Sunday 28 March 2010

Unionist economics

One of the least intelligent, yet most frequent, arguments that unionists use to argue against Irish unity is that ‘the south could not afford us’.

This argument clearly refers to the massive subsidies that Northern Ireland receives from Britain, that in the minds of unionists are permanent and inevitable. Unionism, therefore, believes that Northern Ireland is a failed economic entity.

The subsidies that Northern Ireland receives are designed to provide an equivalent level of public services in Northern Ireland as in Britain, and the ‘cost’ of a region like Northern Ireland to the British state is a simple sum: taxes raised minus transfers = cost. So London and the south east of England contribute to the budget, and unproductive regions like Northern Ireland are net recipients.

Such a give-and-take system is far from unique – it is institutionalised in Germany, controversial in Belgium and Spain and is the basis of the EU’s Structural Funds. It is a consequence of the concept of solidarity within a political structure, either a state like the UK or a super-state like the EU.

However, for unionists to argue that the south ‘could not afford’ the north, implies a belief that Northern Ireland, within the UK, could not ever aspire to rise from the ranks of the welfare-dependent regions to become a net contributor. The unionist argument is an admission of Northern Ireland’s failure and backwardness. When the south joined the EU it was a net recipient – it was a relatively poor country. By the beginning of this century, though, it had far exceeded the average and had become a net contributor. So progress is not impossible.

If the south could do it, why could the north not?

There are several answers to that question, with varying degrees of likelihood:
  • Unionists do not actually wish Northern Ireland to do well, because if it did, then re-unification becomes economically possible. This is an unlikely scenario, and would involve coordination of a level impossible to conceal. It would require the state to actively suppress economic development, entrepreneurship and innovation. Despite the criticisms many Northern Irish businesspeople have of InvestNI, it can hardly be accused of active suppression of entrepreneurship.
  • Welfare dependency – as long as people in the north believe that London will pay for them to enjoy a lifestyle that has no direct link to their productivity, they have no real incentive to produce more. In fact, it would be economically irrational for the north to increase its private sector, because the British state would respond by slimming down its make-work public sector. A welfare trap, in other words – the mere existence of UK solidarity ensures that regions like Northern Ireland have no incentive to work any harder. Again, this explanation requires some sort of conscious decision by the private sector not to try to grow, which is unlikely. Much more likely is the fact that the public sector out-bids the private sector in terms of salaries and job security, and that the private sector cannot match the public sector rates.
  • Northern Ireland is simply too small and peripheral to be economically viable, except as a low cost ‘off-shore’ location. It is in the UK, but separated from most of it. Although part of the UK economy, it cannot play a full part in it because it is separated by a logistically important body of water. So it cannot easily be supplied by, or supply to, central warehousing operations (often located near the great motorway junctions in the English midlands). All products brought to Northern Ireland must cost more, and all Northern Irish-made products must be less competitive than those produced in, say, Birmingham.
The only explanations that make any sense economically are the second and third, and they are closely linked. Northern Ireland’s membership of the UK guarantees it a certain level of public sector expenditure, but Northern Ireland within the UK is simply too small and peripheral to fully participate in the UK’s economy. Hence either Northern Irish products are too expensive in Britain (due to extra transport and logistic costs), and thus un-bought, leading to a smaller private sector, or Northern Irish labour costs have to be lower than those in Britain in order to restore competitivity – leading to relative poverty that has to be ‘compensated’ for by UK transfers – often in the form of unnecessary and duplicated public sector jobs.

So it is the fact of Northern Irish membership of the UK that makes it ‘unaffordable’ for the south. By cutting Northern Ireland off from the south the border ensures duplication of services, administrations, rules and infrastructures; different tax regimes; different regulations; different labour market systems; and so on. The artificially restricted size of the Northern Irish economy makes it uneconomical and thus requires UK subsidies. An all-Ireland economy could lead to efficiencies, business policies fit for purpose and economic success – the south, though smaller than an all-Ireland economy, has already demonstrated this.

A foreign investor looking to invest in the UK wants to be close to markets, suppliers, transport routes, with a ready supply of skilled labour. Northern Ireland provides none of that. A foreign investor looking to invest in the Euro-zone, but with an English-speaking workforce (think Google, Intel, etc) will go to the south. What possible reason would anyone have to invest in Northern Ireland? To supply its tiny market? Or to take advantage of low wages?

The very existence of Northern Ireland is what ensures its economic backwardness and thus its transfer payments from Britain. For unionists to then say to nationalists ‘you’re better off in the UK’ is intellectually bankrupt. Their forced inclusion in the UK robs them of the chance to play a full part in the Irish and the European economy – and the negative consequences of the north’s peripherality in the UK are then ‘compensated’ by London. Much better for all would be to remove the border and let Northern Ireland fully join with the southern economy to provide a modern base for industry in the Euro-zone.

The truth is that Northern Ireland is only ‘unaffordable’ for the south because it exists. A Northern Ireland that no longer existed would be no more ‘unaffordable’ than Leinster or Munster. On the contrary, able to fully participate in a larger all-Ireland economy, fully integrated into the European and world economies, Northern Ireland would develop economically and would not pose any more of an economic drag than any other part of the country.

The unionist boast of their unaffordability is caused by the border – it is not a reason to keep the border. On the contrary, a proud people should not see their future as welfare spongers – they should seek to pay their way and to build their own prosperity. To use the negative consequences of their border to try to justify keeping that border is simply bizarre, and demonstrates yet again that unionism has no economic basis.

Friday 26 March 2010

North-South divergence on births

The Central Statistics Office (CSO) yesterday published its bulletin on vital statistics for the third quarter of 2009 (in the south), and it shows some differences between the north and the south.

The figures for 2009 for the north, published by NISRA on 18 March show that the birth rate (the number of babies per 1000 of the population) was 13.9 – and this represented a slight decrease from 2008. In the south, by contrast, the birth rate was a whopping 17.3 – an increase from the previous year, and by far the highest rate in the EU.

In fact, the birth rate in the south is usually higher than the north, and they tend to move in roughly the same direction:

In 2009, though, they moved in different directions, and a considerable gap has thereby opened up.

Reasons for this divergence are not obvious. The increasing birth rate in the south, as in the north, can be partly ascribed to the influx of young migrants since the opening up of both labour markets to A8 workers in 2004. This has had the effect of lowering the average age in the population, but more importantly, of adding a large group of people of prime child-bearing age to the population. So far, so obvious – the number of births increases, and the birthrate increases with it. But why did this change in 2009? Babies born in 2009 would probably represent decisions taken nine months earlier – thus usually in 2008, when times were not so bad (compared with now). Were expectations in the north in 2008 worse than in the south?

This scenario is not borne out by the evidence of the labour market – unemployment rates in the north did not deteriorate compared with the south in 2008-9. So why did people continue to have babies in the south, but hold back in the north? These questions cannot be easily answered, and probably require some additional research to be done.

Another question that the figures pose is 'why is the southern birth rate generally higher than the northern birth rate?'

Here, perhaps the answer is easier. The population of the south is younger – only 11% was over 65 (in 2006), against 14% in the north (in 2008). In addition, in the north 23.6% of the population was aged between 45 and 64, whereas in the south this cohort represented only 21.9% of the population. This means that almost 38% of the north's population was over the normal reproductive age, while in the south less than 33% was. Clearly, with more people at reproductive ages in the south there would be more births:

Certainly the higher proportion of the south's population in the fertile 25-44 age group explains a large part of its higher birth rate – but even if births in 2009 in both jurisdictions are expressed as a rate per thousand of the population size in that age group the south appears to be more fertile:

  • South – 1,345,873 people aged 25-44– 77,156 births* = 57.3 per thousand
  • North – 492,721 people aged 25-44 – 24,900 births = 50.5 per thousand

[*2009 Q3 figures multiplied by 4]

A third and slightly more complicated question can also be posed: does the lower northern birth rate imply a lower fertility in the Catholic community in the north than amongst their cousins in the south? Figures for the Total Period Fertility Rate (the hypothetical number of children the 'average woman' will have in her lifetime) for the south for 2009 are not yet available, but in 2008 the TPFR was 2.1 (a slight increase from 2007's 2.0).

In 2009 the TPFR in majority-Catholic areas of Northern Ireland tended also to cluster around 2.1, while in majority-Protestant areas the TPFR tended to be lower (areas not included tend to be fairly closely balanced at child-bearing age):
So, to answer the third question, the evidence seems to imply that (cultural) Catholic fertility is similar north and south, and thus that the lower birth rate in the north may be due to a lower fertility amongst (cultural) Protestants.

Nothing yet answers the first and most puzzling question – why the birth rate in 2009 headed in different directions in the two jurisdictions? Perhaps an answer will become obvious over time, or perhaps 2009 was simply an unexplainable anomaly. This blog will continue to watch these statistics to see if an explanation presents itself.

Thursday 25 March 2010

Parsley's hopes evaporate

Sylvia Hermon 'has resigned from the Ulster Unionist Party and is to defend her North Down parliamentary seat as an independent candidate', according to the BBC.

Her own blog provides more substance:

"I have decided to resign from the Ulster Unionist Party with effect from midnight last night (Wednesday).

It is now my intention to stand my ground, fighting the forthcoming General Election as an independent and fighting to win."
With that one short announcement the hopes of the hopeless Ian Parsley have evaporated. And indeed, many of the hopes of the unfortunate UCUNF, who must now be wondering if they will win any seats at all.

For North Down, of course, the battle is not entirely over, but it is hard to see any outcome other than a convincing win by Hermon and a humiliating defeat for the opportunist Ian Parsley.

Hermon, a sitting MP, widow of Jack Hermon, has stood up to the pressure of her own party and the English Tories. She is locally popular and personally pleasant. She has, it seems, no obvious defects.

Parsley, a political carpet-bagger (with unfortunate dress sense), who pretended he was a liberal democrat in order to further his political career, only to turn against both the Liberal Democrats and his own party – Alliance – soon afterwards, did not even have the basic honour to resign the council seat he won entirely on the coat-trails of his Alliance Party colleague in 2005.

The intentions of the DUP in North Down are uncertain – they may abstain, just to ensure that UCUNF get stuffed. But even if they or the TUV stand the outcome should be in little doubt.

Parsley – the Tories only 'success' – will turn out to be a failure, and with him the whole UCUNF project should be flushed down the drain.

Wednesday 24 March 2010

The Adrian Watson show continues

The on-off story of Adrian Watson's candidacy for UCUNF in South Antrim continues to amuse the wider world. Today the BBC hints that "Watson could still be UUP choice".

Apparently Watson has eaten his fill of humble pie - or to be more cynical, the local UUP are up in arms about his disgrace. There is obviously a realisation that the Tory's choice - a total unknown called Margaret McVeigh who lives and works in England - would embarrass UCUNF even more than Watson. And, as this blog has pointed out, the Tories simply don't have anyone else!

Watson's original sin was that he advertised his willingness to discriminate against gay men (and women?) partly because his (then) 14 year old daughter might ask questions. Well, that daughter is now close to 17, and frankly, if she hasn't come across homosexuality then she has been locked in the attic. So now, presumably, gays are OK chez Watson, because the daughter is not such a backward child?

The watching world awaits the next episode of UCUNF's ongoing farce.

Religious-political mapping in Westminster elections

Regular reader of this blog will know that one of its basic premises is that there is a close correlation between religion (or 'community') and political preference in Northern Ireland.

To be simplistic, this blog considers that the vast majority of (cultural) Catholics vote for nationalist parties, and that the vast majority of (cultural) Protestants vote for unionist parties. (As a consequence, of course, this blog believes that the relative growth of the Catholic community in Northern Ireland will lead to a consequent growth in the nationalist share of the vote).

But is the basic premise correct?

One way to test the premise is to compare the outcome of the most recent (2001) census with the outcomes of recent elections. As an election for the British parliament is imminent, it is interesting to look at the mapping of community identification with political identification in each of Northern Ireland's 18 Westminster constituencies.

There was a Westminster election in 2001 – the same year as the census – so statistics on the community identification of the electorate in each constituency at the exact time of the election are available. The table below gives, for each Westminster constituency, the religious identification of the electorate in 2001 (Census Table S306: Age by Community Background (Religion or Religion brought up in)), and the outcome of the election:

Several things stand out from the table:
  • In most constituencies there was a close correlation between the proportions of cultural Catholics and nationalists, and between the proportions of cultural Protestants and unionists. Where there was no strong 'interference' from the Alliance Party or significant 'others' (e.g. in South Belfast – the Women's Coalition) the correlation can be very close indeed: East Derry, Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Newry and Armagh, North Antrim and South Down are examples of this.
  • Where the Alliance Party won a significant score, the nationalist score was lower than the Catholic community proportion, indicating that the APNI picked up some Catholic community votes: East Antrim, South Antrim, Lagan Valley and Strangford are examples of this. However, as Lagan Valley and East Belfast show, the APNI also picked up Protestant community votes in similar numbers.
  • There is clear evidence of strategic voting by cultural Protestants in several constituencies, generally to try to stave off a Sinn Féin victory: West Belfast, Foyle, Mid Ulster, Newry and Armagh and West Tyrone are examples. On the other hand, it seems as if some cultural Catholics may have voted strategically in South Antrim in a successful attempt to avoid a DUP win.
What can such an analysis tell us about the likely outcome of this year's Westminster elections?

  • Firstly, although voters seem to vote largely in predictable political-religious patterns, they are more ready to vote strategically than often thought. Despite the absence of anything other than a 'first preference' option in First-past-the-post elections, some voters are prepared to anticipate the failure of their first preference, and vote for a candidate most likely to beat their least-favourite. This tendency is visible on both sides of the community divide, and may affect the outcome in several constituencies in 2010; particularly South Down, Foyle, Fermanagh and South Tyrone and South Belfast. The failure (so far) of the unionist parties to agree on 'unionist unity' candidates may not stop individual unionists from deciding who their preferred 'unity' candidate is.
  • It is hard to judge whether the DUP or the TUV would be nationalists' 'least-favourite' – in North Antrim this could prove to be important, especially if the two right-wing unionist parties are neck-and-neck in the constituency in opinion polls. UCUNF in this constituency have effectively withdrawn, by standing an unknown newcomer, so some of their votes many also be in play.
  • Where the experiences of 2001 and 2005 have showed unionists that they have no chance of ousting a strong Sinn Féin incumbent, either directly or by strategically voting for an SDLP candidate, they may revert to simply 'flying the flag' – voting for a dead-cert unionist loser just to show their colours. This may occur in West Tyrone, Mid Ulster, Newry and Armagh and West Belfast. The votes received by the SDLP in these areas may suffer as a result.
  • The Catholic community voters in South Antrim, who were prepared to vote for the UUP's David Burnside in 2001 (and to a lesser extent in 2005) in order to try to thwart the despised William McCrea of the DUP, may be persuadable again. This may be one of the reasons why the UCUNF is being very careful about its choice of candidate – the right person could win them the seat with the help of strategic Catholics, but a known bigot like Adrian Watson would not.
  • In 2001, and more so in 2005, David Trimble probably also benefitted from cultural Catholic strategic votes in Upper Bann – but whether his descendent Harry Hamilton can do so is less likely. If these votes revert to nationalist candidates, then this seat becomes winnable for Sinn Féin.
As in all elections, pre-match analysis tends to be backwards looking, and the actual outcome will not be exactly as predicted. The choices made by individual voters on the day will differ from the predictions in many respects, and will depend on who is standing and which party seems to have a chance. The strategic voting that will take place is even more complicated this time as there are, in some constituencies, three unionist parties. The pattern of voting in 2001 does not disprove the premise of this blog, but it does demonstrate that voters make compromises in the privacy of the polling booth, and as a result no outcomes can be excluded out-of-hand.

Tuesday 23 March 2010

Castlereagh East by-election on May 6

The BBC reports, though the Electoral Office does not yet, that the by-election to fill Iris Robinson's seat on Castlereagh Borough Council will take place on May 6.

Obviously the Electoral Office knows something that the rest of the world has not yet been told, because May 6 is a Thursday, and council by-elections are almost invariably on a Wednesday. But May 6 also happens to be the date on which most people expect the Westminster election to be held.

So it seems that the Electoral Office plans to kill two birds with one stone on that day. Poor Jim Allister, who was so keen to have the by-election as soon as possible in order to test the waters, will now have to hope that Gordon Brown delays his Westminster election until one of the four possible dates after May 6.

Upper Bann – one to watch

The Westminster election promises to throw up some surprises (though, of course, it may not actually keep its promises – this is politics, after all!). One constituency that could just surprise everyone is Upper Bann.

The seat is held by the DUP's David Simpson, who won it in 2005 with 37.6% of the vote, ousting David Trimble, then leader of the UUP. The Assembly election in 2007, however, showed a weakening of the DUP's lead – they won 31.4% of the vote, still well ahead of the UUP's 21.3% - but not so far ahead of Sinn Féin's increased score of 25.3%.

There are two aspects to watch out for in Upper Bann: demographic change, and the TUV.

Although the nationalist score in 2007 (38.9%) was much the same as that in 1998 (38.0%), change is coming slowly in the constituency. The graph below shows the approximate shape of the electorate by age (Catholics shown as the green line, Protestants by the blue line) in 2010, based on the numbers in the 2001 census:

Obvious, of course, is the fact that at all ages bar those under 30 Protestants are in a majority. This remains a majority-Protestant, and thus majority-unionist, constituency. Of those aged 18 and over, around 55% are Protestant, and thus likely to be unionist, and 42% are Catholic, and thus likely to be nationalist. These figures are within a small margin of the scores actually achieved by the two blocks in 2007: Unionist 56.5%, Nationalist 38.9%.

However, the unionist advantage will very likely be threatened by the fact that there are now three unionist parties in the battle.

The DUP, as defending incumbents, must stand again. The UUP/UCUNF have announced that they will stand Harry Hamilton, aka 'Flash Harry', a Freddy Mercury impersonator. And Jim Allister announced as long ago as September that:

"I look forward to the Westminster election and the verdict on the betrayers of Traditional Unionism. In politics you expect most from those who know the truth and brag of their steadfastness. That is why one of the men who disappointed me the most is the outgoing MP for Upper Bann. He won his seat by opposing the betrayal of Trimble. Now, he deserves to lose it for operating the very Belfast Agreement system which Trimble bequeathed us."
The TUV have, on the few occasions when they have stood against the DUP, taken around 40% of the combined TUV-DUP total. If they achieve a similar score against Simpson, then his percentage share of the vote may drop from 37% to the low 20s. A three-way split in the unionist vote may leave all three unionist parties in the range between 15-25%, and if nationalists see their chance and plump for Sinn Féin, the seat may be taken by Sinn Féin. In fact, if the TUV take even one-third of Simpson's votes, his 2005 score falls below a level that Sinn Féin have proved they can exceed.

This is an election count that many people will be watching very closely, unless the TUV stands down.

Monday 22 March 2010

Spotlight on Tom ... or is it Bobby?

If all publicity is good publicity, then today must be Tom Elliott's day. Not only is he the subject of Arlene Foster's "impassioned plea" on the DUP web site;

... but he gets a full three pictures on the UUP web site:

The UUP has been doing its best to raise Elliott's profile for a while now, perhaps to try to persuade people subliminally that he is the 'natural' candidate for Fermanagh and South Tyrone. The DUP, of course, have been doing the same for Arlene Foster – including appointing her as caretaker First Minister for a short period earlier this year.

It's all about Fermanagh and South Tyrone, of course. Lip-service is made to South Belfast, of course – the other 'steal-able' constituency – but the real hunger amongst unionists is for FST.

Why is FST so important to unionists?

Partly, of course, because it is their last hope of ever winning a seat in 'the west' (though, of course, most of East Derry is west of the Bann). But mainly because it was Bobby Sands' seat. Winning FST is a way of negating the achievement that Bobby Sands election represented to nationalists and especially republicans. If unionism can win FST, then it can present Sands victory as an aberration, before the 'natural order' was restored. It can present the nine years of Michelle Gildernew's possession of the seat (since 2001) as having been 'rolled back', and it can pretend that unionism is resurgent. The actual proportion of the vote that unionism gets in FST will, in these circumstances, be less important to them than the fact of having 'bagged' the big trophy.

Of course the words 'Bobby Sands' will not be mentioned by Foster or Elliott, but they are there in the back of their minds.

Sunday 21 March 2010

The TUV and UKIP

There was speculation several months ago about a formal pact between the TUV and UKIP, a British anti-EU party. When he was an MEP Jim Allister used to ‘sit with’ the UKIP members in the European Parliament.

On Friday, however, the leader of UKIP announced that:

“The UK Independence Party will not stand against hardline Eurosceptic rivals in other parties at the general election”
Now, what counts as a “hardline Eurosceptic” to Lord Pearson? Well, membership of the "Better Off Out" group – a group of British MPs and peers who want the UK to leave the EU.

And who are members of “Better Off Out”?

  • David Simpson MP MLA
  • Iris Robinson MP
  • Jeffrey Donldson MP MLA
  • Nigel Dodds MP MLA
  • Sammy Wilson MP MLA
  • Ian Paisley MP MLA
  • Peter Robinson MP MLA
  • William McCrea MP MLA
So, if the TUV enters a formal pact with UKIP, will they ignore this rather significant party of UKIP’s election strategy?

The Tories had nobody

One of the things that has become clear in the whole long drawn out saga of the UCUNF nominations is that, behind the bluster, the Tories had nobody to contribute. They were bluffing, in the hope that the hype would attract new members of a sufficient calibre that they could, by May 6, look like a credible force in Northern Ireland. But it seems that that bluff has not worked, except in the case of the Alliance turncoat Ian Parsley.

The revelation yesterday that, of the 17 candidates so far approved by the tortuous UCUNF selection procedure, only two are from the Tory side of the partnership is indicative of the Tory weakness in Northern Ireland. They have, at best, between 250 and 350 members, and only one of these was considered electable (apart from the opportunistic Parsley, who only became aware of his Tory yearnings after standing for the Alliance Party in the 2009 European Parliament election!).

And the other Tory is not exactly a big name either – Irwin Armstrong. A man who has apparently never actually stood for election before, and has taken no noticeable part in politics until 2009 (when he was 58 years old! A hobby for his retirement perhaps?) A successful businessman, however, he is precisely what the Tories would like to attract. But if they are expecting his grateful employees to vote for him, well, they may be over-optimistic – his micro-business employs only his own family members. On a related note, could the Elizabeth Armstrong, also from Ballymena, who stood for the Tories in North Antrim in the 1996 Forum election be a family member?

So, out of the 18 seats only South Antrim is left to be decided by UCUNF. But the rumour there is that the Tories have a weak candidate and the only issue is the unacceptability of the UUP’s offering, the bigoted Adrian Watson.

The great Tory invasion of Northern Ireland, that was supposed to bring new and improved candidates, has flopped so far. Two candidates, neither of whom could be called popular, standing in seats that they have little chance of winning (unless Sylvia Hermon unexpectedly withdraws in North Down). David Cameron and his Northern Ireland Spokesman Owen Paterson must be wondering why they bothered. All they’re going to get is a big bill from the UUP for the cost of their candidates campaigns, most of which will fail.

One good thing that has come out of the latest round of UCUNF nominations is confirmation that the mooted electoral pacts to try to recapture Fermanagh and South Tyrone and South Belfast are dead. Unless the DUP stand down – which would be a humiliation for them (and may actually be counter to their real strategy) – FST should re-elect Michelle Gildernew, and South Belfast will be quite open.

However, despite the absence of any formal pact, there remains a suspicion that the UCUNF has not actually proposed strong candidates in constituencies where there is a risk, even a remote one, that the sitting unionist MP might be ousted by Sinn Féin or the TUV. In North Antrim UCUNF has selected the unknown Irwin Armstrong – hardly a challenge to the DUP, whose main concern is Jim Allister. In North Belfast UCUNF has selected the serial loser Fred Cobain who has already proved his inability to eat into Nigel Dodds weak majority, and thus hand the seat to Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly. In East Derry UCUNF has proposed an ultra-lightweight – Lesley Macauley – who will take few votes away from the DUP’s Gregory Campbell. In Upper Bann – a seat being eyed up hungrily by Sinn Féin – the DUP’s David Simpson will face only a celebrity candidate from UCUNF. While a Freddy Mercury impersonator may make for good media, his popularity amongst the voters may be somewhat less – he has, like so many of UCUNF’s other candidates, never actually bothered to get his hands dirty in local or regional politics before now. He, like others, thinks he can simply bypass the grunt-work and go straight to glory in Westminster. Local voters (and party activists) may disagree.

If, on May 7, Northern Ireland wakes up to the news that there are no UCUNF MPs – and certainly no Tory MPs from Northern Ireland – this will probably kill the Tory interest in Northern Ireland for years, if not for ever. If after a year or more of media campaigning and hype they turn out to have never really had any good people in Northern Ireland, how many could they expect to have following a failure and a dimming of interest from Conservative Central Office?

Thursday 18 March 2010

Births in 2009

NISRA has just released its provisional figures for births in 2009.

The overall number of births, as well as the birth rate (births per 1,000 population) and the TPFR (Total Period Fertility Rate - the average number of children that would be born in a cohort of woman who experienced, throughout their childbearing years, the fertility rates of the calendar year in question) have all turned down again, after a period of increase following the low point of 2000.

As in previous years, the pattern is one of apparently higher birth rates, and a higher TPFR in nationalist areas. The tables blow shows the 26 district council areas ordered according to: (1) their birth rates, and (2) their TPFR.

District councils are coloured green if the child-bearing cohort (average age 29.8 in 2009, thus 21 in 2001) was majority Catholic (by community background (religion or religion brought up in)) in the 2001 census, or orange if that childbearing cohort was majority Protestant in 2001. District council areas where neither community had over 55% of the 21-y.o. in 2001 are left uncoloured.

Birth rates

Of the 'top 10', only one is 'orange', while five are 'green' and four are mixed. In fact, in the top 14 there is still only one 'orange' area! The 'bottom 10' contains six 'orange' areas but only three 'green' ones, and one mixed.

The coefficient of correlation between the birth rate and the percentage of the child-bearing cohort that is Catholic in the 26 districts is a very significant 0.61. The coefficient of correlation between the birth rate and the percentage of the child-bearing cohort that is Protestant is an equally significant minus 0.60.


Of the 'top 10', only two are 'orange' areas – four are 'green' and four are mixed. Of the 'bottom 10', six are 'orange', three are 'green' and one is mixed.

Only one 'orange' area has a TPFR above the 'replacement level' (2.10), while 4 'green' (and 4 mixed) areas do.

The coefficient of correlation between the TPFR and the percentage of the child-bearing cohort that is Catholic in the 26 districts is 0.34. The coefficient of correlation between the TPFR and the percentage of the child-bearing cohort that is Protestant is minus 0.33.


Although the figures are not absolutely black-and-white, there is at least statistical evidence that areas that are 'more Catholic' have both a higher birth rate and a higher TPFR than areas that are 'more Protestant'. No real conclusions can be drawn about who, within these areas, are actually having the babies, but it is unlikely if, for example, Newry and Mourne's high birth rate is being sustained by the small (17%) share of its 29 year-olds who are Protestant. Likewise, Carrickfergus's low birth rate cannot be entirely blamed on its tiny Catholic population.

It is not unreasonable to draw the conclusion from these figures, that the overall Catholic birth rate is still higher than the overall Protestant birth rate. Since 50.4% of the 21 year-olds in 2001 were from a Catholic community background (against 46.3% who were from a Protestant community background), it is likely that the proportion of the children born in 2009 into a Catholic community background exceeds the proportion born into a Protestant community background. The size of the Catholic community lead is hard to measure at this stage, but the results of the Schools Census suggest that it could be as high as 10%. The next decennial census (in 2011) will throw more light on this.

Wednesday 17 March 2010

The Wolfe Tones and Loyalist bands

Inadvertently, Seán Johnston from Derry may have struck a blow for nationalist residents and other who are bothered on a regular basis by the noise and deliberate provocation caused by loyalist bands throughout the summer.

Seán – an accidental martyr – was given a suspended three-month prison sentence and a £250 fine for 'playing Irish rebel music as he passed an Orange parade'. The bold Sean was playing the Wolfe Tones loudly on his car stereo as he drove past an orange parade.

The BBC reports District Judge Barney McElholm as saying that it was a "seriously stupid action", and that "if there was such a thing as "a good time and good place" to play music by the Wolfe Tones, it was not during Orange Order parades".

Now, as everyone knows, everyone is equal before the law – so if it is 'seriously stupid' (and apparently also illegal) to play music associated with one tradition as you pass members of the other tradition, then this bodes ill for the musical offerings of loyalist bands – particularly the 'kick the pope' bands that accompany many Orange marches – as they pass by Catholic Churches, nationalist residential areas, and even places where Catholics and nationalists tend to congregate.

It is unlikely that Mr McElholm's judgement is of sufficient importance to act as a legal precedent, but any other such cases that come before him, at any rate, will presumably be judged in the same way. His colleagues elsewhere in Northern Ireland may take a differing view, but it will only be a matter of time before any inconsistencies make their way up the legal system by way of appeals, until finally Northern Ireland has a judge-made law that will finally silence the worst of the loyalist bands.

Tuesday 16 March 2010

TUV champing at the bit

Poor Jim Allister. His impatience for the election – an election – any election – is becoming almost too much to bear.

Today he returned to Castlereagh, where his previous impatience had earned him a ticking-off from the Chief Electoral Officer. This time he takes only an oblique swipe at the Electoral Office, and effectively accuses the DUP-controlled council of feeding false information to the Electoral Office to avoid a by-election before the Westminster election.

But unfortunately for Allister, even if the Electoral Office was to publish the Notice of Election before the latest date, it still might not mean that the election would take place before the Westminster election if this occurs on May 6 as expected.

Allister and the TUV know that a by-election for Iris Robinson’s council seat, just before a Westminster election, would focus uncomfortable attention on the DUP, and allow the TUV an extra moment in the spotlight. There are probably no hard and fast rules for such situations, but it is likely that the Chief Electoral Officer will try to find a solution that bridges the desires of the TUV and the undesirability of influencing the Westminster election. The problem for the Chief Electoral Officer is that he is obliged to publish the Notice of Election by 26 March at the latest, and this is before Gordon Brown will probably announce the date of the Westminster election – so the Castlereagh by-election might, in fact, have to take place right in the middle of the Westminster campaign.

The Workers' Party

One of the great unknowns in Northern Irish politics is 'why does the Workers' Party bother?'

Not because they do not have a right to stand – they do, of course. But because they haven't a snowball's chance in hell of ever getting enough votes to actually achieve anything. The WP – now that the Natural Law Party has given up – represents the last great example in Northern Ireland of the triumph of hope over experience. In fact it represents a good example of the triumph of hope over common sense, rationality, and even the efficient use of resources.

At local level the WP can, very occasionally, get a candidate elected – though possibly the last was in Craigavon in 1993. They have two local councillors in the south, but none in the north. In the most recent local elections in the north they polled a paltry 1,052 votes (0.15% of the total), standing in only 4 Council districts (Belfast (5 candidates), Craigavon (1 candidate), Down (1 candidate), and Magherafelt (1 candidate).

In the Assembly they have never had a single MLA elected, and in 2007 received only 975 votes (0.14% of the total). They stood in all four Belfast constituencies, and in Lagan Valley and South Antrim.

In the most recent Westminster elections (2005) their vote was a respectable (for them) 1,669 (0.23% of the total). Needless to say they lost their deposits in all six constituencies that they contested (the four Belfast constituencies, Upper Bann and Mid Ulster).

Logic would tell a small radical party like the Workers' Party that its chances in elections with a high success threshold are tiny, and that its resources might be better spent on building up a grass-roots organisation. If a party cannot even get a local councillor elected, then its hopes of getting an MP elected are zero.

And yet this year, as in every election year since its foundation, the WP will call on its members to find the £500 deposit required of each candidate – despite knowing that this money is already lost (a candidate who receives less than 5% of the vote 'forfeits' his/her deposit). If the WP again stands 6 candidates this represents £3,000 that the WP is voluntarily contributing … to what? ... the running expenses of the Electoral Office?

Does the WP have a strategy for its participation in elections? Does it have any strategy at all? Commitment is all well and good, but surely wilful waste makes woeful want?

Monday 15 March 2010

A ploy to break the UUP

The louder the DUP squawk about ‘unionist unity’ the more likely it is that it is just a ploy. If the DUP were genuine about setting up some sort of ‘arrangement’ with the UUP then they would be doing it assiduously behind closed doors. Instead they are releasing a stream of press releases, speeches and web pages to try to show that they and only they are serious about the project.

But megaphone courtships rarely work. When the blushing damsel repeatedly says that her heart belongs to another it seems pointless for her would-be suitor to shout even louder about how much he wants her.

Why then does a party like the DUP – often credited with political skills beyond those of other parties – continue to shout their words of endearment from the rooftops? Louder and louder, more and more frequent – it is starting to look like stalking.

Could the reason be that the DUP does not actually want unionist unity?

Could it be that the DUP is merely making so much noise about ‘unionist unity’ because it wants the idea to stick in the voters’ minds that they, and only they, were serious about it? If unionist unity actually happened, then the DUP would have to step back from some constituencies in order to give their rivals, the UUP, a good chance at winning them. And why would they want to do that? The UUP is on the ropes – it is clearly the junior unionist party, and has lost voters and members to the DUP over the past few years. The UUP has only one MP – who is likely to stand for re-election as an independent! So why would the DUP want to throw the UUP a life-line at this point? Would it not be better to engineer things so that the UUP are entirely wiped out, becoming only a minor local party? If the UUP succeed in getting several seats at Westminster it is not impossible that they would be part of the next British government, giving them access to power, influence and publicity far greater than that of the DUP. What political party would voluntarily hand their main rivals that kind of success?

But if the DUP shout about ‘unionist unity’ and it doesn’t actually happen, then the DUP can claim that it was all the UUP’s fault. If, as a side-benefit of a lack of ‘unionist unity’ the UUP come out of the Westminster election with no MPs, then the DUP will regain dominance of the unionist family. The DUP, rather than the UUP, may find themselves as king-makers in Westminster.

The ‘loss’ to unionism of Fermanagh and South Tyrone and South Belfast would be unfortunate (for unionists), but then again neither seat is currently in unionist hands – and if the UUP are comprehensively demolished, then the DUP would assume the unchallenged role of ‘unionist champion’ in Westminster and would have an even greater advantage at the next Westminster election. The UUP would, at that point, be an irrelevant small party with only a minor role in a devolved administration.

The DUP must be praying that the UUP/UCUNF stick to their pledge to stand in all 18 constituencies. Probably the last thing that they want is for the UUP to actually fall for their advances and make a pact with them. Such a pact would give the UUP votes, seats and an electoral future. A ruthless party like the DUP should rather just kill them now, while they’re down.

The Future of Northern Ireland

The Belfast Telegraph today published the results of an opinion poll by Inform Communications which looked at the issue of personal national identity and the future of Northern Ireland as a state.

The results are very interesting, and lend some support to the thesis of this blog – that Northern Ireland is a state on borrowed time, and will ultimately cease to exist. The question is 'when?'

National identity

A headline outcome of the poll is that a greater proportion of those polled consider themselves to be Irish (42%) than British (39%):

A further 18%, mostly Protestant, consider themselves 'Northern Irish' – a curious choice which demonstrates an unwillingness by a quarter of Protestants – even when given the choice – to describe themselves as British.

Border Poll

The bad news for nationalism in the poll is that, when asked how they would vote if there was a border poll today, 55% (including 26% of Catholics) said that they would vote to stay in the UK, against 36% who would vote for a united Ireland. As ever, though, there is some wiggle-room – 51% of those asked (and broadly similar proportions of both religions) said that the current economic problems in the south made the prospects of a united Ireland less likely. Since the south's economic problems could be only temporary, there remains a good possibility that if and when the southern economy recovers the proportion in the north who are hesitant about reunification on economic ground will reduce – eating into that 55/36 unionist lead in the hypothetical border poll.

The Future

Despite the current unionist lead in a hypothetical border poll, when respondents were asked what they expected the status of Northern Ireland to be in 2021, the proportion who expected that it would still be in the UK (42%) was exactly the same as the proportion (42%) who expected that it will have become part of a united Ireland. Even 24% of Protestants expect that Northern Ireland will be part of a united Ireland in barely 11 years!

  • Firstly, a border poll held today would fail – but this is not a surprise. This blog has argued that the necessary nationalist majority will not arrive until some time during the 2020s,
  • Secondly, the proportion of the population in Northern Ireland who view themselves as part of the Irish nation is large and probably growing. Although the poll did not report on the ages of the interviewees, it is likely that at the younger age groups the proportion who see themselves as Irish is higher than the average figure of 42%.
  • Thirdly, unionists lack confidence in their future – although most Protestants, and a minority of Catholics, would vote to remain in the UK today, a higher proportion think that it will have left the UK in barely a decade. 6% of Protestants would vote for a UI today, but 24% think it will have happened in 10 years.
The way forward

For nationalists this poll presents interesting challenges. The 24% of Protestants who think that there will be a UI in a decade or so need to be convinced that this UI will be a place in which they feel at home, thus bringing at least some of them from the 'reluctant but accepting' camp to the 'positive' camp.
The 24% of Protestants who see themselves as 'Northern Irish' need to be convinced that Northern Irish is compatible with Irish, and that the Irish nation includes them too.
Last but not least, nationalists north and south must work hard to improve the economies of both parts of the country – because it is a good thing in its own right, and also because it reduces the risks and uncertainties of reunification. The 51% who see the south's economic problems as a barrier to reunification could become persuaded for unity if the south rebuilds a modern and robust economy.

This poll supports a number of accepted truths – that Protestants are likely to support the union with Britain, and that Catholics are likely to support reunification with the south. It also supports the oft-quoted statistic that a quarter of Catholics would vote to remain in the UK (though it adds the interesting fact that 6% of Protestants would vote for a UI). The poll doesn't answer questions about the strength of feeling for these positions, but the fact that the proportion of Catholics who see themselves as 'British' (8%) is far lower than those who would vote to stay in the UK implies that their 'allegiance' is weak. The 4% of Protestants who consider themselves as 'Irish' is closer to the 6% who would vote for a UI.

Overall this poll shows the hill ahead that nationalism must climb – not a mountain, but not a walk in the park either.

Sunday 14 March 2010

You couldn’t make it up!

Owen Polley, a somewhat self-important unionist blogger (who goes by the alias ‘Chekov’ in his blog Three Thousand Versts of Loneliness) recently posted a blog entry entitled 'Decent people' should back the Ulster Unionists (Tuesday, 9 March 2010). Well, he certainly doesn’t hide his affiliation, anyway.

However, the very next day he posted another long blog entry entitled Accentuate the positive - Alex Kane, unionism and the principle of consent (Wednesday, 10 March 2010) in which he pointed out that:
“Unionism which is preoccupied only with sectional ‘Ulster protestant’ interests and is most grimly determined to deliver constant humiliation to, for instance, the Irish language or the GAA, will only create resentment.

It does nationalism’s work for it, by encouraging the notion that ‘Irish’ cultural preoccupations must be wedded to a nationalist political allegiance. The Union Flag becomes a symbol of cultural subjugation, rather than political reality.”
No argument there, of course. This blog has long considered Jim Allister an unwitting (should that be ‘witless’?) friend of nationalism.

But for a UUP blogger to point out that when unionism sets out to insult and denigrate Irish culture and symbolism it does nationalism’s job for it is ironic, to say the least.

The UUP is, after all, the party that:

  • Uses the British flag imposed on the shape of the six counties as its symbol
  • Has David McNarry as an active and leading member
  • Has a leader who is an active Orangeman
  • Has John Laird as an inactive but vocal member
  • Insisted on keeping the constitutionally incorrect and politically divisive word ‘Ulster’ in the title of their non-merger with the Tories
  • Lost its prospective Catholic candidates thanks to its ham-fisted attempts to establish a sectarian pact with the DUP
  • Selected the homophobic and bigoted Adrian Watson to stand in South Antrim
  • Does as much as possible in Northern Ireland, and Brussels, to block the use of Irish
  • Behaves in an un-Christian and shamefully disrespectful way to its Catholic fellow-citizens
And on, and on, and on for ever, so it seems.

Most people can think of dozens of occasions when the UUP or its members have done exactly what Mr Polley (sorry, “Chekov” … ) considers is ‘nationalism’s work’. He selects two obvious areas, the Irish language and the GAA – yet appears naively ignorant of the fact that his party – the one that ‘decent people’ should back – is incurably infected with tribal bigotry with regard to those two issues, as well as others.

Why he thinks that ‘decent people’ would ever vote for a party of anti-Irish bigots is beyond comprehension. Many people, of course, do vote for the UUP – but given its record, as well as the public statements of its members, are they really ‘decent’?

If supposedly intelligent members of the UUP are this blind, what hope is there for unionism?

The TUV and North Down

Readers of this blog may remember that in February Jim Allister listed the constituencies that his party would be ‘interested’ in contesting in the Westminster election:

"Mr Allister has already declared his interest in North Antrim. It is thought the TUV will also stand in Lagan Valley, Strangford, East Belfast, East Antrim, South Antrim and in Mid Ulster … "
Conspicuously absent were three Belfast constituencies – North, where even Allister realised that a TUV intervention would probably hand the seat to Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly; West, where the TUV would be utterly humiliated; and South, where a TUV intervention could leave the seat in SDLP hands, but they won’t know until they see how the DUP-UUP pact talks turn out.

Also absent, and inexplicably so, was North Down, which forms a core part of the unionist Heimat. On Friday, however, the TUV were good enough to correct its omission from their earlier list. TUV vice-chairman Keith Harbinson said that:

“TUV looks forward to fielding a Traditional Unionist candidate in North Down who will provide a voice for the thousands of Unionists in that constituency who see Sinn Fein/IRA for what they really are”.
North Down thus promises to be a very crowded field with, presumably, Hermon herself (standing as an independent), the Tories, the DUP, the TUV, and Alliance. Other also-rans may waste a deposit there too, but it's hard to know why they bother.

Foster “would step aside”

The increasing intra-unionist pressure to find a ‘unionist unity’ candidate to stand in Fermanagh and South Tyrone (FST) has caused the DUP to blink again. Peter Robinson already blinked first, in October 2009, when he said that the Democratic Unionist Party will not be the stumbling block to agreement within Fermanagh and South Tyrone”, just after announcing that Arlene Foster would be the DUP’s candidate for the constituency. The DUP continued to promote the Foster’s candidacy while repeating, time and time again, that they sought a single unionist candidate for FST.

Today even Foster has offered her own head on a plate to the UUP, by stating that “if I do step aside or need to step aside for a unionist unity candidate it's something that I will do because it's in the better interests of unionism”.

The UUP (aka UCUNF – the Tory wing currently appears to be either non-existent or paralysed), have yet to announce their candidate for FST. They are busy sounding out a number of potential candidates who may not yet be members of either party – but must be by election day or David Cameron will have been shown to be a liar. If UCUNF selects anyone who is not currently associated with the UUP (i.e. Tom Elliott can forget his chances!) then the DUP will hide behind this fig-leaf and accept them as a ‘unionist unity’ candidate.

But a fig-leaf is all it will be. The DUP, through Foster’s statement today, have effectively surrendered FST to the UUP. It is now up to that party, at their leisure, to pick a candidate of their choice, secure in the certainty that Foster will stand down. This represents a significant surrender by the DUP, who are actually the larger of the two unionist parties in FST. It shows that when put under pressure the DUP caved in first – hardly the mark of a strong or self-confident party. Others will notice this and exploit it too. This is a bad start to the election campaign for the DUP.

Friday 12 March 2010

All for Ireland

Unnoticed, the centenary of the January 1910 Westminster Election passed last month. In those days elections were stretched over a long period, so the January 1910 election was actually held between 15 January and 10 February.

Equally unnoticed, and nowadays largely unremembered, the centenary of the 1910 election was also the centenary of the eruption onto the political scene of the All-for-Ireland League (AFIL).

The AFIL gained 8 seats in 1910 – a reasonable start for a newcomer. It turned out, of course, to have been a flash-in-the-pan, as the tumultuous events of 1914 to 1918 in Ireland swept it out of existence.

Unlike the other nationalist organisations of its day, though, the AFIL set out to create a consensus of 'political brotherhood and reconciliation among all Irishmen', primarily to win Unionist consent to an All-Ireland parliamentary settlement. In this it appeared to have had some success, at least in its home base, Munster:

Many of the leading Protestant gentry of Munster, and representatives of the wealthy Protestant business and professional community joined the League. Lord Dunraven, Lord Barrymore, Lord Mayo and Lord Castletown, Sir John Keane of Cappoquin, Villiers Stuart of Dromana , Moreton Frewen, were a few of the most
notable adherents. Even amongst the Orangemen the spirit of patriotism was stirring – hands were stretched out from Ulster to the Catholics of the South. Lord Rossmore, once Grandmaster of the Orange Institution, joined the League, Sharman Crawford and others. Unionism was declared by them to be a "discredited creed". Nationalist and Unionists were called upon to recognise the unwisdom of perpetuating a suicidal strife which sacrificed them to religious bigotry and the political exigencies of English parties.

(Source: MacDonagh, Michael: William O'Brien, the Irish Nationalist All for Ireland, and Ireland for All p.186, Ernst Benn London (1928))

What might have happened if the First World War and the Rising had not happened, we cannot say. But it is interesting to note that even in 1910 there were different parties working for different versions of Irish autonomy – not just the better-known Irish Parliamentary Party of John Redmond, or the then-irrelevant Sinn Féin of Arthur Griffith – and that at least one of them was able to persuade notable members of the orange section of the people to their cause.

History will not repeat itself, but it is interesting to see that the commonly-held view of unionism as monolithic is not always correct.

Unionist unity – obsessive irrelevance

The lead-up to this year's Westminster election is becoming hijacked, on the unionist side, by increasingly bitter proposals, rebuffs and recriminations over unionist unity.

All of the unionist parties seem to be obsessed with the possibilities of making electoral gains – or the risks of failing to make such gains – that the issue of unionist unity raises. The DUP have been trying for six months to entice the UUP into some form of unionist pact, particularly in two constituencies that they consider winnable – South Belfast and Fermanagh and South Tyrone. It used to be just Nigel Dodds (for obvious selfish reasons) who obsessed about unionist unity, but as time has passed other DUP members have joined in:

Nearly two-thirds back Pan-Unionist pact
Unionist Unity is essential - Nigel Dodds....
Dodds reiterates Unity call....
Unionist Unity a must for the future....
Unionism needs a co-ordinated & strategic approach....
Unity: McNarry Needs to Calm Down....

A few days ago the DUP even added a 'countdown' calendar to their website, created a dedicated page on unionist unity (with six Youtube videos), set up a Unionist Unity group on Facebook, and an on-line petition.

The UUP has been tempted by the DUP's siren songs, though recently it has turned against the idea of electoral pacts – in public at least (Fermanagh and South Tyrone is another story) – apparently confident that its shaky links to the English Tories will give it a sufficient electoral boost.

The TUV – the epitome of unionist splitters – has even joined in. On 11 March Jim Allister called on the other parties to "Stop the Grandstanding and Get Real About Unity in Marginal Seats".

The media is carrying more and more stories about the issue, and as the election gets inexorably closer the temperature just gets higher and higher.

But why?

What does it matter – in real terms – if any particular seat is held by unionists or nationalists? Northern Ireland has precisely 18 seats at Westminster – a tiny fraction of the total, and completely irrelevant except in the unusual case of hung parliament. Even then, though the seats are of limited use, as any attempt to use them to extract preferential treatment would be avenged later by either the beneficiary party (who was thus blackmailed), or the losing party (who was excluded from power by the Northern Irish block).

The 18 seats do not have any real decision-making power. Even if one party held them all it would still not hold UK-wide governmental power. They are merely tokens, or trophies. Westminster elections are not elections to a constitutional convention, nor are they a sort of First-past-the-post border-poll. Northern Ireland's MPs are, despite their pretentions, largely irrelevant at Westminster.

In Northern Ireland, however, with its infantile and obsolete political culture, the gain or loss of seats is accorded an importance far beyond their worth. If unionism wins in Fermanagh and South Tyrone or South Belfast they will greet this with wild jubilation despite the practical irrelevance of the win. If it wins either seat through an electoral pact (open or concealed) the irrelevance will be multiplied. The seats are merely symbolic, but in a retarded political culture like Northern Ireland's these symbols seem to count in the medieval minds of the parties. Snatching possession of the seats is similar to the capturing of Standards in medieval warfare – irrelevant in itself, but symbolic of victory or defeat. The fact that one has to go as far back as medieval warfare to find an analogy is, in itself, telling.

What is relevant, both in this election and in others, is the number of votes that a party or a block receives. The real future of Northern Ireland will be decided by its electorate, not by its Westminster MPs. Unionism could win 17 out of the 18 Westminster seats and still not command a majority of the votes. Northern Ireland could be put out of its existence even with a dozen unionist MPs at Westminster.

If unionism achieves its ambition and wins both Fermanagh and South Tyrone and South Belfast it will be overjoyed, but it should look more closely at the votes it receives, at the proportion of the vote it receives, and at the trend of that proportion over time. Seats can come and seats can go, but if the trend is still one of nationalist advance and unionist retreat then the trophies are ultimately pointless.

Nationalists should not be influenced by the unionist frenzy and by their obsession to capture trophy seats. Nationalists should look at the longer-term picture, and work towards increasing the nationalist proportion of the vote. The loss of Fermanagh and South Tyrone – which would be almost inevitable if there is a single unionist candidate – should not be seen as a defeat, as long as the combined nationalist vote, and proportion of the total vote, do not decline. South Belfast was always a 'borrowed' seat (even in 2005 unionism got 10% more than nationalism here), and its loss would not be surprising.

The vote in numerical terms, but more importantly in proportional terms, is what counts, both in the short and the long-term. Westminster, elected through the less-than-fully-democratic First-past-the-post system is not representative of popular opinion – the Assembly is more representative, and since it is elected by proportional representation there is far less opportunity for 'trophy'-seeking. The Assembly also has some powers, and these are exercised entirely by Northern Irish members, unlike Westminster.

Nationalism should therefore treat the Westminster election as what it is – a loud but essentially irrelevant show as far as Northern Ireland is concerned. When it is over and the votes are all counted, what will matter is not whether a unionist celebrity can claim to 'represent' Fermanagh and South Tyrone, but whether the evolution of the nationalist proportion of the vote continues to give hope that the very entity of Northern Ireland can be consigned to history in the relatively near future.

Wednesday 10 March 2010

A DUP retreat of sorts

Not a serious one, of course (not yet, anyway).

But today the DUP unveiled is new-look website, and in one corner there is a map of DUP advice centres:

Observant readers of this blog or the old DUP website will remember that for a long time the map of DUP advice centres included several in the south - one in County Leitrim and one in Donegal:

So it seems that the DUP has retreated and regrouped. After the Westminster election this year maybe they'll pull back a bit more. Over time, and with luck, those blue map pins will hopefully disappear from the map entirely.

The sincerest form of flattery - or desperation?

The SDLP have followed the UUP's lead and have found a TV celebrity candidate to stand for them in Fermanagh and South Tyrone (FST). In fact, as the BBC reports it, "Former UTV Reporter Fearghal McKinney is expected to announce later that he wants to be the next MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone. The journalist is expected to declare that he wants to run for the SDLP in the forthcoming General Election." That gives the impression that it is McKinney himself, rather than the SDLP as a party, who will decide who stands. So far nothing has been heard from the SDLP's long-standing (but unsuccessful) Westminster candidate Tommy Gallagher.

McKinney thus follows in the footsteps of his erstwhile UTV colleague, Mike Nesbitt, who will stand for the UUP/UCUNF in Strangford.

The upcoming Westminster election is increasingly becoming a personality contest rather than a grass-roots political battle. More and more of the candidates put up by several of the parties are first-timers, without any political history. They are being proposed simply for their name-recognition rather than their political experience or wide network of supporters. In fact, outside of his own circles it is probably unknown that McKinney was even a member of the SDLP.

No doubt some of the people proposed for Westminster candidacies are worthy people in their own rights, and most probably feel that they could do the job if elected. But many of them simply do not know what the job is – they have never even stood in a district council or Assembly election, let alone actually been elected and had to deal with the complicated and demanding work of being a public representative.

One of the reasons why politicians work their way up from the bottom, often via voluntary or community activities, through election to a district council and/or the Assembly, is that this allows them to make numerous contacts, and allows the voters a chance to get to know, trust and depend on them. They gather around them a group of supporters who help them to get elected, and who, once elected, feed them information on what is happening in their area – who has needs, who has died, which organisation to visit, pitfalls to avoid, and so on. Celebrity candidates, who are parachuted in for the election, largely lack the local touch, and entirely lack any knowledge of the job that they are applying for. As such, they represent an attempt by their parties to fool the electors. The use of celebrity candidates is a cynical ploy by the parties – and represents an acknowledgement that they do not, in fact, have the kind of organisation on the ground that a successful MP would need. As such it represents a dishonesty vis-à-vis the voters – the candidate, if elected, would not be able (or interested) in doing anything for his or her constituents, but would simply become a figurehead for the party.

Celebrity candidates are not new, of course – Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger are two well-known examples, and the US is full of others. But in Northern Ireland they are new. Whether they represent simply a last-ditch attempt by parties on their way out to rescue themselves by using the 'brand recognition' of TV personalities, or whether it is a trend that is here to stay, is impossible to tell. How well such 'blow-ins' will be treated by the politically ambitious in their own parties – who see the higher levels of their potential political careers being stolen by celebrities who have effortlessly leap-frogged the years of hard work and effort that the ascent of the greasy pole usually required. Such by-passed local activists will probably not pull their weight for a blow-in, unless remarkably loyal to the party – more loyal, in fact, than they are to their own political careers. Perhaps the parties won't mind losing some of their most loyal supporters, if they feel that the brand-recognition of their celebrities will win them as many, or more, votes. But this ploy represents at the very least a gamble by the SDLP and the UUP. And gambling is usually something that you only do if you are getting desperate.

Tuesday 9 March 2010

The end of a generation

A political generation, that is.

The Assembly has just voted by 'parallel consent' (as they call it) for the transfer of Policing and Justice.

105 MLAs voted, of whom 88 voted for the transfer, including all 44 nationalists, 35 unionists and 9 'others'. 17 voted against the transfer – presumably all of them UUP MLAs.

So, with that, Nigel Dodds 'political generation' comes to an end, and, almost certainly, so does Jim Allister's hopes for the future – there was no rebellion by DUP dissidents, and despite the UUP not providing 'cover', the DUP voted for the transfer.

The vote also represents possibly the first time that the DUP has voted with nationalism, and against its unionist siblings in the UUP. A strange day indeed.

Brown's in no hurry

As of today there are only nine possible dates left for the Westminster election – the nine Thursdays from 8 April to 3 June inclusive.

Most political commentators have pencilled in May 6 as the most likely date for the election (and thus they expect Brown to announce the dissolution of the current parliament on Monday 12 April).

However, the trend in the polls is all in Brown's favour, and his rebound appears to be gravity-defying:

The graph above is based on polls carried out by YouGov, ICM, Populus, Ipsos Mori and Comres, so suffers less from the built-in bias that some pollsters might suffer from.

Look at the right-hand side of the graph – Labour's red is rising inexorably, and the Tories blue is starting to dip a little. As the two lines come closer, a hung parliament gets more likely – or even, if things continue in this way, a Labour victory. This may not be a Labour majority, but if they got more seats that the Tories they would certainly be better placed to form the next British government. However, Labour can actually get more seats than the Tories with fewer actual votes than them, due to the concentration of Tory voters in a number of constituencies.

Gordon Brown, looking at the poll results, must be feeling that he could afford to put off the Westminster election until the last possible moment, in the hope that things keep moving in his favour. Of course he may turn out to be wrong, but on the evidence of the opinion polls there is, at present, no reason for him to rush the election.

Did the SDLP take Campbell's bait?

The BBC have reported that the DUP's Gregory Campbell has stated that Derry's "name change issue is 'dead'"

Apparently Derry City Council failed to reach agreement at a meeting on Monday, when proposals put forward by Sinn Fein and the SDLP were both rejected. It can only be assumed – given that the two parties together have 24 of the 30 Council members – that each party voted against the other party's proposal.

Given that both parties are in agreement that the only valid name for Derry is Derry, and the vast majority of its citizens agree, the issue will not go away, despite Gregory Campbell's attempts to gloat.

However, as this blog pointed out a few days ago, Campbell had dangled the carrot of unionist tactical votes in front of the SDLP in the lead-up to this discussion. Could it be that the SDLP engineered the failure of both their own and Sinn Féin's proposals in order to be able to avail of these precious unionist votes?

Monday 8 March 2010

Make-or-break for the TUV

Tomorrow there will be a cross-community vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly on whether to accept the transfer of policing and justice powers from Westminster to Stormont. Martin McGuinness is 'confident' the DUP and Sinn Fein will carry the vote, but the UUP are adamant that they might not support the transfer – despite the support of 75% of the people in Northern Ireland, pressure from Hilary Clinton, and the apparent support for the transfer from the UUP's own partners, the English Tories!

The vote in the Assembly will be taken on a cross-community basis. This means that, in order for it to be passed, it must have the support of either;

(a) a majority of the members voting, a majority of the designated Nationalists voting and a majority of the designated Unionists voting; or,
(b) 60 per cent of the members voting, 40 per cent of the designated Nationalists voting and 40 per cent of the designated Unionists voting.
Given that Sinn Féin support is guaranteed, and they hold a majority of the nationalist seats (61%, excluding Gerry McHugh who has left the party), the issue is whether the unionist side can make up the numbers.

In order to pass the vote under (a), if the UUP insist on voting against the transfer, the DUP will need to ensure that 27 of their 36 members vote for the proposal. Excluding the Speaker, the DUP's William Hay (who cannot vote), and including the PUP's Dawn Purvis, means the DUP will need to get at least 26 of their MLAs on board.

Under (b) the task may be a little easier, if the support of the SDLP can be counted on. The SDLP and Sinn Féin together have 43 seats, and 60% of the 108 MLAs is 65. If Dawn Purvis can be counted on, the DUP will have to ensure 21 votes, which would make 40% of the 'unionists voting', and, allied to the nationalists, over 60% of the total members voting.

Ironically, at the time of the Hillsborough Agreement, 21 votes was just about all the Peter Robinson could count on! In its (confidential) discussions before the Hillsborough Agreement, "up to 14 DUP members – including MPs such as Campbell and Dodds – expressed disquiet over the vagueness of that part of the package concerning loyalist concerns over the marching season.". According to Gerry Adams "Peter Robinson brought the outcome of those discussions to his Assembly group and recommended that they accept what he agreed with us. It was put to a vote which he won by 22 to 14."

So tomorrow offers the DUP dissidents – and by extension the TUV – an enormous opportunity. If the dissidents stand together they can combine with the UUP – if they actually do oppose the transfer – and defeat it. This would provide a huge boost to the rejectionist unionist position, and would probably bring Peter Robinson down. It would be a propaganda victory of mythical proportions for Jim Allister, who may then be well placed to don the mantle of true leader of 'traditional unionism'.

However, the UUP may soon put paid to any fantasies that Allister may have by deciding to support the transfer, thus rendering any DUP dissent pointless and counter-productive. There will be many people in the DUP who will be watching the outcome of today's UUP executive discussions very closely. A climb-down by the UUP – already quite likely in the light of yesterday's opinion poll – would ruin Allister's hopes of coalescing a blocking minority of MLAs around his 'charismatic' leadership, and in one fell swoop creating a TUV presence in the Assembly. It is not an exaggeration to say that tomorrow's vote could either raise the TUV to a higher level, or consign it to continued irrelevance.

Friday 5 March 2010

Delicate issues in Derry

In 2005 Mark Durkan retained the Foyle Westminster seat with 46.3% of the votes, beating Sinn Féin's Mitchel McLaughlin who got 33.2%. On the face of it, the SDLP seems to be fairly safe in this constituency – though less so than in John Hume's day, when he got over 50% of the vote.

But the total nationalist vote in Foyle – 79.5% - was clearly higher than normal in 2005, and implied that a number of unionists may have voted strategically for Durkan. In the 2007 Assembly election the nationalist vote returned to a more 'normal' 72.2%. The SDLP still out-polled Sinn Féin, but by 2,533 votes rather than the 5,957 in 2005.

The graph below shows the outcomes of the last three Westminster elections in the constituency:

It is clear that the 'borrowed' unionist votes (even the DUP's Gregory Campbell reckons that there were around 1,500 of these) merely disguised a steep fall in the SDLP core cote. Sinn Féin's vote increased quite significantly – and it is unlikely that this was because of loaned unionist votes.

Loans come with various conditions, though – interest must be paid. And now Gregory Campbell has spotted a chance to get his interest payment from the SDLP.

Campbell knows that the SDLP are worried about losing their flagship seat – their equivalent of the DUP's North Antrim. Events since 2007 have not been positive for the SDLP – Durkan is no longer its leader, and the recent Ritchie-McDonnell leadership battle may have left some members less than fully committed to its new leadership. Fianna Fáil has established itself in the constituency, though they will not stand for election this year. But their supporters may not warm to Ritchie's colder attitude towards Fianna Fáil.

And there is also the small issue of 2,045 voters who voted for Eamonn McCann in 2007 – if he does not stand this year those voters may switch to the next most radical party – Sinn Féin – and close up almost the entire 2,533 vote gap that the SDLP had in 2007.

Gregory Campbell's interest payment relates to the controversial issue of the name of the city. The Special Meeting of Derry City Council to consider the 'name change' was adjourned, and Campbell is worried that it may be put back until after the Westminster election, thus allowing the SDLP to benefit from some unionist strategic voting. He wants the special meeting to happen before the election, so that he can dangle the carrot of the unionist votes that Durkan probably needs in front of the SDLP. Essentially he is saying to the SDLP – drop the 'name change' and you'll get the votes you need.

Of course the problem for Campbell is that he may end up with nothing – if the Council does put back the issue until after the election, then any unionist loans that Durkan gets will have been banked – but if he encourages unionists not to vote for Durkan he faces the prospect of Mitchel McLaughlin MP. He must be hoping that the SDLP's nerve will break.

Thursday 4 March 2010

Unionist unity pressure ratchets up

As the Westminster election gets inexorably closer, some unionists are getting visibly more nervous about the consequences of their dislike of each other.

The DUP has tried repeatedly to get the UUP to enter some sort of electoral pact, with increasingly obvious offers of quid-pro-quo deals. Apart from party leader Peter Robinson, the principal proponents of 'unionist unity' in the DUP have been Nigel Alexander Dodds, who knows that his seat is threatened, and Arlene Foster, who knows that she will never become an MP unless she is unopposed by another unionist. Recently, though, Robin Newton and Wallace Browne have also added their voices to the chorus, despite representing a constituency (East Belfast) with no particular reason to need unionist unity.

The UUP ignored or derided the DUP calls during much of 2009, apart from the odd solo-run by Tom Elliott (for the same reasons as Arlene Foster). Their non-merger with the English Tory party seemed to give them delusions of importance – almost as if they felt that they, with the Tories, now were the 'united unionist' party. The only problem with this was that the Tories had virtually no members, supporters or voters in Northern Ireland. Their role was to be the UUP's banker – as a source of additional votes they were likely to be a bit of a disappointment.

It seems that the UUP eventually came to realise this too, because in their first tranche of joint UUP-Tory candidates (to stand under the UCUNF label) the three constituencies where unionist unity could have a decisive impact were missing. Clearly there were still dealings going on behind the scenes.

In Fermanagh and South Tyrone, where the secret attempts to get Norman Baxter to stand as a 'unionist unity' candidate failed, Arlene Foster, the selected DUP candidate, recently said:

"There is a clear message coming from grassroots communities across Northern Ireland that unionism needs a co-ordinated and strategic approach. The overwhelming desire is for a much greater degree of cooperation between unionist Parties.

In Fermanagh & South Tyrone we know the effect of a fractured unionist vote and what the potential of a united unionism could deliver. There is the prize of representation at Westminster and greater unionist representation at Stormont but we should be aware what the effect of a divided unionism facing a de facto united republican opposition at Stormont would be. "
This is a clear plea for an electoral pact in her constituency, and taken together with both Tom Elliott's earlier support for a pact, and UCUNF's inability to name its selected candidate for the constituency, the only conclusion must be that Fermanagh and South Tyrone will, in fact, see a single 'agreed' unionist candidate in the Westminster election.

Whether this will matter is open to question. Liam Clarke, writing in Tuesday's News Letter is of the opinion that "unionist unity can't unseat Sinn Fein". He said:

"In Fermanagh and South Tyrone, the facts of life are that there is a nationalist majority and Sinn Fein polls well. Fermanagh and South Tyrone's population was 55.6 per cent Catholic and 43.1 per cent Protestant in the 2001 census. In 2007, unionist candidates polled 46 per cent while Sinn Fein and the SDLP got 50 per cent between them. Sinn Fein alone scored 36 per cent and took the seat.

There are rumours that the SDLP intends to follow the UUP's lead in fielding a former journalist in the constituency. Running for the SDLP, he would need a miracle to unseat Sinn Fein. That can only be done by a candidate who could attract nearly all the unionist votes as well as a considerable number of nationalists. Someone running as a united unionist couldn't do that and would almost certainly lose.

That is why Norman Baxter, the detective who investigated the Omagh bombing, shied away from standing as a united unionist. Baxter is popular across the community through his work with victims. Friends say he knows that only a candidate who appeals across the community can unseat Gildernew.


Fielding a credible cross community candidate is the only way to return a real MP to Westminster."

Clarke's lack of confidence in the ability of a single unionist (drawing on the 46% of the constituency's electorate who voted unionist in 2007) to beat Sinn Féin, who polled 'only' 36.2%, is odd. Is he aware of significant portions of the unionist electorate who would not vote for a unity candidate? Or does he believe that the SDLP vote will collapse spectacularly in such a scenario?

If the SDLP stand a 'celebrity candidate', as Clarke hints, it would be a blow to their long-standing candidate Tommy Gallagher, and may lose them the votes of his friends and supporters. But whether these votes would go to Sinn Féin is less certain.

In any event, it is certain that midnight oil is being burned in the campaign headquarters of the unionist parties. Some form of unionist unity will undoubtedly emerge – in Fermanagh and South Tyrone at least. The agreed candidate will be neither Elliott nor Foster, and must be someone who could attract votes across the unionist spectrum and maybe from non-unionists too. This blog is impatient to see who this wonder-candidate will be, but suspects that the chosen person will lean towards the UUP, and the quid-pro-quo will be a weak UCUNF candidate in North Belfast, who will pose no real threat to Nigel Dodds. Step forward Fred Cobain, who has previously already proved his lack of popularity.

South Belfast is the last missing 'swing' seat. Although the unionists would like to take it back, their dislike of Alasdair McDonnell is less than their hatred of Sinn Féin's Michele Gildernew. The seat also still has a small unionist plurality, so the battle should be easier if they can find a compromise candidate. The DUP and UUP are close in size in the constituency, and if the TUV take some DUP votes the UUP would be bigger. There is also a significant Alliance Party vote which would tend more towards UCUNF than the DUP – though of course it might equally tend towards McDonnell.

The stakes are high and the risks are high too. No pact probably means no gains from nationalism – and worse, it could mean the loss by unionism of North Belfast or even Upper Bann – or both! There will be a lot more midnight oil burnt between now and the closure of nominations for this election.