Tuesday 29 September 2009

Ending mandatory coalition

Jim Allister wants to end the system of mandatory coalitions in the Executive. That, of course, is hardly news. His ambition matches that of the DUP, of course – Peter Robinson said on 8 September that:

"I would hope by 2015 we would be in a position to move to a more normal form of government in terms of a freely formed coalition but even before then we can make important improvements to the existing arrangements."

How does Allister intend to proceed?

"The answer lies in securing a sufficient bridgehead of Traditional Unionist MLAs in the next Assembly who are pledged not to operate mandatory coalition. That will force change.
Sufficient unionists rejecting mandatory coalition makes it unworkable and hastens the acceptance of voluntary coalition as the only alternative.

And what then?:

"Faced with the end of mandatory coalition, voluntary coalition will be accepted - even by those who now claim otherwise, because without it they will have no Stormont and that would never suit politicians and parties wholly dependent on it for their financial and political lifeline. Remember there is no party more dependent on Stormont than Sinn Fein."

The difference between the DUP and the TUV on this issue is that both parties disagrees with mandatory coalition, but one works it, hoping to discard it later, and the other party would try to have it discarded immediately by threatening to collapse the institutions.

The DUP's approach is slightly more subtle – Robinson tried to sweet-talk the SDLP and the UUP by saying that:

" … in circumstances where the UUP and SDLP make a good faith effort to work constructively on matters in the Executive DUP Ministers would insist that all decisions will only be taken by consensus and we will not use our votes to override their opposition.

Indeed to make this participation really meaningful, I will ensure that SDLP and Ulster Unionist Ministers have a greater role in relation to Executive business. I cannot speak for the deputy First Minister but I am prepared, if they wish, to meet with UUP and SDLP Ministers in advance of each Executive meeting and to make arrangements so that their Special Advisors are fully consulted and involved in the process.

Allister's approach, of course, is blunt – he hopes to get enough TUV MLAs elected in 2011 to block (presumably with the assistance of some DUP MLAs) the very establishment of the new Executive. Bizarrely, he believes that Sinn Féin will then accept permanent exclusion from 'voluntary coalition' Executive. Sinn Féin were not slow to disabuse Robinson of his delusions in that respect:

"Peter's proposals appear to be some attempt to create the conditions where other parties can gang up on Sinn Fein, that will not be allowed to happen.

The propositions expressed by the DUP leader are fantasy politics.

It is likely that, after 2011, a clear majority of unionist MLAs will belong to parties committed to ending mandatory coalition. But will even this be sufficient to end it?

The system of election ministers via the d'Hondt procedure is set out in the 1998 Northern Ireland Act, and thus cannot be changed without the agreement, and positive volition, of the London government.

And there's the rub. What possible London government – and it is likely to be a Cameron Conservative government – will end mandatory coalition at the behest of unionists only? There is, so far, no appetite whatsoever amongst nationalists for their own exclusion – and indeed why would there be? When the unionists are making it so clear that they are motivated primarily by the desire to exclude the largest nationalist party, neither nationalists nor a responsible government in London will give them any encouragement.

The problem for unionists is that the only way that they will be allowed to discard mandatory coalition is when they can demonstrate that their motives are honourable – when the change is genuinely motivated by a desire to improve efficiency and democratic choice – not when it is motivated only by the old-fashioned unionist reflex of trying to exclude nationalists. As long as the current rigid political divisions persist in Northern Ireland, though, and as long as unionists continue to irrationally obstruct any expression of nationalist power or cultural identity, no responsible central government will grant them their wish. Only by ceasing to want to exclude nationalism will unionists ever be trusted to operate voluntary coalitions – but if they no longer want to exclude nationalists then their dislike of mandatory coalitions will evaporate too. They are two sides of the same coin.

As with so many other unionist wishes, of course, the mirage of a 'hung parliament' after next year's election no doubt plays a part in their thinking. The power that the DUP might exercise if (and only if) it holds the balance of power necessary to enable Cameron to form a Tory government would be considerable. But a Tory government dependent on DUP votes and the grubby one-sided deals that this would involve would be a fatally weak one. The explicit blackmail that the DUP would exert on the Tories would ensure deep and lasting loathing for unionists amongst the London ruling class – hardly an optimal outcome for unionism.

So it seems that mandatory coalition is here to stay, and it is necessary for unionists to get used to it, and to come to terms with the realities of power-sharing. Over ten years have now passed with unionism twisting and turning in attempts to avoid the inevitable – a shared government in Stormont, in which nationalists and republicans have real power. Only when unionists finally realise that it is here to stay, and stop simply trying to frustrate and block nationalism at any turn, will the institutions be able to 'deliver good government for Northern Ireland' which is, apparently, what both Allister and Robinson claim to want. As Allister said:

"Northern Ireland needs and deserves good government. Obtaining and delivering such should be the ambition of every caring politician." Prove yourself to be a caring politician then, Allister – share power with all, for the benefit of all.

Monday 28 September 2009

The TUV and Upper Bann

One of the unknowns of next year's Westminster election is the intentions of Jim Allister's TUV. While Allister himself has stated that he will fight the North Antrim seat, it is generally assumed that his party will not fight aIl 18 – certainly where unionist vote-splitting would ensure or help the election of a nationalist.

But recently Allister gave another very clear signal that one seat his party will fight is Upper Bann. In a speech to the Upper Bann TUV Annual Dinner, he said that:

"I look forward to the Westminster election and the verdict on the betrayers of Traditional Unionism. In politics you expect most from those who know the truth and brag of their steadfastness. That is why one of the men who disappointed me the most is the outgoing MP for Upper Bann. He won his seat by opposing the betrayal of Trimble. Now, he deserves to lose it for operating the very Belfast Agreement system which Trimble bequeathed us. I have to say, with a heavy heart, there was as much honesty and maybe less deceit in the politics of those who spawned the Belfast Agreement than in those who having blasted Trimble then gave us Martin McGuinness as our Joint First Minister." [bold font as in the published version]

The MP who has so disappointed Allister is the DUP's David Simpson, who took Trimble's seat in 2005. However, the electoral arithmetic of Upper Bann is such that, by standing there and taking 40% of the DUP's vote (as the TUV have tended to do), the TUV risks giving the seat back to the hated UUP – or, even worse (by their standards), to Sinn Féin.

In 2005 the DUP, buoyed by the votes of extreme unionists such as those now in the TUV, got 37.6% of the vote. If the TUV shears 40% off that, then the DUP may get only 22.6% - less than Trimble got in 2005 (25.5%) and perilously close to what Sinn Féin got (21%). In 2007, though, when the TUV did not yet exist, David Calvert (now TUV) stood in the Assembly election, getting 3.1% of the vote. The DUP still topped the vote in terms of party share (31.4%), but Sinn Féin had moved up to second place (25.3%).

If the TUV's ability to attract votes exceeds that of Calvert (standing as an independent) in 2007, then the humbling of the DUP may be at the cost of handing a seat that is only 39% nationalist to a Sinn Féin candidate. A result that even Allister would surely not want.

If the UUP (or 'UCUNF') stand, then the unionist vote could be split three ways. The UUP has not ruled out standing, and of course the Conservatives (the other half of UCUNF) have promised to stand in every constituency. One possibility is that, in the share-out of candidacies, the UUP 'allow' the Conservatives to stand for UCUNF in Upper Bann – knowing that the Tories have no support whatsoever there (0.6% in 2007) – in the knowledge that this would reduce the three-way split to an effective two-way split for unionist votes. UUP voters would then have to vote strategically for the DUP to avoid a Sinn Féin victory. However, such a scenario would require several factors that cannot be taken for granted: extreme cynicism within the UUP regarding the Tories, a deliberate 'throwing' of the election in Upper Bann by the UUP, and a realisation amongst UUP voters that they need to vote strategically.

Another possibility is that the TUV will not, in fact, stand in Upper Bann, but will use the fact that the DUP would certainly be beaten – and humiliated – if it did, to extract concessions elsewhere. What his price might be has not yet become clear, but these are very early days in a very long election.

Sunday 27 September 2009

A bigot and a hypocrite

WallaceThompson, DUP member, former advisor to Nigel Dodds, and secretary of the Evangelical Protestant Society, has called on all Protestants to “unite in opposition to a papal visit” to Northern Ireland.

We call on all Protestant politicians, churches and organisations, including the loyal orders, to unite in opposition to a papal visit and we will be doing all we can to encourage and develop such united opposition.”

Quite apart from the sheer bigotry involved in such a call, which seeks to deny the right of an elderly German to visit Northern Ireland purely because he is the head of a different religion to Mr Thompson, the call reeks of unionist hypocrisy.

Far from creating a Northern Ireland where all religions, beliefs and political opinions are respected and freely expressed, Mr Thompson seeks to block a significant event for his Catholic fellow citizens ... purely because they are Catholic. He does not intend to promote, or even tolerate, mutual respect. Instead he, and by extension the DUP (who have not denounced their member’s views) are seeking to deny Northern Irish Catholics an opportunity to see their spiritual leader – for no reason other than irrational hatred.

On another level Thompson, and those who support him, display the sort of “little-Ulster” hypocrisy that is typical of the DUP. He is not calling on Protestant bigots in the UK to protest against the pope – he is calling only for protests against a visit to Northern Ireland, thereby demonstrating again that he sees ‘his country’ as being Northern Ireland, and not the UK. Logically there is no reason why a papal visit to Northern Ireland should upset Thompson any more than a papal visit to Bournemouth. But if the pope went only to England Thompson would be fairly quiet, because, of course, England, to the Ulster Nationalists, is not their country.

Thompson and his sort are repulsive bigots and should be denounced by all reasonable people. Silence by the unionist parties on this can only be construed to be tacit agreement with him, and his own party, the DUP, bears a particular responsibility to show that it does not share its member’s bigotry – but so far silence is all we have heard.

Friday 25 September 2009

DUP as kingmakers

As this blog never tires of saying, a week is a long time in politics. And it will probably be over 30 weeks until the next Westminster elections – most likely in May 2010.

So predictions at this stage are highly unreliable, but that does not stop people from making them. This week The Economist has thrown a pebble in the pond in an article in which it points out that:

" ... the government looks doomed and the opposition, for all its poll leads, needs an electoral swing of 7% to win just a one-seat majority. A hung parliament remains possible, and with it a suddenly pivotal Mr Clegg. His professed goal of becoming prime minister is fanciful. The prospect that he will hold the balance of power is not."

Most opinion polls, however, give the Conservatives a commanding lead, with a majority of around 90 seats.

Nonetheless, The Economist's prediction has some resonance in other quarters – for the Tries to win a majority at all, let alone one of 90 seats, would require a swing of an almost unprecedented scale. While David Cameron appears now to have the wind in his sails, the pressures and pitfalls of an election campaign – not to mention the 'unknown unknowns' and "events, dear boy" – may well change things.

The implications for Northern Ireland's parties are considerable. If the Tories do get their swing, and their majority, then Northern Ireland's 18 MPs remain irrelevant and marginal. But if The Economist is right, and neither large British party has a majority, then whoever else has a handful of seats can become a powerful kingmaker. Obviously the Liberal Democrats would like that to be them, but if the electoral arithmetic allowed it, the DUP could hold a crucial balance of power. The UUP, if they win any seats, would have already been 'banked' by Cameron, so their power would be small, and Sinn Féin will not attend Westminster under any present circumstances, so the DUP could find themselves being courted by both sides.

The DUP, of course, while making suitably 'British' noises, will exact a price that benefits only their own tribe – the Ulster Nationalists. Any such price would upset the careful balance in Northern Ireland and could set politics back by years. So, perversely, it may be a good thing for nationalism, for Northern Ireland, and for the continuation of the institutions if the Conservative Party achieves its comfortable majority next year.

A political lifetime

If a week is a long time in politics, how long is a poltical lifetime?

Well, now we know the answer to that question – it is approximately three years, according to the DUP.

In October 2006, North Belfast DUP MP Nigel Dodds said that "As far as we are concerned, there will be no devolution of policing and justice for a very long time. I have no evidence whatsoever to suggest that that is likely to happen within a political lifetime."

And yesterday DUP leader Peter Robinson said that 'he will promote to unionists the devolution of justice powers if the financial aspects can be perfected'.

Three years ago Dodds said that policing and justice powers would not be passed to the Northern Ireland Assembly within two years of the restoration of devolution and that 'it would take longer for unionists to trust Sinn Fein to take responsibility for security'.

But yesterday Robinson said that "I believe that the structures that we've put in place are sufficient to command that confidence and I want to do the same with the financial arrangements".

So, in DUP mathematics, three years is a political lifetime. That flexibility helps to explain a lot of other things, of course, such as Edwin Poots belief that the earth is a mere 6,000 years old. In DUP mathematics that may mean that it is really 60,000 years old. Still wrong, of course, but maybe the DUP use a logarithmic scale?

Tuesday 22 September 2009

Fading interest

One of the 'ties that bind' countries together is mutual acquaintance – the better you know a country the more empathy you feel with it, and the better you understand its people and its culture.

It is well-known that during the long years of the 'troubles' Northern Ireland was not exactly a tourist magnet, but that in the years since 1998 an increasing number of visitors have come to see what the fuss was all about.

However, since 2004, the origin of those visitors has undergone some rather strange changes:

The numbers from Britain are dropping year on year, while those from elsewhere are gradually increasing, apart from a 2008 recession-related stutter. The numbers from the south massively understate the actual number of visitors, of course, as very few southern visitors need (or want) to stay the night. Numbers from all sources are undercounted, as people very often stay with family and friends rather than in hotels or guesthouses, but this is likely to depress all the numbers proportionately.

So what is happening? Why are people from Britain coming in smaller numbers? Perhaps the figures are merely reflecting the trough that follows a peak of post-ceasefire tourist curiosity – but if so, why are North American, European and southern visitors not equally affected?

Perhaps the figures reflect a simple fading of interest in Northern Ireland. Perhaps there are simply fewer reasons to visit – there is scarcely a private sector economy to invest in, there are no world-class universities or research facilities, there are no 'must see' attractions, no outstanding architecture or cultural events.

As time goes on, and as fewer British people visit Northern Ireland, the ties will bind less and less, until eventually Northern Ireland will be less well known than more distant regions of Europe. Already more British people visit the south – especially Dublin – than the north. Their empathy with people on the other side of the Irish Sea will increasingly be empathy with the south, and with 'Irish' culture, history and symbolism. When the day of reckoning comes, and when Northern Ireland finally votes in favour of Irish reunification, there will be little or no objections from a Britain that is comfortable with the south, and that knows and cares little about the interests of the (then) northern minority.

Monday 21 September 2009

Open mouth, insert foot …

… and repeat until political career is finished.

That seems to be Ian Paisley Junior's recipe for political suicide. Not content with agreeing to the deployment of PSNI personnel to train Libyan police – a decision which his own colleague Nigel Dodds found so extraterrestrial, and which flew in the face of unionist demonization of Libya – Paisley has now come back with what must be the poorest response ever.

"If the deployment had been proposed on the simple basis of the facts which are presently in the public arena then a decision to reject PSNI involvement would have been easy. Looking solely at a black and white picture of the situation in Libya and its relationship to Northern Ireland then the obvious course of action would have been to oppose any personnel deployment to that country. However, I was made aware of much wider and more detailed issues which, if others were aware of them, I believe would lead them to reach a very different conclusion. I am not permitted, nor would I ever breach the trust and confidence of that office in order to counter what, for reasons of confidentiality, can only be part of the story.

I have previously been threatened with jail for refusing to betray confidences. The Secretary of State has made his decision and I have no intention of compromising personnel by making any further comments.

In other words, 'I screwed up royally, but ... nudge, nudge, wink, wink … the PSNI members were up to top-secret stuff, you know, which I can't tell you about …. oops, I just did!'

And then he just clams up and refuses to say anything, and pretends that it's for higher motives.

So in one sorry little incident, Ian Paisley Junior has:

  • Taken his eye off the ball and failed to push the unionist agenda on the Policing Board,
  • Shown that the unionist hype about Libya is just hype, with no real commitment (in some quarters at least),
  • Pretended that he has access to 'top-secret' information about the purported role of the PSNI members in Libya,
  • Treated the public (and his own voters) like fools,
  • Endangered the safety of any future PSNI secondees to Libya or elsewhere, by hinting that they are really spying on the host country,
  • Seriously annoyed the British Foreign Office, for whom such exchanges are used as bridge-building exercises,
  • And handed Jim Allister a rod to beat him with in the upcoming election in North Antrim.

What a foolish man.

Durkan's gamble

Mark Durkan yesterday announced that he would stand down as leader of the SDLP. The party's own statement said that:

"Mark Durkan has said both publicly and privately that if he is elected again as MP for Foyle he would be stepping down from the Assembly.

This position clearly as implications for the leadership of the party, which has led Mr Durkan to announce that he plans to stand aside as leader in the near future.

Mr Durkan feels that as a Nationalist party and one that did more than any other to secure the institutions of agreement that the SDLP cannot be long-led from Westminster.

Note that last sentence: "the SDLP cannot be long-led from Westminster". It implies that Durkan expects to still be in Westminster after next year's general election. Otherwise, he would have waited to see – after all, if he fails to be re-elected then he could happily continue to be SDLP leader in the Assembly without having to worry about dual mandates.

Of course Durkan has a good chance of being re-elected for Foyle next year, but he is not a certainty. Foyle was a safe SDLP seat under John Hume, but since Hume left, the SDLP position has weakened. In the 2005 Westminster election the gap between the SDLP and Sinn Féin halved, and it is likely that Durkan got some strategic votes from unionists:

The 'normal' unionist vote is around 20%, but in 2005 the combined unionist vote was only 16.8%. So if Durkan was the beneficiary of these 'missing' unionist votes, his lead over Sinn Féin amongst nationalists starts to look quite slim. If you subtract the 'missing' unionist votes (3,000 or so) from Durkan's 2005 total, it leaves him barely 3,000 votes ahead of Sinn Féin, compared with Hume's 11,500 lead in 2001. That is a relatively insecure majority.

Of course, in 2010 unionists may just vote for Durkan again – not out of any liking for him, but to try to stop a Sinn Féin victory. But if they decide that they dislike Durkan enough, they might just stay at home, or vote for a unionist candidate just to make a point. If this were to happen, Durkan's seat might be within Sinn Féin's reach.

Friday 18 September 2009

North Antrim opens up ….

It is no secret that Jim Allister intends to contest the North Antrim seat in next year's Westminster election. There remains some doubt over who his DUP adversary will be, but it has been largely assumed that Ian Paisley Junior may try to take over from his father. Even the bookies are assuming it, and offering odds that Paisley Junior will win?

But today's bombshell might just open up the contest a bit.

The BBC reports that: "The Policing Board has confirmed that Ian Paisley Junior approved the secondment of PSNI officers to train their counterparts in Libya.

Mr Paisley was the chair of the Human Resources sub-committee when it was asked to approve the move in November 2008.

Earlier his party colleague, Nigel Dodds, said whoever approved the move was "living on a different planet"

Libya is, of course, unionism's big big bogeyman at the moment. Between supporting anti-Libyan motions at Stormont, pushing the British to do something, and organising (one-sided) groups of victims to travel to Libya, the DUP in particular are trying to milk the issue for every extreme-unionist vote it can get.

But now it seems that Paisley Junior took his eye off the ball, and has left his goalposts wide open for a free kick from Allister, the darling of the extreme unionists.

Could this turn out to be the point at which the North Antrim seat really becomes an open contest?


The controversy over the name of the city of Derry is getting hotter by the day. Today the BBC is reporting that a headmaster – David Funston of Lisneal College – has distributed a standard letter supporting the unionist position to pupils, which they are then supposed to 'voluntarily' complete and send to Derry City Council's solicitor. This comes perilously close to abusing his position for political ends.

Taking the centre ground in the debate, of course, is the Alliance Party. Despite not having much support in Derry (they didn't even stand there in 2005, and got less than 1% of the vote in 2001), their General Secretary, Gerry Lynch, has submitted a response to the equality impact assessment, recommending that the city should have two names, and that "the current bid to have the name change to Derry alone should be abandoned in the interests of community relations."

Meanwhile the unionist camp are boasting that they have "gathered almost 7,500 letters opposing Sinn Fein's push" – though one wonders how many were signed 'voluntarily' by schoolchildren under the watchful eye of their school principals.

As far as this blog sees it, there are five main options for the name of the city, each with some merits and demerits:

  • The status quo – which would, of course, represent a victory for Derry's minority unionist community, and a defeat for the wishes of the majority. This would not help community relations at all, and would probably ensure higher support for Sinn Féin, and an even more divided city.

  • The 'dual name' suggestion of the Alliance Party – which has superficial attractiveness, but would be clumsy. Would the full title 'Derry-Londonderry' be used at all times in all official documents? That would make the name 17 characters long – longer than almost any other urban area (outside Wales). Other towns with dual names tend to have one in one language, and a different one in the other, so both are rarely if ever used simultaneously (Jerusalem (English), Yerushaláyim (Hebrew), al-Quds (Arabic); Helsinki (Finnish), Helsingfors (Swedish); Bruxelles (French), Brussel (Dutch); Basel (German), Bâle (French), and so on). Derry, of course, already has a name in Irish – Doire – and both of Alliance's dual names would be used in English only.

  • Official recognition of Derry as the only name – this would please the vast majority of the cities residents, but would severely displease unionists (who mostly live elsewhere, of course). This is, of course, the name that everyone, even most Protestants, call the city, except when they are trying to make a political point.

  • Retention of the name 'Londonderry' for the walled city only, and official recognition of 'Derry' for the wider urban area. This has some historical validity – after all, only the walled city existed when the charter imposing the 'London-' prefix was granted. Unionists, mindful of their history, could hardly object. In this way, 'Londonderry', comprising the area between the walls, would become a ward in the urban area of Derry. For all matters pertaining to the wider area the name Derry would be used, but the link to unionism's history would remain in the part of the city for which it was intended.

  • An entirely new name. Although attractive to those frustrated by the arguments, this is simply a non-starter. Names like 'The Maiden City', 'Stroke City', or 'Foyle' lack seriousness, historical validity, or popularity.

This argument is currently a zero-sum game – if one side wins, the other loses. The wise thing to do would be to search for a compromise, but it must be a workable compromise. For this reason, this blog supports the fourth option – retain the name 'Londonderry' for the walled city, while officially using the more popular name 'Derry' for the urban area (and thus also in the name of the new local government district).

Value for money?

On 16 September this blog looked at how much higher salaries are in the south than in the north. On 17 September this blog looked at how much higher public spending on 'big ticket' items is in the south than in the north. However, what if the two comparisons are actually looking at the same thing? Since a large part of the health and education budgets in both jurisdictions are accounted for by salaries, then perhaps the only reason the south spends more per capita than the north is because of inflated salaries, which in turn are spent (wasted?) on over-priced housing?

So rather than looking at the input side of public pending it might be wiser to look at the output side – i.e. at what people in the two jurisdictions actually get for their money (or, in the case of the north, London's money).

Rather than looking at the money spent on health, for example, it might be more useful to look at issues like life expectancy, infant mortality, and so on. Rather than look at money spent on education it might better to look at the proportion of 18 year olds going on to third level education, or illiteracy rates.

On health issues, the All-Ireland Health and Social Care Indicator Set published in 2008, tells us that:

"The overall Northern Ireland life expectancy was 75.9 years for males and 80.6 years for females.

The overall Republic of Ireland life expectancy was 75.5 years for males and 80.6 years for females."

(For comparative purposes: The WHO reports that in 2005 the life expectancy at birth for males in the EU-15 countries was 76.8 years and for females was 82.6 years and in the EU-27 countries was 75.4 years for males and 81.6 years for females - so neither jurisdiction is doing very well.)

Compared with the average for the whole island the standardised death rate in 2004 was 4.7% higher in Northern Ireland and 2.1% lower in the south. The standardised death rate in the south and in the north was 324.9 and 347.6 per 100,000 persons respectively. Compared with the average for the whole island the standardised death rate was 32% higher in Belfast and 27% lower in Roscommon.

Infant mortality rates, quoted by NISRA, are 4.9 per thousand in the north in 2007. The CSO in the south announced that the rate for the first quarter on 2008 was 3.3 per thousand.

Turning to education, the Department of Education in the north tells us that in 2006-2007 39.4% of school leavers went on to higher education (either Institutions of Higher Education or Institutions of Further Education – Higher Education courses). In the south, though, the CSO, in Measuring Ireland's Progress 2007, tells us that "among young adults (those aged 25 to 34), 41.6% of them have attained third-level degrees - the second highest level in the EU after Cyprus, and substantially ahead of the average of 29.1%"

On literacy rates it is difficult to find separate statistics for Northern Ireland, but if the south is compared with the UK, Ireland scores higher on reading literacy (517/495) and mathematical literacy (501/495), but lower on scientific literacy (508/515).

So what does it all tell us? That on some measures the north's public services give a better outcome, but on others the south's are better. More than anything else it shows that any arguments about the merits or demerits of Irish reunification based upon the perceived benefits of 'the Union' are spurious. 'The Union' provides its supporters with nothing more than they would get in a united Ireland.

Which brings us back to where we started. If public services are essentially comparable north and south, then they can play little part in a rational contest between a United Kingdom and a united Ireland. However, the small matter of the significantly higher private wealth in the south should not be forgotten. At the end of the day, if you have more money you can consume a greater quantity of the goods that are traded internationally, or goods of a greater quality. Whether that is the key to happiness is a much-argued question, but in any debate on the merits of the reunification of Ireland unionists will at least have to think of a better argument than their traditional one of 'the UK is a richer country' – because per capita it isn't.

And neither is it a more 'developed' place. The UN Human Development Index put Ireland at No 5 in 2008, but the UK was only at No 21. Since the north is not exactly the most developed part of the UK, on its own it would score pretty badly. So it seems that in terms of pure 'value for money' the south does far better – it is richer, more developed, and certainly as happy.

Catholics voting for unionist parties would really be like turkeys voting for Christmas. But so, of course, is everyone who votes for a unionist party.

Thursday 17 September 2009

Private poverty, public wealth?

Yesterday this blog pointed out that, in terms of personal wealth, unionist voters in Northern Ireland are, apparently, voting for relative poverty. By voting to remain in the United Kingdom they are voting to be part of a low wage region rather than a high wage region – average wages in the south are considerably higher than in the north.

An often-heard unionist counter-argument is that, while private wealth in the north may fall below that in the south, public wealth is higher. "We", the unionists may argue, "have the wonderful NHS and excellent schools", (all paid for by the generosity of the harder-working English, of course). "And", continues the unionist argument, "the south couldn't afford to match these wonderful benefits of the Union".

But is it true?

A closer look at the actual figures shows that, while England, and particularly London and the South-East, is amazingly generous to its underperforming Irish colony, in the key areas that count, public expenditure – and thus public wealth – in the south is higher than in the north.

The 'big ticket' items of public expenditure, and those that impact most on the average person, are health, education and social protection (pensions, benefits, etc). On all three of these items the south spends more per capita than the north.

Spending in the north on health in 2008-2009 is planned to be £ 3,255 million (€3,906 million at an average exchange rate of £1 = €1.20), or around €2,300 per person. In the south, however, even after April's supplementary budget, spending on the Health Service Executive will be €14,554 million, or €3,639 per person – fully 158% of the northern figure! The weakness of Sterling in the last year, of course, merely increases the south's lead.

The same is true for education, where the south's per capita expenditure is 119% of the north's (increasing to 128% if today's exchange rate is applied). For Social Protection the rate is 109% (increasing to 117% if today's exchange rate is applied).

On some smaller items the north spends more per capita – significantly including policing, courts and prisons! Agriculture, where most expenditure is set by the EU, per capita expenditure is almost identical.

Of course, the expenditure figures, north and south, are going to shrink quite drastically as governments take action to minimise their budget deficits. Nobody is going to escape, and it is likely that the north will see cuts even more severe than in Britain, as the total public expenditure per capita in Northern Ireland is around 122% of the UK average, for no good reason.

So it seems that unionist voters are not only voting for lower salaries, but also for underfunded health, education and social protection.

That flag must be really tasty!

Wednesday 16 September 2009

Vote to be poor

It used to be said that you cannot eat a flag. Nonetheless, that does not mean that flags do not have real monetary value for some people.

A report from the annual survey of hours and earnings in Northern Ireland (ASHE), quoted in today's Irish Times highlights the fact that on average workers in the north earn considerably less than those in the south:

"THE EXTENT of low wages in the North may raise a few southern eyebrows.

According to figures published by ASHE - the annual survey of hours and earnings in Northern Ireland - the current median wage of all Northern employees is just £346 (€393) per week.

The median manufacturing weekly wage is £411, the equivalent rate for those in education is £628, and for those in health and social services the figure is £412.

Median wages in the south are considerably higher than those quoted above – a median wage for all employees of scarcely €20,000 a year – in the south it is almost double that figure.

These figures are for the period before the inevitable cuts to come – but since both north and south will suffer from severe cuts it is unlikely that the relative difference will change much.

So unionists, with their obsession with remaining in the UK, are actually voting for a lower standard of living, just for the pleasure of watching the British flag flying!

A factory worker in the north earns a median wage of £411 a week, or €460 at today's rate of exchange. His cousin in the south probably earns around about €200 a week more than that (the data only goes up to 2006, after which southern salaries continued to climb). Thus for each week that the northern unionist factory worker enjoys the sight of the British flag, he loses €200, or £180 – a loss of around £4.50 per working hour!

The same is true in most (all?) other sectors – in education the northern worker on £628 per week (€704) can only look enviously southwards where her sister earns €946 per week on average.

They say turkeys don't vote for Christmas, but oddly enough unionists seem to be happy to vote to be poor.

Tuesday 15 September 2009

Honour in politics

… or 'A Tale of Two Defections'.

On 3 September (then) Sinn Féin Fermanagh Councillor Domhnall Ó Cobhthaigh announced that he was resigning from the party and joining the Socialist Party. Ó Cobhthaigh also resigned his seat on Fermanagh District Council, stating that "it would be indefensible to retain a council seat to which I have not been elected (I was co-opted to the seat in 2007)".

On 11 September (then) Alliance Party North Down Councillor Ian Parsley announced that he was resigning from the party and joining the Conservative Party. Parsley, however, did not resign his seat on North Down Borough Council, saying that 'he planned to stay on as a councillor in North Down and would likely be changing his designation'. He said 'he was mindful he had been elected by Alliance voters and would work closely with the party'.

The there are two differences between Ó Cobhthaigh and Parsley.

One is that Ó Cobhthaigh was co-opted to replace a colleague who resigned, while Parsley was elected on the surplus of a more popular party colleague. Whether Ó Cobhthaigh would have been elected on his own merits we cannot know (unless he stands for election again), but he recognised this and in a spirit of genuine democracy, decided to allow the electorate to have the representation it had shown that it wanted.

In 2005 Parsley received the lowest vote in Holywood (343 votes, less than half a quota) and was elected only because his party colleague David Alderdice received such a high vote and had a large surplus to pass to Parsley. It was Alderdice's popularity that got Parsley elected, not Parsley's.

Parsley defected from the Alliance Party, a party in the liberal democratic tradition, officially neutral on the constitutional question, to the Conservative Party, a right-wing avowedly unionist party. Under no circumstances can this be taken to be what the voters voted for. In 2001, when the voters of Holywood were last offered a Conservative candidate (the late Lindsay Cumming), he got a mere 188 votes (3.1%) – showing the almost complete absence of Tory support in the area at the time.

Yet Parsley considers that it is morally acceptable to retain, and no doubt use to raise his own profile, a council seat won on the strength of another man's popularity and the public support for a different (and often opposing) political tradition.

And that is the second difference between Ó Cobhthaigh and Parsley - Ó Cobhthaigh is an honourable man and Parsley is not.

Resign, Parsley

It is rarely that this blog ever agrees with Gail Walker in the Belfast Telegraph, but today she has an article on the sorry tale of Ian Parsley's sloppy defection from the Alliance Party to the Conservatives which sums up much of what many people think, and comes to the conclusion, correct in this blog's opinion, that Parsley should resign his seat on North Down council:

"Parsley also said that he'd be staying on as a councillor in North Down but would probably be changing his designation. In a suave soundbite out of the Cameron handbook, he said he was mindful he'd been elected by Alliance voters and would work closely with the party. Thanks, Ian. If Parsley was that mindful, he'd resign and fight a by-election. Those Alliance voters wanted an Alliance man, what they've got now is a Tory.

Sorry, Ian, that may work in the dreamy shires, but in plain-speaking Ulster it all seems, well, a bit self-serving."

Sinn Féin defectors can have enough honour to resign, so why does Mr Parsley not also do so?

Sunday 13 September 2009

Catholic Unionists?

Faced with clear evidence of the religious demographics of Northern Ireland moving inexorably towards a Catholic majority in a generation or less, some unionist commentators reply that such evidence takes no account of ‘Catholic unionists’.

Is there such a thing? Of course there are, to some extent – but is the number significant enough to actually influence the outcome of Northern Ireland’s ‘cradle wars’?

An examination of the elected representatives of the unionist parties reveals precisely none who can be identified as Catholic (by name, by background, by schooling, or by personal acknowledgement) – and Northern Ireland is a small place so such details about people would be quickly known. True, the UUP used to have an MLA, John Gorman, who is Catholic, but he is now an old man and out of politics. Another Catholic, Patricia Campbell, stood for election in North Antrim in 1998 for the UUP, but failed to get elected and has apparently left politics too.

At council level also it appears that no unionist councillor is a Catholic either by ‘community background’ or personal conviction.

So perhaps the mythical ‘Catholic unionists’ don’t stand for election, but merely vote? In this case, then, we should expect to see a unionist vote that is proportionately higher than the Protestant population. But, again, this cannot be found.

In the 2001 Census the Protestant proportion (by community background) was 53.1% (table s306). In the elections that followed that Census; the 2003 Assembly election, the 2004 European Parliament election, and the two elections in 2005 (Westminster and local councils), the unionist proportions of the vote were respectively: 52.6%, 48.6%, 51.9% and 50.5%. There is no evidence there of a ‘Catholic unionist’ vote – or if there is, it is counterbalanced by a ‘Protestant nationalist’ vote. In local elections where there is a direct contest between unionism and nationalism, the proportions going to the two blocks are almost identical to the proportions of the two religious groups.

Most reasonable observers accept that the unionist parties are largely (almost entirely) Protestant in their composition. The recent near-merger between the English Conservative Party and the UUP was partially motivated by the wish to “reach out to a wider audience of pro Union voters who have been disengaged from politics here for some time”. – this being UUP code for the mythical ‘pro-union Catholics’. One very clear test of this outreach to ‘Catholic unionists’ will come very quickly, when the joint UCUNF candidates for the 2010 Westminster election are selected. If there are no obvious Catholics it will be clear that the new ‘non-sectarian’ unionist project is simply the old project repackaged. Yet there are, so far, no known indigenous Catholic Conservatives or unionists. The recent defections from other parties to the Tories – Deirdre Nelson from the DUP and Ian Parsley from Alliance – are both Protestant. If they are to have a future in electoral politics this would leave less room for any Catholic unionists that the Tories may discover.

On the other side of the divide the same question can be asked – are there any Protestant nationalists? The evidence certainly points to a number: Harvey Bicker (Fianna Fail), Billy Leonard (Sinn Féin MLA), John Robb (New Ireland Group) and Eddie Espie (SDLP). During the past generation there have been others: Ivan Cooper (a founder of the SDLP), Ronnie Bunting (a member of the INLA, murdered by loyalists), and John Turnley (Irish Independence Party, also murdered by loyalists). The fate of Turnley, a purely political actor, was designed to discourage Protestants from openly supporting nationalism, and in this it probably succeeded. Nonetheless, despite the risks to their person safety from loyalists, more Protestants seem to be prepared to identify with nationalism than Catholics who identify with unionism.

Don't kid youselves ...

There's nothing like a political defection to bring the skeletons out of the cupboards. The betrayed party and its supporters dig out all sorts of old statements and quotes to embarrass the turncoat, and (s)he in turn produces embarrassing counter-quotes. It is fine entertainment for those not directly involved.

And so it has come to pass in Northern Ireland's narrow and incestuous political world. The defection of Ian Parsley from the Alliance Party to the Conservatives has led to a mixture of furious insults and sad head-shaking in the press, on television and in the blogs.

Parsley has left many hostages to fortune in his past, but the one I like best was quoted on the Slugger O'Toole blog - it was a comment that Parsley made in a discussion in 2007:

"After 80 years, there has been no recorded incidence of a Nationalist elected rep defecting to Unionism or vice-versa. Even Conor Cruise O’Brien showed his true colours in the end!

We live in a divided society. Basically, if there’s a Protestant majority the Union’s safe - and if there isn’t, it’s not.

Don’t kid yourself that there’s anything you can do about it

And there, expressed by a leading light of the Alliance Party (at the time, or recently before, he was Chairperson of Young Alliance), and now a Conservative Councillor, is the basic philosophy of this very blog. So it seems that the religious basis of the political divide in Northern Ireland is more widely accepted than some people would like to admit.

However, expect Parsley to backpedal on this as on many of his other 'principles' in the next few months.

Thursday 10 September 2009

Fertility rates by Council area

Over the past few years Northern Ireland's birth rate, and the absolute number of births, have increased after a period of decline. Of interest to political demographers is the nature of these births, and how they can throw some light onto the current and future political shape of the region.

For the purposes of births and fertility rates, Northern Ireland's 26 District Councils can be roughly divided into three groups: those where the births are mainly to Protestant mothers, those where the births are mainly to Catholic mothers, and those that are more evenly balanced.

In the first (majority Protestant) group are: Ards, Castlereagh, North Down, Ballymena, Ballymoney, Carrickfergus, Coleraine, Larne, Newtownabbey and Banbridge.

The second category (majority Catholic) includes: Down, Cookstown, Magherafelt, Moyle, Dungannon, Newry and Mourne, Fermanagh, Limavady, Derry, Omagh and Strabane.

The third group includes: Belfast, Lisburn, Antrim, Craigavon and Armagh.

The inclusion of some of these districts in their categories may appear surprising to those who know the political breakdowns of the areas, but a predominance of one or other political community may mask a much more even balance at younger ages. In Antrim Borough, for example, the unionist majority at voting age masks a virtually 50/50 split between Catholics and Protestants amongst the children. In Lisburn, although nationalists make up barely a quarter of voters, their children make up over 41% of the total. In Craigavon where nationalists comprise under 40% of the total voters, Catholic children are in a majority, and in Armagh where the two political blocks are very close in size, Catholic children are, again, in the majority. Some districts that appear only weakly nationalist at voting level are strongly Catholic in the playgrounds: Fermanagh is 55% nationalist, but the kids are over 60% Catholic.

NISRA have published tables showing the Total Period Fertility Rates (TPFR) for each district council area for the period 2000-2007. In order to simplify the presentation of the data in this blog (Note: NISRA do not categorise the areas in this way), the 26 councils have been grouped into the three categories above, and the average TPFRs of each category graphed for the years in question. This provides us with a very rough (and entirely unscientific) means of estimating the TPFRs for the two religious blocks:

What is immediately clear is that the 'Catholic' TPFR (i.e. the average of the TPFRs for the 11 majority-Catholic districts) remains higher than the 'Protestant' TPFR. The TPFR of the 'mixed' areas has risen to equal that of the 'Catholic' areas, but several of these 'mixed' areas are booming commuter areas within the Greater Belfast area, with many young families and thus a higher than average TPFR anyway. At least half of the births are, in any case, to Catholic mothers.

So while the gap between the Protestant TPFR and the Catholic TPFR appears to be narrowing, the Catholic rate still remains higher, and may continue to do so for some time. As each year passes, of course, a higher proportion of the child-bearing cohort is Catholic, and this combines with the higher Catholic fertility rate to multiply the effect. In simplistic terms, there are more Catholic mothers each year, and each of them will have more children than their Protestant sisters. In the long-term this will ensure that the Catholic proportion of births continues to increase, and the Protestant proportion to decline. The current Catholic majority at all ages below 30 will strengthen, and as these young people move into the electorate the nationalist (or at least non-unionist) vote should continue to grow. There is no evidence in the birth statistics that the growth of the Catholic electorate will cease or reverse in the next generation – and by then, of course, Catholics will form a majority of the electorate. As long as the current close identification of religion with political preference continues, this will ensure that the future will most definitely not be orange!

Migration questions revisited

On 2 September this blog considered the impact of migration on Northern Ireland's perennial constitutional question, and referred to a NISRA report on the Long-term International Migration Estimates for Northern Ireland (2007-8). In that report an estimate was made that between mid-2007 and mid-2008 there was a net in-migration of 'third country' migrants of around 4,400, which comprised in-migration of 15,400 and out-migration of 11,000. The blog commented that it would be easy to see how the recession might tip the balance in the opposite direction, but that we would have to wait for any evidence to emerge.

By pure coincidence, less than one week later, the BBC published a study on Migration and the Global Recession.

The report provides partial answers to some of the questions raised in the blog. For instance, the blog asked, concerning the migrants from countries outside of Britain and Ireland:"Will they stay?" The report provides some evidence that they will not stay.

The report notes that, particularly for A8 migrants, migration is "temporary and circular (involving several trips, sometimes on a seasonal basis); and characterized by uncertainty about the duration of stay".

Significantly the report states that "the United Kingdom has witnessed a rapid turnover of workers from the eight Eastern European countries that joined the European Union in 2004 (referred to as the A8 countries) and a significant dropoff in A8 immigration — particularly from Poland."

In fact, in the UK, of the 1.4 million A8 migrants recorded between 2004 and 2008, "approximately half had returned home as of the end of 2008".

It is unlikely that A8 migrants in Northern Ireland would differ much from their compatriots in Britain, so it is likely that they too are temporary, and likely to have returned home in the same proportions.

So the impact of A8 migration on Northern Irish society may turn out to be less than anticipated, and by the time of the next Census (2011) the numbers of A8 migrants may have dropped to quite low levels. As the earlier blog gloomily predicted, "if the recession leads to the return of net emigration then perhaps the parties will forget about the incomers again". This appears to be now likely to happen and thus Northern Ireland's parties will probably now shelve plans to modernise in order to attract voters not primarily motivated by the dreary steeples.

More's the pity.

Wednesday 9 September 2009

Come home, Jim

Like an old soldier constantly reliving his moments of glory, Jim Allister simply cannot readjust to life back on civvy street.

Although he finally removed his claim to be an MEP from his website (noticed by the BBC here) a month or more after he was rejected by the voters, his personal website continues to carry a prominent image of the European Parliament building in Brussels:

It is abundantly clear that Allister's chances of ever seeing the inside of that building again are slim, and that his future lies in slightly more parochial politics – either at Council or Assembly level. So perhaps its time for Jim to pack his bags, psychologically speaking, and come home.

If he succeeds next year (and the odds are not good) then he could replace the European Parliament with Westminster, but it is more likely that his next architectural decoration will be plain old Stormont.

The DUP and cross-community support

In his long post mortem article following the DUP's humiliation in the European Parliament elections Peter Robinson admitted clearly that his party's aim was to exclude Sinn Féin from the Executive.

He said that "I have no doubt that most unionists would prefer if Sinn Fein were not in the Executive", without specifically saying if he was one of the 'most unionists', but he then admits that: "we have previously advocated a DUP/UUP/SDLP coalition. Unfortunately to date the SDLP have implacably opposed such an arrangement in the present circumstances and now represent less than 40% of the nationalist electorate in Northern Ireland."

Yet at the same time he asks: "Does anyone really believe that arrangements which do not command cross community support are likely to produce a stable and prosperous society?"

The question is, what does the DUP consider 'cross-community support' to actually be?

In his speech at the Evolve NI event yesterday, Robinson said that "where a cross-community vote is required by legislation or triggered by a petition of concern a proposal would require the support of 65% of Assembly Members present and voting to pass". There are 108 MLAs, and 65% of this number is 70.

In the current Assembly, elected in 2007, unionists hold 55 of the 108 seats (or 51% of the Members). Nationalists hold 44 seats (or around 41% of the Members). The remaining 9 seats are held by the Alliance Party (7), a Green and an Independent.

If unionism managed to persuade all of the non-aligned MLAs to support a proposal, it would have the support of 64 (59%) of the 'Assembly Members present and voting', requiring it to only persuade 6 MLAs from the nationalist designation to support it, in order, under its definition, to achieve 'cross-community' support.

So it appears that Robinson would consider that a proposal has 'cross-community' support if barely 6 out of 44 nationalists support it – less than 14% of the nationalists in the Assembly! Even if 38 nationalists out of 44 vehemently oppose a proposal, if Robinson can persuade merely six to support him he thinks he can claim 'cross-community support'!

Of course, given the arithmetic of the Assembly, the same is not true for a nationalist proposal. In this case the threshold of 70 MLAs would still exist, but nationalism would have to attract 17 unionist MLAs to reach that target – almost 31% of all the unionist MLAs.

So yet again unionism is displaying its essentially unfair reflexes – the concept of 'cross-community support' according to the DUP would set the hurdle far higher for nationalism than for unionism – more than twice as high, in fact.

While Robinson bemoans the SDLP's declining support, he is well aware that it could still, for years to come, provide him with the 14% of nationalist support that would provide him with 'cross community' cover for his anti-Sinn Féin campaign. Robinson and the DUP are probably banking on the SDLP being able to elect at least 6 MLAs even if they betray the nationalist consensus and join a unionist coalition. In fact, if they did so, they could become even more dependent upon inclusion in the coalition to give it any power or purpose. The SDLP, if they betrayed nationalism, would have no other friends, apart from the unionists who would need them to supply their 'cross community' fig-leaf.

But few people in the SDLP will be foolish enough to even consider this possibility – it would be political suicide for the party. And of course Robinson and the DUP know it too, so there is a question over why they are choosing to raise the issue at all.

The only logical answer to that question is, of course, that it is simply one of the DUP's battle plans for the upcoming Westminster election. In June the DUP was humiliated by Jim Allister, and many observers predicted a lurch towards the intransigent-unionist direction as a way of countering the Allister/TUV threat. Raising the issue of an anti-Sinn Féin coalition when he knows that it is a non-starter may simply be Robinson trying to show the unionist electorate that he is as hard on nationalism as Allister.

Tuesday 8 September 2009

Deadlock previewed

Peter Robinson, speaking at the EvolveNI event in the Ulster Hall today: "Later this month my party will publish detailed proposals for developing devolution, but today I want to give you a preview."

Of course, 'developing devolution' is just DUP-speak for trying yet again, to frustrate Sinn Féin. Robinson's previewed development amounts to no more than the unionist holy grail of excluding Sinn Féin. "In place of community designation we propose the introduction of weighted majority voting. Where a cross-community vote is required by legislation or triggered by a petition of concern a proposal would require the support of 65% of Assembly Members present and voting to pass." In other words, Robinson is placing his hopes in unionism being able to persuade the SDLP to join it in excluding Sinn Féin - perhaps he too is anticipating a splintered nationalist representation if Fianna Fail should stand in the north. In such circumstances he may be hoping that an embittered and resentful SDLP rump may join with the unionists and the Alliance Party, presumably in return for some minor concesions, to exclude the bulk of the nationalist electorate from power.

He is in fantasyland.

Any party, SDLP or other, that would even consider such a thing would be history after the next election. For Robinson, and other unionists, to keep returning to this unattainable fantasy is demonstrable proof that they are unwilling to actually work the institutions that they have, and to make the concessions that they know must be made with nationalism. It is a residual unionist-dominance reflex, and shows that some unionists still haven't come to terms with the passing of their era.

Mr Robinson would be better employed seeking to explore with the leaders of nationalism areas of common ground, and issues on which they can trade. Because the days when unionism got everything it wanted, and nationalism got nothing, are over. From now on, if Robinson wants something, he will have to trade, and trade as an equal. It may be hard for him, but the sooner he starts the easier it will become.

Monday 7 September 2009

Fianna Fáil in South Down

There is still a deafening silence from Fianna Fáil headquarters about what the party's motives were in Downpatrick on Sunday, but at least we are now starting to hear from the organisers and participants themselves.

The Irish Times has a report that cites "sources at the meeting" who reported Dermot Ahern as saying that: 'running candidates would be the ultimate objective but was careful to avoid suggestions that such an evolutionary approach represented a threat to the SDLP'.

He said the initiative for further Fianna Fáil organisation had to be local and that headquarters would respond to such an initiative. This does not explain the presence of two Front Bench ministers at a time when the government is engaged in a desperate battle to win the upcoming Lisbon referendum. Ahern's presence can be justified – he is a TD in neighbouring Louth. But O Cuiv's presence is a mystery – he is a Galway TD, best known as the Minster for Gaeltacht affairs. Admittedly his grandfather, Eamon De Valera, was Stormont MP for Down between 1921 and 1929, and again from 1933 to 1937, but this in itself is an inadequate reason for his presence on Sunday.

Members of Fianna Fáil present at the meeting in Downpatrick have stressed that the meeting was not coordinated with the SDLP, but neither was it designed to be a threat to them.

However, the high level of the party representation at the meeting, along with the inevitability of change in the near future – the SDLP's MP will be 75 next year – can only mean that Fianna Fáil are seeing an opportunity.

The SDLP have had a bad time post-GFA, and are increasingly being eclipsed by Sinn Féin. However, apart from their nationalism the two parties are quite different. Sinn Féin, despite the Armani suits, remains a party of the harder republican estates and the small farmers. The SDLP, not for nothing once tagged the 'Schoolteachers, Doctors and Lawyers Party', has tended to represent 'respectable' Catholics. If the SDLP melts down to the extent of being unable to elect MPs, then there is a constituency of middle-class Catholics who would not vote Sinn Féin, but who would no longer have a realistic alternative. In addition to the traditional SDLP voters, there are an increasing number of 'newly affluent' Catholic voters who, although of working class origin, do not feel that Sinn Féin's brand of populist socialism (or simply economic illiteracy) speaks for them. These 'newly affluent' Catholic voters include business owners, property developers, and others who aspire to build on their wealth rather than share it. Fianna Fáil is the ideal party for them, having grown from precisely the same roots in an earlier period, and now being a business-friendly party (too much, some might say).

So Fianna Fáil may have spotted a gap in the market that the SDLP was not able to fill. Their increasing presence in South Down (and other areas; Derry and Armagh have active party members) may not in itself represent a threat to the SDLP, but Fianna Fáil may be looking towards the day when the SDLP are simply too weak to defend their own seats – and then the wisdom of having already established branches and networks will be seen. Rather than directly challenge the SDLP, Fianna Fáil may simply be establishing parallel structures which would grow as the SDLP's shrink – and which would soak up the departing SDLP supporters (Dermot Ahern's "evolutionary approach"), as well as the socially mobile ex-Sinn Féin supporters. If, at the same time, some ex-unionists join, this would be an extra bonus. In a sense Fianna Fáil are acting in a very similar fashion to the Conservative Party on the other side of the community divide.

Northern Ireland is too small to support such a range of parties on each side of the divide, and it is inevitable that some will fail. On the nationalist side the eventual consolidation may leave two parties – a working class 'socialist' Sinn Féin, and a populist capitalist Fianna Fáil. Both would be 32 county parties, but Fianna Fáil would dominate at national level. Despite its current difficulties it is likely to return to government after a period in opposition – something Sinn Féin cannot promise its supporters.

If consolidation on the unionist side goes in the same direction there will be a mirror image – a working class (though not 'socialist') DUP and a clearly middle-class pro-business conservative Party (once the nonsense of UCUNF has been dispensed with). The irony then will be that the most logical partnerships will be Fianna Fáil-Conservative, or Sinn Féin-DUP. Since the GFA requires mandatory coalitions of the parties, with the top party in each block taking First Minister and Deputy First Minister posts, elections to the Assembly may start to offer real choices to the voters – a left-wing FM-DFM or a right wing FM-DFM.

As time passes the DUP and Sinn Féin may increasingly be seen as 'local' six-county parties, in contrast to the 'national' parties, which would have access to actual sovereign governmental power. In such a way the petty politics of Northern Ireland could eventually wither and with power increasingly in the hands of Dublin and London parties the chimera of de facto joint sovereignty could become a reality.

All that is a long way from a forum meeting in Downpatrick, but with the electoral situation in Northern Ireland becoming increasingly fluid, and with the next decade being a crucial period of commemoration and change, it is likely that Fianna Fáil are taking a long-term view and working to ensure that they face no unexpected and unwelcome challenges from the north. Ultimately the party's aim is to retain power in Dublin, and if it abandons the north to Sinn Féin it risks seeing them as the dominant party there, and well placed even in the south to claim the inheritance of 1916, 1918, 1919, 1921, and all of the other centenaries. A pre-emptive strike in the north, though of little value in Dublin, could ward off a more serious threat.

Orange Reformation Group

According to the News Letter, the newly set-up Orange Reformation group held its first Information meeting in Ballymena last Friday.

Apparently the main aim of the group is to "put Protestantism back into Orangeism"

But wouldn't it be more appropriate, not to mention more productive, to put Christianity back into Orangeism?

The application of Christian principles like humility, forgiveness, duty, love, and so on, would transform the situation for the Orange Order, for the residents of the areas they march through, and for society as a whole.

If 'Protestantism' means something different to 'Christianity' then its adherents should stop and think about what they really are – are they Christians, or are they ethno-sectarian triumphalists?

So, Orange Reformation Group – go one step further, and put a bit of real Christianity into your Orangism, and take the bigoted political poison out of it.

Friday 4 September 2009

What are Fianna Fáil doing?

The mystery around Fianna Fáil's intentions in the north has deepened. A few years ago there was some excitement around the possibility of the party organising in the north and even standing in elections. Then it appeared that they were more interested in some kind of arrangement with the SDLP.

But then in September last year things went into reverse gear when Taoiseach Brian Cowen said Fianna Fáil had indefinitely put off plans to organise in Northern Ireland.

In February 2009 though, the ard fheis called on the party to establish a 'Fianna Fáil forum in every county in Northern Ireland in order to facilitate party members in the North who wish to meet and engage with Fianna Fáil public representatives and members'.

And tomorrow, government Ministers Dermot Ahern and Éamon Ó Cuív are to travel to Downpatrick, Co Down, to initiate a Fianna Fáil 'forum' there.

So forwards, backwards, and now forwards again!

But why the high level of the delegation? Both Dermot Ahern and Éamon Ó Cuív are high profile ministers with, one presumes, heavy demands on their time. The Lisbon referendum is coming up, and given its political importance it is surprising that two popular ministers are taking time out to go to a vague 'forum' with no clear purpose or mandate. Fianna Fáil is grappling with enormous economic problems in the south, and may have to fight an election (that it would probably lose) within a few months – its popularity has been hard hit by a number of factors, not least the economic woes.

So why is their attention being focussed on the forum in Downpatrick?

Downpatrick is, along with Derry, one of the SDLP's strongest bastions. So establishing a forum there without tacit agreement from the SDLP would be considered quite a hostile move. The Belfast Telegraph, however, says that Eddie McGrady "was unaware of the event". If this is true, then Fianna Fáil's motives become very murky indeed.

Could the reasons for the forum be connected with next year's Westminster election? The local MP, the SDLP's aged Eddie McGrady, will be 75 next year. Although he has previously stated that he intends to stand again, the Fianna Fáil interest in his constituency could indicate that they suspect that there will be a new candidate (Margaret Ritchie?) who will need all the help (s)he can get. An active Fianna Fáil 'forum' lending its support to a new SDLP candidate may be enough to ensure his or her election. It may also be enough to encourage a few tactical votes from the centre, or even from unionists.

But why would Fianna Fáil do this outside an arrangement with the SDLP? Why do it at all? If the establishment of the forum is seen as a hostile act by the SDLP in its heartland, relations between the two parties could be soured, and for what?

The political class in the south has learned over many years what the SDLP may be just about to learn – that Fianna Fáil looks after its own interests first and foremost. The party is known for cunning and ruthlessness, and the event in Downpatrick must be seen in that light. There is no obvious reason for in, but that most certainly does not mean that there is no reason for it. This is an issue to watch.

Sinn Féin in Fermanagh

Today's announcement that Sinn Féin Fermanagh councillor Domhnall O Cobhthaigh is resigning from the party to join the Socialist Party draws attention again to Sinn Féin's problems in Fermanagh.

O Cobhthaigh was co-opted in 2007 to replace Erne West councillor Poilín Ui Cathain who quit over Sinn Féin's decision to support the PSNI – itself earlier evidence of the party's problems in Fermanagh.

Later in 2007 Enniskillen Sinn Féin councillor (and MLA) Gerry McHugh also resigned from the party, citing disillusionment with "the undemocratic nature of the party".

Then in July 2008 another Sinn Féin Erne West councillor, Bernice Swift, quit the party, again as a result of her opposition to the party's decision to support the PSNI. At the time of Swift's resignation Domhnall O Cobhthaigh said that: "Bernice was elected on a Sinn Féin mandate and she should now step down from the council and allow the electors who voted for a Sinn Féin candidate based on a Sinn Féin manifesto to have their democratically expressed wishes respected through a co-option". He has shown himself a man of some honour by doing just that himself.

Nonetheless, the loss of four councillors in one small district during a single council term demonstrates considerable problems for the party. Two of them now sit as independents (Swift and McHugh) and O Cobhthaigh follows Poilín Ui Cathain out of the council. That leaves Sinn Féin with only six councillors instead of the nine it saw elected in 2005 (though O Cobhthaigh should be easily replaced by Sinn Féin, either by co-option or by-election).

The future for O Cobhthaigh is uncertain (not to say bleak) – the Socialist Party has some track record in Fermanagh, where the perennial Davy Kettyles (who stood as a socialist in Enniskillen for many years, but not as a member of the Socialist Party) made way in 2005 for Paul Dale who stood for the Socialist Party – and got nowhere. O Cobhthaigh himself has never actually stood for election, so the size of his personal vote is hard to estimate – but in Erne West it would be fair to say that there is little support for socialism.

More important than O Cobhthaigh's political suicide, however, is the impact on the Sinn Féin vote in Fermanagh of the resignations and defections. Sinn Féin appeared to be making good progress in the county in recent years, recovering from the depression that followed Bobby Sands death. Bobby Sands election seemed to have brought out a large number of nationalist non-voters, and Sinn Féin seemed to be encouraging them to keep voting, and to vote for Sinn Féin. But in Fermanagh there is a strong abstentionist republican tradition which owes allegiance to no party. Sinn Féin won it over for a while, but it seems that Sinn Féin's support for the PSNI was a step to far for many traditional Fermanagh republicans, and they are now withdrawing their conditional support.

While the hearts of the traditional republicans may lie closer to 'dissident' republicanism, it is unlikely that any of the parties representing this dissidence is likely to make a serious electoral effort in the county in the near future. So it is quite likely that a portion of Fermanagh republicans will retreat back into electoral abstentionism.

In the Westminster election next year if the traditional republicans stay at home, Sinn Féin may be faced with a serous problem. Although Sinn Féin's Michelle Gildernew beat the DUP's Arlene Foster quite comfortably in 2005, this was partly because of a split unionist vote. If unionism agrees a unity candidate it stands a reasonable chance of beating Sinn Féin. If Sinn Féin continue to haemorrhage support in the area, unionism's chances become good.

The damage may continue into 2011 and the two important elections that will take place then – for the Assembly and for the new larger councils. In the current Assembly Sinn Féin had two MLAs elected in Fermanagh and South Tyrone – but one was Gerry McHugh who has since left the party. For the party to be sure of winning his seat back they have to win back the dissident/traditional republican vote. In the council elections, with smaller district electoral areas, the fight will be intense, and if Sinn Féin's vote erodes it could fail to elect as many councillors as it might currently hope.

Votes lost by Sinn Féin will not be picked up elsewhere by nationalism – if the traditional republicans find Sinn Féin too soft then they will never vote for the SDLP. They will, in all probability, stay at home – thereby giving the appearance of a decrease in support for nationalism. If this coincides with the stealing of the Fermanagh and South Tyrone Westminster seat by unionism, then the damage to nationalist morale in the area will be comparable to the 1980s, and may take as long to repair.

For the sake of the overall position of nationalism in the area Sinn Féin must pay urgent attention to the feelings of the traditional republicans of Fermanagh. If the price of acceptance in the corridors of power in Belfast is the alienation of the grassroots in rural areas, then that price may turn out ultimately to have been too high. Sinn Féin needs urgently to be able to demonstrate that their strategy is bearing some fruit.

Thursday 3 September 2009

Vote UCUNF, lose millions

The UUP have jumped into bed with the English Conservative Party, and in the European Parliament their single MEP, Jim Nicholson, sits as a member of the 'European Conservatives and Reformists', the Tories new group. The UUP are therefore, to all extents and purposes, an integral part of the Conservative Party's approach to Europe.

But the Conservative Party's approach to Europe is one of partial disengagement. So far it has been unclear precisely what that means, but yesterday a Conservative MEP, Roger Helmer publicly stated in one of the European parliament's committees – the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs, of which he is a substitute member – that if elected to power next year, the Conservative Party will "withdraw from European social and employment affairs".

That as it stands is merely a repetition of earlier Tory opposition to European social legislation, but if the Tories do actually follow through, then the consequences will be severe, especially in Northern Ireland. The reason is simple – 'European employment and social affairs' include two different things – one is the raft of legislation that Tories tend to hate, but the other is transfers of money. And Northern Ireland receives quite a lot of 'European social and employment funding', particularly through the European Social Fund – for the period between 2007-2013 Northern Ireland will receive €165,777,300 (or £145,000,000) just from the ESF.

Much of that money will have already been spent by the time that the Tories, and their UCUNF mini-mes, "withdraw from European social and employment affairs", but a lot will not have been spent. Unless they are being entirely hypocritical, any withdrawal from European social and employment affairs must include a renouncing of the funding, and thus the loss to Northern Ireland of the amounts still unspent.

So will the UUP campaign for a Tory victory in next year's Westminster election in the knowledge that such a victory will cost Northern Ireland tens of millions of pounds? How will they justify this? Will they have the guts to even admit it? It is certain that in a period of unprecedented budgetary cutbacks the lost ESF money will not be compensated by the British government – so will unionist voters be foolish enough to actually vote for less money?

Wednesday 2 September 2009

Conferences will launch election campaign

The three main parties in Britain will be holding their annual conferences in the next month: first the Liberal Democrats on 19-23 September, then Labour on 29 September to 1 October, and finally the Conservatives on 5-8 October. These conferences will signal the de facto start of the Westminster general election that must be held by next June at the latest. They will provide the parties with a platform to set out their policies and to demonstrate to the electorate their unity of purpose and electability. From October onwards they will all be in full election mode.

If Gordon Brown stretches his doomed term to its limit, the election campaign could be over nine months long – long enough to tax the stamina and resources of even a large and well-funded party. Yet the parties will all have to remain on war footing for the whole period – any slackening could give the opponents a chance to steal the advantage.

As things stand at the moment the Conservatives are on course for a resounding victory in 2010 – but if a week is a long time in politics, imagine what nine months feels like to David Cameron! The conferences themselves can boost party support, but this is usually just a temporary bounce which will be long forgotten by next June.

Northern Ireland is, of course, caught up in all this but yet at the same time utterly marginal to it. Even Roy Garland has noticed that the poor UUP, despite their pretence of importance, are simply pawns being used to further British aims: "While we could not compare Sir Reg with Edward Carson, even the latter discovered he was but a puppet in a game to get the Tories into power." Northern Ireland may get a token mention at each party conference, but in the election it will scarcely count – the real battle remains one between Labour and the Conservatives in the densely populated heartlands of England and to a less extent central Scotland and south Wales.

Nonetheless, elections will also be held in Northern Ireland's 18 Westminster constituencies, and while largely irrelevant to the future of the UK, the results will be of great local importance. Northern Ireland's parties have neither the resources nor the necessity to commit to a nine month campaign, and so the increasing clamour on the other side of the Irish Sea will be viewed from here with a kind of envious detachment. Northern Ireland's parties will only really get active in the month or two before the election date – though some, like the TUV, will try to get publicity earlier, and the unionist media will no doubt give it to them to try to bolster the illusion that Northern Ireland really is an equal participant.

But the absence of any policies in the Northern Irish debate apart from the eternal constitutional question dooms the election campaign to sterility. It simply doesn't matter who wins seats in Northern Ireland because it will not affect the overall outcome, except in the highly unlikely event of a Tory disaster and the UUP holding the balance of power – a fantasy which even the UUP know to be almost impossible.

The interest in the election in Northern Ireland stems only from the light it shines on the relative sizes of the two main political blocks. Whether unionists steal Fermanagh-South Tyrone, or Sinn Féin retains it, is largely irrelevant in the wider scheme of things. Although the victor would claim it as a great victory, it provides him (or her) with no power or reassurance for the future. Only the aggregate votes of the blocks can do that, and if unionism achieves its objectives and snatches additional seats while at the same time suffering an overall drop in its proportion of the vote, these victories will be but Pyrrhic. A side-show in this election will be provided again by the TUV, but this performance will remain entirely within the unionist camp, and the overall effect for unionism will be zero. Nonetheless, it is always entertaining to watch unionist infighting so this blog will pay the TUV some undeserved attention.

In the run-up to the election campaign this blog will look at the profiles of each of the 18 constituencies – though the demographic data is getting old, and the electoral data will be three years out of date by June 2010 – in order to provide a basis for predictions of the outcome. Of course the actual outcome will in many cases depend on who stands (or doesn't, if there are pacts) and on the unknown unknowns that a nine-month election campaign will inevitably throw up.

Migration questions

NISRA has recently published a set of excellent reports dealing with the complex issue of migration into and out of Northern Ireland, including a statistical report on Population and Migration Estimates Northern Ireland (2008), and a report on the Long-term International Migration Estimates for Northern Ireland (2007-8).

Taken together both reports provide a wealth of data on this 'missing' component in the evolution of the population. Of course, as NISRA say: "Measuring migration is challenging", and many questions remain unanswered, including (critically for this blog) the political opinions of the migrants.

Both incoming and outgoing migrants comprise two distinct groups – those from 'third countries' (i.e. outside of the UK or Ireland) and those migrating to or from Great Britain. The 'third country' migrants are largely from the new EU Member States, and increased dramatically after 2004. The reports deal with the period up to 2008, so the effects of the current recession are, as yet, unknown. Between mid-2007 and mid-2008 there was a net in-migration of 'third country' migrants of around 4,400, which comprised in-migration of 15,400 and out-migration of 11,000. It is easy to see how the recession might tip the balance in the opposite direction, but we will have to wait for any evidence to emerge.

Migration to and from Great Britain gave Northern Ireland a net gain of 1,400 during the 2007-2008 period, but it is hard to know who these people may be. They may be English, Scottish or Welsh people moving to live in Northern Ireland (and thereby helping to cement Northern Ireland into the UK, unionists might hope) or they could be returning Northern Irish people who have chosen to live in their own country rather than a Britain that they like less (and thus dissolving some bonds between NI and the UK, nationalists might hope). They might be former students who had left NI to study in Britain, and their return might herald the reversal of the Protestant 'brain drain' (as the UUP at least might hope), or they might be predominantly made up of lowly educated Catholics who had been pushed into emigration by the high Catholic unemployment of the 1980s, and who might return fired with determination that this time Northern Ireland will give them what they deserve. As NISRA say in the report on Long-term International Migration Estimates: "Over the last five years population migration has become a prominent feature within public and political debate in Northern Ireland. This debate has created significant interest in and demand for migration statistics."

Ultimately, of course, even the best statistics on migration patterns cannot tell us much about the political future of Northern Ireland. Will the children of Polish Catholics become Irish nationalists? Just because most of the earlier Italian immigrants did does not mean that the same thing will happen. But will they become unionists either? Will they vote at all? Will they stay? Are migrants from the south (of Ireland) automatically nationalists? Perhaps, but perhaps there are also Protestants fleeing the 'papist state' of unionist fantasy? Are migrants from England really 'English' or are they the children of proud Irish nationalists who, despite a Leeds or a London accent, will identify with the nationalist side of Northern Irish politics.

These questions and many, many more will not be answered by NISRA. Only the electoral process will answer them, and only in the longer term. If the vote of one or other political block rises by more than its 'natural increase' (taken to be the increase of its religious support base) then we could start to assume that the migrants are contributing to that growth. But even here there are other factors that will muddy the waters – turn-out rates, intra-block rivalries, and so on.

Both blocks will, no doubt, have noticed the migration figures for the post-2004 period and will be developing strategies to attract the migrants to their cause. So far neither block has appeared to have succeeded, and if the recession leads to the return of net emigration then perhaps the parties will forget about the incomers again – unionists will return to fretting about the disappearance of their young people, and nationalist will return to fretting about their birth rate. This would be a shame, as the need to appeal to newcomers would oblige both blocks to re-evaluate themselves and to take cognisance of their strengths and weaknesses, which could only help to improve the extremely poor quality of local political discourse.