Tuesday 23 October 2007

Is the DUP capable of governing?

Before the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive in May this year there were many people who questioned the DUP's willingness to share power. Few questioned their ability – there was a generally held view that the DUP was highly disciplined and motivated and could therefore do the job if they decided to do so. The relief that greeted the DUP's entry into government was partly based upon this belief in their ability.

It is becoming increasing apparent that this generally held view may well have been wrong.

Since the end of the Executive's 'honeymoon' period, during which they basically did nothing, and thus conversely gave the impression of success, the real ability of the DUP to cooperate, to share power, and to govern in the interests of the whole of Northern Ireland has been tested, and is increasing found wanting. Their flaws are becoming more visible, and are combining to give the impression of a party that does not know how to share power, and may not even be able to keep its own supporters happy.

For most of its history the DUP was the opposition to the dominant unionist party. It was the party of protest, of outrage, of the grassroots unionists who felt that neither the middle class UUP nor the blow-in direct rule ministers understood or shared their concerns. Its supporters were more strident, more orange, and even more bigoted, than those of the UUP. Recently, though, it began to attract support from people who might previously have voted for the UUP, and benefited from some high-profile desertions from the UUP. As a result, for the first time it became the dominant unionist party, and began to enjoy the trappings of power that that position brought.

The DUP's entry into the Executive seemed to be the cherry on the bun for northern Irish democracy – with no significant party to their right, the DUP represented the final acceptance of the overwhelming majority of unionists for power-sharing.

But the old questions about their willingness to do it are starting to creep back, and are being joined by subversive whispering about their ability to do it.

  • The recent debacle about the funding for the UDA-CTI scheme, and particularly Peter Robinson's disgraceful part in the tale, shows that the DUP is sticking to its 'us versus them' mentality, rather than pursuing the best interests of all of the people. Robinson seemed keener to shaft his colleague (Margaret Ritchie) than to choke the UDA.
  • Edwin Poots' dismissal of legislation on the Irish language shows that the old bigotry is still alive and well – on grounds of 'cost', of course, but he fooled no-one.
  • Nigel Dodds and Arlene Foster have managed to give a convincing impression of sleaze with regard to the Giant's Causeway visitors' centre issue. Who was it that said 'power corrupts'?
  • And now Jeffrey Donaldson and Ian Paisley Junior are trying to milk the death of Paul Quinn at the hands of south Armagh criminals to threaten the whole project. (and here and here)

It is clear that the DUP still sees its role in the Executive as that of a blocker – blocking anything and everything that nationalists want. The party is essentially reactionary, and has no vision of what it wants or where it wants Northern Ireland to go. It merely wants to stop the nationalists from making any progress towards their goals, a role it played so strenuously over the long years of its minority years.

The problem is that it is no longer the minority unionist party, and the rules of the game have changed. Politics in Northern Ireland is no longer about jeering at the Catholics from behind the protective wall of British military and financial support. That protective support is being slowly but surely dismantled. The stunted development of unionist politics is become clearer by the day, and having assumed the mantle of majority unionist party, it is now the DUP's stunted development that the world is watching.

By taking an unpopular tribal position on the UDA funding issue the DUP displayed its political immaturity. By taking a position on the Irish language based solely upon its own tribal prejudice, the DUP showed its narrow and mean-spirited approach to reconciliation. By reverting to the tired rhetoric of the pre-restoration days, the DUP is giving the impression that it still views the whole Executive as a temporary and disposable project.

Unfortunately for the DUP, its political immaturity, born from a generation of protest politics, may be its downfall. It has already lost supporters on its right wing, who disagreed with it entering the Executive. As yet, these deserters have no organisation, and their numbers are hard to estimate. On the more centrist wing of the DUP, some ex-UUP members and supporters must be becoming uneasy over the DUP's treatment of Margaret Ritchie, and the impression of sleaze created by the Giant's Causeway affair. Yet, faced with the possibility of losing support on the ground, the DUP has chosen to set out to alienate as many other parties as possible: the SDLP directly via the UDA affair, Sinn Féin via the Irish language and Paul Quinn affairs. The UUP and the Alliance Party have even found themselves obliged to step into unfamiliar territory by the DUP's extremism; the UUP by supporting Ritchie, and the Alliance Party by supporting the rights of Irish speakers.

Does the DUP really think that a power-sharing Executive can function in such circumstances? They appear to be contemplating a post-power-sharing scenario, though without any apparent idea of what that might look like. Have they any idea of what might await them if they succeed in destroying the Executive? Britain does not want to step back in, and certainly has no intention of continuing to underwrite the enormous cost of the dysfunctional northern Irish economy. Those days are gone, and there are new rules for the game now.

The fear of a more nationalist-friendly Plan B got the DUP to enter the Executive in May, but what makes them think that the two governments do not still have a Plan B in the event of the Executive collapsing?

Friday 19 October 2007

Is the Titanic a community thing?

What is it about the Titanic? For some people it seems to have assumed sacred stratus, while for others it just gets a shrug of the shoulders. Is it another one of those subtle signs that give away your 'community background', like the space between your eyes?

The whole Titanic 'industry' seems to be unionist – from the politicians pushing it, to the gushing enthusiasm for Belfast's glory days of heavy metal bashing, to the whole macho symbolism of it, to the very location of the shipyard in loyalist east Belfast.

Maybe the Titanic is a symbol of the days gone by when Belfast produced big ships for the maritime empire, and felt itself to be as British as Glasgow or Newcastle. By constantly harping on about the Titanic, the Titanic Quarter (sic), and the whole ship-building industry, maybe unionists are trying to relive, or even revive, that warm glow of Empire.

But others are less impressed. Those whose ancestors were denied jobs in the shipyard, those who were hounded out of the shipyard for being Catholic, those whose family or friends were killed by guns home-made in engineering workshops in or around the shipyards, those who just feel that the Titanic was only a ship, and a disastrously bad one too, and those who just think that money would be better spent on the present-day needs of the people rather than a shrine to past failures.

The Titanic 'industry' tried to get the public to fund an enormously expensive white elephant to 'showcase the city's maritime and industrial heritage', by creating some kind of replica in lights of the failed ship. The funding authorities (the Big Lottery Fund) decided otherwise, and turned down the proposal.

The comment of one contributor to the u.tv website spoke for many:

"Thank goodness the lottery fund saw through this east Belfast White Elephant. Wouldn’t the money be better spent on schools and hospitals instead of all this nonsense of living in the past of a sunk boat?"

Margaret Ritchie's other battleground

Amidst all of the hullabaloo about Margaret Ritchie's courageous one-woman stand against the UDA, and the subsequent bullying she has suffered from the DUP, the media (apart from Brian Feeney in the Irish News) seems to have entirely overlooked her other battleground: the Westminster seat in South Down.

Margaret Ritchie is believed to be the SDLP's chosen successor to Eddie McGrady, who must surely retire at the next Westminster election, when he will be either 74 or 75 (he was born in June 1935). McGrady's seat, in South Down, is a prize that Sinn Féin have their eyes on, and they had even hoped that Caitriona Ruane might take it in 2005 – though McGrady held it comfortably. The seat has the third highest percentage of nationalist votes in the north – over 70% in 2005, second only to West Belfast and Foyle. McGrady won 44.7% to Ruane's 25.8%. Yet, much of McGrady's vote may be personal (perhaps one reason why he, rather that Ritchie, stood in 2005, when the SDLP was feeling the pressure of Sinn Féin's election juggernaut). In the Assembly election this year in South Down, the SDLP vote was 31.4%, only marginally above Sinn Féin's 30.7%. Ritchie's personal vote, at 5,838 was lower than Ruane's 6,334.

So how will the shenanigans up in Stormont effect the vote in South Down when Gordon Brown eventually takes the plunge and calls a Westminster election?

Ritchie herself, in the UDA-CTI funding controversy, has easily won the battle for public opinion. Only the UDA's supporters (including, needless to say, those who vote DUP) actually oppose what she has done. All right-minded people applaud her decision. So if an election was held today, she would probably win the seat with the solid support of the SDLP voters, some undecided nationalists, and quite a few strategic UUP voters.

The DUP cannot, under any circumstances, win South Down. The combined unionist vote is insufficient to slip through the cracks of a divided nationalist vote and steal the seat (like Willie Thompson of yore, over in West Tyrone). The recently announced boundary changes will make this even less likely by transferring some fairly unionist areas in the north of the constituency to Strangford.

So if the DUP 'win' their nasty little battle against Ritchie, forcing her either to resign, or retreat, what effect will this have on South Down?

It cannot strengthen the unionist vote, because that is tribal, and shrinking. It may force Ritchie out of active politics, or at least into a 'lame duck' position.

The only possible beneficiaries of the DUP campaign against Ritchie are Sinn Féin, who are already neck and neck with the SDLP in South Down, and hungry for the seat. If Ritchie is hobbled, and Caitriona Ruane doesn't slip up over the next two years, the seat will go to Sinn Féin when McGrady steps down. The DUP know this too, so why are they gunning for Ritchie so much?

Wednesday 17 October 2007

Unionist and Protestant hypocrisy

The history and current existence of the UDA display in disgusting detail the moral ambivalence of unionists and many northern Protestants towards violence, brutality and the rule of law.

The drip-feed of stories and revelations concerning the extent of collusion between the British government and security forces and loyalist terror-gangs should have provoked a storm of outrage, in Ireland, in Britain, and across the world. It has not done so because here in Ireland, frankly, we expected that kind of dirty behaviour from the British – after all, we have known them for hundreds of years, and cannot forget the enormity of what they have done. In Britain, the dirty war in Ireland was, … well, … in Ireland, and therefore they don't care. And worldwide, public opinion is just too numbed by the sheer number and horror of the dozens of wars, dirty and dirtier, that it has had to digest. What importance have a few hundred Irish people compared with the tens of thousands, the hundreds of thousands, and the millions, who have died, and are still dying, in squalid amoral 'wars' in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America?

Our unionist and Protestant neighbours have frequently claimed the moral high ground. Their opposition to the IRA was because they were 'terrorists'; their support for the union was based on a commitment to the democracy and justice that they claimed Britain exemplified; they supported the RUC and the British army because they supported 'law and order'.

However, the recent storm in a teacup over the withdrawal of funding from the Conflict Transformation Initiative (CTI), a UDA-linked 'community group' has exposed the level of latent support within the unionist community, and, regretfully, even the Protestant Church of Ireland, for the UDA.

Let us not forget; the UDA is a criminal gang of vicious sectarian murderers, drug-dealers, pimps and extortionists. They have no justifiable reason to exist, they have never had a justifiable reason to exist, and their existence, actions, and principles should at all times be vigorously criticised by all right-thinking people. No single person who claims to support law and order, democracy, or Christianity should ever provide cover or give support to the UDA.

And yet, in recent days and weeks that is precisely what prominent members of unionist political parties, and the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh have done.

Faced with the decision of the Minister of Social Development, Margaret Ritchie, to withdraw funding from the CTI due to its continued links with an armed criminal gang, the UDA, the leader-in-waiting of the DUP, Minister of Finance Peter Robinson, launched an attack not on the UDA, but on his fellow Minister! This disgraceful episode shows that he, and by extension the DUP, actually wanted the UDA-linked CTI to continue getting public money. He did not congratulate the Minister on her decision, and call on the forces of law and order to smash the UDA - instead he declared her decision contrary to a process set out by the Executive, and inconsistent with the advice offered by the department's legal office and senior counsel.

At the same time as Peter Robinson was trying to shift the critical focus off the UDA and on to the Minister for Social Development, the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh effectively excused the UDA's history of brutal murders, by saying that "whatever justification you may have pleaded for retaining weapons of lethal force, that justification no longer exists."

No, Archbishop, you are wrong morally, politically and spiritually – there was never a justification for the UDA to exist or to carry out its disgusting campaigns of random sectarian murder. By implying that somehow, in the past, the UDA may have had some sliver of justification the Archbishop is handing the UDA a retrospective blessing on behalf of a supposedly Christian church. Shame on him, and shame on any members of his church who fail to stand up against all murders and violence.

The UDA are, and have always been, a nasty gang of criminals. They should have been hunted down and imprisoned. Instead, unionist politicians and Protestant churchmen are treating them like members of the family. As long as they continue to do this they cannot claim either the moral high ground, or any credibility as democrats.

Wednesday 10 October 2007

Election famine

The announcement by the British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, that he would not call a Westminster election in 2007, or probably even in 2008, means that Northern Ireland is going to suffer a rare two-year election famine.

Over the past thirty years there have been 26 Northern Ireland-wide elections; eight for the District Councils, seven Westminster elections, six European Parliament elections, and five elections to local assemblies. This gives an average of almost one NI-wide election per year. Of course, they are sometimes bunched, such as in 1997, 2001 and 2005 when both Westminster and District Council elections were held, but recently voters in Northern Ireland have been getting used to an almost annual unofficial constitutional referendum.

However, with the Assembly having been elected this year for a fixed four year term, the District Councils in 2005 also for a fixed four-year term, and the European Parliament in 2004 for a five-year term, the only electoral opportunity available was the unpredictable Westminster Parliament. Now Gordon Brown has called off his planned election, leaving the political landscape in Northern Ireland frozen in its 2007 shape for two more years.

This has two main consequences.

Firstly, it means that for a period of two years the natural evolution of the northern electorate is going to be invisible. The annual cull of elderly unionists and the annual flood of young nationalists into the electorate are going to be unobserved. In raw figures, every year sees the death of some 10,000 elderly Protestants (and thus unionists), but only 5,000 Catholics. So in the two year period unionism will lose a net 10,000 potential voters – and the elderly have a higher-than-average turnout rate in elections. At the entry point of the electorate the difference is not so stark, but slightly more Catholics reach 18 every year than Protestants, and so new voters are more likely to be nationalist than unionist. Putting the two ends of the electorate together, and we could see the gap between the overall unionist vote and the overall nationalist vote narrowing by some 15,000 votes in the next two years. And remember that that gap was only 42,000 in 2007. The longer the period between elections, the more dramatic the narrowing will look.

Secondly, if Brown avoids an election in 2008, then he is almost certain to call one in 2009. However, according to the fixed schedule of elections to the District Councils and the European Parliament, they will also hold elections in 2009. So 2009 promises to be an election bonanza, with local elections for the newly reconfigured District Councils, Westminster, and the European Parliament. Each of these elections will be different, but each will be hard-fought. They are unlikely to be held on the same day, so the electorate will suffer from voter-fatigue by the end. But by the time the votes are all counted the new political landscape will be clearer, opening up a fascinating campaign for the next elections to the Assembly which will follow in 2011.

The beginning of unionist self-awareness?

As a small follow-up to the item on the Unionist attempt to 'ban' the use of Irish in Stormont that we blogged on 5 October, here is the UUP's David McNarry stuffing his foot into his mouth:

Mr McNarry said the debate was: "A clear definitive signal that unionists are fed up with the Irish language being thrown in their faces." He said his party rejected any nationalist attempt to smear unionists as bigots over discomfort with the use of Irish. He added: "There is no demand here, just a request, no abuse of anybody's rights and I reject any attempt by any republican to smear any unionist by branding him a bigot."

No need, Daithi, no need. You did it all by yourself!

Friday 5 October 2007

Where is the Programme for Government?

The fuss made in the world media about the re-establishment of the Northern Ireland Executive has overshadowed a simple but important detail. The Executive is only a caretaker government until it produces, and implements, its own Programme for Government (PfG).

Since May this year the Executive has been taking fairly minor house-keeping decisions, and Ministers have been making decisions within their areas of responsibility, but there is no agreed framework, and no comprehensive approach to the key issues. Already other parties are starting to notice this inactivity. At some point the big question is going to have to be answered: how does the money get divided up?

The recent hype about a possible Westminster election has encouraged some unionist politicians to retreat to positions of tribal posturing:

  • Nigel Dodds (DUP) took the low moral ground (and here) vis-à-vis Margaret Ritchie's cutting-off of funding for UDA-linked 'community group', thus giving them cover and giving the world the impression that he cares less about UDA guns and thuggishness than he does about getting one over on the taigs. The UUP joined in with a 'warning' to Ritchie that she "will not escape accountability" if efforts to end UDA activity implode over her threat to axe funding for a loyalist project.
  • Peter Robinson (DUP) reacted predictably to the recommendation by the Chairman on Ulster Bank that the northern and southern industrial development bodies should effectively merge. Despite the overwhelming support of most northern businesspeople, unionist and nationalist, for such a move, the Minister for Finance said that it would be "moving along an agenda that is very much a united Ireland agenda". His colleague Jim Shannon stated that "we do not believe that merging INI and the IDA will be beneficial for Northern Ireland Plc". Nigel Dodds (DUP) had been initially less sceptical, calling it an "interesting contribution" but had clearly been pulled back into line, and released two further press releases back-tracking on that mild approach, saying that "as the Minister responsible that there is absolutely no prospect whatsoever of any merger".
  • David McNarry (UUP) wants to table a motion in Stormont to stop Ministers speaking in Irish, because he is "tired of listening to Irish".
  • Nigel Dodds (DUP) and Jeffrey Donaldson (DUP) on the issue of the devolution of policing powers – despite everyone supporting it (including a majority of the public, apparently), the DUP say that they will block it, simply to stop Sinn Féin from having co-control.

All of this tribal negativity bodes ill for the prospect of an agreed Programme for Government. The PfG, remember, will have to be fully endorsed by all parties in the Executive – including the DUP. So the sections in it that reflect nationalist positions will have to be endorsed and defended by exactly the same parties and ministers who have spent months attacking those positions!

Can it work? Can the DUP change their tune so completely and quickly? Endorsement of a PfG that will contain pro-nationalist positions and policies is going to cause the DUP to eat a lot of humble pie, and that is certainly not their favourite dish.

So is this why we still have no PfG? Is this why we might never have a PfG? And if we never have a PfG, then what will happen?

Plan B hasn't gone away, you know.

Entry into the Executive was presumed to be a reaction to the possibility of the much-feared (by unionists) Plan B. But what would have been the point of entering the power-sharing Executive to avoid Plan B, and then refusing to implement power-sharing, thereby resurrecting Plan B?