Thursday 24 January 2008

A simple handshake

[From Wikipedia]

A handshake is a short ritual in which two people grasp each other's right or left hands, often accompanied by a brief up and down movement of the grasped hands. Its origins are unclear, although Philip A. Busterson's seminal 1978 work 'Social Rituals of the British' traces its roots back to Sir Walter Raleigh, claiming he introduced the custom into the British Court during the late 16th Century.

The handshake is initiated when the two hands touch, immediately. It is commonly done upon meeting, greeting, parting, offering congratulations, or completing an agreement. Its purpose is to convey trust, balance, and equality. Handshakes possibly originated as a gesture showing that the hand holds no weapon.

In Anglophone countries, shaking hands is considered the standard greeting in business situations. In casual non-business situations, men are more likely to shake hands than women. It is considered to be in poor taste to show dominance with too strong a handshake; conversely, too weak a handshake (sometimes referred to as a "limp fish" or "dead fish" handshake) is also considered unseemly due to people perceiving it as a sign of weakness.

[ … ]

Generally it is considered inappropriate, if not offensive to the initiator side, to reject a handshake.

Yesterday (24 January 2008) the media was full of images of Greek Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis shaking the hand of his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan:

[image removedv temporarily]

Anyone with even a fleeting knowledge of the history of those two countries would understand the significance of the act, and of the visibility of the act. It brought back memories of the famous White House handshake between PLO leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on 13 September 1993:

[image removedv temporarily]

This famous first handshake was followed in 2001 by another between Arafat and the then Prime Minister of Israel, Shimon Peres:

[image removedv temporarily]

Again, the history of enmity between Israel and the Palestinians dwarfs anything that Northern Ireland can offer.

So why does the First Minister of Northern Ireland refuse, both publicly and privately, to shake the hand of the Deputy First Minister? The conflict/war/troubles is over, the IRA has declared and maintained a ceasefire, and destroyed its weapons, there is an internationally recognised Agreement between the two governments and the Northern Irish parties, and Paisley and his party are voluntarily participating in all of the institutions established by the agreement.

And yet, despite co-operating with Martin McGuinness in the government of Northern Ireland, despite giving tacit support to the notions of reconciliation and rebuilding, and despite calling himself a Christian, Ian Paisley consistently refuses to carry out the one simple act of shaking Martin McGuinness's hand. His refusal to do something so simple, yet so symbolic, speaks volumes about his commitment to peace, to reconciliation, even to Christianity. It is a disgrace and utterly indefensible.

"We could shake hands 24 hours a day, but if we don't get this province of ours into a ship-shape economic condition what good's the handshaking?" asked Paisley in May 2007. The answer is simple, Mr Paisley – the 'good' of the handshake lies in the simple symbolism of trust and co-operation than it encapsulates. A simple short meeting of hands will take years off the period needed for some of your supporters to come to terms with the new realities of Northern Ireland. As such, it will add immeasurably to the process of getting Northern Ireland 'into a ship-shape condition'. Your refusal to do it calls into question whether you really want Northern Ireland to enjoy a peaceful and prosperous future, or whether your main motivation is simply hatred.

Friday 18 January 2008

The strain is starting to show

Liam Clarke, writing in the Sunday Times on 13 January, echoed a theme already alluded to in this blog on a number of occasions – the willingness of the DUP to actually enter into the spirit of the Good Friday (and St Andrews) agreements, rather than just the institutions. This blog has argued that the DUP neither wants to, nor is capable of, co-governing on behalf of all of the people of Northern Ireland.

In his article, Liam Clarke notes that "until now the mood in the DUP seems to be that it is safest to say no to anything Sinn Féin wants unless there is a clear self interest in playing along", which is a polite way of saying that the mood in the DUP is to give nothing whatsoever to Sinn Féin unless there is no alternative. While for reasons of salonfähigkeit this is often argued as being a reaction to "terrorism", in truth it stems from the much older, deeper, and more persistent anti-Catholic, and anti-Irish bigotry of the DUP's members and supporters. This bigotry seems to be as strong as ever, and calls into question the DUP's ability to give as well as to take. It is a fact that for the government of Northern Ireland to work, both sides have to give, and to receive. Up to now, the DUP has consistently refused to give – a fact noticed by both Gerry McHugh, former Sinn Féin MLA for Fermanagh-South Tyrone, and by Clarke.

How long the one-sided approach of the DUP can last is uncertain. Sinn Féin cannot force the DUP to do anything, and vice-versa. But the corollary is that the DUP can block any proposals that it perceives as favourable to Sinn Féin. To date they have blocked the Irish Language Act, and they are making loud noises about the Maze redevelopment, the Bill of Rights, and the reorganisation of the district councils. As Clarke also points out, "it is becoming increasingly difficult for Sinn Féin to support the DUP line without receiving something in return".

For the DUP to give anything meaningful in return, it would have to be something that Sinn Féin can publicly point to as a success. The backwoodsmen of the DUP would then choke on their cornflakes.

This year may see a semi-public battle within the DUP for the leadership post, and 2009 will almost certainly see several heated election battles, so the DUP has very little room for manoeuvre in terms of visible concessions to Sinn Féin.

Sinn Féin members, while not yet choking on their cornflakes, are at least starting to feel the frustration of having their aspirationss blocked by an immobile DUP. Gerry McHugh spoke for many when he criticised the control that unionism appeared to have within the Assembly structures. So it is perhaps no surprise that, feeling their aspirations blocked by intransigent unionism in the Assembly, they start a low-level fight-back in the District Councils. In Limavady District Council Sinn Féin has fired a warning shot over unionist bows by drawing up a list of the items that must be removed in order to create a neutral working environment.. These items are, of course, the type of totems that unionists appear to be obsessed by – a fact not lost on nationalists and republicans. The underlying message seems to be, "equality is our right – either give it voluntarily, or have it forced upon you". The almost complete absence of any official nationalist (let alone republican) symbolism in public places is, of course, irrelevant to unionists – their position seems to be no further advanced that it was 50 years ago. To unionists, Northern Ireland is rightly theirs and only theirs. The actions of the DUP in the Assembly stem from this misguided belief, and their outrage at any proposal whatsoever to give recognition to the nationalist 45% of the population echoes this.

So is Northern Ireland heading for a cold war? One in which unionist intransigence will lead to nationalist intransigence, crippling government, and condemning yet another generation to the pointless and futile hatreds of the seventeenth century? The one single light at the end of this depressing tunnel is the fact that this generation may be the last to be condemned to the stagnation of unionism, as unionism is in relative decline and will soon be a minority creed. The irony for unionism is that its inability to mature, and to become a more pluralist and tolerant movement, will hasten its decline, as moderates steer clear of it. As this blog has pointed out before, the very 'success' of the DUP may be the catalyst of unionism's ultimate and unlamented defeat.

Thursday 17 January 2008

Ian Paisley to step down as MP at the next Westminster election

The Irish Times London correspondent, the usually well-informed Frank Millar, has learned that Ian Paisley, MP for North Antrim since 1971, will step down at the next Westminster election, most likely in 2009.

As it is impractical to have a party leader who is not an MP, given the primacy that the DUP accord to Westminster, the DUP will have to elect a new leader to replace Paisley from amongst its eight other MPs.

For some time now, and especially during Paisley's health scare in 2004, various DUP leadership hopefuls carried out surreptitious campaigns to position themselves as the front of the pack for the inevitable succession struggle. The main candidates to replace Paisley are Peter Robinson, Nigel Dodds, Jeffrey Donaldson, and his own son, Ian Paisley Junior.

Frank Millar reports that: "A majority of the DUP's MPs are now privately indicating their belief that this [the succession] should be sooner rather than later, with some advocating a handover as early as this summer in order to allow a new leader to establish himself ahead of the general election". Even if the DUP delays the succession, the media will not, and the arguments and rivalries will damage the party. So it is likely that the DUP will try to carry out a quick and clean transition, and try to give the impression of a united and consistent party.

This leadership battle could not have come at a worse time for the DUP. The party is under external threat from Jim Allister's TUV, which may turn out to be the same kind of "more-extreme-than-thou" threat that the DUP was, in previous years, to the UUP. Within the DUP, while open conflict has been avoided by the strength of Paisley's grip, there are several different camps which risk breaking the party apart:

  • The Free Presbyterian tendency - although small in number, may be strong in influence. They would, presumably, like one of their own to take over, such as William McCrea or Ian Paisley Junior.
  • The 'Twelve Apostles' (or the 'dirty dozen') who in 2006 opposed the compromise that became the St Andrews Agreement in 2007, and may still harbour smouldering resentment against Paisley's entry into government with "unrepentant terrorists". This group includes people like Dodds, Gregory Campbell, McCrea, Maurice Morrow, and several who have already left the DUP, like Jim Allister and a swathe of District Councillors.
  • The modernist pragmatic tendency, including people like Peter Robinson and Jeffrey Donaldson, who know that they have to engage in real politics rather than sniping from the bushes.

Each of the possible leadership candidates has strengths and weaknesses, but each of them might alienate another block within the party:

Peter Robinson: the front-runner. He has consolidated his position by appearing to be a tough Finance Minister, but as a non-Free Presbyterian he will lose the religious vote. He was not reputed to be part of the 'dirty dozen' and may therefore lose their support. In a poll carried out at the 2006 DUP annual conference he was the favourite to replace Paisley, attracting 37% support.

Jeffrey Donaldson: As an ex-UUP member he may still be seen by traditional DUP members as 'not one of us'. Also may be too modern for the traditionalists. In the 2006 poll, he received just 1% of the voters.

Nigel Dodds: Seen as both modern and yet traditional. He was linked to the 'dirty dozen', but as a barrister and an urban MP he is not tainted with the old-fashioned religious bigotry of the DUP. In the 2006 poll he came second, with 25% support.

William McCrea: A great favourite of the Free Presbyterian wing, but universally loathed by most moderates, not least for his associations with loyalist mass-murderer Billy Wright. In the 2006 poll he attracted 2% support.

Ian Paisley Junior: Commands some support amongst those who see the DUP as a Paisley Party. He has been pushed to the front of the party on a number of occasions, and is doing his best to increase his popularity and support in North Antrim, a seat he would have to win to be eligible to stand as party leader. However, recent reports (and here) (including from erstwhile ally, Jim Allister) of sleaze may seriously damage his chances.

Gregory Campbell, Sammy Wilson, David Simpson, and Iris Robinson are all eligible candidates, as MPs, but lack any widespread support.

If Robinson is elected leader, as seems likely, the actions of the DUP traditionalists, in particular the remnants of the 'dirty dozen', will be interesting to watch. In 2006 and early 2007 they had nowhere to go, so they bit their lips and stayed, for the most part, in the DUP. But now in 2008 they have a ready-made ship to jump to – Jim Allister's Traditional Unionist Voice. Some ex-DUP members, including district councillors, have already moved to the TUV, but others may be awaiting the outcome of the leadership contest before they make up their minds. The outcome of the TUV's first electoral adventure may help some to decide.

If one of the traditionalists wins – Dodds, for instance – the positions of Robinson and Donaldson appear difficult. As ex-heir-apparent, could Robinson swallow his pride, and continue to work on under Dodds? More importantly, could the whole structure continue to operate with an anti-agreement (both Good Friday and St Andrews) leader at the head of the DUP? So far, the Executive has managed to work to a great extent because Paisley and McGuinness have overcome their mutual antipathy in order to make it work. Dodds may not wish to do so or even be able to.

The stakes are high for the DUP, and if they fluff the hand-over of power in 2008 their performance in the multiple elections of 2009 may be under threat. If sufficient numbers of alienated DUPers switch to the TUV, the European Parliament election in 2009 will be interesting. At present the DUP sees Jim Allister as a 'dead man walking', who won his Euro seat as a DUP member and who will lose it now that he is no longer in the DUP. But if the DUP splits, then Allister's chances of holding the seat improve.

2009 also will see a Westminster election, at which the DUP is hoping to wipe out the UUP, and as a bonus to steal Fermanagh-South Tyrone from Sinn Féin. But if the TUV gains even a small proportion of the unionist vote in Fermanagh-South Tyrone, then Sinn Féin will retain the seat, as in 2005.

And last but not least, the new Councils should be elected in 2009. A divided DUP will be a weak DUP, and its share of the seats on these new and more powerful councils will suffer.

So, the future of unionism in Northern Ireland is dependent, in the short term on the outcome of an otherwise insignificant election, which will demonstrate how much support the TUV has in the unionist heartlands, and then, in the medium term on the DUP's ability to survive the long awaited leadership succession contest.

Monday 14 January 2008

Banbridge District Council By-Election – Dromore DEA, 13 February 2008

After December's intra-nationalist election in The Glens area of Moyle District Council, the unionists will have their turn on 13 February in Dromore DEA, part of Banbridge District Council area.

The resignation of sitting Councillor Tyrone Howe (UUP) has opened up a can of worms amongst, and even within, the various unionist parties. Rather than allow the UUP to co-opt a replacement, the DUP has insisted upon an election for the vacancy, and has nominated Paul Stewart, an aide to MP Jeffrey Donaldson. The UUP, in its turn, has had a nasty little squabble over the nomination of their candidate, before selecting Carol Black. And to round off the pack, Jim Allister's new Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) has announced that it will stand a candidate, solicitor and Orangeman Keith Harbinson.

The two nationalist parties have yet to nominate candidates, while the Alliance Party has nominated David Griffin. The Alliance Party has no hope whatsoever of actually getting Griffin elected, of course – they haven't stood a candidate in Dromore for over 10 years, and even then only got 202 votes (4,3%). What the SDLP and Sinn Féin choose to do is also fairly irrelevant; the nationalist electorate of the DEA is around 19%, and so neither of the nationalist parties has any chance in a by-election for a single seat. Dromore is a fairly Protestant part of the north-east of Banbridge District, though the Catholic proportion of the population is creeping upwards, reaching around 37% amongst teenagers. Nonetheless, amongst the electorate, Protestants, and therefore unionists, account for almost 80%.

With only one seat at stake, and no chance of winning it, most nationalists will stay at home. A few may even vote for the UUP candidate in the hope of upsetting both the DUP and the TUV, but they will probably not influence the outcome at all.

The Dromore DEA used to be a UUP stronghold. In 1993 they got 63,5% of the votes, but this has dropped since then, even more precipitously than their share of the overall vote in Northern Ireland. In 1997 the UUP got 57,8%, in a by-election in 2000 they lost the top spot to the DUP and polled only 37% of the vote. In 2001 the UUP just squeaked in front of the DUP again, but in 2005 the trend was confirmed, and the DUP received almost 50% of the vote, compared with the UUP's 31%.

The real interest in this contest is the effect that Jim Allister's new party – the TUV – will have on the outcome. Since the unionist voters in Dromore have drifted right-wards in the last decade, Allister may be hoping that they will continue all the way over to his TUV. However, the DUP voters who are ex-UUP voters may not be as right wing as the TUV, and may either stay with the DUP or even revert to the UUP.

The unionist party that comes in third will decide the outcome. If it is the UUP, then the DUP will easily win, because most UUP voters will transfer to the DUP far quicker than to the TUV. If the TUV comes in third, its votes will also benefit the DUP. If Allister surprises everyone and out-polls the DUP, then the DUP transfers will probably go to the UUP – the problem may be that many DUPers will simply not transfer.

However, all things considered, it is unlikely that the TUV will make much impact, and on its first electoral outing it will be contemptuously crushed by the DUP.

Wednesday 9 January 2008

Moving backwards

It is 2008 – almost ten years after the Good Friday Agreement, and almost 150 years since the publication of 'On the Origin of Species …'. Free education has been available for all for several generations, and university education is no longer the preserve of the rich.

Why then, in Northern Ireland are we still subjected to the primitive and ridiculous ramblings of the foolish, presented as if they are valid arguments?

Over the past few weeks the (unionist) newspapers have been filled with a variety of complete rubbish, usually inspired by religious dogmas that are so obviously wrong that the rest of the world, bar the US fundamentalists, has ditched them and moved on. Only in the unionist media in Northern Ireland are these tired old arguments still presented as if they matter. For example, the Belfast Telegraph and the Newsletter have been trying to stir up controversy over one Presbyterian Minister's refusal to let another one preach in his church, because the second happened to be female. And some people are actually motivated by this to write letters to the papers, citing epistles written by Saint Paul to the Corinthians in 115 AD! Here's a suggestion to all such people – open your eyes and get an education. There is no god, and the scribblings of some misogynist in the Stone Age are utterly irrelevant. Your religions, and all their ministers and priests, are all wrong.

It wouldn't be so bad if it was just confined to the lunatics (though why respectable papers give them column-inches is a mystery), but even some unionist politicians appear to believe things that are clearly wrong – who votes for such fools?

The issue of the age of the Giant's Causeway has exposed the sheer stupidity of several members of the DUP in particular. Mervyn Story, a North Antrim DUP MLA, reckons that it dates from the 'flood', and Minister Edwin Poots is on record as thinking that the whole world is only about 6,000 years old!. In the Belfast Telegraph (of course), the same old stupidity reared its head again recently: a certain Tom McIvor wrote that "the vegetation buried within the Giant's Causeway is too well preserved to have been there more than a few thousand years." Where else in the world would someone so stupid be prepared to put their name to such rubbish?

It just seems that as the rest of the world moves on, some unionists in the north of Ireland stay resolutely in the past. They ignore, or even argue against, scientific advances. They refuse to compromise with their fellow citizens. They seem not to have gained anything from the educations that they have received. They appear incapable of actually joining the world and making it a better place. For them all change is a threat, and they cling to the past like a lifebuoy. They argue against anything that offers any acknowledgement of the rights and aspirations of the 45% of the people who are nationalist: the Irish language, the response to the troubles/war, the inclusion of the H Block in the redevelopment of the Maze, the Bill of Rights, and so on ad nauseam.

The question that this raises is whether such backward-looking, regressive and uneducated positions really represent unionism, or more widely Protestantism? If it does, can unionism compete in the 21st century? Will educated people continue to take it seriously, or will other more rational and progressive groups arise to take their votes? If the kind of religious nonsense we see every day does really represent unionism, then where can it go? If the religious right controls unionism, then it has painted itself into an intellectual and political corner. The increased light being shone on it, as a result of the restoration of the Executive in 2007, can only highlight unionism's obstructionism, conservatism, refusal to compromise, and inability to cope with the modern world.

If, on the other hand, the dinosaurs do not really represent the educated unionist voter, then what lies in store for unionism? Having attained power, will the weight on the DUP's shoulders now start to cause its foundations to crumble? To use a biblical reference, those foundations are built on intellectual sand. A modern co-ruling party needs to have rational, logical, arguable policies. It needs to co-operate across the border, and with the UK government, and sometimes with Brussels. If its positions are guided by half-witted religious cranks, then its ability to provide credible co-government will be severely compromised.

So if the DUP starts to crumble, who will benefit? Undoubtedly some unionists will drift back to the UUP, and some to the loyalist micro-parties. Some may vote for the Alliance Party, and some may opt out of the political arena altogether. In overall terms, though, unionism will lose out, and this may happen at a crucial moment, just when the two tribes are approaching parity. Attaining power, therefore, might just turn out to have been a catalyst for the eventual, and final, defeat of unionism.