Thursday 17 December 2009

Where are the economists?

In Northern Ireland there is a visible dearth of public interest in economic matters. There are economists working in Northern Ireland – in the universities, in the Economic Research Institute of Northern Ireland (ERINI), and in the banks. But the level of public discourse around economics is close to zero.

This is painfully obvious amongst the political class, where economics is possibly the least debated issue. Policing and Justice, parades, education, culture, even sport, receive more attention amongst the politicians, the media, and the general public. Economics is consigned to the background, like oil in a car – essential, but nobody really thinks about it between services.

The parties pay lip service to economic policy. The DUP claim to have prioritised infrastructural development and investment in skills – but these are just words. The UUP parrot the same words, while claiming to have "a vision of a flourishing regional economy". Yet neither of these two parties either has an economic strategy, or any real interest in the area – their 'news releases' prioritise everything except economics.

On the nationalist side the picture is not much better. The SDLP has, at least, published a paper giving its policy priorities in the crisis period. It is long on policy and short on economics, but at least it demonstrates the beginning of an interest in how money is raised and spent in the public sector. The private sector, however, is largely ignored. Sinn Féin, it hardly needs to be said, has almost no economic policy beyond slogans and a dated statist mentality.

So much for the politicians. But what about the commentariat? In most countries the economy, public and private, is the subject of fierce debate amongst think-tanks, academics, journalists and bloggers. There is usually a healthy exchange of ideas and people between research bodies and government, and every aspect of the economy is analysed and argued over.

But not in Northern Ireland.

The research bodies, think-tanks, journalists and bloggers are fixated exclusively on politics. There is almost no debate about economics. The economy is viewed by many as an external environment – it is governed by people and laws that are outside Northern Ireland, and the only input that Northern Ireland has is as a consumer. The 'quangocracy' that absorbs so much of Northern Ireland's educated workforce is focussed on governance, on social matters, on community development and on 'equality' – and almost never on issues of economic interest.

The few bodies that have an economic remit are too often simply vehicles for political patronage, and are often grossly over-staffed and under-effective. They can overlap, they can over-staff, they can under-perform – and no-one really seems to care.

At the individual level, Northern Ireland has numerous political commentators – of whom blogs are one visible sign. But there is no single economic blog concerning Northern Ireland.

In the south there are excellent economics blogs; Ronan Lyons, David McWilliams, the Irish Economy, True Economics, the economics section on, Turbulence Ahead and others. In the north, most blogs don't even include an 'economics' tag!

Does it matter?

As long as Northern Ireland is prepared to remain a dependent state with no control over its own affairs, then it probably matters little. If 'economics' in Northern Ireland is simply the distribution of London's largesse, rather than the creation of wealth, then political policies are probably more important. But if Northern Ireland ever wants to rise out of its infantile state and actually play a full and productive part in the affairs of the world, economics does matter.

The ability to understand how goods and services can best be produced, distributed and consumed, while maximising the efficiency of the use of scarce resources, is essential to any society that plays an active part in the modern world. A society that doesn't care how money is made because it receives a 'block grant' is like a child waiting for its parent to feed it. The lack of interest shown towards enterprise and wealth creation in Northern Ireland borders on the irresponsible. The local economy depends largely on the public sector, funded by taxes raised largely in London and the south of England – and while this is seen by unionists as evidence of the 'family spirit' of the UK, few families appreciate having to support indolent relatives ad infinitum. The time will surely come when the hard-working members of the family start to insist that the lazy members go and get jobs.

Unionists – at least – should care about this. If they wish to "promote the freedom and prosperity of all individuals in a stable and growing economy" (UUP), or "believe in a stable and prosperous future for the Province" (DUP), then they should want it to have a dynamic economy. Ignoring economic debate or analysis is no way to proceed. Nor is blaming the IRA's campaign, which has been over for half a generation – compare Germany, Japan or Korea, and see how fast they bounced back from utter devastation.

Yet it seems that the dependency mentality has become so deeply engrained in Northern Ireland that few people even show any interest in escaping from it. Until they do, Northern Ireland will sink further into economic helplessness, lacking even the intellectual tools necessary to plan its escape. As well as being a 'failed political entity', it is clear that Northern Ireland is a failed economic entity. The sooner its sorry existence is terminated the better for all of its people.

Wednesday 16 December 2009

Sir George Quigley, confederalist

In the recent past there have been few people who have dominated the business and administrative scenes in Northern Ireland as well as George Quigley.

A graduate of Ballymena Academy and Queens University (first-class honours BA in History in 1951, and Ph.D. in medieval ecclesiastical history in 1955), he first excelled in the Northern Ireland Civil Service where he was Permanent Secretary, successively, of the Departments of Manpower Services, Commerce, Finance, and Finance and Personnel.

In 1989 he became Chairman of Ulster Bank, and served on the Main Board of Nat West and as Chairman of the Royal Bank of Scotland Pension Fund. He is Chairman of Bombardier Aerospace and Lothbury Property Trust and a director of Independent News and Media (UK). He served on the Dearing Committee on Higher Education and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. He chaired the Scottish Fee Support Review. He was President of the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) and of the International Trade Institute in the south and the NI Economic Council. He conducted a Review of the N.I. Parades Commission.

As a Protestant senior civil servant and businessman, it would be natural for him to be a unionist, like so many others if his background. He has, though, to the knowledge of this blog, played no part in politics at all.

And so it is all the more interesting to read his lecture given on the occasion of the 10th Anniversary of the establishment of the North South Ministerial Council, on the 2 December 2009, in Armagh – Ireland 2020 – especially where he talks of constitutional issues:
"If there is ever to be a new constitutional configuration for the island, it seems to me that the form which has most prospect of winning consent is a confederal arrangement – in effect a joint and equal venture between North and South - but with each having its own separate parliament and executive. The powers to be exercised at the confederal level would be specifically delegated to that level and representatives of the two states would determine jointly issues of policy relating to those powers."
This conclusion comes after discussion of the economic stupidity of partition – echoing the views of this blog:
"The goal now must be no less than to remove any hurdles or distortions which prevent the island operating as fully as possible as a single market on both the demand and supply sides of the equation."

" … it is important to identify barriers which deny free rein to island-wide competitive forces, thereby ensuring that both parts of the island constitute a globally competitive production platform for goods and services traded worldwide. Neither part of the island does itself a favour by denying itself this ready to hand opportunity to move out of their respective comfort zones and to sharpen their competitive edge.

It would be perverse to condemn this island to a suboptimal future by refusing to recognise that its potential can only be realised as a shared regional space."
It seems that the view often expressed by unionist politicians – that Northern Ireland's place in the UK makes economic sense – is not shared by some of the most important economic actors.

Quigley knows the Northern Irish economy and administration intimately. He also knows the world of business north and south – as a key player. And he supports the dismantling of the economic border, for the good of all. Indeed, he supports the ultimate unity of the country in a confederation. This is clearly a message that unionists will not want to hear, but worst of all is that the messenger is one of 'their own'.

The silence with which the unionist parties greet Quigley's comments will speak volumes about their real interest in the betterment of peoples' lives. In a nutshell, they don't care. They would rather have relative poverty with barriers than prosperity without them. They are motivated by petty hatred of their fellow-Irishmen and women rather than by any economic rationality.

Poppies and Newton's Laws of Motion

Squinter (aka Robin Livingstone) is a columnist in the Andersonstown News. That paper, of course, and Livingstone as well, are strongly disliked by many in unionism – largely because they represent the new face of nationalism, one that does not respect the 'innate superiority' of the unionist position. Squinter often pokes fun at the pretentions and hypocrisies of unionists, and for that they splutter and attack him.

Sometimes Squinter hits the bull's-eye, and this week is just such an example. He returns to the recent 'poppy season' and describes the fruits of some of his spontaneous research.
"Squinter trawled through back issues of what might broadly be termed the unionist press – carefully turning pages from the 60s and 70s, dry and flaking already even after just three or four decades. The thesis for which Squinter sought vindication is simply this: That the poppy’s latter-day unionist ubiquity is part of the cultural war launched by unionists at the time of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of the mid-80s – the “new battlefield”, in the unfortunate words of David Trimble, hastily identified after the Anglo-Irish Summit made reference to respecting and promoting Irish language, games and music. And so unionists threw themselves into parades, poppies and, um, Ullans."

Of course, some unionists will loudly complain, and claim that the poppy has been a sacred symbol since the dawn of 1 July 1916. But, unfortunately there is evidence to the contrary. Lots of evidence:

"There they are on the pages of the past, the Prime Ministers, the Lord Mayors, the civil servants, the burghers, the men and women on the street. Not a poppy to be seen. Anywhere. Not only in the latter days of October was This Here Pravince a poppy-free environment, but in the very days leading up to Remembrance Sunday, there they are, the unionist great and good, the workers in dunchers and the housewives in headscarves, with not a poppy between them.

A meeting of the Craigavon Commission sits to consider the making of the new town with Remembrance Sunday only hours away, all Brylcremed and British, smiling for cameras, bare-naked lapels to a man. Ballymena army officers proudly display their MBEs amidst colleagues and friends one November 9th – only medals and bars on their tunics. A lorry sheds its load in Chichester Street with only hours to go until the two-minute silence and the city centre public stand and gape, utterly poppyless, as are the stern RUC men directing traffic. The Lord Mayor has remembered to wear his chain to the opening of a new building, but unfortunately he has neglected to don a poppy. Even the rotund hero of the Ulster cartoon strip, More Fun With Bunion, neglected to pay tribute on his ample chest to the men who fought for the freedom which made his hilarious antics possible."
Ouch! But this is something that Squinter will return to, as he promises:
"Squinter will return to the library shortly and, of course, he’ll keep you apprised in a further chapter on the Brief History of the Belfast Poppy. For their part, it’s up to unionists to explain why they didn’t bother wearing poppies in the 60s and 70s – and why they’re calling for the very few people in public positions who don’t wear one to be sacked. Plenty of still-active unionists who remember the time well. Or perhaps they’ve decided to forget."
Of course, in this context as elsewhere, Newton's Third Law of Motion applies: "to every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction: or the forces of two bodies on each other are always equal and are directed in opposite directions". Those unionists who thought that they could bury nationalist demands for cultural parity under an avalanche of unionist symbols and pageants – parades, flags, poppies, dates and sports – while suppressing the equivalent symbols of nationalism were clearly not familiar with Newton. But his Laws have stood the test of time, and so it is quite likely that unionists will have to get used to opposition to their cultural aggression.

Tuesday 15 December 2009

The TUV two years on

Around this time two years ago Jim Allister revealed his new political vehicle, the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV). The party had, in fact, been registered since 10 October 2007, but Allister was being coy about it, initially calling it a 'movement' rather than a party.

On 28 November 2007 this blog commented on Allister's new party, and after a period of two years (and with Westminster elections coming up) it is interesting to revisit the article and to see how the TUV has lived up to its promise. The answer seems to be that it has performed entirely as this blog anticipated.

In 2007 this blog wrote that Allister's strategy appeared to be aimed at "winning enough seats at the next Assembly election (due in 2011) to collapse the whole show". And, as predicted, this turns out to be exactly what he intends.

In 2007 this blog also asked:
"… what can he achieve?

First and foremost, he can split the unionist vote. There may be some constituencies where a split unionist vote will give seats to nationalist candidates, or allow a precarious nationalist to keep his (or her's, in Fermanagh-South Tyrone!). At local level the effect would be strongest, and his impact would decrease the higher up the political food-chain one climbs. Despite his current position as an MEP, it is precisely the European election that he has least chance of disrupting. He will lose his seat, which will go to a 'safe' DUP candidate. Whether Nicholson loses his Euroseat is a question of demographics and turn-out on the day – Allister's 'movement' will not take many of Nicholson's votes."

10 out of 10 for this blog, it seems! Allister has turned out to be a classic unionist vote-splitter, and Fermanagh-South Tyrone is precisely the constituency (along with South Belfast) that unionists are most agitated about. Allister lost his Euro-seat, which did go to the DUP candidate (though on the day, not such a 'safe' one).

This blog also wished Allister luck: "this blog, of course, being strongly anti-unionist, wishes Mr Allister the best of luck. The more unionist votes he attracts, the easier it will be for nationalist candidates at all levels." And that sentiment remains as strong today as it was two years ago. Allister, and the TUV, continue to split unionism and cause unionists to attack each other, rather than nationalism. Allister, along with elements in the DUP of course, continues to portray an image of unionism that is virtually medieval – thereby damaging the image of unionism both within Ireland and abroad. By occupying a political position quite far to the right, Allister ensures that he is anathema to liberal opinion-formers – and they are, in our modern social-democratic Europe, the majority. But by positioning himself on the right, he has challenged the DUP from its vulnerable flank, forcing it to move rightwards and thus also closer to the wilderness. All in all, the TUV has been a boon to nationalism. For nationalists, the role that Allister and his party will play in the Westminster elections is of great interest. His intervention can only damage the unionist cause.

Sunday 13 December 2009

Lurgan by-election candidates

Four candidates have been nominated for the Craigavon Council by-election in Lurgan on 13 January.

  • David Calvert (TUV)
  • Jo-Anne Dobson (UUP)
  • Liam Mackle (Sinn Fein)
  • Pat McDade (SDLP).

Calvert is, of course, no surprise, as he had been initially proposed for a co-option on November 2. But at that time the UUP had counter-proposed Harry Hamilton – who is now not fighting the election for them. Admittedly he is the UUP’s chosen candidate for next year’s Westminster election – but this was either known or strongly tipped in November as well, so why did they propose him then but not now?

The two nationalist candidates, though no doubt worthy individuals, have no hope of success, as Lurgan is an 84.5% unionist DEA.

What is noteworthy is that the DUP have not nominated a candidate for the Lurgan by-election. This is morally in keeping with their commitment in August not to oppose a TUV co-option. Although the DUP half-reneged on that deal by failing to actually agree with the TUV co-option, they are now honouring something that was not explicitly part of the deal – to not stand against the TUV in the by-election. This is curious because the DUP were willing to support an ‘independent unionist’ co-option in November, while unwilling to support Calvert – yet now are neither standing themselves nor supporting the nomination of the same ‘independent unionist’ candidate.

The DUP’s failure to nominate is thus not a requirement of their August deal. There are two possible explanations for it:

Either the DUP are afraid to risk a straight fight in a unionist heartland area so near to a Westminster election, with the risk of being yet again humiliated by their nemesis – the TUV, or they have decided to try to kiss and make up with the TUV.

The second possibility is, to say the least, highly unlikely.

That leaves only the first possibility – that the DUP is afraid of another electoral humiliation after Dromore and the European Parliament. In Lurgan the unionist vote divided evenly between the DUP (39.4%) and the UUP (40.2%) at the last council election in 2005 (and thus before the TUV existed). Any leaching of support to the TUV would virtually ensure that the DUP could not win the seat – and experience has shown that around 40% of the DUP’s voters have deserted it for the TUV. So if all three unionist parties stood, the DUP could not win, and would lose another slice of their ‘top-dog’ status.

So, rather than stand and lose, the DUP is simply running away.

This is a pity, as it denies political analysts an opportunity to gauge the relative strengths of the three main unionist parties in the run-up to the Westminster election.

Death of Dungannon Councillor Norman Badger

The UUP (and so far, only them) are reporting the death of their Councillor, Norman Badger, who represents the Torrent DEA in Dungannon.

Badger, who has represented Torrent since 1993, was the only unionist councillor in Torrent, which is a largely nationalist area that includes Coalisland. The unionist share of the vote has been in constant decline in the DEA, dropping from 19.2% in 1993 when Badger was the only unionist candidate, to 14.4% in 2005 when he shared the vote with the DUP’s Robert McFarland.

A by-election, if one is held, will result in an almost inevitable Sinn Féin victory. In 2005 they received almost 61% of the vote in Torrent.

However, it is usual (though not universal) practice for all parties to agree to a co-option in the case of deaths of councillors, so it is unlikely that there will be a by-election. Sinn Féin, though they could profit from breaking the unwritten rule, rarely if ever fail to respect it, and there is no reason why any other party would seek a by-election that they could not win.

Thursday 10 December 2009

Bad redaction

The release of another batch of MP's expense claims is now largely a non-story. But in amongst the blacked-out details there are always some things that the redactors have missed. Their eagle eyes missed such things as Nigel Dodds London phone number, and in many cases things that were redacted on one document are curiously left unredacted on another.

One nice little gem is on one of Iris Robinson's forms, where the censor failed to black out her (and Peter's) London address on a 2008 gas bill (page 11 for the anoraks).

I wonder if the Robinsons ever chuckled over the postcode:
E16 2SF

Easter 1916 to Sinn Féin.

A ray of light

Last night the SDLP's south Belfast selection convention picked Conall McDevitt to replace Carmel Hanna, who is stepping down from the Assembly.

There is much about McDevitt that makes his selection a sign of hope for the SDLP, and a sign of hope for northern nationalism.

McDevitt is a Dubliner – "born in Dublin he spent his formative years in Malaga, Spain" – his own blog says. He "loves Dublin, his native county and its gaelic football team", and "he is a committed ‘New Irelander’".
"Our mission is not to destroy the North but to make it strong. We are the party of the North. The party that knows we can all be proudly northern and proudly Irish. A strong north will mean a strong Ireland and a weak north a failed one", he said in his acceptance speech. "If a united Ireland is our tomorrow then a new North must be our today".
McDevitt will be the SDLP's youngest MLA – an intelligent articulate man, with substantial political and business backgrounds, and a young parent – and should prove to be a pillar of the SDLP in the Assembly. He will add valuable experience in a number of important areas – organisation, communication and internationalism – where the SDLP is too often lacking.

Importantly, McDevitt is also a McDonnell loyalist:
"I want to be an MLA for a renewed SDLP that will speak for the majority who want a new North. For the many who know that we are not as divided as our politics suggests. This is the type of politics Alasdair McDonnell has brought to South Belfast. Working hard, reaching out to communities and breaking new ground to evidence that he is an MP for everyone."

Whether his selection is a sign of SDLP support for McDonnell in the upcoming SDLP leadership contest is harder to say – South Belfast is, after all, McDonnell's constituency, so glowing words about his would be expected there. But tellingly, McDevitt did not give Ritchie a balancing mention. It is clear which candidate he supports.

If McDevitt lives up to his potential, the seemingly terminal decline of the SDLP could be arrested – perhaps even reversed. He will help to cement north-south ties, but clearly with the SDLP as a separate 'party of the north', rather than a subsidiary of Fianna Fáil. This blog will continue to watch his career within the SDLP with interest.

Tuesday 8 December 2009

1930: the County Mayo librarian case

One of the examples that unionists use to try to portray the south as the mirror-image of the north in terms of sectarianism is the case of the non-appointment of Letitia Dunbar as a librarian in County Mayo in 1930.

For some unionists, this was a simple case of religious discrimination. Dunbar was a Protestant, and this – to them – was the reason that she was not appointed.

The meeting of the County Council that rejected Dunbar took place on today's date – December 8 – in 1930, and as part of its series of historical series the Irish Times has republished its report of the event, as a report and as a facsimile.

Certain facts about the case are worth noting. Firstly, Dunbar's religion was central to the discussion at the time, but the Fianna Fáil party leader on the Council, Richard Walsh, said his party would not stand for the turning down of Miss Dunbar on the sectarian issue.

Dunbar was officially turned down for the post because she had only an elementary knowledge of Irish – and in a county that was, at that time, quite widely Irish-speaking, this made her insufficiently qualified to provide librarian services. Certainly there were members of the Council – and even one member of Fianna Fáil, a Mr Morahan – who opposed Dunbar on nakedly sectarian grounds, but the Fianna Fáil party clearly disassociated itself from this.

Fianna Fáil remained convinced that the reason for Dunbar's refusal was sectarian, and their political opponents, the governing party Cumann na nGaedhael, dissolved the County Council and replaced it with a Commissioner, who appointed Dunbar to the role of county librarian. In December 1931, Dunbar was transferred from Castlebar to work for the Department of Defence in Dublin.

So while Mayo County Council, and in particular its library committee covered themselves with ignominy, the Dublin government and the Fianna Fáil party – between them representing the overwhelming majority of the political class in the south, were implacably opposed to the suspicions of sectarianism that the case showed, and moved decisively to ensure that Dunbar both got the job, and subsequently got another one closer to home (she was a Dubliner). Along the way the government dissolved a County Council – a quite extraordinary event – in order to ensure that no stain of sectarianism could be seen to be tolerated.

So while there is no doubt whatsoever that sectarianism raised its ugly head in this case, the actions of the two dominant parties in the south were strongly opposed to it. And that marked a clear difference between the north and the south at that time. In the north the governing party was actively encouraging sectarianism, while in the south the parties were actively opposing it.

Pot. Kettle. Black.

The issue of the removal of some grant assistance to fee-paying Protestant schools in the south is complex, and ongoing. The issue is essentially one of equality of treatment between different denominational schools – up to now Protestant schools have been receiving a greater amount of aid per pupil than Catholic schools, and the Attorney General gave the government advice that this may be unconstitutional according to Article 44:
"Legislation providing State aid for schools shall not discriminate between schools under the management of different religious denominations, nor be such as to affect prejudicially the right of any child to attend a school receiving public money without attending religious instruction at that school."

However, some in the Protestant community (including the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin, John Neill) have claimed that the removal of the additional grants do, in fact, discriminate against Protestant schools because their needs are greater due to their more dispersed locations and the need for some pupils to board. How the issue will end up being resolved is, as yet, unclear, but such things tend to end in compromises by both sides.

Now, unfortunately, the overtly sectarian 'loyal orders' have started to try to interfere in the situation. Yesterday the Royal Black Institution said: "Many of our members and of the wider public believe this policy has sectarian undertones and discriminates against the minority population in the Republic of Ireland."

For an organisation whose whole basis is sectarian to accuse others of sectarianism is ironic.

But more importantly, this interference from a body that has little or no support in the south is driven by political malice. The Royal Black Institution is one of the family of ultra-unionist 'loyal orders', and while it may have a scattering of southern members it does not and can not speak on behalf of southern Protestants. By trying to pose as defenders of an imaginary 'beleaguered Protestant minority' in the south they are simply trying to stir up trouble.

Southern Protestants neither need nor want a politically unionist organisation to use them for its own ends. The overwhelming majority of southern Protestants are proud members of the Irish nation, and attempts by the Royal Black Institution to portray them as anything else is unwelcome. Most southern Protestants do not live in the border counties – the largest concentration, not surprisingly, is in Dublin – and the Royal Black Institution is an alien organisation to them.

On one hand anti-unionists should be pleased to see the Royal Black Institution re-connecting with the Irish body politic – but if it was being done in a constructive way, rather than with malicious intent, it would be better.

Monday 7 December 2009

FST – will TUV "be there"?

"TUV Leader Jim Allister will tonight tell his Party’s Central Council that there should be an early Assembly election and he will warn against political manoeuvrings to avoid such a poll if the Executive collapses."

The parts of Allister's speech that the TUV have published in advance include the following:

“But whether it is an Assembly election or the Westminster election, TUV will be there to give voice to the tens of thousands of Unionists across this Province, unrepresented in Stormont, who do not buy into terrorist-inclusive government and who demand devolution compatible with British democratic principles and practices, not the hideous perversion of democracy that is unworkable mandatory coalition.”

That seems to promise that the TUV will stand "across the province" in the Westminster election – including, presumably, in South Belfast and in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

If the TUV do not stand in these two constituencies then the "tens of thousands of Unionists" there "who do not buy into terrorist-inclusive government" would not be given a voice. The only other unionist parties that they could choose from would be the UUP/UCUNF and the DUP – both of which "buy into terrorist-inclusive government".

If Allister is a man of his word, and if the TUV seriously intends to offer an alternative voice to the unionists that it claims to represent, it must stand in both South Belfast and Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Otherwise it will be allowing parties which "buy into terrorist-inclusive government" to scoop up the votes, and to thereby claim a greater share of the unionist electorate than they deserve – and a mandate for their "terrorist-inclusive government".

But if the TUV stands, then the unionist vote will be split even further, and the two seats may be retained by their nationalist incumbents.

Sometimes 'Experience, Principle, and Integrity' can push you towards having to make very difficult decisions. Will Allister back down (and earn himself a reputation as a paper tiger) or will he stick to his guns and earn himself a reputation as a splitter?

Either choice is bad for the TUV.

Sunday 6 December 2009

Selfish strategic interest

In 1990 Peter Brooke declared that Britain had "no selfish strategic interest" in Northern Ireland. Mere words, one might think – designed to lure Sinn Féin into the political process, despite its shocking effect on unionist thinking.

But Brooke was actually reflecting something more basic. Because Britain does indeed have no strategic investment in Northern Ireland whatsoever.

British national interest, as reflected in the location of the key institutions of the British state, does not include Northern Ireland. The British state has placed none of its institutions in Northern Ireland. The six counties could be detached from the UK without any discomfort.

The devolved institutions are, of course, in Northern Ireland – but they have responsibility only for affairs in Northern Ireland. Of the bodies, institutions and agencies that have a UK-wide remit none are located in Northern Ireland.

The monarchy; the parliament; the cabinet office’s agencies, units and offices; the headquarters of the BBC; the British army, navy and air force, the agencies, offices and organisations of the military establishment; the Met Office; the UK Hydrographic Office; GCHQ; the Medicines Control Agency; the Home Office bodies with a UK-wide remit, including the Passport Agency; the UK Atomic Energy Agency; the Patent Office; the National Weights and Measures Laboratory; the British National Space Centre; the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency; the Civil Aviation Authority; the Royal Mint; the Bank of England; the British Standards Institution; the HMSO; the British Film Institute; the National Lottery Charities Board; the Film Council; the Crafts Council; the Millennium Commission; the list goes on and on. But one thing is constant – they are not headquartered in Northern Ireland.

The UK has not placed anything that is essential to its existence or its functioning in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is marginal to British existence. Administration of Northern Ireland is increasingly being transferred to Belfast – but nothing ‘British’ is moving to Belfast, apart from a secondary ‘fall back’ office of MI5. Clearly in the eyes of the British establishment, Northern Ireland is not really a fully integrated part of their country. It is detachable, it is optional, it is inessential.

So Peter Brooke in 1990 was merely stating the obvious. Britain has no strategic interest in Northern Ireland. It is merely a passenger in British affairs, never the driver. The vehicle – the British state – can and will carry on without interruption when Northern Ireland no longer forms part of that state. In fact, for most people and decision makers in Britain, the detachment of Northern Ireland will barely be noticed, because it was always a place apart, never really part of ‘their’ country. Even since 1990, that has not changed. Since then Northern Ireland, if anything, has been groomed for separation rather than integration.

What colour is that road?

To most people roads are roads. Sometimes motorways, sometimes mere lanes, but essentially just arteries for traffic.

But not for Jim Allister. For him roads are political – and he can spot an anti-unionist, or even anti-Protestant conspiracy where others merely see asphalt.

Take his recent press release (on his private web site, but not yet on the TUV’s):
“The A5, upon which there has been no business plan prepared nor economic appraisal conducted, is being pushed ahead, not because of meeting a prioritised need, but to headline a cross-border project. The A5 project has more to do with opening up speedy access to Donegal than finding the best way to meet local needs.”
Now, given the number of unionists who have holiday homes in Donegal, it might seem that the A5 is actually something that unionist voters might approve of.

Ah, but no. The real beneficiaries will be southerners, apparently:
“I do not see why the best of working farms, which have been the livelihoods of families for generations, have to be sacrificed to give travellers from Dublin swift transport to Donegal”.
But even where the conspiracy lacks a cross-border dimension, Allister sees a ‘sectarian’ dimension:

“I am appalled by the route suggested for the Dungiven bypass. Here a wider sweep around the town than necessary has been taken, resulting in the truncating of several farms. Is this in order to avoid the more direct route which would disrupt the GAA facilities? I suspect it is and that, again, the political direction of the department is playing its part in choosing to destroy some Protestant farms in order to preserve the GAA facilities.”
If such an accusation was true, it would be appalling and should lead to the immediate sacking of the minister responsible. In essence, Allister is accusing a whole department, its planners, the whole planning process, and numerous other involved actors, of deliberately trying to destroy farms on the basis of the farmers’ religion! But it isn't true, of course, and Allister has no evidence whatsoever to support his bizarre claims.

Allister’s determination to find anti-Protestant bias in every act by a department with a Sinn Féin minister is reaching levels approaching oddness. It is a sign of his political immaturity and political destructiveness. That such a proportion of the unionist electorate vote for him and his party is a poor reflection of their intelligence. His politics are the politics of the cul de sac, and those who follow him may have cause to regret their decisions if he ever actually achieves his ambition of exercising real power and influence.

In the shadow of empire

The Bagehot column in this week’s Economist makes a number of points which are very relevant to the delusions of unionism. The column is looking at how Britain has yet to fully come to terms with its reduced status on the world stage, but its conclusions may help explain the mixture of anachronistic self-delusion and unwillingness to face the future that is so common amongst unionists.
“When Britons remember their dead empire, they tend to concentrate, with pride or shame, on its impact on the former colonies. The consequences for their own country are mostly thought of as so much pompous bric-a-brac and nostalgic trivia: honours and baubles with imperial names, archaic ceremonies, statues of forgotten heroes, a smattering of exotic vocabulary, curry and distressingly proficient rival cricket teams. This way of thinking about empire is mistaken. In important ways Britain is still—even, perhaps, increasingly—trapped by its imperial past.”

Of all those trapped by Britain’s imperial past, the unionists are the most intractable. Their version of the ‘imperial past’ goes back to the 17th century – long before Britain even had most of its empire. And they have continued, through several centuries, to cling to the trivia of empire, in a steadily shrinking corner of that empire, even while most of Britain has tried to move on. Occasional re-eruptions of old-fashioned imperialism, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, are viewed as evidence that the beleaguered unionists were right all along, and that the rest of the UK is coming around to their way of thinking. However, since every eruption of imperialism is usually followed by yet another bout of self-doubt and retrenchment, unionism should not be under any illusions about the current festival of war-mongering, with its attendant propaganda campaign including parades, flag-waving, stirring tales of derring-do in Helmand, the solemn funeral processions, and all of the other bits slipped into the BBC reports and the MoD press-releases. When it ends – and it will – Britain will turn against such adventurism as it has on numerous occasions in the past half-century. And then, as before, unionism will find itself high and dry, the last redoubt of the flag-wavers.
"The fallout of empire may include the fraying of the union (because the lost colonial opportunities bound Scotland in). Beneath all this is the peculiar British combination of bragging and bewilderment, an air of expectations great but unmet and of unrealised specialness. It is hard to think of another country so keen to magnify its accomplishments (everything must be “the best in the world”), yet also to wallow in its failings; so deluded and yet so morbidly disappointed. Every recent prime minister has struggled to overcome this sense of thwartedness and decline, and to come up with a notion of Britishness to replace the defunct imperial version. Mr Blair tried “Cool Britannia”. It flopped. The gloom may be almost as acute now as it was in the late 1950s or 1970s.”
When Britain finally faces up to its mediocrity on the world stage the impact on unionism may be traumatic. Unlike the British of Britain, the British of Ireland have yet to come to terms with the failings of Britain as a country and as an empire. For the unionists, Britain can have no failings, because the unionist position is based to a great extent on their feelings of reflected superiority – vis-à-vis everyone, but most acutely vis-à-vis Ireland. If Britain has failings, then maybe – just maybe – the basis of their whole belief system may be wrong.

Unionism already has a difficult job justifying ‘the union’ on grounds of economic advantage or efficiency. If their second-hand imperial illusions are also removed from the mix, there is very little left to shelter behind. Their political position would become very exposed indeed. If, at the same time, the demographic balance is turning against them, the south is recovering from its current recession, and the long festival of centenaries is arousing passions, unionism may be reduced to a narrowly sectarian movement – which is what many believe it to really be at heart.

Friday 4 December 2009

BBC respect the GFA, but not RTÉ

Oddly – and disappointingly – the release today of figures from the CSO regarding the increase in southern shoppers in the north has led to quite different headlines according to the media outlet chosen.

The Irish Times, traditionally the paper of the southern Protestant business class, but now simply the leading liberal Dublin paper, correctly referred to the cross-border shoppers as "Cross-Border shoppers" or "Shoppers from the Republic":

The BBC, although referring to "Southern shoppers" in the title of their story, and further referring to "Shoppers from the Irish Republic" slip into a rather lazy negation of both fact and law by then calling these shoppers "one-in-six Irish households" – apparently forgetting that almost a third of 'Irish households' may be living north of the border.

Worst, though, is RTÉ – the state broadcaster of the southern state – which ought to know better. It refers to the shoppers simply as "Irish shoppers", as if nobody north of the border is Irish.

It might be instructive for RTÉ to reflect on the Good Friday Agreement, which states that:

"The participants [ … ] will recognise 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"
The GFA, if anyone in RTÉ wishes to check, forms part of the Constitution – the Nineteenth Amendment of the Constitution Act, 1998 "allowed the State to consent to be bound by the British-Irish Agreement done at Belfast on 10 April 1998", and introduced this change into Article 2:

"It is the entitlement and birthright of every person born in the island of Ireland, which includes its islands and seas, to be part of the Irish Nation."

As the state broadcaster RTÉ has an obligation to recognise that the term 'Irish shopper' does not apply uniquely to those who live in the state.

It is unacceptable that the state broadcaster should respect the constitution under which it operates less than either a commercial newspaper, or the state broadcaster of the UK.

Update (4 December, evening):

Congratulations to reader Nordie Northsider (who contacted RTÉ), and fair play (belatedly) to RTÉ - the text of their article has now been changed to "Shoppers from Republic" and "Consumers from the Republic of Ireland".

North-Southery exposes unionism

Tom Elliott, UUP MLA for Fermanagh, in a press statement today exposes another of unionism's hypocrisies:
"Like most Unionists, I am relaxed about the concept of mutually beneficial cross-border arrangements, provided that they are of benefit to both jurisdictions and do not impose the will of one on the other. However, motions such as the one calling for acceleration towards enlargement of North/South opportunities are really not needed. This is particularly true in the case of the SDLP who should not feel they need to out-green Sinn Fein. Doing so places political expediency above what is beneficial to the people of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland."

"If parties treat the North/South bodies not as an opportunity to improve relations and services between the two jurisdictions but as a political vehicle to promote narrow agendas, there is a danger that the bodies will become meaningless. This is why it is vital that we ensure that the ongoing review which is looking into the functionality of North/South bodies is allowed to run its course unhindered by political wrangling, and then proper scrutiny can be given to the conclusions it reaches."

The simple fact is that it does not matter if the SDLP are trying to 'outgreen' Sinn Féin, and are trying to 'enlarge north/south opportunities'. There is no rational reason to object to as much north/south cooperation as possible. Any rational person living on a small island knows that the more they cooperate with the other inhabitants the better off all will be. Duplication of services, structures, infrastructure, administrations, laws, regulations, bureaucracies and commercial channels costs everyone dearly. The sooner these duplications and their costs are slimmed down the better for the taxpayer, ratepayer and customer.

Of course the SDLP's calls are inspired by more than just economic rationality – they are politically opposed to the very existence of the border. But that does not mean that they are wrong in any practical economic or administrative way. On the contrary, they are right – and their political position happens to rhythm with economic and administrative rationality. Unionism, however, is also motivated by its political position – despite Elliott's plea to leave "political expediency" out of the argument the unionist argument against north-southery is entirely motivated by politics, and owes nothing to rationality.

Unionism has nothing to fear from the maximum in north-south cooperation. Only a border poll will end the Union – not trade or shared services. What Elliott and other unionists are afraid of is that north-south cooperation will expose the illogicality of their position. They are prepared to reduce the standard of living, and access to goods and services, of their own voters rather than engage in cooperation with the rest of the island. This, surely, is both utterly political and utterly irresponsible.

So what, if the SDLP are shown to have been right?

If north-south cooperation is extended in every area possible, and if it becomes clear that it benefits everyone, then this will undoubtedly weaken the unionist position of separatism. Still, though, if a majority continues to wish it, Northern Ireland will remain in the UK. So what does unionism fear?

Does unionism really have so little faith in its own arguments that it fears cooperation because it knows that its arguments are likely to fail when exposed to real examination – even by 'its own' people? Are they afraid that when people see the benefits of cooperation they might start to question the whole existence of the border?

It is becoming increasingly clear that the unionist arguments against north-southery are threadbare and are based upon nothing more than anti-southern and anti-nationalist prejudice. Their footdragging is costing everyone, and is ensuring that resources that could be spent on rational provision of services are instead being spent on parallel bureaucracies.

Elliott, and most other unionists, are reacting against north-south cooperation in an entirely political and irrational manner. Luckily though, as time passes rationality tends to win arguments. They are on the wrong side of this issue, and they will lose it. What a pity they are trying to deny everyone a better life in the meantime.

Thursday 3 December 2009

Disgraceful TUV double standards

Jim Allister in the European Parliament (21/04/2009):
"Glorification of terrorism takes many forms, but when a member of this House eulogises vile murderers, whose killing careers came to an end when they met their just deserts at the hands of the lawful security forces, then that member has put herself at variance with everything this House has ever said in condemning terrorism and those who sanitise and justify it."

Trevor Collins, TUV member in Garvagh (3/12/2009)

"[Torrens Knight] never was a real bad person, but the Troubles in Northern Ireland provoked many a young man to do things that they wouldn't have done in normal circumstances."

A spokesman for the TUV said there were no plans to revoke Mr Collins' membership, according to the BBC.

Either the TUV must eject Mr Collins, or Allister must admit that his opposition to 'terrorism' is one-sided and opportunistic. If the party fails to eject Collins it will make clear to the world that its claims to oppose 'terrorism' are hollow, and that it is, as many suspect, just a sectarian party – happy to 'sanitise and justify' loyalist killings of innocent Catholics.

Craigavon Lurgan by-election – probable date - updated

On November 2 Craigavon Borough Council failed to agree a co-option to fill the seat (in Lurgan DEA) that TUV Councillor Mark Russell had resigned in October. According to the requirements of the legislation governing local elections (the Electoral Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1962), a by-election must be held within a period of time. If the maximum periods allowed for in the legislation are used, the likely date for the by-election is Wednesday 20 January 2010, calculated as follows:
  • 2/11/2009 – Council fails to co-opt replacement,
  • 11/11/2009 – expiration of maximum period (7 days, excluding Saturdays, Sundays and other public holidays) for the clerk of the council to notify the Chief Electoral Officer that a 'casual vacancy' has occurred,
  • 10/12/2009 – Publication of notice of election (within 21 days from the date on which the casual vacancy was deemed to have occurred),
  • 21/12/2009 – Delivery of nomination papers (on two consecutive days, the second of which shall not later than the 7th day after the day of publication of the notice of election),
  • 20/01/2010 – Polling day (not earlier than the 18th nor later than the 21st day after the last day for delivery of nomination papers)
20 January is the 18th day after the last day for delivery of nomination papers, when weekends, Christmas Eve, Christmas day and December 28 (in lieu of St Stephen's Day) are disregarded, and it is a Wednesday, the usual day on which council by-elections are held.


Scrap everything above! (Thanks to reader David).

The EONI have published the timetable for the election, and it will be a week earlier than the date above:

"The election to fill the vacancy for the Lurgan district electoral area of Craigavon Borough Council will take place on Wednesday 13 January 2010".

Visions for unity

David Adams, writing in today's Irish Times, argues that "if nationalism is serious about a united Ireland, it has a duty to explain to unionists precisely what it has in mind". On one level he is quite correct, of course, but on a deeper level he is wrong.

Only if nationalists are trying to entice unionists into 'their' state can they explain what they have in mind. But, as Adams says, "those who believe that, if it comes to it, the six Northern counties could simply be tacked on to the Republic, and unionists would fit neatly in with a 32-county version of how things are in the South at present, are kidding themselves".

Precisely. And that is why Adams is wrong.

Thinking nationalists are not proposing that the 6 counties are simply absorbed into the larger state, like East Germany was absorbed by West Germany a generation ago. Unthinking nationalists, aided and abetted, it has to be said, by deliberately mischievous unionists, may talk of reunification as a sort of '26-annexing-6' scenario, but this cannot be how it happens.

Adams complains that Sinn Féin "hasn’t given the first thought or care to what would result if they did manage to bring almost a million reluctant unionists into a united Ireland". But that is not actually a bad thing – on the contrary, if Sinn Féin tried to dictate what shape and form the new 32 County Ireland would have, then unionists and others could justifiably criticise them for dictating a pre-determined outcome without listening to the voices of unionists, and indeed the 90% of Ireland's people who do not vote for Sinn Féin!

Nationalists cannot tell unionists what unionism will want in a united Ireland – only the unionists can do that. For nationalists to say to unionists 'you want links to Britain, so we'll agree to an East-West ministerial council' would be utterly presumptuous, as it may not come close to what unionists actually want. But being nationalists, nationalists cannot truly understand what unionists would settle for – especially as they keep repeating, mantra-like, that all they want is to remain in the UK. That mantra does not help to answer the question of 'what do you want, though, if you cannot stay in the UK?'

While many people have attachments to particular aspects of one or the other state (Adams mentions the NHS as a potential hurdle), or aspirations for things that are not yet a reality in either, the eventual outcome can only be arrived at by negotiation, compromise, deal-making, arguments about resource allocation, rights, duties and responsibilities. No one group – unionists, nationalists, southerners, northerners, can or should try to impose their view of things in entirety. Everything ultimately could be subject to trade-offs, and no-one at this stage should be expected to reveal their bargaining positions or the strengths of their attachments to one or other issue.

Take, for example, the flag of the future 32 County state. If nationalists at this stage admitted that they have only a weak attachment to the Tricolour, and would be prepared to trade it for agreement elsewhere, then unionists would immediately 'bank' this 'concession', and its value would be reduced to nothing.

The problem, at this stage, is that negotiations cannot start. Adams complains that nationalists have not set out their initial position, yet he knows that in the absence of any desire to bargain, unionists will simply parody that initial position and exaggerate it to add weight to their refusal to even discuss the nature of a reunified Ireland. Only when unionists realise that they must bargain, will they even approach the table – but even then reluctantly, negatively and obstructively. This is why, as Adams points out, Sinn Féin's strategy "involves chipping away at the morale of unionists in the hope that sufficient numbers will tire of the hassle, allowing the rest to be dragged over a 50 per cent-plus-one line" – because only when that 50% line is crossed does the real negotiation begin. Until that point, unionists will continue to refuse to discuss the issue.

While Adams' frustration is understandable, he would have been better employed explaining what unionists want (after all, he remains one), and encouraging his 'tribe' to engage in the conversation. After all, no discussion of a post-reunification Ireland commits unionists to anything – only the outcome of a border poll can do that – and that outcome will happen regardless of whether the conversation has started or not. It would be much better for all of us if it has started, and if both sides engage in it honestly.

Wednesday 2 December 2009

Education – criticisms diluted

The plans by Sinn Féin Minister of Education Caitriona Ruane to abolish the 11+ exam (or to establish a new regulated system of transfer from primary to post primary) have aroused deep opposition from the unionist parties.

Ruane herself is quite clear on what she wants: "Let me be clear, the 11 plus is gone and it will not be coming back in any shape or form. The 11 plus is a failed system. Academic selection is a failed system. Any education system which judges even one child as a failure at age 11 is wrong, it is unjust and it is indefensible. Transfer 2010 is my Department’s policy for the transfer of children from primary to post-primary. If followed, the guidance will deliver an effective and fair system which will benefit all."

The DUP believes that "as a result of DUP negotiations at St Andrews a grammar school education will still be available in Northern Ireland. Had the retention of academic selection not been secured by the DUP, Northern Ireland would now be on an irreversible path towards a wholly comprehensive system. Pupils should be matched to the most appropriate school to meet their individual needs." Yet, as regards the Minister herself they cannot resist personal attacks: "the most disliked Minister in the Executive", "the public associate her with confusion, failure, arrogance and obtrusiveness", "Minister of failure, arrogance, obtrusiveness and contempt", and, of course, the obligatory misspelling of her name (its in Irish, which no doubt causes them enormous difficulties); "Catroina Ruane".

The UUP accuses the Minister of having her head in the sand, but manages nonetheless to raise a smile with their latest press-release on education "'Dissaray' in education unacceptable", thereby proving that standards in the state education system certainly need to be improved!

The TUV, of course, considers Ruane to be a "disastrous Minister" who is "consumed by her own ideological agenda of centralist control and destruction of anything which stands her way".

Interesting as such personal attacks are, they are not the point of this blog.

Whether the criticisms of Ruane are correct or not, the nature of the relationship between Sinn Féin and the unionist parties is such that, no matter what she does or says, they will attack her. And therein lies a problem – for the unionists.

The on-going foot-dragging over the transfer of policing and justice by the DUP – egged on by their nemesis in the TUV – shows the wider world that the unionists are simply obstructing anything that Sinn Féin supports, because they support it. As Liam Clarke put it in the News Letter yesterday, giving advice to Peter Robinson: "Taking every pawn isn't how this chess game is to be won". Clarke pointed out that Robinson himself had, in his recent conference speech, for an end to the attitude of 'if it’s good for them, it can’t be good for us'.

"Sometimes it’s even worse," Robinson had said; "When we ask for something, the temptation is to retreat if the other side decide it might not be such a bad idea after all."

The problem for Robinson, and the other unionists, is that their policy of trying to block Sinn Féin at every pass is that this is a policy that blocks the good with the bad, or worse, it leads the casual observer to believe that all unionist opposition is based upon mere meanness of spirit and obstructionism.

The impasse over education may – or may not – be based on sound educational theories. But unionism is losing that argument by trying to win every argument. Blocking Ruane may turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory for unionism, if it leads to a feeling that the obstruction was based not upon the facts of the case, but only upon unionism's pettiness vis-à-vis Sinn Féin.

As Liam Clarke might have said (but didn't), politics is a flexible art, and sometimes you need to give a little to get a lot. Not every pawn – the ILA, educational transfer, p+j, cross-border bodies – needs to be taken. A bad chess player will rush to capture as many opposing pieces as possible, but a more mature and wiser player will see where a piece can be sacrificed, or left uncaptured, in order to achieve ultimate victory. Peter Robinson is appearing more and more to be a bad chess player.

Tuesday 1 December 2009

South Belfast

The DUP are making dire noises about South Belfast, and in particular the refusal by the UUP/UCUNF to agree a pact for that constituency in the upcoming Westminster election:
"Reg Empey is not an entirely stupid person. He knows what the net result will be in Fermanagh and South Tyrone and South Belfast if two Unionists run. It will ensure an abstentionist Sinn Fein MP is returned in Fermanagh and a nationalist is given another four years in the House of Commons from South Belfast."

Fermanagh and South Tyrone (FST) is, of course, a majority nationalist constituency, so it is indeed likely that a split unionist vote will ensure that they cannot slip between the nationalist candidates and snatch the seat (like William Thompson in West Tyrone in 1997).

But South Belfast is not yet a majority nationalist constituency. Although its nationalist vote has been steadily increasing over the past few decades, in 2007 its unionist vote (43.5%) still exceeded its nationalist vote (40.0%). In Westminster elections the unionist vote is usually higher than in local or regional elections – in 2005 the combined unionist score was 51.1% against the nationalist score of 41.3%. A single unionist would probably beat a single nationalist, and even two unionists – if one was weak – could still see the seat won by the stronger unionist.

What clearly concerns the DUP is that there is not a 'strong unionist/weak unionist' scenario in sight. They know that their rapid increase from 1998 (13.1%) to 2005 (28.4%) is over. In fact it was already over in 2007 when they scored only 22.4%. Alasdair McDonnell won the seat in 2005 on a vote of 32.3% – and now the DUP are admitting that they cannot beat that.

And yet, though they are admitting that they cannot beat the SDLP, they must know that a single unionist candidate could. But even though they hold neither of the seats (FST or South Belfast) they are refusing to stand down from the elections in both of them. On the contrary, they are trying to use their refusal to stand down as a wedge to split the UCUNF project:
"The UUP is betraying the Unionist community in both those areas by their refusal to reach an agreement with fellow-Unionists in the DUP. Our deal offer still stands: lets divide the two seats between the two parties and let’s work together to ensure Unionism advances."

The DUP are presumably hoping that, in the event that UCUNF refuse to be tempted, the unionist voters will blame UCUNF rather than the DUP for the failure to win a winnable seat. This is a risky strategy, as the voters may instead blame the DUP, especially if UCUNF poll well in South Belfast, and especially if they outpoll the DUP.

Although it is important in its own right, next year's election will be also a warm-up for 2011, when both the Assembly and (unless 'events' upset matters) the district council elections will take place. If the unionist electorate turn against the DUP over its refusal to stand down – and dismiss the DUP's protestations that it offered a deal – 2011 may turn out to be a bad year for the DUP.

Gerry McHugh – Fianna Fáil MLA

Fianna Fáil's Forum in Enniskillen last Saturday has already borne fruit. Gerry McHugh, one-time Sinn Féin MLA and district councillor, has announced that he is joining Fianna Fáil, and will thus become their first MLA – indeed their first representative to actually participate in legislative politics north of the border (Eamon de Valera was famously elected to the old Stormont Parliament in 1933 for South Down, but never took his seat).

Fianna Fáil is registered as a party in Northern Ireland, so nothing stops McHugh from operating as the first Fianna Fáil MLA. How many more will there be, before and after the Assembly election in 2011?

2008 Annual Report of the Registrar General

The 2008 Annual Report of the Registrar General was published yesterday by NISRA. As usual, it is a valuable compendium of statistics on the demographic situation of Northern Ireland.

As far as the community balance is concerned, the report offers relatively little. Only in two areas can a hint be extracted as to the likely direction of Northern Ireland's ethno-political future.

On the religious breakdown of marriages, the previously observed pattern remains visible. The proportion of marriages celebrated in 'Protestant and other' churches continues to decline, while the proportion of marriages celebrated in Catholic churches remains stable. The Catholic proportion, which overtook the Protestant proportion about 10 years ago, is clearly widening its lead:

As previously noted in this blog the large number of civil marriages makes any firm conclusions difficult. But as an indicator of trends, the graph above tends to show that the proportion of marriage-age young people (around 30 years of age) that is Catholic is greater than the proportion that is Protestant, and that gap is widening. Many of the civil ceremonies are to older – often divorced – people, and are thus less likely to lead to children. Hence the proportion of marriages celebrated in the two main religious groups may well indicate the proportion of births attributable to these groups in the years following the marriages.

The second hint that can be extracted is related to those births. There are 13 local government districts whose birth rate exceeds or equals the average. Several of those are in the Greater Belfast commuter area, and thus are areas in which young families (of both religions) tend to set up home: Lisburn, Antrim, Newtownabbey, Banbridge, Craigavon. But all of the other 'above average' districts are Catholic-majority districts: Cookstown, Magherafelt, Dungannon, Newry and Mourne, Derry, Strabane – or are areas in which Catholics form a majority amongst the child-bearing cohort (ages 20-40): Armagh (where at all ages below 36 (in 2009) Catholics outnumber Protestants), and Belfast (where Catholics outnumber Protestants at almost all ages in the child-bearing cohort). The conclusion that can be drawn from these figures is that Catholics are still having more children than Protestants.

The areas that are largely Protestant – Ards, Larne, Carrickfergus, North Down, Castlereagh, Coleraine, Ballymena – have birth rates below the average.

On deaths, the areas with death rates above the average are all majority-Protestant, with the exception of little Moyle. Belfast has an above-average death rate, but its old people are largely Protestant (unlike its young - see above). The inescapable conclusion is that deaths are disproportionately Protestant.

Put the two effects together: more Catholic births, more Protestant deaths – and the picture becomes clearer. Over time, there are proportionately more Catholics – and thus, in all likelihood, more nationalists – and fewer Protestants, and thus fewer unionists.

Monday 30 November 2009

Does P+J really matter?

Sinn Féin say 'yes', and the DUP say 'because you say yes, we're going to block it'. Or something pretty close to that.

Why does Sinn Féin want the transfer of policing and justice? They say, of course, that it is important that these powers are transferred in order that the key decisions over how Irish people are governed are taken by Irish people. This position tends to gloss over the larger issues of wider sovereignty over Northern Ireland – worse, it gives the impression that Sinn Féin are willing to administer British rule in Ireland, as the dissident republicans frequently accuse.

But does Sinn Féin really think that having an Alliance Party nonentity administering policing and justice in Northern Ireland is really worth all this fuss?

Sinn Féin openly admit that:
" … the impasse over policing and justice is about something deeper than a transfer of powers. It’s about whether political unionism is prepared to co-exist with republicans in equality and partnership; and, prepared to accept the rights of all citizens – regardless of political allegiance – to equal treatment and parity of esteem."

And that is also a valuable lesson that needs to be taught. Whether unionism agrees to the transfer of P+J or not, it loses in nationalist eyes. By rejecting the transfer unionism positions itself as a negative, distrustful, even discriminating, throwback. By agreeing with the transfer it would be forced to admit that much of its post-1998 stonewalling was counterproductive and negative.

So nationalism – in its eyes – wins regardless. Why then is Sinn Féin staking the future of the whole institutional arrangements on something so irrelevant (since it does not, in fact, bring Irish unity and independence a day closer)?

Perhaps the real reason lies at another deeper level. The constant stonewalling by unionism, and the 'regretful, disappointed but still hopeful' response by nationalism, may actually be exactly the situation that Sinn Féin want, and have carefully constructed.

One of the strongest and most enduring justifications for the ending of Northern Ireland's sorry history as a separate state is the fact that it has always been a state that lacks the overwhelming legitimacy that normal states enjoy. If it can be seen to be a 'failed political entity', its demise would be both natural and desirable. The corollary – a successful legitimised state – could put back the cause of Irish unity by decades.

So Sinn Féin needs Northern Ireland to fail, and to be seen to fail. It is no news that they do not want it to succeed, but this has not brought about its destruction yet. If, however, the failure of the institutions can be shown to have been caused by unionist inability to play their role, then truly Northern Ireland has failed, and there is nobody left – apart from the miniscule Alliance Party – who would still want to make a go of it.

Perhaps Sinn Féin, by appearing weak and powerless on policing and justice, is simply giving unionism the rope it needs to hang itself, and its Project Ulster.

Out of the doldrums

Over on the neighbouring island something unexpected is happening. And that something will have significant consequences for Northern Ireland.

The consensus over the past six months or so was that Britain's Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, was a (political) dead man walking, and that the Westminster election – due by next June at the latest – would result in a walk-over for the Tory Party.

But the opinion polls are starting to show a very clear and sustained climb-back by the Labour Party:
The Tory Party need a very large swing in order to achieve a majority in the House of Commons – the second largest ever recorded, apparently. Up to recently it seemed as if such a swing was possible. But now things are looking less certain, for two reasons:
  • Firstly, the Labour Party is fighting back – and with up to six months left before the election, anything is possible.
  • Secondly, the Tories are increasingly coming under pressure from the even-more-rightwing UKIP, and could lose a number of seats to them.
The significance of these developments, which will be closely watched in Northern Ireland, is that the outcome of next year's Westminster election may lead to a hung parliament – one in which no party has an overall majority – and thus may vastly increase the opportunities of the smaller parties who could act as kingmakers. But at a price!

If there was a hung parliament, horse-trading would be required by any party that wished to try to form a government. If the gap between, say, the Tory total and the number needed to form a majority was small, then the DUP could find themselves in a position of strength – especially since the Tories would be unlikely to want to get into bed with overt nationalists like the SNP or Plaid Cymru. The DUP, despite being seen by many as 'Ulster nationalists' are at least not actively seeking the dissolution of the UK. As social and economic conservatives they would have little ideological difficulty in cooperating with the Tories – the main problem may lie in the Tories non-merger with the DUP's rivals in the UUP. For the Tories, of course, the DUP's record of tolerance may reduce their salonfähigkeit, but where power is at stake, the Tories may be prepared to hold their noses.

There are a lot of 'ifs' in any scenario that can be imagined, and it is well known that a week is a long time in politics. So what might, or might not, happen in six months is strictly fantasy. But the evidence of the recent polls is pointing towards a much more interesting election than many thought only a few months ago. And for Northern Ireland, the future lies wide open.

Fianna Fáil in Fermanagh

At the weekend Fianna Fáil set up another Forum in the north, this time in Enniskillen. It joins existing Fora in Downpatrick and in Crossmaglen, and there are plans to complete the encirclement of the border with Fora in Tyrone and Derry city, as well as the establishment of a Forum in Belfast.

As in the earlier Fora Fianna Fáil appears to be attracting support both from discontented members of the SDLP and Sinn Féin, thus living up to its reputation as a broad populist party. In Fermanagh it has reportedly received the support of Rosemary Flanagan (the SDLP candidate in the 2008 Enniskillen by-election) and Patricia Rogers (elected to Fermanagh District Council in 2005) of the SDLP, and of ex-SF Gerry McHugh MLA (also a Fermanagh Councillor since 1993).

These are not inconsequential supporters, and they demonstrate the potential of Fianna Fáil to provide the kind of broad and effective nationalist political representation that appears to be increasingly lacking.

Whether the party will field candidates in elections in the near future is, as yet, unclear. Amongst its norther members, though, a pressure group has been formed – 2011: Our Time is Now – to push for candidates in the two major elections due that year: for the Assembly and the (new?) district councils. If the pressure group is successful, the effect could be revolutionary – or it could be disastrous. If both other nationalist parties retain their independence, the nationalist vote could be split three ways, and some seats could be lost as a result. Of course, both 2011 elections will be fought under STV rules and so the outcome may not be so bad, as long as voters are willing to transfer between the parties. But if they don't, the outcome could be less than optimal. The ideal situation would be for Fianna Fáil to enter into a formal pact with the SDLP, but until the result of the SDLP leadership race is known, it is impossible to judge whether such a possibility is likely. One thing is certain, though – the next 18 months or so are going to be interesting from an electoral point of view.

Wednesday 25 November 2009

Mr 115 votes

The names of the two men charged with the attempted murder of the PSNI student in Garrison have been released. One is Kevin Barry Nolan, who stood for election in the 2005 local elections in the Erne West DEA of Fermanagh – the same DEA in which Garrison is situated.

In 2005 the supporters of last Saturday's blow for Irish freedom numbered only 115 – barely 1.6% of the vote in Erne West, which is a very nationalist area. As a percentage of the vote in Fermanagh as a whole, Mr Nolan's vote represented 0.37% - hardly a mandate.

However, Nolan reappeared in 2007, when he signed the nomination papers for Gerry McGeough, who, in the larger electoral area of Fermanagh and South Tyrone managed a total vote of 814, or 1.75% of the votes cast in the constituency.

And yet Nolan thinks he has a mandate to kill for Ireland?

If nothing else, this is going to embarrass McGeough, and ensure some police attention for his other supporters.

We shall fight on the beaches …

Well, not quite, but the DUP have promised to "fight house-to-house, street-to-street and district-to-district to see South Belfast won back for Unionism."

Shock and awe!

Does their commitment to having a 'unionist' elected in South Belfast extend as far as standing down unilaterally? Since the UCUNF have stated categorically that they will be standing in every seat, South Belfast and Fermanagh and South Tyrone included, the only possible way that the DUP can realistically contribute to a unionist victory would be to stand down in both constituencies.

If they don't, they are hypocrites. If they do, they'll have retreated in the face of the threat from UCUNF. It seems that the DUP are in a lose-lose situation in both of these two constituencies. This is yet another corner that the DUP has painted themselves into.

Tuesday 24 November 2009

More on the superannuated hard men

A few days ago this blog observed that the men and women arrested in connection with dissident republican activities are frequently rather old for militants. It seems that the mainstream media has also noticed this. Yesterday's News Letter had the following to say in relation to a list of 30 dissident suspects being especially targeted by the PSNI:

The officer, who made the revelation to the News Letter, said although there has been a list of around 10 suspected dissidents in circulation to officers for months, the numbers have swelled to more than 30 in the last eight weeks.

He added that the majority of men – and one woman – on the list are in their 40s.


"When the mail came out a lot of us recognised the names, and out of the 30-plus there were no teenagers. The youngest was around 30 and the oldest near pension age. These suspected dissidents are mainly mature men from all walks of life. Quite a few of the men are in their late 30s and 40s," he said.
These are, of course, the 'main players' – the total number of dissidents under observation is around 200, and presumably some of the smaller fish are younger than the leaders. But nonetheless, it is interesting to note that the prime movers in dissident republican circles are 'new blood'.

If dissident republican politics follows dissident republic military activism, the risk to the Sinn Féin political strategy would appear to be small. The noise being made about dissident republican inroads into Sinn Féin's support base would not appear to be borne out, and this leaves Sinn Féin with a certain amount of leeway to pursue its political goals. The dissidents are not posing the kind of threat to Sinn Féin that the TUV is posing to the DUP.

Monday 23 November 2009


The speech by Nelson McCausland at the recent DUP conference referred to a number of upcoming anniversaries that are of importance to unionism:
"Republicans have been looking forward to a centenary in 2016 but Ulstermen should also be looking forward to a centenary and in fact they should be looking forward to a decade of centenaries.

I think of 2012 and the 100th anniversary of the Ulster Covenant, the document that has become known as the ‘birth certificate of Northern Ireland’. It is a document that was inspired by the old Scottish covenants and it is a document that was written almost 100 years ago but the great principles that are embedded in it are still as relevant today as they were then and they will still be relevant tomorrow.

The centenary of the Ulster Covenant is just three years away and we are duty bound to prepare for it.

[…] 2012 is only the start of that decade of anniversaries. We will also come to 2016, the centenary of that year when on 1 July so many of the Sons of Ulster fell at the Battle of the Somme. Over 9,000 men from the Ulster Division took part in that attack on 1 July and only 2,500 were able to answer the roll call on 3 July. In the House of Commons on 10 July Asquith said that Ulster, through its troops on the Somme, ‘had covered itself with undying fame’.

Yes we have a decade of centenaries, from 2012 through to 2021, the centenary of Northern Ireland."

McCausland should be a little bit more circumspect – the next decade or so does contain a lot of anniversaries – an awful lot. And anniversaries have a habit of stirring things up, and restarting old grievances.

Between now and a half-generation into the future – about the time the nationalist vote will start consistently exceeding the unionist vote in Northern Ireland – a lot of centenaries will take place, each one rekindling either a sense of pride or a sense of grievance. As the arguments about each event restart, many people will rediscover their interest in the constitutional history of their little patch of Ireland. Just as the 50 year anniversary of 1916 in 1966 is credited with reawakening an interest in the national question in a new generation, so will many of the anniversaries listed below. But for McCausland and his political movement, an increasing interest in the national question amongst the increasing number of young Catholics in Northern Ireland can only be a bad thing.

Some dates for our diaries:

  • 11 April: The Third Home Rule Bill is introduced in the British Parliament. It is passed by the House of Commons but rejected by the House of Lords. Because of the Parliament Act 1911 the House of Lords has lost its power to veto legislation and can only delay a bill for two years.
  • 9 April: Major review of the original Ulster Volunteer militias (approximately 100,000 men)
  • 28 September: ‘Ulster Day’ – over five hundred thousand Unionists sign the Ulster Covenant pledging to defy Home Rule by all means possible.
  • May: In Clonmel the Irish Labour Party, which is intended to represent the workers in the imminent Home Rule Bill parliament; is formed.
  • 13 January: The Ulster Volunteer Force is formally established by the Ulster Unionist Council.
  • 25 November: Nationalists establish the Irish Volunteers, whose aim is to ensure the imposition of home rule, with their first public meeting and enrolment in Dublin.
  • August: Not immediately relevant to the national question (but to become so), the Dublin Lock-out lasts from 26 August 1913 to 18 January 1914, and leads to the creation of the Irish Citizen Army (ICA), a small group of trained trade union volunteers established in Dublin for the defence of worker’s demonstrations from the police.
  • 20 March: Curragh Mutiny.
  • 24 April: Larne gun-running.
  • 25 May: Home Rule Bill is passed by the House of Commons.
  • 26 July: Howth gun-running.
  • 28 July: Start of WW1 as Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbia.
  • 4 August: The United Kingdom enters World War I. This involves Ireland in the conflict.
  • 18 September: Home Rule Act receives Royal Assent but is suspended by the British government for the duration of the war.
  • 29 June: Death of veteran Fenian Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa. His funeral at Glasnevin Cemetery on 1 August 1915 is a huge affair, garnering substantial publicity for the Irish Volunteers and the IRB at the time when a rebellion (later to emerge as the Easter Rising) was being planned. The graveside oration, given by Pádraig Pearse, remains one of the most famous speeches of the Irish independence movement. It ends with the lines: "They think that they have pacified Ireland. They think that they have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half. They think that they have foreseen everything, think that they have provided against everything; but, the fools, the fools, the fools! — They have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace."


  • 24-30 April: Easter Rising.
    Between 3–12 May, fifteen of the leaders of the Easter Rising are executed by firing squad;
  • 3 May: Padraig Pearse
  • 3 May: Tom Clark
  • 3 May: Thomas MacDonagh
  • 4 May: Willie Pearse
  • 4 May: Joseph Mary Plunkett
  • 4 May: Edward "Ned" Daly
  • 4 May: Michael O'Hanrahan
  • 5 May: John MacBride
  • 8 May: Éamonn Ceannt
  • 8 May: Michael Mallin
  • 8 May: Conn Colbert
  • 8 May: Seán Heuston
  • 12 May: James Connolly
  • 12 May: Seán Mac Diarmada
  • 1 July: Start of the battle of the Somme.
  • 3 August: Execution of Roger Casement


  • July 1917 until March 1918: Irish Convention


  • 5 March 1918: Second attempt to introduce Home Rule failed at the end of the Irish Convention, when agreement on the exclusion or inclusion of Ulster cannot be reached. However, the British cabinet decides to implement Home Rule combined with the introduction of conscription.
  • 16 April: Military Service (Ireland) Bill passes into law.
  • 18 April: Irish Anti-Conscription Committee began planning opposition.
  • 23 April: General strike in protest against conscription
  • 11 November: Armistice
  • 14 December: General election – Sinn Féin wins a landslide victory, gaining 73 out of 105 Irish seats in the British Parliament.


  • 21 January: Establishment of Dáil Éireann and declaration of independence from the United Kingdom.
  • 21 January: Start of War of Independence.
  • 1 April: Éamon de Valera is elected President of Dáil Éireann, appoints a cabinet, anddeclares that "There is in Ireland at this moment only one lawful authority, and that authority is the elected Government of the Irish Republic".
  • 17 May: Members of Dáil Éireann send a letter to the head of the Paris Peace Conference, repudiating Britain's claim to speak for Ireland.
  • 12 September: The British government outlaws Dáil Éireann.


  • 20 May: Start of strikes and refusal by Dublin dock workers to handle British war material, joined by members of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union.
  • 21/24 July: In Belfast, loyalists force an estimated 10,000 Catholics and socialists from their jobs. Severe riots follow, in which at least twenty-one were killed and hundreds are forced from their homes.
  • 21 November: Bloody Sunday – in Dublin, a total of 31 people are killed – in the morning, the IRA assassinate 14 British agents. In the afternoon, British troops storm a Gaelic football match and shoot dead 14 Irish civilians. In the evening, three IRA prisoners are shot dead by their British captors.
  • 11 December: The Black and Tans set fire to the centre of Cork, destroying over five acres and causing £20 million worth of damage.
  • 23 December: The British parliament approves the Government of Ireland Act 1920.


  • 3 May: Government of Ireland Act comes into effect, establishing Northern Ireland and thus partitioning the island.
  • 25 May: IRA occupy and burn the Custom House in Dublin.
  • 28 November: Tyrone County Council pledged allegiance to Dáil Éireann. Eight smaller public bodies followed. That same day a bill is introduced in Stormont which allowed it to dissolve any local authority. Offices of Tyrone Council are raided by the RIC.
  • 6 December: Representatives of Dáil Éireann and the British Parliament sign the Anglo-Irish Treaty in London.
  • 15 December: Fermanagh County Council pledged allegiance to Dáil Éireann. After the meeting the RIC take over the council chamber.


  • 7 January: Dáil Éireann narrowly approves the Anglo-Irish Treaty by a vote of 64 to 57.
  • 14 January: Provisional Government is established to oversee the treaty's implementation.
  • 28 March: Executive of the IRA issues a statement repudiating the treaty and the Provisional Government.
  • 14 April: Anti-Treaty forces take control of the Four Courts building in Dublin.
  • 28 June: Provisional Government bombards the Anti-Treaty forces occupying the Four Courts, marking the beginning of the Civil War.
  • 6 December: Irish Free State was officially established. Northern Ireland withdrew the following day.


  • 30 April: Frank Aiken (Anti-Treaty commander) called a ceasefire.
  • 24 May: Frank Aiken ordered the Anti-Treaty forces to "dump their arms" and end their campaign. There is no formal surrender or settlement.

In between all of these events there are literally hundreds of others - First World War exploits to be trumpetted by one side, Black and Tan atrocities to be denounced by the other. The only thing that is certain is that a lot more history will be written about, and read, in the next half-generation, and that the effect will be unpredictable.

McCausland may live to regret his glee at the centenaries to come.