Thursday 29 November 2007

PfG – the dog that didn't bark

In October this blog was pessimistic about the prospects of an agreed Programme for Government (PfG). In a naïve way, we believed that the PfG would be a genuine manifesto for the government of Northern Ireland, covering all of the issues that touch on people's lives and that the Executive would have a say on. Since so many of these issues are contentious, we foresaw enormous difficulties in getting them agreed between the two communities.

We were wrong. The PfG as subsequent published (for consultation) is not a blueprint for government at all – it is a vague shopping list of innocuous promises that no right-thinking person could oppose. It is a manifesto for an election, not for a government.

The PfG is chock-full of impressive promises with aspirational dates. This thing will be done by 2011, another thing will be done by 2016, something else by 2018, … Some of the promises are touchingly silly, like that of 'consolidating and steamlining 70% of government department and agency websites by 2009'; others are just impossible to measure, since the PfG does not provide either the base line figures, or a definition of what its goal actually means. For example, it promises to 'grow the creative industries sector by up to 15% by 2011' – what is the creative industries sector? What will be grown – the turn-over, profit, employment, exports, …? And what does 'up to 15%' mean? It could mean 1%, or 3% or 6%. How does the PfG intend to grow this ill-defined sector by this ill-defined amount? Well, we don't know, because it is just an empty promise.

The whole document is full of this type of vagueness. No wonder the Executive agreed it – firstly because most of the goal dates fall long after the next election (and many fall even after the following election in 2015!), and secondly because the aspirations are so vague and generic that there is nothing to disagree with.

But the biggest flaw in the PfG is what is not in it. It entirely avoids all of the key contentious issues in Northern Ireland! There is the barest of a whisper about the housing lists, and certainly nothing that indicates how the scandalous (and politically inspired) housing situation in north Belfast is going to be resolved. On a related issue, the physical sectarian divisions, particularly in Belfast, are ignored. There is no plan to break down the barriers of sectarian intolerance and bigotry, either mental or physical. There is no mention whatsoever of culture or language issues, or of how the Executive aims to promote the use of Irish and Ulster-Scots, as the Good Friday Agreement requires. Sectarian marches, cross-border issues, … the list of omissions is long and slightly puzzling, until you look at this document in the contest of the Ministerial Code that all the parties signed up to.

The Ministerial Code is the document that sets out the rules for what must, and what need not, be submitted for discussion and agreement to the Executive as a whole. The key section here is 2.4, which states that:

Any matter which:
(i) cuts across the responsibilities of two or more Ministers;
(ii) requires agreement on prioritisation;
(iii) requires the adoption of a common position;
(iv) has implications for the Programme for Government;
(v) is significant or controversial and is clearly outside the scope of the agreed programme referred to in paragraph 20 of Strand One of the Agreement; or
(vi) is significant or controversial and which has been determined by the First Minister and deputy First Minister acting jointly to be a matter that should be considered by the Executive Committee

shall be brought to the attention of the Executive Committee by the responsible Minister to be considered by the Committee.

And there is the answer … in sub-paragraph (v), that innocuous little phrase 'clearly outside the scope of the agreed programme' gives it away. Anything that is in the PfG may need to be referred back to the Executive, where it could be vetoed by one or other side, but anything not in the PfG cannot be 'outside its scope', and therefore, unless it clearly 'cuts across the responsibilities of two or more Ministers', it is left entirely at the discretion of the Minister responsible.

So, to cut a long story short, when the DUP, in its 2007 manifesto, boasted about having clipped Sinn Féin's wings by ensuring that it would have a veto over Sinn Féin ministers' decisions, it may have been a little economical with the truth. The Ministerial Code may certainly give the impression that the Executive is the key decision-making organ, but only for issues in the PfG. Since the PfG is so anodyne, there is little if any wing-clipping. The PfG represents the DUP's ineffectiveness.

Wednesday 28 November 2007

Another Flat Earth Society

The Belfast Telegraph reports that MEP Jim Allister, formerly of the DUP, intends to set up a new 'movement' some time soon, to cater for unionists opposed to Sinn Féin in government.

He claims to have established branches of his 'movement' "right across the province", but so far he has held only 'invitation-only' gatherings. One wonders how he knew who to invite.

The new group is a 'movement' rather than a party, as, according to Allister, "there is no imminent election so there is no urgency to having a party". This blog has commented on the election famine during the next 18 months or so, but such a period of inactivity applies only to spectators, not participants. If Allister, or his 'movement', want to stand in any of the elections due in 2009 – local elections, European elections, possibly also Westminster elections – then he needs to start preparing right away. To set up functioning branches, with active members, to attract funding, to prepare policies, manifestos, to select candidates and to publicise them; all this takes time, and 18 months is certainly not a luxury.

The rationale for Mr Allister's 'movement' is a negative one – to try to eject Sinn Féin from the Northern Irish Executive. In order to do this, he would have to achieve the impossible. There are two ways; firstly by winning enough seats at the next Assembly election (due in 2011) to collapse the whole show, and secondly by winning some Westminster seats, and being lucky enough to hold the balance of power in the Westminster parliament after the next Westminster election. In this latter case he could insist on the whole Northern Irish arrangement being re-written as his price to support whichever party wants power most.

It is not necessary to be a genius to see how far-fetched all this is. Neither of the main British parties would agree to such a price. By 2009 Sinn Féin will have been in the Executive and supporting the PSNI for two solid years; the IRA ceasefires and decommissioning will be so far back in time that they are history, and no-one will understand, or share, Mr Allister's backwoods perspective. If there is a Democratic President in the White House, Allister can work out himself which relationship London values most: Washington or him!

As for the 2011 Assembly elections – they are even further away, and the strength of Mr Allister's hatred of Sinn Féin will have to compete with a full term of successful power-sharing. Who by then will wish to collapse the first successful local administration in Northern Ireland's history? And why would they wish to collapse it?

So what can he achieve?

First and foremost, he can split the unionist vote. There may be some constituencies where a split unionist vote will give seats to nationalist candidates, or allow a precarious nationalist to keep his (or her's, in Fermanagh-South Tyrone!). At local level the effect would be strongest, and his impact would decrease the higher up the political food-chain one climbs. Despite his current position as an MEP, it is precisely the European election that he has least chance of disrupting. He will lose his seat, which will go to a 'safe' DUP candidate. Whether Nicholson loses his Euroseat is a question of demographics and turn-out on the day – Allister's 'movement' will not take many of Nicholson's votes.

This blog, of course, being strongly anti-unionist, wishes Mr Allster the best of luck. The more unionist votes he attracts, the easier it will be for nationalist candidates at all levels. In terms of seats, a single unionist party is likely to get more than two separate parties. Three separate and competing parties will split the vote so much that some 'safe' unionist seats will fall into nationalist hands. And, of course, since Allister is an extremist motivated primarily by antipathy to Sinn Féin (and, one suspects, to all nationalists) his 'movement', even if moderately successful, will tarnish the reputation of unionism in Ireland and beyond.

Allister's 'movement' has not yet announced its name. Whether or not he adds to the alphabet soup of past and present xUP names, or goes for a 'modern' name, is impossible to say at this stage. But whatever name he gives it, his movement is doomed to be just another Flat Earth Society.

Friday 16 November 2007

Moyle District Council by-election – the Glens, 12 December 2007

On 12 December an election will take place in one of the smallest and most remote places in Ireland, the Glens electoral area of Moyle, in the extreme north-east of the island. The election will involve an electorate of around 4,000 people, and will change precisely nothing. Yet even such a marginal electoral event can be interesting, and the Glens by-election is no different.

Firstly, though, why will it change nothing? Well, the outgoing councillor was a nationalist (Sinn Féin's Marie McKeegan), and she will be replaced by a nationalist (that much is certain, as all of the candidates are nationalists). So the balance of power on Moyle District Council will not change – it currently has a nationalist majority, with 9 nationalists against 6 unionists.

The reason for the by-election is that, as the Irish News of 23/10/2007 put it:

Sinn Fein councillor Marie McKeegan formally resigned her seat in Moyle Council last night. Ms McKeegan, from Cushendun, announced she was stepping down at yesterday’s council meeting although she will stay as a member of the party.

The rumour mill, of course, linked McKeegan with other Sinn Féin members who have resigned in protest at the party's endorsement of the PSNI. But since McKeegan herself has kept quiet since her resignation, we have no way of knowing if this is a factor in her case.

The Glens district electoral area (DEA) is one of the most nationalist in the whole of Northern Ireland. While unionist candidates do stand here in most elections, they have never won a seat in living memory, and have not put forward a candidate for this by-election. There are around 200 unionist votes in the DEA, and with no hope of a transfer, they have no chance of ever getting elected here. Ironically, the other side of Moyle, the Giant's Causeway DEA is effectively 100% unionist, and here the nationalist parties do not put up candidates. It seems that little Moyle is the most geographically divided district in the north.

Three candidates are standing; one from the SDLP, one from Sinn Féin, and an independent candidate. The independent candidate, James McCarry, used to be a Sinn Féin councillor, but left the party and then lost his seat. He stood in the 2001 Council election as an independent, but was not elected. He did not stand in 2005, so what has tempted him back into the fray now? He certainly has some gripes with Sinn Féin, but has not been openly linked to the 'republican dissident' scene. Nonetheless, standing against a Sinn Féin candidate in a by-election is sufficient evidence of dissidence for most people! So does he perhaps hope to benefit from a perceived growth in republican discontent due to Sinn Féin's endorsement of the PSNI? Even if he does, is there enough discontent to get him elected? The number of votes he gets will be very interesting to see.

The seat should go to Sinn Féin. In 2005 they won almost half of the votes in the Glens – 47%, to the SDLP's 30%. Independent nationalist Randal McDonnell got nearly 16%, and the remainder, less than 8% went to the sole unionist candidate. The unionists will probably not turn out on the day, and Randal McDonnell's voters are a bit of a mystery. If they vote for the SDLP candidate (a son or husband of the SDLP's existing Glen's councillor!), then he might win, especially if McCarry splits the Sinn Féin vote. In 2005 McDonnell was elected on the first count, and thus the results do no show which candidates might have transferred to him, or to whom his votes might have transferred. However, the SDLP have been in decline in this DEA for some time, and standing a family member of their existing councillor smacks a little bit of desperation, or lack of membership.

In all likelihood the turn-out will be very low. The seat was Sinn Féin's, and they are the largest party in the DEA, so the other voters might feel that their votes would not change much. The 200 unionists will stay at home. Only if McCarry appears to be making waves will the Sinn Féin voters come out in force to try to stop him, but so far he has produced only ripples.

A poor showing for McCarry will strengthen Sinn Féin's hand, and discourage other anti-Sinn Féin republicans. A better than expected vote for Sinn Féin would represent an endorsement from a strongly republican area – the first such endorsement since the restoration of the Executive in May 2007. A poor showing for the SDLP would simply confirm to many people that it is a party in terminal decline. So even in this obscure corner of the country there are bigger issues at stake.

Monday 12 November 2007

The UDA 'stand down' - a big fuss about nothing

On 11 November the UDA announced that it was going to 'stand down' its alter-ego, the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF). The irony of this was not lost on everyone – as Maurice Hayes pointed out, during the long years of its terrorist murder campaign the UDA always denied that the UFF was actually part of the same organisation. Yet now, strangely, the UDA can 'stand it down'!

However, 'standing down' the UFF means precisely nothing. The guns that killed so many people will be kept – they are, according to gang leader Jackie McDonald, the "people's guns". Here's a suggestion, Jackie – let the legal representatives of 'the people' decide what should happen to them. Give the guns to any chosen representative of 'the people', a DUP MLA if you prefer, and let him or her do what is right. By claiming something as patently wrong and illegal as his 'people's guns' rubbish, McDonald is showing that he neither respects nor observes the rules of democracy. In other words, the UDA remains what it was before this false announcement – an armed illegal undemocratic murder gang.

What has changed? The UDA declared a ceasefire in 1994 – one it did not honour, of course. It expressed 'remorse' for having killed so many innocent people, and then went on to kill more. It claimed to be a 'defence' organisation, but was really just a gang of drug-pushing criminals and murderers. Now it claims to have 'stood down' its sectarian murder identity, but refuses to disarm! It now says that people should obey the law and inform the PSNI about drug dealers, yet as everyone knows, it is the UDA itself who deals the drugs. And if the UDA respect the law, then they cannot cherry pick which laws they will obey – they must inform the PSNI about the guns as well as the drugs.

This announcement is a pathetic non-event. The UDA remain unchanged, and should be hunted down and imprisoned by the forces of the state, with the explicit backing of all political parties, including the unionists.