Wednesday 25 June 2008

Irish passports for Irish people

The Irish Independent has reported that increased demand for Irish passports in the North has resulted in 400,000 passports being approved since the Good Friday Agreement.

The Good Friday Agreement recognises the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both as they may so choose, and accordingly confirms their right to hold both British and Irish citizenship.

The number of passport applications from people born in Northern Ireland rose by over 20% in 2007 to 60,000; since Irish passports last for 10 years, this represents a number of at least 600,000 people in the north who identify themselves as Irish. Since children often travel on their parents' passport, and since not every person has a passport, the figures show that a very significant proportion of the population in the north identifies itself as Irish – probably close to half, and rising. More bad news for unionism!

Unionist Academy – yet another front organisation of the rearguard

DUP leader Peter Robinson has unveiled plans for a 'Unionist Academy' to be formally launched in September to "fight back against republican attempts to erode the British identity in Ulster [sic]".

His plans include two linked organisations:

1. A Unionist Academy, to promote "the unionist culture" and the "advantages of the union"; encourage "unionist learning in the community" and provide a forum for unionist strategising and policy-making; it will be a think-tank – as opposed to a bricks and mortar establishment, and will offer a forum where DUP "policies can be formulated" but it will also be an educational vehicle.

2. A British Cultural and Equality Unit to provide legal advice to the public on fighting the removal of British emblems from Northern Ireland society. This body will "specifically monitor and respond to attacks on unionist culture"; "offer support and legal advice"; and "will have a professional group of people with a strong legal input available to be used by anyone in the unionist community".

So, stripping away the jargon, what the DUP is planning for its Unionist Academy is yet another pro-unionist pressure group, to add to the myriad of others. Since there is no such thing as a 'unionist culture' apart from sectarian marching bands, it is probable that it will simply join the chorus of organisations seeking to defend controversial and unwelcome Orange Order marches. The unionists already have a squadron of pro-marching pressure groups, pro-Ulster-Scots groups, and (real) think-tanks. So precisely what Robinson thinks that this new one will do is hard to understand. Still, he may succeed in splitting unionism even more, and wasting its resources on multiple parallel organisations, so his initiative is good from a nationalist point of view.

TUV MEP Jim Allister sees through the DUP proposals, which he calls window dressing aimed at distracting DUP supporters unhappy with the Stormont regime.

The second of Robinson's organisations – the 'British Cultural and Equality Unit' – has the clear intention of using legal channels to challenge, and where possible, block all moves by nationalists and others to promote cultural fairness and parity of cultural identity in the public sphere.

If this 'unit' ever gets off the ground, it will provide a 'non-partisan' vehicle for aspiring unionist solicitors and barristers to launch divisive and reactionary court cases against decisions taken by local and central government bodies. It will try to maintain the overwhelmingly unionist symbolism of the north, despite the Good Friday Agreement's commitment to equality, and the Assembly's commitment to a 'shared future'. In launching this body, Robinson is saying quite clearly that he and the DUP do not support equality of cultural identity, or fairness and sharing of public space. And yet, in his statement, he insisted that the 'fight back' would not destabilise government. He said: "There has been something of a cultural war in Northern Ireland. We intend to fight back. Our unionist way of life will not be put in some drawer in the back of an office".

From this 'unit', we can thus expect such 'progressive' actions as; challenges to every expression of the Irish language in public, challenges to funding for the Irish language or the GAA, campaigns against memorials to the republican dead, challenges against decisions of district councils to remove unionist paraphernalia, challenges against limits to the flying of unionist flags, etc. The courts may well become clogged up with vindictive and petty cases, some of which this 'unit' may win, to their delight, but many of which they will lose.

Community relations will, of course, suffer; the Assembly and Executive will become more polarised; the image of Northern Ireland in the wider world will revert to that of the past; and all of this will be in vain, because, as Robinson himself admitted: "the party … needs to address what I think is a major failing of unionism, which is the fall-away in the unionist vote. At every election there are fewer unionists coming out to vote." So his latest rearguard actions will merely sour relations, and confirm the belief that unionists are incapable of fairness or equality, during the long slow decline of unionist power. As such, they will help to ensure the kind of community polarisation that will ensure that nationalists, once their numbers are sufficient, will vote to abolish unionism's nasty little statelet.

Tuesday 17 June 2008

Fermanagh, Enniskillen DEA – By-election?

The death took place in the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast on Thursday 5 June of Fermanagh DUP Councillor, Joe Dodds. He was the father of Nigel Dodds, the North's new Finance Minister.

Joe Dodds was a councillor for the Enniskillen District Electoral Area (DEA) of Fermanagh District Council. This ward is almost evenly split between unionism and nationalism: in the 2005 election the outcome was;

Total Unionists: 4,239 (48,6%)
Total Nationalists: 4,070 (46,7%)
Total others: 406 (4,7%)

The Alliance party did not stand – the 'others' were, in fact, a single candidate, Paul Dale, standing for the Socialist Party (NI).

Of the unionist total, the DUP got the greater share (28.2% of the total vote), while the UUP got 20.5%. Sinn Féin, however, with 28.5% of the total vote, were the most successful party in the DEA.

Over the past few years this DEA has been steadily becoming less unionist and more nationalist. In 1993 the combined unionist share was 58.5%; in 1997 this was 56.6%, and in 2001 only 47.9%. The DUP was traditionally the smaller unionist party in the DEA, but when Arlene Foster (now Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment) left the UUP and joined the DUP she took a large part of the old UUP vote with her. Of the DUP's 28.2% in 2005, fully 23.6% was Foster's personal vote. Joe Dodds, with a paltry 400 first preference votes (4.6%) was elected with her transfers.

The nationalist vote has been progressively increasing; 29.5% in 1993, 32.1% in 1997, 43.1% in 2001, and 46.7% in 2005.

Will a by-election take place? If the parties agree, a councillor may be replaced by co-option. The relevant legislation states that, between 14 and 42 days after the 'casual vacancy' occurs (through death, in this case), the council must meet and try to agree on a co-opted replacement. If even one member disagrees, then the vacancy is reported to the Chief Electoral Officer, who presumably must organise a by-election within a particular period.

One of the other parties might insist on an election, for a variety of reasons – the UUP might feel that they could recover the seat that the DUP took from them in 2005 – Sinn Féin might see it as an opportunity to steal the seat from unionism. To some extent, this latter situation may depend on the behind-the-scenes relationship between the DUP and Sinn Féin, which remains unclear.

However, is a by-election possible? The new Minister of the Environment, Sammy Wilson, also of the DUP, is apparently planning to remove the possibility of by-elections, as part of the preparation for the switch-over to 11 District Councils in 2011. This has not yet been passed into law, however, so there is still a legal possibility for a by-election to be held.

If a by-election is held to replace Dodds there will be considerable interest, for several reasons:

1. Will the demographic tide in this DEA have continued to flow in nationalism's favour, to the extent that a nationalist candidate will win the seat?
2. If so, can Sinn Féin retain its lead over the SDLP, in order to take the seat?
3. Can the DUP, without Foster's personal vote, remain as the larger of the unionist parties?
4. Will the TUV take a large chunk of the DUP vote, and perhaps deny it the seat?
5. Will other smaller parties stand, and if so, what will their effect be?

The main interest amongst the unionist parties will be the relative performances of the DUP, UUP and TUV, and whether the TUV's result in Dromore was a flash in the pan or a real indication of lasting support. On the wider stage, the interest is whether the relentless 'greening' of Fermanagh will continue, and whether either nationalist party can take another once-unionist seat, thereby helping to ensure that unionism never again can misrule Fermanagh.

Thursday 12 June 2008

C'mon over ... but not 'up'

The outflow of Protestant students from Northern Ireland has been noted before by this blog (here and here and here), as well as by unionists including Reg Empey, Minister of Employment and Learning. Now the Minister, in a rather pathetic attempt to stem the hemorrhage of young educated Protestants, is trying to organize a reverse flow by persuading graduates from Britain to move to Northern Ireland. He is, of course, particularly interested in Scottish graduates, who can be relied on to reinforce the stagnant unionist population.

The Minister, through his department, has launched a campaign called C'mon over, aimed at encouraging "suitably skilled people to consider Northern Ireland as a place to live and work". What the campaign is really aimed at, of course, is encouraging British Protestants to move to Northern Ireland, in order to bolster the numbers of pro-British voters.

The Minister's department – Employment and Learning – attended the Edinburgh Graduate Fair on 22 May 2008 and the Glasgow University Graduate Fair on 28 and 29 May 2008 to promote their campaign.

One wonders, if his aim is simply to encourage skilled graduates to move to Northern Ireland, why his department is not organising a parallel campaign, called C'mon up, in universities in the south? If, as he has claimed, he is trying to encourage Northern Irish graduates to return to Northern Ireland, then why is the campaign not called C'mon back?

This is clearly a sectarian and politically motivated attempt by a unionist minister to abuse his office to try to reinforce the unionist population of Northern Ireland. It is a sign of his, and his party's recognition that the numerical battle is being won by nationalism.

Wednesday 11 June 2008

Giving the DUP enough rope to hang themselves with

This blog has never had any faith in the DUP's ability or willingness to share power or to co-govern in the interests of all of the people of Northern Ireland. In September 2007 this blog said that "the DUP is busy painting itself into a corner – by publicly sniping at suggestions from Sinn Féin, they are limiting their own room for manoeuvre". In October 2007 we asked whether the DUP was capable of governing: "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". And in January 2008 we noted that the strain was starting to show, and that their "bigotry seems to be as strong as ever, and calls into question the DUP's ability to give as well as to take".

Since the restoration of the institutions over a year ago, Sinn Féin has been remarkably quiet, and apart from the storm-in-a-teacup over the nomination of Peter Robinson as First Minister on 5 June 2008, it has barely reacted to the oft-repeated gloats of the DUP that they 'control Stormont'.

Yet it is clear that the leopard has not changed its spots. Following the nomination of Peter Robinson there were rumours that a deal had been done to ensure the required Sinn Féin support. Indeed, unless something had been promised, it is likely that Sinn Féin might indeed have blocked the nomination. The DUP press room sprang into action, and within two days five separate statements were released that tried to deny that a deal had in fact been made: David Simpson MP, Willie McCrea MP, Ian Paisley Junior MLA, Maurice Morrow MLA, and Peter Weir MLA. Each of the statements repeated aspects of the same message – that the DUP had blocked, and would continue to block, any movement on Sinn Féin policies. In essence, therefore, the message was that the DUP was not 'power-sharing' but simply 'Sinn Féin blocking'. The doubts that this blog had expressed earlier were shown to be valid.

Worse, however, was to come.

On Friday 6 June Iris Robinson MP MLA, wife of the newly nominated First Minister, made a series of blatantly intolerant anti-gay comments on a radio show. This lead to a storm of protest, both from organisations representing gay people, and from political opponents. Needless to say, of course, the Christian right, and especially the fundamentalist wing of the DUP, supported her anti-gay bigotry. Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP's junior minister responsible for equality, said Mrs Robinson was entitled to express her views, but that the Executive would seek to ensure that no-one was discriminated against. Even Iris Robinson's husband, First Minister Peter Robinson, was forced to state that "there is a legal obligation to ensure that no-one in our society is discriminated against".

Then, on Monday 9 June Peter Robinson re-shuffled the DUP Ministers in the Executive. Amongst his appointments were Gregory Campbell, a renowned opponent of the GAA, to replace Edwin Poots in the very department that oversees sport, and a renowned environmental sceptic, Sammy Wilson, to the Department of the Environment. Rumours circulated that these appointments were made to reward loyal supporters for their part in ousting Ian Paisley senior and allowing Robinson to take over the DUP. Whether this is true or not, the impression given by these appointments is of a party that either lacks appropriate talent, or that simply does not take its responsibilities seriously.

Which brings this blog to its point: is Sinn Féin's silence on the DUP, and its actions and statements, a clever tactic that allows the DUP to be damned, not by its enemies, but by itself?

It is entirely possible that Sinn Féin, having known the DUP for over 30 years, and knowing the mentality of its members intimately, knew that given enough rope the DUP would eventually hang themselves. In opposition the DUP could snipe and sabotage, whilst keeping their own powder dry. They could, and did, develop a reputation as a canny party, well-disciplined and committed. But exposed to the harsher glare of attention that office brings, the underlying weaknesses of the DUP are becoming clearer.

Power corrupts, they say, and almost as soon as the DUP had attained some power the allegations of corruption started, thanks to Ian Paisley junior's relationship with property developer Seymour Sweeney, and DUP Minister Arlene Foster's defence of Sweeney. While the DUP had managed to brush off complaints about its homophobia in the past, when it became clear that that homophobia stretched as far as the First Minister's wife, liberals recoiled with distaste. And on the very basic requirement of a power-sharing administration – sharing power – the DUP is showing itself to be hopelessly incapable or unwilling, and thus calling into question the very continuation of the experiment.

The myth of the disciplined and all-conquering DUP is taking quite a battering, and for the first time in its history the party is facing a real threat from its right – the TUV. Despite the media belief in a 'modernising wing' within the DUP, the party is still being steered by its religious right wing, even though this is precisely the group most likely to desert it for the TUV. If it's so-called 'modern' wing also starts to desert it – back to the UUP, perhaps – the DUP might implode, and revert to being a small extreme-unionist protest party.

Is Sinn Féin's relative silence aimed at achieving this outcome?

Thursday 5 June 2008

A deal to ensure Robinson's election?

So the storm in the teacup has passed over, and blue skies are here again. Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness have been jointed elected as First and Deputy First Minister respectively.

What has happened to bring about this smooth conclusion to the crisis of the past few days? From crisis to resolution with almost no visible movement by either side – there has got to be something going on behind the scenes.

The only external factor is the British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. Only after both parties had met him did the crisis begin to thaw. He announced that he would hold talks with Sinn Féin and the DUP on Friday, and that these talks "will centre on various issues including the forward investment strategy for Northern Ireland, the economic situation and the devolution of policing and justice. Discussions will also address concerns around paramilitary organisations, parades, sites, the Irish language and education, and the putting in place of a process to deal with them.
The PM said he remained committed to the continuing implementation of the St Andrews agreement and to helping the parties to deal with issues that have been raised. The meeting follows talks held with Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams at Number 10 earlier this week.

For Sinn Féin to have dropped their threat means that they received sufficient assurances from Brown that their concerns will be taken seriously, and that progress will be made on them. Robinson has either agreed with this, or he is heading for a troubled relationship with both Brown and Sinn Féin. In return, no doubt, Brown received assurances from Sinn Féin with respect to the IRA Army Council, the sole bargaining chip left over from that period of militarism.

For the DUP, who have been publicly gloating about their ability to foil and sabotage Sinn Féin's plans, the future looks humiliating. Brown has now very publicly stood over the St Andrews Agreement, and shown that he sees it as the agenda. The DUP has always denied this, and is on record as claiming that police and justice would not be devolved until a time of 'their' choosing. It seems that Brown may do that choosing for them. Other gloats, such as legislation on the status of Irish, may also come to stick in the DUP's throats.

As has been said many times, the DUP has failed to prepare its supporters for the inevitability of 'green' policies being enacted. They seem to have thought that their half of the mutual veto would protect them from ever having to. But unfortunately their position is not as strong as they thought.

Next year sees the European Parliament elections, and if they leave the inevitable policy u-turns too late, then the shock to their supporters may well come at a crucial moment. So, in their own interests, as well as everyone else's, they should bite the bullet and make the changes now.

Here are our suggestions, which may in fact already be part of the behind-the-scenes agreement between the two parties:

(1) Sack Edwin Poots, and thereby implicitly blame him for the lack of movement on Irish.
(2) Encourage Sinn Féin to sack Caitriona Ruane from education as a balancing measure, thereby implicitly blaming her for the selection issue.
(3) Negotiate a quick compromise with Sinn Féin on simultaneous devolution of policing and justice, and the standing down of the IRA Army Council.

After these changes, and a reasonably calm period of non-confrontational politics, the DUP will be in a better position to face its electorate, with less to fear from the TUV.

Failure to resolve the outstanding issues, in the light of Gordon Brown's clear preferences, will leave the DUP in a very difficult position. They now know that Sinn Féin are aware of their tactical nuclear weapon – the resignation of the DFM, triggering an Assembly election – and know that they might use it as precisely the most awkward moment for the DUP. If the DUP are foolish enough to have not dealt with Brown's 'shopping list' by then, the blame will fall on them.

Tuesday 3 June 2008

Sinn Féin's 'nuclear option'

Today's media is full of stories that confirm the recent rumours that Sinn Féin is considering using its 'nuclear option' to deblock the unionist veto. As this blog noted yesterday, Northern Irish government is a system of mutual vetoes. The starting point, however, is not a level playing field, but rather a 'unionist-friendly' environment. Any attempts to bring about any change in this in-built bias are vetoed by the unionists.

Ian Paisley's retirement as First Minister provided Sinn Féin with the opportunity to use the ultimate weapon – the refusal to nominate his successor, Peter Robinson, as First Minister. Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, the First and Deputy-First Ministers must be voted into office simultaneously. By refusing to re-nominate the current Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, Sinn Féin blocks the election of Peter Robinson. The situation must be then resolved within one week, or it is referred back to the British government, who are then required to call an election of the Assembly.

Since it was the same British government that publicly promised some of the things that the DUP have subsequently blocked, it is likely that they will approach the week of negotiation that would follow a failure to nominate in a slightly partial manner. The British government want policing and justice to be devolved, as do a majority of the people of Northern Ireland. The British believed it was implicit in the St Andrews Agreement (paragraph 7: It is our view that implementation of the agreement published today should be sufficient to build the community confidence necessary for the Assembly to request the devolution of criminal justice and policing from the British Government by May 2008). It is blocked by the DUP for reasons that few others share. Legislation for the Irish language was also an implicit part of the St Andrews Agreement (Annex 8: The Government will introduce an Irish Language Act reflecting on the experience of Wales and Ireland and work with the incoming Executive to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language.) Again the DUP has refused to progress this, for reasons of anti-Irish bigotry.

On the other hand, even if the British government does not twist the DUP's arm (and realistically, it is unlikely that Sinn Féin really expect them to do so, especially with Gordon Brown needing every Commons vote he can get for his repressive legislation), the shadow of the 'Traditional Unionist Voice' hangs over the DUP. The recent Dromore by-election has shown that the TUV can take a significant chunk of the DUP's support; perhaps enough to rob it of its 'largest party' status, and thus its right to nominate the First Minister. While this, in itself, would not remove the unionist veto, it would be a massive blow to unionist confidence and self-esteem.

A new election would imply a new Programme for Government. In the light of the negativity displayed by the DUP in recent months, it is unlikely that Sinn Féin would agree a Programme for Government, and its associated budget, unless there are clear nationalist-friendly commitments in it. So regardless of the outcome of an election, the DUP will have to back off. The DUP has, through its own bloody-minded over-use of its half of the mutual veto, painted itself into a corner.

Essentially, the high-stakes game being played at the moment is about Sinn Féin flexing its muscles to show the DUP that there are costs involved in constantly blocking nationalist aspirations. Whether the DUP follows the nay-sayers, like their Chairman Maurice Morrow who said yesterday: "If they think this is going to get them a concession, then they are up the wrong street. I suspect they have got that message by now", or whether they join the real world of practical politics, where both sides get something, waits to be seen.

Peter Robinson's first test as DUP leader thus comes before he can become First Minister. Either he retreats from the permanent unionist veto, and visibly allows nationalist-friendly policies to be enacted, or he risks electoral humiliation. If the whole apparatus collapses due to the refusal of Sinn Féin to nominate, or the refusal of unionists to nominate a Sinn Féin First Minister, then Direct Rule by London returns, with all of the negative consequences that that would entail.

Monday 2 June 2008

"We make no apology for foiling Republican plans …"

It was bound to happen, but nonetheless, now that the initial euphoria has worn off, the true nature of the DUP's participation in the government of Northern Ireland is becoming clearer.

The DUP's underlying purpose was set out by their South Belfast MLA Jimmy Spratt on 21 May, when he gloated that: "First Gerry McHugh and now Paul Butler – there is a growing recognition within Sinn Fein ranks that it is the DUP who are setting the agenda in Stormont", and that: "We make no apology for foiling Republican plans whilst advancing the agenda of the pro-Union community". Earlier, on 8 May, North Down MLA Peter Weir published an article in the Newsletter in which he expressed much the same negativity: "I and my party have no love of Sinn Fein and the very sight of them up at Stormont is hard for people to stomach, but the truth of the situation is that the best way Unionist interests can be protected is through using the devolved institutions to push our own agenda and to sabotage theirs. A cost-benefit analysis of the last twelve months would show that it is Unionism that has undoubtedly come out on top. Even Sinn Fein MLA’s have acknowledged that Unionism is in charge up at Stormont."

So, in a nutshell, the DUP is acting as a kind of goal-keeper for unionism. Not scoring, but just trying to stop their opponents from scoring. Their supporters are probably happy enough with this position, as the status quo is already overwhelmingly unionist, and thus any change can only dilute this. The DUP have therefore become ultra-conservative, holding on tightly to the existing reality, and unwilling to allow any movement.

What might be the implications of such conservatism?

In the short term, the DUP will probably benefit from it – their supporters are happy, and it is true that under the current governmental arrangements they can block any and every Sinn Féin proposal.

In the medium term, however, a policy of total conservatism is likely to prove disastrous for the DUP and for unionism. If the world did not change, then conservatism could mean the continuation of tried and tested policies and practices – but the world does change, and after a few years total conservatism becomes simple stagnation. And worse than that, unionism cannot afford the luxury of a permanently disenfranchised 'minority', because that minority is growing as unionism is shrinking. The consequence of effectively disenfranchising nationalists by vetoing every proposal that they or they representative want, is that nationalists build up a head of resentment, with possibly explosive results. The troubles/war of 1969-1994 was caused by precisely the same refusal by unionism to allow nationalism any space. From 1922 to 1972 unionism ran Northern Ireland as a single party state, and nationalism was repressed, ignored, and treated as the enemy within. The results of that flawed policy fill many books (and too many grave-yards). The lesson that unionism should have learned was that if they want nationalists to accept the northern state, then they have got to feel that that state is also their state. From 1922-1972 it most definitely was not. The great hope of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement was that both sides had agreed to share both power and the physical space that is Northern Ireland.

The DUP's statements and actions demonstrate that they are trying to recreate a situation of effective unionist veto over all nationalist proposals, and that their policy is to foil and sabotage them. The governmental mechanisms allow them to do this. By doing so they are effectively denying nationalists any real power, and instituting a system of mutual vetoes, in which no initiatives can be taken by either side.

But the world moves on, and two separate factors will ensure that the DUP's policy will fail, to unionism's enormous cost.

The first factor is that real power remains elsewhere, largely with the British government. While in the short term they can tolerate another political slum in Northern Ireland, in the longer term the political stagnation will lead to economic stagnation and possibly unrest. A less sympathetic British government may lose patience with unionism if it perceives it as being the primary cause of economic stagnation leading to high levels of subsidy. A British government co-operating closely with Dublin on political and economic matters may look unfavourably on a Northern Ireland that will not play the game because of a bloody-minded veto being played by a party with no policies other than anti-Irishness.

The second factor that will ensure unionism's downfall if they continue with the DUP's total conservatism is the demographic change that North Ireland is undergoing. Nationalism already represents between 42-45% of the electorate, and this percentage is growing. Unionism still has a plurality of the vote, but no longer the guaranteed majority of the past. If the DUP continues to frustrate the reasonable demands of nationalism, that growing percentage will become more and more frustrated, and more and more likely to vote for whatever option that can rid it of the dead hand of unionism. Given that the Good Friday Agreement gives unionism a veto even when it is a minority (as nationalism today has a corresponding veto), the achievement of a nationalist majority, and a nationalist First Minister, will still not rid nationalism of the 'foilers' and the 'saboteurs'. The only way to do that, and to achieve anything like real power, will be to vote for Irish reunification, under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

So the DUP's determination to block anything proposed by nationalism is likely to ensure a stalemate that angers both the British government and the growing nationalist electorate. Taken together, these two groups will have both the ability and the interest to bring about Irish reunification within a generation.