Monday 29 September 2008

Bigot of the Week (collective award)

This week's Bigot of the Week award goes collectively to the unionist councillors in Limavady Borough Council, who voted to deny the freedom of the borough to Reverend David Armstrong, who had been driven out of the town by loyalist threats in the 1980's for having the temerity to shake hands with a Catholic priest!

Armstrong, who is a Church of Ireland clergyman, decided to practice the Christianity which most unionists claim to believe in. He discovered that their 'Christianity' was merely a disguise for blatant sectarian hatred. He was forced to leave Limavady after his life was threatened, and moved to a parish in county Cork.

One would have hoped that the unionist establishment would have been either embarrassed by the actions of their loyalist proxies, or might have gone so far as to condemn them. But, unfortunately this was not to be. They showed, by their vote against giving Reverend Armstrong the freedom of the borough, that they support the bully-boy tactics of the loyalist thugs.

Shame on you;
  • Alderman George Robinson
  • Councillor Leslie Cubitt
  • Councillor Boyd Douglas
  • Alderman Jack Rankin
  • Councillor Alan Robinson
  • Councillor Edwin Stevenson
Complaints, and well-deserved criticism, can be addressed to these worthy representatives of a small-minded bigoted people, at the addresses you'll find here:

Their real reward will come in future elections, when they will see their vote dwindle as their tribe fades from history, and not a moment too soon.

More on the UUP–Conservative Party link-up

The Conservatives will fight for every seat in the UK, including Northern Ireland, at the next General Election, according to former Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham.

Trimble told the conference he hoped the Conservatives would have the help of the UUP at the next election. UUP leader Reg Empey said a cabinet post for the Ulster Unionists was a possibility.

So it seems that the conclusions of the report from the working group set up to examine whether there should be a merger between the Ulster Unionists and the Conservatives, which is due in the autumn, have already been written.

There are three possible ways that this can play out: the Tories could stand in every constituency in Northern Ireland and compete against the UUP, or the UUP could 'stand down' and recommend its voters to vote Tory, or the merger of the two parties could have already come into effect.

If the Tories compete against both the DUP and the UUP (and the TUV?) for votes, then they will be rightly accused of vote-splitting. Plus, there simply aren't enough unionist votes in some constituencies for three or four parties. Either they would hand some seats to nationalists, to the delight of the latter (North Belfast, perhaps, and Upper Bann. South Belfast could become a 'safe' SDLP seat), or they would get a derisory share of the vote, to their own chagrin. Bear in mind that in 2005 the Tories got 0.4% of the overall vote in Northern Ireland in the Westminster election, only a slight increase from their 0.3% in 2001. So, in order to avoid embarrassment (especially if it tarnished a landslide win overall), they will not stand alone.

Would the UUP 'stand down' in favour of the Tories? Not unless a merger was definite, otherwise it would amount to UUP suicide. Don't forget, of course, that Reg Empey thinks that "a cabinet post for the Ulster Unionists was a possibility", which implies that he thinks that there will still be a UUP after the election. Quite why any UUP member would qualify for a cabinet post is a mystery – their only current MP is closer to Labour than the Tories, and there are no obvious talents lurking in the undergrowth. What seats does he think the UUP will win, and how? His comments are probably meaningless.

So the only option remaining is the consummation of the merger. This would, of course, be a 'friendly take-over' rather than a merger of equals. The Tories would simply swallow the UUP whole. This brings the debate back to thee effect it would have on Northern Irish politics.

Would a 'Conservative and Unionist Party' (which is, in any case, the official name of the Tories) attract more votes than the old UUP? If so, whose votes would they be? It is fairly certain that the personnel of the new party would be those of the old UUP, so much of its vote would follow them. But not all. Although Margaret Thatcher established the possibility of being both working class and Tory, she also (in their eyes) sold out the unionists by signing the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Most working class unionists already vote for the DUP so the Tories have little more to lose there, and Cameron can be presented as unblemished by Thatcherism. So there will be little loss of vote, but will there be any gains? Probably the very small group who voted UKUP in the past (1.7% in 2001, but did not stand in 2005) will be thrilled by the thought of an 'integrationist' party, and some unionists in the Alliance Party will switch allegiance. There will also be a 'bounce' caused by the novelty of the new party, and the spill-over visibility and publicity from its larger campaign in Britain.

But ultimately the Tories will be fishing in the same shrinking pond as the other unionist parties. And there it really is a zero-sum game. A gain for one must be a loss for another, so the DUP will do everything it can to compete. Whether Tory head office will consider Northern Ireland as being a worthy recipient of its publicity budget is doubtful. It will prefer to spend its money on marginal seats in England than on long-shots in Northern Ireland. Since the DUP is not likely to join with the demoralised Labour Party, a costly win over the DUP adds little benefit to the Tories compared with the same money spent in English marginal seats. If the locals (basically the UUP, who are failing badly at present) cannot create their own bounce, then Tory head office will probably write them off to a great extent, and they will sink into electoral oblivion.

So the likely 'new' party will most likely just be the old UUP in new clothing. The Tories may try to impose 'British' candidates in some seats to emphasise their 'national' credentials, but this could back-fire badly. At the end of the day, even unionists do not think Belfast is as British as Finchley, and would react against an imposed outsider. Unless the UUP-Tories can attract a large number of new candidates, they will not look any different to the old tired UUP, and will fare no better.

What is in it for the Tories? They have dipped their toes in Northern Irish electoral waters before, and have been spectacularly unsuccessful. And the UUP is hardly a robust partner. The answer, of course, lies in Scotland. The future of the UK will be made or broken in Scotland – Wales is a barely conscious semi-nation, and Northern Ireland only a semi-detached part of the UK. But if Scotland leaves, there is no UK any more. The Tories have big credibility problems in Scotland, and are often seen as just an 'English' party, but if they can point to an expansion into Northern Ireland, then this allows them to call themselves a 'British' party. All the better if the voters who may vote Tory in Northern Ireland are seen as 'Ulster Scots'. So the UUP is being taken over not because the Tories actually think that this will lead to any additional seats, but cynically to allow the Tories to wrap the Union Jack around them when they contest the election in Scotland. When this need is no longer there, Reg Empey and his little UUP fantasies about sitting in the British cabinet will be consigned to history.

Thursday 18 September 2008

Fermanagh District Council, Enniskillen by-election – result

The first round result of the by-election held yesterday in Enniskillen for the District Council vacancy caused by the death of Joe Dodds is:

Foster, Arlene (DUP) 1,925 votes (30,5%)
Coyle, Debbie (SF) 1,815 votes (28,8%)
Johnston, Basil (UUP) 1,436 votes (22,8%)
Flanagan, Rosemary (SDLP) 739 votes (11,7%)
Kamble, Kumar (APNI) 231 votes (3,7%)
McHugh, Karen (Ind Rep) 158 votes (2,5%)

The transfers from the candidates progressively eliminated will decide the ultimate winner, but it seems clear that this will be Arlene Foster.

This result shows some interesting features:

  • Firstly, the turnout was reasonable (for a district council by-election): around 50%.
  • Secondly, it seems that unionists turned out in more force than nationalists. While the total vote was some 72% of the vote in the last council election (2005), the unionist vote was 79% of its 2005 level. The nationalist vote was only 66% of its 2005 level.
  • Thirdly, the unionist proportion of the vote increased, from 48,6% in 2005 to 53,3% yesterday. Whether this represents an increase in the unionist proportion of the electorate is not clear – this can only be estimated when an election with a comparable turnout to that of 2005 is held.
  • Fourthly, the proportion of the overall vote received by Sinn Féin actually increased (from 28.5% in 2005 to 28.8% yesterday), despite a lower nationalist turnout. The SDLP vote, however, plummeted to 47% of its 2005 level.
  • Fifthly, the threat to Sinn Féin from the independent republican side failed to materialise. Karen McHugh got a mere 158 votes, despite her father's 838 votes in the same DEA in 2005. It seems that the McHugh name alone carries little weight – Gerry McHugh's own seat must be in danger at the next election.
  • Sixthly, the Alliance Party wasted their time (again). This was entirely predictable.
  • Seventhly, the decision of the UUP to call this by-election did not turn out badly for them. The DUP were furious at the time that they had not allowed a co-option to replace Dodds, but in the end the UUP retained 80% of its 2005 vote – a better result in those terms than the DUP, and the best of any party.

At the time of writing the BBC are reporting that Sinn Féin have called for a re-count, though it is unlikely that this will affect the overall outcome. Small changes in the numbers of votes per candidate will not change the fact that the UUP votes will largely transfer to the DUP (in their usual act of tribal solidarity) and ensure Foster's election to Fermanagh District Council again.

What she will do then is unclear. A triple mandate (Councillor, MLA and Minister) is a heavy burden – though of course all Ministers must be MLAs first, so the only 'additional' task is the once-a-month meeting of Fermanagh District Council. However, she may resign her seat once again (as she did upon becoming a Minister in 2007), and dare the UUP to risk yet another by-election – which would be probably won by the DUP again, and leave the UUP looking extremely foolish and wasteful of ratepayers money. However, should she do this, Foster will be showing clearly her contempt for the electorate, and making clear to the worlds that the DUP has no other electable candidates in this constituency. A dangerous lesson to leave behind!

Update: the final result

The complete result is available on the website of the Electoral Office. All the parties will probably carry out their own post mortems, but here are a few of my thoughts:

The transfer to the unionist parties after the elimination of the SDLP, Alliance and Independent Republican candidates (in the first count) was greater than the total Alliance vote. This means that there are SDLP voters who transfer to unionist candidates - mainly the UUP. This is an element that they should bear in mind when next they set out on another campaign to alienate nationalists.

Quite a few votes did not transfer after round 1. If we assume that most Independent Republicans did not transfer, it still leaves almost 200 SDLP and Alliance Party non-transferrers - 20% of the total. So many still find both Sinn Féin and the unionists inpalatable. Something for Sinn Féin to think (and worry?) about.

Even knowing the risks of the seat going to Sinn Féin, over a quarter of the UUP's votes did not transfer to fellow-unionist Foster after round 2. While some of these non-transferrers may have actually been first-round SDLP or Alliance voters, there must be some 'real' UUP voters who preferred a Sinn Féin win to the DUP. Something for the DUP to worry about.

Thursday 11 September 2008

The Registrar General's Quarterly Report, January to March 2008

The birth, marriage and death results for the first quarter of this year were released on 30 June 2008, and, as always, make for some interesting reading.

The by-now-familiar pattern of births continues, demonstrating that majority-Catholic areas are still having considerably more babies than majority-Protestant areas. As Catholics now are starting to make up a majority of the child-bearing cohort, their higher fertility will ensure that the population of the north continues its inexorable tilt towards a Catholic majority (and thus hopefully a nationalist majority, leading in turn to national re-unification).

Some examples from Table 3 of the report: with a Northern-Ireland-wide average birth-rate of 15.0 per thousand, most majority-Protestant areas come in under that figure – Ards at 12.6, Castlereagh at 12.3, North Down at 12.5, Ballymoney at 11.1, Carrickfergus at 11.5, Coleraine at 12.0, Larne at 10.5, and Newtownabbey at 14.4. Only dormitory towns for the young (of both communities) fleeing Belfast exceed the average: Banbridge, at 15.6, Lisburn at 15.2 and Antrim at 16.4.

Catholic areas, in contrast, often exceed the average birth-rate: Down at 15.1, Cookstown at 15.4, Magherafelt at 17.4, Dungannon at 16.4, Newry and Mourne at 19.1, Fermanagh at 16.2, Limavady at 16.0, and Derry at 15.5. Belfast, Armagh and Craigavon are too close to religious parity, at least amongst the young adults, to provide any interesting results. Of the Catholic areas, Moyle, at 13.3, continues to look like a retirement area, while in west Tyrone, both Omagh (13.6) and Strabane (14.6) fall below the average. For these latter two, the only explanation that makes sense is that their young people have moved away, showing that these areas are in decline.

Conversely, in the death-rate column of Table 3, it is the Protestant areas which exceed the average (9.5): Ards at 9.6, Castlereagh at 10.2, North Down at 11.6, Ballymena at 10.4, Carrickfergus at 10.7, and Larne at 11.6. Funny little Larne holds the distinction of being the only area whose death-rate exceeds its birth-rate. If there were no migration it would eventually die out (and that would be no loss to the world!)

Some Catholic areas also exceed the average death-rate: Cookstown, Fermanagh and Strabane, all at 10.2. But most have less-than-average death-rates, showing the relative youth of their populations.

This report, of course, covers only a short period, and may thus not be representative of the whole year. For a more complete picture of the evolution of the population, the Annual Reports are better, and can be found here: Registrar General Annual Reports

Tuesday 9 September 2008

Rut politics

Maybe it's still the silly season, or maybe it's the current paralysis of the Northern Ireland Executive, but politics seems to be stuck in a bad-tempered rut at the moment. Both sides are engaged in recriminations and neither side appears willing to make any concrete moves to break the log-jam. To be fair, for either side to move on the other side's demands as currently stated would imply a loss. Such is the position both sides have got themselves into.

Needless to say, both sides insist that the fault lies with the other side. And indeed both are right, according to their own logic.

It could, however, be argued that both sides actually benefit from the current paralysis. While both claim to support devolution, it is not the preferred outcome of either unionists or nationalists. Unionists want Northern Ireland to be inextricably tied to Britain, while nationalists want to break that link. Neither side's Ministers really appear to be committed to making Northern Ireland Inc. work. So, as long as the machinery of government ticks over (which it generally though unspectacularly does), pensions and salaries are paid, roads are maintained, and schools and hospitals provide an acceptable level of service. Northern Ireland is not a real country, and so a lack of real government does not really matter.

Unionists are generally very sensitive towards anything that could support Charles Haughey's famous remark that Northern Ireland is a "failed political entity", but they could be hoping that if the current arrangements fail, the fall-back position will be one of closer integration with Britain. The ebb and low of the intra-unionist devolution-versus-integration debate may turn away from devolution if the current attempt fails. Previous similar attempts, in 1973-4 (Sunningdale), 1975-76 (the Convention), and 1982-6 (an earlier Assembly), all failed, and led to long periods of 'direct rule' from London. During these periods ambitious unionist politicians chaffed at their political impotence and longed for the return of limited powers to Belfast. But the reality of the return of these powers since the Good Friday Agreement may have robbed devolution of its attractions for unionists, and many may now prefer the stability of direct rule. Indeed some in the UUP are persuading themselves that if their party joins up with the Conservatives, they will somehow gain real power in London.

For nationalists, a successful Northern Ireland would clearly diminish the appeal of a united Ireland. If nationalists could enjoy cultural expression, political power, and economic prosperity within Northern Ireland, then why would they exchange that for the uncertainties of constitutional change? As representatives of their people nationalist politicians wish to have the best for those people, but as nationalists they want their people to have the best within a united Ireland. If, however, they succeed too well at making their people content within a separate Northern Ireland, then they diminish their own nationalist project. Yet, the very success of Northern Ireland, in economic and social terms, is a prerequisite for Irish unity. A basket-case economy and social dysfunction can be carried (at a distance) by London, but not by Dublin. This is, of course, one of the (unspoken) reasons why loyalists continue to make Northern Ireland unpleasant, and why unionists turn a blind eye to them.

So nationalists must walk a narrow path between promoting a successful Northern Ireland (that is still within the UK), and smartening up Northern Ireland in preparation for reunification. Unionists feel that they can win either way – if Northern Ireland improves economically and socially there may be less interest in constitutional issues, but if it fails to improve then only London can afford it, and London cannot simply walk away.

On the face of it, therefore, the current paralysis seems to suit unionists more than nationalists. Northern Ireland remains locked into its status quo, and if the arrangements fail, London must step back in. The only unknown is what London's long-term plans would then be. Clearly the demographic situation does not yet point towards reunification, so London must retain overall sovereignty. Yet a failure of devolution means that it would not be tried again for a decade, and by then the demographic situation will be different. The direct rule period that may follow the failure of the current arrangements may coincide with a period of conservative government in Britain, and this combination has always been dangerous for Northern Ireland. A clearly unionist-friendly government taking unpopular decisions, while the electorate slowly edges towards parity (and then nationalist-majority), could provide nationalism with the stimulus it needs. That this would happen during a decade thick with centenaries (of 1913, 1916, 1918, 1919, and so on) makes it doubly dangerous for unionism.

Both sides are faced with a difficult period, for different reasons. It seems that neither Sinn Féin nor the DUP have any answers. And so Northern Ireland drifts for the time being.