Friday 30 October 2009

Tom Elliott not on board

The UUP's selected candidate for the Fermanagh and South Tyrone constituency (FST) in next year's Westminster election, Tom Elliott, appears not to fully support the UCUNF policy of standing in every constituency.

In response to the DUP's campaign to have a single 'unionist unity' candidate in FST, Elliott has replied that he would be "open" to discussions on an agreed unionist candidate for the constituency.

However, rather than parrot his party's line about that single candidate being a UCUNF candidate, Elliott said that:
"I'm not ruling in or out anything. However, it would take a lot for Ulster Unionism to stand aside. I don't see the practical outworkings of it if the DUP think they are going to be a single candidate and win the seat, but all of that is a matter for discussion."

Presumably, then, he did not get the memo from headquarters about David Cameron's pledge to stand Tories (including UCUNF wannabes) in every constituency?

Is the DUP succeeding in its campaign to entice UUP members away from their UCUNF non-merger? It is clear from rustlings in the undergrowth in South Belfast, and now in Fermanagh and South Tyrone that not all UUP members are fully behind the UCUNF project.

Expect a swift slap-down from UUP headquarters and a 'clarification' from Elliott very soon.

Thursday 29 October 2009

Political suicide

It is rare, though not unknown, for a political party to deliberately narrow its appeal in order to reduce its potential vote. The British Labour Party did it in 1983 (through the manifesto that was described as 'the longest political suicide note in history'), and the US Republican Party appear to be toying with it in the aftermath of the Obama phenomenon. But usually such retrenchment is associated with earlier political defeat – and certainly is associated with subsequent political failure – it took the British Labour Party 14 years to get back into power after first ditching the entirety of Michael Foot's suicide note.

The normal path of political parties in their ascent, and those wishing to reverse their descent, is to broaden their appeal through a move towards the centre ground. Stealing your opponent's clothes often gains you their votes too, and building a broad moderate coalition close to the centre usually ensures a long period of power. The British Labour Party discovered this, and spent its wilderness years crawling back towards the centre until Blair – the ultimate political chameleon – stole enough Tory policies to get his party back into power. The English Tories, in their turn, tore themselves apart, and further from power, over extremist positions vis-à-vis Europe, until they too learned the lesson and started their (as yet unfinished) crawl back to power.

So what can be made of the DUP?

From long-term position of marginality in Northern Ireland, always on the sidelines sniping at the UUP, the party learned to steal the UUP's political clothes – and their voters – until they eclipsed that party in 2003. But rather than capitalising on that victory, and trying to mop up as much of the unionist vote as possible, the DUP seems to have set out on a suicide mission.

Rather than broadening and generalising their appeal, the DUP are retreating backwards into a narrow, sectarian and orange laager. Their stalling on the transfer of policing and justice powers to the Executive has now been revealed as a ploy to extract concessions for a specific narrow interest group – the Orange Order! They recently sponsored a motion in the Assembly that was undisguised sectarianism, their members openly support anti-Catholic organisations, and their behaviour is increasingly that of a 'Protestant Unionist Party' that is seeking only the votes of the most narrow-minded and intolerant.

The middle ground – liberal unionists, liberals of any hue, young people, Catholics, the unreligious – none of these potential vote-mines interests the DUP. They spurn the support of gays and those who support gay rights. They retreat backwards into the cold arms of the capital punishment lobby. They dislike and distrust 'Europe'. They look for enemies everywhere, and where they don't find them they make them.

This is the behaviour of a party in crisis – just like the British Labour Party between 1983 and 1992. But they were out of power and defeated. What has possessed the DUP to adopt the behaviour of a party in crisis when it is close to the top of its historical support?

Faced with competition from its right – the TUV – the DUP did not seek to spread over the middle ground where it had the UUP on the ropes. Instead it has charged out of the middle ground, right back over to the right wing to try to stem any loss of support at the extreme. Normal parties do not do that – they accept that the cost of winning the prize of the middle ground is the loss of a small (but often vocal) group on the extreme edges of their previous position. The British Labour Party ditched its Militant wing in order to win (so far) 12 years of uninterrupted power. The Tories have parted company with some of its more extreme Europhobes (to UKIP) in order to be able to present a more moderate front to the voters. The DUP lost Jim Allister, and rather than treating him as the embarrassing and sad left-over from a previous period it is putting all of its energies into trying to reclaim his supporters, even at the cost of losing any support it had in the centre.

History shows that the centre ground is the key to political power. Those who fail to learn this lesson are usually consigned to temporary or permanent oblivion. The DUP appear to be placing their hopes – and gambling their future – on the belief that this rule does not apply in Northern Irish unionism. Either that or they are a party deeply in crisis even though they are in power.

One thing is certain, though. By chasing the extreme-unionist vote they will alienate not just the nationalist and the centre parties but also moderate unionism. Far from ever being able to create a broad anti-Sinn Féin coalition as they sometimes seem to wish, the DUP may end up being the victims of a broad coalition of the centre. Alienating a wide range of opinion both within Northern Ireland and elsewhere is no way to retain support or power. Adopting ever more extreme positions to gain the support of the dwindling orange element, they will eventually make themselves irrelevant in Northern Irish politics. The DUP and the TUV – the two bald men of northern politics – can fight over the comb while other move on.

Wednesday 28 October 2009

The Three 'R's

Reading, Writing and Arithmetic are still pretty much the basis of education. Without a good grasp of these three a student is going to struggle with more complex concepts such as computing, science, philosophy or literature. And without a good grasp of the three 'R's a person is going to be a less productive and versatile member of society.

It has become widely accepted in recent times that the future health of a country's economy and civil society is partly dependent on the quality of its education system. This is why most countries spend large parts of their public expenditure on education, and agonise over standards in education.

The OECD provides comparative data for their member states and for a larger number of 'partner countries' as part of their Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). This is a "triennial survey of the knowledge and skills of 15-year-olds" that focuses on science, reading and maths. The latest survey was in 2006 and showed the following results in respect of Ireland (26 counties) and the UK:
  1. Rank of countries/economies on the science scale

    Both the UK and Ireland "statistically significantly above the OECD average", with the UK at place 12 and Ireland at place 15.

  2. Rank of countries/economies on the reading scale

    Ireland "statistically significantly above the OECD average" at place 5, but the UK "not statistically significantly different from the OECD average" at place 14.

  3. Rank of countries/economies on the mathematics scale

    Both Ireland and the UK "not statistically significantly different from the OECD average", with Ireland at place 17 and the UK at place 22.
So the supposed benefits of 'the union' for Northern Ireland's kids are not very clear at all. On two out of three rankings the south outperforms the UK – in reading quite significantly.

The OECD provides copious tables containing the data that these rankings are based upon, and in some cases they provide regional data. In some cases this appears to show Northern Ireland outperforming England and Wales. So the real situation for Northern Ireland's kids may be closer to their counterparts in the south. Why then does unionism continue to shackle them to underperforming countries like England, Wales and Scotland, whose lower standards can only drag Northern Ireland down?

It would be in everyone's interests – but especially the kids – if they were educated to the same standards north and south. The south has shown that its education system is better than Britain's, but for purely ideological reasons unionists insist on keeping the north within the UK. In this case, as in others, a rational person would reject 'the union' and work for closer integration between the north and the south.

Tuesday 27 October 2009

Vote for less equality

Unionists come in all shapes and sizes, and two genders.

This blog has already pointed out how unionists actively promote the inclusion of the north-east of Ireland in a political entity that is poorer, less developed and less free than the rest of the country. But today another report was published which shows how unionist women are turkeys voting for Christmas.

The 2009 Global Gender Gap Report, published by the World Economic Forum, puts the south at number 8 worldwide in terms of gender equality, after the usual Scandinavian suspects and, perhaps surprisingly, South Africa.

The Global Gender Gap Index, introduced by the World Economic Forum in 2006, is a framework for capturing the magnitude and scope of gender-based disparities and tracking their progress. The Index benchmarks national gender gaps on economic, political, education- and healthbased criteria, and provides country rankings that allow for effective comparisons across regions and income groups, and over time. The rankings are designed to create greater awareness among a global audience of the challenges posed by gender gaps and the opportunities created by reducing them. The straightforward methodology and quantitative analysis behind the rankings are intended to serve as a base for designing effective measures for reducing gender gaps.
Where, a rational person might ask, does the UK stand in the list? Number 15, that's where - a drop of two places since last year. Below Lesotho and the Philippines, and barely better than Sri Lanka!

And yet unionists claim that their support for the north remaining in the UK is based upon rational criteria. Since on freedom of the press, per capita wealth, health and happiness - and now gender equality - the UK scores below the south, one must question the real motivation of unionism. If unionism was a rational philosophy, then its adherents would clearly question their allegience. That they don't tells us clearly that their allegience is irrational.

The south has shown, and continues to show, that it provides a better standard and quality of life for its inhabitants than the UK - to which unionists insist on shackling the north. Unionist bigotry and irrationality are diminishing the quality of life for almost one third of the Irish people, for reasons that they have never fully explained. It is high time for unionists to actually make their case, or to admit that their insistence on remaining in the UK is based on prejudice alone.

Monday 26 October 2009

Dear Mr Parsley …

"Please may we have our £43,353 back?

Yours sincerely,

Alliance Party"

That is how much the members and supporters of the Alliance Party paid to promote the Parsley brand in the recent European elections – just before Parsley decided that, on second thoughts, he really was a Tory after all.

It happens that £43,353 is almost half of the Alliance party's annual income from Assembly allowances, at least as far as its published accounts are concerned. Perhaps the party also raises some money from membership fees, but that is unlikely to add up to very much. The £94,472 that Alliance gets from the Assembly is more than spent on salaries and other items, leaving a deficit.

So Parsley presumably bled the party close to death in his doomed attempt to get elected to the European Parliament. And then deserted to the Tories!

Next year the Alliance Party, like all others in Northern Ireland, will have to contest elections. That costs money. Lots of money. Part of the expense is incurred in creating brand awareness of the party, and of the candidate. In 2009 the Alliance Party spent £43,353 creating public awareness for an unknown first-time councillor from North Down – a man who had previously received a total of 343 votes in his whole political career!

That man will probably stand in 2010 as the Tory candidate in North Down, with his public profile created and financed by the Alliance Party.

Of course defections and betrayals are not new in politics, and there is no point in crying foul – politics is a game for big boys. But there must be a lot of Alliance members and supporters who gave generously this year to try to promote their party and its candidate. Let's hope they remember just how that candidate treated them and their money when they enter the polling booth next year.

What if Hermon goes it alone?

The news that Sylvia Hermon's absence from her party's annual conference was not simply habitual, but deliberate, has raised – yet again – the question of her future.

Hermon had not been a common attendee at UUP conferences in recent years, and some UUP members used this to excuse her absence on Saturday. But today's News Letter quotes her as saying that:
"I've been made deeply unhappy by my party's decision to align itself
with the Tories.

It was a decision made without any prior consultation with me. My views about it are already well known.

Whilst I am truly sorry to have missed seeing many of my Ulster Unionist friends at yesterday's conference, I simply couldn't go along and pretend to endorse the New Force arrangements."

This puts Hermon in direct opposition to her own party, and makes her selection as a UUP candidate next year very much in doubt. All candidates in the 'UCUNF' alliance must be jointly agreed by the leaders of the UUP and the Tories.
"In accordance with the agreement reached between both parties, selections will run on a twin-track process. Both the Conservative Party and the Ulster Unionist Party will embark on procedures, in accordance with their own rules of selection, which will result in all Conservative and Ulster Unionist associations presenting a shortlist of one candidate each for consideration. The shortlist of candidates will be subject to the agreement of both Party Leaders.
All successful candidates at this stage will be considered by the Joint Committee, which will determine the final list of the preferred candidates.
Special meetings of the Ulster Unionist Executive and the Northern Ireland Conservative Area Council will then ratify all candidates."

There is very little chance that the Tories will give their agreement to someone who opposes them.

So Hermon faces three options:

1. To not put her name forward as the UUP candidate for North Down,
2. To put her name forward, as the sitting MP, and challenge her party, and the Tories, to deselect her,
3. To run as an independent.

If she opts or the first option – effectively retirement from Westminster – it remains to be seen whether the UUP would put up another credible candidate, or if they would cede the UCUNF candidacy to the opportunist Parsley. If they put forward a B-list candidate, and Parsley became the 'joint' candidate, there is a strong possibility of the DUP taking the seat. In 2007 the DUP outpolled the UUP in the seat in the Assembly elections, though thanks to the incumbency effect Hermon polled higher than the DUP in the last Westminster election (2005). Without her personal vote, the UUP vote – even if the Tories 2.8% is added to it – falls well short of the DUP. The UCUNF may be hoping that Parsley can bring with him the Alliance party's 10% of the North Down vote. This may be wishful thinking. Deserters and turncoats rarely retain the affections of those they left behind. If the Alliance party stand a candidate of their own, he or she may well retain their vote, leaving Parsley struggling for votes from resentful Hermon-supporters and angry Alliance voters.

Option 2 is clearly excluded – Hermon could not be selected by 'both party leaders' in UCUNF, barring an amazing turn-around and public contrition.

But Option 3 remains possible – that Hermon might stand on her principles and stand as an Independent candidate. North Down has a history of electing mavericks, and the constituency is notoriously fluid. Hermon herself is popular and has made few enemies – apart from her own party and the Tories, of course! If she stood as an independent, she could count on the votes of many UUP members, many Alliance supporters, and many supporters of minor parties – even from SDLP supporters.

An imposed Tory candidate – especially one who stood so recently as a 'non-unionist' Alliance Party candidate in the European Parliament elections – would alienate many UUP voters. But many other voters – from a variety of parties – would relish the chance to show that the UCUNF experiment is a failure, and there would be no better way to do it than voting for an independent Hermon.

Whether the coalition of support that Hermon could count on would be greater than that that the DUP could muster is hard to say, and the DUP's support would depend very much on whether or not the TUV stand in the constituency.

But if the TUV did stand, thus cutting into the DUP's support, there is a very good chance that Hermon could retain the seat, even against a UCUNF candidate.

A lot is riding on this seat, as far as the UCUNF is concerned. It is the only seat held by the UUP, and thus to lose it would be embarrassing – especially if the UCUNF fails to win any others. To gain seats elsewhere and retain North Down would be viewed by UCUNF as a great victory, but to gain seats elsewhere and lose North Down only a partial victory. The UCUNF strategists must be hoping that Hermon decides to retire, and that the TUV decide to contest North Down. Otherwise the best they can hope for is a partial victory ... or humiliation.

Friday 23 October 2009

Poorer again

The news that the British economy is still in recession even while major Euro-zone economies like France and Germany are already growing again, is hardly good news in Northern Ireland.
"The UK economy unexpectedly contracted by 0.4% between July and September, according to official figures, meaning the country is still in recession.

It is the first time UK gross domestic product (GDP) has contracted for six consecutive quarters, since quarterly figures were first recorded in 1955."
The danger lies as much is the cure as in the disease:
"The worse-than-expected GDP figures are likely to make the Bank of England consider extending its policy of quantitative easing.

Quantitative easing is the central bank's policy of printing money and using it to buy bonds from banks and other companies to help stimulate the economy."
Quantitative easing is the neologism for inflation – it basically means that the Bank of England prints more money in an attempt to stimulate economic activity. But more pounds chasing the same amount of production (or less!) simply means that prices will go up. But the products and services that these extra pounds are chasing are neither better nor more abundant than before – so the real value of those extra pounds will reduce. Already, the news has sent sterling sharply lower, with the euro gaining more than a penny to 91.5p this morning.

What it means, quite simply, is that the pound in your pocket is now worth less, and the prices of everything that is imported will rise. True, the corollary is that things produced in the UK will become slightly cheaper elsewhere, which may increase demand. But in order for this to be sustained, the costs in the UK have to stay down. Which all means that wages will not be able to rise to compensate for those higher import prices. People in the UK are going to feel slightly worse off.

It s all good news for those southern shoppers who will now get more goods for their euros in Newry, Enniskillen and Derry. Good news too for the shop-owners who may profit from a slight increase in the numbers of southern shoppers.

But overall the weakness of the UK economy, and its sluggishness vis-à-vis the major EU economies, shows that the Northern Irish economy is probably hitched to the wrong neighbour.

And, of course, with the UK economy underperforming, and the Treasury haemorrhaging money at unsustainable rates, the outlook for Northern Ireland's public sector dependent economy is especially bad.

Budget cuts and a weakening currency … Northern Ireland is heading for lean times.

Thursday 22 October 2009

Devolution is Home Rule

But Home Rule, our great-grandparents were told, meant Rome Rule. So why did unionists cause a generation of political strife a hundred years ago to block it, when they are now advocates of it?

In 1886 Gladstone tried to introduce the Irish Government Bill, 1886 (aka the First Home Rule Bill), but was defeated by a coalition of unionists and their supporters. This started a long and painful period of struggle, opposition, and disruption, during which the 'Irish Question' took up much time and energy in Westminster. As a result of the hardening of opinions on both sides, the informal Irish Unionist Party led to the Ulster Unionist Council in 1905, and moderate nationalist opinion, as expressed via the Home Rule League and Parnell's Irish Parliamentary Party, was overtaken by the more radical voice of Sinn Féin (also founded in 1905).

A Second Home Rule Bill was introduced in Westminster, where the unionist dominance of the House of Lords ensured that it was rejected. Tempers grew worse, and extremists on both sides grew stronger. Only in 1914 did a Third Home Rule Bill pass, thanks to the intervening neutering of the Lords – but the First World War blocked its entry into force. Then 1916, 1918, 1919, 1921 and 1922 happened, and the rest is, of course, history.

So unionists essentially provoked a hardening and an embittering of the 'Irish Question', rather than allow its resolution. And for what? The 1886 First Home Rule Bill envisaged a settlement where Ireland would have:
  • A unicameral assembly consisting of two 'Orders' which could meet either together or separately – the first Order was to consist of the 28 Irish representative peers plus 75 members elected through a highly restricted franchise. It could delay the passage of legislation for 3 years, and the second Order was to consist of either 204 or 206 members.
  • Executive Powers would be possessed by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland whose executive would not be responsible to either 'Order'.
  • And the UK parliament would reserve the powers over a range of issues including peace, war, defence, treaties with foreign states, trade and coinage. Britain would retain control of the Royal Irish Constabulary until it deemed it safe for control to pass to Dublin. The Dublin Metropolitan Police would pass to Irish control.
Despite the passage of over 120 years, these arrangements look strikingly similar to the current arrangements in Stormont! Right down to the delayed transfer of policing powers.

And yet now we have the leader of the largest unionist party proudly stating: "Let me say from the outset that I am a full-blooded devolutionist", and the second party of unionism stating that: "Ulster Unionists believe that standing up for Northern Ireland means securing devolved government for this part of the United Kingdom".

What has changed since 1886, apart from the unionist position? Certainly not the content of the 'home rule' package – despite two world wars, the discovery of penicillin, the internet, and space travel, that little package has come though virtually unscathed.

The big thing that has changed, and the reason why unionists have done a 180° turn-around on home rule, is simply that home rule is only being proposed for a small part of Ireland in which they have a local majority.

Their opposition to home rule, it seems, was not based upon principle – because the package is the same, so their opposition should be the same. Their opposition was based purely upon prejudice – they did not want to share the administration of the home rule package with nationalists (or, to be more honest, with Catholics). Nothing about the packages on offer in 1886, 1893, or 1914 would have made them 'less British' than they are today. None of the previous packages included compulsory Irish or passport controls. In 1886 they would have remained in 'the Empire', kept their 'pound', their flag, their army and their Imperial Preference. The home rule government would have been a glorified County Council with almost no real powers. And yet unionists were prepared to unleash bloody war to avoid it.

Only to become avid supporters a few generations later!

If proof were ever needed that unionism is merely the politically-acceptable face of religious bigotry, the story of home rule and devolution provides it.

Wednesday 21 October 2009

Land of the Free?

Unionists sometimes try to justify their attachment to Britain by claiming that it is a country that values and cherished freedom. Their orange alter ego claims that "the Orange Order ... opposes tyranny and despotism in Church and State".

No doubt, then, they will be horrified to learn that the Press Freedom Index 2009, published by the freedom-of-the-press campaigning organisation Reporters Without Borders puts the UK at only number 20 worldwide. Better than Ghana and Mali, of course, but worse than Latvia, Malta, Lithuania and, in joint first place, Ireland.

What's that, you may ask? The Papal Tyranny itself - joint first place for press freedom with the Scandinavian countries Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden! Was the Glorious Revolution for nothing? Have we been wrong all along?

Needless to say, of course, no such thoughts will occur to most unionists. Because 'freedom' is only an excuse, just like the supposed benefits of the UK's faltering economy, or the supposed superiority of the NHS, or the supposed development of the UK. Unionists deliberately ignore the mounting body of evidence that shows that they made a bad choice. Poorer, less free, worse educated, isolated in Europe - welcome to the UK!

The continued opposition by unionists to reunification, or even closer cooperation with the south, shows that they do not value development or freedom. They appear to be motivated only by irrational prejudice. Their defeat is essential to allow all Irish people to enjoy the benefits of a modern democratic state.

Death of Coleraine UUP councillor Liz Johnston

The BBC has announced the death of Coleraine UUP councillor Elizabeth (Liz) Johnston.

The almost-simultaneous report that "the NIO Minister Paul Goggins is not prepared to allow parties here to have a mass co-option of new councillors to replace party colleagues who wish to stand down" means that the existing rules for replacing dead or resigning councillors continue to apply.

The possibility therefore exists that there will be a council by-election in Coleraine to replace Liz Johnston. However, in both of the two most recent cases, agreements were reached between the various parties to allow co-options – in Ballymoney in August (the one Jim Allister would 'never run away from' and in Craigavon. These agreements were quite controversial, with both the UUP and Sinn Féin threatening to scupper them by forcing by-elections. In the event neither did.

Coleraine Central, where Liz Johnston was elected, is a largely unionist electoral area. In 2005 the various unionist parties took 77.3% of the vote, nationalists took 16.6% and the Alliance party took 6.1%. So a by-election would certainly return another unionist. But from which party?

The 77.3% unionist vote was divided fairly evenly: 33.8% DUP and 37.6% UUP. So a confident DUP might feel that it could snatch this seat. But there is no confident DUP right now – on the contrary. Coleraine Borough Council currently has no TUV councillor to threaten a by-election (as in neighbouring Ballymoney), but a by-election would allow the TUV to stand, and to take a chunk of the DUP's vote – in earlier contests the TUV has taken around 40% of the DUP vote. This would almost certainly stop the DUP from winning the seat, and would provide yet another electoral humiliation for the party.

So the DUP are unlikely to risk a by-election. Nationalists would only force a by-election out of mischief-making, which is not their style, so it can be assumed that they too will not object to a co-option. And of course the UUP, as beneficiaries of a co-option, will naturally agree to it.

So, yet again, a council seat will be filled without an election. The rate-payers will be glad, but it leaves political commentators and strategists without much idea of the current strengths of the various parties – in particular the TUV – in many areas.

Dear Peter … sod off!

That appears, in a nutshell, to have been Gordon Brown's response to the DUP's attempt to wring concessions out of the transfer of policing and justice powers to the Executive.

At various stages, but very clearly on 12 October, Peter Robinson has set out his shopping list:
"I am on record as saying that for practical reasons devolution cannot happen by Christmas. Last week I was asked what Christmas I was referring to. The truth is that I am not driven in this process by any timetable. Devolution will happen when the conditions are right and community confidence in such a move is present. Devolution will only happen when the terms - which the public endorsed - are met. That is a firm and binding commitment.

There are many steps which can be taken to assist in building community confidence not least issues surrounding the security of serving and former police officers many of whom found that their PPW licences were not being renewed. Also the service of the Part Time Police Reserve needs to be properly recognised. The community needs to be confident that acceptable mechanisms exist to de-escalate disputes around parading. "

In brief, then, the shopping list included:

- The PPW issue – more ex-RUC officers to be allowed to carry guns
- Retention of the PSNI reserve
- Abolition of the Parades Commission

Today Gordon Brown published his long-awaited proposal:

"Dear Peter and Martin

I promised to write to you setting out the elements of the financial settlement that you agreed to present to your respective parties.

Our discussions on the finances have been careful, detailed and considered and I am grateful to you for the time you have given to them. Together we have, I believe, achieved an outcome in which we each have confidence and which will ensure that when policing and justice powers are transferred, the Northern Ireland Justice Department will have a secure financial foundation which we all recognise is important in ensuring confidence in the policing and justice services across the community. I believe the settlement which is outlined below is a good settlement which will meet the needs of a devolved Justice Department.

The key elements of the settlement are:

The Northern Ireland Executive will have access to the reserve to meet any exceptional security pressures relating to policing and justice. On the same basis, HM Treasury will be prepared to make available up to an additional £37.4 million in 2010/11.

Capital budgets in the next CSR period will be sufficient to enable the Executive to take forward routine, but necessary work, to maintain the operational capacity of existing assets, to complete the police training college and to come to its own view about the relative priorities for new capital expenditure including Magilligan Prison and other projects in the period ahead.

The legal aid allocation is a £20 million a year addition to baseline through to the end of 2012/13, after which efficiency savings will be expected to take effect, allowing the baseline increase to be reduced to £14 million a year. To meet additional pressures over the next two years, including other courts pressures, we agree the need on a one-off basis for a further £12 million. If, in the event, pressures turn out to be higher than this, HM Treasury will provide further money from the reserve up to a maximum of £39 million. Until the end of 2012/13 this access to the reserve will not be recouped from future EYF.

HM Government will gift the four agreed former military bases to the Northern Ireland Executive. It would be anticipated that a portion of the land in Omagh will be used for an educational campus but it would be expected that disposal proceeds from the other sites would be used, on a basis agreed with HM Treasury, to meet exceptional resource pressures (including potentially equal pay claims). HM Treasury will work with the Northern Ireland Executive to help ensure that any timing issues, related to delays in securing these disposal proceeds as a consequence of market conditions, can be addressed on an agreed basis.

On police pensions, previously identified pressures of £101 million can be fully addressed through technical changes which will include a public expenditure neutral DEL to AME reclassification.

There are potential pressures (the “long list”) of around £15 million in 2010/11 on resources relating to policing, prisons and probation. This should fall to around £10 million a year in the next CSR period. Baselines will need to be sufficient to meet these pressures. In addition £30 million in unallocated EYF and underspends generated in future years will be available to meet pressures.

Prior to devolution the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the head of the PSNI will agree on how front-line policing is protected while ensuring the greatest efficiency.

Hearing Loss. The Northern Ireland Executive will meet the first £12m of claims in any one year. Any sums incurred above that will be met through access to the reserve, based on annual agreement between the Northern Ireland Executive and HM Treasury on the litigation strategy. To assist the Northern Ireland Executive to meet the expected £12m a year pressure, the Treasury will be prepared to acquire from the Northern Ireland Executive sellable assets worth up to £12 million a year for five years, or £60 million in total.

HM Treasury and Northern Ireland Executive will need to agree on the valuation

I believe that this is a very strong settlement which will ensure that all the people of Northern Ireland continue to have high quality policing and justice services.

Yours sincerely

Gordon Brown"

And, of the 'shopping list' items … not a single mention.

So where does this leave Robinson and his 'community confidence' (aka DUP approval)? He is forced now even further into his corner – he claimed that a financial settlement was what was blocking the transfer, but thought he'd cleverly add on some 'shopping list' items too. Now, he has a clear and public financial offer, but no shopping list items. If he refuses the offer he is showing that the financial argument was spurious (and he had wasted a lot of Gordon Brown's time pretending that it was important), but if he accepts the offer he is doing it having visibly failed to wring extra concessions out of the British government.

Watch Robinson squirm to try to present this as a major victory for unionism. He'll emphasise the financial benefits which, on paper look pretty slim.

Tuesday 20 October 2009

That BNP list again

The Guardian have announced a third leak of the membership lists of the British National Party.

The lists are, of course, fairly easy to find on the internet, and thanks to the BNP's efficient use of Microsoft Excel, fairly easy to work with.

The lists show that in April this year there were at least 53 members of the BNP in Northern Ireland – some of whom were helpful enough to provide their full addresses. For those who did not provide their addresses, though, the postcodes that they did provide make it possible to do a reverse search to see where they live.

In general, the lists show exactly what anyone might expect to see – they read like a membership list of the DUP or the UUP – most of the people live in unionist areas, and have solidly 'Protestant' names: Aicken, Anderson, Armstrong, Bankhead, Baxter, Beattie, Beggs, Brown, and so on. There are no obvious public figures listed, and certainly no scandals about to break. There is no evidence of BNP support in nationalist areas (which is hardly a surprise), and outside of East Ulster they are thinner on the ground than Buddhists, with one member in Fermanagh, three in Derry, and three in Tyrone.

None of the BNP members appear to be very active politically – in fact, of those who could be easily identified by first name and address, none appear to have been active at all in the last dozen or so years. Hopefully that is how they will remain.

Gerry Adams

The level of personal hatred expressed by unionists towards Gerry Adams is remarkable. He is accused (without proof) of having been responsible for, inter alia, La Mon, Bloody Friday and every other operation of the IRA's Belfast Brigade during the 1970s. His denial of IRA membership is ridiculed and his affectation as a writer is sneered at. The mention of his name, more than any other, is likely to divert rational discussion into bitter recriminations.

While there may be some justification for the accusations, the ridicule, and perhaps even the sneering, it is important to try to understand why Adams, more than any other republican, attracts this type of dislike, and what it signifies. Some unionists will claim to dislike all republicans equally, but yet Adams still raises their temperature more than the others.

Is Adams merely the lightning rod, upon whom unionists vent their anger at the damage that the IRA did to 'their Ulster'? If so, his existence and his prominence, are both useful and damaging for republicans. Useful because it diverts unionist attention away from others who then can work more discreetly; damaging because his existence is a constant reminder of the past – of the 1970s, of internment, of bombs and bullets.

Or is there something about Adams personally that unionists find so galling? Is it the fact that a man widely believed to have been the IRA's Belfast Brigade commander in 1972-73, and subsequently a member of the Army Council, has never been prosecuted for any IRA attack – and now is feted worldwide as a man of peace and as a statesman?

This blog has previously argued for a realignment in nationalist politics in Ireland, north and south, and Sinn Féin is explicitly included. Republicans must be central to any new political formations, but the new formations must be genuinely republican. This means that they must include and represent the interests of all of the people of Ireland, irrespective of class, creed or colour. If the history – perceived, real or partially real – of one man stands in the way of the creation of such new political formation, then that man must give way.

If the future success of Irish nationalism is being impeded by the perceptions that many people have of Gerry Adams – and perhaps others – and if there is some certainty that the interests of nationalism would be furthered by his departure from active politics, then he must be big enough to recognise this, and to do what is best for his country.

There is no doubt that Gerry Adams was a pillar of the republican movement during some of the recent turbulent times, and helped to bring it through relatively unscathed. But times change and the needs of Irish nationalism are different today to those of 1994, or even 1998. Today the need is to build a wider, deeper, more professional and more European movement, and to include within it people who would not before have joined an all-Ireland political movement.

The need for a lightning rod may even be a false need – perhaps it is the rod that is attracting the lightning? The departure from the scene of the 'big players' from the past – both at individual and at party level – may be necessary in order to allow the growth and widening of all-Ireland politics. Gerry Adams is now 61 – he needs to seriously consider whether his retirement might actually do more for Irish nationalism than his continued active participation. The protagonists on the other side of the fence are also getting old, but many probably remain active out of personal enmity towards Sinn Féin and their bête noire, Gerry Adams. By taking a step back, he could encourage a wave of retirements, as the 'war generation' give way to the new 21st century generation. This might open the way for a new type of politics, one more consistent with the governmental arrangements currently in place, and one that recognises that Northern Ireland is but a small part of several overlapping politico-economic areas.

There is a new confident generation of young nationalists growing up – one that knows that when they are adults they will be in a majority, and able to pursue their ambitions peacefully. They need a leadership that represents them, not one that represents the past of their parents and grandparents. This new generation is educated, it has travelled and worked outside Northern Ireland, it is much more cosmopolitan than its parent's generation. It deserves twenty-first century leadership. If the constant heavy presence of 'troubles-era' leadership stifles the growth of such leadership, then nationalism will suffer. It is incumbent on the current leaders of nationalism – and on its pre-eminent leader, Gerry Adams – to recognise this and to draw the correct conclusions.

Thursday 15 October 2009

Allister-Paisley: it's a personal thing

It is no secret that the TUV is Jim Allister's political vehicle. Of course there are a few other acolytes involved, but without Allister the TUV would not exist.

Yet, less well known is that Allister continues to release press releases in his own name that are not always mirrored by the TUV.

The TUV has a Press Release section on its web site, where almost every word that escapes Allister's lips is faithfully recorded.

But not every word.

Because Allister continues to maintain a second web site – – which used to be his main web presence when he was a mere MEP. Although no longer an MEP (though you would hardly know it on the site, adorned as it is by an image of the European Parliament building in Brussels) Allister still posts his wisdom on this site.

And sometimes the two sites vary. Such as on 10 October when Allister posted the following attack on Ian Paisley Junior:
Paisley must go - Allister
10 October 2009

When Ian Paisley Junior was exposed as having approved the secondment of PSNI officers to help Gaddafi, he spun a web of defence which included the spectacular claim that in fact the officers were intelligence gathering. In his pitiful ‘nudge,nudge/wink,wink’, 'if you knew, what I knew' excuse he said: "In an adult world you don't have to be a genius to work out why it would be useful to have a senior officer, who has got intelligence skills, to look at Libya and to examine that country and to look at the facts that surround that country and to bring that information back to us."

Believing such to be transparent nonsense TUV Leader Jim Allister sought clarification from the Chairman of the Policing Board if there was any truth in Mr Paisley’s wild suggestion. Mr Barry Gilligan in a written response has very explicitly said of seconded officers, “they do not engage in any sort of information gathering on overseas deployments”.

Commenting Mr Allister said: “Ian Paisley Junior was not only flushed out by his own Deputy Leader, Nigel Dodds MP as approving help for Gaddafi, but now he has been caught out making up fairy stories to cover his tracks. His suggestion that the PSNI officers were intelligence gathering in Libya stands exposed as fatuous nonsense. So why did he spin this web of deceit?

"I call on him not just to publicly apologise for his misleading assertion but to resign from the Policing Board as his judgement stands exposed as so deficient as to render him unfit to serve there. If he doesn’t go voluntarily, then his party should remove him. Granted standards of probity on the Policing Board are low, with its membership including a convicted bank robber and convicted bomber, but we are entitled to expect unionist representatives to conduct themselves properly.”

Unusually, this press release was not carried in the TUV site. So perhaps the offensive against Paisley is a rather personal one by Allister?

Defence of the realm

Some time ago this blog drew attention to the somewhat under-enthusiastic response from loyal 'Ulster' to the military needs of Britain's new imperialistic ambitions.

However, it seems that this military reluctance is not a new phenomenon. Kevin Myers, writing in today's Irish Independent, draws attention to the situation around the time of the Second World War:

"There is a delightful quote in the recently published 'Behind the Green Curtain' (Gill and Macmillan), T Ryle Dwyer's excellent and probably definitive account of Irish neutrality during the Second World War.

It came from Sir Charles Wickham, Inspector General of the RUC. The possibility of conscription in the North, he said, was "a political ramp" by unionist politicians.

"They wanted to appear as great loyalists, but in actual fact hoped that their suggestion would not be acceptable to the home (London) government. Had it been accepted, they intended to conscript the Catholics, and leave the Orangemen in their factories."

And this from the head of the RUC!

Bad enough, but worse was yet to come.
"Moreover, there were three main parties in the old Stormont in 1971. One was the Ulster Unionists, led by Brian Faulkner, a unionist old enough to have served in the Second World War, but didn't. There was the Democratic Unionist Party, led by Ian Paisley, a unionist old enough to have served in the Second World War, but didn't. And there was the Social Democratic and Labour Party, led by Gerry Fitt, a nationalist old enough to have served in the Second World War, and who did."


So why didn't Faulkner or Paisley 'serve their king? Faulkner, of course, cannot answer any more, but Wikipedia claims that:
"Faulkner entered the Queen's University of Belfast in 1939 to study law, but, with the advent of war, he quit his studies to work full time in the family shirt-making business."

That seems like a valuable thing for a healthy 18 year old 'loyal ulsterman' to do when his country is engaged in a fight to the death with fascism!

Paisley, of course is still with us – surely someone over the years has been brave enough to ask him why, when he reached the age of 18 on 6 April 1944 – just before the Normandy landings, and at a time when 'his king' needed all the manpower he could muster – he stayed at home!

Normandy, Burma, Arnhem, the Ardennes, the liberation of France, the crossing of the Rhine – all the hard-won battles of 1944 and 1945 – all were fought without the participation of young Faulkner and Paisley.


When unionists bluster about their 'pride' in 'their troops', and obsessively over-commemorate dates and events largely forgotten by those who actually participated – just remember that key unionist leaders who could have 'done their bit' … didn't.

Wednesday 14 October 2009

Sylvia's back!

After a long absence, Sylvia Hermon is back on the UUP's web page:

After many months of middle-aged male monopoly, the UUP has remembered that it has a female MP!

Of course, the UUP had other reasons to try to forget Hermon, not least her overt opposition to the UCUNF project.

But now she's back, it seems. What does this signify? Is she going to be reconciled with the UUP in time for the Westminster election next year? Has the UUP seen the light, and realised that without the popular Hermon, the North Down seat - their only one - is in serious danger? Without her, the UUP might have been obliged to bow to their Tory paymasters, who seem to be lining up the awful Ian Parsley as their candidate. If the UUP are reconciled with Hermon, then she pulls rank on any opportunist turncoat that the Tories can recruit.

There is still work to do, of course - not least on Hermon's own blog, which pointedly fails to inform its readers that she is, in theory at least, still a UUP MP.

Tuesday 13 October 2009

Fermanagh – DUP blinks first?

Has Peter Robinson already blinked first in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone unionist staring contest?

As pointed out only yesterday, the DUP was engaging in brinkwomanship in selecting its candidate so far in advance of the election, and thereby challenging the UUP-Tory vehicle UCUNF to stand down (despite its previous promises not to) or face certain unionist defeat in 2010.

Today the DUP have published a call from Peter Robinson for 'unionist co-operation in Fermanagh and South Tyrone'. In his speech to the DUP’s Blackwater Branch Annual Dinner, Robinson said:

The DUP firmly believes that it is in the best interests of unionism to increase our overall representation in the House of Commons. I also believe that the unionist community want to see their representatives working together to defeat nationalism instead of unnecessarily attacking each other.

The DUP made an offer to the Ulster Unionist Party back in 2005 relating to the two areas in Northern Ireland where a combined unionist effort could defeat nationalism and increase the unionist representation at Westminster. Our desire to deliver unionist representation for the people of Fermanagh & South Tyrone still remains and therefore our offer to the UUP still stands. It is most disappointing that others appear to have dictated terms to the UUP that they will stand candidates in all 18 Constituencies across Northern Ireland but I would hope that Sir Reg Empey will step forward and act in the best interests of the unionist community.

The people of Fermanagh & South Tyrone have been denied representation at Westminster because of an abstentionist republican MP. I do not believe that the Union is in any way enhanced by parties contesting the General Election in every constituency simply to make some political point, particularly if that action increases the chance of returning that abstentionist MP again.

I would hope that comments made previously that agreement could only be found if the DUP unilaterally stood aside in South Belfast and in Fermanagh & South Tyrone do not prejudice the chances of an agreement which can be acceptable to everyone, but particularly to the vast majority of the unionist community who live by the old saying of “united we stand, divided we fall."

The opportunity for agreement is there and I am saying to Sir Reg Empey that the Democratic Unionist Party will not be the stumbling block to agreement within Fermanagh & South Tyrone and in South Belfast. If he is willing to rise above hectoring party politics then he will find me willing to work with him to advance an agenda which can truly strengthen the Union in Northern Ireland and deliver what the vast majority of the unionist community wish to see.

Noticeably lacking from this speech was the usual DUP bravado about being the biggest unionist party, or even the largest in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. In fact, the whole speech sounds almost grovelling, and it sounds as if Arlene Foster's candidacy will not make it a far as the election.

However, Robinson is clearly linking the fates of unionist candidacies in Fermanagh and South Tyrone and South Belfast. He is clearly calling for a one-for-one swap with the UUP. But the UUP – or rather their new friends in the English Tory Party – have already stated clearly that they will stand in all 18 constituencies.

Is Robinson acting the devil – tempting the UUP by showing them all that could be theirs if only they forsake the Tories?

The solution is clear: Empey and the UUP let the Tories abide by their promise and stand in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. They'll be slaughtered – they haven't stood in the constituency since 1996, when they received 113 votes. The UUP, as part of their 'alliance' with the Tories, would not stand, thereby ensuring that the DUP can get the lion's share of the unionist vote, and maybe even win the seat. In return, the DUP stand aside in South Belfast where, despite outpolling the UUP in recent elections, may have more difficulty getting the 'moderate' votes necessary to get elected.

This solution is 'clean' in so far as no-one ends up breaking any promises, but the risk is that the Tories see quite clearly that they are the patsies in an obvious UUP-DUP stitch-up.

Do the UUP, so soon after their not-quite-marriage to the Tories, really want to shaft them so blatantly in order to get back into bed with their ex-partners? It would involve bed-swapping worthy of a soap-opera, and would demonstrate to the Tories that politics in Northern Ireland is still quite adolescent.

For short-term unionist gain in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, the UUP could end up sacrificing its long-term relationship with the Tories. Who ever said marriage was easy?

Oorsels Alane

The DUP may as well rename themselves 'Oorsels alane' (the Scots for Sinn Féin), as they are doing a wonderful job in alienating everyone else. And that really means everyone!
  • We already know that they have alienated their own hardcoreit went off to form the TUV,
  • They clearly do not like Catholics,
  • They were intent on 'smashing Sinn Féin',
  • They largely ignore the SDLP!,
  • They boast of their dislike of the Irish language and the GAA, and their opposition to both,
  • They criticise the Alliance Party,
  • They alienated believers in civil liberties and thus a large proportion of liberals,
  • They alienate gays and liberals (again) and thus a large proportion of labour supporters in Britain,
  • They are no friends of the Conservatives,
  • They compete directly against the UUP for unionist votes,
  • They make no real attempt to get on with the Dublin government – and constantly try to minimise north-south cooperation,
  • They have set themselves against the European Project, and thus have no friends there either,
  • And now they have added the US administration – in the guise of Hilary Clinton – to their list of insultees.
Who is left? Who will play with Peter Robinson in the playground? The Evangelical Protestants?

The DUP has successfully avoided forming any alliances or even serious modi operandi with any other political actors or external groups. It seems to relish its complete isolation and contrarianism – but this is a very negative and counterproductive way of representing its voters' best interests.

Why does a plurality of the unionist electorate give its support to a party that is so universally unpopular? Do unionists actually like the feeling of being unloved?

How much better it would be for unionism, for the north, and for Ireland as a whole if unionist voters came out of their self-imposed isolation and actually interacted positively with the rest of the world. If unionism actually sought common ground with like-minded people, groups and parties in Belfast, Dublin, London, Strasbourg and Brussels, and stopped treating everyone and everything as a threat, their future would be a little brighter. Modern politics and governance is increasingly based upon cooperation, consensus and internationalism – the failure of the DUP in all of these areas bodes ill for the place of unionism in the modern world.

It is extremely ironic that a political philosophy that calls itself 'unionism' is, in fact, more concerned to avoid union – with its fellow Northern Irish citizens, its fellow Irishmen, its fellow British citizens, and its fellow Europeans. Divisionism may be a better term, or separateness. But in view of the DUP's preference for its sub-divisional micro-identity, it would be appropriate to rename themselves Oorsels Alane.

Unionism in the old sense – Protestant majoritarian dominance in a marginal part of a detached country – is obsolete. The UK of today is not the Britain of the Empire. The Ireland of today is not the Free State of the past. The border is an irrelevance. Europe today is not a collection of rival great powers. The world today is not made up of 'The Empire' and 'the colonies'. Unionism is ill-equipped to face any of these changes, and the DUP – despite its recent rise in prominence – is no better equipped than the old UUP. Unionism, like nationalism, needs to wake up and embrace a different world to the one it idolises – oorsels alane is a very poor strategy.

Monday 12 October 2009


The quality of political activity in Northern Ireland never ceases to amaze .... but not in a good way!

Political slogans are a prime example of the sheer professionalism and talent that some of the parties are awash with.

Other countries and parties have come up with mediocre efforts like:
  • "A Lot Done, More to Do!" — Fianna Fáil slogan used during 2002 General Election
  • "Now... The Next Steps" — Fianna Fáil slogan used during 2007 General Election
  • "Bread and roses" — US labour and immigrant rights slogan.
  • "Labour is not Working" - 1978 Conservative Party poster
  • "Better dead than Red" — an anti-Communist slogan.
  • "Change we can believe in" — Slogan used by the Barack Obama presidential campaign, 2008.
But the UUP, having virtually killed themselves through the use of dreadful slogans like 'Decent people vote UUP' and 'Simply British', has now evolved to the truly awful:

"Working For Good Government And Accountability"

Have they no members at all who work in marketing?

Brinkwomanship in Fermanagh

While some try to understand whether – or not – the Tories actually promised to stand in every constituency in Northern Ireland next year, the DUP have gone ahead and selected their candidate for the Fermanagh and South Tyrone constituency. Unsurprisingly, it is Arlene Foster, Fermanagh Councillor, MLA and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment. If she succeeds in getting elected she will equal the record for multiple mandates.

Fermanagh and South Tyrone is a seat with a slight nationalist majority – 52.9% in 2007 (against 46% for unionism), and 53% in 2005 (the most recent Westminster election). Nonetheless it has been held by unionists for lengthy periods, most notably between 1983 and 2001, as a result of a unionist voting pact – essentially the DUP agreed not to stand, leaving the field open for the UUP. Nationalism, though it had held the seat before when it too fielded a unity candidate, split its votes between the SDLP and Sinn Féin. Only in 2001, sufficiently angered by being 'represented' by a party that patently did not represent them, did the nationalist voters swing behind Sinn Féin in sufficient number to retake the seat (helped by the unwise candidacy of unionist maverick Jim Dixon).

So the seat is close enough to an even balance to make it winnable for the side that fields a single candidate. If both sides field more than one candidate, the seat is likely to remain in Sinn Féin hands.

The SDLP is likely to stand in 2010, as may one or other dissident republican candidate, but the bulk of the nationalist vote will go to Sinn Féin's Michelle Gildernew.

So the relatively early announcement of Foster's candidacy by the DUP presents a direct challenge to the UUP and the Tories (aka 'UCUNF') who have yet to select their joint candidate. By announcing that the DUP will not stand aside, the party is effectively placing UCUNF in the position of unionist vote-splitters. If UCUNF go ahead and select a candidate for the seat and put real effort into campaigning for that candidate, they will be ensuring that Michelle Gildernew is re-elected. This outcome will contribute to a continued sour relationship amongst the various unionist parties. But if UCUNF do not stand, then they will be making themselves into liars.

The TUV have also added their voices to the debate: "To retake Fermanagh & South Tyrone I believe we need a unifying candidate, unburdened by baggage, who can rise above the party rivalries and command respect among all Unionists. I am therefore calling for a unified commitment among all the Unionist parties to find and support such a candidate. It can be done if petty party jockeying will let it be done. Gildernew or Unionist new, that is the choice!"

But the fact on the ground is that Foster has been formally announced as candidate for the DUP – invoking the spectre of 'unionist vote-splitting', but placing the blame on the UCUNF. It is a high-risk strategy by the DUP, and one that will end in unionist tears unless one of the unionist parties backs down. Jim Allister has clearly stated his support for a 'unity' unionist candidate (and not Foster!), but UCUNF would destroy much of their credibility if they signed up for such a tactic. It seems the only way out for unionism would be for Foster to humiliatingly stand down her candidacy.

The Unionist Academy and the TUV

This blog has made reference in the past to the TUV's useful role (from an anti-unionist perspective) as a thorn in the side (or pain in the neck) to the DUP. A few days ago the TUV again jabbed that thorn into the DUP unprotected side, in yet another reference to Peter Robinson's ridiculous 'Unionist Academy'.

This blog can do no better that repeat what the TUV wrote:

"Still waiting for the DUP's Academy and Equality Unit

Posted on 07/10/09
Statement by TUV Party Secretary Karen Boal:

Back in July I asked the DUP what progress had been made in relation to the creation of the Unionist Academy and British Cultural and Equality Unit promised by the party a year previously.

Two days after the statement was issued, the DUP made their first reference to the Unionist Academy in months when party leader Peter Robinson said: "My plans for the development of a Unionist Academy are at an advanced stage and will be made public soon".

The following week Mr Robinson assured the BBC’s Martina Purdy the plans were still on track and we would hear more detail on them in September.

Well, it’s now October, Mr Robinson so perhaps we can revisit the questions which I posed in the summer.

In July last year the DUP published a document – which is still on the party’s website – entitled “DUP Delivering” in which they claimed: “The Democratic Unionist Party has created two new bodies to fight-back those who would attempt to erode our British identity. Both organisations will strengthen our position to resist those who wage an anti-British agenda”.

So where are the Unionist Academy and British Cultural and Equality Unit? Who sits on these bodies? What have they been doing since July of last year?

The Unionist Academy was supposed to “help develop a greater understanding of Unionism”. It was to prepare “educational resources” for use in schools and youth groups. What “educational resources” has the Academy produced? Where can one access them? Which schools and youth groups have availed of them? Are there plans to produce more in the future?

The DUP promised us that the British Cultural and Equality Unit would “take the form of a legal team to advise the public on fighting the removal of British emblems from Northern Ireland society”. What legal experts staff this Unit? Who pays them? What battles against the dilution of Britishness have they been involved in in the past year?

I understand that Mr Robinson has been very busy discussing issues surrounding the devolution of policing and justice with self-confessed IRA commander Martin McGuinness but given that the “new” bodies have been in existence for well over a year surely they have accomplished something?”

Excellent stuff, with which this blog fully concurs. As for its effect on unionism as a whole, it can only be negative, of course. For which this blog would like to thank the TUV.

Friday 9 October 2009

The Tory challenge

The common-law marriage between the Conservatives and the UUP in Northern Ireland – aka 'UCUNF' – has generated a lot of heat in political circles. That heat has been partially created by pro-Tory activists insisting that the new partnership is revolutionary, and partially by opponents of the UUP insisting that the partnership will fall at the first hurdle.

Nationalists, in the main, have been relatively silent on the issue. This may be because they see the realignments within unionism as mere reshufflings of the same pack of cards, or it may be because they quietly expect the intrusion of yet another unionist party to fracture and weaken unionism even more and thus do not wish to discourage it.

There is, however, a strong risk that the nationalist apathy vis-à-vis the Tory insurgency is misplaced, and that the move really will turn out to be a game-changer.

Despite the preference – strong for some and weaker for others – amongst nationalists for the political future of Northern Ireland to be framed in an all-Ireland context, there is undoubtedly a hunger (shared, to be fair, with a section of unionism) for politics to move beyond the zero-sum parochialism of Northern Irish politics. The English Tory party were the first to target this neglected market, but will not be the last – already Fianna Fáil is dipping its toe in the water, and other outsiders may also be eying up the possibilities. So far, though, none has set up as close a partnership as the Tories have done with the UUP.

So the hunger for non-parochial politics is being fed, for the moment, only by the Conservatives. Until other parties belatedly join the trend, the Tory monopoly on 'bigger picture' politics remains.

The apparent belief amongst nationalists that nothing has really changed carries enormous risks. The two nationalist parties are, despite Sinn Féin's participation in the south, essentially 6 County parties, with little wider significance. Neither will hold real power – in a sovereign government – in the near future. Both act as 'Catholic nationalist' parties, defending the very local and specific interests of their voters. While there is little wrong with that, it is more appropriate for district council politics, and limits the development with the two parties of serious political thought on wider issues.

Northern nationalism lacks a vehicle for political participation at a more serious level, and because of this it also lacks politicians and back-room staff who understand 'big picture' politics. Neither of the two nationalist parties will ever have to face issues such as monetary policy, fiscal policy, foreign policy, transport, energy or defence policy. On the economy they will never have any real power, and will simply spend the money that London sends them without having to worry about where it comes from, how it is generated, or what the opportunity costs are. This level of dependence and powerlessness reduces the role of nationalist politicians in Northern Ireland to that of local councillors.

Nationalism needs to recognise the threat that the Tories pose. Not just at policy level, but at the more practical level of political ambition and the yearning to play a part in the bigger world. If the only vehicle for such participation is a unionist vehicle, then nationalism may lose some of its weaker adherents to that vehicle. Already we have seen numerous defections to the Tories – largely from the UUP, the DUP and the Alliance Party – but it is not inconceivable that members of the SDLP may jump ship, simply for the opportunity of wider influence and wider political horizons. For the nationalist project, such defections would pose a genuine threat – although the Northern Irish electorate is on course for a Catholic majority within 20 years, the achievement of a nationalist majority is only possible if the vast majority of those Catholics vote nationalist, or if there is an inflow of Protestants (or others) sufficient to compensate for the Catholic outflow. The current balance amongst young people is around 55-60% Catholic, 40-45% Protestant, so if the Tories succeed in establishing a vehicle that attracts a significant number of Catholic conservatives (and, to be honest, many Catholics are already small-c conservative), then the balance may not tip in nationalism's favour.

Nationalism urgently needs to up its game. Dependence on the 'Catholic nationalist' vote is no longer good enough – it misses the opportunity of attracting non-Catholic votes, and it is too introverted to attract voters and activists who want to participate in the world outside the 6 Counties.

The Tory Party, though offering a window to British politics, remains nonetheless a narrow party, and offers its new recruits less than what they could aspire to. It remains a Eurosceptic party, and has marginalised itself within the European Parliament – while around 70% of new laws originate in Brussels! Those who claim that joining the Tory Party allows them "to be properly represented on important issues of state which are not devolved and affect us all eg economic policy, taxation, public spending, defence and foreign and constitutional issues" are seeing only part of the big picture. Joining a bigger party, which nonetheless excludes itself from full participation in the real centres of power, is a poor choice.

Nationalism has to offer more. It must offer ambitious and politically motivated people in Northern Ireland an opportunity to fully participate in politics at all levels, right up to European. As a sovereign state Ireland participates as an equal in all international bodies and organisations, and its influence and prestige is not insignificant. While Britain may retain a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, this is of little importance in terms of people's daily lives – unlike Ireland's full and enthusiastic participation in European affairs.

Nationalism must broaden itself. The two small nationalist parties in the north must seek to join with, or be subsumed into, (Irish) national parties. Politically ambitious people in the north must be encouraged to play full parts in the politics of the nation, and to represent the nation abroad. But more than that – the national parties must broaden their appeal, so that they can attract support from those outside the traditional Catholic constituency of the SDLP and Sinn Féin. A larger, wider, more radical Labour Party or Socialist Party must be able to attract Protestant workers' votes; a centre-right populist party – Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael or a new party– must represent the interests of business people both north and south; and existing border-hazy parties like the Greens must be encouraged to become genuinely 32 County parties.

As long as nationalism defers to the border in its political organisations, it leaves the field wide open to parties like the Tories. The time has come to de-partition nationalist politics, and to move to genuine issues-based politics on an all-Ireland basis. If the parties themselves will not do it, then individual nationalists must take the lead. Domhnall O Cobhthaigh showed the way in Fermanagh, and individual members of Fianna Fáil have started to move in Down. But more is needed – a radical re-ordering of the political landscape is called for. The parties of the past, forever re-fighting old battles, must wither and die, to be replaced by new parties capable of attracting and retaining the support of all voters in Northern Ireland. These new parties must be non-sectarian and genuinely committed to representing all of the people of Northern Ireland – Protestant, Catholic, or other. They must be professional and committed, and should build upon the links that membership of the Socialist or Christian Democratic families would give them. In this way the power and influence of parties in a peripheral country can be multiplied many-fold in the corridors of power in Brussels and Strasbourg.

If the politically ambitious can see a future for themselves in Irish politics, and through that in international politics, and if they can see that participation in Irish political organisations offers the possibility of effecting change in the lives of their voters and their communities, then the current threat from the Tory Party can be countered. Nationally-minded socialists, conservatives, greens, social democrats or liberals should be able to find political vehicles that offer them access to real power and influence within an Irish context. But if these opportunities are not available the risk remains that some will be tempted by the false promises of British parties, to the detriment of the nationalist ambition of reuniting our country.

This blog does not underestimate the threat posed by the Tory incursion intio Northern Ireland – hopefully others, and particularly the nationalist parties, will wake up to the threat before it is too late.

Thursday 8 October 2009

Why brains drain

This blog has looked at the touchy issue (for unionists, at least) of the so-called 'Protestant Brain Drain'. Today a new report has been released that may add a little light to this dark corner - the 2009 World University Rankings.

In the top 200 universities in the world, although Britain is well represented, neither Queen's University nor the University of Ulster are present. In other words, neither QUB nor the UU offer an education that is better than, for instance, Universiti Malaya (UM) (place 180), Lancaster University (place 162) or Chulalongkorn University in Thailand (place 138).

For a decent education, therefore, the 'cream of Ulster' have to go elsewhere. Perhaps the DUP could suggest that they forsake the grey skies of 'Ulster' for the academically superior skies of Dublin - where Trinity College stands at number 43 worldwide, and UCD at number 89.

Of course many unionists have studied in Dublin, mostly in Trinity - including Carson himself of course. The advantage for the unionist community of its young studying in Dublin as opposed to London or Edinburgh is that they are likely to retain closer ties with home (only a short trip away) and are more likely to remain on the island after graduation. But for unionist politicians to promote such an option - better for their children's education, better for their own community - would be to admit that Dublin is not a 'foreign country' a million miles away, and that the south offers better educational opportunities than the north.

They would rather consign their children to either emigration or a sub-standard education.

Wednesday 7 October 2009

Catholic Tories!

Several months ago this blog commented on the apparent interest from the Conservative Party in standing candidates that 'broke the mould' - in particular Catholics and women (and along the way also poked a little fun at the pompous Mick Fealty, whose admiration of Tory unionism is thinly disguised).

And lo, it has come to pass!

First the Tories announced that they have elected a West Belfast Catholic, Peter McCann, to stand in South Belfast (if the local UUP Association don't object too much).

Then the Tories found themselves a woman - DUP defector Deirdre Nelson - to stand in East Belfast. Deirdre, despite her lovely Irish forename, is a Protestant (though the Tories fail to point this out, although they are quick to tell us the Catholics' religion).

But now they seem to have hit the jackpot. Their selected candidate for Lagan Valley is a Catholic Woman - Sheila Davidson.

As Tory spokeman for Northern Ireland, Owen Patterson, puts it:
"Only last week, local Conservatives short-listed Catholic businesswoman, Sheila Davidson, in Lagan Valley, in South Belfast, Peter McCann, a Catholic former BBC producer of Top Gear from West Belfast and in East Belfast, Cllr Deirdre Nelson, who defected from the DUP on Ballymena Council."

Now why would a non-sectarian party feel the need to tell us the religions of Davidson and McCann, but not Nelson?

Of course, each of these worthies will need to be selected from a short-list of two - a Tory and a UUP candidate. In each case, the Tory will be up against a UUP incumbent (or long-time hopeful). In Nelson's case, that long-time hopeful is none other than Reg Empey himself. Is he going to agree to Nelson standing instead of him?

Rumour has it that the Tories are insisting on a 50:50 split of seats (i.e. in nine seats the UCUNF candidate should be a Tory rather than a UUP member). Presumably part of this assertiveness is that these nine seats should include some where a UCUNF candidate is electable - i.e. the Tories will probably not be happy to be 'gifted' the candidacy in seats west of the Bann. So which UUP hopefuls are going to be passed over, and how will they take it? Time will tell.

Of course the chance of any of the Tories Catholics actually getting elected is small - especially since they are virtually guaranteed to be lent no DUP votes, and may well lose some UUP votes if the local UUP hopefuls feel aggrieved at having been passed over for a Tory blow-in.

Reducing the number of MLAs, ter

In April this blog noted that:

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness had 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 …"

At the time the DUP was on record as favouring a reduction in the number of MLAs for reasons of efficiency. The conclusion of this blog was that such a reduction would not, in any significant way, alter the unionist-nationalist balance in the Assembly. However, that calculation was done on the basis of a reduction in the number of MLAs per constituency. Such a reduction would tend to penalise the last-elected candidate, often barely elected without reaching the quota.

A new twist comes today, when it is reported that the Conservative Party are toying with a reduction in the number of MPs at Westminster - i.e. a reduction in the number of constituencies - with a target of around one MP per 77,000 electors:

" … we will instruct the Boundary Commission to set out detailed proposals to reduce the number of MPs by ten percent for the next General Election after this one. ... Our proposals would simply increase the average size to around 77,000 – the size of many constituencies today including my own."
(George Young, shadow Leader of the Commons, speech at Tory Party conference)

With an electorate of 1,165,026 (on 1 October 2009), that would imply a reduction in the number of MPs in Northern Ireland to around 15, and a consequent redrawing of the constituency boundaries.

For the Assembly, such a change would immediately require a reduction in the number of MLAs.

The Northern Ireland Act sets out that:

(1) The members of the Assembly shall be returned for the parliamentary constituencies in Northern Ireland.
(2) Each constituency shall return six members.

So if there are only 15 constituencies, then there will be only 90 MLAs. Although this is one of the options that this blog examined, the fact that there would still be six MLAs per constituency, but the boundaries would be different, would make any estimate of the outcome impossible.

If the Assembly constituencies continue to elect six MLAs apiece, though, the quota required to get elected would not be any different from today as a proportion of the total vote in each constituency. Thus there would be no obvious impact on the situation for smaller parties and independents. The only way in which the 'community' balance in the Assembly would be affected would be through the boundary changes – for instance by reducing the number of Belfast seats to three – but such changes can only be guessed at, at this stage.

Of course, nothing is to stop the Northern Ireland Act being amended as well, to reduce the number of MLAs per constituency to 5 (giving a total of 75), or even 4 (for a total of 60 MLAs). The outcomes of such radical changes remains unknown.

Tuesday 6 October 2009

Lack of confidence in UCUNF

The BBC is reporting a letter from the South Belfast constituency Ulster Unionist Association to UUP leader Reg Empey suggesting that the UUP and the DUP should discuss running a single unionist candidate in South Belfast in order to retake the Westminster seat from the SDLP.

This implies that the UUP (or UCUNF – a 'non-sectarian new force') would prefer to cooperate with the openly sectarian DUP than with the firmly non-sectarian and anti-violence SDLP. A strange position, one might think. Are issues of policy behind the call? Apparently not, since none of the three parties have any strong policies, and certainly the SDLP's policies are quite similar in practice (if not in word) with those of the UUP. Except for one policy – the future of Northern Ireland in the UK. Here the DUP and the SDLP are on different sides of a high fence. The UUP seems to be putting the issue of constitutional preference higher on its list of priorities than mere issues like tolerance, non-sectarianism, and the creation of a shared future. Has nothing changed?

The other side of the UCUNF coin – the Conservatives – have already signalled that they will propose a candidate for South Belfast (and the choice between theirs and the UUP's choice will be decided at a later stage). Will the Tories be prepared to back out of South Belfast, and out of their promise to stand in every constituency, in favour of the DUP?

On the other hand, is the UUP's lack of confidence in their ability to re-take South Belfast based on the fact that the Tories proposed candidate is a West Belfast Catholic? As such, of course, he could exemplify the kind of new non-sectarian image that the Tories are trying to present – but at the clear cost of losing the votes of sectarian Protestant unionists. A resurgent UCUNF had hopes of picking up seats such as South Belfast, with its affluent and educated electorate, but it could only do so if it could attract ex-DUP voters, but with the selection of Peter McCann the Tories are virtually ensuring that this will not happen.

The UUP appear to be worried that even if their (UUP) candidate for the seat becomes the eventual UCUNF candidate, they still will not make up enough ground to overtake both the DUP and the sitting MP, the SDLP's Alasdair McDonnell. The letter from the constituency association is an early sign that not all UUP members are confident of the success of the new non-merger with the Tories.

Protestant brain drain … again!

It has become almost an annual ritual that some unionist politician or other complains about the fact that Protestant students are more likely to study in Britain than in Northern Ireland, and thus are less likely to end up living here.

This year's contribution to the ritual comes from DUP MLAs Alex Easton and Jonathan Craig, who have tabled the following Private Members motion in the Assembly today:

"Motion - Protestant Student Exodus

Proposed: That this Assembly calls on the Minister for Employment and Learning to bring forward measures to attract, and ensure that, students from a Protestant background are encouraged to opt for universities in Northern Ireland as their first choice, rather than universities in the rest of the United Kingdom."

This motion displays in glorious brevity four obvious facts:
  • The DUP is unreservedly sectarian. Why otherwise would their motion talk about 'Protestant' students, rather than Northern Irish students? Their concern is not a brain drain per se, but a specifically Protestant brain drain.
  • The DUP does not see Northern Ireland as a fully integral part of the UK. If it didn't then it would have no issue about where in the UK students might study.
  • The DUP recognises that the drain of Protestants (whom the DUP evidently considers to be unionists) to British universities means that they are less likely to return to Northern Ireland, and that this poses dangers for the current very slim unionist majority.
  • The DUP considers Catholics – as Catholics – to be a danger to Northern Ireland's continuing membership of the UK. In other words, it continues to regard them as inherently 'disloyal', and believes that the achievement of a Catholic majority in Northern Ireland would spell the end of the road for Northern Ireland's participation in 'the union'.
This blog, of course, has recognised this danger to unionism for quite a time now, and it is gratifying to see that the DUP, like the UUP in previous years, is willing to openly admit the danger that it poses to the unionist Project Ulster. Of course, the Minister – the UUP's Reg Empey – will not give the overtly sectarian nature of the DUP's motion any encouragement (equality legislation, at the very least, will ensure that), and the truth is that nothing can stop students studying where they want. The canard about Northern Irish universities being 'cold houses' for unionist-minded students was robustly denied by the Students Union at Queens, and by the administrations of both Queens and University of Ulster.

Perhaps if Messrs Easton and Craig (and their party) spent more time and effort on making Northern Ireland a more pleasant place for everyone, then more students – of all religious persuasions and none – might want to stay. But they won't, so the students will keep on leaving, and with them unionism's best hopes for the future.


In the end the Easton/Craig motion did not get debated. Neither of the proposers was in the Assembly chamber to propose it (though one of them at least tried to be there), so we will never know who was, or was not, in favour of such sectarian nonsense.

Oddly, the Speaker - DUP man William Hay - appeared not to even know who his DUP colleague Alex Easton was. He referred to him as "Mr Eastwood".