Thursday 30 October 2008

Burying the news on the devolution of policing and justice?

Gordon Brown has let the unionists know, in his somewhat oblique style, that he wants them to stop stalling on the devolution of policing and justice:

"… I want us to work together to ensure that we can undertake the remaining stages of the devolution that will make stability for the longer term possible."

The DUP has run out of excuses, and run out of rope. There is only one way now that the Executive can be revived, and that is by agreeing a date for the devolution of policing and justice.

But luckily for the DUP, events are coming together in a way that will allow them to climb down without entirely losing face. And the perfect moment is approaching – it is, in fact, mere days away.

It has long been the practice of politicians to try to 'bury' bad news by releasing it on a day that is guaranteed to have other, more important issues – September 11 (in the case of Tony Blair's spin doctor), or during the media frenzy surrounding the Diana Spencer report). Next Tuesday and Wednesday (4 and 5 November) are going to be perfect 'buried news days'. The hype over the US Presidential election is going to simply wipe all other news stories from the newspapers and TV sets for the best part of a week. Even more so, if it's a close race.

So if the DUP want to climb down a little, and actually hint at a date for policing and justice, I suspect that they might do it on Wednesday 5 November.

Two other factors point towards this timetable. Firstly, the long-awaited DUP conference will take place this Saturday. So the possibility of a walk-out, or unpleasantness, is avoided if the announcement is made after the conference. Secondly, if the contentious military parade in Belfast this weekend passes relatively peacefully, it will allow the DUP to claim that Sinn Féin's protest was 'the exercising of their democratic right' – and since most senior Sinn Féin members will be elsewhere, the DUP could claim that they showed 'sufficient maturity' and thus the conditions were now right for devolution. On top of this, if the unionists' militaristic parade passes off successfully, they may well be feeling confident that things are moving in their direction – enough perhaps, to risk making the necessary compromises to restart the Executive.

If the DUP don't make use of this opportunity, their room for manoeuvre will start to shrink as the European Parliament elections come closer and the threat from the TUV starts to paralyse them.

Tuesday 28 October 2008

Time to compromise, Mr Robinson

Even the Irish Times, never a cheerleader for nationalism, agrees with the position of this blog. In its editorial today on The impasse in Northern Ireland, it states:

"The issues that have given rise to this impasse are surmountable, if there is a political willingness to compromise, while failure to provide the necessary leadership may threaten those community advances that have been secured with such difficulty." [...]

"In such circumstances, four months of Executive paralysis represents a political failure by Mr Robinson, Mr Adams and Martin McGuinness that premature elections would be unlikely to resolve. The issues of devolved policing and justice, the Irish language, education standards and use of the Maze prison site would remain. The only way of surmounting these difficulties is through negotiation and compromise. The sooner creative discussion replaces political posturing the better."

More than a year ago this blog believed that the DUP was too politically immature, and motivated by negativity, to co-govern in a fair and equitable manner. Events so far have proved us right. Now even the voices of moderate opinion are starting to say the same thing – the DUP's position of giving nothing is untenable, and they must compromise.

Having erected the issues on which they must compromise as totems, the climb-down, when it comes, is going to be especially painful for the DUP. This, amongst other things, is what makes that party look politically inept and immature. Sinn Féin have already made their compromises, and have very little pain to fear – the movement now must come entirely from the unionist side. Whether they like it or not, policing and justice will be devolved, and not after a 'political lifetime' as the DUP foolishly promised. The Irish language has not gone away, and will be given official recognition, to the fury of the DUP's bigoted supporters. Whether a stadium gets built at the Maze is uncertain, especially now that money is tight, but the remaining H Block is a protected structure and it is the GAA rather than Sinn Féin that would have to be persuaded to accept any alternative site. Other issues are less important, though others will arise. When they do, the DUP will know that they will not always get their own way. Slowly but surely they will be dragged into a system of genuine powersharing.

Monday 20 October 2008

Should nationalists promote 'normality'?

Is a constant state of crisis essential for nationalism to achieve its objectives? The history of the last 40 years (if not longer) has tended to promote the notion that nationalism can only be successful if the northern state fails. Conversely, the notion that unionism wins if the northern state is successful is, for many, taken for granted.

Hence for nationalism, in general, the improvement of the northern economy is not a priority. For unionists, though, some success for 'their wee country' would finally erase the hurt that Charlie Haughey's 'failed entity' comment caused.

Is nationalism right to downplay economic success in comparison to cultural success? Would an economically successful Northern Ireland be more or less likely to be re-integrated with the south?

If nationalists, both Sinn Féin and the SDLP, worked hard to promote the economy of Northern Ireland, to the extent even of shelving their other political demands (policing and justice, Irish language, etc), would the long-term outcome be better or worse for nationalism?

The answer, I suspect, is that a successful Northern Ireland would bring re-unification closer.

One of the taunts of unionists is that 'the south couldn't afford the north', as if the north was an expensive call-girl. To an extent, this is true – the transfer from Whitehall is enormous due to the almost complete absence of a real economy in the north. It is, in effect, a state on welfare. As long as this continues, re-unification is financially unattractive.

The 'state on welfare' clearly has an unnaturally dependent relationship with its paymaster – it is in thrall to London, which pays the piper and thus calls the tune. The lack of an outward-looking business class in Northern Ireland means that it remains largely unaffected by factors elsewhere. It is a state-funded internal colony of Britain, and has little need or appetite for closer ties with anyone else. The south, while physically closer, is not where the money comes from, and is thus less important to many people in Northern Ireland.

If this situation was changed, and Northern Ireland PLC became a dynamic business-friendly environment:

  • Businesses would forge links with their natural hinterland, the rest of Ireland,
  • The irrationality of having two states on one small island would start to become obvious to everyone,
  • Infrastructures would be redesigned to minimise costs. This would mean single infrastructures for the whole island for many things.
  • The north's dependency on government funded pseudo-jobs would wane – London would become just one city amongst others.
  • People would start to look beyond the narrowness of Britain, and realise that in the wider world their tribal posturing seems odd and unfashionable.

Over a longer period, if Northern Ireland was a success, tax revenue would increase and welfare payments would decrease. The cost of re-unification would get smaller and smaller, while the waste and inefficiencies of partition would become more obvious. Parties and politicians that were obsessed with keeping the divisions, the border, partition, would start to be seen as obstacles to future well-being, and although they would continue to get the tribal unionist vote, they would start to lose the support of moderates.

For Sinn Féin to pursue the economic well-being of the north, even within the current 'internal settlement', could well turn out to be the best move. By failing to bring down the northern state by either violence or neglect, it could actually bring about its extinction by prosperity. As nationalists, Sinn Féin may even recognise that the cause of Ireland is greater than the cause of Sinn Féin. Its apparent failure, as a radical republican party, may lead to its own demise or irrelevance, but it could also lead within a generation, to the success of nationalism. Sinn Féin, and the confrontational approach, are not requirements for national re-unification. A more consensual approach, spearheaded by a new party, which does not evoke the kind of visceral loathing that Sinn Féin does amongst unionists, may succeed – the demographic balance is approaching the tipping point, and a new party that can attract the middle ground, through moderation, and sound economic and social policies, may be able to tip the political balance.

The old leaders of the confrontational phase are nearing retirement, and will soon be replaced by younger people. Nationalism should not be afraid to reform itself politically in order to take advantage of the new opportunities. A new direction, with new leaders, a new political formation, and a strong commitment to making Northern Ireland work – preparing it for re-unification – is worth discussing.

Friday 17 October 2008

A by-election in Derg?

On 6 October this blog reported on the death of Sinn Féin councillor Charlie McHugh, who represented the Derg DEA on Strabane District Council. The conclusion of this blog was that "the UUP, having been embarrassed by their loss in Enniskillen and the accompanying negative reaction to their calling of the by-election, will probably not want to repeat the exercise. Expect, therefore, a quiet co-option."

It seems, however, that we may have spoken too soon.

The Ulster Herald reported on 16 October that the UUP may in fact force a by-election in Derg. It reports that "the Derg UUP bloc will meet over the next few days", and that "it is expected that a decision will be taken to oppose the co-option of a Sinn Féin candidate to the Council seat."

Given the fraught relations between the various unionist parties, a failure by any of them to contest a by-election such as Derg would be seen as a sign of weakness. Both the TUV and the DUP may, therefore, be expected to stand – however the recent on-off talk of an electoral pact between the UUP and the TUV may play a part. The TUV may 'stand down' in the interests of 'unionist solidarity', and recommend its supporters to vote for the UUP. Which they won't, of course, because the TUV are anti-agreement, and the UUP is supposed to be pro-agreement.

However, if the TUV decide to stand, the name being mentioned is Hazlett Lynch from Newtownstewart, who has previously supported other anti-agreement parties such as the UKUP, but has never yet stood for election.

The decision on co-option will be taken at the November 11 meeting of Strabane District Council, at which Sinn Féin will propose a co-option, and maybe the UUP will force an election. One vote is sufficient to force a by-election – the UUP currently have two councillors, and the DUP have three. Since Sinn Féin alone have six councillors (Charlie McHugh was a seventh); the SDLP have two, and there is one independent republican councillor, the actual outcome of the possible by-election is irrelevant.

If the UUP do force a by-election, they would presumably be basing their hopes on the fact that in 2005 the combined unionist vote in Derg was only 4.6% less than the combined nationalist vote (47.7% to 52.3%). They may hope that if the turn-out works in their favour and unionists can be incited to vote, they could steal the seat from nationalism, which they would see as a propaganda victory.

However, the profile of the DEA does not look favourable to unionist hopes. It has become progressively more nationalist over the years – less than 20 years ago it was almost 60% unionist (1989: 59.1%), but this has slipped downwards as the demography of the area has become increasingly Catholic. The unionist voters are older, and dying out. In the 2001 Census, the DEA had a clear Catholic majority; 55.4% against 44.2% Protestant (Census table KS07BW), but above the age of 65 there was a Protestant majority (Census table s305). These voters will be increasingly dying, and being replaced in the electorate by those who were aged between 10 and 18 in 2001 – and these latter are over 60% Catholic. So if there has been any evolution in the unionist and nationalist shares of the electorate since 2005, it is likely that it favours nationalism.

Nonetheless, on the day of the by-election, if it comes, the contest will be decided as much by turn-out as by demography. If one of the unionist parties pulls a stunt (like standing Arlene Foster in Enniskillen), then it may benefit through the increased turnout that this might bring. But if the various unionist parties merely stand their habitual low-profile candidates, the seat ought to remain in Sinn Féin's hands.

Thursday 16 October 2008

David Cameron's lack of judgement

In July, amid a small storm of publicity, the leaders of the British Conservative Party and Northern Ireland's tired old Ulster Unionist Party announced that "the Conservative Party and the Ulster Unionist Party have held a series of discussions to consider matters of mutual concern and interest. As leaders we met at Westminster last week and agreed to set up a joint working group to explore the possibilities of a closer cooperation leading to the creation of a new political and electoral force in Northern Ireland".

Whether this "closer cooperation leading to the creation of a new political and electoral force" was a merger, or a take-over, was hotly debated by political commentators and the UUP's opponents since the announcement. At times the UUP spun the story one way, and at times it spun it the opposite way. The Tories put their foot squarely into their mouths when they announced that they would "fight for every seat in the UK, including Northern Ireland, at the next General Election". They thus painted themselves into a corner of their own making – either the 'merger' with the UUP must have taken effect by the next Westminster election (which could be in the spring of 2009), or else the Tories will have to stand against their erstwhile partners in the UUP.

Meanwhile, though, the UUP have not stood still. In Limavady they showed that their old tribal bigotry was still alive by indirectly endorsing the thuggery of the loyalist paramilitaries against a Presbyterian Minister who dared to extend the hand of friendship to Catholics. Cameron's party quietly ignored that small indication of the type of people they were hoping to join up with.

But when Reg Empey, leader of the UUP, met Jim Allister, leader of the TUV, in October and agreed an electoral pact (which he subsequently denied) with his party, the full extent of David Cameron's foolishness became obvious.

For once the DUP were the party that described the story best. Edwin Poots, never previously renowned for his rhetorical skills, put it thus, describing Empey as an "unfaithful political bedfellow":

"Those who have watched the sad spectacle of Reg Empey attempting to hatch another political wedding will have done so with more than a little bemusement. In the short term of Sir Reg’s leadership, the Ulster Unionists have tried three separate political match-ups. Firstly they proposed marriage to the PUP only to be told such a marriage would be illegal under Assembly rules, then they launched an attempt to woo the Tories and whilst the wedding arrangements were being put in place for that magical union to save the UUP, Sir Reg’s roving eye seems to have settled on the TUV. What an unfaithful political bed-fellow the UUP really has become!"

"One day Sir Reg is portraying himself as the champion of moderate secular Unionism – a Cunningham House Cameroonie - whilst the next day he is sidling up to the far-right fringe of the political spectrum in the form of the TUV. One wonders also what the Ulster Unionists potential bride in the Tories thinks of that party’s act of infidelity with the TUV."

Whatever the story says about Empey and his declining party, the sorry episode also reflects poorly on the judgement of the British Tory Party.

Firstly, because they allowed themselves to be persuaded to suggest a 'close friendship' (aka merger, according to the initial spin) with a party that turned out to be an unreformed group of sectarian tribal warriors.

Secondly, because it demonstrated that their haste to present themselves as a 'British' party overtook their common sense. Had they not done any research on the UUP? Did they really think that the unpleasant attitudes shown by numerous unionists over recent years were just going to disappear?

Thirdly, because they demonstrated a total lack of faith in their own brand. The Conservative Party already exists in Northern Ireland. True, it gets only a derisory proportion of the vote, but if the Tories actually felt that their brand was worth promoting, then why did they not simply promote it? If British conservatism was something that they felt Northern Irish voters would vote for, then why not stand as Conservatives and see? What a clear sign of their belief in their own weakness that they did not simply invest resources in their own organisation in Northern Ireland, and proudly stand, for secular conservatism, against the religious tribal unionist parties.
Even a small amount of research would have shown the Tories that the UUP is a party in decline – possibly terminal decline. The political space that a secular conservative party could fill is, in theory, expanding. If the Tories felt that there were Catholics amenable to its message, then a strong campaign aimed at them would have been better than trying to merge with the old party of the Orange Order and the disgraced Stormont Regime.

The sad reality, of course, is that that space does not exist. The Tories have been trying for years to get established in Northern Ireland, and failing. In the 2005 Westminster election they received 2,718 votes (0.4% of the total). In the 2005 local elections it was even worse; 1,164 votes (0.2% of the total). Their message simply doesn't sell in Northern Ireland, either amongst unionists, who prefer the certainties of their tribal parties, or amongst the mythical 'Catholic unionists' who may simply not exist.

By trying to link up with the UUP the Tories have made fools both of the UUP and themselves. It calls into question the judgement of David Cameron.

Monday 6 October 2008

Death of Strabane Councillor Charlie McHugh

Last Friday (3 October) Charlie McHugh, a Sinn Féin Councillor for the Derg DEA of Strabane District Council died. He had been a Councillor since 1985 and Chairperson in 2000-2001.

Although Strabane has a clear nationalist majority (10 nationalists to 5 unionists, with one independent), the recent experience in Enniskillen shows that it takes only one Councillor to object to a co-option in order to force a by-election. So far the necessary legislation to make co-option automatic (in preparation for the local government reforms that will come in 2011) has not yet been passed, and thus by-elections are still possible.

In Derg DEA the balance between nationalists and unionists is a bit tighter than in the DC as a whole. In 2005 Derg was split 47.7% unionist to 52.3% nationalist. The DEA had a unionist majority in the past, and this continued up to as recently as 1997 when unionists got 50.7% of the vote. Since Charlie McHugh was elected in 1985 he has watched the unionist share of Derg's vote drop from 56% to 48%, and the nationalist share rise from 44% to 52%.

So within recent memory this was a 'majority unionist' DEA. Older unionists may think that the recent two elections, in which nationalists won a majority, were an anomaly, and that they could re-gain their previous majority. They may, therefore, be tempted to force a by-election instead of a co-option.

There are two main arguments against this. Firstly the electoral trend is following the demographic trend in this area. There is no longer a unionist majority in Derg, and there will probably never again be one. Secondly, the proportion of the nationalist vote that goes to Sinn Féin (around 80%) is far greater than that of the DUP within the unionist vote (60%). So in a straight one-seat election Sinn Féin would win a larger proportion of a larger vote, and thus take the seat unless the SDLP votes fail to transfer to Sinn Féin, and the UUP's votes transfer almost entirely to the DUP. This is highly unlikely, and less so after the bitterness of Enniskillen.

For psychological reasons the DUP will not want to be seen to lose to Sinn Féin at this time, and the unknown factor presented by the TUV make a by-election even riskier. Yet, as the predominant unionist party in the DEA they would be expected to at least fight the election if it is called. However, they can point to their 'outrage' when the UUP forced a by-election in Enniskillen after the death of one of their councillors, and claim that their policy is one of co-option in the case of the death of a councillor. On the other hand, the UUP, having been embarrassed by their loss in Enniskillen and the accompanying negative reaction to their calling of the by-election, will probably not want to repeat the exercise. Expect, therefore, a quiet co-option.

Friday 3 October 2008

Executive stagnation

Almost a year ago this blog drew attention to the apparent unwillingness of the DUP to co-govern with nationalists and republicans. We asked 'Is the DUP capable of governing?', and noted that:

"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.

This is still the case a year on. On numerous occasions the DUP have acted to block movement on anything that may be part of the nationalist wish-list: devolution of policing and justice, the Irish language, the Maze development, the removal of the 11-plus, and so on. At the same time they are trying to spin the story so that they look reasonable, and Sinn Féin look unreasonable.

In essence, the unionists (both parties) are trying to promote the idea that the things that are of concern to nationalism are 'distractions' that are too divisive, too expensive, or unnecessary. They point to the current economic worries to say that the Executive must devote its attentions to more pressing economic matters.

There are two problems with this approach, however. Firstly, the Executive has no control whatsoever over the economic problems that are facing it. Reallocating money from one priority to another within a department does not require the Executive to meet.

Secondly, and more importantly, the unionist parties are trying to draw Sinn Féin into simple administration of the status quo, without any changes to the structures, symbolism or substance of Northern Ireland. They are trying to use public concerns about the economy to pressurise Sinn Féin into parking their own concerns, and to accept a role as local administrators of an unchanged, 'British' Northern Ireland.

Sinn Féin are right to reject this charade.

The whole basis of the current arrangements is that power is shared, and that both communities see issues of their own concern pursued. Any attempt to block movement of nationalist concerns while leaving the heavily-unionist status quo untouched breaches the very fundaments of the arrangements. Until the DUP understand this, and understand that nationalist concerns must be addressed, Sinn Féin are entirely justified in freezing the operation of the Executive.

Peter Robinson's offer of an 'open agenda' at an Executive meeting is entirely in keeping with the DUP strategy, and Sinn Féin were not slow to see through it. Until there are concrete time-tabled proposals on the agenda, the Executive is not fulfilling its part of the power-sharing arrangements. An 'open' meeting where anything can be discussed (and, of course, vetoed) is worthless except as a signal that Sinn Féin are participating in the administration of a stagnant entity – a signal that is wanted only by unionism.

Power-sharing requires that nationalism gains ground. That is a simple, but for unionists unpalatable, fact. The status quo is so heavily skewed in favour of unionism that it must move towards nationalism in visible ways. However, unionism has been allowed to persuade itself, over the past 90 years, that everything must be done on its terms, and that any compromise is a defeat. The DUP cannot therefore agree to the basic requirements of power-sharing – visible 'nationalist-friendly' decisions – without losing face amongst its own supporters. So it wants to keep everything as it was, in the frozen time warp of the unionist hegemony.

Sinn Féin must continue to be patient. Nobody will go hungry if the Executive does not meet. Schools and hospitals will continue to operate. The world economy will govern how many jobs are gained or lost, not the Executive. The Executive should not meet again until there is a clear commitment towards progress on items of concern to nationalism.

Wednesday 1 October 2008

A busy week for the Bigot Awards

Hard on the heels of the disgraceful bigotry demonstrated by all six unionist councillors in Limavady comes another example of the bigotry that makes unionism and its sectarian underbelly so detestable.

In Ballymoney the Model Primary School has become an 'integrated' school. This means that, from September 2009, it will officially take account of the religions, or none, of all of iits pupils. In a normal society this would be considered a positive step. But Northern Ireland is not a normal society.

Ballymoney Model Primary School was a Protestant school, and the official recognition of other religions (i.e. the Catholic Church) is viewed by some of the parents with such distaste that they are withdrawing their children from the school.

The Ballymoney and Moyle Times has published some of the appalling prejudice that parents are happy to put their names to. What further thoughts lie unpublished we can only guess.

From Jim Wright, Stranocum. (despondent parent):

"SIR, Once again the Protestant people have been forced into an integrated school.
... Why not target the Catholic primary in the town? As said before we don’t want to be seen as sectarian. The Catholic parents and their elected political representatives would have fought it tooth and nail along with the parish priest and rightly so.

Ten out of ten to them, as they are prepared to stand up an fight issues like this. Unfortunately our local clergy and MOST of OUR elected representatives are weak and soft and don’t want to rock the boat.
... We will have lost a core area for our children to find out our culture and history.
Whilst not enough of OUR history is taught in schools, this move will totally eradicate any chance of future pupils from OUR background going to this school from ever being taught about it in school. I believe some parents have made the BRAVE step of taking their children out of the school. I applaud them for this and would encourage more parents to do the same. ..."

And, even worse, from Stephen Tweed, Millbrooke Park, Ballymoney:

"SIR, The recent decision by the education minister to grant Ballymoney Model P.S. integrated status has left my wife and I no other option but to remove our child from the school.
This is a decision that we have found hard to make, but a necessary one. Our family has been a great servant to the school with our children, my wife and her brothers and sisters all being former pupils.

I must stress that I nor my family are anti-integration as we chose the Model for our children’s education knowing it was already an integrated school.
... When asked if the Union flag would be removed under NICIE the reply was it would go to a Governors’ vote (and we know what that result would be). With the introduction of gaelic football, hurling, camogie, Irish language and the preparation for sacrament, surely this is more segregation than integration. Where is the equality? I feel it is now up to the locally-elected representatives to help the remaining parents and children still at the school and take this matter to the Assembly and have the minister’s decision overturned."

These small-minded people are basically opposed to integrated education because they want the school to teach THEIR version of history only, to fly the British flag, and to ignore all aspects of Irish history, culture and sport. They were content to send their kids to the school, even if there were Catholic pupils in it, as long as it taught a one-sided (theirs) version of history, but when the school took the decision to respect both major cultures, they display their true, and ugly, sides.

This is the sort of small-scale bigotry that is rampant in unionism. It poisons the minds of those it afflicts, it sours community relationships all over the north, and it is reflected in the nastiness of too many unionist politicians. Eventual demographic defeat will not remove it, but it will remove much of its ability to do harm. It will not happen a moment too soon.