gives very little indication of any ideological support, and is almost as damning as her opposition.

Some NI Tory activists are starting to get edgy, and are trying to force her to show her hand. But they may not like the answer they get. If Hermon leaves the UUP – probably to sit as an independent – she may well retain her seat, or lose it to the DUP. Either way, the UUP-Tory marriage of convenience may well end up with no MP in Northern Ireland – an outcome that would slightly embarrass David Cameron. On the other hand, since swingeing cuts in public sector spending are coming, it may suit the Tories very well that they have little to lose in welfare-dependent Northern Ireland.

Ultimately, of course, the real losers will be the UUP, as everyone has known from the start. The Tory party is hardly likely to be generous to a UUP that has no MP to help them where it counts, in Westminster. And since the UUP insisted on keeping its semi-detached status, and its contentious title, it may cost the Tories no sleep to let them sink in the Assembly and local elections that will come in 2011. The Tories are, despite their pretentions, an English party, and English interests are more important to them than Northern Irish unionist interests. If the unionists did not learn that from Margaret Thatcher then they will get a second lesson from Cameron. The failure of the UUP-Tory vehicle to even attract the support of the UUP's sole MP bodes ill for its longer-term success.

Monday 4 May 2009

"A bad joke taken too far"

That's what the DUP now thinks that Jim Allister's Euro-election campaign is. Or so they claim. A less charitable observer might see Maurice Morrow's statement as evidence of serious DUP concern:

"Jim Allister still has some time to review his position of splitting the Unionist vote and aiding Barbara de Brun. He has until 7th May to withdraw from an election that he knows he cannot win and is only running in because of bitterness towards former colleagues. In a contest that is going to be close, with Sinn Fein trying to win the election, the last thing that Unionism needs is another maverick, putting their own ego before the greater good of Unionism.

Jim Allister needs to put his bitterness towards former colleagues to the one side. He’s had his bit of fun ranting to empty halls about fellow Unionists, but now he needs to think about the damage a split Unionist vote will cause to our community. A Jim Allister candidacy is a bad joke taken too far.

So, having foolishly chosen the electorally irrelevant issue of "poll-topping" as their battleground, the DUP is still scared that Allister will succeed in eroding their vote sufficiently to cause them humiliation.

Allister has already handed in his nomination papers, and yet the DUP are still begging him to withdraw, rather than dismissing his platform and record. It makes the DUP look pathetic and weak, which, allied to the fact that Diane Dodds is pathetic and weak, will do little to help their campaign.

The DUP are right – Allister cannot realistically win – but the DUP can certainly lose their stature and prestige if he does better than expected. They are already losing their composure, as Morrow has clearly demonstrated.