Monday 28 April 2008

District Council elections to be postponed until 2011

So it's official now. The elections to the District Councils, which should have been held in 2009, will be postponed until 2011.

Assuming no upsets along the way, this means that the 11 new District Councils, which will replace the current 26, will start working in three years. The precise boundaries of the new councils have not yet been fixed (though a strong hint has already been given), nor has the number of councillors each will have (Minister Foster proposed an upper limit (460), which will, inevitably, become the accepted outcome). One thing is almost inevitable, though; there will have to be fewer councillors than at present (There are currently 582 district councillors).

This means that 2011 is going to be a very important electoral year in Northern Ireland, because the next elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly are also due then. Normally District Council elections are held on different dates to other elections (2005 was an exception), to avoid voter confusion, and perhaps also to make the job more manageable for the Electoral Office. However, by holding the elections on different dates, there is always a risk that the second election will suffer from a lower turn-out, and will receive less public attention. On the other hand, it would give politicians who fail to get elected in the first election a second chance – the 'dual mandate' (i.e. the practice of combining a councillorship with other elected posts) is to be abolished, forcing politicians to decide where they really want to sit. Nothing, however, would stop them seeking election to the higher level, and then if elected resigning from the lower body, but the multitude of by-elections that this would cause is reason enough to space out the elections.

2011 will be an entirely Northern Irish election-fest. The two elections to be held then are Northern Ireland-wide, but have no relevance outside that jurisdiction. There will be no 'interference' caused by extra-Northern Ireland factors, such as those created by Westminster and European elections. The schedule of European elections is fixed (2009 and 2014, following its five-year cycle), and while Westminster is not fixed, there must be an election by 2010 at the latest, and only extreme political instability would provoke another in 2011. So in 2011 Northern Ireland is going to be convulsed by extremely divisive elections, at a point in time where the two principal blocks (nationalist and unionist) are coming ever-closer to parity. The outcomes of the two elections will have strong, and lasting, impacts on the shape of Northern Irish politics for years.

The 2011 Assembly elections will be the first opportunity the unionist electorate will have to express its approval or disapproval of the DUP for entering government with Sinn Féin. Of course, the three years from now till then may go well, or extremely badly – we have to wait and see. Perhaps Peter Robinson, after taking over as DUP leader in June will turn out to be constructive and businesslike. Or not. Perhaps the length of time will have dimmed unionist memories (and antagonism) vis-à-vis Sinn Féin. Perhaps Sinn Féin will stall, or show itself unsuited to governmental power. Or not. By 2011 we will also know if Jim Allister's Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) is going to become a force in unionism – if he does well in the 2009 European election then the DUP will start worrying about 2011. But if the TUV crashes, the DUP will be able to approach 2011 as pragmatic politicians rather than tribal champions.

A scare already being promoted by some unionists (including some in the media) is that the St Andrews Agreement opens the way for Sinn Féin to nominate the First Minister if it has more seats than the DUP. This factor should lead to a lot of unionist angst in the run-up to the election, but will probably mean that unionists will plump for the DUP (as, indeed, was the intention of the rules, according to many observers).

The 2011 District Council elections will set the pattern for the carve-up of power at local level. The new District Councils will, according to the Minister responsible, have real powers; but these may be subject to cross-community distribution (via a version of the D'Hondt system – which, ironically the Minister's own party do not like). At present, everything is still uncertain, but there seems to be little chance that when the smoke clears in 2011 Northern Ireland will not have a new sectarian dividing line between east and west. There is no way that a map of the District boundaries could be gerrymandered to avoid such a divide, and if a DUP Minister tried to push through a blatant gerrymandering, it would be blocked by the nationalist veto.

In Northern Ireland all politics are local, and all concern, to some extent or another, the constitutional position of Northern Ireland. The European election in 2009 will be just a warm-up for most parties. The electorate is less interested in the European Parliament than in other legislatures, and the turn-out is usually lower than in other elections. While politicians and election-watchers will be interested, the general public will not be much concerned by the outcome. The Westminster election, which will come either in 2009 or 2010, will be of greater interest, but since the Northern Irish MPs are unlikely to have any power at Westminster the interest will be less intense. The heat will build up, therefore, for 2011 – two elections for bodies with perceived power and influence. No less importantly, only 3 seats are on offer in 2009's European election (and with barely 10 candidates likely); only 18 in 2009/2010's Westminster election (and probably only 100 candidates); but in 2011 there will be 568 seats on offer, and probably several thousand candidates. On a purely human level, 2011 means a lot more to everyone in Northern Ireland.

Wednesday 23 April 2008

The European Election dilemma

In 2009 there will be elections to the European Parliament. Northern Ireland elects three Members (MEPs). And therein lies a problem, because there are four parties in Northern Ireland with a chance of a seat. Four into three just doesn't go – someone must get disappointed. In 2004 it was the SDLP who lost out, seeing John Hume's long-time European seat being snatched by Sinn Féin. Jim Allister comfortably kept Ian Paisley's old seat for the DUP (of which he was then a member), and Jim Nicholson scraped home to retain his seat for the UUP.

In 2009, however, there may be changes. Firstly because Jim Allister is no longer a member of the DUP, and is fast becoming their nemesis. They will do their best to dislodge him from 'their' seat, and he will do his best to retain it. On the basis of the (admittedly very unrepresentative) sample of Dromore, Allister won't win, but may take around a third of the DUP votes.

The second major factor is that unionism's historic majority is coming to an end. From a situation in the 1970s where they routinely got two-thirds of the vote, they have been dropping closer to half, and occasionally even below it. At the same time nationalism has risen above 40% of the vote, and in European elections up to 45% (in 1999). So the natural breakdown of two unionist MEPs and one nationalist can no longer be taken for granted.

Unionists are aware of this; on 19 April, Peter Robinson called for greater cooperation between the DUP and the UUP to reverse the trend of low voter turnout in unionist areas. He said: "We need to be mindful of the electoral strength of republicanism. They are getting stronger because unionist turnout is reducing." Since no elections are planned for 2008, his remarks were seen as a general advance to the UUP, which some even took as a prelude to a merger.

However, an article in the Belfast Telegraph on 23 April made it a bit clearer what is starting to worry unionism:

"Trust Peter Robinson to go to the heart of the problem facing unionism, although he didn't put it quite like this: unless it can maximise its vote, around a single unionist party or a two-party electoral coalition, it has little chance of staying ahead of nationalist representation in future elections.
The European election next year will prove this point. If the SDLP and Fianna Fail strike a deal, to maximise the moderate nationalist vote and win back some of John Hume's following, it may take the UUP seat. That would leave Northern Ireland represented in Europe by two nationalists and the DUP."

"The importance of the European election is that if it were to result in a 2-1 win for nationalism, the old order would be changed fundamentally. Either unionism would respond by much greater DUP-UUP co-operation or it would split into several factions, incapable of making the same impact in Westminster, Stormont or local government."

Unionism is faced with a dilemma. As it approaches parity with nationalism (in 2004 the combined unionist vote was only 48.6%; nationalism was at 42.3%) it needs to cooperate in order to ensure transfers, in order to keep two European seats. But the DUP will get few transfers from the TUV, so must look to the UUP for them. The DUP's biggest fear is that the TUV will take so many of its votes that it will be in fourth place in a race for three seats. A split unionist vote could see two unionist candidates being eliminated before the two nationalist candidates, thus giving the dreaded 2/1 victory to nationalism.

On the other hand, the article in the Belfast Telegraph may just be a promotional piece for Robinson's strategy. By hyping up unionist fears of the increasing strength of nationalism, and by being specific in a way that Robinson could not, the Belfast Telegraph may be trying to help the DUP counter its arch-rivals in the TUV.

This blog does not believe that the DUP really has immediate fears of being outvoted. In our view the Belfast Telegraph article is the opening shot in a campaign similar to that run by unionists before the results of the 2001 Census were released. In that case they exaggerated the Catholic proportion of the population, and quoted extensively from over-optimistic nationalist sources. This then allowed them, when the more reasonable results actually came out, to claim that nationalism had suffered a significant reverse. In the 2009 European election, by hyping the chances of two nationalist seats, and encouraging nationalists to believe that such an outcome is possible, they would then be able (if unionism still retains its two seats) to say that nationalism's hopes have yet again been dashed. If the SDLP and Fianna Fáil do actually fight the campaign together, and win back the seat that Sinn Féin won in 2004, unionism will be ecstatic.

The statistics, and previous vote transfer patterns, show that the likely outcome of the election remains two unionists and one nationalist. So any exaggerated hype to the contrary should be seen as what it is – a two handed gambit by the DUP to win its voters back from the TUV, and to humiliate Sinn Féin.

The moral void at the heart of unionism

Stephen Lawrence, 18, was murdered by white youths in Eltham, south-east London in 1993 solely because he was black. No-one has ever been convicted of his murder.

Yesterday (22 April 2008) his mother Doreen Lawrence was joined by more than 300 people including British Prime Minister Gordon Brown at a memorial service in central London. The Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams led the event at St Martin-in-the-Fields Church in Trafalgar Square.

Also present, Justice Secretary Jack Straw said his death left Britain a "nation shamed". Opposition leader David Cameron and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg also attended the service.

Since Lawrence's death in April 1993, 90 Catholics have been murdered in Northern Ireland solely because they were Catholic. All 90 are listed by the authoritative Sutton database as being 'civilians', i.e. not involved in any security or paramilitary organisation. All were killed by loyalist organisations, or groups of individual loyalists, purely on account of their religion.

In none of the 90 cases has the British establishment reacted as it has done for Stephen Lawrence. In almost all cases they simply ignored the death, or at best released an anodyne condemnation via the Northern Ireland Office. Even where loyalists, acting out of sectarian hatred, have murdered children (nine of the 90 were under 18 years of age), there was no high-level response from the government. In no case did a politician of the stature of Jack Straw claim that the death left Britain a "nation shamed". Never did a memorial service attract the leaders of all three main British parties.

Such a complete lack of interest, concern, or compassion demonstrates clearly that Britain sees Northern Ireland as 'a place apart', not really part of the nation that might be shamed. Hate crimes, committed by people 'loyal' to Britain, are unimportant when the victims are Irish people living in Ireland. There is, in British eyes, a hierarchy of victims, and London stands at the top of the list; Northern Ireland is so far down that it is unnoticed.

So much for the hypocrisy of the British establishment. What about the Christian and democratic leaders of Northern Ireland itself? The leaders of unionism, in particular, proclaim their attachment to 'British values' including freedom, justice and equality. Many of them claim to be Christians too. Were they outraged by the callous, brutal and sectarian murders of the 90 innocents? To their eternal shame, they were not. Unionists, almost to a man, ignored and belittled the deaths of 90 of their fellow citizens. On occasion they even tried to blame the victims themselves (David Trimble's disgusting remarks following the murder of 19 year old Ciaran Cummings in 2001, for example). They continued to associate with the known killers of many of the 90 (Trimble again, who allied himself with the Loyalist Volunteer Force at Drumcree). Out of the spotlights, many unionists quietly condoned the murders of innocent Catholics, seeing them as a communal punishment inflicted on the 'Catholic community'. In doing so, they exposed both their basic sectarianism, and their profound lack of Christianity or humanity. Right up to the present day many unionists are content to participate in Orange Order marches that include banners commemorating known loyalist sectarian murderers. When confronted with this fact, their reaction is to deny having seen such banners – there is no outrage or disgust expressed about the banners, the person being commemorated, or the association between the Orange Order and sectarian murder.

Have the leaders of unionism, and of the Protestant churches, come together to remember any of the 90 innocent Catholic victims of the sectarian murderers? No, they haven't. Apart from weak condemnations of 'all terrorism', what witness have they shown of their disgust at anti-Catholic sectarianism? The answer, shamefully, is none. Individual Protestants, occasionally clergymen, have expressed their condemnation; individual unionists, occasionally politically active, have done so too. But as a united front, at the highest level, unionists have let their silence do the talking.

The blatant lack of interest or compassion shown by most unionists towards the large numbers of their fellow citizens, murdered purely because of their religion, shows the moral void that lies at the heart of unionism.


The 90 innocent Catholic civilians murdered by loyalists solely on account of their religion, since the death of Stephen Lawrence. Though their deaths are no more tragic than any others, it is worth noting that 9 are under 18 years old, 4 are 65+, and 7 are women.

Edward McHugh (65)
Brendan McKenna (29)
Sean Lavery (21)
Seamus Hopkins (24)
Teresa Dowds De Mogollan (48)
James Bell (49)
Michael Edwards (39)
Sean Hughes (40)
Jason McFarlane (20)
Joseph Reynolds (40)
Patrick McMahon (23)
Martin Moran (22)
Sean Fox (72)
James Cameron (54)
Mark Rodgers (28)
Gerard Cairns (22)
Rory Cairns (18)
Steven Mullan (20)
Karen Thompson (19)
James Moore (81)
Joseph McDermott (60)
Moira Duddy (59)
John Moyne (50)
Sean Hagan (47)
John Todd (31)
Brian Duffy (15)
Robert McClay (38)

John Doherty (51)
Cormac McDermott (31)
Mark Sweeney (31)
Sean McParland (55)
Francis Brown (38)
Joseph McCloskey (52)
Paul Thompson (25)
James Brown (47)
Rose Anne Mallon (76)
Martin Bradley (23)
Eamon Fox (42)
Gary Convie (24)
Gavin McShane (17)
Shane McArdle (17)
Maurice O'Kane (50)
Gerald Brady (27)
Adrian Rogan (34)
Malcolm Jenkinson (52)
Barney Greene (87)
Daniel McCreanor (59)
Patrick O'Hare (35)
Eamon Byrne (39)
Robert Monaghan (44)
Kathleen O'Hagan (38)
Harry O'Neill (60)
Martin L'Estrange (36)
Sean Monaghan (20)
Sean McDermott (37)
John O'Hanlon (32)
Noel Lyness (47)

Norman Harley (46)

Michael McGoldrick (31)

John Slane (44)
Robert Hamill (25)
Sean Brown (61)
Bernadette Martin (18)
James Morgan (16)
Gerry Devlin (36)
Edmund Treanor (31)

Terry Enright (28)
Fergal McCusker (28)
Larry Brennan (52)
Benedict Hughes (55)
Liam Conway (39)
John McColgan (33)
Damian Trainor (26)
Adrian Lamph (29)
Ciaran Heffron (22)
Richard Quinn (11)
Mark Quinn (10)
Jason Quinn (9)
Brian Service (35)

Rosemary Nelson (40)

Gary Moore (30)

John McCormick (25)
Ciaran Cummings (19)
Martin O'Hagan (51)
Francis Mulholland (34)

Daniel McColgan (20)
Gerard Lawlor (19)

James McMahon (21)

Thomas Devlin (15)

Michael McIlveen (15)

Monday 14 April 2008

Bigot of the week

The tenth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement has led to acres of self-congratulatory newsprint all over the world. The underlying story being peddled is that Northern Ireland has miraculously become a tolerant, caring, sharing place, where former enemies have patched up their tribal quarrels and resolved to work in peace for the good of all.

This is, of course, simply not true. Northern Ireland remains a deeply divided place, where levels of bigotry and intolerance unknown in the civilised world are so commonplace as to pass almost without comment.

One little instance did not entirely pass with out comment, though. The Newsletter on 9 April printed this gem of naked bigotry:

"A meeting of North Down Borough Council’s Corporate Committee turned sour last month when DUP councillor John Montgomery offered up a tub of the dairy product for examination.
He blasted the retailer for branding it ‘Irish whipping cream’ produced in ‘Irish pastures’, when a closer inspection of information on the back showed it was churned out in Northern Ireland.
His proposal to write to the company to complain was passed by two votes at a town hall council meeting a fortnight ago – stirring up a backlash from ratepayers and opposing councillors.
Mr Montgomery told the News Letter yesterday: “I was in Marks and Spencer last month looking for some cream, and was in a rush, so I had no alternative but to pick up what was labelled ‘Irish cream’.
“But when I got it home, I read it was produced in Northern Ireland, and I feel it’s a shame Northern Irish produce is not getting its full recognition.”
Mr Montgomery added this was simply a case of promoting the work of Northern Ireland farmers for the good of the Province’s economy.
However, many of his council colleagues poured derision on his motion to write to the store, branding it a “silly” waste of time.
Independent Unionist Alan Chambers was said to have suggested that Mr Montgomery submit a personal complaint to Trading Standards instead of involving the whole council.
DUP alderman Leslie Cree abstained from the vote and said he found the debate “puerile”.
Alliance councillor Tony Hill added: “[Mr Montgomery] is from the DUP, so by criticising the fact that it said ‘Irish’ and not ‘Northern Irish’ on the cream, it’s quite obvious what the intention is.
“It was discussed by Alliance councillors and we felt it was a ridiculous matter to raise, and far too minor for council when we have more important things to discuss.”
Defending himself, Mr Montgomery said yesterday: “This affects the livelihoods of producers in Northern Ireland, and anything that affects them impacts on the country. It’s not a waste of time.”
Marks and Spencer were yesterday unavailable for comment."

In a nutshell, Mr Montgomery is telling us that he "had no alternative" but to buy "Irish" cream as he was in a hurry – the implication being that his normal instinct is to boycott any "Irish" products. He attempted to justify this by claiming that he would prefer that Northern Irish products should be promoted. Yet the cream was a northern Irish product, so what was his problem? Is he assuming that, like him, other unionist bigots would not buy something that they think comes from the south? Does he waste Council time railing against products imported from England or Scotland? If not, why not?

It seems also that he is angry that anything produced in Northern Ireland is described as "Irish" (He should be very upset with the largely Protestant linen industry who have always marketed their products as 'Irish linen').

And thirdly, he is prepared to waste ratepayers money on his bigoted campaign. Shame on North Down Council that they supported him, but congratulations are due to unionists Alan Chambers and Leslie Cree for not supporting him.

This blog awards its Bigot of the Week Award to John Montgomery.

Monday 7 April 2008

Baby boom

NISRA's recent Statistical Press Release on Births in Northern Ireland (2007) shows that the number of births in Northern Ireland bounced back up by 5% compared with 2006. In fact, since the low point reached in 2000, births have been increasing almost every year. At the current rate of increase, the total period fertility rate (TPFR) may well exceed the population replacement level (2,1) within two years. This is quite an unusual state of affairs, though it mirrors the situation in the UK and in the south, though in the latter case the bounce-back had already started in 1996.

The link between fertility rates and economic prosperity is a complicated one, with prosperity pushing fertility both down and up at the same time. As more women have access to contraception, and as more women work outside the home, their fertility has tended to drop – but conversely as families have become more affluent, and perhaps better able to afford reasonable housing, education and so on, they have started to have slightly more children.

The south has boomed under the Celtic tiger, and women have flooded into the workforce in massive numbers. At the same time housing and childcare are expensive, and so logically one would expect a drop in the average family size – but this has not happened. On the contrary, the birth rate has increased over the period of the Celtic tiger.

In the north, where the economy is not so buoyant, there has nonetheless been a significant increase in employment over the past ten years, and most of this has occurred in typically female occupations (business services (+36,000), retail trade (+31,000) and hotels & restaurants (+15,000)). So, yet again, while one might expect women to delay having children due to their jobs, the opposite seems to have happened.

Interesting though these factors are, there is a further element in the rebound of the birth rates. The NISRA Statistical Press Release provides a breakdown of the births by local government area (see Table 3), and thus allows a very rough proxy estimation to be made of the 'community' identity of the births. As noted in previous years, the birth rates in some majority Protestant areas are well below the average. The Northern Ireland average was 13,9 babies per 1,000 of the population in 2007, and the rates for some majority Protestant areas were:
Ards: 12,2
Castlereagh: 12,3
North Down: 11,7
Coleraine: 11,4
Larne: 11,8

However, some other majority Protestant areas showed birth rates that were above the average:
Lisburn: 15,0
Antrim: 15,4
Banbridge: 14,9
These latter three are noteworthy for being relatively affordable dormitory areas for the greater Belfast area, and thus we would expect a fairly high rate of family formation. How much of this new family formation is Protestant, and how much is Catholic, is hard to tell. As this blog has pointed out before, some areas have a clearly higher proportion of Catholics amongst the very young than in the population as a whole, implying that the Catholic portion of their population is more fertile than the Protestant portion.

Adding to the difficulties in interpreting these figures are the low birth rates of some majority Catholic areas:
Moyle: 13,4
Fermanagh: 13,1
Omagh: 13,2
Strabane: 12,9
These latter areas are more rural and remote than the average, and this may have influenced the figures.

It remains true that the areas with the highest birth rates are ones with either a Catholic majority, or are close to parity:
Dungannon: 16,2
Craigavon: 16,0
Newry and Mourne: 15,9
Cookstown: 15,4
Magherafelt: 15,0
Armagh: 15,0
Derry: 14,6

This snapshot of 2007 supports the view that Catholic fertility remains higher than Protestant fertility, and thus that the current balance between the two communities is likely to keep shifting in favour of the Catholic community.

Table 4 of the Statistical Press Release is, however, the one that really raises questions, however. This shows the number of births per district over the past few years, and it shows that, despite the low birth rates, some Protestant areas showed a large increase in the number of births in 2007 compared with the previous years. For example Lisburn, with births in the range between about 1,400 and 1,500 for the past few years, shot up to 1,708 births in 2007. Ards, whose births have been in the narrow range 800 to 900, jumped to 940. Even North Down saw an increase in births in 2007.
This effect is not limited to Protestant areas. Curious little Moyle, with births in a very tight range of 183 to 198 since 2003, jumped to 225. What happened in 2006-2007 to make the women of Moyle more disposed to having children?
And more importantly, which women are having these children? In Lisburn for example, do the 200 'extra' babies come from Catholic Dunmurry, or from Protestant areas?

The current state of near-equality between the two communities in Northern Ireland makes these questions important. It is clear from a variety of sources (Census, Schools Census) that there is a Catholic majority amongst children, but this majority is not yet so great as to be irreversible. If Protestant birth rates were to rebound, and Catholic rates to decline, the achievement of a stable Catholic majority in Northern Ireland may be delayed by years, leading to a delay in the achievement of Irish re-unification.

So far there is no obvious reason for pessimism from nationalists – the TPFR in Catholic areas remains generally higher than the average, and that in many Protestant areas is still well below the average. But this is an area to watch, even though the significance of the figures can only be really tested at the time of the next Census in 2011.